“Unable Mother” Helen Calcutt (V Press) – poetry review

Unable Mother Helen CalcuttThe poems in “Unable Mother” focus on the not-so-rosy notions of motherhood: the doubts, fears, questioning and sense of failures. The language is precise and allows the poems to build layers of insight. The second poem, “God”, starts with the image of planting a tulip bulb and watching it grow (much of the growing happening underground and out of sight),

“as the suckle of sleep, as a child warms
to the yolk of a breast,
it warmed to the air it repeated.

It comes back, year on year.”

The poem ends,

“Even when I sit in the shadows
of the house
and the trees are looping through

with not a single path that’s lit to see you –
it’s the promise of what you are,
what you will become.”

The shadows suggest uncertainty and the sense that no mother knows what her baby will become. Much of motherhood is about nudging and steering a child in the right direction. A moral compass can be passed on but no one knows in advance where a child’s strengths and talents lie. The metaphor of a gardener planting a bulb with the faith that it will flower but also the doubt and uncertainty that it will is very apt.

“Melon Picker” starts “Death touched your feet/ with its wing.” and continues

“Could I ever
understand the pain
of broken feet? Where you knelt

under the night’s drunken expanse,
bleeding the lines

you walked, you wept…
sheer tiredness
was the thing that killed us

as it killed you then.
Seeing the same sun

bloat gold,
over black boulder seeds,
knocking like enormous breasts.

To greet the toll
that carried the dawn,

lifting your song-lines
and you
back, to the barren harvest.”

It explores the physicality of grief and loss, and the exhaustion that goes beyond a broken night’s sleep. The images carry a weight of tragedy and aloneness, ending on the emptiness of a “barren harvest”.

The title poem explores longing and disappointment,

“I’m unable to feel
I’m creating a daughter.
In my head,
this thing is a boy,

it sits on a throne,
and like a thrush sings
about the spittle of its bones.
It’s like squeezing
flesh and fruit from the bone,
this terrible love.”

Like planting a bulb, a pregnant woman is never sure that the baby will be as she imagines as she prepares for its arrival. For fathers, the baby is still a fairly abstract notion before the birth, but a mother can feel the baby moving, stretching and hiccupping. If image and reality clash, there’s a sense of bereavement. The language is spare and unflinching but not judgmental.

“Anvil” touches on the ultimate unable mother, who suffers a miscarriage,

“into the blow of the smite
that buried you like winter.

In my bed,
skin-clots furred.
Blood

climbed
throat, and lip. My mother’s shadow
danced on the wall. “

The poems are intimate in their offerings of insights and draw from considered experience using precise, spare language to explore vulnerability and to seek clarity. It’s good to see the less-explored side of motherhood expressed with compassion and intelligence.

“Unable Mother” is available from V Press.

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“Who is Mary Sue?” Sophie Collins (Faber and Faber) – poetry review

I’ve written about fanfiction (see “Fanfare” in “Ghosts in the Desert”), I am a writer who happens to be a woman and I write reviews so am very aware of how women’s literature is portrayed and often undermined by being written off as “domestic” or “autobiographical”. Therefore a poetry collection where a central section explores a fanfiction trope should have appealed.

The main concern of “Who is Mary Sue?” is how women’s writing is read and received, how critics undermine a woman’s ability to create fiction by assuming she is writing from autobiography and how women’s writing is categorised when writing by default is “writing by white men”. Diverting readers’ attention from the writing to the writer can leave writers questioning whether they have the ability to write, whether they deserve to take up space on a page and share thoughts with readers. But women’s lives are entwined with men’s and women’s writing shares space with men’s writing. “Scaffold” provides a useful metaphor where the scaffolding is given a female persona,

“We are rarely independent structures she said
before she dropped a bolt pin
which released a long section of tube
which released another bolt pin
which released several wooden boards
which scraped another tube
and made an unbearable sound.”

How many mothers are the linchpin of the family? In heterosexual relationships, how often does the woman end up as the household manager ensuring the fridge has food, the laundry is done and chores are undertaken? How often is this only noticed when a task is not completed and the household rhythm is disrupted?

