“Of Necessity and Wanting” Sascha A. Akhtar (The 87 Press) – book review

“Of Necessity and Wanting” is a collection of three long stories interwoven with vignettes of life in Karachi, Pakistan, with a focus the contrast between the rich and working classes and the difference of opportunities between women and men.

Of Necessity and Wanting Sascha A. Akhtar

The first story, “The White Cage”, the only story with a solely English title, focuses on the latter, Rumina, nicknamed Guddi (doll) as a child, is delighted when she learns to fly a kite as her father has taught her, “‘See — it’s just a balance. A fine balance,’ he says gently — a fine balance between flying and floundering.’” These moments of freedom to be a child are rare. Her mother has ambitions for her daughter. “Guddi has barely managed to dissuade her mother from forcing her to carry a parasol in the sun like the Victorians, by making her believe that if she did, wouldn’t all the Aunties start thinking that she — Guddi, Rana Khan’s daughter was — insert sheer terror — not ‘fair’ enough, and so had to carry a parasol!” While she may have dodged carrying a parasol, Rumina does not get to dodge the endless rounds of beauty, skin-whitening and hair-straightening treatments she is subjected to. Rumina escapes in to fantasy of the TV series “Melrose Place” and can’t help but contrast the clean set with Karachi where the canals are clogged with sewage and the air is odorous.

Rumina and her father fail to take her mother’s social ambitions seriously. Her mother is also convinced that women don’t work because a husband should be wealthy enough to support his wife and any children. Grandmother warns that a man’s heart is not defined by his social standing, a point lost of Rumina whose only knowledge of men comes from a skeptical, divorced aunt. It’s only after her wedding she asks, “Why was someone like Abba just not good enough for her daughter?”

She was aware that she wasn’t marrying for love. Her husband Anjum is the oldest son and last to marry. His attraction was that one of his younger brothers moved to America after marrying and Rumina’s childhood dreams of “Melrose Place” might become reality. Rumina thinks she might be being too hard on herself, “After all, there was never anything real at these highly staged weddings — just pomp and circumstance. No utterance of vows or exchange of emotion. No ‘now you may kiss the bride.’ No public display of love between the bride and groom on an occasion supposedly to celebrate love.”

Marriage is not entirely without its compensations though. Wealth does make life more comfortable. So far Rumina has lived like her childhood kite: fluttering bravely in the breeze but tethered to the expectations of her family and society. There are signs though that the tether is beginning to fray. Anjum dithers about moving abroad and blames problems with a visa which leads Rumina to suspect he’s too fond of his comfortable life in Karachi to uproot and start again somewhere else. To the disappointment of her mother and mother-in-law, she is still childless. At yet another party, she bumps into a childhood friend. Is she, like her husband, too comfortable to enact change or is she willing to cut the tether?

This could have been a story about a group of unsympathetic people cushioned by wealth and social ambition. However, Rumina’s naivety and her father’s gentleness give the readers hope she can see through her mother’s ambitions and reject the fakery of the endless round of beauty treatments and being seen in the right places (or at least being able to lie about being in the right places). Her mother may be misguided, but her ambition comes from an empathetic desire for her daughter to do well.

The second story, “Paani/Water” switches its focus to class. Akram is proud to have landed a job in Karachi and travels away from his family and small village to be a live-in household manager to Mr and Mrs Ali. Akram finds the job itself – managing the staff of cleaners, cooks, etc – straightforward and he keeps in touch with and sends money back to his family, but something intrigues him. The regular deliveries of bottled water. Not normal two litre bottles but large, water cooler sized bottles. He observes the chef cleans the vegetables in the bottled water and if recipes require water, he has to use the water from the bottles, not the tap. Akram’s intrigue grows when the family’s daughter mentions she can’t use tap water to clean her teeth but has to use the bottled water because of the diseases in the tap water. This puzzles Akram because he and the other servants have to use tap water and none of them have diseases. Another servant tells Akram it’s OK for poor people to use Karachi tap water.

After a family visit to London where the daughter returns full of stories about the novelty of using tap water, the mistress of the house assembles the servants to ask if they’ve been boiling tap water before use. Akram discovers the family had a son, who is no longer talked about, who died from typhoid. The servants are all tested, and all have a low-level gastroenteritis or dysentery. Akram begins to oversee a programme of ensuring the tap water is boiled before use by servants. The family continue to use bottled water.

The consequences of this new programme of hygiene are not fully realised until Akram goes back to his village for a stay with his family. They have ignored Akram’s insistence on boiling the water and have continued to use the tap water as normal with no signs of illness at all.

While the story is literally about water, it could also be an analogy, the water a metaphor. Although the family treat their servants well, the servants are aware of their status and distance themselves from interactions with the family. Even to the extent of not sitting on the furniture when the family are absent during their trip to London, despite having permission to do so. Akram’s lesson is that aspiring to reach beyond your station has unexpected consequences.

The third story, “Janat Ki Huwa/The Air in Paradise” also focuses on an element, this time air, or more specifically air conditioning. In this story, Karachi itself really comes alive and becomes a character. Javed, a public servant in an ID card processing office, dreams of cool marble palaces in his cramped one room apartment where the aircon unit frequently packs in, thanks to what’s at best an intermittent electricity supply. He has promised himself a new pair of sunglasses, proper ones, not the cheap ones that don’t cut out the glare from Karachi’s sunlight. Although he’s saved up, he can still only afford a designer rip-off rather than original. At the bazaar, described sensually so readers get a full picture of sights, sounds, smells and jostling of crowds, hawking of desperate stall owners and the haggling over prices, Javed sees a woman at the sunglasses stall. She tries on several pairs and dithers over which ones suit her best. She’s also looking at the ones in Javed’s price range. Javed helps her choose and steps in to help her barter when the stall owner is dismissive of her attempts. On the spur of the moment he gives her his phone number. If his friends ever discovered that he’d not only met a woman but let her know he’d like to see her again, they would tease him mercilessly.

