I’ve enjoyed reading Stephen Daniels’ poems whenever they’ve popped up in magazines and on websites, including a couple that I published on Clear Poetry, so I was delighted to hear that he’d teamed up with the excellent V. Poetry to publish this, his debut pamphlet.
Like V. Press’ other publications, it’s beautifully designed. The bright orange cover is instantly eye-catching, and is amber used as a warning of some kind? The cover image too is thoughtful and memorable – an idealised couple where the man is scratched out.
The collection kicks off in style with ‘Four-minute warning’ – it’s a useful way to ease yourself into Daniels’ slightly surreal and unpredictable style:
Drop the children
Fold the tea
Cook the cutlery
Iron the rug
Nothing is as it should be, and we wait with baited breath to find the denouement, with the poem’s final line (and the pamphlet’s memorable title), ‘Tell mistakes I love them’.
What follows are poems about a difficult childhood, a troubled family life, awkward adult relationships, death and parenthood. In each poem, the narrator finds themself at odds with the script they’re expected to follow.
Wry flashes of humour, as well as some clever sequencing, ensure that this is anything but a hum-drum tale of woe, none more so than ‘Flat-pack apology’:
My wife tried to divorce me
in IKEA, the ride home
put us firmly in arrears…
…I flourished the instructions,
folded them precisely around my ears.
Being comparatively new to the poetry scene, Daniels isn’t afraid to experiment with different forms. The prose poem, ‘#NewbornDad’ is the best of these, formatted as a dense rectangle, perhaps to resemble a mobile phone handset and which reads like a feverish stream of sleep-deprived consciousness:
…We use a warm steam vaporiser. How’s
that work routine, how many emails? I mean,
Jesus. Yeah. Oh right. Does she cry between
meals? She can’t breathe easily…
Despite the discomfort, awkwardness and sense of shame which threads its way through the book, with the final poem, ‘uplift’, we’re left with the feeling that these problems have been conquered, or at least that in writing about them Daniels has perhaps surmounted them. It’s a wonderful way to conclude a very accomplished debut:
for however long it lasted
I believe we were flying
In a field of increasingly homogenised writing, Stephen Daniels’ book stands out, earmarking him as a distinct, honest and self-deprecating voice.
Tell Mistakes I Love Them is available from V. Press at £7.50 (including P&P). It’s released on 05/06/17, but you can pre-order it now.