Carl Griffin reviews Misadventure – an award-winning poetry collection from Richard Meier.
We are not nearly ready enough, for relationships, breaks in routine, for creation itself. Sometimes we notice this stuttering and there arrives hesitancy and confusion. And Richard Meier writes about this. Sometimes it doesn’t register at all, the destruction and self-destruction happening minutely all around us. And Richard Meier writes about this too.
The turning, the surprise or realisation, isn’t always a nasty shock. In ‘Winter morning’, the opening poem of Meier’s debut collection, Misadventure, travellers on a platform are shone upon by an unexpected dose of sunlight. Dressed in coats, unprepared, the travellers are patchily coloured-in by striated light on what should be a dank start to a dank day, as grey as their coats, the tears of light getting closer to ‘completeness,/all her darkness light at the one time.’ The minute we are in shade, we are unprepared for the shining.
Richard Meier, born in Surrey in 1970, won the inaugural Picador Poetry Prize in 2010 with Misadventure. Don Paterson, poet and editor of the Picador poetry imprint, joined on the judging panel by John Stammers and Jackie Kay, said it was ‘Richard Meier’s quiet strangeness, the uncanny precision of his ear, and the tenderness and clarity of his address that made us want to read his poems again and again; and each time we returned to them we found there was more to discover, more to be moved by.’
The winter coats return at the closing of the collection in the humourous ‘Please collect all winter coats’ (from a notice in the local dry-cleaners’ window), where the winter coats, left in the dry-cleaners through the summer, have been waiting, finally about to be picked up again and put to good use. The poem doesn’t stoop to symbolism in a detectable guise and seems to be present in the collection purely for entertainment’s sake (function accomplished), but connected with ‘Winter morning’, the short and sweet poem hands the reader plenty of rope.
With the tools we need to get along in life usually left on the backburner, we are constantly unprepared for a heck of a lot, melting, like the people on the platform in their winter coats, at births, break-ups, bereavement.
What happens when the reverse occurs, when instead of darkness turning unexpectedly to light, light turns unexpectedly to darkness? In ‘For a bridge suicide’, the idea manifests in more ways than one:
From four, six, eight feet, maybe even ten,
water’s a giving, all-embracing thing.
Above that, it begins to darken, starts
to slap, to harden, till by fifty or sixty
limbs get broken.
In December, 2010, on the roof of a Swansea multi-storey car park, a man in his sixties stood for seven hours threatening to jump. Police at the scene came up with the inventive idea of hiring a bouncy castle. The inflatable structure was set up, complete with dragons on the side, in case the man, 50ft above, should fall. The roof being wider than the bouncy castle by a country mile, you have to question the logic of the police. This is what attempts at suicide made by others does to us, replacing our logic with delusional assumptions and impratical solutions. But no one is more flummoxed than the person on the roof, the bridge, looking down not just at concrete, a crowd, water turned dark, but the end, a possible catastrophic afterlife or a possible nothingness. The elderly man was eventually persuaded, but how many desperate people irreversibly find themselves at:
a point at which the whole of the earth’s surface
is uniformly unforgiving. As
she neared the top of the bridge’s central stanchion
this was a point she recognised. And let go
So the collection goes from light to dark in just a few pages, then the poet goes backwards, as if offering an alternative life, a justification to hang on in there and keep going. In ‘Sky sports’, the gods watch us foisting our emotions on each other: ‘Imagine paint-ball but with shame,/or envy, rather than emulsion:’. In ‘Early learning’, there is an observation of a close family lovingly playing chase. The poet finds his own solace in the garden. Many of the poems in Misadventure are set in the garden, sometimes accompanied by unspecified birds, sometimes with a not-so-happy ending. What can happen in the time between the installing of a bird feeder and the noticeable dropping of its seed level is enough to break the heart.
But there is much joy to be found in these gardens. We find it in ‘A hopeless gardener thanks his wife’, where a gardener dwelling on the obvious differences between the garden he’s been working hardily on and ‘the riot on the packet’ is consoled by his loved one, a masterful poem despite the unforgiveable contraction ‘passionflower’ll’, and ‘To a new teacher’, where this time a husband encourages his wife. The female gardener is described here as ‘leaving Limbo’. We all have to do this from time to time. In darkness, limbo is difficult to distinguish.
In ‘That we might have a garden’, we come face to face with evidence of the great discoveries to be found in gardens. This time, the great discovery is physical:
It was late, almost too late, by the time
I knelt to part the gravel with my hands
and peered at what lay underneath. Look!
I called, as you searched for the rubble sacks,
the shovel, and we stared at it, this substance
rich as anything, a dark, brown butter.
And here there is a return of light. Is this a movement from light to dark to light, a new light, or is it just a story told backwards, the end only told at the beginning so the reader is not disheartened when finishing the book? To Meier, anyway, the light lasts longer:
and stood there in the gold light of the kitchen,
silent with responsibility,
looking at a new earth.
Misadventure is as variegated as every act of adventure and misadventre alike ought to be, and, despite the odd moments of darkness, is fat with light. Even the fingers of an unborn baby, on a screen, become ten ‘of the tiniest light-bulbs/ever manufactured, on.’
In ‘Da capo’ (in Music, repeated from the beginning), Meier is left stunned:
how sometimes there’s just so much light,
and how it is I never learn.
The question might be raised: Why was the talented Richard Meier only discovered through a Poetry prize? Whatever the answer, the competition, on this occasion, was clearly a success.