Ghost Flowers: The Poetry Of Emma Simon, Nick On & Hilary Menos
Even in a series of collections as disparate, and individually rewarding, as the three winners of the Poetry Business competition for 2019, there is a tendency to try to locate connections, as though it were incumbent upon the reviewer to think thematic or lyrical simpatico into being. It’s where a natural synoptic impulse, or an urge for clarity through the illusion of verisimilitude, leads us.
And really, the three pamphlets under poor secondary scrutiny here – secondary, because they were selected by three editorial luminaries of the poetry world: Michael Schmidt, Amy Wack and Neil Astley – are remote bedfellows whose collective endeavours amount to hugely enriching contributions to the oeuvre. From the astonishing depth of Emma Simon’s sense of the world, to Nick On’s attempt to reconstruct a family history, to Hilary Menos’ effort to turn pain into words, the reader finds limitless emotional reward.
Emma Simon’s range of themes is compendious yet finds a common link in absence, in anxiety, in enforced redundancy, as if obsolescence before maturity were humanity’s best endeavour. And what a disposition of standpoints: Simon’s poems are backward glances, forward leaps, jaundiced examinations of a desiccated present, whose use of language and formal arrangements exactly mirror her open-eyed preoccupations. The dexterous ‘Dissolution of the Libraries’ takes a scalpel to a landscape where ‘Words (are) whirled away’, where libraries dissolve in a pro-active measure of economy, and, in terms of the immeasurable loss, irresponsibility. Her skilled use of Old English alliteration and neologisms delivers an erosion of cultural will as figuratively destructive as the burning of an illuminated manuscript, leaving the memory of language’s fire in its wake:
‘Gone all the idolgold: the glimmerings
on paperthick and parch, that flare, facelit,
matchbright - magick as moonglare
suddenly uncloudclothed – picking out a path.’
The shadow of something more solid is cast over many of the poems in The Odds
. What remains is the resonance of former existences, mostly human, sometimes inanimate. The sardonic ‘Rummaging’ is an inventory of spilling drawers, where the useful is never found, but the useless abounds; and the voice of the dead whose guidance as to finding ‘things’ can no longer be sought though the bereaved will sometimes try at forgetful moments, before being shaken into the prosaic truth: ‘But where’s the good / in rummaging now through stuff. It’s all too late.’
‘It’s all too late’. Too late, in any event, for the fax machine whose utility was usurped within a decade. Taking the part of the redundant machine, and a neat sideswipe at the resolute merry-go-round of commercial imperatives, Simon’s 'elegy' keens for the fax whose former energy dissipates into an occlusion of shadows, leaving nothing but a ‘reminder I was the future, once’. (‘In the Museum of Antiquated Offices: Exhibit C, Fax Machine’)
Simon’s way of seeing elides certainty at every turn: her subjects are marginal and elusive. Denizens of ‘The Bookies’, shadowy, silently expectant, are foregrounded only when ‘charged’ with the hope wrapped in a bet, crackling ‘like a bulb about to fuse’. The sense of anticipation in the ‘green baize’ of drab bookie electronica is a natural repository for Simon’s fizzing metaphors. The odds of the book’s title stacked squarely against the punter – ‘pick a random bus ticket, gamble on your wife’ - a man’s (‘it’s always a man’) only hope is hope itself, to balance out ‘the bitter and the sweet’.
