“Vital Signs” Amlanjyoti Goswami (Poetrywala) – book review

Amlanjyoti Goswami Vital Signs book cover

In this second collection, Amlanjyoti Goswami invites readers to look at familiar scenes with fresh eyes, to fully attend what’s happening in the present moment and take joy in the small things – a familiar meal, a boy with a set of balloons, tending a plant. “seeing it new” sets the tone,

“The year is flying out
But I am not ready to open the door. Not yet.

All quiet now.
Some make a clean break from the past.

Some look at it another way – the year begins at harvest. April.
At the festival of lights. November.

But that door is knocking. I hear a bell.
Wait, I shout, not time yet.

This zone between dawn and dusk.
Every breath is a birthday.”

There’s a sense of nervousness about the new year, not being ready to accept its arrival, which prompts contemplation about the significance of a new year and the possibility of fresh starts. Perhaps there’s still time to shift the date, this new start, to a day that already holds some significance that isn’t personal. Until the speaker reminds himself that every moment holds a celebration when we’re awake enough to notice it.

“Taste Collector” links foods with memory,

“Scientists will one day recover a place for all tastes in the tongue
Where is sour, where sweet, what is umami, where resides the spice
Route to the brain, to the cells where they preserve
Memories like pickles.
I will call everyone home for the perfect meal, a buffet of possibilities.
Like memory, hope and the granary, the options and servings
Will be unlimited. Baked with love. Made with attention,
That hidden ingredient lingering in my tongue
I cannot find a name for,
As I turn page after page after page
In that dictionary of memory. Call it what you like. It stays.
The one that will tide us through all the rough days.”

Food nurtures us. It is fuel but also loaded with social and emotional importance: a birthday meal, a celebration, a religious festival, favourite foods from childhood. On occasion, trying to recreate a perfect meal fails because each time we cook, we cook it differently whether to compensate for an unfound or out of season ingredient or because we measured ingredients by instinct instead of scales or cups. Or a recipe has been incorrectly remembered and the taste is wrong. The generalised labels for food – spice, baked, buffet, a perfect meal – invite the reader to picture their favoured spices, their idea of a perfect meal. However, taste is strongly linked with smell – when someone has a blocked nose, they complain food is bland because they can’t smell it – and it seemed odd that scent, aromas and smells were missing from the poem, giving it a two rather than three dimensional feel.

In “Thoughts of Paradise”, the poem’s speaker is watching a man climb on a roof and then climb higher, “soon he will reach the sun” and the poem ends,

“The sneaky feeling that it might be a flower
I passed by, when in a hurry the other day,
Or who knows, the balloons red blue and yellow

The kid got yesterday, for a birthday.”

It’s a lesson in turning focus from the bigger picture – a man trying to reach the sky – to the small details, birthday balloons. The balloons are in primary colours, inviting the colours to be mixed into a thousand possibilities. Big dreams start small, just like the longest journey starts with a single step. The traveller can focus step by step enjoying the journey as much as the destination or can solely focus getting to the destination, not being open to diversions and meanderings on the way. This big/little picture dichotomy is picked up again in “Art Lessons” where the speaker remembers an art teacher who instructed his pupils to look at a vase of flowers, even if the pupils didn’t draw them, they would learn about the flowers.

“I remembered him
While drawing a picture boat with my kid
Who knows what it is to make something.

Be patient, she says
Waters must swerve not swirl
The blue must hold.

I tell myself
It isn’t enough to paint the boat
One must also make it float.”

Here attention to detail for the sake of observation isn’t enough. Whether the water swerves or swirls seems to take the focus away from making a boat that works. The practical side of the father wants to hurry the child’s patience and turn the child’s attention to something more important. This seems to contradict the earlier advice to slow down and pay attention to details. It’s a turning away from art for art’s sake and wants to turn art into a craft, so it makes something useful.

The title poem starts “I haven’t lost faith/In the body” and ends,

“The body which fells us
And the body that tells us

Every morning: physician, heal thyself.
Tomorrow, in the supermarket chain, while buying essentials

I will bring a bottle of champagne
To this art of remaking – scar tissue, lost and found organ, grey matter.

I know this isn’t difficult to do, if I put my mind to it,
It is nothing I cannot master.”

It’s an exhortation to both take care of and celebrate what our bodies can do for us. We serve our bodies as much as they serve us. If we don’t do the maintenance, the engine won’t run.

One poem, “Difference”, considers race. The poem addresses a “you” who asks the narrator why he couldn’t “have a shorter name,/ Like John or Daniel”, then later,

“When I turned up at your door, the day
Your mother died
There were no words but silence kept us warm.
That hug beyond black and white, us and them.

We were looking for something to say,
But nothing made us say it.
The sadness spread its thin fingers, looking for a hand.
The hand would not go away for want of colour.”

A bereavement is a universal experience and one that can overcome artifical boundaries of skin colour, even if that boundary prevents an acquaintance becoming a friend. Grief is picked up again in “My Neighbour”, whose attendence to his garden suggests he’s recovering from grief.

“Who walks towards me, not seeing,
His white hair flowing, a beard growing longer with time.
He does not say anything
But his hands are in those plants, he fills them with care.

He remembers his mother, his brother.
He waters the plants one by one.”

The hair and beard suggest age and wisdom from experience. The man uses touch and tenderness, rather than speech, to communicate.

Throughout “Vital Signs”, Goswami implores readers to live in the present, using mindfulness to pay attention to what is happening in that moment and discover essential truths about ourselves and our environment. It doesn’t take huge gestures or a long list of goals to make a worthwhile life, just the grace and humility to respond to the immediate. There is no shame in an ordinary life. Goswami is determined to celebrate any and everything that makes life worthwhile.

“Vital Signs” is available from Poetrywala.

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

“The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin: Lilian Bowes Lyon and The East London Blitz”, Roger Mills‘ book features quotes from the reviews I wrote of Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“The Telling” Julia Webb (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Julia Webb The Telling book cover

“The Telling” holds a mirror up to family relationships, the good, the bad and the ugly of them, and the stories they generate. Can we trust stories handed down from previous generations? Who gets to tell these stories and does who is telling influence the listener’s reactions? Whose voices are dismissed, unheard? Are children’s voices more or less valid than adults’ voices? What happens when a child’s perspective differs from an adult’s? This is particularly pertinent in “Crash Site”, where the mother is a crashed plane,

“We never did find that black box
so it was always unclear exactly what had happened,
and each survivor told a different story.
But the wreckage was there for all to see –
seats and belongings scattered far and wide,
things broken open,
life jackets snagged on jagged branches.

Though our mother’s windows
had popped out with the pressure,
she sometimes talked affectionately about the plummet,
but swore she could remember nothing
of our other life, before take-off.
Our first memory was the screaming of metal
and the silence which came after.”

The missing black box seems to have been given the role of providing the truth since every survivor has a different version of what happened. However, the black box merely records facts, it doesn’t tell a story so, if it had been found, each survivor is at risk of interpreting those facts to fit their own story. So perhaps the answer lies in there not being one story but an almagam of many stories, which will never satisfy the original players. The mother’s affection for the plummet, is an illustration of how we can still feel connected to people who hurt us either because the hurt was rare and unintentional or because social conditioning keeps even dysfunctional families together.

