dying notes, Reuben Woolley
Erbacce Press, 2015 £4.99

Focus on punctuation as a displacement reading strategy

I was interested in my own response to this pamphlet. It’s full of poems – no fewer than 41, many of which are unashamedly grim. There’s blood, and knives. Titles, all lower case, are brutally brief, the sole exception being ‘the rape of the next nigerian nobel prize winner’. You can’t ease your way into this. I was uncomfortable from page one, which I think was intended. Why should poetry comfort us, in a world that mainly doesn’t?

In the face of unsettling detail and form (floating half lines, spaces, lower case ‘i’, sentence fragments, lots of &), my attention was drawn to the punctuation. I may have been avoiding some of the arguments, and certainly some of the points of view. But still it interested me that, despite blood, cunt and six feet of worms, some poems have no punctuation at all (including my two favourites) while others use commas and full stops, but with a space not only after but before the punctuation symbol – except when the symbol’s at the start of a line. Weird.

Here’s an example, from ‘breath’:

a deep beat
on dried skins , taut
. they’ve all
got rhythm

What does it mean to have a full stop at the start of a line? Is it to ‘throw’ the reader, to stop them taking anything for granted? Apostrophes are completely conventional. Why are they the exception from exceptions?

I’ve always believed punctuation should help the reader see sense. If the punctuation attracts attention in its own right, it’s not doing its job.

But that theory falls down here. I have no answers, only questions. Why are there no question marks, only commas and full stops. Or nothing at all.

Was the reason I liked ‘the news/absolutely’ and ‘small is’ because these poems contained no punctuation at all? Or was it because I liked the phrasing (I do) and felt I knew where I was? Here’s the end of the first of ‘the news/absolutely’:

                              i can’t
light up for fear
of feedback

& nothing has happened
like nothing

usually does

Helena Nelson