Review - "Reading Moby-Dick and Various Other Matters" by Martin Stannard


Steve Spence

“Reading MOBY-DICK and Various Other Matters” by Martin Stannard, pub. Leafe Press. 87 pages.

I love the casual, throwaway title of Martin Stannard’s new collection, belying his serious obsession with Melville’s epic tome, yet the first eight pages which are ‘dedicated’ to the great book and to Stannard’s own ‘reading’ of Moby Dick are wonderfully entangled glimpses of the author’s own methods and stratagems. Stannard’s own daily routines and reading patterns become entwined with the tale of obsession and pursuit to the point where you are almost living a double life when immersing yourself in this text. He begins with an hilarious reference to Melville’s opening gambit – ‘Call me optimistic.’ – and from thereon in it’s a mix of ‘then and now’ with neat hints of anachronism – ‘spectacles’ rather than ‘glasses’, for example, highlighted rather than hidden away. It’s such a clever idea to use a classic of American Literature in this way and do it with such apparently careless panache but Stannard’s writing always had this quality of appearing to be deceptively unconsidered while in fact combining sophistication with readability in a manner which brings the avant-garde in to the mainstream without giving the game away. This is a writer at the peak of his powers and it’s easy to feel envious of his abilities which make it all look so easy but not in a way that would seriously want to make you feel like giving up. Take this extract from section 1 of ‘Reading Moby Dick (or the whale)’ by way of example: 

     I have to say I have never slept better in my life. Upon waking,
     p.28 was arrived and I was looking forward to 29. I calculated
     that at least three or four hours must elapse before I could
     resume what passes for my ordinary life, and was wondering
     what might be being cooked up. Life in the street goes on
     without me, but on the starboard hand of every woe there
     is a sure delight: by 9.30 I was in New Bedford, a place all
     beach and no background, and what is background other than
     something to loafe and loiter in front of?

Stannard says in a brief note at the end of the book that ‘The poem is not about anything in particular, it just is. I like poems like that.’ I know exactly what he means. It was written over the course of several days and is a mix of remembrances related to Moby Dick via his several readings of the book plus anything that happened to pop into his head at the time, with a little tweaking of course! The point being that you can dip into the ‘narrative’ at any point and find something of interest, a fact which I’d also say is true of the rest of the collection which is made up of four further sections or mini-collections. 

From ‘#7 (If you are daft)’, from ‘Design and Layout’ we get the following – ‘ Some words are difficult to pronounce unless you know how and include / reveille, segue and pneumonoultramicrospocipsilivcovolcanoconiosis. To be romantic is to be doomed. Things happen and then they stop happening.’ You can imagine Stannard composing these sentences – and there’s a wonderful balance between long, short and intermediate throughout – in a bit of a flurry until he gets to words like ‘pheumon… etc’ where I imagine even he has to stop and check on the spelling/meaning etc. Or perhaps it’s a made-up compound, that’s just as likely in fact and I’m not going to waste time checking. If there’s an element of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ about this then it’s a much more entertaining, immediate approach to wordplay and one where the jokes and puzzles are throwaway yet serious up to the point where you can relax into the reading and thoroughly enjoy the whole process. Stannard is an erudite guy for sure but not to the point where he’s hitting the reader over the head with his learning and I suspect his mode of composition is one that once started happens quite quickly, in a flow, with a bit of tweaking at the end or in transit, of course. 

Each poem in ‘Design and Layout’ is made from three seven-line stanza blocks and each individual title is taken from the first line of each poem which presumably explains the overall title of the sequence and suggests that the form is simply a conveyer of the content, something like that, in any case. Stannard plays with the formal qualities of his work and it’s the creative tension between ‘form and content’ that sneaks up on the reader, possibly tricking him or her into expecting something quite different to what the poet actually delivers.  

