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

Julia Webb The Telling book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Telling” is available from Nine Arches Press.

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

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

“A Single Window” Daniel Sluman (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Daniel Sluman a single window front cover

Daniel Sluman’s poems explores the intimacy and love along with confinement and isolation experienced prior to lockdown. This are not pandemic poems. Sluman is an amputee who suffers chronic pain and his wife, Emily, has Crohn’s disease and fibromyalgia. During 2016, without proper care, they were unable to safely get upstairs so were mainly stuck in their lounge watching the world outside through the window. The poems follow the year through the four seasons, starting with autumn,

“………………..we watch documentaries on mute

from the sofa we’ve lived in
for the last eight months

…………………………………the frames crash over us

………………the colours
………………the names
………………the stories rip …………& merge

…………………..& we don’t sleep or we sleep
………………………………..all day

……when we finally pull back the curtain

…………….a slant of rain is leaning
……………………..against the road

…………….slick with rotting leaves

……autumn smoulders everything
…………………….back to its roots”

There’s a strong feeling of repetitiveness: re-watching documentaries and their stories merging, the rain against the window, adding up to a sense of stasis. Lives in a state of limbo. The documentaries are marking a passing of time which is split into hour-long chunks. Sleep happens or doesn’t. There’s a loss of routine and connection. The pain or side-effects from pain relief make it difficult to concentrate so the documentaries are muted to take away the obligation to focus and understand. Their function is to provide a reminder there’s more outside the room/window than the weather.


“…half-awake to the noise / of pages flitting
next to you / like a tongue wetting / like a bird
………landing / i drink my tea as quietly /
as i can stare / at an invisible spot / beyond
the tv / until my body & mind / finally meet”

The narrator is still in a sense of stasis; somewhere between reality and a dream (nightmare) of sameness, trying to focus and make sense of something. Until his clouded mind clears and feels reconnected to his bodily reality. There’s also a sense of connection between husband and wife: neither wants to disturb or impinge on each other because it might create a sense of obligation when both want each other’s presence but not to impose, knowing the other is experiencing chronic pain too.

There are photos in among the poems, such as a vase on a rain-splattered window, patterns of lights and shadow on a ceiling, prescribed painkillers, reflections in windows, Emily, Daniel, crutches, a bath, an x-ray, a laptop, all given a full description in the appendix. They complement the poems, acting either as a visual reminder of the collection’s title or a visual inspiration for one of the poems.

Autumn becomes “winter” and the subject turns to intimacy, “up close how your skin shivers//like a line about snow/in a robert frost poem”. Later Emily massages the stump of Daniel’s leg,

“…………………………i imagine the phantom limb

pouring into your palms like water
………all the cruel words & shame

…………………thrown into the space
………where my leg should be

………………..pulled out like barbs

…………..this is how it feels
to have your trauma held

………….. i tell you your kindness kills me
…………………..your grace kills me”

There’s also a reminder of why the leg was amputated, from childhood bone cancer,

“in an overspilling drawer / of yellowed papers /
…..on the back / of an old hospital letter /
…the odds of my survival / ( post-chemo ) /
notated as a percentage / (30) / in my father’s hand”

That child is now an adult, managing chronic pain and splitting himself between the reduced circumstances brought about by disability discrimination and the life of a husband and writer.

“spring” brings another mood change,


Gone is the persistant rain of autumn and confines of winter. Spring and the restoration of natural colours along with the return of birds seems to bring a note of optimism. However, husband and wife are still inhabiting a small, shared space with the fluctuations of disability,

“…………………….dropping emojis & gifs
………..into each other’s phones

…………………the distance between our bodies
………………………. always swelling

…..how a message will hang in the air unread
…………& i’ll know you’ve fallen asleep”

There’s still an irregular schedule, sleeping when pain allows and the desire to continue being a couple,

“………………..we’re two sentences on opposing pages
…………in a cheap book offset

falling into the heart of the spine
……………………………. together”

Two mismatched people flipping between the roles of carer and being caring for when differing disabilities allow. Emily alters a pair of trousers,

“& most will never know this intimacy
how you trace every ridge of the lipped pelvis
with the chime of your scissors
making a space in this world for me to fill
rounding the edge to hang off me like a crescent moon
you ply your love seam by seam”

The caring is not one-sided. In “summer” the husband cares for his wife,

“…………….& i nurse you like this three times a day
……………………….drawing the infection

…………………………………away from the drum

…………..with a patience
i could never summon for anyone else

…………………….the same way you’ll wrap
the gash on my finger next week

……………………….each throb of my pulse
……………….soaking the paper a deeper blush of red”

We don’t typically imagine having to perform acts of intimate care for another, yet, when put in that position for someone we most love, we get on with it as if we’d forgotten we couldn’t imagine doing it. There’s a tenderness here, undermined by the pulsing cut where the imagery is more of passion and desire.

