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

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

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

and ends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sinking down to the city’s silted bones.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It carries its sustained metaphor throughout without labouring the point.

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

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

“The Boy Who Couldn’t Say His Name” John Lawrence (V. Press) – book review

The Boy Who Couldnt Say His Name John LawrenceJohn Lawrence knows how to tell a story, sometimes using analogy, and often setting up a scene then creating a volta, like a twist in the tale, so the ending is not predictable. “The Family Chess Set” opens with “The unfolded board shows a split down the centre/ from a lifetime of opening and closing”, notes the damage done to some of the pieces and the two mislaid pawns, one from each side, and ends,

“I cannot help but think of the pain

while mourning the queen who suffered
a brutal death when mauled by pawns
in the blur of a long-ago battle.

I want to end this, to lay my fingertips
on the head of each king, treat them like crystal,
for the game without them is worthless.”

A family history within a chess set and a player still tied to both the rules of the game and family conventions.

“Retreat” starts with a widower’s domestic rituals until,

“He wears a suit to go to the shops,
the only way to do it: marching tall to town,

but on his return, he flinches at his cowardice
for not stepping into traffic on the ring road.
Too often he thinks of the war in forty-four
when he lost his hearing, his mates, his innocence
to that tanned whore with her inventive style.
During the night he clearly hears gunshots
or the growl of tanks or the shouted warning
of an incoming threat; he senses the wetness
of blood-soaked cloth pressed to his skin,”

The shock of wartime experiences turns it from a poem about domestic routines offering a buffer against a significant bereavement to the knowledge the poem’s unnamed subject is still struggling with post-traumatic stress. John Lawrence uses a list of details to guide the reader’s emotional reaction and avoids being didactic.

Domestic ritual is a theme in “The Piano Tuner” where the narrator’s mother moves the Toby jug from the top of the upright piano before the turner, who uses a white stick signalling visual impairment, works “with the attention of a fighter pilot on a mission,”

“Mother busied herself with pointless
dusting of ornaments, smiled uncertainly

when he turned his head in her direction.
And after he tapped his way out of the house,
she’d place the Toby Jug back on top,

close the lid over the keys for another year.”

It’s a visual scene with the mother pretending to dust when she’s actually keeping an eye on a stranger in her home. It leaves readers wondering why this annual ritual is maintained and why the unplayed piano is still kept.

The title poem appears near the end, when the school bullies ask the narrator, who suffers from a stutter, to say his name,

“He’s in the game of seek-and-chide,
caught up in their way of killing time;
their joke, their bond, their fix,
stop him dead in his tracks,
the hunters, the hunted, taunt him till he cries
oh, ’e can cry all right
slap him on his back as if he were an infant choking
come on, spit it out, woss yer name?

The boy is left to reassure himself he can whisper it when the bullies have gone. Readers can be reassured the boy grew into the man who can tell stories.

A couple of poems felt as if they could have been laid out prose without losing anything. Overall “The Boy Who Couldn’t Say His Name” contains wry, keenly-observed, mostly witty stories and vignettes taking a slant look at familiar scenarios and crafted with care to engage readers.

“The Boy Who Couldn’t Say His Name” is available from V. Press

“Resting Place” Martin Johns (Palewell Press) – poetry review

Resting Place Martin JohnsThe titular resting place is a beach where the narrator has stopped and observed,

“Out in the bay, naked, washed up –
a carcass. Colours of our late autumn,
portholes grown large, jagged, letting

go. An identity parade of gulls lined
the deck. Did we spot someone
on board, or was it a trick of the light?”

The poem ends with the observers leaving, which felt unnecessary, because it took the focus away from the carcass. The “naked” in the first quoted line underlines the vulnerability of the corpse: despite its size, it can no longer protect itself. The description of the “portholes” continue the image. Even though it’s obvious the gulls are not guilty, the “identity parade” suggests this wasn’t a natural death.

The title poem sets up the expectation that landscapes and nature will feature throughout and that expectation is not disappointed. “Composing–walks” is set in the home of composer Benjamin Britten, The Red House in Aldeburgh, and imagines some of the sounds that might have provided inspiration,

“At the Red House, a night chorus of foxes,
owls, the child’s cry of lone roe deer.

Ambit of the nightingale’s song, always
first at dawn. Males singing the females

down, out of brightening sky. This is
the moment of inspiration.

Each individual sound important, only
by playing its own part in the soundscape.”

Appropriately the landscape is described through sound: readers are invited to imagine the habitat through the list of wildlife. The passage of time is marked from the night call of owls to the dawn nightingale. Towards the end, readers are invited to hear the animals’ calls and songs as part of an orchestra.

Sticking with the strong nature theme, “Bird’s Skull” imagines what memories might have been within,

“memories of flight
freedom locked
in lattice of bone
primeval – yet

watch movement
lifted to the sky
to transcend
returned to earth.”

