Jack Underwood – Happiness
Full Disclosure: None. Haven’t met him or seen him read.
Review: Happiness is Underwood’s first collection, published a full eight years after he was awarded an Eric Gregory, and has already been compared to work from other talented poets of a similar poetic generation. There may be some surface justification here: on a first read, Happiness seems to operate in a fairly familiar tone, a kind of archly ironic, sharp-witted and self-deprecating voice acting more or less helplessly in the face of the world’s evils. And while Happiness doesn’t aspire to any direct assault on the bastions of neoliberal British society, there is a kind of concerted worrying around the seams of what that society considers ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’; the book seems almost obsessively concerned with the terms and conditions bound up in the el dorado emotional state of the book’s title. What is the cost of happiness? What does it look like? What’s with all the Fibonacci numbers? (More on that later.)
For background reading, Underwood’s address to James Allen’s Girls’ School gives a very clear indication of the poet’s basic principles, namely a kind of faith in poetry’s ability to forge new systems of value separate from that of the society that hosts it, a call to challenge and redefine what matters. A recent review of Michael Donaghy’s work in Poetry Review illuminates his own critical lens as much as the poems under scrutiny. Here, Underwood highlights Donaghy-as-trickster, a charming Marvellian rake/ringmaster:
‘Donaghy’s poems show off openly – ta-dah! “My people were magicians”, says the speaker of ‘The Excuse’: the artifice, the owning of the stagecraft is part of the appeal.’
In Happiness, Underwood too ‘tends to keep the immediate subject of a poem, and the logic of its enquiries, open and clear’. The poems often draw attention to their own theatricality (what Underwood refers to as a ‘campy note’), the falseness of the surface meaning/feeling that still hints at a frustrated or reticent sincerity working underneath; it’s in the gaps between what is said and what is left to the reader to decipher that the book does its best and most discomfiting work.
On a first read, several of these pretty fascinating set pieces, particularly the list poems ‘Some Gods’ (‘God with eagle’s head and five-pointed-star insignia on palms of hands; God connected to seven IV drips with fire coming out of mouth’), ‘Accidental Narratives’ (‘A crab on the phone box floor; the armless mannequin on the chapel roof at dawn’) and ‘She loves you like’ (‘She loves you like your hair smells proteinous; she loves you like pausing to move a snail somewhere safer in the rain’) seem kinda like ostentatious poetic exercises. The book makes repeated use of this disjunctive trope, comparing one thing with an off-kilter other: ‘we’ll notice we’re singing the way you notice / a police car pulling up the drive’ (‘You Are Definitely Coming, So Why Not Now?’). One could argue this fascination comes with being pretty bloody good at it. But I think it comes back to Underwood’s conscious drive towards the performative, the belief that poetry is primarily (by no means solely) an act of entertainment, that the hard work that makes a magic trick look effortless is also a powerfully generous gesture.
This direct address is a key aspect of Happiness. Though as a whole the book is weird and sad and deeply personal, retrospectively the opening poems look purposefully normal, a conscious effort to establish some common ground with the reader. [Side note: this common ground is not a context-free space, and yes, in Happiness it is thoroughly coded as middle class, with markers like hockey, cricket, English Literature students and an extensive list of fresh produce. A more politically minded critic might point out the worlds of these poems focus far more on the individual than on wider social systems, or indeed that this is the default focus of most contemporary poetry, to the extent it seems faintly ridiculous to point out that one book or another seems light on social consciousness. But that’s criticism of the context in which Happiness finds itself, and not Happiness.] So when ‘A man is dragging a dead dog’ turns its focus on you, the reader, the sudden implication in the poem’s pocket nightmare is disconcerting:
‘And since you already have a street in mind and perhaps a breed of dog […]
Why not try
to understand this thing you are doing: how the dog came to be dead
and you came to be dragging it, what this means to you and where it is
that you are going?’
It’s a near-identical movement to Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (‘Since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, / Imagine being Kevin’), but with the graphic awfulness of its inexplicable act delivered with academic specificity. It almost sounds like a creative writing brief. ‘Why not try to understand?’, meanwhile, is kind of a key thought for the collection.
Where Happiness does encounter broader social trends is in its handling of masculinity, in ‘The Bomb’ and ‘If guns’ in particular. The former has its speaker sitting naked astride a huge bomb, like Major Kong in Dr Strangelove:
‘I felt proud of the bomb, scared and a little sexy.
I don’t think I’m a bad person when I admit
I lent down and touched my face against it.’
It’s a grim wee poem, and could be read as a fairly straightforward parodying/playing out of a fragile kind of masculinity that locates safety, affection and sexual power in military-level violence. It’s significant, I think, that neither poem figures the victim(s) of either weapon; for the fantasy to be effective, the fantasiser must maintain the moral right to wield their power (witness the growing phenomenon of white male victim complexes). Compare with ‘If guns’:
‘[if guns] were more popular in our culture
I’d be attracted to people who had guns the same way
I am attracted to people I suspect don’t like me. […]
I’d watch them slide out the clip and droop the gun
to me like a kneeling horse. I’d look in its hole,
blow my cheeks. Thank you, I’d say. Thank you.’
