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Of Necessity and Wanting by Sascha Akhtar (the 87 Press)

Of Necessity and Wanting by Sascha Akhtar (the 87 Press)

There are three stories of different lengths in Of Necessity and Wanting, each one a vignette of life in urban Pakistan, particularly in the cosmopolitan city of Karachi. Each story has its characters and themes but the connecting thread between them all is the city itself. One might also consider Karachi to be a character – a paradoxical, ‘not-so-beautiful’, dominating character – it would be hard to find another setting where these tales of ‘need’ and ‘want’ could unfold as they do in this ‘hell-hole’ of a city with its frenzy of traffic, canals clogged with raw sewage, its sicknesses and smells of rotting fish and smog, its beggar-lined streets of colour and glitter and flowers.

Then there is the heat, the exhausting, all-pervading heat which, as Zainab in the third story describes: 

(The sun) beat down with more ferocity as it got nearer to mid-afternoon … the dust filled your nostrils and coated your throat. Externally, it stuck to the rivulets of sweat that dripped down your face.’ 

The nearness of the sea offered a promise of some relief – until one got nearer and smelled ‘the pungent aroma of dead fish.’

Here is a description of a beach:

Clifton Beach was no beauty. The sands were verging on the black side of grey, with muck piled up everywhere. Slimy hills of seaweed, old shoes, dog excrement, human excrement, oil slicks and pieces of glass adorned the shore – this was no encouragement to walk barefoot and yet people did. Tonight, Javid walked right onto the beach craving the cool sands under his feet – the all-encompassing sound of the waves raging in his ears.

Karachi – a paradoxical city of grime and beauty. ‘May the seven saints continue to protect her,’ says Sascha Akhtar in a dedication.

The three stories are fascinating and very readable with strong, independent men and women fighting against the existences in which they find themselves and striving to discover ways of improving their lives. But the plots are there to carry the themes and it is those which stay in the memory. 

One example is the section called ‘Paani: Water’ which focuses on the issue of hydro-politics. Akram obtains employment as a manservant in a palatial house where he receives so much money he is able to send large amounts home to help support his family. He is responsible for overseeing many duties but what puzzles him is the fact that: 

:           Every four or five days, a white van pulled up at the house between 12 pm and 2 pm. Three men in blue shirts and trousers with name badges would wheel in a retinue of heavy, thick plastic barrels full of ‘purified’ water. They would make three trips, each one of them wheeling in three at a time.

This purified water is for the wealthy family only and there are barrels in every single room. When Akram persuades his employer to have all the servants tested, the results are shocking:

When the blood tests came back every single member of the domestic staff had some form of water-borne stomach illness from mild gastroenteritis to amoebic dysentery.

After this the servants are allowed and encouraged to drink as much boiled water as they wish – boiled water, not purified. It would cost too much, the employer says, to have filtered water for everyone.

Of Necessity and Wanting is a profound and thought-provoking book, rich with colour and compassion. I have long been an admirer of Sascha Akhtar’s poetry and it’s good to enjoy her journey into fiction. I’m looking forward to whatever she will write about next.

Mandy Pannett 22nd March 2023

Harald in Byzantium by Kevin Crossley-Holland Illustrations by Chris Riddell (Arc Publications)

Harald in Byzantium by Kevin Crossley-Holland Illustrations by Chris Riddell (Arc Publications)

These poems are ‘not narratives but revelations’ says the author, and this seems a perfect way to describe the light of insight and discovery that shines, momentarily, on the forgotten or unknown. Here are fragments, scraps of stories handed down, examples of warfare, leadership and love, contrasts between worlds in the north and in the south, all of which come together to reveal the connections and interdependence among men that are needed for life. ‘If one man breaks the shield-rampart,’ says the narrator, ‘all his companions suffer.’

Harald Hardrada, we are told, was the greatest warrior of his age, true to his Viking reputation for courage, ferocity and ambition for ‘the golden crown, hard-edged fame.’ Several poems end with words of defiance: 

‘I’ll brook no disobedience./None at all.’ 

‘I have no choice, only an imperative.’

‘Let me be blood and flames.’

