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Monthly Archives: August 2022

Cafferty’s Truck by Robin Thomas (Dempsey & Windle)

Cafferty’s Truck by Robin Thomas (Dempsey & Windle)

Robin Thomas’ two earlier collections, both from Cinnamon, are miscellanies in various styles inspired by paintings, reading, childhood, music and trains; common subjects approached with a trying-things-out feel but all done with an uncommon level of playfulness and geniality. This more interlaced book, hot on the heels of A Distant Hum, has a slim twenty-four pages of work, with poems averaging about ten short lines each. Here’s one of them (‘The Meeting’):

            The truck labours
            along the long road up.
            The van, spick and span,
            speeds by on the other side,
            wafts by with hardly a sigh.

The minimalist approach relies on the way humans will construct narratives from the thinnest series of clues. But the overall story is straightforward enough. In fact, we’re told it at the end of the first poem:

              Byrne, in his trim red van,
              respectfully following, follows
              Cafferty’s yesterdays with his tomorrows.

Cafferty’s business is in decline. He’s distracted: spending time in the art gallery or the library or the aquarium. He’s out-of-date and indecisive: he uses a map rather than satnav, and can’t even choose a toothpaste in Tesco. He’s just not business-like: his collection of strange words (‘setose’, ‘alkanet’, ‘quab’, &c.) hints he could even be a… poet. As for his truck, its Homeric epithet is ‘rackety’. It rattles and sneezes and sighs. It gets frequently juxtaposed, as above, with Byrne’s van, which waffles and capers and wafts, and we’re often told how trim, smooth, buffed, red, shiny, noiseless and so on the van is. In case we still haven’t got the idea, Byrne is shown in Halfords, buying stuff to care for it. By the end, without any further twist or reveal, the truck is out of action, and the van ever more thriving. The only consolation is that O’Brien’s lame horse is more redundant still. 

The imaginative novelty here is that the vehicles are described more animatedly than their owners, which makes them feel humorously alive in the manner of children’s cartoons. And not only the vehicles: this whole world is blooming with pathetic fallacy. ‘Breezes dance a minuet’, ‘flowers whisper each to each’, a counter ‘frowns at the ignorant shelves’, ‘birds converse’, ‘cobbles slime’, ‘slovenly’ windows ‘peer’ or ‘gloat’ and a river even ‘invisibles’. This kind of thing is a matter of taste, of course, but it undoubtedly fits the theme. 

The spitting sailors and skipping girls, the ‘double-breasted Saville [sic] Row’ suit, and a mere van ‘draw[ing] glances of envy’ make the setting feel vaguely old-fashioned, but it is in fact near-contemporary: Cafferty goes, for instance, to the 2019 Jeff Koons show at the Ashmolean. Koons himself gets cited: ‘to know is an enrichment, but you don’t have to’, a quote which continues, off-stage, ‘it’s back to art not being an intimidating thing.’ Certainly, this book’s unintimidating countenance will be appealing for those who’ll forgive its various types of thinness and occasional veering of plainness to obviousness. In any case, the geniality and playfulness are still around: axolotls can apparently restore ‘the less vital parts’ of their brains. And Madame Sosostris, no less, runs the garage that will hopefully repair the truck – ‘with only her owl/ for company’.

Guy Russell 5th August 2022

No Land In Sight by Charles Simic (Borzoi Books /Alfred A Knopp)

No Land In Sight by Charles Simic (Borzoi Books /Alfred A Knopp)

I always think of Charles Wright, Mark Strand and Charles Simic as an American trinity of poetry. Although their work is very different from each other, and Strand died in 2014, they knew each other and occasionally addressed each other in their work. Wright and Strand shared a concern with – for want of a better term – the spiritual, addressed mostly through poems concerned with memory, life, death and loss; but Simic’s work seemed very different.

Born in Yugoslavia, Simic moved to the USA at the age of 16, and has been publishing books since 1967, mostly poetry but also a memoir and translations of other writers’ work. For a while his poetry seemed rooted in a kind of surrealism, juxtaposing things that have some sense of disconnect between them and offering a new way of seeing situations or events, sometimes by use of a strange point-of-view or tone, personification or an approximation to magic realism.

Elements of this still inform some of the poems in No Land in Sight. ‘The Mystery’ moves from ‘mutts barking in unison’ to burglary and murder, disquiet at the noise, to ‘a star calling it quits /After millions of years’, taking ‘a long dive out of sight.’ whilst ‘Come Spring’ quickly and unexpectedly moves from ‘the birdie in a tree’ to the return of the ‘wicked back from hell’, accompanied by Satan. I’m not sure how literally to take this poem’s warning about how they are ‘think[ing] up new evils’ or the fact that Satan’s ‘guile has no equal’.

Many more of the poems here are strange snapshots, isolated events, or moments, presumably designed to surprise us or make us think. Here is a complete poem:

   COULD THAT BE ME?

   An alarm clock
   With no hands
   Ticking loudly
   On the town dump.

Errr, yes? It is only with some reluctance and a sense of desperation I can force myself to make associations with extra time, unwanted time, wasted time, the nature of time, the relationship of humanity, machines and measured time. Mostly I shrug, as I do with the book’s brief opening poem, which for me is a real squib:

   FATE

   Everyone’s blind date.

Hmmm. I’m sorry but this is pseudo-profundity, a kind of (non-) riddle, a metaphor pretending to be a poem. It might have been something to work up to a poem, a starting point or notebook jotting, but not a whole three-word poem.

The majority of poems here rely on the supposed weight of words like stars, light, graves, night, and love acting on the reader, but it often doesn’t work. Take this poem about washing hanging on the line:

   WINDY DAY

   Two pairs of underwear,
   One white and the other pink,
   Flew up and down
   On the laundry line,
   Telling the whole world
   They are madly in love.

Are the two pairs of underwear in love? Are they speaking? Or is there a causal connection between neighbouring washing and their owners? Maybe the narrator knows something we don’t know? (Perhaps he could share that?) Does pink and white imply heterosexual norms or gendered clothing? Again, it’s a squib I’d like to see developed rather than simply written down as an image plus ‘poetic’ interpretation. (I’d also like to know why each line of Simic’s is capitalised, something I always question my students about. Mostly it’s because they haven’t looked at the preferences of their word processing software.)

I hate to be so negative, but this is a disappointing and slight volume from a poet I have previously admired and whose work I have very much enjoyed. What I am about to quote, the closing lines of ‘My Doubles’, a 13-line poem which – without using the term – is about doppelgängers or possibly past versions of ourselves, seems appropriate as a way of understanding what it feels like to try and engage with this new work:

   As for me, the last time someone saw me,
   I was reading the Bible on the subway,
   Shaking my head and chuckling to myself.

I can’t help but feel like a passenger on that train, wondering what the chap opposite is laughing about, or in this case what the author thinks he is saying, or is trying to achieve in these poems. Simic is adrift and, as the last two lines of the book announce, ‘There is no / Land in sight’. No poems either.

Rupert Loydell 3rd August 2022


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