Friday, 2 September 2011

One Review - Iain Morrison


What’s it called?

Like by Colin Herd - The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2011

I’ve thought that the word ‘like’, which is the title of Colin Herd’s chapbook with The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, is and has been a problematic one for a poet of any era. Historically likely to appear more frequently than most other words in an artform much taken with likening, have poets not worried about the overuse of it’s ugly diphthong, it’s harsh plosive, the scarcity of useable alternatives? They surely have, and for a contemporary poet, in this postmodern game where the act of making metaphor has had its bluff called, the appearance of the word ‘like’ in a poem can point to an unfashionable, an unsophisticated, an un-metonymic mind.

All the more provocative then of this shape-shifting poet, to lead us into his poems on such a wrong-foot.

So, the three words on his chapbook’s cover read ‘Like Colin Herd’, but it is a question for the reader just how much ‘like’ Colin Herd this group of eleven poems is. To put it another way, how much would the poet align his voice with the aggregate of those presented in the poems? ‘Those’, for there is no clear overarching voice here. Through the poems, if we try to, we chase a wavering hologram of self-portrait, though probably not of Colin Herd’s self, any more than the perfume-hawking Eva Longoria of the poem ‘Eva Longoria’ is likely to be coterminous, or even concerned to appear so, with the woman who suffers from scent-related allergies – if we can trust the poem on the matter, that is.

In these poems, the concerns of a poet, or at least the causes of this poetry that must exist for real within the poems’ hall of mirrors, are glimpsed as his withdrawals, his tuckings away in our peripheral vision. I thought of Christopher Isherwood’s attestation, ‘I am a camera’ and the lie given to this by the glaring omission of the juicy bits in his Berlin novels. In fact, that seems more right than what I started out saying in the last paragraph – if a self-portrait is present, it is only there as much as in the television programme Through the Keyhole where the audience is invited to guess ‘What sort of a person would live in a house like this?’. This poetry seems more and more to me to set about collecting voices in a miscellany that throws up an impossibility of cohesion or of straight-forwardness.

Incidentally the poem ‘Denise Levertov’ felt like it allowed this reader closer to the poet than some of the others. It reminded me of the 1958 quarrel between poets Helen Adam and Denise Levertov in one camp and Jack Spicer in the other. Following a perceived insult by Spicer to the two women at a party held to celebrate their writing, the camps became defined along woman poet v. male poet lines, or perhaps woman v. man, or perhaps, as Levertov seemed to indicate in a letter to Lewis Ellingham (as quoted in his and Kevin Killian’s Spicer biography Poet Be Like God) in which she says ‘I find homosexual males & lesbians uncongenial in groups’, straight v. gay. Spicer’s ‘insult’ took the shape of a poem he read out at the occasion which included the phrase ‘The female genital organ is hideous’ and then later ‘Men ought to love men/ (And do)/ As the man said/ It’s/ Rosemary for remembrance.’. Afterwards Helen Adam had a dream in which she delivered letters (another image from Spicer’s rather good poem), apologising as she did so for being a woman. The presence here of dreaming and hating and of Denise Levertov made me wonder if somewhere in Colin Herd’s poem, there is an act of reparation, or perhaps of revenge?

denise levertov
dreamed the thong of her sandal
broke

that’s a bad dream

i dreamed i was able
to mend
her dream-sandal, and did
so, very carefully.

she hated me for it, i think,
in the dream.

To return to the chapbook’s title, omission, redundancy and unsureness are all also present in that word ‘like’ when it is used, like it probably is conversationally at least half the time in Scotland, as merely a space-filler, as a cover-up for not knowing what to say. Of a certain attractive ignorance.

Why are these poems made of such stuff? Which motives is Colin Herd not fessing up to? There are clues, like, because his poems go further than Isherwood’s novels in allowing their voices the act of liking. ‘Franz Kline’ begins ‘i really like the famous/black and white paintings/of franz kline.’, while ‘Read My Lips’ begins, ‘i’m such a fan’. We begin to sense what the poet is getting at in this opener about a ‘favourite wax-sculptor’ from the team at Madame Tussauds. The speaker of the poem has, with a connoisseur’s relish, detected one particular hand in work designed only to be appreciated for its seamless replication of reality. And yet, the voice’s appreciation is only fuelled further by the inside knowledge he has gained. He speaks like a master forger admiring his hero, like the wannabe of Morrissey’s song ‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’ who is admiring not his tabloid monster mentor but the exquisite art in his self-construction. There is something murderous about each.

