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

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

“I cannot help but think of the pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

close the lid over the keys for another year.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Escapologist” Jinny Fisher (V.Press) – poetry review

The Escapologist Jinny Fisher“The Escapologist” is a mix of poems and prose poems, often looking at family relationships and ties but not confined to this. The title poem is about a boy learning to tie knots despite his parents’ skepticism and discovers one not in his handbook and has to decide whether to make his first mark of independence by not telling his parents. The theme of children growing independent occurs in the opening poems too, including “Old Flowers for a New Room”, for the poet’s daughter, Miranda, and has the poet bringing artificial flowers for her daughter’s “grey room”,

“coloured lights glowed above your four-poster.
I will drape them over and round your neck –
dripping garlands of daisies and roses.
I’ll haul my baggage up the steps.

As I loop these rainbows around your neck,
rain fills your gutters and overflows.
You laugh, swing my baggage up the steps –
I have delivered your plastic flowers.”

Daisies are a symbol for innocence and cheerfulness and act as a counterpoint to the more mature roses (the poem doesn’t specify colour so a lost opportunity). The overflow of rain reflects the relationship between mother and daughter. Initially the mother carries her bags – the word “haul” suggests a heaviness – then the daughter takes over – “swings” suggests ease and a light touch. The pantoum form gives the poem structure. Another family poem, “A Brother in Six Scenes”, has a very different tone and lets readers picture the scenes from an accumulation of details,

“Brother with rainbow umbrella–
here to give me his news, which is not news.
He will leave everything to me, he says.

Brother standing in his hall–
up to his ankles in unopened mail.
Turning from me with a shrug.

Brother on the floor of his flat–
phone hanging from the wall.
His shirt has been slashed to expose his chest.”

That’s not where the poem ends. Its three line stanza structure, passive voice and flat tone convey the emotion behind the poem.

“Coda for a Violin” starts “She knows the case’s weight, unzips the canvas cover,” as an old, familiar violin has been sold and is being packaged for its new owner,

“She must loosen the bow hair for the journey,
but first she holds her thumb against the strings, plucks
G-D-A-E, four spare notes.”

Those long vowels echo a sense of longing. It’s noticeable that she doesn’t play a tune but “four spare notes”, a farewell and an acknowledgement the violin is no longer hers.

“The Escapologist” contains poems that are warm, conversational in tone and welcoming to read. They wear their craft and musicality lightly, which makes them an engaging read and gives them a depth exploring and exposing family psychologies.

“The Escapologist” is available from V. Press

“These nights at home” Alex Reed with images by Keren Banning (V. Press) – book review

these nights at home alex reed“These nights at home” is a series of seventeen poems interspersed with images by Keren Banning. The photographic images are abstract, lit, white textures on black with blurred, uncertain outlines. Since many of the poems are anchored in bereavement, the images are complementary. It starts with a prose poem, “Bindwood”,

“But as quickly as he stripped it away, the climber would return. Soon it had spread until it covered her lower body, so she could no longer walk. The man now spent all his days picking ivy from her, and soon the nights too. But, despite his efforts, it soon clothed the woman entirely. Only her face remained uncovered. He saw that the woman’s eyes were wet, but he couldn’t tell whether this was from sadness or through some strange joy. When he asked, she’d reply as if to a different question.

“The man continued to remove any fresh shoots from her face but he knew that his efforts were hopeless and that he could only fail her. He told her he was sorry, but she gazed at him as if from some far- away place and smiled. After a long silence, she spoke, telling him that in all their many years together, he had not, for the most part, let her down.”

The weed becomes a metaphor for a terminal illness choking the woman’s vitality. It also captures the sense of futility and hopeless her carer and partner feels for her and its impact on their relationship as the illness takes over. Both have deep, long-reaching roots and a reputation for choking or restricting growth of neighbouring plants but they are of different plant families.

