4word logo white small


Lotus Moon


During her research into the life of Rengetsu, poet Sheila Hamilton trawls the internet for a visual image of the Buddhist nun, writer and artist. Without success. Although photography had been invented during Rengetsu’s lifetime, Hamilton observes:

I find sepia photographs

of washerwomen, courtesans, tea-girls

but not Rengetsu The Revered Poet.

Rengetsu, The Nearest We Get To A Portrait of You

The instant availability of images characterises the age in which we live. The image dominates our world, from business and advertising to entertainment and publishing. Even in historical articles or exhibitions we expect to find portraits, especially of someone so revered in their own culture.

Hamilton speculates that the nun’s resistance to being photographed might be a contributory factor. She then turns to natural and artistic images as a means to explore her subject:

So I look elsewhere

at the things that leap into, sprout out of,

your poems, your prints:

the fox, lean vibrant;

various bamboos;

the cherry-blossom they scatter you near.

Rengetsu, The Nearest We Get To A Portrait of You

This alternative evocation is at the heart of Lotus Moon with Blossom, Hamilton’s fascinating pamphlet published by 4Word Press. It proves a challenge, for Rengetsu is a shape-shifter:

Last week, she acquired the form

of a peach merchant; the week before,

a civil servant, bowing,

and, tonight, a nun.

Print of a Shapeshifter

Rengetsu has an interesting background. The daughter of a courtesan and a nobleman, she was brought up in a privileged environment. Twice married and widowed, and having out-lived her five children, she became an itinerant nun by her mid-thirties.

After the losses,

I drag myself,

and sometimes stumble,

to new places, new things….

After Official Mourning.

Hamilton describes how, inspired by her sense of place, Rengetsu supported herself making and selling artwork:

This place is mainly calligraphy:

silk, wood, mulberry paper,

the inks that suit each

while this place gives rise to many poems,

tanka, haiku,

and other forms not described in the manuals.

Forbidden to Live in the Monastery

As she travels, Rengetsu grieves for each of her lost children, recalling for example:

My little son, cramping.

I stayed with him all night,

sponging his forehead.

Watched, later, as they wrapped

his small cold body up.

Jizo, By The Wayside

Despite the privations of living outside of the Buddhist monasteries (women not being permitted to take up permanent residence) Rengetsu lived a long life. She died in 1875 aged 84. Hamilton describes the Hibakujumoku, the survivor trees of Hiroshima:

… how tough tree-bark is, 

and tree-roots, tougher,

and how trees survive almost anything…

their roots able to heal and to thrive…

The Survivor Trees

With its rich list of botanical names – oleander and eucalypt, hemp plant and sago palm, camellia and quince – the poem tells us that some of the older trees may have been growing during the nun’s lifetime. However, the images also act as a metaphor for Rengetsu’s ability to survive the uncertainties and tragedies of her own life. 

Throughout Lotus Moon with Blossom, Hamilton draws on the natural environment to conjure the persona of the nun: snow-melt and pebble streams, finches and warblers, moss-gardens and koi-ponds, monkeys, foxes and wood owls. To counterbalance the beauty of rural Japan there are also glimpses the reality of her hard, solitary existence, so that we develop an impression of her robust character. 

Through the eyes of a visiting student for example, Hamilton suggests not everyone has found her helpful… her advice too vague… a bad-tempered person… She evokes a strong-willed, imperfect character, and describes Rengetsu’s artistic processes, as she

… shapes a bowl that is not quite even,

carves her own words

into still-wet clay…

Tea Bowl

But in laying her own words on paper, Hamilton’s abiding images recognise Rengetsu’s inner serenity and she imagines her as 

a Buddha

who, even on his/her worst days,

is still wiser and kinder

than everybody else.

A Student Seeks Out Rengetsu For Possible Mentoring.

Whilst there is a caveat that, like the student searching for Rengetsu, we might find She is not there, Hamilton has created a word picture that honours the essence of this enigmatic artist and the culture in which she lived.

-Angi Holden

REMOTE by Sarwa Azeez

“They tell you it’s not easy

to find a lost thing

among ruins and debris.”


These lines open Sarwa Azeez’s poem Keep Searching, which is placed at the centre of her newly published pamphlet Remote. In all senses the poem seems pivotal to this collection, a moment to pause and take stock, to digest what has come before, to prepare for what is to come. For Remoteis not an easy read. The language may be straightforward and the tone at times conversational, but the subject matter is dark and challenging.

