Mocker is a book of journeys, from migrating Irish monks to a colony of puffins summering on a sea cliff, from Achill to Ljubljana.
Amid the unromantic cityscapes of the post-industrial North of England, Wheatley produces a series of meditations on place and displacement. Birds of prey and domestic beasts vie with whalers’ wives, Cuchulainn and his cohorts, and St John himself, in the book’s richly varied dramatis personae.
You go first, the driver of a hearse signals to the poet at a pedestrian crossing and, in work by turns blackly humorous and sensuously affirmative, David Wheatley confronts without flinching the enjoyable dilemma of what has been called ‘the trouble with being born’.
‘City’, the opening poem of David Wheatley’s excellent third collection, starts without enticement: ‘I seem to have found my level: / flat, all is flat’. Wheatley is ostensibly describing the environment in and around his adopted city of Hull, where ‘nothing rises’ or ‘will rise’, where avenues ‘fall away under your feet’, and where things are literally heading down the drain — down ‘speluncular drains’, no less. But this lowering of sights allows for a perfect marriage of landscape and poetic voice, because Mocker is scarred with a self-loathing verging on the suicidal. ‘I’d decided I liked me less and less’, ‘My Back Pages’ admits, before offering a helpful suggestion to discarded friends: ‘Get rid of me and you’re all welcome back’. Wheatley presents himself as his own biggest problem, and the solution he advocates is dissolution.
Thankfully, Mocker has other — albeit less conspicuous — stories to tell. Even ‘City’ shakes off its dirge long enough for a final image of transcendence, as the speaker and his companion climb the stairs of his house to stand ‘on top of the world’. That ‘world’ may be easy to surmount, but it refutes the argument that ‘nothing will rise’. In its patterning of ups and downs, ‘City’ serves as an appropriate frontispiece for a book which is obsessed with trajectories. Two poems later, ‘Riptide’ reports how a Hawk jet came down in the Humber, its pilot ‘shot free like a champagne cork’. Scarcely a poem goes by without some dizzying — and usually concluding — shift of perspective, whether by ‘com[ing] in to land’, ‘drowning’, ‘fall[ing]’ and ‘run[ning] to ground’, or by watching swallows ‘haul their way up’ or imagining an eagle’s talons ‘punctur[ing] and carry[ing]… off’ a page of poetry. Birds inevitably become an important emblem, playing along the vertical axis: Mocker constitutes an aviary of pigeons, gulls, owls, macaws, puffins, doves, eagles, geese, roosters, swallows and hawks (although there are as many mammals and — this being Hull — quite a few fish).
Earth, air and water remain Wheatley’s elemental staples; he creates some meagre heat in ‘Chemical Plant’ (‘our pale flame’) and ‘I burn’ (‘I burn with a flame that’s all my own’), but it is all rather half-hearted and fails to persuade anyone, himself included, that fire is dangerous. ‘I burn and freeze like ice’, complained Thomas Wyatt; Wheatley may burn with his own flame, but he is more typically found to ‘freeze / when I see this brutal life and see it whole’. The nature of his poetic gift ensures that he works best at low temperatures, with one possible exception: a devotee of Beckett and Cioran, Wheatley is attracted to the idea that life is a blemish on perfection, and that apocalypse would clean the human stain. The Blitz is therefore recalled with fondness, both in ‘City’ where ‘the people [were] never happier’ as everything turned to ‘rubble / and death’, and in the Neronic desire of ‘Nostalgia’:
Blacktoft docks bombed!, Lord Haw Haw crackled over
the airwaves six decades ago. Let more bombs
fall tonight: I give it all up, river,
jetty, me staggering from the pub, to the flames
if in return they grant me an azure-and-pink-
against-pitch-black sunset streaking the sky
behind the Ouse while the geese sleep on the wing
and one man and his dog walk lazily by.
Yet even this dilettante’s prayer peters out into the mundane with its descent from the dramatic sky to the man and dog, and from the edgy off-rhymes to the reassuring completeness of ‘sky/by’. With the word ‘lazily’, the poem has moved in several lines from high-energy combustion to somnambulant.
Wheatley is not, on the whole, a recorder of voices. ‘The Gas Mask’ has an archetypal taxi-driver sounding off about terrorism, but except for its rhymes the poem contains nothing that you couldn’t find in Private Eye. Wheatley’s subject is himself, but not egotistically so —himself as seen and understood through the prism of other lives (especially animal lives) and landscapes. This gift allows his achievement to be measured alongside the strongest poets of his generation. Take ‘Axolotl’, an anthology poem in waiting, which begins with the line ‘All the blood has drained from my face’ before giving its full attention to those salamanders who hang in the water like ‘dangling mobiles’:
And at night,
hoisted on their pudding hind legs
they rattle the locked conservatory door
for as long as their held breath lasts
and slouch back to their tank to weigh it all up:
the evolving or dying, the dying or surviving,
the evolving or dying or staying the same —
decisions, decisions — these millions of years.
If Wheatley’s animal poems occasionally put the reader in mind of Ted Hughes, it is only because the poets share an important predecessor in Marianne Moore. ‘Axolotl’ provides the antithesis of Ted Hughes’s vision of nature. Hughes favoured predators, and his living fossils were pike, evolved to be unthinking killers; Wheatley’s is the harmlessly absurd and pudgy axolotl, who turns out to be rather a philosopher. As the poet studies the axolotl, does he himself want to evolve or die or stay the same? Decisions, decisions.
— Tim Kendall, Tower Poetry
Year Published: 2006
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 402 2
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 403 9