sat 20/07/2024

Wayne Holloway-Smith: Love Minus Love review – powerfully excavating the tormented poet's psyche | reviews, news & interviews

Wayne Holloway-Smith: Love Minus Love review – powerfully excavating the tormented poet's psyche

Wayne Holloway-Smith: Love Minus Love review – powerfully excavating the tormented poet's psyche

Painful and heartfelt poems set against a history of personal tragedy

Wayne Holloway-Smith

Roughly two years since the posh mums are boxing in the square scooped first place in the 2018 National Poetry Competition, Wayne Holloway-Smith returns with Love Minus Love, his second full-length collection.

The follow-up to Alarum (2017) includes that competition winner, which describes the magical revival of a cancer-stricken mother, sent into the boxing ring against the very tumour that threatens her life. Now, it is but one of many standout poems in this highly personal exploration of anxiety, broken families, and masculine fraility.

If the voice of the posh mums performed its observations watching her from the trees, in Love Minus Love as a whole the poet has turned his lens firmly on himself. It is …m/ydsyfunctional/family which provides the core for the majority of Holloway-Smith’s raw and emotional nosedives into the deepwater of his own past. There, images such as your mother… /in the passenger seat of a brown-beige Vauxhall Cavalier/her hair done perfect and the photo of my dad smoking and looking like James Dean present themselves with excruciating specificity. This is just one of a number of Hollywood cameos, against whom the poems’ figures are repeatedly being measured up. Holloway-Smith is at once re-writing the conventions of family life, whilst acknowledging regardless the pain of seeing those figures come up short. So, the voice confides, I’ve been so lovingly breathed into by the empty promise/of that cigarette”. Holloway-Smith’s persistent willingness to break from standards of grammar and form replicates the sense of precarity that such emotional environments inflict, recasting that which is structured and straightforward as the signifier of an alien normality markedly different from the poet’s own.

Yet, self-reflection of any kind requires a degree of abstraction. “elsewhere I’m standing with my hands/in my jacket pockets”, reads the opening line to another poem – a moment of disassociation that comes to define, in very real terms, much of the action within the collection. Holloway-Smith writes from the perspective of someone who has been burnt by the recognition that all human beings are infallible, no matter their relation to us, and who is now all-too-able to recognise those flaws in himself. On more than one occasion the poetic voice narrates the experience of departure from a physical body – or failed departure, the advice of a therapist failing to find its mark, not so much hypnotic as reaching/for the hypnotic”. A series of prose interjections also run through the text, offering up the fruits of what seem to be ongoing psychoanalytic treatment. It is important to stress this seem”; the ability to speak through vagueness is perhaps Holloway-Smith’s best. Our engagement with the significant events of the poet’s past are a series of near-misses: a father figure about to do something/…very bad, while later on we (almost) encounter a terrible thing/that is happening. Each instance offers evidence of the childlike simplicity present in much of Holloway-Smith’s language, a choice that helps us not only to venture with the poet in these acts of masochistic time-travel, but which so accurately conveys that experience of knowing-without-knowing, or knowing-without-wanting-to-know, that is the recurrent calling-card of early trauma.

Like the mental demons that haunt the narrative voice across the poems, images repeat. In a nice way, Holloway-Smith is practically obsessed with the meaty fundamentals of the human form. We are given the primal image of a snake, overburdened after consuming the carcass of a dead cow, “crawling through its food”, to which the poem replies “many people are having sex like this.” Neither is the reverse slippage, from meat to man, more than a moment away: NEVER READ A BOOK NEVER COOKED YOURSELF/A MEAL/SWITCH ON THE OVEN orders a not-so veiled imperative. Here and elsewhere, in the tenor of a Beckett, and with the macabre anatomism of a Gottfried Benn, Holloway-Smith’s self-disgust breaks out horribly, brilliantly, into pure contempt for the human condition. Life is a matter of living out your own sitcom, suggests a poem that opens with the lines “what is sad is there is even an intimacy/in getting mugged”, whilst another prose-poem reads: so funny to be normal so hard to imagine an illness in your head going off loud like a fake studio audience”. It is a sardonic spin on that Warholian maxim that everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” – Holloway-Smith agreeing, if that fame arrives via a Truman Show, or perhaps an episode of Black Mirror, in which the poet is the perennial victim of a mass produced canned laughter sporadically announcing itself as the cruel manifestation of his inner anxiety.

Love Minus Love is perhaps best understood as a collective, albeit fragmented, verbalisation of this tormented poet’s psyche, with many of its poems reading as snippets overheard from a story already-in-the telling. Nonetheless, Holloway-Smith’s guiding voice offers a substitute for the elusive authority figures of the poems themselves – if not through a fortitude of its own, then in its broad capacity for sympathy, and an ability to draw new strength from collective wisdom: “everybody loves a comeback so”. So, reading these poems, slowly, we bear witness to the beginnings of a reluctant pathway towards resolution. From behind gritted teeth, out of “the sun…/and my daughter laughing” the poet affords a genuine smile that, we believe, will see the tables turned on his personal tragedy: “I look silly doing it here goes/…everyone is dancing the rhythm is in me.” A heartfelt putting of pen to paper, it is best defined by a single, summative word: bravery.


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