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Category Archives: Pamphlet

leaf o little leaf by Ralph Hawkins (Oystercatcher Press)

leaf o little leaf by Ralph Hawkins (Oystercatcher Press)

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

          Corn from Delf is good for Elves

                                       Bernadette Meyer

          you can get a coach

          transport yourself

          Scarlett Johannson

          an alien in Glasgow

          the girl at the psalter

          palmistry soap

          all those overburdened

          with the clothes they wore

          the abandoned, the outcast, what future

          they ‘fished’ them out of the sea

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

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

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

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

Steve Spence 27th August 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may be worth citing from the final poem:

                                            ‘These colours come from their

                                diet yet an open habitat is a dangerous

                                place for a prey animal. “Do you like how

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

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

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

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

                                                  ‘Are we slowly

                                retreating from everyday life?

                                These brushmarks are intriguing

                                but we also like smooth surfaces.’ (p15)

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

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

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

Clark Allison 19th August 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olivia Tuck 17th August 2021

Weep Hole by Mai Ivfjäll (Sad Press)

Weep Hole by Mai Ivfjäll (Sad Press)

Mai Ivfjäll’s poetry shares the quality of symbolic elusiveness with that of William Blake whose motifs are significant in Weep Hole. Tantalising hints throughout the pamphlet invite the reader to explore a world of mysticism and ancient magic as well as the retro future of a fifth element and a divine language.

‘Suspended Not Suspended’ is written from the perspective of Blake’s ‘Sick Rose’ where the secret, invisible worm is its own self-destructive love. Time, in Mai Ivfjäll’s poem, unravels self like the thread of a hem. Here there is ‘no health’ but ‘only living     my sick sick rose’. There are sonnets in Weep Hole, part of a sequence called ‘Sick Sonnets’ which the author has described in an interview with Paul Cunningham of Action Books, as a ‘kind of love letter to the obliteration of self (and attunement to the present moment) that happens in the throes of chronic sickness.’

Sickness, certainly, and pain ‘is a psalm that sings your body is a bivouac’. (‘Glossolalia’). The poems begin with the line ‘the bees are dying – can you feel it?’ and the end of the collection is insistent: ‘the bees are dying the bees are dying’. The book itself is titled Weep Hole – an opening at the bottom of a structure which allows water to drain away. A small opening, a small weeping where ‘healing is an endless emptying’. (Poembody).  In the same poem the author poses the question ‘who wrote the list of the saddest words in the English language/on dictionary.com?’

But it is these words, this focus on the joy of language that most interests me in Weep Hole. In the same interview mentioned earlier Mai Ivfjäll describes how her sonnets may look traditional but inside are a mess ‘gorging on language’. Her poems overflow with sonic richness. ‘I liked the way the sounds tasted in my mouth,’ she says, ‘and wanted others to experience that pleasure.’ 

‘Make Me An Instrument’ offers fine examples of this gorging. One line plays with the sound of words: ‘I am lamb bait a baited lamb a lamented/bam’ while this word chain is perfect in its assonance: ‘noon moon moan koan loan lean/ mean meal meat met wet/let lit i’. What could be a better example of the joy to be found in linguistics than ‘Keening’?

            slime gifs

            are prayer psalms of goo

                                           asmr

            devotional gulp   oozing

holiness        as collapse

The first poem in the book is titled ‘Glossolalia’ and this intriguing word seems to me to be a central motif with its definitions that suggest fluid echoes of speech-like syllables that lack any readily understandable meaning, sounds that predate and supersede human speech, a sense of something transcendent and pentecostal, a language that is divine and mystical. References to books and films enhance ancient mysteries – the narrator slips ‘in and out of time’, one moment as Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war sci-fi book ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, the next as Leelo from Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’ – Leelo who by ‘googling a new vocabulary’ and by injecting herself with the quintessence of ether becomes the element itself that alone can defeat a cosmic evil force, can save the planet Earth.

