“Hope is a Silhouette” Lana McDonagh (Wordville) – book review

Lana McDonagh Hope is a Silhouette book cover

Lana McDonagh’s “Hope is a Silhouette” is a series of observations on love, desires, inner-lives and everyday life. Each is accompanied by an illustration by the author. “Night-Time Confessional” sets the tone, “Some things I only say in the dark/ To the ear of the sickle moon” while the poem’s addressee could be a lover, could be the narrator,

“As you breathe in
As you breathe out

My night-time confessional
Uttered under the somnolent glow
Of a heavy velvet sky”

The final image could be ambigious. It could be the sky is dark and oppressive, spreading gloom. Or the focus could be on the “heavy velvet”, luxurious and opulent, hinting at dreams of desire and not necessarily for love. The confessions could be as much about hopes and aspirations. Although in Paris, in “The Lock-In” the theme is definitely love,

“If we could just make it out
……from underneath the sheets
Sheets that were not our own
……but had become
Entangled, linen witnesses”

It concludes, “There was Paris/ But all I cared about/ Was you”. Two lovers still in the honeymoon phase cannot be tempted by all Paris can offer. There’s no suggestion this is a lockdown poem, the lovers’ isolation from the city is voluntary.

The emotions of desire and want surface in “Before Me” where a lover’s skin has become dusted with snow, “A pure white expanse/ Muddied by another’s boot” but the mud is not a deterant just a signal,

“and a primal need for virginal landscapes
I want to traverse your cities
And climb your mountains
Leaving my flag triumphantly at the highest peak

I want an avalanche to lay a fresh sheet of future
So I can hear my weight
As I tread upon the past”

Not just a desire to explore but to find space that obliterates memories and markers of others. Someone who wants to erase the past and move on, forging her own way rather than following the footsteps of others.

In the title poem, “Hope is a silhouette” is a refrain starting each stanza.

“Hope is a silhouette:
A telephone ringing
Bricks and mortar shaped for living
A gambler in the throes of winning
The dawn chorus singing
Floral buds springing up
in between slabs
of solid, grey concrete”

“Up” interrupts the passive rhythms of “living”, “winning”, “singing”, drawing attention to the delicate buds before the slap of concrete. Hope is something that thrives in cracks. It’s also undefined, a blank outline for people to project onto. Those slabs are also a reminder hope can be ephemeral. That telephone call could be bad news – the formality of “telephone” suggests this isn’t a friendly chat. The house is “shaped for living” but not yet a home. The gambler hopes but is more likely to lose rather than win. Those who hope might appear to be deceiving themselves. There’s another liar in “The Theatre of Contorted Reality” where “You have so effortlessly distorted/ and remoulded yesterday/ Until it has become your truth” which is like,

“Train wi-fi
British weather and
Your truth
just another lie
Waiting to be uncovered”

Three things known for their unreliability, yet the poem’s addressee clings to their version of what happened, persuading others that their version is the truth. But who’s to say the observer’s version is anymore reliable?

“Hope is a Silhouette” is a contemporary, empathetic look at life, particularly love and desires. Lana McDonagh explores how hope can become two-edged if ill-defined: it can keep a gambler hooked on his downfall, it can make a building look like a home, it can consume lovers and trick them into isolating themselves from a wider world. It can be as in/fallible as memory. Slender but thought-provoking, like a song you somehow keep noticing in the bar, on a passing car radio, an advert’s anthem that becomes a soundtrack to life.

“Hope is a Silhouette” is available from Wordville.

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.

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“Crow Funeral” Kate Hanson Foster (East Over Press) – book review

Kate Hanson Foster Crow Funeral book cover

Kate Hanson Foster’s “Crow Funeral” enters the world of motherhood, the intimacy of the relationship between mother and dependent young children and how woman can lose their own identity in becoming mothers and struggles, particularly with mental health, to overcome.

In the title poem, “No one notices the dead crow/ alongside the road, soft underbelly exposed,/ neck broken from the fall.”

“And how the earth goes on breathing, stubborn
in its own perpetuity.……… We let our voices explode
between us. The TV glows and hums, an ongoing

procession of make meaning, make me
understand.……….. Why can’t we put our finger on this
and drag it back, like an oil slick across a computer screen?”

It continues,

“we have to stop counting.……….. There will be something
new to cry out for. Something else to gather
and dress us all in black.”

We don’t think about death or avoid thinking about death until it happens. It creeps up, unnoticeable until there’s a body with no breath. The world around us has the audacity to keep on going when we need a breather for grief. But death doesn’t take a break either. Not tallying up the dead keeps us seeing each death as individual, not part of a greater pattern. Not seeing the greater pattern leaves us vulnerable to either making the same mistakes over and over or falling into despair and not acting. The crow could be literal or a metaphor for the death of a part of someone where the loss is grieved, but not acted on so it tips the individual into depression.

Mothering a newborn starts with tenderness, in “Swaddle”, a baby boy swaddled in a blanket becomes,

“a little bud before the push,
a bird egg back inside

the nest, head peeping
out. Eyes that say this is all

just the beginning.
It is crucial that we get it right.”

Swaddling wraps the baby back into a womb-like state, signalling it is safe, he is cradled, a precious bundle. However, the poem suggests there’s no room for trial and error, the relationship has to be perfect from the beginning. But where does the pressure come from? The baby is unlikely to remember whether he was correctly swaddled. But still the speaker feels is “crucial” to get right. Is this pressure the mother puts on herself or pressure from experts who breezily tell mothers there’s one right way of doing things with dire consequences if done wrong or society that expects mother to submit to the needs of a demanding newborn, ignoring her own?

