richard barrett, pig fervour - a review

Two starting points:

First, one of my misgivings about Flarf is the element of novelty. I'll expand on this in a moment. There is no Flarf in Pig Fervour. Flarf represents a kind of novelty, but one that I think may have a strictly limited lifespan. It's a reaction to novel and ephemeral phenomena of the present that I suspect will seem quaint in quite a short time. Inherently it has a tendency to be a fairly superficial engagement with the present, and is every bit as embarrassing as a teacher or parent trying to use teen slang. Why raise this? Because Richard's poems are embedded in the present (through links to the past and to specific places) and with an eye for those things which might affect us in the future. These poems don't need to dress themselves up as an imagined future because they know that any future will be both stranger and more banal than anything Flarf can hint at.

Second, in my own poem north I wrote 'we understood / the water / jesus / walked on was / shallow / narrow / a stream with rocks in it.' Now excusing any weaknesses in the writing the point of the sentence is clear, we read the world through our specific geographic and temporal context. That doesn't mean it has be foregrounded, or that we're all condemned to writing versions of Seamus Heaney's Digging. It doesn't even mean that we have to write about ourselves. All it means is that the poet and their work is inevitably the product of a specific time and specific places.

Both these starting points are in fact the same starting point slightly differently expressed. But for me they represent perhaps the major unifying thread in Pig Fervour. Richard Barrett's second short collection of 2009, available from The Arthur Shilling Press, Pig Fervour strikes me as a slightly less unified collection than backyard poems (from Richard's own Knives, Forks and Spoons Press). As such less tangible aspects of the work like its periodic return to a particular geography and its embedding in the present become more obvious. Although in individual poems these aspects may be less marked than they were in the earlier book. Another result of this lack of unity is that I don't think there is much here to stand up against the rushes, Richard's long poem that will appear in the Autumn edition of Parameter magazine.

Pig Fervour is still a collection well worth adding to your shelves though. The first poem, the good fortune of being happy in yr work, for my money justifies the (very low) price of admission alone. Among shifting times, locations and voices a picture emerges of estrangement from experience. We become aware of how events are filtered through media, and provided with narrative structures borrowed from fiction 'Orgreave in reverse / ... / This VHS age clashes'. All that remains is recent history made remote, the language of tv 'OB / VT', and the goldfish-memory ironising distance that results, 'dancing with gusto to / the Blow Monkeys'. When there is no such thing as society, only individuals, when we see our lives through another's frame, how is it possible to be authentic? For me there is nothing as dense and rich as this in the rest of the collection.

april fools day, this year comes close but its gathering of fragments seems less like resistance or an attempt to re-frame what's given than it does a capitulation, a failure of energy. While curiously the otherwise apparently more conservative and reflective Don't Use Facebook In The Station / Don't Use Facebook At Home. and the parlour game become more radical. They find spaces that appear not to have been colonised by media, or that at least have been re-colonised by individuals and small groups whose terms of reference are set by themselves:

'We knew we were cool.
Yet come September I
couldn't / to learn what's written
is hard taken back.'
Don't Use Facebook etc.

As in the rushes, the media, the news in particular, is a participant throughout. And while the collection is not reflective/confessional or conventionally personal, the poet by re-framing the news, by re-colonising the spaces it has occupied is equally a participant. This makes the collection political, and in combination with the rushes makes me excited about where Richard Barrett might go next. It feels somewhat transitional, as though he's experimenting with different approaches. The results of these experiments, where he emerges after this period of transition, will be interesting to see.

In conclusion, expect to finish this booklet with the vague sense that you've perhaps missed something, maybe even without any lasting impression. But be prepared for specific words, sentences, parts of poems to return to you at unexpected moments. Be prepared when you re-read the book for certain sections to be suddenly very well-established in your head, even while you could swear you never read other sections before. It's not perhaps the best work Richard's had published this year but as a snapshot of a particular moment in his development it may turn out to be the most significant.


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