“Still Lives With Apocalypse” Jennifer A McGowan (Prole Books) – book review

“Still Lives With Apocalypse” is the winner of the Prole pamphlet competition 2020 and is split between a thirteen part sequence which gives the pamphlet its title and nine other poems. The opening sequence images Jesus hanging out in various scenarios. He isn’t too good at magic according to “Penn and Teller Try to Teach Jesus Stage Magic”,

“Jesus goes through the rigmarole
one more time. Drops a ball,
not used to fashioning things
when not looking.

After another hour, they call
it quits. Jesus reaches into Teller’s
coat pocket and pulls out a dove,
sets it free. I’m sorry,
he says, offering
its olive branch.”

Jesus, it seems, isn’t very good at misdirection where he has to divert the audience’s attention while he makes the trick work. Once the pressure’s off, he produces miracles easily. The difference is that the olive branch is produced from a genuine need to apologise whereas the tricks, while entertaining, deliberately deceive people and can’t be turned into a parable. Elsewhere, he smokes drop behind a supermarket, serves miners pints, fails to teach premier league footballers they don’t need their excessive salaries, hangs out with Buddha and tries his hand at love poetry in “Jesus Wanders Obliquely Through Chinese Poetry”

“My long hair shines for no one.
You are the candle I keep burning
in the bedroom we used to warm together.
Our silk bed cover is wasted on just one skin.
Come back soon, Xiao Wen. The mountains are adamant.
They do not need another blood-red footprint
Pressed into their hard, graveled paths.”

I’m not sure if Xiao Wen is being used as a general woman’s name or a reference to Xiao Wen Ju, the first model to front a show by fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Either way, it seems Jesus has learnt there’s more poetry in unrequited or lost love than writing about the throes of passion or delight that a one night stand wants to stick around. Although I think the opening quoted line would be better as “My long hair shines only for one,” since “no one” implies that it doesn’t shine for Xiao Wen either. This Jesus is clearly one to mingle and try and understand the world through experience.

The remaining nine poems, “Mud Angels” are similarly themed around everyday miracles, Mary’s hair dye staining her shift, a “raggedy-ass crow” in In “How It Is” asks the speaker to retrieve a shopping trolley from the canal because it has burgers in it and teases,

“you wouldn’t recognise
Christ Hisself
from a shopping trolley.

And I got so pissed,
I said, I’ll show you
Jesus Christ
and I hoicked
that trolley out
muck an’ all.
And that raggedy-ass crow
he got his lunch
and I’d like to say
I got saved

but I didn’t.”

Not all good deeds are rewarded or perhaps the lack of reward was because the speaker enabled a crow’s lazy diet of burgers instead of carrion. The final sequence focuses on three historical episodes of flooding in an Italian town. In the third episode, people form a human chain to pass out books, artworks, anything that can be saved while the prisoners in La Murate are left to huddle on the roof,

Angeli del fango, we are called
by those bringing us food, coffee.
Angels of mud. Cross yourself if you like,
but God has blinked and forgotten us.
Our only kept faith this chain of worn hands.”

Although it appears the finger is being pointed at the Christian god, those quick to blame him for abandonment show skewed priorities. I’d be the last person to argue that books aren’t important, but is human life not a priority?

Ultimately, this dilemma lies at the heart of “Still Lives with Apocalypse”, the sense of skewed priorities. The footballers failing to ask why they are paid excessively, the magicians’ sleights of hands, Jesus writing about the absence of love rather than addressing the cause of that absence, the demand Mary stands in a saintly pose for hours on end without easing her discomfort or caring about her aches and pains, the crow demanding junk food and the muddy angels saving books instead of people. In brief vignettes, Jennifer A McGowan doesn’t produce judgmental parables but presents scenarios, often with a wry humour, for readers to draw their own conclusions. This is fun with a serious intent.

“Still Lives With Apocalypse” is available from Prole Books.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“Big Sexy Lunch” Roxy Dunn (Verve Press) – book review

“Big Sexy Lunch” manages to combine sassiness and seriousness, a brightly-coloured dress covering the depths at its core. It sets out its stall as a millennial take on Frank O’Hara. The title and first poem in the pamphlet details a six course lunch where the wine is nearly finished at the end of the third and talk turns philosophical,

“You congratulate your conversation
On both its content and delivery
Unashamedly concluding
That a big sexy lunch
Is not solely for pleasure
But the development of humanity
And the growth of our species”

The sort of lunch that leaves you bloated and able only to lie in bed feeling sensuality replete and concluding,

“The big sexy lunch
For the simple reason
Whilst you haven’t achieved
All the things you intended
You are in this moment
Undeniably living
Your best life”

The poem’s addressee has been seduced into believing that enjoying good food and talking about plans and intentions and desires is somehow a substitute for action. The implication is that once the meal is digested and energy levels restored, the low of realising that in fact nothing has been achieved will hit hard. It’s left to the reader to figure out whether the addressee will take action or arrange another indulgence.

This action/intention dichotomy is further explored in “List” where making a list delays the need for action. The list-maker is responding to her lover’s delay in replying to a text, “I’ve compiled a list of your problems/ to ween myself off you:”

“1. I think you might be provincial
. you try too hard to be cultivated
. which makes me suspicious

2. You could be more succinct in speech
. what you think sounds intelligent
. is actually verbose”

The list itself sounds fairly fixable until the last item:

“7. You’ve now just text but the list now exists
. which is currently the new problem”

It’s a call to action or at least highlights that action is needed. Does the list-maker undo her list or start a conversation about her lover’s flaws? While she’s thinking about that, does she respond to her lover’s text? Could he be making a similar list about her?

