“Call in the Crash Team” LYR (Mercury KX) – spoken word/music review

LYR Simon Armitage Patrick Pearson and Richard Walters band photoLYR is Simon Armitage, Patrick Pearson and Richard Walters and “Call in the Crash Team” has 11 tracks, mixing poems with music. Each track takes a fictional character and a tour through post-industrial landscapes and austerity from marginalised voices. First track, “The First Time”, muses on the girl first slept with a decade on, with Simon Armitage reading over a background of keyboards and kora.

“Gone your own way now
Nothing to say now.
Still mouthing your name though
Ten years to the day now.”

Next up, “Zodiac T-Shirt” is the track that gives the album its title,

“Zodiac T-Shirt
Paper clip bracelet
Mercury rising
Call in the crash team.”

It seems to hark back to teenage years with a mix of poppy optimism and pessimistic lyrics. One stanza reads,

“We pull up a tree
And plant a rose
A cigarette dies
Another one glows.”

“Never Good With Horses” focuses on a woman who could pin insects in cases, dry flowers, keep a rabbit’s foot on a keyring but couldn’t cope with real, living things as the chorus, “But you were never good with horses were you my dear” reminds her and claims she “couldn’t bear to look in the dark pools of their eyes”.

“Urban Myth #91” ups the background to accelerated percussion and discordant piano in a song about sticking to a middle lane and avoiding the barricades. The theme of ordinariness and routine is picked up again in “Adam’s Apple”, a song about tying a necktie while looking in the mirror and not really seeing what’s there. “Product Testing”, a mere 56 seconds, builds towards a punch line that is deliberately, ironically anti-climactic.

With “Great Coat” listeners are in similar territory to “Adam’s Apple” with added pathos “It’s a great coat all right. Now that you’re gone/ just never ask me to put it on.” It’s the coat you can’t get rid of but carries so many memories, it can’t be junked and almost has a life of its own.

“331/3” according to the blurb is about “a truly tragic moment in musical history – the sudden and heart-breaking passing of Joy Division lead singer, Ian Curtis”. The blurb is necessary. The sound of a record spinning on a turntable at the end of the track when all that can be heard is the imperfections in the vinyl provides the backdrop. The title is the speed of the record. The lyrics, spoken, mention “captured orbit around the spindle,” and mention “whirlpool” and “swansong.” Not one mention of a Joy Division lyric or the band, but you get the idea of sadness, repetition, someone’s life governed by music.

The remaining tracks slow the tempo. “The National Trust Range Of Paints Colour Card” lists drab, neutral colours and repeat two lines, “Poverty’s a shame, it’s a shame, it’s a shame, it’s true” and “Nobody’s to blame, to blame, to blame but you”. Generally, poverty is more complicated than individual action or circumstance. It’s like the last track, “Leaves On The Line”, builds a series of images but doesn’t really do anything with it.

“The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog” starts with an interesting idea: a website that features collections of items under 100g: bottle tops, guitar picks, a set of plastic soldiers arranged to spell the title. But the website is then abandoned as if the owner lost interest or got a better offer. Armitage makes his own list: bank notes, dead leaves, beer mats, fingerprints, one night stands, Yuri Gagarin in zero gravity. “where I stand in your affections.”

When the novelty wears off, it gets predictable. Aside from the last track, “Leaves On The Line”, the voice is the same: ponderous, flat, unchanging. A voice that belongs in bedsits, the pub band, singing of unrequited love and squalor. A voice occasionally overwhelmed by the music, which here is given equal footing to the lyrics. The music is heavily influenced by Sigur Ros, but is sparser, aiming to be a soundtrack rather than the main event. Those already fans of Armitage will love this. Those unfamiliar with Armitage’s work might want to start with the books.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“Not Human Enough for the Census” Erik Fuhrer (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press) – book review

Erik Fuhrer not human enough for the census book cover“Not Human Enough for the Census” is a collection of poems alongside images by Kimberly Androlowicz. Most of the images are created with digitally manipulated encaustic paintings and some of the poems share their titles. The collection’s title comes from the first poem, “[the creature of dark habits]” (all titles are parenthesised, as if they were an afterthought or a convenient filename rather than a means of identifying a poem),

“                                                             I was born I was born I was borne
.                                                              a child who is a finger
.                                                              whose body is a hangnail
.                                                              who knows at least 3 math problems
.                                                              right out of the womb
.                                                              the most important being
.                                                              anything times 0 is 0
.                                                              and therefore he bites his hangnail
.                                                              down to the cuticle
.                                                              so people call him fleshboy
.                                                              they call him cute little icicle
.                                                                              they call him if they need money
.                                                                                                         blow
.                                                                                                         cigarettes
.                                                                                                         a good time
.                                                                                                         a slice of ham
.                                                                                                         another excuse
.                                                                                                         for not being
.                                                                                                         quite human
.                                                                                                         enough
.                                                                                                         for the
.                                                                                                         census”

The first part of the poem starts on the left-hand margin and sprawls across to the right. The words feel fragmentary, the generous inclusion of space implies hesitancy of thought and that thoughts are being gathered but haven’t necessarily cohered into a narrative. The play on “born” and “borne” indicates both arrival and burden, a child who is an inconvenience and used rather than nurtured. The unidentified “they”, through their use and abuse of the boy, reduce their own humanity, not the boy’s, although, from their perspective, it’s the boy who is dehumanised and made to serve.

