“Haunted by Cycles of Return” edited by Elsa Hammond (SciPo)

Haunted by Cycles of Return poems about climate change book coverThe 2018 SciPo Poetry Competition focused on climate change and this pamphlet of 18 poems, includes the winning and commended poems along with poems from guest poets Carrie Etter and Philip Gross. The competition has two categories: adult and under 18s, both judged by Jayne Draycott.

France-Anne King’s “Home Thoughts from the Red Planet”, which gives the pamphlet its title, starts “It was considered weakness to look back” and continues,

“A man described a wheat fields ripening under sun,
the weight and sea-sway of wind-pulled crops.
A woman, haunted by cycles of return, explained
the pattern play of swallows in an autumn sky;
how they forage on the wing, the skim and swoop
of cobalt feathers across the surface of a lake.”

Most compelling are memories of the various shades of blue. The poet doesn’t spell out why and this isn’t a blue pill/red pill set up. Mars, the red planet, has no water. The displaced people remember the various shades of blue because water means survival. “Home Thoughts from the Red Planet” is a subtle poem that makes it point through presenting what readers take for granted as memory, asking them to think about the effects of climate change if wheat fields (food) and swallows (barometers of climate as they migrate from Africa to cooler weather) become nostalgia. It was first prize-winner in the adult competition. Lesley Saunders took second prize, Sue Wood and Chris Pools were joint third.

Imogen Phillips’ “The Hunted” imagines mass extinction already underway,

“Now the antelope’s bones lie
Buried in long forgotten dust.
The water’s edge, just drops of my imagination,
Listing the missing treasures of my world.”

The long vowel sounds of the first two lines slow the rhythm, echoing the sense of regret: the antelope isn’t just dead, but forgotten. The second two lines build cumulative “s” sounds, creating a soft susurrus adding to the sense of shame and loss. The poem ends, “I lie down// One day closer to extinction…” The ellipsis could be ambiguous, either the sense of resignation towards the inevitable or a hint there’s time to stop this. It was first-prize winner in the under 18s category. Daisy Stillborn and Abigail Hawkesworth took second and third prizes respectively.

The theme of blue is picked up in Carrie Etter’s “Karner Blue”, a butterfly,

“Because Nabokov named it.
Because its collection is criminal.
Because it lives in black oak savannahs and pine barrens.
Because it once produced landlocked seas.
Because it has declined ninety per cent in fifteen years.
Because it is.”

Butterflies are short-lived and fragile but also, like most insects, a vital part of the ecosystem. Despite its decline, it clings on. The poem also hints at how human action in avoiding unnecessary killing and not destroying habits can arrest the devastating effects of deforestation and potentially restore populations.

Philip Gross’ “Goners” explores a young child uncertain of language saying, “I’m goning”,

“The water in the wave
goes nowhere, after all.

Like the mob-handed willow
and ash in the garden, plotting spring’s
sweet insurrections, while they can

:goners, all. Listen: the old
song, love song, hissing in the cracked
and wonky record’s grain

Play it. Play it again.”

Although the tone is mournful, it’s final line suggests a note hope if humans can learn to listen again and fall back in love with nature and its cycle of seasons.

Sadly the topics explored in “Haunted by Cycles of Return” are even more relevant than they were last year. Many poems about the climate crisis are good at describing what will be lost and expressions of regret but do little more than elegant hand-wringing and the addition of one more voice to an echo chamber of hopelessness. To their credit, the poems in “Haunted by Cycles of Return” do sound a note of hope and a sense that extinction is not inevitable, alternative paths can still be found, but humans must change their habits.

“Haunted by Cycles of Return” is available from SciPo, St Hilda’s College Oxford.



