Reviews: This Is Not About What You Think

Jump to Beverly -  Colin -  Dave -  Kass -  Lena -  Marion -  McGuire -  Paula -  Brent -  Tim

 Beverly Ellis

Another author whose work gives a compassionate response to the human condition is Jim Murdoch. Both of these men are prepared to talk directly about the adversities of life as it is lived: unglamorous sometimes, but honest and timeless.

Jim Murdoch says in his introduction to This Is Not About What You Think: 'I've long held the belief that writers should say what they have to say and get off the page. So I try to do exactly that. This has resulted in an aphoristic style of writing which I happen to like...' True enough: due to the highly personal viewpoint, some of the poems have an aphoristic feel, but the collection goes far deeper than the usual surface gloss and easy wit of actual aphorisms.

Without the protection of cynicism or bravado, these poems acknowledge all the usual human vulnerabilities, reflecting the real world where l'esprit de l'escalier reigns and that pithy one-liner is never on the tip of your tongue when you need it; hurt is deeply felt, but quietly borne. The author gives us his careful observations of life far more than his opinions and the concerns are universal. The wisdom in the text seems to have been hard-won and some of the subject matter is very moving, eg Father Figure and the series of poems Advice to Children.

Some of the poems can appear deceptively simple at first glance, but the points they make often resonate and demand subsequent readings; this is an unassuming book which quietly grows on you. The longer poems are frequently supple and mediate between an interior/exterior world, eg 'You can drown inside yourself you know/but only a dripping tap can drive you/insane' (Old Flames In The Rain).

In his introduction, the author offers the reader permission to use his poems: 'Just because I've finished thinking my thoughts, doesn't mean that someone else won't be able to make use of them. They may make something of them that I never intended or imagined.' And that's the whole point of this text, as demonstrated by the cover illustration of a Rorschach ink-blot which appears to be a naked man — or is that just what I see? Get a copy and see what you think: it's well worth a look.

Originally posted on Ink Sweat and Tears on 24th January 2011

 Colin Will

I've been reading, with great interest, Jim Murdoch's new poetry collection, This Is Not About What You Think. It's a well-produced book, published by Fandango Virtual. As Jim says in his introduction 'None of my poems are very long. I've long held the belief that writers should say and get off the page'. Refreshing and honest, and that also describes Jim's poetry.

He's what I would describe as a 'personal' poet, not that the poems are necessarily autobiographical, but that they are based on his personal experience, or so I assume (correct me if I'm wrong Jim!). Advice to Children is an engaging mini-sequence which pops up in several places, there are poems on his own childhood, his parents, his adult life and loves. There is that distance however, as implied by the title, that leaves enough room for the imagination. And he approaches these subjects with an objectivity which could never be mistaken for detachment. He cares about people, and it shows. There are occasional literary nods, to Larkin, to Erica Jong and to William Carlos Williams among others. The book is in seven sections, but the section marks are not rigid compartments — subjects come and go between sections. Intriguingly, and unusually, Jim's Appendix lists the date of composition of the poems in the collection, showing that they span a long period from 1979 to the present.

This is a fine collection by a thoughtful, subtle and perceptive writer, and it deserves to be widely read.

Originally posted on Sunny Dunny's (New) Blog on 4th August 2010

 Dave King

The drawing on the cover of Jim Murdoch's This Is Not About What You Think could be taken for a metaphor of the poems within. It is obvious, even from the quickest of glances, what it represents. Indeed, the quicker the glance, the more obvious you might find it. The female genitalia are unmistakable, but then you start to wonder — or I did — is this what it's about? Probably not, you may decide, for the drawing has something in common with the ink blot test once so beloved of psychiatrists. What you see in it is not what's there, but is driven by your mind-set. (So perhaps there are no female genitalia. Maybe they were just in my mind!) We do the same when we create, of course. The artist looks at a landscape and brings to it his mind-set, a mental landscape, turbulent or pacific as the case may be. If he can make the two landscapes cohere, he has himself a masterpiece. Whatever, the point is that, like the poems, Jim's cover drawing is working on another level. It looks almost as though it was made by drawing one half of the figure and then folding the paper while the ink was still wet, to produce the other half. But what matter whether it was or not? It's the result that matters - or is it? More on that later.

