Having already published two acclaimed chapbooks, Michael Pedersen offers a remarkable first full-length collection. From the start, it is clear that these pieces are to be performed, not merely read. Each is written in free verse, often without stanzaic limitations, and Pedersen also makes extensive use of internal rhyme and alliteration. Consider the alliterative and assonance-heavy effect of “… deepest dreamer, sleeping,” from “Owen” and, “… pulsing prose with pursed lips,” from “Tom Buchan (1931-1995)”. Hardly surprising, perhaps, from a man who also writes plays and song lyrics.
The collection is divided into four distinct parts. Part I presents his worldview from a childlike perspective, hence the title Play with Me. Pedersen drops us into the book with his recollection of a teenage romance in Colmar that is peppered with phonetic French. Later, he observes of a character in “Greenhouse Ganglands” that, “… her clothes pong of people who spend too much time with boxes.” Yet this outwardly youthful point of view is tempered by a very adult sense of regret, criticising his own childish logic and describing what he should have done differently.
Pedersen introduces his most startling technique early. “Feathers and Cream” begins with what appears to be mere nostalgia but he turns the subject to the loss of a father in only one or two lines. He employs these quick changes throughout much of his work, but the effect is never diminished.
Part I, however, does contain one of the few weak poems. “C J Easton” boasts three footnotes that add little to its meaning and only seem to break its flow; at best, it might be experimental but, alas, not really successful. “Heredity” is the only work given centre alignment and relaxed line spacing which lends it a headstone-like effect. It fits snugly with the theme of loss in Part II, from the direct exploration of death in “With Divine Ovation” to the subtler lament in “Edinburgh Festival” for an event over all too soon.
It is worth noting that this book was published when Pedersen was 29. There is a sense that writing these first two parts acted as a catharsis for his lost childhood before his milestone birthday. That landmark is best recognised by his near-death experience in “When I Fell in the Bog”.
For when we reach Part III, there is a feeling of independence as he writes about his many visits to Cambodia. Yet it is difficult to fathom why he loves the country so much. In many of these verses, especially “Justice Locale” (his italics), he describes the crime and corruption he encounters. All this makes terrific material for poetry, but no reader would holiday there on the strength of his lines.
“From the Right Bank” makes a brief mention of his experience of being a Scotsman abroad, introduced with, “As for wee Scotty…” There are other touches of Scots throughout Pedersen’s hard-driven lines, but Scots is not his dominant language. It is used only to convey the voice of a character, such as the narrator’s in the aforementioned “Heredity”.
Part IV rounds off with maturity. “X Marks the Spot” and” Expired Treasure / Broken Bulbs” show us how Pedersen the man deals with his relationship struggles, many miles from the boyhood romance in Colmar. As such, this section is rich with delicious metaphors. It is difficult to choose just one example, but “Fever” offers, “You breathe so lightly, purr, as if your lungs are making music…”
Taken as a whole, this is a strong collection worthy of the accolades it has amassed. The poet has taken us on a natural journey from youthfulness to adulthood in a compact volume, whetting our appetite for his future collections.