That awkwardness of a changed relationship as a child becomes an adult but falls into the role of child around a parent is explored in the title poem where the mother is sobbing during a phone call to her adult daughter who lives too far away to get to her mother and in any case has to pick up her own child from school,

“and nothing I could do but stay on the phone
with the miles between us
eaten up with her grief and my misery
and the guilt we don’t speak of
and my father’s words piling up behind me
shoving me over the precipice –
you tell her, you tell her, I can’t face it
and me just a kid for a minute
but sucking myself back to adult
picking up the phone –
standing there, a rabbit in the headlights
inviting her grief to mow me down.”

The father’s shrugged off his responsibility onto the daughter, whom the mother is making feel like a child. Both of them are ignoring the impact of their actions on the daughter. Is it her place to be the adult her father couldn’t be? Is it fair of the mother to vent on someone also affected by the grevious news?

The importance of who tells a story and the consequences who the person who doesn’t are explored in “You hit her harder than you meant to” where one sister is punished for shoving the other, the first ‘she’ is the mother,

……………………………………….And, of course, she
didn’t want to hear your side of the story, because
there is no good reason to resort to violence. And, of
course, she told your friends what you had done when
they knocked for you for school, and they felt sorry for
your sister and turned their backs and walked ahead
with her. And she did those sneaky little glances over
her shoulder and that smirk that made you want to
knock the smile clean off her face. And then they sat
with her at lunch, gave you the silent treatment. And,
of course, you felt guilty, but the guilt was overtaken
by the hurt of the situation. And you still loved her
because she’s your sister,”

Readers don’t get to find out why the speaker hit her sister so the speaker’s story remains unheard, but has real consequences in punishment from her mother and friends snubbing her while the sister’s smirk suggests she’s enjoying the attention although she knows it’s not fairly won. The speaker knows lashing out was wrong, but hasn’t been allowed to tell of what led up to that moment. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to stop her loving her sister because of the family connection. The sisters get back together again, but never talk about the situation which suggests it has not been resolved and is in danger of flaring up in the future.

Families can be a source of joy too. In “In the hospital they pricked my bright new boy with pins”, a new mother struggling to breastfeed under the threat “that they would take him away/ and feed him a bottle”,

“and they let me try one final time
with the nurse tapping her foot
in the doorway bottle in hand
and a trainee midwife who arrived
with a cup of tea and a biscuit
to try and mend my broken face
it’s the ear she said watch his ear
when it moves you know he’s swallowing
and she sat with me as the day grew dark
and my little fish taught himself to swim.”

A kind act from the midwife achieves more than the previous threats from nurses who were too busy to blame the mother for not feeding her child, than to actually help her achieve that feeding. As if the fact that breastfeeding doesn’t just magically happen wasn’t part of their training. They were happy to regard the mother as a nuisance instead of recognising she needed assistance. But the midwife offered the mother tea and sympathy and then taught her how to know her son was feeding. Hopefully an approach that won’t be trained out of her. Small acts matter and can make a huge difference. So can treating a new mother as a human and not just a vessel for delivering a child, discarded in favour of a sole focus on the newborn.

“Women as collateral damage” explores lessons we pass on to girls that boys avoid,

“if I seem like someone else
it’s because I have my grandmother inside me
as well as my mother and my sister
I never knew when to stop talking
or how to let a man win an argument
I never learnt decorum
that girls should be seen and not heard
that intelligence is not attractive in a woman
I was cloudburst as a child
never a fluffy pink jumper
I was a pair of denim dungarees and a knot of opinions
they may have eventually let me climb the tree
but secretly they hoped I would fall.”

Long may the girl who is now a woman continue to be “a knot of opinions” and proof that being female doesn’t and shouldn’t stop you climbing trees (real or metaphorical).

The last poem brings readers back to the daughter/mother relationship, from “Remaking Mother”, where a model of wire, string, buttons, bottle lids, lollipop sticks, cardboard tubes, pins and pebbles comes to life as the daughter sings,

“She shuffles towards me and I can’t turn away.
I sing her name out: Carol, Carol.
The sunlight moves across the window
and lights up her face.”

“The Telling” reflects on family relationships and connections, how they are nutured or disrupted and who gets to tell their story and who gets silenced and the consequences of speech/silence. Julia Webb’s family bonds are complex, hurtful behaviour doesn’t lead to hate and respect isn’t automatically bestowed if someone is not acting respectfully. These eloquent poems pose questions a reader is invited to answer.

“The Telling” is available from Nine Arches 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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“Through a Grainy Landscape” Millicent Borges Accardi (New Meridian Arts) – book review

Millicent Borges Accardi Through a Grainy Landscape book cover

Millicent Borges Accardi explores her Portuguese-American heritage and experience in this collection, using lines from other Portuguese or Portuguese-American poets. The title is a quote from Tiago Araújo, “I’ve driven all night through a grainy landscape,/ on a motorway with dim and orangey lights.” The quote is suggestive of seeing things from a different perspective and using a little knowledge to make sense of them. The mood perhaps fearful, as it is in, “A Man Sleeps, the Skies Move” written from a line by Luis Quintais,

“We moved and were a day late
in reporting our new address,
so we are trying. There is the sky.
We save money in a jar that looks
like water, the glass dense and broken,
in the jar. At any rate, you are born
in America. You are OK. Please, be
an adult. I know you are in kindergarten
and want to pick roses for your teacher,
but, please, listen and listen and listen
for a moment, listen for your whole life.
There may come a day when we might
be away. Memorize your Auntie’s number.
Take care. Watch the rain clouds. Do the dishes.
Do not fall asleep without worry.”

The parents, fearful of the potential consequences of reporting their move a day late, urge their child to learn a relative’s telephone number in case the parents are taken away. There’s no suggestion that the parents will definitely be removed, but the fear is enough to fret and worry about keeping the child safe. Although done with good intentions, the child is learning to be fearful of something dreadful happening at a time when the child’s main concern should be which flowers to pick for a teacher. The mundanity of everyday chores, such as washing up, are darkened by the need to watch the weather, to be prepared for potential storms.

This intergenerational inheritance of fears is picked up again in “It was my Mother who Taught me to Fear”, where California,

“was a gifted promise for the melting
pot generation, goodbye to bend (bent, bent)
into shape. As the train car runs through
every state in the union, interwoven, interwoven
in a pattern called starting over,
in a safe place with a brand new method of
keeping, kept, kept. Where no one genuflected
on Sundays, kneel (knelt/kneeled, knelt/kneeled).
To recreate yourself from nothing is a wonderful thing.
Times were, you almost believed
it was possible.”

The repetitions give the poem the feeling of running over rails. The moving away is posited as a gift, something positive, a chance for reinvention. But it also means learning about and adapting to a new set of social conventions and being the outsider until you fit in, although fitting in doesn’t guarantee acceptance. It seems liberating, a chance to start afresh, but it only works if you can also leave the problems you moved away from behind. It offers a breathing space, not a solution.

Among the immigrant themed poems are some more personal, yet also universal themes. Here, in “Because You’re Really Tired of it”, a sick parent for whom “Everyone says get well soon and seems/ disappointed when you don’t or can’t” because the script states that wishing people well means they recover, however,

“It’s topsy-turvy where black is white
and the messy world is grey, all grey
and messy and there are weeks when
no one seems to care about the lost
wishes you used to mumble about,
about when you
could not see the sun for a whole year,
and you missed the sun every day and
missed the eclipse too. I’d like to see
the sun again. Hurry back. I’d like to
drink some rosé too. All around I walk
with my eyes closed, as if I can find my way.”

