2012, Building Matilda, Canute explains, Da capo, Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, Misadventure, Picador, Picador Poetry Prize, poem, poems, Poetry, review, Richard Meier, The Fall of Rome, verse
Cleaning the roof of my narrowboat one morning, I slipped and cartwheeled into the Thames. Despite my love of rivers, I can barely swim and, clawing between the eider-down of silt and the surface, I was as certain as I have ever been about anything that this was it. The cold and the shock muffled my cries and, with my new perspective on the world, eyes struggling even for a view of a surface which now felt impossibly high, I felt the tug of the underworld. My mind was calm. Buses were rumbling over the bridge above while, below, I was drowning. How suddenly the day had shifted from domestic banality to this struggle! Later, my girlfriend would return from town and I would be gone. Feet planted on the riverbed, I knew I had one chance to get a grip on myself, kicked up, arched my back and did my best to relax.
In Misadventure, Richard Meier subverts expectations gloriously; nothing is what it seems and humour and darkness wait in attendance. In Canute explains, Meier plays with his reader’s previous knowledge of a king who taught his flatterers a lesson by demonstrating his inability to control the incoming tide. Yet Meier’s dramatic monologue presents a king who has a habit of throwing in asides which force us to read him as a tactless, heartless clot and not the wise king recorded by posterity: ‘Much later though, in Rome / (what a place! warm for one thing – / the Pope himself had asked / me there) and some way through / not so much a conversion, / more a kind of becoming, I wrote that letter home – ‘To the English people’: / apologising for all / the wars and shortages, / the maiming and the rape, / for the galaxy of taxes. / Everyone loved me then’. Meier’s humour is underplayed as the Danish Canute talks about the weather like a British tourist returning to the office after a package holiday, slipping in the fact that it was the Pope who had invited him with middle class self-consciousness. Meier uses this human vulnerability to squeeze even more horror out of the casual, systematic brutality so casually slotted into the banality like a twenty-first century My Last Duchess. The end of the poem presents a despot looking either for renewal, or oblivion in the rinsing rain. ‘But how to make that last? // Just once I managed it: / that notorious morning / throned there on the beach / as if to show those toadying / noblemen my limits / or else how I was sure / the tide would stop, that I, / Canute, could command the world … // when all I wanted was this: to prove myself / alive – to feel, in front / of witnesses, the water / rise, to embrace its cold, / to be above nothing, / level with the sea – ‘.
In the title poem, Misadventure, Meier’s everyman is easy to like. ‘Nothing again to show for his week’s work / he rises early on the Saturday vowing / I will achieve one thing today / and drives up to the plant-hire by the station.’ We all feel, like Auden’s unimportant clerk from The Fall of Rome, like defacing an official form with ‘I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK‘ and, across the world, men take solace in their sheds and with their privet hedges. With his pressure hose, the man ‘draws // a line so clean, so neat, from one side to / the other, he’s a Moses’ and it would be easy to view the sentiment as hyperbole. However, anyone who thinks this has never experienced the glories of DIY, glories which leave the puniest of men feeling like an alpha male, no matter how fleetingly. Yet, as the water soaks into his clothes, a wave of weariness reminiscent of Macbeth’s returning were as tedious as to go o’er overcomes him and ‘he places / the nozzle in his mouth and pulls the trigger’.
Yet despite the darkness at the heart of this collection, it offers a direct, honest presentation of life, especially the lives of men. Meier’s sequence, Building Matilda, is the bloke’s take on IVF, the word ‘building’ presenting the miracle of life as another one of Kevin McCloud’s grand designs produced with the helping inspiration of a couple of jazz mags.
Richard Meier sees the beauty of the everyday and in Da capo, the final poem in the collection, ”That’s strange’, I’ll think, some afternoons / and make to turn off the bathroom light / I’m all but sure I’ve not left on, // only to catch, for the umpteenth time, / the frosted windows splintering sunlight / like it’s hitting water’. At one level, the splinters and hitting make this into a violent image but perhaps the point’s the transformation of the intangible into the acutely physical. Besides, there’s a darkness in everything: the Thames is a beautiful body of water but she holds secrets. Misadventure is an assured first collection and in their simplicity and restraint, Meier’s words find power.