Sarwa Azeez was born just after her parents were displaced by the Iraq-Iran war, and grew up with this conflict as the backdrop to her childhood. Few people can be unaware of the brutality of the Iraq-Iran conflicts, of Saddam Hussein and the later Gulf War. Yet in many ways the events have become, to borrow Azeez’s title, ‘remote’. It’s easy to perceive them as ‘past’, given the more recent events that dominate our headlines. In this pamphlet she reminds us that the events she lived through are not ‘over’ either personally or collectively, and that their international ramifications continue. Azeez speaks both as a witness to conflict, as in What Did She Witness?:


The therapist asks her,

What did you witness?


Her mouth freezes,

eyes want to take over



and as a forecaster, as in Reunionwhere she talks of


fearing that one day my daughter

may inherit my exact mummified mouth.


The experiences she describes are shocking: the children at play among the rubble, ‘making desks from bricks and stone’ (Leave), the wives and mothers traumatised by ‘the moments when / they came and took him away.’ (Waiting),and the fugitive girl forced to ‘bury fear / this loneliness’  as she runs ‘barefoot / stepping on half-buried / animal skulls. ‘(Ode to the Yazidi Captive Bride). These powerful images linger in the subconscious, long after the pamphlet has been closed.


The experiences of men are depicted in some of the poems, for example in Vineyard, where Azeez describes how her father on his journey to work ‘would see bodies in uniforms, / piles of them’and in Time, where her Uncle Suleman recalls ‘his captive youth / waiting to be discharged / waiting to be home again’. However,the most compelling experiences remain those of the women. They are the witnesses to atrocities, like Maryam forever haunted by the image of her husband, buried alive or the unnamed Yazidi Virgin, sold to the highest bidder. They are women fighting for survival in a patriarchal society, who daily live with the constraints of ‘something toxic’ muting their voices (Something Toxic Was Muting Me).


Azeez brings a fresh eye to the body of poetry providing first-hand commentary on the effects of war. Her language, both in lexicon and construction, is youthful, almost naive, and her lightness of touch leaves the reader with space to interpret the culture of fear and repression. In a time when one appalling headline is rapidly followed by another, Azeez reminds us that for each generation of displaced people ‘old news’ is always current.


-Angi Holden

INCIDENTALS by Mary Gilonne

If light fails, follow darkness
in my eyes she says, unfolds the map

engraved on her, marks him with a cross
and draws him in.
      (“The Woodman’s Tale”)

Just as the recently-deceased Nicolas Roeg’s film Insignificance plays lightly with several kinds of significance, only the foolhardy would draw easy assumptions from Incidentals’ title. The name of Mary Gilonne’s debut pamphlet may imply asides, but far from being casual, these poems arrest and examine moments, in both their strengths and frailty, before they are allowed to become fleeting. Incidentals offers small spaces of unexpected revelation, self-awareness and determination. As observed fragments, they are all highly significant and resonant.

Perhaps it’s worth considering the fitting nature of this publication’s form here. Currently, there is a real renaissance in poetry pamphlets, their scale appealing to many, for many reasons. Ally this with some very vibrant independent poetry presses which are producing exciting, well-designed and highly-affordable books. Pamphlet specialists are brandishing sometimes laudably subversive challenges to the established presses. How marvellous! 4Word Press is a recent arrival, and it is already earning its place as an adventurous publisher. As with their other publications, Claire Jefferson’s distinctively elegant cover sets the bar high from the outset. Mary Gilonne’s lines fulfil that promise.

English-born Gilonne has long been resident near Aix-en-Provence, where she works as a translator. The languages enjoyed here are drawn from three continents and there’s even an acrobatic foray into an English/ Esperanto macaronic. Her linguist’s delight in the layering and provenance of words is embedded in every poem; throughout, there is a feeling of travelling and of place.  The poet’s cartography is a sensuous one, drawn on flesh, and indeed tattooed through all of the senses. These are opulent poems, often gracefully, yet tautly erotic. Narratives are communicated in painterly visuals, and sound-rich imagery.   However, this poet’s careful crafting, and her formal restraint, ensures that these heady elements are wisely harnessed. Gilonne has a cleverly undercutting way, particularly with sharp stanza ‒ and poem ‒ ending lines, sometimes in the form of a refrain, and she slits into her riches intriguingly.  This poet writes beautifully of textiles, but she is equally adept at conveying muscle. Reader, be wary!

When from bed to wall lies a litter of windowed
moons to use as stepping-stones, and light slices
through our kitchen thrum, as if your voice and mine
cut blunt with metallic glints of old nicked knives,

I’ll leave you.

