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Monthly Archives: April 2021

In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered by Chaucer Cameron (Against The Grain Press)

In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered by Chaucer Cameron (Against The Grain Press)

In this visceral, utterly essential poetry pamphlet, described as ‘part memoir, part fiction’, Cameron gives voice to what is arguably one of society’s most unheard groups: women working in the sex trade. Significantly, here is a woman’s voice in marked contrast to the male gaze of poets such as Charles Bukowski or Charles Baudelaire.

The collection’s harrowing title immediately gives a flavour of the bitter irony that characterises this poetry. There is a formidable, compelling honesty here which, combined with a deft and well-judged use of subtext, draws the reader into the poem’s world. Note the first poem, ‘128 Farleigh Road’, in which the speaker candidly observes a man lying dead at the bottom of the stairs, ‘Body Marks’, in which Caprice, Eve, Grace and Morgan speak flash in the pan images of the scars on their bodies. A palpable thread of dissociation runs throughout the book; love is ‘a forewarning of attack’, and the pamphlet’s characters ‘try to disarm you with laughter’. In ‘Cartoons’, the speaker tells of having ‘a near miss’, and of coping with this trauma by remembering her childhood spent watching The Flintstones.

Reading this pamphlet following the murder of Sarah Everard intensified the emotions stirred by the pamphlet’s narrative arc. Poems such as ‘The Green’ were all the more terrifying. Its ominous second stanza – ‘It was a dark winter evening. / Ellen still had a twenty-minute walk home’ – paves the way for the bleak declarative description of Ellen’s fate in the third stanza: ‘It took three days to discover the body, / reporters said it was hard to identify // – devoured mostly’. Ellen’s italicised thoughts surge out of the night – ‘That rustling crack closing in / must be animal.’ This line conveys what women have always known – that many monsters we encounter in life are not animal: rather, they are human. 

Of all the book’s affecting voices, Crystal’s is both enduring and particularly moving. It is rare to come across such a convincing character conveyed entirely through lines and stanzas. In ‘Switchblades’, when the pamphlet introduces Crystal, she is on the defensive. In her italicised lines, she boasts that she ‘carries switchblades’, and taunts the speaker: ‘I’ve heard you with the punters – / you’re no escort, you’re a whore’. However, several encounters in a King’s Cross Café show Crystal in various states of vulnerability. In one such encounter, she refers to her body as ‘bought and sold’. In another, she delivers a dramatic monologue in prose poem form, where she examines abortion: ‘It’s not that hard to flush a foetus down the loo, unless you listen to that claptrap from the pro-life lot…how could you flush a little beating heart down the toilet and not commit suicide when you can’t live with the flashbacks?’ One cannot help but hope that, whether her character is based on a real person to any extent, as several of these characters are, or whether she is purely a fictional character, her story ends with her, as she says in ‘King’s Cross Café (III)’, ‘getting out of this’.

The pamphlet ends with a hauntingly beautiful image, ‘It’s busy on the Thames; / Canary Wharf, I hear it sing’. This final couplet is left ringing in the air, a fleck of heartbreaking beauty among the ‘eerie’ grit of the speaker and subject’s world – ‘it’s extra cold tonight’ – and nightly rituals – inserting tampons and assuring themselves that ‘the cramps will ease with Valium’. In the pamphlet’s title poem, the speaker says of Crystal, ‘she understood erasure, turned it into artforms’, and Cameron’s poetry accomplishes exactly this. There is something remarkably compelling about not only the sparing use of language, but also the use of white space throughout the course of the pamphlet. These words emerge from a blankness onto the page, starkly, bluntly, and irrevocably said. 

Olivia Tuck 19th April 2021

Purgatory Has an Address by Romaine Wahington (Bamboo Dart Press)

Purgatory Has an Address by Romaine Wahington (Bamboo Dart Press)

Romaine Washington’s Purgatory Has an Address is Bamboo Dart Press’s newest release. This new imprint of Pelekinesis Press publishes many poets and writers from Inland California like Stephanie Barbe Hammer, Cindy Rinne, Kendall Johnson, and Dennis Callaci; Washington’s newest poetry collection shows why they focus on the overlooked writing of that region of the United States. Purgatory Has an Address is an emotionally sensitive look at the purgatories that people live through, often suggesting a strategy for those times that has worked for the poet. This collection that looks at the pain of the world might have easily ended with a kind of cynical hopelessness. Instead, Washington’s work is life affirming and suggests the kind of courage that it takes to be alive.