“The Engine” is a long sequence broken into two sections, this is from the second,

“The dinner is ultimately disappointing. I had nothing to say, barely knowing any of the names the curator mentioned, and, on the few occasions I purported to recognise one, further discussion revealed me to be inept. I feel terribly guilty after the drink wears off.

“I remember at one point noticing in my behaviour that I was more or less pretending to be the curator’s daughter.”

The female narrator, who is knowledgeable, finds herself in the role of listener. The curator’s dialogue is a monologue and he has not noticed he is not addressing his dinner date as an equal partner but as inferior. She casts herself as a daughter rather than a colleague, dismissing herself, which allows the curator to continue his monologue. The frustration at his inability to recognise their imbalance and her conditioning to keep the peace rather than confront him leads to disappointment.

Another sequence, “whistle in the gloom”, focuses on the story of Dominique Aury, the pseudonymous author of “Story of O”,

“I recently read, in another poet’s poem, a passage that claimed apparently impersonal poems as the by-products of trauma.

“I witnessed, noiselessly, a thought forming; I watched it take shape as one watches a small movement in the distance: with a fleeting sense of calm.

“I read the passage again, and I understood it. I understood it, and I felt the shame rise; I knew the poet was right; I knew the poet was absolutely wrong.


“Creating isn’t imagination, it’s taking the great risk of grasping reality.”

[horizontal line is part of the poem]

The final quoted sentence is from Idra Novey’s translation of “The Passion According to G.H.” by Clarice Lispector. The “understood” is important enough to be repeated, but not explained. In quantum physics, a particle may be simultaneously ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but outside of the quantum state, it has to be one or the other. The reader is left to decide. Sophie Collins is inviting readers to think but offering no guidelines.

“Who is Mary Sue?” is fragmented prose, often a gathering of quotes. The definition of a Mary Sue is taken at face value and accepted. The phrase is attributed to a woman, Paula Smith in a 1973 parody of “Star Trek”, and chiefly used in fanfiction to describe an invented character who is too accomplished, flawless, who usually ends up rescuing the hero and is often thought to be a thinly-disguised version of the author.

“‘I don’t know if I should be sending this to you,’ wrote one young author in her cover letter to a magazine. ‘I’m afraid it’s a Mary Sue. Only I don’t know what that is.'”

There are two blank pages after this: space to consider the implications of a new writer offering an apologetic cover letter, using a term like Mary Sue without knowing its meaning and to consider if writers might be censoring themselves due to the fear of having their main or narrating characters dismissed as Mary Sues.

Joanna Russ wrote “How to suppress women’s writing” and Sophie Collins quotes an anecdote where Russ was on a panel with two (male) professors considering applications to a university’s creative writing course,

“…Russ recalls disagreeing with her two male colleagues on the believability of a short story by a woman which ends with the female protagonist lying in bed next to her sleeping husband, wishing she had the courage to mutilate him with a piece of cooking equipment.

“In part two, Russ remembers being impressed by a woman’s poem in which a girl returning home from a date with a boy she does not like (throughout the evening the girl has to ‘work at it’) opens the white refrigerator in her mother’s kitchen to find that its interior is ‘entirely covered with red cabbage roses’.

“The male professors find the anger of the story’s protagonist over-stated and the poem’s essential image unrecognisable, disengaged.

Neither woman is admitted to the creative writing course.”

Clearly neither of the male professors are familiar with Sylvia Plath’s “Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper” and are unable to appreciate the social conditioning that encourages girls to “be nice” or that fighting back against someone bigger and heavier than you tends not to end well. Readers don’t find out whether the two applicants were accepted elsewhere or gave up writing so it’s not possible to assume that the two male professors’ actions led to two writers no longer using their talents, which is where the anecdote seems to be heading. It doesn’t consider the argument that the two writers might be better off at another university which doesn’t dismiss their writing.

One quote on a page:

“She wrote it, but the protagonist’s all her. (A Mary Sue!)”

Another quote on one page

“Thus Mary Sue becomes, in my eyes, an unwitting embodiment of the double standard of content.”

