Wave Caps. It’s a roll-off-the-tongue title and the perfect fit for Miguel Cullen’s first collection of poems. A relic from the hip-hop culture Cullen is drawn to springs readily to mind. There are associations to be made with the recurring themes of development, destruction, and rhythm. Soundwaves: as important to Cullen’s poetics, you sense, as lines on a page. And then there’s the duality of the ‘cap’: at once an imposer of limits and a triumphant climax.
The admission of so many possibilities, few of them mutually supportive: it brilliantly ties title to work. Because if the twenty free-verse poems and two short stories in this collection have one thing indisputably in common, it’s semantic richness. An ageing eccentric, anti-bourgeois kind of semantic richness. Not for Cullen that smug, in-your-face ingenuity that can undermine a work so eclectically allusive. From ÷Double-Loupe, through Risperidone to the concluding Strain, old and new, high and low, organic and electronic flow together almost as a matter of fact.
It makes for the best sort of inscrutability. Rooted more in unfamiliar or competing presences than in absence, the mysteries of the Wave Caps poems do not halt readerly progress: they spur us on down new paths of discovery and creation. Some, like Dia Tribe, with its link to a soundcloud page, are pretty explicit about it. Others, like Confessions of a pool shark, or Woolwich Caryatid, are more subtle with their instructions. At first glance, you wouldn’t know that to tease a coherent narrative or message from this poem, the determined reader must reacquaint herself with Tolkein, brush up on her Spanish and do a bit of research into classical architecture.
It’s a delightful challenge. And as with every Wave Caps poem, diving for a reference book is only the start of the investigative fun. Even when every word has been defined and its complicated backstory explored, the text still feels pregnant with meaning, able to offer up new life. When so many voices and quotations merge seamlessly into Cullen’s texts, italics seem to separate one voice from another in a deep, emotionally driven way. Numbering appears to take on a new, unexpected significance when UK Apache 2 comes pages before UK Apache. And absent words make their mark when near-homophones pop up in what should be their rightful place. The speaker of Gravediggaz – Niggamortis may be, on the surface of it, describing purple dirges with the words ‘Death songs, slow and violet,’ but a far darker image, an image of violence, presents itself.
Is the reader supposed to pick up on this? Were both the cruel subtext and its repression cunningly implanted into the poem? In the end, that’s neither here nor there. Once an impression is formed, once a half-echo has been heard, the words of a poem develop a significance that no appeal to authorial intention can take away. We ourselves create the stories and the tableaux we read and Miguel Cullen is more than aware of it. In a paean to East London, the literally concrete changes as it’s viewed through the different lenses of different hearts. Once eccentric and ‘ragged’ Victorian buildings, hipsterised to saturation point, are ‘made true again/By the low tide of the heart.’ And just in case we’re tempted to see this ruling on truth as anything other than subjective, Cullen prefaces the poem with the title Keyser Söze. The name of a fictitious character who, even within the parameters of The Usual Suspects, the film that introduced him to the world, exists only in fearful minds. He is a legend, a bogeyman, and the nature of the beast is different for everyone who tells his story.
So far, so anti-materialist. But don’t go thinking that Miguel Cullen has altogether abandoned the world around him. Even when metaphysical ideas are flowing most freely, we are never that far from earth and all its pleasures. The reader is forced to engage with sensory experience in order to get to the end of Strain, where the written word gives way to a clip from 1990s Jungle pirate radio. And from ‘magnolia opening like opera gloves’ to yawl sails made of ‘taught spiders’ webs’, the facts of the natural world proliferate. Man-made corporeality, too, has its place. Dia Tribe, the second of the short stories in Wave Caps, is brimming with place names, post-codes, and clothing labels – anchoring lofty ideas to identifiable loci and touchable objects. Then there is Octillion. The logos of Guess and the House of Versace sit on the page as post-modern, post-Poundian ideograms, reminding us of where meaning is concentrated in a consumerist age. How the product becomes the parent of its own creation myth. The logo becomes Logos.
Here in microcosm is the charm and the spirit of Wave Caps. It is a collection in which old relationships are questioned and new ones forged: in which nothing is untouchable and everything, from a certain aspect, sacred. It’s bold, cleverly wrought, and heavy with ideas. Yet it teaches us very little. Miguel Cullen opens up worlds, ancient and modern, far-flung and ever so close to home but he does so by pushing us, in a display of tough love, onto our own voyages of discovery.
Miguel Cullen, Wave Caps, Odilo Press, Paperback, 76 pages, ISBN: 978-0-9928636-0-9. £15.00 can be purchased here.