She’s still pondering in “Sweet Casanova” which includes the observation, “Does working for an NGO make you good in part?/ You’re as incongruous as Trump figure-skating”. That’s an unforgettable image. In “Weeds” the speaker starts questioning her likeability,

“It alarms me when people say my characters aren’t likeable
They’re based primarily on versions of me

When I smiled at that woman in the queue out of loneliness
It made me feel ashamed like being bloated on the pull”

A character doesn’t have to be likeable to hook a reader into a story, but it helps if readers can engage with and desire the character’s success. The conflation of a fictional story and autobiography is annoying to most writers because they wish their work to stand alone from them and be examined on its merits, not for what it reveals about the writer. However, the speaker worries about the likeability of her characters because she’s reading comments on her characters as comments on her. However, those commenting on her characters may not see them as versions of her but as independent fictional creations so don’t realise the speaker thinks they are conflating the speaker and character as she is. This unease spills into smiling at a stranger in the hope of a conversation without knowing if the stranger would welcome conversation or understand the intention behind the smile. It’s not a minor signal of friendliness that stops at the smile but a potential imposition of a desire for conversation. The shame comes from the fear of not being completely open with intent. This unease is continued into the line “being bloated on the pull”, the intention is to find a lover but the bloat means the speaker is not presenting herself as she really is. The poem concludes, “The weeds in the garden must absolutely stay/ They are so yellow and sure of who they are”. The weeds are taking space they have not been permitted but their colour is so dazzling, they are being given permission. The colour, though, is ambiguous yellow can be cowardly and diseased as well as vibrant and cheerful.

The “Glosa on Frank O’Hara’s Mayakovsky” starts with a quote from Frank O’Hara, “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting and modern” and laments, “that idolising owning a study/ culminates in this: a generic green lamp/ and my un-needed manuscript” which triggers a short list of imperfections and concludes,

“there are things I ought to learn
like driving a car and stoicism;
my grandmother’s watch is a daily
reminder: I want life to feel earned
and interesting, and modern.”

It’s a want for validation and sense of belonging, a want to have something to give others.

“Big Sexy Lunch” is fun, the poems’ light surfaces draw readers in and gives them the choice of staying with their lightheartedness or being drawn in further to notice the questions raised in the depths and folds.

“Big Sexy Lunch” is available from Verve Poetry Press.

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

“Reflections Cultural Voices of Black British Irrepressible Resilience” (Serendipity) – book review

“Reflections” is an anthology of essays that Pawlet Brookes’ introduction summarises, “Ultimately Reflections is an analysis of the need to recognise the Black British experience through the lens of its artistic voices… they reposition British cultural heritage, not from a Western construct, instead as one that is rich in forgotten and hidden geographies and history.” My interest is in literature so that section gets the larger part of this review. This is not a comment on the quality of the book as a whole or the other sections, which look at carnival, dance, music, theatre and visual art. The focus here is on the experiences of people from an African-Caribbean heritage whether born in Britain or elsewhere and where Black is a reference to race, an initial capital is used throughout.

Stephen Small, Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Berkley, gives an overview of “Black Expressive Culture in England and Europe”. He grew up in Liverpool, UK, and observes, “Everywhere I went there was a constant, enduring message of white superiority and Black inferiority. Intuitively, instinctively I knew something was wrong, despite British educational efforts to fully colonise my mind.” Music became a salve and education, change to learn about Liverpool’s role in the Atlantic slave trade and resistance to colonisation in Africa. The essay discusses efforts to provide counternarratives in museums and archives to racist exhibits and the colonist’s viewpoint. Stephen Small posits that Black groups throughout Europe face the same four dynamics in experience. Firstly “ambiguous hypervisibility” where stock images generally show Blacks at the bottom of the economic, political and social hierarch alongside successful singers, dancers and sports champions so someone outside these portrayals, e.g. a Black CEO is shocking. Secondly an “entrenched vulnerability”, i.e. there is no one important social or economic area where Blacks are better off than whites. Thirdly “institutional racism” which shouldn’t need any explanation. Fourthly, and a point that contributes to the book’s subtitle, “irrepressible resistance and resilience” in challenging racism and establishing Black support networks. He concludes, “Black expressive culture remains paramount in initiating fundamental advancements in education, in public discussions and in political discussions and will continue to do so indefinitely.”

Kadija (George) Sesay’s “What is Black British Literature? Where Does it Start?” focuses on the East Midlands (Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire) and writers of African descent. The chief barrier is that publishing decisions were made by white gatekeepers, the imposition of prejudice and intersection of racism and sexism creating an extra barrier for women. Naseem Khan’s 1975 publication, “The Arts that Britain Ignores” led to the creation of The Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS) who set up two publications, “Black Arts in Britain” and “Artrage” but was liquidated in the mid-1990s. National arts organisations were not created to specifically support Black voices so access to support, funding and networking opportunities was patchy. Spread the Word, Centerprise and Inscribe created posts specifically for Black literature workers and enabled voices to flourish, even if still on the margins. This section goes on to list current East Midlands based writers some of whom comment on their writing practice. Carol Leeming states, “A recurring feature of my work is magic realism narratives, with compelling, culturally diverse characters with distinctive voices from marginalised communities”. Momodou Sallah, “my themes cover Post-coloniality, decoloniality and critical Southern perspectives, Globalisation and Global Youth Work; Race, difference and cultural competence.” Kadja Sesay concludes, “At a regional level, the work is rich and full with contemporary voices and tackles local issues, punctuating history so it tells a more complete story. I am proud to be part of this rich and diverse landscape where we are leaving legacy.” While her essay is a thorough overview of writers and support networks, there wasn’t space to cover criticism and reviewing. The under-representation of Black authors in reviews is as much an issue as the gatekeepers who are barrier to getting published.

Tara Lopez discusses “Bringing the Carnival to Britain”, looking at Caribbean carnivals in the East Midlands and the creation of the East Midlands Caribbean Carnival Arts Network (EMCCAN) in 2011. She concludes with a plea for more cross-generational shared learning to keep the carnival alive.

