“Canine in the Promised Land” Philip J Kowalski (Atmosphere Press) – book review

Philip J Kowalski Canine in the Promised Land book cover

Philip J Kowalski is fond of playing with language, looking again at tired phrases to bring them back to life and re-examine their purpose. In “The Tip of the Iceberg”, he acknowledges the cliché and ends the poem looking at the melting of polar ice,

“‘That’s just the [fill in the blank],’
As we struggle to articulate
The ravages of the earth
That we have shamelessly betrayed.”

The tip of the iceberg is the very visible sign of the climate crises, the bulk of which is hidden below the surface as the melting polar ice is indicative of the underlying problems which reach beyond the polar regions. Problems that the human race doesn’t seem ready to act on.

“Ariadne’s Thread” starts by referencing the myth,

“The thread
Of Ariadne
Was meant
To find
A way
Out of
A labyrinth,
With all
Of its
Dead ends,
False beginnings,
And obviate ways.”

It goes on to describe a spider’s web constructed on the poet’s porch and ends after a storm where the web was destroyed and the poet hoped,

“That the little artist had survived
Somehow, somewhere, to
Weave her way again.

Minerva had nothing on her.

At the time I believed I occupied a wasted life.
But now, looking back, I see how I lived
Through quite a web of experience.”

In the shorter lines, Kowalski’s habit of using initial capitals interrupt the flow of the rhythm and appear to give insignificant words (“of”, “to”, etc) an unjustified prominence. Momentarily I looked for an acrostic that wasn’t there. In the ending section, the focus shifts on to the small, routine things that seem a waste of time, but when looked back on from a distance, take on a significance or, to use a cliché, prove greater than the sum of the parts.

The title poem praises a dog’s ability to smell and how smell is linked to taste, so you,

“Would not discount your
Best friend’s snout. No matter
What kind of dog food you buy,
Gourmet, wet, cold, treat, or dry,
Every dog has its day. “

The part-rhymes (“discount”, “snout”, “buy”, “dry”) don’t follow a pattern and the final line feels as if the poet ran out of steam and put in a holding line until a more satisfying one could be found.

Narcissus pops up in a poem that uses the name/myth as a title and the idea the poet doesn’t know an actor who wasn’t a narcissist, and ends,

“You’ll never understand, just
What a sieve and empty vessel you are,
No matter the acclaim and the applause.
But in the silence of night, and in the
Depth of your thoughts, you know that,
Deep in the guts of your being,
You have accomplished essentially naught.”

A contrast to the spider who worked her heart out on a web that was destroyed. The actor merely reads lines written by someone else and plays roles for no other purpose than the applause. It also appears to contradict itself, positing that the actor doesn’t know they are an “empty vessel” but also knows that they have “accomplished essentially naught”. However, the point is that in front of an audience the narcissist comes to life, it’s only when left alone the unwelcome reality has to be acknowledged.

Appropriately “The End” of a relationship notes,

“An imagination,
Something to do.
Now I move on,
With no
Of you.”

It’s not when the relationship breaks down that it has ended, but when the person who has been dumped can face a future when they no longer incorporate the person who left them.

In “Canine in the Promised Land”, Philip J Kowalski plays with expectations and revisits tired, cliched language to offer new observations and a touch of wry humour to provoke readers into re-thinking assumptions. Some poems are strictly contemporary, others evoke myth and some feel as if the poet had settled without finishing his exploration. Gentle poems that don’t quite live up to their promise.

“Canine in the Promised Land” is available from Atmosphere Press.

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

“Owl Unbound” Zoe Brooks (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – Book Review

Zoe Brooks Owl Unbound book cover

Zoe Brooks’ poems in “Owl Unbound” look at how humanity often shows its best side when allowed to connect with the natural world and can be at its worst when disconnected or stuck in a concreted environment designed for productivity rather than people. That does not mean the poems are gentle. In “Naunton Farm” the narrator is an executor dealing with paperwork and discovers her mother’s note about her husband’s death,

“My hand reaches down
to the little cat
with no ears,
which rubs against my ankle crying.
You had hands big enough
to hold that cat
in your palm,
carrying her
away from the burning barn.”

There’s a tenderness in the image of hands being there to nurture and comfort and a sense of connection between the daughter and her late father. The reaction of the narrator to the cat, instinctively reaching to fuss it, suggests the fire was not linked to the father’s death. Instead it seems to be an inheritance, a responsibility passed on yet still treasured. A theme of heritage is picked up in “The Seedsavers”, a group of women who work to separate seeds from pods and sort them into which are worth keeping and which should be discarded. The women talk as they work.

“At last she rises
and walks into the garden
sniffing the wind.
Her shed‐husband offered
to make a machine once,
but she prefers the ancient way –
the lift of seed, the fall,
the scatter of chaff across the roses.
She turns and returns to the others.”

The machine would put through a higher volume of work, assuming there was enough to keep it fed. However, the sense of community, of working together for a common purpose would be lost. The stories and news shared over the work might be lost too. The “shed-husband” is shut off from the women and also the wisdom that comes from being literally in touch with the cycles of crops, how well the roses are doing, how healthy next year’s crop might be and what weather the wind will bring. There’s a sense the women are working with nature while the machines attempt to tame it.

