The Song of Lunch by Christopher Reid (CB Editions, 2009)
Reviewed by Ann Vaughan-Williams
This is a long poem, published in a handy buff volume. It looks light and lyrical on the page, until page 59 when it expands for the one page of pent rage in a woman’s voice:
‘… we need to go back to your poems.
It strikes me you don’t understand them yourself.’
This is the voice of the ‘flame’ who has invited her old publisher admirer to meet her for lunch.
The poem is narrated from within this man of fifty, jaded by post-modernism, who deludes himself that he still cuts a dash as he goes out for a walk through Bloomsbury to find a restaurant with table to please her. It is peopled with the ghosts of his literary past. Like the classical past, the proprietor Massimo appears to have been displaced at Zanzotti’s, former haunt of publishers in their powerhouse.
Soho, he believes, has sold itself to ‘cultureless fly-by-nights’. Publication is determined by ‘some idiot of the box’. ‘Orange plastic barriers-/our century’s major contribution/to the junk art of street furniture’ assail his eye as he sets out from the office, and
‘He leaves a message, a yellow sticky,
on the dead black
of his computer screen: …’
This colour yellow: I find myself thinking of the ‘yellow fog that rubs its back’ in T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock, who also went out ‘through narrow streets’ seeking the answer to a question. It reminds me even more of another poem of 1917, ‘Portrait of a Lady.’ At such a meeting a man must be ‘prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.’. ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ Prufrock asked. The voice of this poem seems unlikely to disturb any universe however.
But, he feels uplifted by a message from a lost love and walks at ‘a skipping pace’, like that ghost of literature who rolled his trousers up, to unwind, and found himself catching crabs. Why did she email suggesting this meeting? The Copy Editor narrator, who despises every manuscript he receives, is trapped in the necessity of passing trite work to the superficial media arena, where it receives accolades. He is powerless. His time has past, and with it, he believes, the Classical inheritance of western Civilization?
He finds the table that is reserved for him, he is not despised here; yet he is soon starting ‘to kill a few bottles’. His old flame arrives, but: ‘Somehow there is a sharper outline.’ She is not upset by the pizza culture, is pleased that the restaurant ‘doesn’t make a fetish of ‘pollo sorpreso’. In fact, she thinks things have improved. She is deft with waiters and menus and orders. He notices, with startlement: ‘the faint, faint/ nimbus of the lens/ circling the gold-shot/ hazel of each iris’. ‘Oracle’ eyes/ he used to call them:/ the harder you looked,/ the more sublime/ and unreadable they became./But have they lost their old force?’ ‘Gaze meets gaze/revealing as ever/everything and nothing there.’ He seems as terrified as any person dominated by a merciless un-giving regime.
A fast read, it is a spare precise evocation of the present day with its ‘cultureless trashiness’ and quick-serve restaurants orchestrated by ‘woofs of laughter’ from groups of city workers in their own brand of bonhomie. In contrast, the waiter and waitress are alive in their confined space, they are memorable in the way their bodies communicate non-verbal gestures of language. Are they subversive or natural? The proprietor who was Massimo, the owner who fuelled the literary publishing industry, gives, perhaps, the haunting answer, that life has simply moved on?
It is the grappa that loosens the tongue of the woman who was the Muse for his autobiographical poems. We find he has been stalking her. Fortified, she says:
‘The Eurydice that you are trying to rescue
with your brave little song must be yourself:
your inner self, your soul. But you’ve not been in touch
with that in your entire life. Which puts you in a hole,
His mistake, she tells him, was to be kidnapped by the Lyric Muse. He has confused poetry with therapy. His poems are clever and nicely-written but ‘misconceived, false, hollow, wrong.’ He is not in touch with his soul?
In this poem I find scintillating dialogue, a restaurant I feel I know, exactness of detail of time and place, of past and present. Nuances of communication in a public, though intimate, setting that turns to theatre. Not the Mead Hall, not islands and oceans, but going to lunch in Zanzotti’s we can feel the change from classical to post-modern, and the disaster is that of the man who despises the dullness and stupidity of others. It is his of his own making.
His former muse is wife to a novelist of international renown. The publisher stands accused, the male has dominated western culture for too long, he has left the women talking, as Eliot’s Prufrock did when he went out to his tacky assignments. The Oracle speaks and shows him up. I think she has come to put an end to his self-delusion.