“Imperfect Beginnings” Viv Fogel (Fly on the Wall Press) – Book Review

Viv Fogel explores her journey from childhood to motherhood through these poems. She was born in the UK and adopted by two refugee Holocaust survivors who had met and married in the UK. “Exiled” looks first at the baby’s viewpoint in part i,

Viv Fogel Imperfect Beginnings cover image and advert

“you were my whole world
safe holding and mine—
then gone.

I was alone
no roots”

This is imagined – the baby’s whole world is her mother – but this safety changes when the baby is given up for adoption. It’s not known why the baby was given up. Post Second World War there were many reasons: poverty, lack of support from a wider family, a father who didn’t return, the stigma of being an unmarried mother, widowhood, a very young woman taken advantage of. Ultimately it may not matter. Part ii looks at the adoptive parents, uprooted from a homeland as a baby is uprooted from her mother, and arriving,

“now is the waiting game:
questions papers returned
visas granted…. or delayed.

In yellow rooms you wait.
You sit watching the clock
not daring to hope.

Stranger
I welcome you
rootless as I
to this bittersweet land.”

The adoptive parents face the agony of waiting to see if they will be accepted by this new country, by the agency for a baby. The “yellow rooms” suggestive of faded, dingy rooms unmaintained and uncared for. This could be a projection of the refugees’ feelings or could be the refugees take on the message of decay, the lack of priority.

Viv Fogel’s concerns do not just lie with refugees from the Second World War but also look to the present, in “Ahmad’s Pool”, where Ahmad is a pseudonym

“In halting English….. Ahmad describes his life
as a stagnant pool where nothing lives or moves.

Each night he stands in moonlight watching it shimmer,
the way light shimmers the way light becomes a dart of
silver

a movement a silver fish! the next night there are more—
and his pool starts to breathe”

The fish become darts of hope as Ahmad is processed, able to stay and slowly create a new life. Most likely not the life he’d hoped or imagined, but a life of sorts.

“The Switch” asks if the bird whose nest has been appropriated will ever “smell out her changeling egg”? Then there’s a switch from birds to the personal,

“Cuckoo’s first call is heard on April 14th,
my birth date. Taken to another’s nest,
with name and feathers I could not keep,
I became the strange one who did not fit.

O cuck-mother—do you not miss your own?”

The adopted child knows her adoptive parents are not hers, that her roots don’t lie with them. She asks the nesting bird if she ever knows that the cuckoo is not hers, if the bird mother ever misses the offspring that was replaced with the cuckoo’s egg. In the personal viewpoint, it’s a hypothetical question. It’s not known whether the host/adoptive parents could have children. Siblings are not mentioned but it’s not clarified whether that’s because there were no siblings or they have been left out of a personal story. This adopted baby, aware that her parents are not her birth parents, is asking whether those parents would have preferred their own baby.

Later roles are reversed in “My Father Sold Cigarettes To The Nazis” dedicated to Itzaak Weinreich (1903 – 1988). The poem ends,

“I sat by his bed and fed him,

as once he fed me. I stroked his baby head,
made him smile at my jokes,
as his watery eyes were fading.

I traced his burnt-scarred arm, tapped
my fingers along numbers the same blue-grey
as his veins, longing to unlock his story.

He held my baby in his arms, just once,
a little awkward, a little shy,
a big man…..grown small.”

Here the adopted child, now an adult carer of her adoptive parent, has brought her own baby to see their grandparent. There’s still a sense of rootlessness. Although the adoptee knows what the tattooed numbers on the father’s arm represent, he has not spoken about them. The adoptee is unrooted twice: once by her birthmother and again by her adoptive parents not talking about their past. She imagines their history. In “On Not Writing the Holocaust”, “something in me remembers”

“funnels of dark smoke unfurling

a lost child’s shoe by the canal
the absence of birdsong
a field of stones and silence

many will roll their eyes Move on
so I do not write about the Holocaust
I was not there……… I was not there”

Her adoptive parents’ silence leaves her feeling she has no authority to write about their history because it’s not become part of hers. Even so, she’s aware of their past, of the stories not told. Where her relationship with her adoptive father seems tender, her relationship with her adoptive mother is not straightforward. “Practical UnEnglish” starts (Mutti is German for mum, Vati for dad), “Mutti claimed the Nazis butchered her so she couldn’t have babies:/ I believed her. But she should never have taken me instead./ Guilt-sick, she could not keep me safe.” This mother, “No child of mine, she hissed—with venom in her eyes./ No child of yours, I’d think, consoling myself .” Already the adopted daughter is aware that this mother is not flesh and blood and how that offers some comfort. But there are moments,

“she loved: Goethe’s Erlkönig, Shubert’s Lieder, Tauber,
the piano she made me sing to, in pink taffeta, for guests.
She sewed clothes for me, a coat even, practical, un-English.

