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"Please understand: we are born uncomfortable": Alan Buckley's Shiver - review

So here’s the thing: I actually got hold of a copy of Shiver, Alan Buckley’s debut pamphlet of poems, not so long after it deservedly grabbed the PBS Pamphlet Choice back in 2009. They say a week’s a short time in politics, and the same can go for poetry: so much stuff is published these days, half the time you can barely keep up, and that’s just with the kind of thing you enjoy, never mind the whole broad canvas. (Or at least I can’t anyway, and sincerely hope / suspect I’m not the only one). Marketing exacerbates this, of course: sure some of the best poetry comes from those imprints that are part of a much bigger commercial enterprise, but in the media fuss that can sometimes surround the big players’ literary stars (relatively speaking, like; this is poetry after all), you can often end up missing out on something very special put out by the smaller indies. As an occasional reviewer, this can be doubly frustrating: by the time you find out about / get around to properly reading this great little book that came out a year ago, the time has most likely passed when you could have defiantly sung its praises in a magazine or paper.

Which is pretty much what I want to do here with Buckley’s Shiver. Because really, for me, Buckley just gets what poetry is about, and puts it into practice again and again over the course of a short pamphlet with undeniable invention and prowess. Here’s a poet who knows that you have to beguile and entertain the reader before you can lay on the heavy stuff; that any form of address, perhaps especially poetry, has to make the reader or listener want to invest time and thought in what’s being said, rather than making the fatal mistake of simply expecting such attention. Take the opening poem here, “Flaming June”, a precise little sonnet that we could admire simply for its technical accomplishments. But these only earn their keep, as form and technique should, given that they’re put to the service of the poem’s minutely observed story: a narrow boat’s passage through a canal lock which manages to transform that fairly pedestrian happening into a Dante-like journey into another, altogether darker, realm. We can forgive Buckley his more flashy literary effects – the boat like a “semi-colon”, for instance - given the wonderful, otherworldly eeriness the poem invokes: “the feral river” that “charges the weir // then bursts back into view, dark and foaming”, or the anonymous man who “strolls past us, a limited god”. By the time he “spins the sluice wheels” and, as the poem closes, “gently, we descend”, Buckley has taken us into the quotidian and on into somewhere unnervingly unfamiliar, readying us for what’s to come.

There’s some real risk-taking and ambition in the poems that follow. Not “risk” as some might define it, in the sense of testing the reader’s patience to breaking point with indecipherable self-indulgence and syntactic glossolalia, but risk as in the risk of mundanity, of attempting to transform the everyday into something new and surprising, or the risk of attempting to write deftly on sometimes uncomfortable topics. “Anusol©”, as its rather unfortunate title suggests, attempts the latter with admirable tightrope-walking finesse, taking that particular medicinal cream and the broader idea of discomfort to interrogate our social mores with a welcome dash of subtle humour: “I saw the tube where I’d left it, perched on the edge / of the tub: that blunt, un-English name, the manufacturer – / Canadian – unaware of our sensitivities”. The poem launches into its unforgiving analysis:

Please understand:

we are born uncomfortable. We must apologise for these
bodies that block up our narrow streets, that brush
and bump in Underground trains. We have smoked them

brown as kippers, stuffed them with pig fat until they drip,
soaked them in cheap gin; and yet they persist, refuse
to go away. We wish they would show some decency […]

That distinctly Larkin-like first-person plural “we” speaks of a poet who is either na├»ve in their assumptions, arrogant in their assumed communal voice, or of one who is unafraid to communicate a collective feeling given the hard-thinking manifestly on show in their writing. Buckley is the latter. Sentimentalists and others might see this as a matter of opinion given their restrictive allegiance to the wholly subjective, but the way to work out which category any writer falls into here is the broad truth of the claims made, and which English reader can claim not to feel the truth of that link between our broader sense of “decency” and our often uncomfortable relationship with the carnal and corporeal? We like to think of the bodily, and by extension, physical intimacy, as something inherently private, something that inevitably takes place “behind closed doors”, but what Buckley reveals here is how such ingrained attitudes might come to short-circuit our relationship with the physical entirely; wanting to be left in a detached, most likely digital, world with “only our monkey-house minds / for company.”

Elsewhere, some of the poems in Shiver are a pleasure to read simply for their unshowy, natural and conversational lyricism; their subtle music a welcome change from some of the rolling linguistic firework displays other contemporary poets favour. The romantic trysts in “His knowledge of astronomy is limited”, for example, are beautifully yet unsentimentally described, worth quoting here at length:

Once, he imagined it like this:
a hillside, miles from the nearest
town, the ground hard and brisk
with frost; the night sky clear,
blue-black as the bottle of ink
on his desk. Two people
beneath a rough wool blanket,
hot from the reckless rush of sex;
the wood pulsing orange-red,
dying down towards charcoal,
eager sparks flicked out and up
into the cool, still air.

Delicate yet robust and rhythmically paced, with rhyme sparingly deployed to evocative effect and alliterative sound pockets that barely register until you read back, this is consummate writing. That Buckley, as already proven, is also a whip-smart, hard-thinking writer is enough to make his work worth reading. But, fairly, you might want other reasons, in which case you can look to other poems in Shiver – a pamphlet of only twenty that ends up feeling more substantial than some full collections – for evidence of an emotional integrity and frankness, as well as a gift for the choice metaphor to augment a poem’s arguments. Take “Your news”, which skirts deftly in and around the difficult matter of breast cancer, and somehow comes off: incorporating clever imagery (which I won’t spoil here) and, believe it, grim humour before jumping to particle physics via a half-recalled intimacy. It’s probably one of the lesser poems in the pamphlet for its necessary flatness and slightness, and yet still it invites, resonates, impresses, and connects wholly disparate things in a memorable way. So too with “Peaches”, a fruity little sonnet dripping with luscious vowel sounds, that somehow manages to survive the fecund ambiguity of its extended metaphor to leave us in a brief existential conundrum, borne solely of tinned fruit.

In short, Shiver is a pamphlet to savour. You might not quite shudder while reading it, but if it doesn’t jolt you or stop you in your tracks at least a few times, I’d probably check for a pulse. For here is a restless intelligence, alloyed to a keen eye and a precise yet capacious style that can’t help but take the everyday and find in it the unfamiliar and extraordinary. Real poetry, basically. Don’t expect to wait long for this poet to be snapped up by a major publisher, for what promises to be a very impressive debut collection.