Poetry review: 11/5/21
TALKING TO STANLEY ON THE TELEPHONE
by Michael Schmidt
... a slim, pleasing volume in every way…
Michael Schmidt’s new collection of poetry Talking to Stanley on the Telephone is a slim, pleasing volume in every way. When my review copy arrived in the post, the first thing I did was turn it over in my hands and think about the colour of the telephone table and the stark pleasure of the slightly stretched font against the dark background.
I read all the poems in one sitting: in bed on a lockdown Saturday morning. These Saturdays, that used to be filled with activities – driving children to and from clubs and making plans – took on a new and quite pleasing rhythm (not unlike Schmidt’s poetry.) The girls would sleep in or take advantage of the slow start to snuggle on the settee and watch crap TV. If I lingered in bed long enough, Aidan would bring me a poached egg, made while listening to the radio.
Anyway, it was in this sleepy state that I first read Talking to Stanley on the Telephone and maybe this is why it was the rhythms and the playfulness of the sounds that drew me in and captivated me. Only later, when re-reading and truly awake, did I appreciate the stories that he tells.
Schmidt is sharp, witty and highly intelligent: attributes that resolutely refuse to get in the way of his earthy approach to poetry that digs into the very ordinary nature of being human in the world today. Reading Schmidt’s final poem ‘About Homer: an epyllion’, I laughed out loud at least as many times as I Googled his literary references.
After reading ‘Walkie Talkie’, I felt that maybe me and Schmidt were long lost soul-doppelgangers. I imagine all his readers feel the same. While stuck in an airport, waiting for a delayed plane, he lists the aftershaves he sprays on his wrist.
‘I can’t get the smells off by rubbing with spit on a tissue:
I stand like a queasy lamppost ten civet cats have visited’
This poem, that brilliantly evokes the mundane universal, then changes tone, using repetition like a soft insistent voice inside your mind.
‘Like a stone,
I begin to sink away from rainbow neons into dozing
Turquoise sea light, down and down into tepid dark
Without coming to rest, down, down, a flat
Stone that does not plummet but rocks right left, right left
As if like a seed it had some intelligence beyond physics’
Schmidt lulls me and then drowns me in the ‘not quite soft upholstery’ of the airport massage seat.
There is room in this collection for both the symbolic and the down to earth – the blunt statement that shrugs off euphemism:
‘She is not dead, but sleeping.
No, she’s dead.’
In ‘Mercy’, Schmidt refuses to turn to the figurative to deal with loss:
‘With the others
I withdrew, knelt and said the words while she
Fairytales and nursery rhymes sit comfortably, as they should, side by side with death and dark shadows. In ‘Guo Nian’, we jig along to:
‘Is it the year of the billy, buck, hogget or ram,
The nanny, the wether, the kid, the silver chevron?
Of blubbery mutton? Or is it the year of the lamb?’
And then become complicit in the sacrifice,
‘We dress it, cense the altar, wetting a paschal razor,
Blood on our wrists, in our gullets, the steaming oblation’
Schmidt is the master of rhythm and a trickster with rhyme. Whether the story he is telling is personal or epic, tragic or funny, he takes your hand and makes you trust him. Be careful though: this trust is sometimes misplaced. You’re not always in the safest of hands as he plays his games: half-rhymes wrong footing you, extra beats blind siding you. Just as you feel you have the measure of his structure, his technique, his tale, he will surprise you by turning a different corner.
‘To The Dentist’ invites us to laugh at the craft of the poet:
‘leaving the crown again too high, so the mouth can’t quite close,
Like a verse with rather too many syllables jockeying for position in
The final line.’
Whereas ‘Running Away’ is so beautifully constructed that the nuts and bolts of poetry are deeply buried beneath the meaning. Reading these final lines, I came close to wanting to grow old and die just so that I could drop into this dark.
‘So long as they followed, they had to follow, panting,
They had to follow, calling, calling, growing older,
Growing weaker, they had to follow as a moth follows candlelight
And then just before they touched the flame they had to
Alter their wing beat, turn off their hearts, drop into dark.’
The photo of Michael Schmidt on the book’s flyleaf shows him holding a waffle cone and wearing a jaunty red scarf. I take from this that there will be time enough to ‘drop into dark.’ For now, there is poetry to be read and ice-cream to eat.
Review: Sarah Hehir
TALKING TO STANLEY ON THE TELEPHONE by Michael Schmidt