Yet he is also a man of passion, capable of love if not fidelity. A beautiful woman can inspire him to lyrical, fervent outbursts:

            The delicate contraption of your right ankle,

            the downy crooks of your arms,

            your swan-neck …

                                    Dear Gods

            I who will rule

            the whole northern world …

            My head is thumping, my heart spinning

If needs must, he says, he will even take on the gods to alleviate his ‘torment’:

            Grant me one night 

            in your apple garden

            forever young

            and I will outdo the gods.

This is a slim pamphlet – 24 pages of poems and nearly all of them illustrated with drawings in black and white by Chris Riddell, each one complementing the mood of the poems. This is the quality that most appeals to me – the atmospheric combination of text and sketch that creates a world as the author imagines it, a world that is Viking, a harsh and brutal world of cold, wild seas where fate determines if a man shall live or die, enjoy freedom or live in exile and loneliness. 

Language, in Harald in Byzantium, creates the setting, is almost the setting itself. Kevin Crossley-Holland is skilful at blending a modern, colloquial style with kennings and phrases of the historical era. Some travellers, for example, are trying to escape destiny, their own ‘death-shadows’, a companion is described as a ‘blood friend’, Harald’s ‘dragon-prow’ is welcomed although his inner self yearns for ‘spirit-fruit’ and, of course, there is a raven, bird of death and doom,  that taunts Harald when he is trapped in ‘scorching wind from Africa … red dust whirling/ round me, red dust in my throat, my gut.’

A setting that is Norse – and yet with clear contemporary relevance. ‘This week another boatload of young bucks sailed in,’ says the narrator. ‘A tide of refugees… more, many more than shoals of herring in the fjord.’ Discussions follow as to the best way of dealing with the problem. ‘Stem the tide at source,’ says one, ‘meet them at the crossing-places/and cut off their right hands/and send them home.’ ‘Well,’ says another, we could ‘extend our borders’. Or, declares a thinker, we could let them know ‘our welcome will be strictly conditional.’

Harald in Byzantium is a varied and fascinating pamphlet that can be read at a sitting, dipped into, acted, or read aloud, enjoyed by all ages. A fine publication. 

Mandy Pannett 3rd March 2023

Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane) by Will Alexander (City Lights)

Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane) by Will Alexander (City Lights)

Like saxophonist John Coltrane, who this book is dedicated to, Will Alexander improvises his way through noise and chaos to explore the furthest reaches of his source material and thought process. And sometimes, although I love the late music of Coltrane, I can’t but help be reminded of Miles Davis’ retort in response to Coltrane’s extended soloing‘Why don’t you try taking the horn out of your mouth?’

The contradiction is that the lengthier poems here are the most successful, as they catch the reader up in extended riffs of ‘Language / as scaled erisma / as amplification that burns’ with energy, confusion and the ghost of incantatory poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Gil Scott Heron or The Last Poets whilst also drawing on the bewildering radical politics and mysticism of black artists such as Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton and Amiri Baraka.

Shorter poems, such as ‘Under Corporate Worship, reproduced here in its entirety, don’t cut it for me:

   being elliptically feigned
   tautological circumference

There’s not enough of it for it to establish a sound pattern or concept. The long works are often even more abstract (I hesitate to use that word, because of course, words always carry meaning[s], even when they are decontextualised or syntax is disrupted) but over a few pages one can start to grasp at ‘poetic current / not as inordinate savagery / but as refined alchemical emblem’ which works towards ‘mystical commencement’.

Alexander’s strength, beyond a clear freewheeling delight in language itself, is to reinvent or at least discuss spirituality by combining the vocabularies and ideas of cartography, science, nature and rhizomics, signs and symbols:

   I come not to ascribe or assassinate trans-regulation or intent
   but to subsist by vibration
   by hollow or vibrational design


   I articulate through fog

with the aim ‘to burn away the drought within thinking’.

It is a strange read, that mostly I can only start to apprehend; these are poems that grasp at enlightenment and imagery outside my experience or imagination. What is ‘expanded helipause’? What is the meaning or symbolism of ‘suns appearing above suns / ignited via the blue fragmentation that is grace’? Does the poet really partake in the ‘Phantom Inter-Dimensional Activity’ which is the title of one of his texts?

