Felix Cassiel on
The Tattooist’s Chair
Smokestack Books, 2017
Smokestack Books, 2019
It is not for this critic to explore the merits of the art of the tattooist; it may be so that the merits are several, and that in adorning a body it may by gradations according to the skill of the practitioner be improved, or marred by his incompetence; the production may have standalone merit, or may for its full effect depend on the canvas, which by its inherent shape, shade and texture might illumine qualities of the work that would, on another canvas, remain without emphasis; yet we, as observers, cannot judge a tattoo on the strength of its sentiment, nor on the success with which it is communicated. The tattoo, meaning what it means only to the one tattooed, remains to us incomprehensible. How far the poet has sought inspiration from the premier body-artists of the age is a matter for conjecture; it is enough for us to ask how far his own meaning may be anything to us.
And in the manner of shaking hands with a man whose dense embellishment emerges at the sleeve and ends abruptly at the wrist, our first impression upon acquaintance with Karl Riordan is one of absence. In this case, not of a tattoo, but of a father: one we catch in the process of fleeing a domestic situation that is altogether far too much, or far too little for him.
I watch through the chink in the bedroom door,
My father slicks back his interlocking D.A.
Three angled mirrors at the dressing table
As he whistles to Lipstick on your Collar.
The crackling record spins in the corner,
Grooved like his black Brylcreemed hair.
Listen to the rumpus, the fumbling upstairs,
Slotting his record collection into boxes
Unaware of me pacing below.
I catch him at the front door
As he tries to make a quick getaway,
A day I’d been expecting.
He drives off in his blue Datsun Cherry
Leaving me straddling the white line.
Then the gear crunch at the end of the road,
And you can bet your bottom dollar
That he’s checking his rear view mirror.
‘Mirror, Signal, Manoevre’
Such a debilitating loss of blood may procure from us a warm bedside manner, but does little for our expectations. Of the pieces that follow, several appear to prevail upon our sympathy, but others remain aloof; there are times, in fact, when the reader is given so little to go on, that he may conclude, quite reasonably, that his presence is not desired.
After a night shift checking-in drunk guests,
I go with Felipe for breakfast, ale and pool.
We tower stack silver coins in the queue
Waiting for Billy to pot the seven.
He misses and the thud of the white
Rebounds around the blue baize table.
He bayonets his pal in the gut with a cue,
Clack of sticks the sound of two running stags.
Fallujah’s being bombed on mute T.V.
I tug on the cuff of my sweater
And wonder if the woman serving
Is Diane and how she got into this?
Her alto voice calls to cut it out.
Am old man sat nearby makes cooing sounds,
His top-set of teeth fall down in his mouth.
He extracts the grin, necks a pint of heavy.
Billy-boy sinks the black ball like a gulp.
‘Diane’s Pool Hall’
This is not to suggest that Riordan is not a man of deep feeling. Despite the abrasiveness of the rendering, which serves sometimes to convey an image more completely, but at other times does not, there lives in these works a sentiment of charity, and a developed sense of humanity: both crucial, of course, for anyone who sets upon himself the task of good work, whether in art or otherwise; and this humanity, though vigorous when provoked, is, it seems, too often want to lie prone, to reveal itself substantially only at brief intervals.
Aggie fussed in and out of the kitchen,
Bringing in floppy bread and butter.
The tension built up on Saturdays,
She’d wear her pinny with pockets so deep
She could pick out a wish by fingertip.
I’m perched on the black-leaded shelf,
Back pressed against the oven.
Crowds start to boo from the tele
As Giant Haystacks stomps into the ring
And we all hope he’ll fall through.
Big Daddy fetches a stadium roar,
his sequinned leotard catches the light.
Aggie, rocking in her chair now,
Shreds the Radio Times to coleslaw.
Andrew is cross-legged on the floor
Still struggling with the hoist since age ten
When Muscular Dystrophy took hold.
His limbs are twisted in grey marl school socks
As if someone had applied heat and moulded
His ankles into hockey sticks.
