‘Sometimes your sadness is a yacht’ is the title of the fourth poem in Jack Underwood’s recently published collection Happiness. Highlighting early on in proceedings that the eponymous state cannot be explored without reference to its antonym, the poem refers with some resignation to the inaccessibility of the emotions of those we believe to be closest to us. Happiness, indeed, is sometimes found only when we are able to hold sadness ‘to the edge of our bed, shutting our eyes/on another opened hour’.
The unicorn of happiness in Underwood’s debut is thus revealed to be roughly what he – and a whole generation of those coming of age in a climate of uncertainty, introspection and irony – have come to know it as: transient, difficult to express with sincerity, and apt to vanish when subjected to direct scrutiny. When it does show up, it is often in small and unexpected ways, such as ‘in the form of two purple/elastic bands round a bunch of asparagus’ in the title poem ‘Happiness’. This is one of the many images which bears witness to Underwood’s refusal to exclude the mundane, and even the distinctly unpoetic, from the poetic experience. In a lucid essay written for online magazine Five Dials, Underwood argued that poetry requires more than just the description of a revelatory or poignant experience from the poet, but must be predicated on a connection with the reader: ‘No one wants to turn up to a poem only to find someone enthusiastically telling you, ‘It was awesome – you should’ve been there!’ So when, in this collection, we come across ‘smokers/huddled round a lunch hour’, a lover with ‘biscuit hair’ or a figure ‘pausing to move a snail somewhere safer in the rain’, or when a poem notices ‘a smell in the fridge’, far from bringing the poetry party to a crashing halt like an ill-timed ballad on an Ipod shuffle, the reader is invited in, offered to dump their coat in the bedroom and take a lukewarm Corona.
If all this sounds a little too much like poetry for a generation whose experience of life is characterised by relative privilege and organic vegetables, you’re not entirely off the mark. Underwood belongs, as another reviewer has noted, to an emergent school of British poets who share a language which might be called ‘post-sincerity’, in which poems struggle with the opposing impulses to reveal and conceal; to admit the presence of a strong emotion whilst simultaneously undermining earnestness with deliberately mundane and unsophisticated language and imagery, as in ‘Love Poem’, in which the poet is ‘thinking of you and going/itchy from it’. For some critics, this form of expression is alienating, disingenuous and lacking in poetic rigour. Indeed, one high-profile poet (and self-confessedly ‘ancient and sceptical reader’) conjectured that some poems seemed deliberately to be ‘aspiring to invertebracy’, and found fault with a style that is ‘defensive for all its apparent self-exposure’.
However, such an assessment misses the point of all this evasiveness. The collection as a whole sets up a delicate, playful back-and-forth of sincerity and flippancy which ultimately conveys the sheer terror of experiencing and communicating human emotion in a world in which social mores require us to appear largely unflustered by significant life events. ‘Poem of Fear for my Future Child’ is both a terribly funny and very moving portrait of the insecurity of a parent-to-be:
When I think about pushing your pram by the pond,
all the dogs off their leads, nothing between us and
the dark, weedy water, I drown you. I’m sorry
All this fear, like a fizz building in a bad, grey egg,
is waiting for you. All this greenstick, nodular love,
so tense, perversely stored like a bubble in my lungs,
will be here, a huge trembling hand, when you arrive.
Underwood’s true worth as a poet is revealed in his ability to take the profane trappings of contemporary middle-class British life – eggs, asparagus, ‘a white plastic patio/chair’ – and present thoughts and observations within them which achieve something close to the sacred. In ‘An Avoidance’ ‘bad news ticks/in the kettle as it rests’ and ‘fragments of happiness’ are distributed as the lime garnish in drinks at a house party. Moments of clarity in love or life usually disrupt the somnambulism of small happinesses, rather than forming part of them, and give lie to any assumption that Underwood is not capable (to misquote Plath) of loving well and saying it in good lines. In ‘William; at four days old’ the poet, on meeting an infant relative for the first time is ‘uncooked’:
– I can feel my socks being on –
utter, precious apple
churchyards flatten in my heart,
I’ve never been brilliant so scared
For all the initial appearance of millennial subterfuge in irony or whimsy, Underwood’s collection contains several moments of gem-like sparkle, diamond-sharp phrases which cut through the deceit and right the bone. The last couplet of ‘Weasel’, for example, which could otherwise be taken either as an immature love poem or the self-conscious and self-mocking imitation of such, reveals the voice of a graver lover: “was I even hungry once for eating?/Were you ever not the end to all fasts?” These poems invite the reader to engage with their subterfuge and revelations rather than be the passive mirror onto which they are projected, reflecting only the poet’s own image back. They provoke, affect and occasionally weary (as in the case of the three poems which list deliberately quirky and random elements – ‘a crab on the phonebox floor…the waxwork head of Chaplin’) but always invite discourse. And, most importantly, they have something significant to say about the human experience, and they say it well. The final poem ‘Thank You for your Email’ both calls into question the veracity of the poetic imagery of the entire collection and contains its most stark and unadorned confession.
only now I think it was not, perhaps,
a mountain, it was not, perhaps, a shrub on fire, and not
a fighter-jet boring its noise through the sky, and I am
certain now, it was not me, or a wing or body of a broken
bird, but the fearful and forgotten things I’ve lied to myself
about, and to my friends, and to my family.
This admission of dishonesty paradoxically forms the strongest and most frank connection yet with the reader whilst simultaneously expressing the fact that happiness through mutual knowledge and understanding is likely to remain elusive given the human capacity for deceit. Perhaps fittingly, this collection ultimately delivers nothing but ambiguity on the subject of happiness, reminding us both to treasure what we have and not to expect its endurance: ‘we know happiness/because it is not always usual, and does not wait to leave’.
By Rachel Chanter