SMITHEREENS by Mike Farren
Review by Pen Kease
If you have never lost someone, you might wonder what grief is like. On films and TV, you might see flowers, tears, regret. ‘Sorry for your loss’, they say, and everyone moves on. Mike Farren’s Smithereens, however, shows us the visceral reality. His journey is deep, complex, circular, a celebration of a long friendship but also an indictment of a culture – several cultures in fact – which failed himself and his friend and which is failing all of us, too.
The first poem, Afterwards, with its numbness and disbelief, concludes in the only way the poet has to celebrate the deceased; ‘… I raise a glass to you’. It’s like a trailer before a film. The story proper however, begins at Station Road, Menston where even the name of a town conjures the spectre of mental illness;
… it stands for going mad:
the shame of being taken round the bend,
under the clock – how Menston echoes mental.
The old hospital’s clocktower casts a long shadow, despite the insistence, ‘… awkward isn’t mad’. Yet there is much awkwardness in the ensuing poems; being gawped at like ‘beasts/in an ancient menagerie’ and playing Lennon’s Working-Class Hero on a pub jukebox. Both demonstrate the discomforts of negotiating social class. In Poor Old Catullus the poet admits he did not see his friend’s underlying angst at the time, only his own dis-ease;
an education never meant
for kids who call their dinner tea.
The poet comes to the realisation too late that he’d presumed ‘A’s success had brought him contentment, that he’d thrived ‘in a land that’s just as alien/to me, as I am to my family.’
It is only in retrospect he understands the compromises of such adjustments. In The ex-president’s children, the Panglossian statement ‘… everything is for the best/in the best of all possible worlds’ attempts to celebrate the delight of teaching children who are ‘innocent’ and ‘unworldly’, but what follows barely disguises the whiff of genocide. In the Las Vegas series, Farren portrays casinos as places where humanity is subsumed by toxic greed; the
‘…eternal present of incessant
gratification that a human body… is not strong enough to endure.’
At A’s home there are toppling towers of books, colourful paintings, but thirsty pot plants must bury their roots ‘knot themselves in carpets’. A sandstorm invades the body, clothes, food, and the city; destroys even ‘… green/and lonely springs/of the meadows’, a metaphor, perhaps, for thirst; ‘your thirst was real’. The poet admits being unaware of his friend’s loneliness; ‘…because we never talked/about it, being blokes …’ So much has been left unsaid, but now the poet’s grief has moved beyond the laying of flowers; he moves outside himself, attempts to understand his friend.
The found poem G.A.D., subtitled with an NHS url for generalised-anxiety-disorder leaves us no doubt about mental illness and its relation to alcohol. The poet had not registered his friend’s growing problem, thought shaking hands were the result of ‘anxiety meds’. In I wrote you a poem, Farren describes how he had been, unaware that A was ‘…drinking alone////day after day after day’. By the poem Anger this guilt has become rage not only at the waste of a life and talent, but at abandonment; this is a classic symptom of grief and comes unannounced, rampaging, just like the real thing;
‘…you left me to
find my way / to navigate this / angry / fucking / world / all / by / my / self’.
There is no way a shallow popular culture can gloss this reality (Farron cites Hollywood in the title of this final poem), we have few, if any tools to cope with this ‘….weight of history/… that cannot be shared/with students too intent on mobile phones’/endless porn feeds … idiocy that votes for presidents as if they were /reality stars … the TV/ that brings that madness to your world each night.’
The use of this word ‘madness’ echoes Menston and how mental illness was/is still viewed with suspicion and fear. Inevitably, the reader returns to the opening poem, Afterwards, perhaps to raise a glass, perhaps to taste again the love and grief that one human being can feel at the death of another. At each reading, more emerges. In case you were wondering, this is what grief is really like.
PRETTY IN PINK by Ruth Aylett
Review by Sarah James
Pretty in Pink by Ruth Aylett is, in part at least, an exploration in poetry of both what it is to be a woman and what it shouldn’t be. These 29 poems draw on an impressive breadth of reference points: the Bible, mythology, witchery, Ken and Barbie, art, Iseult (and Tristan), Rosa Luxembourg, Marilyn Monroe and more. But they also breathe lived experience – from coming of age stories to parenthood, as daughter, as mother, and when both viewpoints merge in ‘Saturday shopping’.
Unsurprisingly, given the title, the colour ‘pink’ is one of the pamphlet’s motifs. The poem ‘Pink’ opens with a cherry tree “filling the sky | with tutus and princesses.”. It progresses through a range of pink accessories, building up (overwhelmingly) into a “pink nirvana | with its rosy Disney turrets” before taking the sinister turn of “pink fluffy handcuffs”, a “pink vacuum cleaner” and high-heeled pink shoes that hurt and are “designed to make escape impossible”. The poem closes on a return to the cherry blossom in a final stanza that starts with the understated but incredibly poignant line: “Here the blossom always drifts downwards;”.
This poem is complete in itself but the colour forms a strong link across the pamphlet and even further progression when it recurs nine poems later in ‘Titration’. Here, the ominous “Drip, drip, drip | Pink pink pink” is set in the context of the rape of a female narrator who wanted to be a boy.
Stereotypical gender classifications are highlighted too in ‘The choice of Achilles’, where he’s a “trouser role for Deidamia” and:
“Under all that armour they could not
tell the gender of his heart.”
The mythical quest, typically assigned to male heroes, is also subverted in ‘In the greenwood’. The female main character finds:
“Her choices were determined by where
the brambles were too thick, whether
over-hanging branches could be snapped off.”
She finally emerges, “blinking”, from her years-long forest quest/adventure to stand “amazed, by distances, landscape” – by the metaphorical distances and landscapes of a gendered world, perhaps, as well as the literal geographical lie of the land.
Another less immediately obvious theme that threads across the poems is the difference between what is easily seen (or assumed) in life and the much more complex layers of what really lies beneath the surface. This is implicit in all of the poems and explicitly tackled in poems like ‘Selfie’:
“Photographs cannot lie
about the moment,
but the moment can lie
about its before, its after.”
These photos are in fact “hostile witnesses” to the reality of “your river beauty”.
The range covered by Pretty in Pink in terms of content is matched by the use of form, including an impressive number of sonnets and the moving ‘Chosen one – sestina for the lost child’. I also particularly admired the use of repetition with change, in the opening and closing stanzas of ‘Pink’ and ‘Titration’, for example.
Across the pamphlet, I enjoyed the beauty and force in the imagery, and sensuality in the language, including ‘Billy-no-mates’ where the rising dough of “a bubbling sponge” is likened to growing breasts, and the final stanza is rich with sibilant ‘s’ sounds set alongside (held back by or trapped within?) harder ‘p’s, ‘c/k’s, ‘t’s and ‘d’s:
“Then syrup to boil up, currants
to coat the smoothed snakes,
silky from her muscled pressure,
coiled and spiced, and left to prove.”
The sometimes ferocity and pain encompassed by these poems is offset by delightful light touches of humour and character self-insight – such as at the end of ‘Chemistry’ and ‘Ch’ang-kan comes to Manchester, and linguistically in ‘Moments of Birth’ with its “When push comes to shove”.
For all the dark notes and struggle, the pamphlet is also powered by hope, strength and endurance. The final poem, ‘No place like home’, with its beautiful metaphor of family as a kind of building, ends on the narrator after her children have left home and her husband died. Its powerful closing lines strike me differently each time I re-read them:
“Now, she stands on her own
with no roof to hide
the racing clouds, blown
by everlasting winds.”
Reading and re-reading Pretty in Pink, I found myself underlining so many striking images and phrases. It is impossible to neatly sum up any pamphlet in a review – the poems need to be read directly. But the closest glimpse of the whole of this pamphlet in one snippet is perhaps offered by ‘Anti-Trump demonstration’:
“[…] their electrical shock hits how it is,
burns off dirt and assumptions,
reveals the shine of how it can be.”
Review by Carole Bromley
I was pleased to receive this collection with its striking cover and 4Word’s attractive layout and attention to detail. It is a worthy addition to their growing stable of writers.
I liked the title too with its hint of irony, confirmed by the preface which tells the reader of the poet’s feminist upbringing by a strong, determined woman who made her own way in the world, a role model for a daughter who declares war on ‘pinkification’!