Maureen Salmon’s “Coming Home: Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble 1984 to 2005” starts with a quote from Germoine Acogny, “African dance comes from the villages – but there is now the Africa of cities, of skyscrapers. We cannot preserve dance purely as museum culture, IT MUST GROW.” This point echoes Stephen Small’s contribution where he talks of museum displays presenting African figures in tribal dress showing an Africa of savannahs and mud huts rather than a parallel culture of cities and urbanites. Maureen Salmon discusses the need for training and development of dance companies, “there was no ecosystem to support African people’s dance, particularly the professional training of artists and choreographic development” and the responsibility of funding organisations to take development seriously, concluding that there is a collective responsibility to “cultivate visionary collaborative and transformative leadership… to innovate so that we remain relevant in an international arena.”

Eddie Chambers, Professor of African Diaspora Arti History at the University of Texas, who splits his time between the US and UK looks at “Black British Art”. Although Black artists do get recognised in the Queen’s Honours Lists, getting exhibition space remains a challenge. An exhibition of Frank Bowling’s work in the mid-1990s secured a national tour but failed to get a London venue or press review. This is significant because, “with the capital being the ultimate site of artistic validation, the failure to secure a London venue was telling”. Archiving is also important. Currently there are archives at The African-Caribbean, Asian and African Art in Britain Archive and Stuart Hall library, both in London, and the Centre for Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. At attempt to set one up in the South West (Bristol) had initial success but then suffered poor leadership – a similar point made by Maureen Salmon that professional development and leadership is key. Eddie Chambers ends on a note of hope detailing scholarship projects archiving Black Arts.

Carol Leeming MBE FRSA identifies two major problems in “Black British Theatre – A Case Study”, white gatekeepers and the concentration of Black British theatre organisations in London or Birmingham so how does Black talent based in the regions get on their radars? Moreover, how do new Black actors, producers and writers get into theatres if they don’t see work by people like them? Austerity encourages theatres to focus on plays and shows that draw greater audiences rather than supporting new voices. Decibel was set up as a national BAME/Culturally Diverse Arts Showcase with two full-time white producers, one based in Birmingham and the other in Manchester, neither of whom could begin to support Black theatre in the regions. Another initiative, Sustained Theatre East Midlands, didn’t fulfil its promise and withered away. This creates a further problem that any new initiatives are viewed with scepticism and suspicion. The case study concludes that a map of Black British Theatre is needed and access to fundraising needs to be urgently opened up and simplified so artists can focus on creative work. It is “time to recognise over six decades of Black British Theatre that showcases emerging artists alongside mid-career and high-profile artists.”

Philip Herbert, composer, contributes “Mapping Musical Exchanges of the African Diaspora. What Does the Future Hold for Black Artists Following On From These Exchanges?”. He discusses the influence and fusion of music from classical to popular, “there needs to be a greater sense of urgency in eliminating the barriers to access to music-making amongst Black aspiring musicians. There is a need to open up the criteria for funding, so that it makes it a fairer process, to enable Black artists to access funding to broker their creative and aspirational output.” Without this, “a fundamental building block is missing.”

Normally I would not mention the production values of a book, however, “Reflections” uses either a dark grey type on white paper or a white type on grey paper. The contrast on the latter combination – white on grey – isn’t strong enough for the type to be easy to read.

Overall “Reflections” underlines the significant contribution Black artists have made and continue to make to Britain’s cultural heritage despite the barriers. The obvious barrier is racism, but there are also problems with Britain’s arts being London-centric and so expensive and difficult to access for regional artists, and also the problem of white, middle class gatekeepers. Access to funding is discussed: it needs to be simplified and support is needed for marginalised groups. While Black support networks have been created, their creation and development has largely been down to the artists themselves rather than organisations created to develop arts. The book does not cover wages but it’s clear that precarious, short term contracts and development through internship programmes tend to exclude working class artists and hence indirectly exclude Black artists.

“Reflections” satisfies two aims: firstly, highlighting the barriers faced by Black cultural voices and secondly celebrating the achievements of Black cultural voices of the East Midlands. Its reach, however, is wider than the East Midlands and I would recommend anyone invested in Black voices either directly or from a desire to learn more start with “Reflections.”

“Reflections” is available from Serendipity.

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

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

“How to Make Curry Goat” Louise McStravick (Fly On The Wall Poetry) – book review

Louise McStravick’s “How to Make Curry Goat” explores a Jamaican heritage and growing up in Birmingham (UK). Poems are presented double spaced. “Tanned Feet” starts with “This tan from Jamaica never washed off” and continues

“These tanned feet have grown golden next to

the ghost of a mango tree

where children would meet,

bodies speak the language of freedom

run to catch shrimp in a river that

only runs now in black and white memories.

Stanza break

But my feet see them in colour

in the soft, brown warmth of a tan

nourished with coconut jelly

so it does not fade

that will be topped up again

Stanza Break!!!!

one day.”

The poems are grounded in Birmingham but infused with memories of Jamaica. The title poem has a parent teaching a child where seemingly straightforward instructions are commented on,

“Take around 7 quid’s worth of goat

Or mutton dem di same ting

A spring of thyme, two large onions, three if you’re that way inclined

Not di Spanish h’onion di British h’onion.

A bulb of garlic. All-purpose seasoning and Caribbean Curry Powder

It nah matter which curry powder you fi use.

Using eyes to measure, one-part All Purpose to two-part curry powder

Be careful with the All Purpose. You nah want too much salt.

Precision is not the recipe’s point and exact measurements have been lost to decades of experience and improvisation. A person who cooks frequently adapts to the availability of ingredients and family tastes – not much point in loading the curry with peppers if family members aren’t fond of peppers. This intuition isn’t easy to teach and frustrates both child and parent, “You ask too many question!” becomes a refrain as the poem continues and the parent justifies saying goat or mutton can be used initially by saying they are the same and then they taste the same. Eventually, the curry is left to simmer and the child has to learn patience,

“And wait.