Words, too, can be deceptively simple — and therefore, so can poems. Jim's poems can be, but in referring to their "simplicity" I mean only that the poet uses the words and speech forms of everyday conversation and that he erects no artificial barriers to our understanding. I do not mean that no original work has gone into them or that there are no buried nuggets for the reader to uncover. Read these poems and you may think you are out for a casual stroll, but watch out, for there in the shadows something is waiting to mug you. Skip casually through this book and the chances are that you will alight on a poem that seems too careless or breezy, too simple to repay extended study or consideration. Jim says they are about life. And so they are, every last one of them, and they are no more careless, superficial or "easy" than life itself. Indeed, for me this book has been something of a revelation. I have followed Jim's blog and read many of his poems. But only single poems. In isolation. I have found them impressive (always) and thought I knew them and, within limits, that I knew Jim as a poet. I didn't. The poems collected together like this strike chords that resonate beyond the single note of a solitary poem. They enhance each other and spark new significances from each other. I realise now that his work is more varied and subtle and its meaning (for me!) more deeply hidden than I had realised. And the simpler the surface appears to the eye, the more it seems to promise treasure beneath.

Problem: for Jim says that the process of writing a poem is more important to him than the finished work. The written work is expendable, so how can what I have written above, be true? Each poem, he says, is "a specific thought or feeling expunged from his head, examined, dealt with and discarded", so that henceforth he will understand himself a little more. I can partially relate to that, but that is only because Jim and his poems have brought me to that point. For me, the printed or spoken word is what it is all about, but reading these poems and thinking on them and his comments, has caused me to examine the importance of the process for me. Many of my poems are driven by memories, recent or distant, and in the process of writing, it is vital that the memory be not disturbed or modified... I was going to finish the sentence with "in any way", but that would have been a counsel of perfection; I will satisfy myself with "as little as possible". So Jim has made me more aware of the importance of the process for me.

What his remarks do emphasise, though, is that he is writing, not about what he knows, but about the unknown, maybe the potentially threatening. In that and in their deceptive simplicity, they seem to me to have something in common with fairy stories. They deal with the darknesses that lurk. They are not difficult to read, they may be harder to digest. During the war the government issued silhouettes of the various enemy aircraft, the better for us to recognise them as hostile. Simple affairs they were, the silhouettes, but effective. They had to be the first in order to be the second. If I have understood him correctly, Jim's process is one that will throw up the silhouette of whatever it is that is troubling or exercising him. He will know it that much better in the future — and himself as well.

But what of us? We cannot be privy to his process. We are getting only what he would throw away, job done. But as the book's title, This Is Not About What You Think, reminds us, the meaning of each poem will be different for each individual mind-set that is brought to it. I forget who it was that said of a work of art: It doesn't mean anything, but it has meaning. It is not inherent in the artefact; for Jim it exists in the process; for us — if at all — in the coherence of printed word and internal landscape.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book is that the poems are presented in seven sections, then, in an appendix at the back, he tell us that he began numbering his poems while still at school, and that he has been faithful to the same numbering system throughout. He gives us the number and date of each poem included in the book. The latest poem given is number 1046, dated 25 May 2010 and the earliest 510, dated 28 April 1979. I read through and chose some poems that particularly attracted me before I discovered the appendix. My chosen poems were written in August '89, April '97 and July 2003. What does that tell us? Not a lot, except that he has been writing well for a long time.

Originally posted on Pics and Poems on 27th July 2010

 Kass Schoenhals

This is Jim Murdoch. He's Scottish. He's intelligent. When you read stuff he's written and understand it, you feel intelligent too.

I can't even begin to pretend that I know how to review a book, but what I can tell you is why I enjoyed this collection of poems.

Jim writes how you wish you could write, but not so much that the jealousy prevents you from laughing at the things you wish you'd said, like, "I'd give my childhood a three. That's me being generous." This is from his poem, 'Marks.'

His poems follow a thoughtful progression with 'Advice to Children' interspersed throughout - things you probably are happy to read now, but glad you didn't have to hear when you were a child. This, from 'Imaginary Friends:' "People leave; it's what they do..."

