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

Hannah Storm The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

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

Melanie Hyo In Han Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But at what cost?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But grandmother has left a letter for her granddaughter,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“silkfan glaschu” is available from Verve Poetry Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

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

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

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

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

to roast marshmallows. My mum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow” is available from Verve Poetry Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“Suburban Fantasy” Michele Seminara (University of Western Australia Press) – book review

Michele Seminara Suburban Fantasy

Michele Seminara probes family relationships, focusing on the darker side, the rotten wood, tempered by hope and a refusal to conform. Or how a rotten start can be overcome and happier relationships result. “Family Tree” observes,

“The arborist’s eye could see
it had been wounded long ago;
then disease entered the hole at its heart
then necrosis,”

It ends,

“They amputate the limbs
to make it easier to fell;
I know that feeling.

Now all through the house, the stench
of diesel and that terrible,
enraged squealing.”

The daughter who cut herself off, saw the tree as diseased when those branches, who benefited from or manipulated the diseased heart for their own benefit, clung on and now protest because the necrosis has been exposed. Harm has to be acknowledged and repaired. The loosened branch starts a family of her own, breaking the cycle of rottenness. This family is founded on love. In “Wax/Wane”, a mother puts her daughter to bed,

“I whisper — two more minutes —
and she — three! — and then —
(sotto voce) or maybe never…

That would be nice, I agree.
Never; never leaving.

But as we wane
the full moon mocks
us all the way
till morning.”

The child asks her mother to stay and her mother does so willingly. However, there’s judgment from the moon. Perhaps the mother is too indulgent? Perhaps the child is spoilt? Does the moon represent an actual judge or the mother’s internal voice echoing what her parents might say if they were to witness her child-centred parenting? Whichever it is, it is chased away by morning in the reassurance of the sun’s warmth.

There are ekphrastic poems too, some that interweave lyric and poems. “Morte Nature” was inspired by Russell Drydale’s Portrait of a woman. Drysdale was best known for red, desolate Australian landscapes with isolated figures. The subject in this poem is given a voice,

“I sit
…….stolid and glowing in the gloaming.
Eyes hooked to the past.
…………Painter’s brush probing
my wide white collar —
……(I’ll always embody more than he could imagine.)

Twelve bodies grown in mine,
………..nine slipped through. Years spent
…………………….dragging this soft anchor in the mud.

Our still lives undiminished, swelling mythic in tableau —
……I wear the proud shroud of my best blue dress.”

It’s a woman in middle age, taking the opportunity to look back and imagine the artist assessing her. Her worth as a mother particularly, her efforts to raise her children and provide for them. Yet she still wants to show her best side. The collar is white and clean. She wears her best dress. Her life will end but the painting will live on, showing her as she’s portrayed at this particular moment.

There’s a note of rebellion too. In “Second Coming”, the speaker’s mother has waited for her husband to come home and dole out punishment for an unspecified wrong doing,

“Father speaking on Mother’s behalf
that nitrogen cold gaze.

I bathe in it; it burns —
it always burned.
But now my skin is bound
in bitter scales.

How forlorn, to be the black one;
I don’t show it.”

The child doesn’t capitulate but develops a tough skin, an outer shell to protect her inner feelings. She turns the rejection and hurt into love when she becomes a parent herself, breaking the cycle and exemplified in “Involuntary”, when the speaker, a mother, is watching her son read,

“No, I am ardently watching him:
with his ripening cheeks and fecund brain
and glistening eyes of impermanence
that look to me — to me! — for solace

and tonight, as he reads, I am seeing inside
to the myriad processes functioning to hold us

implausibly within this quivering world —
and it makes my dark involuntary heart muscle shudder.”

It’s a tender tone, an image of a mother’s unconditional love. A love she missed out on but it determined to give. But doubts plague her causing her to marvel at her son’s love.

“Suburban Fantasy” is a lyrical examination of familial relationships, particularly from a daughter-now-mother’s viewpoint. Michele Seminara has a lyrical, engaging approach that exposes cankered hearts and relishes in the tenderness in unconditional love.

“Suburban Fantasy” is available from University of Western Australia

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.

