There’s a streak of latent melancholy and resignation to Julian Stannard’s collection, though the high note is radiantly light and whimsical. It’s as if children’s or teen’s verse is brought into a middle-class adult domain: much seems a kind of poetic doodling where everything is bubbly and on the surface, yet personal and frothy with significance. Much is unashamedly self-confessional and referential, often assuming the reader’s prior awareness of domestic arrangements, friends and acquaintances. The reader can feel (not necessarily unpleasantly) voyeuristic: that is, perhaps, one way the poems work. Some are dreamy reminiscences that, effectively, have no necessary endpoint. ‘Bar Degli Specchi’ is typical: “What I want now is a little Vivaldi / which is terribly infra dig in some quarters / but sitting here in the Bar of Mirrors / … drinking a pale version of Green tea / which is delicately fused with ceramic blue / a Vivaldi quick step might do the trick … this green-blue tea / which is holding up the sweetness of my tart.” The poem ends in suspension dots.
Variety is given with a surreal gloss on mundane details. Dawdling in a hammock you can see the sunrise’s “… crouching tiger / glittering from deep within the horizon’s schizophrenic eyeball”, in the attention-catchingly-entitled ‘Oh, Fuck It’. ‘The Blessing of the Octopus at Lerici’ declares, “…you won’t believe me when I tell / you about the octopus which climbed into the villa / and wrapped its tentacles around my liver and / hoisted it up as if it was a busted cuttlefish. / … and in case you’re worried that I’m feeling lonely / I’m going to talk about the enchanting Suki.” But he doesn’t, the poem ends there, and the joke is shared.
Some poems read as amusing little quips: ‘Oliver’ the dog is on the verge of being smoked by the nicotine-addict; others are block-notes so light they almost float off the page. Here’s ‘Riviera Blues’: “After she gone absolutely / mental in the Continental / I took Gloria to the Astoria.” The title of another, ‘Do You Have to Live in Paris to be a Flâneur?’ is almost as long as the poem: “I’m walking down Shirley High Street. / Could someone come and get me now?” Certainly Stannard’s world is full of eccentrics: ‘Miss Moon’ sticks her head into a bag, then a freezer, then into the sun itself; then there’s a Bridget who rides nude across the prairies and an Eileen forgetting the butter for a bacon sandwich and taking the next flight to Denmark where she milks a cow: all reminiscent of Roger McGough’s quirky adult-child world.
A skim-read of the collection can make it appear a cocktail of whimsy, a Billy Liar world where the poet indulges in largely inconsequential semi-autobiographical fantasies. There’s a touch of the garrulous nonchalance of the 60’s American Beats and a similar tendency to drift rather than move forward. True, the collection is essentially light verse, urban rambles dipped in serendipity, making one think of a more urbane, middle-class, surreal version of John Hegley, but there’s some surprising bite to the collection too. ‘Italia Nuda e Formicolante’ has the poet fantasizing a meeting with the outspoken social critic and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, viciously murdered in 1975: “I woke to find Pasolini stretched out on the bed: / his body glittering with light from the barracce [sic]. / When he said Italy was naked and swarming / he was taking a jewel out of the shit and they killed him.”
‘Ciao Capo’ treats in a direct and effective way the immigrant street-seller’s place in modern Italy. A social zero, he meets promenaders’ daily condescension and evasion: “Don’t ask me if they’re fake / and don’t say, Will you be here tomorrow? / because I might be dead tomorrow … / Try pulling out a shirt and holding it there / and try looking at a stiff white finger / which says non non like some crazy windscreen wiper. / …I tell you Mister time whizzes by! / Who gives a fuck about Fred Perry-Perry? / Just put your hands into your wallet / …or better still run to the bank machine / and get out every euro you can / then stuff them into my pockets”. Desperation, yes, but the (illegal-but-tolerated) immigrant is brutalized by the hypocrisy.
In this free-wheeling phantasmagoria there are poems where the drive of the poem is personal, felt experience with which the reader can immediately empathise. ‘Big Rain’ has a vision of the speaker’s brother being sluiced from the South China Sea to the Thames: “I saw my brother’s body from the Millennium Bridge / I saw him floating like a broken angel / I saw my brother re-gathered in the Thames.” ‘William’s Head’ beautifully describes the delivery of a son who as he is handled “will scar my fingers on the voltage / because a gift is a box of grief”. Other intimate poems touch on the childhood relationship with the speaker’s mother.
The really virtuoso poem of the collection, ripe for becoming an anthology piece, is ‘Sardines Hit Back’. Interestingly, the poet escapes his languorous flâneur narrator and creates a revolutionary sardine ready to use guerrilla warfare against marine enemies and finally taking flight to become the “avenging gangster of the crushed”: “I swam into the moonlight and exploded with mackerel visions / … the commissar black-tipped shark ate several thousand stragglers / but I knew our evolutionary leap would have its blood price.” The feisty fish had “plans for a stateless nation, we hapless Kurds of the sea / … so I created the Sardine Liberation Organization / and set the dolphin against the shark.” Here the poet utilizes the surreal with real thrust. At times, though, the verse seems limp and dilatory and the use of phantasmagoria comes over as a patch-on rather than a unified energy of composition. That said, the volume’s humour, delightful at its best, is a quality not to be sniffed at in our austere times.