:: Article

buildings shift and recombine

By Tom Jenks.
Sidings, Richard Barrett, White Leaf Press, 2010.

Richard Barrett is often associated with experimental/innovative poetics, partly because of the publications in which his work has appeared over the last few years but also because he undoubtedly has those particular shots in his locker. Sidings is the work of a sophisticated intelligence, a writer who is not insular, who is aware of technique but is not ruled by it, who can pick a colour from his palette without being tempted to apply it as a coat of whitewash. The cover of Sidings depicts, apparently from above, a brutalist tower block: geometric, kaleidoscopic, sliced, mirrored. It suggests a body of work characterised by hard angles and gleaming aluminium edges, but this is a false note. Just as brutalism, for all its astringency and confrontational aesthetic, was underpinned by a fundamental concern for humanity, so this collection for all its stylistic tricks and tropes, its plurality of reference points and its ventriloquism, is underpinned by an unwavering interest in people. In fact, one could go so far to say that at the core of Sidings is not a white hot experimental fuel rod, rather something older, earthier and less fashionable.

This is a coal-fired collection with its roots in romanticism. Barrett is as fascinated by place and landscape as Wordsworth or Coleridge, but his is an urban, post-industrial pastoral. For Lake Windermere, read the Manchester Ship Canal; for the opium den, read the fast food outlet; for the storm scoured heath, read the corporate courtyard. And running through it like a seam of quartz through igneous rock is that ultimate romantic theme: the self. A self sometimes effaced, sometimes abnegated, sometimes mislaid in a meeting room or waiting area, but always enduring, resurfacing and re-occurring.

Much of Sidings alludes to the world of work, to what Roethke called “the misery of manila envelopes”. This unashamed embrace of the prosaic, regarded by some as a poetic no-fly zone, is a large source of Sidings’ strength. Like Frank O’Hara with his “I did this, I did that” poems, Barrett is a poet for whom no detail is too small. Sidings is not the projection of an idealised persona, rather the delineation and diagrammaticisation of an organic, imperfect consciousness.

Of particular interest to Barrett are interpersonal relationships. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith is an influence made explicit by Barrett in Sidings in numerous stylistic nods and references such as We Dig Repetition. At times, Barrett resembles nothing so much as the character in The Fall song ‘A New Face in Hell’, hunched over his equipment, picking up secret messages. But Barrett is not intercepting a government waveband, rather tapping into communications, both overt and covert, between individuals, skrying meaning from

non-verbal threads strung between
our connections of lip-curl and spectacle adjustment

So far, so solipsistic. But to label Barrett as a confessional poet would be reductive. At the heart of the collection is the long sequence the rushes and it is here that Barrett lunges for greatness. Here Barrett allows the self to be disrupted, to decay and become distressed. In ‘the rushes’, Barrett opens up his register and reveals himself as a shape shifter par excellence, transforming into a magpie, picking the shiniest scraps from this source here and that source there, interweaving the central and the local, the public and the private. The sequence takes as its theme the credit crunch and the economic downturn, as epic in its own way as The Ancient Mariner, with Marx’s spectre of Communism playing the role of the albatross or, perhaps more accurately, the spectre at Macbeth’s feast. Each section is a fractured sonnet, what you might imagine would happen if you dropped a perfectly formed fourteen lines on concrete and tried to put it back together with glue and wire. Barrett is unafraid here, as throughout Sidings, to dabble in the ostensibly banal:

If targets aren’t met
this team-leader can
Photo for the blog / not taken
/ reasons wanted uncertain. In
Chinese buffets she
gets some funny looks.
Talking and writing rejected.

The poems in Sidings prove that everything is interesting if we look at it long enough and in the right way. Proust could produce thousands of words about falling asleep or eating a madeline. Barrett could do the same about attending a team meeting or buying a sandwich.

Richard Barrett is an English poet writing in an English idiom. Those of us who are English will be able to pick up its trail: that familiar tang of rainwater; that familiar jangle of regional news bulletins and phatic talk in mock marble shopping centres. But Barrett is anything but parochial. His Manchester is O’Hara’s New York: the city as a micro-cosmos, as a text in which everything can be read. Sidings marks the debut of a subtle and nuanced new voice: authentic but never dogmatic; elusive but never insubstantial; technical but never technocratic. It is worth listening to.


Tom Jenks’ second collection, *, was published by if p then q in 2010. His first collection, A Priori, was published in 2008, also by if p then q. He is a co-organiser of The Other Room reading series and runs the avant objects imprint zimZalla.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 25th, 2010.