“Faint” Lucy Dixcart (Wild Pressed Books) – book review

Lucy Dixcart “Faint” book cover

“Faint” explores personal experiences and maternity in a workplace that half-hearted accommodates mothers through a friendly, confessional voice that doesn’t overshare but has an urgent story to tell. A new mother, who has struggled to breastfeed, now enters the baffling world of breast pumps on return to work after maternity leave in “The Let-Down”,

“Behold my tools: bottles, funnels, tubes,
a hospital grade machine. And the pièce de résistance:
an outrageous pumping bra, wide eyed.

At work I occupy the cupboard. A door lock is vetoed –
health and safety. My new hire reads of a breast milk café,
says he’s up for tit-flavoured ice cream.

A change. Pink veins meander through today’s output –
a swirling candy cane. This end feels like a beginning.
The toddler laps the living room, unaware.”

Finding privacy in buildings that were not designed to accommodate mothers is tricky enough without “jokes” from co-workers when silence or a supportive comment would have been more useful. The success of filling a bottle with milk is a new stage on a maternal journey. One that won’t be acknowledged by the child who will benefit so a personal triumph.

The title poem goes back to a time of corsets, “I have dwindled to 18 inches” and continues,

“Fetch the smelling salts. Take me, swooning,
to my fainting couch and arrange me just so.
Tend me as I loll, insensible and decorative,
awaiting the doctor and his therapeutic manipulations.

Tell me, future sister, where will you go
to loosen your laces, gorge yourself on air?
Where will you go when your womb wanders?
When you drown in the shallows?”

Fainting seems to be a good excuse to take a time out, a breather from dealing with a world fashioned for men that acts as a corset for woman.

The theme of maternity and work is picked up again in “The Man in a Suit Swooped Down”,

“instantly overwriting me –
too young, too female,
prone to milking myself in the stationery cupboard.

He played his pipe
and the younger men bounded after him
towards the promised land of timely introductions.

When we were alone,
something primal showed its teeth.
He wrenched my volume low until I swallowed my voice.”

There’s a reference to the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” in the second quoted stanza, appropriate for a mother thinking of fairy tales and nursery rhymes and finding herself separated from both baby and colleagues who have been dazzled by a man promises networking contacts and future advancement. Will she quickly slink away or will she stand her ground? I’ve not giving the ending away, but it doesn’t end happily for one of them.

“Return” sees her,

“All she can do is reclaim her desk and play her part,
clicking and writing and saying the right sorts of things,
holding on until half past five when she can return.”

It explores the unease at returning to an office which should be familiar and colleagues who haven’t changed much where she is expected to be the same person and carry on as if her maternity leave never happened. However, for her, she’s a new person undergoing a life-changing transformation from someone free of responsibilities to parent, who now has to work as if she is not a parent and parent as if she doesn’t have an office job.

One of the last poems, “Unfinished”, is about how music can evoke memories of her when “Rosin-fingered, a schoolgirl violinist/ watches the boy, his oboe aslant”,

“Decades later, while children dream,
she and he will hear these notes

electrify a winter evening. Suddenly alight,
they will find their former selves –

like tumbling back through the wardrobe
to find no time has passed.”

“Tumbling through a wardrobe” evokes C S Lewis’ Narnia. The implication is their shared past will forever be a connection, no matter how far from it they stray, either in geography or age.

“Faint” is a guided tour through office politics, growing up, becoming and parent and moving on through a friendly, welcoming voice. The apparent casualness belies the craft underneath the poems and suggests Lucy Dixcart is ready to produce a fuller collection.

“Faint” is available from Wild Pressed Books.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress Emma Lee

“The Oscillations” Kate Fox (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Kate Fox The Oscillations book cover

Kate Fox’s second collection journeys through the after-effects of Covid-19 and neurodivergent identity in a confident, welcoming manner. One of the opening poems, “13th March” starts

“One committed cougher
half way up the auditorium,
a sniveller in the front row
I couldn’t get moved back
because the theatre said
seat reservations were pre-booked”

The poem ends,

“You, constant as a mantel clock,
keeping track of the interval
and my fatigue,

seeing me as a Swiss watch
full of moving parts.

Overwhelmed now
by whatever entered us,
we have both stepped
out of time.”

Any performer is familiar with audiences which include those who kid themselves their infectious cough or cold causes no harm. The red tape encountered by those who want to be moved away, “reservations were pre-booked”, could be forgiven by pre-lockdown ignorance. England went into lockdown later in March. “The Distance 1.” notes,

“I was always clumsy and elliptical,
unsure of the correct orbits

how close was too close,
how far too far.

I fix instead
on another left glove on a branch

singular as a vernal star.”

Even before social distancing, gauging how close you could stand to someone without encroaching on personal space and making a person uncomfortable was tricky. It’s even tricker when it varies from person to person and there’s a struggle to read social and emotional signals that the distance you settled on was not correct. I’m not sure if the glove is a left-handed glove or simply one thrown up into the tree and left behind when it caught on a branch but it’s image as a “vernal star” gives a hope of spring.

