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Sunday, 10 October 2010

exits/origins review by Colin Herd




‘exits/ origins’ by Nikki Dudley

Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2010



NB: Please note that the formatting of poems is not consistent with the chapbook due to HTML codes!


Knives, Forks and Spoons are an extremely exciting small press, willing to take risks, publishing (and at a steady rate) chapbooks of innovative and experimental poetry. One of their more recent volumes is Nikki Dudley’s exits/origins’, a suite of edgy, restless and, in every sense of the word, uneasy lyrics. According to a short foreword, the poems were composed adhering to “two rules:

1. Don’t close the poems

2. Start with something overheard, seen out and about, repetitive phrases or something I stumbled across by chance.”


As constraints go, of course, these ones are not exactly strict and kill-joy like ‘the rule of threes’ or ‘no heavy-petting in the pool’. In fact, the purpose of these rules seems to be to create a lively, attentive, open compositional mood for both the writer and the reader, much less hard-and-fast than fast-and-loose. Indeed, the poems in ‘exits/origins’ are distinctly freewheeling, lurching urgently and impatiently across the page:


‘Explosions

look like umbrellas?

They led us with the lights


of their mobile phones, modern mime

out of an exit wound out of site out of mine

the drone will

continue to burn

why did we stop evolving? ’


A particular strength of Dudley’s collection is her ear for misheard or mangled phrases, such as ‘out of site out of mine’. This technique gives her poems an eery, taut surface, where it feels as though each word could detonate into other words, malapropisms, puns and interpretations. One of my favourite examples in the volume comes from the poem ‘Blood in my/ear’:


‘can you heave me gorgeous? What you say about me?

When you said I’m a chore, only soft rumbles, blood dried

and tested tissue paper wrestling did you

here and now’


Dudley’s focus, even in her most lyrical moments, is squarely on the potential of words to be corrupted, to shift, alter, change, mean something else, or demean another. Her poems take shape from wordplay, a rich textuality where one word seems to trigger the next based on sound or semantic quality. Dudley’s indulgence of what the poet Charles Bernstein has called ‘writing centered on its wordness’ gives her poems their depth, their energy, their humour and their resistance of closure. I don’t mean to suggest, though, that the poems in ‘exits/origins’ are self-indulgently opaque language-games. Far from it. There is an emotional rawness to many of these poems, such as the following example from ‘Did I buy this small notepad because my thoughts are now small?’:


Unused pens are prison bars, only hinting

at freedom when I let

the ink cascade onto paper/ snarling

at the blurry screen until the words revolt/

dissolve.


Dudley’s inventive use of language is still present: the way the words ‘revolt’ and ‘dissolve’ point towards their conspicuously missing triplet ‘resolve’; the pun on ‘pen’ as in ‘prison’, and the conflation of metaphors, pen, ink, computer screen. But here they are in tow to a very real emotional tension between freedom and constraint, the freedom of writing creatively and the constraint of necessary employment. ‘offices, surrounded by pens/ in boxes’, as one poem has it. The same tension exists in the somewhat perverse task of writing poems according to rules, rules specifically designed to maintain a free and open atmosphere in the poems that result.


A couple of the poems in the volume take this dynamic of freedom and constraint even further as their words and letters are corseted or strait-jacketed into textual shapes, a light bulb, a speech bubble and the numerical 2. The awkward spaces between letters and words that are necessary to accommodate the shapes are used to good effect, such as the speech bubble poem, ‘So I’m not speaking English now’, which tails off to a hanging point:


‘that flow together


like chains


of’


I think of this hanging, unresolved point (the mouth, I suppose, the origin (or the exit?) of the speech bubble) as the missing jigsaw piece, and the toe in the swinging saloon door of the poems that was rule number 1. It’s this space, this gap at the origin or exit of the poems that makes Dudley’s collection such a pleasurably disconcerting debut chapbook of poems, well worth the attention it requires.


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