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Between The Music And The Sun by Andrew Hughes (Literary Alchemy Press)

Between The Music And The Sun by Andrew Hughes (Literary Alchemy Press)

     I reached out to Andrew Hughes, who is my former student, while I was reading his short fiction collection Between the Music and the Sun and had a quick conversation with him about what he was doing in these stories, half of which are set in Nashville, Tennessee and half of which are set in Phoenix, Arizona. He told me that part of the project was to capture the new American South and desert Southwest and how the working class lives within it, which intrigues me of course. Like every other American, I was raised on a literary diet rich in the works of Southern authors, but only to a certain point in time. My Southern reading includes Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, and so my understanding of that region is limited to images that have become stereotypes. My knowledge of the desert Southwest is even more narrow, so I was eager to get a little better insight into how the working class lives in these places. I am pleased to write that Hughes’s collection complicates my understanding of these regions, and that I was surprised to see that his South and Southwest are places of interior spaces. Where Falkner might have had his characters outdoors, sweating away in a heat, Hughes’s working class people have moved indoors. After all, much of fieldwork has been mechanized. Instead of a rich sense of the outdoors, his characters have been driven into the blandly air conditioned interiors of the service and health care careers to live lives of hidden insignificance where they feel anonymous and cut off from the world.

     Hughes’s Nashville is a place of bars, restaurants, and hospitals where people are not enjoying themselves or being healed but facing the indignities of jobs that cut them off from their humanity. I was reminded again and again of the television show The Office where David Brent humiliates and is humiliated, and everyone must smile or risk losing their livelihoods. That is Hughes’s new South. Gone is the richness and trauma to be replaced by the slow grinding that defines so much of this world. In one story, told from the point of view of Mica, a doctor working in a hospital, a paramedic is told to “Get out of my ER” (15). He has not erred in any way. He has simply finished his report and is dismissed in the most demeaning of ways. In another story, Adrian works behind the scenes in a bar that serves the vast music world of Nashville. He is floating through life without focus because all there is for him is an endless progression of days in climate controlled and fluorescent lit rooms where he never sees the sun or moon save for those moments when he is traveling between work and his apartment. His life decisions come as reactions to things that he feels are happening to him, the unplanned birth of a daughter he no longer is allowed to spend time with and the suicide of an old friend. There is no agency to these characters’ lives, just the urge to keep surviving barely from one day to the next.

     The outdoors and the natural world become even more cut off from the characters in Phoenix. That world is one of great hostility, a hellscape where people are cast if they commit the sins of falling into debt too deeply or losing their jobs. After all, this is the bare desert, where temperatures often stay above forty degrees celsius for nearly half the year. To lose one’s job is to become homeless and to live in the endless grinding heat that does not relent even at night. The only solace these characters find is within a clearly defined pattern of drinking: 

You drank to reach a place where rules didn’t exist. You became a child. Do that too much though, you get labeled an alcoholic. So, have fun, but not too much fun, or they’ll treat you like a villain. (57)

It is vital in this world to follow these rules because being cast out leads to fates worse than death like Jada who must leave her toddler daughter hiding in an alley as she prostitutes herself or an unnamed homeless man who lives near the protagonist of another story:

During the days he sweats and broils in the desert sun, talking to himself in long, unintelligible monologues. Sometimes, he lies on the sidewalk, so hot it scalds his skin, and crawls, his nails scraping long white streaks in the sidewalk. (61)

To play by the rules for the working class in this city is to live a life of great blandness, but it is better than the hell that waits for people who do not, people who are cast outside and punished for not fitting in.

     I found this look at how the world has changed intriguing. I do not know what I was expecting this vision of the South and Southwest to be, but it is not hopeful, and it is not inspiring. It reflects the current housing and wage crisis that seems to be affecting every aspect of life in the United States.

John Brantingham 16th September 2021

Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Press Interview by John Brantingham

Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Press Interview by John Brantingham

Just outside Joshua Tree National Park is the city of Joshua Tree, which has drawn artists and writers to itself forming a community of creative people in the Mojave Desert. Within this community is Rich Soos and Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library, which have created a space for these folks to share their creativity. He publishes a monthly literary magazine and hosts readings to celebrate each new issue. He also makes sure Cholla Needles is involved with other local events including the Big Read put on each year by the Arts Connection of San Bernardino County.  In 2021 the Big Read featured the U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

       What I find particularly fascinating however, is Cholla Needles’ publishing project. Soos publishes a wide range of work, but his series of books of poets who are also visual artists is stunning. These are often about forty pages and include full color art. They often feature desert themes and capture the spirit of the Joshua Tree’s arts community well with authors and artists like Kendall Johnson, Cynthia Anderson, Susan Abbott, Zara Kand, and Cindy Rinne, serious writers who take their art just as seriously. The effect is a body of work that is the best of what ekphrasis does, where the art and words work in unison to make new connections, to create new ideas, that the art or words alone could not do. These are not just exceptional books. This is an exceptional series.

      I wanted to understand the collaborative process between him and his writer/artists, so I talked to him about the project.

John:   Would it be fair to say that you are deeply involved in a collaborative process that is not just you printing the work, but helping the artists/writers to draw out ideas that they might not have necessarily found on their own?