Sun Ra’s Arkestra would often dress in sci-fi versions of Egyptian robes, and appropriate both gospel and mystical texts and tunes within their music; their leader himself claimed to have been born on Jupiter before travelling through time and space to Earth. Many critics argued then and now that this was a kind of diversion tactic: critics and audiences were so busy being mystified by the weirdness of the visuals and the music that they forgot the band were Afro-Americans intent on fighting racism and injustice. 

This mix of race, technology, and metaphysics is often known as Afrofuturism. Alexander’s mix of mystical aspiration and ability to ‘blaze as spectral reasoning’ sits squarely in this lineage, ‘being praxis that magically emanates and heightens the zero field’. It is a challenging and exciting read

   that insists on startling & consequential contour
   so higher emptiness concurs
   not unlike a rhetoric that swarms with declivitous capacity
   having an explosively strange assessment of itself

This is poetry as thought, as visionary experience, as stormy epiphany and epiphanic storm, ‘where power evinces the limitless / the arcane appellation of itself’, in ‘realms where the mind fails to match itself’. It is a generous, bewildering outpouring of language and ideas, an echo of possibilities, explanations and declamation: raw, militant, energising poetry, ‘perhaps a deafening colloquy by quarrel’.

Rupert Loydell 2nd March 2023

On The Found by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

On The Found by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Mike Ferguson hits the found running in the sweet spot between traditional and digital culture, offering 68 witty and creative poems he has constructed or extracted from a tentative canon of the American novel. No waiting on the muse or bullshit about inspiration: Ferguson rolls his sleeves up and fills the bowl with text, mixes it up, adds something random, then abandons the recipe and shapes his work with the mind’s own cookie cutters.

Leave something behind on a recent trip? Fill out the lost property form to report what was lost and we’ll see if someone has turned it in. Make sure you have printed off leaflets and knocked on all the doors in your road, then make sure you’re certain that your original text was just that, not simply a rearrangement of other people’s words or phrases. I mean you can’t complain about losing what wasn’t yours in the first place, that simply wouldn’t be right.

‘The artist formerly known as “author,” therefore, does not, in the imaginary image of the divine creator, produce something out of nothing. She or he is always and already responding to the scene or culture in which one already finds oneself and is, for this reason, responsible only for the manner, method, and means of that particular response.’
     – David J. Gunkel, Of Remixology. Ethics and Aesthetics after Remix 

Found poetry is a simulator, a stimulator, with the world being viewed through any number of authors’ eyes. Ferguson uncover the mystery that lies within other fictions, secret texts and alternative readings, a census of misconceptions or, as one poem title puts it, ‘Our World Version’. Because this is how we navigate the world and words now, tripping over our own feet as we try to read our phones, watch a film, reply to emails, or drive the car listening to music in the wrong order and letting a machine instruct us on how to get to our destination. Poets usually find their poems in prose written by others.

‘Human behaviour / is poetry’ declares Ferguson via Salinger, or the other way round, which is why poetry is now like human behaviour: confused, bewildered, lost and immediate, as concerned with the now as the then, as engaged with the fragmented and momentary as longevity and big ideas. 

     a person who was

     ever confused
     will learn something

     when poetry is

Writers collect stuff people find; found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. Ezra Found can be visited in any industrial or residential building built or refurbished before the year 2000 but some missing people are never foundCollision investigators are appealing for information because it doesn’t rhyme, and research suggests that authors who sit for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity have a risk of dying similar to that posed by metaphor, assonance, scansion and postmodern theory. The found has been in long term decline since after the Second World War.

I found it difficult to find a way to convey my idea and work out how I would explain my poems. I found an enormous collection of language, paragraphs, punctuation and books to sift through. Clearly I wasn’t the only one looking to combine foraged materials with traditional techniques, seek the undiscovered, the classic and the contemporary,’ is the sort of thing Mike Ferguson might have said but didn’t.

He exists to educate, connect and inspire. He believes community and kindness are key ingredients and that poems are forged through the fire of conflict. He is ‘far out / in the / languorous / world’, knows that ‘Artists are / make-believe’. The author is yet to be formally identified but it is believed he is ‘disgracefully diffused’ and possesses ‘a migration of / voices’. His ‘Emptiness / is a guide to / inclusion’, his work ‘a mouthswarm / of the indescribable’. Found is the past tense and past participle of find.

