-Reviewed by James O’Leary–
The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea has four sections: Ashore, Adrift, Awash, and Avast. This arrangement gives a nice sense of cohesion to a collection that contains a wide variety of tones—it’s not a structure as such, in the sense that there’s no real throughline, but it works to divide the book into it’s broadly different styles. The advantage (or danger) of a themed anthology, depending on how it’s balanced, is in how the ideas interact and echo. It’d be easy to put together sea-themed poems and end up with countless repeated images of cliffs, gulls and waves. However, Eve Lacey’s selection carries us through a multitude of emotional landscapes with confidence and ease, thanks to the distinct voices and compelling points of view of the chosen poets. The first section, Ashore, sets us on the borderline of land and water. From gentle, grassy dunes or perilous, rocky ridges, we look out at the vastness of the deep, which is beautifully evoked in ‘Distance’ by Yvonne Baker:
and where the water stretches to a distance so far
it makes you cry.
and where once you shouted at the sea—It’s too big.
From here we delve into the sea as metaphor for mystery, the unknown, the unexplored, the embodiment of a higher power, or at least, something immensely more powerful than us. There’s much to be explored in this area, the sea ever reminding us of our fragility and mortality. At their best, the poems access awe in all it’s dimensions: reverence, fear, wonder, the realisation of our smallness. Diana Whitney shows us in ‘Outer Heron:’
a stunning sweep of ocean vista shimmered
just out of sight, beyond the No Trespassing signs.
There was no end to what I wanted
This comes after strong, concrete descriptions of objects, tastes, smells, and textures, which gives even more significance to the sense that a wider comprehension is just out of reach. It’s easier to understand the details—the micro rather than the macro. Awash is the strangest section, full of dark, inventive poems that get under my skin, like ‘Bury Your Dead’ by Amy McCauley, experimental in its appearance and form, as well poems full of exuberant language as in Susan Richardson’s ‘Play’:
love best when frondling kelp
the overunder underover roll and oh
the gilly tingle
not just skinridding not just snailful
but wrap and tangle tag and tug
The poems in this anthology stand alone, but also spark off each other in interesting ways; the whole satisfyingly adds up to more than the sum of it’s parts. The book has black and white paintings throughout, and I find myself wondering what this adds. Emma Wright is a talented visual artist and the illustrations are quite lovely in their simplicity. The problem is that they aren’t contrasting with or commenting on the poems they’re paired with. The Emma Press style of blending words and pictures has worked wonderfully before. DISSOLVE to: L.A. by James Trevelyan is fully illustrated to great effect, and Emma has designed some of my favourite book covers (Oils by Stephen Sexton in particular). Unfortunately in this case, while not taking away from the book, the visuals only serve as decoration here. The Emma Press is always doing interesting work and this, their third guest-edited anthology, lives up to the high standard they have set as a publisher. Seek it out and you’ll discover some fascinating writing from a range of excellent poets.