Then we’re straight into Genesis and an opening poem, ‘Eve’s Dazzle Job’ which shows us an Eve who transforms herself
‘She greened her arms into willow
shimmering in a wind, hands
emerging scarlet with white
fingers brown-pointed as claws’
so that the alarmed serpent slithers off in terror. I loved the idea of her ‘taking charge, small children/ with sticky fruit in their hands/ paddling in her wake’
‘Primes of life’ which follows shows us the reality of raising girls and resisting the gender stereotypes which surround them at every age. I liked the rueful humour of the last stanza:
A small daughter, desperate
for a pink princess costume
and a dolls’ make-up kit.’
We’ve all been there and this one really resonated with me.
‘Venus’ introduces the theme of myth which runs through the collection in a skilfully handled sonnet with a cracking ending:
‘Goddess of beauty, carnal love and luck
co-opted to promote the mindless fuck.’
Barbie puts in an appearance, cheek by jowl with Achilles. In ‘The choice of Achilles’ the question of gender identity is raised
‘Under all that armour they could not
tell the gender of his heart.
Those who knew, kept very quiet.’
One of my favourites was ‘Chemistry’ and I loved the way Aylett plays around with scientific metaphors;
‘Sex with her first flamed into a
white magnesium glare’
then follows a whole sexual history in chemical terms, ending
‘Her last firmly gathered up
the chemistry set, threw it away,
suggested she progress to biology,
and asked her to remove her metaphors.’
I love the wit in this poem. The poet then moves on to give us glimpses of a woman’s life at different stages. I was touched by ‘Chosen one – a sestina for the lost child’ which is beautiful and moving
‘At the back of the bitter pale
wind a faraway voice never leaves
off calling the unnamed child into time.’
There are poems too about growing up, about a mother’s anxiety that her daughter might be seduced by the pinkification which bombards her from every side, about being the mother of a teenage girl, feeling on a shopping trip that she has failed as she gives into pressure to buy the short skirt, the see through blouse :
‘All she ever wants is her daughter to smile
All she hates is in the clothes in the bag…’
This, then, is an exciting and satisfying collection which takes us through a woman’s life, using myth and bible stories as well as first-hand experience, to show the reader the reality of women’s experience with its struggles and conflicts and occasionally its heartbreak, as well as its strengths and triumph over the odds in passing on the fruits of that hard-won knowledge and experience to the next generation. I loved it.
EVERY DAY I PROMISE MYSELF by Rachel Davies
Review by Sarah James
Every Day I Promise Myself by Rachel Davies features a framing sequence of 12 ‘Alternative Mother’ poems spread across the pamphlet. These include: Boudicca, Pope Joan, the Wife of Bath, Alice (in Wonderland) and more.
The range and characterisation is impressive, each one in a style, language and tone to fit the figure cast in mothering role.
The pamphlet’s opening poem, ‘Alternative Mother #1, Naamah, daughter of Lamech’, gives us:
“you keep trimming shaping planing
sanding hammering tarring trimming
on and on
he says it won’t says that zoo can’t”
In ‘Alternative Mother #10 Rhona the Rat Girl’, which provides the pamphlet’s title, we have:
“You stir the somnambulant rats
with a Brontosaurus thigh bone—
like everything about you, it’s fake.”
Meanwhile, ‘Alternative Mother #5 A three-toed sloth’ beautifully and humorously blends the nature of the creature with characteristics of human society:
“see yourself as someone who relinquishes
digits to evolution then patents
what you save in your own slow show”
The reader is also invited into a wide range of experiences. As well as parenthood and daughterhood, these and the other poems in this 31-poem pamphlet explore siblingship, grief, love and illness. Place and nature play a part, as well as art and literary inspiration.
These poems are moving, often beautifully intense, even when and perhaps even more when that is offset by Davies’s humour. (More on this aspect in the next paragraph.) What they all have in common is vivid imagery and a sense of intimate insight. This is reinforced by the effective extensive use of the second person – in direct address to the main character, or an imperative inviting the reader in.
Another delightful characteristic is light touches of word play, humour and gentle irony. This can be seen in my earlier quotes, and lines such as “You know the healing power of a biscuit” (‘Alternative Mother #4 Jean). I’m going share one more below, as it features techniques that Davies successfully applies across Every Day I Promise Myself: close attention to sound, speech patterns and experimental play with words (and form).
“while you down whiskeys
for medi-sigh-nal purposes”
(‘Alternative Mother #3 Mary B’)
An eye and ear for careful crafting is evident throughout. Take, for example, both the incredibly sad, ‘Code’, and the exuberant, ‘To St Ives, a Love Poem’.
In ‘Code’, the father’s heartbreakingly comical language/communication disintegration (presumably as the result of a stroke) progresses at the end of the first, third and fifth stanzas from “Lipstick fucksake!” to “Listless fucksake!” to “Liversausage fucksake!” Meanwhile, the indented even-numbered stanzas share his (grown-up) child’s response, culminating in:
“I’m just learning eel. I’m trying
to catch you
but my nets are torn.
Eel Daddy, swim slower.”
‘To St Ives, a Love Poem’ is one long sentence that uses repetition of the phrase ‘even though’, building clause upon clause and surging across stanza breaks to crescendo like the tide:
“[..] even though your trees
shed tears like baubles and your shops drip gifts like rain
“and your cobbled streets and narrow alleys wind
around me like a clock and […]”
If I had to pick just one quote that comes closest to encapsulating the essence of the whole pamphlet, it might be the following from the second poem, ‘How To Wind A Fat Gold Watch’:
“Open yourself like a rose that the ladybird will crawl into
then fold your petals around it like a womb.
Empty the lap of your life to make a beanbag soft seat
for a story. Share with her your own story,
the stories of your grandmothers.”
This is definitely a pamphlet that calls to be read, re-read, savoured and shared!
Review by Mark Connors
A varied cast of historical heroines, literary characters and women one might find living next door awaits the reader in this scintillating debut. A sequence of alternative mothers that Davies weaves through Every Day I Promise Myself, gives us Pope Joan, who Davies resurrects from fiction and myth and gives her back her rightful place in the history of the Church. We meet Boudicca, a ‘warrior mother’ who makes ‘revenge a magma flow’. We see Lewis Carol’s Alice, out of her comfort zone but often ‘…away with the bunnies’ but ‘…a different person when chopping mushrooms.’ There’s a woman whose ‘world comes to her’, like the food she orders in from Dominos and The Great Wall, so she can flirt ‘outrageously with the Deliveroo man/who pretends he can’t speak English.’ And Rachel’s own mother, and ‘a spoon shaped bruise’ which ‘would raise itself’ on the hands of her and her sibling – and their subversive and contagious laughter before another bruise was raised.
Elsewhere, a pair of letters on opposite pages is transformed into a pair of powerful poems: one from a Headmaster concerning the death of the poet’s brother, written on a compliment slip, complete with spelling mistakes, crossed out to save the trouble of starting the letter again. Another from the poet herself, where Davies holds the Headmaster to account some thirty years later after finding the letter in her mother’s effects:
Did you have a thesaurus of platitudes about loss? Well chew this
over: I was one of ‘you and yours’. I didn’t feel you feeling very
deeply for me. Because a young girl’s grief is hardly grief at all, is it?
And then we have a trip to celebrate the poet’s exam results, to Watford Gap services of all places, rather than the sunnier climes of Zante, ‘…for frothy coffee…the boys calling us their birds’ in the time ‘before we burned our bras.’
After reading this memorable collection, every day I promise myself to try to read poems as remarkable as these.
SUITCASE by Kevin Reid
Review by Joe Williams
With its title Suitcase, this stylish chapbook promises to be the very same, a traveller’s bag and companion. The poems are the contents of the suitcase, bare necessities for a reader’s journey through life, born of the poet’s whittled-down experiences, essences of his travels and travails.