“deep river “ looks at the after effects, the left-behind partner left to adapt a shared living space into a solo space and friends saying variants on it takes time,

it takes two years
folded clothes still on the shelves

it takes four years
faint trace of you from the wool

there is a river that runs within –
vast, uncharted, rising”

It takes as long as it needs to take and there’s no right or wrong timing. It’s never completed either. Even when the clothes are removed, the memory of their being there lingers. The river metaphor is apt: it’s not just tears but the sense of those memories being overwhelming and uncontrollable. Another poem, “imprint”, reflects on removing a wedding ring,

“later waking
stretching towards
the bedside lamp
it dawns again

red imprint
absent halo

A long-worn ring leaves a mark, even months after its removal. Like memories, mostly it’s unnoticeable but there are odd moments where it becomes noticeable. “Red” is more than the mark’s colour, it’s suggestive of love. The last word “halo” could be associated with ‘angel’, suggesting a lingering spirit.

A later poem, “Travelodge,” has the widower book into a hotel,

“I try out the shower, sprawl on the bed,
damp towel wrapped round me,

surf channels on the tiny screen
bolted to the wall and wonder

who I might call to tell I’m here:
a wanderer, sick of distraction,

can’t find my way home again.”

A damp towel isn’t for a shared bed and the sense of having no one to phone, or the person you want to phone not being available, is grief. Throughout “These nights at home” recurring images of a doors, shelves and empty rooms are reminders of bereavement. The collection is sensitively written and Keren Banning’s images reflect Alex Reed’s themes.

“These nights at home” poems by Alex Reed, images by Keren Banning is available from V. Press

“A Z-hearted Guide to Heartache” Charley Barnes (V. Press) – poetry review

BARNES_CHARLEY_A Z-HEARTED GUIDE TO HEARTACHE_V Press“A pocket-sized guide to hurting yourself” sets the tone,

“Step One: Fall in love with someone
who doesn’t know how to love you back.
Tell yourself that they don’t actually lack
the ability to love you, so much as the desire to.
Learn that you are unlovable.

Step Two: Stay with that person.”

It continues to Step Six with suggestions to return to Step Two. It feels like a good friend offering advice over a warming coffee with tissues to hand. That may seem cosy but, like all good friends, it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the part “you” played in things going wrong. “On trying to not conjure an ex-lover” is a ‘don’t go back to your ex poem,

“and two glasses of wine, by then I’m not saying his name,
I’m chanting it in front of my television,
in the hope that he might manifest post-watershed.
Not that I’d care even if he did,
Every three times, I look over my shoulder”

“A Z-hearted Guide to Heartache” isn’t just a gentle wallow in post-heartbreak territory, “#AmIPrettyYet” looks at trying to get back on your feet and move out of the house again and starts

“When I upload a selfie, captioned: ‘feeling a little vain’,
what I’m really trying to do is ascertain how many strangers
find me fuckable enough for me to leave the house today.’

One poem, although making an important point, feels out of synch with the theme and subject of most of the poems. “An apology for not looking disabled,”

“Elders forgive my disability for wrapping itself around
my central nervous system; forgive it for being broken
down into an acronym that isn’t well-known enough
to be considered a mainstream health condition.
I’m of the hipster generation; I need my malfunction
to be something that most doctors don’t recognise.”

It makes a vital point and is a good poem but doesn’t sit as well as, “Food is an important part of any relationship – Part Three”

“You take my medical history in your stride,
but when my knee buckles again for the fourth dip that day,
I wobble, and the garlic bread I’m carrying
wavers on the paper plate,
heroically, you reach out – to catch the garlic bread.

You’re brave enough to battle a broken nervous system,
but the thought of food wastage has you rushing scared.
Thank you for being there to save my side order.”

The situations appear specific to a certain relationship (even if not real or an amalgam of more than one relationship) yet illustrate scenarios that are universally recognisable. The poems lack self-pity and display a wry humour. They show compassion and capture a contemporary twenty-something navigating her start in life.

“A Z-hearted Guide to Heartache” is available from V. Press.

“Like Love” Brenda Read-Brown (V Press) – poetry review

Like love Brenda Read BrownBrenda Read-Brown’s poems are empathetic and welcoming. The first poem, “Decay”, is an honest audit and ends,

“The legs aren’t in bad shape,
though one is angled
from repair to some old damage.
The feet, bony as frogs’,
are planted firmly,
though the pedestal has disappeared;
and all of it is lichened
with brown spots.
So, I turn away from the mirror,
and remind myself,
it’s not all about you, Brenda. “

The poem’s persona feels like that cheerleading best friend who is both honest and capable of making you feel a bit more upbeat. True to her word, the remaining poems aren’t all about her. “Love poems” looks back at a lost love acknowledging that “it wasn’t right then,/ and would be wrong still now” but there’s still that what if?