The woman is named Zainab and she lives with her parents, four brothers and her uncle’s family. She’s the only one who works. At her beauty salon, she straightens hair, waxes legs, administers treatments and listens to tales of parties, fashion and gossip from her young, wealthy clients. Her nights are usually spent indoors. Going out involves using a reputable taxi or rickshaw company, planning safe routes home and dodging harassment, which makes it simpler to stay in. However, she decides she wants to see Javed again and turns up at the street food vendor he mentioned. Javed’s friends are impressed and warm to her.

Readers get to see Javed’s social life: beach parties and occasional use of drugs – not the cocaine of Anjum’s world in “The White Cage” but cheap acid and dope with the associated effects of hangovers and worse. There’s one secret Javed keeps from his friends. He often goes out on his scooter and drives around the wealthy areas. “When you’re poor in Karachi as in any urban centre, you cannot spend much time in your home, for the simple reason that it isn’t comfortable enough. The rich can spend as much time as they like in their homes, for everything is present — food, service, conditioned air, hot water, cold water, drinking water — check, check, check — all of the above.”

Monsoon season hits and with it more electricity blackouts and power losses. The storm threatens to end Javed and Zainab’s relationship before it has begun. She has his phone number, but he still doesn’t have hers and doesn’t know where she lives. Can they weather the storm and was she his soulmate or was she just a fair-weather friend?

Readers end up rooting for Zainab and Javed: two decent people whose paths crossed. Both trying to keep afloat. Javed in his low paid routine job and Zainab who is the sole wage earner in a family of four brothers who prefer to get wasted than find a job. Karachi is stamped all over their lives; the vibrant bazaar, the dirt and pollution, the separation of working class and wealth and the floods of the monsoon which turn roads to rivers from which the wealthy are cushioned but make Zainab and Javed’s working days even longer.

“Of Necessity and Wanting” is a tour through Karachi’s people, its class distinctions, its landmarks and streets. The characters are memorable and, although very aware of their station in life, are given agency to make changes. The lower classes dream and make do but don’t complain and moan about their lot. The wealthy are more comfortable but still subject to stringent social rules and the pressure to be seen doing the right things in the right places. Sascha Akhtar’s stories, when combined in one volume, feel like a love letter to a Karachi full of potential and beauty but shaped by people, commerce and a class system.

“Of Necessity and Wanting” is available from The 87 Press.

Of Necessity and Wanting Blog Tour: remaining dates 26 Nov @BunnysPause, 27 Nov @NadeineReads, 28 Nov @Sofia_Reading, 29 Nov @BrownFlopsy.

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

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

“What Girls Do in the Dark” Rosie Garland (Nine Arches Press) – book review

“What Girls Do in the Dark” has a dedication to the poet’s father noting his death coincided with Voyager 2 leaving the solar system. This coincidence inspires exploration of space imagery with stars and comets as a celebration of what makes us human. There’s a wry sense of humour that runs through the poems too. The collection opens with “Letter of rejection from a Black Hole”,

Rosie Garland What Girls Do in the Dark front cover

“We’re touched by your desire to join our great work
of dismembering the fabric of time and matter.
We can’t blame you for wanting to hide in nothing,
and note the ways you’ve snapped off pieces of yourself
to prove you’re serious.”

Near the end comes the useful advice,

“You have the right to glow.
It’s not your duty
to light up anyone else’s day.”

In essence it’s a reminder that occasionally individuals need to recalibrate their perspective, especially those who are used to putting others’ needs first, and find a sense of self-worth that is not reliant on how others see or value us. It’s a theme further explored in “Snuffing hearts that burn too bright”, where the narrator can smell her woollen coat has a singed elbow after being forced to sit next to a star on the bus,

…………………The star peers at me, anxious, shaking its head
when I accuse it of scorching my coat. It’ll deny everything.
I’ve read how stars live off lies. So what about their surface
temperature, cores of liquid helium spinning at a thousand
miles per second, how they live for billions of years; haven’t
they got enough space in the sky to show off how glorious
they are? And the eyes. One look and bang, you’re gone. Not
me. I know how to deal with heavenly bodies.”

If you let it, the star will steal your light too. The cure is to set firm boundaries and refuse to be gas-lit; just like dealing with a narcissistic personality. Although it takes a firm sense of self to negotiate with a black hole of a personality who relies on taking advantage of another’s good nature. Someone who wants to do the right thing or is anxious to fit in, is ripe for exploitation.

Rosie Garland she was adopted as a baby and it took thirty years before she saw her original birth certificate which gave her name as Johanna Blight. Growing up with “thumbs that wilt roses” in a family of gardeners in “Palimpsest”,

“Three decades later, I fight for my certificate; a history
kept secret from its rightful owner. It lists a stranger
mother, blank box father, my self unrecognisable, spelled all wrong.

Only the date’s correct. Birthed on a Sunday,
but there’s nothing bonny in Blight, nor good, nor gay.
Whichever way I twist it – Bly, Blythe – the root is rotten.

I have a pair of parent names to choose from:
half Sunday lucky, half Wednesday woeful, neither
the whole picture. A contradiction”

It’s a play on the nursery rhyme where Wednesday’s child is full of woe but a Sunday’s child is bonny and blithe. The father’s name isn’t recorded because her birth parents weren’t married, which leaves a sense of rootlessness. Sometimes a search for answers merely creates more questions and Rosie becomes a flower without roots supported by an adoptive family yet carrying an awareness of not quite being the same. ‘Bonny’ is appropriate though, but given a new twist during a hospital stay where a pirate’s rebelliousness is invoked in “Dancing the plank”,

“red of heart tattoo. You are still Anne Bonney, Mary Read.
You’ve not sailed this far to scrape. Lean

into the swell of your rickety bed: peg-legged,
bilge-breathed, split-masted. Screw your eye
to the horizon and stagger
this day’s plank. Kick up your heels.”