Are we ‘empty vessels or/cosmic bodies’ asks Mai Ivfjäll in ‘S(ub)lime’.In ‘Everywhere Disappeared’ she gives herself a possible answer, disclosing ‘strange fruit    of a strange fire/my secret alphabet’. In ‘Preliminary (Im)materials’ she may ‘caw and claw/and coo I am dead’ but then, in the remarkable poem ‘A Slow Rapture’ she gives us this:

            wet

            magnolia trees

            drip

            memory    haunted

            after-rain baptismal’.

Mandy Pannett 12th July 2021

Brightwork by Suzannah V Evans (Guillemot Press)

Brightwork by Suzannah V Evans (Guillemot Press)

Amongst the poems, in prose and verse, of her latest pamphlet Brightwork – a follow up to last year’s excellent Marine Objects / Some Language – Suzannah V. Evans translates a number of pieces by Francis Ponge, minimally adapting their imagery to the localised milieu of a boatyard. In ‘Rain’, for example, a poem of deft attention and delicate syllabic patterning, the manifold action of rainfall is shifted from Ponge’s Paris courtyard to ‘the boatyard’, while scalar comparisons for water droplets – ‘un grain de blé’, ‘un pois’, ‘une bille’ – are swapped for boatbuilding paraphernalia – ‘pin head’, ‘copper rove’, ‘shackle’. Another poem, ‘Puffin, the little Hillyard’, retitles Ponge’s ‘La Barque’, allowing a new perspective on a classic wooden yacht (and on Ponge’s poem).

     Direct homage to Ponge is a savvy move on Evans’s part, allowing a more nuanced appreciation of the qualities of attention she’s cultivating in her work. ‘I particularly admire certain restrained writers’, Ponge tells us in ‘Notes For a Sea Shell’, ‘because their monument is made from the true secretion common to the human mollusk, from the thing most closely proportioned and adapted to his body … LANGUAGE’. The voice of Brightwork is suffused with this Pongean tact, with a quality of discretion or restraint which nevertheless allows a sense of powerful feeling to emerge.

     Mostly, these poems build towards an intensely affectionate investment in things seen, a cathexis mirrored in the care taken over the poetic act of knowing and naming. ‘Slipway’, which eases us in to the collection, admires a roster of ‘lovely things’ about its titular object: ‘your timber cradle, how you hold the hull of boats so closely, how you keep your chocking stable, and whistle at the sight of the wooden deck’. Many of the recurring pleasures of the poems in Brightwork are present here: playfully anthropomorphising lyric address; enjoyment of specialised lexis – ‘chocking’; imaginative working up of sound into voice – the slipway’s ‘whistle’ (returned to, memorably, in the closing ‘Slipway Song’); a subtle investment of favoured objects with a quality of maternal care – ‘cradle’, ‘hold’.

     Notably Pongean, too, is the collection’s anti-monumentalist focus on tools, machines, and bits of infrastructure that might easily go unnoticed, as well as its affection for the arcana of a craft – boatbuilding – easily reduced, in the age of the supertanker, to mere ‘heritage’. The title, Brightwork, derives from those parts of a boat of special polish, whether in wood or metal – elements which need maintenance and love to withstand the corrosive, barnacling impact of the sea. A sense is cultivated, throughout these pages, that the poet’s own brightwork is an act of rescue and salvage, the painstaking buffing up, in language, of things otherwise liable to entropy and neglect – things which, like ‘Puffin, the little Hillyard’ are vulnerable before the storm we call progress: ‘Left alone, she follows the current and drifts, like everything in the world, towards ruin’. 

     In ‘Say Elbow, Say Heart’, Evans has her boatbuilders dream of ‘a red hull inching / onto the slipway’, the dawn light which wakes them conflated with the glint of finish on the imagined vessel: 

And as the dream fades away,

And the sun eases up over the harbour,

The words brightwork brightwork brightwork

Lap at the corners of their rooms.

Here, the careful deployment of metaphor suggests the sociological concept of habitus – how our perception is shaped by institutional and technical structures of labour and action. Throughout Brightwork, Evans celebrates the highly particular imaginative worlds created by skilled labour, a shape of encounter between body and matter which takes form in a shared argot – a truly Pongean ‘monument’ all-too-easily lost in a homogenising, capitalist work-culture: ‘language is worked into the wood as they [the boatbuilders] move, / mahogany murmuring with the sound of canvas, / carlins, clinker, coaming, cradle, crook’.