As you read along, you will be struck by his wit and adeptness. You'll be thinking, "Oh, there's so much humor here. This is a fun book." But at page 39, your breath will catch in your throat. The poem 'Still Birth' will make you realize this man can not only be glib, but he has a depth of feeling that transcends gender barriers. Then you will go back and reread his poems with new eyes.

A major theme in Jim's life is THE TRUTH. You will see it here. In his poem 'Shadowplay,' he says, "What are lies but truths gone rotten and secrets lie in that no man's land between the two." Man, I wish I'd written that, because I think it's so true. The major theme of his blog and novel, Living with the Truth is found in 'Old Flames In the Rain.'

"...and the truth about lies
is we can't live without them.
Not even the white ones."

The title of this collection is ironic because Jim gives you permission right away to make of these poems something he never intended or imagined so it pretty much is about what you think.

Originally posted on The K..................Is No Longer Silent on 9th August 2010

Lena Vanelslander

Immediate, honest and to the point ... it is hard to review a book or writer that reminds you of your own writing style but the poems of Jim Murdoch succeeded beautifully in convincing me. 'This is not about what you think' is actually not about what you think, as each reader constructs an own interpretation of the poems. Just the same for the very appropriate book cover! Seemingly a Rorschach-test the image is open to many interpretations, as the poem 'Making Sense' clearly underlines.

Immediate, honest and to the point ... but so beautiful and pure in the messages and living truths the author passes to the reader. The delight of reading returns when opening this book, savoring writing that takes you to a higher place of mesmerizing, recalling and interpreting. Very few writers succeed in doing this in a short but rhythmical style. Not a word too much, not a word less that necessary, Jim's credo being, as stated in the book's introduction: 'Say what you have to say and get off the page.' Congratulations Jim, I can do nothing but recommend your work highly ... I adored it! And there is more!

Making Sense

What do you see in the inkblot?
Just sadness.
But sadness has no shape.
Yes it does. It has that shape.
Can't you see the butterfly?
Perhaps, but it's a very sad butterfly;
I can tell these things.

Originally posted on Gloom Cupboard on 8th August 2010

 Marion McCready

I've been reading over the last while Jim Murdoch's poetry collection This is Not About What You Think. It's refreshingly different to my normal poetry reading and written in a style entirely different to my own. I've been following Jim's blog for a couple of years now. He writes lengthy, essay-style informative and thought-provoking posts about authors, poets, books and writing. Many of his poems can be found scattered amongst his posts, mostly there to illustrate a point in his discourse.

Jim's poems are, by and large, rather short and aphoristic in style, there are several poems devoted to giving advice to children for example. Many of the poems come across almost like a series of proverbs in verse. The poems move between providing the reader with glimpses into the narrator's life and relationships on the one hand and poems providing us with universal 'truths' gained from the narrator's experience on the other.

One of my favourite poems in the book is 'Failing'. In many ways such a simple poem and yet the pathos really strikes home.


My mother taught me
how to be old.
I watched her falter
then fail and fall.

At least she tried to
teach me but what
did I care to know
about such things?

Now I'm old myself
I wish I'd paid
attention; I'm not
sure I ache right.

I am sure she'd have
something to say
about my limp, how
I hold my hip

and her "stupid cough"
I can't get right.
I must be such a

Another one of my favourites from the book —


My dad used to give me marks out of ten:
homework — seven out of ten,
the dishes — eight out of ten.

Anything less than a five
came with a clip on the ear.

Marks is merely another word for scars.
I have those too, the ones you
can see and the ones you can't.

I'd give my childhood a three.
That's me being generous.

Dad's no longer here and so I have to
mark myself. Is that what you
were waiting to hear, doctor?

What do you think this poem
might be worth? Maybe an eight?

In these two poems, as with most of Jim's poems, just as much of the poems exists between the lines as in the lines on the page. There is subtle insinuation at work, hints, question-begging. The poems can be funny too —


"Just because you have a hammer
it doesn't make you a joiner."
My father had his way with words.

So I took a handful of nails
and boarded up my heart
against him and against the world.

And safe on the inside I yelled:
"Screw you!"
but he was never one for puns.