In the title poem, two sisters share a bedroom and the narrator watches her sister climb back through the bedroom window at around 5.30am, “Mum will never believe you, she purrs, reeling in her tail. She takes a deep breath and turns her skin the other way so hair is on the inside and girl is on the outside”. The narrator begs to be let into the secret, but is told to wait.

Meanwhile, “Dark Matter” considers human arrogance (complete poem),

“The night sky over Darfur overwhelms
with stars; so burdened, there are plans to cull
a quarter. A third. More. They will prune back
the constellations to chief brightnesses –
the named, the mapped – burn off the stubble
of the small, the feeble, the unclear.
Torch the unimportant to cinders.

They will dam the Milky Way, divert
its flow to those who appreciate fine light;
leave the star-field uncluttered
for Lords of the Empty Quarter:
Antares, Altair, Arcturus; extending
ashy vacancies between these oases
in the night’s new desert.”

An unnamed ‘they’ classify and assign important to stars, trash those unconsidered unimportant without considering the roles played by the so-called ‘lesser’ stars. It’s works as an analogy to man’s conquering of nature and the triggering of climate change. Or to more recent events where the ‘lesser’ people on lower pay have kept the economy going by caring, stocking shelves and making deliveries.

The final poem, “Bowing out” sees a life in reverse where an unnamed she,

……………………..Unlocks gravity’s shackle,

parts sky with shoulder blades and flees the planet.
The Earth shrinks to a speck she can eclipse with a fingertip.”

Death enables her to unpick her life and find her true self, free from earth’s rules, which is where readers came in as celestial bodies become metaphors to explore what makes and motivates us as humans.

“What Girls Do in the Dark” tackles dark subjects with brio and energy which feels celebratory. A wry, subversive humour entertains while the poems delve into who humans navigate through their world where some only focus on what’s literary in front of them, whereas others are gazing to the stars, probing the darkness for a deeper understanding.

What Girls Do in the Dark” is available from Nine Arches Press.

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

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

“Cut the Black Rabbit” Benjamin Cusden (Against the Grain Press) – book review

“Cut the Black Rabbit” Benjamin Cusden book cover

“Cut the Black Rabbit” is a pamphlet inspired by the two and half years Benjamin Cusden spent homeless. An early poem, “First Steps”, features a bailiff’s visit where he tells the couple that they should have received warnings, final notice and notice to quit,

we didn’t receive them, she says, confused: we can’t just leave.
You’ve got twenty minutes, the bailiff says, grab what you can and go.
Our home, she holds out paint dripped palms; we’re staying!
The smell of Dulux Pure White Emulsion and tense silence mix.

You’ve got twenty minutes, the bailiff says, grab what you can and go.
Outside on the pavement, four bin liners overflow with clothes,
the smell of Dulux Pure White Emulsion and tense silence mix.
They hold hands as the doors are locked; You’ve got paint on you, she says.”

Two people painting their home are not two people who have received eviction notices. However, the process does not allow for notices not received. The bailiff is not acting for the couple but the landlord and his job is to make sure the renters are no longer in the property. Neither landlord nor bailiff care that letters have not been received or appreciate the effort the couple have put in to make the place their home. There’s no explanation of why the eviction notice was served or whether the furnishings were theirs or the landlord’s so it’s not clear how much the couple for forced to leave behind. The brand of paint referenced isn’t cheap and four bin liners of clothes don’t seem much. The unnamed partner still talking about paint after the pair have been thrown out shows how sudden and unexpected the eviction was. She’s not even begun to process the lost of what was home. The pantoum form underlines the sense of bewilderment and loss.

The relationship didn’t last. Readers never find out what happened to her. The narrator, who has also lost his job, however, ends up without a home and facing a very different form of existence, “Transience”

“unpack and pack – clean clothes on top with
dirty underneath, rearrange bits of yesterday
to be ready for tomorrow;

mouth, jaw and nose fuse and elongate, legs grow
thin and compress, feet become claws;

make sure the bag is balanced; tie bootlaces
tight – bunny ears in a double knot;”

The hint of rabbit in the italicised section is deliberate. Rabbits flit in and out of the poems. For reasons unspecified, the narrator does not have the option of sofa-surfing with friends although does get to stay awhile with an acquaintance met in a bar but that ends badly. Generally the homeless are ignored by those who are not homeless, but to some they’re just a game, or not quite human, in “Hyenas” a beer-fuelled pack of men chant, “Oi mate! What you doing there?/Ain’t you got no bed to sleep in?” and then it gets darker,

“Contrary to popular belief, the Hyena is not just
an excellent scavenger but also a powerful killer –
it prefers to attack the weak and injured.

The patient is male and still breathing. Found down the side
alley next to the multi-storey carpark in town.

Fractured and dislocated jaw with multiple skin abrasions,
fractured left orbit, six suspected broken ribs and his nose
is broken.”

The italics are notes made in the hospital where the beaten man ends up. The dry, unemotional commentary asks the reader to figure out what the effects of the beating are, not just through the physical injuries but also the psychological effects of being dehumanised, an object to kick and beat for drunken entertainment.

“Trixy Myxi”, where myxi is a reference to myxomatosis, a fatal viral disease affecting rabbits, also examines effects of becoming homeless,

“I once lived a life of 9 to 5, 2 up 2 down, 24/7 3 6 5.
Now I camp outside with my grizzle sizzle mind,
thoughts flick and kick and trick in a buzz of snow.

Acid churns and burns my empty stomach-bag.
Hunger twists my wits, assists my fists to beat
the living shit from any sense of logic I once owned.”

The numbers, a regular job, a regular house (two bedrooms, two reception rooms), a life measured in full days is sharp contrast to the aimlessness of being both jobless and homeless where empty days stretch into meaninglessness and the goal becomes to get through the next hour. It permeates everything and the learned logistics of managing a busy life get ditched in favour of simply coping and existing.

The final poem “This” appears to be about poetry,

“This poem feared being read,
feared never being understood.

