“In the Blood” Anna Fodorova (Arachne Press) – book review

Anna Fodorova In the Blood book cover

On the surface, Agata has a perfect family living in London: husband, Richard, daughter, Lily, and her own mother, on a lengthy visit from Prague where Agata grew up. However, that doesn’t explain the nightly tears and the web of secrets between mother and daughter. Agata hides her regular hospital trips for tests in case the cancer her mother survived show up in her own body. She’s not yet begun to think about whether Lily might also inherit the cancer-related genes. Her mother has other family-related secrets. Agata has grown up believing that her mother was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. Here the horrors are hinted at but not explicit: the past, Agata’s mother believes, belongs in the past and it is not spoken of.

Agata’s therapist tries to get her to loosen the guilt she feels. Agata can’t explain why she feels it until she discovers a leaflet for a meeting on “The Impact of the Holocaust on the Second Generation”. Her mother asked who the second generation are. Agata suggests people like her: born to survivors. Her mother responds, “But nothing happened to your generation, Gatushka, you were born after it was all over.”

The lecture suggests otherwise. Agata recalls as a ten-year-old a boy at school calling her “a shitty Jew” and how when she told her parents, “I felt their fear. It sat with us in the room. My parents, they never told me about the Menorah or Passover, nothing like that, but in that moment, I understood I now belonged in that heap of scary matchstick people I saw once in a book.” This becomes another secret from her mother as Agata starts meeting Klaus, who she assumes to be another of this second generation. Klaus explains how he felt he could never complain, never let on he was in a bad mood or upset over something because he knew his parents had had it worse. There was an unspoken pressure for him to always appear happy.

Agata’s mother lets slip that there were cousins, a brother and sister, who had been sent to England as war broke out, a branch of family who’d escaped the concentration camps. Agata wants to track them down. Agata’s mother refuses to cooperate and tells Agata she’s being silly, she has her family, there’s no need to trace relatives. But Agata feels something’s missing. Richard half-heartedly agrees with his mother-in-law. His contact with his own family is the exchange of Christmas cards and perhaps an occasional visit. Agata finds one of the cousins, the sister. Her visit to them is polite and conversation strained. Not the happy reunion Agata was hoping for. In her eagerness for connection, she overlooks that she might be bringing up memories deliberately buried. She begins a journal detailing her efforts and starts to draw a family tree. The cousin dodges the question on where her brother is, except to say he changed his name. Agata turns sleuth, trying to fill in more names. A trip to Prague to visit her mother, who has returned home, enables Agata to find some photographs, including one of Annette, her mother’s younger sister whom Agata was told had died in a concentration camp. However, when they visit a Holocaust Memorial, Annette’s name is not there. Agata’s mother whisks her away before Agata can ask why.

Agata’s daughter, Lily, reacts badly to Agata’s attempts to trace relatives. Lily, like Richard and her grandmother, thinks they are family enough and she doesn’t want to be roped into visits from people she’s never seen before and accuses her mother of upending her life. Part of it is pre-teen lashing out, but she also has a point. What is family? The people who we’ve chosen to be with or names on a tree? Through Richard, Agata discovers her mother has been thwarting her attempts to trace family. It was at her mother’s suggestion that the cousin failed to pass on her brother’s name and now refuses to see Agata, citing illness.

Agata is now forced to think about what she is doing. Is it worth tearing her family apart to find relatives she’s never met and has had nothing to do with? Are her dreams of a happy wider family realistic or is it better to let go and focus on the family she does know? How does she feel about being lied to that her relatives were dead when some of them survived? How does that affect the familial relationships she has? Uncovering secrets can be harmful or helpful, was Agata right to strike out on her own or should she have left well alone? It is possible to be sympathetic to her efforts while also wanting to give her head a wobble as she risks the family she already has.

Richard is very much the easy-going Englishman content with his lot and baffled at Agata’s obsessive search for relatives. He doesn’t obstruct her to start with but when Agata starts inviting her mother’s cousin to their house, he chafes. This is the point where he contacts his mother-in-law behind his wife’s back to put the brakes on Agata’s sleuthing. Lily’s a typical pre-teen, finds parents embarrassing, adores her grandmother and tolerates Agata’s efforts until Lily realises her grandmother doesn’t back what her mother is doing and becomes scared of losing touch with her grandmother. Grandmother is simply doing what she feels best. That some things shouldn’t be talked about and she fears Agata will bring things to the surface that are best left buried.

