REFRAMING HOPE AND DOUBT: RODDY LUMSDEN’S ‘NOT ALL HONEY’
Roddy Lumsden, Not All Honey (Bloodaxe, 2014)
By Laurie Donaldson
This new collection by the ever-inventive Roddy Lumsden, published by Bloodaxe Books, is a beautiful fusion of insights about personal experience in thought-provoking language and style that is ideal for expressing the commonplace truths that are pivotal to his work. From his introductory poem, ‘Farewell to Bread’, as in pieces throughout Not All Honey, fragments of experience gradually reveal themselves as part of the overall meaning of each poem, offering clues to existence (“I was a cypher in my own petty system of abandon”; “I was fond of my own blood, its cameo appearances”). From this taster on the personal, the book leads into a series of poems that revolve around the twin themes of hope and doubt. We start with hope, and the death of a great grandfather, where the “I” of the writer is first shown to be sacred (the personal pronoun tends to appear early in many of these poems). Speaking directly to us, Lumsden uses the personal and the possessive to provide evidence of life’s struggle, that the contrast between hope and doubt can only be particular to the individual, how the narrative of each person’s life must be sacred to them.
Lumsden, a working class Scot from St Andrews, now living in London, has written collections such as Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (1997, shortlisted for the Forward and Saltire prizes), Roddy Lumsden is Dead (2003) and Terrific Melancholy (2011). He also continues to edit poetry collections and teach poetry. His is an inventive approach: aside from the creative and imaginative use of words that imbues his work, he has developed new poetic forms. In one section of this collection, ‘The Bells of Hope’, his new kernel poems – presenting one dimeter line and three equal, longer lines – are perfectly suited to this splintered style. The kernel is the truth, ideas and images he is trying to convey, mixed with a dash of metaphor as in ‘The Kismet’:
The Voice of God?
That sprat pulled from the south sea of thought. It may as well be
mine. Dahmer was God to his pounces. And me, so gamely douce,
as much a God to all I name, gesturing through the windowglass.
Kernel pieces such as in ‘The Bells of Hope’ section are a new form of poetry that help indicate a range of events, feelings or desires. We are told they were written during a year when he was living alone, and helped to chart the change he was undergoing. The 51 verses appear at first read to be flimsy, seemingly insubstantial morsels, but singly, and in sum, are worth a thorough chew, offering more on each read. In conjunction, they can be a range of signifiers, dependent on the reader. As abstract art is to a classic landscape, these four lines are something between an ideas generator and homilies for how we live today. They have a rhythm and beat that might identify each as bells of hope. The stanzas are titled in alphabetical order (‘The Autist’, The Brunt’, etc, up to ‘Z’ and back again), but are modern verses very unlike Edward Lear’s nonsense alphabet in tone, although with a similar enjoyment of wordplay and use of language. They reminded me of the much-missed Reverend John Galbraith Graham, who as Araucaria developed the joyous jigsaw-style cryptic crossword where every letter/word can only be fitted in the correct place.
Lumsden also invented the sevenling, which has two sets of three line verses, finishing with a summary line that closes the poem off, and the hebdomad, based on nine tercets that draw together separate details and thoughts over a certain time period, the conjunction of which is helped by the coincidences and serendipity of everyday life. These innovations liven up the structures of traditional poetic form; Lumsden has said he tries to be as spontaneous as possible, and he obviously doesn’t mind changing his style depending on subject. This approach recurs in the ‘Reductions’ section: 18 poems of three lines and five verses, with titles that make the included glossary most useful; Lumsden is an experienced puzzle and quizmaster, and many of the words seem like a crossword setter’s dream. These short and well-constructed poems can be dipped into as small chunks of meaning, humour, learning and ideas.
Someone who obviously revels in uncommon words can easily make such expressions the whole point, and that could shut the reader out, bore them with needing to constantly refer to a dictionary. However, Lumsden never does that, not relying on the sesquipedalian but using arcane words to help shed new light on ourselves and our motives. The glossary does add a useful layer to some of his linguistic extremes, although checking there for explanation and not finding a word makes you feel guilty for not knowing its meaning. In poems such as ‘To James Brookes at 25’, he trawls another key theme: calling upon our differences, what we can make from (finishing with the line: “a stranger noticed a scuff of yellow in the pearl, another the quiet pink of it”), while in ‘For Charlotte’, the title character is given permission, as if it was needed, to run. It shows the possibilities that lie ahead for the young, and the need to be creative once independence has been gained: “Maybe some pitchy day you will need to run, and I’ll be elsewhere.” This ensures we are rooted in the human, our frailties, but also that opportunity remains:
Some days, all the tech
dries us. And we are wet things, all that dummy blood.
Run then? Not to tempts us.
Such a range could be daunting, but the poetry here is so closely strained through experience that it is able to move easily towards the universal. For instance, in ‘Epithalamion,’ written to celebrate and bless a marriage – although I am not sure if it was sung by a chorus of children as in the original Greek – Lumsden focuses on mutability while exploring the immense (“the sea fails to make an impression on itself, of itself”) and then reducing to the personal to envisage the future for the newly weds (“blithe concord”). As also explored in ‘Self, Rising’: “Some moments are best not spent thinking big.” This impels the reader to accept the importance of minutiae and its hold on our day. At the same time, this notion evolves as we realise that although the poem is about our smallness and the triviality of our world, “bigness” is also important, that “islands turn slow on their igneous masts.”
