Review by Thea Hawlin
Emma Hammond’s eye on contemporary society is acute, both a part and apart from the fray of the media it surveys. In her exhilarating second collection The Story of No (Penned in the Margins) Hammond comically broaches those fraught perils of the modern world and the language it has fostered. Her poetry is neither free from the web nor ruled by it, but instead sits comfortably in that rare intermediary where the present-day is addressed directly, without discomfort. The Internet isn’t revolutionary in Hammond’s collection, it’s simply a new outlet for already-present thoughts and feelings: a new facet of the world.
In ‘Status’, the realisation that a dead grandmother receives less ‘likes’ on Facebook than a friend’s dead dog is not tragic, but rather ‘Hashtag awful isn’t it’. The same sympathy might just as well be expressed in a playground, yet for Hammond’s poetic protagonist, the news comes through the filter of the screen. With incisive precision Hammond articulates those nags of doubt and jealousy that such portals of communication create from day to day. Grief is morphed into yet another post, another segment of curated livelihood: a means of attention. It is this attendance to new forms of social teasing and competition – something that few contemporary poets directly address – that makes Hammond’s work so intriguing.
For poets, the myriad new forms of communication that the modern world offers is a field ripe for the picking. Indeed, to engage with these forms of communication, some experiment with a form of literal ‘picking’ via a version of Found Poetry; taking sound bites and snap shots from the web and reweaving them into different wholes. Many of Hammond’s poems resemble Found Poetry, most notably ‘A Think Piece on Renée Zellweger’s face’, which utilises the comical repetitive and reflexive drone of media reactions. Hammond reweaves headlines to create lines that read as though they were spewed from a search engine, one voice mingling with many:
Renee Zellweger’s face has changed
We hate Renee Zellweger’s new face
Ten reasons why we all hate Renee Zellweger’s new face
Renee Zellweger’s face has not changed, it is we who have changed
Hammond demands attention, she demands re-reading. A cursory glance at much of her work leaves little to be desired, but it is through examination and understanding that her puzzles shed light.
Hammond’s profound knotting contains within it an intriguing verve, where nothing is held back: ’twitter is kinda dirty’, a woman notes in ‘Hairdresser’. The perilous drifts and switches of social media are given narrative and cut up into stanzas, as in ‘Lego’: ‘I close the tab and stare off into the distance. Am I even real?…I wonder what is happening on the Daily Mail’. Or in ‘Status’: ‘I flick to his page/and mindlessly browse through 278 profile pics’. These are all-too-familiar actions, the lazy tics of social stalking that have worked their way into acceptable social norms. In ‘Death’, Hammond plays with this concept further, taking a wonderfully cynical approach to consumerism:
Gulfs appear around the
crockery. Laura Ashley
is a type of Death. Death by
Thank you notes.
Her language is blunt at times yet manages to sidestep any real offence. Instead, it gradually layers itself upon a reader, as in the slipstream flow of consciousness and dialogue of ‘Hairdresser’:
ages ago he was a hunter-gatherer.
yeah i say, i know what you mean.
a song comes on, it say do it do it do it, shake!
i love this one she say and move her hips. an old lady
is authentic in the corner.
This is exhibited perhaps more impressively in ‘Trinity’, a poem which doesn’t contain a single pause. Devoid of commas, full stops and colons, the enjambment rushes lines and images over each other in a frenzy:
Your Husband and Furniture and
Family the chin (his) with no shouting no
schism you freeze Baby Food and talk about
Schedules and Sophie le giraffe is day-glo
so appropriate with stages and well defined
Hammond’s haphazard combinations of words and phrases jostle for attention and the effects come forcefully. Hugo Williams has said of Hammond that her poetry is ‘of lived experience and of lived writing’, and this estimate is true; the animation of Hammond’s language, however alien, is what makes it so attractive to a reader. Words for Hammond are a form of play, and it is this sense of language’s intrinsic animation – its very moving and living nature, driving forward into contemporary forms of communication – that makes her verse so beguiling.
Yet amid the brashness and playfulness of so many of the poems, there are moments of surprising delicacy, and Hammond’s voice becomes most lucid. ‘Utility’, for example, sees Hammond’s speaker come to terms with the loss of her mother: ‘I close her fragile body in a hug’, ‘words push their way out of us like fingers pointing towards nothing, hard to know where to’. Hands feature heavily in the collection as points of tender connection, often portrayed as independent living creatures, as in ‘Expert’ where: ‘my hands rest on the wood like two/small squid, ragged and cramped/from biting.’ In ‘Milk’ a hand is distorted completely: ‘my hand is a nest of cramp,/skinny-jean fingers,/shrunk-fit.’
In these points of localized attentiveness, Hammond’s skill is evident. But it also shines in the broader narratives that she portrays. A couple wandering together in ‘Mini-break’, for example, gives way to more objective observations: ‘Romance is a dead horse – Nietzsche/knew about that’. The final line provokes an affecting flash of depth, where a stranger is: ‘Hurt by exactitude – / Ossifying in the dark like a self’. Here, it is clear that lines are made stronger for their sense of place within a larger whole. In ‘Tax’, a single mother visiting a job-center is even given filmic quality, as our eye is redirected again and again:
What about these Dinner Lady positions?
say Job Thing, her face all atoms. The poster
behind her shows a Magical Negro Learning New
Skills. You must use a teaspoon to empty out the
River Thames into the mouths of Lost Children.
Her lips go Interrobang. Should’ve had an abortion –
Throughout The Story of No, Hammond is consistently self-aware. In ‘East’, she even jokes about modern ‘Black/oversized poetry about LOLcats./A poem in an evaporating dish’. Yet Hammond’s poems feel too dense to evaporate; they are thick and moulding over. She draws webs of language so complexly wrought that many border on cryptic. But what feels most notable in the collection, perhaps, is how the voices Hammond depicts are lone voices, illustrations of isolation in our hyper-connected age. In Hammond’s own words, her focus seems to be: ‘Online/irreverence and complex bravado. This, our collective hurt.’ Despite the comical surface of The Story of No, it is ultimately this more sobering revelation of the new age that lingers.
Thea Hawlin (Ha-V-lin) is Assistant Editor and Production Manager of The London Magazine.