     The poem “Saguaro” is emblematic of this hope as it discusses the way saguaro cacti seed and take root in the harsh climate of the desert, and it works as a metaphor for the toughness a person needs when facing the difficulties of life.

I take root 

where the ground is

hard and angry

spits the sun

back in its face

drought drenched

tap root i

burrow beyond

ancestral bones

to anchor 

a sturdy revoir

of hope (26).

Time and again, this strength seen in this cactus in the face of cruelty is offered as the way to survive and even find purpose and meaning in those purgatory times of our lives. Early in the book, childhood with all its isolation is met with defiance. As we move through the book, all aspects of life are met with this determination until she explores the aging of her parents and her parenting in a world that is dangerous and racist toward her son.

     She explores the idea and need for community while also showing us why community can seem beyond a person’s reach. One of the central journeys of the collection is the search for her missing biological parents. She is searching for people who have no name and did not name her. She cannot even look for herself. She becomes so isolated that “the clerk tells me to wait / for my number to be called / right now i am a number” (24). She is stripped of her essential humanity, and she is unsuccessful in finding her birth parents. However, she is not unsuccessful in creating family and community. She has a son and adoptive parents whom she loves. She moves to Inland California, which is hot and filled with cows, and the Santa Ana Winds, similar to the sirocco, that she calls “the devil’s breath.” While others often complain about it, she writes, “If it weren’t for the devil’s breath, / I’d never know where we are, and / Just how beautiful” (62). These words are the last lines of the collections, and they summarize what I love about the collection: how she is able to take something that seems objectively difficult and horrible and find the way through by finding its beauty.

     Washington’s work is life affirming and poignant. Purgatory to her is to be a place. Whether that place becomes one of torment is determined by the strength we have when facing it.

John Brantingham 18th April 2021

Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road With Friends (A Freedom Books)

Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road With Friends (A Freedom Books)

Marshall Deerfield’s Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road with Friends is part of a larger project that mixes haiku and haibun to create an ongoing travel narrative over multiple volumes. It comes out of a tradition from writers like Basho, Snyder, and Kerouac, but it has its own environmentalist edge prompted by what we have learned about the destruction of the natural environment and how the American West, which is the focus of this collection, is being transformed by forces like drought, climate change, and the pine bark beetle. However, it is not only a look at the destruction of the west; it is much more a celebration of how life can be lived with a kind of joy on the road. Marshall Deerfield edited the volume, and it is filled with his work and the work of his friends as they engage is these road trips.

            What struck me immediately is how this feels like the volume that might have been written by a side character in Jack Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums. It has that kind of enthusiasm for life and travel. Some of my favorite haiku in this vein are:

            Clouds billow outward

            sifting rain from vapor’d chaff

            cliffs left unexposed (136).

            Volcanic bellies

            water so cold that it stings

            an anomaly (80).

            A lake so blue that

            jumping in feels like falling

            down into the sky (78).

There is a joy here for nature that is infectious. With the haibun, these haiku create a narrative of young people going into the new American West to find what remains to take pleasure in. Much of what we have read in older works that have the same kind of approach is gone. Times have changed and we have lost that world. Deerfield is trying to find what is there now and how to lose himself in these places.

            Deerfield also makes the point of discussing the environmental destruction that continues to plague the American West. As they drive through Texas, he writes, “This is the Gulf of Mexico. To get here, I had to ride through a literal ring of fire made up of oil refineries with their smoke stacks spewing blue, green, and red flames up into the heavens” (18). He also discusses the rise of the pine bark beetle. The beetle is a creature that lives in all pines and has for a very long time. By itself, it is not a problem, but drought, climate change and the overproduction of trees because of bad fire policy has caused the beetle to turn forests into places of tree death. In most western forests currently millions of trees stand dead and brown sprinkled among living trees. Deerfield writes,

As an ecoactivist, I never thought a forest’s demise would come from inside of it. These pine bark beetles are unlike any bulldozer or logging caravan. Chaining yourself to a tree to protect it has no use if the tree is being eaten alive from within (102).

In this, Deerfield expresses the frustration of the environmentalist raised on Edward Abbey but facing the reality that it is not just one person or company harming the natural world. It is a way of life that cannot be easily amended.

            Travel by Haiku Volume 6-10: Far out on the Road with Friends is a balm for me now in this time when I cannot travel because of the quarantine. It helps me to live through his journeys and it brings me back to my own.

John Brantingham 4th April 2021

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