“Something so wild and new in this feeling” Sarah Doyle (V. Press) – book review

Sarah Doyle Something so wild and new in this feeling book cover

This pamphlet is subtitled “Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals reimagined” and was published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of her birth. The journals are packed with description of the natural world and her thoughts and feelings, written over the period 1798 – 1803. Sarah Doyle calls these collage poems rather than found poems because, although the words are Wordsworth’s, the poet has reshaped the prose into poetry and added punctuation where necessary for sense. The original spellings have been kept rather than modernised. The language is far from prosaic. The first poem, “One only leaf,” is short enough to be quoted whole,

“upon the top of
a tree – the sole remaining
leaf – danced round and round

like a rag blown by
the wind.”

It’s a gentle observation. The repetition of “round” shows this is a continuous movement forced by the wind and out of the leaf’s control. “Under Silver How” observes a birch tree in a sunny breeze,

“It was a tree in shape, with stem and branches,
but it was like a spirit of water. The sun went

in, and it resumed its purplish appearance,
the twigs still yielding to the wind, but not
so visibly to us. The other birch trees
that were near it looked bright and cheerful,

but it was a creature by its own self among them.”

Unlike the others, this “purplish” tree stands out as an individual, its movements more fluid than solid. While it stands out, there’s no hint of menace, just difference. The detail in the prose draws on close observation and rich details.

In some poems, Doyle has not just shaped the prose into lines of poetry but also shaped the poem to reflect the subject, for example, “beautiful to see”

the calm
hot night little
boats row out of
harbour with wings of
fire, and the sail boats with
the fiery track which they cut as
they went along, and which closed
after them with a hundred thousand
sparkles, and streams of
glow-worm light.

The poem takes the shape of one of the boats being described. As previously, the visual description is vivid, bringing to life the images of the setting sun reflected in the water and the boats cutting through the surface and sparkling with glow-worms. The poem’s are just static observation. One is a list of walks and tasks completed. “A heart unequally divided”, is a record of emotion, a lake is described as “dull and melancholy”,

“I had many of my saddest thoughts, and I could
not keep the tears within me. My heart was almost
melted away. My heart smote me, prevented me
from sleeping. I was melancholy, and could not
talk, but at last I eased my heart by weeping.”

The landscape is a projection of Wordsworth’s inner emotional world. The poem offers no clues as to what triggered the depressed mood but the crying gives her relief. There’s a sense of restlessness in the title poem,

……………………………………………………………………………….. A wild,
moonlight night, the valley all perfumed with the gale
and wild thyme, but curiously wild, this solemn quiet
…………This is a wild and melancholy walk, the transition
from the solitary wildness.
……………………………………………….The sky and the clouds,
and a few wild creatures, a wild intermixture of rocks,
trees –
…………….something so wild and new in this feeling
of wild singularity”

The repetition of “wild” underlines the effects of the gale, whipping against free-growing plants. The landscape isn’t entirely empty but the animals are minding their business, leaving the narrator to take her walk unbothered, free to note the gale and allow the landscape to become an emotional journey. There’s a sense of discovery, that the familiar can look new if you change your perspective.

Later, in “Lights and shadows”, Wordsworth is watching swallows’ shadows on the walls of the building, “the shadows glanced and twinkled, interchanged/ and crossed each other, expanded and shrunk up”, in contrast,

“The sun shone so brightly, with such a fierce light,
that there was even something like the purity
of one of nature’s own grand spectacles. Rocks
glittered in the sunshine, distant hills were visible,
the evening sun was now sending a glorious light.
Islanded with sunshine, bathed in golden light,
my heart danced while the sun was yet shining.”

The delight drips off the page. These are the words of someone in love with her home and surrounds.

“Something so wild and new in this feeling” takes Wordsworth’s words shared in private in her journal and brings them to life. Curating them to show she was more than her brother’s companion, and also capable of writing about her love for the natural world and what she observed in captiving prose. Doyle has done a successful job in selecting the phrases that demonstrate Wordsworth’s poetic sensibilities and crafting them into poems that work like a seam of light silvering the birches.

“Something so wild and new in this feeling” is available from V. Press.

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

“A Voice Coming From Then” Jeremy Dixon (Arachne Press) – book review

Jeremy Dixon A Voice Coming from Then book cover

Jeremy Dixon’s “A Voice Coming From Then” has a content warning for suicide because these are poems set both around the time of a suicide attempt and afterwards, proving survival is possible. This isn’t a forcefully, fake upbeat, ‘let’s search for the silver lining’ collection though, but a recording of the effects of bullying and how to move from victim to survivor despite “a consultant child psychiatrist’s letter to a hospital doctor dated 20 June 1979 which I first read forty years later” where the psychiatrist asks why Jeremy “is prepared to go/ back to the school” and writes, “[this] is puzzling”. Not sure why the psychiatrist is puzzled, did he really expect the victim to move to another school as if the shame was his, rather than stay on when the bullies should have been removed? There is humour though: the Victorian demon Spring-heeled Jack makes appearances albeit with a black wit. The teenaged Jeremy seems scared and confused, but it actually a lot stronger than he credits himself. The source of the bullying is revealed in “Sunday School” where,

“we are taught to hate Judas
because he kissed Jesus

betraying him for
short-term financial gain

we must also despise Judas
for the sin of self-murder

swinging from Cercis siliquastrum
the white flowers

turning red with blood
and shame”

