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ISSUE 7

HE WEIR by CONOR MCPHERSON   ROYAL COURT.

The Irish, as ambitious young dramatists know, are a simple people: they throw hot fat over their mothers, cleave their skulls with pokers, and the police, forensic fools that they are, have not a clue to the culprit. Or they stand around in draughty (both senses) atmospheric pubs in remote parts, bartering the "crack" and trying to frighten and outbid one another with ghost stories that wouldn't send a shudder through the average contemporary ten-year-old. Yet, in keeping with that ostensibly sophisticated orthodoxy according to which men are all bravado and women the stronger more genuine sex, these bloated blatherers with bollocks must be pricked ( one sense only) by the apparently innocent "blow-in" ( not a sexual practice) whose story tops theirs (two senses again) and leaves them limp with pity, admiration and defeat. Such is the stuff of this highly successful, well-received piece by the young McPherson, compared by certain critics (they should stop taking the ecstasy) to the greatest of Irish playwrights. To me it was unsatisfying as follows: it's excessive naturalism is cloying, and given this naturalistic assumption, is it really credible that Valerie would reveal the intimacies of her emotional life to a group of strangers, especially such immature, posturing strangers ? And then, supposing a young English dramatist were to write a play about people exchanging ghost stories in a pub in Reigate, complete with plummy accents, would it be accepted so readily? Is there not, in the reception of this play, and of some others in the current Irish wave, a certain condescension of the big culture to the smaller ? Are we not charmed by the quaint accents ? Do we not find the very ignorance of the characters charming, unthreatening ? Is there not a world-we-have-lost dimension to this drama which leads us to wallow in nostalgia though we would, of course, dread having to live among these people and suffer their insufferable gab night upon night ) ? Jaded and cynical urbanites do we not find in this rural simplicity a balm for our peeled nerves ? Here are people who drink and swear and recount ghost stories, but they wouldn't mug your mother or sell crack to your children, for they know only one kind of crack and you can't smoke It, though you can smoke a lot of fags along with it. I dislike the patronization implicit in this play and I find In its writing a reflection of that attitude. There are long, not very taut speeches which totter on the edge of parody. I longed for the stichomythic discipline of Mamet or Edward Bond at his best. But these are writers who address the acute problems of modern times. They don't escape into a cute world remote from those problems. I left this play asking myself what McPherson is trying to say and I concluded that he was trying simply to provide an entertaining couple of hours in the theatre. For audiences who have absorbed none of the lessons of modernism, no doubt he succeeds. But I was reminded of Beckett's remark about " the grotesque farce of realistic art". Surely what he means is that art is artifice, stylization and the more stylized the more likely to be authentic. There is a hint of soap-opera's ludicrous giving of the world about this play which made me recoil for an instant.  

What is McPherson's attitude to his characters ? Is he spiking them, embracing them, patronizing them ? I think it is too much the latter. And then the moment that made me cringe: one of the ghosts turns out to be a child-molester ! Child abuse is a terrible, terrible thing, but in literature it has become a cliche. Here it is bolted on in an attempt to give a quaint play some real contemporary reference. It doesn't. It merely reveals that McPherson lacks a real reason to write, other than ambition of course, and that should keep him going, but it won't make him anything like a new O'Casey. Not till he starts to tackle the sharp questions of contemporary life in a way that refuses to flatter his audience.

 

CLOSER by PATRICK MARBER   LYRIC, SHAFTESBURY AVE. 

Love and sex are strange bedfellows, an old theme, source of much humour and tragedy. This is Marber's territory here but with the added irony that ever greater sexual (or perhaps it would be fairer to say pornographic ) freedom has led to a diminution in intimacy ( hence the tongue-in-cheek - and in this piece you might expect it to be elsewhere -title). Twenty years ago John Berger designated pornography as sex without intimacy. Such is porn's impossibility: sex is an intimate act. it cannot be distilled from intimacy. To be physically close and emotionally distant changes the nature of the physical closeness. It is like eating rotten fruit. Erotic love enhances our dignity, pornography, sex without intimacy, degrades. Marber's four characters are nothing if not degraded. They can talk with brutal frankness about the physical act of sex, but tenderness, commitment, loyalty, love itself are almost beyond them. Almost. Alice, the young stripper, is convincingly in love with Dan, the obit writer, till he betrays her with Anna, the photographer, who is never convincingly in love with him or with Larry, the dermatologist, whom she betrays for him. And round and round it goes. 

