Linda Rose Parkes, Familiars

Linda Rose Parkes, Familiars, (Hearing Eye, 2014), 59pp, £7.50. ISBN 9781905082735

Reviewed by Kyle Cooper

[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]

Samuel Beckett’s character Estragon (who, I recently discovered, shares a name with a brand of European mustard) makes the damning statement that “People are bloody ignorant apes.” This line between human and animal is one oft-discussed in poetry. Evolutionary theory, genetics and our basic psychology tell us we are not so different from the other inhabitants of our planets. But religion, emotions, reason and – perhaps – a fair dollop of our own egos tell us that we are more than that. Poetry, often falling somewhere between these two poles, discusses this perplexity.

Parkes’s third collection, Familiars, takes up the discussion in fresh terms, examining the relationship between people and animals, interrogating family dynamics and exploring sexual battles and confluences.

The collection opens with a “bang” – in Interruptus’, a couple are interrupted mid-coitus “when a cowgirl rode in…and started firing rounds / into the luckless cattle”. There is a passion to the poem which treads a line between violence and lust:

                Now our only desire
was for the horse to unseat her –
to toss her through the air,
her hair broken loose,
mouth gaping

Parkes uses the interactions between humans and animals to look at the violence of sex, and the sexuality of violence. Bovine’ portrays a woman returning home to find a “bull god of rain and fecundating power” snorting on the landing, a heavy and virile masculine figure. The relationships between male and female genders are explored in terms of bodily, animal language, as well as in terms of complicated mental ties, as can be seen in The Mole Man’. This poem sets out a sinister scene in which a male acquaintance appears at a woman’s window, dangling a mole by one foot, “subjugating / those white hands”.

The coven of body-sex-violence is brought together most potently in Cleavage’, which depicts a bodily modification in the jarring juxtaposition of “The B-cup waiting behind the whittling knife”. Parkes sees the body identity merging with a city – “subcutaneous fat, patches of skin / mounting in smoke at the heart of Krung Thep”. Parkes considers what components make “this integument of woman” and the gender and sexual identity that these components give rise to, and are subjected to. What emerges is a being of motherhood “with its mammary glands / that once made sweet and fatty milk” and an elemental desire, with “nipples pink as Himalayan snow-berries”. This earth-woman dynamic is seen in ‘Strong Milk’, in which a female companion is transfigured into “the cow shadows / chomping and snoring / in the grass under the moon”.

A ‘familiar’ is also an animal companion to a witch. Parkes encourages this interpretation, and a wyrdness (spelt, in the proper wytching way, with a ‘y’) runs through the poems, rooted in ancient symbols of femininity; the moon and tide. ‘Last to Leave’, paired with ‘A Moonlit Night’, depicts Hecate – queen of the underworld and witch goddess extraordinaire – swimming in a bay with her familiar dog “summoning / the beasts, the birds, the fish”. The narrator’s “palate grief-struck” as she sees the animals leave with the dwindling tide brings a note of mourning to the collection, which is taken up again in ‘A Moonlit Night’, in which the poem is interrupted from its musings on the sea to ask desperately

O will she never get up,
wind down the stairs
to lift the latch?

before returning to the ocean – “ah to be buoyed and engulfed / by something huge at last”, a deep and unknown, deathly sea, but one that makes the narrator “alive / on my feet” in contrast. Parkes explores this sense of desperate devotion, made impossible, in an earlier poem, Shut Out’, with a dog barred from his home overnight – the door haunts Parkes’ narrative; “I’ve dreamt / all night of a door / that never opens”. This terrible powerlessness takes a more central role in

‘In the Offing’, as Parkes ponders a conversation with her mother ”about / when she’s not here”:

a wave about to
steepen and surge
and carry her away
to where I am not
to where ill never reach…

However, Parkes uses the themes of witchcraft to examine the matrilineal rituals of mother and daughter. She looks back through her mother’s line in My Inner Ear’ and Sweet breezes of her own country’, hearing sounds and words of languages from her past, and blending them into song. Parkes mixes the “tarantara” of Russian trumpets, “the sonorous chime / of my mother being born” and “the Dance of the Moorish Slaves” into a chant that causes Parkes to stumble, as she carries her female past balanced with the “health cuts, job losses, collapsed umbrellas” of the everyday on, as it were, “a tray with everything on it”. Parkes also looks forward to her relationship with her daughter, passing on this lineage inLobbing my Daughter the Ball’, questioning whether she has done her best, given her daughter enough “to run behind / as I run behind you”.

Completing the circle, Parkes brings her witchery to bear on the gender struggles – sexual and not – which she deals with. InThere goes my girl I whisper’, Parkes takes a masculine sexual familiar – the snake – and questions her father’s authority on the animal; “I know the / snake was / female”. This poem is sinuous and serpentine on the page, allowing Parkes to question ideas of form and gender, as she does later in Cleavage’. Such roles are experimented with again in A Character Role’ – “How was he going to reduce me again? / I wanted fireballs, earthquake, drought”.

A collection that draws on myths of womanhood and reworks them, Familiars is rich and fertile. Parkes deals intelligently and deftly with a range of subjects. Personal grief, gender identity and constructions and the role of family are seen in light of the human animal (humanimal?). Parkes does not believe “people are bloody ignorant apes”, as that would be to be too harsh on both parties – rather, it is the relationship between the two which informs and guides this collection.

 

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Bethany W. Pope, Undisturbed Circles

Bethany W. Pope, Undisturbed Circles, (Lapwing Publications, 2014), 67pp., £10.00, ISBN 978-1-909252-82-0

Reviewed by Neil Fulwood

[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]

Bethany W. Pope’s new collection contains six sonnet sequences, all of which are built around double-acrostics. The shortest, ‘Three-Legged Crow’, consists of three sonnets augmented by 5x5s (a form of Pope’s own creation which can best be thought of as expanded haiku, with five lines of five syllables). ‘Fox Cycle’, ‘The Metamorphosis of Physis’ and ‘The Tower’ are traditional sonnet crowns, while ‘Double Helix’ pulls the tricky stunt of swopping the continuity of the acrostic from side to side. The book’s centerpiece, ‘The Labyrinth’ is an heroic sonnet crown (i.e. fifteen sonnets, the last of which takes each of its lines from the first lines of the fourteen sonnets preceding it) which is again built around a double acrostic; each sonnet is prefaced by a short prose-poem and followed by a 5×5.

