RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: August 2022

We Build A City by Kinga Toth translated by Sven Engleke & Kinga Toth (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

We Build A City by Kinga Toth translated by Sven Engleke & Kinga Toth (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

In We Build A City the Hungarian poet Kinga Toth reassembles, almost as an architect /builder, both language and genre: she is a ‘(sound) poet illustrator, translator, frontwoman, performer, songwriter’ who writes in Hungarian, German and English,  living now between Hungary and Germany. Her work has won several important prizes. This book was originally published in Germany in 2019 and has been co-translated by the poet herself into English: the edition is sleek and elegant with a grey industrial landscape as its cover, however the dominant image, a rounded breast-shaped silo, hints at the deep gender concerns raised within.

Originally a philologist, her work signals a deep fascination with language per se ,

and she is not afraid to mould and transform it , experimentally stress its materials to breaking-point in order to create  new structures. This is an ambitious collection: the poems and graphics are collective in their range, remind us of plans and maps of unrecognisable sites, slash vertically and horizontally, and imagine strange and provoking structural relationships between the (obliquely gendered female) body as metaphor for a city in both biomorphic and mechanistic terms. Toth regards the poet as part machine and language as self-generating: meaning is always fluid, elusive, and words run together as hybrids – ‘newdeed’, ‘foldstool’, ‘tormentbelts’. The effect is powerful and sometimes menacing. Here is the beginning of the poem ‘WOMAN’ :

            the woman is the container’s part

            on her head a yellow snapped helmet

            the channels crackle outside

            squirming as a maze

            not every one of them

            gets back inside the body

In a breakthrough poem ‘Ballerina’ from her collection All Machine, 2014, Toth evokes a rotating, robotic figure, a model dancer activated on the top of a music box by a key, and We Build A City would appear to explore this trope further. Poems here evoke the perplexing realities of being seen as a performer, a female receiver of the public gaze, while at the same time imagining ways in which linguistic imagery can evoke consciousness as a mechanistic system, partly human and partly human-made (as we all are to some extent now in the 21st century due to contemporary surgical and technological interventions within the body). Toth’s work also considers how bodies (and consciousness) are impacted by disability and illness. In contrast with the architectural project to create a perfected whole, this perhaps more compelling sub-text offers glimpses of the fragmented/broken, incomplete / unfinished in constant process. The graphics consist of images and patterns made from faded and sometimes smudged letters from vintage typewriter keys: there is a disjoint between the modern and the anachronistic but without any trace of nostalgia. By the end of the book, language as text disappears almost entirely and we have only smudged and disjointed single letters within these eerie diagrams. 

Pippa Little 31st August 2022

On The Royal Road: with Hiroshige on the Tōkaidō by James Bell (Shearman Books)

On The Royal Road: with Hiroshige on the Tōkaidō by James Bell (Shearman Books)

James Bell (1950–2021) passed away just a few months after submitting the manuscript of this collection to Shearsman Books. Some of his poems from the collection had already appeared in Shearsman magazine, and the editor, Tony Frazer, eventually decided to publish Bell’s work together with the pictures of the woodblock prints from Hiroshige’s second Tōkaidō series. The poems are ekphrases that correspond to the pictures of the 53 stations that the artist drew after he had completed the journey from Edo (modern Tokyo) to Kyoto in 1832. He made sketches along the way which were later developed into successful prints that established his reputation. The first series of The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō was so popular that Hiroshige published 30 more different interpretations of the Tōkaidō during his lifetime in both vertical and horizontal shapes. It was a long-lasting exploration of the highway with its commonplaces and its sense of adventure.

Utawaga Hiroshige (1797–1858) was born in Edo during the so-called Edo period (1603–1867) when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a feudal government characterised by relative peace, economic growth and almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. This situation allowed the development of arts and culture in a controlled environment that reflected Japanese traditions in techniques and themes. Society was slow-paced compared with that of today and people’s everyday life was the main focus of stories and pictures. Hiroshige’s artwork reflects this status. Nature is prominent, and there are impressive trees, mountains and rivers. Mount Fuji is often present, smaller or bigger in shape but always the protagonist, as the poems of the collection cleverly underline. The pictures depict different kinds of weather in different seasons, though Hiroshige made his journey in the summer. This changing of the seasons conveys a sense of contingency and sadness, emphasising the transience of every creature. James Bell reflects these concepts in his poetry, re-creating the atmosphere of the Japanese artist’s works by adding unusual descriptions that not only interpret the images but also give a tremendously insightful view:

a spit with another village stabs the sea 

         dark and light – the straight horizon 

               rose and red sky announces dusk.         (‘Shinagawa – 1st Station’)

