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Author Archives: tearsinthefence

What The Trumpet Taught Me by Kim Moore (Smith Doorstop)

What The Trumpet Taught Me by Kim Moore (Smith Doorstop)

Kim Moore’s riveting chronological account of practising the trumpet and becoming a trumpeter delves from her childhood into adulthood, exploring the emotional as well as the practical implications of starting to learn how to play an instrument at a young age and pursuing it throughout life. She practises every day for hours, takes part in concerts, becomes a conductor of brass bands and a brass teacher in primary schools. The short pieces in the collection entertain the reader with funny and serious anecdotes, surprising events, insightful comments and information about what it means to play the cornet and the trumpet. Personal reactions to the significance and impact of music in general and her close relationship with the cornet at first and then the trumpet are investigated too. In her writing Moore also shows a professional knowledge of the instruments which has been developed over many years of practising, reading books about them, playing in concerts, teaching in schools and eventually dropping them to concentrate on writing.

     Her references to the ‘oldest trumpets in the world […] discovered in King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter’, one in silver and one in bronze, are a revelation that links Moore’s dedication to music to the ancient past. She imagines that the Egyptian trumpets are light, ‘like a hollow branch’; she would like to touch them, connect to them as if each of them were a talisman that might bring her luck. Other players will have the opportunity to play the ancient instruments, such as James Tappern and an Egyptian bandsman; the latter, unfortunately, shattered the silver one into pieces by pushing the mouthpiece of the delicate instrument. It is said that King Faruk, who was present, helped to pick up the shattered pieces.

     Similar anecdotes enrich the collection with memories of the author’s music teachers, who were sometimes helpful and encouraging but at other times their remarks diminished her. Her A-level music teacher thought that she was not good enough for music college, but Moore proved her wrong. However, the teacher’s remarks haunted her for years as she felt that although she could make a living playing the trumpet, she would never excel as a solo trumpeter. The trumpet also opens her up to new experiences. Her first gig, a week’s performance of Singing in the Rain at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester, gives her the fabulous sum of £150 to add to her savings for a Bach Stradivarius trumpet that she needs for music college. At the college she studies the Cornet Method by J.J-B. Arban and understands Paganini’s techniques, making clever connections with her experience and the achievements of the virtuoso musician. 

     Love stories and crushes mingle with her daily musical practice. The trumpet remains as present as ever, a friend or a guide that at times seems to lead her destiny. This happens during a tour to Germany with a dance band when she meets a man who will change her life and almost break her. The story is narrated in the sequence ‘How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping’ in her first full collection, The Art of Falling, published by Seren Books in 2015. In the sequence she explores how he closely controlled and unravelled her, reducing her to nothing. The recovery is slow but the trumpet and her new job as a peripatetic brass teacher in Cumbria help her. It is a full-time teaching job that broadens her experience not only as a player but also as a human in relationships with students and colleagues. A sense of pride in her students’ achievements and sometimes frustration about missed lessons reveal moments of joy and sadness. 

     The recurring motif of the Last Post links to moving events such as the death of one of her best friends, a guitar teacher who suddenly dies while she is playing in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. The event is shocking and will echo for years every time Moore plays the Messiah:

I feel as if I can’t breathe, as if I’m going to have a panic attack. Then I have one of the strangest experiences of my life. My head is still resting on the wall of the church. The stone is cool against my skin. Suddenly, I feel a wave of calm washing through me, but it’s as if this calm is coming from the wall of the church.

     Moore’s writing is effective and engaging. The reader is captivated by her neat descriptions that convey profound thoughts. Her stories are interesting and precious; they communicate the ordinary and link to a wider view that alludes to the world’s conflicts and social issues too. She investigates her vulnerabilities as well as her strengths, which have helped her navigate in a reality that has not always been easy. Her knowledge is accomplished and vital, not only in music but also in literature and art, as evoked in the poem ‘The Splendour Falls On Castle Walls’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson and in the suspended sculptures of flattened brass instruments by Cornelia Parker, which look ‘like pressed flowers in the open book of a room.’ Her responses are always clever and innovative, prompting the reader to have a diverse understanding. 

