Vik Shirley’s pamphlet Corpses, which came out earlier this year, was a work of exquisitely macabre humour. Her collection The Continued Closure of the Blue Door continues the preoccupation with mortality in its sequence of witty poems called ‘death & the girls’. The first four, which are in unpunctuated prose, chart the zany responses of various women to the unavoidable presence of the grim reaper.
eleanor kept banging on that death was a charmless motherfucker a charmless motherfucker she’d say fairly vindictively this actually wasn’t true but then she’d witnessed him eating pork pie jelly whilst wearing sock garters so no one could really argue
The six ‘death reveries’ which follow are in the form of calligrams, the first in the shape of a coffin, the sixth that of a bottle. The speaker of the poems imagines her funeral, wake, and legacy, but rather than being maudlin these texts are a rich and furious evocation of life. The coffin is to be decorated with an array of eccentric illustrations and objects, and to act as a stage for an impossible dance performance. The funeral procession, a meandering text of increasing width and font size, is equally fantastical, a carnival parade of bizarre characters with music to match. I particularly liked ‘Death Reverie #5’, in the shape of a cross, which begins:
I want my guilt and shame to be left to
the Catholic Church. It seems the most
reliable place for it to be successfully
The range of subjects covered by the collection as a whole extends well beyond mortality. The epigraph to the book is a quote from James Tate: ‘That whole day was like a dream leaking into our satchel.’ Shirley has said that Tate is a major influence, and there is a similarly absurd humour in the work of both poets, a transformation of everyday events into something strange and disconcerting, like the woman in the opening poem in the collection, who falls in love with her husband’s electric razor.
Prose rhythms and cadences dominate in this poetry, though relatively few of the poems appear as justified blocks of text. The opening section includes lineated prose poems, and poems set as justified text but within a narrow margin. In the second section, ‘elephant’, the text is in an open-field format, but with each fragment of text terminating in a single or double forward slash. Some lines also have a slash/double slash within the line. The sequence describes the brief celebrity of its central eponymous character:
elephant out till all hours /
fallen in with /
erroneous crowd /
we ask / who released
the elephant /
the elephant watching /
smoking cigars /
Section IV, ‘the nervous tic’, like the first, groups poems in a variety of formats. ‘Nunchucks and Weather’ is a sequence of short lyrics. One of these describes how, despite having many visitors, a lighthouse has difficulty ‘meeting other structures / with similar hopes and aspirations.’
The final section, ‘the blue door’, returns to an open-field style but with a mix of font sizes for emphasis. Again some texts here use forward slashes, or in a number of cases vertical lines, as punctuation. ‘it’s not every day you find an opera singer in your tumble dryer’ is a wonderfully comic piece. Having discovered a tumble dryer singing ‘Che gelida manina’ (an aria from La Bohème) on an island in a lake, the narrator wonders who could be responsible:
as the squirrels
although fairly gung-ho and not lacking in chutzpah
where it comes to matters of nuts and trees weren’t –
as far as I knew – familiar
with the musical scores of Puccini
Another delightful piece in this last section is a set of reflections on a Barbara Guest poem, ‘Twilight Polka Dots’. The final poem, ‘Never been to Volkovo’, appears to be a collage of lines from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.
The formal variety and inventiveness of the work collected here stretches the ‘prose poem’ beyond the confines of a static block of text. The playfulness and humour of the writing are highly engaging. It is an impressive first collection.
Simon Collings 16th December 2020