A quote from Lucy Ives in response to a question about an unnamed narrator:

“The narrator’s name could be Lucy, but her name is certainly not ‘Lucy Ives’ or at any rate she isn’t me… the narrator doesn’t have a life in the same way that you or I do, which is of course obvious, but all the same I want to say that I don’t intend for this narrator to have a life; I intend for her to tell this story.”

The first irritation is the definition of a Mary Sue is taken at face value and accepted. A Mary Sue is not gender specific (male versions are sometimes referred to as Marty Stu but often just called Mary Sue), but was given a woman’s name because most fanfiction writers are women. Sophie Collins’ definition overlooks this and assumes sexism is at work. There’s no exploration of why fanfiction, often written off as derivative and lacking value because original fiction is thought to be superior, is so appealing to women writers.

At no point it is queried why a term arising from a specific genre of fiction is being taken to apply to any fiction by a writer who happens to be a woman. This weakens the central premise of “Who is Mary Sue?” because Mary Sue is taken out of context and held as a lens to distort writing that isn’t fanfiction and it doesn’t appear to be the commentators who are doing this.

Sophie Collins in “Who is Mary Sue?” is setting out to explore the standards women’s writing are held to and the conflation of women’s fiction with autobiography by using fragments to suggest women’s voices are only heard in between gaps or when readers are forced to read them. It does so from a cerebral viewpoint, leaving blanks for the readers to figure out the emotional resonance and impact of ideas explored in the text. I appreciated its intelligence, but failed to warm to it.

“Border Monkeys” Tharun Chelley (The Book Guild) – book review

What the publisher was expecting when they sent a copy of this book to Scraptoft Parish Council, I’m not sure. Of course the author’s welcome to hire Scraptoft’s Community Hub and hold a book launch, but, at the moment, there’s no book/reading group in the village. The local library is a book bus from Birstall that visits when children are in school and those with jobs are working. The views below are my own and not that of the parish council.

Border-Monkeys-510x798“Border Monkeys” is set in a post-apocalyptic Leicester. A recession has wiped out Europe’s economic power and a mysterious infection, transmitted through broken skin, has left much of the population zombified. Layton, who is probably 24 years old, is trying to find his place in a world that offers nothing except violence, tinned food and ratburgers. Initially he teams up with Amrit and Rhea as they search for shelter at night and food in a ruined city.

Characters are Tharun Chelley’s strong point. The group of three become a larger ensemble as the story moves forward. Each character is rounded and dialogue is deftly handled so it’s easy to follow who is talking, even in group conversations. Layton is likable, honest and a bit stupid at times so easy to engage with. Rhea is recognisable and independent without being stereotypically ‘feisty’. She clearly cares for her friends but is still a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood. Amrit’s naive with hidden strengths.

The three friends stumble towards a collective, known as The Union, run by a brutalised individual called General Singh. Initially staying in former university halls of residence and receiving free board and lodgings, shared with another group, in exchange for work – separating materials for recycling – seems like a reasonable deal. However, once their group sees the harsh punishments metered out for transgressions and experiments carried out in secret, General Singh is clearly not the benign dictator Layton initially thought him. Layton, Rhea and Amrit plus the friends they’ve made decide it’s time to leave. Rhea had been separated from the group and punished for responding to a bully after severe provocation. Conveniently she’s returned to the group just before the day they put their plan into action. Equally conveniently, despite being captured at the final gate, they are allowed to leave anyway. Either the author had General Singh inexplicably turn generous or he’s more Machiavellian than suggested up to this point. I expected this to turn into a cat and mouse game where they are allowed to run but captured again later, although this didn’t happen.

Malls are a favourite base: small retail units are easy to defend at night and there’s plenty of opportunity to stock up on tinned food, supplies of which seem everlasting although the tins have to be looked for. Conveniently whenever the group start running out of food, a supply is found. There are run-ins with groups of ‘infected’, who are also simply looking for food and trying to survive. The infected tend to fight and uninfected humans have to be careful not to get scratched or bitten during a fight otherwise they too become infected. Before they get too settled, another collective turn up and, at gunpoint, take the group of friends to a farm.

