In the sixth of our series of funny-serious poems, Andrew Neilson, Emma Simon and Jonathan Davidson choose poems by Roddy Lumsden, Lorraine Mariner and Kit Wright
Andrew Neilson chose ‘The Man I Could Have Been’ by Roddy Lumsden. Andrew says, “Roddy Lumsden’s second collection, The Book of Love (Bloodaxe, 2000), is a funny-serious delight, and this poem is that collection’s apogee. There are so many memorable phrases to savour, including the funny-serious perfection of “motley trauma”. Or how about the brilliant composite, “He’s in the black, not in the dark”. This poem is also Roddy at his most accessible, walking “the middle of the road for it is his”. Swaggering, more like. Yet the poem ingeniously threads dark portents from the off, so the reader feels the gravity amid the hilarity, well before we reach the kicker of those final lines.”
The Man I Could Have Been
The man I could have been works for a vital institution, is a vital institution.
Without him, walls will crumble, somewhere, paint will peel.
He takes a catch.
He is outdoorsy and says It was a nightmare and means the traffic.
He’s happy to watch a film and stops short of living in one.
The man I could have been owns a Subaru pickup the colour of cherry tomatoes.
He’s in the black, not in the dark.
His mother is calm.
Women keep his baby picture in the windownooks of wallets.
No one dies on him.
The man I could have been owns bits of clothes not worn by uncles first.
He has no need of medicine.
He walks from Powderhall to Newington in twenty minutes.
He plays the piano a little.
Without him, havens buckle, sickbeds bloom.
The man I could have been lives locally.
He is quietly algebraic.
Without him, granite will not glister.
And when he sees a crisis, he does not dive in feet first.
He votes, for he believes in their democracy.
The man I could have been has a sense of direction.
For him, it was never Miss Scarlet with the dagger in the kitchen.
He knows his tilth and sows his seed.
He’ll make a father.
He is no maven nor a connoisseur.
The man I could have been has a season ticket at Tynecastle.
He comes in at night and puts on The Best of U2
He puts fancy stuff in his bathwater.
He doesn’t lace up his life with secrets.
The man I could have been was born on a high horse.
He knows the story of the Willow Pattern.
He had a dream last night you’d want to hear about
and remembers the words to songs.
His back is a saddle where lovers have ridden.
The man I could have been has a sovereign speech in him he’s yet to give.
He might well wrassle him a bear.
He is a man about town.
He has the exact fare on him.
Without him, motley trauma.
The man I could have been, he learns from my mistakes.
He never thought it would be you.
And no one says he’s looking rather biblical.
He has no need of London
and walks the middle of the road for it is his.
The man I could have been is quick and clean.
He is no smalltown Jesus nor a sawdust Cesear.
Without him, salt water would enter your lungs.
He doesn’t hear these endless xylophones.
That’s not him lying over there.
Emma Simon chose ‘In my worst moments’ by Lorraine Mariner, from her collection Furniture (Picador, 2009). Emma says, “I love Lorraine Mariner poems and this is one of my favourites. I think it’s a poem that celebrates ridiculousness: of love, of obsession, and of course of poetry. I admire the way the poem sets the scene and then really runs with it. The details are delicious – the jabbed walking stick, and the “great new hope of British poetry” (who for some reason I always imagine to be Luke Kennard). I think it is a very vulnerable poem too, though – one that admits to its own delusions and desires.
“I love all those long run-on lines and conditionals. I think they create a feeling of instability, which on one hand contributes to the humour, but also helps the poem pack an emotional punch. Many of Mariner’s poems have this wry tone, inviting us to smile at a situation, but there’s a bitter-sweet quality to them too. The first time I read this poem I was laughing out loud by the time the great British hope was forced to intervene, but then found myself swallowing a sob at the last line.”
In my worst moments
when I wondered whether to submit you to a magazine
I imagine myself a grand old lady of poetry
giving what many believe would be my last reading
at a distinguished hall somewhere in London.
I’d start off standing with a chair ready behind me
and there would be a lectern holding all my works
and I’d begin by reading from the period in my writing
that will bear your name in the definitive
biography of my life, from a first edition
of my first collection, which has been promised,
along with the rest of my library and personal papers
to a university which I once attended. Suddenly,
out of the corner of my eye through a cataract,
I’d notice another old woman rising from the front
and she would totter up the stairs to the stage and advance
on me, pushing a walking stick into my chest
demand, Leave my brother or possibly husband alone
you lunatic and send me topping into the arms
of the great new hope of British poetry who had
been asked to introduce me following an interview
in a broadsheet where he named me his principal influence.
Or maybe afterwards, signing copies of my books
in the foyer, you would shuffle up and rasp
What is the meaning of this you lunatic as you threw
the weighty volume that was my Collected Poems
on to the table. After you’d reminded me exactly
who you were, I could explain, if I’m able to remember,
that back at the turn of the century I’d suffered
from both you and poetry like a disease, but I won’t.
So in the face of my silence you will grab me
by the throat of my high-necked blouse with your
liver-spotted hands and the poetry hope, who has been
standing beside me repeating people’s names directly
into my ear, will have to intervene. Either way
I will end up in hospital being given a check-up
because of my frailty, but my niece or nephew
or maybe my son or daughter, will notice my face
more animated that it has been for decades
as he or she straps me into their car to take me back
to the Hampstead flat I refused to give up and I will laugh
and say He touched me again after all those years.
Jonathan Davidson chose ‘How the Wild South East Was Lost’ by Kit Wright, from his collection Hoping it Might be So (Leviathan, 2000).
How the Wild South East Was Lost
See, I was raised on the wild side, border country,
Kent’n’Surrey, a spit from the county line,
An’ they bring me up in a prep school over the canyon:
Weren’t no irregular verb I couldn’t call mine.
Them days, I seen oldtimers set in the ranch-house
(Talkin’ ’bout J. ‘Boy’ Hobbs and Pat C. Hendren)
Blow a man clean away with a Greek optative,
Scripture test, or a sprig o’ that rho-do-dendron.
Hard pedallin’ country, stranger, flint ‘n’ chalkface,
Evergreen needles, acorns an’ beechmast shells,
But atop that old lone pine you could squint clean over
To the dome o’ the Chamber o’ Commerce in Tunbridge Wells.
Yep, I was raised in them changeable weather conditions:
I seen ’em, afternoon of a sunny dawn,
Clack up the deck chairs, bolt for the back French windows
When they bin drinkin’ that strong tea on the lawn.
In a cloud o’ pipesmoke rollin’ there over the canyon,
Book-larned me up that Minor Scholarship stuff:
Bent my back to that in-between innings light roller
And life weren’t easy. And that’s why I’m so tough.
Jonathan says, “Growing up in the south of England I was drawn, many years ago, to this poem as a little, witty dig at the ‘gritty school’ of poetry that held sway in the 1980s and 90s (and perhaps still does). We can’t all have had a bloody awful time growing up, says Wright, but let me tell you I too had my privations …! Perfectly pitched, beautifully modulated, not a syllable out of place, and simply a joy to read aloud, this poem is in the tradition of Pope, Byron and Betjeman. It relies, of course, on both writer and reader not taking their endeavours too seriously. And it helps if you like playfulness with language.”