503Fusions, Theatre 503, London

503Fusions, Theatre 503, The Latchmere, 503 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 3BW; 15th, 16th and 17th January 2015, 7:45pm, £12/£10

Reviewed by Zozi (15th Jan)

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

503Fusions is a lovely Frankenstein’s monster: a sequence of four themed mini-plays by four poets, each work containing elements of spoken word, jazz, rap, musical theatre and storytelling. The audience are taken on an impressionistic voyage through London, from dusk to dawn. It’s a real privilege to see the poets Karis Halsall, Tommy Sissons, Gemma Rogers and Deanna Rodger come together for this: they’re a sharp, cool, star-bright group, and it’s clear that they’re relishing every moment.

The space is a pub theatre – simple and unpretentious (the packed-out house and enthusiastic audience response suggests that this work could be taken elsewhere, perhaps to Edinburgh). Karis Halsall, who also curated 503Fusions, opens the evening with her piece Night. This is a dynamic work about loneliness and loss, which is suited to Halsall’s engaging physicality. The character she portrays – her shoulders up, hands in the pockets of her overlarge coat, as though apologising for her presence on stage – instantly captures the audience’s sympathy, but she holds our attention with some pointed and beautifully delivered lines. “Time is not data,” she declares, “it cannot be archived/it cannot be stored/it can only be lived.”

Tommy Sissons follows with his work Day, which introduces more hopeful overtones, whilst picking up on the dark themes in Night. This made for a change of tone mid-poem which was jarring at first, but it delivered the message. In contrast with the other three poets, who were all acting out personas or storytelling to some degree, the second half of Sissons’ poem was a straight-down-the-line elegy: he spoke out for young people who have been lost to violence or suicide, and expressed hope that a brighter future can be created for London’s youth. Sissons, who was 2014 UK Slambassador Champion, is another confident and engaging performer, and his chemistry with his backup band Normanton Street was certainly fun to watch.

The most musically sparkling piece of the evening was Gemma Rogers’s. Rogers has a charming stage presence, and it’s no surprise to find out she’s a regular at Glastonbury. A perky figure in large glasses, she is an accomplished musician and poet who can switch seamlessly from performing poetry, to rapping, to singing with a ukulele – and it sounds great, especially with the backup of Nick Rogers, Dominic Kennedy and Thomas Hammond. It’s wonderful to hear music, storytelling and poetry being whizzed together with such eccentric, bolshy virtuosity (move over, John Hegley).

Rogers’s piece Day is a one-woman musical that combines rap, spoken word, ukulele anthems and campy piano ballads; the audience clearly adored it, although sometimes I worried that the musical fun was overwhelming the narrative instead of moving it forward. Steve Harper’s direction holds the piece together, however, and the ending is a sweet and audience-pleasing resolution.

Deanna Rodger completes the evening with Night II. I’ve seen Rodger’s work before, but I’m always surprised afresh by how versatile an artist she is: her work has so many shades and moods, and expresses a wide range of emotions and concepts. Her poetry is always packed with facts, thoughts and ideas, but it’s always accessible and relatable. Rodger has a vibrant physical presence, which she uses to full effect: no facial expression or movement is wasted. Night II is the standout of the evening, with its meditation on light: “the sun cannot defeat London”, Rodger declares. “God made us in her image/so we are God/and we make lights/great lights.”

My takeaway is that we’re all blessed to be in a renaissance of spoken word poetry, where poets can pull off beautiful and daring experiments like 503Fusions. It’s easy to forget that spoken word poetry has previously been seen as inaccessible and irrelevant. My only complaint is that 503Fusions ran for three nights only – but let’s hope this won’t be the last we will see of it.

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Simon Travers, Anatomy

Simon Travers, Anatomy, (Stackhouse Jones, 2013), 63pp, £5.00. ISBN 9780992703202

Reviewed by Kyle Cooper

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015] 

Love and poetry have been bedfellows since poetry began, and love poetry is a well-established and often over-used form. Many a heartbroken adolescent – myself included – has scribbled a few angst-ridden lines onto a discarded Valentine, or tried to think of a decent rhyme for ‘heart’ (‘horse and cart’ didn’t go down well). However, the relationship between the two has become troubled in modern poetry. Prufrock certainly didn’t want to write a sonnet, and both poetry and love seem to be going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment.

In Anatomy, Simon Travers explores a relationship between a modern couple, asking what a loving relationship means in the 21st century.  Travers channels one of the oldest collections of love poems: the biblical Song of Solomon. Travers refers to this explicitly in the introduction to the collection, one of several essays that accompany Anatomy. This may provoke some mixed responses – some readers like to be left alone by the author – but I think it adds structure and purpose to the collection, preventing it from being dismissed as ‘just another collection of love poems’. Travers is exploring the roots of love poetry, and asking whether such a subject is pertinent in today’s world – if old poetics and modern love can be reconciled, maybe the two forms are stronger together than it may have appeared in recent times.

