The Real Thing

Brains Scream at Night, Paul Sutton (95pp, price unknown, BlazeVox)

Every now and then I'm reminded why I never feel homesick . Actually it's almost every day when I go online and look at The Guardian, but anyway...

A book of poems just did it, too.

If the tone of a book is ever going to be set by an opening poem it's here for sure, in a poem called "To all the useless idiots in the future", where Paul Sutton draws our attention to (one view of) the state of the nation:

                                           how clothes and
     other goods dropping in price means that
     poor people can look well fed and casual
     not just tattered backdrops to Cathy Come
     Home no wonder they bombed the fuck out
     of us such chaos and filth underfoot so many
     bad haircuts and worse armpits

but the poem ends on (what seems to be) a note of optimism:

     in the shining air I will emerge and reclaim mine

It is of course problematic to assume blithely that every word in every poem mouths a poet's own opinions, and it's especially so in a book of poems so often given over to monologues by so obviously created personas. Having said which, Paul Sutton has made no secret of his opinions, and readers can draw their own conclusions. But it really doesn't matter whose words these are -- whether they are the words of a fictional Daily Mail
reader, as one review quoted on the back cover has it, or the poet's own thoughts. They are just words, words in poems, endowed with the task of asking us to think. So is that really a note of optimism, or just the end of a right wing rant we "should" condemn? And anyway, we ought to know by now that the best poems are not always about what the poet thinks; they are simply (sic) what the poet writes. If you want to know what Paul Sutton thinks you can go here. If you want to know what he writes, read this book.

Mind you, the danger of a book whose message (one might assume, although I'm not sure one would be assuming quite rightly) is that the nation sucks (or perhaps it's also that modern life is sometimes rubbish) is that one can say Yeah, we know that, and there's not much point reading about something we already know. (Actually, I think one message of the book is that modern life is complicated, but what do I
know?) Anyway, the challenge for the writer of such a book is to produce writing that does more than tell us what we think we already think we know. To meet that challenge requires a sense of poetry that makes the act of reading interesting and engaging. It's not just about anger and confrontation. After all, 

     In all art that claims to confront, the problem now is to find a
     target (there is no object).
           (from "Open Letter")

The great thing about this book is that if you come to it expecting you're just going to find a bunch of angry poems you're in, like if you go to the Teddy Bears' picnic, for a big surprise. Certainly there is anger, and certainly there are any number of killer lines that say exactly what you or someone you know thinks about your country (if you're British, that is; which makes me wonder how Americans read these poems, rife as they are with oh so British references; but then, this comes from an American publisher, so..... it beats me; presumably they're savvy enough to know these poems are the real thing). Anyway, as I was saying, and for example, here are some pretty damn good lines:

     I go to seaside towns - there's no culture, just alcohol and
         (from "Open Letter")

     The other problem is I dislike most people, and they feel the
     same about me.
          (from "Strategies")

      How sculpted seem horses at night ....
          (from "Cities of the Dead")

That last leads me to draw attention to the fact that Sutton can be what we call "lyrical"; while the signature note of this collection may well be lines and phrases such as "Fuck Modernism" and "Aren't these new restaurants toss?", this is far from being a one-note performance. Even before the cast of characters really kick in, "Winter Landscape" sounds a definite personal, lyrical note:

     Today I saw three deer jump the road, their white behinds
    flicking between the trees. It filled me with joy and sadness

while four or five lines earlier a single, simple sentence says an important thing as well as ever it can be said:

     How terrifying it is.

Most takes on these poems are going to talk about the politics, which is fair enough. But it would be a mistake to ignore the presence of the poetry. The book's mixture of poem, prose poem, dramatic monologue, and some things which seem to combine all three, is quite an achievement. It's not all either an easy read or a pleasant read, and I wouldn't recommend a cover-to-cover-in-one-sitting read, because it's too powerfully depressing and true for that. But I'd recommend a read, for sure. It's better than the bloody Guardian

        Martin Stannard 2010