“A Season in Another World” Matt Duggan (Thirty West) – poetry review

Matt Duggan A Season in Another WorldA collection of poems rooted in the contemporary world that ask readers to look again at the familiar and question their senses to really observe what’s going on. The title poem suggests “I found the answers to life in another world,/ yet duly forgot them when I returned” and ends,

“Occasionally I’d swim to Hades,
.                spending a season in another world;
where I saw giants on miniature stages
whistling the tune to Hawaii Five-O.”

There’s a restless energy and a searching beyond the ordinary. The energy is also about bringing lessons learnt back and using new knowledge to inform and reassess. Not all the poems fly off into surrealistic images, “Watching Cobwebs on Skirting Boards One Friday Night” is a study in noticing minor details,

“Notice what needs to be cleansed,
using blusher to hide the wedding ring bruise,
never remembering the kitchen battle marks
where hurt is hidden from pride, reassembling a trembling beat in the heart.

Bites that tattooed the arm; hair like lipstick traces
bubbling under hard skin—
when morning reveals the aftermath,
denial is the response from the rage she caused and brings to him every Friday night.”

It captures both the shame of domestic violence where “hurt is hidden” and the shift of blame by the perpetrator onto the victim. It’s easier to blame her than figure out what’s making him angry and deal with it. Despite the recorded violence, it’s a silent poem suggesting the isolation and lack of communication both parties feel albeit for different reasons. She is fearful, ashamed and hiding bruises. He is blaming her and failing to address the cause.

Suggestive details build the picture in “The Spaces Left Bare” where in an empty, luxury hotel,

“Air is stale and needs recycling;
windows gleam with no visible fingerprints;
immaculate laminated tiles,

underfloor heating;
the spaces are left bare…

.
.
Where beneath the plush gothic balcony,
a homeless man sleeps in the open air;
at night, the room lights up for no one,
then fades as dusk wakes the clock;
where guests will never reserve or stay.”

The emptiness of the room is also a comment on the values of a wealthy society that appears to tolerate homelessness. The homeless man is passive whereas in the empty room lights come on when day turns to night as if its immaculate fittings can’t tolerate darkness; a reflection of the way wealth can protect against some negative aspects of society.

Among the taut, focused poems is one duff note in “No One Loves Us Like the Graveyards” where

“No one loves us like the graveyards.
They do not watch the stars even though they stare
deep into amber sky,
bumping into each other while walking the shopping aisles.
Not for any religious purpose, but for the drones and the missiles

webbed in skylines of this Syrian circus;
no one loves us like the graveyards.”

The title is used as a refrain which feels as if it’s straining for effect and the poem itself isn’t offering much that isn’t already known; it’s preaching to the converted. “Elegy for Magdalena” brings readers back to Matt Duggan’s usual focused form,

“We were dancing against the tide,
where no God, Man, or Papal Master
could bury love in the reckoning;

where bare light preaches in monstrous dark
until the shallow sound of light does break.
Our lips locked—electricity soared from tongue and stranded soul.

I’d tasted the stolen fruit,
a taste that has never left my side;
on this day came her presence—like the fragments from a dream.

My sanctuary: a bed of spitting wolves—
a sovereign placed in dust—where a shredded wedding dress hangs
like a crucified shadow on these uncertain shores.”

“A Season in Another World” is a collection of crafted, contemporary poems written with an acute sense of observation and deft use of imagery and landscape to focus the reader’s attention and draw them in.

