“Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff” Jonathan Pinnock (Silhouette Press) – poetry review

The title suggests this is not a serious collection. It does, however, tackle serious subjects, e.g. “this Is just To be meta” could be filed under ‘love’ (complete poem):

“I have deleted
the William Carlos Williams parody
that was in
your Dropbox

and which
you were probably
saving
for somewhere literary

Forgive me
it was a bit crap
so hackneyed
and so cliched”

The irony is clearly intentional and the last stanza could apply to this poem as well as the deleted one. It has a satisfying completeness that is sometimes lacking in other humorous poems where the poet is so busy building towards the punchline that, once the reader’s got the joke, there’s no need to read the poem again. Like other initial poems, it plays on the limitations of poetic forms and those restrictions are as much part of the joke as the words employed.

Naturally the other big topic for poetry is ‘loss’, frequently through bereavement. “Imitation of a Suicide” relies on readers knowing that Millais’ painting “Ophelia” (from “Hamlet”) was based on model Lizzie Siddal lying in a bath. Millais wasn’t aware that the heating lamps had gone out and Lizzie suffered a bout of pneumonia as a result. Lizzie was Rosetti’s lover and, scandalously for the time, he refused to marry her. The poem begins,

“Lizzie floats in the freezing bath,
dreaming of slippery tadpoles,
carried home in a jar
to upset her little brothers.”

Tadpoles grow into frogs that Lizzie has to kiss to find her prince and the poem ends,

“Now she finds herself
in the midst of veritable royalty:
artists like this man Millais.
Such talent they all have,
such skill, such genius.

Such carelessness.

And too late she will realise,
like Ophelia herself,
that a prince can let you down
the same as any other man.”

So that’s ‘love’ and ‘loss’ covered. ‘Other important stuff’? How about Philosophy? In “The Orange Girl and the Philosopher,” the philosopher asks the girl what she does and she reels off a list: singer, model, perfumer, fashion designer, charity work, two children’s books, three autobiographies, working on a novel and thinking of scriptwriting while,

“The old man looked at her, marvelling at
her orange skin tones, and wondering what
you could fill three autobiographies with. Then
he tore a hunk of bread off his roll, and ate it
in silence.

‘So what do you do?’ she said, eventually.

‘I’m a philosopher,’ he said, in a tired, old voice.
‘I look at the world and try to understand how
it works, so we can use that information to lead
better lives.’

‘Oh,’ said the girl. ‘I did that once.

.                                                          Didn’t like it.'”

The humour throughout is underpinned by an intelligent playfulness reminiscent of Tom Lehrer’s songs which also played with forms of expression and common phrases. Like those songs, Jonathan Pinnock’s poems allow readers to laugh along or recognise the underlying serious point being made. That’s the strength of these poems: they have something to say which gives them a depth beyond simply making the audience laugh.

“Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff” by Jonathan Pinnock is published by Silhouette Press.

“Elsewhere” Jack Little (Eyewear) – poetry review

Jack Little Elsewhere book coverJack Little left England in 2010 to live in Mexico City. He arrived speaking little Spanish and little knowledge of the country he is now a citizen of, having made it his home. His Spanish is now fluent. “Elsewhere” explores some of that transition from England to Mexico: the title poem starts “Searching his pockets/ he left and learnt new languages/ in a city with a name he could/ not pronounce” and ends,

“and when purple night sank her boats
and the lights went out with rain,
he withdrew himself from the magic of elsewhere
and rejoined the boys of home –
the language of his father crisp and warm,

but of another time.”

It captures that limbo state of still being an outsider in his new home, but still having links to family in England with regular Skyped conversations. The shortened vowels in the first three lines give way to the longer vowels in the last three with “elsewhere” effectively acting as a pivot, signaling the change in rhythm. “Magic” suggests enchantment and a sense of welcome in this new land whilst “of another time” suggests a loosening of family ties which could be as much to do with growing up as geographical distance. “Night Sky” explores his associations with his new land, rooted his desire to travel and explore in childhood,

“my mind awaits them all, the visits of feather capped
gods of heavy ancientness, the smell of other
worlds that cling to my bedclothes: the heat of night
and journeys to far away temples of unknown sun people….

.                I await Bogotá
.                I await Lima
.                Barranquilla, Brasilia, Managua, Burcaramanga….

Asunción… and on and on – all memories learnt
from news stories, a crack of light breaking the sky
and reminding me of the classroom globes of childhood.”

Not all the poems are about an Englishman abroad. “Russian Doll Falling” (complete poem),

A Russian doll is an easy metaphor,
.             in its death dance
spinning on cold wooden edges
.             ’til tipping point

Until you break, until you crack in twos, fours…
.             smooth and lipstick red, matryoshka doll:
coffee cool wooden carvings on the inside
.             a chrysalis, a surprise of nesting air.”

