“Holy Things” comprises confessional poems about relics, other items held with reverence, and bodies with a self-deprecating sense of humour. The poems don’t go the circular route but get straight to the point. In “Goddamn”, a light bulb blows,
“You unscrew the supernova. Mind the black hole webs. They’re torture in your hair. There, now don’t drop—
Goddamn. Spores of stardust everywhere. It’s a nightmare trying to get celestial crumbs out of the good rug.”
A simple task to replace the bulb spotlights other areas of neglect: the ceiling cobwebs, the dust falling from the fixture or lightshade, the mess on the rug that now needs cleaning. Might it have been better to have left the bulb alone? A familiar scene where an improvement in one area, makes others look shabby in comparison and suddenly you’re spring cleaning the entire house. It’s also a consequence of busyness as the home owners aren’t paying attention and fail to notice and accumulation of dust or justify doing nothing by persuading themselves it’s not that bad, it can be lived with.
The sequence, “The Seven Sacraments of Love”, is more obviously tied to faith. Part II “Communion” starts,
“It’s a practice all about the skin, the body, the flesh, even the blood if you’re feeling keen and have no qualms about the time of the month.”
Then the poem draws back to reassure readers it’s about communication, verbal and non-verbal and ends,
“The act, the unspeakable that the flesh gives up without thought or fault, when one sees, reads, feels, projects, re-reads, reiterates the signs are unmistakable but easily missed. There is, of course, an infallible failsafe counter, a simple, steadfast salve, a fix-all phrase, like a prayer: I love you.”
A prayer is a means of communication, whether individual or repeating something learnt by rote. It offers the person saying the prayer comfort, expresses good intentions, and often is a plea for forgiveness. In a relationship, after an argument, a mistake, saying “I love you” does a similar job. It does imply the question, how many times can this prayerful phrase can work before the listener suspects the words are said to dispell justified anger and keep the peace but actually the intent to change or put right what went wrong is lacking.
False idols are the subject of “Two roads diverged”, a deliberate take on Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”, the opening stanza implies the road less travelled is busy with people boasting about taking the harder route and continues,
“Look what they did to the dirt track that Frost traipsed. They capitalised Thoreau, exploited Emerson, they made a water park out of Walden Pond, a Disney World out of the Yellow Wood.
The road less travelled is a misnomer. I’ll take the other, if it’s all the same to you. At least it’s paved.”
The speaker opts for the tried and tested route, already smoothed and paved by previous travellers. It may be less virtuous, less likely to get social media likes, but if your focus is getting to your destination rather than being seen to be travelling there, it’s more effective.
“Just in Case” is about a prayer card,
“I have never read it. My mother bought it, to protect me, like a petition to some household god. It’s all very Roman Catholic really.
This card is one of the least holy things I’ve ever owned. As sacred as that autographed photo of Elvis your uncle keeps in the den or the Pokémon cards we used to squabble over as children. A shiny Charizard would do me as much good as the good Padre’s blessing, I should think.”
Yet the speaker still keeps the card in his wallet, which contains the cash and bank cards necessary to the capitalist world. The phrase “never read it” is repeated, it’s “A half-assed hope of/ a thrice-lapsed Catholic” that keeping it safe might keep him safe or at least relatively unscathed.
The speaker’s approach to faith is explored in “The hill I will die on” which ends,
“Faith is a smoke-and-mirror blessing I have not been cursed with. I’ll take a tactile truth to a fact-less faith. Give me a book to a Kindle, a text not a phone call. I abhor prayers for the sick or flowers for the dead. To hell with metaphors. The hill I will die on is just a mound of earth.”
Phone calls are fleeting things and what’s said during a call can be easily forgotten. A text leaves an electronic trail. Books on electronic devices aren’t owned either, they are subscription services: the user buys the right to read, not to own. Prayers show intention but not necessarily action. Flowers fade. But a mound of earth is solid, something to depend on.
In “Holy Things” Jay Rafferty has created a wry look at how faith impacts on life, even if you’re a lapsed believer. A prayer can be a blessing or an impediment or a superstitious talisman against harm. Faith can enhance a life or send it down the wrong track. These brief poems flicker like a votive candle: the flame draws attention but it sits on a solid body, offering space for meditative thought.
“I Call Upon the Witches” was inspired by the study of the evolution of witches in literature and the archetypes they represent. Witches are no longer suspect or evil characters who dabble in herbs, fly on broomsticks and have an ability to shapeshift, but are beginning to be recognised as legitimate herbal practitioners, attempting to plug the often woman-shaped gaps in patriarchal medicine. It starts with “A Spell to Grow a Witch” with instructions the pumpkin seeds should be “deprived of sunlight for 24 hours or more”,
“When moonlight steals the sky so black we grow witches from pumpkin seeds; the devil takes his spirits back when moonlight steals the sky so black. A witch’s magic keeps on track, with no refrain from wicked deeds— when moonlight steals the sky so black we grow witches from pumpkin seeds.”
A charming triolet. However, the message is that witches are grown from everyday objects (pumpkin seeds) and on the night when spirits roam, it is the witches’ magic that ensures the (bad) spirits return to the devil. The witches here are cast as protectors, grown from the society that needs to ward off evil spirits, yet not allowed to enter the society they protect, they are kept in and work in the dark.
“Blood Letting” is inspired by Elizabeth Southerns, known as Demdike, a key figure in the Pendle witch trials. Demdike confessed to witchcraft and was hanged,
“like an echo of what was to come, what happenstance would bring forth these women to me like mothers.
These are not my women pressed into their finery, sugared lips and protestant hips. No—
these are my women— clawing back their femininity with a clay doll, shaped to an enemy.”
The poem’s speaker rejects the respectable woman in fine dresses, the “sugared lips” suggesting they sweetened their words, said the right thing to escape charges of witchcraft and may even have pointed at women like Demdike. Women who use piousness as proof of acceptable morals. The speaker sides with those facing charges of witchcraft, who lean into their knowledge passed down through a matriarchal line.
