The Margaret Thatcher Trilogy, by Richard Froude
Letters Toward Jim, by Mathew Langley

Catfish Press, 2007
Review by Robb St. Lawrence

Catfish Press, edited by Jim Goar (who is also editor of the online journal past simple), released a pair of chapbooks in summer of 2007. And before I get into individual reviews, I would like to comment very briefly on the quality of the chapbooks as objects themselves. A look around at small presses would indicate that there seem to be an abundance of folks publishing incredible looking letterpress or silkscreen/digital print chapbooks right now. These two from Catfish appear to be of the digital printing variety, and are printed on what feels in the hand like résumé paper. The stapling looks as though it was done manually, which introduces to the book a quality of intimacy due to the hand-assembly. I only bring these things up because they seem pertinent to the projects of the poetry that the books contain: The Margaret Thatcher Trilogy, by Richard Froude, which contains some of the funniest and most affecting engagement with the trappings of empire I’ve read in a recent book, and Letters Toward Jim, by Matthew Langley, which has embedded in its formal conceit (a series of letters written by a speaker to ‘Jim’) a presumption of intimacy. Each of these projects seem somehow intensified by the book’s format, its insinuation of a small press, a limited distribution, a community of artists working collaboratively (the two books share a common cover artist, Stacy Elaine Dacheux). As though something would be off if the cover were done in some slick letterpress design, on a softer paper. So for this, and what appears to be a clear-eyed editorial sensibility, Catfish Press deserves some praise. But to the poetry…

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Richard Froude’s The Margaret Thatcher Trilogy consists of four sequences, each of which with a distinct cast of characters. The first sequence, “Practical Math (Exam Conditions),” approximates the discursive gestures of the mathematics word problem. I’ll quote the first poem of the sequence, “Question One” in its entirety, as it gives a sense of the moves that the chapbook as a whole is interested in making:

A train leaves Lime Street at 10am heading south on the West Coast line.

Another leaves St Ives at one. Henry 8th sits at the window.

Both are travelling at 65 miles per hour. Both are only half full.

If all these things remain constant, how many wives did he have?

Six. And he engineered the break with Catholicism.

No, I’m thinking of a different train. I’m thinking of Steve.

Sorry no. The engineer is called Steve.

The train was once, twice, three times a lady.

Her names were Beatrice, Margaret and Jane. Margaret was the feisty one.

Ended up becoming Prime Minister and turning the others to stone.

Or was it gold? No. That’s something else entirely.

There are turns in here that make me smile, and most of the surprise and interest in the poem comes from the displacement of mythologized authorities into an absurdist theater—Henry 8th in a word problem, in a train named Margaret, and Margaret Thatcher as a train that turned other ladies/trains to stone—from the recombinatory possibilities afforded to any group of characters. The rest of the excitement comes from an attention to language’s surface slippages from one reading into another—Henry engineering a break with Catholicism becoming Henry as not the engineer on this train, or, in the poem that follows, “What is her average speed? / 88” moves from what at first reads as a commentary on Thatcher’s age (she has just fallen asleep on stage) into a series of lines that refer back to Back to the Future and Back to the Future 3: “88. We don’t have enough road to get to 88. / But we’re traveling on rails.”