“a single window” is a generous opening into a confined world of disability and chronic pain and pain management. Through it, Daniel Sluman demonstrates that this small world is still full of complexity, love, compassion and tenderness as well as sadness and the trials of managing the side-effects of drugs and lack of outside care. He shows that intimacy and love are still possible in the bleakest of moments and the will to survive can renew. “a single window” is not a polemic or a rant. The poems are closely observed and crafted reflecting the isolation and resourcefulness central to the lives of too many disabled people.

“single window” is available from Nine Arches Press.

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

“The Oscillations” Kate Fox (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Kate Fox The Oscillations book cover

Kate Fox’s second collection journeys through the after-effects of Covid-19 and neurodivergent identity in a confident, welcoming manner. One of the opening poems, “13th March” starts

“One committed cougher
half way up the auditorium,
a sniveller in the front row
I couldn’t get moved back
because the theatre said
seat reservations were pre-booked”

The poem ends,

“You, constant as a mantel clock,
keeping track of the interval
and my fatigue,

seeing me as a Swiss watch
full of moving parts.

Overwhelmed now
by whatever entered us,
we have both stepped
out of time.”

Any performer is familiar with audiences which include those who kid themselves their infectious cough or cold causes no harm. The red tape encountered by those who want to be moved away, “reservations were pre-booked”, could be forgiven by pre-lockdown ignorance. England went into lockdown later in March. “The Distance 1.” notes,

“I was always clumsy and elliptical,
unsure of the correct orbits

how close was too close,
how far too far.

I fix instead
on another left glove on a branch

singular as a vernal star.”

Even before social distancing, gauging how close you could stand to someone without encroaching on personal space and making a person uncomfortable was tricky. It’s even tricker when it varies from person to person and there’s a struggle to read social and emotional signals that the distance you settled on was not correct. I’m not sure if the glove is a left-handed glove or simply one thrown up into the tree and left behind when it caught on a branch but it’s image as a “vernal star” gives a hope of spring.

Neurodivergence is picked up again in “Skimming”, which ends,

“I had the knack once,
but needed to be re-taught
or un-learn the urge to throw.

My Mother was not patient
about how clear I needed instructions to be,
how much longer than for other people
it takes me to learn by seeing,
or building up muscle memory.
Now I am quick to disguise
the ways in which I am slow.”

Autism is often undiagnosed in girls because girls tend to be taught to more socially aware and so mask their symptoms more successfully. This can come at a cost though. The poem’s narrator remembers being slow to learn by watching and her mother’s impatience and probable assumption her daughter was stupid rather than accepting her daughter needed to be taught differently but could still learn the skill of skimming stones over water. It’s complemented by the image of skimming over a surface rather than plunging into and examining the depths.

There seems to have been a difficult relationship with her mother, in “Things my mother said the last time we met” along with “Your alarm clock was all I kept after you ran away”

“Maybe I gave you too much independence
but it makes you stronger like that song A Boy Named Sue,
you’ve done alright anyway
since we last met was it- sixteen- years ago haven’t you?
The things you said
about your Dad and me going with those men
well, he’s always seen himself as your Dad,
even if finding your birth certificate was a shock,
but you need to move on.
You always did have
a very vivid imagination.”

Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” sees the boy set out to kill his father who left when the boy was young only to discover his name wasn’t a joke but intentionally done to make the boy strong and able to defend himself. Here the mother seems to be justifying her parenting method on the basis her daughter turned out OK. There’s also a hint the daughter found out via her birth certificate rather than her parent that the man she thought was her father wasn’t her biological father but stepfather. Her mother is dismissive of any emotional pain caused with a classic gas-lighting statement “You always did have/ a very vivid imagination”, implying the daughter is taking things out of context and proportion.

Neurodivergency is revisited in “Exile” and discovering that customs,

“they are drilled deep into women
so no one will be able to tell

we are not from here. Now, I don’t belong
in our homeland any more

but fail to fit the new country too.
Your reflection of the gap between here and home

makes me feel close to you
and on my own.”

At surface level it suggests that coming home after a long time away leaves you as a stranger in a place that should be familiar. However, here women are taught that what is customary so well that they behaviour in an expected manner even when it is unfamiliar. The ability to mask comes at the cost of wearing a mask to cover a true self and not being able to reveal who one is so feeling at one remove all the time.

In “Emergency”,

“Both of us return again,
through the emergencies,
the snapped windscreen wiper,
the laboured breaths,
the last breaths,
the torn muscle

while beneath us,
between us,
sometimes despite us,
love spreads like a satellite signal,
like sea foam,
like spilt coffee on a counter top,
like home.”