Two things are a source of same: same-sex attraction and suicide. Although homosexual acts were decriminalised in England and Wales (where the book is based) in 1967, the age of consent remained at 21 for such an act. In 1979, the Home Office Advisory Committee’s report recommended reducing the age of consent to 18 but it wasn’t until 2001 that the age of consent was reduced to 16, bringing it in line with the hetrosexual age of consent. Therefore, the teenager in these poems is the recipient of the confusing information that a beautiful act is also an illegal one. The bullying that resulted potentially had serious consequences. Jeremy waited for his father to drive his mother, a nurse, to her night-shift before attempting to take his life. Vomiting saved him, he was found and taken to hospital and finds himself next to a biker who was involved in a road traffic collision in “the recidivist”

“you dream of motorbikes
and decapitations

when you awake
their cubicle is empty

and you didn’t dare ask
and you still don’t know”

The narrator addresses himself in the second person. This could be shock or a way of processing it. What follows is a series of poems looking at the situation from different viewpoints, including his sister’s, a teacher’s in “form tutor”, the italics mean the text is a direct quote from the source,

“Jeremy is
a helpful and

co-operative pupil
am I wrong

in thinking
that he has felt

considerable pressure
this year”

The bland formality of a school report which avoids committing anything controversial to paper. By avoiding naming the problem, fixing it becomes impossible. Jeremy makes it clear he asked permission before “mother”, (again the italics are a direct quote),

“all the doctors
and nurses

were vile
I’m sure

they blamed us
as if

I didn’t feel
guilty enough.”

The attitudes of medical staff can compromise care and recovery. Attitudes then were very much about blaming the suicidal for wasting resources by taking them away from more ‘deserving’ cases. Although that’s a slippery slope: is someone who plays a tough contact sport to blame for their injuries, how about a domestic violence victim coerced into a car with a drunk spouse? When the focus is on the patient, parents and carers can get pushed out or blamed, even though in this case, there was no suggestion the parents were at fault. It was the homophobic bullying at school.

The book focuses towards recovery and acceptance. The bullying may have stopped, but it still haunts. In “ode to Bronski Beat in an elevator”,

“but I’m petrified

someone can tell
I won’t return their gaze


I am taunting myself
making silent promises

I will not
be able to keep

praying the next floor
is where they get off

and when the doors ping
I finally look up

watch them strut
the fluorescent corridors

mouthing to each other
that word I cannot say”

The fear of further bullying, the fear of homophobia reduces his world and leaves him struggling to trust, not helped when strangers prove his fears correct.

The title poem is set after a road traffic collision when the poet was taken to hospital with his mother who was also in the car,

“the closest I have been
to dying again

still upset the next morning
I answer the landline

hello son it’s granddad
I was worried about you both

except granddad died
two decades ago and

it’s not granddad
but my uncle

although he said those precise words
and his voice was exactly the same”

The episode is a trigger. It seems cruel that as someone struggles back on their feet and towards acceptance, a voice can trigger the shame and devastation someone has tried so hard to recover from.

The almost-last poem, “blister packs”, is shaped like a paracetamol tablet and ends,

“fighting for space between the Vim and Domestos
there are more paracetamol tablets in my kitchen
than I ever robbed from my mother’s that night
than I have ever allowed myself to own since
I consider them my isolation companions
all they ask is one kiss without foil
we are a test they whisper a test”

The packets of paracetamol are a reassurance, a source of pain-relief, but also a test against repeating that night in 1979.

“A Voice Coming From Then” is a collection of poems about resilience. Jeremy Dixon doesn’t shy away from difficult or taboo subjects but handles them with sensitivity and tenderness. He explores identity, the effects of homophobic bullying, the impact of suicide with the aim of starting conversations about acceptance and inclusion. The subject matter may be grim, but this is not a grim read. Moments of humour shine through. Ultimately, it’s about survival.

“A Voice Coming From Then” is available from Arachne 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.

“Beerstorming with Charlotte Bronte in New York” Rachel J Fenton (Ethel Zine and Micro Press) – book review

Rachel J Fenton Beerstorming with Charlotte Bronte in New York

Rachel Fenton grew up in Yorkshire in England and now lives in Auckland. Throughout a trip to visit libraries in New York, Charlotte Brontë becomes an invisible companion, a means of keeping a young Yorkshire woman grounded as she discovers troubling news. The opening poem, “New York”, sets the scene.

“New York, cold as discovery
on the Friday morning my mother’s text
informs me my father had a heart

attack—-we are estranged;
what is to be done about that?”

The language is plain, unsentimental and as direct as the text message seems to have been. The hard ‘t’ sounds and gap between ” heart” and “attack” give a sense of finality. There’s also a hint at fragility. This is new territory: a strange city and a distant, sick father. “The Berg Collection” is reminder that the narrator is a stranger,

“But first, Joshua repeats instructions
for what to bring to the table, leave
in the cloakroom where women
do not speak regardless of how much I smile.

It’s cold where they work beside the revolving

Joshua is a librarian and guide. Later the library HVAC engineers are warned the humidity is threatening the collection of books, potentially damaging the manuscripts the narrator has come to see. Charlotte is hinted at but first appears in “Referencing the Collection”. A earlier poem mentions Martha,

“Charlotte, how do you feel, here
among the brownstones instead

of Helstones? That ‘lump of perfection’,
Rose York? What can be said in longhand

next to your rushed slant? Cursively,
we are not alike, as Martha to Mary

Taylor. Not sisters but friends,
merely miles by moorland in one respect

though continents, nay worlds
apart where we will end.”

