The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, by Mark Haddon
Reviewed by Alex Boyd
For crying out loud. First Mark Haddon wrote a stellar novel with the sharply memorable, funny and perceptive The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. As one writer said about another writer’s book once before, I wanted to steal it and pretend it as mine. Then he casually follows it up with a book of good poems, The Talking Horse and The Sad Girl and The Village Under the Sea.
Of course, there’s nothing casual about it. Based on the quality of these poems, Haddon has worked on poetry for a long time. The best poems in the collection have strong images, a timeless quality, and seem to exist with an intended meaning that’s enjoyably just slightly out of focus, as in A Rough Guide:
Be polite at the reception desk.
Not all the knives are in the museum.
The waitresses know that a nice boy
is formed in the same way as a deckchair.
Pay for the beer and send flowers.
Introduce yourself as Richard.
Do not refer to what somebody did
At a particular time in the past.
Remember, every Friday we used to go
for a walk. I walked. You walked.
Everything in the past is irregular.
This steak is very good. Sit down.
There is no wine, but there is ice cream.
Eat slowly. I have many matches.
On first reading, it’s loosely coherent but a little puzzling, particularly in lines three and four and the final line. But good poetry leaves room for at least some mystery, and I particularly liked this element in his poems. Some of these poems hammer together abstract ideas in the basement, and Haddon isn’t afraid to throw in the kitchen sink. A poem like The Seventh Circle starts with werewolves, but winds around to include bitching servants and the crashing steel market, though ultimately it’s among the few poems that takes flight in too many directions to be really successful.
There are also themes of inclusiveness to be found here, or at least the idea that we’re all in this together. In Cabin Doors to Automatic, the two stanzas begin, “We take off in a lightning storm,” and “This is how we leave the world.” And running parallel to this is a weird, subtle vein of optimism, as in Trees, where trees are not endangered but quietly dominant: “Or you will wake at your aunt’s cottage, / your sleep broken by a coal train on the empty hill / as the oaks roar in the wind off the channel.” Haddon crafts his poem The Model Village carefully, with short lines, as if to reflect precision: “We got a helicopter last year / strung on fishing line / above the plastic lake,” and notes “Only small things matter.”
Haddon refrains from diving into details that are obviously lifted directly from his life. Instead, Thunderbirds are Go has the crew growing idle and reminiscing. A poem like Christmas Night, 1930 sets a scene (“This was your room once”) but Haddon wasn’t alive then and the poem doesn’t explain further. But the work here succeeds on its own terms, even if it can’t be pinned directly to the life of the poet. And let’s face it, personal poetry can work well if it’s highly original, but it’s also admirable for a poet to exist in a poem indirectly, reaching for something external but doing it in a way that’s made from them. Haddon creates many separate worlds here, where “the dead seem so authentic” in photographs, where he has the courage to attempt a simple lullaby (“nothing dies / so close your eyes”), where a very human, yet unnamed man wakes from a recurring dream in which his wife fucks the pool-boy, where the world goes on fast-forward, where cats have a better chance of surviving in hell because they “can dance on hot bricks.” Of course, it’s possible to infer things about Haddon from the poems, but the point is simply that they aren’t spelled out. Though there are many worthwhile moments here, I believe his most successful poems are his shortest, simply because they’re able to carry the most weight and focus. Have a look at Black:
It comes as a surprise to find that hell
Is the same house you’ve lived in these nine years.
Two orange stains beneath the kitchen taps,
birdsong in the yard, those floral curtains.
But you’re not at home. Not by a long way.
That fist of wet meat in your chest
will not let you forget. The seconds pass,
as slow as that frozen age before the child
hits the red bonnet of your skidding car.
You light a Marlboro from the dog-end
of the last. Outside, shoppers and workmen
swim through their day like dolphins, ignorant
of how they do this stupid, priceless trick
you once knew. The phone rings. Your cigarette smoke
does its poisonous little ballet.
Despite the shorter poems being more successful in this collection, I’d be very curious to see a book length poem by Haddon. Whatever he may be, he isn’t a narcissist, as his empathetic and unique novel and poems have shown. I’ll be early in line to get the next Mark Haddon book.