David Tait, Self-Portrait with Happiness, (smith / doorstop, 2014), £9.95, 54pp, ISBN 978-1-902382-01-2
Reviewed by David Clarke
[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]
Judging by the poetry events I have attended recently, it is a brave man who mentions happiness in the title of his poetry collection. On one evening a month ago, for example, I listened to three poets read work about addiction, child abuse, bereavement, self-harm and depression. Not that these subjects do not need addressing, but I do wonder if we have reached a point where misery has become a marketing strategy, at least to the extent that poetry gets more attention when talking about these sorts of subjects than when it describes a nice walk on a lovely sunny day.
David Tait’s collection (which was nominated for the Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection in 2014) is, however, not just about being happy. In fact, it often addresses the threats to happiness’ fragile existence; there are poems here which discuss the end of love, the death of loved ones, and the challenges of long-distance relationships. Nevertheless, the happiness of the title does remain the book’s central concern, in that the ‘I’ of the poems is primarily interested in what makes happiness happen, as well as what endangers it, and is also concerned with recording those moments when happiness seems to have been achieved. This is done with convincing directness and (by no means artless) simplicity.
The tone of the collection as a whole is autobiographical, but not in the sense of giving us a life story of the poet. Instead, the poems speak from a position recognisably similar to that of the author’s, that is to say of a young gay writer who has spent time living abroad. The treatment of gay life is matter-of-fact in tone; it is just another aspect of the poet’s existence, rather than the vehicle for any politicised critique of the society he inhabits. So, for instance, there is little mention of homophobia, and a poem discussing unfaithfulness (‘North York Moor’) does not make any particular issue of the fact that the protagonists are men – this could be any furtive couple.
The poems are generally small narratives, little episodes describing a moment shared with friends or lover in a particular landscape, which open out tentatively into an awareness of broader concerns. The language Tait employs is restrained. His clear and economical description frequently holds back from simile and metaphor, and if he does employ an adjective here and there, there is nothing obviously showy about his choice of words. Take, for example, the effectively imagined ‘The Night my Grandfather Died’, which describes not the death of the grandfather, but rather a sexual encounter with an older man:
It was cold, with a full moon
and nowhere I wanted to be.
I walked the two miles
along the canal, jumped the stile
into his field, patted the flank
of his brown horse. I remember
it all so clearly: the whipped cream
melting on the cocoa, the first cracked
lip on my cheek, his breath –
how it rustled through him
as he lifted my t-shirt; and the moon
how it gleamed in the curtains, his hair –
his neck rippling like an accordion.
It is noteworthy here that the early stanzas of the poem are concerned with describing the actions which lead to the final scene in unadorned terms. Despite a steady rhythm, there is nothing obviously ‘poetic’ in the way of sonic effects, mobilisation of imagery, etc. When Tait does employ an adjective, it is a mere ‘brown’ to describe the lover’s horse. Only in the final two stanzas do we have an accumulation of imagery which transforms reality with almost surreal observation (the neck ‘like an accordion’). This is a common strategy in Tait’s poems, and can also be seen in, for example, ‘Of Arrival’. Here, following an understated description of the landscape of the south Pennines, the lover presents the ‘I’ of the poem with ‘a sycamore leaf, like a bill’ in the last line. In a way, that ‘like a bill’ seems to come out of nowhere, yet it sets up an echo throughout the rest of the poem; Tait makes us wait for this image, but it throws the rest of the short narrative into relief, signalling some underlying tension or threat of impermanence (perhaps in the sense of ‘we’ll pay for this later’).
There is no doubt that this is skilful work by a poet with a fine sense of judgement, a poet who knows when to keep his powder dry, choosing his moments to surprise the reader well. Satisfying as the collection is in this respect, however, I did wonder on re-reading whether the sense of control might be a little too perfect, whether the poet might be too concerned (as Don Paterson once put it) to ‘shove […] poems into tins / marked either ah! […] or hmm…’. Only in ‘On Being Trapped Inside a Puddle’, a variation on the kind of mirror poem popularised by Julia Copus, does Tait allow formal experiment to lead him to a poem which is both labyrinthine and mysterious.
Tait’s work speaks to the mainstream of the contemporary British lyric poetry, with its low-key language and its epiphanic impetus. He clearly also follows the trend for writing poems in two-line stanzas (nearly 40% of the poems in this collection), a formal conceit which Happenstance publisher Helena Nelson has often noted. His work does represent some of the best of this kind of writing currently being produced, but also leaves me wondering what he might be capable of in a more adventurous second collection.