There’s homesickness: Charlotte Brontë is asked how she feels in a different landscape. This becomes an acknowledgement of differences between Brontë and the speaker. A commonality of Yorkshire landscape links the two as friends. But the differences seem to be measured in miles, not time. There are more differences in “Reprographic Orders”, where Charlotte’s son, who “In my arms, he is as light as a ghost, and as heavy/ in my mind” and refers to the speaker as “Tanti”,

“Only afterwards, when alone in the hotel room that looks out onto
………………broken heart script
of fire escapes and discarded syringes, where last night I heard
………………screaming and this morning
men’s voices accompanying a knock on my grey window, I look up
………………the meaning of his name
for me. Tanti means auntie in Romanian, his mother’s tongue. In
………………his father’s Hindi, it refers
to one of a tribe of weavers, of the Dalits, formerly discriminated
………………against in India
as ‘most backward classes’ and I wonder, who he will take after.”

This seems to be fantasy. Charlotte’s unborn child died with her and its father was her English husband. But this son who calls the speaker “Tanti” creates an ambiguity: in one language she is an aunt, in another, the lowest class who suffer frequent discrimination. It’s as if he’s sensed the speaker’s lower class roots, an echo of Charlotte’s.

The focus shifts from friendship back to books. The books in “Sherman Fairchild Reading Room”, are kept behind glass,

“book thieves are least
of these. The words
you took and told
to someone else
as if your own

to give, impress,
undress, were mine.
An aperture.
I’m betrayed by
my thoughts, my mind.”

The books are a window, but it’s also questioned who the words belong to: the writer or the inspirations for the story? How does the reader fit in? How does the writer tell the story? With honesty or for an audience, to impress another?

The time in New York comes to an end at the airport, “John F Kennedy”. In part III “Gate 8”

“I can’t stop transcribing, can’t shut off
the lines. I’ve read
text like a tapestry

Seahorse Ranch [underlined]
Underneath I transcribe:
solo energy & global energy

I’d like to pick your brains
brainstorm with you
. Charlotte Brontë
has left me her bottle opener, WhatsApps:
already it’s snowing in Maine.”

Here the speaker and Charlotte Brontë go their separate ways. The speaker back to Auckland, Charlotte to Maine. But there’s still a connection. Typically Charlotte’s already figured WhatsApp: a writer’s need to message and connect is motivation to overcome any technological developments.

Rachel Fenton’s Charlotte Brontë is the best friend anyone could want: someone who is there, who doesn’t judge and understands the drive to write and love of books. She’s a sounding board, someone you can run seemingly-daft ideas past and get useful replies. Someone to share a beer with. The poems explore the nature of friendships, how we make family when our actual relatives aren’t available (for whatever reason) and the need to communicate and share stories to make sense of our worlds. The poems are engaging and hold their charm.

Beerstorming with Charlotte Brontë in New York is available from Ethel Zine.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook. Emma will be reading poems from “The Significance of a Dress” at Leicester’s Central Library from 7pm on Wednesday 6 October 2021 (image below shows flyer).

Flyer for event at Leicester’s Central Library from 7pm on 6 October 2021.

“Maternal Impression” Cheryl Moskowitz (Against the Grain Press) – book review

Cheryl Moskowitz Maternal Impression book cover

The responsibility for raising and nurturing the next generation still largely falls on mothers and most of, but not all of, the poems in “Maternal Impression” explore the relationship between mother and child, as well as the wider role of parenting and the trust ordinary people have to put into authority figures, whether elected or self-appointed. What happens when the parental figure gets it right or gets it wrong?

The title poem concerns a birthmark on a baby’s back, therefore generally hidden from view, when the baby’s survival was not a given. The poem is right aligned.

“the mark / the aberration / which could even be punishment
for the time the sun hid / and fearing the dark / she brought

her hand to her belly / holding tight to the son / growing
inside stork bite angel’s kiss wahuma jarula modermærke
moedervlekken muttermal strawberry mark carefully stamped

O careful what you wish for / Mother / whatever you dream
of / will come true / leave its stamp / in the heart of you”

Even in the womb, a baby picks up signals from its mother and can learn to recognise her voice. Just as the birthmark is a permanent blemish that stays with the child as he grows to independence, his time in the womb and birth leaves marks on his mother. The two become symbiotic. The poem implies a loving relationship: she cradles her abdomen and her love brings the baby into being.

“Earlier Today” considers how it can take a village to raise a child, how those will parental instincts will become supportive of other parents’ children. In a park,

“you see a child that isn’t yours
propel itself forward in the long grass,
unsteadily but with intention,
a small child with chubby hands
and a round face full of determination.

The child becomes everyone’s
to lift up and hold, protect from harm,
tease a smile from and does it matter
then who the real parents are –
don’t we all, within reason, assume
that we are the child’s mother?”

The “you” and their maternal instinct becomes a substitute mother and eases the burden on the birth mother. It might be that the “you” is simply feeling protective towards the child or remembers the stresses of those first years of dependency. The motive isn’t explored, but it assumed to be benign and in the child’s best interests. It now has a world ready to protect it from harms.

However, in “Breathe”, the parental figures are not benign,

“Take your knee off my neck
and kneel on the ground instead.
Put your hands together in prayer,
raise your arms to the sky
and fill your lungs with air.