     Eventually Moore starts a new path, that is, writing. She joins a poetry group and attends poetry readings and workshops. Her attitude towards writing is as disciplined as her study of the trumpet. However, she practises the trumpet less and less and she reduces her teaching hours as well. When she is offered a Vice Chancellor’s Bursary at Manchester Metropolitan University for a PhD in 2016, she drops the trumpet and focuses on writing, expressing her talents in full and achieving considerable successes. Language becomes central, but the trumpet is still there; it survived a car crash and was reassembled. Although it is not perfect, it will survive and last and will always be ready for new adventures.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 8th February 2023

The Wine Cup: Twenty-four drinking songs for Tao Yuanming by Richard Berengarten (Shearsman Chapbook)

The Wine Cup: Twenty-four drinking songs for Tao Yuanming by Richard Berengarten (Shearsman Chapbook)

I haven’t engaged with any of Richard Berengarten’s poetry for some time and I’m glad to say that my re-encounter has been a pleasant one. These poems have a wide cultural background aside from the obvious Chinese connection and I’m straightaway reminded of Berengarten’s technical abilities as these are very skilfully put-together poems and strict forms suit his kind of poetry. He’s old-school and I don’t mean that a criticism but these poems, although concerned with mortality, a constant theme in his work, are full of life and musical vigour. Each villanelle is prefaced by an italicised quotation translated into English from Tao Yuanming as indicated in the postscript:

          Dusts

               My gaze drifts over the west garden

          Where the hibiscus blooms – brilliant red

          Now this thatched cottage is my hermitage,

          Following quiet woodland paths seems best.

          Against oncoming night, why rant or rage?

          When young I was half-blinded in a cage

          Of city-dust and rubbish, hope possessed.

          Now this thatched cottage is my hermitage

          Seventy-five and still I earn my wage

          By piecemeal work, with scant let-up or rest.

          Against oncoming night, why rant or rage?

          What point is there in shouting, at my age?

          I grin, breathe deep, walk by, like any guest.

          Now this thatched cottage is my hermitage.

          My heart beats on against its old ribcage.

          To touch the moment passing, that’s the test

          Against oncoming night. Why rant or rage?

          A hundred years – our fate and heritage.

          Considering that, I’m nothing if not blessed.

          Now this thatched cottage is my heritage,

          Against oncoming night, why rant or rage?

There’s an obvious reference to Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle….’  and the shift in perspective is quite moving in the sense that Thomas died at a relatively young age while Berengarten is now a much older man. I wouldn’t say the above has resignation but there’s certainly a mellowing of tone and while some of the poems in this suite include elements of anxiety and perhaps even fear, as in ‘Scattered, My Books’ with its ‘Shall I go mad? Heart drums and temples pound. / The dead awaken. Ghosts rise to the brink. / Scattered, my books and brushes lie around’ the overall sense I’m getting is one of celebration and a restful melancholy.

     There are hintings towards Yeats and D.H. Lawrence here as well as the Chinese poets I’m less familiar with and Berengartens’ work is always full of awareness of tradition and artistic precedents. As has been suggested it is common for even contemporary poets to use and refer to the sonnet form but less so in the case of the villanelle. I can only think of two recent examples of contemporary poets who have done so in any sustained, thematic way and these are Alasdair Paterson and John Kinsella.

     The final poem in this collection underlines the drinking theme and celebrates the natural world and the here-and-now in a manner which though full of intriguing information also captures something of the moment, of the passion and wonder of being alive:

          Until this liquor drains

               I’ve a fine wine here. Let’s share it.

          A crane calls in the shade. Its chick answers. 

          Ineffable the ways the Way remains,

          Unspoken, all-enduring, never-ending,

          Love, drink with me until this liquor drains.

          And pity the self-hater who abstains,

          Refraining from desire, stiff and un bending.

          Ineffable the ways the Way remains.

          Ingredients of fruits, herbs, berries, grains –

          What inner fire resides in their fine blending.

          Love, drink with me until this liquor drains.

          Its tastes – so complex! How the mouth retains

          Echoes of subtle flavours, time suspending.

          Ineffable the way the way remains.

          Threading through tunnelled arteries and veins

          Its fire fans out, ever itself extending.

          Love, drink with me until this liquor drains.

          Come, sit outside with me and watch the cranes

          Fly overhead. Heart-warming? Or heart-rending?

          Ineffable the ways the way remains.

          Love, drink with me until this liquor drains. 

The repetition and the patterning in the villanelle form makes for a very musical poetry which also allows for nuance and complexity even as the writing is direct and clear. Here you get the feel of intoxication and its relation to human physiology and also the mystery and directness of being alive in the moment. There is resonance and I’m getting Andrew Marvell’s sense of abundance in his ‘garden poems’ as well as other hints that I’m not quite sure about. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and re-reading these poems and I can only repeat that it was good to be re-acquainted with this singular and prolific voice.

Steve Spence 5th February 2023

Postcards To Ma by Martin Stannard (Leafe Press)

Postcards To Ma by Martin Stannard (Leafe Press)

You have to take a deep breath before you dive into this pamphlet, which is actually a single twelve page long poem. Not only because of its length, but because you will need as much oxygen in your brain to cope with digressions, lists, and the unreliable, perhaps even irrational, narrator.

