Ben Stainton reviews
by Patrick Chapman
There is a startling range to Patrick Chapman’s fifth collection, in terms of language, areas of enquiry and technique. These poems are by turns metaphysical, political, quotidian and spiritual; themes include Star Wars, adultery, smoking, sexual ambiguity and global warming; there are cameos from Tchaikovsky, Bridget Riley, Louis Jordan and The Polyphonic Spree. The key to the collection’s appeal, though, is also its potential weakness – an almost constant emphasis on variation. This multiplicity is, of course, indicative of Our Modern, Media-Saturated Society™, but unfortunately Chapman’s shifting styles can begin to feel like watching a TV channel-hopping by itself, and have a polarising effect. On page 19, for example, there is the disturbing, black-blood-and-guts punch of ‘Baby’, recalling Crow-era Ted Hughes; three pages later we are confronted by the willowy romance of ‘Reef’ – ‘Over time, we grow on each other like coral on shore’. Some of this unselfconscious lyricism leaves a weak taste, but there are delicious little gems scattered throughout – ‘If tonight by some mistake I end up eating you / As though you were a human madeleine’ (‘Husk’); the contemporary leaps and fearless humour of ‘You Murder the Sun’ –
‘You murder Rhapsody in Blue.
You murder Woody Allen.
You murder the epsilon at work
Who sniped that he had never met anyone
Quite as incontinent as you.
He had meant to say ‘incompetent’.’
and a daring, original spin on 9/11 – ‘After the / Planes / The only music to be heard / In those elevator carriages / Is Cage’s.’ (4’33’’)
I’m unsure, however, what to make of ‘True Creation Myth of the Serpent Folk’, which seems to veer dangerously close to parody, or the windswept-night-in-the-heather-ness of a line like ‘Abandoned on an endless plain of loneliness’ (‘Reflecting Angel’). Stylistic quibbles and questions of personal taste aside; and especially when employing a simpler, more direct approach, Chapman is rarely less than successful. These concise, deadpan lines are from ‘Crush’ –
‘Out on the step, my aunt is reading a paper.
I ask her why that ‘i’ is upside-down.
It’s an exclamation mark, she says.’
The most potent poems discuss real events, happening to (presumably) real people. The middle, childhood-recounting sequence is particularly effective – ‘Night In, Night Out’ begins as a comic soap opera (‘Her flushes and varicose veins / Her dunghill of a husband’), but ends with the threat of domestic violence; ‘Freakchild’, about a boy who has deliberately set fire to his Granddad’s house, contains the brilliantly matter-of-fact denouement – ‘I wonder what’s the deal / With all that noise & / That commotion. / Is the fire truck arrived already? Wow.’; and ‘Junky’, a drug-user’s requiem for lost youth, is genuinely affecting.
The third, politically engaged section, kicks off with ‘Up’ – a stream of topical consciousness taking in Osama, Bush, Guantánamo, AIDS, Rwanda, Bosnia ‘and every passing holocaust’ with refreshingly quick-fire, Bukowski-esque candour. The following ‘Oubliette’, while slightly overcooked in places, speaks in a deranged pitter-patter about a wartime detention camp, concluding with ‘Write a letter to my husband: ‘Please come here and kill me.’ The abrupt realisation of the speaker’s gender is shockingly effective. Chapman does deranged (and domestic) rather well, and at times, strikes deft and inconsolable notes (the final ‘Gloria Mundi’ lends a beautiful weightlessness to certain death): this is undoubtedly well-crafted, formally aware, generously felt work. But for the reader who prefers a dash of self-consciousness with their modern verse, or perhaps a touch less earnestness, The Darwin Vampires is not quite the highly evolved bloodsucker it might have been.
Ben Stainton is an English poet, currently studying Art History and Journalism. A mini-collection, The Backlists, is forthcoming from Knives Forks and Spoons Press.