Martina Evans’ latest collection, Burnfort, Las Vegas, is a masterwork of practiced ease. The poems speak in a highly individual voice reminiscent of an eloquent, intelligent drunk – the kind who corners you delightfully after a wedding, telling you family secrets (some light, some dark) peppered with pop-culture references. This kind of blarney-kissed ease does not come easily, despite the myths lesser writers would like to believe. It’s more like Joyce’s flowing stream-of-consciousness; easy to read, but hell to construct, and the resulting beauty should not be dismissed.
The poems are a mixture of dense prose-poems and longer, slightly-tangled word-spools. The unifying thread is character. Evans has a knack for capturing the greasy essence of her subjects in a few deft lines. The prose-poem ‘Daddy and Mae West’ describes her older, eccentric father in a way that feels so true to life that you might as well have leaned in and gotten a whiff of his (probably pungent) armpits:
You were old enough to
be my grandfather and that wasn’t always easy when you
were referred to as such and the truth is you didn’t
believe in washing much maybe you were saving water
for you were as pathologically tight as a concentration
camp survivor, knotted laces, rusty nails, Old Moore’s
Almanacs, the salvage fashion was waiting for you.
Evans specializes in long, chatty sentences addressed to her subjects; spiels designed to mimic the music of human speech, idealized, without the um’s and ah’s that crack the surface of everyday dialogue.
While a lot of her speech is grounded in descriptions of the visible world, one gets the feeling that these poems are meant to bind the universe together into something manageable, for fear of what might be waiting underneath, as in ‘Dead Souls’, whose speaker says:
I pull the Black-
watch tartan rug closer,
sip strong hot black coffee
sink into a soft white banana
and peanut butter sandwich.
These detailed (sparsely punctuated) descriptions draw you to the things of this world, but occasionally, these solid banalities slip and something awful comes seeping out from the space between the seams:
Last night, a smiling corpse entered
my dream and hugged me.
I didn’t like it at all.
Let the dead smile at themselves.
Though, most often, the universe’s terrible undergrowth is carefully reburied beneath the furze of the earth just as soon as it is revealed. The ghost in ‘Ghost Story’ turns out to be ‘merely’ the spectre of maddened grief. A ‘rational’ father explains to his children that the banshee they hear shrieking after the death of a neighbour has a definite, earth-bound explanation:
Sure, that was only the old dog, gone demented on her
bed, turning round and round on top of the sheets and
of course, they had to shoot him too, after.
It’s clear that the most noticeable influences on Evans’ work are James Joyce and Frank O’Hara, but one can see contemporary echoes too. Her deft, down-to-earth diction reminds me of the work of David Cooke, and I can hear a little William Bedford whispering in the margins.
It is interesting how closely creating an audible voice, a voice based on sound and accent (rather than the flash of image) can be linked to character, but this doesn’t mean that Evans deals only in sound. ‘The Game’ paints a portrait of a ‘horrible’ school-master. In it, Evans uses visual description to depict an old man’s childish joy in inflicting a very precise cruelty:
His excitement. The sight of him bent over,
his brown trousers stretched tight through the slit
in his hound’s-tooth jacket. Grunting. The children
in front of him dodging back and forth.
Him panting, laughing, waving the whippy ash-stick
aiming straight for the tips of their pink-skinned fingers.
The whole of his character is made evident through his action.
One of Evans’ real gifts is her refusal to dismiss anything as absolute trash. Seedy characters show worth as monsters, or lovers, gossip is elevated to myth, and even Lisa Simpson and VC Andrews are secured as cultural monuments. The value, and the power, of the overlooked everyday are displayed in this book. I hope her readership is wide; God knows she deserves it.