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Category Archives: Pamphlet

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

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Light-Fall by Lucy Ingrams (Flarestack Poets)

Lucy Ingrams poems in Tears in the Fence 72 impressed readers with their slowed down attentiveness to the moment and invigorating language use. I was thus thrilled to discover her Light-Fall pamphlet from 2019 and to find more of her mindful poetry.

The opening poem, ‘Swimmer’, where the title is the last two words, with ‘fall’ occupying the last line alone, is worth the price of the pamphlet alone. 

The poem, like the best of Ingrams work, recalls the poetry of Lee Harwood and Elizabeth Bishop and yet is distinctly her own. This emerges through her confident use of space, lineation and punctuation. Note her use of brackets, hyphens, space and counter voice, within a sonically rich low pitched delivery.  The poem, written in the living present, in the manner of Harwood’s sea poems, such as ‘Salt Water’, slows the reader’s attention down to each modulated movement within a wide-eyed focus. The narrator’s eye hovers on a series of physical objects, with slight movements in declining light, so that their actions combine to draw in the movements of sea, breeze and light. The layout, sound and sense combine to produce a balanced and clear-sighted focus. The key is that the poem remains in the variable and active present and eschews any extraneous commentary. 

   the is and will-be of its

the single source   of everything

air, its bubble   coast, its run-off – petrified

world’s counterweight.   its balance-tip

(cloud, the shadows of its rougher swells)

sorted   with that

                 and you   back-stroking

                 next    a flotsam speck    floating

                 only at its pleasure

Ingrams is at her best when she takes risks and moves beyond the rigidity of mainstream poetry to explore and engage the reader with a wide-eyed focus and attention to subtle movements and responses. She has a quiet and strong narrative voice. 

I enjoyed revisiting the poem, ‘Signs’, previously published in the Nine Arches Press, Primers Volume One (2015), with its attention to time, hesitancy and doubt through its spatial use, and controlled form.

And whether you loved me   loved me not

would come with a letter    come with you

would come    would come with some sign

of which there was no sign    yet

Here each movement and change of attention matters in the present. Such poems live, are alive, and are cut through fresh language with moments of 

vividness.

red in the willow crowns    plum in the birch

patterns of gnats     looked for a language

larger than us     tremor of catkins

folds of a bud    for meaning like runes

harder than answers   length in the light

the over and over of wood pigeon music

Ingrams also registers time and its gradual movement from moment to moment in fading late, as one would expect from a poet concerned with being alive to the world and its surprises. ‘Blue Hour’, written in crisp couplets, ends ‘and I turn and my step in the wind-drop quiet / is a thread to tack night / to night.’ I love the precision of ‘wind-drop quiet’ and the dropping ‘to night’ on to the next line to register and emphasise time.

There are many other subtle, quite and well measured poems with slight changes of attention within a perceptual roundedness that suggests Ingrams is an emerging and accomplished poet to follow.

David Caddy 23rd November 2020

A Journal of Enlightened Panic by Alan Baker (Shoestring Press)

A Journal of Enlightened Panic by Alan Baker (Shoestring Press)

Good poetry often creates a sense of release, of being returned to a point of wonder and attention. Alan Baker’s latest chapbook, A Journal of Enlightened Panic, has that quality. There’s an integrity about the writing which is enlivening.

The metaphor of life as voyage, journey, or walk dominates the volume. The longest poem, ‘Voyager,’ has perhaps the most complex use of these tropes. The poem is dedicated to Baker’s mother, who died in 2015. The text mixes information concerning the Voyager space probe, and material about life on a container ship, with the night-time wanderings of ‘Alan’, a cleverly objectified version of the poet himself.

The probe in outer space, the ship often travelling for days without seeing another vessel, have a resonance with Alan’s nocturnal perambulations, walks which have ‘the quality of dream’ but are also punctured by the unwelcome intrusions of time and unease.

Alan would like to inform us that he was tired
and became irritated
when Time appeared in the form of a bird
Uncertainty, in the form of the rising wind

The refusal of the bird to ‘accept itself as an illusion’ prompts a question:

…whether the double night of dark
and the dark of dreams
invests us with a kind of wisdom,
or whether in fact, the night is peopled by lights
and reflections from which
there is no escape.

Later in the poem a night-time journey by car is a voyage into a wordless and indifferent universe accessible only through dream. A river ‘bears him off his feet’, carrying him back to childhood memories of a coal fire, Dr Who and ‘Geordie gabble’ like the ‘residual sound/ of the creation of the universe.’ The poem ends:

…but here he is, not having expected
to lose the path, or care too much about the old guard
when they’d gone, but he does, surprisingly much.

Another fine example of Baker’s ability to articulate the conflicting tensions of life, and the possible consolation of imaginative attention, is the opening poem in the collection, ‘When a man goes out’. Here it’s an awareness of a worsening ecological crisis and the poet’s contribution to this in the acts of daily living, such as using a fridge, which preoccupy Baker. This is the ‘enlightened panic’ from which the chapbook takes its name. In such a context is it ‘decadent’, he asks, to be absorbed with questions about art?
The poet’s answer is that he does not ‘trust the voices that separate/ the inner from the outer, that sit at the threshold and ask for ID.’ Through attention to the present moment, the poem suggests, ‘a man may be transformed each morning, / like the day’s colours mirrored in the windows of a sleeping house.’

