“To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre” Victoria Bennett (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – book review

Victoria Bennett To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre cover

Victoria Bennett takes readers on a journey through bereavement, specifically the loss of her mother in the final stages of mesothelioma and acceptance with small signs of hope in the aftermath. The opening poem, “The Suede Shoes” asks,

“Why bother planting that seed?
Why turn the beds
for a summer that will never come?
Why bother buying the pretty suede shoes?”

It also answers,

“We choose the shoes because
we can still find joy in a step.
We plant the seed because
we still love the way
it insists itself into life.

We turn the beds because
there will always be a summer,
even after you are gone.”

The description of “pretty” suggests the shoes are not being bought for their practical qualities, but are decorative and make the wearer feel good. They become a symbol for life continuing after a loved one’s death. Something to look forward to despite being caught in the limbo of not knowing how much longer the patient has. “Calendar” begins to mark that time through watching the sunrise in the morning,

“It’s another beautiful dawn, I say

but they get harder.
Another one, she says,
eyes turning away.

The last one
and it is just me.
The rain begins.”

The mother accepts that she hasn’t got much time left. The weather becomes a metaphor: sun for continued life, rain for the grief when that life has ended. This ending is revisited in “The Last Vigil”, the final part at just after midnight:

“After it all, three small breaths —

so quiet,
I almost missed you leaving.

You travel upwards,

turning cartwheels —

why did no‐one tell me
death felt like this —

an unbearable joy?

You leap from star
to star and then,

you are gone.”

The mother, the addresse of the poem, is not saying the reported question. The daughter left behind is projecting, hoping her mother is aware of her release from pain, the limbo of being near death but not quite there. There is nothing tethering the mother to her final pain-filled days now.

The journey continues into the aftermath. In “Planting”, “I dig bulbs into your bones” and later,

“The Almanac tells me
I am too late.

Even so, I wait, patient,
for the flowers to show.”

There’s a need for the speaker to feel as if she’s doing something, even if unproductive. Despite the loss, there’s still a sense of the mother’s spirit being present. In “Postcard Home” the speaker has a vision of her mother

“living by the sea at last, your paints out beside you,
brushes dipped in ink as the day closes.
I like to think of you this free, but still,
I miss you being here with me.”

The mother is rewarded with the house of her dreams, however, the daughter still misses her mother. The title poem ends the collection,

“into an hour
of not doing,

to stand, long enough
to hear the curlew call;
to remember our lives
opening to it all.”

“To Start the Year From Its Quiet Centre” is an unsentimental pamphlet of poems that explore a mother/daughter relationship as the mother’s life ends and the daughter’s continues. I would have appreciated a picture of who the mother was before she became ill: she’s painted as someone who was much-loved and who liked the natural world and the coast. But I don’t know what her favourite flower was or whether she preferred the rugged Northumbrian coast or sun-warmed Cornwall. The poems don’t stop with the mother’s death but continue into a life adjusting to her absence. Victoria Bennett has created a fine tribute.

To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre is available from Indigo Dreams.

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

“The Tangle Box” Dave Kavanagh (Chaffinch Press) – book review

Dave Kavanagh The Tangle Box book cover

“The Tangle Box” is the name Dan O’Neill’s sister Maria gives to the house and village where they grew up, largely in fear of their alcoholic mother’s moods. Their father ineffectually tried to soften the blows, but his role was that of an enabler, making excuses for his wife’s behaviour. Dan wry observes, “I blame my parents for what we suffered, but try to understand the cause. When you’re a child, you believe you deserve the things you experience, the good and the bad. But as I grew older, I understood that no child deserves neglect or mistreatment.” This isn’t a pity party though. Dan knows he has to understand his past to give himself a future.

The book starts with a middle-aged Dan adjusting to life after a lengthy and not yet complete rehabilitation from serious injuries. He still walks with a crutch and post-operative scars from a fall that could have been fatal. His life is a studio flat and warehouse job in Dublin. He has not seen his sister since she and his mother left the house they grew up in while Dan was still a teenager. Maria sends him a letter confirming she is still alive and recommends her friend Cathryn, a therapist, who will help him. Dan is caught between wanting to see his sister again but dreading uncovering things he’d prefer to keep hidden, not being able to fully remember what lies in the murky depths of the tangle box. Readers suspect his self-deprecation is a defence mechanism and he’s more likeable than he thinks he is. His determination to see his troubles through and emerge into a future is engaging and keeps readers rooting for him.

Cathryn agrees to help him. She does so not as a therapist but as Maria’s friend, a sounding board for Dan to work through his memories and fears. Dan is not just looking back to his childhood but his early adulthood, the sense of not belonging and screwing up his first love. Cathryn is a very handy plot device, a listener to Dan’s story, her therapist’s habit of asking the right questions useful prompts for Dan to keep going. But she’s also more than that and readers get to see Cathryn’s life as she juggles work, a teenage daughter and a troubled marriage.to a local newsreader.

