“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” Beth Gordon (Animal Heart Press) – poetry review

Beth Gordon Morning Walk book coverThe possum is roadkill, the poem’s narrator arrived too late to save it. The discursive, stream-of-consciousness style poems concern themselves with what is and what might be. Their starting point is often a news item. “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” starts with the news of the drowning of a toddler while her parents were distracted, believing that if their daughter fell into a pool, she’d shout out and thrash but instead she sunk. The poem then widens its scope and ends,

“That children born on the shredded edges of this planet will find within
their necessary lives the whispered footsteps
of dragonflies in half-morning rooms, the underbellies of rocks, an unearthly
blue, thick with consecrated salt, the chime
of pebbles in water that carries them into the afterlife or submersion:
arrhythmic, dripping, newly divine and silent.”

It considers human interaction with nature, the small details that can shift perspective, the sense that our lives on this planet in the grip of climate change might be borrowed time and our children will adapt or drown.

A sequence, “While You Are In Iceland”, sees a temporary separation for a couple when one travels while the other stays home, dealing with the shifts in being alone while on “Day 2: The News”,

“The television says that more students are dead in Texas, gunned down while mixing paint and imagining their summer vacations, of stripping to near naked for sun, for water, for love. You send me photos of ice sculpted by the old Gods that they will never see or maybe have already seen in the instant of their slaughter. Outside my window honeysuckle is dying on the vine, sweetness turned to rot, the rain continues, I envy your escape”

The sender of images from Iceland doesn’t yet know the news. The narrator considers the loss of students, not just of their lives but also their potential. It affects the way she sees the landscape. The wet weather suggests sorrow. The honeysuckle, something nurtured, is rotting. The narrator does not suggest it could be rescued with appropriate treatment; she has absorbed the news of children’s deaths and despairs over taking action or fixing it. The sequence ends with “Day 10: Homecoming” where the narrator begs her partner not to return,

“Do not exchange magical incantations for sirens, for shrieking and gnashing of teeth, for countless bloody corpses. I will miss every moment of you: our morning eggs, the way we trade words like lemon drops on the tongue”

But’s not just in America where deaths occur. “Day 9: Seal Pup” sees the partner tell the narrator about an incident where a man ignorantly smeared a seal pup with human scent, setting of a fatal chain of events where the mother will reject it. However, the narrator only seems to be concerned with student deaths and the resulting anguish of being unable to prevent them.

There is a second sequence interspersed with the other poems, a series of cropped sonnet crowns where each in the series features three linked sonnets (the final line in the first sonnet, becomes the first line in the second; the final line in the second becomes the first line in the third and the final line of the third is also the first line of the first sonnet). This framework gives a structure to what sees to be a loose, woolly gathering of thoughts and musings over different ways of making martinis, French toast, rehab and mortality. The juxtapositions between the trivial and serious take skill to achieve and Beth Gordon succeeds. Gathering of thoughts and the opportunities for misunderstandings feature in the final poem, “Dancing Barefoot in Mississippi”,

“.. as I dance to Led Zeppelin and you turn your attention back to Ireland with thick mutton gravy and potato-infused pies, this is what I will eat for my next meal, this is the brogue of my first husband, the way I followed his whiskey-ed voice into motherhood and tried for years to understand the mysteries of marriage, this is the sound of rain, of arctic circle, the sound of sobbing trains, and you tell me that I tell you that I love every song, this is the sound of my wandering feet, like ghosts of mice, the sound of floors, of days, this is what I’ve been singing all along.”

It takes a great deal of skill to make phrases look as if they’ve just been thrown on a page when they’ve actually been carefully selected to fit a casual speech pattern and still retain an internal logic, the next association following from the previous. The repetition of “sound” is a reminder that the narrator is listening and her thoughts flow from the song she is listening to, the memories associated with it and where she is in the present.

“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” examines the shifts between the present and the possible, the what ifs? What if the narrator had arrived in time to avert the possum from the road? What if the narrator’s partner had taken his walk two hours earlier and warned the man not to touch the seal pup? The poems explore the decisions we make, the paths taken to arrive at our present. The long lines and prose allow for expansion as one thought is pushed to see how far it will go. The casualness of language chosen by Beth Gordon belies the careful choices and construction underneath the poems.

