reviewed by Harry Giles
Whitehall Jackals is hampered from the start by its jaw-stretchingly self-aggrandising introduction (or “Coda Prefix”). Jeremy Reed describes his and collaborator Chris McCabe's first meeting in a “cutting-edge counterculture bookshop” and their resulting “accelerated dynamic”, with its subversive promise to produce a “defiantly-intransigent leftfield indie whack” at the textures of London. Sadly, rather than the collection capturing “London now, as it clicks on the supercharged senses of two committed poets”, what it actually obtains is a pedestrian ramble through self-regarding collage and macho pomp.
A pedestrian ramble through self-regarding collage and macho pomp.
The 39 poems, written in the first three months of 2011, are in the main titled for different locations across London, from the breadth of Battersea to the particularity of 8 Marshall Street. These aim to capture the peculiar essence of each locale through mostly short, mostly non-narrative, densely descriptive poems. Too often, however, the poems default to a catalogue of unrooted specificities and lazy generalities – so that when the “Vauxhall Vivaro G106 GIG offloads / on Earlham Street” in Seven Dials it might as well be pulling up at Wapping Old Stairs, where “a lighter, a camera, a PLUMS bottle” could easily be littered among the “splintered barks of wood & sludge” at St Saviours Dock, where “there was always a mattress slumped across the mud”, or maybe that was in the “tin chutes of sewerage” in Battersea, I forget. In other words, the result is not a sparkling evocation of place, but a watery London soup.
Moreover, this is not a broadly-experienced or widely diverse London, but rather just the London of the white male flaneur, the half-self-aware laddish raconteur. For all that Jeremy Reed's introduction lauds the “randomised meetings [London] provides anywhere, anytime” the characters who turn up in the poems are mostly artists and mostly blokes, and few of them really seem to be making a daily life there. When anyone else actually appears, they're clearly if half-heartedly othered, such as the “Spanish, French, platinum Slovakians / freezing the moment with camera-phones” in Buying Stones Bootlegs at the Stables, or the inevitable “beautiful plain girl” who “walks with her mother, under a red umbrella” in Kings Stairs. The sense is not of a London lived in but a London you go to for gigs, not a London with a material present but a London layered with selected histories – Romantic poets, punk rockers, New Labourites. All, of course, men.
In case the gender perspective seems like an aggressively imposed analysis, some relevant numbers: over the course of 90 pages of 39 poems, 31 artists are name-checked; of those artists, thirty are white men and one is Amy Winehouse. If the count were of mentions rather than individual names, there would be over 50 such name-checks including just the additional Pete Doherty references. Of course, we all have our themes, and if this is the London that McCabe and Reed want to explore then they do it tolerably enough – but, given that this is already the dominant history and portrayal of London, they shouldn't expect anyone else to find anything new or surprising in it, let alone remotely subversive.
There is, of course, throughout all of this a certain ironic or at least self-aware presence. When Reed says “I'm the one in a stylishly-angled beret and the MAC Studio Fix foundation”, he's obviously aware of the pose, or posing with a wink. The poems throughout are infused with this sort of congratulatory weariness, but this is irony standing in for subversion rather than a genuinely unsettling approach: it's a stance rather than an action. Within the context of a masculinist narrative, this pseudo-irony serves only to reinforce the narrative rather than to undermine it: it's OK that I'm just being a bloke, because I know that I'm doing it, and it's ironic, see?
In the end, the only genuine-seeming political commitment is a repeated beef with, of all people, Tony Blair. Blair, appearing as the eponymous jackal, gets three whole poems to himself – one of which features the unintentionally hilarious image of “The burnt, the mutilated … bacon-rashered Iraq amputees”. If calling Tony Blair a nasty man and swooning over the victims of war crimes is “a defiantly intransigent leftfield indie whack”, then it's one indulged in by the chattering majority of the country and ten years out of date to boot – rather like floppy-haired male guitar bands signed by major labels as an “indie sound”.
In this dull territory, some good writing just about manages to happen. Here and there the language excites, as when in Bloomsbury “the Isle of Dogs smatters / its SIM cards to the stars”, but these gems are often lost in a mizzle of adjective-noun phrases, as in Fleet, which has “swirly ooze”, “furred arteries”, “cold bacterial soup”, “a mucky rush” and “squidgy traces”. When the poetry stops darting from low resolution snapshot to low resolution snapshot and finally, breathlessly commits to an aesthetic moment, the results can be delightful and musical, as in Elephant & Castle:
...spend some time with us. Spend it like tokens for kiosks that sell loose cigarettes. Spend it like drains. Spend it like hard water down the Victorian water-mains. Spend it like the Shard's doubling of stars. Spend it like something light to read on the commuter's underpass.
Although both poets mostly stick to the forms they're comfortable with – dense blocks of free verse for McCabe, lengthy prose and poems in knee-jerk regular stanzas for Reed – both occasionally make exciting experiments with form, as in Reed's pop-lyrical Death Tango and McCabe's Christopher Smart-like INFRA: Cherry Garden Pier. These happen towards the end of the chronological book, as if it took 30 poems of bedding in the material for something really interesting to happen – or as if, with enough preconceptions out of the way and enough tedious stomping through a tired vision of London, a poem could finally take flight.
As a collaboration, the book is more or less successful. The poets maintain their own voices and are distinguishable not only through their personal predilections – like McCabe's strings of upper-case found text and fondness for ampersands and m-dashes – but also through their textures and senses of self. But there is also a joint voice and a joint vision present, a mutual commitment to the project, with poems from both that support each other's approaches. The problem is that the joint vision is dull in its conception, dashed off in its execution, and made far worse by its pretensions.Harry Giles grew up in Orkney and now lives in Edinburgh. In 2010 he founded Inky Fingers, a spoken word events series which he continues to help run. He has given feature performances at nights, including Chill Pill, Jibba Jabba and Last Monday at Rio, won multiple slams including the UK Student Slam (2008), the BBC Scotland Slam (2009), the Glasgow Slam (2010), and been published in journals including Magma, PANK and Clinic. He makes theatre as well as poetry; recent projects include What We Owe (The Arches, October 2012), This is not a riot (Crisis Art Festival, July 2012) and Class Act (Ovalhouse, May 2012). His pamphlet, Visa Wedding, was published in November 2012 by Stewed Rhubarb Press.