John Upton, Embracing the Razor (Puncher & Wattmann)
A long-ago episode of the TV soap Neighbours featured two much-loved little dogs, named something like Stella and Pooch. When one of the dogs escaped to the dangerous street, the distraught dog-minder ran out his front door and fell to his knees in his driveway. As the camera pulled back and up he put his hands to the side of his head and cried out in Brando-esque anguish, ‘Stellaaaa!’ (Just in case a reader needs it, here’s a link to the cinematic moment being parodied.)
John Upton wrote a more than 130 episodes of Neighbours between 1985 and 2006, and I like to think he was the one who poked that hole in the soap wall for a silly shining moment. He’s written a lot else, for television and the stage, but this is his first book of poetry.
The book is in four sections: ‘Grief’, a narrative sequence about death and bereavement, which the back cover tells us is on the death of Upton’s wife; ‘Embracing the Razor’, which is largely about the ills of old age – including various kinds of surgery, Alzheimer’s, bereavement; ‘Destinations’, fourteen poems of travel; and ‘Rhymes and Rhizomes’, a miscellany.
It’s the first section that has drawn me back for several readings. Even without the back cover note, it’s clear that these eleven poems are rooted in direct experience; and the discipline of decades of crafting story for TV means the character development and narrative elements are confidently, effortlessly there, allowing the poetry to do its work. A hospital car park as ‘a desert of panic nosed / into dutiful bays’. And how’s this for capturing the feel of visiting a hospital:
At the lift, two people. Polite smiles. ‘It takes a while,’
he says. I offer, ‘Yes.’ In this desperate place
somehow we need to touch.
‘It’s on the seventh,’ she adds, feeling foolish.
They don’t seem to be together.
We watch the numbered light ascending.
Like a saint, I think. I’m not religious.
‘The other one’s coming down,’ he mutters. Steel jaws
wide enough to gulp a bed and nurses
creep open horizontally. I press Intensive Care.
They don’t say anything.
The book is full of neat similes and deft observations of this sort, but, especially in the first sequence, they serve a deeper purpose – the poems tell of grief, but to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, they tell it slant, in verse that is marvellously disciplined, courteously aware of the reader. One poem begins, ‘Cat shit in the bath again,’ another deals with lost paperwork for the memorial garden. Even the moment of death is relayed, in ‘Morphine Around Midnight’ with extraordinary restraint:
I ask the nurse,
‘How long?’ ‘Not long.’
One hour, five minutes.
A decade ago, we thought my partner – now known in these pages as the Art Student – was dying of advanced pancreatic cancer. It turned out that she had had an extraordinarily improbable series of false positives, and abdominal surgery revealed perfectly healthy internal organs. But we had a couple of intense weeks facing the prospect of imminent death. The early part of this sequence comes the closest of anything I’ve read to capturing the feel of that experience. I’m sorry John Upton had to go ahead and write the rest, but I’m in awe that he did it so well.
My copy of Embracing the Razor is a kind gift from Puncher and Wattmann.