‘Oh-zones’ by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is a performance poet, and there is something of the immediacy of the spoken word in this chapbook.  But while the spoken word relies on an instant connection, not only to the words, but to the physical presence of the poet, here, we simply have the words on the page. Burnett has used the visual space of the page well, however, offering poems of different shapes.

In the Preface to Oh-zones, Burnett refers to the poems as ‘sensory-zone-poems: ‘inhaling, releasing and resonating through stress’. We are also told that ‘whords’ – words experienced as chords – ‘explore simultaneity in perception and identity’.

In the opening poem, ‘available sky’, the lines are short, the images accessible. The poem manages to convey the sensory overload of living in an urban environment through interesting line breaks and juxtapositions of sales-pitch phrases with nature elements. There is a sense of disconnect between urban and rural. There’s also a bitter wit:

‘1/3 off hugs with your son
if you see
something suspicious press the
sky sags with
trees bedecked with plastic bags
from costcutter’

The third line, ending in ‘the’ both cuts off a connection, and also runs on, to a new tangent. The assonant ‘a’ sound of ‘sags/bags’ is effective, and the repetition of ‘with’ adds to the weight of  the sagging sky. The idea of the sky ‘sagging’ with trees is quite arresting and this image certainly stopped me in my tracks, physically inaccurate though it might be. Where daylight fades, ‘gusting neon super / market lights’ root ‘every item to the earth / discounting nature ducting.’ Again, ending the line with ‘super’ is beautifully ironic.

Continuing the theme of neon lights, and equally humorous, is ‘villanelle in green’:

‘asda, with your green light
I prefer you to lidl’

and later:

‘it irons the air bright
yellow with red middle
bricks of sick light’

While I feel that the poem was let down by the word ‘sick’ (too telling), the ending redeems the poem:

‘I look out of light
it is april

the sky is an apple’

These are the poems of an eco-warrior, and  the poem ‘sharks, in their absence’ reveals how the absence of sharks near a coral reef shows that ‘the entire system is under (dressed/duress…’

The poem keeps interrupting itself with bracketed asides and indentations, and the repetition of as…as…as… shows the simultaneity/consequences of every action upon our environment:

‘at 30 degrees these deeds
seethe (look up
controlled environment
marigolds) as the soft
collapse of coral
barely registers as nudity
washes backless
over water freshening
as one thing becoming another’

The oil companies get a battering of course, although ironically, ‘…who funds ethics, but oil)’. And poets are clearly as essential to the ecosystem as (the good kind of) sharks. Because:

‘in their absence

My favourite poem here is ‘refuge wear’, where ‘disturbance is routine’, such as the air ‘unblueing’, causing the narrator to ‘chafe across car parks searching for / a blue fix’. The shape of the words on the page is like a broken up prose poem, effectively conveying the ‘disturbance’. There is a sense of unraveling with all the negative words: ‘unchecked’, ‘unbuttoning’, ‘undoing’, ‘unblueing’.

The last two poems are ‘breath-chords’ and ‘sun-chords’ – in the first, there are lists of words in columns across the page, while the second begins like a kind of yoga class instruction:

‘begin with inhale
together breathing syntax
we arrive at words

The words follow, in small blocks, or in a paragraph of words and phrases. And yes, there is tension, and stress, in the juxtaposition of ‘hot, low, clouds, litter, filter, cost, traffic, sunflowers’. The final three lines don’t save the day either:

‘warning hot shiver
shimmer and lift open pink
unbuckling clouds’

but perhaps, the pink helps us to ‘inhale, release and resonate through stress.’

All in all, the chapbook offers a pleasing soundscape, and impressionist impact. While the poems are political, they are not stridently so, and yet there is substance and innovation too. I would love to see them performed.