Dan visits his childhood house – it’s not a home – where the landscape and details of house mirror his journey. The overgrown brambles, rust and remnants of a decaying farm pave the way to the neglected house. Details mount up, the shattered pane of glass which his father fixed by adding an extra pane either side rather than replacing shows how Dan’s father was in denial, ineffectually patching things up rather than mending them or protecting his children. Did Maria need the reminder that the glass was shattered when her mother threw a knife at her? The interior’s worse: what furniture is left is beyond repair, spiders have moved in and something is moving around in the attic. The revelations accumulate as Dan moves through the house. He remembers one incident:

“Maria still stood on the bloodstone, her fist clenching and unclenching. Her face was bone white, her eyes squeezed shut.

“’What did you want?’ Ma asked.

“Da stopped at the door, his back to her.

“’Look what happens when they live!’ Ma’s laugh was spiteful.

“’No, Caroline,’ He begged her not to go on, but she did.”

Caroline drowned her disappointment in drink and lashed out at those who couldn’t fight back. She never wanted children. Knowing her surviving children are watching, she drinks for the courage to decide what to do about another unwanted pregnancy.

Dan has inherited his mother’s alcoholism. After moving to England at the age of 18, he took a job in a bar. Missed school (a red flag no one in the school or village did anything about), meant no qualifications and a bullied child doesn’t grow into a confident adult. Although a functioning alcoholic, he knows he has to stop. He manages it until he meets Abbey where he spends most of the relationship not believing his luck. Abbey is studying for a masters degree and Dan gets the only job he knows how to do: bar work. Appeals to him to stop drinking don’t work. He comes home from work and discovers she’s moved out. Drinking spirals him into homelessness but a chance encounter offers Dan a job. But an incident with drunken yobs takes the opportunity away and Dan returns to Dublin where he has his near fatal fall.

Dan’s determination to understand his past to give himself another chance at a future means the novel doesn’t become one depressing and dismal shock after another. He knows he has to untangle the box before he can be reunited with his sister. Cathryn guides and prompts, but Dan works at his pace and is in control of his actions and understanding. The horrors are handled sensitively. The story carries its own tension without ramping up the terror for the sake of shocking the reader. The bravest thing both Dan and Maria have achieved is breaking the cycle of abuse.

In “The Tangle Box”, Dave Kavanagh has created a memorable story with compelling characters who carry the reader’s empathy as they try to unravel the past, knowing this is the best way of forging a new future. The tangles are unravelled at a credible, natural pace. The terrors are organic, growing from the story, and not thrown in for gratuitous shock-value. Dan and Maria are fully rounded characters overcoming their trouble pasts. Their parents are not one-dimensional stereotypes of bad parenting: their stories too have shaped them into the people they became. Dan is generous in his attempts to understand them while acknowledging that doesn’t condone or excuse their behaviour as parents. Dan resolves the puzzle of the tangle box through his own agency. In doing so, he uncovers what happened to his mother and what caused his near-fatal fall. It’s a chilling story that lingers long after the book is closed.

“The Tangle Box” is available from Chaffinch 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.

Book table at the launch of the Significance of a Dress

“This Kilt of Many Colours” David Bleiman (Dempsey and Windle) – book review

David Bleiman This Kilt of Many Colours

David Bleiman explores identity through family connections, history, place of origin and where home currently is, and language: the one you grew up speaking, lost languages and learnt languages. The poet has settled in Scotland, has a Jewish Ashkenazi background and learnt Spanish when his adult son moved to Spain. He comments that we are all a mix of identities and languages and these differences provide a commonality through a sharing of heritage or language; we can still communicate and be understood. Some of the poems incorporate phrases in Scots dialect, Yiddish or Spanish with an English glossary/translation as appropriate alongside the poem (so no flicking back and forth to notes at the end of the collection.) As an example, “Lacquer wood fiddler”, set in Moscow, “yidl mit’n fidl” translates as Jew with fiddle, ends,

“What is your melody,
my yidl mit’n fidl?
Who inscribed ‘Ayy’ on your base?
Who carved and shlepped you
from your shtetl?

My friend, you need to ask?
The klezmer I play for your ten roubles
is singing in your granny’s voice
and ‘Ayy’ is the cry that falls
from the roof of the burning barn
when the Cossacks ride out
in the morning.”

