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Monthly Archives: December 2021

The Night We Were Dylan Thomas by Mara Bergman (Arc Publications)

The Night We Were Dylan Thomas by Mara Bergman (Arc Publications)

The opening poem of Mara Bergman’s well-structured second full collection looks back to her first, with that book’s many pieces about or inspired by museums, galleries, photography and childhood. Subsequently, though, it stays largely with personal events, first in New York (city, upstate and Long Island) and then in England, with visits and phone-calls keeping the poet in contact with her mother back in the US. We witness her mother’s increasing infirmity, her move to a home, and her death and its psychological aftermath. The mood eases with holidays (Greece, Andorra, Norfolk) and day-to-day life in Kent, before it reprises the theme of infirmity, now in the poet’s own body. There are several poems, smiling through the pain, about how an injured body-part can make itself a constant focus of attention. This time, however, there’s a reasonably happy conclusion as the injury recedes but leaves as a psychic residue the omens of aging. 

The poems themselves have full sentences, full punctuation, clear meanings, and plain, descriptive titles. Their linear and stanzaic run-ons give a prosy feel. There’s no mythology, no politics, no philosophy, few similes, and no referential puzzles beyond the frequent place-names. Metaphors are the eroded ones of ordinary conversation: water laps, signage screams, maples nod, and sometimes the content is almost breathtakingly ultra-plain:

          I like everything about the small green house:

          its orange roof-tiles that stretch

          over the porch, its neat white fence,

          the steps that lead up from the road. 

You might get ‘we stood in a hush of olives’ at the apogee of the lyrical, but the only non-standard syntax is the occasional verb-list asyndeton, which is anyhow stock poetry-grammar these days for a heightening of emotional intensity, as in 

          […] I said goodbye 

          to my daughter at the station, watched her walk away in her raincoat,

          caught one last glimpse of her raincoat.

The skill is in how the book turns this constrained use of poetic resource to advantage: the unshowy diction and the refusal to flaunt its reading makes the voice appealing, while the ‘minutes and minutiae’ of the subjects and the conversational phraseology generate intimacy, and the candour sympathy. The concurrence of English English (‘rubbish’; ‘lift’) with American (‘the full nine yards’; ‘mustache’; that habit of leaving out the generic part of road-names: ‘Silverdale’, ‘Ravenswood’) provides linguistic interest to match that of the transatlantic topics. For me at least, it also had a high ‘oh-yes-I’ve-felt-that’ quotient. I particularly smiled at the importance of telling unimportant anecdotes in keeping a long-distance relationship going:

          […] What I had

          for dinner or who said what

          at work, all my little ‘nonsenses’ 

          as you called them, as I brought my world

          closer to yours […]

So it’s a collection that’s easy to read but not dull, everyday but not trivial, basically contented but not without suffering, and enlivened by humour and its mix of cultures. For those of us already won over by The Disappearing Room, there’s enough similarity to treat it as a returned friend, and enough difference to find fresh enjoyment, while new fans might well want to seek out its predecessor too.

Guy Russell 21st December 2021

Bone Water by Kelsey Bryan-Zwick (Blanket Sea)

Bone Water by Kelsey Bryan-Zwick (Blanket Sea)

        Kelsey Bryan-Zwick’s chapbook Bone Water is an exploration of chronic pain and the need for love from a poet who is dealing with the long-term effects of extreme scoliosis and the emotional fallout of the pain associated with it. She has the kind of directness that might be found in the work of Daniel McGinn or Tamara Hattis. It is a physical and direct poetry that goes to the center of what it means to be in pain and the physicality of those who have been operated upon again and again. It is an important book because it does not come to any pat answers to something that is complicated. In a world where people without disability make assumptions and speak for those with disability, I was thrilled to see this book that did not pity the readers but asked us to go with her and understand the world through eyes that had been through a pain others could not understand.

        What first drew me into the collection was its physicality. In ‘Idiopathic Curvature,’ she writes about surgeries meant to straighten her spine.

            Twelve separate bones

            must become one—

            a shock, a suspension

            cut, must absorb all

            this feeling in my guts

            . . .

            When I wake up, I am

            two inches taller than

            when I got to the hospital,

            only I don’t know it yet—

            I can’t get out of bed.

