Paul McLoughlin admires the substance as well as the style of Adrian Caesar’s poetry
‘‘Our Mouths were Filled with Laughter’’, the collection’s opening poem, takes its title from Psalm 126:2, but Caesar (the author of works of literary criticism and the prize-winning non-fiction novel, The White , in addition to four previous books of poetry) is not a religious man (even if he does retain an interest in theology). He is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, looking at one of the Macclesfield Psalter illuminations he has been directed to by his sister, who prefers her religion free from the ‘grim and serious’. Caesar’s description of what he is looking at itself provides an illuminating insight into the way his poems work:
a peasant lassoing a frolicsome reindeer;
the bloke looks as if he’s jet-skiing
one foot in the air, an unwilling artiste,
while the creature seems to grin at the gambol,
mocking man’s dominion
despite our murderous proclivities.
The tone is ostensibly conversational (many of the poems are, or sound like, epistles) and it cares not a jot about mixing old and new (lasso and jet-ski), formal and informal (proclivities and bloke), light and dark (frolic and murder), land and stage (peasant and artiste). And it is alert to sound-chimes (‘m’ taking over from ‘l’ when the tone gets more serious, ‘gambol’ facilitating the switch). Like that of his British-and-Antipodean counterpart, Peter Bland, Caesar’s fluency makes writing poems look easy, content dictating form with almost two-thirds of the poems appearing as single blocks. The collection is organized into five sections of poems about family and social class, art and the consumption of art, travels in East Asia, a disabled son, and modern living. It is one of those rare collections that lends itself to being read at a single sitting, and once read, read again. Its apparent artlessness is at once an illusion and a lure, which for this reader proved a rewarding mix.
These are poems rooted in roots, and the roots are working-class and socialist. The speaker in ‘What’s in a Name?’ describes himself as artisan not emperor while ‘Miner’s Lamp’ shines its light not only on the decadence of consumerism but also on the poet who realizes that the twilight space he imagines he’s occupying is just another avenue for decadence. The tone is humane and likeable throughout and only very occasionally tetchy. Images of people working are mostly literal and investigated for their significance, but every now and again a metaphor is extended, as in ‘Lifelines’, where sailing images develop a father-son relationship, the son setting a different course but maintaining links. Similarly, ‘In Decadent Days’ deploys the extended metaphor of a degustation menu’ with its pretentious chef d’oeuvre of Lapin d’un chapeau as the machinery with which to highlight the contrast between faites simple and solemn fervour. The poem ends:
Let chefs like poets mouth their airy nothings
in narcissistic frenzies of delight,
substance will not be denied by noodling,
give me the relish and bite of peasant food:
strong fuel to spice a maker’s life.
Caesar takes a sideswipe at the Auden he otherwise loves, whose plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks reveals an unfortunate and misplaced snobbery. Auden can make what’s plain radiate. He’s on the side of Breugel’s ploughman, after all. ‘Lifestyle’, a pained example of what the plain style can achieve, may be my favourite poem in the collection. It bears comparison, in its very different way, with Ian Hamilton’s ‘Newscast’. In Caesar’s poem The news is a background buzz and the latest intelligence / from the war zones suggests that anyone can get used to anything. Politics is never far away in these poems, and they are the better for it. Many of them record disappointment with the lack of authenticity’s truthful shining. It is not to be found in the way modern technology is used by visitors to record their experience of galleries (Our culture’s / quick fix is film, the one-stop-photo-shop to reality / reproduction – an example of the poet’s eye for the effective line-break). The speaker in ‘Making Movies’, however, enters sans machine and looks directly at the paintings, wondering what it might mean / now to follow ourselves outside the frame’ Disenchanted, he considers the shimmering pixels, which screen / by day and night, what we call the fight / for our much vaunted democracy.
Caesar’s is quietly sophisticated poetry the sophisticated will find not nearly clever enough for him to join them in their game of moving impressive-sounding words around on a page until they reach some pleasingly anodyne shape that couldn’t offend anyone. It’s their loss. He risks being sentimental and the triumph of this book lies in the way he avoids it. Try this conclusion to ‘Light Entertainment’ in which popular TV favourites like detective and hospital dramas are set against the real-life loss of a child:
But then, this wasn’t prime-time crime or
the latest enthralling instalment,
just a dead young man fallen
from a wheelchair in a suburban garden.
No excitement then. No market.
This is a collection of poems that are about things other than the words they’re made of.
Paul McLoughlin was born in London of Irish parents. The most recent of his four collections is The Road to Murreigh (Shoestring Press, 2010). He has also edited and written an introduction for Brian Jones: New & Selected Poems (Shoestring Press, 2013) and contributed a number of poems to Wood & Ink by Alan Dixon et al (Shoestring Press, 2013).