Above the Neck and Below the Bellybutton
by Chris O’Carroll
For those who enjoy wit spiced with a bit of smut, Brian Allgar’s poetry seems to say, “What do you mean a bit?”
Allgar has written, imitating Shakespeare’s Bottom, “I can assure you that the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, a filthier mind than mine.”
It’s not my intention to paint Allgar as some scruffy literary flasher performing an X-rated club act for the back-alley trade. The selection of his poems featured in this issue of Light makes it plain enough that here is a writer whose comedy skills encompass the lapidary as well as the broadly burlesque, and that his subject matter is by no means confined to ribaldry below the bellybutton. Plenty of his work is perfectly suitable for the earlier stages of a party, before the company has commenced hitting the punch and inhibitions have begun to dissolve. Still, Allgar is a storyteller—most readers, I think, will find more narrative than lyric impulse driving his work—and the oh-what-a-bad-boy-am-I story is one he clearly relishes telling us. Maybe we can learn something by playing along. It might turn out that enjoying his naughty limericks and other down-and-dirty material is just the right way to appreciate certain essential elements of his craft.
These five raunchy lines inspired by Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra might be a good place to start:
Ftatateeta said “Highness, beware—
How the Roman doth ogle and stare!
Caesar’s bald as a coot—”
Cleopatra said, “Shoot!
Caesar’s balled as a stallion down there!”
Obviously, the bald/balled wordplay is the crux of the matter, but the poem builds a sturdy, well-crafted infrastructure to support that verbal flourish. Working almost entirely in dialogue (appropriately enough for a poem born of a play), the limerick offers us a quick, energetic scene of two women talking about a man who is giving one of them the eye. The poet takes it for granted that his readers will be familiar with Caesar and Cleopatra, and in the event that we don’t immediately recognize the name of the Egyptian queen’s nurse, he uses the word “Highness” to tip us off that the first speaker is Cleopatra’s subordinate, even as her personal critique of Caesar suggests a particular degree of intimacy. He highlights the difference between the sexual attitudes of the two women by linking Ftatateeta’s disapproval of a December-May liaison to the archaic “doth,” while the young queen’s randiness expresses itself with a slangy “Shoot!”
So the author has command of various diction registers, he introduces helpful background information without interrupting the flow of a scene, and he knows how to achieve dramatic conflict between economically sketched characters with contrasting points of view. That’s hardly a comprehensive list of his storytelling gifts, but the skills on display here are a few signs of unmistakable kinship between this louche limerick (with others like it) and the less risqué stuff Allgar pens when he changes out of the silk pajamas and emerges from the boudoir. We find hallmarks of the same creative intelligence in both varieties of his work.
To see if I have any idea what I’m talking about, let’s look at two poems that appeared last year in back-to-back issues (August & September, 2016) of the British poetry journal Snakeskin. The first is an exuberant though ultimately rueful account of a sexcapade gone awry:
The Kitchen Lesson
I’d been married twenty years or so, and life was lacking spice
Till I got my best friend’s recipe, and followed his advice.
We were dancing in the kitchen, and my hands began to rove;
There was something spicy cooking, but not only on the stove.
As she nibbled on the starter (no, I don’t mean chicken wings),
I discarded all the dressing, and untied the apron-strings.
And to follow, a carpaccio of tender, well-oiled rump
While I let the main course simmer till the breasts were nicely plump.
Then the moment came to lay that scrumptious dish upon the table,
So I grabbed the bird, and spread the legs as fast as I was able.
(All was natural, organic, for we don’t believe in faking.)
A voracious appetite soon had us steaming, boiling, baking—
But I got a nasty shock as I was serving up the sauce;
My wife had come home early, and it ended in divorce.
Let me recommend this lesson that will simplify your life:
If you’re dancing in the kitchen, just be sure it’s with your wife.