Neurodivergence is picked up again in “Skimming”, which ends,

“I had the knack once,
but needed to be re-taught
or un-learn the urge to throw.

My Mother was not patient
about how clear I needed instructions to be,
how much longer than for other people
it takes me to learn by seeing,
or building up muscle memory.
Now I am quick to disguise
the ways in which I am slow.”

Autism is often undiagnosed in girls because girls tend to be taught to more socially aware and so mask their symptoms more successfully. This can come at a cost though. The poem’s narrator remembers being slow to learn by watching and her mother’s impatience and probable assumption her daughter was stupid rather than accepting her daughter needed to be taught differently but could still learn the skill of skimming stones over water. It’s complemented by the image of skimming over a surface rather than plunging into and examining the depths.

There seems to have been a difficult relationship with her mother, in “Things my mother said the last time we met” along with “Your alarm clock was all I kept after you ran away”

“Maybe I gave you too much independence
but it makes you stronger like that song A Boy Named Sue,
you’ve done alright anyway
since we last met was it- sixteen- years ago haven’t you?
The things you said
about your Dad and me going with those men
well, he’s always seen himself as your Dad,
even if finding your birth certificate was a shock,
but you need to move on.
You always did have
a very vivid imagination.”

Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” sees the boy set out to kill his father who left when the boy was young only to discover his name wasn’t a joke but intentionally done to make the boy strong and able to defend himself. Here the mother seems to be justifying her parenting method on the basis her daughter turned out OK. There’s also a hint the daughter found out via her birth certificate rather than her parent that the man she thought was her father wasn’t her biological father but stepfather. Her mother is dismissive of any emotional pain caused with a classic gas-lighting statement “You always did have/ a very vivid imagination”, implying the daughter is taking things out of context and proportion.

Neurodivergency is revisited in “Exile” and discovering that customs,

“they are drilled deep into women
so no one will be able to tell

we are not from here. Now, I don’t belong
in our homeland any more

but fail to fit the new country too.
Your reflection of the gap between here and home

makes me feel close to you
and on my own.”

At surface level it suggests that coming home after a long time away leaves you as a stranger in a place that should be familiar. However, here women are taught that what is customary so well that they behaviour in an expected manner even when it is unfamiliar. The ability to mask comes at the cost of wearing a mask to cover a true self and not being able to reveal who one is so feeling at one remove all the time.

In “Emergency”,

“Both of us return again,
through the emergencies,
the snapped windscreen wiper,
the laboured breaths,
the last breaths,
the torn muscle

while beneath us,
between us,
sometimes despite us,
love spreads like a satellite signal,
like sea foam,
like spilt coffee on a counter top,
like home.”

In “The Oscillations” Kate Fox has a collection that explores neurodivergency and how masking differences comes at a cost and the isolation that can result, although there’s also hope in new connections as a world shifts. The pandemic is a backdrop, something battled and overcome with a journey towards renewal. The poems have a focused, conversational tone which belies their careful structure: the apparent casualness relies on sound echoes and partial rhymes. These poems both skim the surface and explore the depths, which path is taken is up to the reader.

“The Oscillations” is available from Nine Arches Press

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

“Feverfew” Anna Saunders (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – book review

Feverfew Anna Saunders

“Feverfew” weaves mythical personae into contemporary poems that voice disquiet about climate change, the environment, nature and personal confession. They don’t shy away from politics either. The first poem, “What I Learnt from the Owl” concludes,

“What I learnt from the owl
how to voice my darkness

in hisses, in shrieks
how to drop from the heights,

heart‐shaped face falling to earth
as if love itself were plummeting.”

Healing comes from confronting and dealing with the darker side of one’s nature, working through it to get to the day beyond. Seeking out prey is a useful metaphor for getting to the heart of issues that would rather stay buried and hidden. After the swoop to earth, the owl regains flight and moves upwards.

There are a group of poems that use mythical creatures as political metaphors. In “The Benefit Minister’s Mythological Creature of Choice”,

“She chooses a Harpy.

They are the Souls of the wind she says, an urge and energy
plucking the seas, forcing the grasses back in her direction.

She has forgotten they are beaked kleptomaniacs
carrying a stink of carrion.

Who we really are is occult and buried,
our egos are alchemists bedded down in the dark,
magicians – groping round to turn soiled sheets into doves.

She is half right about the word – she has harnessed the wind.

She rides the thermals
like a princess carried on a sedan chair.”

Appropriate for a minister who is out of touch with the consequences of her decisions and uses the labour of others for personal gain. The youth of the word “princess” suggests someone capable of walking but insisting on her entitlement to be carried on the shoulders of others, evidently forgetting she is a public servant. The theme of those who take and demand rather than request and nuture is picked up in “I came back as a Horse”, set in racing stables,

“A young one never came back. If your legs buckle,
if your back is too weak, thereʹs a bullet for you.

I love my mane, even when he winds it round his hand
to make a boxing glove.

All night in the stalls we whinny, and clatter.

I prefer to be out in the long grass, where crows
land lightly on my back and their fluttering feathers
blow the breeze onto me.

Once, a child passed me, said I had kind eyes,
felt pity for me.”