Magpies are part of the corvid family and some poems follow the magpie nursery rhyme, “One for sorrow, two for joy,” etc. In “Three for a Girl”,

“I make your name a sound to save you
from the anomalies on your sonogram.

Three cysts in your brain.
The doctor points to the darkness in the photo,
fluid looming like thunderheads between cells.

There is nothing we can do
but wait, he says. Wait—a tongue
and mouth slap word.

Pregnancy is wait. Test results
are wait. I wait through trimesters
like an anvil cloud eating the updraft.”

Myths around pregnancy create the spell that’s it’s a happy time of glowing and waiting for a bundle of joy. Even though it’s a time of change and anxiety, extra strain on a mother’s body and pains such as rib flares and nausea. It’s also a long time to wait if something wrong shows on a sonogram. Wait and see might be the right advice but it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow. Certainly not a piece of advice to reassure an anxious mother-to-be. Here, there was a happy ending.

Another magpie rhyme poem, “Seven for a Secret”, quoted complete,

“I check all the right boxes
on the questionnaire—
I do not want to hurt
myself or others. I am not
scared. I do not cry
all the time—panic for no good
reason. I am sleeping.
I look forward to the enjoyment
of things. I hand the clipboard
through the glass window
and smile, and a reflection
slides back, faintly female,
rat hair rising with the upwind.
I would never blame myself.”

The stigma attached to post natal depression and associated mental illnesses discourage the speaker from ticking boxes that might trigger a diagnosis. Even if a mother needs help, the stigma of not being good enough or worse, the risk of separation from baby while treatment is underway, doesn’t encourage mothers to be entirely honest. The questionnaire is tick box medical supervision that relys on a mother self-declaring her struggles instead of hiding them and pretending everything’s fine. It’s not fine, but it’s better than admitting and attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Later “Cockcrow” contains the assertion “I was a mother” and ends “I was I was I was.” It’s not clear why the speaker uses past tense. The tattoo of “I was I was I was” echoes Plath’s “old brag of the heart, I am I am I am” as if the speaker is not convinced but trying to convince herself.

“Depression Cento” uses source lines from A R Ammons, Carolyn Forche, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, Robert Hass, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ann Lauterbach, H Leivick, Mina Loy, Muriel Rukeyser (not necessarily in the quoted extract),

“There is no other way to say this:
I am in the thrall of bony whiteness—

how several madnesses are born—
a season dry in the fireplace—this strange

church I am building, excited
by wind, the sudden feel of life—to be

redeemed from fire by fire.”

Motherhood is not a bed of roses or at least it’s a bed that’s heavy with thorns among the rare blooms. It’s one that demands a mother gives up and later refinds herself as the baby becomes more independent. For mothers who already have careers and roles other than mother, redefining themselves is never easy. Not helped when others refer to you as “mum” and refuse to use a mother’s actual name, triggering a battle to regain self-hood and find the roles that the mother used to have or re-invent the mother’s self to fit a new life.

“Tapering off of Clonazepam” (clonzepam is used to treat panic disorders as well as seizures and involuntary muscle spasms) ends,

“I want to shelter my family
from the storm, I can no longer be the storm.”

A mother’s recognition that post-natal depression has coloured her view and sense of priorities. It’s not her fault though. She always wanted to shelter her family, but had to find her way through her loss first.

“Crow Funeral” looks at the darker underbelly to maternity and motherhood. The pressures on mothers to be perfect, to be self-less and centre the lives of their children even when they lack support and dare not seek help due to stigma and fear. The use of nursery rhyme is appropriate and interwoven within other poems, a reminder that fairy tales and rhymes for children also have a darker side: behavioural advice for a dangerous world. Kate Hanson Foster writes without judgment or sentimentality. These are loved and desired children of a mother doing her best not to lose herself but to find a way of combining being a self-less mother while also retaining individual personhood.

“Crow Funeral” is available from East Over 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.

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“Naming the Ghost” Emily Hockaday (Cornerstone Press) – book review

Emily Hockaday Naming the Ghost front cover

Emily Hockaday’s “Naming the Ghost” is narrated by a new mother who has also lost her father and become haunted by a ghost. Her husband can’t see the ghost but her baby appears to be aware of it or perhaps aware of her mother’s reactions to it although the baby is unable to articulate so there’s an ambiguous strand as to whether the ghost is an external manifestation of a father not yet ready to pass on or if a manifestation of the narrator’s grief aiding the grieving process. The ghost is not hostile, in “The Ghost Has Started Reading,” it leaves behind books “I can never get through: icicles from childhood”,

“I look in my daughter’s eyes for signs
of frozen shards. When she laughs, is it quieter?
She squirms from my scrutiny with narrow eyes.
Don’t you have the story wrong? I ask.
I write a response in the bathroom mirror:
It isn’t always about you.

Parenthood brings hopes that your child will share what you enjoyed and perhaps share the same dislikes. The narrator’s daughter’s ability to enjoy stories the narrator didn’t is a disturbance. Is the message in the bathroom mirror a note from the narrator to herself, a reminder her child is an independent being, or a note to the ghost, a warning at undermining the narrator’s parenting. The ghost though seems a sunny thing, in “The Ghost Casts a Spell” it “casts a spell over the window so it always appears sunny” but the narrator writes letters about the bodily changes that come with motherhood, leaves the letter overnight and discovers in the morning,

“the handwritten page is unmoved. While the others sleep,
I burn it, mix the ashes with potting soil,
and add it to the pots along the window.”

