Book cover for Listening In by Lynley Edmeades

Lynley Edmeades
Listening In
(Otago University Press, 2019)

Response by Eliana Gray

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I sat with this book for a very long time. Dipped in and out, from all points, like a capybara in an onsen. Delighted, comfortable, confused? Starting this review was difficult because, it seemed to me that the book invited such an academic engagement and was I up to the task? How would I communicate the obfuscations and elucidations of language I was only sure I partly understood? I don’t have a PhD in avant-garde poetics, I don’t have a PhD in anything and yes I am a staunch believer in the validity of all artistic readings but, I was scared.

Then I found another way in. As concerned as the book is with the aesthetics and auditory qualities of language, it is equally concerned with emotion. A gentle sense of longing pervades many of the pieces, enough so that the feeling coats the whole experience. A persistent tug of the stomach. A flipping back of pages to a poem I’d only just finished, longing, to read it again, parse some new meaning, feel the words roll around my brain.

It seems there are primarily two types of poems in Listening In (the second collection from Ōtepoti author Lynley Edmeades). The stretch and pull experimental piece, twisting its way around linguistic qualities; and the ‘shit that’s a really good poem written by a terrifying yet comforting intellect’ piece. But these differences are surface. To say one is concerned with visual and auditory aesthetics and one is concerned with emotion, would be false. They are concerned with with everything and each other. It merely depends which face they show you first.

This is when I realised two things: that I had successfully been pulled into the avant-garde world of Listening In. And that Lynley Edmeads’ work feels like some of the most completely ‘finished’ poetry I’ve read in years. Nothing feels out of place in their hands and, like the poet I’ve always aspired to be, it is what Edmeades doesn’t say that gives the poems an underlying fullness behind their well structured bones.

This richness of feeling is captured by one of my favourites from the collection, ‘Nodding Is Soft’. The entire piece a gentle telling of what someone didn’t say, pushing into my heart an emotion I can’t fully write but what feels like complex intimacy.

‘And so I turned. Away but
Already I. Knew it was. Not
worth telling you.’

Edmeades work also shines with a brilliant comedy. Evident most-so in their poems that both construct and break through language’s fourth wall. In ‘The Day’, the inanimate nature of objects is thrown into playful question as:

‘The dog lies down in the shade of the table.
Knives lie down with pieces of lunch on them.
The mountains lie down across the sky.
And the sunlight lies down across everything.’

An almost companion piece on the next page, ‘Things To Do With Verbs’ dissects the same questions as:

‘Even the floor waits in its doingness.’

Although Edmeades has considerable skill with the more experimental poem, my favourite example of which is the repeating(ish) set of poems called, ‘The Order of Things’. Their poetry really lights up when it slips into a conversational tone. Exemplared in ‘Chicken’, the re-telling of a literal conversation:

‘You're cooking
a chicken with a lemon shoved up its arse. We just
had such a special connection, her and I, he says. You
agree with him, and say things like yes, it must be so
hard for you.’

The book is also in constant conversation with itself, another pull to turn back the pages. Parse some new meaning, Edmeades seems to want you to. Near the end of the book, the story of ‘Chicken’ seemingly comes back into view. The father reappears, so does death and conversation, but this time:

‘The likelihood is that all fathers will die.
There will be a phone call. It may be midnight
and you may be sleeping or doing something
adults do’

The beauty of this book is that it invites you to take your time. From the subdued cover painting of a waiting room, to the pervasive sense of calm that threads the work, even in its darkest moments. Listening In wants you to go slow. Indeed, you must, because the work is so full and so busy under its slick exterior. Longing, intimacy, linguistic aesthetics, the journey between different languages, the gaps between letters and words. The sounds of everyday speech twisted under the light of translation and the pressures of condensed form.

This is a very valuable book, one I know I have not yet exhausted and may never; for there is too much chaos in language and the world for anything to ever really be settled. The work seems to know this and yet, just as we do with living, shows we can put structure within the chaos and find a deep, deep satisfaction.

 

 

Eliana Gray is a poet from Ōtepoti. They like queer subtext in teen comedies and not much else. They have had words in: SPORT, Mimicry, Minarets, Mayhem and others. Their debut collection, Eager to Break, was published by Girls On Key Press. This year and next year they will be writer in residence at Villa Sarkia, in Finland. You can find them online @foxfoxxfox and sometimes in real life.