Christopher Reid, The Curiosities – Review

The Curiosities by Christopher Reid. Faber and Faber Ltd. 96 pp. £14.99 hardback.

I read The Curiosities straight through, enjoying the vividness of the stories and situations it presents, its urbanity, wit and formal inventiveness, then read it again much more slowly, lingering over the tensions and ambivalences of each separate poem. What I found surprising was that it responded equally well to both approaches.

Reading it straight through is easy; each poem slips down smoothly, without the need for major adjustments of approach or fresh efforts of engagement between them. This comes across as a book genuinely written as a whole rather than as a bundle of essentially separate poems bolted together. The language is vigorous, graphic and direct. Reid casts most of the poems as vivid anecdotes, brief narratives or dramatically realised present tense situations. He makes dynamic characters out of objects or body parts, a penis in the brilliantly bawdy “The Courier”, a chocolate in “The Chocolate”, a ball of yarn in “The Clew”. He shapes sentences and interweaves syntax and line in a way that creates continual suspense. He shows great skill with rhyme and slant-rhyme, making rhymes ring out in unexpected places in a way that drives the poems forward, achieving emphasis without closure. The momentum of his expression is matched by the energy and alertness of his mind, continually taking the reader’s imagination in unexpected directions.

This, of course, is where the pleasures of rereading come in: having rapidly followed a single poem or the whole book to its conclusion, we realise how much we want to revisit everything in it. The precision of his language allows Reid to combine forthrightness with indirection, striking images and clear narrative arcs with complicated vistas of secondary suggestion. As well as being a link in a chain, each poem is an independent field of force that draws you in, whether to explore complexities that a rapid reading skates over, or simply to hold a resonant image steady in the mind.

Linguistic precision is matched by precise and startling observation. For example, in “The Clew”, retelling the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, Theseus drops Ariadne’s ball of yarn on the sloping floor of the labyrinth. It rolls away and he follows it “stooped, as if in pursuit / of a runaway toddler”. We see this vividly, and if we’ve ever run after a toddler we feel it in our own bodies. Though toddlers are natural products of love stories, the incongruity of the image gives a vivifying jolt to the imagination, blasts the myth into the modern world and sets the ball of associative imagination rolling. Boundaries between the literal and the figurative dissolve. When Theseus carries the yarn back gathered in his arms, images that might flash across our minds include the carrying of corpses, children, the wounded and brides (Theseus promised to marry Ariadne in return for her help). When he lets it fall in a tangle on the ground we may think both of copulating bodies, and of how soon he’ll desert her on Naxos. Through such imaginative nudges, a whole series of love stories is made to shimmer through the screen of the myth.

One of the volume’s greatest pleasures is its diversity. Many voices come through Reid’s own, whether in versions and adaptations of foreign poets or in deft mimicry of different spoken and written registers, as in “The Chocolate”, which gives its nameless speaker a strongly felt dramatic presence and makes a miniature drama of a poem whose overt argument concerns the erotics of chocolate but which enacts an erotics of pedagogy, on one level, and of poetry on another. The sheer variety of objects, people and situations included in the book is simultaneously offset and humorously emphasised by the device of making each of the 73 titles consist of “The” followed by a noun beginning with C. In a sense the blurb is right in suggesting that the subject is “the polymorphous nature of the human lot”. Really, though, it’s more specifically the polymorphous nature of our sexual desires, vicissitudes and behaviour. The few poems not overtly about this theme are drawn into its orbit by the overwhelming majority that are. In keeping with such a subject, some poems evoke the sensitive body with vividness and power. In contrast, “The Catapult” makes comedy out of the unspoken, unspeakable shimmer of erotic feeling imagined as surrounding an outwardly banal and proper transaction in a shop. In another contrast, “The Couch” presents the couch as the only decent actor in a porn film where sex is all too tediously physical. Though the book is clear-eyed about the absurdity, pathos and even darkness of sexuality, its overall feeling is celebratory and its wit, intelligence and poetic skill make it a continuous pleasure to read.

I would like to thank the Patricia Oxley for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in Acumen 83.


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