RSS Feed

Category Archives: Books

Knitting Drum Machines For Exiled Tongues by Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani is out!

Knitting Drum Machines For Exiled Tongues by Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani is out!

Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani’s ground-breaking poetry collection Knitting drum machines for exiled
tongues 
presents the reader with thirty-five multilingual poems in English, French and Croatian structurally interwoven with thirteen visual-textual fragments and three poems-tattoos or “tattooed” drawings through the narrative device of “enchâssement” (embedding). Using the universal languages of the heart / love / music / rhythm the author seamlessly transgresses borders and provides us with a poignant, evocative, and fully inclusive, immersive experience. The recurring tropes of falling, absence, and loss, and the evocation of a fourth “shadow language” signify the narrator’s displacement from ‘home’ and language, whilst at the same time questioning the identity discourses of nostalgia, belonging and exile. Here, the central image of the “knitting drum machines for exiled tongues” can be interpreted both as an innovative artistic practice allowing the revival of lost and / or exiled languages, and as an enabling device for the (re-)coding of multilingual language patterns in which “poetry of the mind breaks free”.

A QR code included in the book invites the reader to access additional content related to the Knitting drum machines for exiled tongues collection such as a glossary, visual, and audio sources.

The book is available to buy on the Tears in the Fence website through the Pay / Subscribe / Donate page (https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward/).

“In Knitting Drum Machines for Exiled Tongues, ‘harmonies’ are ‘sounding out’ spectrums of sonic frequencies, attempting to connect self/others. Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani brilliantly raises the old sword of the bard battling both the silences within herself and which plague us all – the ‘mutisms’ at the ‘edges’, our own wilderness being contained. The poet stretches through the unhearable, unsayable, claims ‘je capte’ ‘kapetan bez broda’ – but then leaves us a blank void to be filled in. That space is the remarkable work waiting here for readers to respond to, to find our ‘futures possible’ where ‘optimism’ is that ‘impossibility of closed passage’ of which she writes so eloquently.”

Jennifer K. Dick, author of, most recently, That Which I Touch Has No Name, 2022

30th September 2022

A Walk in Deep Time by Morag Smyth (moragsmyth.co.uk)

A Walk in Deep Time by Morag Smyth (moragsmyth.co.uk)

The title of this book, ‘A Walk in Deep Time’, is key to its ethos. Tree-like, it is rooted in the ‘restlessness of earth’, in the geology of soil and water and rock, in an ancient, ancestral land that ‘sometimes remembers’, a land whose air and light are linked to the cellular structure of living things, ‘to who and what we are.’ 

‘I was born on a fault line on a brilliant summer’s day’ is the opening statement by the author who goes on to describe how the first sound she heard was the river, ‘a constant source that held me to this place, this time, this moment.’ From an early age she took pleasure in listening to the ground, to the ’creaking and shifting of things’ which created ‘a sense of something universal’ together with an awareness that humankind is ‘transient, mere flickers or impressions on the land on which we stand.’ There are many explorations in A Walk in Deep Time – geographical, philosophical, and personal – but throughout all the changes of time and events there is ‘a deeply connected bond to place’.

The book is rich in detail and anecdote. I had not realised that a memoir could be such a page turner and impossible to put down. Morag Smyth conveys so clearly the joy of a childhood that valued rural life, freedom and play and allowed a ‘strong imaginary world’ to develop in a sensitive child with a capacity for daydreaming and everything that was other worldly. I identified so strongly with the misery caused by some of the schools she attended that I could willingly have broken down the restrictive walls and smashed the high windows that blocked her view of the sky.

Fortunately, the damage did not cause enduring harm to the child’s ‘big dreams’, to her love of rich colour and design, to fabrics and off-cuts that were like treasures and ‘little jewels’.  Creativity could still be explored through art, painting, dancing and music.  When Morag became a student at Chesterfield College of Art, sharing a sense of adventure with four close friends and relishing her involvement in student protests, she describes herself as ‘a bottle of champagne that had been corked up for too long.’

