Cheryl Follon, Santiago (Bloodaxe Books, 2017)

Review by A. C. Clarke.

‘I took my insomnia down the white-hot heat of a two-mile strip’: from the first sentence of the first poem in this beguiling collection you know you have been invited into a mind of unusual inventiveness and playfulness. Indeed, you may have to give yourself a bit of a rest from other poems after finishing this roller-coaster trip to ‘Santiago’, the poem which ends the book – they are bound to seem stodgy in comparison.

I refer to the individually titled pieces in the collection as ‘poems’ but they both defy categorisation and reveal its limitations. Defining a discrete text as a prose piece or a poem or a prose poem or even flash fiction satisfies our desire for neatness and may raise certain expectations in the reader, as well as providing ready-made criteria for a critic to assess it by. But such an approach may give little idea of the actual effect of the text. Cheryl Follon’s book is sui generis and should be judged on its own terms.

That said, ‘judgement’ seems too heavy-handed a word for the wonderful buoyancy and elasticity which hops from ‘Air Con’ to ‘Croissant’ via ‘Novels’ and ‘Canoeing’, sets ‘Airline Food’ (brilliantly – and accurately – described as “a kind of grey doily draped ever so lightly over the senses”) side-by-side with ‘Ear Canal’ (which includes the best, as well as the only, analysis of the smell of earwax I have ever read); which can spring such surprises as “The comma doesn’t need adrenaline” or “the water looked deep into our faces” (‘Comma’); which sees a Henry Moore sculpture as a meld of “Flattened potato – tits…” (‘Sculpture’); which is confident enough to write “I thought the Renaissance was something served with boiled potatoes” (‘Patience’). It’s not surprising that the poet herself says “It’s like my ideas give me vertigo” – although that could be the ‘Anxiety’ of the title speaking, such are the fluid interchanges of perspective in these poems.

Follon claims the idea for the book started with her search for “a book by some ancient Greek thinker – the name starting with an L or perhaps a C – called On Delight of the Nature of Things or maybe In Delight at the Nature of Things”. Such archness could be irritating in another writer – and one does suspect that she is as aware of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as she is of the true nature of the Renaissance – but she disarms by inviting us to be complicit in her own manifest delight at the oddity of the world, at her own oddity.

This is not to say that the book is a compendium of inconsequence and trivia: far from it. Underneath the gaiety and charm lie intimations of the alarming as well as the alluring. The opening of ‘Grasshopper’, “It’s an interesting thought that the first tank makers based their tanks around the grasshopper” looks like yet another random and unlikely fact thrown up by the restless curiosity which is so characteristic of the collection: but before the lightest of endings – “and the grasshopper kicked clear” – comes the heaviness of the “fat, ugly tracks” and their unspoken implications. ‘Fire’ – “put a rag on fire into a wasps’ nest and see what happens” includes the unnerving “Mr Half-Dead thought that black seething mass was the jam he was saving for Christmas”. The innocuous sounding ‘Paper Flowers’ opens with “just when the hash smokers are going out to shoplift Scotch eggs” and ends with “an endless cycle of births, deaths and marriages”.

‘Paper Flowers’ to me epitomises Follon’s formidably assured technique: first the title, which in pretty well every poem can be defined as a naming of things; then the quite unexpected opening – unexpected not only in its apparent disconnection from the title but in the extraordinarily agile imagination which links hash smokers and Scotch eggs without effort, so that the reader – this reader at any rate – want to exclaim “Yes, of course – Scotch eggs are exactly what hash smokers would shoplift!”; then the doubling back to paper flowers which have become, as so often in these poems, an active being: “paper flowers is making paper flower”’; finally the use of a trite phrase subtly altered by reversing the usual order, so that death precedes marriage – a featherlight intimation of the disquiet which runs through so many of these pieces and cumulatively leaves a “bittersweet” tang like the pudding “Uncle” makes in ‘Grimm Tales’.

Indeed, we are often in the realm of fairytale here, that world of magical transformations shadowed by witches and ogres. “In fifty years’ time” we are assured, a birthday cake will be “beamed from yours to mine” (‘Light’). Netball hoops become “two giant quivering ohms” (‘Netball’), a “sea anemone voice” pipes up “I knew I shouldn’t have worn this dress” (‘Sea Anemone’). And fairytale is explicitly referenced in ‘Istanbul’ where “the Blue Mosque with a handful of seagulls coasting over it at five a.m.” makes “the cats and flies and hair oil” of Istanbul “like something in a fairy story too”.

This general loosening of boundaries – which the very form of the collection enacts – allows readers to accept its juxtapositions without quibbling. Although at times two or three poems seem to be grouped by related themes (‘Forgetfulness’, ‘Sleep’; ‘Light, Rain, Fire’) I think that to look for a principle of organisation based on theme might be a wild goose chase. The nearest structural analogy I can think of is a fantasia in music, a free composition structured according to the composer’s fancy, varying in key and tempo but unified by a single (and in this case singular) imagination. Each poem (none is longer than a paragraph and some are a single sentence) isolates its topic as if to stress its uniqueness. A recurrent note is the sheer ebullience of things, their refusal to be cowed. “How come you’re sacred of turnstiles?” snow taunts, “Come on … let’s play football” (‘Snow’). Sugar only wants “to stay at home with my feet up and a nice cup of tea” (‘Sugar’), the poet’s ideas “have other ideas and say let’s get some hamburgers” (‘Anxiety’).

I hope that by now the wit as well as audacity of this collection should be evident, the sheer pleasure it offers. Perhaps a downside of its effervescence is that gulping it down too quickly might result in mental hiccups! The invitation to join the poet on the ride certainly allows a reader to skim through the one or two poems which don’t quite seem to justify their inclusion (for me ‘Croissant’, ‘Crème Caramel’, ‘Tree’ – though in this last poem the title casts a different light on the banal words). On the other hand, a number of seemingly simple poems need careful attention – the poet slips the knife in so smoothly you hardly notice: consider the undertones of ‘Pretzel’, the Darwinian insights of ‘Lion’, how deftly ‘Bluebeard’ skewers the deflation of an overheated expectation of horror – without seeming to do anything so significant.

Go through the book too fast and you’ll miss a lot. Don’t read it at all and you’ll miss a treat. As soon as you step inside its pages you’re in “a kind of surprise party” (‘Light’), albeit one where you may encounter such cautionary horrors as “the man in the bloody apron and the vats of scorpion fudge”. You will never look at the world in quite the same way again.