The case has been neatly packed, the order and arrangement of the poems carefully considered. For instance, ‘The Church of the Red Telephone Box’ and ‘Prayer for an Ex-Lover’ are well-placed facing each other. The former, a satisfying conceit that is carried through to a perfect conclusion, sends up the ceremony and trappings of organised religion. In the latter poem there is oblique satire, as each verse begins in the formal tone of prayer, e.g.,‘ I pray …, Pour blessings on …, Look with pity on …, Let me cry for’ and so on. This seems to subvert the religious phraseology when juxtaposed with evocations of violence, squalor, and tragedy, a life marred by drugs, and yet form part of the poet’s heartfelt prayer for his ex-lover, for her deliverance from suffering.
The poems, robust enough for any expedition, rely structurally on rhetoric, repetition and variation. They accompany us on journeys between Scotland and Greece. We set off at Reid’s ‘Small Town’ which depicts the poet’s origins: ‘I’m from a room and a kitchen/with an outside toilet’ and then visit his grandmother ‘Ellie’ in a finely wrought poem that sings and heartens with resonance. We stop off for some ‘hellish weather’ in a whimsical piece written in Scots. The ‘eez goat thim chuckin/pailsa wahter oot the clouds/wae nae thoat fur us below’ – the anger (cloaked in humour) is levelled at God.
The journey takes us through dark vales, several poems about loss – the death of the poet’s mother, poems pared down to the bone, yet brimming with emotion. ‘On Dying and Being an Artist’ expresses the poet’s anger at himself (and perhaps that of accusatory relatives) for his absence at the time of his mother’s death. Further down the line we encounter a beautiful, metaphorical poem called ‘Trees’ which is a tribute to the poet’s mother who was his ‘rock’ during difficult times. It would be no surprise if this inspired poem were to find its way into an anthology or two.
Arriving in Athens, we are treated to different aspects of living in Greece, not only the wine, olives and good weather. There is nostalgia for Scotland, the long-lost homeland, but also ambivalence towards both countries. The Greek themes conclude in an effective villanelle-song ‘Don’t cry for me Athena’. The final poem defines the nature of friendship by listing its attributes via epigrammatic phrases, some of them puzzling and referring to the poet’s experiences and his imaginings. Thankfully we don’t end up ‘in a field somewhere in Spain’ after a lift home with strangers. These lines have an uncomfortable shock-element and rawness; they take us to unexpected territory beyond the poem’s initial premise.
Suitcase, for all its impact and immediacy, deserves in-depth study, and is an excellent and rightful successor to Androgyny, Kevin Reid’s first collection with 4Word Press.
(Linda Marshall is a poet and editor from Leeds. Her collection, Cloud Cuckoo Café, is due to be published by Yaffle Press.)
THE UNTETHERED SPACE by Carol A. Caffrey
Review by Ray Smart
Carol A. Caffrey’s ‘The Untethered Space’ is a commanding and sensitively wrought study of grief and departure which explores both personal and political spheres of loss. The collection’s title emerges from Caffrey’s poem ‘The Moorings’ which compares the fate of human lives to two environmental polar opposites. There are the fortunate whose experience mirrors the soft drop of ‘leaves/on a summer breeze/ dancing’ and then drift ice: ‘…cast up hard/on a place of high sorrow.’ De-humanisation works starkly, here, by contrast with landscape to reinforce the unjust and coincidental nature of trauma on the unsuspecting individual.
In loss, those left behind lurch between moments of connection followed up by the darkest of retreats into disconnect: ‘This feels like free fall / in that untethered space’ Caffrey’s poems on grief function from within this disorientating place of release where it still feels as though loved ones are almost-there in both landscape and presence, where there is a skirmish to anchor self in this new, unrecognisable vacuum ‘between then and now.’
Notions of space and who is permitted to inhabit them gets extended to consider political spheres and readers are transported to the atrocities of Baghdad and then to the arid riverbanks of Colorado where the Mohave people work the land. However, Ireland becomes the hearth in this collection, the place in which readers revolve around where rugged mountains loom above the frisk of the sea and stony legends evoke nostalgia. It is this great wild landscape which hosts the most elegant and deep of elegies for Caffrey’s dearly missed siblings: Dave, Peter, Sheila and Linda, to whom this collection is dedicated. That sense of the landscape changing since Caffrey’s sibling’s passing pervades ‘Allihies Flowers’ in which ‘…The hedgerows have shut up shop/ but there are still a few dishevelled lemons/ and oranges amongst the sensible greens.’ How the seasons go on is captured with emotional restraint. There is colloquial irony in a hedge having ‘shut up shop’, a perennial which will organically re-nourish. Delicately put is the torment of wilderness continuing to exist without the humans who bought their botanical knowledge to it: ‘Monbretia. I never knew their name before; /called them Allihies flowers until you told me;’
Structurally, the book is subtitled and arranged in sections using a musician’s Italian directives. Cantabile, Furiosa, Con brio, Expressive, Misterioso, Semplicemente. These don’t just set mood but rather work to organise it to ensure the poems of lament, more emotionally wounding for readers to process, are staggered between playful, droll pieces which balance overall tempo. At a metaphorical level, The Untethered Space represents the music, its poems the lyrics and like all good composition delivers with harmony, melody and form.
Intertextuality is rife in this collection and much brighter for it. ‘Reader, I Married Him’ is a jubilant jaunt through classic literature manipulating the opening lines and characters from Plath, Dickens, C.S Lewis, E.B White to name a few. An unreliable narrator poses more and more unlikely events: ‘it was the age of wisdom, it was the day my grandmother exploded’ culminating with ‘All this happened, more or less.’ Of the lighter poems, the succinct ‘I Wish I Was Italian’ is so much more magnificent than the brevity of its parts. Caffrey gives an elbow to the absurdity of language: ‘formaggio, adagio and grigio/sound much more lovely than/ cheese, slowly, grey, /don’t they?’ Scalpel-sharp, Caffrey juxtaposes how the Italian language with its double consonants coupled with sing-song charm is far superior to the blunt sounds of English: short on syllables and vowel-heavy.
Caffrey’s use of language is precise with a pared back simplicity which takes its potency from careful arrangement. ‘Prayer’ removes all punctuation, a desperate plea to God to spare Caffrey’s siblings from the point of diagnosis through to pain management. It is intolerable to bear witness to such helplessness: ‘don’t let it be in the bones anything but in the bones’ and we recognise, as readers, a vulnerability rarely captured on paper. A rising panic in the metre, an axing repetition ‘she’s my sister she’s my sister.’ This beautiful simplicity carries over into the final section but there is a lull in the pace, a sense of pausing to contemplate. In ‘A Good Death’ (for Peter) we see a tear falling: ‘I touched it, took / it as your goodbye.’
A collection which celebrates life and landscape, which dares to focus its lens on the agonies of loss at both the personal and political. It is not without bright shards of humour and strengthened further by literary intertextualities. Caffrey takes us to that untethered space and shows us unflinchingly, and with grace, how to negotiate new spaces where there is loss, how love lives on.
Review by Pat Edwards
This much-awaited debut chapbook is everything we could have anticipated, not least poetry drenched in the author’s Irish roots. The title is taken from her poem ‘The Moorings’ in which Caffrey describes a time and place that
“feels like free fall
in that untethered space
between then and now
Caffrey is in the unenviable and unusual position of having lost four siblings. Naturally, this experience colours so much of the writing which becomes an exploration of mourning, remembrance and tribute. The poems are grouped under headings borrowed from Italianate terms for how to play music: Cantabile; Furiosa; Con brio; Espressivo; Misterioso; Semplicemente. The reader feels an invitation to engage with the work in a similar fashion, so that the opening poems form a gentle introduction into the deeply moving subject matter, such as in ‘Allihies Flowers’, which acknowledges “a certain peace among the stones/that stand above you now.” Similarly, ‘Nocturne’ quietly questions if “all this mess/of love and sweat is just a faded stain.” The writer establishes her deep and engaging connection with Ireland, it’s landscape, legends, language and history. In Wales, we might refer to this as Hiraeth, a longing or desire, particularly for home. The Celtic tradition honours the past and it’s role in shaping the future. In ‘Children of Lir, Landing Site, Allihies’, Caffrey recalls an Irish legend and conjures up “the pitch and roll/of unforgiving seas.” The sea features in many of the poems maybe as metaphor for the geographical, political and social gap between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The next section has a change of mood. Here the poet shares stronger emotions of frustration and anger, even evoking the post-partum blues that can follow a birth, to describe how different sides might feel after a vote. Is this the European referendum, the abortion debate, or even the vote to legalise gay marriage? Any of these could prove contentious subjects for an Irish woman living in England. In ‘Buzz Cut’, Caffrey references the sad and wry Hoagy Carmichael lyrics, I get along without you very well, and here the metaphor is the felling of trees, “it’s only deadwood, it doesn’t matter.” Of course, we know it matters very much. Unflinchingly, Caffrey goes on to tackle the raw topic of unbaptised children in ‘Cillini’, urging “let the wind blow softly through their names” as if to shame the authorities.
