PRESS WHEN ILLUMINATED: New and Selected Poems 1968-2003

by Nick Totton
Salt PO Box 937, Great Wilbraham, Cambridge PDO CB1 5JX]

The thing about a collected poems that spans fifty-five years is that a kind of development can be witnessed. Nick Totton's Press When Illuminated takes in ten previous publications. The progression of this book sees Totton's unmistakable stamp transforming and developing, manifesting itself in various different ways. It's rather like observing multiple personalities as they grow up. I confess to knowing very little about Totton when I came to review this book, but was intrigued to learn that he works as a psychotherapist and has been involved in the publication of several psychoanalytic books. His preoccupation with psychoanalysis is evident in his poetry; its tensions and forbidden violence are voiced and worked through. In 'Biting Through', written in the mid-seventies, Totton dramatizes a kind of violent incorporation fantasy, bringing in the inextricable orality of consumption and language:

         spoons will deliver
                  this delicacy
                  we are
         as we devour spoons, wolfing
         meat and metal, greed, greed
         not for nourishment but accumulation of
         against endless space of dream:
         the scarcity economy of food-breath-speech can
         only end in tears

And so it goes – psychoanalytic theory fleshed out. There are nuances of the veiled violence of childhood: fairytale evoked by 'wolfing'. The notion of loss at the child's entry into language begins to gather momentum, the insatiable desires necessitated by that loss find their 'weight', their 'gravity', at the centre of the poem. I admire the tripping, oozy cadence this poem musters, I love some of its word combinations, particularly 'spoons will devour/this delicacy'. But I cannot help but feel I'm at the dinner party from hell, with Freud and Lacan and a plate of offal. Perhaps that's the intention, but like some of the other pieces in here, it's all a little too knowing, closing off its imaginative possibilities. The psychoanalysis is, so to speak, being rammed down our throats. This poem illustrated what I both loved and hated about the collection – and don't get me wrong, I loved more that I hated – I'm a good patient.

Not only is Totton's ability to animate language often breathtaking, he has a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, which saves some of the pieces  I would otherwise have disliked. The poem above is one such piece. It concludes:

         bit off the whole arm right to the shoulder
         vomit it out

The 'c'mon' is a great touch. It created for me a kind of hilarious, hippy finality. I felt compelled to give it the peace-sign.

My favourite piece in the collection is the 'Buddha Poems', which comprises three stanzas of prose poetry. Totton doesn't use this style often, but I think it suits the moving, funny aspects of his work. I smiled out loud at his deceptively simple characterization of the Buddha, who, amongst other activities, appears on t.v. and

hardly recognises himself. Who is this presenter, anyway, and what is his angle? He hope they are going to focus on issues, not personalities.

'Buddha in the Kitchen' presents a wry, clever take on the philosophy of the self, but manages to wear its thinking so lightly that the reader is both delighted and provoked into thought:

The Buddha's favourite snack is cheese on toast. Cheese, chutney, butter, bread – mmm! Sometimes, however, he finds he has no chutney. Sometimes no butter. Sometimes no bread. Sometimes no cheese. Take away all the ingredients, and what's left? – Oh, please, says the Buddha; that's just ridiculous!

I'm hopeful that, like the Buddha, Totton takes his own philosophies with a hefty pinch of salt.

Read Totton for his long sequences with their cryptic, deeply personal messages. In 'This Song is Dedicated to the One Eye Love' he is 'surrounded by/faulty memories/like unrequited ghosts – all wanting me to speak for them.'

Read him for the psychology, the preoccupation with a search for the self, which, when it works, works beautifully, as in 'There's Always a Little Bit Left in the Marmite Jar' which concludes 'now watch this space/which you will shortly occupy.'

Try not to find, like me, that 'Your nonsense messages ascend, predictions / of expanded human time: a choice / that feeds silently into the lean identity/extenuated by sorrow' ('Bones of the Face and their Articulations') is just all too much and in the end only effaces itself, becomes hollow. There is nothing from the heart in these sentences. And I feel certain that Nick Totton has an expansive, warm heart because I can see it in his quest to understand the narratives we invent for ourselves, in lines like 'There isn't a word for what I want from you'. And that's just it: Totton knows that the inadequacy of language is a condition of the self. When he paradoxically uses that very language to describe the predicament, he is at his best, as in 'Not a Theory of Poetry':

         If I was a proper poet
         my poems would be implicit by my actions
         In my life
         shining through my life
         luminous bones shaping the casual flesh.

When the language struggles in tension with its own inadequacy, when it illuminates its flaws for us, it is at its most likable. When it attempts to tell us what it is doing, it loses that quality. I'll let Totton have the last word on that:

         you don't need a shaman
         to tell you how the tune goes.

         Abi Curtis 2004