The narrative structure is simple, traditional, and effective. Two lines of prologue at the beginning, two moral-of-the-story lines at the end, and a dozen lines, six rhymed couplets, of racy, escalating action at the heart of it all. Allgar simmers a rich stew of sensual imagery in those lines, reveling in the playful resources of a language that lets you talk about lovemaking by talking about food prep. Then, as a sort of storyteller’s flourish, he arranges for the narrator’s “nasty shock” to be a surprise for the reader as well. The poem has allowed us to believe, without declaring it in so many words, that the narrator is “steaming, boiling, baking” with his wife of 20 years. So we discover the priapic chef’s adultery at the very moment his wife makes her unexpected entrance and discovers the same thing.
The second Snakeskin poem is a dalliance with serious nature writing:
She struggles up the steep and sandy beach,
Her flippers ill-adapted to the task,
But has to find a spot beyond the reach
Of tides, and dig a sand-filled pit to mask
Her eggs. It’s done. Her young must take their chances.
Returning to her own aquatic scene,
She glides and soars, she pirouettes and dances
As though her long ordeal had never been.
The weeks go by. At last, there comes a day
When life begins to stir beneath the sand.
A few small heads appear, bemused and grey,
Then more and more, a vast chelonian band.
The tiny turtles scamper down the beach
Towards the ocean, and their destiny—
But crabs are hungry, sea-birds swoop and screech,
And very few will live to see the sea.
Here the iambic pentameter moves more sedately than the longer, bouncier lines in the sex farce poem. From the arduous slowness of the opening line, with its solitary verb—“struggles”—the poet modulates the pace with a sure hand, inching toward the laconic “It’s done,” then returning the mother turtle briskly to the sea for the kinetic drama of line seven, with its four verbs of lightness, freedom, and power—“She glides and soars, she pirouettes and dances.” Evoking a moment of peak fulfillment, that rendition of the turtle’s joy in the water is well-nigh as orgasmic as anything the poet plays for laughs in the kitchen.
Fourteen of this poem’s lines have the immediacy of the present tense. The two exceptions are the subjunctive line eight and the oracular line 16, which ends the poem with a heartbreaking slaughter of the innocents, but presents the carnage as a dire prediction of the future, not a present spectacle.
The comic sex poem and the solemn death poem aim for very different effects, but we can see the same design skill, the same talent for structuring a verse narrative, at work in both pieces. “The Kitchen Lesson” sets its final couplet apart from the rest of the poem typographically (in addition to that shift from narration to moralizing), while “Chelonians” achieves the same separation effect simply by switching to future tense. In both cases, the author’s brief pause or change of pace sets the stage for the strong finish.
In addition to Allgar’s success as a nature poet and a far from disinterested observer of what he calls humanity’s “pleasant vices,” he’s also a gleefully savage satirist, whose political verse features a diverse cast of leaders from many lands. An Englishman married to a Frenchwoman, he has lived in Paris for decades (he says with deadpan self-mockery that he speaks the local language “with no accent whatsoever, unlike those French buggers”) and finds targets for his barbs among the powerful of his native country; his continental home; the U.S.; and other places humans congregate to do that politics thing we do.
Other times as well, as readers of this issue can see in his sonnet “Incitatus.” That poem’s title is the name of the beloved horse whom the Roman emperor Caligula allegedly elevated to high political office. Allgar uses that legend to mock the “horses’ asses” in today’s United States Senate: “They can’t construct a sentence anyway,/The only word you’ll need to know is ‘Nay’.” (The bald/balled limerick uses both homophones, but here Allgar gives us only “Nay,” trusting our imaginations to hear the “Neigh.”) So we have this Anglo-Parisian guy ridiculing American politicians with a poem narrated in the voice of a horse from ancient Rome. Maybe that’s just plain confusing, but this confused reader thinks it’s brilliant.
