Road Trip by Marvin Thompson (Peepal Tree, 2020); The Caprices by James Byrne (Arc, 2019); Deformations by Sasha Dugdale (Carcanet, 2020)
Reviewed by Lucy Sheerman
The scope offered by the long poem form brings space and time to think, and that is the reward offered by all three collections. Marvin Thompson’s Road Trip, James Byrne’s The Caprices and Sasha Dugdale’s Deformations are all works which construct an imagined landscape in which to track the effects of thought, memory, emotion over time. These collections show the effect of grief, regret, bitterness, anger as they wash over the page, repeatedly, each time subtly transforming the work. As you travel through each collection you witness how language becomes tinted differently, the poems, the thoughts they hold, are tilted into a different view or perspective. Perhaps it was the particular time in which I found myself reading them but in this work I encountered a painstakingly curated display of grief, anger and hurt. The sequences in these books are studies in how to translate the darker experiences of human impulse and emotion into the mutable form of language. In all three collections, the work is shaped by the temporal processes of endurance and repetition, less interested in spatial play and the aeronautics of a single, perfectly arranged poem. The contingency of time operating as a process and a device which structures the reader’s encounter with the work as well as the writer’s experience of creating it seeps through all these books.
Road Trip by Marvin Thompson presents a study of the relationship between love and grief and anger. In each section the love he describes is tempered by the pain it brings. Section One, ‘The Many Reincarnations of Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson’ explores the poet’s complex and conflicted relationship with his late father. The sequence recounts a literal haunting of the poet in a refiguring of the traditional Christmas Eve ghost stories of atonement when his father emerges from the wardrobe mirror on the anniversary of his death, sits next to him, and recounts his memories of serving in the British army. Thompson’s use of simple, matter-of-fact description and achingly precise couplets convey the horror of this encounter which takes place as he lies in bed. The moment in which he sees his father’s face feels vividly real but also portentous. The image conveys the visceral horror of this supernatural moment and underscores the poet’s grief with a sense of his own mortality. Who else could the narrator be seeing in the mirror, other than himself, the father emerging in the reflection of the son aged into a reflection of him:
from the corner of my eye,
my dead dad’s
Dressed in his maroon
with a leather satchel
his broad shoulders,
he gazed at me
from my wardrobe’s
It is an encounter steeped in contradictions, terrifying and reassuring: the narrator calms when the ghost ‘traced his rough palm // across my cheek.’ Although dressed in his electrician overalls, all his stories are of ‘serving king and country’. He tells the narrator: “ ‘I’ve been re-born,’ “…. “ ‘over and over / as an English soldier.’ “ However, rather than offering any insight into the conflicts he was part of, his father’s memories are of long-ago battles that still haunt the listener with their injustice and cruelty. He describes how, in the Peterloo Massacre, he ‘charged with my sabre / and slit / three throats’ while during the Boer war he observes the starvation and brutality experienced by civilians:
As the night marched
into early morning,
my Black dad explained
how he followed
the British military’s
bloodiest orders with a stiff mouth.
It makes material the conflict between pride and horror at having a father involved in the defence of a declining British imperialism. ‘Why did my dad tell me / about these crimes / after his death?’ the narrator complains. The haunting brings the hope of redemption, as the father finally catalogues the atrocities he witnessed. These scenes explore the impulse not to revere but to hate a hero and not to idolise but to revile a father figure. This is explored in the stories of long-ago conflicts as well as more recent, and perhaps less overtly sickening ones, those in which the father actually served. The narrator’s father in turn becomes every soldier experiencing and witnessing the conflict between duty and morality.
The second section, ‘THE ONE IN WHICH…’, is a tender examination of parenthood detailing the exchanges that pass between the narrator and his ‘Mixed Race children’. In these poems this heritage both exposes them to and shields them from the hauntings by his father’s ghost. The poems track the minutiae of domestic life, detailing how the narrator, as the leading character in his poem, teaches them about the music he loves, drives them in the car and takes them to the cinema. However, each poem is tinged with the anxiety of the black father contemplating his own heritage and memories and the bittersweet haunting by his own father. In the opening poem, ‘The one in which my children discuss jazz while we set out to watch The Lego Batman Movie in Blackwood’, memories of the narrator’s childhood surface as he drives through the rural Welsh landscape:
Below the grey-green hills in Hafodyrynys,
Hayden asks, ‘Does the trumpet sound like a forest fire or an arrest?’
