I was intrigued by this poetry collection, published, as it is, by Comma Press – the small press that has become synonymous with short form fiction. As they remarked in their canny advertising campaign: they don’t publish poetry, so when they do it must be special. I wanted to know what made Comma Press love a poetry collection so much that they wanted to publish it as their own.
Reading John Latham’s From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body I do get a sense of the richness of its language, the depth and scope of its range of subjects and the subtly intricate connections between them. As with a short fiction collection, there’s a tender intensity to every poem that’s complete within itself while also being open to repetitions and connections that make it part of the whole work. There’s a gentle but dynamic movement between poems and within the collection that enables the lines to speak to one another across the pages.
One prevalent motif that traces its electric presence through the work is of course that of lightning. Beginning with the staccato eponymous notes taken from marginalia translations of the various effects of lightning on the human body we read of lightning striking a young girl in July 1978:
conflaged cracked dead-bush 6m from stone,
surge entering body by left toe and knee-skins
scorched but hardly. …
Her memories of suction into light fibrillating
like new leaves.’
A further incident in 1997 came without warning, ‘No hailstones, no St. Elmo’s Fire, so foreboding invalid’, a school teacher’s fingers ‘badly cindered, fused, / yet still holding black stone for further play’; while his son, though ‘hurtled into the water, naked’, was ‘unscathed except for fern-prints on left heel’. Throughout the collection, lightning, leaves, hailstones and St. Elmo’s Fire will recur to play again, assuming new positions and bearing new significances as they ripple through the weave of the text.
In ‘From A Glossary of the Forms and Qualities of Ice’ we discover
‘Lightning Trigger: In the cloud a hailstone bristles, distorts
electric force-lines, compresses them until stressed-out air
breaks down, a spark leaps out of ice, becomes a filament
glowing on its wayward path to earth. The sky cracks open.’
The connection between hail and lightning made firm here. Like the cover image, the traces of lightning weave themselves across the skin of this collection, touching deep nerves in places.
Words and phrases dance, echo and leave traces between found-text fragments and lyric poems, weaving a collection that feels alive with rhythmic desire. This, to me, is how the best collections of short fiction pulse, too, and it could be one reason Latham’s poetry has captured the heart of Comma.
About the Publisher:
Comma Press is a not-for-profit publishing initiative which aims to promote new writing. It places a particular emphasis on the short story. The Press declares on its website that it is committed to “a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses”. Comma began life as an artist’s group in 2003 with a series of short story booklets in four cities across the North of England (distributed as free supplements with each of the cities’ listings magazines). This project then developed into a series of book-length anthologies. In 2007 Comma also launched a translation imprint (again specialising in short fiction) to bring new masters of the form to British readers. Comma also publishes poetry collections and the occasional novel.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow
Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster. She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.