I think an “and” or a punctuation mark is missing at the end of the first quoted line; it’s not immediately clear that the memories are locked in the skull. With a scientific background I don’t agree that flight transcends the mechanics; the notion appears to pit art against science with science losing out. The last quoted line isn’t just the bird returning to earth but also a reminder that this particular bird will no longer fly.

“Winter Afternoon” is a patch of country in an urban garden, focusing on two trees,

“At their feet, pale shoots
show Spring’s return.
Harrying birds have pillaged
the jewelled Malus,

sacrificed crab apples
litter the lawn, blush
as if the morning after.
The street grows closer.”

“Resting Place” isn’t just about nature, there’s a poem about refugees and one touches on Hiroshima. However, the nature poems are more numerous and successful. They show the writer clearly cares about the countryside and has a strong understanding of the eco-systems that support it as well as the cycle of life. The poems lack sentiment and landscapes may be a metaphor for a mood or certain aspects featured to create an ambiance, but nature is not generally anthropomorphized.

“Resting Place” is available from Palewell Press

“Flowers I Should Have Thrown Away Yesterday” Elisa Matvejeva (Maida Vale Publishing) – poetry review

Flowers I should have thrown away yesterday Elisa MatvejevaOne of the key themes running through this collection is the aftermath of a failed love affair. In “time,” which gives the collection its title,

“time is stale and smells
of flowers i should have thrown away yesterday
time feels like all the words i never said
but hoped i would
in my lack of courage”

The narrator seems to have accepted the inevitability of the end of the affair and passively absorbed blame, instead of pointing towards her former lover, even though, “i have problems with letting go” hints at violence,

“and i like the way you say my name
like it’s the only thing you’ve said
that has ever mattered to you

on the train that night
we locked eyes
and i never wanted to forget
your cold strong hands
around my throat”

The poem’s set-up has a filmic quality: the scene feels as if it would be shot in monochrome with plenty of dry ice or pick your favourite film that features a train: “Brief Encounter”, “Strangers on a Train”, “Before Sunrise”… The lower case “i” used throughout further underlines the narrator’s passiveness. Even when she’s thinking of violence, the voice is passive, in “i fell asleep in your watercolour eyes”,

“i used to brandish knives
sharper than my mind
but never as sharp as your tongue

dry my insides with your fingers
and crunch me like your foreign delicacies
with words empty
just like the well I fell into
that night when the sky was blue
like marshmallows
and the dawn red
the whole damn sky was covered
with sickles and dimes
pain is nothing
but your concept
of a good time”

“Watercolour” feels feeble and indistinct, just as the reference to “marshmallow” undermines the apparent threat and violence set up by “knives” and “dawn red”. The poem is striving for aphorisms without seeing the cumulative effect of the images used. It’s not until near the end of the collection, the narrator begins to think of herself, in “spirited horrors”

“I think my love should be bigger
to match my passive aggressive tendencies
in romantic relationships
I think my life should be bigger
to match my suicidal tendencies
in regards to my being
the thought of you with someone else
causes stuttering cries
but I will go outside
and learn to treat myself
like I never treated you”

The tone and rhythm change from longer, passive vowels (“o”, “a”) and multi-syllabic words to shorter, firmer vowels (“i”, “e”) and more monosyllabic words, giving the ending more urgency and command. It’s less concerned with imagery and more concerned with agency and indicates a turning point for the narrator.

“Flowers I Should Have Thrown Away Yesterday” also contains some line drawings which complement the poems and suggest Elisa Matvejeva is an insta-poet. However, the images and rhythms she uses raise these poems above merely accompanying the drawings. There is a tendency to aphorism, but the images linger after reading.

“Flowers I Should Have Thrown Away Yesterday” is available via Eyewear

States of Independence is back in Leicester at De Montfort University on Saturday 23 March 2019 from 10.30am.

SoI 2019



“This is the Band” Pauline Sewards (Hearing Eye) – book review

This is the Band Pauline SewardsA pamphlet that looks at domestic and contemporary issues with compassion and more than a dash of humour in places. The poem, “This is the band who sleep in my house”, that gives the collection its title ends,

“These are the kids who one day will watch their own kids on stage/ just like the two
of us, sharing cheap merlot/ linked in the long pax of friendship/ the grey in our hair
shining like glitter/ standing on chairs for a better view/ dancing with care/ there’s a
long way to fall.”

There are real rock stars too, we encounter “Patti Smith and the Rules for Life” and Jimi Hendrix pops into the village hall’s bring and buy sale. One poem focuses on “Family and private life immigration rule changes 9 July 2012”,

“The Venn diagram of transcultural love
has no full intersections.
A spouse is not a spouse but is a potentially
non economically active burden on the State.

Hearts become coins become cherries
in a fruit machine. There are no
winning lines, nothing adds up. Love
conquers nothing, counts for nothing.”

This opening contrasts with a child who is free to travel anywhere. The new rules place a minimum level on earnings by the resident spouse and the level is higher than the average wage. The poem demonstrates the unfairness without ranting. Elsewhere readers meet Isobel who had to wait nine years to get a visa and Geraldine who came over on Windrush.