Stannard is adept at keeping a straight face, however weird his poetry gets, and for taking language on long, surreal walks. He’s also good at using repetition and near-repetition, to help structure his work. In this long poem, which starts with the narrator noting that he ‘Sent a picture postcard to Ma “Arrived Safe”‘, this involves variations of the theme of how people see him and similes for how he sleeps,  irregular reoccurrences of phrases such as ‘Special Offer!!!’ and a kind of chorus to break up the flow:

                                                   Crack of dawn Swam in
   ocean Frolicked on sand Sent postcards to Ma

Each day, post-swim, offers new infatuations and obsessions, be it the ‘tautness / of cotton across generous bosom’ or ‘Gal by the name of Mabel looked better / than a Mabel’, who decides ‘she thought dancing was too sexual’ and heads off home with her husband.

As well as dance, philosophy, history and exploring ‘the kingdom republic or state’ he is holidaying in, Stannard’s narrator reports that he

   Had a crack (ten minutes tops) at being agnostic
   Buddhist vegan pacifist Marxist epicurist internalist
   Satanist atheist Christian externalist Irish
   Thought about differences between philosophy and religion

although it not until the next day he ‘Read philosophers thoughtfully / (ten minutes each tops)’, though it is long enough to (mis)quote from several in the same section.

Another day, in response  to happening ‘across abundance of / lucrative literary prizes’ he ‘Turned to scribbling for an easy buck’, quickly dashing off his first two novels under a nom de plume and ‘Between novels had a couple / of free days Penned slim volume of award-winning poetry’. Of course! And, as one would expect, it is titled ‘The Zenith of Our Feelings’, for ‘When a man is happy he writes damn good poetry’.

And of course, on the back of his literary success

                                                            Was offered post of
   Writer-in-Residence at Tourist Information Centre
   Declined Accepted instead role of Poet-in-Dormitories
   at St. Theresa’s Finishing School for Young Ladies
   A short-term contract abruptly terminated at lights out

I confess to finding this not only reminiscent of the Fast Show’s lecherous old man (‘Me, in a girls school, with my reputation?’) but also very funny, in a squirming response to this surreal inappropriateness.

There are similar engagements with the visual arts, including ‘a self-portrait (I have often wondered / how I see myself)’, sport, nature and music, the last with good results:

   Taught myself piano violin cello guitar ukulele flute
   piccolo trumpet bassoon oboe recorded harmonica kettle
   drum triangle Established first one-man orchestra

Of course, soon after, he notes ‘Decided to become a singer/songwriter’.

Thankfully, having ‘Slept like a cuckoo in a clock’, there are signs this monologue may be ending:

   Have run out of postcards so am unable to write
   which is a shame pity cause for regret disappointment
   sorrow ruefulness perhaps even woe I don’t know
   It’s the last day of the jollidays

It is, seemingly, not before time, as ‘Things are turning interesting slightly bewildering’, as they already have for the reader. There are elephants, rainbows, séances and a ‘well-formed nymphet’ who ‘scampers off teasingly into the trees’ (it’s not clear if she is wearing a white blouse or not) and it is ‘Probably / wise to be leaving’, ‘to speed with a merry heart / returning home to Ma.’

This is a strange surreal annoying hilarious disturbing righteous tasteless ridiculous surprising, unexpected text. It comments on any and everything in the process of describing and participating in it. The narrator appears to not only be obsessive and irrational, but also perhaps hallucinating the whole thing; like Stannard as author, however, the writer of these strange reports and postcards is seemingly oblivious to how strange the strange world he lives in is, and simply responds to it, although ‘Sometimes I think I think / too much’.

And if our narrator ‘can’t remember all the words I made / some notes’, let alone ‘remember what any of them mean’, then why should I as reader reviewer poet author writer friend critic? I am going to take several slow deep breaths and hope to sleep ‘like a badger in a badger box’, although I have idea what that will be like. ‘What else is there to say?’

Rupert Loydell 3rd February 2023

Extinctions by Philip Terry (Red Ceilings Press)

Extinctions by Philip Terry (Red Ceilings Press)

I love Philip Terry’s poetry which is always inventive in a variety of ways. This short collection from the wonderfully miniature Red Ceilings Press is a peach, basing itself on ‘the chicago,’ a form developed via the Oulipo some time ago. The basic idea is that each short poem is made up of five lines and the final line, a homophonic ‘translation’ of a place name, person, animal etc. generates  the content of the previous lines and may be guessed by the reader. In each case, here at least, the final line appears at the end in a numbered key (50 lines) so you can choose to refer forward if you wish. It’s a game in effect and combines the idea of the Old English riddle with the more experimental methods developed by the Oulipo. One very positive effect of taking part is that the method generates creativity and ‘a zest for language’ as Alan Baker suggests in the back-cover quotation. Dip in and go with the flow and once you pick up the idea it’s great fun. Here are a few of the poems by way of example:

          1.

