Sunday, 1 August 2010

'Chocolate Che' by Damian Furniss reviewed by Steve Spence in Stride Magazine

A review of 'Chocolate Che' by Damian Furniss recently published in Stride Magazine and written by Steve Spence, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best first collection of poetry in 2010. Good luck Steve!

More complex stuff
Damian Furniss is a fantastic reader of his poetry and his work translates wonderfully to the page. The three sections relate to periods of travel, mainly in Cuba and in India, and the central selection - My White Ghosts - is comprised of poems inspired in various ways by painters and their work. Of the latter, I was particularly taken by 'Bacon Dust', where we get:

The art connoisseur
Will say 'Vintage stuff!'
As he gets a nose
of this fragrant muff,
Snort it like coke
Or sniff it like snuff,
A line or a pinch -
Pure bacon dust.

These are poems which generally scan and often rhyme in traditional ways and they are very satisfying to read or hear read out. Furniss has a knack of combining a sense of the 'importance' of his subject which an earthy injection of the frailties of the body and the dangers of romanticising. This is most evident in 'Che's Hands', a puzzling, riddling poem where he explores the notion of Che as martyr of the Cuban revolution:

Che's grave is not Che's grave.
And the bones in it are not Che's.
And those photos of the dead Che
as Christ, with the generals playing
Romans, display neither Christ,
nor Che, nor Romans. And his wounds
are not wounds as we know them.
And if you say that Che was a saint,
You either did not meet that Che
or you have never met a saint.

I can remember reading a piece by John Berger, years ago, suggesting the iconic links between the corpse of Che and that of Christ and while Berger in his own way is deeply involved in deconstructing images he comes from a very different place from Furniss. You get the feeling from reading these poems that Furniss is a poet who has seen a fair bit of the dark side of life and of death in his early travels around the world and his take on things has a more spiritual resonance. I admire this poem and what I take to be its 'argument', despite the fact that I still have a soft spot for Noam Chomsky and wish that American foreign policy really could become a force for good in the world.

Poems about paintings often 'miss the mark' but Furniss is an exception to that 'rule'. In particular his pieces on Egon Schiele and Edward Hopper capture something of the backdrop, the mood, the style and milieu of the respective painters:

I can take lines for a wicked walk
with my fingers, nibbed like quills;
smear on swabs of colour with
the pads of idle thumbs. ...

(from 'Nip the Bud')

which manages both an amusing aside to Paul Klee and to express something of the 'disturbing meatiness' of Schiele's work.

He flips the sign
from open to closed, dims
the lights, and dusk comes in
from where the road merges
with a smothering of trees.

(from 'Gas,1940')

Hopper appears as the American equivalent of De Chirico, where the emptiness of the landscape has an ominous quality of its own and where people are marginal and their psychology goes unexplored. Road movies where the subject is the road.

There's a jaunty side to Furniss' work, expressed in taut rhythms and debunking relish:

He wore a marzipan beret,
Its insignia that rarity-
A perfect star-shaped strawberry-
To strip the comandante
Who took the I from industry
Of the badge that gave him dignity.

They gagged him with a Cadbury's flake
Imported by the C.I.A.
And stretched him on a rack of cane
Lashed onto a Chevrolet,
Carved him up at Gitmo Bay
With harvest blunt machetes-

(from 'Chocolate Che')
The excess of the American Dream, a consumer glut inside a horror story like the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy. This is more complex stuff than it first seems and Damian Furniss has put together a collection that demands to be read and re-read. A triumph.
© Steve Spence 2010

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