In “The Oscillations” Kate Fox has a collection that explores neurodivergency and how masking differences comes at a cost and the isolation that can result, although there’s also hope in new connections as a world shifts. The pandemic is a backdrop, something battled and overcome with a journey towards renewal. The poems have a focused, conversational tone which belies their careful structure: the apparent casualness relies on sound echoes and partial rhymes. These poems both skim the surface and explore the depths, which path is taken is up to the reader.

“The Oscillations” is available from Nine Arches Press

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

“What Girls Do in the Dark” Rosie Garland (Nine Arches Press) – book review

“What Girls Do in the Dark” has a dedication to the poet’s father noting his death coincided with Voyager 2 leaving the solar system. This coincidence inspires exploration of space imagery with stars and comets as a celebration of what makes us human. There’s a wry sense of humour that runs through the poems too. The collection opens with “Letter of rejection from a Black Hole”,

Rosie Garland What Girls Do in the Dark front cover

“We’re touched by your desire to join our great work
of dismembering the fabric of time and matter.
We can’t blame you for wanting to hide in nothing,
and note the ways you’ve snapped off pieces of yourself
to prove you’re serious.”

Near the end comes the useful advice,

“You have the right to glow.
It’s not your duty
to light up anyone else’s day.”

In essence it’s a reminder that occasionally individuals need to recalibrate their perspective, especially those who are used to putting others’ needs first, and find a sense of self-worth that is not reliant on how others see or value us. It’s a theme further explored in “Snuffing hearts that burn too bright”, where the narrator can smell her woollen coat has a singed elbow after being forced to sit next to a star on the bus,

…………………The star peers at me, anxious, shaking its head
when I accuse it of scorching my coat. It’ll deny everything.
I’ve read how stars live off lies. So what about their surface
temperature, cores of liquid helium spinning at a thousand
miles per second, how they live for billions of years; haven’t
they got enough space in the sky to show off how glorious
they are? And the eyes. One look and bang, you’re gone. Not
me. I know how to deal with heavenly bodies.”

If you let it, the star will steal your light too. The cure is to set firm boundaries and refuse to be gas-lit; just like dealing with a narcissistic personality. Although it takes a firm sense of self to negotiate with a black hole of a personality who relies on taking advantage of another’s good nature. Someone who wants to do the right thing or is anxious to fit in, is ripe for exploitation.

Rosie Garland she was adopted as a baby and it took thirty years before she saw her original birth certificate which gave her name as Johanna Blight. Growing up with “thumbs that wilt roses” in a family of gardeners in “Palimpsest”,

“Three decades later, I fight for my certificate; a history
kept secret from its rightful owner. It lists a stranger
mother, blank box father, my self unrecognisable, spelled all wrong.

Only the date’s correct. Birthed on a Sunday,
but there’s nothing bonny in Blight, nor good, nor gay.
Whichever way I twist it – Bly, Blythe – the root is rotten.

I have a pair of parent names to choose from:
half Sunday lucky, half Wednesday woeful, neither
the whole picture. A contradiction”

It’s a play on the nursery rhyme where Wednesday’s child is full of woe but a Sunday’s child is bonny and blithe. The father’s name isn’t recorded because her birth parents weren’t married, which leaves a sense of rootlessness. Sometimes a search for answers merely creates more questions and Rosie becomes a flower without roots supported by an adoptive family yet carrying an awareness of not quite being the same. ‘Bonny’ is appropriate though, but given a new twist during a hospital stay where a pirate’s rebelliousness is invoked in “Dancing the plank”,

“red of heart tattoo. You are still Anne Bonney, Mary Read.
You’ve not sailed this far to scrape. Lean

into the swell of your rickety bed: peg-legged,
bilge-breathed, split-masted. Screw your eye
to the horizon and stagger
this day’s plank. Kick up your heels.”

In the title poem, two sisters share a bedroom and the narrator watches her sister climb back through the bedroom window at around 5.30am, “Mum will never believe you, she purrs, reeling in her tail. She takes a deep breath and turns her skin the other way so hair is on the inside and girl is on the outside”. The narrator begs to be let into the secret, but is told to wait.

Meanwhile, “Dark Matter” considers human arrogance (complete poem),

“The night sky over Darfur overwhelms
with stars; so burdened, there are plans to cull
a quarter. A third. More. They will prune back
the constellations to chief brightnesses –
the named, the mapped – burn off the stubble
of the small, the feeble, the unclear.
Torch the unimportant to cinders.

They will dam the Milky Way, divert
its flow to those who appreciate fine light;
leave the star-field uncluttered
for Lords of the Empty Quarter:
Antares, Altair, Arcturus; extending
ashy vacancies between these oases
in the night’s new desert.”

