Reviewed by Kate Garrett
Head Traumas, the title of James Knight’s poetry collection (billed as a “book of bad dreams”), has as many potential meanings as the writing found inside. Is it referring to an injury of the skull caused by a blunt object, perhaps wielded by a maniacal Mr Punch? Is it a deep-fried-brain feeling brought on by nightmares, delivered by a strange creature known as the Bird King?
I have no idea.
And it doesn’t matter: I enjoyed this book. As poetry collections go (though some might consider this “anti-poetry”), Head Traumas is one of the best I’ve read so far this year. And I read a lot of poetry. And quite a few self-published poetry books are awful, or at the very least full of typos and badly formatted. There is none of that here, and this collection lives at the delightful junction of cultural allusion, surrealism, and psychological horror. It works.
Broken up into twenty two sections (Thresholds 1-13, Mechanical Muses 1-9), Head Traumas consists of various forms: micro-sequences known as “13s”, short poems, oneiroscope extracts (custom nightmares built around three words, originating from a twitter experiment by the author) and prose poems. It reads like a Jung-Freud observational collaboration, provided the good doctors were physically scooping out patients’ brains and using them as divination tools. Symbolism abounds: blue roses, mirrors, moons and mermaids are just a few of the recurring images scattered throughout, not to mention the odd ‘uncooked black pudding’ (Freud’s contribution, perhaps?). Instead of Jung’s anima/animus, we are given Punch and Judy. Instead of the shadow self, we have the Bird King.
Apart from the symbolism and ability to leave the reader discombobulated, this collection also shines through where poetry should: striking sound patterns, and interesting juxtapositions. In “Dream 902” for example, is pure poetry: ‘You see the sun / where one of your eyes / should be. / You dread its eclipse.’; as is “Thresholds”: ‘Let me find the night-time you. / In bed, in the dark, / we meet each others’ strangeness’. But elsewhere in the book – because as we know, complacency and comfort are dangerous things – “The Bird King Lies Dead” compares the Bird King in his coffin to various enclosed spaces, such as ‘a squirming expiring spermatozoa in a rolled up wank hanky’. Beautiful.
Cultural allusion is everywhere in this collection. In “Seaton Beach”, amongst natural imagery evoking sand and rocks, is ‘a blue sky with Simpsons clouds’. “13 cyborg poets” cleverly turns thirteen classic literary figures into machines: ‘T5 El10t ran on a complex algorithm that produced seemingly fragmentary results’. And I’m sure you’ll understand how a piece entitled “Josef K Through the Looking-Glass: sketches towards a Lewis Carroll / Franz Kafka mashup” can only speak for itself. The unexpected humour in this book can be disarming. For all the cleverness, it never takes itself too seriously.
The only piece in this collection that fell short for me was “Mon”, not because it was badly written, but because it didn’t seem to fit as well with the rest of the pieces in the book. However, because Head Traumas’ brilliance lies in not knowing what’s around the corner, there will be readers who enjoy “Mon”, possibly more than the poems I liked best. For this, and all of the above reasons, I’m happy to recommend Head Traumas to anyone who enjoys reading the strange, the unsettling, and the poetic.