Reviewed by Matthew Smith
It’s not that Roddy Lumsden’s poems would be better read aloud. It’s that they would be better shouted across a crowded pub, or gasped out in a motel room, or recited drunkenly at funerals and christenings. The ongoing affair between hedonism and mortality in Lumsden’s poetry is as much a context as a subject for his work––“Death whispers, looking at the time, / ‘I’ve got to have you now. Your place or mine?’”
In this collection, Lumsden in turn tenders and skewers countless life philosophies, especially those underlying his writing. In “The Answers,” an exhaustive list of infinitives, he suggests (promises?): “to paint the town with a brushful of blood / to be the millionth customer of love / to have to have.” With similarly double-edged glee, “Lines to a Missionary” concludes: “The Christian soul is quite inedible // and better ones than you have turned in awe / to tentacle, to lion’s claw.” Lumsden neatly unseats religion’s alternative with the lines “what has she done but swap one implausible God / for a full menagerie of impossible ones?” in “Pagan.” Even more brusquely, he delivers a litany of scientific grails into domestic extinction in “The Beginning of the End.” Despite such ideological carnage, the scope of Mischief Night extends beyond brute cynicism––“Does it read like a draft for a suicide note? For it’s not that, never”––but to say that these poems aren’t all fun and games would somehow undercut the poignancy of Lumsden’s fun and games. No, the poems don’t often cut below the surface, but they do reveal a stunning breadth of pain, romance, and possibility lying across that surface. In “From the Valentine Studio,” he writes, “Why is it that when I encounter evidence that I have a nook in this world, it always shows its face in the guise of misprints or, even more satisfying, in the international currency of downright lies?”
Mischief Night includes selections from all of Lumsden’s previous books––Yeah, Yeah, Yeah; The Book of Love; Roddy Lumsden is Dead––as well as The Bubble Bride (a commissioned pamphlet), the previously uncollected sonnet sequence Cavoli Riscaldati, and The Drowning Man (a new collection). This is quite a load, both in terms of word-count and timeline, and one that Bloodaxe compounds by fitting roughly 180 poems onto about 150 pages. The result is a relentless crash course in the entirety of the poet’s career to date.
Lumsden’s flair for formal roguery is evident throughout the collection, as is an increasing awareness of this trend and of others’ reactions to it. The poems in Yeah, Yeah, Yeah especially are typified by an anomic voice so playful that the pithy accounts of misdeeds provide delightful refreshment. The most moving passages are often those that most reveal the speaker’s moral and emotional deficiency. The straight-faced, “Prayer To Be With Mercurial Women,” slips this sort of sucker punch into the middle of a running joke:
And spare me too
from palmy evenings which sail by
in restaurants, on barstools,
without a storming off or two.
‘Darling, you were made for me.’
I pray I’ll never hear those words.
I need to feel I’m stealing
love another man would kill for.
Early poems in which the shudder of a conscience (vestigial or otherwise) can be felt presage Lumsden’s later, more self-conscious work. “Mercy,” a clean, shrewd piece about murdering pet turtles, gives just the slightest indication of moral concern: "how we’ll stand and laugh, / Though something sharp will snag us, later on.”
If Yeah, Yeah, Yeah is the nocturnal chronicle of one man’s perfect sins, then the next two books are the hungover morning after. “Cavoli riscaldati”––literally “reheated cabbage”–– is an Italian phrase for one’s effort to revive a defunct love affair. Given the kinky logic of his first book, Lumsden’s forthright, resigned approach to these poems is perhaps disappointing, perhaps just depressingly apt. A set of twenty-four sonnets, this section is characterized by sedate movement, careful and unsurprising tropes, and eons of back story to which the reader has little access. Most of the time, the gist of the poems’ history is apparent, but it’s also more or less apparent in the title. The restlessness that haunts this sequence is no more defined than that which spurred the villainy of the preceding section, but this time it seems to have less potential. Read one poem, and you’ll know where the rest are going to end up. “Heatwave,” one of the more self-contained of the sonnets, narrates a brief encounter between former lovers:
I shared a sidewalk table with her wraith,
Hung with the sun, a poppet on her knee.
I sank a bitter coffee, tried to up
My temperature. She stared down at her feet.
I tried. I smiled. I fiddled with my cup,
Then rose, cut down to Broadway in the heat.
Although unextraordinary in language and content, these poems show evidence of great formal care. Such a hopeless combination may be about as keen a representation of reheated love as any.