This owner demands his horses perform even when mistreated. He forces them to wear their harnesses even when stabled as a constant reminder of their servitude and who is in charge. Even so, the horses remember freedom and how to show compassion.

“Almost Raptors” contrasts a heron that “looked more dragon than bird” with pampered garden birds, blackbirds, goldfinches, who feed from food left out by humans whereas the herons,

“These other creatures are taught by their wild fathers
that getting is brutal.

Last night, in a poor part of the city,
the words the poets uttered seem punched out
by the mic’s clenched fist.

Pages flapping white,
words spearing our attention.

Back home, I read feather‐light, fluttering poetry.”

One can be dainty, elegantly-wrought and light when you’re not worrying about paying rent or getting food on the table. Urgency and need make people/birds seem demanding, but the real issue is the contrast between those who can write from a place of comfort and those who write from a place of need. A later poem, “Please step Aside So I can Write About the Living” starts with an instruction, “You need to get the dead out of your poems” but the person speaking has passed on leaving the poet to remember,

“we stood together in the gallery and I saw you reflected
in the fictive space of a painting

your form, gleaming white, translucent
as thin frost, or a sleek gauze

floating on the black glass as if airborne
a premature, amorphous haunting
your ghost getting here ahead of you.”

It is a delicate poem but one that reflects on a dark subject and implies that memories can induce healing as well as darkness.

In “Feverfew”Anna Saunders has created a collection of nuanced poems that are lyrical in tone but don’t keep to ‘pretty’ subjects. She does explore the darkness but through a lens of healing, as if the poems’ purpose is to lessen the fevered reactions to trauma and negativity. They encourage the reader to look again at the familiar and see the positives while acknowledging the negatives.

“Feverfew” is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

“The Bone that Sang” Claire Booker (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – book review

The Bone that Sang Claire Booker cover image

Throughout “The Bone that Sang” Claire Booker presents wry, compassionate observations on human life from a witness’s viewpoint. The tidiness of the poems often contrasts with the life being examined. Abdul Rahman Haroun was a refugee from Sudan, formerly a British colony, who risked running through the EuroTunnel to get from the Sangatt camp in France to England. In “Abdul Haroun Almost Medals at Dover” it re-imagines him as an Olympian who,

“dodges surveillance cameras as if they’re bullets –
that’s been a useful training – then it’s a steady race
along the track with the breath of family behind him.
Pace-setters hurtle past at 100 mph, sipping lattes
as they read the latest. At 28 miles he hits the wall.”

A breathless race through a refugee’s journey, the short vowels and double constants create a sense of urgency. Readers discover there’s “no podium” and don’t get to find out what happened to Haroun. However, there’s a rumour the “Brits love an underdog” and a hint that the Brits’ sentimental concern for animals might translate into concern for humans. Its light touch belies its subject matter: the dangerous journey, the risk to his life and sacrifices made to make it to England.

“At Risk Child” includes the succinct observation, “Now that her baby’s been taken away,/ she’s planning another.” A child considered to be ‘at risk’ means that social workers are involved, the child might still be with her original family or might be in the care system. Either way she’s unlikely to have been shown how to be a mother. Instead of helping her achieve that, her own child has been taken into care. Her reaction is to try to have another, which in turn is likely to be taken into care too. The system doesn’t allow her to learn how to be mother so it will continue to let her have children who are taken away. The bureaucracy and paperwork of the care system doesn’t allow workers time to teach her to be a mother, effectively punishing her for the lack of parental care she had as a child.

This lightness of touch continues throughout “All Hallows’ Eve” where spirits of loved ones are thought to revisit their previous homes. It starts with a series of supersititions, leave a dropped spoon, don’t boil cabbage, set out food and space to dance and ends,

“Your empty chairs will beguile them.
Let them lose themselves in the pleasing shine
of linen and tableware; the niceties
of salt. What does it matter if their glasses
never drain, they plates remain stubbornly heaped?
They have things to tell you.”

These visitors can only admire the food, but the welcome is to prevent mischief and hopefully they will leave pleasant messages instead of opening old feuds or guilt-tripping the living.

Most of the poems do not feel like personal poems, rather the poet taking on the role of witness and observer. Two involve Amma-ji, a note explains Amma-ji means dearest mother/mother-in-law. Both have a feeling of tenderness. In “Life Support”, Amma-ji and the narrator watch nature programmes,

“The Emperor penguin on his egg: if it broke

we’d watch him warm a smooth, round rock instead.
Now they tell us you’ve been dead all week –

that your lips twitch from intubation,
your fingers grip mine out of primitive habit.

I tell them: go, let me incubate my rock.”

The Emperor penguin broods a substitute rock because the rest of the flock need him to stay with them and play his part in keeping them all collectively warm. If those who lost eggs all left to return to the seas, too few would remain to allow all to survive. He uses the rock to mimic his fellow penguins. The life-support machines allow Amma-ji to mimic life while the poem’s narrator has to adjust to life without her.

“The Bone that Sang” is tender, wryily humoured and humane in the treatment of its subjects. Claire Booker writes lyrical poems with compassion, allowing readers to construct the stories they tell.