If all of this sounds like literary showboating or the application of technique for its own sake, fear not. Pope’s craftsmanship, impressive as it may be, is always subordinate to visceral content and emotional fearlessness.

‘Three-Legged Crow’ is a good place to begin, for its playfulness as well as its brevity. “Crow is a God. Crow is not a God” reads the poem’s subtitle, and the first sonnet reveals the crow as a trickster. The ostensible story Pope tells has the crow making creative use of a stolen piece of plastic and the launch pad of a sloping roof:

                                                                                                That
Tin roof (rain slicked) becomes a slide for him.
Over and over he sits snug in the
Tiny sled, launching himself off with a
Harsh, happy croak at this new kind of flight.

Buñuelesque imagery: strange yet somehow gleeful. Then you work out the acrostic and read the 5×5 and the context changes; a dark undercurrent emerges. The next two sections reimagine the crow as, respectively, a hero and “a small, impetuous God”, but again meanings yielded up by the sonnets’ construction challenge and subvert the surface reading. The overall effect is as if Ted Hughes’s Crow had got himself a punk haircut and started playing about with the puzzle box from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Yes, I know how demented that comparison sounds. But Pope’s poetry has that effect: it provokes the reader’s imagination into letting go of the guy rope and freefalling through a skyscape of altered perceptions.

Once you’ve taken a short trip (in both senses of the word) with the crow, don your stoutest walking boots and lose yourself in ‘The Labyrinth’. Exploring memory, psychology, persecution, religion, guilt, redemption and eventual self-knowledge across 285 lines of poetry, Pope merges form, content, imagery and mythology to achieve moments of dream-logic juxtaposition that are often startlingly beautiful and conceptually terrifying at one and the same time. The opening sonnet, on the narrator’s birth and formative years, is a particularly gutsy example and is worth quoting in full:

                I was born in North Carolina, the
Wastelands laden with live-oak. Dens of fox
And wolf littered the loam. My blood can’t stop
Speaking the language of this wild. A girl
Birthed in this soil carries it for life. No
Ordinary span will follow, for her.
Remember the foul house next door where the
Necrotic lady was found, babies from
Maternity wards clutched in her arms. They
Arrived home with her in pickle jars. Small,
Dear creatures she named and kept for years. I
Expect juice from those jars, the hellish bog
They languished in, seeped through me with each breath.
Open the door. Take the turn to the right.

The “turn”, of course, also refers to that traditional to the sonnet form. Here, it wrenches the focus suddenly and brutally from rural nostalgia and empathy with the natural world to horror-movie imagery. The reader is still reeling from the pay-off as Pope shoves them through the first door. Again, perceptions have altered. Something real and unspeakably horrible is being grappled with in the heightened reality of the poet’s imagination. It’s like Alice through the looking glass as if Alejandro Jodorowsky had hijacked the narrative.

The spattering of movie references in this review are not accidental, by the way. Pope’s writing has an intensely visual quality. Her use of imagery is strong – often unflinchingly so. Her ability to drill down into the depths of the id and face full-on what she dredges up speaks of an inner strength as well as a creative one. Undisturbed Circles builds on the stylistic and psychological achievements of her previous collection Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013) whilst striking out ever more confidently in her use of form. What for other writers would be mere gimmickry is integral in this outstanding collection to an overarching aesthetic. So many poets falter under the strictures of form; Pope soars.

Katrina Naomi, Hooligans

Katrina Naomi, Hooligans, (Rack Press, 2015), £5, 12pp., ISBN 979-0-9927654-7-7

Reviewed by Gram Joel Davies

[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]

Apparently, we are all politically apathetic these days. To which, the chagrined response is:  clutch an opinion.

Always, we hear how it is hard to write political poetry. Hooligans barely fits – it is war poetry. Injurious to our apathetic pride, bloody, appalling, right there.

Katrina Naomi, in her signature plain-speak, unlaces mouths who should never have been stopped. This isn’t history, it is happening.

In modern parlance, to be called martyr is almost pejorative, narcissistic. Even the word suffrage seems to have lost its feist and become purely associative. Poor suffragettes, we begin to think… stop. This is going to hurt. These poems will make you cheer.

Writing in ‘The Agonies’, Naomi protracts a metaphor so graphic it leaves me gasping. Many of us know oppression, its wearying weight. But the desperation in her first-person nightmare of body-binding is, although surreal in its extent, so embodied as to have me squirm in empathic rage. This is injustice, the figure crushed until the mind deforms.

Speechless; arms straightjacketed,
wrists swelling in their freedom,
fingers pulling air.

It gets worse, Katrina Naomi’s knack for crisp detail making analogy fearsome. Yet she is not short on humour either, and it is in this spirit that the women of 100 years previous defy our cynicism today. ‘Battle Dress’ opens with the epigraph, “Introducing the ‘dorothy bag’” – with its hidden fistful of stones. “We were never ones to be worshipped / for our curves alone” Naomi writes, as the women wryly secrete their armoured corsets in anticipation of “an officer’s gropes and blows.”

Set against this preparedness to do whatever necessary – twice punch a policeman, hide a pin in your hat – is a raucous inventiveness and joie-de-vivre which Katrina Naomi writes into her heroes until it is possible to forget, momentarily, that theirs are lives bodiced by casual abuse.

Think of how Elspeth McClelland and Daisy Soloman, with threepenny stamps on each hand, are delivered to Mr Asquith with

Words indelibly printed in their mouths,

the way each spoke when angry.