In “Cardinale Frucci Covets Snow”, the poem’s initial impetus was ekphrastic, as it first appeared online in Visual Verse. However, it’s very satisfying to read it here. The poem works convincingly without that pictorial connection, allowing the reader a certain wander and wonder, before perhaps choosing to seek out the accompanying image. Then, there is the gift of almost another poem.  The equally visual “Quietus” evokes detail and sadness, rather as Millais’ Ophelia does, and makes the reader pause to consider kintsugi’s broken and mended quality. The pausing seems essential to the whole collection.

If Incidentals contains the sombre, including grave ill health, death, difficult and sometimes painfully pragmatic choices, there’s also the bitter-sweet of “Findings”, the “paged archaeology” of “a Twiggied girl in party Quant and curls”, and the glorious energy, both in word and typographic arrangement of “Sunday With Lili”.

Gilonne has a colourful, highly textured way with metaphor, ideally suited to exploring the sensory losses of “Ageusia”. Equally, “Equilibrium” allows her the balancing act of moving in and out of metaphor,

toeing a fine line between sense and none,
while high-wired idioms suspend my views.

She is no less adept with simile, for who could not be drawn to “skin indolent as wine”? Her closing poem offers procrastination of the most appealing kind.

Mary Gilonne’s publication and competition successes are impressive, and this gathering of her work is timely. Incidentals may be physically small, but its much larger allusions and connections make it perfectly formed.

– Beth McDonough

GIRL GOLEM by Rachael Clyne

Family lies at the heart of this collection. Its narrative arc moves from a Jewish childhood through to the tender recounting of clearing elderly relatives’ homes after their death. Its focus on family members who fled oppressive regimens of the mid 20thCentury is specific but also resonates with the plight of more recent refugees.

The first poem in the collection small histories remind us how houses and indeed lives become littered with the detritus of the past . This is a cleverly structured poem, cleft into two adjacent stanzas that serves as a visual reminder of the fragmented nature of memory. Indeed, Clyne has a gift for using structured to effectively reinforce meaning. A later poem, Art of Erasure replicates with enviable skill the shattered thought processes of a brain beset by dementia.

Jewishness enriches the portrait of a family with the use of dialect, customs, history and indeed cultural expectations on children. The cast of characters includes an eccentric grandma who with skill ‘re-pins ‘the child’s dressing gown . There is precise and effective use of detail here as the elderly lady’s mouth holding the pins is described as having ‘ gummy lips’ . She ‘ cackles at her own jokes’ and ‘ indulgently feeds the child egg-fried bread ‘ mum and dad clearly do not approve of . Revealing here that grandmother-granddaughter alliance that often leaps a generation. Yet this is no soft and fluffy grandmother as she is also given to ‘rage. Like the time she flung a pan of peas, cursed in Russian.’ Tailoring is the family trade , carried with them to the new country. The narrator’s father is revealed as master craftsman who in a touching poem makes , The Only suit he made me that allowed her to ‘strut my stuff on Lord Street’ during the swinging ‘60s.

The verse set in a post war childhood is rich with details that will create recognition in the reader familiar to this era. The poem That Was Downstairs evokes the austerity of a post war house lacking modern conveniences and comforts. The tone is blackly humorous with terms such as ‘Bathroom was a bastard ’ and recalls the dreaded harsh toilet paper that’ slid off bottoms.’ In a sense this poem subtly infers a family occasionally at war with itself, not quite settled in its new country, still haunted by the violence that drove it from mainland Europe. In other poems there are echoes of violence, the grandma alters the child’s dressing gown with ‘a razor blade in her trembling claw’.

Poems focussing on the older family members who lived through the flight from Russia are beset by memories of the horrors of war and indeed of the lost homeland. Jewish words pepper these works. They are verbal cues that create flashbacks to the horrors of the holocaust and pogroms. There are touching references to family members who did not escape such as the great aunt who worked for Coco Chanel. The illusion to the family trade of tailoring and this specific detailing serves to make the horrors seem more personal. Inevitably the referencing to Jewish refugees resonates with the horrors of more recent and on-going atrocities and the flight of civilians who are collateral damage. Nothing it shows has changed. The poem Toadsong is particularly effective poem in that it conveys a double meaning. Whilst on the surface it deals with toads who invade the house and are tolerated but on another level it obliquely references, refugees as the four characters ‘shared childhood tales of being Jews’. Their sense of unbelonging strikingly evoked in the words ‘The ugly undertones, sense of foreignness’.

Yet the works are also keen to reveal how inter- connected we all are. Not just in our shared sense of family but also in shared repercussions to worldwide catastrophe. This is best seen in Chernobyl Museum where the shocking man-made disaster in Russian, has repercussions years later when it ‘spawned a cancer, in a friend’ in Wales, ‘that took decades to flower’.

