Thursday, 29 December 2011

Lovely Chaos – Neptune Blue by Simon Barraclough

Title: Neptune Blue
Author: Simon Barraclough
Paperback: 63 pages
Publisher: Salt Publishing, (15 July 2011)
ISBN-10: 184471764X
ISBN-13: 978-1844717644

Simon Barraclough’s debut poetry collection, Los Alamos Mon Amour, was published in 2008 to great critical acclaim, including being shortlisted for a Forward Prize. 2011 saw the publication of the proverbial ‘difficult second album’ (if we consider 2010’s Bonjour Tetris an EP or boxed-set of singles) and the good news is that Neptune Blue is as good, if not better, than its predecessor.

Neptune Blue is a more coherent and mature book filled—quite literally—with heart. Yes, there are still those playful and allusive references to cultural artefacts we have come to expect. Nevertheless, it is underscored with a tenderness and generosity of spirit that some may have felt lacking in Los Alamos. The collection is held together by two sequences that form, in Barraclough’s own words, ‘a kind of helix, or ‘twin backbone.’’ These sequences consist of nine planet poems and eleven ‘heart’ poems. These form the double helix DNA of the collection and adequately demonstrate everything that makes Barraclough worth reading: intelligent, playful, colloquial, humorous, cheeky, allusive, and truly heartfelt. Here is ‘Neptune’:

You’re so                                                  blue
you probably think that Jarman’s Blue
is about you.

You’re the source of all blue,
of Edwin Morgan’s ‘Little Blue Blue’,

bluemungous, ur-blue.
Earth blue held up to you
is muck ball brown and grass stain green,

our oceans but a drop,
a dust of moth,
a mote of you.

Neptune, god of the blue sea via Carly Simon, Derek Jarman, Edwin Morgan a ‘mucky’ earth and back again. It is a strange celebratory poem, linguistically playful (‘inexhaustiblue’ ‘bluemungous’) yet equally valedictory and sad, a distant blue planet that gives you the blues. It is expressed in the inherent gap of the you/blue rhyme, the allusion to Jarman’s last film before succumbing to AIDS-related complications, and our own ‘blue planet’ rendered ‘muck ball brown’ and moth eaten. That phrase ‘muck ball brown’ harks to the poet’s northern roots and signifies for me one of Barraclough’s great strengths, his ability to speak of the allusive, the elusive and the astronomical without resorting to exorbitant language; it’s the modulation between the poetic and quotidian that brings the ethereal back down to earth.

One of the great tensions in this collection is that between the postmodern and the romantic. Barraclough’s is a world made up of cliché and the Hollywoodised simulacrum of experience but he does not give in to the irremediably ironic or amorally relativistic. He demonstrates a humanistic point of view in a world that can all-too-easily seem manipulated, manufactured and alienating. In fact, it is this tension that animates Barraclough’s distinctive voice and creates on the page poetry that is ultimately winningly joyful; a lovely chaos of tensions that makes us, as he says in the title of one poem—echoing MacNiece—‘Incorrigibly Plural’.

This exploration of the world by exposing the gaps between illusion and reality elicit what, in my mind, are two of the finest poems in the collection: ‘We’ll Always Have CGI Paris’ and ‘Zabriskie Point’. Both take films and film-making as their subject (an important touchstone throughout Barraclough’s oeuvre) and become the vehicles to investigate the nature of art, love, sincerity and critical reception.

‘We’ll Always Have CGI Paris’ is almost an exposé of the way Barraclough’s own poetry works. It zooms in from a distant viewpoint (‘dolly zoom / through Doppler shifting stars’) to two lovers ‘kissing in the festive, fireworky air’. But, as we often find in Barraclough’s work ‘love’ is a complicated presence and absence:

But we were never there. My sitcom kept me
in LA, your slasher movie debut
saw you junketing in hotel rooms out east.
We shot green screen on different days…

What the viewer will ultimately see, then, is an illusion of lovers (and love), manipulated by technology and the scraps (quotations) from other films (‘our foggy breath was lifted from Titanic’). It reminds us of Barthes’ notion of literature in ‘Death of the Author’ as an endless tissue of quotations where even the phrase ‘I love you’ is merely a cliché lifted from the storehouse of language. Yet despite the fact that we are exposed to the artistic ‘lie’ or Baudrillard-like simulacrum of reality (Paris waited / to be pixellated, cut and pasted) Barraclough shifts the tenor of the poem’s ending to a kind of mock-gothic romanticism inhabited by the ghostly shadow of love:

But we’ll always have Paris,
although our eye lines never matched
and everything we tried to hold onto
our phantom fingers passed clean through.

The world may well be insubstantial but it is in our nature to hold onto something even if that something cannot be truly grasped.

‘Zabriskie Point’ is based on the Italian director, Antonioni’s great US-made box-office flop. It concerns the reception of the two amateur, non-actor, leads:

The couple, beautiful and blank, will sweat beneath the TV lights;
piñatas for the practiced brickbats of syndicated chat
and sniffy critics damning them for not convincing as themselves.

Through critical eyes, it is as if art demands that one cannot simply ‘be oneself’; that we can only be convincing by acting to be oneself. It is a paradox, then, that reality is only convincing or authentic through pretence. Again, we are faced with that Baudrillardian ‘hyperreality’ in which the simulacrum is no mere copy but reality itself. But Barraclough doesn’t let it hang there, the negative critical reception of the film and the actors in particular may have had a more ‘real’, lasting effect on its all-too-human protagonists. In particular the troubled Mark Frechette who died under suspicious circumstances at the age of 27:

And even after forty years the online commentators sneer and revel
in the early death of Mark Frechette who walked off set to meet
the double of his unknown self and stepped into its silhouette.

And here is the heart of the matter—representative of the collection as a whole—that however much we theorize about the allusive postmodern condition and the ‘reality of reality’ or the difficulties of the quantum state of nature and the vastness of the universe, at the centre of it all stands the fragile, inquisitive, playful, loving, corporeal human being. Neptune Blue is a dazzlingly inventive collection and a worthy successor to Barraclough’s critically acclaimed first collection. It is a book with a tongue in its cheek, its head way above the clouds and its feet firmly on that ‘blue-green baubled gobsmacker’ we call earth.

© Andy Boobier 2011

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