-Reviewed by Paul Goring-
Anthony Costello’s The Mask is a skilled, demanding, ambitious, haunting and in many senses a very neoteric collection. The constant stream of fragmented memories, striking and domestic images and the unrelenting stream of cultural references and analogies test and challenge the reader throughout.
The poem ‘Winter’ neatly combines the domestic and the elemental seamlessly within a melancholy mix of reflection and memory that manages to be both immediate and distant as it deals with parental love and childhood solitude:
In the unheated bedroom, the damp room
above the passageway, I had embraced
cold as a friend, a way to independence;
‘Crazy Ghazal’ follows with what feels like a key line in the collection ‘happy to keep the peel under my fingernails’ which evokes the sense of how Costello perhaps values and owns memory in the very real sense of texture, scent and physical evidence. He uses a series of evocative and unusual images in paired lines that can exist as micro-vignettes with a life of their own; all combining into a landscape of movement, detail, colour and sensation that is thrilling.
‘I Spy’ is a busy, interesting and clever poem evoking memories of Blancmange’s The Day Before You Came and the work of Dashiell Hammett:
It was everything a would-be Spy could wish for,
a three-fingered scotch and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike
Costello twists the sense of both by utilising a series of smartly linked and diverse cultural references that are his currency of metaphor and analogy. You need to speak his language to enter his world which makes it both exclusive and inclusive at the same time, just Google anything you don’t understand and read on, the back story is worth it. Once you are inside the cookie jar (from the poem of the same name), world that Costello inhabits, then the magic starts to happen:
‘be’ outside the jar
as old notions of Heaven are
to mortal failing?
In one of my favourite pieces in the collection, ‘i-America’, Costello delivers in powerful short-hand the zeitgeist and superficiality of online pop culture, managing to squeeze it all in like an alphabetic ship into a 25 line bottle (he missed out ‘i’) with impact, succinct sparing lines and no room or need for anything else. He uses an entirely noun-based vocabulary without verb, adverb or adjective and yet is able to construct a collage of images in the readers mind that says all he wants to say. That is some trick.
I also really enjoyed the high tempo and immediacy of both ‘Speed-ometers’ and ‘2012’ both pieces are laden with smart cultural reference and filmic images that fit precisely together and deliver a fascinating narrative and a very visual experience. Reading The Mask is an invigorating and demanding work out, where you are made to earn your enjoyment because Costello relies on and maybe even at times demands that the reader is as well read and as culturally lucid as he is which in turn opens the door to sharing the essential human stories he tells. There is a tough exterior shell to The Mask (that is perhaps the mask itself?) and once you have understood it and can see beyond it then the true face of Costello emerges with the same insecurities, fears and humanity that you have and the result is rather special.