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Category Archives: Pamphlet

What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

These chapbooks are substantial beyond their size. Both debuts, they consider the  domestic and explore women’s place in it from very different starting-points and with unique voices.

Rehema Njambi is a Kenyan-born, British-raised performance poet who celebrates the Black, mostly African women around her and from whom she is descended. She is acutely aware of home’s patriarchal context:   ‘My mother’s joy is tied to the ground…Our fathers handed belonging to their sons,/gave away their daughters’ (‘A Piece of Land’).

The opening poem, ‘All These Truths You Never Set Free’, speaks to the guilt a  writer/survivor feels towards her female ancestors: ‘I reach for the pen and I remember/that you wanted this for yourself./This selfishness of pen and paper and solitude’.  Yet  poem after poem evokes how precarious a woman’s position has always been at the heart of  home and family: 

        Every haven you have ever found

        was only lent to you.

        Even now you abide in your body

        like a stranger house-sitting for the friend of a friend

                                                                                   ‘A Lending Not a Giving’

Though there is anger and resistance in these poems, and a sense that the ‘I’ must  escape in order to survive (‘I grab what I can and run’, from ‘Our Marriage Dies in a Dream’) there is also great tenderness and  strong religious faith, even if that faith may not be recognisable to her grandmothers, changed as it is through time and   language. The collection ends:

        I pray and search for roots

        and earth, and soil, and tree.

        For truth, for God in all I see.

                                                                            ‘The Language of Grief’

Though it may not be possible to mend the damage caused through betrayal and the imbalance in male/female relationships which can cause ‘home’ to be less than safe for women, Njambi’s work still places faith in the future, and in the continuing struggle: ‘I wrestle and fight for the tongue my mother taught to me’. This is a powerful and moving collection. It will be interesting to follow the trajectory of Njambi’s development in her subsequent books.

 Anne Bailey’s imaginative world is surreal, wry and strange. Outwardly amiable in its quotidian references to such things as ‘Songs of Praise’, ‘polyester,/ chiffon scarves, lipstick, men with shining shoes’  and in the wonderfully-titled ‘Uses and abuses of the tea towel’, still nothing is quite as it seems. A lake appears in the living room. ‘How to get the most out of baking’ begins: ‘Put butter in a baking bowl,/set it in front of the fire, then/call up the dead’. 

I liked this collection very much for the apparently deadpan way it deconstructs domesticity and women’s roles in maintaining it. Houses which ‘should’ be sparkling and perfect are always in danger of decay and spectacular damage: the poems enjoy exploring themes of mould, disintegration, spoilage. The domestic is a dangerous, twilight zone where budgies meet sticky ends under a scalding tap, where ‘letting go’ happens and where ‘Something will have to be done’ (‘A film of dust is how it starts’) – but what? Even darker, a woman are kept psychologically imprisoned by an obsessive man who has taken domesticity to perverse levels: ‘For him it is an act of love’ (in ‘The Curator is married to the rain’).

The poems weigh the sinister and the surreal very carefully together with a lovely sense of the absurd, so that the effect is always unpredictable and engaging. There is loss and grief here, and a range of very dark emotions indeed, but Anne Bailey celebrates the odd and uncanny with relish so her poems fizz with wonderful images : the ‘wooded’ Felicity, ‘her open spaces …full of damp washing’, the ‘tarmacked’ Nigel ‘with a central reservation but no hard shoulder’ (‘The sum of the parts’). Home may throw a long shadow over women’s lives, its rigidity always encroached upon by the wild, the unruly, by wild birds coming inside, becoming trapped –  but the women in Anne Bailey’s poems are more than resilient: they are magical shape-shifters  in ordinary disguises. This book is wise and funny and rewards re-reading.  

Pippa Little 18th September 2022

Spaces by Clive Gresswell (erbacce-press)

Spaces by Clive Gresswell (erbacce-press)

This is a neatly produced chapbook from erbacce-press which is nicely laid-out and has a cover design incorporating (I think) a photograph of the author which has been adapted into a double-image by Alan Corkish.

