(REVIEW) Home Radio, by Luke Roberts
In this review of Luke Roberts’ Home Radio (The87Press, 2021), Robin Boothroyd circles the bouquets of resistance amid a radio poetics. Poems flower forth with pollen and dust, torrents, slipperiness and biomass, revealing Home Radio to be a perfect balance of multiplicities.
‘Imagine a theory of narrative / and another and another and another.’ So begins Luke Roberts' Home Radio, where it isn't 12:10 in New York but 3.15pm in South London. Like much of Frank O'Hara's work, the poem is titled simply '[Poem]' and is similarly concerned not only with temporal specificity but the revelations of the quotidian –– though it's unclear whether the 'I do this I do that' of the poem is 'real' or imagined. 'I could just stage this and stage this', the speaker repeats. Multiple conflicting narratives are presented simultaneously, which sets the tone for a book that spins the radio dial of the present moment to broadcast multiple realities.
After the opening's imperative, the speaker reports a question central to the book:
Is the poem empowering or disempowering I ask my students. I've started to think this this is the best question as arbitrary and precise as anything.
The speaker hasn't begun to ask this question, they've begun to think it the best one to ask. That's the second interpretation. The first is that they think the poem is empowering, or disempowering, or both. The repetition of 'this' allows both meanings to be presented simultaneously, the speaker to present an opinion and question it at the same time.
This continues throughout. The poems ask questions and then ignore or undermine them. 'What's the light work doing right now for emphasis / [...] and how did it learn to do that?' asks 'C. and the Family'. But there's no answer, we merely learn that 'other questions sound off' beyond the text, which 'resist the corners of touching.' The poems are slippery too, signposting their subjects –– 'A Poem for Diplomats', 'A Poem for Early Risers', 'A Poem for Other People' –– before mocking, refusing, ignoring or responding to them. 'Joy Sparkled in All Their Eyes', whose title is from Paradise Lost, quotes Ida Applebroog, references The Book of Jonah and describes the lead-up to the 2017 UK General Election, before telling us just that:
This is a poem about biomass and voting. This is a poem about the twelve minor prophets, Milton, the artist Ida Applebroog, the Labour Party, the first eleven days of the month of June, millions of edible plankton.
This self-referential tone is blatantly ironic, but it also helps to clarify meaning when the sense is obscure, as it is in many of the poems in Home Radio. Could it also be a creative tool? A mnemonic? A motif? The most powerful poems in the book read as though they were written with a kind of free association, accumulating images and momentum with abandon before reiterating the subject ('this is a poem about biomass and voting') like a jazz solo returning to the theme.
In 'Rosa', previously published as a standalone pamphlet by Distance No Object, the present moment is reported in a kind of torrent.
world rapid and arranged or just composed by all you brilliant sets of fabric all you language failing detail
There's no punctuation throughout the entire piece, text flowing like a stream, data feed auto-refreshing; the poem becomes a vessel for the present moment in all its messy multiplicity. It's breathless and unrelenting and exhilarating and worth the cover price alone.
While O'Hara, broadly speaking, interrogated the quotidian to demonstrate socio-cultural interrelations, Roberts' focus is more on socio-political entanglements: the climate crisis, Brexit, late capitalism. The poems are always enmeshed with and complicit in the complexities of twenty-first century life. Pollen and dust coat the poems in metaphor while they confront, denounce, impugn and resist the council, the police, the government ––corruption of any kind. As with the questions described earlier, Roberts is tongue-in-cheek even when speaking truth to power:
I wanted to grow my ferocious beard in defiance of the government, who I hate, every day, as I hate the police, and their clothing, and their shields. I no longer want to buy or sell a thing.
I mean, can a beard really be ferocious? The lines are at once comic, melodramatic, deadly serious and dripping with irony –– the whole indented section imitates Pablo Neruda 'from memory' before denouncing him as 'a rapist in his autobiography, / and in his real life presumably’. The humour softens but doesn't diminish the blows and allows the poem to be cynical without being jaded, impassioned without being earnest.
Flowers offer solace to the exasperated speakers, exhausted by canvassing and campaigning. But even these are compromised: tulips arrive a month early due to the unseasonable weather. Nevertheless, their quantity (tulips, roses, chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, narcissi) shows that they're central to Roberts' poetics. There's a tendency for socialists to revile beauty as a bourgeois luxury, so it's refreshing to read activist poetry that isn't afraid to embrace it. Besides, direct action isn't the only way to oppose. At the end of 'Joy Sparkled in All Their Eyes', the poem about biomass and voting, the speaker brings a bunch of flowers indoors. At first, I thought it spelled a crestfallen defeat, but now I think of it as an act of resistance. The flowers provide beauty, defiance and refuge –– just like the poems themselves.
Text: Robin Boothroyd