Journey into the mundane
THERE was a briefly noticed group in British poetry in the late 1970s called the Martians, in whose work everyday objects were described as if by a visitor from another planet. This style could slip easily from a deliberate into an unintended naivety.
These poets wrote lines such as ‘‘ Mist is when the sky is tired of flight / and rests its soft machine on ground’’ (From Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, the poem for which the group was named.)
Christopher Reid produced perhaps the best of what was a lightweight approach, particularly with Baldanders, a poem, ironically enough, about a weightlifter, which ends: ‘‘ Glazed, like a mantelpiece frog, / he strains to become / the World Champion (somebody, answer it!) / Human Telephone.’’
In this new book, Nonsense, Reid’s style is By Christopher Reid Faber, 116pp, $29.99 (HB) completely bare of metaphor. The longest poem, of 64 pages, more than half the book, seems banal in its entirely flat-footed, literalminded presentation of everyday things. Yet if one is aware of the poet’s earlier capability, one is prepared to allow there might be a mimetic intention here.
Poetry is language that imitates what it is speaking about. It employs the non-semantic elements of language — rhythm, texture, implication, enjambment, spacing, tone — to evocative ends. In his lead poem, Professor Winterthorn’s Journey, it seems Reid might be imitating despondence through a notably deadpan, affectless presentation. His subject is the life, as revealed over several days, of a recent widower — the poet’s own situation, as we know from his 2009 book, A Scattering, about his wife’s early death from cancer.
The professor (Reid is one, also) decides to take himself to a literary conference, although he has not been invited to speak — how better to suggest his boredom — at a university two days’ flying from London, probably in Australia: ‘‘ Check-in is slow but goes without a hitch; / he presents passport photo — tiny, yes, but me! — / joins the abattoir shuffle towards baggage inspection / and body frisk; and at last is admitted / to the great, luminous cavern of Duty Free. / The dread realm of waiting, / where for almost two hours / the