     Brightwork imagines language sedimented in matter, a trace left by the interactions of living and non-living bodies. The poet’s task is to listen in to such significant encounters, translate them into speech: ‘place your hand on my smooth side and I am a rounded belly, full of sea dreams’, a buoy entreats (‘Buoy’); elsewhere, a pontoon ‘curls its voice around a creek, grumbles’ (‘Pontoon’). Together, these poems coax open the boatyard habitus, allowing it to slide out into a broad ecology of material interactions, the ‘sweet frictions’ of wood, air, metal and water tracked by subtle modulations in the sounds of words, an ‘acoustic tumbling’ (‘Slipway Song’). Thus, ‘rain thrums on hulls and hoods, / batters hatches, haunts heels / and heads of sails’ (‘Underfalling’).

     Often, Evans’s skillful sonics put me in mind of Lorine Niedecker, another poet whose work focused on the practical artefacts of ‘life by water’. She seems to share with Niedecker (and other Objectivists such as Oppen and Zukofsky), a trust that the things themselves, properly re-presented, might yield a quiet socio-cultural commentary. These are poems which encourage an ethics of careful listening and argue for respectful proportion between human presence and the elemental world. One of a host of writers drawn to the fertile margins of sea and land – many of them, such as Isabel Galleymore, also published by Guillemot – Evans has nevertheless martialled her influences to claim a highly distinctive poetic lineage. In Brightwork, her voice continues to develop with singular and exhilarating focus. 

Oliver Southall 13th June 2021

All the Shades of Grief by Ellora Sutton (Nightingale & Sparrow)

All the Shades of Grief by Ellora Sutton (Nightingale & Sparrow)

In this vibrant debut pamphlet, Ellora Sutton excavates grief to discover the beautiful, the ugly, the playful and the startling. One could argue that mourning is much-explored terrain in poetry, covered by poets throughout the ages, from Shakespeare to Emily Berry in her acclaimed 2017 collection Stranger, Baby yet Sutton’s pamphlet brings new truths about grief and its countless ‘shades’ to the table.

Sutton’s imagery is bold and striking. The pamphlet opens with the visceral: ‘Darling – / if I could, I’d dislocate my jaw like one of those snakes / and float my soul out to you’, and with the speaker crying ‘molten gold’. Later, there is a dead badger ‘spangled with flies’, an empty pickled onion crisp packet ‘squeezed until (it is) a dead rat’, a portrait of loss as ‘a passport with a corner cut’, a woman in the moon tucked up like ‘a sweet red adzuki bean’, a radio that forecasts rain ‘before demonstrating / beautifully / with Mozart’. This confidence in use of imagery and metaphor – the ability to convincingly declare that a horse ‘melts / to a Greek chorus on the bank’ – is enthralling. 

The narrative arc moves unapologetically from mythology and folklore to ekphrasis responding to the work of the Old Masters, Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. Perhaps this mirrors the mercurial state of grief; the dysregulation of emotions following a loss, and the suddenness of a shift from one feeling to another. In ‘The Five Stages of Grief’, the Kubler-Ross module is translated from clinical to visual, with each stanza conveying a stage of grief. Even if one is not familiar with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – each stanza reveals each stage through concrete imagery as clearly as if the stages were named: the second stanza refers to an unsatiated urge ‘to punch walls’ in which the speaker’s ‘knuckles / do not bloom to corsages’. The final is ambiguous as to whether or not acceptance is relieving: whilst the stanza begins with the sun, how ‘The syrup of it / still warms me / through the cobwebs / and glass’, it ends with the horizon as a ‘scab’. Religion is tackled in ‘Flying Ants’, in which ‘the sunrise (is) the absolute beginning, / and sunset an utter myth’, and a girl watching the ants fly is ‘still as an idol’ and ‘a prehistoric monument to a deity, long defunct and bored with her reams of pointless forever’. Perhaps we are all flying ants in ‘the yawning drain-mouth of late afternoon’, and to the ages, our lives are as fleeting.

