“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New” Angela Costi (Spinifex Press) – book review

Angela Costi An Embroidery of Old Maps and New book cover

Angela Costi explores migration and memory through the poems in “An Embroidery of Old Maps and New”. Her roots are in Cyprus and she grew up in Australia, mixing her Greek-Cypriot traditions with a new world. The early poems start with leaving. In “Arrival”,

“There are words you must hold like blankets in snow
‘human rights’
You repeat them as a third language,
they feel hot on your tongue,
they make you remember a child with broken teeth,
remember a woman with a torn womb,
the man eating the dirt.
Here, you can say them
again and again
to many strangers
who will take your story
like a startled baby.
In fits and starts, you come to know words
as soldiers standing at check points

The words like warm blankets, “human rights” and “discrimination” should have been keys to open border locks and offer safe passage. Instead the locks resist and become gatekeepers. How do you produce evidence when you only have what you could carry? What can you do to guide or speed bureacratic processes that will creak along at their own speed when you need shelter and food and trying to speak in a rapidly-learnt language that is still unfamiliar?

The legacy of what was left behind, doesn’t stay behind. After stories of her grandmother’s fear of never opening the door, the poem “Knock Knock” includes,

“here I stand,
one side of the locked door,
noticing how my heart
is racing to open the latch
while my head is pounding
leave me alone,”

“Here I stand” roots the speaker by the locked door. Even though she’s not lived her grandmother’s stories, she still shares that experience of the fear of the knock. She’s caught between the need to open and welcome whoever’s outside while knowing that the outsider could bring danger. It’s not a reaction that can be shaken off.

The collection’s title comes from “Making Lace”. The goft is a Cypriot dialect word that refers to the holes in the lace likened to “little windows for fairies”,

“she is the story on linen,
no longer woman in small village sitting under a tree for days, months,
years of thread weave through out and in, our skin
an embroidery of old maps and new,
Lefkara, Larnaca, Kyrenia, Hartchia,
Riverwood, Bankstown, Lalor, Reservoir,
thread weave through out and in,
she lives in each strange of cotton perle, the white, brown and ecru,
she makes houses, rivers, wells, trees, caves
for secret lovers, lost children, dying soldiers,
she peeks throug goft, through fairy windows, and sees me,
letter by letter, crossing the keyboard
thread weave through out and in,
she sees her children’s children not work in fields harvesting rotten crops.”

It’s bittersweet: the loss of one’s mother country while acknowledging that leaving was the right decision because her descendants will be able to thrive in this new country. The embroidered linen with its edging of bobbin lace continues an old tradition to meet new words and allows stories to continue. Traditionally women’s work and overlooked, embroidery and lace make perfect vehicles to document histories and messages if you care to look for them.

One tradition that should have been left behind is detailed in “To Identify the Apostate”,

“I cultivate worry with my left,
always the apologetic spill,
the readjustment of tools
to accommodate the right.

In earlier years, I complied,
held the pen with the hand
of redemption,
became a stumbling food on the page
which made me run back to my left,
cursed with ill-omen, and yet
became the fluid-dancer of arabesque
with cursive pirouettes.

I remember waddling
with my left hand strapped to my back
by Mama, enthused with the Orthodox parable”

The “problem” of being left-handed. It is still within living memory that left-handers were forced to use their right hands because of superstition.

The final poems bring the collection to the current day. In “2020”

“This is the year of cross-stitch steps,
no large leap for mankind teaches
anything known or new, small is

the bounty of the meek, each step
an abundance of life and death,
each stitch is a step from backdoor

to fence, the stitch from clothesline to
carport, the step to fishbone fern,”

Our world was reduced to our immediate localities. Although a billionaire spent 11 minutes in space, he didn’t make it to the moon. The rest of us learnt to adjust and appreciate the value of smaller achievements.

“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New” explores the liminal space between inherited culture, language and traditions and life in a new country where those inheritances are woven into the fabric of a new traditions and cultures. Angela Costi’s poems are a quiet celebration of small, but important steps taken, while not shying away from the reasons that prompted this new life. Readers get to see both the intricacy and delicacy of the top stitches as well as the thumb pricks and calloused hands that made them.

“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New is available from Spinifex 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
The Significance of a Dress book cover

“A Blood Condition” Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto Poetry) – book review

Kayo Chingonyi explores inheritance, legacy and relationships in poems that move from Zambia to the UK. He starts with the Zambezi River the prose poem, “Nyaminyami”,

“where people and the river lived in accord for generations, woven as hair in a braid is woven, in such a place our story begins, half a lifetime ago before the Monckton Commission when people burned their chitupas in front of the offices of district commissioners, before a blood condition passed through the populace as flame through forest, before load shedding, hours of power cuts; the national grid sold off to the highest bidder, before Zed was booming from copper, its roads full of American cars and salesmen plied their trade”

The river was accorded respect by the local people who understood its importance and appeased its god. Then the colonialists in their search for copper and use of the original populace move in and exploit or displace them. The blood condition is not named but surfaces, like the river, throughout. In a crown of sonnets, “Origin Myth”, “Results” from a blood test give

“All clear. Sat in bed you cry until
streetlights glance the lattice of the blinds,
your heart a boulder rolling down a hill
your optimism toughened to a rind
effective, if a little unrefined.
And though, for now, you’re spared the hereafter
there are depths of fear no words can capture.”