Folk tunes carry both heritage and stories, a way of keeping traditions and tales alive. So the fiddler is asked both for his tune and his heritage as well as why a word is carved on the fiddle’s base. The fiddler recognises a fellow Jew. He doesn’t explain the song, but explains the carving, the danger in being different and viewed as not belonging. This issue of where to belong is explored through a grandfather named Adolf in “Reclaim the name,”

“he learned to master many tongues:
German at high school in Lemberg,
Hebrew in his grandpa’s shul in the shtetl,
Yiddish with the girls in momme’s kitchen,
Polish bringing in the harvest on father’s farm
and facing pistols in the pogrom’s spoil,
Russian as the land changed hands,
English for banking and exile in Cape Town,
patrolling on Boyes Drive above the cliffs,
scanning the ocean for U-boats.

No grandson now can bear your name of shame”

Perhaps not handing down his name is no great loss when he’s passed on a love of languages and a curiousity in others. Language is put to the fore in the Scots dialect poem, “Why Dae A Scrieve in Scots?”

“whaur ye cam hame
is whaur A chaised tae stey;
that wirds wull wander tae a mooth
whaurivver makars staun an blether;”

It’s about choosing where home is and authenticity over using words that are perceived to indicate poetry, but sound unnatural in speech. Sometimes one has to blend in, rather than stick out, and create a sense of belonging. “Singing with Sasha in the sukkah”, is presented in two columns, one in Yiddish, one in English. It ends,

“Fun daynen shtetele From your little village
in East Noykh Fifele in the East Neuk of Fife
vest Zoomn shoyn this week tsu mir you’ll Zoom to me this week
un singsts tsu mir on consonants, and sing to me on consonants,
s’iz mir shoyn gut, ay yaba baba boy. already I feel better, ay yaba baba boy.”

A sukkah is a temporary hut-like structure to commemorate the time the Israelites were cast into the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt used during the festival of Sukkot. Video conferencing software such as Zoom enables connections and shared traditions. It can also offer a sense of emerging into an uncertain future. The current pandemic has already altered life for some and for others has invited the question as to whether we want to go back to what we had before the pandemic or whether it’s time to rethink the future and emerge in a different world. That sense of do we continue or do we change is revisited in the title poem (sporadikos translates from Greek to English as scattered),

“The Poseidonians in Paestum,
remembering they were Greeks
on festive days like this,
were sad.

Not us!

We choose to be sporadikos
and wear it well–
our warp is weft
from southern spools
through bolts of northern light–
this kilt of many colours.”

The narrator has favoured making Scotland a home rather than remaining separate and yearning for a birthplace which does not stay static but also grows and evolves. How many migrants remember their own past and fail to keep up with the modernisation taking place in the country they left?

“This Kilt of Many Colours” is celebratory in tone and David Bleiman is clearly in favour of migration and multiculturalism, exploring languages inherited and newly learnt. In doing so, he focuses on what humanity has in common, that we all have a sense of heritage and tradition, ancestors who spoke other languages, and the ability to use speech for connection or to distance. Drawing from personal experience enables him to leave darker questions about prejudice and exclusion aside. Those shadows are cast out by the celebration within this collection.

“This Kilt of Many Colours” is available from Dempsey & Windle.

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.

NaPoWriMo 2021 and the Value of Writing Communities

Last year I planned to take a break from #NaPoWriMo because I thought I’d be busy promoting “The Significance of a Dress” (still available as a print or ebook from Arachne Press). However, the pandemic led to cancellations so I ended up doing #NaPoWriMo, finding art an inspiration to compensate for the lack of planning. This year, I thought I’d take the break I’d planned last year but I found myself writing a poem on 1 April. Call it habit or discipline, but April seems to be a month for drafting poems.

It’s also a good month to start new habits. The drear, winter mornings have gone, clocks have gone forward an hour on to British Summer Time so the evenings are staying lighter for longer and the outdoors is looking greener with plants coming back to life. For me its also the month before hayfever really starts, a breathing space before outdoors becomes hellish. There’s a plus to having to wear a mask. I rarely bother with new year’s resolutions, but when I do I usually see January and February as planning, thinking months and get resolutions underway in March/April as the season turns. January’s a horrible month to start anything: there’s that post-holiday lull, the weather’s discouraging and it’s still dark at beginning and end of the day.

During the pandemic, I have been relatively privileged: classed as a keyworker but able to work from home with enough space to set up an office-at-home that’s not in my living area. Since my writing has always happened in the gaps around everything else, it still happens in the gaps around everything else. I don’t have a routine: a poem wants to be written, it gets written, a short story haunts me, it gets written and I’ve always got something to review. I think my breathing would have to stop before the writing does.

Fortunately the writing groups I belonged to have moved online. Yes, things have changed and members have had to adapt, but it’s worked. I’ve not lost the sense of belonging and community. Moving online has opened up other opportunities too. Normally, I would never attend a poetry magazine launch in Australia, but, thanks to Zoom, last year I did. I’ve also been able to attend other poetry events that I wouldn’t have ordinarily got to and met some social media friends and followers virtually. The monthly Broken Spine readings have included UK poets as well as poets from Nigeria and the USA. The world has felt closer and less distant. I hope that when events are able to go ahead in real life, the virtual events won’t be forgotten and organisers will continue to find ways of combining both whether through recording the live event and uploading the recording on a video channel or enabling a Zoom component to festivals, combining living readings with online readings/workshops.

