Isabelle Thompson reviews Collecting the Data by Mat Riches (Red Squirrel Press, 2023)
These poems playfully explore human life, both generally and in terms of one human being’s journey through this world. Riches’ playfulness makes for a poetry which is warm and big-hearted, looking at what it means to grow up, love, and let go.
Some of the less personal poems come early on in the pamphlet, and exploit humour to examine the human condition. The poem which opens the sequence, ‘A Short Survey’, plays with the language of questionnaires in order to light-heartedly probe an imaginary subject’s existential concerns:
How much do you agree or disagree
with the answers you’ve been given to date?
Please rank the thoughts contained inside your head
in order of importance to yourself.
Place on a scale of zero to ten
how much you want tomorrow to happen.
The poem’s experimentation with language and wordplay allows it to ask big questions while remaining fun and bright. Meanwhile, ‘Now that the Arecibo Telescope Has Closed Down…’ offers a humorous monologue from humanity to the unresponsive aliens for whom the Arecibo message was designed (this was a 1974 interstellar radio message carrying basic information about humanity). “It feels like we’re stuck on one tick / in a galactic WhatsApp group”, laments the speaker, before going on to ask why there has been “No spam mail / selling a cosmic penis extension”.
However, most of the poems in this pamphlet focus on a single life – on one man’s childhood, fatherhood and marriage, and on what it means to love and lose. Two poems which tenderly touch on childhood memories are ‘Two and a Half Men in a Boat’ and ‘Riches’. In the former, three generations are tied together through the act of fishing:
are threaded through the three generations
like filament down the guides of our rods.
Characteristically, this poem ends on a pun: “we eat the Sunblest lunch Mum made us, / and wait for something to bite.” In ‘Riches’, the title forms the double entendre, riffing off the poet’s name. The speaker recalls the purchase of a new family car, and remembers how he sat on his parent’s lap as “we reverse-parked it, my feet / pressing on your feet in the dark.” The focus of these poems is squarely on a moment of human connection and warmth.
Riches’ playfulness makes for a poetry which is warm and big-hearted, looking at what it means to grow up, love, and let go
Other poems describe the process of growing up. ‘Summer Job’, for example, details the speaker’s first experience of employment – a summer job working under his father. Most pertinently, the poem explores the young man’s changing view of his parent:
For the long twelve minutes to the workshop,
I watched you change from being Dad
to the Guv’nor at the last left turn.
As with the majority of poems in Collecting the Data, human relationships are central.
Perhaps inevitably, bereavement and loss are also key preoccupations, namely the loss of the speaker’s father. ‘Clearing Dad’s Shed’ describes a son removing tools from his late father’s shed:
The long drive back is spent blaming:
him for not showing me their uses,
me for not asking him.
‘Ever Given’ poignantly compares the blocking of the Suez Canal by the Ever Given container ship with “the bed / my dad built for me forty years ago”, which becomes stuck as it is manoeuvred downstairs. When the bed is unjammed and driven away, the speaker tells us: “I swear it wasn’t anything more than salt / from a fast-cooling sweat stinging my eyes”.
Riches’ own role as a parent is also considered with wit and affection. ‘Sponsorship Opportunity’ sees the speaker pledge money for his “chatterbox child” to undertake a sponsored silence, while pledging to face his own personal challenge of “doing the opposite / for a day”. In ‘Half Term at Longleat Safari Park’ the speaker compares himself to a monkey: “he was just trying to amuse his kid. / I can recognise myself in that.”
These are poems that look at life at once deeply and humorously
A particularly layered, moving and playful poem holds awareness of mortality in one hand with love for a spouse in the other. ‘Trajectory’ tells two stories:
My wife has never heard the story about
that time I nearly died when swinging my bike
across the road […]
So says the speaker, before going on to tell us that “[m]y wife and I met that time I said ‘Fuck it’ / and went for ‘just one drink’ in town with mates.” Two chances that could have gone either way have made a man who looks “both ways at the lights a hundred times / but can’t say no to ‘one more for the road’”:
It doesn’t help much that during our clashes
over the future I fail to explain
the value in not always knowing
what’s coming towards you.
Collecting the Data ends on the beautiful poem ‘Goliath’. Here, skimming a stone on a beach becomes an act of letting go, of accepting mortality and loss:
Take careful aim, wind up
like a slingshot. Let go.
Then watch each brief puncture
of the incoming tide
and step away.
These are poems that look at life at once deeply and humorously. With playfulness and compassion, they are unafraid of probing the darkest places, but are always prepared to turn on the light.
Isabelle Thompson holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She has been published or has work forthcoming in a range of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Stand and The New Welsh Review. She was the winner of the 2022 Poets and Players Competition and a runner up in the 2021 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She tweets @IzzyWithTheCats.