An unnamed ‘they’ classify and assign important to stars, trash those unconsidered unimportant without considering the roles played by the so-called ‘lesser’ stars. It’s works as an analogy to man’s conquering of nature and the triggering of climate change. Or to more recent events where the ‘lesser’ people on lower pay have kept the economy going by caring, stocking shelves and making deliveries.

The final poem, “Bowing out” sees a life in reverse where an unnamed she,

……………………..Unlocks gravity’s shackle,

parts sky with shoulder blades and flees the planet.
The Earth shrinks to a speck she can eclipse with a fingertip.”

Death enables her to unpick her life and find her true self, free from earth’s rules, which is where readers came in as celestial bodies become metaphors to explore what makes and motivates us as humans.

“What Girls Do in the Dark” tackles dark subjects with brio and energy which feels celebratory. A wry, subversive humour entertains while the poems delve into who humans navigate through their world where some only focus on what’s literary in front of them, whereas others are gazing to the stars, probing the darkness for a deeper understanding.

What Girls Do in the Dark” is available from Nine Arches Press.

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

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“Dressing for the Afterlife” Maria Taylor (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Maria Taylor Dressing for the Afterlife cover

“Dressing for the Afterlife” explores motherhood, heritage and inheritance and a sense that the female narrator(s) meet life’s challenges with verve and a wry humour. “But there’s armour in glamour” announces the narrator in “And there she was in the shrunken apartment like Joan Crawford, toy dog on her lap”. In the opening poem “She Ran”

“I ran through every town in which I’d ever lived.
I ran past all my exes, even a few crushes
who sipped mochas and wore dark glasses.
I ran in a wedding dress through scattered confetti
and was cheered by the cast of Star Wars”

The run through a past-life, the markers that made the narrator who she is today continue,

“Seasons changed; summer turned into autumn,
I couldn’t get as far as I wanted.
The lights changed. My ribs, my flaming heart
and my tired, tired body burned.”

The tiredness isn’t just the physical tiredness of running but also the psychological and emotional exhaustion of trying to be the best version of yourself at all times and trying to move on and attain improvement. A marathon of life where the finish line isn’t yet in sight. Other woman’s voices are explored too. One poem is for Laura Stephenson, Virginia Woolf’s half-sister. Another “Ophelia” is cat-fished even though “she’s blocked him three times”,

“He imagines kissing her open mouth,
Ophelia motionless in her beaded dress.

He paints grasses of yellow and Prussian blue
beyond her lifeless grasp. A floral noose

of withered violets, his artistic tributes
of poppies, forget-me-nots; her rigid hands.

He will tell her she was to blame,
the stagnant water so cold around her neck.”

Woman as a silent muse, not willingly either. The poppies are opiates, the forgot-me-nots sentimental. Is it her fault for not wishing to disrupt his artistic flow to tell him the water had gone cold or his fault for not periodically checking she was OK? The unnamed ‘he’ is not going to take any responsibility for his own actions and shifts the blame onto her. It starts with him kissing her, but he doesn’t include her response in his imagination; obviously saying ‘no’ is not an option. His painting is more important than her comfort or health.

“Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood” starts surreally,

“I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made
of soap and PVA glue running through their veins. My
boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow. I iron
children twice daily. Creases are the devil’s hoof print.
I am constructed from sticky-back tape, pipe cleaners
and clothes pegs. There are instructions for making me.”

It’s an energetic, satirical romp through the contradictory and impossible demands placed on mothers who are often already juggling their children’s needs alongside their own and trying to lose sense of who they are.

In “Hypothetical” a woman struggles to get her voice heard as others make assumptions and construct a narrative for her. Instructions for “How to Survive a Disaster Movie”, a rejection of suggested women for a “Role Model” until “I’d like to be the woman next door/ with a walk that says I know where I’m going.” A play on the advice to “get back on the horse” after a set-back in “The Horse”, “I have prepared complex equations/ for getting back on horses”, the horse however has other ideas, “She pours strong coffee, rests her hooves on the table,” so it becomes a battle of wills.

In a neat symmetry, the final poem is also a running poem, “Woman Running Alone”

“where the wolf-whistle becomes the wolf
and love’s worn like musk aftershave,
where she forgets who she is: Ms. Keep On,
Ms. Never-going-home, neither running away
nor running toward anyone, wind-sifted,
letting the weather sing through her,”

The additional sexual harassment women face when running can be dodged and she can finally be herself – she is not heading away from or towards anyone – just moving to her own rhythm and demands. A rare time where she doesn’t have to comply with anyone else’s demands.

“Dressing for the Afterlife” is a vivid tour through women’s lives, their diversions, preoccupations, what happens in the gaps between image and reality and pressures. Maria Taylor uses humour and satire to bring her characters hidden depths to the foreground, creating a poignant, vibrant collection of thought-provoking, crafted poems.

