-Reviewed by Paul McMenemy–
David Clarke’s Flarestack Poets Pamphlet Competition winning collection, Gaud begins with a demonstration of all that is best in his poetry: ‘Sword-Swallowing for Beginners’.
Start by flicking the fleshy switch at the back
of your throat. When you’ve thrown up a dozen times,
you’ll find the impulse subsides – you can sit for hours
with a knuckle softly pressed inside your head,
watching rolling news of the war.
Through the introduction of martial similes for the act and experience of sword-swallowing (“try to conjure those shocks that pass // through the body, but leave it intact – the rasp of panicked / breath, the whump of a nearby explosion, a scream.”), we realise that that mention of the war is not throwaway. The final line – ostensibly advice on psychological preparation for the titular activity – “repeat to yourself – I am unharmed. Unharmed.” is really meant for those watching the war on TV, rather than putative circus performers; its insistence suggesting that we are, in fact, harmed – injured and implicated, morally and psychologically. The whole poem is a pun, based around the idea of accepting – through training ourselves to become insensible – a war we did not request: swallowing the war’s synecdoche – the archetypal weapon, the sword.
This is Clarke’s modus operandi at its most effective – arresting images and verbal skill smuggle in an unexpected political or emotional kick. Sometimes, as in ‘Late Harvest’, the kick is missing, and we are left with a display of poetic dexterity to no very purposeful end. Whether this matters to you will be a case of personal preference; to me it does. In other poems, such as the short sequence, ‘Road Movie’, this superficiality is intentional – a stylistic choice; this does not seem to me to make it more admirable. Even in the more engaged poems, though, the trick does not always come off: in “Novotel”, the final image of the K. P.’s cigarette “entirely / white in his hand”, somehow mirroring the shining hotel full of unhappy staff is nicely conceived, but – as in “Human Resources” and “Neighbourhood Watch” – the target seems somewhat easy. The last two mentioned poems in particular seem examples of imaginative exuberance masking a lack of anything very substantial to say – acts of boisterous and technically adept ventriloquism that never fully convince: we might not see the lips moving, but we know where the voice is coming from.
One might argue that these poems are not explicitly political, other than in the broadest social sense. Both more political, and more personal, it seems, ‘Notes Towards a Definition of the Revolution’ is one of the more successful pieces in the collection – an elegiac description of the realities of twentieth century left-wing politics as experienced by those outside the Soviet Bloc:
Often it was an earnest
panel of intellectuals consuming
meat-paste sandwiches in a Sheffield Labour
Club in the mid 1970s; then again,
a summer camp for children of Belgian steelworkers,
who learned bright songs and fashioned likenesses
of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili
in coloured drinking straws.
whilst not ignoring the realities of the situation within:
The Revolution was, finally, a crudely
executed copy of Lenin’s death-mask
on the walnut desk where the minister would slump,
insensible with revolutionary optimism.
It again exhibits Clarke’s deft instinct for a punchline, and there are many moments of such precision in this collection: ‘Scritti Politti’ begins, “This is what the 90s felt like –” and it is. Or rather it is what the 90s felt like for those of a specific age, class, income, gender, etc.; still that is a whole lot closer to universality than most poems get – a distillation of the earnestness and listlessness of post-adolescence. ‘The Night Before We Left’ is similarly effective, with its “linen that seemed cut / from the warm afternoon”, and its moths fluttering through the poem – first circling a lamp; then “drumming their tiny distress / on our pillows” when the lamp is extinguished; and “In the morning / […] furled […] / wrapped in their papery selves” – perfect embodiments of fragile love. This observational skill is most effective on the psychological level. A number of poems could illustrate this, but ‘Things You’d Be Ashamed to Talk about Publicly’, with its pin-point skewering of the relationship between therapist and patient is perhaps the most brutally effective: a domino run of punchlines to the gut.
Another relationship, symbiotic or parasitic, depending on one’s view, is examined in the final poem, ‘Serial Killer Review’. One might view it as a comment on our society’s penchant for viewing murder – fictional or real – as entertainment – in which case, as in the opening poem, the question of implication is again raised. However, it also presents a trap for reviewers:
One of the distinctive qualities of these murders
is their emotional openness –
Here is a killer who isn’t afraid to wear his heart
on his sleeve.
It is not difficult to imagine Tom Paulin seeping into a Newsnight Review sofa saying these words in a universe only very slightly removed from our own. Which is amusing, but also somewhat troubling for someone like me, since quite clearly we could substitute the words “murders” and “killer” for “poems” and “poet” and have ourselves a ready-made review (though not of this collection). Arguably this simply shows up the emptiness of some critical language – these are clichés; does the reader really gain any useful information from them? But it is also possible to see it as an argument for the redundancy of all criticism: poems – works of art in general, perhaps – are too personal, perhaps too irrational to be subject to criticism at all, and to attempt to do so is as nonsensical as to attempt to review an act of violence.
Obviously, I disagree (and presumably so does Clarke, given his recent work for this very website), but it is one of the many questions raised by this collection, which is always technically adroit, and often provocative, nuanced, and concerned with the world about it in a way which much other poetry is currently not.