“Anamnesis” Denise O’Hagan (Recent Work Press) – book review

Denise O’Hagan Anamnesis book cover

“Anamnesis” is an explorative, thoughtful collection of memory, not just as things remembered, but how understanding of what’s remembered changes within the context of hindsight and more detailed probing of things half-remembered or that were skimmed over without thought at the time. “Subtext” explains this better in looking at how flawed objects and things left under or behind heavier furniture create,

“The subtext of our nights and days. We need to
Work backwards, build on the fretwork of fact
To feel the passion in a pressed flower falling
From the leaves of a novel, the heavy pull of
Domesticity in a torn-off shopping-list, touch
Grief folded into a curl of hair in an envelope.”

Perfectly intact, polished things don’t hold memories. It’s the cracks, chips, something tucked into a book or filed away for later that become aide-memoires. A shopping list tells us what items were felt necessary and becomes a block from which a narrative of a household can be built. A flower is only pressed if someone needed to preserve it and keep the memory it represents alive. Hair is usually discarded and swept away so a kept hair in an envelope means the hair was purposely saved and brings to mind a mourning brooch or locket, keeping the memory of someone alive.

“The almost-child” questions if you grieve for someone you never met. A daughter is told by her mother that there was a “lost baby” before the daughter was born. A six-year-old puzzles over the word “lost”, then reasons,

“She’d had a heartbeat, then; she’d begun
Existing once, for a little while. She was a
Sliver of cells, a tadpole of budding organs,
Pressing towards definition. And then, something
Happened—a slip into oblivion, unfathomable and
Inexplicable. She never even had a name. She was
A shadow briefly cast, an echo reverberating, a
Ripple in time. She was an almost-child.”

A miscarriage, cause unknown as is often the case, but a loss before the baby was named. A sister that never was. Even so the daughter still feels a sense of grief for what might have been, picking up on her mother’s emotions. The dominant sense is curiosity for what was lost and what happened which comes from the reassurance of being told by her mother rather than a relative unintentionally mentioning the loss before checking the daughter knew or it was fine to mention it. The daughter gains her mother’s memories of loss.

This idea of “Taking on other people’s memories/ Slipping on the mantle of their lives/ Until they become part of us” is probed in “My husband’s grandfather, the jeweller”, with a visit to the shop,

“Amid gemstones on cushions of velvet,
And in my husband’s eyes
A kind of desperation
Until I saw him see, off to the right,
The curl of the old wrought-iron staircase
Up to what used to be the working area
Where repairs used to be carried out—
How many used to be’s—where
My husband’s grandfather, the jeweller,
Used to work.”

Similarly to the earlier poem “Subtext”, it’s not the polished jewellery that triggers memories, but the working area where jewellery was made. The shop floor’s glittering displays are unfamiliar but it’s the old staircase leading to the place where jewellery was repaired that holds memories of the grandfather. Those memories now shared with the grandson’s wife, who is now seeing the shop not as something impersonal or transactional but as part of the collective memory of the family she married into.

In “Waiting”, an adult daughter carefully brushes an elderly, ailing mother’s hair,

……………………………………..…………………My hands are the latest in a
long line of hands that have tended that hair, and here in this final
frame I recall what I never knew, the soft movement of a small
hairbrush over a baby’s head.”

The delicacy of pale, thin hair over fragile skin brings to mind brushing a baby’s hair, even though the adult daughter has never done this. Is it a memory of her mother attending her when both were much younger, but with the roles reversed?

The daughter becomes, “aware of something else emerging; I know that in tending my/ mother I am tending her spirit. She is neat, patient, waiting. I/ wait with her.” This is closer to the sense of anamnesis, something known within the soul.

The collection broadens out from family connections and remembrances. A family pet observes the family during lockdown, “Goldfish in a pandemic,” with the fish seeing,

“Amy’s eyelashes are wet as she watches me
Watching her; we have an understanding.
The others are trying: her mother, in a latent
Artistic impulse, took to painting me—
On a T-shirt of all things! But the rest
May as well hold up a mirror as stare
At me; for behind this new attentiveness
In the mosaic of their shrunken lives,
I know they see themselves in me!”

“I walk on seashells” is set in the late nineteenth century and gives voice to a woman’s escape from domestic violence,

“I gather my skirts, hold my head up high:
He bruised my body but not my mind,
My penurious family turned a blind eye,
Pray tell me, on whom could I rely?
My husband is seen as wealthy and kind—
But I’d rather the boarding house nearby!”

Divorce was not an option and it was a brave decision to leave with nothing, knowing destitution was the only way out. Her family disown her, not just because she’s a mouth they can’t afford to feed, but the stigma and disgrace attached to her. The title is a play on the idea of walking on eggshells, stepping cautiously around someone for fear of provoking a temper and uncertainty around someone’s reaction.

“Worrying about the lorikeets” appears to be about another unsuitable marriage between two people who are polar opposites, “He opts for Def Leppard to her Bach,” when they come across a dead bird,

“She saw in his upturned eyes the weight
Of its dumb pain—then it was that she
Remembered what she’d always known.”

His sorrow for the bird reminds his wife why she married him.

“Anamnesis” is a subtle, thought-provoking collection that explores memory both in terms of what’s remembered but also inherited memories and how memories accumulate. The poems are gentle but multi-layered, inviting readers to return and re-read. Available from Recent Work Press.

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

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“The Past is a Dangerous Driver” Neal Mason (Holland Park Press) – Book Review

Neal Mason The Past is a Dangerous Driver book cover

Through “The Past is a Dangerous Driver”, Neal Mason explores the permeability of history and present time. Sometimes it’s about how history shapes current attitudes. Others about the folly of man believing he mind leave something permanent to stand for him, e.g. in “Derelict Classroom” where

“Where the red roof was is white and blue
sky; clouds, unformed
and uninformed of nimbus
or cumulus, writhe as they try
outlines a teacher might approve
and on which textbooks can rely.

A puffball is the globe that children held
in awe, its national colours
now brown, not the variety
primary childhood saw;
the spores would mature to khaki, then fall,
obeying some natural law.

Beyond the broken glass grow pampas
and canes; wind-punished nettles
sting empty air
while butterflies play games
on buddleia. The wilderness encroaches, unaware
of culture, geography or names.”