What a shock for the postie,” indeed. But Naomi often allows the stain of violence to mark her poems, inking a powerful contrast between its usages. The buoyant righteousness of the suffragettes shames the self-righteous patriarchate. Quoting Emmeline Pankhurst, “The smashing of windows is time-honoured… political,” Naomi makes clear that the pebbles bowled into Downing street by Mary Leigh and Edith New are

extended [as]
suffrage’s well-rounded arguments.

If the poetry were the least bit didactic, it would likely fail. In its grossest stereotype, the cause for universal suffrage was smeared as histrionic or nagging. What you do not receive from Naomi is diatribe. The well-rounded arguments remain implicit, the poems, for all their simplicity, personal, and conflicted. Katrina Naomi steps inside her narrative occasionally, drawing the line through her own past back in time to Eliza, her Great Grandmother, who was capable of “snipping / a policeman’s braces” but who also “patched [Great-Grandfather’s] shirts, / kissed him off across the Channel.”

It is possible that the view from our current climate, one of political disillusionment, makes the conviction of the Suffragettes appear naive. “What difference does it make?” we might say. And if recounted only as a dusty fable, it is hard to relate. Hooligans, however, makes no sweeping assertions. The closest thing to an author’s judgement I could find in the sequence lies in ‘The Assault’, a title which makes no bones of what was done to women in the name of good. A hunger strike is that kind of horror, such as is found in the poetry of war, which loses its power as a noun and must be reawakened by the poet directly. Annie Kenney, who prepares for her ordeal with “two whole pots of tea” expects the hallucinatory iced buns but not what comes next. That procedure of force-feeding is so intensely depicted by Naomi it becomes impossible not be infused with outrage. We need this passion now, just as it was always needed, and Naomi gives us more than a recollection from some fusty archive.

It is a passion sustained into Hooligans’s final poem, where Katrina Naomi invokes “the thump of her heart… the horses’ hooves… all that horn and iron…” as ‘The King’s Horse’ rounds Tottenham Corner and, in that moment, it is us who leap to the ultimate sacrifice. Naomi does not shy from violence, but its depiction never reeks of voyeurism, only harsh empathy.

Hooligans is a timely book, hopefully a timeless one. A small collection which distills everyday heroism to a courageous liquor. While today, celebrity speakers chauvinistically urge us to spurn our voting rights, voices raised from the past still mock, argue, insist – and refuse to be quieted. Thanks to Naomi’s work, names which have become museum pieces are made personal again, their dismissal as unconscionable now as ever before.

Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle and Dilys Wood (eds), Her Wings of Glass

Her Wings of Glass, edited by Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle and Dilys Wood, (Second Light, 2014), £12.95, 207 pp., ISBN: 978-0-9927088-0-1

Reviewed by Zozi

[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]

After Virginia Woolf died, one newspaper headline announced “Woman Writer’s Suicide”. Are we still seen as women first, and writers second?

Unfortunately, it seems to me that women’s writing in 2015 is often still read as being intensely personal, dealing with ‘feminine’ emotions and experiences; meanwhile, the subject of men’s work is more likely to be hailed as ‘universal’. Jeanette Winterson wrote that “when women writers put themselves into their fiction, it’s called autobiography. When men do it, it’s called meta-fiction.” The work of twentieth century female writers, particularly Plath, has been much mined by critics for its links to the artist’s personal life and state of mind.

Her Wings of Glass is a sprawling anthology, featuring 237 poems by 107 female poets, and it responds to the above presumptions with warmth and chutzpah. Format-wise it is similar to Bloodaxe’s seminal anthologies Being Alive and Staying Alive, but the decision to feature only female poets is, to me, a welcome innovation.

Editors Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle, and Dilys Wood write in the introduction that poetry by women is now “less concerned with defining woman, more with defining existence”; they add that this book is a “representative cross-section” of work by women poets writing in English. As such, it is a highly ambitious and intriguing collection. Divided thematically, the anthology covers such topics as love, war, creativity, the natural world, the environment, existence, and abuse.

Nature poetry often seems to suffer a hackneyed association with tame, apolitical, watercolour work. But the editors’ approach here is much redder in tooth and claw, and many of these nature poems deal with ugliness and unfamiliarity. Take Mimi Khalvati’s ‘Sciurus Carolinensis’, which breaks language open and turns the familiar grey squirrel into something wild and alien: “I displace the red… Skia, oura, I flicker on the walls of the cave.”

In Rose Flint’s ‘Horses in the Summerlands’ and Fleur Adcock’s marvellous poem ‘Toads’, nature poetry becomes a way to approach wounds and heal them. “It was the summer of my father’s death. / I saw his spirit in every visiting creature”, Adcock writes; the small tragedy of a dying toad becoming a stand-in for larger losses. Similarly, Flint writes movingly about horses, “like bronze bells, rung by love”, their beauty giving a child an escape from trauma and sadness. Mention must also go to Frances Horovitz’s taut, suspenseful, and beautifully crafted poems, which intercept everyday images (buzzards, harebells, lilac blossoms) and make us see them afresh.

Wounds of a different kind are explored in the chapters which take the environment, war, and the human family as their subjects. The set of poems themed around the planet are unflinching: Adcock’s poem ‘Regressionenvisions humans “foolish and lost on the naked skin of the earth”, whilst Shuttle’s ‘Modis’ pictures the changing climate “racing on smoky winged feet / across Russia and Australia”. Anne Stevenson’s ‘Teaching my Sons To Swim in Walden Pond’ is a highlight of this section, presenting Thoreau’s idyllic spot as something universal, ancient, a microcosm of the world: “The pond was measurable. / Its voice, immeasurable”.

The ‘War on Humanity’ chapter is probably the most ambitious part of the book. In it, we travel from Cape Town to India, from the battlefields of France to Palestine. The Holocaust casts its inevitable shadow over this chapter, and in particular Susanne Ehrhardt’s poems about a German family make for difficult, unsettling reading, (“When our fathers died defending murder / How shall we remember them?”) especially when juxtaposed with the poems of Lotte Kramer, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from Germany as a child. In Kramer’s poem ‘A Glass of Water’, something as simple and clear as the title image becomes symbolic of deprivation and enormous loss. I am reminded here of Szymborska’s comment that “apolitical poems are also political”. This anthology does not provide any cosy escapes or easy answers. Although the vast jumps in time and space in the war section sometimes lead to a lack of cohesiveness, the editors should be commended for covering such distances in a small space.

