“How to Wear Grunge” Ruth Stacey (Knives Forks and Spoons Press) – poetry review

grungecover“How to Wear Grunge” is an unconventional exploration of life on the cusp of adulthood. It eschews nostalgia and becomes a search for a young woman named Carey Hunter who is assumed to be a long-lost friend until the tone of the search turns darker. Carey is introduced in “Her Name”,

Address: Somewhere familiar, cold snap in the air, city buzzing,
guitar music playing, lyrics aim & circle: theme gloom/not gloom.

Voice: Growl, low, high, light, whispered, bellowed, impossible
to describe. Butterfly made of paper, caught in the draft.

Eyes: Fox coloured. I’m certain, fox-russet, copper.”

There are already hints at the unreliability of memory: the address is not remembered but the music is and the eye colour shifts. Carey could be any young twenty-something dreaming of being a singer, trying drugs, whilst not yet ready to settle into the nine-to-five. She didn’t survive but is a reminder of a past life in “Lecture to Myself”,

“Keats knew the power of an unrequited thing
& you could say this is second-hand electric love
yes, you fall in love with people             you crush
intensity of falling    chest compressed beneath the  weight
crushing the real her away dust in the air
truth                 she reminds you/me of a period of time
hippy wall hangings & live bands
smokes, pills, music             when nothing/everything hurt”

The poem becomes fragmentary as memories do with white spaces to linger in. It evokes a time of experimentation, first loves and crushes, and a time when dreams still felt possible. The title poem is a warm reflection on a sense of community,

“with friendship bands
with familiarity & comfort
            burying under jackets for a hug
            clothes smelling of weed & baccy
with recognition in a crowd
.               the same orange jumper
.               green striped tee
.               so clothes were our bodies
with no care for glamour”

It poignantly remembers that sense of searching for a tribe and wearing clothes as markers of recognition. Some mementos survived, “Describe a Picture No One Else Has Seen” is a photo of her laughing at a forgotten joke,

“Her hair is long, straight, heavy bangs, red: the colour of a copper
plate, buried for 2000 years & then dug up from a barrow … polished
so it burns bright. Her eyes are green. Specifically,
the colour of a piece of plucked sage.

Wait, you said her hair was the colour of burnt wood.


A darkness threads through the good times. “The Worst Thing” concerns a girl who “loves to read and he has no books” and the unnamed he who “loves to force her”. It’s years later she is pushed to admit she was raped by him.

“Gretel’s Crumbs” is a reminder of the girl at the heart of the collection,

“Carey Hunter would always seek
.             the next thrill, something to wipe
away the memory of that loss          seek
& find love street                    hate street
.           any club, any building, she could
score, she had a gift”

Although dead, her presence still haunts and is re-gifted with a life of sorts in “(un) real woman”

“create a character on the role-playing game
with her name so she can kick the shit out
of the monster who got in her way”

“How to Wear Grunge” is an atmospheric capture of young adult yearning, youthful mistakes against the soundtrack of a subculture remembered with fondness but not nostalgia. This is no hagiography but a forensic examination of a life stopped short but not forgotten.

“How to Wear Grunge” is available from Knives Forks and Spoons Press.


“The Houses Along the Wall” Karen Hayes (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

2018 11 21 Karen Hayes The Houses Along the Wall book cover“The Houses Along the Wall” is a collection of poems inspired by a row of houses along the coast in Parrog in Pembrokeshire where pieces of china and pottery frequently wash up on a nearby beach. These poems are acts of preservation: charting the landscape and people, and recording overheard conversations and local stories associated with the houses. They also imagine past inhabitants and what their lives might have been based on the fragments of crockery and gathered stories. Each poem is subtitled by the name of the house that inspired the poem. Some names are Welsh, some English.

The early poems loosely focus on a family’s beginning, marriage before the children arrive. In “In His Cups”, house name Morwellan,

“His shilling, like ice in his palm, he touches
The rim of the collection bowl
Where the wood is warm from the heel
Of her hand and at the communion
Tastes where her lips have been.
And he knows how she gropes for the kneeler
Blindly with thumb and forefinger
And how she pulls
The resistant tapestry
Out of its hiding place.

She emerges from yew-tree dark
With the glamour of rain in her hair,
Her arm through his. Her smile an intoxication
To quench his thirst for ever,
And exacts her own promise in return.
He never took a drop from the day
She agreed to his proposal.”

The reference to shilling dates the poem to a time when divorce was stigmatised so the unnamed she is taking a huge gamble in agreeing to his proposal. The poem changes tone from the tender romanticism of touching the things she had touched to the more business-like transaction of exchanging promises where the language from the extract of the second quoted stanza becomes flatter and factual. The image of her groping for the cushion used to knee to pray suggests she’s seen something in him that he’s not yet ready to acknowledge and offers a note of hope for the marriage.

Karen Hayes visited Parrog as an English tourist in her childhood and explores other tourists in “The Belgians”, house name Ocean House, which starts “The Belgians came on the day of the regatta” and ends,

“Those three years, measured in regattas,
When the Belgians lived at Ocean House,
Marked an entente between us and next door.
On the last Sunday the eldest brothers won the double skulls
Then joined the fusiliers on Monday morning.
Their engraved cup still sits on our mantle-piece
With regimental medals from Palestine.
They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village
And understood that we were the English here,
And therefore also foreign.
Amongst the list of Evanses and Reeses
Their Belgian name stands out.”

I think “skulls” should be “sculls” so the cup is from a rowing competition because of the repetition of “regattas” both to mark the Belgians’ arrival and the span of time lived at the house. The poem explores the extra effort the foreigners made to fit in, “They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village” and the connection between them and the English tourists. Other poems explore the blessing and curse of tourism: that it brings a much needed boost to the local economy but also that holiday homes prevent people born in Parrog buying a house there.

One of the last poems looks at the oldest house, “The Runt of the Litter”, house name Trenydd, where the contradiction of “eldest” and “runt” is dealt with in the opening stanza, “Little Trenydd, eldest of the brood,/ But the runt of the litter of houses.” The poem continues,

“Little Trenydd, the first built,
Squats like a baby
Counting its mothers buttons from a tin,
Cross-legged on the strand.
Soon the other houses grown around it,
Those leggy younger siblings,
Vying for height and confidence, and
Competing architectural demands.”

And ends “And, an old man now, with the sun in his eyes/ Little Trenydd dozes on the wall.”

It’s the first poem to give one of the houses a persona. The others focus on the residents and visitors, the people who stayed relatively briefly in the houses. One poem imagines the missing estate agent Suzy Lamplugh playing hide and seek with children in one of the houses, giving the collection a contemporary edge. There’s much to savour here and the aim of preserving the character and houses is achieved.

“The Houses Along the Wall” is available from Holland Park Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

underfloor heating;
the spaces are left bare…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like Love” is available from V Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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