Thursday, 30 August 2012

Roger McGough - As Far As I Know


Roger McGough’s latest poetry collection As Far As I Know is typically accessible, witty, nostalgic, linguistically playful, poignant, hilarious, candid, and at times unashamedly sentimental.

Starting with that final of these many listed and other attributes, the poem To Sentimentality confronts this confessional frailty with charm and humour,

Tears for the father giving away the bride
Tears for the snowman in the rain outside
Two Cs and a D and I’m bursting with pride

McGough has always had the knack of wrapping the familiar and simple in pleasing rhyme, but also to make these everyday factors meaningful in their honest presentation and/or celebration.

The poem Window Gazing is classically McGough: a sequence of poetic puns and imaginings, for example these 2 from 30,

Haberdasher’s window
Pulling our eyes
over the wool

Went window-shopping
Bought a sash, two casements
and a uPVC tilt & turn

There is a similar treatment in the sequence of poems Indefinite Definitions where the entire alphabet is used for more playful treatment,


A cute is sharp, knows all the angles
When it suits, is eager to please
In a tight corner, no angel
Will squeeze you, this one, by degrees

and then there’s the final poem sequence And So To Bed where the playing with words [each poem making more sense in the context of the whole] is less of a game,

Death Row Bed
The electric blanket
is still used in Nebraska
Tennessee and Alabama

In further illustrating these typical poetic characteristics, here’s McGough at his concrete best,

Poem on the Underground

               tu       be

              or        not

               tu       be

So this collection deals in and with the light and fluffy, but McGough also confronts weightier subjects like his own ageing and the realities of death, as he has in more recent publications. This gets an apparently personal if anonymous referencing in the following,


Out on the sunny patio, the Gro-bag.
Scattered on the compost, your ashes

Come spring, young shoots will rise
and the fruit, like church bells

ring from the vines. Tomatoes,
if not with the taste of you in them

at least, ripening with memory

and is explored further and even more personally – but always with that wry tone that keeps its distance from despair – in the poem Beyond Compare which employs the ruse of being instructions to a loved one about seeking a new love after his death, and is exemplified in these three stanzas,

For you to find another leading man
would not be unreasonable, given your age
An understudy who has been biding his time
learning my lines below stage

But don’t be rushed. Should he move in
take your time and find the space
To enlighten this Johnny-come-lately
so that from the start he knows his place

Put our wedding portrait on the bedside table
but don’t make of it a shrine. Rugby shield
and team photos on the piano. Tennis cups?
One of our mixed doubles would be fine.

That last line is the consummate McGough quip: toying with the ordinary to make such an everyday metaphor deliver a gentle but memorable punch. It is that very lightness of touch which seems so honestly effective.

The last poem I will refer to is Not for Me a Youngman’s Death which continues to pursue this theme, but is especially interesting as it revisits and rewrites McGough’s 1960s poem Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death, that original poem railing against old age and dying of that age and its consequences – most arguments again wrapped in comic illustrations, for example When I’m 73/and in constant good tumour – ending with the two lines

not a curtain drawn by angels borne
‘what a nice way to go’ death

I won’t print this latter version’s punchline, but well over 40 years later, the perspective has changed and the hyperbolic bravado of a dramatic death is now much less appealing,

Not a slow fade, razor-blade
bloodbath in the bath, death.
Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain
bullet in the brain, death

Rest assured, in this collection McGough is typically joyously alive and kicking poetic sand in our faces, even if it is with an old man’s sandals. This is a lovely collection of his latest poems.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Sandi Thom - Flesh and Blood

Leave It To The Voice

Scottish singer Sandi Thom has travelled considerably since her 2006 no 1 hit declaration I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker [With Flowers In My Hair], though she clearly still rocks in opening stomper Help Me on this fourth album release, the second on her independent record label Guardian Angels Records. What hasn’t altered, as I recall from that hit single, is the full-on strength of Thom’s vocal. This is followed by an anthemic pop ballad I Owe You Zero, and this, as with third Flesh and Blood, has a generic power-pop quality in both sound and lyric – we all share our tears, we all have a one heart, we all need a bit a love – but it is the vocal strength that carries it higher than the predictable linguistic levels.

