In Control

West End Survival Kit
, Jeremy Reed (9.00, Waterloo Press)

Reed is probably the most prolific and consistently excellent poet currently working in Britain. That his new volume has an introduction by J.G. Ballard and back-cover 'blurbs' from writers as diverse as David Lodge, the late David Gascoyne and Seamus Heaney would suggest the kind of 'cross-cultural' endorsement that most poets would die for. He ranges across a vast array of subject matter, from his quietly spectacular nature poetry (By the Fisheries, for example), to an interest in dark, gothic horror, S/F and the numerous engagements with the world of popular culture, from novels through biographies of pop icons Reed and Almond. It's as a poet that he's a force to be reckoned with though, a poet who has great technical ability as well as a wide-range of reading and knowledge to draw on.

This collection deals head-on with the contemporary world and its mix of an almost-jaunty 'easiness' belies the tautness of his verse structures and the darkness of his vision: the vocabulary sizzles with energy and variety. Like Ballard, the world he evokes in these very readable poems is one of dystopian breakdown and apocalyptic expectation, but it's a dystopia which is not without its glamorous attractions and where psychology, or the inner world, is as much a part of the subject as 'what's going on out there'!

In Blake
, he imagines a 21st century counterpart of the visionary poet - a subject J.G. Ballard also explored in a novel, I seem to recall - living in the post 9/11 world, where psychedelia jostles with virtual reality to create a visual scenario which is part Blade-runner, part Performance. So we experience:

     Diagnosed delusional
     Blake brought a decommissioned jet,

     Lived in it on Wandsworth flats
     grew gardenias in the cockpit,
     manufactured LSD

     and watched incoming airliners
     morph into jewel-finned jellyfish,
     his girlfriend atomize on touch

     into 3D molecules
     and knew he'd fly again, steal a Jumbo
     and kill it over Whitehall.

This is a very post-modern text in the sense that although the setting is London, the mix of cultural references, whether they be architectural, literary, filmic technological or musical, are international, stellar and 'glitzy' - there's a sense of surface sheen which predominates and hovers over the writing. Fashion is celebrated as it's being 'deconstructed' although deconstruction is not a word I would usually associate with Reed. The writing is very pleasurable to read, it slips down easily for the most part, even amid its tumult of multiple vocabularies, and every so often you get stopped short by a striking metaphor or simile, as in: 'she thinks the way small red fish swim' (The Cryo-trainee
) which beautifully captures that sense of neural transmission, that celerity of thought which could probably be mapped mathematically if we had the means to do so.

One minute Reed is speculating about space travel via the world of virtual reality and the next switches attention to some fashion item - all is available to his sense of wonderment and his imaginative leap. The poem Jeans
made me smile:

     The detail grabs me, it's the twisted seams,
     rivets, buttons, pre-damage patch,

     Miss Sixty, Levi's Red, Moto,
     Lee Leola, Sass & Bide,
     in graduating indigo
     sprayed on as accessory,
     a peelable banana skin

     Jeans age contemporaneous with cells,
     look better midlife, burnt by wear
     to a white thread exposure:
     an epidermis roughed like bark.

If this is writing which is 'cool' and it surely is so, it's also work which is richly articulated yet where intelligence is the guiding principle. Reed makes every word work for its living and is a prolific and focussed writer. He may be some kind of guru for an aspect of what still exists as 'the counter-culture' but his concentration is deep, and when it comes to poetry, he has the work-ethic in abundance. It has been said that he learned his craft over many years by writing at least one poem every day!

Brain Damage - a short History of the Pink Floyd
opens with these startling lines:

     Barrett's the rock astronomer
     boating the Cam's lime green spine
     wristing downriver like a water boatman

     listening to voices, his schizophrenia
     big in the mix
     like invasive radio.

It's an exquisite example of poetical skill, mixing laid-back pastoral psychedelia  with a suggestion of something darker and more intrusive. Although Reed often writes as a 'neutral observer', an alien from another world (Craig Raine could have learned a lot from Jeremy Reed!), there's usually a downside to the ecstatic states he describes, whether this is via drug-induced self-destruction, or the gradual collapse of 'Western Civilization' through the threat of war, global warming and paranoid delusion!

In The Last Tycoon,
references to James Dean, Nicole Kidman and Marilyn Monroe are interspersed with images of fighter pilots and WW2, a glorious, dreamy anachronism which reminds me of the film Kelly's Heroes, where the victorious American tanks liberate Europe while their crews are listening to rock music! This method comes to a head in a lovely line which is nostalgic in more ways than one - '(is it Morrissey,/his Beachy Head-vertical quiff collapsed?)' - and still manages to raise a smile. In fact, Reed plays with a whole range of genres, from gangster fiction and S/F to fashion parade movie and rock band
elegy, to produce a 'mongrel' form which is both democratic and in the realm of 'high-art'. His poetry gets closer than any other I know to successfully competing with the visual media in terms of glamour and instant-hit excitement - yet he remains in control of the writing which is polished and literary, in the best sense of both terms:

     The atrium's Bauhaus. He takes the stairs,
     a charcoal pinstripe, Sisley suit,
     Thomas Pink shirt, a slicker's louche
     post-rehab cool in the figure
     he cuts, as corporate exec.  ....

     He's under scrutiny for fraud,
     offshore deposits traced, 3 flats in Nice,
     a link with drug mules, blue-chip hoods,
     his dodgy subterranean
     sweating out poisons in his skin ...
          ('Born to be Wild')
While Reed references avant-garde poets such as Jeremy Prynne, advocating a new readership along the way, one hopes, his narrative talents are too evident and focussed to be drawn into such enriching 'backwaters'. Reed is a poet who is seeking a wider audience and whose work is only difficult because of its subject matter.
      Steve Spence 2009