The collection has the same feel to it as the Song of Solomon. The cadence and rhythms are similar, and there is more than a passing resemblance in the lines – the Song’s “How beautiful you are, my love” is reflected in Travers’s line “Clever you! To come home to me through the rain.” The effect of this is a strange calmness to the collection – it deals with intimate relations, but the narrators’ emotions are quietened. Most of the challenges within it are resolved in the comfort the two narrators share. The poems are deeply intimate, and the reader is given a candid view into the shared life of the couple. However, their relationship is not reduced to a mere fairy tale romance; in fact, Anatomy opens with “Say it’s simple and you lie /about circles and heart shapes, love and π”, and towards the end makes sure the reader knows “It’s not like the adverts”, “It’s not like a rom-com.”

The collection is at its best when the poems are powerful enough to break through the calmness of the biblical rhythm and confront the reader with the problems of a relationship in the modern world. The Song of Solomon is effective because the love between the partners is relatively untroubled (at least superficially). This collection has a more complicated subject matter, and I feel it works well when it operates beyond the calming cadence of the song; most dramatically when the woman dreams of a barroom flirt which goes wrong, of being followed on a “trip to the toilet” and attacked: “he chokes me / and he laughs and says, ‘I bet you / like it best when you get it rough.’ / But I don’t, I like my husband.” This incident is one of the most powerful instances in the collection because it causes the reader to question the poem; is the woman being punished for her imagined infidelity, drawn back to heteronormative married life by the souring of dream into nightmare? Is this even a question we should be asking? What are Travers’s intentions here?

Other instances occur because the couple’s circle is intruded upon by everyday life. Travers evokes the everyday with uncommon grace – I particularly like the lines “I do not have enough battery on / my phone to capture any of this; so no status update tonight [….] just a woman and / her man, this now and a memory.” Here Travers successfully deals with the unrelenting chatter of modern life in a poetic manner. However, this is not always so fluent; a poem that uses a software crash as a metaphor for an argument seems a little more clunky and forced. Mostly, however, Travers evokes the contemporary world with an elegance that is rare. Against this constant stream of status updates, bright screens and blaring noise, the relationship is barely a whisper; and because of this, it is successful. Another notable poem has “my boss, my brother, the woman / behind the chemist’s counter, / Gladys Knight” and a host of others follow the couple to bed, only to disappear: “Unsurprised / that we are now alone, I whisper my / secrets in the comfort of your dark.” The whisper returns later in the collection: “It is an almost whisper; insubstantial and unheroic […] Do not call the news or post this / excitedly to your online friends.”

However, the couple are not removed from the outside world. There are some interesting moments in which the couple deal with the roles of men and women; the woman calmly tells her husband “Please, I want to be / a wife, not a work / of art. I do not / want an airbrush to / distort and tell lies.” The man criticises those who “wiped themselves on my sexuality, / said you should buy me / a pair of high heels”, and states “I am a man, but / the privilege is being here, not asserting a right.” These two stand in negotiation with the common gender roles ascribed to them, and attempt to construct their relationship around them. Travers, in one of his accompanying essays, ties this to the relationship between Adam and Eve. Perhaps, if the subject is modern love in light of ancient religion, it seems to be a bit of an oversight not to include a mention of homosexual relationships. However, while such topics are worth pursuing, it is not Travers’s intention to do so, and the negotiation of gender roles is enough for what is a short series of poems.

Anatomy is a collection which meanders gently through turmoil. The tone of the collection is often at odds with what it discusses, but Travers allows this in order to separate his protagonists from the hubbub surrounding them. It is tranquil and loving, and occasionally brutally thought-provoking.

Noel King, The Stern Wave

Noel King, The Stern Wave, (Salmon Poetry, 2013), 77pp, €12.00, ISBN 9781908836335

Reviewed by Phoebe Walker

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

I was once a student of literature in Belfast, and our tutors made certain we were well drilled in ‘Irish Literature’ – always tiptoeing, of course, around what constituted the stuff. Writing from ‘the island of Ireland’ was a favourite, evasive answer, so we studied Yeats, Maria Edgeworth and Swift alongside the more contemporary bite of Glenn Patterson, Alan Gillis and Ciaran Carson. And Seamus Heaney, of course, plenty of Heaney, who, to me, acutely aware of city and national divisions, as much as an earnest foreigner could be, blurred those invisible, razor sharp borderlines in poetry that I found at once calming and complex. The syllables of Anahorish became a tiny incantation.

I had read little poetry from (the island of) Ireland since leaving it, and picked up Noel King’s second collection with, I suppose, unfair anticipation. King was born and lives in Tralee (a quick glance at his photo declares him no rose, though impressively bearded) in County Kerry, and is a prolific writer and editor – which compounded my disappointment with this collection. To me, too many of the poems here read as though their latent energies have been dampened down, and King’s obvious abilities, when put to the test, fall short. Much of the work here reads blandly, even when the content strives to shock and unsettle.

My main issue with this collection is that the majority of the poems are couched in unexceptional language – not in itself a criticism – and remain, as whole, unexceptional, with no voltas, stylistic conceits or starting originality of thought to make them impressive. In subject, they are almost all bleak, again not a criticism, but that same failure to startle, in any way, risks the whole becoming one stretch of dreary wallpaper.

Several poems end with an ostensibly devastating denouement; so in ‘The Third Attempt’:

[…] she’d pressed
a delicate fork in,
moving the fish-flesh
from the bones
then played a while
with it on the edge
of her plate.
No one noticed

[…]

[…] they found
her feet first
in the shed
after the disco.

