6.10.14

"A pimped-out souped-up pussy-magnet": Nick Laird's Go Giants - review


Pick up a new poetry collection next time you’re in your local indie bookshop and, chances are, on the dust jacket, you’ll find the usual publisher’s puff. You know the kind of thing: a smart but predictable blurb extolling the brilliance of the poems therein, or else a few quotes from reviews and contemporaries. Should you happen on Nick Laird’s third book of poems, Go Giants, though, you’ll spot something else – a freewheeling paean that (and I say this at the happy risk of furnishing Faber with an endorsement to pin on Laird’s follow-up) is up there with the best hymns to poetry you’ll come across. Making a mockery of those who reckon the living art form ‘a joke; outmoded as the nose flute’ or else ‘a pimped-out souped-up pussy-magnet’, i.e. just the kind of X Factor-type fuckwittery that would put poetry ‘to a phone-in vote’, this title-less prologue conjures a personal reminiscence that stops you in your tracks. Here we find poetry ‘mooching round the back of the loading dock at the meat factory’, a kind of ‘sympathetic magic’ at odds with the machinations of profit and want; a juncture, as Laird fancies it, ‘of the two kinds of real, the act caught in the act’. ‘And if it so happens that you are the flawed compensation for our having just the one go’, our poet concludes, ‘it does for me, or very nearly’.

It’s smart stuff, this subverting of the space where you’d expect to find banal marketing journalese. And not just because the verve and flair of the writing here gets us onside, even before we reach the book’s first poem proper. Ironically enough, it also serves as a précis of what’s to come. Since his lauded first collection, To a Fault (2005), and its swift follow-up On Purpose (2007), Laird’s poetry has combined edgy vernacular, blunt reportage, and an increasingly scientific materialist cast of mind that can border on the grandiose. His aesthetic seems to be one that foregrounds acute contemplation – the act of poetry – as the only means of getting at the world’s real nature; beyond what one poem, ‘Envy’, calls ‘the hot pennies of unhappiness’ inherent to being human, in the hope of finding ‘something like the freedom of the universe’. Extending his engagement with the fault lines between his abiding themes – the personal and political, home and flight, religion and secularity, intimacy and violence – Go Giants documents a struggle, one in which Laird looks to push his poems into unexpected, often playful directions.


‘You’re beeswax and I’m birdshit’, trills the first line of opener ‘Epithalamium’. A serio-comic tribute to marriage and the idea that opposites attract, it also reads as a manifesto – here is poetry as a blurring and transformation of the seemingly irreconcilable into one: ‘and I am Trafalgar, and you’re Waterloo, / and frequently it seems to me that I am you, / and you are me.’ But this isn’t Raymond Chandler’s mock exasperation at the fact that, for writers, everything has to be like something else. It’s more a metaphysical recognition that the poet’s job (if he or she has one) is to uncover the interconnectedness of things. Just as ‘Condolence’ develops a childhood memory of the poet’s mother composing letters by the fire into an image that speaks of wider Troubles-era grief and collapse (brought up in County Tyrone, Laird is a son of Northern Ireland’s fraught political conflicts), the title poem pastes together pop culture phrases, clichés and surreal imperatives into a dislocated commentary on our frenetic modern lives. The two are radically different poems – one a touching familial recollection; the other, a set of disembodied marching orders – but both are attempts to connect with a primal sense of absolute unity. Suspicious of religious faith but, by his own admission, drawn to its trappings, Go Giants finds Laird repeatedly turning to a mix of poetry and scientific hard-thinking in the hope of supplanting the religions – specifically Christianity – he, like most of us, have fallen away from, but are still to find the desired replacement for. ‘To see the gods withdraw, / dethroned, exposed to ridicule, / was our allotted truth’ he writes with resignation in ‘The Effects’; ‘they weren’t dislodged / by other, stronger gods: / they simply came to nothing. / That line of enquiry closed.’ One of the book’s best poems, it ends on an image of a mongrel dog ‘running / masterless’ among a congregation ‘mid-hymn’. Poetry can be like this, it seems to say – playful, life-affirming, eye-opening, and something to which our ‘faces turn, / one-by-one and radiant’.

It is this blend of earnest and buoyant ambition with intelligence, feeling and a genuine sense of fun that makes Laird’s poetry so readable. Even when sound and sense divide to leave the writing more than a little prosaic, Laird packs in enough, and is so questing and entertainingly inquisitive in his frames of reference, you can’t help but forgive it. ‘Progress’, a fragmented bildungsroman of a sequence that closes the book, draws on Galileo, Pope Urban the Eighth, The Smiths, the art of pint-pulling and the persisting sectarianism of the Troubles – a feat in itself. But it is in the quieter lyrics, finding consolation in the comforts of our domestic lives, that his talent really shines. ‘Talking in Kitchens’ is a beautiful vignette to love and companionship, in a world where ‘nobody knows how we feel and it’s fine’. Its final couplet is one of the most moving and echt I’ve read in years, and fully earned: ‘Here it is written down if I forget to say it – / my home is the temple made by your hands.’

As a title, Go Giants straightforwardly reads as a cultural reference to the eponymous American football team, on the US’s East Coast where Laird increasingly spends his time. It also looks like a mischievous dismissal of those Ulster poets – Yeats, Mahon, Heaney – that have exerted influence on his writing from the get-go. But more fully than either of those, it is a clarion call for poetry to up its game; to be more than a trifling art form, but something we can all find solace, excitement, surprise and truth in. He mightn’t always hit the mark, but Laird deserves credit for this ambitious and entertaining book. God willing, it should find a decent audience too.




first published in The Edinburgh Review



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