Most British poets run scared of abstract nouns such as “love” and “happiness”. David Tait, on the other hand, relishes getting to grips with them, as he demonstrates from the title onwards in his first full collection, Self-Portrait with The Happiness (Smith-Doorstep, 2014).
Novice poets often use “love” as an emotional shortcut, imagining that its meaning is clear. Of course, the innate problem with the word is that it is loaded with so many different meanings for different people in different contexts. This is one reason why it is often avoided in contemporary verse.
Tait, however, is far from being a novice. He is acutely aware of these pitfalls, but he doesn’t just take on the risks of abstract nouns. In fact, he uses them to his advantage, as in the following examples:
“…Love everywhere, and so much of it;
so much you can hardly see the strings.”
“…This happened to me once, love,
and I was in love with a man…”
“…then love love love
like the shunt of a truck…
“…as love gallops off
not once looking back.”
“…we’d had a fight and made up and had another fight
as the credits rolled and we tore off our clothes
and love spooled before us. And we were cameras.”
And I could have chosen instances from several more pieces.
Within the context of its poem, each quote seems at first to offer us a stand-alone meaning of “love”. Nevertheless, such an impression is subverted by the next occurrence of the term, often a few poems later, with a variation on that afore-mentioned meaning. As a consequence, every use of the word “love” has numerous counterpoints, thus highlighting the slippery nature of the word.
Moreover, this very slipperiness is compounded by Tait’s treatment of pronouns throughout the collection. Each of them might appear clear-cut and obvious in its individual, specific context, yet they mingle, merge and clash, refusing to tell a single, linear story. In other words, Tait is again undermining the reader’s expectations so as to enable us to question our own perspectives.
In Self-Portrait with the Happiness, David Tait deals in accessible, well-written lyrics, proving that “accessible” is not a synonym of “facile”. Physical and emotional aspects are drawn together with syntax and semantics in a highly skilled subversion of an abstract noun: love. Via Tait’s probing approach, we are encouraged to re-assess our own interpretations of the word. This is poetry that issues invitations and challenges.