Category Archives: Book & Article Reviews

Review of Strata Smith and the Anthropocene by John Freeman

Strata Smith and the Anthropocene by John Freeman

Published by The Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-909443-85-3    £6.

Review by Mandy Pannett

johnfreemanbookNow here’s an intriguing title to conjure with – who is this Strata Smith with the dare-devil name that makes me think of Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee? What is this weighty-sounding Leviathan of an Anthropocene? What kind of a book is this?

Superficially, it is a slim booklet of thirty-seven pages divided into thirteen passages each one concerned with an aspect of geology. William Smith and his famous map of 1815 forefronts the narrative as the dilemmas and questions induced by the Anthropocene, (the human-influenced epoch of present geological time), provide  a constant background. This is the apparent content but, if one digs deeper as if into layers of rock, there is more. Much more.

My immediate pleasure in Strata Smith comes from the multi-faceted writing which moves in and out of the subject connecting threads and thoughts. We have biography interspersed with personal anecdote, poetry, philosophical questions, fascinating information on fossils and rocks, digressions into social history, quotes from writers ranging from Shelley to Bill Bryson – a huge variety of style and subject matter in a short space.

‘Green is the colour William Smith chose to represent chalk on his 1815 map, ’ says John Freeman at the beginning of the first section Smith Honoured. To me it feels as if this mention of green with all its political and literary connotations provides the keynote  for  the thirteen passages. There is springtime in this era that man is creating, a growth of catkins, celandines, daisies; colours of red and green are vivid on trees and there is an ‘intensifying light’ in life itself that is determined to survive, that will outlive ‘us, and all our sources of pollution’. (Springtime in the Anthropocene’). Yet there is always menace and ignorance, an earth that is ‘bruised’ with a ‘cut lip, swollen cheek’, the dread of being wiped out so that today’s geological time will be just one more ‘layer’ marking ‘the sixth mass extinction’.

The ‘horizon of the Anthropocene’ is grim and John Freeman makes no pretence of hiding the grimness. But this is an author who knows his craft exceptionally well, can treat a heavy subject with lightness, is able to make the abstract vivid and detailed. What I particularly like is the awareness that there are no simple answers and we are ‘a collective too numerous for any definitive narrative.’ (Mapping the Collective). I love the metaphor that is used of interactive maps in Paris Metro stations where the pattern of direction may be changed with the touch of a button. In the same way opinions and viewpoints change, says John Freeman, and ‘the trouble is there are so many’.

Strata Smith and the Anthropocene is profound and thought-provoking but also a joy to read in the way it touches on interactions, small significances, understandings that grow ‘from inklings to hunches, to theories to be tested, to almost complete certainties by stages.’ (Smith Obstructed).
I highly recommend it.

Mandy Pannett

John Freeman’s new collection, What Possessed Me, was published by Worple Press in September, 2016. It is his first verse collection since A Suite for Summer (also from Worple), in 2007. White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems was published by Contraband Books in 2013.  Earlier collections include The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions), and Landscape with Portraits (Redbeck). Recent magazine appearances include The Rialto, London Grip and Tears in the Fence, which also recently printed his essay on the poetry of Jim Burns.

An interview with John Freeman in which he discusses ‘Strata Smith and the Anthropocene’ may be read here


Mandy Pannett reviews Peter Oram’s In Carvoeiro & Other Sequences

Title: In Carvoeiro & Other Sequences
Author: Peter Oram.
Publisher: SPM Publications, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9935035-1-1
Reviewer: Mandy Pannett

Peter Oram’s In Carvoeiro And Other Sequences won first prize in the 2015 poetry collection competition organised by SPM Publications. It is an outstanding collection for many reasons, not least the poet’s technical skill in maintaining a natural sounding and musical tone throughout while at the same time composing three of the four sections in the sonnet form.

More on this later but for now I’d like to focus on the mood of the poems and what seems to me to be the overriding theme of the collection which is the precarious balance between different worlds whether they be related to landscape, elements, relationships or political events.

Life, Oram suggests, is ‘just a line between two points.’ However this line is not straightforward, neither is it clear-cut and necessarily linear but is best approached ‘sideways’ with an awareness of ‘turmoil on the borderline’ where ‘the frontier is the place of fitfulness.’ There are ‘different worlds’ he says ‘and yours and mine/are no exception; as with east and west,/or day and night, or continent and ocean,/ ‘All afternoon I walk the line between/where water touches and where water doesn’t/touch.’

