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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Swell” is available from Telltale Press.


“The Immigration Handbook” Caroline Smith (Seren) – poetry review

The Immigration Handbook Caroline SmithCaroline Smith has drawn on her experience as an asylum caseworker for an MP for her second collection of poems, exploring migration through the lens of bureaucracy. It’s a timely reminder of the barriers and labyrinthine hurdles those seeking asylum have to bend through and also of the inhumane delays the system has built in. The opening poem “On Hold” has the epigram, ‘There is no timescale for dealing with this application.’ It concerns Arjan Mehta who was aged 23 at the start of his application,

“He is now forty.
The sealed-up phone box
long out of service,
the black cradle
within its sepulchre,
silent as an obsidian urn.”

The two lines just before the quoted section, “Seventeen years have passed/ with no answer” I didn’t feel were necessary. The gap between the ages of 23 and 40 is more telling: it’s the gap when careers are established and families started. It’s the bureaucratic denial of humanity, leaving a man in limbo: without an answer, he can’t work (legally), if he starts a family, he does so with the risk of separation. Picking up this theme again, “Delay” is a Home Office letter (any identifying details redacted) with the line “I apologise for the delay in processing your clients application.” – the apostrophe is missing in the original. The letter is dated 2015 and refers to an application made in 2006. It goes on to inform the recipient that due to the delay, her client will have to resubmit the form which is now out of date. The correct form is not sent with the letter but the client is directed to the website (without a direct link to the required form) where she will have to find the form, download, i.e. print it, complete it (again) and send it in a provided envelope at her own expense even though she was not responsible for the delay. The provided envelope doesn’t even have prepaid postage.

The inflexibility of forms and their inability to give space to describe lives is explored in “Fault Lines” which asks how two parents would know

“That there would be nowhere on the form to explain
why they had to move to Swaziland
and register his birth at the Portuguese Consulate
in his father’s name and when the work permit
ran out, no choice but to go back,
a mixed race couple to South Africa
where his mother would give him her name
and an Identity card where ‘Father’
was left blank.”

Forms are only part of the process. There’s also the “Asylum Interview” where “she says only what will help her case.” The interviewer notes she says she has a cold.

“He fires questions at her in bursts.
His pen scores the paper
drawing back her cover
like a soft flap of mango skin
exposing her shame
beating yolk orange like a fontanel.
He has realised the truth
but doesn’t correct his notes –
raped by soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army:
her immune system has been shot through,
her CD4 count a mere six cells.”

The need to establish the entitlement to asylum is done so without regard for the affect on the asylum seeker of describing their experiences and traumas or the stigma and shame felt. The interviewers can only record what the interviewee says, not what is implied or evident from observation. So the interviewer cannot record she has a badly compromised immune system or that she has been raped, unless she actually puts those things into words. When a language barrier is reinforced with the barriers of shame and stigma, a genuine asylum-seeker may be refused simply because of lack of humane support through the claim process.

Caroline Smith’s strength is in presenting facts, not guiding the reader to think in a certain way. She reveals the processes and leaves readers to decide whether they are fair or not. She doesn’t shy away from difficult cases either. It isn’t widely known that child refugees whose applications are accepted have to re-apply as adults when they turn 18, and can find their applications declined even though they were accepted as children. In “Teenager” a boy was imprisoned after committing a burglary and is now facing release.

“They told him he was now
nineteen and no longer a child
and would be deported with £46.
They asked him which airport
he wanted to go back to
but he didn’t know
what ones there were.
He’d left when he was seven.”

This arbitrary separation of adult and child identities and bureaucratic rules dictating that the adult is regarded as a separate being from the former child, creates injustice.

Caroline Smith doesn’t just look at recently arrived refugees, “Dr Gopal” goes to empty a kitchen bin and discovers “a sudden frost – like the awe of/ seeing her first snowfall in England./ An aubergine had turned old overnight/ a shock of white hair standing straight up/ on a wizened purple-brown head.” It reminds her of dolls she played with at her first English school which leads her into remembering her grandmother making a secret family of paper dolls,

“But Mama had found the box and burnt them.
She didn’t blame her mother.
Now a senior consultant
She lived the model immigrant life –
with a beautiful house in a quiet street:
but she couldn’t stop
the tide of night terrors racing in,
prevent the silhouettes from
curling and peeling in the fires of Entebbe.”