The (adult) child now has to care for the sick parent in a reversal of roles. The role of caring is all-absorbing, especially when casual visitors don’t see the deterioration or console themselves that the parent is recuperating. But the daughter knows this illness isn’t going away or getting better. The odd bad day is now becoming more frequent and gradually becomes every day. Weather becomes a motif, here it’s not sunny. There’s no drama of a storm or refreshing rain, but a lack of sun greying the outlook.

The inevitable grief pops up in unexpected moments. In “Your Native Landscape”,

“Bang, it happens. Even years later
back in America, you run past Clifton’s
or see the Dupar’s sign and the past
slams into the present, in new ways
that the future has yet to consider
or digest. Grief is like that,
it’s shrapnel under the skin working
a way out. A person born
in a specified place, aligned with a land
made whole because of birth,
whether subsequently existing there or not.”

When you think you have accommodated your bereavement and moved on, a trigger sends you back, opening the wound again.

The title poem explores its way “into a world where there are walls/ built across artificial boundaries,/ and families torn apart” and the daily negotiations in “The mid-line boundary between/ someone saying everything is gonna be/ OK and everything is over” as life continues oiled by courtesies and civility,

“But my heart also breaks. In truth, it hurts a lot
Because the heart knows what my
job is. The hurt is the pain above
it all, the others keep moving away, to form
new shapes, now, and when I want them
to stay close, they stick to me like glue.
Longing is the middle ground, when you have
distant connections. It’s such a hard place to be in.
The waiting and the hoping for a time
When you won’t wait any longer then, feeling lived,
a life guilty for that thought. Then, it all runs together
in time, like dirty rivers, seeking a new mouth.”

Finding your own community when you are an outsider is hard and made harder by not being close to the usual networks of support in the extended family, neighbours you grew up with, being able to rely on a childhood friend during a mid-life crisis. Moving on and reinventing yourself often means cutting off your roots and learning to sustain the plant you’ve become in shallower soil while others regard you as a weed, something grown outside the formal lines of the original flower bed, leaving you unsure as to whether you’re going to be left alone or cut down to size. Both the individual poem and collection explore that theme of how to maintain or keep in touch with the culture you belong to while settling. It questions how far compromises can go and whether those compromises are worth it. From the specific lens of Portuguese-Americans, it asks universal questions about the status of those regarded as outsiders.

“Through a Grainy Lens” is available from New Meridian Arts

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.

“Echoes” Alan Parry (Rare Swan Press) – book review

Alan Parry Echoes book cover

“Echoes” explores the after-effects of grief on memories, both on the memories of the departed and memories of the time when they were alive and how these might be shaped by the actions of the person while they were still alive or feelings towards that person after their death. The collection is shaped into three acts. The opening act is called “Diagnosis” and the poem from which the act takes its title ends (all the poems are right aligned),

“Dad arrived, unannounced.

In the yard, stood on a stepladder;
between nettled snarls of the hedge trimmer;

Your Granddad’s not well;
he doesn’t have long.

In the midst of an ordinary task, trimming the hedge, dad arrives with extraordinary news, which he says without any preamble or context or attempt to soften the blow. The son is big enough to manage a hedge trimmer but dad doesn’t think to offer some reassurance or acknowledge the son’s feelings about what he’s just been told. It’s a short, matter of fact delivery that doesn’t invite responses and suggests this isn’t a family that talks about feelings. This is echoed in “Recalibrate” where the observation of the widow comments, “nothing/ interrupted the steady flow of/ damson jam and knitted jumpers”. Grandmother’s busyness seems to be a coping mechanism, a means of reassuring herself that she is still useful and can still provide for others. “Shaving” returns to the father and son relationship as they stand side by side, “& staring into the frameless mirror/ we would scrape away our frothy beards”. A lack of frame on the mirror suggests a lack of boundaries, but the act of shaving is a silent one, each so absorbed or pretending to be absorbed in the business of shaving that, even with the mask of shaving cream removed, no one speaks. Feelings are bottled up.

The second act is “Sylvie”, presented as a prose monologue. She is described,

“Sylvie is a lady in her mid-eighties, and we find her sat in a Chesterfield armchair across from the television set which plays indistinctly.”

In the context of the pamphlet, it can be assumed she is also the widow of the dead grandfather. Her monologue begins with regrets about losing touch with friends, including her former best friend Joan when Sylvie said no to being maid of honour at Joan’s wedding, assuming Joan would understand why, but Joan stopped speaking to her instead. Joan has now passed away and Sylvie turns her attention to Joan’s son, Elvis,

“I mean you get a feeling about some people don’t you? And Elvis, well, he’d never hurt a fly. His mam kicked him out. But she can’t have changed her will because he got the house, and her money when she had that bleed. Well, it was his dad’s really. It was him that worked. Either way, he doesn’t need to be coming in here with his hand out anymore. Shame really. I quite enjoyed the company. But the drink’s got him now, it won’t be long. You watch, he’ll be gone before me.”

If Sylvie also either never worked or gave up working when she married, as women of her era were expected to, the snipe at Joan not really owning her house and money because they were her husband’s seems to have been done with no self-awareness. However, her implication is that Elvis picked up his mother’s lazy ways. It also seems as if Sylvie’s been easing her guilt at falling out with Joan by slipping her son money that his mother won’t give him by letting him do odd jobs for which Sylvie pays him. She won’t be doing that anymore now he’s inherited a house and money. Her disapproval of Joan hasn’t gone away completely, Sylvie’s now decided Elvis’s alcoholism, which is was probably what prompted Joan to throw him out of the family home, means he’ll drink himself to death before Sylvie dies. Readers are left feeling all this might have been solved if Sylvie and Joan had been prepared to apologise and make-up after the misunderstanding about being a maid of honour. Their grievance affected the next generation: Sylvie and Joan could have worked together to stop Elvis’s drinking habit, instead, Sylvie undermined Joan’s efforts by giving Elvis money.

She picks up a photograph of her late husband,

“Forty-two years we had, my love. You’re etched onto my corneas. We didn’t quite make our sapphire which was a shame. Oh, but your voice, that’ll never leave me. You know the boys on our side all sound just like you. So, I never knew who it would be when they called. Only, our Ged called the most. That’s stopped since he’s gone back to work. Shame.”

It seems her sons stopped making the effort to contact her. However, it does sound one-sided: she complains the sons don’t call, she doesn’t say anything about her calling them. There’s no acknowledgement that communication works two ways and if only one side is making all the effort, it tends to drop away. Readers can see the origins of the son/grandson’s largely uncommuicative relationship.

The monologue continues about family and draws to a close,

“Now I don’t feel the need to open the curtains even. I can still hear when people are passing if I turn my ears on, but I figured if they don’t want to see me, I couldn’t be bloody doing with seeing them waltzing past.

“Sometimes I get out as far as the corner. You know if I run out of bits and bobs, but Raymond won’t last much longer. Not now the Sainsbury’s has opened on the high street, and I can’t walk that far. I’ll be lost then. Who am I kidding? I’m flaming lost now. Donald had been there all night when I found him. And you, you’d been lying in the garden for hours before that lass from next door spotted you from her bedroom window. Oh, I’m sorry my love. I wonder how long it will be before anybody finds me.”

