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Book Review: Holy Toledo! by John Clegg

06/06/2016 10:20 | Updated 06 June 2016

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As the truism goes, we get our whole lives to write a debut, and considerably less to produce the follow up. As a result, second collections are usually our best indicator of what a poet truly has to offer and the sort of path their career may take. Second collections are also usually far more cohesive bodies of work than their predecessors and this is certainly the case with John Clegg's Holy Toledo!, a very English poet's take on America, Americans, Americana and Americanisms.

When another very English poet, John Milton, considered the Americas, he saw the Puritan north as an analogy for the Garden of Eden, and the Catholic conquests of the South as Satan's own Pandemonium. In one of Holy Toledo!'s key-stone poems, 'Milton's God', John Clegg considers the NSA's infamous Utah Data Center as an infernal 'Schlub pastoral' and presents all the chilling blandness of totalitarian bureaucracy:

"Tonight / I'll think of their small talk at secret / Potluck, so-and-so's promotion, worry lingering / Round [name redacted]'s meteoric rise - / Main worry being, meteors don't rise."

However, it is not the Milton of Paradise Lost that we see channelled in this poem of Clegg's, but rather the Milton of Areopagitica - the Milton who feared the cultural effects of the state's pre-censorship that allowed them to veto a text before it was even printed.

If Clegg presents us with evil as a 'schlub'-culture which gives no thought to nuance, he presents himself as the antithesis: a poet consumed with the refractive multiplicities of meaning held within language. The title, 'Holy Toledo!' is a colloquial American exclamation, but also a former kingdom, or if taking the words separately then 'Toledo' is a city in Ohio and a city in Spain, and 'holy' has more meanings than this review would have time to begin covering. It is this simultaneity of meaning which Clegg 'worries' over throughout this collection:

"Proofreading / someone's hurtling thesis / where they had 'port pilferer' / I made it 'harbour lowlife', saw / the joy recede as sense ebbed in. / It's that I worry at, and find I can't correct." - A Translation of 'The Andalusian Fountains'

The irony of dedicating a whole stanza to disambiguation, then exploiting the duality of the word 'worry' in the final line is the sort of dry, understated hyper-wit which is the lifeblood of this collection.

However, it is not just occupational tedium and the tiny evils of small lives which run through this collection like the copper-wire motif which accompanies them; Holy Toledo! is more concerned with the anaesthetic effects of a maligned culture, and the role language has to play in misshaping our understanding of the world. It is, again, both sorts of worrying which Clegg attempts to evoke in a reader. The Cormac-McCarthy-esque speaker in 'Rain Bird', an American plumber, gets side-tracked from fixing a broken shower-head to consider the nature of metaphor and semantics in shaping his world:

"The rain-bird is a sort of square-bit key / unlocking California to green." ... "Yessir, you think about it for a while, / wing as waterfern, as fern of water, / wing as feather, fractalling to spray / to swansdown..."

The later poem 'Lacklight' - a kenning which Clegg uses to denote 'darkness' and our unhealthy relationship with it in modern culture - is a stand-out moment of philosophical insight in the collection. The poem is an allegory of how the mythical 'we' once saw darkness as 'an ersatz light', then 'came to love the dark' before 'the age of lacklight' drove us into inescapable visibility and an urge to illumine everything, before concluding that a return to darkness is imminent; 'I think my lacklight eye is almost open'. There are allegories within allegories in such a deceptively simple poem and I shall certainly be turning to it in times of revolution.

Attending the launch party for Holy Toledo! at the London Review Bookshop last Thursday, I was struck by how well-represented the various factions of poetry's broad church were. One could spot academic grandees, spoken-word stalwarts, up-and-comers, veterans of 'the scene', darlings of the prize and fellowship circuit, editors of mainstream and independent presses, bloggers and readers. What's more, contrary to popular representation of poets in the media, it was a night of the poetry community getting together and being friendly and warm toward one another whilst celebrating the achievements of one of our best. As the headlines are all too eager to point out, poetry can often feel like a world which is defined by its rifts; in the case of John Clegg's Holy Toledo!, a rare happy consensus seems to have been reached that a major poet of the new generation has hit his stride.

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