Black Russian – Out-Takes from the Airmen’s Club 1978-79
Jeremy Reed (Waterloo Press, 2010)
The poet Jeremy Reed is something of an anomaly. On the one hand he has deliberately fostered his own populist cult-of-personality by being an inimitable performing-artist of his work and courting the undeniable status of being Britain’s ‘glam’ and/or ‘underground’ poet. He has performed regularly with musician Itchy Ear as Ginger Light and their combo is available to hire for parties, private functions, festivals etc. In this vein The Independent decorated Reed lavishly as ‘British poetry’s glam, spangly, shape-shifting answer to David Bowie’ and Reed’s website contains eulogies from pop luminaries such as Pete Doherty and Bjork. On the other hand Reed has garnered more ‘serious’ praise from established, mainstream writers like Seamus Heaney, J.G. Ballard, Kathleen Raine and David Gascoyne who couldn’t be further away from the transient glitter of pop celebrity. The latter called him ‘the most talented poet of his generation’ and Reed has received many such accolades in the almost forty years he has been publishing his work. Since the early 70s he has been prolific, creating a substantial body of verse which in its visionary fire and quotidian veracity is certainly both credible and durable. Apart from his scintillating poetry Reed has also turned his hand to fiction, critical/biographical studies, translation and full-length verse-novels. His ‘versions’ of Montale have proved one of our most enduring and vivid snapshots of that Italian Hermeticist. Back in the 60s Michael Hamburger expressed concerns, in his seminal volume The Truth of Poetry, about ‘instant poetry for instant consumption in performance’, but he probably hadn’t envisioned a poet of Reed’s calibre who manages to straddle both the populist and the perennial realms of poetry like a mercurial trapeze-artist. This constant oxymoron is something which invests Reed’s work with both a longevity and an enviable immediacy.
Waterloo Press have recently issued two poetry collections by Jeremy Reed. In 2009 they published West End Survival Kit, a dystopian sequence, and then a year later Black Russian – Out-Takes from the Airmen’s Club 1978-79. As the title of the latter suggests the poems in this collection were all written in the late 70s but for some bizarre reason, known only to the poet, have remained unpublished for over thirty years. The most important reason for assembling the collection now is certainly to publish and showcase Reed’s long poem Junky Tango Outside Boot’s Piccadilly, a magisterial elegy for a friend, Paula Stratton, who committed suicide from a drug overdose. In his introduction to Black Russian Andrew Duncan posits quite confidently that the ‘mighty’ Junky Tango was, and is, Reed’s ‘masterpiece’.
There is nothing more exciting than to present the unsuspecting reading public with a ‘long lost’ masterwork. It is the equivalent to Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes or The Bootleg Series in popular music where fans were suddenly presented with unreleased ‘out-takes’ from many years previously that were as good, if not better, than the so-called ‘official’ album releases. The whole concept of an ‘out-take’ in popular culture has indeed taken on a special significance in an age where technology can now allow for extra tracks to be placed at the end of an up-to-eighty-minute Compact Disc for instance. Traditional Vinyl, of course, would only allow on average twenty minutes per side. And with the influx of down-loads by the younger music-buying generation the music business has had to provide superior ‘legacy’ or ‘bootleg/out-take’ recordings for that older generation who are the only ones still buying CDs or records. This ‘superiority’ seems also to be the case with Reed’s major ‘out-take’ Junky Tango Outside Boot’s Piccadilly, a sprawling threnody made up of 86 eight-line stanzas. Its sheer ambitiousness and scope alone makes it a stand-out in the Reed corpus.
In this spectacular poem the poet is psychopomp to London’s dark underworld and its retinue of pushers and procurers both in a spiritual and a very tangible sense. The opening of the poem presents the poet as shaman or priest conjuring with language and liturgy to make the elegy possible:
Necro-aleph, I begin a rain to divinize
behind the words, behind the
cortege; the poem always outdistanced in life,
that it becomes an elegy
once directed; a last conjurative
ritual in this black cold of January.
I come to meet you where conjugation
can only guess; but never can arrive.