At the heart of the collection lies the eponymous Girl Golem whom we take to be the narrator herself. The poem starkly reveal how the child almost resisted birth ‘clung bat-like to the womb wall’ somehow knowing that she was destined to carry the hopes and dreams of that family’s future. More than this her role was to ‘compensate for millions’, ‘make up for the lost numbers’. Born into such expectations it is inferred that this child would never fit into such a mould.
Growing up she self-defines as a ‘a hotchpotch golem /that would never fit’. It is inferred further that being gay she would never be accepted by the family or indeed be able to fulfil the family expectations of providing grandchildren so consequently left ‘in search of my own kind.’

The latter sections of the poems hints at reconciliation albeit when the relatives are elderly and, in some cases, losing their memory. These are starkly honest poems with experiences that resonate with us all. A father figure is paid respects to after his death. Again, fine details are tenderly deployed as his personal effects are handed to the daughter. Hints to his personality subtly betrayed in the ‘fake Rolex’, ‘credit cards’ ‘clothes in a black bin bag’. The realities of clearing a family home after death are then looked at. Again, the lost personality is revealed in things. The father stock piled clothes deemed bargains, hoarded everything from clothes to ‘pinched’ Asda plastic spoons. This very need to hoard harping back to a time when as a refugee, personal effects were few. False teeth are a motif throughout the collection bringing with them the images of the piles of dentures found stacked in concentration camps. They are a bizarre but also macabre image. Again, in this poem Taking Account they are darkly humorous as fourteen sets of dentures tumble on the narrator’s head from head from atop a wardrobe. The up- shot to such hoarding is a staggering 80 bins of items left out for rubbish collection.

This is a very fine collection that deals with families and our place within them. It demonstrates too how on the wider political stage, nothing changes, conflict still sees civilians as collateral, who become dispossessed, and must struggle to find new homes. The poet is particularly adept at using structure to reinforce meaning and using very fine imagery throughout to make this a vivid piece of work.

– Fiona Sinclair

Read London Grip’s Review of Girl Golem here:  

Review of Girl Golem by Rachael Clyne, 4word Press. 2018 For Tears in the Fence Reviewed By Jessica Mookherjee  (author of Flood, Cultured Llama 2017, and forthcoming Burst, Nine Arches Press 2019)

We know Rachael Clyne from these poems and from her previous collection “Singing at the Bone Tree” (Indigo Dreams 2014). We know from her biography that she was an actor, artist and psychotherapist and so well versed in the art of re-creation and performance. But we know Rachael Clyne from her poems. This collection, Girl Golem is aching in both hiding and being seen and in escaping. The Golem is creature from Jewish folklore, made of mud and the perfect servant, a Frankenstein like monster, animated to do the master’s bidding, often animated by a magic of some sort. 

“I was made as a keep-watch, 

in case new nasties tried to take us away.

The family called me chutchkele, their little cnadle,

Said I helped make up for lost numbers –“

Clyne’s collection of magic words brings her Girl Golem to life, a creature that is more then the sum of her words, and a creature that is bold, untamable and no one’s slave or victim. The secret pronunciation of the Slavic and Yiddish words, the way the ‘la’ is said at the end of the word cnadle, the secret endearments of ‘knicknack’ and ‘dumpling’, these are magic words, of heartbreak and hearth. These are words that could easily have disappeared in genocide, these are words of survival and power. This is the mix of mud-words that give Girl Golem power, because Clyne is escaping the loaded survival of the Jew as much as she is escaping the fixed identities of ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’ and ‘Jewish’. She is creating herself in these words throught the collection, she creates and dismantles. 

“wore off the peg. I ironed my hair straight

under brown paper, like Cathy McGowen’s”

This is a coherent collection of 29 poems, bound beautifully by 4word Press. Clyne is accurate and assured which immediately gives her readers confidence from her first poem ‘Small Histories’ which opens in a ‘mirror’ form of two reflecting poems that can be read as one poem or two separate fragments – each speaking to each other and the last two lines of the poem/s sparking the life of the collection with

‘Sorry for your losses       repeated arguments 

      All the love yous        gather dust.”

The collection begins with the creation of the Girl Golem and continues a domestic and biographical narrative from a fairy tale, child-like point of view, where we hear of the ‘nose-picker’, the ‘grandma with big teeth’ and an

“angry housewifemummy,

who made chicken soup with garlic”

Like all good East European folk tales things are just a little bit ‘foreign’ and out of place, where objects are people and the people behave inexplicably and unpredictably, particularly in Britain where we don’t eat olives for breakfast. She personifies her family into spaces.

