At first brush, it’s tempting to classify Play Lists as a document of an era, a window onto another time – the poems are fizzy with teenage love and fashion craze, tentative trespass and intoxication, all set to a pop/glam/alt rock soundtrack that you can access via Spotify. It has bags of atmosphere and a litany of callbacks: Lacan and Camus, Lydia Lunch and Logan’s Run, Melody Maker, Tin Tin Duffy, pixie boots, James Dean and Elton John – and Bowie, of course, ever ready to pounce.
But to my mind, the key to this book is a neat bit of wordplay in ‘Record Collection’, a tautly written ghazal that covers the arc of a relationship. Its first two lines read:
I hid my music from you, I didn’t want you to look, at my record collection,
I knew you could read me like a book, but you’d no recollection.
That slide from ‘record collection’ to ‘recollection’ betrays the fact that memory – and nostalgia in particular – has its own agenda, blending layers of reality and mythology, and Play Lists does a wonderful job of embodying the way we mould narrative out of a dizzy blur of emotional highs and indelible impressions. ‘Hero Worship’, for instance, is pointedly a mash-up of The Iliad, Grease and first-hand experience of stirring sexuality:
Achilles picked me up from school in his red sports car.
My spring term, buds out, shirt buttons
undone, skirt hitched up. Get in, he said, sounding American …
A character in ‘Smashing’, in even fuller flower, “mouths spells to Aphrodite, Dionysus, Tiaco and Pamela Anderson”, while other personae are possessed by the spirits of pop stars and pin-ups: “Animal boy, I never let on that night I was secretly Iggy Pop” (‘Broke’); “We acted like movie stars. Nothing was safe.” (‘Cracked Actors’); ‘Spoiled everything, as you strutted Jagger-lipped’ (‘Hell for Leather’). When they fly too close to the sun, their hairstyles catch fire (‘Some of Them Are Old’). And woven through these glitzy, eerie, familiar glamours are frightening glimpses of loneliness, betrayal, loss of self and certainty amid the rhapsody of impersonations.
There’s a lot packed in once you slip beneath the bubblegum sheen and start to unpick individual lines and scenes, and at times I found myself pulling away from a closer examination of what is being implied in some of the poems, not certain I wanted to be touched by what is most raw in them. It’s possible to keep to the shallows, enjoy the achy paeans to smooth trickster-boys and blissed-out nights, but Play Lists has an undertow as well, a real body beyond the make-up, from which it draws its heat.