The Con Brio poems offer a brief respite from darkness, replacing the gloom with playful disrespect. Caffrey gives us the whimsy of clerihews and a clever romp through some of the most famous lines in literature. In ‘Thoughts from the Treadmill’ the poet screams her annoyance with the self-righteousness of slim women in the form of a pseudo motivation speech cum prayer: “let them take their sleek and untanned/perfection home to sterile empty fridges.” In ‘Stoic’s Revolt’ she asks forgiveness for laughing when she finds “a Facebook page called I hate Andy Murray’s Ma.”
However, it is not long before sadness returns. In the next group of poems the poet listens “for the ghosts who walk beside me.” Then we are privileged to encounter maybe the most moving poem in the chapbook, ‘The Waiting Room’. The bad news that a patient receives prompts the understated response that “his words were very hard to hear.” Anyone who has ever been there will understand that moment. Equally affecting is the prose poem ‘Prayer’ in which Caffrey pleads with God, begging him to “only make it okay” and “give them something for the pain.”
The Misterioso section is well described, a series of stranger poems conflating all sorts of abused and maligned people, from confused and sedated patients to Native Americans and the Syrian victims of war. These are well-crafted poems reminding the reader that there are troubles beyond the personal. Caffrey identifies with the victims and helps the reader feel her unease and the world’s collective neglect.
Finally, Caffrey allows herself the indulgence of four very particular poems, each an individual tribute to her four dead siblings, and the closing poem ‘Sandhya kal’ in which there is transition, maybe some closure, as she hears “all the words we’d longed to say resounding in the silence.”
Caffrey’s handling of universal and personal themes is never sentimental, though sometimes nostalgic, and connects with the reader in a profound way. There is musicality, acceptance and a strong, clear voice. Caffrey uses the sonnet, free verse and the prose poem, and shows an impressive range of style and pace. These poems are surely catharsis for a woman dealing with grief, but they also speak to anyone who has known loss. They are poems of displacement and injustice, of endurance and perseverance. Above all, they are a sensitive testimony to survival without guilt, and to a love of the culture and identity that shapes us and gives us our humanity.
Review by Ian Munday
This is Carol’s first published collection of poems and, if this volume is any measure, it is long overdue. Though she freely admits the collection is partly inspired by the loss of four siblings, these pieces are totally devoid of any sentimentality and though they are clearly about loss, it is a universal loss, hers and ours. Even in “Prayer”, where she expresses a cris de coeur of desperation, it is a desperation we have all felt and resorted to in those times of extremis in our lives.
The poems clearly reference her Irish roots with people, places and the Gaelic language bursting through the seams of her little tales, however there are also traces of Frost, Shelley, Plath,? Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, to mention but a few. She also speaks through the language of nature, and history; earth’s history rather than man’s: “dust floats to the ground where it merges with the past.”
Carol’s poems take on many forms: the sonnet, the ballad, tercets, rhyming quatrains, and the prose-poem, and she uses structure and punctuation (or sometime not) to hone and concentrate the reader’s focus. She also admits that politics are present, but these are political views not worn on her sleeve, these politics are found in the marrow of the bones of her work.
There is nothing tentative about her writing, she writes in an accessible conversational tone yet with huge confidence and clarity. Each piece is thematic and through conjuring nature’s imagery, she gives us a sense of the cyclical, which in its turn gives us, the reader.
There is also humour present: “I wish I were Italian”, “Thoughts on a treadmill”, and “The Stoics revolt” nestle nicely between the more poignant and serious bookends of the collection.
There are many, many beautiful phrases: “I am grateful to the quiet air” and “memories gather as a snowball gathers snow”. Phrases that, in feel, seem like truisms, yet in Carol’s singular voice, are quite unique.
I cannot recommend this volume too much.
Before I go any further, an observation about Claire Jefferson’s cover art: it is bold, dynamic, engaging, and reminiscent of a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, a perfect gateway to poems that are vibrant, visual, energetic, and political.
‘Song in a Foreign Key’ is a poem I’m compelled to read time and time again. With the music of its rhythm, its rhetoric, repetition, phrases in Irish, it revels and laments in an ever increasing sonority that culminates in a resounding finale. Intertwined in this poem about tragic personal loss is the history of the Irish people – its many threads woven into the fabric. Truth is important to the poet. What could be truer and more ironic or unsettling than the final line in ‘Night Walk’: ‘All endings are bitter, did you not know that?’ Or the equally knowing question in the much lighter, witty poem ‘I wish I was Italian’ that pinpoints a truth about the arbitrariness of languages.
Carol Caffrey shows herself to be adept at humour, and there are also poems with bizarre juxtapositions of ideas and images. She has a broad compass. It is noticeable that political comment occasionally springs forth from the descriptive. See the line that seems to come out of the blue: ‘which way did you vote, then?’ in ‘Post-partum’.
‘Class of ’72’ looks back to a better time when ‘The future was yours to spend’ and ‘back when … the three of you stepped lightly in the sun’, words that hint at the not-so-easy times ahead.
In the final section of the book, ‘Semplicemente’, tribute is paid to the poet’s much loved and missed siblings.
‘Lines around Linda’ written for the poet’s sister, has an unexpected upbeat feel to it. A joyous dance, a song well crafted, swirls round in the reader’s head, but whirls of sadness too, a jig, a reel, maypole dance, could bring the reader to tears of mixed emotion. The determined avowal in the last line eschews any bitterness: ‘We will never let the lifeline go.’
This is a moving collection, and the world is richer for it having been written and published.
Review by Kate Innes
Is it possible to find beauty and meaning in life in the aftermath of grief? How do we interact with the too present world when our inner world has fallen apart?
These questions have been explored by artists of all kinds for thousands of years – but I would argue that Carol Caffrey’s pamphlet, written during and after the deaths of all her four siblings within five years, is a beautiful, meaningful and earthy contribution to this, most human, of tasks.
HOUSE OF BREAD by Andie Lewenstein
Review by Rachael Smart
Andie Lewenstein’s ‘House of Bread’ slips in to the dusky recesses of childhood where memory is unreliable and reminiscence ribbons away from us the closer we get. Homeland is never as we remember it or worse still, an imagining. False memories hinge on a forest in Berlin which forms the basis for an exquisite fusion of family history, myth and fairy-tale narrative.
The want for home is shot through this collection in a restless search for tethering. There is a return to the forest in Heimat, the narrator seeking out mother and some version of her smaller self, ‘And of course / the forest never existed / and of course she was there.’ The landscape has changed but ghosted by the maternal as though she had never left it and yet still ‘…the silence / hung heavy on us.’ ‘Root Note’ takes us on a nostalgic journey to find home with a swift-paced build-up of metaphors, bridges if you like, between here and there: ‘It is like…like finding an old telephone kiosk and making a reverse / charge call to say you are on your way…’ Not only is there yearning for that safer bubble of youth but the metre brings us a rising sense of terror in the futility of the hunt: There is a face at the window and it is your face looking back at you. The face breathes on the spotless window pane, hand lifts up and writes with one finger: / I want to go home.’ No matter how hard the narrator seeks the earliest version of herself, there is only ever her current self in the glass.
Use of liminal space throughout is remarkably effective. Lewenstein transports reader to the pages of a fairy-tale, to the doorways to childhood, to the cool, green edges of the woods with a seeming ease. In ‘Liminal’, Lewenstein addresses the realities of being unable to get from now to youth, ‘but something from there I hold in my hands / warm and pulsating.’ This poem captures with beauty the fires we harbour for our homelands, for times that won’t come again, people lost whom we can never meet. In many of these poems we find ourselves on the threshold of worlds just out of reach although we stretch for them instinctively, all the same.