These different worlds are illustrated ‘along the line between this little land/and endless ocean’. This is the Algarve where the poet is writing and where, out of season, ‘all is quiet’ although, in shocking contrast, ‘with summer there will come the great invasion:/this coast will almost sink into the sea.’ Even more menacing is the depiction of a different world where ‘They’re chucking bombs about in the Ukraine./decapitating tourists in Iraq.’

This is an ambivalent, uncertain world where beauty and horror exist in parallel, where life is fleeting and the perfect moment may be ‘a world that time forgot to visit/until a careless brush begins to paint/a cloud or vapour trail, and the exquisite/moment goes, the magic starts to fade.’ There is sadness and loss here and in ‘the lonely damaged day’ which results, but nevertheless, Oram implies, every experience should be cherished for as long as it lasts. ‘Our life’s a line between/two points,’ he repeats, ‘but what a line!’

Something I find particularly intriguing in In Carvoeiro is the strong sense of destiny and fate that overlays the poems. God is visualised as a charioteer choosing, or otherwise, to release the reins, waiting offshore lies ‘a cruel wind’, the ocean itself is compared with a mill that won’t stop grinding until ‘the last shell, bone or pebble’s turned to sand’. This is something of an apocalypse but the tone is tempered by cynicism in a poem about the Last Supper where ‘He’d call his father, but his phone’s/kaput, the battery’s dead./He pours the wine. He breaks the bread.’  In the section ‘Numbers’ there is a similar tension where Jesus, hanging on the cross, notes the anguish of the two thieves who feel they are doomed and ‘fated/to be snuffed out, obliterated’ and comforts them with reassurance that they’ll soon be in heaven if they’ll be patient and ‘wait a bit’. However, the speaker concludes, ‘I was lying …’

In Carvevoeiro is outstandingly rich in imagery. The opening poem begins with the poet waking ‘to a parallelogram/of light’ and this quality of lustre is a recurrent motif. There is colour as well in ‘a single palm,/that’s opened like a fan and silhouetted/against a wash of pale celestial blue’ and there is much emphasis on whiteness and ‘white-/washed walls’. Music, too, is a dominant image. The first poem in the book also has the description of a railing ‘like the long and fretted/neck of some exotic instrument/that no one noticed, no one ever played’ and the terminology of music is used beautifully in a poem from the section In Flight:

‘The one who lies in coal-dark rooms, who’s waiting
with silver tongue and poisonous green eyes
has tuned your frail heart to the pulsating
ground-bass of the pounding passacaglia
of (calando) your descent into the valley. A
pianissimo last chord.’

Seasons and elements have a powerful role in this collection. Early in the section In Carvoeiro there is the description of a violent storm that roared in off the Atlantic … ripping at the stubborn night with frantic/talons, hammering the window pane/like an apocalyptic beast’ while similar, threatening weather provides the backcloth to the whole section In Flight where the aircraft, compared to a ‘giant cocktail shaker’, will face ‘gales of eighty over Amsterdam, and worse/to come.’ Much of this book has a cosmic feel to it – again highlighting different worlds – and a close relationship is described as ‘You and I: a solar system/just a single planet travelling/round a pale and lonely sun/slowly’. Here the whole galaxy is seen as ‘a slow/unfolding row of sequenced tones/from whose relentless, fixed parade/there’s no escape’.

No escape – or maybe there is some, albeit transient, in the tender ‘relationship’ scenes several of which take place in bed. Outside the window, says Oram, ‘the quarter moon completes its quiet arc/towards the ocean through the starlit sky,/a seabird that I can’t identify performs its cool cantata in the dark.’ Inside the room, safe from the storm, the couple are  ‘secure/and warm beneath the sheet and coverlet,/a secret’s length away from me you draw,/exhale, then draw again the gentle breath/of sleep.’

peteroram_thumb.jpgGentle, lyrical lines. Oram, however, is also the master of the hard hitting phrase. We are told of people who ‘take their daily pills and eat their greens,/content to leave the world the way it is’ and about the small boy tossing pebbles into a ring on the sand whose aim ‘is accurate and steady and/his eye is cold. He’ll make a good assassin.’ Oram is skilful, too, at manipulating the language of literature and myth. Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd, in today’s idiom would say ‘Come live with me and be my love/and leave me when you’ve had enough’ while a later ‘unwanted’ narrator, ‘condemned from birth’ and ‘flung’ from the wedding feast, achieves revenge by putting ‘poison on the spindle’.

