There is a gothic sensibility that runs throughout Lotté Jean’s “Nights in the Snow Garden”. The collection has a narrator suffering an undefined loss, likely to be a broken heart, and turns to nature and the soothing power of nurturing a garden to heal. “Welcome to the Garden” sees the narrator follow a trail of snow sprinkles,
“as the area bloomed even in the dead of winter. i would come back one day to meet the garden again and learn to grow like these flowers in the harshest of climates that still stood so strong and beautiful.”
The narrator sees that something as apparently fragile as flowers can still be strong, that after a cold blast of snow, they return. The garden becomes a solace and a source of focus. But first there’s the winter to get over, “A Step in Snow” (complete poem),
“let us go on a trek and learn to love our wounds as if they were friends”
The poem has a haiku-like structure, but lacks the kigo which is included in the title. It contains the idea that injuries (to our egos and feelings) can be a source of growth if we allow ourselves to see a long term plan and give ourselves time to recover. There’s a sound echo in “wounds” and “friends” which underlines the sense.
“Rivers of Red Roses” hints at what triggered the need for healing,
“you tried to nurture my flowers with nothing but ill intent. their stems died beneath you”
Plants don’t grow if not placed in the right soil with the right amount of watering and food. If a stem appears dead, it can’t support the leaves and flowers. However, the roots may still be able to support regrowth if the conditions improve. It ends,
“a delicate bud must now rebuild on a broken root.”
There’s some hope, the roots are still capable of sustaining a life, even if that may not be in the current growing season.
Roses re-appear towards the end, in “Notes Written in the Blood of Roses”,
“if you don’t dare to meet and love the many flowers of the world then you dare not to become a garden”
The message is to get out and meet new people, expose yourself to new ideas in order to stretch and grow. Sending your branches in predictable patterns over a supportive trellis may look pretty but also traps you into making the same mistakes, only doing what feels safe. In that sense the collection comes full circle back to the earlier idea of wounds as friends. The lessons learnt are worth the pain and vulnerability because they make you stronger as a person and help you become.
“Nights in the Snow Garden” is a slender volume that looks at gardens as a metaphor for human development and growth. It acknowledges that mistakes can become lessons, without being overly optimistic and sunny about it. There’s no false hope or relentless positivity. It takes a lot of work to build and maintain a garden, but the rewards are worth striving for. It’s not a new idea and it backs away from becoming a self-help manual, sticking instead to exploring and sustaining its garden/flower imagery.
Daniel Sluman’s poems explores the intimacy and love along with confinement and isolation experienced prior to lockdown. This are not pandemic poems. Sluman is an amputee who suffers chronic pain and his wife, Emily, has Crohn’s disease and fibromyalgia. During 2016, without proper care, they were unable to safely get upstairs so were mainly stuck in their lounge watching the world outside through the window. The poems follow the year through the four seasons, starting with autumn,
“………………..we watch documentaries on mute
from the sofa we’ve lived in for the last eight months
…………………..& we don’t sleep or we sleep ………………………………..all day
……when we finally pull back the curtain
…………….a slant of rain is leaning ……………………..against the road
…………….slick with rotting leaves
……autumn smoulders everything …………………….back to its roots”
There’s a strong feeling of repetitiveness: re-watching documentaries and their stories merging, the rain against the window, adding up to a sense of stasis. Lives in a state of limbo. The documentaries are marking a passing of time which is split into hour-long chunks. Sleep happens or doesn’t. There’s a loss of routine and connection. The pain or side-effects from pain relief make it difficult to concentrate so the documentaries are muted to take away the obligation to focus and understand. Their function is to provide a reminder there’s more outside the room/window than the weather.
“…half-awake to the noise / of pages flitting next to you / like a tongue wetting / like a bird ………landing / i drink my tea as quietly / as i can stare / at an invisible spot / beyond the tv / until my body & mind / finally meet”
The narrator is still in a sense of stasis; somewhere between reality and a dream (nightmare) of sameness, trying to focus and make sense of something. Until his clouded mind clears and feels reconnected to his bodily reality. There’s also a sense of connection between husband and wife: neither wants to disturb or impinge on each other because it might create a sense of obligation when both want each other’s presence but not to impose, knowing the other is experiencing chronic pain too.
There are photos in among the poems, such as a vase on a rain-splattered window, patterns of lights and shadow on a ceiling, prescribed painkillers, reflections in windows, Emily, Daniel, crutches, a bath, an x-ray, a laptop, all given a full description in the appendix. They complement the poems, acting either as a visual reminder of the collection’s title or a visual inspiration for one of the poems.
Autumn becomes “winter” and the subject turns to intimacy, “up close how your skin shivers//like a line about snow/in a robert frost poem”. Later Emily massages the stump of Daniel’s leg,
“…………………………i imagine the phantom limb
pouring into your palms like water ………all the cruel words & shame
…………………thrown into the space ………where my leg should be
………………..pulled out like barbs
…………..this is how it feels to have your trauma held
………….. i tell you your kindness kills me …………………..your grace kills me”
There’s also a reminder of why the leg was amputated, from childhood bone cancer,
“in an overspilling drawer / of yellowed papers / …..on the back / of an old hospital letter / …the odds of my survival / ( post-chemo ) / notated as a percentage / (30) / in my father’s hand”
That child is now an adult, managing chronic pain and splitting himself between the reduced circumstances brought about by disability discrimination and the life of a husband and writer.
