The first thing I do when a new copy of The North, Rialto or Smiths Knoll lands on the doormat is to see if there are any of my friends in it. I know I am not alone in walking around with what I think of as ‘my team’ (poets I know and have worked with; poets I have not met but whose work I adore) looking over my shoulder at what I do. I use this as an excuse to fire off encouraging emails to them straight away with things like ‘Great poem’ in the subject line. What do you mean, you do not do this too?
As I have said before, all we really have as poets is the process, but this does not stop me relishing giving and receiving support from those whose work I admire.
I first came across Naomi Jaffa‘s ‘Some of the Usual’ in The North, and was delighted when she opened her terrific pamphlet of poems The Last Hour of Sleep (Five Leaves Publications) with the same. As Kenneth Koch said when he first encountered the poems of his friends Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, there was nothing in them he did not like.
‘Some of the Usual’ is a great list of weariness and anxiety that somehow manages to sound joyful and celebratory. There are many references in it to violence, death and disease; the horror of ageing -of the speaker and those the speaker loves- stalks every line, it seems.
For the record I think it reads as powerfully and prophetically as it did when Five Leaves brought it out in 2003, which is to say that references to the Taliban, female circumcision and climate change remain as current and pressing as ever.
The world the poem inhabits and recreates is both global and domestic, therefore. The line between a rat on the bird feeder and global warming is deliberately blurred. The poem succeeds in outstripping these events and persuading the reader they are all somehow vital and of a piece because of its great consistency of tone, which comes across as almost casual, spoken, concerned and self-aware all at once.
The poem builds a kind of force-field of rapt inclusivity: detail after detail is presented apparently barehandedly but with such precise attention to the process of their presentation as to make them quietly extraordinary. Notice the force of ‘why I like most men to want me’ compared to the easier to write ‘why I want most men to like me’, for example.
Finally, I think ‘Some of the Usual’ pulls off that rare trick in poetry, of delivering a punchline that is both memorable and worthy of the poem it serves. This is in no small part due to the skillful handling of the voice -direct, engaged, a little bit frayed at the edges- in the lines which precede it. For the record, I am with Naomi on this: if you want a film which really goes under the fingernails, watch The Ice Storm instead. She is also right about the Today programme which grows more Daily Mail by the day.
Some of the Usual
Standing in the kitchen before breakfast, not including some of the usual —
what to buy in Budgens now your Melitta coffee’s been discontinued
how the Today programme’s become so tabloid
how rarely we make love
what thirteen new houses going up bang next door will do to the village
not having children
whether I should read British Dressage or Poetry on the loo
those knife attacks on pregnant mares
the rat I’m watching eating our bird seed
the rust I can’t yet see on the Honda
the chances of ever having jutting hipbones and a flat stomach again
the arrival of occasional hairs on my nipples and chin
why I like most men to want me (even though I don’t want most men)
whether the climate’s really fucked
long-term immune system damage from additives
how many Camel you smoke
lack of religious faith
my waking up one morning and you not
never having had children
ever having to nurse my mother
the day when I won’t be able to telephone her anymore
what the Taliban have done to women
whether deep down I prefer women to men
why I’m so elaborately nice to people I can’t stand
irreparable hard drive corruption (with no files backed up)
keeping white geraniums frost-free with nowhere to store them
always missing the last overseas posting date for Christmas
last summer’s wasps hibernating in the loft
— before breakfast and since last night, I’ve mostly been worrying about getting it wrong:
that perhaps American Beauty may not after all be a film of heartbreaking, staggering genius.
Naomi Jaffa, from The Last Hour of Sleep (Five Leaves Publications, 2003)