Alan Bilton reviews Julian Stannard

Heat Wave is published by Salt (2020)

Is there such a thing as sinister whimsy? An early poem in Julian Stannard’s latest collection Heat Wave finds our hero returning home on the Northern Line, a suitcase of marked exam papers at his heels. Without warning, a sudden jerk propels his luggage down the carriage and into the next coach along, accompanied by the cry of ‘Whoopsee’ from woman in the milk-white coat sitting opposite. Whoopsee? “Who nowadays, I thought, goes/around shouting Whoopsee?” A camp character from a nineteen-seventies sitcom? A nursery nurse picking up a drool-filled beaker? A care home attendant retrieving your knitting or checking you haven’t broken your hip? Whoopsee: it’s hard to imagine a word more banal, more infantilizing, more English. And it’s this refrain that pursues the poet as he races after his suitcase and all that marking, rolling, as in an anxiety dream, down the carriage, through the doors, and thence unto the very gates of Hell. There’s little dignity in slapstick; instead, it’s the pantomime cry of whoopsee – and aren’t pantomimes, the epitome of sinister whimsy? – that the poet hears as the fruits of his labour are consigned to the flames, embarrassing rather than tragic, foolish rather than ennobling, no-one’s choice of famous last words.

If the Italian setting of Stannard’s earlier poetry collections allowed his Englishman-abroad to rub shoulders with the marvellous, the Englishness of his new collection feels funnier, shabbier, and, if anything even stranger. Lanyard-wearing academics creep across corporate campuses, tele-marketers ask for the generic ‘Mr Standard’, the trolley-man cheerfully announces that he has sold out of that “lovely, lovely shortbread”. This is a (mostly) polite Hell, a genteel hell with grubby corners, but damnation right enough. Or maybe it’s not actually Hell, bur rather Shirley High Street? The poet imagines that “the end of Shirley High Street/was the drop of the world’s end”, complete with a corner shop selling parachutes by the zebra crossing. Alas, when our hero plunges into the abyss, he finds out he’s mistaken; rather than the edge of eternity, “Shirley High Street / became Coleridge Crescent.” What a disappointment! Instead of falling between the cracks of time and space, we remain trapped in suburbia. “I wish there had been a drop,” notes the poet, glumly, though one might also argue that suburbia is strange enough, a man with a birdcage on his head standing outside Cash Convertor, his nose turning into a beak, like something out of Otto Dix.

Indeed, if the constant shifting of registers between the banal and the fantastical, the trite and the profound, is the source of Stannard’s energetic wit, something even more disturbing happens when the two begin to blur into a seamless whole. Take, Stannard’s transformation into the English everyman of Mr Standard. Aside from the odd tart aside, Mr Standard responds to the most phantasmagorical of nightmares with unflappable civility, a gentleman surrounded by lunatics – except, of course, that Mr Standard might just turn out to be the strangest one among them all. In Heat Wave, Mr Standard’s very ordinariness becomes the source of his uncanny strangeness – rather like those bowler-hatted bourgeois of Magritte’s paintings, or Harold Lloyd clinging on to the outside of a skyscraper – Englishness framed as something inescapably odd (Brexit bubbles away in a pot throughout). Part of the joke is to cut and paste Mr Standard into scenarios wholly alien to him, from the patter of cold-calling corporations to the windowless campus of an American University – but the poet’s persona is also a striking comic creation in his own right, a little shabby, a little déclassé, boasting of his acquaintance with the disreputable poet “Charles Boyle in Shepherd’s Bush”, a patron of louche avant-garde gatherings, somehow mixed up with Glaswegian gangsters and hard-men, his silk dressing gown reeking of Eau Sauvage. Ultimately, the collection suggests, the ordinary and the surreal, rather than opposites as Breton and his chums suggested, might actually turn out to be inescapably the same thing.

Hidden away on one of Lou Reed’s longest concept albums, Magic and Loss, is a wonderful track called ‘Harry’s Circumcision’ or ‘Reverie Gone Astray’, and ‘Reverie Gone Astray’ is the perfect title for virtually any of the poems in the collection. Snooker at the crucible, the bus replacement route to Bournemouth, his mother’s ”snazzy” new vacuum cleaner: from such everyday material, Stannard’s poetry constructs its own burlesque entertainment, acting as club comic, magic act, and melancholy chanteuse, all rolled into one. Often the rhyme determines meaning, words unscrewing the commonplace and replacing it with something close to making sense, though not quite. Like late period John Ashbery, some of the poems play with irrelevance and irreverence, while David Bowie and Iggy Pop also make walk-on appearances, their mid-seventies lyrics an indissoluble knot of nonsense, madness and beauty. There’s bricolage here, but bricolage as a flavour of Waitrose sandwich (bricolage and goat’s cheese, please!), or perhaps something picked up at a dodgy petrol station, late at night. The shorter poems are the most quotable, but the long self-indulgent ones – the concept album fillers, such as ‘Dross’ inspired by the staggeringly awful 2009 Viking ‘Art’ film, Valhalla Rising, or an extended riff on Lord Lucan’s lost poetry – possess their own loosey-goosey charm (loosey-goosey? Who nowadays goes about saying loosey-goosey?), looping their way through gags, half-remembered song lyrics, and repeated motifs, until the jokes themselves take on a purgatorial feel, the sound that of prisoners banging on the pipes. Struggling to get off the phone from the decadent poet Charles Boyle from Shepherd’s Bush”, the poet first pretends that some one is knocking on his door, and then hears someone actually knocking on his door – the police, the gestapo, the NKVD. In Stannard’s world, innocent fancy can turn on a sixpence into something infinitely more menacing, the playfulness of ‘Sebastian the Golden Dog’ leading inexorably to the executioner’s block: “Look, they’ve given me a Chair. / Even as I speak / I’m standing on it / and tying something round my neck / which feels suspiciously like rope”.

This is a brilliant collection, endlessly rich, strange and funny, blessed with a unique voice that is both instantly unmistakable, and yet capable of boundless elasticity. Locked down on Brexit Island, Heat Wave is the most perfectly unreliable companion anyone could wish for.

Alan Bilton’s new novel, The End of the Yellow House, a somewhat surreal murder mystery set during the Russian Civil War, is published by Watermark Press in October. He is also the author of The Sleepwalkers’ Ball (2009), The Known and Unknown Sea (2014), Anywhere Out of the World (2016), as well as books on silent film, contemporary fiction, and the 1920s.

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