There’s a final twist that could irrevokably change Agata’s life forever or she could decide to carry on living with the protective lies woven around her. “In the Blood” is a compelling tale of inherited trauma, the damage of not knowing the truth about your own family and whether lies told with the intention to protect do more harm than good. The questions raised by Anna Fodorova’s skilfully drawn characters linger beyond the end of the book.

“In the Blood” is available from Arachne 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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“A Pocketful of Chalk” Claire Booker (Arachne Press) – book review

Claire Booker A Pocketful of Chalk book cover

Claire Booker takes readers on a journey over the Sussex Downs, a range of chalk hills which include 37 sites of special scientific interest that stretch from coastal cliffs to inland grasslands. There are diversions into family life, paintings, motherhood and childhood memories. In “Drone Boys” modern tech meets domesticated sheep,

“A drone revs up. A second joins it, slicing out territory
………over the struts of the burned-out barn.

They circle for a wider curettage, herd space, scythe
……….the air with their waspish under-hangs,

come lower still, until the field erupts in unstoppable bleating,
……….as if the chalk hill has grown lungs.

Every lamb is trying to cry itself back inside the womb.
……….Their mothers stand like boulders – reply in deep baritone

from black mechanical mouths, udders triggered
………..against the raptors’ shrieking blades.”

The drone operators don’t seem to care about the impact their tech is having on the sheep who don’t have any shelter in a burnt out barn. The sheep’s distress doesn’t prompt them to guide their drones away. There seems to be a clear divide between man-made tech and the animals with those using the tech oblivious to the ill-effects of stress on mothers still trying to feed their lambs who have not yet been weened onto grass. The enjambment and sound echoes create a sense of urgency, reflecting the stress created by the drones.

The man in “Long Man Dreaming” is the chalk giant carved into the Sussex Downs known as the Long Man of Wilmington. The poem’s narrator has parked her car in the car park nearby as the giant dreams,

“Fish will inherit the earth booms the giant

as he sluices against currents with his upright poles
transformed into oars. They slap, slap between drowning
steeples tractors floating belly-up corpses

swept along in huddled herds. A mackerel shoots
rainbows across the car bonnet. Lobsters have tethered
themselves to the Pay & Display.

Their bubbles scatter like petulant bullets.
I rummage for my parking coins find flint stones.
Is it too late to buy a ticket?”

It brought to mind Matthew Sweeney’s poem “Fishbones Dreaming”, not for the fish but for the idea of things returning to their source. Here the dreamt sea claims the land, showing nature could overturn man’s grasp, as tractors are rendered useless, buildings are flooded and money is turned to stone. Is the narrator buying a ticket for her car or to gain entry to the dream of man’s dominance being diminished and nature taking back control.

In one of the several digressions from nature, “Anniversary” sees someone bereaved enquire at lost property,

“This morning, I dropped by,
gave them your description:

about so high, slightly bent with age,
wonderfully musical.

They brought out a trombone.”

The instrument can’t replace the person, but it can help recreate or remind of the memories shared with the late person. The lightness of the poem is in direct contrast to a later poem, “News Flash” where,

“hipsters on Segways. The Taliban have beheaded a women’s
youth volleyball player
. Seagulls dive bomb for chips, smash
plates, glasses, wild applause. The Taliban have beheaded
a women’s youth volleyball player.
The beach lies neck
down in pebbles; glint of Sunday kayakers. The Taliban have
beheaded a women’s youth volleyball player.
Girls tumble
in borrowed sand – lit up, laughing, aching with life’s endlessness.
The Taliban have beheaded a women’s youth volleyball player.

The headline haunts the poem’s speaker. The ordinary, everyday details accumulate until the climax of the final two lines where the beach girls’ freedom is brought crashing down by the finality of the headline. The speaker’s struggle to understand the headline is clear from the poem, the words repeat but don’t seem to anchor.

The mood lifts in “Mr McGregor’s Seedlings”,

“He’s dug a small pond by the lean-to where he rests
with his flask in the company of frogs,

reads up about poisoned bees, plundered peat bogs,
pesticides that strip the land of worms.

On weekdays, voices from the infant school hop over,
lively as crickets. Next month he’ll give a talk,

take little pots to plant enthusiasms, unpack a sunflower
to show its eager heart.”