Lewenstein chimes a fine balance between dark and light. Bursts of brightness flash between some of the darker poems and there is a wry humour, too. ‘Earth and Stars’ takes us to a pub hosting a poetry evening where the guest poet urges: ‘Strip everything away…/ See what’s there.’ One writer who is personified as the moon ‘with golden eyes’ asks ‘What if there’s nothing, like opening the cupboard, finding it bare?’ The paradox of minimalism is gently teased out by this ‘moon-faced’ celestial body who ‘sings as she goes home.’ It is a poem that prods the ribs of the arts – gently – with the knowledge that if we reduce everything to nothing, only planets would remain. Moon is a recurring motif throughout, we find full moons and blue moons and the roadkill in ‘Evening Blues’’ is a ‘moon-spotted deer.’ Moon functions as an overseer of time, the point of connection between all the places, main witness of now and then.
Fairy-tale narratives and myths are stippled amongst these poems and Lewenstein casts off with convention and reinvents them as her own. We find gingerbread houses, Cinderella’s kitchen, an allotment and the grim threat of Rapunzel. ‘Mermaid’ is more monster than siren, a poem which gives new lens to typical representations of mermaids with their fresh skin and lustrous hair. Here, narrator only sees beauty and purpose in the tail: ‘Her face is mottled, like the skin of a trout, her hair thin, colourless.’ In ‘Gretel’ we see a girl sucking on crayfish shells whilst her brother grows ‘fat and pale on marzipan’ but there is authority in the voice here, a sense of simmering hope, of resurrection: ‘Starve me another day, / I’ll be nothing but flame.’
‘House of Bread’ is a deeply original exploration of the unreliability of memory and how the return to any homeland will always elude us. Lewenstein’s use of fairy-tale intertextuality lends it universal appeal on a journey which evokes nostalgia and yearning.
SLEEPING THROUGH THE MOON LANDING by Duncan Chambers
Review by Pauline Kirk
4Word seems to be making a habit of finding excellent poets who have rarely been published.
Duncan Chambers began writing poetry in 1993 “suddenly, and for no apparent reason,” he says in his preface. Born and raised in Burton-on-Trent, he studied at the Universities of York and Sheffield. Though he lives in York he is currently employed as a Research Fellow in Public Health at the University of Sheffield. One previous pamphlet, Questions of Identity, was published by Rotherham Arts Council in 1991. This is only his second booklet, but it is accomplished and distinctive.
Sleeping Through the Moon Landing covers territory I recognise from my own past: moon landings, Dan Dare, Action Man, Ian Botham, Tonto and Wile E. Cayote all appear. Chambers calls on childhood memories for many of his images and settings, but his approach is never nostalgic or self-indulgent. The overall tone is wry and witty, sometimes sharp, occasionally very moving. As he explains:
Some of the poems draw fairly directly on my own life but poetry is not memoir or autobiography. The ‘I’ of the poems is a literary construct, as are the other characters like ‘my mother’ and ‘my uncle’. (Preface)
I gave a mental cheer when I read that statement, for it is an approach I myself adopt. I suspect, like me, he has been accused of writing too personally or being ‘confessional’ as a result. In fact, Duncan Chambers transforms the details and images drawn from his youth into universal themes. He portrays the lingering effect of early experience, often accompanied by a sharp sense of loss and disappointment. The title poem is an excellent example, with its wistful theme of ‘missing out’:
They had no excuse that I was eight
and we had no television; even so
I think my parents should have woken me…
Then we would have gathered round the set
and waited for those words of Armstrong’s, even the youngest
knowing that this night was different from all other nights.
‘Aria’ towards the end of the book returns to the importance of space travel in our time, bringing us up to date. Here a piece of music is to be sent out into space:
Where an alien might sense it without nerves
or ears and with no such thing as a voice
only a low hum. Do you hear it now?
There is humour, as in ‘The Coven’ where the mysterious ways of a mother’s friends are recalled from a boy’s point of view:
In school holidays, the drill was, go out at two
and not come back before five for anything less
than World War III or a double compound fracture.
Childhood images give power to poems about ageing and death too. ‘Gravity’, one of the finest poems in the book, gives a chilling portrayal of death’s approach. It begins:
Death is coming for my uncle
Nike trainers snug
on its dainty little feet…
and pictures him plodding on ‘At 20 minutes to the mile’ like “Wile E. Coyote halfway/across a bridge that isn’t/there …’
‘Tears’ is an equally powerful portrayal of the effect of old age and suppressed grief. It’s impossible to quote a few lines. The poem works as a whole, building verse on verse.
Such skilful mastery of technique is typical. There are few obviously experimental or flashy poems. Form is handled firmly but unobtrusively, varied from poem to poem. Occasionally Duncan Chambers plays tricks on us, as in ‘Les Vacances’ with its schoolboy French, or in ‘Socrates’ where rhyme and interwoven dialogue are used for deliberate effect. ‘Bluesman at Sixty’ conveys the complexities of morality by interweaving a radio broadcast with the poet’s thoughts on the Bluesman’s life. Contemporary comments on Ian Botham’s triumph at Headingley are used in ‘Beefy’ to consider the way issues we ignored in the past can haunt us in later life.
There are also fine poems dealing with the present day or a deeper past, however, such as the elegy ‘The Door’ and ‘Chess Players at Baden Baden,1925’. I suspect a few haven’t yet given up their full meaning to me, like ‘Meg and her Daughters’ and ‘To Pilots of Low Flying Aircraft, but I shall reread them with more leisure. This is a collection it’s well worth returning to time and again.
OUTSIDE, THE BOX by Sue Kindon
Review by Angi Holden
In common with many contemporary poetry pamphlets, Sue Kindon’s Outside, the Box is characterised by a narrative thread that brings a sense of cohesion to a broad range of work. In this particular case it is a literal thread, the sticky fibre spun by Box Moth caterpillars.
Kindon’s sensitive observation evokes an idyllic area of France which has temporarily become an environment that ‘squirms with larvae spinning boxicidal dreams’ (Outside, the Box), where the box hedges lining the footpaths are ‘stripped to the bone’ (Learning to Fly). This may be a localised plague, but Kindon invites us to look beyond the immediate and recognise broader signs of a ‘grown-up, grown-old planet going to earth’. She casts her eye across the threatened world; she is ‘thirsting for the Serengeti’ (Wanderlust) and wishing to throw a ‘whipcord ladder across a melting ice floe’ (The Ultimate Green Thought). These are observational eco-poems, eschewing declamation in favour of an invitation to use our senses.
Whilst the landscape is decimated by a plague of caterpillars, the small village she calls home experiences further loss, with the funerals of six friends in the space of twelve months. The sense of the planet’s fragility is reflected in these gentle poems of grief. There is ‘so much more I wanted to say’ Kindon reflects in her elegy Bernardette. The ‘hearse-hush’ of Marie-Rose’s funeral is disturbed as a ‘cortège of cycles swishes through smelling of sweat’ (Convergence). Mourners ‘smile wearily through the urge to sob’ (Beach Hut Funeral). There is no howling, rather a recognition of the spaces created by these sudden absences.
Kindon expands her observation of boxes. Beyond the infested hedgerows and the village coffins (the local carpenter doubles as undertaker, she tells us), there are the commonplace boom-boxes from which music spills, and the road markings you must not enter until your exit is clear. More significantly, there are the boxes made by her father, a man convinced that nature can be ‘improved on… with spirit level and steel rules’ (Freehand). Her readers might admire the ‘measure of each tooled incision’ and the accuracy of each dovetailed joint, but for the box-maker’s daughter they are symbolic of constraints to be ‘rebelled against’. She revels in inaccuracy, in a house that is ‘open plan: not one of its four walls is straight’.
This rebellion is extended to Kindon’s exploration of form. Alongside conventional couplets and stanzas, there are more experimental poems, which play with white space (Mindscape With Nest), alignment (Convergence and Learning to Swim) and shape (On mistaking the swimming pool for the funicular). The pamphlet also includes prose poems Out of the Ordinary and I am not your Shepherdess, which provide a complete change of pace.