The opening lines are a reference to George Floyd and his death at the hands of police whose duty is ‘to protect and serve.’ Here the unprejudiced parental instinct has gone and been replaced with racial prejudice that assumes a Black man is trouble, likely to resist arrest and is not deserving of fair treatment. The authority/parental figures are malign. The poem doesn’t linger on them though, it brings its focus back to those who would wish to support the victim, those having authority exerted over them. “Knee” can be read ambiguously. Some would kneel to pray, an act of submission to a higher power. It’s also become a form of non-violent protest, a reminder of racial injustice. Prayer can be a solo or communal act. The longer, heavier vowels in “knee”, “kneel” and “ground” give way to the lighter, shorter vowels in “sky”, “fill” and “air”, signalling a note of solidarity and hope.

“Daughter in Garden” is light and celebratory too. A daughter sneaks out into the early morning garden thinking she’ll be unobserved,

“A pigeon rises suddenly from the branches
of the pear tree. There was no blossom, so there
will be no fruit this year. My daughter takes a step
forward, away from the wall. She raises her arms.

It is as if she is preparing to rise and take flight
like the bird. She points one toe out in front of her –
a ballerina – and propels herself forward onto the lawn.
The whole summer has led to this. A perfect cartwheel.”

The lack of blossom suggests there are no siblings or further children to distract the watching mother, who does not disturb her child and has sensed that whatever’s about to unfold needs her absence. Her daughter is becoming independent and needs to make her own decisions in her own time. What happens next is the cartwheel the daughter has been secretly practising and getting perfect. The mother knows she cannot spoil her daughter’s quiet celebration by joining in so remains silent.

Another poem that looks to authority figures in a parental role is “The Donner Party”. It was inspired by the history of a group of American pioneers who ended up spending the winter of 1846-7 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. The plan was to reach California, home of the gold rush, and hopefully better fortunes. But first the winter has to be endured,

“Left off home we – we all – continued blank – blankly without reason – into
the next – this mountain pass – we thought – or maybe yes – this – ice-sliding
slick into the next generation – we are doing it now – but oh it is hard – no new
thing – nothing gets won – no winning without hardship – weather it they say –
whether it can – whether it will – continue or not – on and on over that next hill
– forward – rolling – there is blood – in bodies – red-faced and foot-sore – ah
the numbness – if the air does not freeze – if it doesn’t freeze – our eyes shut –
closed and inaccessible – exhaustion – that is the killer – will be the death of us
– tiredness – lonelier still – sighing/breathing like horses now – nostrils flaring
– steam rising – remembering warmth – fingertips gone – wailing and wind
bray – braying in the wind – praying – oh it is hard – it’s hard but we will keep
going – won’t we – for the children – won’t we – our grandmothers if we have
them – had them once – won’t we just – just this once – leave behind – leave it
– we left off home before we came – left this – home – home left us – for this we
have become hard – harder – harder still to know – what we are doing – doing it
now – for what – what we are about to become – might become – cut off”

Firstly the pioneers feel they have to keep going “for the children” and then “our grandmothers”, a childish notion of doing parents proud. It implies the reasons for the journey and the inspiration to continue have been lost. The “blood in bodies” is repeated near the ending, “There is blood in bodies. No difference between dog and man./ See? Your breath isn’t steaming. Not anymore.” Some of the pioneers had to resort to cannibalism to keep alive and justify it by comparing humans to animals. The feat of the party in surviving can be read as a testament to human folly – what made them set out in such dangerous circumstances – or human spirit – our children, the next generation need us to keep going.

In “Maternal Impression” Cheryl Moskowitz has created a collection threaded through with maternal instincts and extended the idea of parental concern and motivations beyond a mother and child to include figures in positions of authority and trust. The latter may not be benign or act in the best interests of their charges. But the parental instinct and willingness to take on that responsibility persists. The poems are deftly crafted and thought-provoking. In scope they run from history to the present day, but acknowledge the universal nature of the relationships between parental authority and hopes and children’s safety and security.

“Maternal Impression” is available from Against the Grain.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook. Emma will be reading some of the poems from the book during Leicester Libraries week from 6pm on 6 October 2021 at Central Library (image below shows flyer for event).

Emma Lee will be reading from The Significance of a Dress at Central Library from 6pm on 6 October

“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New” Angela Costi (Spinifex Press) – book review

Angela Costi An Embroidery of Old Maps and New book cover

Angela Costi explores migration and memory through the poems in “An Embroidery of Old Maps and New”. Her roots are in Cyprus and she grew up in Australia, mixing her Greek-Cypriot traditions with a new world. The early poems start with leaving. In “Arrival”,

“There are words you must hold like blankets in snow
‘human rights’
You repeat them as a third language,
they feel hot on your tongue,
they make you remember a child with broken teeth,
remember a woman with a torn womb,
the man eating the dirt.
Here, you can say them
again and again
to many strangers
who will take your story
like a startled baby.
In fits and starts, you come to know words
as soldiers standing at check points

The words like warm blankets, “human rights” and “discrimination” should have been keys to open border locks and offer safe passage. Instead the locks resist and become gatekeepers. How do you produce evidence when you only have what you could carry? What can you do to guide or speed bureacratic processes that will creak along at their own speed when you need shelter and food and trying to speak in a rapidly-learnt language that is still unfamiliar?

The legacy of what was left behind, doesn’t stay behind. After stories of her grandmother’s fear of never opening the door, the poem “Knock Knock” includes,

“here I stand,
one side of the locked door,
noticing how my heart
is racing to open the latch
while my head is pounding
leave me alone,”

“Here I stand” roots the speaker by the locked door. Even though she’s not lived her grandmother’s stories, she still shares that experience of the fear of the knock. She’s caught between the need to open and welcome whoever’s outside while knowing that the outsider could bring danger. It’s not a reaction that can be shaken off.

