“Contrapasso” Alexandra Fössinger (Cephalo Press) – Book Review

Alexandra Fössinger Contrapasso book cover

The poems in “Contrapasso” find succour in nature as they address themes of loss and survival, painful memories and striving to reach peace. Alexandra Fössinger is from South Tyrol, currently lives in Germany and mostly writes in English. In the opening poem, “Birds for someone who cannot hear”, “243 letters,/fragile as cut-out birds,” are sent to seek out the poem’s addressee,

……– my birds, my words,
………….cross the pitiless sea,
……seek out this obscure place,
………….creep into the dark hole
…….they’ve buried him in,

………………………..louder than anything I’ve written
……………..strong enough to be heard,

…………………though after this long journey
…………you’re injured and tired,
don’t give up
………………………………only you can save us now.”

The message is urgent and desperate, the sender needing to reach someone closed off and distant. A lot of hope and desire is packed into the message. It’s not immediately clear whether the “you” is the birds or the message’s recipient, but the speaker’s need for both not to give up is clear.

In “The painter’s wife” she has become, “Marginal, second best,/ hers is the clutter of children”. Meanwhile, he continues to paint,

“Do they remember
she used to be texture,
her brushes as tangible
as his?
Think it louder.

Like a ghost she is floating
through the canvas
that now belongs to the young girls.
Just bodies,

One breath to keep wishing,
one breath to keep fear.
Together they’re traitors to the
vow that had wed them,
to never stop seeing.”

He continues to chase his dreams and ambitions while she has been reduced to the domestic sphere of children. She enables him and he never queries why she no longer paints. The reference to “young girls” in the second quoted stanza suggests his subject matter didn’t age as the couple did. He still paints youth rather than his peers and contemporaries. In the unequal division of childcare, both have lost sight of their original aims and ambitions before the children came along.

“Mouse” explains how the collection got its title,

“When he came back
from his journey in contrapasso,
he found a dead mouse in his kitchen.”

There’s nothing to suggest the death was anything other than natural – no poisons or traps used since he wasn’t aware of the presence of the mouse until his return. It’s not known how long he was away. But now he has to deal with it

“He picked it up and threw it gently
out onto the compost heap,
not knowing how to better thank it
than by giving it back
to transmigration.

She thought of all this, of him,
still dazed from returning,
with a lifeless rodent in his smooth hand,
expurgation done by someone else,
jealous of a dead mouse
welcoming him home.”

It’s not clear who “she” is other than someone who knows him but does not live with him. It feels unresolved as if these are two people who do not communicate. She thinks of and feels for him, but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge her as if she’s the mouse living alongside but not with him.

In “Pane” a window is a transparent barrier,

“I sometimes wonder
why no friends visit me here
in this flat suspended deep
between sea and sky,

then suddenly remember
I have none

This place I made for you,
who never came,

and who but you could tell
if circumstances were conviction
or acquittal.”

It seems odd to suddenly remember you have no friends, especially when the speaker seems to have been the one who moved on, seeking to make a home for the poem’s addressee. Uncertainty permeates the poem as the speaker made a home in the absence of the one she wanted to share it with, the one “who never came”. She also doesn’t know if the one who is absent sees their absence as a positive or negative. Her uncertainty leaves her stuck, unable to connect with her neighbours and also unable to leave. She seems to be imprisoned by her own actions.

“Contrapasso” is a thoughtful collection, one to dip in and linger over at leisure. They read as a gathering of ideas and exploration of perspectives beyond the speaker’s observations. Fössinger has the confidence to give the reader space to inhabit the poems and draw their own conclusions.

“Contrapasso” is available from Cephalo 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.

“Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain and Other Poems” Oisín Breen (Beir Bua Press) – book review

Oisin Breen Lilies on the Deathbed of Etain and Other Poems book cover

This pamphlet features two longer sequences, starting with the title piece, and four shorter poems. In a nutshell, “Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain” explores the life of a woman in youth, age and death through a lens of motherhood. The poem doesn’t flow in in chronological order, it’s a series of recollections from differing perspectives. It starts,

“All this ends with the hocking of soft skin in loose folds,
A solemn current of spooled ink,
A stuffed portent:
That elegiac parchment of cause and effect,
And rhapsody, where each stroke of the hand
Is delicate enchantment.

