“blud” Rachel McKibbens (Copper Canyon Press) – book review

Blud Rachel McKibbensIn “blud”, Rachel McKibbens explores the effects of childhood trauma, looking both to its source and aftermaths, including the concern of inheritance of personality and patterns of behaviour that could turn victim into abuser. Looking for the source starts with, “a brief biography of the poet’s mother,”

“Her mother,
a jealous
with looking-glass
hands & a tub
full of bleach

thieved & thieved
until the child
a quiet room

a silence born
of interrogated

Girl is the worst season.
Mother no guarantee.”

Not all mothers are maternal, yet it’s still taboo to say so, and plenty of mothers want to stay centre stage and resent any attention given to their children. “Looking-glass” is significant. Nurturing mothers will mirror and support their child. A mother who expects her child to mirror and reflect her is already dismissing the child’s emotional needs as unimportant. If not corrected, the child will continue to feel dismissed and ignored. Bleach is used to cleanse and disinfect but a “tub full” is excessive suggesting the mother saw the child as tainted and uncontrollable, so reacted by re-doubling her efforts to impose control, stealing the child’s sense of self in the process. All this happens between mother and daughter – father and wider family are not mentioned – so others don’t intervene and when the child speaks out, she is disbelieved. That disbelief is looked at in “the ghost’s daughter speaks: white elephant”,

.                                                                                                             She says I’m going to pay for
.                             what I’ve written                          I’m going to pay for this poem
.                                                                                                                                        She has a way
of making things

.                                                                                                     happen
.                 Please                                 quit saying                                        but she’s your mother
.                                            I’ve never

.                                                                     We’ve never
.                                                                                                                                                           had

.                                                                           You don’t know
what it’s                                like
I                                           don’t think                                                      you’re
.                                                                                listening

You don’t
.                                                                                                   understand

.                                                                                                                                             that bitch is
.                                                                                                                                                        Kray”

Kray is a deliberate reference to the Kray twins, London gangsters reputed to follow a code of conduct that included respecting their mother, who was ignorant of their lawlessness. It suggests the mother being more concerned with appearances than events, with creating an air of respectability over the truth, which must remain behind closed doors. Again, there’s a reference to the taboo of a non-maternal mother, “Please quit saying but she’s your mother.” Even after abuse, the maternal link is used to urge a child to keep in touch with an abuser as if blood is more important.

Legacies of trauma is looked at in “leverage” where a grandmother who is raped,

“As the man pulled his pants up,

she noticed the tattoo on his
forearm. MOTHER framed

by a heart. My sons will be home
soon, she explained.

How many?

What she told me next
I could never understand,

not until I’d lived long enough
in this temporary body,

not until I had five children
of my own, how, when the man

held out his hand, she took it.”

Sagely, the grandmother appeals to the rapist’s love for his own mother to save her from further injury, even allowing her assailant to assist her back on her feet afterwards. She gambled on him falling into a dutiful son role.

“swell” returns to the broken child/mother relationship explored earlier,

.                let it be here, in that heat-ravaged

moment as she caught the pale bloom of herself

.                      in the mirror & looking

.                                    back over her shoulder,

fell in love with the animal engine of her body,

.                        not for the daughter it could nurture

.                                                   but for the girl it would kill.”

Again the image of a mirror. Here the mother loves her reflection, just as Narcissus did, and the pleasure her body can give her. The daughter is cast into the role of Echo, who longed for a response from Narcissus but faded into nothing when he didn’t reciprocate. The implication is that the lack of maternal love destroys the child.

“blud” is poetry as witness, recording trauma and exploring both its origins and after effects. Some poems also look at the fear of inherited behaviour and the victim inflicting damage on others in turn. It directly engages with domestic violence, abuse, sexual violence unflinchingly and honestly. But “blud” has not forgotten the reader, this is not a cathartic outpouring, but controlled, forged poems.

“blud” is available from Copper Canyon Press


“London Undercurrents” Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire (Holland Park Press) – book review

London Undercurrents book coverTwo poets explore the hidden histories of women based north and south of the river Thames in London through poems with Joolz Sparkes focusing north of the river, and Hilaire south. Poems are grouped by theme so chronologically they jump around and are marked N or S to indicate the writer. Some poems feature a named subject. Others look at a class of women, e.g. “Dodging the Doctor” subtitled “The White Lead Works Factory, Islington, 1892” and labelled N,

“It’s out job they once said for girls
didn’t get poisoned like men.
But now a doctor visits regular,
warns us to Take a bath once a week.
Any sign of sickness
we’re sent home,
our pay docked.