Now this poem is uncertain.
It sits within walls, locked in under its own volition.
It sprays itself with anti-bacterial spray until
its words become blurred and indistinct.
Until syllables become uncountable, until
consonants mix into vowels, until
ink runs from its paper, until
this poem hasn’t been written at all.”

However, it could also be a metaphor for a human who faced uncertainty or feared being misunderstood. Until he comes to realise that homelessness need not define him, he can still be himself on his terms.

Overall “Cut the Black Rabbit” is a journey into and out of homelessness, recorded with honesty and compassion. The poems are accessible but still tough to read. The streets look very different for someone who lives on them compared with how them look to someone who uses them to travel someone whether to a job or home. Benjamin Cusden doesn’t shy away from describing the violence dispensed towards those who live on the streets or the disregard and dehumanisation faced. It seeks to explain and inform without lecturing readers.

“Cut the Black Rabbit” is available from Against the Grain.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“The R-Pattz Facttz” Andrew Blair (Speculative Books) – book review

Andrew Blair The R-Pattz Facts book cover

What else can you do with a stocking-filler, celebrity biography given to you because it’s destined for the bin? Andrew Blair wrote poems after noticing the satisfying rhythm of the name Robert Pattinson and tested them on an audience. The audience’s response helped inform this collection. “Facts” is not necessary accurate as “Origin Story” suggests with a five-year-old Robert Pattinson seeing something out of the window,

“‘That, that’s the moon.’
He seemed disappointed by the news. His parents
Asked why? Did Robert Pattinson not know that
That was the moon? And Robert Pattinson said:
‘I thought it was the boulder from Sisyphus’ hill.
I thought
It was my thought, trapped in a bubble;”

That last phrase could be interpreted in a myriad of ways, in the bubble shape of the moon or a social bubble, a famous person’s isolation from people who are not part of his entourage. A life that might seem glamorous but in reality is repetitive and tightly controlled. Within the poem are greyed out sections, the first of which could be Robert Pattinson in a previous life or even someone who shares the name,

“During the Second World War, young pilot RAF Flight
Lieutenant Robert Pattinson suffers a serious spinal wound
during a bombing raid on the city of Dresden.”

The second greyed out section flies off into a merging of actor and roles he has played,

“Robert Pattinson’s secret identity is Robert Pattinson, a wealthy
American playboy, philanthropist, and owner of Wayne
Enterprises. Robert Pattinson originated from an incident
in Robert Pattinson’s childhood; after witnessing the murder
of his parents, he swore vengeance against criminals, an oath”

The actor’s most recent role is Batman the superhero of Bruce Wayne. The poem also refences the Twilight films and his role in the Harry Potter film. It ends, “And about the script he added that ‘It’s really/about people who lie to themselves – right up until the end.'” The poem is not just about the cleverness of merging actor and man, but also the way the man is forced to create personas for public image and media consumption, a persona that fans are happy with. A scorned fan is a risk of a ruined career.

Some poems explore the actor before he became actor. In “Robert Pattinson’s Career Advisory Test Results, Presented Verbatim”

“Dear Robert,
Having discussed with you – at length – your hopes and dreams
Having assessed your aptitudes and failings, your strengths and
We have decided:
You, Robert Pattinson, you
Will be someone who designs security shutters for small
independent high street retailers.
You will throw yourself into the work and eventually win an
award for Innovation in 2020.”

It continues in this vein until it forecasts, after a disappointing slide into redundancy which becomes a sideways move into managing a garden centre, “In 2046 Robert Pattinson you will have a heart attack in the/garden centre and you will die in hospital after a second attack.” The poem ends with details of the funeral and finishes with a twist suggesting an equally unenlightened alternative career. Anyone who had no idea what career they wanted while still at school will recognise the bizarre outcome of a computerised test for personality and aptitude and the seemingly random and ordinary result. Talent doesn’t always show itself in an academic setting.

A sequence “In This Climate” rounds off the pamphlet. Part III suggests

“If left alone
in a room
by himself
for too long,
Robert Pattinson
becomes moths.”

What do actors do when not acting? How do they slough off their roles, their public personas and just be. Part V assembles what could be answers to random questions during interviews,

“Robert Pattinson’s favourite Argos Catalogue is, without a
doubt, Winter 1991.”

It sounds like an answer a PR-team would dream up and have on standby in case it is asked. Or perhaps it’s line-up in case the acting career takes a sharp nose-dive and a role on a cable shopping channel is needed. The sequence ends with “In conclusion” where “Robert Pattinson hates it/ when poets do rule of three then abrupt pathos.” and continues,

“Robert Pattinson sees dead people all of the time,
But books only end if you let them.

Keep warm.

Robert Pattinson will become
Robert Pattinson will become fuel.

You will never see the light disappear from his eyes.”

His most famous role to date is that of a vampire that sparkled in the sunlight (although, to be fair, Forks, Washington is not know for its sunny weather). The fictional affair between vampire Edward Cullen and human Bella inspired outpourings of fan fiction and E L James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Fan fiction is a way of keeping stories alive once their authors have completed them.

Do the poems contain facts or are they a sequence of speculation? I don’t think it matters. “The R-Pattz Facttz” is a fun exploration of the shadowy real person that follows a public persona, a send-up of the conflation of actor and roles played. They easy to read aloud too, not because of easy vocabulary, but because of their use of colloquial, natural speech rhythms and appreciation of sound patterns. It’s also fair to say that a pamphlet is the right length; a full collection of these poems would become wearing but Andrew Blair has made a judicious selection. The poems can be enjoyed at a surface level of an actor’s life or read more deeply as asking questions around the nature of celebrity and whether those pushed into the limelight are ever able to be their true selves.