“spring” brings another mood change,
“gallons of light poured through like cans of paint flooding the tiny aperture yellows blues fullthroated reds this glossy lens so much presence”
Gone is the persistant rain of autumn and confines of winter. Spring and the restoration of natural colours along with the return of birds seems to bring a note of optimism. However, husband and wife are still inhabiting a small, shared space with the fluctuations of disability,
“…………………….dropping emojis & gifs ………..into each other’s phones
…………………the distance between our bodies ………………………. always swelling
…..how a message will hang in the air unread …………& i’ll know you’ve fallen asleep”
There’s still an irregular schedule, sleeping when pain allows and the desire to continue being a couple,
“………………..we’re two sentences on opposing pages …………in a cheap book offset
falling into the heart of the spine ……………………………. together”
Two mismatched people flipping between the roles of carer and being caring for when differing disabilities allow. Emily alters a pair of trousers,
“& most will never know this intimacy how you trace every ridge of the lipped pelvis with the chime of your scissors making a space in this world for me to fill rounding the edge to hang off me like a crescent moon you ply your love seam by seam”
The caring is not one-sided. In “summer” the husband cares for his wife,
“…………….& i nurse you like this three times a day ……………………….drawing the infection
…………………………………away from the drum
…………..with a patience i could never summon for anyone else
…………………….the same way you’ll wrap the gash on my finger next week
……………………….each throb of my pulse ……………….soaking the paper a deeper blush of red”
We don’t typically imagine having to perform acts of intimate care for another, yet, when put in that position for someone we most love, we get on with it as if we’d forgotten we couldn’t imagine doing it. There’s a tenderness here, undermined by the pulsing cut where the imagery is more of passion and desire.
“a single window” is a generous opening into a confined world of disability and chronic pain and pain management. Through it, Daniel Sluman demonstrates that this small world is still full of complexity, love, compassion and tenderness as well as sadness and the trials of managing the side-effects of drugs and lack of outside care. He shows that intimacy and love are still possible in the bleakest of moments and the will to survive can renew. “a single window” is not a polemic or a rant. The poems are closely observed and crafted reflecting the isolation and resourcefulness central to the lives of too many disabled people.
Kathleen Bainbridge’s “Inscape” explores loss, acceptance and turning to look towards a more positive future. There’s a sequence that re-examines studying Lorca. Her aim is to invoke and create an image or mood in her reader rather than explicitly detail her subject, allowing the reader space to inhabit and interpret the poems. “To Curiosity” explores love,
“I never gave my heart to you, you crept up close and stole it from my shadow.
A Japanese calligrapher’s brush creates both word and thing each time anew.”
It’s a gentle poem. Here love isn’t the shivers-down-the-spine, head over heels variety, but the soft, gradual realisation that there’s a person you can’t live without. The soft vowels in the first stanza quoted echo its sense. The second quoted stanza looks at handwriting, more intimate than typed words, and how it’s never quite the same even if the same words are made. Japanese is based on pictograms so the calligraphy isn’t just words, but images. It’s an image of enduring love: you know this person, what makes them tick but even a routine day can create new memories, a new way of seeing something familiar which reinforces the love between them.
It’s a love that endures after death. In “Holdfast”, i.m. Bainbridge’s late husband, Bill Moran, starts with “you fold your hand/ into mine” and continues the idea of love despite small irritating habits, when he sliced bread,
“I have to hide my eyes. You wonder aloud at the roll of a batsman’s wrist, the fine rain
of Misty’s glissando shimmy. My gold band stays on your fingerbone under the ground, I see you wave to me often, cheering me on.”
The present tense is used even though these are memories as if the speaker isn’t yet ready to let go. He still has his wedding ring, the ring she put on his finger. Despite death, he’s still a presence in her life, but it’s a supportive presence.
The title poem explores self-development,
“I parted company with myself without a sound, mind clear as champagne racing up a glass to overflow, then settling. It was cloudless, blue as an Arctic summer, sharp as ice, angular as winter trees – the feeling lasted years: it burned so bright I never saw the ash on all sides, the scorched ground, the forest fires in the distance.”
We can’t return to the past and can’t live the same life twice. Living in the past traps us there nad becomes a form of disassociation, numbing us from the current day and removing us from new sensations and a future.
The “Looking for Lorca” sequence has an epigram from Bly suggesting Lorca as a secret friend, someone you read and carry with you. The second poem, “What Does Life Want?” imagines having a drink with an imaginary Lorca,
“What does life want? A touch of winter consoles the green fizz of August trees, toes dipped in snowmelt from the Sierra. The cathedral’s bulk echoes with shouts of unborn children chasing you down the river and mutes the angel-boy who sings for coins in Calle Boabdil. When silence stills the bells and the moon comes out its chaste rose will scent the night, silver these streets.”
It’s evocative with specific details and packed with ghosts suggesting a fluid boundary between past, present and future. Even in the silence, there’s still movement as fragrance of the flowers fills the air. It’s a sensual poem that doesn’t offer an answer, allowing readers to figure it out for themselves, which implies that life may want different things from different people and that’s how it should be. Ghosts appear in the fifth poem, “The Crime was in Granada”,
“I see you moving among the trees, I know your voice, the music that you played when I was young and like a girl in a song I run downstairs too late and find you gone.
There was another August night, there was a car and you and others travelling the moonless road to Víznar.
Your name was lost for years. Out there on the hill your grave lies in the dust beyond the olive groves.”
The first quoted stanza implies a game of hide and seek, the speaker knows the poet is there, it’s just a matter of finding him. The third quoted stanza mirrors this idea but this time there are fewer clues. The speaker knows the poet’s body is someone but its state of being hidden is more serious, the poet is at risk of being forgotten and remaining unfound.
After the sequence, the collection turns back to personal loss and a baker boy style hat worn by Dickens’ Artful Dodger and the speaker in “Me the Dodger” which starts, “I put it on, looked in the glass and posed,/ Get it, it’s you, your face behind me smiled.” The hat is worn through many good memories,
“In twenty years I lost it a dozen times till it floated free of the car I drowned in Devil’s Water one night and sailed away out of my reach. I thought of you then: the December day we put you in the ground, it hid my face and kept me from the rain.”