Elsewhere, “Aunt Jane”, the one-time wearer of a dress, “Grace Kelly like, large pink flowers”, is, “cut down” form “the cross-beam in the turf shed”. A child narrates a poem about being taken for a car ride by his reckless elder brother, ultimately revealing “I sure ain’t gonna tell/ ‘cos I’m the one that’s dead”.  I get the intended play of succinct, almost pedestrian phrases against the jolt of the macabre close, but the effect left me nonplussed, rather than moved, the bulk of the poem unstimulating enough to make those final lines feel gratuitous more than anything else. The fact that this effect exists in several poems in the collection also chips away at the impact – encountering this stylistic conceit for the third or fourth time, it’s all too easy to feel irritation with the poet, not for laziness exactly, but for a lack of care in placing the poems in this collection.

King depicts fine, small worlds in this collection – the child narrating his father’s affair, schoolboys shaking a mummified hand in St Michan’s Church in Dublin, an actress smashing a vase in a fit of rage – but what I look for in poems with a domestic scope is for the ordinary to be made, in however small a way, extraordinary. I don’t get that here. To me, so many of these poems remain nothing more than mildly interesting snapshots. The Dublin setting and the childhood perspective that shapes many of them does lend a flavour to the collection, but again, it’s a weak one, and for me, it is nothing new.

People go to poetry for different things; the very reasons for me disliking this collection might draw another to it. This poetry is quiet, and though not unchallenging, doesn’t submit you to a rigorous reading experience – and for some, that will be just what’s wanted. Others, myself among them, however, will close the book dissatisfied, especially when some few poems do hit the mark, small stubbing points in an otherwise frictionless path.

Alwyn Marriage, Notes from a Camper Van

Alwyn Marriage, Notes from a Camper Van (Bellhouse Books, 2014) 40pp, £7.00. ISBN 9780993044304 

Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

I never imagined camper vans would feature much in my life, but over the last few years they’ve been creeping up on me.  Indeed, I’ve probably had as many conversations with friends about camper vans as I’ve had with them conversations about poetry (and the latter have featured me doing most of the conversing).  I’m not generally given to too much ‘I’ in reviews, but I felt I ought to make it clear that Alwyn Marriage’s new collection had found fertile ground even before its pages were opened.

Notes from a Camper Van is as precise a title as one could wish for (and one does often wish for more precise titles). These poems should be read all together, in one journey.  It’s a journey without a destination, a wandering hither and thither, and everything is, indeed, noted. Sometimes these notes become observations:

each spot we spend the night is where
we want to be, and in another sense
is simply on the way to somewhere else

However, on the whole this little collection consists of descriptions or short narratives, unqualified by any thumping rumination.  The weather is ever present, whether it is “under a blue sky” or “in the bone-numbing cold / of pre-dawn darkness”.  The van is a home, more than a simple vessel – it might even be considered a character: a previous van is described as “elderly, sedate”. Places are rarely identified very precisely, and although we learn that the Sherpa Van has been to the Hebrides, up the M4, four thousand feet up Mt Blanc, heading West to Wales, these are only places by virtue of their being where the camper van is: it is the primary reality.

Either the poet is travelling or has arrived, though the arrival is at no permanent place; the reader knows that the point is not to stay, but to go, and to be constantly arriving, constantly to be surprised.  Each night differs from the last:  there are mysterious animals in the Alps – “A sudden shriek: was it a bird or a mammal?” – and on the moors they are disturbed by “an army / of dog-walkers”.

So there are poems about driving:

The road ahead is striped,
red on the left in front and white
approaching on the right

And poems about parking:

No, I’m not prepared to camp tonight
underneath a pylon

and notes about the temporary environs:

We sat and watched wild otters play
on clean white sand

and poems about sleeping and waking and eating and strolling.  Mostly they are poems that have to do with seeing. There is a sense of going into the world, rather than allowing the days to roll by. It is a kind of anti-quotidian poetry, in which the acts are the same, but the scenes always different.

Moreover, it is extremely simple.  However, as anyone who knows their craft will testify, simplicity is very hard, the very opposite of the simplistic. To write poems like this requires the confidence that comes with mastery. It also needs the desire to do it (something often overlooked by those who point and declare “I could do that”).

The language is uncomplicated, and the verse is free, though often gathered into regular stanzas, but the poems have a unifying voice, one which has a quiet rhythm.  There is nothing strident or forced: these poems are indeed ‘notes’, from which one day other more substantial work might perhaps bloom. Or not.  It doesn’t much matter. Taken together they add up to a substantial work. And what is more, they’re a pleasure, both vicarious and real.

Now, I think my cousin has an old VW bus he wants to sell…

Fen Speak, Friends’ Meeting House, King’s Lynn

Fen Speak, 28/11/2014, Friends’ Meeting House, King’s Lynn, Free entry though donations are encouraged

Reviewed by David Turner

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

Fen Speak is a monthly open-mic evening which alternates between venues in Ely and Wisbech. This latest instalment took place in King’s Lynn as part of ‘Fen Speak on Tour’.

When I spoke to Lunar Poetry’s editor, Paul McMenemy, about possibly travelling up and reviewing this event, he responded with, “I start to get worried when things are described as friendly and supportive.” I have to say I agree with Paul on this one and, probably cynically, believe that “friendly and supportive” means a room full of (mainly older) people clapping politely after 3 or 4 minutes of dull poetry. While the night, as with all other poetry nights, contained elements of this, the standard of poetry was very good – surprisingly so at times.

