This was originally published at http://www.lancashirewritinghub.co.uk/2011/03/ghosts-of-a-low-moon-andrew-oldham/
Andrew Oldham’s debut, Ghosts of a Low Moon (Lapwing, Belfast), is an ambitious, extensive and surreal collection of dreams, childhood memories and strange, fractured love affairs, which culminates in a tragic-comic journey through modern America.
The first part of the collection fluctuates mainly between loneliness – as in Rejects Corner, Costa Coffee Girl and The Angry Man, whose eponymous recluse scowls “out of high windows/and giving the finger /to anyone who looks up, looks away” – and fragments of romances in which love is secretive, mystic and often doomed to failure.
In The Pearl Fisher, love is as hard to find as the pearls of the title, and the boys who dive for the “sealed oyster shells” and for “dreams of pink open flesh” return with nothing more than the detritus of “empty, broken bottles.”
It is not only love itself, but the experience of love that is often distant in these poems. The fragments of the relationship in It’s Snowing Way Down in Mexico are seemingly so secret and abstruse that one reads the poem with a sense of having stumbled in on private moments that are at once moving, unsettling and ultimately quite sad in their distance from us. These are other people’s lives, other people’s stories. The references are meaningless to us. They are, in fact, only poetry.
“you take the screwtop from the bottle
pour the coke onto the hotel carpet
leave talcum powder footprints in the flowers
as you look for the ghosts in the bathtub.”
For Oldham, love is a fragile thing, as unstable as the worlds in the poems themselves, which precariously straddle dream and reality. So that in The Ruins of Holyrood Castle and The Grotto, even though there is a “You” and an “I”, there is no less mystery.
“You step into a fairy circle, dance in the long
Meadow grass, capture pollen and bees in the folds of
Your linen dress…”
“Instead of lovers turning to each other with flames
You turn to me and say that it looks like a witch’s [sic] coven,
We laugh and for a moment we shine.”
Yet, for me, the most accomplished of the collection are those that take their time to develop, particularly the poems about childhood, which are as comical as they are thoughtful. Oldham handles nostalgia with skill and uses its naturally attendant sense of sadness at the loss of youth to overweigh any sentimentality.
In When We Were Kids We Bombed, pop music is not so much a feel-good soundtrack as a reminder of a much simpler past that can never be regained, or, more likely, never existed at all –
“And nothing will keep back the summers, not TV, not Billy Joel,
not Kim Wilde,
not The Jam because each season outruns us..”
In These Walls, the narrator recalls how a home-made aeroplane disappears over the neighbour’s wall and into the washing line resulting in
“…balsa in the knickers of my first crush.
Her name conjures up sunloungers, balding lawns…”
And in I Have Stuck a Stone Up My Nose, Mother, there is a similar stirring together of humour and sadness –
“I have stuck a stone up my nose, mother.
No bigger than my nail; no greater
Than the distance between us now.”
The second part of the collection, American Vignettes – although hinted at in poems such as Ghosts of a Low Moon and Shivering Mountain – is something of a departure from the first in terms of its style and focus.
The 28 ‘vignettes’ themselves work like a road trip, and there is an unmistakable homage to The Beats here that Oldham acknowledges with a send up in The ghost of Ginsberg –
“America! America! Nightmare of America! America the lost!
America the lewd!”
Yet the parody is not without a grain of truth. The America in Oldham’s poems is nightmarish and grotesque. Its potentially beautiful geographical landscapes are often hidden away behind the much more alienating human world with its ruined gamblers who “can’t even afford a buck dollar for a margarita.” and its hick-town soullessness – “Primm, we watched gore on the television / overweight gamblers taught us poker / sat at the slots and the few tables. There were no cheers as in Vegas.”
Oldham is intent on peeling back the plastic facade of American culture. Cannery Row, he says, “isn’t the place of Steinbeck’s fiction / it’s corporate logos and businesses with patrons…” And in San Francisco there is an “overkill of Kerouac and cable cars.”
Film stars are de-glamorised and revealed to be as shallow as the Hearst Castle swimming pool that they liked “because they couldn’t swim”. Folk heroes are reduced to “ghosts of the West”.
“I have seen the skeleton of America,
You can see the bleached bones in Arizona
Where cowboys still roam around campfires singing Hank Williams.”
Through the eye of the outsider, America is a Bosch-like garden of earthly delights – intoxicating, alien, savage and beautiful. Its decrepitude is what fascinates.
Ghosts of a Low Moon, is a collection that needs a serious investment of time to appreciate the full scope and depth, not only of its themes and settings but of its styles and tenors. It is an ambitious, skilful poet than can range through love, childhood, Costa Coffee and Las Vegas and find a common thread of human suffering.
Andrew Oldham will be appearing at Word Soup on July 28th 2011 at The Continental in Preston, with Ian Parks, as part of their Lapwing tour.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or check the LWH website nearer the time for further details.