The Show Must Go On

The Becoming of Lady Flambé by Holly Magill (Indigo Pamphlets, £6); ISBN: 978-1-910834-86-2Image result for lady flambé holly magill
Sloth and the Art of Self-deprecation by Brett Evans (Indigo Pamphlets, £6); ISBN: 978-1-910834-85-5
Holly Magill and Brett Evans are in danger of making poetry entertaining. Lock ’em up before it turns viral. These publications share a knack for pulling the reader in with virtuoso wit and economy. There’s no flab or superfluous showy flourishes and yet they excel linguistically without looking as if they are trying too hard. Magill’s extravagance reads seamlessly, as she lures us into a fantastical world that distils the narrative drive and characterisation of a novella into a circus-themed study of warped dreams and adolescent adventurism. It’s a book that oozes personality – and not a little pathos – with its raw depictions of sexual encounter and escapism, emotional scarring, and the relentless drudge of poverty. Then there’s that distinctive humour too. In ‘My earliest memory’ we greet the first spectacle of an elephant through the eyes of the circus ingénue: “A big grey bum is reversing towards me, like the lorries at Tesco, but without the bleeping noises. I’m little – pee down my legs Into my frilled white socks”
In ‘Bella sees’:
“Kelly had habitually subsisted purely on vodka, chicken Pot Noodle, and Silk Cut”.
InNo one tells me not to’, the lead character, Flambé, glories in the precocious independence of being parentless:
“I get none of the hassle normal/girls have to squirm around . . . I go out Looking Like That. And I fucking love it”.
You can’t help but fall such an anti-heroine, whose experiences could be taken as a survivor’s guide to how to eek joy and warmth – where needed – wherever the opportunity occurs. She’s undaunted by the menace and intimations of violence never far away; she’s the unwholesome, almost feral, done-too-much-too-young burgeoning woman that the well-bred boys in the towns she tours among would do well to avoid. Look but do not touch if you know what’s good for you. Gaudy big tent extravagance collides with the squalid and mundane. But Flambé is no victim; she pursues whatever tempts her. Magill refuses to play to the gallery of prevailing wisdom. There’s no ethical or ideological gesturing here, no moralising or safe nerve-tapping appeals to humanity. Instead, you get lines of irresistible swerve and aplomb. My favourite – among many contenders – comes with the opening to ‘Firestarter’: “I’m guessing most girls don’t get their first kiss with a lad who eats fire seven nights a week, and two matinees at weekends.”
With a dollop of laugh-at-loud irony, she relates:
“And somehow he is the only guy around here Who doesn’t smoke.”
Flambé is such an appealing sequence of poems that it calls out for a sequel so we know what becomes of her next, although, most plausibly, she will probably come to a bad end. From the same stable comes another reminder of what other publishers are missing out on when they vanish down a voguish cul-de-sac or the self-consciously poeticised. Brett Evans’s ‘Sloth’ should probably carry a warning of ‘not for prigs’. It’s a robust, uncompromising publication that revels in its own subversive chutzpah, and all this within 34 pages. Evans is also a reminder of what can happen when a poet refuses to court popularity, observe unspoken protocols, or chase the supposed zeitgeist: liberation. As such, for me at least, Sloth is a welcome affirmation of poetry as riotously non-conformist and offensive to prevailing orthodoxies of morality and behaviour. He calls to mind Brendan Kennelly, whose ‘Book of Judas’ and ‘Poetry My Arse’ took aim at the bland conservatism of liberals who purport to critical authority. You get a good flavour of where this going in the opening ‘Philosophies and Maladies’: “Now, there’s a man. He knows there’s no heaven to reach up to and squeeze the fucking sac, burst its balls of purpose.”
Image result for Sloth and the Art of Self-deprecationAnd there begins a revelry that straddles politics, philosophy, art, culture, sex and social ills, with enough alcohol as lubricant to drown the thirsts of most of us for several lifetimes. ‘The Martini as Big as The Ritz’ serves up the lines: “A mixing glass in which you could launch the Ark, enough ice to reassure the polar bear, so little vermouth to cause France to revolt, and stir as vigorously to cause civil war.”
Sloth as the metaphorical traveller through a culture that veers between gross exhibitionism and pious censoriousness is an ideal foil for Evans. Bathos demolishes pathos, the grand and elevating collapse flat-arsed, and all pretensions – poetic or otherwise – run up against crashing doses of reality in a few pithy lines. In ‘Sloth Pitches his Reality TV Show’:
“Sloth shits once a week. He reasons there has to be a series in that. And if the focus be that one turd, Sloth insists there’s no space for those two Geordie gobshites or that egotistical Pied Piper for pouting teens twat”
In the tumbling verses of ‘Bull’ – best read in one large gulp – it’s myth-fuelled pomposity in the firing line:
“So first we toasted Daedalus, waxed lyrical on Icarus, two clever dicks now lost to us – we have but one life therefore must live low, avoid the sun.”
If the vulgarity makes you twitch, that may be because the point’s well made. The language works not as indulgence, but as well-chosen ammunition for the times. Often deceptively so. Evans is never less than a skilled exponent of the taut and pacey line. There’s a muscular elegance as well to his writing that charges up the subject matter. The thematic range rewards exploration: celebrity versus transience, rebellion and liberty versus the straitjacket of acceptance and affectation. Evans is lobbing dynamite into the culturally cosy seats, and he either doesn’t much care if their occupants are offended or regards their offence as vindication and reward for his endeavours. In doing so, he has that unfettered confidence of a poet who can create his own audience. Likewise Magill. I’d take either one of these poets over many garlanded award-winners any day.
Neil Young