Two short poems celebrate the departure of the moths, in response to a combination of prayer and careful spraying, bringing the narrative arc to its conclusion. This is a thoughtful body of work; Kindon’s box-maker father might indeed ‘pivot in his perfect grave’. But it’s likely he too would admire its skilled craftsmanship and careful construction.
Review by Pauline Kirk
I loved this collection from the moment I saw the cover with its enigmatic comma. Did it mean that the poet thinks ’outside the box’? Sue Kindon certainly does. Or that she is observing a box beyond her – maybe trapped within one?
The opening poem, Box Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) answered my questions. Though only three lines long, it establishes the collection’s most important image: the box moth plague which in 2018 swept through the French Pyrenees where Sue Kindon lives.
White moths haunt each hedge
all summer their larvae gorge
on our ancient ways Box Moth (Cydalima perspectalis)
In the second poem the situation becomes clearer, placing us in a small natural disaster that hints at the larger threats of climate change and species extinction.
Outside, the box
has given up the ghost
of withered leaves…
The poet walks ‘the old ways’ as ‘caterpillars abseil’ in her face, ‘SAS-ing down strong threads.’
By the end of the book harmony is being restored as the seasons turn, but there is a sense of it being a near thing – that Nature as a whole is under threat.
Some are gone forever: others
gather on uncurtained glass,
a last chance limbo… Moths
There are few overtly ‘green’ poems however, and these tend to have a wry note, like The Ultimate Green Thought, which begins ‘And here’s me thinking/I’m throwing a lifeline to the sinking/planet.’ Rather than preaching, Sue Kindon lets her sharply observed natural descriptions speak for her. The idea of walking ‘the old ways’ links many of her poems too, together with a strong sense of place. By the end of the book we have a clear picture of the French Pyrenees with their sweet herbal scents and distant views, of their remoteness and ancient villages, still following a way of life unchanged by modern inventions.
We’re so far off the mains, I cross myself,
or is it my reflection? Our drinking water
isn’t purified, sobbing in glugs
from a faery underworld… The House of Running Water
It’s quite an art, gauging the moment
from the quality of dusk.
Tucking up for the night, the wooden kiss.
No getting out for a last drink of water… The Lore of Shutters
In the Pyrenees, life is closer to Nature – not a cosy city view of the natural world, but one that recognises our place within it, and our vulnerability. Mindscape With Nest conveys this darker side, with a hornet’s nest that starts ‘small as a ping-pong ball’ but because of the poet’s lack of action, leads to ‘the odds /of being stung in our own backyard.’ The poem is not just about one threatening incident, but through the sudden break-down of verse structure and regular rhythm conveys a deeper panic, a fear of what we cannot control. Lines become broken and irregular:
and how no one will help
because we should have nipped it in the larval stage
before it was too late for Pest Control.
Such unexpected playing with form and rhythm adds extra interest to poems such as On mistaking the swimming pool for the funicular, Convergence and Learning to Swim. I was surprised to read that this is only Sue Kindon’s second collection. (Her first pamphlet, She who pays the piper was published by Three Drops Press in 2017.) In Outside, The Box, she writes with a technical skill and confidence normally associated with a more established writer. Her experiments do not feel forced, even when lines suddenly take off down the page. The only experimental poems I’m not entirely convinced by are the two prose poems, but they are interesting even so and tightly controlled.
Kindon plays with the word ‘box’ throughout the collection. A box can be natural growth or a regular construction; it can also be the coffin that awaits us, as in Convergence. In Checkpoint she refers to ‘Our flat-packed journey’ and You must not enter the box until your exit road is clear moves from traffic to mourning ‘all that beauty still to unfold/and you stuck at the lights.’ The Great Unboxed ends with the chilling lines ‘The Great Unboxed /have no dress code’, while Settling In develops effortlessly from getting used to living in ‘this translucent village’ to ‘I could get used to living’. In other poems there is deep sadness at the loss of friends. This is kept from sentimentality by the skilful use of mundane detail, as in Beach Hut Funeral, which begins
We wear our tears
like shiny badges
with sharp pins
We tread water, and smile
for each other; first one home,
put the kettle on. Beach Hut Funeral
Not all the poems are set in the Pyrenees. Some recall a childhood in England, where the poet’s father was appropriately a box-maker (See Freehand). Learning to Fly joins the image of the box moth caterpillars to a memory of jumping off the stairs in an effort to fly, while Excommunicado recalls a child’s simple faith. I appreciate these too, though the French settings and characters made a greater impression on me.
Sue Kindon was born in Croydon and studied English and French Literature at the University of Hull during Philip Larkin’s time. After spending most of her life in bookselling her poetry talent was reawakened in Cumbria by a local writing group; then nurtured by Kendal’s Brewery Poets and the on-line group 52 (set up by Jo Bell.) Her work is a fine answer to the assumption that poetry ‘goes off’ the older you get. It can also have a late and vivid flowering.
I could go on, finding treasures and quoting telling lines, but this review would become too long. I will end by simply saying that I advise you to buy a copy of Outside, The Box.
– Pauline Kirk
Review by David Marx
I could get used to living
in this brittle body.
I will walk it in the mountains
to tire it of self-pity;
lend it my reading glasses,
the better to see through its own
Gone astray. They were there, from Monday to Saturday, locked in the vestry with vases of stagnant hymn books, for telling stories or bad colouring-in. The hands don’t know I’m out on the hillside with Marie Antoinette, gathering bilberries for bible-jam.
(‘I am not your Shepherdess’)
The prime objective with correct and essentially inspired poetry, is to reach out and make an almost immediate impression – if not some sort of indeterminate connection.
Regardless of how tenuous or frivolous.
Or come to that, even subject matter.
Suffice to say, the word ‘correct’ is fundamentally subjective in this instance; as what one may deem as being correct, might well be considered as literally impotent, incorrect and perhaps utter hogwash by another.
There again, The Waste Land wasn’t written in a day.
And if these thirty-three poems are anything to go by, neither was Sue Kindon’s Outside, The Box.
At times delicate and beautiful – not to mention ethereal and eco-mystical – a number of these poems simply penetrate ones’ all to (collectively) considered protective psyche, by way of being both implausible yet impossible to refute.
An altogether non-solipsistic process in other words, that is openly and ultimately ordained by way of (dare one say it) the truth.
The centrifugal rubric of which is touched on by Kindon herself in this pamphlet’s touching Preface: ‘’My subject matter is anything that strikes me – something I can push against that might give; a hunch worthy of being pursued. It’s not a question of sitting down and thinking I’d like to write a poem about that. The that must demand a voice.’’
And if Outside, The Box has anything, it’s most certainly the majestic vortex of a mighty b-i-g voice; of which the two aforementioned poems (‘Settling In’ and (‘I am not your Shepherdess’) the title poem itself, ‘Eve’ and ‘Beach Hut Funeral’ are extremely fine examples:
We wear our tears
like shiny badges
with sharp pins
and smile wearily
through the urge to sob.
Who will be next to give way
We tread water, and smile
For each other; first one home,
Put the kettle on.
To say that many of these poems are anchored within a subliminal slipstream of acute transcendence, might be something of an understatement; but there’s absolutely no denying the detonatory beauty contained herein.
Here’s to the sequel (Inside, The Box?).
LAMPING FOR PICKLED FISH by Beth McDonough
Review by Glen Wilson
Lamping for Pickled Fish finds McDonough in excellent form straight from the very beginning of opening poem Sea Buckthorn,
‘The best way to gather that fruit is to bring secateurs.’
And McDonough wastes little time in getting into the details, bringing the reader right into her endeavours, allowing us to see nature not as some idealised abstract but as something real and more wonderful for it. I especially love the lines;
‘Take them home to freeze, then
strip that ice-hard fruit, without the faff
of detonating juice. Throw away the wood.’
McDonough has a gift for subtle but effective alliteration and assonance, specifically
Passing a great piece of turf which is a superb poem, possessing a rich aural quality and vivid imagery, it squeezes so much into its three stanzas, and this is just one example;
‘Bird, you might be here yet,
hidden by tassel-top nettles,
in whistles of soft velvet grass,
or under clusters of white knuckle rasps’
You force me to tidy the cutlery drawer uses her forensic eye to study how differently we approach even the most mundane of tasks, bringing both insight and light to the things we take for granted.