Tell your tongue to stop dribbling spit

that good things come to those that wait, imagine the plate, the tempting

fate that would be you trying to steal meat again.

It nah ready yet!

Stanza Break

And wait.

You are 6 again, 8 again, 10, again, 14, again,

waiting, waiting, salivating sitting on hands that do not know how to


The wait is worth it,

“He calls you to taste, it tastes better than great

it tastes like from the plate of his mom I never knew,

his gran, my namesake, it tastes like it has travelled on vibrations, on

waves, a land foreign to new territory.

Indentured slavery mixed with imported trade makes its way to my plate:

new learned memories.

Now these hands follow those that for centuries have taught their

daughters, their sons, me to make this curry.”

The poem ends,

“Until. Our story rises with steam from the plate.”

Learning how to make curry is more than learning a recipe. It’s learning about tradition, nurturing families and heritage. It’s not the curry that’s important, but the knowledge and experience passed down in learning how to make it, how family tastes have improvised and informed the ingredients and that good food worth sharing takes time.

“Fatherland, Motherland” asks if it’s cultural appropriation to speak patios with a Birmingham accent and concludes,

“I am British, English, a bit Irish and Jamaican

wha gwaan blud

curry goat and plaintain,

garage, yorkshire puddings and grime

this is all part of my culture,

but which culture is mine?”

“Postcards from England” a Jamaican sees terraced houses with lines of chimneys and thinks they are factories, until he discovers how cold it is and why houses need heat. In “My sister was born a sunset”, the mother is told “When children come out healthy, they are pink.” And “Children are not yellow like a fully-backed sun.” The mother knows better though when the midwives and nurses say “she must have jaundice”

“My mother tells them her father’s

skin holds the burnt ochres of a Caribbean sunset.

Stanza Break

They do not say sorry when they hand her over.”

The failure to apologise is telling: the nursing staff aren’t prepared to admit their prejudice and failure to take racial differences into account and to do this to a new mother exhausted from labour and worried about her baby is wrong.

Not all the poems focus directly on heritage. Some look to dating and relationships ending. “Move on” is four powerful lines,

“Ghosts don’t exist

except in the lump in the throat

the place between the end

and a new beginning.”

“Coconut” does return to childhood memories and ends with a child having her hair combed,

“he did not know how hair breaks she said my brothers and sisters were in Africa

did what he was taught I thought she had an affair. I wanted to know

hard labour, roots and culture, were my brothers and sisters like off the T.V

I’ll give you something to cry for, in between Coronation Street.

Take of mi belt and beat you, they would ask me why,

If you can’t hear you must feel, I drew Katie and not me.”

The theme of hair is revisited in “Gaudí would not have approved” where the narrator feels pushed into straightening her hair,

“Each strand brushed becomes brittle, broken into shards, she sheds, exposed. ‘Isn’t that better’? Then she remembers Gaudí. Curves undulating, pieces of broken rainbow toast the naked Catalonian sun. Surrounded by buildings standing straight, in line, trying to bend themselves away from the earth, against their better judgement, doing what they are told over and over again. Until they do not remember they are held together with cement. The Casa Bastillo turns the horizon part kaleidoscope, bent balconies, unfurl against transparent sky to remind her that she is the crest of the ocean, just before it breaks, the deepening curve of a tree’s roots, nature’s anchor, a freshly-fallen leaf, the fullness of pregnancy, the moon eclipsing the sun and so she tells them of Gaudí. That there are no straight      lines      in               nature.”

It’s not stated directly, but I very much doubt the narrator will give in and straighten her hair again. The prose poem is not double-spaced.

“How to Make Curry Goat” explores the poet’s Jamaican roots and growing up in the UK. The poems are conversational in tone and aim to share their messages without telling the reader how to think. They are easy to read aloud, the rhythms follow natural speech patterns, which demonstrates the subtlety of the craft that they are founded on. Louise McStravick has created a collection that is engaging and makes serious points with humour.

“How to Curry Goat” is available from Fly On The Wall Poetry.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“Not Human Enough for the Census” Erik Fuhrer (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press) – book review

Erik Fuhrer not human enough for the census book cover“Not Human Enough for the Census” is a collection of poems alongside images by Kimberly Androlowicz. Most of the images are created with digitally manipulated encaustic paintings and some of the poems share their titles. The collection’s title comes from the first poem, “[the creature of dark habits]” (all titles are parenthesised, as if they were an afterthought or a convenient filename rather than a means of identifying a poem),

“                                                             I was born I was born I was borne
.                                                              a child who is a finger
.                                                              whose body is a hangnail
.                                                              who knows at least 3 math problems
.                                                              right out of the womb
.                                                              the most important being
.                                                              anything times 0 is 0
.                                                              and therefore he bites his hangnail
.                                                              down to the cuticle
.                                                              so people call him fleshboy
.                                                              they call him cute little icicle
.                                                                              they call him if they need money
.                                                                                                         blow
.                                                                                                         cigarettes
.                                                                                                         a good time
.                                                                                                         a slice of ham
.                                                                                                         another excuse
.                                                                                                         for not being
.                                                                                                         quite human
.                                                                                                         enough
.                                                                                                         for the
.                                                                                                         census”

The first part of the poem starts on the left-hand margin and sprawls across to the right. The words feel fragmentary, the generous inclusion of space implies hesitancy of thought and that thoughts are being gathered but haven’t necessarily cohered into a narrative. The play on “born” and “borne” indicates both arrival and burden, a child who is an inconvenience and used rather than nurtured. The unidentified “they”, through their use and abuse of the boy, reduce their own humanity, not the boy’s, although, from their perspective, it’s the boy who is dehumanised and made to serve.

