Mixed bag of emotions

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
VOICE MAIL. By Duncan Forbes. Enitharmon Press pound;8.95.

Duncan Forbes's collection is prefaced by an extract from Paul Valery: "Let us imagine that the sight of the things that surround us is not familiar, that it is only allowed us as an exception, and that we only obtain it by a miracle." This is a noble philosophy for any life, any art, but can a book live up to it page by page?

The written word has a fighting chance of arresting our attention long enough to work these everyday wonders, and nowhere more so than in poetry.

Forbes's work can be characterised by a certain formal playfulness that verges on shyness. It achieves its moments of attentive revelation, is at its most lyrical and free-flowing, where it is most liberated from the personal by trickery, word play, rhyme games and set pieces.

Bitterness, bitchiness and vicious satire underpin the very English self-awareness of a voice that rhymes a set of plausibly implausible lonely hearts postings - "Miguel (Chigwell) District Central Seeks Oriental Genital rental", lists a page of promises offered by "The Hypnotherapy Centre", asking, "Doesn't that make you feel better already?", and uses the villanelle form for its most natural purpose - that of expressing twisted and hopeless thinking in "Self-Deceit". And although "Job Description" could apply equally to nurses, hairdressers, and all professional listeners, teachers who read it will feel a special glow, knowing it was written by one of their own:

"Dogsbody. Despot. Saint and martyr. Diplomat. Bureaucrat. Creep and tartar. Tamer of lions, cobra-charmer. Nuclear warhead and disarmer. Expert with parents, sons and daughters, Weasel words and troubled water. Menagerie manager- manageress, A human dynamo hooked on stress."

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