David Briggs’s The Method Men

 
  
 
David Briggs is an English poet and teacher. He was born in 1972, and grew up in the New Forest. He received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2002, and has since placed poems in a range of magazines and journals, including Poetry Review, Poetry Life, Poetry Wales, New Statesman, The Guardian, Agenda, Limelight, Iota, Magma, Horizon Review, The Frogmore Papers, NthPosition, Stride, Trespass and Notes From the Underground.
 
His work has featured as a Showcase in Magma, in the anthology Reactions 5, edited by Clare Pollard, in Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010), Rupert Loydell’s Smartarse (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2011), Todd Swift’s Lungjazz (Cinnamon, 2012) and on BBC Radio Bristol. He also gained a commendation in the 2007 National Poetry Competition.
 
David’s first collection The Method Men (Salt Publishing, 2010) was shortlisted for the London Festival New Poetry Award.
 
In the hours between sitting down to write, he is Head of English at the Grammar School in Bristol. 
 
 
 

 
 
The Method Men is the much anticipated first collection by Eric Gregory Award winner, David Briggs: a taut, deft and elegant book, featuring poems previously published in magazines such as Magma, Poetry Review, Iota and Poetry Wales, and in small groups of three or four in significant anthologies, including Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010).
 
Briggs’s work doffs its cap to a wide range of influences, from the Graveyard School to Miroslav Holub, from John Ash to Ted Hughes, from Marianne Moore to Charles Boyle; yet, retains its own distinctive sensibility — a concern with the idiosyncratic strategies we employ in attempting to navigate an ineffable and dangerous, yet quotidian, world. Pylons, the blank pages at the end of a book, an album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, bathrooms, public parks, clowns and teacups are all lit at the edges with a gunsmoke-blue glow by a transforming imagination.
 
The Method Men explores, in a sometimes disarmingly personal way, what Larkin referred to as ‘a style our lives bring with them’ — what we are, and how that came to be.”
 
 
 
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“The Briggsian mode herein firmly established: worldly and unworldly flights, wryly delivered; quiddity of thing and place; Middle Age and Space Age detritus excavated; ‘damsel-tupping goatswains’ and David Sylvian; method and magic; lyricism and deft use of the down-stroke. This poet delivers. Elegance and snarls. Damn, another talented b_______to contend with.”
 
– Matthew Caley
 
 
 
“David Briggs is brilliant at pointing out the absurd contradictions of being human — our struggles with romance and reason, superstition and cynicism. These poems, alert to the history of folklore — witchcraft, scrying, entrails laid out on stone ‘like a book’ — also wittily expose our own, twenty-first century irrationality. In Briggs’s world, the ghosts of Highgate Cemetery dress: ‘in frowsy, mutton-sleeved grave clothes’ and ‘Rain is either hearsay or heresy’. The religious imagination and deadpan realism hang in constant tension. This is seriously good, intelligent poetry for those who like method in their madness.”
 
– Clare Pollard 
 
 
 
“An interest in the forms and the musicality of lyric verse is a strong feature in David Briggs’s attention-grabbing poems, as is the inscrutable relationship between landscape and the mind. Although broadly traditional in style, there are subtle influences from more experimental work, such as the poetry of John Ashbery and his near namesake John Ash. Briggs’s personal narratives are imbued with ludic conceits, often played out in quirkily historical settings. This is a striking and varied debut collection.”

– Roddy Lumsden
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Historia Occultica
 
 
Scrying evolved during the early
Cuckoo period: an old crone,
exiled to the thick of the wood,
 
saw through her crude glass darkly,
for a fee. One might pay with duck eggs,
robed in night to avoid arcane
 
imputations of devilry. And
we are led to wonder just
what, exactly, she could see:
 
damsel-tupping goatswains?
measure-cheating merchants?
the clause in a ripening Will?
 
All grist to her mill, as she
sat picking through the offal
of lone wealth and longevity.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
The Method Men
 
 
Carson found the pregnant heifer
by releasing his canniest cockerel
 
dead centre in its coop and staggering
the same pattern of steps across pasture.
 
He might confirm a rough, east-by-south-east route
from patterns in loosely-scattered grain.
 
