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 He’s out-of-date and indecisive: he uses a map rather than satnav, and can’t even choose a toothpaste in Tesco.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