Sylvie’s quick to call out strangers for neglecting to notice her, but then details two instances where it’s not clear why she neglected Donald who’d “been there all night” or her late husband who’d had a fall in the garden but the first person to notice wasn’t Sylvie but a neighbour who happened to look out of her window. She apologises, but it seems to be from a place of self-pity as she’s still thinking about how long it would be before anyone notices her death. Yet she doesn’t call her sons or open the curtains so people can check on her.

The final act, “Another Place”, is a series of poems (also right aligned) from Sylvie’s grandson looking back at his boyhood, the school summer break spend making football goals from whatever could be found. “Banana Bread” served in a village cafe triggers memories of the wedding,

“all the Newquay niteries
spin the same Beach Boys records
we danced to – but Newquay will never
be California – it’s too honest

the day’s photographs are
curled in the keepsake box
beneath our bed –
the only truth we have”

The photographs record the day and are seen as more accurate than memory. However, they are tucked away under the bed, not put on display and presumably, not talked about.

The final poem, “Removal” has sinister imagery, wax “grown cold & hardened”, “blood on the floor – dry like bones”, “a net of rotten oranges”, a son “checking pillboxes”, a man discovers the son’s presence and yells for the police,

“i explain
i’m the son –
he fingers a photograph of her, under laburnums – sun bouncing off
her teeth –
blows blossom kisses & leaves,

brown envelopes & floor scratched red
half-way suicide –
i refuse to cry”

Brown envelopes usually contain bills or invoices, typically utilities, so the man has not been dealing with them. There’s a strong sense of neglect, with his wife passed away, the man has not been coping, although probably just doing enough to not attract intervention from social workers. The son is business-like, burying his emotions. Again the father and son don’t talk about the wife in the photograph, the neglected admin and housework or what they think.

“Echoes” explores the aftermath of bereavement and the effects of not exploring or acknowledging feelings and emotions passed down the generations. The poems are sketches, allowing readers to complete the details and fill out the picture from carefully judged images.

“Echoes” is available from Rare Swans 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.

“Interdimensional Traveller” DL Williams (Burning Eye) – book review

DL Williams Interdimensional Traveller book cover

DL Williams’s “Interdimensional Traveller” explores dimensions, particularly the two dimensional world of poems on a page and the three dimensional world of sign language. There is a QR code link to the YouTube channel where the poems appear in BSL (eventually all of them will) and also QR codes with some of the poems that links to the individual poem. This is not done in a binary spirit, where sign language is put in competition with English, but as a translator and interpreter, building links between these dimensions. An early poem, “Bilingual Poet’s Dilemma”, will be as familiar to translators as to sign language interpreters,

“What’s beautiful in a Sign
is boring in a line;
what’s pretty in a line
is confusing in Sign,
and if the twain should meet,
wouldn’t that be a feat?
So tell me, please,
which language should I use?
Which one should I choose?”

British Sign Language is not English in signs, or Sign Supported English, but a language in its own right with grammar and sentence structures that differ from English. Sign language is not universal, each language has its own version. In languages, words rarely stand alone with the same meaning each time, but pick up meaning according to the context used. A word such as ‘beacon’ may mean light, warning or hope and an interpreter has to judge whether to only translate ‘beacon’ as light or whether one of the other meanings may be appropriate. A phrase in sign language that looks like an elegantly choreographed ballet for hands, can be rendered simplistic and boring on a page. A sentence that starts in the present tense and moves into the past tense to signify a memory, is tricky to render in BSL. These issues throw up dilemmas for interpreters. However, if you are bilingual and can move back and forth between languages, how would you choose one over the other? If decide to use the best language for the poem, how will an audience react if some of your poems are in BSL and others in English? How can you interpret for the part of the monolingual audience who need interpretations?

“Isn’t this Art?” explores different types of art,

“Poetry of pen and page,
words picked with the greatest care.
Obsessing down to a comma;
to put something here or there.

Is this art?

Tapestries painstakingly woven,
thread upon thread upon thread,
until someone goes blind or mad
and all the subjects dead.

Is this art?

And what of signs of hands?
Pictures weaved in air,
beguiling an audience entranced
a poet’s imagination shared.

Isn’t this art?”

The refrain is different in the final line. Is a language an art or a means of communication? A poem is considered art, a selection or curating of the best words to convey what the poem says. A tapestry is considered art because it depicts something beautifully and takes work. Sign language combines words and pictures but there’s a doubt, can it be considered art?

Not all the poems are about BSL. DL Williams is a Doctor Who fan, and explains the origins of this in “Captivated By…” which could have the alternative title, ‘how I became a young Whovian’,

“I saw a beacon of light.
I was a young thing, strolling past the TV,
when I saw…
A blue box bouncing side to side
in a swirling vortex.
Ooh, looks interesting… nah.
What’s that?
It has subtitles!
I’m drawn in…”

The importance of subtitles and how they make TV programmes, films and social media videos accessible. It wasn’t the story or characters that initially drew the child into watching, but the programme’s accessibility. Naturally, it also helps when subtitles are done well. Anyone who has watched the closed captions (which only capture speech; subtitles describe non-speech sound effects as well) on video conferencing software will know that accuracy has a lot to be desired. It is also a lot of cognitive labour to switch from watching the speaker, to the subtitles/captions and back to the speaker to try and interpret body language or lipread for context clues so the words make sense. It can be draining, because it’s usually unseen and unacknowledged labour.

There are also poems about cats. “My Cat” is about finding a replacement for a much-loved pet and eyeing up potential replacements in a rescue centre when the speaker sees a kitten,

“Our eyes met.
Beautiful! White fur all over! Aww.
No, too much, too hyper, too young too…

What’s that?

It’s deaf?

That’s my cat.”

In performance, DL usually renders “My Cat” in BSL. So the next poem, “The Devil Cat”, is a logical partnership and in the collection the two poems are on facing pages,

“To the bemused (non-signing) audience member
watching a heartfelt rendition of ‘My Cat’ in BSL,
my ears were my horns;
my teeth were extra sharp,
as sharp as my pitchfork claws.
My tail was a mark of the devil;
I was the devil cat.”

It illustrates the “Bilingual Poet’s Dilemma”. Should a poem conceived in BSL be delivered in English first or as the poet intended first?

The title poem takes readers back to Doctor Who (TARDIS is an acryonym: time and relative dimensions in space),

“I have no TARDIS,
yet I traverse dimensions.

2D planes of paper and words,
3D spheres of movement and signs,
the fourth dimension
of the time
it takes to move a hand
from here

…………………to there.
Endless zooms warping 3D
into 2D.
Unfolding focal fatigue.

In “Interdimensional Traveller” DL Williams has captured the tightrope of considerations bilingual poets weave into the fabric of poems, which is the best language for this particular poem, what happens if I perform in one and not the other, how do I manage poems that were conceived in one and now need interpreting into the other? It also throws down the gauntlet to entrenched ableist views, asking that accessibility is not some afterthought or poorly conceived add-on but built in from the source of an idea or performance. DL approaches these themes with compassion, this isn’t a rant or polemic, but questions and shows how it can be done. The book itself is three dimensional, it’s focus isn’t just about deaf issues and identity but also a love of cats and “Doctor Who”. It speaks to the heart as well as intellect.

