RSS Feed

Category Archives: Books

Kelptown by Carol Watts (Shearsman Books)

Kelptown by Carol Watts (Shearsman Books)

Kemptown in Brighton is the point of departure for Kelptown, in which Carol Watts studies and investigates the effects of what we have lost because of global warming, a change in climate conditions and the consequent lack of connections with nature. The language of the poems has a fragmented quality that is emphasised by deliberately hallucinatory links that express the dire situation we are experiencing today. The picture of the spinach leaf with beating blood cells on the cover of the book symbolises this connection between human and nature that should be re-established to revitalise our world in a more hopeful vision.

     The collection is divided into four parts that trace a journey from observation and witnessing and apocalyptic descriptions of a world drowning in rising tides and burning forest fires to possible alternatives of ‘DeExtinction’ and community projects. This is not only a way to take care of the environment but also a practice that merges human and natural worlds in an empathy that might guarantee life to future generations. This serious vision needs urgent solutions, as Greta Thunberg remarks in her speeches collected in her book, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. We seem to be blind to nature, and putting it first again might be the solution to environmental threats, as botanists and biology educators such as Susanna Grant, James Wandersee, Elisabeth Schussler and Dennis Martinez state. The relationship with nature that the poet describes aims for the level of equality that existed in the primordial indigenous world. As Rachel Carson observes in Man’s War Against Nature, published in 1962, the idyllic fruitful countryside suddenly changed: ‘mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death.’ What Carson described in her book were the effects of chemical pollution, but a more lasting and durable process is exposed and explored in Watts’s poems. Since the 1960s the situation involving global warming, sea and air pollution and the waste production of the so-called civilised world has grown and worsened, causing the opposing calamities of floods and fires.

     In Watts’s poems, death looms; it ‘crowns this day […] catastrophes approach’ and are out of our control. Loss is at the heart of this situation and we need to re-enter our community and accept mutations to envisage possible alternatives:

ghost pulse    miniature scale

warning glitch    grief penumbra

airborne    a dream of fireflies

lost to colder climates

extinguishings at dusk    ash lit

border crossing    nocturnal

(‘Disappearances’)

     The fragmented discourses of Watts’s lines emphasise this absence, a loss we need to bridge to reach the DeExtinction she analyses in the last section of the collection. Her poems are in various forms and include personal artwork (for example, T.R.E.E., Total Rare Earth Elements) such as sketches, photos and responses to music, such as ‘Life Scores’, which was created in collaboration with the composer Dave Maric. 

This enriching collection has a complex, wide range of references that also include writers such as Emily Dickinson, Ovid, Pablo Neruda, William Blake and Andrew Marvell, and yet it addresses the major issues of today’s society in a simple way. The poet suggests that this time of loss can be a time of witnessing and exploration, an opportunity to search for and reach the essence of our being. The different moments are caught and described in their shifting temporality, in their minimal simplicity; they form revitalised life in the kelp forest that, like a reef, protects our shores, or in the rocks, trees, wildflowers and plants thriving in the countryside. The ‘ants, toiling butterflies, pollen rising in clouds’ confirm how nature renews relentlessly, that ‘No one dies out, but they enter community’, a statement that confirms a presence despite the loss.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 7th October 2021

Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press)

Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press)

The enthralling collection Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo cleverly combines form and content in hybrid structures in which the horizontal lines intersect with a vertical reading. This form allows different possibilities that coexist at physical and conceptual levels. The poems are also beautifully illustrated by Chloe Bonfield, though they were not created in collaboration with the artist. In her previous works, Tarlo collaborated with many artists. For example, in the exhibition ‘A Fine Day for Seeing’ at Southwark Park Galleries she worked with Judith Tucker in reference to the artwork ‘Dark marsh: silvered out’ (2021) in relation to her poem ‘Winter Saltwort’. The illustrations in this collection strongly express the essentiality of the writings, whose style is a minimalist one:

cut flowers why would they when

it came to it         lasting longer

long days             before dawn sees

a fair light            crows & robins upright

on the wall           look out, learn to travel in

deep time             blood fish & bone, find

new ventures        prepare, parse, prey for

vegetables

The poem can be read horizontally and the part on the left vertically as well, which is reminiscent of a mesostic or of a wordplay. This form gives the lyric a structure that is both open and closed that is reflected in the illustrations too. In fact, some of the pictures have geometrical closed shapes with grids and dots of sorts symbolising flower shapes, while others are delicately sketched minerals or barely traced wall structures that are open to multiple interpretations by the viewer.

