Windfall Books, 2010 £3.00 + 0.50 p&p
Reviewed by Richard Kemp, Ross Kightly and Paul Lee
One of the first things that occurred to me was that I couldn’t think who the work (the style of writing) readily compared with—and that is a good thing. Michael Pederson has a vision of experience that held my attention through the collection. This, from the beginning of ‘Crumbs’:
Overdue bills crowd the vestibule, the welcome mat
is boorish as Dundee doormen. Every morning, sums
surface for breakfast: a medley of burnt toast
and eggs unfit for dipping: spoons fill in for forks,
sausage for sirloin but, still, the numbers don’t tally.
This is the territory we’re in for the most part. And it’s an enjoyable place to be. Personally I feel a bit sick when somebody can write well at 25, as Pederson does, but anyway . . . Pederson is interested and, I get the impression, likes what he’s describing; there is a kind of positivity to the work—we’re not in Larkin’s ‘we’re all going to die’ neighbourhood here. Sean O’Brien talks about how good poetry, like love, relies on a kind of recognition, I often had that sense reading these poems.
There’s something likeable about the often bleak locales combined with lightness of descriptive tone. This is a world Pederson seems to get something from living in. From ‘Jobseeker’:
weaving through words
as electronic Job Points
gesture like madmen—
If you like rich mix of overloaded language this pamphlet is for you—the info page in the front tells us the author was 25 when this was published in 2010 and it certainly feels like a young man’s book with its density of texture and enjoyment of words and phrase-making. Who wouldn’t like to be young again? This is what it feels like. It really feels, this does.
For instance ‘Quitting Cheese’ with its queasy rhythms is nicely mimetic of the subject matter of “discontentment” and the last stanza with its list of excesses draws the reader to the reason for uneasiness: revisiting Nottingham has led to
. . . that fateful feeling
of having peaked too early.
Before my Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus clued me into the meaning of the last word of the title in ‘The day is dreich’ its meaning was clear enough even to a Sassenach with limited acquaintance with Scots usage. The poem is anything but dreich, however. Although the setting is a sodden picnic at rainy summit and the sandwiches are both dripping and over-seasoned, and the narrator continues to be bewildered about the cycle of his life, there’s a dry ironic edge to the whole poem that is extraordinarily bracing.
The melancholy meditation in ‘Water-Features’ is carried along on a sustained aqueous metaphor with lovely verbs like “cascade and thrum”, “trickle and splash”, cutting, battering, sliding, running and stilled, with the narrator, one presumes, becoming the
. . . ox-bow lake
from its ambitious river
Yes, there’s a genuine sadness in some of the poems without a hint of self-pity. And there is also a great deal of apparently straightforward description and effective imagery: in ‘News Cast’
the oily trigger of a motor-bike engine
wakes the narrator and in ‘Crumbs’
Overdue bills crowd the vestibule, the welcome mat
is boorish as a Dundee doorman . . .
Perhaps the density of ‘Bill watches his reflection’ means it demands several readings, which are rewarded in my case with only some understanding. However, several of the images are striking and immediately accessible: “thumb/ meets fabric the way a cat’s tongue greets a fingertip”, for instance.
There’s also genuine compassion in many of the poems and if at times the diet is creamy indeed and the reader feels somewhat over-faced by the banquet, there’s much else to compensate. ‘Edinburgh Festival’ closes with one of the weirdest and most effective images I’ve encountered for a long time where a kilted drunk goes
. . . somersaulting
down the Mile — the way
our whole city does
at this time of the year.
I can’t help feeling you can forgive a poet almost anything in exchange for that alone.
There can be a heady excitement in finding the poetic impulse within you, and then finding yourself writing what might be poems. It can carry you away, leading you to try too hard to be what you think is ‘poetic’, or to hoover up the lush pasturage of the English language, when you should be grazing sparingly. You overload your lines, use the wrong word or commit neologisms (there’s no such thing as ‘poetic licence’), your imagery and similes strain for effect, and meaning is buried in the clutter. Hey, I can tick the box myself. It’s where Michael Pedersen is, or was, because I do not know how old these poems are. So, he gives us impenetrabilities such as:
. . . the traveller to ex-patriate evolution
is of paralleled preciousness to cigarette ash.
Note the unnecessary hyphenation, something he does throughout the book. Do traffic jams really “fester like old fruit”? Or is a broken heart (sic) “. . . public, purulent/ as a lather of onion grok/ lining the upper lip”? Well, I’m sure he knows what he means.
What does come across in the book is exuberance and charm, and a refreshing openness to experience. I like his use of regular stanzas, the energy and rhythm of his lines, and his clear delight in language, in spite of my carpings. He’s also capable of wonderful similes:
Arthur’s Seat and Other Peaks tower overhead
like behemoth bull seals, whiskers from a brawl.
There are several simpler poems included, and they are by far the best in the book. If they are recent, they would suggest he is making what Norman MacCaig calls “the long haul to lucidity”. For example, I really liked the final poem, ‘Water Features’, about a failed relationship, the two protagonists described as:
. . . an oxbow lake
from its ambitious river,
one of us running,
the other stilled.