Jeremy Reed is one of the most prolific poets currently working in Britain. He has published novels, poems, literary criticism and a number of translations. In other words, his work is not in short supply. Black Russian: Out-Takes from the Airmen’s Club, 1978-9 occupies, then, a curious space in his catalogue. The poems it contains were “lost typescripts” – Andrew Duncan’s introduction infers both that they were genuinely lost, unseen for twenty years, and also that they reappeared when “their time [had] come”. It is unclear whether their “lost” quality is poetic or factual.
The same could be said of Reed’s poetry more generally. He conjures scenes – of London, most usually – that sit along the axis of reality and imagination, grinding against both. Reed’s interests lie in the forbidden topics that loomed unspoken, marginal and potent, in late 70s suburbia: intravenous drugs, gay sex and rent boys in pre-sanitised Soho. For Reed, these themes form an alternative map of the city, its landmarks, knocking-shops and squats, its population addicts, outcasts, those living in “the left hand margin each day/ at the median between poetry/ and death”.
This alternative map dates Reed’s work. Today’s Soho is a plethora of sanitised sex shops and chain restaurants. The brothels are signposted, same-sex couples kiss in the street, and the area throngs with tourists, many of whom may just have been to see the Diana Memorial Fountain in Leicester Square. There are, of course, still huge numbers of homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes. But whilst the individuals may remain largely invisible, once noticed they are the topic of parliamentary debate, charity programmes and NHS reports. Heroin, post-Irvine Welsh, post-90s, has ceased entirely to be an “underground” topic. The result is that a poet whose visionary works illuminated unsavory aspects of a historical present is now to be considered in the light of a fuller landscape of poets writing on similar topics.
This poses a problem for Reed’s transmission of experience. His operatic realism aims for total submersion. Duncan heralds the longest work in the collection, “Junkie Tango Outside Boots Piccadilly”, an 86 stanza account of a slide into addiction and death, as Reed’s masterpiece. Certainly, it is exhaustive, a sort of experiential index of concepts of decay and madness. But it is also exhausting, and offers an experience rather akin to reading all of David Bowie’s lyrics in one sitting if they had been randomly interspersed with deliberately obscure terms.
Stanza 14 recounts the experience of a trip:
London day: the room a congealitive
prism. Death returns to the physical,
the slowness of its decomposure each
is forced to outline as on a planchette
An alphabet of omens. Magi take
grain of stars so dissolve the supernal
in a ring heated on a camel’s hoof,
so death shines hard on a Tibetan hill.
Reed’s meta-reflexive map comes into play here: the death rituals of different peoples, ancient peoples, all contained within the “congealitive prism” of a London room. The verse is lugubrious, the heavy stresses capturing the slow pain of death. Ceaselessly associative, any emotional relationship with the fractured narrative is lost in favour of a negotiation of the constant flow of ideas. This style is effective – a neat capturing of consciousness working at half-speed- but it mutes our engagement. Mimesis over engagement. Additionally, Reed does not wear his knowledge lightly: a product of his time perhaps, evidencing the fact that counter-culture can also appropriate knowledge.
Reed’s work has dated. It is interesting, and offers insight into a particular time and set of preoccupations, but this work falls short of confirming him as the visionary poet many hail him to be.