The chapter on ‘The Human Family’ makes for similarly challenging reading, as themes of separation from parents, child abuse, and loss of parents surface. Caroline Price’s ‘The Boy Who Could Lay Eggs’ and Maria Jastrzebska’s ‘FAQ’ illustrate two different, but very visceral approaches to child abuse: one very graphic, another more indirect, but no less shocking. Meanwhile, the poems ‘Daughter’, ‘About Love’ and ‘I Remember Leaving, Being Left’ (by Denise Bennett, Adele Ward and Kay Syrad respectively) interconnect, with their themes of mother-love and the trauma of adoption and separation. One of the joys of an anthology is how carefully chosen poems can respond to and reverberate with each other – we can move swiftly from tender celebrations of family, to work that portrays the family unit as an oppressive sham.

This anthology’s main strength is boldness; it cheerfully destroys the archaic image of women’s poetry as lily-livered, delicate and afraid to tackle Big Themes. This is a book with limited physical space but an incredibly broad thematic range. It does not provide a cosy, safe space, but offers poetry that is raw, vivid, and real.

Grevel Lindop, Luna Park

Grevel Lindop, Luna Park, (Carcanet, 2015), 95pp., £9.99, ISBN 9781857549874

Reviewed by Colin Pink

[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]

The art historian Erwin Panofsky famously said of that meticulous Netherlandish painter, Jan van Eyck, that he was both a telescope and a microscope. He was able to make us see great distances and also bring to our attention the miniscule and close at hand. It seems to me that this is a very good way of summing up Grevel Lindop’s achievement in his new collection of poems, Luna Park. Take, for instance, the opening poem ‘Cosmos’:

Between Orion and Gemini, an almost-full moon.
Wrinkled tidewater tilting at the lips of Morecambe bay.

Galaxies of cow parsley edging the valley fields.
Slow explosions of lichen on the fellside boulders.

He brings together the near and the far, shooting us into the infinite space of the night sky and also directing us to what lies at our feet.

The moon, in its various aspects, is a recurring presence in this collection. But the title, as we discover in the poem of the same name, refers to a derelict amusement park on the outskirts of Sydney. It is a symbol of both abandonment, nostalgia for a lost past and longing for some unobtainable primal satisfaction.

The ghost of a funfair, due for demolition –
a landscape of fantasies that would be
nowhere soon …
… Here I am
ten years later, like a child with no money,
hopeful, face pressed to the steel mesh.

Many of the poems in the collection are what one might call occasional poems; poems prompted by commissions (‘The Shugborough Eclogues’) or by-products of other activities the poet is undertaking, such as researching his biography of Charles Williams (‘Exorcism’, ‘Oxford Again’) or travelling around Latin America researching his travel book Travels on the Dance Floor (‘The Key’, ‘Cigar’, ‘Cuba Café’) or recording a radio documentary (‘The House Under the Crag’).

Lurking behind all these journeys back and forth, from place to place, is time. Not time hurrying near on a winged chariot but time creeping up like players in a game of ‘statues’. There’s something uncanny about the experience of time in these poems, as in Lindop’s remembrance of (as a young man) having his future read by a Gypsy palmist. After hearing a baffling series of predictions to which he cannot (then) relate:

…before I knew it my time was up,
it had all flowed through me. I couldn’t grasp any of it:
so reassuring, so almost hypnotic that voice
still in my ears as I stumbled for the blind
confusion of the bead curtain and caravan steps,
when I touched grass I’d already forgotten my future.

Central to the collection, both literally and thematically, is ‘The Shugborough Eclogues’. Commissioned to celebrate one of England’s stately piles, Lindop turns the subject, written over the course of a year, into not only a fascinating history of Shugborough Hall and its environs but also a meditation on mutability, as reflected in the cycle of the seasons, and present day social problems.

It is characteristic of Lindop’s work that his mind shifts back and forth in time and place, weaving together the past and present, the near and far, the quirky architectural monuments of the hall and thoughts of the murdered children on nearby Cannock Chase:

the Green Knight in the gritstone gorge
the green man sharpening his blade
the cries of children on the air
the virgin goddess in the wood
the maiden with her triple face
howling Diana Tervagans
avenging, still unsatisfied,
the tears that nourish Seven Springs,
the lifetimes still unreconciled,
Christine, Diana, Margaret
the shattered beauty in the leaves
faces reflected in the pool
the twilight of the darkening springs.

Lindop folds a multitude of thoughts into his account of the hall; its economic origins in an act of brutal piracy by Admiral Anson, (the house ‘nourished on blood and gunpowder’) a memorial to the ship’s cat, which accompanied Anson on his circumnavigation of the world, the Green Knight, bureaucratic inspections by DEFRA, inner city riots and the 2008 banking crisis,

Money is debt, so now the central banks
pour in more zeroes to fill up the void;
and banks are built, as Maynard Keynes once said,
of marble and mahogany, to hide
the truth that there is nothing real within.
A generation hooked on shopping blames
shopping’s dark side; dreams of a feral tribe
unparented, unschooled and unemployed.

Lindop is one of our best nature poets but he is much more than that. His thoughtful verses, always acutely observed and meticulously composed, reveal the world in a complex light, by turns unsettling, thought provoking, and humbling. These poems evoke the precious fragility of existence in both the natural and human worlds, which are vividly seen to be always inseparable.