Albrecht Durer’s engraving of witches is examined in “The Four Witches”, where “his” refers to the devil,
“Familiars creep to the scene as rose petals form fleeting ghosts— the four witches stand hand in hand to meet the one to be his host.
The witches suckle hungry imps – they settle to a mortal frame, while devils gift the magic to both witches and puckles the same.
Black roses bloom to bring the thorn; but only once the curse is sworn.”
Fairy tale elements creep in, some of which aren’t in the original engraving, rose petals turning to ghosts and it’s only when the curse is finalised that the roses bloom. The curse is not spelt out but the imagery is maternal.
There are few spells – they are alluded to or hinted at, but there is a “Love Potion”, a villanelle that ends,
“You sacrifice your bones to bake her bread and let her leave your haven much too soon, if only you could see inside her head.
She would prefer to love devils instead; she may not always come back home to you. Only a fool would take a witch to bed— if only you could see inside her head.”
The man is infatuated but not in control. The witch uses him and comes and goes as she pleases. He believes himself to be in love with a woman he doesn’t know or bother to get to know, thinking his presence is enough. The refrain is framed as a warning against witches but it is also a warning against mistaking lust or romantic love for the enduring love which keeps a common law marriage together.
So far the poems have been timeless, aping a fairy tale quality that suggests these are old stories of historical times. “The Night Witches”, however has a Second World War setting, within living memory, and was the nickname given to a 588th Night Bomber Regiment, all female,
“The noise, the nightmarish gore of a sky full of witches. Night witches; bringers of fire and blood.
Gifts from the moon— fear the night-time glow; for it burns bright orange and screams.
Eclipsing the glow with a jagged silhouette, they forge monsters from their great iron broomsticks.”
These aren’t passive women waiting rescue, but warrior women entering battle. The “forge monsters/ from their great iron broomsticks” could be read two ways. The monsters could be the bombs dropped from their planes or could be read as the witches’ awareness that in dropping bombs they reinforce their enemy’s position and provoke further battles. Either way, the witches are in for the long haul. They know it takes more than one battle to win a war.
The final poem, “Oracle” stays with a witch the night before she is due to be hanged, “The witch is haunted by a peculiar ghost,/ lurking in shadows, reflecting in mirrors;” but she sees her mortal death as a moment of transition,
“There is a loneliness in mortality, in the knowing that invisible strings can both draw us together and pull us apart.
And as the sun is set to rise, the witch is void of this devilish tie; she wears her necklace of rope with pride. Such titles removed, she begins a new life.”
Death here is a new chapter, not an end. Her faith allows her to approach her hanging with dignity and courage.
“I Call Upon the Witches” is an entertaining ride through tropes and literary archetypes. Chloe Hanks doesn’t let her desire to reclaim witches as powerful, independent, knowledgable women bury the negative aspects: the warriors of the Second World War or a woman ensnaring a man. That’s the point: these are women, not angels or devils, not two dimensional black-clad hags, but full-bodied, complex characters capable of fault and still worthy of investigation and celebration.
“Rookie” selects poems from Caroline Bird’s previous six collections, “Looking Through Letterboxes” (2002), “Trouble Came to the Turnip” (2006), “Watering Can” (2009), “The Hat-stand Union” (2012), “In these days of Prohibition” (2017) and “The Air Year” (2020). The last won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and she’s previously been shortlisted for The Polari Prize, the Costa Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, Ted Hughes Award, Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and has won an Eric Gregory Award and twice won the Foyle Young Poets Award and Dylan Thomas Prize. Bird was one of the five official poets at the 2012 London Olympics. The selections run chronologically.
Bird was still a teenager when “Looking Through Letterboxes” was published so understandably it looks at those awkward teenage years, when no longer a child but not yet an adult. “I know this because you told me” looks at some of the things parents tell children, particularly to gain compliance,
“You are not joking and only want to warn me. You are a good parent and tell me life as it is, I know this because you told me. If I fall in love at seventeen then it will not last. If I eat too much I will explode and muck up your new shirt.
If I burp then I will blow myself inside out. The world is quite a strange place and everyone is strange except you. I know this because you told me. If I take money from your wallet, it is called crime,
if you take money from my piggy bank, it is called borrowing. If I never have a bath I will smell and people won’t walk on the same side of the street as me, but if I do then I’ll be sucked down the plughole. Some women shave.
I know this because you told me. The banister is for holding, not for sliding down and you were never rude to your parents. I will break my neck if I jump again from the top of these stairs and no, I should not do it anyway.”
Already the speaker is testing the parent and knows some of the things she’s been told don’t add up. She knows she didn’t break her neck when she jumped down the stairs so naturally still doesn’t believe she will if she does it again despite her parent’s insistence at a hypothetical outcome. The parent has not yet recognised the child is no longer a child who believes everything a parent says and new strategies are needed.
Growing-up continues into “Trouble Came to the Turnip” which takes in operas, first loves, the trouble with lovers, that strange time of taking responsibility for one’s own life whether you feel ready to or not. Dolls at face value are childish things, playing with them is something to grow out of, but they make a useful metaphor for exploring how relationships might work. In “Relationship Dolls”, the speaker wants
“Dolls that won’t be patronised. Dolls with revolving heads, dolls that will sit on your pillow and watch you while you sleep. Why would you buy such a doll? Why spend your money, all your money, on a doll like this? A doll that will drink your gin, forbid you to touch other dolls, a doll that will insist upon marriage, a doll you can rest in the crook of your arm, a lover you can legally drown.”
The plural “dolls” become singular as the speaker whittles down her relationship options to thinking about one person who takes money and effort and sharing and will want an exclusive relationship. The speaker is not ready for commitment. The unspoken question is how do you know this is the right person?
“Watering Can” is full of breezy, seemingly improbable stories. In “Last Tuesday”, a lost, perfect day is remembered and sought after as new days don’t fit the ideal,
“Hip counsellors in retro tweed jackets keep telling me to look ahead. There’ll be other Tuesdays to enjoy, they say, new Tuesday pastures. It’s a lie. I found my Tuesday in someone else’s bed. Its chops were caked in velvet gel and its voice had corrupted. It pretended to be a Saturday but I could see myself reflected in its eyes, a younger me, tooting the breeze with a plastic trombone. ‘I’m sorry,’ said my Tuesday, pulling its hand out of a woman, ‘I didn’t mean to let you down but I couldn’t stay perfect forever, you were suffocating me. Even sacred memories need to get their rocks off.’”