Why these betrayals ? because these, with the exception of Alice who is damaged, pleading, aching for love and security, are superficial, narcissistic people consumed by their own appetites. Their inability to escape from themselves, to find some standard by which to live other than the promptings of their transient desires, makes them truly pathetic. Marber pinpoints nicely here the breakdown of shared, objective values that save us from barbarism. Without such values, with their pressing, stringent demands, we collapse into that polymorphous perversity that Freud believe to be our original emotional condition. But these values have to be shared. They must subsist in the space between us. Paradox that the personal finds true expression only in and through the impersonal, that the fulfilment of intimacy requires supra-personal standards to which we aspire. Hence the play's references to G.F.Watts's memorial to ordinary heroes. People who could give themselves to something beyond themselves. It is because we are failing to do this that our lives, even in their greatest intimacy, are becoming a mess.

It is an achievement to have written a play which raises these issues and there is no doubt about Marber's sincere horror at what we have become. Yet I wondered at moments whether the chronic narcissism of the characters wasn't exploited as much as it was explored. Marber began as a stand-up comic and he still can't resist grabbing them In the one-and-nines. Some of the jokes work but others float loose from the structure of the play. Both the structure and some of the lines need to be tighter. There is a moment in Look Back In Anger when Jimmy kisses and embraces Helena that has never failed to make me either laugh or cringe. It is overstated. The moment requires exquisite tautness. There are instants like that here. Some of the lines bend or flop. They need to be nailed to the floor in the manner of Mamet or Pinter.  

Without the easy laughs, and I felt that the audience were using those as an escape from the difficult territory the play explores, and with some attention to those those points in the play where it sags and fails to convince, this might have been a truly first-rate drama. As it stands it is very good, but Marber should leave his stand-up past behind. He doesn't need it. He should be confident about reaching his audience in the play, not through it in jokes that let them off his extremely pertinent hook.

 

THE LIGHT IS OF LOVE, I THINK: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by John Freeman. Stride Publications, 7.95. (ISBN 1 900152 06 6)  

There are poets who become known for a few poems which are, in a sense, their party pieces. And there are poets whose work is marked more with a consistency of tone and movement. The reader identifies with the overall impression of the writing, and individual poems, though clearly important, are best seen in the context of what the poet has done generally. It's as if what is written Is one long poem, divided into separate parts, and having the shape and sound of something stemming from a balanced and steady point of view. 

John Freeman's poems come into this category, and his new book, covering his output from 1954 to 1997, is clear evidence of how an essentially quiet, unfussy style has been used to create a body of writing that never fails to be attractive. The subject matter is often personal, though not to the point of excluding those who don't know the poet, and some might say that the "domestic" predominates. There is nothing wrong with this. It goes with the voice, and in any case always moves from the particular into a general area we can all identify with:  

After a storm of tears  
and bed time, soothing talk  
of things to do tomorrow,  
and a laugh. A story from  
a book with pictures, then 
she settles down, her arms  
around my neck,  
and pauses between  
questions as she thinks  
her way to sleep.

That's from an early poem, but it's easy to see how the same voice dictates the movement of a later one:

This is an invitation  
to coffee In the Burger King 
at Piccadilly Circus.  
you will find me on the right  
near the window as soon  
as you come in through 
the door.

The directness, and the care for small details, give the poems resonance, a word defined in my dictionary as meaning 'sympathetic vibration" which is what I hear in the writing. This is wonderfully demonstrated in a poem called "This Living Hand," an exploration of those moments when sudden discoveries bring back memories of the past:  

Nothing brings back the dead more disconcertingly  
than a page of familiar handwriting, notes  
for an essay made in student days that fall  
from a long unopened book. You begin to read 
automatically and the presence of mind, quick  
with purpose, marshalling details and facts, 
busy and unselfconscious takes your breath away.

