“Survived By” Anne Marie Wells (Curious Corvid Publishing) – book review

Anne Marie Wells Survived By book cover

“Survived By” is subtitled “A Memoir in Verse and Other Poems” and dedicated to the poet’s father Terry R Wells (1945-2020). It’s a personal journey through a daughter’s reactions to her father being diagnosed with terminal cancer and what she learnt by surviving her father’s death, written with the aim of helping others. It starts, as everyone does when receiving shocking news, with her own reactions, in “September”,

“Where is the How-To Guide for tragedy? The textbook
for Grief 101? What to Expect When You’re Expecting
Someone You Love to Die
? How do people learn what to do
when their father has stage 4 lung cancer?

Have experts established scientifically proven steps? Perhaps
………..Step 1: Stop breathing as electric burning emanates outward
………..from your sternum.
………..Step 2: Feel as if seashells have been placed over your ears.
………..Step 3: Tremble like a rescue dog on the Fourth of July

There is no guide because it’s not an easy thing to provide guidance for. The author isn’t the only one to have been told a parent or parental figure is terminally ill, but each set of circumstances is unique and personal. Some families are open, others close up. It can be difficult to find someone to talk to for a variety of reasons: one doesn’t want to talk about death, another has been through it and doesn’t want to relive it. The night the author receives “The News”, she had planned to got to a friend’s art gallery opening with a Tinder date. She messages him to say she doesn’t have the capacity for a relationship having just found out her father is terminally ill. She then complains about the date calling her when her voicemail states to text. He texts, but that’s not right either although she does acknowledge he’s probably a great guy but the timing’s off. At this point, she’s too wrapped up in her own reactions to consider this might be a decent guy who wants to say the right thing and show support.

She asks her mother if she should go to her parent’s house, called “home” in the poem, but worries “But if it’s going to be five years -“. Her mother brings her down to earth,

It’s not going to be five years, Honey.

I can’t breathe.
Burning chest.
Seashell ears.
Rescue dog knees.
I have a new life
I never expected to have.

Naive. Or delusional. Everyone loses
their parents, or their parents lose them first. Everyone
experiences loss.
But I wasn’t supposed to.”

Now, she’s ready to see her father’s illness impacts on others, maybe not to the extent it hits her, but others are affected and others have been through something similar. In
“No Unknowing”,

“The tumors spread
across the maps of his lungs
like spider webs caught in a rainforest, a mother fighting
to protect her young in the pouring tempest, digging her fronds
into his chest, branches cinched in a silken corset, a legacy
at risk with each gust, rigging a gridiron
of wind and leaves the night
of Friday the Thirteenth.”

The cancer is a living thing doing its best to exist, oblivious to the fact that the more it digs in, the closer to death it pushes both itself and the poet’s father. She debates who she can ask for help, dismisses the idea of a self-absorbed ex and asks social media instead. They respond positively but they ask how they can help, she has no answers. There’s resistance towards the well-meaning who tell her to “cherish every moment”. Similarly to closer friends, “No, I don’t actually know how/ anyone can help me.”

She travels to her parents and her father tells her “I’m happy/ I’m not depressed./ I have a good attitude.” It helps that he’s not yet bedridden and can still hug his daughter.

“My dad stands and gives me a hug.
I remember lots of hugs hello
and hugs goodbye. I don’t remember
hugs of consolation, hugs of comfort.
He’d always been more of a ‘shake it off’
kind of dad. This hug, his hug, feels
out of the ordinary, but we are already
out of our ordinary. What will ever
be ordinary again?”

Her father is more concerned about her upsetting her mother. The poet turns to gratitude, that she will get chance to say goodbye, that neighhbours tell her that her father’s a “great guy”, that she has some time to share with him. She thinks about friends who have lost their fathers. She cares – rubbing moisturiser into skin, feeding, scheduling pills – and becomes his advocate when the oncologist recommends no further treatment, but her mother wants a second opinion. She backs her father when he declines. She also writes his eulogy where she thanks him for being a good example of how to live. She also has to adjust, “to my parents’ mother’s apartment.”

Acceptance, shown in “Halfway”, is hard won,

“I knew I’d never
see my father again after he died.
But I asked him every night he spent in
his hospice bed to please haunt me or send me
signs from the other side. I didn’t realize he was
waiting for me on the moon. When I flew there in
a hot air-balloon one night, he stood smiling, full
-bodied, when I opened the hatch. We bounded
together, weightless, marveling at our bare
feet caked in gray dust. I woke to the
sound of my own laughter,
grateful I figured
out how to



Thankfully it’s not a self-help manual. “Survived By” is a poignant journey through loss, grief and acceptance with the aim of sharing one person’s journey in the hope it will provide succour for other. The vocabulary is conversational, there are no attempts to dress up what’s happening in pretty metaphors or oblique messaging. “Survived By” is direct and concerned with authenticity, a human seeking compassion.

“Survived By” is available from Curious Corvid Publishing.

