“Spools of Thread” Angi Holden (Mother’s Milk Books) – poetry review

ah_spools_of_thread“Spools of Thread” was the winner of Mother’s Milk inaugural pamphlet prize. The title comes from the opening poem “I Measure My Mother’s Love” which starts “In spools of thread:/ royal blue Sylko and scarlet Gütermann./In sixpenny cards of buttons” and ends

“in running stitches tacking shapeless fabric
to lithesome bodies and coltish limbs.
In smocking and twice-sewn French seams,
in the electric hum of the black and gold Singer,
in turned hems, let down as we grew.”

The evocative details create an image of a thrifty mother making clothes for children: the smocking can expand for growing bodies and French seams are used to prevent fraying so the clothes are designed to last.

The threads of family relationships is a theme throughout. “Other Mothers’ Sons and the Publican’s Wife” features sons who had to find a substitute mother figure. A publican’s wife encouraged US soldiers stationed in the UK to talk of home and taught them British pub games. Letters were found stuffed in a desk long after the war, letters from “Nevada, California, Texas, Idaho.”

“And when her son came home – whole despite a body pocked
with shrapnel – she wondered how those other boys had fared,
how many made it back. And then the precious letters came
from grateful mothers, who hearing of her kindness
thanked for her being there, when they could not; thanked her
for cherishing those Stateside boys, those other mothers’ sons.”

A mothering instinct is not restricted to blood relations. I suspect the publican’s wife felt motherly towards most her of the pub’s clientele, creating a protective sense of community. The preservation of the letters confirms this need to nurture and protect. This instinctive motherliness contrasts with a nosy professional who queries why an adult son hugs his mother in “Son”

“‘I’m a professional,’ she says. ‘Special needs.’
As if to explain the directness of the question.
His kiss burns my cheek like a touch of sun
as I grope for an appropriate answer
somewhere along the autistic spectrum.”

The shock of a mother’s instinct being challenged stops the narrating mother telling the nosy woman to butt out. A professional woman who is used to having her questions answered, doesn’t see how inappropriate her question is in a social setting where issues of confidentiality and stigma haven’t been considered.

The pamphlet isn’t just about mothering. “Weekend Solstice” looks at the tenderness in a long-term partnership after a family gathering.

“Later there’s woodsmoke, the scent of barbecue and chiminea,
the tang of zested lager, cider, Pimms in glasses topped
with mint and strawberries, ice and chunks of cucumber.
There will be ice-cream and Eton Mess.

And finally between those linen sheets we’ll touch and kiss
and spoon away the shortest night.”

The evocative, lyrical details build the scene. The short listing of drinks gives away to more details in the food. There’s comfort in “chunks of cucumber”, rather than wafer-thin slices designed to be spread as far as possible, and the promise of ice-cream. The children of “I Measure My Mother’s Love” wouldn’t have known of barbecues and patio heaters but have learnt to nurture and share.

“Spools of Thread” is a cohesive, contained pamphlet of poems with sensory details that accumulate to build to resonate beyond their evocative scenes. These poems are stitched as carefully as those French seams, giving a smooth outline so readers focus on the pattern and shape of words and images.

“Spools of Thread” is available from Mother’s Milk Books.

Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase


“Birds without Sky” Malka al-Haddad (Harriman House Ltd)

Malka al-Haddad left war-torn Iraq to seek asylum in the UK. The poems in “Birds without Sky” loosely follow that journey. This isn’t a review. I was part of the team of co-editors who selected some of Malka’s poems for both “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) and “Welcome to Leicester” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) so a review would justifiably been seen as biased.

In “Children of War” she explores why civilians leave, the poem’s speaker address a father who gifted the speaker a gun,

“You told me my gun would be my best friend.
It has been with me each day and night. And still

Every child in my land suffers torrents of war.

Every child in my land suckles milk mixed with fear.”

The poet settled in “Leicester”,

“How I longed for such a home
like summer waits for rain.
People see me as a refugee.
But I am a free bird nestling in your grass.
I have nothing, only love and rain, but I’m richest
under your warm heart, drawing me to your depths.”