“Transeuropa” Jules Deelder (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

transeuropa Jules DeelderJules Deelder is a bestselling Dutch poet, also known as the Night Mayor of Rotterdam, whose recurring themes are peppered with black humour. The poems in “Transeuropa” are translated from Dutch into English by Scott Emblen-Jarrett, a freelance translator and it is the translations that feature in this collection without the Dutch originals. When subject matter includes jokes about Göring’s liking of rings, Roman’s feeding Christians to lions for sport or the tensions between neighbours in the Balkans, the translator is faced with three challenges. Firstly translating Dutch into English. Secondly translating the jokes when humour doesn’t always translate. Thirdly translating poetry presents an extra challenge of recreating rhyme or rhythmic structures used in the original.

“Devilish” is a good example of the humour. It starts, “Hitler farted all the time” and later asks,

“Herr Hitler can be blamed
For many things but not
For showing his true
Colours without consequence
For doesn’t History tell us
That sulphurous smells always
Betray the presence of devils?”

The long sentences and use of enjambment feature strongly throughout the collection. The reader or listener is forced to keep paying attention to wait for the punchline. It looks like a breathless, urgent outpouring on the page, but uses natural breath caesuras so the poem isn’t tricky to read aloud. The poem isn’t tricky to understand either: it puts together two simple ideas, that Hitler was evil and devils announce themselves with sulphur, and asks a bigger question about why Hitler’s intentions weren’t recognised sooner? It’s not Jules Deelder’s purpose to provide answers, but to provoke thought.

“Oracle” uses satire and starts

“Sometimes after inhaling the
Smoke of medicinal herbs
Through hollow pipes under
Favourable star-signs we
Are given a glimpse of a
World that is parallel to our
Own through the heavily
Misted window of the spirit”

The tone is sarcastic. There is no suggestion the speaker believes someone taking drugs, even ‘natural’ ones, to lead to an altered mind state can be telling the truth or forecasting the future. This is underlined by the colloquial “star-signs” in a place of astrology. The actions of the oracle are dubious and even the oracle cannot see clearly through “the heavily misted window”.

The poem ends,

“You’re thinking ‘what
Does this all mean?’
Then so sounds the
Answer: How the fuck
Should I know? Being an
Oracle is already hard
Enough as it is and the
Meaning is lost if I
Have to explain the
Damn thing all over again.”

So often fortune-tellers and those claiming to be clairvoyant rely on saying they’ve seen something vague in the hope that their audience fills in the gaps and translates the vague vision into something meaningful. Then they have the cheek to ask that the messenger not be shot or blamed if something doesn’t make sense: the lack is in the audience, not the clairvoyant.

The title poem is a lengthy discourse sending up film buffs and those who visit Romania to go to the places mentioned in the Dracula stories, who are indirectly accused of mixing myth and reality, character with actor(s), with signature references to the Second World War, and ends

“Take a piece of heartfelt advice:
Never go hiking in the less touristy
Parts of Transylvania or the Carpathians
Or the High Tatras but just go
By Transeuropa as the
Chances are high that you’ll get
Lost there and nothing of
You will ever be found again.”

It’s a light-hearted poem with satirical intent with a bouncy, energetic rhythm.

For some poems, key names or references are explained in footnotes, so readers aren’t reaching for search engines to understand. The original Dutch poems aren’t included and I’m not familiar with the original poems so can’t comment on the translation into English in “Transeuropa”. Having looked at some of Jules Deelder’s poems online, it seems the translator is faithful to the rhythms in the originals. Jules Deelder often uses a refrain or repeating motif in longer poems so the relevance of an apparent digressive idea is make clear or a meander on a side track is brought back to the main line. Scott Emblen-Jarrett’s English translations create the sense of poems that are often satirical, explore political issues without censorship or being didactic and were designed to work as performance pieces as well as being read from the page.

“Transeuropa” is available from Holland Park Press


The Blue Nib Chapbook 4

The Blue Nib Chapbook Contest 4 CoverThis chapbook features the three winning poem sequences chosen by Judge Helen Mort. Entries are open to new, emerging and established poets and consist of eight poems not previously published in The Blue Nib.