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

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

Not reviewing free ARCs is not theft

Reviewers, bloggers and influencers are frequently sent free Advanced Review Copies of books in the hope they will review them or at least give the book a mention. But it’s a very inefficient way of gaining reviews and it’s not ‘theft’ for the reviewer/blogger/influencer not to write a review:

  • It’s an unsolicited request
  • The reviewer/blogger/influencer may not have space in the schedule to write the review
  • The reviewer/blogger/influencer may not have time to read the ARC
  • The reviewer/blogger/influencer may not review ARCs they don’t like
  • The reviewer/blogger/influencer can’t review every book they’re sent
  • Sometimes publishers sent unrequested ARCs along with a requested ARC in the hope that both get reviewed

It’s a scattergun approach that leaves no one happy. If you want to secure a review:

  • Don’t send the ARC, ask first with brief details about the book and author
  • The reviewer can check their schedule and see when/if it can be fitted in
  • A deadline can be negotiated so the reviewer has time to read the ARC
  • The reviewer has a better idea of whether they’d like the book beforehand
  • Reviewing every book you read makes reading a chore and sucks the joy out of it. Sometimes a reviewer just wants to read a book
  • When a reviewer receives an unsolicited ARC as well as the ARC they agreed to review, it feels as if the reviewer is being taken advantage of. Please don’t do this.

This is why in my review guidelines, I ask for details about the book and author, not the ARC. If I agreed to review, I’ll ask for the ARC. This way my inbox isn’t crammed with books I don’t have time to look at never mind read and writers know they will get a review. Publishers don’t always have time to deal with this level of correspondence, but they understand an unsolicited ARC won’t necessarily result in a review.

“Latch” Rebecca Goss (Carcanet Press) – book review

Rebecca Goss Latch book cover

Throughout “Latch” Rebecca Goss explores family relationships, particularly those between mothers and daughters, and how a childhood home can frame us, linking us to landscape and memory. Motherhood can be bittersweet, a child grows from total dependence into an independent adult. A successful mother makes herself redundant. In “Nest” mother and daughter watch a swan’s eggs hatch into cygnets until a return visit where they,

“to find a family gone. One,
unhatched, remaining.
Its marble lonely in the bowl.
Your hand slips out of mine

as you bolt to waiting swings,
leaving me with the egg, and all mothers
who lay their babies down, knowing
they cannot stay beside them,
must lower their own bodies into water
and continue with the swim.”

The daughter is not interested in the static egg so runs off to swings. The mother is aware of what the egg signifies. The swan had to leave and focus on her living cygnets, who in turn in time to come will leave her. Swans mate for life. Humans intend to but it doesn’t always pan out that way. “The Farm” records children’s feet put “into plastic loaf bags fixed at the ankles with elastic bands” ready to walk through flooded ground to the house (not yet our house). Months pass until the narrator, dropped off by the school bus returns, walking past her mother,

“her long phone calls, her crying. Children nestled, dirty, barefoot.
Her shouting. Her transformations. Wellies kicked off to wear

the night sky on her feet: peep toe, diamanté studded heels, with bow.
The most beautiful things I had seen in my life. The swirl
of her black silk Marilyn Monroe dress, her marriage almost over.”

Living in the countryside is a hard slog made harder with small children and a husband’s erratic presence. It’s not revealed who those long phone calls were to, but clearly she is finding someone to talk to in her husband’s absence. Motherhood too can feel like a lost of identity, even a loss of name as a name is replaced with someone’s mum, or even just mum. No surprise that now and again, mum wants glamour instead of wellies. A chance to be herself. The last night suggests the husband/father did not accompany his wife. Their separation already begun and may well have started in the move to the run down farm.

The poem that gives the collection its title, “Your Thumb at The Latch”, as the latch’s click lets the narrator know which room the father and child enter,

in a motherless

my body upstairs
in warm,

quiet water
knees raised
to study

last week’s
bruise, touching
the blue hurt

in a state
of absence,
heart set

to know you
between rooms.”

The womb-like water of the bath offers space for the speaker to heal before returning to her child and her child’s father.

Throughout, some poems return to the poet’s childhood home. Here, “Woman Returns to Childhood Home, Remembers”, a drunk mother being brought home by her husband, she still carries

“a glass bottle, quarter full
and sloshing. I wanted her
far away, back out in the field

where the dark could wrap
round her, ease her into sleep
until I woke her in the morning.

I’d have food in my bag,
we could eat breakfast
in the high grass and she

could plait my hair beneath
the oak tree, acorns forming
above us in their cups.”

The daughter may not yet fully understand what’s happening between her parents but she knows they are not happy together. The daughter desires to keep them separate, to not see her mother drunk, but to imagine her sleeping it off and going to wake her in the morning. They could eat and mother could plait her daughter’s hair. The final phrase, “in their cups” could suggest drunkenness but the implication here is that mother and daughter are drunk on each other, cementing their relationship.

In “Gate” the speaker watches her own daughter return home,

I must look old
and not extraordinary,
her skin the truest surface
wanting to kiss her
as she drops
her bag, turns,
every atom of her
near me, and I
make my slight
gesture, feel
the quickening.”

The speaker resists the temptation to smother her daughter, recognising her growing independence but savouring the moment.

“Latch” is a quiet, studied exploration of what ties us to home and the shifting role of motherhood, from being mothered to becoming a mother. The poems are an intimate sketch of family life from a child’s view and then a mother’s view, that use the personal to make a broader point. We are shaped by our parents’ actions and our landscape. The country with its floodwaters, weirs, rivers to swim in is as much a character as the people. Water nurtures in warm baths and drinks, and also cleanses. Rebecca Goss invites readers with a poised engagement and rewards with precise language guiding the reader through the accumulation of details to cross the threshold.

