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.