Around 40 people turned up to watch with 20 of those getting up to read. I’ll try not to patronise here but I was impressed by how many people had come out to support the night. The room was so full, in fact, that the poets seemed compelled to press their backs against the magnolia wall as they faced down the rifles. Due to the large turnout, those that were taking part in the open-mic were limited to one poem. I’m not suggesting that this should become ‘industry standard’ but limiting the poets in this way seemed to keep the audience invested in what they were listening to. Invariably at these events there will be a lot of poetry not to one’s taste, but it’s probably easier to remain positive in the knowledge that they won’t be in front of you for long.

The first feature poet of the evening was our host, and co-founder of Fen Speak, Leanne Moden. Leanne is a former Fenland Poet Laureate; incidentally this is a title I’ll mention a lot, in fact it felt at times as though there weren’t many of us in the room that weren’t or hadn’t been Fenland Poet Laureate. Leanne began with a poem to her daughter, an affectionate, if a little clichéd, feminist number reassuring the child that she could achieve anything she wanted to – “your only limit is the stars.” It ended with the humorous response from the child, “can I be a caterpillar?”

Her second poem addressed the issue of trying to get an anorexic friend to look to the future with hope. One line from this I just loved: “when we were young we used to dream in prime numbers” (even though I’m not completely sure of the context in which it was used). Leanne finished with the hilarious ‘Shaving Grace’, a poem about rejecting social pressure to remove her pubic hair. If it’s possible to see Leanne perform this poem then you have to do it, if only to hear her declare her refusal of any “pubic topiary” of the “crotch blossom” around her “meaty pocket”.

Next to feature was Elaine Ewart, fellow co-founder of Fen Speak and another former Fenland Poet Laureate. Elaine’s set of three poems were all Fen-related. ‘Slippery Customers’ was about a man raising eels in a tank in his shed and the feelings of guilt that lead him to releasing them into a river and hopefully on their way to the Sargasso Sea. Her second poem focused on a horse being sold at market and contained many beautiful images of this old tradition. Her final poem ‘Harriot Yorke Looks Back’ was a dialogue which I’m sorry to say I didn’t quite follow. I think I would have liked to have spent time reading this poem from the page.

Last up was Poppy Kleiser, the current Fenland Poet Laureate (by now, I think we can all consider ourselves Fenland Poet Laureates at heart). Her first poem described the ‘Fen Tigers’ fighting for their land rights against the Duke of Bedford, carrying the refrain, “This land is ours, this land is yours.” She followed up with a poem about her mum, and one about soldiers fighting in the First World War, while in ‘Terraces’ she talked about the many grand houses in her home town of Wisbech that are being allowed to fall into ruin, setting the scene nicely with the line, “the burnt out Rover rots and sways.”

I think Fen Speak is a great initiative and Elaine and Leanne should be applauded for taking poetry to their audience. The idea of alternating between two venues on either side of the district is also a brilliant one. It’s fantastic to see poets so engaged with their audiences, and I’m sure it is actually something that’s happening all over the country.

My name is David and I fucking hate poetry, but I did quite enjoy taking the train into the countryside after work on a Friday evening.

Bobby Parker, Blue Movie

Bobby Parker, Blue Movie (Nine Arches, 2014), £8.99, ISBN 978-0-992-7589-7-4

Reviewed by Tom Bland

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

Every other poem has the fucking moon
blaring out from the centre, makes me sick!

‘Fuck the Moon’ is one of my least favourite poems in Bobby Parker’s Blue Movie, but he has a point; the moon is one of those images that turns up everywhere, as if words can’t cope without moonlight. He writes:

We have overdosed on the moon; caught exotic
diseases, genital warps, spent nights in jail
with your fucking moons up our arses.

Parker’s also sticking moons up our arses; he’s another poet writing fucking poems but he has moments of denial, as in ‘Snow Hill’ when he tries to tell his mum this isn’t a poem, even though they both know it is, “so you probably won’t read it.” Will you read his work? I guess it depends if you can bear a poet taking you into the arsehole of life; every poet shits, but god forbid he should write about shit. In ‘Particles’, he notes,

I left my trainers by the front door
then traced my steps looking for stains.
The stink made me think of my insides.

What is beautiful about Parker’s book is each poem acts as a fragment of the seething turbulence of failure, self-disgust and anger (never resentment) painted for us throughout the collection. The word ‘ghost’ appears repeatedly. His poems are a sequence of experiences overlapping intensities like layers of paint, and he tears through them leaving not a hole, but intersecting gashes.

In the most remarkable and heart rendering poem of the book, ‘Ducks Staring Into You,’ the stink is his cocaine habit, making him blank even to the bubbles of his daughter’s bath – though he recognises the pain he should feel at the bubbles “that won’t be there tomorrow.” On the back of the book, Sam Riviere identifies “hope” as a defining feature, but I wonder if he really means ‘vulnerability’, as Parker knows and feels the shit on his shoes, knows that he fails time and again and writes it all down, tracing his steps just one more time.