Most of In Carvoero, as mentioned, is written in the sonnet form – a tremendous achievement in complexity, variation and, above all, in making the poems feel natural, readable, intriguing and moving. The last section Six Premature Ejaculations (not in sonnets) is one I find especially interesting and would have liked to read more. I love the layout of the pieces together with the lyrical surrealism (if there is such a thing) of lines like ‘the unicorn’s whistle in the deep bells’, ‘the silent holes in ashtrays’, ‘rubbing your shoulders on brambles/and the curve of nightingales’. In this final section ‘the thieves got off with a caution after all’.

There are many moods and cadences in this beautiful collection, far more than I have described. They are for the reader to discover and enjoy. I will finish this review with a passage that I find particularly appealing with its visionary quality and the possibility of hope that it offers:

‘But lately I have just begun to learn
that if I’m still and patient I’ll detect
that wooden stairway, old, with shaky sections
that descends through cliffs and brambles and
emerges on a perfect golden strand
extending endlessly from left to right
and where the sea’s ablaze with blinding light
and fishing boats rest snug on their reflections.


In Carvoeiro is available from SPM Publications here and through other bookstores including Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Nick Cooke reviews Abigail Zammit’s Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin

Title: Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin
Author: Abigail Ardelle Zammit
ISBN: 978-0-9935035-0-4   
Publisher: SPM Publications  December 2015    
Pages: 79
Reviewer: Nick Cooke
Price: £9.50

510MYkO+rPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Such has been the rare pleasure of reading and re-reading Maltese poet Abigail Zammit’s extraordinary second collection that I am sorely tempted to abdicate my duty of critical thoroughness in order to forestall the spoiling effect that will inevitably ensue. Rather like a TV sports presenter warning viewers to look away should they not wish to see the results, I fear that if I say too much about how the book unravels, potential readers will lose something of the engrossing experience I had in embarking on the journey without having any idea where it would lead me. For those content with the executive summary, therefore, I can honestly say that this has been among the richest and most beguilingly stimulating collections I have come across in recent years, and I strongly urge you to invest a very well-spent £9.50 in order to secure it.

Addressing myself now to however many souls have opted for the long version, I will begin by suggesting that the best approach to the task of summarising this book would be by way of referring to the several levels on which it exists. On my first voyage between the beautifully designed and appositely colourful cover, based on artwork by Emmy Verschoor-van Bavel, and the helpful if perhaps all too brief closing notes, my overriding impression was of an inner innocence-to-experience tale. It was as if the poet had consciously led me from an early period rooted in a child’s-eye series of responses to the natural stimuli around her, through an intermediate stage in which different views of burgeoning eroticism mark a dramatic coming of age, to a final sequence based on the devastating bombardment of Malta during World War II, which signals an unexpectedly brutal awakening to full reality.  However, on closer consideration the book also provides a form of commentary on the landscape, culture, architecture and history of Malta itself, though not exactly what you would find in an average guide book. There is, in addition, a strong feminist element, seen mainly in the central section, comprising poems on the Maltese Venus, a fertility goddess replicated in numerous statues throughout Malta, who is perceived as the potent symbol of a bounteously sexual challenge to male domination and arrogance.

The first poem, ‘Girl’, locates us in a childhood world not much beyond infancy, where tactile discovery is something new and constantly revealing:

She handles sand,
strokes sea shells, snorkels
in tiny circles inside little pools.
Today she slips her finger lightly
over a fish’s belly and discovers
its trance, its placid quietness
and slippery sides.

The simple style is deliberate, reproducing the girl’s uncorrupted and wide-eyed view of things. ‘Today’ might seem an unnecessary addition until we realise it has been placed there in order to emphasise the way she sees and feels in the moment. However, Zammit does not allow the picture to remain idyllic for too long. The appearance of a boy observing the girl ‘from a campside’ dimly implies a potential threat, and soon she suffers a slight mishap: ‘the girl walking in blue flippers/trips between boulders/one pin-sharp shell breaking the flesh’. By its end the poem has seen the initial sheen of perfection tarnished and we have been taken a half-step out of Eden:

Water flashes sky’s orange scar
and the boy launches a pebble
which will graze the glossy surface
where the limping girl salvages
one silver fish from the dead.