The hat became a constant companion, even if it wasn’t exactly the same one throughout. Naturally it was part of her funeral outfit, protecting her from the weather and also the gazes of others. It allowed her a private moment as the coffin was lowered into the ground. A moment free of the worry of how she appeared or how others might interpret her expressions or tears or lack of.
Throughout “Inscape”, Kathleen Bainbridge evokes an inner landscape of sensations, of ghosts, of love and care by building images and invoking senses. The poems are meticulously sketched but allow the reader to focus on wherever draws their eye and draw on their personal experiences and perspectives when reading the poems. The overall sense if of quiet, sensitive poems build on layers of details.
Celine’s Salon is a spoken word, song lyric and poetry night in Soho, London. It aims to nuture new and established artists and create a community that is open and encouraging. The introduction also notes that performing to a live audience enables instant feedback in a supportive atmosphere. The key message is that newcomers are welcome and Celine’s Salon is an inclusive, supportive space. Each night has a theme and the book is arranged in acts with an interval, allowing the reader breaks to absorb what they’ve read before moving on.
Celine Hispiche’s “A Lady of Soho” renames the Bloomsbury Set “the Doomsbury Set” and observes,
“When walking the streets of Soho In the steps of bohemian ghosts There’s something we all should know We now play their hosts And lent up against a street light She’ll tell you never to go A very familiar sight A lady of Soho!”
The lack of pretention is clear, the simple rhymes give the poem a frame to hang on, like a welcome banner. I suspect “go” in the sixth quoted line is intended to mean ‘she’ll never tell you to go away’ rather than an invitation to leave.
The idea of ghosts, heritage and exploring the seen and unseen is continued in Amina Jindani’s “Wau Bulan” (a Malaysian moon kite), a shaped poem,
“A wau In The Wind Hushes Heartbeats Into the new folding of Night and creates the sacred spaces in time. But, just like the crescent moon-shaped tail, the wau promises Another new dawn to begin again. But does the new generation, who Share their forefathers’ passion for the soul-souring heights for their Own hopes and dreams, see the poetic lull of flying the ancient wau And laying down to catch its song? Do they know how the moon Waxes and wanes to the winnowing Windborne wau? Do They See How?”
The suggestion here is to respect the past while forging a new future. Current writers must read and understand the baton they’ve picked up, even if it seems as elusive as the kite. I don’t think the intial capital on each line was necessary; it interrupts the rhythm and doesn’t add to the shape. I like the message of listening to the night’s song and paying attention to dreams and desires.
Jo Danzig’s “My Grandma Sandra” knows the value of a gift even if others see it as a cheap bit of plastic,
“My Grandma Sandra always had this faded plastic bangle on her wrist. As a child I loved that bracelet and watched the bits of red glitter move in the gel.
“Over the years, the bangle yellowed—the plastic hardened and the gel became opaque until the glitter no longer swam around the circumference, much like Sandra’s veins that could barely shuffle her down the road.
“One day my dad said, ‘get that filthy bracelet off your wrist before you die in it.’
“‘Get your hand off it—Bill gave me that and it isn’t going anywhere. I’m not and what have you ever got me?’
“‘I’ll get you a McDonalds if you want?’
“‘I can get my own.’ And with that she heaved her little pudding body up from the bedframe and got her purse, the old-fashioned kind with just one clip.”
In grandma’s house the past lives with the contemporary, she clings to her old things and their sentimental values but still welcomes convenient fast food. The piece finishes,
“Sarah Gwiazda Starr liked to be known as Sandra Sutton—the woman who ate burgers and drank Emva Cream until she slumped outside the chemist and someone had to walk her home. They thought she had a son.
“Under her bed we found some hundred empty cartons.
“Some alive with maggots and her room twinkled with cheap sherry bottles.
“I don’t know what happened to the bangle.”
The granddaughter now sees a second side to her grandmother, the less glamorous one who was failing to look after herself. Even the glitzy bangle has disappeared. A sad end for a woman who clung to the pretence that she was someone who didn’t need help until it was too late to ask.
The use of glamour as a disguise is picked up in Rachel Dreyer’s “Tokyo Story” which starts,
“With only a month in Tokyo, and serious student financial woes, my goal was to clear as many debts as I could without ending up underneath some sweaty businessman.
“Swim in a giant fish tank dressed as a mermaid? Be a police woman in Arrest Bar? I chose hostessing in the tiny club Glamour. This situation vacant, I anticipated, would be a vacant situation indeed. The lights were low—to hide the dust and because people look good in the dark. Tables for two with vinyl cloths and fake candles, surrounded a tiny dance floor below a red tinsel stage.
The trick as hostess was to pretend to drink as much champagne as the men seeking company or entertainment. But reality bites:
“The new girl, Shimrit, was unwilling to drink, and sat sulking an arm’s-length from her customers, earning herself the moniker of Prim Shim.
“She grabbed my arm in the Rappongi night-club district one evening, ‘help me—it’s my customer!’
“I imagined him in a gaudily decorated love hotel, his heart imploded from bad cocaine.
“‘I got him too drunk,’ she wailed. ‘He’s in the bathroom and the staff can’t open the door!’
“Shimrit had clearly over-egged the pudding, and the pudding lay heavy on the toilet floor.
“‘Help me carry him to the club to get my fee!’ she begged. For a moment I considered this—two Western girls and an unconscious accountant—even if we carried him, would a taxi actually pick us up? In the harsh light of the bathroom, with the salivating salaryman at our feet, I’d suddenly had enough. ‘Shimrit! There’s a line, and we’ve crossed it!’”
The worst that happens to the accountant is a hangover. But, confronted with the seedier side of their jobs, the women are forced to consider getting out of being hostesses.