How to Hand Raise is my particular favourite poem of this collection, a poem to savour for its precise but illuminating narrative, its reads like instructions but asks questions, earning answers as the process reaches its conclusion. The lines, ‘Raise every course. Coax every line/from the centre to the outer.’ are words any poet would aspire to, a stunning piece.
Peloton Mallorca, 2018 also showcases McDonough’s keen observation and storytelling as she brings alongside a ‘sweat of serious cyclists’, capturing them fully for better or worse.
She uses this humour and pathos again to great effect in Enmedio, where the central character ‘bubbles ambition, simmers /toward some island state’ but yet starts as the farting dyspeptic little sister of Teide.
The collection is tied up nicely with the title poem Lamping for Pickled Fish, where we observe the protagonist’s ‘swift finger tickle out their prize’ and this is an apt analogy for what this collection does as a whole.
McDonough catches so many delights for us to marvel at, indeed the whole collection is a set of explorations into one realm or another whether it be Gran Canaria or Kintyre or micro scoping down to the very meaning of a word. McDonough’s adept hand holds each revelation up with a combination of precise skill and child-like wonder, no matter what your taste is, there is something here for everyone to enjoy.
Glen Wilson lives in Portadown with his wife and children. He is a civil servant and Worship Leader at St Mark’s Church of Ireland Portadown. He studied English/Politics at Queens University Belfast and has a Post-Grad Diploma in Journalism studies from the University of Ulster. He has been widely published having work in The Honest Ulsterman, Iota, The Paperclip amongst others. He won the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing in 2017, the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award in 2018 and The Trim Poetry competition in 2019. His first collection of poetry An Experience on the Tongue with Doire Press is out now.
LOTUS MOON WITH BLOSSOM & REMOTE
Review by Mark Connors
Lotus Moon with Blossom poetically charts the life and times of Otagaki Rengetsu, a Buddhist nun, artist and writer in 18th century Japan.
Sheila Hamilton reveals a fascinating portrait of a woman and we are shown glimpses of Rengetsu’s woes and joys as she navigates through her life. Nature and animals provide a symbolic framework on which some of the poems build themselves. In Monkey Bodies, Monkey Minds, we find ourselves among a troupe of monkeys ‘trading punches over something/that right now seems desperately important’. These observations are accompanied by Rengetsu telling us how ‘The mind leaps like these monkeys’ and how their activities mirror the havoc in her head before sleep. ‘There are nights I want to shout out/be still, mind.’
On other nights, Rengetsu finds solace in the animals around her. In Wood Owl an owl becomes a companion:
Marking out dust and dawn
with that steady voice.
Here, Hamilton procures a calming contrast for Rengetsu, where order and security are found as opposed to those nights when her head is full of monkeys. Moon Pictures explores Rengetsu’s childhood and readers may draw conclusions that her childhood was often troubled:
a child in Honchu
when I saw the beach crawling:
In Rengetsu, The Nearest We Get To A Portrait Of You, Hamilton illustrates, despite her research into her subject, that Rengetsu is still an enigma to the poet and a defining image of her remains elusive:
Maybe you said “No”
for spiritual reasons,
or because you disliked
the sight of the tripod,
tall black thing wanting to catch you.
So, Hamilton has to rely on her own research:
So I look elsewhere,
at the things that leap into, sprout out of
your poems, your prints…
The most devastating poem in the pamphlet is The Survivor Trees, so robust and tenacious that they survived the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Again, Hamilton creates exquisite connections between nature and her subject:
Your death happened
and the bamboo kept on living slowly…
and seventy years later,
those were trees that survived
even the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima,
their roots able to heal and to thrive…
In a footnote at the end of the poem we are told that trees only suffered damage above ground and their roots remained intact. By illustrating the connection between Rengetsu and these trees (‘Whatever you were Rengetsu, there were trees’) Hamilton immortalizes both the trees and Rengetsu as the survivors they undoubtedly are.
After reading these beautifully crafted poems, the reader is left with a beguiling portrait of a life well lived, a life full of beauty and wonder, a survivor who will live on in the hearts and minds of those who encounter these poems.
Remote by Sarwa Azeez begins with the following quote from Anne Frank: ‘I can shake off everything when I write. My sorrows disappear; my courage is reborn.’
One hopes that Azeez feels the same way. It is evident that, throughout this startling and moving pamphlet, Azeez is both witness and reporter of the patriarchal world her subjects inhabit and haunt.
The pamphlet begins with a leaving, where we are drawn into a war-torn winter in Iraqi Kurdistan ‘where children play/making desks from bricks and stone’, where ‘Friends’ fingers dipped in fire soot (draw) birds on cardboard walls.’
Leave is a telling opening poem where resilient kids live their childhoods as they should, despite the oppression and devastation of war. The poem ends with the narrator being asked to leave by the birds drawn on the wall. And it doesn’t take long to realise why the birds asked the ‘me’ of the poem to leave.
In Today Another Yazidi Virgin is on Sale we are taken to an auction market where a buyer chooses Virgin Beautiful. This poem chronicles slavery and subjugation in powerful images where Mothers and Daughters live in ‘the worn house’ where ‘everything’s entrenched in dust’ Azeez deftly connects these women slaves with all ‘jawary’ (the plural of the Arabic word jarya, meaning female slave) that have suffered throughout history:
The rusts of her slavery
Penetrate deep down
To the ancient vaults of jawary bazaars
In Renunion, which is ‘fun’ for the ‘I’ of the poem, the ‘I’ meets the children of her classmates and the reader soon knows the Mothers in question are young. Azeez describes the children as ’round’ and ‘little’ with sweet smiles but when the final stanza delivers its devastating final image, we are left in no doubt that this recurring cycle of oppression in a patriarchal world seems impossible to escape from until death.
I keep staring at their faces
which look exactly like their moms’,
fearing that one day my daughter
may inherit my exact mummified mouth.
Azeez’s startling, often haunting poems give voice to those with no voice. The oppressed girls and women of war-torn Iraqi-Kurdistan are forced to exist under patriarchal power structures that can be as oppressive and devastating as the war which seems to perpetually rage around them.
These two pamphlets are excellent examples of the thought-provoking titles that 4Word Press continue to publish. It marks them out as a small press determined to shine a spotlight on poets writing about a wide range of cultural and international issues, in varied and powerful ways.
With further titles out now and on the horizon, 4Word Press is a distinctive poetry publisher that are one to watch in the poetry world. I’d be surprised if its sterling work doesn’t lead to nominations for its innovative approach to publishing when the awards season comes around.
LOTUS MOON WITH BLOSSOM by Sheila Hamilton
Review by Angi Holden
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;
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,
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…
But in laying her own words on paper, Hamilton’s abiding images recognise Rengetsu’s inner serenity and she imagines her as
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.
REMOTE by Sarwa Azeez
Review by Angi Holden
“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.
INCIDENTALS by Mary Gilonne
Review by Beth McDonough
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.
GIRL GOLEM by Rachael Clyne
Review by Fiona Sinclair
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
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
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.
BLACK BICYCLE by Lesley Quayle
Review by Rox Cawley
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.
Review by Sheila Hamilton
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)
Review by Deborah Alma
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!
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
Review by Angela Topping
Another poet no-one could accuse of sentimentality is Lesley Quayle. No-one who spends 30 years sheep-farming is sentimental about nature. Black Bicycle is a third publication from an experienced poet who is well known on the poetry scene. The first six poems are rather surreal narratives, each with its own arc, and each centres around a person’s experience, such as ‘The Man with No Legs Takes to the Dancefloor’. These poems are all ways of telling things slantwise, looking at objects like pylons from an unusual angle, or exploring death, the galaxy, childhood. The theme of people continues into the rest of the poems, too. Quayle has a keen eye for observed details, pinning them down with precise language. ‘Old Moley’ is a good example of her skill. He’s some kind of a tramp of the old-fashioned sort, perhaps a mole-catcher, or perhaps that’s just a nickname the children give him. Despite his many layers of old clothes and his odd boots, one black, one brown, he dances in the park:
struts his stuff and promenades,
a waltz, a quickstep, cuts some rug
and rock ‘n’ rolls, his jive and twist
compelling flies like semibreves around his head –
This dance is the burst of energy, the pivotal moment of the poem, the explosion of activity which subsides when he stumbles. The language is unflinching, describing his rank breath, his toothless mouth, the stench of his clothes and hair. The reader’s senses are directed to someone they might normally avoid looking at, and by the end of the poem, the man has achieved the status of a Shakespearian fool, an old Feste, ‘entertaining strangers for odd coins / rolled downwind to the ragged cockle of his hat’. The poem has no designs on the reader to evoke pity; it’s merely telling it like it is.