The close observation of the different details in the pictures and the consequent comment on the whole of the composition develop a wider view; it is a meditation on what life means for ordinary people and their connection with the environment. The poems evolve in a meaningful exploration that engages both the spiritual and the practical sides of existence. The Tōkaidō road, which was 300 miles long and could normally be covered in about 10 to 14 days, was one of the five roads that joined the two major cities of Japan. People travelled on foot, horseback, wheeled carts and litters depending on their social status. Porters helped them to carry luggage and cross rivers. Such a long journey needed stops to eat, have a rest and socialise. Therefore, travelling along the Tōkaidō was not only a way to reach the destination but also triggered connections, spread news and prompted storytelling in a country in which nothing relevant apparently happened due to its isolation:

a scene interested in movement on calm water 

       on people who pass on the shoreline path

                in the foreground                               (‘Kawasaki – 2nd Station’)

in a quiet scene where nothing much 

happens                                                             (‘Mitsuke – 28th Station’)

On the road, people come and go, face the adverse weather and are busy carrying their wares. Stillness or pretended movement characterises some of the scenes. Mount Fuji overlooks humankind benevolently in its unchanging shape. The scenes look similar and yet singular in some details, which are always new in terms of the different perspectives they reveal but which also have repeated themes:

an idyll only in its stillness 

            that pretends movement

(‘Arai – 31st Station’)

             the profile of Mount Fuji 

a contradiction ignored 

                  its minimal reality 

       too familiar to be in a third dimension            (‘Shimada – 23rd Station’)

Most of the poems have the structure of haiku, that is, three lines and no punctuation. However, Bell interprets the haiku by moving the lines along the page and ignoring the syllable count; in this way, he unleashes the imagination, allowing more freedom and revealing alternative views.

The final poems in the appendix are ekphrases of images from the first Great Tōkaidō ((1833–34). In these last well-chosen and complex pictures, Bell further explores Hiroshige’s art, emphasising once more the imposing Mount Fuji and the sense of adventure when the pilgrims cross mountains and rivers but also the thrill of living an ordinary life when ‘we bear secret witness/to all that is concealed in what is unconcealed’. (‘Wintry Desolation near Hamamatsu – 29th Station’). Dramatic windy scenes are followed by calm passages in which the pilgrims cross a bridge or have a rest under a tree. The everyday evolves and fades in the hours of the day and night and in the passing of seasons that transform the world in a cycle that is never the same but is ephemeral and unpredictable.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 27th August 2022

Spaces by Clive Gresswell (erbacce-press)

Spaces by Clive Gresswell (erbacce-press)

This is a neatly produced chapbook from erbacce-press which is nicely laid-out and has a cover design incorporating (I think) a photograph of the author which has been adapted into a double-image by Alan Corkish.

     There are 21 poems, each titled and each taking up a page. The overall title relates to the layouts of the texts which are split mainly into phrases, single words and occasionally longer pieces, halfway towards sentences, which suggest narrative structures but are fragmented and full of what I can only call texture. For me this is the most interesting of Gresswell’s recent chapbooks as there’s something almost Shakespearean about his use of language, where a variety of dictions interplay and resonate to great effect. There’s certainly a lyrical element to this work but it’s mixed with a dark foreboding quality which talks of ‘our times’ and has a sort of apocalyptic quality throughout. Take this poem on page 15 as an example:


          the roar of dust       seeps through    this island

          & settles on                the cooling       coastal walks

          where gypsies         comprehend     essential pleasures

          & grips upon              the vain wrath    which weeps

          in and out                in out   in      gentle   harshness

          of winter storms    captured     and    capitulated on

          trials    and           childhood dreams  rehearsed the blue

          and calming grey    of the sea’s     once charming

          vernacular ripped      the throat      into gargled pieces

          from screams and night       sprawled      anecdotes those

          enchanted visions       curling           rushing by with

          no aftermath or            naked         ambition shoved off

          the sands & holocausts   to temptation’s taut temerity

          the shallow        fields   of   memory    sucked deep

          into nature’s       glistening       awakening of tomorrow. 

