O Postive, Joe Dunthorne (Faber & Faber, 2019).
By LUKE DUNNE
I love pigeons even
when their claws are stumps
and they walk as though in heels.
I love guinea pigs
for the idea they are in some way
a pig. Their heartbeats make their bodies
vibrate. I like to pretend
to answer them: ‘whom may I say is speaking?’
(In Which I Practice Happiness)
For most people, who quite sensibly don’t read poems over and over again, but instead read them through once, taking what they can and moving on, rhyme and meter matter. They are the intuitive, expressive and musical dimensions of poetry which are universally accessible. It doesn’t matter if you can’t follow every image or metaphor when the sound of the poems can guide you. And if this music gives us an intuitive sense of meaning and emotion, then it is no surprise that O Positive remains inaccessible on first, second and third reads. And no matter how many times you read it, it will likely leave you cold.
Joe Dunthorne would hate to hear his poetry described as pretentious. In fact, every fibre and sinew of his new collection strains to seem as uncomplicated and unpretentious as possible. Be it rhyme, meter or ordinary punctuation – Dunthorne seems to identify many of the conventions which other poets might rely on for structure and shape as self-indulgent excesses that get in the way of what he wants to say.
From the title, which refers to the most common and, therefore, most commonly demanded blood type to suggest a sort of reach towards universality, to the simple, vernacular register and relatable images.
I have no doubt that these poems are intended as a reaction against the role poetry has come to play in modern culture – inaccessible, overcomplicated ‘high culture’ that might once have been relevant, but no long really matters.
Anyone who loves poetry has to confront the reality that it no longer takes centre stage in our shared cultural consciousness as it once did. And perhaps that has something to do with a perceived preciousness about the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write poetry which comes down to a reflexive preference for formality and convention. But this is far, far from the first collection of the last fifty years to make this point by stripping away traditional devices. O Positive is, for the greater part, an example of this not working. When you take away those devices, you need to replace them with your own structure to guide us as readers. Dunthorne seems happy to leave us amidst the chaos of his hyper-active imagination, without ever telling us why.
The majority of poems in O Positive – like ‘Good Listener’ – are first person monologues. As they’re delivered without context or an obvious beginning or end, it makes reading through poem after poem a relentless task:
“Be upset near me please, friends and colleagues, I am anxious that although you look happy you are not so let me hold your shoulders in the service lift until you speak your medicine – ‘Cipralex, Cipralex, Cipralex’ – and, like that, the door slide back and we step out among the acid-free box files”
Having a relentless or entropic quality to your writing is not in itself worthy of criticism. Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (1954), a ‘play for voices’ with more than fifty characters, is a masterpiece of the very same kind. As in O Positive, Thomas immerses us in a cacophony of voices, with many different narrative playing out on stage, often all at the same time. The reason Under Milk Wood works and this collection does not is that Thomas does provide his own context, slipping in narrative monologues between scenes to guide us from one mini drama to another. And moreover, Thomas does try to write characters we can at least identity with. They’re absurd characters drawn attentively drawn from life. That means his audience care about them and, more importantly, can understand them on some level even in spite of their ultimate ridiculousness.
Dunthorne seems far less concerned with making his characters or narrators intelligible to us. His flights of fancy are broad, and often go unresolved. Sometimes, these poems are funny or at least curious, but the closer they come to saying something ‘serious’ the harder it is to take them seriously at all.
At every turn we are denied a satisfactory conclusion to his stories and a connection from one poem to another. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to admire in Dunthorne’s writing. The sense of time constantly being manipulated even within seemingly straightforward stories and the brilliant eye for comic imagery Dunthorne possesses should keep most readers transfixed. However, most of the collection falls short of the authenticity needed to carry off the stream of consciousness style well. The most interesting and successful parts of this collection are the brief prose interludes. If Dunthorne’s poetry is more dissociative, then the prose pieces seem to be closest to his own personal monologue: ‘I know what my friends are thinking because of the things they say: "Joe you are shiny and worthwhile and always thinking of others. I am not so great".' I suspect that amongst all the decontextualized verse, the prose offers some clues into how we should interpret the collection as a whole.
Through the guise of a Flemish psychoanalyst’s view of consciousness – written in traditional, academic prose – one prose passage concludes that the deepest reaches of our consciousness are ultimately inaccessible and forever unseen. Dunthorne doesn’t explicitly state whether he agrees with this conclusion, but it would certainly render the inscrutable streams of consciousness that constitute the majority of this collection more intelligible. By momentarily rebelling against the surreal, highly subjective form he uses most often, and instead providing an ‘objective’, highly impersonal framework by which the other streams of consciousness in the collection should be read, Dunthorne offers us a tantalising glimpse of what this collection means.
Dunthorne is self-evidently a humourist, surrealist and storyteller of incredible talent and imagination. I wish this collection showcased that better.
LUKE DUNNE is an undergraduate at Christ Church. He is a news editor at Cherwell, a contributor and deputy editor for UK politics at the Oxford Political Review, and editor of the humanities review Sibyl.