The tears are a release of emotions, not just relief at the all clear. The narrator’s dodged the bullet of the blood condition which could have been inherited from either or both of his parents. The tears acknowledge survivor’s guilt. The condition took his parents. In a visit to “Chingola Road Cemetery”

“I came to pay my respects
As did my mother before me
kneeling at the exact spot
all she carried, like a bag of shopping,
dropped; its contents rolling.

On the tape she made
of his favourite songs
her voice cracks
in the act of speaking
as if the act is what loosed him
from this plane.

Let us pause to play him ‘Hotel California'”

The son is following his mother’s footsteps, paying respects as she did. Ensuring her son wouldn’t forget, a tape of songs is a memento. The irony of the song mentioned is that among ghostly voices, is the observation that a visitor can check out but not leave. A person can pass on but the memory is still alive. Legacies continue. The “Genealogy” sequence of brief poems further develops this idea. In “[Shieldfield]”, “you” is the narrator’s mother,

“They let you hold them before taking them away.
You were enraptured by their bow-leggedness,
those legs that never ran down these stairs and along the road
I always say: I was supposed to have three siblings.”

There’s a tenderness despite the tragedy. The mother is allowed to see her late children who are acknowledged as family members. Unfortunately the narrator loses both parents to the blood condition before embarking on some of the rites of passage that the transition to adulthood brings. Here, he brings his wife to his mother’s grave, “[Incantation]”,

“The woman I came to your grave
to tell you about
wore your wedding ring
the day we married. And if, as I sometimes believe,
objects transmit energy,
this wearing brought you back.”

“A Blood Condition” is remarkably unsentimental and there are moments of love and joy, e.g. in “interior w/ ceiling fan”,

“let me be this unguarded always
speaking without need of words
because breath is the oldest language
any of us know”

There’s still space for love, which seeps in like the river that the poems return to, “Nyaminyami: ‘water can crash and water can flow'”,

“those………. who know water…….. know
eventually water will pass through
even…… the smallest gap…… in what appears
to the human eye…… to be…….. a solid mass”

Kayo Chingonyi’s “A Blood Condition” demonstrates the power of poignant quietness and acceptance of both love and loss and how the personal speaks to the universal. Like the river, the poems know their destination and flow towards it, subtlely shaping their thoughtful strands into an intelligent, intricate reflection.

“A Blood Condition” is available from Chatto 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.

“A Happening in Hades” S K Kelen (Puncher and Wattmann) – book review

S K Kelen A Happening in Hades book cover

Hades seems to be a state of mind, not just a place, and takes readers on a tour through politics, history, love, boredom and other human conditions in a variety of forms. The opening half is a collection of casual sonnets that don’t strictly follow the rules but allow the underlying structure to give the poems a framework, a reason not to wander too far off into digressions. The first poem, “Barbarian”, starts,

“Fey provincial folk played guitars
and zithers, slowly farmed the days
they read books and sat through plays
lived their lives creatively
(crochet, writing and pottery)
oblivious to the barbarian hordes
surrounding and then they noticed.”

Each turns to prayer only for them to be replied with disaster after disaster as “the home audience stare/ at shiny screens.” Being good is punished by reduction to entertainment to keep the barbarians on the right side of the screen. Escaping into a parallel world, in this case “Parallel Worlds (Earth No. 47)” doesn’t always help as the tourist lands at a airport,

“the talk gets giggly about a new war, the time to hate,
and who to hate, keep in mind the terrorist thrill,
sexy and mysterious. Join the fight to save Propaganda.
Make do in this tiger-free dimension—at least a while—
hotter here than the last world, things fall apart fast.”

The talk starts with trivia – the idea of war so familiar that’s it’s merely gossip and picking sides as simple as keeping up with high school cliques; stick with the cool kids, you’ll be fine – like a game that doesn’t acknowledge that death is permanent, not an entry to a new life. The lack of external predators – “tiger-free” – suggests the enemy is within, neighbours report on neighbours and everyone’s a spy. Not a stable foundation for a civilisation. Contemporary references seep in, “Eternity” sees,

“Tetris plates, cups, saucers, spoons,
knives, forks, spatulas into a dishwasher
and st vitus dance a broom
(do this daily) sweep clean until doom”

Then in the calm after a storm,

“Today, a warrior made of plastic blocks
stands guard on the dining table, strong
vigil like a power ranger grandma.”