Helen Mort writes in the introduction, “Trying to choose between poetry pamphlets is very different from choosing between individual poems… Judging pamphlets feels like a much slower, fuller process – to extend my tortuous and inappropriate analogy, it’s the fifth or sixth or seventh date. As I read and re-read these submissions, I found I was getting to know them like characters, like people. It’s a cliché to say it, but this was a difficult task. All the entries felt substantive and engaged with an impressive breadth of material. I was stuck by how outward-looking all the collections of poems were, how they refused insularity, self-pity and narrow focus. The entries which I gravitated to all had a searching intelligence to them, all showed a commitment to using poetry as a way of interrogating and understanding the world.”

Pat Anthony took First Prize, “Place and people are inextricably linked in this evocative collection of poems. They bristle with observational details that a less skillful writer might miss – a man pedals night into day, the moon is scrawled with the arpeggios of an accordion player. Each voice here is convincing and urgent. Memorable, exact and compelling.”

Extract from “Along the Manzanares”,

“the night air of Madrid wrapping
around our shoulders with
dusky blues until we are

that lover caught up in his
serenade, singing his adoration
to the Lady of Spain even as
he contends with the bowing
and scraping of violins
across the water

where orchestras play a cadence
to his pining accordion and
notes lodge in the diamonds
of the hurricane fence hanging
bubbles too delicate to pop”

Mike Farren took Second Prize, “From the first poem in this collection, I was intrigued and hooked by the strange confidence of the work… The pieces that follow are richly sensory – ‘summer smells of money’, the body is a quarry. Alert and attentive writing, poems suffused with an original language for memory.”

Extract from “Antlers”,
have the equipment

“Find them on the forest floor:
they are necessary,
they are sufficient,
they are yours.

Clamp them to your temples.
Then speak.”

Sharon Flynn took Third Prize, “From the first, these poems feel like recipes, full of rich details and imperatives. In one piece, surgery before pain relief is described with a clarity that makes the reader shudder. Visceral and haunting, unabashed and sharply observed, full of found material curated with skill and emotion, which is no mean feat.”

Extract from “Recipe for the Somniferous Sponge of Ugone de Lucca”

.“                                   Mix in a brazen vessel.
Place in it a sponge, seized from the ocean,
and boil the whole as long as the sun shines
in the dog-star-days or until the sponge
hath consumed it all.
.                                       Make the sea-sponge damp
and hot. Apply to the nostrils. When sleep
has been inhaled, let surgery commence.”

The Blue Nib Chapbook Contest 4 is available from The Blue Nib


“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” Beth Gordon (Animal Heart Press) – poetry review

Beth Gordon Morning Walk book coverThe possum is roadkill, the poem’s narrator arrived too late to save it. The discursive, stream-of-consciousness style poems concern themselves with what is and what might be. Their starting point is often a news item. “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” starts with the news of the drowning of a toddler while her parents were distracted, believing that if their daughter fell into a pool, she’d shout out and thrash but instead she sunk. The poem then widens its scope and ends,

“That children born on the shredded edges of this planet will find within
their necessary lives the whispered footsteps
of dragonflies in half-morning rooms, the underbellies of rocks, an unearthly
blue, thick with consecrated salt, the chime
of pebbles in water that carries them into the afterlife or submersion:
arrhythmic, dripping, newly divine and silent.”

It considers human interaction with nature, the small details that can shift perspective, the sense that our lives on this planet in the grip of climate change might be borrowed time and our children will adapt or drown.

A sequence, “While You Are In Iceland”, sees a temporary separation for a couple when one travels while the other stays home, dealing with the shifts in being alone while on “Day 2: The News”,

“The television says that more students are dead in Texas, gunned down while mixing paint and imagining their summer vacations, of stripping to near naked for sun, for water, for love. You send me photos of ice sculpted by the old Gods that they will never see or maybe have already seen in the instant of their slaughter. Outside my window honeysuckle is dying on the vine, sweetness turned to rot, the rain continues, I envy your escape”

The sender of images from Iceland doesn’t yet know the news. The narrator considers the loss of students, not just of their lives but also their potential. It affects the way she sees the landscape. The wet weather suggests sorrow. The honeysuckle, something nurtured, is rotting. The narrator does not suggest it could be rescued with appropriate treatment; she has absorbed the news of children’s deaths and despairs over taking action or fixing it. The sequence ends with “Day 10: Homecoming” where the narrator begs her partner not to return,