“Morning Walk with Dead Possum, Breakfast and Parallel Universe” is available via Animal Heart Press



“True Freedom” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – book review

True Freedom Michael Dean book cover“True Freedom” is ambitious in scope, looking at the sixteen years leading up to the Bostonian Uprising in the eighteenth century, which was the beginning of America’s war of independence from Britain. It’s a fictional account following key characters, mainly politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic.These characters include Thomas Hutchinson, a wealthy Bostonian whose hands are tied by an ineffectual governor and lack of support from Parliament in London. Samuel Adams and Thomas Young, who try to unify and inspire the Sons of Liberty and Mohucks, rebels seeking to feed their families and angry at paying taxes to a British government they see as distant and irrelevant. The brothers, John and Thomas Pownall, on opposite sides of the Bostonian/British divide and their attempts to influence key figures in the British Parliament to their side.

At its heart is a power vacuum. King George III only appears briefly to snub Thomas Hutchinson; a useful illustration of his failure to see how British policy towards its American colony – the drive to raise taxes to fund foreign campaigns in Europe – would inflame sparks of rebellion. That vacuum allows British politicians to manoeuvre their own agendas to suit, to the horror of Bostonian experts, who know the rebels are unifying, gaining traction and building towards a launch for independence.

A novelist, telling a story where the ending is known, has set themselves a big challenge to keep readers hooked. Michael Dean tackles this by using meticulous attention to detail, recreating the atmosphere of the British Houses of Parliament, the tiny offices of civil servants work in, the contrasts between the opulent houses of wealthy Bostonian merchants and the ragged clothing of rebels meeting in a room above an inn. The machinations of power-plays, the point scoring and struggles of the characters draw focus to the micro-dramas, fears and motivations of the characters.

On the odd occasion the focus on details feels misplaced. The description of Thomas Hutchinson’s primary residence detracts from the impending visit of the governor. This detail would have been better saved for the incident where rebels break into the residence; they would have been seeing it with fresh eyes and the details relevant to a group deciding what to vandalise, what to leave and what to take, throwing the contrast between poverty and wealth into sharp relief.

“True Freedom” is not for those seeking fast-paced action and military drama. It is for those who love to linger over period detail and gain a thorough understanding of the political situation and how it led to the revolt. It is meticulously researched and some minor artistic licence has been taken with facts whilst remaining true to the events described. Its focus on interpersonal relationships of the key characters offer insight and readers see familiar events with a new understanding, enhanced by its tone of quiet commentary, which allows the drama to speak for itself.

“True Freedom” is available from Holland Park Press.


“Where I Ache” Megan O’Keeffe (self-published) – poetry review

Where I Ache Megan O'Keeffe book cover“Where I Ache” has an author’s introductory note, “This collection is published to help those that relate to these poems feel less alone. To know that others have gone through similar experiences and that they too, will overcome their dark days. Some of the inspiration comes from personal experience, world news, film and book characters over the past ten years. The intent of this collection is not to romanticize addiction, mental illness, nor unhealthy behaviors associated with low self-esteem. Please consider that this content may be triggering for some. Please seek a licensed professional if you are struggling with these issues.” The lengthy collection (154 pages) is split into six parts, “My Foggy Head”, “My Weak Spine”, “My Bruised Heart,” “My Grieving Knees”, “My Greedy Green Eyes” and “My Soothing Arms”. The poems are interspersed with black and white sketched illustrations by Kevin Furey which are often a literal take on a phrase or theme of the poem they accompany. The sections appear to be a journey through anxieties, worries about how one is perceived by others, love or loving someone who doesn’t reciprocate, grief, jealous and closure or acceptance.

From the first section, “Please Don’t Sugar Coat this for Me”, pleads

“When bad things happen we can’t help
but try to make reason or purpose
of them. Pull logic out
of the illogical.
We’re making angels out of monsters
in the dark.”

