Blood Beneath The Skin: Isn’t Forever By Amy Key
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Amy Key is the kind of poet for whom a blank sheet of reviewing paper is the only critical preparation. A sheet of A4, and her words. Tempting though it always is to take a (not so) sneaky peek at the back cover blurb, these are voices amongst many others, including my own.
You need, instead, a dramatic re-think; a look at the poems through Windolene’d glass. And an acceptance from the outset that a getting to the heart of it is futile, that general inferences become friable to the touch, like moth wings. As well, therefore, to listen to the sound of the words, to the sound of a chest rising and falling, as to go for consistency of interpretation, or a unitary streamlining of thought.
Key’s vision is unitary only in the sense that it is held in a shimmering prism of words. And her new Bloodaxe collection,Isn’t Forever, is as tantalising as it is a departure from 2013’s Luxe. Here, the predominant style is as prolix and fractured as unsolicited thought, but as hypnotic, and revealing, as an angler’s intense focus on a stream yields, suddenly, to the animal quickening of a disturbance in the water.
Amy Key can compel focus in arrhythmic thought-streams, and it doesn’t matter in the least that you lose the power to generalise meaning as you dive. Finding flashes of kaleidoscopic light, like that of pearls, in dark, aqueous spaces, the reader senses fragility, bluster, egoism, fear, self-assertion and laceration in heroically elastic metaphors.
Beyond insight and acuity of perception, Key is incredibly self-aware, and to some extent we find a mandate for the entire collection in the frank ‘I disowned my real pain & engaged with its subordinates’. Overwhelmed by a snowballing accretion of guilts magnified and misplaced, her openness here makes the poem seem somehow pivotal. As though her narrator had emerged into the shock of daylight, we experience the cold sweat of anxiety as if literally:
I was quaking
all this time, my whole body a throat stoppered by tears. I tried
to will dreams of romantic redemption, but my brain swatted
them away, like flies gunning for something you really want to eat.
I am tempted to think that these words were conceived in the small hours when accumulations of incoherent and generally negative thoughts seem relentless. They are painfully direct, almost sardonically so.
Which is not always the case here. The riverine locutions – and water is a major elemental dynamic – describe emotional intuitions in striking metaphors of displacement and movement. Little is static, and it is no surprise to find Key offering a pastiche of Kate Bush’s ideation in one of the latter’s own preferred media. The fluid impressionism of ‘Stem of wallflower / Hair of doormat’ gets to the essence of a protean line of thinking as we hear beautiful echoes of Bush’s songs referenced indirectly. Her delicacy is caught precisely in ‘tiptoed into senses’, whilst a ‘dress hem dragged through rockpools’ and ‘red ribbon swell of seaweed’ seem a deliberate play on Bush’s deeply sensual ‘Mrs Bartolozzi’, and ‘throat glow radioactive’ suggests the perspicacity of the song ‘Breathing’.
Elsewhere, Bush re-emerges unacknowledged. The undernourished formal brevity of ‘With my head on the pillow’ is a single twenty watt bulb swinging in a slave ship. The mind’s bed-bound claustrophobia – the fish under the ceiling of algae find equivalence in Bush’s drowning airmen looking upwards at boats in ‘The Coral Room’ – ends in an ambiguous crustacean metaphor whose subject looks to be guilty by inference:
at home in
the hermit crab
And always a kind of negotiation unfolding: between Key’s narrator’s external and internal selves, between the domestic and the public, between introspection and self-assertion, and between the scalpel and the sawn-off.
The reader is continually astonished by the outrageous acuity of Key’s use of imagery; she persuades, utterly, on the most unlikely ground. The unchartered territory between house and land in ‘The garden’ (‘I encountered a surface that was not safe to stand on’) is a figure for uncertainty, for incoherence of thought and action. Seeking a map through the minefield of decision-making, the narrator finds a dialogic terroir to her own mental incontinence in ‘I am taking up too much of my own life.’
Such strangenesses are not unusual here and there is an interior logic to the process of examination and resolution which is fascinating to disentangle. Concessions to her own frailty, sudden foregroundings of self, acceptance of what Larkin called the ‘unworkable’, are all characteristic of an insight which can colour a poem in several shades simultaneously. The apothegmic ‘My narrative costume is a witch without reputation’ and ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, with its firm titular capitals, are inventories of soundbites which describe an examined life. Conflations of material signifiers with blindsiding abstractions give notice of an unblinkered emotional intelligence:
Shame escapes like the white of a wave
frilly and loud on the shore.
Some things become more beautiful in their abandonment but not me. (‘The Best Is Yet to Come’)
Key wears interior personae like clothes. The ‘wardrobe’ of ‘My narrative costume’ is a litany of self-knowledge and of exposure where layers of perceived failings accumulate to an act of self-laceration. The pain is sincere to the point of being injudicious: a catastrophised ballad of one who may sacrifice honesty to the burden of guilt and longing. I have rarely read lines as wilfully, exquisitely exposed as these:
My uterus is an idyll
Where forgetting happens
Certainties are limpets smashed from rock
I survived without birthday candles, so can you
I had to lie early to account for things I knew
I had to talk
I had to lie
So much of this book is about the wanting of something else, but the sense of missing out amounts to a more general non sequitur: the incontinent, uncertain life Key describes is full to bursting with paradoxical colour and vim, and at least one of her points here seems to be that cogitation is procrastination, as life walks on past the gate.
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The formal invention which characterises many of the poems in Isn’t Forever is an apposite and brave move: using a fragmentary impressionism, split lines and broken verses to express a countervalency of voices and ideas, Key finds a means of swimming upstream.
In ‘Sensory notes on Music for 18 Musicians’, a poem whose line divisions describe the impact of sonic experiences on the mind’s receptors, she provides the perfect template for the hapless concert reviewer devoid of pre-requisite musical skills. Taking a line of abandonment to sound, she renders musical effect in metaphors of hyper-conscious transcendence. The direction of Amy Key’s thought-process is as freewheelingly liberated, and as unanchored, as any in this astonishing book:
my hands were in damp earth................................
my throat a whitening knuckle...............................
my hands held up in terrific and expansive rain.....
I was not afraid.......................................................
I knew microscopic feelings....................................
felt the valleys of my fingerprints...........................
the sounds were curds of sunlight..........................
a lucid penny-falls of me.........................................
Steve Reich couldn’t have put it better.
Isn’t Forever is published by Bloodaxe Books
Blood Beneath The Skin: Isn’t Forever By Amy Key, 17th June 2018, 20:45 PM