HE WEIR by CONOR MCPHERSON
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
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.
by PATRICK MARBER
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.
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.
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.
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.
LIGHT IS OF LOVE, I THINK: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by John Freeman.
Publications, £7.95. (ISBN 1 900152 06 6)
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.
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:
a storm of tears
bed time, soothing talk
things to do tomorrow,
a laugh. A story from
book with pictures, then
settles down, her arms
as she thinks
way to sleep.
from an early poem, but it's easy to see how the same voice dictates the
movement of a later one:
is an invitation
coffee In the Burger King
will find me on the right
the window as soon
you come in through
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:
brings back the dead more disconcertingly
a page of familiar handwriting, notes
an essay made in student days that fall
a long unopened book. You begin to read
and the presence of mind, quick
purpose, marshalling details and facts,
and unselfconscious takes your breath away.
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.
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.
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.
by GAEL TURNBULL
Press ISBN 1 899 549 12 9 £2.99
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.
CHRONICLE by DAVID TIPTON
Press ISBN 1899 549 14 5 £3.20
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.
POW WOW CAFE by JOAN JOBE SMITH
Doorstep ISBN 1 869961 85 4 £5.95.
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.
CHILDREN'S GAME by DOROTHY NIMMO
Doorstep ISBN 1 869961 86 2 £5.95.
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?
SIGN FOR WATER by JO HASLAM
Doorstep ISBN 1 869961 83 8 £5.95,
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
FOR MOTHER'S DAY by Jean
40 Canning St, Liverpool ISBN 0 9518978 5 3 £4.99.
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.
BOY FROM THE CHEMIST IS HERE TO SEE YOU by PAUL FARLEY
ISBN 0 330 35481 7 £6.99.
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.