You must report all found poems to the Local Authority warden service by Law. If you wish to keep hold of a found poem then this must be done with permission. We are champions of legendary forgotten makers, can literally find a needle in the haystack, especially if you tell us where it is. We are known to have found meaning anywhere, and make it our business to put your found writing online. ‘If you didn’t want me / I’d go nuts’.

Rupert Loydell 28th February 2023

Northwest Passages by Kate Flannery (Arroyo Seco Press)

Northwest Passages by Kate Flannery (Arroyo Seco Press)

Kate Flannery’s Northwest Passages is tinged with more than just the happy memories of a childhood world that she cannot go back to because she has grown and changed. Flannery grew up in Southwest Washington near Mt. St. Helens and much of the world that she knew as a child was obliterated in the volcanic eruption of 1980. It is gone in a permanent way that few of us can possibly understand, the forest razed, the mountain gone. It was a place for her of quiet forests that few people visited and of innocent play; however, in her memory it was isolated, and as the only girl in a family of boys and as a girl in the male dominated society of a logging town, it was a place where she had to find herself by herself. Her collection chronicles all of the complex feelings that she has about her home forest that is gone and her difficult childhood in tight, imagistic microflash essays, that place us emotionally in the world that she experienced.

The sense of how lonely and isolated she was flows through these stories. Not only was she the only girl, but she was by far the youngest person in her family. This was an isolated town with few people she might befriend. Her play then was often in imitation of her brothers, but the lessons have to be learned on her own. In ‘Before the Rain in a Western Red Cedar,’ she performs the coming of age ritual of climbing high into the trees, but she does it alone with only the story of her older siblings to guide her.

Like my brothers, I am pliable at nine years. I thread my way through the circling cedar branches, pulling up through the smallest spaces. Even from sixty feet high, I will not fall far if I lose a foothold or handhold. My tree will catch me. As I twist my way to the top, the trunk thins and turns greener . . . I begin to rock and sway in the building wind, as I had seen my brothers do (1)

This isolation is somehow meditative. She didn’t have brothers as her playmates, so she turned inward and observed the world closely, and thought deeply. And although there is no one her age, she is able to observe the older people of her world as they experienced the rituals of that world like funerals, dances, and recitals. She got to know someone named Harry Truman who chose death over leaving the base of Mt. St. Helens when he knew it was going to erupt. She was confidant to her mother and watcher of her neighbors whom she fears.

But this is not only a place of fear but a land of complex beauty as well, and her memories of it are sweet. In ‘Anything I Want above the Columbia River,’ she writes, “The clouds are racing high above the river. The winds coming from the Columbia Gorge, miles to the east, are fighting with the winds coming upriver from the ocean, miles to the west” (12). The winds work their way throughout this collection, swaying the treetops and creating private spaces for conversation with her mother even when they are outside. At one point, her mother sends her to a boarding school, but the narrator does not want to leave her beloved forests and rivers, “but my mother tells me they will all be there when I return” (12). That sense of loss and the pain of understanding impermanence is at the root of the collection’s sweetness. She loses all of it, everything that she loved at one time is now gone, but that makes the memories of her childhood world all the more magical. 

Northwest Passages is fascinating in that it explores a world that few knew and none can ever come to know now. It holds the same fascination for me as writings and art from Pompeii holds. I lived most of my life on the west coast of the United States, but this is as foreign a world to me as any other place on the planet. This is a discussion of a culture whose manners seem to be gone. As Flannery mourns some of them, she seems to acknowledge that a lot of those customs should have disappeared. She both misses and has escaped that world. There is so much meaning and complex emotion for such a short chapbook and that is what makes it so exceptionally powerful.

John Brantingham 26th February 2023

Strokes of Solace by Sanjeev Sethi (Classix)

Strokes of Solace by Sanjeev Sethi (Classix)

     Strokes of Solace is a remarkable collection of eighty-five concise and dense poems that involve the reader in a language space that challenges certainties and suggests simultaneous multi-layered thinking. The voice is strong and poetry is the protagonist, a medium Sethi employs to explore the essence of humanity as well as his own life experiences. The aphoristic style that he sometimes uses is poetic and challenging and reveals a skilful and innovative use of the form, a style that is personal and unique:

Happiness has hierarchies 

death is democratic.