“the bathroom was a bastard”

Clyne makes great currency of foreignness in the poem “X-Rated” where we see her version of the ‘great escape’ is not ‘plucky chaps’ with gung ho zeal but the smell of shit and sewers, Andrzei Wajda’s shit. This shit belongs to someone with a name and Clyne calls it out. This is immigrant poetry calling to ancestors, this is also a masterful use of contemporary poetry techniques to re-animate the ‘foreign’ inside everyone. Clyne will not be defined by being a Jewish poet writing about the Holocaust. Why should she? She contains more then that, but she can also not fully escape that, and neither can we, for Clyne reminds us that we all live in this world where we must know that the horrors have happened over and over again to countless, nameless people.

“Holocaust is not my middle name.

As if gypsies, Lakota and bison, gorillas

and black lives don’t count, or a Palestinian

and tiger have no claim. As if Tartars did not burn”

This collection that starts biographically in childhood speaks of maturity and a life spent unpicking the roots of identity and escaping from it’s boundaries. These are not poems of youth. Clyne tells us she has come of age in a world of plurality, in a place where we are free to construct our own identities and yet we can not escape our histories.  

“Final in the forties, when it is pregnant 

with me, they were naturalized.

So I was originated, British as mustard

and new health services” 

The collection collapses time, we are taken to Odessa, to Warsaw sewers, to the Kings Road, to the English Suburbs, to Lancashire. One of the most moving poems uses the technique of ‘erasure’, made more poignant when we know that letters were redacted in the war, that people were erased. Clyne uses wonderful last lines to great effect in her poem “The Art of Erasure”

“That one wipes the war between them

leaves the daughter lost for “

This collection left me yearning for more yet the “Girl Golem” is a perfect length. The use of objects through the book is subtle, and then violently visceral when we read of the father’s ‘Magic Suit’, how in death we are all that is left of us, “hearing aids, glasses” and the awful pull of the words when we know the horrors of genocide left these objects behind. Clyne is defiant, there are big horrors that take us politically by the neck and yet we will all loose a parent and have to put their debris in a bin bag. 

“his clothes in a black bin bag.

As she handed me his credit cards

I knew there’d be debts to clear.”

Clyne has achieved her creation and let it escape the pages of the book and into our bodies using tight, clipped words, a semblance of the east European hard consonants creep into everyday language, strong visual line endings interlaced with a sense of ‘wrongness’ and ‘foreignness’ 

“Cheek-by-jowl neighbours chop vegetables

into enamel bowls. Between drug dealers

and satellite dishes, ghosts gather. Water sellers

tailors and a shiver that runs up my back”

Clyne ends the collection beautifully and escapes with the poems “In the Margins” and “Apocalypse Shoes” and she helps us, as a poet only can, survive the onslaughts of our own escapes into freedom, survival and ourselves. I look forward to more from this accomplished poet. 

–Jessica Mookherjee

BLACK BICYCLE by Lesley Quayle

Black Bicycle – a superb book of poems from the hugely talented Lesley Quayle (though I do wish she would stop making me cry with some of her word-pictures!). Cannot recommend this ‘pamphlet’ (it’s not – it’s a book) highly enough. Many thanks for such pleasure.

-Roz Cawley 

Lesley Quayle’s poetry has a wonderful sense of the local without ever falling into the parochial. “Old Yowe In the Market” (“Old, barren yowe, teats dry as corn husks. . .”) is one lovely example, employing as it does the local Yorkshire word rather than the more standard “ewe.” And it definitely isn’t guilty of sentimentality:

           Shepherds in greasy caps and shit-stained trousers, 

           belted, braced by baler twine, walk on,

           rubbing their raw-boned hands.

The Yorkshire explored in several of these poems (Quayle lived in rural West Yorkshire for two decades) is not picturesque and the life, not easy (“We gather, a disparate flock, summoned to the desolation/of a winter quarry” is how “Fell Rescue” opens, while “The 7.25 to Leeds” enters bleak urban territory) yet what lifts these poems, alongside others in the collection rooted in other places, is a warm humanity and close attention to detail.

Several of the people who dance, drink, smoke, sing and dream in this collection are street people, rough-sleepers and hopeful buskers. They have names like Scarlet Mary, Holy Tola, Old Moley (“three coats, two waistcoats, jumpers, vests-/layered back to a museum of skin”), the names given them by passers-by, their “regulars.” And while one can feel sympathy for their difficult circumstances, there’s nothing in these poems that reeks of condescension or pity.

Quayle is equally at home with landscape, with Dorset as much as Yorkshire:

          Smell the sea-

                                 lungs brackish, brine rinsed

          gulls bickering over a thin westerly.