There is much about fishing and the sea in these early poems, giving a sense of timelessness by emblematising the millennia-old way of life followed by many Maltese workers, but also hinting at quests and adventures of other kinds. And water features again and again throughout the collection – sometimes a refreshing or comforting presence, sometimes a real and deadly danger.

This is just one example of a pattern of repetition which at first appeared the product of careless proofing. For instance, the word ‘swarm’ is used in three early poems within five pages, twice as a metaphor for love/desire. However, so meticulous is Zammit’s crafting and honing over the book as a whole that I later reviewed that assumption. After all, three ‘swarms’ in quick succession makes for nothing less than a swarm of ‘swarms’, does it not? Elsewhere her technique emerges by the end as artlessly simple and effective. Aiming to transmit the impression of bright, often electric colour conjured by the book’s cover, in line with her view of the world around her, she spreads the word ‘blue’ throughout the book, along with many occurrences of shades such as green, turquoise, purple, red and even the thrice-mentioned ochre. It comes to have a pleasantly trance-like effect on readers who feel their visual and sensuous pores being opened further with each poem.

The undercurrent of menace only vaguely intimated in ‘Girl’ is hauntingly stirred up in  ‘Sand Burial’, a deserved Alan Sillitoe poetry competition winner, where a children’s game threatens to go out of control:

The bigger kids crouch around you to test
their skills from last summer. How far can you bury a girl
so that not even her curls spring from the sand,
the mouth a scream filled with water?

Voices are coming in dampened waves, a slight panic
at your fingertips. Hold tight to yourself because
this is it, this is death by drowning, the body slack,
wasted, a bulbous growth by the shoreline.

In its second part the poem alters its focus to a love scene, which I interpreted as the same girl now in early womanhood, finding out that sexual involvement brings confusion, exposure and a strong whiff of mortality, as well as rapture and fulfilment. ‘You’ is now her new lover. In a typically domestic detail, Zammit portrays the girl’s mother ‘pressing shapes to make/gingerbread men’ when she was a girl, but now it’s something less innocent she wants to consume -‘you’re the man I’ve been waiting for/your sinews at their sweetest, their most malleable’ – to whom she holds on ‘with the intensity of the dying’:

Already, the sand is shifting, voices assemble.
someone rushes to my rescue. That unbearable lightness
of being drawn out. Discovering there’s no secret bay.

The next poem, ‘October’, ends with another sudden lurch into increasingly ugly reality, and another ‘graze’, echoing the earlier allusion to a slight but significant scratching of the ‘glossy surface’:

The whiff of ether I carry
like the first burst of the pox,
the memory of a wrist
grazed on a windowsill.

The whole first section is full of these often startling spurts and shifts, like an always varied movement in what proves a compelling and mountingly dramatic symphony overall. It prepares us well for the Maltese Venus sequence, where the growing girl has either become or been in some way substituted by (depending on interpretation) an almost Amazonian figure seemingly bent on subverting male iconography and discourse:

Look: here’s my lipid storage tank.
Further down, the damp triangle
where I’ve grown too much hair.
You say cactus-tongued. I say,
a remedy for the scratches I’ve endured. (‘Headless Venus, With Shaft’)

Zammit has recently completed a Ph.D in Creative Writing from Lancaster University in which she outlined her ideas on what she hoped to achieve through her poetry. She draws upon feminist critiques of a Western tradition by which, in her words, ‘irreconcilable dichotomies are relied upon to make sense of the world and to privilege one view over another, thus: male-female, mind-body, reason-emotion, culture-nature, the second being defined in terms of a lack.’ In the face of this historical imbalance, Zammit, following a path that she credits Jo Shapcott for opening up,  strives  ‘towards the dissolution of such oppositions, destabilizing false boundaries so as to revel in ambiguity and multiplicity’. Though this striving is often palpable in the book, there are moments when the presentation seems quite unambiguous in its counter-attack on privileged (in this case Alpha-male) perspectives, and in my view is all the more powerful for it.

