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Sex on Toast by Topher Mills (Parthian Books)

Sex on Toast by Topher Mills (Parthian Books)

Once again I find myself discovering poetry by a poet I’ve heard about but never got around to reading. Until now that is. This book, – a ‘Collected Poems’ more or less, – is a real treat. Written in chronological order these poems represent a lifetime’s work from the pen of a writer who, unusually, writes about manual labour, as well as swimming, politics, literature, unemployment, class, sexual matters and an array of other subjects. These poems are deceptively sophisticated, often rhythmically intriguing, surprisingly moving and complex in the range of emotion and of thinking they deploy. There are performance pieces and some wonderful pastiches including the following which takes a commonly reworked classic and gives it a somewhat new spin:

          DIS IS JEST TUH SAY LIEKE

          dat I scoffed

          duh sarnee

          yoo id in

          duh freezuh Kumpartmunt

          an wat

          yooz wuz praps

          kraabin

          fuh laytuh like

          soree yuhno

          it wuz jaamtastick

          reeuhlee baanaaanaaree

          aan reeuhlee baaraaas

          (Translated from the American

          Of William Carlos Williams)

His Cardiff-based dialect poetry is a key aspect in performance though I have to say the above looks and sound like Geordie to me (what do I know?) and hilariously funny. The fact that he can hint towards John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens, while also writing direct and convincing poems about the dangers and realities of working as a roofer, for example, suggest a breadth of experience which still seems rare in the ‘exalted’ field of poetry. 

     In ‘Walkabout’ from the late section entitled ‘Winter Cycling’ he writes about dementia in a manner which takes your breath away:

          Mid-winter, middle of the night, breath

          billowing icy white, his mother’s in a hurry

          to see her parents who died thirty years ago

          happily wearing just slippers and night gown.

                                   (from ‘Walkabout’)

Like his fellow countryman Peter Finch, Mills is able to write effective traditional poems while also working in a more experimental fashion. The link between page and performance is an important aspect of these varied approaches.

From ‘When Scaffolders Howl’ we get the following:

          Every scaffolding gang I have ever worked with

          will, at some point, tip their heads back and let rip 

          howling like a wild pack of wolves at a full moon.

          Yet at day’s end they’ll squash into lorries and vans

          to travel home weary, thirsty, laughter quieter

          till the next morning gathers them together again. 

It’s so easy to relate to the above and it’s done without any suggestion of sentimentality or affectation. As an ex-swimmer of a certain age I found ‘The Resolutionists’ to be a mix of wicked humour and cautionary tale:

          Back at the shallow end’s comparative safety

          we guestimate that by February this will be over

          when the resolutionists, who do it to get healthy,

          in the hope of living longer, have all inflicted

          injuries or done permanent damage or just died.

          Few survive as swimmers. One may become a regular,

          although this is extremely rare, but until then

          The ambulances are lined up outside like fire engines.

Elsewhere the swimming imagery is more upbeat (‘The Last Swim in Empire’) where we get ‘Carousing with dolphins, / splashing curious seagulls / and shadow boxing nervous sharks.’

     I’ve only read through this collection once and I’m sure it’s one I shall dip into again and again. There are sound poems and romantic pieces, humour in abundance, often juxtaposed with much darker material which takes you aback and makes you think as well as feel. In short, it’s a huge cornucopia and one that I feel I’ve just scraped the surface of. Dip in and enjoy.

Steve Spence 24th January 2022

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