By Edward S. Robinson
As the sparsely-texted rear cover of John Tottenham’s collection of poetry helpfully informs the reader, an epithalamium (n., pl -miums or -mia) is ‘a song or poem in honour of a bride and bridegroom.’ And so from the every outset, the collection’s theme is clear, and establishes itself in a position of antithesis. The subtitle (‘& Other Poems of Regret and Resentment’) only accentuates the standing of defiance, an antipathy, a personality (self)-defined in negative terms. We immediately know before delving into the writing contained herein, precisely what this is not. It is not a collection of pastoral love poems, for a start, and nor is it a celebration, at least in the conventional sense.
Like a best man delivering a highly inappropriate speech in which he criticises and insults the bride and embarrasses the groom before the members of their respective families and all of their friends, Tottenham raises a toast amidst a polemical tirade against that most sacred of unions, and then goes on, relentlessly, to rail against all who reside within exclusive relationships. And yet, perversely, you find yourself wanting him to go on, instead of being pulled abruptly back to his seat by an irate father of the groom in order to prevent the father of the bride from punching his lights out.
Tottenham doesn’t hold back: the book’s very first line is razor-sharp and scathing: ‘At last, their smugness is united,’ and he concludes ‘Antiepithalamium I’ with the caustic stanza:
This is exactly what we always craved:
permission to collapse
into pointless struggle,
to plunge greedily
into the possessive pronoun.
as we have always wanted to speak:
in the first person plural.
Biting and bitter, every line seethes with a burning desire to place distance between the speaker and ordinary folk. Tottenham goes against the grain and fosters an integral sense of separatism in the face of the cozy order of society, even going so far as to rejoice in the misery of others. ‘Antiepithalamium VII’ opens with the lines:
I always find it comforting
when I hear of couples separating.
It gives me a lift.
It seems to confirm
the natural order of impermanence.
There’s more to Antiepithalamium than sadistic glee, grim predeterminsm and self-flagellation, however. In keeping with the theme of Penny-Ante’s ‘success and failure’ series, Tottenham makes a success of failure in celebrating the failure of all things centred around relationships. It would be all too easy to perceive the poems in this collection negatively, and to focus on the idea that Tottenham is down on relationships, on marriage, on coupledom, and to define these works in terms of what they’re against. There is, unquestionably, a strong sense of antagonism, even bitterness, toward social norms that dictate the accepted order of things has at its hub ‘the couple.’ Strident and bordering on misanthropy, the book’s message is clear.
In the quest to couple, to mate for life or engage in a life of serial monogamy, Tottenham sees we are sacrificing ourselves, and not for the greater good. Not even for the happiness of the other. Compromise is not the route to a shared, deeper joy or something more spiritual, it is simply a reduction, an erosion. Being one half of a couple is to be half a person. Through these poems, Tottenham explores the idea that the grass isn’t always greener, the security of being united with another is nothing more than an illusion, a distraction from the fact that we lose ourselves and our individuality when we pair off. Intimacy is simply the exposure of weakness and the beginning of a painful descent into the routine operation of a relationship, doomed to either end dismally or, worse still, continue drearily for an eternity or until one partner dies – probably of boredom or emotional suffocation.
Singledom and singularity, the freedom from the confines of codependency – equal or otherwise – are portrayed as the apotheosis in human existence. There can be no doubt whatsoever what Tottenham – or his speaker – is not, what these poems are not. Or can there?
It’s a gloomy prognosis alright. Yet paradoxically, the way Tottenham expresses these thoughts – the disgust, revulsion, the sadness and discomfort felt in those moments of togetherness – are in their own way, deeply intimate. Questioning the solitude that companionship brings, he asks, ‘Did you bring it with you or was it already there?’ before confessing:
I can’t tell, and I can’t tell
anybody else, for fear of inviting ridicule.
And I can’t tell you, for fear of repelling you
Repellent thoughts and feelings of repulsion and revulsion run through the majority of the pieces contained in Antiepithalamia. The speaker writhes out an array of displeasures: repulsion toward partners, couples at large; revulsion against himself, for all that he is and is not. Tottenham projects his disenchantment onto others, too:
I always assume that people I admire are single
and experience a sinking sensation
when I learn they are not. They drop
in my estimation (for what that’s worth)
from wishful thinking to cold hard earth.
Elsewhere, there are ruminations on other matters, expressed in similarly unstinting and unforgiving terms: in ‘Regrets,’ he describes his life as ‘a raging river of regret,’ and ‘Party Time’ finds the speaker not only in the kitchen at parties, but alone and radiating a void so powerful as to repel potential interlocutors before a single word is spoken. There are other party-themed poems scattered throughout the book that are equally jaundiced in their appraisals of the scene. However, I suspect it would be a mistake to assume the author dislikes such social occasions nearly as strongly as his lines suggest; the most horrific evenings spent in the most abominable company likely induce the most perverse pleasure and the best observations (there’s nothing like suffering for your art). The outside world and turning season is overshadowed in ‘Springtime in an American Town’ by the gloomy introspective ponderance, ‘Why is it that I only ever notice my gut in motel room mirrors?’
But for all of the dourness, the bleakness and the overtly depressing tones, there’s something life-affirming about Tottenham’s verses. Despite all the loathing and amplified self-loathing, there’s a certain current of humour – albeit almost impenetrably dark – that eddies just beneath the surface. More than that, Tottenham’s eloquence sets his writing in an entirely different league from the myriad mopers and moaners who clutter social networking sites the globe over, receiving bewildering applause from their circles of virtual acquaintances. There is also a multi-dimensionality to Tottenham’s explorations, a self-awareness and humanity that’s genuinely affecting.
The truth – and it would be reasonable to suggest that these poems are as much concerned with truth as they are with ‘love,’ ‘romance’ and ‘relationships’ – is that these pieces are complex and layered, with great emphasis on nuance and shades of ambiguity. For all of the bold declarations made against these things, the things it is not, the opposition wavers. Tottenham struggles with himself as he tries to unravel the dichotomy between his resolve and his reality: he resents others for what they have, but categorically does not want what they have, and while he slights them for their blindly ambling into personal stagnation, yearns to share in the collective pairing process in order to avoid his constant social separation and seeming ostracism. It’s an impossible situation, and there can be no ‘winning’ here: as such, it further highlights the speaker’s failings and ultimately failure.
It’s the uncertainty, the questioning that makes Antiepithalamia such a brilliantly engaging read, because Tottenham reveals with great aptitude what it means to be human. And to be human is to err. To have doubts, even over those most fundamental positions. In revealing those innermost contradictions and self-doubt, these poems compel the reader to consider their own assumptions: do you really want what you have, or are you simply subscribing to conformist patterns that are as much societal as biological? The very last lines of the book, which belong to a poem entitled ‘Heroic Living’ seem to echo Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet XII’ (‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’), creating a gloriously ambivalent inconclusion to the collection. And in this failure to provide concrete closure lies Tottenham’s ultimate poetic success.
Antiepithalamia: & Other Poems of Regret and Resentment is published by Penny-Ante Editions