Restrained Scepticism

Don't Mention the Children
  Michael Rosen (222pp, £8.95, Smokestack)
Letter to my Rival Merryn Williams (49pp, £10.00, Shoestring)

These poems seem quite different to the previous 'poetry for adults' that I've read by Michael Rosen. They combine an absurdist, surrealist mode of storytelling with a political message which is sometimes direct and didactic, and at other times merged within the 'surrealism of everyday life'. Occasionally they are simply strange and disorienting, often very funny, and remind me of Ivor Cutler's off-kilter narratives which go wherever they go and have an element of fable about them, though the message is not always clear and these pieces are among the most stimulating and puzzling in this substantial collection.

 In 'Street Clothes' the protagonist is watching a tv channel 'that I never knew existed', a commentary on style and fashion which turns out to be about homelessness and points towards the vacuous nature of such programming which hides the real economic and social realities behind a fa¨ade of glamour and interpretive language.
The tactic here is to combine an apparently bemused detachment with a sharp, Swiftian approach, something which Rosen does very well, mixing comedy with satire which makes his point effectively without appearing at all preachy.

Poems like 'Regeneration Blues' and 'Looking for Someone to Head the Enquiry...', have an Adrian Mitchell type quality and combine his facility for writing for children with a more 'grown-up' approach, a sort of 'innocence and experience' for the here and now:

     Put up high-rise.

     Buy to rent
     For young professionals
     Yo-pros, don't you know.
     Change the geography
     Change the demography...
               (from 'Regeneration Blues')

Elsewhere, the anger is more apparent, as in 'Miliband, UKIP and the 'I'm not racist but...' people' where Rosen directly challenges an oft-repeated clichˇ and points out in robust terms the dangers of using language thoughtlessly. He's always concerned with the intricacies of language, sometimes in relation to its aesthetic qualities but he's also highly attuned to the power of words in a political and social sense.

'Not just for them' is a more involved and complex piece, a story for Holocaust Memorial Day, which relates personal history to global horrors and makes clear why politics, for Rosen, is so important and so unavoidable.

Elsewhere, we encounter a strange obsession with tomato sandwiches and two pizza poems which provide further commentaries on supply and demand which are hilariously funny as well as packing a punch. This book is filled with gems like this and it's one to dip into on train journeys and in any free moments you can find.

The first thing I noticed about this intriguing collection from Merryn Williams was that the back-cover blurbs included recommendations from both Vernon Scannell and Peter Finch. Something interesting must be going on here. In many ways these poems have clearly defined traditional qualities, they scan well and include a range of subject matter which is approachable and not difficult in the 'post-modern' sense of the word, yet they are also probing and often oblique in terms of vantage point and complexity of feeling. I also found them very moving in their concern with loss and a pervading sense of reflection, which underlines a seriousness of purpose not always available in contemporary poetry. Which isn't to say that Merryn Williams lacks a sense of fun or satirical intent, as is made clear in the two poems based on Horace's Odes:


          after Ode 1, 25

     You old goat! You've got a wife and a grown-up daughter,
     and this is how you behave! Forty years ago
     (I've seen photographs), you looked gorgeous, I don't deny it.
     you banged on women's doors and were let in.

     Now they stay shut. You still can't keep your hands to yourself, but
     nobody's interested. A cold moon blinks                                                                        
     on your raddled dial, and what flows down the gutters
     could be cheap red plonk, or your own blood, for all you know.

Quite a few of these poems deal with loss in its various aspects: a ruined career, as in 'Gissing's Streets' - 'So many times they've asked me, why did you do it?/I am good with words but can't explain.' - or a promising life ended by suicide, as in 'Poem for Lucy Maude Montgomery' - 'but still I say/you gave up/too soon.' 'The Schoolfellow's Tale' deals with a death relating to domestic abuse - 'all I know is, she was alright when she left me.' - while the short poem 'Orang-Utan' is an intriguing attempt to get inside a fellow animal's skin. There are several poems here which work with complex feelings, including jealousy, based around literary reputation ('A.N. Other' and 'At the Literary Festival') while 'In Memory of Simon Curtis' is a moving elegy to the recently deceased poet - 'It's hard', you said, 'to contemplate extinction'/that fine June day I dropped in.' 'Missing Person' deals with the anxieties and enigmas surrounding those who disappear and are never found - 'There was no trace, no suicide note, no body/but there were sightings', while 'Joining the Majority' has an angsty, existential feel, part 'spirit of place/person evocation' and part deeply sad elegy with an empty and echoing finale which combines both plain speech and plaintive ending.

'Baby You Can Drive my Car' has a more punchy, filmic quality, a homage to the film noir genre perhaps, while the poems I most like here are the short politically infused pieces, such as 'Still Small Voice', where the sentiments - with which I agree - are succinctly expressed and impressively understated. Similar pieces include 'Listening to the Trains', an elegy for Nelson Mandela ('As light/resumed, I felt not so much grief as awe'.) and 'The First Woman', which has to be about Margaret Thatcher, a cause for some regret I would say! 'The Whistle Blower' (for Jean Charles de Menezes) details a famous miscarriage of justice with restrained scepticism, ending with a powerful and plain-speaking critique:

     Witnesses chorused, yes that was him
     I say, believe your eyes.
     I saw the state of the carriage seats,
     the blood. And then the lies.

There are a number of poems here which are related to family and to social history and the two World Wars are a constant part of the background, relating to class and to an assertive resistance to the powers that be. There's also a strong feminist perspective throughout these poems and Merryn Williams' work clearly belongs in the tradition of non-conformist dissent. Poetry can do many things and whereas my favourite work these days is very different from this kind of material, I can still admire the skill and precision of Williams' writing and more often than not its sentiments as well.

        © Steve Spence 2015