Rich:   Well, a lot depends on the author. I am always involved in the collaborations, obviously. How deeply depends on the other parties involved. There are some poets/artists that I spend lots and lots of time with attempting to craft a final product that works. There are others who are excellent at self-editing, and describing their vision well, so I’m largely the old guy in the background making sure the technology matches their vision. 

John:   Did you self-consciously decide to develop this art/poetry project? Do you even see it as a project or is it just something that naturally built itself?

Rich:   I walked into pie for the people in Joshua Tree for some pizza and saw artwork on the walls that knocked me over. I discovered an artist who had placed my deepest dreams and poetry onto canvas and was fascinated. I found my heart pouring out words that had been waiting for these images and created two proofs – one called Interiors, and one called Exteriors. I created the proofs before talking to the artist because I did not have the language to explain the vision I had for these publications. The cover of both was the same, the titles were different. When I took the proofs to the artist we immediately bonded and collaborated to help make the vision I had a mutual vision. This experience started the series of art/poetry books and is solely the fault of Zara Kand. Without her art speaking directly to me this would never have started. I’m not sure the word “project” is the correct term, I just know it was something I had to do to satisfy my own need to see poetry and art that moved my soul become a single unit. I do like your description, “naturally built itself”.

     Many of these art books have come together the same way. A vision in my head that I can only express through the printing process. As an example, Cindy Rinne submitted a book of poetry that she wanted me to publish Called Moon of Many Pebbles. I loved the words, and was willing to publish them in the same way as most of our books – black words on white paper. As I read through the words I kept seeing her art, so using the same format, I decided to try the art/poetry approach to add a vivid dimension to the reading experience. Again, I was unable to use words to explain the vision, so I made up a proof version and shared it with Cindy. She was very happy with the presentation, and from that first proof we were able to collaborate to make the vision a mutual one.

      Now, of course, folks have seen quite a few of these books and are able to send me material to create these art/poetry books using their vision. For example here, I had published work by Cynthia Anderson and Susan Abbott. Cynthia saw Susan’s work and wanted to have her words enhanced by including full color pieces with her words. And that beautiful collaboration became Now Voyager. We have over 25 of these books by many folks available now, and I am proud of the series. Each book is unique, and meets a specific creative desire within me. I love the technical challenge of turning the vision in my head into a work of art others want to hold in their hands. 

John:   Would it be fair to say that you are deeply involved in a collaborative process that is not just you printing the work, but helping the artists/writers to draw out ideas that they might not have necessarily found on their own?

Rich:   Well, a lot depends on the author. I am always involved in the collaborations, obviously. How deeply depends on the other parties involved. There are some poets/artists that I spend lots and lots of time with attempting to craft a final product that works. There are others who are excellent at self-editing, and describing their vision well, so I’m largely the old guy in the background making sure the technology matches their vision. 

John:   I’m wondering about your placement in the Mojave desert and if that’s influenced the way you’ve developed as a press.

Rich:   My “placement” in the Mojave desert was simply a result of the big real estate crash of 2008. I had always wanted to move here since my first visit in 1972, and by 2008 I was very close to “retirement”.  We had honestly given up on ever being able to return to California to live because of the ridiculous costs of homes. In 2008 real estate prices were slashed to 25% of what they were in previous years, and we immediately bought our retirement home because we knew that was a once every 20-30 years opportunity. The entire country has experienced the doubling and tripling of real estate prices in the past few years, so I made a good decision. There’s no way we could afford to move here now.

We had come to Joshua Tree every summer and I can’t deny it’s influenced me as a writer and artist – and probably as an editor. I have a deep love for work that is sparse and carries deep meaning below the surface, and I’m sure that comes from my walks in the desert. Also, our motto here at Cholla Needles is from a poem I wrote 40 years ago when I learned the hard way the strength of those little needles. The motto basically says that I look for work that slices through the surface, and leaves a healthy scar long afterwards. Poetry should bear repeated readings, and stay deep within us long after we’ve turned the page.

The development of the Cholla Needles phenomena happened quickly once we started. My initial desire was simply to have a monthly magazine. I started receiving full length manuscripts almost immediately, and when I’m presented with work I know others should be reading, I can’t help but desire to print it. In five years we’ve published 60 monthly issues and over 120 books.   

John:   Speaking of the monthly magazine, you’ve told me that you draw many of the people you publish from Cholla Needles Magazine. This involves both art and writing as well. Was one of your impulses for book publishing to get a more complete vision of individual artists?

Rich:   Cholla Needles magazine is presented as what I call 10 mini-chapbooks between two covers. This was on purpose – to give readers a real good flavor of each writer and artist. And you are correct, this mini-chapbook is a mere taste of what they are capable of, and the books offer much more depth into the authors. I did plan that specific requirement – that an author or artist appear in Cholla Needles prior to being considered for a book – for a reason. My sanity. I always feel obligated to read material that comes across my threshold. I’m sure no one would be surprised how many people have book manuscripts ready to be read. Any editor will tell you – it is very easy to become overwhelmed. By making sure authors/artists first appear in the magazine before I read their full book manuscript, I save a lot of time. I do believe the best books come from mutual respect and a willingness to work together. If we can work together to get their work prepared for the mini-chapbook, we have a much better chance of some real success with a 120 page book. 

John:   Do you have any plans or dreams for the future of the press or do you plan for it just to develop organically?