The prose poem, “[nightmare chorus]” starts with the interesting premise that the nightmare becomes its own character and almost a parasite to the dreamer,

“there is a nightmare growing inside you and sometimes you wake to the sound of a rat gnawing
at the glass of your nightmare and your nightmare is wearing a papier-mâché mask of your
nightmare who is also there cooing like a dove nightmare with a flask nightmare whose last
name is nightmare and who lives down the block from your lung capacity which is not enough to
hold your screams when you knock on every door nightmare”

The lack of punctuation and short vowels give the poem a quality of breathlessness and urgency. However, the poem rushes to a punchline and doesn’t develop its initial premise.

Similarly, “[all filiation is imaginary]” starts, “confession:           my dog is not my son/ he is too good looking” which feels like a random thought to spark ideas, continues,

“all filiation is imaginary:
.                   I have no
.                                                  father
.                                                                 not becoming
.                                                                                                  father
.                   becoming fish
.                               gilled heart
.                               gilded tongue
.                               a spider RANSACKING
.                    web
.                     my throat
.                                                            tick suck spatter”

A fatherless son, who has had to imagine who is father might be/might have been, may well reject the notion of becoming a parent. But it’s some jump from rejecting parenthood to a “gilled heart”, presumably something that attracts movement, that people slip through because the son can’t settle having never been shown what a relationship looks like to a spider.

More successful is “[8 millimeter body]”

“doesn’t understand that NRA stands for
.                                          never
.                                                       returning
.                                                                     again
after an open             gunshot            wound
.                                           to the head
.                                           or the heart
.                                           or the parts of the body
.                                           where flesh yields to
.                                           bone yields to the sky”

Re-defining the acronym is appropriate to the poem and the imagery supports the idea.

“[the treebutchers]” takes an idea,

“the treebutchers made 20 hits a day

their hands calloused
liked the bark             they eat twigs
.                                                                   consuming their kills

Cannibalism is a thin red line
.                                                       especially when
.                                                       the treebutchers began to sprout
.                                                        leaves from their eyes”

The poem goes on but it feels as if justice has been served.

Ekphrastic poems should be able to stand alone on their own merit. The artwork may add an extra dimension or layers to the poem. Here the poems achieve that. Kimberly Androlowicz’s artwork is a bonus and the abstract nature of the artworks is matched in the abstract appearance of the poems. They leave space for a reader’s imagination to feed the gaps and create the idea of thoughts being gathered, an image being processed and thought around. They create an impression for the reader to complete.

“Not Human Enough for the Census” is available here: https://www.erik-fuhrer.com/not-human-enough-for-the-census.

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


“Hotel” Ali Lewis (Verve Poetry Press) – book review

Ali Lewis Hotel front cover“Hotel” is full of astutely observed poems that take an idea, play with it and arrive at a surprising conclusion. However, each poem is faithful to its own logic so the poems don’t feel surreal or as if the quirkiness has been thrown in as a distraction. In the opening poem, “Pressure”, the narrator speeding down a clear road hits a pheasant and pulls into

“the nearest petrol station pressure
wash blood from the bonnet of my car
from the headlights from underneath
the wheelarches while you keep watch
tell me shaking i would do this with you
i would do this with you if we killed a man”

Readers don’t get to know the relationship between the narrator and the person referred to as “you”, just that the second person feels the narrator and driver is too calm about washing the pheasant’s blood from the car. Then imagines the narrator/driver remaining just as calm if a man rather than a pheasant had been hit. There’s no need for the second person to “keep watch” but their paranoia keeps them stuck and escalates into whataboutery. The driver doesn’t respond, keeping busy is a way of keeping his emotions in check. This scene could become a pattern of behaviour in the relationship: one becoming emotional the other remaining stoic. A repeating pattern is also explored in “Carpet” where she pictures him as “a bad hotel carpet”,

“She hated the way she could see him
in a Rotary Club or Masons’ Grand Lodge,
and how he was, like a bad hotel carpet,
the same in the bedroom as he was in the bar,
as he was in the bedrooms of all of the others.

She hated the way he’d wait at the doorstep
if she stayed out too late, or roll, bright red,
out into the street, and how, like a bad hotel
carpet, his pattern seemed chosen to mask
all the dirt, his surface to muffle her steps.”

