Mat Riches reviews Poems For Pete Davidson by Ella Sadie Guthrie (Broken Sleep, 2022)
I’ll not lie. Before reading this book I had to find out who the bloody hell Pete Davidson was. I wondered if he was just the latest in a long line of heartthrobs like Regé-Jean Page, Robert Pattinson, Jason Donovan or David Essex – ask your nan, mum, or sister, or look them up – or is he just famous for being famous, the perfect cipher through which to analyse the modern world, the right lens to view our culture through. Am I just old?
It turns out he’s a comedian, actor and writer. Feel free to read up on Pete Davidson here. However, does it matter who Pete Davidson is, if he is just the catalyst for poems on bigger, more important themes? And if the poems are good? After all, fixating on a celeb has been around since the first single cell amoebas climbed out of the primordial soup and one had a better singing voice and an agent. We’ll come back to the second question later.
This is a very modern and current book. The (online and cultural) world moves so fast these days that I wonder if some of the references have dated it already? We may move on from Pete Davidson – who can speak to the longevity of his career? – and will we be thinking about poems by the likes of Hera Lindsay Bird, or music by musicians like Tom Misch, Hayley Williams or Phoebe Bridgers, in the same way that we speak of Patti Smith and Johnny Ramone after thirty or forty years? The last four of those famous names (and a reference to Billie Eillish) all appear in the same poem, ‘pete davidson is playing johnny ramone’. The title is a reference to Davidson having been cast in that most modern of projects – the rockstar biopic – but ultimately the poem has little or nothing to do with that. It’s a jumping off point for a poem that explores ambitions, “and it reminds me that i wanted to get singing lessons to fulfil my other fantasy”, or recriminations.
there are only so many times you can pretend to have written hayley williams’ entire discography
and imagine singing happier than ever in the face of your ex lover until you throw all the lyrics
ever written into the bowl of a cheap ukulele
However, all of this is just a gateway to wondering elsewhere in the poem about mental well-being, about replacing the onslaught of the world – perhaps the very modern world from which Davidson et al have come – with movement: “as a child i would shut out the world by running the length of my corridor”, and then as an adult, “now i use the south coast to break down’.
This book asks huge questions about where we are as a society and a culture
Many of the poems in this book follow a similar trajectory to the one above. Some muse on something Pete Davidson has done, and some introduce us to a fantasy world based on extrapolations from facts or factoids about Pete Davidson, before exploring the dark recesses and thoughts of the poet’s mind.
An example of the latter is ‘pete davidson is the king of staten island’. The poem is loosely based on a film called ‘The King of Staten Island‘, and is loosely based on the life of … wait for it … Pete Davidson. The film features characters drawn from his own life, like that of his father (a fire-fighter who died in service during 9/11), and is described as a comedy-drama. There’s a sense of the wider themes of the book at play in the last lines of the poem.
to take a breathe (sic) after resurfacing from the deepest part of a natural rock pool
as in you cannot fail to do so
when someone has worked this hard at creating joy out of grief
A further example of the second type of poem is found in ‘pete davidson and i meet in a hip new art gallery near brooklyn’. Midway through that poem we’re told,
pete davidson stands alone, for once
he is admiring a piece of art projected onto the wall
the piece builds the longer you stare at it
at first, you don’t notice the small alterations
the offering of each layer a mother in law slowly adding more sugar to your tea.
The last three lines above could quite neatly sum up the book as a whole. A fine example of this accretion and layering can also be found in ‘i make pete davidson on sims 4’. It’s the most meta of all the poems. We have a fantasy version of a real person imagined in an online game version about an imaginary version of the world. The builder of the world is controlling the characters to the point of exhaustion – the builder and the characters are exhausted, but the builder is pulled from a reverie or dream where they “clutch pete davidson” by birdsong “from my phone at the foot of my bed”. They are pulled from this dream about a cloud version of an imaginary world containing made up version of unobtainable celebrities and others. Where to start?
To return to whether the poems are good or not. And look, that’s a big question. I have my own questions about the use of punctuation and space. In ‘pete davidson and i meet at a new york comedy show’ we’re told,
pete is standing there still as the first dandelion of spring holding a joint the way a dove
holds an olive branch in the bible
Now, is it Pete, still as the first dandelion of spring, holding a joint the way a dove holds an olive branch in the bible? Or is it the first dandelion of spring holding a joint the way a dove holds an olive branch, etc? I’m happy with either, the first one makes more sense, I think. There’s more mystery and fun, perhaps, in the latter.
Over the course of the pamphlet, we build up a picture of a person struggling with the world
This book asks huge questions about where we are as a society and a culture. The poems are what some will call in a “modern style”. They are entirely in lower case, punctuation is infrequent, the poems are a mixture of single lines, or long lines. There is frequent use of indentation, I’m not always sure I know why. Ultimately, your reaction to the poems will come down to whether you give a flying monkeys about who Pete Davidson is.
I keep coming back to the “small alterations / the offering of each layer” and the mother in law adding more sugar to the tea. Over the course of the pamphlet, we build up a picture of a person struggling with the world, of someone who worries “everyone else’s hopes and dreams are so much lighter than mine” in ‘pete davidson has a new girlfriend’ or the person that fires “depression at him with finger guns” when a friend asks about where the energy to dream all the fantasies comes from. I take comfort from the closing lines of the book. They may read like affirmations or the sorts of motivational sayings you see across social media, but in the context of what precedes them, they feel hopeful. And who doesn’t want that?
i can, i can, i can
Mat Riches is ITV’s poet-in-residence (they don’t know this). His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently New Statesman, Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for SphinxReview, The High Window and London Grip, and has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. He’s on Twitter as @matriches and blogs at Wear The Fox Hat.