Fresh Air

Properly Nuanced, James Russell (20pp, £5, Knives Forks and Spoons Press)
Threadbare Fables
, Ian Seed (25pp, £5, Like This Press)

The full title of James Russell's strange and entertaining chapbook is "Properly Nuanced (Raymond Roussel's Form falls upon the New Psychology)", which is not going to be much help for anyone who doesn't know what the old psychology was, never mind the new, but it doesn't matter: you don't even really need to know what psychology is to enjoy this little book.

A 16-page poem somewhat modelled upon but otherwise having very little to do with Roussel's wondrously bizarre Impressions d'Afrique and its seeming endless parenthetical asides, Russell's rant against whatever the new psychology may be can also be read as a poem delighting in its own inventive ramblings, an often consciously self-indulgent, exasperated and yet joyous tirade against a whole bunch of the kind of stuff and the kind of people we encounter day in and day out as the poet digresses here and there and, while never quite keeping to the point, somehow contriving never to quite lose it.

By virtue of the judicious use of dashes and semi-colons the poem is one long sentence that, when all the asides and parentheses are removed, seems to boil down to

     It staggers the mind where a traffic island like a globule
     of hard fat in stirred gruel resists our gaze that here the
     brilliant motorbike impersonator and novelist-drinker
     Kingsley Amis spent some time as a boy

at which point even this
is interrupted by a final aside:

     (how old he was I do not know (I do not even know
     whether it was here he lived or went to school
     (indeed I have this from a half-remembered television
     interview only (but surely I am right that he said
     "It was called Norwood [or Norbury] because it had to be
     called something")))))

and this
aside, the poet tells us as the poem closes, is

                                                              a reminder that,
     no, things may not be called anything
     at all, yet still be there.

Most of the delights here are to be found in the parenthetical asides. They are often long, but quotation is the only way to convey their flavour. For example:

                               how does it feel to be eating a Liquorice Allsort
     coloured yellow, black, and grey on Manchester Piccadilly Station
     just as the Eccles Metro pulls in completely empty but in exactly
     these colours


                                     what is it like to try homosexual sex one
     afternoon and find that it is really not for you

I can't help thinking that by ignoring the poet's concern with attacking "the new psychology" I may be doing him an injustice, or at the very least missing a great deal, but no matter: to come across anything
in the shape of a poem that dispenses such pleasures is something of a relief, to be honest, and Mr. Russell deserves thanks.

Having recently railed against the mundane and anecdotal in so much contemporary poetry, and longed for the pleasures of the imagination, it strikes me that what Mr. Russell has hit upon is a pleasing blend of the imagination working with the stuff of the real world (although I know that "the real world" is itself a dodgy enough term, but what the hell). Coming through virtually every line of the poem there is a poet's delight and sometimes bemusement in and with the pains and pleasures and potentials of ordinary life and language coupled with a sense of what a poem and its reader can do without recourse to either bland commonplaces or as-good-as-unreadable "innovative" strategies. My God, it's a breath of fresh air.

More fresh air can be found in Ian Seed's Threadbare Fables, sixteen prose-poems (I guess you would call them) of lengths varying from a few lines to a page  or so. Here is another version of that blend of reality and imagination which makes for an engaging read and the possibilities of the reader entering an imaginative world without getting a headache into the bargain:

     After many countries, I came across him by a stream at
     the edge of the desert. I didn't know at first that I had met
     him before Š as a hunchback by a fire under a bridge, as a
     woman wandering through foggy streets, as a child in a
     doorway with palm outstretched, as a wounded animal I
     never learnt the name of. Each time I had walked away,
     afraid. Yet he was smiling as if glad to see me. With a small
     gesture, he invited me to sit beside him and bathe my face.
     And I realised then who he was, and that nothing was too
     late after all.

This piece, selected more or less at random, seems to me to embody many of the elements that recur throughout this all-too-brief little collection. Each image is recognisable and somewhat universal, but somehow avoids clichˇ, and bears with it a not-too-heavy but nevertheless palpable weight of sadness and reciprocal sympathies. The narrator is vulnerable and burdened by his own shortcomings; he's remote from other people, and his inability to name the wounded animal reveals his awareness of his own ineptitude. This particular piece also has an unavoidable suggestion of the spiritual (the bathing of the face confirms it, I think) that we may, I think, take with a pinch of salt, because while it informs the tone it somehow or other also contrives to be neither here nor there: the mysterious "man" could be just about anyone. This is what I mean by possibilities. And several of the pieces here have an underlying sense of humour at their core, or at least a feeling that even through their over-riding sense of loss and sadness and, to some degree, futility, the author knows there is often more than one way to approach our difficulties: in "The Gift" the narrator ponders what gift to buy his father, but when his father dies "regret was mixed with relief that I no longer needed to buy him anything at all." This is not exactly funny, but I smiled when I read it, nevertheless.

And please note, I've just reviewed two books that made me smile
. Is the world turned upside down, or what?

     © Martin Stannard, 2012