Velvet Puddles

Lydia Unsworth – Yield (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2020)

In trying to explain how language could be syntactically accurate while semantically meaningless, Noam Chomsky used the phrase “colourless green ideas sleep furiously” as an example. The sentence, however, neither proves his point nor disproves it.

Language, often frustratingly, is the least literal of substances. Even a sentence like Chomsky’s contains oodles of evocative noise. It is alive with texture. Its very meaninglessness on a literal level seems to awaken in us a kind of poetic, synaesthetic response.

Lydia Unsworth’s new collection, Yield, is of the furious green sleepers school of poetics. It consists of thirty poems, mostly prose-poems, each of which operates like a kaleidoscope of language and imagery.

It is never without referent, but in long lines the referent can sometimes be supplanted by the vehicle of the metaphor. Our speaker and her friends, for example, “prepare to land like duffel bags of instant grief drooped from altitude: ample, one meter apart”.

Are we to focus on the image of bags landing? Perhaps heavy ones, dense and drooping? Or are we more interested in the instantaneousness of their grief, and its ampleness?

The language emits a haze of imagery. We find ourselves lost in it, breathing it deep, experiencing impossibly overlapping visions.

It makes me think of Freud’s theory of condensation: dream objects can mean more than one thing at the same time, and those two or more things can contradict quite happily.

Sometimes the images themselves draw out this condensation, tease us onto its verges and then overstep and keep going, letting us fall once more into uncertainty. Take the phrase, “clouds sweep like a stealth of cleaners”. I have two distinct visions in my mind here. I cannot be certain, however, whether you will carry either of these in your own minds after reading.

Sweeping brooms. Cloudy cleaners.

The objects of Unsworth’s poems are deeply textural. We are treated to sheets and velvet, cheeks and chins. Things ruffle and leak and puddle. Our speaker can be lost or angry or confused or delicate, but we are always reaching out and touching the scene, keeping it at arm’s length, seeing it all like shadows on a particularly crunchy wall.

My favourite parts were the pure Carrollian images: “people without elephants are telling people with too many elephants what to do with their elephants”. But even here there is the hint of a political critique. An ironical misunderstanding at the RSPCA, maybe?

But these are not silly poems. Far from it. Their enjoyment is not a whimsical enjoyment. Unsworth’s work is far more surrealist and unsettling. Its darkness and mystery abides with us.

The collection is a test and a triumph; a joy and a challenge. Well worth tracking down today.

– Joe Darlington

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