“Portrait of Colossus” Samatar Elmi (Flipped Eye) – book review

Samatar Elmi the liminal spaces of identity, the experience of being born in Britain and raised by migrant parents and then becoming a parent. In the title poem, which is after Plath’s “Colossus”,

“I want to scale his limbs;
sit in the brass of his ear,

whisper on the similitudes of the world. How
at such great heights all language is a blur,
people indistinguishable as fields of corn, sand…

But he’s all eyes on the water,

its movement and liberty;

the trick of being everywhere at once.”

The narrator wants to be lifted above the world and notice people’s similarities despite the language barriers. The statue, however, faces the water, not the undrinkable sea, but life-sustaining water, and marvels at its freedom of movement. A freedom people have but is made subject to boundaries and barriers based on language and cultures. Use of language to include or exclude is touched on in “NIGGER” which starts with a quote from Dean Atta about a victim murdered because he was black, ‘Rappers when you use the word “nigger”/ remember that’s one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard,/ so don’t tell me it’s a reclaimed word.’

“like still fruit from the banch

and in that violence
in the midst of all the violence

vowels are choked
the ‘I’ suffocated

even when taken out of context.”

The “still fruit” brings to mind Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and lynchings. But the violence referred to hear isn’t just historical violence, it’s relatively current. Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993, an act remembered on Stephen Lawrence day. He’d be middle-aged now if he were still alive. The play on “I” makes this violence personal, the word is too loaded to be reclaimed converted from something derogatory to something that could be pride.

The poet is also a parent, “From a Father to a Daughter” captures first attempts at speech,

“of dada, mama, Mimi – no longer a string
of morphemes but the first bricks of Babel
where we built our modest temple.

Your gargled gagaga, which we learned
was the purest expression of love –
became our prayer at the altar.

Now you decorate the walls of our temple
with icons, scribbles, our family in sticks
as if to hold our hands through the growing

and teach us both how to write a poem.”

To become a parent is to lose a singular identity and gain an additional one as father. It’s also a time of rapid learning, teaching a child and watching a child teach their parents too. A child’s sense of wonder and curiousity can have parents seeing familar things with fresh eyes. It’s a poignant, unsentimental poem.

Language is explored again in “Your Mother is in a Different Language”, the mother’s question loosely translates as ‘my son, my son, what have you done?’, which ends

“Except that hooyo, hooyo, maxaad samasay?
isn’t a prayer – it’s a question you can’t answer
in a language she understands.”

Language is now a barrier between a child and parent. She doesn’t follow what he’s done and he can’t communicate in a way she can understand.

Samatar Elmi has created a delicate, nuanced exploration of language and identity. His poems work to reconcile and seek understanding. Their rich layers reveal the world as it is now through the sensibilities of what it was and what it could be. Like the water from the title poem, they are not content to settle on the surface but probe the depths in a spirit of seeking commonalities, opening up perspectives and creating comprehension.

“Portrait of a Colossus” is available from Flipped Eye

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.

“Canine in the Promised Land” Philip J Kowalski (Atmosphere Press) – book review

Philip J Kowalski Canine in the Promised Land book cover

Philip J Kowalski is fond of playing with language, looking again at tired phrases to bring them back to life and re-examine their purpose. In “The Tip of the Iceberg”, he acknowledges the cliché and ends the poem looking at the melting of polar ice,

“‘That’s just the [fill in the blank],’
As we struggle to articulate
The ravages of the earth
That we have shamelessly betrayed.”

The tip of the iceberg is the very visible sign of the climate crises, the bulk of which is hidden below the surface as the melting polar ice is indicative of the underlying problems which reach beyond the polar regions. Problems that the human race doesn’t seem ready to act on.

“Ariadne’s Thread” starts by referencing the myth,

“The thread
Of Ariadne
Was meant
To find
A way
Out of
A labyrinth,
With all
Of its
Dead ends,
False beginnings,
And obviate ways.”

It goes on to describe a spider’s web constructed on the poet’s porch and ends after a storm where the web was destroyed and the poet hoped,

“That the little artist had survived
Somehow, somewhere, to
Weave her way again.

Minerva had nothing on her.

At the time I believed I occupied a wasted life.
But now, looking back, I see how I lived
Through quite a web of experience.”

