Farm Boy

Yellowrocket, Todd Boss (121pp, 14.95, Norton)

This debut collection comes garlanded with praise and has already won awards in America, where Boss has been marked for future poetry stardom. My sceptical hackles bristled, but this really is an ambitious, highly coherent book, likely to make a big impact; it's also extremely enjoyable to read and savour.

Boss's specialty is the short-lined poem, an attenuated, spinal column full of internal rhyme and creative use of syntax, allied to Midwestern speech tones: 'We had Kris Kristofferson's / Me and Bobby Mcgee / in vinyl' one poem, 'Inventory', begins then half-rhymes 'vinyl' with 'vegetable' as it goes its unhurried way; 'The day is grey and the lake / shifts, mercurial, / like modelling clay', another landscape begins. Other poems take the form of amusing shaggy-dog narratives ('She Rings Me Up', an encounter in a supermarket checkout queue) and several poems about growing up on a Wisconsin farm, carefully patterned to bring out the grain of lives lived slowly. The title poem begins, fittingly on Boss's father's farm, a place of 'thickets choked / with tractor parts / and bedcoil'  and successive poems widen out the context as they describe the hard agricultural lives of family members in a way not too dissimilar to Lowell's Life Studies, but without the manic edge. In four brief stanzas, for instance,  he conjures up the entire world of his grandparents' card-games ('Blessed with Trump and Wild') using a familiar images of card-suits with ease and sensitivity.

This is also, as stated earlier, a highly-patterned book: Larkin, who would have hated it in many ways, used to agonise over the running order of poems in order to carefully structure his collections and Boss has also thought carefully about this. The book is split into six sections and there are chronological patterns: the boy who recalls listening to gramophone records and resolving 'I too would be / a narrator some day' eventually narrates tales of his own son and his marriage in Sections V and VI. The middle parts, Sections III and IV, much of which seems to cover a marital breakdown and temporary separation, are the least impressive, though there are fine individual lyrics, such as 'She Rings Me Up', as noted above.

Boss is at his best when exploring the slow lives of relatives or simply having fun with words: 'The Day Un-Dims', 'Icicles', 'The Deeper the Dictionary', 'More So' - some of these carry a concentrated look at the implements of poetry (words, as W.S.Graham reminded us), punning titles gradually reeling you in, convoluted syntax only occasionally becoming a dance too dense a la Hopkins (for example 'How Smokes the Smolder'). Despite these slight flaws, the whole tenor of Boss's poetry is accessible and subtle, repaying rereading: one wonders how he will follow such an impressive debut?

     Martin Caseley 2010