Luck, Michael Grieve
HappenStance, 2018 £3.00
Michael Grieve’s Luck has the feel of a playing card. It’s tall, narrow — just 13 cm across. An auspicious width.
On the first page, at first glance, there looks to be a sonnet. It’s an apparition. A 13-liner missing its sestet, and hardly formed except for its iambic pentameter eighth line. Luck begins over pints in the pub, with a punter’s tip about how to cheat the one-armed bandit. ‘This one’s on me’ are his parting, metrical words. What follows is the customary stanza break after the octet, but what comes next, in response, is a five-line confession. Luck’s speaker appreciates the cheater’s ‘craftsmanship’ but he’s not interested in ‘such honest deceptions’, nor in winning.
Who wouldn’t want to win? Grieve gives us a mystery. I’m hooked.
On page 10 the almost-sonnet returns, with company. Four of them on the trot, a page a piece. 4 x 13 = 52. A deck of luck. Part gambler’s biography, part maths miracle, the poems immerse us in a story of numbers that become irresistible.
By page 12 I’m ready to shuffle some cards.
I’d not imagined there might be reward (beyond cash) in games of chance. Grieve’s poems move through moments of narration, reflection and instruction to reveal that luck is also a matter of aesthetics. The pull isn’t money. It’s the beauty of not knowing how things will end — the possibility of dazzlingly complex one-offs, such as ‘the newly shuffled World-First in your hand’.
Luck’s 124 lines break on some fine end-words. From page 9, for example:
won / dogs / nothing / in / Blackjack / transparency / spins
This abstracted version of playing the odds evokes unease. Luck gets dangerous. Grieve’s lines nudge at what luck means — the thrill and the thrall. Reminiscing about a winning streak, the narrator reflects ‘why bother leaving the house?’. Later, when luck has done its work:
[ ...] The distance
between everything became the distance
between two sides of a card.
What a stunning, claustrophobia-inducing image. This is your brain on luck.
Luck ends where it begins. Its final six musically lovely lines surprise all the way to the very last word.
[See also Charlotte Gann’s review of Joan Lennon’s Granny Garbage and Michael Grieve’s Luck]
A lucky dip into a strange trip
It helps to know that a ‘puggie’ is a fruit machine in Scots dialect. So we start off in a pub, but part of the charm of this single-poem pamphlet is the intrigue of always being slightly wrong-footed by the perspective, from the opening couplet onwards:
So you drill through Her Majesty’s lips,
tie her with a fishing line, and off you go.
With this we follow a dangling coin into a pocket and out into what seems to be a thought experiment about luck and chance. What if you won every gamble you took? What would that do to a person?
Grieve’s narrator radiates boredom, coping with too much luck by developing an addiction to diazepam and a fascination with statistics. (Do odds matter if any odds are possible?) He asserts himself only in refusing to allow himself to be used as a posterchild to lure others into the gaming industry.
At 124 lines, the journey the poem enacts is a remarkable act of compression. The narrator travels through a mindscape of endless possibility, into psychic chaos, before collapsing:
[ ... ] The distance
between everything became the distance
between two sides of a card. Eye to lidless eye
with cosmic background radiation
As with ‘puggie’, I had to look up ‘kugelblitz’, which has to do with the formation of black holes. Here it works as a moment of transcendence, similar perhaps to meditative bliss, or a drug-induced ‘trip’.
The aftermath of the kugelblitz suggests more metaphysical territory for this poem, the narrator realising ‘there was no choice,’ along with a clever evocation of one of the Greek Fates and her snipping scissors. I was left considering that ‘luck’ is possibly a metaphor for life. We’re all just taking our chance.
‘The Mariner hath his will’
Coleridge beat himself up for his addiction to opium. Does Michael Grieve have a compulsion to confess?
The line from Coleridge to Grieve? ‘The Ancient Mariner’ grasps the reader with a chilling narrative. So does the bar-fly in Luck, who makes us voyeurs to his ‘diazepam and pokey flat’, his world shrunk to the choice between life and death. And why? — the mariner committed the minor crime of killing an albatross; the narrator of Luck has flipped one too many decks of cards.
Ordinary human social life goes on in the background of ‘the lads’ in the pub or the wedding feast, but our narrator (like the mariner), is cut off from this through possession of a gift. Just as the mariner’s lucky albatross led the ship out of dangerous ice field, our narrator has a supernatural ability to win at cards.
Like Coleridge’s ballad, the subtext here is suffering and sin, the need to atone and be punished. Just as the mariner wants to die, rather than suffer, so the gambler in Luck wants to lose at cards (to free himself). The two narrators share an urgent need, namely, to tell the story. The narrator of Luck has his ‘fist of blueys’ (diazepam) to induce the same kind of trippy dissociated state as the one into which the lonely mariner falls.
I have a feeling Luck’s narrator has a few more years left in him of playing dice with death before he reaches dry land and redemption. I certainly hope the author has. I’d like to see what he writes next.
A mathematical approach to luck
I am not a scientist but even I get swept up in the maelstrom of mathematical images in this poem.
Michael Grieve describes and analyses the concept of luck in different scenarios. He explores cheating with a coin, gambling, card playing and betting. Luck, however, is about more than the nature of luck. It charts the downwards spiral towards a form of oblivion.
The narrator moves from the initial pub scene to explore the ever-increasing demands of the pursuit of chance. I was intrigued by mathematical references such as ‘Graham’s number’. These drew me into the ‘chance of chaos’.
Grieve implies that gambling has much in common with the apparently random but potentially influential repetitive patterning of chaos theory (if I have understood the science correctly).
The pace gets more intense as the poem progresses. It peaks when the poet leaves the word ‘kugelblitzed’ hanging at end of the page:
[ ... ] Eye to lidless eye
with cosmic background radiation
The word ‘kugelblitzed’ is aggressive and powerful with its range of hard consonants. It marks the moment the internal battle has serious and damaging consequences. The narrator at this point is completely immersed in the chaos of gambling and left in a hypersensitive physical state:
I felt neutrinos crash
against my skin and magma thunder
underneath me like a train.
The other-worldly strangeness of the terms ‘neutrinos’ and ‘magma’ has a power of its own, reinforced by the strong verbs at the line endings. These feelings, post-experience, cause an apparent change of heart and the narrator makes a promise (to himself or someone else?) to make a change.
The last stanza, however, takes us back to the top of a slippery slope....