Neil Gregory reviews
By Richard Meier
Misadventure introduces Richard Meier as a voice so familiar you could almost swear you’ve heard him somewhere before. It is not surprising then, that this collection – which won the inaugural Picador Poetry Prize in 2010 – now sits alongside books by established Picador poets like John Glenday and Ian Duhig, whose works compliment Meier’s gentle yet engaging lyrics.
Misadventure’s themes – growth, death, passion, regret – are similarly recognisable, but the conceits that explore these themes are transformed to become more, and sometimes less, than we might expect. Meier’s various subjects – a man with a patio pressure-washer determined to ‘achieve one thing today’ by giving new meaning to the term ‘self-cleansing’ (‘Misadventure’); a grandchild astonished by the wisdom of their supposedly senile grandmother with no time for ‘small-talk’ (‘Compos Mentis’); the inevitably disappointed person who entrusted their dream of sublime comfort to the ‘long admired / […] elbowed arm-rests’ of a ‘birch-ply’ chair (‘The Promise’) – fluctuate between worlds that are wondrous and commonplace, yet never fully come to rest in either extreme.
Typical of Meier’s acknowledgement, or appreciation, of the simultaneity of the magic and the mundane in life is ‘Routine Scan’, the fifth part of a series poem seemingly inspired by the birth of his daughter. This piece juxtaposes the titular scenario of a routine ‘twelve-week check’ on a foetus, with the awe-filled image of the unborn child’s digits glowing ‘like five, ten / of the tiniest light-bulbs / ever manufactured’. The wonder of the expectant parent shines through in this precise image-making; crucially though, it is a wonder tempered with the realisation (reinforced by the series poem’s industrial-sounding title, ‘Building Matilda’) of its own artifice, its undeniable and inevitable subjectivity. Meier is the student of his own poem, ‘Write about what you know’, but realises that what he (or any of us) knows, and loves, can only have relative significance which diminishes beyond our lives. We perhaps understand why Meier’s daughter is expressed in such a conflation of the natural and man-made.
Like many of the pieces in Misadventure, ‘Routine Scan’ conveys a sense of life lived, and being lived. The focus of the collection is largely retrospective, but the nostalgia and regret of poems like ‘We’ll always have Paris’ and ‘Maddened by this world’ is nearly (though never quite) balanced by the in-the-moment joy of others such as ‘Walking near Arundel’, a celebration of ‘[h]ow exactly the wind fits our faces’. Meier never lapses into exclamation, or proclamation, though; these are short, quiet poems that speak when listened to, yet linger in the mind long after the book is closed.
Meier possesses a command of the rhythms of colloquial speech that makes his poems accessible and (again) familiar. In pieces like ‘Three weeks to go’, the reader is addressed as though an old acquaintance:
I was sitting, as I often do
at lunchtime, in the burialground off Church Street
(there’s not much green in Acton) [...]
This is not difficult poetry; Meier’s fluid, conversational tone and natural diction lend his poems an approachability that sometimes belies their complexity. This is not to say, however, that re-reading Misadventure is a fool’s errand. Even when Meier’s subject seems a little too familiar, as in ‘White out’ (is there a poet without a snow poem?), or when his touch seems a little heavy, as in ‘For a bridge suicide’ – perhaps one instance in this collection where a poem sets its stall out too early – his work is rich enough with movement and subtleties of sound to retain its pleasure well beyond the first reading:
From four, six, eight feet, maybe even ten,
water’s a giving, all-embracing thing.
Above that, it begins to darken, starts
to slap, to harden, till by fifty or sixty
limbs get broken. Still [...]
(‘For a bridge suicide’)
Perfect rhymes, half rhymes, assonance and consonance tumble down throughout this poem, enriching its theme. Reading such poems aloud is an experience to relish. Like any accomplished piece, it seems there is something new happening each time you read it.
The freshness of Meier’s poems is a consequence of the freshness of his vision, which, with the exception of one or two borderline cliché pieces – ‘Three weeks to go’ and ‘Moment’ are somewhat blunted by their romanticism – is sustained throughout. Misadventure is a collection of timeless themes and sensibilities filtered through a recognisably twenty-first century experience of the human condition. The gods of Greek mythology are seemingly alive and well in the playfully (yet darkly) titled ‘Sky Sports’: they ‘whoop, marvelling at this deft / gift of ours for shifting misery / that makes for such great viewing. Kills some even.’ As ever with Meier, things are neither transparent nor quite covered up; there is always something ‘not quite under the shelter’ (‘Winter Morning’) in his poems. For the contemporary Western reader at least, the comparison between the gods’ and our own comfortable lives at the golden end of the satellite rainbow becomes clear.
The recognition of what we have and haven’t got, what we have and haven’t learned, resounds throughout Misadventure. Again, we recognise a meditation on contemporary times and contemporary desires, a meditation upon disorientation: the misadventure of misguided lives, perhaps. All a modern-tongued King Canute really wants is ‘to prove [him]self / alive – to feel’ (‘Canute explains’). Similarly, in ‘Fabric’, the speaker recoils from a potential lover’s soulless world:
I stepped inside her Edwardian conversion
to find a stripped-pine, bookless space complete
with kitchen like an operating theatre,
bathroom more a boutique marble quarry
and something too near horror at the thought
that she could live like this, unstoried […]
For Meier, this ‘unstoried’ life, lacking in both depth and history, is not life at all; experience, good and bad, counts for everything. This quietly confident debut is a collection of meditations on the everyday mistakes and triumphs that define a romantic, yet never overblown vision of contemporary life. If Misadventure literally were fabric, it would be something like linen. It is a work of delicate texture, layered in folds, so that the space between the fibres of the words shows through variously with light and dark, hope and hopelessness.
Neil Gregory has completed, with first class Honours from Kingston University, his BA Eng Lit and CW; and is off to UEA to take an MA on the Poetry CW strand. His poetry appears in Lung Jazz.