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The Purpose of Things: Illuminating the Ordinary Poetry by Peter Serchuk Photographs by Pieter de Koninck (Regal House Publishing)

The Purpose of Things: Illuminating the Ordinary Poetry by Peter Serchuk Photographs by Pieter de Koninck (Regal House Publishing)

            My friend Jane Edberg, who is a writer and visual artist, and I coined the term etymphrastic to describe visual arts that are created in direct reaction to poetry. It’s a counterpoint to ekphrastic, which describes poetry written in reaction to visual arts. I don’t know whether The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is etymphrastic or ekphrastic because the photography by de Koninck and the poems by Serchuk work playfully together. My guess, however, is that whichever way it went this collection was probably done in a kind of joyful collaboration. I read this collection because of my admiration for Serchuk. I came to know his work through the New Voices Project, which will be publishing a book on April 18th. It is the work of dozens of writers and poets writing new work about the Holocaust. The hope is that we might understand it and keep learning new lessons from it. His work in this collection is painful, so I expected that same kind of thing here. Instead, what I read was joy. The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is a playful collection that examines what things do for us and how they bring us joy; while I will be quoting the poetry in this article, the poetry is incomplete without the images that go with it, the image and poetry together forming the meaning of the book.

            This book of etymphrastic and ekphrastic work is innovative in its use of this approach, and its use of short measure as a poetic form. Short measure is a form defined by a quatrain of iambic verse using 6, 6, 8, 6 syllables in each line. The result of this is a bouncy, playful meter that is child-like without being childish. Serchuk’s poems stop after only two stanzas, so they are quick as well as being playful. However, it is the white space between poem and image that helps us to form meaning. For example, in The Purpose of Dirt,’ Serchuk writes, 

To bristle every broom.

To bury every war.

To wash the smirk off every face

that wears a righteous smile.

Asylum for the root.

Confetti for the dead.

To know the work in any man

by scouring his hands (45).

The image that accompanies the poem is a bin of dirt sitting in the middle of a cemetery. The seemingly happy and bouncing nature of the poetry, juxtaposed with the image of dirt presumably left over after being displaced by the dead, and also juxtaposed with discussion of war dead, creates a tension that is difficult and uncomfortable to sort out in the reader’s head. After all, the rhythm and the style draws us toward lightness and humor, but there is a level of guilt once we feel this emotion given the discourse of the photographer and poet. This tension is where this book often lives and helps us to get a more complex understanding of the things that inhabit our world.

            The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is an interesting dive that plays with what poetry can do. I found myself breezing through the first reading because it is a quick read. But it stayed with me. Subsequent readings were slower, and I spent more time thinking about the tension of images and words. The two artists take on so many ideas and explore so many points of view that it’s a little dizzying. Each one though demands attention and reflection. Each one hides a power that can be understood only through some level of meditation.

John Brantingham 27th May 2023

Seige and Symphony by Myra Schneider (Second Light Publications)

Seige and Symphony by Myra Schneider (Second Light Publications)

     In her latest collection, Myra Schneider uses poetical language to investigate our difficult times. Her lines develop concerns and thoughts in expanded imageries that search for new paths. Her detailed observations give a clear and multi-layered vision of the arguments she explores. Nature is often at the fore and helps us to understand our situation and our role on the planet and what it means to be human. Environmental concerns and the everyday struggle to survive in this troubled period are therefore paramount; Schneider’s response is complex and expertly nuanced but eventually positive. We will survive despite conflicts, depression, oppressions, failures and fragilities and the damage we are inflicting on the planet. We will survive even though the situation may look hopeless. In the final lines of some of her poems the message about having faith in the renewal of humanity is constant and undeniable, allowing the reader to rethink and ponder on major issue with fresh eyes:

the light still reaching us from the early universe,

darkness splitting apart to let morning be born,

rain filling puddle and sea, the will to survive stored

in ovaries, love, minds mastering the beauty 

of mathematics, this poignant arch which rises

in the silence beyond the leaning walls of the nave.   (‘Cropthorne Church’)

in spite of hungers, uprootings, in spite of losses 

too deep to name, the will to live persists.     (‘Thrust’)

