Wordless by Kevin Reid and George Szirtes: A Review

wordlessWordless by Kevin Reid and George Szirtes, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-909443-25-9. £7.00 Sterling.

A black bowler hat and a white plaster mask, photographed in a number of more or less incrimination positions, sometimes alone, never really together. The photos are black and white, and for each one a short accompanying text sits opposite; centre aligned prose poems of two to four lines, white font on a black, framed ground. Sardonic captions in the form of silent cinema intertitles.

The hat is generally ‘he’ and is identified with death; the mask generally ‘she’ and  represents life as best she can, given her striking resemblance of a death mask. At the end, in the last poem, they sit and wonder “Who are we waiting for?”. The bones of an echo.

This odd pair inhabits a world of everyday objects: a car that serves as a bed, a toilet open-mouthed, an actual bed, a rotary clothesline, a bench in a railway station, a telephone kiosk, a pram, the vague detritus of urban living. We see them caught at (in)significant moments in their progress through life’s stages; infancy, young love, marriage. It is a quotidian universe tilted askew by the presence of our odd protagonists. “Sometimes it’s too much. What is?” Well, everything, really.

And yet we are warned form the beginning not to read to much into these objects:

There was never a doubt. There was only ever the absolute.
The hat in itself was neither surreal nor mundane.
It was a hat for God’s sake!

The photographs were originally taken, one per day, by Reid as a project for National Poetry Writing Month, with Szirtes adding the text later, the conjunction being published online before appearing in this handsome, A5 landscape booklet. The result of their collaboration is a gentle, very British surrealism, in the tradition of Philip O’Connor and Hugh Sykes Davies, that dances on the margins of tweeness only to be rescued by a twin seriousness of purpose.

On the one hand, Wordless is a study in the rebalancing of those ordinary binaries, life/death, male/female, alone/together, darkness/light, that weave their way through our ordinary lives. Hat and mask are each other’s Other, dancing a wary two-hander, distinct but interdependent.

I could not tell her, nor could she tell me.
We were drowning in sheets.
We had nothing to go on, so we slept,
or pretended to be sleeping.

On the other, it asks us to look anew at each other and the world we move through, to see that world with fresh eyes. Reid’s apparently random but quite careful visual conjunctions and Szirtes’ crosshatched commentaries are designed to literally open our eyes.

That the book achieves both ambitions so well with such deliberately limited means is a testimony to the acuity of both authors. This may not be the most substantial book of poetry published this year, but it is one of the more enjoyable ones that you’ll read, if you like your pleasures complexly simple.