Vik Shirley’s latest publication brings together poetry written at roughly the same time as her debut pamphlet Corpses, published in early 2020. The poems share the same preoccupation with the macabre that made Corpses feel so prescient in the early days of the pandemic. Two years on, with the virus now a permanent fixture in our lives, this poetry still feels topical, its ghoulish humour prompting a much-needed laugh.
The new collection opens with a series of individual poems, some lineated but most in prose, evoking various absurd scenarios. Shirley identifies Russell Edson and Daniil Kharms as influences, and many of the poems have a surreal quality. The humour arises from Shirley’s witty juxtaposition of the gruesome and the mundane.
In the opening poem, ‘Not in Kansas’, the narrator steps out into the garden to find herself in a ‘mud wrestling ring’ pitted against an opponent with ‘enormous biceps and a tan to die for’. We’re somewhere in the 1980s but before the bout gets underway a ‘Mad-Max-esque’ plane lands, chopping the narrator into pieces. The time shifts to the 1930s, and at the bottom of her ‘bloody legs and feet – now miles/apart – are some ruby slippers’.
In ‘Torso’ a bloody torso drags itself to a kiosk where it asks for cigarettes, the girl behind the counter seeing no reason not to serve this ‘stump’ since it’s paying cash. In ‘The Performance’ a woman eats a live rat after initially experiencing a crisis of confidence in her ability to go through with the act. Buoyed by her triumph she pencils in an event for 2023 at which she proposes to eat a ‘non-specified reptile’.
The middle section of the book is a sequence of prose poems which originated from a ‘cute-studies’ conference held in Japan in 2019. Shirley’s poems transform the super-cute world of Hello Kitty into an orgy of depravity by splicing in text from Koji Suzuki’s horror novel Ring. This mash up of two very different genres is not only funny, it’s also unsettling, exposing the horror that often underlies the seeming normality of the everyday. This extract from ‘Weekend at Grandma’s’ is fairly typical:
Grandma has such a good imagination, and loves the faint smell of blood. She teaches Hello Kitty a certain universal evil and how to be eaten. Sunday morning, Grandma shows Hello Kitty how to make black particles and splatters in violent succession. Hello Kitty sifts the repugnance and adds the terror. After mixing the bowels, Grandma pours it into the cake pans.
The final section of the book is a sequence of prose poems titled ‘Apocalypse Poems’. These imagine various grotesque responses to the impending end of the world, including bunkers where punters can get married ‘in the style of Hitler and Eva Braun’ just before committing suicide, and a family riven by historical grudges killing each other in a huge row before the ‘end’ has time to claim them. These poems offer brilliant, acerbic parodies of the way certain people behave when faced with a crisis, be that a deadly virus or other existential threat.
This is poetry for our times, both darkly funny and deadly serious.
Simon Collings 8th December 2021