“The R-Pattz Facttz” is available from Speculative Books.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“From A Sheltered Place” Michele Witthaus (Wild Pressed Books) – book review

From A Sheltered Place Michele Witthaus

“From A Sheltered Place” is a selection from around a hundred poems drafted during lockdown in England in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Where some found their creativity stalled, otheres found a creative output necessary. The first poem “Musical chairs for the end of an age” sets the scene, “We might as well get comfortable” and ends, “Everything’s stopped./ No sound now/ but the gift of our shared breath.” Adjusting to new circumstances also means adjusting to new ways of keeping in touch, in “Tricks of memory”

“Or no longer going to Grandma’s house,
even though she was all alone;
gathering around the screen instead
to exchange news of dull days at home.

I wish you memories
no more troubling than these:
guileless, blameless fragments:
proof that we made it through.”

Video-conferencing replaces visits, keeping vulnerable family members in touch. News is reduced to what’s happening in the home. Plans are postponed and people sink into new routines. The restrictions leave little room for novelty or spontaneity. However, the underlying message is hopeful: if all we can remember is restriction and boredom, that means we made through to the post lockdown world. The effects of lockdown are further explored in “Radio silence”,

“Is it just me?
Or is the atmosphere
somehow denser,
as if we’d descended abruptly to sea level,
where balls bounce in slow motion
and come up to meet us a fraction too late?”

It continues to describe the feelings of being out of synch and ends, “as if we were refugees/in a place no longer home?” A place where we are on-edge and anxious no longer feels like a place where we can be ourselves. Home is looked at and assessed by different eyes. For some, it may also have been repurposed as a workplace or temporary school; the function of home has changed.

The writer is aware of her relative privilege. She is able to stay home, take daily exercise and keep in touch with relatives and friends. She is also aware others are not so fortunate. “No turning away” starts

“A silent ambulance
emerging too slowly
from the nursing home car park.
A splash of yellow yolk
on the pavement,
life forever unhatched.”

An ambulance not using a siren and progressing slowly is one that holds a patient who has passed away. The narrator being the only observer outside of the nursing home implies the death was contained, witnessed by staff in the absence of the decease’s family. Not to cast aspersions on the nursing home staff, but the “unhatched” is right for the sense of a rite of passage taking place outside of the family nest.

There are moments of hope, in “Three smiles on my morning walk”,

“These were early-morning
escape from lockdown smiles,
generous and risky and laced with hope
and they buoyed me up
all the way home.”

Under more normal circumstances, a smile at a passer-by would be a quick upturn of a mouth to indicate that another’s presence has been acknowledged and is not a threat. Living under the pandemic, a smile is broader, a sign of solidarity and that the future might hold the chance for friendship. Small gestures take on more significance.

“From A Sheltered Place” explores the effects of lockdown and how humans react to the limitations it brought. How, even small interactions such as passing in the street or a video call, take on a broader significance. No longer immersed in the bustle of crowded city centres, rushing to workplaces or able to take part in cultural events, people are forced to slow down and focus on what really matters, what their personal priorities are. There’s time to hear the birdsong and reconnect with the natural world. Each poem creates its own moment in time but also cumulatively adds to the whole so “From A Sheltered Place” feels like coherent narrative through a pandemic.

“From A Sheltered Place” is available from Wild Pressed Books.

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

“Families and Other Natural Disasters” Anita Goveas (Reflex Press) – book review

Anita Goveas Families and Other Natural Disasters

“Families and Other Natural Disasters” is a collection of 15 flash fictions grouped by “Fire”, “Water”, “Wind”, “Love” and “Families”, although, in a sense, all of them touch on family relationships and what we inherit through genetics or tradition. For example, in the opening story, “What Really Gets You is the Rising Heat”, the narrator inherits a prophesy that she will die by volcano and learns a grandmother and aunt lived with the same prophesy. However, the narrator observes, “Things that can kill you: expectations, ignorance, other people’s hate. Longing. Things that can be avoided: fate.” An attitude not born out by the narrator’s actions, just as the Greek philosopher Aeschylus thought he could avoid fate by remaining outdoors where he was unlikely to be struck by a falling object only to be struck on the head by a turtle dropped by an eagle trying to break the shell. The genetic link is stronger in “Various Histories of Sea Serpents” where the oddity of grandmother insisting the new house has a basement becomes clear.

A couple of the stories use a list format to good effect. “A Pilgrimage Can Be One Way” starts with a packing list and, as the list grows, the reason for the pilgrimage is revealed.  “Virmala Nagra’s Hypotheses on Marriage and Motherhood” is a list of observations with chemical formulae because the narrator is a scientist, e.g. “child eats chalk (CaCO3) and sand (SiO2)” and the list builds towards the narrator needing to tell her husband something about their daughter. She inserts the reminder, “Remember people are carbon and hydrogen, oxygen and chloride, magnesium and sulphur, and can be infinitely remade.”

Families are places of secrets. A narrator, Krishna, in “Defeating the Demon”, shares her home with two sons of her mother’s best friend and has to figure out why her mother’s preparations of her friend’s return involve reminding the friend of her late husband, precisely the reason the sons were temporarily staying the first place. “Warning Systems” explores each individual family member’s reaction to a tsunami warning. “Finding Venkat” takes place within a family tradition of an annual meet-up in an aquarium in Bournemouth, gradually revealing the tragedy which isn’t spoken of. Sailing lessons uncover disturbing secrets in “Turning into the Wind”. A daughter learns the meaning of grandmother’s proverb, “Because Someone Else Dances”. A game of Uno in “And Reverse” has individual family members speculating why the son Mingel is distracted. Of course, none of them have the right answer but the distraction buys the mother time to how to spin the news she will be forced to announce.

There are meetings too. In “Monochrome” a two people repeatedly meet at the penguin exhibit allowing the flightless birds to represent their relationship. Zohra in “Magic and Candlelight”, waits at the school ball for her boyfriend, who’s promised her the first dance, to show up having carefully chosen her outfit to incorporate his favourite colour only for him to turn up with someone else. She reflects on the lesson her boyfriend has taught her but doesn’t go home without a dance with a promising partner. Dinah in “The Man in the Yellow Shirt” learns what she says in presentations will be ignored, “At Bangalore University it was her neckline; in Arizona it was her accent. Everywhere she went she had seemed to have focused on the wrong sort of tone.” “The wrong sort of tone” could also describe Harbir’s shirt, but Dinah ensures it will be the last thing she sees before she jets off again.