The body is described in its physicality as her spine is fused. She is dealing with just the body as a physical object and we come to see that it is an object to her. She is something that lives within it, but she has to some degree disassociated herself from it. In Kintsugi, she continues with this idea, “rapid hands shine, / they pour in rare metals, trying to keep me whole / enough to hold my own water, my own blood.” Here and elsewhere, the body is described as a vessel for the person who tries to watch as objectively as she can. Perhaps this is best seen in ‘Self-Portrait -after an Epidural’ where she describes her body as shell:

            Days like these and

            I channel my tortoise shell spirit.

            Skin an ancient leatheriness.

            My eyes watch through body crevice,

            mask, and bouffant cap.

She is the being watching from within, not the body itself.

        This collection is not, however, simply a description of pain; it also deals with the emotions of the person who is living with that pain. The first poem is ‘Letter to Ansel,’ where she writes an epistle to the photographer of the American West, Ansel Adams.

            I walk with hobbled

            step, toward an imagined ridge, see myself not

            here stuck at home for yet another month

            of the year, another year of my life, elsewhere

            instead, among the tall pines of Yellowstone

            staring down the granite faces of Yosemite.

After all, chronic pain is not merely a physical sensation. With it comes emotional pain. She is cut off from what she sees as a large part of the human experience, especially as she dwells in the American West herself, not far from these places that Adams photographed so well. It gives her emotional perspective as well. As someone who knows the pain, she understands how limited and tenuous life is. She writes about that in ‘Love Doesn’t Always Glimmer Like a Horse.’ Here she writes that love sometimes ‘dies young / leaves children behind / love doesn’t always last.’ She is bringing wisdom from the perspective of someone who has earned it. If life is as tenuous as she knows that it is, she is telling us to love while we can.

        The dedication of her book reads as follows ‘To my scoliosis, chronic pain, and spoonie family— this book is for us.’ I feel honored to be given a glimpse into a world that I do not yet occupy and to understand just a little better the point of view of pain. She honors the reader with directness and truth. A truth that not a lot of people understand.

John Brantingham 15th December 2021

Love and Other Fairy Tales by Adam Horovitz (Indigo Dreams Publishing)

Love and Other Fairy Tales by Adam Horovitz (Indigo Dreams Publishing)

Adam Horovitz once told me he could hear music in the poetry of chemical words and terms. Well, his words in this collection sing to me. The love-themed poems are sometimes personal and sometimes grand in scale. Here are excerpts from some of my favourites below.

‘The Singing Street’ transported me to a childhood memory in Sunderland:

I knock again.

Are you in pain? I ask, and Can I help?

The duet become opera and I retreat,

hot faced and frightened, to the singing street.

‘Experiment’ really spoke to my love of science. This poem reminded me of certain feelings that I have experienced. Here is the opening verse:

Here is my hand. If I reach out

and let the nerves beneath my fingers’ skin

shiver in sympathy with yours

I believe that my head will electrify itself,

split apart from the atom of my lips,

create a fiery, autonomic smile.

I love the innovative use of language in one poem’s reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. ‘Thisbë the verse’ features this enchanting final stanza:


The phone roars like a hungry lion,

drowns out reason. Was that a voice

through the letterbox? I am too tired for words.

My mouth is dry and all the graves I’ve ever known

Are gaping at me in an imitation of a kiss

‘Love like pollen’ is an example that includes nature-themed imagery. This poem reminds me that there is so much beauty all around us. Here is the first verse:

Love like pollen

first a fine dust of it

smearing the summer air

then, sticky and heavy

on the backs of bees

the high priests of flower marriages

travelling from bloom to gaping bloom

Love & Other Fairy Tales is a wonderful Indigo Dreams collection that I highly recommend. Adam’s unique style immersed me into places where my head became filled with romance, questions surrounding faith, nature, and the mythical. This book would be a welcome Christmas present.

Stephen Paul Wren 14th December 2021

Broken Sleep Books Anthology 2021 edited by Aaron Kent and Charlie Baylis (Broken Sleep Books)

Broken Sleep Books Anthology 2021 edited by Aaron Kent and Charlie Baylis (Broken Sleep Books)

This is the annual anthology of Broken Sleep Books, a series they’ve been running since 2018, and includes short extracts, generally about five or so pages from all the titles they’ve published this year, arranged chronologically by date of publication. It is then something of a voluminous sampler, or advertisement, a way of catching up on the press’s activities this year past. As such I think it reflects the publisher’s variousness with a spirit of innovation and verve, one of the most imaginative of small presses for innovative writing right now.