A bored mind, going through the same motions each day starts turning everything into a game, the strategic loading of a dishwasher, an inamiate lump of blocks becomes a warrior guardian.

“The Nothing Days” feels familiar after national lockdowns,

“Thursday (what date is it?
Begin forgetting), Nothing Thursday
Nothing Friday Nothing Saturday Sunday
Monday. Recite Nothing each day.
Practise this Tuesday and Thursdays
Days easily confused, they run widdershins
Last week vanished up a tree.
Or say Wednesday (note: remember: read to-do list)
Concentrate on breathing all day. Say nothing,
The day is full of hours
Breaking down to minutes, seconds
All the way to never. Stop. Think, say nothing.
Nothing every day, today. Forgotten.
Say anything and there will be trouble.”

No only have the days slipped into one another, to-do lists become something to read rather than action. Lethargy has taken over to such an extend that saying something becomes a rebellion, something with undesirous consequences. Talk may be discouraged, but music isn’t, in “Spiral”,

“the earth shifts for a jukebox number,
instrumental, ‘Love For Sale’, cool and hot,
wordless, each note suggests a word
that can be felt, seen, synaesthesia
jazz always sounds and feels great:
a lingering trumpet turns a mobile phone
speaker into a singing bird, the stereo
grows an extra dimension”

The music expands until,

“H being Himself on his tenor sax rescued,
and Herself sings blues, a city weeps.
Together they hit up joy and start to die.”

Time to hit another dimension. “Parallel World 101: Hero Product”, a prose poem, takes the reader to

“Next? Getting older you start to slow and see some day sooner your own end is coming. Our world is going to hell and the Earth is moving on. Desperately homesick for the past, we’ll miss the world’s good times when there was a future. Sure, as a species we were warlike, tyrants to each other and doom to our fellow creatures, yet invention and aspiration, the endless fascinations we discovered in the Universe, kindness, nobility of spirit, Life’s transcendent moments, art, sport and good fun balanced human evil: we wanted to live. That’s how I remember it. Now I can’t bear to hear the doomsayers’ talk nor the crazy prophets’ optimism. One side says Despair the other tells us to Rejoice, they agree we’ll all be Jelly soon.”

The collection draws to a close with two longer poems which were originally a chapbook, “Don Juan Variations” (Vagabond Books, 2012), narratives that reply on the rhyme and rhythm of poetry for pace. Naturally, this being Hades, “Don Juan Enters The Underworld” and observes,

“A line for the deceased and one
For those souls who prefer a living hell
A shambolic crew lining up with passports,
Curricula vitae, scribbled notes
Old tickets, envelopes or what-have-you.
Don Juan joined the queue.

The poets are well represented.”

A poet’s life is a living hell of teasing the extraordinary from the ordinary to entertain barbarians. Sounds about right.

S K Kelen has created a lively tour of an underworld that could be just a mis-step into a parallel universe, that uses an external landscape to mirror an internal one where characters inventively create distractions from routine, the smallness of the world and how similar everyone is. “A Happening in Hades” explores the necessity of invention, how people escape through small acts of rebellion and make the world theirs.

“A Happening in Hades” is available from Puncher and Wattmann.

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.

“More Lies” Richard James Allen (Interactive Press) – book review

Richard James Allen More Lies Front Cover

Richard James Allen’s “More Lies” is rollercoaster romp through the eyes of an eloquent unreliable narrator, who is a writer, using a noisy typewriter at gunpoint to cover for a criminal pair with their sights on assassination. For good measure, there’s some lost gold thrown in and, naturally, one of the pair is a blonde femme fatale happy to sleep with the writer to keep them (the writer’s gender is ambiguous) on board. The writer asks, “Well, what would you write about if you’d been made love to by a beautiful woman whom you had met less than an hour before and then been tied to a chair and told to write, while she held a magical little murder weapon to your head and screamed down the hallway to her accomplice, Peters, who had apparently been listening to and probably taping the whole proceedings from the apartment across the hall?”

The writer discovers that the pair had already tried to get a neighbour to comply, but her inability to type meant she got left in the fridge while the pair moved on to their current target. It seems the pair aren’t intelligent enough to read what the narrator is typing so he reveals their scheme to plant a canister of poison in a bunch of flowers which will be presented to their target during a planned official visit to a community group who wish the bouquet to be a gesture of respect. For good measure there’s a subplot about lost gold. Conveniently, the writer moved frequently during his childhood and is estranged from his surviving siblings: a loner who could disappear without trace. He later confesses “truth is not my speciality.”

Can the writer trick the would-be assassinations into believing he is complying with them and escape before he outlives his usefulness? Will he also find the lost gold to fund a new life under a new name? But his first problem is what to do when a nosy neighbour triggers a visit from the police.

With no plot-spoilers, what happens next is a tumble of ideas, referential images to tropes of detective thrillers and spy plots. The writer’s fluidity and humour keep the momentum going and readers (just about) on board. It asks questions about how much is true, whether what matters is the factual truth or emotional truth and the nature of storytelling itself.

