(the book of seals) by Mark Russell

Reviewed by Sarah Watkinson

The Book of Seals is a hugely enjoyable read, like an evening in the company of an erudite, soothsaying, greedy, slightly drunk, linguistically gifted sage. Composed of a long sequence of poems, untitled but each headed by a mysterious typographical symbol, its themes of gourmet cuisine, political dystopia and ecological disaster are juxtaposed into a continually surprising tapestry of moods and language, peppered with intriguing allusions. For a start, this:

O central oxhead
O variant mothers

the good skins beckon
the trains are leaving

behold the eating

or in three days
by candlelight

they watch as we slaughter our
and put them in the pot with garlic
and Beaujolais

I would love to hear the whole book read aloud, with the variation of mood and tone between sections that the shapes on the page suggest. Right-justified idea-centred prose poems are interspersed with spaced-out reflections, a scatter of letters, and free verse in couplets and tercets. The narrative voice is resigned and witty:

I suppose what I’m saying is living
things should not be used as
except if they’re trees; it seems to
me that trees are all right to use as

And oil. And gas. And coal. And
some forms of uranium. And
maybe even the Sun.
Because though these things are
living, I’ll admit that, they have no
actual profession.

Fire is one of many recurrent motifs and phrases. There is a wild exuberance in the food-related surreal, with its acknowledged debt to Douglas Adams:

From Bisque—
It is confirmed. Message reads:

Before we can believe the
message ‘Not the First’, at
no price will Mr Small
News entertain the

We are aware that by the
day of the 42nd Truth,
bashfulness will be
blended with Big
Whopper, thus reducing
its effectiveness.

Therefore, as you must by
now have surmised, you
either cough up the
baksheesh or suffer
the impish tremors.

As well as suggesting the mundane/surreal world of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the numinous/political tone of Paul Simon lyrics, The Book of Seals challenges the reader to disentangle more modern, zeitgeisty allusions. Does ‘Tusk’, here, lead us to Brexit?

From Tusk—
Mail intercept:

Common sense might equate
‘education’ with ‘thinking’.
It might even be a top priority,
the last and most authentic
Evidence has not been found
in the timescale offered.

The Intimidates are miscreants,
we will not give them what is fair,
and we are unlikely to allow them
to play on the island you gave
away after the eruption.

It’s another 59 points
to the summit.
Have your papers ready.

Altogether this is a joyful dish of rich, compressed language from an expert chef, in which rare words and phrases mingle on the page in a delicious exotic casserole.