Perfect Blue
Kona Macphee
 
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Commentary: Dysentery

In the Western world, many "brand name" diseases are largely scourges of the past (although some, such as tuberculosis, are making a resurgence due to their increasing resistance to antibiotics). For no particularly good reason, the word "dysentery" always makes me think of the glory days of the British Empire. It was a grand era for explorers and scientific expeditions; this poem (while set in the present or recent past) is at once a celebration of their adventurousness and appetite for knowledge, and a swipe at their anglocentric condescension and pomposity. It's probably also a bit of a dig at dry academicism, the effort to comprehend the world with the reductive intellect alone - a condition of which I like to think I have been, if not cured, then at least partially relieved in recent years. Jung said it well:

"Analysis kills and synthesis brings to life. We must find out how to get everything back into connection with everything else. We must resist the vice of intellectualism and get it understood that we cannot only understand."

When I first read Simon Armitage's wonderful poem-sequence "The Whole Of The Sky" years ago, I was blown away that some of the poems (such as "Boötes" and "The Serpent-Holder") actually seemed to be retellings of jokes, despite being written in a "serious poetic" rather than "comic verse" style. It was quite liberating for an intense young thing like me to realise that Real Poets were allowed to do things like that.

This poem, then, is essentially a shaggy dog story (a rambling and mostly groan-inducing joke). It's also an unacknowledged salute to the brilliant old BBC radio show "My Word", with Frank Muir and Denis Norden. As a child, I used to listen to the show in bed using a rudimentary crystal radio (assembled by my dad and I from some teach-yourself-electronics kit; thinking about it now, I can almost feel the ache caused by its fat, ear-trumpet-style earphone, whose transparent tubular endpiece inevitably filled up with ear wax). Part of the show involved Muir and Norden coming up with convoluted anecdotes that finished up with a terrible pun on a pre-designated, well-known phrase. I still remember one of these stories explaining how you could tell that a brie was ripe when pressing it in the middle felt like pressing your eyeball. Now there's a rule of thumb indeed.

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