HappenStance, 2009 £4.00
Sphinx High Striper
Reviewed by Jon Stone, Stephen Payne and Nathan Thompson
Mark Halliday makes an art of being hard to pin down. Like a rubbery cartoon character constantly bouncing back from failure, he changes tack from poem to poem, as if each one were a brand new harebrained scheme. Even with a single piece, there is a sense of the poet second-guessing the reader, starting off in one direction and then switching as soon as you think you might know where it’s heading. Take the rich opener, ‘Numerous Swans’, which begins:
So many brooding swans like floating inkstains on a lake of
Then, just as you’re thinking, ‘That’s coming on a bit strong’, Halliday neatly undercuts himself:
Really a lot, like more than fifty.
He does this a few more times for good measure, following an unwieldy turn of phrase with the self-referential “as I turn my phrase like a dinghy and the oars clack/ in the melancholy oarlocks” but never quite making the leap into pure parody. ‘Ketchup and Heaven’, meanwhile, has all the hallmarks of stream-of-consciousness poetry but belies its apparent intention by building up little motifs. Sometimes he seems to be writing about himself but leaves clues that he’s writing about something else, and vice versa. He makes use of rambling monologues that don’t go on too long, and onomatopoeia that transmogrifies into Carrollian nonsense-verse.
Such post-modern play can seem lazy or desperate, but Halliday exercises impeccable control, keeping the voice from becoming either overly chummy or defensive. Amid the quirkiness and mockingly self-conscious quippery, there’s still a seriousness to the endeavour and a sense of the lines, the sounds and the jokes all being carefully arranged, partly to keep surprising the reader and partly, one suspects, finally to trap himself.
What is it with some Americans, that they can talk so fast and so much and so entertainingly? I have some American academic colleagues that Mark Halliday’s poetry puts me in mind of. I think of them as somehow super-articulate, as if—unlike the rest of us—they don’t need to plan, or even much to consider what they say, confident that it will be interesting in any case. Call it a lack of inhibition. Call it a warranted lack of inhibition.
These poem are teeming with words, and they carry the reader along on their torrent. Most of the time they use the unadorned language of speech—a saloon-bar rhetoric. There’s no aesthetic here of every phrase, every word earning its keep. When you can write this well, this charmingly, why shouldn’t you add a few overstatements and discursions—at topic level and at sentence level?
Nor has anyone told Halliday that poems about writing are a no-no. I’m glad. Many of the poems are about the travails of being a self-aware poet. Poetic devices are mocked as they are used, in a kind of post-modern comedy:
possibly as many as sixty, swans the inky color of night,
they are my thoughts if you haven’t twigged to that already
Ultimately, what’s compelling about this poetry is that these various characteristics combine to produce work that is funny and touching, often at the same time—the best trick of all, in my book. One of the most affective poems is an elegy for a writer friend:
Those shrubs down by the septic tank
really ought to be trimmed. But I say
I want to write. What am I thinking?
He died, and people don’t read his books.
Mark Halliday is a master of the undercut, of uncertainty, and of the beautiful image feeling its way. Every line in this pamphlet makes you ask questions. And Halliday is gratifyingly unafraid of bursting his own balloons. He’s that rare thing: a poet self-aware enough to know when he’s writing beautiful crap and dexterous enough to do something about it without negating it:
So many brooding swans like floating inkstains on a lake of
slender wakefulness. Really a lot, like more than fifty.
White inkstains? You’ve got to love the image in the first place for the way it rearranges your perceptions and subverts your preconceptions—you’re already in there asking questions—but the undercut that follows, deliberately flattening the tone, draws your attention to just how wacky the previous line and a half have been and, if you’re like me, this will make you smile.
The affectionate pot-shots at Yeats and his adjective-heavy style (wonderful in its context of course) have the effect of providing another angle of unsettlement, further undermining the primacy of the lyric ‘I’ that flits in and out of this collection. And this is all part of the levelling experience of reading these poems. Halliday doesn’t pretend to know more than you as a reader—instead he engages you in conversation. And the great thing about this approach is that you don’t need to agree with him to engage with him, which sets his poetry apart from the rather didactic, epiphany-heavy ‘I’m up here telling you down there how to feel things because I’m a Poet’ delivery of much mainstream British poetry. The minute you say, ‘no, not really—I’m not feeling it’ to the latter kind of poem, you can admire its technical merits from a distance but any chance of engaging with it disappears in a cloud of neo-Georgian smoke. In Halliday’s writing, on the other hand, a shared imaginative experience is achieved—the experience of the poem floating happily somewhere between writer and reader, tossed into conversation rather than from the poetic pulpit.
I also like that Halliday isn’t frightened of his imagination. His writing reinforces the point that you don’t actually have to have been somewhere, or done or seen something, in order to write a poem. After all, poetry is, or should be, imaginative experience rather than over-written reportage. And he doesn’t hold back from telling us this in mock-hectoring tones (he’s talking about the “five angels with blue feet who come softly to evaluate any writer who’s just died” here):
These sky-color critics, never in a hurry,
make YOU seem so unfair—
you living readers, all from Missouri,
you can only admire what’s actually there.
(‘Drafts to Impress the Angels’)
Halliday takes the laid-back diction of the New York school and updates it so it sings in a contemporary, often domestic, context. This means that he can get away with ‘big ideas’, chucked in casually, in a way that a more self-consciously ‘poetic’ writer wouldn’t. And playfulness, even in the face of such ‘big subjects’ somehow makes them more poignant:
A week after I die there will be
a woman with black hair who should have met me a long time ago
sensing something of the greatest importance
as she listens to a string quartet by Boccherini.
Mark Halliday self-confessedly deals in ‘ultra-talk’ poetry. And if this is ultra-talk in action, I want to be part of the conversation.