L I t T e R

Back to Contents

Back to Litter home

John Bloomberg-Rissman


Martin Stannard. Writing Down the Days (Stride, 2001).

1.

I read most of this book in a medical clinic in a godforsaken half-dead half-desert town called Moreno Valley while waiting for a gastroenterologist who wasn’t even there; she was “hung up at the hospital”. I was there for a consultation prior to an endoscopy. That’s where they stick a camera down your throat. They go all the way to the stomach. They want to check things out and to make sure any erosion’s not pre-cancerous.

I was nervous. I could handle a little erosion. But pre-cancerous creeped me out. And since the doctor was an hour late I was a little impatient, too. It’s a failing; I’m working on it. But the wait was ok. I think that says a lot about the poems in this book. They held their own. They stood up to real life. They carried the weight.

2.

For those who (like me) want to know something about Stannard, there’s a biographical statement at the beginning of the book:

I seem to have been on this planet for a little over 48 years, and have been employed in a number of different occupations, including removing the internal organs from battery hens and a few hours as apprentice to a glamour photographer. I have shopped extensively in charity shops throughout the country, and am very much in love with a woman whose name is Ruth. My favourite TV programme is anything that features S Club 7 and the most recent record I bought was by The Dirty Three though by the time you read this it might have changed if The Flaming Lips bring out a new LP, which they probably won’t, because they take 3 years to do a record. I’ve been writing poems for quite a long time but still have trouble with rhyme. My favourite food is with red wine; my big ambition is to be happy with my hair.


I found that helpful, but it wasn’t enough. So I googled him. He blogs, or, rather he blogs and zines, and on his blog-and-zine I found an autobiography, which turned out to be a poem. I won’t quote it here, though it too is quite revealing. But I clicked where he said to click, on the word WORD, and learned a little more:

I am a poet, and my poetry and criticism has been published all over the place for more than 20 years. …

In those more than 20 years I have read at places including the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, The Morden Tower, and St. Mark’s in New York City. I’ve also run so many writing workshops and classes my head spins when I think about it.

What’s more, for a long time I edited the poetry magazine
joe soap’s canoe. There are people out there in poetry world who think this was a great magazine, and I’m not going to be the one to contradict them.


He didn’t have to add: I don’t take myself too seriously. Emphasis on too.

3.

I hear the poems in this book. I think of them as monologues. It’s not that anyone really talks this way, but it’s conceivable someone could:

I mean,
Here comes the doctor, waving a prescription pad, telling us
It’s the strain keeping us on edge. On edge! I’ve been

On this fucking precipice all my life, and I still can’t name the sea
My feet are dangling above, ...

(“Optimism and Despair”)

Note mean and been. “Optimism and Despair” is a long rhymed poem. The rhymes don’t get in the way. I was halfway through before I noticed them. Reading most rhymed poems written since some time around 1960 is pretty painful; poets don’t hear that way anymore or something. No matter how hard they try. Most of the time: clank clank clunk.

Stannard doesn’t rhyme often. This, in fact, may be the only rhymed poem in the book (he’s subtle; unless I reread everything I can’t be sure). What I want to say is he can rhyme and still sound like a real someone talking. How casually he manages something quite difficult!

I’m tempted to say that casual is the watchword here, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Perhaps it would be better to say these poems
appear casual. Which isn’t the same thing at all. It’s pretty hard to appear casual. It takes a lot of attention and skill.

I was going to begin the next paragraph with “It’s the appearance of casualness, I think, that leads to the sense that we’re listening to a real someone” (there are other ways to do it, but this is a good one) when I began to wonder whether casualness was really a word. So I looked it up in the OED; it is. In the process, I found this quote:

1958 Times 20 Jan. 11/2 These three models are typical of spring styles ... The casualness is both disciplined and chic.


Disciplined casualness ... I like that. That’s what I’m trying to say.

4.

Disciplined fits, but I don’t think chic does. Back to the sense I’m in the presence of an actual person, who lives on the actual earth. Who knows others live here, too. He’s got the “I-Thou” thing going on. It’s deeper than chic:

I’ve been thinking if this is the town
We’re going to live in I should tell
My friends what it’s like.