The prose poem, “[nightmare chorus]” starts with the interesting premise that the nightmare becomes its own character and almost a parasite to the dreamer,

“there is a nightmare growing inside you and sometimes you wake to the sound of a rat gnawing
at the glass of your nightmare and your nightmare is wearing a papier-mâché mask of your
nightmare who is also there cooing like a dove nightmare with a flask nightmare whose last
name is nightmare and who lives down the block from your lung capacity which is not enough to
hold your screams when you knock on every door nightmare”

The lack of punctuation and short vowels give the poem a quality of breathlessness and urgency. However, the poem rushes to a punchline and doesn’t develop its initial premise.

Similarly, “[all filiation is imaginary]” starts, “confession:           my dog is not my son/ he is too good looking” which feels like a random thought to spark ideas, continues,

“all filiation is imaginary:
.                   I have no
.                                                  father
.                                                                 not becoming
.                                                                                                  father
.                   becoming fish
.                               gilled heart
.                               gilded tongue
.                               a spider RANSACKING
.                    web
.                     my throat
.                                                            tick suck spatter”

A fatherless son, who has had to imagine who is father might be/might have been, may well reject the notion of becoming a parent. But it’s some jump from rejecting parenthood to a “gilled heart”, presumably something that attracts movement, that people slip through because the son can’t settle having never been shown what a relationship looks like to a spider.

More successful is “[8 millimeter body]”

“doesn’t understand that NRA stands for
.                                          never
.                                                       returning
.                                                                     again
after an open             gunshot            wound
.                                           to the head
.                                           or the heart
.                                           or the parts of the body
.                                           where flesh yields to
.                                           bone yields to the sky”

Re-defining the acronym is appropriate to the poem and the imagery supports the idea.

“[the treebutchers]” takes an idea,

“the treebutchers made 20 hits a day

their hands calloused
liked the bark             they eat twigs
.                                                                   consuming their kills

Cannibalism is a thin red line
.                                                       especially when
.                                                       the treebutchers began to sprout
.                                                        leaves from their eyes”

The poem goes on but it feels as if justice has been served.

Ekphrastic poems should be able to stand alone on their own merit. The artwork may add an extra dimension or layers to the poem. Here the poems achieve that. Kimberly Androlowicz’s artwork is a bonus and the abstract nature of the artworks is matched in the abstract appearance of the poems. They leave space for a reader’s imagination to feed the gaps and create the idea of thoughts being gathered, an image being processed and thought around. They create an impression for the reader to complete.

“Not Human Enough for the Census” is available here: https://www.erik-fuhrer.com/not-human-enough-for-the-census.

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

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“Hotel” Ali Lewis (Verve Poetry Press) – book review

Ali Lewis Hotel front cover“Hotel” is full of astutely observed poems that take an idea, play with it and arrive at a surprising conclusion. However, each poem is faithful to its own logic so the poems don’t feel surreal or as if the quirkiness has been thrown in as a distraction. In the opening poem, “Pressure”, the narrator speeding down a clear road hits a pheasant and pulls into

“the nearest petrol station pressure
wash blood from the bonnet of my car
from the headlights from underneath
the wheelarches while you keep watch
tell me shaking i would do this with you
i would do this with you if we killed a man”

Readers don’t get to know the relationship between the narrator and the person referred to as “you”, just that the second person feels the narrator and driver is too calm about washing the pheasant’s blood from the car. Then imagines the narrator/driver remaining just as calm if a man rather than a pheasant had been hit. There’s no need for the second person to “keep watch” but their paranoia keeps them stuck and escalates into whataboutery. The driver doesn’t respond, keeping busy is a way of keeping his emotions in check. This scene could become a pattern of behaviour in the relationship: one becoming emotional the other remaining stoic. A repeating pattern is also explored in “Carpet” where she pictures him as “a bad hotel carpet”,

“She hated the way she could see him
in a Rotary Club or Masons’ Grand Lodge,
and how he was, like a bad hotel carpet,
the same in the bedroom as he was in the bar,
as he was in the bedrooms of all of the others.

She hated the way he’d wait at the doorstep
if she stayed out too late, or roll, bright red,
out into the street, and how, like a bad hotel
carpet, his pattern seemed chosen to mask
all the dirt, his surface to muffle her steps.”

A man conscious of status and external image, less careful about what she thinks. Others see the surface pattern, she’s seen the dirty underlayer. He’s likes the impression of order, of routine. She wants to go out and come back at the wrong time occasionally. Although she claims to hate his habits, she doesn’t appear to be planning to leave. Perhaps his habits offer a security and familiarity. Another one concerned with image and routine is “The Englishman”

“In the bathroom, the Englishman has a cheeky
Punch cartoon, taking aim at the establishment,

and when he pisses, the Englishman aims
for the water, not the bowl. He splashes joyously.

The Englishman is not pissed, actually.
He can handle his drink, and his own affairs.

The Englishman has had an affair. He wears
a signet ring and not a wedding band.

The Englishman doesn’t signal when he changes
lanes on roundabouts or the ring road.

The Englishman is very sorry. He didn’t realise
you were in here, getting changed.”

Each couplet runs on from a word in the preceding couplet, allowing the poem to move forward and digress without the digressions becoming irritating or illogical. Each acts to reassure the Englishman that, whatever he encounters or does, he’s an all right chap underneath it all.

“Gloss” is inspired by a quote from Kay Ryan’s “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard”, “A life should leave/ deep tracks:/ ruts where she/ went out and back”, and ends,

“How can we grieve
What is the knack?
A trick
candle that
went out and back.”

The lives of others leave imprints. Grief isn’t a single event but something that recurs when we least expect it.

