But of course they cannot see of course: review of Nick Laird’s To a Fault

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Friday, 26 January 2007

I wrote this review some time ago for the Arts section of my University's paper, but having read Nick Laird's collection again recently, I thought I'd post it up here. Part of the motivation to do so is due to the fact that a fair number of reviewers of Laird's first collection were decisively cruel in their appraisal of his work. The main accusations were of Laird's supposedly more-than-clear Armitage and Muldoonian influences, which were to a small extent warranted, but at the same time, failed to give Laird's poetry the credit it deserves. Perhaps my review suffers in placing itself in near polar opposition to what the critics had to say, but then sometimes that's the best way to remedy a problem. I'm reminded of an argument with a friend I had over Roland Barthes' Death of the Author: he maintains that Barthes' account dismisses all authorial intention and importance, while I've always felt that Barthes did so simply to remedy the undue level of importance placed upon the author (and at the same time, the lack of acknowledgement of the importance of the reader), and would probably agree to a halfway house: the many and varied inputs and interpretations of a literary text by 'the Reader' en masse, combined with the political, social, and personal backdrop accompanying the text. At it stands, Barthes has probably faired better in naming his paper Death of the Author, than if he'd settle for something safer, and indeed, less debatable.


‘It’s a bit like looking through the big window / on the top deck of the number 47’ says Nick Laird of writing, and comprehending, poetry: ‘I’m watching you, and her, and all of them, / but through my own reflection’. It is the simple, the everyday, the near-mundane that gives Laird, almost paradoxically, a voice of such affirming vitality and awareness. That said, Laird’s poetry, despite its colloquialism, upbeat tone, and occasionally irritating New Labour slang (‘I remember poncing a fag off some guy at the bar, then downing the dregs of my last pint of stout’), is constantly dealing with – as the book’s blurb states – ‘the sharp side of relationships’, in a tone that is deliberately unsure, often detached, and full of wordplay (reminiscent of Paul Muldoon, a clear influence in Laird’s poetic stylings). Take ‘Done’ or ‘Aubade’: the latter is almost an inverted love letter directing the object of his affection to ‘Go home’, claiming that ‘If you knew enough you’d / know removed is how you’re loved’, while the former compares, through extended metaphor, the break-up of a couple and their moving out of a flat to ‘the scene of a murder. / Dustsheets and silence and blame’. Gritty, painful, and honest poetry. But then in the middle of all this comes refreshing and deftly placed comedy: ‘You wrote off the Volvo. I gave you verrucas’. Laird is a poet constantly shifting perspective, tone, and often focus, and yet his poems rarely sound disjointed or lacking in fluidity.

As a child of the Troubles, Laird predictably addresses the political and social issues facing past and modern day Ireland. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Laird’s scope is wide, and shockingly so, not least in ‘The Given’, a poem that is carried along by internal rhyme at such a pace that the reader is forced to contemplate how fragile our political freedoms are. Each of the poem’s five verses addresses the loss of a sense, and the apathy and despair of those losing them (‘To accept these losses, we cover our faces, / then scratch Be our guest with a fork on the table’), especially poignant given the fast-paced world we inhabit and increasing disinterest in politics today.

Perhaps though, Laird is most impressive when considering his childhood home of Northern Ireland, as ‘Cuttings’, arguably the best poem of his collection, demonstrates. The poem revolves around his father getting a haircut, and is a microcosmic symbol of masculinity and Irish culture in itself. Laird considers those who have, and will, sit in the same seat as his ‘angry and beautiful father’: the ‘eelmen, gunmen, the long dead, the police’, whilst alluding to the sparse, diminishing ‘glories of Ulster’ on a wall-calendar ‘sponsored by JB Crane Hire or some crowd flogging animal feed’. But it is the beauty of Laird’s metaphors that make the poem, and his book, shine out amongst much contemporary poetry. The barber’s cape ‘comes off with a matador’s flourish’, the generic barber’s sign is transformed, with added political connotations, into ‘the bandaged pole’, while his father is ‘open as in a deckchair … / his head full of lather and unusual thoughts’. Further examples instantly spring to mind with their vividness: ‘A singular sprinkler shakes his head spits at the newsprint of birdshit’, and the radiance of the photocopier is ‘nothing but the dawn horizon / strapped into a plastic box’.

The mundane and ordinary become the beautiful and interesting. Love and relationships become uncertainty and dusting down, moving on. Despair becomes renewal and resoluteness. Nick Laird is a poet addressing difficult issues that poetry often shies away from, but he is clearly capable of rising to the task with a refreshing vitality and dynamism. As Laird forcefully proclaims of poetry in ‘Disclaimer’: ‘It’s not… the tremulous blow job you got in the Eurostar toilet… / Not just a smallholding. Not just moving parts. / And it’s not all the same. / It is joined up writing. / It’s not lifting the pen from this page.’

To a Fault (Faber, January 2005. £8.99)