Don’t love too much 

love correctly.

Surfeit never satisfies, 

it enlarges the exactness.       (‘Distich’)

Sethi conveys what he witnesses through complex metaphors and sometimes unusual language. Words such as zetetic, inveigle, epistaxis, omniety and many others used throughout the collection might surprise the reader and prompt a Google search; they may also intentionally confuse the reader, suggesting a different understanding and a flexible approach. The significance of words shifts, dissipates and digresses; the poems create a dissemination of meaning that recalls Derrida’s ideas in which meaning is not at the centre and every reading of a text allows alternative implications:

As inanition takes over

I withdraw into words. 

They inveigle me 

with their richness 

and resolve.          (‘Ana’)

Vocabulary as you and I 

understand it, dissipates.        (‘Subtext’)

    The context is therefore open and the significance is polysemic, changeable and in transformation. According to Derrida, dissemination ‘has the power […] to condense, while unwinding their web’. There is a free play of meanings in which the central authoritative source is lost and new alternative meanings are potentially acquired. This is what happens in Sethi’s poetry in a subtle, deft way; the search for meaning is relentless and yet unsettling.

    In this context, the poet takes some ‘solace’, or respite, from the emotional hardships of life in his language practices. The authenticity of communication is hard to attain; words conceal and explain at the same time in an ambiguous mode that might heal wounds or leave them open:

You let wounds stir-fry in your inner wok.

(‘In the Neighbourhood’)

[…] Words let 

up when wounds weep, hanging like

tousled passages of a soiled text.          (‘The Nut Graph’)

      Sethi’s attitude seems to be neutral rather than judgemental; he shows facts, expressing pieces of wisdom without making final statements. His words are always open to further explorations and wider views. His poems are widely published in renowned magazines and posted daily on Instagram and Twitter. Furthermore, his seven collections testify to his popularity, scholarly expertise and skilfulness in the use of semantic and syntactic structures. This collection has a particular focus on language, a language that does not allow labelling or ideologies to take root. His lines require that attention is given to every word, sound and even syllable to extract the sense and the pleasure of his verses. 

      Isolation and a sense of solitude create a privileged viewpoint from which Sethi observes and meditates upon the human condition and his own existence. Therefore, universality springs from the personal that questions the self without giving clear answers. Love does not seem to be an option; on the contrary, it is delusional and probably an utter illusion:

A shorthand 

of brisk emotions 

is this love?           (‘Snips’)

A bleak, hopeless perspective seems to doom our existence, ‘a bubble spread / nothingness’, in which ‘promise is like / an earworm’. Humankind therefore faces a constant challenge with language, a negotiation with words that deconstruct meanings and context. At the end of the collection, the poem ‘Nocturne’ summarises and expresses all these concepts in full:

Within an indicium 

of imperfections

we have to seek our peace.

If the search 

is only for fault lines

our chase

will never cease.

     We are in an endless search for meaning, essence and existence in which our essence is in our existence, as Jean-Paul Sartre remarks, saying that ‘existence precedes essence’. This existence is uncertain and sometimes dreamlike but is always focused on what it means to be human and how language makes our existence possible.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th February 2023

Knitting drum machines for exiled tongues by Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani-Radovani (Tears in the Fence) book launch

Knitting drum machines for exiled tongues by Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani-Radovani (Tears in the Fence) book launch

We are delighted to announce that the book launch of Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani’s Knitting drum machines for exiled tongues will take place

at Morocco Bound bookshop, 1A Morocco Street, Bermondsey, London SE1

3HB, on Thursday, 23rd February, from 7.00 pm.

The event has now ended.

It is possible to buy a copy of the book as part of the entry fee and collect it at the event. Please feel free to share the event with friends.

David Caddy will introduce the event. Jasmina will be reading from the book with Bridget Knapper, and in conversation with Professor Debra Kelly. 

Simon Collings in review of the book in Tears in the Fence 77 writes:

Many of our memories are linked to words. When we move to a new country and adopt a new language our memories retain traces of the earlier tongue, our brains recalling events in a different vocabulary and with a different syntax and sound-pattern. This shift of memory-language can prompt moments of forgetting, a sense of loss.  