My best mate’s mixtapes melted during the policing protest
that blazed on Broadwater Farm. Should we tour the bliss
and sadness those high-rises hold for me?
His memories of a childhood shaped by fire, riots and brutalist high tower blocks in an area incongruously named after a farm segues, through the mnemonic effect of the music playing in the car, into this damp, bucolic scenery. There is both a longing for and a resistance to belonging in the landscape these poems set out. Fretting over the threats that face his children, the narrator examines the scenes they inhabit together with forensic attention, as if seeking clues and answers there. Unlike the previous sequence these poems are busy, arranged into tercets, their long lines overflow with the detail of domestic scenes and conversations. In ‘The one in which I recall standing in the cinema’s cream-coloured foyer procrastinating over Häagen-Dazs’ there are references to the plethora of external influences, ones which are emphatically Caribbean, that seep into his children’s lives:
My tongue’s been stung with pangs for Wray and Nephews white –
rum my dead Jamaican dad poured with joy over Cornish ice-cream.
Yesterday, as I indulged, the scent of his cinema liquorice
seemed to rise into the evening, Derys dancing to ‘She’s Royal’, the voice
of Tarrus Riley a sweet gruffness. On the big screen noonlight
cascades: Rihanna’s makeup advert opens to a gull’s flight
above a cityscape
His father’s presence is repeatedly summoned by the scent of aftershave, the taste of liquorice and rum, a reminder of his own children’s history which continues to shape their future. Playing music to them in the car that ‘sings / Africa’s diaspora and raises skin to radiance’ he worries that ‘they haven’t asked to learn a history of defiance’. The pain of his own experience of racism, or worse, its denial, “ ‘Where we live’s not racist,’ / I was once warned “, shapes the lessons he feels impelled to teach them. Like the stories the ghost father attempts to tell, these exchanges may not answer the questions his children want to ask, in fact they only seem to generate more. There are no clear answers here, and the sequence demonstrates the tension between appearance and reality, question and answer repeatedly in the gaps and separations it details. The disjunction of being visibly adrift, or the hurt of exclusion from certain choices are revealed to be both simple and painfully complex. As Thompson’s poems make clear, such deep insight into all the subtle violences that racism perpetrates does not bring with it any simplified sense of the aching complexity of the human condition, it doesn’t even gift a sense of moral certainty, it merely adds to the complexity of each moment, the intent it brings, the attention he must pay it. In fact, it adds almost unbearable pressure and freight to even the most normal of acts, such as parenting, grieving, painting a bedroom wall. Thompson uses the scope of the long poem to achieve a sense of the accumulation of this intolerable burden.
James Byrne’s The Caprices is another collection that examines the compromised nature of choice and agency. A series of eighty short poems, each reflects one of Goya’s Los Caprichos etchings produced between 1794-1798. The provocative sketches were created during the period of the Inquisitions and reveal traces of the reverberations of the French Revolution upon its anxious neighbour Spain, still dominated and defined by the control of its ruling classes, the Catholic church and the crown. They offer a bleak account of the world they reflect, its corruption, venality and hypocrisy. This collection addresses a haunting that reflects the one which Thompson experiences. There is despair at a sense of the poet’s (and also the reader’s) complicity with the pragmatism and consensus that drives these etchings, as well as resistance. The most disturbing aspect of these images and the poems is the extent to which you gaze into them and find yourself, your own frailties and expediencies, reflected there. ‘The sleep of reason produces monsters’ relates to the most famous etching from this series and depicts an artist or writer asleep at his desk and surrounded by shadowy and terrifying fantastic creatures. The poem’s title, as with many of these pieces, translates Goya’s, which, in a highly inflammatory gesture, referenced Rousseau and the Enlightenment movement. It’s a piece that references the leave referendum and Trump’s rise to power as well, perhaps, as the experience during this period of waking to the news of cataclysmic political shifts:
Now that the state legitimizes hate,
a wakeful trump of doom thunders
valley deep (where are the Blakes
and Miltons now?). Crisis of mirrors
where my neighbour reasons only
with himself: a hissing face, chained
to sleep in a star’s coda. A fantasy,
that whatever is pure is ENGLAND.