“Latch” is available from Carcanet.

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 Way to Hornsey Rise” Jeremy Worman (Holland Park Press) – book review

Jeremy Worman The Way to Hornsey Rise book cover

“The Way to Hornsey Rise” is an autobiographical novel about the burden of alcoholic parents, a boy finding himself and turning his life around from failure – Hornsey Rise is a squat – to success and querying what success might look like. It starts with the narrator’s mother’s funeral and 42-year-old Jeremy observing, “Ma’s coffin was lowered into the earth by the undertakers and I exhaled a sigh of relief. Soon she would be covered for ever. I was shaking and peered down in case she was rising again like Dracula.” A few pages later he acknowledges “Despite many troubles between us, her advice has often sustained me.”

The novel follows a conventional chronological time line from early school to degree level study. Young Jeremy is being moved from a school he loves to another. At no point do they bother to ask Jeremy’s opinion. Children are not the best judges of schools but they should get to voice their preference even if the parents decide that’s not the one. It’s only by eavesdropping Jeremy learns he’s to start as a day boy but become a boarder, another thing not discussed. Father is a partner in a firm of chartered surveyors and mother is a housewife – this is the 1960s – so a conventional middle class family.

The first day at the new school does not go well. Jeremy begins to develop stomach ache every morning. One day he walks out of school but is returned where he, “managed to survive by being a blob of amoeba in a big sea of school. No one took much interest in me, but no one ate me either.” Although a boarder, he’s aware his mother’s drinking has worsened and his father’s health is in decline. Jeremy drops out of school again, “I am clear about my reasons for leaving school… It really was the horror that Ma might go mad or try to kill herself; the more private horror was that she did not really love me.” He is not being dramatic. After an incident where his mother, drunk, puts her fist through a window, their GP arranges for his mother to go to Holloway Sanatorium, where she’s given a course of ECT.

This gives Jeremy, now in his mid-teens, chance to focus on his life and a first girlfriend. However, this too becomes another secret because her father has placed her under curfew. Her parents separate and move away, forcing them to end their relationship. Jeremy’s father hs now been diagnosed with cancer and given months to live. Now seventeen, Jeremy drops out of school again. After his father’s death, his mother travels to Florida to see an old school friend, leaving Jeremy to fend for himself, although he’s now an old hand at that. Despite acceptance onto a journalism course, he drifts, unsure of what he wants and winds up in a squat on Hornsey Rise in London, the largest squat in Europe.

For all his self-sabotage, Jeremy is practical and capable of looking after himself. He occasionally uses cannibis but avoids heroin. There’s little introspection or questioning of how he ended up here or what his emotional journey has been. ‘Uncle’ Neville, a father figure, was lost from his life, his own father has passed on, his mother fed and clothed him but was emotionally absent, frequently leaving him to bring himself up. Now in his early twenties, Jeremy has been parentified and focused on his parents needs without chance to get to know what his needs were. He’d rejected his parents’ materialistic values: a covertable address, a job with status, flashy cars, even the chauffer was a status symbol as his parents would not talk about the reasons for the need for a chauffer. After retirement, his father spend every evening drinking to blot out the loss of a job. His drinking was less dramatic than his wife’s, but its impact on his son was just as strong.

Jeremy has worked out that he rejects his parent’s values and needs to forge his own way through life, but doesn’t know where to start. However, he “felt less burdened by an alcoholic mother and my shame at being a drop-out public schoolboy: Hornsey Rise was a creative scrapheap, a peculiar kind of home for those either thrown out by, or fighting against, a corrupt society.” It’s a beginning of sorts, but things get worse. There’s another disaster which could make or break him. Although, since readers already know he attended his mother’s funeral, there’s little dramatic tension. Worman relies on the engagement of his writing to keep readers on board, a successful tactic.

Jeremy Worman overcomes any resistance to Jeremy the narrator as a well-off, middle class boy by introducing readers to life behind the facade his parents are so desperate to keep. He’s the boy who puts his parents’ selfish needs before his own and ends up having to parent himself. The adults who might have rescued him fail to act on the obvious red-flags and leave him stuck with his parents. There’s no self-pity, the focus is on how Jeremy arrives at adulthood, ill-equipped and anchor-less and how emotionally-absent parents damage their children. The lives of others living in squats have received similar damage and, for some, it ends badly. Jeremy though has enough fortitude and intelligence to turn things around. He concludes, “I am no longer ashamed of myself. I carry my story not as a burden but an inspiration. Cheers, Jeremy. Cheers, Ma.”

“The Way to Hornsey Rise” is available from Holland Park Press.

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

“The Jolt: Twenty-one Love Poems in Homage to Adrienne Rich” Julie Weiss (Bottlecap Press) – book review

Julie Weiss The Jolt book cover

Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012) started a relationship with Michelle Cliff, Jamaican-born novelist and editor, in 1976. The following year Rich published a pamphlet, “Twenty-One Love Poems” and her later poems and socio-political essays, notably “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, explored her sexuality. Like the poems in Rich’s pamphlet, Weiss’s poems are numbered rather than titled and kept short (Rich’s were around 12 to 16 lines, Weiss keeps hers in 10 line couplets).