There’s enough space here for the reader to fill in the gaps with his or her imaginings which is seemingly the entire point of this work. If the communication is partial it also suggests a degree of communality and shared experience 

     From ‘Shore‘ we get the following: ‘the taste infringes     salt   on the tongue / the bitter       taste     of effigies / redundant     from       the holy war.’ Throughout these poems there is a playful use of language which is harnessed to something darker. Nature is ever-present, whether with a sense of recuperation and as a place of retreat or as something much harsher and menacing. There’s a beauty to these shards and phrases – ‘golden memories recycled & harmony   reboiled / in among the     snakes     of     wrath their / seething      nightmares   claiming in sleep.’ (from ‘Sleep’) but it’s always tempered by something more sinister and unsettling. Nevertheless I found these poems pleasurable to encounter as the balance of the phrasing and the conflicting textures of the writing make for an enticing read. Take this opening sequence from ‘Face’, for example: 

          through mists & mischief miscreants

          from days of       their bauble dalliance

          the embellishments  of   their grievous

          circumstances   the knotted question

          of their day’s    abeyance abundance

          of their fortitude    & let alone such

          gratitude       …….  

     These are essentially playful poems but the tone is more often than not dark and would seem to reflect a collective as well as an individual sense of things going wrong. As I suggested earlier these are poems for our time.

Steve Spence August 25th 2022

The 3-D Clock by Stephen Claughton (Dempsey & Windle)

The 3-D Clock by Stephen Claughton (Dempsey & Windle)

Stephen Claughton’s latest short collection focuses on his dearest mother’s journey into the forgetfulness of dementia that changed her physical and mental state but also opened up different, unexpected horizons. Her son tries to help her by mentioning people she knew and things that happened in her past, but the deterioration of her memory seems unstoppable. At a certain point he offers her a 3-D clock, that is, a digital dementia day-clock; it shows her the day of the week and the period of the day. When he goes to visit her again, she has already disposed of it with the excuse that ‘it’s worse than one that ticks.’ She prefers staying in the dark, the son remarks, but it is a darkness that she chooses, a kind of ‘unawareness’, as if she were too tired to be engaged in any kind of conversation or activity. 

In his previous pamphlet, The War with Hannibal (2019, Salzburg Poetry), Claughton revisits his boyhood and family memories, evoking school days and the legacy of his father and grandfather. The male side of the family heritage is delineated in well-paced lines and harmonious sounds that convey a sense of balance and understated wit. In the poems, keen observations and irony coalesce with unexpected final twists that surprise the reader. A similar attitude is developed in The 3-D Clock, with special attention being paid to his mother’s condition and his caring for her. Deep compassion and an uncertain acceptance of her status characterise his love for her as he tries to understand the different world she is now living in. He is at her side even if he sometimes feels puzzled and does not understand what is going on in her mind.

At a certain point in the story, words fail her and so the world of language that keeps things together and makes sense of life and of reality collapses:

Even the words of ordinary, 

everyday things are beginning to fail you now

like old labels that come unstuck

and get muddled beyond recall.

I do my best to help you, 

as together we puzzle out

what exactly it is you mean.


Your periphrases, though accurate enough, 

are somehow beside the point.

“The thing that holds water,” you say,

I lamely render as “jug”, 

only to find it was “radiator’ you meant.    (‘Anomia’)

She goes back to Welsh, her mother tongue, ‘a refuge from the English/of teachers and bullies’, a language that her son does not understand and that therefore widens the gap between them. However, he likes ‘to think that in Welsh/you’re making sense’, accepting the change in the hope that it might be helpful. As his mother likes listening to radio programmes, he buys her a digital radio, but it is too complicated for her so he has to tape over most of the buttons and leave only the on/off one exposed. He shows her pictures on his phone of her old home in an attempt to revive her memory, but nothing really works; she slips further into her forgetfulness until she mistakes him for someone else or looks at him as if he is a stranger. She was a teacher in her youth and adulthood, committed to her work and always in charge, but now she is ‘beyond rescue’.

Not being recognised by his mother seems to make the author question his own identity in some way and opens a hole that feels like failure. However, her ending is described as peaceful even though he grieves deeply for her:

Even after I knew you’d gone, 

it was hard to believe you weren’t there – 

your hand still warm in mine, 

despite the room’s mortuary chill.

(‘Opening the Window the Night You Died’)

The scene that is described is moving, sincere and powerful; it conveys despair as well as profound affection despite his mother seeming absent to him well before her actual death. The poems in the collection are remarkably consistent in theme and tone, revealing in evocative and precise lines Claughton’s intense and tender affection for his mother, whose illness affected their relationship in the last years of her life. However, dementia did not spoil their rapport; on the contrary, it became stronger and more significant during his efforts to accept her condition and during his attempts to help her. She had wanted to avoid a funeral, but a simple one is arranged with ‘only the family there’ and “Nimrod” playing with a ‘glitch at the close’, and his last thought is about how she would have hated it. The poems are a remarkable testimony to the link between mother and son that transcends illnesses and incomprehension. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 24th August 2022

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Before Mike Ferguson became an English teacher (he’s now retired), he tried his hand at farm work, imbued with the back-to-the-land enthusiasm of the 1960s and 70s counterculture. Having emigrated from the USA, Ferguson took a job for three years near Ipswich, and then lived and worked part-time in the Chiltern Hills whilst he studied at Oxford. 