It captures the way anxiety leads into overthinking and catastrophic thought patterns where one negative thing happening ruins a whole day. Sometimes the thinker catches themselves and tries to put a positive spin on it, “we’re making angels out of monsters.” The poem is direct and uses easy to understand language to communicate. When a longer line is followed by a shorter one, it suggests a thought beginning to run away is being restrained and brought back, the thinker wrestling for control. Another poem, “Battle Day”, is a pleading for understanding (complete poem),

“I know I’m not feeling well today.
Please don’t mark it in red
like I’ve failed an exam
I didn’t know I was taking.
Don’t ask me to talk about it.
I’m not up for conversation
I can barely stand
the company of myself today.”

The repetition of “today” implies someone reminding themselves this is just one bad day in a week of otherwise good days. It has the same theme of restraining thoughts that want to spiral out of control. Again, the language is direct and communicative.

The second section, “My Weak Spine,” appears to focus on self-doubts brought on by low self-esteem, e.g. in “The Enemy,” (complete poem),

“My biggest enemy is myself.
Desperate for me to fail and be alone.
To have me all to myself
to suck the life out of me.

Self doubt pounds at the door
telling me I’m not good enough
and that I am unworthy.

Anxiety coats itself in my thoughts.
It’s hard to tell what I think
and what it thinks of me.”

I’d have liked the first time to become the title, leaving three stanzas of three lines, and a potential part-rhyme on “me/unworthy/me” on the last line of each stanza. Perhaps, as a standalone poem, the author may think the italicised and bold words necessary, but in a themed collection the signals to the reader aren’t necessary. A later poem, “It’s (Not) That Easy,” looks at typical phrases people say to those suffering with mental ill health,

Stop Worrying

You’re not Fat

You’re not dumb

Anyone would be lucky to have you

It’s all in your head

Don’t be sad

So many people have it worse than you

and just like that you fixed me.
I can’t believe I didn’t think of that sooner…”

The last two lines are ironic. No one’s fixed that easily.

The third section, “My Bruised Heart,” looks at the effects of loving the wrong person but the narrator blames themselves when things go wrong, in “Dead Branches,”

“These thoughts rotting inside my head are not my own.
I know that and yet I cannot stop thinking them.
I’m sorry it’s not just the two of us in this relationship.”

The poem explores how previous bad relationships affect the current relationship where fears of violence or abuse prevent someone fully engaging the current relationship. It takes time and patience from a new partner as someone unlearns past behaviour and relearns how to trust someone. This theme is picked up in “My First Scar”,

“Maybe I’m so angry at you
because you remind me of him.
And I’m mad at myself for being the fool yet again
for not valuing myself like I deserve.
But it’s easier to blame you than to face myself.
I can just leave you instead of fixing me.”

That last line captures why damaged people can flit from relationship to relationship instead of taking time to assess why a previous relationship failed and learn how not to make the same mistake again. It’s always easier to blame someone else rather than take responsibility for one’s own behaviour. I’m not sure why the poem’s right aligned in the book as above. A later poem looks at loving an addict, “Intoxicated”,

“Put the bottle down and take a sip off my lips.
You don’t need that smoke, my kiss will be your favorite drug.
Not Jamison on your breathe but my name on your tongue.
Catch a buzz from the way my body moves.”

Sadly though, when someone loves a drug more than their partner, it’s time for their partner to move on. I think the third line should refer to Jameson’s whiskey.

The fourth section, “My Grieving Knees” moves on from break-ups to death. The poem “To My Knees” gives the section its odd title (complete poem),

“I don’t normally fall to my knees
but before you, I did.
By your bedside, I did.
Too late, I did.
I don’t talk to Him anymore
but to you I will.
I said my goodbyes and well wishes.
I asked you to look over those surrounding me.
I tried to be brave and selfless,
so I told you not to worry about me.
But to my knees, I fall again.”

