In his day job, Richard Watt writes journalistic prose for a Scottish daily newspaper. In his poetry, by contrast, we encounter a creative, dynamic wordsmith. His pamphlet, The Golem, contains nineteen poems. Some, such as “Bachelor” and “The Old Country” deal with personal regret, while others take on a broader outlook, exploring man’s relationship with a bleak, uncaring society. Watt’s voice is unique: young and fresh, but with a darkly gothic edge.
Many of his ideas are informed by the myth and folklore of other cultures, such as the golem, a nightmarish, Frankenstein-like vision of a created “proto-horror”, a toxic creature knowingly (and perhaps cynically) fashioned. The poem’s form here in the title poem is unexpected. The opening stanza appears to be a third person description of the golem, but swiftly changes to a first person narrative in the second stanza. The golem addresses the reader directly, which is unexpected and oddly unsettling. It has the effect of bringing the addressee into the heart of the poem, making him or her take some responsibility for this creature who is described in the last line as a “have-not”. The implication seems to be that, for better or worse, we all have a hand in shaping society.
Watt has a razor-sharp take on the bleakness of modern society. He describes the blighted economy with bold, incisive language. In “Dragon’s Teeth”, for example, he paints a cold, impressionistic picture of boarded-up offices as “puddle images/ of doubloon-filled galleons/ from some golden age.” They are “ragged molars/scattered like tank traps/against the call centre’s progress.”
There is something of the Imagiste in Watt; each word is chosen for exact meaning, each clause crafted with the precision of someone who has something definite to say. “The Fine Print” evokes the media rat-race, the commercial pressure to perform. The poetic persona hears the “shrill calls of basking shrikes”- not sharks, as we might expect, but something far more alarming: the rapacious “butcher-bird” which spikes its prey upon a thorn.
“City of Discovery”, meanwhile, channels the dark, seedy spirit of city life, drawing the reader “past cats and smoking dens” into a place that is both organic and paralysing: you are “becoming lignified./Moss in your voice-box/and between your toes/ trails underground/into the green…”
There is much in The Golem that is opaque, perhaps too personal to be readily accessible. On his website, Watt rejects the word “poet” as a job description. While he reserves respect for the poets of previous centuries, he is dubious about those currently successful in the field, such as Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy. Arguably, Duffy’s success is in the clarity and popular appeal of her work, while some of Watt’s work can be opaque or fuzzy. He is clearly dealing with universal issues but his vocabulary can be obscure, and there are frequent scientific and colloquial references which require research. Dundonian U.X.O., for example, could have several interpretations. Ambiguity, of course, is nothing new in poetry and it does not detract from Watt’s powerful command of language.
If not a simple read, The Golem deserves perseverance. It has much to say about life, and about death- passing youth, lost love; all those human concerns that remain unaltered by advances in science and society. There is an air of pathos about this collection, and of unfulfilment, which is perhaps summed up in the final lines of the last poem,”Good Night and Good Luck”:
Musicians with brown hard cases
Leave with the glimmer of the moon.
Pianissimo, a lilting memory of fullness
Bows the air in the empty hall.