     Her words are generous and frank, ‘not fabrications easy as eiderdowns // that prettify lies’; they are passionate, ‘tough words’ that dissect and amplify meanings, unleashing the potential of the imagination. They defy darkness and celebrate colours, especially the colour green: 

[…] It’s a green spawned 

by the damp bedded in rotting logs and deep

leaf mush, a green that’s been so mothered

by light it banishes lighlessness, a green

more potent than the science which explains it,

a green which fills my mind, feeds my arteries,

a green that urges: never give up.         (‘Cushion Moss’)

     Some of the poems in the collection are ekphrases that evoke paintings by artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Stanley Spencer, J.M.W. Turner, Henri Rousseau and Henry Moore and prints by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. The ekphrastic poems catch the essence of the artists’ message and go beyond it, playing freely with the pictures in loose, sensuous descriptions; they penetrate the inner meaning of the artwork, connecting with the poet’s experience in an exchange that creates memorable lines, such as those about the vitality of Hokusai’s ‘The Horse-Washing Waterfall’ in which ‘movement is everything.’ 

     The fourth section, ‘Siege and Symphony’, is dedicated to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C Major, also called ‘Leningrad’ as it was performed for the first time in Leningrad in March 1942 when the city was under siege by the Nazi army. The symphony became a symbol of resistance to oppression and totalitarianism. Half a million people died in the siege, which lasted more than two years. The symphony is considered to be a response to this invasion, though part of it was probably conceived before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The famous ‘invasion theme’ and later dramatic movements express the sufferings caused by tyranny and the resilient opposition to it. 

     Schneider’s long poem is formed of fifteen parts that retrace the story of the composition and of the performance, drawing inspiration from primary sources that add unexpected, interesting details to the narrative. The destruction of the war dramatically mingles with the quotidian the different characters experience. The poem also links to more recent conflicts, such as the Syrian war, encompassing ‘meanings / which travel far beyond Hitler’s war.’ Despair and chaos seem to pervade the music and the city, where ‘Bodies lie hard as rocks in the snow’ and ‘Death crouches in corners and doorways’. These conditions are reflected in the weakness of the conductor and the musicians, who are starving during the rehearsals and the final performance. The ending is moving and glorious: ‘utter silence, then a storm of clapping’ spread in the audience and beyond, reaching the German troops as well. Marigolds and cornflowers are offered at the end in a triumph of colours that envisages a more hopeful future. The poem therefore appropriately ends this multifaceted collection that addresses different and complex arguments; it encompasses personal experiences and global issues and suggests possible positive solutions in which humanity is eventually rescued from total destruction. The vision is compelling, passionate and compassionate. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 19th November 2022

Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship by Sister

Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship by Sister

In the 1990s Sister Wendy Beckett, a contemplative nun, became the unlikely presenter of a series of BBC television programmes on the visual arts and author of a number of art books. She was often the subject of – sometimes warm-hearted, sometimes not – parody and ridicule, especially after one particular TV moment which saw her fondling the testicles of a life-size statue of a bull. These parodies and homages included the anarchic Sister Windy Bucket, the cross-dressing Sister Beatrice, and Postcards from God, a musical.

Her Sunday School demeanour and somewhat simplistic religious take on art did not endear her to everyone, but in person she was very different. At the 1990’s The Journey art exhibition and conference in Lincoln, she was a charismatic speaker and a sociable and engaged delegate who charmed everyone present. In a couple of brief notes she sent to me soon afterwards, she enthused about everything from the food (which was mediocre at best!) to the other speakers and ensuing talks and discussions, as well as the exhibited work itself. 

The Journey was organised by artist Garry Fabian Miller, and a couple of years later Stride published Honesty, a book of his photographic plant images accompanied by five Sister Wendy texts. The book was launched in a London gallery and Sister Wendy turned out for the event and set to signing limited edition copies. She sat with my mother behind the sales table, joking and chatting with her and our book buyers, whilst consuming a surprising amount of white wine. That was the last time I met her in person, but once again I received a few short letters afterwards, enthusiastic and uplifting, one accompanied by a short pamphlet she had previously written about prayer.

Robert Ellsberg got to know Sister Wendy much later on. They wrote to each other from 2016 until her death in 2018, and Dearest Sister Wendy… is a book extracted from a much larger correspondence. Ellsberg does, or did, his best to coax Sister Wendy into an in-depth conversation, opening up himself to her before she takes the bait and enters into true dialogue.

