Kevin Saving on

Andy Croft
Sticky (Flambard Press, 2009)
£8
 

As it proudly proclaims in its blurb, this collection takes its name from the Russian, 'Stikhi', which translates as either 'verses' or 'poems'. Sticky's opening (and titular) poem is prefaced by a quotation from a George W. Bush speech: 'By our efforts we have lit a fire...in the minds of men'. A gathering (or 'knot'?) of humanoid sticks ('Pessimistick', 'Simplistick', 'Bombastick' et al) are being lined-up for the bonfire, each recording their reaction in their own individualistick (sorry!) way.
 
  Just then the wind began to blow,
  The matches flickered in the breeze,
  Said Nationalistick with a snort,
  'Those matches aren't from British trees'.
 
  [...]
 
  Then Communistick raised his voice
  'We can't just branch out on our own,
  We must resist -all sticks unite,
  Together stronger than alone!'
 
Croft's
 
  ...moral of this sticky story
  Of sticks who were too proud to bend,
  Is we must learn to stick together
  Or else we'll meet a sticky end.
 
A funny - and fiery - parable for our times and like all the best satire, humour with an edge. It seems almost churlish to respond to this committed and collectivist poet with examples culled from the Warsaw ghetto - or from more recent bouts
of 'ethnic clensing' - which appear to indicate that unified tinder is not-so-much 'stronger' as more readily furnace-combustible.
  Andy Croft's heart is firmly-planted on the Left. In addition to his seven previous books of poetry, he contributes a regular column to the 'Morning Star'. Sticky represents a tendentious brand of poetry informed by life - emphatically not precious morsels floated down from some ivory tower. If seldom pretty on the eye, it is gritty, 'ballsy' emerging gradually from deep (as befits the effusions of a seasoned Middlesbrough football supporter). Like 'The Boro', it often makes its point. Crucially, it is undeceived by the callous mis-adventure capitalism of Cruel Britannia. One section pays homage to Bertolt Brecht - but ends up by admitting that his is an extinct lineage. Another evokes what have clearly been extensive travels in the former Eastern-bloc. 'A Russian Diary' (in 'Pushkin sonnets') adequately fulfils its job-description, whilst 'Idiot Snow' is genuinely witty:
 
  The sound of snowflakes walking
  Through Kemerovo at night
  Would silence anyone who doubts
  That happiness writes white,
  The colour of the senses
  At ten degrees below,
  Where no matter what the question is,
  The answer's always snow.
 
This book's central section (for me, its best) was inspired by its author having done time as writer-in-residence in Her Majesty's Prison, 'Holme House', Stockton-on-Tees. Croft can 'talk-the-talk' convincingly but knows
 
  Between Dear John and child support,
  Ex-girlfriends and ex-wives,
  Between bang-up and breakfast-time,
  In dreams of other lives,
  Each man soon learns that even here
  The need for love survives.
 
'The Ballad of Writing Gaol' - accompanied by a Wildean excerpt - may well have started life as a kind of parody, but ultimately bears comparison with its original. In Croft's (Shakespearean) sonnet 'How Do You Spell Heroin', the octave takes a cold, clear look at a phenomenon endemic in modern penal institutions.
 
  Call me unreconstructed if you like,
  But if you really want to fry your brains,
  If you like riding backwards on your bike
  And pumping brown and brick-dust in your veins,
  If you intend to do another cluck
  Until your rattling bones begin to melt,
  If you're prepared to ache and feel like fuck-
  At least you should know how the stuff is spelled.
 
Prison-Brecht, maybe - or even (in its rhythms and didacticism) a kind of ruddy 'ard Kipling. 'Team Strip', 'Zoology' and 'Black and Blue' (the latter about a convict with a penchant for tattoos) are all authentic and tenable examples of a recent sub-genre which might be classified as 'poetry from The Slammer'. Each examines its subject forensically - though never dispassionately.

Sticky's final section, 'Letter to Randall Swingler Part III', reads like a tour d'horizon of contemporary British complaisance and cupidity. (Randall Swingler was a minor, English, left-leaning writer, now deceased).
 
  Because those flabby liberties of ours
  Were out of shape, they've lately been massaged.
  Since the assault on those Manhattan towers
  The secret state's considerably enlarged;
  No doubt the state will find that those new powers
  (Six weeks' detention without being charged)
  Will come in handy fighting girls in burkas
  Or striking low-paid public-sector workers.
 
and
 
  These days it seems our government's at war
  With those whose cause it used to once profess,
  Re-branded as the undeserving poor,
  A drain upon the hard-pressed NHS;
  The rich can't help themselves for wanting more,
  While those who cannot help themselves get less.
  In Britain if you can't afford a peerage
  Then you must travel all your life in steerage.
 
Both strength and weakness, this writer's insistent topicality means some aspects of his work may date rapidly - that is, if it is not all, one day, governmentally censored. Strongly rooted in the here-and-now, a fair proportion of his interests (the British North/South divide, soccer, the erosion of civil liberty) aren't necessarily the stuff of a traditional lyrical-aesthetic. If his undoubted gifts (wit, sincerity, great formal ingenuity and a flair for strong - if selective - historical analysis) lend themselves more readily towards the polemic than (say) the elegiac, then a number of his cautions are both timely and timeless. Piquant, rubescent in hue, a true original, this is vintage Croft.

Kevin Saving © 2010