The elegy has had a long and distinguished history in British poetry of course, but Reed is perhaps being more ambitious than just trying to re-write, with a contemporary slant, an elegy of Thomas Gray. His magnificent opening with its neologisms and plays on language evoke Homeric or Dantescan parallels. The Nekuia or descent into the underworld of the dead has ancient, cultural, mythic significance within Western Civilisation in order for renewal and spiritual re-birth to take place. Ezra Pound, for instance, begins his epic Cantos with a Homeric descent to the land of the dead via a living poet to find metamorphosis and re-birth. And it is to Ancient Egyptian rites of the dead, alchemy and the Kabbalah which Jeremy Reed turns to under-gird his eschatological meta-narrative. Through this he is able to create an appropriate verbal liturgy for this extremely moving lament. Rimbaud’s ‘alchemy of the word’ with its theosophical connotations for each vowel also seems to be an obvious progenitor here. Reed has written a biographical study of Rimbaud and his visionary poetics seems indeed to stem from a Rimbaudian source:
Language always the first evocation
in death; the last invocation in life;
and now a cabalistic nexus through
whatever words will come to reappraise
absence; to revivify.
Reed’s ‘astral alphabet’ (stanza 46) with its theosophical connections is his means to reach and appropriately remember his dead friend. For the alchemy of poetic or highly-charged language is indeed the node where life ends and death begins. It is this semantic ‘nexus’ or ‘coming together’ of life and death which constructs the phenomenal net of the poem. The suggestion is, of course, that poetry becomes the only appropriate and sacral act to memorialize the dead as it possesses an alchemical ability to transform just as much as Ancient Egyptian death rites (‘Reqaqna’, ‘KherHeb’, ‘the ka’ etc.) and Kabbalistic rituals also once had. Seances are often invoked throughout Black Russian as if Reed is seeking astral communication between the dead and the living through the medium of this book:
I can never
arrive without a diaphragm of gold
the occult alphabet in mineral
veining the poem from shoulder to wrist.
That’s divination: apotheosizing words
in halls so ordinary that the lost
might turn the bathroom door to burial,
or boards at Catford: smoked tulle in rain.
Junky Tango‘s prodigious scope derives partially from it’s geographical references. Tube-station names and the names of areas within Greater London are planted throughout the poem like stations-of-the-cross or signposts to mark the directions within Reed’s hallucinogenic Hades. This linguistic geography goes a long way in giving the poem both shape and purpose. For the seething metropolis of London itself is indeed the ‘underworld’ and the gutted landscape in which the poet, and the poem, make their funereal, heartbreaking journey. ‘Outside Boot’s Piccadilly’ within the very title of Junky Tango Outside Boot’s Piccadilly suggests the importance that the poet would place on specific locations within the elegy. It was presumably outside Boot’s in Piccadilly that the pushers pushed their wares onto Reed’s deceased friend. As the poet’s brilliant line in stanza 6 suggests: ‘Death’s a superfetation of who push’, he is not necessarily blaming anyone if there is to be an eventual re-birth within death. Nevertheless, the dark underbelly of London’s drug and underground music-scene world and its inevitable victims, including Paula Stratton, is the ‘underworld’ which Reed conjours so inimically well in this devastating poem:
Was it at Teddington, your mainline fused?-
This direct rhetorical question with its single London place-name anchors the poem firmly onto terra firma and brings the tragedy heartwrenchingly close to the reader without, however, dipping into mawkishness. At other times Reed employs a whole litany of London place-names within a passage to chart an emotional journey of both place and spirit:
At Waldergrave you heated your blood white,
and stared supinely through the stained-glass hall,
too late for work at Kew Gardens; a view
of the small station at Strawberry Hill:
the flux of nameless persons passing through.
The place-names start to punctuate the poem with a realism, although one tinged with a garish-visionary psychedelia which borders on the nightmarish in certain parts of the poem. Take, for instance, an earlier section of the poem which acts as a kind of camera obscura recording a bevy of junkies as they partake. Reed juxtaposes this ceremony with Ancient Egyptian death-rites which invests the ritual with a mythic dimension:
That’s a bath-robe on gas
at Cleveland Street. One of the congery
went on his knees tightening a thorax
to inhale the oven. Too many were
amphetaminal rejects from a myth
unassimiliable because it is
contemporary. Rites of those London attics
that were almost Third Dynasty, as at
Reqaqna, all the mummies facing East
in orientation. Here the ritual
was autophobic. A resinous altar
over a lime-pit; the chemistry of wounds,
identity; blood and a sterilized
So, on one hand, there is a quotidian truth-telling of precisely observed detail, but it is always enriched by a metaphor borrowed from ancient civilisation and, therefore, mythologized. For instance, this passage could also allude to the Homeric lotus-eaters.
