WE WERE PUNKS ONCE: GRAHAM FULTON’S ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF JIMMY DENISOVICH

Graham Fulton, One Day in the Life of Jimmy Denisovich (Middlesbrough, Smokestack, 2014)

by Calum Rodger

Half-way through Glasgow poet Graham Fulton’s latest collection, One Day in the Life of Jimmy Denisovich, there’s a poem entitled ‘We Were Punks Once… And Young’, opening:

everyone else has gone, but
the mad lights are still sparking
and the drums are still thumping
and Tommy,
Jim,
myself
are eighteen and bouncing
around the long dark dance floor
of the Silver Thread Hotel
in Paisley, it’s
only us left in 1977 everyone
else has gone home, but
we’ve still got electricity
to spare.

The poem is a record of that ‘Once’, of a time long gone and irretrievable. But that record contains the residue of the years that have elapsed in the meantime. While the memory remains palpable – it has “still got electricity” – its energy is suffused with melancholy and nostalgia. It is not just the ‘Once’, but the ‘We Were’; not just the buzz, but the hangover. What to do, then, years later, when “everyone else has gone”, and even our dancers have long left the floor?

Such is the dilemma to which Fulton’s collection attempts to respond. Our speaker may not be ‘Young’ anymore, but as the poem’s very existence testifies, he’s still a ‘Punk’. Those “lights are still sparking” and those “drums are still thumping”, only not at the ‘Silver Thread Hotel’ anymore, but in the speaker’s head. In this sense, his “electricity / to spare” is like that of a spare battery for an electrical appliance long since doomed to obsolescence. Or it would be, if it weren’t for the poem, in the voice and on the page. Later, the dancers’ ‘pogoing’ makes them feel “as if / it’s the first night of Earth”. By the poem’s close, it is

[…] as if
our sanity depends on it as if
the rest of the world
has gone
except for Tommy and Jim
and myself and the DJ, as if it’s
the last night of Earth.

In memory, it is both “first” and “last night”, the universe begun and ended. Only the poem remains to breathe life into this empty cosmos. Though “everyone else has gone”, it is still there: the insistent ‘but’.

The blurb describes the book as “a 1970’s double album about trying to keep calm in a random and accelerating universe,” a pithy description that captures the two time-zones in the collection, superimposed as poem layers upon poem. For every reminiscence of the “first” and “last night of Earth” there is an observational lyric of our “random and accelerating universe,” delivered in jagged free verse lines with a subtle but pointed – and often downright amusing – old punk’s gloss. ‘98% Water’, for example, deftly and delightfully articulates the sequence of events by which a “young dude” boy racer comes to look like “a right twat.” But it’s not all fun and games. In ‘The Face at the Window’, a similar event – glancing at a passing car – reveals “a thin cold face” that “stares out / and meets our eyes”:

gazing
               emptily
in our direction
                    but not quite
seeing our eyes
                    this sunken old face
of a non-grown up man
                           as if
there’s something
               malignant here,
                 something
beyond our world.

The speaker’s universe is not only “random and accelerating”; it is malignant too. The question thus becomes one of mere survival, of how to “keep calm”.

The first, perhaps even reflex, response is solipsism. What to do when faced with “something / beyond our world” but to draw the limits of the world in a way that keeps it comprehensible? This impulse is at work in the opening poem, ‘Traffic Lights Boy’, which describes a boy “obsessed / with traffic lights / the way they are / the way they look”. The empirical certainty of the patterning serves as a sharp and reliable contrast to the ‘random’ universe:

the joy in his brain
the source of everything
at the centre of something
the way it looks             the way it is,
the way that green changes
to amber
red,
something
to do. 

There is something of the “mad lights […] still sparking” here, and there’s “joy”, but it’s tempered by the fact that this is neither the ‘first’ nor ‘last night on Earth’; it is merely “something / to do”.