This vivacity and sense of delight continues throughout the whole of A Walk in Time although, of course, this is an account of a life with all its accompanying problems and grievances, its losses and heartaches, its failures and disappointments. There is the intensity of the feminist struggle to give women a voice and a role and there is the frustration of an educational system that refused for years to make allowance for differences, to recognise there are many ways of learning. But the book is a ‘walk’, an exploration, and there are meetings with well-known people like Denise Levertov and John Cooper Clarke, there are festivals with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac. A fascinating richness of colour.

A Walk in Deep Time deserves to be widely read. It must be widely read not only because it is so readable but because of its motivation, its rationale. The book ends with a statement and a plea:

‘We humans are custodians … On a long long scale our existence is just seconds. Our survival depends on improving our relationship with each other, the earth and ourselves. Each of us walks in deep time – each walk is briefer than an outbreath and each …is important, valuable and eternal.’

The book is available from leading booksellers.  

Mandy Pannett 28th September 2022

La Loba Speaks For Wolf by Susan Taylor (Burning Eye Books)

La Loba Speaks For Wolf by Susan Taylor (Burning Eye Books)

Burning Eye Books are a Bristol based setup that seem mainly in business to produce written documentation of Performance Poetry and Performance Poets. This is probably not an entirely accurate description but my limited engagement with these publications would seem to suggest this is largely the case. Susan Taylor is an accomplished poet (she has produced around ten books, many of these with South West publishers) who combines written scripts with ‘spoken word’ performances. Her material is not always the sort of poetry that I find most interesting but I was taken with the subject in this case as I know she has performed some of these poems and this is where it can come alive. On reading this collection I’ve come to the conclusion that although the poems do work ‘on the page’ they are essentially a prompt for a live performance and I’m looking forward to hearing them ‘in situ’ so to speak.

          The Song Beneath the Song

          Come hear the song La Loba sings –

          A song she sings, so mountains ring

          And as they ring, they rearrange

          The rising wind that drives all change.

          It was her voice out on the air

          That caused a wolf to leap at her,

          Though not to harm a hair of her,

          But just to be in care of her.

          The wolf returns to mountainside,

          He and La Loba, side by side.

          Protective charms in Loba’s arms

          Transcend the harm beneath the harms.

          Her spirit lights on butterflytes,

          Calls up the stream beneath the stream.

          The blue and green of Gaia’s scheme

          Empowers the dream beneath the dream.

          Come here the song the lobos sing –

          The song they sing, so mountains ring

          And as they ring, they rearrange

          The wind beneath the winds of change.

There’s a concern with ecology here which is something central to Taylor’s poetry and is in tune with a lot of current thinking about environmental issues and rewilding. The regular rhythms may feel deceptively simple but they have a spell-like influence which carries throughout the collection. There are a variety of formal devices and there’s also a mix of information and intoxicating repetition which I imagine comes across even more strongly ‘in performance.’ From ‘Wolven’ we get the following:

          Only wolf

          nails it

          in high flying notes,

          igniting

          the ashen face of Venus.

          To howl wolven,

          howl for joy

          and the wonder of being

          a link of sound

          between earth and sky.

     There may be something predictable and comforting about these verses but they are also skilful, challenging and imaginative. I’m slightly reminded here of Richard Price’s The Owner of the Sea: 3 Inuit Stories Retold which touches on similar issues and themes if in a more scatological framework. La Loba Speaks for Wolf includes an introduction which suggests a context which is part lament, part mythology and part science-based.

Steve Spence 14th September 2022

Fool’s Paradise by Zoe Brooks (Black Eyes Publishing)

Fool’s Paradise by Zoe Brooks (Black Eyes Publishing)

This unusual work has had a leisurely path to print. Written after a visit to Prague in 1990, two extracts were published (in Aquarius, no less) in 1992. Twenty years later it appeared as a self-produced e-book. Now, after ten more years and on the heels of its author’s similarly slow-arriving but sporadically awesome short-poem collection (Owl Unbound), it’s finally made it out. 

