Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson

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Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson, Jonathan Cape, £10

There is a danger when a poet sets out to record the ‘numinous in the everyday’, as Neil Rollinson’s most recent collection Talking Dead attempts, that they may limit themselves to merely documenting tedium and banality. The line between elevating the mundane and descending into the quotidian is a fine one, particularly in a form that allows for such rich imaginative worlds, as poetry does. So, it is perhaps to be expected that Rollinson’s collection falls on both sides of this difficult line: there are both wildly successful and bewilderingly mind-numbing poems to be found within his pages, but there is also an overarching sensuality that is compelling.

At its most successful the poems are intense and generous. Stuffed overfull with evocative lines whilst maintaining a striking simplicity and rawness, they convey sensual, bodily experience without overstatement or overcomplication. Poems like ‘Evening in Axarquía’, ‘Antonio Machado: Night’, and ‘Love Sonnet XI’ have the open warmth and intense detail reminiscent of O’Hara at his best:

It darkens quickly, and everything falls
into silence—except the dogs,
the indefatigable dogs, barking
mad with the heat and emptiness.

Lines such as this are both joyfully simple and highly wrought, evocative and expansive. Rollinson has an ear for giving unexpected metrical energy to lines and his images often seem to work by accreting disparate details, all full of contingent and unanticipated meaning, as in ‘Talking Dead—Head-Shot’:

I could trace
its parabola over the field,
like fishing wire, a pencil line
drawn on paper.

These ‘Talking Dead’ poems form the backbone of the collection; ventriloquized voices often seriocomically describing their own deaths to the reader. This form allows for Rollinson to revel in a sensuality and perversion that seem his hallmarks, focusing and refocusing on the minutiae of the experience and often deliberately pressing the poetry into prosaic listing, giving a tragic sense of the bathos of a talking corpse. This is smart and complex writing: ideas of life and death, expressiveness and boredom, come to be seen as existing on a continuum and Rollinson’s generous voice keeps the reader onside even when confronted by his less successful poems.

But there are also less successful offerings. That this collection glories in the everyday does not mean one should not balk at lines such as those in in ‘The Coffee Variations’.

taking my pew
beside the Gaggia
I bow my head
to this black brew

This is a particularly ham-fisted poem which never really subverts its banal and bourgeois archness. So too does ‘Ode to a Piss’ do nothing to assuage its title’s lack of deftness:

You feel
the pressure
build
as your bladder
swells.

It is, however, telling that these moments strike one as particular missteps, and this is because the poetry lacks in these instances the wit and humour that is otherwise in abundance throughout. It is the absurd humour and wry awareness that saves this collection and elevates the poetry, as at the end of ‘Foal’, where having worked and reworked epic paradigms, the voice falls back:

maybe it’s simply—look, I’m a horse
the air is sweet, and the grass is good.

Rollinson is not interested in the epic; he wants to talk about the mundane. And it is in the moments that the distance between these poles is measured and found inconsequential that his poetry comes alive.

By Nathan Ellis