Tim Upperton is the kind of poet who tends to have his poems shared without people asking his permission or paying him money. They’re the kind of poems that you want to share with another person immediately. So you do, which I can’t help but feel is a kind of stealing. I have done it often. I tell people they should buy the book, but how can you be sure they’ll follow through? When it comes to poetry, people don’t follow through. I need to repay my debt to Tim Upperton somehow, and rather than giving him money like a decent human being, I am going to write about his book The Night We Ate the Baby, like a writer. His book has been reviewed in only one place, briefly. Why hasn’t it been reviewed elsewhere? Probably because of shrinking arts review coverage on all fronts, or maybe because it was published by a small press, but a more interesting theory is: because it’s too good.
This isn’t a review. If it was, it would be effusive and dull. I actually just wanted to talk about the book. The first time I read these poems I thought of Larry David saying to Jeff Garlin that the Larry of Curb Your Enthusiasm is a fantasy – an embodiment of the things the real Larry would like to say. ‘I cannot tell you the pleasure, the pleasure that it gives me to have a moment of honesty in my life, albeit fictional. There is nothing that feels better to me!’ I’ve always thought there’s beauty in the way this honesty is delivered on the show, and watching it feels cathartic at the same time as it feels slightly unbearable. Because outside of that moment of honesty, ‘We’re full of shit all the time! It can’t be helped, you have to get along in this world, that’s the way to do it.’ In the end it’s always Larry against the world, holding his small triumphs close and being swallowed by a mob of Michael J. Fox fans. Anyway, my point is, it sometimes feels a bit like that in a Tim Upperton poem, especially when he’s not going easy.
(The poems aren’t all like that. This one, ‘Fonnet’, has the most swearing in it.) Like Larry, the speaker of this book is alone with his convictions, which take some poems to brutal places and others to very poignant places. Even his own body is against him, like the insolent lazy eye that looks at him stonily: ‘Who do you think you’re looking at, who the fuck do you think you are?’ (You can hear Tim read the lazy eye poem here.) The speaker looks back at himself and at others just as stonily. He never shrinks away from seeing. I think the best kind of poetry doesn’t shrink away. Like in ‘Drive’, where each line builds in weird, cold intensity, the kind where you’re asking, ‘Is this funny or is it menacing?’
I’ve got a new car.
It goes better than my old one.
The places it takes me to
It just gets me to them
in a better way.
The places are the same,
for being looked at again.
It seems like the narrator of these poems (and I’ll be honest, I can’t help but read the narrator as an idealised version of Tim, just as Curb‘s Larry is an idealised version of non-Curb Larry) is often speaking from inside some awful predicament or entrapment. But because he has nothing left to lose and no sensibilities left to offend, he can speak bluntly. I’ve heard Tim say before that he is interested in the idea of ugliness in poetry – a poetry that resists lyricism, sentimentality, pleasing rhyme and metre, the epiphany easily reached. I think it’s through this resistance that these poems arrive at something else, something that feels real and hard-won, a language that feels new because it never falls back, always reaches. (The obvious irony is that in resisting poetic beauty these poems often arrive at another sort of beauty. Sorry Tim.) It’s not always easy to read a poem that clunks along where we might expect it to hum, that insults where it would usually placate, that speaks of death with relief not regret, that’s harsh where you’d expect kindness.
There is no sense of gratuity in these utterances, just directness. I think these hard edges are why I like this book a lot.
At the cemetery the gravestones
are hilarious. This woman died
aged one hundred and two.
We sit on her tomb for an hour.
You kiss me. I kiss you.
The more I read these poems, the less the Larry David analogy is quite right. In Curb, I feel like Larry never realises the futility of his predicaments. He cares so much about being right and his frustration with other people eats him alive. Whereas in many of these poems, many of which are indeed bleakly hilarious, the speaker doesn’t particularly care. He has stopped railing. He exists in a kind of Purgatory, a place that Tim talked about once on a blog post on evil as ‘a kind of waiting room where those who were bad but not damned sat around’. This speaker is bad, but not damned. His acceptance of his lot is not without sadness and sometimes rage, but it is an acceptance that frees him to acknowledge what is true. And sometimes he turns bleakness inside out and shows its sweetness, like the precious items ticked off, one by one, in ‘Valediction’:
The most alarming poem in this book is probably the prose poem ‘Would you eat your family?’ a brutally reasoned argument on why, in a plane crash, you should eat your family. By the end of the poem, I am seriously considering eating my family.
You are alive now. I want you to live.
My dad is a pilot, so it’s a question I should have really thought about before. Thank you, Tim, for leading me sure-footedly through this decision-making process.
This is an important book because it turns upside down notions of how poetry should behave, and especially the notion that a poet’s voice should be likeable and relatable. After reading it I was questioning my own writing voice and wishing I could be as brave. The patron saint of disagreeable poetry is probably Frederick Seidel, but I would argue that, despite his greatness, Seidel’s poetry sometimes crosses over into being gratuitously, absurdly disagreeable. In poems like The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri, he becomes a caricature of himself. With Tim, and this may not be a compliment, I never feel I’m being wilfully provoked. Each poem begins from somewhere new.
The last thing I will say is that the book contains the most unbearably sad poem that I read last year and will probably read for some time. The poem is ‘Late Valentine’ and it contains the lines:
I don’t cook you breakfast
on Saturday morning,
and this makes me perpetually hungry.
I don’t run out of patience,
or shampoo, and this makes me wait
for you with clean hair.
There are many other sad details in this poem but the saddest of them all is the clean hair. Tim is the master of the detail that shouldn’t be particularly significant but that somehow is: a hardwood floor in rain, a coathook, a speckled hen, an upturned bucket that at first looks like a white cat. But, the clean hair! The purgatory of the clean hair.