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“&” Amy Kinsman (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – poetry review

Ampersand Amy KinsmanThe cover shows a brick wall with a faded zero, in the centre of which is a blank, white ampersand with a squiggled outline suggestive of clouds. It is as if the poet is inviting readers into the space to create their own images based on the poems, a little like watching clouds and shaping them into pictures. The poems focus on the moments between drama, the aftermath of something happening or the anticipation of an event. In “editing her poems”, the poem’s “you” is reminded of the dangers of misplaced focus,

“every morning another poem, another correction;
your words printed over hers; bonfire of the diaries;
scrubbing your fingers over the kitchen sink
to cleanse the black stains of ink from your fingers.

but here she is awake in the bed again,
eyes already open and cold in the thin morning light,
her mouth drawn like a line break. you blink, slow,
accidental as pressure on the backspace key,

the papers you knock to the floor and try to reorder,
a misplaced comma. she rolls her stockings up
her legs, faces you as she walks out of the door.
orpheus, the trick was not to look away.”

The editing doesn’t just change the words on the page but also alters her voice, pushing her into conventional expressions and erasing the original intention. The final line in the first quoted stanza is an echo of Lady Macbeth’s washing her hands and being unable to remove the stains of her deeds. It’s noticeable that the editor is using the kitchen sink rather than the bathroom basin which suggests a loss of intimacy and stains won’t wash with hand soap but require a stronger cleanser that might be found in the kitchen. The editor doesn’t appear to notice that he’s lost the writer because he doesn’t seek her opinion on his corrections.

“anton yelchin” concerns the young actor who died in a freak accident when his jeep’s brakes failed and he ended up pinned by it to a wall. It ends,

“and i am thinking how some things
can creep up on you, like a jeep rolling
backwards down the drive,
whilst you’re facing the other way.”

The language is colloquial and casual in composition but allows the reader space to engage and feel the lung-crushing weight of something like bereavement, which, even when expected can still be a shock.

Towards the end of “&” are two longer prose poem sequences. One, “iterations of self”, is dedicated ‘for jonathan, who could have been’. There’s no explanatory note as to who Jonathan is or was. Part 13 is titled “self as ampersand:”

“only say the word. body & name, each of these are yours to unmake & make again from their constituent dust. this time i will be right. i have considered foundations, blueprints, inevitable floods. this time i want to stand. this time i want it enough. even the gods have built imperfectly, stumbling towards completion; look at us.”

It stands as a good description for the human condition: you can make yourself, reinvent yourself and work on improvements or begin again. The poems in “&” ask questions and encourage readers to engage without judgment. They are both cerebral and compassionate.

& is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing. This review was originally submitted to Sabotage Reviews in April 2018. It has not been published and I’ve heard nothing since. It’s unfair to the poet and publisher for the review to go unpublished.

“Like Love” Brenda Read-Brown (V Press) – poetry review

Like love Brenda Read BrownBrenda Read-Brown’s poems are empathetic and welcoming. The first poem, “Decay”, is an honest audit and ends,

“The legs aren’t in bad shape,
though one is angled
from repair to some old damage.
The feet, bony as frogs’,
are planted firmly,
though the pedestal has disappeared;
and all of it is lichened
with brown spots.
So, I turn away from the mirror,
and remind myself,
it’s not all about you, Brenda. “

The poem’s persona feels like that cheerleading best friend who is both honest and capable of making you feel a bit more upbeat. True to her word, the remaining poems aren’t all about her. “Love poems” looks back at a lost love acknowledging that “it wasn’t right then,/ and would be wrong still now” but there’s still that what if?

“But still, I want to see him,
relive the kingfisher and the swans
and the fish and chips by the harbour
and the cinema with armchairs,

in one brief meeting; lunch, perhaps.
We would smile, and talk about our children,
while thinking of other things;
and forget all those hotel rooms.“

The casual, conversational language belies its poignancy. The narrator knows full well there won’t be a romantic ending but still wants to know that the boy she remembers turned out OK. “Diminished” is also poignant without being sentimental, its final stanza, “Once, she loved to travel;/ explored food, journeyed relationships;/ now, she has her crossword, her TV./ Once she was bigger than I am.” The final line conveys the role reversal from the parent as carer to the child and the now adult child caring for an ageing parent. Later a silken-voiced “Street singer” “smiles as if he’s got the joke/ but feels too shy to laugh”.