                                                          (“Climb to Mupe Bay”)

Towards the end of the pamphlet she moves further still, into wider territory and into different voices, one of a man in Raqqa recalling the violent death of a friend, another in the voice of Edward Snowden. As in the street poems, there is a respect and warmth here for the individual and an honouring of the individual’s experience.

-Sheila Hamilton, poet ( ‘The Spirit Vaults’ published by Green Bottle Press)

I love these poems by Lesley Quayle! …such subtle music…they need to be read aloud to fully appreciate the rhythm and craft …often melancholy…lost people and places and times… wise and beautiful writing!  

-Deborah Alma

Journeying with Lesley is invigorating, fascinating, unexpected. The light she shines reveals the essence of whatever or wherever it falls. Her portraits of the ordinary, the outcast, the old, the quirky, glow in the beam of her humanity. She describes a landscape I know intimately myself. Her personal experience of it is expressed fearlessly. She paints the colours and sounds of life with knowledge and passion. 

-Dame Josephine Barstow DBE

ANDROGYNY by Kevin Reid

Kevin Reid’s Androgyny is bittersweet, funny, hurt-filled, observed and heard. Pithy, quickly caught, and held for a lifetime. It’s huge strength is it’s never just one thing.

– Beth McDonough

AFTER EDEN by Stella Wulf

Stella Wulf’s poetry occupies a space of dissolution between reality and myth, historical awareness and immediacy. Her language is layered with the ruggedness and density of impastobut there is also transparency and precision. The muscularity of verbs, the rich specificity of nouns and an underlying musicality keep the poems fluid through subtle formal placements. They are rhythmical and carefully wrought, moving from Wales to France, from personal engagement to archetypal human and non-human characters, allowing time and historical depths to be disclosed through compact and evocative images. The poems artfully interrogate the lives of women, the choreography of the sexual dance, with cool irony and grace. They don’t flinch from dissonance, allowing a sense of moral complication and verbal multivalence to prevail. This is a sensuous, alert, and impressive first collection.

