The Odds, Emma Simon
Smith/Doorstop Books, 2020 £6.00
Fables to live by
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be hyper-vigilant for signs and portents at the moment, scanning for explanations and markers to help you get through this strangely changed world. Emma Simon’s new pamphlet is a help and a guide in this, reminding us that the world has always been worn thin in places where the fabulous peeps through.
The poems here either introduce magic into the everyday or start in a fairytale realm but remain solidly quotidian. The overall effect is extraordinary — pulling off that trick of making you realise and/or feel something really quite profound (themes include bereavement, ageing, family love) in the midst of great entertainment.
You must read the whole pamphlet to enjoy this in full. But particular favourites of mine include ‘A Pindaric Ode to Robert Smith of The Cure’ with its gloriously deadpan and anti-sentimental statements (‘The gods do not change.’ ‘We are not sixteen.’) that celebrate the intensity of teenage feeling and the conundrum of being still who we are, despite not being sixteen anymore. ‘The Bookies’ hums with dark magic in an everyday bookmakers: ‘this background buzz / of luck. Its fizzy hisses’;
passing a betting slip over the counter crackles with it,
like a bulb about to fuse.
There is a thread of mortality running subtly through the whole pamphlet and it culminates with a small group of moving poems which bring us to that line between what we can know and what we only wonder about. ‘Bears’ is about trying to find words with someone who is losing their grip on language:
Nothing will make this better. So we stick
to this week and the next. The knowable.
‘Souvenirs’ addresses the reader: ‘Today is not the day you’re going to die. // Others might. But they’re not your others. Not today.’ The poem ends with a phrase that could stand for the whole pamphlet:
you are again taken aback how they hold
the very idea of breaking, but still remain intact.
An idea we’d do well to remember always, and certainly now.
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.
Winning poetry: recipe for readers
Emma Simon is a winning poet in an era of poetry competitions. What ingredients in her work provide a recipe for success?
Variety is part of it. She uses a range of forms, and mixes long and short lines. This variation spices up the reading and reinforces the meaning.
Titles and openings are also key factors. With an interesting array of titles, her poems are strengthened by engaging first lines, which help draw the reader in, for example: ‘You know me by my thwak’; ‘Some peddle false promises; I peddle poisons [ ... ]’.
There’s also a rich fusion of language and musicality that enriches the rhythm (‘the lantern jaw and the low-slung axe’; ‘Lozenge-like eyes that slowly blink.’)
Subject variety and accessibility are other key ingredients (along with effective use of metaphor). These take the poems from the apparent humdrum or domestic to a more significant level. I’m thinking in particular of ‘Quantum Sheep’ where ‘sheep merges into sheep’ and
We follow one another over fences,
wave after wave of us, subparticles
of imagination, waiting to be discovered.
The pamphlet’s blurb uses a well-known phrase from Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Snow’ to describe the poetry as ‘the drunkenness of things being various’. There is a place for this.