In ‘Cumbernauld’ this exploration of the ‘artificially’ constructed is extended into 1950’s town-planning. Colin Herd spent some time growing up in the Scottish new town this poem centres on, or rather tracks, as it is variously manifested in a series of video clips. The last phrase in the poem, which I took at first to be throwaway if not fully sarcastic, began to seem more generous and somewhere between confident and optimistic when I considered it from the perspective of someone who knew their home town to have come fresh from an architect’s drawing board. Here, and in the rest of these poems, there might be an endorsement of DIY culture, or more simply, acts of making (or of making up in at least two senses); their endless possibilities. The Bryce Family of ‘Cumbernauld’ even provide a sort of creation myth for the town and for the Modern age.

The chorus of Like’s voices fetishises an occlusion of the self. It leads us towards a point where the self might forget that it was ever something wild and untameable, or maybe it never was – maybe the poet doesn’t buy in to that notion. Think celebrity culture: there is a neutering, an abnegation of responsibility in these voices with every visceral experience frozen behind a glossy marketing product which allows us to lean in to the dead lips of George Bush Senior or to coolly view the end of a teacher’s career wrought by vindictive pupils. We are in the viewing chamber and are entreated to behave as such.

And the view from this chamber looks like an intriguing combination of Heat magazine and Who’s Who. Dougie Poynter rubs shoulders with Denise Levertov, so perhaps it’s actually more fantasy dinner party territory. There’s little separation between discreet worlds.

The lack of discretion relates to another likely source for the chapbook’s title: facebook with it’s ubiquitous ‘like’ button. In the World Wide Web evoked by this reading, incongruent content is flattened and vertiginously stacked. The communal voice of Wikipedia is imitated to teasingly bamboozling effect in ‘Turboprop’, and an enthusiastic nutter invites us to his or her page in ‘How to growl: Starter Techniques’, then we are treated to a series of video clips, perhaps brought up by the search-term ‘Cumbernauld’.

As  I wrote that last paragraph, a nagging possibility came into my head. I have just gone online to see if all this stuff is really there. It is! I just watched the video of the growling man who takes himself SO seriously it’s quite too hilarious. Colin Herd is making me look at things - weird things. Now I’m beginning to think that maybe this is partly what he’s aiming at: to force awareness of groups we might feel unrelated to or even alienated from and moreover, to force us to see them dispassionately. The level voices make it pretty hard for the reader to be judgemental. Is this taking us back into ‘I am a camera’ territory? In fact even the perceived mainstream is having its tightly-fitted lid lifted. This is the queering of everything with boggling political ramifications.

Anyway, I’ve also just checked the Wikipedia entry for ‘turboprop’ and yes, I found the text of Herd’s poem pretty much verbatim. It’s hard to tell whether it’s only not completely verbatim because of Wikipedia’s shifting sands, but I’m choosing to enjoy the thought that here we have a teasing intro from the poet himself with ‘nozzle, obviously.’.

The experience of sifting boredly through a tedious morass of online bumf to find what you’re halfway looking for is an act of reading/researching we have had to adapt to en masse only in the last generation. Are Colin Herd’s acts of transcription or near-transcription a clue to one of his themes – the relation of the individual to internet culture: the acceptance of new ways of seeing, interpreting and relating that the internet has demanded of us?

Such a take on the poems could be followed into its moral implications. The challenge of our age might prove to be the making of moral decisions when nothing is swept under the carpet out of sight anymore. Everything is there, hanging around in cyberspace like the YouTube suicide video of a high-school teen-killer, justifying itself incompatibly with everything in opposition to it.

The contest between an individual consciousness, like Colin Herd’s, and the illusory communal ones is lost here, every time at the first hurdle, without a fight. This is poetry as pratfall. But think how enduring those vaudeville acts of seeming levity have proved as a guide to the prevailing social pressures of the silent film era. The everyman characters of Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin’s loveable tramp come to mind.

And with the silent film era, we arrive at another of Herd’s celebrity cameos. In ‘I am’, the protagonist, in an act of Promethean theft, attempts to take an eyeball from the man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney. This is a poet who is not afraid to become disfigured to get everybody’s points across.

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