The titular border monkeys are virtually absent for most of the book. To be fair, the blurb does frame it as Layton’s story but it seems odd to give the border monkeys such a key billing. The border monkeys are human, anarchic bikers dressed like punks and fond of finding food by bullying others into giving up theirs. Best avoided if survival’s your aim. Around two-thirds of the way in, they appear having apparently been spying on Layton and his friends. Their purpose is to give Layton his final challenge and discover his purpose in life.

The plot, however, is episodic: they did this, then they did that, then they told campfire stories, then they fought a group of infected/other humans, then they moved on and did this, then they did that… There doesn’t seem to be an overriding story arc. Apart from daily survival, there’s no sense of what’s at stake for the main characters. I know survival sounds like a big deal, but all the characters, even the outlaws and infected, are trying to survive too. The characters didn’t get many chances to solve their own problems, each time they came up against an obstacle, something or someone else solved it for them, such as General Singh letting them go. If this were a film, it would be a good half hour too long. Engaging as the characters were, their situations became repetitive and similar.

“Border Monkeys” is available from The Book Guild.

“Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady” Alan Price (The High Window Press) – poetry review

Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady Alan Price coverAlan Price’s poems have a filmic quality to them. They often started with a camera’s eye view of a scene presented in a way to guide the reader to discern the poem’s mood. This allows for textured layers to explore a theme or idea. The poems are not just visual or intellectual concepts. They show compassion. In the title poem,

“White shirt torn off,
no longer assisted
by her adept hands.
Jacket, trousers and underwear
hurled at the chair
she once sat on.

‘Saturation’ she’d said,
‘Are we not seeing
one another too much?’
He kneels on the bed, not guilty.”

He and his Japanese lover take a break. Kneeling suggests supplication, a plea that this doesn’t end. Later he wonders,

“Was he more innocent
falling down naked
or dressed up to the nines,
indulging in camouflage,
smiling for Erochikku?”

Appropriately Erochikku translates as “erotic”. He is left lonely with memories and readers see a mix of desire and regret. There’s an ambiguity here too: the reader is left unsure as to whether the “she” is a woman or a picture. Is she speaking or is it his conscience?

In “Futility of My Own Great War” Alan Price acknowledges domestic subject matters seem unimportant compared with apparently greater subjects,

“To write about the retreat, knowing I’d have run too if they’d put me there.
To write to scared young officers, knowing I’m absent and unafraid.
To write about orders I uncover as wrong, ignorant of how to obey.
To write that I’ll be coming home soon, when I’m always home.
To write with those dying for me, when I live on with my buried life.
To write to discover what I’ve buried. Scenes of the dead.
Writing me, now.”

It also touches on issues around writing other people’s stories, even when the others are no longer with us. How far can a writer go when using someone else’s story? How can a writer understand another’s motives and experiences through second hand sources? Can a writer, who has never been to war, understand what it’s like? On the other hand, writing about a relatively uneventful life, albeit from a position of knowledge and understanding, can seem unimportant and not worthwhile, even when a personal truth can be expanded to a universal one. It’s only a compassionate writer who would consider such issues. It’s left for the reader to decide which way the writer should decide.

In “Mischievous Shoot”, another writer is urged not to lose sight of what made her a writer in the first place. A writer has posed for her author photo wearing glasses, “the kind actors wear to show how arty they are”. The last stanza is,

“I watch her posing through this album
before her stories found a publisher.
Before she had her hair cut short, grew ill,
grew better, grew back into her mischief.”

Other poems touch on more contemporary issues. “Fortress Europe” takes Katie Hopkins’ comparison of migrants to cockroaches in The Sun newspaper to its natural conclusion, the attack refers to a suggested gas attack,

“In the dark of their old chambers
they hiss and chirrup on festering laws.
All will survive the attack,
draw plans to creep and stick around.”

The last quoted sentence could be applied to Katie Hopkins: she is paid to provide controversy and click bait and, so long as she is careful not to say anything that can’t be shrugged off, she will survive even when readers attack. It’s when she’s not talked about, she will be quietly dropped. A cockroach potentially could survive a nuclear blast: they will outlive humans. That wasn’t the metaphor Katie Hopkins was aiming for.

