Reality: While Play With Me is anything but boring – MP goes to excessive lengths to give his poems a sheen and spice that few other poets can match – for all the song and dance there’s only a general impression given of how the poet sees the world. The stories contained fall into broad ruminations on childhood, death, travel and sex, a series of anecdotes that spend little time exploring the substance of their accounts.
On the other hand, as evidenced by the book’s title and its choice of non-poet blurb writers (Stephen Fry, Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner), this is a book about bravura, the dynamism of the writer’s speaking persona and the breadth of his experience. However one might hold forth on the lack of introspection or the book’s dodgy acoustics (the alliteration starts to grate and doesn’t let up), these are not its aims; a book of poetry that deals, however fleetingly, with heroin addiction and time spent at the JobCentre+, is rare enough to merit commendation for its rarity alone. To say mainstream poetry publishing needs voices like MP’s is gross understatement.
This does not let MP totally off the hook, bien sûr. As mentioned, in the poems “Owen” and “Manchester John”, concerning other heroin users who (it is implied) are no longer of the speaker’s acquaintance, the gravity of subject matter seems to force MP out of his usual free-associating and verbose style, and it’s no accident that these are among the most affecting pieces in the book. “Manchester John” demands special praise – its focus on unusual, lived-in particulars (‘thumbed revies of Men In Black, / Titanic, a sequel to Jurassic Park / are this ward’s longest residents’) are the exception to the book’s tendency towards generality.
(As an aside, Play With Me is a perfect example of an odd phenomenon in poetry, the use of plural when singular would suffice or even benefit the piece. Let’s take one instance in particular (appropriately) to show what I mean. In “Edinburgh Festival”: ‘[the belligerent rain] skelps make-up from faces, / smacks outfits with muck, / leaves audiences squelching // up and down craggy Edinburgh / gradients.’ [italics mine.] Reading these lines doesn’t conjure up a clear mental picture the way the best descriptive poems do – instead there’s a general impression, and where poems give general impressions the brain does what it always does and takes the path of least resistance, ie, produces the emotional equivalent of stock footage. It’s no coincidence that this poem is among the book’s weakest, and sticks out awkwardly in a sequence of better poems about the city. Play With Me has a strong directing voice that performs best when it is in full control of what we call imagery, what is in fact simple attention to detail and clarity of argument. Tl;dr: poetry thrives on specificity, and one intimately handled thing is better than a number of generalities. Okay, back to it.)
“Manchester John” also features the book’s most powerful emotional formulation, its closing ‘Count the number of sorrys / that I owe you and you owe me / and we owe other people / until it all goes dizzy.’ The poem follows a very basic sequence of set-up (hospital), exploration (the addiction ‘feels / better than they’d have you think’) and fallout (the above passage), and it works. The human element is there, the emotional connection and the remorse of the speaker are believable and moving.
“When I Fell in the Bog” kicks off in the book’s major register – bold, celebratory recollection – in this case that ‘It took years of walking / this park to conquer / every precipice – a feat / the trees and I alone dare flaunt’, but at the last moment it takes an odd turn, and in the last ten lines the poem turns on its head. ‘Funny thing – when it seemed I was going under, / my body relaxed, as if to say, / Tough break, but be glad / you’re not smouldering / over the dailies.’ If MP had been in a different mood he might have ended the poem here, rather than the less suggestive conclusion ‘Surprisingly Zen, / this almost dying; more like / being born.’ (One of MP’s weaknesses is finishing a poem a stanza or two after the punch.) “When I Fell in the Bog” expresses clearly and concisely one of the book’s recurrent themes, that death is ultimately more appealing than a life of meaningless repetition.
The slight “Jobseekers” is a similar collision of the poetic life (in this case Simon Armitage rears his head) and the programmatic nightmare of the benefits system. See also the excellent short piece “The Day is Dreich”, which slowly spins out its everyday elements of heavy rain, drooping trees and the critical ‘cagouled dog walker’ before activating a totally unexpected but perfectly formed metaphor for an unbroachable conversation: ‘We sit / down like guests at a formal dinner, / gauche, uncomfortably dressed, / a little too close to each other. / I’ve been here before, every / implement imaginable / set upon the table, not a clue / which tool is best / for tackling this plateful.’ The closing poem, “Water Features”, contains the lines ‘My smile, a child / saying Look at me! Pay me / attention!’ and the piece’s quiet and thoughtful consideration of growing up and growing apart works beautifully with the playfulness of the above self-diagnosis.
For all of these successes, however, the book is a little heavy with the incidental, particularly the series set in Cambodia, which provide little insight to go with its extensive and fabulous local colour, and the return to form is noticeable once the book returns to home. MP also has a noticeable habit of employing alliteration or flowery vocabulary as padding when the work loses its way or appears argumentatively slight, which has the effect of distracting the reader from the poem’s meaning or obfuscating that meaning respectively. For example, in “BoomTown”, ‘me in the eastern hemisphere, you / in the West, me an alley cat, / slight sunburn all over, you / with eyes slant’, and “Network: Cambodia”: ‘the traveller to expatriate evolution / has a lot in common with invisible ink.’ As unusual as these turns of phrase are, the difficulty in interpreting them takes away from their potential impact, and interrupts the poem.
Tl;dr: Though flawed, Play With Me is an enjoyable and unusual debut from a writer who could very easily gain a mass audience, and certainly one who understands the fact that a pull quote from Stephen Fry will punch harder than one from John Burnside. This is no particular criticism: in the days after news that the poetry market shrank 15% last year, writers with publicity nous are valuable indeed, and a healthy poetry business is (hopefully) one that takes risks on writers from without the usual talent pool.