The urban poems feel desolate, in “From Streetlamp to Gutter”, is set near a railway with commuters getting on the newly arrived train,

“The boys have dragged their cardboard boxes
under the railway arches and sleep.

We do not hear or see them.

We have homes and trains to go to.
We have rain‐soaked coat seams
and hair like wet satin.
We are not warm,
yet warm enough to make us
not stand a moment longer,
not stand and wait at all.”

The commuters have become accustomed to ignoring the homeless in their rush to get home, not pausing to think about whether people who merely have cardboard to shelter in will manage to cope with the cold and damp. When there’s no easy solution it’s simpler to ignore the problems. The poem is about more than just the idea of pausing to notice the homeless. It’s not having the freedom to step back and ask if we are doing the right thing, if we are living the life we should be living, if changes could be made that would improve our lives as well as those of others. By not taking that time and hurrying for the train, the commuters seem to be as trapped as the homeless.

In the title poem, an escaped owl leaves “an empty perching post” and the narrator,

“At my father’s instruction
I held out my hands
as if ready to receive bread and wine,
but into my bowl of fingers
he dropped a pellet,
a galaxy of small bones and feathers
cocooned in fur.

That night I woke.
The moon shredded by clouds
hung over the stable roof
and an owl called unbound
from the cypress tree.”

The majestic owl, something to be watched from a distance while its handler was the only one to go near it, has gone. The daughter thinks she’s about to receive a memento to keep and treasure but instead gets the remains of the owl’s last meal. Something that can’t be kept. If it’s a reminder of anything, it’s that the owl is real and nature can be ugly as well as beautiful. Later, woken by an owl’s call, she can’t be sure it’s the same owl, but nonetheless it’s telling her nature should be free. These are not birds designed for confinement.

In “Without a Stair” adult daughters become a bridge between grandchildren and grandmother who is like a ghostly presence “flickering on a landing without a stair”.

“She made our home an ark,
built it strong with seasoned wood.
She is still there
in her house on a crumbling cliff.
Some time soon it will float out to sea.”

It could be a life coming to an end or a reminder that memories fade or a bit of both.

“Owl Unbound” is a series of gentle poems through which Zoe Brooks explores human relationships with nature and how respect for the natural world brings out a sense of community and purpose which can be lost in urban landscapes.

“Owl Unbound” is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress book cover

“Blue the Green Sky” Stuart M Buck (The Broken Spine) – book review

Stuart M Buck Blue the Green Sky

The title suggests that Stuart Buck is inviting readers to look at the familiar, the sky, with a new lens and a dash of confusion. The sun does not normally leech colour into the sky to turn it green, but the implication is that from confusion, a considered truth may emerge. Expect questions, to stop and think and reflect.

First up is the almost obligatory cat poem, simply called “cat” which didn’t come with trigger warning but introduces the idea of suicide and ends,

“we are all decomposing slowly

so that is of some comfort

we are all a million dying stars

so that is of some comfort “

The ability of the narrator to be comforted by the idea life will end anyway and it ends for everything around us is enough for him to accept natural causes is a better way to go. It also shows how something unexpected, encountering a cat, can knock someone out of a rut, a pattern of rumination and look beyond themselves. Instead of feeling like a burden the world would be better off without, the narrator has seen he can have a place in this world and the current pattern of things will stop, not with a sudden jerk, but a series of small changes. In case the poet could be accused of bias, the next poem is “dog” who suggests he was an abused child in a former life,

“and sometimes i sit in the bright pink

sunset and stroke the beautiful dog

but sometimes i do not”

Two traumatised beings comfort each other. But the narrator comes to recognise that the companionship lasts longer than during the sunset. Knowing there is the possibility of meeting the dog each day is sufficient comfort. This theme of connection, of someone you connect with not needing to be actually present, is continued later in “poem about everything” when the end of the world is no longer a theory,

“i will tell so many people that i love them that their fat

beautiful hearts will explode and as the sun sets a bruised socket

and we can finally see the sky is falling

i will turn to you and tell you for the first time and the last

that i loved you most of all”

It’s a love poem both to the universe and a partner. “Fat” is emphatic unlike “full” which tails away. It’s also a word not usually associated with “beautiful”. It’s echoed in “socket” and “last” which gives the poem a sense of finality. However the two lines ending in “falling” and “all” offer a softer contrast.

In “midnight in prague” there’s a love letter to the city and its artists,

“i want to see the prague of kafka, the writer whose very ink runs like jet-black blood through the streets. who shaped the narrative of the city and the culture with his surreal and infinite descriptions of life and confusion. whose turmoil and torture led to some of the finest works of literature i have ever read. the prague of kupka, the artist whose work bent and warped alongside the city itself. who woke one morning, not unlike gregor samsa, and decided that life was something else entirely. whose paintings went from stately to thick, bizarre creations dripping with geometric whispers.”