“Do not exchange magical incantations for sirens, for shrieking and gnashing of teeth, for countless bloody corpses. I will miss every moment of you: our morning eggs, the way we trade words like lemon drops on the tongue”

But’s not just in America where deaths occur. “Day 9: Seal Pup” sees the partner tell the narrator about an incident where a man ignorantly smeared a seal pup with human scent, setting of a fatal chain of events where the mother will reject it. However, the narrator only seems to be concerned with student deaths and the resulting anguish of being unable to prevent them.

There is a second sequence interspersed with the other poems, a series of cropped sonnet crowns where each in the series features three linked sonnets (the final line in the first sonnet, becomes the first line in the second; the final line in the second becomes the first line in the third and the final line of the third is also the first line of the first sonnet). This framework gives a structure to what sees to be a loose, woolly gathering of thoughts and musings over different ways of making martinis, French toast, rehab and mortality. The juxtapositions between the trivial and serious take skill to achieve and Beth Gordon succeeds. Gathering of thoughts and the opportunities for misunderstandings feature in the final poem, “Dancing Barefoot in Mississippi”,

“.. as I dance to Led Zeppelin and you turn your attention back to Ireland with thick mutton gravy and potato-infused pies, this is what I will eat for my next meal, this is the brogue of my first husband, the way I followed his whiskey-ed voice into motherhood and tried for years to understand the mysteries of marriage, this is the sound of rain, of arctic circle, the sound of sobbing trains, and you tell me that I tell you that I love every song, this is the sound of my wandering feet, like ghosts of mice, the sound of floors, of days, this is what I’ve been singing all along.”

It takes a great deal of skill to make phrases look as if they’ve just been thrown on a page when they’ve actually been carefully selected to fit a casual speech pattern and still retain an internal logic, the next association following from the previous. The repetition of “sound” is a reminder that the narrator is listening and her thoughts flow from the song she is listening to, the memories associated with it and where she is in the present.

“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” examines the shifts between the present and the possible, the what ifs? What if the narrator had arrived in time to avert the possum from the road? What if the narrator’s partner had taken his walk two hours earlier and warned the man not to touch the seal pup? The poems explore the decisions we make, the paths taken to arrive at our present. The long lines and prose allow for expansion as one thought is pushed to see how far it will go. The casualness of language chosen by Beth Gordon belies the careful choices and construction underneath the poems.

“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” is available via Animal Heart Press


“True Freedom” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – book review

True Freedom Michael Dean book cover“True Freedom” is ambitious in scope, looking at the sixteen years leading up to the Bostonian Uprising in the eighteenth century, which was the beginning of America’s war of independence from Britain. It’s a fictional account following key characters, mainly politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic.These characters include Thomas Hutchinson, a wealthy Bostonian whose hands are tied by an ineffectual governor and lack of support from Parliament in London. Samuel Adams and Thomas Young, who try to unify and inspire the Sons of Liberty and Mohucks, rebels seeking to feed their families and angry at paying taxes to a British government they see as distant and irrelevant. The brothers, John and Thomas Pownall, on opposite sides of the Bostonian/British divide and their attempts to influence key figures in the British Parliament to their side.

At its heart is a power vacuum. King George III only appears briefly to snub Thomas Hutchinson; a useful illustration of his failure to see how British policy towards its American colony – the drive to raise taxes to fund foreign campaigns in Europe – would inflame sparks of rebellion. That vacuum allows British politicians to manoeuvre their own agendas to suit, to the horror of Bostonian experts, who know the rebels are unifying, gaining traction and building towards a launch for independence.

A novelist, telling a story where the ending is known, has set themselves a big challenge to keep readers hooked. Michael Dean tackles this by using meticulous attention to detail, recreating the atmosphere of the British Houses of Parliament, the tiny offices of civil servants work in, the contrasts between the opulent houses of wealthy Bostonian merchants and the ragged clothing of rebels meeting in a room above an inn. The machinations of power-plays, the point scoring and struggles of the characters draw focus to the micro-dramas, fears and motivations of the characters.