Froude’s management of repeating themes, fugue-like in their harmonization, is powerful and suggestive. He extracts the certainties of voice from the declaratives he deploys and ultimately turns that certainty against itself. Placing Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight them on the beaches” in the mouth of a parrot, and eventually turning Churchill himself into that parrot, the middle sequence of the collection, “Birds” (its poems with titles like “Phase Two: Mobilization”) deploys this recombinatory absurdism to obliquely address the current US-British war in Iraq. Beginning with two poems about individual birds, Archaeopteryx (the first ‘bird’) and a parrot with a vocabulary of over 900 words, the sequence eventually sucks Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands War, the aforementioned Churchill, Thomas Wolfe, and penguins into its combine, ending with the lines in “Phase Seven: Permanent Echo”, “We are more advanced than chimps. / We are more advanced than chimps, my friend. / We are more advanced than chips but we are losing the war.” I mention this closing because for all of the absurdist gestures and highly visible humor that might appear as foregrounded so far in my review of this book (let me get another one in here before I have to move along: “And this is the job I got when I abandoned language and seduced Margaret Thatcher in the shade of another refrigerator”), at its heart the collection reads as incredibly earnest, though it may be hard to see in excerpt because of the way that the cumulative momentum of the poems operates. Like the pre-Language books of Jack Spicer (from whose poems, it would appear, Froude may have learned a thing or two), Froude’s collection reads as the utterances of a speaker who dwells always in the midst of the words to which he is giving voice, head turning one way and then another, startled to catch them wavering as they float by, but utterly convinced of the seriousness of his operation.

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Although a very different collection of poems, the other chapbook from Catfish Press, Letters Toward Jim, by Matthew Langley, conjures Spicer as well, and his missives to an absent ‘Jim’. But for that surface similarity, there is a sensibility to these poems that brings writers from the other coast of the US to mind. To work a bit with a set of assumptions that come to mind from Norman Finkelstein’s distinction between the NY School and SF Renaissance poets, where Froude appears to dwell in the sublimity of language and imperialism, Langley approaches these inapprehensible totalities with the sort of “ah, fuck it” swagger that brings the various cadres of poets referred to as NY School to mind.

The poems bear the singe marks of juxtaposed moments from a subject’s experience: “Eat a potato damned American. / When I go to the beach I touch / the sand.” Predominantly, the letters render scene (though not predominantly through description), and seem in fact to insist on the significance of insular moments of realization, flashes of sense that trace a path through some terrain. Even those letters that don’t foreground the sense of a speaker in some place play on this quality of epiphanic resolution. The following, for instance, quoted in its entirety:

Dear Jim,

Evel Knievel’s still big on eBay

but ready to die.

“I can’t wait

to meet God, ask Him

why He didn’t make me

faster, why all this pain.

He knows I’m not evil.”

He was a big eater.

To whatever extent the poem might make a gesture toward deflating itself in its final line, that line’s straight-forward declarative-ness, its conversation with the quote from Knievel, and its closure of the initial frame to the poem do give it a sense of resolution, of coming upon some new knowledge, however ambiguous and drenched in the pathos of “ask Him / why He didn’t make me / faster” that knowledge might be.

And pathos seems an apt quality to focus on in this collection, whose letters (if it could be said that they share some thematic thread) reflect a speaker yearning to connect with a familiar world left behind. The quiet, quotidian occasions of most of these poems are those same occasions that might trigger a conversation between two people watching the same eBay ad, as in the poem above. But for this speaker, the other side of the conversation is absent—the poems are tendrils that reach out for that conversation: “Did you know that mazeppa / was a Hungarian warlord? / I bet / you didn’t.”

The collection closes on an acknowledgment of the impossibility of sharing these moments, with a poem I will quote here in whole (the poems are short):

Dear Jim,

Everything has gotten bigger

since yesterday. Near the park,

the tomb sits behind a flock

of cormorants; slow barges extend

the circle without blemish.

I will never make it to your house.

Langley is a craftsman of small poems with strong resolutions, and this one seems to hold within it much of the collection’s sentiment—not only will the speaker never make it in person to “Jim”’s house, but whatever intimacy these letters might want to hold through their embrace of such small moments cannot transfer. The transaction fails for the same reason that postcards can’t actually render one’s trip to some foreign place—the medium is a vehicle for detail, and can’t take in the whole. And one gets the sense that these postcard-sized letters, however much they might be marked by both pathos and humor, are embracing precisely that lack.

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Robb St. Lawrence lives in Arlington, VA. He is in the MFA program at George Mason University and his poetry has appeared recently, or is forthcoming, in CutBank and Third Coast.

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