Michael Laskey, Permission to Breathe (Smith/Doorstop)

One thing I have always thought about reviewing is that it’s possible to be the right person or the wrong person to review a particular book. I’m sure it must be pertinent sometimes to say “No”; to say it would be best to give this book to someone else, because I don’t feel able to write usefully about it. Other times, one might feel this way, but then reconsider. I sat here with Michael Laskey’s new book, and I reconsidered. I reconsidered because it occurred to me I was both the wrong person and the right person to review this book, which made me perfect for the job. And my reasoning is simple. Nobody, not even a much-liked poet, and brilliant advocate of poets and poetry, and a highly respected poetry workshop leader, is owed anything they haven’t earned. I felt like this as soon as I’d read the book and the descriptive blurbs accompanying it. I’ve decided, in the wake of this experience, that some people might think me almost totally deficient when it comes to appreciating other people’s emotions, and caring about how they feel, and all that business. I could be seen as a cold robot with no heart. On the other hand, and rather more to the point, I am about to risk losing a friend because I don’t like his book of poems, and saying why.

The primary attributes of Michael Laskey’s poetry, according to the puffs of praise on the cover, are his writing about what Craig Raine describes as “wry grief”, and what the PBS Bulletin’s anonymity calls “intelligent, feeling writing.” Robert Potts, in The Guardian, apparently noted “originality of thought” as well as “quality of execution.”

I have no argument with the last of these remarks. I’ve known Michael personally, and been familiar with his work for many years, and there is no question that he writes well, in the way one is encouraged to write well at places like the Arvon Foundation and in writing workshops. This is not disputable. But this robot heartlessness of mine loses patience with the rest of this laudatory flannel.

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Nearly half of this book is concerned with the loss of the poet’s elderly parents. By “loss” I mean of course “death” - I don’t mean losing them in the shopping precinct on a Saturday morning. Although this small retail mishap could actually be quite a good subject for a poem of about four lines, sadly the poems I’m concerned with here are dead parent poems, all of them much longer than four lines. About half of the remaining poems are tied up with the poet’s sense of his own advancing age, and with his domestic circumstances. A handful has its genesis in a trip to Australia.

(Yes, I yawned too: Go abroad. Write poems. Oh God.) There are a few others, including a couple of somewhat out-of-character list poems, which remind me of better poems by someone else. Yet I have to say (and I mean this as much as I am able to mean anything) if one is keen on poems that are laden with “wry grief” then it is probably difficult to find anyone better to read than Michael Laskey. He writes well. Not everyone does.

But I don’t really like stacks of poems which, let’s be honest, have someone’s death to thank for being there. They have to be amazing poems to justify their presence, I think. And those poems do exist. Of course they do; but not in this book. The first half of “Permission to Breathe” is overwhelmed by parental loss, and you can have too much of a thing. Poems like ‘The New Car’ are typical and, I suspect, potentially prize winning. It begins:

Coming in with a bag of windfall Bramleys…..

By which time, frankly, I’ve lost interest. When the end arrives, and the poet is

             Cutting the bruised bits
out of the apples, adding sugar; telling
myself I’m sure he’d approve.

I’ve already been out of the room to make a cup of tea, and flicked through the TV channels to see what’s on. Poetry like this mainly