     There are 21 poems, each titled and each taking up a page. The overall title relates to the layouts of the texts which are split mainly into phrases, single words and occasionally longer pieces, halfway towards sentences, which suggest narrative structures but are fragmented and full of what I can only call texture. For me this is the most interesting of Gresswell’s recent chapbooks as there’s something almost Shakespearean about his use of language, where a variety of dictions interplay and resonate to great effect. There’s certainly a lyrical element to this work but it’s mixed with a dark foreboding quality which talks of ‘our times’ and has a sort of apocalyptic quality throughout. Take this poem on page 15 as an example:

          Dawn

          the roar of dust       seeps through    this island

          & settles on                the cooling       coastal walks

          where gypsies         comprehend     essential pleasures

          & grips upon              the vain wrath    which weeps

          in and out                in out   in      gentle   harshness

          of winter storms    captured     and    capitulated on

          trials    and           childhood dreams  rehearsed the blue

          and calming grey    of the sea’s     once charming

          vernacular ripped      the throat      into gargled pieces

          from screams and night       sprawled      anecdotes those

          enchanted visions       curling           rushing by with

          no aftermath or            naked         ambition shoved off

          the sands & holocausts   to temptation’s taut temerity

          the shallow        fields   of   memory    sucked deep

          into nature’s       glistening       awakening of tomorrow. 

There’s enough space here for the reader to fill in the gaps with his or her imaginings which is seemingly the entire point of this work. If the communication is partial it also suggests a degree of communality and shared experience 

     From ‘Shore‘ we get the following: ‘the taste infringes     salt   on the tongue / the bitter       taste     of effigies / redundant     from       the holy war.’ Throughout these poems there is a playful use of language which is harnessed to something darker. Nature is ever-present, whether with a sense of recuperation and as a place of retreat or as something much harsher and menacing. There’s a beauty to these shards and phrases – ‘golden memories recycled & harmony   reboiled / in among the     snakes     of     wrath their / seething      nightmares   claiming in sleep.’ (from ‘Sleep’) but it’s always tempered by something more sinister and unsettling. Nevertheless I found these poems pleasurable to encounter as the balance of the phrasing and the conflicting textures of the writing make for an enticing read. Take this opening sequence from ‘Face’, for example: 

          through mists & mischief miscreants

          from days of       their bauble dalliance

          the embellishments  of   their grievous

          circumstances   the knotted question

          of their day’s    abeyance abundance

          of their fortitude    & let alone such

          gratitude       …….  

     These are essentially playful poems but the tone is more often than not dark and would seem to reflect a collective as well as an individual sense of things going wrong. As I suggested earlier these are poems for our time.

Steve Spence August 25th 2022

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Before Mike Ferguson became an English teacher (he’s now retired), he tried his hand at farm work, imbued with the back-to-the-land enthusiasm of the 1960s and 70s counterculture. Having emigrated from the USA, Ferguson took a job for three years near Ipswich, and then lived and worked part-time in the Chiltern Hills whilst he studied at Oxford. 

Although perhaps the reality of labouring, even within agriculture, hit home, and Ferguson followed his degree by training as a teacher, eventually moving to Devon, and then engaging with the Devon reading and publishing literati, especially in the context of readings, workshops and magazine & booklet production within education, Ferguson still goes slightly dewy-eyed and nostalgic about farming, as evidenced by this beautifully produced, austere pamphlet.

Much of Ferguson’s current writing is process-driven: he uses erasure, pattern, word-shapes, Humument-type explorations and collage to write through and from writing both old and new. Here, this type of work shares its pages with more lyrical free-verse and prose poetry, and occasional haiku-esque (or imagistic) work.

There are stories here, poems full of characters and events – J. H-J. ‘tending the grain dryer’ but also trying to put out a barn fire with a hose in the other hand; the narrator proudly taking his heifer to the County Show but ending up flat on his arse in cowpats – but also frozen memories and moments, such as this brief, evocative and personal poem:

    Not Shearing Sheep

   For me, it was rolling wool

   and then my lanolin arms

   wrapped around

Elsewhere, acclimatisation to the smell of silage has the effect of changing it to the ‘candied whiff / of a sweet dessert; mucking out the pigs wrecks a pair of DMs; and we are asked to stand still and briefly listen to ‘the heron / miscalling / our names’.

Other poems are more playful, presenting the swirl of crows or the laying of irrigation pipes by hand as simple and effective shape poems, boldly set on the page; with some evidencing the author’s educational knowing and critical distance in poems such as ‘Farming Without Derrida’, where ‘[t]here is nothing to deconstruct’.

