William Letford, Dirt (Carcanet, £9.99).
As you might expect from the compact title of William Letford’s second collection, encounters with dirt are various and persistent throughout. In ‘Purification,’ we meet a hapless individual struggling to function after a night of heavy drinking: “crack open the eyes make fists with feet hangover check negative / stand up totter crease face call it a smile blink wade knee deep [.]” Written in lowercase, without punctuation or conjunctions, these lines convey the mechanical actions of someone seamlessly going through the motions, at a distance from themselves. However, the cracked eyes and clenched feet foreground the body and the physical discomfort involved in this performance of happiness which, failing the first time, the protagonist reattempts: “toward coffee percolate wait for first smack of caffeine try again / lift corners of mouth crease face [.]” The pun on “smack” highlights a modern-day obsession with coffee and productivity, but the protagonist’s goal at this moment is to “teeter towards ablution.” The religious connotations of “ablution” – particularly in light of the poem’s title – lend a ritualistic element to the act of washing, as if the protagonist is atoning for something, although it is not clear what; to “teeter” and “totter” suggests a lack of direction. It is not until we reach the title poem ‘Dirt’ that we start to get a sense of the poet’s true attitude to this substance:
of generations. I want to lift the delicate carcass
of an insect from the carpet. I want to sit by the window
and watch water in the gutter and when I pull back the
sheets I want them dirty. I want the dirt on my hands.
The collection’s epigraph (“Temples and monuments reach for / transcendence, beauty lies in the / carcass of an insect, cities within cities, / take your eyes from the heavens, / look long and deep”) is echoed here. The reader is asked to drill down into the details, to look for beauty in unlikely places, in small things that are not striving to be beautiful or significant but achieve this nonetheless. There is something strangely spiritual about the DNA of generations past and present existing together in one place. To find dirt concealed under fridges and on bedsheets is evidence of life, and to wear dirt on one’s hands represents an immediacy of experience. The speaker does not restrict themselves from experiences and inhibitions are cast away in the final lines: “Lay yourself open. We’ll both / blossom. If you want me to call you a whore, I’ll do it. Stand in the muck with me. Live amongst the flowers.” The speaker’s enthusiasm to be surrounded by, covered in and ‘speak’ dirt is a defiant rejection of the cleanliness and conformity painfully strived for in ‘Purification’ – they are fully alive to the idea that where there is dirt, there is possibility, spontaneity and adventure.
Nowhere is the celebration of dirt more rebellious and jubilant than ‘Let it go’ in which the speaker – whose “sphincter pouts like a smoker’s lips” – searches for a toilet before eventually giving in to the most basic urge, with a sense of triumphant liberation: “I lumber / toward the hostel, like a monkey in the / jungle of traffic, stinking, wild and free.” The implied criticism of modern lifestyles in ‘Purification’ is reiterated, highlighting how far we have strayed from other animals in controlling certain instincts.
A striking aspect to Letford’s writing is the stylistic variety: poems range from lyrical to concrete; dialects shift between Scots and English; locations flit between the UK and India (where he travelled for six months on a Creative Scotland Artists’ Bursary), and the perspective moves between Letford in his previous job as a roofer (‘a garden’ and ‘Young Rambo’) and his current one as a poet. The different influences at work may account for a refrain of “annaromamoof” that appears throughout the collection in ‘Gon yursel’, ‘You’ and ‘Talknaboot?’:
so wit eh yi talknaboot
am sayin annaromamoof
aye well neerda
As one voice struggles to understand the other, we hear the poet’s internal dialogue, attempting to reconcile different aspects of his identity. Attention to sound runs throughout this collection: the wheeze of an asthmatic boy, “somewhere / between a moan and a whistle” in ‘Wisdom’; the lovers whose “sweat and skin slapped / like a biological whip” in ‘Feedback Loop’; or the multifarious sounds amassed in ‘the crack’:
brings its song forests of cellos gardens of violins
the silent flap of a worm in mud the groan of bamboo
the sound of frost every orgasm in every bedroom back
room and public toilet the sound of light as it hits the
mouth of a cave skin is a symphony every mirror is
a sheet of music reflection is reverb countless re
reflection is reverb re countless collaborations
A diverse orchestra of noises – ranging from loud, to barely discernible, to imaginary – combine in one broad stroke across our senses in this plectrum-shaped poem. The vivid imagery restates the poet’s attention to remaining alert in the world, while the repetition of reflection/reverb (imagery and sound) replicates these connections at a deeper level. This complex process is distilled down into the final lines, ending on the lyrical ‘I’ that also feels like a point of origin (if the poem were to be read bottom to top) for this process:
you and her
The powerful impact of sound is also explored in ‘This is it’, in which the speaker returns home after some time spent away: “Skint, baw ragged, poakets ful eh ma / fingers, cannae afford tae burn toast an / it’s November, Christmas is close.” Restless in his own company and anxious over finances nearing Christmas, the speaker feels out of place as the city has changed without him: “ivery coarner / is a different colour.” Eventually, he chances upon a busker whose youth and ambition is unexpectedly heartening: “eez young an the dreams thit / wur boarn in eez bedroom wake me up.” However, no-one stops to listen to him (“they know / thit eez good bit they don’t want tae look”) and even the speaker holds back from showing his full appreciation:
where the hammer hits the stane and sparks
ur made, standin oan a coarner in yur hame
toon, an audience eh one radge eatin a
macaroni pie, bit singin, wee man, yur singin.
The reluctance of anyone to “look” at the man, whose sound feels primal and vital (“the hammer hits the stane”) may be because this clashes with modern lifestyles, where there is no time to pause for simple pleasures (recalling the speaker’s desire to sit and “watch water in the gutter” in ‘Dirt’). The busker’s passion and vulnerability – his “dreams” are laid bare – contrast with the unglamorous surroundings to leave the speaker speechless but bursting inside at this embodiment of flowers growing amongst the dirt.