Later, she becomes a meditation on love,

“and again, what is infinity? can you pull time inside you, softly as you might allow a lover to explore the most holy parts of you? to feel infinity is, i believe, to place your thumbs over the eyes of a ghost. to feel the soft, giving eyeballs below. to have the power to end the sight of another, but instead to feel the flitting, papery wings of their dreams. if this is to be the end of all things then let me hold your body tight against mine, to breath with you, to coat my tongue with starlight.”

Gregor Samsa was the unfortunate who woke up as a bug in a story that explores a sense of alienation and restlessness while the main character is drained by bureaucracy. The foreignness of Prague to a visitor who doesn’t want to be a typical tourist becomes a city of exploration and chance to shake up the regular order of things, to look afresh. The speaker withdraws from the potential violence of pressing the eyes of a ghost and decides to read their dreams instead. As ghosts haunt those they once loved, it seems natural for the narrator to turn his thoughts in that direction.

“Blue the Green Sky” lives up to its promise: an exploration of the familiar looked at aslant. It probes beyond the surface of what’s seen and does so with a sense of wonder rather than a dry, scientific eye. Stuart M Buck keeps his vocabulary plain, aiming to engage readers who are then invited to discern the layers under the surface.

“Blue the Green Sky” is available from Broken Spine.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress Emma Lee book cover

“Russian Doll” Teika Marija Smits (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – book review

Russian Doll Teika Marija Smits book cover

“Russian Doll” explores motherhood from a viewpoint of a daughter who reaches adulthood and becomes a mother, looking at both challenges and delights in the littlest doll gaining layers of experience as she’s seen to transform into an adult outer-doll who still contains the dreams and memories of the smallest. It’s split into two parts “Daughter-doll/Doll-daughter” and “Mother-doll/Doll-mother”. From the first, in “Shades of Red” the daughter’s Russian mother is late for a school play, “Striking in fuchsia” leaving the daughter a shade of crimson,

“and turn into the smallest
version of myself –
the littlest Russian doll,
the only most easily lost;
almost, but not quite,

The littlest doll is also the one that doesn’t come apart, the one who stands complete. A inner strength that comes through in the poems that touch on the poet’s father’s death when she was aged 15. In “Matryoshka”, after the funeral, some dolls are taken apart some are “some shut tight, permanently locked in grief,” which leaves,

“The littlest doll found herself rattling around
in the wrong size body,
suddenly bulky with responsibilities
and listening to echoes.
To all eyes an adult, within, a child.”

The implication is that in the transition from child to adult, we don’t shed layers, we gain them. The intact baby doll is wrapped in experience and expectation. The external appearance is of an adult but the speaker still feels her inner child, hesitant and lacking confidence.

Part II, shifts to a mother’s viewpoint, starts with an effective triolet in “Making Heartroom”, the opening and closing couplet is,

“This mother’s womb grows day by day,
but so too does her heart.”

The theme here is picked up again in “Hooke’s Law” where a mother worries about sharing love between two children discovers when the second’s born that, “We mothers have hearts that do not obey/ the laws of physics;/ we have no elastic limits.”

In the title poem, the mother looks back to her younger self, assessing which dreams became reality, which didn’t as the external doll has thickened with layers of self,

“worn smooth by little hands
what dismantle me daily.
I answer with excuses and apologies.

Life intrudes, I explain;
takes us apart
and rebuilds us askew.”

A mother’s lot is to be worn by love and caring, her children might delay or completely derail her ambitions until they are independent and those unforgotten ambitions demand attention. But the ambitions a mother had before motherhood may no longer be relevant or may have to be adjusted to accommodate a new perspective or technology. Demands of family life may have depleted available resources.

“The Russian Doll” is an exploration of transition from daughter to motherhood, adding layers as the largest doll nests her smaller selves. At its heart, readers are reminded the smallest doll doesn’t break open. She provides the kernel that keeps love, dreams, desires intact and provides the thread of the matrilinear from outer adult to inner child.

“The Russian Doll” is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress book cover

‘Le Fanu’s Angel’ Brian Keogh (Dedalus Press) – book review

Book Cover Le Fanu’s Angel Brian Keogh

‘Le Fanu’s Angel’ is Brian Keogh’s first novel. Keogh has worked as a journalist, magazine editor, headed a PR company, collaborated on non-fiction books and written short stories. Here readers are introduced to one Kieran Sheridan Le Fanu who chooses to believe he is a descendant of ghost-writer J Sheridan Le Fanu. His actual background is a list of unfortunate deaths. Following the deaths by drowning while trying to rescue a boy drifting out to sea, Kieran was raised by his grandparents. His Uncle Jasper had paid school and college fees and allowed Kieran to drift around Europe studying art in Ravenna, teaching Irish literature and spending some time in South America before Kieran turned to Dublin and took a job with Uncle Jasper’s advertising agency. None of this seems remarkable until Kieran wakes in a hospital bed after being in an induced coma following a car accident that left three people dead. Initially Kieran fears he was driving, but it turns out he was a passenger. Trauma leaves him with amnesia and unsurprisingly, given the family history, a fear of death. In the days following his emerging from his coma, he visited by a young woman with a stunning resemblance to the painting ‘Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan’ by John Lavery, painted in 1928. She introduces herself as Aoife and leaves him a book of Rosetti’s poems. When Kieran is moved to a different ward, the porter returns to collect the book so he knows the book is real at least.