Rich:   Oh yes, we have dreams, big dreams! However, our plan at this point is simple – to survive the pandemic, and to build back to where we were pre-pandemic. 

            Understandably people’s financial situations have been in havoc the past sixteen months and their ability and desire to support magazines like ours has almost disappeared.

            Our three dreams remain the same, the same dreams we have included in our non-profit by-laws. 

            First, we’d love to pay our authors and artists. Our plan pre-pandemic was to change from a single copy to several copies as payment starting 2022, with the continued dream of being able to pay in greenbacks as we grow. 

            The second dream is to move our library from the garage into a site that would double as a poetry bookstore/art gallery. The dream is to sell new poetry from around the world, and maintain our library for the classic books of poetry that are no longer available for sale. We have several thousand books in the library already, and it continues to grow. Many writers donate their own books to the library, as well as books they’ve collected that they no longer have room for. 

            And finally, the biggest dream was practical pre-pandemic, but since real estate prices have tripled in the past 16 months it feels impractical. That said, a dream can still be a dream, and we want to have a Cholla Needles retreat where poets can reserve a place to come from anywhere in the world to be inspired by our beautiful landscape to either start a new book, or find the peace to complete a project they are working on. The dream is to have this space available to writers at no cost and underwritten by donations from patrons of the arts. There are folks who still do that and we simply wait for the right ones who love Cholla Needles and love our area and love writers. The perfect trifecta.

            In the meantime, as these dreams continue to motivate and inspire our board members we will continue to develop organically. Last year for example, a single board member pointed out since I was answering emails 10-12 hours a day seven days a week that I didn’t have time for my own writing. I hadn’t stopped to consider that, but it was true, so I asked the simple question – how do we change that? She suggested “guest editors.” Such a simple, organic solution, and yes, we have had four issues by guest editors in the past year, and it’s been so successful we will continue to keep that new tradition alive.

    We’ve been blessed to be able to continue publishing during these days when folks are more focused on survival than poetry. Maintaining our schedule has proven to be inspirational to our readers, and their monthly notes of thanks and praise help us tremendously. Mutual love and respect. Good times!!!

John Brantingham 10th September 2021

SurvivalEye by Mare Heron Hake (Arroyo Seco Press)

SurvivalEye by Mare Heron Hake (Arroyo Seco Press)

For me, Mare Heron Hake’s SurvivalEye is a necessary book in this time of pain and uncertainty. There is a lot going on in Hake’s debut collection. She takes a close look at what is deadly and difficult in the world, but her poetry is filled with characteristics I personally admire above all else, hope and courage. There are any number of poets that show me how to proceed through the kind of chaos we face, Yusef Komunyakaa, Joy Harjo, Paul Kareem Tayyar, and Marge Piercy, and what I love about Hake is that she continues the ideals of these great writers and applies them to the problems of now. As I move with anxiety through my in-person teaching and worry about the health of myself, my family, and my students, Hake reminds me of how to do so with grace. She does it with hope and resilience and her collection gives us a model for courage.

     Hake’s poetry is often an antidote for despair. Her prose poem “your ember” discusses finding resilience in the passions that live in all of us. It tells to have faith in that passion, in her words that “ember,” “it isn’t nothing but something here tangled in your own roots, down beyond their clawed reach, this smallest tip of heat that you can feel, a burning, an ember to keep you warm but could also light the rest of you on fire” (55). Here and throughout the collection, Hake acknowledges that those parts of us that are often demeaned or ignored by us and others are part of who we are and a part of our power. Simply moving and doing often gives us a way forward. She also discusses this same idea in “BossLady” where she writes, “I am the belief no one else encouraged” (9). This looking inward to find strength that gives us hope is repeated again and again, and she shows us that having faith in ourselves is the way to move forward. We should not look to others for this.

     If she is calling to us for hope in this time when we are inclining toward despair, she is also calling to us for resilience. In the titular poem, she writes of how a crow she witnesses survives.

But every-

thing of this crow was committed to

the task — feet in water, one eye

going down, a thing tongued tool

of a beak parallel to the inch of

wet, a neck bent so low for a

moment, and necessary, over

and over again, day after

day (5).

The crow becomes emblematic of the resilience that she is calling for. To live, it must drink, and to drink it must put itself in a vulnerable position, and this is terrifying, but the narrator watching the crow starts to understand and relate to it. Like the crow, she is vulnerable, and life is dangerous, but the only way forward is to keep going, day after day.

         The world needs more collections that affirm hope and resilience, and I am grateful to Hake for having given us this one. Anything that reminds us that there is a better world possible is to be lauded. This is a book that shows us the way.