Brenda Read-Brown draws from a wider experience too. In “Poetry has no learning objective”, her time teaching in prison leads her to observe,

“The man with a cobra
tattooed across his forehead
might be a gentle vegan.
Some people spend their spare time
painting angels.
The kid ‘you’ll need to watch for’
will give me images
fresh as mermaids.
Rhyme can hurt,
and metaphor disturb.”

It reminds us all of the power that words have to connect and communicate. Their conversational tone makes these poems easy to read aloud and their layers of empathy reward re-reading.

“Like Love” is available from V Press

“Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories” Vicky Grut (Holland Park Publishing) – book review

Live Show Drink Included Vicky GrutVicky Grut’s short stories are based in ordinary, everyday lives where some small event triggers a series of actions that unravel the protagonist’s life. This makes the stories easy to relate to but they still have a hook that pulls readers in. The opening story, “In the Current Climate” takes the viewpoint of office workers reduced to spectators as a group of suited regulators usher them away from their desks and start collecting documents. The situation isn’t resolved but questions how much we know about our colleagues, what we might do to keep our jobs in a climate of austerity and high unemployment, how each reacts to the threat of job loss, how blame gets bandied around and how gossip and speculation fill a communication void.

“Mistaken” sees a customer mistake an academic for a shop assistant in a large department store. The customer is white and in a hurry on a lunch break. The academic is black and was merely browsing a rack of clothing. With no actual shop assistant in the vicinity, does she challenge the racist assumption or comply? When the customer reports the theft of her credit card, the academic is forced to choose between explaining the mix-up or escaping. The latter choice means putting herself in the spotlight and hoping the store’s security guards will understand she was the victim, not the perpetrator, but that relies on white guards understanding a black woman’s view having already listened to a white woman’s mistaken, racist assumption. Help comes from an unlikely source who also makes a mistaken assumption about the academic. It’s fair to say the store has lost a customer.

Seeking a free drink and a new experience, a young couple try the “Live Show, Drink Included” offered by a Soho club in the title story. Expecting something tantalising or at least vaguely sexy, they make the mistake of overlooking the club’s dingy appearance and stay, despite the barman’s warning. Even when the performance area is a grotty piece of carpet rather than a stage, the couple cling to their optimism. It takes the same song played on a repeated loop and the realisation that, aside from the barman and ticket seller, they are the only audience, to provoke a response that could make or break them as a couple.

Other stories involve management theory and organisational reviews, a gardener struggling with a head injury, a woman visiting her mother-in-law, a young couple blagging a free meal and hotel room for a night, a mother charged with repaying a debt others incurred in her name, an actor explaining to her director boyfriend that she got a part she didn’t audition for and other familiar situations.

Each story starts with a realistic situation and lets it unravel, forcing the protagonists into a course of action and not necessarily the right one. The stories don’t reach for an easy resolution, often letting readers figure out how the situation resolves. There is humour amidst the darkness and glimpses of hope within the despair of some characters’ reactions. Vicky Grut’s stories are taut, astute stories that draw readers into their recognisable situations and shock with a sudden but credible tilt in perspective.

“Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories” by Vicky Grut is available from Holland Park Press.

“Hex” Jennie Farley (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – poetry review

Hex Jennie Farley“Hex” mixes up figures from myth and legend with ordinary people. This isn’t done to bring legends down to size but to elevate the every-day and ask readers to look again at the familiar, focusing on significant, relatable moments. In “Salome”, who was King Herold’s step-daughter, she is eyeing the men in the room, “Look at that fat one/ sprawling on his throne, bloated like a pig”, whilst dancing for them,

“Anything is yours if you will dance for me.
My bare feet slap on marble, my breasts bounce,
my skirts become a frenzied whirl of fire

as the musicians madden to crescendo.
What power I have Anything you want.
Your bleeding head is brought me on a plate.

My eyes feast upon the gore at your gaping mouth.”

