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Steve Spence

"A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions" by Tom Jenks, pub.  If P Then Q.   115 pages (£8.00)

 

I love Tom Jenks’ poetry, it’s so playful and often hilariously funny yet there’s more going on beneath the surface than you might at first imagine. The cover artwork, for starters, is based upon a section of Richard Dadd’s famous painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, not that you’d ever guess, given the way it’s been ‘treated’ by Jenks. This version appears to be an underwater scene, a coral reef, perhaps, with the mix of bright, almost garish colouration among the more subdued greens, the sort of picture I used to try and paint at school. This provides a terrific resonance at the outset before you’ve even opened the book. At the same time Dadd’s troubled life and extreme circumstances set the scene for a series of narratives which as well as being obsessive and addictive also deal at times with the nature of addiction and obsessiveness, a fusing of form and content you might say.

Jenks’ new collection is split into four sections, including two longish sequences based on found materials. The first of these, ‘The Strawberry Moshi Collection’ is reworked from a children’s book of the same title and includes a series of ‘simple narratives’ which are rejigged to give a weird flavour which combines hilarity with an occasional sense of menace:

          Moshi Love Stories

          A  masked  Moshi is looking  at  strawberry  Moshi. And  he is watching
          her in the boutique. He is still watching her, even when he dances with
          other  Moshi. The masked  Moshi helps her when  she’s in danger. And
          he is  always right  behind her. Who is this  mysterious  Moshi?  Where
          has this mask come from.

It’s that mix of ‘innocence’ related to ‘experience’ which gives these recontextualised and re-assembled narratives their sense of strangeness and absurdity. I read this book through at a gallop and then took it more slowly, still struggling to restrain hoots of laughter (not uncommon when reading Jenks) but taking on board the more serious elements suggested by his forays into ‘unexplored territory’. These feelings were most evident when reading ‘rabbits’, from ‘the Dysphoria Suite’. The way this text shifts from laugh-out-loud humour through pathos to a sense of disturbance, underwritten by a general backdrop of unease, is astonishing and I’m thinking outsider art, R.D. Laing, Lewis Carroll and the serious underpinnings of ‘nonsense poetry’:

          The rabbit asked how many consecutive days someone can listen to
          Lana Del Ray before it was considered a pathology.
          The rabbit said that making a prison look like an Alpine chalet does
          not make it any less of a prison.
          Across the snowy river were black, jagged mountains.
          The rabbit said that she had never given it carrots.
          Never.

The finality of that ‘Never’ is chilling and evokes all sort of thoughts relating to fairy tales, to horror fiction and to issues of mental health.

In ‘strikes’ we are given ‘every instance of smoking in season 2 of Mad Men the long running tv series based on the history of the advertising industry. This is reminiscent of Peter Jaeger’s A Field Guide to Lost Things, where Jaeger does something similar with Proust and also indicates the sort of publishing niche that If P Then Q has managed to occupy. Several points emerge from this, one being the sheer amount of smoking that goes on in Mad Men, a fact hard to ignore when you think about current attitudes to smoking. There is humour in the repetition – ‘Don smokes in Don’s office. Duck smokes in Don’s office. / Don smokes in Duck’s office. Bobbie smokes under satin sheets. / Don smokes under satin sheets’. ….. ‘ A graphic designer smokes and is startled. / Salvatore smokes in a burlesque bar. Ken smokes in a burlesque bar’. Obsession and minimalism are key features here and I’m reminded of Paul Auster and Samuel Beckett when reading Jenks, that mix of exacting perfectionism and puzzling seriousness, ‘undermined’ by humour and a sense of the strange within the commonplace and ordinary. Jenks’ foregrounding of this particular aspect of Mad Men, for example, lays bare the mechanics of scriptwriting while also providing entertainment and intelligent stimulation.

In ‘cockatiels’ we have a similar use of minimalism – four ‘cockatiels’, blue, yellow, red and green, though ‘the green cockatiel is never to be spoken of’ –  which provides the basis for an improvised song, a series of lists (there are plenty of coral reef fish in this piece, which refer back to the cover artwork, I think), some hilarious linguistic confusions and the ingestion of dangerous substances, in this case aluminium foil (or more hilariously, avocado!), another repeated motif throughout the book, suggesting addiction/obsession once more. There is death and there is life yet once again the closing line while humorous in its plangent incongruity – ‘It is summer, friends, and our cages are open, yet still we do not fly.’ – has a certain heroic quality which rings a tragic note.

In the few years that I’ve been reading Jenks’ poetry I’ve suspected a more serious aspect to his writing, in the sense that while his work is always accomplished and usually hilarious, his variety of experimental techniques and constant risk-taking emphasise the playful aspect of his abundant creativity. This is still very much in evidence here, inevitably so, but there is a darker aspect also, unsurprising given the world we now seem to be living in, but it’s more to the fore in this book and all the better for it, perhaps. I guess the hint is in the title, ambiguous though it may be, that and the use of Richard Dadd on the cover, even though you’d never guess……  .  These new prose poems are well worth reading.

 

 

 
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018