Contemporary poetry (to misquote Blackadder), is a lot like sex. Tons of it about, but I just don’t get it. So I was a little nervous when I gave Apocrypha a go. But I’m happy to say I quite liked it (I seem to remember the same thing about sex, come to think of it).
Apocrypha is an entertaining collection of poems about those twilit zones of the modern imagination where the sacred meets the mundane. It’s about the experience of living with religious stories we no longer believe in literally, but which we can’t forget.
Its best poems drop biblically named characters into the less glamorous corners of the British way of life; “Adam lay miraculous,/ unconscious with drink”; “Barabbas came to Butterstone,/ found his chalet, unpacked”; “Abraham wielded a watering can”. Many of these poems open with familiar Old Testament images which reminded me of stained-glass windows in serious Victorian churches (especially “Moses horned, lantern-jawed/ down from his mountain”). These poems repeatedly pull off the disconcerting trick of making you think you’re about to read a poem about Adam in Eden, only to find out it’s actually about Adam the rough-tongued and heartbroken whiskey connoisseur.
I call it a trick and it is – but it’s one that’s used well and to good effect. The first poem really is about Old Testament times when everything seemed sacred and there was “a god/in evidence everywhere”. This is the perspective Apocrypha keeps on tricking you into applying to mundane modern Britain, before jerking you back to reality. Because whilst the ancient Israelites really could believe that God was in a cloud, we can not. But, as Apocrypha shows, we still know the old stories, and we’re still tempted to try to apply them to the world.