On the odd occasion the focus on details feels misplaced. The description of Thomas Hutchinson’s primary residence detracts from the impending visit of the governor. This detail would have been better saved for the incident where rebels break into the residence; they would have been seeing it with fresh eyes and the details relevant to a group deciding what to vandalise, what to leave and what to take, throwing the contrast between poverty and wealth into sharp relief.

“True Freedom” is not for those seeking fast-paced action and military drama. It is for those who love to linger over period detail and gain a thorough understanding of the political situation and how it led to the revolt. It is meticulously researched and some minor artistic licence has been taken with facts whilst remaining true to the events described. Its focus on interpersonal relationships of the key characters offer insight and readers see familiar events with a new understanding, enhanced by its tone of quiet commentary, which allows the drama to speak for itself.

“True Freedom” is available from Holland Park Press.


“Where I Ache” Megan O’Keeffe (self-published) – poetry review

Where I Ache Megan O'Keeffe book cover“Where I Ache” has an author’s introductory note, “This collection is published to help those that relate to these poems feel less alone. To know that others have gone through similar experiences and that they too, will overcome their dark days. Some of the inspiration comes from personal experience, world news, film and book characters over the past ten years. The intent of this collection is not to romanticize addiction, mental illness, nor unhealthy behaviors associated with low self-esteem. Please consider that this content may be triggering for some. Please seek a licensed professional if you are struggling with these issues.” The lengthy collection (154 pages) is split into six parts, “My Foggy Head”, “My Weak Spine”, “My Bruised Heart,” “My Grieving Knees”, “My Greedy Green Eyes” and “My Soothing Arms”. The poems are interspersed with black and white sketched illustrations by Kevin Furey which are often a literal take on a phrase or theme of the poem they accompany. The sections appear to be a journey through anxieties, worries about how one is perceived by others, love or loving someone who doesn’t reciprocate, grief, jealous and closure or acceptance.

From the first section, “Please Don’t Sugar Coat this for Me”, pleads

“When bad things happen we can’t help
but try to make reason or purpose
of them. Pull logic out
of the illogical.
We’re making angels out of monsters
in the dark.”

It captures the way anxiety leads into overthinking and catastrophic thought patterns where one negative thing happening ruins a whole day. Sometimes the thinker catches themselves and tries to put a positive spin on it, “we’re making angels out of monsters.” The poem is direct and uses easy to understand language to communicate. When a longer line is followed by a shorter one, it suggests a thought beginning to run away is being restrained and brought back, the thinker wrestling for control. Another poem, “Battle Day”, is a pleading for understanding (complete poem),

“I know I’m not feeling well today.
Please don’t mark it in red
like I’ve failed an exam
I didn’t know I was taking.
Don’t ask me to talk about it.
I’m not up for conversation
I can barely stand
the company of myself today.”

The repetition of “today” implies someone reminding themselves this is just one bad day in a week of otherwise good days. It has the same theme of restraining thoughts that want to spiral out of control. Again, the language is direct and communicative.

The second section, “My Weak Spine,” appears to focus on self-doubts brought on by low self-esteem, e.g. in “The Enemy,” (complete poem),

“My biggest enemy is myself.
Desperate for me to fail and be alone.
To have me all to myself
to suck the life out of me.

Self doubt pounds at the door
telling me I’m not good enough
and that I am unworthy.

Anxiety coats itself in my thoughts.
It’s hard to tell what I think
and what it thinks of me.”

I’d have liked the first time to become the title, leaving three stanzas of three lines, and a potential part-rhyme on “me/unworthy/me” on the last line of each stanza. Perhaps, as a standalone poem, the author may think the italicised and bold words necessary, but in a themed collection the signals to the reader aren’t necessary. A later poem, “It’s (Not) That Easy,” looks at typical phrases people say to those suffering with mental ill health,

Stop Worrying

You’re not Fat

You’re not dumb

Anyone would be lucky to have you

It’s all in your head

Don’t be sad

So many people have it worse than you

and just like that you fixed me.
I can’t believe I didn’t think of that sooner…”

The last two lines are ironic. No one’s fixed that easily.

