“Anatomy of a Scandal” Sarah Vaughan (Simon and Schuster) – book review

Anatomy of a ScandalThree stories are interwoven when a rape case lands in court. James, the defendant in a junior minister confident he’ll be found not guilty and will be able to return to government once the dust settles. An old Etonian who studied at Oxford alongside the Prime Minister, James’s life has been one of privilege and entitlement. He met his wife Sophie at Oxford. Her purpose there was to bag a husband to finance the comfortable lifestyle she aspired too. It was James’s idea she give up work after their second child was born, but she did so willingly. Now she has to face up to some uncomfortable truths about her marriage. It was easy for her to convince herself she had a special place in James’s heart as the mother of his children and turn a blind eye to his infidelities. But, in court, she has to endure hearing the evidence and understanding the truth she, until now, had never been ready to admit. Kate, the barrister for the prosecution, isn’t just prosecuting another rape case. There’s a personal angle to this one that points to secrets in her history.

The story is chiefly told through the viewpoints of Kate and Sophie, with occasional chapters in James’s viewpoint. His victim, as happens in rape cases, plays a secondary role as witness, someone who tells her story in front of the jury. She is humiliated and shamed by the defence who take every opportunity to remind her that she had willingly entered an affair with a married man and suggest she did consent on the occasion she now describes as rape. Kate knows her witness is telling the truth. Sophie watches her husband turn politician when it’s his turn to be witness. She learns that he sees the truth as interpretable and his belief that his version of the truth is more important that anyone else’s. The verdict comes around two-thirds of the way through the novel, with the final third focusing on repercussions and a life-defining event at Oxford twenty-three years before the trial. A secret that could end the careers of both James and his best friend the Prime Minister.

James’s saving grace is his relationship with his children. His lack of self-examination comes from a background where problems were brushed aside or someone was paid to make them go away. His powerful connections cause Sophie to feel trapped. She has no career and is dependent on James and can’t risk upsetting James’s plans to be back in government. She can’t just reveal the Oxford secret, not because of the impact on her security, but because James’s connections mean she can just be swept aside.

The case forces Kate to confront her demons too. She was a northern, working class girl who managed to get into Oxford but left after the first year, switching to Liverpool University where she focused on becoming a barrister. She nearly passed on this case. What stopped her was wanting to see justice done. The aftermath reaches out beyond Sophie and Kate. James’s mother questions the way she raised her son. Friendships forged at Oxford are put under the microscope and picked apart. Only those based on truth and respect can remain intact.

“Anatomy of a Scandal” is pacey but not so quick that readers don’t have time to absorb the drama or get to know the characters. Kate, Sophie and supporting characters are fully-rounded and credible. Readers want justice for Kate but also for Sophie not to be dragged down with her husband. There are moments where readers can empathise with James too. His privilege enables him but also gives him a blind spot, a weakness that leaves him vulnerable but gives him an ability to recognise his power and change. Sarah Vaughan asks questions, all too relevant in the #MeToo climate, but doesn’t preach. She shows awareness of capturing nuance, relating identifiable scenarios and lets characters speak for themselves as they demonstrate the effects of rape ripple out beyond the perpetrator and victim. “Anatomy of a Scandal” is a gripping court room drama with depth and a compulsion which makes the characters live on.

More details of “Anatomy of a Scandal” at Simon and Schuster’s website.

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“Joy” Sasha Dugdale (Carcanet) – poetry review

These poems focus on memory, including memories that are best forgotten or at least buried, and recording of memories, particularly who records, and the effects of remembering and recording. Central to this collection is the title poem, an imagined stage monologue with Catherine Blake, widow of William. The title poem starts

“A dark stage. A woman in a rocking chair. Catherine Blake

Silence.

They don’t want me here… they don’t want me…”

Wives of famous husbands often find themselves sidelined or ignored as if an inconvenient reminder someone knew the husband better than his fans. But Catherine Blake was not ignored by William,

“So you freed me from the angel and you taught me what you knew so I should never bow to you I should be your equal in all practical matters and thenceforth you gave me a free hand to colour, and even draw which I willingly did. And stitched and bound your books, and I cut the linen and polished the plates and made up inks and did all the work of an engraver at your side.

See my hands? Here. Look.

You said they were the hands of a craftsman.