Aside from the writer, all the characters are bit players, little more than pawns in the writer’s chess game. Fortunately, it’s a slender, pacey novel that knows not to outstay its welcome, so perfect for readers who are happy to step aboard for the ride. And it’s a ride of rapid-fire gaps, tricks, illusions and references to hard-boiled 1930s’ private detectives, crime noir and cold war thrillers that’s really a book about storytelling and the importance of lies.

“More Lies” is available from Interactive 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.

“Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s” Morag Anderson (Fly on the Wall Press) – book review

Morag Anderson “Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s book cover

Morag Anderson’s “Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s” is an exploration of human connections, the delights and horrors of a life that seems ordinary until it’s poked into revealing its casual violence and, occasionally, tenderness. At “Two Doors Down” lives the “daftest Dad on our street” who plays magic tricks with coins and cards but also a night visitor to his daughter’s bedroom,

“Choosing to believe
in space created
by the child,
rigid against ponies
papered to her wall,
he slid in.

But when truth
awoke his household
he shrunk
inside his bleeding brain,
was left too dead
to repent.

No-one collected his ashes.
They believe
he is burning yet.”

The choice of “ponies” is apt, they’re reserved for children or were used in enclosed spaces to pull coal from the mines. “Slid in” is ambiguous but he clearly didn’t just slide into her bed. He also made a choice that a girl had created space for him, ignoring that she was too little to fill the bed. His terminal illness feels like karma caught up with him and no one wanted to take responsibility for his ashes, the way he refused to be the adult and take responsibility for his actions.

In the title poem, the narrator wears “blue for luck” just as a bride might, but the narrator is “not significant enough/ to be a footnote.” while using drink to “dull the night’s toxic industry” for a man who doesn’t notice her non-sober state,

“There is no animal husbandry
in this meat factory.
I am disposable and new.
An emaciated mare
barely good for glue.”

To customers, this is merely a transaction, the state of the woman they’re paying irrelevant so long as they get what they’re paying for. The narrator is full of self-loathing, all too aware of her lack of power, lack of impact and apparent worthlessness.

“A Thirst for Rain” is after Rosemary Tonks, and starts,

“I have lived them, and lived them.
Swollen afternoons of seared skin
when nothing mattered more
than the crow’s love of bone
or the damselflies’ tangled rise
above idle water.”

Rosemary Tonks (1928 – 2014) authored two poetry collections, six novels and was chiefly active on the literary scene in the 1960s. She renounced literature in the 1970s and seemed pretty much forgotten until a collected poems, “Bedouin of the London Evening” was published in 2014. Her poems focused on urban, cafe scenes or undermining pretentious potential lovers. Their tone is conversational and dryly humoured. Anderson’s poem matches that atmosphere, where a narrator looks on a full life where all that mattered was the next meal, the next love.

“Killing Time in the Relatives’ Room” sees the narrator notice the carpet, “bright/ like buttered spinach”, a picture that includes a table “strewn with petals/ fallen from slumped poppies”, and

“Silent and observational,
a sombre blue bible
offers Good News
beside an empty box of tissues
and an unrung phone.
In this holding bay, news of quitters
arrives quietly on white shoes.”

The atmosphere is one of resignation, caught in a limbo between knowing what news will be brought and waiting for it to happen. In contrast, “I Was Once a Girl in a Fountain, Splashing a Boy” starts on a note of optimism, “I disperse old anxieties,/ push blue through layers of grey;” a determination that continues with “consider the violence/ of waves thrust upon canvas/ or words scratched on paper.” Until

“The water’s edge rushes
like the open mouth of a story—
all gush and foam—interrupts
a thought built from small bits of silence:
blood will slow and thicken in eddies
when I am least ready.”

A rush of creation that never arrives conveniently.

Rosemary Tonks is an apt source of inspiration and allusion in “Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s”. A collection that looks at family ties, seedier desires and needs, how the need to survive distorts relationships and afternoons of potential before dusk draws in. The poems have a buoyancy; they want to float off the page and be read so the sounds can be heard. Their subjects may be passive and/or powerless, but the poems bubble to the surface, drawing attention and leave barbs of startling images to be remembered after the book is closed.

“Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s” is available from Fly on the Wall 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.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

“Down a Cobblestone Lane” Kathleen Panettieri (Litoria Press) – book review

Down a Cobblestone Lane Kathleen Panettieri

After a cancer diagnosis in 2016, Kathleen Panettieri began a project to rescue the poetry she’d been writing, but not sought publication for, with the twin aims of not letting it slide into one of those projects to get round to doing one day and to give her strength throughout her cancer journey. This is not a book about that journey. Thankfully, the poet is in remission. Childhood memories inevitably surface, but there are also poems of inspiration and looking foward. The title poem is an attempted trip down memory lane,

“But the walls are deaf and blind
They shimmer, receding now,
Out of reach, leaving me behind
The past has closed its door
Nothing is as it was before
Just memory playing those
Old old tricks once more.”

