Most of the poems in Richard Wink's Dead End Road are presumably set in a fictional suburban road. The 101 poems that make up the collection offer glimpses into the lives of the road's inhabitants, consisting of the good, the bad and the ugly (but mostly the bad and the ugly). These are poems of the present day, of twenty-first century lives. There aren't too many specific geographical indicators, but the domesticities and surroundings depicted are suggestive of the East Anglian suburbia that Wink himself calls home. It's an engaging collection; many of the poems are deceptively simple, but the overall effect is powerful and luridly persuasive.
Wink's stock in trade is narrative and poetry of observation. The latter comes to the fore in 'Anglia Square', which presents a succession of moments through vivid, yet subtle, images. Many of the poems could be described as voyeuristic, providing a window into aspects of people's lives they'd probably rather not talk about. 'The back room', for instance, mixes bondage and voyeurism with a twist of the domestic. The following lines from 'Moon Park Cafe' demonstrate Wink's readiness to 'tell it like it is':
It was rather sad that she was sat alone
in the Moon Park Cafe,
the waiter did not know what to do,
he fumbled with the menu as if confronted by a
do not disturb
He hoped that Wendy would get up and leave or
faint so an ambulance could cart her
The majority of the poems are character-based, with a strong narrative thrust. Wink's characters are generally not likeable types: they tend to be hapless, lonely, abject, physically or mentally ill. Many of them could be described as freaks and failures, but Wink rarely casts them in a disparaging light, instead tending towards a dispassionate, and at times compassionate, portrayal.
All of the poems are short or shortish, the only exception being 'The Mess', a longer ten-part sequence. Each part of this sequence could be read as a stand-alone short poem, but its cumulative effect makes it a kind of centrepiece for the collection. Indeed, it's in this poem that Wink seems to bind and synthesise his themes, and step beyond them. The perspectives of 'The Mess' resonate with the rest of Dead End Road, but here the 'visionary' aspects of the poem seem to be given a freer reign, ranging over landscapes and settings, from cricket ovals to airport terminals. And finally, in a flight of imagination, the poem urges: 'Roll up your sleeves / Glance back and forth / Before crossing glaciers and silver cities.' However, the poem ends on a reflexive note which checks against over-reaching into romanticism: 'Spend time wavering / Walking the wire of pomposity'.
But Wink is rarely, if ever, pompous. His main focus is the everyday, and the life-slices that provide the thematic glue for the collection are centred around the domestic. Many of Wink's characters are stuck at home for whatever reason:
I'm left home with stale thoughts,
my companion a filthy plastic Carlsberg ashtray
we once stole from the pub.
I have a feeling that's where he went,
in the morning I'll find him curled up on the settee
his dirty shoes all over the cushions ('Part-time model')
This excerpt is indicative of Wink's use of small details: the plastic Carlsberg ashtray, the 'dirty shoes all over the cushions'. Throughout the collection, well-chosen, suggestive details are employed to evoke suburban life. Often it's these small things that matter most to the characters; sometimes small details tip them over the edge or lead them to commit indiscretions. In fact, at various points throughout Dead End Road, it's as if the seemingly insignificant things in life become the most significant. Wink's characters attempt to stuff their lives full of such small things, to cover up the emptiness, the distance they feel between themselves and others. An ache of alienation permeates the book. The lines from 'Part-time Model' quoted above flag a related and recurring theme: people's sheer disgust for one another. This often takes the form of misanthropy mixed with naked self-interest.
There are moments of compassion and benevolence, however, as in these lines from 'Alzheimers':
Meals on wheels arrived daily
bearing soggy mush in foam trays.
Apart from on Sundays, when Peggy
from down the road
came over with a sandwich and
a thick newspaper full of leaflets and supplements
Here, once again, Wink's astute observation of detail comes to the fore. This excerpt also exemplifies how he constructs his lines. The poems feature very little enjambment, and minimal punctuation. The line is predominantly employed as a lucid, discrete unit of meaning, as opposed to some kind of cryptic fragment. Each line serves to drive the poem forward; in Wink's case this usually entails propelling the narrative, vivifying the scene, or adding to the character sketch he is drawing, as in these lines:
The day is hers, she can hardly stand
the smell of bacon sizzling
the egg still in its shell.
She festers in her own set of bricks
right on the edge of the commuter belt,
a sanctity of quietness. ('Housewife')
To risk a cinematic analogy, most of Wink's lines cut to the next without any significant jarring or jump-cutting effect. However, he is certainly capable of creating a deliberate jarring effect at the level of narrative - he delights in toying with reader expectations. And Wink sometimes allows himself to be cryptic, particularly when he ventures into the surreal - a point I'll return to later.
