Poetry review: 28/10/20
VERTIGO TO GO
By Brendon Booth-Jones
A poet "... squeezing every possible drop of meaning from his imagery."
“my lips issued one misprint after a mother” writes Brendon Booth-Jones, in his debut collection, Vertigo to Go. It’s a funny line, but telling too – these pages are peppered with people mishearing one another, or more often, misinterpreting what they hear. Often this is due to the incongruity of his polished, flawless, eloquent poetry, and the gauche, bashful chap he presents himself to be: trying to “convey my inner universe with my small talk” as he phrases it, in the charming prose poem ‘To my crush who lives on the second floor’. He presents perfectly the awkward, clumsy silences and verbal typos that litter the conversation you have with someone you hope to impress. It made me ache for him and yearn to squeeze his hand. I bet Brendon’s a lovely chap. His second floor crush should feel honoured to have piqued his interest. In ‘Autumn in Amsterdam’ someone’s presence inspires him to create “ridiculous lines… that I will never publish… how your lips sparkle like endorphins / and your lips gleam like dolphins”; a clever way to let loose his feelings and allow his less cool, more ridiculous efforts into his book.
For this is a collection of a man who’s trying to fit in, somewhere, make sense of his world and the sorrows that dog him, the friends he loses, the grief he feels. We are not allowed to fully understand the reasons for his sadness, only given the occasional glimpse, which perhaps makes his work more empathetic and accessible; but we are given every tiny detail of his efforts to overcome it. A bong he names Pandora, crafted from a coke bottle by his fifteen-year-old hands, “thick white smoke straight into our blood… each thought stretched out like cosmic toffee…” The reader is crammed into the claustrophobic scene, beanbags and lounging teens, forced to smell the garage fumes, hear Cobain, burn with the adult recollection and yearning for that moment, grieve for the simple self and friends he has lost, the clues he was too clueless to pursue, for “I had been too busy riding the radiant final wave / of innocence behind my eyes / to see his hands shaking…”
Drugs offer momentary escapes from sorrow, at least: the church, none. He sees a priest shout abuse at a homeless man and lock the door against him in ‘Testimony’, a tremendous portrayal of dawning adolescent understanding. The simplicity of the language echoes the relatively unsophisticated teenage brain, but also the essential, simple message of Christ, who would surely counsel against locking church doors against the homeless, and the sudden, simple moment his faith falls away:
“he saw that I was frozen in the doorway
of a paradigm shift my hands trembling
blush spreading over me like wine on a white dress—
it was one of those moments
when you either scuttle back
into the warm fold of all you’ve known
or you turn your back and leap into a dark future—
away from the sickly sweet cologne
of toilet freshener cloying your throat: that synthetic smell of fake flowers trying to cover shit—”
Through this collection Booth-Jones displays an absolute mastery of the telling characterisation, squeezing every possible drop of meaning from his imagery: the “pill-white” teeth of a teenage friend; the “dark rainbows in her laughter lines / faux leather boots to crush fascists” of another – he builds a kaleidoscope of dazzling imagery to give us characters and histories in a few tightly crafted visual clues. Densely packed, clever and original; with one word doing the work of fifty, this isn’t a collection to gorge yourself upon. Each line demands to be savoured, lingered over, tested and rolled about the tongue.
At the heart of the book we find ‘Poem scraped from Greasy Menu’, a brutal takedown of a customer barking orders at his waiter self in a hipster cafe, “the ambience hand-picked / from a catalogue of great taste”, he tells us: a wonderfully withering putdown. With scientific precision he takes apart the vile customer’s order, pointing to its human, animal and environmental cost, the “Slave-wage workers / with weeping minds that picked your precious coffee beans”. He thrills at the prospect of the earth taking revenge against him and his ilk, but the poem is saved from buckling under self-righteousness both by the waiter’s recognition of his own culpability: (“how I make myself sick with acquiescence, / hoping for a tip”) and his efforts to see and understand the boy that went before and became this vicious, careless man, in lines so beautiful I wanted to weep:
“Buried under the waxen grin of nip, tuck and botox
is a shrivelled man, and buried under him
is a young child who loved dinosaurs, bees and flowers, the dappled sunlight through the trees,
the snug winking of the lighthouse in winter.
So how did you make that leap from carefree to cruelty?”
Booth-Jones gives us a screen grab of modern life with his ‘Sonnet’, a collection of the words we see so often we cease to see them, so cleverly crafted I hesitate to quote a line or two: the effect comes from seeing them cascade towards you, their meanings unravelling and interweaving via their juxtaposition with other well-worn phrases. He reaches effortlessly for the style that best suits his message, and it works, over and over. I loved the gentle, heartfelt ‘Poem for my Mother’ which ends the work, telling of the woman who introduced him to the world’s wonders, the oceans so deep and dazzling they could cause vertigo – “and you taught me not to look away”. In Vertigo to Go Booth-Jones offers his readers a similar gift.
Review: Melissa Todd
Brendon Booth-Jones - VERTIGO TO GO
The Hedgehog Poetry Press (1 Oct. 2020)
Buy a signed copy direct from Brendon’s website
€18.20 (€10 +€8.20 p&p)