Where to put them? (She rubs her body with them.) They have never lain so long in my lap. They begin to gnaw at the air. (She lays them palm up on her lap) Two twisted vessels. All the craft trickles out of them…”

Here the strange place of widowhood emerges. After spending so long being defined as part of a couple, particularly the part that managed the house and enabled the more famous partner, there’s an emptiness and a search for a re-definition. Here it’s captured not just in what’s said but also in Catherine’s gawky, uncoordinated movements. It’s a visual poem. Catherine Blake didn’t just lose her husband, but also her creative partner – she worked alongside William Blake – so it not just re-identifying herself as a widow but also whether to continue the creative work in progress. That dislocating sense of widowhood is also picked up in “The Widow and the Kaleidoscope” which ends,

“the lightest movement will perturb
the pattern translates itself around the whole
in new perfections always perfect always
fearfully falling into new associations.”

Dislocation can also come from being disconnected with family roots. Here a friend travels to her place of origin, “How my friend went to look for her roots”,

“- If you’re from here then why don’t you stay with your family?

– My family left.

So, asked the woman, why come here then? Which, thought my
friend, was a reasonable question, as the darkness came hard across
the open land and up the street and nowhere to sleep that night
except an empty room where the builders kept their tools
on a pallet and under a thin blanket.
She slept hardly at all that night, for fear of falling off the mattress,
she rued her purpose and scratched her skin
and vowed she would leave at dawn if she had to walk.

Dawn arrived, the pink sky was vaster than anywhere she’d known.
Geography is a strange thing, this town left beyond
the known world, the comfortable road, on the edge of nothing
from where her family had been plucked
with a million others, carrying only memories of home

walking, walking out of the town.”

There may not seem to be much joy here, except in the afirmation that leaving was the right choice.

Sasha Dugdale has a deserved reputation for translating Russian writers so there’s no surprise in find a sequence, “Days” inspired by reading Svenlana Aleksievich’s book on women’s experiences in the Second World War, “The Unwomanly Face of War”,

“7
My daughter does my hair in two pigtails
I like her holding it and twisting it up
I remember someone else putting it up
When I was a child.
I remember how she brushed it.
Me, in a hospital bed with a beaker.
I remember how she combed it
Carefully. Me in the parlour
With the candles lighting the way.

8
I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole

9
My wife was a stenographer
She typed the word rape
Forty times in one hour
She sat in a bank of woman
Making records of what had been done
And she felt herself to be lucky
To be alive and unscathed…”

History tends to be written by victors and women’s voices during war struggle to be heard. They are often the ones left on the home front, keeping families together, raising children, or forced to leave and set out on treacherous journeys to seek refuge with the additional risk of sexual violence. Section 7 shows a hankering back to the simplicity of childhood and being looking after, a wishful hope that someone else might share the burden of motherhood albeit briefly. Section 8 uses its repetition like a mantra as if the speaker is trying to be something she is not. Even if still physically whole, the mental scars mean the narrator is irrevocably changed no matter how often her mantra is repeated. The factual description of Section 9 belies the inevitable secondary trauma of the stenographer in recording war crimes that they had either blocked out or survived. There’s an irony in the voice being her husband’s rather than hers.

At face value, there doesn’t seem to be much joy here. Other poems take in the joy of a walk or of physical acts such as canoeing. But, looking beyond the surface, the joy emerges in the ability to remember, the ability to tell one’s story in one’s own words. The mantra “I am whole” seems entirely out of place for one traumatised by war, but it gives the speaker agency, gives her a sense of power over who she is, enables her to rebuild herself and create a narrative for herself where she is whole. The stenographer’s job in recording women’s voices describing the crimes against them is vital. Sasha Dugdale’s “Joy” is vital reading.


 

 

 

 

“The Five Petals of Elderflower” Angela Topping (Red Squirrel Press) – poetry review

The Five Petals of Elderflower Angela Topping book cover“Five Petals of Elderflower” uses the title poem, also the first poem, as a structure for the whole collection giving it a sense of unity. It’s important to note, though, that the collection does not have to be read in order, each poem can stand alone too. The title poem can be thought of as ‘five ways of looking at elderflower’, one for each petal. The first section zooms in for close examination, the second explores a different voice – here the poet’s father, the third focuses on memory, the fourth uses synaesthesia and the fifth a promise. In the fourth section,

“Elderflowers sing jazz, each petalled phrase
plays another variation on the last.
Its saxophone voice rises above twanged strings
of cello and double bass, holding the melody
as it flies high. Notes dance round our feet:
we wade in sound. It’s a five bar blues,
scrolls of baroque, rising like smoke, tasting champagne.
White is not white, is green and cream and ivory.
And it sings the blues.”

