Annie Freud – Picador Poetry
One would expect the title poem of a collection to have some wallop behind it. But Annie Freud’s starts with a dull clunk - “A young poet visits an older poet” - and then tramples through six thudding, unrhymed couplets to a dreary banality: “… every day for the rest of her life”.
Blurb can rarely be trusted and the back cover claims for The Mirabelles certainly qualify as misleading advertising. “The most gripping account of a billiards game you’ll ever read” turns out in “The Peculiar Clucking that Indicates Regret” to be an exhibition match totally devoid of any tension or excitement that plods along with a bit of jargon here and there to the grand finale of the last line: “That ended the most brilliant display of the game”. A pity the same cannot be said for the previous three pages of prose-poetry at its poorest. Poor prose and poorer poetry.
This obviously has something to do with Freud’s purported “boldly unfashionable lack of irony”. This is euphemistic for “blunt”. Nobody refuses something off the back of a lorry so I suppose the almost cruel delight in finding and then plucking a “pheasant dead on the road … her body is warm” can pass as brutal honesty. There is a suggestion of gluttony since this delicacy joins “chipolatas, chops and cheese” (my goodness, the lady knows about alliteration). Yet a few pages later we come to “Christmas Poem”, where a shot partridge is shoved through a letterbox – and my doubts that Freud is short on compassion are confirmed. Inasmuch, all Freud’s apparent matter-of-factness (“especially in these times”, “scrape the barrel”) ends up as a mere pose.
It happens that I live in Verona and know Monte Baldo (page 21) extremely well – but I can’t for the life of me grasp the connection between the content of this poem and the title. Nothing in it brings Monte Baldo to mind at all. This is another characteristic of the book - a taste for non sequiturs (not to mention fashionably long and flippant titles) that ultimately becomes extremely irritating.
It is also extremely middle class, smug and complacent. “The Actual Pronunciations” – one of the poems inspired by family letters that the blurb insists “are profoundly moving and startling” – is a catalogue of consumerism and selfishness, stuffed full of wine and food but, sadly, absolutely no song. It is limp and very, very boring.
It is also an ugly book, typographically speaking. Curiously, the poem with the longest lines has the shortest title - “Ute” - but had to be set in a smaller font to get it on the page. Possibly better than being spread-eagled over two pages with indents to indicate non-breaking lines and consequently lots of jagged white space but the horrible visual clash is very amateurish, nevertheless. “Ute” has yet another lip-licking catalogue of “food, jars of honey, eggs and flowers” alongside “concentration camps” and “the upstart Hitler” but reminds me of the first flying machines: try as hard as it will, it never quite gets off the ground and succeeds only in falling flat on its face. The description of Ute is chock full of information that could become a fine portrait but it is, instead, prosaic and – sorry to repeat myself – dreary. It is plain, obvious, humdrum – an attempt at irony that, in failing, is worse than merely being blunt.
“Thunder in the Middle of the Lake” is also set in a smaller font and its two three-line stanzas have very twee gaps in the “middle” of the first line and the first two lines respectively - presumably an effort at visual poetry, that rears its stale head again in the poem opposite.
There’s also a certain pretentiousness; I have no commiseration for the person in bed after eating a “rather nasty omelette, / eggs being the only provender in the house” as the closing lines to a discussion of Desdemona and “the cry of all women / all over the world” (all-all and other such repetition is another cause of the generally leaden rhythms of the collection). Something also comes across as very patronising – a determination to funnel as much as possible into certain poems for the sake of impact and cleverness, showing off and demanding applause for such bravado. There is a hollow, empty ring to it. A castle of playing cards that the mere whiff of critically turning the pages blows flat. It is the malaise of creative writing courses, degrees and departments where the bicycle pumps of reciprocal back-patting generate a lot of air yet very little real substance.
Carrots, melting beef, tarte Tatin – there’s an obsession with food here and “The Case of the Egyptologist’s Honey-Pot” manages to combine this and many of the other faults in this collection: mind-boggling non sequiturs, long lines set in a smaller font, prose masquerading as poetry while being neither one nor the other, unjustified length and sheer boredom.
There’s all the flippancy that seems to be so much in vogue these days. While I quite like “inexplicable human gorgeousness”, it is one of the few phrases to rise above the general, corny dullness. Whoever wrote “exhilarating cornucopia” for the blurb surely read another book.
Which brings me to other blurb, this time from the Poetry Book Society Winter 2010 Bulletin. In the listing for the TS Eliot Prize 2009 (page 20, which is surely a typo, corrected as 2010 in the first paragraph), we learn that Annie is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud and daughter of painter Lucian Freud –we probably suspected that since it’s not such a common surname. Yet they simply couldn’t resist throwing in the info that her maternal grandfather was Sir Jacob Epstein. You can’t help having suspicions, can you?