In her poem ‘Vol interrompu’ (interrupted flight) Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, who is of mixed Algerian-French-Croatian heritage, writes of:

the breaking down
                of language
                            words, worlds
                            swirling in her mind


Vol interrompu’ is a poem about a childhood memory, a seabird seen one morning in Brussels from a school playground, the image inextricably linked to French sound-patterns. The words je (I) and jeux(games) echo each other when pronounced, an effect impossible to reproduce in English translation. Volé means stolen, the single/plural agreement a written though not a voiced distinction. Volé picks up sonically on vol in the title, and there is also a play in the poem on mouette (seagull) and muette (mute). The reactivation of the memory causes a momentary ‘anamnesia’, or ‘selective mutism’. The mind searches for the language, which is tied to the memory, the text ‘swirling’ across the page in an enactment of that process. Certain phrases in the poem are also echoed in Croatian. 

In addition to this sonic aspect of the work, Knitting drum machines for exiled tongues also has a strong visual dimension. Formal layout is intrinsic to our experience of Individual poems, as for example in the ‘swirling’ agglutination of words in ‘Vol interrompu’ quoted at the start of this review. The fragmenting text of the poem ‘Language loss’ is another example. Every poem in the book has a unique form, and alongside the poems there are photographs accompanied by brief fragments of text (the poet calls these ‘patterns’), and three graphic texts (called ‘tattoos’). These resemble street plans, psycho-geographic codifications of memories and places. 

David Caddy 19th February 2023

Alice in Venice by Ellis Sharp (Zoilus Press)

Alice in Venice by Ellis Sharp (Zoilus Press)

At the university where I work, I teach a module about writing back to, writing from, collaging, remix, writing prequels and sequels, collaboration and what one smart student called ‘breaking the rules using different rules’ (Oulipo games, processes and the like), so I am always interested to find new examples of texts I might be able to use. Ellis Sharp’s novella offers an intertextual engagement with Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, itself a version of a Daphne du Maurier short story. In 57 sections, most containing at least one photo as well as an often brief text, we follow Alice as she travels to Venice and visits Roeg’s film locations, taking photographs to document each one as she does so, as well as some of the statues, courtyards and buildings she encounters.

Sharp also offers the reader facts about the film, the cast, the director and du Maurier, as well as asides, interludes and diversions, many of these arising from Alice’s relationship to Alain, a Frenchman she encounters and has a relationship with. Alain (or is it Sharp or is it Alice?) presents himself as a spy, a drugs dealer, an assassin, a seller of erotic books; it remains unclear if we ever get the truth. In fact it is unclear if Alain even exists, because the final section informs us that on Alice’s ‘last day in the city they meet by chance, near the graves of Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge’. It is also the first time Alain is described, and having done so, Alice decides he is not her type and rebuffs his advances before taking a final snapshot.

In a kind of nod to the reader, the book closes with Alice listening to ‘All the tracks from Red‘ (which I took to be the King Crimson album but am informed by my daughter is more likely to be Taylor Swift’s; either way it’s an unusually specific reference) although ‘Her finger presses down on her favourite option: random shuffle.’ Is this an instruction to the reader that might help untangle the story or non-story they have just read through? Am I not noticing the kind of colour coding and web of associative connections and connotations that Roeg used to underpin his film? Water, photography, red and blue, glass, bridges, Venice itself, even the title of the wife’s book in the opening montage – The Fragile Geometry of Space, are filmed (according to Mark Sanderson’s BFI study of Don’t Look Now) in a way that ‘creates a restless atmosphere of perpetual motion which is occasionally broken up by deliberate fragmentation: jagged editing and fractured time.’ 