It has the exuberance of spring and, despite the last line, it feels celebratory. The enjambment used on most lines propels the rhythm forward. I not normally a fan of nature poems, but this is an exception. In contrast the rhythms in “They Pose Together” feel appropriately stiff where a mother and daughter have posed for a formal photograph,

“The mother’s in black: embroidered cross-over jacket
pinned with watch and brooch. At her throat
squats a cameo, knotted hands display a wedding ring.
Her skirt is stiff as buckram. Practical black lace-ups,
polished like lumps of coal, show under her dress.
Whitening hair is gathered back, unsmiling mouth
gives nothing away. Her back is upright in the chair.

The daughter perches on the chair’s arm, balanced,
one foot tucked behind, waiting to launch into a waltz.
White shoes and stockings, lawn dress delicate as paper.
She has her mother’s cheeks, without the fold and crease;
matching dimples in their chins. Her smile opens
on pearl-white teeth, lips softly parting.
No clip can restrain her dark curls where they spring.
They are hinged together, one a negative of the other.”

The accumulation of images build a bigger picture. A mother is stiffened by experience and used to hiding her inner life, whether grief in widowhood or the need to conform to society’s expectations and restrictions. Whereas the daughter is ready to move and grow, not yet restrained by her place in society, not yet heeding her mother’s warnings. Warnings of a different kind surface in “New Year”

“Rime freezes mittens on the bridge rail.
We speak of things that do not matter,
emerge from trees into a clearing
where a sycamore spreads its shade.

When snow falls, it will change everything
make a page for you to write on.”

Cold weather forces the walkers to keep moving, just as talking about “things that do not matter” keeps a conversation going and allows a connection to be maintained even when an issue is being avoided. In a country where snow is not inevitable, it suggests it is a metaphor. The blank page suggests erosion of memory. The poet allows the readers to imagine what that will mean, trusting that images of nature in hibernation will guide what the reader thinks.

A squirrel takes on anthropomorphic qualities in “Red Squirrel”, where a thifty mother,

“She squirreled away sugar,
stacked bags in her wardrobe
behind Dad’s swinging braces
where it set like concrete,
a wall of sweetness;
poor replacement for him
who honeycombed her life.

These days, I think of her
with red pelt and feathery tail.
Scarce and always looked-for,
she leaps up perpendiculars,
on a quest for hazelnuts,
her neat claws clinging
to rough surfaces of trees.”

“Five Petals of Elderflower” is a coherent, crafted collection, rooted in the nature that looks at the wider world through a perceptive lens. The voices vary and the poems feel organic: allowed to grow and shape themselves instead of being constrained to a straitjacket of form.

Five Petals of Elderflower” by Angela Topping is available from Red Squirrel Press.

Angela Topping also has a blog.

“All the Naked Daughters” Anna Kisby (Against the Grain) – poetry review

Anna Kisby All the Naked Daughters book coverThe title poem in this pamphlet of 20 poems has a daughter asking her mother, “where are the pubes?” in a gallery of paintings of nude women and the mother’s answer about a male gaze feeling inadequate to a daughter who is also a woman. It sets the tone for a questioning of how women are depicted, the gap between image and reality and the impact of that gap. The opening poem, “The Fallen Alices” juxtaposes the publication of “Alice in Wonderland” against reports of female suicides in the Thames river,

“Of all the stories told by the Thames this is ours:
we are the curious, the questing, the covetous, the lost,
we are the girls who never grow up. We are hanging
from bridges because the river listens to our petitions.
We are flower-selling under arches, distracted by the ticking
of this gentleman’s fine pocket-watch, we will follow him home.
We are the eat-me drink-me, the locked room, the golden key
on the glass table. We are the drugged, the tricked, the riddled,
the concealed.”

