Moments in Working-Class Life

Submitted by cathy n on 18 March, 2012 - 12:01

Martyn Hudson reviews Geek Tragedy by David Rudd Mitchell London: Flavourbus Press 2012

Tragedy, for David Rudd Mitchell in this first collection of poems, lies in that moment when the eponymous Geek steps over from childhood into being something older, specifically at the moment of his father’s death. The poems in this collection bear witness to a sense of humanness confronted by the blank indifference of nature and history to our hopes and frustrations and document the stoical lives of working class people in moments of transit or seeing. Ultimately the resolute humanism of Mitchell finds solace not in faiths resolution of life’s meagre anxieties but in an atheism where death ‘sinks us’ rather than a religion which ‘sets us adrift’.

The documentation of ordinariness in this extraordinary poetic document reminds us as John Berger once said that artists run among us like legends and rumours displaying guts, honour, and irreducible hope.

There is much humour in the collection largely centred around that notion of the Geek’s childhood and the animation and joy that Star wars and James Bond bring with them – unhesitating glimpses of heroism and good against evil enmeshed in his feelings about his father. Music, drinking, smoking are touchstones in the collection and in many ways are things nostalgically left behind as Mitchell confronts a world where one parent has disappeared from it.

Perhaps the most moving testament in the book is openly dedicated to his father, that in the grief and chaos after death ‘I like the idea that your peace is a night like this’.

The poems deride grandeur and bold statements – they are snippets of moments and conversations overheard, vignettes of working class mothers as ‘She scrapes back her great unwashed hair/Grabs tightly her great unwashed pram/Then purposely and unstoppable as an advancing army/Strides forth to the cash point/To inherit the earth’. This poem itself ‘Meek Week’ reprises the sermon on the mount on the everyday streets of urban Britain.

Others bring into collision poetry with drinking and mayhem – ‘In sweaty, after hour clubs/Office girls with smoke-scented hair/Roared sonnets laced with shrieks/Whilst dancing round their Haiku’.

At the same time Mitchell moves beyond kitchen sink into the realm of memory and with a distinct ear for ordinary speech and wordplay. In some ways it is the polar opposite of an English poetry enwrapped with the mysteries of landscape and history, the British isles of Heaney and Hughes. There is no sustained gaze upon nature here only an attempt to unravel the mysteries of identity and human engagement and love.

The only poet consistently referred to by name but also obliquely through the poetry itself is Philip Larkin and it’s clear that the touchstone of Larkin is important here. Mitchell has more generosity of spirit and is entirely without Larkin’s cynicism but the best of these poems point to some moments in Larkin – a similar air of insouciance or confusion, or the displacement of the nervous and the Geeks. Two of the poems here nod to Larkin in its uncovering of the disappointment and tragedy of ‘days’ where the author wishes he could ‘Go twos on a lepers cigarette’. Another replaces Larkin’s ‘They fuck you up your Mum and Dad’ with the ‘fucking you up’ of ancient poets and the pilfering of themes and tropes from the poetry of the past or what Marx once called ‘world historical necromancy’.

In many ways it is that search for an original voice heard in the pubs and the shopping lanes that is the best thing about this collection rather than a reliance on resurrecting the elderly clichés of most post-war poetry. And it has the style and the thoughtfulness of Simon Armitage and Roger McGough – themselves very different poets but ones which share with Mitchell a sense of bringing something new back to the language of verse unsullied by the constant reprise of the ‘Oxford book of English Verse’.

In fact the collection is reminiscent in verse of what James Kelman over recent years has been trying to do with fiction – pushing forward the voices of ordinariness against the voices of ‘received pronunciation and against the ruling ideas of contemporary politics and literature. As Mitchell says in jest ‘Go 4th txt spkers propag8/Shakespeare is yours to desecr8’.

And like Larkin, what remains for Mitchell at the end of the day, is love – ‘He no longer wants you and that is final/Like a glistening coin, in the honeyed shade of the men’s urinal/Its not you, Oh no He loves you more than anyone/ Its where you’ve been and what you’ve done’. At the end of the collection it is this reckoning with love that provides an epitaph to Mitchell’s vision of contemporary poetry and also for his Dad – a Dad who was larger than life and ‘larger than death’.

If anything helps us overcome the witless adoration for the England of costume drama’s and unfaithful reversions to the poets of the past it is collections like this where the faithful rendering of the stories of life’s hardships and realities are expressed in a an authoritative, yet hesitant and humble, poetic voice. Again as John Berger once said ‘never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one’.

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