Ivory cover with black lettering and a central motif: star, web, starSylvie Siren and Other Poems, Lana Hughes

Zarf Editions, 2019   £3.00

Typography doing its job

There are many ways of signalling to the reader how to read a page. In this collection, few (but important) prompts are supplied by typography and layout.

Poems are set almost entirely in lower case, except for the first personal singular ‘I’ and the capitalised words of a book title and its author’s name appearing as a footnote to the title poem ‘sylvie siren’. Italics are used for quoted speech or thought (though the precise application wasn’t always clear to me).

In seventeen pages of poetry, there is one set of square parentheses around ellipsis marks, one set of standard parentheses, and two underlined words. Spacing between words and phrases, and of words across the page, is used provocatively. Leading varies from one poem to another. The point size used for the first poem is smaller than for others (to accommodate longer lines?).

Here, you meet language head-on, since it is largely unmediated by typographic rules. The effect is to keep you on your reading toes – ready for anything, sensitive to small changes and to the words themselves.

The first poem, ‘insurance’, takes us to a world in which baby teeth rain out of hollow branches and exiled days of childhood are beaten out of trees ‘with the drum of falling fruit’. Human and other bodies intermingle.

Several poems see those boundaries dissolve. The prose poem ‘one-pot stew’ — justified on the page — tells of a dream ‘about a guy who had a line / drawing of an ivy-covered brick wall tattooed on to his forehead / and when he leant backwards or went upside down all of the / blood would go to his head and make the plants look green.’

For me, these poems establish and develop a pressing democracy of language, achieved not by adherence to a conventional system, but by creating level ground out of which deviations arise — anomalies and quirks of layout and typography.

I was glad to ask ‘why?’ so many times. I’ll be wondering for some time about that ‘nightmare’ and who ‘he’ really was, let alone the single footnote with its exotic capital letters.

Clare Best