“at the water’s edge” Nadia Gerassimenko (Rhythm ‘n’ Bones Press) – poetry review

At the Waters Edge Nadia Gerassimenko book cover“at the water’s edge” explores trauma, often in the aftermath of sexual violence, and life with a chronic illness. The collection is not as gloomy as its premise sounds; there are moments of playfulness. Initially the use of lower case throughout looks on trend, but it’s not just a fashion or gimmick. It reflects the sense of uncertainty that victims face: did that really happen, is this abuse? And the worry of being disbelieved along with the fear of being retraumatised by recounting what happened. In “age of confusions” a girl still under the age of sexual consent asks,

“you asked if i like dancing
& wondered if i knew how to drive,
i can touch you, you would say,
& we can go dancing together.
did you even care about my age?”

Later in the poem, the girl continues,

“you asked me for my number
before i would leave at the next stop.
i told you give me yours instead.
you recited numbers i did not even listen
as i leapt out in panicked haste.

what is the age of innocence?
what is the age of harsh reality?
should one be coddled like flowers in a garden
or trained ruthlessly like spartan children?
i cried confusions so much that day.”

Girls often carry the extra burden of policing their boundaries and warding off predatory behaviour. For someone still growing up and discovering themselves, being able to identify a question or action as innocent or grooming (offering compliments or gifts with the aim of opening up someone to eventual abuse) is not straightforward. How can the child’s need to be safe and protected be balanced against their need to grow and becoming independent adults?

“my body is not my body” is ambiguous,

“year forward, i’m in a cold whitewashed room, waiting, you probe & prod part of my body like i’m some dead meat. you show me off to others for kicks. it’s hard to be open, to relax. this reflex never passes.

i’m at the age of my own responsibilities, body & otherwise. i’ve learned all I can about my body parts, my body whole. i know what to do. i can’t – you govern my body.

you tell me it’s all my part of body & there’s nothing you can do. but here, take these pills. they’ll control some parts, for now, as they kill the whole.”

It could be interpreted as about illness and medical examinations. It could be treatment for trauma. It is about the sense of being invaded, physical sensations being separated from psychological reactions. The examiner needs the patient to relax, the patient can’t relax whilst being examined. The ability to trust is lost because the ability to control is lost.

“above below” starts with a play on the name Dolores, which was Lolita’s original name in Nabokov’s novel.

“i am not douleur douloureuse dolores
i am joie de vivre joyeuse joy(ous)”

Before a horizontal line, Dolores refuses to be defined by her abuse. Below the horizontal line, the poem continues,

“my world is six senses guiding heart on fire wet kisses wanted
childlike wonder limbs in pirouettes on body wild & free adventures
everywhere & everywhen twin flames soul mates past in past
present in presence future a gift soul unbound soul infinite soul
souled by soul.

above below
i un/tether
glue my soul
& my body whole”

This girl is a fierce survivor. Throughout the collection there are a series of “dolores” poems, inspired by Nabokov’s novel, Adrian Lyne’s film and Dylan Farrow’s testimony of her abuse. “dolores wishes” starts, “i wanted desperately/ that you believe me” and ends imagining that the people she speaks to will say, “i am sorry. i believe you!/ i stand with you.” “dolores doubted” also looks at the aftermath of speaking out,

“people say, ah, his art!
but look unflinchingly,

see it truly.
a genius is a predator.

our blind spots deliberately
refused to see.”

If the accused is famous or adorned with accolades, some find it more difficult to believe that such a person is also capable of abuse. It is devastating to watch someone win more accolades when a victim has seen a very different side to the genius. Some will dismiss the victim’s testimony because their experience is that the predator has only treated them kindly so they don’t relate to what the victim is saying. However, predators are perfectly capable of displaying the right behaviour to influence others’ opinion of them. They play just as much on bystanders’ doubts as their victim’s confusion over boundaries.

The image of the water’s edge with its blurred, changing boundary and fluid expanse encompasses the collection. From the title poem, “beneath the earth, our roots entwined reaching deeper for/ the core & beyond—to love, to nurture, to protect” and the motif of roots occurs throughout the collection; suggestive of the work done privately, internally towards healing. In “at the water’s edge” Nadia Gerrasimenko a coherent collection exploring trauma and its aftermath as a journey towards restoration and healing. Its quiet tones belie its subjects but, like a small stone sends ripples over a lake’s surface as it plunges into the water’s depths, the poems linger after the collection is finished.

