Review: Lorraine Mariner’s Furniture

I know I’m reviewing the book and not the blurb, but it’s so irritating to find Lorraine Mariner being advertised as “quirky” when that is obviously the word reviewers are going to use to dismiss her. As Mark Storey wrote about Stevie Smith, “the weight of alleged eccentricity deadens the brightest spirit”; and it’s interesting how the allegations are mainly attached to female writers with a distinct voice and a sense of humour. The rest of the blurb could have been written by a cliché-shuffling robot (Mariner apparently has a vision for “how much of the everyday is purely surreal”). It’s a little thing, but it irks, because this is an excellent debut collection and it would be a tremendous shame if it slipped under anyone’s radar for whatever reason.

She writes well about failed relationships and very well about childhood. Politics only becomes a theme when it jars abruptly against day-to-day life: I cannot imagine a better, saner poem about the 2007 London bombings than “Thursday”, justified like a newspaper column until it cuts out abruptly in the final line. (Her found poem on the financial crisis is also excellent, turning a particularly asinine-sounding Independent article into wonderful cut-up surrealism.) About a quarter of the poems feature Mariner’s alter ego Jessica Elton, who thinks and acts like a character out of a Victorian novel transplanted into modern London. One of these is short and smart enough to deserve quoting in its entirety – “Jessica Elton’s Cup of Tea”:

is weak and milky
artificially sweetened
lukewarm by the time
she remembers to drink
so be thankful
you are not it.

This is a fairly good illustration of Mariner’s default style; prosy (with prose virtues), unshowy, employing clichés to interesting effect. Sometimes the line-breaks feel arbitrary: in “From Now On”, which describes a protagonist re-ordering their social life into “a high-volume / burger and shake operation”, the closing lines stumble very avoidably (“There’ll be no seating / area in this franchise”). For the most part, though, the deliberate lack of effect makes the poems stronger. As in Leontia Flynn, whom Mariner superficially resembles, a subdued, conversational register means even slight variations in tone can startle.

I like Mariner best in her slightly longer poems; “Assertiveness role play” and “Feathers” are for me the highlights of the book. Both are romantic narratives, packing enough character development for a short story; “Assertiveness role play” (a monologue set in a very tedious and plausible-sounding confidence building course) is also very funny. (I wish they worked better in quotation. As it is, you’ll have to take my word for it.)

Furniture is not, to use Kafka’s phrase, “an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us”. The epiphanies it offers are on a small scale. Poetry offers so many of these minor pleasures we can take it for granted, and forget how hard it is to write with such charm and humour and intelligence. It’s a joy to curl up on the sofa and spend an afternoon in Mariner’s company, or to enjoy the poems one at a time, like the big box of flapjack squares I’ve been working through simultaneously. (A question for the comments section: would flapjacks be improved with icing?) Just – as much as possible – ignore the blurb.

Lorraine Mariner, Furniture, Picador 2009. £8.99.

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