More Madness Please

The Method Men, David Briggs (80pp, £12.99, Salt)

This is another first collection from a poet who has been around for quite some time. Briggs won an Eric Gregory award in 2002 and although I'd not been familiar with his work this book proves to be an interesting debut from a mainstream poet dabbling his toes in the more experimental depths. As Clare Pollard says in one of the cover blurbs - “This is seriously good, intelligent poetry for those who like method in their madness”. For someone like me this is both a strength and a weakness because there were a number of occasions when reading this book that I yearned for a bit more of the 'madness'. That said, there is an elegance to the construction of these poems which I can't help but admire and there is enough humour and skewed nostalgia in the collection to keep the pages turning. Briggs has a knack for arresting opening lines:

     The manufacturers of cultural viruses
     were hawking liquid pep-me-ups
     laced with pharmaceutical cocaine,
            (from 'Cultural Static')

The tone of this poem implies a mixed response to the virtual reality of the 'information overload' society, an almost haughty (at times) impatience with what you might call cultural relativism which nevertheless becomes the 'subject' of the poem in a manner which embraces both the writer's irritation and the surface diversity of the chosen material. Briggs' need to conclude the poem in a satisfyingly 'rational' manner - that Augustan sense of the poem as reasoned argument - weakens its overall effect for me, although it is that kind of poem and I'm sure others will admire its conclusion:

                                    more a consequence
     of the ill-timed fanfare of a meta-ironic,
     polyphonic ringtone which, these days,
     I suppose, is what passes for personality.
                  (from 'Cultural Static')

Elsewhere, in poems such as 'My Year of Culture' and 'A Portrait of the English Technician', for example, Briggs reminds me of Luke Kennard, where the mildly surreal narrative, aided by repetition and listing, becomes a method whereby a social critique combines with a playful sense of ritual nonsense to produce something entertaining and weird - but not perhaps quite as weird as it could be. There are occasions - as in the title poem - where such irrational estrangement works more effectively, or perhaps appears more in tune with its apparent subject:

     Both men made their bread discerning
     the lines etched by Fate in palms and foreheads.

     Me, I always learned enough by firing
     my full quiver of arrows at random

     and observing the manner of their falling.
           (from 'The Method Men')     

Here I'm reminded of Ian Duhig's work, partly because of the subject matter - as a point of contrast - and partly because Duhig's use of the occult and the 'irrational' is part of a project of oppositional culture which is developed throughout his poetry. Briggs' work feels more 'apolitical' to me though this may simply be a matter of being of a different generation.

There's certainly a rich cultural mix of materials in these poems - Briggs is clearly an erudite guy - but I do find his habit of concluding his poems with a neat underlining closure, often in a 'finger-wagging', sermon mode, a trifle irritating as it often spoils what goes before. It's not always such a problem: for example, in 'In the Senior Common Room', where the concluding 'But/how do you know they're
our bees?' - actually adds to the effect, whereas in 'Bruce Cockburn (In the Falling Dark)', the ending - 'Two became lawyers, one a teacher, one a clerk / That world faded out like an overheard remark.' - simply reinforces the whole tone of the piece, a mild rebuttal of youthful attitudes which feels negative and ungenerous in all the wrong ways.

Some of the poems in 'Seven Stages of a Record Collection', particularly those on Rod Stewart, James Taylor and Nick Cave are better, mixing convincing nostalgia with the occasional good line; and 'Snow' is a more lyrical piece which avoids cliche in a subject area filled with potential pitfalls and also has a lovely ending. The final poem,
Pulse, is neat, taut and beautifully effective, mixing a commentary on writing with the thing itself, difficult to pull off and with a haunting, lyrical aspect which I found entirely convincing, one of the best poems in the collection. I also enjoyed the much longer penultimate poem - 'Bloomsday' (prefaced by a quote from Ulysees, of course, a hard act to follow!), which has room to breathe, partly because it is a longer, more discursive piece. The inner dialogue feels unforced, the relationship between persona now and (younger) self is abrasive and convincing while the multitude of material is given plenty of space in which to frolic. This poem mixes nostalgia with feelings of irritability and loss and does so in a stream-of-consciousness manner which is filled with colourful textures, varying registers and unforced erudition.

Overall then, this is a mixed bag. I found plenty to admire and enjoy in this varied collection of poetry and also material which I wasn't convinced by because it felt more like a writing exercise than 'the real thing'. That said, I've discovered a new writer (to me) whose work I've found stimulating and whose next collection I'm looking forward to reading.

                  © Steve Spence 2010