Chris Emery's third book of poetry, like its predecessors The
Cutting Room and Dr. Mephisto, has complex roots. The poems owe much to cinema,
particularly Eisenstein's use of montage, in the way they constantly disrupt
any sense of narrative; they are indebted too to expressionist art and to
surrealism in their explorations of fugitive areas of consciousness; and they
have much in common with the poetics of language poetry. A poetry that
developed historically in tandem with research into the genetic code, which
systematically took apart and reassembled the human genome, language poetry
typically takes apart and reforms sentences, exploring new sytactic
possibilities: sentences, here, will drift and split, signifieds become
increasingly unstable, and syntax will become fractured, with an effect that
has much in common with the irrational discourse of certain surrealist
writings. Emery has mastered
this art and made it his own, adding a distinctive sonic resonance
reminiscent of Hughes and Heaney, a word music which sets his work apart.
Thus in 'Sewer Music for the Social Bargain', we read:
I want to
punish Tony's mouth
across his chest
pitch and gloss of fresh water
the holy life of the cure
cupped hands I see the petrol
wrapping tiny feet in hearts and
the broken flag of your head
each seg flannel and tart
attempt at ruin or skid and skid
To the uplift
of the combined assassination frame
No more than
a dub band
Emery's verbal concretions gather around specific arguments, people, places
and events, and it is here that they 'throw a rope to the reader' in Virginia
Woolf's phrase. In 'Sewer Music for the Social Bargain', the 'Tony' referred
to in the first lines turns out to be Tony Blair. And as we read on - 'petrol century', 'terminus empty',
'assassination frame' - what comes increasingly into focus is that this is a
poem about the Iraq war, a political poem, ready to go off in your face like
a cluster bomb. Iraq is explored in other poems too, notably 'George's Song',
where we encounter:
In these poems Emery has discovered a language which articulates the complex
and nightmarish ramifications of the war on terror, something which takes his
work beyond the formal play of language poetry and into politics.
Other poems, while no less powerfully imagined, find their subject matter and
mood elsewhere. 'The Curtain', the only prose poem in the collection, uses
theatrical metaphors to explore the desire to disappear; 'Loose Meat'
dissects postcolonialism in ragged quatrains, promising 'It isÉall here for
you now/wrapped in dog skins/wrapped in lungs'; 'The Journey' explores
northern landscapes; 'Black Flake' the language of dream; while 'Tapers'
describes in vivid surrealist metaphor an encounter with death:
come to meet me on the stairs.
hangs like a handset on its cord
static. She always has the answers.
We are the
insects of her trade
world of doors.
she smiles and strokes
We totter on
Other poems explore consumerism, community, and personal memoir, as in the
fine poem 'The Lermontov'. Taking us back to a childhood voyage with his
communist father on the soviet cruise ship named in the title, 'The
Lermontov' meditates on the destiny of this coffin ship stacked to the nines
with Marxist memorabilia, as the world it commemorates is on the verge of
collapse, reading like a poignant inversion of Eisenstein's Battleship
He boiled on
index and globe
Yet no red
life was made.
manoeuvre's wasting feature.
The natal sea
was antic. The lanes showed
'Lemnos Revisited', the final poem in the volume, obliquely returns us to the
war on terror. Here, following Sophocles, Emery takes up the story of the
soldier abandoned on the island of Lemnos during the Greek expedition to
always spiralling to Troy
the earth's turning fury of love
Now far away
these chafing women
Are my border
watch and know the facts of it
lifetime of winding sheets
It is a sharp reminder of the wars which the forces of capital export to the
margins of our culture - representing 'a defeat of politics in power, and
power in politics' in Zygmunt Baumann's phrase - wars waged against us in our
name, and their uncertain, unwelcome returns.