This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 18/06/14
Michael Pedersen’s aptly titled Play With Me is full of the writerly joy of playing with words, a delight in their sound and appearance as much as their meaning. Pedersen is drawn time and again to alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, rhymes and half‐rhymes, as if he is making patterns as much as poems; but his particular skill lies in combining this richly textured word‐play with his powers of storytelling.
‘Colmar’ begins as a straightforward narrative about a school French exchange. It is a self‐effacing poem which mocks the speaker’s past pretentiousness and the faux‐pas of his thirteen‐year‐old self. There are some lovely, whimsical similes here—’linked / together like salted pretzels’—and the long lines and enjambment give the poem a flowing, narrative feel. It’s a comical piece, but at its end the poem makes a serious point about first love and poetry alike:
|[…] a poem is like a bomb,
a bomb like a poem; assembled correctly, both
explode, they don’t arrive, become
instantly important—as she did and could again.
‘RIP Porty High School’ concerns the demolition of a school, filled with sci‐fi film imagery—’Armageddon’, ‘space-age’, ‘portals’—undercut with old wifies speaking Scots lingo (‘It’s the parliament / aw over again’) which brings the poem back down to earth. Borderline‐absurd alumni of the school are listed (Gail Porter, Kenny Anderson, James Carlin), and this sense of absurdity is continued with references to ‘Mr Big Banana’, ‘Bojangles’ and ‘Thai brides’. The poem ends with a fantasy of the poet carrying stacks of Collected Poems bearing his name on their spines; he is teasing himself as much as he is teasing others.
‘Midnight Cowboys’ has a mythological feel as a father and son set off to shoot a star down from the sky with a bullet, but instead witness a real shooting star. It’s a fantastical but sad story with a moral at its end, just like a fairy‐tale. The stars become ‘brilliant bulbs’ which ‘dangle like decorations’ or else are plucked from the sky ‘like a thistle from the cairns’. They then move from being bulbs and thistles to fruit, a strangely successful mingling of metaphors: ‘for such beauties are screwed in / tight, falling only when ripe.’
‘Laddie at Heart’ relates the story of the poet’s five‐year‐old self telling a lie about a man trying to abduct him. The police become involved, which earns the boy the attention he craved: ‘tuckshop booty and lip kisses’. This is shown to be a merely silly thing to do aged five, but ‘It’s what I do / at 25 that gets my mother going’, he says, ending the poem with a sting in its tail.
‘Greenhouse Ganglands’ evokes the natural world as sensual and vaguely predatory: ‘Buttercups solicit ladybirds, pansies woo bees, / sparrows raid the strawberries.’ The speaker’s mum peacefully gardens amongst the looming Edinburgh landscape as the place crawls with life. He describes the memory of this as ‘my teenage years’ elixir’, gentle thoughts sustaining him like a magic potion in darker years when personal traumas occurred and ‘beetles / crunched underfoot like celery’.
‘Quitting Cheese’ looks back at a doomed relationship, describing a day spent with an ex‐girlfriend in Nottingham, with all the pubs, parks and picnics that entails:
feasted on each other, spinning
the conversational equivalent
of a roly‐poly.
The pair revisits Nottingham but things just aren’t the same; the weather is harsher—’winds / scraped against our bones’—and he has a feeling of ‘a cheese cube too many, / bellyache, that fateful feeling / of having peaked too early.’ ‘Shapes of Every Size’ explores how we can be damaged by a past relationship such as this, whilst attempting to begin a new one:
|This is the way to walk
when in love with your new shoes,
by the old pair.
‘Feathers and Cream’ likens a story from the past to ‘a secret / conglomerate of crumbs / smooshed into a carpet’. The speaker relates memories of the death of his friend’s father, the strange rumour about his corpse being taken to the dump, ‘tipped from skip to local dump, / where metallic, apocalyptic jaws / minced through his brittle bones.’ The mundane truth is bad enough without this obscene rumour, which his friend is badly damaged by. The poem trips back to a time before the tragedy, when he and his friend were ‘fourteen forever— / paused in fairytale parlours’, a fleeting, sadly sweet image.
‘Owen’, about a lost friendship, is full of startling similes. Owen’s hair is all ‘long black locks / like dirty cat tails’ and his lungs are ‘power stations’. ‘C.J. Easton’ mingles the mundane and exotic—’As pylons streak the sky / a ferocious sun sets over Glasgow, / bleeding, looking almost African’—and paints a lover’s body as ‘that puny frame, its bag of bones / in winsome skin, will coruscate / and carousel’, a gorgeously weird description.
‘Manchester John’, about a friend who becomes brain‐damaged after an overdose, describes drug‐use in a perversely positive and surreal fashion: ‘medical diction fails to touch / on the warm tingling bliss of horse / trotting up the arm’. But now his friend is ‘Zimmer-framed, / shuffling as if you walked / on constant snow’, and the speaker is no more than an ‘ambulance hitchhiker’, filled with guilt and shame at being complicit in his friend’s problem.
‘The Raven by My Writing Desk’, with its shades of Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe, is another self‐flagellating poem. The ravens’ ‘black tongues ooze like poisonous slugs— / medusa among the animals’, and the poet paints himself as equally monstrous:
I wield a conversational pickaxe
with mistimed velocity
or head off on a squint orbit,
bear in mind, I probably ruined my night too.
The ravens haunt him like bad memories, stalking him as weird harbingers of death, and his role as a writer becomes inherent in this.