“But still, I want to see him,
relive the kingfisher and the swans
and the fish and chips by the harbour
and the cinema with armchairs,

in one brief meeting; lunch, perhaps.
We would smile, and talk about our children,
while thinking of other things;
and forget all those hotel rooms.“

The casual, conversational language belies its poignancy. The narrator knows full well there won’t be a romantic ending but still wants to know that the boy she remembers turned out OK. “Diminished” is also poignant without being sentimental, its final stanza, “Once, she loved to travel;/ explored food, journeyed relationships;/ now, she has her crossword, her TV./ Once she was bigger than I am.” The final line conveys the role reversal from the parent as carer to the child and the now adult child caring for an ageing parent. Later a silken-voiced “Street singer” “smiles as if he’s got the joke/ but feels too shy to laugh”.

Brenda Read-Brown draws from a wider experience too. In “Poetry has no learning objective”, her time teaching in prison leads her to observe,

“The man with a cobra
tattooed across his forehead
might be a gentle vegan.
Some people spend their spare time
painting angels.
The kid ‘you’ll need to watch for’
will give me images
fresh as mermaids.
Rhyme can hurt,
and metaphor disturb.”

It reminds us all of the power that words have to connect and communicate. Their conversational tone makes these poems easy to read aloud and their layers of empathy reward re-reading.

“Like Love” is available from V Press

“Unable Mother” Helen Calcutt (V Press) – poetry review

Unable Mother Helen CalcuttThe poems in “Unable Mother” focus on the not-so-rosy notions of motherhood: the doubts, fears, questioning and sense of failures. The language is precise and allows the poems to build layers of insight. The second poem, “God”, starts with the image of planting a tulip bulb and watching it grow (much of the growing happening underground and out of sight),

“as the suckle of sleep, as a child warms
to the yolk of a breast,
it warmed to the air it repeated.

It comes back, year on year.”

The poem ends,

“Even when I sit in the shadows
of the house
and the trees are looping through

with not a single path that’s lit to see you –
it’s the promise of what you are,
what you will become.”

The shadows suggest uncertainty and the sense that no mother knows what her baby will become. Much of motherhood is about nudging and steering a child in the right direction. A moral compass can be passed on but no one knows in advance where a child’s strengths and talents lie. The metaphor of a gardener planting a bulb with the faith that it will flower but also the doubt and uncertainty that it will is very apt.

“Melon Picker” starts “Death touched your feet/ with its wing.” and continues

“Could I ever
understand the pain
of broken feet? Where you knelt

under the night’s drunken expanse,
bleeding the lines

you walked, you wept…
sheer tiredness
was the thing that killed us

as it killed you then.
Seeing the same sun

bloat gold,
over black boulder seeds,
knocking like enormous breasts.

To greet the toll
that carried the dawn,

lifting your song-lines
and you
back, to the barren harvest.”

It explores the physicality of grief and loss, and the exhaustion that goes beyond a broken night’s sleep. The images carry a weight of tragedy and aloneness, ending on the emptiness of a “barren harvest”.

The title poem explores longing and disappointment,

“I’m unable to feel
I’m creating a daughter.
In my head,
this thing is a boy,

it sits on a throne,
and like a thrush sings
about the spittle of its bones.
It’s like squeezing
flesh and fruit from the bone,
this terrible love.”

Like planting a bulb, a pregnant woman is never sure that the baby will be as she imagines as she prepares for its arrival. For fathers, the baby is still a fairly abstract notion before the birth, but a mother can feel the baby moving, stretching and hiccupping. If image and reality clash, there’s a sense of bereavement. The language is spare and unflinching but not judgmental.

“Anvil” touches on the ultimate unable mother, who suffers a miscarriage,

“into the blow of the smite
that buried you like winter.

In my bed,
skin-clots furred.
Blood

climbed
throat, and lip. My mother’s shadow
danced on the wall. “

The poems are intimate in their offerings of insights and draw from considered experience using precise, spare language to explore vulnerability and to seek clarity. It’s good to see the less-explored side of motherhood expressed with compassion and intelligence.

“Unable Mother” is available from V Press.