Reviewed by Jake Campbell, Rosie Miles and Matt Bryden
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” reasons the “polyphonic prayer audio” in ‘Please Leave a Message After the Tone’. It’s one of many sardonic jabs at the duality of modern life where “loneliness [is] the city’s most popular commodity”.
Fleck is the only person Mackenzie has met “who was truly in the world but not of it”. In its attempt to “make partial sense of who he was” the collection has crystalline moments of greatness, but also elements of drudgery. Many of these poems are exacting, with a solid eye for refreshing turns of phrase: “A Mexican wave/ of security alarms” (‘Fleck’s Ember’); “her flashbulb smile, the tar mascara/ gluing her eyes attractively wide” (‘Radio Alarm’).
‘The Moral Hotel’ begins fantastically: “The way the light falls, he can only see the moral/ in Balmoral”, but peters out and ends up rather a missed opportunity. Given the title of this collection, and our being told in the Foreword that Fleck “worked for a major financial institution but was uninterested in making money”, I had hoped more of these poems would have tried to tackle that paradox head-on. What we get is Fleck the cipher, recounting the world from a somewhat comatose state “where the flies have started dining out/ on other flies” (‘The Packs’).
Unfortunately, as it seems to me, the tendency seems to be towards abstraction. Take ‘Now and in the Hour of Our Death’, in which Fleck is “soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.” I don’t get it: I want to know why; I want to be angered; I want to feel Fleck is angry, or at least alive. Instead, he feels like a wet lettuce. Perhaps this is Mackenzie’s point: “There’s too much in life: you can’t describe it.”
Because of this withdrawal on Fleck’s part, Mackenzie’s conceit often seems flat; poems like ‘Fleck Explains the Financial Crisis’ feel half complete. Its closing lines are perfect:
The problem was not so much
Frankenstein’s risk as his
estrangement: a Creator
baffled his Creation
and panic set in.
This is pithy, succinct and to the point—it offers one of the strongest allegories in the book, but its preceding mash of jargonistic financial terms and acronyms is more annoying than revelatory. Fleck and the Bank is a one-sided conversation, unable to open up any lasting dialogue with this reader. I wished Mackenzie’s own voice had interjected more and argued with Fleck.
This Salt publication is presented as a slim volume, with a spine. Production values are high. A close-up detail of paint on a canvas occupies most of the cover. As a poetry book, its proportions are pleasing.
Fleck and the Bank opens with Rob Mackenzie’s Foreword describing his friendship with Fleck, who “work(ed) for several years in the Customer Care department of a bank”. Their conversations covered “the desert fathers, strange music, unattainable women, television and death by television”. Fleck allegedly disappears, leaving only a note (which appears in this collection as the prose poem ‘Now and in the Hour of Our Death’). Mackenzie says this collection is his attempt to “make partial sense of who (Fleck) was”.
This is an intriguing short collection. Somehow saying what it is ‘about’ doesn’t seem the right critical language, and to be honest I’m not sure I know. The blurb on the back cover says its “real themes are disintegration, collapse and disappearance, all within the backdrop of the global financial crisis”. It certainly feels very current, very ‘now’. This is seen in the contemporary vocabulary: “Flashmob choruses/ lampoon each attempt to disconnect,/ each pedestrian colliding between texts” (‘Please Leave a Message After the Tone’).
In poems such as ‘Fleck Explains the Financial Crisis’, ‘Fleck on Politics’ and ‘The Packs’, we are in a surreal, disturbing, amoral world, where “the flies have started dining out on other flies” and ‘’The latest preoccupation is erotic/ abstinence / [ . . . ] now the bookshops can’t get enough of it” (‘The Packs’).
