Talking Dead – Neil Rollinson

To celebrate World Poetry Day today I decided that I would spend the day reading some. I had a few collections to choose from however in the end I settled on Neil Rollinson’s latest selection Talking Dead. I have to say, being a slight novice to poetry I hadn’t heard of Rollinson before, however the lovely Kate at Vintage sent me one as she said they were corkers and also because she thought the cover might appeal to me. I don’t know what on earth she was implying…

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Jonathan Cape, 2015, paperback, poetry, 56 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (as Kate Neilan thought I would like the contents as much as the phallic looking cover – she knows me so well)

Talking Dead is an unusual and interesting collection of poems which centre around three things. They are about death, sex and nature or occasionally all three, if you are lucky. In this selection of 37 of Neil Rollinson’s poetry we are thrown into random moments of people’s lives, sometimes the very last ones, around the world and throughout history. That is no mean feat and yet Rollinson does it with a wry grit, honest earthiness and often with quite the wicked sense of humour. The language can be as fruity as the subject matter, some poems are sensual and some shocking, together they form a quite eclectic mix. I laughed and I gasped as I read through.

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One of the things that I most enjoyed about the collection was how down to earth it was. Whilst Rollinson’s poetry is vivid, lyrical and beautiful it isn’t flowery. It has a rugged nature to it, not masculine per say more ‘muddy’ for want of a better turn, that’s sparseness is all the more powerful because of the honesty within its lines. Poems such as Christmas in Andalucía, which tells of a couple chatting at Christmas world aparts on Skype, have as much beauty and emotion as a man lying waiting for the rain after an epic drought in the aptly titled Monsoon. The same is the case for poems such as the stunning Ode To A Magnolia Tree or the tale of a historical beheading (I thought it was meant to be Marie Antoinette, it may well not have been) in The National Razor, both of which I thought were stupendous for completely polar reasons.

In many ways this is what is so brilliant about the collection, you can go from a love poem to a poem talking about the torturous ways you could be killed in the past, and there are not a lot of poetry collections that I can think of (but then again I am not the most prolific in poetry) where you would go from two such extremes with everything in the middle.

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See, I told you this was a varied collection. So varied in fact that I ended up having a slight issue with it because of the way the poems were organised. There is a series of poems, from which this collection takes its name, which all feature the Talking Dead literally (as you can see an example of above) as they are told by those who have died. For me personally it would have made sense to have them in the same section of the book. I don’t mean in one clump, however you could have interspersed them with poems such as Mother Die, Chesed Shel Emet or the aforementioned The National Razor. Then you could have had some of the more earthy poems like Cuckoo Pint, Bartolo Cattafi: Winter Figs and Starling all together – though actually Starling is all about death so maybe I am talking gobbledygook. I think I just sometimes felt the collection stopped and started rather than flowed. It seems an odd grumble considering I loved almost every poem (I didn’t like Gerbil or Foal  – but the latter was about a horse and the former was a bit too icky for me) I guess I just found it odd going from some deep poem about life, nature and death to suddenly a collection of poems about a hot beverage in The Coffee Variations.

That isn’t a slight on that series of mini poems by the way, I liked The Coffee Variations quite a lot and they actually lead me into one of the things that I loved most about some of the poems in the collection… they celebrate the ordinary. Poems such as X-Ray Specs, Love Sonnet XI, Starling, Ode To A Piss (which I loved and took me back to thinking of Andrew McMillan’s marvellous collection Physical), The Very Small Baseline Group Convenes at the Cat and Fiddle and Picnic were all wonderfully and made the ordinary extraordinary.

In fact the saucy, lovely and raw Picnic leads me into bringing up my favourites, for alongside Ode To A Magnolia Tree, Bartolo Cattafi: Winter Figs, Feathers and Talking Dead – Blackbird (in fact all the Talking Dead poems) it was one of my very favourites and so I will share it with you before I wrap up. (Click on it if you want to make it bigger.)

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Talking Dead is an interesting collection because at its heart, even when it is about death, this is a book about living and celebrating all the moments you are alive be they the extraordinary or the ordinary. I will have to head to Rollinson’s back catalogue I think.

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Filed under Jonathan Cape Publishers, Neil Rollinson, Poetry, Review

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