Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 11 January 2013

"This Is Not About What You Think" by Jim Murdoch (fandango virtual, 2010)

The book contains about 85 poems that according to the poet "chart a life from childhood through to old age but it is not my life nor the life of anyone I know". The title poem suggests that compared to reality, "Stories are simple ... smoothed out and edited" with some metaphors and sense/purpose added, and goes on to query why sense needs to be added. Such stories are what many of these poems are - individually they're tidier than life: they make a single point (sometimes employing a punchline) then end. One needn't spend a lot of time on each, though one should pause to consider their collective impact, so perhaps it's best to read the book twice rather briskly, rather than read it once more slowly. The poems are mostly free-form ("Made-up Truths" is an exception with 5 stanzas of 6/2/6/2 syllabled lines). I needed to look up just one thing - "mene tekel upharsin".

On a first pass through I made a note of the pieces I liked - p.24, 26, 28, 32, 38, 40, 47, 53, 55, 57, 60, 67, 74, 80, 81, 92. Subsequently readings didn't make me change my mind. An Appendix gives a date for each poem (28/4/1979 to 25/5/2010). I found out that the poems I like mostly cluster around 1988-89 and 1997-98, with nothing from the 1999-2006 period. Favourites include "Tears" (a wife is on a saline drip because of all her crying. The nurse says that she can "live without hope or/ a life or even the/ truth as long as she/ can cry about it"), "Making Sense" and "Tweezers".


  • Truth - The term's distrusted. "Truth is overrated if you ask me" (p.35), "Truth is the pornography of the self-righteous" (p.56), "Exhuming Truth ... Nothing smells very sweet/ this far down" (p.63), "You can't possibly know/ what truth / is till you've made one up/ yourself" (p.64), "as if truths came bottled./ and too many made you puke" ("Sedatives and Emptiness")
  • Emptiness - "Nothing" features heavily in these poems - "and on the inside/ the nothing" (p.46); "there is always something to/ block our view/ of the nothingness that is// coming" (p.86). I'm reminded of
    • "God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through" - Paul Valery.
    • "There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description" - Bohr.
    In "Hands" that emptiness becomes internalised - "we turned those selfsame hands/ on ourselves in the end.// It might surprise you just/ how much emptiness/ a pair of hands can hold."
  • Gloom - In "Specks of Dust" grief first "fills up holes/ in sentences", then the "whole damn universe". "And we are so/ very, very/ small". Gloom spreads through this book. Of course, it's a common enough sentiment amongst writers
    • "He is this afternoon writing a poem with great spirit: always a sign of well being with him. Needless to say, it is an intensely dismal poem", Florence Hardy, letter to Sidney Cockerell
    • "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth", Larkin

    One poem's called "4am, Reading Larkin" which is asking for trouble (in "Aubade", Larkin is "Waking at four to soundless dark"). It was Larkin who wrote "Wants" ("Beyond all this, the wish to be alone ... Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs", etc). Detachment can be a valuable artistic aid but in the form of depression and depersonalisation I think it tends to suppress writing.

  • Love - It's here in various forms. In "True Love II" we learn how a son used sadness as a way to relate to his father. Elsewhere love is seen as as completion. But we're warned about the risks of attachment - to people and things.

The Poet and I

This poet's not invisible. He gives us an introduction, and says that some of the material is autobiographical. Moreover he and I have exchanged many online messages, so this write-up isn't impersonal. The author tells us that

  • "My poetry is actually written primarily to exorcise, to get a specific thought or feeling out of my head so I can examine it"
  • "The writing process is more important to me than the finished product"
  • "If my poems are throwaways why publish them?"

We see only the product, the words, but the production of these throwaway words presumably affected the poet whose work we see. His interests and mine intersect, and we're part of the same generation. We both know about computers. Our analytic approach is in some ways similar. Perhaps we also share a tolerance for gloominess, at least in our writing. He suggests that my story book dealt with many aspects of sadness. Sadness doesn't inspire me to write, but I find it interesting.

Yet our creative output is different. In this book at least, he wants to be understood, to entertain even. I'm more conspicuously literary, with all the derogatory connotations that implies. I can be inexplicable, pretentious, and ludic, with a weakness for word-play.