This poet's wisdom thrives on half-truth and counter-intuitive subtext. ‘Bad Feminists’ does not seek to abjure its own position – the theme is the sleeping, erotically-aloof figure of David Beckham – but rather to play around the edges of ‘post-gender / post-identity games’, whose knowing half-glance is a suggestion of complicity too far for the ‘baying hounds’ of radical feminism. Simon’s fine hexameters, on formal ‘lease’ from Robert Browning, conclude, with heavy irony, that the joke has necessarily been missed. Adept at sniffing out honesty, the layers of gaming fall away with Simon’s eulogy to Robert Smith of the ‘Cure’, whose wild-haired untameable mystique, and faithfulness to his muse, are fleshed-out in the idolatrous tones of a Pindaric Ode, and return the poet to the place of her painful awakening:
‘to single bedrooms, wonky posters peeling
from the ceiling, and all that wasted heartache. (‘A Pindaric Ode to Robert Smith of The Cure’)
As monomaniacal, in a different way, as Lady Macbeth, Smith’s beauty lies in his indifference to what constitutes taste. Simon’s fine sonnet of entrapment about Shakespeare’s anti-heroine removes her modern counterpart to an asylum, wherein the tableau of her imagining unfolds in her head. Fated not to be understood by her antagonists, out of time, the furniture of memory – the terrible silence of childlessness, the illusion of Birnam Wood – encroach. Lady Macbeth’s insight is Simon’s own – that loss may lead to urges that transcend our definition of madness:
‘They say this state of mind is just a stage,
we’re players of emotions, a starless
cast of unspeakable names. I laugh, or rage’ (‘Lady Macbeth’)
Lady Macbeth’s fragmenting imagination finds an inverse mirror in Nick On’s fascinating Zhou
, whose mandate is to reconstruct an image of his immediate ancestors from the broken shards of histories both recent and ancient. That his origins are Chinese colours his way of seeing; his rendering of the early sections of Zhou
remains faithful to the impressionistic lyricism of a history imperfectly understood, but beautifully-realised from On’s wide knowledge both of China’s past, and of its cultural and artistic temperament. The word ‘Zhou’ refers to a medieval dynasty, as it is also the tenth most common surname in China, and On’s narrative – there is continuity throughout – is effected in the pastel shades of China’s cultural heritage, whose vigour is felt in every metaphor and every figure.
Illuminated by the italicised ‘voice over’ of philosophical text, the odyssey of On’s grandfather from China to England – the factors which drove him to exile, the process of deracination – is traced in foreshortened lines of real harmonic beauty, where the uncertainty of the journey is counterbalanced by an exquisite sense of immersion in the landscape of Chinese tradition and custom. Here, the reader may construct a back-story from the barest of credentials:
‘His queue was cut, her feet unbound.
He bought a Western suit.
She carved his melon. He broke hers.
She was frail and not so beautiful.
He threw knives to miss her head.
She did not know that she was dead.’ (from ‘Fragments of Zhou’)
His ‘old opinions’ locked in the trunk with the tricks of his trade – he is a magician and conjurer – Zhou's emigration carries his past within him, and On’s fine series of Cantos mark his progress to the West with the age-old promise of an eventual return, and remittance of monies to family in the meantime. An innocent prestidigitator, Zhou’s – the ‘ordinary Joe’ with the ordinary name - eyes are opened by degrees of painful assimilation. On is skilled at introducing savage ironies as though they were commonplaces of the exile’s experience - the ‘stepped-on’ mine in a field of labour, the learning of English in the language of institutional prejudice: ‘NO CHINESE’. The italicised countervailing voice of the Chinese poet, Li Po, foregrounds a nobler patina of history which renders Zhou’s subordination to service in the West, a further irony:
‘South of the Wall we fought
and fled westwards to the sea,
washed our weapons in the breakers
and lay be-shitted in the dunes’ (from ‘Canto I’)
Finding a new identity which retains vestiges of the old, On’s grandfather – the Zhou of the cantos – develops a defiantly robust carapace, like the Ambassador to the Court of St James, one Dr Wellington Koo, who on being patronised in cod-Chinese, ‘You like-y soup-y?’, gives a speech ‘in perfect English’ and concludes, with impeccable timing - ‘You like-y speech-y?’. That On’s son – Nick On’s father – becomes a copywriter is one early suggestion of the poet’s own inclination to word use, as it is also an affirmation of determined linguistic adoption. The assiduous purveyor of advertising copy is a proprietorial believer in the efficacy of his subject:
‘You said advertising was not illusion
but clarified the virtue of the things that would be sold.’ (‘Copywriting’)
In a sense, Nick On is also ‘articulate with copy’; the means to eloquence is vouchsafed in the struggles of his forebears. The resonant and moving concluding sestet of ‘Ghosts’ completes a process of genetic and psychical reconciliation wherein the idiosyncrasies – the protracted silences, the scowls and sulks are measured best in the round, juxtaposed as naturally with the love of Shakespeare and Mozart as any ‘taciturn’ disposition permits. The protective instinct of the father, the love unqualified, demands a wider angle of recognition whose provenance bears the gravitas of heredity – ‘the very cadence of my walk’:
‘But this gesture I am making now
this clench of my mouth that pulses in my cheek,
is him, as it was, in him, his father.’