The perfect days knows the only way to get the speaker to move on is to sully the memory and remind her that memory is selective, remembering something as perfect when it wasn’t. It’s not just days that are looked back on with nostalgia, but also people and relationships. Getting back with an ex looks tempting when all you focus on is what worked in a relationship and why you split is deliberately forgotten or overlooked.
More stories follow in “The Hat-stand Union”. In “There Once was a Boy Named Bosh” which sounds like the opening to a lyric but here is a longer poem about a boy “who had a Shallow family”,
“Brother Shallow was all-the-way dead and where’s his money? The Shallow girls found Bosh mean and sexy when he got blind with self-loathing. Mummy Shallow said, ‘Why can’t you play football?’ because she only cared about external achievements and Daddy Shallow polished himself in his dark Mercedes. ‘It’s like they are zombies,’ Bosh thought, ‘Who don’t have any blood: eating their McDonald’s onion rings, telling me they’re hurting too,’ so Bosh started drinking lots and lots of beer and whisky like an adult does when he loses something big like a poker game or a piece of paper with a number on it. ‘My Shallow family are so Shallow,’ Bosh said, ‘they probably wouldn’t notice if I was hung too’ and Bosh was wrong about this, but Bosh put a dressing gown cord round his neck as Daddy Shallow watched American Beauty downstairs and Sister Shallow swallowed leeches in her bedroom to get skinny and Mummy Shallow wrote in her pink leather diary.”
A dysfunctional family where the mother views her children as trophies to show off, taking the credit for their achievements. The father polishing his car so he can admire his reflection while the interior is darkened isn’t going to look beyond the surface to the mess underneath. Bosh’s “zombies” behave more like vampires. The film “American Beauty” is about a seemingly-perfect family who don’t notice they are falling apart with two parents barely talking to each other and seeking consolation elsewhere. Pink is not a natural colour for leather, so the mother’s diary is unlikely to be truthful.
So far, there’s also been a sense of evasion in “Rookie”. The poems are fun and use humour to make serious points but there’s a sense they are about other people and look outwards rather than inwards. This is picked up in “In these days of Prohibition” where a counsellor, in “A Surreal Joke”, poses a question,
“My assigned counsellor told me I used poetry to hide from myself, unhook the ballast from my life; a floating ruse of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook. I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try to write the simple truth? I said, why?”
The comic is not yet ready to become introspective. That’s a good thing though for the poems, although hints of more serious themes creep in, “Stephanie” is hospitalised,
“She wrote me a ten-page love letter in red ink. The nurses tried to lull my guilt: ‘If an alcoholic screams for a whiskey, it’s not the bartender’s fault if he pours.’ I didn’t like being compared to booze, like I could’ve been anyone – that acne-scarred chef
who grinned at her once, the mouthy car-washer at the NA meeting, the pin-eyed new boy – like it was just because I was her roomie and she was a nympho and nothing to do with real electricity or Stephanie somehow spying the part worth saving in me.”
There’s the now familiar outpouring of images, the speaker downplaying her relationship with the subject until she objects to the nurses telling her that Stephanie’s problems aren’t her fault. Then readers learn the speaker and Stephanie are roomates and underneath Stephanie’s emptiness and seeking to fill it with one night stands or drugs, she’s the first person to see the speaker for who she really is. And the speaker stops speaking as if the revelation exposes her too much.
“The Air Year” turns its focus to love, not sloppy sentimental stuff. Bird is too controled, too fond of the surreal for that and that’s a good thing. In “The Insurmountables” a man makes a talisman with a butterfly which he burns,
“as the wings caught fire and fire became flight and the dead butterfly translated into smoke and something was released back into the wild
and untrained air where love is born before we take it home.”
Love here seems random, something drawn in by chance. But it’s also a connection, even if we don’t know what formed the initial tug. The collection’s title poem, addressess someone who thinks she knows what she’s doing,
“Thousands of people have had to replace their doors, at much expense, after you battered theirs to bits with a hammer believing that was the correct way to enter a room. You’ve been pouring pints over your head. Playing card games with a pack of stones. Everyone’s been so confused by you: opening a bottle of wine with a cutlass, lying on the floor of buses, talking to babies in a terrifyingly loud voice. All the while nodding to yourself like ‘Yeah, this is how it’s done.’ Planting daffodils in a bucket of milk.”
This is not a case of imposter syndrome or a meek, eager to learn person but someone convinced they know how to do things, unaware that they are disastrously wrong. Or perhaps not ready to face the consequences and own up to mistakes. Their brashness hiding insecurities. After all the aim is to connect, to join people, to nurture plants even if the method is wrong. There’s a refusal to tip-toe around authority, to follow instructions or learn how to do things with deference. Perhaps there’s also a sneaking admiration from the speaker, who is not saying ‘do it this way’ but listing the rookie’s rebellious acts. Perhaps the speaker is not addressing someone else but herself.
“Rookie” is a carefully curated selected, showing Bird’s progression from teenage poet to mature adult. Underneath the successful humour, serious points are made about finding one’s place in life and dealing with the external highs and lows along with the aspects of your own personality you don’t want to put under a spotlight, but you also know if it weren’t working overtime backstage, the bits of you that you’re happy to put centre stage wouldn’t exist. It’s a great introduction to Bird’s work which is packed full of substance.
Sarah James was diagnosed with type one diabetes at the age of six. With treatment, those with the condition can live a ‘normal’ life but treatment involves insulin injections and near-constant monitoring of blood glucose levels. Dangerously low levels can trigger confusion, drowiness or a fit. High levels can cause a bild-up of ketones and life-threatening diabetic ketoacidosis. It can also lead to gangrene build-up which might need amputations, loss of sight, kidney disease or increase risks of a stroke or heart attacks. Technology helps, but it’s not a cure. Media stories frequently don’t differentiate between types 1 and 2 (the latter may be managed through diet rather than insulin injections and is often linked unfairly to obesity). Unsolicited, often ignorant, advice is unhelpful. “Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is an exploration of life impacted by diabetes. It starts with the diagnoses in “Diagnoses” a six-year-old reacts,
“I can’t yet string together the letters and sounds of this oddness. I will come to understand it as a list of sweet things I should never eat. I will learn to measure ‘better’ in glass syringes, injecting oranges and then my leg. I will will my skin numb.”