‘Tom Buchan (1931-1995)’ celebrates the famous Scots poet, whose eloquence is beautifully evoked by Pederson: ‘so / like the comets flew he spoke’. He describes Buchan as ‘a turtle-necked warrior’, painting a funny and affectionate picture of the man, and there is also a sense of affinity here between the old and younger poet: ‘It’s possible we were, at some point, synched / in time and place’. ‘Edinburgh Festival’ evokes the weather and geography of the city with panache, with its rain that ‘skelps make‐up from faces’. The faintly depressing aftermath of the festival is knowingly described: ‘Come September, posters / in gutters turn to pulpy gruel’. No matter how well or badly things go for performers, it will all turn to mush in the end.
The dazzling, stand‐out ‘Cowgate Syvers’ describes Edinburgh stairwells as:
|erudite elders: folded skins
and muckle beards they’re twizzling
constantly, each a bard of handsome ken,
a hoarder of cadged chronicles.
It’s a romantic image, but funny too, and wonderfully original:
|As for the rats,
gremlins and even more sinister
goings‐on they host … well, we can’t
all choose who comes to visit,
or at what hour they call.
This mixture of horror and humour, the light and the dark, infuses the collection, though ‘Heredity’, written in Scots dialect, is a bleaker affair exploring inherited violence: ‘Like his faither afore him, / ma faither kicked fuck oot ma maither, / ma maither battered us bairns’. The speaker is capable of violence too, except now it’s (apparently) just the pets that get it: ‘clobbering / only the cat.’
‘Jobseeker’ will strike anyone who has ever gone through the degradation of claiming benefits: ‘Like a marsupial conceals / a cub, I cradle a book / of Armitage’s poems’. It is sad that he has to hide this important side of himself, sad that he’s there in the first place. This poem is explicitly about the poet himself (‘come right this way, Mr Pedersen’), though all the poems in Play With Me share this feeling of intimacy and immediacy. ‘When I Fell in the Bog’ recounts the speaker almost drowning as a child, and the strange feeling that came over him when he did: ‘Funny thing— / when it seemed I was going under, / my body relaxed’, a ‘surprisingly Zen’ feeling at odds with the presumably normal response of dire panic.
‘In Marrakesh’ is one of a group of poems set in Cambodia and establishes the difference between tourists and locals, with ‘us piggy visitors’ set alongside the ‘ragged fingers’ of locals. ‘Newscast’ describes red roads that ‘clump, bubble and cook in the heat’ in a country where ‘Bees are bigger, beer is cheaper’. ‘Justice Locale’ recounts the tale of a boy killed by a 4×4 and the driver who is forcibly removed from his vehicle by local folk:
|A seventy-strong siege
of swipes and stamps
leave him writhing
a crushed worm.
‘Arching Eyebrows and a Chalked Door’ describes, with hissing resonance, ‘cracked lips, thin as slits on wrists’, and ‘a gravy‐blooded, Xed, hexed body filled with AIDS.’ ‘Hello. I am Cambodia’ personifies the country, contrasting the picturesque ‘pina colada and sugared cherries’ with its bleak past:
the old regime […]
My monuments await
restoration, half my population
‘Boom Town’ recounts the finding of an unexploded bomb, the differing reactions of tourists and locals: ‘At the whites full of worry, Khmers giggle’. The speaker’s reaction is one of fear: ‘something stirs inside my gut, / disturbs the sticky rice and stomach worms’. ‘From the Right Bank’ mingles humour with romantic imagery as the speaker:
to the bank’s edge and spurts
out into the current
like a rogue pup, as the moon, giddy,
gawks from above.
‘Network: Cambodia’ likens the sun to a gang, a surprising and original image: ‘Sunrise springs from behind dustbins, / pours through alleys, pounds down streets / like a terrible gang’, the alliterative patterns of ‘my belly / bubbles full of fish’ adding to this rhythmic, playful but slightly sinister feel.
‘X Marks the Spot’ scrumptiously evokes the optimism of new love: ‘Life was a sack / of strawberries, the future, jams / and spice’; but then the speaker spies on his new love, looking through her phone and assuming infidelity where there is none, exposing how mistrust can spoil a good thing. ‘Expired Treasure / Broken Bulbs’ describes the wrecks of old vandalised buildings, with ‘mangled prams, / hijacked trolleys, / 80s electronics’ abandoned in a Burn. Pub landlord becomes ‘head honcho with first dibs / on the local munters’ whilst the ‘town beauty’ dreams of escaping abroad. The quotation marks round ‘abroad’ show the girl’s naivety and lack of concrete plans; it’s unlikely that she’ll ever escape.
‘Paris in Spring’ describes the speaker’s body as being wrecked by booze: ‘After three days of heavy saucing, / I am in tatters, bowels barking’. He reads of Paris in Spring from within a damp bus, and the contrast between his reading material and material surroundings could not be more marked. ‘Dead Skin and Stray Fingernails’ recounts the new inhabitants of the house where someone special used to live before ‘tragedy’ struck. He and this special person ‘forgot to finish / our most important conversation’ which sounds as if it will never be concluded. ‘Water Features’ describes a lover being left behind, with the speaker comparing himself and his lost love to water: ‘one of us running, / the other stilled’, ending the collection on a muted note. Playtime is over.
This is joyful, sensual, frequently heart‐wrenching poetry filled with a richness of language that is brought to life by Pedersen’s startling imagery and storytelling skills. Whether he’s in the gutters of Edinburgh or on the red roads of Marrakesh, his infectious delight in description and pattern‐making makes it a unique pleasure to play with Pedersen.
Creative Writing PhD student
The University of Edinburgh
Play With Me by Michael Pedersen is published by Polygon, 2013.