Perhaps in consequence I'd like some of these pieces to be crisper, starker (no Maybes), with more word-play, and more poems overtaken by word-play. The poet's written about R.D.Laing (who I've read with interest), and I expected more poems in this book to be like those in Laing's "Knots". I expected more period detail. Music (no REM?) and place hardly feature, nor does memory. On p.94 the poem is called "The Past Must Die". The next poem is "Stale Truth", which begins "I couldn't warm to him" then later says "I tried to avoid him, turned// mirrors to face the wall". The past is by-passed.


Many of the poems have quotable lines. Here are just a few -

  • "You can't miss what you've never had, son"// Is that so? I think you've missed the point (p.5)
  • "My dad used to give me marks out of ten ... Marks is merely another word for scars" (p.7)
  • "It's hard not to look for cracks/ and harder still not to step/ on them" (p.53)
  • "You can drown inside yourself you know/ but only a dripping tap can drive you/ insane" (p.81)
  • "I've heard say parallel lines never meet./ Sometimes they seem to - in the distance - / they disappear over the horizon/ so no one knows for sure" (p.98)
  • "Poems turn up out of the blue these days/ like family/ and usually when things are going badly. .... but you don't turn family away. Not ever" (p.104).

Other reviews

Reviews have been collected on the author's website


  1. Well, Tim, you’ve pretty much nailed me here. This is definitely the kind of review an author likes to read. Of course I prefer the poems written in the last seven years to the earlier stuff but give me another ten years and ask me how I feel about them. One gripe, re the free form: most of the later poems are structured. Not quite sure when it became my dominant form but the earliest example dates back to when I was eighteen and it’s gradually taken over. I go for regular syllabic rhythms often leaving the last stanza truncated in some way, like a punch line. Here are a few I picked to give you an idea. I’ve also used a palindromic rhythm a few times but I couldn’t see any examples in this collection.

    ‘The Happening’ 5 stanzas 6/6/6
    ‘Between Tolls’ 4 stanzas 9/3/6/9
    ‘4am, Reading Larkin’ 9 stanzas 5/4/4/4

    ‘Remember’ 6 stanzas in 3 groups 5/6/5 – 6/6
    ‘Background Silence’ 8 stanzas in 4 groups 7/3/7 – 2
    ‘Back Seat Drive’ 8 stanzas in 4 groups 2/2 – 3

    ‘Lonely City’ 8 stanzas 6/3/6 + the final stanza ends after the first line
    ‘Losers and Winners’ 5 stanzas 5/5 + a final short stanza of only 2 syllables
    ‘Penis Envy’ 4 stanzas in 2 groups 8/5/9/7/4/4/6/3 – 7/5/3 with an extra syllable in the final line

    I do appreciate that you view the collection as an entity in its own right. That was the intention and the poems do read differently in the group setting. I’m preparing a short story collection for publication at the moment and I’ve actually reworked many of the stories to underline an interconnectedness that was always there—one of my beta readers pointed it out to me—but I’d never noticed since, as far as I was concerned (as with the poems), each was a standalone piece.

    As far as the ‘maybes’ go, well that’s me—I have ‘maybe’ running through me like a stick of rock—and my wife is always fixing my passive voice and use of words like ‘seems’. I have a fuzzy view of life; there are few certainties, not much I’m sure of, not even the old stables like love. Music? Yes, since I’m such a musical chappie I can see why you might expect me to reference it but I guess I compartmentalise. I’m listening to a Doctor Who soundtrack at the moment by the way. Couldn’t tell you the last time I listened to R.E.M. I like them well enough but it’s hard to write over lyrics. As for place, I have a story in the collection called ‘Home’ (at least it’s there at the moment but I’m thinking of cutting it) in which the author talks about his inability to find a place he’s comfortable calling ‘home’ and I guess that’s me. I use the word—I say I’m going home—but I don’t have a strong attachment to place. I could move house tomorrow and not shed a tear and I actually struggle to remember what some of the flats I’ve lived in looked like I’ve given them so little thought over the years. Memory, though, is everywhere throughout the collection; there is so much retrospection intermingled with introspection. If you’d asked me I would’ve listed it along with truth, emptiness, love and gloom as one of my major themes.

    Anyway, enough from me. This was a lovely thing to wake up to this morning—Carrie’s off to the States again so I was until 3:30 saying goodbye to her—now I’ve got eighteen days to see how much writing I can get done. Business as usual then.

  2. Thanks for the syllabics correction. I have trouble noticing that kind of pattern. I suppose what I meant by my memory comment was that though many pieces are about the past, the faculty of memory isn't subjected to the same doubting scrutiny as some other features are.