Although perhaps the reality of labouring, even within agriculture, hit home, and Ferguson followed his degree by training as a teacher, eventually moving to Devon, and then engaging with the Devon reading and publishing literati, especially in the context of readings, workshops and magazine & booklet production within education, Ferguson still goes slightly dewy-eyed and nostalgic about farming, as evidenced by this beautifully produced, austere pamphlet.

Much of Ferguson’s current writing is process-driven: he uses erasure, pattern, word-shapes, Humument-type explorations and collage to write through and from writing both old and new. Here, this type of work shares its pages with more lyrical free-verse and prose poetry, and occasional haiku-esque (or imagistic) work.

There are stories here, poems full of characters and events – J. H-J. ‘tending the grain dryer’ but also trying to put out a barn fire with a hose in the other hand; the narrator proudly taking his heifer to the County Show but ending up flat on his arse in cowpats – but also frozen memories and moments, such as this brief, evocative and personal poem:

    Not Shearing Sheep

   For me, it was rolling wool

   and then my lanolin arms

   wrapped around

Elsewhere, acclimatisation to the smell of silage has the effect of changing it to the ‘candied whiff / of a sweet dessert; mucking out the pigs wrecks a pair of DMs; and we are asked to stand still and briefly listen to ‘the heron / miscalling / our names’.

Other poems are more playful, presenting the swirl of crows or the laying of irrigation pipes by hand as simple and effective shape poems, boldly set on the page; with some evidencing the author’s educational knowing and critical distance in poems such as ‘Farming Without Derrida’, where ‘[t]here is nothing to deconstruct’.

Obviously, Ferguson also has the gift of distance in time to look back at himself then. In ‘Agrarian Creed’ he notes that he 

       didn’t preach

   Marx on the farm back then

   as we were

   comrades when

   collectively hand-hoeing weeds,

   or sharing the

   three-bar electric fire

   for our morning breakfast toastings,

   or freely passing on

   the skills and

   wisdoms acquired over time.

and admits that even many years later, when a teacher in Devon, he would visit the Honiton (agricultural) Show – ‘still drawn to / tractors’ – only to find new models with air-con and stereo systems, which prompts a reimagining of possibilities, with ‘Hendrix feedback up cultivated rows, / or Dylan // defiant in ignoring Maggie’. (A reference to both Thatcher and the song ‘Maggie’s Farm’.)

The book ends with a confessional poem and then an observational comment and statement. Having written earlier in the book that ‘Hunting and gathering was / never going to be enough’, ‘Fault’ admits the agricultural failing back then was the poet’s, in an erasure poem rather appropriately sourced in Richard Jefferies’ The Toilers of the Field:


                                                                                       the fault of

                                                     th       is



        is                                     poetical feeling



The closing poem, ‘Residual Revelation’, is more nostalgic and accepting, although it starts by noting that

   In ’73 I thought this would be

   my pastoral idyll, an agrarian

   nirvana after LSD

   with no need for a degree.

On some levels it clearly was an idyll, but studying literature, teaching and writing has clearly changed Ferguson, even though the poem states how he still gardens and grows crops. Although he suggests that he ‘could claim / how studying, in the end, taught / [him] a thing or two’, the poem ends by contradicting or qualifying this, revealing that it was

   Scrivy who coached me in how to

   look and look all those years ago and

   find revelation in the simple things. 

It is that sense of revelation and simplicity, an attention to the world – remembered, reinterpreted, deconstructed (or not) – that is most evident in this engaging, entertaining and clear-minded collection, which evidences an open-eyed, thoughtful and sure-footed writer at work. Even when standing in animal shit or recalling ‘the butt-end of a / tedium of days’.

Rupert Loydell 23rd August 2022

The Traces: An Essay by Mairead Small Staid (Deep Vellum / A Strange Object)

The Traces: An Essay by Mairead Small Staid (Deep Vellum / A Strange Object)

Mairead Small Staid’s book is the kind of writing the term ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ was invented for. It is a travelogue, a memoir, a romance, critical literary exposition, art history, and a quest, all in one. It meanders, branches, follows its own diversions, conversing amiably with the reader as it reflects on time, memory and place, looking for and considering the nature of that most elusive of human conditions, happiness.