The garden she created shone with colour. We visited Kew,
she showed me beauty and poetry in nature, and the tower
where Rapunzel remained trapped. How I longed to free her.

Her strong accent shamed me, her haunted awkwardness.
The stories she told became unbearable, seeped
with tears for those who perished, those she left behind.

She swallowed handfuls of pills in front of me,
so they sent me away, gave her ECT. And yet
she baked, her Powidltascherl and Apfelstrüdel were divine.”

The husband’s silence seems preferable. Traumatised, the adoptive mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the poem acknowledges both sides, the cruel, undermining of confidence in the daughter and the joy of new clothes, a garden. The focus is the mother, so investigating how the daughter reacted to being “sent away” during her adoptive mother’s periods of illness are not explored here. But the repeated acts of separation loosen the bonds.
The daughter does get to meet her birthmother, in “First Meeting” which ends,

“On this no-one-else-but-us shore,
this then becomes our beginning.
The space between…. hovers…. liminal—
there are no memories to replace what was lost,
yet, emptiness longs to be filled with what it once knew—
isn’t that enough?”

There are no shared memories, but a sharing of memories created in the other’s absence. This is in contrast to the now adult adoptive daughter’s relationship with her own daughter, in “Notebook”,

“My daughter enjoys the safety of lines,
but I prefer the blank page, to dive

and spiral bird free in a cloudless sky.
She cuts paper into delicate shapes,

pastes petals, turns butterflies into collages,
begins again if there is one mistake.

I splatter words like Pollock onto clear canvas
and smudge, rub holes in paper, stain and tear.

My daughter bathes in milk, soaks in Caribb sun,
paints her nails as bright as her imagined future.”

The daughter here has the security of taking time to do things, to start again if a mistake is made. Her mother is hasty, scrawling words on paper before they disappear, focused on the moment and creating a home wherever she happens to be. Just before the UK went into lockdown as the pandemic took hold, a move, that would have fallen through if it had taken place a week later, is an opportunity to create a new home,

“The grandkids WhatsApp, show their drawings,
sing a song just learnt, report the day—
his scratch, her fall; we choose the bedtime story,
they kiss the screen, hug the phone,
butterfly kisses are blown.

In last night’s dream I wrapped a cloak
around our blue and gasping planet,
a net of light to help it breathe,
blew away dust-clouds of viral fear,
hosed clean the darkened rivers.

Next morning outside our bedroom window,
the magnolia is in second bloom,
pale pink pure perfect.”

The move seems to have given the poet space to breathe and dream. The poet has a mother’s instinct to want to care for a future for her grandchildren. The poem, and book, ends on a note of hope.

“Imperfect Beginnings” is an exploration of rootlessness both of refugees and adopted children. The poems ask difficult questions about security a sense of belonging when those roots are absent and whether it is actually possible to settle into or create somewhere that feels like home. Viv Fogel also touches on intergenerational trauma. She didn’t inherit her adoptive parents’ trauma but was very much aware of their experiences and how those experiences informed their behaviour towards her. The later poems look at founding a mother/daughter relationship without a role model to create one from and whether it is possible to break away from the negative patterns learnt from those who failed to provide safe environments for children to grow in.

“Imperfect Beginnings” is available from Fly On The Wall.

Blog tour poster. Remaining dates 2 March @LINDAHILL50HILL, 3 March @LOU_BOOKMARKS, 4 March @KENT_NJ, 5 March @SYLVIAFWRITES, 6 March @FLY_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.

“We Saw It All Happen” Julian Bishop (Fly on the Wall) – book review

Julian Bishop We Saw It All Happen book cover

“We Saw It All Happen” is a collection of poems which highlight environmental and climate concerns. Some of them are necessarily downbeat but many suggest ways and actions that can be taken to counter these wider concerns. They are collected into three sections, ‘Taster’, ‘Mains’ and ‘After’. The first focuses on signs that signal environmental issues, e.g. in “Remember When Hippos Used to Swim?”, where hippopotamuses return to Lake Ngami,

“to lie down and wallow
in a long cool mud bath.

They plunge in fully clothed
but the thick mire grips them,
holds them close. The hippos
panic, flounder deeper
into the gluey folds
of ravenous black sludge.

Hungry vultures circle,
sizing up the mud-braised
hippopotamuses.
Packed tight, they sizzle like
sausages in a huge
African frying pan.”