The past is a foreign country. The poem is a reminder that we can’t return to our childhood and re-experience it as we were. We’ve grown, phyiscally, spiritually and mentally and our current knowledge puts a fresh perspective on old memories. Our childhood houses seem smaller and diminished by what we remember. “Silhouettes on a dusty street” similarly picks up this theme,

“Riding the red metal scooter with its clackety wheels
Bare feet skidding on the burning road
Deaf to the hounds of time snapping at our heels
The roar of the future snarling on impatient wheels”

Children can’t wait to grow up yet that red seems to be one of warning, the clackety wheels a hint that the path ahead won’t be easy.

“Reading Sylvia Plath” seems to be more about the woman than her work, it ends,

“I see beauty
Dressed in the veils
Of your anguish
I hear the music
Of your pain
Buried in the notes of
Your dark symphony
Strung like black pearls
Aching against the light.”

This is the Sylvia Plath of “Edge”, “Electra on Azalea Path” or “Lady Lazarus”, not the Sylvia Plath of “You’re” or “Morning Song” or “Wintering”. It presents her as warped by depression, composing her dark music into irridescence and beauty as if that was all she was. Perhaps too brief a subject for one poem, but, if you knew nothing about her, it presents the suicide doll, not the fully-grown woman. In contrast, “An unknown hero” subtitled “I.M. Nick Goulas” paints a man who leaves a keepsake,

“Though broken, it holds
A world of memories
Coat-hangers dangle
These remains carrying
The scent of him still
A small corner of
The wardrobe was his
He never measured
Himself by things”

He is later summed up as “Proud, wise and humble” and concludes “Let it be known that I had/ An unknown hero for a father”. The love and connection shine through. An immaterial man who appreciated the value in virtues and living well. Something his daughter seems to have inherited in “The Way”,

“Today I am slathering
The butter on my toast
And enjoying it
Every last bite of it
I am tired of hearing
What is good, what is not
What is going to
Lengthen my life
Or shorten it
I will not skim
The top off life
Today I will not
Practice deprivation”

Buttered toast is comfort food, not the healthiest, but not overly harmful either. Cancer brings lots of unsolicited advice with what to eat, what not to eat, how to defeat it, as if it obeys an arbitary set of rules someone found through an internet search. But what is the point of a lengthened life if it cannot be enjoyed? There is a gleeful, subversive tone to the poem.

Returning to the theme of memory and how it can be deceiptive, “Family portrait,” considers how a family got lost “In the eye of a camera/ All polished up in our Sunday best”, until the photo is taken,

“Invents its own still life
Version of us
We hurry to gather up
Our own little fictions and
Step back into character.”

Posing for the camera means losing oneself, albeit it briefly, and the momentary snapshot can’t replicate the true feelings and links between each family member. The poses are artificial, showing what each person wants to show or is trying to show the camera. The camera itself is merely an observer and someone looking at the photo may put their own interpretation on the picture, which may not coincide with the subjects’ versions of themselves.

A later poem, “Café blues,” brings readers right up to date with the Covid-19 pandemic,

“We are in lockdown
So I must imagine myself
Sitting in a small café”

The narrator thinks about choices on the menu,

“So easy to replicate
You might say
In your own sparkling kitchen
But no, it’s not the same
I realise as it slips
Out of questioning reach
It’s an experience I crave
The delicious smells, the voices
Chattering and tangling
My senses with enjoyment
There in that vibrant environment
I am one with the bustling
Teeming atmosphere, imagining
I could be anywhere in the world
But I am just dreaming
While Melbourne is sleeping.”

Imagination can’t be locked down and the imagined treats are about memory, the sensory prompt of smells, voices, sight, the joy of connection and a feeling of belonging, being part of the crowd in the cafe.

“Down a Cobblestone Lane” is a gentle journey that acknowledges the unreliability of memory, how even siblings can create different views of their childhood years and what makes the people we love memorable, what is it that they leave for us? Katherine Pattieri also asks what makes life enjoyable and worth living even through a potentially life-taking disease.

“Down a Cobblestone Lane” is available through Litoria 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
The Significance of a Dress Emma Lee

“The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing” Hannah Storm (Reflex Press) – book review

Hannah Storm The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing

“The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing” is a collection of flash fiction that shows how small moments can create the longest life changes, as exemplified in “Sarajevo Rose” where a man thinks back to his regular purchase of fresh flowers after a woman dropped a coin in the market place, “He doesn’t remember dropping his sister’s hand. The building shook with the blast. When he looked up, his sister was gone. Damir has read how Sarajevans painted red roses in the shell’s concrete scars. When his flowers wilt, the petals fall to the floor. Damir never picks them up.”