          Money money

          Cash cash

          Bread bread

          Sponz sponz

          (Dodo (Dough dough))

          17.

          Bishop close

          Archdeacon shut up

          Nun fasten

          Abbot enclose

          (Monk seal (Monk seal)) 

          23.

          Canary Islands swallow

          Easter Island gobbles

          Cook Islands pick at

          Channel Islands savour

          (Falkland Islands wolf) Falkland Islands wolf)) 

          33.

          Large sidewalk slug

          Great path beetle

          Colossal motorway snail

          Huge street fly

          (Giant rodent (Giant road ant)) 

          42.

          African arse

          Asian bottom

          American bum

          Antarctic posterior

          (European ass (European ass))

This is poetry as fun and it’s the mix of the formal limitations and the invention that can lead from this that can generate a love of language and playful experimentation that is in no way dry or exclusive. This sort of method is a great prompt to learning without too much pain and these poems are easy to dip in and out of and can provide a great antidote to boredom. There are other contemporary poets who work partly with similar methods, Giles Goodland, for example, whose occupation as a lexicographer stimulates a lot of his poetic output. Drew Milne’s ‘Eck’s Column’ is another example where the homophone really comes into its own with quite often hilarious results.

     As I’ve suggested these poems can provide a great stimulus to experimenting with language and discovering how strange and delightful the process can be. Highly recommended.

Steve Spence 1st February 2023  

Surface Tension by Derek Beaulieu (Coach House Books)

Surface Tension by Derek Beaulieu (Coach House Books)

I have several Derek Beaulieu books on my poetry shelves; his work fascinates and intrigues me, but I still don’t feel I know how to read them (or perhaps the term is process them). Concrete poetry is an established genre and I am happy to put Beaulieu into that lineage, I’m also happy with poetry that uses the visual as a guiding or organizing principle, and poetry that doesn’t prioritise content or narrative or epiphany.

Yet, Beaulieu’s poems are beyond that. Often constructed from Letraset rub-down lettering, they are visual patterns and constructs, sometimes in sequences, sometimes seemingly treated even more (or made differently): “Calcite Gours 1-19”, published and given away by rob mclennan back in 2004, and my introduction to Beaulieu’s work, contains a ‘suite of poems’ which are circular-ish explosions of ink, reminiscent of star clusters. They are as seductive and engaging as the night sky, too.

That book is also dedicated to the memory of Bob Cobbing, which offers another lineage to place Beaulieu’s work into, that of improvisation and sound poetry, hand-in-hand with the farther reaches of experimental poetry. Beaulieu states that the work ‘is an attempt at engaging with the materiality of language; treating the construction of poetry as a physical task’, going on to reference ‘painterly/gesture based movements and modes of construction influenced by abstract expressionism’, to be considered as ‘an examination of mark making’.

Surface Tension is much more clearly made of letter forms, not only prompting the question ‘where on earth does the author find Letraset in the 21st century?’ but also offering a way in to the work through variation, change and mutation: the work in each sequence is clearly related and shares source material as it slides, disforms and reconfigures itself. My favourite sequence is ‘Dendrochronology’, which swiftly develops from a curvy conglomeration of letters into enlarged topographies of black and whites forms, reminiscent of rock strata or map details.

The book is also interesting for the poetics on offer, presented as prose between the series of poems. The first of these offers several interesting ideas and facts: that ‘Surface Tension creates landscapes from the remnants of advertising’ (which made me feel less guilty about my landscape comparison); and that ‘[t]hese reflections and distortions work to keep concrete current, in flow, a fluidity refusing to solidify around power.’

This idea of fluidity as a tactic to resist power is an interesting one, and Beaulieu builds on it in a later text where he states ‘that the usages of language in poetry of the traditional type are not keeping pace with live processes of language and rapid methods of communication at work in the contemporary world’, and also reminds us that ‘[w]riting is not aboutsomething, it is the something itself.’

Even if we want to argue with that notion, perhaps saying we want a poem to be about something as well as being something, we must be aware of  those ‘live processes of language and rapid methods of communication’, perhaps even the idea of society, nature, knowledge and matter itself in flux. I am reminded of Helen Vendler’s statement in The Given and the Made, when discussing the early work of Jorie Grahamthat:

‘The instabilities of matter must now be assumed by the self; and so any poem spoken in the voice of the material self must be an unstable poem, constantly engaged in linguistic processes of approximation.’ 

