Kitsch and Linguistic Tricks: Paul Stephenson’s “Those People”

“These People” by Paul Stephenson

There is a well-known story about W. H. Auden (I came across it in Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) and a conversation he had with a boy who said he wanted to be a poet because he had lots to say. The moral, or perhaps the punch line, is in Auden’s frustration at why the boy wants to be a poet: the most important thing is playing with words. Paul Stephenson, in his pamphlet Those People, seems to be following Auden’s advice. The first thing you notice about the poems here is the nimble use of language.

This is immediately obvious in the pamphlet’s found or overheard poems. There is a page-long list of questions called, appropriately enough, ‘Do You Have Any Questions?’. This is the last question before an exam begins in British schools and what follows is a vertigo-inducing compendium of questions, as if there all the thoughts going through someone’s head in the split seconds before the exam really begins. In ‘Gare du Midi’, Stephenson collects phrases overhead (and some thought, I think) at the Gare du Midi in Brussels. The title repeats that of Auden’s political pre-World War Two poem of the arrival of an insidious briefcase, but today the station is full of the worries of travellers and tourists, as well as the anxiety of some of not being let into the UK.

Other poems play around with language even more, and most especially with sound. In ‘Wake Up And’, Stephenson takes the cliché wake up and smell the coffee and works through the phonetic implications of coffee—coughing and cacophony are just the first two. In a lot of ways, the poem seems similar to the aleatory N+7 practice of the Oulipo group, but it is more wilful. Mostly the sequence of words follows phonetics rather than the alphabet: there is a stanza of words beginning with k and a great couplet in “wake up and smell Cavafy / wake up and smell Cefalonia”. Depending on how you pronounce the c, these are not only close phonetically, but geographically as well: Cephalonia lies next to Ithaca, the name and destination of Cavafy’s most famous poem. For the reader, it feels like having a window into a process of free association.

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The Old Mine of Rhyme

Rhyme is no longer, to be sure, universally despised as a kind of correctional institution for the English soul; it is more like an old mine, abandoned as unprofitable long ago and now remembered only by the nostalgic townsfolk and the odd curious visitor from abroad who wants to trace his family’s roots to their humble beginnings during a summer holiday. The ‘progressive’ critical community regards it as a sad anachronism blighting the landscape: willing as its members are to tolerate the occasional enthusiast, they are not about to welcome the conversion of this redundant enterprise into a going concern. Yet rhyme is not only the spirit of Pasternak, it is his letter.

Agree or not, it’s one of several striking images in the (polemical) introduction by Andrei Navrozov to his translation of Pasternak poems, Second Nature (Peter Owen Publishers, 1990).

If You Go Down in the Woods Today: Clare Pollard’s “Changeling”

Changeling by Clare Pollard

The legend of the changeling reaches back into British folk history and imagines fairies or elves abducting babies to the Elf Hills, substituting them for changelings. The tale is, perhaps, increasingly forgotten but still haunting, and it is this and other parts of deep British folklore that form the basis of Clare Pollard’s Changeling, full of poems that feel, explicitly or implicitly, on a knife edge—between the wild and the city, between North and South, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

There is a tense, uneasy liminality from the excellent opening poem, ‘Tam Lin’s Wife’, which starts with a couple receiving some bad medical news, but quickly turns as the wife desperately hangs onto her (werewolf?) husband as he shape-shifts in her arms. A more enticing version of this transformative tension appears in two poems influenced by the Pendle Witches, the infamous story of ten people hanged for witchcraft in Pollard’s native Lancashire in 1612. ‘Pendle’ gigs into the accuser’s mind with a refrain that insistently repeats “then someone is to blame”, underlining humanity’s need to look for scapegoats, rather than accepting responsibility and one’s misfortunes: “When your children curdle like milk & turn one by one to clay dolls, / & your husband’s fledgling-weak & you’re a good Christian woman, / then someone is to blame.” The following poem, the ballad ‘The Confession of Alizon Device’, tells of a girl who—seemingly for the hell of it—has sex with the Devil, makes a pedlar lame and concludes with: “And you ask me, do I feel shame? / Well no, sir, that’s what creatures do. / It was the moment of my life / to hurt things too.” Taken together, both are morally difficult and feel tabloid-sensation contemporary, even though they are rooted in a 400-year-old history.

Even in less dramatic poems, whether it’s the unease of being an outsider or in danger, something bubbles away beneath the surface: the Lancashire girl escaped to London “spurning your lips and lads / for libraries and la-di-dah”;  a poet and putative gang member passing each other on an East London street but really in different cities with different geographies; or the girl who has forgotten flower names to replace them with names for styles of shoe and consumer culture with its guilt and its “not enough”.