Alice is the archetypal curious girl but the real life Alices, whose curiosity leads to being unable to slot into the role society has given them, end tragically. The “flower-selling” is a nod to George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” where the flower girl is taught proper diction by a phonetics professor so becomes able to improve her life. The title of the play is a reference to the myth where a scultptor’s wish that his statue comes to life is made true. Anna Kisby’s use of enjambment and quick rhythm hurries the reader along to the next idea or image, just as news readers might pause over a sad story then move on. The merging of the stories of the suicides with Alice, suggests that those who expressed concern over those suicides were satisfied to write these women off as tragic rather than explore the reasons behind their actions and allow women fewer restrictions. The power imbalance of knowledge against innocence is explored in “Just Like A Woman” where the narrator is telling the story of seeing Bob Dylan playing in Paris while she was still young,

“at the first strums of my favourite song
(which would lose its shine when
I got fired up about misogyny
but that was later, not then) as he filled
his lungs to sing Nobody feels any pain
he looked directly at me –
with Dylan I was living the phrase
we locked eyes – at which point
in the story my husband always replies
Yeah right.”

The colloquial vocabulary belies the serious points being made, not just about the power of a seasoned performer to fool a young girl, but also about the dichotomy of being a music fan when the lyrics are misogynous and the scepticism of a man it would be natural to feel you should be able to rely on. It’s a familiar undermining of a woman’s experience: she’s fine as an adoring fan but when she gets to move central stage, she gets the eye-roll treatment. In “The Outsole and Insole of the Cowboy Boot Shopgirl” the narrator gives her sales pitch that mentions “lemonwood pegs” and then considers her lonely heart,

“lassoed on Main Street, two-stepping into the store, shelves immaculate
with boots – every colour, exquisite and best. In a quiet grove
citrus limon gives herself up to the axe. A hammering in my chest
like I’m held on a last and being entered carefully, fixed
with lemonwood pegs. Love me. Live your life at extreme pitch.”

The exterior efficiency of sales gives way to a inner sentimentality which wants her customers to care as much about the boots as she does and take them on adventures rather than just dreaming about it. The final poem, “Tortoise Missus,” considers a late marriage,

“All the jerks I practised on: teenage jack rabbits,
bullies making me jump at the scrape of a chair.
How little they loved me, or how much, but themselves
more. How they or I fell short. The many ways
I irritated them: texting when walking; falling mute”

and ends,

“Time is precious, fleeing, on my heels – my slow smile
crosses the finish line.”

This won’t be a marriage repented at leisure.

“All the Naked Daughters” is the first publication from Against the Grain and carries a weight of expectation beyond its 20 poems. Fortunately, “All the Naked Daughters” is hefty and carries that weight with ease. This is a fabulous beginning.

“All the Naked Daughters” by Anna Kisby is available from Against the Grain Poetry Press.


Leicester Writers Showcase Ella @ 100

Inheritance Ruth Stacey and Katy Wareham Morris (Mother’s Milk Books) – poetry review

Inheritance book coverAnother in the poetry duets series where two poets create a sequence of poems by one writing in response to the other. Here nights with a new baby are interwoven with inspirations from a nineteenth century relative’s letters and diary entries. In the title poem Ruth Stacey writes,

“I would do something with it all
one day, find out her story.
Then real life, taut and bright,
with its newly made tendons
tugged me into tomorrow
and tomorrow. I forgot her.
Late nights, late nights;
they taste of tannin and tears.
I stubbed my toe on the box
beneath the bed and dragged it angrily
into the room, blindly opened it
and began to read the old wounds.
My baby turns in the crib.”

The alliterative “t” sounds act as a reminder nagging readers back to remember the box of papers. Newborns leave a primary carer with short slots of time to do things inbetween feeds so it’s difficult to find a length of time that can be focused on one thing. In response, Katy Wareham Morris’s “Spellbound”,

“I reach for your testimony:

soft, soft words sit
sharing my bed, sequence my mind.
I catch your beat –

feel your skin on the paper,
misty ink, the blue black blood
of your heart.

Baby suckles now,
your voice is my calm.”

It’s tone is softer with sibilant sounds with long vowels countering the abrupt “bl” alliteration. The words being read calm and centre the mother as she calms and feeds her baby. Ruth Stacey then takes the reader back to 1887 in “Knowledge” where a new mother leaves baby in crib in a houseful of guests,

“Mindlessly I walk to the pool, linger
To watch the rabbits jump
I am fixed on their lazy pleasure.
Turning sodden, I head for home.
There is nothing unknown – a herb
For this, a prayer for that. Women
Come to the cottage; if I shouted
My voice would carry and someone
Would come. A woman would come.”

