REVIEW – EMILY HARRISON’S ‘I CAN’T SLEEP ‘CAUSE MY BED’S ON FIRE’

by Carmina Masoliver

I have seen Emily Harrison share her work countless times at Burn After Reading events, and at my own night, She Grrrowls. She never fails to amaze me in the way she is able to articulate herself, speaking out about mental health issues – amongst other subjects – interwoven with links to gender and class. When I read lines about imaging someone loves you ‘when you simply asked/during a routine blood test, ‘Emily, how are you doing today?’ I sort of imagine she’s what I would be like if I were an extrovert.

The first couple of poems are familiar to me, and it’s hard not to picture Harrison on stage delivering these words, because as much as it’s incredible to be able to read the pieces, seeing them live is an important part of the way the text works, as it tends to be with Burning Eye Books – the go-to publisher for writers who refuse to remain on one side of the page/stage divide.

( Emily Harrison )

This is a collection full of brilliant titles, and in £6.31, I interpret this to be the price of the ‘cheap Chardonnay’ spilling ‘on those corduroys’. It has a similar sentiment to Pulp’s Common People, whereby the middle/upper class man in the poem exoticizes lower classes in imagined fantasies:

‘me spit-polishing your boots,
yelling how much I make an hour
whilst you spank me with a rolled-up map of your family tree.’

This kind of humour is consistent throughout the collection, yet there is a wide emotional spectrum, creating a sense of tragicomedy. Some of the poems are direct experiences from Harrison’s time at a psychiatric ward, and some are voicing other characters through first person. This play with the lyric ‘I’ is something I always enjoy, as people tend to take poetry as something personal and honest – I tend to feel that, just because different voices are adopted, it doesn’t make the work any less truthful or raw. Harrison does this and still holds her own and delivers with authenticity.

it’s hard not to picture Harrison on stage delivering these words

You can follow her at @EmilyHarrii on Twitter, and here you’ll find more one-liners that echo the ‘lipstick shade: tantrum’ of the poem titled Bereaved Mistress Showing Up To the Funeral Against the Family’s Wishes. Alternatively, there are also poems that are written in third-person, that can also make you question if this device has been used in order to create distance from emotions actually experienced, by creating a narrative involving a character called Monica in A Little Bit Nutty and a Little Bit Slutty where friends tell her ‘that the fault lies/in silly little girls who act grown up/when they aren’t grown up at all.’ This idea of growing up also comes up in Sonnet for Robert, and working at a school I could relate to the lines:

    ‘You cry because everyone is an unfriendly giant
and I don’t because I’m a responsible adult now.’

Some of the poems are more overtly Feminist than others, but Harrison’s take on this was stated in an interview with Jenn Hart that ‘To me, a feminist poem is just a poem written by someone who considers themselves a feminist.’ She challenges Humbert of Lolita in Tell Me I Asked for It describing a man ‘who thought “underage” was just a bourgeoisie term’. Some of her work reminds me of Carol Ann Duffy, in its succinctness and the fact that it holds no punches. In Count to Zen, for example, a man is described ‘acting as the wind/to my Marilyn skirt’; her words paint a clear image, yet let the reader come to their own conclusions as to what is happening.

( Emily Harrison )

( Emily Harrison © Burn After Reading )

In Four-Match Ban the violence depicted on television is drawn as parallel to the reality of a scene of domestic violence. Here, what could be humorous – the appearance of Vinnie Jones ‘acting badly on the telly’ – is incredibly painful to read. Harrison delivers heart-breaking last lines, and with the realisation ‘that covering your face isn’t instinct’, this poem is no different. In the final poem, Go Home and Stop Grinning at Everyone, Harrison begins ‘You all want something from me…’ and goes on to list these things, contrasting the positive and negative, offering a sense of recognition that sometimes you need to know where the end is, sometimes you just need to go home.

Featured image © MarxistRevival.com

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