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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.

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 serves the poet’s desire to write poems and assuage something in their self which has not been dealt with elsewhere. I’m pretty sure of this, but I’m also certain Laskey would argue with me about it. And let’s face it lots of people love to read this stuff, because here they can find sentiments with which to identify. The poet has also managed to make half a book of poems out of the fact of particular deaths, and that link between death and a book of poems sometimes, sometimes, worries the hell out of me. It feels as if this sadness is all little more than so much poetry material. One poem yes, I can understand that. But twenty? Twenty? No, it’s too many. My parents are quite elderly, and I suspect that it won’t be very long before I have to deal with their passing. This is something like a fact, a sad but undeniable truth. But reading books and poems like this make me swear to God I won’t write poems about them when they go. I have trouble enough talking to them now; I’ll be damned if I’ll talk to them in public when they’re dead. If someone can tell me what purpose these twenty poems serve other than to pander to something not unconnected with the poet’s ego, then please do. Nothing in these poems is particularly new or original, either by way of thought or execution, no matter what it says in The Guardian. They are very good examples of their type. But what, I wonder, exactly is “their type”, apart from popular and, I’m sorry to say, easy? And is it good?

Other poems chart unexciting poetic territory. A house tumbles over a cliff because of erosion and a well is discovered – “A well/ we hadn’t even known we’d owned.” (‘Freehold’).

The poet falls out with the telephone – “And suddenly see it, feel/ the frown I’ve become, how I sigh/ whenever it rings, put off/ calling anyone, even Suki.” (‘On the Phone’) Also, one is asked to suffer the heavy-handed metaphor of ‘Past Talking’, where the poet and his wife (one has to assume it is the poet and his wife, otherwise the poem is even more tiresome than I thought) are loading their cycles on to the carrier on the car, and “They don’t naturally fit together……….Contradictory, they need a good shove/ sometimes to make them lie snug”. One can almost imagine a bunch of people sitting around in a workshop talking about how well-achieved this is.

I am also annoyed by how well-behaved these poems are. And now I have written that, I know I’m faced with the challenge of explaining what I mean by it. It has a little to do with the tone of poems that begin “Met him first I thought at Pete’s fortieth/ and we got on well….” (‘Old School Tie’), which is neither a true speaking voice nor quite a believable written voice (it is, in fact, a poetry voice: take a moment to consider the grammar and construction of it) but this is only part of the cause of my annoyance. It’s also to do with how the poems are neat and tidy, well-worked and resolved, with none of the loose ends and ragged edges and unsettling disjunctions real life entails. Upset is what nearly all these poems are about but it comes so neatly packaged my interest is no more than if the guy had told me Sainsbury’s were out of his favourite coffee. In one poem a chap (it may be the poet, it may not be: let’s guess) is alone for an evening and is set to treat himself to a meat pie he wouldn’t eat if his wife were home. Then she comes home unexpectedly. Big deal; I shrug my shoulders. I couldn’t care less. Here, in this poetic world, upset even of the most mundane kind, minor psychological discomforts and middle-aged disquiet are all material for a poem. I am somewhat uneasy with this notion. These are not poems that set out to stretch language to make it somehow tally with our lives, nor are they poems to particularly exercise the imagination. They are polite and decent and may well win, and may well already have won poetry prizes for being well-behaved and well-presented. And I know this is exactly why I am the right person to review these poems. I know these are the kind of poems that dominate the most read and popular parts of poetry world at the moment. They are easy to digest. They are well-written and educated. They are awfully polite. They never shock. They threaten to say the unspeakable, but don’t. They probably mirror the stifled and pent-up emotions and sentiments of lots of people. And they bore me so much I could lose the will to live, but I know better than to let them get the better of me.

This review was first published in Stride


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