Beaulieu’s way of dealing with the unstable and approximate is to create ‘poems that refuse linearity in favour of the momentary’, poetry that ‘move[s] past declarations of emotion into a form more indicative of how readers process language’. To resist modern culture, advertising and the transient by producing poetry that works in the same way is an odd form of engagement, but it is an intriguing approach, and serves as a provocation and reminder that ‘[e]motions and ideas are not physical materials’, and that poems ‘are not rarified jewels carefully chiselled for a bespoke audience.’ 

Beaulieu prefers poetry to be constructed with ‘nuts and bolts, factory made, shifting from use to use’, thinks that ‘[l]iterature is not craftsmanship but an industrial process’, and states ‘[t]he contemporary poem is an understanding of juxtapositions’: all admirable responses to and rebuttals of the egotistical, lyrical hangovers and shaggy dog narratives we find in so much contemporary poetry. 

Once we realise it is okay to just enjoy Beaulieu’s poems for what they are, in the moment, a weight lifts and we no longer have to worry about content and understanding, can find our own way of engaging with these original and distinct poems. We should also be aware that how we read and what we read, changes. Jacques Derrida perhaps says it best, in ‘Living On / Border Lines’:

‘unreadability does not arrest reading, does not leave it paralysed in the face of an opaque surface: rather, it starts reading and writing and translating moving again. The unreadable is not the opposite of the readable, but rather the ridge that also gives it momentum, movement, sets it in motion.’ 

In Surface Tension Derek Beaulieu continues to set all sorts of things in motion, extending and refining the possibilities of poetry.

Rupert Loydell 31st January 2023

Affordable Angst by Mercedes Cebrián Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

Affordable Angst by Mercedes Cebrián Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

This dual-language book selects from Mercedes Cebrián’s four collections published in Spain back to the mid-2000s. They’re poems about her nation and its changes since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Healthcare, consumerism, globalisation, the EU, the hollowing of city centres, the Church, data access, relations with other countries… There’s even a poem called ‘Brexit’:

         […] no era
         un ir y venir, era la diferencia
         entre mutuo y recíproco. […]
         (It wasn’t a to-and-fro-ing,/ it was the difference/ between mutual
         and reciprocal)

Such big social subjects are treated with a surface cuteness that dissimulates a deeper (and darker) nexus. A poem about immigration links the arrival of kiwi-fruit to Spain with the arrival of Pakistani immigrants, and does so in a way that its phrase especies de otros mundos (‘otherworld species’) and its excursus about chimpanzee smiles indicating hostility can be read as deniable, provocative or seriously unsavoury. Poems about regret for the loss of colonies, complaints about paying tax, and irritation with people blaming Franco for everything can similarly sound whimsical, ironic or quietly nasty. Ambiguity is often the strategy of the politically timorous writer, but the malestar (‘discomfort/ malaise’, rather than ‘angst’) of the Spanish title seems to be the aim here. The few poems about relationships likewise have their emotions camouflaged under elaborate, comic but disturbing fantasies:

         En esta cantimplora que acarro
         llevo un marido líquido […]
         (I have a flask I carry round with me/ with a liquid husband in)

To these ends, the book’s most frequent stylistic devices are abrupt non-sequiturs in the manner of Ashbery, and ostensibly nonsensical declarations that match an abstract noun with a highly particular image in a way familiar from surrealism:

          Los temas escabrosas están en el azucarillo
          de este descafeinado.
          (All the unsavoury gossip is in the saccharine-packet/ for this decaf.)

Its favourite joke-tone, meanwhile, is a faux naiveté

         […] Panamá. ¿A quién se le ocurrió partirlo en dos?
         (Panama […] Who on earth split it down the middle?)

shored up with plentiful references to childhood and its soft toys, dolls and felt-tip pens:

         ¿Sirve el gesto de devolver el edding y a cambio no pagar
         los euros que Hacienda me demanda?
         (What if I handed in the Edding as a gesture,/ would that mean
         I didn’t have to pay the Revenue all those euros?)

Even so, this is an adroit poet, and the grim prophecies of ‘Población Flotante’ (‘Floating Population’) 

         El futuro ya está blanco
         y está hervido, en eso se parece
         a nuestra cena
         (The future is white now/ and processed, like our supper)

with its imageries of desertification (‘hervido’ above is strictly ‘boiled’) and missile attack seemed to me among several poems whose power to unsettle reached beyond the habitual gripes.