For any writer whose signature themes include both sexual and political carrying on, Henry VIII is bound to be a person of more than casual interest. You won’t come up empty if you search Allgar’s oeuvre for rude poems about that ruler. Nor if you search those poems for jokes about Anne Boleyn giving good head. Exactly the sort of lowlife schoolyard stuff I’m a sucker for. Your comedy tastes are probably more refined and sophisticated, so you’re sure to appreciate these lines with which the poet launches Henry Tudor’s online dating profile, in a poem originally published in the Spectator:
Distinguished gentleman, considered “bluff,”
Seeks lady with a view to matrimony.
Financially secure, we have enough
(Our former wives receive no alimony)
The sentence goes on to conclude itself gracefully, but I break off at the enjambment, because that sly parenthetical is the thing to look at here. Sex jokes of pie-in-the-face unsubtlety can be just the thing in some light verse situations, but there’s a whole different kind of splat in the mild-mannered, cold-blooded understatement of that line—the casually plural “wives,” the bland minimization “receive no alimony” to sum up a spectacularly sordid career of marital misadventure.
We can see that Allgar knows his way around both first- and third-person narration, and that he’s fond of adopting character voices—speaking in various poems as a 16th-century English King, a modern-day husband with a bit on the side, and a legendary horse. In this sexed-up take on Kipling’s “If” (another poem from the Spectator, where his light verse and comic prose are frequent winners in the weekly writing competition), he assigns himself yet another role:
If you can …
If you can make her laugh, that’s half the battle,
Especially if she’s married to a bore;
If you can make her glad to be your chattel,
Yet treat her like a lady, not a whore;
If you can undo bra-straps single-handed
While murmuring enticements in her ear;
If you can make her think you’re being candid
When telling her just what she wants to hear;
If you, my friend, can easily persuade her
To sample things she’s never tried before,
Or if she sighs with pleasure when you’ve laid her,
And smiles as you sneak out by the back door;
If you can tolerate her endless prattle,
(And never tell her “Darling, get a life”),
Her gossip and her foolish tittle-tattle—
Then you’re the bastard who seduced my wife!
Whereas the “Kitchen Lesson” narrator is a cheating husband, here the speaker is a cuckold addressing his unfaithful wife’s fancy man. Of course, we don’t know that right away, because the author is up to one of his surprise ending tricks again. He lets us think at first that we’re listening to a seasoned roué sharing the fruits of his experience with an up-and-comer. Then the final line gives us not just a good laugh, but a sudden new view of the situation. That “bore” in line two turns out to be the fellow we’ve been listening to all along. And he turns out to be a whole different variety of sleazebag, not just well versed in dishonest seduction technique, but also inclined to talk about his wife in the sort of belittling, dismissive terms that might well inspire a woman’s eye to wander in search of a better lover.
“If” is one of those frequently imitated canonical poems, like Poe’s “Raven” and Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee” sonnet. When you play around with material like that, you know that your audience has already seen other versions of this act, and you want your take on the familiar theme to stand out in some way. It helps if you can finish with something as punchy as a comedy sketch blackout line. And if your laugh line also stirs up a mess of human drama, adding depth and detail to the characters in the piece, then maybe you know a thing or two about the light verse biz.
Allgar has composed a sort of ars poetica in a poem titled “The Ten Commandments of Mr W.S.” in which the advice to aspiring writers includes the line, “Be pithy, witty, smutty when ’tis needed.” It has been great fun burrowing through masses of his work to find again and again how zealously he practices the smutty creed his Bard preaches. If I’ve also enjoyed an ample sampling of pithy, witty stuff amongst all those raunchy yuks—well, let’s not embarrass the artist by belaboring that point any further.
Chris O’Carroll and Brian Allgar enter many of the same light verse competitions at the Spectator and elsewhere. When both of them win, amity reigns. When only one of them scores, they do their best to make the congratulations sound sincere. In short, any respect and admiration one of them may feel for the other’s work is likely to be laced with unbecoming trace elements of wariness and resentment.