‘A Very Nearly Complete List…’

Luxe, Amy Key, Salt, £9.99
reviewed by Mark Burnhope

luxeTrue to its title and glamorous front cover (a matte-gold jacket, diamond-studded text), Luxe is filled with luxuries, both material (vintage fashion, brick-a-brac, trinkets) and immaterial (love, friendship, loss), for holding in the hand or wearing on the body figuratively. Many of these poems catalogue and list objects that represent the poet’s likes, loves, memories and desires.

I had read and enjoyed some of these poems online, so my expectations were fairly high. In reading, some of those expectations were subverted. For example, ‘Brand New Lover’ – the first poem, and one of the book’s more obvious love poems – has a looser, more conversational diction than my favourite tauter, more imagistic and fragmentary poems. For me, Key’s work is strongest when it lays found objects on the table and simply writes them with all their sumptuous vocabulary. That collage approach is described in the second poem of the book, ‘Here, For Your Amusement’, with its suggested dark side to hoarding precious items as nostalgic memory triggers:

I would like to be able to make a very nearly complete list,
of everything that matters to me, leaving nothing out.
Is that what it’s like to be afraid to die?

While it rarely wears ideology or politics on its sleeve, Luxe is feminist in the sense that it both flirts with and undermines classic, narrow tropes of womanhood, like ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’. I was torn between wanting more of the autobiography hiding under the clutter, and admiring how Key reveals herself through it; historically, male poets have largely owned the privilege of dressing up, writing in persona, playing an act, while women were largely expected to expose themselves in confession or domesticity. Against this backdrop, Key’s decision to make a “mood board” of herself instead is striking. Nevertheless, In ‘We Should Be Very Sorry If There Was No Rain’ – dedicated to Sarah Crewe – the inadequacy of objects to fill emotional spaces inspires an open love letter to friendship:

I mention lately I’ve lacked a honeyed mood,
delicates have evaded me. Again I’ve spent too much
trying to ornamentally tile my life.

That sensuous, tactile listing can be found in ‘Before The Waning Spiral Stairs’, with its “mouth whirled with steel-tinged rum”, “resin drifted from a bow”, “idly laced up in leather and weave”, “smoked my hair in a lime-washed cellar”. Or ‘Poem in Which’ (sharing its name with the online journal that Key co-edits). Its economy with language and imagery proves that naming is often description enough. That’s Key’s power; the ability to paint a nuanced, controlled self-portrait (or gallery of self-portraits) using the materials of her psychological, social and physical environments:

I describe ‘tulle’ and ‘chiffon’.
His eyes replace mine.
In which I walk down Lower Marsh with a paper bag of apples.
The wind laps at my ankles.
I covet the turquoise paisley dress.
I relent – as you wish, as you wish.
I leave my flat to the sockless beatnik.
Poem in which I have sequined ears.

Mark Burnhope

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