Four Pamphlets from Eyewear

Beth Tichborne, Hungry for Air, (Eyewear, 2014), 32pp., £5, ISBN 978-1-908998-64-4
Matt Howard, The Organ Box, (Eyewear, 2014), 34pp., £5, ISBN 978-1-908998-61-3
Gale Burns, Opal Eye, (Eyewear, 2014), 32pp., £5, ISBN 978-1-908998-63-7
Rachael M Nicholas, Somewhere Near in the Dark, (Eyewear, 2014), 42pp., £5, ISBN 978-1-908998-62-0

Reviewed by Neil Fulwood

[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]

Eyewear have a knack for homing in on new talent. They have a knack for beautifully designed pamphlets with eye-catching and durable covers. Less appealing are the tiny font and sometimes parsimonious approach to content (the shortest of these contains just 21 pages of poetry, for a fairly hefty £5 price tag), but those are my only real criticisms. As with any volume of poetry – be it pamphlet or doorstopper-sized Collected Works – it’s the quality that counts.

Beth Tichborne immediately establishes a terse but eloquent poetic voice with ‘Digging twig’, the opening poem of Hungry for Air:

Thumb on a twig-bud scar,
pulls, twists bark and opens
sap to sky. Flicks straight,
middle-to-index limber.

These are lean, tactile lines, every word chosen for its impact and precision. Throughout, Tichborne’s writing is direct and unambiguous without sacrificing depth or complexity. Her evocation of the natural world is unsentimental, particularly in those pieces when the urban landscape muscles in. ‘Signs’ begins:

A road-sign shimmers with a rainbow in the rising sun,
foaming like the soapy scales of a fish in a white sea.

Here, Tichborne shows a confidence with the longer line that is rendered all the more effective when the second stanza reverts to the starker delineations that characterize most of the other poems:

… a river in spate,
unnoticed blood,
a storm-grey sky …

The pamphlet closes with ‘Bat’, a nocturne imbued with mysticism that left me hoping Tichborne might develop the theme and the character into a Crow-like sequence.

… If you can look up to my bat-eared,
long-tethered self, that the wind blows through, and the light,
and not miss one beat, then you will see yourself …

The immediacy crackles on the page. The imagery is precise and controlled. The intelligence behind the work is palpable. Tichborne is a very good poet indeed.

The linguistic expansiveness of Matt Howard’s The Organ Box is in stark contrast to Tichborne’s purposeful sparsity. ‘The anatomical storeroom inventory’ enumerates an increasingly grotesque sequence of objects, which cumulatively stand in for an antagonist relationship:

You suggest I’m heartless as that aortic arch
thickened with  syphilitic aneurysm

and point me to the concentric jewel of a boar’s epididymis,
the complete votive of a three-week old whale foetus.

It takes no small degree of skill to finesse “aortic”, “syphilitic aneurism”, “concentric”, “epididymis” and “votive” into just a few lines; Howard manages it elegantly and with humour. Read alongside ‘A jar of moles’ and ‘To an anatomical Venus’, ‘The anatomical storeroom inventory’ forms a kind of surreal and darkly comic triumvirate.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t serious, even melancholy, poems here. ‘The House of Owls’, the five-poem sequence at the centre of the pamphlet, establishes from the outset a sustained metaphor:

…  she came with a heavy scent of hawthorn,
and all men were taken by her owl-white skin,

by such silent graces. She took just one
to the far meadow. He went meek as a harvest mouse.

Later, ‘The fall of the House of Owls, 1914’ establishes a weightier context; that date is backed up by the grim lines:

A white feather chased two sons away,
then the front door lintel pocked with holes
where they say the mother, mad with hope,
nailed countless barn owl carcasses.

Taken as a whole, the sequence functions much like a William Trevor novel, charting a decline in fortunes, a changing social order, a fin de siècle.

Engagement with the natural world continues in Gale Burns’s Opal Eye. And, like Tichborne and Howard, he sets out his stall with the very first poem, ‘The Worm’:

No eyes, no mouth or gut;
a prince of dark, stretched
seven metres length,
clamped by suckers to mucosa;
ecstatic at self-sex,
wriggling at a whim …

These vermicular musings aren’t just observation; they suggest the poet himself burrowing deeper and deeper, determined to get at not just the truth of his subject but its unique and defining features. Burns’s trademark is that he often does so in oblique fashion.

‘What we learned in playgrounds;’ ostensibly reads as a list poem, the title’s semi-colon almost making a passive-aggressive statement of intent. The first few lines do little to dispel the assumption:

the mystery of public space, unfettered.
How adults do not rule everywhere.
An affinity for airstrips and roads; the taste

of asphalt, sucked from wells.

Through carefully primed turns of phrase and use of imagery, however, the poem reveals itself as less about recollections of childhood from the knowing standpoint of the adult world than the interrelationship between harsh truths learned at both stages, and how nostalgia filters and rationalizes. Burns says all of this by setting up the material and allowing the reader to extrapolate, never forcing the interpretation. It’s not quite a via negativa, but it demonstrates that Burns is confident in his utilization of poetry as two-way process, discoursing with his readers and relying on their intelligence.

In such accomplished company, all of them speaking in bold and confident voices, Rachael M Nicholas’s Somewhere Near in the Dark needed to achieve something very special. Hers was the last of these pamphlets I read (this review is organized in said order) and before I was halfway through I was floundering between slack-jawed admiration and abject jealousy at how good she is.

If the defining characteristic of these pamphlets is the immediacy of their first offering, then Nicholas’s opening salvo is in no way lacking. ‘Undarling’ starts:

There you are,
wanting what you want –

More beer in your glass?
Fine.
A slim breeze? I can’t promise,
but okay,
An empty street? Anything, anything,
just ask.

So you ask.

Sometimes you get what you’re after,
and sometimes I’m sorry, but no,
you should try again later.

Nicholas knows how human relationships work: the unspoken (almost subconscious) demarcations, agreements and neuroses. And she understands how these things are heightened, sometimes ridiculously, by the self-consciousness endemic to the social media age. ‘An arc, and etc.’ begins:

Trying to be a good thing
twice – once for practice,
then once again for the
photograph.

Which is as elegant a skewering of the selfie generation as I can think of, “photograph” tellingly occupying its own line.

