STEVEN HITCHINS reviews Stephen Emmerson’s ‘Family Portraits’

Stephen Emmerson, Family Portraits (if p then q, 2015, £12)


Dark-blue hardback. No cover, no dust jacket. Gold lettering on spine. Thick cream pages. Enclosed a small brown envelope labelled in typewriter print: “pills”.


The book is divided into sections labelled mother, father, sister, brother, lover, son, daughter and self-portraits. Each section contains 9 pages, each one blank except for an empty rectangle and the title underneath (e.g. Portrait of the Mother #1, Portrait of the Mother #2, etc.).


The first page of each section instructs the reader to take one of the pills in order to see the portraits.


Portraits of the Mother


Let the pill dissolve on the tongue. Dry, tasteless, a bit cardboardy. A blank flavour. Consuming the pill creates a sense of ritual. It frames the act of reading as a performance. There are only 8 pills in the packet, so you choose your reading moment carefully. When you have swallowed the pill, even knowing it’s a placebo, you have dedicated yourself to this act. You’re going to sit down and stare at those pages for a given amount of time.


Portraits of the Father


Family Portraits is a minimal work. There are very few words in the book and these are used economically, the titles recycling the same sentence patterns with just one word changed: mother, father, etc. Why did Emmerson choose these words? They are perhaps the most vague and empty markers. Why does there need to be 9 of each? It’s like a series where each piece is exactly the same.


Portraits of the Sister


Why not just print a book with blank pages? Like Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings. That would seem to be the ultimate audacity. What Emmerson is after seems to be something different. The rectangles and titles frame the experience. It is not quite empty, but minimally tinted by the idea that something might be represented, although that thing is invisible.


Portraits of the Brother


Family Portraits is an invisible poem, like those Robert Barry artworks with nylon wires and gases. The content of this book is only (dubiously) visible after the ingestion of a placebo. It exists as a promise that is incredibly difficult to believe and put faith in, no matter how well-intentioned and on-board the participant. The pills and pages frame minimal sensations of expectation and disappointment.


Portraits of the Lover


In paring down to its bare minimum, Family Portraits opens up the space of what a book can be, what reading can be. It focuses the attention on the reading experience. No one could buy this book for the object itself; you buy it for the experience of taking the pills and getting baffled at what to do with these empty pages.


Portraits of the Son


Family Portraits is a drone work, a monotone symphony. Each movement contains one note, the same note; that creamy hue of the page and that non-taste of the lactose pill are an ambience that immerses you.


Portraits of the Daughter


Family Portraits is not reading but looking. Like someone said about Jack Kerouac that it wasn’t writing but just typing. Kerouac was relaxing the writing process to a spontaneous improv. Emmerson shifts the emphasis from writing to reading and does something similar. Reading in its most relaxed form becomes a kind of looking.



Steven Hitchins


Steven Hitchins grew up in Abercynon in the South Wales valleys and studied at Aberystwyth University. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Coleg y Cymoedd and in the community for the WEA.

His chapbook Bitch Dust was published by Hafan Books (Boiled String) in 2012. The White City was published by Aquifer in 2015. He runs The Literary Pocket Book press and little magazine, publishing contemporary experimental poetry in miniature editions using unusual book-folds.

His interests include collage and cut-up techniques, walking and writing, mapping and place, book-making, performance art and multimedia crossovers between writing, music, found sounds, video and mobile phones.


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