Chris Emslie on KMA Sullivan

November 22, 2011

From one poet to another, Chris Emslie on KMA Sullivan’s work in Issue Fifteen:

For a long time I clung to punctuation. I felt like a poem that didn’t scoop each pause with a little comma spoon wasn’t letting me breathe right. Or that a poem that didn’t end with a stern full stop wasn’t finished. It was like the poem was still making up its mind, and that indecision (like all indecision) frightened me. Look at me, even now, reassuring myself with little regulatory marks.

The first of KMA Sullivan’s three poems typifies all the reasons I finally let go. I love her intersection of visual and written art and feel like it wouldn’t be so sharp if she allowed the reader the luxury of a comma to tell them when to pause. I know ‘between the lines’ is a horrid cliché, but that’s where the synthesis (the ‘almost ekphrastic’) occurs. In that first poem we find these lines:

[...]Pissarro’s work flourished
and burned
butter skies and violet trees
showed us who we are
in color and light

The clean lineation opens up a multitude of meanings here, and compelled me to return again and again to Sullivan’s poems. In “burned / butter skies” is “burned” the verb or part of the adjective? It’s both, at the same time, and it’s exhilarating.

I also love Sullivan’s pieces because they are just a little too real. The kind of real that will break your heart and make you laugh aloud in the same short text. ‘Postmodern’ opens “I wonder how long / this is going to take / to be free of you” and closes “my younger self / feather earrings and tasselled skirts / squeegee my face”. Now tell me you don’t know what I mean.

Sullivan has the two things I have always thought essential for poetry: an eye and an ear. The result is lines you can rejoice in, even if they’re only two words long (for example “sonorous color”, which embodies what it describes).

Ekphrasis is when verse pours libations to art. This is not what Sullivan does. She distils image into text and produces something that belongs definitively to neither, because it remains too human to merely be called a product. There are strains of visual art, yes, but what is offered here is only its most vital moving parts.

“poetry, that wild beast / could take what is left”.