Staid’s book is ostensibly about a period of time spent studying in Florence, her friends there (one, Z, who she lusts after, flirts with and eventually beds), Italian art, architecture and culture, and trips from there to elsewhere in Europe, Venice and Paris included. It is also a commentary on Renaissance painting, and books, especially Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the novel where Marco Polo invents or describes cities that turn out to be variations on Venice itself. Sappho, Anne Carson, Montaigne, Michelangelo, Cesare Pavese, Alain de Botton, Carlo Rovelli, Lyn Hejinian, and a host of others are also referenced, as is another book of Calvino’s, Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

This isn’t an academic treatise though, it’s a personal consideration of how physical distance and memory allow revision, nostalgia and reflection, which is one of the ways happiness arrives. Staid is aware of how happiness is often experienced in the past, not in the moment; and this fascinates her, even as she openly undercuts her own narrative by revealing her European travels happened a decade ago. She understands we are getting a mediated and self-edited version of her idyllic summer and love affair, not to mention a version now underpinned and annotated by philosophy and art history.

To be fair, the art history seems to be mostly contemporaneous to the trip, and often includes her art lecturer’s comments, and she also appears to have been engaged with some of the books she uses at the time, as well as her notebooks and journal. Despite all this, The Traces remains what Kubla Khan, in Invisible Cities, calls ‘a journey through memory’ – a quote Staid uses in her discussion, briefly before highlighting another pertinent statement from the same book: ‘[A]ny totality that is not potential, speculative, or plural is no longer thinkable.’

Invisible Cities is full of descriptions of the same city from different points of view, different understandings of function, different focal points and ideals, something the emperor of the book and the reader only come to realise as the book proceeds. Staid has written her book in the full knowledge that she is only telling one story, or a number of stories as she interprets her friendships, her learning, her reading, travels and desire, through the lenses of time and other texts. She is constantly ‘gesturing towards some unknown’, suggesting that ‘[w]e hold so many different selves within’ but that she still wants more.

So, this is a book of possible stories told by only one, or a few, possible selves. It knowingly grapples with layers of possible, selective and selected narratives, filtered through experience and desperate to define and pin down happiness. It takes a long time for the author of this book to realise happiness is elusive: ‘[e]very time I set out, I end up back where I began’, she closes a focussed discussion of happiness towards the end of the book. ‘This written account […] can never be equivalent to the lived experience nor even the lesser recollection, but it can make up for its deficiencies in other ways: art, insight, a belated and lasting surprise’, she notes earlier, although this book is not deficient in any way. 

It is the written equivalent of those magicians who reveal how the trick they have just performed is done: the illusion is still just as amazing even if we have been shown the mechanics of it all. The Traces tells and deconstructs a complex story of one person’s happiness, woven from all sorts of creative material. It is one of the most inventive essays and best books I have ever read. In part of her discussion of how we long for ‘elsewhere and elswhen’, Staid poses the question ‘[i]s this an answer or a question?’, answering herself a few lines later: ‘Like a long glance, like a kiss, they ask and answer all at once.’ In a similar manner, this wonderful book offers both questions and answers, prompting us to think and enquire for ourselves.

Rupert Loydell 21st August 2022

Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning (Parthian Books)

Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning (Parthian Books)

Rebecca Goss’ back cover quote describes this book as a ‘profound study of the maternal journey’, but Dunning’s weighty ‘Foreword’ makes it clear that this is not just a personal story of pregnancy, giving birth and motherhood, but a thematic collection hung on that story to consider lockdown, abortion rights, historical associations and issues ‘of medical bias, gendered violence, misogyny, control over women’s bodies and reproductive rights, the praising of chastity and virginity, and the notion of female bodies as vessels alone’. Quite a list, and one Dunning seems nervous about tackling ‘through poetry alone’, suggesting that Pearl & Bone is just her starting point.

The book opens gently, with the narrator sharing the news of her pregnancy with her partner as they walk a mountain trail, although the poem is addressed to the already born child, a story in the past tense. ‘You were a fish’ relates movement in the womb to the ocean, whilst the following two brief poems discuss how the body changes during gestation. 

Then we are transported back to 1963 and the voice of Christine Keeler as she poses in an Arne Jacobson chair, ‘stripped and bare as a newborn foal’. She comments on the journalists publishing a list of her lovers, and throws the question asked of her, ‘are there any of them you actually loved?‘, back in their (and the reader’s) faces. Keeler is a character who reappears throughout this collection, but there are many others too: Prospero (perhaps, or maybe another wizard or magician) in ‘Ace of Wands’, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Eve, Sarah Everard, and Bertha Mason (from Jane Eyre); all victims of power in one way or another, be that a rapist and murderer, a character’s husband, the author, God, politicians, history or opinion.