Dancing whilst all eyes are on her may make her feel powerful, but when she tests that power by asking for the head of John the Baptist, her focus turns to the blood and gore. It’s left to readers to work out if this is a pyrrhic victory or success. What happens when the music stops?

In “Pearls”, a widowed mother, who’d met her late husband at a tea dance is on a walk with her daughter to find the tree planted in his memory,

“she turns to me, smiles, holds out her hand.
She is a girl again. And to some ballroom music
only she can hear, we are dancing together,
waltzing, in and out of the willows.”

The power of dance to trigger memories is transformative. An ordinary walk becomes magical. Grief can become a celebration of the life loss, not just sadness. There’s a note of regret in “Stone Child, Bone Child” which looks at the life of fossil expert, Mary Anning,

“I have no book-learning, but I’ve
argued with clever men and been
proved right. I’ve had no time
for friends or family. There was
a man once, but nothing came of it.

At the foot of the road to the sea
is a small museum named in my honour.
These labelled specimens will last for ever”

Uneducated because she was girl, she nevertheless built an expert knowledge of Britain’s Jurassic coast and the fossils she discovered. “I’ve had no time/ for friends or family” isn’t just a statement of the choosing a career over family or an obsession for work but a pointer to how unusual that made her for her time and how that was a deterrent for potential suitors. Use of the word “small” to describe the museum suggests it’s not quite the honour it should be.

In “Tea Candles” a shop-lifter, an otherwise invisible, elderly woman, collects things for a tea party she’ll never have and guests who will never be invited so

“no one would ever see inside
the airing cupboard on the landing,
each shelf heaped with bootees,
knitted baby bonnets, plastic
rattles of pink and blue.”

Where unfulfilled dreams become an obsession akin to Miss Haversham’s, who also makes an appearance in “Hex”, wedding dress. The poem questions how well we know people we regularly see and how much attention we pay.

“Hex” takes familiar figures from myth and legend and re-examines them alongside poems focusing on ordinary people who are often overlooked. The poems have a conversational rhythm, making them easy to read because of the skill deployed in choice of words. They are as compelling as a gossiped confession but show compassion rather than malice. Readers are asked to empathise and laugh with their subject, not at it. “Hex” is a collection to return to and dip in.

“Hex” by Jennie Farley is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

“The Submerged Sea” J S Watts (Dempsey and Windle) – poetry review

J S Watts The Submerged SeaA pamphlet of 15 poems centred on images of the seas that explore both the natural, physical nature of sea and use sea as a metaphor. “Night Notes on Sea (British Coast)” is physical, contrasting its daytime appearance where it reflects the colours of sky and seaweed with its appearance at night,

“It’s blue, it’s green, it’s brown,
grey, slate, pewter and all the shades in between.

But at night the lights go out,
unless the coast provides them
and then it’s unsubtle fairy lights
reflecting on the black sleekness
that prowls beneath.

The British sea at night is
black – nocturnal.
It does not crave attention.”

The poem suggests during the day, the sea is eager to please as if knowing it has an audience. At night it comes something more menacing, “black sleekness/ that prowls beneath” but the real menace falls in the last line where the sea, still active, has lost its empathy.

“The Flotilla of Lost Words” explores sea as metaphor,

“The surge of waters
Dragged in her wake broke
The words I had prepared
From their safe moorings.
Now we are all over the shop
With the never ending slip slop slop
Of water still trying
To suck on my toes
And my words floating away
On little paper boats
Each a small white flame
Sailing off to find the moon
Where she floats in the moist dark
Sky above the sea.”

A writer is merely a vessel for their words. I like the image of “broke/ The words I had prepared/ From their safe moorings” and the “small white flames” that the paper boats become. I would have liked a more apt image in “Now we are all over the shop”. It’s an occasional weakness that occurs in other poems too, where the initial image has been captured (such as “twinkling like diamonds”) instead of the poet stretching for something more arresting, such as some of the images from “More Songs from the Submerged Sea,”

“It is the under-tow, though,
that should worry you,
clawing back memories
like a sinking man claws for the sky.
A sudden tug below the knees
and you are the sea’s drowned darling,
pulled backwards beyond your birth.

