Above and Beyond Gwyneth Paltrow

Matthew Haigh, Death Magazine

Salt, 64pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781784632069

reviewed by Rosanna Hildyard

1. On first glance, you (browsing the Poetry & Drama shelves in Waterstones) might mistake Death Magazine for one of those popular poetry books. You know: the ones that get Goodreads reviews, sell copies, and cause allergic reactions in those who have been reading poetry for more than ten years. The millennial-pink cover of Death Magazine is reminiscent of Amanda Lovelace’s the princess saves herself in this one, or something dairy-based by Rupi Kaur. However, look again, and you might second-guess this. Not even Lovelace and Kaur would dare having a gyrated human figure, thrusting its chest and legs out, on their cover, as Death Magazine does — their collections, on femininity and empowerment, are tastefully covered with pen-and-ink drawings of flowers and insects, their monochromatic colours blending in with the Fabers and Penguin Classics. Their collections insist: ‘I am serious!’ In contrast, the cover of Death Magazine might catch your eye and make you think: that’s a bit Cosmopolitan, even for Instapoetry?

All this flashes through your mind before you actually pick up the collection and look closer, realising that Death Magazine’s cover fe/male is partially skinless and three-legged. Already, it is clear that in the superficial world of the magazine, there is more than first meets the eye.

2. Death Magazine’s central conceit is that of – a magazine, with contents headed under{ F E A T U R E S} { F I T N E S S } { L I F E S T Y L E } {B E A U T Y }{ W E L L N E S S } and, finally, { A D V I C E}; the Acknowledgements reveal that this is more than simply a framing device, but a structure actually used to generate poems. Those in {FITNESS} have been ‘collaged in part from articles found in Men’s Health’; those in {BEAUTY} from ‘blog posts found on the GOOP website’. The whole collection is inextricable from the magazine form. It appears consciously lighthearted, reminding me of something like The Onion: a parody of a form, meant to be taken unseriously, as entertainment.

And yet, like all the best parodies from The Onion to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Death Magazine manages to transcend parody to become something entirely original and deeply meaningful in itself. This is real poetry; it goes above and beyond Gwyneth Paltrow.

Take the poems in {FITNESS}, for example. Poems that can make a reader laugh out loud can probably be counted on the thumb of one hand. However, the poems in {FITNESS} are genuinely LOL-worthy. Each is named after a different male celebrity — Jean Claude van Damme, Marlon Brando, Will Smith, Tom Hardy — and Haigh ‘collages’ idiotically earnest journalist-speak with his absurd poetry, coming out with a blended prose-poem that is both hilariously dumb and at the same time weird, in the same sense as ‘weird sisters’– uncanny, eerily accurate, prophetic.

Taking on the role of a real
man, Brando played the part

Is ‘the role of a real man’ a real line from a magazine, or poetic metaphor for Brando’s acting career? It sounds plausible, yet its placement and juxtaposition alongside other poems makes us re-read the line, both literally and metaphorically. If we read it as a quote from a magazine, the disturbing way that magazines define social gender roles is singled out; if read as a metaphorical construction, it questions our current cultural doublethink around constructions of masculinity: i.e. how can we consider Brando the ultimate ‘man’, while knowing he is a professional actor? Haigh’s skill is in bringing all this together, in a line that is both elegant and open to a multitude of interpretations. And, what is most important in poetry, it sings. A line like ‘Brando played the part / humiliated’ is incredibly suggestive while also in some way indefinable.

Admittedly, at times the poems in this book can come across as spoof. A reader would be forgiven for feeling more than a little exhausted, at some points, by the monotonously perky magazine-voice that Haigh mocks, explores and quotes from throughout the collection. In {A D V I C E }, for example, an excellently weird line: ‘Stop trying to be sad all next century.’ seems about to take off into some metaphoric flight, but is dampened by the following line, the banal: ‘Squats, bro, chin to win!’ It’s like you’re trying to talk to someone interesting at a party, but some bouncy tropical house keeps drowning them out.

But maybe that’s the point? After closing Death Magazine, I was left feeling drained and more than a little sad. Overall, this collection is ridiculous, hyper, superlative. Its continual use of vacuous advertising-language emphasises the falsity of this language. The fact that this tone and language meshes uncomfortably with weirder, more abstract or poetically challenging moments only enacts upon the reader the emptiness that the pressure to shop, be beautiful and stay fit hollows into our lives.

The effects of living in a consumer society have been beautifully expressed by poets like Anne Boyer (on clothing/shopping) and Andrew MacMillan (on going to the gym), for example, yet Haigh makes us feel this particular emptiness with an extraordinary specificity, through using the particular language of the advertising and beauty industries. What do you feel, after an overload of koan-like magazine advice, but deadened? The eponymous first poem (in the form of Table of Contents for the ‘Death Magazine’) sums it up:

6 essential tips for transferring
your consciousness to the

Follow the ‘essential’ ‘tips’, that is, societal rules; have better orgasms, occupy your mind, be gym-fit, scare yourself with real-life stories of the worst that might possibly happen, to people just like you. It ends:

I have no mouth and I must Cream:
in memory of moisturiser. I
Can’t Exist Like This: what
to do when

The abrupt break shows us the logical end-point of the quest to be ever younger, better, stronger, happier: emptiness. The voice trilling ‘essential!’ has no solutions, and we must not sleepwalk into believing that it does, or we may find we have spent our futures on nothing, for no gain.

Haigh’s project is timely. Books like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue and – most significantly – Naomi Wolf’s seminal The Beauty Myth first set out the problems with the ‘ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity’ into contemporary life, many years ago. Yet the epidemic of eating disorders, gross wealth of corporations, and power of the beauty media all continue to rage unchecked in the West. We do not notice how much our lives are shaped by seeing ourselves badly reflected in the mirrors of magazines. Haigh’s linguistic work unpacks this — it is much-needed.

3. Capitalism shapes the way we think about ourselves. Advertising is, of course, a use of language not dissimilar to poetry in its use of persuasive imagery and metaphor. And yet poetry is inherently opposite to capitalism. I cannot think of a better definition of poetry than as language that seeks to challenge received ideas. Even the most cliché-ridden love poem containing lines like: ‘his eyes were like the sun’ is at its heart an attempt to intensify a depiction of the loved object and make the reader see him afresh. Advertising, on the other hand, works within, rather than against, systems of thought.

To return from where we started from: of course bookselling and literary production is a capitalist endeavour, especially at the moment. The emergence of million-copy poetry bestsellers is a great thing for many reasons. Poetry is becoming more accessible to more people; anything that might increase the overall interest in poetry is surely a good thing; individual poets such as Charly Cox, Lovelace and Kaur are important figureheads.

And yet, the problem is that while these popular poetry collections do pose some challenges to the status quo, they also quietly work for themselves. Statements on Kaur’s Instagram such as: ‘you will never be more present than when you step onto a stage,’ caption images plugging her own latest performance. There is a reason for squeamishness around these collections, other than just snobbery. The way these poetry collections work within capitalism is frustrating because poetry is inherently un-systematic. At its most fundamental level, poetry is about using language and metaphor to re-communicate the world around us. Poetry, I would argue, ought to challenge. And however millennially pink Matthew Haigh’s Death Magazine looks on first glance, it does that.

Rosanna Hildyard is an editor and writer from North Yorkshire. Her essays and fiction have been published by Nine Arches Press, The Poetry School and The Darlington & Stockton Times. She won second prize in the Brick Lane Bookshop short story competition 2019, and is currently a member of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective.