Alun Rees reviews Sex on Toast, Selected Poems by Tôpher Mills (Parthian, £10)
What to say of this astonishment of a book? How to encapsulate it in a few paragraphs of analysis? Can't be done. All you can do is hang on to your hat and enjoy the ride, then think about it later. Not thinking about it is not an option. I knew Tôpher Mills was a talented poet, but he proves more than that. For all the fun and frolics he is a considerable presence, well worth nearly 300 pages and 153 poems exploring the bandwidths of style and subject matter with fine controlled energy and generosity of spirit.
And all yours for a tenner!? Yes, it's true. As for me, I thought of stout Cortez (it was actually Balboa, but Keats thought it was Cortez, and I'm ever ready to give Keats a break) gazing upon the Pacific with eagle eye, or even some watcher of the skies clocking a new planet.
Take sheep. Mills has a couple of sheep poems unlike anything you'll find in pastoral poetry. Indeed, pastoral verse gets a kicking in "the Great Rastafari" Anglo-Welsh Sheep Poem. This is a poem proof against quoting a few lines from. It's like Donne's island, entire of itself, and hence indivisible.
However, a taste can be provided. Mills employs a wondrous dialect based around extended use of long "a" sounds to simulate a suitably ovine chorus and shearing becomes, wonderfully, "baaldifies". The resulting apparel turns out to be "terribul bobbul jumpuhs." And "daam aanglow-wellshees" is to marvel at.
I'm not lifting lines from "Putting it Politely", either. Dedicated to Peter Finch, this prose-poem is equally entire of itself. If the first sheep poem is distinctly pro-sheep, this one is pro-underdog (the human variety). Sensitive folk be warned: the language is a touch fruity.
Don't get the idea that Mills is a biff-bang-wallop and shock-effect sort of poet. Thought is always the organising agent. The special effects are administered judiciously, for operational reasons. Mills is a true poet, and as such scorns boundaries. "St. Stanley of the Lights", for example, is a beautifully controlled piece about a "nutcase" who would chivvy cyclists riding without lights. A tragedy, described with awesome simplicity, lies behind his obsession. This is a tellingly restrained portrait of an unsung hero which concludes with quiet dignity.
How many lives did he save
desperately haunted by the one
lost and left forever in darkness?
In "Marie" the ache of lost love and its power to rob the individual world of colour and motivation is observed with stunned desperation. Boy would meet girl in a museum, where they found privacy in the mineral section. The girl disappears:
The gardens were empty without her
the mineral section just so much rubble
"Just so much rubble" - masterly! The sense of grief and loss is profound.
I could go on. Poem after poem dealing with those huge topics across the range of human emotion and interaction is given ballast by unobtrusive but crucial moments of verbal magic which mark the difference between poetry and verse. In "Laura's Saturday Night" for example, a conjunction of opposites ("rainbows of warpaint") emphasises the tension lurking in the situation. They used to call this metaphysical poetry.
Mills is a much-travelled man, has earned his crust in a wide range of jobs, met people from all manner of backgrounds (including plenty of poets given a handy mention by this generous soul) and generally has gone forth into the world with a sense of humour, limitless empathy and a gift for finding poetry everywhere. As Paul Eluard wrote, "To live, only advance. Aim straight toward those you love". Mills is with him there.
One puzzle: "Sex on Toast" comes from a fairly routine Mills poem, "Auburn", and refers to breakfast-time sex. So why is it the title of the book? For purely commercial reasons? I once reviewed an effort called, for no apparent reason, "Rest the Poor Struggler", a pub name. That was a real stumer. Happily, this Mills book isn't.