During her launch, Malka explained that she tends to write poems straight into English, even though it’s her second language. Arabic has far more rhyming words and she grew frustrated at the impossibility of translating poems from Arabic into English because the rhyming sounds and patterns couldn’t be replicated. Some of her poems have been inspired by experiences of the asylum process, the paperwork, the endless questions.

“To Bush and Blair”

“Your war killed our peace.
You stole all our hope.
The name of God and peace kills everyday.
And still you want more.

We run towards fate unknown.
Then you face us, judge us, plunder us,
as you did when you came to our country.
Such a sheep-gathering on the deck.
Where do I begin? Where does it end?
All I have in exile is pen and paper.”

It was in struggling to answer the questions that Malka turned to poetry. “Drug” (complete poem),

“Learn poetry
There is no more healing drug than swimming with words.”

Poetry allowed and enabled her to express tumbling emotions and thoughts by giving a structure to work with and framing her emotions. In “Birds without Sky”, Malka shares her struggles with empathy and energy.

“Birds without Sky” is sold to raise funds for Leicester City of Sanctuary, North Lincolnshire Area of Sanctuary and the Boabab Women’s Project.

Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase

“Ice and Autumn Glass” Mark Fuller Dillon (Leaky Boot Press) – poetry review

Ice and Autumn Glass Mark Fuller Dillon bookcoverIt’s natural that a self-confessed fan of Jacobean poetry would also be a fan of traditional poetic forms and it also felt natural for the first section of the book to be about a lost love. The test was whether the rhymes intruded or supported the poems or whether natural word orders were distorted to accommodate rhymes. Although not all the poems rely on end of line rhymes. From the poem that gives the collection its title, “This Heritage of Ice and Autumn Glass”, the landscape is Canadian,

“I could show you moonlight in the wind
When cold star crystals leap above the snow.
And even as the autumn leaves reflect
The lava flows of sunset, new leaves burn
Red as marsh lights, for a single noon
Before the green appears. The moon, you see,
That egg within a shattered nest of mist?
The heron striding on its own reflection?
The raisin-scented torches of the sumac
That draw the chickadees in hornet crowds?

This heritage of ice and autumn glass
Is all I have to offer…”

It’s the detail that stops this becoming a cliched list of nature’s bounty. It was good to see a proper abcedary in “Xylotomous Xenogenesis” that didn’t skip over ‘x’. It ends:

“Unless unfeeling logic take the wheel,
Veer vehemently ’round and quit the course,
Would we see an end to my surreal
Xylotomous xenogenesis
— Yes, yell it! — carving efforts to create,
Zig zag fashion, works that captivate?”

There may be a nod to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”in the fourth line of the quote, but I think too, a recognition that a story’s parent – the author – has little control of how readers see the offspring once the story’s out in public. The reference to “carving” in the fifth line supports the use of “xylotomous” in the preceding line, giving it a coherence suggesting it was more than just an interesting word plucked from the dictionary to fit the demands of an abecdary form.

The mood lightens after the opening section and writing about a writer’s life is looked at with humour. In “Dreamed in a Colder Bed”

“‘Your story does not suit our present needs.’
And I agree, it cannot suit the times;
For it was crystallized in colder climes,
Dreamed in a colder bed that supersedes
The warmth and welcome that your office heeds
As bait for any buyer. Let the chimes
Ring out for those who match the paradigms
Which I cannot encompass. (He concedes.)

For I would be the first one to declare:
I have no fond connection to this age.”

Performance nerves, anyone? In “Could Someone Else Read This For Me?”

“That weak and ragged instrument, my voice,
Detuned by all my decades and the dust
Puffed away from paperbacks, now thrust
Into the public ear by desperate choice,
Would make the least articulate rejoice:

For I could never wave or smile, and trust
My spoken word to charm, or waken lust:
My talking never rolls, and has no royce.”

And a dash of wonder at “Those Who Persist”

“Those who persist under punches of rejection,
Who can take every slap as a cue for resurrection
In writing or in love, in craftsmanship or dreams,
I always wonder

You can rise from the mire of your own incomprehension
And go back to your chair despite all of the dissension
That denies what you whisper in your modulated screams.
I need your guidance

Perhaps it’s natural that other writer would warm to the final sections in the collection, but Mark Fuller Dillon’s poems pass the test in that the use of traditional forms feels natural and, where rhyming schemes are used, they don’t intrude on the poems. The collection shows a love of words and a range of tones, craft and a dash of self-deprecating humour.