“Accommodations” doesn’t specifically say so, but could refer to the Grenfell Tower fire where 72 people lost their lives when fire broke out and cladding used on the tower facilitated its spread.

“You expect to live in a safe tower
shielded from wind, flood and fire.
Yet the clothes that clad your body
protect and attract more than
every panel of these huge walls.
I’m trembling, not burning.”

It concludes with a fantasy that tower blocks are appreciated, invested in and owners take proper fire retardant measures. This in turn allows the inhabitants to thrive and become part of the wider community, instead of being left as victims of cost-cutting measures by investors more interested in balance sheets than a duty of care, a system that tries to shift responsibility onto inhabitants whilst robbing them of power. A theme picked up in a recent novella after Grenfell that imagines inhabitants dreaming of owning a house and a garden closed to whoever lives next door, rather than an apartment in a community of neighbours.

“Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady” contains assured, quiet poems, crafted so the reader knows the poet has confidence to allow them space for interpretation: the conclusion is not as important as the journey. Alan Price employs visual images to guide readers, creating poems that stay in the memory after the book has been read.

“Wardrobe Blues for  Japanese Lady” is available from The High Window Press.


 

“Dip Flash” Jonathan Pinnock (Cultured Llama) – book review

Dip Flash Jonathan PinnockIf you’re looking for quirky, humorous flash fiction to dip in and out of, “Dip Flash” fits the bill. Stories feature disappearing houses, a bull in a china shop, live meat in a butcher’s shop, a wife who morphs into a cat, a granny equity scheme… all told economically and credibly with more than a dash of wit. Each story is focused and holds its own logic and even the more surreal ones contain a kernel of truth to get the reader thinking. The opening story, “The Picture of Mrs Tandoğan”, has a house that disappears but the story’s heart is about how we create memories in relationships through a compare and contrast between a selfie-snapping millennial couple and an elderly man who only has one picture of his wife.

The weaker stories feel as if there are merely a scene to build to a punchline. In “Rare Meat”, a butcher who has a crush on his customer agrees to source a piece of rare meat for her without knowing why she wants this particular meat. Problem is, the reader doesn’t get let in on her motive either: is she trying to impress someone, is she setting a test for the butcher, how does she feel about the butcher? She is reduced to a cipher.

Most of the stories don’t reduce their characters to ciphers and their motivations create credibility. Jonathan Pinnock’s strength lies in taking an idea, which might be an image, a proverb, a common phrase, and exploring its limits, often with humour. The compact nature of flash fiction is a perfect vehicle for this approach. There is much to enjoy in “Dip Flash”.

“Dip Flash” is available from Cultured Llama

“Always Another Twist” Sarah Leavesley (Mantle Lane Press) – book review

Always Another Twist Sarah LeavesleyJulie’s reaction to a betrayal at work is to plot revenge. Most would leave this as fantasy but Julie tests the robustness of her plan and puts it into action. It succeeds but she realises that working for a company more concerned with politics than talent isn’t for her and she moves on to a new job and new romance. So far, so good, but Julie’s life is complicated by her older sister Claire. Julie stepped up and helped care for her niece when Claire suffered undiagnosed post-natal depression which became a breakdown when her baby was lost to a cot death. Both sisters have also had to face the sudden death of their much-loved, widowed father. When Julie discovers she is pregnant, she has to face whether her new partner will support her, how her sister will react and deal with the resurfacing of past trauma. Initially chapters follow the nursery rhyme “Ten Green Bottles” with each chapter presenting a new break, a new problem for Julie to solve. Some are simple: you lose a job, find another. Others more complex, discovering her father’s diary, whether to face up to or walk away from a new experience, how to speak to Claire. The bottles start increasing when Julie discovers her pregnancy, implying what is broken can be rebuilt, but a rebuilt bottle carries its fault line.

Although the older sister, Claire was the baby of the family leaving Julie feeling she had to protect and carry. But she also knows that trying to shield Claire from the truth is not helpful, even if news of a new baby isn’t going to be welcome. Claire had discovered an old kaleidoscope from their childhood that she kept for her own baby. Julie remembers how every twist in the kaleidoscope changes the view of the objects within. At the heart of the story is how we allow the views of others to distort the view we have of ourselves. This can be positive when we question decisions and check we’re on the right path. However, it can be negative when we prioritise how our decisions affect others and change them based on unchecked information which may be false.

