The Metaphorical Pirate


A Curious Shipwreck
, Steve Spence (88pp, 8.95, Shearsman Books)


When I was young I used to think that every pirate had a pirate on their shoulder. Either I misheard or someone was trying to make a moral point, or perhaps teach me about infinity. Whichever, in terms of the image it left in my head, it was probably my first taste of surrealism. And it's great to welcome Steve Spence to my little world with his first collection, entirely comprised of satirical-surrealist pirate poems. 

But to get back to me, as I grew up I realised that, in fact, every good pirate needs a parrot
on their shoulder. And these poems remind me of that parrot: the collage techniques employed result in a strange multi-layered effect - text taken out of context, losing its original focus and meaning but gaining new contextual force by imaginative juxtaposition and parrot-like repetition - occasionally reminiscent of flarf, but without the focus on the deliberately offensive. That's not to say that this work is bland. The pirate as metaphor works here on many levels, primarily taking on the aspect of an amoral trickster, whether in the guise of a merchant banker or an illegal file-sharer. And best of all, these poems are tremendous fun:

     Existing quietly in never-never land, the worker devotes his life to
     producing objects which he does not own or control. British piracy
     is alive & well & making a killing on tv & in Hollywood mythology.

     The pirate assured me that his downfall began when he started to
     listen to Barry Manilow. Alas, life is rarely so straightforward.
             [from 'A shift in the earth's core']

This is slippery writing, and it's hard to pin down as you're reading it. The syntax makes sense, and your brain is deceived into believing that all is well, then you stop to think and realise you've no idea what's going on. It's a poetry deliberately designed to wrong-foot you, to trick you out of trusting language, while at the same time making you feel as if you're listening to a rollicking good story. It has all the trappings, and employs the techniques of, linear narrative, but these techniques are subverted. You get story-structures that do not tell you a story. Instead these poems float like shadows over traditional narrative structures. You're presented with a set-up, a middle, and a pay-off, with all of the appropriate cadences, but end up feeling unsettled that, although all the usual structures are there, the story itself (that your brain is telling you ought
to be in there somewhere) has slipped through your fingers. And it's really quite refreshing and exhilaratingly bewildering.

To add to the sense of tricksiness, with the exception of a couple of prose poems, Steve Spence's poems look pretty conventional on the page (and let's face it, anyone who finds prose poems unconventional these days probably doesn't read that much poetry). For the most part they sit there foursquare, in equally-spaced stanzas with equal numbers of lines, looking rather cosy and genteel. And then they bite you:

     Nobody can say why you go chasing a pirate down
     the street but such a state of affairs makes possible
     a certain number of anxiety dreams. Was it the pirate,
     you ask yourself, or was it the paranoia?
           [from 'When the privateers returned from their pillage']

This is unsettling. There's nothing to hold on to apart from straightforward syntax, and you're left asking the same question as the narrator - 'is it just me or...?'. The pervading feeling is a somewhat whimsical outrage - throughout this collection there's a sense of perplexity in the face of the political and economic forces that somehow control us, without us really understanding them or even quite believing that there's anyone who does understand them at the tiller:

     At what point does a civilisation hit its peak before it
     declines, &, more germanely, how did a dish once as
     humble as fish & chips become the preserve of the
     affluent? Ginger Baker is sixty eight today.
              [from 'When the privateers returned from their pillage'] 
   
When I first read this collection, I felt that if I had one quibble, it might be the line-breaks. There's not any real logic to them in a musical sense, which sometimes makes them feel a little arbitrary. But the more I read, the more I realised that this was all part of the destabilising process. I was meant
to be concerned and unsettled. It's all part of the fun. And this poetry is fun. 

I've always felt that 'experimental' poetry (if that's acceptable terminology) should include an element of play or it risks uprooting itself from its heritage - however serious a poet's intentions or subject-matter, they're still playing a game with language, seeing how far it can be pushed in a certain direction. Steve Spence strikes this balance between the serious and the playful perfectly in his first collection, one of the most coherent and entertaining I've read in a while. Its blend of surrealism and satire captures a topical sense of bemused disillusionment with great panache. I loved this book - it's the real deal - and it might just rattle your cutlasses too. So reach for those pieces of eight and set sail for Amazon (or your preferred forced retailer-pun of choice), otherwise you'll be walking the plank with the rest of the land-lubbers while the brilliance of Captain Spence passes you by like a ship in... I'll stop now. Honestly though, treat yourself - you won't be disappointed.         

          Nathan Thompson 2010