Terrific Melancholy by Roddy Lumsden
Such is the diversity, bawd and shimmer of the language on offer, it is hard to know where to start this review of Lumsden’s sixth collection since 1997’s critically acclaimed Yeah Yeah Yeah, and which carries the baton of good form onwards from 2009’s Third Wish Wasted.
In reality this book is a bumper annual of four pamphlet-sized collections in one: beginning with the reflective, wistful-yetmischievous mortality of the eleven poems that make up ‘From the Grave to the Cradle’ – with its juxtaposition of mundane and fabulous imagery (‘A localised history of dry precipitation’), raw metaphysical musing (‘Sakes’, ‘Yeast’, ‘Alsace’) and sheer wit ‘Bowdler in Heaven’, in which the eponymous hero has: “One hand lost in the mane of Aslan / the other fingering a virgin cocktail”. I was even able to overlook the looming anachronism (Bowdler having died seventyfive years before CS Lewis was even a dirty thought in his lawyer father’s mind).
This is followed by the main central sequence ‘Hair and Beauty’, dominated by the lengthy poem of the book’s title, which is one of the few good contemporary long poems that I have read of late. A verbal kaleidoscope in which lines and words fract and reflect,‘Terrific Melancholy’ is a work of great beauty and innovative formal consistency. Written from the perspective of a middleaged actor musing on his unrequited crush upon a younger colleague, Lumsden avoids the easy territory into which a lesser almostmiddle- aged poet might have strayed, and instead allows a delicate game of phrasal tennis to take place within the bounds of the court he has constructed. This delicacy nicely suits the uncertain certainty of the narrator’s predicament, and creates some beautiful encapsulations of the social boundaries of love and infatuation: “Desire has a coast /…/ I fancy black boats / sail your coast, crewed by sweet-smiled apes”.
The next segment, ‘Six Ripple Poems’ is an aquatic wave-propagation from Syd Barrett to Arthur Russel via Percy Shaw (this reference to the Yorkshire-born inventor of the Catseye belying Lumsden’s alter ego as a quiz composer and master of trivia.) ‘Six Ripple Poems’ makes much use of what Lumsden styles ‘fuzzy rhyme’ (e.g. Aprils/ pillars, slicker/slacker, colours/corals), a concept that is also much beloved of this here reviewer-poet (who himself christened it sqyme) and which perfectly suits the slant, tangential way-of-looking in this sequence.
The book ends with the slack-jawed poems of ‘Steady Grinding Blues’ – probably best described as Tom Waits getting drunk with Kenneth Koch and Paul Blackburn while listening to the bar band performing alt-country covers of Howlin’ Wolf songs. It is tempting to regard this US-set sequence as Lumsden’s own pause for reflection, in his mid-forties and the author of six well regarded books of poetry, yet still with a wanderlust in him. He touches on many familiar tropes of the blues, as in Freight Train Interlude, where stopped at a level crossing, he muses ‘and only I am having for the first time the old ‘shall I jump into one empty car’ thrill” then checking himself “the locals on Princes Street do not gawp up at the Castle; /…/ I am the man they think I am and I am the man I used to be.”
Once again, Lumsden proves himself a poet worth spending an evening with – and not “just for the dirty thrill of it” either.
Bloodaxe Books, rrp £8•95, 79pp