Yet, like stripling vines in stupor,
We wrest ourselves from a standing start,
Only so as to glut ourselves, keening in the play of rustling air.

And, like children caught in first blush,
At rush to gorge our nascent wanting,
We relentlessly feast on the contingencies
That differentiate stone from stave.

But the salted oceans we pillage render up scant grain,
And illumination is in death, annihilation
And the hard sense of knowing:

………….Curtain-fall and the committal.”

Étain on her deathbed and the poem’s speaker is aware that she should be their focus but the speaker is also carrying that limbo of expected bereavement, the knowledge that the end is near but not yet in place. For each of those caught in the same limbo there are tears and memories which begin to surface as they think about what Étain meant and represented to them. The lyrical tones suggest a softness of memories, a woman much-loved. The sequence draws to a close,

“It is October, and the sharp sting of the frozen wind electrifies,
and traces, in tandem with your tongue, the small creases of
age between my shoulder and my neck.

It is October, and we are drinking from each other, and it is
impossible to stop.

Almost the end:

And to a drumbeat of breathless water, she fell still.
And nine trees hung over the river,
Each dropping their fruit unto its course,
And every afternoon she clambers along its banks,
Filling her pockets with hazelnuts,
And poaching salmon where none swim,
But that was not on the Dromahair, that was on the Analee,
Where she and I guzzled hazelnut and hawthornberry stew.

It was beautiful the day she died.”

There is love and tenderness here. The dropped fruit suggestive of a bountiful life reaching its end. The collection of hazelnuts suggestive of a nurturing nature, someone storing in a time of plenty in preparation for leaner times. The memory is unfocused, the speaker remembers her catching salmon but then remembers there are no salmon in the river he’s thinking off so it must have been another river. However, he remembers the food, prepared by someone who cared for him. It doesn’t matter what day she died, but his memories make it beautiful.

In the second sequence, “The Love Song of Anna Rua”, the tone remains lyric but the form becomes sonically experimental, part I begins,

“Ha-ra-hao-………… Ha-ra-hao-…………Rah-Hao-………… Ha-Rah-Hao-
Ha-ra-rao-………… Ha-ra-hao-…………..Rah-Hao-

………….All poetry is songliness,


………………..Like the ringing out of arias,


………………….Hung out from the balcony.

…………………………They are like the ringing out of arias,

………………Like red sheets:
……………………………From the window flung.


They are built to crescendo”

The poem ripples over the page as a slow-moving river might. The gentle pace gives the reader space to take in the sound patterns and echoes.

The shorter poems start with “Six Months Bought with Dirt: the Bothy Crop of Arranmore,” about migrant Irish labour in Scotland where migrants,

“They knelt in the dirt, stopping only to chew on soda bread,
Its crusts wet with last night’s treat of dillisk soup,
A welcome weed, and water wine, dried in bags,
Kept beside their sleeping mats, having gathered it by moonlight,
Having gathered it as children, too,
On the storm-swept rocks of home.”

It concludes, “Six months toil for a kiss,/ For a child’s hand held,/ Six months bought with dirt.” The migrants, making as much money as possible for their families back in Ireland, sustain themselves on soda bread and familiar tastes knowing that their stay is temporary and home beckons. It’s noticeable home comforts are found via food, rather than improvised music or craic. There’s a puritan sense of all work and no play with earnings spent miserly if at all so the only comfort is in the sustenance of a piece of soda bread.

“Even Small Birds Can Render Planets unto Ash,” watches puffins (from the distance of a boat),

“In great improbabilities of scurrying new movement,
That left me gasping at their impetuousness
And vivifying life, as they paused, then ducked
Beneath the waves, only to rise unto an apex of white foam.

And their black wings beat against the lolling current,
Along the white lines that bifurcated the luminescent tunnels
Collapsing in their wake.”

The puffins are in playful mode, rising and falling on and into the waves, seemingly without care.

“Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain” is an ambitious pamphlet. The two longer sequences explore multiple voices on a common theme while the shorter poems are more focused. All demonstrate a love of language, both of meaning and sound, not just as single words but how sounds build patterns and add texture to the poems.

“Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain” is available from Beir Bua 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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“We Saw It All Happen” Julian Bishop (Fly on the Wall) – book review

Julian Bishop We Saw It All Happen book cover

“We Saw It All Happen” is a collection of poems which highlight environmental and climate concerns. Some of them are necessarily downbeat but many suggest ways and actions that can be taken to counter these wider concerns. They are collected into three sections, ‘Taster’, ‘Mains’ and ‘After’. The first focuses on signs that signal environmental issues, e.g. in “Remember When Hippos Used to Swim?”, where hippopotamuses return to Lake Ngami,

“to lie down and wallow
in a long cool mud bath.

They plunge in fully clothed
but the thick mire grips them,
holds them close. The hippos
panic, flounder deeper
into the gluey folds
of ravenous black sludge.

Hungry vultures circle,
sizing up the mud-braised
Packed tight, they sizzle like
sausages in a huge
African frying pan.”

Drought has emptied the lake of water but the hippopotamuses return through habit and can’t move on in search of water elsewhere. Their mud baths can’t save them from the sun and dehydration, even if they could escape the glue-like effect of the mud. Vultures circle waiting for the inevitable.

“Snow Leopard” is about the one that managed to escape from Dudley Zoo but zoo keepers failed to recapture it, the poem ends,

“to protect the world from a threatened cat
………the marksman only took one shot

to protect the threatened cat from the world
………we only had one shot

………………our empty cages tweet their own tale

………………#hashtag: epicfail

It doesn’t leave much space for comment. The repeat of “threatened cat” and “one shot” tells readers where their sympathy should lie and underlines how protecting the planet and its wildlife really should not be left to humans.

The second section, ‘Mains’, starts with an injection of satire, “Welcome to Hotel Extinction”, ends with an apology for,

“poor air conditioning. We guarantee a good sleep. Beware
of a sudden proliferation in insects—rest assured we are
committed to total elimination. Everything in the Ice Breaker
Tavern is on the rocks, 24/7. We don’t do a Happy Hour.
Think Hotel California: check out any time you like but you
can never leave. Daily wake-up calls are free. Sunset at the
infinity pool is unforgettable. Every room always has flowers.”

There’s a serious message too: continuing the way humans have always done is no longer an option. The happy hour has gone, the bar is named after the loss of sea ice and glaciers, and humans are sleepwalking into a permanent sunset.

The pandemic offered a different perspective. There’s a short sequence of ‘Lockdown Sonnets’ the second “Saffron Green” describes a world merely “inches away” from the A-road,

“the richer world hidden beyond
the front door. Pasture turned
into woodland until it was layer
upon layer of primrose, anemone
paths tickled with white comfrey,
finches in trees, just inches away
from the A1. I watched the conceit
of exhausted lives in the fast lane”

The “exhaust” is ambiguous, the lives described are both exhausting and heading for oblivion.

Initially in the ‘Afters’ section, the humour is ramped up, especially when having a dig at politicians, in “Eton Mess” (the meringue and cream dessert),

“Can be cobbled together in seconds.

  • First take the meringue (white) break it in with cream
    (also white).
  • Crush the strawberries until the pips squeak and the
    juices run like blood.
  • Mash. Scrummy!
  • Aterthought: sprinkle with spun sugar (for decoration).

No deep thought or application required.

NB nota bene: some of the ingredients demand prodigious

It continues, taking swipes at former Prime Ministers, mainly Boris Johnson and David Cameron. At least the Latin is correct. Similarly, “Big O” subtitled “(i.m.)”, characterises oil,

“Black day when Ol’ King Coal got shot,
but then the kill-line for Big O kicked in

when the whole darn world locked down.
Plugs ruptured, his blowout preventer
got plain plumb-tuckered. Sour gas

spudded through his limbs, black holes
at his heart laid bare. Dude so fracking
frail, goddam wind blown him clean away.”

He still swaggers when witnessing the death of coal but it’s all bluster and his fragility is revealed when the world moves on to other sources of energy.

So far the issues of the climate emergency are laid out, firstly with details, rubbish in the oceans choking sea life, moving on to land and the effects of drought and heat and how rubbish humans are at being guardians of the planet. “We Saw It All Happen” then moves into satirical swipes at politicians and those not ready to see a new future of renewables and lacking the urgency to change. “Guerilla” suggests small ways humans might improve. It ends,

“I don’t want roads I want clover
I want thyme…. I want thrift
trench warfare against the endless drives
and your big wheels won’t stop us

until irises run up a white flag
until I see heartsease….. honesty

and love lies bleeding
by every wasted roadside”

It makes the point that humans may be heading for extinction but nature can fight back if humans support it and let it. It might start with small plants taking back spaces currently given over to tarmac, but there’s a note of hope.

