Book review: Oyster, by Michael Pedersen

Michael Pederson has love on his mind in '¨this brilliant collection, writes Roger Cox

Michael Pedersen's new collection Oyster is illustarted by Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit
Michael Pedersen's new collection Oyster is illustarted by Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit

Like the titular Oyster, this new poetry collection from Michael Pedersen is best enjoyed with a glass of something alcoholic in hand, and if that sounds like a thinly-veiled criticism it isn’t supposed to be. Pedersen’s poems exist in a febrile realm of heightened emotion; they come pouring across the page like a rowdy crowd at a Hogmanay street party, and if you want to properly enjoy their mostly warm, mostly enthusiastic embrace, well, a couple of units, judiciously applied, might just help to ease you onto the optimal wavelength.

More than once while reading this collection, I was reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Evidently Pedersen is no priest, and many of the things in this book – poems about brothels, poems about oral sex – would probably have made Hopkins faint with shock, but what both poets have in common is an infectious enthusiasm for the downright amazingness of existence. In Hopkins’s case, his attempts to describe the strength of his feelings led him to coin new words; Pedersen isn’t quite at that stage yet, although there are times when you feel 
he’s worked up so much energy 
in a poem that he might be about to break the bonds of English and Scots and come up with a few fresh coinages of his own. Still, the giddy, high-on-life feeling is very much the same: for Hopkins, the world is “charged with the grandeur of God”; for Pedersen, it’s charged with the grandeur of love, for he is, as he puts it in “Humping Cows”, “love-struck and horny.”

The object of his affection, it turns out, is fellow poet Hollie McNish, and she’s the intended recipient of some wonderful lines here. Who, for example, could resist the invocation: “So come, let us strip together, forever, / eat snow, warn each other to enjoy it for / this hot fleshy love, in the bigger / picture, holds us only for seconds, / a snowflake on the tongue.” As carpe diem poems go, “Fancy Dress for Fancy Folks”, from which those lines are taken, is right up there with John Donne’s “The Flea,” only without the unpleasant undertones of a man trying (albeit jokingly) to persuade a woman to go to bed with him by using convoluted theological arguments.

Like Hopkins, Pedersen also delights in the natural world; his answer to “The Windhover” is (perhaps) “Highland Koo” – a paean to the “King o’ Celts” – and, not for the first or last time in this collection, he makes something familiar seem alien in order to get us to see it with fresh eyes: “Koo, yer horns / are like Triassic tusks atop yer heid, / reckon you could square-go a tiger / if bullied intae it.” Similarly, in the title poem, when a tongue comes into contact with an oyster, “one brilliantly bizarre / little alien meets another for pearlescent / new discovery.”

It’s not all wide-eyed wonder: “Middle November, Paris, 2015”, deals with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks at the Stade de France and the Bataclan, while in “Birthday BBQ, 2008” Pedersen processes the casual racism of one his friends towards another. On the whole, though, this is a collection very much on the up-swing, and it’s hard to think of another contemporary Scottish poet – with the possible exception of William Letford – who emanates such contagious joie de vivre.

A series of simple, humorous illustrations by Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit pepper the book, and the duo are appearing together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival later this month in a discussion chaired by Roddy Woomble of Idlewild, before embarking on a tour “incorporating songs and poems and both our ideas.” Their Book Festival show is already sold out; beg borrow or steal a ticket for one of the events happening later in the year.

Oyster is published by Polygon, £9.99

Michael Pedersen and Scott Hutchison are at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 18 August