The poem is full of self-flagellation and regret, but the only one who can save an addict is the addict who has to decide they want to overcome the addiction. Without that desire to change, any treatment or help doesn’t work. “No One Cries for the Sinners” helpfully comes with a note “This poem is an abecedarian in which each line begins with the following letter of the alphabet”.

“Arizona is the place for a funeral, if there ever could be such a place
because believe me when I say, Life
can’t take root in dry soil. No Botanist or Investigator
dares to try and stop her. She is contacted by the weak, the helpless, the hopeless,

each in dying need of her services. I think of her often today, while at my husband’s
funeral. She was careful; killing him slower than the fading pale
green bruises on my God- given body. If I was religious, any God of mine would be in
Hell right along with the criminals and devils she sends there. Hotter there than the
injected poison that inflames their bodies. Hotter than Arizona. Is it
Justice for the lives these men have already stolen? Depends on whom you ask.

Killers like Penelope are hard to find unless they want to be found. She never
let’s people in too close, only the wicked
moths, like my abusive drunk husband, deserving of her fiery temper. She collects
newspaper clippings like coin collectors treasure Civil War nickels.
Obituaries like trophies line her walls. It was my life or his. I choose mine.
Proudly, I’d do it again. My body wasn’t his property to use or abuse as he wished.

Queen of murder, Penelope alone carries the weight of death and demons
rotting inside her. She straddles a line between serial killer and
superhero. Or are they just different sides of the same coin? I could not be more
thankful that she slayed the dragon that I couldn’t save my kids from. It’s not easily
understood, I know. Only those who survived a certain kind of darkness will.

Vigilantes like Penelope are clever, venomous, calculating, beautiful,
worst of all, deadly. A cold- blooded killer living in the dry grass,
xeric climate. A climate like fucking Arizona.
You won’t find life taking root, no tears to water its growth. It’s dead space, ground
zero for the ghosts and hellish creatures like Penelope and the sinners she kills.”

The theme of there being more than two people in a relationship is picked up again in the fifth section, “My Greedy Green Eyes”, particularly in “The Parasite”,

“I’m not sure why you still talk about her.
Can’t you see that it hurts me?
You haven’t spoken to her in months but yet
here she is again in our conversation.
In your mind and in mine.”

Another direct, easy to read poem where two lovers can’t get over an ex.

The final section, “My Soothing Arms” focuses on making a stand and being strong for yourself. It’s refreshing to get to a poem where the focus is on another. “War Cry” helpfully comes with a note “This poem is in Pantoum form where the second and fourth line of each stanza is repeated as the first and third of the next.”

“Don’t open my door if you aren’t going to close it when you leave.
Are you listening to me?
I deserve respect no matter my size or shape, just like everyone else.
I am not some object to conquer or kill.

Are you listening to me?
The Taliban cannot just board my dusty school bus and fire three shots at me.
I am not some object to conquer or kill.
You, with your rough whiskers, must face the consequences of what you take.

The Taliban cannot just board my dusty school bus and fire three shots at me.
You are right to fear that I may know too much, that education is serving me right.
You, with your rough whiskers, must face the consequences of what you take.
I am learning that a woman is worth more than just how much she can please a man.”

“Where I Ache” is aimed at a general reader and speaks from personal experience, with one exception. It uses direct, simple language to communicate. Poetry readers wouldn’t need the explanatory notes and the use of italics and bold lettering to guide readers implies the author is not yet confident her readers will see the intentions behind her poems. This direct approach works when poems stand on their own such as in a poetry magazine or instagram post, but combined into a collection, the poems grew similar in tone and outlook so the collection’s best read one or two poems at a time rather than in one sitting. The aims and sentiment behind the poems are worthy, however, a challenge or use of a metaphor or analogy now and again would have added interest.

“Where I Ache” is available from 10 June and can be preordered. Megan O’Keeffe’s blog is www.debatablydateable.com.



