Frisky Moll Press, 2009 £3.00
Reviewed by Matt Merritt, Emma Lee and Ross Kightly
I’m not one of those people who gets sniffy about light verse. Done well—really well—I reckon it’s just about as difficult to write as poetry gets.
Which means, I suppose, that Patrick McManus has set himself an unenviably difficult task in this self-illustrated chapbook.
On the one hand, he starts well by creating a consistent and engaging poetic persona—a little bit put-upon and hapless, but self-deprecating and often quietly romantic.
On the other, too often the persona is asked to do far too much of the work. So there are lots of nice little observations and ironies, enough to raise a smile, but not enough that lodge themselves in the reader’s memory, and no real belly laughs.
In part that might be because of the poet’s style, with short lines of free verse invariably used. Unfortunately, at times it undermines the tone he’s going for, giving the impression of trying to impart unnecessary gravitas to essentially light-hearted anecdotes.
At times, too, the brevity of the poems works against them. Anecdotes or whimsical observations remain just that when not developed far beyond their starting point. Even one of the longer pieces, ‘Good Intentions’, doesn’t get much further than cataloguing clichés. It’s frustrating, because you get the impression that McManus could do better.
So, the best parts of the pamphlet, for me, were when McManus let go a little. Castle, for example, sees a man walking into a Victorian china ornament after hearing “a long unheard voice”, goes beyond being mildly odd, and becomes genuinely touching. It would have been nice to see more in this vein.
Having said all that, £3.00 is next to nothing for a pamphlet. There’s gentle and unfailing good humour here, and occasionally something more.
I imagine these poems going down well at an open microphone poetry event: they are accessible and generally work towards a punch line. For example ‘Imaginary Poems’ ends
ten pounds only
However, having got the joke, it doesn’t stand up to re-reading. I found my eye skimming over the repetitions of “imaginary” and the alliterative phrasing—lines ending “poems”, “poet”, “publisher” and “printer”—interrupted by lines ending in “anthology” and “illustrator”. I struggled to find something to justify giving it another read.
In ‘Hastily’, an unnamed ‘she’ explains to an unnamed ‘he’ that she
she was not
to an accident
his manly parts
Again, it doesn’t carry enough weight to justify being read again. There aren’t any poetic devices in play and the line breaks seem arbitrary. There’s no syllable pattern or stress pattern; some lines end on weak stresses, some strong. It’s as if the writer decided he needed short lines to differentiate his piece from prose. I re-wrote this as prose and found the only difference was I tended to read it faster.
Overall, On the Dig feels like a series of verbal cartoons tucked away in a newspaper supplement to fill space the tele-sales team didn’t manage to sell as advertising. It shows a dry humour and some wry observations, but it was an effort to read it more than once. I wanted more wordplay, more hints and attempts to tease out meaning. I wanted a sense that the poet could brush off a bit of dirt and uncover an elusive treasure, instead of presenting me with sterile words, trapped in a glass case permitting effortless viewing from every angle, and leaving me with the suspicion that the treasure inside was fools’ gold.
There’s something immensely engaging about this pamphlet, but I am somewhat hesitant about committing myself to specifying exactly what it is.
It might be the sometimes very appealing line drawings by the author; or it might be the light and ironic and playful and sceptical and colloquial tone of most of the poems; or it might be the fact that reading the poems often made me smile and nod and say, Yeahhh!
All of that adds up to that fact that considerable pleasure may be obtained from reading this little collection of 43 poems. So why should I be hesitant about the thing?
There are several answers to this question. First, the drawings can be intrusive, sometimes blurring the integrity of the typesetting (and though that is precisely the point, I presume, it still disturbed me). And though at times the illustration is part of the Yeahhh! reaction, at other times it becomes more a matter of Wha—?
The second point is that many of these are very long thin poems—and though I know there are quite a few schools of thought on this matter of ‘the shape of the poem on the page’, I did at times wonder why the particular form had been chosen. Dare I suggest that sometimes it even seemed that an etiolated shape was expected to justify the claim of ‘poem’ rather than ‘maxim’ or ‘aphorism’. A couple of demonstrations:
over the years
over the years
However, it should be taken as a distinct compliment that I occasionally found myself thinking of one of my most beloved poets when reading this collection. ‘Geography’ has a distinct atmosphere of e e cummings about it, with its conclusion:
[ . . . ] her/rampant hot moist/fecund tropical/equatorial zones