Richard Evans' debut, The Zoo Keeper, was the very first book released by Eggbox Publishing, who last year published Ben Borek's critically acclaimed mock-heroic novel-in-verse Donjong Heights. Though that's a kickstart to be proud of, it's something of a relief that Evans has taken a different route with this follow-up; Eggbox's current pastel green scheme wouldn't have suited him, and instead we get a sumptuous black soft-cover edition, replete with silver embossed lettering. Mmm.
He’s still producing dark, gimlet-eyed monologues, his narrators positively riddled with secrets and obsessions.
He's repeated the trick, however, of bolstering his writing with the work of a talented illustrator. Where The Zoo Keeper featured the sharp and atmospheric photographs of Camilla Stapleton-Hibbert, Orbiting gives us drawings by Ed Boxall. They're moody and quirky in equal measure: a boy wandering, fascinated, through a forest of Greek-busts-cum-Easter-Island-statues; starkly black and white, vein-like trees threading over a cottage; scribbled nun figures entering a tiny church against a moonlit landscape.
Better yet, it suits the change in Evans' writing. He's still producing dark, gimlet-eyed monologues, his narrators positively riddled with secrets and obsessions, but there's an increasing focus on the music of the incidental. In the first poem, the moment a dead body is washed onto the shore, all the activity around it seems to stop:
"Then the volume is up again.
Each sound is switched in turn.
First the sea-churn, then slowly the sound
of children crying, of cars going by,
It's an excellent description of an internal sensation being so powerful it seems to manifest itself externally. There's a similar physicality to mixed feelings of guilt and lust in Between Seminars, with the involuntary movement of the 'body's magnets':
"A field, or further skin
against which her legs lean, drawing
your metal all to one edge ..."
You can find other examples throughout the book, often connecting the body to a more supernatural plane, one of moons, ice, space, eggs and snow. Frequently, these aren't so much metaphors - not as I understand them - so much as they are crisp descriptions of another world, possibly a Moomin-esque one, if Love Letter to Tove Jansson is anything to go by.
The way some of his depictions of writing itself chime with the style of some of the illustrations is also a pleasure - "a skittish rant in biro", "a wriggling squit". The occasional Jesus reference or f-word feels a little heavy though, especially in the context of a collection so finely balanced on the edge between light and darkness.
'Orbiting'. Hmm! Don't be fooled - there's very little astrology or planetary science herein. Instead, much of this seems to be the trembling cogitations of disturbed people, brimming with emotional attachments that are equally painful and tender. The intensity of feeling is positively grotesque. Then there's the title poem, which begins:
"Say a radio broadcast was sent
the wrong way and circled the moon,
breaking waves after ninety years orbit ..."
A fine premise but the conclusion he draws from his speculation seems not only to be scientifically untenable, but bordering on romantic!