“Incendiary Art” Patricia Smith (Bloodaxe) – poetry review

Incendiary Art Patricia Smith“Incendiary Art” compassionately explores the fatalities, often at the hands of law enforcement, and inherent structural racism in America, both through the lives of the deceased and those left behind. The questing approach doesn’t rant or vent but seeks to understand with the aim of encouraging a solution. However, the first rule of solving a problem is to acknowledge it and drill down to its actual cause. The title poem considers a street scene,

“the thing men do to boulevards, the wicks
their bodies be. A city, strapped for art,
delights in torching them – at first for kicks,

to waltz to whirling sparks, but soon those hearts
thud thinner, whittled by the chomp of heat.
Outlined in chalk, men blacken, curl apart.

Their blindly rising fume is bittersweet,
although reversals in the air could fool
us into thinking they weren’t meant at meat

Our sons don’t burn their cities as a rule,
born, as they are, up to their necks in fuel.”

It’s impossible not to see things through the lens of prejudice when that prejudice is based on the colour of your skin: something you can’t easily disguise or hide. Even if you could hide it, the burden of disguise takes it toll. The poem captures the sense of public space being unsafe, the way prejudice chips away at an individual’s attitude and how impossible it is for victims to overcome prejudice by themselves. The terza rima form and rhymes echo the way the logic in each stanza is set up by the preceding stanza, each new idea arising from previous thoughts.

“No wound of Exit” explores an autopsy from a young man fatally shot,

“A black boy can fold his whole tired self around a bullet. The cartridge is a pinpoint of want, a textbook example of the smallest love. Some slugs are warmer then mothers. The bullet wants the whole of the boy, his snot and insomnia, his crammed pockets and waning current. The bullet strains to romance the blooded one in a way that grinds with lyric. The bullet swoons through his collapsing map, then comes to rest and the boy simply ends his breathing around it. It does not matter if the boy has a mother. It does not matter if he has a gold mouth,

Injuries associated with the entrance wound: perforation of left anterior fifth intercoastal space, pericordial sac, right ventricle of the heart, right lower lobe of the lung with approximately 1300 milliliters of blood in the right pleural cavity and 1000 in the left pleural cavity. The collapse of both lungs.

“A black boy’s lungs collapsing.

“A mother picked up a phone.

“The same sound.”

The poetic description is contrasted with the dry, factual language of the autopsy. Death occurs regardless of the victim’s (perceived) wealth and a mother’s love cannot protect against it. A group of poems looks at the death of two daughters. In separate incidents, two girls, three month old Zara and two year old Tierra, were taken out by their fathers and drowned. “Blurred Quotient and Theory” offers explanations for why they will killed by someone who was supposed to protect and care for them,

“Sometimes a daughter is simply what the middle
of a crib does. Later, she becomes the opener
of doors. She warms that plate of neckbones,
and pirouettes for his gaze. Sometimes she is the spit
of the mother, the irritant prancing the outer edge
of rooms, the cheek roughly pinched, the handful
of dimes and Go on, give yourself some Red Hots,
the math problem one person in the class keeps getting
wrong, the Sit on in here and be still while your mama
and I – Sometimes she is sometimes. She is oddity,
or she is air. What Tierra was was shatter to anyone
doomed enough to love her. What Zara was was not a son.”

“Accidental” is a series of poems that explore situations where black man were murdered by the police. Each starts with a brief report, e.g. “March 3, 2014, Iberia Parish, LA – Police say that Victor White III, 22, shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser.”, “November 19, 2013, Durham NC – Police say that Jesus Huerta, 17, shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser”, “July 29, 2013, Jonesboro, AR – Police say that Chavis Carter, 21, shot himself while handcuffed in the black of a police cruiser.”

“He reached back and found
his own hands with his own
hands, worked his bound
fingers to set his free fingers
loose, then used that shackled
hand to free the other shackled
hand, and the freed shackled
hand, still shackled, was still
bound to the other hand once
both were freed. Once free
in the shackles, the shackled
hands turned to the matter
of the gun which couldn’t be
there because they’d searched
by baby twice and a gun is
a pretty big thing unless it isn’t,
unless it is dreamed alive by
hands that believe they are no
longer shackled. Stunned in
cuffs, but free and searching,
the left and right hands found
a gun with a stink like voodoo.”