Careful re-reading suggests that Sharp is not working in such a way, although he is interested in moments, place(s) and people’s responses to and memories of them. Also how Roeg’s film, Alice’s trip, her imaginary (?) relationship with Alain, and Sharp’s and the reader’s own depictions and knowledge of Venice intersect. There is a kind of absence throughout the book, perhaps highlighting missing rather than fractured time. In addition to Alain’s insubstantiality, or maybe through his ventriloquised and disembodied voice, we are informed that ‘”William Shakespeare. Jane Austen. Joseph Conrad. William Faulkner Malcolm Lowry. George Orwell. Jim Thompson. So many great writers never went to Venice. Not even once.”‘

And? What is the reader, let alone Alice, who I assume to the unnamed recipient of this spoken statement, to make of this? How many hundreds or thousands of other great writers didn’t go to Venice? Sharp’s apparent justification for this kind of digression, irrelevancy or provocation appears at the end of the same section: ‘”Improvisation. A narrative shaped like life itself by chance. The intrusion of the random.” “Collage. All that we have lost.” “We?” “Oui.”‘

Alice is aware of other things that are lost. She ‘feels as if she’s wandered into Roeg’s film, with everyone having just left the scene’. They have not just left, and the film – itself a mediated and constructed fiction – remains as a trace of their presence, even if ‘the differences are small’ when she finds the locations she is looking for. She is also aware that ‘The presentation of the facts […] is made in terms of textual references, signatures upon documents, their dates, and the idiom in which the documents were written.’ She is discussing Ezra Pound’s Cantos, but it is another idea that may help the reader understand what is going on; elsewhere, ‘Alice wonders: what did Nic Roeg read about Venice, beforehand? Did he dip into James Morris’s book?’ Is this a genuine question about Roeg and the research he undertook, or a hint to the reader that Morris’ book is a key text for understanding Venice? Is the strangely out-of-context exclamation ‘”Mind the volcano!”‘ a nod to Malcolm Lowry, who is namechecked in that list of authors who didn’t visit Venice?

Perhaps I am over-thinking the whole thing? Or perhaps if I don’t pursue these lines of thought I may end up in ‘The Museum of Extinguished Possibilities’ that is mentioned in an earlier chapter, which cleverly presents the end, or at least an end, to Alice’s story a third of the way into the book. Perhaps there is a ‘right sequence’ according to the norms of chronology and narrative for this book’s sections? I think I prefer it as it is: after all, parataxis, chance and fragmentation are how many of us experience the world, and like our reading to reflect that.

There is something else puzzling though. On the strength of Alice in Venice I bought Sharp’s Sharply Critical, a book of selected reviews and essays previously published on his blogs. I haven’t read it all yet, but as well as seemingly being obsessed by Ian McEwan and Zionist/Israeli politics, Sharp is surprisingly dismissive of the experimental lineage I would have expected him to acknowledge and claim for his own. But no, Kurt Vonnegut, Angela Carter and Ann Quin all get a good critical kicking, with the last’s superb novel, Tripticks, being written off as ‘a novel of image and information overload, but the images and the information lack depth or meaning.’

This either means Sharp is confident that Alice in Venice is full of depth and meaning, and/or that what the blurb calls a ‘strange work’ which ‘is as complex as a reconstructed mosaic’ is working differently with image and information. Or maybe Sharp is convinc­ed that he­­ presents enough information to the reader for them to construct a story or narrative? After all, the book tells us on page 94, ‘Nothing has happened yet’, and that ‘what happens – has happened – can never be known.’ Perhaps it never will be, although even as ‘Everything changes, Venice endures.’

Rupert Loydell 15th February 2023

Tears in the Fence 77 is out!

Tears in the Fence 77 is out!

Tears in the Fence 77 is now available at and features poetry, prose poetry, translations, creative non-fiction and fiction by Lucy Ingrams, Jane Wheeler, Eliza O’Toole,  Steve Spence, Peter Larkin, David Miller, Beth Davyson, Benjamin Larner, Louise Buchler, Isobel Williams, Glenn Hubbard, Hanne Bramness translated by Anna Reckin, Daniela Esposito, Simon Collings, Poonam Jain, Giles Goodland, Michael Farrell, Richard Foreman, Cole Swenson, Lesley Burt, Jeremy Hilton, Greg Bright, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, John Freeman, Caroline Maldonado, Rosemarie Corlett, Robert Hamberger, Alicia Byrne Keane , Olivia Tuck, Penny Hope, Mary Leader, Christine Knight, Ann Pelletier-Topping, Jennie E. Owen, Natalie Crick, Sian Astor-Lewis, Laura Mullen, Gwen Sayers, Kevin Higgins and Graham Mort.