There are several poems about sheep-farming, which are unremittingly truthful, for example ‘Old Yowe in the Market’. Quayle spares no detail of how used-up the animal is: ‘-crate, broken mouthed – a rack of ribs’, but also respects the life she’d led. Though others might forget the ‘drift of lambs’, the poet does not. That phrase ‘drift of lambs’ is very effective because lambs are white and often born when the snow is on the hills where sheep graze. ‘Come-Bye’ shows another side to sheep farming, the hazards, bringing the sheep in to avoid attack. The ending is musical and tender, the word ‘tolling’ increasing the sense of danger:
The old flock mother tows them towards me,
tolling her brood music so they can follow
away from the wolf at the heels.
Quayle incudes several poems about strong women. ‘Black Bicycle’, the title poem, is about a woman in ‘thigh high leather’, ‘a ride’, meaning an attractive person, but she’s not looking for love, but vengeance, with her ’cunt of little razors to appease old ghosts’, setting off to fix the world. She’s a ’virgin queen’, determined to be visible: ‘You will see me’, a reference to the so called invisibility of older women from the male gaze. ‘I Don’t Want To Dance’ is about an encounter with a man at dance, who pins the speaker against a wall, and she sees him up close and is assailed by his breath: ‘smoky/ soured by lager’. The speaker is terrified. Quayle shows her vulnerability through the simile, ‘like a wounded bird’. The man is wheeling, cajoling, but the speaker pushes him away to his comment ‘You’re a disappointment, darlin, so you are’. Quayle exposes the man’s sense of entitlement, and the sense that he has only let her go because he wants to save face.
There is plenty more to enjoy in this collection. Quayle can be political, giving voice to silenced people, and her delight in language is evident in her precision of imagery and word choices. Her poems are strong and muscular.
ANDROGYNY by Kevin Reid
Review by Beth McDonough
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
Review by John Field
Kevin Reid’s latest pamphlet, Androgyny, explores the rich spectrum of sexuality and treats the reader as a confidant, as a friend, while biting its thumb at confession and notions of sin. It’s an affecting, disarming work that encompasses culture, family and desire with authenticity, maturity and sensitivity.
Review by Angela Topping
Reid’s poems are pared down, slender and pack a punch. An important theme in this collection is intimate relationships. There is a sense of looking back in the earlier poems, sparking memories of adolescence, by including brand names such as ‘Grattan catalogues’, songs including ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, and cultural references such as Donny Osmond and place names which have resonance for the poet. One poem which moved me is ‘Isabel’, about a teenage friend of the speaker, who seems full of life at first: ‘thick black hair,/ rosy cheeks’, but as the poem goes on, details suggest a note of sorrow: ‘swollen eyes, /shades too big for her face’. Happy times with the speaker contrast her appearance, kissing and giggling together. The ending gives the shock, and is badly put, which suits the unadorned truth of the poem:
A lethal dose administered your departure
with so many questions unanswered.
The poem is a fitting elegy for a vulnerable girl. It leaves us with the mystery of her death, as such deaths often are unfathomable.
Another form of intimate relationship is child and parent. In ’The Song in My Heart’, Reid explores the soundtrack of memories, songs Daddy and Granny and Mummy used to sing, old sentimental songs, and hymns in church and at the football, and the walking away at the end, to a pop song, claimed by the ‘Catholic boy with green hair /leaving home/ to Walk on the Wild Side. One can sense the swagger of it. ‘Pregnant Love’ and ‘Manna’ focus on the love of parents for each other and their small child, and subsequently the pain of break-up in ‘After the Fire’.
The most intimate relationship is the one we have with ourselves, and Reid explores with tact the issues of gender and how we define ourselves and come to know ourselves and our own gender. ‘As a young boy I learned’ is a run on title which leads the reader to some self-discovery. The speaker accepts his own feelings and behaviours and forgives those who wanted him otherwise:
of Dad’s disappointment,
I wouldn’t be a footballer,
I’d rather dance.
Of Gran’s prayers I’d be a priest.
The boy has a role model in Uncle Paul, a bachelor who avoided chapel, his identity kept mysterious. Added to this is the setting, in Belfast at the times of the troubles. The name-calling from other kids, ‘lassie-boy and fenian’ unite the two threads of this poem neatly. The title poem focuses on this issue too, using a range of binaries to show how the binary is a blunt instrument than does not serve anyone: ‘these his and hers hands’.
There is sadness as well as joy in these poems, tenderness and honesty.
4Word Press is doing a good job bringing these poets into publication, and their list is growing. The not-for-profit collaboration model is an innovative way of doing things. Their mission is to enable poets who cannot easily get out to readings into book publication, going against the tide of many publishers today, who need the poets to work hard to sell their books. The latter is one way of dealing with the lack of funding to small presses, but 4 Word Press has gone in the opposite direction, which makes them highly inclusive, only limited by their sensible decision to publish only 4 books a year. Good luck to them in all they are doing.
AFTER EDEN by Stella Wulf
Review by Graham Mort
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 impasto, but 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
Review by David Fisher
After Eden by Stella Wulf
It’s evident from the first poem that Wulf enjoys words: ‘moonstruck… cahoots… plume-hushed owls…lubbers…. rollick’. All these words give ‘Sweet Dreams’ a sense of playfulness and good humour. This poem also sets the tone. Don’t expect ‘angel wings’ but ‘ruffled feathers’. There is trouble ahead, and the reader will not be preserved from the truth of things, though there is consolation, in that’ everything turns/ in the end… ‘as ‘The Last Dance’ puts it.
Wulf has also given us a heads-up that she ‘dabbles in fantasy’. What seems like a loving poem about a Grandmother, in ‘Grandma’ is really a play on Little Red Riding Hood, but with the granny wolf (Wulf wordplay) being the fierce protector. Is Granny Wulf’s son a wolf? ‘I had his ears/ his big brown eyes’. The language of the fairy story is echoed in things a granny might say: ‘All the better to hug you with’ and ‘I’m all the better for seeing you’, and lexical choices like ‘howled’ and ‘tufts on her chin’ strengthen the reader’s growing suspicion. I loved the list in stanzas 6&7:
She bossed me into my knitted cowl,
dusted down her old fur coat,
led me off on a flea market prowl
to sniff out bone combs, hat pins
toothpicks and toggles,
off-cuts of calico, dimity, chintz
rickrack, ribbon and gimp
for her Sawtooth patchwork quilt.
There are more hints embedded in these stanzas, such as ‘fur coat,’ ‘prowl’, ‘sniff out’ and ‘fur coat’. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s clear Granny doesn’t care much for her daughter-in-law… and many of us can identify with an overly critical mother-in-law.
The bird poems offer an original angle on the creatures. ‘Pavo Cristatus’, about the Indian peafowl, is full of those thrilling words Wulf likes: impossible to pull out quotations as the whole poem is full of them, but the accuracy an detail of her love-song to a young one she finds abandoned, and is about to discard, when she realises the bird is alive, just. It’s left ambiguous whether the bird survives or not, but in her mind, it does, and therefore in the reader’s mind too, if only in spirit. It’s a poem devoid of sentiment, but full of amazement at the beauty of the bird. The same lack of sentimentality appears in ‘Vixen’. I don’t care for poems which sentimentalise nature, so Wulf’s poems are right up my street.
There are poems about mudlarking, art (both creating it and appreciating it), landscape and wild animals, birds, a host of characters, the moon, and living in Wales and France. Wulf’s poems present different moods and changing angles on life. They have their roots in lived experience, and they grow into fantasy and metaphor to draw in the reader.