Disarming the Porcupine by Mark Brayley

Reviewed by Jennifer Edgecombe

Disarming the Porcupine is a collection of poetry spanning a decade from Mark Brayley, split into three sections. The first (and largest) section, ‘Disarming the Porcupine’, looks at ‘the frustrations and defensiveness of a man living through the first part of the Twenty First Century.’ The second, ‘Brown Paper Packages’, is a collection of poetry that the author states has been written specifically for performance. The last section is the smallest, entitled ‘Twenty:Twenty Hindsight’, referring to Stendhal’s ‘Genius Or Not’ project, that Oulipian writer, Harry Mathews, adapted into an online project called ‘Twenty Lines A Day’ in which writers were invited to share twenty lines per day, genius or not.

These three sections are different in subject and form, but the writer’s voice is distinct throughout. It is often bitter, humorous or ironic. His poem ‘Carol Ann Duffy Goes to My Gym’ is a good example of this from the opening section of the book. This opening stanza sums up how this poem is not only successful at imitating her style, but also parodies her persona;

Carol Ann Duffy goes to my gym.
It’s definitely her. I can tell by her voice
and the fact that the dumb bell’s
her weapon of choice.

The poem continues;

I’ve seen her verb on verbing machines
taking swigs from an isotonic water bottle
filled with Christ’s own blood.

I recently saw Carol Ann Duffy’s play ‘Everyman’ at The National Theatre and I think if i hadn’t, I may have been confused by this poem but instead I understand the harsh portrayal of her character and the mocking of Christ. It’s a bitterly ironic love poem to the poet that has the darker conclusion;

the distinction gets blurred.
The truth is, you see,
I go to hers.

The poems within the section ‘Brown Paper Packages’ (which were written specifically for performance) mainly use a simple ABAB rhyme scheme and the text contains quite a few puns and punches. For example, in the poem ’Action Man’s a Eunuch’ the poem quips the line;

I’ve survived the last thirty years
with a lot less action man.

This does read on the page like a bad ‘Dad joke’ but that appears to be the point; the narrator, being thirty, is using the Action Man toy to express a different perspective through age. As a child, the figurine is a hero to him;

He stormed the Iranian embassy
on my bedroom chest of drawers,
he parachuted into Port Stanley
on far flung Southern shores.

But as the poem progresses, the hero meets the fate of adulthood ‘primed, waiting for a fight’:

We’ve ripped of his thick blue slips
to reveal he has no cock.

It is a poem that sits well with his theme of frustration and defence as the poet travels through his twenties.

In the third section, ‘Twenty:Twentry Hindsight’, Brayley has contributed to Harry Matthews ‘Genius or Not’ online project, inviting twenty lines a day. The poems in this section are of more experimental form compared to the more simplified performance poetry, and have a contrasting voice to the humorous tone used previously. For example, ‘Bookends 22nd December’, is a calm and thoughtful poem that begins:

These two bookends
holding all that has gone
between them.
Thousands of words,
closeness condensed,
wrapped safely in the covers
with tales of love,
grand narratives,

The poem is simple to begin with, but the bookends are then subtly portrayed as two people. As they age, they have become ‘swollen volumes’, ‘dusty’ with age. Two ageing lovers filled with their life stories, but holding them with a sense of fragility;

take one away
and the story ends –

There are several other poems that stand out in this section. Within, ‘The Flowering Fly Trap 10 June’, Brayley uses a fantastic opening line as he existentially muses on a plant’s state of change;

Now it rots while all else riots
but for a time it held beauty.
I could believe that it was the effort
of transforming its very nature
that killed it.

The collection as a whole works due to the varied subjects touched upon, and the introductory note warning the reader that it reads more as a ‘document’. It lacks the cohesiveness and technical skill-set of a mature collection of work, but I would be interested to read new work by Brayley due to his strong voice throughout.