Neil Rollinson has published three collections of poetry before Talking Dead, and is a past recipient of a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors. He has also garnered a reputation for being polemical. His case is arguably quite similar to that of Henry Miller, who is often misinterpreted as a misogynist purveyor of smut. However, Miller’s novels and Rollinson’s poetry are more accurately a ribald celebration of life.
In Talking Dead, celebration takes on quite a dialectic nature. The life-affirming aspects of Rollinson’s verse are predominantly corporeal. In particular his use of gastric imagery such as “you look delicious in your new black bra” in “Christmas in Andalucia”, or
laid in the grass like a serviette
in “Picnic” confirm that Rollinson’s verse is poetry of the appetite. While ostensibly sexual, appetite is also a passion for life. At the same time, the moments when Rollinson’s characters are most alive is when they are closest to death or have just died. This is most evident in the “Talking Dead” poems “Blackbird” and “Head-Shot”:
I’d do it again, and again. Yes.
Shoot me again. Oh, shoot me again.
By dying, the characters transcend themselves and, for that split second, are more alive than when they were living.
The combination of sexuality and the death-drive is of course Freudian, as is the collection’s supposed fascination with the phallus. Is it phallocentric? Yes and no. There is no reification of the phallus, except when sexuality is represented as life-affirming – and in that case, equivalent power is also attributed to the female genitalia:
She moans as you slap her arse,
you grunt as her muscles milk you.
It is true that this passage is quite racy. It is also true that slapping is an act of dominance. However, muscle implies strength, which is emphasised by the act of milking. In it, the male is rendered passive, an entity to be enjoyed at the female’s leisure. It is not so much an instance of “Lad culture” than a Manichean struggle.
Another point is that, despite the appetite expressed in these poems, there is a sense of dissociation. Many mention heat, which may be associated with sexual passion. Paradoxically, this heat is often quite frigid, such as in “Evening in Axarquía”. The oxymoronic dynamic between life and death is what gives Rollison’s poetry its forcefulness.
Incidentally, excessive forcefulness is what might prove to be Talking Dead’s downfall. Some of the poems’ intentions seem somewhat equivocal, which leaves them open to the criticism that they are contentious for the sake of being confrontational. Bearing in mind the subtle power relations between men and women, this is not a major flaw. Furthermore, the collection is not purely a tempest of unbridled passion. “Antonio Machado: Night” is especially mindful of the necessity for pauses. Its music, to paraphrase Mozart, is contained in the silence between the words.
The strong emphasis on physicality means that Talking Dead is not for everyone, but in the end, the collection manages to effectively juggle more existential topics with common sense. The last three lines of “Foal”, illustrate this beautifully:
It could be the answer to everything,
Or maybe it’s simply – look, I’m a horse,
The air is sweet, and the grass is good.
While thought exercises and existential musing may be desirable at times, the best aspects of life are often taken for granted and thus overlooked. Life is a serious matter, but that does not mean it must always be grave. Considering the title of the collection, the mushroom Craterellus cornucopioides, colloquially known as “Horn of Plenty” or “Trumpet of the Dead” might have made for a more fitting cover; nevertheless, Rollinson’s verse is a helpful reminder that even the inviting innuendo of Phallus Impudicus does not change the fact that mushrooms are quintessentially autochthonous.