“We Saw It All Happen” is a collection that has the climate emergency firmly in its sights, but it’s not a didactic, handwringing swansong that writes humanity off completely. Politicians are fair game, their reluctance to make real, lasting change explored through satire. Oil swaggers in and drifts out like Trump. Julian Bishop seeds hope. It’s not too late (yet). We can each make small changes to bring out larger wins. It entertains.

“We Saw It All Happen” is available from Fly on the Wall.

We All It All Happen Blog Tour

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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“Songs in E–” Dan Brady (Trnsfr Books) – book review

Dan Brady Songs In E– book cover

Dan Brady’s “Songs in E–” was winner of the Barclay Prize for Poetry. It has an intriguing premise, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” translated into Portguese and then back into English via an unreliable internet translator and the resulting material reshaped into “Songs in E–“. A similar process was used for the latter half of the book, “E–‘s Song” which used Robert Browning’s “One Word More” also dubiously translated into Portguese and back into English and then reshaped.

“Songs in E–” starts with “Meet Cute”,

“We bought antiques
but gradually saw
the rips, the sad years,
the melancholy.
Assumptions took hold.
Death, you say.
No, E——,
not Death,
the proximity of Heaven.”

The title was definitely not in Barrett Browning’s vocabulary and suggests a first meeting between a couple destined for romantic that had some sweet story behind it. There’s not much cute here: generally antiques are bought for their value – material or artistic – or for restoration, however there’s an air of neglect. What seemed like a good idea is now showing its age. E– suggests death but the speaker sees closeness to heaven, a meeting of opposites: the pessimist and the optimist. It’s the latter whose voice comes to dominate, in “Art Works”,

“If the face of the world has changed,
my best move is to be still.

Between each other and our terrible exteriors
is the brink of an obvious death.

Art is like drinking from the cup of God.”

Art offers a sense of salvation in a dying world. It also suggests that a rich inner life is a welcome retreat from a harsh world. The generic ‘Art’ loses sight of the literary origins of the sonnets. These poems seem to have taken a diversion from their original purpose: a celebration of love between two people who got married in secret since Barrett Browning was wary of lumbering her husband with an invalid and her father didn’t approve. This underlines the limitations of bad translation, the intention and subtlties become lost. It’s later, in “Fan Mail”, that writing is finally mentioned,

“These letters, all the paper mute and white, seem living creatures
that quiver when they meet my hands as today fills with low light.

One said she desired to see me as a friend.
A simple thing, but it made me cry.

This one, E——, with the light paper,
talked about how expensive love is,

a point thundering in my past. Yours said,
‘I am yours’ and its pale ink met with my pale skin.

This one repeated
what the last one said.”

The poeticisms of the first couplet become more prosaic with each line. There aren’t enough clues from this to know if the tears of the letter reader are with joy or sorrow at being seen as a friend – is it hope of friendship turning to love or sadness at being friend-zoned? But later letters are about love and repeated statements of love.

It’s no surprise that the poems in the first part are recognisably sonnets. None contain the most famous lines either. This underlines the value of translation is not just about fluency or vocabulary but an understanding of what’s being translated and a sympathy to the aims of the writer. Barrett Browning only pretended her poems were translations to distance herself from them because she thought them too personal to publish. The poems returned via the translation process have become so generic as to be almost impersonal. Most of them seem to have lost sight of the originals being love poems.

Did Browing’s poem fare any better? It’s presented as an unnumbered sequence and the start seems promising,

“His true glory
was beyond
what the world saw,
painted on his soul
was the soul of a poet.”

Although we don’t know who “he” is so the poem is reduced to lofty sentiment. At least love is mentioned,

“This: there is no artist
alive and in love
who does not wish once,
and once only,
and for only one—
fit and fair and simple
and sufficient.
Yet all artists living,
loving, renounce this love
to write songs
of new women,
to take on
the sorrow
of the artist
and lose
the joy of man.”

