Un(dis)closed: Reading the Poetry of Emma Lew

1 August 2017

A bridge between ‘Arraignment Song’ and ‘Rattling the Forms’ is ‘Poem’ (2015). Taking the form of the pantoum, it covers the more intimate terrain found in ‘Rattling the Forms’ and even seems a companion piece in some respects. ‘Poem’ starts and ends with the line that ‘Adultery fucks a family up as much as poverty’ (line 1, 36). Similar to ‘Arraignment Song,’ it challenges the assigned roles in wrongdoing (‘Everyone’s got their own version of the truth’ (line 24, 27)) while considering whether one is fated by one’s history. ‘Poem’ depicts a world of emotional emptiness as atmospheric: ‘The sun, the silence, the nothingness’ (line 14). As in ‘Rattling the Forms,’ there is a contemplation rather than an enactment of sexual desire: ‘No sexual act ever commenced, instead I trashed my room’ (line 22, 25). Against this sentiment of wreckage, the poem remains compliant to pantoum conventions. The formal room of the poem is neatly organised, even relentlessly spotless. Yet thematically, affect is projected onto the object world: ‘Just want to see if property feels pain’ (line 26, 29). The domain of feeling that is navigated is one where love and hate are sides of the same coin, where ‘There’s a lot of hatred from a mother’ (line 3, 34) and ‘Can’t stop love from doing its damage’(line 32, 35).

‘Poem’ entertains the tautological in ‘It’s going to end in infinity’ but also the entertainment of a conditional alternative, ‘and if there is no infinity’ (line 30, 33). Trauma here may be indefinite or it may come to a head at a particular point in time: ‘Maybe some day, but not today’ (line 28, 31). Lew points out that trauma may not be visible or recognised: ‘You’re beautiful. What’s the emergency? ’(line 20, 23) Against the dangerous implications of familial feeling, the fixed form of the pantoum perhaps offers a safe space. It is within this safe space that Lew can push themes that would otherwise be overwhelming or spiral out of control. The repetition within the pantoum means that there is a retelling of lines that can then modulate their charge. It is perhaps significant that ‘Poem’ is not given a title. In this respect, it can be more anonymous, potentially about anyone and situated anywhere. As Lew’s poetry demonstrates, a fixed poetic form is never fully closed; closure itself is a fiction and in Lew’s poetry, a fiction that is both enabling, tactical, and sliding.

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