In the shorter lines, Kowalski’s habit of using initial capitals interrupt the flow of the rhythm and appear to give insignificant words (“of”, “to”, etc) an unjustified prominence. Momentarily I looked for an acrostic that wasn’t there. In the ending section, the focus shifts on to the small, routine things that seem a waste of time, but when looked back on from a distance, take on a significance or, to use a cliché, prove greater than the sum of the parts.

The title poem praises a dog’s ability to smell and how smell is linked to taste, so you,

“Would not discount your
Best friend’s snout. No matter
What kind of dog food you buy,
Gourmet, wet, cold, treat, or dry,
Every dog has its day. “

The part-rhymes (“discount”, “snout”, “buy”, “dry”) don’t follow a pattern and the final line feels as if the poet ran out of steam and put in a holding line until a more satisfying one could be found.

Narcissus pops up in a poem that uses the name/myth as a title and the idea the poet doesn’t know an actor who wasn’t a narcissist, and ends,

“You’ll never understand, just
What a sieve and empty vessel you are,
No matter the acclaim and the applause.
But in the silence of night, and in the
Depth of your thoughts, you know that,
Deep in the guts of your being,
You have accomplished essentially naught.”

A contrast to the spider who worked her heart out on a web that was destroyed. The actor merely reads lines written by someone else and plays roles for no other purpose than the applause. It also appears to contradict itself, positing that the actor doesn’t know they are an “empty vessel” but also knows that they have “accomplished essentially naught”. However, the point is that in front of an audience the narcissist comes to life, it’s only when left alone the unwelcome reality has to be acknowledged.

Appropriately “The End” of a relationship notes,

“An imagination,
Something to do.
Now I move on,
With no
Of you.”

It’s not when the relationship breaks down that it has ended, but when the person who has been dumped can face a future when they no longer incorporate the person who left them.

In “Canine in the Promised Land”, Philip J Kowalski plays with expectations and revisits tired, cliched language to offer new observations and a touch of wry humour to provoke readers into re-thinking assumptions. Some poems are strictly contemporary, others evoke myth and some feel as if the poet had settled without finishing his exploration. Gentle poems that don’t quite live up to their promise.

“Canine in the Promised Land” is available from Atmosphere 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.

“Owl Unbound” Zoe Brooks (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – Book Review

Zoe Brooks Owl Unbound book cover

Zoe Brooks’ poems in “Owl Unbound” look at how humanity often shows its best side when allowed to connect with the natural world and can be at its worst when disconnected or stuck in a concreted environment designed for productivity rather than people. That does not mean the poems are gentle. In “Naunton Farm” the narrator is an executor dealing with paperwork and discovers her mother’s note about her husband’s death,

“My hand reaches down
to the little cat
with no ears,
which rubs against my ankle crying.
You had hands big enough
to hold that cat
in your palm,
carrying her
away from the burning barn.”

There’s a tenderness in the image of hands being there to nurture and comfort and a sense of connection between the daughter and her late father. The reaction of the narrator to the cat, instinctively reaching to fuss it, suggests the fire was not linked to the father’s death. Instead it seems to be an inheritance, a responsibility passed on yet still treasured. A theme of heritage is picked up in “The Seedsavers”, a group of women who work to separate seeds from pods and sort them into which are worth keeping and which should be discarded. The women talk as they work.

“At last she rises
and walks into the garden
sniffing the wind.
Her shed‐husband offered
to make a machine once,
but she prefers the ancient way –
the lift of seed, the fall,
the scatter of chaff across the roses.
She turns and returns to the others.”

The machine would put through a higher volume of work, assuming there was enough to keep it fed. However, the sense of community, of working together for a common purpose would be lost. The stories and news shared over the work might be lost too. The “shed-husband” is shut off from the women and also the wisdom that comes from being literally in touch with the cycles of crops, how well the roses are doing, how healthy next year’s crop might be and what weather the wind will bring. There’s a sense the women are working with nature while the machines attempt to tame it.

The urban poems feel desolate, in “From Streetlamp to Gutter”, is set near a railway with commuters getting on the newly arrived train,

“The boys have dragged their cardboard boxes
under the railway arches and sleep.

We do not hear or see them.

We have homes and trains to go to.
We have rain‐soaked coat seams
and hair like wet satin.
We are not warm,
yet warm enough to make us
not stand a moment longer,
not stand and wait at all.”