In “Hotel” Ali Lewis has created an engaging, intelligent collection of poems that play with ideas and images. Each poem follows its own logic and is carefully crafted so they bear repeating reading. Like moving from one hotel room to another, the basic furniture may seem familiar but the placing is different or there’s an item in one room that wasn’t in the last, so guests are forced to look again, pay attention and notice the differences, the change in route.

“Hotel” is available from Verve Poetry Press.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image


“disintegration” Paul Robert Mullen (Animal Heart Press) – book review

Paul Robert Mullen disintregration book cover“disintegration” is a journey through the aftermath of a failed relationship and follows a narrator who is trying to make sense of what went wrong and move on. “dreamcave” starts with watching a candle that’s a reminder,

“i watch it burn deep into dreams

dancing on the zephyr

.                    to the tinkle of wind-chimes


watch fire

bleed & rise onto cold stone


take myself to bed

.                                        alone”

The narrator clearly feels his aloneness and loneliness. The poems are all double-spaced, which gives the reader space to think and to feel what might be happening in the gaps. The use lower-case throughout gives the poems a tentative feel, as if they are edging onto the page, uncertain of their reception.

The mundane title of “watching from the window” belies a lively poem watching a shoreline during a storm,

“chemical changes                    in the air

some kind of diffusion

the aftermath            of events          that should never

.                                   have happened


the light seems dense

a thickening of senses

.                 rust smell from the

.                          temporary heater


i pull out the notebooks                the pen

.                   but the words aren’t there”

The storm could be literal: the one breaking over the shoreline, or metaphorical: the ending of the relationship, something that should not have happened. Compelling as the storm is the smell from the heater bring the writer back to reality but he finds he’s too caught up in the emotional reaction to the storm to write, and what kind of writer can’t write? The storm attacks his sense of identity. The who he was as half of a couple is no more but he’s not adjusted to his new identity as a single man.

There’s some self-deprecating humour too. In one poem his mother complains he’s wasting his time writing poetry and his response is, “some people have no poetry” and asks “what do they do?”,

“what do they reach for when winter

raps the windows

.                         in late november

comes through the door huddled in sheepskin

.                          puts his bags down

.                                                       and smiles?


how do they look into the eyes

of another

and see anything but just


.                          themselves?”

It suggests writing is not just getting words on a page, it’s also about the empathy and compassion needed to understand the world and see situations through another’s eyes. It seems this ability to understand and see another’s view started early. In “after school” a fellow pupil confesses their father saw a UFO,

it’s because you believed me

.                            you said when i asked you

why me


i’d never felt so alive”

The final poems show signs of the narrator beginning to move on, “when the hearts of two poets break” they

“hurl their hurt at computer screens

with something resembling bravery

something resembling fear

.                         nothing that is anything less

than truth”

Of course, truth isn’t a simple concept. Each person will have their own memories of events and interpretation of what went wrong and why the relationship ended. Confessing one’s faults takes bravery but there’s also the fear that readers will misunderstand or misinterpret the intention or even prefer the other side’s story.

“disintegration” follows the path of grief and introspection after a relationship fails. As the journey moves from shock towards acceptance, the poems begin to take in other relationships, mother and son, school friends, and the narrator starts to rally and understand that to move on, he has to understand why the relationship failed so mistakes are not repeated. Paul Robert Mullen has created a sequence of poems that disintegrate across the page, reflecting the hesitancy, the movement from denial to acceptance and the journey that the poems take.

“disintegration” is available from Animal Heart Press.

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image


“Yield” Lydia Unsworth (Knives Forks and Spoons) – book review

Lydia Unsworth Yield front cover“Yield” is a series of prose poems inspired by a call and response to the Tao Te Ching interspersed with lyrics from Eurovision Song Contest winners and English folk songs and originally written as part of the Tupelo 30/30 project. The first, “Outer Play”

“You roll out the map to insulate your home. Stapling cloth to the wall is the only way if your heart doesn’t want to give in. You staple the end of your sleeve to the corner of a reappropriated patch of curtain, forgetting the day-to-day demands of your arm therein. You roll your body inside out, trying to escape the reassurance of bifurcation, rustling newspapers behind card behind card behind thick old coats once stuffed with straw we also used to sleep in. You’re inside-out now, your arm interlocked with a finite but uncertain number of other limbs, bodies tipping, loop-the-looping, hands in hands in nameless patches of housewear. The goal is to become a slim ring, ironed out, blowing in the redirected wind. The goal is to shrink a bedroom back to the size of cupboards that render unnecessary the separate bedrooms we alonely used to dream in. Built into the living room, as then as now, closed off during the day.”

A cloth map is used as a tapestry to hang against the walls to cut down draughts and make the some warmer. It is also an act of settling, making the home a port, a place to anchor and stay, even if the person hanging the map wants to travel and leave to explore. It’s a person who doesn’t want to be tucked away home alone, someone still finding themselves and who they are separate from a family unit. “Seasoning” also picks up on this theme of exploring who we are and sharing our dreams and desires with another,

“The idea of letting anything inside, even light. Some like it raw, without any kind of seasoning. Plain rice absorbing water like tears let down into pillows in the night. The threat of anything but us trying to take back land.

“Some people have booming elephant populations they’d rather not come into contact with. Can’t sell then on because people without elephants are telling people with too many elephants what to do with their elephants:

“it’s not on. I say do what your belly tells you, look in, not out. Firmly insert the magazine. The elephants can take care of themselves. Don’t be shy. Take what you need, not what you want.”

It details the irony of being told what to do by people who have no experience of the situation but comfort themselves by telling others what to do instead of listening and responding to reality. The act of adding seasoning to food allows the disguise of the food’s true taste, the seasoning can enhance or detract from the food itself. It becomes a means of dodging reality. The poem’s narrator, however, rejects this disguising in favour of being true to herself and her gut instincts.