“Interdimensional Traveller” is available from Burning Eye Press.

BSL interpretations are available on DL Williams’s YouTube Channel.

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.

“Holy Things” Jay Rafferty (The Broken Spine) – book review

Jay Rafferty Holy Things cover

“Holy Things” comprises confessional poems about relics, other items held with reverence, and bodies with a self-deprecating sense of humour. The poems don’t go the circular route but get straight to the point. In “Goddamn”, a light bulb blows,

“You unscrew
the supernova.
Mind the black
hole webs.
They’re torture
in your hair.
There, now
don’t drop—

Spores of
It’s a nightmare
trying to get
celestial crumbs
out of the
good rug.”

A simple task to replace the bulb spotlights other areas of neglect: the ceiling cobwebs, the dust falling from the fixture or lightshade, the mess on the rug that now needs cleaning. Might it have been better to have left the bulb alone? A familiar scene where an improvement in one area, makes others look shabby in comparison and suddenly you’re spring cleaning the entire house. It’s also a consequence of busyness as the home owners aren’t paying attention and fail to notice and accumulation of dust or justify doing nothing by persuading themselves it’s not that bad, it can be lived with.

The sequence, “The Seven Sacraments of Love”, is more obviously tied to faith. Part II “Communion” starts,

“It’s a practice all
about the skin,
the body, the flesh,
even the blood
if you’re feeling keen
and have no qualms
about the time of the month.”

Then the poem draws back to reassure readers it’s about communication, verbal and non-verbal and ends,

“The act, the unspeakable
that the flesh gives up without
thought or fault,
when one sees, reads, feels,
projects, re-reads, reiterates
the signs are unmistakable
but easily missed. There is,
of course, an infallible failsafe
counter, a simple, steadfast
salve, a fix-all phrase,
like a prayer:
I love you.”

A prayer is a means of communication, whether individual or repeating something learnt by rote. It offers the person saying the prayer comfort, expresses good intentions, and often is a plea for forgiveness. In a relationship, after an argument, a mistake, saying “I love you” does a similar job. It does imply the question, how many times can this prayerful phrase can work before the listener suspects the words are said to dispell justified anger and keep the peace but actually the intent to change or put right what went wrong is lacking.

False idols are the subject of “Two roads diverged”, a deliberate take on Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”, the opening stanza implies the road less travelled is busy with people boasting about taking the harder route and continues,

“Look what they did to the
dirt track that Frost traipsed.
They capitalised Thoreau,
exploited Emerson,
they made a water park
out of Walden Pond,
a Disney World out of
the Yellow Wood.

The road less travelled
is a misnomer. I’ll take
the other, if it’s all the
same to you. At
least it’s paved.”

The speaker opts for the tried and tested route, already smoothed and paved by previous travellers. It may be less virtuous, less likely to get social media likes, but if your focus is getting to your destination rather than being seen to be travelling there, it’s more effective.

“Just in Case” is about a prayer card,

“I have never read it.
My mother bought it,
to protect me, like a petition to some
household god. It’s all very Roman
Catholic really.

This card is one of the least
holy things I’ve ever owned.
As sacred as that autographed photo of Elvis
your uncle keeps in the den or
the Pokémon cards we used to squabble
over as children. A shiny Charizard would do me
as much good as the good Padre’s blessing,
I should think.”

Yet the speaker still keeps the card in his wallet, which contains the cash and bank cards necessary to the capitalist world. The phrase “never read it” is repeated, it’s “A half-assed hope of/ a thrice-lapsed Catholic” that keeping it safe might keep him safe or at least relatively unscathed.

The speaker’s approach to faith is explored in “The hill I will die on” which ends,

“Faith is a smoke-and-mirror blessing
I have not been cursed with. I’ll take
a tactile truth to a fact-less faith.
Give me a book to a Kindle, a text
not a phone call. I abhor prayers for the
sick or flowers for the dead.
To hell with metaphors.
The hill I will die on
is just a mound of earth.”

Phone calls are fleeting things and what’s said during a call can be easily forgotten. A text leaves an electronic trail. Books on electronic devices aren’t owned either, they are subscription services: the user buys the right to read, not to own. Prayers show intention but not necessarily action. Flowers fade. But a mound of earth is solid, something to depend on.

In “Holy Things” Jay Rafferty has created a wry look at how faith impacts on life, even if you’re a lapsed believer. A prayer can be a blessing or an impediment or a superstitious talisman against harm. Faith can enhance a life or send it down the wrong track. These brief poems flicker like a votive candle: the flame draws attention but it sits on a solid body, offering space for meditative thought.

“Holy Things” is available from The Broken Spine.

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

“I Call Upon the Witches” Chloe Hanks (Sunday Mornings at the River) – book review

Chloe Hanks I Call Upon the Witches book cover

“I Call Upon the Witches” was inspired by the study of the evolution of witches in literature and the archetypes they represent. Witches are no longer suspect or evil characters who dabble in herbs, fly on broomsticks and have an ability to shapeshift, but are beginning to be recognised as legitimate herbal practitioners, attempting to plug the often woman-shaped gaps in patriarchal medicine. It starts with “A Spell to Grow a Witch” with instructions the pumpkin seeds should be “deprived of sunlight for 24 hours or more”,

“When moonlight steals the sky so black
we grow witches from pumpkin seeds;
the devil takes his spirits back
when moonlight steals the sky so black.
A witch’s magic keeps on track,
with no refrain from wicked deeds—
when moonlight steals the sky so black
we grow witches from pumpkin seeds.”

A charming triolet. However, the message is that witches are grown from everyday objects (pumpkin seeds) and on the night when spirits roam, it is the witches’ magic that ensures the (bad) spirits return to the devil. The witches here are cast as protectors, grown from the society that needs to ward off evil spirits, yet not allowed to enter the society they protect, they are kept in and work in the dark.

“Blood Letting” is inspired by Elizabeth Southerns, known as Demdike, a key figure in the Pendle witch trials. Demdike confessed to witchcraft and was hanged,

“like an echo of what was
to come, what happenstance
would bring forth these
women to me like mothers.

These are not my women
pressed into their finery,
sugared lips and protestant
hips. No—

these are my women—
clawing back their femininity
with a clay doll, shaped to
an enemy.”

The poem’s speaker rejects the respectable woman in fine dresses, the “sugared lips” suggesting they sweetened their words, said the right thing to escape charges of witchcraft and may even have pointed at women like Demdike. Women who use piousness as proof of acceptable morals. The speaker sides with those facing charges of witchcraft, who lean into their knowledge passed down through a matriarchal line.

Albrecht Durer’s engraving of witches is examined in “The Four Witches”, where “his” refers to the devil,

“Familiars creep to the scene
as rose petals form fleeting ghosts—
the four witches stand hand in hand
to meet the one to be his host.

The witches suckle hungry imps –
they settle to a mortal frame,
while devils gift the magic to
both witches and puckles the same.

Black roses bloom to bring the thorn;
but only once the curse is sworn.”

Fairy tale elements creep in, some of which aren’t in the original engraving, rose petals turning to ghosts and it’s only when the curse is finalised that the roses bloom. The curse is not spelt out but the imagery is maternal.

