Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

A Scholar of the Everyday: on ‘Collecting the Data’ by Mat Riches

Christopher Horton

Collecting the Data (Red Squirrel Press, 2023) is a pamphlet that decrypts everyday experiences, observing in them both the complex and the sublime as an integral part of the poet’s coming of age. These experiences constitute a kind of life-induction programme for Riches that at times comes across as almost predestined, as is the case in ‘Goliath’ where he finds a perfect skimming stone in his pocket at the shore’s edge, allowing him to ‘Take Careful aim, wind up / like a slingshot. Let go.’

Induction is not a complete indoctrination, however, as Riches maintains, for the most part, enough distance from experiences of recreational activity, sonhood and his own immediate family to reflect on the absurdity of each situation. By way of example, in ‘Half Term at Longleat Safari Park’ it is the monkey that the poet identifies with and more specifically the way it was ‘just trying to amuse his kid’. This comparison to his own parenting outlook informs his last line observation, utilising the kind of wit that is typical of his writing style: ‘I recognise myself in that.’

If Riches is an insightful and incisive pun-maker, he is equally a keen observer of those things that can be easily missed amidst the mad rush of everyday life. In ‘A City Break,’ which this time focuses on a trip to Berlin with his wife, he states: ‘it’s embarrassing how fast we’d stopped noticing / the goings-on behind the scenes of each other.’ For Riches though, it is mostly his own individual unknowingness that becomes the main point and this creates a powerful sense of pathos that is frequently disarming. In ‘Trajectory’, recalling a childhood cycle accident, he struggles to articulate the value of not knowing ‘what’s coming towards you’. In ‘Swimming Lessons’, he finally confides that he is out of his depth whilst a family member front crawls away at a ‘rate of knots’. Whilst these images may have the structure of jokes, they are also cleverly intended, on a deeper level, as a commentary on the impossible nature of life and its failure to provide definite answers at key moments.

In a similar way to Geoff Hattersley, Riches uses the pun device to draw attention to the infinite impossibility of the world and the lack of a traceable, consistent narrative within our lives. Humour, in this sense, is a way of dealing with the bleakness of not knowing, of finding your way through the darkness. Riches uses wit, more specifically, to show how the ephemera of the materialistic world we live in provides a way of avoiding or screening away what really matters. For instance, in ‘Setting’, the whole neighbourhood watches the arrival of a newborn from their over-modified houses where loft conversions dominate and the poet concludes with a wry sense of tongue in cheek: ‘We’ll ask the parents / its name when we’ve taken down all our scaffolding.’

Any remaining sense that Riches is purely restricting himself to witty externalised observations rather than more personalised reflection is completely dispelled in a series of poems that include his father and erstwhile ‘boss’. In ‘Working with my Dad’ he describes the uneasiness of the dual role of dutiful son and worker trying to simply fit in. It is though the image of the speaker’s father who ultimately returns to all those that worked for him as a sentimental unifier beyond the small talk. This reminds the speaker that mortality itself has rules, just like work: ‘Who knows if we’ll ever find the balance / between new news and stories about you / before we’ve all clocked off for good.’

The indelible nature of the father figure looms large and the complex mix of affection, respect but also weight of expectation is something that many sons will identify with. In ‘Clearing Dad’s Shed’, it is the sense of not knowing the names of tools that makes a sense of distance and difference: ‘The Long drive back is spent blaming: him for not showing their uses, / me for not asking him.’

You have the sense that Riches’ father – a deeply practical and often serious man – passes down both important skills to the young poet but, more so, shares a sense of his own fragility, and inherently his own maleness, ever striving against a construction of masculinity that is rendered, by the restrictiveness of its own definition, unreal or at least unattained. Riches is not judgemental of this behaviour, rather he accepts it is a thing that must be navigated so as to maintain strength in a relationship that also defines him. In the poem ‘Riches’, the poet goes back in time and presses against his father’s feet in awe as he co-drives, for a moment, a newly bought but ultimately second-hand car. The poem includes the revealing and endearing expression (as seen through the young son’s eyes): ‘I thought you were made of money.’ This is a poet that recollects the keen detail but who also understands that love and affection is often held in the actions we take in instructing others, especially our children.

This is Riches’ first pamphlet and it is commendable that he is able to demonstrate such a definite sense of his own ‘voice’ in a way that is beyond most poets who are starting out on their publishing journey. It is a voice that is distinguished and assured through the use of sharp wit, a deep understanding of language and of relationships. He envelops the reader into a world that is highly imaginative and whilst a good number of the images are surreal, it is reality – or at least the things that are integral to keeping us real within the context of the relationships we build – that interest him most. For all his humour and playfulness on a variety of subjects – there is a poem with the Arecibo Telescope in its title – he is at his most impressive when writing about family, both the one that brought him up and the one in which he is now a parent. In Riches’ work, a sense of unknowingness that we all share, and which intensifies with age, is offset by acquired wisdom that comes from having observed and decrypted the behaviours of others. He is a scholar of everyday situations and understands how the interactions we build through routine are in many ways the most important, and most telling.