The cool, carefully kept exterior breaks into emptiness underneath. In “The Last Train to London” two people are waiting on the platform and indulging in the English custom of avoiding eye contact,

“I am an extra in the movie of his life, a biopic of one
of the greats, and I play ‘man on platform’.

I count grey floor tiles to make up seconds
until the final scene when the fat fall moon
will reflect from the gentleman’s lenses
and he will glance at me before checking his watch

and I will be validated.”

The final poem, “Swimming Lessons” looks at the contrasts of England and Mexico and ends,

“and what if the rooftop was not not keep
rain out? But to be bathed on, sum bathed
washed in light, watch the ants float by
I swear this is an ocean and I am learning to swim.”

The different purposes of rooftops might have been a more interesting title but would miss the key point of the poem, that “learning to swim”. Swimming isn’t just about the coordination of limbs and the mechanics of strokes, but also being able to read the water and trust that the water will support the swimming. It’s an apt metaphor. You can live in a country by learning its language, but to really immerse yourself in it enough to want to make it a home, you have to learn its cultures, customs and routines. Jack Little’s immersion in Mexico has strengthened his poems.

“Elsewhere” is available from Eyewear.


Jazz-inspired poetry at Leicester Central Library to celebrate what would have been Ella Fitzgeralds 100th birthday

“The Institute” Vincent Bijlo (Holland Park Press) – novel review

34552597A novel from Dutch stand-up comedian and columnist translated by Susan Ridder, where readers meet Otto Iking, aged eleven, wannabee radio show host, who provides a droll look at life in an institute for blind children during the 1970s. Alongside the usual school lessons, the children are given instructions in how to use a white stick and read braille. Some children get transferred to mainstream schools, something Otto is ambivalent about: on one hand it’s something his parents would welcome, on the other he’s currently in a place where the children are more or less equally disadvantaged. With the exception of Edwin who has partial sight and likes kicking other children. Otto and Harry spend time planning all sorts of revenge schemes to deal with Edwin’s bullying, but, ironically, Otto deals with the Edwin problem by accident with better results than either he or Harry could have anticipated.

Other plots go wrong too. Otto denies buying cigarettes when accused by a member of staff because he’s not realised that the petrol station assistant put them in a clear plastic bag (the staff member lets him off though). He and Harry plan to be heroes in an elaborate plan involving a catering trolley, a moped (both stolen from staff) and a gun only to find the compass they thought they had was actually a thermometer and when they get to the petrol station to fill up the moped, they discover the problem they wanted to solve has already been solved. There’s also a disastrous camping trip…

The humour is interlaced with a poignant coming of age story. Returning home to recover from a fever, Otto discovers his parents’ marriage has become strained due to his mother’s increased drinking after losing her job due to substandard work which has further eroded what already seemed to be a precarious self-esteem. His mother talks of going on holiday on her own. His father hints that the holiday is a stint in rehab. While his mother is quick to dismiss a girl at the institute as “that podgy thing”, Otto’s crush on the girl, Sonja, seems to be reciprocated.

Throughout, Otto manages to keep up almost daily broadcasts on Radio Fed-Up, a one boy radio channel exclusively starring Otto. Otto never asks if any of the children listen to it, but, when a local TV station visits the institute to film a documentary about life there and Harry is selected for interview, Otto finds that not being a TV star gives him a chance to get involved in the broadcaster’s radio channel. The irony of being “a good voice for radio” isn’t lost on the readers but it is on Otto. In the end, Otto is forced to test his ambivalence when he’s given a choice to stay with his dysfunctional family and, most probably, ending up stuck at the institute or rejecting his family and taking responsibility for his future by allowing his move to a mainstream school.

“The Institute” is a bittersweet coming of age story, demonstrating that despite being institutionalised, the children adapt and generally turn out OK. Otto, in needing material for Radio Fed-Up sets himself up as a natural outsider and observer, recording the conversations, situations and rough-and-tumble of pre-teen life. Through Otto’s eyes, the staff seem like two-dimensional dimwits for the children to pit their wits against and win, but that’s entirely in keeping with the narrator’s viewpoint, which is credibly that of an eleven year old boy. The only character who is allowed to wallow in self-pity is Otto’s mother and even that doesn’t last long. The humour is balanced with tragedy so it doesn’t become relentless and readers find themselves rooting for Otto.

“The Institute” is available from Holland Park Press.

