-Reviewed by Fiona Moore-
Some of the poems in Bike, Rain start ordinary and turn strange. A few are surreal all through: a colt climbs a tree, a chicken roosts on someone’s head, “She broods, lays eggs on my head. They roll down my face, / smash at my feet.” ‘Chicken’ can stand for whatever you want; things get worse and the poem is frightening. Other poems hang around on the fringes of strangeness, and some don’t seem strange at all, which may make the reader think, What have I missed?
The language is plain, often deliberately flat, but full of distinctive turns of phrase and syntax. It is descriptive in a quirkily factual sort of way, whether or not the material is fanciful. That combination gives Yates his most memorable phrases, such as the final couplet from ‘Just Before You Taste It’.
‘Something’s going off in the fridge, making
very little noise, making almost no noise at all.’
I hadn’t read anything by Yates before. I started with the first poem, ‘Life Studies’, whose opening lines couldn’t be more anecdotal and, along with the aftertaste of the Robert Lowell title, made me wonder where I was being taken. But then – “Someone said the best moments are moments / of realisation” – it turns into a sort of manifesto. Lowell and O’Hara are named, and there’s even a reference to the poet’s signature. It’s easy to see why Yates says he loves O’Hara, who (he says) hated Lowell. Those easy opening lunchtime lines are a Lunch Poems take-off. “There’s something in Lowell that I recognise,” he adds, but doesn’t say what. (He’s not deeply confessional.) There’s probably a Lowell take-off in there too. Maybe there’s a link in the delight taken in oddness:
‘I sit next to a girl who smells like a bag
of crisps or maybe I can just smell crisps.’
That’s on the tube in London; around half the poems involve journeys, mostly by train. Odd things can happen in the context of trains – see the fridge quote above. See also the title poem, though that appears not to be odd at all, except in the stand-up comedy absurdity of the micro choices we make.
After reading the book several times over weeks, I’ve found the poems that have lasted best are mostly the ones in between the extremes of surreal and ordinary; they are the most surprising. My favourite is the beautiful ‘Alt St Johann’, which conjures up a fairy tale-like family holiday.
‘The cherries are finished on the tree,
the redcurrants ripe on the bush.
We sleep at the top of the house in the room
full of musical instruments. The music
enters our dreams and leaves by the gate
leaving it open.
This, I decide, is paradise
where they lend you their shoes and they fit.’
Opposite is a balancing poem, ‘Easter’, about a later, grown-ups-only visit to the same place, changed of course; with an unusually explicit emotional statement, “So much guilt today you can hardly bear it / but you do and carry on”. Each poem enhances the other, but also stands on its own.
Overall, the effect of reading these poems repeatedly is restful – like being with a companion who is friendly, humorous, questioning, existentially anxious in a daily sort of way. Knives Forks and Spoons Press mostly publishes experimental and ‘outsider’ poetry. Bike, Rain doesn’t fit that profile. But Yates’ use of language makes these poems original, and lifts the best of them into being very striking.