He still manages to bray the floor
Holding his opponent into submission
Three, two, one.
‘After School and Weekends’
The poet’s attention is often on minutiae, and generally on the commonplace; and as our acquaintanceship develops, we feel, with regret, that this may be less by design than it is by habit. We are given much of the chair, but little of the tattoo.
Barney perches on the caravan steps,
Drinks tea from a dented enamel mug,
Stares at a scribble of hawthorn hedge
As nest-making sparrows flit out and in.
Brida washes crockery and trinkets.
Hands them down to her her children.
They wrap up pots in local press headlines,
Stow away heirlooms and the old lies.
A police helicopter strips the air;
Their Virgin Mary trembles, looks skywards
From the garden patch. A boy cries
As their blue balloon is sucked away.
The sticks of foxed placards rattle
Against the disconnected
Gas bottles. Stop Evischen.
Let out Childran go to School.
‘Road to Nowhere’
Smallness of conception is perhaps the most excusable of a poet’s vices, and certainly if the poet, in an effort to avail toward a sense of good humour and robust fellowship with his reader, resorts to a focus we might term narrow, we may yet attribute to him healthy designs; but when that focus is so held over the course of a book, the content of which to varying degrees impresses upon the reader’s breast a certain languor, we may, with all due respect for the tenets of realism, wish for something with a little more light, and a little more air; something, in short, a little less claustrophobic.
Mother ruffled up my hair today
As she scuffled around the kitchen
In preparation for my 21st.
One more shift,
Before reaching my majority.
Nothing is said only knowing looks,
Keeping me out of the way, slapping hands,
My boots are unlaced warming by the fire,
Just like those mornings before school.
She’s blind to me lifting the oven latch
To peek and inhale the sweet smell of sponge
Taking the air from the sinking cake.
It is to be admitted that the craggy Anglo-Saxon of the phrasing and the assortment of cultural referents offered by the text would indeed stimulate a sense of the aforementioned fellowship in some readers, and, given the subject matter, it could be argued that any other rendering would be inappropriate, and to this the critic cedes: the volume, after all, is a short one. Nevertheless the language, while craggy and appropriate, lacks vitality; despite our sense that the poet would like something to change, we are allowed no conception of how, and little of what; his reality, so bluntly delivered, is set against no alternative, and the root of the problem, if a problem there is, is left unexplored. Regrettably, the sentiment remains unallied; the essence abides not in the strength of its dogma. In so little a book, this absence of the strong arm may be something of a missed opportunity.
‘The Bible hardly ever talks about neglect of the poor. It always talks of oppression of the poor - a very different matter. It does not merely speak of passing by on the other side, and binding up no wounds, but of drawing the sword and ourselves smiting the men down. It does not charge us with being idle in the pest-house, and giving no medicine, but with being busy in the pest-house, and giving much poison.’
- John Ruskin.
In the 1860s, John Ruskin expounded upon the centrality of iron in nature and society; in the former case, its ubiquity in the earth; in the latter, its facility in works. For Ruskin, the pillar of civilisation was triune, consisting of these broad heads: the Plough, the Bond, and the Sword - these being the rules of labour, of law, and of defence, or courage. In each of these, exhorted the critic, the role of iron is chief, and as such is to be reckoned the great enabler of the works of men.
Around this pillar the poet’s troops are arrayed, though it is for the reader to decide which way they’re facing.
‘At Meroe’ offers a pleasing introduction to the matters weighing on Deborah Moffatt’s mind; here, we are acquainted with a generous historical awareness, which we are glad to find on display again and again as the volume unfolds.
Part I brings us face to face with the burgeoning might of Roman arms:
.....I could take delight
In the daily humiliation of the great Caesar,
His head wrested from his statue and buried
Here beneath my feet, our fleeting victory
Enduring, even in defeat.