The bold translation makes many unexpected choices: ‘recycling centre’ for vertedero (landfill site); ‘to google’ for saber más (to know more). It embellishes (‘re-tweeted’ for decía (said)), advertises (agendas negras (black notebooks) become ‘Moleskine’ ones), tones down (‘continents’ and even ‘photos’ for the thrice-repeated razas (‘races’)) and plays freely with line lengths and syntax, always valuing stylishness before strict precision. Nonetheless it works well: for the intermediate hispanophone less obvious meanings are sometimes illuminated and the exuberance is entertaining, while the genetically-modified Cebrián served up to the monoglot can be read as entirely apt for the ironies elsewhere.

Guy Russell 29th January 2023

It Felt Like Everything by K.S. Dyal (Ad Hoc Fiction)

It Felt Like Everything by K.S. Dyal (Ad Hoc Fiction)

K.S. Dyal’s It Felt Like Everything is a novella-in-flash that does so many things that I love about the form. Writing about pain is difficult but writing about joy is sometimes nearly impossible. In his new craft book, Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash, Michael Loveday makes the point that the novella-in-flash writer can stop focusing on the narrative arc and instead explore the moments that contain so much of our lives much as Gwendolyn Brooks does in Maud Martha. Dyal is able to find joy and pain in these moments as she explores the lives of two young women who are coming of age in Buffalo, New York. Both are adolescents and having a hard time fitting in and understanding themselves. Both are exploring their understanding of sexuality, of course, and both feel awkward and out of place. That’s to be expected. They are teenagers, after all. There is nothing spectacular that happens in this book, but the writing is strong, which makes their lives fascinating. I doubt that the characters could have been written this well in any other form, and Dyal uses the flash episodes to draw out what is interesting and meaningful about the everyday.

     So much of what constitutes what is interesting in the everyday lives of most people is lost to literature because it is difficult for longer forms of fiction to sustain the drama of normal life; however, there is great meaning in those shared moments of humanity. Dyal is able to bring readers back into the world of teenage life. For me, going through this, I remembered the difficulty I had just trying to figure out how to act in adult society when everyone around me seemed to be so clear on what they should do and how they should act. At one point, Marin is aware of her body as she just tries to fit in with other kids her age, “I was so aware of my movements. I was doing that thing where I tried to see myself how others were seeing me, my gestures and my posture, and it distracted me from what I was actually doing and saying” (41). This egoism of youth feels so real to me. It brought me back to my own narcissistic teenage angst. 

     Of course, the teenage years are not filled with pain alone; Dyal captures the joy and exploration of that time as well. The titular story is about a young woman understanding who she is, and that she is attracted to her best friend. “It felt like everything, how I loved Martina. My best friend, a girl” (23). Dyal brings us back to that place of self-discovery. It is magic at that age as we start to understand who we are and what we value. Here, we get a coming-of-age epiphany where Kate has the relief of understanding what had previously been confusing emotions. Now, she is sure of herself. In another story, Marin is worried about her mother. Her father has died years earlier, but her mother has been so invested in raising Marin that she has not pursued any relationships, for nearly a decade. Marin tries, clumsily, to set her up with a local construction worker, bringing the man into her house on the weak premise that she might want to hire him. What’s magic about the scene is the caring that the daughter invests in her mother. Teenagers are often depicted as being only selfish and only shallow. This is a person learning the skills of empathy and compassion, and Dyal handles the moment beautifully.

     K.S. Dyal’s It Felt Like Everything is an exceptional book. She is someone who understands the form of the novella-in-flash and uses it properly. What she has done is captured the humanity of her characters so well, and she has shown us that this is something we all share. Dyal is a writer of compassion and sensitivity, and I hope that this is just the first of many books from her.

John Brantingham 20th January 2023

Cauldron of Hisses by Penelope Moffet (Arroyo Seco Press)

Cauldron of Hisses by Penelope Moffet (Arroyo Seco Press)

     Penelope Moffet’s Cauldron of Hisses from Arroyo Seco Press seems to me the perfect poetry chapbook to have come out of the pandemic and its lockdown. It is a unified collection of poems, linked by their opening and closing lines, about different kinds of cats. It is more than this though. Underlying every poem, it is about our need for connection and how we regained it through our connection with nonhuman friends, and perhaps more importantly how we used our dreamworld to get through that time.

The second poem of the collection ‘Leopards’ helps us to see the familial connection we have with the animals that populate our lives.

Breathe another’s breath? 

Only Emily’s. She plants 

herself in front of me, inserts 

her face into my thoughts. 

She is my family, 

Emily the golden leopard 

and her brother, 

Snowshoe Raku. (2)

It was easy for many of us before the pandemic to take for granted the connections we had to other beings in our worlds. Moffet clearly does not do that, and she shows us how important those connections are. She also shows us the importance of wildness because inside her cats is the same wildness that lives in the great cats of the wild.

