Review: Charles Lang’s Aye ok (2020)
On a week in which the tweeters were debating representations of Glasgow in relation to the Booker shortlisted Shuggie Bain, the publication of Charles Lang’s debut pamphlet, Aye ok (Speculative Books) feels like an authoritatively rooted conclusion to an overly abstracted debate.
For the first time in perhaps forever, traditional readers of poetry and the ‘literary’ novel are encountering working class artists and writers who represent and construct their own background and experience without even the slightest curtsy to their likely readership. Lang’s pamphlet sketches experiences of working-class life in south Glasgow, faithfully representing memories through the dialect in which they were formed. To say that the middle (professional) classes dominate literature is to say something so tiringly obvious as to negate its being said; yet it is also to break a conspicuous silence held in place, unspokenly, by some who would prefer literature remain the very symbol of upper-middle classness. This pamphlet of poems is remarkable for many reasons, chief among them is its quiet insistence on the inherent value of its own content. Lang, speaking of the work, says “I think it is generally inspired by people and the wonders of the everyday. It was very important to me that the poems represented working-class life, and that they done so with all of its pride and complexities.” If this is Lang’s ambition for his work then we can say without doubt that he has succeeded entirely.
Aye ok’s first poem documents the tearing down of the Mitchell Hill Flats in Casltemilk., Glasgow on 27th November 2005. ‘Well, that’s it … aw oor memories, a wummin said.’ The poems that follow are often about memory, often are memories. ‘An Education’ is a recollection of school days; ‘The Shopkeeper’ evokes Abdullah, the local shop owner; ‘Saturday Morning’ recounts the hope-filled hopelessness of endless weekends spent playing 11-a-side in the ‘pissin rain’. In Lang’s hands, memory is another word for story: something worth telling because it is worth telling. In ‘Granny’, Lang humanely depicts our drive toward story, even if it is just for company during a national lockdown.
There’s a film oan the night n it’s probably a lot a shite but you’ll watch it
There is nothing left of the Mitchell Hill Flats, yet this initial act of demolition and the tearing down of physical memory does not lead these poems to despair. ‘Morning Commute’ and ‘Train to Dresden’ both written in the present, extend the poet’s reach from memory to the more immediate moment. Faced with ‘an auld wummin [who] talks / tae me in German’, the speaker nods along ‘just tae keep her happy’. And in ‘Morning Commute’, our speaker consults the horrorscope in the pages of The Metro on the front of bus. The past is settled, full of stories and is accounted for and the present, like the modes of transport these two poems take place on, is moving and headed somewhere. There is promise here in the stars:
A chance encounter could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship - or maybe more
Lang’s present is in flux, and the movement of these poems underlines the hope implicit in transition and the confusion of its inevitable uncertainty: sometimes it’s a pleasant horrorscope, other times it’s an old woman speaking in indecipherable German.
And while the pamphlet opens with a tearing down, it closes with an eye for ‘Tomorrow’. This final poem simply takes in ‘the full shebang’ through an open window, documenting the birds and the trees, the leaflets through the letterbox and sounds of bin men outside. Our present will become the past and will be torn down, but Lang reminds us of the blessing of an open window, and the promise of an alarm clock that ‘breaks the dawn’.
The endings of the poems eschew any sense of the necessity of revelation. They remain about what they are about and the lack of a David Copperfield moment at a poem’s close is not a lack at all, but the thing itself. One of the book’s simplest poems concisely depicts the experience of picking up a new job (‘The boss is awright … n yer entitled tae a smoke’). ‘N it keeps ye aff the brew’ closes a typical Lang poem, one that sees no need to look beyond this speaker’s immediate experience. There is a wider point at work here, for this pamphlet resists any urge to transfigure experience into something ‘more’ or ‘beyond’. And for some readers, Lang’s refusal to offer the expected moment of epiphany or revelation will be frustrating. ‘Is that it?’ they might say.
And the answer these poems suggest is ‘Yes, that is it exactly.’
This decision to end so many of the pamphlet’s poems in seeming anti-climax is a brave creative gamble. Yet reading a handful of them in quick succession challenges any presupposed notions of what a poem is meant to do. That Lang’s work often resists epiphany or transportation is one of the pamphlet’s strengths, an implicit rebuke to any approach to poetry that requires the classic poetic bait and switch: I was talking about that but it was really all about this the whole time. Metaphor and transfiguration are, the story goes, essential tools on the poet’s tool belt. Of course this has to be true. But the horizontalness of Lang’s poems highlights that reliance on metaphor can also be yet another navel-gazing game of over-interpreted, over-represented experience.
Why does the building of a go-kart on the council estate have to anything but itself? Lang’s refusal to build an associative logic demonstrates his vision and sense of his own work as a poet: representation and the evocation of actual experience are goods in themselves; are enough in themselves.
Marie Howe, the American poet, may seem like a strange comparison to draw with Lang, but they are of one mind when it comes to the ethics of metaphor. Howe is well-known for her deceptively simple style and for her refusal to burden her work with metaphor. In an interview she remarks, ‘to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason.’ Howe’s eschewal of metaphor is an ethical decision to represent as directly as possible the thing itself. Metaphor, considered in Howe’s terms, is a ‘looking away’. Lang extends this insight to working class experience and his poems often forgo grand metaphors in favour of direct representation. In this way Lang forwards a quiet argument that the medium is the message: that the construction of an authentic working class experience requires no ‘looking away.’ The seeming simplicity of Lang’s work, is an invitation into a genuinely remarkable way of ‘doing poetry’, free from the clutter of intellectualism. Abstraction is often, after all, an expression of privilege. Lang is free instead to engage in an energising, heart-full project of description. Clare Askew calls these poems ‘quick and agile’ and ‘at once bashful and proud, nostalgic and ambitious – much like they contemporary Scotland they depict’, and this feels right. This is an important publication from a poet with a refreshing and distinctive voice. Lang has a quiet authority earned in experience and his poems shimmer with authenticity.
Aye ok can be purchased from Speculative Books at https://www.speculativebooks.net/shop/aye