This contrasts with Katy Wareham Morris’ 2016 “Answers”

“Why is it the things I know must be Googled?
It shocks me and scares me but I do it anyway
even though I know the truth; your truth
is not shocking or scary, it just seems that way
when we’re on this derailed train
for days and nights. I rely on the net to figure out
where you fit in this heavy volatile spree,
even though you are surging away from me.”

Modern mothers are often left to muddle through on their own and sometimes the wealth of generic or unreliable information available in a matter of seconds on the internet can be overwhelming rather than helpful and lead mothers to mistrust their own instincts. In a time before the internet, women turned to each other and new mothers weren’t so isolated.

Ruth Stacey returns to 1887 and the new mother suffers a fever and writes to her sister, Maggie, in “Sister”,

”                                Maggie, what I mean
To say is this, will you care for my baby
When I am dead, for this fever burns me,
And I am finding it hard to write this,
My last letter.
Sing to her.”

In response, Katy Wareham Morris’ “Easter” the contemporary mother takes her baby on a walk,

“Moving in the wind, waiting to dissolve,
wandering through meadows. I hold you,
wrapping my arms tight enough around that you would be buried
with me. If I shouted

My sharp tongue

I cut this up it
.                            s
.                                c
.                                     a
.                                          t
.                                              t
.                                                   e
.                                                        r
.                                                              s”

A different approach to the same fear: who cares for a dependent baby when the mother can’t. Whilst the pamphlet’s focus is on mothers, the fathers’ absences are felt.

“Inheritance” does capture those early days with a newborn baby with tenderness and craft. It shows that the utterly dependent relationship between baby and mother is timeless and universal: there’s as much to recognise in the nineteenth century’s relative’s diaries and letters as there is in a contemporary mother’s Google searches. It’s not afraid to look at the frustrations and bewilderment as much as the rewards of early motherhood.

“Inheritance” is available from Mother’s Milk Books.


The Institute of Physics Flash Fiction and Poetry Competitions

Open to any writer resident in the UK for a piece of flash fiction or poem of 500 words or fewer where the theme involves physics or a physicist. If you’re not sure if your idea qualifies, email writingcompetition2017 [at] iop.org. Entries restricted to one per person per competition so you can enter one poem, one flash fiction or one poem and one piece of flash fiction, but not two poems or two pieces of flash fiction. Full rules from the email address given.

Prizes in each competition: First Place £100, Second Place £75, Third Place £50.

Closing Date 31 October 2017. Free entry – entries to be sent to the email address.

Ideas:

  • Aspect of a physicist’s life or work
  • Fictional physicist makes a discovery or invention
  • Group of scientists working at a facility such as CERN or an Antarctic base or the International Space Station
  • A real-life physics-related event
  • A technological utopia or dystopia
  • Environments such as space, the deep sea, etc
  • Change a law of physics – what happens?

Judging Panel includes a physicist and fiction judge. I will be the poetry judge.


Leicester Writers Showcase Ella @ 100

“Hillbilly Elegy” J D Vance (William Collins) – book review

Image result for j d vance hillbilly elegy“Hillbilly Elegy” is subtitled ‘A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’. J D Vance admits that, on the face of it, he’s not a celebrity, not achieved anything particularly significant and finds it “somewhat absurd” that this book exists. But this is one of J D Vance’s survival mechanisms – this shrugging off and playing down of achievements is part of the same dissonance that helps some survive trauma. What makes “Hillbilly Elegy” a compelling read isn’t just the writing skills learnt as an editor of “The Yale Law Journal” or his honesty, but also his ability to step out of his personal situation and place it in a wider context.

In a nutshell, J D Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio but spent most of his summers in his grandparent’s birthplace of Jackson, Kentucky. After graduating from school, he joined the army for a tour of Iraq before studying law at Yale where he met his wife and now lives amongst the middle-classes in Cincinnati. Like many, his grandparents had moved north in search of work. Armco, like other steel companies, encouraged employees to recommend family members. However, after a hurried marriage, not all family members moved with the grandparents so there were frequent visits back to Jackson, not the best way of setting down roots in Middletown. There were three children, a son and then a ten year gap before two daughters. During that ten year gap there were several miscarriages, thought to be a result of the constant arguments between the grandparents often provoked by the grandfather’s drinking problem and the grandmother’s frustration, instead of pursuing her dream she stuck with being a housewife and mother. In turn, not helped by family loyalty being uppermost and a belief that outsiders should not know what happened behind closed doors. Whilst two of the children seemed to shrug off the arguments, one daughter, J D Vance’s mother didn’t. She become a pregnant teenager in a short-lived marriage and then married again quickly into another short-lived marriage, leaving her a single mother to two children, Lindsay and J D.

