Like his first collection ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ (Salt, 2008), many of these poems are rich in culinary and gastronomic language.
Rowland has a deep understanding of how food can be used to explore themes of national, regional and class identity. He also understands the central position that food holds in all our lives, and its importance as a normalizing factor, a potential source of refuge and comfort, as in this stanza from ‘Arras’. ‘Chocolate gift before the fighting patrol/: it feels like you are holding the whole Front/with a lost bolt. Three weeks is the average death/. Instead, have a do at this cake on the grass.’
In the opening poem, ‘Berlin’, a sign advertising Ice Cream peeps through Eisenmann’s Memorial and the speaker feels too uncomfortable with his own tourist status amongst such landmarks to settle for ‘café patter that holds the roll/ above unguilty pleasures, bullet pocks.’
Rowland is on a mission to use words that normally only reside in dictionaries.
The appearance of ‘discombobulate’ in a description of unwrapping sandwiches is perhaps a mouthful too far, but it is an example of Rowland’s ambition to fully utilise language, and not just English but a whole range of European words. I would have liked this poem and several others in the collection to have had footnote translations.
This aside, the unease of a tourist surrounded by physical reminders of horrific historical events is evoked here, and again in the deft and effecting ‘Serchio Bathing Party’ which details a tour of the house in which Holocaust survivor Primo Levi committed suicide . The tour is contrasted against later experiences the same day including the delights of a plunge pool, a gelato hatch and the Po’s ‘Olympian serenity’.
Similarly, ‘The Fuhrerhauser’ is a journey through Soviet and Nazi landmarks including Birkenau. In clipped three line stanzas, observations of the banal mix with the horrific to evoke the incongruence at being tourist among remnants which stand testament to unfathomable inhumanity. This sequence is well placed at the end of the collection where it remains likes a monument in an empty landscape.
‘Bitter’ celebrates and mocks a variety of Real Ales. Some of the beers speak for themselves in a masterful blend of overblown advertising and bawdy language. Wordy mouthfuls beg to be relished aloud, my favourite being ‘Oban’s Fair Plugged wants frottage with a Cornish’. There is another dimension in the remembrance of a less sophisticated drinking culture ‘where Tetley glasses used to sail the air/changing the channel to random violence.’ This is Rowland at his funniest and most poignant, switching quickly from humour to grim unsentimental realities in one fluid journey.
In ‘Sausage’ we disturbingly find ‘the sausages that glitter in the Somme moonlight’, and ‘Arras’ contains the sort of absurdly comical anecdote that is passed down through a family by word of mouth; ‘Someone shot the brigadier’s dog in no-man’s land:/no password.’ And ‘Your keys to the door arrive in a trench/with two birthday cards in bits: birthdays/would gift the enemy information.
The sheer inventiveness of much of this book kept me engaged, entertained and rewarded. If I were to be negative I would say I had too much on my plate with ‘Engrish’ (there are two poems with this title in the collection) which seemed over long. Then there are several ‘Hotel’ poems, surreal ‘Tripadvisor’ style accounts which I found a bit too thematically and technically similar to all merit inclusion.
On the whole Rowland succeeds brilliantly in bringing a surprising mix of ingredients together in a celebration of language. This is a big book in more ways than one. Not everything here was to my taste, but there are enough exquisite and memorable dishes to make this the equivalent of a Michelin star experience.
I am a Magenta Stick is published by Salt, 2012.