Templar Poetry, 2010 £4.50
Reviewed by Niall Campbell, Nick Asbury and Matthew Stewart
Three quarters of the way through Matt Bryden’s Night Porter and I found myself asking a few questions on poetic practice and poetic ideals. One of these was, how much should poetry founded on observation (and some of this collection is keenly observed) separate itself from interrogation? Bryden’s pamphlet, an interesting unfolding narrative on a summer of night shifts in an eccentric hotel, unpacks each episodic poem quietly and with succinct brevity. However, the mainstay of this collection is focused on the description of gestures and signals. A typical example of this is ‘Nights’:
I allowed the barman’s mopped floor
five more minutes to dry, let Lucy slip to the Ladies
to change her jeans.
The chef bid me adieu
through his crash helmet, prime steak packed
under his leathers.
Then I bolted the doors and locked them out.
There’s a lot to appreciate in the subtle lineation, both unfussy and well turned. However, in terms of the kernel of the poem, its idea or ‘truth’, I felt slightly unmoved. There is a focus on the external, actions, movements, this to this—a wave of verbs.
Reading on, further events are shared in a comparable tone and following a similar poetic rule in ‘Donny’:
The tumble dryers were spinning after hours
when my beeper sounded. I was watching
Fellowship of the Ring on a hotel bootleg
In tears, he stood, hesitating,
At the entrance.
At last, I told him, ‘Come in.’
This passage concluding the poem ‘Donny’ displays again this eye and ear.
However, this outward focus, this pitching for the power of the observed puts pressure on the images chosen to ring truthfully in both our physical world and in our inner world. End-lines such as “they drink up. I see them out, watch/ them cross the road” (‘He whistles’), and “I go for a bag of peas” (‘School Party’) both, if there is to be something shared between reader and poem, rely on our willingness to read our own inner drives into another’s physical motions. Often, this collection left me wishing that the poet had done more to give each poem more of a distinctive emotional or intellectual core. Too often alienation and vague displacement were used as a neutral state.
Overall, and despite these issues, Bryden’s Night Porter does at times display clever, confident touches. And when those times do occur, when the poems alight on barrenness, you really do feel it:
Walking home, I passed the newsagent’s
before the paperboy could overtake me on his cycle.
I let myself in, filled the kettle,
closed the curtains, waited for post.
When I drew them, the lawn
could be damp with dawn or dusk.
I think pamphlets lend themselves best to self-contained projects centering on a single idea. So I was inclined to like this one—a series of poems documenting the writer’s experience working nights in a Yorkshire hotel. The poems stand individually, but can also be read as a series of episodes in one longer narrative poem. It’s an effective way to paint a picture of a place and the lives moving through it.
I won’t be rushing to reserve a room. This is a place where “The entire dining room glows./ Two gantries re-warm sausages, eggs.” (‘Breakfast’) A co-worker tells the tale of how “One time I came round the corner, and a young bloke/ was shagging a woman against the wall./ His mate was stood there next to him, waiting his turn.” (‘Words’)
But gradually the hotel and the characters within it take on an almost mythic dimension. Without overdoing it, the poet turns the place into a microcosm of recession Britain. The suggestion is there in the first poem, where a Scotsman bemoans his decision to come to England:
‘I came to England to get a break. That’s a joke.’
He showed me bank statements
of when he was £10,000 in the black.
There’s the hopeless suggestion of bygone grandeur in the names of the function rooms: Albemarle and Mural. The reality is a place where the names of corporate parties are spelt out “in gold plastic letters” (‘Duties’), seedy relationships are monitored on security cameras (‘CCTV’), a drunken Glaswegian is wearily tolerated by the staff (‘A Man Walks Into A Bar’) and the Polish chef weeps as he is arrested for reselling meat to the butcher. (‘Anton’)
The poet’s voice is admirably spare and deadpan throughout—he has a knack for letting the story tell itself, mostly through the odd well-observed detail or snippet of dialogue. His stint at the hotel is presented as a rite of passage, from the opening interview to the final meeting with the boss:
What will I walk back to?
A bed, lengthening days, health.
Anne can hardly get rid of me this morning.
I have passed her tests.
She says ‘I think
we helped each other out.’
There are no poetic fireworks in this collection—it’s written in a plain, reportage style, with a very loose three or four-beat line. But it’s a fine, poised, self-contained piece that I enjoyed very much.
One note on the production side: one of the niggles with pamphlets is the way they huddle together on the bookshelf, with no spine for you to tell them apart. This one is an exception: perfect-bound with a proper spine. A small detail, but nice to see.
Matt Bryden’s Night Porter was a winner in the Templar Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2010 and will soon be followed by a full collection from the same publisher. This is poetry that’s already received significant recognition.
The collection might be accessible, but it’s challenged this reviewer in ways that inevitably reflect as much on me as on the poetry itself. I’ll start by looking at why. First off, it’s important to note that the collection is thematically unified by the portrayal of Bryden’s experiences as a night porter at a Yorkshire hotel. This is unusual in itself, as first pamphlets tend to provide us with something of an introduction into different routes that the poet is pursuing. Bryden must obviously possess a wider-ranging body of work behind and beyond Night Porter, but I’m left with just these twenty tightly-joined poems to get to grips with him. What’s more, as the blurb states, the book “is more about witnessing the lives of others than the speaker’s own”. In other words, Bryden is tough to pin down.
So what can I identify? Well, Night Porter uses the cumulative effect of excellent observation to make the hotel come to life. Anecdote, description and snippets of dialogue all play their part, but list poems are also key.
“Duties” begins as follows—
Hoovering, filling jugs with water and juice,
laying red velvet table cloths,
loading fresh papers onto the easels.
Ascertaining which guests are in
and which to expect, their keys
hanging from hooks.
—and doesn’t move beyond these listed gerunds. It stirs a couple of those challenges to the reviewer that I mentioned earlier, doubts that I haven’t fully resolved. This poem doesn’t seem to pull its weight as a stand-alone piece, but is that forgivable in a thematically driven collection, in which individual poems add to an overall collage effect? And what about the poem’s music? Is my ear failing me? The age-old question comes up again: what lifts this from prose to verse?
The following page, however, features one of Night Porter’s strongest pieces, titled ‘Clientele’. Again a list poem, it’s a departure from “Duties” due to the humanity that its list of anecdotes invokes, such as
The woman I befriended
before overstepping the mark:
‘No, stay,’ I asked as they made to retire.
The woman I made laugh
after she asked me the size
of the sausage rolls . . .
That very humanity is what I most miss in much of Night Porter. I do understand that the collection’s tone is intentionally distant, but I read poetry to be moved. This pamphlet brushes me on its way through, rather than jostling or hugging me. There’s much both to admire and doubt in this snapshot of Bryden’s work, but I feel the full scope of his poetry is yet to reveal itself.