Friday, 5 June 2015

A harnessed relish for language, Paul Stephenson's Those People

Paul Stephenson is a linguist, and this background shines through in his first pamphlet, Those People (Smith-Doorstep, 2015). Stephenson’s awareness of the nuts and bolts of language has been heightened both by having learnt a foreign language and by having lived abroad among non-native speakers of English.

Let’s start with an example from the opening lines of “Wake Up And”:

“smell the coffee
smell the coughing
the cacophony
the cafard
the cavern…”

Stephenson is taking a cliché, playing with it and twisting our syntactic and semantic connotations, jumping from one register to another, while relishing the way words work round our tongues. Every single word is under the poet’s control.

Other poems, meanwhile, find him returning to the language of the environment of his youth and reassessing it for the reader’s benefit, as in “Cab”:

“My mother tells me to ask
for a reliable driver.
She says apparently
this is what to mention
because Jill told her
over a pensioner’s lunch…

…My mother says when you ring,
especially at night,
to emphasise the reliable
and they’ll understand
right away on the other end
what you’re on about.”

This piece demonstrates that Stephenson not only understands the way a certain generation of English middle-class ladies can take a single word and load it with immense connotations, but he is capable of transmitting and transforming his observations on the page.

There are also several list poems in the book, in which Stephenson riffs on a subject. These sometimes seem slightly like ingenious note-taking, and I tend to find myself waiting for a launching-out beyond that doesn’t happen. However, this is probably more a reflection of my expectations as a reader rather than Stephenson’s achievements, and those achievements are many. I’m now going to focus on another of them.

The verse in Those People is magpie-like in its collecting of influences (an ability that linguists have to acquire!), yet there’s an idiosyncratic core that holds it together. Stephenson homes in on specifics and trusts the reader to carry them off elsewhere, as in the chapbook’s closing poem, “Capacity”, which depicts the narrator’s wait to be picked up to start an Interrail trip:

“Seventy litres: in theory more than plenty
for three t-shirts, two shorts, the pair of jeans
you’re wearing. Then the question of the tent…

…wallet with Velcro strap, wrapped tight around
the waist. Typical Monday. Your father at work.
Your mother out somewhere. Your lift here soon.”

This poem is packed with the details of a scene. Of course, it especially resonates with myself, as I’m of the same generation as Stephenson, a generation that embraced Interrail experiences before the advent of budget airlines and gap years in Oz.

However, the main virtue of the piece (and much of Stephenson’s verse) lies in a capacity to appeal to readers of different backgrounds. It’s a portrayal of a key moment in the process of leaving home. Moreover, matter-of-fact language has been charged with tremendous nuance. For instance, the reader is left wondering why the mother is out, and so the poet strikes the spark of our imagination.

By now, you’ve probably realised that I enjoyed Paul Stephenson’s Those People. There’s a coherent, ambitious poetic method at work here. Get hold of a copy and see what I mean for yourself!

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