Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Departure by Chris Emery

I ended up reading two poetry books for February (actually, I read some others as well: it appears that reading poetry is addictive). This was the one I said I was going to read and then my poetry mama Sarah Salway supplied me with a second contrasting book. 

I found it hard going -- "difficult to access" is the official term, I'm told. I talked over my fears with Sarah she said not to worry because sometimes you feel your way into a poem before you understand your way in.

At university I from time to time found myself in a roomful of people all competing to find something clever and intelligent-sounding to say about a poem that I really didn't understand. The Greek lyric poet Pindar is tremendously highly thought of by respectable ancient sources, but his verse is difficult to penetrate. I wept frustrated late night tears over the fragments we studied -- and you can imagine the mixture of relief and exasperation that swept through the seminar the next day when our tutor said (only half joking) that he suspected Pindar was on drugs and that we weren't to try to hard to understand.

This project isn't about being (or sounding) clever. It's not even about trying hard to understand. It's about the experience of reading poetry. I feel very vulnerable admitting here that I struggled to unlock this book (I feel just like the traveller in Walter de la Mare's poem The Listeners). But that was my experience of it.

I've read poetry (and short stories and all kinds of writing for that matter) before that just lies there like a dead fish and this was not my experience with The Departure. Images and tiny fragments of narrative flipped and flashed before my mind's eye -- and just occasionally I felt as if I might almost be swimming with the shoal.

The poems made me feel and put images in my head, but I never understood why I felt that way, or how these quicksilver pictures fitted into the narratives. There is something about the quality of the images ('Snails' silently drowned in "forest tears" and awkward 'Sunday Fathers' "wasting time by the swings") and of the atmospheres conjured up (for me the book as a whole has a feeling of carparks and gritty sodium lights, isn't that odd!) that tells me I should trust Chris Emery and that there are more treasures to be found. In a month or six I could revisit and find that I'm more experienced or wiser or older. Or perhaps layer upon layer of readings will help me to scribble in the details I need to make the poems complete (I once did a drawing class where the teacher told us to keep adding information to our pictures until they were complete: that phrase, to  my mind, was worth the course fee).

You can buy a copy on Amazon (click the picture) but it's more efficient and pleasing to buy it direct from the publisher, Salt.


  1. I love this peek into your experience of reading this book and especially,
    "sometimes you feel your way into a poem before you understand your way in"
    The meaning the reader makes for herself is so varied and so real . . . and so changeable. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Thanks Mary, I'm glad you're enjoying it. It was Sarah's quote, and I found very helpful in approaching this book.