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, 8 July 2015

"Those People" by Paul Stephenson (Poetry Business, 2015)

Paul Stephenson is frequently shortlisted in poetry competitions, and increasingly wins prizes. He's a poet who's difficult to pin down, with poems in many types of publications. The full breadth of his output isn't on show here, but there's still something for everyone - there's imagery like "He sat there in the way/ piles of gravel do, delivered/ to the beginning of a drive" (p.8), wordplay and observation - even a shape-poem. Maybe only 2 poems don't raise a laugh somewhere. No end-rhyme though, and I didn't notice any syllabics.

Interestingly, there's little surrealism/fancy, and most of these poems are about something (superficially at least). What distinguishes the topics here from those in some less impressive pamphlets is their lack of pretension. Long ago, in his Judges' report for New Welsh Review, Matthew Sweeney wrote "We felt that the main prizewinners should touch on ... the big issues of death and love", a bias that's always disappointed me. In contrast, this pamphlet has a poem about the narrator's mother's use of the word reliable in a particular context, and about people who arrive early at parties. Some poems look like mere wordplay. But you don't have to scratch very deeply to see that if you want them, big issues aren't far away. "Arrangements" may make fun of local undertakers, but it reveals a touchingly shared understanding between the narrator and grandfather. "Passwords" soon becomes a poem about choosing or hiding identities, and the early party-goers in "Those People" end up "slurring into sausage rolls and spilling their life". And as I've suggested elsewhere, wordplay in itself can be revealing.

Two key sources of his inspiration seem to be

  • Language - Elsewhere, (see Adventures in form) the poet has edged towards Oulipo. Even when the movement of the poem isn't constrained to the language level, an interest in contextualised meaning and in idioms help to provide the forward, upward momentum. In "The Pull", successive lines are connected by a word mutation - "haystack/ a stock ... silver/ ... salver", not so dissimilar to the procedure of "Wake Up And", a poem that starts with "smell the coffee/ smell the coughing", riffing on sounds. "Gare du Midi" is a 25-liner, all lines in broken English ending with the word "London".
  • Observing people - The pamphlet lives up to its title: there are people galore - e.g. "Those characters who eight hours later could be/ hitting Havana, sipping mojitos and dancing mambo/ and rumba and salsa merengue with dollar-hungry/ doppelgängers of Che Guevara in desperate need/ of mechanical parts for dilapidated Dodges" (p.25).

He's keen on lists - p.6, 11, 17, and 24 use the device, though "School for Dummies" was one list too many for me. "The Seventies" reads a little like a list, though its mix of memories and factoids makes it feel more like a too-cropped version of "Then in the twentieth century" by David Hart. "The Seventies" contains the line "and A to B was by space hopper" which puzzled me - was there a pop group called "space hopper"? I found which helped. My favourite poem (all are likable) is "Glacé". I suspect a follow-up publication will appear quite soon.

p.s. A little research suggests that at least "Round the Block" is set in Great Wilbraham.

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  1. Dear Tim

    A space-hopper was a large inflated rubber balloon that children bounced around on. My sister had one. If you can't remember them, you must be younger than me.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. I understood the spacehopper bit - we have 2 deflated ones in the shed - but I thought I might have missed a more specific allusion.