In his introduction to The Caprices, Byrne writes about his process, describing how he would sit each morning with one of the etchings and ‘allow it to filter, disturb or settle through me’ then at the end of the day write up the response to the original image and to ‘the day itself’. His compositional practice is analogous to the experience of reading these poems. Byrne presents these poems as a form of dialogic ekphrasis, the writing echoes and supplements the images it speaks to. Each page of The Caprices features both the original image and its corresponding poem. Provoking and shocking when Goya first created them, their unsettling force remains; the terrible masks and guises worn by their corrupt subjects concealing from themselves, and from each other, the worst possible motives and intentions. Byrne represents the cruelty and savage mockery of the original works in a series of poems that reconfigure the ghastly actions, and disingenuousness of their subjects. In these poems Goya’s images shimmer against the mirror of our own times, bringing with them, for the contemporary reader, the added glare of MeToo, nationalist rhetoric and political corruption. For Byrne these are not images he has a ‘liking’ for, as he explains in his introduction, but rather, ones that he came to feel were ‘haunting’ him.
You don’t need Byrne’s thoughtful introduction to see the connections between Goya’s etchings and the echoing poems gathered here. The book’s cover which features the fifty-third plate, ‘What a Golden Beak!’ portrays a gathering which listens fervently, even ecstatically to the banal pronouncements of a parrot presiding above them on a lectern. The analogy with populist politicians who dominated the media during the composition of this collection seems prescient. The reverence for power, the authority of controlling narratives over that of the individual is vividly expressed in the rapt expressions of the parrot’s audience. These etchings and their twin poems are dark, starkly expressive of a baser expression of human nature warped by societal structure. Those with youth and beauty are coerced into prostitution, powerful individuals become corrupted and debased, those who want to sell hope, salvation are revealed to be venal and ignorant. Byrne meticulously analyses the images, summoning fears and anxieties that still resonate. ‘Tale-bearers – Blasts of wind’ is a poem that echoes the earlier ‘The sleep of reason produces monsters’. The etching it relates to is also populated by nightmarish figures, a bat-like creature riding a cat blows wind and bad news onto the cowering monks below who attempt to block their ears against it. Byrne’s poem reflects the etching’s indictment of complicity and ignorance and the way that counter narratives mask and deflect from truth and facts:
Knowing is not to blast on about it.
Cover your ears to the taxidermal
tale-bearer retweeting the internet.
Faux messiah, you heard the call
to a calling only to create yourself
from an irate, offstage understudy.
If anyone ever knew themselves
they’d be silent as Śākyamuni
These poems are not easy to figure out, they don’t offer meaning readily at the first reading. They seem to purposely resist the satiation of data, information, click bait and celebrity news which immersion in social media brings. Instead, the urge to consume is held in check, frequently you need to research a meaning or reference and, even then, the lines don’t cohere easily into a version of the poet’s world, or an insight into it, that remains fixed. Reading through the sequence is a process of finding chinks of light or illumination into the dark scenes they reflect. ‘What a golden beak!’ presents the image of the bird’s eye ‘so vivid it cannot think / of you or I, beyond what is seen’, its vibrancy erasing everything around it, its voice merely the hollow sound of a syrinx, its talk ‘all cheap cheap cheap.’ These are images the reader can begin to piece together in order to glimpse the way the poem mirrors the etching. This iterative process can also illuminate the final dark lines which suggest the sense of malaise and frailty illustrated by the bird’s audience: ‘The church fills like a mouth yet the sick / still huddle around for something to eat.’ The reader, searching for understanding, turns back to reread clues, juxtapositions, associations, echoes in each line, poem, image and across the collection as a whole. The octets thus resonate against the etchings, requiring the reader to turn and return to both poem and image and the meaning that lies between them.