Not every poem works in the book. The aforementioned ‘Fucking the Moon’ is too obvious – it’s no secret the moon is one of the biggest clichés in poetry – and needs to be a bit more interesting. (But I might say this due to loving the moon, speaking to the moon when I was a teenager, coming home drunk or stoned or both after fucking or not getting laid and trying to figure out why, or depressed, or just walking…)

Most of the poems go way beyond the obvious into what Riviere calls, a “genuine cause for alarm.” Clare Pollard comments in her essay, ‘Getting Poetry to Confess’, that confessional poetry “explores our darkest emotional instincts: our deepest scars, secrets, griefs and desires. It is the mode in which poetry, so often deemed by people as dusty and irrelevant to their lives, can proclaim its relevancy.”[1] This is what Parker does in his exceptional Blue Movie.

[1] Clare Pollard, ‘Getting Poetry to Confess,’ Magma, 21 (Autumn 2001).

Kyle Laws, Wildwood

Kyle Laws, Wildwood, (Lummox Press, 2014), 89pp, ISBN 9781929878734

Reviewed by Conrad Geller

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015] 

Wildwood is a small town on Cape May, a minor appendage that dangles from the southern end of New Jersey, yearning toward Delaware.  Why it is also the title of this collection of poems is something of a mystery. True, in an early poem, ‘The Myth of Men and Women’, the author explains her choice of title, and it is also the title of the last (maybe best) poem of the book, with a lucid evocation of life in that beachfront community:

I want the reach of blue shell crabs
over the rim of a dented pot
as they are dropped into boiling water.
I want butter dripping down my chin
as I break open the shell.

But that same poem projects as many images of a Philadelphia childhood:

I want tulips in North Philadelphia
and the rhythm of the El
as it holds me between freeze-frames
of lovers in windows.

In fact, Kyle Laws provides in her poems, besides these two places, settings in New Orleans and a whole section about the Colorado/New Mexico Southwest as well. All are vividly evoked, in mood as well as sensory detail. Perhaps the most powerful are those in the second section of this book, ‘Pueblo’.

The sky was the blue of a child’s crayon drawing,
the clouds spider dreams.
Huajatolla Peaks were a fifth grade diorama
of mountains in Central America.
The scrub oak was 70’s shag carpeting
in orange, red and brown.

(‘How Do I Tell You About the September Day’)

The ‘Pueblo’ section seems to hold the most intense, as well as the most descriptive, poems in the collection. Many of these poems move between external and internal experience, as in ‘Bottom of My Voice’, where rain outside and passion inside become a confounded whole:

all the rain leaking down,
sometimes hard,
sometimes soft like your love,
changing like the cells of our
bodies exploding then forming
into something new,
creating & recreating,
the fall of rain intermittent,
bursts of thunder,
the sky opening up around us

Sensual description is an outstanding feature of all the poems here. ‘St. Augustine, 1971’, for example, uses touch and smell as principal vehicles of sense:

[…] how the grits stuck to the roof of my mouth
like the cheese from Mack’s Pizza
on the Wildwood boardwalk,
only the grits didn’t burn;
they were cool like the early morning breeze,
a faint smell of fish in the air.

In this poem, place is as effortlessly melded as viewpoint, flashing from Florida to Cape May, then suddenly to central New Jersey to exhilarating, if slightly confusing, effect.

Much of Laws’ work seems to be autobiographical: the poet’s bastard of a father, her disintegrating family, her travels, her loves, her struggles with identity and direction. Her private progress is anchored to hints of the mid-century zeitgeist, with references to the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, the film Psycho, a Leonard Cohen poem, and the philosophy of the supposed Yaqui shaman, Carlos Castaneda. In this sense, Wildwood is as much a revelation of period as it is of person.

The father needs a bit more exposition, because he is somehow the key to the poet’s emotional base. He works in a factory that makes ball bearings, has deserted his family in the midst of a financial crisis, and yet he seems to be remembered with a glow, almost a yearning that I suppose is reserved for many fathers. ‘St. Augustine’ begins

April of the year I graduated high school,
Father and I were on our way to Ft. Lauderdale.

and goes on to produce the sensory fireworks described above.

Another poem, ‘199 Steps to the Top of the Lighthouse’, describes the destruction of a pier during a storm:

The bay would smash hard
against what remained;
and as it retreated,
drew in its breath,

and a few lines later:

It was like Father
who took all things to bed,
wrapped them up in his arms,
swept them away.

But it is, of course, sound and form more than substance or style that distinguish poetry from other uses of language, and in this regard Laws has produced some beautiful work. One of her devices is artful repetition, such as the four-time iteration of “a child is born” in ‘It is 1953’.  More telling is the almost liturgical repetition of “After an afternoon” to begin each of the three stanzas in ‘Pinon Rain’.

Another noticeable characteristic of Laws’s work here is the use of listings, a familiar imagination starter in poetry workshops, but here a powerful descriptive tool. ‘White, Shaggy Cattle’, for example, presents a panorama of cows, a dog, a herder who looks like a bullfighter, snow, “petroglyph-carved cliffs,” and, finally, antelope and deer. Yet it all makes sense, the seemingly disparate details becoming part of two connected but contrasting pictures.

Perhaps the most successful use of listings comes in ‘Debris’, which starts as little more than an inventory of pickings from a beach:

an unbroken tiny pink pearl shell,
a small quilled seagull feather,
a blue clawed crab’s pincher,
and the back of its coral rimmed shell.