The third section, “My Bruised Heart,” looks at the effects of loving the wrong person but the narrator blames themselves when things go wrong, in “Dead Branches,”

“These thoughts rotting inside my head are not my own.
I know that and yet I cannot stop thinking them.
I’m sorry it’s not just the two of us in this relationship.”

The poem explores how previous bad relationships affect the current relationship where fears of violence or abuse prevent someone fully engaging the current relationship. It takes time and patience from a new partner as someone unlearns past behaviour and relearns how to trust someone. This theme is picked up in “My First Scar”,

“Maybe I’m so angry at you
because you remind me of him.
And I’m mad at myself for being the fool yet again
for not valuing myself like I deserve.
But it’s easier to blame you than to face myself.
I can just leave you instead of fixing me.”

That last line captures why damaged people can flit from relationship to relationship instead of taking time to assess why a previous relationship failed and learn how not to make the same mistake again. It’s always easier to blame someone else rather than take responsibility for one’s own behaviour. I’m not sure why the poem’s right aligned in the book as above. A later poem looks at loving an addict, “Intoxicated”,

“Put the bottle down and take a sip off my lips.
You don’t need that smoke, my kiss will be your favorite drug.
Not Jamison on your breathe but my name on your tongue.
Catch a buzz from the way my body moves.”

Sadly though, when someone loves a drug more than their partner, it’s time for their partner to move on. I think the third line should refer to Jameson’s whiskey.

The fourth section, “My Grieving Knees” moves on from break-ups to death. The poem “To My Knees” gives the section its odd title (complete poem),

“I don’t normally fall to my knees
but before you, I did.
By your bedside, I did.
Too late, I did.
I don’t talk to Him anymore
but to you I will.
I said my goodbyes and well wishes.
I asked you to look over those surrounding me.
I tried to be brave and selfless,
so I told you not to worry about me.
But to my knees, I fall again.”

The poem is full of self-flagellation and regret, but the only one who can save an addict is the addict who has to decide they want to overcome the addiction. Without that desire to change, any treatment or help doesn’t work. “No One Cries for the Sinners” helpfully comes with a note “This poem is an abecedarian in which each line begins with the following letter of the alphabet”.

“Arizona is the place for a funeral, if there ever could be such a place
because believe me when I say, Life
can’t take root in dry soil. No Botanist or Investigator
dares to try and stop her. She is contacted by the weak, the helpless, the hopeless,

each in dying need of her services. I think of her often today, while at my husband’s
funeral. She was careful; killing him slower than the fading pale
green bruises on my God- given body. If I was religious, any God of mine would be in
Hell right along with the criminals and devils she sends there. Hotter there than the
injected poison that inflames their bodies. Hotter than Arizona. Is it
Justice for the lives these men have already stolen? Depends on whom you ask.

Killers like Penelope are hard to find unless they want to be found. She never
let’s people in too close, only the wicked
moths, like my abusive drunk husband, deserving of her fiery temper. She collects
newspaper clippings like coin collectors treasure Civil War nickels.
Obituaries like trophies line her walls. It was my life or his. I choose mine.
Proudly, I’d do it again. My body wasn’t his property to use or abuse as he wished.

Queen of murder, Penelope alone carries the weight of death and demons
rotting inside her. She straddles a line between serial killer and
superhero. Or are they just different sides of the same coin? I could not be more
thankful that she slayed the dragon that I couldn’t save my kids from. It’s not easily
understood, I know. Only those who survived a certain kind of darkness will.

Vigilantes like Penelope are clever, venomous, calculating, beautiful,
worst of all, deadly. A cold- blooded killer living in the dry grass,
xeric climate. A climate like fucking Arizona.
You won’t find life taking root, no tears to water its growth. It’s dead space, ground
zero for the ghosts and hellish creatures like Penelope and the sinners she kills.”