So what are Broken Sleep books about? Publisher Aaron Kent professes himself to be ‘a working-class writer and publisher from Cornwall’, though he now finds himself in Wales. Charlie Baylis is ‘Chief Editorial Advisor’. Aaron has published this year, both poetry and prose, while Charlie has not, though he has earlier titles out from the press.

This is a very full volume, unostentatiously designed, featuring 41 poets and 12 prose writers. It might be admitted that the chronological presentation is a little scattershot and doesn’t manage to reflect too much in the way of thematic clusters, but this is hardly crucial. If you go to the Broken Sleep website you will find that they profess to be ‘A press where community action, inclusivity, and innovation are at the forefront’. This strikes me as very apt. In a publishing environment where the likes of Faber, Cape or Carcanet are well illustrating the mainstream, Broken Sleep are coming from the margins, though this spirit of ‘inclusivity’ being such might suggest that marginality is not fully what they’d wish for; they are, as it were, an alternative press that perhaps harbours a few mainstream ambitions.

The book does not really reflect nor try to what it thinks might be the highlights of the last year. That is left to the reader. The presentation is equal and egalitarian. There are many unfamiliar names here. A few that might be recognised would possibly include Luke Kennard, SJ Fowler, David Wheatley or Aaron Kent himself, who had a book out from Shearsman this year.

I think the press has been very adventurous in taking on a number of, as it were, unknown entities. They don’t seem to be looking for a writing pedigree of past accomplishments, titles being favoured on their merits.

This can be a mixed blessing. There’s a strong sense that much of this material is experiential writing, all to the good. And much of it either unexpected or inventive. And yet in terms of literary accomplishment I sensed little that might be definitive; there is a battling around literary form, but few here whom one might say are exceptional in craft, rather than just very good.

I can note a few highlights. Here is Razielle Aigen,-

                 separated us all winter long

            from Little Italy and think to ourselves

            how well we kept our balance

            between how much everything mattered

            and how easy it was to erase. (p108)

which I think is very finely expressed, and there are moments like this occurring intermittently in the course of the book.

There are a few one might say scandalous poems, such as Alyson Hallett and Penelope Shuttle’s ‘12’ which begins

            fuck handwashing

            fuck the sanitizer fuck the mask

            fuck the gloves o ex-cuse me (p246)

where the coarseness of language is quite bracing or outre, but is at least consistent with the candour of personal expression and experience, and can be amusing at times, as we find in

            I hate it when people are devoted to pure, sky-fucking jouissance (p262)

by Simon Barraclough.

There are very likely enough of these moments to guide us through the book; it can be a good one just to leaf through. Yet I do wonder if it leans more to the experiential than the literary. For instance there is a very interesting excerpt from Gregory Leadbetter and Phil Thomson (photography) which blends the visual and the written together in quite affecting, captivating way

And yet is something missing? The real guides ushering this book along are surely Kent and Baylis themselves. I would have to conclude that we’re lacking the presence of what one might say big hitters. There seem to be few specific authors they are trying hard to get behind, rather than reflecting a diverse community.

So one is left with a sense of accomplishment, but only so far. The egalitarian arrangement is commendable. Yet the reluctance to hit on key authors or themes is a bit frustrating. Has the press arrived at a stage where it wants to nurture specific authors, eg as a Cape or Faber might do? So I would suggest that this book as sampler is much to be welcomed. However, there is something of a lack of putting it into context. What does it all add up to? To an extent this is a new direction in publishing. Yet to compare for example Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive series there is room yet to give more focus and shape to the publisher’s roster of capable and adventurous writers.

Clark Allison 13th December 2021

Infrathin by Marjorie Perloff (University of Chicago Press)

Infrathin by Marjorie Perloff (University of Chicago Press)

Marjorie Perloff continues to write theoretical and critical books that are both perceptive and highly readable. Infrathin, her most recent, takes its title from Duchamp’s idea that things (and words) that are seemingly the same are always different, even if that difference is ‘ultrathin’. Perloff takes this as the basis and working method for her seven chapters, although there is also a lot of close reading.

Perloff, it has to be said, had me worried at first, as she talked about discussing the context of poetry rather than focussing on the texts themselves, but this ‘context’ is what I would think of as intertextuality, that is how work relates to other work: of the time, previously as influence, and how it has affected poetry since. Some of this ‘context’ (if we stick with Perloff’s term) produces some surprising groupings and discussion.