Normally March sees States of Independence take place at De Montfort University, billed as a book fair in one day, it hosts book stalls from regional independent publishers and writers’ groups along with talks, readings and panel discussions from regional writers, publishers and organisers. Last year’s States of Independence, which I was due to read at, was cancelled. This year’s will be virtual. It’s free to register to take part and website has a Festival Book Hub with links to independent publishers and writers involved, plus writers’ groups and DMU’s Centre for Creative Writing Resources. If you can’t make it on the day, the website is live now and worth checking out. I am taking part in two events:

1 – 2pm Rise Up: Building Resilient Writing Communities Networking Event with Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Books. Leicester Centre for Creative Writing and Dahlia Books invites you to Rise Up – an open meeting for writers, publishers and creative practitioners. Rise Up is an opportunity to network, exchange ideas and showcase your talent. In this roundtable discussion led by publisher Farhana Shaikh we will reflect on the past year, discuss the impact of the pandemic and consider the importance of our communities to help us move forward in tumultuous times.

4 – 5pm Poetry Cafe with readings from Anthony Joseph, Rennie Parker, Michele Witthaus and me. I’ll be reading poems from “The Significance of a Dress”.

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

“A Cap of Horror/Een Kap van Afschuw” edited Leo Van Bergen (dt) – book review

Cover image A Cap of Horror

“A Cap of Horror” is subtitled “First World War poetry written by female nurses and carers” and is edited by Leo van Bergen, Marijke Foncke and Renee Schoffelen. Leo van Bergen’s introduction explains the rationale behind the anthology, “I wondered whether besides Brittain and Borden other female nurses had turned their wartime experiences into poetry as well. Eventually I found seventeen women, nurses and others working in the medical line, who in forty poems and a cycle of sonnets reflected on various aspects of the (medical) war. Many of these touched me deeply, as I hope they will do you.” The anthology is bilingual in English and Dutch in the hope of gaining recognition for the poets in Dutch-speaking countries. Open the book from the English language title to get the poems in English, reverse the book to the Dutch title to get the poems in Dutch. The contents list includes Vera Brittain, Mary Borden, May Sinclair and Rose Macauley and the poems are organised by theme.

The opening poem “To a Red Cross Nurse” by Margaret Helen Florine starts,

“You’re as great as any hero,
In the bloody strife,
He can give unto his country
But one sacred lilfe.”

This heroism is explained in the final stanza,

“The hundred you return to fight
Have suffered, bled, faced death and when
They know that they are in the right
Are worth two hundred men.”

Here the nurse’s job is to heal men to go back to the front line reassured that they are on the right side and doing the right thing even though most will not return. But the strengthening of their resolve will double their might. Similar sentiments surface in Vera Brittain’s “A military hospital”,

“A mass of human wreckage, drifting in
Borne on a blood-red tide,
Some never more to brave the stormy sea
Laid reverently aside,
And some with love restored to sail again
For regions far and wide.”

However, some are less gung-ho about war, “In a soldier’s hospital I: pluck” by Eva Dobell starts,

“Crippled for life at seventeen,
His great eyes seem to question why:
with both legs smashed it might have been
Better in that grim trench to die
Than drag maimed years out helplessly.”

At that time the UK had no established state welfare benefits so those who couldn’t work became reliant on family or church and charity donations to survive. For some, dying on the battlefield was the better option. From this perspective, being patched up enough to go back to war looks less like heroism and more like a least worst option.

The poems don’t just focus on nurses. M Winifred Wedgwood’s “Our VAD scullions” focuses on those stuck in the kitchens, producing drinks and meals and washing and cleaning afterwards. ‘VAD’ is the Voluntary Aid Dispatch, nurses and support workers who volunteered and were dispatched to convalescent homes or where they were needed,

“Our nurses are always apparent,
So we give them their halos alright;

But how many think of our scullions,
Because they work buried from sight?

Yet their toll is hard and unceasing,
And often it’s dirty work too:”

Inevitably, there’s a section on loss. Lilian Bowes Lyon lost her brother Charles in France in 1914 when she was 18 and a volunteer at Glamis Castle, which belonged to her uncle and was being used as a convalescent home. Her poem, “Battlefield”, ends,

“So heavy a wrong –
How many this black world right who trod them into slime?

Still must pour milder suns,
Splintering the stained glass window of a wood,
Be darkly seen through these men’s blood
And midnight mutter in her sleep with guns.”

