The Garlic Press, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Matt Bryden, Rosie Miles and Peter Daniels
I wanted more from Rush’s slim pamphlet (twelve poems). Its premise—that the poet is writer in residence in his own home—is fine, and plays to the strength of the pamphlet form, allowing a sequence of poems to explore ideas of self, while viewing the world through the prism of apparently mundane objects.
Two pitfalls present themselves. Firstly (unlike the pamphlet by Katrina Naomi he mentions in the foreword) we are often presented not with enquiry, but rather statement. Several poems end with little more than assertions.
Secondly, the nature of the exercise cannot help but act as a form of self-aggrandisement (and yes, even in its self-effacement, its shrug, lies a form of self-aggrandisement). If the author laughs at himself (“Give me a break,” he writes of his obscure choice of reading) then this demonstrates he can. References to Haas & Janáček and the “various” women in his life might be justified artistically, but the question mark of the author’s self-regard is a constant shadow. Even a witty answerphone message is reproduced—to what end? A portrait of the author’s sensibility? If, as we follow him through this ‘museum’ we walk a mile in his shoes, then one cannot help feel, as Larkin stated, that “he warranted no better, I don’t know.”
As the title demonstrates, the premise is full of potential, and in several passages we see exactly how the simple everyday object can be informed by personal experience:
I run my fingers along the CDs,
as if my fingers could hear,
as if my fingers could shoot red laser.
They choose some Czech quartets.
After all, they remember Veronika.
(‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’)
Elsewhere, while handling old journals, “the thought of white gloves/ takes me back to convent schoolgirls/ in a train near Strawberry Hill./ I stretch my hands into spans.” (‘Revision’)
On the whole though, there is a lack of these specifics. ‘No return’ does not develop beyond the statement that there comes a point in everyone’s life when they will not be able to reread their books and relisten to all their music, and Rush is “eternally grateful” for not knowing when this point is.
The longest piece here, ‘The Jacket,’ tells of how Rush lost a woman, a mistake for which he is punished “again and again and again”. While her qualities are hyperbolised—“She is astonishment herself”—we learn little of what actually happened, in fact are only told, in a melodramatic reference to the death of Heracles, that the narrator is wearing a coat of poison. In fact, he is a “fake” Heracles. Could it be that this posture is what Rush is illustrating? His protestations of veracity in ‘The stationery museum’ argue against such a reading: “And I still can smell/ that perfume now. Really. Really.”
The closing poem, ‘One slow day’, ends with the absence of a woman: “I could tell she had gone. / She had gone.” Is that repetition enough? I was put in mind of that most successful ‘list’ poem, ‘About His Person’ by Simon Armitage. There, the ambiguity of the concluding lines (“a ring of white unweathered skin./ That was everything.”) creates resonance. While Rush often comes alive in the remembrance of women, it is not enough artistically simply to take the blame.
Catching My Own Drift consists of only thirteen poems. It opens with a prose introduction which describes the ‘conceit’ of the pamphlet: namely that Philip Rush decided to appoint himself writer-in-residence at his own home, and what follows are the poems that came out of the ‘residency’. At this point I confess I started to roll my eyes. The opening poem, ‘Twelve objects from a small museum’, is a list of twelve items which are presumably found in Rush’s house/garden, in three stanzas of four lines: “A blue summer jacket/ A black scrapbook . . .” So?
I suppose the conceit could work: it provides a way for the poet to take a detached step back and look at their life, their accumulations, their memories—all as embodied in and through the house they live in. The poet becomes invited guest for a season into their own life:
I am permitted to examine notebooks,
scrapbooks, old-fashioned ring-binders
packed like holiday suitcases
But the danger is that the conceit becomes arch and self-regarding. There’s generally a reason why places with writers-in-residence have them: they’re interesting locations about which there are things to say of interest to a wider public (the Brontë Parsonage at Haworth is cited in the introduction as an example of such a residency).
‘A novel with a bookmark just over halfway through’ starts as follows:
He’s had years of being told
by the various women in his life
to leave things as he found them,
and now I find his things exactly as he left them.
I do not know what message he is trying
I’m afraid this reader doesn’t know either. There’s a wistful tone to the poems in general (the very final lines of the last poem are “I could tell she had gone./ She had gone”), and there is a kind of coherence to this slim pamphlet. Catching My Own Drift is nicely produced: it has a textured plain red cover, with the now-common feature (in pamphlets) of coloured paper flyleaves, which add an extra sense of quality. A photo of the poet is included, along with his brief biography on the verso of the title page.
This pamphlet is delightfully playful, in the poems themselves and in the mechanism of the poet as Writer in Residence in the heritage site of his own home. This is clever but not self-admiringly so, despite the focus on himself, because of the distancing built into the view. The gentle irony maintains itself through the observation of rooms and objects showing the outline of the poet’s life with an element of mystery about what they represent for him personally, but also with a tension between first and third persons:
Let me flop around my thoughts
in slippers like these. Let me
spend shameless nights with women like his.
And then you’ll see just what I can do.
That is from the opening poem, ‘The writer’s house is open to the public’. That “flop around my thoughts” has a nice ambiguity (the current thinker or the once-thinking poet —and how separate in time are they?) but it is fragile.
In the second poem the nervous poet in residence is tempted to put Armagnac in his coffee. “Surely whoever bought it/ will not mind my adding a drop. Will I?” —this seems to read as “Will I mind?” rather than “Will I add a drop?”, which is rather dangerous for the steadiness of the point of view, as the device now needs a strong fictional frame for the irony to work.
A more serious spoiler is further along the sequence, in ‘Jacket’:
His jacket is on display.
A faded blue in a silk mix.
It once cost me the earth.
That past “me” clashes with the now-poet’s transgression: “I try it on for size. Which/ is fiercely against the rules.” It feels definitely wrong, clumsily breaking the fierce rules of situational irony, because the poet in the past needs to be “him” not “me”: a pity, as the sequence is so carefully put together, and the tone otherwise so perfect, and yet it does draw attention to how good the whole thing is otherwise.
This was a man,
after all, who’d redraft the message
to be put on a postcard
The last but one poem does appropriately return to the closer me/him relationship of the beginning, coming across his own self on his old laptop, now “obsolete as a ribbon typewriter”:
I am reading
my own mind
as if I were someone else
(‘Absurdist Addlestone ain’t’)
And he is, convincingly.