John Brantingham 1st September 2021

leaf o little leaf by Ralph Hawkins (Oystercatcher Press)

leaf o little leaf by Ralph Hawkins (Oystercatcher Press)

I’ve not read much of Ralph Hawkins’ poetry before despite first coming across his work in A Various Art some years back but this is something I need to remedy. This little chapbook is wonderful. In his poem ‘Max Jacob – Some of the butchers had binoculars’ we get the following line, a reference to both Max Jacob and Ted Berrigan – ‘Both poets being playful, humorous and serious and full of fraught connectives.’ It’s that ‘fraught connectives’ that does it, a phrase that could well be applied to Hawkins’ own poetry as beautifully exemplified in the following:

          Corn from Delf is good for Elves

                                       Bernadette Meyer

          you can get a coach

          transport yourself

          Scarlett Johannson

          an alien in Glasgow

          the girl at the psalter

          palmistry soap

          all those overburdened

          with the clothes they wore

          the abandoned, the outcast, what future

          they ‘fished’ them out of the sea

I’m unsure if the title embodies a quote from Meyer but its mix of digression and stream-of-consciousness is entirely appropriate. The manner in which this short poem shifts ground so swiftly is witty and yet suggests the way the mind connects when we are ‘thinking to ourselves.’ The jump from ‘coach’ to ‘self-transportation’ and then to the film reference which implies a more cosmic form of technology is wonderfully done and then we are in darker territory via ‘psalter’ and ‘palmistry’ which lead to the final four lines, chilling in their contemporary resonance but also hinting at an historical narrative. 

     Hawkins works with found texts and references to paintings quite regularly as well as obviously working by association and ‘stream of consciousness’ though most of the poems are reasonably short and as well as relatively smooth transitions there are abrupt jumps or ‘crash edits,’ to borrow the film jargon, which can be a cause for humour or in some cases bafflement. It’s good to be baffled at times! His poem on Max Jacob, referred to above, mixes humour, wordplay and celebration with a melancholy feel and another stunning ending – ‘And later having to wear a yellow star / when the Germans came.’ He has the ability to combine a sort of surreal lyricism with a darker tendency and then switch to genuine pathos or emotional directness as in this final stanza from ‘Jean-Francois-Millet’ – ‘however there is a softness in the children / and a care which / suffuses all exhaustive acts.’

     The opening piece – ‘Poem: Found and Manipulated Text’ has an ‘instructional tone’ which takes off at all sorts of tangents and teases the reader into trying out an interpretation or two while being aware the absurdity of the scenarios are not entirely approachable by linear logic!  For example, we have the following: ‘12 lions may be presented in all / read by a Fakir in spectacles / (note the adjustable settings / Arcadian, Gothic, Absurd).’ You could choose to read ‘lines’ for lions and then ponder a reading by ‘A Fakir in spectacles’ but are the adjustable settings related to the spectacles or what might or might not be type-faces – Arcadian, Gothic, Absurd – and how in any case does this influence the ‘meaning?’ As Hawkins himself says in the closing couplet – ‘we don’t usually see the world / with entirely different eyes, do we.’  

     It’s the estrangement from received notions of ‘reality’ that I most like about these poems as they make you ponder while providing a good laugh at the same time. As he also says elsewhere, in Doig 1,’ – ‘what paths we must take / when nothing seems strange.’ These poems are certainly a good antidote to boredom as well as having a ‘more serious’ side and I very much enjoyed reading them. The cover artwork is equally puzzling, it may or may not be the suggested ‘leaf’ but has the feel of a print with organic textures and could be an image by David Lynch but probably isn’t. I like it though and it’s certainly in tune with this chapbook’s contents.

Steve Spence 27th August 2021

Operations of Water by Ian Seed (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Operations of Water by Ian Seed (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Seashore scenarios, the fluidity of water and the hardness of ice are images that recur in Ian Seed’s second collection from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, which is reminiscent of Montale’s ‘Arsenio’, who wanders around at the beach, where his thoughts and hopes are erased by the backwash after a storm. Arsenio’s ‘immoto andare’ (motionless motion) is a very good description of Seed’s uncertainties, his sense of displacement, the fragmentation of the self, his isolation and his loneliness as he engages in a heedless search for a meaning. These themes were already present in his first full collection, Anonymous Intruder (Shearsman Books, 2009), in which the protagonist’s ‘feeling of lostness’ cannot be resolved. Multiple encounters mark a meandering journey that does not reach a definite ending. While the first collection was composed of structured poems and prose poems, Operations of Water is more experimental in form; this emphasises a sense of letting go and an openness to even less defined perspectives. The themes are explored in a deeper way, revealing a profound sense of displacement and emptiness that nevertheless is always in process, like water that is flowing. Everything seems ever-changing, shifting, fluid; there are ‘fluctuating life stories to be shared’ in an ‘emptiness [that] is not nothing’. The estrangement from the body and the concept of authenticity are therefore even more challenged in this last collection. The poet is open to the mysteries of experience, which is unresolved, questioned and ultimately unknown.

The collection is divided into four parts that are mostly composed of sequences of poems that delve into the different concepts, mixing conversational language and abstract imageries. The dialogue is open and provisional, hinting at Baudelaire’s correspondence and the magical world of folk tales. The uncertainty of the human condition is acknowledged and so is the illusion of any faithfulness to firm theories. The protagonist ‘mix[es] a cocktail’, negotiating relationships in ‘a solitude that is not/in your control and cannot be sweetened’. Seed’s questioning is stringent in some poems, addressing existential concerns which remain unresolved and distant. The search for a home ends in desolation; it is ‘a vanishing place’ or ‘an abandoned house’ where the protagonist experiences his inadequacy: his body is ‘a stranger to itself’. Striking images confirm this idea, as in ‘Phantom Limbs’ after Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which the body and the mind merge in a multifaceted view and the amputated limbs can be renewed in the imagination as a memory; they are entities that do not exist anymore.