Keiran then turns detective, both to trace Aoife and figure out what happened during the car crash. He was a passenger in the car being driven by the agency’s CEO, Cronin Brenner who regarded Kieran as ‘a curious amalgam of ability and naivety. Very erudite chap, yes, but completely lacking in street smarts. Too much culture, too little savvy to get to the top.’

He develops a form of Cotard’s Syndrome, a belief that he might be dead and experiencing delirium. He is stalked by a creature called Nithael, a fallen angel. At work, and thanks to some legal but underhand financial manoeuvrings by Uncle Jasper, Kieran is temporary CEO until the co-owner, Larry Brenner appoints his second son as CEO. It gives Kieran enough time to discover that one of their biggest clients is using the agency to launder drugs money and, since the agency’s auditors and client’s auditors are the same, he has to figure out how he can use this without losing the agency or finding himself facing jail or worse. Not an overplayed threat when the second son meets an accident which could have been fatal but leaves him disabled. This blurring between reality and apparent fantasy is well-handled and credible. Can Kieran rescue the agency from its entanglement with money laundering, uncover the truth behind the car accident and reconnect with Aoife?

Brian Keogh writes in clear, journalistic prose, which is both entertaining and explanatory. There are occasions where he over-explains. For example a Dubliner would never say to a fellow Dubliner, ‘The launch party is next Friday. We’re doing it in that colossal public library in Dun Laoghaire, the LexIcon.’ The speaker would simply say ‘It’s at the LexIcon’ and expect the listener to know where and what it is. Kieran doesn’t need to ask and the venue is described in the scene set at the venue.

Kieran and his colleagues at the advertising agency are credible and rounded. Their dialogue flows and it’s clear when they are being open and when guarded or playing office politics. Kieran is engaging and likeable: he’s aware of his faults and his privileges. Uncle Jasper has made life easier for Kieran, setting him up with a home, classic car and job, which is why Kieran panics at the suggestion he might lose his job. He has the ability to work elsewhere but not the connections or knowledge to get him there. Aoife too is a cultured drifter, they make a good match. The Brenners consistently make the wrong decisions for the right reasons. Larry Brenner kept Jasper on as a favour and appointed his sons because he doesn’t believe Kieran has the ability to run the agency. A point underlined when Kieran and the second Brenner son disagree about a potential new client. Kieran looks at ethics, Brenner at the money.

However, Kieran doesn’t get to solve all his problems. There’s a big build-up and plenty of fretting over the money laundering thread. But Kieran doesn’t get to find a solution. One is made for him. Tellingly, this is one of the two parts of the story that drop out of Kieran’s viewpoint. It could be argued his angel was watching over him. But the easy resolutions are unsatisfying.

In ‘Le Fanu’s Angel’ Brian Keogh has created and engaging story that blurs past and present, reality and fantasy in following Kieran’s attempts to make sense of his near-fatal accident and recovery and find the mysterious Aoife who may be his angel. Initially Kieran keeps his full name secret, going by Kieran Sheridan, until his personal growth allows him to grow into and own his full name. Life at the advertising agency develops from a job that enabled him to live to something worth defending and maintaining, even if the agency’s rescue is not entirely Kieran’s doing.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress book cover

“To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre” Victoria Bennett (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – book review

Victoria Bennett To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre cover

Victoria Bennett takes readers on a journey through bereavement, specifically the loss of her mother in the final stages of mesothelioma and acceptance with small signs of hope in the aftermath. The opening poem, “The Suede Shoes” asks,

“Why bother planting that seed?
Why turn the beds
for a summer that will never come?
Why bother buying the pretty suede shoes?”

It also answers,

“We choose the shoes because
we can still find joy in a step.
We plant the seed because
we still love the way
it insists itself into life.

We turn the beds because
there will always be a summer,
even after you are gone.”

The description of “pretty” suggests the shoes are not being bought for their practical qualities, but are decorative and make the wearer feel good. They become a symbol for life continuing after a loved one’s death. Something to look forward to despite being caught in the limbo of not knowing how much longer the patient has. “Calendar” begins to mark that time through watching the sunrise in the morning,

“It’s another beautiful dawn, I say

but they get harder.
Another one, she says,
eyes turning away.

The last one
and it is just me.
The rain begins.”

The mother accepts that she hasn’t got much time left. The weather becomes a metaphor: sun for continued life, rain for the grief when that life has ended. This ending is revisited in “The Last Vigil”, the final part at just after midnight:

“After it all, three small breaths —

so quiet,
I almost missed you leaving.

You travel upwards,

turning cartwheels —

why did no‐one tell me
death felt like this —

an unbearable joy?

You leap from star
to star and then,

you are gone.”

The mother, the addresse of the poem, is not saying the reported question. The daughter left behind is projecting, hoping her mother is aware of her release from pain, the limbo of being near death but not quite there. There is nothing tethering the mother to her final pain-filled days now.

