“The Swell” Jessica Mookherjee (Telltale Press) – Poetry Review

The Swell Jessica Mookherjee“The Swell” is a fourteen poem pamphlet that explores growing up in Swansea with a Bangladeshi heritage and moving away from a childhood home, most notably in “Red”

“When I first wore red lipstick, smacked across
my face, she said it was inappropriate
for a girl of six, wash it off, she said.
When I first wore that red silk skirt
it mesmerised me by the way it moved
around my legs. It made you smile at me.
Now your face is red, too much sun, too much
beer, too much butter.
I tell you not to wear that red shirt,
it doesn’t flatter.
There’s blood in the bathroom again,
this month.”

Each time the colour appears, it is as a warning sign, a little girl not understanding the significance of lipstick, learning how to dress appropriately in a long skirt, a complexion reddened by excesses, an unflattering shirt and the mark of transformation from girl to woman. The repetition lends a sense of weariness as the girl recognises that her mother has been through this and her grandmother before that.

The title poem looks at the pregnancy of her mother from a child’s viewpoint, noting her father “made a fuss of her for a change” and ends as he

“made milk-dribble jokes for the cameras,
said storms with girls’ names were the deadliest.
Then she emerged, fresh with her slake
of new flesh as the town lugged sandbags,
trying to stop her.”

Even dad can’t upstage mum and older sister is left observing these changes without yet having the words to describe her own reaction. In another poem, A non-mother receives flowers on “Mother’s Day” intended for someone else. She alerts the florist and keeps the flowers in water,

“I didn’t touch them until one week after Mother’s Day.
Wondering if the son, the daughter the mother
would fetch them away and
just as they began pushing out everything, she came.

Heartbroken, relieved, not forgotten. She muttered
polite complaints on my doorstep, told me
her son in the States spent seventy-five pounds
and left, clutching my wilted flowers to her chest.”

Jessica Mookherjee gives readers enough detail to wonder at this relationship between a mother and son where the son has moved to another country, sends an expensive bouquet to his mother but fails to get the address right. That’s where the strength of these poems lie: in the precise details given with enough space for the reader to draw their own conclusions. “The Swell” is a delight to read.

“The Swell” is available from Telltale Press.



“The Fire Station” Sarah Barnsley (Telltale Press) – poetry review

The Fire Station Sarah Barnsley book cover

These poems have a humour and exuberance that resonates after the pamphlet has been finished. A supermarket trip becomes a ride through the rapids on a kayak; what begins as a child trying to enliven a chore becomes a sustained metaphor in seeing the ordinary through luminous images. In “Dad’s Cars” a “green-bean coloured Ford Escort” becomes the description of a marriage,

“Mum once tried to drive it in
a Derbyshire Dales car park.
You laughed at her, and we shrieked,

as the car lolloped towards a steep ditch.
She stuck to polishing the dashboard
after that, drenching its pockmarked

plastic in fast firings of Mr. Sheen
as you played your Commodore ’64.”

A father, who has not learnt to take into account the feelings of others, plays computer games while the mother holds the household together. There’s an undercurrent of aggression, particularly in the ending and the last car: “You kicked it like it was us. Like you, it never worked again.”
In “Red Ink” nothing is said but the tone is clear:

“though you say nothing
my internal seismograph

records the earthquake
of your disapproval,

the molecular squares
of love’s graph paper

registering the preliminary
tremors when you heard our news,

scratching our clean page
with needlepoint politeness.”

That politeness may have been precisely worded but it didn’t provide the necessary succour. The wry humour prevents these observations becoming dismal. They exude a confidence which comes from allowing the poem to find its form and rhythm without trying to straightjacket it into something it doesn’t want to be.

“The Fire Station” is available from Telltale Press

“When Love Came To The Cartoon Kid” Siegfried Baber (Telltale Press) – poetry review

Siegfried Barber When Love Came to the Cartoon Kid book coverThere’s a transatlantic feel to this debut pamphlet with the opening and closing poems referencing Lee Harvey Oswald and other poems drawing on the influence of American TV culture, particularly cartoons. The poems are also grounded in reality. In the title poem, “his eyes didn’t telescope from their sockets,/ his boxing glove heart didn’t burst/ clean through his mouth,” and ends, “A thousand tonne weight/ didn’t pancake him into the earth./ The next day, he wasn’t seeing stars.” Real love sneaks in on you quietly and although you may start seeing things in the sharp edged and defined colour of cartoons, you’re still living the same life.

In the first poem, “For LHO,” Siegfried Baber imagines the rifle replaced by a Coca-Cola bottle acting as a prism while:

“On the street below, the President’s
motorcade crawls harmlessly out of view.
The Sun is the yawn of a great cat.
Fifty years from now, you doubt
anyone will remember this afternoon
or the rainbows you cast on the wall.”

The image of the sun as a cat echoes the Cheshire Cat from “Alice in Wonderland” whose grin lingered long after the cat disappeared. I’m not sure “harmlessly” is needed: the motorcade moving on shows readers no harm occurred. Rainbows have long been an emblem of hope. A rainbow also features in another Texas-based poem, “Texas Boy At The Funeral Of His Mother”

“We buried her on the hottest day of the year
in the rock-solid earth of Saint Augustine.
My father said a few words, thanked everyone
for coming, then vanished into the heat.
The pastor’s head evaporated. Guests drowned
in waterfalls of sweat. My brother’s shoes
turned to glue and his suit peeled at the seams.
Uncle Ned was nothing more than a baseball cap
and a pile of ash. The church roof sagged.
Distant relations got naked and searched for
a sprinkler to dance under. A stained-glass window
scattered its steaming rainbow. Holy things
made from gold or brass bubbled in the blaze.
And later, when the burnt-black flowers
drifted away, I watched the air above her grave
tremble and blur like the roof of an oven.”

Here the rainbow is scattered suggestive of broken hope. The heat-haze acts a lens which distorts the view of the grieving boy. The staccato rhythm is suggestive of someone trying to keep emotion under control. The relatives are behaving pretty much as they always do but the distortion of heat isolates the boy who observes from his pocket of grief. Readers can sense the boy trembling and his vision blurring with tears at her grave, that final symbol of his loss. There’s tenderness too in “Rabbit” where a father teaches his son to skin a rabbit, which ends

“We salvaged what was good and stuck it
in the freezer. What was left we threw away.
Except the heart – the size of a goldfish
it jiggled between wine-stained fingers,
not the fist of furious energy I imagined,
banging its pulse like a primitive drum.
But what I failed to notice that night
as I scrubbed our kitchen table clean
now seems obvious, pieced back together
by these steady, untrembling hands.”

“When Love Came To The Cartoon Kid” is an assured debut, demonstrating a range of subject matter and poetic skills, particularly in sharp observation and an ear for rhythm. The conversational tone lends an intimacy, as if the poet is telling stories to a fellow passenger on a bus or a friendly stranger in a pub, but also underlines how carefully the poems have been put together.

“When Love Came To The Cartoon Kid” is available from Telltale Press here.