But Fleck and the Bank is also shot through with Christian symbolism and phraseology. Fleck is conjured up as an absent presence, possibly because Christianity as a one-time guarantor of some kind of moral compass is also absent-yet-evoked here (Mackenzie’s bio describes him as abandoning the possibility of “significant personal wealth” by switching to theology after studying law). So in ‘Please Leave a Message After the Tone’
God swerves through crowds toward heaven’s
empty net, game abandoned, and presses send,
fattens spamboxes with polyphonic prayer-audio
In ‘New Testament Methodology’ Fleck “resists the drift/ to entertainment and atheism”; and in ‘Route Map to God’ “colliding cows, friendly fire, the rip of earth uprooted” are “all so terribly noisy”, which could stand as some kind of comment on the disintegrating world this collection charts.
I am not this collection’s ideal reader. I don’t entirely ‘get’ it. But I assent to the world it creates and Mackenzie’s use of language is inventive and full of a kind of demotic energy. It’s hard not to think that any recent collection with ‘Bank’ in its title is engaged in some form of satire or political comment, but the word I’m left with myself is ‘absurd’. As Fleck thinks at one point, “Soon . . . this will all feel as natural as aerosol”.
I found this pamphlet satisfying, even if I wasn’t always quite sure what was going on. That seems to be part of the project, though, with Mackenzie throwing his own words against the words of other poets and writers (with acknowledgement only coming at the back of the book) and bewildering us with bank-speak.
While Mackenzie provides a foreword to his pamphlet, it is more of a riddle, concerning itself with a character who is “in the world but not of it”. Neither is he particularly sympathetic, working at a Call Centre selling metaphorical nooses. His particularly-ugly name shares its monosyllabic nature with that of Ted Hughes’s Crow, and I couldn’t but feel a similarity of design as the pamphlet progressed, particularly when we entered matters theological.
Of course, Mackenzie himself is a theologian, and this might be as good a time as any to give an example of the density of his language (from ‘Please Leave a Message After the Tone’) :
A bluetoothed God’s bitten-up football
doubles as a face, battered and snowborne,
before which the tariff-bound fall prostrate.
If there is a trickster here though, it is not Fleck—rather Mackenzie himself, who seems to delight in positing existences of ‘absences’ and generally playing around to see what, if anything is left behind. The 21 poems are generously dense and experimental, ranging in form from sonnets, prose poems and centos to a collage of the first and last lines of books taken at random, and even an epistolary poem addressed to himself quoting the plainsong of someone else entirely. These forms give shape to his experiments and make us take them seriously, and they suit the idea of slipping identities. ‘The Bank’ is a delight—its four sections follow the same five-stanza shape: the first two lines regarding a café and its fare, the third stanza a woman from Credit Card Fraud, the fifth a public pronouncement by the banks. It’s unsettling and wry, and extremely funny in its deadpan manner.
One of the purloined lines in ‘Now and in the Hour of Our Death’ (from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History) reads, “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?” and the flawed / flecked iris of Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown comes to mind. In the foreword, Jackson laments that Fleck seems to be missing something—the will to get ahead, the ability to communicate face to face. . . . Is this the reason for the parlous state of the world he navigates, too? While some of the fun in reading is to make out Fleck a little more clearly, in one sense he is the MacGuffin that keeps you reading to figure out his world. If it is a surreal one in which bankers carry umbrellas even though they walk above the clouds, that doesn’t mean it isn’t recognisable: both upside down—“Policies remain constant but the public bear greater accountability if targets aren’t met” (‘Fleck on Politics’)—and artificial. As wolves stack shelves, and flies feed on flies, “Soon, Fleck thinks, this will all seem as natural as aerosol”. (‘The Packs’)
The centos, comprising lines from other poets—A.B. Jackson and Andrew Philip—fit in alongside the nonsense language of banking (the title ‘Fleck Explains the Financial Crisis’ sounds especially Hughesian). Is Mackenzie cynical?
Easter has been cancelled,
now a bankers’ celebration.
No need to taunt the dead
While this pamphlet made me work hard, I found it satisfying, rewarding multiple readings (and I still don’t understand the religious poems). It shows the difference between a project that works itself out as it goes along and one that says it all before it’s begun. While we have to navigate our own way through, the reader is forced to engage with what is familiar in its world, as in ‘Fleck’s Embers,’ one of my favourite poems here, which remains essentially unexplained but vivid with emotional resonance.