Where new writing finds its voice

Clearout Sale

Benjamin Miller

Mark Edwards
Andromache Books, 2008

The inscription ‘for my mates’ on page five of this collection sets the tone for what is a varied volume of poems and short stories connected by a shared sense of intimate personal experience and colloquial diction.

The Scottish dialect of Edwards’s native Aberdeenshire is audible throughout, with the poet regularly employing phonic spelling, such as ‘I dinna drink beer. Whit aboot yir son?’ in ‘a great thing’, to produce a continuous voice which is both flexible and idiomatic. 

Published by small independent press Andromache Books, and comprising of thirty-nine poems and eleven short stories, this collection is deeply rooted in the Scotland Edwards knows and where life, more than often, centres around alcohol. Nothing is hidden, the beer cans and used condoms of the opening poem ‘midnight’ being just the beginning of the writer’s prosaic view of life. 

Edwards attempts to create art out of even the most mundane of happenings, as in the sight of a clapped-out old car up for sale in ‘optimism’, although these are not always fully successful.

Despite such a sharp focus, he never offers any real sense of authorial or narratorial comment, preferring to remain a critical, detached observer.
At its best, his free verse poetry has something of the concision and suggestiveness of American imagist William Carlos Williams, and the simple, unadorned urgency of more current poets like Owen Shears.

The veiled allusiveness of shorts poems such as ‘leaf’:

the imprint 
of this fivepointed leaf 
on the pavement 
one among a thousand leafmarks 
less clear and definite 

or the ostensibly simple domestic humour created by ‘toast’:

spots of mould 
on sliced white bread 
and worse 
my intention 
to share it 

These shorter works counterpoint lengthier and more ambitious poems like the drunken dialogue of ‘little feet’.

However, the extent of Edwards’s detachment and his apparent objectivity is enough in itself to ironise and indeed satirise the quotidian characters and scenes which he presents. In a somewhat metatextual turn, not even the practice of the poet is excluded from such treatment, with the drunken arrogance of Flynn in ‘yir all shite’ striking a comedic and yet slightly pitiful note:

and I can drink lager 
and get on the buses for nothing
can you get on the buses for nothing 
I didnt think so 
and yir pome’s shite and all 
Bolger, O’Connor, McCabe, Doyle 
they’re all shite 

One of the most noticeable features of the collection is the writer’s eschewing of punctuation and other grammatical conventions. At moments of fast-paced speech, this Spartan style gives a sought-after freedom and flexibility, but by employing it throughout (particularly in his poetry), Edwards sometimes ignores or fails to fully exploit the potential for pause and silence that can be added by a well-placed caesura or end-stopped line.

With regard to his prose, it is the less lengthy of the short stories that work better, as they read as additional commentaries on the poetry that prefaces them. More generously granted the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, brief pieces like ‘Shop Assistant’, which relates a depressing shopping trip, and ‘Party’, which relates a young boy’s first real experience of cigarettes and stale beer, maintain the best of Edwards’s simple allusive force.

Humour and irony abound in these stories, the high point found in ‘Holiday’ where Andrew (the same child from ‘Party’) writes a list of all the expletives he knows for his social worker Teresa, quibbling over the difference between ass and arse and fastidiously checking their spellings in a big red dictionary. ‘It’s good practice for my writing’, he tells his mum. 

The young man hits upon a philosophical dilemma too, wondering: ‘how come fuck and cunt are the worst ones instead of god and jesus when fuck and cunt are dirty words that dont mean anything?’ In moments like this, where Edwards seemlessly combines the everyday with other things much more ineffable and morally liminal, his greatest qualities as a writer are abundantly clear.

All in all, Clearout Sale is a mixed bag of people, places and events exactingly described in informal poetry and prose of varying quality. However, careful attention is more than justified in the several moments of unornamented clarity, which are interspersed within this collection.

Edwards is currently working towards his first novel and if he can add an engaging and sustained narrative to his evident capacity for ironical insight and humdrum humour, it should be some read.