The reference to Dante’s ‘donna gentile’ is again an illusion and does not give respite to the poet. The woman’s spiritual healing power is reversed in reference to the trapping frozen lake that is reminiscent of the Cocytus at the bottom of Dante’s Inferno where the traitors are punished.

This incompleteness not only causes uncertainty but also anxiety. It is a consistent state of lingering and may end in a fall. The final section, ‘Operations of Water’, is a long sequence of poems composed of nine parts but it actually reads as a continuum of unpunctuated double-spaced lines; they are fragments connected by enjambments, recalling in their form and in the tone the flowing of water. Openness, tenderness, the inside and the outside play infinite roles in these final compelling poems. Imageries follow one another, developing in ‘rippling promises’ and ‘unwinding paths’ and rising ‘in abyss and within depth’. The protagonist strolls around in this reality whose essence is unreal and surreal and has the dual symbology of water, that is, death and renewal. Seed engages the reader in the whirlpool of his imagination, conveying his ideas in deft lines that always surprise with their freshness and consistently affirm his ideas.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th August 2021

Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms by Steve Spence (The Red Ceilings Press)

Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms by Steve Spence (The Red Ceilings Press)

Steve Spence, based in Plymouth where he co-organises the Language Club, studied at the  University of Plymouth and has published A Curious Shipwreck from Shearsman in 2010. He also writes a good many reviews and is a regular contributor to Tears in the Fence.

This chapbook, of 41 poems, is organised in a standard format of 4 quatrains and a closing couplet, unrhymed. Most of the pieces have short 3-word titles. No named protagonists, but a ‘he’ and ‘she’ are given to comment fairly often. Patrick Holden has called Spence a ‘connoisseur of noise pollution’.

Before all else, Spence isn’t sticking to a specific narrative, so, no, nobody eats here, gets gas or worms, and the artwork is a spare abstract of red, black and blue that could almost be a Rorschach blot.

Spence on a certain level is involved in a game with the reader, this can read a bit like a metanarrative, and admittedly, in those terms, he rarely puts a foot wrong. We are into a wholly realised space at a tangent from social realism.

There is assuredly a certain wariness. The first poem is called ‘Ceaselessly, with Threats’. Now what these threats are is unattained, not wholly spelled out. By the end we are ‘Returning to the Surface’, as if we have been immersed in some fictive terrain.

The uniformatting tends to emphasise the want of a narrative progression. There are suggestions of closure at the end, ‘we can come down from the trees’, though I don’t think the trees are the only space we’ve been. Other titles near the end are ‘An Act Of Defiance’ and ‘Doing It Yourself’. That insistent page formatting can have a curious effect, likewise the short titles.

So, read as 40 odd short poems this book has its interests, and they can be read quite discontinuously. I have to say I think the titles are peculiarly serialised, that is distinct but all gelling together. It’s as if we’ve gotten into a box and are staying there.

It may be worth citing from the final poem:

                                            ‘These colours come from their

                                diet yet an open habitat is a dangerous

                                place for a prey animal. “Do you like how

                                I’m telling you what’s going on where you are?”

                                When night falls we can come down from the trees.’  (p41)

There is that wariness again, ‘a dangerous/ place’, whereas our writer finds value in ‘telling you what’s going on’.

If this intrigues another poem ‘Playing With The Image’ has a somewhat different sort of ending:

                                                  ‘Are we slowly

                                retreating from everyday life?

                                These brushmarks are intriguing

                                but we also like smooth surfaces.’ (p15)

As for ‘retreating’ this poem also has ‘“we need to/ keep this conflict from/ spreading.”’ This somewhat spells out those perceptions of wariness. We also have our contrast between smooth surfaces, and these might be called smoothly realised poems, and rougher ‘brushmarks’ somewhat perhaps suggested by the cover.

So the poem series in a sense seems to find self containment an issue. What ‘this conflict’ is is not spelled out, not of course that it should be. And yet there is scope for some finely realised perceptions within this constricted domain. And as I say we have a ‘he’ and ‘she’ making appearances here but we do not learn much about them.

One feature of the book then is that it contains a strain, a tight relation, between form and content. Somehow when that final poem says ‘Returning To The Surface’ I am not quite so sure I’m there. Am I fending off the world or aspiring to an alternative world, maybe some niche that is viable in the here and now? Watching over what might or ought to be an ‘open habitat’, as Spence says,- that is a reassuring notion. Of course, the tight formalism also demonstrates a certain determination. Weighing in the impact of this chapbook I think then well furthers the development of a suitably aesthetic perspective for these times.

Clark Allison 19th August 2021

Weighing of the Heart by Degna Stone (Blueprint Poetry Press)

Weighing of the Heart by Degna Stone (Blueprint Poetry Press)

This pamphlet on Stone’s husband’s battle with Subacute Bacterial Endocarditis (SBE) – ‘a bacterial infection that produces growths on the endocardium (the cells lining the inside of the heart) […] and, if untreated, can become fatal within six weeks to a year’ – is a stark, honest account of marriage when a spouse has a life-threatening illness. 

