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Alan Baker

"Lowdeine Chronicles" by Nick Power and Andrew Taylor, pub. Erbacce Press. 96pp.

Two poets high on codeine, both from Liverpool, both listening, in their intoxicated state, to Bowie’s “Low”; or maybe two poets intoxicated by language, riffing off each other’s words and producing an inventive and fast-paced sequence in which their styles blend into a single writerly identity. This is contemporary Beat poetry, close to song lyric at times, but acknowledging a heritage encompassing, among others, George Perec, Jack Kerouac and Thomas A Clark. Nick Power is a song writer for The Coral and some of these poems have the immediacy of song lyrics, perhaps because Power has learned from his song-writing how to connect directly to an audience (many of these poems would work well in performance).

Each of the two poets provides a foreword in which they describe the circumstances which led them to take codeine for pain relief and how, as a result of the camaraderie around this, they shared their enthusiasm for “Low” and headed into this collaborative work. The poetry is international in flavour, as are the influences brought to bear on it, with locations including France and Berlin (where "Low" was recorded), and there are references to American and European writers. But this collection is by no means literary - the allusions are lightly done and the emphasis in the poetry is on spontaneity and the recording of immediate sensations and experiences.

As separate writers, Taylor and Power have distinctive styles, but they’re close enough that, in this book, they form a third style which is a merging of the two. The concerns and subject-matter of the poetry are shared by both writers - the hallucinatory effects of codeine and fever, travel, urban landscapes and most importantly, music - Bowie’s work being the prime focus of, and inspiration for the poems, especially the lyrics of “Low” and the eerie instrumentals on 'side 2' of that album. The book combines two types of writing - poems of the self, expressing exhaustion or the effects of sleeplessness or drugs, or just exasperation at a life of travel and work, alongside calm, impersonal poems of observation and naming. An example of how these two aspects complement each other can be found by comparing the poem ‘The Face of January’ with a poem a few pages later titled  'Cedez le Passage'. The first poem invokes a deity referred to as

          The face of January is the
          kite of a mother
          nobody spared a morphine pellet
                    for

The sinister figure of 'Silent Bill' also appears in this poem. They’re figures out of drug-induced nightmare and seem to be a personification of some unnamed guilt.  This poem is followed two pages later by 'Cedez le Passage'. This short, compressed piece is a quiet description of stopping at a service station, refilling water bottles and finding some shade. Here’s the poem in full:

          Cedez le Passage

          Fill empty water bottles
          at every opportunity
          like waggon drivers
          at service areas

          It makes sense to break
          often and disrupt flow
          the A85 north sign blue
          in essentialness

          Depts. 35 29 49 evidence
          of coastal shift

          take the shade

This could simply be about stopping on a long drive, but it could be about much more - the light touch of 'evidence / of coastal shift' beckons towards much larger concerns and a greater geography beyond immediate perceptions. This changing of gear (between the two poems above) is a key feature of the collection and what makes its ninety-six pages so readable and varied.

Bowie's "Low", while it has upbeat rhythms in the first few tracks, is disturbed and disturbing music, composed in the bleakness of Soviet-era Berlin and drawing on JG Ballard's “Crash” ('Always Crashing in the Same Car') and the works of Alistair Crowley. In “Lowdeine” we have explicit references to “Low”, as well as that other Berlin-trilogy album “Heroes” (the poem 'Neuköln, Autumntime' referencing the track 'Neuköln')  and overall the book has the same feel as those two albums, especially “Low”; a looking-back to a period of drug-use and difficult times from a place of urban sanctuary; in Bowie's case Berlin, in “Lowdeine”’s case Liverpool, Nottingham, various A-roads and autobahns, and Sheffield - in the poem 'Meadowhall Interchange' the speaker emerges from a 24-hour cafe:

          as I came up from the painkillers -
          the sudden inexplicable feeling
          that everything would
          be alright

The production of the book has a rough-and-ready feel (the poem titles on opposing pages don’t line up, and the page numbers appear at the top of the page) which, while it might not work for all poetry, fits this collection well, and gives it a samizdat feel. There are prose poems, prose narratives (including a weirdly surreal story about Elvis Presley), romantic-era invocations (‘Morphine Prayer’, In Praise of Codeine’), humour and satire. The poems echo the upbeat rhythms of the early tracks of “Low” in a poem like “I am The Champion Spark Plug”, while the slower, more measured pieces invoke tracks like the Philip Glass-inspired “Weeping Wall”; listening to that track while reading a poem like ‘Kodeine (for Stephen Emmerson)’ is a dizzying experience, as the insistent pulse of the music merges with the short lines of the poem with its hallucinatory imagery. There's also playfulness and humour in this book - some of the poem titles are gems:

          Andrew Taylor's Appendix
          I am the Champoin Spark Plug
          In the Swirling Dregs of Life There is Nectar

Another aspect of “Lowdeine” is its commentary on illness and its effects:

          I’ve always come out of illness a different person. It changes me is what I’m saying. A sense like           the Holy Ghost himself might’ve somehow passed through my bones and crawled back into the           immersion heater. An exaltation.

(From ‘Back Among The Somnambulists’)

This religious imagery of this last quotation, while unusually explicit in this case, is another feature of the poems, although it’s generally of the type found in Blues songs, just as the language of some of the poems has a bluesy feel:

          O Grace
          O Grace, please don’t tell me
          that it’s true
          there are people much worse off than me or you

(from ‘Distant Star’)

The ghost of Bowie stalks this collection, or, as Taylor says in his foreword, talking about “Low”:

          The light, Side 2, and the thought of a near miss with the album's creator backstage at a Tin           Machine gig at Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre...

This homage to “Low” (an album with a running time of only 39 minutes) is a sprawling collection, engaging and full of variety, mixing poetic forms and linguistic registers, but somehow sticking throughout with its primary focus on the music of David Bowie and the effects of codeine.

 

 
Copyright © Alan Baker, 2019