Telling It Like It Is
Now I’m left with all of this, a room full of your trash.
The Psychedelic Furs
“Let’s sum up so far, bring you up to date” writes Roddy Lumsden in “Compendium,” a sonnet towards the end of Mischief Night - New & Selected Poems. What there is to sum up is numerous summings-up, compendia of sufferings, moments of grief, slurs, slights and insults, poems that express the agonies the self suffers in expressing itself. Lumsden wrestles with words almost as much as he seems to wrestle with life; his poems (selected here from several published and unpublished collections dating back to 1997’s Yeah Yeah Yeah) are costly, hard-worked monuments to his own internal struggle, jagged, often irregular chunks of language, sometimes bleak, sometimes grimly comic, sometimes cryptic, but always intriguing.
His characteristic mode of expression, or at least the one that affords him the most latitude, is the list, the summing-up up of images, perceptions, thoughts worked into phrases and sentences that revel in their own made-ness, the artifice of their construction. This propensity is signalled in the first line of the first poem here—“So many, so many songs / for the suicides, for the lives / docked in middle age”—and establishes itself, a page later, in the asterisked sequence of images that makes up “Miss Hollington’s Notes:” “*a chorus of rum babas behaving preposterously behind glass * the trophy smears when hot fudge lifts from greaseproof paper * a squadron of traybakes awaiting rosettes ” and so on, an anorexic’s fantasy of self-denial, a culinary game of Exquisite Corpse, Chinese whispers for the famine-struck.
The list contains its own familiar dynamic, so that by the time we reach “Hotel Showers of the World” we know the scheme; lists offer choices for the reader as well as summaries of the poet’s memories, and provide tests of verbal skill—how to make a list resonate with all the significance of syntactically organised language? Make it link everywhere to home, the great hotel of the world, from “Manila’s Pan Pacific” to “The Warder’s Inn in Lewes” to “The St Andrews Bay,” and make the poem another compendium of travel, loneliness, brief physical pleasure; after all, the poem implies, we only stay a short while, and the shower might be a bit like resurrection, from which, despite the world, we could emerge “this pink, this clean.”
For all this, there’s a dominant darker side to Lumsden that pushes through the playful optimism, making it seem forced at precisely those moments where it might be most unassuming, as if the poet, with a weak grin, were insisting everything’s OK just as it teeters on the brink. “Rain at Night” demonstrates this intruding reality wonderfully, and offers an assured, powerful meditation on the truth of separation, the distance between those closest to each other, as the poet talks the deepest sense to his unheeding “young love:” “I whispered this, / as if you hear me across the noise of rain, the darkened counties dropping off, the emptiness.” “As if you hear me”—and yet, says the poem, we go on trying. “Moments of Terror,” seemingly more quirky, is finally equally dark, its list an incremental scale of cheerful fear culminating in a howl curiously reminiscent of Wilfred Owen:
Raise three cheers for the agent provocateur punching the air,
for the ugsome stranger who wakes beside you,
nameless, with hairy hands and heavy breathing
for why did we heave with our fins and gasp
and leave the swamp, if not to hear
the porch door creak, the strangler on the stair.
In “My Meeting with the Goddess” we encounter Lumsden’s muse, a figure of himself, with hippy leanings (“six years / in the Findhorn Foundation behind her”—Lumsden elsewhere cites Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, deliberate musical reference points for a man born in 1966 and therefore rather young to have heard them all first time round). The Goddess is Lumsden in disguise, in mythological (“cryptotheological,” he calls it) drag, “sweet but complicated”, “a lapsed romantic wearing a cynic’s hat”. Later, he “will wake in the Japanese annexe: / my pomegranate mouth, my yak flank hair, / the skin of my back busy with mill-sweat,” his descent into the underworld, his going through the mill of himself over for now, returning instead to what another poem (“My Allegory,” no less) calls “this plundered and squandered nosebag of a planet.”
Lumsden’s world is one of pubs, drink, temporary liaisons that might, just might, be the real thing; his poems are intensely, disturbingly personal, loaded with private significances, memories, allusions. He sometimes reads as if Roddy Doyle had ingested all of Alan Warner and Edwin Morgan all at once, which is not a criticism, more a comment on the sheer public, acrobatic versatility of his language, alongside its almost deadpan, fatalistic concern with the most intimate and important aspects of life, of why we’re all here—as the book’s final words put it, “to love, to die.”