The journey continues into the aftermath. In “Planting”, “I dig bulbs into your bones” and later,

“The Almanac tells me
I am too late.

Even so, I wait, patient,
for the flowers to show.”

There’s a need for the speaker to feel as if she’s doing something, even if unproductive. Despite the loss, there’s still a sense of the mother’s spirit being present. In “Postcard Home” the speaker has a vision of her mother

“living by the sea at last, your paints out beside you,
brushes dipped in ink as the day closes.
I like to think of you this free, but still,
I miss you being here with me.”

The mother is rewarded with the house of her dreams, however, the daughter still misses her mother. The title poem ends the collection,

“into an hour
of not doing,

to stand, long enough
to hear the curlew call;
to remember our lives
opening to it all.”

“To Start the Year From Its Quiet Centre” is an unsentimental pamphlet of poems that explore a mother/daughter relationship as the mother’s life ends and the daughter’s continues. I would have appreciated a picture of who the mother was before she became ill: she’s painted as someone who was much-loved and who liked the natural world and the coast. But I don’t know what her favourite flower was or whether she preferred the rugged Northumbrian coast or sun-warmed Cornwall. The poems don’t stop with the mother’s death but continue into a life adjusting to her absence. Victoria Bennett has created a fine tribute.

To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre is available from Indigo Dreams.

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

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch
The Significance of a Dress banner

“The Tangle Box” Dave Kavanagh (Chaffinch Press) – book review

Dave Kavanagh The Tangle Box book cover

“The Tangle Box” is the name Dan O’Neill’s sister Maria gives to the house and village where they grew up, largely in fear of their alcoholic mother’s moods. Their father ineffectually tried to soften the blows, but his role was that of an enabler, making excuses for his wife’s behaviour. Dan wry observes, “I blame my parents for what we suffered, but try to understand the cause. When you’re a child, you believe you deserve the things you experience, the good and the bad. But as I grew older, I understood that no child deserves neglect or mistreatment.” This isn’t a pity party though. Dan knows he has to understand his past to give himself a future.

The book starts with a middle-aged Dan adjusting to life after a lengthy and not yet complete rehabilitation from serious injuries. He still walks with a crutch and post-operative scars from a fall that could have been fatal. His life is a studio flat and warehouse job in Dublin. He has not seen his sister since she and his mother left the house they grew up in while Dan was still a teenager. Maria sends him a letter confirming she is still alive and recommends her friend Cathryn, a therapist, who will help him. Dan is caught between wanting to see his sister again but dreading uncovering things he’d prefer to keep hidden, not being able to fully remember what lies in the murky depths of the tangle box. Readers suspect his self-deprecation is a defence mechanism and he’s more likeable than he thinks he is. His determination to see his troubles through and emerge into a future is engaging and keeps readers rooting for him.

Cathryn agrees to help him. She does so not as a therapist but as Maria’s friend, a sounding board for Dan to work through his memories and fears. Dan is not just looking back to his childhood but his early adulthood, the sense of not belonging and screwing up his first love. Cathryn is a very handy plot device, a listener to Dan’s story, her therapist’s habit of asking the right questions useful prompts for Dan to keep going. But she’s also more than that and readers get to see Cathryn’s life as she juggles work, a teenage daughter and a troubled marriage.to a local newsreader.

Dan visits his childhood house – it’s not a home – where the landscape and details of house mirror his journey. The overgrown brambles, rust and remnants of a decaying farm pave the way to the neglected house. Details mount up, the shattered pane of glass which his father fixed by adding an extra pane either side rather than replacing shows how Dan’s father was in denial, ineffectually patching things up rather than mending them or protecting his children. Did Maria need the reminder that the glass was shattered when her mother threw a knife at her? The interior’s worse: what furniture is left is beyond repair, spiders have moved in and something is moving around in the attic. The revelations accumulate as Dan moves through the house. He remembers one incident:

“Maria still stood on the bloodstone, her fist clenching and unclenching. Her face was bone white, her eyes squeezed shut.

“’What did you want?’ Ma asked.

“Da stopped at the door, his back to her.

“’Look what happens when they live!’ Ma’s laugh was spiteful.

“’No, Caroline,’ He begged her not to go on, but she did.”

Caroline drowned her disappointment in drink and lashed out at those who couldn’t fight back. She never wanted children. Knowing her surviving children are watching, she drinks for the courage to decide what to do about another unwanted pregnancy.

Dan has inherited his mother’s alcoholism. After moving to England at the age of 18, he took a job in a bar. Missed school (a red flag no one in the school or village did anything about), meant no qualifications and a bullied child doesn’t grow into a confident adult. Although a functioning alcoholic, he knows he has to stop. He manages it until he meets Abbey where he spends most of the relationship not believing his luck. Abbey is studying for a masters degree and Dan gets the only job he knows how to do: bar work. Appeals to him to stop drinking don’t work. He comes home from work and discovers she’s moved out. Drinking spirals him into homelessness but a chance encounter offers Dan a job. But an incident with drunken yobs takes the opportunity away and Dan returns to Dublin where he has his near fatal fall.

