Issue Three

Spring 2012

 

Matthew Clegg  Lost Between Stations, 30 pp and 40 minute CD, £6.50
Longbarrow Press, 6 Tenby Close, Swindon, SN3 1LN

I liked handling this pamphlet. Taller than the norm, there’s a physical elegance to the feel of it (although, as a reviewer, I wasn’t too pleased by the affectation of no page numbers). Inside we have 25 pages of poetry, a long epigraph from Homer’s Odyssey, and, on the final page, a useful note from the poet.

The poem itself can be read, perhaps, as seven separate poems, but it’s really one long poem in seven fits or cantos. Clegg’s note tells us we’ll find parallels in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Homer, and these are pretty much evident, though the poem is not dependent on these echoes, and despite some rather erudite allusions, there’s no requirement that the reader knows Don Juan or The Leech Gatherer in order to appreciate this narrative. I think this is one of the strengths of this work: it is readily approachable whatever background you bring to it. One can imagine the “ordinary” reader, unfamiliar with poetry, getting a fair amount of pleasure out of it, yet the literary geek will find his or her rewards, too.

The style helps. Clegg has aimed for something which, in his phrase digests “raw and non-literary experience whilst still employing the devices of literary presentation”. He succeeds. The bulk of the poems strike one as fair representations of colloquial voice, tempered occasionally by a literary sophistication, without simply falling apart in conversational ad-hocery. He can achieve this by exerting very tight technical control over what he’s doing, with an adeptness sometimes concealed by the apparent lightness of touch.

Yet there’s a fair degree of variety in the poem, too, some of which might test our hypothetical ordinary reader, should he or she ever pick up Lost Between Stations. Clegg is very capable of compressing his meaning, and of running two or three senses together in a single phrase or image. He’s not averse to the occasional pun, to allusion, or to self-referential commentary. I thought the lines which concludes Fit the Fifth brilliant in this respect, for example:

I made my way home
Where my own Pen waited, slender and faithful.

“Pen” is, of course, Penelope awaiting her wanderer, the poet’s pen and, I think, a pen of containment or restriction. Much of the debate in the poem comes from the tension between stasis and change, between the odyssey (wandering around to end by “finding yourself”) and the stay-put, generalised to an account of identity and role, especially in relation to those one accidentally encounters, even in staying still. The security of home is limiting and defining. The risk of the wanderer is the loss of self in accommodating everyone else. Simply as an account of adolescent (self)discovery, the poem works very well in reporting the confusion that leads to emergent identity, but in grappling with issues of identity, conformity, finding a place (in the widest sense of "place") for the self, it goes well beyond reportage of remembered angst.

I think there are some moments in the poem where it’s perhaps a little banal and others where it’s maybe a tad self-conscious. But these don’t really spoil it. At worst, the reader might feel that there’s a small let-down into ordinariness, given that the poem as a whole is trying to make something more meaningful than the mundane events that gave rise to it. I guess we could see a parallel with Ulysses, in the attempt to replace one Everyman with a more contemporary one where the balance of the contemporary everyday and the literary reward don’t always quite gel. And, as with Bloom, Clegg’s protagonist never really leaves the confines of the familiar, even though that familiar can yield continual surprises. So the poems themselves represent this, simultaneously being (as in the last Fit) “10 by 10 cells” but at the same time discovering that such limits also hand back “my freedom, and my notebook”. For the poet, the limits of the ordinary world offer the same as any self-imposed limits of form, a means not of restriction but a means to expression, to release, to identity. Perhaps that identity only appears in “telling stories”, but stories may be true, or may be made up. Or, as here, they may be both.

NW