“The Bone that Sang” is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

Why Managing Interruptions Matters

Get the feeling you’re working more hours but seem to be getting less done? Some of us are doing more work, especially those also trying to homeschool alongside their usual daily routine. For others it’s a struggle to structure a day. Shunted into doing a day job from home, dealing with new clients who work to a different schedule or having lost work is an opportunity to re-think our daily structure. However, trying to create anything new when the mornings and evenings are still dark, outdoors is damp, spring still feels a long way off and the ongoing lockdown encourages feelings of hiberation rather than the energy to focus. Working from home might give an illusion of more control, however, it also means being available for contact from colleagues during regular working hours.

Creative projects, such as writing, require uninterrupted time in an environment where a writer can develop their skills, concentrate and draw on cognitive capabilities. Some may call this “being in the zone” or “in a state of flow”. It’s space to be fully immersive in the poem or story being worked on. It’s not necessarily about writing/typing but chance to think, plot or plan. Getting there isn’t like diving in at the deep end of a swimming pool, more like padding up from the shallow end.

An interruption, such as a phone call, email or message via social media, firstly takes the writer out of their flow and secondly creates a delay in paddling back up to the deep end. Frequent interruptions are not just irritating, but prevent creative work. When you know you’re going to be interrupted, you can leave a scene part-way through or even leave mid-sentence so you know that at the start of your next creative session, you have to finish that scene/sentence and you can get back in the flow fairly quickly. However, unplanned interruptions don’t happen at convenient points.

Unfortunately, asking others not to interrupt is rarely successful. They have to be trained not to, especially children who tend to be trained not to interrupt dad when he’s working but tend not to extend this courtesy to mum. This requires discipline from the writer (although obviously not to the extent of neglecting dependents: your latest masterpiece is not an excuse to ignore everyone else completely).

  • Figure out when is the best time for you to write and when it’s not so critical for you to be interrupted. You might want to write from early morning to the start of working from home but be available in the afternoon. If your best time is in the evening, be available in the morning.
  • Don’t allow asynchronous communication to become synchronous: messages via email, social media, tools such as Slack, don’t require an immediate response. A message won’t fade because you’ve not responded within five minutes of it being sent. If closing these tools isn’t possible, turn notifications off, make use of ‘out of office’ autoresponses and train others to expect a response when you’re ready.
  • Ask whether you actually need to be at a meeting. Often, it’s easy to invite everyone to a meeting, especially when no travel is involved, rather than consider what each individual has to contribute, what each needs to know whether they need to be there. Meetings don’t just take up the time of the duration of the meeting but also preparation and the time taken to get back in the zone afterwards. If it’s a need-to-know situation, might it be better for you just to have the minutes afterwards? If you need to convey information, is that better done via a report circulated beforehand rather than a presentation with questions during the meeting?
  • Keep a channel for messages that require quick responses, e.g. a chat tool or phone. If someone needs a quick response, they use this channel. If it can wait, use other channels. You’ll also need to define what will require a quick response.
  • Practice not being at others’ beck and call. Anyone who knows me doesn’t phone me. Therefore I know when my phone rings it won’t be urgent so, unless someone has scheduled a call, I will ignore the phone. Clients in different time zones will send messages at their convenience, not yours so the onus is on you to park their message until you are in work mode. Utilise email folders so you can sort messages into ‘urgent’, ‘respond later today’, ‘respond within a week’ and ‘response not needed’.
  • Respect your writing time. Occasionally compromise is necessary, but if you let others interrupt with trivial matters, you send the message that your time isn’t important and invite further interruptions.
  • Remember each interruption comes with a cost, not just the loss of time taken to deal with it but also the time taken to get back into the rhythm of writing.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch
The Significance of a Dress launch banner

“The Shooting Gallery” Carrie Etter (Verve Poetry Press) – book review

Carrie Etter The Shooting Gallery cover image

“The Shooting Gallery” is two sequences of prose poems. The first looks at Czech surrealist Toyen’s twelve line drawings done during the Second World War under the title “The Shooting Gallery” and the second explores school and university shootings in America in the twenty year period 1999-2019, including in the poet’s birthstate of Illinois.

“The Shooting Gallery VIII” starts with a description of Toyen’s line drawing,

“See the torsos of two young soldiers, arms roughly hacked off above the elbow, chests mounted on grooved walnut pedestals”.

The prose poem ends in a reaction,

“Look at all those walnuts scattered on the plain, a windfall reminscent of long summer days, bulging pockets, a son’s bounty.”

The opening image is a bounty of war. The closing image suggestive of peaceful summer days, harvesting walnuts, nature’s bounty. But it also echoes the opening image of spoils of war and the effects of war on both sons who returned and the families of those who didn’t return. Those left behind is a theme picked up later, with a surprise twist in, “The Shooting Gallery XII”, inspired by Toyen’s line drawing (complete poem):

“Is this the end of childhood? The castles constructed from building blocks look as though they’ve suffered an aerial bombardment, what with the missing roofs and broken towers. As for the rabbit emerging from a blasted fortress, once a girl named him. Once a girl, long gone, stroked his fur.”

