Matthew Stewart examines the work of Michael Laskey
Sometimes the best poets creep up on us when we least expect them to do so. Sometimes we first skim-read them in disappointment before later encountering them at a moment in our lives when they speak to us like nobody else ever has. Sometimes such poets make an imperceptible, gradual impact on our emotional lives until we suddenly realise they’ll now accompany us for the rest of our days. Michael Laskey is one such poet.
Helena Nelson, in the Dark Horse, says, “His music is the cadence of speech … The tone is so restrained that the reader is suddenly astonished to find it is anger or despair. In fact, you can miss the abyss altogether if you’re not reading carefully. But it is there, in the beauty of the writing and its understated control. Many contemporary writers try to write like this. Few achieve it.”
Michael Laskey’s work is deceptive. Its emotional power and depth creep up on us and take us by surprise, un-peeling its layers of subtle control and seemingly innocuous observations to reveal an emotional depth that lies beyond the reach of many flashier poets. In terms of cadence, meanwhile, his matter-of-fact tone is underpinned by a delicate musicality, reflecting the natural rhythms of speech yet simultaneously heightening them just at the pivotal point in a poem. Its accumulative effects are therefore difficult to convey via short quotes, although this, from ‘Patient Record’, shows Laskey’s method, especially in terms of his subtly heightened rhythms.
… I’m writing it down so I don’t forget it —
this year you’ve lived through
with what your brusque oncologist called
fortitude, an unusual word.
The line endings here are carefully judged. The key word — fortitude — is held over and dropped into the final line like a laser-guided missile. As for the ending, it’s built on the foundations of restraint via the use of ‘unusual’, which leaves so much unsaid. Laskey’s knack for understatement often means that what he holds back is actually more resonant that what he explicitly articulates, eschewing the so-called lyric voice and its ordered rhythms and replacing it with the ambivalences and ambiguities of everyday speech.
Laskey’s technique is indicative of a perspective that views poetry as a vehicle for probing and asking questions rather than finding answers
‘Patient Record’ is also characteristic of Laskey’s work in terms of its avoidance of neat endings that bring strands together. His poetry is seldom circular in nature. Instead, he tends to end a poem by opening outwards in both semantic and syntactic terms, encouraging us to use his closing words as a starting point rather than viewing them as a destination.
Laskey’s technique is indicative of a perspective that views poetry as a vehicle for probing and asking questions rather than finding answers. In thematic terms his approach mirrors his technical skills: the big issues of life are seldom explicitly invoked, but they provide the framework for all his work. He tends to hint at their presence rather than meeting them head-on, preferring to find new acute and obtuse angles from which to cast unusual and often challenging perspectives on them.
One such example is the role of food in Laskey’s poetry. Cooking and eating are portrayed throughout his work, though one poem, ‘On My Own’, stands out for its juxtaposition of the varying purposes of meals. The poem provides two contrasting scenarios.
I don’t waste any time over lunch,
I eat it in the kitchen standing up.
Bread, off the bread board — no plate —
… But with you almost always fresh bread
I’ve fetched first thing — a small
granary, an organic or a cobber —
I ring the changes, surprise you
with rollmops, an avocado, last week
artichoke hearts …
The opening lines view food and its preparation as a basic necessity before the poem shifts to show them as rite and ritual. The pivotal difference, of course, lies between eating alone or accompanied. As such, the poem can be seen as an implicit, indirect portrayal of the nature of love. And look at the stresses of the above extract. Throughout this poem, Laskey uses the tone of day-to-day language, but he imperceptibly clusters stressed syllables together at important thematic junctures, such as ways/fresh/bread, fetched/first/thing or last/week/art, making the reader pause and absorb the added significance of those specific words.
‘On My Own’ (along with many other culinary poems in his locker) serves to underline Laskey’s treasuring of relationships with loved ones. But it’s also enlightening to consider it alongside other poems that home in on his interpretation of the role of an individual in society. For example in ‘A Change of Clothes’,
…one wet afternoon finding the case
carefully packed: a change of clothes
even for me, some papers in English
and some in a language that had to be Polish …
And in the ending to ‘Together’,
… I miss her, I grieve for her, ache
for the small of her back I’m actually
making much of stroking — better
pull yourself together, mgl.
If the first extract is describing an outsider, someone whose home life is far from being typically English, the second poem invokes a quintessentially English (perhaps even public school) stiff upper lip, as epitomised by the speaker’s affectation of addressing himself with his own initials.
While these two attitudes might seem incongruent on an initial reading, they are actually interlinked and coherent. The first poem is written from the perspective of an outsider who has to assimilate into English culture. The second piece, however, takes that process to an extreme and ends with a self-deprecatory mocking of an extremely English emotional restraint.
Michael Laskey is a poet who works in a minor key but with major ambitions and achievements. It’s only too easy to miss the impact of his poetry if we race through in search of the fireworks or the punch line. Instead, his poems reward slow reading
Laskey’s seemingly placid, humdrum poems are actually laced with pent-up emotions because he’s inviting us along on his own processing and stripping back of social role-playing. A superficial reading of his work might give the mistaken impression that it couldn’t be more English in tone and content. Nevertheless, a deeper focus shows that it is his perspective as an outsider which enables him to cast new light on the society in question, while also gaining a commensurate understanding of his own inner emotional life. His generosity lies in the sharing of that process via his poetry, inviting his readers to undertake their own parallel journeys.
Michael Laskey is a poet who works in a minor key but with major ambitions and achievements. It’s only too easy to miss the impact of his poetry if we race through in search of the fireworks or the punch line. Instead, his poems reward slow reading, which enables us to engage with his music and connect his life to ours. His New and Selected Poems, The Man Alone (Smith/Doorstep Books, 2007) is an excellent introduction to his work, and his latest collection, Weighing the Present (Smith/Doorstep Books, 2014), is an exceptional book. Its limited critical reception on publication is a travesty but also a reflection of current trends. Michael Laskey’s poetry, however, is built to last, and it will resonate long into the future.