Review of 'A Piece' by Stephen Emmerson (If P Then Q, 2020) by Astra Papachristodoulou

Stephen Emmerson’s impressive corpus of work includes books and object poems that delve between poetry and art and pay particular attention to form and content. His object poems invite the reader to play along and usually come with a set of instructions – A Piece is of course no exception. The collection may be disguised in book form, but, much like Emmerson’s object poems, employs a particular method to produce content and merges art with poetry. It embraces what Robert Creeley expressed in a radio interview with Leonard Schwartz for KAOS 89.3 FM as a vital intertwinement between form and content: “Well, content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content. They sort of go together is the absolute point.” It is no coincidence that A Piece is a sequence of poems based on Robert Creeley’s homonymous poem, A Piece:

                        One and
                        one, two,
                        three.

According to the book’s blurb, the poems were composed using a variation on the Oulipo’s method N+7. In N+7, the writer removes nouns from an existing piece of literature, finds those words in a dictionary, reads 7 nouns (or entries) down the dictionary’s column and uses that new word as a replacement in the original text.

Using The Collins Paperback English Dictionary, published in 1990, Emmerson selects both instances of the words ‘one’ in Creeley’s poem and replaces them with the next entry in the dictionary; an N+1. He then finds the entry for two’, and moves two words forward in the dictionary; an N+2. Finally, he chooses the entry for ‘three’, and moves three words forward; an N+3. For each of the poems in his versions of A Piece, he repeats the process of N+1, N+2, N+3, using the new set of words as the starting point. The sequence ends after all the entries for the letter O (all the N+1s) are used up. The blurb left me astounded but, at the same time, curious as to what to expect.

The book comprises of just over 450 pages of minimalist poetry, each poem created using Emmerson’s set of instructions. As a catalogue of devices, these works are full of stimulating content and possibilities. A Piece opens with a striking poem that sets a stage for what will follow:

                        One another and
                        one another, two-faced,
                        threefold.

                        (A Piece, p.7)

Much like the opening poem, all of the poems in the collection are untitled and have an identical form – this technique serves to strip the poems from their identity and present them as products of Emmerson’s poetic formula – in this case a variation on the Oulipo’s method N+7.

Interestingly, each of the poems is aligned on the top left on each page, leaving a vast blank page behind. This blank page space introduces a temporal dimension (pauses) that conveys surrounding silence – one could also interpret the ‘whiteness’ of the page as the clean walls of a contemporary gallery, with each piece, taking minimal but essential physical space on the page. In page 207, the whiteness and total silence that surrounds the poem, enclose a moment of pure interiority: “Orphanage and, / orphanage, unmerciful / transformer.”

In addition to the form, which is undoubtedly innovative, the text shifts between absurd and, often, humorous themes that result from the random juxtaposition of words. In this liminal space, the poems gravitate towards the non-verbal and non-representational. Sometimes these unpredictable configurations help uncover the gentle shape of what would have been otherwise ineffective and invisible: “Open air and, /open air, umbilicus / timber limit” (page 94). This strange yet beautiful construction is enhanced by the repetition of the word “open air” which, again, as with the poem in page 207, intertwines with the white page space that surrounds it.

There’s much to be celebrated about this book and its publisher who are clearly not afraid to take risks. Here we have a celebration of minimalist restraint that sees poetry as a liminal zone that gravitates between semantic outlines and narrative resonances, and above all, a tribute to Robert Creeley. Like the poet he refers to, Emmerson invites us to ponder the ingenuity of his craft, to embrace conceptual methods, and to invite the reader to experience language in new ways. Emmerson is able to evoke meaning from techniques as modest as the repetition of words, minimal punctuation and accidental shift in sounds. There isn’t enough space here to fully expound on how truly brilliant this book is–I urge you to read it and even have a go at Oulipo’s method N+7. It’s fun, I promise.

Astra Papachristodoulou is an experimental poet and artist based in London. She is the author of several poetry pamphlets, including Stargazing (Guillemot Press, 2019) and Blockplay (Hesterglock Press, 2019). Her poetry has been translated in Spanish, Slovenian, Russian and Greek, and her visual work has been exhibited at the National Poetry Library and The Poetry Café.