Donut Press, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Hilary Menos, Richie McCaffery and Clare Best
Before I received this pamphlet I had read one of the poems ('Thirty Minutes of Havana for Only Fifteen Cents!') online. From the opening line, “Have you heard the one about Julius?” to the last line “And here's the kicker: he cashes it, buys another” the language is deft and sure, but also expansive, loose, easy. I liked it a lot. So I was looking forward to more.
And it's a vibrant and stylish little collection, with a cast of wild and wayward characters—Dilly Boy, Coco Lachaille, the mythical and monstrous Nue, Groucho Marx, a pantomime horse—the overall impression is of a jostling parade of circus lowlife, colourful, masked and burlesquing. As a whole, it packs a punch. But as individual poems?
Mostly, I think Holloway-Smith is trying too hard to sound cool. In 'In Camden or Camberwell' he achieves a lovely conversational tone.
(you may very well rub your hands) the ol' Simulacrum Machine's
paying out today. The squeak of my very own red boots
makes me feel like a tall version of a boy who listens to Morrissey.
These are attractive words, but I can't make them mean anything. In 'Carry On, Doctor' I literally can't understand about half of the poem. (“It moves, too exacted thus to speak,/ though sires itself.”) Too often the end result is a triumph of style over substance.
I also find aspects rather puerile. In 'Letters From America' an ex-girlfriend stays “in your Peckham flat, asking/ how to make you come (and never did)”. In 'Liebling, when first you came to me, I tell you' a Rabbi accosts a nun; his “old pert lips purred raspberries up and through her/ the strange beauty of it slowly rising in her eyes.” Strange beauty, or a kind of rape? I'm not sure the poet has fully thought through the implications of some of his words, and simply dropping clitorises, cocaine and corsets into poems doesn't impress me.
Throughout, the language is memorable more for the surreal personalities it evokes than for poetic device or lyrical play. The images are various and often compelling, but that's not enough. Holloway-Smith needs to tidy up his grammar, murder some of those more incomprehensible darlings, and resist the temptation to build poems around one choice phrase.
Some people get rained on
Wherever they go, others have been drowning all their lives.
........ (‘Interview with Smith Wigglesworth’)
After reading the first stanza of the first poem, ‘In Camden, or Camberwell’, with its coruscating, off-key imagery of a rosebush “like bruised butterflies”, I was already sold. Holloway-Smith’s poems draw you in with their conversational swagger, otherworldliness and all manner of facetiae and curiosa, only to be suddenly elevated by what Craig Raine calls a ‘thumping’ last line.
The lines at the start of this review are taken from the rather outré ‘Interview with Smith Wigglesworth’ where the character “dresses with pride, cheeks full of stories”. The poet here is not one consistent voice, but a dramatis personae of characters with the figure of the London flanêur recurring and undergoing a series of strange and sometimes chimerical encounters that could have easily have come from the mind of Jonathan Swift or Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Take for instance the Lilliputian (or homuncular) domestic in ‘When the itching became too great’, where the poet knocks little people out of his head, “an old knave” and a “woman with coiffered hair” who fight and make up, only to re-enter their host so that “when I blinked I saw them copulate. When I wept, I wept babies”.
There is a contrasting modern and antiquated quality to many of these poems. The past seems to assert itself colourfully in the present with poems about flappers and swells dancing Charlestons, Groucho Marx enjoying ‘Thirty Minutes of Havana for only Fifteen Cents!’ and the hedonic, if spiky, spirit of ‘The Moment Ye Olde Axe Strip Club Turns Into a Rockabilly Disco’. Many of these poems contain lengthy titles, as if their meaning or message is hard to distil. It also has an estranging and comic effect.
Among the strongest is the title poem which talks of an old man taking a picture of a couple on their first date, only to end with the startling dénouement of meeting him again on the bus:
When I read your text: I’ll forgive you, but not yet
something flashed across his face. I saw his finger flicker.
‘Carry On, Doctor’ is also a key poem for its deft mingling of tenderness, lyricism and metaphysics. It deals with an impending birth, only to end on the stark revelation that when the poet’s bank bursts “it will punch us right in the ghost”.
Donut Press refer to these collections as ‘pocketbooks’ and their size is comparable to the influential ‘City Lights’ books of the 50s and 60s. As an owner of Ahren Warner’s Re:, and now reading Holloway-Smith’s collection, it seems to me that Donut Press books (much as City Lights were in their day) are providing litmus paper for exciting new poets.
The format of this small Donut pamphlet is really pleasing—the fact it has a proper spine, (a titled spine on a 24pp pamphlet = impressive) and the chunky proportions of the object, these are satisfying, and perfect for the pocket. There are nice little typographical details too, like the way the page numbers are printed sideways, and the pamphlet has a decent gutter so you can open it properly.
These poems keep you on your toes, and dance is one way of thinking about them. One minute I was being spun round in dreams of California (‘Reasons not to Brick a Squirrel’) and the next I was doing the Charleston (‘Coco Lachaille’). Then there’s disco and pole dancing (‘The Moment Ye Old Axe Strip Club Turns Into a Rockabilly Disco’—one of my favourites) and there’s even the conga (‘We can see from inside this big nodding head,’).
Dance runs through the poems like the scent of sex—and both dance and sex give the poems their tangible, sensuous, sassy energy. Holloway-Smith ends the sonnet ‘Liebling, when first you came to me, I tell you’, with these memorable lines:
Both nuns: the one who ran, who wept like a skeleton
across the church lawn; the other, who remained—
her upright soul, it’s said, you could almost see fold
as if bending, as if sprawling itself over a balloon-backed chair,
while some old pert lips purred raspberries up and through her,
the strange beauty of it slowly rising in her eyes.
The dances are performance, and so are the poems. The characters, masks, costumes and voices are theatrical and engaging. But this collection is not just razzmatazz and showmanship—these elements are evident but they do not dominate. Extravagant imagery and wit sometimes give way to relative restraint and a tendency towards reflection, all the more effective for its careful placement. ‘Cutting a Figure’, which itself pays clear homage to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, starts “Begin by losing yourself” and finishes with:
be scandalous within. Allow yourself
To be held but nor bridled.
Perhaps then you will be ready to emerge
in society, to court the light, to have
your features captured in photographs,
your exploits noted in memoirs
you’ll one day strike a match to.
This collection reminds me of a box of fireworks—full of bright colours, mysterious explosions, beautiful patterns, all there against the dark sky and then gone. But seared into the memory, and thrilling.