A man conscious of status and external image, less careful about what she thinks. Others see the surface pattern, she’s seen the dirty underlayer. He’s likes the impression of order, of routine. She wants to go out and come back at the wrong time occasionally. Although she claims to hate his habits, she doesn’t appear to be planning to leave. Perhaps his habits offer a security and familiarity. Another one concerned with image and routine is “The Englishman”

“In the bathroom, the Englishman has a cheeky
Punch cartoon, taking aim at the establishment,

and when he pisses, the Englishman aims
for the water, not the bowl. He splashes joyously.

The Englishman is not pissed, actually.
He can handle his drink, and his own affairs.

The Englishman has had an affair. He wears
a signet ring and not a wedding band.

The Englishman doesn’t signal when he changes
lanes on roundabouts or the ring road.

The Englishman is very sorry. He didn’t realise
you were in here, getting changed.”

Each couplet runs on from a word in the preceding couplet, allowing the poem to move forward and digress without the digressions becoming irritating or illogical. Each acts to reassure the Englishman that, whatever he encounters or does, he’s an all right chap underneath it all.

“Gloss” is inspired by a quote from Kay Ryan’s “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard”, “A life should leave/ deep tracks:/ ruts where she/ went out and back”, and ends,

“How can we grieve
What is the knack?
A trick
candle that
went out and back.”

The lives of others leave imprints. Grief isn’t a single event but something that recurs when we least expect it.

In “Hotel” Ali Lewis has created an engaging, intelligent collection of poems that play with ideas and images. Each poem follows its own logic and is carefully crafted so they bear repeating reading. Like moving from one hotel room to another, the basic furniture may seem familiar but the placing is different or there’s an item in one room that wasn’t in the last, so guests are forced to look again, pay attention and notice the differences, the change in route.

“Hotel” is available from Verve Poetry Press.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image


Should I Tag Writers on Social Media?

There’s no simple yes or no answer. Unless a writer has a very strict “read no reviews under any circumstances” policy, most writers are likely to welcome being tagged in a positive review. However, if someone has written a savage review and tags the author in the hope of getting a reaction, no writer would welcome that tag and the tagger needs to ask themselves if this is the best way of getting a point across (hint: it isn’t). It’s also a question of numbers. Getting one or two tags occasionally doesn’t feel too onerous, but getting thousands in one day feels overwhelming because each one is effectively a demand on a writer’s attention. Even just to read the post and decide not to respond takes time away from actually writing.

Why Tag Writers on Social Media?

The reasons for tagging writers on social media generally fall into one of the following categories:

  1. You want the author to know you’ve bought their book
  2. You’ve posted a photo of a book or books and want the author or authors to see
  3. You’re participating in a blog tour or have received a guest post and want the author to know it’s live
  4. You’ve written a post or reviewed a book and want the author to see it
  5. You’ve seen a post/review/article about the author or a subject they write on and think they need to see it
  6. You want to ask the author a question and, since you follow them on social media, that seems the easiest way of going about it

Do You Need to Tag the Author?

  1. It’s great to know someone’s bought your book and a tag in a brief, tweet-length post doesn’t take that long to read.
  2. Again, it’s great to see books being read and a tag in a brief post that doesn’t link elsewhere doesn’t take that long to look-up. If you’re posting one platform with a link to another, check your post explains why followers need to click your link. Just posting the link with no explanation looks like spam. Please only tag an author once. If you’ve tagged an author in the original post, don’t tag them in posts that link back to the original.
  3. It’s polite to let authors know that you’ve completed your section of a blog tour or their guest post has been used, but, again, please only tag an author once. If your post gets shared, the notifications start to get numerous and potentially overwhelming.
  4. Some authors don’t read reviews and don’t want to be tagged in review posts. Reviewers won’t know which authors have this policy though so tag once and include the publisher so the author can see that the publisher’s been informed and they don’t need to do anything.
  5. If you’ve seen a post/review/article about the author or a subject they write on and think they need to see it, don’t tag the author. Chances are the author’s seen it or knows about it. Writers research. Many do searches on their names or book/poem/story titles to check for pirating/ plagiarism. Following through on you tag is wasting their time and giving them less time to actually write.
  6. You want to ask the author a question: don’t do this on social media unless the writer has agreed to take part in a question and answer session online and only ask questions during the session.

Why Should I Not Tag the Writer in a Question on Social Media?

A question is rarely a simple yes or no (even if you think the answer is yes or no) and it may take time to provide an answer. Leaving an unanswered question on social media makes it look as if the writer is tardy in providing the answer whereas in fact it’s the questioner’s fault for asking an unsolicited question in the wrong medium at a time that makes it difficult for the writer to answer.