Drought has emptied the lake of water but the hippopotamuses return through habit and can’t move on in search of water elsewhere. Their mud baths can’t save them from the sun and dehydration, even if they could escape the glue-like effect of the mud. Vultures circle waiting for the inevitable.

“Snow Leopard” is about the one that managed to escape from Dudley Zoo but zoo keepers failed to recapture it, the poem ends,

“to protect the world from a threatened cat
………the marksman only took one shot

to protect the threatened cat from the world
………we only had one shot

………………our empty cages tweet their own tale

………………#hashtag: epicfail

It doesn’t leave much space for comment. The repeat of “threatened cat” and “one shot” tells readers where their sympathy should lie and underlines how protecting the planet and its wildlife really should not be left to humans.

The second section, ‘Mains’, starts with an injection of satire, “Welcome to Hotel Extinction”, ends with an apology for,

“poor air conditioning. We guarantee a good sleep. Beware
of a sudden proliferation in insects—rest assured we are
committed to total elimination. Everything in the Ice Breaker
Tavern is on the rocks, 24/7. We don’t do a Happy Hour.
Think Hotel California: check out any time you like but you
can never leave. Daily wake-up calls are free. Sunset at the
infinity pool is unforgettable. Every room always has flowers.”

There’s a serious message too: continuing the way humans have always done is no longer an option. The happy hour has gone, the bar is named after the loss of sea ice and glaciers, and humans are sleepwalking into a permanent sunset.

The pandemic offered a different perspective. There’s a short sequence of ‘Lockdown Sonnets’ the second “Saffron Green” describes a world merely “inches away” from the A-road,

“the richer world hidden beyond
the front door. Pasture turned
into woodland until it was layer
upon layer of primrose, anemone
paths tickled with white comfrey,
finches in trees, just inches away
from the A1. I watched the conceit
of exhausted lives in the fast lane”

The “exhaust” is ambiguous, the lives described are both exhausting and heading for oblivion.

Initially in the ‘Afters’ section, the humour is ramped up, especially when having a dig at politicians, in “Eton Mess” (the meringue and cream dessert),

“Can be cobbled together in seconds.

  • First take the meringue (white) break it in with cream
    (also white).
  • Crush the strawberries until the pips squeak and the
    juices run like blood.
  • Mash. Scrummy!
  • Aterthought: sprinkle with spun sugar (for decoration).

No deep thought or application required.

NB nota bene: some of the ingredients demand prodigious
wealth.”

It continues, taking swipes at former Prime Ministers, mainly Boris Johnson and David Cameron. At least the Latin is correct. Similarly, “Big O” subtitled “(i.m.)”, characterises oil,

“Black day when Ol’ King Coal got shot,
but then the kill-line for Big O kicked in

when the whole darn world locked down.
Plugs ruptured, his blowout preventer
got plain plumb-tuckered. Sour gas

spudded through his limbs, black holes
at his heart laid bare. Dude so fracking
frail, goddam wind blown him clean away.”

He still swaggers when witnessing the death of coal but it’s all bluster and his fragility is revealed when the world moves on to other sources of energy.

So far the issues of the climate emergency are laid out, firstly with details, rubbish in the oceans choking sea life, moving on to land and the effects of drought and heat and how rubbish humans are at being guardians of the planet. “We Saw It All Happen” then moves into satirical swipes at politicians and those not ready to see a new future of renewables and lacking the urgency to change. “Guerilla” suggests small ways humans might improve. It ends,

“I don’t want roads I want clover
I want thyme…. I want thrift
trench warfare against the endless drives
and your big wheels won’t stop us

until irises run up a white flag
until I see heartsease….. honesty

and love lies bleeding
by every wasted roadside”

It makes the point that humans may be heading for extinction but nature can fight back if humans support it and let it. It might start with small plants taking back spaces currently given over to tarmac, but there’s a note of hope.

“We Saw It All Happen” is a collection that has the climate emergency firmly in its sights, but it’s not a didactic, handwringing swansong that writes humanity off completely. Politicians are fair game, their reluctance to make real, lasting change explored through satire. Oil swaggers in and drifts out like Trump. Julian Bishop seeds hope. It’s not too late (yet). We can each make small changes to bring out larger wins. It entertains.

“We Saw It All Happen” is available from Fly on the Wall.

We All It All Happen Blog Tour

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

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“Cracked Asphalt” Sree Sen (Fly on the Wall Press) – book review

Sree Sen Cracked Asphalt book cover

“Cracked Asphalt” is a journey from Mumbai to Dublin exploring issues of identities, what makes home and why someone might leave the country they were born in and wisdom gained on a physical and emotional journey. An early poem, “frames”, suggests a day as a series of freeze-frames, snapshots of memories capturing,

“(to myself)
just a number
like the first-class master’s degree
gathering Latin dust

(rain downpour)
glossy brochure photos
kids with cracked lips
me, peddling sorrow, afraid to sip

(beware)
urinary tract infections
long waits at bus stops
racists, invincible under streetlights

(exhaustion)
my hand holding a chapati
can’t make the journey
from plate to mouth.”

