Taking the top of your head off



1/, tests – Luke Emmett (Leafe Press, 27 pp, £7)

Who was it said, If there’s a wall, I would like my poet to be somewhat off it? I don’t know, but the oft-referred-to-these-days Frank O’Hara famously (or infamously) once said something along the lines of how the silliest thought in your own head was more important than a thought in someone else’s. It’s a remark one has to take on board and believe in and be prepared to discard as nonsense all at the same time, for it comes heavily laced with danger, irony, and several other knowing and in-crowd rhetorical devices. Somewhere, too, it’s worth remembering Emily Dickinson’s “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”, because some poetry, even some poetry written yesterday, today, and tomorrow, comes from poets who believe in some and/or all of this.

And so, Luke Emmett writes a little poem called “Wrench”, about which there is nothing at all silly:

     Having undergone 
     a strange feature of wrench,
                lightly I,
     very light, return; a stroll.

Frankly, I have no idea what this poem is about or what it means, but over coffee this morning a friend and I agreed that the poem, and the middle chunk in particular, sounds like it’s straight out of Dickinson. And while I have no idea what this poem is about or means, I have a pretty good idea of what it does. “Wrench” and “undergone” are words that imply difficulty and struggle, while “lightly” and “light” are at the other end of the emotional spectrum, where one may also encounter (and go for) “a stroll”. Is one entitled to try to hang a narrative on any of this? You can if you want, but instead I’m happy enough to let those contrary implications, and the deftness with which they’re presented in a neat little structure of 14 words, play on my emotional keyboard, and enjoy how they sound, how they make me feel and, by the way, rather wish I’d written the bloody thing.

But what does the poet mean? you may ask. Does he not wish to be more thoroughly understood than just have you wander off with your own response and meaning (for want of a better word). Well, for a discussion about the distance between what an artist intends and what their audience “gets”, you can come round my house for a chat sometime, when you have a few days to spare.

Not all of the 20 poems in this little chapbook lend themselves so rapidly to the treatment I’ve just dished out to “Wrench”. Fr’instance, the first poem in the book – “Stuck” – is a bit more resistant:

     Movement; a spasm
     of laughter accusing

     uncared. Taste
     pain to bodies, touch

     on coupled scissor,
     reddish, bent.

The title and the language is all suggestive of some form of negativity, and everything seems to be going well until you get to that “coupled scissor”, which is something one may struggle to wrap one’s head around – but that’s alright, because if all this was easy there’d be little reason to do it: either to read it, or write it. And, as with “Wrench”, it’s so well put together.

All the poems here are short, so short in fact that quoting from them is next to pointless and one might as well quote the whole thing. So, I’m helping myself to two other (for me) highlights. First, “After the event he”:






     Jesus wept


     soften my tears


which I think is remarkably effective and I haven’t yet worked out a way to explain why. And here is the last poem in the book, which I also wish I’d written, and whose title reads as the first line of the poem, so:

     That Hobgoblin,

     he’s a real card isn’t he?
     What does he say?



I’m reasonably sure that I don’t know where Luke Emmett’s head is or was when these poems were written, and my take on what’s happening in them and around them may be not at all what he intends or would be happy with. My preparedness to not give much of a hoot about the poet’s intentions and/or state of mind may mean I’ll not get added to his Christmas card list. But, for me, art (in this case poetry) doesn’t have to be understood, but it is art, and it is poetry, when (a) it’s well-executed, (b) demands a response that makes one think, and look again, and again look again, instead of simply nod in agreement and move on to something else and (c) take the top of your head off.

(c) is a pretty damn difficult thing to pull off, and it rarely happens. Luke Emmett has come pretty damn close.




© Martin Stannard, 2024





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