A filtering of her subject matter through fairy tale or horror genre tropes gives the work an additional frisson. The two-page ‘Hansel & Gretel’ grips from its stark, minimal opening stanza – “The road splits / like a tongue / in the distance.” – and builds as it threads all too recognizably adult concerns through the anticipated child-like imagery. A couple of pages later, ‘Holy terror, come and get her’ continues the chills, a 25-line treatment for a scary movie that could be half Guillermo del Toro, half Luis Bunuel:

It sometimes happens, and has happened
here, that the hero isn’t the hero at all:

The hero is a knife, a paperback, or a street
after the parade has passed through –
something decorous, something dangerous.

It would be too easy – and disrespectful to the remainder of the company – to describe Nicholas as the real find amongst these four writers; the next big thing. The evidence of these pamphlets convinces me that everyone here is ready to produce a full length collection.

 

Christopher Mulrooney, Supergrooviness

Christopher Mulrooney, Supergrooviness, (Lost Angelene Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon

[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]

As a reviewer the hope is that a new pamphlet or collection will contain at least one poem that speaks directly to you.  Failing that, you hope for a poem that will unlock the rest of the collection, take you into the poet’s mindset, so that tropes, images, concerns become familiar and recognisable.  But sometimes, perhaps even often, one’s hopes are dashed.

Supergrooviness is a low-end chapbook from an American feminist small press called Lost Angelene. It consists of “two dozen poems on the Resurrection and other matters”.  Apparently it “brings out the minds and personalities of those around the Resurrection and their quotidian thoughts as history is made”.

I am quoting from a short introduction, presumably written by Mulrooney himself. The assumption, then, is that we are going to be treated to a Tarantino-like approach to the Resurrection of Christ (not, so far as I know, generally recognized as a historical event, but perhaps poetic license has been invoked). Maybe there will be some “Royale” type jokes.

Well, nope, there’s nothing half as enjoyable as that, although it veers close to that patch. These lines come from ‘on the road to Emmaus’ (only proper nouns have capitals):

I mean would you reco’nize him if you saw him
you think?

And here’s the whole of a poem called ‘Pentecost’

a light dawned on us
all at once
each and every one of us suddenly knew
what the hell we were talking about anyway 

– which is jolly interesting for those heathens among us who do not really know what Pentecost is, and therefore have the pleasure of looking it up and reading about it.

The poem turns out to be a demotic reduction of the rather supergroovy verses to be found in Acts 2 1- 4, in which the apostles are “filled with the Holy Ghost” and everyone in a seriously multicultural Jerusalem suddenly begins to understand one another (although “Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine”). What, the reader must ask, is the point of reducing the poetry of the Bible to the prose of contemporary idiom? Still, I am grateful to have been led to Acts (“The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood”).

And so to the “other matters”. What is one to make of ‘spattergate’?

say it right honey bun
with your coffee and curlers
I mean crullers
say the mean real
and relax over the newspapers

This is the entire poem. A cruller is a kind of twisted doughnut.  I don’t know what “spattergate” means (Google is unhelpful), although perhaps it is some obscure reference to “splattergate”, the fuss resulting as a consequence of a bloodcurdling short film by Richard ‘Four Weddings’ Curtis funded by the 10:10 campaign, supported by the Guardian.

Or perhaps the “honey bun” of the first line is another description of a “cruller”, and in saying “curlers” – oh, forget it, because what does “say the mean real” mean anyway? Other than evoking breakfast before dressing, the poem has given me nothing.

I have other moans: the rhyming of “Southey” and “mouthy” is horrible; the spelling of “ascension” (“assention”, which suggests clenched buttocks) in the acknowledgements.

It is quite possible, even likely, that I am too dim or not sufficiently up on contemporary poetics to appreciate the obscure little wonders of supergrooviness, but I am however enough of a poetry lover to enjoy Berryman and even a bit of Ashbery, and I think I’m able to recognize the sound of poetry even if I do not at once grasp its meaning.  I’m afraid Mulrooney does not sing to me.

Kate Garrett (ed.), Slim Volume: No Love Lost

Kate Garrett (ed.), Slim Volume: No Love Lost, (Pankhearst, 2014), 137pp, £5.99. ISBN 1505292875

Reviewed by Kyle Cooper

[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]

I once saw a bunch of fake flowers which seemed pretty convincing. Certainly they’d fooled the bees, whose poor bodies clustered round the cloth stomata. I think Kate Garrett, the editor of No Love Lost, would have enjoyed it. Good “love literature” must explore heartaches and jealousies as much as it applauds the lighter side of love – it must elegise the bees, rather than just chat about the flowers. As Garrett explains, it is the desire to find some Disney prince/ss, some pirate queen or sensitive hero that nurses the canker which kills “love”. Kate Garrett has assembled a fine collection of authors’ “anti-romance” flash fictions and poems in which there is – happily – no trace of “cliché and sentimentality” (‘Introduction’).

Some of these short pieces take tired expressions of love and gleefully subvert them, such as Michele Brenton’s pithy ‘The Happiest Valentine’, in which a devoted lover isn’t quite all he seems, revealed with a flourish in the final line (I won’t spoil it). Some explore the reality of idealistic situations – the sweaty reality of a city break, marred by partners falling below expectations, infidelity and saved (or scuppered?) by lust – explored in the visceral ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’ (Zoe Gilbert) or contrasted with an overly mundane marriage in Aoibheann McCann’s ‘Water Damage’. Liz Hedgecock’s ‘Paradise Island’ looks at another holiday romance, one which culminates in an abandoned woman plotting murder on an island paradise.

Disappointment is a common theme in these pieces, as the standard of love is raised high above human capabilities. ‘Questionmark’ by Leanne Radojkovic deals with the aftermath of a moment of unfaithfulness, characters shaping themselves into punctuation marks until a moment of violence becomes the ‘!’ at the end of a cold war of a relationship. Charlotte Aspin’s ‘Untitled’ shows what happens when such a frigid relationship continues; “thirty five years of gradual movement – how many degrees of separation would that count for?”

