Swallowing Paregoric Babies

By Pete Donohue

Published by Uncollected Press (ML, USA)
158 pp. $15 from publisher or £11.27 from Amazon UK
Also available from local bookshops (signed)

Review by Nick Pelling

It is sometimes thought, wrongly, that poetry is a polite art form. One only has to think of the title of the Radio 4 poetry programme, Poetry Please. As if Poetry were a cucumber sandwich served in an Edwardian tea room. The recent collection of poems by local writer, artist and poet Pete Donohue has utterly nothing of that about it.  Rather it is a collection of badly behaved poems, often flinging guts and bodily fluids in the face of the reader. 

There is a brutal honesty to the pieces, frequently dealing with stuff many might prefer to avoid such as drug use and drug death and sex, and even suicide. The very title implies opiate pain relief (rather than eating babies, which as we all know is wrong). One assumes that the need for pain relief comes from sources in Donohue’s own life story. There are a few explicit flashes of his life experience but there is also a certain Dylanesque conjuring up of characters and probable splicing together of episodes. 

The influences on Donohue are debateable but Bukowski seems to loom large; yet the Beat sensibility comes with an almost Punk influence – one thinks of John Cooper Clarke perhaps – but indeed the poetry and some of the songs of Patti Smith seem to be a distant inspiration. It would be wrong to think Donohue just serves up an entertaining slice of poetical sex and drugs and rock n roll. That certainly does not seem to be all his ‘brain and body need.’ Indeed, it often feels as though this sort of menu is slowly breaking him and people around him. There is evidently a lot of pain swooping around with the swifts or lurking with the dead fish.

Of course, it might be that the poet is pulled into this sort of writing by a penchant for an aesthetic of the visceral: a perverse taste for blood and vomit. But the human stories seem to contain too much real anguish to just be spitty efflorescence.  

My favourite poems – if ‘favourite’ is the right word – are the ones where there is still laughter in the dark, such as bullfrog love or the tough vexation of people pissing you about, which acknowledges that the apocalypse can come with the irritations of tiny human failures; as well as the four horsemen. But peculiarly perhaps, the real punch comes with the quieter love poems such as something like love. Slowly unfolding, tragic poems such as some kind of smile cannot be tritely summarised here I feel, but need to be read. 

The poems are not usually set out according to neat rhyme schemes, instead the language seems to proceed by a musical feel for the rhythm of words, but the taste is definitely more staccato than pianissimo. Donohue does not dance in pretty steps, it is a bit more swirling, frenetic and angular than that. But behind that there is a genuine human warmth and empathy. If you have the taste for a descent into something a bit more real than facebook platitudes, I suggest that you swallow up a dose of some of this poetic fluid.

Signed copies are available from Bookbusters, Printed Matter, The Hastings Bookshop and The Bookkeeper

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