A few poems into Brendon Booth-Jones’ debut collection, Vertigo to Go, I thought that here was a worthy winner of Hedgehog Poetry’s ‘White Label Trois Competition’. By the end I was convinced that this was the case! Editor, Mark Davidson, has an eye for talent and Booth-Jones is another impressive addition to Hedgehog’s growing list of accomplished authors. The poems in his collection focus on the semi-autobiographical character, Ash, as he strives to make sense of the world around him and find his place within it.
The world he inhabits is a one of toxic consumerism and hostility. The city heaves with the ‘speed-blur of consumption’. Its inhabitants lead solipsistic, contrived and ultimately self-destructive lives which are conveyed so brilliantly through the description of the customer in Poem Scraped from Greasy Menu: ‘You might snap your ringed fingers with impatience, bark your order for the Salmon Bagel Sensation,/talk loudly on your iPhone 21, plunder/the Amazon, Earth’s left lung-/yes, I heard the words, saw the oil glow black/ on the lips you lick, heard you preen over/your hostile takeovers,/automated abattoirs/dollar-green gleam in your eyes.’ This ugly, destructive reality is far-removed from the hopes and expectations of Ash’s youth with its dream of ‘a world without injustice’ and ‘a tantalising future/pinned like a shiny silver ring/to the nipple of the world.’
Ash must find the courage and the means to confront this growing awareness of the world around him, to come to terms with it and to find his place within it. The institutions which might help him in this struggle all fail him to some degree: religion, he discovers, is a mere ‘cardboard cutout of love’, its practices building a delusional version of reality; school is no help being ‘a conveyor belt of hate’; and within his family, his step-father is more focussed on corrupting Ash’s memories of his dead father than on supporting him. It’s not surprising, therefore, that he seeks solace in drug use. At best it offers, however, only a temporary distraction; it’s no solution, ‘even three Valium deep, the chlorine-blue chemical sleep couldn’t keep the big whale’s frightened wheezing out of my dreams-’
There is no alternative for him but to find his own way forward by learning to know himself and to build productive, fulfilling, life-enhancing relationships: no easy process. A sense of struggle dominates many of the poem in the middle sections of the collection and Booth-Jones is particularly adept at conveying Ash’s doubts and insecurities. In To my crush on the second floor we see him trying to understand the intentions of a neighbour that he falls for. He finds her ‘hard to read’ but he is equally confused by his own behaviour. He reflects upon his own motivation, trying to understand what’s behind his ‘clumsy puppy’ like behaviour: he interrogates himself, ‘…behind my cheerful, folksy openness, aren’t I really just as evasive? Aren’t I hiding all my fears, bewitched but ham-fisted, maladroit, with less feng shui than you? Similarly in Catacombs which describes a date that goes horribly wrong (’I couldn’t get it right/ I walked too fast. I walked too slow. I chewed too loud/ I mumbled’) we find more self-doubt as he tries to understand the significance of what happened: ‘And what does my willingness/ to write such a petulant poem say about me.’ Ash is beginning to understand himself.
Following this struggle, we see a more mature Ash emerge. He is braver, more confident, more resilient: he has learnt ‘not to look away’. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the penultimate poem At the site of the crash. Ash is witness to a road traffic accident: the horror is vividly conveyed: ‘Blood coats the steering wheel, blood on the bible, blood/ on history, a man scythed by the half-sunk sickle of his belt’. The new Ash resists the urge to turn away: he faces the horror, processes what has happened, and makes sense of it: ‘From eye to synapse to psyche/ the image is coded into language’. The poem concludes with him focussed firmly on the nature of the moment and on the wider implications of this tragic event: dangling from the cracked dashboard/the blood spattered picture of a little boy. Ash now has the resources to confront reality, not only to deal with the horror of the accident, but also with the tragedy in his past, namely the loss of his own father, sublimating that pain into art.
There’s no doubt that there is much more in Vertigo to Go than this review has time and space to discuss and which I have yet to discover, because this stunning collection keeps rewarding you, the more you read it. Brendon Booth-Jones is a remarkable talent and I have no doubt that his exceptional verse is destined to win more awards in the future.
Brendon Booth-Jones is a New Zealand-born Irish South African poet who lives in Amsterdam. Brendon won the White Label Trois Competition for his debut poetry collection, Vertigo to Go, published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press in October 2020. His work has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Amaryllis, As It Ought To Be, The Bosphorus Review, The Blue Nib, Fly on the Wall, Ghost City Review, The Night Heron Barks, Scarlet Leaf Review, Zigzag and elsewhere. Find him on Facebook @brendonboothjoneswriter and Twitter @BrendonBoothJo1 or click here to visit his website (to buy your copy of Vertigo to Go.