Pursued by Well-being, Mark Russell, tall-lighthouse, £5.00
reviewed by Jim Murdoch
The poems in this slim pamphlet are set in places as far-flung as the Jewish quarter in Prague, Addis Ababa, Rome and some bus stop on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. “Journeys,” Mark writes, “have their special// relativities./ Some end in relief/ others in catastrophe.” Whatever we’ve just ended or wherever we end up the one thing we all have to do, however, is cope, so if what Williams said is true and poems are machines then these are all coping mechanisms. Personally I would’ve named this collection after its final poem, ‘One Way Ticket Round the World’, and would have moved it to the start for its opening sound advice:
All you need is an umbrella—
because you must visit Scotland;
It isn’t always chucking it down in Scotland; sometimes it just drizzles. In fact it’s a clear night on the M74 in the poem of the same title although the narrator still winds up recalling a rainy night from his past.
To remember a journey
it must have more
than uneaten sausage rolls
under the seat,
flames from the boot,
ice on the tyres.
The poet makes his entrance in the opening poem:
I wait in the wings upstage left,
breathe in through the nose,
out through the mouth, cluck
consonants, throw forth some vowels.
Mark has his homemade bag full of tricks: puns and similes, alliterations, metaphors and a layer of wry, and occasionally quite dark, humour:
As an act of love
I promise to have
A crimson tattoo
Of little red hearts
In the softened wheals
Your teeth left behind.
There’s nothing here we’ve not seen before. What we’re made to do though is look again, as in the title poem:
It’s like seeing sheep in the high street,
or molten gold hanging from the trees.
Or it might be your dad dropping “his drawers/ in Oils and Dressings at Tesco” or some old codger swatting “the rain as it hits the glass” on the bus. Come again?
Coping is a journey, moving from one state to another. Sometimes the answer is to physically relocate and Mark does seem to have lived a peripatetic life; other times it’s a shift in perspective that’s needed. There’s an inevitable looking back here although I expect Mark tossed his rose-tinted spectacles out some car window years ago: his Proustian madeleines are all “flat and tasteless”. He remembers scramblers, rooms, his mate’s sister who precipitated his first erection, the woods near his house, although at the time he
…did not see the black thoughts—
how they were sown, sprouted roots,
harrowed the wild woodland playground
to this place of unadorned silence.
It took me a while to get into this chapbook. Couldn’t quite make a connection. But it grew on me. Some poems felt voyeuristic and left me with that uncomfortable awkward feeling Larkin does so well; not a criticism. My favourites were the Glasgow-based because I’ve been there. Minor issue: the print was a wee bit small for me.