The Human Tissue
of Hilary Menos’ reckoning is deeply scarred in her wonderful, far-reaching collection of poems. That her engagement with a central theme – the donation of a kidney to her son – is poetically indirect is one indication of the terrible psychological pain occasioned in the process. We arrive at the point of transplant tangentially, from unusual angles and by means of metaphor, but the distance invoked between object and subject is illusory. Instead, a new insight is rendered: the quality of a life which depends exclusively on another’s gift - a necessarily symbiotic relationship - is expressed best where emotion is discharged through the body politic. The incalculable value of the gift – the kidney is likened to a Fabergé in ‘Danish Palaces egg’ – is described in lush metaphors, which are persuasive in their verisimilitude:
on hand-tooled guilloche,
crimson velvet lining’
The lines delight in their own suggestiveness. Held beneath the narrator’s ‘spread ribs’ her domain is a protectorate, a harbourer of hope wrapped in unconditional love. And it is to Menos’ credit that she remembers the commitment of one Ronald Lee Herrick (1934-2010) to his twin brother, Richard, who was dying of kidney disease. Enduring a lengthy operation in a time of operating table butchery, Ronald’s donation gave his brother eight more years of life. Staunchly refusing to leave Richard’s bedside in the early days, Ronald said ‘I am here and I am going to stay’, and in so doing offered up, in synoptic form, Hilary Menos’ raison d’etre for Human Tissue
The poet’s reflections – these are profoundly contemplative poems – are everywhere shaped by the failure of the transplant to ‘take’. The moment at which her son’s body rejects the kidney makes a terrible, withering irony of the pristine ‘egg’. The beautiful image of a ‘Miracle’ depicted in a painting by Fra Angelico is clinically ‘reduced’, in a modern surgical procedure, to the inexorable sadness of an ‘organ, like a bad bean, / and it blackens before our eyes. No angels attend either scene.’
A poetic journey which takes the narrator around regional rural hinterlands, to Druidic ceremonies, to churches, to Spain’s Camino Trail, looks at first sight, like an attempt to find succour or comfort in spiritual enlightenment. But this would be a misjudgement: Menos’ tenor is observant but skeptic, admiring but profoundly critical – she is a detached viewer at a feast whose reward is made on earth, not in heaven. The church, the ancient equinoctial observances which draw in the hippy and the traveller, hold less warranty than the surgeon’s knife. But it is here that the poet’s wise and finely-rendered descriptive passages reward the reader’s intelligence. The limitation of science to delay or prevent grief is weighed in the round, and is characteristic of an integrity which measures personal suffering in terms of the greater resonance of tragic loss: her son in hospital, Menos’ thoughts are drawn with equanimity to the terrible echoes of 13th November, 2015:
‘Yesterday, the Bataclan. Today we grieve
for those we knew, for those we never knew,
for our stranger world’. (‘Lost’)
Accompanied throughout her journey by the totemic ‘Mud Man’, a mystical arboreal figure who is both a representation of naturalistic heresy, and profoundly flawed humanity, Menos’ peripatetic narrator finds raddled, counter-intuitive consolation in that which is supposed to bring guidance. Alert to the financial-nexus of religious observance – the donations which make the Catholic church go round are reiterated in five languages – the jaundiced pilgrim eats ‘ice cream in the rain’ before surrendering to a ‘brief sense of wonder’, as faux-insouciant as Larkin:
‘we lie in the dark, naked, feeling strangely chaste,
and every five seconds the smoke alarm sheds a little light
until at last I draw the sheet up over both our faces.’ (‘Camino’)
, The Odds
are published by smith ǀ doorstop.