Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

CrystalClearCreators, 2012    £4.00

Reviewed by Ben Parker, Richie McCaffery and Matthew Stewart

 

Ben Parker:
Andrew Graves is more usually known by his performance name ‘MulletProof’, which is included on the cover page in inverted commas, suggesting it should be seen at one remove from the text inside. In spite of this, the contents have a close affinity to  performance. Some of the poems have chorus-like refrains, while others have a thumping rhythm that would come alive on a stage. ‘Middle-Aged Mod’, for example, races along with an attractive song-like pace, and could well be a rousing piece in performance. On the page, though, it feels a bit forced, and the poem is hampered by the third line of the second stanza, which doesn’t fit the four-beat pattern followed by the rest:


I’m a middle-aged Mod, it’s plain to see
I’m a slim-line Fred Perry casualty
I’ve got more shoes than the Mrs, more shirts than you can count,
I’m a dedicated follower of fucking about


This is the only line in the poem that can’t easily be scanned to fit the rhythm (even visually it’s noticeably different).

There are interesting moments of calm in this otherwise brash pamphlet, such as ‘The Blue Bench’, which concerns designated sitting areas for soldiers whose wounds have been deemed visually ‘shocking’. Given the theme of the collection, which includes the strong Mod-identity of the poet, it would be possible to see the bench as metaphor for the ostracising of social sub-groups, but it is allowed to remain as an inference, and the poem stands on its own merits.

Graves is clearly adept at playing with words, and punning on them, such as “inter Stella Artois cruise” from the title poem, which is itself a pun, to “Microsoft in the head” from ‘You Tube Youth’. In this latter poem some of the cultural references, of which there are many in the book, seem ill-judged. In a poem which also mentions My Space, one can’t help but wonder how out-of-date lines such as “Face Book misery/ knows it’s as easy as MP3” may seem in five years’ time. (For a performance piece, this is less of a problem: the references can be updated easily or the poem dropped altogether.)

Despite some strong moments the collection feels uneven to me: it highlights the problem of performance poetry being transferred to the page. As with song lyrics, that which is powerful on stage, where performers can impose their own style, is often lost when converted to the static format of text.

 


Richie McCaffery:

Before even opening this pamphlet by Andrew Graves (aka ‘the Mulletproof poet’), it’s clear this poetry will lean heavily on puns. And so it does, from ‘mullet-proof’ to ‘Citizen Kaned’, the title poem which mixes gallows-humour with concern for the nation’s alcohol consumption:

Raised on sherry and Thunderbird
in the single malt Disney World

The poetry is sharp-edged, with punchy rhymes that suggest it’s intended for performance aloud. The bulk of the poems carry lots of working-class cultural signifiers and like Tony Harrison’s V we see the clash of the poet and the decidedly un-literary hooligan:

I screamed ‘Alan Sillitoe’s dead’ – he looked at me and spat.
‘Alan Sillitoe?’ he said: ‘Who the fuck’s that?’

Poems like ‘Galleries of Justice League’ work by appropriating symbols of pop-culture and re-working them along more personal, home-town lines:

A dark knight based in Forest Fields
drives a knackered Batmobile,
a caped crusader, just thirteen,
left black and blue in Hyson Green,
and Wonder Woman’s fixed abode
a doorway up on Mansfield Road
track-marks under stain tights
too wrecked for fighting for your rights.

In the final line of this stanza above, one of the flaws of this collection is exposed. The pamphlet carries endorsements from other poets who hail Andrew Graves as a cross between “John Cooper Clarke and Roger McGough” and while the comparison with Clarke is inevitable, it’s the subtle moralistic and judgemental tone to some of these poems that make them closer to John Betjeman’s awkward ‘Executive’ than John Cooper Clarke. The title poem ends with a rather self-righteous dig at the people on the street he writes about:

Out of touch and off his face
another hopeless, hopeless case

[. . . ]


And, hark, the homeless angels sing
to the gory Bourbon King.

Similarly ‘You Tube Youth’ strives to be topical but comes across as a peremptory father figure stressing-out about what his children might be doing on the internet:

You Tube Youth is porn connoisseur,
Microsoft
in the head careless voyeur

This rather scathing look at the underclass sometimes yields good imagery, such as the council-estate Romeo and Juliet whose “love spins round like kebab-house meat” and the up-to-date reference of “No X Factor, just ex-factories”.

However, there’s more to this collection than examples such as these and it’s the poems where Andrew Graves slips into a more serious vein that are most effective and sympathetic. There’s a tribute to Rondo Hatton, “Hollywood’s only ready-made monster”, for example, and the collection is made by two short, lyrical pieces – ‘The Blue Bench’ and ‘Soldiers’. Both deal with the war dead and injured and the ‘Blue Bench’ was for disfigured soldiers to keep them from the gaze of other patients. ‘Soldiers’ is an exquisite short poem, spoiled slightly by a forced and jokey ending:

They kiss by the memorial
his lips cold
as railings at her back,

poppies and used confetti
waltzing awkward through headstones
names that mean nothing
and years less.

Unlike the Great War
...........................iit’ll be over by Christmas.

 

 

Matthew Stewart:
Critical shorthand might dictate that Andrew Graves’ work should be labelled as ‘performance poetry’ or some sort of ‘crossover’ from stage to the page. However, there’s far more scope for enjoyment if Citizen Kaned is read without such preconceptions.

Rhythms and rhymes gallop through these deft observations on the inherent incongruence of life in Nottingham, yet there are also underlying layers of subtlety. Rather than using clichés as lazy shortcuts, Graves is capable of turning expressions upside down. Witness this line from “Ceremony”:

their love spins round like kebab-house meat

Graves then completes the poem by summoning a sense of beautiful grottiness:

they emerge embarrassed, wasted and sweaty
to shower in the headlights and raindrop confetti.

Semantics and syntax combine to excellent poetic effect, synthesizing contradictory elements and transforming them.

Citizen Kaned does work on the page, but there’s no doubt Graves is walking a constant poetic tightrope in the way he plays with linguistic and thematic expectations. Occasional slips into cardboard cut-out characters are consequently inevitable, as in this example from ‘Galleries of Justice League’:

Flash , the fastest chav alive,
is seen at every club and dive

Nevertheless, the reader encounters numerous rewards, as in this remark on two lovers kissing by the war memorial:

Unlike the Great War
...........................iit’ll be over by Christmas.


This is cliché and expectation adroitly picked up and viewed through a concave mirror.

At times I get the impression Andrew Graves is feeling his way across the page, unsure himself how his work reads without an accompanying performance. In fact, he needn’t worry—his idiosyncratic tone is successfully maintained throughout the collection. I hope Citizen Kaned gives him the confidence to develop his written work further and let it explore new avenues.