“Kaleidoscope” Sarah Leavesley (Mantle Lane Press) – book review

Kaleidoscope Sarah Leavesley book cover“Kaleidoscope” is an extended short story, just the right length to really get to know the narrating character, Claire, in detail and Claire is worth knowing. Her story is complex and, like looking through a kaleidoscope, can be viewed from many angles. Urged by a psychiatrist to write to help her make sense of her story, Claire reluctantly begins, trying to piece her fragments into coherence. Each fragment is separated by a catalogue listing for an item in their “Perfect Mothers’ Accessories” feature. Claire remembers a red kaleidoscope produced by her father as a ‘gift’ on the day her younger sister was born. The kaleidoscope was passed to Claire’s own baby daughter. One is a Julie, the other Julianne, but they are not confused.

They do share traits: Julie was the perfect little sister making Claire feel clumsy. Julianne is the perfect little baby making Claire feel inadequate. With her husband and sister focused on the baby, Claire slides into depression. Readers follow the story through Claire’s eyes.

She remembers still suffering morning sickness at her father’s funeral after his sudden death from a heart attack. It leaves her too focused on the physicality of pregnancy to process her grief. The grief re-emerges after Julianne’s difficult birth by cesarean section. Midwives and health visitors are too preoccupied with bureaucracy to really notice Claire. Claire feels Julie is a better mother to Julianne who only seems to cry in Claire’s presence. She feels as if her body is no longer hers: it let her down and she failed to give birth naturally. She and her husband sleep separately when they used to share a bed and she grows to suspect he’s having an affair.

Although Claire’s story distorts, the narrative is clear. Claire muddles memories of her own childhood with memories of her newborn daughter. Few marriages survive the loss of a baby. Claire blames herself but readers are free to decide if she’s right. The writing is precise and evocative. Through the fragments, a clear image of Claire builds as someone shaped by her childhood as an ignored but responsible sister to a prettier, sociable younger sister, someone whose grief was sidelined in favour of focus on physical issues and someone who slipped through the safety net health visitors are supposed to provide. Despite the distorting mirrors, the shiny images, Sarah Leavesley is firmly in control, as the body of a kaleidoscope keeps all the pieces in check but still allows the viewer to see what they want.

Kaleidoscope is available from Mantle Lane Press.


Leicester’s most famous fictional son turns 50 this year and to celebrate both Adrian Mole and his creator, Sue Townsend, Leicester University are having a party on 2 April 2017. Entry free, but you need to book in advance (click link): Adrian Mole’s 50th Birthday.


 

“Outsider Heart” Trevor Wright (Big White Shed) – poetry review

Outsider Heart by Trevor Wright book coverTrevor Wright is fairly well-known in Nottingham’s spoken word and poetry scene and has even on occasion intrepidly drifted over the border into Leicester to read his anthologised poems. With “Outsider Heart” he dips his toe into the pool of poetry pamphlets enabling him to direct audiences to further work. His poems are personal, often deploying a self-deprecating humour. “Exit Wound” ends

“Gram n Emmy Lou done warned me that love hurts and wounds and mars
so perhaps it’s best to leave things be, and respect you for afar.
But that’s left a hole there in my heart that just doesn’t seem to heal
and the exit wound you left behind, for the whole wide world to see.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of Gram Parsons or Emmy Lou Harris, the recognition that love doesn’t work as popular songs say it does is universal. The end of line rhymes are a nod to those popular songs but don’t clunk into predictability. There’s handy father to daughter advice in “A Father’s Message to His Daughter on the Day of the Commemoration of His Unexpected Demise” which is centred on the page and contains useful gems such as:

“This hire car clutch isn’t going to change just for you now is it?
Pack your rucksack properly and your shoulders won’t hurt.”

The poem ends:

“Sit on a sunny bench
Relax when it’s cold
Sing in your heart
You are beautiful
But above all else
Be yersen.”

The centring and the use of longer lines becoming shorter lines as the poem moves down the page, gives it the shape of a whirlwind. The easy, casual tone of the opening lines become less conversational and more direct towards the end. It suggests a hesitancy in the father and daughter relationship which becomes lost as the father realises he needs to get to the point. The key word, “yourself” is rendered in phonetically-spelt dialect, suggestive of the father wanting his daughter to absolutely understand his point, to bring her home almost as if he’s sharing a secret.

This observant eye is turned to a newspaper story in “Blues of Andrew” where a pudgy outsider is killed by a single punch outside a supermarket.

“Manslaughter.
Four years.
Most likely out in two.
I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about said the young boxer’s mum.
It will all be lining for chips tomorrow.
The other mum declined to comment.”

One mother has no qualms defending her child’s indefensible behaviour. The other mother retreats into her grief. I did wonder at the use of “mum” for Andrew’s mother, it seems too casual for the point being made. It does though get to the core of “Outsider Heart”, the outsider observing, recording and inviting readers to look again at the familiar and ask if they’ve really understood what they are seeing.

Further details from Big White Shed

“The Yellow House” Jeroen Blokhuis (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Yellow House by Jeroen Blokhuis book coverSubtitled “A novel about Vincent Van Gogh” and translated from the Dutch by Asja Novak, this novel focuses on the painter’s life from August 1888 to December 1889, when he moved from Paris to Arles, hoping to paint the Mediterranean sun and create a painters’ school. The opening plunges readers into the aftermath of a murder, blamed on Italian migrants and Van Gogh is roped into ensuring the last two migrants are driven away. The migrants already know that leaving isn’t safe and go peacefully. On the way back into Arles, Van Gogh is thinking about the children who periodically throw stones at him when he’s static at his easel. Curiously, although the novel is in Van Gogh’s viewpoint, he never draws parallels between his situation and that of the Italian migrants. The implication is that Van Gogh sees himself as the outsider and doesn’t attempt to integrate with the locals, despite eating out and using a local prostitute.

When Gaugain visits, Van Gogh gives him the bedroom, anxious that Gaugain’s stay will be a happy one because he wants this to be the beginning of his school. He spends his days painting and his nights in long conversation with his guest, leading to lack of sleep and malnourishment. Readers see a Van Gogh who flits between reading and observing people and being completely baffled by them. He’s most at ease in front of his easel, but never discusses his paintings in detail although he describes what he’s trying to capture. In one scene, both painters paint Marie Ginoux where it is Gaugain who tries to put his subject at ease while Van Gogh observes and paints.

The ear cutting incident is dealt with in the aftermath, when, weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh is incoherent and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Gaugain leaves, fearing his visit triggered the incident, although Van Gogh already had a history of psychosis. Van Gogh recovers sufficiently to return to Arles and the novel ends before his final stay in an asylum.

Through “The Yellow House” readers see the painter as a man incapable of managing everyday life and driven to paint. Jeroen Blokhuis avoids the cliche of tortured, misunderstood genius and creates Van Gogh as someone inspired by his surroundings, who largely communicated by painting and a man blighted by poverty and an inability to integate with others, blaming himself for not being able to make friends. In this way Van Gogh is recognisable and sympathetic. He sees with a poetic (but not archaic) eye, often describing what he sees as eloquently as he paints it. Even readers who are not a fan of the artist, will find much to recognise in an empathetic portrait of a driven man finding his talents leave him on the fringes of society, observing but not invited to join in. An elegantly written, convincing novel that’s as layered and multi-dimensional as a Van Gogh painting.

The Yellow House is available from Holland Park Press.


 

“The Swell” Jessica Mookherjee (Telltale Press) – Poetry Review

The Swell Jessica Mookherjee“The Swell” is a fourteen poem pamphlet that explores growing up in Swansea with a Bangladeshi heritage and moving away from a childhood home, most notably in “Red”

“When I first wore red lipstick, smacked across
my face, she said it was inappropriate
for a girl of six, wash it off, she said.
When I first wore that red silk skirt
it mesmerised me by the way it moved
around my legs. It made you smile at me.
Now your face is red, too much sun, too much
beer, too much butter.
I tell you not to wear that red shirt,
it doesn’t flatter.
There’s blood in the bathroom again,
this month.”

Each time the colour appears, it is as a warning sign, a little girl not understanding the significance of lipstick, learning how to dress appropriately in a long skirt, a complexion reddened by excesses, an unflattering shirt and the mark of transformation from girl to woman. The repetition lends a sense of weariness as the girl recognises that her mother has been through this and her grandmother before that.

The title poem looks at the pregnancy of her mother from a child’s viewpoint, noting her father “made a fuss of her for a change” and ends as he

“made milk-dribble jokes for the cameras,
said storms with girls’ names were the deadliest.
Then she emerged, fresh with her slake
of new flesh as the town lugged sandbags,
trying to stop her.”

Even dad can’t upstage mum and older sister is left observing these changes without yet having the words to describe her own reaction. In another poem, A non-mother receives flowers on “Mother’s Day” intended for someone else. She alerts the florist and keeps the flowers in water,

“I didn’t touch them until one week after Mother’s Day.
Wondering if the son, the daughter the mother
would fetch them away and
just as they began pushing out everything, she came.

Heartbroken, relieved, not forgotten. She muttered
polite complaints on my doorstep, told me
her son in the States spent seventy-five pounds
and left, clutching my wilted flowers to her chest.”

Jessica Mookherjee gives readers enough detail to wonder at this relationship between a mother and son where the son has moved to another country, sends an expensive bouquet to his mother but fails to get the address right. That’s where the strength of these poems lie: in the precise details given with enough space for the reader to draw their own conclusions. “The Swell” is a delight to read.

“The Swell” is available from Telltale Press.