The first poem gives the pamphlet its title,

“How could they miss a jolt of that magnitude?
The heat, surfacing. My heart an empty

car, more dust than air, skidding
off the track of my life. The morning

no longer my own. A crush of commuters
and not one hurled helter-skelter”

Love surfaces in unexpected moments and spins the narrator’s life out of control, flooding her emotions and she gives in to desire. The narrator makes a choice though, instead of continuing her day as planned, she gets off at the next station. An action of someone who doesn’t trust fate to intervene and enable her path to cross with her crush’s at a later date. Or perhaps there’s an impulsiveness which lets her heart overrule her head.

Weiss left America for Spain and the second poem asks questions of language, “Who needs translation when our bodies/ speak a thousand different languages,// all of them born of the same tongue?”. The poem ends,

“I write estuary on a napkin. Bursting,
I watch you eat, smile for a lack of language.”

Most of our communication is non-verbal, even when both people in a conversation share the language(s) being spoken. When love heightens the senses, the narrator finds herself able to sense devotion in non-verbal clues, in body language, in a shared breakfast, in watching someone relax and open up in her presence.

There’s an extra dimension this relationship too: how far they are able to show their affection in public. Poem VIII details an incident that took place in London where a group of young men demanded a lesbian couple kiss and assaulted them when the couple refused to comply. There was no guarantee that the assault would not have happened if the couple did comply and, if they did comply, how much further the demands would have gone because they would not have stopped at just one kiss. The narrator remembers her morning lovemaking, wants to write a poem, and then learns of the assault.

“There’s no metaphor sublime enough

to embody this morning’s lovemaking.
Or maybe I’m outraged by the pornography

of the crime. The way words can bruise,
crumple. Bleed across a moment of bliss.”

The imagery of love being sullied by bullies is revisited in poem XIV,

“the stories inside better off silenced.
The distant cry of a siren, or is that

the maimed animal inside my chest
unfurling under the balm of your breath?

My cursor pulses. I’m trying to capture
something that eluded me, the miracle

of your tongue spilling electric over mine
as a leer of ruffians gathered.”

The poems circle back to the beginning, that first fateful glance, in XX (te quiero translates as I love you),

“Extraordinary, how the planets colluded
to lure us onto the same wrong train. How

you melted the scrap heap of my past
in one sizzling glance. Te quiero, you say,

and mean it. A wail sends us hurtling.
How our children will continue this poem.”

The poem suggests the love will last and grow, despite the chancey beginning of a meeting on a train that might not have happened.

“In “The Jolt”, Weiss has succeeded in producing a homage to Rich. The poems are sensual, layered and unsentimental about love and connections it forges from its serendipitous beginning to its lasting legacy.

“The Jolt: Twenty-one Love Poems in Homage to Adrienne Rich” is available from Bottlecap 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.

“Tropic Then” Ray DiZazzo (2Leaf Press) – book review

Ray DiZazzo Tropic Then Book cover

Ray DiZazzo’s “Tropic Then” is a mix of poetry and short prose that takes on board climate change concerns and explores ways humanity is turning in on itself, making the same mistakes over and over. The David Attenborough quote, used in the book, seems to sum this up, “We’re suffocating ourselves by cutting things down. And the awful thing is that knowledge is there. Fifty years ago when we exterminated things, we did it without realizing. Now there’s plenty of evidence of what it is we’re doing. And yet we keep on doing it.”

The collection starts in the tropics with “Then” which ends,

“It was the wings of a single moth
trembling on the trunk
of a giant cedar

deep inside
a rainforest breathing on the stars.”

The details humans miss as they seek to exploit and attempt to control nature. Its interconnectedness, from giant trees to small insects, each has an interdependence. Yet the sense of control enables humans to think they are outside this interlinking. Nature here, isn’t cute. DiZazzo is well aware of the prey/predator balancing within ecosystems. Here a python slides up a tree,

“its stunning
tongue in
on the scent
and pulse
of dreaming

The lines of the poem undulate from the left margin, mimicking the snake’s movements. Its skin is still considered “stunning” despite the fact it will help itself to one of those pups. But the snake is eating to survive, not taking a pup for the sake of taking one.

The collection doesn’t just focus on animals. In “The Climb”, “There is a way of breathing/ known to those who’ve/ walked to the sky on stones and ice,” and the poem ends,

“of joy
in boot-print slush
crunching on the peak
of an impossible summit.”

The delight in achieving, getting to the mountain’s peak is felt. This need for achievement though only seems to be felt by humans. The python doesn’t get a sense of joy from climbing the tree, its desires are only about sating hunger. Only a human would climb a mountain because it’s there. This sense of the wonder of being out in nature is picked up again in a later poem, “Yosemite”. Nature offers humans a chance to re-connect and be soothed by their surroundings. It’s a message more humans need to sense.

Darker poems emerge too. “The Dark” is about Bouncing Betties, bombs used during Vietnam War. An elderly parent with Alzheimer’s in a poem with the same name talks, “into the mouths of children/ we have never known/ but think we’ve/ given life to.” The Alzheimer’s-ridden parent isn’t sure that their own children are theirs anymore. The grief from such a loss is from both the parent and the children. “The Walls” starts

is iso


Boundaries are negative, they prevent the interconnectedness that humans sometimes think they don’t need or can do without. But there’s no description of what the walls are made of. These walls might be brick or they might be imaginary, isolation brought about by illness or dementia. An inability to be social is problematic.