The implication seems to be that love may inspire but art is born of sorrow so love has to be lost in order for the lover to become an artist. This dichotomy is visited again later,

“Only this is certain—
our views of him were other,
like opposite sides
of the same moon. Man
has two sides to his soul,
one to face the world with,
one to show a woman
when he loves her.”

It implies love is a secret thing that can only be shared between lovers who then show a different side to the larger world. Love is a secret, intimate and to be kept from the wider world.

“Songs in E–” indirectly asks questions about translation, its value and how irresponsible translations affect readers’ responses to the work as well as the intentions and reputation of the original work. Some prior knowledge of “Songs from the Portuguese” and “One Word More” is useful. Brady’s reshaping though is more than just an interesting method, through dismantling and reassembling, the poems explore what it means to love someone, how two people negotiate sharing lives in face of other’s resistence. There’s a strand of playfulness though both sections that asks serious questions without taking itself too seriously.

“Songs in E–” is available from Trnsfer 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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“A Pocketful of Chalk” Claire Booker (Arachne Press) – book review

Claire Booker A Pocketful of Chalk book cover

Claire Booker takes readers on a journey over the Sussex Downs, a range of chalk hills which include 37 sites of special scientific interest that stretch from coastal cliffs to inland grasslands. There are diversions into family life, paintings, motherhood and childhood memories. In “Drone Boys” modern tech meets domesticated sheep,

“A drone revs up. A second joins it, slicing out territory
………over the struts of the burned-out barn.

They circle for a wider curettage, herd space, scythe
……….the air with their waspish under-hangs,

come lower still, until the field erupts in unstoppable bleating,
……….as if the chalk hill has grown lungs.

Every lamb is trying to cry itself back inside the womb.
……….Their mothers stand like boulders – reply in deep baritone

from black mechanical mouths, udders triggered
………..against the raptors’ shrieking blades.”

The drone operators don’t seem to care about the impact their tech is having on the sheep who don’t have any shelter in a burnt out barn. The sheep’s distress doesn’t prompt them to guide their drones away. There seems to be a clear divide between man-made tech and the animals with those using the tech oblivious to the ill-effects of stress on mothers still trying to feed their lambs who have not yet been weened onto grass. The enjambment and sound echoes create a sense of urgency, reflecting the stress created by the drones.

The man in “Long Man Dreaming” is the chalk giant carved into the Sussex Downs known as the Long Man of Wilmington. The poem’s narrator has parked her car in the car park nearby as the giant dreams,

“Fish will inherit the earth booms the giant

as he sluices against currents with his upright poles
transformed into oars. They slap, slap between drowning
steeples tractors floating belly-up corpses

swept along in huddled herds. A mackerel shoots
rainbows across the car bonnet. Lobsters have tethered
themselves to the Pay & Display.

Their bubbles scatter like petulant bullets.
I rummage for my parking coins find flint stones.
Is it too late to buy a ticket?”

It brought to mind Matthew Sweeney’s poem “Fishbones Dreaming”, not for the fish but for the idea of things returning to their source. Here the dreamt sea claims the land, showing nature could overturn man’s grasp, as tractors are rendered useless, buildings are flooded and money is turned to stone. Is the narrator buying a ticket for her car or to gain entry to the dream of man’s dominance being diminished and nature taking back control.

In one of the several digressions from nature, “Anniversary” sees someone bereaved enquire at lost property,

“This morning, I dropped by,
gave them your description:

about so high, slightly bent with age,
wonderfully musical.

They brought out a trombone.”

The instrument can’t replace the person, but it can help recreate or remind of the memories shared with the late person. The lightness of the poem is in direct contrast to a later poem, “News Flash” where,

“hipsters on Segways. The Taliban have beheaded a women’s
youth volleyball player
. Seagulls dive bomb for chips, smash
plates, glasses, wild applause. The Taliban have beheaded
a women’s youth volleyball player.
The beach lies neck
down in pebbles; glint of Sunday kayakers. The Taliban have
beheaded a women’s youth volleyball player.
Girls tumble
in borrowed sand – lit up, laughing, aching with life’s endlessness.
The Taliban have beheaded a women’s youth volleyball player.

The headline haunts the poem’s speaker. The ordinary, everyday details accumulate until the climax of the final two lines where the beach girls’ freedom is brought crashing down by the finality of the headline. The speaker’s struggle to understand the headline is clear from the poem, the words repeat but don’t seem to anchor.

