In her 14-poem chapbook, The Sun Is Always Setting, Steph Yates explores perpetual cessation of movement through structure.
Under the spell of the calm morning preceding the harsh winds in Tours, France, I spent a considerable period last week attempting to embrace the stillness of the surprisingly early spring. While breathing in large amounts of the cool air remains difficult, the unusually warm pause in the typical winter environment seemed almost disruptive.
Without necessarily noticing it, the lack of movement in the space of the everyday rhythm caused me to feel out of sync. Almost frozen.Over those days, I periodically returned to the chapbook, The Sun Is Always Setting, with a renewed interest in discovering cadence beyond myself. Here, continual movement is understood through its eternal cessation.
For those familiar with Stpeh Yates’ work as Cots, it may not be surprising to discover that the delicate folk-inspired singer-songwriter also performs through textural mediums. In the past, that has included visual installations using drones, animation and weaving stories through the imperfect charm of handmade books. Yates’ work naturally extends into poetry.
In the late spring of 2021, the beautiful solo exhibition ‘The Sun Never Sets’ by multidisciplinary artist, composer, and designer Steph Yates, was held on display in Toronto at the Plumb’s project space (also lovingly referred to as the Pit). The exhibition, curated by John Nyman, explored “the interplay of light, space, form, and objecthood” through a series of papier-mâché sculptures. Accompanying the exhibition was the launch of Yates’ equally impressive 14-poem chapbook of spatio-sculptural writing, The Sun Is Always Setting, designed and bound by Steph Yates herself. The contrast between the continual departure and presence of the sun is but one piece in mapping these sites manifested through the exhibition. Her strategy to focus not on the space itself but on the small moments within it to find meaning is a curious endeavour. The central place of structure across these poems disentangles the premise of being from that of human life and shows the interactions independent of the goings around them. She explains further in the introduction that “there are no characters and no events. The only motion is perpetual; otherwise, the pieces embody the stillness and permanence of a photograph.”
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Yates formats the poems like an edifice: long, tall, and detached from many human embellishments. Each site situates the reader within detailed and minute observations of the surrounding area. I hesitate to say that the writing allows you to experience or perceive the sites since you are experiencing everything through the detached eyes of Yates more than anything. As you move through the chapbook, each page is a blank sculpture, revealing fragments inch by inch as she peels the descriptions back. The interesting thing is that the poems make no claim of what exactly you are supposed to see. It does not feel like there is a definite image that each poem desires to conjure up, but rather that the poems express the persistence of a certain image within that particular time and space.
You see, Yatse is not solely concerned with the construction of these sites but with the construction of their perpetual motion in stillness. Dismissing the work as mundane observations would be easy, but her careful excavation is evident. It does not matter where they are situated, whether that is a physical manifestation or one in your mind’s eye; the arresting notion is that they exist (and will continue to exist) outside their frozen time frame. In a way, the impersonal nature of the chapbook (which is admittedly cold and detached) only highlights this. In one of my favourite poems, this detachment is the space where the site is encountered through the lens of its ownevolution, apart from the changes of time and those who encounter it:
“The air in the building is cool and still/The ladder is a prize/ The wooden ladder is old, but never gets older”
The ordering and recording of words (Yates herself answers that there is no particular order to the swatches of each poem, but that she “enjoyed these premonitions the best”) mimics the lack of inherent “correctness” to where your eyes focus in a room. Focusing on the smallest, most fleeting moments to uncover surprising emotional resonances. We are welcome to interact with the environment as it is or continue our own private musings on what we can and cannot see.
“There is no natural light in the building/There is no source of light in the building/One room leads to the next/The rectangle of light leaks onto a wall, onto a doorway, onto another wall, and it is hardly a rectangle at all”
One can see how the light from Yate’s previous forays spills into her most recent endeavours. The title track to her 2023 EP, Moonlit Building, retraces the idea of light (this time with respect to the moon) existing in its own right in the context of a structural presence regardless of the eyes that behold it (“Moonlit building/Your light does not come from within”).
I often fall victim to the urge to view poetry through the mirror of my life, but here, you cannot help but feel content to allow these unassuming poems to remain solely as they are. Still, unearnest and unyielding. Equally existing in all places at once. I, for one, am thankful Yates continues to allow us to enter her mind as she also creates these spaces upon which the sun may never set.