Em Strang

- United Kingdom -

Em is a poet, novelist, mentor, editor, prison tutor and founder of Scottish charity, Three Streams. Her writing preoccupations are with nature, spirituality and the masculine. Em’s first full collection of poetry, Bird-Woman, was published by Shearsman in October 2016, was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prize and won the 2017 Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Award. Her second collection, Horse-Man, was published in September 2019 and was shortlisted for the Ledbury Munthe prize for Best Second Collection. Her first novel, Quinn, was shortlisted for the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize and will be published by Oneworld in 2023.

Em Strang’s two books speak to each other—and to themselves—in subtle and ingenious ways. Each includes several poems featuring its titular creature, not necessarily as a character in itself but rather as a component of a landscape. A series of such poems in Horse-Man juxtapose the horse-man—a horse with human attributes, one imagines, not unlike a centaur—with various other images: “Horse-Man’s Long Dream of the Moon”, “Horse-Man Says Yes”, “Horse-Man in the Dunes”, “Horse-Man at Callanish”. “Horse-Man and the Oak” offers an especially poignant example of one of Strang’s signature techniques. The poem is short, comprised of one four-line stanza followed by a one-line stanza. The last line is the crucial one: it turns the poem in a new direction, leaving the reader something unusual to think with, but does not close the door to reinterpretation. “This morning Horse-Man is hanging / upside-down (magic rope) in an oak tree,” she writes, “his hooves moving as though he’s running / and the leaves all around him laughing. // Only oak trees could bear this much joy.” Strang’s work is at once lyrical and conversational, timeless and contemporary. This particular poem showcases her gently ominous imagery to full effect: Horse-Man hanging, but hanging upside-down; Horse-Man running, but running in a futile attempt to save his life.


The element of surprise in “Horse-Man and the Oak” first emerged in Bird-Woman. “The Miracle”, for example, imagines watching a dead body come back to life. Here, as in “Horse-Man and the Oak”, Strang displays a knack for turning clichés into unexpected images: “If we could speak,” she writes, “words would climb out of our mouths / and doubt all over the night.” Even when Strang’s poems are not necessarily “about” something—when they do not carry a narrative but rather paint a scene and invite the reader to enter it—they are nonetheless imbued with a sense of movement and aliveness. Perhaps this is because Strang has, since the early 2010s, been concerned with “embodied practice” and “embodied poetry”—that is, “how breath, movement, and voice inform and engage both writer and audience,” as Strang has described it. A quiet sense of rhythm, music, and bodily awareness—of her own body, of her readers’ bodies, and of the bodies of which she writes—forms a key undercurrent in both collections.


Yet, Strang is not always—or even often—a typical eco-poet or lyric poet. Perhaps what makes her ecological writing so striking is her willingness to poke fun at, or at least not be too precious about, her subjects. A case in point is the prose poem “Brown Bear Walt Whitman” from Bird-Woman, in which she imagines Walt Whitman, with his characteristic grandiosity and sense of wonder, as a brown bear: “Oh fish I eat you! Oh berries I eat you! […] I am of berries. Also, I am of fish. I hunker in the water to catch miraculous dinner! My paws are tremendous! My belly is tremendous with hunger, a shipping container with no cargo, a night sky with no moon. […] I keep eating because I do, I must […] Watch the strange fish jump! Watch the berries twerk in the wind!” The extemporaneous, waterfall-like quality of this monologue—the use of “also” suggesting a sudden recollection rather than a carefully composed sequence, the unexpected image of “berries twerk[ing] in the wind”—is a critical and unique element of Strang’s craft. Indeed, this spontaneity and attention to detail mirror the vibrancy she identifies in the natural world. It is the success of this parallel, rather than her occasional allusions to news headlines or any attempt to represent the natural world as an undisturbed holdout against the threat of human existence, that makes Strang’s work deeply urgent and relatable.