The Curiosities, by Christopher Reid - Book review: Carefully crafted lines and humour abound in this accomplished collection

Faber & Faber, £14.99

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If Christopher Reid had been in literal or cheeky mood, he could have called this new collection The C Word. All 73 poems are meditations upon something beginning with that letter, from Courtesans to “The Clew”, Cyclists to (gulp) Critics – “Notepads in laps/ and pre-conceptions ready…”

There is, noticeably, no “Christopher” or any four letter “C” ending in –unt, which Craig Raine could doubtless write 73 poems about in the blink of an eye.

Those chasing a whiff of the obscene should read “The Catapult”. With a knowing wink (“Let’s have a proper look”) we get an improper children’s toy fit for adult entertainment: “Between the legs: smooth wood./ That’s where the hunter’s thumb/ must have rested. He wanted to touch, too, but couldn’t – not with the assistant waiting.”

There is an awful lot of looking in The Curiosities, which is fitting as one inspiration might be the Kunstkammer or cabinet of curiosities which staged all manner of miscellaneous still lives. Reid’s eyeballing is not scientific so much as timidly lustful. A decade after the death of his wife Lucinda Gane, whom he elegised in 2009’s Costa-winning A Scattering, it would seem his sex life is more vidi than veni or vici.

His eroticised gaze is unblinking in the ode to pornographic inauthenticity (“The Couch”) or alive to “a lone nipple” on a discarded lad’s mag (“The Crime”). It ensures that the phallic promise of a title such as “The Chisel” stands to prompt attention: “Eyes boring into the block/ the sculptor can make out/ a nymph at its centre,/ so that his veins catch fire/ and his heart goes pounding in pursuit.” Poundings of less romantic or Romantic variety are felt in two poems that expose an anachronistic thing for smutty calling cards left in phone boxes.

Their imagery tempts in “The Card”: ‘would I dare/ confront such innocence in the flesh?’ In “The Craving”, they deceive “a friend of mine wanted to bed a schoolgirl”. The “joke” – that the flesh and blood prostitute “in navy gymslip and pigtails… must have been thirty years older/ than the average O-level candidate” – manages to be fuddy duddy (that “O-Level”) and grubbily obvious all at once.

Such fixated male ogling inevitably objectifies. The finale of “The Card” – “how much might I have to pay?” – sounds narcissistic rather than poignant. But at least Reid knows his female readers might feel uncomfortable.

The witty creation myth, “The Calabash”, recounts Man’s disappointment with God’s blueprint for a mate. Reid’s conclusion subjects divine objectification to a sting in the tale. “Take it or leave it,” God said. Man remained/ undecided, and Woman too, had her proliferating doubts.”

Reid’s supple humour and carefully crafted lines (his unexpected rhymes are beautifully accomplished) just about promotes this unconsummated priapism as a portrait of the artist as the ageing man (in crisis).

Undertones of loneliness and reluctant reserve ironise Reid’s jauntiness. The deft punchline of “The Catapult” pins down the satisfactions and wistful dissatisfaction of the reluctant voyeur: “I’ll have to think about it”, he concludes a little sadly.

Elegant, candid, if self-absorbed, The Curiosities suggests that a life of the mind is all very well unless one wants a little touch.

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