I say true dialogue, but actually much of what both sides write is religious platitudes: breathless thank you for each others’ letters, ‘being touched’ by, ‘rejoicing in’, supporting each others’ sufferings, and the sharing of dreams (always a bad sign in my opinion). There is little depth or actual questioning or debate going on here; Sister Wendy appears almost zen-like in her self-abnegation, and everything that happens is simply God’s will and that is pretty much the end of it, her response is not needed. The most interesting part of the book for me is the slow change of Sister Wendy’s attitude to the rebellious writer and monk Thomas Merton, whom she initially criticises for not following his monastic order’s rules, but gradually warms to, mostly as the result of Ellsberg’s gently persuasive arguments and observations.

Maybe it’s just me, but Sister Wendy’s acceptance and inability to discuss things except in terms of her untroubled Christian belief, makes for alien and uncomfortable reading. I long for some doubt, some questioning, some discussion of art in terms of colour, form, weight, pattern, creativity, not as an enabler of some simplistic mini-sermon related to a picture’s ‘content’. Ellsberg is the editor-in-chief of Orbis books, and in some ways this publication feels like an indulgence, a view supported by his constant mentions of books he has published or will be publishing soon, and the autobiographical stories he weaves in to his published letters. I prefer to remember Sister Wendy’s crooked smile, wine glass in hand, as she chatted amiably to the people around her in Lincoln and London; Ellsberg’s depiction of a saintly, retiring and somewhat pious and dull correspondent does her a disservice.

Rupert Loydell 3rd November 2023

Afterword by David Miller (Shearsman Books), Circle Square Triangle by David Miller (Spuyten Duyvil)

Afterword by David Miller (Shearsman Books), Circle Square Triangle by David Miller (Spuyten Duyvil)

David Miller’s writing has always crossed boundaries: between poetry and fiction, between the confessional and poetically distant, the heartfelt and philosophical. His work has consistently used short texts – often containing quotes or intertextual allusions – in juxtaposition to other short texts to build up a patchwork effect within a text. In the ‘Notes’ to Afterword, he refers to ‘independent texts. Yet related.’ and ‘Ruins, edifices, fragmented architectures.’ Adopting a phrase from Circle Square Triangle a reader might think of reading Miller more as ‘through & past & back’.

But it is never a puzzle to be solved, or a jigsaw that makes a picture with straight edges and is complete. Miller’s work is often more like an archaeological tesserae, the remains of a mosaic that has slowly been revealed by digging and then patient brush work. The quotations and allusions, be they from neglected authors, obscure religious texts or other poets’ writing, are sufficient in themselves: we do not need to read them for ourselves, Miller has captured the essence of what he wishes to say or mention and embedded that within his own web of writing.

Because the texts are so brief, it means the language and ideas have to work hard on the page. These are poems that have been edited and shaped, revised and rewritten until there is just enough on the page, enough to capture a moment, a thought, an image or idea. These are then allowed to accumulate and link, via association and theme, to produce a complete work. It risks being precious, elusive and cryptic, but Miller’s work is consistently clear-headed and precise, carefully sculpted on the page and for the ear.

The back cover blurb suggests that Afterword is ‘a long poem in fragments, but it might also be seen as a poem sequence of memories and mediations, dreams and visions’. Thankfully, Miller retains his specificity and imagistic skill to keep away from the new age ideas this conjured up for me, although at times these texts can be more abstract than much of his writing, relying on wordplay, visual/aural echo and surprising trains of thought to make their point:


     rags | rags we have | rags we become we are       (page 86)

     so late | & still it rains

     so long ah so long that it rains it rains & it rains

     cherries in kirsch | once               (page 83)

Much of Afterword references spirituality, belief and love, often within the context of regret and loss, but also in relation to art, theology and relationships, and the book slowly moves towards a kind of resolution which is rooted in the physicality of fingers, speech and lips.

Circle Square Triangle is more of a sequence in the expected way: a long poem in four numbered parts, sometimes divided again into numbered parts, with individual poems (or parts of poems) delineated by asterisks between them, but the whole running on over the pages. I confess that even after several reads (and also as an unnamed character who is briefly present in a poem) I struggle with this work. It is the first time for me that Miller has tried to imbue too much meaning into some of his images or let named artists and writers stand in as a kind of shorthand for what he wants to say. And the title phrase does not resonate or underpin the work as Miller clearly wants it to do.