To avoid diagnosis,
I drift silently in blizzard,
invisible in the powder-fogged air,
clamber barefoot
up the drying scaffold,
hide at the top on rough planks.
Hup I go.”

Through ignorance, it was a historical belief that women were not affected by lead poisoning to the extent that men were therefore it was safer for them to work with lead powder, used in white paints. Once it was realised this wasn’t the case, a bizarre compromise of sending a doctor in to access workers’ health was introduced. To the workers, who need their wages, this compromise seems more punishment than help. Getting colleagues to warn of the doctor’s visit and help hide each other a measure of solidarity. Move forward to the 1970s and solidarity is still needed, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” subtitled, “Sit-in at Decca’s Colour TV Factory, Ingate Place, 14th August 1975” and labelled S (the image in the text is the Gujarati word for redundancy which also translates into English as futility),

“They lied to us. They lied with untranslated words. Redundancy. Spit it out in Gujarati Redundancy We hear it as futility. They translate us into no job in two weeks. Redundancy. Our insignificant bodies occupy their factory. They nail up the toilet doors. They send our food away. Redundancy They brand us with the stigma of barrenness. Together we’ve assembled hundreds, thousands of colour TVs. Between us, we feed dozens upon dozens of dependents. Why close our black and white TVs in our crowded, borrowed homes? We are seventy strong.”

In 1991 in “Permitted to Play” set in Arsenal Football Stadium, a girl’s voice asks,

“Teacher says I’m better than the boys.
Dad, Dad, I can beat them on this pitch.
With you and mum eating hotdogs
in the red seats, waving scarves.

On telly, they only show the men’s.
Dad, when can I play for Arsenal? When?”

The women’s team play most of their home matches outside London in Hertfordshire rather than at the Emirates Stadium in north London. Moving back to 1977, a similar note of defiance is uttered in “On the Way to See The Sex Pistols Play at the Hope and Anchor” where the speaker ends, “We’re pretty in black,/ mother, daughter, sister, Punk.”

“He was a Lovely Boy” subtitled “Somewhere on the Estate Essex Road, 1969” and labelled N, is about the Kray twins,

“My lad, my son, my blood.
Brought him up nice, polite.

His second birth tore me apart.
Both halves twinned together –

could’ve ripped them in two
with my teeth, but this one

kept the peace, stayed respectful,
never swore. Class. Stuck to his code:

just his bare hands grappling
in back rooms of pubs.

Knives or guns?
You choose you lose.”

It could be just as relevant today. “On the Marriage of Catherine Boucher to William Blake” subtitled “St Mary’s Church Battersea, 18th August 1782” and labelled S,

“We say our vows
bathed in a splendor of light.

And when he signs his name –
William Blake – in the register
I believe this to be true,
unable to decipher
those marks that flow
so swiftly, serpent-like,
from his pen. This X
I make, crooked, unfamiliar,
symbol of my freely given hand,
he swears he’ll take and soon
have learnt me how to read and write.
To sign my own proud name:
Catherine Blake.”

It’s a touching reminder of how women weren’t educated and therefore reliant on husbands or fathers to speak for them. There’s a reminder of the women’s suffrage movement too, “Cat and Mouse”, Holloway Prison 1913, N,

“for cheeks to hide histories of hands
that forced open a mouth to gag

on rubber pipe. This waiting affords me
respite at home, soft boiled eggs, a glimpse

of headlines. Then they’ll start again. But we,
my sisters, we will wait no more.”

The so-called cat and mouse act allowed hunger-striking women prisoners to be sent home under house arrest and returned to prison when they were deemed strong enough to serve the remainder of their sentence. Many were also forcibly fed to prevent starvation.

Personally, I would have preferred the poems in chronological order because I feel this would have reflected the growth of the city and allowed historical echoes of current day concerns to emerge. However, this is just a personal preference.

“London Undercurrents” is an intriguing, worthy collaboration that focuses on histories in two specific areas of London. The poems imaginatively give voices to stories often overlooked from those who usually go unheard. Both poets, Hilaire and Joolz Sparks, have distinct but complementary voices but share the ability to use selective details to bring their subjects to life in an engaging manner. The poems suggest both poets love their city and want to share its stories with a wider readership.