Wink makes occasional use of rhyme, and this is usually effective, i.e. put in the service of the poem, for emphasis or comic effect, such as the final lines from 'Interpretative Dancer' (Quiz her; ask her why? / She'd be hard pressed to give you a straight answer. // She remains an interpretative dancer.) You can't help but laugh with Wink here. The aforementioned longer poem, 'The Mess', also features telling rhymes.
Wink's humour is often bleak/black, but there are lighter moments, such as 'The Pet', where a lost remote is buried in the garden by the dog, while 'Addicts' presents the ironies of tea drinkers' caffeine addiction. Then there's the ironically-titled 'Costa del Silencio':
The bar staff shortchange you; you attempt to
the volume of happy hardcore bass beats.
It's like duelling with cocktail sticks
Although suburban attitudes and lifestyles are still implied, this poem represents one of the rare 'escapes' from the domestic/suburban, while in 'East Coast', there are seaside scenes reminiscent of Wink's earlier work:
The pier is radiant with twirling divers
and swaying crabs
scuttling in turquoise sparkle buckets
caught with apricot coloured whelks
bait stinking something awful
On a thematic or tonal level Wink's poems sometimes remind me of Philip Larkin or Peter Reading, although Wink's work doesn't approach the formal precision of these poets. Not that Wink's verse lacks precision; it is precise in its laconic realisation of a (largely suburban) world. Wink's 'Near to me' is pure Peter Reading in 'laureate of grot' mode, what with its cast of eccentric vagrants, and its arrival at pathos via bleak satire. Office-based narrative poems such as 'Boss' and 'Overtime' reminded me of Richard Berengarten's collection The Manager.
In favouring character studies and urban narratives, a comparison could also be drawn between Wink and pop lyricists such as Ray Davies, or Damon Albarn during the Blur years, both of whom tended to specialise in portraits of offbeat characters with a touch of the uncanny about them. That is, characters who seem at once familiar and bizarre, homely and perverse. It is through such characters that Wink occasionally tails off into somewhat surreal territory, while elsewhere household objects become the locus of the surreal. Either way, the reader is treated to some arresting imagery:
The mornings are starch throats,
toffee headaches that clog the brain
plunging memories coated in tarmac,
the sweet summer air
an invisible safety net. ('The Iron Horse')
In 'A Bosch Moment', household ornaments become animated in a dance of kitsch, and 'The Silver Birch Tree' features a tree appearing seemingly out of nowhere, while 'Kitchen' conjures the surreality of everyday items. Wink is not a surrealist per se; he's a realist who likes to foreground the possibilities of the surreal in the real. Parts of some of these more macabre poems (e.g. 'Pagan Dentistry') are a little obscure; occasionally Wink's sharp, vivid observation falters, and perspective becomes unclear or ambiguous - although granted this may be intentional at times. 'The other books' is perhaps unlike any other poem in the collection; it's consciously surreal, and its treatment of language and metaphor is more radical.
Wink is also adept at bleeding a sense of 'horror' from seemingly innocuous situations:
the smell of brewing coffee was nefarious
paranoia rising -
the last four shoes in the hallway
belonged to us ('Student House Party')
People's perceptions of duty and responsibility, and 'keeping up appearances' are often used as sources of satire. 'Shining' offers a tale of status and deception that is typical of the collection, wherein an office worker collects sponsorship money from his workmates to run a marathon, but doesn't actually run it, yet keeps the money! And in 'Lips' a dishonest driver feigns ignorance of the harm she may have caused. So long as we're seen to do the right thing...?
The only aspect of this collection I'd take issue with is at the level of proofreading and design. Granted this is a small press publication, and perhaps I could be accused of pettiness here, but I think there are certain oversights which could annoy some readers. One of my pet hates is the use of italics as the default font. Without a doubt, italics are harder to read than roman type, and this can detract from the pleasure obtained from reading a text. There's also an issue with the wrapping of longer lines in some poems, whereby a long line wraps over to the next line without any indent to distinguish it from intended enjambment. In most cases, you can assume whether Wink intended there to be enjambment or whether it's just a long line that wouldn't fit within the margins. The downside is that the spell of Wink's measured linebreaks is occasionally broken when these inappropriately-formatted long lines occur.
But these are minor issues, and for me didn't spoil the overall impact of the collection. As I've tried to elucidate, Wink's poetry has many strengths, and the poems rarely dip from a vigorous level of intensity. This is despite the focus on the bleak and the bland, and what could be called the 'terror of the everyday'. Surely it's no surprise that the normal isn't so normal after all? Or that people can be scared of life, scared of themselves? Nevertheless, many of these poems manage to shock and disturb, simply because they're brutally honest. Dead End Road could be said to present the 'lives of the living dead' through their decline and demise (although sometimes they get away with it, or seem to). It's a truthful book, though rarely uplifting, as evidenced by the closing couplet from 'Gravity takes its toll', which serves as a thematic keystone for the collection:
It may be a well trodden path
but it's still a lonely road nonetheless.