Last year’s Poetry Business pamphlet competition was judged by Neil Astley, Michael Schmidt and Amy Wack. So to be placed among the winners — as Emma Simon, chosen by Astley, was — must be a sign of quality. The Odds abundantly demonstrates this.
The title hints at notions of chance in its pages, most notably in ‘The Bookies’, wherein the harassed employees ‘learn to recognise this background buzz / of luck’. But this is a happily assorted collection as a glance at the contents shows: here are ‘Frogs’, ‘Mushrooms’, ‘Rummaging’, ‘Bad Feminists’ (excellent, all), and flashier titles like ‘The Dissolution of the Libraries’, ‘A Pindaric Ode to Robert Smith of The Cure’ and ‘A Glass Half Full of Snowdrops’. These aren’t mere novelties, though. Simon matches the promise of the titles by delivering lucid, formally varied, entertaining and often profoundly searching poems.
One fine example is an unrhymed sonnet-of-sorts, which has another showy title: ‘In the Museum of Antiquated Offices: Exhibit C, Fax Machine’. I can’t remember any other poem which addresses the oxymoronic theme of contemporary obsolescence, let alone with such gusto:
I jerk awake some nights, jabber in tongues
of space-age dolphins, a blip blip red eye
scanning lost horizons for a connecting modem signal.
To speak in the fax machine’s voice is brave, but Simon pulls it off with those sharp, attention-grabbing verbs and detail. The poem continues into an astonishing simile, with skilful enjambment and subtle internal rhyme and alliteration:
A curl of white paper blooms — like winter
roses under glass — briefly warm to touch
as grey smoke ghosts of secretaries pass.
The machine’s life is being snuffed out, as is made absolutely clear further on:
No one stops now. The clack of heels on tiles
recedes into the slam of doors closing,
leaving me to dream an inky sky studded
with asterisks for stars, the twinkling of years
some reminder I was the future, once.
This killer ending — sonically bound with delicate artistry — implies, surely, that we, too are becoming obsolete. The sad, inevitable fate of the fax machine is a metaphor for human existence itself.