Clear and Entertaining



Missing the Boat, John Daniel (Etruscan Books)




I really began to enjoy John Daniel's poetry as I re-read this collection, a beautifully designed artefact from the Etruscan stable. It's a slightly odd choice for Nicholas Johnson, the editor, though, as most of his other authors are in the various compartments of the 'avant-garde' if such a thing still exists these days. No matter, this is a very welcome shift in emphasis, or even a one-off to even the balance a little.


The real strength of these poems is that Daniel rarely puts a word wrong, whether he is writing about looking after his elderly mother (Pushing 100), being in the supermarket or the launderette, his early memories of the beginning of WW2 or musings on the painting of a friend (Peter Archer's Chimney and Tree), the narratives are always clear and entertaining. Indeed, humour is what fuels most of the work included here (with the exception of a few more serious pieces) and re-reading them on the page induces the lucky reader to recall John reading them aloud, with deliberation and a sense of climactic progression which is extremely entertaining.


Let's take Upside Down in the Barbican, where Daniel recalls an episode where a teaching colleague named Steve Crook fell in to the waters of Plymouth's Barbican after a drinking session. The trigger is coming upon Crook's name years afterwards while searching a computerised catalogue system. Daniel's witty use of language is a treat throughout and the way he slips in erudite references without it feeling remotely like showing-off is quite expert:


     ...............Luckily the tide was out,

     and luckier still he corkscrewed around

     as he stepped off into the blackness

     and landed on his back in the deep mud

     spreadeagled like a starfish

     staring up at the stars, Cassiopea, Orion

     It must have been that moment

     he conceived Foundationalism and anti-Foundationalism

     in Radical Social Theory

     feeling the sinking mud at his back

     while he stared up at the heavens and they stared back at him

     until the dawn came up over the Katherine and May

     and The Dolphin.


Hilarious and beautifully put together.


In the Supermarket is a shorter poem which posits the persona as 'voyeur', being enchanted by 'a lady of unbelievable sexuality' who has caught his attention while shopping. It's an extremely amusing poem which captures a moment of male confusion and vulnerability and ends with a fantastically unforgettable simile:


     as she swims out

     disturbing the entire lake,

     and I follow

     my two plastic bags

     banging against each other

     like giant testicles


There's also a lot of nostalgia in these poems but it's a nostalgia which avoids sentimentality and thus earns its keep. Conkers is a poem which is essentially about age and youth and their different perspectives, a beautiful encapsulation which is quite perfect.


     When I was young

     conkers were old


     dangling from gallows

     baked, swung across thumbs

     taut as a bowstring,

     lives reckoned in battles,

     splintered and quartered.


     Now I am old

     conkers are young,

     cradled in cribs

     of white velvet,


     mahogany jewels

     on brown and green fingers

     touching the earth.


It's a poem filled with shared experience that an audience can respond to without difficulty, although it's obviously easier for an older person to relate to. Some would argue that the mood or 'intent' of the piece closes down the readers' options, that it's not open-ended and thus limited in what it can achieve, but I think there's still room for such poetry and in the hands of someone as skilled as Daniel it's a pleasure to read. He has a neat line in cracking similes as well!


Special Delivery is a revenge fantasy which hints at the Monty Python Grail film

and gets very personal indeed. A letter arrives at the door announcing the redundancy of a loved one and the protagonist gets busy with his (imagined!) weapon - a samurai sword - attacking the college dean with an obvious relish:


     I chased him into the Staff Room

     and cut off one of his legs

     under the portraits of past principals

     the silver arc taking it clear off

     a spurt of blood landing on

     Michael Roberts' glasses

     dribbling down the gold frame.


The fact that said protagonist has been reading What the Buddha Taught just prior to receiving such bad news sets up a comic element which is sustained throughout the poem and offsets its obvious savagery. Barry Tebb will be jealous if he ever reads this poem!


Marie Celeste is another poem of nostalgia, this time evoking the wonderful imagination of boyhood as well as its frustrations - 'My parents were leading their meaningless landlocked lives' - and is as usual free of faults, on its own terms it's a near-perfect poem.


War is a subject which creeps into Daniel's work and Church Murals, Black Boughton, Oxfordshire, is a poem which deals with the invasion of Iraq with a controlled anger which is impressive and effective. When in serious mode, Daniel is capable of taking his work to a higher level and I'd love to see a larger collection of his poetry which includes more of this:


     Perhaps the churches should paint the walls again

     the boy with no arms in Iraq, Bush's rockets

     the soldiers shelling a farmhouse

     Then we could whitewash over the top

     and unpeel them later, venerable relics

     the Massacre of the Innocents

     something for the people to look at

     the stoning of Kelly, a lesson to the illiterate

     bright colours, a focus

     instead of these plaques to the gentry, Oxonian squires.


It's the quiet almost-cynicism of this which really makes it work, an indictment of a pointless conflict (aren't they all, in the end?) which knows it will make no difference, but sometimes there's a need to stand up and be counted and poems can be useful in such a situation.


As I've already said, I really enjoyed reading this collection and I look forward to a more complete rendering in due course.


    Steve Spence 2008