Jonathan Edwards’ collection of amusing and accessibly candid poems, My Family and Other Superheroes, recognises that costumes, masks and neatly folding personas belong to the everyday. These are artificial means of separation between self and profession, past and present, family and nation. Most successfully perhaps Edwards plunders the modern high street, a place replete with brand names and fake smiles, transparent sales tactics plucked from
that self-help book, cod amateur psychology, the professional bullshit…
the body language training, the feints, the moves
of the salesman/con-artist persona. The mask is removed only
when, at five, he packs up
his tongue for the day and walks into the world,
just like you, like me, like anyone
and the showman disappears from his commercial stage. Intuitively understanding the theatrical in the quotidian , Edward’s everyday cast are simultaneously hollow-eyed corporate facades who “stand and wait to be your name-badged friends” and also three-dimensional people whose anxieties bubble close to the surface. “The Girls on the Make-up Counter” apply perfumed masks to strangers by day and then do the same to themselves by night. They
stand before a mirror, breathe in their waists,
mutter something, then step into a city
where every other woman wears their face.
This is an unmistakeably macabre image; not a faceless crowd but rather a face-like crowd, a descent into the same territories of psychological anxiety as Edgar Allan Poe’s urban monomania. When the professional and social mask are the same, where do the masks end?
Edwards conjures up a series of images and characters performing or disguising themselves, consciously or otherwise. In “Karaoke”, the girl “who’s got every boozed-up eye in the place/ would like to know if we’ll still love her, tomorrow”. Two brothers seem to act out working class siblinghood to the letter, shadowing one another in pub brawls, borrowing t-shirts, jump starting “knackered” Transit vans and telling the punch lines to each other’s jokes. “You know the sort: the elder has a child/who’s got her mother’s mouth, her uncle’s eyes.” Edward’s typical duos are just that; stereotypes whose faces are passed on to the next generation to wear as their own.
Yet the collection is not in any way brooding; indeed, Edward’s greatest achievement is imbuing poems of not insignificant thematic depth with an attractive levity, avoiding entirely the trappings of much ambitious poetry which is often painfully serious. This is undoubtedly ambitious stuff. In “Half-time, Wales vs. Germany, Cardiff Arms Park, 1991”, Edwards the poet knows what the crowd and even Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs in the changing rooms cannot. He knows that this is a night whose actors are on the brink of being catapulted into Welsh folklore. It’s a night of bottled magic where poster boys deliver and where the crowd share in the experience of a lifetime – “it’s time to be the people we’ll become.” Similarly, past and present are bridged as shared experience in “The Death of Doc Emmett Brown in Back to the Future” when childhood morphs into parenthood in front of a screen and treasured memories exist embedded as much on a DVD as they are in the narrator’s mind.
Sitting in a coffee shop observing a stranger, Edwards writes “Let’s make a heroic effort, /pin him down with a word.” In the end he doesn’t manage it, but his collection does succeed in pinning down the absurdities of modern life with a playful finesse that is equally enjoyable and admirable. In “The Bloke in the Coffee Shop”, Edwards notes:
How is the weather? Pissing down. Umbrellas
hover over heads like oh-so-faithful,
massive-winged and oh yes, somehow, handled
blackbirds. So much for similes.
When the strangeness of the world surpasses the language used to describe it, what happens to the carefully crafted but inadequate similes of everyday language? Edwards throws them out with the bathwater and tells the surreal truth complete with masked costumes and all.