“at the water’s edge” is available from Rhythm ‘n’ Bones.



“Planet in Peril” edited by Isabelle Kenyon (Fly on the Wall) – book review

Planet in Peril book coverAn anthology of poetry and photography on climate change featured poets include Helen Mort, Myra Schneider, Katrina Porteous, Jane Burn, Christopher Hopkins, Anne Casey, Sujana Upadhyay and a selection of young writers aged from 8 to 17. It’s an ambitious project and sectioned into Earth’s Ecosystems, The Arctic/Our Oceans, Human Impact, A not so dystopian future and Our Future – the young writers. Interspersed among the poems are facts, such as “a square kilometre of forest may be home to more than 1000 species. Yet forests are disappearing at an alarming rate – 18.7 million acres of forests are lost annually”, and wildlife photographs and illustrations.

From the first section, Myra Schneider’s “Returning” ends,

“I breathe in the sweet extravagance,
dream I’ll come back as grass or blossom
until a voice in my head mocks with lists
of droughts, names of extinct species. I think
of vanished sparrows and how often the stream
in the park is dry-lipped, the earth pocked
with cracks. And it yawns before me: the possibility
of fescue, flowers, leaves not returning.”

The idea of grief is picked up in Sue Proffitt’s “Kittiwakes” which ends “leaves me bereft -// so few of you left.” Phil Coleman’s abecedary “Red List” is merely a list, “Eastern Hare Wallaby. Eutrophication. Erosion. Extinct. Eleven years./ Falkland Islands wolf. Flooding. Fragmentation. Finning”. Technically has no faults but doesn’t really say anything.

In the section section, The Arctic/Our Oceans, Katrina Porteous’ “Invisible Mending” carries a much needed hint of hope,

“Here is the place where ocean and glacier meet.
Bedrock and grounding line. Sediment, Grit.
The green glaze mineral sheen of life, small tools to fix

Troubles so immense, they can’t be seen or spoken,
Bit by invisible bit.”

The earth may repair itself, but human life may not survive. Dr Craig Santos Perez in “Echolocation” draws a parallel between an orca and human parent,

“We drive our daughter to pre-school,
to the hospitals for vaccinations.
You carry your decomposing girl
a thousand nautical miles
until every wave is an elegy,
until our planet is an open casket.

What is mourning
but our shared echolocation?”

The idea that both humans and nature are sharing in the climate emergency, albeit nature seems to have the worse end of the deal, is a reminder of what’s at stake and also a demonstration that we’re not so different. We mourn, we care for our young, but we’re still living in parallel rather than sharing.

From the third section, Anne Casey’s “where once she danced” is set on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

“she is drowning in a sea awash with cobalt
deadly metals fill the channels where she breathes

her lovely limbs are shackled down with plastics
her lungs are laced with deadly manganese
a crown of thorns to pierce her pretty head
a bed of sludge to lull her in her dreams”

Despite the devastation, the coral is still trying to survive. Like Katrina Porteous’ poem, there’s a hint of hope that it might just survive.

The fourth section, “Do I tell her?” by Leslie Thomas is a sequence on rising CO₂ levels (the publication uses CO2) from the 1800s to the future,

“2019: 415 ppm CO2

“A level unknown to Homo sapiens. Following my family’s
greasy tread, I grown organic potatoes and sell charter time
on private jets, to pay for natural gas.

In 2070, between 500 to 900 ppm carbon dioxide is predicted.

My great-great-granddaughter finds this poem, fading
inside a 100-year-old book telling of global warming.
Do I tell her? Stay on the grid and in the grind. What I know.”

It points to how humans carry out contradictory actions: the organic potato grower also sells flights to survive and put food on the table. Individual actions don’t seem to carry much weight, especially when compared with the actions of corporations and employers, but each action does make a small contribution.

The young writers take a bleaker view. “Animals reversed” by Niamh Hughes (aged 14) considers animals taking revenge, locks are locks of hair in this context.