There are wonderful memories and moments, even compressed narratives, in this text, but there are also poems that moan and poems that seem too ordinary in what they depict. It is clear these autobiographical stories and memories are important to the author, but sometimes they seem slight or disgruntled in their retelling. Others, of course, may disagree and find ways to engage with Circle Square Triangle, but for me it is Afterword, along with Miller’s Collected Poems, Reassembling Still, I shall be returning to.

Rupert Loydell 6th February 2022

Selected Poems 1968-1996 by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin)

Selected Poems 1968-1996 by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin)

Brodsky, who died aged 55 in 1996, it can hardly be denied is a major Russian American poet. He took exile in the US from Russia in 1972, also translating some of his own works into English. He won the Nobel in 1987, and was US poet laureate in 1991. It is worth noting also that he has been praised for his essays including Less Than One (1986). 

Preceded by such high praise it can be difficult to an extent to form one’s own view of the poetry. This new Penguin Classics selection arranges the chosen poems near enough chronologically, but does not foreground the original collections in which they appeared, except maybe for A Part of Speech, from which the title poem is featured.

I would tend to the view that Brodsky’s writing is both fierce and unassuming. Two key figures to whom he relates are Akhmatova, of whom it might be said was a protégé, one of the ‘Akhmatova’s Orphans’; and W. H. Auden, another American émigré, whom he counted as a key influence.

On a stylistic note, Brodsky frequently, but not always, wrote in measured rhyme, a challenge no doubt for translators. A key poem here would be the early ‘Six Years Later’, as eg

                        her misty sadness cleared, and showed

            a cloudless distance waiting up the road (p3)

noting the rhyme of ‘showed’ and ‘road’. Yet this is somewhat atypical, albeit intriguing, well coined and accessible.

The volume is a mix of shorter and longer poems. Several are quite lengthy, one could cite ‘The Fly’, ‘Nature Morte’, ‘The Butterfly’, ‘In England’, ‘Roman Elegies’, ‘Eclogue IV: Winter’ (after Virgil), and ‘Vertumnus’.

In numerous respects I found ‘The Fly’ quite pertinent here. It is centre spaced; but I found a key expression here was ‘I am your cellmate, not your warden./ There is no pardon.’ (p110) There is this sense of affinity with even the most fleeting and vulnerable of creatures, and this could be compared too to the long poem ‘The Butterfly’. Brodsky may be fierce in so many ways, resolute, outspoken, chancing risks, but he is not above creatures or being at the lowest level. He seems unburdened by that sense of heavy responsibility linked to the Nobel and the laureateship. 

A poem which finds Brodsky at perhaps his most reflective and candid is ‘May 24, 1980’. It begins ‘I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages’ (p70) and ends

            ‘What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.

            Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.

            Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,

            only gratitude will be gushing from it.’ (p70)

This bespeaks perhaps a strong dose of commitment and resistance.

Brodsky acknowledged among his influences W.H. Auden and Robert Frost. In his Nobel lecture he credited Anna Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, as well as Frost and Auden. Though this suggests a relatively orthodox strain of descent, Brodsky did meet some persecution from the authorities. An interesting footnote is that Walcott translated some Brodsky, and the poet also dedicated a poem to him. (‘Eclogue IV’)

Another very relevant poem is ‘A Part of Speech’, which includes the lines;-

                                         ‘Life, that no one dares

            to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

            bares its teeth in a grin at each

            encounter. What gets left of man amounts

            to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.’ (p53)

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, shall we say, unless one wants a full accounting of the picture, and grinning to boot. Yet we have also the primacy of speech and the use of language as a means to relate if not also of self consciousness and understanding.

What to take from this. Perhaps ironically some of the shorter poems are as persuasive as the long ones. Equally Brodsky is not a rigorous formalist, pertaining eg to rhyme, but neither are his lines particularly loose. He had a difficult life; for example, being exiled for 5 years in Arkhangelsk, though he made the most of it. His travelling to the US in 1972 was not voluntary but owing to state expulsion. His situation must surely relate on a certain level to the conditions of earlier poets in Russia like Akhmatova who were treated by the state with suspicion, Russia verging on an authoritarian position relating to the arts.

