Richie McCaffery reviews Hard Drive by Paul Stephenson (Carcanet, 2023)
Over the last decade Paul Stephenson has established a reputation for himself as a formidable pamphlet poet and as an energetic aider-and-abettor of the poetry world. When followers of his work, like myself, heard the announcement of his first ‘full’ collection, we were excited. Even more so when such a substantial volume arrived in the post.
However, the opening poem, ‘Anglepoise’, introduces a note of more painful empathy:
We’ll both be home,
absorbed in our projects,
each working our way
through the bottle of red.
I’ll be alive. You’ll be alive.
It’ll be like old times.
We learn quickly that the poet’s first, book-length collection is built upon a searingly painful foundation, the death of his partner, Tod. This book is nothing less than Stephenson’s loving coronach for his lost partner, the speaker of the poems guiding us through the Tartarean territory of grief like a modern-day and at times playful Virgil:
The button, I mean. For it was silly, like an am-dram prop.
Though the button was small, it was also violent and, oh, I
shouldn’t have been allowed to make a person disappear
with such a tiny weapon. O, it was horrid in its automation,
melodramatic and almost camp, yes, that’s it, it was camp!
(from ‘The Button’)
While this collection is laden with grief and all about the aftermath of a death, it deftly avoids being a repetitive or lowering reading experience because of Stephenson’s remarkable range and craftsmanship. Between its covers is a farrago of different forms – pantoums, haiku, prose-poetry, oulipo and much more. Add to this Stephenson’s infectious love of words and wordplay and the sound-systems they generate. Each poem is stamped with the hallmark of an incurable logophile:
The ship of him, the shop of him, the sh’up.
the chap of him, the chip of him, the chop.
(from ‘The Hymn of Him’)
So much is said with that final word choice, “the chop”. In the wake of Tod’s death, the speaker of ‘Retort’ looks back over a petty argument where one lover has to have the final word, reflecting on the way language wounds us in the heat of the moment when we have no “notion of cremation / the chamber, its heat-resistant bricks”. At one point he tries to find solace in researching the many meanings and etymologies of the name ‘Tod’, as if travelling back to the source. The poem ‘Your Name’ concludes with the discovery from the Spanish “todos (everyone), todo (everything), en todas partes (everywhere)” that the speaker’s experience is universal and that loss is something immanent that flows through everything and is everywhere.
This book is nothing less than Stephenson’s loving coronach for his lost partner, the speaker of the poems guiding us through the Tartarean territory of grief like a modern-day and at times playful Virgil
Many of the poems concern domestic scenes between the two partners, how both were equally driven and obsessional but temperamentally different. It’s tempting to think of language – its many homophones, homonyms and loanwords – as a flat or house that is shared between people trying to co-exist and communicate without too much friction.
The ‘Officialdom’ section of the book concerns the practical aspects of dealing with a death and how clinical and lifeless the language of officialdom can be. In ‘Voicemail’,
Sarah needs to check she’s understood correctly
and revisit a few points so we can move the process on.
She’d like us to consider the options together and
ensure I’m fully informed re decisions to be made.
Even in the soulless language of advertising and marketing Stephenson finds words that have a spectral second meaning. In ‘Clinically Proven’ the speaker decides to keep his late partner’s facial creams and the brand names seem to taunt: “Your Regenerist” serum or “Your Revitalift”. In the trite quote from a book in ‘The Only Book I Took’ we find this proverbial wisdom:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
What’s wrong with self-pity?
Is it not commercial enough?
Would it put off the buying public?
He circumvents the self-pity trap in inventive ways that show his visceral hurt while simultaneously walking the line between revealing and concealing too much. Sometimes it is what isn’t said – the telling caesurae like trying to explain to the owner of a storage facility that the stuff is “not all mine, it belongs to … / and he … thanks, I’ll ring you back, goodbye.” (‘Storage Kingdom’). When the topic of bereavement is tackled head-on, it is done in such a way that it becomes universal:
They estimate that about 1.75 to 2.45 million tonnes of grief enter our system
every year. Grief is twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France.
Much of the grief is less dense than joy, meaning it will not sink
beneath the appearance of happiness. The strongest, most buoyant grief
shows resilience outdoors, allowing it to be transported over far distances.
(from ‘Enter the Gyre’)
Much of the information that is given but deemed too personal is presented in the later poems as redactions from a classified document. The immensely powerful ‘Grief as the Preamble of the Maastricht Treaty’ is where the speaker’s emotions finally well up to breaking point in a dark parody of the foundational text of the EU, a template that still allows raw emotions to be kept in check by bureaucratic language:
HAVE DECIDED to establish Grief and to this end have designated as
PAUL STEPHENSON, Minister for Sadness
PAUL STEPHENSON, Minister for Wallowing
PAUL STEPHENSON, Minister for Excessive Drinking
PAUL STEPHENSON, Minister for Going Round in Circles
The poet is also aware, in a metatextual and ethical way, that he is offering up the story of his loss for the entertainment of a potentially prurient and prying public. In ‘Putting it Out There’ Tod’s death becomes a metonym for the book itself:
Before I sign off on your death – your death done,
and wait for a box with hard copies of your death
and organize things to launch your death – finally,
then wait, for reviews of your death (hopefully considered),
to be told how well your death has sold.
Stephenson is keenly attuned to the polysemic nature of words. Hard Drive as a title has many meanings – on one level it refers to the files of poems and documents from a life abruptly ended held on a computer’s hard drive somewhere; on another, this book itself is a remarkable, if heartbreaking, document of a tough journey – a drive over the hardest terrain. But the resilient speaker himself, though self-lacerating, is a survivor, is the one who is driven. The closing poem, ‘Wedding in Limousin’, perfectly showcases this – the cycle of life going on inexorably and the speaker resolved to stay afloat:
I’m writing this in the swimming pool,
in a swimming pool in which I am
the only swimmer. I have stopped
swimming to write this poem, here alone,
All this way, I have come to represent you
but I’m also here for me. Hey, a swallow
just skimmed the pool, was off again.
Sixth in a row. A swallow for each year
you’ve been gone. It’s time to swim.
Richie McCaffery‘s most recent poetry collection is Summer / Break (Shoestring, 2022). In 2023 he published an academic monograph Scotland’s Harvest: Scottish Poetry and World War Two (Brill).