“Celine’s Salon: The Anthology” gives a good taste of what readers can expect if they turned up. A friendly atmosphere and words that probe under the surface of faded glamour. The overriding themes were human motivations and the desire to appear suave and sophisticated in the hope that no one notices the scuffed shoes or uneven hems. The sense of camaraderie and welcome strongly comes across.
“Set a Crow to Catch a Crow” is a collection of flash fiction. Unsurprisingly birds (not just crows) feature throughout, although not in every story. The title refers to the method of using a bird of prey to either lure in or scare off other birds. Most explore aspects of rural poverty, work that can’t be confined to office hours and the effects on relationships. In the opening story, “Flock”, Edith’s husband Tom shoots at the starlings gathering on their roof because he’s fed up of cleaning guano off the ridge tiles but leaves her to patch up the holes he’s created. She begins to feel empathy with the birds and envies their ease of chattering with each other, something lacking from her marriage. Her empathy changes everything.
In a desert, a boat seems a strange choice to keep outside a home until the “Covenant” is realised and it begins to rain, separating another husband too busy for his wife. This theme is picked up again in “Settlement” where a farmer goes to mend a wall, remembering his wife told him he was too tied to the farm. Clearing his head, he agrees and returns home but will he get there in time?
In the title story, a farmer with mounting debts turns down the offer of decoy crows since baliffs have taken her livestock away. The man making the offers her a couple of ewes instead, but two sheep don’t make a flock. She watches him leave, the implication is that business between them isn’t finished.
The decoy theme is stronger in “カラオ. Kara (empty) Okesutora (orchestra)” better known as karaoke, ’empty orchestra’ being a more literal translation. A recycling centre worker finds karaoke machine, takes it home (against rules but manager Dianne waves him through) and fixes it. Knowing Dianne loves karaoke, he hatches a plan. In “Dispatch”, a woman is given an empty box addressed to Eros. The postman offers to take it back and so she has to choose to heed the message or ignore it.
Readers’ expectations are played with too. “Girl’s Guide to Fly Fishing” turns out not to be narrated by someone who needs teaching how to fish. There’s a wry humour but it’s not focused on someone’s ignorance or the friction between an expert and amateur. “Fission” plays on the ‘world is our oyster’ cliche. “Regulus” and “Regulus (Take Two)” play on the symbolism in the titular star, the brightest in the constellation of Leo.
Birds in the shape of peacocks, bantam hens, owls return in the later stories. A husband still lusts after his wife. A widow is left to care for her late husband’s flock, despite her resentment when he’d spend so much time with them. A sacrifice is made in an attempt to rid a village of plague. In the final story, “Repossession”, a farmer, “doesn’t remember is how the ground went from soft beneath his soles to cinching him at the waist, and why he hadn’t kept the bird, trussed it and laid it before her, his trump card to prove her wrong. Then she might’ve smiled again, eyes glossy like the leaflets she leaves slipped between the other final demands. But he’s sunk too far, the peat gritty against his lips.”
The characters are sympathetically drawn. Mary-Jane Holmes knows how to give a reader sufficient detail to understand a character’s motives but also trusting readers to build their own pictures of who the characters are and their relationships to each other. With minimal sketches each story is fleshed out to not only convey the characters’ lives but also their histories and their futures. The stories explore complex issues, poverty, keeping a family together, keeping relationships going or fresh starts and the fear of beginning again. The decoys are dispatched effectively: some characters are lying to themselves: believing they know what the problem is and not willing to listen and understand the actual problem. Sometimes the decoys lure the character to acknowledge and resolve their problem. The stories in “Set a Crow to Catch a Crow” reward re-reading.
“Locomotive Worm” is a collection of mostly prose poems written while Rey Armenteros was staying in Japan, watching as New York’s twin towers fell in his home country. The poems are not travelogues, there’s very little geographical detail and no place names which gives a sense of ‘anywhere’ to these poems. Their focus is internal, rather than external, and about experience rather than sensation, as summarised in “Riding the Caboose”,
“Experiences to hang off my jumpsuit like medals. Evidence of being cultured. Accouterments with which to dress my accounts. Fodder for the cannon. . Listen, for it’s about to roar.
That day! The day I get it right, finally, I load myself into the breech and fulfill the requirements of the human cannonball, from the big top straight into the stars.
A rocket leading a shaft of flame with no projected destination to account for (but still working on it). One by one, the segments come off revealing the nose cone.
Except I’m the guy in the back, and I was the first to be dropped, when the jets in front blasted to life — right in my face.
Back through the stratosphere, I crashed the party, when I landed on the garden lawn like a hobo wizard. Stumbling out, waving my arms for incantations.”
Grand intentions fell flat. These poems are from someone dazed and surprised at being where he is, since it’s not where he intended to be. He’s armed with lists of things to do but no map, no plan of which to do first and the risk of starting a thousand projects but never finishing one. What could go wrong?
One of the first casualities is a relationship, in “(Quietly Acknowledged)”, the speaker is talking to a friend, subjecting a relationship to a postmortem of sorts,
“We go after the ones that don’t care.” “No we don’t.” “We love the ones that don’t love you back.” “But it’s not always like that.” “The ones that take it as a point to use you.” “Don’t let it eat you up like this.” “If she only cared, she wouldn’t have.” “Hey, I know how it is, but you know I care.” “Why should I ever care if you care?”
Later, “We never meant it to be like this.”, could be as much about the friendship as the relationship. The speaker who has just been dumped isn’t ready to acknowledge the good in the relationship that’s just ended and the friend doesn’t want to be part of a pity party. The speaker wants to frame it as his ex-girlfriend didn’t care because if she did she wouldn’t have left him. The friend’s not buying it and trying to jolt the speaker out of his self-pitying introspection. This mood is picked up in “This is Not an Allegory”, where in a story “with many plot twists” although “the main character will not learn a thing in the end”,
“Here’s an outline:
Meet and put on a humorous face.