– Graham Mort

Thank you for sending me your book of poems which I continue to enjoy. They are an inspiration and I turn to them again and again.
You manage to capture the magic in the moon and stars, the joy of the changing seasons, the ephemeral nature of love and our wonder in the face of it all.
Being a man I loved ‘Boreas’ and its outspoken truth about how sex can sometimes be.
Valuing sight above all the senses, I found ‘Describing Mountains’ very moving.
However we are fortunate to live on a high hill and everyday see the changing valley below. The view certainly frames my days and so ‘Painting With Swifts’ has to be one of my favourites.
– David Fisher
Stella Wulf’s poems are simultaneously sweet and sexy, intimate and universal. Her rhythms are a musical blend of her Welsh background and the French countryside where she resides. And if at times her rhythms and rhymes—internal, slant, and occasionally guttural—conjure another, older Welsh bard, they are also absolutely contemporary. AFTER EDEN is a book you will want to read more than once.
– Scott Edward Anderson, author of DWELLING and FALLOW FIELD
Stella Wulf was the featured writer on Rebecca Gethin’s blog.
Fine Lines
A review of Stella Wulf’s poetry in After Eden (4 Word Press, 2018) In the words “Fine lines between truth and distortion” from Stella Wulf’s poem Drawing From Life we find keys to the book as a whole. All thirty poems are indeed fine, superbly crafted by a poet with a keen ear for the musicality and playfulness of words, and with the added advantage of an artist’s eye. In her work, Stella Wulf explores the contrasts and paradoxes of life. She excels in the art of ambiguity, many phrases working overtime, and with multiple meanings, wordplay, and homophones employed to invite the reader to consider more than one version of ‘truth’. We are welcomed to experience life in Wales and France, also travelling figuratively, to the moon and back, to meet a range of characters – highly credible or playfully imagined – in various relationships. These figures act out the major themes in the book, encompassing attraction and seduction, commitment and domesticity, reproduction, nurturing and motherhood, genuine love and affection … and potential exploitation. The moon, its association with the feminine, and its pull on the earth, is a significant presence in the book, as are various male figures including suitor, lover, husband, artist, miner, gardener and minister of religion. Creatures in the world of nature are also presented, memorably swifts, fox, crow, peacock and heron. My favourite poems in this fine array are Sweet Dreams, Painting with Swifts, A Light Proposal, In the Light of Yesterday, Drawing from Life, Boreas, Vixen and the poems set in France, featuring Monsieur and Madame Dubois … but all the poems in the book are fine poems, with countless fine lines. There are no makeweights.
In Sweet Dreams a young woman, impatient with the familiarity of home, is eager to take off on an adventure. Right from the first line, we experience Stella Wulf’s gift for delighting the ear with assonance and alliteration. Sonic interest propels the reader through the poem as the young heroine jettisons the pedestrian and predictable, with their “jam-on-Sunday-stale-bread-pace”. She can’t wait to leave the “land-locked-and-keyed lubbers”. These ingenious wordstrings create multiple layers of imagery and meaning. The reader smiles at the wordplay (“in cahoots … with owls”) and admires the beauty of “plunders bliss from the nightjar’s chirr”.
In Painting With Swifts, the poet-artist captures birds and movement in both words and pigment: “a cobalt stroke … a slake of grey … a lick of buttercup yellow”. The poem is an audio-visual treat, with repeated hard consonants and long vowels contrasting with short vowels and soft ‘sw’ alliteration. The fourth stanza, summer, brings more long ā sounds (hay-days … away”), with a play on heydays understood. The last stanza softens and blurs: “a feather-edge of owl smudges” … ”the essence of mouse”. There are countless examples, such as these, of fine word-painting by Stella Wulf throughout After Eden.
Drawing From Life changes medium and mood. The poet’s mastery of ambiguity, conveyed by words doing double duty, is again obvious here. Sex is in the air, but the charged language (“scribes”, “neat incision”) hints at exploitation and the potential for violence. There is a detached and calculating coldness in the draughtsman’s rendering of the “arc of her face” as his strokes “contour hollows, accentuate planes; for now he has her measure”. He dominates his subject (“like an emperor”) and there is more than a chill in the way the artist “thumbs her body / divides her’. This is just one example of the many masterly line breaks in After Eden, here inviting imaginations to do their worst. The male’s actions leave her in pieces (“abstract parts”) and the strong hints of abuse break out again with “the scythe of light that slices her back / carves … flesh” and the “plunge of shadow that etches her spine” which “draws a sickle moon beneath her buttock’s rise”. This is one of many occasions in this book that the moon, emblematic of woman, makes an appearance.
In Fabric the poet’s exploitation of texture reminds us that interior design is another of Stella Wulf’s accomplishments. The poem charts a progression from early attraction, consummation, drudgery, infidelity, withdrawal, trying again, starting over … ingeniously achieved through the weave and warp of extended ‘material’ metaphors, brilliantly layered … one on top of another. The wordplay here is masterly, as the fabric of life moves from static-laden nylon, to seductive satin to serviceable cotton and linen (“worn cast-off … tied to the iron … hard-pressed”). Meanwhile, infidelity is signalled as the “nylon lover … flirts with Georgette”. Small wonder that the moon invites the main character to “make a run for the sea of tranquillity” with the hope to “sparkle again” in a “clean sheet”. In Boreas sex makes its presence felt again, big-time. Here there is no courtship, no nonsense, no foreplay. This man is a “wham-hammer, a tequila slammer / whisking up skirts before the chat-up line”. With an echo back to Fabric we learn, unsurprisingly, that “the delicates” are suffering, and there is a “tangled mess” to be ironed out. However, this poem has a delightfully unexpected ending, unambiguously complicit!