The collection is divided into four parts, each featuring one of the four seasons, though this division is not especially strict. The sequences are more linked to the long-term practice of daily observation and diary annotations, with particular attention given to the weirdness and unpredictability of everyday events. The tone is not autobiographical, and the attention is on feelings. The language is mostly expressed using a tangential view that suggests rather than states:

they got darker than he meant them to

bleeding            into body, blurring into

portal                 light lost – Fall maybe or

out of                 all Four Seasons together

art scene             people can stand anything

these days          more than cube, depth

frame or             field could interiorise

internalise

The floral aspect could also be a reference to botanical catalogues and old prints of flowers and seeds such as the ones conserved at the British Library and the Natural History Museum in London. The body is a recurring image of loss and regaining, sometimes abused but at other times cherished and always explored in its diverse aspects. Tarlo therefore plays around with cut flowers, wildflowers, flowers in greenhouses and in garden centres, and city flowers that trigger ‘PAIN        ANXIETY  FERTILITY/WELL        BEING STRESS’. Cutting flowers could also be a reference to cutting living things, cutting lines off and to the practice of flower arranging and making decorations out of flowers, hobbies often associated with women. The changing of seasons, weather conditions and situations the poet explores suggest a changing of mind that subtly comments on the status quo. This is especially clear in the use of apparently isolated words listed in the left vertical part of the poems. These lines express political connections, for example to Syria, environmental concerns and concerns about violence against women. Therefore, the collection patiently traces a detailed quotidian observation of ordinary life with an eye on global issues. Different possibilities coexist in a comprehensive and yet fragmented vision that might be unsettling but is also illuminating. This view is skilfully expressed both in the structure and in the imageries and language of the poems and is exquisitely emphasised by the illustrations. Tarlo gives a unique interpretation of a botanical reality that is profoundly human and, at the same time, intensely empathetic towards nature.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 4th October 2021

The Daedalus Files by Mandy Pannett (SPM Publications)

The Daedalus Files by Mandy Pannett (SPM Publications)

One of the most dramatic and controversial myths is revisited and thoughtfully explored in Mandy Pannett’s The Daedalus Files. The roles of the actors in the story are investigated in the poems, from that of Daedalus, the maker of the labyrinth, to that of his son Icarus, who was the result of Daedalus’s marriage to a slave called Naucrate. Icarus later dies while he is trying to escape, falling from the sky into the Aegean Sea. The role of the monster, the Minotaur, is also explored in the poems; it was created following a sexual encounter between the adulteress queen, Pasiphaë, and the sacred white bull, a present from Poseidon to the king, Minos. Finally, the role of Theseus, the hero, is examined; his victory is tightly linked to the clever tricks of Ariadne, whom he eventually abandons on the island of Naxos. Death is the constant threat that is present in the centre of the labyrinth, where the monster is imprisoned and where seven Athenian boys and seven girls are sacrificed each year to its hunger and lust. 

Symbolic meanings unfold and overlap in this myth, following the meandering turns of the labyrinth, such as death and renewal, the search for identity and the encounter with otherness, as Kerényi states in his seminal book on the labyrinth. Borges, in his poem ‘The Labyrinth’, expresses the loneliness, boredom and frightening aspects of the place where otherness is present and absent at the same time. It is a search for meaning that is never definitely achieved; on the contrary, it is always postponed. The centre is a loss, an empty space where the monster waits, and going back to that space by following Ariadne’s flaxen thread does not redeem the hero. The contact with the mystery of the labyrinth, or a supposed sacred centre, does not give answers but only silence. However, defeating the monster and returning is Theseus’s goal that implies courage but also ruthlessness and eventually betrayal.

Pannett highlights this signum contradictionis implied in the labyrinth and in the myth, for example in the figure of the Minotaur, who was once a tender calf ‘cradled on his mother’s knee.’ Nevertheless, its brutality and ferocity have no reason, and only language, poetic language, can try to make sense of this violence and successive unfaithfulness. The poems analyse and question the myth connecting the story to the present situation of danger and displacement experienced by people fleeing from conflicts and persecutions, people in exile. It is a ferocious journey, as Pannett evokes in ‘Memo’, describing it as ‘Cramping. Claustrophobic. No air.’ In the foreword she recalls how her poems were inspired by the fall of Icarus and the arrival of refugees from Syria on the Greek island of Tilos, where she was staying at the time. Escaping and finding a way out towards salvation are the objectives that are eventually contradicted by the ending. Icarus dies and Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus, the ‘faithless lover’. Therefore, the solutions are partial and temporary; they need to be renegotiated each time and loss is inevitable. The narrative of the myth is rewritten in Pannett’s poems in a constant resignification that evolves in an exploration using language. The process is emphasised in impeccable lines that develop all these threads.

