Review of 'This Is Not My Nose', Michael Rosen, Penguin £7.99
Some poets write to be appreciated or admired. Others, like Michael Rosen, write to be understood.
There are dangers in this approach. Politically conscious poetry risks bypassing emotional connections by its directness. Autobiographical poetry risks being introverted and self obsessed. Michael Rosen's latest collection of prose-poems, This Is Not My Nose, expertly avoids both pitfalls, but it does more. It places the experience of a long term mystery illness into a collage of anecdotes and observations, which - although superficially commonplace - invariably contain more wisdom than is at first apparent. This 'memoir of illness and recovery' is also about discovery - self discovery, yes, but as an interdependent component of coming to understand the wider world of human relationships. Though the narrative is framed by his illness, the fear and frustration of which is palpable, Rosen recognises that life is always multi-faceted - with grief, love, regret and joy all finding genuinely eloquent expression.
The joy of new life, for example, is perfectly encapsulated in the following, most succinct of poems:
'We make a baby.
The baby smiles.
The baby makes us.
We buy her toys
But she plays with shoes:
She makes herself.'
Here the dynamic normally associated with nurturing is inverted. The baby becomes a subject (and not just a receptacle) in a dialectical exchange with her parents - she shapes them in the process of discovering herself.
Elsewhere such moments of discovery can be bitterly ironic. It is only when the local school is turned into luxury apartments that the old 'School Board of London' sign is cleaned as a curiosity piece. The local council's conscious neglect of flats leaves them derelict, bought up and boarded up as 'investors' wait for their price to rise - 'for rent' unless you want to rent them. And the exchange between a Palestinian man and an Israeli family with property deeds written by god is sublime.
But to selectively quote or describe this wonderful collection cannot do it justice. It is best appreciated in its relaxed, complex entirety, the themes rippling into your consciousness like a cool backwash from a passing ship. The relationship between personal and political is always fluid, the emphasis - even in the dark times - always on change and development.
When his condition is finally diagnosed and treated Rosen describes, in full cathartic detail, how he ran:
'I ran. I ran round Hackney Marshes,
I couldn't stop. I ran to see friends.
I ran away from home. I ran round in
circles. I ran myself down. I ran
down the road. I ran back. I ran backwards.
I ran to the end and ran back again. I ran
in the wrong direction. I ran into things.
I ran through everything. I ran out of
reasons. I ran a half marathon.'
When you've read This Is Not My Nose you will probably feel like doing the same.