Most stories though are told from a woman’s viewpoint. The woman’s story starts with being a war reporter, in “Bulletproof” where “they loan me a flak jacket, a big blue thing designed for men. It squashes my shoulders, metal plates pinning flat my chest, breasts yielding to the weight of them.” Of course, she wears it for protection, but also because “there are more male journalists on the frontline than women, because men are better at the warry stuff, and women more lightweight. I wear it because I don’t want to rock the boat and give the news desk another reason not to send me to do this job. I wear it because I’ve told them I am the best ‘man’ for the job. I wear it because I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.” The problem isn’t that it’s ill-fitting or the sexism inherent in war-reporting but what it doesn’t protect her from: the very thing she’s there to report on.

The flak jacket doesn’t protect her from the slings and arrows she faces as a mother either. A partner who told her to terminate her pregnancy in “Before the Baby was Born”, snatches the baby “away before I had given up the afterbirth, puffed up with the pride of your achievement and offered her a stay of execution, but not me. While I lay wasted but for the great clots I bled, you announced you were hungry and wanted to go home, but not before I took her from you, clamped her to my empty breast, a lion mother born.” And so a woman who’d been controlled wrests back some of that control. In the title story, a woman (it could be the same narrator, the stories have a narrative flow to them), who has slipped away from abuse faces the judgment over who will be awarded responsibility for their daughter. She approaches the court door, “I open it slowly, the way I was taught to approach a checkpoint in war. My legs shake like they will later when I beg the judge to let me see my child. Like they did when I stood at her father’s door, asking for the same.”

She pauses for a moment in “Set Directions” to think about who she used to be when she, “stumbles to the loft one day, long after she has packed up her promise in the same yellowed paper; the woman who tried to find truth in fiction rather than fact, who fails to remember where the two converge. Now, she stands on the fault lines of her future and wonders what has happened to the fabric of her past.” The war reporter who became a mother and escaped abuse. The yellowed paper could hint at “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella of post-natal psychosis and how a young mother was locked in a room until she learnt to mask her madness or let it kill her. Whereas her madness was a natural response to the trauma she’d faced at the hands of a patriarchal system that still doesn’t accommodate or listen to women.

“Octopus” is about the emotional labour and work shifted onto mothers but rarely expected of fathers. A young son, using a tea towel as a superhero cape, has accidently knocked into his younger sister, “With one arm, I pick up my son, another my distraught daughter. With a third, I untie the tea towel. A fourth mops the spilt drink. Two more sweep up the phone. Eight arms may be enough, but three hearts mean there will never be enough love left for me.”

In “The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing”, Hannah Storm has created a series of flash fictions with an overall narrative arc which takes readers through war zones in foreign countries to domestic battles where the contributions of women, particularly mothers, are underrated and under-compensated. Mothers are left with the heft of domestic labour and raising children, which does come with non-financial rewards. The setting is contemporary and follows a narrator, scarred by what she has witnessed, as she tries to carve her own path through life, relying on her own agency.

“The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing” is available from Reflex 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

“Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips” Melanie Hyo In Han (Finishing Line Press) – book review

Melanie Hyo In Han Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips book cover

Melanie Hyo In Han was born in Korea, raised in East Africa and lives in America. Her poems are drawn from her experiences and explore culture, belonging and identity and knowledge gained through translation work between English, Korean and Spanish. The collection starts in Africa. “Morogoro, Tanzania”, set in the drought of 1999, gives the collection its title

“sandpaper tongue
parchment lips
dry and cracked
where life had given up
and succumbed
too weary to continue

and on tuesdays
he would come
with a wheelbarrow
rusty and laden
with the world
that creaking, crying wheelbarrow

collecting then carrying
out a mound of skin and bones
who at least no longer felt
that thirst

His pain tore the skies back
and His tears became
our life as life began to spring up again and
that Drought ended”

The poem ends with the image of that wheelbarrow “scorched in my mind”. The minimal, powerful imagery sticks. The wheelbarrow is as dry as everything else in the drought as the sun dries any oil that might have been used to stop the creaking. That his regular once a week collections are needed illustrates the fatal, ongoing damage of the drought. The narrator focuses on the grief of the wheelbarrow operator, his traumatised reaction to his job to illustrate the wider trauma and grief shared by villagers.

“To Miss Tranquist” is addressed to a teacher and explains why Hyo In became Melanie. After the awkwardness of having to explain how her same was pronounced and watch the teacher interact with children with American, “pronouncable” names, it ends

“You were the reason behind my many fights with my parents who kept insisting ‘Hyo In’ was a beautiful name, but I didn’t care that it meant ‘wisdom from dawn’ or that it represented my family, my heritage, my culture, my language. All I ever wanted was to be called on without hesitation and be greeted every day by name.

“It’s been over fifteen years since I started going by ‘Melanie,’ a name that means ‘dark,’ because that’s what I am to you. You can finally say it without feeling embarrassed; I hear it often and from the lips of many people, and I guess I like it.

“But at what cost?”