The narrator’s complaints are shared with a blank page and erased so the family don’t discover them. It feels as if the narrator is casting spells, not the ghost, who seems to want to help. The narrator’s father suffered a long illness leading up to his death, in “The Ghost Wakes Me from a Nightmare”, he stumbles,

“from room to room with a walker getting smaller
and smaller until he disappeared. It is dark,
and my daughter’s breathing is so loud
the baby monitor picks it up. Grief has found somewhere
to take root. I go to the window. The world outside
is lit glass. I let my skin become glass, too. I am
a ringing vessel.”

The baby’s breathing is not that loud, it’s just that everything else is so quiet, a whisper would feel like a shout. Grief has distanced the narrator from herself, she empties her thoughts to allow others to speak through her. Effectively she becomes ghost-like, but not in control of her ghostly body. In “Thank the Ghost” the narrator admits her daughter keeps her from drifting away. However, the daughter will not remember her grandfather. The narrator feels, in “Always Looking Somewhere”,

“The things that are important to me
and have shaped me and made me who I am
will be different for her. Sometimes at night,
I gaze at the baby monitor and feel the ghost
gazing back at me. We are always looking elsewhere:
into the past or the future. I want so desperately
to see the future that my daughter will imagine
for herself, and I want to know:
you will be there; you will survive.”

While she grieves her father, she wants the reassurance her daughter will know her mother and will not lose her parent. It’s a fear that keeps the narrator from seeing the present – she is always looking into the past at her relationship to her father and her own childhood for clues to manage her daughter’s childhood, or into the future, trying to imagine what her daughter needs and will be. Neither can give her the comfort she seeks. She acknowledges the ghost is temporary and faces, “The Ghost’s Departure,” where the narrator confesses (“her” is her daughter),

“I don’t want her to remember me
this way. Neither do I want to be erased.
I must stop conflating the ghost with my father.
Wishing my daughter to hold memories of him
will not make it so. We ride the carousel together.
She sits with her father on the bench, and I choose a horse
that moves up and down. She looks on with delight.”

The narrator is now seeing that the ghost has taught her to let go of the past and that letting go does not mean forgetting. It does mean accepting that her daughter will not remember her grandfather, but that is not a reason for the narrator to lose her memories or suppress her grief. It’s time to focus on the living and the present as it is, not as the narrator wishes it to be.

“Naming the Ghost” is a gentle, sensitive journey through bereavement and acceptance. It is not just the loss of the narrator’s father, but also that the newborn daughter will never know her grandfather, which exacerbates the sense of loss. However, the narrator acknowledges that she cannot let her daughter’s sole experience be a grief for someone she did not know. On her journey, she learns to adjust to looking to the future, informed by the past. These are poems that linger and haunt rather than grab the reader.

“Naming the Ghost” is available from Cornerstone 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.

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“Based on a True Story” Thomas Stewart (Fourteen Poems) – book review

Thomas Stewart Based on a True Story book cover

Thomas Stewart’s pamphlet is a contemporary tour of Grindr dates and poems in reaction to films and TV, including “Point Break”, “The First Wives Club”, “Friends”, “Capote” and “Sister Act”. Although some of the TV and film choices may suggest humour, there is more serious intent underlining the poems, e.g. in “Tyrannosaur”, where the speaker,

“would end up battered
……….outside a charity shop

because I’d battered myself?
……….and I

couldn’t take the feeling
………of being cared for being loved

that I spat it out
……….lashed my shaken sharpened tongue

stomped on that thing that I loved.”

This is someone suspicious of love, prone to sabotaging love because he believes he doesn’t deserve it or it will go wrong so why not get out before the inevitable happens? While he thinks he is hastening closure, he has not factored in the reaction of his date. No one likes to be deceived or unheard. Violence is wrong, and physical violence is being used as the answer to verbal violence, but the biggest deceit here is what the speaker is doing to himself. Prematurely ending a potential relationship is not the answer to the vulnerability of heartbreak. This desire to be invulnerable is picked up again in “Milan Grindr, 2014” where a date asks for another only to be told no,

“I wanted to keep
you as beautiful
and perfect
as I knew you could be
in my memories”

Human beings weren’t designed for perfection. The direct, spare language suggests directness and honesty on behalf of the speaker because it leaves little room for interpretation or misunderstanding. But it also doesn’t leave space for dialogue, for the other person to speak and be heard. Another date is also about preserving a moment, “Edinburgh Grindr, 2016” which is subtitled “(or story thief)”,

“as I hold your waist I think
of the poem
I’ll write one day
about you.”

Even during the act, the lover has checked out and is looking toward a future where he gets to write the script. It’s not known whether the person whose waist is being held has also checked out or whether, despite this having all the hallmarks of a one night stand, might have thought of a differnt future.

Turning to TV, “Desperate Housewives”, a poem in three parts, ends with a question about stereotypes of men,

“Then, there exists
only two kinds
of gay men:

love fashion or sport
opera or fighting

there is no middle ground,”

I’ve not seen the show although the title seems to rely on a stereotype so the stereotyping of gay characters as either effeminate or butch doesn’t come as a surprise. But there’s an echo of what the Grindr date speaker is doing, not allowing nuance, not looking to meet someone half-way.

