The subject matter of the 17 letters is as miscellaneous as the collection itself and they are quirky to the point of absurdity, yet there is something strangely touching about these bizarre confessions and revelations. Rather like the Coral sequence of poems, you become fascinated with the eccentric characters and their curious experiences and opinions; poetry like a box of chocolates…..
Several of the longer poems take the form of rambling monologues and occasionally you get the impression that they are really just gags and the whole elaborate edifice has been constructed to set you up for a series of one liners. Thus in “Faith in Poetry”, after nearly three pages we get,
Sometimes I think I am that chap from mythology,
Half-animal, half-man. Yes, Buffalo Bill.
And on the following page,
As for counting syllables, count me out.
In “To A Skylark”,
....Frivolity is great; it’s the only thing
Worth taking seriously.
And “Love’s secret”,
Nothing good ever came out of optimism.
These are clever enough lines and they work well as a surprise, a sort of cookie that pops out of the narrative, but the novelty does start to wear off and sometimes you feel a shorter poem would have been a perfectly adequate delivery vehicle.
There’s probably a review I did of the Leafe Press edition of “Coral” lurking somewhere in the basement of this site (it's here, Ed.), so I won’t repeat myself here. I would, however, have preferred to see these poems more clearly identified as a sequence in this collection. Apart from a brief acknowledgement, there is nothing to indicate that they form a group just as much as “17 letters”. This is clearly a deliberate decision, but since they are all printed together and in the same order, it seems a pity to declassify them in this way.
“A Relation of Years” is one of the longest poems in the collection and one of the strangest too. Martin Stannard is no stranger to strangeness but this deviates from his usual ironic insouciance in a way that can be slightly disturbing. There are passages that are more stream of consciousness than monologue and occasionally you get the impression that he really means it. The gags are still in there sure enough but there is a confessional undercurrent in this poem and when it breaks the surface there is a loss of his trademark detached elegance that seems out of place in a Stannard poem.
Technically the longest poem in the book is “Poem (I’m at home this evening)” although quite a bit of it is written by a duck and probably shouldn’t count. In fact the duck appears to steal the show because it’s an existential duck, living in the moment, untroubled by worldly cares whereas the narrator is wallowing in anomie and alienation and all those other things we did in GCSE Sociology. Until, that is, the duck reveals it is in fact employed to do its ducky business all day long and is just as much of a wage slave as our disgruntled hero. And it is really this irony that underpins the whole collection; the ‘Faith’ in question is a rather low grade one, the one that gets us out of bed in the morning and has us show up for work. It isn’t a gleaming, uplifting kind of faith, more a vague hope that the routine we conform to must surely somewhere have some kind of deeper meaning that will one day become clear,
....as I hold myself to this, somewhat believing in
its hopelessness, somewhat compelled to have faith in its necessity.
In “Faith”, Martin Stannard is asking how we can find happiness in a world that conspires to make us miserable and, unlike most religious faiths, it’s a question he does not make the mistake of trying to answer. And in this sense, we can perhaps trace a significant influence here that is far more recent and closer to home than the French and North American writers he is often referred back to; none other than the late, great Douglas Adams. If Adams had written poetry, Vogons notwithstanding, it might well have been a bit like this, especially the poem that opens the collection, Welcome,
Hello, refusal to do the only thing you have been asked to do in the world
And it’s not asking much is it?
As an experimental collection, “Faith” is certainly a success. Not all experiments work perfectly of course and this is no exception, but the innovation, scope and variety is impressive, and even if it doesn’t all go perfectly, there is certainly no Rocky Racoon moment in this album
Martin Stannard has now amassed a significant body of work and it has often been said that he has never received the recognition he deserves for his achievement. This is probably not something that bothers him much. He has always preferred to kick ass that he really ought to be licking and though this may have impeded his progress in officialdom’s popularity charts, it has earned applause from where it matters to him most. He will always be able to say that the only cheek his tongue was ever in is his own, and he can be rightly proud of that. He writes exactly what he wants to write, exactly the way he wants to write it and this collection is a perfect illustration of his languid, yet deceptively subversive craft. A comment about a venue in the final poem, “They Were Great Those Shows”, could equally apply to his poetry too,
The traditional home of lost causes; we’ve always
Enjoyed ourselves here.
Ian Collinson lives in Nottingham, England, and is editor of WeatherVane Press .
Copyright © Ian Collinson, 2009