The mood lifts in “Mr McGregor’s Seedlings”,

“He’s dug a small pond by the lean-to where he rests
with his flask in the company of frogs,

reads up about poisoned bees, plundered peat bogs,
pesticides that strip the land of worms.

On weekdays, voices from the infant school hop over,
lively as crickets. Next month he’ll give a talk,

take little pots to plant enthusiasms, unpack a sunflower
to show its eager heart.”

He shares a name with the farmer in Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”, thought thankfully children aren’t rabbits and he can get on with the important job of teaching them to garden and nurture plants. He’s realistic about his chances, knowing some children will listen because it’s better than maths or English, but he still hopes he can capture one or two and make a difference.

“A Pocketful of Chalk” is firmly rooted in its Sussex Downs location, exploring the landscape’s environs and raising concerns for climate change and what could be lost. There are also very human concerns: motherhood, intergenerational relationships and grief. All approached with the vitality and empathy of a poet wishing to share her concerns and love for the topics covered.

“A Pocketful of Chalk” is available from Arachne 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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

Tagging Authors in or when publicising Reviews

As a general rule, don’t. Tag the publisher who may use the review as part of their publicity. The author may also be the publisher, so be clear you’re tagging the publisher.

  • Many authors don’t read reviews, relying instead on feedback from trusted beta readers, publishers, agents or writing groups
  • Once a book is published, an author rarely gets the opportunity to make changes to it unless it goes into another edition/printing and even then changes are limited by costs, time constraints and whether a publisher is in agreement
  • It’s impossible for a reviewer to know how many edits a book went through and where compromises were made
  • Generally comments from a review can only inform future work, not the book being reviewed
  • Authors have very little say in cover image choices or which and what part of blurbs get used to market the book
  • Authors have very little say in marketing campaigns
  • The genre the author has written in may not be the genre the book is marketed in
  • More book buying choices are made on word of mouth recommendations, familiarity with the author’s previous books, loyalty to a publisher or book series than via reviews
  • The author may be a bigger name than the reviewer so it looks as if the reviewer is trying to elevate themselves
  • The review’s focus should be on readers and potential readers of the book under review, showing the book’s target market here’s a new one to read
  • The review is not about the author, but the book.

But ultimately, it looks like the worst kind of attention-seeking, particularly if the review focuses on a negative aspect of the book and the tag is shared on social media.

Reviewing Books on their own terms

Not all reviewers get a choice of what they review. Some magazine editors choose which books they want to review and divide them among their review team so the reviewers have to review what they’re send. The advantage here is that reviewers are exposed to books they wouldn’t necessarily have chosen and that books by underrepresented writers get reviewed rather than remaining on the ‘unchosen’ pile. It also risks reviewers being given books they don’t like, but that’s not a disadvantage.

A good reviewer will still give an unliked book a good review because the purpose of a review is to give the review reader enough information to make a decision on whether they want to read the book. A reviewer not liking a book is not a bad review. Only a badly written review is a bad review. A reviewer who hates musicals will be clear that what they were watching was a musical so fans of musicals will read the review and buy tickets because they know they will enjoy the show even if the reviewer didn’t. Not every reviewer will be the target audience for every book. The fan of sonnets strictly in iambic pentameter with full rhymes can still review a book of experimental poetry, providing the sonnets fan doesn’t try to straitjacket the experimental layouts into sonnets. A book has to be met on its own terms, not according to the reviewer’s agenda. “I am not a fan of this book because….” is still a valid review providing the reviewer has explained the “because” and been clear about who the target readership is.

Sometimes the premise of a book can sound as if it’s something the reviewer will enjoy. But the book doesn’t live up to its premise. Here a reviewer has a choice either still write the review, explaining their disappointment, or decide not to review. The reviewer also needs to unpack whether the disappointment was down to the author or publicity. If the publicity promised a fast-paced thriller but it was clear from the opening paragraph the book is a cosy crime and stays consistent to that promise, then it’s a publicity problem, not a writing problem. Some romantic novel imprints stop at the bedroom door, others fling it wide open. A reviewer who complains the bedroom door was shut when the publisher doesn’t open it, is not giving the book a fair review. It’s not always possible but a useful reviewing tip is to read the book first. An honest reviewer will interrogate their disappointment. Despite not being the publicity-promised fast-paced thriller, that cosy crime might still have been an exemplar of its genre, if the reviewer does not assess it as a fast-paced thriller but assesses it on its own terms.