(“Where Bears Walk”)

Isn’t that a great thing for a poet to want to do? To tell us what it’s like here? To tell
us? It goes back to my main reason for art: with it, we’re a little less lonely. And he does tell us what it’s like. “Where Bears Walk” continues:

In so many

things this town is the same as

any other. People sit around

wondering what the future might hold

for them, but when a crystal ball

is called for none is forthcoming.


and


there was a wire fence

separating honesty and deceit but it’s been

taken down long since


It’s all very familiar, and a little depressing. But then:

Only here does music fill the air, only

here do different tongues speak

in many languages and different eyes see

the invisible.


From first to last, Stannard is well aware of the mixed nature of the place in which we do actually live. But it gets even better:

Only here is there no lack

of fine sights in the way of birds and beasts,

citizens dressed in white clothes

of good omen, nine times nine white horses

and stars that shine throughout the day.

Know that only here a crowd

gathers to welcome the sun and cheers

like crazy when it catches the girl’s

coloured hair, and when the hair flares

the bears walk by her side and they’re smiling.


Up or down, down or up, he’s not afraid of how it feels.


5.

From first to last:

Yes, my face is an umbrella, but it is also
a cathedral, a book and a psalm

(“Workmen Working”)

It’s easy being this clever.
Caring is not an aberration. Feeling is
with more than your body. Often what we

are told is great is not great. Or our sadness

is.


(“Abandoned”)


From first to last. “Workmen Working” was published in 1983, “Abandoned” 18 year later.

There’s a consistency to this collection. Stannard found his way early, it seems. Well, not too early, perhaps; if he was 48 in 2001 he must have been born in ’52 or ’53; therefore he was about 30 when
Baffled in Nacton, the first collection from which poems appear here, was published. Who knows what the earlier stuff looked like? In any case, once he found his way, he doesn’t appear to have strayed far from it. The first poem in this selection begins

When I was born I imagined that one day
I would get to be a railway worker
And that my son would turn out to be
A polemicist of the first order.

(“Two Beds Are Better Than One”)

The last poem ends:

Submit to the irresistible
when we are suffocating in its embrace
Have faith in the unbelievable
while we sit here waiting for it

(“Arising”)

These two snippets could be from the same poem, aesthetically/emotionally /humanly speaking. Not that that’s a bad thing. And Stannard does learn and grow. But even with the growth the consistency of voice or persona or whatever you want to call it is worth remarking on.

6.

Stannard may have found his way early, but it was a good way. And there are some pretty adventurous poems in this collection, for example “Bliss” and “From a Recluse to a Roving I Will Go.” Not that Stannard’s adventures will ever be mistaken for Christian Bök’s, say, or the late great Jackson Mac Low’s. But why should they? There’s no right way or wrong way to make a poem. Well, that’s not quite true. There is a wrong way. And that’s to think there’s a right way. That leads to all kinds of trouble.

And, as I mentioned, Stannard does grow. As the book proceeds, as the years pass, poems come to take in more and more history. “Painting the Day” is an idyll of sorts. A post-industrial idyll. Since Blake this kind of poem is a tradition, but that’s ok; in a world to which we are doing our daily worst, how can those who see do anything but testify?

Stannard’s aware of more in our history than what we’re doing to the environment. In “Kitchen”, household products (Mr Gleam, Mr Bark, Mr Whipp and Mr Bio) have a little chat. The poem ends with Mr Bio’s speech:

As soon as you mention love, beauty, forgiveness and
freedom of speech I’ll be there to remind you that
everything comes down to just one thing in the end.

Upon which the kitchen became very quiet, like thought,
and the sun streamed in through the window to hit the oven.

Adorno challenged us to find a way to write poetry after Auschwitz. Here’s one.

7.

Writing Down the Days is a good book. It’s full of good poems. I can’t say this time through every image, every line, every poem, got me, but I was left feeling that at another time, on another day, the ones that didn’t work might well. Stannard’s casual, he’s conversational, he’s clever, and he’s a little complicated as well. He sees. He feels. He keeps it real. As far as I’m concerned, that last is the only absolutely crucial value. But keeping it real is like keeping it casual. Try it. It isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work, most of which takes place away from the poem.









Copyright © John Bloomberg-Rissman, 2006