“imaginative stretch and mordant absurdity”

Mortality Rate, Andrew Elliott, CB Editions, £10.00
reviewed by Pippa Little

elliott mortality rate
Some poetry connects with me immediately. I’m aware that my tastes are formed and I tend to ‘like what I know’, though I’m also curious about work which scratches my comfort zones. First readings of Mortality Rate left me feeling itchy: long, involved and convoluted syntax, proliferations of imagery, not so much taking a line for a walk as for a gallop – all these I had to, I felt, wade through before ‘getting’ the poems. But then a strange thing happened – the more poems I read, the more I began to enjoy them. I found myself wondering about them after I’d put the book down, a sure sign that this collection had got under my skin.

The collection is large: 144 pages full of outpouring and urgency as if after too long a silence. Through torrents of words and absurd, surreal situations however, there is always a controlling blade-edge of wit. And sometimes Andrew Elliott is really very funny, as in the poem ‘Teeth’, which begins: “Someday you will be there, in bed with a woman,/ when the telephone rings and it’s your dentist” : fearless in his dealings with sex and intimacy or the lack of it, using humour like a pair of tongs to pick up and examine close up something too potent for bare hands.

Identity is conditional, the poems anti-confessional: the ‘I’ is continually modified into “I am like the kind of man who…”, (my italics). One example in ‘Middle Man’ confounds expectations from the first line break : “ I am like the kind of man who took his own life/ by the scruff of the neck and…” In ‘Security’, in answer to the question “…Are they true,/all the things that you say in your poems?” the weary ‘I’ only winks, smiles and tells his readers “The book is the ointment that the fly has crawled out of…” (poet’s italics).

One stand-out sequence is ‘The Man’s Middle Leg Is a Lady’s Leg’ which contains twelve poems with titles such as ‘Gangland’, ‘Filling Station’, ‘Scholarship Boy’, ‘Young Mother’. The ‘it’ in each is a leg and each poem begins “…Shapely, shaved”. There follow exquisitely clever evocations, in different contexts, of defining moments of a ‘reveal’ – when something (symbolised by the leg) emerges from concealment into the world’s gaze. I don’t think I can pin down what the poem’s ‘about’, nor would I want to, but it speaks to me of the experience and practice of writing poetry itself and I love its imaginative stretch and mordant absurdity. Of course the ‘middle leg’ is also phallic and situates the creative urge as masculine, yet Elliott brilliantly subverts chauvinist implications by objectifying the disembodied part exactly as female body parts are objectified in contemporary culture. I found this poem really thought-provoking both in its scope and form.

So I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. It is huge and does feel a bit overstuffed – “The plot has been lost. Who lost it? Hard to say –“ is the first line in ‘Plot’, but a narrative trail would be too reductive for these poems. They are rich and funny and sad, and, full of peculiar treasures, deserve to be read and read again.

Pippa Little

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