Part II frames an empire in decline, the military face of which belongs to a certain Horatio:
Kitchener was there, standing hand on hip
In the midst of it all, imperious, distant,
His smile a grimace, his eyes straying,
His patience tried, or spent,
In Part III we find disintegration; there is no hint of a superstructure, and no well-designed hero to front it; instead, we have artefacts of empire, an empire ravaged by empires, sands of immeasurable antiquity, whose gods, with the coming of each new Babylon, were despised and substituted, or, found palatable, appended to the rites of the soldiery, barely discernible in origin or function; and to this land, atomised as it is, and sapped of meaning, peopled by a race duty-bound only to its stomach, and blackened by ahistorical mist, we see the beginnings of an embryo, a new type of empire, one built not by blood, but by technology, sustained not by martial valour, civic virtue or religious order, but by inversions of these, by cowardice, selfishness, and materialism: an empire, in other words, with its reason for being eliminated, leaving the disordered subjects within wondering, indeed, if it really ever is, or was, or will be.
Your companions tap their phones, waiting
For news to break. You scan the desert sky,
Looking for a change in the weather, an avatar,
The emperor’s head, suspended in time.
The truck rumbles over Bin Laden’s road. Revenge
Is impossible. There was never anyone to blame.
A moment of carelessness, then you die.
At least he didn’t lie when he said goodbye.
Critics of the modern historical method, I mean that which first set forth the idea of a depersonalised history, that is, as a series of affairs unfolding mechanically, according to laws unaffected by man or the vicissitudes of fate, may find weakness in the poet’s method: after all, what are we given here but an illustration of a life cycle, in which the greatest actors are static - indeed, by the time their images reach us, they are already dead men? yet this is perhaps to neglect another perspective, one rich with the fruit of a cultivated imagination, that which makes intimate the remote, which reflects life into the dead eyes of Augustus, and in this way he becomes for us not a human, but a demon, a form animated by a foreign body: lifeless, yet endued with local motion, and for this we feel no closer to him, nor to the order he represents; but to the living Nubian peasant, through whose one good eye our glimpse is had, we feel, in our poverty of spirit and fantasies of power, something of a kinship:
Yet that same head, that image of the handsome Augustus
As he was when young, his thick curls licking at his brow,
His bronze skin tinged with an olive hue, his tender lips
Set for a kiss, his radiant eyes turned contemptuously aside,
As if my dark Nubian skin or my own blighted eye
Offended him, or as if I were not worthy of his gaze,
There are, however, less successful exercises of this method. ‘The Baltic Shore’, for example, has neither the intimacy nor the breadth to hold our interest; the rhythm is too loose, and the language too prosaic to convey adequately the strength of sentiment.
She dresses for dinner beside a meagre fire,
Each garment a layer of the past, the faded silk blouse,
The threadbare woollen skirt, the thin cashmere shawl.
You remember the jagged ice floes cluttering the winter sea,
The pale bloated corpses floating like buoys amid the ice,
The ragged clothing flapping wildly in the wind.
A more satisfactory affair is ‘The Roman Road’. Here the poet conjures a writer idling before his computer screen. His solitude he savours, she says, as his authorial fancy rushes up against shores he seems to have every intention of exploring. At length, the hour of contemplation terminates. His imagination goes to work, but not without compulsion; as with the rest of the organic envelope, it would much rather be engaged in something less taxing.
He endures his solitude, takes pleasure in the neat black lines,
The first hesitant threads of a narrative unreeling into the screen,
The hours of contemplation interspersed with a fury of typing,
The chattering keyboard a scold, a reminder of work to be done,
While emails remain unanswered and romance is postponed.
By a slow, almost dolorous transport we are taken from the indulgence of expectation to the toilsome drubbing of keys; thence to the profound vacancy of the creative unoccupied. Doubts over the veracity, and then the quality, of his work, commence their insurgency; and these, in the typical fashion of the hubristic author, find themselves just as quickly transferred onto the subject itself - history, not even the area with which he’s concerned, but all history - the grand human periplum, driven by prevaricators and the great tight-lipped - against such obstinate matter, of what use his humble chisel?