Dan’s determination to understand his past to give himself another chance at a future means the novel doesn’t become one depressing and dismal shock after another. He knows he has to untangle the box before he can be reunited with his sister. Cathryn guides and prompts, but Dan works at his pace and is in control of his actions and understanding. The horrors are handled sensitively. The story carries its own tension without ramping up the terror for the sake of shocking the reader. The bravest thing both Dan and Maria have achieved is breaking the cycle of abuse.

In “The Tangle Box”, Dave Kavanagh has created a memorable story with compelling characters who carry the reader’s empathy as they try to unravel the past, knowing this is the best way of forging a new future. The tangles are unravelled at a credible, natural pace. The terrors are organic, growing from the story, and not thrown in for gratuitous shock-value. Dan and Maria are fully rounded characters overcoming their trouble pasts. Their parents are not one-dimensional stereotypes of bad parenting: their stories too have shaped them into the people they became. Dan is generous in his attempts to understand them while acknowledging that doesn’t condone or excuse their behaviour as parents. Dan resolves the puzzle of the tangle box through his own agency. In doing so, he uncovers what happened to his mother and what caused his near-fatal fall. It’s a chilling story that lingers long after the book is closed.

“The Tangle Box” is available from Chaffinch Press.

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

Book table at the launch of the Significance of a Dress

“This Kilt of Many Colours” David Bleiman (Dempsey and Windle) – book review

David Bleiman This Kilt of Many Colours

David Bleiman explores identity through family connections, history, place of origin and where home currently is, and language: the one you grew up speaking, lost languages and learnt languages. The poet has settled in Scotland, has a Jewish Ashkenazi background and learnt Spanish when his adult son moved to Spain. He comments that we are all a mix of identities and languages and these differences provide a commonality through a sharing of heritage or language; we can still communicate and be understood. Some of the poems incorporate phrases in Scots dialect, Yiddish or Spanish with an English glossary/translation as appropriate alongside the poem (so no flicking back and forth to notes at the end of the collection.) As an example, “Lacquer wood fiddler”, set in Moscow, “yidl mit’n fidl” translates as Jew with fiddle, ends,

“What is your melody,
my yidl mit’n fidl?
Who inscribed ‘Ayy’ on your base?
Who carved and shlepped you
from your shtetl?

My friend, you need to ask?
The klezmer I play for your ten roubles
is singing in your granny’s voice
and ‘Ayy’ is the cry that falls
from the roof of the burning barn
when the Cossacks ride out
in the morning.”

Folk tunes carry both heritage and stories, a way of keeping traditions and tales alive. So the fiddler is asked both for his tune and his heritage as well as why a word is carved on the fiddle’s base. The fiddler recognises a fellow Jew. He doesn’t explain the song, but explains the carving, the danger in being different and viewed as not belonging. This issue of where to belong is explored through a grandfather named Adolf in “Reclaim the name,”

“he learned to master many tongues:
German at high school in Lemberg,
Hebrew in his grandpa’s shul in the shtetl,
Yiddish with the girls in momme’s kitchen,
Polish bringing in the harvest on father’s farm
and facing pistols in the pogrom’s spoil,
Russian as the land changed hands,
English for banking and exile in Cape Town,
patrolling on Boyes Drive above the cliffs,
scanning the ocean for U-boats.

No grandson now can bear your name of shame”

Perhaps not handing down his name is no great loss when he’s passed on a love of languages and a curiousity in others. Language is put to the fore in the Scots dialect poem, “Why Dae A Scrieve in Scots?”

“whaur ye cam hame
is whaur A chaised tae stey;
that wirds wull wander tae a mooth
whaurivver makars staun an blether;”

It’s about choosing where home is and authenticity over using words that are perceived to indicate poetry, but sound unnatural in speech. Sometimes one has to blend in, rather than stick out, and create a sense of belonging. “Singing with Sasha in the sukkah”, is presented in two columns, one in Yiddish, one in English. It ends,

“Fun daynen shtetele From your little village
in East Noykh Fifele in the East Neuk of Fife
vest Zoomn shoyn this week tsu mir you’ll Zoom to me this week
un singsts tsu mir on consonants, and sing to me on consonants,
s’iz mir shoyn gut, ay yaba baba boy. already I feel better, ay yaba baba boy.”

A sukkah is a temporary hut-like structure to commemorate the time the Israelites were cast into the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt used during the festival of Sukkot. Video conferencing software such as Zoom enables connections and shared traditions. It can also offer a sense of emerging into an uncertain future. The current pandemic has already altered life for some and for others has invited the question as to whether we want to go back to what we had before the pandemic or whether it’s time to rethink the future and emerge in a different world. That sense of do we continue or do we change is revisited in the title poem (sporadikos translates from Greek to English as scattered),

“The Poseidonians in Paestum,
remembering they were Greeks
on festive days like this,
were sad.

Not us!

We choose to be sporadikos
and wear it well–
our warp is weft
from southern spools
through bolts of northern light–
this kilt of many colours.”

The narrator has favoured making Scotland a home rather than remaining separate and yearning for a birthplace which does not stay static but also grows and evolves. How many migrants remember their own past and fail to keep up with the modernisation taking place in the country they left?

