Friday, February 20, 2009

Fresh Cabbage

I've spent the last few days having a first read through of Rob Mackenzie's book The Opposite of Cabbage, and very enjoyable it is too. At this point I feel like I can only point to some things I particularly liked –

The quiet rhyme of 'Light Storms from a Dark Country'; everything about 'White Noise'; in 'Scotlands', the complaint that the grass is 'Much too green', and the well-judged repetition of 'bitterness'; the rarity of a successful pantoum in 'Hospital'; the deep blankness of 'Sky Blue'; and, from 'Advice from the Lion tamer to the Poetry Critic':

Quiet poems need subtler handling
than roaring ones,
but all poems are in thrall
to their own voices.

One reason why I'm hesitant to say more is that I'm finding it difficult to digest the technical development of influences. For example, I know that Rob has read John Ashbery and Michael Hofmann in some detail, but the book doesn't simply regurgitate or amalgamate their styles. There are unreal/absurd/bizarre moments and passages, but it isn't simply Scots Ashbery; there are cynical/bleak agglomereations of resolutely contemporary materials, but it isn't cod-Hofmann either.

One poem which approximates Hofmann's style more or less closely is 'Married Life in the Nineties', from the mixture of high- and low-cultural allusions to the dysfunctional love affair which is the poem's subject. There are some delicious, hilarious, sad moments: 'A magic tree laced your neck/in place of a crucifix men couldn't help kissing'; '[I] held out/for whatever was due beyond Windows 95'; and the ending, where the beloved goes off with someone else, 'leaving me, I presumed,/either self-sufficient or without hope'. It's good stuff, but I am more interested in (unsettled by) one or two other poems which take aspects of Hofmann's style into different territory. 'Berlusconi and the National Grid' makes a historical parallel with Fascist Italy which is not less effective for being conspicuous. 'Plastic Cork' seems a more generous, more open love poem than Hofmann would write. 'Nuclear Submarines' is something else - it takes a quite Hofmann-ish device, the nuclear threat used as a figure for personal and social unease, and turns it into something less cluttered, more lyrical than Hofmann's work:

For now, they seem content to drowse

resolutely without wit or purpose
like autistic sharks ballooning

through seaweed, rock and sand
of fish cities deep in blackout.

(I can't help remembering Ted Hughes's 'Pike' here too. It's a clean, grotesque, sad poem, and I like it more each time I read it.) There are fewer jokes, and I feel like I need time to reread this in order to work out how tone, irony and subject matter (not to mention the influence, perhaps greater, of Ashbery) configure themselves in this and other poems in the book. It ain't - thankfully - simply imitative, but this makes it more difficult to get a handle on.


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