Obviously, Ferguson also has the gift of distance in time to look back at himself then. In ‘Agrarian Creed’ he notes that he 

       didn’t preach

   Marx on the farm back then

   as we were

   comrades when

   collectively hand-hoeing weeds,

   or sharing the

   three-bar electric fire

   for our morning breakfast toastings,

   or freely passing on

   the skills and

   wisdoms acquired over time.

and admits that even many years later, when a teacher in Devon, he would visit the Honiton (agricultural) Show – ‘still drawn to / tractors’ – only to find new models with air-con and stereo systems, which prompts a reimagining of possibilities, with ‘Hendrix feedback up cultivated rows, / or Dylan // defiant in ignoring Maggie’. (A reference to both Thatcher and the song ‘Maggie’s Farm’.)

The book ends with a confessional poem and then an observational comment and statement. Having written earlier in the book that ‘Hunting and gathering was / never going to be enough’, ‘Fault’ admits the agricultural failing back then was the poet’s, in an erasure poem rather appropriately sourced in Richard Jefferies’ The Toilers of the Field:

   Fault

                                                                                       the fault of

                                                     th       is

                                                                                       agricultural

        labourer

        is                                     poetical feeling

                                                                                                         of

        beauty

The closing poem, ‘Residual Revelation’, is more nostalgic and accepting, although it starts by noting that

   In ’73 I thought this would be

   my pastoral idyll, an agrarian

   nirvana after LSD

   with no need for a degree.

On some levels it clearly was an idyll, but studying literature, teaching and writing has clearly changed Ferguson, even though the poem states how he still gardens and grows crops. Although he suggests that he ‘could claim / how studying, in the end, taught / [him] a thing or two’, the poem ends by contradicting or qualifying this, revealing that it was

   Scrivy who coached me in how to

   look and look all those years ago and

   find revelation in the simple things. 

It is that sense of revelation and simplicity, an attention to the world – remembered, reinterpreted, deconstructed (or not) – that is most evident in this engaging, entertaining and clear-minded collection, which evidences an open-eyed, thoughtful and sure-footed writer at work. Even when standing in animal shit or recalling ‘the butt-end of a / tedium of days’.

Rupert Loydell 23rd August 2022

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

Well into his eighties now, JH Prynne is enjoying the most prolific period of his career and indeed one that exceeds the output of every other poet I can think of. Since 2020, he has published some 25 new works, mostly chapbooks with small independent publishers. This puts into shade other notable late flowerings like those of Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham and John Ashbery although presumably it could be argued that because Prynne’s publications are all short-form sequences (At Raucous Purposeful, for example, amounts to only 15 pages of text) in terms of actual word-count they might tally with the prolix ruminations of, say, The Daybooks and The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin. (I’ve always thought that late Prynne and late Hill have a good deal in common, sharing the hermetic, fulminating tone of a slightly unhinged don, over-erudite and over-immersed in the historical etymologies of their beloved OED, bent on an increasingly private vision that seems to distantly footnote their earlier momentous breakthroughs.)

    Who on earth could keep up with Prynne at this rate of production? Perhaps that’s the point; as time runs out, is he trying to outrun any attempt to coddle him into sedate poetic dotage, like an Augustus Carmichael sent to doze over his notebook on the lawn? On the one hand this scattershot approach feels like the great confounder sticking to his guns, keeping faith with the small presses and sequences of cryptic linguistic détournement which have formed the bedrock of his practice since the 1960s – not for him the facile conveniences of airing new work on the internet or quietly waiting to update his seminal and increasingly unwieldy Bloodaxe Poems every few years (“the big yellow (para)taxis” as a friend once called it). On the other hand, with a style as distinctive as Prynne’s – a poetic approach established over 50 years ago which, in spite of manifold formal permutations, has not really “developed” or reinvented itself ever since – eventually we are forced to read the work as self-parodic, caught in a loop of its own making, consuming its own hyper-extensive tail or choking on it.

   If poetry can become “an engrained habit” (as John Heath-Stubbs said to the Queen on receiving her Gold Medal for Poetry), there is a sense in which enduring poetic identity might be linked with continuing prolificity in the face of dwindling powers. One thinks of Swinburne, kept on a tight leash in early retirement in Putney, churning out volume after volume of hollowly sonorous lyrics which are almost non-referential in their formulaic melopeia. As TS Eliot wrote of one Swinburne poem, “that so little material…could release such an amazing number of words requires what there is no reason to call anything but genius.”