Fourth The Sun Comes Crashing Down is a Fleetwood Mac-meets-Country ballad where again the vocal provides the quality over and above the familiarity of the storytelling. Fifth In The Pines demonstrates just how stunning Thom’s singing can be, and the emotive impact it projects. Seventh Stormy Weather provides some variation with its funky rhythms a la Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. I particularly like the simple acoustic blues guitar and handclap support for another fine vocal on ninth track Rise As One – Thom doesn’t need a heavy hand on the production to produce power, which on this album has been provided by Black Crowes Rick Robinson [I’m not saying it is a heavy hand, but I prefer the occasional lighter touch], and the guitar work is also provided by fellow Crowes man Audley Freed. Tenth I Love You Like A Lunatic is a romantic confessional about Thom’s relationship with Joe Bonamassa, and this song would sit comfortably within any Dixie Chicks album, so that is a plus or minus depending on the listener’s inclinations.

The album does finish very strongly with penultimate Save Some Mercy For Me pumping out the power again, and final Lay Your Burden Down with slow single percussion beats and harmonium launching Thom’s beautiful voice here. There is an inevitable crescendo of sound, with wailing guitar and an organ swirl, as the song climaxes, but I would have been more than content to let Thom’s vocal carry that emotive peak because it is undeniably capable of doing so. 

Friday, 24 August 2012

Dylan LeBlanc - Cast the Same Old Shadow


There is a dour and dirge mood to this album, and the strained vocal does at times sound like Ryan Adams at his melodramatic best/worst [choose your alliance]. The pedal steel and sweeping harmonies add a broader background canvas upon which to paint these downbeat narratives of loneliness, pain and loss, and that, musically, retrieves them from the absolute self-indulgence some might singularly hear and wish to avoid. As LeBlanc is indeed at the beginning of a musical journey aged 22, I think we can walk with him through this trudge in that learning curve. After all, if you can’t be propelled by your muse – whatever its emotive catalyst – there seems little point in looking for integrity in songwriting, and I prefer such selfishness over precedence given to the comfortable and/or slick [and I do accept I have offered significant poles to make a point!]. But I would agree that this is not an album to brighten a listener’s mood; nor is it one to risk if already at the edge of a fragile precipice.

There are safe dalliances, aurally speaking, as with Chesapeake Lane where LeBlanc’s vocal tone is full and captivating. This is followed by a riskier companion, track seven The Ties That Bind, but again the vocal resonance is genuinely enchanting – I think these are beautiful songs. Eighth Comfort Me wraps the echoing voice within an upbeat – relatively speaking – Country beat [and other ‘echoes’ of The Monkees?]: a trio of sonic safety within the darker surrounds! It is perhaps a shame that the crackle of a radio search leading to the singing of final song Lonesome Waltz didn’t signal a more caustic end, for example, of good ol’ rock’n’roll anger to dispel or at least deal momentarily with despair, as this track does dance out on a downer.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Edward Dorn - Gunslinger 1 & 2

.daeha sa kcab emas eht si I exnis

There’s an excellent review of Edward Dorn’s Westward Haut by Steve Spence at the excellent poetry blog Stride – find here:

Reading this encouraged me to re-read Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger 1 &2, published together in 1970 when I got my copy and read aged 16. I’m not sure I’ve read it since, but loved revisiting and perhaps understanding much more this morning. At 16 I think I will have revelled in its surreal vision, as I perceived it then, and the comedy of the Horse Claude Levi Strauss that rolls joints with its hooves, the inquisitive narrator I, and the anti-hero Gunslinger/Slinger who is even cooler than another character Cool Everything who appears in Part 2.

This modern epic poem is many things: it is a poetic quest in search of the meaning of life in the 60s, a capitalist life embodied by and thus the story’s physical search for Howard Hughes, and Dorn adorns [a pun he would have playfully used himself, not flinching at its naffness] this ontological, existential and surreal exploration with many layers of satire. The narrative is at its most poetic and philosophical in Part 2, beginning

      This tapestry moves
as the morning lights up.
And those who are in it move
and love its moving
from sleep to Idea
born on the breathing
of a distant harmonium, To See
is their desire
as they wander estranged
through the lanes of the Tenders
of Objects
who implore this existence
for a plan and dance wideyed
provided with a schedule
of separated events
along the selvedge of time.