“My locks are being used to make the kangaroo’s socks.

Mother, mother why have they done so?
Because not long ago
We took their homes, families and fur
And that’s not fair.”

Freya Wilson (aged 10) ends “Don’t Forget” with “Don’t forget that we are the first generation to know that our world is under threat and the last who can stop it” and Amélie Nixon (aged 16) observes in “sleepwalking” that “sleep is the crack between breath and burial,/ the barren gap where mumbles of our insignificance lull us into plastic-coated disbelief.” Ethan Antony (aged 12) has “The Tale of Two Lime Trees”, “The trees were felled, a new pavement arose”. They remind us is it their generation who feel they are carrying the brunt of this.

Overall there are some wonderful poems in “Planet in Peril”, showing the effects of climate change and man made devastation. The poems from experienced and young poets don’t shy away from the effects and the need for humans to change their ways, to halt the damage done and start to repair and adapt before it is too late. What’s missing is how. Yes, poets and other writers need to keep telling these stories, keep reminding humans what’s at stake. However, eloquent hectoring doesn’t always bring about change. There is no easy solution: Leslie Thomas’ potato grower can’t feed his family if he stops selling flights and if he stops, someone else takes on the job. It will take a cultural and behavioural shift. “Planet in Peril” isn’t quite ready to suggest how that could happen, although some of the poems do contain hopeful hints that nature will repair itself even if humans don’t survive.

“Plant in Peril” is available from Fly On the Wall Press.


“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” Christopher Hopkins (Clare Songbirds Publishing) – poetry review

The Shape of a Tulip Bird Christopher Hopkins book cover“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is a poetry collection that explores bereavement stemming from a miscarriage which led to a relationship breaking down and how grief gets carried with us. However, it’s not a gloomy, self-pitying collection. From the opening poem, “There’s a Fist Where the Heart Should be”

“The grain in the shape of a bay
I remember.
Searching for a flicker
in the static flesh.”

This is suggestive of an image on an ultrasound and the poem ends,

“I have an ocean of love for you
but there is no shelter on the ocean,

there’ll be no shelter from this.
You’ll say,
your body haunts you.
It haunts us both.
The tiniest muscle gave out
and broke us.”

Few relationships survive the loss of a child. The clarity and frankness of the last two lines is indicative of news that hasn’t yet sunk in or been processed. The emotional impact is a wave in the far reaches of the bay on its way to the shore. Ending the poem at that point gives space for a reader to imagine the coming devastation.

The collection’s title is an odd one: there is no tulip bird, but there are varieties of tulips named after birds which are generally lack the neat, elegant pleats of petals and have ruffled edges like the ragged mess of a wind-ruffled wing, making the flower look like a failed nest. In the title poem,

“I tasted that happy madness of love,
the flame-fretted ache,
that gentle perfection of worry
a mother can make.
I felt the electric join
of womb to soul,
head to heal.”

This nest too failed, but the baby was much-desired. The bounce in the rhythm of the opening two quoted lines, achieved through double consonants, gives way to the slower rhythm of the longer vowels after the pivotal “only”. This reflects the mood change from the initial joy of pregnancy to worries and what ifs. The loss is further described in “My Heart is a Failed City”, “This den of heaven’s gravity/ is a physical hole of absence.” In seeking solace from the baby’s potential grandmother, in “Inside the Tear”, a mother’s “wing was too stretched and hollow/ and the light passed right through it” when she offers one of those stock phrases suggesting an early loss is better than a later one. The mood moves to acceptance in “My Language Has Run Out of Broken Bones”, “I have asked myself if I gave love too easy,/ then pinched myself heard. To think how much/ I love this speck, this wonderful nothing.”

A note of hope surfaces in “Love / West / Atlantic”,

“The sun break is still faint.
A star un-effecting.
No rays of worth
have yet reached out
to rub a little heat
into the lavender rocks,
stir the flower heads awake,
less the light of cornsilk,
which carries these
delicate birds.”

It’s still cold, but the narrator is beginning to see beauty and birds take flight. The image of the speck from “My Language Has Run Out of Broken Bones,” is picked up again in the last poem “White Feather” “and each star speck/ is a father’s peck/ on a daughter’s head.”