Sasha Dugdale’s Deformations suggests this process of transfiguration in its two longer sequences, contained in the first and third sections of the book. The first section, ‘Welfare Handbook’ considers, unflinchingly, the artist Eric Gill and his legacy. It draws on material from his letters, diaries, notes and essays and explores the relationship between expression and silencing expressed in the entirely dysfunctional axis between his life and work.
The first sequence does not look away from Gill’s terrible actions but glances at them, repeatedly. How do you look at abuse head on without overwhelming the viewer, and leaving only the spectacle of the act itself, a fetishistic ritual that perpetuates the pain and hurt? This is a question that Marvin Thompson also works through in his accounts of the experience of racism which threads throughout Road Trip, with a sustained attention to its pervasive and toxic effects in ‘The Baboon Chronicles’. In Deformations Dugdale delicately tracks the encounter with abuse both through Gill’s history and letters and through other recollections that seem to be personal, set in the narrator’s childhood when such crimes were not spoken of directly: ‘As my friend’s mother / once pointed out: stay away from him / you know what he’s like.’ Not naming the act and assuming that the child listener ‘knows’ what it might be, summons an awareness the anxious and vulnerable child listener cannot have until she becomes the adult writer. There is pain and disgust in this exposure to adult awareness and ambivalence, one that the writer now shares: ‘The prohibition / is like a seawall in the adult mind, but back then / the waters slopped in and out the harbour.’ Dugdale explores such complex overlapping reactions and unease about the boundary between guilt and innocence in a poem which considers the way in which abuse becomes intertwined with the need for tenderness and the abuser masks unspeakable actions with ordinariness:
angelus at 6 but before that the fire is lit
and he brings up a cup of tea
and perhaps he kisses her brow or strokes it
I am surprised at your vehemence when you say
this act is the most evil of all
but I understand now,
because in that offering of tea and the chaste kiss
he makes the unthinkable consistent with the thinkable.
Gill’s daughter, interviewed about her father’s abuse following the publication of his biography, stated that she ‘just took it for granted’. This collection works against that sense of inevitability and powerlessness so that her statement could be seen to function as a symbolic touchstone, a ‘seawall’ for the collection as a whole. Deformations is full of muted rage at the terrible complicity which makes abuse appear inevitable even while being too appalling to name. ‘Welfare Handbook’ reveals the costs of inhabiting a world in which this is possible and demonstrates how what can be viewed as normal or taken for granted is, in fact, deformed. This is achieved through the sleight of hand of a poet in sure control of her material which is, like Gill’s oeuvre, structural, architectural in feel. The sound of stone being continuously chipped away, which was a feature of life at Gill’s house and studio, is also suggestive of Dugdale’s process which cuts into the body of material left by Gill as well as her own, half-formed childhood memories and experiences. Her use of Gill’s words summons the power of his work and aesthetic vision but Dugdale counters any melodramatic haunting by her subject, allowing other figures from these accounts to materialise and to enact their own hauntings.
Dugdale works steadily to refigure the mythology of the past and the pain it symbolises in both the sequences collected in Deformations. The final section, ‘Pitysad’, reworks the myth of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, setting it against the gruelling contemporary backdrop of cities torn apart by conflict. Dugdale’s characters summon the fractured histories of the mythic figures whose tragic lives they re-enact. The poems depict the trauma of loss and destruction, timeless dramas of hurt and grief are enacted in sites that appear to be untethered from the present and the needs of the people who dwell there. A decaying hotel testifies to the way that the history of human action ‘degrades irreversibly’, in a strip club the money they ‘scrumple… into cleavage and g-strings’ is fake and memory becomes ‘a shameful infection’. Dugdale portrays the sense of absence the present brings in poems that intertwine such emptiness with the echoes of a past that looms bigger, fuller. Here the ghosts of a mythic past in which other paths seemed possible and natural surge before him as Pitysad/Odysseus rests his head in his arms in the rundown club:
Like that, head down, eyes closed
a voice, singing faintly
he can barely hear it through the throb of music
he cups his hands to his ears irritably
it’s calling him
it – she – knows him
she’s calling him by his name
who is she? how does she know him?