“London Undercurrents” is available from Holland Park Press.

“The Escapologist” Jinny Fisher (V.Press) – poetry review

The Escapologist Jinny Fisher“The Escapologist” is a mix of poems and prose poems, often looking at family relationships and ties but not confined to this. The title poem is about a boy learning to tie knots despite his parents’ skepticism and discovers one not in his handbook and has to decide whether to make his first mark of independence by not telling his parents. The theme of children growing independent occurs in the opening poems too, including “Old Flowers for a New Room”, for the poet’s daughter, Miranda, and has the poet bringing artificial flowers for her daughter’s “grey room”,

“coloured lights glowed above your four-poster.
I will drape them over and round your neck –
dripping garlands of daisies and roses.
I’ll haul my baggage up the steps.

As I loop these rainbows around your neck,
rain fills your gutters and overflows.
You laugh, swing my baggage up the steps –
I have delivered your plastic flowers.”

Daisies are a symbol for innocence and cheerfulness and act as a counterpoint to the more mature roses (the poem doesn’t specify colour so a lost opportunity). The overflow of rain reflects the relationship between mother and daughter. Initially the mother carries her bags – the word “haul” suggests a heaviness – then the daughter takes over – “swings” suggests ease and a light touch. The pantoum form gives the poem structure. Another family poem, “A Brother in Six Scenes”, has a very different tone and lets readers picture the scenes from an accumulation of details,

“Brother with rainbow umbrella–
here to give me his news, which is not news.
He will leave everything to me, he says.

Brother standing in his hall–
up to his ankles in unopened mail.
Turning from me with a shrug.

Brother on the floor of his flat–
phone hanging from the wall.
His shirt has been slashed to expose his chest.”

That’s not where the poem ends. Its three line stanza structure, passive voice and flat tone convey the emotion behind the poem.

“Coda for a Violin” starts “She knows the case’s weight, unzips the canvas cover,” as an old, familiar violin has been sold and is being packaged for its new owner,

“She must loosen the bow hair for the journey,
but first she holds her thumb against the strings, plucks
G-D-A-E, four spare notes.”

Those long vowels echo a sense of longing. It’s noticeable that she doesn’t play a tune but “four spare notes”, a farewell and an acknowledgement the violin is no longer hers.

“The Escapologist” contains poems that are warm, conversational in tone and welcoming to read. They wear their craft and musicality lightly, which makes them an engaging read and gives them a depth exploring and exposing family psychologies.

“The Escapologist” is available from V. Press

Small Acts of Kindness and a new bookclub

The lack of an address is all too often barrier to accessing public services, which further disadvantages the homeless. However, Leicester City Council’s Westcotes Library were willing to allow a homeless man, Lee, to borrow books from the library despite his lack of address, even helping him discover new science fiction books and extend his reading.

Lee has now created a book club based at Westcotes Library where others, homeless or housed, can drop in, discover and discuss books in a friendly atmosphere and get a hot drink.

Fuller story available on the BBC website: Books send homeless man into a different world.

“These nights at home” Alex Reed with images by Keren Banning (V. Press) – book review

these nights at home alex reed“These nights at home” is a series of seventeen poems interspersed with images by Keren Banning. The photographic images are abstract, lit, white textures on black with blurred, uncertain outlines. Since many of the poems are anchored in bereavement, the images are complementary. It starts with a prose poem, “Bindwood”,

“But as quickly as he stripped it away, the climber would return. Soon it had spread until it covered her lower body, so she could no longer walk. The man now spent all his days picking ivy from her, and soon the nights too. But, despite his efforts, it soon clothed the woman entirely. Only her face remained uncovered. He saw that the woman’s eyes were wet, but he couldn’t tell whether this was from sadness or through some strange joy. When he asked, she’d reply as if to a different question.

“The man continued to remove any fresh shoots from her face but he knew that his efforts were hopeless and that he could only fail her. He told her he was sorry, but she gazed at him as if from some far- away place and smiled. After a long silence, she spoke, telling him that in all their many years together, he had not, for the most part, let her down.”

The weed becomes a metaphor for a terminal illness choking the woman’s vitality. It also captures the sense of futility and hopeless her carer and partner feels for her and its impact on their relationship as the illness takes over. Both have deep, long-reaching roots and a reputation for choking or restricting growth of neighbouring plants but they are of different plant families.

