Two and a Half Pages of Optimism


Things To Do Before You Leave Town
, Ross Sutherland
Charismatic Megafauna
, Tamsin Kendrick
(both 63pp, 6.99, Penned in the Margins)


For a volume that promised on its back cover some "wild entertainment" and something "blackly comic", Ross Sutherland's "Things To Do before You Leave Town" begins remarkably and disappointingly flatly (is it ok to use three adverbs like that, all in a row? I'm not sure......). But anyway:

     A musical sculpture has been installed
     inside a pitch black gallery.
     The song contains a hidden message
     oscillating between the notes,
     like tapes found under pillows,
     spooling advice into not-too-distant futures.
         (from "The Message")

I'm tempted to dissect these few lines to (a) illustrate what I mean by "flat" (but if you don't think they're flat then I'm not going to persuade you, I suspect, and if you do think they're flat, then there's no need and (b) to suggest that this poet shouldn't harbour dreams of being a novelist. But I digress, probably. Whatever, "The Message" should end two lines before the bottom of its first page; to continue a fair way down a second page is too much, whichever way one looks at it (and I have stood on my head trying).

I have to say that, having spent a couple of weeks looking at the cover, I'd expected something pretty volcanic and edgy by the time I got around to actually reading the poems hiding inside. I wasn't expecting (though I should have been, come to think of it) a few self-satisfied "fucks" and a poem about paperboys nor, be it said, poems the like and sound and tone and the meaning (if there be any) of which I've read before done by other people and what's the point of doing this stuff over again unless it's for fashion. God forbid it be "fashion".  Mind you, nobody can claim it's fashionable to make a poem by cutting up three obituaries and jigging them around to make a poem called "Autopsy". You could call it optimistic, I suppose. Two and a half pages of optimism. As for the blackly comic wild entertainment, you'll be astounded to learn I gave up on that after a couple of pages.

     I told you what was in my heart.
     You asked me to prove it, so
     the next day
     I brought round the x-ray.
         (from "A Second Opinion")

This is how bad things can be. I've tried to find how good things can be, but that's in another book by someone else.

It's all a little tiresome, to be honest, and something of a waste of time. There's a kind of half-baked recipe for this kind of half-baked poetry: the ingredients include some tech-language (like, mention computers), demonstration of (just about adequate) erudition (like, mention a well-known philosopher, or something from a Classics class), street language (whatever that is), popular culture (like, names of actors, songs, whatever), a dash of what passes these days for "surreal" imagery or setting, some stuff that's in the news ...... but don't forget to present whatever you cook up in a standard dish, in a restaurant decorated so as not to upset or offend anyone, because this is poetry. And come on, even using the word "cunt" and all its (or her) relatives isn't going to upset anyone now, is it? You might want to read this book, because then perhaps you can tell me the point of bothering with it.


Bothering is more worthwhile with Tamsin Kendrick's "Charismatic Fauna", although this unexpected praise comes with some reservations, of course. A product, it seems, of what is apparently "London's vibrant performance poetry scene" (one of which words may be a slip of the adjective) Kendrick at least appears to possess something Mr Sutherland seems to lack I think it's called imagination, though I'm not sure how much of an imagination it is. Three poems are "about" (I'm not sure that's the correct or the fair word) Mr Tumnus, who I gather is a character (a faun, no less; yes, this is the real world) from the Narnia tales. I never went there, even when my kids were kids, so I'm ill-qualified, etc.

The performance side of things shows through:

     I mainly started dating him
     so I'd have someone to

     watch my stuff when I
     went to the bathroom
          (from "Dating Criteria")

but when it's amusing, as this is first time around, then fair enough. I'm pretty convinced a lot of the lines here would go down a storm with poetry audiences, because poetry audiences tend to really like poems, generally by women, that are assertive and take control and put men where we undoubtedly belong. I have no problem with any of that; I know exactly where I belong, so you have no need to tell me. Having said which, I'm not sure these poems actually do that, though at times I'm sure they threaten to, or want to.

The weakness of this collection is the poems that are too obviously performance-oriented or have their genesis in a desire or even need to be "performed". Poems don't need to be that; if it's a good poem, it's a good poem. Culprits include "Ode to Blues & Gin" ("I am laid down deep under the guitar, the base beat/ and I am trip-hopping and lip-locking,/ shockingly docking my ship-shape slim curves/ into any open crotch.") and "Western Front" ("Out! Out! Quick, girls! An ecstasy of dancing,/ balancing on red wine heels, corkscrew eyes,/ the ladies negotiate their fronts through the West side// of London.")

The strengths, on the other hand, take you a little by surprise after rubbish like that, and suggest that this poet (a) needs an editor and (b) needs to figure out what kind of a poet she wants to be, or is.  (Jesus, I sound like a teacher. Thank God I don't sound like someone who knows what they're talking about.) Anyway, the strengths:

     Have I always had this tang
     of mineral and metal
     on the roof of my mouth,
     my lipped rib-cage?

     A taste of emperor's gold,
     slipped disc, coin slid
     by nimble fingers,
     and then
     a nick of hook
     and a haul to the thin place,
     a jerk and an up-up,
     a fleeting trace of the sky above
     in the place below."
          (from "To Caesar What is Caesars.")

That the thing about the girls out on the town and this are by the same poet is somewhat astonishing. What I like about this latter poem is that I don't understand it. Oh, and it sounds good, too. I don't ask for much, really I don't.

          Martin Stannard, 2009