Encarta says that ‘gallus’ means ‘daring in a cocky or foolhardy way’. That sounds about right. Dillon’s 250 or so kicks-in the-shin do not only deviate from the traditional haiku in terms of content and structure: they also lack the humility characteristic of the form. The result is a sometimes amusing, often annoying work of matchbox-back wisdom: a book that could be shelved more accurately in the ‘Bathroom Reading’ rather than the ‘Poetry’ section of Waterstones. A book for which one reaches just moments before the toilet roll.
There’s nothing wrong with a handy bathroom read, of course, and short forms work well in such circumstances. But the key to the success of this genre is a lack of pretension – it is hard to keep your literary face straight when you’re sat on the can. Dillon, though, attacks an ambitious range of Serious Topics: Science & Nature, Ecology, Family, Scotland & Politics, The Arts, Psychology, Philosophy, Spirituality and Love are all covered here. It’s hard to say which of these is his most prized pig, though the references to specific figures give some clue (4 Aristotles to 3 Thatchers, for instance, and 3 Nietzsches to 2 Darwins). Suggestions for other tallying games: number of uses of the word ‘fuckin’; portmanteau words (‘Paristoltledox’ and ‘Scotsophrenia’ are two of the best); question marks; titles without which the poems wouldn’t make sense.
The interplay between title and poem is, in fact, what saves these ‘slices’ from being boring. In most cases the title provides the poem’s voice or sense. ‘MOTHER’S ADVICE’, for instance, signposts the poem ‘You need money to / be able to believe that / you don’t need money’ as a specific character illustration: a quotation rather than aphorism from Dillon himself.
‘NATIONALIST’, by contrast, renders ‘Standing with the flag,/ he’s some kind of Superman. / Tell that to Hitler’ a provocative broad-brushing generalisation. The latter employment is both more common and more interesting because of the arrogance it implies: ‘IDEO-SECULAR RELIGION’, ‘WE ARE’ and ‘CULTURAL RELATIVISM’ (which concludes ‘This is Africa’) are astonishing examples of Dillon’s apparent ease with summarising enormous subjects in a seventeen-syllable sentence. Here, I suppose, is the ‘gallus’ quality of which Dillon warns us. It is not clear how much irony he intends, however, when in the preface he also describes the poems as ‘impenetrable’ and ‘esoteric’.
These ‘slices of Scottish life’ look very little like Scottish life as I’ve known it – in fact, there’s so little on Scotland that the book’s tagline looks like a marketing ploy rather than an accurate description. This is but one of the many misleading features about Scunnered’s presentation. Luath Press has put out a fine-looking little book. The cover imitates the familiar dragon-green leather-bound look of older, weightier tomes, replete with spine ‘worn’ from handling. Meanwhile, the title makes claim to local scope and charm, whereas the contents page reads like shelving categories of an arcane bookshop. And then, of course, there are the poems themselves, contradicting the haiku form to which they arbitrarily allude (for example in ‘FIVE SEVEN FIVE’: ‘To get seventeen/syllables you have to be/manipulative’), but never fully engage.
Fans of Dillon’s prose might well get a kick out of his short-form reflections. At a number of them you might emit a ‘Ha’ or a ‘H’m’, but that’s about all – and the more you read the less witty they seem. Scunnered indeed.