Nature has reclaimed the former school, its behaviour far from the regulated children prescribed geography, language, science and names. Although ignorant of gravity, the spores still fall to the ground. The rhyme scheme adds to the sense of teachers trying to control and guide children’s learning. Whereas nature only has the wind to attempt to tame it and knows nothing of its origins or laws, just that it’s important butterflies play and growth happens. Perhaps there’s a hint too that the children could have done better with more play and freedom to grow at their own pace. But their names have been lost to the wilderness.

Martello towers are small, single storey circular buildings designed to provide space for one to two men with a bed and space for portable cooking gear. They were both lookout and gun towers dotted along coastal areas where guardsmen watched for beach invasions. Now some of them are used as places for holidaymakers to stay. In the poem “Martello Tower”, Mason merges past with present as a storm hits,

“Six-foot-thick walls tremble
as our revolving gun fires,
a cannonball moon, sulphurous
in smoky cloud, flashing
through windows.
If we had a corner
our dog would cower in it. Instead
of ammunition, our curved cupboards
store baguettes, Ardennes pate,
Camembert among towering
cans of beans, the wine rack’s
gun barrels pointing from Burgundy,
Cotes du Rhone, Medoc
and all the sleepy regions
whose soldiers attack tonight.”

The storm eases away by morning and a different invasion takes place,

“troops of tourists invade
through the Tunnel, casualties – words,
laws, weights and measures – mounting
as Brussels, near Waterloo,
advances its armies again.”

The tunnel is the one that connects England and France. Not sure the army metaphor works in relation to tourists though. Yes, they can feel like an invasion, but they are unregimented and too undisciplined to be an army.

Readers are taken back to the war in “Not as a Medal” when the war office appealed for metal to be used in munitions factories for the war effect. The poem’s speaker patroitically gives up garden railings and kitchenware but notes,

“my son is up there too, flying
pieces of bikes, prams, Epstein,
someone’s best cutlery, and I pray
he returns as he was,
not as a medal.”

It’s a poignant end and balances a poem where the humour in the idea of “someone’s best cutlery” being used to make part of a plane would seem inappropriate.

Towards the end, readers are taken back to school where the speaker, a pupil, asks what the letters “SPQR” represent. The teacher confessed to not knowing, leaving the speaker to speculate in “SPQR”,

“I learned, much later, what it meant, cap
exchanged for an academic hat.
After Mussolini – hello, headmaster – claimed it,
they put it on manhole covers,
though it concealed sewage long before that.

Seeking puerile, quack remedies,
society punishes, quashing readily
students’ play, Queensbury rules
cynically plied, queries rebuffed:
you’ll do as we say.”

There’s more suggested phrases that could belong to the acryonym,

“Senatus Populus Que Romanus
shouldn’t be perverted by the quixotically religious,
sophists, people with qualms about reasonableness,
scholars proposing quadrilateral rhombohedrons,
a silly poet quarrying rhymes
(I can only think of treasonableness –
not inappropriate for a betrayed boy)
struggling perpetually, questing ruefully,
surprised when portrayed a querulous renegade
whose search for personal quietude results
in stanzas, prosody, quatrains and refrains –
and if you expect sanity or an acronym,
be reasonableness; there’s a limit
to these childish games.

But no end.”

The adult still contains the child he once was. The child thinking up word combinations to make a lesson past more quickly grows into an adult who still enjoys word games. Our past is still with us and we have a choice as to whether that is a good thing or not.

“The Past is a Dangerous Driver” looks at how the past seeps into the present and the consequences of that. In some poems nature reclaims human structures, reminding readers of man’s relatively short time on the planet. In others the boundaries between past and present are more permeable. A storm prompts thoughts of war or the collection of metal for the war effort inspires thoughts of other uses of metal, particularly a medal representing a life after its end and the impact of a hypothetical lost life on the present. There are lighter moments too, the game of guessing what an acryonym might represent. Mason’s structured poems guide readers through a journey where people might be ready to move on but the past isn’t ready to let them go yet.

The Past is a Dangerous Driver” 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 Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin: Lilian Bowes Lyon and The East London Blitz“, Roger Mills’ book features quotes from the reviews I wrote of Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry.

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“Cracked Asphalt” Sree Sen (Fly on the Wall Press) – book review

Sree Sen Cracked Asphalt book cover

“Cracked Asphalt” is a journey from Mumbai to Dublin exploring issues of identities, what makes home and why someone might leave the country they were born in and wisdom gained on a physical and emotional journey. An early poem, “frames”, suggests a day as a series of freeze-frames, snapshots of memories capturing,

“(to myself)
just a number
like the first-class master’s degree
gathering Latin dust

(rain downpour)
glossy brochure photos
kids with cracked lips
me, peddling sorrow, afraid to sip

urinary tract infections
long waits at bus stops
racists, invincible under streetlights

my hand holding a chapati
can’t make the journey
from plate to mouth.”

Someone with a master’s degree is going door to door, fundraising. The rain could be a mood as well as the weather. The phrase glossy brochure suggests wealth but shows children barely surviving in poverty. As she works, the speaker chooses not to hydrate because it’s safer than facing sexist/racist reactions if she asks to use a bathroom. She gets home too tired to feed herself.

Later, inspired by the story of a white stork that migrated from Africa to Germany with an arrow stuck in its side, the speaker compares and contrasts her new home to her former home, in “pfeilstörche”

“i make fresh coffee with roasted Kenyan beans

from O’Connell supermarket
of polite nods at safe distances vs.
probing questions from Pari kaku who sold
instant coffee at the store in my old neighbourhood

back at the window
dusty feet on cracked tar
497 miles towards home on a pastel Bengal road
teeth stained with raw tobacco & melting gur

human chain of fractured spines
a class forgotten in a hurry
Pari kaku stares at me, unblinking, a dagger
between muscle & bone”

The Irish maintain a polite distance and don’t ask invasive questions of their neighbours. Back in Mumbai, neighbours lack restraint and grocery store owners aren’t asking from politeness but to pass on news and spread gossip. There’s no sense that one is superior to the other, rather than some middle ground is desired. That her Irish neighbours open up a little more and her Mumbai neighbours dial down the nosiness.