The circular illogic of the poem echoes and reflects on the incredulity that should have greeted the police reports. However, the police reports were accepted at face value, demonstrating the power imbalance. The victims don’t matter. The reputations of law enforcement officers are seen as more important, even when the evidence doesn’t support their versions of events. Even when evidence supports the victims, the victims’ voices are not heard. That they leave behind families is not important enough for the official version of events to be challenged. Their ages are significant too: these were young men with their lives ahead of them, dismissed as worthless and the consequences of that dismissal are fatal. The consequences and their effect on the communities the law enforcement officers are supposed to police are also dismissed. Those communities learn their lives don’t matter and justice is absent.

“Incendiary Art” is a substantial collection. There is also a poignant, unsentimental elegy for the poet’s father that doesn’t overlook his flaws, but shows the strength of a father/daughter bond. Interspersed throughout are a series of poems about Emmett Till, a man lynched in 1955 at the age of 14 after being falsely accused of offending a white woman. The poems are presented as a ‘choose your own adventure’ story that considers what if the photo he carried in his wallet had been recognised as Hedy Lamarr instead of being used to allege he had a white girlfriend, what if there had been a closed casket, if his body was never found, etc.

Patricia Smith demonstrates a skill, not only with poetic forms, but knowledge of her craft, the imagination and compassion she writes with. “Incendiary Art” includes prose poems, ghazals, sonnets and sestinas, each poem’s structure relating to and exploring its subject. The poems are contemporary and their concern remains with current issues but with a demonstrable inclusion of context and history. She deserves her accolades and “Incendiary Art” is a collection to treasure and return to. Highly recommended.

“Incendiary Art” by Patricia Smith is available from Bloodaxe Books


“The Dancing Boy” Michelle Diaz (Against the Grain) – poetry review

The dancing boy of the title is the poet’s son who has Tourette’s syndrome and the title poem starts with, “Woof! Woof! Scream!/ The harsh alarm/ as we enter morning’s mouth.” The jolt is entirely appropriate but not the only mood in the collection, which includes joy, grief, humour and anger all underlined with compassion.

Michelle Diaz The Dancing Boy book cover“The Dancing Boy” starts with the poet’s own childhood, pre-birth with a warning, “Do not go to Kilburn,”

“Let the caesarean scalpel slip.
Let me be miscarried all over the bathroom floor.
Shoo the jiggly white racers


Do not drink in that Irish bar.
Do not meet vacuous
sperm donor father.”

This isn’t misery-memoir but honesty and acknowledgement that not all pregnancies are planned, not all childhoods ideal and motherhood is a series of compromises and hard work. Other writers too have explored the downsides and rejected the rose-tinted view of motherhood’s rewards and Michelle Diaz does with hindsight and the knowledge of becoming a mother herself. “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth” explores both aspects,

“Childbirth –
a kind of alchemy,
each fresh head the imprint of a mother’s soul,
soft-cheek faces keen to emulate,
to parrot turn of phrase.

Now monsters live in every room,
.down                                   street.
.           the                       the
.                  garden,  up

She can’t get off the sofa,
learns to scream in several keys.

As grown ups, they spit the past back at her,
she turns to Shakespeare, who knows her heart.”

This is motherhood without judgement and sentimentality. Michelle Diaz turns her attention to her own journey to motherhood in “A Birth Journey in Nine Movements,” that starts,

“We are en route to Yorkshire.
I stir my latte with a pregnancy test,
it shows up positive.
All the waiters do the Macarena.”

And ends after a caesarean section,

“My old skin lines the corridor,
the curt nurse picks it up.
Strangely, I cry because you are no longer inside.
Your dad closes the curtain in case they think I am depressed.
I’m not. It’s just that I will never again know such intimacy.”