It then swells to a meaningful self-reflection:

I could no more untangle
the fishing line
from the coil of colored rope
than I could untangle myself
from a foghorn’s wail at sunset,

Among all the places, images, and narratives in this book, it becomes apparent that Law’s poetry is largely emotion recollected, not in tranquility, but in anguish, or at least regret. Her haunted childhood, as well as her travels and her discoveries, presents to the reader a poet with deep and troubled feelings, expressed in lucid imagery and careful language.

The poetry isn’t all bitter coffee from Smitty’s Bar, however. There is one conventionally romantic, even sentimental, poem, ‘Ordelia Met John at the Carousel’, that tells of a meeting of lovers-to-be in a scene almost reminiscent of a June Allyson film. John lifts up Ordelia:

lifting her up onto a horse,
mane braided with rhinestones,
her legs falling down softly side saddle,
the music low then rising with
horses above the din of voices
from the roller coaster,
cotton candy pink, and slice
of Jersey tomatoes on rare hamburgers
scenting their first meeting.

This is a vision of ordinary love, even if it’s for someone else.

 

Sue Moules, The Moth Box

Sue Moules, The Moth Box, (Parthian, 2013), 67pp, £7.99, ISBN 9781909844070

Reviewed by Phoebe Walker

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

Sue Moules’s collection has a mildly hypnotic quality. Read in chunks over the course of a week’s commuting, it calmed my journeys considerably, wrapping me in a kind of soporific bubble that managed to make even the mindless thrum of the tube a little less grating. The Moth Box is a well-chosen title; it connotes something of the sheltered, fragile and ephemeral atmosphere these poems create.

The title poem names “them”:

Scorched Wing, Tussock,
White Ermine, Marbled Coronet,
Green Carpet, Phoenix,

their intricacy marvelled at as they “heat their delicate tiled wings,/ soar into the dark.” This line is characteristic of the atmosphere of the collection as a whole; an aura of hushed contentment at small wonders surrounds it, through poems which prefer to frame the marvellous for admiration rather than penetration. Occasionally I wished that Moules would follow her moths ‘into the dark’, so to speak, although that might rather be her unironic pastoral highlighting my own flaws as a reader. It’s easy to affect fashionable indifference to quiet, earnest delight in a spring “vivid with rhododendrons”, or starlings who “preen their polka dots/ squabble like children”, but it doesn’t necessarily do you any credit.

Although this collection undoubtedly veers to the (quietly) delighted pastoral, that’s not to say it lacks bite. While I might wish that Moules’s birds didn’t have to “coo and warble”, and that bluebells don’t make quite such frequent appearances, there are fine descriptions of the patterns of skin shed and re-grown “like the iris aura of eyes”; of a father who “heeled acorns/ into empty spaces of land”. The best reflections on nature express for it both empathy and respect, and these sentiments are ingrained into Moules’s writing as surely as a seam of mineral in the earth.

The second stanza of ‘Spring Equinox’ is both simple and endlessly evocative:

Holy days
and the Pagan moon
resurrect light.
Rabbits, hares,
bluebells, gorse –
earth’s re-birth

These lines sent me back first to the medieval Irish lines,

Shapeless bracken is turning red,
the wildgoose raises its desperate head.

Birds’ wings freeze where fields are hoary.
The world is ice. That’s my story.

(Anon)

And then, reading this collection in late December, to U.A. Fanthorpe’s Christmas Poems – Moules’s writing has not that quickness, but I found its unselfconscious, meditative quality, and its reticence somehow reminiscent.

Moules feels less certain in human territory, which again speaks to her skill as a fine poet of the natural world. In ‘Hay Festival’, there is artless astonishment at the people “spilling over walkways/ to hear poetry”, and the poem is bracketed wistfully with “Imagine this” and “It happened/ a day in a field/ where the earth is red.” Away from the picturesque and the sublime, self-consciousness returns and inflects Moules’s writing, which, in describing a world rather more banal and populous, becomes a little more stiff and strained. In ‘Out on the Razzle’, the speaker’s doppelgänger has been seen “pub crawling/ down the High Street/ singing loudly, out of tune”, despite the confession that “actually I was at home/ watching Eastenders, eating up/ the last of the Christmas chocolate.” The register here feels a little awkward – perhaps I’m making too much out of a slight, light hearted piece, but I think perhaps more than anything it reflects how truly nature is Moules’s medium, to the extent that a brief foray out of it into the prosy old world (pubs, Eastenders, chocolate) immediately strikes, if not a false, then a discordant note. In contrast, ‘Welsh by Choice’ expresses a startling sure-footedness “in the land of my fathers/ who are not my fathers”. It is this phrasing, which might have felt imposing in another voice, that so well expresses the depth of the speaker’s connection to the land, to “the red heart of the country”, where “[t]he green of land, oldness/ of language” calls to her with the strength of a vocation.

Elsewhere, nostalgia poems remember a “first kiss to a pillow/ […] with its clean scent/ and no response”, and a game of One potato, Two potato, played to choose “the One”, the words chanted “oblivious of history/ and the failure of the potato.”  A later poem, ‘Potato’, obliquely picks up where this childhood game was dropped, with its wonderful first verse,

I worry the word’s staccato –
potato from patata
into the starch of my being

later falling into that subdued mournfulness that hovers at the edges of so many of these poems, a warning that “blight can attack the crop/ […] It brought starvation – / a whole country unearthed.” These poems carry such a sense of the writer with them, a sense that the writer herself is, through these poems, being unearthed, not quite without pain.

