Graham Fulton, Circulation (Clochoderick Press, 2018)
By Morag McDowell-Smith
Graham Fulton has been a well known figure on the Scottish poetry scene for over thirty years, writing and performing poetry since the 1980s, when he joined the Paisley Writers’ Group run by Tom Leonard. His first collection was published in 1987 and he has produced several acclaimed collections since. His 2017 publication from Salmon poetry Equal Night, which charts the hospitalisation and death of his mother, took a new direction and has won critical praise, with one critic saying, ‘Graham Fulton’s poetry sequence carries the unmistakable truth of genuine necessary art’ (1). With Circulation, Fulton brings us back to the more familiar space-time continuum of Paisley and the urban West of Scotland; a man with a mobile phone clamped to his ear faces the pan-dimensional possibilities of hexagonal pound coins as they momentarily shake the foundations of his existence in Circulation; a trail of Digestive biscuits on Glasgow road takes us into a dark fairy tale which, it turns out, is the here and now for Paisley Grammar school students; a visit to the newsagents in ‘The Paper Shop’ ends with the perpetrator falling helplessly into an existential loop:
I know I went inside
but no one saw me come out
which seems to imply
I’m still inside
to circle around
the central greetings card display
Fulton himself has said “My poems are all about people. I am particularly interested in observations of real life, often beginning with a very small detail or incident and working outwards” (2), something that many poets would say, but what gives Fulton’s poetry its unique voice and flavour are the details, incidents and especially the people that he fixes upon. He writes about Star Trek addicts, grannies on the bus, a shrieking woman in Gabriel’s pub, a sign above a sandwich shop with a missing letter and the souls who roam the streets and buses of Paisley, heedless of the effect they are having on the world around them. The man on the bus in ‘Disqualified’ cries, “Yi jist ignored me / ah askt yi yir name / an yi jist ignored mi”.
Fulton frequently writes about people whose existence is mostly ignored or undervalued by the poetry establishment, an establishment who, one suspects, would probably be the audience behind the windows of the art gallery in ‘Rat is an Anagram of aRt’, taking pictures of, or letting their eyes slide politely past, what they see only as freakish, grotesque or pathetic. Fulton manages to not look away and sees with compassion and humour the inarticulate comedy and tragedy of the lives of people without social, cultural or financial capital. He also takes it to another level with an incredible free-wheeling imaginative freedom, a savouring of the sounds and rhythms of the West Coast Scottish urban vernacular and a real mastery of voice.
Fulton has said that in his work “the big and the small become one, and what seems insignificant can be transformed when isolated and magnified” (3). In ‘Counter Intelligence’, a passing moment of someone asking for a packet of cigarettes in a shop becomes frozen in time, looping again and again around the same phrases:
a packit of royals
a packit of royals
its doon there
its doon there
no that wan
it’s the next wan doon
Anyone who has spent time in urban West of Scotland will recognise that the voice is spot n here, however, the use of repetition is not just for comic effect – in playing with words and the absurdity of the situation, Fulton creates a subtle sense of people trapped by their circumstances, going round and round in the same inarticulate loop, elevating it almost into a tone poem.
He also uses that very inarticulacy to illuminate small moments in dispossessed lives. In ‘Refugees’, a contemplation of the inequality and general green bag stinkiness of life for some turns on the speaker’s unwitting misuse of words:
its even thi broon wan
fur the garden refuge
bit we dont huv
a broon wan anyway
wur no good enuff fir broon wans
Scotland has its own home-grown refugees and Fulton never forgets, voicing it with compassion, humour and lightness of touch.
The Fulton universe always goes far beyond Paisley, even if it starts and sometimes lands back there on its way from other places. In ‘Americans Git your Guns’, a familiar topic for poetic outrage and righteous anger is given new power through Fulton’s use of voice, tight structure and rhythm. By the end of this darkly funny and unflinching poem, with clever use of the language and phrasing of the American Constitution, he manages to say all that needs to be said about America’s relationship with guns without even a mention of a certain tiny handed individual. He takes on the poetic establishment too. In ‘The Mike and Eddie Show’, Eddie Linden, the “Scots-Irish-alcoholic-communist” poet rampages through a free verse poetry book fair in London “like an institutionalised tiger” referencing Eden and Elliot’s The Wasteland on the way, while Michael Horovitz becomes a time lord. In ‘PLOPP (Poetic Liberation of Paisley Party)’, we are back in Paisley again as you’ve never imagined it before, as a poetry Jihad takes over the town.
This is a very funny collection, but the humour is always there for a purpose, not just a quick laugh. For me some of the strongest poems are those where he moves beyond humour and a simplicity of language is combined with small glimpsed moments or simple observations that take on a timeless quality. In ‘Hunger’, the sleek beauty of Fulton’s fox becomes an ancient thing of elemental urges – food, procreation, survival. In ‘Virgin Snacks’, although we start with humorous observation of the tedium, dodgy food and fellow travellers on a Virgin Train, we spin off via Jane Asher and 1960s pop culture into “a cross of Saint George / in the yard of a farm”, until we are again moving through time and space again with:
a dark sarcasm
a dark star chasm
on the left horizon.
There are many gems in this multi-faceted collection – from the perfect tableau of a Scottish family photograph in ‘Rubbish Summer’ to tongue-in-cheek observational vignettes like ‘Speaking in Tongues’ or ‘Geography Lesson‘, or the translucent beauty of ‘Train Dream’ and ‘Green Summer‘.
Fulton has his roots firmly in the spoken word and performance tradition and this gives energy and vitality to his work. In many of the poems there is the sense of things spiralling away in a direction unexpected by the narrator or even the poet, though this is always controlled and undercut by discipline, dark humour and a sense of human smallness and absurdity. In ‘Walking in the Park Pretending I’m Blind’, a man has a visionary out-of-body experience, while all the time, mothers (no doubt Paisley mothers…) are “clutching their children”, saying “Look at that in the middle / of the day totally pished / it’s a bloody disgrace”. Sometimes the spiral comes to a sudden halt or turns in on itself and the voice of the poem finds itself in a moment of comic, bleak, truth: the voice in ‘The Paper Shop’ wonders if he is caught there as a punishment, “for all the things I’ve never done / all the things I’m never going / to do”. The speaker in ‘Everything you always wanted to know about Uruguay but were too afraid to ask’ ends with, “it’s such a long time since I was a boy”. In A Grand Canyon in Tomato Sauce, we go from opening a tin of beans to the creation of the Grand Canyon and the beginning of life on earth while all the time the poet stands at his kitchen sink, waiting for the surplus beans to fall out of the tin – waiting for Godot too, perhaps? The book ends with ‘This Train will Terminate’, where the found poetry of a bored train guard and the Doppler effect take us into and beyond the mundane moment; before we know it we are in something which has its’ own mysterious beauty.
Fulton said, ‘All my poems are about people. Mortality. I just get out there and walk and look and go to shops and go on buses and trains and let things sneak up on me’ (4). This collection sneaks up on you, takes you to places and people you thought mundane and reveals them anew through the unexpected richness and multiplicity of Fulton’s quirky gaze. While that gaze is unflinching, it still manages to revel in the inter-dimensional possibilities of numptyhood, the mind-bendingly small details of existence and the glorious absurdities of life in Paisley, Scotland and the universe beyond. In uncertain times, it’s reassuring to have the sanity of a voice like Fulton who is perhaps even now sitting on a long delayed train, chewing on a Virgin snack or Scotrail sandwich, knowing that this is only one possible world, smiling philosophically as he hurtles through the darkness.