There are few spells – they are alluded to or hinted at, but there is a “Love Potion”, a villanelle that ends,

“You sacrifice your bones to bake her bread
and let her leave your haven much too soon,
if only you could see inside her head.

She would prefer to love devils instead;
she may not always come back home to you.
Only a fool would take a witch to bed—
if only you could see inside her head.”

The man is infatuated but not in control. The witch uses him and comes and goes as she pleases. He believes himself to be in love with a woman he doesn’t know or bother to get to know, thinking his presence is enough. The refrain is framed as a warning against witches but it is also a warning against mistaking lust or romantic love for the enduring love which keeps a common law marriage together.

So far the poems have been timeless, aping a fairy tale quality that suggests these are old stories of historical times. “The Night Witches”, however has a Second World War setting, within living memory, and was the nickname given to a 588th Night Bomber Regiment, all female,

“The noise, the nightmarish gore
of a sky full of witches. Night witches;
bringers of fire and blood.

Gifts from the moon—
fear the night-time glow; for
it burns bright orange and screams.

Eclipsing the glow with a
jagged silhouette, they forge monsters
from their great iron broomsticks.”

These aren’t passive women waiting rescue, but warrior women entering battle. The “forge monsters/ from their great iron broomsticks” could be read two ways. The monsters could be the bombs dropped from their planes or could be read as the witches’ awareness that in dropping bombs they reinforce their enemy’s position and provoke further battles. Either way, the witches are in for the long haul. They know it takes more than one battle to win a war.

The final poem, “Oracle” stays with a witch the night before she is due to be hanged, “The witch is haunted by a peculiar ghost,/ lurking in shadows, reflecting in mirrors;” but she sees her mortal death as a moment of transition,

“There is a loneliness in mortality, in the knowing
that invisible strings can both draw us together
and pull us apart.

And as the sun is set to rise, the witch is void
of this devilish tie; she wears her necklace
of rope with pride. Such titles removed,
she begins a new life.”

Death here is a new chapter, not an end. Her faith allows her to approach her hanging with dignity and courage.

“I Call Upon the Witches” is an entertaining ride through tropes and literary archetypes. Chloe Hanks doesn’t let her desire to reclaim witches as powerful, independent, knowledgable women bury the negative aspects: the warriors of the Second World War or a woman ensnaring a man. That’s the point: these are women, not angels or devils, not two dimensional black-clad hags, but full-bodied, complex characters capable of fault and still worthy of investigation and celebration.

“I Call Upon the Witches” is available via Sunday Mornings at the River 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.

“Rookie: Selected Poems” Caroline Bird (Carcanet) – book review

Caroline Bird Rookie book cover

“Rookie” selects poems from Caroline Bird’s previous six collections, “Looking Through Letterboxes” (2002), “Trouble Came to the Turnip” (2006), “Watering Can” (2009), “The Hat-stand Union” (2012), “In these days of Prohibition” (2017) and “The Air Year” (2020). The last won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and she’s previously been shortlisted for The Polari Prize, the Costa Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, Ted Hughes Award, Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and has won an Eric Gregory Award and twice won the Foyle Young Poets Award and Dylan Thomas Prize. Bird was one of the five official poets at the 2012 London Olympics. The selections run chronologically.

Bird was still a teenager when “Looking Through Letterboxes” was published so understandably it looks at those awkward teenage years, when no longer a child but not yet an adult. “I know this because you told me” looks at some of the things parents tell children, particularly to gain compliance,

“You are not joking and only want to warn me. You are a good parent
and tell me life as it is, I know this because you told me.
If I fall in love at seventeen then it will not last.
If I eat too much I will explode and muck up your new shirt.

If I burp then I will blow myself inside out. The world
is quite a strange place and everyone is strange except you.
I know this because you told me.
If I take money from your wallet, it is called crime,

if you take money from my piggy bank, it is called borrowing.
If I never have a bath I will smell and people won’t walk
on the same side of the street as me,
but if I do then I’ll be sucked down the plughole. Some women shave.

I know this because you told me. The banister is for holding,
not for sliding down and you were never rude to your parents.
I will break my neck if I jump again from the top of these stairs
and no, I should not do it anyway.”

Already the speaker is testing the parent and knows some of the things she’s been told don’t add up. She knows she didn’t break her neck when she jumped down the stairs so naturally still doesn’t believe she will if she does it again despite her parent’s insistence at a hypothetical outcome. The parent has not yet recognised the child is no longer a child who believes everything a parent says and new strategies are needed.

Growing-up continues into “Trouble Came to the Turnip” which takes in operas, first loves, the trouble with lovers, that strange time of taking responsibility for one’s own life whether you feel ready to or not. Dolls at face value are childish things, playing with them is something to grow out of, but they make a useful metaphor for exploring how relationships might work. In “Relationship Dolls”, the speaker wants

“Dolls that won’t be patronised. Dolls
with revolving heads, dolls that will sit
on your pillow and watch you while you sleep.
Why would you buy such a doll?
Why spend your money, all your money,
on a doll like this? A doll that will drink
your gin, forbid you to touch other dolls,
a doll that will insist upon marriage,
a doll you can rest in the crook of your arm,
a lover you can legally drown.”

The plural “dolls” become singular as the speaker whittles down her relationship options to thinking about one person who takes money and effort and sharing and will want an exclusive relationship. The speaker is not ready for commitment. The unspoken question is how do you know this is the right person?

“Watering Can” is full of breezy, seemingly improbable stories. In “Last Tuesday”, a lost, perfect day is remembered and sought after as new days don’t fit the ideal,

“Hip counsellors in retro tweed jackets keep
telling me to look ahead. There’ll be other Tuesdays
to enjoy, they say, new Tuesday pastures. It’s a lie.
I found my Tuesday in someone else’s bed.
Its chops were caked in velvet gel and its voice
had corrupted. It pretended to be a Saturday
but I could see myself reflected in its eyes, a younger
me, tooting the breeze with a plastic trombone.
‘I’m sorry,’ said my Tuesday, pulling its hand out
of a woman, ‘I didn’t mean to let you down but
I couldn’t stay perfect forever, you were suffocating me.
Even sacred memories need to get their rocks off.’”

The perfect days knows the only way to get the speaker to move on is to sully the memory and remind her that memory is selective, remembering something as perfect when it wasn’t. It’s not just days that are looked back on with nostalgia, but also people and relationships. Getting back with an ex looks tempting when all you focus on is what worked in a relationship and why you split is deliberately forgotten or overlooked.

More stories follow in “The Hat-stand Union”. In “There Once was a Boy Named Bosh” which sounds like the opening to a lyric but here is a longer poem about a boy “who had a Shallow family”,

“Brother Shallow was all-the-way dead
and where’s his money? The Shallow girls
found Bosh mean and sexy when he got
blind with self-loathing. Mummy Shallow
said, ‘Why can’t you play football?’ because
she only cared about external achievements
and Daddy Shallow polished himself in his
dark Mercedes. ‘It’s like they are zombies,’
Bosh thought, ‘Who don’t have any blood:
eating their McDonald’s onion rings, telling
me they’re hurting too,’ so Bosh started
drinking lots and lots of beer and whisky
like an adult does when he loses something
big like a poker game or a piece of paper
with a number on it. ‘My Shallow family
are so Shallow,’ Bosh said, ‘they probably
wouldn’t notice if I was hung too’ and
Bosh was wrong about this, but Bosh put
a dressing gown cord round his neck as
Daddy Shallow watched American Beauty
downstairs and Sister Shallow swallowed
leeches in her bedroom to get skinny and
Mummy Shallow wrote in her pink leather diary.”