Dedicated to the memory of Sutton’s mother, the work communes with women throughout time. In ‘I Became the Wolf’, the Bible meets fairy tale when Little Red Riding Hood ‘sheds’ her cloak and remembers ‘before the wood’, ‘a woman naked in a forest / with an apple and a fig leaf’. Both stories reflect that ‘A girl, by nature, is a wild thing’. Witchcraft becomes a feature in ‘Ghazal for a Black Cat’, where ‘Fireworks refract dreams onto dustbin lids, / and it is all just fish to her, black cat’, and in ‘Coven / Transfiguration’, where characters ‘skin hares for their eyes / and feet’, and ‘The love is violet strong’. Much like in Julia Copus’s poem ‘The Great Unburned’ from her 2019 collection Girlhood, witchcraft is a symbol of female empowerment. All the Shades of Grief is both a celebration of and an elegy for female relationships, from the romantic, such as in ‘I Fall in Love with the Women in Paintings’, to the maternal in ‘Orbuculum’ where the speaker writes ‘I carry the weight of my mother on my chest’, and each breast is ‘a crystal ball’. The pamphlet engages with Sylvia Plath, whose influence is palpable throughout, not least in those that mention her by name – ‘On Sylvia Plath’s 87th Birthday’, ‘the moon is a gravestone with half the name keyed off’ and the ‘yew tree, / nursing the light like a horse breaking hot air, / is a boot print on the neck of the dark’, and ‘the wind howls red hair’. This weaving of Plath’s images is an echoing conversation between two grievers.

This pamphlet allows that grief, and its emotions are not to be avoided, but rather acknowledged, processed, and where possible, embraced: that ‘Tears are not snares around throats but dances / honest dances’. This is fresh, evocative work.

Olivia Tuck 7th June 2021

Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow by Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press)

Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow by Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press)

In this vital pamphlet, Hannah Hodgson, who lives with a life-limiting illness, addresses disability, hospitalisation, and isolation at a time when the disabled and unwell are frequently treated as voiceless statistics.

With no romance or affectations, this pamphlet painstakingly examines what the ill want from the well. One often reiterated wish is for no self-pity; a demand of able people to not ‘hijack tragedy’ with their tears. In ‘Dear Visitors’, the speaker has ‘become a tiger’ and the ward ‘a zoo’, who asks of those who have ‘paid their entrance fees at the nurse’s station’: ‘Don’t maudle, as the captive here that’s my job.’ The speaker goes on to tell the visitors to be themselves, ‘Reveal a little / of your flesh, trust I won’t rip you apart.’ – to bring the things that the speaker loves into the sterile clinical setting – ‘Talk of the wild, talk of home’ – even to help them escape the sterile reality: ‘meet me at midnight with the bolt cutters’. Later in the pamphlet’s arc, in ‘Everybody Loves a Dying Girl’, the speaker bluntly states: ‘I wish to reject my sainthood – illness doesn’t cure me of a personality’, dispelling the widespread dialogue that suggests unwell and disabled people should be eternally optimistic and ‘inspirational’. 

The poems shift seamlessly between the concrete and the abstract. This is prevalent in ‘There is an Art to Falling’, a poem written after Kim Moore. Here the speaker offers seemingly everyday imperatives: ‘Drink water – if you can, // eat something – if you can’, before crossing over to the abstract: ‘reignite the furnace of your body, / blow on its embers’. Similarly, in Kim Moore’s poem ‘The Art of Falling’, imagery moves fluidly between commonly used turns of phrase: ‘to be a field and fall fallow, to fall pregnant’, to imagery such as ‘leaves / like coins of different colours, dropped from the pockets of trees’. One could be forgiven for thinking that the concrete and the abstract could not possibly exist in as small a space as a single poem, but impressively, the mercurial nature of these pieces proves otherwise.

