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Sandra Tappenden


A Kind of Kindness: A Consideration of Martin Stannardís ĎEasterí

This pamphlet was first published in Ď94, (Waldean Press), although I found it two years later, when Martin Stannard read in Exeter as part of ExeLit. We were in a pub; the atmosphere was buzzy, and I loved what I was hearing. I couldnít afford the cost of a whole book, (no, really I couldnít ) so I bought `Easter
`, 24 wonderful poems on rather risky grey paper. Having realised that Iíve read these poems more times than Iíve probably read any others ever, I asked myself why? The results are as follows:

How do these poems work for me?
I think they move between worlds; slide gracefully (although the language is awkward often, and delightfully, perhaps self-consciously Joe Bloggs-ish) to and fro between the visceral and ephemeral, night and day, inane and magnificent, earth and heaven. They demystify poetry, (although it may not be a conscious demystification, but then no, come on) through simplicity of tone and language, with a craft (-iness) so woven into the poems that you canít easily pick it apart. Take this extract from

Food (i)

The food of angels makes mortals sick
down to their stomachs. So, on the rare occasions
theyíre offered it, they skip it, and go for
the double cheeseburger and regular fries
as usual. The divine angelic food, I canít remember
the proper name of it, but itís another of those outlandish things
if you name it, you become it.

Did Stannard really not recall the word for angelic food? Well, itís unlikely, but anythingís possible. But there seems to be a bit of a game going on here. Angel food can mean anything from discourse to a `talking-to` or dressing down, and angelic food is another way of saying `Eucharist`, but thatís not even half the point. Itís all bound up with this thing of a believable (contradictory, likeable, clumsy) person/a, speaking to me; one who had actually forgotten the word at that point of time in the poem; a person like me fumbling their way through the days and yet still hoping, half-expecting a miracle that would explain the sense in loving, eating, sleeping etc. This is what works for me. This is what gives me hope/faith in poetry.

Wordsworth, (hardly Joe Bloggs-ish in tone to us in this century, agreed,) was keen to rescue language from the Realms of Poesy-on-High and make it work `in the street`, (my take on it, ok) so that the experience of reading or hearing his poetry would be as honest and direct as an actual conversation down at the Pig and Souíwester, in olde Windemeree towne. And I think thereís a traceable line of movement from the Romantics to poets like Martin Stannard, where the poems chatter and muse and slide around like talking does. Iím thinking in particular about the earlier parts of The Prelude, where Wordsworth manages to make playing a game of cards or talking aloud to himself down a country lane, equal to, in his treatment, those tricky moments of super-awareness with his developing consciousness. Thereís not a whole lot of humour though, true. Apart from the bit with the dog. But I digress.

In Stannardís (letís say) adopted tone, thereís every potential for haphazardry and sloppiness. But all the poems work their way toward a somewhere, in a wonderfully zig-zag motion, so skilfully that you donít even realise they are taking you anywhere. And you arrive at the end, with your head full of nuggets and pearls, just as if youíd overheard a fascinating chat on the bus and suddenly itís your stopÖ Bloody magic. The Romantic parallel is one of `treatment` then, where things singled out for attention are not value-categorised for our own good according to the poetís agenda.

All things are equal; happiness, tea bags, sleep, plumbers etc. And this makes the poems incredibly human. Sometimes I think that there is an air of idiocy about the voice speaking these poems, but it isnít that. Itís a sort of wilful simplicity, or wishful innocence, or childlike defiance of the oddsÖ
Hereís the last bit from ĎAll Hopeí

Ö.But if there is a divinity lurking in the bushes
heís very well hidden. Iíve only got to think about being
somewhere and my footprints are all the way up the drive,
but hereís this chap who is supposed to be
in everything and everywhere
and thereís not a speck of cigarette ash where heís been standing. Or maybe
itís a girl, not a chap,
but thereís no trace of perfume on the air to suggest
that she has been anywhere near here.

The poem starts big (ďThe world is a lonely placeĒ) then uses the frustration of waiting for a plumber to turn up as a springboard for examining the idea of God. And itís all so alarmingly easily done, washing us to and fro between the particular and universal and back in a continuous wave, to spit us out at the end, but not violently, or dismissively, just as a by-product of the poem at work. A bald fact of reading.

