BOOK REVIEW / In the rackety vernacular: Walking a line by Tom Paulin, Faber pounds 5.99

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The Independent Culture
AFTER a seven-year absence, Tom Paulin is back walking a line - with a new spring in his step and a beautifully rackety, prickly and provocative book of lyrics.

In essays Paulin has laid out his stall as political vernacularist, and in Walking A Line Paulin the poet toes the line established by Paulin the critic. In his work there is always a battle between political moralist and idiosyncratic aesthete or localist - a battle fought out with pugnacious brio in the brilliant essays on poetry in Minotaur (1992), and dramatised here in the straggling fable 'Cadmus and the Dragon'. In the new poems Paulin Agonistes allows himself a bit of a spree.

In the past the moralist has sometimes threatened to stifle the lyricist, one reason that there was something a wee bit dull and programmatic about fivemiletown, his last collection. But the new book crackles with cranky energy and spontaneity, generating complex intellectual effects out of chatty and chaffy speech. Like Brecht, Paulin relishes 'crude thinking', and finding poetic material in the waste stuff of modern culture. Yet the best of the new poems generate a self-delighting linguistic gusto which feels improvisatory, exploratory.

Paulin distrusts sweet talk and smooth poems (dismissed as 'square ducks', tucked away 'safely' at the bottom of newspaper columns), and sticks to his guns as a bee-in-his-bonnet vernacularist. He likes a tough, low-falutin' edge to his verse. He especially favours adjectives with not Y-fronts but Y-backs: halfjoky, doggy, saggy, kitschy, floppy, sticky, jaggery, gizzly, batty, clacky, clattery, pooly, pitchy, resiny, saggy, skittery. The effect can be as jagged as 'splittery / splattery / all over the scrake' or as delicate as the description of sparrowgrass as 'soft flumy / a feathery delicacy' or the 'fluttery suthery silence' after the death of a very small nation. In one poem he talks of being worried by his own language 'where each word / strains to utter itself / like a mallety wooden turd'. But if he's worried, as he always has been, he now savours the worry and the turd. An Ulster Caliban, he specialises in the scratchy noises of demotic island idioms. He notates the 'pheasant's cronk', Irish anglican bells that 'sing bing-ding bing-ding', 'the chuck chuck chuck of an ambush'. 'Priming the Pump' is entirely dedicated to such sound effects, and this new pleasure in aural performance gives to the best poems an unlikely 'resiny' sweetness such as that he evokes in 'Painting with Sawdust'.

These two poems show Paulin's downbeat aesthetics, a free-wheeling riff that converts the 'shambles' of a building-site into 'another packing-case republic'. He is particularly preoccupied by tacky jerry-built artefacts and architectures, offering us the 'throwaway permanence' of sheds and Nissen huts; an eccentric snowcem 'Firhouse' in the east midlands of England, a 'stretched bungalow' carport, a 'kitschy box' plonked on the slopes of Croagh Patrick, the 'loyalist holiday blockhouse' of Portnoo Pier. In the very Paulinesque political fable 'Cadmus and the Dragon', which damns Cadmus as a masculine 'grid person', the dragon's 'amor loci' is expressed in the architecture of her 'funky cave / where the mud is edible / and tastes of tarragon'. Like Elizabeth Bishop, Paulin characteristically builds his queer-shaped new poems as reflections on the idiosyncracies of such one-off pieces of architectural invention.

There's something self-conscious and contradictory about the whole performance - we watch a poet schooling himself into spontaneity, grandly taking his stand on the disparaged bits of culture. There's no doubt something a bit absurd about this protestant professor's studiously doggy performance as poet of Dreck und Dross - but the poetry brings into play and into question the self-renovative possibilities of the brutal, often threadbare culture it urges from. Architects of the ordinary might do worse than to start from here.

(Photograph omitted)

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