HappenStance, 2011, £4.00
Reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Emma Lee and Marcia Menter
.......All this glorious compensation:
.......I forget the problem of living
.......in her—the nights, the silences,
.......how the minutes crawl
.......before the gorgeous babble begins.
In the poem ‘The ear’, extracted above, the speaker enters the ear canal of a lover and absorbs all the sounds, words, exchanges and telling shibboleths in her life such as “He’s like mould. She’s an empty slipper”. The motif of the ear is central to this diverse collection, for while the poems range from prose poems to translations and lyrics, they are all connected by a percipient ear and a socio-linguistic fascination. The title poem ‘He said / she said’ reads as a fluid list of definitions, which differ depending which half of a couple is using them. There is a feeling here, common in linguistics, that female conversation is more collaborative whereas male speech is competitive, and this poem confirms that, with the male saying music is “any sound I want to make”, while the female opines listening “ is a way of making music”.
There is a love of language here, from tittle-tattle overheard, childish speech in ‘Big Mike’ with its endless conjunctives and adjuncts, to the morology of old age (“get me that drink of cabbage”) and the Augustan tones of the closing, masterly rendering of Virgil’s Aeneid, and yet this all seems to take place in the aftermath of a serious relationship. There is an elegiac thread running through the collection and a poignancy when the speaker recalls how his own lingua franca has been enriched with words borrowed from other cultures, movingly captured in ‘Translation’:
.......I climb into your words
.......just long enough for you
.......to remember me.
More often than not the poems that carry a sting are accretions or inventories of objects from a relationship, remembered and listed with almost talismanic resonance, like ‘Nine things which accompanied me at different times in that lift to your place in Queensferry Road’ which includes in its enumeration: “burst balloon / you / a stubborn kind of happy”. These poems fizz and sparkle with life. But it is the occasional poem which goes beyond language to recall a crystalline memory that most arrests the reader, as in ‘Sculptor’ where the speaker allows himself to be buried in sand and asks “when it will stop”, this “disappearing man act” “until I am only a head/ staring wildly out of the ground”.
The title poem offers contrasting aphorisms and ends:
....... In the dark is the only way to truly know another person
....... Another person is a foreign country, they do things differently.
This sets up the theme, the exploration of love and loss through relationships, and apparently the central relationship is with a Polish woman. In ‘Dialogue’ one stanza stands out:
....... I am a gift, waiting
....... to be unwrapped,
....... a dictionary of intimacy.
It is a tender image, enhanced by sound patterning and the internal rhyme of “dictionary” and “intimacy”. There’s an ambivalent intimacy in ‘I brought’, where the first-line title leads into a serious of statements, concluding as follows:
.......you return tickets
....... you over
....... you nothing (exactly what you asked for)
....... you a grain of sand—between my teeth.
Never buy a lover nothing, even if that’s what they ask for, because the real unspoken, implied request is for something meaningful. That “grain of sand” is delicate but could also be abrasive. The overall effect of the list is to suggest the relationship is breaking down: it captures that point when habits that were endearing become irritating. Michael Loveday pays close attention to detail and form. I found the collection easy to read aloud—no stumbling over awkward phrasing or ill-judged line breaks.
‘Skaters’ is a successful sustained metaphor about the start of a relationship:
....... Magnet for kids and lovers,
....... show-offs, thrill-chasers,
....... people carrying their hearts lightly.
....... I guess the trick is not to think—
....... to sink into the rhythm of your feet.
....... Hypnotic, scoring little lines.
....... It’s good to remember how
....... to be useless at something—
.......not cling to the boundary wall.
Skating as a metaphor for writing has been used by Fiona Sampson (‘Skater’ from Rough Music, Carcanet), but Mike Loveday’s poem better captures the feel of the skater as writer—in Fiona Sampson’s poem, the writer was an observer of the skater—more directly. The writer isn’t in complete control but goes where rhythm and lines suggest, even if in conflict with the original intention. I appreciate the poem more for knowing that the poet cares about craft and allows the poem to shape itself.
He said / She said shows Mike Loveday takes his own advice and allows each poem to be guided by rhythm and sound patterns rather than cramming them into a shape that doesn’t fit. In spite of the collection’s title, I would have liked to have heard ‘her’ voice more. Each poem is narrated by “he” and he hears her voice but no poem is entirely based on the female viewpoint so there’s no counterpoint. I don’t know what she thought of her English lover although I suspect she agreed that
....... Another person is a foreign country, they do things differently.
I grow old. Surely I grow old. I was young and obsessively in love myself, once. Hell, I was middle aged and obsessively in love not so long ago. Yet when I read these 18 poems about a failed love affair (plus five poems on other subjects), I couldn’t help feeling that this particular love object, a Polish girl, wasn’t worth the fuss. Michael Loveday must be young, because I feel like his mother: She’s not good enough for you, dear.
Loveday can’t stop returning to his central metaphor of trying to translate English into Polish and vice versa, as in the opening poem (‘Translation’):
.......The running joke
....... is ‘Polish your English’
....... but there are moments
....... when everything we say
....... locks us behind doors.
.......I suggest roots.
....... You reply rules.
....... Erotic becomes erratic.
Okay, the girl is attractive: “blouse full as a cloud,/ eyes carrying the moon” (same poem). But she’s also “hard-working, hard-drinking,// Marginally depressive . . . // A passion for the ceremonies/ of hospitality, yet difficult// to get to know.” (‘Typical’). She eats kielbasa for breakfast. She’s a fidget, a gossip, a whiner. The poet cooks her Polish meals, plays Polish DVDs, massages her toes, oils her back. She remains aloof, unknowable, as if there are some borders she simply won’t cross.
Loveday’s imagination goes into overdrive finding different ways to view his obsession, and some of the poems are memorable. In the prose poem ‘747’, he finds her in a surreally grounded jetliner:
.......The tip of one wing was poised on the ground like an athlete stretching her legs pre-race, the other aiming at the low sky. . .
.......Along the aisle: luggage compartments emptying themselves; oxygen masks dangling like dead jellyfish. To the left, the open door of the cockpit, where .......she was discovered in the pilot seat . . .
This is a poem heavy with nouns, and that’s why I like it. Loveday is good at letting physical objects do the talking; otherwise he tends to overthink. ‘Nine things which accompanied me at different times in that lift to your place in Queenstown Road’ is a short list that says more than many of the longer poems:
.......trail of liquid,
.......blood, sure of it
.......[ . . .]
I get it. I like it. I, too, was young once.
And the Common Reader added:
I really enjoyed this. I laughed my socks off reading 'Desert Island'.
'Nine things that accompanied me at different times in that lift to your place in Queenstown Road' must surely be one of the most splendid titles for a poem which is a list of seemingly insignificant things. However, this list is not at all random. Each item is remembered and noted to form a detailed account of a part of a trip often travelled. I'm aware I have used the word 'list' twice now. Please don't think this pamphlet is about lists. It's so much more.