Get to know each other.
Kiss. Get frisky.
Mention the past in passing.
A dark room, naked, and full disclosure.
Talk a lot and begin to expect things.
“Commitment” — a businessman’s word.
Bring up the agenda. File for bankruptcy.
And no change. But that’s okay. I could have brought an idea with me to provide this with a theme, but then it wouldn’t be much of a story.”
There is a story of sorts, a familiar enough one: man meets woman, romance ensues, which brings a set of expectations, man dodges commitment, romance ends. Man is doomed to continually repeat the story because he doesn’t change any of the steps or realise that it is within his power to stop the repeated loop, either by refusing to play or by making an actual commitment. That he sees “commitment” as a “businessman’s word”, something that’s transactional and therefore comes with conditions placed on it is the lesson he refuses to learn. The shininess of new things can soon tarnish if you never make an effort towards polish and maintenance. In “Rib Cage” another character carries this reluctance to commit,
“A new resting place is a sojourn in the country, as they say in that almost forgotten place, the land of his birth. But he tarries. Too long, it seems. And soon, even this new place becomes his home. Time. A monument of time caught him looking back into the window from that side of his home he now leaves to dust and disuse. At the sound of his voice, a butterfly flutters away, and another catastrophe marks a decision that will be finalized on the horizon. This, as idea prone to reality, forces him to abandon his place to live life again engrossed by a constantly shifting picture plane. On and on, but the traveler stops in front of ancient ruins. What buildings there were turned into the ossified evidence of woolly mammoths. Look. Gossamer spider residue swings from an obliging exit space long ago shaped like an arch, and he goes inside, soon hungry and tarrying once again, but for far too long, and then lost to all memory.”
This character keeps moving, creating temporary home after temporary home, leave each to crumble to dust which becomes an excuse to move on. His memories merge, he’s no longer sure where he is. His restlessness leaves him lonely and forgotten.
There’s long sequence towards the end, “Yellow Exits”, some parts of which are numbered, some have a title. Here’s an extract from “NINE”,
“The person writing these matters is not me. It is not that I am not a poet. But there is at least one other poet out there. ………………… If the poet still had the journal, he would have burned it. He had read each entry enough times to scratch their unaspirated sounds into that part of his mind that repeats things. ………………..The poet was snapping fingers and clapping hands. If he could just keep producing words in his head, he would prove that he was still living. …………………The poet was me again, and I moved right out the door, back into the moving poles of electric lines. I was gliding under them into the city system of gears and logic, kicking my knees high, dancing around objects. ………………..Which created shapes if I could just read them from the highest vantage point. Which created the pattern of existence mixed with a little bit of that suicide that is sometimes sought by those that drive their cars over the sides of roads just to see what happens. It was a perfect metaphor for the one vein that splits through my left temple. Like a network of vegetation scarring an otherwise perfectly-aligned brick wall.”
Perspectives change as we age and develop. We will never see the situation we were in when we were younger the same way we did when we were that age: looking back has the advantage of hindsight and what seemed wise in a moment no longer is. The poet of “Yellow Exits” confesses he ruminates, gets stuck in patterns that he has to force himself out of and push himself further. He’s only as good as his last poem: to go better, he has to motivate himself to scale the wall he built and find materials for the next.
“Locomotive Worm” is an unchronological series of musings, of life’s messy journey from youth to age and lessons learnt, or not learnt on the way. It’s not a series of postcards or a travelogue. It’s not interested in geographical spaces. Rey Armenteros acknowledges that individually we’re stuck on repeat until we begin to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes. Seeking novelty without personal growth is not a journey. The biggest discoveries there are exist internally, the work we do to make ourselves grow and for that to happen we have to step off the locomative and explore our interior landscapes. Otherwise, we’ll just blunder through life, carried along without questioning if we’re on the right track.
This pamphlet is subtitled “Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals reimagined” and was published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of her birth. The journals are packed with description of the natural world and her thoughts and feelings, written over the period 1798 – 1803. Sarah Doyle calls these collage poems rather than found poems because, although the words are Wordsworth’s, the poet has reshaped the prose into poetry and added punctuation where necessary for sense. The original spellings have been kept rather than modernised. The language is far from prosaic. The first poem, “One only leaf,” is short enough to be quoted whole,
“upon the top of a tree – the sole remaining leaf – danced round and round
like a rag blown by the wind.”
It’s a gentle observation. The repetition of “round” shows this is a continuous movement forced by the wind and out of the leaf’s control. “Under Silver How” observes a birch tree in a sunny breeze,
“It was a tree in shape, with stem and branches, but it was like a spirit of water. The sun went
in, and it resumed its purplish appearance, the twigs still yielding to the wind, but not so visibly to us. The other birch trees that were near it looked bright and cheerful,
but it was a creature by its own self among them.”
Unlike the others, this “purplish” tree stands out as an individual, its movements more fluid than solid. While it stands out, there’s no hint of menace, just difference. The detail in the prose draws on close observation and rich details.
In some poems, Doyle has not just shaped the prose into lines of poetry but also shaped the poem to reflect the subject, for example, “beautiful to see”
on the calm hot night little boats row out of harbour with wings of fire, and the sail boats with the fiery track which they cut as they went along, and which closed up after them with a hundred thousand sparkles, and streams of glow-worm light.
The poem takes the shape of one of the boats being described. As previously, the visual description is vivid, bringing to life the images of the setting sun reflected in the water and the boats cutting through the surface and sparkling with glow-worms. The poem’s are just static observation. One is a list of walks and tasks completed. “A heart unequally divided”, is a record of emotion, a lake is described as “dull and melancholy”,
“I had many of my saddest thoughts, and I could not keep the tears within me. My heart was almost melted away. My heart smote me, prevented me from sleeping. I was melancholy, and could not talk, but at last I eased my heart by weeping.”
