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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chris Emery's _ Radio Nostalgia _, reviewed by Ezekiel Black

Radio Nostalgia
Chris Emery
Arc Publications (2005)
ISBN: 1-904614-19-1
Paperback: 92 pp, £8.99

reviewed by Ezekiel Black

Radio Nostalgia is an approachable title. It summons the Golden Age of Radio, a time when Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats led the country out of the Great Depression, a time when the candid address, “Good evening, friends,” could win support for aNew Deal—but why would the state of media today elicit radio nostalgia? With the advent of CNN, of twenty-four-hour-television news, viewers were fed a real-time Gulf War Coverage that revises Vietnam-era epithets of The Living Room War, of The Television War. The dominant medium of World War II coverage and thought was a radio and newsreel that regurgitated European news, due to a lack of American war correspondents. The newsreel was at heart military propaganda while the war’s underbelly remained hidden to the public. Why does the work look to one form of such mediation as remedy to another? Don’t think this discussion is all for naught, as this is the skeleton of the book, and as you read into the face of Radio Nostalgia, you begin to see the skull emerge, to see how the poetry is mere sheath for war, politics, hunger.

Radio Nostalgia is cover-to-cover quality, also dense and disparate, so the first several poems throw the reader into a dark room. Until you recover your Night Vision, these poems will escape you, until you see the ashen, moonlit strains that shoot through the book. The martial and the political come gradually into focus, poem after poem, and at their most keen the poems indict a particular mayor, governor, political candidates in general, a British Parliament and Prime Minister. In “The Wolves are on the Dark Beef”: “Tony lift your hand / and share this blanket now your burning feet // can go ahead and walk the border.” And later:

ffffffffffone measure is a form of rent
ffffffffffanother is escarpment

ffffffffffbut calmer now we count the beads
ffffffffffand touch the cysts of Islam

Given this political crescendo, excerpted, you can assume that “Tony” is Tony Blair, as “the cysts of Islam” help locate the name. Another protest poem, “Clan Tinnitus,” employs anaphora to caricature right-wing political discourse:

ffffffffffBurn the bishops and those of our children sour
ffffffffffffffffffffand blind
ffffffffffAnd the Oracle DBAs burn them
ffffffffffBurn the police and those who crack spines
ffffffffffffffffffffof rosters


ffffffffffAnd of course
ffffffffffThe whispering rags
ffffffffffOf the Left

These are only a sample of the work’s political grievance. As for the martial, though, one excerpt in particular speaks to it—and, perhaps to the entire book—one that suggests Manifesto:

ffffffffffI hear the war drum and the scissors of men
ffffffffffSo let this ink pool of the gods explain
ffffffffffOur designified wounds

ffffffffffOur lack of monuments in this final order
ffffffffffMy military effort can host no creed
ffffffffffNo glaze or feature except the posture

ffffffffffAnd rancor we hold to be just
ffffffffffFor in this local output deficit we may trade
ffffffffffThe chaos of our meals for a white cage.

When you begin Radio Nostalgia, these strains are not evident. After your eyes adjust to its lexicon, lack of punctuation, allusion, and overall density, martial and political motifs slowly materialize, like Furniture in your Night Vision. Although these motifs are hinted from the title page, Nostalgia’s idiosyncrasies won’t allow you to immediately grasp beyond the language and style its brass tacks, to see beyond the smooth face a skull below, that loathsome Reality Found within the Summer Glow.

Why does the work look to one form of mediation as remedy to another? Radio Nostalgia seems its own dream.

If you don’t want to dive through the surface, the book can occupy you with its ripe poetry, technical skill, and bravery. Not all of the complaint is as overt as the excerpts given above. Indeed, often its political dissent is subtle, tucked behind lines that seize your sensual and imaginative attention. Every poem in the book is over two pages, and almost every poem contains a moment of pause, the reader stopping to savor its Invention: “Let’s kill this mealy city / We are royal insects and fabulous lux.” Or later:

ffffffffffffffffffffTogether we are a modern fog,
ffffffffffthe idea of the better dead, immortalised grey
ffffffffffeyes above subtitled totally idealised dialogue.

ffffffffffNo one adheres to the precise terms any more.
ffffffffffThe streets shiver like windows this afternoon of very
fffffffffflarge government. We’ll ape out the speeches
ffffffffffof the age. This country is his artery.

Radio Nostalgia hulks with bizarre yet somehow appropriate locution and word choice. Aside from the words-qua-word, the evolution and movement of the language will surprise the reader, as when the work adopts a performative quality: “Outside the shop of our / Arc-lit Tin-Tin singalong / Is moon-yellow youth.” Or: “In the white forest / shaving shaving loyal shaving / forest of the head.” With sprung rhythm and epizeuxis, repetitions of a single word, these stanzas glow against the stark political undertones of the book, forming odd islands of intermission, pause, until the juxtaposition of slam-line construction and politics becomes an apt marriage.

One feature of Radio Nostalgia is hard to place, the repetition of the word “black.” You would imagine that the book would arrive at “black” though circumlocution, some figurative reiteration of the word. When most poetry is trying to Make It New, as with the Elliptical, Radio Nostalgia subverts that logic by somehow remaining beyond the abstruse word-material of “black,” perhaps an approach Romantic, e.g. Shelly’s skylark and Keats’s nightingale, sites of symbolic largesse, involuntary hosts to what conceptions lay beyond their own purviews, the Idea and unapproachable Bird all at once. Perhaps the repetition of “black” is simply an attempt to load the word with new connotations; perhaps “black” is shorthand for the twilight of Empire, fin de siècle, decadent swallowing of all actual color. Or, perhaps “black” is Chris Emery’s experiment with something personal; synesthesia; instead of “black” as ominous color, maybe a particular sound or taste turns black for Emery, reminiscent of Rimbaud’s kaleidoscopic Vowels. Romantic or symbolic, the metamorphic quality of “black” is indicative of Radio Nostalgia. You can look into the face of the poems and find quality work, or you can peer through that and find the skull politik.


Ezekiel Black teaches composition at Gainesville State College in Gainesville, Georgia. Before this appointment, he earned his MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Verse, Sonora Review, can we have our ball back?, GlitterPony, Skein, and Invisible Ear.