Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Precarious and disarming, Richard Osmond's Shill

There's an argument that a superiority complex is an alternative manifestation of its opposite number (i.e. an inferiority complex). In other words, many young, hugely talented poets feel the desperate need to show off with syntactic gymnastics so as to assert themselves, all in the fear that they might otherwise be judged to have fallen short in some way.

In Shill (HappenStance Press, 2014), Richard Osmond demonstrates throughout the pamphlet that he doesn't require such flashiness to shore up his verse. Instead, he reins in his language in order to ramp up its power. One such example comes in Hobby, which seems set to become one of Osmond's signature pieces. The chill of distance is used to emphasise (inversely) the heat that emanates from certain subjects, abstract nouns of observation running through the poem: "...conclusion...disposition...benefit...". Even when writing in the first person, Osmond is portraying someone from afar, thus underlining the precarious nature of the lyrical voice.

This above-mentioned precariousness is key to an understanding of Osmond's poetry. What's more, it leads me on to a fundamental poem in the chapbook: Road Kill. I imagine Osmond with a slight, crooked grin on his face as his wrote the following:

"...If this were a poem,
we'd hit the biggest stag tonight,
and pull over to learn ineffable truths
about chance and being animals..."

This is brave stuff. It's taking on John Burnside's poetics via allusions to the renowned poet's piece of the same name, at the same time as it cheekily winks at Libertad and especially Penitence, all three from Burnside's collection A Normal Skin. Osmond gently yet surgically dismantles his predecessor's approach.

Nevertheless, there's a lack of pomposity throughout this highly ambitious work. Moreover, Osmond doesn't just undermine Burnside, he even undermines and questions himself, as per the first line of the quote above and in the poem's ending:

"..and the automatic wiper mistakes
our small epiphanies for rain."

This is an implicit, tongue-in-cheek declaration of poetic technique, extremely surefooted, never having to shout.

Shill shows us that Richard Osmond is a disarming poet. He disarms the reader, the canon and himself. He invites us in and then challenges us to think. In my book, that's the hallmark of a terrific poet.

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