The individual sections that make up the third grouping, ‘Still Here’ also have their own formal layouts and I’m reading the overall title with an invisible question mark as in ‘Still Here?’ which prefaces the undoubted humour. ‘from The Education of an Idiot’ is quite hilarious, and is based upon an imagined diary of an adolescent male where sexual misunderstanding and under-stated scatology is the order of the day, allied to an offbeat strangeness of description which makes you slightly rethink the whole chapter: ‘During my first week, and / being a practical chap, one day I asked Madge if she was wearing underpants, and she called me a sweet boy, / then led me into the stockroom where she picked up a hammer off the shelf and smacked me around the side of / the head. I was hospitalized for a week, and no longer care what Madge wears.’ The style of narrative is so wonderfully at odds with what’s being said that you can’t help but laugh even when, if taken in a different context, the material might have a more disturbing resonance. Stannard wants to entertain and to undermine notions of propriety with his skewed gaze upon the absurdity of the world but the sophistication of his ‘viewpoint’ and his manipulation of language can cause his readers to seriously reflect at the same time as they are hooting with laughter, or not, as the case may be. 

‘That Thing’ is written in triplets and trips along quite nicely, mixing the inevitable humour with a somewhat solipsistic sense of inner disturbance and picking up random thoughts along the way:  ‘The burning issues of / the day are ablaze with themselves / but grow tiresome. To be a fireman is / apparently the career of choice among / an increasing number of university / graduates and is a sign of the times.’  You can see how the wordplay generates the meaning or ‘narrative’ and there’s a general smoothness of transition which is central to Stannard’s style even where the actual material is more heterogeneous than homogenous, so to speak. In fact if there’s one criticism I might have about Stannard’s style, it is the surface smoothness but more often than not I’m seeing this as a plus rather than a minus. ‘Let Me Ask You This’, with its incessant questioning tone manages to combine hilarity with irritation, with frenetic speed of shift with a sense of an underlying philosophical speculation which may or may not be a feint. It’s an incredible piece, however you take it and it’s worth a substantial quote here:

     What’s the difference between dream and fantasy?
     Is it possible to have too much imagination?
     Can imagination take up too much space in the house
     and exclude reality? Shall I bother to ask you what we mean
     when we say “reality”? Is my reality different from yours?
     Do you think I take everything too much to heart?
     Do you think I’m talking about me or you or someone
     else? Does it matter? Is self-questioning an admirable trait
     or is it potentially self-destructive? Is therapy an option?  

If I was writing this it would be a much more ‘disconnected’ piece with more random intrusions but I love the way that the questions mount up and create an onrush which suggests that there might in fact be a satisfying conclusion! I could say a lot more about this but I think I’d prefer to allow the reader space to breathe and hopefully buy the book and read the complete poem, alongside the others. 

I wasn’t so convinced by the final section in chapter three (Preces: Contemplating Mrs Baxter) but I may well be missing something here, especially as it takes much of its material from Thomas Merton, not a writer I’d necessarily think of in relation to Martin Stannard, which just goes to show how wrong you can sometimes be.  Stannard’s not a writer who wears his heart on his sleeve, which is all to the good, but amid the undoubted appeal of his ‘laid-back’ approach where politics and ‘spiritual matters’ seem but an intrusion or something he can’t (and shouldn’t) care much about there’s a serious questing going on, a philosophical enquiry into the nature of things which is integrated into the ongoing flow of daily discourse and inner conversation. 

Chapter 5, ‘The View’ is made up of twenty poems, each having four four-line stanzas. Each poem has an individual title and each poem includes a “quotation”, acknowledged by quotation marks but, as Stannard tells us in the end note, he can’t always remember where they came from. It’s an interesting development in his work and these poems have a distinct montaged feel which is something you could say about his poetry overall, I think. He and Rupert Loydell have much common ground in this respect. From View number 2, ‘The Puzzler’, we have an opening encapsulation which sort of says it all before you’re whisked away into the future: ‘The enlightened approach would be to allow / Mr. & Mrs. Everyman access to the world’s treasures. This is not going to happen. Every afternoon we go for a walk in the park for exercise.’ Humour is never far from the scene and mixes with a variety of materials from all over the shop. I’m not sure how recently some of these pieces were written but its seems as though there’s an awareness of the current pandemic and again the tension between the serious and the ‘not taking it all too seriously’ fuels some of the most interesting passages in this section. Mind you, it’s easy enough to just dip in and find interesting phrases, connections and passages as this volume is filled with them. How about this for a depiction of contrast: ‘If it’s direction we need then maybe we should / be following the examples of the mist as it drifts languidly / around, there to find a method by which to relax and take / what we can find in the way of enjoyment. If you hear / a choir start up you know it’s time to start worrying’. Again, I could say a lot about that juxtaposition but I’d prefer to let the reader make up his/her own mind.  