I must say I find Brodsky significant predominantly as a key Russian poet, perhaps more so than an American. It would be impossible for him to shed that whelming weight of his past. And though he admired W.H. Auden their styles are radically different, wherein he is surely much closer to Akhmatova. That said, he is a key poet of the 1980s and 90s on the international scene, and one Russian poet who has decidedly made an impact abroad, choosing to be cellmate rather than warden (‘The Fly’).

Clark Allison 27th November 2021 

Bioluminescent Baby by Fiona Benson (Guillemot Press)

Bioluminescent Baby by Fiona Benson (Guillemot Press)

The mesmerising rhythm and sense of longing of Fiona Benson’s most recent collection accompany the reader in the world of arthropods. This elegant edition published by Guillemot Press includes woodcut illustrations by Anupa Gardner that counterbalance in an essential style the rich and sensual poems. The physical description of the insects and the parallel exploration of the potentials of language offer a transcendent quality that characterises the collection in a cycle of life and death that passes through mating. As Benson remarks in the acknowledgements, the poems were commissioned by Arts and Culture at the University of Exeter for 2019–2020’s Project Urgency. The poems are also part of sound piece collaborations with sound artists Mair Bosworth and Eliza Lomas.

     Compared to her previous collections, Bright Travellers (Cape Poetry 2014) and Vertigo and Ghost(Cape Poetry 2019), Bioluminescent Baby still lingers on the topic of love and procreation but does not investigate the traumatic experiences of miscarriage and abuse. Bright Travellers concentrates on motherhood and includes some poems on Van Gogh’s artwork. Vertigo and Ghost exposes the violence and abuse of classical myths in which women are often subjected to abduction and rape. The poem ‘Ruin’, which is about childbirth and motherhood, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for The Best Single Poem.

     In this new collection the life of the insects is subtly related to the human condition; they mutually struggle to survive in a limited existence in which procreation is crucial for the continuation of the species. The connection with the community is also important; it is the environment where they find each other and where they look for a companion that will guarantee procreation:

All night she signals him in:

come find me – it is time –and almost dawn;


the city’s neon signs:

where are you – it is time –and almost dawn


and it is time –and almost dawn and love,

my love, there is no finding then.

(‘Love Poem, Lampyridae, Lampyris noctiluca’)

     Courtship and love are recurring themes; they are fulfilling moments in life that donate physical and mental ecstasy, an intense pleasure that goes together with the instinct of survival.

     Each title refers to an insect and is subtitled with the Latin name, as in entomology treatises that date back to Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Ulisse Aldovrandi. This practice grounds the poems in a scientific context and is emphasised by the keen observation and detailed descriptions of the insects’ habits. However, these descriptions often blur in an imaginary dimension that exposes the insides of the creatures, the inner secret part of them that yearns to evolve despite their brief lives:

four to six weeks

then death.

The forest is littered

with a million

small sarcophagi,

empty pyxes.

(‘Magicicadas, Magicicada septendecim, ix’)

     This process implies mutation and transformation: the ‘crisp larval skins [are]/discarded’. It is ‘not death’; the skin is shed like ‘an unzipped dress’ and she will become a luminous new creature ‘and dance with the others/in fluid spires’ (‘Mayfly, Ephemera Danica, i Subimago’). This capacity to mutate, to abandon the discarded skin, seems to be the rite of passage for further developments that will bring love and conception. Therefore, the cycle of life is denoted by change, an ‘endless mutating song’ that speaks of love:

like an effigy in flames

convulsively bright


you radiate.

(‘Notes Towards an Understanding of Butterfly Wings, 8. Notes: Hyperspectral 2’)

     The attention to the life of insects and to the natural world evoked in Benson’s poems can be linked to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, with whom Benson shares the sensual quality of her verses as well as experimentation with sounds and language structures. In both poets there is a sense of renewal that is envisaged in nature and cannot be defeated by death. This cycle of resurrection reproduces itself in a ‘gorgeous living chain’ in which DNA merges and replicates, and it is the antidote to ‘the catastrophic world’ we are currently living in.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 24th November 2021

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

The short fictions in this collection engage with questions about the self, the nature of writing, the relation of the writer to the text, the ways in which we perceive reality, and how that reality is represented by works of art. These major themes encompass a number of other strands, some examined below, all of which is expressed in stories which are humorous, engaging and very readable.