“Dressing for the Afterlife” is available from Nine Arches Press.

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

“The Unmapped Woman” Abegail Morley (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Abegail Morley The Unmapped Woman cover image“The Unmapped Woman” explores loss and bereavement in a way that taps into grief as a universal experience so that although these poems are based on personal experience, they don’t make the reader feel excluded or as if they are reading a private journal. The collection is split into three parts, the first starts with “Egg”,

“I breathe into the lonely snow-lines on the scan,
tell you how to grow safely, how to throw
and catch a ball, how later, stronger, fleshed out,
you’ll thrust up a hand in class before the question’s asked,
then hush, hush yourself before bed.”

It’s all the hopes and anxiety that pregnancy brings. How an expectant mother imagines the child growing up, teaching the child and passing on skills perhaps learnt from her own parents and offering the child safety and security. This sense of hope, however, is dashed as loss is the unfortunate result, in “Gravid”

“Not until after the front door slams shut
and absence sucks air from its cheeks
do the words in her head, packed tight
as if on postcards, unhook their ink.

She knows their sloping script by rote,
has read each one to the echo of her womb,
laid her palm on her belly as she read them
aloud. She said, Cessation, cessation,”

The blandness of official terminology cannot contain the devastation expectant parents feel. Medical staff trying to get through their day and a long list of appointments can’t offer patients time to take in what’s being said and can inadvertently compound the sense of failure. There are not always answers as to why the miscarriage happened. The remaining poems in the section follow the adjustment to the loss, in “Imminent”, memories of pregnancy surface, a pregnancy during the summer months,

“when it is already too hot to sleep, I watch your
elbow soar like a sail and imagine you journeying
upstream, skin pinking at a confluence of rivers,
body uncertain, smirching the bank. You’re waiting
for liberation, foetus shaping in liquid until you
come adrift on a crib-shaped island with the map
of life crumpled in the tiniest palm I can imagine.
I see you unroll its tide-worn edges years later,”

Her pregnancy was far enough along for the expectant mother to feel her baby moving and to imagine her baby as a child and guiding her child through life. There’s also uncertainty: what the map reveals is unknown so the expectant mother can only imagine her child looking at the map years later because she doesn’t know the map will remain unused.

In “Given up II”,
“A winter bulb; bruised root; pomegranate
seed throbbing. Each word I speak worries

us both, disappoints. She rocks underwater,
skull hardening − an unplucked knot.”

There’s a search for answers, “bruised root” is a suggestion the baby wasn’t getting enough food or oxygen, perhaps planted at the wrong time. Even when no reasons are forthcoming, there’s still a desire to create a narrative to explain why a miscarriage happened.

In “Past Love” a date brings five roses and she’s wondering whether to tell him,

“I hope he’ll ask again, some time when I’m ready,
but he moves effortlessly forward and the blooms of two roses
fall like stardust, soundlessly, like you did, when somehow
your life was sucked, ever so gently, from your lungs.

When I held you, there was no noise from this galaxy
or another or another, and we spent that night wondering
how the sun lit only other people, and how breathless
the universe can be when you need air the most.”

The loss is still carried with her. But there’s an awareness that others have suffered their own losses, in “The Library of Broken People” two girls

“said life’s an unworkable toy. Other victims
are quieter, don’t talk so much, even when

the library’s shut. They drop to the back
of the index, all seal pup-eyed, skittering

at the slightest flex. I survive amongst them,
wear a long jumper, drag sleeves down wrists.”

Libraries are appropriately quiet, places where people are not pushed to talk. Bereaved people do eventually find a way of falling back into the expected routine of life before grief but find it empty of meaning and feel as if they are going through the motions. Later poems suggest an additional loss and deal with finding a balance between returning to something resembling normal life and still remembering those losses, in “On having enough messages from the dead”

“I decide to pin your name to the noticeboard,
stick another to the fridge with a magnet,
to loosen you from me. This morning I find
they’ve dived off, parachuted down
and are hissing on an unwashed floor ‒
paper sun-torn, unbearable to touch.
I watch ink vacate itself from the present.”

The names might fade in time from the pinned notices, but the memories don’t. The fading is also a reminder that the people who owned the names are no longer here.

“The Unmapped Woman” is an exploration of the uncharted territory of grief, a terrain each has to map for themselves. Landmarks are key memories. Even though the bereaved try to return to a normal life, simple images such as a dying flower falling from its stem, can switch the observer into the parallel world of grief. The poems search for recovery after loss and their technical dexterity transform them from a personal journey to one that engages a reader.

“The Unmapped Woman” is available from Nine Arches

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.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image


Shindig Live Poetry Leicester 30 January 2017

Poster for Shindig poetry readingsShindig is organised by Nine Arches Press and Crystal Clear Creators and the former usually lead the first half while the latter take over after the interval. Tonight Nine Arches Press was launching Under the Radar #18 and Crystal Clear Creators featured readings from Deborah Tyler-Bennett and Andrew Button.