“Based on a True Story” risks being seen as a solipsistic take on dating and gay tropes. It’s spare language is that of a plain-talker, not afraid to offend and not that of someone who wilts into the wallpaper. It’s a voice that doesn’t want to listen. However, on the page, where readers can revisit what’s being said and see between the lines, readers can imagine what the poems’ voice is not saying. How, ultimately, in trying to avoid being hurt, the speaker is hurting himself. Stewart invites readers to feel some sympathy for someone who has been hurt and is trying to make themselves invulnerable. There’s a subtle nudge into the world of the brash speaker who is hiding his pain.

“Based on a True Story” is available from Fourteen Poems.

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.

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“Face the Strain” Joolz Sparkes (Against the Grain) – book review

Joolz Sparkes Face the Strain book cover

The strain here is of getting by in a capitalist, patriarchal world both pre- and post-pandemic. The title’s ambiguity could be the stress of coping or a viral strain. Joolz Sparkes documents the lack of care of those in power with grace and a dash of humour. In “Warning: this game does not come with any rules”, this game is

“For ages 0-eternity
Fits together in infinite combinations
Never replace the lid
Keep away from no one
All participants begin on the same level”

The game never ends. The significance of “begin on the same level” indicates that everyone starts from the same place but ends up on different levels, according to a combination of skill, merit and luck. Different outcomes are offered to different people. It echoes the idea that when the pandemic started, we were all in the same storm but weathered it very differently with those able to work from home having a very different experience from those keyworkers who had to go into workplaces or those in need of care or with caring responsibilities who were trying to shield.

“Woman in transit” summarises the all-too-common extra safeguards women take when travelling alone,

“Bargaining with the journey –If I get there
intact, then I’ll relax, promise.
Journey laughs in her face –Girl, you know
there’ll be no sit back, no let up,
there’s only ever vigilance.”

It’s frequently under-estimated how much stress this extra vigilance causes along with the sense of not being safe in public spaces.

The joys of videoconferencing are looked at in “You’re still on mute, Ms Keller”

“The CEO can see your lips moving,
your hand of advocacy stroking the air.
The committee refuses to hear you, Helen.”

Theoretically another space where we all start on the same level, unlike a telephone call where you can’t see facial expressions and body language or an email where the intended tone of a message can be misinterpreted. However for those with hearing or visual disabilities or both – like Helen Keller – it’s another space that can be exclusionary. Participants may be able to unmute themselves but that doesn’t necessarily mean they get heard. Power structures come into play and can reinforce existing imbalances.

The poems are not just able work and daily routines. “Birds”, dated November 2020 during lockdown, has two parts, the first “Blackbird with free delivery” ends with the blackbird singing,

“Then––clap––and though you scare quicker than cat
or squirrel, still you ring out; claim it as your world,
that envious freedom from keeping produce plastic-fresh.

I cut up delivery boxes into recycled cards
for December and peace, hope you’ll come back to me,
if you feel like it, to forgive me for what I’m doing to you.”

The speaker is recycling the cardboard from delivery boxes and trying not to use plastics but is also very aware that her part is a small one and she has little influence over the companies who deliver the goods.

The pandemic also offered an opportunity to start again and do things differently, if we are willing to take it. “O World, who shall we be now?” explores this,

“VIRUS was an acronym for poverty
and the people we threw away were essential.

When we were at our most deadly,
masks were anxious smiles
and everyone was dying for a hug.

When we were at our most stupid,
vehicles were carbon depletions
and everyone was a frequent flyer.

When we were at our most destructive,
life was a continuation of all that went before
and nothing changed for anyone.”

Many keyworkers in healthcare, carers, those who kept warehouses stocked, delivered goods, operated supermarkets, and generally kept things going are also on minimum wage which is a problem when worth is equated to earnings. Fear of viral transmission kept people at a distance, exacerbating problems of loneliness and isolation. Overall, people continued pretty much as they had before and continued towards a path of destruction through the climate emergency.

“Face the Strain” is a lyrical exploration of life under patriarchal capitalism as we emerge from the pandemic. Personal actions become political, although individuals are rendered powerless against large conglomerates and politicians in lobbyists’ pockets. Sparkes pulls no punches. The world is looked at through a critical lens, which particularly examines societal attitudes towards the powerless and vulnerable, and the extra loads of caring, parenting and household management that fall on predominately on women. The tone is spare and direct, making the poems’ intents clear and targeted.

“Face the Strain” is available from Against the Grain.

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.

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“Erebus” Elizabeth Lewis Williams (Story Machine) – book review

Elizabeth Lewis Williams Erebus book cover

Elizabeth Lewis Williams’ father was a assistant scientific officer on the 1958 expedition to the Antarctic, finishing in 1965 at Scott Base. He passed away in 1996, leaving an unpublished book “Years on Ice”. “Erebus” grew from the poet’s desire to collate her half-remembered childhood stories drawing from memory, the unpublished book and letters left behind. “Portal Point” starts,

“Let me recall the four walls of a refuge hut
from the museum at Stanley, and set them here
on concrete blocks, fix them against the wind
with rope-metal tie-downs
and from the slatted, halve-jointed walls, cut and planed
in the sawmills of Norwich, I will conjure
the tang of pinewood, the smell of sawdust,
and the sound of hammer and nails.”

Part-memory, part-fact and a dosing of imagination to create what her father’s life might have been like on Antarctica. The poem ends,

“I summon all your measuring machines,
and, as the earth spins and signals
bounce, reflect, return, combine,
I say the coming world is seen from here.”

