The Devil’s Tattoo
By Brett Evans
Published by Indigo Dreams, 2015
£6 (+ p/p), 30 pages
before taking another step,
look down. Look long and hardat your reflection on the water,then deeper to namethe fish that ripples through your core,to spy what lieshalf-buried in the shale.And through all this, clenched in the fist
like a fretting butterfly, the desire
to be dry.
- From “Stepping Stone”
I read this collection in bed, curtains blotting out the spring light, and think there are probably few better places to read it other than, probably, sat in a pub. A dark pub at that, and hopefully next door to a grungy tattoo parlour. Brett Evans’ The Devil’s Tattoo must be one of the darkest, troubled and most honest collections of poetry I’ve read in recent years. I use the word “honest” with sufficient hesitation, because it’s one of those now-vacuous pop words used in poetry reviews, but here it is sincere.
This isn’t a collection to warm the cockles on a lonely night, but to send you reaching for the shot glass. This isn’t an elaborate collection full of experimentation or linguistic gymnastics; reading it can feel like taking a rough tumble and a crack to the ribs, though. It won’t let you off easily, and I like that.
I began this review with a quote from “Stepping Stones”, a poem which was at first seemingly innocuous , but which I feel encapsulates so much of the vavoom behind the collection as a whole. We are asked to be cautious (“before you take another step”) to look down at ourselves, beyond the surface (“look down. Look long and hard / at your reflection on the water, / then deeper”) to face the startled, slithering beast within (“the fish that ripples through your core.”) Who can’t help but be set back and saddened by the final lines, as the narrator – as if in confessional – begs for release (in this case, I assume, from alcohol addiction) as so many have: “like a fretting butterfly, the desire / to be dry.”
We might be persuaded into thinking that this is a book about escape, a desire to get away. I wouldn’t be entirely against that notion. Certainly there are longings for change; physical, emotional, sexual, social and otherwise. The poems become a self portrait as the narrator project themselves onto the page, often in a less-than-flattering manner:
I dreamt I was in bed with Ma Rainey -
both of us being fat and ugly, glutted...
she knew she was the most beautiful of ugly things.
- - From “In Bed with Ma Rainey”
And again in “Anticipating Pints of Stout”:
The snow settles on my shoulders;
this long, dark coat hugging my corpulent carcass
There’s something immediately disarming about a poem which sets out with a description so visceral and near-monstrous, and through that device (I think it acts as that, and it is used quite frequently) the poet/narrator arouses both compassion and understanding in the reader. We are on their side because they are ugly, imperfect, and all too human. The poet is therefore cast as fragile and worthwhile, rather than self-deluded in their tinfoil tower.
Poets also become the focus of The Devil’s Tattoo, and the choice of object becomes a mirror for the narrator’s ambition. In “Reading Sean O’Brien in the Bath” we see that same self-flagellation at play:
On the first floor of an ex-council house
this fat, pink alchie reads O'Brien in the bath.
At his shoulder the pint glass of cider mocks
his sweating face.
The poem is about the worry of wasted years, but also the feeling of inability which follows. Poetry embodies an attempt for self-renewal or improvement which the narrator cannot emotionally or physically attain as he is forced out of his reading to empty his bladder:
our hero wakes to the fact
that something is amiss; had he hauled his bulk
out from the tub just to take a piss?
But there’s uncertainty in that final question, as though to ask us: ‘Is this finally the day he’ll make that change? Perhaps he’s going for a jog and a smoothie.’ Hope, yes, but a hope that’s never verified. A similar pulling-short occurs in “Portrait of Dylan Thomas, oil on canvas by Augustus John”, which I encourage you to seek out (google will get the job done here!) In the portrait, Thomas’ expression is slightly gaunt, innocence and wisdom lurking in his off-side glare. The narrator in this poem feels his/her own sexual desire lurking, but also a desire to heal the writer’s pain:
Those two red, too red lips that had mothered vowels and spatconsonants; those ‘hold that pose while the artist fucksyour wife-to-be’ eyes, of course, betray no surprise....And so it is those lips I wish to kiss to stop you cursing,
that face I’d slap to turn those brimming eyes away.
