Knives, Forks & Spoons / Penned in the Margins,
RRP £8.99 ISBN 978-0-9565467-5-3
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Knives, Forks & Spoons / Penned in the Margins
Reviewed by Ed Cottrell
September 12, 2011
A gentle disclaimer before I begin this review: as well as being new to Egan’s writing, I’m discussing both Folklores and Steak and Stations together. There are notable differences between the two collections – Folklores is on the whole full of briefer and more fragmented poems; Steak and Stations retains the fragmentation, but feels propelled by an intense and real(ist) momentum. Both collections, though, explore how a voice is connected by the roots to its own lapses – this is what I find exciting about Egan’s writing, and what I’ll concentrate the bulk of this review on. Within this linguistic space Egan gives a unique exploration of myth and modernity, finding a space in the ‘real’ world in which to accommodate myth, or vice-versa, discovering mythology and ritual in the mundane.
‘lubberkin’ (or leprechaun – I googled it) from Folklores for example contains the lines:
and when he left the place reeked
of cider of too many days without showers
The image of this being ‘beard drenched / with milk’ is as human as it is leprechaun-ish, while the strange nomenclature is at once unrecognisable and high-vis. And I’ve never considered what a lubberkin might reek of. Similarly, in ‘black dog’ ancient myth reinvigorates the high-walled MONO-MEANING (‘danger’ in thee brands: crime, fire, disease) of a modern siren:
lost behind cloud half heard sirens
searching for the scraps of lost gods
Then we have the strangenesses of lines (in ‘chimes’) like
lingering season he was leaning
out of the waiting room window
One of the major strengths of Egan’s poetry is the sheer number of ways that objects, seasons, and ‘non living’ things become beings. (An ecocritic might go as far to say it is anti-anthropocentric). The marginal is rescued from invisibility, relishing with glee equivocal diagnoses of holiness and profanity. But these imaginings often locate their existence in a moment of crisis, or underline the pathos in resurrecting sprites doomed to ultimate and general non-reality. This is especially pertinent in the trans-humanism of ‘the wild hunt’:
man becomes stag becomes an unwanted rejected
demi-god pulling at his false horns
pulling off his sheepskin cloak
And the consumptive ritual of the following poem, ‘herne’:
menacing in his get up his playing with love
our playing at love or hunting it
ate venison a casserole of sausages
The placement of ‘venison’ and ‘a casserole of sausages’ together summons two entirely different mythological worlds. It reaffirms their connection – via the ceremonies of cooking and eating – but also drills into a Barthes-ian dissimilarity between them. I.e. – Venison is ‘ancient’; sausages are a readily available form of processed meat – modern in manufacture and consumption, ceremony-free. Egan folds the opposition in on itself, teasing out threads of ceremony stored within language.
In Steak and Stations, this refracted sense of meaning comes through strongly in last lines of ‘free to drink’, lines which echo with holy communion and the act of consumption that defines it:
swallow consume be of that consumption
and consume for others then fall later
Unsurprisingly, there’s something unnerving in being confronted with the more (un)folkloric dimensions of folk-urban-englishness: it suddenly feels pressurised, as if simultaneously revealing and concealing depression. But then there are more obvious moments where this unnerving sense comes to the surface, such as in ‘I’ve had a belli full!’ in Steak and Stations:
…renshaw street deserted apart from
a tramp sitting in his own piss calling solomon solomon
when I ignored him he called again solomon solomon
This strange double element, the pressure, the revealing and concealment of a depressed air, is not only down to Egan’s sense of humour, although this warrants a mention here. Referencing monopods (one-legged creatures found in ancient Greek mythology) in the poem ‘monopods’ from Folklores – Egan gives them a re-imagining as mutants:
the unfortunate children of chemical spillages
of released gasses of too many cigarettes
and ends with
my socks are going that way half a pair in hiding
they didn’t leap dead eyed at my hopping future.
And we find this grimy, absurd mode refined in Steak and Stations. The poem ‘the jobless man does nothing watches sky sports news all day’, tells the story of a man who gives his hands to someone ‘tired from toil’ on the pretext that he wasn’t using them, had ‘done nothing with them for months’.
SPOILER ALERT: the jobless man proceeds to give away most of his body until they ‘put him in a tesco bag’ and then ‘turned off the tv’. The self-abandonment of joblessness and depression are rendered well with this image – as is the unclarity of the point at the man gives up his agency (though its not clear he ever had it) as he is disassembled. Referring to a recipient of legs in ‘the jobless man…’, Egan writes:
poor soldier had to work hard to build up such lazy muscles
run a marathon at christmas he saw it on sky sports news
On the one hand, the comedy of the situation comprehends a bigger picture – one with recipients/consumers grumbling over their transplanted limbs. On the other hand, the understated tragedy refuses to relinquish its grip on what is unaccounted for by the comedy. (It might seem a long-hand way of saying ‘tragi-comic’, but I’m avoiding that term because it can often sound reductive. What tragedy? Which comedy?) The ultimate sense of moments like this are not quite comic or tragic, instead the writing depressurises – releases – the unnamed contents of unsure spaces.
And, it can’t go unmentioned, Egan’s poetry is visually full of spaces – they stare out of the page. Read aloud, they are responsive to the lines’ musicality. Collectively, they feel like thinking-blanks, or antimatter which works to guarantee the matter – in some instances they underline their very vacancy, particularly when the reader feels consciously challenged in the act of reconstructing the flickering images, and is thus compelled to block out the bits of nothing in order to focus on the something.
Giving blank space its own communicative sense reflects neatly both the mutant, modern mythology of Egan’s writing, and the sense that ritual has become invisible and functions as escape. ‘free to drink’ highlights this mode of detachment by ritual and repetition:
quote the drunk
quote the action of drinking
quote the process of swallowing gulp
quote that aquittal release
the breath comes out into a cylinder
What I find most compelling about Egan’s poetry is its mode of collapsing distinction, and the pluralised existences of its subjects, done without unleashing an anarchic loss of meaning. Its a testament to the skill of the writing that it achieves this sense of openness while relying on a collaborative, attentive reader that – even in the more fragmented poems – does not disperse to confusion, is non-exlusive, not a form of punishment. It makes a rewarding experience from exposure to destabilized forms of existence: this is rare.
These are mutant forms from many angles. I said in my opening paragraph that Steak and Stations achieved, beyond Folklores, an intense and real(ist) momentum. Perhaps it’s worth ascribing them metabolism, instead.
No comments yet.