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Guest Review: Horton On Sutherland

Christopher Horton reviews
Things To Do Before You Leave Town
by Ross Sutherland

Even for those with only the faintest interest in performance poetry, Ross Sutherland will probably need little introduction. A member of performance collective Aisle 16 and omnipotent download provocateur, Sutherland has, more recently, even found time to write and perform his own plays. What will surprise some, perhaps, is the range and depth evident in his first book, Things To Do Before You Leave Town. I say ‘surprise’ here only because Sutherland is, for the most part, better known for his grandstanding readings and recitals at performance venues across the UK than he is for his page poetry. As someone who has tracked Sutherland’s poetry career over the last few years – in small magazines such as Tears in the Fence and Rising – there is, in fact, from this reader at least, little surprise that this is a book of wit, linguistic endeavour and intellectual merit.

The problematic tag ‘performance poet’ does Sutherland a disservice if taken in isolation, for while many of these poems work on one level as performance pieces, they also reward rereading. Take for example the long poem ‘Log-on’, which possesses a deftly conveyed sense of tenderness and loss through a computer-centric conceit. The last few lines are particularly illustrative of this, ‘Having been hacked since before I was born,/ can you be sure who’s behind those eyes,/ shoulder surfing for those opening keystrokes/ as I stoop to kiss your neck?’.

Whilst it can appear voguish to frequently drop computer-speak into poetry, for Sutherland, computers have imprinted deeply on how he thinks and writes and as such are integral to much of his expression. Here, it may be too easy for this reader to reference his background as a lecturer in electronic literature but the influences of this on his work are clear.

It is also apparent that it is not just linguistic references to computer technology that interests Sutherland but the specific and multi-various vernaculars of the mathematical, scientific and filmic worlds. In ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme’ for instance, the poet’s father is the villain in an action movie and it is the energetic Van-Damme who is called upon to save the day. The poet’s father, finally defeated, ‘stands alone on his secret island’ his eyes dribbling ‘scarlet plasma’. Through these familiar filmic images, Sutherland provides insight into every son’s fear and inevitable realisation – that fathers are indeed fallible.

If Sutherland is, on occasion, guilty of bathos – ‘The Family Blessing’ and ‘Something Detonates’ – his observations on the absurdities concealed beneath the surface of our humdrum modern lives work to best effect. The poem, ‘Things To Do Before You Leave Town’, to which the book lends its title, is a good example of this. Sutherland, using his favoured address of ‘You’, ensures that the reader is complicit in the acts that should be enacted before graduating from small town life. The poem reads like an inventory where, oddly liberated by imminent departure, the speaker makes a mental note to ‘tell Steve to go fuck himself’ and to ‘meet Claire but fail to notice’. The list also includes things not to do and this particular sequence ends with a prophetic mental note to not ‘stare longingly up at the clocktower’.

For all his bravado, Sutherland is also a romantic in the purest sense. When he writes about love, his poems are tinged with an Audenesque sense of incorporeal separation and loss. This is best exemplified in ‘A Second Opinion’, when he states, ‘And I knew/ that to the untrained eye,/ the September evening in my chest looked mild./ But I trusted you, implicitly,/ to take your coat with you/ on the way out’. True contentment is not a state that can ever last for a sustained period of time for this poet, whether wrapped within the conceit of an experiment or medical examination, it will inevitably escape his grasp, leaving behind merely traces, ‘Each day we spent together had a distinct tone or shape’ (‘Critical Praise for My Last Relationship’).

More generally, the transitory nature of experience acts as one of the main threads of the collection. Sutherland is a veritable journeyman, compelled to move on, to seek comfort in the ephemeral. As such his poetry is frequently delivered in the form of snapshots, recorded as if from the perspective of a passer-by. In ‘When Paperboys Roamed the Earth’, his voice is at its strongest as he flits between the lives of others, observing their idiosyncrasies acutely. This is typified in two lines that sum-up Englishness better than Larkin ever did, ‘A thousand bald patches begin to itch. An egg boils. Here is the news’.

Christopher Horton was born in 1978 and grew up in Oxfordshire. He studied English Literature and American Studies at Swansea University. He has lived in the United States and China, where he taught English. His poetry has been published in City Lighthouse Anthology (Tall Lighthouse) and New London Poetry (Penned in the Margins) and magazines, including Poetry London, Ambit, The Wolf and Magma. He has also reviewed for The London Magazine and Horizon (Salt) among others. In 2008, he was commended in the National Poetry Competition and in 2009 he was a runner up in the Bridport Prize. Horton currently lives in South East London. He co-ordinates literature events for the Museum of London Docklands.
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