The girl is gone, an ambiguity since it’s not known whether she was fatally injured or fled, her hurry forcing her to leave her pet rabbit behind. Yet he’s managed to survive, so far. The poems in the opening sequence act as quick line sketches, building an image and engaging the reader with questions concerning how to react, how to respond to the art.

The second sequence starts with one of the most famous school shootings, “The Shooting Gallery Columbine High School, Colorado, 1999” looks at a teenager’s pick up truck and ends,

“Inside the cab, over the bed, cellophane-wrapped bouquets rise amid cards, handwritten notes, a poem until all the empty space fills, until absence becomes presence, for a while.”

It’s not explicit, but it’s clear the truck belonged to one of the victims. The bouquets, cards and notes become a presence in place of his absence until the truck is collected. The focus on the aftermath encourages the focus to shift on the victims and their families and friends rather than the perpetrators who are not mentioned at all. A later poem picks up a more recent shooting, “The Shooting Gallery Normal Community High School, Illinois, 2012”,

“At first, what rattled / was the proximity, the intimacy – / gunfire only a mile from / my family home. For days I wore the knowledge / like chain mail, my torso / heavier, my shoulders / newly weighted. I Googled. I found in my town Darnall’s Gun Works & Rangers, C.I. Shooting Sports. I found photos of / the aftermath, the brawny teacher leading a column of students / away, away, / the huddled parents, waiting, the / reunions, the mother and son – / – / the son’s t-shirt: a drawing of a boy wearing his baseball cap backwards / his eye to the viewfinder / of a machine gun, its long belt of cartridge ready – / mother and son and his t-shirt – this / is where I come from.”

The poet feels the jolt of recognition: this was where she grew up. But, having moved away, she uses a search engine for clues. What strikes her is the normality of guns: shops selling them and the image on the boy’s t-shirt, even as he is reunited with his mother after another school shooting. It asks, when guns are revered, how can such events be stopped? Another poem witnesses President Obama at a press conference at another shooting. The final poem is another parking lot, “The Shooting Gallery Central Academy of Excellence, Missouri, 2019”, where

“Mylar balloons rise into a white sky: pink hearts and blue, gold and silver stars. In the place of an artist’s signature in the lower right corner, a caption: Anjanique Wright, 15.”

The skyward rise is significant. The name and age labelling one is a reminder of the loss: not only the life of the child but the loss of the adult that child could have become, the children she might have borne.

Carrie Etter’s spare prose gives readers enough guide to build a sketch of what’s being described but also enough space to read and engage with the resulting poems. Their quiet tone and lack of hectoring enable the reader to ask questions and consider the juxtaposition of youth and violence, the potential of not-yet-adulthood with the abrupt end of that potential.

“The Shooting Gallery” is available from Verve Poetry Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“You Do Not Have to Be Good” Madeleine Barnes (Trio House Press) – book review

Madeleine Barnes You Do Not Have To Be Good book cover

This collection is split into sections, “You do Not have to be Earthly,” You Do Not Have to Seduce”, “You Do Not Have to Explain Tenderness”, “You Do Not Have to be Fruitful”, “You Do Not Have to Be Captive”, “You Do Not Have to Take My Word for It”, “You Do Not Have to Be The Same Forever”, “You Do Not Have to Be Cured”, “You Do Not Have to Keep Time”, “You Do Not Have to Be Mighty” “You Do Not Have to Generate Capital”, “You Do Not Have to Be Innocent”, “You Do Not Have to Know”, “You Do Not Have to Create Paradise”, “You Do Not Have to Measure the Longitude and Latitude”, “You Do Not Have to Be Rigorous” and “You Do Not Have to Prove it”, which make it sound like a manifesto, albeit one for good mental health. An early poem, “A Fire” is set after a funeral, where the narrator,

“poured wine and whisky

to distract the living
from their half-belief.

When the blaze closed in,
I did not want to talk

about things to come
or comfort others.”

The narrator is driven to tend to others” physical needs, offering drink, but closes when they might want sympathy or a word of comfort. The narrator seems fixed in the present moment, acknowledging the deceased but not yet ready to deal with the consequences. The poem doesn’t clarify who the deceased is or their relationship with the narrator so readers are left to guess whether the narrator was closer to the deceased than the other guests at the wake. Therefore it’s difficult to judge if the narrator is being reasonable in not offering comfort or if the others should be offering comfort to the narrator.

“Dig” is a relationship between a mother and daughter which ends,

“She says, you taught me how to be a mother.
Too many stars span before us. We tear the rocks.

I dream of knowing my place in her poems
but bury my heart deep in the earth,
tiny gravedigger. I want to be joined

to her words, but how many times are you allowed
to need your mother? Help me with this,
I want to beg her. Help me exit your poem.”

Good mothers learn from children as well as teach children. A mother never stops being a mother so the question “how many times are you allowed/to need your mother?” reveals more about the narrator’s state of mind and the relationship. The narrator seems reluctant to acknowledge her independence and separateness. But at the same time, the narrator doesn’t reveal what it is she conceals from her mother, “bury my heart deep in the earth”. There’s a communication issue here. The mother seems reasonable, but something is stopping the daughter opening up and asking for help. Again, readers have to speculate as to why.

