Donut Press, 2007 - £5.00
Roddy Lumsden is a skilled and versatile poet with a remarkable musical ear who has written volumes of witty (and heart-felt) poems. I admire the visual imagination of ‘Rain at Night’ from his collection The Drowning Man (included in Mischief Night), and I have always enjoyed the grace—and playfulness—of his poetic technique. I can think of many poems in A Book of Love (2000) that skillfully use sound consonance to support both story and idea of love, either with gentle wit, as that which escapes with the spitting crease of repeated long ‘ee’s in ‘Chinese Water Torture’, or with a quiet warmth, such as that which floats through the successive closing ‘er’s of “An Older Woman.”
But, now, I’m puzzled.
Why has a remarkable poet such as Lumsden chosen to publish Super Try Again, a collection of sixteen poems that take “as their starting point existing texts” and thus become either translations or, as Lumsden suggests, “homeopathic” versions of the original? I am an ardent fan of all kinds of dialogue and, of course, believe that writers can benefit from serious artistic dialogue with other writers, but I also think that unfocused dialogue runs the risk of becoming chit-chat.
The texts Lumsden has chosen as ‘triggers’ for his own poems are eclectic: he includes rock lyrics, fairy and folk tales, contemporary poems (including his own “unsuccessful” poems), a doggerel translation of Adam Mickiewicz’ 19th century epic, and bits of prose, such as a snippet from Mayhew’s classic text London Labour and the London Poor. I enjoy eclecticism that engenders philosophic discovery, and I am supportive of Lumsden’s dialogic techniques, but with Super Try Again I find myself longing for a focus beyond technique.
I’m afraid that without such a clear focus, the intertextual dialogue seems too much like puzzle-making, and Roddy Lumsden is far too good a poet to be satisfied producing witty puzzles. Indeed, one of the strongest poems in this slim volume is ‘The Boon of the Wind’, a poem that finds its trigger in the best place possible—Lumsden’s own imagination. Here is the whole poem:
A fool should never marry, unless a fool
come whispering by
and they must found a village—
—and never a city
for cities are primed by the wise—
where they will tread paths and trim elms,
sow lawns and set ponds and fill their sacks
with common treasure.
And if the wind should roll around the house
and find one spark,
to fan, of slender knowledge
—while fools lie
stunned in one another’s arms—
a boon might rouse the cinders
and ride the grate and a child will rise
singing through the smoke.