(REVIEW) Emblem, by Lucy Mercer
Nasim Luczaj examines the dichotomies of Lucy Mercer’s debut collection, Emblem (Prototype, 2022), a tender work which dives into the ‘murky contemplation’ of the relationship between text and image.
The point of departure for Emblem, Lucy Mercer’s debut collection, is, surprise surprise, the emblem. This form made its first appearance in Emblemata, a XVI-century book by the Italian jurist Andrea Alciato. ‘Emblemata’ is the plural of the Greek ‘emblema’ — a piece of inlay or mosaic; an ornament. Alciato’s work is indeed mosaical, jumping between themes and references, and bearing a steady whiff of the ornamental. His book was an instant hit, giving rise to a whole new genre of square images set against mottoes or proverbs more or less descriptive of the images, often didactic, sometimes laced with a suddenness. Today it could take the form of a good Instagram account.
The author of Emblem makes for an unusual reader of the Latin Emblemata. She doesn’t know the language, though undoubtedly bits of it ring a bell, and of course there are translations at hand. The occasional correspondence of meaning between English and its ancestor is slippery as the correspondence between an image drawn out long ago and its intended meaning. It’s especially easy to feel like we understand what’s going on when there are pictures to look at, but how can we tell? Reading Emblem, I found it hard to trust whether I had ‘understood’ a poem or not, as if it were an archaic text, or written in a language I was more or less successfully trying to know. Throughout, doubt is cast almost everywhere, but it strikes as a tender and rightful shadow on the world we see
Emblem’s tender streak is subtle yet resonant. We pick up on it via mentions of candles, sons, carnations, birthdays. Mercer touchingly describes her interest in emblems as ‘a way to think through the lonely hours of the early years of motherhood’; as readers, we feel this thinking. Didactic forms as well as moments of teaching or trying to learn bob through the book. What’s that thing in the picture called? The poem ‘Baby Alphabet: Mother Alphabet’ introduces some characters: ‘Here is a happy Meerkat jumping out from its hole / Here is the mazy violence of Mind’ and so on and so forth, the first line of each couplet introducing an amiable albeit oddly behaving animal (‘a slow Triceratops stewing leaves for supper’, anyone?), and the second verging on pure enigma, sometimes entirely crossing the line: ‘Here is the Redness that brings greenness’, also the poem’s final, conclusive statement. What could it mean? Do we have a responsibility to tell our children how or what things are? Is an author always a kind of parent, a guiding hand, or a hand daring not to guide? I never got a definite sense of what the reds or greens in Emblem are. More generally, they are the most startlingly conflated colours that bar some from pilot school. They are start and stop. They are known to hurl themselves on the eyelids of philosophers worried about the nature of experience and its specific qualities. The colours of stem and berry. Red pill or green pill.
The collection sees Lucy Mercer set camp not just between red and green, but between image and voice; thinking and feeling; body and mind; knowledge and question; interior and open field; references to old art and tracksuited body; intimacy with her small son and a historic figure invoked repeatedly, perhaps just as intimately as the son. While the juxtaposition between red and green might be overt, most of these dichotomies form a continuum upon which a microcosm of certain concerns and sensibilities can be moulded (arguably the definition of any book). My instinct upon sitting down to review this book was to examine these dichotomies, and only later did I read the publisher’s description, which chooses the very same way to convey the ground covered by Emblem.
Perhaps the most pivotal dichotomy I sensed in Mercer’s poetry was its sometimes crystalline, sometimes murky quality — the latter being a word Mercer herself uses, her preface identifying the relationship between text and image in an emblem as ‘murky contemplation’. Something similar can be said of delving into these poems. Certain parts seem to emerge arbitrarily, as amalgamations that could have been very much otherwise. In the opening title poem, we have ‘meanings running like deer’, and they keep going until the very end, like mascara under rain. The rain at once spreads pigment on the face and washes it away.