If you’re asking an author to do something for you, use a private channel. If you can’t find the author’s contact details, approach via a publisher. Tagging is lazy and says you couldn’t do your research, so why should the writer bother to respond? Responses may also encourage others to follow so suddenly one request, which might have been manageable, becomes ten or more, which isn’t manageable and public refusals may reflect badly on the author even though the fault lies with the requester for not making a reasonable approach.

The other problem with tagging a writer in a request (to comment on your review/post, to write a review, look at your manuscript, etc) on social media is that you have made that request public and your request has an audience. The writer’s response therefore is also public and also has an audience.

It is very difficult to tactfully turn down a public request even if the writer has painstakingly explained why they can’t comply with the request before turning it down. Making that public request looks like a form of bullying or blackmail since your audience are expecting a positive response and may draw negative conclusions before considering whether the original request was reasonable or not. I blogged about Social Media Bullies here. Don’t be one.

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 14 March launch


“disintegration” Paul Robert Mullen (Animal Heart Press) – book review

Paul Robert Mullen disintregration book cover“disintegration” is a journey through the aftermath of a failed relationship and follows a narrator who is trying to make sense of what went wrong and move on. “dreamcave” starts with watching a candle that’s a reminder,

“i watch it burn deep into dreams

dancing on the zephyr

.                    to the tinkle of wind-chimes


watch fire

bleed & rise onto cold stone


take myself to bed

.                                        alone”

The narrator clearly feels his aloneness and loneliness. The poems are all double-spaced, which gives the reader space to think and to feel what might be happening in the gaps. The use lower-case throughout gives the poems a tentative feel, as if they are edging onto the page, uncertain of their reception.

The mundane title of “watching from the window” belies a lively poem watching a shoreline during a storm,

“chemical changes                    in the air

some kind of diffusion

the aftermath            of events          that should never

.                                   have happened


the light seems dense

a thickening of senses

.                 rust smell from the

.                          temporary heater


i pull out the notebooks                the pen

.                   but the words aren’t there”

The storm could be literal: the one breaking over the shoreline, or metaphorical: the ending of the relationship, something that should not have happened. Compelling as the storm is the smell from the heater bring the writer back to reality but he finds he’s too caught up in the emotional reaction to the storm to write, and what kind of writer can’t write? The storm attacks his sense of identity. The who he was as half of a couple is no more but he’s not adjusted to his new identity as a single man.

There’s some self-deprecating humour too. In one poem his mother complains he’s wasting his time writing poetry and his response is, “some people have no poetry” and asks “what do they do?”,

“what do they reach for when winter

raps the windows

.                         in late november

comes through the door huddled in sheepskin

.                          puts his bags down

.                                                       and smiles?


how do they look into the eyes

of another

and see anything but just


.                          themselves?”

It suggests writing is not just getting words on a page, it’s also about the empathy and compassion needed to understand the world and see situations through another’s eyes. It seems this ability to understand and see another’s view started early. In “after school” a fellow pupil confesses their father saw a UFO,

it’s because you believed me

.                            you said when i asked you

why me


i’d never felt so alive”

The final poems show signs of the narrator beginning to move on, “when the hearts of two poets break” they

“hurl their hurt at computer screens

with something resembling bravery

something resembling fear

.                         nothing that is anything less

than truth”

Of course, truth isn’t a simple concept. Each person will have their own memories of events and interpretation of what went wrong and why the relationship ended. Confessing one’s faults takes bravery but there’s also the fear that readers will misunderstand or misinterpret the intention or even prefer the other side’s story.

“disintegration” follows the path of grief and introspection after a relationship fails. As the journey moves from shock towards acceptance, the poems begin to take in other relationships, mother and son, school friends, and the narrator starts to rally and understand that to move on, he has to understand why the relationship failed so mistakes are not repeated. Paul Robert Mullen has created a sequence of poems that disintegrate across the page, reflecting the hesitancy, the movement from denial to acceptance and the journey that the poems take.

“disintegration” is available from Animal Heart 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


“Yield” Lydia Unsworth (Knives Forks and Spoons) – book review

Lydia Unsworth Yield front cover“Yield” is a series of prose poems inspired by a call and response to the Tao Te Ching interspersed with lyrics from Eurovision Song Contest winners and English folk songs and originally written as part of the Tupelo 30/30 project. The first, “Outer Play”

“You roll out the map to insulate your home. Stapling cloth to the wall is the only way if your heart doesn’t want to give in. You staple the end of your sleeve to the corner of a reappropriated patch of curtain, forgetting the day-to-day demands of your arm therein. You roll your body inside out, trying to escape the reassurance of bifurcation, rustling newspapers behind card behind card behind thick old coats once stuffed with straw we also used to sleep in. You’re inside-out now, your arm interlocked with a finite but uncertain number of other limbs, bodies tipping, loop-the-looping, hands in hands in nameless patches of housewear. The goal is to become a slim ring, ironed out, blowing in the redirected wind. The goal is to shrink a bedroom back to the size of cupboards that render unnecessary the separate bedrooms we alonely used to dream in. Built into the living room, as then as now, closed off during the day.”

