Michael Conley’s Aquarium; Richard Moorhead’s The Word Museum
(First appeared in Issue 14 of Under the Radar.)
In Aquarium, Michael Conley takes his model for many of his poems from jokes. In the title poem, for instance, a man “walks into A & E” and tells the nurse that his stomach “has become an aquarium.” But rather than becoming a set up (Doctor doctor, I think I’m an aquarium!), the man is sent home and told to “avoid contact sports.” He names the fish in his stomach “after his mother and brothers,” “becomes a talking point at dinner parties,” and “stops/eating seafood out of respect.” The poem ends after a fish, the one named after his mother, disappears, and a “one night stand notices a crack//in the tank.” A different doctor declares it “most unusual”, and sends him home again “with a roll of masking tape.” The ending is bleak and laden with wry pathos, like a sagging balloon. We are left uncertain of how we even got there, realising, like the man in the poem, that perhaps we must become reconciled with the situation, however ridiculous.
Similarly to ‘Aquarium’, many of these poems are like the joke before the punchline, taking place in an absurd mirror-world. We accept the estrangement from normality in jokes on the assumption it will be joyfully resolved, even though there’s no guarantee that this bargain will be kept. Conley’s poems take us somewhere disconcerting and then stay there to explore. It’s often amusing as well as a little uncomfortable, as in ‘A Romantic Picnic With My Lover, The Entomologist’, who “whispers seductively/about a certain parasitic worm,” and perhaps most closely resembles Luke Kennard, albeit without some of Kennard’s meta-fictional acrobatics.
Even without a shaggy dog structure, the poems are marked by a dark, anti-humour based on tension, as in ‘Auction’ or ‘We Discover A Severed Thumb In The Woods’, poems that lead us to an overwhelming question but don’t answer it. ‘Auction,’ for instance, about a sale on something like eBay, starts with:
I have a green meteor next to my name:
nobody has ever complained about me.
Ten more perfect transactions
and it will be a golden meteor.
The speaker finds an “ugly” Bart Simpson watch which “sells quickly for £2.99,” and then he receives a message “the same day”:
thank you iam realy lukin 4ward
2 gettin my new Bart Simpson watch
I slip it into an envelope
place it lovingly on the kitchen table
and smash it three times with a hammer.
With all of poetry’s sensitive souls, we are not used to speakers being wicked. But the shock of the smash, hidden from us until the end by “lovingly,” is funny because of the tension established by the “golden meteor.” After balancing a house of cards, the fear that it will fall, that someone else will knock it over, becomes so great that the only satisfactory resolution is to destroy it oneself. Rather than be vulnerable to an arbitrary complaint, be beholden to the buyer not spoiling their perfect record, the speaker releases this anxiety with a smash. The poem ends, almost blissfully, with the watch hitting “the bottom of the postbox/with the hushed jangle/of settling stardust.”
In all his poems, as the examples above will show, Conley experiments with a flatness of tone, using brisk, simple, unqualified sentences and often short lines. In ‘Krill Rations,’ he uses a cold, affectless ‘administrator voice’ as a way of testing this tone to an extreme; e.g.
We are aware
that the penguins’ keening
Those exposed report uncontrollable sobbing
as they are reminded of all their unspoken
Earplugs and tissues
will be issued
to all homes within a two mile radius.
The sense is that the world itself is strange, and that the speaker is only presenting it without comment or elaboration, even if this isn’t necessarily true. And so when more conventionally poetic devices sneak through into this flat tone, as in the “settling stardust” of ‘Auction,’ it’s thrilling. This style shows Conley’s abilities at their best, when imagery takes us by surprise, as when angry, trembling fists are describes as being “like overhanging pomegranates” in ‘Psychic’. The weaker moments in the pamphlet are when Conley’s poems stray from this and break from their unnerving commitment elsewhere to not tell the reader what to feel.
The pamphlet overall mostly varies in the speakers’ response to absurdity, whether they embrace it, like the joyful meaninglessness of smashing the watch in ‘Auction’, or bridle against its unfairness, the unjustness that balloons should fly out of reach, that people should sicken, that tyrants should rule, that grandmothers should die, that pet rats should be so easily killed. How readily we can see the bright side is perhaps whether we imagine Sisyphus happy. Either way, it makes for an entertaining, troubling, witty, mean, clever, sad set of poems.