I think these poems add up to a deep mistrust for unchecked accumulations of power, which when fed through Happiness’ imaginative lens becomes this craven kowtowing – even the horse acquiesces. The book is full of speakers in various states of personal powerlessness, insecure and constantly on the verge of emotional collapse. Take ‘The Ashes’, a pretty great longer poem that weaves in between a speaker doing chores at home, listening to cricket on the radio and the encroaching awareness of their own mortality. Also in this category is the fantastic ‘Caboose’, in which the speaker is trapped in the eponymous vehicle with only a grim-reaperish figure for company: ‘The driver’s hands sweat black juice and I never / see him eat. […] He refuses / to learn my name.’ The poem runs from one disjunctive thought to the next, the sense of urgency and anxiety building to the last line, a faintly pleading ‘there’s nothing / else to read on here unless you like letters home.’ These Kafka-ish moments seem to be leavened only by reference to immediately proximate loved ones or to the formal organisation of poetic artifice (and even this through a fairly sturdy layer of irony). The other poets in the book – Akhmatova, Mascha Kaléko, a rather hammed-up version of John Donne (‘I’m not sure I remember what we did / before we LOVED’) – themselves seem in thrall to forces beyond their control, writing love poems against the darkness.
It’s to this last detail that I think the book’s mulling over on happiness, security and anxiety comes round: what exactly is home under these conditions, particularly when the domestic space is itself such a source of fear? And okay, now I’m gunna discuss Fibonacci sequences, which for the novices among you goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 and so on. For reference, I don’t hold much stock in perfect ratios, numerology, what have you, but Underwood clearly does, or at least wants the reader to think so. The problem with discussing Fibonacci sequences in poetry of course, is that it makes the reader look like a conspiracy theorist, which is a pretty neat defence mechanism, but whatever. HERE ARE SOME OBJECTIVE FACTS ABOUT THE BOOK, HAPPINESS. I PROMISE IT WILL ULTIMATELY BE RELEVANT.
In Paterson’s book on Donaghy, Smith, Paterson talks about how sonnets should really have an octet and a quintet, if they were to properly follow the golden mean, but this was largely squashed by Elizabethan superstitions about the number 13 (the fifth Fibonacci number and a general bad omen). Donaghy himself was obsessed with number games, and often inserted them into his work, including the poem ‘Where is it written that I must end here’, which resembles the ‘demon traps’ written by medieval scribes in its coiling around to vanishing point, structured around a Fibonacci sequence (more on this shortly). Happiness itself contains a half-dozen 13-liners: ‘∞’, ‘Second’, ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘Canto XIII’ (of course), ‘I promise when I lift your egg’ and ‘Accidental Narratives’.
As indicated by the opening poem, the book is in some ways a mirror image, with two perfect halves. The first poem is answered by the 41st; the perfect halves of the onion (‘Certain’) turn into a bird grotesquely dismembered by a fighter jet (‘Thank You for Your Email’). The eighth (Fib #5) is answered by the 34th (Fib #9); the many aspects of an unnamed god (‘Some Gods’) reflect the single, constantly changing and grotesque body of the devil (‘Wilderbeast’).
This means the middle poem, ’13 Say’ is the twenty-first poem (Fib #8). Its ostensible occasion is the death of Neil Armstrong, in which ‘you’ say:
‘Of the 89 comments on the article, 13 say “he’s on
the moon, now”! Why would he be on the moon? It’s absurd!’
89: Fib #11. And the poem goes on to do precisely that, putting various dead people on the moon, to:
‘a quiet place, out of reach and strange,
with a hard wind that rushes through: a rolling headstone
that requires a giant leap, and a sad and happy lie, to get to.’
After all that, I think there’s some evidence to suggest that Happiness revolves around precisely this ‘sad and happy lie’, the illusion of safety, and the questionable, even harmful, happiness it brings. In the second poem called ‘∞’, Underwood describes the state of the dead:
‘how fear for them is a wrong
number calling, how we needn’t lead them
through the cordon in red blankets,
how fixed and safe they are.’
I think this big, supremely weird structure Underwood has produced is itself a pretty powerful acknowledgement of and fight against fear; it may be the entire book is his version of Donaghy’s demon trap, an attempt to keep himself and those he loves safe. But, as here, ‘safe’ itself is a word most commonly used in Donaghy’s work in reference to death. The closing lines of the book’s last poem are an unhappy mirror of the metaphorically flawless onion (‘calling one half Perfect / and the other half also Perfect.’), as the poem sweeps away all its artifice, all its fine work, and simply calls it what it (maybe) is: ‘the fearful and forgotten things I’ve lied to myself / about, and to my friends, and to my family.’ The safe lie gives way to the vulnerability of confronting something closer to the truth.
Happiness has some pretty marvellous individual poems, but it has been carefully put together, I think, to be a coherent unity. Given that, I think the poems are intended to be read as a continuing question, not ‘art’ vs ‘honesty’ but a tension held between the two. That it does so with charm, warmth and a determined attempt to build empathetic bridges is something quite special.
Tl;dr: I certainly had a lot of fun trying to get my head around the knotty philosophy of the book. The tone is a lot to get used to, and the blunt strangeness of the endeavour is ultimately quite demanding, but Happiness is a remarkable first collection in terms of its aesthetic unity and maturity, and well worth multiple reads.