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, as follows,"
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.
Around half this book is composed of a long narrative sequence charting the experiences of a bereaved 60 year old academic who attends a conference overseas, only largely to abscond from proceedings and become initially mired in self-pity and then seemingly overcome that. It's a very enjoyable read - as in their different ways were The Song Of Lunch (also a long and often amusing narrative but with philosophical overtones) and A Scattering (about Reid's own bereavement).
The rest of the book is also very enjoyable - another sequence about an actress having an off day and then finding her form, a third sequence of short poems narrated by two skeletons who've died in the first world war, and a final set of more miscellaneous short poems which (as the jacket points out) start in the early morning and move through to the late evening.
If you have enjoyed Reid's other work, it is a safe bet that you will also enjoy everything here.
I've been reading Christopher Reid's new book of poems Nonsense and have been completely captivated. The collection begins with a long poem divided into short sections called `Professor Winterthorn's Journey'. It runs to almost 60 pages and is utterly gripping. Not because it's a rollicking yarn, but because it's so accurate, witty and poignant. The poem follows a Professor to a conference entitled `Nonsense and the Pursuit of Futility as Strategies of Modernist, Postmodernist and Postpostmodernist Literature and Art'. The Professor arrives in an unnamed foreign city, doesn't attend much of the conference, meets various people, eats a muffin at the airport, stays in a hotel with a `bathroom that roars when you switch the light on', and misses his recently deceased wife.
In the course of all this there are meditations on loss and grief, meaning, religion and love - but all put in with such a light touch. Then there are the spookily vivid descriptions of everyday events - flying for instance: `Seats aren't wide, but they settle down/without territorial elbow-play/or shoulder assertion'; or taking a shower in a hotel `...plenty of pounding hot water/ longer than he needs to,/ then two towels/ to get extravagantly dry.'
This might make the poems sound trivial, but they are anything but - they are unpretentious, poignant, incredibly vivid and deeply humane.
Goodness, this is dull! More than half of it's taken up by a limp ('a rotund pot/of scented tea -/refill later') piece of light verse - sadly, the poet's mourning his late wife* does not magically make it anything other - in which the occasional perfunctory rhyme is almost worse than nothing. Actually, it IS worse than nothing. Am dram piece (11 flaccid pages) no less feeble. Writing as therapy! Pas de problème, but publication does a disservice to all concerned, including us the public. The masterly No Man's Land anti-war suite pushes the whole thing up a notch or so, happily. The concluding section? Meh. Doodles, of which the last is mildly amusing. I felt insulted. A small press, pourquoi pas, a limited run 'collectible' even - but Faber? Final gripe: why does Reid get the plaudits while a John Whitworth, say (just as serious, infinitely funnier and three years his senior) is ignored? Widowhood as career move? Perish the thought, (A clue might be that Reid's an *amiable* old buffer, not something that Whitworth ever aspired to, though in Life at Eighty he almost achieves it).
* If bereavement is of interest to you, read Ruth Stone's What Love Comes To. She endured fifty years' widowhood with fortitude, fidelity and - yes - humour. How else could you do it?