That creative streak can be drawn back to her father. He didn’t just measure and record, but built pictures from what the data told him. He understood the landscape and its risks. In “Calculating Risk”, her father skis out towards an ice cliff,

“sea ice 2 feet deep/a man needs 2-3 inches for walking
and little cracks can be stepped across
…………………………………………………..or bridged by skis.
Only the toppling of the nearby ice-cliffs could cause a break-up.

You have noted wave velocity, and know

from cliff to crossing is 2 minutes long;
40 yards from land (ice resting on ground above sea-level)
works out as 10-15 seconds’ walk –
and so you know you’re safe to go


That cliff did fall –
and from 100% safety you and your colleague watched”

They had to ski, a dinghy would have sunk. The reprimand for taking the risk didn’t put her father off skiing. There are a sequence of messages from home in the form of telegraphs with text on images so difficult to reproduce, but capture the fragmentary sense of communication with a wider world and how people resort to trivia (health, weather, daily routines) because more important things need to be said face to face. These are followed by a series of diary entries, showing insights into life at base, e.g. “25th December 1952”,

“Got turkey in the oven by bending sides of dish. Rowed out to the rookery where the chicks are hatching (there were no eggs to collect) then walked up to the top of the ridge. Ice is
travelling in from the South and the channel is fairly full. Found relics of past expeditions at
Bernard Point.”

There’s a celebratory note of managing to get a turkey in the oven for a Christmas dinner and the need to still make routine checks – no days off here, although time can be made for marking Christmas. But there’s also a reminder of the need for vigilance in what was left behind from other expeditions. It’s a hostile environment and the men at the base have to get along so they can cooperate. That can be easier said than done, an entry for “21st June 1954”, notes,

“Celebrated Midwinter’s Day .
Arthur finally abandoned attempts to repair his clarinet (which has a broken reed). Envisioning long hours of mournful burblings if he had been successful.”

Readers can feel the relief that Arthur failed. He was clearly no musician. “Subliming Off” (when ice converts directly to vapour, skipping the melting stage) shows how tricky life at the base could be,

“In a world of less than 10% humidity,
a blanket can shake out thunderbolts;
if you wind film onto a developing tank spiral
too quickly,
the electrostatic discharge
fogs the picture and forks it with lightning.
Here, in the snow,
paper breaks like a wafer.”

The final section is a sequence, “Erebus”, a mountain in Antarctica and merges the father’s attempts to climb it with the poem’s speaker’s own journey and myths, particularly of the three Fates. It records the landscape,

“here the silent dead: spirals shaped by running water,

ghosts of rivers past; shells embedded in the walls. There
are traces on my fingers, and water underfoot.
Ahead the stream rushes into light, between the rocks

and through the grass and underneath the sky. I lie with
arms outstretched, observe a drift of clouds like trilobites”

A extract that finishes with an extract from the father’s letters,

I must finish now. I am on nightwatch and have a huge backlog of work to
catch up on after this ‘expedition’ up Erebus.
God bless then and, as always, lots of love

The father’s journey is at the expense of his work at the base and he has that weighing on his mind as he takes time out. The daughter has time to watch the clouds. This isn’t just a journey in someone else’s footsteps but an expedition to understand her father’s life on Antarctica, to fill in the blanks of her father’s absence.

“Erebus” is a compassionate exploration from a daughter trying to build a picture of her father’s life on Antarctica. There is no resentment of the absent father and no suggestion the daughter felt abandoned or unloved as a result of her father being away – 5 years may not seem much to an adult, but could be more than half a child’s life. The poems pull together a mosaic of memories, letters, memorabilia and science to create a vibrant picture that reveals layers under a surface gloss.

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.

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“One Week, One Span of Human Life” Paul Ings (Alien Buddha Press) – book review

Paul Ings One Week, On Span of Human Life book cover

A collection of poems that span a week in the life of the poet and family (not in lockdown; this is not a pandemic collection), friction, delight, a near miss in a car. The idea is that the specific focus can be extrapolated like a trail of cupcake crumbs to build connections and a more complete picture of human interactions and concerns. Monday afternoon is spent on the new, unfinished veranda which has become home to unmatched chairs and a table,

“Our laughter is clappered off bare concrete
and hobnobs with the croaking of the crows on high;
not near yet neither far but on equal terms of Here.
Unique: this consciously coming into being

to decadent sips of prematurely popped
golden bubbly; it was you popped the question
as to whether there’s any point in actual completion
which had us laughing uproariously at the time.”

Crows are intelligent, playful birds letting the couple on the veranda know that the birds are as aware of their presence as the couple are of the birds. Work put aside in favour of celebration of progress so far, the question as to whether it’s worth finishing given the veranda seems functional, brings laughter. A reminder to celebrate the moment instead of saving it for a perfected veranda at some point in the future. That moment may not come, when the painting’s finished, the furniture looks dated or mismatched, when the painting is finished and furniture organised, another job will come along.

In the evening, babies must be put to bed. In this case, three-week-old Isabel, in “Engaged”, when the speaker feels the urge to cough but remembers his daughter,

“So it is I sit here
In perfect semblance of prayer

Between mind and matter
The tickle of a tiger’s single hair
And myself.

This filament of ferocious tiger
Ushers me into its lair;
A plaything.”

The hands that would have caught the cough are now caught in prayer as the cough is stifled. But the speaker now has a battle between keeping the cough the stifled and release. Readers don’t find out which won, whether the speaker puts his need to cough over the need to keep the baby asleep.

