Saying Cheese with Joe Luna

I’m going to start at the end – what does it mean to ‘say cheese’? Most of us will recognise as the phrase photographers (amateur and professional) are supposed to use to make their subjects smile and appear reasonably happy. So, saying cheese is providing an indicator of mood and of general amiability which may or may not be a reflection of what’s going on within and sometimes the effort to smile is obviously forced that it gives away the anguish that is in reality besetting the subject.

I started writing about Joe’s work (I think) in about 2011 with his inclusion in the landmark ‘Better than Language’ anthology and made the point then that the fascinating thing about the work was what seemed to be going on at one step removed from the text. Since then I’ve read ‘For the White Lake Blot‘ on Claudius App and now have in my possession a thin volume entitled ‘Astroturf’ which was published earlier this year. There’s clearly a progression going on- a development that seems to encompass both a more formal lyricism and a quite grim playfulness that’s better thought through.

I’m going to use two poems to think through what I think I mean. As ever, what follows is entirely provisional and subject to change at any time. The first is ‘Shinier & More Resistant’ which is, to use Keston Sutherland’s technical term, decidedly prosey.

It’s in four parts and I’ll start with most of the first part:

You make an infant head count or sway gallantly inside singy lips
love-peak, a crescent just there pointing at a forcefield. Gum
open the ribcage pointing at it. In deepest Earth go terminal
at singy lips or sway gallantly inside an infant headcount colouring
the picture sky blue, there is a public plague over the entrance
portable to the last incalculable fetish and a quality street that renders
people who dodge every awful agenda - recalcify their hats, their pointy
expectations, a timid want streak is overtly fucked.

It seems to me that there are several things going on here that need some thinking about. The first is the repeated ‘infant head count’ which is nearly ambiguous. In what circumstance do we count children? As someone who has dragged young people over quite difficult terrain, I would count heads in order to make sure that the group was reasonably together and that nobody had fallen by the wayside or run off (these were young offenders on remand). Any outing with a group of young people involves regular and reasonably frequent head-counts of this sort. The other kind of head count that comes to mind is when something terrible has occurred, as in a school shooting, and police need to know how many kids have escaped unscathed. There’s also the gruesome count that needs to differentiate the dead from the wounded.

There’s also the possibility that ‘infant’ is an adjective as in ‘infantile’ and the headcount my also be the kind of counting that goes on mentally- inside the head to oneself.

The other obvious ambiguity is the lips that are said to be ‘singy’- are these lips in the everyday sense of the flesh around the opening of the mouth or are they some other kind of lip? ‘Lip’ can also refer to insolence. ‘Singy’ is more problematic because it might appear to be better than it is. What I’m not going to do, for the moment is wade through the fourteen main and many more subsidiary definitions of the verb but, in making this decision, the OED reminds me that sing is also a noun whose primary definition is “the sound made by a bullet or other projectile in its flight” which would take us back into gruesome territory if the lips are the mouth of a gun or larger piece of artillery- the noise made can refer to a shell or a missile as well as a bullet. In which case ‘singy’ is at least as good as it appears.

Before I get into more casting about, I want to have a brief interlude on the function of repetition. The most obvious ‘aim’ in repeating something is to add emphasis, to stress the importance of a particular phrase or image but there’s also the way it can be used to build on or develop a theme. I’m an enormous fan of repetition that’s used in this way but here there might be a bit more going on. These phrases and ‘sway gallantly’ recur within the first four lines and they appear to be used in completely different ways, not a development but a quite radical repositioning of sense. It now occurs to me that swaying gallantly can also have quite gruesome connotations.

The poem develops into what appears to be a quite complex examination of our indifference to the wanton destruction that we continue to wreak on each other:

and in the morning happiness is totally different from what you think it is. With
out disregard for living human beings there could be no swapping, life
does appear, and life-size you split the cylinder right down the middle
and say cheese.

I don’t think I’ll be alone in finding this an accomplished and completely satisfying way to end a poem- I’ll come back to the rest of it at a later stage and give some more thought to those first four lines. I’ll also attempt to deal with the Lana Del Ray problem.

It may be that Luna’s work has always had a lyrical streak and I’ve either missed it or filed it elsewhere. However, the last poem in this remarkable collection is ‘Night Thought’ which consists of three three-line stanzas and a single line. It’s quite formal in that the last line of each of the three stanzas rhymes with the others. I want to quote the last four lines primarily because I don’t have the talent or skill to write them but really wish that I did:

I go to bed and want to feel alive in time
to listen to the only sound that doesn't either
pierce my skin, or throws my head over the sink.

Night is big and clumsy. I am thin, and weak.

The last line is wonderful and is made perfect, I would argue, by the inclusion of the comma.

Astroturf is available from Hi Zero Publications at a fiver including p and p. It’s an important addition to our cultural landscape.


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