Hilary Menos reviews Slide by Mark Pajak (Cape, 2022)
Mark Pajak is not a new voice. He was commended in the National Poetry Competition in 2014, 2019 and 2020, won the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2016, and had a Laureate’s Choice pamphlet, Spitting Distance, published by Smith|Doorstop in 2016. He has picked up a Northern Writers’ Award, an Eric Gregory Award, and an UNESCO international writing residency, and he’s pretty widely published. So he’s been around for a while.
But he’s new to me. I saw his debut collection, Slide, on the T.S. Eliot shortlist and asked around as to whether I should give it a closer look. Because this is what we do, right? We read what comes recommended by friends and colleagues who we respect and trust, especially in these days of wildly over-hyped blurbs.
I got a wide ranging set of responses. One friend had hated it. Another said it was “utterly readable and quite compelling”, but questioned whether it was “true of heart”. Someone said, “His punch might be dodgy but it’s packed”. Someone else described it as a “mixed bag”, saying that some of the poems were excellent but most left him cold. Another friend, who has been in this business for some time, said, “I like individual poems very much indeed. I have a suspicion that his will be a collection of singletons, not joined up and talking across the pages to each other”.
One friend had hated it. Another said it was “utterly readable and quite compelling”, but questioned whether it was “true of heart”. Someone said, “His punch might be dodgy but it’s packed”
Intrigued, I bought the collection, and the Smith|Doorstop 2016 pamphlet into the bargain. Slide contains 12 out of the 20 poems in the pamphlet, including his Bridport Prize-winning poem ‘Spitting Distance’, of which Bridport Poetry Prize Judge Patience Agbabi says “This is poetry at its best.” On the book jacket blurb for Slide Andrew McMillan calls it a “visceral and vital debut”. Carol Ann Duffy calls his poetry skilful, and says of the poems that “their insight and imaginative verve make them robust as well as eloquent”. Paul Farley calls it a “knockout debut”, and Patience Agbabi (again) is “stunned” by these poems. “Fresh, urgent, alive, awake, with such strong visceral impact I couldn’t sleep” she says. “There is a fierce intelligence at play here, emotional, physical and cerebral. The combination is genius.”
This is praise indeed. Sadly, these days my first response to a book jacket so loaded with hyperbole is pretty negative. Poetry at its best? Couldn’t sleep? Genius? Really? But this might just be me and my mealy mouthed attitude. Go on then Mark Pajak, I thought. Impress me.
And he did. He impressed me with his control of tone, the sparseness of language, and the beautiful, theatrical imagery in ‘A Cotton Hanging, Textile Gallery, Science and Industry Museum, Manchester’, where he makes connections between Manchester’s textile mills and American slavery by conjuring up a twisted rope of cotton which, when let go, spins into the image of a girl dancing
in her long
her feet so
she could be
Boom. So simply done, with such delicacy, and so effective. And, of course, twirling gently down the page like the rope itself. And he impressed me again with his cinematic vision and playfulness in ‘Cat on the Tracks’, where the train hurtles towards the cat, “split[ting] the air along its seam”, and “for a moment their roles reversed, / as though it were the train facing the inevitable cat, / the end of the line.” The poem ends, “The world lit up like a page // and the train a sentence before the full-stop.” This is neat. One minute we’re in the world of trains and cats then suddenly the fiction is broken and we’re brought skidding back to the white page in front of us. I can see the shape of the train in the actual words on the page, chugging along as I read them, towards the cat, which is the full stop at the end, where everything stops. There’s plenty to appreciate in a poem like this, and it feels as if Pajak is offering it up with a wink and a promise of pleasure shared between writer and reader.
Go on then Mark Pajak, I thought. Impress me. And he did
And he impressed me with ‘Silver’, the first poem I read, opening the book at – obviously – page 47. A disgruntled man stalks his ex, considers keying her black Audi, but is reminded of a time when she asked him to zip up the back of her dress. The poem ends,
Just this simple, intimate act
sealed up in the buzz of his thumb,
as it trails a line of silver through the black.
I love the way the act of keying the car is conflated with the act of zipping up the dress – an image similar to the train splitting the air like a seam, above. His control of tone is masterful. The poem is measured, calm, ominous.