He shares a name with the farmer in Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”, thought thankfully children aren’t rabbits and he can get on with the important job of teaching them to garden and nurture plants. He’s realistic about his chances, knowing some children will listen because it’s better than maths or English, but he still hopes he can capture one or two and make a difference.

“A Pocketful of Chalk” is firmly rooted in its Sussex Downs location, exploring the landscape’s environs and raising concerns for climate change and what could be lost. There are also very human concerns: motherhood, intergenerational relationships and grief. All approached with the vitality and empathy of a poet wishing to share her concerns and love for the topics covered.

“A Pocketful of Chalk” is available from Arachne 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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

The Art of Anticipation

What Meets the Eye edited by Lisa Kelly and Sophie Stone published by Arachne Press book cover by Nina Thomas

Silence is a language,
a bridge between two moves,
space on a page

I described walking into a noisy cafe bar as like hitting a wall of sound. A (hearing) person said they didn’t get it: noise wasn’t physical but auditory. But sound is felt. There’s a poignant scene in “Sound of Metal” (an emotional journey that does a good job of conveying what hearing loss feels like, although there are inaccuracies) where Reuben is sitting on a metal slide in a children’s playground and is absent-mindedly drumming his hands against it. A Deaf child places his hand on the slide to feel the vibrations. When hearing is impaired, sound can be felt and you don’t have to touch the source to feel it. Sound can also be anticipated. If you see a cup slide off a tray, you know it will hit the floor. When someone is moving their mouth (and not eating), it’s very likely they are talking.

Not hearing is the art of anticipation,
what might someone say, what an actor
might mean, what a director implies
by what’s revealed through a lens
and what’s left out.

Lip-reading is an art, rather than a science. It is impossible to accurately read because no two people make exactly the same lip movements when speaking. Differences are caused by accent, pronounciation and the individual shapes of people’s mouths. It takes a combination of educated guesses and perseverance. Context helps. After an event, it’s likely people will be talking about the event. At bar, the person serving is going to ask what you want to drink. In a shop, it will be how you want to pay, did you find everything you were looking for. In some situations, pandemic masks made it easier because there was less small talk, people were more likely to be direct and skip the preamble or hesitations. At a pre-arranged meeting, talk is likely to be about what triggered the need for a meeting. Chance meetings are harder. Being able to read body language and facial expressions help. It’s possible to get the gist of what someone is saying even if not every word.

Even so, those who struggle to hear become adept at creating a narrative for a situation and anticipating what might be said. Noticing when the narrative goes astray. Noticing when intrusive noise (that cup slipping off a tray) might make hearing temporarily impossible. Filtering out background noise to focus on the bits we want to hear. Being aware of noise that might interrupt, noise at a frequency that amplifies tinnitus, noise that triggers a stress response. This becomes instinctive, we don’t consciously think about doing it. Like learning to type, it becomes a natural reaction.

Silence is never completely silent. Something somewhere moves, it might be birdsong, a distance car, the clank of a heating system, a breeze making leaves dance, even snow crunches underfoot. Not responding to someone’s question can be an answer. When not speaking, we are rarely still. We fidget, tap feet or fingers, fold arms, fiddle with clothing or hair, jangle jewellery, clothes can squeak or rattle, we hum, swallow, sniff, breathe. If you’re attuned to body language, you pick up someone’s mood and learn to anticipate their response.

When I read my poems to an audience I look for
a smile of recognition, the stillness of true listening,
a fidget of boredom, a clue into how I’m heard.

(“Tracking Sounds, Crossing Borders”)

When you can’t hear your own voice properly, you compensate. I’ve also started a sequence of poems following Rose Ayling-Ellis’s dances on BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing” and how she manages to dance despite not being able to fully hear the music. It drew out all the compensatory measures I use without thinking about them. I pass as hearing and was nervous that I wasn’t “deaf enough” to qualify for Arachne Press’s anthology “What Meets the Eye”. I am delighted to be part of the anthology with my poem “Tracking Sounds, Crossing Borders”, even if I still don’t know where the border between hard of hearing and deaf lies.

Quotes are from my own poems.