At times the challenge is even more taunting and deliberately shocking than in the ‘cactus-tongued’ stanza, as the goddess mocks men’s ultimately prissy, and certainly limited, view of sexuality:

Go on. Measure me across
hips and thighs. There’s no
part of me you’ll be comfortable
with. Even my pleasure’s too loud,
uncontainable. I turn museum walls
into a bedroom: sighs and screams,
inhuman pants, chimp laughter! (‘The Maltese Venus’)

If the male spirit thus addressed thinks he’s hard enough (pun definitely intended) to take her on, he has to accept her blatantly humiliating terms, as set out in ‘Seated Goddess, Multiplied’. The goddess has the kind of omnivorous possessive instinct he will find less flattering than terrifying: ‘Let me have no single/part of you. I want you all./You are my brief phrase.’ Coitus will be entirely dictated and controlled by her:

This dipping of yourself
is permitted if, and only if,
it lets me whet my forefinger into
a universe of blood and sap.
This is my garden, my exodus.

That Eden theme runs through the book and has already been mentioned directly, in an allusion to Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden, where ‘loss is a hand held over pubic hair’ (‘Wode’). Later in the Venus section the vision of life’s cyclical vicissitudes has taken on a definitely post-lapsarian knowingness, even cynicism. Even as she apparently visualises her own rape, the goddess never loses her grip on new-found reality and perspective:

You’ve been honing your brain
to lay me down where you can dig
the hardest. Soon, we’ll be rubbing bellies.
There’ll be frolicking and pain, the yelps
of newborns, then earth will call you to battle
its obdurate soul, its limetone.
And you’ll be flint man again, hard,
easily fractured. (‘Sleeping Goddess, Miniature’)

Yet again a mordant but hilarious dig at the male phallic pride, undermining whatever boost to his ego was provided by his supposed seduction of her.

At times this form of counter-rape, or at least psychological table-turning of a highly effective nature, can be shocking, at least at first reading: it’s almost as if the goddess had been constrained to brutalise herself inwardly in order to fight back against the ‘stronger sex’.  But Zammit pulls the strings in masterly fashion when it comes to gradually inducting her reader into this particular chamber of horrors. We are far more ready for the X-rated ending of the Venus sequence than we would have been at its start: ‘I’ll rip my ovaries/apart, pickle them with blood-shod/verbs, raise a blasphemous keening.’

The theme of no-prisoners gender warfare is carried forward into the book’s final section, Rushing up to the Roof during an Air Raid. In ‘Internee Blues’, a weird but stunning, almost Alice-in-Wonderland effect sees the giant goddess replaced by a female element that is in its way equally subversive, albeit physically antithetical, as the poem charts the mating rituals of queen ants, who ‘return/underground, heavy with sperm from dying males’. The males are dying because that is the inevitable result of coitus with this particular tyrant queen: ‘heavy with sperm’ may reek of abuse, but it also signifies the reproductive process that is entirely owned and controlled by the female.

Also key to this scarifying picture of war-torn but heroically defiant Malta –  later recognised with the George Cross for national bravery – is the re-evocation of inner violence as collateral for survival. ‘Shepherd Boy, 1941’ is a notable example: ‘And the roaring is inside you,/ripping through the bone, inside you,/the hooded echoes of bomb and blast’. The roaring is one of anger as much as an explosion. Somehow the young shepherd holds body and soul together, despite the cost: ‘When you emerge/from the furthermost hole, you are the sum/of yourself suspended beneath your skin.’ The next poem brings an interesting return to the opening theme of blemished infancy, with something of a twist to say the least. So often the victims of lethal violence are interrupted in their ordinary and often domestic business, and‘Child Witness’ presents a child witnessing a man ‘gunned down as he was picking strawberries’ who ‘lay/prostrate on our kitchen table, forehead/cracked open to expose (not grey matter)/the dirty pink of scalded chicken.’ A far cry indeed from sea shells and snorkelling.

Zammit’s writing amid this crescendo of devastation is of the highest order and her meticulously researched and polished war poetry bears comparison with the best in the field. She sometimes seems on the cusp of being swept away in the horror, just as so many of her characters are, but always keeps her own head above the emotional waterline, if only barely. The sequence’s title poem has another of those lighting switches, this time in perspective, as the viewpoint of an imminent victim of an air attack is flipped into that of her killer:

Once you’ve grown accustomed
to parachute bombs scurrying
like frenzied ants, tracer bullets
raising themselves against dust, gravity,

watch yourself from the tip of a diving
fighter jet; how your head is propelled
by the possibility of demise
or the likelihood of a two-winged Junker
smiting the house into a quarry.

What chillingly officious understatement in that ‘possibility of demise’, and how apt the Biblical ‘smiting’ is at such a moment. Malta must have felt itself the target of Old-Testament-style retribution, all because of its strategic wartime importance, being so near Italy. The poem goes on to examine the extent to which rebuilding is possible in the aftermath of such destruction. Stone can be replaced, but not lives:

Surely there is enough limestone to replenish
rubble, fractured churches, or time enough
to recapture youself at that same moment
when you are shrapnelled into the sky.