These poems are written with a sparing style. Stone allows the narrative arc to unspool through the domestic, with the speaker in the bathtub in ‘Unwinding’ or watching her husband’s illness take hold in ‘Pallor’. As Mr Stone’s serious illness becomes more apparent, the language of detachment seems to take over. This is evidence in the titles of several of the poems: ‘Mrs Stone Calculates the Odds’, ‘Mrs Stone Waits for News’. There is often a sense of dissociation in these poems, as if the speaker is existing in ‘survival mode’, however, finer, specific details bloom through like dandelions in the crack of a pavement: ‘tissues scented / with lavender’, ‘the gold pinstripe of her white dress’, ‘liquid, which should be clear, / darkens to rust / with too much blood’. This may sound like an impossible dichotomy, but in my experience, trauma is both vague and vivid, sharp and blunt, often simultaneously, and this pamphlet deftly demonstrates that phenomenon. 

Like in Rebecca Goss’s collection Her Birth, as well as in the work of Hannah Hodgson and Helen Dunmore, this pamphlet takes us into hospital, and we see the full, unsterilised truth of it. In In ‘Mrs Stone Drives Home from the Freeman Hospital’, the worlds of inside and outside the hospital merge, the rest of society seemingly continuing with ‘the blossom and barbecue smells of late May’ despite the Stones’ reality, yet the psychologically inescapable fact of her husband’s hospital room haunts Mrs Stone: ‘Even in my car waiting to head home, / I am in that room with you’. In ‘Bear Hug’, Mrs Stone connects with a woman, remarking, ‘we share the same complicated / relationships with our mothers’. In the pamphlet’s title poem, there is a piercing moment of powerlessness and inability to protect a loved one felt by many relations of the unwell, shown simply through the words, ‘I had not done enough / to bring you back’. Foreshadowing is also woven into the narrative arc, particularly during the poem ‘Mrs Stone Tries to Stop the Rain’, in which Mr Stone wonders, ‘Is this where the infection began? Pressing a sponge to soak to pooling water, / bacteria creeping into barely visible cuts on his hands?’ By this, I was reminded of Jenny Downham’s YA novel Before I Die, in which Tessa, the protagonist, who has cancer, reflects on her pre-diagnosis days by exploring her childhood, through hindsight, using startling imagery of potential signs of what was to come: ‘the butterflies crisped up in jam jars’ ‘my Uncle Bill got a brain tumour. At his funeral…the grave earth wouldn’t come off my shoes’. This seems to be a human eccentricity, how we look back into our pasts for warnings that we did not heed or see, yet the fact is that sometimes we just cannot ‘see things coming’. 

The scenes of this pamphlet are perhaps more familiar to us as a consequence of our experiences over the past year and a half than they would have been pre-pandemic. Arguably, the scenes in ‘Mrs Stone Visits Her Husband’ – ‘the cold gel’ which ‘seeps / into the broken skin of her palms’ – would not have been so instantly recognisable to us all if we had not had to wash our hands so frequently or confront serious illness and death on a daily basis, collectively rather than individually. The almost-godlike quality with which Mrs Stone depicts medical professionals caring for her husband corresponds with our pandemic-formed view of NHS staff; in ‘Mr Stone is in a Loop’, ‘nurses glide’ around Mr Stone’s bed (this ‘gliding’ instantly prompted me to think of angels). In ‘Mrs Stone Calculates the Odds’, she declares, ‘I don’t need faith. The gods are here.’ This need to put our trust in medical personnel surely rings truer now than it ever has done.

Something else that feels familiar as a consequence of Covid-19 is the craving to regain life exactly as it was prior to an episode of uncertainty and loss. In ‘Mr Stone’s Bionic Heart’, the speaker reports how she ‘took Valium so [she] could sleep / with [her] head on [Mr Stone’s] chest’. Later, in the pamphlet’s closing poem, ‘Mrs Stone Lies Awake’, Mrs Stone states, ‘I’m trying to get back to where we were. / Praying it’s as simple as putting my head / on your chest and falling asleep’. Perhaps it will be this ‘simple’; perhaps it will not. As we emerge from lockdown, we are yearning for ‘normality’; perhaps this is conceivable, perhaps it is implausible. All we can do is try.

Olivia Tuck 17th August 2021

I’ll Splinter by Tom Branfoot (Infernal Editions)

I’ll Splinter by Tom Branfoot (Infernal Editions)

My grandparents’ house is called ‘Tod Cot’. I had never really thought about it much – a random arrangement of sounds and syllables, it simply was. But the first poem in Tom Branfoot’s debut pamphlet, I’ll Splinter, gave me pause. The title of the poem, ‘Cotlight’, is a lovely word which, I learnt, refers to the light shining through windows after dark, from ‘cot’, a rural dwelling, now ‘cottage’. Tod is an old country term for fox, and now the two pieces of the puzzle fit together – Tod Cot, fox cottage, den, holt, home, the words unfurling themselves before me. I’ll Splinter encourages this kind of reframing of the everyday, as Branfoot’s sharp eye picks out the poetic in the pebbledash and tarmac of the in-between places. 

‘Cotlight’ is a fitting introduction to I’ll Splinter – it is an invitation, an invocation, a calling. ‘go there’, the poem begins, ‘and say that fire/ brought you // to the brook where light travels as bruised ginger.’ Exactly where ‘there’ is is never quite clear, but we are reminded of Seamus Heaney’s landscapes of the imagination where words are a means to their own end, endlessly discovering themselves. There is a longing for wildness in this poem that is never fully realised, striking a feral note that rings true through the entire collection. An impulse towards a primal, ancient something rears its head in the lines ‘call after me when you arrive / like an untied animal’. If you can see the cotlight then you are necessarily out in the dark, hovering between the artificial light spilling from double glazed windows and whatever darker something lurks beyond its yellow glow. 