The print anthology “What Meets the Eye” is available here

Videos with BSL interpretations of the poems are available here:

“A Voice Coming From Then” Jeremy Dixon (Arachne Press) – book review

Jeremy Dixon A Voice Coming from Then book cover

Jeremy Dixon’s “A Voice Coming From Then” has a content warning for suicide because these are poems set both around the time of a suicide attempt and afterwards, proving survival is possible. This isn’t a forcefully, fake upbeat, ‘let’s search for the silver lining’ collection though, but a recording of the effects of bullying and how to move from victim to survivor despite “a consultant child psychiatrist’s letter to a hospital doctor dated 20 June 1979 which I first read forty years later” where the psychiatrist asks why Jeremy “is prepared to go/ back to the school” and writes, “[this] is puzzling”. Not sure why the psychiatrist is puzzled, did he really expect the victim to move to another school as if the shame was his, rather than stay on when the bullies should have been removed? There is humour though: the Victorian demon Spring-heeled Jack makes appearances albeit with a black wit. The teenaged Jeremy seems scared and confused, but it actually a lot stronger than he credits himself. The source of the bullying is revealed in “Sunday School” where,

“we are taught to hate Judas
because he kissed Jesus

betraying him for
short-term financial gain

we must also despise Judas
for the sin of self-murder

swinging from Cercis siliquastrum
the white flowers

turning red with blood
and shame”

Two things are a source of same: same-sex attraction and suicide. Although homosexual acts were decriminalised in England and Wales (where the book is based) in 1967, the age of consent remained at 21 for such an act. In 1979, the Home Office Advisory Committee’s report recommended reducing the age of consent to 18 but it wasn’t until 2001 that the age of consent was reduced to 16, bringing it in line with the hetrosexual age of consent. Therefore, the teenager in these poems is the recipient of the confusing information that a beautiful act is also an illegal one. The bullying that resulted potentially had serious consequences. Jeremy waited for his father to drive his mother, a nurse, to her night-shift before attempting to take his life. Vomiting saved him, he was found and taken to hospital and finds himself next to a biker who was involved in a road traffic collision in “the recidivist”

“you dream of motorbikes
and decapitations

when you awake
their cubicle is empty

and you didn’t dare ask
and you still don’t know”

The narrator addresses himself in the second person. This could be shock or a way of processing it. What follows is a series of poems looking at the situation from different viewpoints, including his sister’s, a teacher’s in “form tutor”, the italics mean the text is a direct quote from the source,

“Jeremy is
a helpful and

co-operative pupil
am I wrong

in thinking
that he has felt

considerable pressure
this year”

The bland formality of a school report which avoids committing anything controversial to paper. By avoiding naming the problem, fixing it becomes impossible. Jeremy makes it clear he asked permission before “mother”, (again the italics are a direct quote),

“all the doctors
and nurses

were vile
I’m sure

they blamed us
as if

I didn’t feel
guilty enough.”

The attitudes of medical staff can compromise care and recovery. Attitudes then were very much about blaming the suicidal for wasting resources by taking them away from more ‘deserving’ cases. Although that’s a slippery slope: is someone who plays a tough contact sport to blame for their injuries, how about a domestic violence victim coerced into a car with a drunk spouse? When the focus is on the patient, parents and carers can get pushed out or blamed, even though in this case, there was no suggestion the parents were at fault. It was the homophobic bullying at school.

The book focuses towards recovery and acceptance. The bullying may have stopped, but it still haunts. In “ode to Bronski Beat in an elevator”,

“but I’m petrified

someone can tell
I won’t return their gaze


I am taunting myself
making silent promises

I will not
be able to keep

praying the next floor
is where they get off

and when the doors ping
I finally look up

watch them strut
the fluorescent corridors

mouthing to each other
that word I cannot say”

The fear of further bullying, the fear of homophobia reduces his world and leaves him struggling to trust, not helped when strangers prove his fears correct.

The title poem is set after a road traffic collision when the poet was taken to hospital with his mother who was also in the car,

“the closest I have been
to dying again

still upset the next morning
I answer the landline

hello son it’s granddad
I was worried about you both

except granddad died
two decades ago and

it’s not granddad
but my uncle

although he said those precise words
and his voice was exactly the same”

The episode is a trigger. It seems cruel that as someone struggles back on their feet and towards acceptance, a voice can trigger the shame and devastation someone has tried so hard to recover from.

The almost-last poem, “blister packs”, is shaped like a paracetamol tablet and ends,

“fighting for space between the Vim and Domestos
there are more paracetamol tablets in my kitchen
than I ever robbed from my mother’s that night
than I have ever allowed myself to own since
I consider them my isolation companions
all they ask is one kiss without foil
we are a test they whisper a test”

The packets of paracetamol are a reassurance, a source of pain-relief, but also a test against repeating that night in 1979.