Bowes Lyon used her VAD training in the Second World War when she was living in London and became a first-responder at bomb sites and also an auxilliary support worker in a local hospital.

The collection’s title comes from “Sonnets to a soldier” number 2 by Mary Borden,

“No, no! There is no sinister mistake.
You cannot love me now. I am no more
A thing to touch, a pleasant thing to take
Into one’s arms. How can a man adore
A woman with black blood upon her face,
A cap of horror on her pallid head,
Mirrors of madness in the sunken place
Of eyes: hands dripping wiht the slimy dead?
Go. Cover close your proud untainted brow.
Go quickly. Leave me to the hungry lust
Of monstrous pain. I am his mistress now –
These are the frantic beds of his delight –
Here I succumb to him, anew, each night.”

It explores the secondary trauma the nurses felt in tending to the injured and listening to their stories from the front line. Winifred Mary Letts’ “The casualty list” by Winifred Mary Letts takes a more considered view and ends

“Yet how shall we forget them, the young men, the splendid,
Who left this golden heritage, who put the Summer by,
Who kept us our England inviolate, defended
But by their passing made for us December of July?”

“the splendid” echoes the ideas of heroism from the opening poems, however, here their loss is also acknowledged and encapsulated in the winter in summer image of the last line. Although posed as a question, it asserts the nurses will not forget their charges.

There are biographies of the poets at the end of the book, although it wrongly states that Lilian Bowes Lyon was “a niece of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon”; their fathers were brothers which makes them cousins.

“A Cap of Horror/Een Kap van Afschuw” is a welcome anthology of war poetry from the viewpoint of nurses and support workers who cared for the casualties. While there is some jingoism and some poets cast soldiers as heroes, others temper this by addressing the affect caring for the injured had on the nurses. Loss is also acknowledged and questions raised about the nature of war and the importance of remembering. The research in tracking down the poems and rediscovering women poets of the period is a useful reminder that there is more to be written about war than the work produced by soldier-poets. A useful addition to the canon of First World War poetry.

The book can be purchased from the publisher here https://www.uitgeverijduidelijketaal.nl/store/Kap-van-Afschuw-p253054682.

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.

“A Woven Rope” Jenna Plewes (V. Press) – book review

A Woven Rope Jenna Plewes book cover

Through “A Woven Rope” Jenna Plewes weaves three generations of family, starting with the mother/granddaughter relationship. “Birth” starts with “A seed / lands in a smear of water / needles a hairline crack”, where “needles” has an ambiguity and carries both the sense of threading into the crack or agitating it until it can anchor. “Seeds” begins,

“In my grandmother’s womb
lay the seed that is me
in my mother, the seed of my child.”

The poem later reveals,

“I breathe your baby smell,
feel the weight of you

try to comprehend a grandchild
seeded from my womb.”

It builds a strong sense of the maternal line and links between generations. Motherhood can strengthen a bond between mother/grandmother generations as a new mother develops a practical understanding of what motherhood means. Fathers are not left out completely though, in “Father-love”, as his baby daughter is held in his arms,

“Already you cast a shadow behind you;
soon you’ll push away his hand, slide off his lap,
stand unsteady, legs wide as your smile.

He’ll watch you lose your balance, find it, lose it again.
He’ll follow, one step behind, see you go out of sight –
wait for as long as it takes for you to return.”

Dad becomes a guardian angel of a shadow, following but allowing his daughter to pick her path, to grow and move away secure in the knowledge her father will be there when she needs or wants him. This daughter will be free to grow into her own “Self”, the poem that gives the collection its title from its final couplet, “The rim of the world’s a woven rope / you’ll wrap around your wrist to keep you safe.” “Wrap” is carefully judged: blankets, towels, clothes are wrapped to give comfort and warmth, gifts are wrapped before being given. It’s a word of tenderness. If the rope had been tied, it would carry connotations of something kept in place, something tied down and not free.

The following poems could continue the daughter’s story through her transition to adulthood or could be a retrospective look at the mother or grandmother’s journeys. But they fit within the theme of a rope or linked object that provides an anchor or connection. “From a Safe Distance” is a watercolour that follows its owner from house to house where,

“She knows that seen up-close
there’s nothing there:
pale marks on dead white card,
unreal, as every day is now.”

Up close, the observer sees the mechanics that created the painting. From a distance, the observer sees the picture. An examined, individual life may seem as if it’s cast adrift, full of pointless admin or minor decisions that don’t seem to affect much. But step back and see the broader picture, the links and influence one life has over another. The “High-wire Wedding” seems dramatic,

“high above the priest and make their vows.

Second by second, they hold a silence
strung tight between their smiles.

Music drifts up like smoke. Does she now
turn and lead, or does she follow him?

The hem of her dress ripples
in the breeze; no-one moves.”