Distance is picked up again in the haiku, “loss”,

“your letter carries
the scent of jasmine desires
trapped in papercuts”

Jasmine is a scent of home, a reminder of the person who sent the letter. But the letter causes papercuts, which sting. This contrasts with “semantics” where the reasons for leaving are remembered,

“leaving my hometown, i was told,
i’d be a second-class citizen
in a first-world country
as if being a brown girl
in a brown country
was any different
as if i wasn’t scared
all the time
my character attached to my neckline

………….as if i wasn’t familiar with brutality
………….at home, on streets, inside my head
………….groped on the staircase
………….arthritic fingers of friend’s grandfather

…………..who walked us every morning
…………..to the school bus stop
…………..my breasts starting to show
…………..holding out my elbows in crowds
…………..to deter horny men with hard palms
…………..that practised speed-fondling”

Here the problem is sexism, not racism (although in Dublin, the two may intersect). There’s an irony in being told she’d be a “second-class citizen” in a European country when she’s one at home thanks to the harrassment she already suffers. The poem ends,

“in a home not my own
here, cherry blossoms are
clouds trapped by branches
dreaming of the sky
hard lines of guilt, softening
i’m free to chop off my hair
grown long for men
in the territory of humid scalps
……………sometimes, i still cower
brown country is for brown men
……………& a visa for me”

Her new home offers freedom she didn’t have in Mumbai. She doesn’t have to dress or wear her hair for the male gaze. But she’s not entirely free and has become to feel as if she is a visitor in both countries.

“give yourself permission” offers a sense of peace, an acceptance that life doesn’t have to be perfect for someone to be content, the speaker gives herself permission to,

“do……..what you’ve been planning to
…………….but haven’t yet—
…………….grow plants, spray paint,
…………….bake desserts in a rusty oven
…………….argue with the mirror

make….plans A, B, C, D & then E, or don’t,
…………..forgive yourself for wallowing,
…………..for sudden tears at the long-forgotten
…………..anger: years lost in a frenzy
…………..of doing more, being more

now…..give yourself permission
………….on this day,
………….a gentle wave of breeze
………….whispering that spring
………….follows winter, year on year”

Don’t wait for the perfect moment, seize the imperfect opportunities too and be kind to yourself. These aren’t empty mantras, but earnt wisdom.

Sree Sen’s journey throughout “Cracked Asphalt” is a geographical and emotional one, moving from Mumbai to Dublin. The speaker is realistic and doesn’t assume that she can move away from the harrassment she suffers in the country she was born in and neither does she pretend everything’s rosy in her new country. The move puts her in a limbo: she’s now a guest when she returns to her country of origin but not complete at home in the country where she has settled. However, she finds joy in small things: food, planting, art and refuses to beat herself up for difficult days where regrets surface or that day’s tasks feel impossible. There’s a reminder that winter does eventually turn to spring. Hope can poke through the darkest of soils.

“Cracked Asphalt” is available from Fly on the Wall Press.

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

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“Notes from a Shipwreck” Jessica Mookherjee (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Jessica Mookherjee Notes from a Shipwreck book cover

“Notes from a Shipwreck” is a journey through the past and present, touching on migration, colonialism through family history, Shakespeare, sea legends and myths. Like the sea itself, the poems shift perspectives and avoid easy answers. In the title poem, the narrator is on a whaling ship, the Violent Blue, where she’s asked to pray to the Hindu god Varuna,

“Her fluke takes us down – for the whole catastrophe
of things we did to her and the sea. I was just a ship-trapped
girl on a rock, far from homeland, it was nothing to do
with me, just a bloody foreigner. I watch as they harpoon her.
We wipe our sleeves while wreckers look on, light fires

on the shore. What a disaster the stink is for all the sailors
left. Next comes scurvy, next comes fever. The captain brings
us a remedy named after a baby whale who washed up
on the banks of the Thames, near Barnes Bridge, last summer.
I stood by when the crowds came to witness her carcass.”

A boat needs a unified crew and an experienced captain. Here, the narrator is an outsider, a “foreigner” as far as the crew are concerned and therefore not worth attention. The crew sickens and it’s down to the captain to bring remedies, since the fault lies with him. Scurvy is caused by a vitamin deficit and avoidable. There’s an irony in the captain naming his remedy after a dead whale. It also underlines the sense of being foreign for the narrator: whales don’t belong in the Thames river. Its presence suggests a faulty radar, a whale who’d lost its bearings and ended up in the wrong place. The cure sounds worse than the illness.

In “Outcaste”, a girl tells her school classmates “I was from India, not England. They were eased”. Allowing her classmates to think she is not English explains her dark skin. The girl however admits, “But in my heart I knew I was born in Luton”. Not confessing to her correct birthplace avoids the racist discussion about being born in Britain but having an Asian heritage. Like the narrator on the whaling ship, the girl is both part of the ship and outside it. The title is a play on the word ‘outcast’ and the caste system intersecting with the British class system.

Teenage rebellion strikes in “Cracked Actors” and a teenage girl casts herself as “Puck, Miranda, Titania” and her boyfriend as “Romeo, Ferdinand and Antonio” to a soundtrack of Bowie as they sneak off to a hotel in a father’s car,

“You were slicked back, I waxed and waned, made up
from a strange thing of you. Someone clapped, did we
make it from the bones and blood of us? All smeared
like lipstick on the sheets as we fell to earth.
I was a vixen when I was back at school. You, Oberon,
had a line or too to get through. I was playing
kitchen sinks and gin until you were out of my system.”

Naturally, it can’t last. The boy slips back into life, make king by his adventure. The outcome for her feels miserable. The love potion’s worn off and she drinks to feel better or at least until he’s washed from her.

“No Place Like Home” starts with the narrator listening to a stranger who “didn’t want Angela Merkel to take our queen”. Later the narrator recalls,

“I went out on my own last night to a Korean restaurant, ordered
the wrong thing again and everyone else’s was better, there is a
German word for that, I’m sure. I was given silver chopsticks by a
girl with great hair. I felt like crying.

