D.A. Prince reviews Dynamo by Luke Samuel Yates (The Poetry Business, 2023)
It’s a good title: energy, drive, action, power all packed into one word. There’s a strong temptation to go straight to the poems, skipping the cover – but wait. What’s the cover image, of a very large snail cheered on by festive crowds, doing, exactly? Is the snail crossing some sort of finishing line, triumphant despite a reputation for slowness? In this animated and detailed scene it’s a combination of the believable and the impossible; somehow that reflects how Yates positions his poems in relation to the world around them. These poems are simultaneously funny and serious, sometimes surreal but more often hyper-real. They resist labels – always a good sign.
Yates’ natural habitat is a world of B roads and small roundabouts, bicycles, rented flats, relationships (and their failures) viewed objectively. When he travels out of the UK it’s without excitement but with an eye (and ear) for precise detail and sharply-drawn similes. He can make the ordinariness of everyday existence gleam without being flashy.
‘Going somewhere’ opens the collection:
The engine gave out when we reached the top.
We were on a B road going over the moors.
Horses grazing on their shadows off West
and in the other direction turbines
gesturing like air traffic controllers.
It’s almost prosaic, that apparent vagueness in the title, the statements in the opening two lines and their end-stopped flatness. And yet it’s not: we are placed, carefully, on one of those indeterminate moorland roads and then the visual images arrive. I liked the horses “grazing on their shadows” as part of the natural scene but it’s those wind turbines “gesturing” that pin the poem to our mechanical post-modern world, our reliance on “air traffic controllers”. Of course!
He can make the ordinariness of everyday existence gleam without being flashy
Before the car is returned to the banality of traffic — “… back on the road, / back on the motorway, with all / the other people, in their cars.”— they find a swarm of bees clinging to a hawthorn, a tight globe of movement.. These are:
A planet of traffic jams. Going somewhere
but also not going anywhere.
This could be an image for underlying theme of the whole collection, the collective search for direction in a clogged and increasingly precarious world. Yates brings words like “somewhere”, “something”, “somebody”, “someone” into several of these poems: they build up a sense of distance, an outsiderness and a personal detachment that is curiously recognisable. We can, for example, all bring our own specific location to ‘They were building something’.
They were building something
but first they were knocking something down.
They’d put some CG renders
of what they intended
on the hoardings around the outside.
Part of the building was still standing:
a door going nowhere, a staircase,
a phone receiver dangling.
Like Yates, I’ve pored over those computer-generated images of how glorious the future will be in this new temple of officedom, peopled with slender gods carrying briefcases. And Yates’ final lines strike a chord: “They didn’t look much like us, / or that they’d like us much.”
In a back-cover endorsement Jane Draycott identifies the ‘distinctly European sensibility’ of Yates’ poems. While I agree, I think I’d narrow the geographical reference – Europe is a rather large expanse – and pin him closer to Belgium, or perhaps the Netherlands. It’s not just the title of his pamphlet, The Flemish Primitives (The Poetry Business, 2015), but more the gentle irony and wry observation, the acceptance of life’s strangeness and the way it teeters on the edge of the surreal, that reminds me of some twentieth-century Dutch poets and Belgian artists.
These are highly quotable poems, packed with lines you want to read aloud to anyone within earshot
Poems from that pamphlet appear in Dynamo, many with those small but significant changes that show Yates editing, refining, tweaking to make good poems even better. If you compare his early version of ‘The good morning’ with the one printed in Dynamo you’ll have a mini-masterclass in revising. An apparently objective description of a hotel room, where “Everything was in plastic / wrapping” opens with the telling detail,
The room had the print of an iron melted into its carpet
as though the iron had tried to leave.
The oppressive nature of modern hotels builds as the details mount. Yates studies detail closely: his day-job is in academia, lecturing in Sociology, including research around what his bio calls ‘consumption practices’. I take that to mean what-people-do-with-stuff and it seeps into his poems. In ‘Treading on another tall man’s long foot – after Michael Donaghy’ he picks up the idea of an imaginary sibling, “the brother I never had” and their imagined lives.
In July we camp in the Peaks
with our kids and wives
and the large tents you buy
when you’re settled in your lives.
‘Short-term lets’ observes a beach holiday, as though from a drone.
Someone sells cans covered in condensation.
The waves fall like curls at the barber’s.
In ‘Forton, 5AM’ he is present in the poem, a first-person engagement with a service station on the M6, where,
… I can smell the smell of the concrete, feel
the cool of the space between two days.
And a blackbird is singing about fruit
in a sycamore at the edge of the car park
over the signs indicating the direction
one must take to find the petrol,
the electricity for the electric cars
and where the road begins again,
signs I feel grateful about,
like when someone folds back a bit
on a roll of sellotape
for the next person.
It’s an unexpected ending, and hard to explain why it is exactly right: part of the unseen care service station designers have, perhaps, an extension of the small caring actions we might do for unknown others.
These are highly quotable poems, packed with lines you want to read aloud to anyone within earshot. ‘The man on the plane had paid’ lists what his ticket had bought him:
for his seat and for half of each arm-rest
and for the space under the seat in front of him
and for one smile from this air hostess
and one goodbye from that air hostess
and two or three of the captain’s words
and for the probability that the flight
would reach its destination without incident
We, likewise, have contracts with the world and some level of expectation that these will be met and order will prevail. The surreal plays with these expectations, as in Yates’ prose poem ‘On the experience of accidentally preparing a vegetarian shepherd’s pie in a bike basket on the way home.’ Starting with something logical (the bag of lentils bursts) and moving through low-level related fantasy (the vegetables are jolted into “rustic bite-sized pieces”), with sun and rain playing their part, until we reach the truly impossible: the topping on the pie (mashed potato and grated cheese), which coincides with arriving home. En route, Yates casts a glance over his surroundings, giving another of his pitch-perfect similes: “I went past the / scrapyard, an unmanned crane was holding up a Nissan Micra / as though it had been examining it before falling asleep.” That’s visible and unforgettable. Yates’ world is fragile and impermanent, very much of the moment, with effects of climate change ever-present. On the surface his poems are accessible and immediate (no need to google unfamiliar references) and the vocabulary is comfortably familiar. They ask the larger question: how do we live, these days?
This is a sparky and serious collection, carrying its existential questions lightly
Let’s return to the title poem, ‘Dynamo’, and its central stanza:
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 though, picking up the post
which was was just junk mail
from broadband and satellite TV providers.
I’m not sure that a bike’s lights could actually do this but in the context of the poem I’m persuaded: I can suspend disbelief. Like the poet we’re balanced precariously between earth movements and trivia: the invisible controls of broadband and satellite TV. So it’s comforting to meet the elemental and physical at the end of the final poem, ‘The laundry’.
We do the laundry in the sink and hang it in the barn
before the sun sets. The cicadas, proportional
in the trees, canvas emotionally.
We go indoors when the colour runs out.
The sheets dangle, still and white,
stars scratching their movements into the sky.
Drying, folding, putting away.
Not every poem finds such a satisfying way to negotiate the fine line dividing significance and anecdote but that’s a minor quibble. This is a sparky and serious collection, carrying its existential questions lightly.
D.A. Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her second collection, Common Ground (HappenStance, 2014), won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. A further collection, The Bigger Picture, also from HappenStance, has just been published.