The Titanic Cafe closes its doors and hits the rocks or: Knife, fork and bulldozer ultra modern retail outlet complex development scenario with flowers is the latest pamphlet out from intrepid new Midlands poetry publishers, Nine Arches Press.
This shiny new offering is from David Hart, so well-known on the Midlands poetry scene that he almost requires no introduction, but for those readers beyond our little region, Hart is a kind of mesmeric, shamanic figure with an Old Testament-style grey beard, poetic idiom and gestures worthy of the great eccentric - mostly northern - mavericks of the last century: Jon Silkin, Ken Smith, Basil Bunting, Barry MacSweeney and their ilk, if rather more jovial than those particular poets had a reputation for being.
So what of this new pamphlet? Well, it consists of a single long poem, demonstrating Nine Arches' continuing commitment to British experimental writing outside the mainstream that both makes sense to normal folk who might come across it - hoorah for that! - and addresses Big Issues rather than what the poet had for lunch. Though, of course, this being a poem about a cafe, lunch does come into it. And tea: strong, sweet, and plenty of it. But what of the poetry itself?
Titanic Cafe is just stunning. Just stunning. I sat down and read the poem in bursts: slipped first towards the end, pulled in by a phrase that caught my eye, trawled backwards a few pages, frowned as I realised the enormity and scope of what I was reading, hurriedly turned to the beginning, leapt ahead uncontrollably, checked myself and went back again, more slowly this time, lost myself somewhere in the middle and couldn't have been happier.
Titanic Cafe is one of the most lightly achieved, unpretentious, mordantly ironic, and relevant contemporary poems I have ever read. It possesses gravitas in spadefuls, yet never fails to laugh at its own futility as a gesture against change - this is the poet as King Canute, both pointing ironically and weeping as the waves sweep in around him, or the bulldozers in this case.
The poem concerns an ancient, tumbledown cafe in Birmingham, which was demolished in 2007 to make way for a giant Sainsbury's shopping complex. With the discipline of a true artist, David Hart treats his subject with a deep and loving nostalgia that is never allowed to dissolve into sentimentality. The result is a poetic call to arms which accepts the inevitability of change whilst stopping to salute fallen comrades like Titanic Cafe in the hope that something, at least, of its spirit and ethos may be encouraged to remain in this world; a call to the memory of a steaming tea urn, or a much-used greasy spoon, in these days of counter queues, hygienic serve-yourself plastic cups and pre-packed, mass-produced snacks.
In pursuit of his nostalgic homage, Hart employs a cornucopia of poetic - and daringly anti-poetic - effects: lists, italics, capital letters, vocal asides, end rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, local history, mythological references, dictionary definitions, botanical lore, imagined and real conversations, bureaucratic development-speak, publicity posters, billboard messages, statistics, long-dead poets and their inspirations (Offa looms large in this poem, with shades of Geoffrey Hill behind him, though here clearly Hart's own monarch), plus blocks of 'real' poetry, whatever I might mean by that tricksy comment. You'll need to buy the pamphlet to draw your own conclusions on that.
The theatre of THE BEST TEA IN THE UK
is falling down,
the canal isn't deep enough for the TITANIC CAFE
to sink without trace, there'd be a fine mess.
All but ready to collapse
of its own volition. Listen,
a child on a longboat along from Bournville asks,
What's that?! 'It's a
planks and struts and frames by numbers temple
to the God of Advertising
where you could buy God's Own Tea
till the God of Storm
took it away almost.'
To add to these delights, the 36 page pamphlet is handsomely produced in a smart dark grey card, with excellent black lettering, a fold-out map, and a large number of full-colour plates depicting the life and death of the Titanic Cafe, photographs taken by David Hart. There are also copious, fascinating notes and relevant quotations at the back, some of which almost constitute a prose poem in themselves. I urge everyone to buy a copy and show it to all their friends, to demonstrate the relevance and great good sense of contemporary poetry in the face of all kinds of other nonsense.
Gone now, the Knife and Fork Titanic
without the dignity of sinking even
in shallow water, but knocked down
and taken away
in a lorry.
The new Sainsbury's will sell hot tea
so that's okay.
David Hart's glorious TITANIC CAFE is available now from Nine Arches Press and online booksellers such as Amazon and costs - all those full colour plates, remember! - £8. You can find out more about David Hart at the Nine Arches site, or at his somewhat infrequent blog.