The particular relevance of this poetry in 2021 is palpable. One only has to look at society’s treatment of the disabled and the chronically ill pre-pandemic. Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow addresses themes that have become eerily familiar to us all over the past year. Throughout its pages, we encounter a man left with ‘staff unable to move him – his death a macabre art installation’, a consultant who cries, ‘deserted by her superpower’ as so many of our essential workers have been during the Covid-19 pandemic, the removal of a mother’s body by porters and ‘the bed space marked vacant / on the computer system’, the constant stalling and rhetoric that comes with the delivery of bath news: ‘another step in the wrong directionthere’s no easy way to say this’. There are also poems that speak of shielding, giving voice to those who have had to remain inside with little contact with the outside world for many months due to being at high risk of Covid-19 complications. In ‘10th April 2020’, the speaker reveals that ‘The GP rang this afternoon, / trying to talk about a DNR order. I refused, / instead told him about starlings murmurating / and all the living I have left to do’.

This pamphlet features symbols that we have come to associate with death in poetry, for example, the crow, as in ‘Leaflet dispensed by crows who circle around the resus bay like overstated authority figures’. Again, this poem feels startlingly topical in its imagery: ‘Each cell is a police officer / clad in riot gear’; ‘As the Prime Minister of your body, remain calm – / pretend everything will be fine (even though it won’t)’, but in addition, it seems to be communing with poems such as Ted Hughes’s ‘Examination at the Womb Door’, in which death is the overriding force: ‘Who is stronger than hope? Death. / Who is stronger than the will? Death.’ However, the notion of the ‘womb door’ in Hughes’s poem synthesises birth with death. Birth and death are also synthesised in Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow, for example, in ‘The only person I knew with my condition’, in which the speaker discusses a fellow patient, whose name the hospice has added ‘to the roll call of the dead; / wooden hearts which hang / above the nurses’ station, / the opposite of a baby’s mobile’.

I was captivated by the pamphlet’s final poem, ‘Decompose With Me’, written after Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Small Female Skull’, as we experience the pain of this world alongside the speaker, and leave changed. This is the work of a poet of honesty with an effortless ability to articulate the near inexpressible. 

Olivia Tuck 17th May 2021

The Years by Jamie McKendrick (Arc Publications)

The Years by Jamie McKendrick (Arc Publications)

Jamie McKendrick’s enthralling new pamphlet merges visual art and language in an osmosis that allows interference but, at the same time, keeps the two elements at ‘an unsocial distance’, as the author claims in the foreword. His hope ‘is that image and poem can speak to each other without losing their autonomy’. The two media of communication are in conversation with each other, alluding to different perspectives and multiple interpretations. This gives space to multi-layered meanings and to a sense of ambiguity which seems embedded in the human condition.

     McKendrick has published seven poetry collections and won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 1997 for Marble Fly and the Hawthorne Prize in 2012 for Out There. He is also an editor, reviewer and translator. He has translated Il romanzo di Ferrara by Giorgio Bassani and Valerio Magrelli’s poems (The Embrace, Faber and Faber, 2009), the latter translation winning the Oxford-Weidenfeld and the John Florio prizes, and Antonella Anedda’s poems (Archipelago, Bloodaxe, 2014). His essays on poetry, art and translations are collected in The Foreign Connection (Legenda, 2020).

     His thoughts and strategies for translation reflect in part his poetical practice. It alternates between free and loose interpretation which expresses ‘a feeling’ of the original text and a discipline that is connected to the literary tradition but reshapes or challenges it in a personal yet universal way. His translations take liberties and make deviations without betraying the core of the text. Therefore, adherence to the original does not exclude invention in a mobility that grants the possibility of further explorations in a different context.

     In the poems of The Years there is a sense of decay that alternates with an unquenched yearning for hope in a possible future renewal or reconstruction that nevertheless struggles to surface:

I know the feeling. I feel the knowledge

of that heron. The world is a con.