Julie is easy to sympathise with: the independent sister prepared to take responsibility and do the right thing, even at personal cost. It’s easy to see her reflected in her father who rose to the challenge of allowing two sisters to be themselves and adjust to the loss of their mother without burdening them with his grief. Claire’s husband seems adrift but steps up when it matters. Claire feels a bit of a mystery, a space in the novel where others project onto her. However, we got Claire’s story in “Kaleidoscope”.

“Always Another Twist” is a companion to the earlier “Kaleidoscope” which was told from Claire’s viewpoint. Claire was an unreliable narrator and Julie’s story doesn’t faithfully follow Claire’s. The stories are complementary, however, readers don’t need to read both books together. Each sister’s story stands on its own.

“Always Another Twist” is available from Mantle Lane Press

My review of “Kaleidoscope”

My review of S A Leavesley’s “How to Grow Matches” (poetry)

“Strange Fashion” Pam Thompson (Pindrop Press) – poetry review

Strange Fashion Pam ThompsonThe poems in “Strange Fashion” travel to Ireland, Scotland, Spain and America, moving back through history to a journalist trying to interview Virginia Woolf and Emilys Bronte and Dickinson browsing antiques in Church Stretton. The strangeness does not lie in the unfamiliar locations but in close observations of people’s behaviour when their guards are let down, when individuality shows. In “Gas Basin, 6pm” a woman kneels by the canal with a bag of fish food,

” She was just a woman with a few drinks inside her,
feeding fish, and if she felt like talking to them, waving even,
who were we to stop her, who were we to imagine
that our lives had bigger moments in them than hers?

We walked past on the other side, kept our eyes straight ahead,
carried on chatting until there was a safe enough distance
between that first sighting and the looking back.”

Despite the subject’s inhibitions being loosened enough to enable her to talk to the fish she’s feeding, the observers feel they can’t openly observe but look back from a safe distance. Partly this is down to the surprise of watching someone do something strange, but also the observers’ senses of decorum; they don’t want to be seen to be looking. There’s no judgment – the woman is not described as drunk and seems to be sufficiently in control to speak to and feed fish without the observers worrying she might fall in the water and the observers concede they have no right to intervene.

Thoughts are recorded “For Those Who Walk Pavements”,

“who walk, as if on air, or weighed down
by something shocking left over

from their dreams. Spare a thought for the wanderer,
meanderer, the blinkered, the lost.
Spare another thought, light a candle,

for those who travel without compass
or map, who leave the house with vague intentions,
an idea of destination, yet happily drift off course.”

For most pedestrians, the walkers mentioned are those who cause annoyance and are barely worth a second glance, much less a thought, as those with destinations and one eye on a clock hurry past. The poem is an invitation to slow down and observe. There are moments of tenderness too, in “Prisms”

“The frayed ends of what the rain left.
Red seeping into blue.

It doesn’t matter in what order the colours come,
as long as they do.

*

It takes me back to that other darkened room –
us, tethered by lust.

The way we sucked the breath
out of each other,
the colours streaming through us in any old order.”

A search for light and colour is echoed in “The Sun (her Ex) on the Shortest Day”

“A satellite tracking your temperature, weight and height,
wondered where you’d gone. Dirty stop-out, you crouched in a stairwell,
wasted from dog days. Even so, the sky danced itself into unseasonal blue.

You crouched. I watched scraps of cloud; people in flats hanging out washing,
moving through rooms; then later, car headlights, pretending to be you,
tiny white bulbs in the tree outside Matalan.

Faking it, window by window: the glint of your stalker attentions.
Black canal. Swans stamped with leaf shadows. Your kiss
on the back of my neck in the middle of my forgetting.”

“Strange Fashion” is an invitation to observe without prejudice or judgment. It offers compassionate attentiveness that comes from a poet willing to slow down and watch and record. The poems are crafted, giving readers enough details to complete their stories based on acute glimpses into others’ lives.

“Strange Fashion” is available from Pindrop Press.