     What follows are the dreams and memories that she has of cats, and with it the implication of how important those dreams and memories are. We have entered a new state, a new world, where we have been cut off from human connection. It is our job now to find a way to survive these new conditions in a way that preserves our sanity. Moffet’s dreams of the wild given physical reality in her cats do just that. In one of her ‘Mountain Lion’ poems, she writes:

So much depends on posturing 

in cats and humans. The way 

my own two felines sometimes 

walk stiff-legged, glaring, 

showing teeth. The way 

I sometimes turn myself 

into a cauldron 

full of hisses. (7)

So she understands herself a little better, and her animal reactions by understanding these animals. She dreams of them, meditates on them, understands them. Through them she, and we, can see what people are.

     This is, to some degree, a lonely collection, but it is not alienated. Instead, Moffet gives us a way to understand the loneliness of the new world without being consumed by it. This is a dreamy collection, and it is beautiful. It is about what the human mind can do to preserve us when allowed to bound through the jungles and savannah instead of simply dwelling on loneliness and pain.

John Brantingham 18th January 2023

Willoughby, New York by Carson Pytell (Bottlecap Press)

Willoughby, New York by Carson Pytell (Bottlecap Press)

I love Carson Pytell’s work. It reminds me of Charles Bukowski and Fredrich Exley. It reminds me of Kevin Ridgeway and John Fante. It reminds me of the kind of fiction that a lot of us were trying to do when I lived and worked in Long Beach. So many of us who studied under Gerry Locklin and Ray Zepeda were going after a kind of gritty realism, and some of us accomplished the spirit and tone. Others did not. I never did to the degree that I wanted to, and so I shifted to different kinds of writing. Pytell, however, is a kind of master of this type of writing, and his fiction collection, Willoughby, New York is powerful work, the kind that I was reaching for back in those days. His chapbook reaches the kind of humanity most of these writers are striving for as he often focuses on people’s worst days, their most embarrassing moments and how they live through them. He is a writer who isn’t afraid to show us not only how banal life can be and how insignificant we can be made to feel but also how to live through these moments with dignity.

         The first story of the collection ‘In the North Country’ captures much of that power as a 21-year-old tries to have sex with a woman, both of whom have been placed into a facility for having attempted suicide. They sneak off to a bathroom, but when the woman finds that the protagonist was born with only one testicle, she reviles in disgust and even horror. She reveals a dark side of her character as she berates him for not being the perfect physical specimen, she’d hoped he was. He asks her what her problem is, and she replies: ‘My problem? I’m in here with a one ball wonder. You’re like seven feet tall, can’t you imagine what I was expecting?’ There is a callowness that Pytell is exploring and helping us to understand. He is taking us to that place of shallowness, showing us how to move on when confronted with these moments. Years later, the protagonist finds out that the girl he almost had sex with eventually succeeded in her suicide, and he is left trying to understand her, perhaps trying to understand his place in the horror of her life.

         Getting to this place of moral, emotional, and intellectual ambiguity is one of things that I love about Pytell’s work, what he does as well as anyone I know. In ‘Where the Line Is,’ his protagonist discusses his ambivalence about death after having gone through the last rights and recovered. He describes what he sees as a funny scene when he is alone in his hospital room and his blood gets splattered around the room. ‘As for the poor nurse who walked in on the faux murder scene, the worse off custodian, I recall their faces better than my family’s. How could I not? I laughed silently, but visibly harder than I ever had.’ His protagonists are often detached in this way, watching their lives and trying to understand them but not caught up in a maudlin concern. They understand something about the nature of life and its absurdities, and they are showing how odd it is.

         Although Pytell is part of that literary tradition I found and loved in Long Beach, he is making the work his own. It is not in imitation, and it is constantly powerful. I cannot recommend Willoughby, New York more highly. 

John Brantingham 17th January 2023

Darkness Between Stars by John F. Deane & James Harpur (The Irish Pages Press)

Darkness Between Stars by John F. Deane & James Harpur (The Irish Pages Press)

The authors’ own Introduction to this beautifully produced hardback book notes that Deane and Harpur 

   have known each other for many years and shared readings, 
   discussions and introduced each other’s work, finding friendship
   and mutual encouragement in discovering that [they] were both 
   fascinated not only by the life of poetry but also by the divine, 
   the sacred, ‘God’.

It is this fascination, and the writing out of it, which underpins this ‘joint selection’ of poems: although there are poems about a wide range of subjects, they are, the authors suggest, ‘poems in search of God’, poems which ‘bear witness to […] probings into the ineffable’.