The collection’s title comes from “Making Lace”. The goft is a Cypriot dialect word that refers to the holes in the lace likened to “little windows for fairies”,

“she is the story on linen,
no longer woman in small village sitting under a tree for days, months,
years of thread weave through out and in, our skin
an embroidery of old maps and new,
Lefkara, Larnaca, Kyrenia, Hartchia,
Riverwood, Bankstown, Lalor, Reservoir,
thread weave through out and in,
she lives in each strange of cotton perle, the white, brown and ecru,
she makes houses, rivers, wells, trees, caves
for secret lovers, lost children, dying soldiers,
she peeks throug goft, through fairy windows, and sees me,
letter by letter, crossing the keyboard
thread weave through out and in,
she sees her children’s children not work in fields harvesting rotten crops.”

It’s bittersweet: the loss of one’s mother country while acknowledging that leaving was the right decision because her descendants will be able to thrive in this new country. The embroidered linen with its edging of bobbin lace continues an old tradition to meet new words and allows stories to continue. Traditionally women’s work and overlooked, embroidery and lace make perfect vehicles to document histories and messages if you care to look for them.

One tradition that should have been left behind is detailed in “To Identify the Apostate”,

“I cultivate worry with my left,
always the apologetic spill,
the readjustment of tools
to accommodate the right.

In earlier years, I complied,
held the pen with the hand
of redemption,
became a stumbling food on the page
which made me run back to my left,
cursed with ill-omen, and yet
became the fluid-dancer of arabesque
with cursive pirouettes.

I remember waddling
with my left hand strapped to my back
by Mama, enthused with the Orthodox parable”

The “problem” of being left-handed. It is still within living memory that left-handers were forced to use their right hands because of superstition.

The final poems bring the collection to the current day. In “2020”

“This is the year of cross-stitch steps,
no large leap for mankind teaches
anything known or new, small is

the bounty of the meek, each step
an abundance of life and death,
each stitch is a step from backdoor

to fence, the stitch from clothesline to
carport, the step to fishbone fern,”

Our world was reduced to our immediate localities. Although a billionaire spent 11 minutes in space, he didn’t make it to the moon. The rest of us learnt to adjust and appreciate the value of smaller achievements.

“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New” explores the liminal space between inherited culture, language and traditions and life in a new country where those inheritances are woven into the fabric of a new traditions and cultures. Angela Costi’s poems are a quiet celebration of small, but important steps taken, while not shying away from the reasons that prompted this new life. Readers get to see both the intricacy and delicacy of the top stitches as well as the thumb pricks and calloused hands that made them.

“An Embroidery of Old Maps and New is available from Spinifex Press

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

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

“A Blood Condition” Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto Poetry) – book review

Kayo Chingonyi explores inheritance, legacy and relationships in poems that move from Zambia to the UK. He starts with the Zambezi River the prose poem, “Nyaminyami”,

“where people and the river lived in accord for generations, woven as hair in a braid is woven, in such a place our story begins, half a lifetime ago before the Monckton Commission when people burned their chitupas in front of the offices of district commissioners, before a blood condition passed through the populace as flame through forest, before load shedding, hours of power cuts; the national grid sold off to the highest bidder, before Zed was booming from copper, its roads full of American cars and salesmen plied their trade”

The river was accorded respect by the local people who understood its importance and appeased its god. Then the colonialists in their search for copper and use of the original populace move in and exploit or displace them. The blood condition is not named but surfaces, like the river, throughout. In a crown of sonnets, “Origin Myth”, “Results” from a blood test give

“All clear. Sat in bed you cry until
streetlights glance the lattice of the blinds,
your heart a boulder rolling down a hill
your optimism toughened to a rind
effective, if a little unrefined.
And though, for now, you’re spared the hereafter
there are depths of fear no words can capture.”

The tears are a release of emotions, not just relief at the all clear. The narrator’s dodged the bullet of the blood condition which could have been inherited from either or both of his parents. The tears acknowledge survivor’s guilt. The condition took his parents. In a visit to “Chingola Road Cemetery”

“I came to pay my respects
As did my mother before me
kneeling at the exact spot
all she carried, like a bag of shopping,
dropped; its contents rolling.

On the tape she made
of his favourite songs
her voice cracks
in the act of speaking
as if the act is what loosed him
from this plane.

Let us pause to play him ‘Hotel California'”

The son is following his mother’s footsteps, paying respects as she did. Ensuring her son wouldn’t forget, a tape of songs is a memento. The irony of the song mentioned is that among ghostly voices, is the observation that a visitor can check out but not leave. A person can pass on but the memory is still alive. Legacies continue. The “Genealogy” sequence of brief poems further develops this idea. In “[Shieldfield]”, “you” is the narrator’s mother,

“They let you hold them before taking them away.
You were enraptured by their bow-leggedness,
those legs that never ran down these stairs and along the road
I always say: I was supposed to have three siblings.”

There’s a tenderness despite the tragedy. The mother is allowed to see her late children who are acknowledged as family members. Unfortunately the narrator loses both parents to the blood condition before embarking on some of the rites of passage that the transition to adulthood brings. Here, he brings his wife to his mother’s grave, “[Incantation]”,

“The woman I came to your grave
to tell you about
wore your wedding ring
the day we married. And if, as I sometimes believe,
objects transmit energy,
this wearing brought you back.”

