Andrew Seems Popular
By James Davies.
Andrew Seems Popular, Mark Cobley, Knives, Forks and Spoons
This slim volume by Mark Cobley, clocking in at nineteen pages, is one that deserves real mention; full of bold images and gradual density. It’s in two sections, neither of which seem to have a regular structure but are roughly one line followed by a gap followed by a line. Nor does there seem to be any reason for the division into two sections other than to allow the reader a break, as a chapter might do in a novel. I first read ‘Andrew Seems Popular’ in Nigel Wood’s excellent Sunfish magazine and liked it a lot, only there wasn’t enough of it and I’d say that although now there is enough there should still be more, to add to this already rich texture.
The poem consists of essentially a list of simple sentences with simple language that one might read in a primer for young children or for people learning English. Hence the sentences often take the rough form ‘subject-verb-adjective’ or ‘subject-verb-object’ using a mix of proper nouns and pronouns as subject. So for example ‘Edward is lazy.’ or ‘She isn’t a flight attendant.’
The images are rich in their variation and in terms of derivation. Images in negation are particularly interesting and appear early on: ‘I’m not a spy’ suggesting the mundanity of work and the futility of daydreaming. I really like the semiotics of negation as one thinks immediately in the positive (I am a spy) as well as whatever the alternative is. I am drawn to thinking of Shakespeare’s great Sonnet 130, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. ‘Andrew Seems Popular’ shares ‘Sonnet 130’’s pursuit to foreground language and fiction, to both ridicule and celebrate the poem as entity.
A different effect comes with negation and tense. The line ‘I’m not a spy.’ is followed directly on the line below by ‘Frank hasn’t become a computer programmer.’ There is a certain absurdity in the tedium of this and other lines but it’s very interesting in its grammatical ambiguity. Has Frank not yet become a computer programmer? Or has the moment for Frank passed, either by his avoiding the situation or failing to attain it? Ambiguity happens by the limited context of the sentence and the use of modal verbs too, ‘Julie won’t become a manager.’ Has she committed a crime, would she not suck up to the boss? Or is Julie lucky in refusing to take on these pressures?
Although many of the lines in ‘Andrew Seems Popular’ have the feeling of being sourced from a primer, there are many lines which seem improbable: ‘That manager envied him his good fortune’. The idiom of this sentence works but not the subject, ‘manager’; when have we ever talked in this way? Another example is ‘The gardeners walked quickly’, as if two people were trying to catch a train who just happened to be gardeners. In many lines Cobley is attempting ‘bad’ poetry and doing it very successfully.
After the sentence about the manager the line ‘I envied him his good fortune.’ appears twice on page four, nearby. In combination these lines allude to Chomsky’s theories of generative grammar. Although there are no nonsensical sentences many seem cold and false but at the same time they are vivid and colourful. This often takes the mood of banality: ‘I fry some bacon’, ‘I lift weights.’ and ‘I got the TV repaired.’ By the very nature of the everydayness of these lines they immediately fall into the autobiographical although they are not about a particular experience but something that most people, including the author will have done at least once: a neat trick.
However lines such as ‘Larry saved her a seat.’ are straight from the narrative that is often found in a language book for beginners. This could easily be taken from the context of boarding an aeroplane, etc. When trying to learn Danish I remember that although the first chapter was on saying hello, the second on the weather and so on, as all language books are, that there was an on-going story about a Danish businessman who had returned to Jutlund with his English wife to set up a chocolate factory. Not only did I learn (forget actually) some bizarre specialist vocabulary I also read some sentences that struck me as being very peculiar and indeed incredibly humourous, although of course that was not the intention.
The greatest thing about this book is the jokes and they are the jokes I best like to play. A key example would be that the first section is called ‘The bus driver finds the book interesting.’ In the section there is a line which is closely related grammatically, ‘That bus driver finds the book interesting.’ This is another regular focus in the book, on the differences that the slightest change in language brings in communication and the wonder at the possibilities of the image, both in reality and the imagination. Two more lines before I go, which struck me as being especially wonderful: ‘I have a pencil under a bridge.’ And ‘George has a pair of pliers next to his bed.’
I love these language games and although I’d like more, Cobley has given us many to enjoy. Go play them.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
James Davies is the author of Plants (Reality Street) and two e-collections The Manual Handling Process (Beard of Bees) & Acronyms (onedit). He is editor of if p then q, former editor of the cult poetry object Matchbox, sometime collaborator with Simon Taylor as Joy as Tiresome Vandalism and is one of the organisers of The Other Room poetry night and website.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 15th, 2012.