“This Kilt of Many Colours” is celebratory in tone and David Bleiman is clearly in favour of migration and multiculturalism, exploring languages inherited and newly learnt. In doing so, he focuses on what humanity has in common, that we all have a sense of heritage and tradition, ancestors who spoke other languages, and the ability to use speech for connection or to distance. Drawing from personal experience enables him to leave darker questions about prejudice and exclusion aside. Those shadows are cast out by the celebration within this collection.

“This Kilt of Many Colours” is available from Dempsey & Windle.

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.

“A Cap of Horror/Een Kap van Afschuw” edited Leo Van Bergen (dt) – book review

Cover image A Cap of Horror

“A Cap of Horror” is subtitled “First World War poetry written by female nurses and carers” and is edited by Leo van Bergen, Marijke Foncke and Renee Schoffelen. Leo van Bergen’s introduction explains the rationale behind the anthology, “I wondered whether besides Brittain and Borden other female nurses had turned their wartime experiences into poetry as well. Eventually I found seventeen women, nurses and others working in the medical line, who in forty poems and a cycle of sonnets reflected on various aspects of the (medical) war. Many of these touched me deeply, as I hope they will do you.” The anthology is bilingual in English and Dutch in the hope of gaining recognition for the poets in Dutch-speaking countries. Open the book from the English language title to get the poems in English, reverse the book to the Dutch title to get the poems in Dutch. The contents list includes Vera Brittain, Mary Borden, May Sinclair and Rose Macauley and the poems are organised by theme.

The opening poem “To a Red Cross Nurse” by Margaret Helen Florine starts,

“You’re as great as any hero,
In the bloody strife,
He can give unto his country
But one sacred lilfe.”

This heroism is explained in the final stanza,

“The hundred you return to fight
Have suffered, bled, faced death and when
They know that they are in the right
Are worth two hundred men.”

Here the nurse’s job is to heal men to go back to the front line reassured that they are on the right side and doing the right thing even though most will not return. But the strengthening of their resolve will double their might. Similar sentiments surface in Vera Brittain’s “A military hospital”,

“A mass of human wreckage, drifting in
Borne on a blood-red tide,
Some never more to brave the stormy sea
Laid reverently aside,
And some with love restored to sail again
For regions far and wide.”

However, some are less gung-ho about war, “In a soldier’s hospital I: pluck” by Eva Dobell starts,

“Crippled for life at seventeen,
His great eyes seem to question why:
with both legs smashed it might have been
Better in that grim trench to die
Than drag maimed years out helplessly.”

At that time the UK had no established state welfare benefits so those who couldn’t work became reliant on family or church and charity donations to survive. For some, dying on the battlefield was the better option. From this perspective, being patched up enough to go back to war looks less like heroism and more like a least worst option.

The poems don’t just focus on nurses. M Winifred Wedgwood’s “Our VAD scullions” focuses on those stuck in the kitchens, producing drinks and meals and washing and cleaning afterwards. ‘VAD’ is the Voluntary Aid Dispatch, nurses and support workers who volunteered and were dispatched to convalescent homes or where they were needed,

“Our nurses are always apparent,
So we give them their halos alright;

But how many think of our scullions,
Because they work buried from sight?

Yet their toll is hard and unceasing,
And often it’s dirty work too:”

Inevitably, there’s a section on loss. Lilian Bowes Lyon lost her brother Charles in France in 1914 when she was 18 and a volunteer at Glamis Castle, which belonged to her uncle and was being used as a convalescent home. Her poem, “Battlefield”, ends,

“So heavy a wrong –
How many this black world right who trod them into slime?

Still must pour milder suns,
Splintering the stained glass window of a wood,
Be darkly seen through these men’s blood
And midnight mutter in her sleep with guns.”

Bowes Lyon used her VAD training in the Second World War when she was living in London and became a first-responder at bomb sites and also an auxilliary support worker in a local hospital.

The collection’s title comes from “Sonnets to a soldier” number 2 by Mary Borden,

“No, no! There is no sinister mistake.
You cannot love me now. I am no more
A thing to touch, a pleasant thing to take
Into one’s arms. How can a man adore
A woman with black blood upon her face,
A cap of horror on her pallid head,
Mirrors of madness in the sunken place
Of eyes: hands dripping wiht the slimy dead?
Go. Cover close your proud untainted brow.
Go quickly. Leave me to the hungry lust
Of monstrous pain. I am his mistress now –
These are the frantic beds of his delight –
Here I succumb to him, anew, each night.”

It explores the secondary trauma the nurses felt in tending to the injured and listening to their stories from the front line. Winifred Mary Letts’ “The casualty list” by Winifred Mary Letts takes a more considered view and ends

“Yet how shall we forget them, the young men, the splendid,
Who left this golden heritage, who put the Summer by,
Who kept us our England inviolate, defended
But by their passing made for us December of July?”

“the splendid” echoes the ideas of heroism from the opening poems, however, here their loss is also acknowledged and encapsulated in the winter in summer image of the last line. Although posed as a question, it asserts the nurses will not forget their charges.

