Shoestring Press, 2008   £5.00 -

Peter Armstrong is a co-editor of Other Poetry, and has collections published by Enitharmon and Picador and poems in Poetry Review. His latest offering: Madame Noire (subtitled and other figures at the edge of an imagined war) is another high quality production from John Lucas’s excellent Shoestring Press— beautifully bound, with an elegant mottled grey cover.

The back has two quotes about Armstrong’s previous collections, one of which I think I understand  “radiant and politically articulate meditations” (Don Paterson) but the other is a Peter Porter soundbite that leaves me scratching my head: “the language is made into a real sculpture: this truly is authority at its least questionable”. And head scratching was something I did a lot of as I read and re-read the verse play that is Madame Noire. Perhaps it’s me, but I found myself moving through the poems like I used to move through those pea-souper London fogs of the 1950s: that heady excitement of walking through a deceptively familiar landscape, combined with being totally and utterly lost. 

There is humour in the writing; it’s quick witted and clever, and I have the feeling that Armstrong had a good deal of fun writing it. The cast of the play include Madame Noire, H (who I took to be a Christ-like figure), The Uninformer (a poet) and R (with strong references to Casablanca’s Rick). I would agree with Don Paterson about political articulation. Is Madame Noire a parody of Mrs Thatcher? The play refers to the French Revolution, biblical passages, classical art and literature—is it an imagined war between religion and reality? I’ve read it many times, and I’m still no wiser. It’s impossible to give a flavour of the book by quoting a few lines, because each character’s poems are completely different in style and mood and content. But, to whet your curiosity, here’s the last part of the poem ‘Madame Noire Tours the City at Night’:

But there are things to do tonight:
I’d love to be more mindful of
this city of perpetual rains; but, my love,
I haven’t got the time for it:
one needs to raise an eyebrow, show a thigh,

wed, at least once more, indulgence to the truth.
And, since I can’t help but embrace
the means as much as any end,
let’s drop this decorous pretence.
Darling, look me in the face.
Tell me who you’re dealing with.



Karin Koller