A dysfunctional family where the mother views her children as trophies to show off, taking the credit for their achievements. The father polishing his car so he can admire his reflection while the interior is darkened isn’t going to look beyond the surface to the mess underneath. Bosh’s “zombies” behave more like vampires. The film “American Beauty” is about a seemingly-perfect family who don’t notice they are falling apart with two parents barely talking to each other and seeking consolation elsewhere. Pink is not a natural colour for leather, so the mother’s diary is unlikely to be truthful.

So far, there’s also been a sense of evasion in “Rookie”. The poems are fun and use humour to make serious points but there’s a sense they are about other people and look outwards rather than inwards. This is picked up in “In these days of Prohibition” where a counsellor, in “A Surreal Joke”, poses a question,

“My assigned counsellor told me I used
poetry to hide from myself, unhook
the ballast from my life; a floating ruse
of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook.
I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try
to write the simple truth? I said, why?”

The comic is not yet ready to become introspective. That’s a good thing though for the poems, although hints of more serious themes creep in, “Stephanie” is hospitalised,

“She wrote me a ten-page love letter in red ink.
The nurses tried to lull my guilt: ‘If an alcoholic
screams for a whiskey, it’s not the bartender’s fault
if he pours.’ I didn’t like being compared to booze,
like I could’ve been anyone – that acne-scarred chef

who grinned at her once, the mouthy car-washer
at the NA meeting, the pin-eyed new boy – like it was
just because I was her roomie and she was a nympho
and nothing to do with real electricity or Stephanie
somehow spying the part worth saving in me.”

There’s the now familiar outpouring of images, the speaker downplaying her relationship with the subject until she objects to the nurses telling her that Stephanie’s problems aren’t her fault. Then readers learn the speaker and Stephanie are roomates and underneath Stephanie’s emptiness and seeking to fill it with one night stands or drugs, she’s the first person to see the speaker for who she really is. And the speaker stops speaking as if the revelation exposes her too much.

“The Air Year” turns its focus to love, not sloppy sentimental stuff. Bird is too controled, too fond of the surreal for that and that’s a good thing. In “The Insurmountables” a man makes a talisman with a butterfly which he burns,

“as the wings caught fire
and fire became flight and the dead
butterfly translated into smoke
and something was released back into the wild

and untrained air where love is born
before we take it home.”

Love here seems random, something drawn in by chance. But it’s also a connection, even if we don’t know what formed the initial tug. The collection’s title poem, addressess someone who thinks she knows what she’s doing,

“Thousands of people have had to replace
their doors, at much expense, after you
battered theirs to bits with a hammer
believing that was the correct way
to enter a room. You’ve been pouring pints
over your head. Playing card games with a pack
of stones. Everyone’s been so confused
by you: opening a bottle of wine with a cutlass,
lying on the floor of buses, talking to
babies in a terrifyingly loud voice.
All the while nodding to yourself like
‘Yeah, this is how it’s done.’
Planting daffodils in a bucket of milk.”

This is not a case of imposter syndrome or a meek, eager to learn person but someone convinced they know how to do things, unaware that they are disastrously wrong. Or perhaps not ready to face the consequences and own up to mistakes. Their brashness hiding insecurities. After all the aim is to connect, to join people, to nurture plants even if the method is wrong. There’s a refusal to tip-toe around authority, to follow instructions or learn how to do things with deference. Perhaps there’s also a sneaking admiration from the speaker, who is not saying ‘do it this way’ but listing the rookie’s rebellious acts. Perhaps the speaker is not addressing someone else but herself.

“Rookie” is a carefully curated selected, showing Bird’s progression from teenage poet to mature adult. Underneath the successful humour, serious points are made about finding one’s place in life and dealing with the external highs and lows along with the aspects of your own personality you don’t want to put under a spotlight, but you also know if it weren’t working overtime backstage, the bits of you that you’re happy to put centre stage wouldn’t exist. It’s a great introduction to Bird’s work which is packed full of substance.

“Rookie: Selected Poems” is available from Carcanet.

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.

“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” Sarah James (Verve Press) – book review

Sarah James Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic book cover

Sarah James was diagnosed with type one diabetes at the age of six. With treatment, those with the condition can live a ‘normal’ life but treatment involves insulin injections and near-constant monitoring of blood glucose levels. Dangerously low levels can trigger confusion, drowiness or a fit. High levels can cause a bild-up of ketones and life-threatening diabetic ketoacidosis. It can also lead to gangrene build-up which might need amputations, loss of sight, kidney disease or increase risks of a stroke or heart attacks. Technology helps, but it’s not a cure. Media stories frequently don’t differentiate between types 1 and 2 (the latter may be managed through diet rather than insulin injections and is often linked unfairly to obesity). Unsolicited, often ignorant, advice is unhelpful. “Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is an exploration of life impacted by diabetes. It starts with the diagnoses in “Diagnoses” a six-year-old reacts,

“I can’t yet string together the letters and sounds of this oddness. I will come to understand it as a list of sweet things I should never eat. I will learn to measure ‘better’ in glass syringes, injecting oranges and then my leg. I will will my skin numb.”

A child who struggles with the word ‘diabetes’ has to learn how to inject herself with insulin and learn which foods she can’t eat. Although teachers and school dinner supervisors can be told a child is diabetic, they are not experts and will not necessarily know which foods are off limits or the importance of allowing snacks and regular eating times. The child has to become her own expert and advocate. And that’s before the reactions of other children and parents are taken into account.

A hypo is a dangerously low blood sugar level which can happen at night when sweats, shakes and nightmares try to act as alerts. Glucose is the treatment but care must be taken not to over do it because too high glucose levels also cause problems. In “Diabetes’ unWell of Night Hypos”,

nightmares chase me…………….me-chase nightmares
I have to wake up……………up-wake to ‘have I?’
….to escape the real…………..reel the escape to…
…..monster – diabetes;……..diabetes-monster!
……….I eat glucose…………glucose-eat, I
…………..to survive, try…try survive too
…………….to thank the nightmares
………………for keeping me alive


sweat shake sweat shake sweat shake
hypohypohypo help! hypohypohypoh
wakeup! wakeup! wakeup! wake up!!!”

The lanuage takes shape on the page, part two is an arrow-shape, two strands verbal mirror images of each other until the last two lines, “to thank the nightmares/ for keeping me alive”. The nightmares are dream signals to wake-up to boost glucose levels. They are terrifying, as are hypos, so sleep offers no respite from the constant management of diabetes and its complications. “wakeup!” is ambigious: it is a command to wake from the nightmare and deal with the hypo, but also an indicator of the consequence of not waking, a slip into a diabetic coma or worse.

“Women Not to Be” explores fairy tales and the child’s brief respite into a seemingly-normal life. The girl is growing up and rejects Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and considers a matryoshka,

“The tiny figure in the middle
is so small, I drop her every time I look
for a heart, purpose or deeper meaning.

No. I mould myself with words. Stuck
and re-stuck, each sticky layer of mâché
hardens to a mish-mashed enamel

so thick that even I can’t read me.
I try not to wonder what happens
to fairy-tale princesses who can’t feel

the pea buried beneath their mattress.”

