This volume is a revelation. Not just because it’s essential for those for whom words are the givens. Not just because it helps to bring together the essential and the idiosyncratic, and the wild and the grounded. But because it’s a reminder of how physical poetry and poetry that reveals ourselves has come to be, thanks to those who have rushed to take the titles of modern titles straight off the covers and, often, the covers off the books. And it’s here that Rosal’s own approach has a perfectly worked-out feel, and rich in the reach and generosity of what he’s getting at. His writing is both lucid and gestural, bearing a good deal of the effect of being spontaneous.
Some of the titles are not strong. Rosal’s own is often a read; some his would be ruined by typos, or by a reading of the text in a lecture hall full of students who’ve been misquoted. The language is, to use a favourite word, in-yer-face – like it’s reminding you of a word in a football chant. But he has used this instinct and spontaneity to tell stories that need to be read as well as listened to, and, very often, the poet’s narrative will be transfigured by circumstances.
His book contains some of the best of the best and the best of the usual. There are two extended pieces, The Sixty Second Story and Eton Clerk: A Three Day Road Trip, based around events that I won’t recount because, had I read them in outline, they would have been impossible to include in a review. Both deal with a powerful story within stories, which expresses powerful meanings. One is described by Helen Dunmore as “a spectral tale”; and a couple of chapters are told in the tone of someone reading from a piece of poetry which is more accessible to other poems. These two parts come from Readings, which I reread last week (and I read more than 20 book reviews in 2018, in London and beyond).
Much of the prose is at times pithy, then lovely. An astonishing poem, So Close to Truth, is altogether more than that. It’s a snapshot of Rosal’s time in Bristol, where he grew up, mixed with memories of his upbringing and memories of music. There’s a fantastic chapter on Joan Winifred (b 1948) and a wonderful poem, Chicken Bone, a partnership with Douglas Coupland, which brings over-the-top sentences to a kind of startling loopy end.
There’s a humorous chapter about using a magic trick, In the Lonely Hour, to tell his tutor about an expedition he was conducting in the Canadian Rockies. There’s a brilliant section on what Rosal calls “the dust period”, a sort of misanthropic radio commentary. And a wonderful, deeply unsettling whole, In My Memory, which remains the longest, most ominous poem here – like a sequence of images in a long car journey where you know you’re going to be murdered.
This book helps remind of how unexpected the poem is and how searching poetry can be for those who either are afraid of travelling, or “destined for the grimmest descent”. Poetry takes flight, to paraphrase Edgar Allen Poe. Rosal is about to tour with his work, and let us know how well the book works.
• Patrick Rosal is speaking at Newcastle’s Bear & Palms