“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is a gentle, textured exploration of bereavement. It leaves self-pity out as the poems move from acceptance through heartbreak and emerge on notes of hope. Christopher Hopkins uses pared down language that gives readers chance to absorb and engage with the poems. The bird motif suggests the journey is ongoing and, although loss maybe the flipside to love, it is possible to let the buoyancy of the thermals direct the bereft back to life.

“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is available from Clare Songbirds.


“Upturned Earth” Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press) – book review

Karen Jennings Upturned Earth book cover“Upturned Earth” is set in South Africa’s Namaqualand in the winter of 1886. A young man, William Hull, travels from Cape Town to Springbokfontein to take up his position of magistrate. It’s not just his seasickness that colours his view of the town, mostly black with slag, and slums where the miners sleep. Most miners are on their own, some with families elsewhere, but some have wives and children who also work at the Okiep mine owned by the Cape Copper Mining Company (CCMC). Townsend, the mine’s superintendent, tells Hull he will do as he’s told. Over a dinner, rich with imported food, Hull meets Townsend’s two daughters. One well-mannered who values appearances and manages to put fashion ahead of function at a funeral where she fails to notice how inappropriate her costume is. Her sister, the other daughter, is a young widow with a son who chooses to dress in mourning even though her elderly husband’s death was not unexpected and it was not a marriage based on love.

Hull settles into the magistrate’s residence where the jailer inserts himself as a valet, butler and cook to Hull. The jailer takes Hull on a tour of the jail cells. Hull suspects he’s not been shown everything, but youth and naivety prevent him from insisting on seeing all. The cases before Hull are mainly concerned with drunken brawls and petty theft. Hull also meets the local Dr Fox who is paid by the Cape Copper Mining Company to attend injured miners as well as inspect the prisoners. Dr Fox’s reports on the prisoners’ well-being lead Hull to think he was being over-suspicious on the tour of the jail cells. In his spare time, Hull starts cataloguing and collecting specimens of local plants, insects and small animals such as frogs. His position separates him from the local mining community who view him as being in the pocket of the CCMC.

In parallel to Hull’s journey, Molefi Noki, travels back to Okiep from his village in the Idutywa Reserve, leaving behind his heavily pregnant wife. He joins the other miners, a mix of nationalities: white men, who have emigrated, the original black population and the Baster, descendants of children of Dutch men and native women, led by a preacher, Adam Waterboer. Noki searches for his brother, Anele, who he discovers has been jailed after a drunken brawl by Hull’s predecessor. Noki, not trusting a magistrate in CCMC’s pay, tries to bribe another prisoner for news of Anele, but the jailer is alerted to the disturbance and Noki has to leave.

When there’s a partial collapse in one of the mining tunnels, Noki is part of a group instructed to dig the collapsed shaft out. When the miners point out that the collapse happened because of insufficient supports, they are instructed to continue anyway. The supports have been further weakened by days of non-stop rain which has left some of the tunnels water-logged. The miners’ discontent and weakened shaft supports set in motion an avalanche of events that bring the miners into conflict with the CCMC with devastating, tragic consequences.

In the confusion of the conflict, Hull finally inspects the whole jail and discovers that while white prisoners have been treated reasonably, black prisoners have been maltreated. He arranges for the maltreated prisoners to be taken to the hospital, a dilapidated building run by a matron who pulls in miners’ wives to assist when needed, under guard and sacks the jailer. For once, Hull doesn’t back down in the face of vicious protest. In interviewing the maltreated prisoners, Hull discovers what happened to Noki’s brother Anele and that the jailer had been working in collusion with Townsend. Hull rages against his naivety and leaves the magistrate’s residence, but not the post. He faces a choice, does he stay and take on the might of the CCMC or does he run away?

Karen Jennings has extensively researched the historical details and successfully brings to life the contrasts between the poverty of the miners and wealth of mine owners, the uneasy atmosphere in the mining town of shacks where men group in tribes and there’s little to do but work and drink. Most of the men are separated from family support networks and came to mine either because they needed to support distant families or because no other work was available. The CCMC did exist, some of the characters in “Upturned Earth” are based on historical records and accounts but the events are fictional.

