Aug 26 2023
Poetry review – DYNAMO: Mat Riches is drawn into an intriguing and imaginative world by the poems of Luke Samuel Yates
Have you ever seen the film Poltergeist? If you have then you’ll know what i’m on about in a second. If you haven’t (and what follows is a SPOILER ALERT so proceed at your own risk) then the film contains a scene where a key character, Carol Anne Freeling—played by Heather Michele O’Rourke—is pulled from one side of a ghostly world and back into the real world. She is pulled through a ghost and comes out covered in what I can only presume is ectoplasm. It symbolises a sort of rebirth and it’s a powerful moment in the film. Carol Anne is reunited with her parents with the help of a spiritual medium called Tangina Barrons.
Why am I telling you this? Well, there were many times throughout reading Dynamo that I felt as if I was reliving that scene. On some occasions I was Carol Anne, sometimes I was with her in the ghostly world, sometimes I was convinced Yates was acting as my Tangina Barrons to pull me from the ghostly world of the poetry I’m used to and into his version of his real world. Sometimes I thought he was the Poltergeist intent on pulling me into the other world. Sometimes all of this happened at once.
Arguably, I could finish here and you’ll hopefully have a sense that I really like this book. If not, perhaps you’ll go and watch Poltergeist. Hopefully it’s both, but let’s carry on a bit and tell you why I like the book.
Firstly, I love the irony ( and possibly genius move in terms of arrangement) of a book called Dynamo opening with a statement in the first line of ‘Going somewhere’ with “The engine gave out when we reached the top.” I really do hope this was a deliberate move, as the poem seems emblematic of much of what’s going on within its pages. It sets up a situation around which intricate details are built up before the narrative heads off in an unexpected direction. I have to note that it’s only when looking at the book with a helicopter view that you notice this, and that I’m not calling these poems formulaic in anyway; they’re far from that.
Back to the poem. It shows us people who were “on a B road going over the moors” when their car broke down. The details come flooding in from here on in and the second part of the first stanza tells us that
Horses were grazing on their shadows off West and in the other direction turbines gesturing like air traffic controllers.
“Horses grazing on their shadows…” is a wonderful line and tells us early on that we’re in safe hands here and that we should just enjoy the show. Of course, that all makes far more sense once the book is over, but you get my point. I’m trying to work out if Yates means marshallers and not aircraft controllers. The turbines may be spinning like the radar used by air traffic controllers, and to be fair to him marshallers wave their arms about rather than spin, so who knows? Either way, it’s an evocative set of images that place us in that weird hinterland of nature, and mankind forcing its way in through road building and erecting turbines on the moors. He’s done all that in 5 lines.
The poem is filled with references to nature, whether it’s flies, melons or bees; but all of this is balanced out or brought into perspective by the last couple of stanzas. And the penultimate stanza signals this shift with a change of format. The preceding three stanzas all start with a single sentence for the first line, but stanza 4 of 5 deploys enjambment to signpost things are changing. The line is “A planet of traffic jams. Going somewhere / but also not going anywhere.” It’s here that things diverge, and where I become unsure of the message. I think the poem is coming to an ecological conclusion, but it could easily be more of a relationship thing. See what you think when you read this final stanza.
If only we could work together to get out of this fix, you said when we were back on the road, back on the motorway, with all the other people, in their cars.
There are hints and more blatant call-outs to a relationship falling apart elsewhere in the book. It’s perhaps an assumption on my part that the “you” referred to in these poems is the same person, but dotted throughout the sections of the book we can chart someone moving in ‘Signs’. “We hire a van called a Peugeot Partner / and move you in over the weekend”. It’s early in the relationship, “We’re unpacking boxes, / then each other. / This one’s for the bedroom, you say, / leading me up the stairs.”
Twenty seven pages and several high points later, we find ourselves in an entirely different Peugeot and at an entirely different end of the relationship spectrum. In ‘They’re quite famous, apparently,’ we’re told
[…]She’s annoyed about something. I spend may life working out what. I drive to the office in my Peugeot in the rain, in the sun.[…] Suddenly, she’s moving out and I'm getting into swimming.
I won’t spoil the ending of the poem, but it’s one that speaks to me of coping strategies, or literal and figurative displacement activities. The swimming mentioned above is one of several references to water or beach-based activities. These include ‘Snorkelling’ and its three references to the “beach” within its first three lines.
I was on the beach. You were on the beach. The sea was half on half off the beach.
The poem takes a defamiliarising turn after this when the subject of the second sentence, having collected a bucket of shells in the fourth line, presses themself “to the ear of each in turn / and they heard your city, impatient and ceaseless.” And it’s that “impatient and ceaseless” phrase that speaks to another theme (one of many, to be fair) that’s threaded through the collection, namely a sense of stress and desire to disconnect from the modern world, perhaps with a sense of choice paralysis too.
In a poem that follows ‘Snorkelling’ we see in the last stanza as Yates (we assume) is pulling up to a roundabout, “[…] I’ve got choices. / I can come off on the the same road/ or keep going round.” It’s not just about roundabouts. A similar sense of this is to be found later in the book in ‘Can’t’, where the last lines are “All kinds of possibilities / are slipping away.” However, a sense of missed opportunities is perhaps most prevalent in ‘Desert boots’ where someone in the market for the titular footwear has geared themselves up to make said purchase, but puts it off in order to go for a beer. The second stanza tells us
Last summer it seemed nothing would ever change but today you are a person who wears desert boots and might fall in love.
The final stanza tell us it’s evening, the potential of the second stanza has worn off (as the beer kicks in perhaps) and “a few streetlamps blink on / like gold fillings”. The blinking suggests things are breaking down/on their way out. The ennui is palpable.
There are many call-backs throughout the collection, for example the B road of the opening poem gets another nod half way through the book in ‘Persimmon’—granted it could be a different one (There are 18,800 miles of B road in the UK , who knew?). The wind turbines of the first poem get a shout out in ‘France’, this time “their great propellers / stirring the air into meringues” instead of “gesturing like air traffic controllers”.
And those air traffic controllers pop up again later. Well, one of them does, and yes, it could be a different air traffic controller, but I like to think of them as the same ones conjured at the start because they pop up nine poems from the end) in ‘Short-term lets’, and would you believe it “The air traffic controller on the beach / is not controlling air traffic”. Yates is not just making this stuff up. This is considered, deliberate and interconnected stuff.
There are many conversations to be had about the poems brought forward from his pamphlet, The Flemish Primitives, not least that the eponymous poem is included in both books, as is ‘Dynamo’, but somewhere between the publishing of the pamphlet in 2015 and this book in 2023 the hierarchy has shifted between the two poems.
By my calculations 43% of the poems from the pamphlet have made it into Dynamo, albeit all of them changed in some way, including title changes. The best of these is a poem that was called ‘The Picycle’ is now called ‘On the experience of accidentally preparing a vegetarian shepherd’s pie in a bike basket on the way home’. I have a lot of love for the former version, but the latter certainly gives you a sense of what to expect. And there is often a sense that that doesn’t matter anyway as by the end of your poem those expectations will have been blown apart and reassembled in a new format.
In the centre of a poem called ‘The mystery shopper’ there are three lines that say
But mainly you are just a conveyor belt for thinking about endings.
It would be a crass leap to say that could apply to Yates’ poems, but it is a good jumping-off point. The endings are always strong, but only because the beginnings and middle do such a fine job of guiding you through each poems particular hall of mirrors. I am prepared to follow Yates wherever he goes next.