Names are crucial identity markers and the teacher’s unwillingness to learn to pronounce Hyo In marked the girl as ‘other’, someone not part of the class. This decision had further implications as the girl was left out, not spoken to and had a constant reminder of her difference. It could have triggered a lack of engagement, the child sitting back and opting out since the teacher had given up on her.

A similar lack of engagement or curiousity in other cultures is highlighted in “Can I Roll, Slice, Stack Memories?” where an eight-year-old, remembering sights in Meyongdong Market, takes a packed lunch of kimbap, hoping her classmates will be impressed,

“But when lunchtime finally rolled around and the kimbap
container was opened, all I heard were the quiet ‘Eww’s as
I felt the slight shift of people moving away from me. My
shaking hands found themselves tossing the kimbap into the
open and hungry mouth of the trash can.

Their perfectly triangled white sandwiches, perfect pale
skin, perfect light eyes (they looked easy enough to gouge
out). Sunshine rested in their golden hair while night and
fury nested in mine. Did I want to die or be white?
At home, that afternoon, I shut myself in the bathroom
scrubbing my skin raw and crying my eyes dry until
exhaustion called my name. The front door clicked and I
threw angry words at my mom. She never made kimbap
again. And I avoided Korean food.”

Childhood memory aside, the narrator buys kimbap at the market and finds her “tongue is momentarily stunned as it remembers” but tastes salt as she phones her mother. The childhood memory of her classmate’s disgust clearly stuck, but so does the memory of insulting her mother’s food, prepared from a place of care and nurture.

One day the schoolgirl comes home and finds her grandmother has gone back to Korea. Her mother offers the explanation that grandmother is missing grandfather and is bad at goodbyes but the girl suspects it’s because she refused her grandmother’s lessons in Korean,

“So you went
back to your homeland,
a land I didn’t feel
was my home,
with nothing but
6,381 miles, 12 hours
on the plane, and
hurt between us.”

But grandmother has left a letter for her granddaughter,

“You know I grow up in Korea while Japan abuse
forbid speak our language as child force learn
Japanese language of oppress and change
my name to other country. Yoshiko, they call me.
Many word gone when release from Japan.
Japan burn thousand and thousand book
force study Japan forbid our language
prison for people who wrote our words.
Release from Japan regain our language miracle.
I proud of my people my movement regain
history country culture. Yeast, grow up
in foregin country no use our language.
And what do you know about war for our country?
Last wish for Yeast. Learn language.”

Korean language has two different meanings for grandmother and granddaughter. For the grandmother, it’s a symbol of resistance, something that survived being forced to learn Japanese and living with an enforced Japanese name. Korean means freedom, strength and pride. For the granddaughter, it’s not American. It means separation and difference, not fitting in, something that brings shame. The letter had its desired effect: the granddaughter did learn Korean.

The girl grew up too. Here she sinks into a hot bath, “But This is a Pain I Enjoy”,

“And if I really
tried hard and
the memories
I blocked out
of the many
droughts I
lived through
as a child
and the fires
I put out
as a teen,
I would maybe
do something
more, but
right here,
I just drop
beneath the
silence of the
still water.”

The balm of self-care through taking out some time to be oneself and create a space where worldly concerns don’t intrude, even just briefly. The short lines contrast with the languidness of lounging in a bath, like a nagging voice of guilt.

In “Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips”, Melanie Hyo In Han explores what compromises are made to belong when your cultural and ethnic heritage differs from the people around you and asks how far those compromises should go. She acknowledges her attitudes towards heritage and language and how these impact those closest to her. There is trauma, sensitively approached and probed. Ultimately, these are compassionate poems, driven by a desire to share and communicate, carrying the reader as witness to reach a shared understanding.

“Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips” is available from Finishing Line 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.

Book table at the launch of “The Significance of a Dress”

“sikfan glaschu” Sean Wai Keung (Verve Poetry Press) – book review

In “sikfan glaschu” Sean Wai Keung takes readers on a tour of eateries in Glasgow. The collection’s title is explained in the title poem, where his journey brings him to Glasgow,

“then sat by the window thinking about being a kid again
sitting in my room writing stupid rhymes for fun
hearing that familiar evening shout of sikfan meaning
your food is ready

as soon as i would leave my room i would smell it
freshly steamed rice or vegetables with oyster sauce
or a pie crisping up in the oven

. ……………………………………………………………….don’t you miss that

the eagerness / the hunger / the sense of mystery
the not-knowing exactly what would be waiting on the table”

This is a journey of fusions: traditional foods merge with new tastes, provoke memories or sensations that are equally both familiar and new. The poems mediate on the feeling of being an outsider in a place now called home and the need to create new traditions so as to create a sense of belonging in a place that doesn’t necessarily want you. Food is usually at the heart of family life: shared meals become shared conversations and food is a symbol of hospitality, a welcome enabling guests to stay longer. Most socialising is done around a meal. The poem hints at a merging of identities: oyster sauce is not traditionally British and a pie isn’t traditionally Chinese. A British-born Chinese person adapts to multiple cultural identities: this could be an opportunity to forge a combined identity or could be a form of separation, never completely belonging to British traditions yet not entirely Chinese either. Hence not knowing “what would be waiting at the table” while also knowing it would nurturing and sustaining.

