Poetry Shelf review: Emma Barnes’s I Am in Bed with You

I Am in Bed with You, Emma Barnes, Auckland University Press, 2021

I am in bed with you. The room varies. But I’m always on the

left. I am pulling the pieces of myself into myself. In the winter

I left myself behind in the 90s. I’m coming back now. You

can see the light touching me. I can see layers of tissue finally

making a body. And once I have a body I have a head. And in

my head are these thoughts. I can’t tell you what it is like with

words. You can hold my hand and feel my pulse, but I was in

1994. I didn’t like

it there. When I am getting through days I don’t even know I

am making it. I am the legume in that story about royalty. And

then on the other side I open up like a lake into a river. I can

survey the lean fields of my insides as if I am owner of all

those glistening blades. In 1994 I was fourteen. I buried some-

thing back there. I buried it alive in a biscuit tin. This winter

makes choices I’d have made differently. Your mother cooked

a roast chicken every

Saturday unless a larger animal had died. (…)

from ‘I am in bed with you’

Emma Barnes’s debut collection I Am in Bed with You is a sublime read. Their poems hit such pitch-perfect notes any attempt to share my reading engagements will fall short. It’s like when someone asks why you like this painting or this song or this poem and all you can say I love it. Get the book. Find your own engagements.

And yet.

And yet this book haunts me to the degree I want to talk about it with you. There are three sections: ‘This is a creation myth’, ‘Sigourney Weaver in your dreams’ and ‘The Run-Around’.

There is a moving acknowledgements page. I love this page. In fact I am loving this choice in a number of recent publications – tributes paid to the communities and individuals that a book is in debt to. Emma begins by saying: ‘The most important thank you for any Pākehā writer is to mihi the mana whenua of Aotearoa for their generosity in the face of continued acts non-consent and disrespect by us, their Treaty partners. I am truly privileged to be a treaty partner, to have this place to stand and to receive repeated gifts and offerings of manaakitanga.’

Emma thanks a high-school teacher and her publisher Sam Elworthy (Auckland University Press) who prompted her ‘to transform reluctance into curiosity’. I love this too. A publisher who is nurturing all manner of vital poetry collections and connections into the world (think A Clear Dawn, AUP New Poets 8). And of course friends and family. Taking time to offer such a heartfelt mihi matters.

Emma’s collection refreshes a joy in sentences. This is a book where sentences are the exquisite building blocks of poetry. Crafted with an ear attuned to sound, rhythm and chords, and an eye for movement that may startle, dazzle, draw you in closer.

The opening poem in the opening section is akin to a creation myth; an original origin story: inventive funny fabulous. The poems that follow resemble creation episodes; the speaker is vulnerable and bold in their self exposures, in the creating and making of self, dismissed body, gendered self, self expectation. The mother is missing, longed for or discounted. Being woman being man being another is faced. The sentences are off-real surreal cloaked hyper-real skating and free-sliding from feeling to nothing to question to admission to nothing to strange detail to wounding edge to invisibility to laugh out loud. To being unbearably moved.

Sigourney Weaver tells me that desire has a hard edge. The end. The

limit it enforces by virtue of its own inevitability. She’s been reading

the internet again. Sigourney Weaver says that our bodies are wishes

made from DNA and that time and time again we defeat ourselves with

our limited thinking. Always imagining edges. The edge of desire

is only there because we out it there. And we put it there because we

can’t make sense of a world where we could desire and act in equal

measure. Trust Sigourney Weaver to get me tied up in knots without any

rope. Not even the tiniest string around my finger. I like a boundary,

Sigourney Weaver. I like clear statements. I like small words. (…)

from ‘Sigourney Weaver confronts the limits of desire’

The middle section of poems stars Sigourney Weaver. If you want to hang out with a famous film star you can do it in a sequence of poems and then you get to choose how things will pan out. The speaker is hanging out with Sigourney in Aro Valley. They rent movies, kiss, take ecstasy, kiss, have an android baby. It is wickedly funny, so so funny, with a twist of weird and strange and creepy. Sigourney buys a place, a van, becomes a citizen, and in all the curious surreal twists – exhilarating, hilarious, uplifting – your heart is consistently tugged. Look to the weird and you find the ordinary: house-moving cartons, dresses and pigtails, ballgowns, mint-flavoured life savers. This sweetly crafted sequence also finds sustenance in the joy of the sentence.

The final section’s refrain is love. Love poems that are like prismatic love songs with shifting chords and rhythms, the ‘you’ elusive and on the move. In the other sections poems are given breathing-space as they break apart into stanzas. Here the poems appear as dense paragraphs – framed by the white space of breath yes – but catching love’s intensity, love as unfathomable, physical, intimate, complicated, hard to say. Again there is a glorious sway between the weird and the surreal and a familiar heart-grasp of relationships, aloneness, closeness. You can’t breathe as you read, as you feel.

Emma has produced a collection unlike any other I know with its unifying addiction to the sentence, and motifs that go deeper than surface beacons: think age, body expectations, gender, the making of self, the lasting effects of childhood, experiences that bite, disappearing acts, love, desire, more love, more desire. You will meet dreams and demons and epiphanies. Writing is musing, reflecting back, side-drifting, inventing, confessing. You will revel in the joy (and pain) of writing, and yes writing becomes, and yes writing is a form of becoming. Extraordinary.

Emma Barnes studied at the University of Canterbury and lives in Aro Valley, Wellington. Their poetry has been widely published for more than a decade in journals including Landfall, Turbine | Kapohau, Cordite and Best New Zealand Poems. They are currently co-editing with Chris Tse an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and takatāpui writing from Aotearoa New Zealand for Auckland University Press.

Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf: Emma reads four poems from I Am in Bed with You

An unpublished poem ‘The lake’ in Poetry Shelf water theme

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