The critical section consists of the Editorial by David Caddy, Letters to the Editor by Andrew Duncan, Tim Allen, Jeremy Hilton and David Pollard, Peter Larkin on Rewilding the Expressive: a Poetic Strategy, Andrew Duncan on Peter Finch, David Pollard on Patricia McCarthy, Simon Collings on Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani,  Ben Philipps on Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Olivia Tuck on Linda Collins, Will Fleming on Maurice Scully, Louise Buchler on Caitlin Stobie, Mark Wilson on Sandeep Parmar, Simon Collings on Stephen Watts, Martin Stannard on Julia Rose Lewis & Nathan Hyland Walker, Barbara Bridger on Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Claire Booker on David Pollard, Gisele Parnall on Paul Eric Howlett, Louise Buchler on Rebecca May Johnson, Simon Jenner on Steve Spence and Andrew Martin, Andrew Duncan on Philip Pacey, Mandy Pannett on Seán Street, Morag Kiziewicz’s  Electric Blue 12 and Notes On Contributors. 

Ghost Methods by Siofra McSherry (Broken Sleep Books)

Ghost Methods by Siofra McSherry (Broken Sleep Books)

The ghost in the title of this slim pamphlet (37 pages including prelims and a foreword) is the shade of poet Sean Bonney, who was a friend and colleague of McSherry. Many of these poems write back to or are haunted by Bonney, and the best poem, or sequence of poems, in the book is ‘A Series of Posthumous Discourses with Sean Bonney’, which does exactly what it says.

Bonney’s first pamphlet was a scrappy rebellious free verse affair, wrapped in a bright pink cover, entitled Marijuana in the Breadbin. After some further pamphlets from fugitive small presses Salt offered up Pitch Blade Control, and although the alt.publishing continued, Letters Against the Firmament, a surprising choicefrom Enitharmon Press, established Bonney as a revolutionary, considered and angry writer. This was reinforced by the online publication of a Selected Writing (All This Burning, Ill Will Editions) and the analogue volume Our Death from Commune Editions, which confirmed Bonney as a political writer for our time, seemingly as happy on the barricades as within the confines of a paperback book.

McSherry addresses Bonney in various ways and in various places. She adopts his shouty straightforwardness (‘Bonney is fucking dead’), discusses his politics:

   I was just sitting here thinking of you
   and how from a certain perspective society is nothing but the interaction of
   planes of power
   although that’s the kind of perspective that can kills us and in articular you

and welcomes even her privacy to be haunted:

   I welcome your transparent interruptions
   you may peep and glimmer away

The four poems in ‘A Series…’ are unsettled, emotional and yet lucid reflections which move towards a calming acceptance of death and loss, tempered slightly by the idea of the author leaving their writing behind:

   and I am here, I am here, I am still here 
   filling this page with lines that maybe someone somewhere will read
   and know that even so you can hunker down if you want to
   you can write and (same thing) survive

The rest of the poetry in this collection feels less engaged with Bonney, although he lurks as a presence throughout. ‘Zonbi’ plays with the idea of persistence and wished-for resurrection in its discussion of light:

   Light requires no reason to go on,
   so why should you? Get up from the ground

whilst ‘Hamlet V:1’ deconstructs and revisions Shakespeare to focus on the fact that ‘people can get used to anything, / perhaps even knowing that we’ll die.’ Other texts focus on memory, giving blood (a long poem awkwardly printed sideways), ideas of home and transience, whilst ‘A Discourse’ seems to be the poet talking to herself. There is also an autumnal confession that the narrator ‘fell in love with Death’, although at the end of the poem ‘Death quietly drowns.’

If there’s a echo of Anne Sexton in McSherry ‘s report that ‘Wide-eyed Death hovered helplessly by my side’ and that ‘Death has no heart’, all the poems here evidence an ongoing engagement with both Death, personified and abstract, and Bonney himself. McSherry embraces and explores loss, grieving for ‘the names, the many names / my mouth will never form again’, and allows a lover’s words to ‘fall on me in place of you’. There is something very moving and resilient about facing up to absence, ‘star[ing] up into endless night’, whilst reasserting the persistence of poetry in the word.

Rupert Loydell 11th February 2023

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