Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Subverted pronouns, Oliver Comins' Oak Fish Island

It’s relatively easy to identify certain very English qualities in Oliver Comins’ first full collection, Oak Fish Island (Templar Poetry, 2018), but there’s also a slippery something that makes his poetry stand out from the crowd and resist any attempts to pigeonhole him.

Twenty-five years in the writing, Oak Fish Island features restrained lyricism, quiet observation and subtle layering of detail, yet a list of these characteristics undoubtedly sells Comins’ work short. Here are snippets from four poems, all of which hint at the poet’s idiosyncratic traits:

…My heart – or was it yours? –
flying solo on the Jubilee line,
already gone for what was
beginning to seem like forever.
(from Day Trip to Brighton)

It wasn’t me, as such, kissing the organist
when you slipped through the church
looking for your poem…
(from All Saints)

…Someone is walking down a street
past this row of terraced cottages,
their gardens silent and still…
(from Old Cold)

When I send this to you
it is a boy writing to a girl
and I am sorry it has to be
like that – knowing the tide
of your want can change…
(from What Sort of a Man am I?)

These seemingly disparate poems are united by the doubt they cast on the reader’s assumptions, by the way roles are undermined, by the way pronouns stand on shaky ground.

One of Comins’ main achievements in Oak Fish Farm is the subversion of the English lyric tradition. At first sight, he seem to fit snugly into its check list, as mentioned at the beginning of this review, but that’s only until those pronouns start to unsettle us, bit by bit. We begin to wonder about the particulars of the poet’s or the speaker’s relationships, and our frustration grows as we find them difficult to discern, as if Comins were holding back on us, afraid to show his life or flesh out narratives and contexts.

Of course, as the collection progresses, it becomes clear that the exact opposite is true. Comins’ technique plays with our aesthetic and thematic expectations, enabling us to cast off facile suppositions. This approach is not an affectation, nor is it a mere device. Instead, it’s a poetic method.

Moreover, one potential problem with the reading of Oliver Comin’s work is that an individual poem, taken out of context, might appear unsatisfactory. Only in the context of his full collection can the magnitude and coherence of his vision be recognised and understood.

Oak Fish Island is not only a tremendously enjoyable book but also a terrific achievement. It reaches out beyond the specific to the universal, homing in on the key issues of life and poetry. As such, it’s one of the most significant collections I’ve encountered in recent years. I’ll be savouring Oliver Comins’ poems for a long time to come.

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