Nick Laird | Feel Free | Faber & Faber £14.99
There’s a SoundCloud recording of Nick Laird reading ‘Feel Free’ that I stream once in a while when I can’t sleep. It’s about a parent on night-feed duty, half-awake, half-dreaming. Listening to the reading, the rhythms and rhyme create a kind of lulling effect and the words become sounds, washing over you in waves, without meaning. When I actually saw the poem for the first time, in Laird’s new book of the same name, it was both familiar and different; there were phrases that had changed, words I’d previously misheard. One that stuck out, both in the poem and the collection as a whole, was ‘My white-noise machine from Argos is set to Crashing Wave’. Here, Laird brings the natural and the technological together, something he does throughout Feel Free to both harmonic and discordant effects. The noise of the machine is described as:
the presence of numerous and minute
quanta moving very fast in unison; occasions when a light
wind undulates the ears of wheat, or a hessian sack of pearl
barley seed is sliced with a pocket knife and pours.
Here the natural noise of wind is equated with the static of the white-noise machine, linked through a kind of technological jargon that takes on the properties of the white-noise it describes, passing simply as sound unless you stop to really think. Throughout Feel Free, Laird repurposes and re-contextualises corporate jargon and tech-speak and this manipulation of language reinvigorates age-old subject matter in traditional forms.
The jacket cover of the book compares Laird’s poetry with “the acoustic expansiveness of Whitman or Ashbery” which I think is fair. While Ashbery’s poems read “the way music passes”, Laird’s hum with white-noise. Throughout the collection, he takes us back to this auditory “steady disruption”:
but what I’d like to listen to is rain,
no? The plainness of its thinking,
the fat splatter of the first ripe drops
on the hot sidewalk, its hiss,
its consistence, its soft-shoe shuffle –
If there is music in Laird’s poems, it is the music of rain, of wind, of machinery. He clouds these poems with jargon, creating a kind of pixellation, where meaning is apparent but not clearly defined. Then, with a well-placed volta and a clever turn of phrase, Laird ends with a sense of clarity. I found myself noticing things around me a little more clearly after reading these poems, as if my senses had been retuned. You could liken it to the sensation of your ears popping when a plane lands, how you notice a new depth of silence when the extractor fan clicks off, the washing machine finishes its cycle, or your computer goes to sleep.
The collection begins with Glitch, a sonnet about Laird falling and hitting his head and the somewhat out of body experience that follows. It starts:
More than ample, a deadfall of one metre eighty
to split my temple apart on the herringbone parquet,
and crash the OS, tripping an automated shutdown
The injury is a tripped fuse, a crashed OS, and for a moment the speaker leaves “the heated, moist robot [they] currently inhabit” to some other place, another consciousness. They are then returned,
air-lifted out mid-gesture,
mid-sentence, risen of a sudden like a bubble
to the surface
This effervescent movement is what Laird does best. From the constraints of the body and the formal limits of the sonnet, Laird transports the speaker and the reader to some other place, and returns you, a little changed. The technological semantic field offers more than just clever wordplay here; the poem, and the experience it describes, is a kind of resetting. The body and the mind, like an overworked computer needs to be reset once in a while. When turned off and on again, it can perform better, see things clearer. The book begins with a literal and metaphorical restart and continues on to be consistently refreshing and startling.
However clichéd the term has become in recent years, Laird’s poems tend to a sort of ‘mindfulness’. In them, freedom can be found through meditative thinking; a mining of the moment for meaning. This attention to minutiae stretches to Laird’s use of language. He writes with a kind of microscopic intensity. In ‘Cinna the Poet’, the speaker describes the feeling of dirt:
It felt like stroking suede against the nap,
half illicit, the particulates milled by wind
and sieved by the distance
to the softness of ash or brick-dust.
Freedom is in the sensory detail, in feeling. Throughout a lot of these poems there is a cinematic zooming in:
if we did continue further in —
into an atom of the flesh
or the metallic fabric of the fork,
the micro-weft of the tablecloth,
while in others there is a dramatic zooming out:
I like to interface with millions of coloured pixels
depicting attractive people procreating on a screen itself
dependent on rare metals mined by mud-grey children
who trudge up bamboo scaffolding above a greyish-red lake
of belching mud.
Here, Laird’s microscopic gaze calls attention to everyday things, like computer screens, which we tend not to give a second thought. As he does so well in Modern Gods, his most recent novel, he shows the interconnectedness of the globalised world. It is another instance of a kind of ‘mindfulness’ and led me to reexamine the physical book in my hands, to think of the trees cut down and transported to a factory to be processed to a pulp, spread thin, drained, dried, cut and shipped to be sold to a warehouse, the printing press where Laird’s poems had been typeset, to be shot with ink, charcoal black, varnish, binder, solvent, chelating and drying agents… Laird’s poems lead to a reevaluation of everyday things, and this can come as a small revelation. He trains you to hear the white-noise that you had tuned out, to separate its frequencies— “the fat impasto of the canvas gets slashed […] and a glimpse is caught of what you couldn’t / say.”
The first line of Feel Free perhaps best conveys the scope of the book: “To deal with all the sensational loss I like to interface / with Earth.” On one hand, the line addresses a loss of sensation that overexposure to technology can bring about, a digital-age numbness to feeling. This “sensational loss” drives Laird to refocus readers on sensory detail, on feeling; to return to “Earth” both in a humbling, grounding way as well as returning to the elemental, to the physical. But it is also the “sensational loss” of his mother’s death, which is the focus of many of these poems.
Laird writes simply and intimately about grief. He does this best in ‘Parenthesis’, a pantoum. What makes it so effective, aside from its brilliantly executed form, is how Laird shows the grief felt for the loss of a parent alongside the joy of raising children. Many of his poems exist between these two poles, but throughout Feel Free, grief and joy do not cancel out one another, but rather increase each other’s significance.
There are other “sensational loss[es]” throughout the collection; from the Troubles, to Grenfell and the experiences of refugees. These are topics that are near impossible to write about in prose, let alone in poetry, which can instinctively tends towards beautification. But Laird does not aestheticise tragedy, and nor does he use the inherent emotions of the subject matter as a crux to lean back on. Instead, he manipulates language to best address the subject matter. In The Good Son, a series of sonnets that spans the three parts of the collection, shows the limits of language: “our animal language inadequate / to state in this state the state of the state.” This breaking down of language continues in Grenfell, where Laird writes in an impersonal corporatese to devastating effects: “Please rate your experience of your experience.” Some may have issues with the tone of the poem, but it isn’t written for the victims, but instead at the perpetrators. It is an ugly poem, and rightly so. As Laird writes in Crunch, “poetry is weather for the mind / not an umbrella.”
There are a few free-verse poems in the collection, but the majority of Laird’s work stays within tightly-wrought forms. From villanelles to pantoums, Laird’s eye for distinctive imagery and ear for the prosody of everyday speech breathes new life into old forms. He is particularly skilled at writing sonnets — ‘The Folding’ is my personal favourite. It is a sequence of sonnets about the speaker’s children making paper snowflakes on a snow-day. In the second sonnet, Laird writes:
I know in terms of cuts and folds
a modest pattern’s adequate,
that infinite complexity’s composed
by simple rules
Each sonnet is perfectly symmetrical — split in two stanzas of seven and centred-aligned. By doing this, Laird draws our attention to his writing technique; throughout Feel Free he follows “simple rules”, making his own modest cuts and folds. Formally, his poems are neat and, at first glance, simple. But then they unfold, they unravel, and they are beautiful.
by Gurnaik Johal