Most of all I was impressed with his poem ‘Delicacy’, which kicks off by likening the supposed scream of a lobster in boiling water to a factory whistle, and then travels, via the factory whistle of the old Leyland car plant where the narrator’s grandfather used to work, and via the red gauntlets his grandfather used to wear to cut metal – “the PVC shine on their outer-shells” – and then via the grandfather’s pale hands inside the gauntlets, all the way back to the “clammy, white and delicate flesh” of the cooked lobster. The imagery is interesting and novel, the way this poem comes full circle is clever and beautifully achieved, and it is – I think – fully and deeply felt. I’m just about ready to agree with Kate Kellaway when she writes in the Guardian that Pajak is a safe pair of hands.
But I found some poems in Slide difficult to like. ‘The Knack’ is one that encapsulates my reservations. It’s about a man killing a cow with a sledgehammer, and it opens:
Between the cattle shed
and the freezer room
there is a small concrete yard
where a man
lifts his sledgehammer
and rests its head
gently agains a cow’s left temple
The knack of killing a cow with one stroke is compared to the knack of pulling a tablecloth off a table leaving the assorted tableware still in place. This takes practice, we are told, and practice involves accidents, and we can imagine what this implies for the cow. So much brutality is implied in this poem. The hammer “is never deft / never taking just one swipe”. And there’s more – a botched tablecloth trick will occasionally result in a “long bottle / rolling on its side / as its head / spills a thick black pulse of wine”. This bottle is also female – it has a “slender throat and shoulders”. A brutally killed (female) cow, with implications of a brutally killed woman. Beautifully done, but also problematic.
To start with, the leap from killing a cow with one expert blow to pulling off the tablecloth trick is quite a stretch, and Pajak loses me. Both ‘knacks’ involve practising something to achieve a skill, but I think that’s where the similarity ends. I suspect the poet has introduced the tablecloth trick just to get to a wine bottle rolling on the floor, spilling its wine in the way a cow might spill its blood. But cows don’t roll on the floor when killed, and they don’t spurt blood unless you cut an artery. So I’m starting not to believe the poem. And I’m bothered by the sledgehammer. I have seen cows killed, on farm and at an abattoir, and never seen a sledgehammer employed. Farmers call the knackerman, if the cow is ill, or a mobile slaughter man if the cow is to be eaten, or they send it to the abattoir. All of these deaths involve a captive bolt. It is illegal to do it any other way. Now I feel that the poem is just going for shock value. I’ve been made into a voyeur to no good purpose. Oh sure, the poet might be implying that brutal killing is bad, but he’s also waving and pointing and directing us to look at the dead bodies. I am not moved by it. I feel manipulated.
I am not moved by it. I feel manipulated
And this is my problem with Mark Pajak’s poetry. It starts to feel like a campaign of shock and awe. A young girl uses a lighter to burn herself, “the metal cap / fizzing into skin and fat”. A near-dead dog is found with “[f]lies / in the spoons / of his eye sockets”. A homeless man has been dead in a pile of leaves for days. We want to look: we don’t want to look. And much of the violence is directed towards, or involves women. A young photography student dies sinking into mudflats. Something – a cat or a woman, it’s not entirely clear – gets run over and lies in the street “pleading and pleading”. A girl “dips her small hands” into a river hoping to tickle a trout as a pike lurks, ready to bite. There’s another stalker in ‘Wreck’ “staring up / at the top / floor light / of her / bedroom window.” And an odd poem, ‘As my friend drives the hot mile of Castle Street and nothing is said’, where the friend “watches a woman cross over. / Then between drags / he says I don’t mind blacks, it’s her breed I can’t stomach.” Nothing is said. What are we to make of this?
Pajak has a toolkit full of fireworks and a clever and inventive way with words. He tackles serious themes. But some of his poems make me feel uncomfortable, and not in the way I think he hopes. I can’t fault his craft but too often his poems are too much show and not enough heart.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. Her first collection, Berg (Seren, 2009), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010. Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020), was a winner in The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019/20. Her most recent pamphlet, Fear of Forks, is out with HappenStance Press.