Review: Sloth and the Art of Self-Deprecation – by Brett Evans

Pamphlet, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2018

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Sloth: an arboreal mammal with a very low metabolism, slow and deliberate in its movements, sloth being related to the word slow. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

 

On picking up this pamphlet, the reader quickly realizes that Sloth is both animal and philosopher … and that double meanings, clever wordplay and a jazz/blues soundtrack will course through the poems.

First contact is with Sloth on the rocks, linking the hero/anti-hero to the Martini in his three-clawed paw on book’s cover; the cocktail will be a recurrent metaphor in the book. Or perhaps the rocks hint that Sloth might at times feel imperilled, stranded on a diminishing outcrop while a foaming sea rages about him. Perhaps they foreshadow Sloth’s apparent affinity with the Icarus narrative – the rise, only to risk the catastrophic fall (one of the themes of the poem Bull).

The poet’s deployment of words with multiple meanings, startling images, occasional shock, and layered metaphors ensures that our experience of this slim pamphlet will be so much greater than the sum of its twenty five poems. Ambivalence about fame and success, a justifiable disinclination to reach up or reach out for fear of falling, can be discerned as major themes in this pamphlet, but what is diffidence if not an honest symptom of the daily struggle ­to survive, against the odds?

Most comfortable at home in his familiar habitat, you will most likely find philosopher-Sloth in a dressing gown or shirt, stained with some body fluid or other, or still abed in skid-marked sheets towards noon, no friend of the dawn chorus or the cold caller … and certainly not a willing entertainer of knockers with evangelical intent. Sloth is often encountered revelling in his mammalian glory – a belly-hauling, ball-scratching, farting, shitting, pissing organism par excellence. He laps and guzzles, and is not good at exercising restraint. Even as a sloth-child, he experienced “excesses driven beyond volition” (Philosophies and Maladies).

Philosopher-Sloth also enjoys certain refined pleasures, such as the Martinis, but these are knocked back with a penalty his mother (“the barmaid”) failed to warn him about. The risk of falling/fear of failing – of being similarly knocked back – prove to be companionable, but quite unworthy, drinking partners. It might feel safer, and less of an ordeal, not to stray too far from one’s comfort zone, whether that is “a tree of his own” or “the second-hand wingback chair / with torn upholstery” but, with sociable Sloth, the reader also visits a series of pubs, bars, jazz and blues clubs and boozy streets, in search of other comfortable perches, epitomized by the “well-padded bar stool”.

It soon becomes clear that Sloth is no sluggard or slouch when it comes to erudition. He is well read with a stack of books at one hand, balancing the inevitable Martini at the other. He knows his James Joyce, his F Scott Fitzgerald, his Hemingway; can recognize a Hogarth … and that shipwreck-saviour, the Raft of the Medusa; and he is intimately acquainted with the two-edged xiphoi of the Spartans who cut a dash across the upholstery of his comfy seat.

The sloth-heavy themes of the book are helped along by both humour and the ever-present soundtrack: a procession of mostly American jazz and blues musicians and combos in a variety of haunts. The reader soon becomes infected by foot-tapping, while the blues supply regular infusions of humanity. Sloth’s hallmark is a compassion for the underdog … and the abused. This finds ultimate expression in the final poem: Sloth and the Snake (for the Standing Rock Sioux), telling of the colonized first-nation inhabitants of North/South Dakota, victims of so many broken treaties, whose territory has recently undergone yet another episode of exploitation, imperilling water supplies and thus their very existence. I detect in this poem fellow-feeling for fellow-sufferers.

Having reread and reread this pamphlet since it arrived through my letterbox, I have come to enjoy more and more the consummate wordplay, inspired line-breaks, startling images, rich accumulation of metaphors and calculated shocks. There are even a couple of rhymed poems, cunningly wrought (I’m in awe of any poet with the audacity to rhyme Jew’s with billet doux). I have reached the conclusion that there is a virtuoso performer playing here, and that any diffidence (certainly not sloth) may have in the past dictated more modest ‘venues’ than the ‘arenas’ to which this artist might have aspired. I am glad this work has joined his previous volume (The Devil’s Tattoo, Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2015) ­… with the same worthy publisher.

While weighty questions are raised by this slim body of poetry, the work buzzes with wit and verve, belly laughs sharing space with a rare artistic sensibility, humanity teamed with courage. Solace comes mercifully, in the shape of an odalisque, in the nuzzling of freckled skin, and in a rather special two-course meal. Predictably and unashamedly, my favourite poem in the book is Big Women and Men of Imagination, closely followed by Sloth on Fine Dining both for its absolute filth and as a decent sonnet. Positively Shit Street – Rhyl to Venus deserves a mention for its splendid last line “goggling Venusians wondering what fucking planet we were on.” Other favourite lines from this master of one-liners come from The Martini as Big as the Ritz, (“Enough ice to reassure the polar bear”) and Bull (“The house of unrising bums” ­– hat tip to Eric Burdon).

Sloth notwithstanding, there is no excuse, at all, for the poet to be self-deprecatory about this latest volume. The craft – no, the art – in this pamphlet rises up, rampant, and bursts forth, unashamed and unapologetic.

 

 

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