Book Review

Being With Me Will Help You Learn by Thomas McColl

slowly, book by book, i realise what i like

I’ve had this book for a long time. So long that i don’t remember how long. As occasionally happens – more occasionally than it used to, actually – people get in touch with me asking to review their books here. I always, always, always, say yes, but often books get lost amongst the chaos of my strange, kooky, unconventional life. Thomas McColl contacted me in this way, asking me to review his 2015 prose and poetry collection, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, probably back when the book was brand ass new. It took me until I became near-obsessed with poetry to get round to reading it, but I’m glad I did, as it is a fun collection and taught me yet another important lesson about my own relationship with poetry (NB: most of this post will be about said lesson).

McColl’s collection is very much a “collection” in the traditional sense of the word, as in it contains poems that have been written and published individually over a long time, at least 20 years. This means that, though there is a consistency in language use, worldview and overall voice, there is also an understandable scattergun approach to tone and focus. There is both prose and poetry, there is lots about time – often a bit sci-fiy – there are a few poems about poetry itself, and punctuation, a few that are a bit lusty, a few more that are a bit repressed (never have i ever read the word “pervert” so many times in the same book) and a few that seek to capture, positively, the complex and multifaceted nature of contemporary cities.

Being With Me Will Help You Learn isn’t a book of poetry that is seeking to change minds or alter the world, these are pieces that are almost always aiming to raise a smile, and in this mode there are a lot of successful pieces. These include:

  • ‘Chip Shop Aquariums’, about a worker in a late night fish bar plunging his hands into the deep fat fryer – a piece that is both shocking and, quickly, characterful;
  • ‘Parasailor’, a similarly brief, but moving piece, again focused on a single image, this time the idea of a group of friends happily cheering as their friend parachutes down above them, unaware that he died from a heart attack mid-descent;
  • ‘Nicotine’, a fun poem about catholicism and cigarettes;
  • ‘Green Graffiti’, about guerrilla gardening;
  • ‘Now Showing: EAST LONDON BY NIGHT’, a fun piece reimagining a bus journey as a piece of silent cinema;
  • ‘Cardboard Crime’ about furniture being stolen and replaced with cardboard replicas;
  • ‘The Teacher’s First Day’ is a brief piece about powerlessness and lost self-confidence;
  • ‘Wish You Were Here’, a cheeky bit of flash fiction about the normalisation of recreational time travel.

Overall, it’s a fine collection, and for a poet whose performance and publication career has lasted decades, I can understand why this volume, collating years of output, would be a pleasing and valuable object. However, because this is a book of works that stem from disparate parts of a life and hit, overall, the same tone, it becomes a bit frustrating to a reader – or, at least, to me as a reader – as there is no lift, no build up, no turn.

Being With Me Will Help You Learn is a collection of poems and prose that are collected only because they are by the same poet. There is not a theme, there is not a conclusion, there are not call backs and growth and change. The poems do not become about the poems, they are all individual pieces, not parts of a whole and this, I think, I think I have finally realised, is what I need from the poetry I read: cohesion, and I think I’ve realised why it is I have always been most predominantly into poetry by women.

Have I ever linked here to that essay on how Knausgaard “writes like a woman”? If not, here it is: https://lithub.com/knausgaard-writes-like-a-woman/

It’s good and it’s interesting, and it quite acutely evidences what I love about Min Kamp / My Struggle, that of the minutiae and close engagement with an individual’s life. What this essay states is that women are more likely [than men] to write about their own experiences, to put themselves within their work. If I consider the poetey I have read recently and enjoyed, the highlight has probably been Grace Nichols, where a combination of a personal narrative and a tight thematic focus leant towards-

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Right.

I like poetry collections that contain a – perhaps implicit – theme. I am uninspired by books of poetry that consider a multiplicity of ideas, a multiplicity of form, a multiplicity of descriptions of things. Landscape poetry, nature poetry, sci fi poetry, whatever, I don’t care about it. What I like is a book of poetry that contains a thread, a focus, a heart. And – if we go by this fucking essay linked to above – if female writers are more likely to write about themselves, then there is an INHERENT heart to their writing. If a collection of poems, even a collection written without a central or thematic conceit, if they are all self-consciously written from the perspective of an intentionally shared voice, then that is a heart, that is a centre, that is a soul within the work. Because male poets are more likely to put out a book that just contains an assortment of scribbles they’ve made since the last time they put out a book, then unless there is a deliberate effort to link them, said link doesn’t happen. (ASIDE: Poems about the environment, jesus, how trite.) But if a poet’s poems are all, openly, about the poet, then that is a thread, that is an idea, that is a life, that is something for a reader – for me as a reader – to latch onto.

If I think about poetry I have enjoyed the least, it is easy – given these credentials – to see why. When poets try to distance themselves from their writing, when they don’t embrace the practical reality that the texts we write are from us and of us, then I am bored.

I know what I like, and considering that essay (link again), I understand a bit better how my differing interests combine and intersect.

Nice.

Sorry, Thomas, this was more about me than you. Being With Me Will Help You Learn is fun, has some good pieces in, but it is not enough of a singular text for my tastes. And, fuck it, I’m not apologising for how I feel ever ever ever again. (Lol i will defo do it again.)

Buy Being With Me Will Help You Learn direct from publisher Listen Softly London here.

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