“New York in June” follows a poem about the narrator’s mother and doesn’t clarify the relationship between narrator and the poem’s addressee, the “you”,

“I’m not sure how I stayed alive
the summer I lost you.
I hardly noticed the sky,
refused to learn from it,
drew lines through your name.
I rode the train alone,
walked home alone,”

The ending, “I memorized/ The aftermath/ and let you go” could be the ending of a love affair. Much clearer is the sarcasm deployed in “Some Answers I Wrote on a Long Term Disability Questionnaire”, the questions in italics,

“When do you believe your condition(s) became severe enough
to keep you from working (even if you have never worked)?

We do not have a complete survey of the entire sky. However,
theorists believe that the Milky Way is surrounded by a triaxial
[football-shaped] distribution of dark matter.

You may use this space for any explanation. If you need more space,
attach a separate sheet. If unknown, check “unknown”.

How much the trajectories deviate, and in what direction they do this,
depend on the shape and orientation of the dark matter halo.

I have been here so many times before.”

This is soul-crushing bureaucracy that asks the same questions over and over again in case a different answer is given and seems to forget it is dealing with humans.

In “I See Her Among the Stars”, a character named Mary is looking at Betelgeuse through a telescope and asks God,

“So we’re safe from Betelgeuse?
Well, He said, if there are any astronomers
around when it does blow, they will be extremely
thrilled to have a nearby supernova.
She nodded. Said:
Even if it’s nearing the end of its life,
I do love the golden colors
of Betelgeuse against
a velvety black night sky.
So turn, He said, and live.”

Mary is delighted to live in the moment of what she currently sees, despite knowing that the star is dying. A similar sentiment to the earlier poem “A Fire” where the narrator wants to stay in the process of losing a friend, not yet ready to acknowledge the loss. Mary’s voice seems childlike, but Mary is the also name of Jesus” mother. God, naturally, is paternal. The reader is left not sure who Mary is or who she represents.

“You Do Not Have To Be Good” leaves an opaqueness at the heart of each poem, inviting readers to speculate and try to figure out the narrator’s relationship with others in the poems. That said, the poems do explore trauma effectively, particularly losses that come from being unable to fully reveal a self to a listener or someone who might be of help. They come from a place of affirmation and healing.

“You Do Not Have To Be Good” is available from Trio House Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“Other Shepherds” Nina Kossman (Poets & Traitors Press) – book review

“Other Shepherds” book cover

“Other Shepherds” is a collection of poems with translations from Marina Tsvetaeva, the title itself coming from one of Nina Kossman’s translations. Nina Kossman was born in Russia and is bilingual in Russian and English. Initially she wrote in Russian because ‘English was the language I had to use in the outside world—at school, in the city, etc. Instead, my poems sprang from the interior world, and at that age I resisted the outside world and created—possibly at the expense of a comfortable co-existence with my peers—a world of my own.’ The themes of alienation in Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems spoke to Kossman’s experience. It then made sense to write her poems as a response to Tsvetaeva’s. This approach is similar to Jonathan Davidson’s in “A Commonplace, Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems” (click title for my review).

Marina Tsvetaeva’s “A bad mother!” begins,

“A bad mother! —My ill fame
Grows and blossoms every day.
First the Sly One takes me to a feast,
Then my first-born’s forgotten for a quill…

Envying the empresses of fashion,
And the little dancer in her tights,
Over the crib I watch the years run by,
Not seeing that my milk is running out!”

And ends on the admonishment, “Make no mistake, my ill fame:/ —A bad mother but a faithful wife!” Motherhood and writing are incompatible. A mother’s desires are in conflict with a child’s needs. As the child blossoms, the mother’s milk dries up and she becomes redundant. Kossman’s “Flesh of my flesh” ends,

“Ghastly babies, like balding beasts,
like cubs of flowers that grab and wail,
the more you watch them the louder they cry—
idols their eyes,
gods their bodies,
their cribs—mausoleums of sin.

Ripple your own waters.
Rip off your own past.
Meek, weak, or plain gloomy,
swim in your own pus.

Sullen reflections
of hostile faces—

Flesh of my flesh?
Eye for an eye.
And tooth.”

There’s no ambivalence here, the babies are not cute and not destined to blossom. These imagined children suck the life out of their mother and are ultimately rejected. “Eye for an eye” suggests Biblical revenge but “tooth” suggests something more sinister.

Tsvetaeva writes of giving a present of an iron ring,

“Love itself clings, like a red-hot coal,
Then be silent and press to your lips
The iron ring on your dark finger.
Here’s a talisman against red lips,
Here’s the first link in your chain armor—
So that you’ll stand alone in the storm of days,
Like an oak—like God in his iron circle!”

It suggests the gift will outlive the love that gave it. It will reinforce and strengthen its recipient. Kossman’s gift is,

“the green of chestnuts
the white of carnations
the blue of the sea
which you shall not sail
the chestnuts have fallen
the carnations have wilted
the sea is a postcard
which you threw away”

This isn’t a gift of cheap, ugly iron that is a reminder of the love that prompted the gift, but a present of the world. Instead of being received in love, it is dismissed, rejected. It’s doubtful the relationship lasted. Whereas, in Tsvetaeva’s poem, the gift is a small memento of love that forges a stronger connection.