The characters are credible. Noki is driven to support his family, which limits his ability to knock back against the conditions he works under. His fellow miners are trapped in similar circumstances. Townsend, cuts costs and safety to maximise profits for his luxury lifestyle, using his wealth to control and exploit others. His younger daughter doesn’t question her luxuries and believes herself to be acting with charity when she donates food parcels to miners who only have one set of ragged clothes and have to cook on damp firewood. The widowed daughter knows her father’s working practices are unsafe, which led her to escape into marriage but her husband’s death has forced her back into a family she regards as a trap. Hull’s naivety initially feels like a plot device: his illness and malnutrition from violent seasickness would have been enough for him not to ask too many questions or make a full inspection of the jail on his arrival. However, his awakening and rage at the situation he blindly allowed himself to be caught in, are both credible and create a moral struggle, which brings about a complete change in attitude.

“Upturned Earth” brings to life the history of a miners’ conflict in 1886, filling in the characters and details from historical documents and creating credible fictional characters to produce a satisfying story. Karen Jennings shows characters struggling to overcome their circumstances. Although “Upturned Earth” is a historical novel, its concerns and themes of struggles against poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, have contemporary relevance.

“Upturned Earth” is available from Holland Park Press.


“To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]” Kate Garrett (Animal Heart Press) – poetry review

Kate Garrett To Feed My Woodland Bones cover imageA changeling is a substituted baby who replaces a wanted child. The substitute often considered to be ugly or of ugly temperament and, in more ignorant times, the swap was blamed on fairy folk. It was a family’s way of explaining a rebellious child, often the scapegoat, to deflect attention from inadequate parenting skills. Kate Garrett’s poem “Changeling” starts,

“My mother sings, mucking out the barn.
The melody reaches me, but
she can’t see her daughter.”

If the daughter is close enough to hear her mother’s singing, she is close enough to be seen. The mother is too self-involved in her chores to check on her daughter. A nine-year-old doesn’t need close supervision but still needs a mother’s reassurance. The mother doesn’t seek to involve the daughter in the chore, doesn’t teach through sharing how to look after the stabled animals. A mare nudges her foal,

“My mother stops to gaze at them.
I stand alone, absently plaiting grass with hay.

‘I love you, but I do not like you.’
I turn away in the space between
and laugh at the empty pasture.”

The mother does not take the hint. The human daughter is left alone to turn away. Her laugh has no audience. Whilst woodland folk tales are alluded to, there is nothing twee or sentimental in these poems. Sadly the daughter doesn’t just suffer emotional, nurturing neglect, in “An elf turns inside out for the dragon”

“my disordered eating is put on backwards
.          [she makes it known
.          I am not allowed to be hungry, so
.          I learned to make a bag of pretzels last three days
.          I shapeshift, deerlike in so many ways —
.          licking salt to feed my woodland bones]

my disordered eating is an unpopular opinion
.          [she keeps charts of her losses
.          too busy cave-painting to put dinner
.          down for me / pets and babies / we are
.          the same / her slender knick-knacks
.          embryonic castaways / servants on display]

and one day, far from our cave, in the year-bend future
I am comfortable, with five thriving children

yet my own hunger squeaks unheard
because there is always a more pressing thing to be than fed”

The daughter who learns not to be hungry becomes the mother who neglects to feed herself to ensure her own children never go hungry, over-compensating for the neglect she suffered. Ironically it’s a sign of hope. It takes strength to break the cycle of abuse and determination not to fall into learnt patterns of being. The earlier, changeling-based poems do not mention a father. The self-focused, ignoring mother may have proved too self-absorbed. The changeling/elf, however, is not alone. Celebrating a relationship in “Pixie-led”,

“in the bottom of the glass this encounter is something he saw in a dream // in the bottom of the glass the sediment forms a crescent moon and he says he sees it clearly too // there is no mist over the moon and he hands me a ring, silver knotted around a sliver of aurora // a sliver of aurora like me, a being gemstone in the ring I can’t see the future // there is no mist over the aurora but we’re too far south // in the bottom of the glass I see my love in the rising mist around a crescent moon and I tell him yes.”

