HappenStance Press, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by D A Prince, Nick Asbury and Ross Kightly
D A Prince:
Some poets are easy to recognise: you read their pamphlet and by the end feel you will know them if you should meet again, perhaps through their consistency of voice or because they have a default style that they can’t shake off.
Graham Austin isn’t like this: he eludes classification and any sort of label. Just as I think I might have him pinned down he slips sideways, out of my grasp: no bad thing because it gives him plenty of space in which to manoeuvre and re-invent himself. So all I can say is that he’s not for people who like predictable poets.
With this is in mind the opening poem, ‘The selfish one’, is more of a key to the collection than is apparent on first reading. Ending with
and that is all you need to know
gives Austin a perfect excuse to disappear. After this he peoples his poems with odd characters and conversations; he inhabits other characters and uses their voices. These aren’t laugh-out-loud poems. Instead, they get under our comfortable assumptions by inverting expectations, playing with the ironies and ambiguity lying deep in language. ‘Translation, interpretation, and ambiguity’— not a title to appeal to the majority of poetry editors—demonstrates this, with its Old Testament echoes in the phrasing paired with Daniel’s pubs, The Lion’s Den and The Fiery Furnace. Even Shadrach and Daniel misunderstand their conversation—‘And there was darkness on the face of the earth.’
Whether you like this or not is a matter of personal taste: I do, but I can also see that some readers will find nothing remarkable here. I like the way the poet smuggles in larger issues in deadpan accents and low-key endings. Jonah, for example, who having endured ‘an experience perhaps somewhere/ between a sauna and an oubliette’ concludes
It’s usually how you’ve been brought up
that decides things one way or another.
You may not be able to escape God
but, just as significantly,
you cannot escape from yourself.
These poems are a wry look at life. A handful of them rhyme, but most don’t: Austin’s free verse is better suited to how they pick their way over the rough ground in relationships, not just between people but also the fragile relationship people have with the world. Perhaps that’s as close as I can get to summing up this pamphlet and Austin’s skills in camouflage and self-preservation.
All the best light verse has some darkness in it, and there’s plenty in this collection from Graham Austin. As opening poems go, ‘The selfish one’ is impressively brusque. First line: “There really is only room enough for one”. Last lines: “I / am / me / and that is all you need to know.”
Cheers Graham, look forward to reading your poems. . . .
Of course, the positioning of the poem at the start of the collection is intentional and cheekily effective. It introduces a gruff line in northern humour that kept me consistently entertained throughout.
‘Where are they, then?’ is a particular favourite, reading like a typical middle management rant about items that have gone missing somewhere along the supply chain. Only in the last two lines do we discover the items in question are the proverbial “peck of flaming peppers Peter Piper picked”. It’s a good joke, well executed, and there’s something unsettling about the way the nursery rhyme is transposed into the mouth of an increasingly irate official.
‘Afterthought’ is another neat recasting of a proverbial phrase, and short enough to quote in full:
The stable door is bolted now.
The trouble is, of course,
that that is just exactly how
we can describe the horse.
(I keep reading that, wondering whether the third line could be improved, but can’t work out how.)
The real darkness comes in poems like ‘At the edge of the world’, which employs a self-mockingly portentous tone to smuggle in some genuine pathos:
In the distance, unfulfilled but already
doomed aspects of the Future wait patiently,
know their times will come, and watch while
Present discontent slips into its allotted place.
So do we all slip.
The combination of light and dark is most evident in the poem ‘Jonah’, which inspires a lovely illustration by Gillian Beaton on the front cover. The Biblical story feels right as a motif for this collection. On the one hand, it’s a serious tale of heroism and devotion. On the other hand, there’s something ridiculous and almost cartoonish about the whole episode. I suspect that’s where the appeal lies for the poet.
My one reservation was that some of the targets for the comedy felt a bit familiar—lazy students, pretentious poets, neighbourhood gossips, people working in HR. But the redeeming feature is the voice of the poet, which is distinctive and endearingly grumpy throughout.
I liked it and that is all you need to know.
This chapbook is a delight, from the front cover with its Gillian Beaton illustration of Jonah kneeling while gazing skyward from the belly of the whale, to the last poem, ‘Afterlife’, in which the narrator writes to his wife to reassure her that he is
safe and well . . .
in Satan’s offices in Hell
but doesn’t have much to do because he is “still in Human Resources”.
These are not lengthy poems—the longest is only 30 lines, and the shortest two:
We came, we saw, we mucked about.
That’s all really.
A mere ten words, but marvellously pregnant with significance to any teacher or ex-teacher or pupil or ex-pupil—or in fact anybody who’s present when “Form 4c visits the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television at Bradford”—to use the title whose word count outnumbers the poem’s. There’s no need to mention how sad it is that the excellent museum has changed its name to National Media Museum. . . .
In order for you to understand the transformational effect of seven small stars, you will need to acquire the chapbook and read the two poems on page 13. Both are entitled “Breakfast” and are exactly identical—except that the seven stars are interpolated in the second poem between “no” and “bread” in the last line, which in both poems explains why marmalade and its special spoon are unnecessary. This is why the second version is subtitled “(with ‘feeling’ added)”.
It will be obvious that these are poems with a light touch, but this is not to say they lack the power to stir. Although the ten lines of ‘Genocide’ are about gardening—specifically about attempting to eradicate periwinkle—the final line (“and we have long memories”) resonates far beyond the garden beds.
There are no duds in this small collection, which is one of those which make you nod, go “Mmmm . . .” smile and sometimes laugh out loud. But this one also makes you think, “When’s his next one coming out?”