These limits are tested a couple of poems later in ‘Apollo 13’, the first poem of reminiscence in the collection. This time it’s 1996, and we find the speaker with “Steven and Mad Nad / and Tom Hanks and / Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon / pretending to be / Jim Lovell and / Fred Haise and Jack Swigert / in 1970”. Unlike the traffic lights, nothing is “the way it is”, as times and people intermingle with each other in the miasma of memory:

and Houston We Have a Problem
although it was actually Houston
We’ve Had a Problem that Jim Lovell

said or was it Mad Nad it’s hard
to remember
if anything

has really happened
at this moment in time,
if anything really existed before
this very moment, this very moment,
and
if I look away does anything
I can’t see continue to exist
in 2011

The poem here expresses a solipsistic line of questioning that is as old as thought itself, but made uncannily specific with that line “in 2011”. It is neither 1970 nor 1996 but now, a ‘random’, ‘accelerating’ and ‘malignant’ now. The line hints that it is not only age that prompts this line of questioning, but some kind of fatal, epochal disconnect between the past and present. It can be read too in the wonderfully titled ‘The Man Who Stares at Take That’, which begins with a man “at / the distant end / of the bar”, before describing “Robbie’s cheeky loveable grin / and cheeky loveable floppy hair”. Contrasting the ‘pretend rain’ of the pop video with the ‘real rain’ outside the bar, the man finally “sneezes, stares, / and goes outside forever”. Or perhaps not, because between the ‘pretend’ and the ‘real’ stands the barwoman who, at the poem’s close, “pumps him another, / sings along / with Relight My Fire.”

This brings us to the second response, alcoholic solidarity. Nowhere is this clearer than the morbidly comic poem ‘Dance of Death’:

At the end of October
the checkout girl
yawns. 

The woman behind me
is buying
a skull candle holder
a bag of nine skulls
a spooky skull window display
a skeleton in a cage
and
a red deluxe pitchfork.

I’m buying
a litre of gin.

The accoutrements of Hallowe’en – a “pretend” “Dance of Death” – make a gruesome contrast with the “gin” which, if reminder were needed, is a very real toxin. But this very reality harks back to the “last night of Earth” when, as that poem elsewhere describes, “lager and lime” were “churning inside”. Its certainty contrasts further with the speaker’s bemusement at the “bottle of real water” drunk by “something between / the boy and the man”, in the similarly titled ‘Dance of Hydration’. The speaker’s sympathies – and, one hopes, the reader’s too – are more with “the alcoholic with the thin wrists” of ‘Blue Bag’, whose careful and sly sips of vodka have a patterned grace closer to the “source of everything” we find in ‘Traffic Light Boy’. That said, the droll diction that characterises the poems mutes – and rightly, for an old solipsist punk – any sympathetic notes. The poems are rather an attempt to make sense of the spectacle of the absurd. In this context, their alcoholic solidarity is symptomatic of the necessity of “keep[ing] calm”, and moral judgement has – nor should have – anything to do with it.

Nevertheless, the poems give glimmers of something greater, if not hope as such. There is resilience, as in ‘The Optimist’ (“in the corner of / the bookie’s / doorway // trying to light his / fag in / the storm”). There is beauty (“and the sun is filling / the lift shaft with shine / in a most delightful way”). There is a great deal of humour, especially when these two worlds sidle up against each other – sometimes literally, as in ‘Batteries Included’, in which a ‘junkie’ does “a seductive / groin-thrusting dance” against a “vendor flogging / a purple novelty snake”. At the collection’s end, there are intimations too of an interconnected wholeness otherwise absent, whether it be the “random convergence / of ancient paths” leading to the “completion / of somewhere” in a walk around Lindisfarne Priory, or a sensation of domestic contentment, as in the last poem, ‘Helen Doing the Crossword in Bed’, in which “every thing / is being perfectly filled.”

Nevertheless, the collection gives an overriding sense of confounded and sardonically amused disengagement, simultaneously inhabiting two worlds which fail to align. In the title poem, ‘One Day in the Life of Jimmy Denisovich’, the protagonist is ejected from the establishment for “pouring Whyte and Mackay into / his Dostoyevsky memorial mug”. Outside,

[…] he stands
               for the next five minutes
sticking out his tongue
               and pressing his face
against the unbreakable
                    Vladimir Mayakovsky
glass.

This serves as a neat metaphor for the book as a whole: a Mayakovskian slap in the face of public taste abridged to an alcoholic stuck-out tongue on the streets of contemporary Glasgow. But what it lacks in youthful punch it makes up for in punk; indeed, its epochal disconnect is the very measure of its punkiness (after all, that disconnect was there even in 1977, when “everyone else has gone”). Such is the value and appeal of One Day in the Life of Jimmy Denisovich: not, as its blurb proclaims, to ‘keep calm’, but to remind us of the timeless belligerence of a stuck-out tongue, even in a time when the glass is unbreakable.

 

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