-Reviewed by Claire Trévien–
Mark Halliday’s pamphlet ‘No panic here’ is one of those deceptively simple works. Halliday lures the reader in with his ‘ultra-talk’ – which I’d define, judging by this pamphlet, as colloquial poems that often function as dramatic-monologues. They are ‘theatrical’ in a large sense: the wings have been drawn back, you can see the plaster peeling, wires are hanging in a disordered fashion, but these only enhance the performance of the lone actor. These frailties, the less than perfect structure, make the poems all the more gut-wrenching.
An example, ‘Sad News’, in which the title of the pamphlet appears, depicts a narrator attempting to handle the death of a friend’s wife. At the same time as he processes this information, the narrator desperately tries to keep a handle on how this reflects on the mortality of his own wife:
‘His wife just died. Died. Okay but that’s his
Wife. His wife. Not my wife. So that’s why it’s all right’
Even in such a short excerpt (the opening lines) it should be clear that this is a very performable poem, hence my portmanteau use of ‘theatrical’. The rest of the poem builds as the narrator grows increasingly distressed and captures the quick flits of the mind as it jumps through possibilities utterly convincingly.
What makes the piece surprisingly moving though, is the protagonist’s utter selfishness. His immediate reaction to the news is not to think of his friend’s state, or rather, it is to think of his friend’s state but appropriate it and empathize to the extent that he is forced to grasp his material possessions to steady his emotions:
‘The Georgia Review — a coffee mug from Tennessee—
all this stuff I love. Which
would be insane if it all could utterly—’
These are the reactions you try to hide when big things happen, lumped together in the bag of other inappropriate behavior: hysterical laughter at a funeral, relief when none of your loved ones are hurt in a catastrophe and other unfortunate demonstrations of survival instincts. The use of the first person narrative here is particularly effective in preventing the poem from slipping into a preachy mode. Instead, what we have are flaws laid bare and basking in self-deprecation.
Indeed, dancing over the poem is Halliday’s special formula of gentle mocking. The title, ‘Sad News’, undermines the narrator’s self-pitying, the way the kitchen is put on a pedestal is cause for derision, but at the same time there is a sense that Halliday sympathizes with the puppet he’s created.
This mixture of satire and heart is replicated throughout the pamphlet with different dosages. The poem ‘Numerous Swans’, for instance, opts for a self-aware undercutting of a description of swans:
‘they are my thoughts if you hadn’t twigged to that already,’
Whilst in ‘Full-blown Maturity’ the protagonist declares:
‘Now I shall write a brave poem about turning 55’
In the poem, he self-edits as he goes, leaving in full view all of his failings and insecurities (‘Avoid references to fire, and to breasts’) so that the mixture in this case is funny, absurd, and as with some many of his poems, easy to relate to.
This ‘accessibility’ might keep this pamphlet from the accolades it deserves and this is a shame as this simplicity is Halliday’s greatest illusion. The considerable effort necessary to craft these poems is akin to a swan’s frantic paddling underwater: as an outsider, you can only observe the smooth glide.
This is Halliday’s debut pamphlet in the UK (despite having several collections under his belt in the US) and I rather hope it is not the last.
p.s For more on ultra-talk and Mark Halliday, check out this very interesting article by David Graham.