Discrete Objects

Comfortable Knives
, Stephen Emmerson (Knives, Forks and Spoons)

Stephen Emmerson is another poet whose work I've not seen before and I was very pleased to come across his material in this short and splendidly condensed volume. These are thirteen line poems (sonnets?), each looking very similar, where the 'content' is embraced by 'the form' and where snippets of language - bits of overheard conversation?, inner thoughts, received phrases, often slightly shifted but retaining resonance - come together in jewelled patternings to produce writing which is strangely satisfying and demands to be read at a gallop. At least that's how I approached the work first time around, after which I read through the poems again more slowly. What to make of stanzas like this:

     The more cultured you are, the
     less culture you have. Living like
     this is costing you your insides. So
     drastically aware of your body,
     John Lee Hooker /

     mindless telephone. Two to one
     that we miss it. I know one that starts
     again in an hour - just walk away &
     it's criminal. You can't expect

     sorry to catch up with the half of it.
     Remember when I thought my arm was
     a text? Cannot adapt (either way), is it
     daylight where you are? Yet?
             (page 19)

Each poem works as a discrete object although I am sure there are overlapping concerns which resonate on re-reading. What I most like about these pieces is that the reader can create his/her own narrative within the gaps and this can vary on subsequent readings - the potential of these poems is therefore endless. The first two lines provide the basis for an argument, followed by the abrupt shift to 'Living like this...', yet the 'feel' of the transition is that of a mind talking to itself, transposed from 'inner voice' to 'text on the page' and grammatically re-jigged for the purpose. 'So drastically aware of your body,' implies a degree of follow-on from the previous sentence, then we are projected into the jump-cut of 'John Lee Hooker' (which made me laugh) and into the following stanza, where, after several readings, the 'mindless telephone' seems a perfectly natural follow-through from 'John Lee Hooker'. There's a strangely satisfying vagueness to the second stanza - what exactly is being referred to here? - which is suggestive rather than descriptive and which gives the reader room to move and play. This poetry is extremely playful, in fact. Once again, there's a potential connection (or connections) between ....'it's criminal.' and 'You can't expect / sorry to catch up with the half of it.' which leads you into another thought train -'Remember when I thought my arm was / a text?' which throws up a whole new load of possibilities and poses different questions - the action of the arm in the act of writing, perhaps, the arm as used by an actor in a form of silent communication or mime? Plus the jolt of memory - 'Remember', referring back to something which has happened. The nature of history and of being in the present is a dialectic which is constantly being played with throughout this short collection, in fact. The celerity of the shifts in the last two lines is another indication of the playfulness of this writing and the elegantly poised last word - 'Yet', which adds to the previous line, is both conclusive and open-ended.

The disconnections and unusual juxtapositions in these poems build up to the point where they feel perfectly 'natural' and the balancing of the texture of the language - a major part of the art and indeed, artifice, here, is what makes them so good, I think. There's a smoothness to these repeated patterns and 'shifts' which is very effective and I can only say again that I enjoyed reading these pieces and look forward to reading more work from this interesting and 'new to me' poet.

       Steve Spence 2015