THE SONG OF LUNCH
CB Editions, 2009
Why do I like this book so much? I even like the look of it. I think it’s the colour (a brown-paper-bag sort of colour) and the shape, narrower than the norm. It compliments Reid’s short lines. Each page is a new beginning, with a scrolly initial letter, so really there are sixty-four sections making up one poem.
Once I start reading it, I can’t stop. You just know it is going to turn out badly. I love the title, the concept is clever and simple and then there is the language. It concerns just one lunch, a reunion meeting of an ageing, cynical ‘self-deceiving, touchy, puffed-up’ copy editor and his ex at a Soho restaurant that was an old haunt of theirs. They meet, greet and eat and he gets drunk.
His glass is drained,/ hers is barely touched. /Judiciously, he brings/ the level level. It’s that level level and the judiciously. The conversation between the two flows and fractures as he, becoming more sozzled, records all. In this tale of failure, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is played out in a sad-funny way.
With years of experience as an ageing and cynical copy editor, I am familiar with this scene. All-afternoon Soho publishing lunches have since been replaced by the sandwich at the desk, filtered water and, if there’s time, a brisk run. (Confessions of a Copy Editor, chapter 93./ It’s an ordinary day/ in a publishing house/ of ill repute./ Another moronic manuscript comes crashing down the chute to be turned into art.) Restaurants and food are among my hobbies — I was The Dominion’s first-ever restaurant critic — and if I could write like Christopher R I’d give the subject a crack. He describes …parmesan shaved/ from a nubbly, fulvous block,/ a sesquipedalian peppermill waved … as the waitress raises/ and twists the head/ of the wooden phallus,/ scattering seed. Again, it’s the language: nubbly, fulvous, sesquipedalian.
The Song of Lunch ends with our man sighting the old waiter, Massimo, whose absence he had noted at the start (now a husk of life/ without sap, without savour.) Massimo is our narrator. More tasty lines:
So there exists an affinity, a strong/ mutual pull/ between wine and tongue./ They are complimentary, They are in love … They kiss;/ there’s a little death:/ an insufficient bliss, but repeatable later.
He is woken by somebody/ waking up inside him/ abruptly and roughly. After some seconds’ ugly tussle/ he identifies his assailant/ as himself …
Reid, also an editor, publisher, illustrator and essayist, was in New Zealand in July to conduct our poetry masterclass and workshop. A true renaissance man, he was until recently a professor of creative writing at the University of Hull and he runs his own London publishing house, Ondt & Gracehoper — its name plucked from Finnegans Wake.
He charmed us, inspired us and made us laugh. He workshopped, line by line, our poems written to order (in the dramatic monologue style, focusing on a lesser character from any book). I chose the dormouse in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Both source and character were so obvious there wasn’t much to workshop, but Reid noted with his little rosebud mouth that my effort was littered with puns. It was heart-breaking. He didn’t seem to like any of our poems much, except Lindsay’s take on Mr Pip, a book he had never heard of, and his newspaper clipping on the new Montana poetry winner Jenny Bornholdt and her red shed.
Reid read lovely stuff from Mr Mouth, his collection of 111 poems, which looks like a children’s book but isn’t. Mr Mouth is born in the first poem, memorialised in the last, and mouths are the subject of the whole. Faber, his then employer, turned the book down so Reid published it himself. He edited Ted Hughes’s lauded Birthday Letters(1998), poems dealing with his relationship with Sylvia Plath, and he selected and edited Ted’s Letters (2007). Hughes, he told us, enjoyed flouting rational response and good behaviour, and loved tall stories. He was a pseudo-scientist and a pseudo-mystic, who couldn’t spell and had odd punctuation, but he taught Reid a lot. ‘So many people have done the dirty on Ted.’
While Reid was at Oxford, Hughes came to read from his 1972 ‘literary phenomenon’ Crow: Crow is bloody, awful, catastrophic, dark. His reading was quiet, deep, confiding – as if Crow were a bedtime story. I was overwhelmed by his voice.
Along with fellow student Craig Raine, Reid was known for a time as an exponent of ‘Martian poetry’, which uses unusual metaphors to make the everyday unusual. He [Raine] had an extraordinary skill with metaphor and he taught me the trick. Raine wrote that stunning poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’, in which books have wings. It starts: Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings/and some are treasured for their markings –/they cause the eyes to melt /or the body to shriek without pain./ I have never seen one fly, but/ sometimes they perch on the hand.
Reid has won numerous prizes and was up for the 2009 Forward Poetry Prize for A Scattering, written along with The Song of Lunch in memory of his actress wife, Lucinda.
He starts a poem by getting the first line right, and that dictates the form. (That’s how I work. I get the idea, but it never goes anywhere until I have the first line, so he and I have so much in common!) Lightness and nimbleness are at the heart of great writing, says Reid, quoting Italo Calvino, and, the ordinary everyday stuff is what makes poetry. He is interested in inhabiting other voices (an early work, Katerina Brac, is a ‘translation’ of poems written by a fictitious woman in an unnamed country in an unnamed language). Reid wrote the entire book in a month, and received word that Susan Sontag was eager to meet Ms Brac.
At Te Papa Marae, Reid talked poetry and publishing with Bill M, who introduced him as a storyteller and satirist, witty in the best possible way. I agree and will end this lovefest with a reminder: Read More Reid.