Book Review: Play With Me, by Michael Pedersen

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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:

we
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,
still blistered
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:

next time
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:

I’ve forgotten
the old regime […]
My monuments await
restoration, half my population
is children.

‘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:

limps
to the bank’s edge and spurts
triumphantly
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.

 
Jacqueline Thompson
Creative Writing PhD student
The University of Edinburgh
J.Thompson‐9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Play With Me by Michael Pedersen is published by Polygon, 2013.

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Book Review: Ghost Moon, by Ron Butlin

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This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 18/06/14

Pity the poor heroine of Ron Butlin’s Ghost Moon. Maggie Davies is subjected to more abuse, rejection and humiliation than most mortals can stomach. Cast out of her parents’ home in 1950s Edinburgh for being pregnant and unmarried, we follow her as she veers from place to place, suffering torment after torment in a world that seems firmly set against her from the start. Men are cruel to her, women even crueller, and her pious, judgmental family shows her nothing but disdain. Even in the present day, as Maggie’s adult son Tom visits her in a care home, she is in the cruel grips of dementia, figures and events from her past merging with those of her present as the tangled threads of her life combine to torment her.

Narratives with such grim subject matter can often veer into voyeurism or mere titillation, descending finally into a sort of fictional misery memoir; but in the hands of a writer as skilled as Butlin something rather different happens.

For a start, the gender issues highlighted by Maggie’s status as a victim of misogyny provoke the reader’s righteous rage. The infuriating imbalance between the roles of men and women is expressed strikingly through Maggie’s thoughts:

Yes, far out at sea—that was where she really was. No land in sight and her only cargo her unborn child. Men, it seemed, always had some sort of harbour to make her. That was the nature of their world—a map of place names like Normandy, Amiens, Berlin. For men it was enough to identify aims and objectives, and then draw co‐ordinates—that done, and with bayonets fixed, they marched, marched, marched into the future, whatever the cost.

When Maggie goes against the ‘proper’ way of things and becomes an unmarried mother, the narrow and prescriptive labels stamped onto women at this time are revealed succinctly by Butlin in a few telling lines: ‘Girls became women became wives became mothers—that was the proper way of it, the only way. If a girl couldn’t wait, then she had to marry whoever made her pregnant. Call it divine intervention, call it Russian roulette.’

Worse still is the way in which women are penalised by a religion that operates on a system of breath-taking hypocrisy. The God worshipped by Maggie’s parents insists on neat hair but not on a mother supporting her daughter during a crisis. When a young Maggie sees her mother meticulously combing her hair, despite the fact that she is about to cover it up with a hat, she comments: ‘But no one sees through your hat, Mum’. God does, little one, replies her mother—and so do other women.

A particularly chilling scene involves Maggie’s parents pretending their daughter is simply not in their living room when she is, in fact, standing right in front of them. As she pleads with them to help her, they play the football on the radio louder and louder until they drown her out. When Maggie, defeated, goes upstairs to her bedroom she finds that it has been gutted.

Thank God, then, for the kindness of Maggie’s down-to-earth sister-in-law Jean, a baker who allows Maggie to stay above her place of work when she is cast out by her awful family. Garrulous Jean smokes, talk in a thick Scots dialect and offers Maggie respite from the harrowing events of her life: ‘It’s my own fault, Jean. If I hadn’t let myself be—’, says Maggie, blaming herself for her troubles. ‘Dinna talk daft,’ replies Jean. ‘That’s the wey men talk, but we ken better.’ Maggie, understandably, finds herself ‘storing up Jean’s cheerfulness inside her’ like an antidote.

When we hear how Maggie got pregnant in the first place—inside a thoroughly unpleasant man’s car—we realise she is really not to blame for her predicament:

The smell of the leather seats, the heavy rain clattering onto the thin metal roof only inches above her head. The offer of whisky from his hip flask […] The memory made her want to gag, to turn away like she was still trying to avoid the man’s lips, to squirm away from his touch.

Another upsettingly rape‐like encounter occurs when Norrie, a nasty acquaintance of Maggie’s, forces alcohol into her mouth and clamps his hand over it: ‘Guid lass’, he says. ‘We’ll hae some fun nou, you and me.’ When he realises that the struggling Maggie is pregnant his response is predictably caustic: ‘Fuck’s sake, Maggie. Fuck’s sake. Up the stick, an yer making me work fer it? Ye fucking keelie! […] Fucking hoor!’

And it’s not just men who attack Maggie. When she tries to better herself by getting a job in an office, a young female worker sabotages her chances with a few choice words: ‘Indicating Maggie with a nod of her head, Snooty Junior gave an emphatic cough, then leant down to whisper something into her boss’s ear.’ When Maggie leaves her baby in Woodstock House, an establishment which shelters babies before offering them up for adoption, she is told by the women working there that abandoning her baby is the best option for all concerned: ‘Getting upset like this would only make things worse, they told her. Always best to be separated as soon as possible. It was easier that way. Easier for everyone.’

