Matthew Haigh’s Black Jam

I have spent the last three months not writing a review of Matthew Haigh’s poetry chapbook, Black Jam.

Around the time of the book’s publication by Broken Sleep Books, Matthew put out an offer of review copies on Twitter, at which I immediately leapt. A couple of days later, it arrived: a slim, blood-red volume in Broken Sleep’s house style (no cover illustration, no blurb; minimal bibliographical info; ISBN barcode in sequestered black-outlined, white-filled rectangle – a little machine poem, or a single line in the ever-spooling poem of book titles). Fragilely thin books of contemporary poetry invite careful, almost reverential hands. I opened it slowly, as if to stop the words evaporating in the sudden shock of light. But the pages were icy white, the words reassuringly solid, set.

I read all the poems in one sitting. There was much to delight, much to disturb. Some of the poems were alien artefacts, crafted for a purpose unfathomable to me, while others appeared more conventional, using the frame of a conceit to explore a widely acknowledged reality. For example, the collection’s opening prose poem, ‘Maybe the flowers are already artificial’, is a musical mood piece that suggests growth and grief, but does not stabilise into a single meaning. Conversely, the meaning of ‘Dementia as Video Game Glitch’ is announced in the title (which is not say the poem is not worth reading: it is finely worded and powerful).

Anyone familiar with my reading habits and poetry will guess that I’m drawn more irresistibly to poem-as-Schrödinger’s-cat than poem-as-Newton’s-apple. Some pieces in Black Jam that resonated particularly strongly with me included ‘Clean as a bone’, ‘Variations on Dr Moreau’ and ‘You find yourself’, all of which implicate the reader in the creation of meaning, and retain a core of semantic instability even when that meaning has been decided. Here’s a stanza from ‘You find yourself’:

    You find yourself in a room of purse mouths Straight

    ahead you see a polished simstim with hazy eyes

    moving To your left another emergency

Hinting at a video game or choose-you-own adventure book, Haigh adumbrates a surreal sci-fi mis-en-scène, requiring the reader to supply missing details, construct narrative architecture. This is poetry to get lost in, word worlds that present kaleidoscope flowers, vanishing vistas. In The Plural Space, Matthew Mahaney does something similar, though in a different style. Both poets invite us to voyage away from the rigid conceptual frameworks with which we scaffold reality.

Having read Black Jam, and having promised the author a review, my attention was swallowed first by my day job, and then by a series of my own artistic projects. But Haigh’s words continued to hum in my ears:

    god is a thumbnail skeleton

    a watchman our levers

    leave it flummoxed

(‘A human may be used for looking’)

I kept going back to that tidy red chapbook, increasingly persuaded by the less enigmatic poems, those rooted in a more traditional observational praxis. Haigh’s poems about his mother, disability, and grief are beautiful, and exquisitely crafted:

    I try to bring the world to her

                                   through an iPhone’s eyes

(‘Texting a Fictional Shipping Forecast to my Housebound Mother’)

There is humour too, notably in ‘The Dud’. We all love a knob gag, right? Well, this is a near-delirious riff on the absurd appearance of male genitals. For me, it’s up there with the classic silly willy poem, ‘Mon Roi’ by Henri Michaux. This is my favourite bit of Haigh’s poem:

    a tiny king cupped in the tongue’s velvet a surprise

    but one with slackened posture who’s terribly old


    whose topiary of plush feathered pomp

    hangs about him tacky & foolish as fancy dress

Writing now, it strikes me that there is an impressive variety, both of topic and of tone, in Black Jam. That title, by the way, is taken from a line in ‘Poem in which the wasps want you.’ The ‘black jam’ is that of ‘swatted smeared’ wasps. Haigh’s collection bristles with frantic life, but finds grotesque beauty in death.

I think I will keep going back to this book.


Copies of Black Jam can be purchased from Broken Sleep Books.

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