The poems often take a basic, relatable image and play with it, like a stream of consciousness or game of word association, just to see how far an idea will go. In “Fine Weapons (an unfitting)”,

“I do not have a fortune to buy you pretty things. Do not have the stamina to chase your breakneck thrill. You too can hate weapons, if you give up the drink. Splat like storm-leaf, I mean, darken, fill. Never say pregnant with. And the route to its prize. Imagine an obstacle, for example, a comb, a calculator, fear of lightning, three men in the night. And now imagine a leak. Loud as a tooled-up one that flies over, leaves a night club of sky on the blind of your eye. The ceiling sinks down from all the electricity it is currently holding and the night won’t stop taking my photograph, screaming at me to resign.”

Reality and surrealism meet: lightning is both the electricity which sparks fears and the flash of a camera unsettling the subject. The final poem, “We Will Not Hurt One Another”, ends

“A doily falls

through the break between two lined-up tables, a detail caught
on a million elsewhere heels and then abandoned. The breeze is still
the breeze in this furnace-grill daylight. I’m curtain-caught
in the billowy folds of everyone leaking out
of the thrown-wide and forget-your-woes windows,
An orchard pops open another bottle. Clouds cheer
into spontaneous dissipation—into fill and be filled.

Speak and the world won’t know how to refuse.”

The windows allow the poem’s speaker to both view what’s happening outside and remain an observer. The position of observer is not entirely neutral since she gets to interpret what she’s seeing and guide the reader accordingly. There’s an optimism here: the windows allow worries to be forgotten, the ‘clouds cheer’, the speaker anticipates being heard.

“Yield” is a collection of poems that seek authenticity and remaining true to oneself despite advice to follow convention and slot into traditions. They have an energy and create the feeling of spontaneity despite being controlled linguistic experiments from a call and response to the Tao Te Ching. Irony is used to challenge the readers’ preconceptions and invite them to play along.

“Yield” is available from Knives Forks and Spoons Press.

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

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“Exploring Rights” Edward Ragg (Cinnamon Press) – book review

Edward Ragg Exploring Rights book cover“Exploring Rights” questions roles and ethical choices without moralising at a time when individual freedoms in an increasing divided world risk curtailment. The opening poem, “That We Are Born Unequal” states, “is as obvious as the truths// that made us.”, “is as obvious as the slums”. That inequality continues throughout as a sub-theme. Examples of those ‘little’ men who nonetheless make the right ethical choices is central to “Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov”. This poem is about the man who survived the K-19 nuclear submarine incident and was a commanding naval officer aboard the B-59 in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis,

“Olga said he did not like to speak of it:
that they hadn’t understood what
they had endured. A survivor of survival.
Whom fewer would know had Orlov
not told the world in 2002 of one
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov:
who exercised the right of refusal
and gave to millions and billions
in the failing air of a nuclear submarine
the opportunity of simple, quiet, life.”

A man who watched colleagues die, stood firm and refused to spark a nuclear war between two superpowers which would have mean others would watch colleagues, friends and loved ones die. He did so at the risk of transferral to a labour camp, with grim conditions he may not have survived, on return to Russia. The poem’s tone is reportage presented unemotionally so readers are left to figure out what might have been going through Arkhipov’s mind as he was pressured into making a decision with world-changing consequences. The “Poem by Donald Trump”, which comes with disclaimers that the poem ‘does not express exactly any of his views, opinions or comments’, is very different in tone,

“the best people around
me I mean some of my
best friends even are Poets

are even Poets and they’re
always telling me what
a great Poet I’d be

and really how really
difficult it would be
for me not to be so great”

It uses enjambment to push the reader onto the next line, echoing the subject’s tendency to bluster and speak quickly as if what he’s saying is so self-evident it doesn’t need questioning. Speaking quickly doesn’t allow an audience to consider what’s said and ask questions and the poem’s circular argument is to show someone talking continuously so as to deter questions, particularly ones that might ask for proof of the claims being made.

“Greeting the New Year” is more expressive. It starts “He returned to Beijing in the half-haze/ of a late winter’s morning without a home”, “a soldier from the North walked out of the fog,/ an AK-47 in his hand”, asks how he would view the people,

“shopping in the Christmas light, the cosmetic
masks of a generation beaming through serum
and snail mucus? How could he prepare
for that? He placed the automatic weapon
voluntarily in the LED-lit corridor dividing
the northern wind from his processing.
Greeting a new year here, another in China.
Welcoming not fate, not fortune, but
the simple what is of whatever comes next.
Arriving so softly: flake upon padded flake”

Snail mucus is used in a facial treatment for cosmetic purposes so a contrast is being drawn between a soldier, who puts his life on the line, and those privileged enough to enjoy a life of shopping and cosmetic enhancement. People who know to project their best side and wouldn’t be caught in stark, brightly lit corridors that would not flatter them. In contrast, the soldier is not travelling first class with queue-jumping privileges and lives from day to day. Again, the poem asks questions and doesn’t pass judgment.

Philosophy creeps into, “Schelling’s Answer to Armed Robbery”

“Since it would be irrational to give this man my gold, should I ignore his threat? This would also be irrational. There is a great risk that he will kill one of my children, to make me believe his threat that, unless he gets the gold, he will kill my other children.

“What should I do? It is very likely that, whether or not I give this man my gold, he will kill all of us. I am in a desperate position.

“Fortunately, I remember reading Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict. I also have a special drug, conveniently to hand, inside the left pocket of my dressing gown. This drug causes one to be, for a brief period, very irrational.”

An armed robber brandishes a gun and asks the homeowner to get the gold from his safe. The homeowner knows he and his children have not been tied up therefore there is a risk they will identify the robber either though his getaway vehicle or personally. The risk of the robber killing all of them is real. The only rational response is an irrational one. The outcome of the robbery may be guessed at. But the poem relies on readers assuming the robber is unknown to the family. It even raises the unanswered question of where the children’s mother is.