“Ice and Autumn Glass” is forthcoming from Leaky Boot Press.

Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase

“All the Relevant Gods” Robin Houghton (Cinnamon Press) – Poetry Review

relevant_gods“All the Relevant Gods” ranges from schooldays to office work to abandoned buildings with a sharp eye for telling details. In “The long-haired girls”,

“They examine for split ends daily,
sucking them better, and if they think
you haven’t noticed, they’ll let it down

before you can blink, shake it all free,
make you look at the sly dip and drop
of curtains across one slow eye.”

The deceit implied in sucking the hair to cover split ends sets up the idea that the curtain of hair at the end hides something conniving and sinister as teenaged girls can be.

The title poem takes readers into the world of work,

“I’m as passive as the laptops around us.
But Sagra is tall,
higher than the jungle canopy
up on a Mayan pyramid
high on chocolate with Itzamna and Ixchel.
She breathes rainforest and speaks sky,
more miraculous than the giant hummingbird
drawn in desert grit
.                                          and I know this:
every morning
her sly lump of an English boyfriend
must grope out of Sagra’s fragrant bed,
examine the cold play of mirror
and thank all the relevant gods
for whatever she sees in him.”

The details build up the contrast between the exotic and the plainness surrounding Sagra, although these details are as much about her observers than they are her. An underlying theme is the dehumanisation of office work: the passive laptops, “the cold play of mirror”, the “lump of an English boyfriend”.

There are echoes of history in a concrete bunker in “Searching for the Police Tower, Orford Ness”

“The police left in a hurry. Undercover barn owls
in the eaves of Test Lab 5, wait for the ghosts
of scientists to magic saltpetre into freshwater.
What are we looking for, among the unexploded
ordnance? What is there left to find? Radio tower,
police tower, old business? Spat out onto shingle
with the rest, like every wreck itself to water.”

It’s refreshing to read a pamphlet willing to experiment with voice and style instead of tightly winding poems to a theme or restricting form to give poems a uniform feel. There’s a sense of prayer throughout too: whether to the long-haired girls who seemed to have life sussed, Sagra’s confidence or to the scientists in Test Lab 5 in their testing the evidence. This comes with an acknowledgement of humanity too: the long-haired girls’ endless quest for split ends, that Sagra’s confidence may hide nerves and that Test Lab 5 has fallen into decay.

All the Relevant Gods is available from Cinnamon Press.

Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase

“A Witness of Waxwings” Alison Lock (Cultured Llama) – short stories review

“A Witness of Waxwings” is a collection of 20 short stories, some under 1000 words, on a range of topics from the natural world, selkies, clocks, a girl with Olympic ambitions and King Knut who knows it is folly to attempt to govern the sea but is distracted by worry about his queen, returning from a sea journey. In one of the longer stories, “Blue”, an elderly Edith has failed in her search to find the baby she was forced to give up for adoption. Through the fog of dementia, she remembers through fragments and pieces together how her baby was conceived in rape.

In the title story, a woman watching a documentary on waxwings on an small isolated island, she recognises the birdwatcher captured on camera and remembers the abuse he doled out to her. Not having bruises for proof, she found it impossible to tell her side of the story.

“Creels” sees a mother and daughter fleeing domestic violence. The daughter had kept her father’s phone number in her battered soft toy. Her father made her promise she would phone and tell him where they were. A helpful receptionist repairs the toy and the daughter discovers the piece of paper with her father’s phone number is no longer in the toy. It’s not until she frees a lobster from a creel she understands when she and her mother left.

In “Dissonance”, a badly-maintained clock that has a line of mannequins appear on the hour, appears to hold the town’s fate in its hands. Tradition states if the clock stops, the town will burn as it did once before. During the annual carnival celebrating the town’s burning after the great fire, the clock’s hourly parade judders, causing panic for one witness whilst others have forgotten its significance.

