By telling you the protagonists are a crab (a doctor) and a lobster, Langoustine, I’m saying very little about the world the author affords. It’s a series of absurd, suggestive and often very funny aphorisms, which sometimes become part of a story—and sometimes suggest some surreal idea or mood.
‘When the doctor woke his mouth was full of water,’ writes Szirtes. ‘The trouble with sleeping was that you woke to the sea as if the sea were real.’ The physician crab is in the sea—he’s a crab. But he is also in a poem. And his sleep seems to take him out of his world, the poem. Perhaps his dreams are real?
One point of the poem, and Szirtes’ aphorisms in general, is that these paint-by-numbers visions of truth and falsity are dubious. For all their fantastic, fable-like atmosphere, these poems evoke much of the half-lit bafflement of life. They are, in other words, true to our ambiguities and contradictions (assuming we’ve the courage to admit them).
Another line: ‘There was only so much hard-bitten dialogue the doctor could stand. Inwardly he began a villanelle about silk and oranges.’ This is a crab, but a melancholic, sensitive one. Dry and curt in conversation, he composes gentle ballads to himself. A parable about masculinity? A warning about literary narcissism? Just a funny picture of a complicated crustacean? I’ve no idea, but Szirtes invites curiosity, and makes the words matter.(Illustration: Warwick Noble, from The Water Babies)