Wednesday 29 June 2016

Hello sailor

I'm all for book-length poems and pleased to see that there seems to be a revival under way, led by J. O. Morgan who has to date published five long poems, the last two of which I've just reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement.

Matelot by Michael Cullup is 'a poem in twenty-four sections', published recently by Greenwich Exchange. Despite the cover ('Stoker Andrew Martin' by Eric Kennington) we are not in the dreamy homoerotic world of Jean Cocteau and Fassbinder but that of The Cruel Sea with its below decks profanity. 

© Greenwich Exchange

Matelot (pronounced 'matlow') is about life as it used to be in the Royal Navy. The author, in an unnecessary apologia, admits that much of the language is 'salty'. It certainly is and I wouldn't have it any other way - this is the sweariest collection of poetry you'll ever read. There is a useful glossary, although I felt my age to see that 'bob' merited explanation as slang for a shilling - shouldn't the shilling be further defined for those under forty?)

What Cullup depicts, and vividly, is a lost world both recent and remote in which (up to a point, and post-Suez), Britannia still ruled the waves, or at least had a big navy. This navy - the 'Senior Service' - had lengthy traditions of which it was justly proud, and was a rather glamorous entity. Today's navy is a shadow of that.

Cullup excels at the depiction of the rough male sodality below decks, the tangy banter, the grudging pride in 'the Andrew' (as the RN is known to insiders). He has a wonderful store of resonant, often obscene slang, an ear for tough vernacular rhythm and an eye for the moment:

     I am in the West Indies bar
     in Plymouth, Union Street,
     and I see this matelot -
     a huge bloke with a red beard -
     start eating a wine glass.

The language throughout is tough and simple, the feelings beneath more complex, because the poet is a shrewd and detached observer of his fellow tars. Cullup (known to his crew mates as 'Lofts') did his National Service as a lowly Stoker:

     Why did you want to be a fuckin' Stokes, Lofts?
     You're the only fucker here can spell his name.
     You should've been an officer.

Fortunately he wasn't, as I can't see such boisterous and life-affirming poetry prompted by life on the bridge or the officers' mess.

Poets who served in the Andrew include Alan Ross, Roy Fuller, Donald Davie and Charles Causley - all cited in the publisher's blurb - and Michael Cullup is equal to the best of them.

Buy Matelot from the publisher's website

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