“deep river “ looks at the after effects, the left-behind partner left to adapt a shared living space into a solo space and friends saying variants on it takes time,

it takes two years
folded clothes still on the shelves

it takes four years
faint trace of you from the wool

there is a river that runs within –
vast, uncharted, rising”

It takes as long as it needs to take and there’s no right or wrong timing. It’s never completed either. Even when the clothes are removed, the memory of their being there lingers. The river metaphor is apt: it’s not just tears but the sense of those memories being overwhelming and uncontrollable. Another poem, “imprint”, reflects on removing a wedding ring,

“later waking
stretching towards
the bedside lamp
it dawns again

red imprint
absent halo

A long-worn ring leaves a mark, even months after its removal. Like memories, mostly it’s unnoticeable but there are odd moments where it becomes noticeable. “Red” is more than the mark’s colour, it’s suggestive of love. The last word “halo” could be associated with ‘angel’, suggesting a lingering spirit.

A later poem, “Travelodge,” has the widower book into a hotel,

“I try out the shower, sprawl on the bed,
damp towel wrapped round me,

surf channels on the tiny screen
bolted to the wall and wonder

who I might call to tell I’m here:
a wanderer, sick of distraction,

can’t find my way home again.”

A damp towel isn’t for a shared bed and the sense of having no one to phone, or the person you want to phone not being available, is grief. Throughout “These nights at home” recurring images of a doors, shelves and empty rooms are reminders of bereavement. The collection is sensitively written and Keren Banning’s images reflect Alex Reed’s themes.

“These nights at home” poems by Alex Reed, images by Keren Banning is available from V. Press

“empire of dirt” Thomas Stewart (Red Squirrel Press) – poetry review

empire of dirt thomas stewart front coverThomas Stewart takes a pared down, minimalist approach to take a slant-wise look at what superficially appear to be common observations, often suggesting a twist to encourage readers to think again. In “Poetic License”, the narrator watches a son buy a motorbike of the same model and colour as his late father’s bike,

“I thought I’d write
a poem about it
and thought
it wasn’t my poem
to write.
I did not have the right
to tell this story,
I was not
this son,
it was not my red
not my dead father.
I thought
I had no license
to this story,”

The observation becomes a springboard to the narrator thinking about his own father and continues,

“I thought
I had no motorbike
to buy,
no lost identity
of a man
I did not know
to find,
I had it all right
in front of me
I just kept looking
for a motorbike.”

There are two strands here: firstly what right do poets have to write about the experiences of others, especially on sensitive experiences such as grief, and secondly how we have to guard against taking those closest to us for granted. In the grind of daily life, it becomes easier to be distracted by novelty and harder to pay attention to those who always seem to be by our sides. Writers should explore their motives and approach when writing about others’ experiences and avoid appropriation. It’s the hesitation and questioning that ensures sensitive handling. The repetition of “motorbike” and “license” acts both as a refrain reminding readers of the poem’s purpose and emphasises the narrator’s thinking around the topic and spiralled line of probing his desire to write the poem.

“There Are Bees In My Beard” uses a similar pattern of repetition as refrain but urges readers to consider each repetition differently. Initially the bees do not sting the narrator, but

“The bees drop honey in my eyes
and their milky eggs in my ears
so I can’t hear their conspiracy.

I am filled with the bee’s nectar.
I am their home,
their front doors, their windows.

I wake one day to no eggs in my ears
or honey in my eyes
or bees in my beard –
with no bee stings to remember them by.”

This time the loss goes beyond grief. Loss of bees, essential to the ecosystem, would have significant consequences. There’s also a shifting of blame. Rather than looking inward at his own actions, the narrator blames the bees for their abandonment of him.

“Sunflowers” considers a growing competition,

“and the morbid fashion show
ended with the tallest
winner but it was the seed
planter that won the award,
the earth digger, the world’s butcher,
for that sullen sunflower
arched its shoulders
giantly gazing down
tied by thin string
to the wall.

The ugly ones were discarded
snapped down
tossed in black bags,
you could’ve seen it as
a mercy killing
but most of the seed planters
just didn’t want to buy
a watering can.”

It is again a poem with two strands and two endings. The first is the gardener taking the award on behalf of the real winner, the flower. The second is murderous waste created by those who wanted the glory of winning the competition but couldn’t be bothered to nurture their flowers to enable them to win. It could become a metaphor for those to lay their creative talents to waste.

