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Monday, 21 May 2007

Review: The Best Man That Ever Was

The Best Man That Ever Was (Picador, 2007) is the debut collection from London-based "teacher and embroiderer" Annie Freud, launched last week in London. This reviewer has long (well, relatively) followed Freud's poetry career, and been pleased to take some of her first published poems, for the Oxfam anthology in 2004, and then again, the Future Welcome anthology in 2005, from DC Books, in Montreal. She was also invited to appear on the Oxfam CD Life Lines, in 2006, where she read poems now collected here. In short, I know some of these poems already, but was still not fully prepared for the shock of recognition, reading the collection as a whole - a satisfying shock, really, the tumblers clicking into place that opens a locked door.

Freud's work, as befits a Picador poet, is within the British mainstream - and recognizably in the tradition of other poets from the press, like the great American poet Michael Donaghy (who died several years ago at the age of 50), and the witty, urban poet John Stammers, whose writing knowingly echoes both O'Hara and Keats. That is to say, her poems represent a style of poetry more familiar in the UK than in America, now - poems of represented personality, where inflections, of voice, observed detail, and ironic commentary fuse, often subtly. Hugo Williams is the current arch practitioner of this kind of nuanced poem - and sometimes, one can feel it is breaking a butterfly on a rack to analyse such work too forcefully. Freud comes out of this tradition (and references Williams in the title of one of the poems here) but what makes her poetry most noteworthy is how it exceeds the limitations (or rather, temptations) of a tradition, and steps out and beyond such a charmed circle, to weave her own spell.

The Best Man That Ever Was includes about twenty poems of the first rank, or close to it - which is rare for a debut collection. The other 34 or so poems are often good (or slight) but the twenty that stand out are often extremely original, especially in terms of tone and diction. They present a character, a way of speaking about, London, and urban life (and love) that seems quite unexpected - indeed, strange. That this should be so is in no small way down to Freud's rich family history, her ability to embroider her work with images, phrases, and sensuous particulars, that are European, high culture and unfamiliar - then loop around to hook a line with something raw, or vulgar, or more popular in tone. One basically finds the tensions in the poems leaping between The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and a Jean Rhys novella - eros, vino and thanatos wrestling with a hee hee hee.

To my mind, the best poems here are: "To A Coat Stand"; the title poem; "A Canaletto Orange"; "Interlude for Xylophone, Banjo and Trumpet"; "Don't Be Too Fancy"; "The System"; "The Green Vibrator"; "Rare London Cheeses"; "Scopophilia"; "The Ballad of Hunnington Herbert"; "The Next Time"; "Valentine Card"; "The Last Kiss"; "The Small Mammal House" and "White". Of these, the title poem, the ballad, and the deeply uncanny and marvellous Mammal House stand out. But all these poems present themselves as beyond the usual stock phrases we trot out at such times, like sparkling, spiky, edgy, sinister, etc - they really are these things, and more. How to keep saying it? Freud commands the forms of prose poem, and Audenesque lyric, and extends these, by adding her own atmosphere. As Larkin gave us a world complete with its moods, disorders and concerns, so too does Freud here - one reads this collection and feels delivered to a postal district especially of the poet's making - a place that is very funny, very cosmopolitan, very sexual, and very odd.

Freud sometimes writes a line that is close to free verse. But not always. She is at her best when the syntax and the metre work together with her bizarre, clever diction, as in the title poem:

"He'd bark his hoarse, articulate command
and down I'd bend across the ornamented desk,
my mouth level with the inkstand's claws,
my cheek flat against the blotter; I'd lift my skirts,
slip down my panties and sob for him ..."

"The Next Time" exemplifies her way with a jaunty 30s style:

"Honey crystallizes in cold weather.
Herds of zebra inch across the plain
and skeletons tell jokes in foreign tongues
until you crush me in your arms again."

It also reveals the underlying dangers of all entanglements, foreign and amatory, or both. Deep suspicion, if not anxiety, gilds these verses with their verve. What depression was for Larkin, cinema (or at least scopophilia) is for Freud's muse, or one aspect of it - for seeing things, and recording them, are revealed as worthy pleasures for the poet to enjoy. It is most noteworthy that the last poem is about a white vibrator (doubled in the interior of the collection by a green doppelganger dildo) as seen in a film. The "Detective Inspector" plants a "tender kiss" on the instrument of sexual exploration of his own murdered daughter. It is, to say the least, a Freudian, and an unexpected tale with which to end a poetry book - unless the teller is Annie Freud, whose Poe-like tendencies are to welcome such curiosities and work them in to the fabric of a coherent, excitingly ornamented whole. Eyewear recommends this collection highly, and expects it to be TS Eliot shortlisted.

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