This was one of the most entertaining and quirky books of poetry I’ve read in a while, although I had a difficult time just grasping the surface meaning in quite a few of Laird’s poems. Sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, often funny, always clever, more interested in the sounds of words and tricks of rhythms than in immediate clarity of language; I found myself really enjoying reading the poems out loud to myself, and understanding what Laird was up to a bit more on second or third readings. Also, he gets a kick out of titles with a bit of comic flair, like “Firmhand the Queried,” “The Riddles of the Ardcumber Book,” or “Everybody Wears Socks.”
Here’s a great example of a poem begging to be read out loud. It’s got style, and all the multiplicity of meaning you could ask for.
You woke me and I stood and looked,
astounded, put my foot in it,
withdrew then what I could of it,
’cause come the revolution
of the earth,
the rule is crockery’s the first
against the wall,
the reverse of which
I’m rapt with as we each
dissemble sleep, but wait,
and listen to the darkness fidget:
it sucks in its gut, lights up,
and swears under its breath
as it struts through the flat,
unzipping the lino, not stopping
until it’s laid down in the slit,
and dared us to watch it,
to hopscotch across its display
of the meanings of cleave,
and accept this is what saves us
from sweeping the kitchen,
and stops us from sleeping.
The progression of my experience reading this poem went something like this. First read: Huh? Let’s try it out loud. Second read: That was great! Such rhythmic! Let me see if I can tease out some meaning. Third read: Hmm, the speaker is being blamed for something, and maybe the person addressed threw something at the wall, and now they’re both pretending to sleep. What else is this about? Fourth read: Cleave is one of those words that means its opposite. Cool. Is there a crack in the floor? Wait, that’s what he put his foot in? That’s the fault. Fault also has several meanings. Is no one being blamed for anything? Why are they dissembling sleep then?
Perhaps this is true of all poets in their ways, but it seems accurate to say Nick Laird is especially eager to examine language’s intricacies and curious to see what he can get words to do. It’s more than that though; he has a way of leaving you maps to follow him, of allowing you to see his gradually better attempts at honesty of expression, that makes him a very likable writer.
I believe he is attempting to pattern some of his own manners of expression in this poem:
THE ROPE BRIDGE
You cross the rope bridge as you talk,
bypass whistling gaps, keep in step with solid wood,
the hand-rail’s grammar, and make it straight over.
No bother. No looking down, no biting your tongue
’til I start and stammer, I pause in the centre,
gape seawards, let fly with these or likewise airy notions,
armsweeps, adjectives, the usual pledges,
obsess on the seawinds, the flightpaths of seabirds,
await balance (these oceans, these edges), but instead
find the head at a loss, at last, for words it can trust.
Help me keep a hold of this.
Huddle down and listen with
the man who asks forgiveness,
the one whose swollen tongue has grown
to fill, not fit, his frown, and utters lovesongs,
curses, on its own. Let him begin again.
Let him go back and mind his language.
Listen. He picks on scarecrows, skyscrapers,
scapegoats, smallish lexical mercies.
I think that poem is beautiful. And a little sad, and a little hopeful, and a little resigned to regret in the realization that it is sometimes impossible to say exactly what we mean to say. Also, I would like “smallish lexical mercies” to become part of my own personal quotidian vocabulary.
It would be remiss of me not to mention another significant aspect of Laird’s first collection of poems: his Irish heritage, rendered more singular by being a Northern Irish heritage. Laird is one of the best of the Ulster poets since the titan Heaney. To A Fault is informed throughout by old wounds, the aftermath of war, the strange potency of violence, and the dialogue of the young with those who lived through the Troubles. Irish history, both ancient and modern, is woven into Laird’s composition.
This gives his presentation of certain subjects, especially violence, a wry detachment which can startle in its own way far more than graphic depictions of brutality. I read this last poem last Friday, and today there were attacks in Brussels. Nothing we say about this is sufficient. Poetry is not for the dead.
Someone has disturbed a hive.
What swell and gut the air and have
a million different particles, are bees,
which we mistake for wind and seeds,
at first, but stride out of the jittered storm
thrilled and breathlessly unharmed.
So somewhere honey might be moving,
lazily, its amber tongue,
among leaf litter, acned bark,
bugs glossy-backed and clockwork
which it tastes and then displays
as proofs of end-stopped histories.
Not hard to conjugate the faces,
shorn and watchful in the hallways,
to anger or lovemaking, freckles,
stutters, drunkenness, book-learning,
to couples sleeping back to back, arriving
laden at a country station in the bleach of dawn.
Help me open up these cases
and place in them some spectacles,
a steel prosthetic foot, a fist of auburn hair,
an empty tin of Dutch shoe polish
and a chipped enamel patterned jug,
a yellow appleblossom-patterned jug,
and set each in a locker at the terminals
of all the major capitals, alongside stolen goods,
and photographs in envelopes, and bombs.
To A Fault, Nick Laird (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007)