In between these powerfully voiced poems are more straightforward texts, where the personal and domestic are foregrounded. A spider hangs under the sink the narrator is cleaning, the baby arrives with ‘a cacophony of cries, the thundering beauty of lungs’ (‘July 2nd, 15:08’), and ‘A Sudden Mother’ is forced to stay on the postnatal ward during Covid-19, as one of the ‘pale and bloodless ghosts’, whilst the baby’s father is

   […] pitched miles away, butting at doors that scream:
                                                          No entry.

Elsewhere, other poems document the discoveries of parenthood: persuading children to sleep by driving them around, sharing Spring’s first daffodils, walks in the rain, self-doubt and wonder, and the way ‘the house changed too’, as ‘there are traces / of you / in every room’. And there is a changed and re-shaped body (both physically and mentally) to deal with, and the worries and implications of Roe vs. Wade, rebuffed in ‘Blessing for the Women’. The following poem, ‘Altar’, draws on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for its epigraph and imagery, where the poem’s addressee worships ‘at the tired altar of [her] own shame’.

Towards the end of the book, Dunning returns to Wales, but a Wales tinged with the mystical and magical, wild nature, holy wells, and unholy water where curses are known to take root. The priestess, ‘whittling magic’ is no longer present at the end of the page, instead there is a sibling for ‘Jac’ to contend with, and a final declamation where ‘The Womb Speaks’:

   Believe me –
   I will wear these scars like jewels, mined hot from the earth.
   I will bleed and leak. You shackle what you fear: the minotaur
   pacing its maze. The circus bear sweating rags behind bars.
                             This vacant womb. Its deafening power.

This is a brave, complex, powerful, angry, and loving book, full of poems that argue, discuss, share, and reject the abuse of power that women and children are constant victims of. Rooted in the physical body, it places individual experience within a web of other voices and events, asserting and demanding without ever heckling or abusing its readers. It is a model example of issues-based poetry, where argument is not reduced to sloganeering, preaching or demands, a concerned and original voice in the current debate about sexuality and gender.

Rupert Loydell 11th August 2022

Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 edited by Mark Andryczyk (Penguin)

Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 edited by Mark Andryczyk (Penguin)

Two immediate surprises from this volume: firstly, how much poetry is included within its 343 pages; secondly, that Penguin have chosen to repackage, reprint and retitle a 2017 anthology. Surely they could have put together a new book? We all know how quickly work can be requested, submitted, edited, typeset and printed these days!

Never mind. If I wasn’t someone who reads the small print, I’d probably never know, although the Introduction and section of review quotes still refer to the book by its previous title, The White Chalk of Days. What is missing is, of course, any mention of the recent Russian invasion and war, which as I write has been happening for 160 days. Perhaps that is a different book, one I’d like to see, but I suspect I am not alone in wanting to find out more about Ukraine because of the current conflict.

The prose, some of which is excerpts from longer works, is perhaps more obviously Ukrainian. The fiction is often set within the country, and characters dress, speak and act in specific ways, in settings that seem to be actual places. The essays grapple with issues such as history, culture, poverty, oppression, often from surprising angles: Taras Prokhasko’s ‘Selections from FM Galicia’, a series of ruminations on the nature of cities, the seasons, language, and much more, could be non-fiction or fiction, but is perceptive, insightful and engaging. Yuri Andrukhovych offers up a brief history of Prypiat, a city which only existed from 1970-1986, when it died from ‘Acute Radiation Syndrome’, but the piece is also a travelogue and philosophical discourse. Who can be held accountable? What can be done? Nothing it seems…

Elsewhere things get more fantastical and perhaps more ‘Westernized’. Andrey Kurkov’s prose excerpt is about a KGB captain who arranges for the hand of Jimi Hendrix to be brought to L’viv so it can be buried in the Lychakiv Cemetery, whilst Yuri Vynnychuk’s excerpts ‘From Spring Games In Summer Gardens’ swim ‘along the waves of daydreams’, sometimes reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in their lucid brevity. Viktor Neborak was part of Bu-Ba-Bu performance group, and some of his poems seem rooted in that world:

   It rises up like a head,
   the lopped-off head of a vagrant.
   It utters words from the beyond
   once, twice, and for the third time:
   Are you devouring TV soaps?
   You gaze at dragons behind the glass!
   Remember you can’t hide anywhere!
      (‘From Genesis of the Flying Head’)

