Bull, James Room
The Red Ceilings Press, £6.00
The fun of dialogue in poetry
This is a blessedly different pamphlet: physically, it’s A6, like a little notebook you can flick through – no page numbers, no punctuation: just the words.
And the words are, often, a conversation.
I adore single lines of dialogue embedded in poems. We know where we are: in between two people. And the lines of dialogue that drip through Bull are brilliantly human. Ironically.
Arguably the whole pamphlet is in dialogue, in sense even if it’s not a direct interaction, it’s an interaction with self. ‘When I was a young man I would often wait at bus / stops in the rain for no particular reason’, the first piece (‘Bull’) ruminates. And the second is entitled ‘I: ninety percent of what you say’:
Where is this? Bull asked
I have invented I’m
pretty pleased with it
a splayed black hoof What’s
Guttering I said
How brilliantly natural this dialogue is – and so like a Gary Larson cartoon, it makes me HAPPY!
Bull is often critical: ‘Hasn’t anyone ever told you / show don’t tell?’ one piece closes. And another sets out his store:
Ninety percent of what you say
Ten percent of what you say
has been said before One hundred
of what you say
fails to surprise me
That’s a little harsh I said
Isn’t this wonderful? A dialogue with self? A conversation between intimates? They talk about strange abstract things as though they were concrete – where a guest might sit. They bicker.
I can’t win I said
It’s not about winning
It’s about etiquette
Tiny details bring the whole context to life:
I stuck a spoon in my brûlée
Bull shifted in his seat
get comfy he complained
I love how, in so few words, this dialogue – and through it, relationship – is brought to life. It’s richnesses. And its limitations:
what I really meant
to say was that
he cut me off
Riding the muse
The muse comes in all shapes and forms, but she’s usually a ‘she’ and she’s not usually amusing.
Unlike James Roome’s ‘Bull’, a muse of memorable character, and an inspiration in more than one sense. Here’s how he’s introduced, in the little prose piece that opens this pocket-sized pamphlet:
[ ... ] I remember him placing his hoof to the side of his huge head in a gesture intended to mimic deep thought And I thought Now here’s an animal I can get behind Here’s something I can ride
That extract also serves to illustrate the style: these are fragments of poetry and prose with no punctuation. The start of a new statement is indicated with a capital letter, and this has a kind of tumbling effect. One sentence tipple-topples joyously into the next, and the reader has to recover herself periodically when directions switch.
‘Bull’ mocks his creator mercilessly. That’s only one of the features that makes him appealing. He is also a great painter (the alternative description of the sequence on the title page is ‘Conversations with The Great Painter’).
‘Lord loves a tryer’ — that’s what he says to our narrator, who is also an aspiring creative, though in fact Bull doesn’t say these words, he ‘guffawed’ them. That laughing, mocking verb conveys the exuberance that characterises these pages.
‘If you only draw one thing / make it birds’, says Bull. I like that, and also the way ‘light [falls] off his teeth like an avalanche’. He’s a cartoon character, larger than life, but utterly alive — and vulnerable.
So yes, it’s a relationship sequence, amusing but not trivial: an awkward, elaborate relationship between an aspiring painter-writer and the hard-drinking, reclusive Bull who is ‘not a bull in the traditional sense’ (he says so in an interview) but is a ‘powerful beast’, possibly.
‘You know / you’d do better / if you weren’t so nervous’ he tells the narrator. This unconventional muse is also the poet’s trainer.
And where does that lead? No spoilers here. But I think the outcome for this muse (for any muse, in fact) is precisely right.