Selfie with Waterlilies, Paul Stephenson
Paper Swans Press, 2017 £5.00
Up to High Jinks
This poet enjoys high jinks. The title poem alone demonstrates that fact. It’s a series of statements arrayed across a double-spread, like waterlilies floating on the surface of a pond. Each ‘lily’ (or floating leaf) is a verbless descriptive phrase starting with ‘Me’. For example, there’s ‘Me attempting to sell’, ‘Me an impression’, Me portraying me’.
What’s going on? Perhaps it’s a send-up of the poet’s role, complemented by visual shaping: the lyrical Me gone nuts. All poems are, in some sense of other, ‘selfies’, and if all of the texts here do, in one sense or another, reflect their author, we see a man who takes the full measure of both effect and meaning, while ... having fun.
Because from one page to the next, he is doing an astonishing range of things — a virtuoso performance.
Some of the jinks are less obvious than others — ‘Camus’, for example, looks pretty conventional at first glance, divided into seven neat quatrains. It begins:
Never take French A-level if you have to
read Albert Camus, particularly if it’s Le’Étranger
But tricks are afoot. The whole of ‘Camus’ is a single sentence, a hard manoevre to pull off in the middle of a freely conversational monologue, but — well — he succeeds in taking the reader right through.
In the final poem of the pamphlet, where many poets aim for some kind of closure, Stephenson offers an extended riff on the ‘th’ sound, originating in the word ‘swathe’ and culminating in ‘soothe’ and ‘paths’.
One of my favourite jinks is ‘The Apprentice’ in which every single line (there are 25 of them) ends in the word ‘beetroot’. Think that can’t work? Read this poem.
And I can’t help but savour ‘Deathflake’, in which the word ‘death’ substitutes for ‘snow’ and vice versa; and ‘The Dos and Don’ts of Ghosts’ (‘Ghosts are sticklers for whilst and amongst’).
Even in a quiet little poem like ‘Valuation’, there are some tricky little jinks, some understated wordplay, a haunting ending. And I wonder about the ‘man with a measure’ in that poem.
None of the waterlilies is ‘Me with a measure’, but one easily might have been. I think Paul Stephenson is that man.