This bridegroom, we sense, is beginning to tire of his union, as the duties entrained outgrow the ecstasies. The sense of life going on outside his bedchamber once again prevails upon him. Not that the doubts aforementioned are not, in their own way, voluptuous - as the dreams of a spouse by degrees take the form of a personage other than their beloved, we sense our author’s deliberate attempt to write himself into another world, and in the effort, excusing his actions in this one.
His work nearly done, he regrets his solitude, frets over emails
That no longer arrive, senses her pain and blames himself,
Though it was never just a simple matter of building a road,
He writes, not only the earth that was unreliable - even history
Could not be trusted...
In Eating Thistles dolour is want to turn to despair. By the time we reach ‘The Christian Door’, we are primed for something of a darker cast, nevertheless it is with surprise that enter an interior black as pitch.
It is something to be noted, too, that here is found Moffat arguably at her most lyrical.
A Christian door, your mother called it,
And you bowed your head before the cross
Former by the muntins and rails
Of a door kept closed more often than not.
There was something sacred, you imagined,
In the secrets of that forbidden room -
The stifled whispers, the shuffle of sheets,
The creak of a bed-spring in the night -
And something of heaven and hell
In the storms that blew open the doors
With bright peals of laughter
Or the shrill fury of angry words.
This door, while adorned accidentally with a simulacrum of a crucifix, leads to a private theatre of death - physical, as symbolised by the ‘dumb beasts’ there slaughtered, and spiritual, by the fornication there hidden. The bloody and ritualistic character stressed by the poet serves to excuse the confusion of the subject, that individual in whose memory the poem takes form, and to preserve their ambivalence - which, because it is a moral ambivalence, is necessarily black - as is suggested by the use of the adjective ‘pagan’. Yet ‘pagan’, despite the poet asking us to acknowledge its murderous roots, which we readily do, suggests also something else, something utterly absent from this poem: that is, innocence; though the pagan may be lustful, and malicious, and proud, as his guilt grows, so does his helplessness; the pagan, as history bears out, is eminently convertible. Yet this is not countenanced in ‘The Christian Door’. There is nothing convertible about these protagonists: there is mockery, laughter, taunts and chatter; no innocence is in evidence; the atmosphere, instead, is more noticeably satanic, odoriferous with the abundance of decay; these memories are heavy not only with wrongdoing, but with wrong done knowingly.
How else are we to regard the response to that greatest of sins, suicide?
....The barn door,
Heavy and hard to pull on its rusted rails,
Was never closed, until that summer day
When you found it nearly so, and slid inside
To find your father dangling from a beam
With swallows buzzing around his head.
In the swallows’ taunting chatter
You heard your mother’s mocking laughter;
In the dark silence of the barn
You heard the whispered secrets of the bedroom.
The cross on the door was a coincidence,
A chance arrangement of pieces of wood,
Here and elsewhere in the volume death manifests to varying degrees, and to several purposes. The governing sense, however, at length obtained by the reader, is not of death as a prospect, or even as a certainty, but rather as a state, something that happened before we opened the volume, and in the rotten bosom of which we have placed our heads, and by its fleshless lips are read these stanzas. The characters we encounter strike us as fossilised, their personalities animated by an automation of memory, and their actions already a foregone conclusion. The naturalistic style maintained throughout, while at many times obtaining its object of intimacy, has a tendency to wear on the reader - and there are, it seems, occasions, though rare, when the poems approach the threshold of morbidity, but are, warily, restrained.
The encounters Moffat provides us are not without interest, and the characters we meet are not ordinary; though they are, in fact, men and women defeated, having succumbed under the weight of iron, or suffered in the dearth of it (for that which gives life is prone to fall into mismanagement, and the recipients of its life, who are also the managers, fall correspondingly into dilapidation) they are, nevertheless, men and women who, to the best of their abilities and the singularities of their natures, fought, for, or against, or in spite of, and, while they exist for us now as but fossils, their evidence may yet inform.
Felix Cassiel © 2021