In the piece ‘Retrospective’ there is a description of a machine constructed from various musical instruments as well as “old cans, even a plastic bucket”. The machine generates “…music that has no observable pattern. It is purely the product of chance.” This description of an automated artform presents another important theme of the collection, which is virtualisation, that is, digitally-generated experiences which, as these stories suggest, are encroaching more and more on the “real” world. In another story, a couple are entranced by birds singing in a tree in midwinter, only to find that the sounds are from wires and speakers installed by their new neighbours. On the same theme of the effect of the digital world on everyday life, the story “The Composer”, which describes how the narrator discovers a new composer only to find that they already have thousands of online listeners, expresses the anxiety caused by surplus of information in the internet age. The nature of art and the way in which people engage with artworks is examined in a number of pieces. In ‘Another Life (1)’ an art exhibition morphs into a visit to an African village, while in a companion piece, ‘Other Lives (2)’ the narrator returns to Nairobi from a drive up-country, to step from his apartment block into a “a large ballroom full of white people in expensive clothes”; both of these pieces point up the contradiction in how Westerners view art, particularly what might be termed “world art”.

There is plenty of comedy in these stories, and in fact, the comical elements are often the most disturbing. They come into play particularly when dealing with the absurdity of contemporary life and the infantilisation of culture. In ‘The Wedding’, the ceremony is held on a bouncy castle, and “One of the highlights was Julia’s mother falling over during the exchange of vows”. Another story gives us a childhood idyll, in which the narrator watched each year the spawning of fresh-water fish, turned into a “wildlife hotspot” complete with children’s fish-costumes.

The story ‘The Character’ is an important one in terms of this collection; it investigates notions of freewill and determinism in the voice of someone who could well be a character in another of the stories, aware of, and trying to comprehend, their own fictive nature:

“Though seeming to choose freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine… I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power.”

The style of these stories is generally spare and understated. Where variations occur, it’s when the texts are parodying certain types of discourse. Some of the stories read as pastiche of certain styles, lightly shadowing the originals, including historical narrative and the essay form. The story ‘Theory’ is a pastiche of old-fashioned literary criticism, as is ‘Verne’s Nemesis’ in which a discussion of Verne’s work merges with the theme of identity running all through the book. The story ‘The Library’ seems like a key text in this collection, investigating the relationship between fiction and reality, and the blurred no-mans-land between them. The story ends “The library was there, unlike the past, always available to be rediscovered, reinventing itself continually in the light of fresh associations”; a description which could be applied to the stories in this book.

Although there are elements of dream-psychology in these stories, in general they are less dreamlike than literary; their characters are entangled in a text which reflects their confusion and instability, but which also frames their existence. One speaker says “I was no more than a diffuse presence without definite character”, describing how her “identity was seriously in doubt… Until then I had made little impression on the narrative”.

The book has an epigraph from Kafka, and as well as that major influence, the texts are reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Beckett. The pieces use a combination of first-person and third person (often referred to only by a Kafkaesque initial) and are by turns funny, poignant and disorientating. Reading them late at night in a period of insomnia can, as I can attest, be a disturbing experience. Which as good a recommendation as any.

Alan Baker 27th July 2021

Islands of Voices: Selected Poems of Douglas Oliver edited Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

Islands of Voices: Selected Poems of Douglas Oliver edited Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

The eight titles of Douglas Oliver’s works included by Ian Brinton are supported with a preface by Joe Luna and introduction by the editor along with eight pages of notes at the end of this 180 page book. The inclusions by Joe Luna and Ian Brinton make clear Douglas Oliver’s stance towards poetry as indeed does reading his poems.

         The poet’s inward conversations held within poems being the very thing with which he wants to confront possible readers: the immediacy of language acting in the moment of experience and in the reported experience, each being reliant on the other. Clear indication of this evident in:

                  ‘Oh you are born already!’ cries the English mother

                  in pained surprise to her hanging baby,

                  as though the finished phrase

                  has slipped, unfinished, out of anguish

                  still continuing, into its adventures.