There are biographies of the poets at the end of the book, although it wrongly states that Lilian Bowes Lyon was “a niece of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon”; their fathers were brothers which makes them cousins.

“A Cap of Horror/Een Kap van Afschuw” is a welcome anthology of war poetry from the viewpoint of nurses and support workers who cared for the casualties. While there is some jingoism and some poets cast soldiers as heroes, others temper this by addressing the affect caring for the injured had on the nurses. Loss is also acknowledged and questions raised about the nature of war and the importance of remembering. The research in tracking down the poems and rediscovering women poets of the period is a useful reminder that there is more to be written about war than the work produced by soldier-poets. A useful addition to the canon of First World War poetry.

The book can be purchased from the publisher here https://www.uitgeverijduidelijketaal.nl/store/Kap-van-Afschuw-p253054682.

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.

“A Woven Rope” Jenna Plewes (V. Press) – book review

A Woven Rope Jenna Plewes book cover

Through “A Woven Rope” Jenna Plewes weaves three generations of family, starting with the mother/granddaughter relationship. “Birth” starts with “A seed / lands in a smear of water / needles a hairline crack”, where “needles” has an ambiguity and carries both the sense of threading into the crack or agitating it until it can anchor. “Seeds” begins,

“In my grandmother’s womb
lay the seed that is me
in my mother, the seed of my child.”

The poem later reveals,

“I breathe your baby smell,
feel the weight of you

try to comprehend a grandchild
seeded from my womb.”

It builds a strong sense of the maternal line and links between generations. Motherhood can strengthen a bond between mother/grandmother generations as a new mother develops a practical understanding of what motherhood means. Fathers are not left out completely though, in “Father-love”, as his baby daughter is held in his arms,

“Already you cast a shadow behind you;
soon you’ll push away his hand, slide off his lap,
stand unsteady, legs wide as your smile.

He’ll watch you lose your balance, find it, lose it again.
He’ll follow, one step behind, see you go out of sight –
wait for as long as it takes for you to return.”

Dad becomes a guardian angel of a shadow, following but allowing his daughter to pick her path, to grow and move away secure in the knowledge her father will be there when she needs or wants him. This daughter will be free to grow into her own “Self”, the poem that gives the collection its title from its final couplet, “The rim of the world’s a woven rope / you’ll wrap around your wrist to keep you safe.” “Wrap” is carefully judged: blankets, towels, clothes are wrapped to give comfort and warmth, gifts are wrapped before being given. It’s a word of tenderness. If the rope had been tied, it would carry connotations of something kept in place, something tied down and not free.

The following poems could continue the daughter’s story through her transition to adulthood or could be a retrospective look at the mother or grandmother’s journeys. But they fit within the theme of a rope or linked object that provides an anchor or connection. “From a Safe Distance” is a watercolour that follows its owner from house to house where,

“She knows that seen up-close
there’s nothing there:
pale marks on dead white card,
unreal, as every day is now.”

Up close, the observer sees the mechanics that created the painting. From a distance, the observer sees the picture. An examined, individual life may seem as if it’s cast adrift, full of pointless admin or minor decisions that don’t seem to affect much. But step back and see the broader picture, the links and influence one life has over another. The “High-wire Wedding” seems dramatic,

“high above the priest and make their vows.

Second by second, they hold a silence
strung tight between their smiles.

Music drifts up like smoke. Does she now
turn and lead, or does she follow him?

The hem of her dress ripples
in the breeze; no-one moves.”

Marriage is a balancing act. A wrong move: forcing her to follow when she needs to lead or vice versa, could bring it all down. The poem is poised to let the reader figure out which way it went. A later poem suggests success as he becomes a husband who helps pick gooseberries he hates in “A Good Man”,

“Last year they sat in the shade,
heads bent over the metal colander,
hands busy, content to be together.

One chair under the willow now,
a bucket of fruit,
too many for a widow’s needs.”

The focus turns to the grandmother generation, a widow desperate not to be a burden is busy creating ‘to do’ lists as she knows her life is nearing its end in “Living”,

“Nights when she cannot sleep, she adds more lists:
letters to write, to send, letters to leave behind,
bridges to mend, peace to make, promises to keep,
friends to hug, to comfort.

Now when there’s nothing left to say
and all the lists are done, she carefully
unwraps each day, strokes the wonder
of it with fingers gentle as a child’s.”

Her adult daughter finds herself considering the maternal links in “Her Shadow’s Borrowing My Clothes” when she catches a glimpse of her reflection in a cafe window,

“familiar gestures laid down in the strata
of my life are reappearing in its weathering.
I’m saying things she used to say to me,
phrases embedded, intricate as ammonites.
So much of her is in the bone of me,
a shadow-trace against the light.”

“A Woven Rope” is a lyrical exploration of maternal lineage through transitional roles of daughter becoming mother, mother becoming granddaughter and the potential for the line to continue through the new daughter. Jenna Plowes’ attention to details, whether marks that create a watercolour, phrases used by a mother realising she’s quoting her own mother, the tension in a high wire, let the reader admire the intricacy and feel their deceptive strength.

A Woven Rope is available from V. Press

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress Emma Lee book cover