The poems often ask “who am I?” but offer no solutions. I often felt there was a yearning for a more innocent age, but it is the poems with influences from folklore, ballads, the Arthur legend or Ovid, that are the least comforting, the most violent (often sexually) and most of all, the stuff of nightmares.

What makes Changeling so enjoyable, though, is Pollard’s talent for simile and metaphor: sunflowers “lean against the wall, / like lads behind a bike-shed for a smoke”; “Whirlpools of gulls [that] whip over the harbour” in Whitby, which is, if you’ve ever been there, exactly what it’s like; and Pollard identifies “that Esperanto of want and need: / Selfridges, mojitos, latte, weed”. My favourite metaphor, though, describes a caravan you maybe can’t afford on the Yorkshire moors with “the chill wind blasting away our mortgage”. It encapsulates the collection, as the pressure to conform and be conventional confronts nature’s promise of excitement and escape. But nature is not benign in Changeling: it menaces, it threatens, and can do permanent damage.

Clare PollardChangeling, Bloodaxe 2011

Disquiet in David Harsent’s Night

By Rob Packer

A man roams his house at night, runs down two flights of stairs and, to his surprise third, and is suddenly drinking a margarita in a cellar bar when a stranger turns to him:

‘I never envied another man’s life,’
he says, ‘the way I’ve envied yours, the full and fine
day-after-day of it, a house so full of song, a wife
so sleek and quick to please, your music, your books,
those times in the summerhouse with friends and wine;
or candles shifting the shadows, and soft rain
stippling the darkened window as she turned to you again.

This comes near the start of ‘Elsewhere’, the quest poem that closes David Harsent’s 2011 collection, Night and at first glance, looks the epitome of idyllic bourgeois fantasy. If you re-read it, maybe you’ll catch a twinge of misogyny in the “quick to please” wife, or a hint of menace in the shadows encroaching towards the end of the stanza, or just as likely, you’ll take the idyll at face value. By this stage of the collection, however, you should have learnt that looks can be deceiving and to expect the worst. Throughout, the poet makes the familiar uncanny, gradually and subtly creating its own world of realigned and juxtaposed imagery

In an earlier poem—which clearly resonates here—the narrator waits hidden in a darkened, rainy garden looking in (spying?) on a woman setting the table; in another, he’s “shitfaced” at 3am “lost in your own backyard”. Memorably in ‘Spatchcock’ the boundaries between sex, sunbathing and barbecuing a chicken are gruesomely indistinct. In others, birdsong is redefined as the sound of death and ghosts, or an enclosed garden becomes a trap and the key no more than a talisman:

Here is your key. It was specially cut. If the door
to the garden blows shut as you enter, at least
you’ll have your own key, though the way out is not
really the same.

The effect is cumulative and you learn to arm yourself against the underlying tension and unexpected twists, making it almost unsurprising when the barfly continues, saying:

‘But more than anything, I envy this: the day you woke
to the knowledge that true sacrifice is gain
and junked the lot, setting out at once, a bleak
road ahead of you, the weather closing in, her last
desperate kiss still cooling on your cheek;
and I’m more jealous of that touch than of the least
part of what you’d just flushed down the pan.’

It seems a paradox that the stranger’s deepest jealousy is of a “desperate kiss” with its implications of pain, but it echoes through the rest of the poem, a dark epic through a nocturnal cityscape, where “promises freely offered are better taken by force”. It’s a strange, amorphous place where streets suddenly change, mannequins come to life and the narrator’s guide is a dog that may (or may not) metamorphose into women. It feels like an elaborate metaphor for something, but what? A dream? Depression? Drunkenness? A journey to the underworld, Aeneas-style? The clue for me was in the leitmotif of night and the narrator’s inability to forget, reminding me of Borges’s story, ‘Funes the Memorious’ with its meditation on insomnia.

But ultimately, any “meaning” feels equally indistinct among the tension, uneasiness and sometimes disgust that Harsent creates, based as much—if not more—on what is not said than what is. In a lot of ways, these feelings reminded me a lot of the anonymous warzone of his 2005 collection, Legion, most memorably in the sniper in a bell tower allowing people below to survive by his grace alone (with its echoes of the Yugoslavian wars). Where Night is different, though, is where it puts a similar tension in a far more familiar, domestic setting. In some ways, that is what makes it even more disquieting.

David Harsent, Night, Faber & Faber, 2011

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