                                                               ‘Beyond active and passive’

and strongly so, in:

                  … The moment we will speak has

                  already happened: it waits

                  in the silence of the subterranean hall

                  as meaning stumbles downstairs to articulation.

                                                               ‘The earthen stairs’

There is no escaping the disruptive syntax, especially in poems from ‘Oppo Hectic’ and ‘The Diagram Poems’ but then poetic articulation has its tradition in ‘strange and wonderful language’ (Aristotle), in order to estrange itself from normalcy. The core concern of defamiliarisation as outlined in Viktor Shklovsky’s essay, ‘Art as Technique’, is that language should be non-normative

so that the author creates a vision from de-automized perceptions.

Certainly Douglas Oliver’s earlier poems invite such a step into them, not to understand, but to believe them. Once done the presumptions of comprehension give way to other experiences.

                  Kindness acts idly or unnaturally,

                  leads you into fear. Act in kind.

                  Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.

                  Don’t be afraid of the darkness of kind;

                  for it’s the birth of darkness, vertical twist

                  of opening lips in the night:

                                                               ‘For Kind

However not all the poems are difficult but most are arresting:

                  …on their marital bed she, the Haitian

                  changed his skin sympathies, unshackled his stiff pelvis

                  by mounting him, squirting black womanly sperm into him,

                  remaking his mind and his tongue while he was still

                  asleep, new conceptions warm and liquid in his pelvis.

                  The opening of eyes, changing of person, exchange of sexes,

                  Black for White, We for They, Woman on Top, all this is

                                                               ‘Penniless Politics’

That book ‘Penniless Politics’ advanced the notion of a people’s political party in the multicultural Lower East Side of New York and, as with the sweep of his writing, politics and social comment was its fuel – that and the manner in which it was sourced from his personal life.

                                                         … for my father

                  now spoke, in death still a typical Scot:

                  ‘Please yourself with all this palaver

                  about Socialism; the cemetery is certainly not

                  a Tory stronghold. The truth is, I’d rather

                  your Socialism shone with your past; you’re not shot

                  of that fatherly honesty,  walk humbly but

                  remember your innocent days; who refuses

                  his childhood’s a booby – and I haven’t forgot

                  your politics, with its blindness and pearly roses.’

                                                               ‘The Infant and the Pearl’

There is a quantity of information regarding Douglas Oliver and that’s good – it is very good and purposeful. What I hope to have achieved in this review is to set out the push in the publication of Islands of Voices.

         Ian Brinton has selected poems by Douglas Oliver that he considers should be read. There is no getting away from this. His selection is generous and scopes the poet’s life, to wit (and it’s quoted in Ian Brinton’s introduction) Douglas Oliver said, ‘A poet’s full performance is the whole life’s work; …’

Some of it is here and Ian Brinton instigates a reading of it all.        Yes.

Ric Hool 29th May 2021

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

Karen Jones’s heartbreaking flash fiction collection, When It’s Called Not Making Love, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction which specializes in flash fiction authors and has published writers like Meg Pokrass, Diane Simons, and Jude Higgens. Jones’s collection takes a look at adolescent and young adult sexuality from the point of view of Bernadette, someone who is on the outside because she is considered overweight and just a little different. Jones is a master of point-of-view and draws us into Bernadette’s interior life allowing us to live in the awkward body of someone who wants and needs love but does not know exactly how to engage meaningfully with other people. It is an exceptional collection showing how people are at the same time used and rejected sexually and what that does to the psyche.

The most powerful flash piece for me was the final and titular story. In it, we are given three moments with three young men who have sex with Bernadette from behind, so they do not have to look her in the eye. They brag of the numbers of their sexual conquests, and she tells each they are her first in an attempt to elicit a stronger emotional reaction from them. The problem is in the way that these boys look at her and in how she sees herself as undeserving or incapable of having a fulfilling emotional experience involving sex. It ends with the line, “Maybe someday another boy would like her enough to look her in the eye while he fucked her. Maybe she’d even call it making love” (38). The difference between making love and getting fucked is the key concept of the story and collection. Bernadette does not seem to know how to achieve love, so she settles for what she can get. Of course, this is the key problem for many of us when we are young and are just trying love out. She captures that problem so well, and she had me musing about my own youthful fumblings toward emotion.