In “Brexit Town” cleared graffiti returns,

“Every time I rang up to complain about the graffiti
disgracing the walls of the shut-down department store

the woman from the council made me say the words aloud
they hurt my throat like a chemical burn

The insults were erased but after the vote the words came back
red spray paint misspellings staggering across the honeyed stone.”

The “misspellings” suggests the ignorance of the graffiti creators although the words used in the graffiti are not included In the poem. “Staggering” is apt too: this isn’t organised and planned but the anger of someone lashing out and resorting to shock.

“Market Town” feels as if it was inspired by a specific area but is also universal,

“and the fish and chip shop
down Rocky Lane
where a yellowed paper clipping tells
of the man who came to town
and ate everything –
large haddock, sausage and a pie
all the chips, the church
the chapel, the grammar school
the Buttercross, the shops

leaving only empty spaces
for the wind to whistle through.”

Whilst most of these poems feel like reportage, “Phlebotomy”, is lived experience and ends,

“Already liquid jewels fill the tube,
lacquered red, packing darkness. I loosen
the tourniquet, press cottonwool, tilt the tube
to prevent clotting. You pull down your sleeve,
I take out my pen. We are both relieved,
a bit skittish, united in surviving this small challenge.”

It’s tone is business-like, but there’s tenderness there too.

Overall “This is the Band” is a solid debut. It might play it safe with subject matter, sticking to what the poet knows and is familiar with, but it also shows knowledge of craft and musicality.

“This is the Band” is available from Hearing Eye.

States of Independence is back in Leicester at De Montfort University on Saturday 23 March 2019 from 10.30am.

SoI 2019


“Bookmarks” D A Prince (HappenStance) – poetry review

D A Prince Bookmarks“Bookmarks” is a simple idea: a series of poems about scraps of paper utilised as bookmarks, but subjected to a poet’s forensic gaze, they mark a thread through a life and open chapters of memories. One of the first poems explores this, “The Ticket to the Museum of Time”

“The ticket’s (too long in my pocket) damp,
ruckled, and thought the date’s too blurred to read
it’s pressed inside this book, holding the place
the future will come back to, given time.”

The theme of returning is a motif that runs through the pamphlet. Largely the bookmarks are not in new books that are unfinished, but mark favoured or specific places as reference points, e.g. in “Restaurant Bill” the bookmark is tucked in a guide book,

“First time in Florence, armed with a warning
of polizia fiscale and their powers;
how they wait, street-wise to stop you
after pasta and chianti, checking the receipt –
not on your side, of course, but hunting down
small trattoria dodging IVA.
Keep your receipt, the guide book warned
or risk a fine. The habit stuck

as did the restaurant bills, tucked
into every book that travelled.”

Some of these bills-as-bookmarks carry stains of wines or foods tasted. Whilst the guide books offer visual clues to memories, the bookmarks complement the memory by adding the sense of taste and smell, and possibly touch. This shifts the memory from two dimensions to three, making it more vivid and compelling. Whilst keeping a receipt to avoid a fine is useful advice, some guides are less useful and impersonal. “Tourist Information” is a photocopied map of Heptonstall that fails to give the location of Sylvia Plath’s grave,

“light sieved through trees leaning too close. The day
was chancy memory. She’s buried…? The scour
for likely stone and troubled plot. Dead flowers.

It turns up every January, the time
of bitter Sevilles, in a book half-glued
to half a lifetime’s marmalade – mistakes
at setting point, the splatterings
from all our kitchens and their seething pans –
undated, marks the page and shares the stains.”

The attention in the poem shifts from bookmark to book and widens to previous addresses, “all our kitchens”, giving a lens through which to view a shared domestic life.

“Bookmarks” are not just about looking backwards, however. In one poem an unsent postcard prompts thoughts about a photo of a postcard scene taken on a phone, then sent and how that wouldn’t end up in a book. This, in turn, then questions how memories are kept, will our digital equivalent of bookmarks be accessible to future generations? “Note”, signed “Love” but nameless as the writer knew their handwriting would be recognised, also touches on this,

“as the known hand looped and rose in haste,
slanting into the future and the torn half-sheet
blotched, somehow. Damp has found these books.

A bookmark, maybe, caught up when time ran out
but with this promise: something to return to.
And what’s there to keep except (perhaps) Love?

Why not a text? asks the child,
all thumbs, not looking up from his screen.
There is so much to explain.”

“Bookmarks” asks questions about memories, which ones get discarded and which rise to the surface when prompted, without nostalgia. It also looks at why we keep and mark books – place visited, a favoured recipe, a passage or a poem intended for re-reading. The eclectic selection of what gets used as bookmarks offers a window into journeys made, events attended and relationships. The poems are written with a forensic eye and detailed attention to craft and rhythm, neatly wrapped in HappenStance’s high production values. And it comes with a bookmark.

“Bookmarks” is available from HappenStance.

States of Independence is back in Leicester at De Montfort University on Saturday 23 March 2019 from 10.30am.

SoI 2019