“The Sea Wall”, a short story, threads inbetween two viewpoints. A 67-year-old mother, i.e. old enough to be retired but not significantly old, has left the house to walk by the sea wall. According to her adult children, this is not the first time she’s wander off by herself. One of the children tells the other to, “celebrate having some peaceful, free time to yourself”, while the other questions, “Our perpetually depressed mother, a 67-year-old deaf-mute, is missing on a cold foggy night, and I’m supposed to celebrate?” The first isn’t sympathetic, thinking his sister’s done enough caring. The sister and carer is on medication for anxiety, there’s no suggestion that caring is a dutiful, saintly option here. He later tells her, “No, she’s the horrible one. I get that she’s isolated because she can’t speak or hear, but Christ, that’s not our fault, and that’s life.”

Interspersed between the adult children’s dialogue, the mother slips into the water,

“she was blinded by a brilliant blue-sky waving and swaying above her. She was underwater on her side, looking up, seeing the refracted sunlight flash and bounce across the surface.
………….And as she looked into the glare, she realized she saw, from below, a shorebird—a Killdeer. It stood on her shoulder on its long spindly legs, just where the water leveled off. It dipped its beak below the surface to touch her skin, then lifted its head to the sky as its tail, white breast, and collars of black feathers ruffled in the morning breeze.”

The two halves of the story run in parallel, never meeting. It’s left to the reader to decide whether the adult children mount a search and how they react when their mother is found. It acknowledges the unmet needs: the children never really had a mother who was present and the mother isn’t getting the care she needs. The adult children react in different ways, the son washes his hands of her only stepping in when his sister calls for help. His sister takes on the difficult role of carer. The mother in her walk along the sea wall does not once think of her children.

“Tropic Then” combines climate, natural and humanitarian concerns. The poems explore attitudes towards the natural world and towards each other. DiZazzo’s focus is on interconnectedness whether the interrelationships that allow ecosystems to thrive or how families treat and care for each other. A successful family, like a successful ecosystem, is capable of catering for all needs and enables the vulnerable to be taken care of. How a child is cared for will shape their attitude when elderly parents need care. How does one generation shape the next and does the next generation continue the same mistake patterns or challenge and change their behaviour? DiZazzo thinks we need to reconnect and learn from nature’s teachers and his method is not polemic or rant but through example and persuasion.

“Tropic Then” is available from 2LeafPress.

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

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“Moon Jellyfish Can Barely Swim” Ness Owen (Parthian Books) – book review

Ness Owen Moon Jellyfish Can Barely Swim book cover

“Moon Jellyfish Can Barely Swim” looks at what it might take to survive in what may seem like a hostile world. It’s not just about nature but also human survival, survival of a minority language (Welsh) in the UK, the measures women take to survive and why watching and waiting is not the answer. Jellyfish have already survived 500 million years and may be inadvertently getting human help to continue because they are making come-backs in areas of overfishing and pollution. Moon jellyfish are carried by currents rather than swimming so literally have to go with the flow. In the title poem,

“Imagine the weight of
that secret when you live
amongst the swimmers
shrinking to survive,

the flow pushing you
further, the gulls mock
moon confides with
sun, and you meeting
the ceaseless ebb and
flow of want.”

The jellyfish keep their weakness, the inability to swim, hidden, concealing themselves to not draw attention, especially from predators. They seem unmoved by the mocking from the gulls, perhaps experience has taught them that a lack of response is the best response, the gulls will get bored and move on. It’s patience and the ability to accept a changing environment that will keep the jellyfish alive.

Later, “I’m not what happened to me”, starts “Who said a story isn’t a story until you can look backwards”, which suggests the best way of understanding what happened is from a distance, away from environment where trauma occured.

“Healing starts near the edges and grows to fill the void.

The future is the moss-cracked path, the ivy-choked wall,
five riotous sparrows dust bathing on the road.

An alabaster sky promising nothing to a watery sun.”

Recovery takes time. You find a path and learn to keep with it even if progress is slow or takes detours. The past may try to drag you back or cling on, but the path also brings moments of joy which make it all worthwhile. It’s when you can talk about your past as if it is a tale that happened to someone else, you know you’re close to arriving.

“Notes on a Vowel Hungry Language”, written after Natalie Scenters-Zapico, is a dialogue about Welsh. It starts,

“What is language more
……………………… ………………………………………..An ugly pointless language.
than a window to a world,
…………………………………………………………………It’s foreign to me
a lullaby to ear, a scissors to
………………………………………………………………..native gibberish.
cut, vibration stuck in throat?”

One speaker is asking about the nature of language while the other is dismissive and regards a language they don’t speak as irrelevant. The cutting of scissors is not negative, cuts transform a material into shape and introduce creativity. The poem ends,

“That words grow into worlds if
……………………………………………………….…..A language no one else really
only you’d let them. Tonight,
…………………………………………………….……..needs or wants.
I’ll sit watching the setting of a
………………………………………………………..….I love the Welsh language, but all those
stubborn sun, raise a glass and
…………………………………………..………..…….consonants together can be so intimidating.
switch from one language to another.”

As the Welsh-speaker relaxes into her own language, the dismissive person finally gets to the point that much as they love listening to Welsh, they don’t understand it and feel frustrated by it. It’s unknown how much effort they’ve been putting in or whether they feel because they’re fluent in English, Welsh should be more accessible to them. Either way the non-Welsh speaker remains dismissive of something outside of their own experience, choked by their inability to understand why the Welsh would want to keep their language as a living, working tool and not just a display for the tourists.