Whether in Wales or France, the sense of place is convincingly portrayed via gradations of dark and light, monochrome and colour, cold and warmth, hard graft and rich pickings. In Mudlark, a young beachcomber (surely on a Welsh beach) finds broken pieces of pottery – small prizes, especially a piece of Ming china, evidence of foreign travel. (How brave and self-mocking of the poet to use ‘shard’ in a poem!) Another find, the sheep’s jawbone, conjures up the shadow of R S Thomas. There is a hint of cynghanedd about “lip of plate, a clay pipe” and the spirit of RST broods again over the last two lines: “and always the spectre of harrowed men / hacking, and picking at the bowels” which surely reminds us of the last lines of Thomas’s A Welsh Landscape. In the Light of Yesterday opens up the gloomy caverns of Welsh mines, personified: “The black face of the pit / the swallow and spit of its shovelling mouth”. After a heart-wrenching reference to Aberfan “extinguished / beneath a spew of slack”, we migrate to the north Welsh mining areas where “houses hunker under a pitiless drab / like consonants pitched against hard-pushed cenllysg, glaw, mining the light to its core”. Another poem set in Wales, Mr Morgan’s Fall, features that familiar figure – the minister of religion who loses the confidence of his flock. Morgan is associated with trees, birds, river, land, hills, brook, rook and ewe and – significantly ¬– a “heathen’s tractor humming along”, this latter reminding us of R S Thomas’s Iago Prytherch and his tractor.
In France, we move on from the chaos of Boreas’ washing line and the hint of a whirlwind dalliance. Now an “upstart breeze” playfully puffs over Monsieur Dubois’ Potager and “licks, ruffles, chicanes … to blow at raspberries”. We are painted an intoxicating picture of Gascony: its gardens, its crops, how heat defeats the breeze, how hay is baled, how cows whisk flies from their eyes, and graze beneath oaks, accompanied by croaking frogs. This fourth stanza is particularly fine sonically and presents a heady contrast with the monochrome hardship and cold of Wales in the previous poems. Here, Monsieur Dubois, sweating in his work clothes, “pulls radish, plucks string beans, turns beetroot” … examples of Stella Wulf’s enjoyable wordplay accompany us throughout this poem. The wife of Monsieur Dubois offers us superior preserves to the mundane British bread and jam we encountered in Sweet Dreams. Her husband rises early to pick “for his wife, a petit dejeuner / plump figs ripened by a fine promise”. In three playful lines of end-rhyme, we learn that “Madame Dubois … likes to pluck from her husband’s tree” and with this image still suggestively hanging in the air, we learn “She craves the flesh of his Mirabelles, devours his juicy Bergerons, until she’s overcome with the yield”. This poem is warm, sumptuously saucy, deliciously brimming with good things.
In A Light Proposal there are further generous helpings of the alliteration and assonance we’ve come to expect from Stella Wulf: “I’ve seen you leap on a knife-edge keen as a laser, / slide down the, blade of a cleaver. // I’ve watched you play in ladles, loom in scoops / of spoons. Now you beam at my moon face / in the kettle, give me back to myself in parody”. Stella’s vocabulary and imagery depict light as a beguiling lover. The rhyming couplet at the end of the poem is utterly captivating: “you dazzle me with wit, light me up / then balance a diamond on the rim of my cup”.
Vixen is a poem pregnant with death and sorrow but inspiring in its fortitude, determination and conviction that life goes on. The opening stanza is arresting in rhyme, metaphor and atmosphere: “She lies low, watches the last crow /fletch the bloodshot sky /straight as a quarrel home to roost”. The sonic interest of the poem is again a delight: “A tatter of bats whisk like rags mopping up dusk. / Night pitches in, its skin nicked by a sickle moon. / Stars break out in a bristling rash”. Clearly the dog fox has been killed and his mate must provide for herself and the cubs she is carrying. Poignantly “She hugs the shadow of his scent, rootles / the empty space of him /stalks his wake, / tomorrow lurching inside her. // Tonight she’ll shake new life out of the dead”. The end of the poem echoes its opening – with feathers. Vixen is my personal favourite in the book; it is loaded with sombre colour, arresting sounds, astonishing imagery, compellingly portraying death and new life, male and female, the natural world and the world of man.
The two myth poems, Mermaid and Grandma are full of purposeful ambiguity. In the first, a male/female, pursuit/pursued poem is again played out. It ends badly, the woman returning to her mother, freed from a toxic relationship, but like Penelope or the French Lieutenant’s Woman, still gazing at the horizon, waiting “for the billow of sail, the cut and well of prow”. In Grandma, a twist on the Red Riding Hood story depicts a benevolent grandma nevertheless capable of turning wolf. (We are compelled to ask ourselves whether there might be a wink and a nod to the poet’s surname in this poem!) Caring and protective, and having sniffed out neglect (real or imagined), Grandma feeds her granddaughter up, knits her a cape and rounds on the child’s mother for not providing adequately for her. The poet as needlewoman is much in evidence, especially when Grandma prowls the flea market for “off-cuts of calico, dimity, chintz, / rickrack, ribbon and gimp / for her Sawtooth patchwork quilt”.
After Eden, the penultimate poem – and the title of the book – sums up many of the themes, and specifically the lot and fate of woman: “bred / for domesticity, conditioned / to home … builder of nests”. She is a “daughter of Eve” with a lofty purpose but simultaneously a “slavish attraction / to earthiness”. There is so much to savour in this poem, and throughout the book as a whole, in the interleaving of serious intent and playfulness. There are astonishing contrasts in the multiple layers of meaning and purposeful ambiguities, whether portraying the urgency of seduction or the ferocity of a mother’s love. This book richly rewards a reader who enjoys close analysis. Light and shade, heat and chill, sun and moon, male and female, Wales and France are all held in close focus by a highly gifted, sensitive and humane poet who, like the warm and provident Madame Dubois, is “touched by … tenderness” preserving “sweetness to spread over winter’s long denials”.
– Sharon Larkin, January 2019
Visit Sharon’s website: Coming up with Words
Close Menu