Thursday afternoon takes readers to “The Old Synagogue – Pilsen” which is the third largest in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. The speaker is in a courtyard – it’s not clear if this is an actual visit or a memory of a visit – where street sounds fade and leave the place,

“in silence so near completion you must lend it an ear

with everything you have in an attempt to discern
what your knowledge, your buzzing soul, the driving will infused
with a little human love like a spoonful of sugar

and the insertion into all of this of the jack that is cabled
to your imagination might, if you give yourself to the task,
bring forth [perhaps clickety footsteps on paving, a child’s chuckle…]”

Even in the silence, the speaker imagines connections to others, the click of heels on a pavement, a child laughing. Even alone, the human instinct is to make links with loved ones.

Friday afternoon, “Visiting Hours 15:00 – 16:00” is one hour and a gift is brought to a female recipient,

“Wonder at it,
fondle its edges.

Put words into her mouth
which hasn’t flexed in ages.

Love it then place it
within this room, her space.

Do not break till you’ve slid beyond
the trajectory of her face.”

It’s not clarified how the narrator and person being visited are related or even if they are. It’s not known if this is a hospital or care home, just that a present has been brought and delivered to someone who seems unable to leave the room. Plenty of space here for a reader to interpret and relate what’s happening to their own lives. What is clear is that the narrator is putting a brave face on this visit for the benefit of the person he’s visiting. The gift is left, but it’s not know if the recipient is aware (she doesn’t open it in the space of the visit).

The sequence ends on Sunday evening and “Beach Life”,

“But people,
They have the leisure:
Lying on the beach all day
one comes to recognize
wave types.”

Even so, relaxed on a beach, there is still an urge to categorise the waves rather than leave them be. The narrator seems to have forgotten the earlier lesson of living in the moment and celebrating a job partially done.

“One Week, One Span of Human Life” is a week’s journey looking at the wider implications of a series of seemingly-small, regular events. Paul Ings’ writing is sparse, sketching details for the readers to fill in and connect with their own lives.

“One Week, One Span of Human Life” is available at this link: https://www.amazon.com/One-Week-Span-Human-Life/dp/B0B4SRKWKL

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.

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“You’ll need an umbrella for this” Victoria Richards (V. Press) – book review

Victoria Richards You’ll need an umbrella for this book cover

“You’ll need an umbrella for this” is a journey through girlhood, becoming an adult and parent, and the wisdom discovered and observations made along the way. It’s split into three parts, ‘Scattered showers’, ‘Heavy rain’ and ‘Thunderstorms’, with the first focusing on girlhood and growing up, the second becoming a mother and the third a broader picture of life.

The first section is about growing up as a girl. The poem “What are little girls made of?” starts with childish toys, enters the world of teenage dating and winds up with motherhood all with a refrain, “a hand up a skirt”. The sexual harassment and micro-aggressions that come on top of the usual childhood dreams and fears for girls. “Moonchildren” sees two besties born under the Zodiac sign of Cancer (known as moonchildren) “reading books we weren’t allowed to take out” at the local library and asking, “What were we looking for?”,

“that the fear we felt at fourteen
would grow weak, ice-crusted: would splinter

under the weight of hydrogen and helium, get smashed
to bits by the trash and debris of old space missions
floating around. The terrible fear that we wouldn’t love

– be loved – that we’d never quite be seen;
that our bodies would be pinched and probed and invaded,
flags stuck inside us in a race to claim our soft spaces.”

These teenagers fear not finding love, of settling with a life partner who returns love with violence and possession. Their hope is that these fears, drawn from what they seen happening around them, are not realised. These fears and the desire to be recognised and seen by any future partner shouldn’t be extraordinary, but, against a background of everyday sexism, they feel so.

The title poem comes from the second section, ‘Heavy Rain’ with a mother pushing a newborn in a buggy,

“No one can see me bleeding right here
on the street. They just say, ‘How’s the baby?’

as my spleen ruptures, my liver withers, twists itself
inside out. My gums shrivel up around my teeth,

which start dropping like rain. They form pearlescent
puddles for you to crunch through. The wave

surges up, up, up and breaks over the berth of my inner ear;
my eyes leak floodwaters, red with the bodies

of billions of crustaceans who meet a slow, wet end.
How ironic – to be a creature born of sea, dead by drowning.”

Sometimes called the fourth trimester, but mostly not spoken about, is the stage after delivery where a new mother is still bleeding after giving birth. However, she’s rendered invisible as the focus is on the new baby. Mothers are often feel as if they have to lose their former identity and just become ‘mother’ with even health visitors, midwives and doctors refering to her as ‘mum’ or ‘mother’ rather than using her name.

Later, with the baby grown and on the brink of adulthood, “Ladybirds”, considers how the mother/daughter relationship can fracture when a mother doesn’t understand what her daughter is trying to say,

“Some daughters come home from university
and tell their mothers about an abortion

– not theirs, not their not-baby – and the mothers say,
‘what a stupid thing to do.’ And they know, these daughters,

that they could never tell of their own not-babies,
if they did/didn’t have them. “

It’s not clear if the “stupid thing” is having an abortion or getting pregnant, but the mothers’ dismissive reaction tells the daughters not to tell, not to seek their mothers’ advice if they find themselves in that situation. As ever, blame lies on the daughters’ “stupidity” and never considers the man who got them pregnant. It won’t derail his studies if his girlfriend becomes pregnant. The daughters learn to keep secrets, separate from their mothers.