“Five Minutes to Spare?” reminds me of the meme which shows a whiteboard. On one side, practically blank, is a list of things male students do to keep themselves safe on a night out. The other side is crammed full of things female students do to keep themselves safe on a night out. The poem suggests in five minutes you finish a few tasks or connect with someone, then,

“Keep alert
keep to the well-lit
keep your house keys
in your hand.
( five-minutes-from-home)

Walk with purpose
head up, eyes front
wear something
suitable on your feet.
Remember you are only
five minutes from home.”

Women, don’t let your guard drop, even close to home, which may turn out to be the most dangerous place of all.

“Waiting for Swallows” brings readers back to nature. The migratory birds are late and watched for with anxiety until,

“We wake one morning
to see eight on a wire.
Still giddy with relief
we’re too late to notice
they aren’t arriving
they’re gathering and
they don’t stay.”

The swallows are moving on, perhaps on a long journey to adaption to climate change. The humans, in ignorance, are failing to notice the signs.

“Moon Jellyfish Can Barely Swim” is about survival through understanding ecology and the natural world as well as understanding our limitations and enabling our ability to connect with and build relationships with others. The speaker who refuses to learn Welsh fails to appreciate what they are missing out on. The observers whose relief at seeing the swallows hinders their ability to read the message the birds are trying to pass on. The half-life of fear of taking every precaution you can and yet still not feeling safe. Ultimately the poems follow the ebb and flow of words and their rhythms, elegant as a jellyfish’s underwater dance.

“Moon Jellyfish Can Barely Swim” is available from Parthian 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.

“Xanax Cowboy” Hannah Green (House of Anansi) – Book review

Hannah Green Xanax Cowboy book cover

“Xanax Cowboy” is a book length sequence of poems, each of which could stand alone, but the cumulative impact of reading as a whole strengthens each individual part. None of he sections have titles and horseshoes are used as separators to underline the theme. Xanax is a drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorders which often occur alongside depression. “Xanax Cowboy” is a sort of alter ego created by the sequence’s narrator as a way of exploring and dealing with her issues and hopefully bridge the gap between where she is now and where she wants to be. Cowboys are rugged, independent and self-reliant sorts. There’s a sort of explanation in the opening where the narrator states, “It is not a joke,

I expect you to laugh at because romanticizing Xanax isn’t funny
and cowboys sort of suck. But I don’t want to look the truth in its ugly
doe eyes. I’d rather pretend I am going to feel this good forever,
swaying like a saloon door in the Wild West of my living room.”

A recurring theme is,

“In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Michael Ondaatje writes
‘In Boot Hill there are only two graves that belong to women
and they are the only known suicides in that graveyard.’

I am not afraid to die. I want you to be happy for me.
I pace the aisles at Shoppers Drug Mart but there is no card for this occasion.”

Not being afraid of death is not the same as wanting to be dead. That the speaker identifies with the cowboys rather than the two suicides suggests this narrator wants to live even though life is currently a huge mass of anxiety and panic. At a party, she asks a stranger to accompany her as she goes outside to smoke. He doesn’t smoke but offers to accompany her anyway,

Why a cowboy? the stranger asks. Because their drunkenness is close to godliness.
What girl doesn’t want to be admired for the halo of the toilet bowl around her head?

Cowboys don’t need to learn to love themselves. To come home to themselves.
Cowboys spit on self-help books and curse ’em like the day they were born.

The badassery of masculinity is well-established in the literary Wild West.
Forgive me, but I am too tired to subvert a genre. I am not the cowgirl for the job.

Why a cowboy? he asks again. I am sick of repeating myself.
I’m a fucking cowboy because I said so. There is no Gender Trouble here.

I am not afraid to die but I do not want to be a suicide in Ondaatje’s graveyard.

We believe cowboys. They don’t need to explain themselves
over and over again. A cowboy goes to the doctor with a bullet hole,
not a list of symptoms with no exit wound!”

In her first response, the narrator seems flippant, giving an entertaining answer. In doing so, she romanticises the role but dismisses the idea of being a cowgirl, because she wants the independence and self-reliance of a cowboy without being hung up by gendered stereotypes and expectations. She doesn’t have the strength to pretend to be one of the boys and deal with the sexual harassment and aggression she’d get as a girl, she wants to be one of the boys. No one subjects a cowboy to a lot of why questions that might trigger introspection and the need to justify oneself to strangers. In her second response, she’s more direct and perhaps more honest in her thinking: “they don’t need to explain themselves”. A man is believed. A woman has to explain, justify and in so doing begins to have doubts about what she’s saying and ultimately begins to doubt herself. A later part of the sequence tackles this more directly,

“Google attention-seeking behaviour in women.

Seek respect, not attention. It lasts longer.
You’re an attention whore on Facebook. Please enlighten me about your clinical depression.
Attention-seeking behaviour is the leading cause of being ignored.
Let’s have a moment of silence for all those people dying for attention

Google attention-seeking behaviour in cats.

If the behaviour is due to an underlying medical issue, the cat
may be seeking your attention as a source of comfort from her pain.
It can also be because she’s confused by her discomfort.