Despite the revolving door of stepfathers, grandmother or Mamaw, remained a constant in Lindsay and J D’s lives. She urged both to study and do well. Grandfather helped J D with maths homework. J D acknowledges his grandmother’s consistency and support enabled him to turn around his school grades and realise he could aim higher than a job at Armco. Even though by this time, jobs at Armco were scarce, most teenagers in Middletown had a relative who still worked there and there was an assumption they would work there too. There was a collective denial about the decline of the manufacturing industry. Needing money and lacking confidence, J D deferred applying to college and joined the Marines. One key lesson from the Marines was that, if you failed at something, you simply tried again instead of quitting. Another crucial lesson was finance: he figured out that, as a poor student, he was better off applying for an Ivy League university than a hometown one. At Yale, he felt impostor syndrome and it took a professor to challenge his application for a clerkship to realise that he didn’t have to push so hard and could opt for a more appropriate route. The culture at Yale took some adjusting to: not just figuring out which utensil to use at a networking event in a restaurant, but also overcoming the urge to stay behind and help clear up. Networking was novel too: undergraduates didn’t apply for jobs but went to cocktail event and dinners to meet potential employers. Other students would lean on a family contact to open a door, which wasn’t an option J D had and he marveled at the confidence and lack of hesitancy others had in simply asking.

Alongside his story are insights into the attitudes of he society he grew up in. J D Vance’s chaotic family home wasn’t unusual. He and his sister scored 6 on the scale of adverse childhood experiences such as being humiliated by parents, feeling a lack of familial support, having parent who are separated or divorced, living with an addict, living with someone who is depressed and watching someone be physically abused. Both married spouses who scored 0. During a temporary job in a store, J D Vance witnessed people on food stamps buy soda in bulk to sell off later and noticed that these same people rarely bought fresh food. Children lost their baby teeth to “Mountain Dew Mouth” where sugared drinks were put in baby’s bottles (Mamaw intervened to prevent J D’s mother putting Coke in his bottle) and then later lost their adult teeth in fights or to a poor diet. Those in Middletown who were in work resented those out of work and on food stamps who seemed to be playing the system and doing better. Those out of work would say that welfare should be for the deserving poor who would work if there were jobs available and that work was the way out of poverty, whilst conveniently ignoring their own situation. In another temporary job, J D Vance witnessed a nineteen year old and his pregnant girlfriend get offered jobs in a warehouse. The girlfriend worked in the office when she actually turned up – in a five day week, she might make it in on three days and never gave notice or reason for absence. The boyfriend was invariably late and took lengthy bathroom breaks. After a serious of warnings, both were sacked and the boyfriend complained, asking how the employers, who knew their circumstances, could sack them.

In conclusion, there is a discussion about how the problems of those living in poverty and without work can be solved. He doesn’t see it as a problem that can be solved without a profound shift in hillbilly culture. There’s not much point in creating jobs if, like the nineteen year old and his girlfriend, people can’t be bothered to turn up and work. There’s not a lot of point in expecting children with no working adult in their household to have aspirations to get a good college degree, although putting poor children alongside middle-class children in schools, raises expectations in poor children, that can’t be achieved if the middle-classes have deserted places like Middletown. One thing the American government could help with is to redefine a family to include aunts, uncles and grandparents. J D Vance argues if his grandmother could have fostered him, he would have had less chaos in his background, but instead he was left dreading social workers getting involved because his grandmother would not be recognised as a potential fosterer and he’d have been shipped out to strangers. His chief argument is that hillbilly families need to take a long hard look at themselves and accept that chaotic backgrounds and parental addictions harms children and the state of denial where all problems are someone’s else’s fault is a trap of their own making.

These conclusions are compelling argued in non-legalese. J D Vance uses language to communicate, not obfuscate and his vocabulary is engaging. “Hillbilly Elegy” is both a successful memoir and a social history of growing up in the 1980s. It’s also proof you don’t have to be a celebrity or prize-winner to be interesting.


