Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Simon Turner - An Oeuf is an Oeuf

Reading Jack Underwood’s Happiness through the medium of eggs

The streets look like they want to be frying eggs
on themselves.

(from ‘Love Poem’)
‘Love Poem’ is an archetypal ‘Jack Underwood’ poem.  (Can we say that about a poet with only one full collection under his belt, albeit an excellent and almost bilious-attack inducingly self-assured one?  Sure, why the hell not?)  It creates a persona – which we’ll call ‘Jack Underwood’ for the sake of clarity, or ‘JU’ for short, to distinguish him from the author Jack Underwood, or JU for short – that’s observant and fidgety and self-reflexive, even perhaps to the point of neurosis.  There’s a real sense here of the world seen and experienced, of a life lived and observed with clarity.  Perhaps too much clarity, all told, for there’s a darkness underpinning ‘Love Poem’, or at the very least melancholy at odds with the positive note struck by the title [1].  ‘JU’ as a character is, it seems, rather fragile, even agoraphobic, whose every thought is a ‘housefly’ – for the record, I’ve never come across a more precise image for the way whole days can be frittered away amidst the nervous buzz and flicker of low level depression – and whose days are ‘gnaw[ed]’ at as the speaker waits for the object of his affections to return home.  (The same anxiety is writ large in ‘Inventory of Friends’, and a similar emotional register recurs in a minor key throughout the collection.)  It is a portrait of love, then, as absence: something radically needed by a consciousness preternaturally unsure of itself. 

All this fear, like a fizz building in a bad, grey egg,
is waiting for you.

(from ‘Poem of Fear for My Future Child’)

Here is another poem hesitating and finding its fullest expression in the fissure between unspeakable love and insuperable anxiety.  Here JU, through the mouthpiece of ‘JU’, manages to express – refreshingly sans schmaltz, which is what’s normally at the top of the menu when it comes to poets writing about their goddamn children – the horror of dependence and unconditional love.  Put it this way: when we have nothing or no-one to care for but ourselves, we can be pretty blithely indifferent to the terrors that might be lurking out there in the world, except at those (hopefully rare) points when said terrors come into sharper focus to impact significantly upon our previously cosseted lives.  Yet the moment we’re provided with another life to care for, the ratio of terror to safety (or at least neutrality) in the outer world is instantaneously reversed: we are at the mercy of the universe’s nihilistic caprices in a way we had never before imagined, not because the universe has suddenly become more nihilistically capricious (how could it, to be honest?), but because we are suddenly expected to have some kind of authority, however partial; some means of countering, however briefly, those same nihilistic caprices, the anxieties no doubt induced by those expectations compounded and amplified by our recognition of our ultimate failure in the face of those expectations.  That Underwood chooses to write about these fears and anxieties in such darkly comic terms – “I am such a dreadful future father; / I’m on the curb, crying, I’m a mess with your scarf” – does nothing to undermine the economical skill with which he’s expressed one of the most appalling paradoxes in the whole panoply of human affairs, namely this: without love, we have no purpose; with love, we have no power.    

PS:  For anyone doubting the veracity of Underwood’s startling image choice here, I can attest that ‘bad’ eggs are definitively ‘grey’.  The only time I have encountered such a specimen in over three decades of pretty uninterrupted egg-consumption was a few years back.  I had boiled an egg for my breakfast and was looking forward to the ‘small happiness’ of cracking its top, and sliding my spoon into the gently resistant egg-flesh, before prising its lid clean off and prodding a buttery sliver of toast into the turmeric-coloured honey of its just-undercooked yolk.  But horribly, impossibly, my spoon met no resistance whatsoever, and once the lid was removed, what was revealed was a tiny witch’s cauldron of battleship-grey tapioca that gave off a cornea-sizzling, sulphurous hum.  Needless to say, I did not eat an egg after that for some days.  

Joachim Beuckelaer - 'Girl with a Basket of Eggs'
I promise when I lift your egg’ (the poem entire)

We’re back to love again with this poem, which Happiness as a whole seems to be setting up as the opposite, or at least the sun-dappled, socially well-adjusted twin, of anxiety.  The recurring imagery of the egg begins to make some kind of sense now; it’s not simply an idiosyncrasy on Underwood’s part, but a schema, a component of Underwood’s – gasp! – imaginative nexus.  In ‘Poem of Fear…’, the simile-egg’s gone bad due to a ‘fizz’ of fear, a build-up of anxiety that’s somehow festered at its heart to render it rotten and unpalatable.  In this instance, the egg – tied to love of instead of its antipode – is remade, packed with promise and joy and poetry (see, for example, this analogy for the creative act: “when you dunk / gorgeously in, softly exploding the yolk / like a new idea finding one coloured term / for its articulation.”)  Would it be too much to allow for the possibility that Underwood might be drawing on a tradition of philosophical enquiry that conceives of the egg as an analogue or diagrammatic illustration of the human soul?  Almost certainly, but I’m going to do it anyway. 

I am so big today I push
my finger to the earth’s yolk and erupt it
like a boil.

(from ‘Oversize’) 

Another exploding egg!  Again, the egg is made to do an astonishing degree of imagistic and philosophical heavy-lifting, here deployed as a simile in Underwood’s imaginative casting of himself as a planet-smashing giant, unleashing an annihilating runnel of lava on a whim, suggesting an apocalyptic scenario to which not even a visionary genius of the calibre of a Michael Bay or a Zack Snyder could do justice.  More seriously, though, it’s a perfect instance of a tendency that I think Underwood’s mastered throughout Happiness: namely the yo(l)king (ha!) together of the domestic and the cosmic, of the palatable quotidian and the almost unimaginably infinite (‘Spring’’s image of “millions of photons whoosh[ing] through my hands,” and ‘Some Gods’’s iteration of small-scale, mundane (in the old sense) spirituality are two of the more overt instances, but it’s a preoccupation that permeates many of the other poems).  In fact, this feels like a good summation of Underwood’s project throughout Happiness: these poems, both singly and considered as a collective, read as attempts to encompass an entire life, from the immediate reality of a beautifully rendered domesticity (the cleaning, the cooking, the cricket [2]), to broader concerns relating to love, grief, anxiety, and doubt.  That Underwood manages to do all of this while eschewing the lazily and humourlessly epiphanous – “I was chopping some tomatoes and thought about my place in the universe, yeah?” – is arguably his biggest achievement.

No clue as to how the garlic taste
is getting in the eggs…
(from ‘Reading the Milk’)

I have two theories here:

(1) If the eggs are being laid by local chickens, either the speaker’s own or those of a neighbour, it’s possible – given that chickens are absolute demons when it comes to decimating edible greenery – that the birds in question have access to a patch of ramsons, and are eating them in sufficient quantities to radically affect the flavour of their ovulations.

(2) Alternatively, if the eggs are being kept in the kitchen near garlic, they may be acquiring the taste vicariously, as it were.  Eggs are particularly susceptible to absorbing strong neighbouring flavours due to their semi-porous membranes, a fact I learned from an episode of Great British Railway Journeys, in which Michael Portillo, who increasingly resembles a kind of rail-bound riposte to Quantum Leap’s Sam Beckett, sampled the delights of ‘buttered eggs’ in a market stall in Cork.        


[1] Although when were love poems ever expressions of anything other than anguish?  I guess in that sense, Underwood’s poem is part of a grand tradition that sucks in Sappho and Shakespeare and Thomas Wyatt and Keats and all the others; what marks him out is the bald way in which he foregrounds the form’s tradition of anguish at the expense of anything else. 

[2] Cricket = oval = egg, maybe? 

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