The final section, ‘Thunderstorms’ widens its focus and looks at lessons learnt. A TV channel specialising in programmes aimed at children features in “CBeebies has a lot to answer for” where a mother watching with a child develops a crush on a women presenter, which ends “I am in love/ with a woman who doesn’t know I exist,/ and sometimes I don’t know if I do.”

Later, “they say the ocean is on fire” takes the shape of half a child’s drawing of yacht, a tall triangular sail on top of a small bowl-shaped boat,

“another scar that won’t fade how can a calf cling to a mother
when the mother is harpooned how do the waves sink a dingy
how can our waves sink a dingy carrying twelve frightened
children how can we turn
them away at
our borders how does a wound heal at its borders
how does skin ravaged by words heal how clean
is your knife how swiftly can you run it from
your wrist to mine how can I stop you
leaving how did it already happen
how are there wildfires in
the arctic I don’t get
it at all please think
of the children “

There’s a double threat here: the distruption of becoming a refugee and the climate emergency, both of which have the poem’s speaker asking readers to consider what legacy we are leaving for children.

Victoria Richards has created a journey through girlhood to motherhood that invites readers to travel along though her humanity, humour, wry observations and recognisable scenarios. These lyrical poems want to share their stories and show what it is to be human. Their multi-layered approach rewards re-reading.

“You’ll need an umbrella for this” is available from V. 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.

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“Europe, Love Me Back” Rakhshan Rizwan (The Emma Press) – book review

Rakhshan Rizwan Europe, Love Me Back book cover

Rakhshan Rizwan was originally from Pakistan and has lived in Germany and the Netherlands before moving to the USA. The poems explore what it’s like not to belong, to be politely received but not fully welcomed and the imprint Europe has had on the writer. In “Bite” summer is in full swing,

“I can see how you hang close to your friends
all the beautiful sundresses swishing…….. and your tall
children by your side………. with their ice-creams
I can feel the lick of conversation on your tongues
history……… a wish-bone………. stuck in our throats
I am the most dressed person in the street
my skirt……… a deep green……… does not carry with the wind
a hijab tied into a summer turban will not toss in the wind”

While the Europeans switch to thin sundresses in light colours, hot sun opening pores on their skin, dusting them with freckles, the speaker, in a heavier green skirt and turban feels her difference. She is on the edges of conversations. Neighbours who’ve know each other for years, have a shared history, a shared set of cultural references which makes conversation between themselves easy. However, the effort of explaining their commonality means it’s easier not to bother, perhaps convincing themselves that the over-dressed stranger prefers to be alone. It’s too easy to see the differences than consider shared experiences: motherhood, womanhood, that the sun opens pores on every skin.

History and womanhood surface in “Half the Sin”, on reading a two-hundred-year-old record, where the speaker feels a, “rise in my chest, feel my breasts harden/ with milk, that peculiar ache of women’s bodies/ which do only half the sin/ but carry all the history”. The speaker doesn’t share the history of the women in the records, but she does share the experience of being a mother, a connection. Make-up forges another connection between women, and mothers and daughters, “Foundation in Rose Beige” considers foundation shades as a cover-all and to achieve desired shades, never the dark ones, only the ones that lighten skin or make it look brighter. In “Flaneuse”, a woman has a “lipstick that’s secretly a knife”.

Language can be a connection or a barrier, as illustrated in “A Man is speaking Urdu on the train and everyone is turning to look at him”, where a man, searching for a seat in a crowded train asks in Urdu and feels his language,

“in beads of perspiration, crawls
into his tightening chest and grips
his skin till he switches to broken English.

Everyone makes space for the new visitor
with his uneven gait; they remove their luggage
from empty seats, and beckon him to sit.”

He is ignored until he speaks English, albeit badly. Now, he has attempted the majority language, people are prepared to find him a seat. Whereas when he spoke his mothertongue which differed from the mothertongue of other passengers, they didn’t see a connection and didn’t feel they had to give him chance to sit with them.

Other poems remember Sophie Scholl, who was executed for high treason when found distributing anti-war leaflets on behalf of a resistance group known as White Rose in the 1940s. In another, the speaker feels for her four-year-old son who watches a group of children play, not understanding that he’s been excluded from a birthday party. The speaker fears his sense of rejection and being an outsider when he is able to understand.

The last poem “Seville”, considers a house,

“The separation of history into distinct floors,
as if this were possible to do with ourselves:
separate the Indian Lucknow from the Punjabi Lahore
and the Germanic European –
let them each rest a safe distance from each other.
In this quaint house, go up the steps
to feel more European,
come down the stairs
to feel more Arab,
and linger in between
to feel a bit of each.”

It queries perspectives. How politicians can look at a map and separate India and Pakistan, prevent Germany over-reaching, separate areas on a continent. But they can’t stop people moving or crossing borders. But each border crossing, or move from one floor to another, creates questions about identity. Does being on the European floor make someone European or it is solely about country of origin? Where do children fit if they’ve never been to their parents’ country of origin? Are they destined to spend their lives walking up and down the stairs, never quite finding a room that feels like them?

Rizwan deploys humour rather than ranting or complaining. She doesn’t name racism, but it’s clear that’s the source of the disconnections. “Europe Love Me Back” is a salty love letter, not entirely unrequited, but from a lover who didn’t feel seen. From a lover who felt they made all the right connections, sent the right signals, searched for commonalities, links, threads but attempted to hook-up with someone who only saw differences, reasons not to continue the affair.

