“This child will meet God
Not on account of a malfunctioned organ
but an elephantine skull
unladen of burden.”
Stephen Watt’s Optograms is a harrowing and enigmatic collection of poems which combines an anarchic use of language (no doubt derived from Watt’s obsession with John Cooper Clarke and other punk writers) with shattered visions of the everyday.
Each poem is concerned with the death of an individual, some known to the writer, some not. The word “Optogram” itself refers to an image on the retina of the eye. It was widely believed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the eye “recorded” the last image seen before death, and the idea is still pervasive within certain films and pieces of literature to this day.
Unsurprisingly, death pervades this collection. Most of the pieces are bereavements – recalling the deceased through the bitter signs of their demise – needles, clothes on a mannequin. In “Digits”, a man murders a woman. Yet neither body is present: “CCTV hindsight turns him into a pronoun”; “her texture is pariah”; and the poem ends on “an innocent admirer’s phone number” which “lies sealed inside a police production bag.”
By tracing each death through these spaces, these signs, Watt creates surreal vignettes characterized by a constantly shifting perspective. The vision is not that of a camera lens, nor a painting – it is a kaleidoscope, comprised of sentences that zoom in and out, circling an unspoken and unresolved sorrow.
The strongest poems in this collection are sonorous, rhythmic pieces bristling with internal rhymes. “Trouble was Someone Else’s Kids” is dense with expertly crafted sound patterns and vibrant images, a poem which would work well read aloud. From the first line “Trouble was someone else’s kids./ We moved in shadows, kept the lid/ on” … to the nested echoes of “Other neighbourhoods sizzled/ with pyromaniacs and politics,/ alcoholics who played tin whistles/ when Di and Charles got hitched” – the singsong pattern of constantly rhyming words captures the merry go round feel of childhood.
Others hint at urban vistas or infamous lives – going so far as to invoke the elephant man, eulogize a holocaust victim, touch on slavery. Whilst beautifully written, these poems do not work quite as well – particularly when the subject matter feels forced. Watt’s Optograms work best when they are formed of specific scenes and images which represent the departed. In “Goldfish” for example, Watt writes “Half the cards cannot even spell ‘condolences’” and “The long, black car door lies open,/ like the abyss”. The mundanity of death is packed into a poem as tightly wound as a clenched fist. There are moments here and there which could be tightened slightly. But as a whole, the best poems – “Taxoplasmosis”; “Prayers to Aliens and Satellites”; “Trouble was someone else’s kids”; “Strangeways” – paint surreal and shattered images of a place, a person who was real to the writer.
“Your Clothes Are Hanging in the Charity Shop Window” is one of the strongest concepts – the language is sparse, marrying images of the everyday (“Noddy’s constant glam jamboree”) with the corporeal, “a thick gloop of saliva”, “the baby’s bib”. Gradually, the images of the deceased body reduce, leaving only clothes in a charity shop window, a mannequin. This conceit, and the gradual pulling away of the imagery makes for a striking poem, with a terrible sense of loss unfurling at its center.
“Prayers to Aliens and Satellites” showcases a different style – markedly punk with its “Corpuscular streetlight” and “bloodless, xylophonic fingers”. In this intriguing piece tracing the death of a homeless person, all of the other people are machines in a world which has been forged in a multitude of dimensions. The piece is dreamlike and bitter, a surreal journey through a nightmarish high street.
A few things in this collection are denied to the reader. The first is a voice which develops throughout the book – there are only two or three moments where it feels as if the speaker is part of the world the poems are presenting. A few poems feel beautiful for beauty’s sake, especially the poem tracing the murder of a young woman – the language was beautiful, but the poem did not seem to make anything out of the scene, or transcend its images. Even considered within the collection, this piece – as well as the “Little Girl Picking Flowers at Auschvitz II Birkenau (1990)” and “Torch the Slave Flags” did not feel authentic, or necessary.
The inclusion of a phone number with every poem – linking to the helplines for a number of charities offering support to rape victims, Amnesty International, the national bullying helpline, amongst many others – added a very real facet to a collection which refrained from offering any didactic tone within its poems. This was an interesting touch – poetry should indeed exist within the world as means of coming to terms with death, love, loss, existence; and the more tangible its effect, the better in some ways. Yet it was still an uncomfortable fit – between pieces which, in places, were so aesthetically focused and did not comment or properly represent the issues they were linked to.
Never mind. The collection as a whole is a strong one, and there are more than a few brilliant poems tucked in to Optograms. Watt is a talented poet. In the future it would be great to see a development throughout the collection, some variation – particularly with the tone of voice, the speaker, and the structure – and perhaps some relief. Isn’t comedy, according to the lately departed Umberto Eco, the “quintessential human reaction to the fear of death?” Equally, a greater sense of place would help ground the work – and more play with accent, language, particularly words endemic to the West coast of Scotland, would help to strengthen a voice which is intense, but not quite as distinctive as it could be.
For those readers interested in hearing more from Watt, I have it on good authority that he graces many a spoken word night in Glasgow, and beyond. Get yourself to a night, or at least buy his collection. It is a beautiful one.
Reviewer : Charlotte Morgan
An Interview with Stephen Watt
The Mumble : What are the origins of the collection, did it come out as a whole or is it a later assembling of constituent parts
Stephen : The book derived from the concept of addressing a number of social issues which often affect the west of Scotland, but not exclusively. I decided that it would be a collection with minimal humour due to the often-distressing subjects which deserved reverence and sincerity. The poems were inspired by photographs, films, paintings, books, and current affairs, occasionally producing Ekphrastic poems which breathe new meaning and stories into the bones of their original art forms. There were only a small number of poems that I would consider to be personal, but at the launch I opted to read those ones as audiences are quick to garner honesty and whether or not the poet has a genuine attachment to the subject they are talking about.
The Mumble : What got you into Ekphrastic poetry & how has it affected your poetry
Stephen : I wouldn’t say it has affected my poetry. I’m writing a lot of gothic stuff just now which was inspired by [Mary] Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’, but I recognised that due to a number of issues I was addressing in Optograms being out with my lifestyle that to create that passion and honesty, I had to tap into other art forms (ie Trainspotting / drug addiction, photograph of a Nazi concentration camp / modern day genocide in Rwanda) as a catalyst for producing a poem of sincerity
The Mumble : Your poems are all accompanied by help-line phone numbers – can you tell us more about this
Stephen : A number of exceptional poets are able to provide good advice, strong opinions, or demonstrate moral worth in their writing. I’m not really that type. I like story-telling, then leaving the reader to make their own mind up. The help-lines are, in a skewered way, my way of providing a solution – an alternative choice to the stark poem which I’ve presented – and of course tries to relate to minority groups who may otherwise feel detached from the rest of society.
The Mumble : And finally, Stephen, which of the poems from Optograms give you the most satisfaction both as a poet & as a reader
Stephen : I would probably opt for ‘Umbrella Knighthood’, a personal poem about my gran who I lost six years ago. She was in a care home living with dementia and a truly special lady in my life. That said, I was fascinated by the Strangeways prison riot in 1990 and I feel that the poem ‘Strangeways’ consummates the anarchic side of me which is compressed most of the time. I genuinely sympathised with Paul Taylor’s case when the prison was housing three prisoners to a cell at times and not catering for basic sanitary needs for others, and it was fascinating reading about the public’s perception of these men, these criminals, and what their human rights were.