My sister phones and speaks to me like a stranger about our father.
I want to tell her to see a shrink and hang up, but I say things
will be fine. There’s nonsense on the radio as I drive home. Later, I
watch a documentary about the Inuit and how they have lost their
rights to hunt whales. The ice is evaporating. For some people there
is no place like home.”

The narrator is adrift, doomed to repeat the wrong actions. Even the food can’t comfort her and she’s sure there’s a foreign word to describe her mood but she doesn’t know it. What she does know is that home is a slippery concept to someone who is adrift from her origins and not at home in the country she was born in.

In “Wrecker” the narrator is sorting through the flotsam that found itself,

“jettisoned, stuffed in cupboards, you say that’s all scuttle
and sink as I rummage in corners, to see what I can salvage.
There’s banging on walls, a baby’s yell. Life happens
in cracks and shouts, the marks etched in the wall,
that second of violence, a defiant scar to show I’ve gone
to ground, perhaps I never had anything to lose.”

The notion there’s anything to salvage seems to be a romantic idea. This is a life with apparently nothing to show for it.

The narrator’s earlier lie about being from India catches up with her in “The Caller”, which starts with, “There is a legend that I was once from India/ before the world was so broken and left scraps”. It makes her think of a legend where nightingales sang for princes. She listens and hears a song she’d not noticed above the noises of everyday life. She runs into the garden, singing to keep the singer singing so she can find him,

“I grow lung-song sharp and he keeps calling,
come, come, and my human hunger is marked

for his words to sing our lonely songs
from a kitchen window forever in the dead of dark.
Fly-catcher, rattler, all my island’s voices, call again,
and my brown feathers appear for a moment
as he sings more urgently, now night-jar, windfallen
in the coal dark. Come here, come here.”

It feels fairytale-like, the narrator has found her home, her community.

“Notes from a Shipwreck” navigates choppy waters, as if knowing that still waters are merely the lull before a storm. They explore themes of identity, immigration, the watery foundation of trying to make a home in a country where you’re not entirely accepted and how we might find our communities and poeple with whom we can share common values and interests. Mookherjee keeps the shipping and sea theme sustained throughout but it never becomes predictable and none of the poems feel like fillers, as if they were just included for the sake of padding out a collection. Each poem has earnt its place.

“Notes from a Shipwreck” 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.

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Un-Su Kim, “The Plotters” translated by Sora Kim-Russell (4th Estate, 2019)

The Plotters Kim Un-Su book cover

The Plotters are shadows who use go-betweens to pass files of targets to assassins. Un-Su Kim’s alternative Korea is not the world of John Wick’s choreographed fights supported by a network of people who specialise in cleaning up and keeping under the radar. Reseng and his fellow assassins hide in plain sight. The wry humour and wash of desperation keep the plot credible and draw readers into rooting for the main character, who isn’t as black as his humour.

Reseng has his target in the crosshairs. Something stops him from pulling the trigger. That something leads him to share a meal with his target, a North Korean and former general. The general’s dog, an elderly mastiff, takes Reseng for a friend and the general tells a story about his grandfather who was dragged overboard by a whale he was trying to harpoon. The whale saved the man’s life. After years of separation man and whale meet again, seemingly recognising each other. The man promises he will return with soju and stories. When grandfather learns he has cancer, he buys several crates of soju and sets off, his body was never found. Reseng does take out his target and his target’s elderly dog. He follows his instructions but not to the letter. Bear, whose job is to cremate the bodies, complains. The Plotters don’t like assassins who don’t follow their instructions without deviation. Reseng’s punishment is to finish a job Chu, who could be described as a colleague and friend of sorts, failed. He’d let a woman escape instead of killing her. Bear calls Reseng and Old Raccoon when Chu’s body turns up at the crematorium. Dissenting assassins can’t be permitted to live. Although the three work out who the assassin was, they also know it’s not worth going after an assassin who was merely carrying out orders.

At four-years-old, Reseng was fostered by Old Raccoon, who didn’t let Reseng go to school. On discovering Reseng had taught himself to read, Old Raccoon scolds him and snatches his book away. Too upset by the death of a favourite character to care too much about consequences – and, at nine-years-old, not particularly self-aware either, Reseng tells Old Raccoon he will read and wants his book back. Reseng continued to teach himself. Years pass before he processes the significance of getting his book back1. Both of them live in the library Old Raccoon renamed ‘The Dog House’. Another of Old Raccoon’s former foster children, Hanja, isn’t pleased that the former general’s body has been cremated. He’d hoped to get some political capital out of the body by fabricating evidence the assassination had been carried out by North Koreans. He represents a new order, assassins dressed as businessmen rather than lurking in underground markets and keeping to the edges of society. Names matter, Hanja, which is also the name for the traditional Korean writing system that used Chinese figures, thinks himself a strategist, one step ahead of everyone around him but also fixed and traditional in his thinking. The Plotters rely on anonymity, passing files of targets through middlemen who never know if the person passing the file is a Plotter or just another middleman. Hanja warns Reseng he can’t get by on being cute forever and needs to pack in smoking. Reseng always figured it didn’t matter, he’d be dead before he got lung cancer 2. Reseng is to lay low for a while. There’s an important election in progress, one Hanja is planning to influence with no thought as to whether his desired result aligns with what the Plotters want.

Until Reseng finds a small bomb, disguised in a ceramic housing, in his toilet. He already knew someone had been in his apartment and had swept the place for bugs, finding none. The hardware store owner Reseng previously worked for warns “If this was planned by government spooks, you’re better off putting it back in your toilet and dying.”3. So far Reseng’s survived longer than any of the assassins he’s known. Now he’s drawn into a turf war between Hanja and Mito, who couldn’t find the driver responsible for the car crash which killed her parents and left her sister disabled. Reseng assumes her motivation is revenge. She shares Hanja’s rigidity and knows if she puts her plot into action, she won’t survive. However, she continues to fine-tune her plot. Old Raccoon seems to have faith that Reseng will find his own way through.