You could say of many of the poems that they verge on psychoanalysis, philosophical questioning and a hint of the absurdity of life when examined. These can be seen in statements such as "The first lies we tell / are generally to ourselves". "I never understood / what they meant by "in" / as if love could somehow / change into a place / to crawl inside and hide".

It is also evident in this poem —

Advice to Children III

It's supposed to feel good
when you do the right thing.
And sometimes you do.

But mostly you feel
like you had no real choice,
that somehow they made you.

And that can't be right.

The power of understatment is a quality that runs right through this collection and at its best carries the full weight of emotion with great impact.

Overall an enjoyable read, and it bears re-reading well. I'm very glad to have this collection to mull over and go back to.

Originally posted on Poetry in Progress on 31st October 2010

 Colin McGuire

Murdoch is not a poet of excess. Murdoch does not mess about. Murdoch gets to the point, and then gets off the page. In some respects the poems are sterile, not in the sense of imagination, but of being thoroughly clean and free of destructive elements.

And why? Well, they don't need it. As Murdoch says 'Once written I understand myself a little more. I may still be carrying around the same baggage but it's packed a little more neatly.'

That's what I like about this collection - it's compactness, it's neatness. It contains one hundred and four page-poems that do not over-state, or obfuscate. (Obfuscate, is guilty of itself). Each has a simplicity. Each contains a small stone of wisdom. If it's true that 'the idiot talks, while the wise man remains silent' then, Murdoch is wise, for he is brief and insightful.

It is the brevity and succinctness in Murdoch's poems that make them readable. You can mull over their domestic insights, their wise old mans tale observations; consume them snack size with a moment's notice. As Shakespeare wrote'...brevity is the soul of wit...' so I shall shut up, and let the poems speak:

Advice to Children V

People are rarely
what they say they are
and never what they think
they are.

Or would like to be.
The first lies we tell
are generally to

Reflections of Glass

Her mirrored face reflected grief
and — in the way that some mirrors do —
twisted it (it's a trick of the light).

And when I came to face her, I looked
and I saw nothing and I realised that,
for her, I was not there, as if I were

Tunnel of Love

Love is not a thing you fall into
but an experience you go through
like a long tunnel.

Sometimes I just like to sit
in the dark in ours and pretend
I don't see the light at the end.

For My Father

Dutifully I dial the number and ask for him.

He answers and
brick by brick we build a conversation.

Progressively the pauses
become more frequent
and intense.

Finally we replace our receivers,
each regretting not having said
what he had no words to say.

Somehow I love him
yet cannot reach him.

'This Is Not About What You Think' charts a life in seven sections, from childhood to adulthood, the life is not necessarily biographical, but it certainly lends from the life of the author. There is some light inside this collection, but there is a scrupulous meanness throughout too. A depression with life, with the hand that it was dealt. But, it is through hardship we learn our lessons, right?

Throughout this collection there is a bleakness hard to over look. Poems of quiet regret, of failed relationships, in particular a relationship with a father which shared not much friendship, intimacy, or love. There is a nihilistic quality in the content, which is heightened by the strict minimalism of the layout. In the content there is a philosophical awareness that life is short, relationships insufficient, meaning transient and contradictory, and emotional lives are burden, we all leave with much left unsaid, in an existence that is opened ended and unfinished.

Critically, I think it lacks fireworks, lacks experiment/danger/chaos, some of the poems feel incomplete, there is not much left to the imagination, ultimately we have a life revealed through surgically small prose poems. But, I like chaos, private turmoil, confessions, messy life, language play and there is not enough of it in here for me. I much prefer reading Murdoch's essays, reviews, and Aggie and Shuggie skits. However, 'This Is Not About What You Think' is worth buying for its clear and simple insight, its common share in expressing the fear, dread, and anxiety, that mark every life.

Originally posted on Behind the Curtain on 6th March 2011

 Paula Cray

Jim Murdoch is a novelist and poet whose latest collection of poems, This Is Not About What You Think, begs you to take a closer look at not only his own poems but all poems. Published by in July, this collection will allow your own thoughts and experiences to flow through his words so that while the collection may not tell a complete story it will allow you to build your own through reading. Below I am happy to share a few poems:

       Advice to Children

       People will fail you.
       It's a fact of life —
       they'll let you down.

       But not always.
       And that's the worst of it —
       sometimes they don't.

