It’s hard to get past the foreword to this intriguing book of poetry. The foreword – penned by JG Ballard, no less – claims that “Jeremy Reed’s talent is almost extra-terrestrial in its brilliance” and that “No other poet (and very few novelists) has so accurately conveyed the essence of what it is to be alive today…” These wildly hyperbolic introductory lines have the effect of setting the bar very high, before one has even read a poem from 2009’s West End Survival Kit.
The collection is tonally and stylistically consistent with the voice of JG Ballard himself, bringing in elements of science and speculative fiction, rock’n’roll iconography and aspects of popular culture, substance abuse and movie tropes. Taken as a whole, the collection is a glitzy dystopian sequence of brightly-coloured and chemically enhanced vignettes. If David Bowie had more assiduously taken up the pen rather than the plectrum in the early 1970s, I suspect these poems might have been the sort he would be writing in the early part of the 21st century. Reed’s ongoing Bowie aspirations are exemplified by poems such as “Endgaming”, in which he writes in a voice which could be that of Bowie’s Thomas Newton or Ziggy Stardust personae –
Rock dinosaurs, 60 something,
arrive in mobile biological vans.
They end-state legends. America’s dead
from its own presidential smoking gun.
The poems often have a nightmarish quality, with quick jump-cuts between vivid images which seem to be conscious emblems of the now, sometimes making random connections, but at other times just rolling past like hastily-assembled reels of celluloid. The effect is often dizzying, but the poems rarely resolve themselves into any kind of meaning, and certainly don’t point us at new truths or reveal what Reed’s eye has seen beyond the superficial glitter of his words.
There are flashes of other poets in evidence; Edwin Morgan is present in the sci-fi sheen of poems such as “Red Planet Blues” and “Astrobiologist”. Elsewhere in an eponymous poem, a strand of William Blake’s DNA is cloned and dressed in modern clothes, in a parallel existence where he
…bought a decommissioned jet,
lived in it on Wandsworth flats,
grew gardenias in the cockpit,
The poet nods vigorously towards the avant garde in his references (Kandinsky, Rothko, JH Prynne) but his work remains accessible throughout and only experimental in relation to the sheer weight of rapid-fire images. The rolling seas of fashion and music and the fluid London skyline are referenced throughout, as if Reed knows these poems will only have a few moments in the sun, and wants them to shine while they can.
These are intensely urban poems, metropolitan poems. Birds do not sing and the sky is rarely blue in Reed’s imagination; I’m left with more questions than answers – but then good poetry usually asks more of us than it tells of itself. The poems certainly don’t give much away about their intentions, preferring to clothe themselves gaudily to draw our attention, notably in poems such as “Human Organ Traffickers” where the subject of the poem
…whacks Led Zeppelin on the stereo,
squeals up to buy Natasha flowers –
strawberry red, full-throated amaryllis,
operatic as Shirley Bassey
squeezed in a cellophane tube.
West End Survival Kit showcases a poet with indubitable craft and imagination, and there is much drama and excitement at or near the surface of this collection, but so often the themes and the tone in which they are executed are stylised and repetitive. Reed has some influential admirers, true, but this collection serves less to add to them and more to consolidate his wilfully extra-terrestrial persona and resolutely modernist voice.