Marriage is a balancing act. A wrong move: forcing her to follow when she needs to lead or vice versa, could bring it all down. The poem is poised to let the reader figure out which way it went. A later poem suggests success as he becomes a husband who helps pick gooseberries he hates in “A Good Man”,

“Last year they sat in the shade,
heads bent over the metal colander,
hands busy, content to be together.

One chair under the willow now,
a bucket of fruit,
too many for a widow’s needs.”

The focus turns to the grandmother generation, a widow desperate not to be a burden is busy creating ‘to do’ lists as she knows her life is nearing its end in “Living”,

“Nights when she cannot sleep, she adds more lists:
letters to write, to send, letters to leave behind,
bridges to mend, peace to make, promises to keep,
friends to hug, to comfort.

Now when there’s nothing left to say
and all the lists are done, she carefully
unwraps each day, strokes the wonder
of it with fingers gentle as a child’s.”

Her adult daughter finds herself considering the maternal links in “Her Shadow’s Borrowing My Clothes” when she catches a glimpse of her reflection in a cafe window,

“familiar gestures laid down in the strata
of my life are reappearing in its weathering.
I’m saying things she used to say to me,
phrases embedded, intricate as ammonites.
So much of her is in the bone of me,
a shadow-trace against the light.”

“A Woven Rope” is a lyrical exploration of maternal lineage through transitional roles of daughter becoming mother, mother becoming granddaughter and the potential for the line to continue through the new daughter. Jenna Plowes’ attention to details, whether marks that create a watercolour, phrases used by a mother realising she’s quoting her own mother, the tension in a high wire, let the reader admire the intricacy and feel their deceptive strength.

A Woven Rope is available from V. 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
The Significance of a Dress Emma Lee book cover

“The End” Gareth Writer-Davies (Arenig Press) – book review

Gareth Writer-Davies “The End” book cover

Gareth Writer-Davies turns his sardonic, minimalist eye life, illness and a linking thread of a diagnosis, where symptoms get taken seriously when doctors realise your family history. “Christmas Lights” is set at a time of anticipation of potential gifts but the poet is “waiting/ for my diagnosis” as well as the big switch-on,

thumps down the switch

I will try to be good

please don’t send death
in his fat red suit”

“Mrs Eliot”, presumably the second one, muses,

“but in the unremembered green plots
are bones of those

never in the first rank of celebrity

in the biographies of their more famous other halves”

She concludes, “most poetry is forgotten// it is the troublesome dead/ whose words are written”. The implication seems to be that you need to play to the gallery and create a dramatic life to be remembered since your work will be forgotten. I’m not convinced and suspect those who are not forgotten were both talented and troubled. However, it’s true those in supporting roles who enabled the celebrities are rarely remembered.

The diagnosis thread is clearest in the poem of that title. A family history of cancer gets your doctor’s attention,

“but I am alert to aphorism
the lies
it can tell

what I want to hear
I’m sorry; there’s been a mistake”

Most patients want to know what’s wrong. But when the answer to that might be the disease that sent your father to an early grave, what the patient really wants is to be reassured that the doctors and consultants might be wrong. The symptoms might be explained away as something else, something non-terminal and the answer might be a course of anti-biotics. The possibility of misunderstanding is raised again in “Gas” where a quote from one of Sylvia Plath’s letters suggests a rejection or misunderstanding but further reading reveals a story of a nursed baby bird who didn’t make a full recovery so Plath and her husband ended its life by gassing it,

“‘plucky little bit of bird’ she writes ‘I can’t forget it’

which is both touching
and gruesome

Ted doubtless felt differently about the matter”

It’s Plath’s letter so Ted Hughes’ reaction is not revealed, merely speculated on. Plath is made the sentimental, nurturing one, Hughes the rational, realistic one. These roles have elements of truth. Plath’s “The Rabbit Catcher” takes a horrified view of discovering poachers’ rabbit traps. Hughes’s poem about the incident in “The Birthday Letters” mostly records Plath’s reaction, implying it’s natural to find poachers’ traps in the countryside and this shouldn’t be shocking.

There’s a wry humour in “Dead Poets” where editors think of poets “the same way that doctors dream/ of a hospital/ without patients” and death might increase sales so editors plot with more than a red editing pen. “Twisting the Sheet” is wise after the event, so easy for people tot up the symptoms with the benefit of hindsight that they overlooked in life. However, there’s a sensual metaphor too,

“twisting the sweaty sheet and gathering myself

in a grimace
of concentration, wrinkling my brow

flaring like an engine
as I came back down to earth, with a shudder

nobody knows which bed Death
hides under

for a small death unnoticed”

La petite mort, ambiguous as to whether it’s a brief loss of consciousness or a post orgasmic shudder in a daze of fever.

The title poem, fittingly, is at the end, focused on when the credits roll at the end of a movie and cinema-goers have the chance to move out into daylight again. Likewise a cancer diagnosis need not be fatal.