A child who struggles with the word ‘diabetes’ has to learn how to inject herself with insulin and learn which foods she can’t eat. Although teachers and school dinner supervisors can be told a child is diabetic, they are not experts and will not necessarily know which foods are off limits or the importance of allowing snacks and regular eating times. The child has to become her own expert and advocate. And that’s before the reactions of other children and parents are taken into account.
A hypo is a dangerously low blood sugar level which can happen at night when sweats, shakes and nightmares try to act as alerts. Glucose is the treatment but care must be taken not to over do it because too high glucose levels also cause problems. In “Diabetes’ unWell of Night Hypos”,
“2) nightmares chase me…………….me-chase nightmares …I have to wake up……………up-wake to ‘have I?’ ….to escape the real…………..reel the escape to… …..monster – diabetes;……..diabetes-monster! ……….I eat glucose…………glucose-eat, I …………..to survive, try…try survive too …………….to thank the nightmares ………………for keeping me alive
The lanuage takes shape on the page, part two is an arrow-shape, two strands verbal mirror images of each other until the last two lines, “to thank the nightmares/ for keeping me alive”. The nightmares are dream signals to wake-up to boost glucose levels. They are terrifying, as are hypos, so sleep offers no respite from the constant management of diabetes and its complications. “wakeup!” is ambigious: it is a command to wake from the nightmare and deal with the hypo, but also an indicator of the consequence of not waking, a slip into a diabetic coma or worse.
“Women Not to Be” explores fairy tales and the child’s brief respite into a seemingly-normal life. The girl is growing up and rejects Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and considers a matryoshka,
“The tiny figure in the middle is so small, I drop her every time I look for a heart, purpose or deeper meaning.
No. I mould myself with words. Stuck and re-stuck, each sticky layer of mâché hardens to a mish-mashed enamel
so thick that even I can’t read me. I try not to wonder what happens to fairy-tale princesses who can’t feel
the pea buried beneath their mattress.”
The pea beneath the mattresses was a test to see if the girl was a real princess. In the story, she passes the test. In real life, who would pass such a test?
There are the inevitable “Questions not to ask a diabetic”,
“It’s because you’re fat, right?
No, not at all with type one diabetes. My body attacked itself after an illness triggered some genetic factors.
Why do you store your mobile in your bra?
It’s an insulin pump, not a phone, attached to me by a cannula and thin tubing.”
The questions say more about the ignorance of the questioner than the diabetic. It’s true that no one bothers to learn about chronic illnesses or conditions unless they are or know someone who is chronically ill. But it shouldn’t be down to the diabetic to educate you. Managing the illness is a full-time job without the burden of others’ ignorance. One of the questions was about sex, which is explored in the title poem,
“One long kiss, tongues and breath entwining. A touch or two, and our bodies
lose both scent and music. Our blood pulses faster and louder than the room around us.
faster and louder than the room around us. lose both scent and music. Our blood pulses
entwining. A touch or two, and our bodies One long kiss, tongues and breath“
This is an incomplete extract from an effective specular (a verbal mirror image poem where the first half is repeated in reverse to form the second half of the poem). The words in faint grey appear to disappear on the page, the narrator’s focus slips. She can either give herself to the moment or leave the moment to monitor blood glucose levels. A later poem, “Thwarted” is about a bicycle ride planned around rain showers ruined by a drop in blood sugar levesls, “Thwarted again by my own body, my anger/ will last longer than the approaching rainstorm.”
There are poems that don’t focus on diabetes – falling in love, marriage and children – and enjoying periods of respite. “Freshly Baked” is a memory of baking bread with the narrator’s mother,
“bringing warmth and sunshine
to the start of each long week. Time has taught me that memories too should be softened and proofed.
Not all of my childhood was illness.”
“Self-forgiveness” touches on this too,
“And yes, it’s true that perhaps I’ve come to love this ‘fault’ that I hate most, not for the disability, but through accepting
that without it, what little would remain of the me I’ve come to see.”
Diabetes has not defined the speaker but it is part of who she is and managing it has forged the adult she has come to be. Her achievements have not come despite her diabetes but because of its successful management.
“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is a contemplative journey from childhood to adulthood of life with type 1 diabetes. Sarah James has a compassionate ear, she never turns to self-pity even when being mocked or describing the sense of unfairness at being disabled: having plans go awry or letting people down because of her diabetes. It’s a journey through acceptance and learning to live with its consequences through powerful, thought-provoking poems.
I’ll start with a trigger warning for suicide and suicidal ideation, mostly triggered by depression. These are handled with sensitivity but Antony Owen doesn’t shy away from directly talking about them.
“The Battle” explores adult diagnosis of autism and living with depression with an unflinching directness and honesty. It’s not one man’s journey though, it looks at how people, including family and colleagues, react. The title poem opens with an apology for the three year wait for an assessment,
“Remember the first time the lads called you a ‘spastic’, and take comfort you are special in twenty twenty-one.
Sorry we can only ask how long a piece of string is without metric. It could be decades, years, months, days for an assessment. In the meantime, here is a leaflet for a help group in four weeks. Here is a collective of people just like you, yet unique.”
Someone already bullied and teased for being ‘different’ since childhood finally mustered courage to explore the source of that difference only to find there’s a waiting list. How long do you wait before you give up? What use is a leaflet to someone who has already been scoured the internet for information? Again, once diagnosed, there’s a wait before being able to join a support group. Where would someone on their own without family support go? The phrase “take comfort you are special” feels patronising. Accommodation needs for someone who is neurodivergent are not ‘special’, they’re simply needs that allow someone to thrive. This isn’t a narcissistic request for ‘special treatment’. Most autistics mask their behaviours so as to merge or work with neurotypical people and not stand out.