“A Blood Condition” is remarkably unsentimental and there are moments of love and joy, e.g. in “interior w/ ceiling fan”,

“let me be this unguarded always
speaking without need of words
because breath is the oldest language
any of us know”

There’s still space for love, which seeps in like the river that the poems return to, “Nyaminyami: ‘water can crash and water can flow'”,

“those………. who know water…….. know
eventually water will pass through
even…… the smallest gap…… in what appears
to the human eye…… to be…….. a solid mass”

Kayo Chingonyi’s “A Blood Condition” demonstrates the power of poignant quietness and acceptance of both love and loss and how the personal speaks to the universal. Like the river, the poems know their destination and flow towards it, subtlely shaping their thoughtful strands into an intelligent, intricate reflection.

“A Blood Condition” is available from Chatto Poetry.

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.

“A Happening in Hades” S K Kelen (Puncher and Wattmann) – book review

S K Kelen A Happening in Hades book cover

Hades seems to be a state of mind, not just a place, and takes readers on a tour through politics, history, love, boredom and other human conditions in a variety of forms. The opening half is a collection of casual sonnets that don’t strictly follow the rules but allow the underlying structure to give the poems a framework, a reason not to wander too far off into digressions. The first poem, “Barbarian”, starts,

“Fey provincial folk played guitars
and zithers, slowly farmed the days
they read books and sat through plays
lived their lives creatively
(crochet, writing and pottery)
oblivious to the barbarian hordes
surrounding and then they noticed.”

Each turns to prayer only for them to be replied with disaster after disaster as “the home audience stare/ at shiny screens.” Being good is punished by reduction to entertainment to keep the barbarians on the right side of the screen. Escaping into a parallel world, in this case “Parallel Worlds (Earth No. 47)” doesn’t always help as the tourist lands at a airport,

“the talk gets giggly about a new war, the time to hate,
and who to hate, keep in mind the terrorist thrill,
sexy and mysterious. Join the fight to save Propaganda.
Make do in this tiger-free dimension—at least a while—
hotter here than the last world, things fall apart fast.”

The talk starts with trivia – the idea of war so familiar that’s it’s merely gossip and picking sides as simple as keeping up with high school cliques; stick with the cool kids, you’ll be fine – like a game that doesn’t acknowledge that death is permanent, not an entry to a new life. The lack of external predators – “tiger-free” – suggests the enemy is within, neighbours report on neighbours and everyone’s a spy. Not a stable foundation for a civilisation. Contemporary references seep in, “Eternity” sees,

“Tetris plates, cups, saucers, spoons,
knives, forks, spatulas into a dishwasher
and st vitus dance a broom
(do this daily) sweep clean until doom”

Then in the calm after a storm,

“Today, a warrior made of plastic blocks
stands guard on the dining table, strong
vigil like a power ranger grandma.”

A bored mind, going through the same motions each day starts turning everything into a game, the strategic loading of a dishwasher, an inamiate lump of blocks becomes a warrior guardian.

“The Nothing Days” feels familiar after national lockdowns,

“Thursday (what date is it?
Begin forgetting), Nothing Thursday
Nothing Friday Nothing Saturday Sunday
Monday. Recite Nothing each day.
Practise this Tuesday and Thursdays
Days easily confused, they run widdershins
Last week vanished up a tree.
Or say Wednesday (note: remember: read to-do list)
Concentrate on breathing all day. Say nothing,
The day is full of hours
Breaking down to minutes, seconds
All the way to never. Stop. Think, say nothing.
Nothing every day, today. Forgotten.
Say anything and there will be trouble.”

No only have the days slipped into one another, to-do lists become something to read rather than action. Lethargy has taken over to such an extend that saying something becomes a rebellion, something with undesirous consequences. Talk may be discouraged, but music isn’t, in “Spiral”,

“the earth shifts for a jukebox number,
instrumental, ‘Love For Sale’, cool and hot,
wordless, each note suggests a word
that can be felt, seen, synaesthesia
jazz always sounds and feels great:
a lingering trumpet turns a mobile phone
speaker into a singing bird, the stereo
grows an extra dimension”

The music expands until,

“H being Himself on his tenor sax rescued,
and Herself sings blues, a city weeps.
Together they hit up joy and start to die.”

Time to hit another dimension. “Parallel World 101: Hero Product”, a prose poem, takes the reader to

“Next? Getting older you start to slow and see some day sooner your own end is coming. Our world is going to hell and the Earth is moving on. Desperately homesick for the past, we’ll miss the world’s good times when there was a future. Sure, as a species we were warlike, tyrants to each other and doom to our fellow creatures, yet invention and aspiration, the endless fascinations we discovered in the Universe, kindness, nobility of spirit, Life’s transcendent moments, art, sport and good fun balanced human evil: we wanted to live. That’s how I remember it. Now I can’t bear to hear the doomsayers’ talk nor the crazy prophets’ optimism. One side says Despair the other tells us to Rejoice, they agree we’ll all be Jelly soon.”

The collection draws to a close with two longer poems which were originally a chapbook, “Don Juan Variations” (Vagabond Books, 2012), narratives that reply on the rhyme and rhythm of poetry for pace. Naturally, this being Hades, “Don Juan Enters The Underworld” and observes,

“A line for the deceased and one
For those souls who prefer a living hell
A shambolic crew lining up with passports,
Curricula vitae, scribbled notes
Old tickets, envelopes or what-have-you.
Don Juan joined the queue.

The poets are well represented.”

A poet’s life is a living hell of teasing the extraordinary from the ordinary to entertain barbarians. Sounds about right.

S K Kelen has created a lively tour of an underworld that could be just a mis-step into a parallel universe, that uses an external landscape to mirror an internal one where characters inventively create distractions from routine, the smallness of the world and how similar everyone is. “A Happening in Hades” explores the necessity of invention, how people escape through small acts of rebellion and make the world theirs.