Reading this collection feels, at times, like crouching in the garden after dark with a torch, illuminating the homely contours of the garage and the garden fence until they become uncanny and otherworldly, sitting quietly until the miracle of a toad or the flicker of a wing is caught in the beam. ‘Winter Storm and Plastic Flowers’ is full of exacting and at times excruciating details of rural mundanity – ‘the polythene-bagged hay bales / on the perimeter of deserted / horse fields distant cars tear past’. The image of sparrows darting from ‘shrub to waxy / shrub pared back and almost berryless / pebble-dashed and ordinary’ is chillingly exact. In turning his attention to neither the sublime nor the sordid, but the rural ordinary, Branfoot shines a hard electric light on the places between which form such a large part of our experience but are blurred out by familiarity. 

Again and again, the speaker’s meetings with the natural world and the wonder it entails remain curiously frustrated. In ‘Minor Katabasis’, the speaker forages for ‘unbloomed fruits / by the clear stream’, then ‘empty handed I head home / along Station Road’. Despite the plethora of exquisite detail, the ‘liver-spotted mushrooms / and a skinful of sloe’, there is a feeling of aching need unmet – whilst nominally foraging for mushrooms, something else, something bigger and deeper and older is being sought, and repeatedly eludes. 

This fumbling desire for wildness asserts itself in ‘Shadowmoss’, which shares its name (intriguingly) with a Greater Manchester tram stop. The lines between the ‘natural world’ and our own blend: perhaps in ways only possible in the semi-rural, post-industrial places that the collection illuminates. Deer appear, but only in the context of the very human tarmac: ‘come rutting season / deer edge closer to their limits / we listen for bellows through the traffic (…) the fog lifts to black skids and fur scraps.’ It is a poem, like the collection, of almost-meetings, of glancing blows, of desire for contact unmet. It cries out for movement, yet remains curiously static. Instead of wild geese the speaker sees men ‘stumble into winter’s mouth / and nothing but migration’, the ‘drifting men’ taking down a traveling fun fair offer the closest thing to the freedom of the geese.

The pull between a keen love for the detail of a place and an itching desire for something else, anything else, hums throughout this collection. I mentioned stasis, but ‘dormancy’ and ‘dormant’ both appear in ‘Winter Storm and Plastic Flowers’ – an altogether more hopeful concept, suggesting an eventual reemergence. The two words pull at the competing nostalgia and terror that periods ‘at home’ in your early twenties can instill, an undercurrent which threads its way through ‘Loom of the Land’, the second poem in the collection. The poem reads like loose Old English alliterative verse, as the speaker walks a relay ‘from street lamp to bus stop  slow as night’, the initial alliteration and the regular division of each coupleted line into two giving an ancient weight to these modern, prosaic subjects. It is a fitting form considering Old English literature’s concern with place and belonging, with the material fact of the hall and the invisible structures of kinship and loyalty. ‘people leave’, Branfoot writes, ‘because going makes a sound’, and we are reminded of the wild geese, the drifting men. The image of the cenotaph, the empty tomb, in the final line embodies the fret and drift of the poem as a monument to absence. 

Despite the immediacy of Branfoot’s subjects, this is a quietly literary collection, with a rich array of form and allusion, from Old English alliterative verse to nocturnes, fugues and free verse; attention to rhyme and rhythm crisply attended to throughout. All of this contributes to the feeling of meticulous detail and controlled observation. 

If the first poem in the collection is an invitation, then the final poem, ‘Mooring’, is a kind of acceptance. In choosing one of the oldest and tenderest of filial reunions, that of Odysseus and his father in Homer’s Odyssey, Branfoot writes not only about one father, but all fathers. Mingling the epic and the everyday, Branfoot stays true to Homer’s original right down to beggar’s disguise and the sharing of scars, until, after feasting and bathing in olive oil, ‘we leave the radio on / to not feel alone.’ After the discomfort and the ambiguity of the rest of the collection, this poem is a gentle ode to the rituals and the awkward comforts of home, the places we are from but do not quite belong, which remain deeply part of us even as we struggle to escape them. 

Hannah Green 12th August 2021

I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill (Repeater Books)

I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill (Repeater Books)

I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is comprised of a series of ninety-five vignettes, mostly single page length, the shortest being two lines long. An epigram by Samuel Beckett is appropriate for the content: ‘It’s all a muddle in my head, graves and nuptials and the different varieties of motion.’ The reader is treated to snapshots views of the author’s family, his schooldays, his days in the youth club or drinking in the bikers’ club. Music and records provide a backcloth to lost chances, lost loves, and there is a whole string of early jobs in a fish shop, the Co Op, a packaging firm, Samuel the jeweller and Harrison Drape, the factory for curtain accessories where he drove a forklift truck ‘because it was the best of a shit job’ but nearly lost life and limb when it toppled off a ramp as he reversed it. Most of these jobs ended with him being escorted off the premises because of too many days going awol or putting himself on flexitime. One vignette describes a romantic interlude with a first love when he phoned up pretending to be snowbound in Devon so that ‘we spent the morning warm under thin blankets, feeding each other fresh strawberries dipped in cream, mouth-to-mouth.’

