In summary: Second volume of Sutherland's work; strident language-play from a seasoned performer, tugged at by anxious and self-doubting characters trapped in surreal situations.
Kirsten Irving: Every one of the nudes in Ross Sutherland’s second collection is alone. Even in close proximity to others, each speaker is stood inside a bubble, watching the relentless normality of everybody else. Live, Sutherland delivers his poetry with an O’Hara-ish breathlessness, as he’s run up a whole lot of stairs to convey something but still can’t quite let it out. This feeling of shouting into a vacuum pervades each of the poems in Twelve Nudes. See the out-and-out frustration of –
Honest hopelessness manifests itself in such gorgeous details as ‘when a blood clot finally entered his brain, like a sheriff entering a disreputable saloon’.
“Dear God, I have no power animal
and I want to shout something like,
‘The prosody of open heart surgery!’
and not worry too much about what it means.”
– in the title sequence, and the anxiety of nudity as a harbinger of adulthood, earlier in the same sequence:
“You ask if the back of you matches the front
and I can't even hazard a guess.
Questions like this make me feel like a child.”
Later on in the same piece, the narrator flails, lost in the realisation that “Your body is too much. London is too much”. These simple moments of lost balance are the most powerful in the collection, flinging forth arms to the reader, asking for help, or just human contact.
In contrast, Sutherland’s Kennard-like turns leave me colder. The structure of ‘Three Minor Complaints’ is great, with the refrain of “This is unfortunate, as...” and “How unfortunate then, that...” nicely dry and doom-laden. The situations described, however, feel a little random and whimsical for my liking. The man forced to carry the antique cloche reminds me of a less considered variant on Kennard’s ‘The Choir’, in which a beleaguered protagonist is hounded by singers. The three pieces are brought back from simple mimickry by the aforementioned honest hopelessness manifesting itself in such gorgeous details such as “when a blood clot finally entered his brain, like a sheriff entering a disreputable saloon” and “you will fall open right in front of me, like the spine of a book that I have creased at the sex scene”.
The final poem in the collection, ‘The End of Our Marriage’, manages to successfully merge wryness with emotion, the dark humour of the marriage counsellor’s flippancy and ineptitude (“From certain angle he looks like a placard / with the word COUNSELLOR written on it”) set against the bizarre twists of the couple’s relationship. When Sutherland leaves out lines which are, one suspects, geared towards raising a smirk at a live reading and instead hones in on the bleak humour of the situation itself, he is at his most engaging.
I do love a party bag, and Twelve Nudes comes with bonus pieces in the form of a folded typewritten confession and 16 micro-poems in the form of origami instructions (plus a sheet of paper - good luck making that crane!), all tucked inside a gold foil pouch. But looking at Sutherland’s previous collection with Penned in the Margins, Things To Do Before You Leave Town, which contained nearly a third more pages and was sold for £6.99, £9.50 seems like a lot for a 45 page publication. That said, the production values are extremely nice – clean, sandy colours and a subtle, yet suggestive cover design make for a very tempting invitation.
Have Penned in the Margins taken their cue from Fuselit in dressing up this latest range of sleek, slim books with various items of apparel? If so, they do a better job than those glorified three-toed sloths who work for me! But is it, in poetry terms, a pamphlet or a book? A funsize paperback? A superbuff chapbook? Penned seem to be straddling the line fairly noncommitedly.
Also: well done to Sutherland for quoting from The Man Who Was Thursday. With an attitude like that, he will go far!