Why do I keep reading them?
The preoccupations of these poems are, I have to say, universal. I mean, they are the same ones that always have been and probably always will be. What love is. What we do with it, and what we can do with it. What living might be. What an idea of God has to do with anything, if it does, and if it does, what that might mean. And the sense of gratitude about happiness, which leads to more questions; Why? What is it for? Is gratitude due? If so, to what? The lover? The world? A god? And I love how the poems never stray into anything remotely approaching didacticism. Which is a huge feat, considering.

Easter, I always imagine, is a personal resurrection, without the preachiness. It has all the elements of - hmm, great seems too big and good seems too small Ė a
lasting poetry, I think, because it refuses to teach, and relies rather on a genuine sense of what it is to be human, whether daft, grim, happy, fed-up, or resigned to the facts of oneís own infuriating unlikeliness. All of these, all the time, and relentlessly. So that the sense of recognition is both painful and hilarious. Joe Bloggs/Everyman speaks.

ĎMusicí has all the above, monumentally almost, or just mentally;


If an omnipotent being who passeth our understanding is watching while Iím
doing something so personal and intimate I donít even tell myself about it,
thereís nothing can be done.

and

ÖHappy music makes me sad, sad music rescues me if Iíve been
dangling by my fingertips from the rope that spans the abyss between Solipsism
and Narcissism.

and

Ö I wonder if I should care
about as much as others care about, or if my seeming not to care is misleading,
and perhaps I care in a different way.

In fact, I reckon the entire philosophy of Easter is encapsulated in this one extract from the above poem, in the form of a spoof `Know Thyself` multiple-choice questionnaire question:

ďIf you are offered an orphan puppy very cheap by a stranger one night after the
pubs close, would you

a) buy it

b) refuse to have anything to do with anything, on the grounds that

the only person you trust is yourself, and even that calls for a huge
act of faith

c) haggle like a Moroccan

or d) ask if heís got any kittens.Ē

Comical, vulnerable, uncomfortable, selectively spurious. And, as a means to identify anything about anything, ridiculously short on options. Hey, thatís life. Hang on though, what aboutÖ? Always the poems lead to more questions, leaving the reader loads of room to ask away to their heartís (dis)content.

Do the Easter poems say more to me than other Stannard poems?
I think they are the crux of the matter. I think they are the point from which all other Stannard poems flow; a centrifuge, if you really want a picture. It has been suggested that all poets spend their lives writing the same poem over and over, and if they do, this tiny huge collection is the one, sort of. I mean the preoccupations they explore. Because they are big. Because they are true and constant, when we canít be, or refuse to be, quite regardless of whether we actually want to be.

Do the Easter poems say more to me than other favourite poems (by other poets!)?
Of course not. But then sometimes, yes. Maybe I just havenít read enough. But the impact Easter made on me is to do with an honesty of tone, (even if itís a device, but weíve done this already) and a friendliness, or inclusivity, which many other poems I love donít have, although that may be because it isnít relevant. You canít really compare two unalike things, and make any sense.

I think the special thing about the Easter poems is that they give me, as already mentioned, hope. A certain kind of hope, which isnít grand or elitist or in any way poncified out of recogntion, but the quirky, homely sort, available to anyone anywhere. So if Walt Whitman says `Yes` on a mind-bogglingly enormous scale the size say, of the U.S., and Frank OíHara on a city-sized scale, then Stannardís Easter is anything between double-bed and bus station cafť-sized. That sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, when what Iím trying to say is lifeís `Yes` is well within reach, and probably as close as that half-full glass on the table there.
ĎHappyí starts,

What a wonderful gift! But it is so large
we have not been able to bring it into the house:
at the moment itís under tarpaulin in the back
garden causing puzzlement and consternation
to the neighboursÖ.

There is a delightful feeling of possibility present in Easter, which is great, as it makes it possible, for me, Joe Bloggís grumpy sister, to hold true to my own maddening unlikeliness, in a way which doesnít make me cringe or say Well, thatís alright for him then.

There are no Grand Gestures in Easter. You donít read it and feel obliged to hang off a high-rise and send your Barbaric Yawp over the rooftops. These poems, for all their bungee movement between worlds, are gentle, funny, surprised and testy, but most of all grateful, and the individualised love they celebrate is their strength, because that is the recognisable continuity; the core.

I make no apology for this being so personal as opposed to whatever else I might have made of the opportunity; the poems make me happy. Simple as that really.









Copyright © Sandra Tappenden, 2006