Attitudes in the workplace are picked up in, “A Sales Manager’s Response to Autism”
“After exorcising the demon of autism to my boss she tutted her disappointment at the setback, reminding me we have targets to meet. ‘Do you need special treatment?’ ‘I could do without this today!’
In a workplace culture more concerned with targets than how people achieve them, it’s too easy to see reasonable adjustments as an add-on, something that can wait for a more convenient time – whenever that is – or an extra burden, instead of support that enables someone to work better and be better placed to hit the targets the manager is so concerned about. The poem ends “She probably watched Rain Man once/ and considered herself informed.” How disability is portrayed in films and TV programmes is often problematic: it’s a plot device or moulded into a triumph over adversity story and often bears little resemblance to how someone gets through an ordinary job or life.
The workplace comes under another swipe in “Man Up” where the speaker is told to stop grieving after a friend’s death,
“My boss told me it’s been three weeks, that it’s time to man up and hit target. I told him ‘I’m only human‘ to his face.”
Even colleagues who regard themselves has having good intentions can become impatient with someone openly grieving. There is no time limit on bereavement. There’s also no going back to ‘normal’ or how things were before the death. It’s a transitional space between acknowledging the death and adjusting to life with that person no longer in it. But those pesky targets won’t go away and it’s so much easier for managers to pressurise subordinates who are regarded as slacking. A working life can stretch over 40 years, three weeks is a tiny percentage of that. Giving someone the time they need benefits both: the employee feels like a human not a number on the payroll and the employer gets the employee’s goodwill. In a target-driven culture, that’s not going to happen.
“Why Some People Cannot Forgive Suicide” looks at those left behind after a suicide,
“I get why people cannot forgive suicide: there is no answer; there is no answer to being incapable of joy and pain; there is no answer to a normal day then the act.
I read of a wife who found her husband hung in the garage. She described him as a pendulum stopping time itself. Ten years on she wants to forgive, but cannot.
I get why some people ghost the demons that haunt them. As a son I was the elephant in the room and circus. And now, as a father, I know how it is to be child and ghost.”
There’s not much to say since the poem says it. The speaker came from a family where things, such as being bullied at school and why, weren’t talked about. However, this son, now an adult and father will break that cycle; his child will be seen and heard.
There are strands that describe depression throughout, but the stand-out line is in n “Flat Earth”, where depression is described as, “My heart is a goblet of guilt for this metamorphosis I never chose.”
In the final section, men explore the macho culture and mental illness. There is general agreement that the ‘British stiff upper lip’ and not talking about mental (ill) health is wrong, but a big part of the battle is finding similarly minded men to talk to as a friend. The pieces explore bullying, target-driven workplace cultures, the fear of leaving a toxic job when society tends to label you by your job, the loss of individuality and creativity and the sadness of watching a woman cross the street away from you when you are not a threat but know that the woman has reason to see you as such.
“The Battle” opens the conversation by demonstrating how bottling up feelings and not talking about mental health has devasting consequences for men. Toxic workplace cultures that treat employees like bots whose sole purpose is to achieve set targets further dehumanise men and contribute to the problem. Both increase the sense of being alone and unsupported, especially at a time when neglect and underfunding of mental health services has created long waiting lists just to be seen and assessed. Owen’s poems show that a different approach is possible.
“Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter” explores themes of origin and identity and the implications in terms of what a person inherits and the perspectives a blended identity bring as an individual travels through the world in a spirit of curiosity. A recurring motif is food. Food is shared and frequently represents nurturing and nourishment through parental love. The first poem, “Egg Time” is dedicated to the poet’s mother, a memory of when the mother was pregnant with a sibling and the six-year-old speaker is home on a school lunch break,
“How did the morning go? Watching her butter home-made bread. Reading aloud while the baby kicks. Back down the lane for the lonely end of playtime, her love like albumen around my ears and in my eyes. Voices water-slow. Whistle blown from the other side of the world.”
The answer to the mother’s question about a school morning is not important enough to remember. What is remembered is the evocative taste of butter on home-baked bread as the child reluctantly returns to school, tempered by knowing her mother loves her. The love forms a protective layer around the child as the whistle is blown for lessons to get underway again. The mother’s world is the domestic one of the kitchen. The father is outside gardening, assisted by the daughter until a break, in “Juice”, when he asks for half a lemon squeezed in water,
“I silently sing each syllable to myself in your voice, like no other voice, licking the ‘l’ in half almost as long as in lemon, expressing the juice of each word with your verve, crushing the fruit’s face into ridged glass and clouding cold water with the sharpness you crave. Each sucked finger stings.
Now I want to watch your dark throat dance while you drink.”
It’s easy to forget a bland drink a bland drink of water, but adding the lemon to it makes the refreshment memorable. The mood of the poem contrasts with the mother’s poem which was soft and the daughter sharing her voice as she read aloud, whereas she sings silently to herself rather than to her father. The clouds of lemon in the water are not fluffy but invasive, changing the water. Sucking is something children do for comfort, but here it leaves her fingers stinging with bitter juice. In these two poems her mother’s yin complements her father’s yang.
In the title poem, lemons reappear, this time they have been harvested from the poet’s uncle’s trees,
“The lemons lay thick last February. My sister filled a bag for Uncle. She put a smooth yellow oval into his hand and helped him lift it to his face to smell the zest.
Dad asked the nurse for sugar and a knife. He cut, squeezed, stirred. See, Hagop, I’m making lemonade from your trees. Watched his brother smile, sip, sleep.”
There’s a softer side to the poet’s father here. The recuperating uncle’s lemon drink is sweetened and he is able to hold and taste the fruit from the trees he grew. The act of giving him lemonade is a gesture of care and support, a means of touching both to nurture and to say ‘I’m here.’ The food is care motif is picked up again in “Cake Again”, where the unnamed baker ponders,
“the gentleness of chocolate would
say it better, moist enough not to stick in his throat, wrapped
noisily in foil, nosed into a jiffy bag. Cake again? the post office lady says.
