Nasty Little Press, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Fiona Sinclair, Nick Asbury and Matt Merritt
I can confidently say I am Martin Figura’s target audience. This collection gives voice to a new generation of middle-aged people who are refusing to grow old gracefully.
The poem ‘Still’ seems to me to be at the heart of the collection, dealing as it does with the tension between our youth-obsessed culture and this new breed of middle-aged people who don’t want to curtail their life just because they’ve hit forty.
The narrator’s voice is at first tentative as he/she begins to challenge all the pleasures society would deny us. The plaintive opening lines ‘‘Tell me who’s to say what beautiful is,’’ reference the prevailing belief that only the young are deemed attractive.
Yet the persona gradually becomes more defiant: ‘‘And who’s’ to say I shouldn’t dance, when this baby just wants to dance’’. The line recalling images of teenagers cringing at their father’s “dad dancing” on the disco floor. However, the poem evokes a more primal movement reminiscent of Isadora Duncan, the sense of abandonment aided by Figura’s fine use of enjambment.
Sex amongst older people is of course abhorred by the young. However, by this stage of the poem the persona is bolder in his/her social defiance: “so give me lord someone to hold’’. Figura portrays well the pleasures of mature, confident sex: ‘’gone are the days when we must grope in the darkness’’. The build up of sensual language (“we’ll touch, and kiss and touch and heave ourselves together’’) renders the reader somewhat envious of the fun the persona is having. I did like Figura’s honest presentation of middle-aged bodies here: ‘’fifty years putting flesh on these bones”. Indeed, he positively celebrates this abundance of flesh by repeating the word until I had an image of Rubens-esque figures making love.
Not all the poems in the collection paint middle-aged life as a glorious second youth, though. One poem in particular, ’Break Up Dream’, reveals it’s not just the young who can be caught up in a painful relationship. The poem is unusual in revealing the deep-seated fears of a middle-aged man. It’s a dreamscape, which perhaps accounts for its honesty. In the dream the man is publicly rejected on the ‘’Town Hall steps’’ The humiliation exacted on him by the woman makes for uncomfortable reading. Figura taps into our deep-seated fears here by using a fresh take on the nightmare of being caught naked in public. I cringed in sympathy at the lines:
.......while I’m led away in my little vest
.......my privates hide in a policeman’s helmet . . .
but it was the description of the man’s shopping being tipped out for everyone to see (the ‘’various chemistry purple pills that make men pee’’) that touched me more. It highlighted how, despite our trips to Glastonbury, this is the reality of getting older.
Some poems are so obviously suited to live performance that you feel like you’re reading the lyrics to an album you’ve never heard—entertaining, but only a shadow of the real thing. There are quite a few like that in this good-humoured collection by photographer, poet and ex-Army Major Martin Figura.
‘Dear Mr and Mrs Ainscough’ includes several big-laugh moments, the best (for me) being “even young people find Bono annoying”.
‘Talking’ is a dramatic monologue by someone who talks far too much. You can imagine the rapid-fire, breathless delivery that would accompany it.
Then there’s ‘AHEM’, a middle-aged re-imagining of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ that begins:
.......I saw the best suits of my parent’s generation
.......destroyed by poor tailoring, synthetic fibre
.......and hysterical lapels.
Again, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how that could go down well at any number of festivals and readings.
But the more I kept reading, the more I found rewards on the page itself. There’s a literary sensibility that takes the poems beyond simple stand-up routines and into more complex territory. Take the haiku ‘Family Christmas’:
.......Every single year
.......we gather around the tree
.......opening old wounds.
Simple, but says it all.
‘I Don’t Know Where It All Went Wrong, But My Life’s Turned Into a Tom Waits Song’ is worth recommending for the title alone. The final stanza is one of my favourite passages in the collection:
.......In the morning, a hefty dwarf sits on my chest, beats my head
.......with his wooden leg, hands me a cigarette and a Coca-Cola
.......flips a coin, sets the television set on fire and leaves
.......with my dog Pete. The disc jockey on the radio
.......says it’s another rainy day outside, so you look
.......and sure enough, it’s another rainy day outside.
There are a few moments where the humour doesn’t work for me. ‘Acrostic’ might well get rejected from Viz for being too immature. But again, it would probably work better live, where the joke would take some working out and get a nice delayed reaction.
Which brings us back to where we came in—a good collection that occasionally feels like a live performance written down, but also offers extra surprises and hidden depths.
If you only know Martin Figura from last year’s superb collection Whistle (Arrowhead Press), this pocket-sized pamphlet might come as something of a surprise.
There’s the title, for a start, and the blurbs. One, from Martin Parr, is “I can see why you gave up photography.” The other’s from Randy Newman. Yes, that Randy Newman.
The 18 occasional poems that follow are often exuberant, frequently wryly self-deprecating, and draw plenty of humour from sharp-eyed observation of the modern world.
There are parodies, too. ‘AHEM’, taking its cue from Ginsberg, roves entertainingly through the past. You can imagine opening lines such as “I saw the best suits of my parents’ generation/ destroyed by poor tailoring, synthetic fibres/ and hysterical lapels . . .” going down well at readings.
But the humour, just like the humour in a Randy Newman song, is at its most effective when it’s used to set up a more serious pay-off. You start a piece such as ‘I Don’t Know Where It All Went Wrong, But My Life’s Turned Into A Tom Waits Song’ wondering whether the title’s already told you all you need to know, but what follows is so authentically downbeat that an interesting tension develops and stays with you throughout the rest of the pamphlet. There are lines like:
........ . . and the couple next door
.......are going for some kind of record and there’s a man
.......nailed to a piece of wood on my wall who looks like
.......he might understand.
Now I don’t know Waits well enough to compare, but that sounds like something straight out of a great country and western song.
Going back to ‘AHEM’, what starts light-heartedly develops into a low-key elegy for an entire generation “who knew their place and never thought the universities/ were for the likes of them, but prayed for office jobs/ for their children. . .” The knack of creating photographically-sharp images of vanished scenes (one of the great strengths of Whistle) is there again, you realise.
If you don’t believe me, ask Randy Newman.