I have been enjoying Martin Stannard’s poetry ever since I first came across it in little magazines back in the late 1970s when I was an undergraduate student. There was nothing quite like it at the time, and it remains instantly identifiable to this day. The first collection of Stannard’s I bought was The Private Life of the Gauze Butterfly (1980), a thin pamphlet published out of Cornwall by Colin Webb’s Sepia Press. Here is a poem from that pamphlet, entitled ‘Images (Shapes at the Foot of the Bed)’:
Perhaps everything is a bowl of fruit
or a packet of digestive biscuits,
I said hopefully,
turning the screw one more time.
Perhaps we’re all a herd of prime beef
or a leakage of some chemical
from the bowels of the earth,
probing deeper with the thin blade.
Perhaps nothing exists outside this room,
or perhaps nothing exists in this room,
and everything exists outside this room,
and turning the screw one more time.
Perhaps life is just a bowl of cherries
or a pile of soiled underwear at the foot
of the bed,
wiping the golden oil from her strong thigh.
I like about this poem is way the images accumulate to comically build a
picture of a claustrophobic relationship while that last line unexpectedly
creates a sense of something more mythical and universal. I like the way in
which the ‘golden oil’ and ‘strong thigh’, which make me think of a Greek
goddess figure, can co-exist quite happily in this poem with ‘digestive
biscuits’ and ‘soiled underwear’. Few poets could pull that off in quite the
same way. More than anything, perhaps, I like the way Stannard combines a
down-to-earth lyricism with a self-mocking humour, which is his trademark even
when writing about loss and grieving. Throughout his work, from the 1970s to the present, there is a
sense of failed quest, an ethic of being true to imperfection, and a refusal of
closure. See for example, one of
his more recent full-length collections Poems for the Young at Heart (Leafe
Press, 2016), which shows Stannard at his best and which I wrote about for PNR. Here is part of that review:
[Stannard’s] work is celebratory and achingly funny, usually parodic, but there is an ever-present undertow of melancholy and loss, combined with philosophical exploration. It works through the adoption and abrupt juxtaposition of different narrative voices, though these are cleverly made to join together, united around a theme, motif or particular form, for example the epistle:
I have heard it said
when you pay a call it’s impossible to know
if your stay will be brief or stretch
to the end of one’s days. My home is
a humble one, and the rooms are already filled with
solitude, so perhaps you could stay with
my sister instead. She is more deserving,
and has a bigger house.
(‘Letters from the Light to the Darkness’, p. 49)
Stannard exploits cliché and sendup underpinned by a fairy-tale surrealism reminiscent of Kenneth Patchen’s. The result can be at once comical and poignant:
I would try to spend Summer in my head
then discover I have a head of Winter. I must
have a head of Winter because snow
covers my hair, or my hair is snow, and ice forms
where a smile should be, or people
toboggan down my face and clamber up the back of
my neck in their heavy boots. Birds
who used to nest behind my ears appear
to have abandoned me for sunnier climes.
(‘How I Watch a Year Go By’, p. 38)
Some poems take the form of outright satire, for example ‘Appendix 2: A Test for Poets’, others of affectionate parody, of the pastoral in ‘Chronicles (3)’. Yet there is ever present a sense of elegy, which occasionally comes more directly to the surface, in poems like ‘Things My Father Never Said’ and ‘To Nigel Pickard’, though these too never lose a comical edge.
In the last decade or so, it seems to me that there is more exploration of vulnerability in Martin Stannard’s poems, more uncertainty, more touching on the fragility of our lives, for example in his recent translations from Chinese poetry in The Moon is About 238,855 Miles Away (Shoestring Press, 2019),[i] or in the chapbook Items (Red Ceilings, 2018). Items is a chapbook of sixteen short poems, which form a sequence, ‘ITEM 1’, ‘ITEM 2’, and so on. It reads almost like a diary, but one threaded through with quirky surrealism, and with delightful twists and turns of language. Although much of Items reads as a kind of send-up, it never ceases to be lyrical:
If I stare long enough at the line dividing sky and sea
An idea comes into my head
Please come and write the water with me
(from ‘ITEM 1)
Today I intended to go to the museum
Then my fear of old age kicked in
And I stayed home
And never dared to open my heart
(from ‘ITEM 5’)
There are recurring images of birds, trees and waters. They come together most beautifully in ‘ITEM 7’:
I photograph bridges as they pause
In the act of crossing rivers
I capture them while they’re still
I wonder what they’re thinking about
And it’s the same with birds between songs
In the trees catching their breath
The cavity where his heart should have been
I’ve recorded their silences
But when I try to photograph them
They hide shyly behind leaves
At times, the voices in this chapbook make me think of Eliot’s Prufrock. As readers we both identify with them and yet distance ourselves at the same time. They are insistent, disturbing and absurd, and yet cajoling and seductive enough to win us over every time.
I would not want to forget here all Martin Stannard’s brilliant work as an editor, most importantly the legendary Joe Soap’s Canoe (1978-1993), which did more than any other magazine to bring the New York avantgarde to the UK.[ii] It made a difference to the way I and many others here thought about poetry back in the 70s and 80s. More recently Martin edited the fabulous online magazine Decals of Desire, which I wish had gone on for longer.
I was honoured to publish Martin Stannard’s collection Faith with my own Shadowtrain press in January 2009. It was reviewed by Seven Waling here. Waling hopes that one day, Martin Stannard’s complete writings ‘will fill several shelves of volumes. And all of it will be full of an energy, a drive, charm and lyrical verve that very few poets in England have managed.’ [iii]
May that day be soon in coming!
Ian Seed, August 2022.
[i] Last year I lent this book to a third-year student of mine; it made all the difference to her own poetry.
[iii] In the meantime, there is an excellent selection of earlier poems which is still obtainable, Writing Down the Days: New and Selected Poems (Stride, 2001)
Copyright © Ian Seed, 2022