Each half starts with open mic slots. Will Coles took the first slot with a sonnet from a series of ‘delinquent sonnets’ looking at rubber-neckers gathered after an accident, “he’s moving so he’s not dead” ending on the line “We’ll feed on him another day.”. Thomas Irvine gave us another sonnet about Icarus. It was third poet Richard Byrt who hit on the novel idea of giving the audience the title of the poem about to be read, here “Motivating Millie”, a darkly humorous list of suggestions of things Millie could do, gradually revealing that elderly Millie’s relatives are thinking of a care home for her and these ideas are to “Stop them deciding they have to put you away.” Ambrose Musiyiwa rounded off the open mic slots with a topical poem about Martians (and the aliening of refugees) of which I know the title because I saw it published in “The Journal.”

Jane Commane of Nine Arches kicked off the Under the Radar launch by reading two poems, “Hail” by John Challis and “The Way Queenie Smokes” by Edward Long, confessing that the latter poem gave her cravings for a cigarette,

“The way Queenie smokes is why they call him Queenie,
ballet-poise along his whole arm out to his held fingers.
Long sensuous drawing up of the smoke into his lungs,
a gentle letting forth of smoke from his mouth.

The rasp to his laugh rattles his belly
squashed tight into his stained t-shirt.”

Reviews editor, Maria Taylor, picked Catherine Ayres’ “Solistice”

“Perhaps I’ll find you in the valley’s bruise,
the jolt of your eyes in a seam of light;
I have my plans these winter nights
when the spent candle stumbles, gone,”

This was read before Joe Caldwell’s “Transmigration.” Deborah Tyler-Bennett picked both of Josephine Shaw’s poems “On the Banks of the Aude” and “Mum and Dad enjoy a Cocktail.” Cathy Whittaker read “St Jerome” where she wonders if his wife viewed him in quite the same way as those who laud him, and “Message to My Grandfather” (not featured in the magazine). Reviewer D A Prince selected Ramona Herdman’s “Wake Up: Time to Die” which takes a quote from “Bladerunner” as its source inspiration, explaining “It grabbed me and I went straight back to the beginning to see how she did it.” Her second selection was a short extract from Martin Figura’s “Shed” which she had reviewed. Fiona Theokritoff read her poem “Cartographer” and another, “Wrong Turning.” Although availability played a big part in selections, in a issue which includes poems from Sarah Barnsley, Giles Goodland, Josh Ekroy, Fran Lock, Jessica Mookherjee and Rory Waterman amongst others, a mere two poems would have been a tough choice.

Maria Taylor was back, this time in her Crystal Clear Creators role, to get the second half underway. She read her own poem, “Don and the Age of Aquarius”, imagining someone like Donald Trump meeting a hippy angel in 1967’s Summer of Love. Jim Kersey had three short poems, “Inheritance,” “Inspiration” and “Dawn” forming part of an “Autumn Verses” sequence. The first two had a serious tone, exploring rich autumnal shades and colours. The third was light-hearted, starting “Shall I compare thee to a maple tree/ though thou are more temperamental.” More humour from John Lloyd’s “I Believe” based on the foundation that if he’d signed up to the university of life, “it enrolled me on the wrong course.” Most open mic slots were taken by Shindig regulars, but both Johns were reading at Shindig for the first time and got a warm welcome. Dave Tunnley kept up the autumnal theme in “Imagine Travel.” I read “The Shoemaker’s Walk” from “Welcome to Leicester“. Angela Bailey read “Rania’s Story”, a woman fleeing Syria with her children but leaving her elderly mother behind and the guilt, “as close as a sapling to its roots.” Rob Jones wrapped up the open mic session with a poem about a house shared by three humanities students living in “nostalgic tribute to ‘Black Books’ or ‘Withail and I’,” a poem apparently without title.

Featured poet, Deborah Tyler-Bennett started with three poems, “Ways Home,” “North’s Street” and “Sutton-in-Ashfield” from “Napoleon Solo Biscuits” which I reviewed for London Grip here. She then read new poems from her forthcoming collection “Mr Bowlly Regrets”, “Overheard on the Threes”, eavesdropping a conversation on a long bus journey. “No Relation” inspired by the discovery that some soldiers who served in the First World War had put down employers as their next of kin because they had no family to return to. “Then” inspired by a grandmother, looking at “Superstitutions” shared by her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister who saw “sleek magpies not as thieves but portents.” “Upstairs at the Trading Post” where a down-to-earth woman is wary of a ghost “lurking upstairs while she did the cleaning.” A star of the silent film era is recalled in “Popping By” where a “soldier hubby’s specs matching those of Harold Lloyd hanging on to that clock face.”

