The Culture of My Stuff
Adam Crothers, Carcanet, 2020, 84 pps, £10.99
DEREK TURNER finds a celebrated poet’s latest collection dazzling but lightweight
This slender assemblage comes weighted with prestige – Adam Crothers’ prize-winning history (Shine/Strong and Seamus Heaney Centre in 2017), and endorsements of his latest offering by equally well-regarded contemporaries. But any potential ponderousness is undercut even before opening. These are “political nonsense rhymes”, says the back cover. It is “a joybomb of wit, play, sass and Heideggerian thinginess”, Caoilinn Hughes enthuses – “linguistic pirouetting”, smiles Susannah Dickey – while for Thomas McCarthy, Crowther’s unmistakable Ulsterness has been given “a metallic spray-job in some garage near the English fens” (Crothers lives in Cambridge).
“Sass” has probably never been applied to anything truly substantial, and “linguistic pirouetting” sounds ominously like riddling for riddling’s sake. The terms are therefore unfortunately applicable to this corpus, notwithstanding many excellent qualities. McCarthy’s motoring metaphor may get closest of all, because these poems feel full of restless discontent – and below their pearlescent pigments you can see a running-to-rust cultural chassis. Crothers’ work glisters with novel imagery, unlikely rhymes, and humorous self-awareness, but all these painterly effects take priority over the bits of the vehicle that need to touch the ground.
The poems feel oddly evanescent, although they mask an ostensibly rational materialist philosophy. “Stuff” and “culture” in this worldview are almost-equivalents, as if culture derives ultimately from possessions. Clothes mostly make the man according to this outlook, culture is contextual and life transactional, and poetry is more about musicality than meaningfulness. The most irreducible ideas, identities, and issues are seen through a reductive prism, as if Brexit, colonialism, nationalism, Protestantism, the Troubles, Trump, the ‘male gaze’ and other conventional talking points are mostly traceable to the murky operations of markets, and Western moral bankruptcy. To go back to the back cover, Crothers is “unable to transcend the consumerist violence of the world”.
This is a glittering sports car being driven at speed across broken country; you admire, and sometimes wince, as you watch. And the poet may half-know, in ‘Cernunnos’ lamenting the
vocabularies of being away. Vocabularies of an absent god.
Hell is other people having one hell of a year Heaven is a half rhyme. God is queer
Is he avaunting the Void with his vast cleverness?
It feels difficult to care about archly-evoked STDs –
“Well excuse me while I feng-shui the universe To accommodate your double-parked aura! There’s something impolite behind your arras”.
It is tempting to flick past the rhyming dictionary-reminiscent
“dead mirrorballs throwing shades like it’s panties Over my ruckus, I can scarcely hear Dante”
or the improbable pairings of blink, skink, mink, kink, stink and plinks in ‘Parrhasius’.
Yet there are fine moments when the playfulness is put away, as in ‘Muntjac’, a cold camera-trap snap of ultra-alertness –
“The night’s stick Snaps beneath a beautiful frigid hoof. Faith, frighted, yields what little ground was gained.”
It feels like genuine tenderness in ‘Goldfinch’ –
“Of the two finches glimpsed in the garden I can filch no vocab to farewell the gone one”
But then the showing off comes surging back, like the wit-for-wit’s-sake ‘Deriding a horse’ –
“Slag nag. It’s nigh ridiculous that you’re The gal in gallop and the can’t in canter The sad in saddle-sores on the Infanta Persisting in your grand vainglory. Lor”
To quote his ‘Nugget’, such touches make the reader want to “Make like the sheepdog and get the flock out of there”.
And this is a shame, because behind all the flourishes there is feeling, beyond the artifice a sense of a likeable man astutely alive in our too often nonsensical world.
DEREK TURNER is the Editor of The Brazen Head, as well as a novelist (A Modern Journey, Displacement, and Sea Changes) and reviewer. Some of his writing may be found at www.derek-turner.com He is also on Twitter – @derekturner1964