“The End” is a collection of poems with gallows humour and a soul of brevity. Gareth Writer-Davies’s wry observations and minimal expression suit the overall tone of the poems. The short stanzas, with some lines pivoting on one word, offer plenty of space for readers to engage and think around what’s being said.

“The End” is available from Arenig 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
The Significance of a Dress front cover

“Someone is Missing Me” Tina Tamsho-Thomas (Fly on the Wall Press) – book review

Someone is Missing Me Tina Tamsho-Thomas

Tina Tamsho-Thomas has created an accessible collection of poems that deal with personal, emotional and political questions, touching on racism and feminism, with a sense of celebration and positivity. An early poem, “The Long(ing) Wait”, advises “One shouldn’t drink alone”

“The evening shot is no substitute
for the longed-for soul mate;
the long(ing) wait
a daughter’s condolence,
a father’s remembrance,
that even white wine
or grape so fine,
cannot intoxicate.”

It both acknowledges that drink, or another drug, merely delays the inevitable and only brings temporary relief. Whatever it is that the drinker is trying to forget or sideline will still be there when the affects wear off. The underlying problem still needs to be tackled.

“Sons and Mothers” looks at raising a son when a father is absent,

“The burden is not of our making,
choices little or none,
but when our self-respect is near breaking,
we must make demands on our sons.

As mothers we’re often degraded,
as housewives our status nil,
in the media our bodies paraded
as mere objects for men to fulfil.

Is this how we see one another,
has our opinion of self sunk so low?
Then we must reclaim the word Mother,
let our sons reap the pride that we sow.”

At first glance it seems to put the burden of teaching sons to respect women on mothers and lets the absent father off the hook. But the references to images in the media and the little value society places on caring roles gives the poem a ‘let’s make the best of a situation we’ve been lumbered with’ feel. Mothers are being asked to take pride in the role and make their sons proud of them. The simple rhyme scheme acts as an aide memoir, however, the use of ‘self’ rather than ‘ourselves’, although rhythmically correct, feels unnatural.

Romantic relationships seem to get a rough ride, “Sand Picture”,

“When our love was mirrored
you gave me a sand picture
different worlds, shifting landscapes.

. Splintered against the wall
. framed illusions shatter

Another contrite phone call
‘I’ll repair the damage’.

. And the mirror?”

The picture can be mended, but can the damage to the relationship be fixed? The image of the sand picture gives an impression of unstable, short-term foundations.

There is a group of political poems, chiefly focused on South Africa, for example, “Part of my Soul – Tribute to Winnie Mandela” which ends,

“Your inhumane system
I’ve met with resistance,
fighting for freedom
from your bloodstained hands.
But part of my soul
and all of my spirit,
continues the struggle
for African land.”

Readers don’t doubt the passion. But there’s not much room to engage and is the struggle for land or for people who have been displaced, colonised and impoverished?

One recurring theme throughout is the strength of solidarity and friendship between women. One of these celebratory poems is “Tulips & Chinese New Year” where a Chinese friend is also celebrating a birthday,

“We celebrate






double happiness.”

The repetition of “our” underlines the sense of togetherness.

“Someone is Missing Me” is a friendly, accessible collection of poems that explore the personal, emotional and political in a celebratory tone. Tina Tamsho-Thomas aims to welcome and draw in readers while not shying away from bringing up uncomfortable topics such as racism, absent fathers, violence in personal relationships, in a way that shows solidarity through friendship and finding those moments that create lasting memories.

“Someone is Missing Me” is available from Fly on the Wall Press

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

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.

“Aftereffects” Jiye Lee (Fly on the Wall Press) – book review

Jiye Lee Aftereffects book cover

“Aftereffects” is an exploration of grief. Although inspired by the death of the Jiye Lee’s father, its remit broadens to consider other sources of grief and how individuals react and cope in the aftermath. A personal experience is widened to a universal experience. “Enigma with a Blackbird (After Pablo Neruda, Enigma with a Flower”, starts

“Grief. It has come silently. I did not know
it had perched,
the black figure that sits in my chest,
piecing itself a home,”

The poem ends,

“She spreads her wings – for a moment,
I breathe. Leaves behind an empty nest;
I hear a crack.”

It’s interesting that grief is maternal, building a nest, it suggests grief has a purpose. It creates a framework for bereavement, nudging the sufferer towards acceptance and adaption to circumstance. But it’s also “an empty nest”, something broken, what should be there dispersed and no longer present.

“Last Breath” acknowledges the poet was in Seoul while her family were in Cairo when her father passed away. The physical and emotional distance prompts her to ponder,

“Is his consciousness
suspended somewhere
circulating the universe?
Trying to find his way to heaven,
with me, here on Earth,

How much does a minute weigh?”