Love in the real world must necessarily be modern, and a number of these pieces deal with the role of technology in today’s romance – a new part of love, but flawed and often lacking. ‘The Book of Love’ by Liam Hogan is playful and slightly sinister, in which a piece of technology takes on memories which are recorded in it, until it is erased by a sensual “administrator” (“I’ve never had someone so deep in my menus…What’s that? Reset?”). While in this piece, technology is forced to relinquish feelings, Adam Morris’s ‘White Noise’ examines a relationship which cannot be sustained by technological memories alone. A passionate affair decays into “A chain reaction of decreasingly frequent Facebook likes” until one partner chooses an exit; “Brave but cowardly / To lie in the bathtub, / Memories on screen, / As it all becomes white noise.”

Several of the texts deal with “love” at its most putrid. Elizabeth Gardener’s ‘Shallow Sleeps’ is a skin-crawlingly chilling text (I mean that in the best possible way), concluding “Termination? Caesarian? Having a baby. Yes. That should bring me round”. I’ll let you read the details of it yourself, but it is not for nothing that Kate Garrett warns in the introduction that the collection “isn’t for the faint-hearted or the wobbly of constitution”. Another favourite of mine is ‘Up to, but not including’ by Rex Davis, which contains the gloriously dark

Let me be your Ted Hughes
You can be my Sylvia Plath
Up to, but not including
When you put your head in the gas.

Some of these pieces could seem irreverent, as often comes with turning established patterns on their heads, but the light-hearted approach never seems casual, rather a way of avoiding despair. These pieces frequently come with a sting in the tail –  roses full of wasps. Philip Gordon’s  ‘<3. Nope’ considers this well;

the flowers i got you
were rife with bees
the box of chocolates
filled with notes about infant mortality in africa

Insects also writhe in ‘Maggot’ by Bo Meson, which deals with a break-up in which both participants are eventually saved, transfigured into larvae. The narrator is eaten by “maggot”, who then flies away, leaving her heartbroken. However, there is a rebirth in this:

I can’t live without maggot
and will soon die with joy
erupting with life just like you

There is a salvation present in many of these pieces, overcoming the flaws in love caused by cliché and supposition. Gordon concludes his poem with an excellent quatrain which brings ‘love’ and ‘anti-love’ into close contact, writing

baby,
be my stain of a person
reminding me that the world is unclean
and i wouldn’t have it any other way.

To my mind, that encapsulates the overall feel of the collection – these are caustic, cynical assaults on the “wuv woos” and “baes” of the modern world with an arsenal of sharp tongues and wicked wit. But there is a celebration, too, of this kind of love – it’s flawed, corrupted, sometimes downright frightening or violent, but there’s an attraction within it too.

Garrett should be commended for her editing abilities, and her decisions in selecting these texts. There is a wide variety of themes and styles, exploring the ugly faces of modern love as well as reflecting the fact that it remains love, and is celebrated accordingly. These are sharply intelligent, often funny and highly enjoyable. I would say “I loved it”, but it doesn’t seem appropriate somehow.

Robbi Nester (ed.), The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! – Poetic Responses to NPR & PBS Stories

Robbi Nester (ed.), The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! – Poetic Responses to NPR & PBS Stories, (Nine Toes Press, 2014), 164pp, $20, ISBN 978-1-929878-72-7 

Reviewed by Neil Fulwood

[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]

The acronyms in this anthology’s subtitle stand for, respectively, National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service; these are the national syndicators for a cluster of American public radio and TV stations whose programming focuses on news, current affairs, arts and human interest. Nester establishes their appeal in her concise introduction: “Public television becomes a trusted sanctuary from crass commercials, laugh tracks, unfunny comedies rising in volume as they grow more empty in content.” Broadcasting, in other words, that’s free of the dollar-bottom-line death-grip of the big networks; a public voice rather than a corporate one – and an intriguing concept to build an anthology around.

The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! – its winning title complemented by a cover image that comes across like a poster for a cheesy B-movie – is divided into five sections: ‘The News’, ‘Science’, ‘People’, ‘Epiphanies’ and ‘Et Cetera’. The second section sets up a memorable challenge to the old saw about the irreconcilability of science and the arts. Here the logical and investigative qualities of the scientist or researcher spark against the imaginative empathy that is one of the key skills of the successful poet. Nester’s own ‘Exchange’ responds to a story on All Things Considered about marine biologist Denise Herzing’s Wild Dolphin Project:

At this moment there is language,
an exchange and an understanding.
It is not as we imagined, this first contact …

Kris Bigalk takes a Radiolab episode about Ann Druyan’s personal and professional relationship with Carl Sagan and conjures a love poem that could easily have been star-struck or nerdy, but sidesteps the obvious pitfalls and finds the human centre in a steady accretion of imagery and detail:

A recipe of “us” includes ash, glass,
and concrete grammar of Bach, floating
from our bodies like notes from a flute.
Stars mark directions, but don’t control
the currents of bodies, souls or oceans.

The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! hits its stride with the science poems, and it is not until the ‘Epiphanies’ and ‘Et Cetera’ sections that it regains this level of quirky and imaginative engagement with its subject matter. This is not to say that the ‘News’ and ‘People’ offerings are substandard – Michael Colonnese’s ‘Poem After the Nightly Business Report’, M.E. Hope’s ‘Into a Void, a found poem’ and Christina Lovin’s ‘Writing Blindly’ are excellent, while the icy controlled fury of Judy Kronenfeld’s ‘What Happens’, about the offences in the occupied West Bank, is compelling. However, some responses to news stories are overly literal, the material shaping the poem rather than vice versa. This tendency is emphasised by the copious introductory notes. Every poem is prefaced by at least a couple of sentences identifying the programme that inspired it; too many, though, demand that the reader wade through entire chunks of prose, the introduction exhausting more words than the poem itself.

