Statement of Prejudice: I’ve met Luke once, briefly, and seen him read a couple of times, I reckon having seen him read live will make reading him on paper a lot easier. He’s a talented performer with an admirable social conscience. Slightly suspicious of the Essex-lad branding, but that’s more about branding than Essex-lads.
Reality: Satirical poetry is bloody difficult. Satire is tricky enough, but trying to wrangle that tension between humour and moralism, deconstruction and revolution while juggling meter, rhyme, sense and music a few clicks shy of a Penn and Teller skit. Mondeo Man is by no means perfect, but as an example of a genre few poets bother approaching, and even fewer well, it’s an admirable tilt at some worthy windmills.
To get one gripe out of the way: the book is a little too long. There are a fair few topical ballads, and a couple either reiterate an argument better formed elsewhere (‘The Meek’), hit a low-hanging target (‘SCANDAL!’), struggle for dramatic tension (‘The Ballad of Chris and Anne’s Fish Bar’) or stick out tonally from the rest of the book (‘The Ballad of Raoul Moat’, which casts too grim a shadow over the book’s more careful touches). That said, I’d struggle to identify any further pieces not pulling their weight, and I fully recognise the basic risk involved in making a single poem occupy ten pages of a ninety-page book.
That aside, there are few recent books more viscerally enjoyable than Mondeo Man. It manages to balance a gleeful play with the richness of language (see ‘Jean Claude Gendarme’, mon dieu) with a straight-faced and fundamentally optimistic social consciousness. In clumsier hands ‘The Drunk Train’ might have become patronising or woodenly empathetic; by moving through the poem from apparent distaste for ‘Tie Rack ties’, ‘peroxide Oompa Loompa girls’ and ‘Richard Hammond dreams’ the poem reaches (or reaches for) a kind of admiring, if not secretly envious complicity. The implicit acceptance that the full, de facto community (certainly of SE England, arguably of many UK urban centres) involves not just the ‘Guardian readers, theatre-goers’ who form Wright’s assumed audience (and how many poets acknowledge that, much less that there exist other people besides?) but also the young men and women (although mostly men, the poem’s perhaps unspoken reality, but one can only fit so much into ballad meter) singing and puking on public transport. And Wright makes a forceful bid to understand these social phenomena: ‘they’ll sing until they can’t’. As a manifesto piece, ‘The Drunk Train’ sets the tone and makes for a convincing summary of Mondeo Man’s agenda.
Even better, by placing this depiction of widespread social, and explicitly underclass disorder at the head of the book, Wright invites comparison between these small-scale disturbances and the Little England corruptions at the very top. What’s the real difference? What is doing more damage? Where does the power lie and what can be done about it? Wright does not punch down. The grimly and joyfully subversive ‘Ballad of Mr and Mrs P Cartwright’ sends up inheritance culture and the continuity between baby-boomers and their offspring, with (perhaps unnecessarily?) macabre results, while ‘The Rise and Fall of Dudley Livingstone’ paints a composite Conservative leader (nine-tenths Boris Johnson) undone by a sex scandal which contravenes unwritten rules about sexual conformity. Though it’s arguable that many poems make their argument more with a hammer than a scalpel, generically speaking it would be ludicrous to make it otherwise. Difficult to unpick unexamined cultural mores while going de-dum de-dum. I would argue that the sheer paucity of cultural criticism in contemporary poetry gives Wright an unusually long leash, and the accuracy with which he makes the formal constrictions work are impressive.
It’s notable that for the most part even the smaller, quieter and more thoughtful pieces interspersing are shot through with this awareness of broader social pressures. ‘Stansted’ explores familial pride and estrangement with a rare degree of intimacy and generosity, the well-observed and private moments (‘the way he’d rest his hands on his stomach’) in fairly simple opposition to the pressures of social status (‘Yeah, well, my Dad… built Stansted Airport’). The poem’s dynamics are straightforward, but effective, particularly when placed alongside the ballad pieces. In fact, the collection is remarkable in the degree to which it engages and deflates its own performing ego; which is, perhaps, egotism by another name, but it is significant that Wright recognises performance as a major conceptual strand in his work, and one that feels all the richer for a simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating piece like ‘Luke’s Got a Joke’. See also the remarkable ‘The Royal Wedding, 1947’; Wright’s social media followers will know his republicanism, yet he (at the very least professes) to put it aside for a baker’s daughter’s story of making a wedding cake. The tension between systemic hierarchy and genuinely felt affection for that hierarchy is not easily unwound, and the poem dramatizes it carefully.
Also worth mentioning are Wright’s paeans to Suffolk (read: engagement in local community), ‘Thaxted’ and ‘Get Parochial’; ‘Weekend Dad’, which comes close to rivalling Holly McNish in painting parenthood in explicitly and (somewhat) defiantly social tones; and the thoroughly unusual ‘About a Minute’, perhaps the only piece that abandons dramatic unity, and is instead a series of short, unrelated tableaux taking place in ‘the time it took you/to tell me what I already know’, a world of experience that contextualises and (maybe?) soothes the unmentionable romantic failure.
Tl;dr: Though not necessarily unusual fare for the spoken word scene, Mondeo Man’s capacity to move freely between spoken word and printed page should not be underestimated, while the book’s social conscience, despite its occasional lapses into over-simplicity, is of uncommon centrality in contemporary poetry. It’s a quality book.