It seems a woman asking for attention is also asking to be dismissed whereas a cat seeking attention is to be taken seriously and the reasons behind the behaviour investigated. Given the statistics which show women are less likely to be given pain relief and more likely to be told their symptoms are psychosomatic, this tendency to dismiss a woman’s “attention seeking” could have dangerous consequences.

The sequence also establishes that the narrator is a student taking a creative writing module and some of the poems have been shown to her tutor,

“My professor says the speaker in my poems is not believable.
There is too much technical control i.e. if she is a pill-popping alcoholic
why can’t she let loose — wave sloppy syntax like a lasso above her head?
As if an addict is not caged by what she loves; as if she howls
on the side of the highway like a coyote in heat. I AM I AM I AM
the speaker. These poems feel like the only control I have.”

Of course, if the poems reflected a drug-induced haze, they would also be unreadable. The narrator explores this, “In literature, we are always after the great authentic.” She references James Frey whose book “A Million Little Pieces” which was a fictional account of a rehabilitation from drug addiction that was sold as non-fiction.

“The public felt tricked by Frey. He was not the mad alcoholic they wanted. He was only half the wound he had promised to be. What interests me is that Frey had originally tried to publish the book as fiction but no publisher would touch it. What was unpublishable as a novel became a best-seller as a memoir. We were willing to forgive the lazy writing, the swiss-cheese plot, because it was an account of substance-use disorder at its finest. The great authentic dogeared in paperback.”

So what do readers and/or critics want when they demand authenticity? It also asks questions about how truthful memoirs are. They represent a chance for the memoir writer to make themselves the main character in their own life, to take credit for decisions that turned out well and blame others when things went wrong. They are necessarily edited to make them readable. But real life can’t be edited into a tidy story. For someone like the narrator who is medicalised and regarded as an unreliable narrator, writing about her life is a chance to express herself or the edited self she’d like to be.

Part of the sequence is written as a series of poems as they might have appeared on Instagram with the poem in the hashtags and alt text, e.g.,

#like-I want-this #getting-off-on-the-smell-of-my-own-vomit
#cowboys-do-not-want-to-be-happy #contracts-prevent-it
#cowboys-are-supposed-to-look-lonely #that-full-moon-kind-with-nothing-howling
#loneliness-implies-a-want #some-burning-thing-I-can’t-have
#alone-implies-I-have-set-myself-on-fire #there-is-no-witness-to-this

ALT TEXT: The Xanax Cowboy is sitting on a balcony turned away from the camera. She is a dark silhouette. A full moon looms in front of her. Cowboys are lucky. The moon can be looked at for as long as you would like.”

The image that accompanies the poem is a blank square, forcing readers to look at the hashtags and alt text. The speaker romanticises the independence of the cowboy: his aloneness is aspirational because it implies self-reliance, he made the choice to be on his own. Whereas to admit to be lonely is sad because it means not being attractive enough (not in looks but behaviour) to welcome prospective friends and to be unwilling or unable to do the work to maintain a friendship. The narrator is trying to convince herself she’s better off alone with her own thoughts where she doesn’t have to justify what she’s doing. However, uploading pictures on Instagram does imply a desire for social connection. This isn’t someone prepared to go off grid.

Some parts of the sequence document a specific period where the narrator was picked up by police for being drunk and detained,

“Her blood-alcohol level
is found satisfactory at the drunk tank
and they ask her if she would like them to call

her a cab. They ask where she would like to go.

Home, she says.
Do you live alone, they ask?
Yes, she replies.

And they call her a cab.

Because she has her pills in a plastic bag.
Because she is no longer in handcuffs.
Because she is not going to ask for help anymore.

WPS [took] client to IPDA under Intoxicated Persons Detention Act and client will be reassessed by IPDA once sober.”

The narrator obtained a copy of her medical records, “in order to contest it, but I was told that I could not rewrite their record of the night. At best, I could have my version of events added to the record.” This is common where patients feel their records are inaccurate because they reflect the observations of the medical staff and don’t contain the patient’s version of events. These observations can often feel judgmental and stigmatising, the dry language of a textbook instead of the compassion and understanding the patient seeks. Those in mental distress often self-medicate or ask for help in combative ways or lash out because previous requests for help have been dismissed or responded to negatively. Here, the police treated the narrator as a drunk but didn’t ask why she was drunk. Once sober, they checked she had medication but didn’t offer further help or referral to a medical facility. She was processed and returned home, humiliated by being handcuffed when arrested for being drunk. She learnt that asking for help doesn’t get her the help she wants. It will make it harder to ask for help next time she’s distressed.

Although the narrator spends a lot of time avoiding looking at the bigger picture, i.e. why she’s on medication, why she struggles, she does acknowledge it’s a journey that’s not over yet,

“My mother says she could stop worrying,
if only she knew how Xanax Cowboy ends. I know this
is not what she is really asking. How much easier to say
she needs to know how Xanax Cowboy ends than to say when.
How much easier it is to talk about my book than my life.
But mother, you don’t need to worry. When Xanax Cowboy ends
I’ll take off my cowboy boots and tell you another story.
The book is over and there is still so much weather to talk about,
there is still so much I have to say, you can trust me.”

She’ll talk when she’s ready. But that “tell you another story” is ambiguous, evasive even. It could imply a different perspective on “Xanax Cowboy” or it could imply a new story of life after the book.

“Xanax Cowboy” is funny, self-deprecating but also raises some serious questions about the stigmas of mental illnesses, how patients are treated dismissively and an engaging read.

