By Colin Herd.
Piccadilly Bongo is a substantial collection of poems by Jeremy Reed that comes with a seven-track CD by Marc Almond neatly tucked in a little breast-pocket-like wallet, under the jacket-flap. As collaborations go, it makes perfect sense. Reed and Almond are two of this country’s most singular artistic talents, both producing work at an awesomely prolific pace, much of which is criminally undervalued by critics but rip-roaringly influential on other artists. Just as Reed is the only writer in Britain today you can imagine writing a luxuriantly flirtatious poem called ‘Chocolate Mousse’ about, among other things, ‘bleeding Ashbery into Hendrix,’ Almond is the only British pop star I can imagine recording an album covering the songs of the 1920s/30s Gypsy Russian romance singer, Vadim Kozin. And just as Almond has always been a particularly literary pop-star, Reed has often celebrated pop-musicians in his writing (not least Almond himself). So: Jeremy Reed and Marc Almond, a marriage made in, well, a marriage made in Soho, of course.
Reed’s poems are populated and elaborately furnished with a vast cast of walk-ons and cameos. There’s the poem about reading Ashbery while listening to Hendrix already mentioned, a poem discussing James Schuyler and John Wieners with Edmund White over drinks, a poem about Bill Franks, the partner of famous 1960s fashion designer John Stephen. There’s a poem addressing the question: “Why The Rolling Stones Are So Skinny,” poems for Pete Doherty and J.G. Ballard, a poem called ‘Talking Poetry’ about discussing “Creeley, Duncan, Dorn, Olson,” and one about Frank O’Hara’s 15-inch-collar-size shirt. Like O’Hara, poetry is so much a part of Reed’s person, so much his go-to method of communication (even, thought), that he can be gloriously flippant about it, like in the hilarious anti-manifesto, ‘Why I Hate Poetry':
I prefer Maltesers to poetry,
asymmetrical chocolate moons, they’re like
planetary outriders to Saturn or Mars,
crackly ovoids dissolving on the tongue.
I don’t know why Brit poetry seems stuck
like a car locked into reverse
churning backwards into reverse.”
In two charming, offbeat images, Reed turns the stark statement of his title on its heels, teasingly showing off what poetry can do. The poem continues, crackling and dissolving on the tongue as it churns outrageously past references to Haruki Murakami, fry-ups and a man who “fitted a crucifix to a syringe,” ending up with the sweetest, most asymmetrically spherical of metaphors for how poetry communicates:
“It’s metabolic. So too Maltesers,
and how they communicate sugar hits,
the chocolate slick as a new cricket ball.”
Metabolism is a set of chemical reproductions at our core, crucial to everything, growth, reproduction, maintenance of bodily structures. It’s a process made up of two sub-processes: catabolism breaks down matter for energy and anabolism uses energy to build cell-components. Reed’s faux-flippancy of the first line is in fact a re-packaged light-touched testament to poetry’s importance, and an astute insight into the process of reading and writing poetry. Piccadilly Bongo sees the reader have to catabolically dissect often dazzling, strange image-clusters before anabolically making something of them.
Food plays a large part in many of these poems, and Reed ranks alongside W.C. Williams with his plums, D.H. Lawrence with his peach and O’Hara with his “hamburger and malted” as one of the best foodie poets, one for whom the pleasures of food are often interchangeable for the pleasures of words. His language in the poem ‘Poppy Seed and Cinnamon Parfait’ has all the popping, glamorous, spicy half-cool creaminess of the titular dessert. As well as parfait, it’s about reading Paul Bowles:
“…The twist is hoodoo. I soak plot
into my skin like a trout spilling jewels
on slinky opaline.
The stories that I own about myself
and others given a dream-shine
I talk-up over lemonade marmalade,
transpersonal stuff like ownerless TV.
Tonight I lift out through the blue
window framing Highgate Wood,
a cube as solid as the fridge.”
It’s difficult to know what to make of the “ownerless TV” line, but it’s a great simile. I’m reminded of electrical appliance shops, the walls full of yet-or-never-to-be-bought TVs, all playing the same show. It seems to sit appropriately alongside the solidity of the ‘fridge’ image, from which emerges the cool, exotic, booziness of the parfait (“30 ml/2 tablespoons dark rum/ tangoing with cinnamon”) and of Bowles’ prose.
Other highlights in a book with pleasures, allure and surprise round every other line-break, ‘Polari’ is a celebration of the dying-out slang-language once widespread in London’s gay community and ‘Sunglasses’ is, self evidently, a poem in praise of those “mystique enhancers.” The Marc Almond CD is a treat too, including acoustic versions of treasured old numbers from the Soft Cell and solo catalogues, such as ‘Sleaze,’ ‘Fun City,’ ‘Twilights and Lowlifes,’ ‘Seedy Films’ and an alternate version of ‘Soho So Long,’ from Almond’s latest album, Variete. Heard acoustically, his Soho songs seem more desperate, wistful and weary, almost. But in the same breath there’s fascination and temptation, so that the CD feels like a fond adios and a nostalgic re-animation of a Soho that is disappearing, summed up in the final track, ‘Soho, So Long':
“Soho, so bad, you drove me mad, but everything I loved about you is almost gone.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 28th, 2010.