Reviewed by Matthew Stewart, Richie McCaffery and Helena Nelson
A four-time winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award with an excellent publishing record in high-quality magazines, Luke Samuel Yates is clearly a poet who’s destined for great things. What’s more, his pamphlet, The pair of scissors that could cut anything, confirms that impression: umpteen prizes and a deal for a full collection with a major publishing house inevitably beckon.
So why am I not yet fully convinced by Yates’ work?
And why do I simultaneously believe he’s on the way to poetic stardom? Well, first of all, he ticks so many boxes. . . .
- quirkily original images, especially similes( “when we open the door the colour green steps out / a sneer wrapped around it like a ribbon”)
- edgy political undertones (”because there was a recession / caused by nonchalance”)
- references to brands (”Adidas . . . Doc Martens . . Marlboro Lights”)
- nods towards technology – also in terms of brands (”I listen / to what I consider to be music / at maximum volume of my iPod Classic”)
- mentions of the role of social media (”so we said goodbye, stayed in touch on Facebook”)
In other words, Yates displays a linguistic sheen and gloss via a knack for inventive turns of phrase. He also manages to feed the New York school through an updated, very British prism, juggling colloquialisms, images, line lengths and chopped-up narratives, all with a great deal of success.
However, Yates isn’t just self-conscious. He’s self-consciously self-conscious. This is intentionally a poetry of postures. It’s so clever that I can’t suspend disbelief. I can’t let go and just read. Instead, Yates is continually reminding me of the striving for and attaining of effect.
In The pair of scissors that could cut anything, Luke Samuel Yates proves his talent without a doubt. His current writing will already be enough to bring him lifelong plaudits. Nevertheless, if he can open himself up and drive into the core that lies beyond artifice, his verse could be exceptional.
But a blackbird
on the garden path
dashes a snail once, twice
against a paving stone
like an artist hurling a double bass down the stairs
(because he won a small grant for the development of his work)
then eating the acoustics.
Luke Samuel Yates often flirts with dangerously hackneyed poetic subject matter, such as the blackbird above, but it’s always done in a defamiliarising way. Luke Kennard has extolled Yates’ work as a successful British import of the New York School, and indeed many of these poems have that fizzy, dynamic and free associative feeling. Yates has an eye for the oddball image, for minutiae; he has a sense of spontaneity and play. For instance in ‘The man on the plane had paid’ we are given each and every possible contingency for which an airline passenger might have paid:
and a chance, if the plane were to crash
and the cabin to float clear and intact in a forest or an ocean,
to lift himself out and feel a few hundred drops of rain
fall and spread as though counting themselves upon him.
Certain poems, in their inexhaustible search for the next quirky image or thought, stray a little self-consciously into the realm of easy surrealism. ‘Mike and Annette’s Working Week’, for example, ends with a wealthy couple being rendered homeless, Annette looking “very tanned” and Mike “eating an egg”. This focus on outré imagery can occasionally alienate, but it works well in poems such as ‘The mouse’ where the speaker releases the small creature he has caught, begging the question of exactly who might be trapped:
I took it half-way down the street in my pyjamas
and set it free. It bounded off
towards the town centre.
The night seemed like it had a lot of potential:
somebody was trimming their hedge
a bit further on down the road.
When Yates strikes the right balance between surrealism and familiar everyday life, his poems work in genuinely eye-opening ways. However, sometimes the reader feels they are being taken on self-consciously wacky flights of fancy, such as in ‘The invasion’ where the postman “stores razor blades in the heels of her Doc Martens”.
Luke Yates is original in so many ways it’s hard to keep up. Sometimes a reviewer is tempted to make comments about poets in which the phrase ‘at his best’ recurs. In Yates’s case, I sometimes feel I am not at my best in terms of responding. I know he’s always doing something interesting, something carefully thought and wrought. Still, I'm not always sure I've ‘got’ it. But when I do – oh wow.
For example, I adore the title poem here. I can see it at every stage: the scissors “suddenly in the kitchen one day, / standing up on their shears / like a Gap model / before they disappeared through the floor”. And the sound of it all is satisfying too, right to the final syllable. The pace gallops along beside the narrative, and it’s fun. In fact, the whole pamphlet has great fun in it – jokes, frippery, lines hurled right across to the margins, and then a dead pan voice that outfaces resistance.
Fun, yes – and yet, I was moved too. The curious poem ‘The Car Boot Sale Slams Shut’, which describes a woman crying with such hyperbole it is ridiculous and surreal – somehow it left me suddenly and unexpectedly sad – real, profound sadness. The tears got out of the poem and trickled into me. Something not dissimilar happened in ‘The Man on the Plane Had Paid’. I don’t understand how the effect is achieved, but like all magic tricks, that’s as it should be.
I think I like the jokes – like ‘Day rises like a loaf of bread in an advertisement for bread’. Such lines remind me of the crazy similes that used to get passed round in emails and then FaceBook. But I like what happens round the anti-similes better. I like it most (I think) when sound connects with intricate thought. You hear it in ‘I am not Ambitious’: ‘Inside the warm worms / its way back into my fingers. / There is compote, cream. / My eardrums sing softly.”
I’ve seen Luke Yates’s poems in magazines for years. I noted the name long ago, not just because he’s Cliff Yates’s son (I think) but because the poems were different, and invariably interesting. You can’t just read them. You have to work out how to read them, and this process is pleasurable. I’ve just noticed how many italics I’ve ended up with in this review. Such is the effect of Luke Yates. You can’t read him and not think in italics. I can’t not want to know what he’ll do next.