Other poems in this collection are tributes to fellow writers with whom Baker shares an aesthetic affinity – Geraldine Monk, Peter Hughes, Lee Harwood, Peter Gizzi. There are also two poems written in collaboration with Robert Sheppard and previously published in Sheppard’s EUOIA anthology. Baker shows himself equally at home in short-form poems as in the longer discursive texts. A number of the poems make use of embedded quotations– I noted Donne, Shakespeare and Joyce.

In ‘The Right’, Baker speaks of the ‘physicality/ to some texts’, which can ‘create an inner sound/ that takes on a life of its own/ aside from literal meaning’. He speculates that this might be something at one with ‘laugher or weeping,/ or wordless expressions of love.’ Or like the effect of someone making small talk before asking ‘an awkward question’, a question we do not have to answer because as guests we have ‘a right to silence.’

Can ‘a sound that transforms/ and continues the world…illuminate malignancies,/ soothe them with a process/ incompletely understood’ he asks in ‘Hematopoiesis’. Many of the poems in this volume offer precisely this kind of sustaining possibility.

Simon Collings 22nd September 2020

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

When Harriet Tarlo’s challenging and deeply rewarding anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant, appeared in 2011 from Shearsman Books it attracted a review by Robert Macfarlane for an issue of Saturday Guardian. Referring to details of landscape providing ‘no reliable resting place for the eye or the mind’ the reviewer alerted us to the movement onwards ‘in an effortful relay of attention from speck to speck’. He also pointed to Peter Larkin’s awareness of particularity, ‘highlights in the moving light of the ordinary’, which brings to mind the ‘message from far away’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote in 2005 for the opening issue of Pearl Contents, the First Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University:

‘Out on the Pearl River enjoying a festive excursion I was watching the water currents slide by, flashing with lights from the banks on either side and lightning from the sky; and I realised how brilliant would be the new magazine of the Guangzhou University English Writing Classes, full of pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times.’

In Zoë Skoulding’s new group of poems from the Oystercatcher’s beak we are offered ‘The Celestial Set-Up’, ‘star clusters’ which scatter into ‘islands breaking into archipelagos’: pearl-drop moments of a ‘network of events’. Their relation to time as well as distance is given to us as the possibility of ‘love moving on the epidermis’, ‘a crackle on a hand’, and they unravel ‘in tenses / between your past and my future’. This poetry is a finely-tuned gaze at the particularity of who we are and what we see and it prompts me to look back at Ruskin’s concern in Modern Painters for the ‘Truth of Space’ as dependent on ‘The Focus of the Eye’:

‘First, then, it is to be noticed, that the eye, like any other lens, must have its focus altered, in order to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances; so that it is totally impossible to see distinctly, at the same moment, two objects, one of which is much father off than another.’

Skoulding’s awareness of the possible relationships between the near and the far is central to her focus upon the Menai Straits that separate the coast of North Wales from the Isle of Anglesy. In ‘A Strait Story’ she waits for the tide to turn:

‘Under morning sun, the surface stirs and flicks: this is how it appears, as retreating blue looking black. But what do I know? Soundings off the sea floor come up in layered patterns as the data stream flows in different intensities: a cobalt speckled band of fish; refracted harmonics of the lower levels. You’d be swayed by the glimpse of a seal led by fish led by movement led by transfer of energy, but who’s to say who sways what in the dip and shudder of knowledge, a vessel.’

This range of thought, soundings, brings to my mind the moment in Charles Olson’s ‘Letter 5’ of The Maximus Poems in which he refers to reading ‘sand in the butter on the end of a lead, / and be precise about what sort of bottom your vessel’s over.’
The precision and awareness of depth which prompts Zoë Skoulding’s poetry to compel the past to pierce the present, to speak of days which give utterance ‘all at once, their tongues punctured with green blades’ (‘A Divinatory Calendar’) is central to her reconstruction of A Revolutionary Calendar. As Lyn Hejinian puts it on the back cover of this compelling new publication from Shearsman Books:

‘With expert grace and subversive panache, Zoë Skoulding has written a collection of 360 five-line poems gathered into twelve sections of thirty poems each – a form that replicates that of the ‘Republican Calendar’ created in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution…The resulting sequence of meticulous observations and penchant forays…maps out a temporal intersection, bringing historico-political time (linear and progressive) into conjuncture with seasonal agricultural time (cyclical and recursive).’

Just as all time is irrecoverable all matter changes shape and ‘oil pressed from / dark fruit won’t / hold summer’s shape’: the ‘Olive’ from Frimaire, the November of frost, will ‘ooze’ into a new day. The connection between what was and what is may be held in scents as the axe from Pluviôse (January / February)

‘felled at the root:
here’s an endpoint
sharpened by split
wood scented
with beginning’

Zoë Skoulding’s poetry is meditative, a drawing aside of curtains to allow a scene to be discovered to the reader: it seems like an act of instant as if a light is suddenly turned brightly focused upon a moment. As the poems rest securely on the page the focus is altered in order to permit the poet to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances. This is a poetry to go back to time and time again.

Ian Brinton, 30th August 2020

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