       But most times it's hard to tell.

I think this poem tells it like it is, don't you? The people you think you can count on fail to and the people you don't think you can count on turn out to be dependable. Isn't that the way life is?

       Father Figure

       This is the floor beside my bed
       where I kneel to talk to God.
       If I press my ear to the floor.
       I can hear Him talk to Mum.
       About me. It is always me.

       I know what God looks like.
       He looks just like my dad.
       I heard him tell my mum:
       "In this house I am God."
       I heard that through the floor.

       Now I only pretend to pray
       because I don't want my dad
       to really hear the things I think.
       Now he's not sure I'm so bad.
       I don't want him to know I am.

       I just want my dad to love me.

I can picture a child writing this poem and it definitely tugs at the heartstrings. It is something I think a majority of us can relate to, feeling that a parent is larger than life, larger than God, and the feeling of wanting to please that parent more than God.

       True Love II

       My father had a heart transplant.
       Years ago, before I was born,
       doctors took
       out his broken heart

       and gave him a machine instead.
       The strange thing about this machine
       was it was
       powered by sadness.

       Of course he was always just Dad,
       but, when I discovered the truth,
       at first I
       hated the sadness

       then I became thankful for it
       because as long as I could see
       him be sad
       he would be with me.

       And so I made it my job to
       make him the saddest dad in the
       whole wide world.
       What else could I do?

This is another poem that lends itself to a child's perspective. Love, sadness, and thoughtfulness are intertwined in the complicated relationship of parents to children. However, this poem can also expand outward to a myriad of relationships between people, relationships fueled by dysfunction or sadness fueled by mutual tragedies. In a way, this poem could be a children's book given the right illustrator, and that is what I picture with this poem.

Originally posted on Poet Hound on 10th August 2010

 Brent Robison

Poems of Self-Examination: Wry, Poignant, Philosophical

Jim Murdoch has been writing poetry for over thirty years. He's working on his fifth novel, and has published three. He's an active blogger. I became aware of him through the POD People blog, where both his novels were praised, then I became even more interested in his work when I read his mixed review of Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, where he made this simple statement: "I like books that make me think." I found it significant that he did not say, "I like books that keep me up all night turning pages." The latter seems to be the prevailing quality standard today, but not for me.

In This Is Not About What You Think, Murdoch uses the title to jump right into the philosophical realms that turn me on. His title is both paradox and wordplay. "This" may refer to... everything. The world. He's making the point that nothing is as it seems; that your reality and mine are separate because each of us is a centre of a different perceived universe. Reality is perception, which is another way of saying that the objective existence we assume for the dazzling multiplicity of things labelled "reality" simply doesn't exist.

At the same time, the title's "This" refers to the book itself, its content, so the phrase can mean both "These poems are not about what you the reader decide they're about," and "These poems are not about your thoughts" (which is to say, they are about Jim's thoughts, not the reader's). Each of which suggest its opposite: that indeed, the poems, once in the hands of a reader, must be primarily about whatever the reader brings to them, since the writer's part of the dialogue is finished. He can say no more.

This shimmering mirage of multiple meanings, along with the cover image of a Rorschach-style mirrored inkblot (suggesting to me a female body, so what does that mean?), speak to me of the big conundrum: This thing that some of us try to capture with the word "nonduality"-realization of the ultimate indivisibility of All-can never be captured with a word because the job of words is to separate one thing from another. So, contrary to conventional wisdom, when we make statements that seem elusive and duplicitous-that seem to carry their own negations-we approach as close to truth as language will ever allow. Questions, not answers, are true.

My approach to the content of the book follows the same tack: the poems that resonate with an ambiguity that suggests multi-dimensionality, that undermines assumed reality, are the ones that shine for me. The title poem opens with this stanza:

Every name and place has been changed,
what we did and why-all changed,
the dates and times, how we really felt,
the reasons we wouldn't stay away,
everything slightly altered, twisted,...

The accuracy of memory and story is called into question, and after asking whether it all should make sense, the poem ends,

...It's a pretty good question.
I just don't have any pretty good answers left
so this will have to do for now.

