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Steve Spence

"HAP: Understudies of Thomas Wyatt’s Petrarch" by Robert Sheppard, pub. Knives, Forks and Spoons Press   23 pages   £6.50

It’s not uncommon for contemporary poets to rework material from past ages, Peter Hughes adapting Petrarch’s sonnets, for example, or Philip Terry and Alan Baker taking Dante as their starting point, or guide, in an exploration of current themes. Robert Sheppard has arguably gone a step further with this wonderfully short set of satirical squibs, taking Thomas Wyatt’s poems based on Petrarch (Wyatt has the reputation of having introduced the sonnet into English Literature) as a means of commenting upon Brexit and its surrounding chaos, infusing the ‘spy state’ of Henry VIII’s reign into the here and now, with a witty mix of registers and intended confusions. These are sharp, spiky, satirical poems, full of scatological verve and menacing bite, meat to Sheppard’s scathing pen, great fun to read, fully appropriate to the dark-age we now seem to be on the brink of living through. Sheppard is a critical poet, left-leaning, humane and searching for some moral guide in the face of a collapse into chaos and fearful uncertainty, yet there is enough creative brio in this short collection to keep the spirits up and the laughter bubbling over with his mix of caustic erudition and popular scatology.

Most of the pieces here are based upon actual poems reworked by Wyatt from Petrarch plus a few of Sheppard’s additional sonnets which surround the grouping. In the opening piece ‘Perhaps a Mishap’ he encapsulates his method – ‘Inside a poem is another poem; inside that another.’ – while including references to the SS and throwing out conflicting imagery which is darkly suggestive of the competing forces at work in the world and mixing high art (the lofty sonnet) with a much more ‘grubbily colourful’ interjection. ‘You hate the poem, its logic, its symmetries. / Somewhere, someone is giving birth on an oily rag.’  HAP is full of such arresting juxtapositions, centred around a twenty first century Thomas Wyatt commenting upon the ‘Tudor Court’ of today with its charlatan politicians and inept blunderings, spiced-up with sexual peccadillos, torturous behaviours and a deep sense of something not being right in the state of ‘Brexit’:

          Hap 6

          Caesar, when that the traytor of Egipt

          Theresa, when grasped by the tiny hand of the tyrant,
          presented on a plate the guts of the NHS, and smiled,
          as his long red tie tickled his glans, though she sweated
          beneath a grand’s worth of leather trousers, unaroused.

          I jetted trans-Alpine to our ‘European Allies’ with friable promise.
          If only I could rope Remoaner Reginald Pole to the pole,
          slop inflammable beard palm over his hipster bush, my eyes
          watering at the garlicky aroma of barbequed traitor, and

          disgorge my stomach as he blisters! Duplicitous spider am I:
          her fake furs and my fake news brushed smooth and receptive
          to time and season, de-briefing, and briefing, on fake leather couches.

          No other way to say this, so I don’t: We must quit loving!
          She grabs me by the man-pussy and I roll over into deceit’s
          thick web: I’ll tell anything, promise everything.

 

You can see from the above, how the quoted line from Wyatt suggests the basis of a narrative in the present, a common enough method in contemporary poetry, particular that with the formal qualities of ‘the sonnet’. The mixing of colloquial language in current usage with references to the Tudor State (‘spider’, with its immediate evocation plus the suggestion of a web and thus an intricate and all-reaching spy network) hints at both anachronism and continuity and while the brutal methods of torture may no longer be evident in the British state (so far as we know!) they haven’t disappeared from the world and are still implicit in the fallout of colonialism. The gaudy, scatological references to Trump are both a source of humour and of appalled fascination, while the ‘grand’s worth of leather trousers, unaroused’ evokes a whole array of possibilities and is also very funny. The double-entendres (de-briefing, and briefing) adds a comic richness to the whole as does the play between ‘fake news’ and ‘fake leather couches’.

The final poem ‘Hap Hazard’ (April 1917) brings the discourse reasonably up-to-date in terms of the last election though events in ‘the real world’ are happening (unravelling?) so quickly now as to make contemporaneity something of an impossibility in a poem. This poem is typically full of wit, discoursing on its own construction (‘Wobbling, he’ll only live for six more English lines.’) and placing its artificiality firmly in the tradition of Petrarch and Wyatt as commented upon by Sheppard. It’s a skilful mix of entertainment and provocation, art as politics, with literature and history meshing in a collective imagining which is mired in the sordid and the banal and the here and now and then and there:

          Hap Hazard

          This poem is the un-perished part of another,
          and behind that, the other poem, the one in foreign,
          as behind Theresa May there squats the succubus
          of Thatcher, donning the rubber mask of Englishness.

          From east to west Wyatt charges on his Harley;
          from brunette to blond he changes his like to true Anglo,
          thundering sparkplugs and sparkling blue eyes.
          Wobbling, he’ll only live for six more English lines.

          His pen admonishes the knaves of Kent, caught dallying
          with ‘lactating maids’ at Maidstone. In plaintive woe,
          he issues this feverish prophesy of his unquiet mind:

          ‘They’re all struck dumb by May’s lightning election call:
          Corbyn at stool, Boris mid-bullying, his Bullingdon bull,
          all her enemies routed in one swift English retreat.’

It’s a rollicking good read where questions of ‘Englishness’ are subtly intertwined with pornographic imagery and devastating political acuity. Sheppard revels in language, delighting in all the ‘tricks’ and wordplays which poetry is capable of while keeping his eye firmly on the ball. The bathos of that last stanza is hilariously funny while also being spot on as a description of the dire mess we are rapidly disintegrating in.                 

 

 
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018