Leicester Writers Club Everybodys Reading event flyer

Journeys in Translation Event during Everybodys Reading

“The Spirit Vaults” Sheila Hamilton (Green Bottle Press) – poetry review

Sheila Hamilton The Spirit Vaults book coverSheila Hamilton’s poems reach out and she seems to reveal in stories from or of others. “Inuit Tales” sets up the idea “Hunger is the hawk/ that will never fly away” and ends,

“A young man falls in love with a blow-fly,
cannot be persuaded of the folly
of this. It would be better, everyone else says,
were you to fall for a seal, or a gorgeous guillemot.
The young man and the blow-fly get married,
regardless. And so on.
The couple set up home.
On the fence outside, even
in the beautiful weather, sits
the hawk.”

It doesn’t matter if the blow-fly is real or a metaphor, the young couple’s defiance is recognisable and the hawk no better than the gossips and meddlers waiting for the marriage to fail so they can smugly pick apart its bones, like a cloud edging into a sunny sky. The title poem is a tour of Liverpool taking in pubs, hotels, industrial units, charities and the church that takes in bodies of the drowned,

“And the public come, press their faces
to the deadroom’s window, agog
to see the bloated bodies, their pallor,
their contortions. It’s a daily show,
and never cancelled.

*

Between us,
membrane.”

Rather than finishing with the “daily show”, the poem reminders readers of the window separating the viewers from the viewed. It asks how comfortable readers are with leaving themselves to understand another’s situation. Those gawping at the bodies in the church, don’t do so solely from fascination but also from a position of reassurance that it’s not happening to them, that death is something that happens to others. The window gives an allusion of safety, because death catches up with everyone, and a place from which to view something that’s normally taboo. The dead are normally whisked away to funeral homes and prepared for showing, not left on view with the ugliness of death uncensored.

In “Waiting for the Immigration Papers”, a man in New York living in a pumpkin-coloured house projects his anticipation on the house,

“Every night, that house shines brighter —
glows, lit from within.
Eventually the sun flows in and out
of all its windows simultaneously.

Then the house glides, bird-like,
over New York Harbour.
Someone had painted the word ‘Liberty’ on it.”

Mary Anning, fossil collector and amateur paleontologist, never met John Clare as far as anyone knows, but Sheila Hamilton imagines a connection, in “Mary Anning’s Letter to John Clare, 1841”

“What I perceive in your poems is a deeper knowing.
Emmonsail’s Heath I have not visited
but I believe on account of your Poems
that I know it, its Seasons and Flowers,
Birds and Beetles. As for me,
I am acquainted with the beaches
of Dorsetshire, pebble and boulder and cliff,
and have been Blessed to know not dragonflies
or Meadow Browns, Skippers or Gatekeepers
but long-ago creatures embedded in such stones.
I cannot say how my Eye saw them
when the Eyes of the much more Educated
did not. I can only think, Mr Clare,
that you and I are cut from a similar Cloth”

Which poet wouldn’t be delighted to receive a letter with the opening sentence of the quote? However, this isn’t just a fan letter. It distills the common theme in “The Spirit Vaults”: no matter how different individual humans seem, they all have a universal desire to meet or connect with someone who understands them. Even mavericks and rebels need that connection with fellow beings.

A gardener gets to speak in “Ekaterinburg”

“I dug them up one summer,
An accident. I hadn’t wanted my spade
to hit bone, but it did.
I covered everything up.
Autumns come, killing leaves on the trees.
White winters white out the dump-side.
Every spring, that tangle of ribs and corsets is visited
by moles, worms, a hundred species.
I still tell no-one.
I think of them, though, those people,
how they ended in the woods by my garden.

Every spring, wild primroses grow there.”

It’s the site where Czar Nicholas II and his family were buried after being shot during the 1917 Revolution. The gardener knows the bodies are somewhere in the garden but not exactly where. He inadvertently uncovers their bones but re-buries them, not yet ready for a public revealing of history that he wants kept hidden. He wants to think his motives are pure and allow nature to take over, but the shameful act of their murder keeps haunting his thoughts. For now, though, their location is his secret and something he can control.

“The Spirit Vaults” is full of humane, compassion poems that seek to give voices to people who don’t usually get chance to speak, to strengthen common bonds and explore ways of excepting differences. They are not afraid to criticise, as shown in “To Pablo Neruda who did not denounce Stalin”, and take to task those who behave inhumanely.

“The Spirit Vaults” is available from Green Bottle Press


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