So fitting that the last word of the last poem is “yes”, the book ends on a triumphant note. The first phrase was “breaking hexes”. The changeling/elf has broken her mother’s enchantment and built a successful family of her own.

Each poem is capable of standing on its own. Grouped together, they create a cumulative narrative of a child made to believe she was a changeling, weaving fairy tales for comfort and then the struggle to overcome lessons learnt as a child to become the mother she’d wanted, finding home with someone willing to understand her misfit ways. The poems avoid self-pity and woe. In “To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]” Kate Garrett has fused woodland myth with reality into a narrative plait of trauma overcome, ending on a positive note.

“To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]” by Kate Garrett” is available from Animal Heart Press.

“Haunted by Cycles of Return” edited by Elsa Hammond (SciPo)

Haunted by Cycles of Return poems about climate change book coverThe 2018 SciPo Poetry Competition focused on climate change and this pamphlet of 18 poems, includes the winning and commended poems along with poems from guest poets Carrie Etter and Philip Gross. The competition has two categories: adult and under 18s, both judged by Jayne Draycott.

France-Anne King’s “Home Thoughts from the Red Planet”, which gives the pamphlet its title, starts “It was considered weakness to look back” and continues,

“A man described a wheat fields ripening under sun,
the weight and sea-sway of wind-pulled crops.
A woman, haunted by cycles of return, explained
the pattern play of swallows in an autumn sky;
how they forage on the wing, the skim and swoop
of cobalt feathers across the surface of a lake.”

Most compelling are memories of the various shades of blue. The poet doesn’t spell out why and this isn’t a blue pill/red pill set up. Mars, the red planet, has no water. The displaced people remember the various shades of blue because water means survival. “Home Thoughts from the Red Planet” is a subtle poem that makes it point through presenting what readers take for granted as memory, asking them to think about the effects of climate change if wheat fields (food) and swallows (barometers of climate as they migrate from Africa to cooler weather) become nostalgia. It was first prize-winner in the adult competition. Lesley Saunders took second prize, Sue Wood and Chris Pools were joint third.

Imogen Phillips’ “The Hunted” imagines mass extinction already underway,

“Now the antelope’s bones lie
Buried in long forgotten dust.
The water’s edge, just drops of my imagination,
Listing the missing treasures of my world.”

The long vowel sounds of the first two lines slow the rhythm, echoing the sense of regret: the antelope isn’t just dead, but forgotten. The second two lines build cumulative “s” sounds, creating a soft susurrus adding to the sense of shame and loss. The poem ends, “I lie down// One day closer to extinction…” The ellipsis could be ambiguous, either the sense of resignation towards the inevitable or a hint there’s time to stop this. It was first-prize winner in the under 18s category. Daisy Stillborn and Abigail Hawkesworth took second and third prizes respectively.

The theme of blue is picked up in Carrie Etter’s “Karner Blue”, a butterfly,

“Because Nabokov named it.
Because its collection is criminal.
Because it lives in black oak savannahs and pine barrens.
Because it once produced landlocked seas.
Because it has declined ninety per cent in fifteen years.
Because it is.”

Butterflies are short-lived and fragile but also, like most insects, a vital part of the ecosystem. Despite its decline, it clings on. The poem also hints at how human action in avoiding unnecessary killing and not destroying habits can arrest the devastating effects of deforestation and potentially restore populations.

Philip Gross’ “Goners” explores a young child uncertain of language saying, “I’m goning”,

“The water in the wave
goes nowhere, after all.

Like the mob-handed willow
and ash in the garden, plotting spring’s
sweet insurrections, while they can

:goners, all. Listen: the old
song, love song, hissing in the cracked
and wonky record’s grain

Play it. Play it again.”

Although the tone is mournful, it’s final line suggests a note hope if humans can learn to listen again and fall back in love with nature and its cycle of seasons.

Sadly the topics explored in “Haunted by Cycles of Return” are even more relevant than they were last year. Many poems about the climate crisis are good at describing what will be lost and expressions of regret but do little more than elegant hand-wringing and the addition of one more voice to an echo chamber of hopelessness. To their credit, the poems in “Haunted by Cycles of Return” do sound a note of hope and a sense that extinction is not inevitable, alternative paths can still be found, but humans must change their habits.

