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Nick Laird - Go Giants

(Faber, London, 2013. Paperback, 80pp, £12.99)
 
Reviewed by Prudence Chamberlain
 
Cover of Nick Laird - Go GiantsLaird begins his new collection with a prose piece on the dust jacket addressing the concept of the poem. He tells poetry that a homogenous group, ‘they’, are ‘pretty sure you’re not worth knowing’, that it is at worst ‘a mockery, a joke; outmoded’ and at best ‘a pimped-out souped-up pussy wagon’, and in doing so almost frames the collection as a defence of the genre. At the very least, a work that will defy expectation of poetry and demonstrate it is not ‘a piece of plastic crap’, irrelevant and useless. When the prose piece turns to reminiscence of an encounter with poetry ‘round the back of the loading dock at the meat factory, smoking a rollie and eyeing the maggots writhing below’, Go Giants becomes a promise of gritty writing, preoccupied with representations of reality. Laird writes ‘what you offer is a juncture of two kinds of real, the act caught in the act’ and ‘you are the flawed compensation for our having just one go’.
 
The collection itself is divided into two parts, with the first half comprising poems that range from the gods, cosmos and mythology to domestic scenes and intimate conversations. The most effective poems are Laird’s more humorous works including the title poem ‘Go Giants’ and ‘Annals of Alan’. The former is a simultaneous demonstration of support for a baseball team and rejection of influential literary titans, drawing on cliché and popular culture. Working his way through Inspector Gadget, famous American sports teams, the biblical, colloquial and advertising-speak, Laird creates a poem of confused and multiple orientations. The reading subject is simultaneously configured and confused by the shifting references, all pre-fixed with the seemingly imperative ‘Go’. ‘Go Giants’ almost enacts the dust cover’s claim that the poem ‘if profitless could still outstrip each calculated want’, with the imperative forcing a reader into a mobility that resists both rest and orientation that would allow for desire and want to develop. 
 
‘Annals of Alan’ is similarly playful, with its elusive central character constructed through the plethora of graffiti decorating his building. The polyvocality of the poem is communicated through different fonts, with uncertainty surrounding what position the ‘I’ occupies. The speaker claims ‘I hate being Alan. Alan is a dream most likely’, while the writing across the walls claims Alan as ‘a woman’, ‘a social construct’ and ‘a homosexy’. Alan is loved, the desired father of women’s babies, backed for President and most interestingly, declared as a symbol of the people, ‘we are all Alan’. Through the multiple fonts and the punctuation separating each statement, Laird successfully explores urbanity and community, teasing out absence and presence in relation to both the self and the poetically constructed Alan. 
 
Laird’s other poems demonstrate his skill with form and ability to use rhyme and rhythm effectively. He is accomplished in his exploration of the uniquely human, and the ways in which we engage with the Gods, civilisations and the titans (or Giants) of poetry. The questions of what constitutes life and living, and the ways in which both can be represented, manifest themselves in various guises throughout, allowing for different and nuanced explorations of the human condition. Unfortunately, Laird’s ‘Manifesto on Sunday’, whose title suggests a stimulating juxtaposition of the polemical and strident with the most anti-climactic, restful day of the week, falls flat. Compared to the other pieces, the expletive-heavy angry diatribe of a prose-poem expresses social disaffection with a bourgeois petulance.
 
The second half of the collection is a long poem, ‘Progress’, which narrates a speaker’s departure from home only to return to it after a period of exploration. The poem is deftly controlled and cyclical, with images recurrently evoking Laird’s initial descriptions of home; ‘our mild and violent land of the giant’. It is in this poem that Laird is best able to shed the giants of literature, incorporating their influence into the sprawling narrative without allowing them the power to dictate progress or shape. Crafting a poem that is precise but with moments of beautiful insight and description, the piece works through nostalgia, difficult relationships, problematic authority and the difficulty of achieving independence and autonomy, both from and within a homeland and artistic discipline populated by giants.
 
Go Giants is a strong demonstration of Laird’s facility for accomplished and confident poem. While the questions driving the collection are interesting and explored with sensitivity, however, the work does little that is promised in the initial statement. Refusing experimentation, opting for formal stanzas, the poems remain as snapshots or investigation of human behaviour, rather than a defence of the genre. Go Giants, thus, becomes a well-written meditation on our relationships with partners, places and influences, when the reader is primed for a biting and vicious investigation of poetry’s capacity for dirt, corruption and innovation. 
 
16 March 2014