We feel safe enough, to begin with, as we read Sutherland’s new book of poems. A stalling relationship is explained with “Shrek watches from the electrical shop across the street/ seven Shreks running in parallel across a burning rope bridge/ It’s impossible to root for any of them.” Last summers London riots quietly evoked by “Birds above a fancy dress shop on fire/ aspire to an earlier historical period.”
The images cohere and expand, making gloriously relevant new ones; the crows rising up in omen as ornate costumes burn is undercut by the pile of singed polyester flares and pink Mia Wallace wigs. Neither image can flatten the other, both floundering in the disconnect between feeling and circumstance.
Sutherland’s work is built not from the things he says, but from the ones he arranges to appear in response. There is sometimes a glibness to his lines- “the sunrise always looks worse than it is”- but this only lowers our guard; the wit elicits a nod, then you are floored by the weight: what has happened here for such reassurance to be needed, for dawn to have become something requiring stoic mitigation?
The texture of the poetry is life-like; from blurs of unrelated, half formed shapes emerge moments of perfect clarity – yet they cannot quite be decoded. They cannot be translated into anything other than exactly what they are: “Like a dick drawn on his cheek in his sleep.” Imperceptibly, as we move through this slim volume, the references grow more obscure; the words and corresponding images don’t quite make sense. Descriptions are reminiscent of the almost figurative marks in an abstract painting; pulling you in only to leave you re-stranded among the brush strokes. “The sky turned the colour of a dead man’s helmet.” An image forms and then dissolves: What possible colour is a dead man’s helmet? In this deliberate ambiguity, Sutherland is making the reader supply their own imagery (A biker’s? A soldier’s?). He is insisting on our collusion.
We read on and meaning slips further. We are now in the realm of poetry about poetry. In X – “Word came that someone had sold the TV rights to our fear of wasps” – other people’s words are “descending like Tetris onto our beds, finishing our sentences.” The Prison Librarian tries to regain some solid ground: “Regardless of poetry/ it remains a definitive interpretation of a prison” yet this too seems to dissolve “Like an asprin, for example. Or like a prison.” In OX, a poem about “a bastard barn-door of a boy,” Sutherland takes on certainty itself; “You need a thug in your opening line up… like a lightening rod.” He reversing the co-ordinates of our consoling comparisons and leaves us lost.
His references are more often than not those of suburban childhood and early adolescence. Trips to Dixons in the back seat of the car, afternoons of Nintendo and Easter eggs. Computer games are his developmental fairy tales; the building blocks of his psyche. Poems on Street Fighter characters have the horror and honor of Greek myth- heroism, gravitas and gore; war poetry from a non existent war. As we move from computer games to Google Earth, in A poem looked up on Google street view, there are scenes but no characters or emotion; every inch of earth is here, yet no meaning can be wrung from it. Metaphor is losing any thing to compare itself with. There is no blood, only “the colour of a grateful dead album/ the colour of the inside of a lawyers suit jacket.”
In Poet in Residence at a Toy Shop at Midnight, he takes us behind the scenes and into the basement, where we are surrounded by over-turned bins of reject toys and “racks and racks of leprechauns.” Pulsating between the lines is the realisation of the terrifying force of will children must have to make this junk come alive.
The final section - The National Language - is a formally and conceptually brilliant punchline. A set of famous poems (Plath, Pound, T. S. Eliot) have been passed back and forth through online translation programmes, the output re-ordered, edited and published. There is, due to this process, nothing you could call intention behind these poems – yet, you can feel your mind creating it. You can feel your own brain seek out and find what you know isn’t there.
Through this arrangement of form, content and context, the lie of language itself is laid bare; the whispers in the darkened toy shop made proof: Our words are spells that make meaning out of nothing. This is poet as betrayer; we trusted him and now he is plunging us, viscerally, into the void.
Like the dutiful wife of Darwin you read on to the end, then try very hard to forget what you’ve learned.
- On Poetry: Glyn Maxwell. Book review: The poet on his craft.