Compact, and with uncluttered lines, the poem reads easily, and makes its point in what is effectively a single statement. And it's what Freeman excels at, raising questions about how we come to terms with the world and so order our lives. From that point of view the poems are always on the side of humanity, and are never marred by cynicism or pessimism. Where they have a light touch, it is a considerate one.  

In a way, it's almost impossible to extract suitable quotes from a book like this, because it is the whole that makes the impact. Drawing a few lines from the text is necessary to illustrate, but it's also unfair. The lines lose their natural place in the work, and so lose some of their meaning and their rhythmic appeal.  

This is a good book and it invites the reader to return to it. So many poetry collections lack real charm after the first reading, but The Light Is of Love, I Think can be kept close by and referred to often. It was William Carlos Williams who said, "If it ain't a pleasure, It ain't a poem," and these are clearly poems.

 

TRANSMUTATIONS by GAEL TURNBULL Shoestring Press ISBN 1 899 549 12 9 2.99

In For Whose Delight, Turnbull included a section of "texturalist" poems. Having something In common with the "found" poem, they differ by their preoccupation with the way the meaning of texts changes along with changes In their context. The same kind of curiosity informs this interesting little collection: language lifted from "unpoetic' sources can become poetic simply by its shape on the page, the way the lines end, the assumptions about how and for what reasons it will be read. I think Turnbull is onto something very important here. It is akin to those transformations in music and the visual arts that have made the artistic medium itself a potent subject. This has happened in the novel and drama, but hardly at all in poetry. "Texturalism" may point the way to a fascinating new departure in English poetry.

 

FAMILY CHRONICLE by DAVID TIPTON Shoestring Press ISBN 1899 549 14 5 3.20  

This is the story of Tipton's family, told in a very prosaic voice. The interest lies in the tale and he relates his family's experiences to the wider historical, social and cultural context so that there are recurrent shifts In perspective which contradict the plainness of the language. Most family's are fascinating, with their drunks, their maniacs, their petty tyrants, their feuds, their tragedies and their Indispensable joys. Tipton writes affectionately about his: these are his people, take them or leave them. But the book makes you aware of just how fundamental to being human family life is, not defined in the tendentious, pompous, hypocritical manner of politicians, but in the reality of its glorious messiness and final incomprehensibility. Don't be misled by Tipton's surface simplicity, there is a deep perception at work here.

 

THE POW WOW CAFE by JOAN JOBE SMITH Smith Doorstep ISBN 1 869961 85 4 5.95.  

The danger of conversational poetry is that it slips Inadvertently too much into conversational mode. It's a poetry requiring great discipline. The writers who reproduce speech patterns most effectively, do so through stylization. Language as we speak It is usually dull because too much of it is functional. It's by distilling the rhythms and cadences, the colour, vibrancy and absurdity of ordinary speech, while filtering out what is boring, that the best conversational writing works. Joan Jobe Smith chooses to tell her stories in a conversational voice which at time convinces. Sometimes she hits the right note or quickens or relaxes the pace appropriately. But her fault is exaggeration. She often destroys her point by reinforcing it. The subject matter of her poems is interesting: topless dancing, brutal, inadequate lovers and husbands, the American obsession with celebrity. But the poignancy of her experience is often undermined by prolixity. Still, there is some promising work here and a humour in adversity which is very appealing. 

 

THE CHILDREN'S GAME by DOROTHY NIMMO Smith Doorstep ISBN 1 869961 86 2 5.95.  

A collection that comes with a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Mmmn. There's a piece here called YEARS LATER, cast in the style - so plain that at times it feels like the inability to play with language - which is characteristic of this collection (is this a Quaker puritanism that finds the sexiness of language sinful ?) it is a woman s reminiscence of a man she hates and when a passing remark reminds her of him, she knocks out the teeth of the (male) speaker. Funny enough in its execution. But suppose a man wrote the same kind of poem about a woman he hated, including the suggestion of violence as a response to his hurt. Oh dear. Zero tolerance. Relations between the sexes generate plenty of resentment, anger even murderousness. This is a nice little exploration of that. But it made me keenly aware that no man would get away with it. Another piece, FOR ALL THE SAINTS. It spikes the naivety of the well-meaning who try to befriend a derelict only to discover he is wedded to his dereliction and evinces not an ounce of gratitude, so they must hand him over to the professionals. Neat enough idea, though hardly original, but the style is so spare it feels like a fear of language. I was left with the sense that Nimmo has a secret wish to punish language, to dress it in black, wipe off its make-up, cut short its hair and forbid it to dance. Language must be put to work but its work isn't pleasure. I despise puritanism and the work-ethic. Give me Rabelais, Joyce, Villon. There is a kind of stern sermon in this style that makes me want to run the pub and kiss a pretty girl full on the mouth. What's beneath the modest garment language is made to wear here ? You can't stop thinking about it, can you?

