“[T]he poems, while ostensibly about other things, are just one-sided conversations in search of someone else. Most poems are, at least to begin with […]”
There are severed heads in the British Museum
The human kind if you’d like to see them
I can book a ticket
If you fancy it
O, it says here
They’re not for display
But we can go there anyway
Shave and a Haircut
In two bits
I’ll pay a professional
To remove my hair
That I’ve earned
Which is mine
No, no, it’s fine
I wrote ‘Dating’ and ‘Shave and Haircut’ earlier this year. Lockdown measures were beginning to ease as indoor inactivities became outdoor outings. (There is, I think, such a thing as an indoor poem; and whatever that may be, these approach the opposite of that.) I was trepidatious and, like most, felt extra-terrestrial to anything remotely ordinary involving other members of our species. People, both friends and strangers, we were told, were dangerous. Stay away, do not meet, dance, drink, or have sex. It’s likely we’re yet to come to terms with what effect this has had on us, on our sense of intimacy and togetherness, and the poems, while ostensibly about other things, are just one-sided conversations in search of someone else. Most poems are, at least to begin with – so it’s not so strange, really.
‘Shave and a Haircut’ came about after my first trip to the barbers following their months-long closure. The man behind the counter asked if I’d like a receipt for my haircut, which felt absurd. I thought about the shearings on the floor, and I thought about the hair on my head. Surely if I wasn’t proof of purchase then something had gone drastically wrong during the grooming process. Anyway, one would hope that if I was unhappy with the end result that this, too, would be immediately evident by the state of me, and not a dawning horror that required compensation after a few days and a quiet word from my friends. So, I was party to a transaction: gone terribly, an exercise in waste removal (who knows where the hair goes); gone well, a paid-for service in men’s fashion (short, back and sides – £24, christ).
‘Dating’, I hope, cuts in a different way. I read Alice Procter’s The Whole Picture and afterwards I looked up the stack numbers Oc1925,-.46 – the mokomokai of the Maori people – in the British Museum. You can too if you like. I wrote the poem first but soon realised its relation to the other lyric. Poetry Wales had asked me if I would write about Britishness and colonial legacies, since together they do address the topic. I’ve written elsewhere about museums and cultural memory, if that’s of interest, but I’m not sure, personally, I have much to add at the moment – perhaps because I’ve had no trouble making claim to Britishness whenever I fancy, for obvious reasons. It may be worth asking instead whether I want to make that claim right now, how I might go about doing so, and if I actually have any choice in the matter.
To this I’d probably say something facetious to dodge the question, like: I’m proud to come from a nation of pioneers who invented the Morris dance and other cornerstones of Western culture, and I believe that we should all approach my illustrious national heritage – bells on our knees and stick in hand – with the kind of seriousness and respect that it deserves. And I would look at you in my apple-bottom breeches, my ribbons, my knee-length white socks, my cap, and my baldric with the flaps, and toss about my little hankie, and I would challenge you to doubt my commitment to whatever it is I’ve got going on. (I should say, in the interest of the Union, I’m also up for taking on Welsh clogging and I love a good cèilidh. There is only the dance after all, as Eliot says, so it’s whoever will have me at this stage).
Often lyric poetry is mistaken for its obsession with one’s self, a single identity, and the majority output of contemporary poetry unfortunately hasn’t done its reputation any favours. You quote Whitman and say you contain multitudes. But do you contradict yourself and say, ‘Very well, then I contradict myself’. That interests me, and I think it’s more important than any sense of alignment we think we have. There’s something delicious about the writer who calls themself poet, a title best conferred on a person by someone else. What are they claiming to be to others? And more importantly, what if the poet actually isn’t very good? I wonder if they – the poet – are aware of it, generally speaking. Irony and hypocrisy tend to go hand in hand, and I’ve no doubt plenty reading ‘Dating’ will find themselves in it.
Once the punchline lands there’s not much else to say. I suppose that’s why we call it a gag. The poems are short because they are meant to shut up. If they read like they took fifteen minutes to write, I’d be inclined to tell you it’s because that’s not far off the truth. They’re unbothered by their own failure. Which is to say: I’m happy to be a floor-length mirror for bad poets everywhere, if only to showcase their inability to rise to the occasion while actually giving the reader the courtesy of doing it properly. ‘Many there are that can fall, but few can arrive at the felicity of falling gracefully.’ Pope called bathos the art of sinking – and given the amount of artless sinking going around, I thought I could do one better.
Everyone knows writers can be ignoramuses (that’s me), but I can’t pretend readers are any different either (sorry, that’s you). I’ve always admired Stevie Smith’s conspiratorial doodles for this reason. Her figures cross their arms and look back at us accusatively. Noreen Masud recently pointed out their indifference to aiding any sort of interpretation of Smith’s writing, these ‘lingering watchers’ that we half-ignore. It’s certainly easier to ignore them, so I guess that’s the challenge levelled at us. Sometimes illustrations work best when they’re not illustrative. Who the hell are you, they say. Who do you think you are? It’s a fair question, and good a place to start as any.
Jack Solloway is a writer from the West Midlands living in London. His poems have appeared in Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal and Poetry Wales; his prose in the Times, TLS, Aesthetica Magazine, and Review 31. His debut poetry pamphlet is forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books’ Legitimate Snack series.
Photo credit: Paolo Romito
Pictured: Miron Zownir (left) and Jack Solloway (right)