The theme of there being more than two people in a relationship is picked up again in the fifth section, “My Greedy Green Eyes”, particularly in “The Parasite”,

“I’m not sure why you still talk about her.
Can’t you see that it hurts me?
You haven’t spoken to her in months but yet
here she is again in our conversation.
In your mind and in mine.”

Another direct, easy to read poem where two lovers can’t get over an ex.

The final section, “My Soothing Arms” focuses on making a stand and being strong for yourself. It’s refreshing to get to a poem where the focus is on another. “War Cry” helpfully comes with a note “This poem is in Pantoum form where the second and fourth line of each stanza is repeated as the first and third of the next.”

“Don’t open my door if you aren’t going to close it when you leave.
Are you listening to me?
I deserve respect no matter my size or shape, just like everyone else.
I am not some object to conquer or kill.

Are you listening to me?
The Taliban cannot just board my dusty school bus and fire three shots at me.
I am not some object to conquer or kill.
You, with your rough whiskers, must face the consequences of what you take.

The Taliban cannot just board my dusty school bus and fire three shots at me.
You are right to fear that I may know too much, that education is serving me right.
You, with your rough whiskers, must face the consequences of what you take.
I am learning that a woman is worth more than just how much she can please a man.”

“Where I Ache” is aimed at a general reader and speaks from personal experience, with one exception. It uses direct, simple language to communicate. Poetry readers wouldn’t need the explanatory notes and the use of italics and bold lettering to guide readers implies the author is not yet confident her readers will see the intentions behind her poems. This direct approach works when poems stand on their own such as in a poetry magazine or instagram post, but combined into a collection, the poems grew similar in tone and outlook so the collection’s best read one or two poems at a time rather than in one sitting. The aims and sentiment behind the poems are worthy, however, a challenge or use of a metaphor or analogy now and again would have added interest.

“Where I Ache” is available from 10 June and can be preordered. Megan O’Keeffe’s blog is www.debatablydateable.com.



“Incendiary Art” Patricia Smith (Bloodaxe) – poetry review

Incendiary Art Patricia Smith“Incendiary Art” compassionately explores the fatalities, often at the hands of law enforcement, and inherent structural racism in America, both through the lives of the deceased and those left behind. The questing approach doesn’t rant or vent but seeks to understand with the aim of encouraging a solution. However, the first rule of solving a problem is to acknowledge it and drill down to its actual cause. The title poem considers a street scene,

“the thing men do to boulevards, the wicks
their bodies be. A city, strapped for art,
delights in torching them – at first for kicks,

to waltz to whirling sparks, but soon those hearts
thud thinner, whittled by the chomp of heat.
Outlined in chalk, men blacken, curl apart.

Their blindly rising fume is bittersweet,
although reversals in the air could fool
us into thinking they weren’t meant at meat

Our sons don’t burn their cities as a rule,
born, as they are, up to their necks in fuel.”

It’s impossible not to see things through the lens of prejudice when that prejudice is based on the colour of your skin: something you can’t easily disguise or hide. Even if you could hide it, the burden of disguise takes it toll. The poem captures the sense of public space being unsafe, the way prejudice chips away at an individual’s attitude and how impossible it is for victims to overcome prejudice by themselves. The terza rima form and rhymes echo the way the logic in each stanza is set up by the preceding stanza, each new idea arising from previous thoughts.

“No wound of Exit” explores an autopsy from a young man fatally shot,

“A black boy can fold his whole tired self around a bullet. The cartridge is a pinpoint of want, a textbook example of the smallest love. Some slugs are warmer then mothers. The bullet wants the whole of the boy, his snot and insomnia, his crammed pockets and waning current. The bullet strains to romance the blooded one in a way that grinds with lyric. The bullet swoons through his collapsing map, then comes to rest and the boy simply ends his breathing around it. It does not matter if the boy has a mother. It does not matter if he has a gold mouth,

Injuries associated with the entrance wound: perforation of left anterior fifth intercoastal space, pericordial sac, right ventricle of the heart, right lower lobe of the lung with approximately 1300 milliliters of blood in the right pleural cavity and 1000 in the left pleural cavity. The collapse of both lungs.