      Time does not consent.
This is morning
This is afternoon
This is evening
Only celebrations concur
and we concur To See
                    The Universe
is One

Its contemporary and counter-culture reference points – not necessarily endorsements – get reflected in, for example, the character Cool Everything who is met in Part 2 by the travellers from Part 1. He is carrying five gallons of ‘acid’ [LSD] which is quite quickly transferred to the by now dead body of I, and thus the journey continues. I’s death, however, is as uncertain as the reality being sought/explored,

      Life and Death
are attributes of the Soul
not of things. The Ego
is costumed as the road manager
of the soul, every time
the soul plays a date in another town
I goes ahead to set up
the bleechers, or book the hall
as they now have it,
the phenomenon is reported by the phrase
I got there ahead of myself
I got there ahead of my I
is the fact
which now a few anxious mortals
misread as institution. The Tibetans
have a treatise on that subjection.
Yet the sad fact is I is
part of the thing
and can never leave it.
This alone constitutes
the reality of ghosts.
Therefore I is not dead.

But I makes a perfect receptacle for Cool Everything’s acid!

When the travellers arrive at their destination, Universe City [Vegas], Dorn moves from the ontological above to his satirical mode - but it’s no less intriguing,

      We’re inside
the outskirts, announced the Horse,
a creature of grass and only marginally
attracted to other distortions.
Here we are in the sheds
and huts of the suburbs. There are
some rigid types in here.
It’s kinda poignant
but that doesnt move it any closer to the centre.
Yup! empty now of all but a few
stubborn housewives
and disturbed only by the return
of several husbands known to be unable
to stay away during this celestial repast
called lunch. Thats where youre out
before you leave. Theres a man
turning on his sprinkler, it should be illegal
a small spray to maintain the grass, the Edible
variety no one doubts.
But I see none of my friends grazing there
these green plots
must be distress signals to God
that he might notice
their support of one of his minor proposals
He must be taken by these remote citizens
to be the Patron of the Grass
Holy shit, Lawn grass...
from the great tribe
they selected something to Mow

Not the defining indictment of a capitalist culture just yet, but a comic musing on a twentieth century urban worship of the trivial, and perhaps appearance over reality and worth.  

As I’m writing this I’m realising how much more I am trying to explain, and therefore quote as illustration, when this wasn’t my intention! However, as I’ve travelled this far –

As a conclusion/key point in the journey of sorts [the poem is carried on into other Parts that I haven’t read yet and which I need to find], the group arrive in the ‘city’ where, as I see/read it, the citizens greet the explorers as the Establishment [the Right/the rednecks] would greet the counter-culture [the Left/the hippies] in the 60s,

     A band of citizens had gathered.
They blocked the way. They too
were meshed with the appearance of I
Tho their interest was inessentially
soldered to the surface, and tho
they had nought invested, an old appetite
for the destruction of the Strange
governed the mass impulse of their tongues
for they could never comprehend
what the container constrained.
What’s That! they shouted
Why are his eyes turned north?
Why are his pants short on one side?
Why does his hair point south?
Why do his knees laugh?
Why does his hat stay on?
Wherez his ears?
The feathers around his ankle!
What does his belt buckle say,
What do his shoes say,
we cant hear them!
Why don’t his socks agree!
Theres a truckpatch in his belly button
does he have a desire to grow turnips?!
He hasn’t bought a licence for his armpits!
Look! they shouted,
his name is missing
from his shirt pocket
and his managers name
is missing from his back,
He must be a Monster! Look
His pocket meters show Red
and they all laughed ans screamed
This Vagrant, they shouted,
has got nothing, has no cash
and no card, he hasn’t got a Pot...

and the absurdity of the citizens’ questioning and conclusions mirrors in its dark comedy the clash of cultures and generations at that time, a darkness realised for example in the filmic representation of Easy Rider, my own experiences in Michigan [see Scott McKenzie review and elsewhere on this blog], Kent State, and much worse.

That’s probably where I connected most aged 16, and remarkably it still resonates. The political dimension is explored further in the ‘Literate Projector’ conclusion to Part 2 and I need to read yet again and consider further, trying to understand. But what a morning it has been, having read a review last night!