Adam Horovitz reviews Daniel Sluman’s ‘Absence has a weight of its own’













Daniel Sluman’s first collection, Absence has a weight of its own, is tautly written and often provocative, a book that demands not to be left too long alone on the shelf. Sluman’s tonal shifts, his voices and musics, echo and reach through book and reader, gripping and unsteadying as they go. This is as evident, and as satisfying, when dipping in and out as it is if you read the book through.


Absence starts sharp and dark in an urban backwater (somewhere, anywhere) with ‘Roman & Determinism’:


“He takes me outside

into the whore-soaked night,


cold enough to split us open


like bags of confetti. Sidling me

into a stall at the bar, he claims


we’re walking narratives.”


Roman haunts the book, like a scarred gangster from a Bogart film lost in English clubland, leaning in with a cigarette to offer barbed nuggets of decadence and cynicism, which are juxtaposed against more personal, lyrical poems, such as ‘Summer at the Farm’. These softer poems nonetheless spice their “…dreams / of poolsides, strapless bras” with “the seeds in our heads ticking / against the salt in our blood.”


The book carries several threads of narrative, operates on multiple levels; I was at times reminded of Dennis Potter’s structuring of The Singing Detective, though Sluman pulsates to a more modern, less indulgent soundtrack. In Sluman’s verse, as in Potter’s script, it is often not possible to be entirely certain what (if anything) is autobiography, what (if anything) is fiction and where the poet is heading next, especially when he dives head first into clubland decadence.


What is certain is that the majority of these poems feel fully lived in emotionally, especially as the spare, shaved-to-the-bone tenseness that opens the book blossoms into tenderness by the end.


Everything, be it Fellini-ish orgiastic scenes or letters from a hospital bedside, is scrutinised in verse scraped fine and pungent as Parmesan. “It’s not the impact / which hurts,” writes Sluman in ‘Love Song to a Tumour’, “but the fall-out that settles / like fibreglass in my eye…”.


Passion lurks in the crepuscular corners Sluman explores; it wriggles in the shadows stretched out beyond the light of his measured music, pervades everything from the sparse vignettes of women who dream of tearing down houses with their teeth to the evocation of a man who died “transfixed under [his] Ford, spanner-in-hand, / eyes bursting petroleum rainbows.”.


In ‘Letter’, Sluman operates at his sparest and most potent. The poem is written from a hospital bedside, an address to self that glances a light into the shadows, the club scenes and the drug-fuelled nights out that follow in the second section.


“You may feel like you’ve drained

all the clock has for you,


but this isn’t forever;


your comingsofage packed

in ice, each needle smiling


like a lover.”


Section two feels a little more uneven; devastating poems such as ‘Picnic’ (which deserves to be read in full rather than quoted from) or the forgotten motives “that slipped down our throat” of ‘When Pupils Swallowed Our Irises Black’ sit alongside the slightly awkward experiment in form of ‘Snow/Swinging #2’ and ‘Transcript’, which doesn’t feel to me like it has quite enough weight of its own.


More often than not, however, Sluman’s writing pulls you down the page by your collar demanding to be read, thanks particularly to his remarkable way with an image, skewering and sympathising in equal measure. Take ‘The Barmaid’:


“Her face is a fracture of angles

under the morning’s thud of light;

her cheek pockmarked from three years


of bastards; how her voice fell

three dress sizes, all the dinners deflating

in the oven, waiting for them to come home.”


The closing section builds to a lyrical climax of cautious optimism and love, the delicate eroticisms of ‘Evocation’ and ‘E’ slowly evaporating Roman’s blunt shadow in the post-club daylight after ‘Roman Always Spoils It’. Epiphanies and ecstasies bloom out of Absence at the last as “the club evaporates” in ‘A Fist of Taxis Announces That it’s 3 a.m.’:


“My lips open


& you watch them move

& your mouth is parting

as you say yes.


You are saying yesyesyes

and you mean it like hell.”


This is a strong and sometimes violently beautiful debut that wears your heart in its mouth as much as it wears its heart on its sleeve. It is also a distinct pleasure to read aloud, its delicate musics blooming sharp as lime on the tongue. Here’s to Sluman’s next book!




Absence has a weight of its own is published by Nine Arches Press, 2012.  Order your copy here .

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