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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

Cardiff Cut by Lloyd Robson (Parthian / Modern)

Cardiff Cut by Lloyd Robson (Parthian / Modern)

cardiff cut was originally published in 2000 and this reprint includes a contextual essay by Peter Finch, himself a groundbreaking poet who shifts between what we might still call ‘the mainstream’ and the ‘avant-garde,’ which locates Lloyd Robson’s entry onto the scene as being at ‘the tail end of performance poetry’s rise’. This is fair enough as far as it goes but it does tend to exclude Robson’s interest in ‘the page’ and in books, both in terms of the aesthetic aspect and also via his transference of dialect into print from the spoken variety or vice-versa as the case may be. This is a big subject and one which Finch’s own work explores but it’s not one I intend to get distracted by here.

     My own initial exposure to Robson as reader was when he performed with his mentor Chris Torrance at the Art Centre in Plymouth (sometime in the mid-1990’s I think) and it was quite an occasion. I had the good fortune to read with him at Exmouth some years later when I was belatedly trying to develop my own writing and establish some sort of  basis for live readings. He’s a terrific live reader but as stated above the relationship between ‘stage and page’ (for want of a better term) is an interesting one and the care he put into producing/co-producing his own books, prior to the later Parthian works, was exemplary. 

     I’m going to admit at the outset that I’ve never set foot in Cardiff (hopefully this will change) and therefore ‘the vibe’ of the poetry doesn’t resonate in any personal  ‘sense of place’ manner but the energy, vitality and sheer verve of the writing carries the  reader along with its wonderful punning, streetwise observation and general immersion in an environment which is richly soaked in wonderful materials. There is humour, political  satire, scatology in abundance and a general sense of time and place which can still be  appreciated from a distance. cardiff cut has been described as a novel as prose poem (a marketing ploy one can’t help thinking) and been compared in content with Ulysses and  this is fair comment in the sense that this is Joyce for a wider audience, a popular form of the avant-garde. 

     You can’t really talk about narrative here, things happen and there are recollections and probably dream sequence sections but there are certainly associations with the beats, with Ginsberg and Kerouac and also with Henry Miller and Burroughs. Robson is a bit of a one-off and his virtual disappearance from the scene for personal reasons has felt like a loss although the timely reappearance of this book may see some kind of a comeback, who knows? Here is an extract from Cardiff Cut to give the reader a flavour and put you in the mood:

          cardiff central destiny the thermovitrine keeps me warm &

          clean in carriage C; offers view in reflectovision as we reach

          the city. dribbling from stat into queues of orange buses into

          taxicabs & cityslabs dark, consumer durable & pissy.

                                                      ‘cold and tired

                                                             pop in

                                                             relax

                                                           have a

                                                 nice cool drink’

                                            (windowpaint, spielothek amusement arcade,

                                                     prince of wales theatre, st. mary street).

          straight  to the front  of queue girls  tryna get ina philly, lines of

          boys  under lion  canopy pissing  their money  over each others’

          shoes not a long sleeve between em not a goosebump let loose.

     I’m still slightly unsure why Robson’s work didn’t appear in a recent anthology of Welsh innovative poetry – The Edge of Necessary – as he’s a singular voice whose work  deserves to be reconsidered and brought into view again. Hopefully this reprint will pave the way.

Steve Spence 18th January 2022

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