Those People, Paul Stephenson
Smith / Doorstop, 2015 £5.00
Talking to oneself
It’s the title of the title poem that hangs around, playing with me. We all do it, don’t we? – that muttering inner justification about how different other people are, how oddly they behave compared to us. Perhaps it’s not something to admit to. It can sound a touch smug, a little holier-than-thou. It’s not a tone of voice that, in an ideal world, we’d want to slip into a poem. Even so, we recognise the feeling; already we’re complicit. You see how I’m writing this, bringing us (you, me) together as a group: we are ‘these’, while they are ‘those’.
What are they called? Those people who turn up
unfashionably early, too premature for it to be a party,
just a room full of drinks and square metres of carpet.
The opening three lines, and already we (collectively) are searching our minds for the collective noun, nudging our imaginary friend, and laughing. They are ‘the party-goers who make a punctual appearance’ to the horror of ‘hosts running around with / nibbles still in cupboards and half their face on’. Yes, familiar territory; ‘Those people.’ We’re still rummaging for that collective noun. They are ‘never sure / of the dress code, opt to play it safe and wear jeans.’ They don’t get out much ‘so have it marked fluorescent for weeks in their diary’ – and the way the line falls on to ‘fluorescent’ makes them even more – what? Loser-like? Yes, perhaps that. They are the ones who end up
in the refuge
of empty strip-lit galley kitchens, to sit on a ledge
of marbled Formica, slurring into sausage rolls
and spilling their life, is there a name for them?
Ah yes, those people: but not as far off as they were. Somewhere through the 29 lines (this is a full-page poem) the divisive ‘those’ has been losing some of its distance, a lot of its distance, all of its distance. We’ve got a bit closer, a lot closer – and now this kitchen scene is home ground. Yes, there is a word for ‘those people’: it’s ‘us’, and the poet leaves us there, belatedly making this discovery – and, I hope, resolving to be kinder to our fellow humans in future.
Playful, intelligent, generous, working in us softly – Stephenson’s poems often work this way. Try the rest of this pamphlet.
D A Prince