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Review – The Pair of Scissors That Could Cut Anything

It’s hard to quantify just why I enjoy Luke Samuel Yates’ pamphlet so much. It has all the ingredients in place, for sure: a fluid, articulate style of verse, deceptively polished until it can almost disguise its narrative imagery as a gallery of insouciant non-sequiturs. The poems almost jostle and jumble them together, topiary giving way to family outings to insects, in a way that tests their points of contact and resonance. The images themselves are no slouches either. Take, for example, the ending of ‘The Mouse’:

The night seemed like it had a lot of potential:

somebody was trimming their hedge
a bit further down the road.

The delightful moment where the night’s potential seems to cave in, where the narrator reveals the ordinariness of his imaginative horizons, is a truly sensitive thing. The line break sets up a balance between the wide-open night that the titular mouse escapes into and the suburban regularity of the landscape that contains its one-time captors. But this balance has been refined to the point of levity, and that corresponding lightness is a great part of Yates’ appeal here: he has taken an image that could so easily have been wasted and transformed it into a fine, rare thing. It made me smile, and then, thinking about it a little longer, it made me grin.

The good humour of the poems, and their lightness of touch, is a key part of Yates’ work. His pamphlet reads in some ways as a lovingly-detailed satire of the sorts of suburban living that he portrays, full of characters that meet the extraordinary in ways that reaffirm the edges of their ordinary vision. In ‘Cosmopolitanism’ the narrator strays as far as Bolivia whilst on holiday:

On the third day,
Sandra caught a piranha.
We laughed at how small it was.
I crushed it gently into the floor of the boat with my shoe
to stop it frightening her with its funny mouth.

The deflation of the piranha in the narrator’s eyes acquires a reflexive pathos from the death of the fish itself: there is an almost palpable sadness that the piranha is no aquatic terror, staple of horror movies, but simply a small fish with a funny mouth. Yates’ satire is never cruel but holds a tenderness for its subjects, recognising its own narrators’ positions as unfailingly compromised, condemned to encounter strange new worlds and turn away at the moment of their realisation.

That relationship with strangeness is perhaps the best feature of Yates’ pamphlet, and it is at its most startling in his first few poems. Yates’ command of image here is tinged with a voyeurism that gives it a new edge:

That morning there was a hare
next to the swimming pool
in front of Mike and Annette’s mansion.
I carried the thought of it about all day
till evening, when I left it where I’d found it

The significance of hares aside, it’s this sudden feeling of transgression that makes Yates’ lines hum with an electric tension. The parallel lives that narrator and characters lead are punctured and bleed their opposed charges into one another. The mechanics of the verse – terse juxtapositions of image – works here at the very limits of its capacity, uncovering the human tensions of character and narrator as they peep into one another’s lives. The moments that we discover are sometimes tender, sometimes disquieting, tinged with an almost eulogistic sadness that we have looked into others’ private spaces and found them no more exciting than the ones we occupy.

I’d argue that in the later poems of the pamphlet Yates allows the tension to slacken just a little as his characters become almost too familiar, too sympathetic. The opportunity might have been there for Yates to have hovered that moment longer on the edges that separate his narrators from his characters, slowly inching open the cracks that he so excitingly hints at in the first part of the work. But perhaps that isn’t the point: the poems, like their narrators, lapse back into their visions of ordinariness, almost unaware that they are irrevocably changed. In so many ways this is a work of marvellous understatement, of truths unwittingly touched and recoiled from. It’s fine stuff indeed, and I’d heartily recommend it for its skill, for its gentle wit that reaches you like a sweet aftertaste. You’ll smile, and then, thinking about it a little longer, you’ll break out in a grin.

Posted 8 years ago

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