King of Country

Howard Wright is wonderfully irreverent in his first poetry collection, writes Joanne Savage

At the end of the rainbow Howard Wright doesn’t find a pot of gold, but instead Superdrug, Xtra-vision, 'desire and fulfilment of desire / under the lazy 20:20 eye of a closed-circuit camera'. The title poem of his collection King of Country is a shattering of idealism, uncovering a chthonian, urban Ulster.

Full of ugly consumption and rude graffiti (a spotty psychopath has scrawled KATHIE IS A RIDE on a wall), there is little in this wasteland to soothe the 'rock and yawl of the heart'. A red head buys a Patsy Cline record and behind the counter a boy with cracked kneecaps – presumably the result of a punishment beating - knows his desire is hopeless:

'for he has priced himself / out of the market in this country of the lovelorn

and loveblind where the one-eyed king is god, / but less real to him than the Emo-ambient drone

of a kneeling Ulsterbus shuttling between Adshels / across this back-to-the-drawing board ‘City of the Future’

It is a powerful, despairing, razor-sharp poem about modernity’s dealing in market value and profit. Bodies become commodities, love made a superficial transaction between those ‘priced’ in the same league. More centrally it is sceptical about the rebirth of Belfast, finding it just another colossus of tarmac cul-de-sacs and corporate outlets, vulgarity and bad taste, a '60s’ Roundaboutville… 'half-built by cowboys, half-erased / by clerks'.

‘The Problem with Belfast’ is hardly a new theme, but Wright is tougher, harder, faster and more punky in his poetic musings than many who have tackled the subject before him. His engagement with pop culture and high level of cynicism make it all very, well, 2010.

He continues his mapping of spiritual poverty in 'Something for Nothing', evoking his unreal city – still wonderfully smacking of TS Eliot’s 'Wasteland' – with a sixth former giving his girl a coat-hanger from a bin instead of a bouquet. It is a bleak picture and one which borders on Nietzschean contempt for suffering humanity, condemned to wait on Ulsterbuses (heaven help us) to ride out west:

'Neatly sidestepping the Big Issue and the queues for buses / to the boondocks – Ladybrook, Four Winds, Suffolk –

and fleets of mothers who steer melted babies in their prams, / the cathedral glows unfinished Romanesque, worshipped

by cars prostrate at its dirty feet'

It is one thing to suggest a spiritual vacuum in modern Belfast, to lament a loss of commitment to piths and existential truths, but to associate this with ‘boondocks’ – areas considered unsophisticated – is to step into dangerously high-minded, sniffy territory. Wright may argue that this is to read his poem too literally, to fail to appreciate the performativity of verse and the poet’s freedoms: he has no moral obligations but to the language. Nevertheless, as a child of such ‘boondocks’ this rather jarred with me.

But it would be petty to linger on a small point of dissatisfaction when there is so much in this collection worth celebrating. Wright’s boldness and irreverence makes him an exciting poet, a cavalier cock-of-the-walk who mixes his stanzas with just the right measures of erudition and the everyday. 'Usquebaugh' mixes in-flight reading on art with whiskey-charged assessments of the airhostess being so beautiful in her Wonderbra, and a final, troubling assertion that 'we have all been enriched by the violence'.

Wright is in touch with the primal, and he dares to suggest the truth: that violence is thrilling for some, that it is a reality of human behaviour and that it even re-affirms man’s vitality and sense of his own transience. He doesn’t hold back when it comes to confronting the controversial.

Elsewhere 'Bargain Books' excoriates the lowbrow reading habits encouraged by the bargain bin, and 'Ballyedenordinary' archly describes the slalom of romantic connection, and that old chestnut of male commitment-phobia. 'Beckett in Belfast' is another high moment and seems to imagine what the nihilistic playwright would have ranted to himself during his stint as a teacher at Campbell College: 'Fuck off you snot-thick northern sons' is the main gist of it.

And, rather surprisingly for a Northern Irish poet, Wright can write about sex without reticence. 'Black Tights' figures sex as laughter in the face of death and must be the first poem about cunnilingus in the Northern Irish canon.

Howard Wright deserves credit for overcoming the puritanical cast of local poetry so blithely. This collection is daring, surprising, slick, and cleaves to the taboo like a moth to a megawatt light bulb.

King of Country by Howard Wright is published by Blackstaff Press. To order a copy go to the CultureNorthernIreland Amazon store.

Joanne Savage