There is violence in these vapours – Graham Buchan

It is fitting that Buchan starts his collection which a work called “The poet I like”. This poet “stews in his study” and “sharpens words like little knives”. Does Graham Buchan like himself then? He is a poet who likes himself enough to be worth paying attention to.

Writing can be sharp in many ways. Some of the poems in this book are very serious. Despite this the poet does not see comedy as the poor second cousin of tragedy. He knows they are equal and knows they are very close. 

Poems such as “Who is in charge here” shows the ability of the poet to take on a very serious topic in a successful way. The darker side of the behaviour of the planet is pictured partly as a pagan god and partly as a drunken thug – “are you looking at me?”. The poet knows the power of lines such as “I trade babies for fish” and repeats  them. One is reminded of the poem “Hawk Roosting” by Ted Hughes where the speaker of the poem could just as easily be a Hitler or a Stalin as it could be a bird of prey. 

When writing about the Iranian revolution Buchan is really addressing  all military revolutions. The line “I like this gun more than my prick” is not shocking just for the sake of it – rather it gets to the heart of a certain type of mentality. Perhaps the line seems so grotesque precisely because it hits the target. Harold Pinter wrote about America’s involvement in Iraq in similar terms and the poem, sharp though it is, does tend to fall under this shadow.

The poet is also strong enough to discuss beautiful and serious topics such as what to do with romantic love. This has the effect of making his writing about dark issues stronger.  The beginning of the poem it “It must have been a day” is unashamably romantic but is made by the final verse.” The next day/hard refreshing rain like an argument/and we discussed the future/like sensible people”.  Romantic love at best is only a beautiful overture. The real love, if it comes at all, comes later.  It is important that the poet says like sensible people rather than as sensible people. Perhaps,  like most of us, being sensible while in love is not something that comes easily to him. He is prepared to at least pretend to be sensible because of the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself. There is even a mock parental  side to the way the language is used. The  poet is going to discuss the future like a sensible person in the same way that someone who is four may behave at the table with the grown-ups like a good boy. 

When the poet addresses other forms of love then seriousness beautifully slips into comedy. In “You’re bigger than you were “ the poet examines the relationship between himself  and  his child. He  starts by listing things about the child which in a less skilled hand would be banal. It is the last two lines though that clinches things “and then you trudge up/trampling on my testicle”. After one has felt more than a little sympathy for the poet,  one realises what a good set of lines this is. The child – perhaps not only like young children, is not looking where they are going or the implications of what they are doing. However they also, in their anarchy, unbeknowingly acknowledge their own origin and indeed the 50% origin of all of us. 

So there is war, destruction and love in this collection but in a wonderfully quirky way there is also a great deal about...cats. If there is a poem in this collection that stands out from the rest as a real gem then it is “Radio Pussycat”. Like many comic works there is a logic to this piece that is perfectly water tight and yet from the perspective of the usual grey old world is profoundly eccentric. It is also the poem where the poet gives away most of his soul and hearing him perform this poem is a tremendous experience. In the midst of his account of his fantasy radio station there is the repeated line “I am rich now: I can do now/I am rich don’t forget”. This by rights ought to be really annoying but infact it only makes the poem all the quirkier and funnier. 

Fortunately the poet does not get sentimental about cats – which makes his love for them all the more real and strong. The relationship is also made to ring true through the comedy “You don’t remember any of this/You ungrateful  little pig/you’re a cat. You bring in dead pigeons/ I clean them up”

The poems in this collection are at their weakest when they offer a dictation.  “The Future” comes across as a sermon rather than a poem “Never trust the man with charisma/Better trust the awkward looser”. All of the advice in the poem seems to be very sensible – the question is whether a poem is the correct vehicle to dish out advice or not. It is down to the old cliché of showing not telling but this is an old cliché for a very good reason – although there are exceptions to it, it very often holds water.  This poem is not typical of the collection which has some very fine “showing” within it.

The collection ends with a poem called “the poem”  The poem vibrates/and glows/like a caterpillar/stuck on the filament/of a light bulb/switched on/at the end of the universe. The collection therefore  is “sandwiched” between two poems about poetry. The poem quoted here is its own example – and one of the best in the collection. There are though an important number of poems – poems with sharp knives to quote the poets first poem, to make this an important and worthwhile collection. Admittedly there would be a significantly more powerful  if a select number of the poems were culled but one can say that of any collection except those that are truly, truly exceptional. My advice is get to hear this poet read and get hold of his work.  If he continues to sharpen his knives the next collection could be even better. 


Richard Rickford

Note: Ariadne's Thread published poems from Graham Buchan in issue 2 and 5

Additional information