“Haunted by Cycles of Return” is available from SciPo, St Hilda’s College Oxford.


“Transeuropa” Jules Deelder (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

transeuropa Jules DeelderJules Deelder is a bestselling Dutch poet, also known as the Night Mayor of Rotterdam, whose recurring themes are peppered with black humour. The poems in “Transeuropa” are translated from Dutch into English by Scott Emblen-Jarrett, a freelance translator and it is the translations that feature in this collection without the Dutch originals. When subject matter includes jokes about Göring’s liking of rings, Roman’s feeding Christians to lions for sport or the tensions between neighbours in the Balkans, the translator is faced with three challenges. Firstly translating Dutch into English. Secondly translating the jokes when humour doesn’t always translate. Thirdly translating poetry presents an extra challenge of recreating rhyme or rhythmic structures used in the original.

“Devilish” is a good example of the humour. It starts, “Hitler farted all the time” and later asks,

“Herr Hitler can be blamed
For many things but not
For showing his true
Colours without consequence
For doesn’t History tell us
That sulphurous smells always
Betray the presence of devils?”

The long sentences and use of enjambment feature strongly throughout the collection. The reader or listener is forced to keep paying attention to wait for the punchline. It looks like a breathless, urgent outpouring on the page, but uses natural breath caesuras so the poem isn’t tricky to read aloud. The poem isn’t tricky to understand either: it puts together two simple ideas, that Hitler was evil and devils announce themselves with sulphur, and asks a bigger question about why Hitler’s intentions weren’t recognised sooner? It’s not Jules Deelder’s purpose to provide answers, but to provoke thought.

“Oracle” uses satire and starts

“Sometimes after inhaling the
Smoke of medicinal herbs
Through hollow pipes under
Favourable star-signs we
Are given a glimpse of a
World that is parallel to our
Own through the heavily
Misted window of the spirit”

The tone is sarcastic. There is no suggestion the speaker believes someone taking drugs, even ‘natural’ ones, to lead to an altered mind state can be telling the truth or forecasting the future. This is underlined by the colloquial “star-signs” in a place of astrology. The actions of the oracle are dubious and even the oracle cannot see clearly through “the heavily misted window”.

The poem ends,

“You’re thinking ‘what
Does this all mean?’
Then so sounds the
Answer: How the fuck
Should I know? Being an
Oracle is already hard
Enough as it is and the
Meaning is lost if I
Have to explain the
Damn thing all over again.”

So often fortune-tellers and those claiming to be clairvoyant rely on saying they’ve seen something vague in the hope that their audience fills in the gaps and translates the vague vision into something meaningful. Then they have the cheek to ask that the messenger not be shot or blamed if something doesn’t make sense: the lack is in the audience, not the clairvoyant.

The title poem is a lengthy discourse sending up film buffs and those who visit Romania to go to the places mentioned in the Dracula stories, who are indirectly accused of mixing myth and reality, character with actor(s), with signature references to the Second World War, and ends

“Take a piece of heartfelt advice:
Never go hiking in the less touristy
Parts of Transylvania or the Carpathians
Or the High Tatras but just go
By Transeuropa as the
Chances are high that you’ll get
Lost there and nothing of
You will ever be found again.”

It’s a light-hearted poem with satirical intent with a bouncy, energetic rhythm.

For some poems, key names or references are explained in footnotes, so readers aren’t reaching for search engines to understand. The original Dutch poems aren’t included and I’m not familiar with the original poems so can’t comment on the translation into English in “Transeuropa”. Having looked at some of Jules Deelder’s poems online, it seems the translator is faithful to the rhythms in the originals. Jules Deelder often uses a refrain or repeating motif in longer poems so the relevance of an apparent digressive idea is make clear or a meander on a side track is brought back to the main line. Scott Emblen-Jarrett’s English translations create the sense of poems that are often satirical, explore political issues without censorship or being didactic and were designed to work as performance pieces as well as being read from the page.

“Transeuropa” is available from Holland Park Press