BY FINUALA DOWLING
I feel that we’ve been waiting for it, Sam Riviere’s debut collection. Haven’t we asked for this unashamed poetry of the now that turns its back firmly on the age-old quest for the universal and the enduring?
81 Austerities emerged out of a blog, and its 81 poems — instant, unpunctuated and ephemeral — play with and speak to bloggers and tweeters everywhere, an audience whose short attention has been born out of necessity. As the speaker in one of Riviere’s poems says, “I’d be screwed if I woke up one day / without all my cultural supports’.
Poetry has the reputation of being deep, but Riviere makes a virtue of shallowness: “I dreamed I wrote a poem / beginning ‘Hi!’ and ending ‘See you later!’ / the middle part was amazing / that’s the part I don’t remember”.
Titles like “Buffering 15%” and “POV” emerge from a contemporary world that is always moving on, in search of the Next Big Thing which turns out, disappointingly, to be a small, passing fragment. As you would expect, it’s a life that suffers from boredom (“mostly I watch films / and stare and try to decide what / to wear”).
The poet is uneasy about the reverence with which poets and poetry are treated. The opening poem reveals that while he has happily accepted £48 000 in funding over the past few years, what he has really been up to is developing “a taste for sushi / decent wine”, that he has bought his friends “many beers many of whom / have never worked a day in their lives”.
Like the poets he belongs with (Frank Bidart and Frank O’Hara), Riviere does not shy from the one thing Walt Whitman asked poets for: candour. To write as well as he does about porn, you have to watch it.
Riviere’s poetry is spot-on in its self-consciousness. It mimics a generation which is always watching itself. In the age of connectivity, everything is explicit, already confessed, already known and depicted.
True to their postmodern ethos, his poems come with readymade endnotes that sound like the criticisms and affirmations of a busy creative writing tutor (“yeees, sort of, ok, worth keeping”; “not sure what’s going on here: the contexts elude me”).
Bathos like this is everywhere. Big, ineffable questions of the universe are replaced with more to-the-point queries: “tell me why did we let the internet / unmoor its radiant cloud from/above our home…?”.
Love gets the kind of cynical working-over that it’s had coming to it for a long time: the poems “No touching”, “The Pinch”, “What Do You Think about That” and “Heavily” (“Today is a day of zero connectivity … am I not a child at the opera of emotions”) are absolute triumphs.
Another success is “Council of Girls” (“my jury of sunflowers”) who are relentless in questioning and accusing the hapless texter-poet. The imagery of their knots-in-wood eyes and the mock-capitulation of the closing lines are master-strokes.
Riviere’s poem “Adversity in the Arts” undermines the kind of praise I’ve just given, so perhaps I should mention that while loving his wit and audacity, I found the unpunctuated run-on lines tedious at times and, yes, the context sometimes eluded me.
But my abiding impression is that in 81 Austerities we encounter that rarest of things, a witty poet who never abandons feeling, a satirist who never ditches the lyrical.
81 Austerities is published by Faber and Faber and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.