A cloth map is used as a tapestry to hang against the walls to cut down draughts and make the some warmer. It is also an act of settling, making the home a port, a place to anchor and stay, even if the person hanging the map wants to travel and leave to explore. It’s a person who doesn’t want to be tucked away home alone, someone still finding themselves and who they are separate from a family unit. “Seasoning” also picks up on this theme of exploring who we are and sharing our dreams and desires with another,

“The idea of letting anything inside, even light. Some like it raw, without any kind of seasoning. Plain rice absorbing water like tears let down into pillows in the night. The threat of anything but us trying to take back land.

“Some people have booming elephant populations they’d rather not come into contact with. Can’t sell then on because people without elephants are telling people with too many elephants what to do with their elephants:

“it’s not on. I say do what your belly tells you, look in, not out. Firmly insert the magazine. The elephants can take care of themselves. Don’t be shy. Take what you need, not what you want.”

It details the irony of being told what to do by people who have no experience of the situation but comfort themselves by telling others what to do instead of listening and responding to reality. The act of adding seasoning to food allows the disguise of the food’s true taste, the seasoning can enhance or detract from the food itself. It becomes a means of dodging reality. The poem’s narrator, however, rejects this disguising in favour of being true to herself and her gut instincts.

The poems often take a basic, relatable image and play with it, like a stream of consciousness or game of word association, just to see how far an idea will go. In “Fine Weapons (an unfitting)”,

“I do not have a fortune to buy you pretty things. Do not have the stamina to chase your breakneck thrill. You too can hate weapons, if you give up the drink. Splat like storm-leaf, I mean, darken, fill. Never say pregnant with. And the route to its prize. Imagine an obstacle, for example, a comb, a calculator, fear of lightning, three men in the night. And now imagine a leak. Loud as a tooled-up one that flies over, leaves a night club of sky on the blind of your eye. The ceiling sinks down from all the electricity it is currently holding and the night won’t stop taking my photograph, screaming at me to resign.”

Reality and surrealism meet: lightning is both the electricity which sparks fears and the flash of a camera unsettling the subject. The final poem, “We Will Not Hurt One Another”, ends

“A doily falls

through the break between two lined-up tables, a detail caught
on a million elsewhere heels and then abandoned. The breeze is still
the breeze in this furnace-grill daylight. I’m curtain-caught
in the billowy folds of everyone leaking out
of the thrown-wide and forget-your-woes windows,
An orchard pops open another bottle. Clouds cheer
into spontaneous dissipation—into fill and be filled.

Speak and the world won’t know how to refuse.”

The windows allow the poem’s speaker to both view what’s happening outside and remain an observer. The position of observer is not entirely neutral since she gets to interpret what she’s seeing and guide the reader accordingly. There’s an optimism here: the windows allow worries to be forgotten, the ‘clouds cheer’, the speaker anticipates being heard.

“Yield” is a collection of poems that seek authenticity and remaining true to oneself despite advice to follow convention and slot into traditions. They have an energy and create the feeling of spontaneity despite being controlled linguistic experiments from a call and response to the Tao Te Ching. Irony is used to challenge the readers’ preconceptions and invite them to play along.

“Yield” is available from Knives Forks and Spoons Press.

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

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch


“Exploring Rights” Edward Ragg (Cinnamon Press) – book review

Edward Ragg Exploring Rights book cover“Exploring Rights” questions roles and ethical choices without moralising at a time when individual freedoms in an increasing divided world risk curtailment. The opening poem, “That We Are Born Unequal” states, “is as obvious as the truths// that made us.”, “is as obvious as the slums”. That inequality continues throughout as a sub-theme. Examples of those ‘little’ men who nonetheless make the right ethical choices is central to “Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov”. This poem is about the man who survived the K-19 nuclear submarine incident and was a commanding naval officer aboard the B-59 in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis,

“Olga said he did not like to speak of it:
that they hadn’t understood what
they had endured. A survivor of survival.
Whom fewer would know had Orlov
not told the world in 2002 of one
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov:
who exercised the right of refusal
and gave to millions and billions
in the failing air of a nuclear submarine
the opportunity of simple, quiet, life.”

A man who watched colleagues die, stood firm and refused to spark a nuclear war between two superpowers which would have mean others would watch colleagues, friends and loved ones die. He did so at the risk of transferral to a labour camp, with grim conditions he may not have survived, on return to Russia. The poem’s tone is reportage presented unemotionally so readers are left to figure out what might have been going through Arkhipov’s mind as he was pressured into making a decision with world-changing consequences. The “Poem by Donald Trump”, which comes with disclaimers that the poem ‘does not express exactly any of his views, opinions or comments’, is very different in tone,

“the best people around
me I mean some of my
best friends even are Poets

are even Poets and they’re
always telling me what
a great Poet I’d be

and really how really
difficult it would be
for me not to be so great”

It uses enjambment to push the reader onto the next line, echoing the subject’s tendency to bluster and speak quickly as if what he’s saying is so self-evident it doesn’t need questioning. Speaking quickly doesn’t allow an audience to consider what’s said and ask questions and the poem’s circular argument is to show someone talking continuously so as to deter questions, particularly ones that might ask for proof of the claims being made.