“A Happening in Hades” is available from Puncher and Wattmann.

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.

“More Lies” Richard James Allen (Interactive Press) – book review

Richard James Allen More Lies Front Cover

Richard James Allen’s “More Lies” is rollercoaster romp through the eyes of an eloquent unreliable narrator, who is a writer, using a noisy typewriter at gunpoint to cover for a criminal pair with their sights on assassination. For good measure, there’s some lost gold thrown in and, naturally, one of the pair is a blonde femme fatale happy to sleep with the writer to keep them (the writer’s gender is ambiguous) on board. The writer asks, “Well, what would you write about if you’d been made love to by a beautiful woman whom you had met less than an hour before and then been tied to a chair and told to write, while she held a magical little murder weapon to your head and screamed down the hallway to her accomplice, Peters, who had apparently been listening to and probably taping the whole proceedings from the apartment across the hall?”

The writer discovers that the pair had already tried to get a neighbour to comply, but her inability to type meant she got left in the fridge while the pair moved on to their current target. It seems the pair aren’t intelligent enough to read what the narrator is typing so he reveals their scheme to plant a canister of poison in a bunch of flowers which will be presented to their target during a planned official visit to a community group who wish the bouquet to be a gesture of respect. For good measure there’s a subplot about lost gold. Conveniently, the writer moved frequently during his childhood and is estranged from his surviving siblings: a loner who could disappear without trace. He later confesses “truth is not my speciality.”

Can the writer trick the would-be assassinations into believing he is complying with them and escape before he outlives his usefulness? Will he also find the lost gold to fund a new life under a new name? But his first problem is what to do when a nosy neighbour triggers a visit from the police.

With no plot-spoilers, what happens next is a tumble of ideas, referential images to tropes of detective thrillers and spy plots. The writer’s fluidity and humour keep the momentum going and readers (just about) on board. It asks questions about how much is true, whether what matters is the factual truth or emotional truth and the nature of storytelling itself.

Aside from the writer, all the characters are bit players, little more than pawns in the writer’s chess game. Fortunately, it’s a slender, pacey novel that knows not to outstay its welcome, so perfect for readers who are happy to step aboard for the ride. And it’s a ride of rapid-fire gaps, tricks, illusions and references to hard-boiled 1930s’ private detectives, crime noir and cold war thrillers that’s really a book about storytelling and the importance of lies.

“More Lies” is available from Interactive 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.

“Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s” Morag Anderson (Fly on the Wall Press) – book review

Morag Anderson “Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s book cover

Morag Anderson’s “Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s” is an exploration of human connections, the delights and horrors of a life that seems ordinary until it’s poked into revealing its casual violence and, occasionally, tenderness. At “Two Doors Down” lives the “daftest Dad on our street” who plays magic tricks with coins and cards but also a night visitor to his daughter’s bedroom,

“Choosing to believe
in space created
by the child,
rigid against ponies
papered to her wall,
he slid in.

But when truth
awoke his household
he shrunk
inside his bleeding brain,
was left too dead
to repent.

No-one collected his ashes.
They believe
he is burning yet.”

The choice of “ponies” is apt, they’re reserved for children or were used in enclosed spaces to pull coal from the mines. “Slid in” is ambiguous but he clearly didn’t just slide into her bed. He also made a choice that a girl had created space for him, ignoring that she was too little to fill the bed. His terminal illness feels like karma caught up with him and no one wanted to take responsibility for his ashes, the way he refused to be the adult and take responsibility for his actions.

In the title poem, the narrator wears “blue for luck” just as a bride might, but the narrator is “not significant enough/ to be a footnote.” while using drink to “dull the night’s toxic industry” for a man who doesn’t notice her non-sober state,

“There is no animal husbandry
in this meat factory.
I am disposable and new.
An emaciated mare
barely good for glue.”

To customers, this is merely a transaction, the state of the woman they’re paying irrelevant so long as they get what they’re paying for. The narrator is full of self-loathing, all too aware of her lack of power, lack of impact and apparent worthlessness.

“A Thirst for Rain” is after Rosemary Tonks, and starts,

“I have lived them, and lived them.
Swollen afternoons of seared skin
when nothing mattered more
than the crow’s love of bone
or the damselflies’ tangled rise
above idle water.”

Rosemary Tonks (1928 – 2014) authored two poetry collections, six novels and was chiefly active on the literary scene in the 1960s. She renounced literature in the 1970s and seemed pretty much forgotten until a collected poems, “Bedouin of the London Evening” was published in 2014. Her poems focused on urban, cafe scenes or undermining pretentious potential lovers. Their tone is conversational and dryly humoured. Anderson’s poem matches that atmosphere, where a narrator looks on a full life where all that mattered was the next meal, the next love.

“Killing Time in the Relatives’ Room” sees the narrator notice the carpet, “bright/ like buttered spinach”, a picture that includes a table “strewn with petals/ fallen from slumped poppies”, and

“Silent and observational,
a sombre blue bible
offers Good News
beside an empty box of tissues
and an unrung phone.
In this holding bay, news of quitters
arrives quietly on white shoes.”

The atmosphere is one of resignation, caught in a limbo between knowing what news will be brought and waiting for it to happen. In contrast, “I Was Once a Girl in a Fountain, Splashing a Boy” starts on a note of optimism, “I disperse old anxieties,/ push blue through layers of grey;” a determination that continues with “consider the violence/ of waves thrust upon canvas/ or words scratched on paper.” Until

“The water’s edge rushes
like the open mouth of a story—
all gush and foam—interrupts
a thought built from small bits of silence:
blood will slow and thicken in eddies
when I am least ready.”