Richard Moorhead is quite a different a poet, not without humour but without Conley’s directness. The Word Museum is a challenging book, as the poems, that are otherwise relatively middle-ground and unthreatening, seem to have been left on the boil, their devices condensed and thickened. Take, for instance, the first lines of the pamphlet, from ‘TICKETS’:
Straight but kissed by crescent moons at either end,
born of punched holes made for tearing
fingertips. They spill onto the counter’s brass plate,
its three slits side by side but only two are working
now. I’d been hoping for a bus conductor’s
portable machine, the rows of buttons – chainmail
numbers made of Bakelite, chassied in a miner’s fist
of oily steel, the Brasso whiff of someone
saying, “Omnibus” in three short gulps.
As with the rest of the pamphlet, the poem is descriptive and frequently visual, using an object as a starting point for comparison and digression. It moves quickly and must be read slowly.
It was a little lie to say the above were the first lines of the pamphlet. The pamphlet properly starts with a note “The ticket booth was retrieved from the local cinema, after a fire in 1953,” before ‘TICKETS’ begins. Many of the poems are prefaced by a little italicised note like this, in what Claire Trévien in a review describes as the “language of curation,” as the reader is guided around an imaginary house. For example:
On the first landing there is a window seat and a telephone with a rotary dial. Its case is cracked, like it has been dropped or thrown. It is delicate. Please do not touch it.
The organising conceit of the pamphlet then is that each of the poems, which are all titled after a single word or object (‘TICKETS,’ ENVELOPES,’ ‘PROMETHEUS,’ ‘EGG,’ and so on), are each exhibits within this imaginary Word Museum. It reminds me of the trick whereby one can supposedly remember lots of items, such as a shopping list, by picturing a walk through one’s house and imagining each thing on the list at a different place (milk up the stairs, eggs on the armchair, hummus by the stove-top espresso maker …), and works well to collect the poems together.
Perhaps the most famous predecessor to these associatory explorations of words and household objects, a sort of ekphrasis of the ordinary, is Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. As in Tender Buttons, by exploring a single word or object these poems avoid much need for narrative arc or structure. The focus is, in some ways, a controlling device: as much as these poems wander we do, ultimately, know what they’re on about. We can look from object to poem, and from poem to object, test one against the other. It then becomes a question of how far Moorhead can take us. Much like a riddle, the imagery is not consistent; its delight is in how wild and wide its comparisons can be.
It varies as to how successful I feel Moorhead is in this approach. At times it can be powerful because of, rather than despite, its difficulty. ‘CARRIED,’ for example, begins:
You were carried off, son, you were missed
right here. Then in the darkened room,
a nurse sat still, awaited grief. It came
in the jangling stirrup of sobs
as we lurched on the back
of a horse breaking down.
The image of the horse is as clever as it is confusing and out-of-place, as “breaking down” suggests emotional distress as well as the horse’s physical failure. As buried in the first line (“You were carried…you were missed”), the poem is about a miscarriage, a topic which seems too painful to be addressed directly. And the scattered difficulty here makes sense: grief is incoherent. Elsewhere, whilst the poems are certainly accomplished, it isn’t quite so clear what Moorhead’s achievement is. The poems stand defiant, riddling over the ordinary for no apparent reason other than the joy of riddling. Memorable is the line “The tea is a grass wow” from ‘KIT-KAT,’ which puzzles me every time I pick up a new cup. In reading these poems, my understanding drifted in and out; like listening to a poorly tuned radio, it becomes a test of how long one can bear the moments of static.
Ultimately the pamphlet is indeed a word museum in the sense that these poems, by being so far from normal sense, do seem to be trapped somewhere in the past. There is a feeling, when being partially locked out of a poem like this, that it has already taken place, and that someone else’s sparks and flames is now the solid, cooling metalwork before us. All we can do is admire as we pass on to the next exhibit.
 Punchlines on a postcard, please.