The end of the poem raises the question as to the usefulness of art and love. These serve no great ‘practical’ purpose, not like building a wall or planting a tree, and yet those disparate, ungraspable parts of life are what make it worth living, if we can get them:
Still, now’s far too late to curl a finger through one red ringlet,pull you to my chest and whisper There, there, boy.
Lovers don’t matter anymore than artists. Or poets.
Sometimes art cannot quench pain, and this is all too apparent, yet language may act as an anaesthetic. The music of Evans’ verse is vibrant and alluring, though he might be writing about piss-filled back alleys or toilets laden with vomit. This is a realm of dark days and nights, smokeless pubs and half empty pint glasses, but the rhythm and rhyme of each verse is bouncy, bold and carefully crafted, reminiscent of blues music in which sorrow became voiced through beat and breath, music and the shared experiences it provides its never-to-meet listeners. This is best seen in Evans’ sonnets, which use the traditional, often romanticised form, to explore darker elements. In “Teaching Jesus to Dance” the narrator gives Christ a few tips on how to fight dirty:
It’s hard, you said, when the Devil’s on your back;you climb up his gnarled sequioa spine...sink your teeth into that toughest cutof meat: the neck. He’ll writhe, so grasp your pint,employ your weight till the bastard breaks; enough
of this should see his hooves are shorn, have bled.
Even the holiest is reduced to having to punch their way to victory in a world where “good” doesn’t mean “right” or “worthy”. Evans’ form is appropriate to the biblical ideology, however inverse, and yet completely modern and vibrant in approach. The rhythm of the sonnet purposefully undermines the more serious aspects of the verse, here and elsewhere, suggesting that life’s a bit of a game whilst also camouflaging the despair that’s inherited and inherent in life.
That’s what I mean when I sincerely say that this collection is honest. It’s not afraid of truth, or at least a version of truth, even if that honesty feels altogether too cruel. In “Like Louis Armstrong Practically Rewrote Stardust” (the poem which contains the book’s title line) Evans’ predicts my pseudo-psychoanalytic waffle, addressing the potential conclusion that ‘poetry is the release of the dark spirits’:
I'm grabbing the standard by the balls;the familiar must become unfamiliar.No wondering why I've spent the lonely nightsdreaming of a song: too many days conductedbeating the Devil’s tattoo on the bars. I'm taking
control of this tune now.
Like any construction, poetry is an attempt to regulate those things we cannot control. Too fat? Write a poem. Too drunk? Write a poem. Can’t get laid? Write a poem. It’s pointing the stick back at us and saying, ‘Hey, go hit yourself with it.’ The Devil’s Tattoo is, I believe, the curse of introspection and addiction. We are our own worst enemies, pitiable and worthwhile at the same time, in the same bag of blood and skin. Poetry might just be able to share that darkness, either to deepen it or wash it away with light, but for now the devil is in charge.
Coming to the end of this review I realise I’ve not said a great deal about how “good” the poetry is. I hope this is self evident, but for those of you looking for a sound bite: it’s very good indeed. There were two or three poems which I felt were out of place, though strong in their own rights (namely, “Triolet to a Barmaid” and “Song for Swinging Drunkards”, and one of your imagining for good measure) and they fit thematically. There are poems about Wild West movies and those which blitz childhood with war, which I didn’t mention. These bookend the collection very well to invite a reading with regards to the nature of man’s inhumanity to man, as well as our trivialisation of pain and suffering as entertainment, and I would have been happy to read more of them. As is to be expected, I didn’t love every poem in this book. However, I massively enjoyed reading and rereading the vast majority.
This is Brett Evans’ debut collection, and I look forward to reading his next instalment. If you find yourself alone one night, glass in hand, you’d do a lot worse than to mark yourself with The Devil’s Tattoo.