It costs more to send than make. More to let go than hold.”
The cake’s ingredients were already in the kitchen as if stocked just in case they were needed. The woman at the post office seems to scoff at the idea of sending something so cheap that costs less than the postage. However, her scoffing ignores the value of the cake, what it represents, what it communicates when words don’t seem to be the right vehicle.
Later the speaker is in “Green Valley Supermarket” where,
“I try to tell the staff my dad taught Arabic to the owner’s sons, but they don’t understand. I want them to know I’m here to buy the flavours of my father’s childhood.
I’m looking for the foods his mother Takouhi first fed her youngest son, smiling as he kissed her neck and kissed again until she laughed”
The speaker has specific, family reasons for going to the shop, but the staff aren’t interested, perhaps thinking of just getting through the day and the cycle of getting up to do it all again tomorrow. The place is somewhere that pays their wages, not where they feel part of a family. The speaker fails to win them over and starts to think about her father waking after a scheduled operation,
“when he’s home, safely stitched, meshed, glued;
when he sits with us as she never did again we can tear good bread, pour oil, sprinkle salt and watch him close his eyes to the smoke of aubergine, the sharpness of strained yoghurt.”
Again, a mix of textures: the fluff of bread, scent of aubergine and sharpness in unsweetened yoghurt. The last reminiscent of the lemons, but this time the reader has met the father through the previous poems and knows the sharpness is not bitter.
“Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter” is an exploration of connection, roots and family relationships through the nourishing qualities of food. Sarah Mnatzaganian’s poems are tender and compassionate. Family is a symbol of support and love that allows its members to find their own way.
These poems focus on the manifestations and properties of water, using narrative and lyric to move fluidly from the micro the macro and back. There are poems rooted in the English city of Durham and the Chinese town of Tongli. Although not explicit, some reference the separations of imposed lockdowns. The title poem is also the first,
“Frost thawed to dew in the sparkling garden. It was late winter acknowledging spring. Birds returned to song. And then the rain came. Great Atlantic gusts battering shrubbery and the compliant trees. There was then a temptation to conceive a mind in spring. A mind weathering that weather there and then. There is a temptation. No sooner thought than metaphor drenched that garden.”
As winter thaws into a tentative spring, there’s a temptation to shake off the winter layers and look forward to growth and warmth. But season’s don’t change on a smooth linear path. A warmth spell can be undermined by a return of colder days before the warmth takes a stronger hold. Watching plants bud brings a sense of optimism abruptly halted by a sudden return to rain and thoughts of winter. Later “Dew evaporated to a new day, which flowed”, a reminder that spring is on its way even though it may not have arrived yet. It marks the start of a sequence of 15 line poems that play with and explore ideas of rain. In “Of Petrichor”, a word detrived from the Greek words for rock or stone and the ethereal fluid thought to be the blood of Greek mythology gods, which is used to describe the smells from compounds of ozone, geosmin, and plant oils released by rain as it falls on soil,
“We laughed at the word petrichor. An etymologist’s wet dream. Medusa said she’d understood a thing or two about divine fluids and stone. Its grating consonantal sound and uninviting vowels. Only that terminal or conjuring after-thoughts of the rising odour of wet earth after rain. Precise petrichor still ensnared in its verbal roots once the sodden aromas of all places fade away.”
The poem plays with meanings, sounds and allusions. The second section of poems are less constrained and introduce characters such as Joyce’s Anna Livia and Dicken’s Mr Pickwick. “For True Love Waits” considers distance and separation, two people in different cities,
“In your city, the traffic halts for pedestrians. The pathways filter rain, each slab of pavement spirit-levelled the same.
In my city, the lorries, cars and bikes show passing acquaintance with lights and brushing familiarity with walkers. But by these we are not divided.
You say love is not chasing but waiting. I am waiting in traffic, again. Not for a single moment the same the waiting heart beats the same.
Love is not the residuum of absence, but what remains after you have gone. And what we shared as our breaths mingled in the smaller hours,”
The addresse of the poem is in Tongli. The speaker is in Durham. The former seems organised and respectful, whether the traffic stopping for pedestrians or the level pavements. In Durham, the drivers show zero consideration for other road users or pedestrians in their hurry towards a destination. Stuck in traffic, the speaker thinks about his partner. Love is not found in their separation but in what each remembers, the lingering sensation of the other.
The collection ends on a sequence, “Political Poem 2.0”. Part VI,
“I say poetry is not escapism.
But I had not yet understood how
to sit at a table and drink a glass of water,
gratefully, watching clouds pass.”
Poetry, regardless of the poet’s intent, is often read as autobiographical in a way that fiction isn’t. Whenever the lyrical “I” is used, some readers assume the poet is speaking which isn’t always the case. The opening two lines suggest poems are not read for the reader to escape their lives yet the remainder of the poem undermines this. The reader has not matured to understand how a simple pleasure: stopping for a drink of water and watching, being present in that moment and noticing only what is happening in that moment allows the speaker to temporary ‘escape’ other pressures and concerns. The next poem, VIII, observes a desert hawk,
“For you know there is neither
beauty nor play without sustenance,
and nothing, truly nothing
Water is life, both its source and the force that keeps life going.
Thoughout “and then the rain came”, water is literal, metaphorical and sustaining. A force that enables life, weather that revives the natural world and sustenance, not just physical but spiritual and mental. Edward Ragg has created a pamphlet of complementary lyrical and narrative poems linked thematically but experimental in approach, using language as a fluid probe.
Richard Cunliffe’s novel could be subtitled “The Secret Diary of Will Prendergast”. Although not told in a strictly diary format, the story follows two timelines, young Billy growing up on the New Parks council estate and middle aged Will, a partner in an advertising agency post divorce with two children on the brink of adulthood looking for a new start. The story starts with Billy in May 1975. His mother’s yelling up the stairs but Billly can’t respond until the cistern has finished filling up. He also has to wash his hands three times and line the soap up. He dares himself but can’t bring himself to jump the final five steps on the staircase, the number the same as his age. He’s a middle child with an older brother Keith and younger sister Annabel. His friend’s mother has invited him out swimming and then back for tea. The latter to Billy’s dismay because he’s worried about missing the next episode of “Doctor Who”.
