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‘Small Havocs’, Matt Nicholson’s third collection of poetry, begins with a prayer: ‘Cerebellum (a secular prayer to the vacuum)’
‘Teach me to draw,
to poach eggs,
to bring a streak-free shine
to every mirror in the house.
Then teach me to swim,
bare, beneath the rush-hour bridge,
to dive down to the cloying riverbed
where all the discarded pistols lie.
And, if there is time,
on any given Sunday,
teach me to be emancipated,
to be satisfied,
like Einstein in a garden shed.’
Can we categorize this as a classic example of thesis/antithesis/synthesis? Certainly, streak-free shines and discarded pistols belong to different poetic registers, and satisfaction is devoutly to be hoped for, even within the narrow confines of a garden shed. This duality, call it between the comfortable and the grim, or the calm and the wild, is a hallmark of this volume. The title itself is an example of this: there are havocs, but they are small. The title poem, which is about a couple watching a thunderstorm, ends on a similar mixed note:
‘And we recover, for just a moment,
with your hand found in mine,
your eyes reflecting trees
the shape of Himmler in the storm.
The Richter of thunder untangles stomachs,
the afterthought of anger drowned in the rain.’
Any poem that invokes Himmler (or for that matter the Richter Scale) cannot be called entirely comfortable or calm, but there are hands being held and anger being drowned: domestic strife being undone by nature’s violence.
A hint of where this duality comes from can be found in the poem ‘Bukowski’:
‘Sometimes we’re not fit to read
the pages where his spittle dries,
in case we crease and grease
with our clumsy thumbs,
our easy skin,
left over from our time
in the swamp,
or the crumbs
of our all-butter biscuits.’
Charles Bukowski is a potent force to invoke, especially for someone eating all-butter biscuits. But this is perhaps the point: we (authors) may aim to write poems immediate enough that readers can still see the wet spittle, but equally we (readers) may be too soft to read them. Nicholson’s poems do more than occasionally rub up against the Bukowskiesque, generally to great effect, but with perhaps a greater sense of intimacy. Consider the ending of the poem ‘Ink’, a poem about a young couple out on the town:
‘Never tell me your name,
he said, outside the tattoo parlour.
Never ask me,
she said, jumping into his arms.
If we ever get to sleep tonight,
will you hold me till the morning?
Her fingers pressed against his skin,
she breathes in his blow-back smoke.’
(At the time tine of this writing, there is a video of Nicholson reading ‘Ink’ available on YouTube: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zciVwucwLT4&t=3s>. Well worth checking out.) Other poems in this category would have to include ‘Hashtag’ and ‘Guidance’, albeit not solely because of the f-bombs in them (although describing a designer dog as a ‘labra-fucking-doodle’ in ‘Guidance’ is a moment to be treasured).
Of course, Nicholson’s Northern English grittiness is not Bukowski’s Los Angeles grittiness. It is instead a matter of silted estuaries, vegetables stolen from allotments, overgrown gardens and dubious pubs, daily counted-out pills, ‘steam rising from the eyes of the children and the old./A steam that stings and stinks like sulphur’ (‘Kettle’), mud and muck (or ‘clart’, a wonderfully useful word that Nicholson deploys in both its noun and verb forms). So, what is a poet to do with this material? In ‘Relentless determinism’, Nicholson answers:
‘All I can do is post these words on rented billboards
in dark alleyways, paste them to the windows
of bungalows in cul-de-sacs,
where no blue plaque will commemorate
the havoc in my heart.’
Instead of posting and pasting words here and there, Nicholson has assembled them and Yaffle Press has published them. It may not be a blue plaque, but it is worth something.
64 poems, all one page or less, may not seem like much, but with poetry intensity and quality matter more than quantity. And this collection delivers. Dipping into it at random (having read it straight through a couple of times), I find myself constantly surprised by vivid images and turns of phrase. There is something here of a Midwestern American reacting to a Northern English poet: ‘Small Havocs’ is pleasantly strange to me. In ‘Airwaves,’ an early poem in the collection, Nicholson writes of tuning in the radio to ‘hear a voice, unconnected to my world’. That voice from a distant world is something to be eagerly sought after, and I, for one, have found it here.
Stephen A Allen
Stephen A. Allen lives in southwest Michigan, where he works as a bookseller. He has a degree in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. His poetry has appeared most recently in Notre Dame Review and Northern New England Review.