Humbug by Abi Curtis
Queen of the Cotton Cities by Adam O’Riordan
both from Tall Lighthouse Pilot Publications, £4 each
Review by Luke Kennard
How’ve you been? Not so well? Sorry to hear that. Want to hear about some new poetry? No? Well, I hear there’s some great new news at bbc.co.uk – so maybe you could spend your lunch-break there instead. For those of you still here, today I’m discussing two new pamphlets from the Tall Lighthouse Pilot Series, edited by Roddy Lumsden – a thoroughly noble endeavour set up by people who noticed that some of the big presses are currently suffering from Raine’s Syndrome (a neurotic compulsion in editors never to publish anything by young poets). And, as Eric Gregory slowly rotates in his grave, most of us have been happy to curse the darkness.
The idea is that the pilot series, although printed to book-standard, count as pamphlets, being no longer than 20 pages, thus leaving the promising younger poets in question free to seek big league publication for their first collections. Anyway, they look edible: bright white, 20 pages, perfect bound with red end-papers. And, more importantly, the poetry is superlative.
The first time we saw him I was small enough
to examine gaps in the paving slabs.
It’s like a zoom lens – although for time (my metaphors are way off today). There’s something universal about examining the gaps in the pavement – when I was a child I basically lived there. Also, I have a thing about descriptions of rain (and this year was the first Summer I’ve ever suffered from a combination of damp-induced flu and storm-induced headaches) so I love “The murmur of the rain began like quiet terror”. For an abstract emotion it’s extraordinarily apposite and sensory. At times like these Curtis seems to have some kind of conduit straight into your head. She knows, for instance, exactly how you feel when you fall over:
Today a thought cut down
by a slip on a wet drain
Let’s face it: that’s a better couplet than any of us is going to write this year. Curtis never tells you things you already know – she tells you things you are, things you’ve always felt and have never managed to put into words. It’s wondrously satisfying – like being broke then finding a twenty pound note in an old pair of jeans. It makes you realise how absent that sense is from a lot of modern poetry – the sense of a poet who actually wants to take you with her, not just tell you stuff about something that happened to them once. And if you were ever going to write about horses, don’t bother.
There is nothing better or worse
than a horse…
And then we’ll know the hooves,
the drop down to
the smack of shit and confetti
on the lips. The taste
of tigerclaw and clownfoot.
I’m not used to reviewing pamphlets – so I need to curb my desire to over-quote. I could easily just type out the whole thing here and write “SEE?!” at the end of it. Among my favourites is ‘Electricity’ – a sequence of biopics about the electrical pioneers, including the exhortation “damp your hands / and hold this gutted mouse.” As opposed to just using historical detail as a grab-bag of empty signifiers, Curtis looks for the resonance of the telling detail – the things you can easily wrap your head around:
…Your tongue and my finger tip
swarm with our differences.
There is a musical sensibility at work here – ‘Lupercalia’ begins like a dark neo-folk song, “This is a night to go out, / dare the wolves to circle.” – and this grants the book an urgency and contemporary feel. Humbug is a rich collection – and unbelievably full for its brevity – the colour associations, the circus superstition, the mole a “Velour glove with no fingers” – yet each poem is linked by an eerily beautiful twilight atmosphere and an intuition of the strangeness of the everyday. Anyway, that’s enough – just fucking buy it already.
There is a spiritual precision to the metaphors of O’Riordan’s “Queen of the Cotton Cities”. Satellites, for instance, travel “in Trappist silence”. Equally striking: the skull in ‘Small Adult Skull’ is “an empty cathedral”. There’s a refreshing lack of sarcasm to his poetry, alive with mystery and, fundamentally, respect for humanity. The fizzing antidote to the kind of stuff that clumsily tries to assert the poet’s superiority over that which he describes. Like Curtis, O’Riordan has a fine instinct for the askew:
Bungalows huddled in the fields below
as if attracted to their own.
(from ‘The Whetstone’)
He can make the mundanest of views fantastic without losing any of the visual accuracy: “huddled” – is the perfect choice of word here. ‘Goooogle’, about the search engine, begins:
A prayer then
for the men who sit,
pale as geishas,
by the glow of obsolete
- the geisha metaphor elegantly indicating the promise of sexuality as much as enslavement. It concludes at dawn, with the palpable sense of a night wasted in online stalking. It’s the kind of thing Carver would have written if he’d survived into the age of the internet: a heartfelt lament on our capacity to sell-out our potential goodness.
The ancient and modern combine to great effect, especially in ‘Solomon’ where Song of Solomon is described as “the hissing bootleg for the fanatic”, playing on the word fan as it applies to the contemporary music aficionado, collecting rare tapes of his favourite band, and to the religious fundamentalist. And ‘Hands of an Apostle’:
Dürer scratched this attitude of devotion
in lines as fine as a banknote’s…
O’Riordan is accomplished in a variety of registers – whether celebrating the city of his birth in ‘Manchester’:
Your little merchants, hawking Lucifers and besoms
to set a small flame guttering in a wet-brick basement…
or brilliantly, unironically eulogising Mike Tyson in ‘The Long Count’. But his voice is always clear – and his strong-suit is the striking, immediate image. ‘Cheat’ pivots on a description of sex: “our movements incessant as a distaff and spindle” which at once captures the moment itself and the mechanically inexorable journey of the narrator and his lover. I’m in danger of quoting too much again.
© Luke Kennard, 2007