She starts with a chapter considering ultrathin in relation to Gertrude Stein’s playful experiments, as well as her writerly relationship to Duchamp. Chapter 2 is where the surprises start to happen, where Perloff undertakes a superb analysis of the textual musicality, structure and effect of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, and then makes an unexpected but coherent case for Eliot as a forerunner to concrete poetry, such as that produced by Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Perloff then pans out to consider how Ezra Pound uses the page, or invents a specific kind of page, for his Cantos. Her close reading here includes the visual element as well as the text, noting the differences, as Pound did not read aloud the ideograms and other visual components of his sequences. Charles Olson and Zukofsky get short shrift in relation to the complexities and structure of the Cantos, Perloff preferring to consider Brazilian concrete poets such as Augusto de Campos.

Next up is a fascinating discussion of Susan Howe’s Quarry in relation to Wallace Steven’s Rock, titled ‘Word Frequencies and Zero Zones’. This consideration of repetition, slippage and what is left unsaid is astonishingly original, unlike the next chapter which considers the work of John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein and Rae Armantrout. It feels slightly expected and a revisiting of some of Perloff’s previous work.

The book ends with a detailed chapter about ‘Poeticity’ in Samuel Beckett’s work, followed by another featuring Beckett, but this time considering how he came to engage with and be influenced by the poetry of Yeats, with an overarching theme of ‘The Paragrammatic Potential of “Traditional” Verse’.

If at times this book feels like the seven conference papers or essays they previously were, reworked into chapters, and if at times Perloff makes some rather personal, associative and conjectural leaps when undertaking her poetic deconstructions, it can be forgiven in the light of surprise, intelligence and originality. I haven’t enjoyed a serious and challenging critical book like this for a long time.

Rupert Loydell 11th December 2021

Grotesquerie for the Apocalypse by Vik Shirley (Beir Bua Press)

Grotesquerie for the Apocalypse by Vik Shirley (Beir Bua Press)

Vik Shirley’s latest publication brings together poetry written at roughly the same time as her debut pamphlet Corpses, published in early 2020The poems share the same preoccupation with the macabre that made Corpses feel so prescient in the early days of the pandemic. Two years on, with the virus now a permanent fixture in our lives, this poetry still feels topical, its ghoulish humour prompting a much-needed laugh. 

The new collection opens with a series of individual poems, some lineated but most in prose, evoking various absurd scenarios. Shirley identifies Russell Edson and Daniil Kharms as influences, and many of the poems have a surreal quality. The humour arises from Shirley’s witty juxtaposition of the gruesome and the mundane.

In the opening poem, ‘Not in Kansas’, the narrator steps out into the garden to find herself in a ‘mud wrestling ring’ pitted against an opponent with ‘enormous biceps and a tan to die for’. We’re somewhere in the 1980s but before the bout gets underway a ‘Mad-Max-esque’ plane lands, chopping the narrator into pieces. The time shifts to the 1930s, and at the bottom of her ‘bloody legs and feet – now miles/apart – are some ruby slippers’.

In ‘Torso’ a bloody torso drags itself to a kiosk where it asks for cigarettes, the girl behind the counter seeing no reason not to serve this ‘stump’ since it’s paying cash. In ‘The Performance’ a woman eats a live rat after initially experiencing a crisis of confidence in her ability to go through with the act. Buoyed by her triumph she pencils in an event for 2023 at which she proposes to eat a ‘non-specified reptile’.

The middle section of the book is a sequence of prose poems which originated from a ‘cute-studies’ conference held  in Japan in 2019. Shirley’s poems transform the super-cute world of Hello Kitty into an orgy of depravity by splicing in text from Koji Suzuki’s horror novel Ring. This mash up of two very different genres is not only funny, it’s also unsettling, exposing the horror that often underlies the seeming normality of the everyday. This extract from ‘Weekend at Grandma’s’ is fairly typical:

Grandma has such a good imagination, and loves the faint smell of blood. She teaches Hello Kitty a certain universal evil and how to be eaten. Sunday morning, Grandma shows Hello Kitty how to make black particles and splatters in violent succession. Hello Kitty sifts the repugnance and adds the terror. After mixing the bowels, Grandma pours it into the cake pans.

