During this residency I’ve been thinking about re-reading There’s some guilt attached to it, at least in my experience: a voice that asks, why waste time reading something you’ve read before, when you could be moving on to the next big thing, expanding your cultural capital? In a society that prioritises progress and consumption, I have been trying to work against these thoughts, and remember how much pleasure is to be found in re-reading, whether it’s a single poem, a collection, a novel, or childhood storybook. Reading (and re-reading) Luke Samuel Yates’ Dynamo has expanded my thinking on this, as the central conflict of the collection is between moving and staying exactly where you are.
The collection’s title refers to dynamo bike lights, powered by movement. There’s something reassuringly self-sustaining about that: if I can just keep cycling, the light will never run out. The flipside to this is the fear of stagnation which runs through the collection, the fear that if you stop moving, there will be no light to tell you which direction to go in. The poem ‘Dynamo’, in which the bike lights appear, is about everyday moments: putting the oven on, picking up the post. It includes a stanza which, at first, seems so mundane that it’s surprising the overall title stems from there:
At the garden gate a couple of bikes were locked on either side. Their lights were on, they were dynamo lights that were working off the movement of the earth in space, like me, I thought, picking up the post which was just junk mail from broadband and satellite TV providers.
The little paradox in action here is that although the bikes are locked, the lights are still on, so the speaker decides they are ‘working off the movement of the earth in space’.
The sweetness of the stanza lies in the line ‘like me, I thought, picking up the post’. Whilst the speaker may feel they aren’t ‘going anywhere’ in life, they inevitably are, because they are literally moving through space and through time. (The poem’s mention of purchasing ‘some essentials and a luxury’ also suggests it was written during lockdown, making the locked bikes even more poignant.) Rather than this simile being expanded upon, we are simply given the thought as it happens in the moment: the speaker conceives of themselves as linked to the energy of the world, has this small moment of connection, and then keeps going, picking up the post, which is unexciting, except that ‘satellite TV’ is now charged with the physical awareness of the earth’s position in space. Like the entire collection, this poem is rooted in reality, but simultaneously surreal and unexpected.
In Dynamo, staying still has an appeal as much as movement does.
When it comes to love poems, we are used to reading about love’s constancy, its reach toward eternity. But Yates’ love poems engage in this same struggle between movement and stillness. In ‘Untitled 9-5’, he writes:
my life partner, or someone who looked enough like her, overtaking them on her bike, very upright in her helmet, the casing for a rare and nutritious nut that I would never finish eating.
Although this time the bike is unlocked and speeding onwards, this movement is coupled with the idea of not moving on: finding delight and interest in the same place, the same person, over time. The oddly beautiful metaphor of the helmet-nut, and the sentiment behind it, make me think of Hera Lindsay Bird’s poetry, especially her poem which begins ‘Standing on your balcony in winter I think / I will already remember you for the rest of my life’. There’s something slightly painful in the inevitable movement away from standing still on the balcony, the movement towards memory. The matter-of-fact tone of both poems somehow only adds to the bittersweet sentiment, which in Yates’ poem for me comes through with the ambiguity of ‘would never finish’, rather than ‘will never finish’, and the awareness of the vulnerability of a head, even inside a helmet.
Luke Kennard talks about Yates as having the ‘witty yet ultimately serious chops of the New York School’, and I can definitely see that influence in this collection. There’s something of Frank O’Hara’s immediacy, his intimacy, something of his poem ‘Having a Coke with You’ in Yates’ poem ‘Persimmon’, which ends:
as we share a portion of chips on a wall the evening settling like a dog in a dusty room her hand in mine not really moving
The fixed nature of the wall, the evening ‘settling’ down, and her hand ‘not really moving’, all combine to create a feeling of stability and constancy. However, I also think it is worth noting that her hand ‘not really moving’ implies there is still some movement: as with ‘Dynamo’, this poem suggests that there is no binary distinction between movement and stillness. We are all on the spinning earth, so even if you don’t feel like moving, you are. There is comfort in this, when you’re feeling stuck – and there’s something scary about it, when you want to stay exactly where you are, for example, in the feeling you have for a particular person.
‘Persimmon’ ends with focusing on cars driving on a road, a theme that appears again and again through the collection:
the cars lighting up sections of trees lining the B road on the other side of the valley people looking for a way into the next part of their lives
There’s something beautiful, perhaps romantic, about the cars lighting up the trees, tempered by the bluntness of the ‘B road’ (notably not the only time the term ‘B road’ appears in the collection!). The line ‘people looking for a way’ is both extremely literal, and also expansive and melancholy. Yates uses roads as a metaphor again in ‘The third way’, which opens with being stuck (‘It was somebody’s birthday / but we couldn’t get to their house’) and ends with a dystopian roundabout
which had only one other exit back onto the same road, over the underpass which led from nowhere to a field. I often feel that I’m coming up to that roundabout. I’ve got choices. I can come off onto the same road or keep going round.
These lines are deeply ambivalent to me. How much choice does the speaker really have, with such limited options? Again, they are moving but staying still – staying on the same road whatever choice they make. However, the distinction between coming off and keeping going does seem important. I find these lines unsettling, the idea of the optionless roundabout scary and depressing. And what is the ‘third way’ of the title? Still, the idea that a path might lead ‘from nowhere to a field’ has a hopefulness to it, an unexpected arrival.
Listen to Emily reading ‘The third way’ by Luke Samuel Yates
The poems in Dynamo feel like poems I will reread, poems that will grow on me over time. Often my favourite albums take a month of listening to before I get really into them, but there’s something that keeps me listening until it clicks. There’s a calmness to the poems in Dynamo. They’re not poems of revelation, not big-gasp kinds of poems. They’re poems of the everyday, poems with little jokes in them, poems with traffic jams in them, particular types of biscuits, bike lights, pyjamas. I read them as love poems to the variously mundane and ridiculous nature of life, poems that suggest life can surprise us, even when we’re staying on the same road.
This is how I’ve come to think of re-reading, too: as a way of staying still (staying with?) and going somewhere, at the same time.
Dynamo by Luke Samuel Yates is available to buy from The Poetry Business online bookshop.