Entebbe is in Uganda and Gopal’s Asian name reveals her as a Ugandan Asian who had to flee after Idi Amin’s declaration in 1972. Even after working her way up to a senior position at work, she cannot leave her children terrors behind. In my review I have ordered the quoted poems into a narrative. In the collection, “Teenager” is much earlier, and the time lines don’t fall into a natural, narrative order. This is a successful approach because it mirrors the difficulties for refugees in telling their stories, the sloughing back and forth as they are twisted and bend through the claims process and the way that, for some, being able to shut away a memory until they are strong enough to deal with it, is an important part of recovery.

The final poem, “Stamps”, is about ignoring the pristine collectors’ sets in favour of the ones postmarked and steamed off their envelopes,

“We wanted the ones
that had made the journey,
that bore the marks of their struggle.”

“The Immigration Handbook” records the marks of refugees’ struggle filtered through the lens of bureaucracy. It shows the stories behind the numbers and reminds us that behind the statistics are humans.

“The Immigration Handbook” is available from Seren.


“Always a Blue House” Lisa Rizzo (Saddle Road Press) – poetry review

Lisa Rizzo Always a Blue House poetry bookLisa Rizzo’s poems take in on travel, art and family relationships focusing on secrets, things not spoken about, unspoken rules and the impact these have on the people involved. In the poem “Blue Angel” (after the painting by Marc Chagall), which gives the collection its title:

“In a dream-swim under three crescent moons
a house is floating or sinking or settling
into sediment on the sea floor.
It is a blue house; it is always a blue house.

She is my angel and no one else’s.
I can keep her my secret or let her free
into the world. I don’t care whether
she has flown in the window or out.”

The angel isn’t important, but the knowledge the angel exists is. It’s the knowledge or secret that gives the narrator a sense of power, which enables her to let go of the smaller details – whether the house is floating or sinking, whether the angel is entering or leaving – because she can control whether or not she chooses to tell others about the angel. Control in the domestic sphere is picked up as a theme in “Washing Dishes” and the aftermath of an argument,

“A bird trapped in her cage,
approval was the worm
she craved. Not his halfhidden
glance as he turned away,
derision written in the curve of his lips.

But as she wiped that plate dry,
warm from its bath, porcelain
smooth, this time her hand
made the reply
she had never dared speak.”

Readers aren’t given any information as to what the argument was about, because it is irrelevant. What matters is the failure of communication. The husband’s contempt and the wife’s inability to speak her mind have set up a pattern that constricts the couple to dancing around the same argument again and again until one decides to break free. Constriction and boundaries is a theme picked up in “Interlopers” on a visit to the Serengeti (which the poem reminds readers is a Maasai word that translates into English as ‘endless plain’) where the narrator is watching wildebeest and zebra migrate,

“I think in borders,
human sealed
within such boundaries.

Thankful that, as yet,
no human fence guards
this animal migration.

I turn back.
They thunder on.”

Uncovering secrets can be problematic too. In “The Collector” the poet recalls finding a small newspaper article about a train hitting a car on railroad tracks and the miraculous survival of the car driver, who was the poet’s mother’s friend to whom she’d sold the wrecked car.

“An ambulance had already
taken her away,
but I always imagined her
inside the car
bleeding, unconscious.

And my mother,
she kept this warning
among valentines,
tissue-stuffed baby shoes,
an envelope cradling
my first cut curl.”

No one knows why the driver stopped on the railroad tracks, whether it was a deliberate act or some failure, such as running out of fuel, with the car. Whatever the current relationship between the poet’s mother and the car driver, it was significant enough for the mother to keep the newspaper clipping with other keepsakes, but hidden away and kept secret. It’s significant too that the poet images the driver parcelled inside the car and unable to speak. It’s a secret that exercises her imagination but she feels restrained from talking about it to her mother. More family secrets are revealed in “My Father’s Hands”,

“left behind by his mother when he was three
pressed against orphanage walls
curled around emptiness

never played with his own children
never stroked or cradled them
only knew how to work”

In “Star Coral” Lisa Rizzo explores the job of the poet,

“until this human
interloper came
wishing she were innocent
but greedy really
to take this treasure
far from where it belongs
turned it into flotsam
lying lightly in her palm.”

There’s a price to pay whether you keep things hidden and unspoken or uncover and reveal them. Lisa Rizzo’s poems are thought-provoking and compassionate. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions from carefully drawn scenarios that probe at spaces we don’t always want to explore: secrets and things left unsaid.