Although sharper and more lively than Cavoli Riscaldati, The Book of Love is also anchored by a recurring sense of regret. These poems pick up and juggle a variety of topics––ventriloquism, Athena, vinegar, love, love, love––but the conclusion is predominately defeat: “my suffersome jowl at rest / on the miscued curling stone of her breast” (“Lithium”), “Meanwhile, our banns could barely blot / a pity’s weight of blood” (“Proof”), “One eye didn’t seem so much to leave behind / as I sped to my job in the kingdom of the blind” (“Solo”). Some hopeful moments, as in “Troilism,” a funny, twisted treatment of ménage à trois, suggest the development of a lyric sensibility beyond the limitations of either loveless joy or joyless love. The final selection from The Book of Love, “The Man I Could Have Been,” conjures the opposites of promise and defeat and conjoins them: “The man I could have been, he learns from my mistakes. / He never thought it would be you.”
It’s in Roddy Lumsden Is Dead that we finally get the crane shot; the camera zooms out to reveal the speaker’s place, if not in the world, then at least in his own life and work. It is here that the poems’ speaker achieves self-knowledge:
Though I hate to cheapen a poem
with slang, it needs to be said
that our brief time together
went straight to video.
The vicious twinkle of his early poems is back, but without quite the same autistic glare. The speaker is no longer any kind of persona, projection, other. This book is Roddy Lumsden writing as himself, in memoriam. The old questions and concerns return, but with a somewhat more sublime perspective. Lost love is still lost, but retrieval is no longer the goal. This time it’s a tribute: “you’re lost forever / and the actors who will play us not yet born.” As author of his own requiem/obituary/wake, Lumsden radiates great vitality. Less Walt Whitman than Tom Sawyer, however, he stays focused on the coffin. Ultimately, his sentence hasn’t changed, it’s just been clarified. No need for morbidity to spoil a perfect carnal moment. Not because it’s not there, but because there’s no longer any competition:
Year in, year out, I catch myself at it:
quelling the candle, drawing down the smalls
of the latest literary starlet,
crushing them into a soft, white ball
I launch into a corner. Deep in the carpet,
the dust mites, to whom I am the God of Virility,
gaze upwards gladly at this cotton comet
which guarantees a season of fertility.
For strength of theme, for honesty, for resonance, the selections from Roddy Lumsden Is Dead make up the heart of this collection: “I want love to be hollow, sham; / I long to be held under.”
The Bubble Bride––commissioned by a hotel/spa near Lumsden’s home–– is a short, fanciful sequence that more or less serves as an empty parking lot for Lumsden’s flashy skateboard tricks. Linguistic control is the primary concern in this section. Hence the twenty-four lines of verse written in a Scottish dialect so thick Lumsden offers a translation (but doesn’t for another, thirty-two line piece). Hence the following list appearing in the section’s title poem: “a fizzcake fusing in the water, / her ration, her ruddy Romeo, her helping: / a suddy and sizzling Szechuan platter, full.” Lumsden’s technical facility with language is certainly impressive, but it’s a bit like seeing Daniel Day Lewis performing in a low-rent kung-fu flick.
The newest poems are encouraging. The Drowning Man, a thirty-two poem collection, doesn’t read like a cohesive book so much as a loosely themed poetry journal. Many individual pieces and moments stand out––“when meat rains from the sky, / accept it, love will not be hovering nearby” in “Love Cannot Do” and “why did we heave with our fins and gasp / and leave the swamp, if not to hear / the porch door creak, the strangler on the stair” in “Moments of Terror”––but an integrated work it’s not. Good poems that seem less aptly prefaced with ‘The New Book By’ than with ‘More From.’ One particularly well-crafted (and surprisingly warm) piece seems to indicate a departure for Lumsden from some of the old phantoms:
And though the puppy names you gave embarrass them,
that’s all they have, as they huddle on the quayside,
waiting for the ship you promised would arrive,
a ship they are sure will come.
As the ‘new and selected’ appellation suggests, Mischief Night is a whole-hog introduction to Roddy Lumsden. Some generalities you’ll probably sift out: narrative (or at least intensely lyric) needs drive these poems; although the verse is hopping with linguistic antics, the foci of the language are music and rhetoric (unified imagery is not Lumsden’s strong suit; impact is); and, whip-smart as these poems are, they tend to resist chin-stroking analysis. Throughout Mischief Night the rhymes, the larks, the brutal punch-lines tug Lumsden’s poems off the page and into the living context they describe. It’s not that I’d like to sit down for a heart to heart with Roddy Lumsden. It’s that I’d like to be at the next table over when some unwitting filly joins him for a bite.