‘Sonnets for Luke’ by Emily Critchley and ‘The Golem’ by Richard Watt

– Reviewed by Rob A. Mackenzie

I don’t know what I expected from Emily Critchley’s Sonnets for Luke, but it certainly wasn’t what I got. From the opening poem, ‘A Final Sonnet (for Luke)’ the disrupted syntax reminded me less of British experimental writing than of John Berryman’s unique form of American confessional:

  Poor Luke to be so querulous to life & talented.
  He that in that year
  Had very done much things. But to dismay.

Except that this is absurd, pastiche Berryman, and the pamphlet is an ironic swipe at the stunted vocabulary and expression of romantic love. If women have, at times, been portrayed as emotionally high-strung, Critchley’s precise diction and shifting tones eloquently parody the notion. The second (untitled) poem, set in a crowded metro carriage, has the narrator write to Luke:

  This city’s musculature, it spits me out at Greenwich,
  where I stay, feelingly, for news.

  Till then, so long.

Combine Mills & Boon-ish nonsense (“feelingly”) with casual anti-climax (“so long”) and you’re on your way to an Emily Critchley sonnet. In a later poem with the slapstick title, ‘Avec Fond Memories’, Critchley attacks labels:

  ‘Radical’ for that same old worn old habitude,
  ‘Kookiness’ for such pricks.

But ‘love’ is the label and signifier which attracts maximum derision. In one poem (untitled, as most are), after lamenting Luke’s failure to reply to her emails, the narrator exclaims, “Luke, I missed you at our wedding!/ But it’s OK.// I’ll see you at the next one.” In another, plain-style sincerity is mocked:

                              Why can’t signs
  that lovers make be read? I don’t know
  why can’t they?

  Then plainly say “I LOVE YOU”
  & the sonnet bangs awake.

Except that the final line rhymes (and therefore connects) with the poem’s opening declaration, “You’re such a flake!”, which then serves to undermine it. Critchley sparingly employs the traditional sonnet’s formal devices to compound irony.

This pamphlet is cynical and negative but also curiously illuminating. It’s entertaining but the laughs carry a sting. It’s all deconstruction and some people might prefer a rebuilding of love to relentless lampooning. If so, they better read something else. These poems are for readers who appreciate irony used with searing effect.

I hadn’t read Richard Watt before and my initial impression was of heightened diction combined with deliberately fuzzy narrative. I also got a strong sense of alienation from the “brute, mis-shapen” Golem of the title poem and the striking images of ‘City of Discovery’ where a fortune teller has dealt “the ace of traps, on its side”. The poem’s addressee feels increasingly disconnected from his own essential humanness – “You have felt trapped before/ but are becoming lignified” – and has to make do “with no television/ as the modern world deafens.” A lack of communication and belonging is reflected in the fragmentary narrative.

In ‘Bachelor’ the disconnection is also with time itself. The images are quasi-surreal, but don’t represent the gratuitous vacancy that surrealism often produces in the work of mediocre postmodernists. Instead, the narrator’s early lover, shockingly, is objectified

  wrapped in tissue paper and those
  squeaking figure eights of foam
  like a keepsake trinket I’d meant
  to return to.

The poem had begun with leaves changing colour, a familiar trope for time passing, but Watt doesn’t deliver the expected meditative lyric. Instead, the narrator crashes through his ex-lover’s windscreen:

  Seeing, as I shred
  that your hair has changed,
  somehow older
  and that I am not.

I take this as a symbol of stalled emotional growth, as if the narrator has just recognised (too late!) that the “keepsake trinket” is evidence only of a shallow investment in the past and a disintegrating present.

Watt’s poems always had points of interest. Occasionally, the effort to produce original phrases led to real clunkers.  ‘Louis Slotin’s Heavy Ghost’, after some bright moments, sank into the bog of portentousness:

  Ours is a teetering packet
  Of coldening dust,
  The stuff ingrained
  In your margins and collars.
  Cold softens the pencil’s scratch
  And the razor’s bite, in time.

Enough said, I think… But I still applaud the attempt. Ambition is much preferable to sticking with easy goals and banal themes, and the fact that Richard Watt often pulls it off is enough to make this pamphlet worth your effort and time. ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, the final poem, combines a playful nod to early Eliot with a veiled reference to Bede’s sparrow. A concert ends and musicians leave.

  Pianissimo, a lilting memory of fullness
  Bows the air in the empty hall.

As does all good art, including Richard Watt’s.