Each story feels satisfyingly complete. Even when there’s a twist, the clues are skilfully seeded if the reader is paying attention. The characters are fully rounded and stand off the page. Readers feel Dinah’s frustration that her message is lost because of what she wears or how she speaks when men are heard. Zohra’s anticipation dissipating into embarrassment and then her determination to turn a bad night into a good one has readers hoping for a happy ending. The self-absorbed but unhappy family in “Warning Systems” feels familiar. Each character overcomes their own dilemma.

Anita Goveas has created a welcoming collection of stories set in the UK, India and one in outer space, with characters that have both depth and warmth. “Families and Other Natural Disasters” explores how family life shapes individuals, for good and bad, and how individuals react to being repressed or bolstered, loved or despised, in stories which linger after the book has been closed.

“Families and Other Natural Disasters” is available from Reflex Press.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“A Sense of Tiptoe and other articles of faith” Karen Hayes (Holland Park Press) – book review

A Sense of Tiptoe Karen Hayes

The poems in “A Sense of Tiptoe” have a central theme of faith, largely Christian, and are split into three sections, ‘Definite’, ‘Indefinite’ and ‘Infinite’. Some of the poems were written to be included in song cycles or are lyrics for a libretto and others were written as part of a residency at the late poet Charles Causley’s house, now owned by the Charles Causley Trust, where the churches in and around the village became part of the poet’s focus. The opening poem “At the Cathedral” follows a hymn-like structure of six line stanzas with lines two and four rhyming and finishing on a rhyming couplet, and tours the decoration inside the church, some for saints and royalty, others marking where people were laid to rest,

“And ordinary folk stare in relief,
Eyebrows confused, mouths open, noses chipped,
Down to the chapel floor which still vibrates.
They breathe in all its sounds with laughing lips.
And under the tiles though still within the fold
Lies someone’s little son, just six years old.”

The age of the child acts as a sobering reminder of mortality and what some of the reliefs are memorials so laughter at awkward or inept stonemasonry is misplaced. ‘Little’ in the final line feels unnecessary: the child’s age does its work.

Although “Galilee” is in the ‘Definite’ section, it uses the miracle of Jesus walking on water and is set in St Lawrence in Essex, England, “A man steps onto the waves,/ Walks across from Mersea to Saint Lawrence,/ Finger blessing the throng of revellers/ Spilling their beer at the pub”

Among the witnesses,

“There’s not a clink of money at the bar.
A woman near the slip way, in red bikini,
Lowered to her knees,/Stage whispers to her husband
Gawd almighty! And you thought that only you
Could walk on water.”

The sight inspires enough reverence for people to stop buying, engaging in capitalism, and look. The woman’s bikini is, a colour designed to attract sexual attention. She draws her husband’s attention to a miracle implying that his demands for attention are of false worship, that he is in effect a false idol.

In the second section, ‘Indefinite’, “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” is inspired by Caravaggio’s painting of the same title,

“She is wearing a mourning black,
A uniform, waitress.
Or execution black. A widow,
Black widow black.

And is she giving or is she receiving that platter?
A trophy for her mantlepiece. And is she properly flattered
By the assiduous speed with which her whim is granted?
She averts her face from his
Dear face, shorn in mid-prayer,
In righteous speech,
In righteous rejection and indifference.
His head will never turn to watch her dance.”

The references to “black” are laboured. Caravaggio’s painting is dark and crowded. Salome looks away from the platter with St John’s head on it. His expression is one of suffering. The platter is clean of blood. According to the story, Salome, a dancer, requested the head of St John the Baptist. Here doubt is cast on whether she understood what she was asking for. He can only be indifferent to her suffering. The painting is seen as a warning: be careful what you wish for.

A later poem in the same section, “The Twelve”, focuses on a jury deliberating whether the accused is guilty,

“Could we have also fallen so far beneath
The measure of what can be forgiven?
Here we sit, twelve strangers
Trying to understand
The depths of other peoples’ hearts,
While barely afloat in the shallows of our own.”

The jury are tasked with finding guilt or innocence based on the evidence presented in court. However, the jury are also human and respond emotionally as well as logically. The discussion widens to intent and whether they are fit to make such a judgement. How many of them can say they wouldn’t have done the same if caught in the circumstances of the crime? The crime is a sexual assault with no witnesses, just forensic evidence that proves sex took place but cannot prove whether consent was given. Eleven of the jury have reached a decision but one is still asking questions. What the verdict is, readers are left to guess.

The third section, ‘Infinite’, marks time and speculates. In “The Women Who Shaped the Church” in this case, St Materiana’s Church at Tintagel in Cornwall, the poem’s speaker asks,

“And I wonder what stopped them
Throwing in the towel.
Visions and dreams, moments of clarity,
A wink to posterity or stubborn faith alone?”

Were they building the church from a sense of duty to their community and faith or because it would stand long after they had passed away as a monument to themselves, an image of immortality? Ultimately, though, does it matter? The church stands as a testament to their faith, their resolve to make it happen. A similar theme is picked up in “Momentarily”

“Some moments are as dense as forests,
Overhung, with the premature sense of future recall,
Drops of water cast like runes, revealing all
And trapped on the skin of a leaf.
Others, disperse and scatter; time at play,
Perfectly unmemorable, after the fact,
And already pouring away.

This is how life passes,
The ever-present motor of what if,
Emptied, like a second cataract over a cliff.
And we cannot preserve
A single second, other than through a surge
Of purpose within the mechanics of our senses,
However acute the urge.”

It surmises that we can’t necessarily remember moments we do want to hang on to without conscious effort and the mindfulness of being present and fully alert in that particular moment. So, moments that we don’t recognise the significance of until afterwards, become difficult to recall without some sensory input: a smell, a taste, a visual prompt.