It’s ‘a mystical poem for voices’, or a verse radio play. Three unnamed travellers start their journey at a gibbet and so may be newly executed – or not. A riddling Fool with his dog ‘gather[s] their shadows’ and ‘take[s] them to be cleaned’. He uses a skull as a glove-puppet. ‘Your way is down,’ he says, so he may be a courier demon – or not. Traveller 2 says, ‘It was your country which sold mine/ for a few years’ peace’, which could refer to Chamberlain at Munich. Or not. They are left in a city where Traveller 1 loses a notepad (‘it was my ladder out’) and they tour a church at some length. All at once the Fool is surreally on trial:

            Man: […] You stand falsely accused 
                             that you did steal the throats of birds
                             and placed milk upon the housewife’s lips.
                             that you did upon such and such a day
                             destroy the fabric of the world
                             and wore a hat of many colours.

Then he has been executed, and the travellers are left disorientated. Traveller 2 meets capitalized Woman. The others find the dog, who is carrying his master’s bones. The Fool himself reappears and leads them all through a museum where in a Dantesque moment they see ‘the man who held the world in chains/ […], who ‘weeps/ for paintings he did not paint,’ and may be Hitler. Or, of course, not. After which they are mysteriously restored, like tourists at the end of an ersatz ‘experience’, to the outdoors and a square where they can have coffee. 

The strange, orphic poem-world has gibbets but also photographs and lightbulbs. The characters similarly mix archaic diction with modern idiom, comedy with sonority, and verse with prose, song, nursery-rhyme and puppet-play. There are folklore motifs, Jungian archetypes and, as if the ambience weren’t dreamlike enough, more dreaming inside the narrative. Primary allusions are to the Bible, especially the Passion, and Bulgakov, though the numinousness, oneiricism and episodic composition made me think mostly of late Strindberg. The bathetic café-ending, even so, does suggest a kind of shaggy-dog-style cosmic joke. 

The episodes often have arresting moments: I liked the idea that ‘Hell/ is a museum’, with the sense that time there has stopped and its denizens are either guides or exhibits. And the Fool’s trial scene is a mini-masterpiece of sinister absurdism:

                      Man: How do you answer these charges?
                      Fool: I am falsely accused.
                      Man: Then you are falsely condemned.

There’s also a Youtube clip of the poet herself reading a section, where the fine judgement of the line-endings becomes salient in a way not always clear from silent reading. Zoe Brooks is one of those talented poets of ‘early promise’ who sidestepped to prose and seems only now to be compiling and releasing her old stuff. It’ll be interesting to see what newer work is in the offing.

Guy Russell 9th September 2022

The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose by Franca Mancinelli Translated by John Taylor (Bitter Oleander)

The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose by Franca Mancinelli Translated by John Taylor (Bitter Oleander)

The Bitter Oleander Press have already published two books by Franca Mancinelli, a book of prose poetry and another of poetry, both translated into English by John Taylor, and this paperback of prose, poetic prose and poetics will only add to the evidence of Mancinelli as a major contemporary Italian writer.

The short prose which makes up the first section of the book is a surprising mix of the romantic, personal and gently shocking. Childhood memories and fairy stories turn into stories with corpses, frozen tears which form stalactites in the eyes, blood and portentous signs. Yet these are deftly written, engaging and lucid tales, written with an accomplishment and flair that does not linger on the darkness but works to produce worlds of magic and light, and of promise, even when things seem grim. Here’s the end of ‘Walls, Rubble’, a story of claustrophobia, paranoia and ‘not feeling at home’: ‘I believe this space will collapse: a cataclysm will fall on this apartment. I will live under the rubble in an air gap, until I reemerge, come back out free.’

If there’s a problem with this I might challenge the vague use of the word ‘free’, which is in sharp contrast to the physical and emotional realities Mancinelli uses elsewhere in this piece. It’s a problem I have later on in the book when she addresses the topic of poetry, but first there is a selection of what I take to be non-fiction pieces.

There are descriptive yet still personal responses to the hills, cities, the beach, Milan Central Station, along with a meditation on her given name Maria, which the author has deleted from her writing name. Physical description, memories, geography and the imaginary coalesce into vivid moments and portraits of place, with a final, lengthier piece, ‘Living in the Ideal City: Fragments in the Form of a Vision’, emerging from contemplation of an unsigned painting in the Ducal Palace of Urbino. Again, there are some vague phrases I would question, such as ‘unstitched by wide rips of emptiness’ as part of a response to having her backpack stolen at the station. The same story, early on, also uses the phrase ‘[t]he law was to go, to follow the train timetable, the platform’, which I wonder might work better as ‘the rule’ rather than the (I assume) literal translation of ‘law’?