Throughout, the writing is detailed but concise with pithy comments. Sunday evenings in boyhood were spent watching a BBC serial ‘with bonnets and sideburns and Mum would provide us with plates of pilchard sandwiches.’ There are layers of implication in this remark about the siblings: ‘My elder sister resented my presence, my younger brother had blue eyes and curly blond hair.’ The tone is consistently laconic such as this one: ‘One year we won a goldfish at the Mop … by the time we got it home the goldfish was dead.’ Or there is this analysis of a relationship: ‘I am with a woman. We lived together, she went away, we lived together, we can’t anymore, so how does this work now?’ A comment on another relationship, many years later with a film maker, is equally downbeat and anti-climactic when he remembers her with nostalgia and thinks how good it would be to reminisce together ‘so I look her up, send her an email and hear nothing back.’

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these vignettes is Charlie Hill’s skill is creating a sense of time and place. Scenes of life in Birmingham are evoked:

‘I live in inner-city Balsall Heath with outlaws, dole-ites and artists and get a job with a packaging firm. The packaging firm is in Tysely, a fraying patchwork of factory estates and boarded-up pubs. I smoke among the cardboard boxes in the warehouses … After managing an office consisting of me all day, I come home to a house full of New Age travellers chopping speed … and a tea of Special Brew and noodles.’ 

A passage I find especially evocative is set in India where the author has gone in search of his girl friend:

‘We sit on flat roofs and look at the cows and the billboards advertising toothpaste. From the Ganges we hear incantations, while in the narrow street below men play chess. There is a festival on and the sky is full of bright kites, darting like sprats, stitching the sky with messages of devotion. She says it would be a nice idea if we get married. I demur.’

Subtle humour and I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is rich in it. But it’s humour with an undertone of the bitter-sweet, the nostalgic and poignant. This a book I loved reading. Unforgettable.

Mandy Pannett 11th August 2021

Sex & Ketchup by Mish (Concrete Mist Press)

Sex & Ketchup by Mish (Concrete Mist Press)

     Mish’s Sex & Ketchup is informed by the trauma of living in the Trump Era and especially of being in the quarantine for the past few month. This is not to say that her collection is entirely about this era, only that the poems seem influenced by it and the emotions drawn out by it, even when she is not directly discussing the quarantine, her poetry seems to be a reaction to it. There are of course a number of poems that reminded me a bit of the political writing of Muriel Ruykeyser or Allen Ginsberg. They comment directly on the ex-president and his policies. However, it is equally clear that this time in quarantine has caused Mish to dwell on the traumas of her distant and recent past, and these are drawn out in the collection as well. In this, she is giving a voice to the deeply felt emotions that everyone I know is feeling these days.

     A friend of mine who is a psychotherapist dealing with trauma often says that retirement is a time when people suddenly have to face the PTSD they have been ignoring because of their working life because they have fewer distractions; I don’t know whether Mish would have been dealing directly with the loss of her father and her lifetime of memories with him. Certainly she would have, and possibly in very healthy ways, but this aspect of the collection feels very much to me like the emotions that I have been dealing with. We have all had a good deal of time to think carefully about our pain and worries. She devotes an entire section of the collection to this “Tiny Dancer,” and the fact of his death runs throughout the collection. She writes about the physicality of her father’s death: 

            Dad sucks air

            with mouth open,

            lungs flooded

            with pneumonia (13).

Her feelings of loss rise up in these poems, and of course we can all relate to those now in this time of forced meditation when we are reliving in vivid detail our traumas. Later she writes,

            My father

            Appears to me that night

            In a dream,

            Silently mouthing–

            I think–

            Love you–

            Then 

            Fading away (19).

These painful emotions are gaining power in our time, and this is one of the subtle messages running through the collection.

     Mish’s anger over who caused this trauma is far less subtle, and many of the poems lay the blame for it directly on Donald Trump. If she has regrets for the choices that she has made, she has anger for the person who put her in this situation:

            The virus rolls out

            of bed

            early,

            slips into bloodstained

            swim trunks,

            adjusts

            its “Make America Great Again”

            shower cap” (5).

The virus here is personified as a Trump supporter, later in the poem a Jim Beam swilling angry and violent monster, grabbing a machete, which it tests out on the news media. Trump’s choices and the fall out from those choices are all deadly and terrifying. She is showing that he has released a violence on so many levels against the world and there seems to be no way to contain it. However, she is also able to show how this violence will turn against him:

            Your cash,

            your chic,

            your limos —

            your verve —

            all wilt

            under the virus

            the way

            ice cream cones

            melt

            in the sun (10).

This is of course one of the many strange effects of Trumpism. If the populace is affected by the pandemic, he is not immune to it. What he has wrought upon the rest of the world, he has also wrought upon himself.

     The collection often also gives us glimpses of how to make it through such time with physical release or as the title suggests sex and ketchup. Food and sex. While Mish makes a point to show us that even these have changed, she takes the time to mention our need for them. Everyone I know reports having found refuge in physical pleasures. I have too, but for me, and I think Mish, these have been very temporary and so very dominated by what is turning out to be an era of pain.

John Brantingham 8th August 2021

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