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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

electric-veined

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

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Much has been written and said about Natalie Diaz’s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem. It is an extraordinary and complex book that discusses among many other things the long history of oppression in the United States of the Mojave people and the legacy of that oppression. As a nature poet however, I would like to focus on its power as a collection of nature poetry. Diaz discusses the function and power of water in California in a way that I have never seen it done before, directly addressing its importance to the person and the community and the casual way that we in the United States treat it.

            I live in an area called the Inland Empire just to the east and north of Los Angeles that is much warmer and drier than Los Angeles itself. My friend who works for the water district tells me that typically a drop of water that lands in the mountains near my house will pass through three people before it reaches the ocean. It must be processed and reprocessed if we are to keep up with water supply demands. Diaz lives even farther inland where there is much less water.

            There are people in inland California that treat water casually and do not understand its importance, and Diaz’s poetry illuminates the threats to it and its importance. In “The First Water Is the Body,” She writes, “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States — also, it is a part of my body . . . We carry the river, its body of water, in our body” (46-47). Here, she illustrates the connection of river and person. In a real way, the two are not just interconnected. They are one. A river is not just the riverbed, but the entire watershed of a region, and humans, who carry that water are a part of the watershed, so much so, that the water district considered the people in the Inland Empire are considered a resevoir themselves. We often forget this, but here and throughout the collection, draws our attention to the fact again and again.

            Having established the importance of all rivers to human existence and experience, Diaz then demonstrates how badly Americans treat all of their rivers. Perhaps, she does this most powerfully in “exhibits from The American Water Museum ” when she discusses the tragedy of Flint, Michigan where ill-conceived cost-saving measures ended up with lead being introduced into the drinking water. Though this happened years ago, the lead levels have been diminishing at a frustratingly slow pace, and people are not sure what effect this will have on the children of the area. Diaz uses the callous treatment of the people who live there as emblematic of the way water is treated throughout the United States. She writes of those children as she imagines a diorama in her Water Museum, “Now the children lie flat on the floor of the diorama, like they are sleeping, open-eyed to the sight, to what they have seen through their mouths” (65).

            Diaz’s insight into the way the United States is destroying itself is tied to her postcolonial perspective. It is, of course, the marginalized communities who suffer most from environmental degredation because there is a false sense that some communities are in some way divorced from the natural world. Diaz illustrates how wrong and dangerous this notion is.

John Brantingham 26th January 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

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

Life, Orange to Pear by John Brantingham (Bamboo Dart Press)

John Brantingham’s newest book, Life, Orange to Pear, begins and ends with fruit.

I’m not spoiling anything for you. It’s right there in the title. It’s also, surprise, about life–how it begins, ends, and everything in between. The simple act of eating fruit in the opening and closing scenes of this book poses the idea that we can find comfort in the simplest moments so long as we choose to look for it. This book proposes that we must appreciate simplicity while we, at the same time, grapple with complexity and existential terror.

Written in a casual, second-person voice, Orange to Pear follows the life and fatherhood of a very flawed but well-meaning part-time college professor and father who also happens to be a functioning alcoholic. Using this voice, this book argues that there are no easy solutions. Instead of groping for answers to the Problem of Evil, or whether we’re defined by our flaws, or how much we doom our children to repeat our lives, this story offers something else–an unadulterated, almost Christ-like empathy.

It also, however, demonstrates how even human beings with the best intentions can be ineffective, destructive, and self-sabotaging. How sometimes people will use any excuse to enact the destructive behaviors at their core. How passivity, over-intellectualizing, and destructive behavior masquerading as self-care can be paralyzing. That certain patterns of living leave a person completely adrift, wondering and hoping instead of acting. The narrator (and by extension the reader) is often left not knowing if he’s done his best. The story reaches a conclusion on this, and it’s carefully crafted, but I won’t summarize it. I can’t. Like many of the things that matter in this world, it can’t be retold, only experienced. One of the gifts of this book is that it revels in uncertainty while also being clear, direct, and brief. Brantingham captures what life is like moment-to-flawed-moment as we scrape (often unsuccessfully) for meaning, importance, and decency–and how painful, divine, and silly these moments can be.

The narrative centers around the flawed narrator’s connection to his daughter, Cyndi. As the story evolves, the uncertainty this man faces as his daughter, despite his every attempt to slow her down, grows up and then eventually outgrows him. This is the archetypal coming-of-age story from the unusual perspective of a broken parent–a man who drinks through breakfast, seems only marginally employed, and who never, ever, refers to his wife by her name. He makes mistakes in pursuit of what he thinks is right–and what he believes is right coincidentally serves to allow him to indulge himself.

At one point, he makes an indirect, not very collected attempt at confronting an acquaintance (who is proudly showing him the taxidermized foot of an elephant that has been made into furniture) about wealth inequality, gleefully burning an important social bridge for his wife:

And as you walk out your daughter beams at you for the first time in a long time and it makes you want to storm out, which you do, as well as anyone can storm and also stop off by the bar for one more glass of the good stuff.

He’s done the right thing. Maybe. He’s done it to earn the pride of his daughter, who finds the man abhorrent, but one can’t help but notice that he’s also getting another drink out of it. He’s–in the true mindset of an addict–earning another drink.

These characters have the simultaneously empathetic and pathetic qualities of Kurt Vonnegut characters. They’re whole, flawed, and alive in a way that lets us one feels their own aliveness. By the time you’ve reached the end of this book you hate the narrator. And you love him. You regret all of his mistakes and realize why they were so important. You wouldn’t undo them even if you could because you’ve found something divine in them.

Bamboo Dart Press are also publishing Dennis Callaci, Stephanie Barbé Hammer and Meg Pokrass in their fiction series.

Scott Noon Creley 11th November 2020

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