The pea beneath the mattresses was a test to see if the girl was a real princess. In the story, she passes the test. In real life, who would pass such a test?

There are the inevitable “Questions not to ask a diabetic”,

“It’s because you’re fat, right?

No, not at all with type one diabetes.
My body attacked itself after an illness
triggered some genetic factors.

Why do you store your mobile in your bra?

It’s an insulin pump, not a phone,
attached to me by a cannula and thin tubing.”

The questions say more about the ignorance of the questioner than the diabetic. It’s true that no one bothers to learn about chronic illnesses or conditions unless they are or know someone who is chronically ill. But it shouldn’t be down to the diabetic to educate you. Managing the illness is a full-time job without the burden of others’ ignorance. One of the questions was about sex, which is explored in the title poem,

“One long kiss, tongues and breath
entwining. A touch or two, and our bodies

lose both scent and music. Our blood pulses
faster and louder than the room around us.

faster and louder than the room around us.
lose both scent and music. Our blood pulses

entwining. A touch or two, and our bodies
One long kiss, tongues and breath

This is an incomplete extract from an effective specular (a verbal mirror image poem where the first half is repeated in reverse to form the second half of the poem). The words in faint grey appear to disappear on the page, the narrator’s focus slips. She can either give herself to the moment or leave the moment to monitor blood glucose levels. A later poem, “Thwarted” is about a bicycle ride planned around rain showers ruined by a drop in blood sugar levesls, “Thwarted again by my own body, my anger/ will last longer than the approaching rainstorm.”

There are poems that don’t focus on diabetes – falling in love, marriage and children – and enjoying periods of respite. “Freshly Baked” is a memory of baking bread with the narrator’s mother,

“bringing warmth and sunshine

to the start of each long week.
Time has taught me that memories too
should be softened and proofed.

Not all of my childhood was illness.”

“Self-forgiveness” touches on this too,

“And yes, it’s true
that perhaps I’ve come
to love this ‘fault’
that I hate most,
not for the disability,
but through accepting

that without it,
what little would remain
of the me
I’ve come to see.”

Diabetes has not defined the speaker but it is part of who she is and managing it has forged the adult she has come to be. Her achievements have not come despite her diabetes but because of its successful management.

“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is a contemplative journey from childhood to adulthood of life with type 1 diabetes. Sarah James has a compassionate ear, she never turns to self-pity even when being mocked or describing the sense of unfairness at being disabled: having plans go awry or letting people down because of her diabetes. It’s a journey through acceptance and learning to live with its consequences through powerful, thought-provoking poems.

“Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic” is available from Verve.

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

“The Battle” Antony Owen (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) – book review

I’ll start with a trigger warning for suicide and suicidal ideation, mostly triggered by depression. These are handled with sensitivity but Antony Owen doesn’t shy away from directly talking about them.

Antony Owen The Battle book cover

“The Battle” explores adult diagnosis of autism and living with depression with an unflinching directness and honesty. It’s not one man’s journey though, it looks at how people, including family and colleagues, react. The title poem opens with an apology for the three year wait for an assessment,

“Remember the first time the lads called you a ‘spastic’,
and take comfort you are special in twenty twenty-one.

Sorry we can only ask how long a piece of string is without metric.
It could be decades, years, months, days for an assessment.
In the meantime, here is a leaflet for a help group in four weeks.
Here is a collective of people just like you, yet unique.”

Someone already bullied and teased for being ‘different’ since childhood finally mustered courage to explore the source of that difference only to find there’s a waiting list. How long do you wait before you give up? What use is a leaflet to someone who has already been scoured the internet for information? Again, once diagnosed, there’s a wait before being able to join a support group. Where would someone on their own without family support go? The phrase “take comfort you are special” feels patronising. Accommodation needs for someone who is neurodivergent are not ‘special’, they’re simply needs that allow someone to thrive. This isn’t a narcissistic request for ‘special treatment’. Most autistics mask their behaviours so as to merge or work with neurotypical people and not stand out.

Attitudes in the workplace are picked up in, “A Sales Manager’s Response to Autism”

“After exorcising the demon of autism to my boss
she tutted her disappointment at the setback,
reminding me we have targets to meet.
Do you need special treatment?’
‘I could do without this today!’

In a workplace culture more concerned with targets than how people achieve them, it’s too easy to see reasonable adjustments as an add-on, something that can wait for a more convenient time – whenever that is – or an extra burden, instead of support that enables someone to work better and be better placed to hit the targets the manager is so concerned about. The poem ends “She probably watched Rain Man once/ and considered herself informed.” How disability is portrayed in films and TV programmes is often problematic: it’s a plot device or moulded into a triumph over adversity story and often bears little resemblance to how someone gets through an ordinary job or life.

The workplace comes under another swipe in “Man Up” where the speaker is told to stop grieving after a friend’s death,

“My boss told me it’s been three weeks,
that it’s time to man up and hit target.
I told him ‘I’m only human‘ to his face.”

Even colleagues who regard themselves has having good intentions can become impatient with someone openly grieving. There is no time limit on bereavement. There’s also no going back to ‘normal’ or how things were before the death. It’s a transitional space between acknowledging the death and adjusting to life with that person no longer in it. But those pesky targets won’t go away and it’s so much easier for managers to pressurise subordinates who are regarded as slacking. A working life can stretch over 40 years, three weeks is a tiny percentage of that. Giving someone the time they need benefits both: the employee feels like a human not a number on the payroll and the employer gets the employee’s goodwill. In a target-driven culture, that’s not going to happen.

“Why Some People Cannot Forgive Suicide” looks at those left behind after a suicide,

“I get why people cannot forgive suicide: there is no answer;
there is no answer to being incapable of joy and pain;
there is no answer to a normal day then the act.

I read of a wife who found her husband hung in the garage.
She described him as a pendulum stopping time itself.
Ten years on she wants to forgive, but cannot.

I get why some people ghost the demons that haunt them.
As a son I was the elephant in the room and circus.
And now, as a father, I know how it is to be child and ghost.”

There’s not much to say since the poem says it. The speaker came from a family where things, such as being bullied at school and why, weren’t talked about. However, this son, now an adult and father will break that cycle; his child will be seen and heard.

There are strands that describe depression throughout, but the stand-out line is in n “Flat Earth”, where depression is described as, “My heart is a goblet of guilt for this metamorphosis I never chose.”

In the final section, men explore the macho culture and mental illness. There is general agreement that the ‘British stiff upper lip’ and not talking about mental (ill) health is wrong, but a big part of the battle is finding similarly minded men to talk to as a friend. The pieces explore bullying, target-driven workplace cultures, the fear of leaving a toxic job when society tends to label you by your job, the loss of individuality and creativity and the sadness of watching a woman cross the street away from you when you are not a threat but know that the woman has reason to see you as such.

“The Battle” opens the conversation by demonstrating how bottling up feelings and not talking about mental health has devasting consequences for men. Toxic workplace cultures that treat employees like bots whose sole purpose is to achieve set targets further dehumanise men and contribute to the problem. Both increase the sense of being alone and unsupported, especially at a time when neglect and underfunding of mental health services has created long waiting lists just to be seen and assessed. Owen’s poems show that a different approach is possible.

“The Battle” is available from Knives, Forks and Spoons.

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.