The collection is split into three sections, pre-lockdown, during lockdown and emergence from lockdown. As the first section is about fitting in, merging known food with strange food, the second looks at the limitations and opportunities offered in lockdown. “kfc pollokshaws”, remotely ordering from a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, ends,

“as far as i can tell the internet is insufficient
at encapsulating what kentucky really means

it’s just a far-off blob i cant fathom
a mass of essential people i can’t know
living their lives
getting on with things
like chickens sometimes do”

Although the internet can bring people closer, it can also highlight differences and bring to the fore how little we know about the lives of others. KFC is marketed on being a traditional secret recipe enjoyed worldwide, but does it really bring people closer together or is the writer overthinking authencity? Should we just enjoy the food and move on or should we be concerned about how true the food we eat is to its origins? That question surfaces again in “byblos cafe”, this time questioning Lebanese food, again without a guide to confirm whether the food is genuine or an Anglicised version of Lebanese food,

“i will never forget how
as we left into the chill drizzle that last evening above us
a neon sign glowed and i swear the word authentic in
authentic lebanese cuisine flickered or winked although
then again it could have just been a trick of the light”

The sign isn’t just about the food, it appears to question the poet about his authenticity. Which cultural identity is his real one? Does he have to chose? Isn’t being himself enough?

“sikfan glaschu” is a culinary tour of Glasgow eateries from small family-owned restaurants to familiar, large chains. The food, and traditions implied through food, is a lens that explores relationships to traditions, how these can be shared or used to divide and asks questions about belonging and identity. Overall the poems have a celebratory tone: food is to be shared and offers a chance to be curious and understand other cultures, to share and come together.

“silkfan glaschu” 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

“Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow” Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press) – book review

Hannah Hodgon’s pamphlet is formed from multiple hospital journeys and stays necessitated by a life-limiting chronic illness. In the poem that gives the pamphlet its title, “The tree in outpatients was plastic, and every night I’d watch it not grow from my window”,

“Eventually doctors felt my body
had earned the key to its own front garden.

Before leaving, I threw everything
on a bonfire the kids from renal were using

to roast marshmallows. My mum

brought home: three t-shirts and a singular photo
I keep on the mantelpiece of my chest as a threat

to the body, a reminder of where we’ll go back to.”

The discharge from hospital is tempered by the knowledge that there will be a return. The patient tries to negotiate through threats that her body won’t get her down and force a return before she’s had chance to live as a non-patient, at least for a while.

The focus isn’t solely on the poet/patient. “Crashing” acknowledges the toll on doctors and healthcare staff too,

“The crash trolley is rushed down the corridor – adrenaline drawn
from the air and injected in seconds. A defibrillator is attached to the chest

and decisions are made within the hour. I’ve seen my consultant cry once.
When she couldn’t save a life, deserted by her superpower.”

Staff who are supposed to centre the patient and put their own feelings to one side are also human. Their work affects them too. Sometimes a patient defies diagnoses or fails to respond to medication counter to expectation. The desire and need to save a patient is not always enough and some losses hurt the staff too. In “Crashing” there’s a momentary glance into the emotional life of staff which is normally hidden.

This patient knows her own life is limited, “Little Deaths” ends

“I’m a widower grieving herself.
My stem still living,

while all the petals have died;
my body has begun to droop.”

A death-in-life, the narrator is forced to acknowledge her own mortality in the knowledge it will be sooner for her than most. But this isn’t self-pity, in “My Mother’s Russian Dolls”,

“There were three of them, but the tiny doll
inside the third one is missing –

the last in a generation of matriarchs
unable to fulfil her purpose.”

The poet’s life-limiting illness has generational implications. The matriarchal line stops with her. However, the impact goes beyond family, it impacts friendships too, “The Rainbow Room” which “isn’t the room you’re told bad news in./ It’s the one you’re taken to once you know it” and where two girls painted their nails,

“Today, her mother sits on the same beige sofa,

waiting to see her daughter – fresh faced and inanimate –
on a cooled mattress.”

It’s natural to make friends, to share experiences and stories, particularly with someone in a similar position who understands what living with chronic illness is like. However, it also brings loss, another petal falling from the stem.

Hannah Hodgson has collected a series of poems that record facets of life with chronic illness without self-pity. Each like a leaf on a tree, an individual piece of art that enhances a whole. The language is direct and unflinching because the tree cannot grow, it is dying and its autumn does not come with a promise of rebirth in the spring beyond. However, while physical growth is stunted, there is still a rich inner life and imagination.

“Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow” 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