   —Paint a BABE naked BLUE
   with lips the day looks BA
   BU in dithyraMBs BU taBOO
   put your teeth in BUBABU
       (from ‘A Drum-Tympanum’)

Elsewhere, Marjana Savka writes about how ‘books we’ve never read are opening for us’ and listens to Sonny Rollins, the ‘Lord of Jazz’; Andriy Bondar ponders how Ukranian he looks and takes advice from Robbie Williams; Sylvia Plath turns up in Marjana Savka’s ‘Who, Marlene, Who?’; and Serhiy Zhadan serenades ‘Alcohol’ in the guise of a lover, or vice versa.

Other poems seem more mainstream, taking love, loss, separation and distance, family and relationships as their subject. Ivan Malkovych spends ‘An Evening with Great-Grandma’, whilst Bondar ponders the fact he has ‘very good genes’ and that his ‘great-great-grandfather lived to be 119 and died with dignity / simply walked into the house and died’. Lyuba Yakimchuk considers her ‘Grandmother’s Fairy Tale’ and ‘The Book of Angels’, but also takes her clothes off ready to make love before learning to also shed her family’s expectations and judgement:

   and now we wear nothing at all
   such people are called naked
      (from ‘such people are called naked’)

The (original) Introduction offers context for the anthology, which arose out of the Contemporary Ukrainian Literature Series of events, and came to a close in 2014 due to a war with Russia. It also introduces the 15 writers selected, whilst the new Preface re-contextualises the book in the light of more recent events. Throughout the book there are helpful footnotes, and each author gets an introductory page before their work.

If there is little here to suggest that Postmodernist writing has taken root in Ukraine, and little evidence of textual and linguistic experiment, it is nevertheless an intriguing and informative anthology with plenty of different styles of work on offer. Whilst I feel Lloyd’s Schwartz’s claim on the back cover that this is an ‘act of moral generosity’ is somewhat hyperbolic, it is nevertheless deserving of your attention and time.

Rupert Loydell 9th August 2022

Cafferty’s Truck by Robin Thomas (Dempsey & Windle)

Cafferty’s Truck by Robin Thomas (Dempsey & Windle)

Robin Thomas’ two earlier collections, both from Cinnamon, are miscellanies in various styles inspired by paintings, reading, childhood, music and trains; common subjects approached with a trying-things-out feel but all done with an uncommon level of playfulness and geniality. This more interlaced book, hot on the heels of A Distant Hum, has a slim twenty-four pages of work, with poems averaging about ten short lines each. Here’s one of them (‘The Meeting’):

            The truck labours
            along the long road up.
            The van, spick and span,
            speeds by on the other side,
            wafts by with hardly a sigh.

The minimalist approach relies on the way humans will construct narratives from the thinnest series of clues. But the overall story is straightforward enough. In fact, we’re told it at the end of the first poem:

              Byrne, in his trim red van,
              respectfully following, follows
              Cafferty’s yesterdays with his tomorrows.

Cafferty’s business is in decline. He’s distracted: spending time in the art gallery or the library or the aquarium. He’s out-of-date and indecisive: he uses a map rather than satnav, and can’t even choose a toothpaste in Tesco. He’s just not business-like: his collection of strange words (‘setose’, ‘alkanet’, ‘quab’, &c.) hints he could even be a… poet. As for his truck, its Homeric epithet is ‘rackety’. It rattles and sneezes and sighs. It gets frequently juxtaposed, as above, with Byrne’s van, which waffles and capers and wafts, and we’re often told how trim, smooth, buffed, red, shiny, noiseless and so on the van is. In case we still haven’t got the idea, Byrne is shown in Halfords, buying stuff to care for it. By the end, without any further twist or reveal, the truck is out of action, and the van ever more thriving. The only consolation is that O’Brien’s lame horse is more redundant still. 

The imaginative novelty here is that the vehicles are described more animatedly than their owners, which makes them feel humorously alive in the manner of children’s cartoons. And not only the vehicles: this whole world is blooming with pathetic fallacy. ‘Breezes dance a minuet’, ‘flowers whisper each to each’, a counter ‘frowns at the ignorant shelves’, ‘birds converse’, ‘cobbles slime’, ‘slovenly’ windows ‘peer’ or ‘gloat’ and a river even ‘invisibles’. This kind of thing is a matter of taste, of course, but it undoubtedly fits the theme. 