Someone with a master’s degree is going door to door, fundraising. The rain could be a mood as well as the weather. The phrase glossy brochure suggests wealth but shows children barely surviving in poverty. As she works, the speaker chooses not to hydrate because it’s safer than facing sexist/racist reactions if she asks to use a bathroom. She gets home too tired to feed herself.

Later, inspired by the story of a white stork that migrated from Africa to Germany with an arrow stuck in its side, the speaker compares and contrasts her new home to her former home, in “pfeilstörche”

“i make fresh coffee with roasted Kenyan beans

from O’Connell supermarket
of polite nods at safe distances vs.
probing questions from Pari kaku who sold
instant coffee at the store in my old neighbourhood

back at the window
dusty feet on cracked tar
497 miles towards home on a pastel Bengal road
teeth stained with raw tobacco & melting gur

human chain of fractured spines
a class forgotten in a hurry
Pari kaku stares at me, unblinking, a dagger
between muscle & bone”

The Irish maintain a polite distance and don’t ask invasive questions of their neighbours. Back in Mumbai, neighbours lack restraint and grocery store owners aren’t asking from politeness but to pass on news and spread gossip. There’s no sense that one is superior to the other, rather than some middle ground is desired. That her Irish neighbours open up a little more and her Mumbai neighbours dial down the nosiness.

Distance is picked up again in the haiku, “loss”,

“your letter carries
the scent of jasmine desires
trapped in papercuts”

Jasmine is a scent of home, a reminder of the person who sent the letter. But the letter causes papercuts, which sting. This contrasts with “semantics” where the reasons for leaving are remembered,

“leaving my hometown, i was told,
i’d be a second-class citizen
in a first-world country
as if being a brown girl
in a brown country
was any different
as if i wasn’t scared
all the time
my character attached to my neckline

………….as if i wasn’t familiar with brutality
………….at home, on streets, inside my head
………….groped on the staircase
………….arthritic fingers of friend’s grandfather

…………..who walked us every morning
…………..to the school bus stop
…………..my breasts starting to show
…………..holding out my elbows in crowds
…………..to deter horny men with hard palms
…………..that practised speed-fondling”

Here the problem is sexism, not racism (although in Dublin, the two may intersect). There’s an irony in being told she’d be a “second-class citizen” in a European country when she’s one at home thanks to the harrassment she already suffers. The poem ends,

“in a home not my own
here, cherry blossoms are
clouds trapped by branches
dreaming of the sky
hard lines of guilt, softening
i’m free to chop off my hair
grown long for men
in the territory of humid scalps
……………sometimes, i still cower
brown country is for brown men
……………& a visa for me”

Her new home offers freedom she didn’t have in Mumbai. She doesn’t have to dress or wear her hair for the male gaze. But she’s not entirely free and has become to feel as if she is a visitor in both countries.

“give yourself permission” offers a sense of peace, an acceptance that life doesn’t have to be perfect for someone to be content, the speaker gives herself permission to,

“do……..what you’ve been planning to
…………….but haven’t yet—
…………….grow plants, spray paint,
…………….bake desserts in a rusty oven
…………….argue with the mirror

make….plans A, B, C, D & then E, or don’t,
…………..forgive yourself for wallowing,
…………..for sudden tears at the long-forgotten
…………..anger: years lost in a frenzy
…………..of doing more, being more

now…..give yourself permission
………….on this day,
………….a gentle wave of breeze
………….whispering that spring
………….follows winter, year on year”

Don’t wait for the perfect moment, seize the imperfect opportunities too and be kind to yourself. These aren’t empty mantras, but earnt wisdom.

Sree Sen’s journey throughout “Cracked Asphalt” is a geographical and emotional one, moving from Mumbai to Dublin. The speaker is realistic and doesn’t assume that she can move away from the harrassment she suffers in the country she was born in and neither does she pretend everything’s rosy in her new country. The move puts her in a limbo: she’s now a guest when she returns to her country of origin but not complete at home in the country where she has settled. However, she finds joy in small things: food, planting, art and refuses to beat herself up for difficult days where regrets surface or that day’s tasks feel impossible. There’s a reminder that winter does eventually turn to spring. Hope can poke through the darkest of soils.

“Cracked Asphalt” 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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.