“Greeting the New Year” is more expressive. It starts “He returned to Beijing in the half-haze/ of a late winter’s morning without a home”, “a soldier from the North walked out of the fog,/ an AK-47 in his hand”, asks how he would view the people,

“shopping in the Christmas light, the cosmetic
masks of a generation beaming through serum
and snail mucus? How could he prepare
for that? He placed the automatic weapon
voluntarily in the LED-lit corridor dividing
the northern wind from his processing.
Greeting a new year here, another in China.
Welcoming not fate, not fortune, but
the simple what is of whatever comes next.
Arriving so softly: flake upon padded flake”

Snail mucus is used in a facial treatment for cosmetic purposes so a contrast is being drawn between a soldier, who puts his life on the line, and those privileged enough to enjoy a life of shopping and cosmetic enhancement. People who know to project their best side and wouldn’t be caught in stark, brightly lit corridors that would not flatter them. In contrast, the soldier is not travelling first class with queue-jumping privileges and lives from day to day. Again, the poem asks questions and doesn’t pass judgment.

Philosophy creeps into, “Schelling’s Answer to Armed Robbery”

“Since it would be irrational to give this man my gold, should I ignore his threat? This would also be irrational. There is a great risk that he will kill one of my children, to make me believe his threat that, unless he gets the gold, he will kill my other children.

“What should I do? It is very likely that, whether or not I give this man my gold, he will kill all of us. I am in a desperate position.

“Fortunately, I remember reading Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict. I also have a special drug, conveniently to hand, inside the left pocket of my dressing gown. This drug causes one to be, for a brief period, very irrational.”

An armed robber brandishes a gun and asks the homeowner to get the gold from his safe. The homeowner knows he and his children have not been tied up therefore there is a risk they will identify the robber either though his getaway vehicle or personally. The risk of the robber killing all of them is real. The only rational response is an irrational one. The outcome of the robbery may be guessed at. But the poem relies on readers assuming the robber is unknown to the family. It even raises the unanswered question of where the children’s mother is.

The title poem is set in “The region above the Arctic Circle [name redacted]” by a company considering how much energy (oil, natural gas) is available should drilling rights be obtained and is putting together a paper,

“Much (if not most) of the Arctic waters
are currently ice-covered for most of the year.
However, the polar ice cap has been noticeably
receding in recent years, quite possibly
as a consequence of global climate change                           [Suggest exclude. Controversial.
[INSERT: creating truly unrivalled potential                         [Go to INSERT]
access to these ever precious resources].

Of the 33 Arctic sedimentary “provinces”
that the [redacted] and [redacted] evaluated,
25 were found to have a greater than
10% probability of having oil or gas deposits                         [Suggest raise stat.]
larger than 50 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE).”

It concludes “Let’s discuss again at Monday’s board”. How corporate of it. The layers of redacting and strikethroughs show how corporate-speak and spin obfuscate the actual meaning of what is being said, so much so that the audience can’t differentiate between fact and fiction.

“Exploring Rights” is a reasoned, philosophical collection unveiling aspects of inequality, the use of language to obscure and blur facts and fiction, laced with a wry humour. Each poem is focused, the language is unflinching and clear, unencumbered by emotion. It invites readers to read between the lines and consider what is actually being said.

“Exploring Rights” is available from Cinnamon 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.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch


“The Unmapped Woman” Abegail Morley (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Abegail Morley The Unmapped Woman cover image“The Unmapped Woman” explores loss and bereavement in a way that taps into grief as a universal experience so that although these poems are based on personal experience, they don’t make the reader feel excluded or as if they are reading a private journal. The collection is split into three parts, the first starts with “Egg”,

“I breathe into the lonely snow-lines on the scan,
tell you how to grow safely, how to throw
and catch a ball, how later, stronger, fleshed out,
you’ll thrust up a hand in class before the question’s asked,
then hush, hush yourself before bed.”

It’s all the hopes and anxiety that pregnancy brings. How an expectant mother imagines the child growing up, teaching the child and passing on skills perhaps learnt from her own parents and offering the child safety and security. This sense of hope, however, is dashed as loss is the unfortunate result, in “Gravid”

“Not until after the front door slams shut
and absence sucks air from its cheeks
do the words in her head, packed tight
as if on postcards, unhook their ink.

