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Variant Air, Richard Osmond, HappenStance, 2014, £4.00
Shill, Richard Osmond, HappenStance, 2014, £4.00

This’ll make you feel bad: Richard Osmond launched his own poetry press in 2012, while studying at St Andrews. Many of us struggle to both read and drink in a single day. Don’t you hate over-achievers?

Luckily, he’s since seen the error of his ways and settled into a more peaceful walk of life. According to the publisher’s blurb, Osmond now “works as a forager, collecting wild plants, fruits and fungi among the hedgerows of Hertfordshire.” Lovely – but also misleading. If you’re imagining a hybrid of John Clare and Squirrel Nutkin, think again. His poetry is neither pastoral nor sentimental. No solitary nights beneath the stars here; in Shill Osmond falls asleep to the shopping channel and dreams of Aphex Twin. 

Shill and Variant Air (published simultaneously) represent Osmond’s debut, and the two pamphlets have almost nothing in common. Variant Air is the bardic equivalent of fan-fic (fan-po?); an extended tribute to Gerard Manley Hopkins. He recreates the 19th Century Jesuit priest’s distinctive ‘sprung rhythm’ with an attentive playfulness that never descends into simple parody. There’s also a great deal of variety within the format. The longest poem, ‘The Fire in the Cottonian Library’, is steeped in Anglo-Saxon, harking back to Beowulf, while one entitled ‘*’ spans languages and continents in a way that feels wholly contemporary. There’s certainly more than one ‘Hopkins’ on offer here (‘He do the priest in different voices’).

Variant Air is more than a little geeky, yet consistently alive to the joy of composition, relishing the practice of putting one sound against another. ‘Flip, fillip, flick, fleck, flake’ offers an elegant ‘how to’ guide for Hopkins-ese:

Give
variant air to airless frames, flame
to life, with living breath, weak nouns and allow
the fricative-liquid blend and velar-plosive
stop to ring, in rising tones, different and the same […]

‘The Fire in the Cottonian Library’, comprises half the pamphlet. Channelling Hopkins’ ‘The Wreck of the Deutchsland’, Osmond mourns the rare medieval texts lost in an 18th Century conflagration. The mood fluctuates between sorrow, hope, and angry shouting: “Antithetical / wyrm! Anti-Pope, / enigma, heretical / figure of no hope!” The poem as whole is strangely mesmerising, albeit odder than a woolly lobster. The voice is loud, passionate and somewhat uneven. The subject-matter is esoteric. Exclamation-marks abound. It flies in the face of everything one would expect from fashionable, trendy, contemporary poetry. Hopkins would have loved it.

It’s an impressive achievement, but ‘Variant Air’ does have one inescapable limitation: GMH is literary marmite. Read this aloud to yourself: “burning to ash Ashburnham House’s burnished cache?” Read it again. Did you find it the play of consonance and assonance to be: (a) moving and melodic; (b) clever and sexy; (c) hideously naff? If you answered (a) or (b), treat yourself to a copy. If (c), give it a miss.

Now on to Shill, in which Osmond remains an elusive figure. The voice here is wry, playful and enigmatic. None of Shill’s 24 poems is longer than 14 lines; most are considerably shorter. Around half take the form of riddles, offbeat manifestos or surreal jokes, as in ‘If My Instructions Have Been Carried Out’:

If My Instructions Have Been Carried Out,

The King of Norway
will be pictured on horseback,
hunting wild boar
in the margins of this page.

He also seems to have a thing for 80s slasher-pics, namechecking Nightmare on Elm Street II in one poem and Friday the 13th, Part II in another. Elsewhere, ‘Legend’ celebrates an age-old horror cliché (“the call is coming from inside the house”).

Osmond is unafraid to wear his influences openly. Three poems across the two collections begin with quotes from Don Paterson, and there’s a touch of Paterson’s more laddish early work in the priapic ‘Freddy’s Revenge’. Here, a young Osmond manually pleasures his female partner, “Crooking my fingers / Like a Bavarian priest reaching up the chimney to bless a smoked ham.” Elsewhere, Shill recalls Paul Muldoon’s more gnomic moments. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Muldoon’s nudge-wink juxtapositions require a certain a level of trust. Osmond doesn’t always succeed in establishing that trust. Here’s ‘Soon’ in its entirety:

a yellow songbird, drowned in Armagnac,

That’s all, folks. Engaging with this kind of writing is like tackling a cryptic crossword; we must believe the puzzle-setter knows what he’s doing. ‘Soon’ creates the niggling suspicion that the clue leads nowhere. Yes, the French sometimes (illegally) drown ortolan birds in Armagnac, before roasting them. Bon appétit. But why call the poem ‘Soon’? If the poem is a continuation of the title, the bird will ‘soon’ be roasted. If it’s a response to the title, the image becomes a metaphor for soon-ness. The future is a drowned bird; out of the brandy-bottle, into the fire (yawn). I’m not quite convinced, but it doesn’t matter. Any interpretation here requires an awful lot of legwork from the reader, for a very limited reward. Call me lazy, but this irked me. So much in Shill is so consistently good that the few unsatisfying moments seem all the more intrusive. Osmond can do better. Luckily, he does so a few pages later, offering up an equally deadpan dead-animal conceit in ‘Aesthetics’, his mock-manifesto for the age of irony:

A poem should be both
the can of Monster Energy
TM
and the dead mouse,
half-dissolved inside it.

This is the kind of poem Sam Riviere wishes he could write. Speaking of dead critters, they crop up again in ‘Roadkill’, where “mosquitoes are dying against the screen / as countlessly as deer in poems.” That sharply-observed putdown segues into a climax that is unexpectedly mature, even melancholy:

  Yellow eyes in the dark stay in the dark,
  and the automatic wiper mistakes
  our small epiphanies for rain.

It’s one of two stand-out poems, alongside the Simon Armitage-like ‘Hobby’, which has a fine opening stanza:

Taking a dull pastime
to its logical conclusion
my uncle stumped off to the potting shed
and killed himself. […]

It’s cracking, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. Andreans will particularly appreciate the shout-out to Aikman’s bar in ‘Yeast’. If you want to get all meta-nostalgic about the present, take a copy of Shill to Aikman’s this January. Settle down with a pint, relax, and reminisce about

Bell Street’s cataract on days
spent under haar, when all light
was bar-kept by a grey-haired man

Called Malcolm.

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