The commuters have become accustomed to ignoring the homeless in their rush to get home, not pausing to think about whether people who merely have cardboard to shelter in will manage to cope with the cold and damp. When there’s no easy solution it’s simpler to ignore the problems. The poem is about more than just the idea of pausing to notice the homeless. It’s not having the freedom to step back and ask if we are doing the right thing, if we are living the life we should be living, if changes could be made that would improve our lives as well as those of others. By not taking that time and hurrying for the train, the commuters seem to be as trapped as the homeless.

In the title poem, an escaped owl leaves “an empty perching post” and the narrator,

“At my father’s instruction
I held out my hands
as if ready to receive bread and wine,
but into my bowl of fingers
he dropped a pellet,
a galaxy of small bones and feathers
cocooned in fur.

That night I woke.
The moon shredded by clouds
hung over the stable roof
and an owl called unbound
from the cypress tree.”

The majestic owl, something to be watched from a distance while its handler was the only one to go near it, has gone. The daughter thinks she’s about to receive a memento to keep and treasure but instead gets the remains of the owl’s last meal. Something that can’t be kept. If it’s a reminder of anything, it’s that the owl is real and nature can be ugly as well as beautiful. Later, woken by an owl’s call, she can’t be sure it’s the same owl, but nonetheless it’s telling her nature should be free. These are not birds designed for confinement.

In “Without a Stair” adult daughters become a bridge between grandchildren and grandmother who is like a ghostly presence “flickering on a landing without a stair”.

“She made our home an ark,
built it strong with seasoned wood.
She is still there
in her house on a crumbling cliff.
Some time soon it will float out to sea.”

It could be a life coming to an end or a reminder that memories fade or a bit of both.

“Owl Unbound” is a series of gentle poems through which Zoe Brooks explores human relationships with nature and how respect for the natural world brings out a sense of community and purpose which can be lost in urban landscapes.

“Owl Unbound” is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress book cover

“Blue the Green Sky” Stuart M Buck (The Broken Spine) – book review

Stuart M Buck Blue the Green Sky

The title suggests that Stuart Buck is inviting readers to look at the familiar, the sky, with a new lens and a dash of confusion. The sun does not normally leech colour into the sky to turn it green, but the implication is that from confusion, a considered truth may emerge. Expect questions, to stop and think and reflect.

First up is the almost obligatory cat poem, simply called “cat” which didn’t come with trigger warning but introduces the idea of suicide and ends,

“we are all decomposing slowly

so that is of some comfort

we are all a million dying stars

so that is of some comfort “

The ability of the narrator to be comforted by the idea life will end anyway and it ends for everything around us is enough for him to accept natural causes is a better way to go. It also shows how something unexpected, encountering a cat, can knock someone out of a rut, a pattern of rumination and look beyond themselves. Instead of feeling like a burden the world would be better off without, the narrator has seen he can have a place in this world and the current pattern of things will stop, not with a sudden jerk, but a series of small changes. In case the poet could be accused of bias, the next poem is “dog” who suggests he was an abused child in a former life,

“and sometimes i sit in the bright pink

sunset and stroke the beautiful dog

but sometimes i do not”

Two traumatised beings comfort each other. But the narrator comes to recognise that the companionship lasts longer than during the sunset. Knowing there is the possibility of meeting the dog each day is sufficient comfort. This theme of connection, of someone you connect with not needing to be actually present, is continued later in “poem about everything” when the end of the world is no longer a theory,

“i will tell so many people that i love them that their fat

beautiful hearts will explode and as the sun sets a bruised socket

and we can finally see the sky is falling

i will turn to you and tell you for the first time and the last

that i loved you most of all”

It’s a love poem both to the universe and a partner. “Fat” is emphatic unlike “full” which tails away. It’s also a word not usually associated with “beautiful”. It’s echoed in “socket” and “last” which gives the poem a sense of finality. However the two lines ending in “falling” and “all” offer a softer contrast.

In “midnight in prague” there’s a love letter to the city and its artists,

“i want to see the prague of kafka, the writer whose very ink runs like jet-black blood through the streets. who shaped the narrative of the city and the culture with his surreal and infinite descriptions of life and confusion. whose turmoil and torture led to some of the finest works of literature i have ever read. the prague of kupka, the artist whose work bent and warped alongside the city itself. who woke one morning, not unlike gregor samsa, and decided that life was something else entirely. whose paintings went from stately to thick, bizarre creations dripping with geometric whispers.”

