Like This Press, 2012 £5.00
Reviewed by Simon Currie, Trevor McCandless and Matt Merritt
Ian Seed’s pamphlet comprises sixteen prose-poems. Acknowledgments are made to magazines such as Tears in the Fence, and the poet has previously been published by Shearsman.
The pieces are short, almost all being half a page or less and comprising a single paragraph. They are told in the first person (plural in one) but describe imaginary, dreamlike encounters. These usually involve misunderstanding or failure; indeed the blurb talks of “existential loss”. The title Threadbare Fables seems appropriate since the ‘I’ figure is at times misfit, vagrant, pauper or supplicant, while the things that happen to him are fictional.
The first one, entitled ‘Ways’, is sexual in content:
With my tongue I wrote the alphabet on her clitoris until she came and turned over to offer me the softness of her behind.
In others, the sexual content may be implied rather than explicit. Thus in ‘Ex-Pat’ the ‘I’ figure has been the victim of an attempted mugging by
a scrawny youth and, though his eyes were vicious, his lips were pretty and feminine. I grabbed him round the neck and wrestled him to the ground. The smell of his sweat was sweet. I held his trembling body against mine until the police arrived.
In many of the pieces one can relate to the experience. For example, in ‘The Right Way’ a couple are driving to a funeral; they are uncertain of the route. This humdrum happening is told in language which makes it dreamlike. The companion seems unconcerned that they are failing in their objective (it seems an odd time for a funeral anyway):
There was no one else on the narrow road that ran along the high ridge. You insisted on stopping the car to take one last look at the woods below, before they merged into the greying light.
‘New Neighbours’ starts innocuously but becomes dark and threatening. Like most of the episodes, it lacks a dénouement, in that the encounters with other people remain puzzling and unresolved.
In summary, the contents are like little else and in that lies a value; they are unsettling yet refreshing. They hold well together as a collection, though perhaps are better read in ones and twos at any one sitting.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first—few of these could really be called fables or threadbare either.
These are intriguing poems that are told in sharp, confident and confined prose. Each is tightly written. The games being played here are not the kinds of games you might expect to be played in poetry—the artfulness of the writing is hidden, but no less artful for that.
Many of these poems are about journeys, but these journeys almost invariably have a dreamlike quality to them, and a dreamlike logic too. So, we get off a bus thinking we are at the seaside, but we’re really in a field or we meet a man as we cross a stream beside a desert or we find ourselves rushing to catch a train but notice the shortest way leads directly through a church. The symbolism is sometimes heavy, but like in dreams, it’s never really unbearable. And as in dreams, we might think, ‘I must remember that when I wake up’, but we go on dreaming anyway. These dreamscapes whisper their hints at truths to us, but the truths remain out of reach, out of sight, like the dreams Freud describes.
Of the overtly sexual poems I think I liked ‘Therapeutic Massage’ best. Again, this poem has that horrible lost feeling we spend so much time pushing to one side in our dreams. But in this one the central idea is of paying an ex-lover, sitting beside her husband (the man she left us for), for a massage. It is hardly surprising this inevitably becomes a wet dream, but even so it remains a potent and emotionally charged and complex image. Could it be that all our future lovers are just us returning to our first lover and getting lost on the way?
Many of these poems present psychologically challenging ideas as dreamlike situations. Some might make you smile, like the first one about the supposed complexities of the female anatomy presenting the possibility of anal sex as a mistake in understanding plumbing. Others are Kafkaesque, with us potentially having our travel agent sacked because we boast we fooled her when we booked the holiday and now she has suddenly appeared as our waitresses in Paris. This is a world that’s both familiar and unfamiliar, as all dreams are. Where the moral to the story, unlike in fables (and too much like ‘morals’ end up being in life), are anything but clear and immediately obvious.
First things first—don’t waste time trying to decide whether Ian Seed’s mysterious, pared-down narratives are prose poems or flash fiction or some other form you’ve not heard of yet.
For that matter, don’t worry about whether or not they’re strictly fables, either. There are no neat moral lessons to be learned.
They are fabulous, though, in every sense of the word. The settings are rarely easy to pin down to a place or time, for a start. Paris crops up more than once, as does an undefined “north”, and Piccadilly Circus, but for the most part Seed avoids too many specifics. The reader’s left to fill in the gaps.
Some of the poem-stories, especially those in the first-person, are connected by strands so delicate you could miss them on a first, hurried reading, but there’s never a sense that Seed’s deliberately trying to throw the reader off the scent, or indulging in some dry, academic obscurantism.
That’s because the emotional content is never far from the surface. Loss is at the heart of many of the pieces here, and Seed manages to present it with subtlety and even a certain humour without ever lessening its impact.
So, ‘The Gift’, a poem ostensibly about struggling to decide on a birthday present for his father, ends with “When he died two days later, regret was mixed with relief that I no longer needed to buy him anything at all”, which might sound glibly callous were it not for the fact that a page later, in ‘Identity Papers’, the narrator (although not necessarily the same one) is recognising the handwriting on an envelope as his father’s, and starting to open it “forgetting it was too late to reply”.
It’s at that point that you realise how well Seed is making the form work for him —by presenting these little scraps of story largely independent of context (there’s no hint, for example, of what sort of father-son relationship we’re talking about), he sidesteps sentimentality, as well as predictability.
The nearest thing to a fable in the traditional sense is ‘Man’. We’re told that:
I didn’t know at first that I had met him before [ . . . ]. Each time I had walked away, afraid. Yet he was smiling as if glad to see me. With a small gesture, he invited me to sit beside him and bathe my face. And I realised then who he was, and that nothing was too late after all.
That invites all sorts of conclusions, but the emotional punch is there whichever way you read it.