The surrealness of the opening quoted stanza capture the celebration and panic of pregnancy. The ending is a reminder that birth is about two lives, not just the baby. It encompasses a ride of mixed emotions and the transformation a mother’s body goes through in delivering a baby. Even in a positive outcome, sadness can make an appearance. Bodies don’t snap back into shape and the rest and recuperation needed doesn’t always result in the joyful bonding shown in magazine images. Other poems explore the grief of menopause: it marks the loss of fertility but also the start of a new chapter. Aptly, the last poem contains advice, “Trust your life,”

“Kiss the open hand of acceptance,
not giving up, not handing in your notice,
just the smooth thrill of following the river,
swimming. Dodging too, but even when you catch
on the sharpness, licking your wounds,
diving deeper.”

“The Dancing Boy” is a very human, flaws included, look at motherhood both from a child’s and a mother’s viewpoint. Becoming a parent can make our own parents’ flaws more excusable. Michelle Diaz also explores the cliche of the self-less mother only existing to nurture her children both in terms of it being unrealistic and for the way it erases a mother’s identity beyond the label of mother as if becoming a mother means leaving behind who you were before you became pregnant. She doesn’t rant or preach but explores with humour, craft and compassion.

“The Dancing Boy” is available from Against the Grain press

LWC Alison Moore

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“To Nora, a Singer of Sad Songs” Mark A Murphy (Clare Songbirds Publishing House) – poetry review

To Nora Mark A Murphy“To Nora, a Singer of Sad Songs” follows a love between an Englishman and an American singer, who are separated when she is forced to return to America. From the poems there’s no time scale given so readers don’t know how long the relationship is or when during the relationship the separation occurred. The first poem, “My Love is in America” starts,

“I cannot hold you, nor yet kiss you,
yet with your song
you have rendered my heart
incapable of hiding in the loneliness of the moon.”

and ends,

“My love, I cannot live without you,
it would be Death
and Death is over there
beyond the joy of song, beyond the sightless stars.”

The long vowels and assonance slow the rhythm and indicate the lament, setting the scene for poems of loss brought about by separation. Nora faced a lifelong battle with depression, as “Blue November” suggests “Blue was her dream, blue, always her colour”. Ironically she gives life to others, the first part of the sequence “In Time’s Wake”, “Sunlight”, declares, “I was dead before you became my lover, then I learned how to breathe.”

The sense of separation and longing is further captured in the title poem,

“In what song now
does your voice whisper in such grief –
songs about betrayal, songs about loss,
as if the words could capture
a single weary tear, a single moment of your defiance?

Night falls through shared tenderness,
the mourning doves take flight,
but for you and I there will be no sad flight, no invocations,
only this: winter will not make an end of us,
not tomorrow or today.”

It’s not without hope though, the singer’s “single moment of defiance” and the narrator’s “winter will not make an end of us” both suggest separation is temporary, its season will end. The vocabulary echoes the songs Nora could be singing: low-key vocals, melancholy strings and frequent mentions of crying, chances missed and loss. A later poem, “Concerto de Aranjuez,” picks up this theme too and ends,

“How we know, resolution does not come
in your sad songs
upon the guitar,
but in the cadenced spirit of heaven”

The narrator begins to question how long separated love can last in “Lost Note”, a prose poem,

“Once again, and not for the last time, I am as far beyond doubt as any creature in mortal danger of losing its head. Once again, I am as far beyond rest as you, as you toil through the night in danger of losing your self, your love for me.

My sweet girl, can’t you see that your sadness in the face of all the odds, is no more mournful than the scent of hyacinths left in the vase, nor the tired hands that are left to play the age-long sonatas of the dead in the face of all that living promises?”

In amongst the poems to Nora, two stick out as being in a different tone and register. One, “At the Grave of Sylvia Plath,” where, “the Heptonstall horizon narrows/ to the anguish of a girlish heart/ proclaiming the dominion of death.” But ends on the suggestion that the narrator’s love, Nora, should be in his arms, “the sacred place where you always find peace.” “Pain Eater” is a list of the world’s evils ending on the question, “What words can be said to convince a girl to keep struggling?” Within context, it’s a plea to the lover the narrator has been separated from. These two poems really belong in another collection since their presence here invites interpretation within a narrow context.