    Turning to the ten poem sequence At Raucous Purposeful, I was caught between open-mindedly approaching it (as Robert Potts advises) “like a painting or a piece of music”, teasing out connections and possible chains of association (Potts again: “sonically, prosodically, thematically and metonymically”) and at other moments wondering if these were just random word-lists generated by a computer, an algorithm whose parameters are set to explicitly avoid any conventional poetic techniques, figurations or meanings, to confront the reader with slabs of sheer aleatory verbiage in the same way that many bands, musicians and composers have brought out albums of pure dissonance and noise. Why? To challenge our complacent assumptions about what constitutes music, to clean out our banality-clogged ears? Or even to make us want to turn the racket off and listen more attentively to the birds in the garden or the human voices that surround us? 

    No doubt it would be unreasonable or irrelevant to expect an 86 year old poet to change course or develop his practice at this late stage but reading At Raucous Purposeful I also thought of Prynne’s own words about a poetry reading he’d just been to, from the fascinating Paris Review interview he did in 2016:

I want a poet to break out of his or her poetic identity, to ­establish a whole new set of possibilities for the reader and for him- or herself. To hear poems that must have been written by a poet is to find them trapped in the poetic habits from which they originate. There wasn’t a poem anywhere in that sequence that I heard that I would have been glad to read for a second time…I can’t imagine why he did them. What was the motive? What was the serious development of his practice that poems like that would help him to find his way to? ”

Oliver Dixon 19th July 2022

Met Obs by Lizzi Thistlethwayte (Waterflag Press)

Met Obs by Lizzi Thistlethwayte (Waterflag Press)

Met Obs is a large pamphlet, lovely to hold and look through, with superb black-and-white photographs by Jen Lindsay. You are encouraged to take your time over these poems: even a four-line poem will usually be in the centre of an otherwise blank page. And they need time: they have a fullness which allows for sudden new directions, jump-cuts, and startling changes of register. There is a strong presence of what feels like rural Suffolk, a particular house and garden, and its surrounding natural world; of night; and also of the sea and seashore. There are other human presences. The idea of a world in endless transformation is there in the first poem, ‘Moly’. The middle stanza has a steady focus on sleet on a ploughed field until, in its third and last line: 

‘a seethe   capsizing me   unmoored strangeness of raw’

Through its characteristic patterning of sound (seethe/me  moor/raw  caps/ness), we feel the plough and the sleet moving under us. The last stanza is prayer-like (‘shelter me night   the roots of the mind are tender, frail’), the wind is ‘in the earth’s rigging’, and ends with almost homely directness: ‘I am out of true’.

     Voyaging is explicit in the very enigmatic title poem, ‘Met Obs’. Short for ‘meteorological observation’, a nautical term, referring to a reading or record, as the epigraph to that poem has in brackets, ‘mid-atlantic 0200 hrs’. Night time, at sea, a wondering alertness…very much the provenance of these poems. 

     A lover is openly present in ‘Scatter’, which introduces the ‘we’, ‘We climbed that storm’, continuing with the poignant ‘mostly hope, mostly bent towards/the other…’ , adding the evocative and positive ‘slipping our moorings’, and ending where characteristically the erotic (‘your hand round me in me’) meets a tiny shock, the surprise of  ‘you/crackled…’ And there’s the delightful ‘Below 0 ° C’:

the birdbath is moon, cold niche, midwinter

stash, icefield, clamp, pent, chock of sky.

There are flaughts in my ribcage

rips in the skylid. From a spent

maize strip rook-black ejecta sling

which ever way the wind.

Below 0° C I’m not my own light, cariad,

as I cup my smithereens to your keelbone.

The music of association, the sound of one word suggesting another, pent/spent, rib/lid, cage/maize, sling/wind, etc. helps create the sense of an openness to a winter’s night and to the beyond, and though there’s cold outside, there’s the warmth of the lovers’ bed in the extraordinary last line (‘cariad’ is love or sweetheart, a word of Welsh provenance).

     At the end of ‘Horizon’, the characteristic images of earth and sky are also suggestive of the explosive physical effects of human encounter:

No one utters a word for, on some days, the violet

violence of that meet place, the power load, the tightrope.

But it gets dark it rains and there’s that sweet

unseen pulse-point no you were my heart, and we did touch.

The voice breaking in, in italics, with the poignant ‘were’, ‘did’, unsettles the poem even as it completes it. 