Second featured poet was Andrew Button whose “Dry Days in Wet Towns” has just been published by erbacce press. He introduced us to a selection of dryly observed humour. “Glasgow Hotel” could have been drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s imagination. “The Only Clue” ends “roving extraterrestrials will still find a shopping trolley in a canal.” “after the drive-thru refusal (no fence involved)”, a woman takes her horse into McDonalds in “We’re Lovin’ It”. “Two Dickies” is about a statue to the cricket umpire Dicky Bird. “Turner in his Grave” muses on a Turner Prize entry. “Light of Wonder” was a tribute to Ray Bradbury who “coaxed my fledging pen to write on” and ending “your books will never burn.” Andrew Button is a collector of news stories, not unlike Marcel Proust, and the quirkier the better. “Navel Pursuit” takes inspiration from a story about a man who collected navel fluff. “Microphone” was a nod to childhood where he and friends would past the time recording made-up jingles. The final poem “After the Rain”, the name of a bubble bath, a tender tribute to his wife.

“Under the Radar” magazine is available from Nine Arches Press.

Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s collections are published by Kings England Press.

Andrew Button’s “Dry Days in Wet Towns in available from erbacce press.



“The Fetch” Gregory Leadbetter (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review

Gregory Leadbetter The Fetch cover imageSome poems seem to strike an immediate chord and it’s love at first read. Others are a slow burn: they seem a little distant at first but it takes another read (or two) to gain a fuller appreciation of what the poem achieves. Gregory Leadbetter’s “The Fetch” falls into the latter category. Their quiet intent draws a reader in but it takes another read before really warming to them. The title refers to the second meaning of fetch as an apparition, double, wraith of a living person. During a dream in the title poem,

“I listened, and began to speak
as I am speaking now. My breath

condensed. I saw it slowly take
the outline of a child, afraid
of the dark from which it was made.”

Throughout the collection, there’s a sense of haunting. Sometimes this sense comes from external apparitions, but mostly it comes from a sense of legacy and responsibility to those both leaving us and to those left after us. The narrator’s parental instinct doesn’t stop at noticing “the outline of a child” but picks up that it’s fearful. That emotion could be an observation or a projection although the ambiguity isn’t relevant.

During his final illness Gregory Leadbetter’s father began building a model of the solar system, referred to in “My Father’s Orrey”

“A look of recognition crossed his eyes –
yes that’s them – but out of orbit,
no force to order and bind them
to the weave of their ellipses,
and turn the eye of space between
and spring them in the cradle of their star,
without which they rattle and fall.
With the planets in his hands, he felt
the weight of his loss, knew he had forgotten
how to put the universe together.”

Later, in the sequence “Dendrites and Axons”, part II, the poet’s father’s decline is further explored,

“At the hospital, you had to draw a pentagon.
Geometry itself broke open: where
there should have been one, you drew
three, which overlapped like a Venn diagram.

An epicentre in the white space: chaos
in its blossoming fractal.”

It’s a sensitive exploration, handled deftly so, despite his decline, the father never loses his dignity. The sequence is a poignant layering of images that guide the reader to see the strength in the father/son relationship and enduring respect.

The poems are not all focused on the central relationship and are not all lingering in an absence of things not said. “Feather” is a villanelle that ends

“My father is not so old as I am now.
This feather’s perfection cannot replace
the wing it lifted from the ground.

But there’s enough of its vane of barbs to astound
his absence, just enough fragmented grace
to find in the feather that knocked me down
the wing that lifts me from the ground.”

What burns through is the desire to communicate the senses of duty and communication, the drive to continue and renew legacies, even if adapted and revived to suit contemporary times. Plus a recurring theme of humanity and compassion. Gregory Leadbetter doesn’t shy away from his ghosts or the things that haunt him, but shines a light on them to work towards a better understanding of the human condition.

“The Fetch” is available from Nine Arches Press.

“Beginning with Your Last Breath” Roy McFarlane (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review

Roy McFarlane Beginning with your last breath book coverRoy McFarlane explores growing up in the West Midlands (he is British born with Jamaican origins), discovering that he was adopted and the mix of emotions that triggered even though his adoptive parents were supportive and loving. This is particularly effective through the repetition in the villanelle “The weight of knowing” when he looks at a photograph of his birth mother,

“The woman in the photograph

sent me letters to leave me in a spell
but I was conjured by memories that
this was the woman who gave me away.

And those eyes telling their tales
and untold stories couldn’t change the fact of
the woman in the photograph;
this was the woman who gave me away.”