“Always a Blue House” is available from https://www.amazon.com/Always-Blue-House-Lisa-Rizzo/dp/0996907440/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481167402&sr=8-1&keywords=always+a+blue+house from 10 December 2016.

“The Fetch” Gregory Leadbetter (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review

Gregory Leadbetter The Fetch cover imageSome poems seem to strike an immediate chord and it’s love at first read. Others are a slow burn: they seem a little distant at first but it takes another read (or two) to gain a fuller appreciation of what the poem achieves. Gregory Leadbetter’s “The Fetch” falls into the latter category. Their quiet intent draws a reader in but it takes another read before really warming to them. The title refers to the second meaning of fetch as an apparition, double, wraith of a living person. During a dream in the title poem,

“I listened, and began to speak
as I am speaking now. My breath

condensed. I saw it slowly take
the outline of a child, afraid
of the dark from which it was made.”

Throughout the collection, there’s a sense of haunting. Sometimes this sense comes from external apparitions, but mostly it comes from a sense of legacy and responsibility to those both leaving us and to those left after us. The narrator’s parental instinct doesn’t stop at noticing “the outline of a child” but picks up that it’s fearful. That emotion could be an observation or a projection although the ambiguity isn’t relevant.

During his final illness Gregory Leadbetter’s father began building a model of the solar system, referred to in “My Father’s Orrey”

“A look of recognition crossed his eyes –
yes that’s them – but out of orbit,
no force to order and bind them
to the weave of their ellipses,
and turn the eye of space between
and spring them in the cradle of their star,
without which they rattle and fall.
With the planets in his hands, he felt
the weight of his loss, knew he had forgotten
how to put the universe together.”

Later, in the sequence “Dendrites and Axons”, part II, the poet’s father’s decline is further explored,

“At the hospital, you had to draw a pentagon.
Geometry itself broke open: where
there should have been one, you drew
three, which overlapped like a Venn diagram.

An epicentre in the white space: chaos
in its blossoming fractal.”

It’s a sensitive exploration, handled deftly so, despite his decline, the father never loses his dignity. The sequence is a poignant layering of images that guide the reader to see the strength in the father/son relationship and enduring respect.

The poems are not all focused on the central relationship and are not all lingering in an absence of things not said. “Feather” is a villanelle that ends

“My father is not so old as I am now.
This feather’s perfection cannot replace
the wing it lifted from the ground.

But there’s enough of its vane of barbs to astound
his absence, just enough fragmented grace
to find in the feather that knocked me down
the wing that lifts me from the ground.”

What burns through is the desire to communicate the senses of duty and communication, the drive to continue and renew legacies, even if adapted and revived to suit contemporary times. Plus a recurring theme of humanity and compassion. Gregory Leadbetter doesn’t shy away from his ghosts or the things that haunt him, but shines a light on them to work towards a better understanding of the human condition.

“The Fetch” is available from Nine Arches Press.

“The Declamations of Cool Eye” Carol Leeming – poetry review

Knowing a poet doesn’t necessarily bias a review. In fact my knowing a poet can be a disadvantage. If my only knowledge of a poet is seeing poems in magazines or reading a previous collection, that’s the standard I will judge them against. However, if I know a poet I’m more likely to judge them against what I know them to be capable of, which is a higher standard, so may be less tolerant of work that is merely competent.

It is my job as reviewer to give readers a good flavour of the pamphlet under review so you can make your own minds up as to whether or not you want to read the pamphlet. Even the most biased review can achieve that, if review readers can put aside the reviewer’s opinion and focus on what is actually being said.

Carol Leeming The Declamations of Cool Eye book cover

Carol Leeming’s “Valley Dreamers” was featured in the Bloodaxe “Out of Bounds” anthology and is one of the poems Ambrose Musiyiwa and I selected for “Welcome to Leicester” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). It captures that state of dreaming of bigger things, if only others/outsiders would take notice,

“below a city
glowers on with neon
prickly pollen beams
a whirl in gasps of traffic
no one will swallow
Lestar’s rising glossolalia
hamper its wild gesticulations
neither temper its rude music
a world’s there
ready to launch”

It builds on ambiguity – neon can light things up but is also seen as tacky, pollen is a key ingredient in honey but it’s also an allergen, glossolalia is a speaking in tongues which excludes those unable to understand – and suggests rehearsal and preparation towards a launch and dreams of stardom. Those dreams are echoed in “Performance”

“This day is like an audience
pleading its awful demands
showing its fright in me
still I am poised
my arms outstretched
sorrowed but not bowed
my body a conjuring trick
damp nostrils flare with
old greasepaint stench
redolent with insistent hope.”