“Europe Love Me Back” is available from The Emma 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.

“Anamnesis” Denise O’Hagan (Recent Work Press) – book review

Denise O’Hagan Anamnesis book cover

“Anamnesis” is an explorative, thoughtful collection of memory, not just as things remembered, but how understanding of what’s remembered changes within the context of hindsight and more detailed probing of things half-remembered or that were skimmed over without thought at the time. “Subtext” explains this better in looking at how flawed objects and things left under or behind heavier furniture create,

“The subtext of our nights and days. We need to
Work backwards, build on the fretwork of fact
To feel the passion in a pressed flower falling
From the leaves of a novel, the heavy pull of
Domesticity in a torn-off shopping-list, touch
Grief folded into a curl of hair in an envelope.”

Perfectly intact, polished things don’t hold memories. It’s the cracks, chips, something tucked into a book or filed away for later that become aide-memoires. A shopping list tells us what items were felt necessary and becomes a block from which a narrative of a household can be built. A flower is only pressed if someone needed to preserve it and keep the memory it represents alive. Hair is usually discarded and swept away so a kept hair in an envelope means the hair was purposely saved and brings to mind a mourning brooch or locket, keeping the memory of someone alive.

“The almost-child” questions if you grieve for someone you never met. A daughter is told by her mother that there was a “lost baby” before the daughter was born. A six-year-old puzzles over the word “lost”, then reasons,

“She’d had a heartbeat, then; she’d begun
Existing once, for a little while. She was a
Sliver of cells, a tadpole of budding organs,
Pressing towards definition. And then, something
Happened—a slip into oblivion, unfathomable and
Inexplicable. She never even had a name. She was
A shadow briefly cast, an echo reverberating, a
Ripple in time. She was an almost-child.”

A miscarriage, cause unknown as is often the case, but a loss before the baby was named. A sister that never was. Even so the daughter still feels a sense of grief for what might have been, picking up on her mother’s emotions. The dominant sense is curiosity for what was lost and what happened which comes from the reassurance of being told by her mother rather than a relative unintentionally mentioning the loss before checking the daughter knew or it was fine to mention it. The daughter gains her mother’s memories of loss.

This idea of “Taking on other people’s memories/ Slipping on the mantle of their lives/ Until they become part of us” is probed in “My husband’s grandfather, the jeweller”, with a visit to the shop,

“Amid gemstones on cushions of velvet,
And in my husband’s eyes
A kind of desperation
Until I saw him see, off to the right,
The curl of the old wrought-iron staircase
Up to what used to be the working area
Where repairs used to be carried out—
How many used to be’s—where
My husband’s grandfather, the jeweller,
Used to work.”

Similarly to the earlier poem “Subtext”, it’s not the polished jewellery that triggers memories, but the working area where jewellery was made. The shop floor’s glittering displays are unfamiliar but it’s the old staircase leading to the place where jewellery was repaired that holds memories of the grandfather. Those memories now shared with the grandson’s wife, who is now seeing the shop not as something impersonal or transactional but as part of the collective memory of the family she married into.

In “Waiting”, an adult daughter carefully brushes an elderly, ailing mother’s hair,

……………………………………..…………………My hands are the latest in a
long line of hands that have tended that hair, and here in this final
frame I recall what I never knew, the soft movement of a small
hairbrush over a baby’s head.”

The delicacy of pale, thin hair over fragile skin brings to mind brushing a baby’s hair, even though the adult daughter has never done this. Is it a memory of her mother attending her when both were much younger, but with the roles reversed?

The daughter becomes, “aware of something else emerging; I know that in tending my/ mother I am tending her spirit. She is neat, patient, waiting. I/ wait with her.” This is closer to the sense of anamnesis, something known within the soul.

The collection broadens out from family connections and remembrances. A family pet observes the family during lockdown, “Goldfish in a pandemic,” with the fish seeing,

“Amy’s eyelashes are wet as she watches me
Watching her; we have an understanding.
The others are trying: her mother, in a latent
Artistic impulse, took to painting me—
On a T-shirt of all things! But the rest
May as well hold up a mirror as stare
At me; for behind this new attentiveness
In the mosaic of their shrunken lives,
I know they see themselves in me!”

“I walk on seashells” is set in the late nineteenth century and gives voice to a woman’s escape from domestic violence,

“I gather my skirts, hold my head up high:
He bruised my body but not my mind,
My penurious family turned a blind eye,
Pray tell me, on whom could I rely?
My husband is seen as wealthy and kind—
But I’d rather the boarding house nearby!”

Divorce was not an option and it was a brave decision to leave with nothing, knowing destitution was the only way out. Her family disown her, not just because she’s a mouth they can’t afford to feed, but the stigma and disgrace attached to her. The title is a play on the idea of walking on eggshells, stepping cautiously around someone for fear of provoking a temper and uncertainty around someone’s reaction.

“Worrying about the lorikeets” appears to be about another unsuitable marriage between two people who are polar opposites, “He opts for Def Leppard to her Bach,” when they come across a dead bird,

“She saw in his upturned eyes the weight
Of its dumb pain—then it was that she
Remembered what she’d always known.”

His sorrow for the bird reminds his wife why she married him.

“Anamnesis” is a subtle, thought-provoking collection that explores memory both in terms of what’s remembered but also inherited memories and how memories accumulate. The poems are gentle but multi-layered, inviting readers to return and re-read. Available from Recent Work 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.