The title poem is set in “The region above the Arctic Circle [name redacted]” by a company considering how much energy (oil, natural gas) is available should drilling rights be obtained and is putting together a paper,

“Much (if not most) of the Arctic waters
are currently ice-covered for most of the year.
However, the polar ice cap has been noticeably
receding in recent years, quite possibly
as a consequence of global climate change                           [Suggest exclude. Controversial.
[INSERT: creating truly unrivalled potential                         [Go to INSERT]
access to these ever precious resources].

Of the 33 Arctic sedimentary “provinces”
that the [redacted] and [redacted] evaluated,
25 were found to have a greater than
10% probability of having oil or gas deposits                         [Suggest raise stat.]
larger than 50 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE).”

It concludes “Let’s discuss again at Monday’s board”. How corporate of it. The layers of redacting and strikethroughs show how corporate-speak and spin obfuscate the actual meaning of what is being said, so much so that the audience can’t differentiate between fact and fiction.

“Exploring Rights” is a reasoned, philosophical collection unveiling aspects of inequality, the use of language to obscure and blur facts and fiction, laced with a wry humour. Each poem is focused, the language is unflinching and clear, unencumbered by emotion. It invites readers to read between the lines and consider what is actually being said.

“Exploring Rights” is available from Cinnamon Press.

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

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“The Unmapped Woman” Abegail Morley (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Abegail Morley The Unmapped Woman cover image“The Unmapped Woman” explores loss and bereavement in a way that taps into grief as a universal experience so that although these poems are based on personal experience, they don’t make the reader feel excluded or as if they are reading a private journal. The collection is split into three parts, the first starts with “Egg”,

“I breathe into the lonely snow-lines on the scan,
tell you how to grow safely, how to throw
and catch a ball, how later, stronger, fleshed out,
you’ll thrust up a hand in class before the question’s asked,
then hush, hush yourself before bed.”

It’s all the hopes and anxiety that pregnancy brings. How an expectant mother imagines the child growing up, teaching the child and passing on skills perhaps learnt from her own parents and offering the child safety and security. This sense of hope, however, is dashed as loss is the unfortunate result, in “Gravid”

“Not until after the front door slams shut
and absence sucks air from its cheeks
do the words in her head, packed tight
as if on postcards, unhook their ink.

She knows their sloping script by rote,
has read each one to the echo of her womb,
laid her palm on her belly as she read them
aloud. She said, Cessation, cessation,”

The blandness of official terminology cannot contain the devastation expectant parents feel. Medical staff trying to get through their day and a long list of appointments can’t offer patients time to take in what’s being said and can inadvertently compound the sense of failure. There are not always answers as to why the miscarriage happened. The remaining poems in the section follow the adjustment to the loss, in “Imminent”, memories of pregnancy surface, a pregnancy during the summer months,

“when it is already too hot to sleep, I watch your
elbow soar like a sail and imagine you journeying
upstream, skin pinking at a confluence of rivers,
body uncertain, smirching the bank. You’re waiting
for liberation, foetus shaping in liquid until you
come adrift on a crib-shaped island with the map
of life crumpled in the tiniest palm I can imagine.
I see you unroll its tide-worn edges years later,”

Her pregnancy was far enough along for the expectant mother to feel her baby moving and to imagine her baby as a child and guiding her child through life. There’s also uncertainty: what the map reveals is unknown so the expectant mother can only imagine her child looking at the map years later because she doesn’t know the map will remain unused.

In “Given up II”,
“A winter bulb; bruised root; pomegranate
seed throbbing. Each word I speak worries

us both, disappoints. She rocks underwater,
skull hardening − an unplucked knot.”

There’s a search for answers, “bruised root” is a suggestion the baby wasn’t getting enough food or oxygen, perhaps planted at the wrong time. Even when no reasons are forthcoming, there’s still a desire to create a narrative to explain why a miscarriage happened.

In “Past Love” a date brings five roses and she’s wondering whether to tell him,

“I hope he’ll ask again, some time when I’m ready,
but he moves effortlessly forward and the blooms of two roses
fall like stardust, soundlessly, like you did, when somehow
your life was sucked, ever so gently, from your lungs.

When I held you, there was no noise from this galaxy
or another or another, and we spent that night wondering
how the sun lit only other people, and how breathless
the universe can be when you need air the most.”

The loss is still carried with her. But there’s an awareness that others have suffered their own losses, in “The Library of Broken People” two girls

“said life’s an unworkable toy. Other victims
are quieter, don’t talk so much, even when

the library’s shut. They drop to the back
of the index, all seal pup-eyed, skittering

at the slightest flex. I survive amongst them,
wear a long jumper, drag sleeves down wrists.”

Libraries are appropriately quiet, places where people are not pushed to talk. Bereaved people do eventually find a way of falling back into the expected routine of life before grief but find it empty of meaning and feel as if they are going through the motions. Later poems suggest an additional loss and deal with finding a balance between returning to something resembling normal life and still remembering those losses, in “On having enough messages from the dead”

“I decide to pin your name to the noticeboard,
stick another to the fridge with a magnet,
to loosen you from me. This morning I find
they’ve dived off, parachuted down
and are hissing on an unwashed floor ‒
paper sun-torn, unbearable to touch.
I watch ink vacate itself from the present.”

The names might fade in time from the pinned notices, but the memories don’t. The fading is also a reminder that the people who owned the names are no longer here.

“The Unmapped Woman” is an exploration of the uncharted territory of grief, a terrain each has to map for themselves. Landmarks are key memories. Even though the bereaved try to return to a normal life, simple images such as a dying flower falling from its stem, can switch the observer into the parallel world of grief. The poems search for recovery after loss and their technical dexterity transform them from a personal journey to one that engages a reader.

“The Unmapped Woman” is available from Nine Arches

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

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image