how does she know him like that? from inside him?
like his mother combing his hair gently
like Penelope scratching his back with her small fingers
like Telemachus squealing on his shoulders
like the mourners singing for his lost soul
Such moments surge into view in these poems against the backdrops of these hollow places and people. In a dusty square ‘neglected after years of war’ a girl flickers into view, summoning feelings of desire and guilt in the apathetic hero, and then abruptly disappears. Beaches are transfigured into sites that function as borders to darkness and departure. In the bleak landscapes the people move across, no one is fully alive, they are ghosts haunted by terrible past actions perpetrated against them or, worse, those they have inflicted on others. Drinking companions are suddenly revealed to be ‘corpses, men who have gambled their lives’ and unable to come to terms with their past. A soldier becomes a doll, without agency, as they are lifted into the air by an explosion. A train is filled with travellers ‘marked’ by trauma, displaced and dislocated, their journey taking them through unfamiliar disorienting landscapes: ‘is geography dead? they ask / are death and life now one?’. The ghostly figures of these poems are ‘shades’ who ‘reach out with timid hands’ but ‘cannot touch’. The suspension of agency and control reveals ‘the end of narrative … chaos/all noise no hurt’. In this sequence, the telling of stories, the agency of its storytellers and its actors disintegrates in an echo of the bleak and broken landscapes they inhabit. It both sustains and counters Byrne’s assertion that ‘life is euhemerism’, suggesting that the epic fables of the gods are based on the acts of real people. Here honour and heroism are stripped away in the depiction of the gritty reality of the fabled actions of its stoic figures. Penelope is revealed to be violated and injured by the need to survive her complex and shattered environment. Odysseus is a traumatised and guilt-ridden veteran emptied out by his experiences. The sequence excavates the terrible cost of events and actions which, in other accounts and versions, have been celebrated and mythologised.
The scope of time and space available in this longer form permits such contradictions to be explored to their fullest extent. All three books are concerned with the mythic resonances of the past, the relationship with heroes and villains. Dugdale appears to find the tragic story of the Greek figures she returns to – repeating and reliving the traumas – inescapably contained in the fact of being human. Inviting the reader to ‘look and look away’ she summons the fractured histories of mythic figures, reassembling them into poems which bear the weight of such pathos and tragedy that you can ‘hardly bear to look’. As the poems testify, neither the poet, nor the reader has any recourse except to bear witness to the trauma the writing reveals, ‘because history only travels in one direction’. In Thompson’s work the inexorable weight of history upon the poem is expressed in a haunting by the poet’s father. The accounts of his past transgressions are told only posthumously and unreliably. Trapped in the need to offer an account of his life, his are stories that are timeless but severed from his own lived reality. There is not enough detail to piece together a testimony that can make sense of the half-truths, inferences and gaps left for his son, as he attempts to reconstruct this past that shapes his own story, and to find a way of reading it. Byrne too reveals the trauma of narratives that define and constrain the individuals who make them. His third poem, which sets the tone for the rest of the collection, responds to an image of cloaked figure that looms over a mother as she tells her children terrifying stories to frighten them into obedience. Here, it is clear, the teller of the coercive story is the monster, not the monstrous figures she conjures up. As she summons forth a terrifying father: ‘from the shit / of roots and odours’ she condemns the children to the effects of such lies, tainting their language and interaction with the world, they must go on, like the other figures in these collections, to ‘call him by names that do not exist, / he follows you like a sun’s shadow.’
The long poem, as evidenced by these three collections, is a form that allows the sense to build, slowly and inexorably, that the world the reader summons through reading is awry, or to perceive for the first time that the real world they inhabit is not as they perceived it to be. Here stories, narrators, heroes are turned upon themselves to discover despair and emptiness in a catharsis as old as the stories they retell. In this painstaking stripping away of narrative and the shattering of old myths, these sequences recast versions of the past and, by making them unfamiliar, expose their deceptions.