That ‘shrapnelled into the sky’ neatly expresses my own emotions as I read this. I ended the book staring into space, in blank wonderment, for several minutes. I found it hard to separate my shock at the visceral extremity of war’s impact from my admiration at Zammit’s ability to portray it.

Of the many images and phrases that will remain me with from the closing section, perhaps the standout would be one of the few that offer much in the way of hope salvaged from the wreckage. It is all the more touching for that clear-eyed rarity. After a stomach-churning depiction of the degradation and disgust of the environment in which refugees struggle to stay alive – ‘We sweat, drench sheets, endure nights foul/as growths on dampened walls in crowded shelters’ – a light in the middle rather than the end of the tunnel glimmers with sudden exuberance, even if any delight is partly obscured by guilt:

If a foetus moves inside us, it’s a shudder
of shame – that in the midst of war we scrounged
some joy, floating like dust through turgid water.

Even in a lengthy review I feel I have struggled to convey more than a fraction of what there is to be mined from this collection, with almost every poem linking in to the whole in ways that one would need a full chapter to address adequately. Zammit is to be warmly congratulated for converting the work and thinking behind her Ph.D into poetry of such consummate power, range and control. SLQ REVIEW

Portrait of a Woman with Sea Urchin is available here and other online stores including Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Review of Terri Ochiagha’s Achebe & Friends at Umuahia by Olatoun Williams

Title: Achebe & Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite
Author: Terri Ochiagha
Publisher: James Currey (an imprint of Boydell & Brewer)
Publication Date: 16 April 2015
ISBN:  978-1-84701-109-1
PP: 216

Reviewer: Olatoun Williams

61GmUCRu0QL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_[1] Terri Ochiagha’s “Achebe & Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite” is a towering achievement.  I can think of no better book to introduce the current generation of African writers – my focus in 2016 – than this great work. Surely Achebe & Friends will remain the definitive biography of 5 distinguished 1st generation writers whose secondary school education took place in the 1940s at Government College Umuahia, South East Nigeria. The school motto:  In Unum Luceant. Chinua Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike, Elechi Amadi, Chike Momah and the irrepressible Christopher Okigbo, are our school boys, the “shining ones” – who grew up to become literary giants, straddling their own peculiar universe at a magical time in Nigerian history and it is on their shoulders that our 21st century literary icons stand.

Without a doubt, this is a scholarly monograph, but Ochiagha establishes intimacy with the reader and her subject quickly. It is her voice we hear as she narrates in the 1st person, walking us through what is not only a historian’s journey but a personal one to chart the individual and collective pilgrimage of 5 Nigerian boys through and beyond their colonial British education. I say personal because Ochiagha, of mixed race parentage, is frank about her indebtedness to 4 of these writers for the “nurturance and solace” their literature provided her “at pivotal moments” in her own “travails at the crossroads of cultures.”

The greater part of Achebe & Friends is devoted to their school days at GCU where in academic and sporting prowess the boys were unmatched.  The book progresses into the boys’ years at University College Ibadan where their conquests continue unabated, and advances into an adulthood defined by national and global success.  This literary opus is a beautifully-lit retrospective, gently disquieting – a stained glass window pieced together meticulously and lovingly from information sourced in literary and historical archives; from photos, school annuals and periodicals; from mementoes sent to her by the authors, and from interviews with them. From conversations with their children, conversations with the children of school principals long deceased, and with teachers. Ochiagha spoke with many of their school friends and publishers also played a role in sharing memories and memorabilia.  And later still there were discussions with and photographs sent by historian, Ed Emeka Keazor.  Her research is breathtaking in scope and detail. 179 pages of erudition burning with a spirit of quest which ennobles them and a spirit of romance that uplifts the reader and elicited in me, at moments, frissons of wonder and nostalgia. To classify Ochiagha’s opus as an academic work would be to miss a far greater point: Achebe & Friends is a great love story.