The landscape is a projection of Wordsworth’s inner emotional world. The poem offers no clues as to what triggered the depressed mood but the crying gives her relief. There’s a sense of restlessness in the title poem,
“……………………………………………………………………………….. A wild, moonlight night, the valley all perfumed with the gale and wild thyme, but curiously wild, this solemn quiet spot. …………This is a wild and melancholy walk, the transition from the solitary wildness. ……………………………………………….The sky and the clouds, and a few wild creatures, a wild intermixture of rocks, trees – …………….something so wild and new in this feeling of wild singularity”
The repetition of “wild” underlines the effects of the gale, whipping against free-growing plants. The landscape isn’t entirely empty but the animals are minding their business, leaving the narrator to take her walk unbothered, free to note the gale and allow the landscape to become an emotional journey. There’s a sense of discovery, that the familiar can look new if you change your perspective.
Later, in “Lights and shadows”, Wordsworth is watching swallows’ shadows on the walls of the building, “the shadows glanced and twinkled, interchanged/ and crossed each other, expanded and shrunk up”, in contrast,
“The sun shone so brightly, with such a fierce light, that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand spectacles. Rocks glittered in the sunshine, distant hills were visible, the evening sun was now sending a glorious light. Islanded with sunshine, bathed in golden light, my heart danced while the sun was yet shining.”
The delight drips off the page. These are the words of someone in love with her home and surrounds.
“Something so wild and new in this feeling” takes Wordsworth’s words shared in private in her journal and brings them to life. Curating them to show she was more than her brother’s companion, and also capable of writing about her love for the natural world and what she observed in captiving prose. Doyle has done a successful job in selecting the phrases that demonstrate Wordsworth’s poetic sensibilities and crafting them into poems that work like a seam of light silvering the birches.
Jeremy Dixon’s “A Voice Coming From Then” has a content warning for suicide because these are poems set both around the time of a suicide attempt and afterwards, proving survival is possible. This isn’t a forcefully, fake upbeat, ‘let’s search for the silver lining’ collection though, but a recording of the effects of bullying and how to move from victim to survivor despite “a consultant child psychiatrist’s letter to a hospital doctor dated 20 June 1979 which I first read forty years later” where the psychiatrist asks why Jeremy “is prepared to go/ back to the school” and writes, “[this] is puzzling”. Not sure why the psychiatrist is puzzled, did he really expect the victim to move to another school as if the shame was his, rather than stay on when the bullies should have been removed? There is humour though: the Victorian demon Spring-heeled Jack makes appearances albeit with a black wit. The teenaged Jeremy seems scared and confused, but it actually a lot stronger than he credits himself. The source of the bullying is revealed in “Sunday School” where,
“we are taught to hate Judas because he kissed Jesus
betraying him for short-term financial gain
we must also despise Judas for the sin of self-murder
swinging from Cercis siliquastrum the white flowers
turning red with blood and shame”
Two things are a source of same: same-sex attraction and suicide. Although homosexual acts were decriminalised in England and Wales (where the book is based) in 1967, the age of consent remained at 21 for such an act. In 1979, the Home Office Advisory Committee’s report recommended reducing the age of consent to 18 but it wasn’t until 2001 that the age of consent was reduced to 16, bringing it in line with the hetrosexual age of consent. Therefore, the teenager in these poems is the recipient of the confusing information that a beautiful act is also an illegal one. The bullying that resulted potentially had serious consequences. Jeremy waited for his father to drive his mother, a nurse, to her night-shift before attempting to take his life. Vomiting saved him, he was found and taken to hospital and finds himself next to a biker who was involved in a road traffic collision in “the recidivist”
“you dream of motorbikes and decapitations
when you awake their cubicle is empty
and you didn’t dare ask and you still don’t know”
The narrator addresses himself in the second person. This could be shock or a way of processing it. What follows is a series of poems looking at the situation from different viewpoints, including his sister’s, a teacher’s in “form tutor”, the italics mean the text is a direct quote from the source,
“Jeremy is a helpful and
co-operative pupil am I wrong
in thinking that he has felt
considerable pressure this year”
The bland formality of a school report which avoids committing anything controversial to paper. By avoiding naming the problem, fixing it becomes impossible. Jeremy makes it clear he asked permission before “mother”, (again the italics are a direct quote),
“all the doctors and nurses
were vile I’m sure
they blamed us as if
I didn’t feel guilty enough.”
The attitudes of medical staff can compromise care and recovery. Attitudes then were very much about blaming the suicidal for wasting resources by taking them away from more ‘deserving’ cases. Although that’s a slippery slope: is someone who plays a tough contact sport to blame for their injuries, how about a domestic violence victim coerced into a car with a drunk spouse? When the focus is on the patient, parents and carers can get pushed out or blamed, even though in this case, there was no suggestion the parents were at fault. It was the homophobic bullying at school.
The book focuses towards recovery and acceptance. The bullying may have stopped, but it still haunts. In “ode to Bronski Beat in an elevator”,
“but I’m petrified
someone can tell I won’t return their gaze
I am taunting myself making silent promises
I will not be able to keep
praying the next floor is where they get off
and when the doors ping I finally look up
watch them strut the fluorescent corridors
mouthing to each other that word I cannot say”
The fear of further bullying, the fear of homophobia reduces his world and leaves him struggling to trust, not helped when strangers prove his fears correct.