The habit of presenting one’s best face, complying with others’ demands, continues after the show is over. However, the staged self is also a false self, concealing its own wants, desires and needs. A situation familiar to anyone facing another stressful day, being bullied, intimidated or discriminated against. Situations where showing your real self will make things worse. This leads to guardedness even around friends, in “Cat Leap”

“both our eyes filled into sunbursts
bellies flexing with laughter
both our universes had happily collided
I had not told her about the debt demons”

The consonance in the short double ‘l’ sounds and the long vowels echo the poem’s sense by relaxing the rhythm just as the narrator relaxes into a belly-laugh. But the masculine ‘t’ sounds in the final quoted line draw readers into the dilemma: does she spoilt the mood by mentioning her debts? The poem ends,

“for now I remember my pride
wipe an insouciant smile onto my face relax into the
demeanor of an arch shape shifter
with a cat’s poise I will leap from the debt underworld
purring very loudly.”

Even though the problem isn’t discussed, it becomes resolved by the simple act of a friend reminding the narrator who she really is, that her problems don’t define her. The shape of the poem is carried by the assonant ‘o’ and ‘u’ sounds. Carol Leeming is also a singer and that naturally influences some of the poems, for example “Praise Song for Black Divas”

“Rhythm is
wrapt in their bodies
with sly ecstacy like
a raucous band or choir
African voices rise from their blood
winding snaky hips in satin
Bright eyes cat lined they
sear our souls with
lava luminescent
laments ruminations
siren trills, screams
or tremulous coos
while they stand in
black fire star shimmer
just beyond us all…”

The poem sings off the page, but it doesn’t just luxuriate in sound, it also has something to say. The singer’s reception depends on rhythm, voice, perception and performance. The rhythm rises from the heart, the voice from the diaphragm, the words are dressed in a way that communicates with readers and guides them to notice what’s being said and performance brings coherence. That could apply to all the poems in “The Declamations of Cool Eye.”

“The Declamations of Cool Eye” by Carol Leeming is available Amazon or Browns Books for Students or direct from the author via Dare to Diva.

“The Road More Travelled: tales of those seeking refuge” (Pebblestone) – short story anthology

The Road More Travelled book coverNine stories and a poem on the theme of seeking refuge being sold to raise funds for The Refugee Council in support of refugees. The stories focus on the human stories behind the statistics and (negative) media headlines, focusing on the impact of circumstances that displace people and the tales both of those people displaced and the reactions of those dealing with the displaced.

Beverley Butcher’s “This is Britian” is a ‘what if’ story, here what if those who are against Britian supporting refugees had to come with suddenly becoming refugees if Britain was bombed. It sets up the questions and lets readers draw conclusions. Brett N Wilson’s “Long” looks at the resilience of humans in desperate circumstances – here starved gulag prisoners being moved in a human chain by guards just as butalised by the system as the prisoners – and how bonds between men can still be formed. David Beckler’s “The One That Got Away” is set in a war-torn country and focuses on fisherman Karim who’s had his trawler stolen by bandits so is reduced to a smaller boat and smaller catches, and witnesses dinghies overloaded with refugees washing up on the shore. His resentful wife, Eisha, blames the refugees for all her woes and refuses to take care of an orphaned baby Karim rescues. Thankfully a neighbour steps in. Then bandits storm Karim’s small boat. Threatened with the complete loss of his livelihood, Karim faces a choice, does he follow his wife’s lead or does he retain his humanity?

This is a similar choice to that faced by Nikos the bartender in Ros Davis’s “End of the Season.” Set on Kos, it explores the reactions of locals to the arrival of refugees and the resulting impact on the tourist industry; people fearful of losing their own jobs and means to provide for their families are forced to accommodate those who have already lost far more. Rosie Cullen’s “No Room to Dance” explores a different angle on a family accommodating a refugee seen through a child’s eyes when Jenny is resentful that she has to share her toys with Zofia but Zofia is not forced to share her music box. This resentment grows when the box is broken and her father undertakes the painstaking task of repairing it. Jenny faces a lesson she’ll never forget.