There’s a different view of relationships in Tsvetaeva’s “You wanted this”

“You wanted this. So. Alleluia.
I kiss the hand that strikes me.

I pull to my breast the hand that pushed my breast away.
Stunned, you will hear only silence.

So that later, with an indifferent smile, you’d say,
‘My woman grows tame.'”

Kossman’s response, “Teeth, bright in her sleep”,

“bland limbs of darkness
coil round her sleeping flesh,
its skin numb, cold,
like a husband’s voice
requesting an answer
from silence, his wife.”

The husband’s interest seems strongest when his wife is least responsive. Ironically, having tamed her, he can no longer get her interested in him or to respond to his needs: he wants an answer, she doesn’t give him one.

Tsvetaeva’s “Sahara”, creates a mystery, a man vanishes and is searched for,

“I grasped him death-tight,
Like passion and God.

Nameless, he vanished!
Won’t be found. Taken.
Deserts have no memory—
Thousands sleep in them.”

Kossman echoes that mystery,

“I am the bed of leaves he can never scorch,
not even with his eyes of fire.

I am the naked face of the flower; a cross.
He cannot escape by reaching me.

The god and the goal; the lover and the loved;
the pursuit and the flight, entwined.”

The journey is better than arrival. Arrival brings knowledge that replaces the anticipation of who someone might be, the possibilities that ignorance offers.

“Other Shepherds” is a dialogue between Kossman and Tsvetaeva, the former’s poems picking up images and themes covered in translation and playing with them to shape them into something new, in turn, offering a new way of looking at the translations. The approach is complementary, extending strands of alienation, exploration, self-discovery and how that self relates to others.

“Other Shepherds” is available from www.poets-traitors.com

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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How Not to Request a Review

2020 was the year of the review request. Poetry books are best sold through live poetry readings and while book launches and readings moved online, online events don’t currently generate the sales that in real life events do. Reviews became more significant as a way of creating a buzz for a book to attract potential buyers. However, the number of reviewers didn’t expand to absorb the demand. There were times during lockdown when I was getting three requests a day.

Writing a good review is not something that can be done quickly. Unlike a blurb or a puff piece, where someone is providing a quote to be used on a book cover or as part of the book’s promotional material, a good review can’t be written after skimming through a few pages. A reviewer needs time to read the book, usually at least twice, consider the contents and draft a review. I wrote a behind the scenes article on book reviewing for The Blue Nib which explains the review process.

I write reviews for The Blue Nib, The High Window Journal, The Journal, London Grip, Sabotage Reviews and this blog. I was the first person to win the Saboteur Award for Best Reviewer twice. I have decades of experience. I have one of the quickest turn around times in poetry reviewing, although I review around my own writing and other commitments. Even so, the most I can manage is three reviews per week (in short term bursts; this unsustainable in the longer term), not three per day.

‘No’ is not a word anyone likes to hear, but no was what some review requesters were going to have to hear. Here were things requesters did that made it easier to say no:

Didn’t Read the Guidelines

My review policy is here. Notice I ask for an email giving me details of the book/pamphlet and poet. I do not ask for the manuscript itself at the request stage. I only want to see a manuscript if I’ve agreed to review. Sending the complete manuscript is presumptuous and I’m not obliged to review just because you asked.

Made a Public Request

Yes, it’s tedious searching out reviewers’ contact details and contacting them directly. Far easier just to post on social media and tag a few reviewers.

However, making a public request places an obligation on the reviewer to make a public reply. Ignoring a post you’re tagged in makes you look lazy or arrogant. A reviewer who needs to turn down the request, either because it’s not something they’d review or because they don’t have time to review it, makes the reviewer look like the bad guy.

So a public request feels like the requester is bullying the reviewer into saying yes.

If you can’t find a reviewer’s contact details, try a private or direct message or contact a magazine they review for.

Targeted the Wrong Reviewer

Generally I don’t do non fiction or children’s books. A reviewer whose focus is historical novels is not going to appreciate your cyberbot space opera. At The Blue Nib and on this blog, I review books/pamphlets I think are going to interest readers. A good review is more likely to be forthcoming from someone who’s as passionate about your subject as you are.

Also bear in mind that individual reviewers generally don’t get to decide what a magazine reviews. They might be able to make recommendations, but the reviews editor makes the decision and that’s where your request needs to go.

Don’t Share Reviews

It takes seconds to click a ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ button on social media. If you don’t share reviews of your books or anthologies that have included your work, don’t be surprised if reviewers are reluctant to say yes to review requests. A share is as good as a thank you. It’s also for your benefit: you get a bigger audience for the review of your work.

Ask a Reviewer to also post to other review sites

I get it: you’d like to see reviews of your book/pamphlet on goodreads, Amazon, other booksellers and anywhere that takes reviews. However I’ve blogged on why I don’t post my reviews to other sites here.