The title poem is set after a road traffic collision when the poet was taken to hospital with his mother who was also in the car,
“the closest I have been to dying again
still upset the next morning I answer the landline
hello son it’s granddad I was worried about you both
except granddad died two decades ago and
it’s not granddad but my uncle
although he said those precise words and his voice was exactly the same”
The episode is a trigger. It seems cruel that as someone struggles back on their feet and towards acceptance, a voice can trigger the shame and devastation someone has tried so hard to recover from.
The almost-last poem, “blister packs”, is shaped like a paracetamol tablet and ends,
“fighting for space between the Vim and Domestos there are more paracetamol tablets in my kitchen than I ever robbed from my mother’s that night than I have ever allowed myself to own since I consider them my isolation companions all they ask is one kiss without foil we are a test they whisper a test”
The packets of paracetamol are a reassurance, a source of pain-relief, but also a test against repeating that night in 1979.
“A Voice Coming From Then” is a collection of poems about resilience. Jeremy Dixon doesn’t shy away from difficult or taboo subjects but handles them with sensitivity and tenderness. He explores identity, the effects of homophobic bullying, the impact of suicide with the aim of starting conversations about acceptance and inclusion. The subject matter may be grim, but this is not a grim read. Moments of humour shine through. Ultimately, it’s about survival.
Rachel Fenton grew up in Yorkshire in England and now lives in Auckland. Throughout a trip to visit libraries in New York, Charlotte Brontë becomes an invisible companion, a means of keeping a young Yorkshire woman grounded as she discovers troubling news. The opening poem, “New York”, sets the scene.
“New York, cold as discovery on the Friday morning my mother’s text informs me my father had a heart
attack—-we are estranged; what is to be done about that?”
The language is plain, unsentimental and as direct as the text message seems to have been. The hard ‘t’ sounds and gap between ” heart” and “attack” give a sense of finality. There’s also a hint at fragility. This is new territory: a strange city and a distant, sick father. “The Berg Collection” is reminder that the narrator is a stranger,
“But first, Joshua repeats instructions for what to bring to the table, leave in the cloakroom where women do not speak regardless of how much I smile.
It’s cold where they work beside the revolving door,”
Joshua is a librarian and guide. Later the library HVAC engineers are warned the humidity is threatening the collection of books, potentially damaging the manuscripts the narrator has come to see. Charlotte is hinted at but first appears in “Referencing the Collection”. A earlier poem mentions Martha,
“Charlotte, how do you feel, here among the brownstones instead
of Helstones? That ‘lump of perfection’, Rose York? What can be said in longhand
next to your rushed slant? Cursively, we are not alike, as Martha to Mary
Taylor. Not sisters but friends, merely miles by moorland in one respect
though continents, nay worlds apart where we will end.”
There’s homesickness: Charlotte Brontë is asked how she feels in a different landscape. This becomes an acknowledgement of differences between Brontë and the speaker. A commonality of Yorkshire landscape links the two as friends. But the differences seem to be measured in miles, not time. There are more differences in “Reprographic Orders”, where Charlotte’s son, who “In my arms, he is as light as a ghost, and as heavy/ in my mind” and refers to the speaker as “Tanti”,
“Only afterwards, when alone in the hotel room that looks out onto ………………broken heart script of fire escapes and discarded syringes, where last night I heard ………………screaming and this morning men’s voices accompanying a knock on my grey window, I look up ………………the meaning of his name for me. Tanti means auntie in Romanian, his mother’s tongue. In ………………his father’s Hindi, it refers to one of a tribe of weavers, of the Dalits, formerly discriminated ………………against in India as ‘most backward classes’ and I wonder, who he will take after.”
This seems to be fantasy. Charlotte’s unborn child died with her and its father was her English husband. But this son who calls the speaker “Tanti” creates an ambiguity: in one language she is an aunt, in another, the lowest class who suffer frequent discrimination. It’s as if he’s sensed the speaker’s lower class roots, an echo of Charlotte’s.
The focus shifts from friendship back to books. The books in “Sherman Fairchild Reading Room”, are kept behind glass,
“book thieves are least of these. The words you took and told to someone else as if your own
to give, impress, undress, were mine. An aperture. I’m betrayed by my thoughts, my mind.”
The books are a window, but it’s also questioned who the words belong to: the writer or the inspirations for the story? How does the reader fit in? How does the writer tell the story? With honesty or for an audience, to impress another?
The time in New York comes to an end at the airport, “John F Kennedy”. In part III “Gate 8”
“I can’t stop transcribing, can’t shut off the lines. I’ve read text like a tapestry
Seahorse Ranch [underlined] Underneath I transcribe: solo energy & global energy
I’d like to pick your brains brainstorm with you. Charlotte Brontë has left me her bottle opener, WhatsApps: already it’s snowing in Maine.”
Here the speaker and Charlotte Brontë go their separate ways. The speaker back to Auckland, Charlotte to Maine. But there’s still a connection. Typically Charlotte’s already figured WhatsApp: a writer’s need to message and connect is motivation to overcome any technological developments.
Rachel Fenton’s Charlotte Brontë is the best friend anyone could want: someone who is there, who doesn’t judge and understands the drive to write and love of books. She’s a sounding board, someone you can run seemingly-daft ideas past and get useful replies. Someone to share a beer with. The poems explore the nature of friendships, how we make family when our actual relatives aren’t available (for whatever reason) and the need to communicate and share stories to make sense of our worlds. The poems are engaging and hold their charm.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook. Emma will be reading poems from “The Significance of a Dress” at Leicester’s Central Library from 7pm on Wednesday 6 October 2021 (image below shows flyer).
The responsibility for raising and nurturing the next generation still largely falls on mothers and most of, but not all of, the poems in “Maternal Impression” explore the relationship between mother and child, as well as the wider role of parenting and the trust ordinary people have to put into authority figures, whether elected or self-appointed. What happens when the parental figure gets it right or gets it wrong?