An attempt at solidarity backfires in Paul Arnold’s “I Know How You Feel” when Ethel, a Liverpudlian social butterfly, travels to New York in the 1930s, a place she falls in love with, and tries to help at a homeless shelter. In contrast, small acts of kindness go a long way in B E Andre’s “Fruitellas” when a teacher puts her job on the line to reach out to a refugee at her school. Compare and contrast is the theme in Cliff Chen’s “Life Exchange” which looks at the persepectives of a Trinidadian in Galway and a tourist in Trinidad. The final story, Ricki Thomas’s “Those Who Sell the Guns”, an adult looks back at war through a childhood experience which saw her moved from Tehran to England without a father, and the current situation where war is creating refugees again and history seems to be repeating itself.

Brian Bilston’s “Refugees” is a speculum or verbal mirror image poem designed to create a second view of a situation by presenting the lines from the first half of the poem in reverse. The first half ends “Build a wall to keep them out/ It is not okay to say/ These are people just like us/ A place should only belong to those who are born there/ Do not be so stupid to think that/ The world can be looked at another way.” Rather than presenting the poem in reverse, the reader is instructed to read the poem backwards. The first version presents a cynical “we should look after our own first” viewpoint, the second takes a humanitarian view. Unfortunately, in my copy, the poem was presented with some of the lines on a right hand page and the remainder on the left so reading it involves flipping a page back and forth.

“The Road More Travelled” is a coherent, compassionate anthology exploring all aspects of issues surrounding refugees: what causes people to flee their homes, the dangers of the journey ahead of them, survival during that journey and how they are met and treated on arrival. The stories do not dictate or manipulate a response from the reader, but allow their narrators to present their tales. This in particularly effective in the stories told with a child narrator who does not fully comprehend the implications of what is happening. The characters met are memorable with a life beyond these pages. There is humour. “The Road More Travelled” does acknowledge difficult themes and circumstances but focuses on compassion and humanity, not gloom and despair.

“The Road More Travelled” is available at Smashwords

“Beginning with Your Last Breath” Roy McFarlane (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review

Roy McFarlane Beginning with your last breath book coverRoy McFarlane explores growing up in the West Midlands (he is British born with Jamaican origins), discovering that he was adopted and the mix of emotions that triggered even though his adoptive parents were supportive and loving. This is particularly effective through the repetition in the villanelle “The weight of knowing” when he looks at a photograph of his birth mother,

“The woman in the photograph

sent me letters to leave me in a spell
but I was conjured by memories that
this was the woman who gave me away.

And those eyes telling their tales
and untold stories couldn’t change the fact of
the woman in the photograph;
this was the woman who gave me away.”

The title poem explores his compulsion to write,

“If poetry could take the pain away
I’d swap places and it would be me
struggling to breathe
that five-year-old child you held close
to your bosom like a small bagpipe
limped limbs, lungs bulging,
inflating and deflating;
to capture,
to write,

to verse my life
to begin with the first breath
with you watching over me
until the break of dawn.”

The death of his (adoptive) mother acted as a trigger for McFarlane to write about his life, loves, sorrows, racism and coming to terms with his adoption. He does meet his birth mother later and a compassionate poem explores her reasons for giving him up which allows him to accept her motives and appreciate that family isn’t always linked by blood. His growing up is complicated by racial prejudice at a time when politician Norman Tebbit suggested testing the patriotism of ethnic minorities living in England by establishing which cricket team they supported at international level. McFarlane’s poem, “The Tebbit Test (Patriotism)” responds by pointing out that for a black man, supporting the English team isn’t straightforward. John Barnes played for Liverpool and England and suffered taunting and so-called fans throwing bananas on the pitch when he played. McFarlane lives,

“the engulfing experience of John Barnes,
the genius, the wizard that scored against Brazil,
cutting through their defence with pure beauty.
Only to be reminded a few days later on a plane
returning home, filled with the England team and supporters,
that goal don’t count, the one scored by the nigger.”

The aim here is to record the poet’s life journey, to document the prejudice, but also to widen his subject matter beyond racism. It doesn’t avoid the topic but it isn’t purely about racial prejudice. McFarlane also writes with tenderness, here about his wife putting on a pair of tights

“caressing and smoothing out
folds or ripples that you find
as I did the night before
when we had reached our pinnacle
I held you tenderly and lovingly
eased out the swell and tide
that still lingered in the bodies
of two lovers overwhelmed in love.”

“Beginning with your last breath” allow lost love, friendships, boxing love of family, music, race, acceptance of adoption to interweave with personal narratives. McFarlane tells his story with compassion and a desire to share, needing to tell not just the story but about the transformative ability of love. These are poems that anyone can relate to, written with a respect of craft and attention to detail.

“Beginning with your last breath” is available from Nine Arches Press