Wild Court

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

On ‘Toys / Tricks / Traps’ by Christopher Reid

Mark Wynne

Whilst Christopher Reid has often disguised deeply autobiographical work behind sophisticated role play – the fictional female translator of an Eastern European poet in the extraordinary Katerina Brac (Faber, 1985) or the gently buffoonish widower Professor Winterthorn in Nonsense (Faber, 2012) – the protagonist of his new collection, Toys / Tricks / Traps (Faber, 2022), is recognisably the ‘bumbling poet’ employing ‘makeshift rhymes’ (‘The Flowers of Crete’) that we recognise from his Costa Award-winning collection A Scattering (Areté Books, 2009).

It was the moving poems dedicated to his late wife in A Scattering that established Reid as an outstanding poet of loss. The Late Sun (Faber 2020) featured fine elegies for his mother, lost friends and, ultimately, the environment. Now, however, Reid’s eulogies are directed at his own childhood self, the ‘questing infant hero’ (‘Little Hero’) recalled by the present-day, adult ‘listless sleeper’ who ‘may appear as good as drowned’ (‘Shut-Eye for the Old Man’), sorrowfully reflecting in ‘Breaking and Losing’ that

…seventy years
of breakage, loss and tears
have brought no clarity at all.

This psychologically complex dialogue between the two selves – younger and elder – makes for a poignant, cat-and-mouse mission to find one another, each imprisoned in their own present tense. And while geographical displacement provides a loose narrative framework (born in Hong Kong and then traversing the globe from Egypt and Sri Lanka to England), the toys, tricks and traps of the title may be said to describe Reid’s unfolding psycho-geography, the myriad selves that he unlocks from the Chinese puzzle of his own history.

Thirty-eight years after questioning the validity of recollection (‘Memory supplies/the illusion that one has lived…’ – ‘Screens’) Reid now suggests that memories may in fact conceal (or trap) our most authentic selves. And echoing Robert Lowell’s memorable declaration that ‘poets die adolescents/their beat embalms them’, he challenges the notion of adulthood correlating to maturity. In ‘Mystery of the Two Ages’ – placed halfway through the collection – he confesses to being frozen in the personality of his eleven-year-old self, inviting us to perform the same calculation:

if you were willing to engage
in an honest and searching backward
look at the phases of your childhood,
and locate where you were happiest.

This, too, is your exact age,
carried within you wherever you go…

It’s this pseudo-naïve child protagonist that narrates the first half of the book, many poems adopting an almost pre-verbal simplicity in their depiction of life as seen by the infant poet. The painter’s eye that described the world so beautifully in A Scattering

…laying the landscape out in its ancient
       shape and colours,
velvety ochres and greens on the steep hill,
       a blue-green
glaze on the bay…

(‘The Flowers of Crete’)

– is now radically condensed, as in his recollection of painting lessons in ‘Kindergarten’:

Put a round shape of yellow here.
Not too much. That’s right.
Well done you’ve made a sun,
lovely and bright.

And matter-of-fact delivery and unselfconscious (nursery) rhymes wonderfully evoke the immediacy of a child’s impressions, as in ‘Byzantium’:

At the topmost tip
      of the topper most twig
totters a birdie
      much too big…

The rest of nature
      is nicely done
with whirligig flowers
      and a buttered sun.

Reid has always excelled in feather-light, delicate rhymes and fizzing immediacy – he has written wonderful children’s poems – and the body-swap role play of this collection yields vivid snapshots reminiscent of his earliest work: the so-called Martian genre that made him and fellow poet Craig Raine famous in the 1980s. The surrealist otherness of those early poems might, in hindsight, be more accurately described simply as the wide-eyed bafflement and alienation a child experiences – and records – when confronted by the adult world.

This inscrutable, forensically penetrating gaze of an outsider – whether a displaced child or introverted adult – is complimented by Reid’s uncanny ability to identify with the most ordinary or unprepossessing subjects. ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ offers an exquisite portrayal of the ‘shy haunter of ceiling corners and skirting boards’:

So many many-angled legs to carry or hurry you
through your routine of twitch-driven physical jerks

The poem twists, unexpectedly, to what might be a wry observation of the poet himself:

brittle but brisk, you elicit affection by being
like a broken toy that, somehow or other, still works.

As the poet ages, mutations of identity are observed with unblinking directness, Reid’s ‘teenage delinquency’ affording opportunity for some wonderfully Adrian Mole-esque episodes. ‘Epiphany’ finds the young Reid enjoying the ‘sheer opulence of solitude and lassitude’ while recuperating from a minor illness in his dormitory bed, suddenly delighted by the ‘surprise/of my first erection’ swiftly followed by

the immediate next surprise being
knowing just what to do with it. And do again.

The passing of time gives the collection a novel-like momentum and propulsive sense of accelerating ever deeper into real insight, the subject forever changing yet ultimately, remaining the same. In ‘Kindergarten’, the minor catastrophe of a failed art project abruptly jump-cuts seventy years into the future:

That’s how you find me now:
fumbling tatters of misbegotten art
with paint-stained, glue-clogged fingers,
but not yet – while hope lingers –

ready for a fresh start.

This ever-present optimism keeps self-pity at bay, but there are still plenty of rueful reproaches, as in ‘Little Self’ where Reid wistfully observes that ‘the imp of oddness/that started the whole process/without knowing why’ remains stubbornly incapable of hearing the elder’s offers of advice or encouragement:

No answer. You can’t hear me.
You’re too busy
playing with your toys
of dictionary words and funny drawings.
The one adult
who would have been happy
to join you in conversation
is simply too far away.

At times, the echoing tunnel of the lonely elder poet communing with the isolated, lost self recalls the grief-stricken laments of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters (which Reid edited at Faber). The light touch of Reid may be a world away from the mythic grandeur of Hughes, but it’s no less powerful for its quizzical, delicate tone:

Here’s a riddle I think you’ll find amusing:
which is the greater grief,
breaking or losing?

(‘Breaking or Losing’)

Towards the end of the book, the telescope Reid points inward and backwards catches sight of other significant characters in his life, inviting him to consider his genealogy. In ‘Dictionary and Typewriter’, his father’s love of words is recalled (obsessively studying the dictionary and his ‘daily, ritual / tussle with the crossword…’) and his mother’s devotion to her ‘sturdy Royal’ typewriter that offered her escape from ‘the menial employment/her own mother had planned for her,’ create a loving tribute. But some memories are more troubled, as in the late rumination, ‘Mirrors’, where Reid recognises his father’s reflection, ‘unmistakably… my own’:

He peered out at me as if
aghast at what he had fathered,
and no doubt I returned
much the same shocked look…

Like the young self that Reid has pursued throughout the book, his father can be seen but not addressed, bringing to mind the impossible ‘perfect speech’ of Ian Hamilton’s laments to his late wife and father, loved ones for whom there can be no final reckoning, truths revealed too late to provide resolution:

We are happy enough to see each other,
as long as we can rely
on the courtesy of mirrors
to keep the peace between us.

Words – even if addressed to ghosts – are our only consolation, and the poet’s passion for language remains undimmed through the years, as he writes in ‘Lucretius, He Say’:

…that old fervour remains to this day…
…a predilection
for words in an uplifted state: argument
syntax and prosody making music together.

This fifteenth collection by Reid shows that his vitality and curiosity remain undimmed, and confirms his reputation as one of our most eloquent poets of elegy and loss.