A sort-of-review of Marie Marshall’s T.S.Eliot Prize nominated ‘I am not a fish’

You’ll never believe me…I was waiting to Skype God. You can imagine the anxiety! I mean…the Almighty, the Alpha & the Omega, Tetragrammaton—YHWH. It was buffering his end, ringing out. There was a lot of eeking & blare. The postman dropped his delivery. I was gripped on what God was going to look like. I suspected a primate for some reason. Nothing ichthyic I thought, nor feline, leonine or arachnid. I was going primate. Still buffering I opened my mail. It was Marie Marshall’s T.S. Eliot Prize nominated I am not a Fish. I forgot all about my natter with God—what had he to do with me, now?

This book is unlike anything. A mellifluous mash of hilarious, playful poems, evading the reader whilst prodding with long boney digits of joy. There is alchemy between word & imagination, infused with hallucinatory & hypnotic substance, which sounds painful, but actually manifests in unparalleled, rib-tickling humour & a spectrum of idiosyncratic oddities.

There is something off-the-cuff in their childish, almost athletic inventiveness, the cardiovascular characters totally out of their minds & extremely entertaining; poems utterly impossible to anticipate, twisting & turning like a fish out of water.  

If you were to take a bowler hat, write lines from Wind in the Willows, The Rig Veda, Aesop’s Fables, a collection of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, a book of puns & dirty jokes founded by Gershon Legman, put the Moebius Strip lines of poetry in the hat, shake that hat, then take those lines & knit them, then you might begin to rustle up poems as inimitably brilliant as the poems in this collection.

The world can be fanatically dull when it comes to being superficial. & yet superficiality, when done right can drag you out of the safety in numbers, the bludgeoning quotidian.

But I don’t want to suggest this assault on the senses isn’t a serious one. This is a test for the reader. There are pitfalls: don’t fall into the trap of thinking no work needs doing on our side. These are poems to startle us. Shock & awe. Perhaps these fabrications are allegory, coping mechanism, the elenctic tug of war to tease out who we really are & why that is wrong, right or of no consequence. Don’t assume the counterintuitive cannot stun you into yourself more than the deliberate, hand held safe precepts of the bloody obvious.

We open with the book’s protagonist, a Mr Coelacanth
 

under a broad hat
and the pseudonym of Lazarus Jackson

Mr Coelacanth is hiding something. He hides in his character, & we are then correct to be cautious, as the poet may be hiding behind something too. Metaphor is after all a form of deliberate, systematic evasion of the thing itself, giving it a fresh label to throw the reader off the scent of the thing itself (the bloody obvious) & see it from a rearranged perspective, for the sake of dramatic effect. There is little reality, not much safe, chartered ground for us to move on here; we are dropped from the sky into somewhere totally unfamiliar & it is exhilarating.

Under his mohair suit and wing-tip brogues is, we suppose, a fish, but he’ll deny it out his lamellar skin. Plain as the nose on your face what he is, especially after he ‘refuses the breaded haddock’ which blows his cover.

His denial is what affirms these poems. They know what they are & Marie knows what they are to be: an exercise upon us to work the weft of our mind to seek out the false flags, false floors, doors, the tricks, the tromp l’oeil, allusions & language play. But the trick is that these poems can be anything you like. You can take them at face value, or read into them what you wish.

The tongue is continuously in the cheek. In Mr Coelacanth’s Nightmare, which is a recurring one

he is before a committee of hungry cats
who ask him the question: Are you now,
or have you ever been, a fish?
 
Never, he replies,
trying not to speak in bubbles,
trying hard not to let words
like gill and dorsal enter his mind.

‘Bubbles’ puns wonderfully on speech bubbles, inviting us to fill in any gaps with our own influence on the poem. I think that is what I love about the nonsensical in these poems: you could write them, like fan fiction, taking the characters on your own bizarre divagations through this surreal, comedy dimension of Marie’s devising.