Jemma L. King, The Undressed

Jemma L. King, The Undressed, (Parthian, 2014), £9.99, 83 pp. ISBN 978-1-909844-80-3 

Reviewed by David Clarke

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

Jemma King’s second collection of poetry, The Undressed, is a book of ekphrastic work based on a collection of photographs of nude or partially clothed women, taken between the 1840s and the 1930s. With the exception of two poems showing us the perspective of historical male figures who concerned themselves with female sexuality from a moral or medical perspective, King names each poem after an individual woman. These previously anonymous images are given stories and experiences, as imagined by King, thereby restoring a voice to women who have been photographed, and silenced, for the titillation of the implicitly male viewer. Although King begins her collection with a quotation from Roland Barthes’ meditation on photography, Camera Lucida, an unnamed theoretical background to this enterprise is surely that strain of feminist cultural theory which critiques the representation of women that is formulated through the male gaze.

King sets about her task with gusto, creating diverse back-stories for the women in the pictures, which are also reproduced in the book itself. Quite often, the points of view expressed in the poems restore these women to a position as desiring subjects, as opposed to merely desired objects, and many of the characters created seek to undermine the supposed power of the men who seek to exploit or manipulate them. So, we meet an unrepentant prostitute with a healthy cynicism about male authority (‘Mary’); a young countrywoman who takes as much erotic pleasure in being photographed as the photographer does in the process of making the image (‘Isabelle’); a girl who recognises in her photographer’s “odd tensions” a desire to make her morally responsible for his own sexual hang-ups (‘Karla’); or two women relating a lesbian encounter from different perspectives  (‘Élodie’ and ‘Sabine’).

The interpretations which King draws from the images are always surprising and make the reader look at the photograph again in new ways, often questioning their initial impression of who this woman could be. In this sense, King’s book is a master class in ekphrasis: far from providing merely decorative description of the image, she lets us see it anew. Although very occasionally the characterisations may tend towards the one-dimensional (for example in the description of the femme fatale ‘Sheba’), at other times King shows herself capable of producing psychologically complex portraits of these women. My particular favourite here was ‘Ebonine’, a poem about a young woman whose motivation for allowing herself to be photographed speaks of a desire to be free of the moral limitations of her father’s strict Christian values (“All eyebrows and Godly disapproval”). Yet she also realises that she is being exploited by the photographer’s desire to use her tentative pursuit of freedom for the pleasure of others. The painful awkwardness of her attempt to dance for the camera as instructed (“gambolling around / and waving my dress like a flag signalling”) is very well conveyed here.

The urgency with which King addresses these unheard female stories is reflected in her formal choices. The poems are not neatly divided into regular stanzas, nor are they metrically regular. Instead, stanza and line length seem to follow the needs of the story, the poems often becoming denser at moments of emotional intensity. For example, in ‘Edith’ a Welsh woman imagines her lover who may be lost at sea, bound for the colonies. The poem is composed for the most part of tercets, but the lines become longer as the woman’s imagination conjures up the details of her lover’s fate, creating an almost claustrophobic effect. In ‘Elizabeth’, on the other hand, the short, almost staccato lines create a sense of the emotional dislocation caused by the subject’s abandonment by her lover, her discourse finally breaking down into single line stanzas. Clearly, although King rejects the need for regularity, her choices of form are carefully considered and resultantly effective. Only occasionally was I wrong-footed by a relatively weak line-ending on an article, a preposition, or a demonstrative or possessive pronoun, which seemed to draw attention to itself to no great effect, as in the first line of this stanza:

All men are weak. They throw their
bloodhound senses towards
the promise of horizontals […]

(‘Lydia’)

There are also times when a good final image is separated out into a couplet or single line for emphasis in a way which feels unnecessary, as if the reader would not ‘get’ it without this formal underlining.

King’s language is rich and vivid enough to maintain the reader’s interest over the length of the book, and she more than meets the challenge of lending each poem its own ambience in terms of time, place and character. Her details are carefully chosen and, appropriately enough given the nature of the photographs she is responding to, the poems are often characterised by a heightened sensuality. So, for example, in ‘Olive’, a poem about an early and now forgotten silent movie actress, we find the following evocation of the cinema:

The synchronisation of orchestra and muted gestures,
the pianist’s fingers,
tracing the ascent of arched
eyebrows, the coconut-shell
hooves of horses
the struck-metal shake
of thunder.

Or, in ‘Élodie’, the speaker describes her first attraction to ‘Sabine’, transforming the scene in a crowded bar in terms which are both corporeal and fantastical:

I wanted silence to throw
its soft aura around the
skin of my thoughts,
so I could fill it with her
dyad features, girlish giggle and skin
as soft as a mermaid’s underbelly.

In summary, then, The Undressed offers much for the reader to enjoy, not only in terms of what we might call its political project of restoring a voice to these silenced women, but also through its carefully judged intensities of expression, which allow King to evoke many different worlds convincingly and compellingly. A word of praise must also go to Parthian for this lovely hardback edition, which not only reproduces the photographs very well, but also places them in a design format which echoes that of the decorative album in which they might once have been at home.