Billy doesn’t know that his rituals are a way of coping with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but Cunliffe handles Billy’s OCD with sensitivity and accuracy rather than a plot device or a character quirk. As the literate, intelligent child, Billy suffers in comparison with his bolder, football-mad brother, especially on a working class council estate. Keith’s thuggish antics are cheered but Billy baffles his parents. The OCD is diagnosed by Caroline, a school friend, in their final school years. She goes on to get a place at Oxford and becomes a psychotherapist. Will ends up at one of the local universities, De Montfort, a former polytechnic and drifts into teaching. A chance meeting with a pupil’s mother’s cousin, who’s impressed with Will’s eloquence, leads to a job offer at the advertising agency.
Will’s timeline starts in April 2016 where he’s now a partner in the advertising agency Hobb-Prendergast. The Brexit referendum is pending. Politics is the chief topic of Will’s conversations. Despite his working class roots and Labour-voting, union-supporting father, Will’s mother became a fan of Margaret Thatcher who came to power in 1979 when inflation was running in double figures and wages were stagnating. “Red Leicester Blues” aren’t references to cheese and the football team but political affliations. Will crosses the line from red (Labour) to blue (Conservative) due to his mother’s influence. The other partner in the advertising agency, Gordon Hobbs, is also right wing but further than Will, who’s more right of centre.
Another motif is a man with terrible scars who haunts Will in dreams and visions, particularly when he’s stressed and his OCD rituals become more pronounced. The man, who is never named, was scarred by Keith, Will’s brother, who serves a lengthy sentence for inflicting the injuries. Will’s offer to pay for plastic surgery is refused. But Caroline provides therapy for free so the man learns to live with his scars.
When Keith’s prison sentence is served, Will buys and pays for a flat and gets his brother a job at the agency. By this time their widowed father is in poor health and can’t cope with his wayward son. Will sees it as his duty to ensure Keith doesn’t end up homeless, but it doesn’t occur to him that Keith might not see it that way. The friction between the two brothers erupts at their father’s wake. Leicester city is still in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Will lives in Rutland in a house with a lake view, which is not part of the lockdown. Numbers at the funeral were restricted so Will invites their dad’s friends and family to his home and generous garden. Keith accuses Will of showing off and thinking that their old home on New Parks isn’t good enough (even though it would be against the law to hold a wake there). This marks a turning point in the brothers’ relationship: the options are either permanent estrangement or a tentative peace.
Meanwhile Will’s attention (finally) turns to his love life. The tender, will-they-won’t-they dance he’s performed around his personal assistant, a reliable source of teasing from other colleagues, reaches the end of the tune where it’s decision time. Does Will let her slip away into another regret or does his overcome his fear of screwing up again?
Occasionally the characters’ dialogue becomes information dumps where the characters tell each other things they already know, sometimes signalled by the phrase “as you know”. Otherwise the dialogue flows naturally. Readers get to learn how characters think and where their sympathies lie through political discussions: which politicians they favour, whose policies they approve of. Annabel, Will and Keith’s sister, keeps to the background. She’s a peace-maker and joined Billy in doing the housework – their mother’s work – while their father and Keith watch sport and drink.
Overall “Red Leicester Blues” is engaging. The political discussions do not dominate or become boring, but allow readers to understand and appreciate the characters. At its heart are two brothers who react very differently to the expectations and aspirations to their working class origins. Keith’s the macho bravado who understands not to get above his station and ends up lashing out, although he’s never hurt a woman. Will escapes, creating a life beyond his parents’ expectations, crossing the line from working class to comfortable middle class, flipping the script from red to blue. The best moments come when both brothers can ditch the expectations – society’s, their peers’, colleagues’ and what they believe their parents would have wanted – and focus on their own wishes and desires to figure out what’s best for them.
Seanín Hughes explores womanhood and disability, including neurodiversity, and the effects on of these on motherhood in this pamphlet of 15 poems. In “Russian Dolls”, the speaker looks back, “your poetry is peaches// & cream in cornflower dress” evoking an innocence of childhood,
“Then, the thrum of blood; you are on the cusp,
your pupils black moons bringing the tide.
You are a red creature bound at the wrists by biology,
your poetry is puce and vermilion — a ripening lacuna lush
for the splitting of cells, the giving of yourself
to a body within a body.”
Through maturing into a woman, the girl is now able to create a new life. The gentle “peaches & cream” has turned red both with the physical reality of menstruation and metaphorically with the discovery that her development has strings attached. It binds her at the wrists, suggesting unwillingness, perhaps even horror, at her new adult state: the limitations and restrictions that come with womanhood and the selflessness required on becoming a mother. Motherhood proves not to smooth sailing either, “Other Mother” starts “Tell me”,
“………………………………………………………..how your child is a chalice full to the brim, perfect. Tell me you are afraid
of your child ever being other, unknown quantity. Ask me about being other. Ask me. I’ll tell you I am afraid of someone else’s language;
words that roll around my mouth like a stone. Diagnosis. Progressive. Mucopolyaccharidosis. Not-yet-loss. Someday loss. Prognosis. Ask me
and I’ll tell you I’m afraid of alien vials needling into her jugular vein, of every blood droplet that leaks from beneath her skin. I am other mother –
meds dispenser, limb restrainer, silent witness,”
Mucopolyacchoridosis is an inherited metabolic disease which causes cellular damage that affects organ and system functioning depending on type. There’s no cure, only therapy, management and, in some cases, surgery to alleviate symptoms. Life is reduced to the present and immediate future because the future is no longer known. The mother’s fear of a disabled child is reality. There’s no sharing of achieved milestones on the school run, but the fear of judgment as this mother is plunged into becoming suddenly an expert her in daughter’s disability.
The title poem starts,
“The truth is in the kitchen, hidden under half-nibbled pizza crusts and sodden teabags. Ten grime choked half-moons, torn from nail beds in the numb hours between night feeds, no sleep.”