Time takes on a different shape in grief’s aftermath as the shock of loss becomes acceptance. “Rooms” uses two Biblical verses from John 14 that start “In my Father’s House there are many rooms…”

“Entrance Hall
Recently, more than 470,000 Syrians
were put to death and displaced
trying to escape the civil war.
8000 dead and injured in Haiti.

. Games Room
. On a highway in Egypt, two vehicles collide
. Nobody cares to send help.
. A father of two and his Egyptian driver
. pronounced dead on the morning news:
. no compensation.”

The poem ends,

“Room 4
Does Father still smile
knowing how much it kills us
to live life with him gone?”

It’s curious that the unknown dead, the victims of war or fatally injured, are given specific rooms, but the poet’s father is given a numbered room. The lack of name suggests a lack of purpose, the poet’s not sure why her father had to die: he was just a number, one of many who passed away that day.

Adjusting to the absence is painful. “Assessment” is brief (complete poem):

There’s a bridge. In Korea.
A well-known bridge
I say

in response to her question,
Could you tell me in more detail
as to how you thought of going about it?

Followed by the question,
Do you think about it now?”

The questions lack compassion, their aim to assess the intention behind the impulse. There’s no conclusion. The poem is about the emptiness and struggle for acceptance.

The collection ends on a note of hope, in “Seollal (Korean New Year)”, where a young girl has fallen asleep on a subway train,

“Her father worms out of his coat,
rolls it as best as he can, into a squished pupa.
Tipping his daughter’s head to the side,
he plumps it into place against the partition;
lets her head fall back to a pillow of goose down.

The little girl
continues to dream.”

Perhaps the poet also still dreams of her father. It’s a poignant image of paternal love.

“Aftereffects” is an engaging, eloquent exploration of bereavement and loss. Jiye Lee’s situation is personal but she broadens it out to be of wider interest. The relationship between father and daughter is delicately and accurately probed, showing readers what has been lost without telling them how to feel. The poems’ deceptive gentleness have readers focused on the sheen of a feather before re-reading and looking again shows the bird can fly.

“Aftereffects” 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.

Choosing which Writing Tips to follow

Be Careful Whose Writing Advice you follow

Someone unencumbered by a day job, childcare or disability is going to give advice useful to people in their situation. If you have a day job, childcare or disability or any combination of those, following such advice is setting yourself up to fail. That’s not to say the original advice was bad, just that it doesn’t apply to someone in your situation.

Write everyday is good advice for someone starting out who needs to get into the habit of writing. But bad advice if you’re the type of writer who works in fits and starts.

Be Careful What You Measure

We tend to do what we can measure, but only measure what you can control. You have no control over which submissions will become rejections or acceptances. You can influence the ratio of acceptances to rejections by checking you’re sending your best work, you’ve read your target market and know your work to be a good fit and you’ve triple-checked you’ve followed the guidelines. However, these precautions won’t guarantee success. Targeting x number of acceptances or y number of rejections won’t work because the outcome isn’t under your control and sending out submissions with the aim of hitting an acceptance/rejection target encourages you to submit even when what you have available to submit isn’t right for that market.

Another easy measurement is the word count. It’s so easy, the word processing program does it for you. But it’s problematic:

You set yourself a target of 2000 words per day. Monday you reach 1000 words. You’re actually pretty pleased with that: first day of a new regime, you’re just warming up so half-way there is a good start.

Tuesday, you write 2000 words, hitting your target. Moreover, you’ve got to the end of a short story. Measurement-wise, this is a success.

Wednesday, you sit down and look at your 3000 word story. You realise it’s bloated and start trimming all the adverbs, take out that repeated scene and decide to take out a minor character who had some good dialogue but didn’t add anything to this story (the character’s not been killed, just put aside for a story where their good dialogue is relevant). At the end of your writing session, you now have a story ready for submission. This is actually your most productive day. Measurement-wise, however, it’s a disaster. You wrote -1000 words.

What You Need To Measure

All readers care about is if your story or poems are any good. They don’t care if you spent 20 minutes or 20 years writing them. They don’t even care how many rejections your story/poem had before it was accepted. They care about whether what you wrote was a good read, however that is defined. Some readers want a pacey thriller, some an escapist romance, some want to be transported to another time period or another world, some want a thought-provoking poem.

Getting words on a page is only part of that achievement. It’s also the most measurable part, but only accounts for, at best 20%, of creative writing. Once words get on the page, they need editing. No one’s first draft is brilliant: it has to be sifted to see if those flashes of gold were genuine or pyrite.

But the most important part comes before words get to a page: the thinking, planning, plotting, researching, immersion in the fictional world you want to create. If your measurements don’t give yourself time to create, to play, your writing won’t be creative.

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.

Bookstall at Leicester launch of The Significance of a Dress