“A Shift of Light” follows Glenn as he returns to clear out his late parents’ house. A act that triggers memories of his sister, the girl who wanted to be an Olympic swimmer, who sneaked out of the house at night to practice in the local lake, determined to be the first to swim from one side to the other. He returns to the lake for the first time since childhood. Memories surface, he calls out.

Each story offers a transformation, sometimes literally, where a main character has to accept and understand their past and its effect on their future. Alison Lock brings a poet’s eye for details, offering sparingly, which enable a reader to imagine the scene whilst leaving the reader enough space to engage with the story. Each bears re-reading too. “A Witness of Waxwings” is a skillfully crafted collection of engaging short stories.

“A Witness of Waxwings” is available from Cultured Llama

Verbs that Move Mountains book coverVerbs that move mountains is a glimpse at the way poets, promoters and storytellers engage with spoken word around the world. The anthology includes histories of specific scenes, hard looks at how to make spoken word a more accessible and open space in terms of sexuality, mental health, indigenous languages and more…. Academic analysis co-exists with personal reflections. Current topics, such as the ethics of honesty in slam poetry, or the very real dangers faced by many poets around the world, are also discussed. These essays give you snapshots of scenes from Singapore to New Zealand, via Leicester and Palestine.

Verbs that Move Mountains is Available here

“The White Crucifixion” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – novel review

“The White Crucifixion” is subtitled “a novel on Marc Chagall” and is split into parts that explore Marc Chagall’s beginnings as a painter, his first stay in Paris, his return to Vitebsk, his promotion to Director of the Vitebsk School of Art and then his return to Paris. The structure is linear as it follows Moyshe Shagal (not yet Marc Chagall) from childhood in Vitebsk where he first learns to paint, to discovery in Paris, a muted return and fatherhood in Vitebsk, where he is trapped as war breaks out and finally Chagall’s return to Paris as his rival wins dominance.

Michael Dean’s novel blurs the line between fiction and creative non-fiction in that the events are based on Marc Chagall’s life but the conversations and reactions are fictional. I imagine, too, that the cast of characters has been limited because the named characters have an impact on Chagall’s life and some resurface as the painter moves from Vitebsk to Paris and vice versa. This approach means that the tension and drama in the novel is not based on events in Chagall’s life, since a biographical overview is widely known or available after a quick online search, but relies on the interactions and Chagall’s reactions to them.

Moyshe Shagal is born to a herring-schlepper and a grocer and carries a guilt about a younger sister’s death, believing her to have choked on a piece of charcoal he’d given her. His mother, the grocer, is actually the main breadwinner and she allows him to go to art school. It’s through art school that he finds himself mixing with teenaged children from the richer areas and how he meets his future wife, Bella. Bella’s parents, who own a jewellery shop, are not initially impressed with the idea of their daughter marrying a painter but don’t prevent nuptials. Moyshe is invited to Paris where he joins an artists’ community and is discovered by a dealer. Bella joins him. She vacillates between becoming a writer or an actress and fails to pursue either. Readers only see Bella through Chagall’s eyes and he fails to appreciate the limitations she faces and, at times, she becomes merely someone to share a bed with rather than a fully-formed character. There is a good sense of the rivalries, camaraderie and petty jealousies that dog an artists’ community. There’s also a good sense of what it means to be an artist, “I cannot lose the totality of myself in Bella because something of me must always remain outside and aloof from anything which is not my art.”

It is back in Vitebsk that Bella gets her break as an actress but is thwarted by a sprained ankle. The sprained ankle seems to trigger labour, which feels surreal because Chagall failed to notice his wife’s changing body during her pregnancy. Nonetheless, Ida in welcomed into the Chagall household. Chagall gets what he thinks is a break when invited to be director at the new Vitebsk People’s Art School. However, he soon discovers his title doesn’t confer any actual power. He tries to resign but Bella urges him to hang on. Her panic attacks have made her agoraphobic and, some days, bedridden. This isn’t explored or explained and Chagall doesn’t seem bothered that his wife, happy to explore Paris and nurture ambitions, is reduced to one room in their apartment at the school. At this time, against the back-drop of the First World War and Russian Revolution, Chagall describes his paintings as “documents”, recording a Jewish world which is being destroyed. As soon as travel restrictions are lifted, the Chagalls return to Paris and the story can re-focus on art, building towards the painting “The White Crucifixion”.