Overall “A Sense of Tiptoe” is firmly routed in faith as a means of exploring our place in the world, what motivates humans to act and create. Whether creation is in building monuments for communities, a painting that casts a new light on a familiar story or recording a snapshot of time in a journal or poem. Faith becomes a prism through which to understand others and their motives for action from a position of compassion. Through this prism, Karen Hayes reaches out to communicate ideas and gives readers space for their thoughts.

“A Sense of Tiptoe” is available from Holland Park 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.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

“Burials” Jessica Drake-Thomas (CLASH Books) – book review

“Burials” explores the darker side of love: love unrequited, the imbalance of power when one person is trying to make a relationship work but the other isn’t and how someone who already feels worthless due to a chronic condition (mental or physical or both) will cling to scraps of love given by someone. Even if that someone is fond of reminding them how difficult they are to love because of their condition and that they stand no chance of love with someone else. “Love Spell Number One” starts, “If you love someone/ who does not love you back,” gives the advice, “All good love spells/ require someone to/ give something/ in order to/ get something back,”

“Imagine his indifference
Imagine replacing it
with passion.
Imagine his eyes, his smile.
Think of the last thing
he said to you.
The old jokes. Your demeanor.
After your breakdown,
things just aren’t the same
anymore. It’s not your fault,

Open your eyes. There
should be no ‘but.’”

The last instruction breaks the spell. It’s a useful warning that you can’t manipulate someone who doesn’t care to start caring. Love isn’t about clinging on to someone who puts you down and reminds you of your weaknesses and flaws. Wishing something was so, won’t make it so.

There’s another picture of the central relationship in “Pocketful”,

“You ask me if
I’m still ‘hung up on you.’
You spit out the words—
I’m an annoyance,
grit at the bottom
of the glass
you drink from.
You ask me if
I love you.
I laugh and say no.

I get chest pains when
you tell me
about everyone that
you sleep with.
To you,
I’m a dead woman—
a bad ghost,
sticking around
after you’ve already
disposed of my corpse.
To your disappointment,
I return with the current,
floating up from
my water-marked grave.”

The woman’s not ready to move on and clings despite the fact she knows he doesn’t love her. Yet he hangs around, presumably thinking he’s doing her a favour, although he’s actually using her as a convenient fall-back, giving her false hope because he doesn’t move on. The narrator acknowledges, “I’m not a paper to be edited./ A problem to be solved./ A doll to be dressed./ But I pretend to be.” Later she evokes Ophelia,

“Her chest heaves
as she inhales,
accepting the water
as it is.

She twirls,
her eyes stare,
as if seeing the water
for the first time
and the fish all come up
from the dark
to kiss
the rotten flowers
that fall from
her outstretched hands.”

This is the romanticised picture of the John Everett Millais painting. He inadvertently gave his model, Lizzie Siddal, who was in poor health, pneumonia because he hadn’t realised the heating lamps had gone out and she was too afraid of disturbing him to tell him. He was too busy seeing her as someone else to notice the woman in front of him. That works as an apt metaphor for this relationship. She is looking for love and care. He is seeing the woman she used to be before her illness, not the woman she is now. He feeds her small acts of false hope, leaving her unable to move on.

She invokes, “Love Spell Number Three”, “If you love someone who/ is using you for your body, try this spell,” with the further instruction, “Do this on a Friday,/ so you can ignore/ his late-night, drunken/ booty calls/ all weekend” and ends,

“Draw a bath.
Hot as you can
Let the hurt
leave your body
like steam rising
from the surface.”

Spells are more than an incantation and following instructions. They require that you believe they will work. The narrator finds herself metaphorically in a “White Silk-lined Casket”,

“I’m alone now
with the one thing
I had feared: silence.

When you left,
you did not wrap
a red string
around my finger.
there is
no bell to tell
those at the surface
that I’m down here,
still breathing.”

He has failed to kill her so her act of breathing becomes a defiant one. A final spell might just free her, “This is How I Bury You”, starting with a wax carving of the man,

“This will take everything.
Gnawing away my flesh,
until I am nothing
but bone,
completing the work
that you began.

I hold you over a flame.
Your head curls inward,
melting into
your shoulders,
into your middle,
until you are

The spell doesn’t end there, she has to take the remains of melted wax and bury them. Her desperation and intent gives the readers hope this spell will work.

There are poems outside of the narrative arc too. Including one that gives Elizabeth Short, better known as her nickname, The Black Dahlia, a voice. The narrative arc of the central relationship gives the collection a framework and unity. Despite the name, these are not morbid poems. “Burials” gives a relationship its post mortem, and explores expectations of love and the romanticism of love that can disguise reality. The taut, incantatory lines are engaging and invite the reader to think about love and its meaning, using the darker side of love to illustrate what love really is.

“Burials” is available from CLASH 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.

“indoors looking out” poems by Hilaire with visuals by Stephen J Graham (lower case press) – book review

indoors looking out book cover

“indoors looking out” is subtitled “a creative exchange in constrained circumstances” and is a collaboration between poet Hilaire who texted her poems to artist Stephen J Graham who created a visual version. Both live on the same estate in Battersea, London. Some of the proceeds from the book are going to charity.

The poems are inspired by haiku and tanka. An early poem is a reminder of the visibility of nature as people went into lockdown,

“no tumbleweed yet
but life contracts traffic thins
birds chatter”

Nature had always been there but, removed from the everyday bustle, people had chance to notice and observe it. There’s a also a sense of envy that birds are able to communicate with each other when, for humans, face to face communication is restricted to fellow residents (if any) or keyworker contact, or even none if living alone and able to organise essential food deliveries.