It ends with a question, “why can’t I be gentle/ with the person I’ve become?“. The disarray and lack of sleep that comes from caring for very young children is instantly recognisable. The pizza crusts suggest life is also too hard to do much more than nibble at, especially when you are the lone parent to a disabled child. There’s no one to tidy up while you take a breather or share the emotional load with.
The mood lifts in “Covenant” where the speaker apologises,
“Body, I am sorry.
Body, I promise to stop the punishment.
Let me give you water.
We’ll wear our silver rings again, and that Ruby Woo lipstick.
I am ending the battle: this is a white flag, waving.
We are growing old. I’ll take you with me.”
Self-care is not expensive spa days, but simply much-needed nourishment, instead of a take-out, and the small pleasures of a favouite lipstick or dressing up a little. It’s a mother acknowledging that being completely self-sacrificing does not do her, or her child, any good. A little bit of selfishness helps replenish her.
“She, Shapeshifter” explores motherhood, guilt, disability and the emotional shrapnel that single parenthood can bring. It probes at darker moods, but it is not gloomy. There are flashes of a future and Seanín Hughes writes with lyricism guided by an unflinching gaze.
Mikko Harvey wants to tell readers small, surreal fictions and observations that encourage them to reflect on the world around us, our situation in it and the psychological environments carried by us. It also reveals in a wry humour so the poems don’t take themselves too seriously. In the opening poem “Spring” the narrator sees a sparrow sitting in the passenger seat of a car,
“And I drove for eleven hours, through three states, attended the funeral, slept on the couch, heard the whispers, ate the brunch, folded the sheet, hugged, hugged,
and opened the car door and noticed a sparrow sitting in the passenger seat.
Howdy, I said.”
It’s not known how the sparrow got in or whether the narrator at any point opened the window so it could get out if it chose or even if the sparrow was real. What it represents is how, in the aftermath of a funeral, nothing seems to have changed. The narrator gets back in his car and drives back to his life. The extraordinary, the funeral, constrasts with the mundane, the sparrow is still in the car, unchanged.
In “Wind-related Ripple in the Wheatfield” a man remembers walking through an apartment in the near-darkness, trying to avoid bumping into things and “lingering instead the perspective/ of the spider I noticed crawling”, when he realises someone should be in the picture he’s creating,
“Thank you for serving me cups of lemon tea with honey in it. Even though such copious amounts of liquid would no doubt drown the insect I imagined myself to be, that was kind of you.”
The narrator is too preoccupied with his concerns and perspectives to notice those of the woman he’d lived with. A ‘didn’t appreciate what I had until it was gone’ moment. She shimmers on the edge of focus: she nurtures – the honey in the lemon tea – and gives him sustanence but he was too busy avoiding the bumps and wary of the spider’s trap to reciprocate or notice her kindness. He’s grateful for the lesson, but she’s too nebulous to fully describe. Another poem, “Wet Fur” explorers this kind of relationship where the people in it focus on the wrong details, asking “What’s your moon sign?” or “your Myers-Briggs personality type?” as if these can give answers when a couple can lie
“side-by-side in this grass, the whole field so American, all of our kings somewhere else recovering from microdermabrasion, our personal wolves playing around in the brook together under our imprecise supervision.”
There’s a sense of regret. If the wolves had been given more attention, might the couple still be together? Regrets pop up in the “Department of the Interior”,
“There is a footbridge in a forest
almost no one ever crosses. ………………..The human mind is the moss growing on its stonework. I wish
I told you the truth more.”
The footbridge makes the reader sit up and take notice. It’s not a regular feature of a forest and there’s no mention of a stream, river or ditch that it might have been built to span. Perhaps there was once, but whatever it crosses is no longer there so it’s fallen into disuse and become home to moss. Despite it’s lack of use, no one’s dismantled it either. Bridges suggest connections, offering a way for two sides to interact. But the connection’s been lost. The final line isn’t clear whether the connection broke because the narrator actively told lies or simply omitted truths. It is about lying or lack of communication? Was the deception deliberate or simply a habitual failure to connect?
In “Liability”, set in a cafe, a representative from Tidy Solutions Plumbing Inc watches people trip on the wellhead that sticks out from the sidewalk
“people do trip over the wellhead, but the truth is nearly all of them merely stumble then steady themselves rather than falling down. Which is why it was strange when a woman tripped and fell hard to the sidewalk this morning. She remained on the concrete for a full minute while passersby flowed around her. She was something of an island in a stream . . . One man offered his hand to help, but she refused it. I myself was tempted to rush to her aid, except I am obligated not to. I am invisible and, if anybody asks, unaffiliated with Tidy Solutions Plumbing Inc. Her elegant black hat had fallen off in the fall.”
Despite the drama, the woman manages to get up and walk away but leaves her hat behind, which gets kicked about a bit by other pedestrians,
“Then a dog sniffed it, a good sniff too: nuanced, probing, unhurried. The dogs’ eyes closed in concentration. From behind the café window, I watched this happen and felt a measure of relief — knowing, at least, the lonely hat had told its story to somebody.”
Something marked this hat-wearer as lonely: she is the only one to actually fall from tripping on the wellhead (most correct their step before falling), she remains still while other walk around her and refuses the offer of help. An “elegant black hat” is not everyday wear, something kept for an occasion or to suggest there’s something special about the wearer, perhaps a distraction to hide a feature the wearer doesn’t want noticed, a misjudged hairstyle or thinning or lack of hair. The hair is not mentioned although the fallen hat would have revealed it. It’s also left behind. An odd thing to do if it was a quality hat. Either the wearer was too flustered by the fall to retrieve it or felt the memory of falling was too shameful to continue wearing a momento of that trip. It’s not a human who learns the woman’s/hat’s story but a dog. Perhaps allowing the observer from Tidy Solutions Plumbing Inc to assuage his guilt at not helping.
Mikko Harvey’s wry observations and surreal vignettes pose recognisable situations that ask indirect questions about what the reader notices and decides to take away. There are no wrong answers, but at it’s heart “Let the World Have You” is concerned with connections, how readers move and relate to each other and their environments, real, imagined and psychological.