Reseng is a realist. He knows his days are numbered. Briefly, he escaped the role of assassin, taking up work in a factory, adjusting to a normal life. But he got a note from Old Raccoon and made the decision to return to his former role. Old Raccoon is probably one of the most un-father-like father-figures, but he knows what he’s drawing his former foster child into and has prepared him, although Reseng doesn’t fully appreciate that yet. Hanja is more straightforward as a politician, one who seeks to control his world and bolster his image, believing his good deeds outweigh his bad, just about. Mito is preparing to make the biggest flash she can, exposing as much of the Plotters’ shadowy underworld as possible. It’s all in the timing. She knows she may not survive it, but is also determined to get all her ducks in a row before taking action. For her, Reseng is a wildcard to be tamed. But Reseng’s not used to entirely following instructions.

The pace is finely judged. Fast paced action is counterbalanced by slower scenes of recuperation, waiting for a body’s cremation, dialogue between characters where what’s important isn’t what’s said, but also what’s not said. There are tender moments too. Reseng leaves an urn with a victim and asks Bear to scatter the victim’s ashes with those of his wife and daughter (not Reseng’s doing) from the urn 4. Mito’s sister is wheeled out so she can experience snow for the first time.

Can an assassin who shares a final meal before a kill and compassionately includes the target’s elderly dog, gives money to the homeless, ensures his cats will be cared for before what could be his final mission, survive after finding himself on the Plotters’ hitlist? The clue lies in his name. Reseng, drawing his name in Chinese characters discovers it has another meaning. Old Raccoon denies knowledge of this, but at this stage readers know he’s too wily to be trusted not to be lying. Reseng follows his instincts. Can going rogue work for or against him? Un-Su Kim makes readers hope Reseng gets the outcome he deserves.

Orphaned and in a role where death is arbitrary and unpredictable – even following the Plotters’ rules to the letter is no guarantee of staying off a hit list – and in the knowledge no one will mourn for him, Reseng’s ultimate dilemma is whether he can make his death meaningful. He doesn’t fear death – it’s about the only certain thing in his life and holds no mystery. He’s seen allies killed to no avail: their world has remained just as murky as it was. Will Reseng’s death, whenever and how ever it comes, be equally unremarkable? What legacy will he leave? The Plotters could be read as a pacey, wryly humorous thriller, but Un-Su Kim also asks bigger questions about societal structures and how those considered unimportant and unconnected still forge familial bonds or loyalties and bring meaning to an apparently worthless life.

1 Un-su Kim, The Plotters translated by Sora Kim-Russell (4th Estate, 2019) page 25
2 ibid page 87
3 ibid page 130
4 ibid page 267

“Violet Existence” Katy Wareham Morris (Broken Sleep) – book review

Katy Wareham Morris Violet Existence book cover

Katy Wareham Morris explores aspects of motherhood, imposter syndrome and trying to fit in among colleagues from different backgrounds. Some highlight the underlying sense of shame that comes from being different, a working class mother trying to live alongside middle class colleagues, a woman knowing her promotion will not come automatically as it would for a man.

The opening poem, “Labour”, is definitely women’s work,

…………………She is jammed
behind her own eyes, jailbird
of a romantic myth shown in photos
that never looked like this.

…………………………………………..Her body
backfires into flamenco, she doesn’t know

Delivering a baby in real life is nothing like the movies or photos showing mother and newborn in a soft-focused glow of maternal love. It’s a test of endurance and acceptance of uncertainty. There’s no way to fully prepare and you won’t know how your body will react until you’re in labour. The sound echoes in “jammed”/”jailbird” underline the sense of being stuck in something you can only get through.

“Trouble in Paradise” starts

“Thank you for asking how I was over lunch. Did you notice I was quiet because I didn’t understand the references to tragedy and why the Greeks were much more civilised? I was thinking about last night’s tragedy – that lovely girl from Love Island was made to think her lovely boyfriend was with another girl in a cruel twist”

A lunch with colleagues talking about Greek tragedies while the poem’s narrator is thinking about a reality TV show. She doesn’t take part in the conversation, but one colleague has noticed her failure to join in, but doesn’t necessary understand why. The poem ends,

“I looked down and ate my home-made sandwich in a fashion: both hands secured the bread, left the crisp packet unrustled, salt in the corner. I didn’t drink from the bottle, remembering to sip slowly, carefully from a barely filled cup. Tomorrow I shall not discuss my thoughts on the manipulation of classical tragic tropes in reality television by way of affecting an apathetic millennial audience. I’ve heard it all before.”

The poem’s narrator is holding her sandwich with two hands, ensuring the contents don’t spill out and lacking the confidence to handling it with only one hand. She leaves the crisp packet, wary the rustling noise will draw the wrong kind of attention. Normally she’d drink straight from the bottle, but, in the company she finds herself, she pours her drink in small amounts into a cup so she remembers to daintily sip rather than slurp. The feeling of not fitting in continues outside lunch when the narrator decides she won’t revive the discussion. She doesn’t feel it was illuminating.

An Advert For This Body” which follows the idea, that frequently surfaces in advertising, that a woman’s body’s greatest achievement is not becoming mother, but losing weight and the speaker is dieting,




I am able,

……………………………………………………………………….I’m |

But I am sick
Can you see that now? I can’t


The mantra, “I am able/ competent” repeats as if the speaker is desperate to convince herself that her body, which doesn’t measure up to advertising’s ideal, is enough. She wants to settle for “competent”, not the best version of herself because part of her acknowledges, she can’t measure up to an ideal. Motherhood has changed her body from the firmness of youth into a softer shape. But her eating is now disordered and the attempt to be something she can’t achieve has left her ill. But she can’t break that cycle, yet.

In “Curry Night”, the speaker has been invited out with colleagues for a meal and then out for drinks afterwards,

“Did you take a deep breath ‘cos I didn’t order off the menu? I’d recommend it for you but you’re safe: masala / korma / jalfrezi / bhuna. I don’t drink ‘cos I’ve got Crohn’s (I don’t drink ‘cos I over-share).

I won’t come for a drink ‘cos I don’t drink. I’ll drive home, kiss me kids, cuddle me dog, sit on the sofa, watch Masterchef, which I love. I’ll say thanks to the wait staff. I’ll offer the tip.”

Spicy food and Crohn’s are not a happy combination so the speaker has to order off menu so she can eat, unlike her colleagues, who probably didn’t take Crohn’s disease into consideration when choosing the restaurant. The speaker publicly blames her Crohn’s for not drinking alcohol because it’s easier than just saying she doesn’t drink. When you’re the only one in a group not drinking, the others tend to pressure you to join in. However the real reason she doesn’t want to drink is her tendency to over-share and she wants to retain control over what she says during the meal. The non-drinking also becomes an excuse to leave early and go home where she can be comfortable and let down her guard. She thanks the staff and ensures they’re tipped because she identifies with their class and feels more at ease with them than her colleagues.

“Violet Existence” explores issues of class, sexism and imposter syndrome, a sense of being the outsider and not being fully seen. Katy Wareham Morris captures the maternal voice: protective of her children but wary of a society that holds mothers up to an impossible ideal. The poems open to a vulnerability as they spill across the page, presenting contemporary situations with a promise not to raid the myth kitty or assume readers have a knowledge of Greek myths.

“Violet Existence” is available from Broken Sleep.

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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“The Yellow Toothbrush” Kathryn Gahl (Two Shrews Press) – book review

Content warning: trauma and a baby’s death

Kathryn Gahl The Yellow Toothbrush book cover

Kathryn Gahl’s “The Yellow Toothbrush” is subtitled “A Memoir of Trauma and Mercy”, a mother’s exploration of why her adult daughter behaved the way she did. Most of the poems are written in the aftermath of a visit to her daughter, one, “Sunrise” recalls where it all began,

“I recoil
and recall
that May sunrise
in 1977
hues of pink and purple
on Lake Michigan
outside the window
of the room
a baby girl
whooshed from me

………a hush before the rush
………blood, sweat, and best-kept love

on a sun-blind morning
when the horizon line

and I
became two”

An anticipated and wanted baby girl arrives and becomes an individual separate from her mother but dependent. Independence is gained by growing up and the daughter becomes a registered nurse, caring for newborn babies, in “Cloudy”,

…………She worked night shift for seven years, a tall and bright RN,
the one in the nursery who greeted every newborn with Happy Birthday!

…………..She may not see the landscaped moon for twenty-four years.

…………..By then, her night vision will cloud over with age.
Mine will have joined the clouds.”

The daughter who chose to work the night shift, away from the sun, in a world of newness and possibility now finds herself incarcerated in a place where she will see very little sunlight and will no longer have the freedom to move outside at night. By the time she leaves, she’ll be at an age where vision starts to diminish. Her mother will at best be elderly. So far there are hints as to why the adult daughter is in jail, but the reasons become clearer. In the poem that gives the collection its title, in “List” of “All Things Lost”,

“Perhaps she would add
a lucent yellow toothbrush
she bought for her son, anticipating
how in a few months she would teach him
………to brush his own teeth
…………………On the handle it has soccer balls”

There was a baby son, the speaker’s grandson, who never got to use the toothbrush bought for him. This is the point where readers get some background. The speaker’s husband left when the daughter was 12. At first he disappeared and couldn’t be reached until he moved to the Netherlands and eventually passed away with cancer. In those empty years, the speaker had two children to bring up and had to work. The father never contributed.

In “Bearing Witness”, the speaker writes of how her daughter felt her father’s absence. A lone mother cannot be both parents, however much she tries. The father ghosting his daughter was a significant rejection when she transistioned from a girl to a woman, a time of many changes and a time when, instead of stability and reassurance, her father left without a word and without keeping in touch.

The mother tries to comfort herself that her daughter could not have been fully present or aware of her actions on the night her grandson died. But then, after getting her daughter’s email password, the mother finds an email her daughter sent to herself, in “Entered”

………………oh my god, on the night of homicide.

………………………He died at 0340.

………………It is short.

….…………………….He died at 0340.

……………….This is jarring. It could be a nurse’s note on a chart. Later—
remember how everything becomes later—I will ask how could you write that and
together we will unpack insanity, the slippage, the brief grab
back at sanity as she did what she has always done. An obsession for neatness, a
compulsion to record events in her journal, document every detail. The carryover
to a profession demanding an exact entry for everything whether it be a
feeding or a hepatitis shot. Besides, Mom, crime shows always try to figure
out the time of death; all this crashing against the walls of her cortex as she labors
to enter into the record with accuracy. And so on and so forth,

…………………she entered her son’s real name
…………………(not He which I use to protect the innocent).”

The reference to a “nurse’s note on a chart” is a reminder of the job her daughter did. This daughter who tended newborns and wished them happy birthday, noted the time of her son’s death. That even in a terrible moment, the daughter still had enough nursing instinct to make notes, not just of the time of death but also to use his name. The poem quotes Joan Didion’s “I’ve always found if I examine something, it’s less scary”. The poem’s speaker notes, “I disagree”. The small comfort that her daughter did not know what she’d done is gone.

Examination, however, does continue. In “Mash-up”,

………..On her home front with her son, different battles, paradoxes—how can I
be so happy when I am so sad—when her little boy crawls in her lap to read
books, the new neighborhood bereft of neighborliness, how he shows her each
foot in the bathtub, a storm growing with hormonal shifts and lists, breast is best,
she cooks his organic green beans with compulsion, reads Facebook fictions of
motherly perfections, there’s no time to swim with the Wisconsin Athletic Club
membership she bought him, she does not want to be gone from him fifty hours a
week—she wants to be a stay-at-home Mom—how cute he is in the lion costume
she chose for Halloween, she drives into traffic the wrong way and tells no one,
the paranoia of imperfection, at midnight she irons his shirt, did she get it just
right for his holiday photo . . .”

The newborn son has a mother who doesn’t want to be parted from him. The mother who wants to devote her time to her baby, becomes

……………He’s my baby, he’d say . . .
……………..He’s my baby, she’d say . . .

a refrain I heard fluctuate from cute and playful, to bold and serious.
…………I thought it odd, curious—never imagined it was the prologue
for a custody clash, both eager for a child to fulfil them.”

