‘I am long and pink. At first I am hard but, when you bang me, I go soft’.* I suppose I’d asked for this: my class was studying Sylvia Plath’s Mirror and I’d started with a few fruity Anglo-Saxon examples to grab their attention before asking them to write their own. The student who crafted this memorable little beauty had her peers rocking in their chairs with disgust and laughter. One way or another, our bodies polarize and provoke us.
In the manner of George Herbert‘s The Temple, Kevin Reid’s Body Voices offers the reader a tour through the human body. In Mouth, Reid presents us with the affront of ageing: ‘With bones showing, / their costumes worn and stained, / and no longer dazzling the crowd / with their full frontal performance, / the senescent cast hangs / rigid from the receding heavens / and lie rotting in the stalls’. Dental whitening’s carbamide peroxide promotes the West Coast fantasy of the sterile, upgradeable body, as if we were designed in and shipped from Cupertino, shiny, glossy and new. However, Reid’s substitution of desiccated and decomposing ‘bones’ for teeth reads like John Webster. There’s a consistent note of disgust throughout the poem: Reid’s pun on ‘plaque winner’ introduces stench and decay to an imagined black tie dinner. The poem’s final couplet is obscene and outrageous: ‘However, my tongue can be a prick, / “Fuckin’ this and fuckin’ that…”‘ and captures something of the spirit of John Donne’s To His Mistress Going to Bed. In fact, Donne was often in my mind reading this collection. His relationship with the body was a troubled one and he described it in his Sermons as ‘dust held together by plaisters’.
It’s fitting that the collection ends with Hair. The complexities of bodily resurrection plagued Donne. How, for example, could God achieve this miracle if a traveller lost ‘an Arme in the East, and a leg in the West’? And what about the hair cut from a head through a lifetime? Reid’s lines are pitifully short: ‘In death / coarse / grey / thin / and white. // In death we part’ but, even here, the collection’s irrepressible double entendres and puns just won’t stop: ‘Death, thou shalt die’.
This is an exuberant and playful collection, loaded with ideas and internal rhymes. Reid’s recent collaboration with George Szirtes, >erasure, marks him out as someone to watch.