“Xanax Cowboy” is available from House of Anansi.

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.

“Untold Night and Day” Bae Suah (Vintage) – Book Review

Bae Suah Untold Night and Day book cover

Translated by Deborah Smith, “Untold Night and Day” follows Kim Ayami on her final day as receptionist and an audio theatre in Seoul who joins her manager walking the streets at night, in a sweltering summer, in search for a missing friend, Yeoni, and a day looking after a visiting foreign poet who writes under the pen name Kim Cheol-seok. At twenty-eight, Ayami’s life seems to be going nowhere. She dropped out of law school, took up acting but has only be cast once and now the theatre is closing. Her manager recommended she applies to the company that owned the theatre for any available jobs. She hasn’t got round to it. Before it finally closes, the theatre hosts a photography exhibition.

The story becomes a mediation on the nature of searching, referencing ideas from Korean shamanism, a cosmology where all things are animate – Ayami shares her name with ‘the spirit that enters the shaman’s body and communicates matters of the other world’. In Seoul’s hallucinatory summer heat, reality and fantasy become blurred as storylines layer together and night blurs into day. The prose takes on a filmic quality, focusing on small details that become a motif throughout, e.g. “calves corded with thin muscle”, a skirt that flutters “like an old dishcloth”, pockmarked faces. Character’s stories begin to overlap, the motifs signal to the reader that a character has already been introduced even where Ayami has doubts.

Ayami and her friend Yeoni are reading “The Blind Owl”, a novel by Sadeq Hedayat, which is not quoted, but the novel’s protagonist struggles to reconcile reality with fantasy. They read the novel in German although neither can know the quality of the translation. Finding an interest to counter a boring job is understandable but Ayami never explains why she chose to learn German and the two do not discuss the novel in Korean. It leaves the reader to speculate on whether they are reading to practice the sounds and rhythm of the German or to understand the novel. Is Ayami’s German about fully embracing the language or merely the novelty of speaking foreign words, like an actor reading a part but not delving beyond the surface layer to fully embrace the character?

She doesn’t do much better with the poet. He makes notes of what he observes and wants to visit North Korea. Ayami struggles to explain that it’s not possible. The border represents unresolved conflict and the estrangement of Ayami from her family. The poet moves on. His heart is in another country he is planning to return to. Although Ayami is a last minute stand-in host when her friend became ill, she has not read any of the poet’s work and doesn’t probe, allowing him to tell his story in his own words.

Stories need listeners and this seems to be Ayami’s role as she drifts around the city, listening, observing but not judging or commenting on the stories projected on to her as characters search for connection. The repeated motifs become a reminder that their stories are interlinked even though the characters feel alienated and lacking connection. The poetic prose gives the novel a dream-like feel, fusing reality with fiction, asking the reader which stories matter, and how deeply do we need to understand them. A lyrical, cerebral novel from one of Korea’s literary outsiders with an empathetic translator.

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

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

States of Independence 2023

States of Independence 2023 10am – 4pm Clephan Building De Montfort University

States of Independence is one of Leicester’s hidden gems. One Saturday, usually the third, in March, De Montfort University’s Clephan Building opens its doors to visitors. On the ground floor are stalls from regional presses, bookshops, Leicester City Libraries, individuals and clubs, such as Leicester Writers’ Club and SoundsWrite. Other floors host events taking place throughout the day, workshops, talks, book launches, panels, etc. And it’s free entry.

This year featured readings from Shearman Books, Carol Leeming and Bobba Bennett, Talks on Creating Immersive Literary Experiences, Rob Bradley on Role-playing Games, Cathy Grindrod on Writing and Wellbeing, Deborah Tyler-Bennett and Jacqui Gallon on Labour Lost Film and Poetry Project, Publishing and Editing Short Stories with Andrew Hook and Rebecca Burns and Richard III and Disaster Patriarchy. Panel events and craft discussions on Developing Your Practice as Writers and Publishers, AI Chatbots and Writing and Using AI in Practice/Found Materials. Plus workshops from Space Cat Press and Laura Besley. Events change every year so it’s always worth checking what’s on offer each year.

Even if the events don’t appeal, there’s always the opportunity to buy books, either directly from the publishers or from bookshops, e.g. Five Leaves. There’s usually a second hand stall too for bargain hunters and occasionally freebies. Depending on your choices, you may be able to buy signed copies.

It was noted that Literary Leicester, organised by the University of Leicester didn’t clash with States of Independence this year, which was appreciated. One of the difficulties of Leicester’s literary scene is the large number of clashing events which result in lower audiences. If an audience is already committed to one event, why would they come to yours? Maybe it’s not important to you that you’re sharing your audience with another event, but if that other event is funded and needs to give feedback to their funder/sponsor, you could be causing more damage than you see.

The best thing about States of Independence is the opportunity to stop and talk with publishers and/or writers. Although book deals have been made as a result of authors meeting a publisher at States of Independence, it’s more than just a chance to network in the sense of gaining contacts for mutual advantage. States of Independence gets you out of the silo of your own genre. You’re not restricted to staying in your lane of spoken word or speculative fiction. You get a broader picture of Leicester’s literary eco-system and chance to see what others are doing successfully. Conversations that can lead to collaboration and cooperation.

Look out for States of Independence next year.

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.