Like the waves rolling forward
to tomorrow
and back
to the waters of their making.”

“The Submerged Sea” may be slender but the poems explore multi-facets of the sea with a strong sense of rhythm and sound patterns. The collection asks readers to look again at the familiar in a different light and question assumptions without repeating an idea. Its slenderness becomes a strength and a selling point.

“The Submerged Sea” is available from Dempsey and Windle

“Party in the Diaryhouse” Chris Hemingway (Picaroon Poetry) – poetry review

party-in-the-diaryhouse-final“Party in the Diaryhouse” Chris Hemingway (Picaroon Poetry) – poetry review

“Party in the Diaryhouse” is split into four unnamed sections introduced with a couplet. The first, “There’s a party in the diaryhouse tonight./ Full of drunken words, and uninvited memories.” The poems that follow aren’t just personal recollections or an autobiographical journey because Chris Hemingway seems far too interested in other people, especially musicians, to focus solely on himself. In “Freezeframe” Manny is asked to describe three of his favourite movie scenes,

“’Interesting’ said Dr Richards,
‘All three feature characters
who have passed through,
or are about to pass through
violent thresholds.
Is that important to you?’

‘Maybe’ said Manny
‘But I see film as a series of still,
not moving, images.
It’s why I don’t like animation,
the maths scare me.’”

It’s a reflection on how we all see memories as snapshots of significant incidents rather than a continuous rolling scroll. It enables us to lift a scene out of context and become aware of what formed us and what matters to us. It’s also about control. When things move independently of us, we’re not in control of them. The language might be casual, but the ideas it expresses are thought-provoking.

The second section, “If I had my time again tonight,/ I’d still be wasting moments, as if there still were centuries,” picks up on the theme of whether we would change our lives even with the benefit of hindsight. “You Cry Out in Your Sleep” is addressed to Ian Curtis, the late lead singer/songwriter of Joy Division whose affair with a music journalist broke his marriage to Deborah, the mother of his daughter,

“Annik murmurs by your side.
You’re glad she’s here but,
even when there’s no trust left
something still feels like betrayal.

Glimpsed, speeding
as if in the rear view mirror.
Responsibilities beyond your wildest dreams
however far you stretch.”

The poem captures the dilemma Ian Curtis felt he couldn’t face: he couldn’t move forward but couldn’t go back either. His epilepsy medication contributed to his sense of stasis. The contradiction in the penultimate line is very apt: wildest dreams don’t usually encompass responsibilities.

The third section, “There was a universe alone tonight./ Free of fallen stars, and other people’s galaxies” turns its focus to musicians, notably Bowie and The Beatles, in “Looking for Echoes”

“The music came from America.
In a steamer port it lands.
Amplified in pawnshop electric.
Smoothed by variety hands.
Jesus limelight bullets.
Postcards from Paris or Spain.
Alone on the roof of the city,
a blind man sits painting the rain.

Echoes in the dockwind,
as it blows down Matthew Street.
Echoes in the reverb
rumbling round our feet.”

The fourth section, “If you hadn’t telephoned tonight/ I’d still be finding fear, in temporary families,” explores the meeting of past and potential future, a pause to take stock. In “After the Blues”

“The tokens of our journey
sit behind glass,
or as if behind glass.
The hallway littered with tambourines
and xylophones.
Now we’ve stepped on
from every blues song we sung.
We woke up one morning
not quite believing
we could be getting it right.”

“Party in the Diaryhouse” contains compassionate poems that use conversational language to communicate poignant, nuanced ideas without being didactic. It doesn’t matter if the readers aren’t familiar with the musicians, the poems still convey the character and ideas with precision and rhythm.

“Party in the Diaryhouse” is available from Picaroon Poetry