“A black boy’s lungs collapsing.

“A mother picked up a phone.

“The same sound.”

The poetic description is contrasted with the dry, factual language of the autopsy. Death occurs regardless of the victim’s (perceived) wealth and a mother’s love cannot protect against it. A group of poems looks at the death of two daughters. In separate incidents, two girls, three month old Zara and two year old Tierra, were taken out by their fathers and drowned. “Blurred Quotient and Theory” offers explanations for why they will killed by someone who was supposed to protect and care for them,

“Sometimes a daughter is simply what the middle
of a crib does. Later, she becomes the opener
of doors. She warms that plate of neckbones,
and pirouettes for his gaze. Sometimes she is the spit
of the mother, the irritant prancing the outer edge
of rooms, the cheek roughly pinched, the handful
of dimes and Go on, give yourself some Red Hots,
the math problem one person in the class keeps getting
wrong, the Sit on in here and be still while your mama
and I – Sometimes she is sometimes. She is oddity,
or she is air. What Tierra was was shatter to anyone
doomed enough to love her. What Zara was was not a son.”

“Accidental” is a series of poems that explore situations where black man were murdered by the police. Each starts with a brief report, e.g. “March 3, 2014, Iberia Parish, LA – Police say that Victor White III, 22, shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser.”, “November 19, 2013, Durham NC – Police say that Jesus Huerta, 17, shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser”, “July 29, 2013, Jonesboro, AR – Police say that Chavis Carter, 21, shot himself while handcuffed in the black of a police cruiser.”

“He reached back and found
his own hands with his own
hands, worked his bound
fingers to set his free fingers
loose, then used that shackled
hand to free the other shackled
hand, and the freed shackled
hand, still shackled, was still
bound to the other hand once
both were freed. Once free
in the shackles, the shackled
hands turned to the matter
of the gun which couldn’t be
there because they’d searched
by baby twice and a gun is
a pretty big thing unless it isn’t,
unless it is dreamed alive by
hands that believe they are no
longer shackled. Stunned in
cuffs, but free and searching,
the left and right hands found
a gun with a stink like voodoo.”

The circular illogic of the poem echoes and reflects on the incredulity that should have greeted the police reports. However, the police reports were accepted at face value, demonstrating the power imbalance. The victims don’t matter. The reputations of law enforcement officers are seen as more important, even when the evidence doesn’t support their versions of events. Even when evidence supports the victims, the victims’ voices are not heard. That they leave behind families is not important enough for the official version of events to be challenged. Their ages are significant too: these were young men with their lives ahead of them, dismissed as worthless and the consequences of that dismissal are fatal. The consequences and their effect on the communities the law enforcement officers are supposed to police are also dismissed. Those communities learn their lives don’t matter and justice is absent.

“Incendiary Art” is a substantial collection. There is also a poignant, unsentimental elegy for the poet’s father that doesn’t overlook his flaws, but shows the strength of a father/daughter bond. Interspersed throughout are a series of poems about Emmett Till, a man lynched in 1955 at the age of 14 after being falsely accused of offending a white woman. The poems are presented as a ‘choose your own adventure’ story that considers what if the photo he carried in his wallet had been recognised as Hedy Lamarr instead of being used to allege he had a white girlfriend, what if there had been a closed casket, if his body was never found, etc.

Patricia Smith demonstrates a skill, not only with poetic forms, but knowledge of her craft, the imagination and compassion she writes with. “Incendiary Art” includes prose poems, ghazals, sonnets and sestinas, each poem’s structure relating to and exploring its subject. The poems are contemporary and their concern remains with current issues but with a demonstrable inclusion of context and history. She deserves her accolades and “Incendiary Art” is a collection to treasure and return to. Highly recommended.

“Incendiary Art” by Patricia Smith is available from Bloodaxe Books