Calder Wood Press, 2011 £4.50
Reviewed by Clare Best, Sue Butler and Richie McCaffery
I smiled reading this pamphlet. It made me think about the different kinds of humour in poems. And then about how difficult it is to write humorous poems. Balance is everything: a couple of smiles can ripple into laughter easily, whereas too many obvious jokes and bathos arrives with a thump. The whole poem can be undermined.
Successful funny poems, for me, are those that can be dead funny or dead serious, depending on how you read them and how you are feeling when you read them. There are at least several in Out of the Cave. ‘Notice’ stayed with me because of its last line, but I shall quote it in full because it is a good example of a humorous poem with a serious base:
It hath come to my attention—God wrote—
that employees make private calls
in company time on company phones,
sometimes more private than company calls.
This behaviour will cease forthwith
or lead to immediate forfeiture of job.
The following have already been dismissed:
Mammon, Moloch, Lucifer, Beelzebub.
The notion of any god writing memos made me smile (and led me on to think, after all, what about the Ten Commandments!); then there was the strangeness and ambiguity of the “sometimes more private than company calls” line. Then the simultaneous pomposity and vagary of line five, and the way the conclusion shows the entire poem is redundant anyway, as a warning, because the offenders have already been caught and “dismissed”. The list of names is a punchline with gravitas. The humour is underlined by rhyme and rhythm, and the overall conceit is absurd, but all too lifelike. The four offenders here were the entrepreneurial guys, the ones with nouse.
For me, ‘Experience’ is another successful humorous poem. It works because the bizarre juxtapositions of instructions raise discomfort levels to the point where the reader doesn’t have a clue what is coming next. It’s like verbal slapstick. And the whole idea of being able to put into a list poem all the elements of personal experience one thinks could be helpful to another person—this appealed to my sense of the ridiculous. Of course it is full of pathos, because we tend to try and do exactly this for other people, all the time.
I also enjoyed the irreverent take on the fictions attached to precious objects in ‘The Manuscript’, a good joke not only about the whole writing game, but also about the games of those who read and examine and study:
Here there’s a hole, perhaps pierced by a staple.
And might those be the marks of a dog’s teeth?
His hand jogged here by a groove in the table?
And this stuck white mass, what’s there, underneath?
The style and tone of Alistair Noon’s writing is nothing like John Ashbery’s but this collection did make me feel rather the same way I do when I read Ashbery. Namely, that there are great lines and arresting images, but they don’t occur frequently enough.
For example, I really enjoyed ‘The prizes’, which describes how the robes of the priest are embroidered “hour after walled hour/ by slender hands—delivered free of glitches” and where the congregation “exeunt through the neck-craning door,/ minds banged about till spiritually correct.” After the service the robes are carefully hung up, where they silently preserve “the contours of belief”. Lovely.
But then it took a while to get to ‘At the Kick-Off of Nations’, where the white blossom of poplar made bushes look as if they were wearing Russia kits, “while the trees kept on their Ireland shirts”. On the door of the Gents some graffiti reads (delightfully) “Psychiatry.org.”
For me, it isn’t enough to infuse a prose rhythm with rhyme and it doesn’t make what is being said a ballad, as in ‘The Ballad of the Burst Main’:
Early about among the New Towers
Of Rush, Risk and Insurance
That had sprouted abruptly like plastic flowers,
I gate crashed a course on endurance.
In ‘A Sort of Wilderness’ Noon says, “Any voice out here is a dark lake”. I’m a keen walker and this collection reminded me of walking through the wilderness of semi-arid steppe. There were some lines and images I wouldn’t have missed for the world, but there were also periods of dust and scrub grass.
As the pot pours, the leaves writhe.
should be epic.
This is the opening stanza from Noon’s ‘Green Tea’, a poem whose worldly advice to drink green tea and “rejoice” reminds the reader of a modern-day, health-obsessed Baudelaire. Here the goal is not to “get drunk, militantly” or to “gloat” and “plan too far ahead” but to drink green tea and prosper.
By contrast his poem ‘Wrench open thay bottle of vodka’ is in a much more bacchanalian vein, damning those “who manage nutritional hell”. Between the poète maudit of the carnival and the outspoken health-fanatic, Noon’s poetry drifts deftly. There is a MacNeice-like “drunkenness of things being various” to this diverse collection which ranges from the jeu d’esprit (such as the mock-managerial tones of ‘Notice’ which talks of the dismissal of “Mammon, Moloch, Lucifer, Beelzebub” for using the company phones for private calls) to far more troubling and uneasy territory, such as ‘Altercation with the Night’ where the tipsy poet argues with the night that threatens to “kidnap the stars”.
There is certainly a freewheeling feel here, where poems are largely anchored by often subtle rhyme schemes, becoming slightly more cumbrous in ‘The Ballad of the Burst Main’. Other reviewers have praised Noon’s “carefree” style, but it would be a mistake to take the poet’s wit as something insouciant: the enigmatic tones of the title poem and the constant shadow-play between light and dark make for unsettling moments at times.
Some of the most interesting pieces are the previously mentioned ‘The Ballad of the Burst Main’ and ‘Experience’ (which offers the reader advice to “read Kafka, Darwin and the instructions”). These poems, particularly the ballad, with its automated phone voice during a natural disaster—“if water near you’s getting deeper,/ press one” —remind the reader that this collection can be seen as an eschatological guidebook, or a Baedeker for the lost, interspersed with occasional flashes of drollery and life-affirmation.
Other poems seem reminiscent of something else, both familiar and estranging. ‘Manuscript’, for example, clearly carries overtones of Gregory Corso’s ‘I held a Shelley Manuscript’, but here “this script’s a ship we thought long lost and sunk”. In ‘Footnotes’ the poet claims that “what matters’ is “not where I’ve travelled/ but where I’ve lived” and in these poems, the voice often occupies some strange and interstitial places, forever slightly out of reach of the reader.