Check Your Search Engine Results Pages

Reviewers are writers, writers do their research. I’m also an avid reader and subscriber to publishers’ lists so usually when I get a review request I am likely to know either the poet because I’ve seen their work in poetry magazines or the publisher because I’ve read other publications from them. On the occasion where I’ve not heard of a publisher or poet, I’m not going to take an author information sheet or publisher’s blurb at face value. I’m going to stick names into a search engine. What I see in the results matters.

A new-to-me publisher is more likely to be a source of interest, particularly if I’m familiar with poets in their forthcoming publications list or familiar with the work of the people setting up the new publisher or can see reviews of their other publications.

A new-to-me poet is also more likely to be a source of interest, particularly if the search engine results pages show links to their work in poetry magazines and other publications or links to spoken word and live literature events.

Even if there’s no publication history, someone who is a member of/helps with a local writers’ group or spoken word night or reviews or blogs or contributes to the literary ecosystem is going to be of more interest than a request from someone unknown with no such connections.

However if a search engine results page shows listings for the publication but no other publications and an interview where the poet appears to boast about not reading contemporary poetry because poets writing now are “mere poetasters”, yet is asking one of the people they’ve just insulted to help promote their work by writing a review, that’s an easy no.

My maximum review capacity is up to 2 books per week or 104 books per year. In 2019 I wrote 92 reviews. In 2020 I wrote 119.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress by Emma Lee book cover

“Impermanence” Colin Bancroft (Maytree Press) – Book Review

Colin Bancroft Impermanence book cover

“Impermanence” is a collection of poems that touches on relationships between people, between people and nature and people and history that act as a reminder that, in the general scheme of things, a life time is short and concern over legacies or lifetime achievements might get in the way of living that life. The opening poem, “Tethered” is a camping trip on a windy night,

“As though there were great pressure
Being applied on the outside
And the whole of the world
Was sitting on our refuge, crushing it down.
That crush has come again,
Though different now in the silence
Of the stairs, and the rain is now your sobs”

The camping trip is also about a relationship, broken by external pressures, but clung on to by the one who doesn’t want to believe it’s over. The natural world often becomes an external landscape that mirrors an internal one. In “Pheasant” the narrator parks up for a moment when he hears a pheasant’s call,

“A mechanical aria

Mirroring the discordant beep –
beep – beep of the machines
By your bedside, monitoring
Your broken heartbeat.”

A different broken heart features in “Mise-en-scène” when a couple arrive for a tour of studio, where “Excitement/ Fizzed in the chatter and laughter of fans” while the narrator sees this

“Was nothing to my silent, nucleated thrum
As I imagined a childhood yet to come
And all the scenes that we would get to film
In the coming years. As we walked around,
I thought of all the props, the sights, the sounds,
All the extras that would populate our set:
The cot, the pram, the bike, the toys, the pets,
And all the untold stories that would unfold
Around us and the protagonist
That was being fleshed out inside her.
Three days later
There was a change to the script and we were left
With our plotlines torn, a blank screen,
And our storyboards undrawn.”

These last three lines are devastating, the flat recording changes the mood of the poem entirely. The slight rhyme in “torn” and “undrawn” draws attention to their choice, the future ripped up and plans no longer viable.

Elsewhere the sense of impermanence looks on history in “Battlefield” set in Shrewsbury in 1403 and a Welsh uprising,

“And both ending the day
With an arrow in their face.
I bet not much has changed:
The hawthorn hedge in full flower,
The hazy heat, the lowing of a bull
And the milestone, a white shield in the sun,
Weather-rounded and smooth, like a skull.”

A typical country scene that once hosted a vicious battle. The only thing that is a reminder of the battle is the skull-like milestone, a thing created and placed there by man to mark out the measurement between boundaries. It’s also a contrast between the countryside’s natural boundaries of hedges and the man-made boundaries of countries and possession of land.

“After Frankenstein” sees a widow re-creating her husband’s experiment and picking up men from pubs or clubs,

“To make his sum from all their parts,
Limb from limb. That hair of his,
The nose from him. His legs, his chest
His smile, his eyes. Each body part I stole
A prize, all sewn together, galvanized.

Each morning from the bed they’d rise,
And all too late, I’d realise
That no matter how perfect their disguise –
They were not him and could not fill
The monstrous chasm at my side.”

It’s not known what Mrs Frankenstein does with her creations, but they appear to have been short-lived.

Later “Census” wonders

“How they felt, back then on census-night,
Crammed in their one room hovel in the slums
Watching, nervously, the stranger write
Down the names and ages and occupations”

The narrator imagines the lives, jobs and routines of these long-dead relatives,

“Recorded simply without embellishment
In spidery handwriting on this page,
With no thought in them that I’d exist
Or anything, probably, beyond the visit
Of the man, filling in the list,
Turning them all into history exhibits.”

Not having any detail about what was recorded, readers have to consider their own relatives and what their own legacies might be. What too might distant, yet-to-be-born relatives think about our lives?

Colin Bancroft’s “Impermanence” is a quiet, crafted collection of poems that focus on relationships between people, nature and history curated around the theme of the relative briefness of life.

“Impermanence” is available from Maytree Press

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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