In Old man-of-the-woods we get a taste of just what it might be like to write one of Marie’s poems. ‘Yesterday I tried to write a poem’ the old man tells us. Unable to find the tools to write he forgets ‘the words’. Happens to the best of us. But then: POW!

‘I would like to zip out my orange jumpsuit
and run, shrieking, through the trees,
my arms waving above my head;
I want to jump (goat-style) the fallen logs,
mate
(with enthusiasm)
make little old-man-of-the-woodses.
I would really like to climb to the forest-tops,
contemplate the sunset until my eyes ache,
my head is giddy,
my heart is full of
wonder.
Wow!’
 

There’s that energy, that’s a poem in the throes of parturition; it is a temptation, zapping ampoules through the characters that they might breathe like a cast of Franken-monsters & transmute into the poet, the reader; encouraging us to think & read creatively through their very existence.  

You feel wholly in the mode of myth. Called to cluster round the lambency of this dimension by the dung-chen, the iridescent bismuth; in this dimension where a monkey sent to death is reborn in a forest-heaven of a sort to live out infinity with an old-man-of-the-wood; where a rat called Beatrice recites the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, who is the Wolf; where the Lamb of Tartary is crucified & the last voice he hears is Mr Coelacanth saying “I am not a fish”.

I can’t really do justice to how much happens in this fecund ‘blueberry universe’ full of gypsy jazz, & daedal motifs rehashed in fresh contexts. I can only hope to articulate how pleasurable it was to read & to amplify the joy of being lost in Marie’s imagination & to encourage you to get a copy & indulge yourself in the ornate language & play.

If this piques your interest you can read Marie’s poetry @ https://kvennarad.wordpress.com/ where you can also find links to buy Marie’s books.

13 Comments

  1. “Called to cluster round the lambency of this dimension by the dung-chen, the iridescent bismuth…” I am probably going to be the lone dissenter, but what good would I be to you if I was not honest?

    The review for me doesn’t work. As you stated, “I can only hope to articulate how pleasurable it was to read.” But being called to cluster around the lambency of something by a dung-chen doesn’t illuminate the poetry. If poetry is aesthetic, and clarity is utilitarian, there is indeed room for some thing in a dialectic between the two that is aesthetic and clear. You are a gifted poet, lambency and dung-chens deserve their rightful place in your art. But they gum up a review with an aesthetic that takes focus away from the poetry and draws attention to the reviewer’s vocabulary, which is belletristic. You certainly are not some random wanna-be critic, you are too much of an artist for that. But I think that your amazing strength as a wordsmith hamstrings your ability to contextualize the power of other people’s words.

    Sometimes, a retromingent felidae is just a lion peeing backwards…

    1. I use these as they are both recurrent object/motifs that run through Marie’s book. For me they stuck & called me to the myth, to the playfulness of the book.
      I do agree I am not sure I succeed in critiquing this book, I enjoyed it too much. It was so pleasing to read.

  2. To be clear… I REALLY like your use of lambency and the dung-chen. The quality of imagery of that particular set of sentences is wonderful: imagining that the dung-chen is a call to lambency in itself is a beautiful invocation to contemplation. And this is the beauty of your “problem”: how can you shut off your gift in order to accent the gifts of others? Your event horizon creates a kind of poetic Venn Diagram with what you review and what is central to both becomes yours!! LOL! You rightfully enter a relationship with the poetry, yet you seem to inevitably lead the dance.

    Either way, I can guarantee you I will be using the word “lambent” more often because of you, and I have been turned on to some great poetry… so maybe you have done your job, and my “problem” with your reviewing style is actually your success in getting me to engage with the work, which your appreciation of it would do anyways.

    Daniel Paul Marshall for the win!

    1. I get too excited about things I like. There is no way I could not write like this about Marie’s poetry. I think she’s the bee’s knees.
      & if I’ve influenced you to use lambency more, then my work is partly done.
      There is no winning, just an earnest effort to show enthusiasm.

Leave a Reply to colonialist Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.