My quiff quivers. My shoulders hunch. My beak

is sharp as a tack, as a hatchet’s edge

but nothing swims or glints or gazes back 

beneath the surface of the pond I scan.          (‘Nothing Doing’)

     It is a stagnant world that has no answers to the poet’s existential questioning. This quotidian situation is symbolised in the River Mersey, which flows through Liverpool, his birth town, in its ‘immemorial miseries’ and ‘shadow layered on shadow’. In this bleak vision some structures are miraculously intact: a viaduct in the bombed city, an inscription on a tombstone ‘obscured//by bramble and weeds’. The overgrown vegetation metaphorically takes advantage of the neglect and abandonment that is particularly present during the pandemic. Language, poetic language that is connected with the literary tradition, and the inscriptions pencilled in the last picture, ‘L’amore che move il sole e l’altre stelle’ (the last line of Dante’s Paradiso, the last Cantica of the Divine Comedy), seem to be the barriers that humanity erects against failure and destruction. It is a complex construction that in Dante’s work is eventually resolved in God’s dazzling and embracing light that smooths all contradictions in a flooding love. In McKendrick’s poem, Dante’s words cannot be read on the headstone, which is significantly obscured by ‘an ugly shrub’.

     The frequent literary references throughout the poems not only allude to Dante’s work but also to that of Elizabeth Bishop, Pliny the Elder, Ibn Zamrak, and André Kartész’s photography as well as to Petrarch and Thomas Hardy in the epigraph. Thomas Hardy is also a point of reference in the dialogue between images and words that McKendrick found in Hardy’s Wessex Poems. McKendrick’s pictures are in ink and watercolour on paper with the occasional use of crayon and collage. They were created before or after each poem featured in the pamphlet and, as the author claims, the two media should ideally be ‘indistinguishable’ or ‘as though [the pictures] were made by an entirely different person’. The pictures are crowded with images at times and rather unsettling; at other times they are well defined, especially the ones featuring well-proportioned buildings, but most of them are blurred in a graffiato technique of sorts. The marks are layered one on top of the other as if the artist is trying to make sense of the human condition through memories of past years but above all through a relentless observation and recording of the present that is mapped in pictures and words. Our world looks like a labyrinth where ‘obstacles proliferate’. 

     Nevertheless, hope emerges from the futility of the contingent in the dialogue with a possible other person, a reader or another artist. In this conversation, McKendrick remarks ‘that only you/could understand the images’ which allow ‘the scattered city rising from its ruins’ (‘Viaduct’, Homage to André Kartész). There is a requirement, therefore, for a possible renewal and consequent recovery; it is a desire to gain understanding through keen observation and exploration that nevertheless cannot avoid pitfalls. Thus, despair and espoir mix in a ‘cheerful, desperate vista’ of two peaks the poet cannot distinguish. This reveals again the open and multi-layered vision delineated in McKendrick’s thought-provoking lines.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 11th May 2021

In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered by Chaucer Cameron (Against The Grain Press)

In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered by Chaucer Cameron (Against The Grain Press)

In this visceral, utterly essential poetry pamphlet, described as ‘part memoir, part fiction’, Cameron gives voice to what is arguably one of society’s most unheard groups: women working in the sex trade. Significantly, here is a woman’s voice in marked contrast to the male gaze of poets such as Charles Bukowski or Charles Baudelaire.

The collection’s harrowing title immediately gives a flavour of the bitter irony that characterises this poetry. There is a formidable, compelling honesty here which, combined with a deft and well-judged use of subtext, draws the reader into the poem’s world. Note the first poem, ‘128 Farleigh Road’, in which the speaker candidly observes a man lying dead at the bottom of the stairs, ‘Body Marks’, in which Caprice, Eve, Grace and Morgan speak flash in the pan images of the scars on their bodies. A palpable thread of dissociation runs throughout the book; love is ‘a forewarning of attack’, and the pamphlet’s characters ‘try to disarm you with laughter’. In ‘Cartoons’, the speaker tells of having ‘a near miss’, and of coping with this trauma by remembering her childhood spent watching The Flintstones.

