– Reviewed by David Clarke –
On the flyleaf of Siegfried Baber’s debut poetry pamphlet, When Love Came to the Cartoon Kid, Martin Malone describes Baber as ‘an Armitage for Generation Tweet’. There is certainly much Armitage-ness to be had in this brief selection of thirteen poems: not only does Baber’s title gesture towards two volumes by Armitage (Kid and Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus The Corduroy Kid), but the work shares with Armitage’s early poetry an accessibility sustained by straightforward yet carefully controlled and memorable use of language, combining a recognisable world with surreal imagined situations. A key aspect of Armitage’s appeal is that he is able to develop such conceits convincingly yet unpredictably, often drawing out some unlikely epiphany in the poem’s denouement. For a young poet publishing his first pamphlet, Baber demonstrates an assurance of tone and execution that equals Armitage’s own. So, for example, we have poems in which a young man tries to impress his girlfriend by entering a gurning competition (until the wind changes), or in which the denizens of ‘Shit Street’ present a Nativity performance in shell-suits, while their creator looks on:
And in the audience, everywhere,
is God rolling a fag,
wearing a baseball cap,
head back and laughing.
The tattoo on his neck:
World’s Best Dad.
Assigning Baber to ‘Generation Tweet’ is less convincing, however. The cultural landscape his poems occupy, and even the colloquial language they mobilise, do not seem to have changed much since Armitage’s youth: we get references to Lee Harvey Oswald, cartoons and post-it notes, not to status updates or texting. This is by no means problematic, since the poems are no less endearing for their lack of zeitgeisty hipness. And yet, although Baber’s work is youthful in the sense of being shot through with a young man’s preoccupations (letting go of childhood, desire, failed love affairs), we do not see him raising his eyes from these essentially personal matters to place them in a wider social context. This is curious for a poet who has come of age in the era of austerity and an increasingly divisive political climate. The shell-suited characters of ‘Shit Street Nativity’ perhaps gesture towards an awareness of our contemporary situation, but ultimately seem less like real people and more like comic types, there to underline a cosmic irony rather than any political reality.
These observations are less a criticism of Baber’s work than an attempt to situate his concerns as a poet. Ultimately, he must be free to write about what he likes, and it is not the reviewer’s job to dictate to anyone what their reasons for writing a poem should be. In fact, the absolute stand-out poem of the thirteen is highly personal in tone. Here, Baber (or someone very like him) remembers being taught to skin a rabbit by his father. The poet’s careful attention to the physical experience of this gruesome task, and to his proximity to his father while performing it, is finely judged and moving:
After yanking it free from its overalls
of brown fur, I was faced, for the first time,
with that compact machinery of muscle
spread cold on yesterday’s paper.
The wound was dark, no bigger than
a pound coin, and clotted with blackberry
blood. I could feel my father’s breath,
warm on the top of my head, as we sliced
flesh from bone, pulling tendons taut
before snipping them easy as elastic.
This really is excellent stuff: Baber skilfully makes use of the situation to draw out the full ambivalence of the relationship between intimacy and claustrophobia, care and cruelty.
When Love Came to the Cartoon Kid is a calling card from a poet who clearly has a rare talent, coupled with the even rarer ability to write accessibly and engagingly. It is hard not to like and enjoy this poems on their own terms, but it remains to be seen whether Baber will be more ambitious in the scope of his future work.