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Poetry review: 27/08/20


by Thomas McColl 

"This book leaves you with your jaw on the floor, slumped in a chair." 

Remember that game you may have played, truanting in the loos at school, or drunk at gate-crashed parties: dare, love, truth, promise, or command? And you had to choose but still do exactly what you were ordered? Tom McColl’s book packs a punch asking the questions but offering the cursed, coerced, combative and corrupted a way out. Rub this lamp up the wrong way (but in this book, inside is out and up is down) and the genie will blast you into hell, or is that 2020? Hold on tight to that bus seat as you will be hurled into the dark and depraved depths of London leaving you gasping. McColl poses philosophical questions as he slowly strangles you and asks, does anything matter anymore?


He drags us not quite awake yet into a cityscape where buses are bison and people are grass. Gaslit and drugged to believe ‘The Bunker’ doesn’t exist, we too are lured into conspiracy. Already we are cursed, or perhaps blessed, not knowing what is reality or fantasy, or even prophecy. The first section indeed is a kaleidoscopic swirl, a collecting of debris, a bewilderment of where we are and what is happening. Beaches become stages, moons dress as stars, detecting the poor, hopeful and hopeless, their endeavours bringing nothing but ‘a fool’s flotsam of faded junk and seagull’s bones.’

Three poems in and I need two custard doughnuts and some spinach pizza. The hardier may choose cigarettes and whiskey or whimper for their mum. This is no picnic in the park - unless it is a park where a bomb goes off and everybody, absolutely everybody dies, even the babies. I am already wishing I had managed to fall asleep on the bus in ‘No Longer Quite So Sure’. This is a book I am reading like I watched Dr Who when I was a child, from behind the sofa with an intense but fearful fascination, one eye shut, one darting daringly from television to the door.

In ‘The Greatest Poem’, he lets us have a breather and even a little laugh with his witty, curmudgeonly, self-mocking pedantry. But don’t get too comfortable. He punctuates this book with humour - but not the custard pie sort, more menacing clowns that want to kill you and swallow you into photographs. He has definitely been here before us though because he is saying bring on 2021 - and he wrote all this pre lockdown! One wonders if he unleashed this virus with the grenade genie - the antithesis of the shopping demon. These streets he walks have a distinct I am Legend feel to them, the disease being the 20th/21st century.

Just like the moon can’t ever be a star, only pretend, in ‘Security Pass’ Tom says he has ‘just been made permanent - / yet already know I’m completely expendable.’ He says, ‘no one is fooled and no one cares.’ There is a stark sense of displacement, disconnection, a subtle manipulation. There is a creepy feeling of being watched, of having no control over our destiny, that nothing is what it seems.

It is like a psychological thriller unravelling, a voyeuristic feel as you look in at the participants’ incongruence between reality and unreality, watching the walls move and the floors slip away. The poems are like photographic negatives with all the values and reference points altered with truth inverted upon itself. In ‘Jackpot’ he explores mimetic behaviour, futility, greed and capitalism, musing that ‘we’ve all been programmed since birth / to have nothing but shopping on the brain’.

This book explores identity and self, wearing suits that don’t suit the soul. McColl is like an insouciant, nonchalant, impatient time traveller, wishing us into the next year, like he has no attachment to anything. He is the bemused, sardonic sojourner trying to fit but never quite blending even though he really knows that is what he is meant to do, what the ubiquitous ‘they’ want us to do. In ‘Security Pass’ and ‘Invisible Twin’, we wonder are we just our photos, our projections, forced to go through certain manoeuvres every day? Are we real? There is a frightening build-up of feeling all our atoms shook and split and rearranged as we ask fearfully, lost, where are we and who am I?

In the combative section, Tom is specially chosen by the Greek gods to go shopping for Perseus. Tom doesn’t need to go to Gap to ‘get him a cap of invisibility’ but can give him his own clothes and stand naked for his ‘lack of fashion sense has rendered you (him), invisible.’ He seems to be drowning in a capitalist sea and in many poems he repeats his name as if to try to make his mark, a plaintive cry or to make himself feel more than a spoon fed observer, to mark himself out as solid and autonomous, that a record will be kept of him.

The ‘Pedestrian Liberation Organisation’ indicates that people are ‘no longer sheep penned on pavements /…but liberated lions roaring revolutions.’ Playing ‘The Phoney War’ while Gran sobs over the stove shows us again a generational disconnect: people coping while chaos cascades around them. The digital age, consumerism, it has poisoned us all. Medics are mutants and once you realise that the mutilation of a word with a comma, can end all things, one realises that everything is a social construction and we are just trapped within strange incoherent lines of meaning. It can all end by splitting words, atoms, pulling a cord.

What else is a 13-year-old boy to do but snort lines? In ‘Hooked’ he says, ‘I just don’t give a shit anymore.’ Finally, in the literal library we discover the horror of everything is bound in fundamentalism, solid beliefs, enaction of dogma, and a lack of transparency - ‘no record is kept.’ Of us? Of history? Of truth? This is the frightening finale of the book. Who remembers the fate of man, children, the truth of wars, of corrupt politicians, religions or perhaps that is the blessing that things are forgotten, we become obsolete and who cares? But don’t forget the ghost of a granny grieving. Someone somewhere will remember and the cycle goes on. Corruption must be combatted. We must be shaken from our complacent seats.

This book takes one backwards. That first bus journey takes us back to youth. It’s a never-ending cycle. Where does the corruption begin, when does one learn not to care? Can one escape the drudgery like McColl’s bones monstrously escaped his knee: a split leg, a gaping mouth. This book leaves you with your jaw on the floor, slumped in a chair. It is hard hitting. He talks of ‘a mouth where it shouldn’t be’ but this book is very much a voice for these times, an oracle proclaiming the digital takeover, consumerism and the cognitive dissonance this brings.

Review: Angela Dye

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Fly on the wall Press
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