Babies aren’t possessions and no motives are attached to the desire of both parents to claim ownership of the child. The child’s father, the daughter’s fiance leaves them, an echo of her father leaving. Becoming a stay at home mother is impossible if she is also to bring home an income to pay the bills and put food on the table. Her manager becomes difficult – demanding she stay late after daycare is closed because he insists on manually logging data rather than doing it electronically, adding to the stress and sense of overwhelm the daughter starts to feel. With hindsight, the mother sees parallels, in “Epigenetics”, “People who live through trauma are changed/ in a cellular way. The expression of their DNA, modified,/ shows up in subsequent generations, something called/ transgenerational trauma, I learn and I observe, dismayed.”

“Mathematical Fact” (complete poem) is blunt and offers a reason,

“John Farrow
(Mia Farrow’s father)
was born February 10, 1904.

Shortly thereafter,
his mother
(her grandmother)
was institutionalized
for what was
then called
Lactation Psychosis.

She died in the institution.

Do the math.
One hundred and ten years
of mothers
For help.”

Lactation psychosis, also postpartum (or puerperal) psychosis can appear in new mothers in the days or weeks after giving birth. Symptoms include mania, depression, confusion, hallucinations and delusions. It is not easy for new mothers to ask for help: the sense of failiure and shame plus fear of separation from their baby all deter mothers from seeking support, even with a supportive partner. For a new mother whose partner has left and who is in the middle of a custody battle, asking for help carried the risk of a more permanent separation. A judge would have to decide between giving shared custody or sole custody to one parent need only see the word “psychosis” to decide that joint custody is not an option and the father should have custody. As as nurse, she would have known what her symptoms pointed to. The mother whose own father had abandoned her, whose partner had left her in sole charge of a newborn could not take that risk.

The speaker continues to visit her daughter in prison, seeking mercy and understanding. In “Limelight” the speaker dances,

“I move in octaves and intervals
possibilities for small
but intense points of

until the music stops

I stumble
and fall”

The poem continues with the music returning,

“calling me to be
more than hostage
to the madness

and so I dance
and need to dance
rapturous and ready
to see her face

It’s a long journey that’s not yet complete. “The Yellow Toothbrush” is a searingly honest, literary exploration of trauma and the burdens that fall to mothers. The speaker does not condemn her daughter, seeing her as a victim of circumstance, unable to seek help for lactation psychosis due to the fear of losing custody of her baby son who was loved and wanted, after a series of abandonments. Her daughter’s imprisonment seems to be punishment enough. However, the speaker does not abandon her daughter. She still visits. Though the question remains: how much was responsibility for that fatal night was her daughters or is blame to be laid at the feet of a society that works against mothers, and what about the baby’s father, the daughter’s father? It’s a tough, non-judgemental read.

“The Yellow Toothbrush” is available from Two Shrews Press.

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

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A Bad Review is not when the reviewer didn’t like your book

A review is a reviewer’s opinion on a book with the aim of giving the review reader enough information to decide whether they want to read the book under review. It is possible to give the review reader enough information to do this even if the reviewer did not like the book.

Reviewers don’t always have a choice over which books they are given to review, and some might be seduced by the concept/premise of a book but then find the execution lacking. If the review reader gets to the end of a review and finds they’ve no idea whether they want to read the book, the review has failed and is therefore a bad review.

The reviewer not liking the book is not a bad review. Bad reviews are:

Reviewer writes a blurb, not a review

Publicists, marketers and publishers love using review quotes as publicity and positive reviews can support marketing efforts, but a reviewer’s job is not to market the book.

Reviewer reviews the book the way they wish it was written

It is not the reviewer’s job to rewrite the book. If the action scenes were slowed by too much description it’s fine to mention it, but the reviewer shouldn’t then re-write one of those scenes as it should have been written.  The reviewer should figure out what the writer intended when writing the book and whether those aims were achieved.

Reviewer takes the ‘critic’ part of the job description too literally

It’s rare that a book has no redeeming figures. A review that trashes a book says more about the reviewer’s prejudices or expectations of a book than the book under review.

Reviewer is writing hyperbole

A puff piece or hyperbolic comparisons – “Genius phrasing”, “this poet is to be compared with Walt Whitman”, etc, particularly when not backed up with quoted examples – helps no one, least of all the writer. No one knows which contemporary poets will still be read in 50 years’ time. And how does a genius top the current book if reviewers are over-hyping it?

Review is vague or full of ambiguities

Most poetry reviewers are also poets so very conscious of not burning bridges with contemporary poets which might be useful people to network with in future or a publisher they might want to be published by at some future point. So it can be tricky when faced with a dud book. But it’s better to refuse a review rather than post one with no substance.

Review is about the cover/book design and barely mentions the contents

Brilliant or appalling bad design may be worth a mention, but not to the extent it takes over the review. This is usually an indication the reviewer didn’t want to write the review but had a word count to meet.

Reviewer writes about the writers’ other books/career and barely mentions the book under review

Another indication the reviewer didn’t really want to write the review but needed to fill a word count and thought showing off their knowledge of a writer’s career might gloss over the lack of actual review.

Reviewer only wrote about themselves

Similar to reviews about the cover/typography, or the writer’s career, it’s another indication that the reviewer was reluctant to write a review. This is like reading an interview that is all about the interviewer and not the interviewee.

Reviewer has a grudge against a writer

The review should be about the book, not the writer.

Not a Bad Review: didn’t like the book

Not liking a book is not a reason to not write a review. A reviewer can’t be the target audience for every book published or even every book published in their favourite genre. But every reviewer can write about the book and give the review reader, who might be part of the target audience, enough information so they recognise the book is for them. Once a when a music reviewer hated a new album, I would rush out and buy it. When the same reviewer praised a new album, it went on my ‘never, ever buy’ list. We had opposing tastes. But  because he was consistent and give me enough information in the reviews for me to know I’d love what he hated and vice versa, the bands he hated were never going to lose sales because the reviewer didn’t like their music.

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.

“Wrappings in Bespoke” Sanjeev Sethi (Hedgehog Poetry Press) – book review

Sanjeev Sethi Wrapping in Bespoke book cover

Sanjeev Sethi’s “Wrappings in Bespoke” is a series of short, cerebral poems that stretch towards what is it to be human, drawing on lessons learnt from his personal life and opening those observations up to a general reader. This is summed up within “Biog”, where

“Images and idioms speak our
accent. We coach ourselves to
ignore the commentators. In an
ecosystem of unequal genii, we
are happy to exist. To be is to
bloom. The rest is contextual.”