The title poem explores his compulsion to write,

“If poetry could take the pain away
I’d swap places and it would be me
struggling to breathe
that five-year-old child you held close
to your bosom like a small bagpipe
limped limbs, lungs bulging,
inflating and deflating;
to capture,
to write,

to verse my life
to begin with the first breath
with you watching over me
until the break of dawn.”

The death of his (adoptive) mother acted as a trigger for McFarlane to write about his life, loves, sorrows, racism and coming to terms with his adoption. He does meet his birth mother later and a compassionate poem explores her reasons for giving him up which allows him to accept her motives and appreciate that family isn’t always linked by blood. His growing up is complicated by racial prejudice at a time when politician Norman Tebbit suggested testing the patriotism of ethnic minorities living in England by establishing which cricket team they supported at international level. McFarlane’s poem, “The Tebbit Test (Patriotism)” responds by pointing out that for a black man, supporting the English team isn’t straightforward. John Barnes played for Liverpool and England and suffered taunting and so-called fans throwing bananas on the pitch when he played. McFarlane lives,

“the engulfing experience of John Barnes,
the genius, the wizard that scored against Brazil,
cutting through their defence with pure beauty.
Only to be reminded a few days later on a plane
returning home, filled with the England team and supporters,
that goal don’t count, the one scored by the nigger.”

The aim here is to record the poet’s life journey, to document the prejudice, but also to widen his subject matter beyond racism. It doesn’t avoid the topic but it isn’t purely about racial prejudice. McFarlane also writes with tenderness, here about his wife putting on a pair of tights

“caressing and smoothing out
folds or ripples that you find
as I did the night before
when we had reached our pinnacle
I held you tenderly and lovingly
eased out the swell and tide
that still lingered in the bodies
of two lovers overwhelmed in love.”

“Beginning with your last breath” allow lost love, friendships, boxing love of family, music, race, acceptance of adoption to interweave with personal narratives. McFarlane tells his story with compassion and a desire to share, needing to tell not just the story but about the transformative ability of love. These are poems that anyone can relate to, written with a respect of craft and attention to detail.

“Beginning with your last breath” is available from Nine Arches Press

“the terrible” Daniel Sluman (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review

In this second collection, Daniel Sluman explores living with a disability and the impact on his life and on the lives of those around him with an unflinching honesty using language stripped of extraneous detail. The “smoke” in “killing the darling of smoke” could be both literal and metaphor,

” having left

your joy between the sheets the loneliness
that enters the window that coming flings

open this rehearsal gasp bookmarking
each moment when you’re single

& crying into your father’s arms
as he did with his father before him

you sit in your bruise-blue dressing gowns
& pull cigarettes from separate packs

inhaling between sips of black coffee
this comma puncturing a sentence

neither of you can bear to finish
only the familiar tug of smoke

a mantra the hardest to kill
that chants death death death”

The familial similarities in their dressing gowns and taste for black coffee is counterpointed by the separate cigarette packets. This father and son are, rightly, both linked and independence. In contrast, “doppelganger” explores dependence and ends

“& you’ll say you can’t bear this weight in a week
you’d rather be alone than with this crumpled mess
of apologies & mistakes that shakes in the corner
of the bedroom a towel over my shoulders
that once tensed over your pupil’s bloom
I’ll keep this lightning trapped in my hip
my strange weather the dent I sank into
will rise from the sofa in a mist
of cologne and possibilities”

It exposes that fear of someone else’s initial enthusiasm of being with you drain when they come to realise how much care they will have to give. It can be a large dent in a male ego when one can’t be the provider but needs care. Exposing and sharing those needs is a vulnerable time as it risks ending what could have been a promising start of a relationship and that fear never quite leaves even in very long term relationships.

“the terrible” isn’t all gloom. In “they say you will become what you think about the most” sees the poet looking through his girlfriend’s eyes until “the evening starts to fill the glass the stitches of you dress/ unwind in the dark & I’m left/ with nothing but the memory/ of staring from behind those/ green-flecked eyes.”

The title poem explores the aftermath of the bone cancer that led to disability. It ends,

“today emily fills my eyes in our grubby basement flat
each time I tell her I love her my heart crushes
like a paper cup the diamond winces on her hand
its brightness weighing us down in shadow”

The longing sense of regret is reprised in “we’ll never dance”,

“as you’re drawn through the ballroom

once again by someone who can lift you

to the light like crystal but just as the dance
is a controlled demolition of the body

I spasm & fall into this crippled choreography.”

“the terrible” looks likes a series of minimalist, muscular poems, yet the intense exterior is able to reveal nuance and shade shaping relationships. The poems reach out to draw the reader in and fizz with vital necessity: the poet had to write them in order to share experiences of chronic pain and loss tempered with tenderness and also revealing pleasure and love.

“the terrible” is available from Nine Arches

My review of Daniel Sluman’s first collection “Absence has a weight of its own”.