Songs of What Happens

Radio Nostalgia, Chris Emery
[87pp, £8.99, Arc Publications]

Radio Nostalgia, 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
     And reach across his chest

     Outside the pitch and gloss of fresh water
     Outside the jangling

     Leisure crews
     Re-establish the holy life of the cure

     Watching with cupped hands I see the petrol
     The terminus empty

     As though wrapping tiny feet in hearts and
     And spying the broken flag of your head

     Would sooth each seg flannel and tart
     In some 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:

     Iron sheets and troops
     Happy under tensile steel
     Happy under total
     Blasting the info good

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:

     Upward with tapers
     death has come to meet me on the stairs.

     Her face hangs like a handset on its cord
     loaded with static. She always has the answers.

     We are the insects of her trade
     inside a world of doors.

     Hereabouts she smiles and strokes
     her children with aplomb,

     We totter on
     above the sordid rafters.

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 Potemkin:

     Our crew embraced Lenin.
     He boiled on lapels,
     His savage index and globe
     Ardent, dilapidated thesis,

     Yet no red life was made.
     Ideas foiled the smashing
     Waves and boiled under
     The manoeuvre's wasting feature.

     New negative horizons
     Fused the common purpose.
     The natal sea was antic. The lanes showed
     Severe ash drop permanence.

'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 Troy:

     We were always spiralling to Troy
     Sinking with the earth's turning fury of love
     Affection and attack

     Now far away these chafing women
     Are my border watch and know the facts of it
     Shaking a 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.

          © Philip Terry 2006