The opening poem in John Whale’s debut collection concerns a species of chameleon-like octopus: a flexible and capable creature, we are told, “at the invertebrate zenith”. With “three pumping hearts” and “no rigid form”, its appeal to Whale is clear enough: his poetic voice revels in its own adaptability, switching between scientific jargon, emotional verve, and subtler, insinuating tones. This allows for a smorgasbord of subjects, and lends Waterloo Teeth an intellectual range that is beyond most slim volumes: moving from the eerie yet touching quatrains of “Mary Toft”, who amusingly ruined the reputations of several eminent eighteenth-century physicians by fooling them into thinking she had given birth to rabbits, to the tumbling rhythms and blunt close of “Mimicries”, which catalogues birds imitating modern technological sounds.
Beneath the book’s surface variety, however, a handful of recurrent themes emerge. Whale is a professor of Romantic literature, so it is not surprising to find his work haunted by the presence of Wordsworth & Co, as well as the celebrities, politics and attitudes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries more broadly. Titles such as “Lines on the Death of Mary Wollstonecraft” and “Brioche” jump out; a long poem, “Sugar”, harbours a Romantic sensibility in its associative reflections; and the grim title poem examines the mercenary practice, common to the age, of pulling sets of teeth from fallen soldiers. Even the lone apple core that garnishes the collection’s jacket stems from a vignette which reworks an entry from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal. But the book is not without cohesive focus, as each poem attempts to bridge the gap between our refined sensibilities – sentimentalized bite marks in an apple – and the blunt, clinical facts of our corporeal lives: “a jet of arterial blood” bursting from Jean-Paul Marat’s chest; Lady Hamilton’s recurring dream of “Freddy drenched in Flanders”.
That said, Whale’s protean interests can get the better of him. Cwm Idwal, a hanging valley in Snowdonia is surely a spectacular landscape and a natural wonder, but Whale’s paean to it lacks any real consequence. A shame, then, that his book’s latter half is padded out with these dull landscapes, when his more natural milieu is the drama and diversity of life as it was, and is, variously lived. For as much of Waterloo Teeth reveals, it is here that Whale excels; revivifying the “phantom life / which lies beneath our feet.”
first published in the Times Literary Supplement