Before the section ‘This thing is a cloud’, we see a woman bending into a stream. At first it might seem like she’s trying to drink, but actually she’s looking at her reflection drawn into the water. In the background, a figure stands with an arm outstretched to the sky. We think we draw something clear from reflection, we think mind is fog. But does reflection not come from clouds? The image is accompanied by a quotation: ‘the thought is enuoluped in obscurete & vunder the clouds’. And so in a later section, Emblemata, we bob back to both obscurity and clouds, with combinations of text and image, or in one case only an image, coming with the following recurring titles: ‘Obscurity’, ‘Unclear’, ‘As We Sit in the Dark’, ‘This Thing is the Cloud’, ‘A Huge Shapeless Mass’, ‘Hidden’, ‘Reserved’, and ‘Indistinct’, repeated once each. The final line of the section reads: ‘human, human, what is human about me?’. We could say the accompanying image represents a human figure pointing at birds as they fly away. And, oh, a letter ‘A’ hovers in a lake or empty land in the distance, the monster of semiotics who resides outside town. Andrea, is that you?
Some of the poems address Andrea Alciato directly, as if to poke at him, make him a vessel into which some intimacy can be channelled: ‘restless, Andrea, I’m such a restless index’. In the Preface, Mercer explicitly expresses that the addressee is ‘perhaps not the historical Alciato but My Andrea Alciato’. Quaint capitalisation and irregularities in spelling help remind of where the text draws its inspiration, but it’s on the level of imagery that the hints of early modernity and the present day intermingle most effectively — ‘the hedges breathing out and leaning out into the air like smokers, hidden and furious’, ‘tracksuited body’, ‘skyscrapers leading deer’, ‘old complex overlooking the blue pool / in the Florida of myself’. These kinds of lines provide a moreish anchorage, a sense of thirst perhaps never known before, now quenched. Like a good sunset, they give the clouds a memorable vibrancy—their ‘satsuma voice’.
I tend to lose Mercer where there is less imagery. At times a line will gesture at a difficult debate in a disappointingly rudimentary way. In the final poem of the collection, she writes: ‘some think the mind thinks in language — but the mind only has images to translate’; ‘some think writing is language — but writing is just one type of picture’. What does Mercer mean by writing, by language, by picture? In the form they are offered, I would say these phrases only pose as insights. They read as a kind of suggestion of discourse without much nuance or delving, just the instinct to upturn something, to present a view and turn it inside out, like a dialectician juggling. Perhaps I just hypersensitively disagree with what these sentences appear to mean. Can the mind not think in all sorts of ways that are not the translation of images; and why boil writing down to a picture?
I was reminded of the kind of statements the ‘early’ Ludwig Wittgenstein used to present his ‘picture theory of language’, especially when reading that ‘writing is just one type of picture’. I will not go into the philosophy, but in his Philosophical Investigations (1953), having changed his mind and style almost entirely, the ‘late’ Wittgenstein wrote: ‘A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.’ I can’t help but feel that Mercer is in some sense willingly captive to the general statements she makes (but, as I said before, perhaps I am captive to some other incompatible set, and that’s the reason why I found them so irritating). This freedom in uttering them is understandable, given the collection’s ceaseless encouragement to be at peace with not always understanding. Still, I ended up craving to feel that I had been really made think, or feel, the relationship between word and image. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the cloud the poems took me into, the closing poem made me especially aware of how this cloud felt only arbitrarily tethered to the question of the relationship between image and text.
At the end of the day, that’s just how poetry is: some phrases find us, move us, strike us. Others find others, move others, strike others. We will never quite know why. Some poems I shuffled past, neither thinking nor feeling much about them, as if making my way through an unintelligible crowd. Others struck me as friends to sit down with and talk nights through. I also can’t tell which poems will do what to you. Still, I’m confident they will take you into the fragrance of an uncertain world, outside false comfort zones of correspondence, where some ‘drawn field’ lies ‘sleeping and open’. You might meet the same friends as I did or take a liking to others. Regardless, Emblem is a truly assured and exploratory space that boldly gifts us with nourishing obscurity. The collection resurrects what could be too easily dismissed as a quaint moralistic form and brings us back into the heart of its oddness.
Text: Nasim Luczaj
Photo: Nasim Luczaj