I have been intending to write about this particular ice cream since the publication of ‘Egg Hunt Triumph’ in the first issue of the Cambridge Literary Review in 2009. This was to go along the lines of “Luke Roberts is a young poet of enormous talent who deserves a much wider readership”. I’d come to this conclusion because of the exuberance of the language and the quite original wit. I would have used this as an example:
Was there a garden, was there
ever ice cream in my pockets,
repeating others, steam pressed
live & in lying you're at work,
crying and masturbating, you want
to be in the world, locked safety
to your body pressed in a cubicle
you have so many
so much stuff. The police come in and shoot you.
Then I would have drawn attention to the ice cream as startling and breathtaking before going on to extol the brilliance of ‘you have so many / feelings, / so much stuff’ and gone on to talk about the advantages of properly used understatement and juxtaposition and expressed the view that messing about with words on lines can be quite mannered and annoying but seems perfectly appropriate here.
I didn’t do any of this but now Mountain Press have published Luke’s “False Flags” which everybody should buy- along with Timothy Thornton’s ‘Jocund Day’ from the same publishers.
I’m going to try a sampled poem-by-poem account of why we all need to pay attention to Roberts’ work:
Colossal Boredom Swan Song
This might be about poetry since it contains a fair number of poem related terms, including ‘New British Poetry’ which is followed by ‘warring clams’ which I’m taking to be a reference to Prynne and all things Cambridge. However it might also be about swans as in real swans or as in poetic / literary swans or big birds in general as pelicans and geese are also mentioned. There is a welcome absence of foreign words and phrases, the only word that I needed to look up, Axolotl, which got me into neoteny and the literary tradition relating to salamanders in general. As can be seen, there’s a lot going on in this poem. Here’s the sixth (out of seven) stanza-
Repair my aim. The cutlery draw is open and the forks
are dull. Galileo swoops from the sky and kills the whole farmyard,
tearing the throats of geese with his universe, holding
down pigs, ripping the tails from rabbits to fashion
a new love. In a boat made of knives, he walks through
the river saying: 'living is so hard is so easy'. Tender
goes the song, swans high five, they can't high five,
the weak slap down the strong.
As can be seen, this isn’t exactly straightforward but it is inventive and sets off a series of thoughts and possible connections across the rest of the poem. There’s also something deeply strange going on (‘ripping the tails from rabbits to fashion / a new love’) and this strangeness emerges in most of the other poems in a way that I find quite compelling.
Egg Hunt Triumph.
The title may or may not refer to the seventh poem in Prynne’s ‘Pearls That Were’ sequence which, as Pete Smith has pointed out, is itself a version of a poem by Che Qianzi whose work has been described by Maghiel Van Crevel as both nonsensical and breathtaking with a style that is “light-footed, but also tenacious and capable of generating a dream-like, unique experience” and it may be that this is one of the ‘keys’ to Roberts’ work. I’ll try and show how this light-footed tenacity is brought into play. This is another stanza from ‘Egg Hunt Triumph’:
where I rectangle
sometimes, attempting jokes
gets small and dies. We were eating
soup. Everyone stared & the Tamils
starved themselves to death outside.
The next stanza ends with “being that thin is probably / not going to be okay”. What is clear is that this poem expresses more than a degree of angry political engagement that also does fascinating things with language- what exactly might it mean to rectangle and is it okay to attempt jokes if you’re a room?
The Sonar Deal
This poem is from the ‘False Flags’ sequence that takes up the second part of the collection. The note at the back tells us that a false flag operation is one in which one group tries to ascribe some act of violence to another and that ‘The Sonar Deal’ takes its point of departure the first 200 lines of Pound’s Canto 96.
The sad truth is that I’ve never managed to get that far with Pound but have now sped read the first four or five pages and what appears to be going on in some kind of faux archival chronology concerning the transition fro the Roman Empire to what we now refer to as the early medieval period. Mention is made of several emperors and the circumstances of Charlemagne’s rise to glory with bits of more contemporary / current stuff being thrown in. I must stress that this is only the flimsiest of impressions and not intended as a proper account.
The epigraph to ‘The Sonar Deal’ reads like some Tudor do-it-yourself spycraft kit penned by Thomas Phelippes but probably isn’t. The poem itself is an extended riff on the end of the cold war and the respective Soviet and American empires. Repeated reference is made to the Fischer/Spassky encounter and what became of both protagonists. Towards the end we get this-
The Post=War of
sport and architecture. The Post-War of
coups and targeted take outs,
fake out a frontier
fake outdoor palm trees
and we're back in Iraq,
with all the trees beheaded
Vague technical-sounding lament
and I go nostalgic, leaning for context, metal stocks
by the boat-bridge over Euphrates.
I freely confess to an interest in this kind of stuff, I’m of the view that we need to have a clearer understanding of empire and of imperial behaviours and this is the kind of intelligent and considered analysis than can and should (must) be expressed in poetic form. There’s a degree of verbal ingenuity and Prynnian wordplay going on but we also have a line about going nostalgic and leaning for context which encapsulates brilliantly the means by which we go gently grasping our way to some kind of personal sense.
I think I need to say that the rest of the poems are just as good as these three and that ‘False Flags’ should give all of us some further degree of confidence in the future of British verse.
This is a mere £6.50 from Mountain Press. Once again, there is no excuse.