The spitting sailors and skipping girls, the ‘double-breasted Saville [sic] Row’ suit, and a mere van ‘draw[ing] glances of envy’ make the setting feel vaguely old-fashioned, but it is in fact near-contemporary: Cafferty goes, for instance, to the 2019 Jeff Koons show at the Ashmolean. Koons himself gets cited: ‘to know is an enrichment, but you don’t have to’, a quote which continues, off-stage, ‘it’s back to art not being an intimidating thing.’ Certainly, this book’s unintimidating countenance will be appealing for those who’ll forgive its various types of thinness and occasional veering of plainness to obviousness. In any case, the geniality and playfulness are still around: axolotls can apparently restore ‘the less vital parts’ of their brains. And Madame Sosostris, no less, runs the garage that will hopefully repair the truck – ‘with only her owl/ for company’.

Guy Russell 5th August 2022

No Land In Sight by Charles Simic (Borzoi Books /Alfred A Knopp)

No Land In Sight by Charles Simic (Borzoi Books /Alfred A Knopp)

I always think of Charles Wright, Mark Strand and Charles Simic as an American trinity of poetry. Although their work is very different from each other, and Strand died in 2014, they knew each other and occasionally addressed each other in their work. Wright and Strand shared a concern with – for want of a better term – the spiritual, addressed mostly through poems concerned with memory, life, death and loss; but Simic’s work seemed very different.

Born in Yugoslavia, Simic moved to the USA at the age of 16, and has been publishing books since 1967, mostly poetry but also a memoir and translations of other writers’ work. For a while his poetry seemed rooted in a kind of surrealism, juxtaposing things that have some sense of disconnect between them and offering a new way of seeing situations or events, sometimes by use of a strange point-of-view or tone, personification or an approximation to magic realism.

Elements of this still inform some of the poems in No Land in Sight. ‘The Mystery’ moves from ‘mutts barking in unison’ to burglary and murder, disquiet at the noise, to ‘a star calling it quits /After millions of years’, taking ‘a long dive out of sight.’ whilst ‘Come Spring’ quickly and unexpectedly moves from ‘the birdie in a tree’ to the return of the ‘wicked back from hell’, accompanied by Satan. I’m not sure how literally to take this poem’s warning about how they are ‘think[ing] up new evils’ or the fact that Satan’s ‘guile has no equal’.

Many more of the poems here are strange snapshots, isolated events, or moments, presumably designed to surprise us or make us think. Here is a complete poem:


   An alarm clock
   With no hands
   Ticking loudly
   On the town dump.

Errr, yes? It is only with some reluctance and a sense of desperation I can force myself to make associations with extra time, unwanted time, wasted time, the nature of time, the relationship of humanity, machines and measured time. Mostly I shrug, as I do with the book’s brief opening poem, which for me is a real squib:


   Everyone’s blind date.

Hmmm. I’m sorry but this is pseudo-profundity, a kind of (non-) riddle, a metaphor pretending to be a poem. It might have been something to work up to a poem, a starting point or notebook jotting, but not a whole three-word poem.

The majority of poems here rely on the supposed weight of words like stars, light, graves, night, and love acting on the reader, but it often doesn’t work. Take this poem about washing hanging on the line:


   Two pairs of underwear,
   One white and the other pink,
   Flew up and down
   On the laundry line,
   Telling the whole world
   They are madly in love.

Are the two pairs of underwear in love? Are they speaking? Or is there a causal connection between neighbouring washing and their owners? Maybe the narrator knows something we don’t know? (Perhaps he could share that?) Does pink and white imply heterosexual norms or gendered clothing? Again, it’s a squib I’d like to see developed rather than simply written down as an image plus ‘poetic’ interpretation. (I’d also like to know why each line of Simic’s is capitalised, something I always question my students about. Mostly it’s because they haven’t looked at the preferences of their word processing software.)

I hate to be so negative, but this is a disappointing and slight volume from a poet I have previously admired and whose work I have very much enjoyed. What I am about to quote, the closing lines of ‘My Doubles’, a 13-line poem which – without using the term – is about doppelgängers or possibly past versions of ourselves, seems appropriate as a way of understanding what it feels like to try and engage with this new work:

   As for me, the last time someone saw me,
   I was reading the Bible on the subway,
   Shaking my head and chuckling to myself.

I can’t help but feel like a passenger on that train, wondering what the chap opposite is laughing about, or in this case what the author thinks he is saying, or is trying to achieve in these poems. Simic is adrift and, as the last two lines of the book announce, ‘There is no / Land in sight’. No poems either.

Rupert Loydell 3rd August 2022

%d bloggers like this: