reviewed by Harry Giles
Luke Wright is one of the best-known and most active poets in the UK. He's been performing and producing for well over a decade, broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio, and is a perennial favourite at the Edinburgh Fringe – and yet Mondeo Man is his first full printed collection, published here in a handsome paperback edition by Penned in the Margins. For me, then, there's a certain sense of expectation about the book: what is a well-seasoned, well-skilled poet who has worked primarily in performance going to do with the move to extended printed work?
Wright takes comic rhyme completely seriously as a poetic form, fully questioning what it can achieve and pushing it to its limits
The same energy that motivates Wright's performances propels the book forward: pacey, tightly-rhymed forms, particularly the ballad, are his stylistic backbone, and acerbic satire is the dominant mode. Wright's craft is at this point extraordinarily fine-tuned: there is barely a bum rhyme to be found, and the book has a far greater share of total stunners – the kind of rhyme that you never saw coming and yet, once it has, is perfect and obvious – than most formal collections. The rhythm, similarly is taut, aurally precise, and full of fizz. Wright displays a discipline with form that's honed by hours on stage: his rigorous approach to language is clearly tested over and over by its sound in his ears and the ears of his audiences. This truly aural style is no weaker on the page.
There is, perhaps, less certainty in the unrhymed, free-form pieces: though driven by the same verbal accuracy and attention to patterns of speech, there's a sense that Wright is still feeling out what this style can do, whereas the intense scrutiny and completeness of his ballad-work almost amounts to an Oulipian exhaustion of the form. Whereas Wright's dedication to ballad and more broadly to rhyme is bracing, the free verse forms (and the lonely univocalism The Meek) show less of a sense of adventure, perhaps precisely because any departure from home turf sticks out and so is less rigorously approached.
For most of the collection, there is a tension between two forms of satire. In thigh-slappers like The Ballad of Mr & Mrs P. Cartwright, where a well-to-do couple go on an absurd spending spree to deny their horrible children any inheritance, and Jeremy, Who Drew Penises on Everything (self-explanatory), Wright turns up the absurdity and verbal play as far as it can possibly go. In some cases, like Jeremy this leads us to a brilliant punchline –
The moral of this ghastly tale: beware of cocksure, thrusting males. For blokes like Jez, if free and able will always put their dicks on tables.
– while in others, like The Rise and Fall of Dudley Livingstone, the very level of absurdity takes us to productively surprising and disturbing places. Wright achieves these effects by taking comic rhyme completely seriously as a poetic form, fully questioning what it can achieve and pushing it to its limits – the number of jokes that can be packed into a line, the number of lines a single rhyme can be spun over, the tolerance of an audience for lengthy narrative exposition, and so on.
In other of the collection's satires, however, the wit is turned in a different direction. Poems like the opening A Hornchurch Commuter and Billionaire Princess don't make reality absurd, but rather give a bitter, cynical eye to others' lived experience. In The Drunk Train, for example, we find:
At home, divorcees slurp from cans and curse the years they gave; they watch their vindaloos congeal and Mock The Week on Dave. While haggard working mothers stand on icy kitchen floors awaiting midnight kettles while their feckless partners snore...
We also meet slobbing young professional couples, “gel-skulled lads in Topman checks”, “peroxide Oompa Loompa girls” and other “tiny insect folk”. At this point, I start to wonder what high horse the poet is speaking from and where he gets off: Wright here seems less a subversive jester and more a smug tabloid columnist – it's no surprise the Betjeman's “friendly bombs” get name-checked later. As with Betjeman, there is something altogether too cosy about the criticism, in that it confirms prejudices more than it questions them, or fails to explore multiple possible subjectivities, as do the more absurd tales.
Similarly, while in some of the more explicitly political poems – SCANDAL!, for example, which is a thinly-veiled account of the rise and fall and rise again of Neil and Christine Hamilton – Wright is definitely punching upwards and has new, worrying insight to offer, particularly on the complicity of his own media in such tales, in others like The Ballad of Raoul Moat you're left wondering why he chose this subject to satirise and whether he has anything to add. There's a certain Twitterish compulsion to speak on every subject that at these points overextends the collection, perhaps connected to that occasional tabloid commentariat sensibility. I'd stress that this isn't something inherent to the ballad form itself, which Wright elsewhere shows is rich and eminently well-suited to incisive commentary, but rather a question of how and when it's deployed.
But with those criticisms made, the collection then takes a deeper turn when it begins to self-examine, when the same critical energies get pointed inward. The same compulsion to speak becomes the subject of satire in Luke's Got a Joke, where the poet takes himself apart quite thoroughly:
be sure Luke's approaching these charming vignettes, preparing to act out the 'Dead Parrot Sketch' or offer some line from the cavernous jaws of a life that's just echo and hollow applause.
There's a risk that this poem could be used to exculpate the smugger pieces in the collection, to justify their critical complacency, but instead the collection finds a new humbleness, and brings us to a place of reflection and, most surprisingly, quietness. His masculine English rhyming finds a level that's more Larkiny melancholy than Betjemanish superiority, and his analysis of a particular class experience has the tenderness and gentle wit of the best of John Hegley. Although these poems – Mondeo Man, Stansted and A Shed of One's Own, for example – begin from an examination of Wright's own life, they gain their power through a wider identification with others' experience.
It's particularly interesting that the title poem places Wright himself in the much-derided “Mondeo man” identity, and that he acknowledges that while “There was a time when I'd walk through here scolding … too clever for nice weather and caravans” now he's learned that “sometimes it's OK just to blend in”. In other words, these poems find their richness precisely through the collapse of Wright's critical stance: rather than seeing himself as separate, as a wry observer with a duty to expose the foibles of others, he begins to write himself as object of criticism and interrogate the significance of his own limitations to others.
It is from this blended-in place – where the storytelling comes from a level, careful stance – that my favourite poem of the collection comes: The Ballad of Chris & Ann's Fish Bar. Though it uses the same ballad form rigorously, though the potential for outside judgement is there, though there are a few satirical skewerings, the poem is still a beautiful, moving love story that took me on a rich emotional journey. (You can listen to it in full here.) This poem, of all in the collection, shows the full power of Wright's deep familiarity with the ballad form. The rhyme and meter carry the reader through the several pages of the poem; the snappy stanzas allow for jokes, sorrows, stylistic impressions and narrative twists to sit comfortably alongside each other; the scope of the narrative allowed by a ballad makes the story itself compelling. While tighter, more focussed forms may gain their richness from conveying precise experiences or arguments, ballad allows for more wide-ranging pleasures, and for multiple styles and moves within a single piece.
Even then, though, I'm reluctant to imply that these more delicate poems are inherently more worthy than the romps and sparks of the more comic works. To bring in yet another blokey rhymer, I'm glad that there's still plenty of Ian Dury throughout the collection (particularly in the daft, celebratory rhythms of Bloody Hell, it's Barbara! And Jean-Claude Gendarme). While the editorial pace of the collection does deliberately set up the dichotomy – punchier pieces are sprinkled among the longer as if to be read as breaks or refreshers – it's more fruitful to consider what the continuities between the two might be. I would argue that Wright's dedication to ballad and to rhyme demands that absurdity be taken as seriously as self-reflection, and that as much class awareness, political significance and poetic richness can be found in Bloody Hell, it's Barbara! as in Mondeo Man. So while the collection finishes on a quiet, self-reflective note in A Shed of One's Own, it seems important that just before it comes It's Splendid Being the Infidel (a song for a musical) – and quite right too.
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.