Reviewers also need to be wary of employing hyperbole. The fan of sonnets should not advise readers not to read a book simply because it wasn’t written in sonnets. The reviewer who hates musicals should not tell a potential audience not to go because the actors keep breaking out into song. Highlight that a book employs swear words, but don’t tell potential readers not to invest their time in a book simply because the vocabulary includes swearing.

A good reviewer is a signpost, not a judge. A good reviewer’s opinion counts but doesn’t dictate.

Reviewers must not have an Agenda

Most of us have been to that poetry workshop where someone wanted to re-write your sonnet the way they would have written it, bashing your poem into strict iambic pentameter with crashing end of line rhymes and somehow overlooking the need for a volta or straitjacketing your prose poem into couplets or spending the entire discussion time on the difference between a senryu and haiku and failing to explain how this is relevant to your tanka.

Each of these commentors have fallen into the same trap: expecting the poem under review to conform to their rules for what a poem looks like and failing to consider that a sonnet may not have a strict iambic pattern or that a poem about a messy breakup shouldn’t be in couplets or that a tanka is simply a tanka.

Worse still are those workshops where the dominant voice or voices have decided that poetry needs to be poetic and can’t possibly be in that dingy alleyway that collects windblown carrier bags or drunkenly swagger home after a hazy night out or lie in the spill of oil reflecting the moon. Their poetry lies in miraculously unindustrialised farmland, in the feminine voice of a torch song or looking up at the moon, in lyrics untainted by ugly crying, a hacking cough or even swearing.

All these commentors are falling into the same trap: they are imposing their own expectations and ideas onto a poem and making it conform to their rigid ideas of what a poem should be. Instead of engaging with the poem on its own terms, they have brought their own agendas to the poem and found it lacking.

It would never occur to them that their judgment might be lacking. That breakup poem doesn’t want to be tidied into a constrictive form, it wants to be ragged and breathless and spilling on the page. That tanka is never going to be compressed into a haiku. Sonnets need a volta, but even Shakespeare had to reinvent the rhyme scheme because English lacks the access to rhyming words that Italian has.

Reviewers can fall into this trap too. They’ll express disappointment that the butler wasn’t the killer or that the couple spent their honeymoon feeding the homeless instead of taking up the offer of a room in a castle overlooking Lake Como or that Neo fell the first time because if he really was The One, he wouldn’t fail. It won’t have occurred to them that against a weighty canon of literature, writers need to take risks to stand out, to surprise, to produce a different story that will be remembered after the book is finished.

Reviewers have to ditch their preconceptions, engage with the book under review on its own terms and establish whether it succeeds or fails. Sometimes, particularly for reviewers who don’t get a choice over what they review, that means being open to different approaches and accepting that literature is best written by non-conformists.

A Reviewer must Read the Book, the Whole Book

In theory, reviewing a book is fairly straightforward. A reviewer reads the book, they may make notes or bookmark pages for quotes while reading, but they read the whole book. The book may be put aside for a while so the reviewer can think over what they’ve read or plan out what they want to say in their review. A review is drafted. The reviewer may put that aside and come back to it to check they’ve covered all the points they wanted to mention. The reviewer may re-read the book to check they’ve not missed something. The review is copy-edited, quotes checked and edited for publication. That may seem long-winded but essentially the book is read, the reviewer forms a draft, their review is written.

A review is more than an opinion. Yes, it contains opinion(s). But it also acts as a guide: it gives the reviewer reader enough information to determine whether they want to read the book under review. Anyone can say they liked or didn’t like a book but a review needs to say why. Anyone can express an opinion on social media that a thriller wasn’t that thrilling but a reviewer needs to be clear about why the thriller fell flat. Anyone can write off a poetry collection as doggerel but a reviewer will back their opinion with examples and explanations.

A reviewer has to read the whole book. A publisher or agent, particularly an experienced one, may only bother with the first page or even paragraph before deciding they don’t need to read further. A reviewer may be tempted to give up after the first chapter, page or paragraph, but they need to read on. A general reader is free to stop reading whenever they feel they’ve had enough. While it’s a reasonable expectation that the publisher or agent won’t talk about submissions outside of their working environment, a general reader is free to tell their social circle about their disappointment in a book.