The title poem concerns a birthmark on a baby’s back, therefore generally hidden from view, when the baby’s survival was not a given. The poem is right aligned.
“the mark / the aberration / which could even be punishment for the time the sun hid / and fearing the dark / she brought
her hand to her belly / holding tight to the son / growing inside stork bite angel’s kiss wahuma jarula modermærke moedervlekken muttermal strawberry mark carefully stamped
O careful what you wish for / Mother / whatever you dream of / will come true / leave its stamp / in the heart of you”
Even in the womb, a baby picks up signals from its mother and can learn to recognise her voice. Just as the birthmark is a permanent blemish that stays with the child as he grows to independence, his time in the womb and birth leaves marks on his mother. The two become symbiotic. The poem implies a loving relationship: she cradles her abdomen and her love brings the baby into being.
“Earlier Today” considers how it can take a village to raise a child, how those will parental instincts will become supportive of other parents’ children. In a park,
“you see a child that isn’t yours propel itself forward in the long grass, unsteadily but with intention, a small child with chubby hands and a round face full of determination.
The child becomes everyone’s to lift up and hold, protect from harm, tease a smile from and does it matter then who the real parents are – don’t we all, within reason, assume that we are the child’s mother?”
The “you” and their maternal instinct becomes a substitute mother and eases the burden on the birth mother. It might be that the “you” is simply feeling protective towards the child or remembers the stresses of those first years of dependency. The motive isn’t explored, but it assumed to be benign and in the child’s best interests. It now has a world ready to protect it from harms.
However, in “Breathe”, the parental figures are not benign,
“Take your knee off my neck and kneel on the ground instead. Put your hands together in prayer, raise your arms to the sky and fill your lungs with air. Breathe.”
The opening lines are a reference to George Floyd and his death at the hands of police whose duty is ‘to protect and serve.’ Here the unprejudiced parental instinct has gone and been replaced with racial prejudice that assumes a Black man is trouble, likely to resist arrest and is not deserving of fair treatment. The authority/parental figures are malign. The poem doesn’t linger on them though, it brings its focus back to those who would wish to support the victim, those having authority exerted over them. “Knee” can be read ambiguously. Some would kneel to pray, an act of submission to a higher power. It’s also become a form of non-violent protest, a reminder of racial injustice. Prayer can be a solo or communal act. The longer, heavier vowels in “knee”, “kneel” and “ground” give way to the lighter, shorter vowels in “sky”, “fill” and “air”, signalling a note of solidarity and hope.
“Daughter in Garden” is light and celebratory too. A daughter sneaks out into the early morning garden thinking she’ll be unobserved,
“A pigeon rises suddenly from the branches of the pear tree. There was no blossom, so there will be no fruit this year. My daughter takes a step forward, away from the wall. She raises her arms.
It is as if she is preparing to rise and take flight like the bird. She points one toe out in front of her – a ballerina – and propels herself forward onto the lawn. The whole summer has led to this. A perfect cartwheel.”
The lack of blossom suggests there are no siblings or further children to distract the watching mother, who does not disturb her child and has sensed that whatever’s about to unfold needs her absence. Her daughter is becoming independent and needs to make her own decisions in her own time. What happens next is the cartwheel the daughter has been secretly practising and getting perfect. The mother knows she cannot spoil her daughter’s quiet celebration by joining in so remains silent.
Another poem that looks to authority figures in a parental role is “The Donner Party”. It was inspired by the history of a group of American pioneers who ended up spending the winter of 1846-7 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. The plan was to reach California, home of the gold rush, and hopefully better fortunes. But first the winter has to be endured,
“Left off home we – we all – continued blank – blankly without reason – into the next – this mountain pass – we thought – or maybe yes – this – ice-sliding slick into the next generation – we are doing it now – but oh it is hard – no new thing – nothing gets won – no winning without hardship – weather it they say – whether it can – whether it will – continue or not – on and on over that next hill – forward – rolling – there is blood – in bodies – red-faced and foot-sore – ah the numbness – if the air does not freeze – if it doesn’t freeze – our eyes shut – closed and inaccessible – exhaustion – that is the killer – will be the death of us – tiredness – lonelier still – sighing/breathing like horses now – nostrils flaring – steam rising – remembering warmth – fingertips gone – wailing and wind bray – braying in the wind – praying – oh it is hard – it’s hard but we will keep going – won’t we – for the children – won’t we – our grandmothers if we have them – had them once – won’t we just – just this once – leave behind – leave it – we left off home before we came – left this – home – home left us – for this we have become hard – harder – harder still to know – what we are doing – doing it now – for what – what we are about to become – might become – cut off”
Firstly the pioneers feel they have to keep going “for the children” and then “our grandmothers”, a childish notion of doing parents proud. It implies the reasons for the journey and the inspiration to continue have been lost. The “blood in bodies” is repeated near the ending, “There is blood in bodies. No difference between dog and man./ See? Your breath isn’t steaming. Not anymore.” Some of the pioneers had to resort to cannibalism to keep alive and justify it by comparing humans to animals. The feat of the party in surviving can be read as a testament to human folly – what made them set out in such dangerous circumstances – or human spirit – our children, the next generation need us to keep going.
In “Maternal Impression” Cheryl Moskowitz has created a collection threaded through with maternal instincts and extended the idea of parental concern and motivations beyond a mother and child to include figures in positions of authority and trust. The latter may not be benign or act in the best interests of their charges. But the parental instinct and willingness to take on that responsibility persists. The poems are deftly crafted and thought-provoking. In scope they run from history to the present day, but acknowledge the universal nature of the relationships between parental authority and hopes and children’s safety and security.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook. Emma will be reading some of the poems from the book during Leicester Libraries week from 6pm on 6 October 2021 at Central Library (image below shows flyer for event).