The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2012 £5.00
Reviewed by Kirsten Irving, Maria Taylor and Helen Addy
The opening line of this pamphlet, “funding cuts and corporate sluts” ('available sky'), could be collage, found poetry or commentary, but either way it falls a bit flat. Read further and there's far more interesting stuff to come.
From the shape poem of ‘sharks, their absence’ (which could equally be mimicking a shark-bitten block or the pattern of wave marks on a shoreline) to the excellently titled ‘women “nature vs robo”’ (which adjusts its description of a mysterious product as the creation takes shape), Burnett uses a silent traveller avatar to describe flashes of colour and the brush of passing objects, while worlds (or zones) move softly by each other.
The preface to oh-zones sets out the author’s stall as an experimental poet, letting us in on some of her techniques and giving some background about the choices involved. While it’s refreshingly unfashionable to see a manifesto heading up a poetry collection, I found this preamble frustrating in its attempt to steer the reader’s interpretation:
The expression of multiple simultaneous perceptions allows a figuring of the paradox of being at once part of nature and removed from it.
Such guidance seems at odds with the work itself, with its emphasis on travel and fluidity of meaning. We’re briefed on the idea behind 'oh-zones' as “embodiment in environments and language under pressure”, as well as on the notion of “whords—words experienced as chords”.
The two poems that employ “whords” (‘breath-chords’ and ‘sun-chords’) are really pleasurable, sensory pieces, well placed to resonate at the end of the pamphlet. ‘Sun-chords’ in particular jimmies about with the haibun, which in itself is a nice comment on how westerners often rewrite the rules for such forms, believing their method authentic. I love the idea behind these two poems, and the execution is light and atmospheric, full of dissection, examination, scattering and, as ‘breath-chords’ puts it, “intricate parallels”. I just wish I could have stumbled over them and worked out the construction for myself.
One more beef: 12 pages of poetry for £5.00 seems steep, especially as the production values could be nicer. A very similar pamphlet from Knives Forks and Spoons (same production, same year) comprising 15 pages of poems is, bafflingly, only £4.00.
With a title like Oh-Zones, it’s easy for a reader to expect poetry of a sensual nature. In the preface the poems are indeed described as inhabiting a “sensory zone . . . inhaling, releasing and resonating through stress”. The work deals very much with the immediacy and cadences of language, in particular “language under pressure”, as the author describes it in the preface. In a time of ‘funding cuts’ there’s also something contemporary and almost political in this economical approach. Burnett’s written style consists of keeping syntax tight, clipped and mainly composed of nouns. The opening poem, ‘available sky,’ bears this out by possessing a hard, detached tone that relies mainly on urban language and images:
funding cuts and corporate sluts
colours are dumped pink salmon
goldsmiths sainsburys the only
orange over dreams beds @
Reading such verse brings to mind trips on cars or buses where an observer might take in views of a city while travelling. How these images are interpreted could rely solely upon the reader. If you enjoy experimental soundscapes in poetry, this may be for you. However, if you value fluidity and a sense of narrative, you may be left cold. There are no neat beginnings or endings in these poems; the poet isn’t prepared to give you a comfortable ride and you’re expected to arrive at your own interpretations. ‘Villanelle in Green’ is a case in point and ends with the line “the sky is an apple.” I have to admit I found it hard to visualize an “apple” sky, despite working with the idea of fruit and freshness, although it sounds pleasant enough. Even if the poems don’t always cohere though, there are some idiosyncratic and strangely inviting phrases within them.
At best Oh-Zones is economical and playful with language and draws on haibun forms of poetry (a mixture of haiku and prose). It deliberately eschews the mainstream and is full of hard-packed lines and phrases which function on a sensory level:
warning hot shivers
shimmer and lift open pink
In the preface to Burnett’s pamphlet, she describes her poems as “sensory-zone-poems”. From this I was expecting poetry grounded in the senses, but also other-worldly, and she did not disappoint.
The front cover shows a close-up photograph of grey tree bark. The picture feels at once familiar and oddly alien, with the texture of the bark reminiscent of wounds. Burnett’s focus is ecological and I was struck by the fractured nature of her poems, reflecting the disconnection between the natural world, and our often consumer-driven, urban lives.
In the first poem ‘available sky’, she describes sights from Brockley to London Bridge.
With no punctuation and unusual line breaks, her images seem to hang on the poem like objects from branches. These objects seem both familiar and malevolent:
trees bedecked with plastic bags
jewels hang from cranes round his neck
of sky as
available business space
Vocabulary of retail and consumerism such as “trending” and “discounting” is starkly juxtaposed with words about animals and nature. The effect is one of dislocation where everyday scenes and items from an urban landscape appear suddenly out of kilter and foreign.
In ‘villanelle in green’, light from Lidl’s is a “stiff light” infecting the beauty of the sky. Burnett’s repeated end rhymes of “light” and “sight”, build to a crescendo where the poet breaks free from the falsity of artificial light to view the sky in its own glory:
I look out of light
it is April
the sky is an apple
One of my favourite poems in the pamphlet is ‘bees’. The importance of bees is beautifully described:
a zip through the middle
of everything vital
Burnett’s use of verbs is often surprising and illuminating with “folding” and “unsolving” used to chart the vitality and significance of the insects.
Many poems in the pamphlet are shaped carefully to enhance her messages of how nature is destroyed by man’s carelessness. Words flutter across the page or rise in jagged peaks. I found the poetry both disarming and moving, with images of nature altering and challenging my perception of man’s efforts to live in harmony with the natural world.