On occasion the drama is undermined. After an attempted suicide by Indenbaum in the Paris artists’ colony, readers are told “During the course of his long and by and large contented life, Indenbaum never did anything remotely like this again.” On another, when Chagall is facing starvation, he is rescued in the next paragraph, the sense of danger passes too quickly.

The novel is at its strongest when depicting La Ruche artists’ colony in Paris and exploring Chagall’s inspirations and motivations to paint. It succeeds as an evocative, layered story of one man’s drive to describe his world through art. Its subject isn’t just about the painter and his work but an insight into Jewish history through the lens of Chagall’s subjects – often based on Jewish tales and proverbs – and how the Russian Revolution, initially seen as a positive, anti-oppressive move, became another means of oppression.

“The White Crucifixion” by Michael Dean is available from Holland Park Press

“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” Eleni Cay (Eyewear) – poetry review

A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese WordsEleni Cay is a Slovakian-born poet living in the UK. Her first collection, “A Butterfly’s Trembling in the Digital Age,” was written in Slovak and translated into English. Her subsequent two collections were written in English and this is her third English collection.

Having worked on the Journeys in Translation project, the challenge of translating is something I’m interested in. In prose, there’s space for an explanatory translation. Poems don’t offer that luxury.

“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” takes 23 Japanese words considered untranslatable, although there is a line of English explanation for each word presented as an epigram to each poem which explores the concept behind each word. It begins with “Aiki (合気)” defined as ‘blending/harmonising opposing forces within oneself”. The narrator commands time to

“numb the deeply entrenched,
and yet, elusive, memory of you.

I would make love colourless, remove
all signs and symbols that denote the
pulsing space between two people.

But, alas, until the glory of Time departs,
we will set, we will rise,
like a phoenix from the ashes
of its counterparts.”

It captures the competing desires to forget a former love and move on whilst remembering how good it made you feel and whatever it was that attracted you in the first place (even if you can no longer see it). The long vowels in the opening part of the quote keep the rhythm slow underlining the poem’s sense of pondering around its subject until the final stanza where the rush of “s” sounds, “a” assonance and rhyme of “departs/counterparts” rightly feels like an intrusion as attempts to bury a memory fail and it refuses to become dormant.

“Ikigai 生き甲斐” is defined as ‘a reason for being; the sense that it is worthwhile to continue living.’

“Every night I present my body in soft Egyptian cotton,
together with the wild tangos I no longer dance.

Assuming a defenceless posture, I lay open my soul,
let the Moon, for a whimsical while, take me to the stars.

In the morning, when all the magic is returned to the sky,
I put on a clean shirt to protect me from having to relive

the sacrifice. With no time to grieve,
I accept that dreams promise more than life can give.”

The poem feels more like a resigned acceptance than a sense that shifting from the nightly world of dreams into daily living is a worthwhile thing. I confess I was distracted by the “wild tangos I no longer dance” because the poem leaves me having to speculate as to why and the question isn’t answered. I do like the echos in “relive/grieve/give” but it doesn’t really convey a sense of importance. More successful is “Seijaku 静寂” defined as ‘Literally quiet (sei) tranquility (jaku), silence, calm, serenity (especially in the midst of activity or chaos)’.

“The dawn surrenders to the sun,
personifying what we become
when we fuse into me.

A Maltese cat
folded in the windowsill
breathes heavily
like a new-born child.”

A cat is perfect here: when not asleep, they are watchers, a patch of stillness amidst movement. Their natural independence and self-sufficiency creates a sense of aloofness and separation from what’s happening around them.

Over a book-length collection, the concept would grow weary, each poem becoming less of a surprise. But, constrained by being a pamphlet, the length is right. There are still surprises. It can also be read by dipping in and out at random. While the odd poem, e.g. “Ikigai” feels a little underdeveloped, there are far more successes.

“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” is available from Eyewear.