Sources are cited all over again at the end of the anthology, with four pages of web links and Q-codes pointing the reader in the direction of the original broadcasts. This prefaces 13 pages of contributors’ notes. Add in a further section on the history of the Lummox Press (of which Nine Toes are a division) and an exhaustive list of other titles, and almost a third of what otherwise seems like a chunky anthology reveals itself as cluttered with non-poetry content. In light of Nester’s introductory comment that “the anthology filled up faster than I expected”, it’s tempting to wonder how much more material, and of what quality, could have been included if more pages had been given over to poetry.

Still, these are more quibbles than criticisms. The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! gets it right far more consistently than it gets it wrong. It’s to Nester’s credit that she has conceived and sculpted an anthology that is as purely American in its aesthetic as anything I’ve encountered (a British version? Freeview: Poetic Responses to Dave and Notts TV? nah!) and filled it with such a diversity of work. Even the weaker inclusions retain enough in the way of immediacy or heartfelt response to merit their presence.

Of greatest interest is the scattering of formal work, with sonnets and villanelles expanding the “soundbite” nature of a TV news summary into something thoughtful and expressive. Moreover, a higher ratio of pantoums than you might expect from an anthology of contemporary verse – Hal O’Leary’s ‘Blame’ and ‘Contrast’, and Christina Lovin’s ‘The Forest of Her’ are genuine standouts – establishes the form’s requirement for repetition and re-emphasis as the perfect mirror for the blunt headlines, terse encapsulations and stock phrases that news or current affairs broadcasting so often relies on.

The media, by its very definition, is inevitably mediated. Even the less-strictured airspace of public broadcasting isn’t a guarantee of neutrality and/or objectivity. TV and radio don’t so much make sense of the world as package it into a structure that is easy to assimilate. At its most successful The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! instigates a dialogue with the medium designed to tease out the humanity and the emotional truths behind the headlines.

Douglas Thornton, Woodland Poems

Douglas Thornton, Woodland Poems, (Lulu.com, 2014), 81pp, £5.10. ISBN 1505238471

Reviewed by Kyle Cooper

[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]

Navigation has never been my strong point. I like having a map, a path and a clear day on which to follow both. Woods pose a challenge for me – tracks meander, double back on themselves and disappear down warrens. The experience of being lost, of wandering, can be pleasant. The dappled light forms new effects, and one can come out of the woods seeing things in a different way.

This collection poses a similar problem for me. In it, Douglas Thornton examines Native American myths and folktales, retelling some and inventing others. He creates a colourful world, tactile and mystical. Characters travel through dense forest, using the materials of this world to construct it – Tamosemis, a squaw, uses berries and roots in a ritual to remember her dead husband. The prophet Wapiniwiktha weaves spells using the carcass of a deer. I admire Thornton’s prowess in this – the materiality of the woodland creates the rituals that inhabit the poetry as much as within the poems. Thornton roots the world of the poetry securely within the woodland; the metaphors and similes do not borrow from the environment out of the woods. For instance, Wapiniwiktha’s ritual summons the spirit of a boy which speaks “as silent as the fallen leaves”.

The effect of this is to draw the reader more completely into the world of the poetry. You begin to wander through the poems, deeper and deeper into the text. The language has the same effect. Thornton adopts a register which twists and turns, sentences meandering through the poem with scattered syntax. Personally, I found this a touch hard to penetrate, but perseverance bears fruit. I found myself drawn deeper into Woodland Poems by the language, immersed in the lore of Thornton’s world.

Thornton imagines a pantheon of characters, from the prophet Wapiniwiktha to the squabbling brothers Joskeka and Tawiscare, who struggle to clear foliage from a stream so that it will dry out, a stream that they sate their thirst from in order to carry out this task. Amongst these are sown retellings of stories of real people, such as Scoouwa, a white man who is raised amongst Native Americans, searching for his own identity.

These characters deal with love, war and man’s position in the world. While they vary in topic, they all focus on a central theme; on how “the hearts of men rest / Far from where they sleep” and “Fall to a moment of dissolution”. This is introduced in the first poem, ‘Anectahi’s Chant’, which ends with the tantalising question “What will I become?” This “moment of dissolution” is considered throughout the poems, in which identities appear to be in a continual state of flux. Wapiniwiktha considers that even the “most tangible objects…both the hardest matter, the hardest hearts” are mutable; this later leads to a kind of metamorphosis in which Wapiniwiktha observes the movements of an eagle to such an extent that he feels himself to be one with the bird. Later in the collection, the “captive” Scoouwa, in a retelling of a true story of a white man raised amongst Native Americans, undergoes the mental struggle of finding his identity. He thinks to leave his Native American brother to die, but at the end of the poem returns to feed him.

Perhaps this poem reveals something about Thornton’s mind when writing it; Scoouwa initially says “I am not an Indian, nor am I / A man to wait upon a faith too high / When a better life may be lived”, but eventually he relents, and concludes “I’m no Indian, but I’ll not let die / The man who told me faith was nearby”.  It is possible that Thornton is accepting the cultural differences between himself and his subject matter, and attempting to reconcile those by saying that what he has gained from his studies of Native American culture is greater than the problems that such a study may entail – the “faith” which Scoouwa thinks of is a great enough prize that Thornton is willing to overlook the problems of cultural appropriation of which he might be culpable.

The poetics of this collection are also worthy of praise. Thornton writes with technique and flair, with a tight metre and a well-managed rhyme scheme. Particularly of note is ‘The Indian Ballad of Gitch Naigow’, a fluent and clever sestina which deals with an aging father’s feelings of being a burden to his young daughter. However, I would note that while the technique is strong, it may be somewhat overused – leading, in part, to the density of the language. However, if you persevere with the poems, then this does not become a problem.

This collection is dense and occasionally tangled, but contains a rich cache – the folklore is intricately crafted and relayed, the poems are well-constructed and the fruit that you may discover make the search worthwhile. If you are willing to lose yourself in the poems and wander awhile through this woodland world, the paths that reveal themselves are worth exploring.