‘On First Meeting Margot’ seems more traditional, no obfuscations or puzzles, a love letter to a child, an introduction to a life, a canny reimagining. The Margot of the title is, of course, not interested in his words, but rather “having a busy day.” Lines like “Your shy smile is the best of it” and “that was a blessing to meet you” speak of the smitten, a knowledge that this child, as with all children, will first dazzle and then overtake us.
The running order is deliberate, with pairings of like-minded poems helping to produce a flow: ‘On First Meeting Margot’ is preceded by ‘For Charlotte’. A love song in the form of a sea battle (‘Naumachia’) where “my head stutters yes” precedes ‘Nomicon’, which indulges travel and its opportunities:
Yet we are a sea folk, girl,
that tide will run for us and we will run
The next pairing begins with ‘In Myokymia / Carrie Fisher’, where humour comes to the surface in beautifully wrought lines that bewail never meeting the Star Wars heroine despite some near misses. With lines such as “I fear we might small talk”, Lumsden remembers a previous love affair that foundered: “Luck unlocks us, / and steals our stuff. I have long done with luck.”
Each poem is suffused with ideas. It feels good to read contemporary poetry that speaks of the everyday, not using mundane as a foothold, but rather as a comparative to trigger an understanding of the insights available to us. This seems to help us realise what poetry is actually about, why we read it and how it relates to us. In ‘Fear of Ice Cream’, which uses the context of an afternoon at the seaside to encapsulate both hope and doubt, we hear: “I’m speaking here to you / lost love, of the sea and of purpose.” An unusual turn of phrase and idiom also often helps the verse to flourish, such as in ‘Halfway Through the Year of the Rabbit’ – “My thoughts are only / the rick-rack things guests leave in a bothy.”
Of course, the twin themes of hope and doubt often evoke love, however fleeting. ‘A Small Photograph of the World Changing’ speaks of the importance of genuine feeling, eloquently offering love while berating the world for its increasing glibness. Lumsden describes the dangers of the artificial and bland. He talks of the time “Long before I forgave you, which can never happen / long before I loved you easy, which I never did.” In longer pieces, such as ‘Bella’, he allows himself more room to dice ideas, package his thoughts in concepts and unique language tracing the path of love, details that become sign-makers for lasting togetherness:
On Creek Road, where your parents live,
a lively winter crimping spring, winter
dragging its chains, spring bringing itches.
This lyricism demands to be read aloud – try reading it to yourself and then out loud, and see the difference. The latter brings it to life, unmasking cadences that allow the poetry to feel fresh and about each of us, revolving around reminiscences made tragic, heartfelt conjurings of an affair written in tones of regret and beauty.
Many of the poems also require many reads, providing further insight into its meaning, and more pleasure as to its wordplay and inventiveness, and show them to be more ludic than febrile. For instance, in ‘Fear of Lions’, it becomes clear that lions are being used to bring meaning to lost opportunity, or chance that may never come. Here we again meet hope, which recurs in the following poem ‘Fantigue’ (“checking the dubby sky for hope”). The poet’s love for words and their usage especially comes to the fore in ‘Solutomaattimittaamotulos’, which he describes as a Finnish word for “the result of a measurement in a tomato laboratory,” and believed to be the world’s longest palindrome. In ‘Jambhala’s Mongoose’, Lumsden evokes the spirit of a Buddhist deity, studding the poem with synonyms for the sacred symbol of the swastika, which is associated with the deity, as another depiction of our inability to maintain what is dear to us, that time runs away and makes what is most important to us, transitory.
Other, more observational poems, such as ‘Unknown Pleasures’, triggered by watching young people on the train, attempt to get to the nub. As in so much of his work, the connection of words, phrases or ideas produces engaging themes that open up paths of thought and leave us to re-play the words and offer possibilities that mean something to us. Inherent in all this is a musicality, reinforcing Lumsden’s belief that poetry should be read aloud (this reflects his interest in music, as he has previously co-authored a book on poetry and pop music, and also worked with the group The Divine Comedy). On doing this, more pleasure can be derived from each as the structure and interconnections become more obvious.
Lumsden is not overtly political, preferring a combination of social folklore and experience, offering up poetry that is a marriage of music and language that becomes a spoken art form. He once said that his early poetry was overly sentimental, and that he has been over-compensating ever since. He has obviously achieved this aim here – his personal poetry may occasionally veer towards the forlorn, but it resolutely lacks self-pity or introspection, and is effulgent enough to provide much-needed clarity about ourselves.
In reading through this excellent collection, I kept coming back to ‘Self, Rising’, as it seems central to what Lumsden is trying to do. The ingredients of our life in the mixing bowl, a combination of ever-changing parts that make up the whole, a cake, a day, a life, infused with both hope and doubt. All the influences and inputs, both aware and unaware, are integral to the totality. One can’t help but notice again that his work on puzzles has informed his poetry. This is especially the case in the kernel poems, which make the reader wonder from the outset where they are going, if it will be a place you’ll recognise, or even like, before being overcome by a ripe, beautifully structured phrase that glows over the rest of the verse. They are puzzles, internal clues to sense, a meaning that has to be worked for, and which again is personal, with the titles cleverly reverberating the insight of each. Solving, or at least gaining an understanding of each, provides the reader with much pleasure.