Paper Tiger Poetry, 19/11/14

Paper Tiger Poetry, 19/11/2014, Tea House Theatre, £5/ free entry for open-mic.

Reviewed by David Turner 

This quaint (sorry) former pub in Vauxhall, south London is one of the most divisive venues among poets I have spoken to. It is odd that poets spend so much time complaining about being forced to read in basements and similar spaces tucked away from the rest of society, yet when offered the chance of a five minute (free) open-mic slot in a perfectly pleasant location they suddenly find windows and high ceilings disagreeable. I really like the Tea House Theatre, it’s a much more relaxed space in which to read poetry than, say, the basement of The Poetry Café.

The interior is maybe a little too homely, decorated with un-matched chairs, oak side tables, bookcases and cakes. Loads of fucking cakes. They’re everywhere. Actually, talking of cake, here’s my first complaint. The ratio of sponge to cream in the Victoria sponge was completely wrong. If customers are to be expected to pay £4.50 for a slice of cake then the bakers should do the decent thing and not scrimp on the cream. While we’re on the subject of prices (or rather, while I’m shoe-horning it into the introduction here) I feel I should mention it costs £4.00 for a bottle of lager. Now this might seem like a minor point and of course the price of drinks and cake are decided by the venue, not by Paper Tiger Poetry, but these factors are very important when we’re trying to attract new audiences. Overpriced bottles of lager and Victoria sponge are likely to put off those thinking about giving a poetry night ‘a go’.

The evening was hosted, as always, by Alain English. Even by open-mic standards, Alain is a unique character. He hosted the entire evening wearing a top hat and eye mask, like some silent movie villain minus the cape and twirly moustache. It was a struggle for me, all night, not to imagine him tying a damsel in distress to a train track as an accompanying piano builds manically. Alain is always an entertaining host, though I do sometimes wonder whether we guests are attending the same night as him.

The open-mic slots rolled by entertainingly enough. With the usual disclaimer that “open-mics can be very hit and miss”, the standard here was very high. We had mentions of sex, love and loss. We had rap and laughs and some rambling nonsense in Norwegian by some twat attached to Lunar Poetry.

One stand out five minute slot was Richard Perkins. I’m always pleased to see Richard walk in at an open-mic night; he’s very entertaining. Richard is a gifted story teller, combining cutting honesty with the knowledge that one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. ‘Nobody Ever Comes Anymore’ was a tale of drug-fuelled, marathon sex sessions beginning both beautifully and crudely, describing the frustrations of sex sans the physical “spunky payoff”. The story concluded that the maligned (in this case) act of ejaculation adds a level of intimacy to “cock-chafing-fucking”. I first saw Richard early in the summer and it’s great to see his stage persona and delivery beginning to match his writing ability.

The first feature act of the evening was the host of Talking To Strangers, Sarah Rayner. This was the first time I’d seen Sarah read and I was disappointed that the first thing she said was how sick she was feeling. I don’t have any suggestions of how else to deal with this but it is annoying when poets mention ill-health at the start of a set as it’s nearly impossible to not think “well this is going to be shit.” I know that performers want to pre-empt any potential stumbling over lines or lack of energy but maybe it’s best to apologise after your set rather than lowering the audience’s expectations.

Sarah performed around ten poems in her fifteen minute set. Just about all of these poems were about boys. Boys she loves, boys she’s loved, boys she doesn’t like anymore, boys she now thinks are cunts, boys she thought were cunts yet still loved. Boys. I don’t normally like this kind of poetry and I don’t think I did like it all but I did enjoy Sarah’s set. Parts were very well written and funny but her delivery is a bit mumbly, something she mumbled about herself. Of the poems not about boys, ‘When You Open Your Eyes’ addressed a newborn niece or nephew and touchingly promised the little one she would “give you the sky”. She finished her set with a poem about vegetables seducing other vegetables. Yep, she did.

The evening was wrapped up by the host of Spoken Word London, Pat Cash. I should mention straight off that I bloody love Pat. He is probably my favourite poet to watch, live around London, and I’ll endeavour not to gush too much in my description of his set. Pat began with ‘Couldn’t Get It Up’, a tale of failing to get an erection when the occasion arises and blaming drink, drugs or location before realising that it’s actually the feelings he has toward the other guy that’s inhibiting his arousal: “in the end I just liked you too much.” ‘Ode To A One-night Stand’ talked of the spark and excitement of a one-night stand followed by the despair of the morning after and trying to wash the memory of that person from your skin. Although, every now and again they turn out to be quite nice leaving you to face the embarrassment of asking “what’s your name again?”

Pat’s final poem ‘The Dragon’ is similar to Richard’s tale of drug-fuelled sex, specifically in the gay community, a subject that Pat also often refers to in his journalism. This is an extremely painful poem about the damage these types of drugs can have on people both physically and emotionally, though finished with hope, “There still yet might exist an irresistible will for love.” One criticism of Pat’s delivery is also a reason I think he’s so great. The guy sounds permanently on the verge of tears, meaning that no matter the subject of his poetry you’re always waiting for the ‘inevitable’ tragedy. Pat is incredibly engaging, you must go and see him.

My name is David and I fucking hate poetry and over-priced cake.