“Outsider Heart” Trevor Wright (Big White Shed) – poetry review

Outsider Heart by Trevor Wright book coverTrevor Wright is fairly well-known in Nottingham’s spoken word and poetry scene and has even on occasion intrepidly drifted over the border into Leicester to read his anthologised poems. With “Outsider Heart” he dips his toe into the pool of poetry pamphlets enabling him to direct audiences to further work. His poems are personal, often deploying a self-deprecating humour. “Exit Wound” ends

“Gram n Emmy Lou done warned me that love hurts and wounds and mars
so perhaps it’s best to leave things be, and respect you for afar.
But that’s left a hole there in my heart that just doesn’t seem to heal
and the exit wound you left behind, for the whole wide world to see.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of Gram Parsons or Emmy Lou Harris, the recognition that love doesn’t work as popular songs say it does is universal. The end of line rhymes are a nod to those popular songs but don’t clunk into predictability. There’s handy father to daughter advice in “A Father’s Message to His Daughter on the Day of the Commemoration of His Unexpected Demise” which is centred on the page and contains useful gems such as:

“This hire car clutch isn’t going to change just for you now is it?
Pack your rucksack properly and your shoulders won’t hurt.”

The poem ends:

“Sit on a sunny bench
Relax when it’s cold
Sing in your heart
You are beautiful
But above all else
Be yersen.”

The centring and the use of longer lines becoming shorter lines as the poem moves down the page, gives it the shape of a whirlwind. The easy, casual tone of the opening lines become less conversational and more direct towards the end. It suggests a hesitancy in the father and daughter relationship which becomes lost as the father realises he needs to get to the point. The key word, “yourself” is rendered in phonetically-spelt dialect, suggestive of the father wanting his daughter to absolutely understand his point, to bring her home almost as if he’s sharing a secret.

This observant eye is turned to a newspaper story in “Blues of Andrew” where a pudgy outsider is killed by a single punch outside a supermarket.

“Manslaughter.
Four years.
Most likely out in two.
I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about said the young boxer’s mum.
It will all be lining for chips tomorrow.
The other mum declined to comment.”

One mother has no qualms defending her child’s indefensible behaviour. The other mother retreats into her grief. I did wonder at the use of “mum” for Andrew’s mother, it seems too casual for the point being made. It does though get to the core of “Outsider Heart”, the outsider observing, recording and inviting readers to look again at the familiar and ask if they’ve really understood what they are seeing.

Further details from Big White Shed

“The Yellow House” Jeroen Blokhuis (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Yellow House by Jeroen Blokhuis book coverSubtitled “A novel about Vincent Van Gogh” and translated from the Dutch by Asja Novak, this novel focuses on the painter’s life from August 1888 to December 1889, when he moved from Paris to Arles, hoping to paint the Mediterranean sun and create a painters’ school. The opening plunges readers into the aftermath of a murder, blamed on Italian migrants and Van Gogh is roped into ensuring the last two migrants are driven away. The migrants already know that leaving isn’t safe and go peacefully. On the way back into Arles, Van Gogh is thinking about the children who periodically throw stones at him when he’s static at his easel. Curiously, although the novel is in Van Gogh’s viewpoint, he never draws parallels between his situation and that of the Italian migrants. The implication is that Van Gogh sees himself as the outsider and doesn’t attempt to integrate with the locals, despite eating out and using a local prostitute.

When Gaugain visits, Van Gogh gives him the bedroom, anxious that Gaugain’s stay will be a happy one because he wants this to be the beginning of his school. He spends his days painting and his nights in long conversation with his guest, leading to lack of sleep and malnourishment. Readers see a Van Gogh who flits between reading and observing people and being completely baffled by them. He’s most at ease in front of his easel, but never discusses his paintings in detail although he describes what he’s trying to capture. In one scene, both painters paint Marie Ginoux where it is Gaugain who tries to put his subject at ease while Van Gogh observes and paints.

The ear cutting incident is dealt with in the aftermath, when, weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh is incoherent and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Gaugain leaves, fearing his visit triggered the incident, although Van Gogh already had a history of psychosis. Van Gogh recovers sufficiently to return to Arles and the novel ends before his final stay in an asylum.

Through “The Yellow House” readers see the painter as a man incapable of managing everyday life and driven to paint. Jeroen Blokhuis avoids the cliche of tortured, misunderstood genius and creates Van Gogh as someone inspired by his surroundings, who largely communicated by painting and a man blighted by poverty and an inability to integate with others, blaming himself for not being able to make friends. In this way Van Gogh is recognisable and sympathetic. He sees with a poetic (but not archaic) eye, often describing what he sees as eloquently as he paints it. Even readers who are not a fan of the artist, will find much to recognise in an empathetic portrait of a driven man finding his talents leave him on the fringes of society, observing but not invited to join in. An elegantly written, convincing novel that’s as layered and multi-dimensional as a Van Gogh painting.

The Yellow House is available from Holland Park Press.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Swell” is available from Telltale Press.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Immigration Handbook” is available from Seren.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turn back.
They thunder on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Fetch” is available from Nine Arches Press.

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

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

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

Carol Leeming The Declamations of Cool Eye book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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