Reading this pamphlet following the murder of Sarah Everard intensified the emotions stirred by the pamphlet’s narrative arc. Poems such as ‘The Green’ were all the more terrifying. Its ominous second stanza – ‘It was a dark winter evening. / Ellen still had a twenty-minute walk home’ – paves the way for the bleak declarative description of Ellen’s fate in the third stanza: ‘It took three days to discover the body, / reporters said it was hard to identify // – devoured mostly’. Ellen’s italicised thoughts surge out of the night – ‘That rustling crack closing in / must be animal.’ This line conveys what women have always known – that many monsters we encounter in life are not animal: rather, they are human. 

Of all the book’s affecting voices, Crystal’s is both enduring and particularly moving. It is rare to come across such a convincing character conveyed entirely through lines and stanzas. In ‘Switchblades’, when the pamphlet introduces Crystal, she is on the defensive. In her italicised lines, she boasts that she ‘carries switchblades’, and taunts the speaker: ‘I’ve heard you with the punters – / you’re no escort, you’re a whore’. However, several encounters in a King’s Cross Café show Crystal in various states of vulnerability. In one such encounter, she refers to her body as ‘bought and sold’. In another, she delivers a dramatic monologue in prose poem form, where she examines abortion: ‘It’s not that hard to flush a foetus down the loo, unless you listen to that claptrap from the pro-life lot…how could you flush a little beating heart down the toilet and not commit suicide when you can’t live with the flashbacks?’ One cannot help but hope that, whether her character is based on a real person to any extent, as several of these characters are, or whether she is purely a fictional character, her story ends with her, as she says in ‘King’s Cross Café (III)’, ‘getting out of this’.

The pamphlet ends with a hauntingly beautiful image, ‘It’s busy on the Thames; / Canary Wharf, I hear it sing’. This final couplet is left ringing in the air, a fleck of heartbreaking beauty among the ‘eerie’ grit of the speaker and subject’s world – ‘it’s extra cold tonight’ – and nightly rituals – inserting tampons and assuring themselves that ‘the cramps will ease with Valium’. In the pamphlet’s title poem, the speaker says of Crystal, ‘she understood erasure, turned it into artforms’, and Cameron’s poetry accomplishes exactly this. There is something remarkably compelling about not only the sparing use of language, but also the use of white space throughout the course of the pamphlet. These words emerge from a blankness onto the page, starkly, bluntly, and irrevocably said. 

Olivia Tuck 19th April 2021

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Dennis Callaci’s Five Ghost Stories is a book that I think could only have been written in quarantine. In five very short stories, Callaci explores the way that so many people’s interior worlds, or at least mine, have changed. This kind of exploration might have felt overwhelming. After all, we are still in the midst of the lockdown. However, it was refreshing. Fiction has the ability to let us know what we are not alone in the world, and that our pains and joys are shared. Callaci’s book did this for me.

I find myself often going into an interior space these days where I replay odd memories of my youth, meditating on things that I had forgotten but had a strange power when I was young. Callaci does so as well, developing a kind of David Sedaris approach to memory albeit intentionally without humor. So, in one of the stories, he writes a story of memory, two brothers putting together a model, the emotions of two children bent on finishing a project becoming all consuming. And that memory becomes powerful to the author and reader in the moment, reminding us that while the passions of youth might seem silly and strange now, when they were happening, they truly did matter to us. They were important and part of our formation. He discusses these early relationships with family members in all their complexity, laying out vignette memories and allowing us to draw out meaning for ourselves.

In ‘The Cemetery Calendar of Days,’ he creates a kind of alternative universe where a creeping disease and its political impact has created a world of tension where communities feel that they have to patrol to keep themselves apart from others. In doing so, he captures this current alienation that I am feeling as well. It’s not just that the characters in the story are self-isolating; it’s that they are creating a social climate that divides them even farther. This sense of alienation spills into the next story where the main character tries to help a woman the way his father used to help people. Her car has a flat tire, and he wants to change it for her, but she does not speak English, and he does not speak her language. She does not even roll down her windows for him though because our world is often terrifying, and she is frightened of him.

Five Ghost Stories reminded me often of the work of Meg Pokrass, flash fiction pieces that capture a moment in time and the emotion of it, and like Pokrass’s work, Callaci’s draws us into those moments to show us that what seems mundane truly does matter. 

John Brantingham 18th January 2021

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