If he then clubbed the newborn to death
after studying its amniotic membrane,
 
and opened its bloody entrails
on the nearest boulder like a book,
 
it was said he read nature fluently.
But Woodward saw cuckold horns in his own hearth
 
on Lammas Eve. So, he pitched a lamb’s
shoulder bone on the flames and wept gladly
 
at the confirmation of its cracking.
A westward flutter of swifts helped Metcalfe
 
learn the name of the man who had stolen
his buttern quern. And McIvor always
 
pitched his tent where a chain-swung amulet
suggested a bed of soft sediment.
 
Both men made their bread discerning
the lines etched by Fate in palms and foreheads.
 
Me, I always learned enough by firing
my full quiver of arrows at random
 
and observing the manner of their falling.
Or, when that failed, I could always find
 
omens in your first words each morning.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
What to Burn When You’ve Burnt Your Bridges
 
 
Ten years he claimed he’d been travelling.
The beard fell authentically on his chest
like a medal. He wasn’t extending
a metaphor, in the way some might claim
any manner of existence as a form
of ‘travelling’ when viewed in the right light.
 
Ten years on the road, of no fixed abode;
genuine wanderlust through civil wars,
deserts, plains, colonies and kasbahs.
Crow’s feet perched with a predatory gait
on his milk-sick eyes, while we guessed his age.
‘So, has it changed you much?’ the Dutch girl asks.
He claps open calloused palms, conjuring
an old, passport-sized photograph of himself.
 
Better to ask what it was that drove
him to exile when only a boy:
eyes wide as moons about to break
orbit from a faithless planet; the smile
fixed as an African border; but, this
is a question he doesn’t seem disposed
to answer. I choose not to ask.
 
Better to pass him the kif; call for more
coffee and hookah; watch his match burn blue,
then green, as it laps up the celluloid;
reach across the backgammon board to catch
the ashes, even if there is no wind
this wakeful night in which to scatter them.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Père Lachaise
 
Burn Your Own Demons!
               
— James Douglas Morrison
               Translation of the inscription on his tomb
 
 
Not ravens, as we’d been expecting,
on his granite headstone, but scented
envelopes and Chivas Regal bottles,
CND buttons and gladioli,
 
Lucky Strike packets, votive candles,
silk panties, fingernails, peyote bark,
witch hazel, conical reefers,
photographs, vials, snakeskins, hair,
 
handwritten sonnets.
From behind the sepulchre, another pilgrim.
Veritable pilgrim. He squats square on
to the bronze, legend-bearing plaque:
 
KAWA TON DAIMONA EAYTOY:
magics a bottle of Martell from his coat
and sucks like a gunnery officer;
wraps brown resin in Rizla;
 
lights the fanned touchpaper of his slight
torpedo with a flick of the gunflint
in his Zippo lighter. He slams the lid
shut like a starboard hatch against brine,
 
leaving a faint whiff of paraffin.
He submits to its unguent accuracy.
He is stardust. He is golden.
He digs this cemetery. It’s, like, a garden.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
A Portrait of the English Technician
 
Now, at last, central government is telling them not just what to teach, but how to teach it. The process of turning teachers into technicians continues.
               — Paul Trowler Education Policy
 
 
The English Technician will wear carmine jackets,
and one shoe marked ‘High’,
and one shoe marked ‘Low’.
The English Technician will abandon the photocopying
to Arctic winds lurching through the schoolyard
like overdeveloped schoolboys, because
he has sensed something divine
in that bell-bordered wasteland.
He will brew the perfect pot of peppermint tea;
recite Soyinka while spooning the sugar;
remark that the quality of the evening sky
is like a delicate filigree of Transvaal silver
he received from a blind, Egyptian carpet merchant
in exchange for a contretemps about Chatterton.
The English Technician will ride
a green, butcher’s bicycle through the school gates
one minute before the bell every morning.
The English Technician will often be unnecessary,
but always elegant.
He will sometimes be found
rubbing earth into his cheeks
because he has forgotten the battles
of Sherra-moor and Agincourt.
He will sometimes be found rubbing earth
into other people’s cheeks.
In winter people will cry,
‘Where is the English Technician?’
because they believe the sky to be falling.
It will be difficult to know clearly
what the English Technician is thinking,
as he brings you books opened to pages
you had not formerly known to exist.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
from Seven Stations of a Record Collection
 
