The Devil’s Tattoo stirs with the torment of addiction, drips with the love of a bar stool, the admiration for a good barmaid and the way music can make you feel like you can create your own heaven. A self portrait of a wicked sense of humour coupled with a passion for the arts drummed out with fingers and feet.
The poetry conveys short stories of loneliness, frustration, repeated patterns and the dry times where you tread water, watching the clock for the acceptable time to let your hair down and lose yourself, outlining the humiliation of getting the wrong house, the having to get out of a bath for a piss, of ‘a grown man hell-bent on having fun?’ You can read this collection in one sitting, preferably with a bit of
playing. Meschiya Lake
As is always difficult with collections, which poems do you focus on? I’m going to start with Teaching Jesus to Dance and its devilish portrayal of addiction. This poem and Positions in Bed for me imply martyrdom with the mention of Jesus and the crucifix in the latter. The crossover with this beast inside and outside reveals a distorted worship of the drink;
“It’s hard, you said, when the Devil’s on your back;
you climb up his gnarled sequoia spine
vertebrae by vertebrae,
your glass steady; do not spill a drop.”
Interestingly the Devil is not within as he climbs his spine, balancing the beloved drink, bites and drags him on to the dance floor. Who is the monster here? The addict, the drink, the beast as the addict ‘howls’ in another dawn during the supernatural battle to either keep dry or convince yourself of a guilt free indulgence.
Positions in Bed again reveals the pain and sacrifice of a dry day; lying in bed;
“My right cheekbone rests on a crucifix
Or forearms, one calf tucked
Across the back of a knew; some unconscious
Attempt at achieving symmetry.”
It captures the loneliness as he imagines a lover and dreams of wild nights and pubs;
“dreams once savoured, loves
Imagined, and if crucifixion
did not mean vocation;
some days on the cross, some off.”
The vulnerability captured in In Bed with Ma Rainey starts with an almost self loathing;
“both of us being fat and ugly, glutted
from hedonism, we seemed the perfect pair.”
Yet as it goes on becomes a romance of deep soul mate connection;
“and she knew she was the most beautiful of ugly things.
Midas would have traded everything to be her,
I swear it was her voice that turned her teeth to gold.”
Stepping Stone is towards the end of the collection but really stands out as the embodiment of the rest of the poems for me. It seems a plea to the ‘weekenders’ to try and understand the isolation, the struggle and the fragility of every small step taken each day to remain dry. The last verse is heartbreakingly touching and shows a combination of strength and frailty in the constant contention with dry days.
“Once both feet are on the stone,
before taking another step,
look down. Look long and hard
at your reflection on the water,
then deeper to name
the fish that ripples through your core,
to spy what lies
half-buried in the shale.
And through all this, clenched in the fist
like a fretting butterfly, the desire
to be dry.”
Stepping Out for a Cigarette is simple yet powerful, the final lines as the smoker reflects on the revellers inside;
“would be unnerved to see me looming,
so dark – like a shadow on the lung.”
Triolet to a Barmaid is on the face of it an ode to barmaids, I’m sure a drunk’s best friend, imagined lover and life coach. This poem for me, again, is a bit deeper than just that, showing the repetition of a day to day seeking happiness and contentment outside of a bottle. The pattern and the frustration of it seeps from the simple words of Song for Swinging Drunkard too.
Scarecrow outlines the beginnings of the person in boyhood,
“he wears his unkempt crown; king
of the hand-me-down. Dressed
forever in the same tattered rags”
He already struggles to find a voice, to yawp, the dent in the personality of someone vulnerable to addictions already made. Of course it might not be this at all but this is the beauty of reading a collection that jumps around with surprisingly layered meanings that draw you in.
Portrait of the Piss Artist as a Young Boy ends with;
“Was it just the prospect, at that young age,
Of a grown man hell-bent on having fun?”
This I think is the crux of the problem, the bars, the drinking, the endless pattern of dry and wet days, of feeling crucified, discontent, fragile, determined and lonely; it is a very basic need to want to have fun, to find happiness and very little to do with wanting to be humiliated or shamed as a drunk. The happiness sits in the bottle like a trickster, not unlike the devil to some.
The Devil’s Tattoo is a brilliant debut and I'm looking forward to more poetry from Brett Evans.