This raises two issues. Firstly, I hoped for more of a poetic conversation, and not a selection of poems by each author, the one followed by the other; perhaps even new work, produced in collaboration or as a direct response to the other’s work. Secondly, an issue the authors are all too clearly aware of, that faith rooted in specific religion is somewhat out of fashion, as is the idea (put forward in the Introduction) that poetry ‘springs from our argument with God, or the absence of God.’ 

I find the idea of poetry somehow being inspired by the divine or a muse, somewhat antiquated, as I do ‘the search for meaning, for certainties’, which the authors suggest (again in their Introduction) has never been more important, particularly as a result of Covid, but also generally. I am not alone, however, in accepting the notion of truths, plural, rather than Truth, isolate and declamatory. Recent developments in the sciences, engineering, the arts, psychology and sociology have shown us how much knowledge is tentative and of its time, rather than fixed, final and certain.

It would be wrong to suggest that Deane and Harpur are in any way dogmatic, evangelical or theologically certain: both write poems that question and consider, even when addressing the divine directly, both doubt and debate. Although Harpur’s poem ‘from St Symeon Stylites’ is about and perhaps spoken by St. Symeon, we might consider the poet’s voice too, admitting that 

   Most days I think I’m split in two, 
   A spirit yearning for the light
   And a body of delinquent appetites.

That phrase, ‘delinquent appetites’ seems to be both enticing and full of self-disgust, and although the poem is full of lonely, resistant prayer it ends up with a doubting question: ‘Sometimes I wonder if I pray / To keep the Lord away?’

Deane often explores his belief and doubt through revisions of the Gospel stories. ‘Words of the Unknown Soldier’ notes, in very un-soldier-like language,  how ‘he stumped us, this Jesus of yours, with his / walking on water, fandango, entrechat, glissade’, whilst the lengthy sonnet sequence ‘According to Lydia’ brings a feminine point-of-view to bear on key moments, finally countering imagined ‘onslaughts of foolishness’ with the beatitudinal ‘blessed is the one who does not lose faith in me.’

Mostly, however, both authors choose to see or encounter the divine reflected or present in the physical world around them. Bones, birds, star clusters, woods and corn circles are all cause to stop and consider man’s place in the grand scheme of things. In fact, man’s relationship to the natural world, and even more specifically the ‘Christian failure to incorporate the reality of evolution and its consequences’ is what Deane suggests has ‘alienated thinking people’ from ‘”traditional” religious tenets and activities.’

‘Poetry, God and the Imagination: a Dialogue’, actually a 2018 email correspondence, ends the book, and in many ways it is the best part, offering up a frank and thoughtful discussion to the reader. Deane’s Catholicism, or at least his Catholic upbringing, is very much on show as he suggests that ‘To accept evolution is inevitably to deny the doctrine of “original sin” and even that of the “Immaculate Conception”. I don’t know about the latter as that veers off into ridiculous discussions about human purity, virginity and sexlessness, but the former was always explained to me, by the Baptist church I attended as a child, as a matter of relationship to God, not a physical genetic inheritance!

The discussion is wide-ranging, covering the spiritual, the poetic and writerly,  as well as religious institutions and mystical theology. Surprisingly, Deane turns out to be ‘a devoted follower’ of Teilhard de Chardin, the author of a cosmic theology informed by both evolution and philosophy, whilst Harpur prefers ‘a multi-construct Christ figure’ although he admits to mostly trying to focus on his ‘own interior silence’.

Both seem to agree that religion is ‘rooted in mystery, epiphany and personal experience’ and rather worrying that ‘that’s what it shared with poetry.’ Or should, because Deane is adamant that ‘too much contemporary poetry […] seems vapid and imitative, saying nothing and saying it well.’ In the same way, he notes that ‘it has always amazed me how the churches got it wrong’, although later he redirects the discussion because ‘we are not going to get too far with the theological and rational surveying of the world and poetry.’

Later on there are mentions of Simone Weil, Richard Rohr, Yeats and Hopkins, but the main drift of the conversation seems to be towards a critique of poetry that society thinks can be measured in financial terms, and then a suggestion that the mystical, inspired or ineffable is a counter to this. Whilst I agree that Western neoliberal capitalism and the measuring of anything only in terms of profit, potential or otherwise, is wrong, poetry has always had more cultural than financial value. I do not, however, want creative writing made mystical. Language is what we use to think and talk to each other, it is how we process the world; when we recognise how fluid and full of possibility it is, we can create anew. Whilst much of the poetry here is beautifully worked, thoughtful and intriguing, it does not in the main evidence what many of us would think of as a ‘radical approach’ which Deane suggests is needed. The re-mystification and obscuration of poetry and how it can or might be written does no-one any favours.

Rupert Loydell 11th January 2023


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