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

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

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

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

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

*

Between us,
membrane.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gardener gets to speak in “Ekaterinburg”

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

Every spring, wild primroses grow there.”

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

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

“The Spirit Vaults” is available from Green Bottle Press


Leicester Writers Showcase Ella @ 100Leicester Writers Club Everybodys Reading event flyer

“Holding Unfailing” Edward Ragg (Cinnamon Press) – poetry review

holding_unfailing“Holding Unfailing” is the second collection from Edward Ragg. Stylistically, it takes a similar approach to his first collection, “A Force that Takes”, in its use of short lines and stanzas, which leave space on the page for a reader to absorb and interpret what’s being said. An Englishman now settled in Beijing, it’s unsurprising that many poems explore travel and arrival. “From Our Own Correspondent” places itself “where light-skinned city folk// brush obliviously/ past dark-skinned arrivals”

“A new dance writes
its marks upon

the kaleidoscopic lights
of midnight floors

where youth moves
on bubbles and adrenalin.

The sleek high-speed train
touches 300 kilometres per hour

rushing obliviously
past channels of lore and algae.

That we may each move
upon the earth and leave

such marks with ease
and be forgotten.”

The repetition of “obliviously” acts as a reminder that life carries on despite us. Whether we are at the stage of being newly-arrived somewhere and wishing the pace of life would slow enough for us to adapt and catch up or at life’s end where others continue even though we’ve passed on. Similarly, the repetition of “marks” is also an echo. The marks of a current dance craze will give way to the next and the marks we make on life will also fade as “Ozymandias” did not take into consideration when he ordered his monument be built. Edward Ragg’s thoughtful, philosophical approach works well in “”The Human Chain”, a sequence, in memorial to Seamus Heaney

“IV

We breathe the same air and breathe
in the language across the waters
you made and made your own singing

the disinterred marvels of a planet
lit with the precision of cut turf
like sparks from the sharpened edge

of Beowulf’s steel. Each vowel seeping
from the peat-rich bog, each poem the miracle
of a sluice suddenly watering the earth.”

It’s a reminder that talent can overcome barriers and remind readers of their own humanity, a great poem can live on by speaking to a common identity or universal truth and voice can overcome the barriers of language. Seamus Heaney’s poems weren’t dressed with overly poetic language and were often rooted firmly in landscape but nonetheless, their truths and voice endure. That final image suggests the poems will continue to inspire and enable other poets to grow. Mortality also creeps into the sequence, “Arrival at Santiago,” that also marvels at Santiago’s wonders, but part VI acknowledges something more sinister,

“VI

But to speak differently in the shade of lemon trees:
in love I arrive, haunted by the news today
of a flight of limitless souls blown out
of existence over the Ukrainian fields.
Primary school kids running screaming
from a playground where death fell from the sky.

Not the earth’s end, but a preserved strip of it,
their echoes discord the songs of Santiago’s streets.
And, as we walk back past Cruchero Exeter,
low Andean foothill fog makes
of the late afternoon another sunrise.”

The narrator is right to acknowledge the act of terrorism and find delight in lemon trees and Santiago itself. It’s when fear governs us that terrorists have won. Although it’s difficult not to let that fear intrude. The section ends on “another sunrise”, a reminder of continuance and how little effect one individual may have.

Naturally, contemporary China is a big focus in the collection. In “Illuminations of Beijing”,

“I

The first light is the dullest light
reflecting the uncertain brightness

of a winter’s day. The first light
reveals buildings and trees

and the cracked earth
of winter fields.

The first light is suggestion,
conception, then realisation

or so it seems. For I can
never say precisely where

this city begins:
only that it ends

in these gently illuminated
calcareous hills.”

It catches someone very much aware of his place in a city where he knows the boundaries but not the full history, someone aware of their mortality.

Edward Ragg’s poems explore personal landscape through observation and memory, questioning how memories and personal response shape and project onto the landscape. However, the poet does not restrict the reader to considering only one view, there is space for interpretation and thought. The use of plain, precise vocabulary supports the poet’s desire to communicate and reach out to readers. “Holding Unfailing” consolidates and builds on the foundations of “A Force that Takes“.

“Holding Unfailing” is available from Cinnamon Press.

“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