The final section of the book is a sequence of prose poems titled ‘Apocalypse Poems’. These imagine various grotesque responses to the impending end of the world, including bunkers where punters can get married ‘in the style of Hitler and Eva Braun’ just before committing suicide, and a family riven by historical grudges killing each other in a huge row before the ‘end’ has time to claim them. These poems offer brilliant, acerbic parodies of the way certain people behave when faced with a crisis, be that a deadly virus or other existential threat. 

This is poetry for our times, both darkly funny and deadly serious. 

Simon Collings 8th December 2021

Averno by Louise Gluck (Penguin Modern Classics)

Averno by Louise Gluck (Penguin Modern Classics)

This is in the end is genuinely a persuasive book, though it also struck me as avowing quite a feminist outlook. This may in part be due to the Persephone/Hades myth, that lingers as part of the poem’s inspiration, though hardly overwhelmingly so. In the tradition of say, Emily Dickinson originally, and moving through to the likes of Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov or Barbara Guest, and it may be the latter whom I can think of as a kind of stylistic parallel. Gluck is relatively restrained, terse, not using too many words for what might require less; a very moderated tone rather than a loud one, often finessed.

The book consists of longer and shorter poems, the former generally subdivided into sections. There is quite a strong earth or ecology theme, and Gluck moves with changes to the weather or the environment.

I was struck early on by this piece of phrasing from the poem ‘October’;-

            ‘It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.

            It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.

            Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.’ (p13)

This is highly evocative, distinctive and original, reaching insights of bracing perception. The first line is a true but regrettable reflection on our present state of affairs. Beautiful world where are you recently said Sally Rooney. There are localised moments we can wonder at, evidence of intelligent design and aesthetic patterning, but few would be greatly optimistic about the current state of play, dealing with environmental degradation and pollution. Gluck knows very well that she herself can’t fix this; it is likely to take a long term coordinated effort. But she does suggest that she might be given to candor, of which she also feels there is not enough; call it openness, perhaps, or honesty or opening up about difficult topics truthfully.

Again another insightful passage occurs a little later,-

            ‘Who can say what the world is? The world

            is in flux, therefore

            unreadable, the winds shifting,

            the great plates invisibly shifting and changing –‘ (‘Prism’ I, p20)

Among other things we are finding Gluck attending to the state of the earth, rather than, say, male perspectives, and I’d say this kind of marks out the prerogative of the book as a whole; there is little in the way of critique of male prerogatives. This short passage, opening the poem ‘Prism’ is quite fascinating because it takes in both the shorter term and the long term views. The ‘great plates’ are noted, very slow organic and geological change. Meanwhile the world is perceived to be in flux, with those shifting winds. One might note also the lack of formalist design here, lines of quite unequal length not rhymed, but then it is highly readable. 

In part II we encounter a passage that further marks out Gluck’s view, from the poem ‘The Evening Star’,-

                                                ‘There were

            no other stars. Only the one

            whose name I knew

            as in my other life I did her

            injury: Venus, 

            star of the early evening,

            to you I dedicate

            my vision’ (p39)

This time working with a shorter line, again no rhyme, but there is certainly an intentness of focus. Gluck doesn’t quite dwell on this. There is no overriding mythos here, though she may be a watcher of the stars and the night sky. The flow of words is finely punctuated. 

Recounting a tale of a field burning, evidently by arson, Gluck ventures of the farmer,-

            ‘He remembers the day the field burned…

            Something deep within him said: I can live with this,

            I can fight it after awhile.’ (p68)

And some of this sense permeates the book. If there is not enough beauty or soundness in the world, one can strive to make things better. Struggle is an endemic, given part of the picture.

In terms of the book’s larger frame, the opening poem, ‘The Night Migrations’, does in so many ways set out the tone. An extraordinarily yet so subtly perceptive piece we are given to, that upon the soul’s reside in death, ‘maybe just not being is simply enough,/ hard as that is to imagine.’ (p1) This has fine insight, subtlety, and lack of pretence, and is philosophically quite searching. What we know of the place of the soul is that it will ‘just not be’, ‘hard to imagine’. The almost colloquial note of that last line takes off a lot of its weight, and yet it might feel a little strange encountering this at the very outset of the book. Gluck deals, indeed, with weighty subjects, but not in an anxious, deep or worried condition; whatever all this is one feels she has found a way to live with it and be finely expressive about it. It is also worth checking out her Collected Poems, recently published. 

Clark Allison 1st December 2021

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