Dec 7 2023
Poetry review – COLLECTING THE DATA: D A Prince enjoys a well-balanced debut collection by Mat Riches
There is no single template for the ordering of poems in a poetry pamphlet. The length is a fairly consistent feature — usually under forty pages — but within that space the poet has complete freedom. Collecting the Data is a debut, and in most of the poems Mat Riches stays within what is the starting point for many poets — family members (past and present) and their connecting lives. However, he leads the reader into these by way of four very different poems. Reading these in order changes the way we encounter the subsequent poems: it’s as though we are entering the personal life through the impersonal world of online surveys, weather recording, a space telescope, and sound effects. This negation of human quirkiness in the face of statistics and data increases the reader’s appreciation of the warmth and humour that bind the later poems — it’s both unsettling and effective.
“A Short Survey”, the opening poem, is completely impersonal, addressed to the ‘you’ at the keyboard. How seductive such emails are, sneaking in to challenge the boredom of a computer screen. Riches uses couplets to capture the lure —
We apologise for intruding on your browsing experience at this time. Congratulations on qualifying, your responses will make a difference.
Even when we know we are only adding data to the shaping of some manipulative algorithm it’s hard to resist that apologetic approach which then slips into flattery. We become complicit, reducing ourselves to tick-boxes, measuring our lives on the scale of zero-to-ten. This poem, via a clever line-break, reminds us to stand back — ‘When the tables are turned, are you happy / with your statistical significance?’
How much do we trust our senses? Even if you are unfamiliar with the term the opening stanza of “A Foley Artist Works from Home” tells you all you need to know —
My handiwork is often heard in the creaks of creeps on old stairs — that’s me pulling nails from fresh planks.
Rain in films? that’s the noise of ‘bacon being fried in close up’. Birds of prey? these are ‘flapping gloves’. My favourite (after having seen Napoleon recently): ‘a guillotined neck gets its voice// from a cleaver through a cabbage.’ It’s a funny but also reflective poem:
What noises do empty rooms make when no one’s there to record them? This thought keeps me awake at night.
But ‘…birdsong’s only ever birds’ and that recognition of reality opens the way to poems about childhood, with its fishing trips, a lime-green Ford Cortina, and homemade sandwiches. It’s the regular appearance of those sandwiches (‘Sunblest lunch’, ‘cling-filmed’) that take us back to domestic economy and workmen’s lunches — the same fillings, the daily crumbs for birds. The delicatessen with attached sandwich bar is still in the future. Growing up is revealed through small details, something that no online survey can grasp. ‘The Tea Hut’ is dedicated to Riches’ five colleagues (named) in his first summer job and learning how to be one of a team —
Everyone knows the precise strength and sweetness to produce each other’s brews. Nine out of ten sandwich fillings are guessed accurately. It will take a few weeks’ work to notice I’ve managed to graft myself in.
That first job is a dividing line not only between home and university but also between seeing parents in other settings. Riches’ job involved a lift from home plus the recognition of his father’s role outside —
For the long twelve minutes to the workshop, I watched you change from being Dad to the Guv’nor at the last left turn.
That stanza is typical of Riches’ relaxed style and consistently colloquial register: there’s a comfortable match between content and syntax in his poetry, plus a vocabulary that sits naturally around the familial and domestic. “What the Photo Album Didn’t Capture” is a love poem (dated September 2004) describing the setting and sounds of a perfect and holiday evening: no great happenings but that’s the point —
The only noise came from local insects and their scratch-band jam sessions; our excited chatter admitted defeat to the crickets’ nightly orchestra.
“Slipping away: for Flo” plays with a child’s version of the phrase ‘like a greased whippet’, and how time also moves fast. Measurement isn’t necessarily numerical and logical. “A City Break – Berlin, 2016” gives space for re-assessment of what has changed since their daughter’s birth — ‘It’s embarrassing how fast we’d stopped noticing / the goings-on behind the scenes of each other.’
In “Unlimited Texts” Riches shows what’s lost when communication is by SMS rather than the quick scribbled notes which were once all we had.
What does your scrawl even look like these days? No more chits or kites dropped. No more post-its hidden in lunch-boxes, or weakly glued to flyleaves. No more doodles by the phone. [ … ] Get bread. Love you … We need milk. XXX I want this written down.
Sending ‘XXX’ by text isn’t the same as an untidy scrawl, ’Love’, at the end of a note. Small tactile things are a part of the texture of daily life, taken for granted while they are there, and their significance only missed when they are gone. In “Reading the Signs” the detail of his wife’s return from work ‘announcing yourself with the crash/ of keys and bag on the table.’ these everyday sounds are suddenly made special, worth noticing — and a long way from the Foley artist’s make-believe. Everyday actions are worth noting, too, and how they define the way we live now —
Fifteen years we’ve been here and find ourselves staring down the blinkered barrel of things like school routines, easy commutes and reliable mobile signals. [from “Settling”]
Such actions are what keep us individual, outside the quantifiable categories suggested by the online survey in the opening poem. They may be mundane when viewed in isolation but rolled up together they make a complete life. In its careful selection of detail “Clearing Dad’s Shed” shows, again, what can too-easily be lost: it’s not the tools themselves ‘… oiled chisels,/ cables and caulking guns’ and the hand-built workbench but the loss encapsulated in the final lines —
… I carry them to my car to let them gather new dust at home. the long drive back is spent blaming: him for not showing their uses, me for not asking him.
The final poem, written with that ‘you’ that really means ‘I’, describes clearing pockets of accumulated pebbles — holiday souvenirs, perhaps — but it’s also a metaphor for letting-go, for jettisoning the past. The title, “Goliath”, and the inclusion of a ‘sling-shot’ reference, feel imposed on a poem that has no need of them: the central action of shedding small stones is enough to carry the message. Within these pages there have been memories to leave behind (a childhood road accident in “Trajectory”, an edginess around horses in “Caution, Horses”) so a final poem ending with the line ‘and step away.’ provides enough of a conclusion and also a way forward, into whatever the next collection might be. The overall ordering of this pamphlet and the way the poems sit in relation to each other reflect the care given by both poet and editor: it’s all too easy to take this professional attention for granted. Red Squirrel have served Mat Riches’ poems well. This is a warm, witty, generous-spirited collection.