“empire of dirt” is an assured, considered pamphlet with a minimalist approach that nonetheless has depths. Its brevity should not detract from its heft.

“empire of dirt” is available from Red Squirrel Press

“Noisesome Ghosts” Clay Thistleton (Blart Books) – poetry review

Clay Thistleton uses fragmentary text incorporating music extracts, transcripts of messages, historical and contemporary reports and references to create a hybrid mosaic loosely based on T S Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. The introduction asserts that it’s a book of “scholarship and of poetry” and swiftly followed by a tongue-in-cheek guide to using the book. These ghosts have a very dry sense of humour.

“The Ghost of Mr Wineholt (1937)” subtitled “in memory of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)” starts

2019 01 16 extract 01

[text reads: “I felt something heavy/On my chest/ while in bed/ in the new house” all letters “e” and “o” plus the “g” in “something, “ea” in “heavy”, “bed” and the “ou” in house” are in a larger size]

Mr Wineholt, a neighbour suggests, is the former house owner who “gassed himself”. The poem’s narrator tells the ghost she “has rented” the house and tells Mr Wineholt (due to the typesetting, I’ve used an image to reproduce the text),

2019 01 16 extract 1

[text reads “but I am not/ dead girl// & I had to/ – hesitantly -/ point out/ that as he had/ committed suicide/ in the kitchen/ it was fairly likely/ that he was”]

It’s rather eloquent for a five-year-old Sylvia Plath, if the poem’s narrator is intended to be her, and the references to “gassed himself” and “kitchen” feels like a clever attempt to load a piece with more significance that it deserves. It also reduces the poet to her death. Her work deserves better.

Some ghosts are more contemporary, here travellers in Florida (again, due to the typesetting, I’ve used an image to reproduce the text),

2019 01 16 extract 2

The poem starts with the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder which includes the noise of impact and then takes the shape of a small plane as it explores what a flight attendant’s ghost sees,

2019 01 16 extract 2a

The attendant seems to remember the warning given by the flight engineer whose remains he has just recognised. Readers aren’t given the emotional journeys of these ghosts, the poems act as recordings of what the ghosts do or say, effectively inviting readers to fill the blank spaces to create those journeys for themselves.

In “The Apparition of C S Lewis (1963)”

2019 01 16 extract 3

The writer’s ghost appears, appearing to be in good health, but the words spoken are redacted. However, there’s not enough context to guess what the ghost might have said. The words direct the focus on the irony of a ghost appearing healthier than in life.

The poems are not presented chronologically so a poem from the 18th century might appear alongside one that’s more contemporary. “Sendai Possessions: One of Twenty-Five Tsunami Spirits Exorcised from Rumiko Takahashi (Alias) by Reverend Kaneda of Kurihara, Japan” is set after the 2011 Tsunami and earthquake and ends

2019 01 16 extract 4

The observation, “it is very cold// & there are bodies// all around me” is hardly original but its matter of fact tone is a reflection of shock and someone trying to make sense of something completely beyond their comprehension.

In “The Bristol Poltergeist (1761-1762)” one ghost has met their end via bite marks,

2019 01 16 extract 5

2019 01 16 extract 5a

The shape of the text, a sentence presented as an oval, is relevant but also a visual way of distracting from the ordinariness of the observations (“we examined these bites & found on them”, “the impression of eighteen or twenty teeth”, “with saliva or spittle all over them” “in the shape of a mouth very wet”), although it could be argued that the visual provide a pointer to the extraordinary phenomena being presented in passive, scientific record.

“Noisesome Ghosts” is cerebral, rather than compassionate, and its compilation feels like an interesting experiment in danger of taking over its creator. At over 400 pages it does feel too long and is a book to dip in and out of rather than read coherently from start to finish even over several sittings. The time jumps and lack of chronological order give the book the feel that its “Noisesome Ghosts” have interrupted its compilation and disturbed its order. The shaping of text is sometimes logical, for example taking the shape of a plane or using the layout of social media posts, and sometimes appearing to have no logic, for example in “The Ghost of Mr Wineholt” where random larger letters appear, again consistent with the disruption of ghostly figures. It’s a marmite book: it will either appeal to readers or not. If a cerebral exercise in found poems laced with dry wit appeals, “Noisesome Ghosts” is for you.

“Noisesome Ghosts” by Clay Thistleton is available from Bart Books