Readers are invited to find what speaks to us, ignore the doubtors, acknowledge the inequalities, and strive to be content with our lot. What makes us content is not defined so the reader can interpret it as they please. These are words of guidance, not rules. It doesn’t stop a reader striving for material happiness and status, but reminds readers to keep themselves grounded and balanced.

Naturally one of life’s hardest and harsher lessons is loss. In “Loss and Other Lessons”, the young speaker has been left at home with an older sister while their mother is in hospital and their father has gone to the funeral of their paternal grandfather who was known as Daddy,

“This was big time loss.
As though someone had
punched my solar plexus.
The heart felt hard.
I wasn’t even a teenager.

I remember her, my sister,
just about a teen, sitting
next to me. She seemed
much older, wiser, calmer.
I remember, looking at
her chocolate brown eyes,
looking at them for direction.
Her silence was palpable.
Finally she spoke:
“Don’t feel bad. Daddy is with God.”

I was allayed of ache.
That sunset…
I learned my first big lesson:

Despite the grief, the speaker learns that he still has a connection with others and can trust others for support and assistance. Later “Wishes for a Child I Never Had”, urges a the child “not to be vulnerable to whims of another” and to “choose a domain that sways/ in cadence to the music of your inscape” along with usual advice to take heed of the arts and cultivate compassion before final wish, “May luck and its lustre broaden your borders.” Meanwhile the speaker looks to his upbringing in “Navigation” (complete poem),

“I never received emotional citizenship
in dominion of nanny days. Without
kedge of State sponsorship, I swam
in whirlpools. During my oceanic
phase, you and I: you as flotsam
I as me, stroked and stoked rough
weather. On menu of our meeting,
happiness was hazy. I elected for
other amusements in an island of
my making. Kelp, sea lion, and seal
are natant as caret is incised over me.
Muse, its mysteries are caretakers.”

There was no plan, no linear path to success, life was a meandering through whatever looked interesting or where a muse led. “Leave-Taking” (complete poem) touches a similar theme and gives the collection its title,

“You and I are no scholars of horology,
but time wraps in bespoke. Detritus
blocks our way, deterring us from
zooming into a xyst. We don’t need
the descant of a dragoman. We know
it’s clock out on a timepiece that refuses
to ticktock. When fresh, we lacked the grace
to smell the flowers. Rearranging an old
bouquet is no way to rev it up.”

Life is something readers have to figure out for themselves. Following the old, dead paths of others won’t do.

“Wrappings in Bespoke” probes what the human condition is and how to find a meaningful life when you’ve not been blessed with early advantages or material good fortune. It seeks to engage as well as explore, like a teacher or guru who sees their job is to prompt a student into independent study rather than learning by rote.

“Wrappings in Bespoke” is available from Hedgehog Press.

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

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“From This Soil” Casey Bailey (The Broken Spine) – book review

Casey Bailey From This Soil pamphlet cover

“From this Soil” is an exploration of roots and family branches told with compassion and humour in that way that widens beyond the personal into stories to be shared. A mother’s laugh in remembered in “She Rattles in the Spice Cupboard”,

“She still sings from the jars
of the spice cupboard.

I am learning to warm
like cayenne; sweeten
like cinnamon in bulla cake.

I will sprinkle her flavour into lives
and their jars will rattle.”

Cancer took her but her warmth and cheer live on in nurturing foods seasoned according to her recipes. Proper comfort food is replicating a loved one’s specific mixes and her memory lives on.

As his son runs from the house pointing at a helicopter, “The Air” acknowledges that not all children have the same fortune, a boy in Palestine, runs out of his home with

“binocular eyes, heart imploding
with euphoria
A plane!
A plane!
A –

While his own son can safely run about in the garden, a boy elsewhere doesn’t have that option. How do we explain to children the dangers they face from air strikes, war, other people? And how do we reconcile our consciences with such differences in children’s lives? The Palestine boy simply wants to show of his knowledge that the thing overhead is plane, a new word for his mother to be proud off. But she is full of fear. In England, boys are safe to point out planes.

Threaded throughout are poems that return to the lost of the poet’s mother. In “Once”,

“I lose her every time
I expect her face in a crowd
every time I’m sure she’d be
proud, I lose her.

I find her too,..
in the jumper sleeve
pulling tears from my face,
in the eyes of people who
miss her, I find her. On these
days I know. She did not die

Grief returns when least expected. It surfaces in moments when you want to tell someone something or know they’d appreciate knowing, in a movie scene, over a coffee. The poet posits that you never truly completely lose someone, they continue to there as your life journeys on.

In “Fifth Time Lucky”, after a mother has run through all the names of her son’s siblings before arriving at the right one and asking for a cup of tea,

“When I hand you the mug
and you smile thank you
I will fill with the warmth
of tea in my stomach.”

The son, annoyed at his name being forgotten and the inconvenience of being called to make a cup of tea, finds his mood lifts when his mother thanks him. A small gesture of gratitude completely changes the flavour of the day.

Elsewhere a tough sister, in “Smoke”, is more than a match for anyone who dare disrespect her brothers,

“I witnessed my sister back the beef
with only a Nokia 5110 as a weapon.
I watched her break
the ariel off on a boy’s head top
for stepping on her little bro.

That same girl turned broomstick to katana
in the house. The chores will be done before
Mom and Dad get home. I can promise that.

The last time I got a phone call from death
I said do I need to call my sister?
He hung up before I could press the button.
Lord knows he doesn’t want that type of smoke.”

I can imagine her organising hell. While the strength of character is admirable, it’s also sad to think it will meet structural and societal inequalities that will attempt to tone it down and control it.

“From this Soil” is a compassionate look at how family roots nourish and shape us. Casey Bailey’s poems are self-aware, conversational in tone and humorous, inviting readers to laugh with, not at, their subjects. The characters are recognisable and the pamphlet shares their lives, like striking up a conversation with someone you’ve sat next to in a pub or cafe and discovering how much in common you have.

“From this Soil” is available from The Broken Spine.

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 Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin: Lilian Bowes Lyon and The East London Blitz”, Roger Mills’ book features quotes from the reviews I wrote of Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry.

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