The myth remains a mystery because the different actors never disclose their secrets; loss and betrayal loom at the end of the story. Daedalus the maker, the craftsman, sculptor and architect pushed the boundaries of human limitations with tragic consequences. The poet questions his inventions, suggesting they might be ‘transitory and insignificant’. He kept his self-control but his son did not; he dared too much despite his father’s instructions to ‘Get ready to jump. Mind rocks. Don’t/hesitate. Deep breath.’ There seems to be no way out, though the final poems suggest a change of mind, the possibility that is not necessary ‘to fall into the dark/wingless and hurt’. But the myth culminates with the death of Icarus, and this is the end the reader is left to unravel.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th September 2021

The Red Place by Lars Amund Vaage translated by Anna Reckin & Hanne Bramness (Shearsman Books)

The Red Place by Lars Amund Vaage translated by Anna Reckin & Hanne Bramness (Shearsman Books)

This melancholy book-length poem, first published in Norway in 2014, begins with a motionless drama:

THERE IS A YOUNG MAN inside me

I see him standing

by a dark wall

somewhere in the forest

which sets the timbre straight off. ‘Inside’, in a way, means ‘outside’. We’re not going to be able to trust even the simplest language. Adjectives will cancel each other out: ‘the beautiful, ugly buildings/ the rich, poor rooms’.  Line-breaks are deployed to leave you rudderless:

Quietly I passed into that area of darkness 

which does not exist. 

[…]

Mother fell and moved around in a circle

which was impossible

and expected emotional reactions are denied: ‘I am not happy to see him/ nor do I mourn him’. Soon sets of spiralling metaphors are in play: the red place is the heart, which is the piano, which is the lover and the coffin, which is the forest which is the realm of the dead which is the red place. In a way. Meanwhile images of violation pervade: ‘I opened my memory/ all the way down to my heart’s floor’. ‘He is running into himself, through the small holes/ he once drilled.’ ‘Peace had eaten its way into her’. [A pianist] ‘plugs himself into the great, black body’.

There’s no conventional narrative, but a picture starts to build: this is a middle-aged or elderly man from a rural background, who was once a concert pianist (as Vaage himself was). His memory has become so intense that he’s having visions. There’s his childhood self, perennially at the piano. His youthful and professional selves, uncommunicative and inner-directed. And his now-deceased parents. His mum, who left with ‘the other man’, is always travelling or absent. His dad is always on the farm, working – he ‘empties work of work’. I found the narrator’s regrets at not communicating with them, especially with his father, more affecting at every rereading. The straightforward vocabulary and minimal punctuation make the book a speedy read, and that, along with the refusal of the normally expected sentiments, means the emotional surge only impacts belatedly. The narrator’s is not an unremitting loneliness; he mentions a friend (albeit a dead one) and twice addresses a presumed former partner. Nonetheless the piano, with ‘its kisses/ inside the canals of the ear’, becomes the meagre surrogate to romance: ‘The piano opened the door/ […] we emptied into each other/ But emptiness/ is a poor gift between lovers’. 

The translation looks welcomely unmeddled. Language geeks (unsurprisingly common among poetry fans) will find the original downloadable as an epub from ebok.no or similar, where they can check, for example, whether the glum puns on ‘play’ (the child plays only the piano, not with other children) or ‘autist’ (for ‘artist’) are also there in the Nynorsk. Spotify can let them hear the cadences; a selection has been recorded accompanied by appropriately spooky music. ‘The poems are constantly trying to take us through a door into another world’, wrote Michael Peverett of Vaage’s earlier Outside the Institution. And there are plenty of ghosts and doors here, among ‘sheep and cows so startled/ they had forgotten all they knew’, and the human costs of artistic practice. Certainly this is remarkably distinctive and special writing, which I guess is what we ask from translations: to deliver us stuff that no-one in our own language has done.

Guy Russell 24th September 2021

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: