No 60 - Summer 2004
This Charming Man
Calling Myself on the Phone - Steven Waling, Smith/Doorstop Books, £6.95
Calling Myself on the Phone is Steven Waling's first major collection - although readers of Staple, Other Poetry, the Rialto etc. will already be familiar to some extent with his remarkable poems of everyday life.
I say 'everyday life', of course, as if we all know what that means. And of course we all know no-one really does. But without sounding forced or contrived, the poems in Calling Myself on the Phone manage somehow to uncover the surreal under the real, the lyrical in the mundane. I was reminded on occasions of Geoff Hattersley - who so effectively mixes some of the attitudes of the New York School with his own slightly offcentre, West Yorkshire stylings. (Although with Steven Waling the poetry is rooted in Lancashire, or at least Greater Manchester.) Both poets share a characteristic use of demotic English, a similar grim, edgy wit and a love of the strange and out-of-place. Here's the opening of 'Lunch Poem' - with its upfront homage to Frank O'Hara:
Last time I saw Frank he was eating
a burger and fries in Waterstones Deansgate.
I was getting into a cheese pasty...
In 'Winter Sales' the New York-ism continues:
I buy a pair of pants, three quid off...
That 'pants' has a half-affected kind of ring, doesn't it? But as you can see, he starts to subvert this tendency almost immediately with 'three quid off'. The poem continues:
They're none too tight, I'll need a belt.
Blank with turn ups. Start again.
I buy a pair of keks. That's better.
And so it goes on, setting up ideas and stylistic references then knocking them down. It’s all packed in to twenty-four neat little lines. A poem that name-checks Proust, Robert Southey, The Faerie Queene, mid-life crisis anxiety and intimations of mortality, pulls to a halt with a kidney punch of aphoristic wit:
You get one life. Buy your trousers tight.
Traditional forms might not be much in evidence — although there is
a good and funny pantoum (‘La Vache Enrage’) and one or two delightfully cockeyed sonnets — but this is still tightly controlled and carefully patterned writing. Just now and then there are moments where I think a poem overbalances slightly. Take ‘The Great Wall of Todmorden’ for example. This is a delicately constructed piece, with lines rich in music and meaning:
…At the lock gates obsessive-compulsive
water falls in strands or ropes in to the dark
twist of canal, refreshing itself slowly — almost
sometimes, poisonously — into the mind.
The poems concludes in images of destruction and failure:
… — the great unknowable walls knocked down,
rebuilt, patched, falling again and failing
better like Beckett in his trench coat.
Somehow I can’t help feeling that closing reference to the famous
Beckett line (from Worstward Ho’, I think) seems to slacken the poetry a little. It refers us back and away from the otherwise bracing nowness of the poem and into things at one remove.
And whilst we’re on a technical note, several of the poems deploy a
nifty syntactical trick, which probably has a fancy name — if only I knew what it was. He does that thing where he doesn’t finish the. He leaves it for the reader to. Which is peculiarly. If you know what I.
Music is clearly an important reference point for Steven Waling. Indeed, the title of the collection derives from a Miles Davis quotation — which serves as the book’s epigraph: “Sometimes I’d like to call myself on the phone and tell myself to shut up.”
At various points Memphis (home of Elvis), Duluth (Dylan), Bill Haley, John Peel, The Smiths, The Fall and many more musical landmarks put in an appearance. They anchor the poems to particular points in time, but taken together they add up to a sort of pop-cultural haze which hovers just the right side of nostalgia and which I find (and I know this is an old-fashioned expression, but I’m sure it’s the right one) simply charming.
Towards the end of the book we encounter a number of love poems. This is often risky territory; all those exposed nerve endings, all that personal stuff about closeness and tenderness, when the grim, edgy wit that textures so much of the poetry here is set to one side. But we needn’t worry; we’re in capable hands. Steven Waling knows just how much to show and tell for maximum effect. Here is the whole of ‘On Light’:
how sometimes when I’ve felt
all week like one flickering bulb
left on in the house, you creep
through the creaking door
at the back of my head like
you‘ve just got in tiptoeing
from a party upstairs, and
I hear you bang pans in the kitchen,
make something out of scraps
from last night’s fading conversations,
as birdsong starts out the back
and a kettle comes to the boil.
This is beautifully judged writing, fascinating and not a little magical. Like I say, it’s charming.
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