“Big Sexy Lunch” manages to combine sassiness and seriousness, a brightly-coloured dress covering the depths at its core. It sets out its stall as a millennial take on Frank O’Hara. The title and first poem in the pamphlet details a six course lunch where the wine is nearly finished at the end of the third and talk turns philosophical,
“You congratulate your conversation
On both its content and delivery
That a big sexy lunch
Is not solely for pleasure
But the development of humanity
And the growth of our species”
The sort of lunch that leaves you bloated and able only to lie in bed feeling sensuality replete and concluding,
“The big sexy lunch
For the simple reason
Whilst you haven’t achieved
All the things you intended
You are in this moment
Your best life”
The poem’s addressee has been seduced into believing that enjoying good food and talking about plans and intentions and desires is somehow a substitute for action. The implication is that once the meal is digested and energy levels restored, the low of realising that in fact nothing has been achieved will hit hard. It’s left to the reader to figure out whether the addressee will take action or arrange another indulgence.
This action/intention dichotomy is further explored in “List” where making a list delays the need for action. The list-maker is responding to her lover’s delay in replying to a text, “I’ve compiled a list of your problems/ to ween myself off you:”
“1. I think you might be provincial
. you try too hard to be cultivated
. which makes me suspicious
2. You could be more succinct in speech
. what you think sounds intelligent
. is actually verbose”
The list itself sounds fairly fixable until the last item:
“7. You’ve now just text but the list now exists
. which is currently the new problem”
It’s a call to action or at least highlights that action is needed. Does the list-maker undo her list or start a conversation about her lover’s flaws? While she’s thinking about that, does she respond to her lover’s text? Could he be making a similar list about her?
She’s still pondering in “Sweet Casanova” which includes the observation, “Does working for an NGO make you good in part?/ You’re as incongruous as Trump figure-skating”. That’s an unforgettable image. In “Weeds” the speaker starts questioning her likeability,
“It alarms me when people say my characters aren’t likeable
They’re based primarily on versions of me
When I smiled at that woman in the queue out of loneliness
It made me feel ashamed like being bloated on the pull”
A character doesn’t have to be likeable to hook a reader into a story, but it helps if readers can engage with and desire the character’s success. The conflation of a fictional story and autobiography is annoying to most writers because they wish their work to stand alone from them and be examined on its merits, not for what it reveals about the writer. However, the speaker worries about the likeability of her characters because she’s reading comments on her characters as comments on her. However, those commenting on her characters may not see them as versions of her but as independent fictional creations so don’t realise the speaker thinks they are conflating the speaker and character as she is. This unease spills into smiling at a stranger in the hope of a conversation without knowing if the stranger would welcome conversation or understand the intention behind the smile. It’s not a minor signal of friendliness that stops at the smile but a potential imposition of a desire for conversation. The shame comes from the fear of not being completely open with intent. This unease is continued into the line “being bloated on the pull”, the intention is to find a lover but the bloat means the speaker is not presenting herself as she really is. The poem concludes, “The weeds in the garden must absolutely stay/ They are so yellow and sure of who they are”. The weeds are taking space they have not been permitted but their colour is so dazzling, they are being given permission. The colour, though, is ambiguous yellow can be cowardly and diseased as well as vibrant and cheerful.
The “Glosa on Frank O’Hara’s Mayakovsky” starts with a quote from Frank O’Hara, “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting and modern” and laments, “that idolising owning a study/ culminates in this: a generic green lamp/ and my un-needed manuscript” which triggers a short list of imperfections and concludes,
“there are things I ought to learn
like driving a car and stoicism;
my grandmother’s watch is a daily
reminder: I want life to feel earned
and interesting, and modern.”
It’s a want for validation and sense of belonging, a want to have something to give others.
“Big Sexy Lunch” is fun, the poems’ light surfaces draw readers in and gives them the choice of staying with their lightheartedness or being drawn in further to notice the questions raised in the depths and folds.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.