Her awkwardness in her own body is her defining characteristic in her world. Early in the collection, she begins a friendship with a girl named Jenny, whom everyone thinks is superior. Her grandmother tells the main character, “‘She’s half the size of you and twice as smart  . . . And so pretty. Why can’t you have silky hair like hers? Why are you such a lump of a girl, Bernadette?’” (3). This is a social condition that we are all aware of, but Jones does an exceptional job of drawing out what it means to be a human being who is seen as an insufficient accessory. This expectation that she is Jenny’s accessory and a bad one at that drives her early sexual encounters where she is often offered sexually to a friend so that Jenny can get the boy or the experience she wants. She is abused and neglected. She is a person capable of exceptional emotional range and she is denied the chance to have those emotions.

When It’s Called Not Making Love captures so well the pain of young people who want a kind of physical perfection and think they will never have it. It also captures the trap of thinking of this world in terms of perfection and imperfection.

John Brantingham 29th March 2021

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Yi Shun Lai, author of Not A Self Help Book and weekly columnist in Writer magazine, is a New Yorker who honed her craft writing for the J. Peterman catalog. Yes, that J. Peterman. So, on face value, it might be surprising that her latest book recounts a grueling journey into the world of outdoor adventure sports. However, the brisk, 46 page, Pin Ups is exactly that, a portrait of the author’s sporting experience. It begins with a childhood fascination with BMX racing, progresses through skiing, hiking, and windsurfing, and finally culminates with her love for adventure racing. However, while Yi Shun’s passion for the outdoors radiates from the page, at its core, Pin Ups also presents a more personal and universally relatable story, the quest to discover one’s identity.
The memoir opens with Yi Shun’s childhood where, like many of us, her search for meaning relies upon the emulation of media figures. In her youth, her mother supplied her with copies of Teen magazine in an attempt to sway Yi Shun into more traditionally feminine interests. Instead, she perused them and cut out articles on BMX biking and football, already drawn to outdoor sports, but participating vicariously through the girls on the page.
Later, throughout college and living in Manhattan, she attached her identity to the activities of the men she dated. With each new relationship came a new fascination, from volleyball to windsurfing to mountain biking, each discovery a step further to an understanding of herself. However, none of these pursuits inspired a genuine passion. Still, Yi Shun continued to stay active. In her words, “When you are hungry, you’ll eat anything.”
Her journey comes to a climax when, through camaraderie with other women, she discovers adventure racing. It is a teamwork centric, outdoor sport that involves a variety of activities, including mountain biking, trail running, paddling, and rock climbing. Through adventure racing and the people she meets both on and off the trail, Yi Shun comes to embrace herself as a woman, a minority, and an athlete.
Naturally, finding oneself comes with the acceptance of some ugly truths. Yi Shun experiences a classic, dreaded moment, the oh god, my parents were right. During a trip to Carmel, California, she enjoys the quaint, diverse area and considers moving there. In this moment, Yi Shun is distressed to realize that her mother had been correct. She enjoys the traditionally comfortable, upwardly mobile lifestyle. However, Yi Shun takes this jarring realization in stride, as we all should when moments of sudden development strike. Through work and family, she finds the way to balance her want for comfort with her yearning for the dirt and the danger of the outdoors. Such a response is admirable and should be looked upon as an example of how to embrace the uncomfortable realizations that accompany personal growth.

In the most tender and moving passage, she recalls herself walking through Manhattan on a particularly windy day when she spots the shadow of a woman.
“”(She was) Brisk and efficient, collar popped against the wind, making her way around the corner. “Hm,” I thought to myself, echoes of my father’s sentiment creeping through my brain, “that’s the kind of woman I want to grow up to be.” It was a split second before I realized that the shadow belonged to me.””

Fully realized, brisk in pace, and deep in meaning, Pin Ups is a motivational and thought provoking piece reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Laura Bell’s Claiming Ground. Yi Shun has crafted a book that is essential for anyone who feels a calling for outdoor competition or who has ever wondered what it really means to be themselves in this complicated world.

Little Bound Books has also published work by L.M. Browning, Heidi Barr, and Will Falk.

Andrew Hughes 2nd February 2021

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