The Feel-Good Movie of the Year is Luke Wright’s sixth book for London publisher Penned in the Margins; as well as his 2013 debut Mondeo Man and 2017 collection The Toll, there’s a trilogy of verse plays, What I Learned From Johnny Bevan (2016), Frankie Vah (2018), and The Remains of Logan Dankworth (2020). Wright has also performed much of this poetry as stage shows, won a The Stage award for acting and released two albums, Stay-at-Home Dandy and Twenty. He is also a founder member of poetry collective Aisle16, has written for animated short films and is a patron and trustee of various arts organisations. Poets may like to sleep in late, but Wright is an achiever.
The collection is billed as a bruised divorcees journeys “off the sunken roads of southern England and into himself, pursued by murderous swans, empty car seats and his father’s skeleton clocks”, and this is indeed a fitting description. The Feel-Good Movie of the Year is firmly positioned in a grim country, its citizens “arguing about Brexit on Reddit” (“Now All That Shined is Shit”), where in times of a pandemic the virtuous queue at the Co-op and clap for the nurses (“Bring Me My Devil”), with life as “bleak as car park COVID test sites” (“Autumn”).
Wright says observing the English is like “watching your front lawn get trampled/on match day” (“O, the years they heap amendments on our instincts”),”a fatberg of grown men in distressed jeans/lauding their superhero movies”. In “The Lay-bys and Bypasses”, the Empire is lost and England is “cast adrift from Europe”, loved and loathed, rickety old sleeper trains trundling down the tracks.
Wright continues the great poetic tradition of immersion in English nature, but even that turns on him. “And I Saw England” begins with the idyllic picture of summertime in England, the poet throwing his “sun-scorched body” into a river for a swim. As the poem slowly builds in rhapsodic intensity, the gliding swan bores down on our hero, and the poem is subverted from an ode to nature to a horror story of “England’s martial, murderous hiss”, as the beast with a serrated beak attacks:
his ancient orange eye
flashed like fire on Boer farms, like mortars
dropped on Baghdad compounds.
I saw that stately mask slip as it did
on Belfast streets and flinched
Although there’s a general focus on England, readers will recognise many universal aspects of modern life that are not confined to Blighty – troubles with aging (“Fortieth”, “Cast Photo”), the death of a friend (“Sophie”), addiction (“Akrasia”), professional jealousy (“The Other Poet”), and compulsive sexual relationships (“Tidal”). There’s the online life of “Status Update”, with reduced attention span and letting “outrage bleach/the gutters of my mind”, and the “hideous 4k clarity” in “Friend Request”, of logging onto Zoom and catching up on Gogglebox. The person making the friend request may well be the reader as we’re asked:
Don’t you prefer the past? The world beneath
a vinyl crackle, its edges blurred, its phatic chatter
rendered down to poetry?
The collection also considers failed relationships, the effect on family, and how to begin again. The collection starts and closes with “divorce” poems, “Ex” (which wonders “where we went”) and “The Turning on the Halesworth Road” (recalling trips to couple’s counselling).
A few of the poems in this collection have been previously published, some as early drafts, in different publications including the Spectator and a Rough Trade pamphlet After Engine Trouble. The title poem of that collection, written as a result of a speed writing session with John Osborne, is included here, with its mechanic arriving “like someone’s Dad”, blowing into his hands and talking “in bloke”. In a triumph of sequencing, this is followed by two poems about parenthood. “To Hail a Cab” continues the vehicular imagery, with the poet recalling his father heroically flagging a taxi, “his magic trick to extinguish the orange light”, hoping as he does the same that it will have a similar effect on his own children. “Prayer” goes on to examine the commonalty between parents of different generations, with Wright keeping an eye on his children in the park, just as his mother kept an eye on him – yet still longing to be watched over. A later poem about his father, “Clocks”, artfully uses shifts in time to evoke the change in generations.
The stark, obscene nightmare of “We’re Back at the End Again” describes a vapid, ugly consumerist environment of dream sofas and iPhones, scrolling, whimpering, glugging, gambling, fingering and “resentments ripening like tubercles”. It’s a poem which may shock, outrage and appal due to the startling imagery (not repeated here), but it serves a purpose by prodding the submissive reader. We’re asked to self-inflict, to ”picture your partner happy,/shutting the door in your face/Let it loop like a gif”. The poet whispers in our ear:
Plunder yourself for parts.
Snap that elastic band in the post office queue,
at parent’s evening, in the flickering gloom
of the village film club. Julia Hartley-Brewer is here
with her strap-on. Go on. You know you want to.
The most energetic poems are filled with vim, vigour and vitriol – the filthy nightmare of “Monster”, in which toxic masculinity dominates in accessories and a diatribe “like a columnist”. Forced isolation in “Bring Me My Devil” leaves our anti-hero in the tutelage of “his best self”, but he struggles without saturated fats and “the hot throng of leaking bodies”. “Just Look at Us Now”, a prophecy of impending doom, suggests we are dazzled by technology to such an extent that we cannot see the dark future ahead. Wright’s poetic vision is such that The Feel-Good Movie of the Year (surely a certificate 18) is less rom-com and more disaster movie, albeit a stimulating, engaging, and sharply contemporary trip in apocalyptic England.
Publisher: Penned in the Margins
Publication Date: 15 MAR 2021