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.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

"Tell me this is normal" by Julie O'Callaghan (Bloodaxe, 2008)

A "New and Selected" (over 150 pages of poetry) by someone who I've barely heard of, and yet according to the back cover she's "Among the most admired poets of her generation - whose work has been championed by Wendy Cope ..." etc. Some poems were printed as long ago as 1983. I thought I'd start with a poem from her more mature period. Here's the start of the final poem, "Scary"

Journeys can be frightening
wouldn't you say?
When everyone on the plane
stops talking and grabs the arm rest
and you're over the North Atlantic,
what about that scenario?

Parties - scary.
Bosses - scary.
Reviews - scary.
Families - very scary.
Computers - scary.
Waiters and waitpersons - scary.

I think there are people who'd drop the book on seeing that poem, but I went back to the start of the book. "Edible Anecdotes" is 23 sections of prose with line-breaks which impresses as a whole (by its variety of voice and setting) more than the individual parts do. In the first section a women in a bookshop discourages a predatory man by conspicuously browsing a feminist book. In a RomCom sketch this cliché might be developed by the woman trying ever more extreme books until one finally works (or at the end the man holds his book up, to show that it matches hers). But in this piece the only twists we get are line-breaks. Bags of them. Passages like the following are common. I can see how they might capture a voice (though not an interesting one), but would the owner of that voice use line-breaks, or pause where the lines pause?

two girls
old enough to wear pantyhose
leaned against a green lamp post
eating fish and chips
from a piece of newspaper
one had yellow shoes
the other had white
oh, yeah, it's an all-you-can-eat
salad buffet all right
but did you notice that your rear-end
barely fits on these chairs
and to get past the other tables
you have to hold your breath?

Verbose, pleasant enough sections like "the girl at the check-out/ dreamed and turned over/ opened the cash drawer for a cover/ the cigarette display was her pillow/ she talked in her sleep about special offers" (p.20) rub shoulders with more metaphorical sections like "the film about some war/ has just begun with a lion yawning/ it is midnight/ you make the refrigerator copy the lion/ and our eyes starved for light/ move across the terrain" (p.21).

Pieces like "Chit-Chat", "Marketing" and "Chicawgo" have the pacing and effect of prose, but because of their length could only be published in those days by masquerading as poetry. "Local Man Tells of Native City" is another case in point. Here's the start

Well, it's my kinda town for for one.
Ya got yer Cubs, White Sox, Bears and Black Hawks
and as for that faggoty game they play
over there in Europe
- kick the ball - well I tell ya,
we got that one too
only I ain't gonna brag about it, see?

Put enough of them together and they'd be ok. "The Object", which I like, is more authentic in that respect.

The mix continues into the from "What's What" section. "In Betty's of Winnetka" is another monologue with dramatic irony (it ends with Chester's wife saying "Chester says it isn't right/ that a woman of my years/ should look so desirable"). But how did "Change" get published, let alone appear in a "Selected"? Maybe it would work as a performance piece - cucumbers might get a laugh. "Adios" covers no new ground, nor does "Year-at-a-Glance" which ends by suggesting that marketing gifts should be "Something handy/ and covetable/ instead of graphically illustrating/ a year fully of empty boxes". Whose diction is that anyway?

"Managing the Common Herd two approaches for senior management" may also be about politics, religions, etc, but first it needs to evade banality. The 1st section begins and ends with "THEORY X: People are naturally lazy ... Never let these con-artists get the better of you". The 2nd section begins and ends with "THEORY Z: Staff need encouragement ... Remember, they're human too". You can fill in the rest yourself. "The Season to be jolly" includes "Unfortunately, my youngest puked/ on the shoulder of my party-dress,/ so I've borrowed a sequinned shawl/ from next-door and added extra perfume".

I think it's time to abandon ship.

Other reviews

  • Stephen Knight (Independent) (The cadences of yakking are brilliantly captured ... might be pieces of theatre, Samuel Beckett via Clifford Odets. ... The demotic, funny, quiety [sic] devastating vignettes of Julie O'Callaghan seem to owe a debt to the brevity and precision of classical Chinese poetry ... It would be a mistake to believe all this amounts to a rather slight talent

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