     The relation between text and photo seems to be one where each is allowed to speak for itself: only ‘Stilts’ seems to take one as its starting point, where vaguely stilt-like old iron stanchions protrude from a grassy hillside. 

     The book finishes with ‘The Angle of Dip’, but its first line is by this stage probably not how you expect even a Lizzi Thistlethwayte poem to start!

         Life is a massive con, hurrah…

especially when four more lines start with ‘hurrah’ (including both ‘hurrah for rain at last’ and ‘hurrah for a roof that doesn’t leak’!) Nevertheless, the casual ‘what-the-hell’ freedom here is characteristic. Once the speaker confesses to the ‘sin of a veerable soul’ and continues with the playful charm of the adaptation of the 23rd psalm, ‘for even though I walk in the valley of sensible shoes/I cry like a child’, the poem ends with

Q. Should I appear nonchalant or full of holes? 

A. I am here, under the rain, already miles away

both possibilities still open, the protagonist not to be pinned down, elusive, as her poems are, as the world is.

Martin Hayden 2nd June 2022

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms is a free flowing pamphlet-length prose poem, a sinuous sweep through the first quarter of the 21st century as it lurches into and out of lockdown. I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses in which he refers to the work as a cosmic tapeworm. Jung initially wants us to see this as an insult, characterising writing he saw produced as much by an autonomic nervous system as by an aesthetic intelligence. But something in Jung’s writing feels conflicted. It’s as if he almost admires Ulysses for its parasitic processing power. And as it turns out, he does. He says of the book:

     There is life in it, and life in never exclusively evil and destructive…it wants to be an 

     eye of the moon, a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the 

     gods, nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor 

     by prejudice ‘Ulysses’ does not preach this but practices it—detachment of 

     consciousness is the goal the through the fog of this book

Atoms is a tape worm. It is the 21st century eating itself. It has an internal logic this way, it has aesthetics this way, and in this way it is alive. You don’t feel the sense of the poet behind the poem, generating the old A level questions, what is Gresswell thinking? what does he mean? The writing can do that for itself, thank you. It’s a clever worm, a socialist worm, a worm that frankly has to stomach a lot when it comes to eating history. Deep down it’s probably quite glad to be a worm, that it doesn’t have to retch, or stop to demonstrate its outrage. It can leave that to the reader, maybe even its author, but it won’t care about that. The best writing has long since ceased to care for its author:

     Some of the atomic figures were fictitious. The prime minister instilled a sense of

     calm into the proceedings. More zygotes wrapped themselves around the institutions. 

     They bled racism into the walls of their buildings. Hurrah for common sense and the  jaws of death.  (p.6)

Try and figure out the series of ironies here, finishing with that ‘hurrah’. That last sentence is like the ghost in the machine—who says this? The are aspects to the writing that look programmatic, or like a form of cut-up or fold-in, splicing different words and phrases against each other. Here you can imagine the ‘atomic figures’ and ‘zygotes’ could just be dropped in from the discourse suggested by the title of the poem, but in another way they just feel literal, like the sentence between them (except, of course, when has our prime minister done this, really?). And that’s it.   

The language of atoms and zygotes keeps breaking the surface, as if a submerged and subversive force, pre-sentient, questioning us as to who is in charge. The political, the social, undermined by the real drivers, particles, cells, chaos theory: 

     No more night flying caffeine cells to dispute wages dismantled by atomic discipline and wiring.  (p.11)

     Foot-first though the frostbit forest. Matriculation in the atomic sequence. No one 

     here to captivate an audience.  (p.16)

     Still pumping hard a faithful heart draws blood rushing crucifixion to the art of 

     capital atoms. Capital letters adorning wisps of lager clouds.  (pp.27-28)

The connection between the senses of ‘capital’ here isn’t metaphoric, it’s literal. Something in Atoms wants to tell us that nothing is metaphor, everything is contiguous, metonymy. 

