Lucy and Todd

Julian Stannard—What Were You Thinking?

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 3, 2016 at 9:47 am

‘I had not realized how much one could look at a tree and hate it.’ This is a book of playful, moving poems with an almost excruciating self-deprecation. It’s lyrical, real, wistful, and then sometimes it barks like a dog you can’t completely trust.

There are strange happenings, ancient and modern. The poet’s bedsheets emigrate to Poland. Mothers dress their children in tutelary clothes so they can carry uncooked Christmas turkeys the weight of the baby Jesus across heaths. Sheep wait for the writer to speak to them, to give them ‘something they can pass around themselves’. A teenage wheelie bin that writes poetry gets blown by the wind to Paris and his mother goes berserk.

Mothers are much in evidence. On the phone, the poet tries to be breezy with his. She senses he is lighting a cigarette and scolds him; he can then ‘hear her frowning’. She goes on to use the word ‘alakefic’ which he affects to understand. If you look this word up, you will encounter claims on very dodgy-looking etymological web sites that it is RAF slang, but one might equally guess Stannard made up ‘alakefic’ and planted references to it on the web. Such are the thoughts you will think while reading this.

‘Imagine a castle defended by poets. How easily we capitulated!’ This from a poem about a certain well-known writers’ retreat not a million miles from Edinburgh. As in all such places, the quality of the experience is determined by whom you are thrown together with and how good the food is. For amusement there’s something proposed called ‘Scottish roulette’, which involves dangerous amounts of porridge. ‘One night I met the American poet on the stairs by candlelight. How much self-hate can there be? she asked. I said, There can always be a little more.’

Stannard has spent much of his life in Genoa, where, he writes, there is always something to find out, and you can lose your way twenty times a day. The wonderful section ‘The Street of Perfect Love’ addresses Italy, and love. It hasn’t worked out too well maybe: ‘Someone had taken an axe to my life.’ Dragging a Christmas tree through the city streets he starts to feel alarmingly Biblical and it’s very funny and sad.

Most of these poems are a page in length, but they’re packing heat. They read like memoranda from the future, from someone who’s got slightly worse luck than you do. ‘Burlington Arcade’ is a terrific riff on the luxurious late capitalism that will choke London to death. In a longer piece, about hell, the writer opines it’s like public school. You get free towels, cover versions of the Pet Shop Boys and occasional amyl nitrate (actually, what’s he complaining about?). ‘As a rule I find damnation’s good for the figure’. But the problem with this particular hell is that there are no women, and he finally guesses they must have their own inferno – with plumped-up pillows and pot-pourri. Hell as Laura Ashley.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald on May 2, 2016

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