A reviewer has to read the whole book. Even if the first chapter sets the entire tone and there are no surprises mid-way though. Even if the wished-for plot twist never materialises – you’d have to read the book to know it didn’t. Even if you’ve read the last twenty books by this particular author and know they never deviate from their formulaic plots. Even if you’re familiar with the writer’s work from extensive reading of poetry magazines, know the type of poems their publisher favours and can guess what the contents will be like before opening the collection, you still need to read it. If only because that plot twist just might happen in the final chapter, that final poem might be the stunning gem that outshines all others and if your review doesn’t mention it, you’ll look like the idiot.

“Hope is a Silhouette” Lana McDonagh (Wordville) – book review

Lana McDonagh Hope is a Silhouette book cover

Lana McDonagh’s “Hope is a Silhouette” is a series of observations on love, desires, inner-lives and everyday life. Each is accompanied by an illustration by the author. “Night-Time Confessional” sets the tone, “Some things I only say in the dark/ To the ear of the sickle moon” while the poem’s addressee could be a lover, could be the narrator,

“As you breathe in
As you breathe out

My night-time confessional
Uttered under the somnolent glow
Of a heavy velvet sky”

The final image could be ambigious. It could be the sky is dark and oppressive, spreading gloom. Or the focus could be on the “heavy velvet”, luxurious and opulent, hinting at dreams of desire and not necessarily for love. The confessions could be as much about hopes and aspirations. Although in Paris, in “The Lock-In” the theme is definitely love,

“If we could just make it out
……from underneath the sheets
Sheets that were not our own
……but had become
Entangled, linen witnesses”

It concludes, “There was Paris/ But all I cared about/ Was you”. Two lovers still in the honeymoon phase cannot be tempted by all Paris can offer. There’s no suggestion this is a lockdown poem, the lovers’ isolation from the city is voluntary.

The emotions of desire and want surface in “Before Me” where a lover’s skin has become dusted with snow, “A pure white expanse/ Muddied by another’s boot” but the mud is not a deterant just a signal,

“and a primal need for virginal landscapes
I want to traverse your cities
And climb your mountains
Leaving my flag triumphantly at the highest peak

I want an avalanche to lay a fresh sheet of future
So I can hear my weight
As I tread upon the past”

Not just a desire to explore but to find space that obliterates memories and markers of others. Someone who wants to erase the past and move on, forging her own way rather than following the footsteps of others.

In the title poem, “Hope is a silhouette” is a refrain starting each stanza.

“Hope is a silhouette:
A telephone ringing
Bricks and mortar shaped for living
A gambler in the throes of winning
The dawn chorus singing
Floral buds springing up
in between slabs
of solid, grey concrete”

“Up” interrupts the passive rhythms of “living”, “winning”, “singing”, drawing attention to the delicate buds before the slap of concrete. Hope is something that thrives in cracks. It’s also undefined, a blank outline for people to project onto. Those slabs are also a reminder hope can be ephemeral. That telephone call could be bad news – the formality of “telephone” suggests this isn’t a friendly chat. The house is “shaped for living” but not yet a home. The gambler hopes but is more likely to lose rather than win. Those who hope might appear to be deceiving themselves. There’s another liar in “The Theatre of Contorted Reality” where “You have so effortlessly distorted/ and remoulded yesterday/ Until it has become your truth” which is like,

“Train wi-fi
British weather and
Your truth
just another lie
Waiting to be uncovered”

Three things known for their unreliability, yet the poem’s addressee clings to their version of what happened, persuading others that their version is the truth. But who’s to say the observer’s version is anymore reliable?

“Hope is a Silhouette” is a contemporary, empathetic look at life, particularly love and desires. Lana McDonagh explores how hope can become two-edged if ill-defined: it can keep a gambler hooked on his downfall, it can make a building look like a home, it can consume lovers and trick them into isolating themselves from a wider world. It can be as in/fallible as memory. Slender but thought-provoking, like a song you somehow keep noticing in the bar, on a passing car radio, an advert’s anthem that becomes a soundtrack to life.

“Hope is a Silhouette” is available from Wordville.

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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