As I get older I am more and more fascinated by how others write poetry, and their creative process. Mancinelli’s ideas are no exception, although at times I almost shouted aloud at some of her romantic notions of what poetry is! (I accept I tend to have a reductionist approach that starts from the notion of text and language as something to build, remix and collage with/from, rather than any initial desire of self-expression or shared emotion.)

Yet, we share many traits. I have never been taken for a traffic warden, but I too stop and make notes in the street (and elsewhere), just as Mancinelli does in ‘Keeping Watch’; and I like her down to earth summary here: ‘I am making a report, and delivering it.’ I also understand the confusion and sense of being lost as one composes, shapes and edits a poem, but I reject the idea that ‘poetry is a voice that passes through us’ or the idea that she has ‘caught something’, both of which seem like a refusal to take responsibility for what has been written. Neither, for me, is poetry rooted in my sense of bodily self or ‘a practice of daily salvation’; and I do not believe that ‘[i]t is the forceful truth of an experience that generates poetic language.’ I like it, however, when she writes of ‘broken sentences’, ‘fragments’, ‘disorientation’ and ‘other meanings’, although I do not believe poetry is anything to do with ‘salvation’ or ‘transcendence’: we experience and describe the world through language, and it is language we use to make poetry (and other writing) from. It’s good, however, to be challenged and engage with what other authors think.

Taylor, in an intriguing ‘Postface’, considers Mancinelli’s writing with regard to ‘dualities of flux and the search for stability, using ideas of home and homelessness, place/space and elsewhere, highlighting the biographical, the physical body and notions of a more spiritual or metaphysical self’, but also a more ‘existential dilemma’ and ‘ontological resonance’ dependent upon the invisible. He also unpicks the idea of the book’s title, quoting the author, who explains that it ‘is a place steeped in the memory of childhood, whose boundaries have blurred over time, and at the same time it is the space of writing […]’. The butterflies of childhood have long faded and turned to dust, but Mancinelli’s desire to make words live and fly again, informs her strange and original writing that evidence traces of both her and our being.

Rupert Loydell  7th September 2022

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

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

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

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

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

            the woman is the container’s part

            on her head a yellow snapped helmet

            the channels crackle outside

            squirming as a maze

            not every one of them

            gets back inside the body

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

Pippa Little 31st August 2022

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

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

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

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

a spit with another village stabs the sea 

         dark and light – the straight horizon 

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

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

a scene interested in movement on calm water 

       on people who pass on the shoreline path

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

in a quiet scene where nothing much 

happens                                                             (‘Mitsuke – 28th Station’)

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

an idyll only in its stillness 

            that pretends movement

(‘Arai – 31st Station’)

             the profile of Mount Fuji 

a contradiction ignored 

                  its minimal reality 

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

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

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

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 27th August 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Even the words of ordinary, 

everyday things are beginning to fail you now

like old labels that come unstuck

and get muddled beyond recall.

I do my best to help you, 

as together we puzzle out

what exactly it is you mean.

[…]

Your periphrases, though accurate enough, 

are somehow beside the point.

“The thing that holds water,” you say,

I lamely render as “jug”, 

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

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

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

Even after I knew you’d gone, 

it was hard to believe you weren’t there – 

your hand still warm in mine, 

despite the room’s mortuary chill.

(‘Opening the Window the Night You Died’)

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

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 24th August 2022

Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning (Parthian Books)

Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning (Parthian Books)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rupert Loydell 11th August 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

   It rises up like a head,
   the lopped-off head of a vagrant.
   It utters words from the beyond
   once, twice, and for the third time:
   I AM THE FLYING HEAD!
   […]
   Are you devouring TV soaps?
   You gaze at dragons behind the glass!
   […]
   I AM THE FLYING HEAD!
   Remember you can’t hide anywhere!
   […]
   I AM THE FLYING HEAD!
   I AM THE HE AD FLY
   ING HE AD I 
   INGHEA I AM
   AYO AY O
      (‘From Genesis of the Flying Head’)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rupert Loydell 9th August 2022

%d bloggers like this: