Half of "Nonsense" consists of 'Professor Winterthorn's Journey', a long narrative poem about the eponymous professor who decides on a whim to travel to a distant country to attend a conference on 'Nonsense and the Pursuit of Futility as Strategies of Modernist, Postmodernist and Postpostmodernist Literature and Art'. Reid minutely describes Winterthorn's trip humorously alighting on various details of modern life as well as making fun of the incestuous world of academia. Winterthorn's dead wife is always in the background, with his grief sometimes coming painfully to the fore, as at the airport where, in a moment of horror, her absence is revealed as 'a drear vacuum that howls like hell'. Like The Song of Lunch
, 'Professor Winterthorn's Journey' is a novella in verse, however several sections also serve as fine standalone poems, I particularly liked the following (horribly familiar) description of Winterthorn's troubled sleep:
"Not so much sleep as a buffeting,
a duffing-over, by brutal dreams.
Obscurely vengeful, they pounce on him
and carry out a questionless interrogation.
One after another, they arrive at his bed,
pop some idiot plotline in his head
and command him to follow it.
Which he does, like the accused in a trial by ordeal,
or contestant in a frenzied TV challenge show.
He awakes exhausted, sweaty, confused.
If not found guilty, he has at least been humiliated
and there is no appeal."
The next poem, 'The Suit of Mistress Quickly', is the interior monologue of an actress rehearsing for an amateur production of "Henry IV Part II", anxious about speaking her lines ('Shakespeare's job-lot malapropisms') and horrified to find that the director expects her to play Mistress Quickly like Margaret Rutherford ('The swine!'). Again Reid mixes humour and sadness to create a vivid picture of his middle-aged protagonist.
My favourite section in "Nonsense" is 'Airs and Ditties of No Man's Land', which was published previously as a pamphlet by Rack Press. The work begins with two skeletons, formerly a sergeant and a captain, hanging on a wire in no man's land:
"we both stand
unburied and unresurrected.
So, to pass the time, we let the wind
rummage in the hollows of our skulls
for memories and scraps of song and wisps of rhyme,
The airs and ditties which follow are brilliant, sung by the sergeant and captain in turn they capture the gallows humour and utter horror of the trenches. The piece was originally written to be performed to music composed by Colin Matthews for the 2011 Proms - I would love to hear it.
The final section of "Nonsense", 'A Salute to Moonlight', consists of a selection of poems linked by their progression from dawn to day to night to dawn again. Again Reid's humour comes through but also his insight and carefully chosen language, its art revealed gradually through the conversational tone. These four works together make "Nonsense" an absolute treat.