She knows their sloping script by rote,
has read each one to the echo of her womb,
laid her palm on her belly as she read them
aloud. She said, Cessation, cessation,”

The blandness of official terminology cannot contain the devastation expectant parents feel. Medical staff trying to get through their day and a long list of appointments can’t offer patients time to take in what’s being said and can inadvertently compound the sense of failure. There are not always answers as to why the miscarriage happened. The remaining poems in the section follow the adjustment to the loss, in “Imminent”, memories of pregnancy surface, a pregnancy during the summer months,

“when it is already too hot to sleep, I watch your
elbow soar like a sail and imagine you journeying
upstream, skin pinking at a confluence of rivers,
body uncertain, smirching the bank. You’re waiting
for liberation, foetus shaping in liquid until you
come adrift on a crib-shaped island with the map
of life crumpled in the tiniest palm I can imagine.
I see you unroll its tide-worn edges years later,”

Her pregnancy was far enough along for the expectant mother to feel her baby moving and to imagine her baby as a child and guiding her child through life. There’s also uncertainty: what the map reveals is unknown so the expectant mother can only imagine her child looking at the map years later because she doesn’t know the map will remain unused.

In “Given up II”,
“A winter bulb; bruised root; pomegranate
seed throbbing. Each word I speak worries

us both, disappoints. She rocks underwater,
skull hardening − an unplucked knot.”

There’s a search for answers, “bruised root” is a suggestion the baby wasn’t getting enough food or oxygen, perhaps planted at the wrong time. Even when no reasons are forthcoming, there’s still a desire to create a narrative to explain why a miscarriage happened.

In “Past Love” a date brings five roses and she’s wondering whether to tell him,

“I hope he’ll ask again, some time when I’m ready,
but he moves effortlessly forward and the blooms of two roses
fall like stardust, soundlessly, like you did, when somehow
your life was sucked, ever so gently, from your lungs.

When I held you, there was no noise from this galaxy
or another or another, and we spent that night wondering
how the sun lit only other people, and how breathless
the universe can be when you need air the most.”

The loss is still carried with her. But there’s an awareness that others have suffered their own losses, in “The Library of Broken People” two girls

“said life’s an unworkable toy. Other victims
are quieter, don’t talk so much, even when

the library’s shut. They drop to the back
of the index, all seal pup-eyed, skittering

at the slightest flex. I survive amongst them,
wear a long jumper, drag sleeves down wrists.”

Libraries are appropriately quiet, places where people are not pushed to talk. Bereaved people do eventually find a way of falling back into the expected routine of life before grief but find it empty of meaning and feel as if they are going through the motions. Later poems suggest an additional loss and deal with finding a balance between returning to something resembling normal life and still remembering those losses, in “On having enough messages from the dead”

“I decide to pin your name to the noticeboard,
stick another to the fridge with a magnet,
to loosen you from me. This morning I find
they’ve dived off, parachuted down
and are hissing on an unwashed floor ‒
paper sun-torn, unbearable to touch.
I watch ink vacate itself from the present.”

The names might fade in time from the pinned notices, but the memories don’t. The fading is also a reminder that the people who owned the names are no longer here.

“The Unmapped Woman” is an exploration of the uncharted territory of grief, a terrain each has to map for themselves. Landmarks are key memories. Even though the bereaved try to return to a normal life, simple images such as a dying flower falling from its stem, can switch the observer into the parallel world of grief. The poems search for recovery after loss and their technical dexterity transform them from a personal journey to one that engages a reader.

“The Unmapped Woman” is available from Nine Arches

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.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image


“Grenade Genie” Thomas McColl (Fly on the Wall Press) – book review

Thomas McColl Grenade Genie front cover“Grenade Genie” is a wry, dry humoured look at modern life in general. The book is split into four sections, ‘cursed’, ‘coerced’, ‘combative’ and ‘corrupted’, alliteratively satisfying. The first section looks at the hapless, those trapped in an underclass or simply finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. “The Evil Eye” casts its glance on social media users, “You’ve allowed yourself to get caught in a cobweb/ spun by a social spider that sucks you dry of information,/ then leaves your hollowed-out exoskeletal frame/ to rot on its website.” However, users are addicted and keep returning to post another selfie.

A refugee eyes up a journalist in “Carry My Eyes (Above and Across the Barbed-Wire Border)” (the poems within are double spaced),

“my dreaming-of-a-new-life blood-shot eyes

spy the approach of reporters in roving bands.

We’re here to tell your story, they always say,

How you fled civil war and want to be given a chance.

But I know they don’t care –

and I won’t talk to them, nor extend my palm

(which would reveal my cut and calloused lifeline),

just tell them with a steely stare:

Don’t hug me with your inverted commas,

nor touch me with your cruel chameleon hands.”

