Roger McGough, Joinedupwriting (Penguin, London, 2019)
Roger McGough’s Joinedupwriting is an elegant failure at summing up. Because a life grown old seldom finds a final word for all we’ve said – and McGough still has a lot to say. The collection is structured, loosely, with a poem on each page (or sometimes over the page) so a spread forms a conversation between two poems. Often the retort undoes the initiator, forbidding either side to have its way. Take ‘PS Pathetic’ replying to ‘Closing In’, for example. The titles alone suggest that thoughts of a close are futile. The first poem sets the scene: snow has landed surprisingly late (or is it?) in ‘bleak midwinter in mid-March’. Yet there is nothing ‘mid’ about the extreme events. Planes have frozen, birds fled, and children abandoned half-finished snowmen by the Thames. Oddly enough the only life is ‘a snow leopard’ that ‘lies in wait for the fox clubs’. And on the horizon, someone, or something, comes staggering through the blizzard: ‘Can it be April? April to the rescue? Sadly no. A snowman closing in on a lost child’. We get to revel in this image: exotic, mildly threatening, then ultimately absurd, as a comment on ‘closing in’. For if the snowman is moving quickly, he’ll most probably melt before even reaching the child. Over the page ‘PS Pathetic’ gives us this reality check in more direct terms. ‘Hold on there’ reads the first voice in the poem, ‘A snow leopard in a suburban garden in west London?’. Preposterous, it thinks. But the second voice is more concerned with rescuing the child; something we already know is unnecessary. Well, says the first, ‘did you?’. ‘No.’ ‘Pathetic’. This little exchange is a marvel in voice and tone. The poem swindles its way back into McGough’s trademark cryptic simplicity: a joke? But jokes claim to close in. Or a note to self on what might be a worthy topic for poetry? Because if nothing is really being said, anything goes.
McGough’s sustaining power lies precisely in his ability to let things into poetry that could easily be dismissed. Yes, Brexit is here, and a rewrite of America’s lost Whitmanic hymn unto itself. But so is a grandmother who went to the shop to purchase some Hush Puppies and came back with a set of ‘Quiet Kittens’. This poem is as heart-breaking and funny as any, but the human drama is staged not through her ‘NHS frames’ or ‘hospital prescribed surgical boots’ but in the quiet devastation of her wrong words. Persistent in her mistake, she kept the shoes which were too big and ‘stuffed the gaps with cotton wool and shuffled on for years’. This grandmother is a gap, making her way into language by mistake and sheer determination. McGough is channelling Alan Bennett’s ‘A Biscuit under the Settee’, which every good GCSE pupil knows by now. But her appearance in a poem makes her muted existence very loud – formal and tight – for a moment that stays beyond its lines because the grandmother and poet appear to error with their objects. Error makes our lives belong to the world. As McGough writes in ‘A Waste of Time’, ‘I don’t want to waste your time, but now that you are here we must try to think of a way’. Most of the time, this collection is worth staying for. There’s the odd gimmick – a poem shaped like a swirl, and perhaps a little too much of the poem reflecting on itself – but one gets the sense it’s all for a good cause.
The poem that gets closest to summing up a life is ‘Big Hugs’. There are many things the poet would give a big hug to: Liverpool, hangovers, memories, and words. But ‘who gets the final hug, that fretful, lingering embrace…something dark closes in and hugs, hugs me to death’. The something dark is most obviously death, but it is also death clinging on to all that has gone in the lines before it. To the exes and the lovers and girlfriends, to Liverpool, hangovers, memories, and words, because they all live in the shadow of its ‘lingering embrace’. So whatever end this poem might be, it comes right back around, hugging itself, and the reader along with it, and enclosing all of life and death in an ever-revolving symmetry.
McGough ends the collection with an apology, put simply, ‘for writing so many poems’. But I don’t believe that for a second. Never trust a poet. Even when he claims his writing is joined up. Because, in these poems, it doesn’t look that way to me. And, beyond the easy joke about typeface, that’s one fine trick to keep us all reading.