This rather perfectly captures the marvellous actuality of life in a universe so vast and mysterious that the wisest approach is surrender: it doesn't make sense, I can't explain it, this will have to do for now. It's another way of saying: what is, is. Whatever happens, happens inevitably. This is a profound undercutting of our cherished belief in free will, the human need to feel that the decisions we make actually change the world. But we can't really know, because what is, is. No deity need be implied; just a simple universal law. With that acceptance, a great burden is lifted. Murdoch confirms the philosophy with this couplet that closes the poem "Shadowplay":

No, I don't believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.

The poem "Background Silence" works on two levels. Its context in the book tells us that it's a poem about death, set in a hospital. With that reading, it delivers a bleak chill.

Background Silence

The silence was always there
behind the
sounds of monitors and pumps

just as

emptiness was always there
behind the
well wishes and smiles and lies

just as

the blankness was always there
behind the
words on every card you read


there is always something to
block our view
of the nothingness that is


But I prefer to see past, or through, the death poem here to another poem that lies underneath. Silence... emptiness... blankness... nothingness... these are words that for many readers may be frightening or dispiriting, devoid of life, and perhaps that was Murdoch's intent. But another segment of readers, myself included, find those words liberating, spacious, more life- than death-oriented. After all, without a ground there is no figure. Without a dark sky, we see no stars. For me this poem, while observing death, simultaneously expresses the truth that, in this realm of duality, of so many "things," our view of the vastness beyond is too often blocked. Perhaps it is by looking at a loved one's death that most of us catch a glimpse of the unified field in which all life and death play out.

How poetry should be interpreted is an ongoing debate, and I confess that my particular view risks a protest from the poet. For the reader's sake, I don't want to mis-characterize this book. The collection as a whole is without a doubt more an exploration of psychology than of philosophy. Murdoch shows a skill for economically capturing family and relationship truths that are much bigger than a few words on a page, like a charcoal sketch captures a gesture. Here's a portrait of one person that deftly reverberates into other lives:

Making Do

My mother made do almost every day of her life.

There wasn't much to the dish. To tell you the truth,
Mum could make do
with almost nothing at all.

She'd put on the pot and just let it simmer for hours.

And all of my life so far I've tried to do the same
but I find mine
always leaves a bitter taste.

I wish I knew what her secret ingredient was.

Often he ends with a sculpted line that opens like a trap door into old heartache or poignant self-examination that most readers will identify with, made even richer when it's delivered in a tone that can be interpreted either as tongue-in-cheek or not. I appreciated the generosity in these poems, the willingness to disclose emotional vulnerability, to reveal the tender heart of a child-coupled with the wry perspective of middle age.

One final note: Murdoch closes his poem "Is a Red Wheelbarrow Ever Empty?" with:

I did hear the sounds
of silence
and I think one hand clapping

and a tree fall in
the forest
but I don't have the words to

explain them.

I'd say in response: Jim, nobody has those words. The sweat and heart evident in your crafted lines, plus the white space around them: that combo does the job. Words are clumsy at best. With this book, you've done as well as anyone can with such tools to both dig deep and fly high.

Originally posted on on 6th August 2012

 Tim Love

The book contains about 85 poems that according to the poet "chart a life from childhood through to old age but it is not my life nor the life of anyone I know". The title poem suggests that compared to reality, "Stories are simple ... smoothed out and edited" with some metaphors and sense/purpose added, and goes on to query why sense needs to be added. Such stories are what many of these poems are - inpidually they're tidier than life: they make a single point (sometimes employing a punchline) then end. One needn't to spend a lot of time on each, though one should pause to consider their collective impact, so perhaps it's best to read the book twice rather briskly, rather than read it once more slowly. The poems are mostly free-form ("Made-up Truths" is an exception with 5 stanzas of 6/2/6/2 syllabled lines). I needed to look up just one thing - "mene tekel upharsin".

On a first pass through I made a note of the pieces I liked - p.24, 26, 28, 32, 38, 40, 47, 53, 55, 57, 60, 67, 74, 80, 81, 92. Subsequently readings didn't make me change my mind. An Appendix gives a date for each poem (28/4/1979 to 25/5/2010). I found out that the poems I like mostly cluster around 1988-89 and 1997-98, with nothing from the 1999-2006 period. Favourites include "Tears" (a wife is on a saline drip because of all her crying. The nurse says that she can "live without hope or/ a life or even the/ truth as long as she/ can cry about it"), "Making Sense" and "Tweezers".