I get the message: trauma porn and the damage it does to those who tell their stories only to see their words twisted to serve another’s agenda because the journalist’s master is the advertisers who enable publication of the stories they write, not the truth of the refugee’s tale. Constantly telling your story to people who aren’t listening creates another layer of trauma. I’m not so sure some of the details add up: people in transit camps aren’t “dreaming-of-a-new-life”, but merely escaping the one they’ve left and trying to get through today as they wait either to be able to move on or for asylum applications to be processed. People stuck in uncertainty don’t make plans or think ahead. I think the parenthesized phrase loses its weight and needs to be taken out of the brackets.

Later, “The Greatest Poet” draws parallels with T S Eliot – the sharing of a first name, both worked at Lloyds Bank but is the poet of this collection destined to be forever in the more famous poet’s shadow. Or is that a question when “The Waste Land” can’t be condensed to InstaPoetry?

The ‘coerced’ section looks at employees’ security passes, how “we’ve all been programmed since birth/ to have nothing else but shopping on the brain?”, nightclubbing and being unable to remember someone’s name. The ‘combative’ section takes us shopping with a god, observing those selling copies of “The Socialist Worker”, militant pedestrians taking back pavements from cyclists and vehicles, the obsoleteness of cassette tapes and ends with the poignant “The Phoney War” where two boys play war in the lounge then run into the kitchen, “calling for Gran to serve us up our tea,/ and found her quietly sobbing at the stove.”

The ‘corrupted’ section has fun subverting clichés. In “The Surgery I Go To Has a Two-Headed Doctor”

“When Doctor Smith examines me with a stethoscope,

it’s in the left head’s left ear

and the right head’s right ear.

In other words, he makes a right pig’s ear

(and also a left pig’s ear)

of any examination he does.

However, when I once challenged him about it,

Doctor Smith’s left head simply said,

‘Can you breathe in a bit more deeply, please?’

While his right head shook morosely.”

This is Thomas McColl on surer ground and playing to all his strengths. “Grenade Genie” is a wryly humoured look at life, subverting normal expectations and asks readers to take a new look at the commonplace. Thomas McColl is at his best when he takes an idea for a walk an describes it afresh with a generous dash of humour.

“Grenade Genie” 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.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image


NaPoWriMo 2020

I hadn’t planned to do NaPoWriMo this year. “The Significance of a Dress” had two launches planned at the beginning of March, one of which had to be rearranged at very short notice to a reduced audience. There were further readings planned later in March and events in May; all delayed or cancelled. Poetry books mostly sell at readings. Chain bookstores don’t support poets. Promotional activity had to move online at a time when Amazon deemed books non-essential and Hive temporarily shut then reopened in a limited capacity, so getting word out that independent publishers and book shops were will still open and delivering became more crucial than ever. My employer is a supply chain to local government, schools, academies, charities, the police and NHS and became a food hub for Leicestershire, making up food parcels for distribution to vulnerable people during lock down so I was still working, albeit from home. NaPoWriMo therefore became a way of carving out a period of creativity each day, a time to play when work seemed to be dominant.

Unlike previous years when music and reading were key sources of inspiration, this year ekphrastic poems came to the fore. Ekphrastic poems take a piece of art (not necessarily visual art) and provide a descriptive narrative either of the scene depicted or giving voice to the subject. Not being a particularly visual person – I even think in words rather than images – I guess this inspiration came from a place of wanting to find different sources of inspiration.

It wasn’t the sole source. Some poems were inspired by overheard phrases, some by submission call-outs where a magazine or competition asked for pieces on a theme. Of course, writing to that theme doesn’t mean your poem can’t be submitted elsewhere, although it does have to work outside of the context of being a piece of work on a set theme. Similarly, I think ekphrastic poems have to work as pieces that can stand alone apart from the artwork that inspired them. Naturally, people familiar with artwork may see references and layers that those who don’t know the artwork may miss, but it’s not always possible for magazines or publishers to reproduce the artwork as well.

Are there any pandemic-inspired poems? Naturally, around eight of them. All but one will work outside the context of Covid-19 so if I decide to submit them for publication they won’t need a pandemic-specific context. While it’s right that writers (and artists) bear witness, I don’t think it’s right that writers pressure themselves or have external pressure urging them to write directly about the pandemic. Some writers will respond fairly immediately, others need time for ideas to take shape and form not because they are slow or poor writers but because their writing process is different and transforming an idea to a fully-formed poem takes a different route. The best work rarely comes from a place of being caught up in the experience. Those who have been furloughed, had sufficient savings to remove financial worries, weren’t also trying to home-school children and had a garden to relax/exercise in, will have a very different experience to someone trying to home-school and do a full-time job from home, who will have had a difference experience to a key-worker unable to work from home, whose experience will differ from someone with underlying conditions who has had to self-isolate without access to a garden.

I’ve listed the titles of my draft poems at NaPoWriMo as usual. I will update if any are subsequently accepted for publication.

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.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image