 

THE SIGN FOR WATER by JO HASLAM Smith Doorstep ISBN 1 869961 83 8 5.95,   

There is a poem in this collection called ALLERGIES, which is about just that. It's one of those poems that tries to locate the general in the particular, to touch on something so intimate that we recognize it as universal. The danger with this kind of work is that it can too easily collapse into banality. Discovering the universal in the particular takes an astute mind, maybe a kind of genius. ALLERGIES for ma is simply a poem about allergies, it never really lifts out of Haslam's own experience to speak to something more general. The collection is marred by this conviction that you can get a poem out of anything. Maybe you can but poetry needs to be a way of speaking to yourself that is interesting to others. The style of these poems lacks distinction: it can be found in a thousand small volumes issued every year. If Jo Haslam wants to write poetry that won't be quickly forgotten, she needs to become much more adventurous.

 

TATTOOS FOR MOTHER'S DAY by Jean Sprackland. Spike, 40 Canning St, Liverpool ISBN 0 9518978 5 3 4.99.  

The poem from this collection that is probably best known is DEADNETTLE. An effective little piece about growing up and growing apart and the excitement of sexual discovery. Sprackland finds that knack, In this piece, of evoking In canny and appropriate language an experience we have all gone through (or denied). A pity then that not all the poems here work so well. There is a similarly achieved little poem about her work as a teacher which poignantly brings to life the character of a young pupil and the poet's bewildered attempt to piece together the background that has made him so crazy. But other pieces lapse into a glib tendentiousness, DEAR WOMAN POET for example, whose starting point is that men control poetry and don't want women to write about their experience: an exaggeration which robs the poem of effect. Then there is REAL LIFE which points up the discrepancy between the glamour of the movies and the conflicting drab, tawdriness of ordinary experience. But it makes its point too heavily and the clumsy language of the final stanza shows the poet struggling to find a way out of a piece that is altogether too obvious. At her best, Sprackland is good. She may well produce a handful of poems that will endure, but she needs to play to her strengths. She isn't going to transform English poetry, nor change the world through her writing. But in the few achieved pieces in this collection she shows herself a poet.

  

THE BOY FROM THE CHEMIST IS HERE TO SEE YOU by PAUL FARLEY PICADOR ISBN 0 330 35481 7 6.99.   

Paul Farley was POETRY REVIEWS 1997 New Poet Of The Year, which ought to make anyone wary. He can write, but he doesn't have much to write about. LAWS OF GRAVITY gives the game away: a difference-between-us and how-quickly-things-change poem. Farley strains here and there with rhyme and at one cringe-making moment can find only "brown" as a complement to "down" (surely a paucity of alternatives ?) and uses it in a line about hard-men shitting themselves up ladders. It doesn't work and a more disciplined poet would have eliminated it The feeling that Farley has searched for a subject on which to hang his poem, and found one well-worn and of little interest says something about the collection in its entirety. Nor is Farley innovative in style or image: in one poem he compares milk bottles left out for collection to "hotel shoes", about the most obvious comparison possible. As a whole this collection reads like an exercise in poetry, a poet tuning up. Perhaps In his next collection Farley will find more compelling subjects and write poems that grow out of his preoccupations rather than factitious pieces that lack any passionate centre. If he does he may feel the need to modify his style in the direction of greater individuality: dozens of poets are writing like this. But Farley won't be helped by hype. Look what happened to Simon Armitage. If he takes the marketing slogans seriously he may destroy himself as a poet.