Friday, 15 April 2011

L | Commentary | Roddy Lumsden

“The elderly schoolmasters and piano-teachers are dust, 
and the leaves of the piano primer were eaten, note by note, by dust.”
Chris McCully, Dust

“Not here, the darkness in this twittering world.”
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Note: I have not reproduced Lumsden's poems in this article, but they can be found by clicking here.

Those who admire Lumsden’s work, but know little of his life, may be interested to know that he used to make his money from pub quiz machines. This is an interesting fact about a man who was once financially reliant on interesting facts. It is not the image of a man, stood alone, plying pound coins from the cold dead grasp of a machine that fascinates us though – it is the gestalt effect of the myriad anecdotes that lead the man to his wealth of tidbits.

In fact, Danny Boyle rather smugly turned this concept into one of the most successful films of all time in Slumdog Millionaire. A knowledgeable man is an admirable thing, but it is the tales of this knowledge-acquisition that leaves us spellbound.

This is the premise for Lumsden’s poems, Olivier and A Localised History of Dry Precipitation; the man of facts begins to map out snippets of autobiography behind a façade of trivia. Olivier opens with a misdirection, a clarification and a parenthetical anecdote, the role of the raconteur firmly established from the off:

‘He married eighty three times, eighty of them in the West
End run of The Good Husband (by playwright Alexander
Morris, who later shot himself and his chocolate Lab – ‘une
bufe brune’, which survived – in the Place de la Bastille).’

Lumsden paints a portrait of an actor at his most idiosyncratic and human in a way that transcends the digital generation’s need for its icons to bare bullet-pointed plot points in lives defined by their most public moments:

“He considered calling all his children after the heroines
from the novels of Colette, but had only sons.”

But the pay-off of the poem is in its restraint – for any such anecdotes require verifiable sources. Lumsden provides this in the penultimate line with the centrifugal clause ‘he told my father’. Following this is Olivier’s only chance to speak for himself in the poem, yet we scarcely care because it is the father, not the celebrity, that we now yearn to hear of.

As I have already stated however, this poem finds its basis in misdirection – one gets so swept up in the acquisition of anecdotes and new information that we scarcely think to question who the titular ‘Olivier’ is or, as he later calls himself, ‘Mr. Oliver’. It soon becomes clear that we are not dealing with the same man who married Vivien Leigh, so who is it? Is it a friend of the poet’s father, or is it a re-imagined version of Laurence Olivier, told through vivid, yet apocryphal accounts?

Such questions carry over to A Localised History of Dry Precipitation, the poet’s account of his father’s fascination with dust particles. In the poem, Lumsden draws implied parallels between the amateur scientific, investigatory work of a father figure and his own career as a writer:

‘Such elegance of
phrase, such turns in which, we must assume, his
best self lives on.’

When Lumsden sent this poem to Silkworms Ink for our 50th Chapbook, he was very clear that it absolutely had to be justified (ie. the left hand and right hand edges of the text needed to be a straight line. Word processors achieve this illusion by making minute adjustments to the spaces between words... to illustrate, this paragraph and the next one are justified).

There are a number of potential reasons for this structural choice – the one I would plump for, however, is our old friend, misdirection. Justifying a poem with tight margins, marooned in the middle of a page, creates the illusion of impenetrability and the idea that all the elements are somehow perfectly aligned. On closer inspection however, we literally spot the gaps.

Which has me thinking that maybe left-right justification should be more prevalent in modern poetry than it currently is. Does it not serve the same purpose as rhyme, but on a visual level? In both rhyme and left-right justification, the poet is creating the illusion that things are congruent, that they are equivalent, that they are comparable. The façade of order; poetry. I digress.

By the time we have read of an ‘Olivier’ who is not what he seems, we instinctively distrust our narrator and look to distil the truths from the fiction – not that we can only enjoy poetry as autobiography, but these poems are laced with so many fascinating facts that we yearn desperately for them to be real. Luckily, the sections on the derivation of ‘abacus’ and ‘khaki’ were bang on the money.

Truthful or otherwise, this poem represents the best of Lumsden’s ability as a tentative conjurer of scenes. I have read the following six lines around fifty times since we issued our 50th Chapbook on Wednesday; there is something mesmerising in the way that Lumsden’s attention to detail sucks the reader into the father’s attention to detail in the poem in some beautiful meta mise-en-abyme:

‘close, the micrometer’s divinings, a sweep for
fragments and filings on the unused kitchen
worktop, a licked finger cosseting the length of a
tabletop, a welcome mat flipped and shaken above
an underlit screen.’

One imagines that Lumsden’s experience of quiz machines has been a defining force in his approach to writing poems (as well as the quizzes he now writes for others). Like quizzes, his poems wilfully mislead, they challenge us and force us to question long-held truths, yet never at the expense of us having a good time.

All of Lumsden’s poems featured on this site are taken from his forthcoming collection, Terrific Melancholy, which I eagerly look forward to reading and can be pre-ordered here.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

1 comment:

  1. This is a stellar reading, Phil. And Lumsden's work is wonderful, just beautiful.