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Using comedy with serious intent

It’s usually the case, isn’t it, that the funniest poets, like the best comedians, use humour to set out universal, melancholy truths. In a manner reminiscent of Philip Larkin (whose ‘The Trees’ she quotes) and Selima Hill, Annie Fisher writes poems of outlandish comedy undercut by profound seriousness.

The first five here address the awkwardness and scariness of childhood. For example, ‘In Hiding’ features parents who do anything but look out for their child: ‘my mother / who saw Christ in every soul / played nocturnes / on the out-of-tune piano in the hall’. Most memorably, in ‘The Gate’, a menacing character, ‘Uncle Paul’, would ‘crook his yellow finger, / croaking foreign words / like some ancient / wrinkled frog / from down the well’, and then, it is implied, do much worse.

Comic, Mr-Bleaney-ish detail makes up ‘Hotel Restaurant’, which ought to be widely anthologised: it’s so exquisitely formed it would be criminal to quote selectively. Other excellent poems touch on dieting/anorexia (‘Ghost’ — ‘She tries to calculate / the calories in birdsong’), the vicissitudes of love for children and one’s partner (‘You Almost Said’), and the everyday bonkers oddness (‘Cannibal’) of a bunch of grapes (somehow believably) eating another bunch within a fridge.

The sonnet ‘Insurance Plan’ is also a Larkinesque masterpiece, perfectly tackling the pathos of middle-aged male disappointment:

Let-downs ambushed him throughout his life —
the taste of fresh-perked coffee; aubergines;
live albums; picnics; Camembert; his wife.

'Insurance Plan' is a note-perfect sonnet, beautifully paced (through judicious inclusion of short sentences among longer ones) to wring serio-comic resonance out of its form.

Two pieces with flamboyant titles — ‘The Jungle Waits Outside, My Best Beloved’ and ‘The Orange Lobster and The Hens’ — have content that lives up to expectation, respectively concerning a zoo-trip with a non-neurotypical grandchild, and a train journey interrupted by a hen party.  

The title-poem, in which the narrator filmically reflects on surviving a life-threatening condition, is perhaps the most serious, and hints at some kind of Faustian pact with God. Like much of this lovely collection, it’s a delicate gem, in deceptively straightforward, compelling language.

Matthew Paul