Later, she becomes a meditation on love,

“and again, what is infinity? can you pull time inside you, softly as you might allow a lover to explore the most holy parts of you? to feel infinity is, i believe, to place your thumbs over the eyes of a ghost. to feel the soft, giving eyeballs below. to have the power to end the sight of another, but instead to feel the flitting, papery wings of their dreams. if this is to be the end of all things then let me hold your body tight against mine, to breath with you, to coat my tongue with starlight.”

Gregor Samsa was the unfortunate who woke up as a bug in a story that explores a sense of alienation and restlessness while the main character is drained by bureaucracy. The foreignness of Prague to a visitor who doesn’t want to be a typical tourist becomes a city of exploration and chance to shake up the regular order of things, to look afresh. The speaker withdraws from the potential violence of pressing the eyes of a ghost and decides to read their dreams instead. As ghosts haunt those they once loved, it seems natural for the narrator to turn his thoughts in that direction.

“Blue the Green Sky” lives up to its promise: an exploration of the familiar looked at aslant. It probes beyond the surface of what’s seen and does so with a sense of wonder rather than a dry, scientific eye. Stuart M Buck keeps his vocabulary plain, aiming to engage readers who are then invited to discern the layers under the surface.

“Blue the Green Sky” is available from Broken Spine.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress Emma Lee book cover

“Russian Doll” Teika Marija Smits (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – book review

Russian Doll Teika Marija Smits book cover

“Russian Doll” explores motherhood from a viewpoint of a daughter who reaches adulthood and becomes a mother, looking at both challenges and delights in the littlest doll gaining layers of experience as she’s seen to transform into an adult outer-doll who still contains the dreams and memories of the smallest. It’s split into two parts “Daughter-doll/Doll-daughter” and “Mother-doll/Doll-mother”. From the first, in “Shades of Red” the daughter’s Russian mother is late for a school play, “Striking in fuchsia” leaving the daughter a shade of crimson,

“and turn into the smallest
version of myself –
the littlest Russian doll,
the only most easily lost;
almost, but not quite,

The littlest doll is also the one that doesn’t come apart, the one who stands complete. A inner strength that comes through in the poems that touch on the poet’s father’s death when she was aged 15. In “Matryoshka”, after the funeral, some dolls are taken apart some are “some shut tight, permanently locked in grief,” which leaves,

“The littlest doll found herself rattling around
in the wrong size body,
suddenly bulky with responsibilities
and listening to echoes.
To all eyes an adult, within, a child.”

The implication is that in the transition from child to adult, we don’t shed layers, we gain them. The intact baby doll is wrapped in experience and expectation. The external appearance is of an adult but the speaker still feels her inner child, hesitant and lacking confidence.

Part II, shifts to a mother’s viewpoint, starts with an effective triolet in “Making Heartroom”, the opening and closing couplet is,

“This mother’s womb grows day by day,
but so too does her heart.”

The theme here is picked up again in “Hooke’s Law” where a mother worries about sharing love between two children discovers when the second’s born that, “We mothers have hearts that do not obey/ the laws of physics;/ we have no elastic limits.”

In the title poem, the mother looks back to her younger self, assessing which dreams became reality, which didn’t as the external doll has thickened with layers of self,

“worn smooth by little hands
what dismantle me daily.
I answer with excuses and apologies.

Life intrudes, I explain;
takes us apart
and rebuilds us askew.”

A mother’s lot is to be worn by love and caring, her children might delay or completely derail her ambitions until they are independent and those unforgotten ambitions demand attention. But the ambitions a mother had before motherhood may no longer be relevant or may have to be adjusted to accommodate a new perspective or technology. Demands of family life may have depleted available resources.

“The Russian Doll” is an exploration of transition from daughter to motherhood, adding layers as the largest doll nests her smaller selves. At its heart, readers are reminded the smallest doll doesn’t break open. She provides the kernel that keeps love, dreams, desires intact and provides the thread of the matrilinear from outer adult to inner child.

“The Russian Doll” is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress book cover