A rush of creation that never arrives conveniently.

Rosemary Tonks is an apt source of inspiration and allusion in “Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s”. A collection that looks at family ties, seedier desires and needs, how the need to survive distorts relationships and afternoons of potential before dusk draws in. The poems have a buoyancy; they want to float off the page and be read so the sounds can be heard. Their subjects may be passive and/or powerless, but the poems bubble to the surface, drawing attention and leave barbs of startling images to be remembered after the book is closed.

“Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s” is available from Fly on the Wall 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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“Down a Cobblestone Lane” Kathleen Panettieri (Litoria Press) – book review

Down a Cobblestone Lane Kathleen Panettieri

After a cancer diagnosis in 2016, Kathleen Panettieri began a project to rescue the poetry she’d been writing, but not sought publication for, with the twin aims of not letting it slide into one of those projects to get round to doing one day and to give her strength throughout her cancer journey. This is not a book about that journey. Thankfully, the poet is in remission. Childhood memories inevitably surface, but there are also poems of inspiration and looking foward. The title poem is an attempted trip down memory lane,

“But the walls are deaf and blind
They shimmer, receding now,
Out of reach, leaving me behind
The past has closed its door
Nothing is as it was before
Just memory playing those
Old old tricks once more.”

The past is a foreign country. The poem is a reminder that we can’t return to our childhood and re-experience it as we were. We’ve grown, phyiscally, spiritually and mentally and our current knowledge puts a fresh perspective on old memories. Our childhood houses seem smaller and diminished by what we remember. “Silhouettes on a dusty street” similarly picks up this theme,

“Riding the red metal scooter with its clackety wheels
Bare feet skidding on the burning road
Deaf to the hounds of time snapping at our heels
The roar of the future snarling on impatient wheels”

Children can’t wait to grow up yet that red seems to be one of warning, the clackety wheels a hint that the path ahead won’t be easy.

“Reading Sylvia Plath” seems to be more about the woman than her work, it ends,

“I see beauty
Dressed in the veils
Of your anguish
I hear the music
Of your pain
Buried in the notes of
Your dark symphony
Strung like black pearls
Aching against the light.”

This is the Sylvia Plath of “Edge”, “Electra on Azalea Path” or “Lady Lazarus”, not the Sylvia Plath of “You’re” or “Morning Song” or “Wintering”. It presents her as warped by depression, composing her dark music into irridescence and beauty as if that was all she was. Perhaps too brief a subject for one poem, but, if you knew nothing about her, it presents the suicide doll, not the fully-grown woman. In contrast, “An unknown hero” subtitled “I.M. Nick Goulas” paints a man who leaves a keepsake,

“Though broken, it holds
A world of memories
Coat-hangers dangle
These remains carrying
The scent of him still
A small corner of
The wardrobe was his
He never measured
Himself by things”

He is later summed up as “Proud, wise and humble” and concludes “Let it be known that I had/ An unknown hero for a father”. The love and connection shine through. An immaterial man who appreciated the value in virtues and living well. Something his daughter seems to have inherited in “The Way”,

“Today I am slathering
The butter on my toast
And enjoying it
Every last bite of it
I am tired of hearing
What is good, what is not
What is going to
Lengthen my life
Or shorten it
I will not skim
The top off life
Today I will not
Practice deprivation”

Buttered toast is comfort food, not the healthiest, but not overly harmful either. Cancer brings lots of unsolicited advice with what to eat, what not to eat, how to defeat it, as if it obeys an arbitary set of rules someone found through an internet search. But what is the point of a lengthened life if it cannot be enjoyed? There is a gleeful, subversive tone to the poem.

Returning to the theme of memory and how it can be deceiptive, “Family portrait,” considers how a family got lost “In the eye of a camera/ All polished up in our Sunday best”, until the photo is taken,

“Invents its own still life
Version of us
We hurry to gather up
Our own little fictions and
Step back into character.”

Posing for the camera means losing oneself, albeit it briefly, and the momentary snapshot can’t replicate the true feelings and links between each family member. The poses are artificial, showing what each person wants to show or is trying to show the camera. The camera itself is merely an observer and someone looking at the photo may put their own interpretation on the picture, which may not coincide with the subjects’ versions of themselves.

A later poem, “Café blues,” brings readers right up to date with the Covid-19 pandemic,

“We are in lockdown
So I must imagine myself
Sitting in a small café”

The narrator thinks about choices on the menu,

“So easy to replicate
You might say
In your own sparkling kitchen
But no, it’s not the same
I realise as it slips
Out of questioning reach
It’s an experience I crave
The delicious smells, the voices
Chattering and tangling
My senses with enjoyment
There in that vibrant environment
I am one with the bustling
Teeming atmosphere, imagining
I could be anywhere in the world
But I am just dreaming
While Melbourne is sleeping.”

Imagination can’t be locked down and the imagined treats are about memory, the sensory prompt of smells, voices, sight, the joy of connection and a feeling of belonging, being part of the crowd in the cafe.

“Down a Cobblestone Lane” is a gentle journey that acknowledges the unreliability of memory, how even siblings can create different views of their childhood years and what makes the people we love memorable, what is it that they leave for us? Katherine Pattieri also asks what makes life enjoyable and worth living even through a potentially life-taking disease.

“Down a Cobblestone Lane” is available through Litoria Press.

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

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