“With a POW!”

Play With Me, Michael Pedersen, Polygon Books, £9.99
reviewed by Mark Burnhope
Play With Me
Confession: I wish poetry was (amongst other, contradictory, things) more popular: not popularist, just widespread. The sheer ubiquity of music and film has tended to show that ‘pop’ and not-pop can co-exist; can give ‘the good stuff’ (whatever you say it is, and now’s not the time) a fighting chance of being found by a discerning audience.

Play With Me is unashamedly splashed with pop memes (the “POW!” of my title is referenced in the poem ‘Shapes of Every Size’, accompanied by one of several comic-style illustrations by Carrie May) – as refreshing as its endorsements from Stephen Fry, Irvine Welsh, Liz Lochhead and John Hegley (only two of whom are known for poetry). Pop references are nothing new, of course, and can feel like product placement – if not to sell products, then to prove a writer is ‘on the pulse’. But pop culture is just part of Pedersen’s world. The outdated movie titles in ‘Manchester John’, set in an NHS overdose clinic, are essential in painting the setting’s stale medical atmosphere:

Drips from leaky roofs.
Kids paw mangled movie mags;
their thumbed reviews of Men in Black,
Titanic, a sequel to Jurassic Park,
are this ward’s longest residents.

The two opening poems – ‘Colmar’ (about a horny teenager on a French exchange) and ‘R.I.P Porty High School’ – reminded me less of poetry (except a dash of Mick Imlah) and more of TV shows like Grange Hill, or Generation Y’s The Inbetweeners, although Pedersen is no cheeky-chappy ‘mockney’ but a cursing Scot: “Like his faither afore him, / ma faither kicked fuck oot ma maither.” Like The Inbetweeners, Pedersen’s stereotypes aren’t always satisfyingly subverted. ‘RIP Porty High School’, about the controlled demolition of an inner-city school, cuttingly mocks the bourgeois establishment we dissenting students became:

The explosion is sure-fire
to muster a crowd:
bullied boys turning out
in thousands, who,
despite the salary, are
still clamouring
for comeuppance.

But the cliché of “svelte Thai brides” on the arms of rich men is notable for its racial caricature more than its critique of elitism (although that they are “pretending, now, / to like the fitbaw” is a nice detail), marring an otherwise effective ending in which “others emerge / clasping books / of Collected Poems, / their names on the spine.” Elsewhere, the Cambodia poems in section III occasionally succumb to one danger of ‘poetry tourism’: a humour that, for me, didn’t sit quite right in context.

Aside from a few misgivings, Play With Me is the kind of unique, crafted and entertaining book which (amongst other, contradictory, things) I’d like to see more of. Michael Pedersen’s poetry is refreshing for being performance-ready and crafted (his loud alliteration will divide readers, but I’m a fan. In ‘Dead Skin and Stray Fingernails’: “The driveway is busy, the drapes / no longer droop”). Confident on page and stage, Pedersen has already proven popular. I’ll be keeping an eye on how he develops his refreshing mix of skills.

Mark Burnhope
http://markburnhope.blogspot.co.uk/

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