It is not just to high literary culture that the poet borrows. Reed also alludes to his favourite ‘glam’ pop-musician-icon, his namesake: Lou Reed, on at least four occasions in the poem. This is such an ongoing conceit in Junky Tango that the reader could perhaps start to perceive Lou as a kind of doppelganger or artistic twin for Jeremy:
Lou Reed it was, the H of exequies,
who found a narcotic simile
in music for your dichotomy.
The songwriter of Heroin and Perfect Day was able to ‘conjure’ with the rituals of words and ‘minims’ to create a suitably ‘narcotic’ simile for Paula Stratton’s tragedy just as much as the poet of Junky Tango is performing through these words. Waiting For the Man, Lou Reed’s classic Velvet Underground song, becomes a metaphor for the imminent coming of death, a ‘death-syncope’ (stanza 77). A pun for ‘syncope’ seems to be intended here on both its medical and its musical sense.
More than anything, Junky Tango appears to be not just an elegy for a friend but also for a passing era: Britain’s 1970s underground glam/punk generation:
Clinkers on a bloody hob, they fry in metal units
of institutional wards, apomorphine, anacathartics,
then return to re-patrolling the same streets.
Some for money become male prostitutes,
others disappear in corridoors where
the night ends. They never reach the other
end of night; it’s too far for atrophy:
its arcana too unmanipulative
for the fragmentar.
These lines recall a similar lament for a passing era which involved experimental drug-use: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. In Ginsberg’s case it was, of course, the 1950s New York underground Beatnik generation, but there is a similar plangent distress and anger expressed in both poems. And yet it is primarily as an elegy for a lost, loved friend that Junky Tango leaves its indelible mark:
I would not have you as of the bulk dead,
the bestial face-down of necrosis.
Your black kimono still lies on the bed.
With an almost Imagiste precision Reed conjures up, time and time again in Junky Tango, a beautiful and sonorous music. Elegiacs of the highest order.
After the brilliance of Junky Tango the rest of Black Russian, seventy shorter poems, does seem somewhat bathetic. This is unfortunate as there is much of quality to be found here. Even though this beautifully-produced book is worth the admission for Junky Tango alone it is still good to read formative poems at a crucial stage in Reed’s protean development as a wordsmith (circa ’78-9). In many of these extant poems the poet describes a dystopian world of cruelty which is over-technological and desensitized to primal human emotions. One is reminded of Ballard’s novels of a similar period (High Rise, Concrete Island) or Derek Jarman’s depiction of late 70s Britain in such films as Jubilee. In Reed’s shorter poems doppelgangers, assassins and gangsters absurdly prowl the London streets and there is claustrophobic paranoia in underground stations. There is also a small group of poems in Black Russian to do with flying and aircraft in a similar vein to the ‘underground’ poems, but this time a paranoid cruelty enacted on the thermal currents of air. And this is presumably why the book is subtitled: ‘Out-Takes from the Airmen’s Club’. Perhaps an irony was intended here as Reed is at his inimitable best when envisioning the dark tunnels of the ‘velvet underground’ i.e. death and re-birth-within-death. Perhaps also a pun on the soul’s ‘flight’ through ‘Death’s superfetation’?
Waterloo Press have done a commendatory job in publishing a long-lost Jeremy Reed masterwork in this collection which will inevitably beg the question why a lot of his earlier volumes from the 1970s are now out of print. In an age of artistic ‘legacy’ one looks forward to what other ‘out-takes’ and ‘lost’ literary masterpieces are waiting to be discovered and revealed to an unsuspecting public from Reed or any other poet.
Mark Wilson, April 2011
Jeremy Reed (born 1951) is originally from Jersey, but is a London-based poet. He has published dozens of books of poetry, critical prose and fiction over the years, as well as translating the work of many European writers of the 20th century. The book under review can be found at Waterloo Press (Brighton), http://www.waterloopresshove.co.uk. Mark Wilson is a poet who lives in Peterborough, a city located somewhere in the lost kingdom of Middle England. His poems and reviews have appeared in The Black Herald, The Shop, 3:AM Magazine, The Fiend and Le Zaporogue.