Maggie is told to ‘forget all about’ her son; as if that were humanly possible. She is forbidden to breastfeed him, an infuriating command which goes against nature. Powerless, she is told by the women of Woodstock House: ‘[…] we’ve been very patient with you, letting you come and go as you please, letting you take him for a quick tour round the block from time to time …’, and, finally, is given no further access to her baby.

But Maggie is not just a one‐note victim in all this. She shows flashes of strength and defiance that are joyful to witness. After her parents’ rejection of her, Maggie, tormented by the relentless tick of their grandfather clock, snaps off its pendulum (with pleasingly castration‐like symbolism) and throws it in the sea: ‘Up into the air it rose, glittering as it arced briefly in the afternoon sun, suspended motionless for an instant before falling straight down into the blue‐green depths.’ When she hears her callous mother’s voice inside her head saying You’ve made your bed, now you have to lie on it she responds triumphantly: ‘”I will,” she heard herself reply out loud, “just watch me!”‘

Maggie seeks and finds employment in Fusco’s Fish Restaurant on Gorgie Road by displaying a similar level of gumption. She walks ‘straight in’ to the chip shop and bags herself a job, displaying little timidity. When the women of Woodstock House forbid her to breastfeed her baby she simply ‘shift(s) Tom to her other breast’. She uses fake personas and weaves a web of lies in order to gain a better job: ‘[…] during the week when she visited Tom at Woodstock House she’d say she was out at Gogarburn visiting her invalid husband; at the weekends she’d say she was going to Flotterstone to see Tom. A bit complicated, but couldn’t be helped.’ She proves herself to be a cunning and single‐minded survivor.

Alongside the plight of women, the plight of the elderly is tackled throughout Ghost Moon. When Maggie finds a suitable room to rent she walks in to find the remnants of the past inhabitant’s life:

The dead woman’s bed stood in the corner. Opposite was a family‐sized tombstone of a wardrobe that reeked of shoes, old clothes and camphor. The top of the dresser was a clutter of postcards, photographs, some letters in a rack, a comb, nailfile, a Present from Dunbar ashtray; wisps of greyish hair were tangled among the bristles of the hairbrush. Maggie dumped the lot into an old tartan shopping bag she found hanging behind the door, to go out in the next bin collection.

A whole life reduced to rubbish.

The care home in which present‐day Maggie lives also highlights this plight: ‘High‐backed armchairs lined up against the day‐room walls. Meals, meds, bath, bed […] The sky no longer yours. The TV that’s always on.’ The atmosphere of the old folk’s home is evoked with olfactory explicitness: ‘the overheated hall, into the combined smells of floral air‐freshener, yesterday’s macaroni cheese, urine, today’s stew and vegetables, laundry, disinfectant.’ Days bleed into one another with cloying monotony: ‘Thursday? Monday? Saturday? Different names for the one same day that slides backwards and forwards along one same week that never comes to an end, but keeps starting over keeps starting over keeps starting over …’

Butlin’s first‐person portrayal of Maggie’s struggles with dementia is moving and, at times, distressing. As we enter into Maggie’s head we feel her terror:

Struggling to get to your feet, pointing your finger at the screen: “That poor, poor woman. CAN’T SOMEDOBY DO SOMETHING? CAN’T SOMEBODY HELP HER? HELP HER HELP HER HELP HER!” Next moment it’s all turned to horse‐racing and a red‐faced man talking into a microphone. Which is nothing much, so you sit down again.

The horror of one’s own mind becoming an unreliable place is, for some, worse than death.

In split‐time books such as this there is usually a narrative thread preferred by the reader, and that thread (personally speaking) is usually the one set in the past. Butlin makes a sort of virtue of this imbalance by immersing his plot in the past, breaking it up with interludes set in the here‐and‐now which serve to highlight the themes of the meatier historical narrative. These interludes avoid tediousness thanks largely to Butlin’s poetic knack for stylish brevity. Tom’s point of view is less engaging than Maggie’s, but when we get a first‐person insight into the elderly Maggie’s situation the sadness of her present scenario is revealed by the way it slices cruelly into her thoughts of the past. Thinking of Michael, her great love, Maggie daydreams:

You’ll know him by the touch of his fingertips upon your face, their gentleness, his sightless eyes brimming with—
“Med time, Mrs Stewart.”

Such weighty themes are buoyed by Butlin’s gem‐like style of writing. His use of imagery is consistently playful, injecting light into the darkness of his protagonist’s situation. Whether he is describing Maggie’s bed as a pie (‘she could hardly wait to climb in under that welcoming crust and get baked to sleep’) or linking her longing for rest with the drudgery of her work in the chip shop (‘she’d stay in bed and enjoy a double‐shift of deep‐fried sleep’) his prose elevates the story into pleasurable territory. He captures the atmosphere and geography of 1950s Edinburgh, its streets and trams and shops, with panache, and whilst the subject matter is fraught with sorrow, Butlin’s stylish writing means the painful events of Ghost Moon, though never less than affecting, can be read with relish.

 

Jacqueline Thompson
Creative Writing PhD student
The University of Edinburgh
J.Thompson‐9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin is published by Salt, 2014.