Seediness, Regret and Horror

The Authentic Touch,
James Kirkup [70pp, 7.99, bluechrome]
& the concept of zero, christopher brooke [93pp, 7.99, Cinnamon Press]

Interesting to compare covers and titles:

James Kirkup's cover shows a sepia and purple shot of a boxer's back, in what looks like a 'sports' club by a pub in a back-street of Bermondsey; most striking is the brutal strip light, illuming a tattoo on the boxer's back. There are connotations of mixing high and low art, homoeroticism (pace Genet and Morrissey) and a studied isolation. The title suggests a search for genuine communication, which could be physical. 

The first poem, 'For Whom do I Write', reinforces this last impression:

     ...Is there no one there?
     I cannot give up calling
     in case there is one -
    just one - who hears what I say,
     and lets me hear its echoes.

Almost trite, apart from that last line, which intrigues and opens things up. Many of his poems do this, using a certain formal regularity (especially in verse structure) and yet containing a nagging darkness and sense of irresolution. Sometimes the language is too cliched to carry it off; for example, using obvious phrases like 'Memory, a ship of fools...', or relying too heavily on chiaroscuro effects of light and shade.

But many of the poems create a depressed and convincing feeling of seediness and regret:

     An asthmatic pink-pleated accordion -
     'portable musical instrument possessing
     bellows, metal reeds, keyboard &/or buttons' -
     sadly drawing and painfully expelling

     its panting breaths is trying to impose
     sweet quavering quavers on the noise
     of an indifferent shopping mall, while
     the musician hides his face in its embrace.
          ('A Human Voice')

And the best work is when this skill combines with a gift for characterisation, in poems about isolated or misunderstood intellects (Mallarme, Nietzsche, Baudelaire) grappling with the dawning mass culture of herd instinct and collective consciousness:

     Silence in the ranks.
     Mallarme opened the classroom door
     and the boys filed in
     that smell of chalk dust, frying fat,
     youthful sweat, unwashed clothes,
     followed by their teacher of English.
          ('Mallarme en Classe')

In fact, there is a delightful sense of disgust and aesthetic aloofness in some of the poems, which gives a curmudgeonly feeling and energy to the writing, as if the poet can't be bothered to appear likable and have 'worthy' opinions. I wish he did this more, in poems where he isn't wearing masks of other characters. 

Christopher Brooke's cover (the use of lower case for his name an irritation) is almost abstract, a square zero in what looks like cement; which fits with the almost portentous title - 'concept' and 'zero' being words with surprisingly little impact. The 'concept of zero' presumably alludes to the introduction of zero by whichever ancient civilisation it was - I know it's always being mentioned by Trevor Phillips to show how much the disgraceful English people owe them. All very zeitgeist or whatever horrible word is used.

The cover blurbs suggest 'a distinctive perspective on his experience'. Stylistically this is true, with a mastery of fast moving poems, capturing speech and incident from various Cardiff locations. The titles of the poems are also a real delight: 'the circus is hiring'; 'chips in slippers'; 'stats is stats backwards' and (my favourite) 'I want to meet a woman whose mother knows she smokes':

     nothing superb, but you get bored
     looking at the pavement
     and listening to the usual croaks
     from the drunk boys
     yelling at cyclists on a day
     filled with rugby, or
     whatever their game is:


      no doubt, hilarious... 
Peter Finch's embarrassing introduction - with wild comparisons to William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara, and the distasteful sense of an old hippy learning new drug slang - correctly describe this as a poetry of velocity; although I don't find the use of direct speech itself as interesting as Finch seems to think, nor the prices for blowjobs in Cardiff's red-light district. It all smacks a bit of walking on the wild side to show how 'street' you are. What does work well is the interjection of personal asides as punctuation in the fantastic flow - I love that 'no doubt, hilarious' or (later in the same poem) a floating 'who knows'.

In fact, I don't think there are enough of these authorial asides. When we're reading work which consciously features all this grime and drug detritus, don't we need a sniff of the writer's moral perspective - including of disgust? Sure I'm being judgemental, but only an idiot actually wants to live around crack dealers or hookers. Of course, many people have no choice; but let's not present that as worthy or 'real life' just because it's a fucking nightmare.

I guess I'm saying that voyeurism motivates work like this. And I've nothing against honest voyeurism, which admits it's fascinated by the horrors for their own sake, and maybe even laughs at this nightmare.

To be fair, Brooke's doesn't glamorise or wallow in how 'real' this all is:

     she's the sort of thing you'd be
     arrested for, and cries of i thought
     she were of age
don't mean jack
     round here, even if she is black,
     she's still a 15yo kid; and you are
     bloody lucky that the coppers got
     to you before the others did -
     i know my facts aren't always straight, but
     i wouldn't be recording this if
     everything was okay.

      (chips in slippers)

But personally, I think the idea of just recording this is slightly dishonest. The real reason he's writing about it is how fascinating it is - the horror, the horror and all that.

             Paul Sutton 2007