One of the joys of Stannard’s poetry is that it gives plenty of room for the reader to breathe. Suffice to say, Stannard is as influenced as a poet by the Romantics as he is by the Modernists and Post Modernists. 

     VIEW #12 
     The Melody Maker
     The day begins in a cloud hat. “My Lord told me how
     the King has given him the place of the great
     Wardrobe.” Foreign language songs are not as popular
     as once they were, yet some people insist upon
     saying we have come a long way. Having written
     a really catchy tune in his head he cancelled the rest
     of the week. You just doodle and dawdle and it’s enough
     to make your fortune. But if we were all able to do that,
     well, where would the challenge be? The crooked lane
     stretches a crooked mile and it is not always possible to
     reconcile optimism with how things pan out. Walk headlong
     into the dip of doom with one’s eyes closed. Deciding what
     to wear to the dance is always a problem. People are
     whistling, determined to be happy. Out in the village green
     there is a re-enactment of something from the past when
     we won. What o’clock is it? It might be too late already.

The title provides the hint of a theme and a wonderfully relaxed opening line is followed by the arresting quotation – where might that have come from, one wonders? There is talk of optimism and of people being happy and you can begin to see a build-up of inter-related images, thoughts and descriptions. There are musical references which fulfil expectations and then that beautifully insouciant ‘command’ – ‘Walk headlong / into the dip of doom with one’s eyes closed’, which ties in slightly with the opening reference to ‘a cloud hat’ in the sense that there are upbeat and downbeat images contrasting throughout although my overall impression is of a relaxed atmosphere where wordplay and an enthusiasm for language is a key generating factor. I love this kind of poetry and Stannard is very good at it, no doubt about that. 

The final section ‘from What Matters’ is itself divided into three further ‘chapters.’ The first of these (What Matters) mixes late surrealism with pure nonsense, puzzling commands and a commentary on the language of bureaucracy. So we get the following: ‘Matter No. 300: The recurring matter of the absence of Common Sense will no longer be considered / owing to time constraints. All enquiries should be made to the Administrative Office.’ Which is ‘logically’ followed by: ‘Matter No. 301: The Administrative Office is no longer located where it used to be, and its email account  / has been deleted.’ 

There’s almost a sense of slapstick humour at times in Stannard’s knockabout narratives but he’s always as sharp as mustard despite the apparent ‘drawl.’ 

In ‘Highlights from The Art of Translation’ we are given eight assembled stanzas which are composed of translation into English (or ‘what the translators thought was English’ according to Stannard’s end-note) which were found online, borrowed and re-arranged. So we have, for example: 

     244. Whence For The Mizzly Vista
     Whence for the mizzly vista who’d be my vier?
     All these years I’ve either fallen in the dumps or been ailing
     So to get over my long disgruntles
     And relish the sparkling vernal glamour is at odds with carpe diem of joie de vivre
     I’d like to wear a blossom on my head but there is no one at my disposal
     I’d also like to revel in a booze but have no boon fellows
     Nobody will care even if I am sozzled
     Who will come visit this man in the dumps today when he is over a barrel?

Some of these lines are so good that you can’t help thinking a little tweaking has gone on but who knows? It’s the re-arrangement and composition of these pieces into formal eight-line ‘stanzas’ that makes them work so well even if as Stannard claims they ‘appear to be poems, but aren’t really.’ 

The final section ‘In Conversation Before Sailing Away’ brings us back by implication to the watery world of Melville and includes references to pirates, brands (Cillit Bang, I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter) and a mish-mash of absurd encirclings which have the feel of a very stream-of-consciousness dream. The reference to Armitage Shanks laughing all the way to the bank clearly has at least two meanings and might also refer, indirectly of course, to a book review of a certain well-established poet which Stannard wrote some time ago. I’ll say no more. 

Overall this is a cracking collection, entertaining, accomplished and one that is to be taken seriously and not too seriously at the same time. Between 2005 and 2018 Martin Stannard taught English in China and then returned to the UK to ‘witness it self-destruct first-hand.’ Reading Moby-Dick is the product of a fertile imagination describing such a disintegration. 

I loved the cover design, which is by Martin Stannard himself, a wonderfully clichéd old-fashioned typewriter script presented on scraps of torn paper surrounded by a black sea, hinting at punk in a world that is falling apart.

copyright © Steve Spence, 2020