Who will save us now? A review of Holy Nowhere by Nick Power
By Matthew Boswell.
Nick Power, Holy Nowhere (erbacce-press, 2015)
There is a certain type of young man whose week reaches its emotional peak shortly after the pubs close on a Saturday night. A time when he might find himself staring down from a tower block rooftop at the brawling city below; or watching the TV with a can and a cigarette back at the flat, his girlfriend falling asleep on his shoulder; or vividly missing a girl who has found some other guy’s shoulder to fall asleep on. A time thick with memory and thoughts of death: a “witching hour” or “holy nowhere”, as Nick Power puts it in this, his second collection, in which machismo and vulnerability sit side-by-side.
With its northern settings and cast of working class characters whose tough lives are illuminated by pitch black humour and affectionate piss-taking, Holy Nowhere has the quality of a good Ken Loach film, full of moments that make you believe the world might not actually be as bad as it seems. Marked by a kind of roughed-up sentimentality, the collection’s world is one of bottled faces and bottled-up emotions, as in ‘Joe’s Confession’, in which the speaker, who is “thinking about dying again”, makes the mistake of allowing a tear to fall down his cheek. His friend’s laughter leads him quickly to recover himself, resolving to make Simmo “flinch for a while with a few jabs. / So he remembers who’s boss.” These people might be up against it in every way―life here is riotous but also precarious―yet they are far from impoverished. As the speaker of ‘How Things Really Are’ recognises, one of the central insights of this collection is that they all have “something to lose”.
Power’s heroes range from the Beats—in one poem he imagines “old Bill Burroughs” up in the sky, “laughing from the / morphine- / room”—to the equally deranged characters of the Merseyside streets in which he grew up. The collection takes us on a tour of the lunatic fringes, full of nostalgia for estates now in the grips of their “managed decline”. Power’s defence against this encroaching urban blandness is an overflow of memory, celebrating teenage years spent hanging out in snooker halls, boxing clubs and the Turkish cinema, or falling in love at the wonderfully-named “Gerard’s bop”: a club night in a slaughterhouse. “A secret at first,” Power recalls, “then the word spread.”
While there are many monologues in this collection, these narrators tend to speak for a defiant collective: “This is who we are,” Power asserts, again and again. Which is not to say that the collection is in any way mawkish or blinkered by romanticism. The city of these poems remains a place of casual violence and constant alarm. The front cover is adorned with a garish green pharmacy sign glowing against a black sky: a pseudo-religious image which the author contemplates in ‘Interpreting the Photograph’ while lying on the floor of a supermarket car park and wondering “who will save us now?”
Power is best known for being a member of Liverpool band The Coral, but Holy Nowhere is no celebration of rock ‘n’ roll excess. The collection is more a document of a musician’s life as a hand-to-mouth existence, as in the poem ‘The Trawl’, in which he describes walking through town in bare feet “like Moses”―though not that much like Moses, it turns out―and bumping into a mate who owes him twenty quid. Shortly afterwards, he finds a tenner on the floor. The haul is complete when a courier turns up with a “cheque for four hundred pounds. / Four hundred!” for playing a Philocorda “on a song that was getting some / airtime on a supermarket advert”. The poem closes with a trademark moment of discount mysticism:
I couldn’t believe my luck–
sometimes you’re broke
and sometimes it falls in
like a school of
dropping onto your patio
from an ocean
The poems are often quite loose, with Power trying out a wide range of voices and forms. They are at their most powerful—excuse the pun, but the adjective is well-earned—when something more structurally secure tightens its grip on the author’s free-flowing lyricism just a little, as with the tender, moving rhymes of ‘Defusing the H-Bomb’ which plays on the perilous triplet that closes the poem:
and I know,
there’s a long
’til your name
I fall in love too
and so do you
The one page prose poems are also particularly successful. A personal favourite is ‘Waste Disposal’, in which the speaker―presumably Power in more recent years―is on his way into town to watch The Crucible, wearing “stupid shoes” after being instructed by friends that they are “going for cocktails”. Clearly less than thrilled at the prospect, he is reprieved by an “unexplained delay” to the train. Through poems such as Philip Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and Sylvia Plath’s ‘Getting There’, we are perhaps used to reading trains and locomotives as motifs for the unstoppable progress of modernity. Power, however, revels in a moment of stasis in which he reflects on the only destination that we’re all heading towards:
The train has stopped on the bend between the Birkenhead stations, where the track splits. To the left, I can see the huge swollen belly of Bidston tip. They’ve recently developed it into this sprawling new nature reserve with all sorts of trees and wildlife that were shipped in like plastic furniture to a crumbling Hollywood mansion. The trees look fake. The grass looks like Astro Turf. Every year or so they find a dead body in there. That’s how it’s viewed by the people around here, I think. A place to hide things.
As his friends are left to their pre-show drinks, the speaker imagines himself “at the heart of the tip” wearing a “fumigation mask” and “holding a long, carved wooden stick that has a pointed metal tip”. His job is “to root out the rotting cadavers from the undergrowth and lay them side by side”. The strange beauty of this off-kilter collection is encapsulated by the fact that this is an image of the author perfectly at peace in his surroundings and skin. “That’s my only job,” he writes. “That’s all I have to do.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew Boswell is an academic and writer based in the School of English at the University of Leeds. He is the author of Holocaust Impiety and is currently working on a new book about the virtualisation of Holocaust memory. Twitter: @DrMattBoswell. Author photo © Natalie Curtis 2013 16apr79.com.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 28th, 2017.