John Siddique is one of Britain's most interesting and original poets. He probes the contradictory jumble of contemporary Britain. He reveals the bravery, contemporary, daily heroism in the courts and prisons, the towns, the urban sprawl that he clearly knows well. - Elizabeth Horan
Siddique, clearly, is not to be “gotten”; he is to be read. - Adam Fieled
DESIRE FOR SIGHT (AFTER LORCA)
When gossip starts all that is left is gossip.
When fear takes hold, all that is left is the fear.
Fold away your papers,
colour in the outlines.
Regret is the first town our train will pass though.
Unknowing, the confusion of unknowing.
Let my country see itself,may its people be visible to each other.
(c) John Siddique
'Wordsworth is smiling in his grave'
Reviewed by Elizabeth Rosa Horan - Professor of English - Arizona State University
John Siddique is one of Britain's most interesting and original poets. He probes the contradictory jumble of contemporary Britain. He reveals the bravery, contemporary, daily heroism in the courts and prisons, the towns, the urban sprawl that he clearly knows well. We're shown the State grinding down, followed by escape in the promise of the ordinary, in compassion, and in language. I love the multiple openings that come with exploring the full range of words such as "leaving."
There's an impressive range in this unassuming volume. From deeply human elegies, such as to "Kathy," to songs: "down, down, deeper and down...not yet but soon, again" to lightning-like short meditations, the poet speculates on sexual attraction, turf, walks, industrial and dockside landscapes. There are heart-breakingly brilliant propositions, such as "we'll rename the streets after their real stories: Smack Head Valley. Skinhead Avenue,/Race Riot Street. Touch me there Road. /Drug Deal Walk. First Kiss Gardens. /Pissed-up Lane. Possibility Fields."
"Visible Imprints" invites us to burn our diaries, to intimacy with "no more pushing away." Another section, "Northern Soul" talks back to the surveillance that hems in life in both Britain and the US. "Have you provided proof of identity?" asks one poem. Siddique's most lucid lines often seem to emerge, take off from overheard conversation. So does "Sheltered Accomodation" take us into prison and beyond, with a Sampson-like meditation on "the tree" underlying the shelter. "Youth Court Waiting Area" notes the similarity of Church and legal system. I find myself wondering if Siddique will someday write for theater, with his eye for drama and his ear for language.
Presence and commitment are key. Siddique has walked the walk, moves from showing the mirror and the dance to pointing towards a future where people can "lift themselves from drinking and disorder." Young fighters, "young gods of the clubs" manage "to keep clean, with no fixed abode." Why does this matter? Because "the world is on probation with them." Committed to looking behind attitude and façade and the false freedom of "Saturday night," these polished and unpretentious poems are two parts revelation to three parts stubborn hope drawn from the shadow of time, a new-old landscape, seen through "nineteen year-old eyes."
Complexity or simplicity; which do we prefer in poems? Neither; a good poem has to have both. Too complex is a pain in the arse; too simple is like having our noses rubbed in dog’s muck. Ideally, a poem should be constructed like Piet Mondrian meets Hank Williams-- simple, graceful lines expressing complex human truths. This is one model; there are others. This, however, is the vision offered to us in John Siddique’s Poems from a Northern Soul. These are deceptively simple poems; as with Mondrian, they do not beat us over the head with grandiosity. Hank Williams enters the equation because the poems introduce a narrative voice that can teach us something about ourselves; it offers human wisdom, albeit often pretzel-twisted. These are poems not of epiphany but of insight, not of triumph but of failure and its lessons (which are, of course, a kind of triumph if we learn them properly). The poems tell stories, and the stories are hard-edged; no one is spared. Yet, authorial voice here never raises its pitch above middle C. Siddique doesn’t scream; his primal therapy enacts itself in a whisper. We strain to hear; he strains to reach us.
Ambiguities present themselves, fester like hang-nails: “I sit here while you sort my life out./ I’ll eat my ice cream while you rack/ your brains. I’m getting away with it,/ while the papers and files pile up”. This poem, one of the strongest (and strangest) in the collection, and called “Trying to Get Me”, has the sort of tragi-comic air that gives Siddique’s poems their particular (and peculiar) tartness. Notice that no clear relationship is posited— this could (most obviously) be lovers, or it could be a meta-poem wherein Siddique lectures his own Id (or Ego), or both. The tone has humor and bite, the ambiguities are not overemphasized and us, the readers, are encouraged to think whatever we bloody well please. Is Siddique a randy sod on the make? Is he a deadbeat spouse getting chewed out in a horrific row? Or is this not Siddique, and the illusion of authorial presence has tricked us again, like a bumpy circus mirror? Three “I”s in four lines, no clues as to who “I” might be (though it is easy to see he’s being a right wanker, whoever he is); we have a universe of possibility in a 12-line poem. Siddique makes it look easy. Gems of this sort are sprinkled throughout the book—corrosive love-lorn hi-jinx, first person singular perspectives that mutate beyond recognition before our eyes. Siddique, clearly, is not to be “gotten”; he is to be read.
Sometimes, Siddique swan-dives smack into soul-mud, and you can see ripples, as in “There in the Song”, which ends “I can take it all from you. Again, again, again, again./ Not yet but soon, again, I’ll make better promises”. This is heart of darkness like we haven’t seen since Captain Willard doggy-paddled down a turbid river to meet Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. This is evil and perverse; it is also very good poetry. Good, the way enemas are good. I mean, let’s, all of us, ‘fess up—we are selfish creatures. We are out for ourselves first. Why dissemble? Why mask our real nature in formal gambits or post-avant evasions? This is the real shit. This cannot be faked. You’ve either walked this walk (and been knocked on your arse a thousand times) or you haven’t. You either know this stuff or you don’t. Love is a fight to the death, and the stakes are higher than Pete Doherty in an opium den. Most importantly, for those of us who care to see the perilous interior represented in poems, this is manna from heaven.
It must be said that Siddique’s range extends beyond mind-fuck anti-love shards-of-glass pieces, and even beyond the carnal and emotional and into the political, the broadly psychological and the ruminative. All strains of Siddique’s work, however, display the same live-wire/slow-burn intensity. They radiate the can’t-bear-it-anymore aura of hard-won trophies, pearls secreted by a blue-balled oyster. This is a content-based poetics; not that Siddique’s poems are formally lacking (and in fact he shows an easy grace in application of free-verse technique, with a good deal of parallel structure worked in), just that what we get from the poems has to do with real life. What does “real life” mean? If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you. If you don’t know what’s real and what’s not, you probably wouldn’t appreciate these poems anyway. They aren’t hewn from wind-bag theories; they’re hewn from flesh and blood. That doesn’t mean sappy epiphany—that means gritty cement, blasted trees, buses and parking lots, penitence and pence. That means Wordsworth is smiling in his grave, and lang-po prudery be damned. That means, above all, that this is what we need more of, this raw-nerved existentialism, especially in Bush-whacked America. That’s provided, of course, we have any flesh and blood left. Frankly, I’m not sure I’m convinced.