  • Truth - The term's distrusted. "Truth is overrated if you ask me" (p.35), "Truth is the pornography of the self-righteous" (p.56), "Exhuming Truth ... Nothing smells very sweet/ this far down" (p.63), "You can't possibly know/ what truth / is till you've made one up/ yourself" (p.64), "as if truths came bottled./ and too many made you puke" ("Sedatives and Emptiness")

  • Emptiness - "Nothing" features heavily in these poems - "and on the inside/ the nothing" (p.46); "there is always something to/ block our view/ of the nothingness that is// coming" (p.86). I'm reminded of

    • "God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through" - Paul Valery.

    • "There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description" - Bohr.

    In "Hands" that emptiness becomes internalised - "we turned those selfsame hands/ on ourselves in the end.// It might surprise you just/ how much emptiness/ a pair of hands can hold."

  • Gloom - In "Specks of Dust" grief first "fills up holes/ in sentences", then the "whole damn universe". "And we are so/ very, very/ small". Gloom spreads through this book. Of course, it's a common enough sentiment amongst writers

    • "He is this afternoon writing a poem with great spirit: always a sign of well being with him. Needless to say, it is an intensely dismal poem", Florence Hardy, letter to Sidney Cockerell

    • "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth", Larkin

    One poem's called "4am, Reading Larkin" which is asking for trouble (in "Aubade", Larkin is "Waking at four to soundless dark"). It was Larkin who wrote "Wants" ("Beyond all this, the wish to be alone ... Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs", etc). Detachment can be a valuable artistic aid but in the form of depression and depersonalisation I think it tends to suppress writing.

  • Love - It's here in various forms. In "True Love II" we learn how a son used sadness as a way to relate to his father. Elsewhere love is seen as as completion. But we're warned about the risks of attachment - to people and things.

The Poet and I

This poet's not invisible. He gives us an introduction, and says that some of the material is autobiographical. Moreover he and I have exchanged many online messages, so this write-up isn't impersonal. The author tells us that

  • "My poetry is actually written primarily to exorcise, to get a specific thought or feeling out of my head so I can examine it"

  • "The writing process is more important to me than the finished product"

  • "If my poems are throwaways why publish them?"

We see only the product, the words, but the production of these throwaway words presumably affected the poet whose work we see. His interests and mine intersect, and we're part of the same generation. We both know about computers. Our analytic approach is in some ways similar. Perhaps we also share a tolerance for gloominess, at least in our writing. He suggests that my story book dealt with many aspects of sadness. Sadness doesn't inspire me to write, but I find it interesting.

Yet our creative output is different. In this book at least, he wants to be understood, to entertain even. I'm more conspicuously literary, with all the derogatory connotations that implies. I can be inexplicable, pretentious, and ludic, with a weakness for word-play.

Perhaps in consequence I'd like some of these pieces to be crisper, starker (no Maybes), with more word-play, and more poems overtaken by word-play. The poet's written about R.D.Laing (who I've read with interest), and I expected more poems in this book to be like those in Laing's "Knots". I expected more period detail. Music (no REM?) and place hardly feature, nor does memory. On p.94 the poem is called "The Past Must Die". The next poem is "Stale Truth", which begins "I couldn't warm to him" then later says "I tried to avoid him, turned// mirrors to face the wall". The past is by-passed.


Many of the poems have quotable lines. Here are just a few -

  • "You can't miss what you've never had, son"// Is that so? I think you've missed the point (p.5)

  • "My dad used to give me marks out of ten ... Marks is merely another word for scars" (p.7)

  • "It's hard not to look for cracks/ and harder still not to step/ on them" (p.53)

  • "You can drown inside yourself you know/ but only a dripping tap can drive you/ insane" (p.81)

  • "I've heard say parallel lines never meet./ Sometimes they seem to - in the distance - / they disappear over the horizon/ so no one knows for sure" (p.98)

  • "Poems turn up out of the blue these days/ like family/ and usually when things are going badly. .... but you don't turn family away. Not ever" (p.104).

Originally posted on Litrefs Reviews on 11th January 2013