The Heavy-Petting Zoo by Clare Pollard

by John Sears

5 June 2002


by Clare Pollard
Bloodaxe Books
April 2002, 64 pages, £6.95

by John Sears
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Beers, Smears and Tears

cover art

The Heavy-petting Zoo

Clare Pollard

(Bloodaxe Books)

“Bury me in a desert where sand sweeps / A single magnificent gesture”—so opens the first poem in Clare Pollard’s 1998 debut, published when its author was 19 years old. Born in Bolton, educated at Cambridge, published by Bloodaxe, one of Poetry Review‘s “New Poets” of 1996, already a BBC and Channel Four veteran, Pollard’s had a busy late adolescence and early adulthood. Judging by the poems in these volumes, she’s also found a lot of time to spend in pubs, bars and nightclubs, not merely as an observer, and there may even be enough of the author herself here to construct a fair alternative biography, which is to say that these poems sometimes offer painfully honest takes on the world.

Pollard’s poems are like shards of glass, brittle, dangerous things that work their way under your skin. Her voice captures the pain, anxiety and emptiness of a generation weaned on Coke and Diamond White, reared on fast food and TV, and now entering adulthood armed with utterly ephemeral cultural reference points and a strong suit in self-destruction. It’s to Pollard’s credit that she elevates herself slightly above the worlds she represents—her personae are sometimes caught in the poems like flies in amber, allowing us to handle their voices and their lives, to look at them from all angles.

The Heavy-Petting Zoo establishes Pollard’s territory quickly—from the death wish of the already-quoted “Nomad” we move to the chill betrayal of “Everything Ends in Ice” (with its implicit echo of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”) and then into the title poem, an orgiastic teenage party narrated by a girl excluded from the action. Pollard’s characters are alienated insiders, structured by their worlds but displaced within them. They know the language, the slang, the brand names, how to drink and smoke themselves to oblivion, but their lives are switched on but unplugged, and they lack the companionship each voice so powerfully yearns for, a yearning which orchestrates the tone of the book’s long central poem, “A Friday Night at the End of a Millennium.”

The overt cultural debts are to TV, pop music and, increasingly as her work develops, painting and literature. Comparisons with Sylvia Plath abound, but imagine X-Ray Spex crossed with The Smiths (or Charles Bukowski crossed with Wendy Cope), with a dash of Jello Biafra, an echo of Jeremy Reed and a hefty dose of daytime confessional chat shows, and you might end up with something like the typical Pollard poem, except that her range is sufficiently diverse to make that notion difficult to imagine. Her poems are like condensed versions of Alan Warner novels, and she captures as well as Warner the dazzling surface, the bizarre juxtapositions, the chaotic medley of emotions that characterise contemporary youth experience.

All these elements combine in “The Last Love Poem,” a long, ranting dialogue between modern love and the love of poetic tradition, between pop lyrics (“Ev’ry time we say goodbye, I cry a little”) and high culture (T.S. Eliot’s “Shantih, Shantih.”) “In most countries romance doesn’t even exist,” the poem screams. “It’s a big western lie. / IT IS IN YOUR FUCKING HEAD”—exactly where the romantic lyrics, riffs and jingles of mass culture insistently implant themselves.

This year’s Bedtime offers an elaboration and extension of the themes and voices in Pollard’s first book, and suggests that this is a poet who is definitely going places. The tone is more assured, the anger more controlled, the reference points are more fully explored. This kind of writing used to be called “postmodern,” and Pollard knows it: “Decide if it’s postmodern, or just ‘raw,’” she instructs us in “My Bed,” which is this volume’s tour de force, a formally skilful and strict imitation in words of Tracey Emin. Typically the voice here switches smoothly between Emin, football, Big Brother, John Donne, Othello and Proust, concluding with an ironic thrust at the vacuity of a culture “hooked with need / to know what happened next.” Ironic, because “My Bed” is Emin’s title, Pollard’s title and the two beds it refers to knowingly confuse life and art, and seemingly ridicule both—“If ‘My Bed’ has a message, it’s to shout / all life’s potential art, all that is real / interests people - hence docusoap’s appeal.”

Early in her first book, Pollard asserts that “The poet is an alchemist—/ even the most sordid and hopeless hurts / can be licked a scalding gold” (“Burn Brighter.”) The alchemy of these poems relies on their ability to find the momentarily stunning image, the comparison appropriate to the tone and the context—the sudden American grammar of “There is a whole history of hurt hangs over her” (“Hometown”), the soft blue scales of Miles Davis’ in “Fantasy Dinner Party.” Pollard’s favourite pool of images is the human body, which assumes central importance in Bedtime and allows the emotional to be mapped onto the corporeal in minutely detailed, disturbing ways, both seductive and prohibitive. Love itself (and many of these poems are love poems) is more frequently a physical experience, sexual and passionate, yet intellectualised and rationalised. “My Boy Bitten By a Lizard tells a truth,” Caravaggio tells us in “Madder”—“reach out to life, / and pain may cause your hand to spasm to a claw.”

Clare Pollard’s poems compulsively re-enact the reaching out to life and the withdrawing in pain. If there are occasional false notes here, like the sentimental and politically dubious conclusion of “Thinking of England,” they are more than outweighed by the sheer force and weight of meticulous observation and accurate language in harness with each other. She’s not afraid to counterpoint the archaic with the crassly modern (“My mortal love, what fucking fools we are” [“Fears of a Hypochondriac Insomniac”]) in order to bring to the fore the sinuous versatility of the modern idiom, which is ultimately her own idiom. Pollard is a poet of the 21st century, a witness of the present and a shaper of its voice.

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