-Reviewed by James Mcloughlin–
Antrobus enters the fray – and it’s electric.
It’s a received wisdom – at least on this writer’s part – that poetry débuts often stumble over familiar creative potholes on the way to realisation. Anyone who has written poetry with a serious view to becoming published and widely read will know all too well the struggle between creativity and quality; that is, attempting to forge something both unique and literarily stimulating is difficult, particularly in a country with so rich a poetic history.
Raymond Antrobus suffers no such troubles. Shapes and Disfigurements is sprinkled with esoteric ‘conversations’ throughout that never struggle to sound fresh or sincere. Antrobus uses an acute awareness of self to connect starkly with the transcendental nature of the everyday, the every man. In these, he is extremely adroit at bringing the poetry out of the seemingly innocuous. Witness the hackneyed ex-Hackney resident on Broadway Market and feel more poetic inspiration than you would from a thousand earnest bloggers:
‘It’s a catwalk this place. You come here just to be seen here. I mean, look at that knob with the feathers and the top hat; he’s wearing bloody high heels. And them gals that walk around with them rollers in their hair and rags tied around their head, looking like my nan cleaning the house.’
These conversations are the beating heart of a gripping body of work. The poems in between are the bloodstream, pulsating to and from conversation, imbibing the characters contained herein with a colour and a verve, representations of the tumult of life in all corners of the globe, from Hackney to Gothenburg and finally, settling down in Wetherspoon’s for a reflective pint.
The tender self-awareness that abides throughout is what allows life to flourish in the characters that inhabit this collection, given voice by the observations of a ‘wondering spirit’ and a keen ear for colloquialism coupled with deftness of description.
Thematically, the scope here is broad, meaning that quality has, this time, been merged successfully with creativity. Exploring themes of outsider introspection, family connections, love and tangential inspiration, bestriding the continents in search of the answers to the keys questions, it’s a chapbook that summons a chest-swelling furore of emotions.
Antrobus chooses to open the exploration with a quote from the eternal Pablo Neruda – ‘we must disappear into mist of those we don’t know’ – and this prepares us for a journey into the streets and the minds of those not normally considered privy to the poetic community. The innocent ribbing of school kids in ‘30/11/1986’; the hubbub of the party, watched with a remoteness of feel; the festivities of Cape Town – a sweeping spectrum of life that begins to demonstrate a clear but unobtrusive link. It is one that rejoices in a life that seems normal on the surface, but reveals, upon inspection, a great tumult of street-level heroes and harlequins.
There are some extremely touching moments too, as when Antrobus considers the invisible bond between estranged relatives in ‘One Night at Zulu Bar in Cape Town’ or ‘Status’:
‘When you find out your dad had a heart attack,
you wonder if you should update your Facebook.’
It never gets too heavy to sink the quality, though, and avoids self-pity because the poet is able to blend these confessions with a crackling humour reminiscent, at times, of Bukowski in his lighter moments.
It’s a formula that forces you to ride an emotional rollercoaster – as clichéd as that might sound, it’s an accurate flash-phrase for the pulsating world of Raymond Antrobus, and once you step off the ride, it’s every bit as exhilarating as you might have hoped, and more.