 
Nick Cave
From Her to Eternity
 
 
I knew her by reputation before we met:
expelled from Roedean, from the family mansion;
legend told she rode Godiva-style (for a bet)
down Lyndhurst High Street; barred from The Stag Inn
 
for being ‘Mad as a bag of adders’.
So, I was prepared when she led through moonlit trees
to her Romany caravan, dealt ‘The Lovers’,
began to teach me female anatomy.
 
I couldn’t reconcile her neatly-clipped vowels
with the cheap patchouli; snakebite-and-black
with Cancale oysters; the van with the Chelsea flat.
She left, one night. I don’t know how she lives now,
 
and I wouldn’t know where to pick up the scent.
I let the walls close in, year by year; but she went.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Conjugation in C Minor
 
 
She was a ‘cello. He was the invention
of radio. She swooned; became a swallow,
 
with feathers of white, black and aquamarine.
He foresaw glory in distant war.
 
Briefly, they became Pachelbel’s Canon:
she reminded him of formal gardens.
 
He fell wounded in battle.
The military psychiatrist discerned
 
he was a lark, but he sang out of tune.
He escaped in his shirt: unbuttoned;
 
unironed; they became Sandinistas,
bribed the electorate with cigars
 
and avocados. They became folk songs
in every mouth of the Republic.
 
She evolved into Vesuvius
erupting over Pompeii, flooding the Forum
 
with lava. Thousands died, were fossilised.
Those that escaped worked together
 
at the foot of her slopes, knowing flood,
fire or earthquake could claim them anywhere.
 
Sagely, they planted till cities grew.
She became gin; he, the pressure valve
 
of a steam engine. It was raining.
Twins were conceived, rurally.
 
That night, she was a juniper; he was pistons,
turbines and industrial revolution.
 
Their progeny inherited these sorrows.
They sing them as ballads from market-barrows.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
My Year of Culture
 
After Kathleen Ossip
 
 
We’re walking home late from the theatre,
my lover and I. She’s wearing pearls
and a line trouser suit — it was a ‘well-made’ play.
‘Sweetheart’, I say,
‘the writer drank snake blood for inspiration’.
She flicks her tongue.
 
We’re lying in bed reading the supplements,
my lover and I. I’m wearing yellow socks;
the D.A.B. can’t find a signal — she hopes I kept the receipt.
‘Ma Cherie’, I joke,
‘the static between stations is an echo from the Big Bang’.
She grapples the bedclothes.
 
We’re in the Blake room at Tate Britain,
my lover and I. She’s using her catalogue
as a fan — it’s the hottest May since records began.
‘Hey’, she taunts,
‘there’s nothing shameful in going naked’.
I loosen my tie.
 
We’re drinking gin and tonic near the Opera House,
my lover and I. I’m wearing a russet, silk suit
with matching Turk’s head cufflinks — we’ve seen Otello.
‘Sweetheart’, I ask,
‘would you take a pill that healed existential doubt?’
She whistles through her teeth.
 
We’re in a gondola on the Grand Canal,
my lover and I. She’s wearing white jeans
and Ray-Bans — we arrived by train from Milan.
‘Hey’, the gondolier says,
‘you want I show you the house of Lord Byron?’
We shrug. We’ve seen it before.
 
We’re in the front row at a reading
by the next great Oulipo stylist,
my lover and I. Shes wearing yellow culottes
and orange Converse All-Stars — everyone here’s a writer.
‘Hey’, she whispers,
‘what’s the optimum lexical density of a reading?’
The poet delivers a poem made of snarls.
 
 
 
 
from The Method Men (Salt Publishing, 2010).
 
Order The Method Men.
 
Read Julia Bird’s review at Hand + Star.
 
Read Steve Spence’s review at Stride.
 
Read Matt Merritt’s interview with David at Polyolbion.
 
 
 
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