“A Voice Coming From Then” is a collection of poems about resilience. Jeremy Dixon doesn’t shy away from difficult or taboo subjects but handles them with sensitivity and tenderness. He explores identity, the effects of homophobic bullying, the impact of suicide with the aim of starting conversations about acceptance and inclusion. The subject matter may be grim, but this is not a grim read. Moments of humour shine through. Ultimately, it’s about survival.

“A Voice Coming From Then” is available from Arachne 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 Launch

Emma Lee the Significance of a Dress launch 7pm 11 March 2020 Leicester Central Library LE1 6AAThe launch for “The Significance of a Dress” is at the Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm on Wednesday 11 March 2020. Free entry. Refreshments provided.

The Significance of a Dress is collection of “poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart.”

A book trailer for the collection with a recording of the title poem is here.

“Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where next year is not the future but a question. Each refugee, suffragette or shushed voice and narrative encompassed by the poems is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. In ‘Dismantling The Jungle’, flames form “an echo of a former life”. This vivid collection is full of such flames and echoes. Whether it’s “Each dress hangs from a noose” (‘Bridal Dresses in Beirut’) or “Everything Abdel sees is smeared, despite his glasses” (Stories from The Jungle), Emma Lee’s focus is precise, poised and packs emotional punch. Her evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful, powerful and haunting collection.” S A Leavesley

“From the title page of ‘The Significance of a Dress’, Emma Lee cleverly fashions a feminist metaphor for #MeToo into uncompromising forms. These include the terrible symbol of bridal dresses hung from nooses in Beirut, signifying rapists absolved of their crimes through marrying their victims, a figure walking home in the UK uncertain whether she is safe from rape after a recent attack in the area, and further victims of rape and domestic abuse. The reader is never let go, with head dunked into the murky waters of domestic life until forced to accept Lee’s compelling argument of a grossly unequal world. The poet does this with immense skill in versification, giving her audience no option but to pay attention.

“This is daring, well-imagined poetry with global scope, giving voice to women from myriad backgrounds and cultures. It goes far beyond the boundaries of #MeToo, arguing the world has become one of disturbing realm of sexual inequality, in an atmosphere of constant threat. Lee’s collection addresses unfairness, advocating for those who have been denied the ability to speak for themselves.” Dr James Fountain.

The Significance of a Dress is published by Arachne Press.

The Significance of a Dress

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover imageThe title poem is set in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, loosely based on a media interview with the owner of a wedding dress hire shop. I think it’s frequently forgotten how long people end up living in these camps, which were only designed to be temporary. Women often take in sewing to earn some money to buy food and electricity to support children. Those living similar camps are expected to pay for food and energy but not permitted to take on permanent jobs. Why would a wedding dress hire shop be successful?

Some matches will be love matches and I’ve no wish to suggest otherwise. Some, though, are arranged. Parents wish to protect their daughters in a camp where young men outnumber other residents (generally because they can travel alone unencumbered by children or older relatives), and see marriage as a way of achieving this in places that are not policed and where sexual assaults are common. In a camp of people who had fled war are still suffering trauma and feel they are still living in limbo: not accepted in the place they have sought refuge but unable to return to their original country, marriage is an act of hope.

There is a danger of child brides. The particular wedding dress hire shop I wrote about has a mural outside showing a young girl in a white dress clutching a teddy bear. However, no one asks how old the brides-to-be are, and it’s not always easy to tell the age of a heavily made-up teenager. For young people who have seen their homelands bombed or escaped conscription, either into the military or guerrilla groups, romance and marriage feels like a future, albeit one lit by cheap diamante.

In 2015, I joined Kathleen Bell and Siobhan Logan in editing “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge”. One of the criteria for choosing poems for inclusion was that poems shouldn’t focus solely on doom and gloom. The book would be a difficult, but not a harrowing read. I carried that criterion into “The Significance of a Dress”; there are notes of hope, rescue and small but significance acts of kindness.

“Poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart.”

“Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where each poem’s narrative is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. Emma Lee’s evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details that pack emotional punch. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful haunting collection.” S A Leavesley

The Significance of a Dress is published by Arachne Press on 27 February 2020. There will be a launch at the Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm on Wednesday 11 March 2020.

Emma Lee the Significance of a Dress launch 7pm 11 March 2020 Leicester Central Library LE1 6AA