Friday, 15 April 2011

L | Commentary | Ralfo's Brother, by Jack Underwood

Somebody shouted he was in the tree,
so we blasted and he fell like an ape.
His hand smudged at his lapel,
a hole above the knee was gulping.

A leaf settled on his head and he said
“I wish my brother Ralfo was here,
with his rough wood knuckles
and landlord’s voice. By god he’d set you!”

After the perimeter checks and the parakeets
were packed back in the trees,
the jungle lay down to sleep
in green mist. A lone Baboon kept watch.

Ralfo took root, grew from the earth,
tore through the floor of my tent:
his eyebrows were tensed like a slingshot,
his nostrils wide as his eyes!


One of my favourite stanzas in Jack Underwood’s Faber New Poets pamphlet also centres on a tree (or multiple trees, anyway):

But he remembered the panther enclosure
where he had waited for thirty minutes,
staring up at a dark hut hidden in trees.
Suppose there was no panther.
            From ‘Theology’

To write off that last line as straightforward bathos, a punchline, would be to do it a considerable disservice, I think – its construction is much more original than that, much more strange. Throughout the preceding lines ‘Theology’ has been tritely efficient and not much else. It describes a visit to the zoo, ‘a good day’ because of a bird with an ‘anvil head’ and ‘slinking lizards’ amongst (we presume) other things. It represents, in many ways, a distillation of several extremely irritating but alas, increasingly prevalent poetic ‘techniques’ – self-aware prosaicness, metaphor emphasising the futility of metaphor, ‘meaningful’ simplicity. But then that last line pounces, five open-ended words sounding exactly like something that somebody would actually say, fenced within a single self-contained sentence-line, emphasising that there is so much within idiomatic, real language that is useful for poetry. More useful, indeed, than ‘poetic’ construction. And more capable of stopping the flow of the flatly mediocre than any supposedly shimmering fragment of imagery.

Actually, perhaps punchline is the right word – providing the punch is correctly identified as a stylistic construction, the sound of a poem physically knocking itself out, rather than a narrative ‘twist’.

As clich├ęd as it is, the vast majority of poets would probably tell you, if pushed, that one of the principal motivations for writing poetry is still (will always be) the desire to make language new, to make it do unprecedented things. Jack Underwood succeeds, where many, many other poets largely fail, by finding the potential for linguistic strangeness in the most banal, written-off places. The surprisingly eloquent child-voice. Ambiguous ‘he’s and ‘I’s. The exclamation mark.

All three find their way into ‘Ralfo’s Brother’. In a sizeable majority of cases (including Wolf Hall, not that that’s especially relevant here) I find the use of a self-consciously ambiguous ‘he’ and ‘I’ to be gratingly false, grimly writerly, but here it elegantly frames Ralfo, whose presence is almost entirely dependent upon the singularity of his name. It is also pre-empted by the fact that, Withnail and I-like, the poem is entitled ‘Ralfo’s Brother’ rather than merely ‘Ralfo’, a fact that makes the 'real' subject of the poem (narrator, brother or Ralfo himself?) a rather enjoyable knot before it’s even started.

I think ‘rough wood knuckles / and landlord’s voice’ is wonderful as well, a flash of eloquence that has just enough tactile, genuinely descriptive truth within in to be a viable child’s outburst, whilst still displaying a linguistic energy that justifies the brother, and not Ralfo himself, being the initial focus. Half victim, half different, faerie-like perhaps. A carefully constructed balancing act – the ‘gulping’ knee and the leaf on head similarly.

Like ‘Theology’ though, this poem wouldn’t amount to much without its closing line, a sudden spurt of emphasis that leaves one happily bewildered as to why it is being emphasised at all – for all three of the other lines in its stanza are potentially more emphatic, more threatening – whilst making perfect sense in a Beano, cartoon angry bull, old fashioned schoolboy imagery kind of a way. It is a line that made me completely reassess the potential of the exclamation mark, usually the serious writer’s nemesis, because of what its connotative baggage can bring to a sentence that isn’t expecting it. Is it neatly ironic? Is it an admirably honest attempt at melodrama? And to finish a poem with it? Imagine if the final line of a novel you’d seriously engaged with concluded with an exclamation mark! You’d be completely fucking appalled.

Jack Underwood draws attention to the unique linguistic experimentalisms, strangenesses and, yes, sillinesses that are available to the poet – specifically, the poet – in a way that I haven’t come across since reading Glyn Maxwell’s debut collection, Tale of the Mayor’s Son. I’ve included a couple of excellent stanzas from that collection below because I see absolutely no reason not to. I’d love to see Jack write a poem as long as ‘Tale of a Chocolate Egg’, see what happens after the exclamation mark.


…he went unbreakfasted
in a quiet room of feasible breakfasts.

There was a silver lining. There were some
seventy-five teabags he could use.
He used one, took it black, and used the lemon.

‘I’m having lemon tea,’ he said, truly.
            From ‘Tale of a Chocolate Egg’

It’s just the same to look at, like my book
with the straw witch on page 9, the frightener!
It doesn’t frighten me, but nothing does.
            From ‘Farm Close’

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

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