After adjustment to the initial stages of lockdown, anxiety surfaces. No one knows how long lockdown will continue and doom scrolling through news reports begins to take its toll, “even the air is/on edge” continues “sirens, alarms, rapid barks/pepper the gaps./someone laughs.” Image below shows complete poem:

Being stuck at home brings items that normally don’t attract attention into focus, “framed photos of aged parents/one now gone,/one far away.” Image below shows quoted fragment of poem (not the complete poem).

And dust is “life’s particles shed/now sunlit”. Again, in the bustle of life pre-lockdown, dust would be merely be swept up or ignored but now, with normal life on hold and a new life confined to a flat, small things gain attention. There’s a sense of injustice that the natural world continues,

“day by day, more light.
more green. more growth. human life
along kept on ice.”

One poem mentions that some London parks were closed because of fears people would gather in groups and ignore social distancing. This highlighted one of the inequalities of lockdown, that some had access to gardens whereas as others were confined inside with no access to green space. April in England was also unseasonably sunny, the type of weather that tends to encourage people outdoors. Birds frequent the poems, in one, gusts create shapes drifting past a window, “hard to distinguish/litter from birds”.

Humans don’t come out of this too well at all,

“before dawn, dotted
squares of light in neighbouring
building. no one waves.”

Image below shows illustrated poem (text as quote).

Each wrapped in their own small world without external connection. However, the scope of the poem doesn’t consider whether these neighbours would have waved at each other before lockdown when people working different shifts or working in a gig economy would have met or acknowledged their neighbours. Keyworkers unable to work from home would have continued the same shift patterns, perhaps out of synch with neighbours who were furloughed or working from home.

“indoors looking out” is a visual poetic journal recording some aspects of life in lockdown in London. It captures the sense of uncertainty and anxiety, the heightened response to nature and everyday observations that would have passed unnoticed during a normal life’s timetable. Although it features a life that has lost access to the outdoors through the lack of access to a garden and the closing of parks, it is also a relatively privileged one. Its personal focus shuts out the keyworkers and health workers, carers and those that had a more direct contact with Covid-19, either personally or through a loved one. “indoors looking out” is still an attractive archive with Hilaire’s poems visually brought to life through Stephen J Graham’s graphics which still leave the text visible and legible.

“indoors looking out” is available from Hilaire.

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

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

“Somehow” Helen Calcutt (Verve Poetry Press) – book review

Helen Calcutt Somehow cover image

“Somehow” is a series of poems written after the death of Helen Calcutt’s brother Matthew. The opening poem “Now my brother has died” registers unexpected grief, “the flowers have opened. The sound of a/ river is moving in my head” and ends, “How dare this life/ make me want things I’d die to/ love, but river-bound, never could.” The poem’s speaker wants to press pause or at least stop to process these raw feelings, but life doesn’t stop, it continues flowing like the river. News of Matthew’s death came via a phone call in “Something terrible happened”,

“the phone rang
and when I answered

it you’d killed
yourself, and that was the start

of you being dead.”

It continues with the narrator looking

“for signs of rain,
sudden clouds,

that held your

in the clement weather.”

It’s a reaction to the way life continues as if nothing has changed, yet, for the bereaved everything has changed. There is an absence, a seeking of answers, a feeling of disconnection and a grasping for signs that may acknowledge the upheaval that grief brings. The narrator is also a mother and has to explain through “A conversation with my daughter about my brother’s suicide,” when the child is not mature enough to understand death, “She tells me my brother is in the moon”, and, after hearing the explanation that her uncle was sad (other poems reveal he was being treated for anxiety and depression, although a young child wouldn’t understand what that meant), asks questions,

“She asks me if I miss him
and when I say I do,
she asks me again, how he died

if the sadness of missing him
will make me die.

I hold her then,
I accept
the weight of her. I can feel her widening like the stillness of a tree –”

The conversation lifts to the shape of the moon and the scene outside the window. It’s natural for the daughter to ask about whether she will lose her mother too but it brings a guilt: how much should she know, how much can she bear and, in watching her mother’s grief, how much is transmitted from parent to child? It’s useful to remember that these questions would still exist had Matthew’s death been caused by a fatal accident or illness. Blame is an unnecessary and unhelpful burden and not one explored here. What is covered is the language of officialdom in recording Matthew’s death in “Found” which uses words from the post-mortem report.

“Larynx, trachea, bronchi,            normal
mouth, pharynx, oesophagus,    unremarkable,
history of anxiety since 2006”

These are dry observations which reduce a person to body parts. The poem ends,

“There is nothing
significant about
the deceased.”

I assume the italics are the poet’s. Within context, “nothing significant” is a statement about the presentation of the body, the injuries being consistent with a suicide and the death not involving anyone else or being suspicious. But for a loved one reading the report, its tone is callous. Whatever triggered Matthew’s death, he was still a significant person to his sister and other loved ones. There is a sense of injustice that this cannot be acknowledged in the coroner’s report and is considered beyond its remit. There are some poems that do describe the method of suicide and what the deceased might have chose that method or the thought process that led him there. But the narration moves on to the aftermath. A sister left seeing “Grief is like a miracle”

“it’s open and weeping. Like the orange rose
that never bloomed all Spring
then one day in Autumn opened atriums of colour.
Now all the roses gather and the door
is open-armed. People think I’m strange
touching my lips to the wood, but
ice is thawing to love inside my body:
I don’t know how else to show my gratitude.”

The final poems feel lighter: longer vowel sounds creep in compared with the shorter, starker lines in the opening poems. Enjambment is still used, but it feels like a gentle prod not to wallow rather than an urgent demand to move on. The narrator has reached a peace with her loss.

“Somehow” is a journey from a sudden bereavement through to recognition of loss and the adjustment that follows the emergence from grief. Although bereavement is a universal experience, it’s also a personal one and “Somehow” focuses on the latter, showing that, whilst the Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief are a useful generic template, the stages do not occur in a linear order. Helen Calcutt eschews self-pity and presents a searing account of her bereavement from shock to acceptance. “Somehow” shows is it possible to regain a life in the aftermath of a death.

“Somehow” is available from Verve Poetry Press.

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