Poem-Object and Objective of the Poem



Poem-Object and Objective of the Poem: Lisa Kelly reflects on possible new interactions between word and material


for body, for the box, for Greg Thomas, for Lilian Kjærulff

body came in
a small black box –
floats in white-flecked
blue jesmonite

body is a
wafer with air-
bubbles, scratches
I long to touch

body held in
my hand is no
longer safe in
its jewellery box

mum is inside
the box – her face
in a teardrop
closed gold locket

On 1 January 2024, I sent the above poem to Greg Thomas, whose article on the Czech Republic concrete poetry scene featured in PNR 274. In December 2023, I bought body, a poem-object from Greg’s micro-micropress Oo, after he emailed me with pictures and a description: body is a poem in blue jesmonite with white flecks presented in a black jewellery box.

When it arrived in the post, and I removed it from its packaging I felt a fascination and something approaching love. I kept it by my bedside and took the wafer out of its box to flip it over in my hand, stroke its smooth surface, investigate the faint scuffs. The word ‘body’ in lowercase black Letraset seemed to float in a circular pool of water and suggested different things at different times on different days; mood interacting with material. It spoke to me in many ways: about the vulnerability of the body; the precariousness of our planet, which is over 70% water; my own physicality in its temporal space; an ovum; an obol to pay Charon to transport a shade across the river Styx; or a Communion wafer to dissolve on the tongue.

Outside the box, I felt responsibility for body – the danger of dropping it where it could not be reached, the risk of idly leaving it somewhere and losing it. As Elizabeth Bishop famously says in ‘One Art’: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’, and a certain melancholy attached itself to body. Every treasured object comes with the weight of attachment, and I was now its custodian. Back in the box with the lid shut, body was safe but unseen. Did it even exist? Now, it was just a memory. The box provided reassurance but took on a new resonance. Was it a home or a gated residence against interaction with outside forces that might trouble its inhabitant? One night, I went to sleep with body in my hand. I woke with it in my cramped fist. I put body back in the box.

Over Christmas, I was gifted a pendant with a picture of my deceased mother’s face. My sister-in-law told me she had hunted through boxes (yes more boxes) of pictures in her attic to find the photograph with just the right-sized dimensions of my mother’s face to fit the teardrop locket. Another object provoking an emotional response each time it is looked at, worn, or handled.

Often, I took body out of its box to flip it between fingers – perhaps as a form of stimming, which is any activity we do to soothe ourselves, such as sucking your thumb, stroking silky material, or twiddling your hair. The locket took the place of body in the box. Now the box took on a new dimension. It kept my locket safe but also suggested a coffin.

I did a free write about my emotions in response to Greg’s poem-object and in an echoing act of construction. I wanted the poem to feel built and to have an object quality as well as an objective – to contain my reactions. I settled on the syllabic principle of four syllables for each of the four lines for four stanzas as the foundation to suggest four little boxes. ‘4×4’ became a working title and then the actual title as a four-wheel drive system is designed to navigate difficult territory. The epigraph followed the rule of ‘4’. I sent ‘4×4’ to Greg because collaboration, effect and affect are core to poetry. Greg emailed me to thank me for my efforts but added that he found the mourning aspect fascinating and ‘apposite to how I hope people will find succour in these little things I’m sending round’. This speaks to how we can never know how a poem – whether its manifestation is in words or concrete form – will be interpreted and I would be interested in the responses of the other 19 individuals who bought body.

I am also delighted that in an age of commercialism, sales numbers, and social-media reach, Greg has chosen to work on a micro-scale. Thinking about Greg’s craft with the poem-object coincided with reading Deborah Levy’s latest poetic fiction, August Blue. Serendipity leapt from chapter 12, when the protagonist, concert pianist Elsa, muses on what she would do at the end of the world.

 “I knew  where I  kept the butter and light bulbs,  the bubble bath  and bread knife  and
the little pebble with a hole in it. Yet, it seemed to me that at any moment, reality could
flip. Floods and droughts and wars would see us carrying our mattresses and blankets to
the train  station, maybe with  one small object  for luck. If it  was  the end  of the world
would my birth mother want to find me?”

Does everyone have one small object for luck that, if they could, they’d carry over to the afterlife? It is hard to unravel our feelings for objects that become poems. They are not dependent on the monetary worth of the object, which I would suggest is closer to aesthetic display for public consumption. It is more often deeply personal and reflects a value scheme where the poem-object digs into a deep emotional vein. John Donne’s lines in ‘Holy Relic’ suggest perhaps how our largely secular society finds a mirror in more religious times reflecting the power of the poem-object. ‘A bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ from a disinterred grave is the poem-object that might inspire the grave digger into almost holy reverie.

And think there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

Like the best poetry, a poem-object can elicit an imaginative response, and an impression of warping time with a view to eternity.