“I ran into an industrial estate and looked around, / the spikes got me.” Having self-published two pamphlets (softly softly catchy monkey and Sleeveless errand), and gained considerable performance experience both live and online, Emma Hammond offers her first full poetry collection, tunth-sk. The satisfyingly well-designed cover does not clarify the perplexing titular word (nor is it explained elsewhere) but places it under an uncompromising image of skeletal jaws. Aptly so, for this is a spiky collection, with little by way of fleshed-out explanation.
Hugo Williams comments “the images feel like they’ve been glimpsed through a gap in a fence line”, and there is something of that caught picture here. Further, there is movement, fragments snatched between railings, as if seen from a high-speed train. Bold and daring images, flashes of light, hurtle to the next, usually unconnected frame. Not everyone will feel comfortable with that pace and bombardment.An intriguing chain connects and shapes the collection overall. The image finishing one poem relates to the beginnings of the next, an editorial device in keeping with the stream of consciousness style of the whole;“and you’ve such nice hair …” is picked up by line 1 of the following poem, “a small tug at my forelock”.
A collection in that vein, with many of the poems untitled, or headed by an uninterpreted symbol, is most likely an awkward editorial task. The jacket describes diversity, poems which are “in turns funny, erotic, shocking and innocent”, which is true. The typography owes much to ee cummings, but unlike in his poetry, it is not always possible to discern why Hammond has chosen to write in this way. In one stanza, “can i inspect yr legs/” follows a stanza with “you’d be/would i know you?”, complete with apostrophe and question mark. “Txt speak”, contraction, contemporary invective and slang litter the work. Any collection which opines, by the second stanza of the opening poem, “Personality today is/a slice of dreadfully tough/cough-gunk”, does not expect to woo the softer-souled reader. Shock is not, in itself, a bad device, but to keep the reader beyond the first bite there has to be more. Not everyone will stay far beyond the mordantly crisp cover. This collection will make enemies as well as friends.
The poems form a sharp dance through the poet’s mind, and whilst the influences of the poet’s Jamaican childhood are difficult to see, some stolen moments come less through fences but more through the bars of a playpen– “been vast as a girl/a hundred acre wood/to run across/in your flashing trainers”. Hammond combines her professional life with motherhood; the sometimes claustrophobic intensity of creative work grabbed between toddler times is written with clarity.
Some, like Hugo Williams, will hail Hammond as “the real thing”, while others will crave a stronger editorial hand which might have picked up on some of her truly exciting imagery. “…[F]ern lick bits of/dried clay” has a great sound, but it is in moments like “your love/like architecture has me/struck sore-necked in awe” that there is a real wish for more, a need for the metaphor to be sustained, picked up later in the poem, rather than just dropped and left amongst so many colourful pebbles. Consider too, what might have been done to lead to a closing such as,“…I am in a landslide, /bright as a butcher’s window”. This is a jagged first collection. It holds hope for more.