“To Nora, Singer of Sad Songs” is a lyrical look at enforced separation and whether love can survive that separation. However, I’d have liked to know more about Nora. She sings, but I don’t know who her favourite singers or what her favourite songs are. I don’t know how she sang: power ballad or jazz? She haunts this collection, but never quite solidifies into a person. I suspect Mark Murphy’s intention was to focus on and capture the sense of love lost and the collection does successfully recreate the ambiance of a melancholy song that echoes after the book has been shut.

“To Nora, Singer of Sad Songs” is available from Clare Songbirds Publishing House.

The Saboteur Award Shortlists are now published. Please vote for the winners at the link: http://sabotagereviews.com/2019/04/15/saboteur-awards-2019-shortlists/. Without votes those shortlisted won’t progress. If you enjoy reviews on this blog, I’ve been shortlisted for Best Reviewer.


“The Paper House” Karen Dennison (Hedgehog Press) – poetry review

The Paper House Karen Dennison“The Paper House” contains poems of memory, relationships, friendships, landscape and art from an attitude of exploration and thought. This approach ensures the poems are not just a series of recorded anecdotes, but invitations to readers to think around the modes of memory and why certain things are remembered. “Shed” is a good example of this,

“At the back, a wheel with worn-out tread,
shabby mattress, musty fold-up chair,
padlocked metal box that rattled
and a plastic baby doll with one eye open.

Impossible that the shed still stands
but I think of it there, shifting with time,
battered by rain and wind, a child tugging
at its splintered door, peering inside.”

It starts as an itemised list from a specific shed, discarded items that might have been kept for recycling/mending or dumped in the shed for getting rid of at a more convenient time. The poem ends in curiosity, suggesting readers turn back to their own childhood memories, that “splintered door” has a dual role as both permeable and a barrier of resistance, a hint that childhood memories never really leave anyone.

Likewise “Waterloo Bridge” starts with landscape, here the river Thames as remembered from childhood and also in history when the river would freeze over so a fair could be set up on the frozen space,

“Now the river’s just-ironed denim,
bleach-streaked with the lights
from Westminster Bridge
and the Wheel’s ruby ring,
sprinkling a patch of sequin-pink.

I’d forgotten how London
is part of my skin, an invisible tattoo
of the time we spent,
the vertiginous thrill
of its backbone of bridges.

We clung to each other that day
with a rigor mortis grip, spoke
of the ice floe that broke away,
devouring people and tents;
joked of being swallowed whole,

sinking down to the city’s silted bones.”

It becomes a poem about how our childhood landscapes form us. The fear recalled in the last stanza is just as much about the fear of future change, of growing up and moving on. The personal memories come from remembered experiences, not those provoked by an old photograph or another memento. This suggests it’s the most vivid memories that survive; the lived experiences and deepest desires.

There is a central sequence of six poems that reflect on childlessness, e.g. in “Wall of Night”

“His heart beat was the sound of distant dripping
echoing to nothing. His breath died in the curve of my palm.

You said you knew a way to save him. We unzipped
his chest to find tiny strings, pulled at them
with clumsy thumbs and fingers, jolted him like a puppet.

I felt his pulse starting but it was just my own as I woke,
sunlight through the keyhole like a faraway candle,
light’s knife slicing the curtains.”

Each reflects on the subject without sentimentality and allows the cumulation of images to build poignancy. It takes a huge amount of skill to write about such a personal and devastating event in this way whilst still engaging a reader.

The final section focuses on ekphrastic poems or poems that focus on landscape. “Gorge du Loup” looks at Wolves’ canyon in Echternacht in Luxemborg,

“Here centuries are stacked
like vertebrae, piled high
in sandstone pillars, warped by faults.

These rocks – Eulenberg, Goldfrahay –
lick you with tongues of ancient oceans,
shadow you with wolves.”

It carries its sustained metaphor throughout without labouring the point.

Overall the poems in “The Paper House” are thematically linked but varied in tone and voice. Karen Dennison shows a strong awareness of craft and skill at building quiet, thought-provoking poems designed to welcome and engage readers.

“The Paper House” is published by Hedgehog and available from Karen Dennison.