Atoms is angry. Who is it angry with? Trump, Johnson and Starmer are named targets, but across the whole piece it seems plain that Atoms is angry with an ideology, a neo-liberal ideology underpinned by the return of humanism. It is angry to know that beneath everything, humanism is not humane. You can see the influence of Sean Bonney in this poem, but with one major difference. Bonney’s work takes things personally, and there is a subject position to suffer it all for us. Here Gresswell’s text presents no subject: if you feel the abjection consequent to its violence, there is no proxy. You take it. You have to live here:

     Recalled and on pianos in destitution unfurled by Universal Credit music. Fashions  come and go in times of rigor mortise. (p.35)

Keith Jebb 12th March 2022

Mercy by Eleanor Penny (flipped eye publishing)

Mercy by Eleanor Penny (flipped eye publishing)

‘Before you were born your mother too was visited by dogs (…) They told her it’s not wrong to want a child who fights for its food. Sinks its teeth into the ankle of the world. Sleeps in the sun, vendetta-less, untroubled by strange men.’ (‘The dogs’)

And so we slide into Eleanor Penny’s strange dreaming world of animals, bones, teeth and blood. The world of Mercy is a cruel one, but it is not without its own tender mercies, as the lines between the human world and the animal world meld and shift. In this debut pamphlet, Penny’s dense, atmospheric poems weave rich and bloody interior worlds.

Throughout this arresting, uncanny collection, Penny’s imagery is often visceral, and sometimes grotesque: a woman gives birth in a gutter, ‘there is the gasping light, bloodwaters sluicing off into the drain’, a boy opens a crow to find its ‘stinking knuckle of a heart’, an unnamed speaker loves with a pig’s heart. Animals, and parts of animals, become totemic: in ‘For Jonah’, a whale vertebrae rests in the bed of the speaker, after ‘whales, with their empty car-sized heads, creep onto the tender shore, mouths helpless and unhinged’. The speaker talks to this vertebrae, as it puckers their sheets, and they long to lie like Jonah, ‘always blessed in the belly of the whale.’ I am reminded, here and throughout the collection, of Ocean Vuong’s ‘The Queen Under the Hill’, where a horse is a piano, a shadow, a ‘puddle of sky on earth’, that the speaker is at once within and without.¹

A good proportion of the pamphlet, including ‘The dogs’ and ‘For Jonah’, is made up of short, half-page prose poems. In the density of their language, the effect of the form is heavy and all-encompassing – without the neat distinctions of rhyme and metre the reader is subsumed into the consciousness of the poem, its own small world within a world, a pulsing consciousness in the wider consciousness of the book. As Penny evokes the animal to express and embody what the human cannot or will not, we are pulled into unreal worlds where the impossible is urgent and necessary. For example, in ‘Love song with a pig heart’, Penny asks how a pig might love better, more simply than a human might. The speaker reaches for an animal certainty – ‘soon I’ll have a pig’s heart and know what I’ve been hungry for. My love, it will be better then’. 

Unlike the prose poems, ‘Vivisection’ is formally precise, but, as its title suggests, equally bloody. In opening up the body of a crow, ‘stinking knuckle of heart, bulb and filament / ballasted tightly to the spine’, a boy learns how to become one. The bird’s harsh cry is broken down to investigate its possible human meanings:

They say

Core: an apple, nuclear

Cower: corner

Car: a beckoning, tower of smoke

Inevitably, the figure of Ted Hughes rears its head amongst this transformation and animal magic. Nonetheless, Penny’s voice is relentlessly, doggedly her own in sharp and unexpected turns of phrase: ‘the evening sky is cunt-coloured. Day drooping like a lone white glove’ (‘Poppy Heads’), ‘Your daughter, she has the most beautiful blacksmith’s hands I’ve ever seen’ (‘The list of the missing’), ‘New-fish-in-the-deep-dark yellow’ (‘Paint chart’).

There are animals, which move as strange, terrible gods, and then there is God himself, who appears in various guises throughout this collection. He takes many forms – sending angels as awkward, disinterested emissaries in ‘When angels came’, railed against by a priest who ‘batters both his fists at the chest of god’ in ‘The priest’. God is not all-loving, he is another kind of animal, savage and unknowable, and even his angels are cruel. In ‘Brick by shining brick’, God is feral, and entirely unexpected: ‘God hangs his best skin on the door handle before he enters the house’, ‘God drags a packet of bad children back into the sea’, ‘God choosing a slice of cake and a new dress’. God is slippery, human, promethean, and mysterious. 

God, Animals, animal gods and a ragged, raw love claw their way through the pages of this impressive debut. In its panting animalism and desperate aliveness, Penny’s pamphlet opens up new ways of animal existence, and asks us just how human we would really like to be.

Hannah Green 1st January 2022

Footnote

1. Ocean Vuong, ‘The Queen Under the Hill’, from Night Sky with Exit Wounds, (Jonathan Cape, 2017) p.48

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

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