I’ll not succumb to the radiation emanating from the cultural Chernobyl that is Disneyland Paris just because I’m a parent. It’s a lobotomy, not a rite of passage, a Stepford amnesia, not a cherished memory. Who knows whether my brood will grow up to think independently and kick against the pricks but, if not, it will not be for my want of trying. This last hols, we took them to The Natural History Museum at Tring to be stared at by a million glass eyes in Walter Rothschild’s glowering steampunk fantasy. It was there that I saw his dressed fleas. To say that these fleas are small does not even come close to conveying the diminutive stature of the critters. They’re like mustard seeds but, peering at them through a strong magnifying glass, there they were: him and her, suited, booted and strutting their stuff. They take your breath away, not least because the initial Wow! is sharply replaced by a more troublesome Why? A dressed flea, or the Great Pyramid of Giza – they’re in the same category to me: symbols of our mind-boggling, irrepressible creativity and graft.
As regular readers know, I avoid reprinting poems in full, as I want people to go forth and buy poetry books for themselves, for loved ones… for strangers on the streets. However, Richard Osmond doesn’t make things easy. Take this one, for example: ‘If my instructions have been carried out // the King of Norway / will be pictured on horseback / hunting wild boar / in the margins of this page.’ The title, ‘If my instructions have been carried out’ also forms a conditional clause which, separated from the quatrain’s statement heightens that statement’s emptiness and powerlessness. Your eye will, inevitably, savour the empty, creamy expanse of paper which comprises most of the page, imagining how it would look with the work of a Medieval illuminator nestling into a corner. In a few lines, Osmond offers the reader our whimsical capriciousness and meditates on power. It doesn’t matter who you are; you’ll get what you’re given.
Black humour and uncertainty are characteristic of the collection. Hobby opens: ‘Taking a dull pastime / to its logical conclusion, / my uncle stumped off to the potting shed / and killed himself.’ The speaker’s matter-of-fact tone signals an implicit agreement with the uncle. The poem’s third and final sentence is divided into three tercets, the final two offering us further vignettes of family life: ‘my poring over an acutely toxic / False Morel / in The Observer’s Book of Mushrooms and Toadstools, // my father bringing his gun to a high polish / less for the pheasant’s benefit / than his own.’ The single sentence suggests the dark, poisonous bond between father, son and uncle, while the stanza breaks add to the loneliness and dysfunctionality of the family. This is perverted stuff. Generally, our culture celebrates the life enriching aspects of hobbies but then again, for many, they are a way out, not a way in.
Popular culture is used to thrilling effect in poems like Freddy’s Revenge, which references the 1985 slasher movie Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge: ‘During the bloody catastrophe of Nightmare on Elm Street 2, / which broke all the rules established by the original, // she let me get to third base. Crooking my fingers / like a Barvarian priest reaching up the chimney to bless a smoked ham.’ The conflation of Freddy’s theatre of blood and nascent sexual knowledge suggests a disturbing gynophobia, despite the physical intimacy, albeit an intimacy in which the priest must thrust himself up a smelly chimney to sanctify its contents. It’s in moments like these that Osmond’s memorable turn of phrase and power to shock collide to great effect.
In Shill, Richard Osmond’s poems work like Freddy Kreueger’s iconic sweater: ‘the colours of which, he whispered, had been chosen / for their disruptive effect on the visual cortex’ and, by focusing on the small things, he achieves a huge impact on his reader.