Terri Ochiagha has written out of admiration and gratitude for the legacies of 5 men of letters who respected and loved one another and who as courageous school boys experienced an evolving commitment to liberate themselves from the tyranny of colonial indoctrination not with weapons of hate but with their pens and their brains.  That they were able to do this must be attributed in no small measure to the abundant resources at Government College Umuahia where a succession of principals expressed a deep love and a clear vision for the school, and a sincere conviction about the boys’ intellectual capacities.  Where, using the arsenal of a remarkably well-stocked library and a Text Book Act, educators waged war against excessive “book work”’ and promoted wide and recreational reading. They molded the boys’ minds with a no-nonsense approach to the use of English and with curricula distinguished as much by their high quality as by their imperial bias.  Just 2 of the teachers who adopted imaginative pedagogical approaches were Charles Low or ‘Mad Low’ renowned for his “triumvirate” of disciplines: cricket, classics and literary creativity; and Nigerian, Saburi Biobaku, the Oxford graduate who liked to flick an imaginary lock of hair and yet dreamt of the restoration of indigenous cultures to their rightful place. We get to spend time with an extraordinary array of educators to whose passion the years between 1940 – 1950 owe their fame as the “magical years” during which GCU evolved into a “literary oasis” and hotbed of writing and editorial talent. 

Cultural attitudes at the school also attract Ochiagha’s piercing gaze as she crafts her retrospective of the boys’ pilgrimage.  She is particularly interested in the cultural attitudes of  school principals which range from  Fisher’s paternalistic permission of “cultural alloyage” to Simpson’s vision of  the school as “The Eton of the East” with “Englishness at its core”;  to the frank dismissal by Tolfree and Slater of all that was indigenous in the colony. Ochiagha shows us how these attitudes served as powerful catalysts, producing in the schoolboys a counterforce of ethnic pride and increasing national consciousness which they expressed in subtle acts of subversion of imperial authority. The most “aesthetic” and symbolic  act of subversion being the one performed by Chike Momah’s fictional cricketer, Obidike, a “thinly veiled” Christopher Okigbo” in his book, “The Shining Ones”. 

Obidike’s brilliant performance on the cricket pitch combined with his dismissal of the conventional rules of the game produce “gasps of wonder and disbelief  in the spectators watching him reinvent it – as though the very English game of cricket did not belong to the English; as though he, Obidike, had seized it, colonized it; and made it his own. 

Government College Umuahia was located in the backwaters of South East Nigeria, “far from the madding crowds” of cities like Lagos where journalist turned politician Nnamdi Azikiwe bellowed nationalist propaganda though the foghorn of  the West African Pilot.  It wasn’t the legend of Azikiwe – though it had reached them – but imperialist forces dominating the “bush” enclave of GCU that made the schoolboys angry enough to begin in their minds the deconstruction of the “colonial hegemonic discourse” with its “epistemic violence”. This work to “deconstruct” would come in later years to define their individual and collective literary production.  The pen is mightier than the sword.

Our protagonists would grow to see themselves as prodigals returning home – not with the intention of glorifying pre-colonial history but to introduce a new discourse with which to heal themselves of the “psychic wounds” inflicted by imperial education.  What they sought to do through their writing was to move beyond the “psycho-cultural anguish” they experienced in the “liminal place” they were forced to inhabit. This perilous place, in which warring cultures met, was the wilderness the young men were committed to forge through. Through their literature, they would forge an honest and realistic path of thought that would lead them and their brethren into a modern Africa. An Africa that would pay homage to what was their own by heritage; an Africa which would evolve to meet the demands of the times. To communicate this vision, our novelists would learn to function as teachers. Christopher Okigbo and Elechi Amadi despite themselves, would come to embrace the didactic mission of their friends Chinua Achebe and Chukwuemeka Ike. Without exception, the men were honest and recognized that their discourses were best served using mental tools acquired from varied sources in their home cultures and in their formal education which was English.

The urgency of Terri Ochiagha’s desire to see the world break out of the prison of binaries: Africa/Europe, black/white, coloniser/colonised, this culture / that culture – reverberates throughout her history of 5 beautiful souls growing up and breaking out of those very binaries; crying for freedom in an expanding 3rd space – full of light and permission to be what they had become, and were becoming: enriched human beings, great Nigerians and citizens of the world.

They were products of a school that in the first half of the 20th century ranked in Nigeria as Primus Inter Pares – First among equals. Christopher Okigbo, poet turned solider, died with characteristic drama, at the war front of Biafra. He was in his 30s. He was so young. Chinua Achebe lived into old age but has since passed to glory. Of our 5 protagonists, only Chukwuemeka Ike, Chike Momah and Elechi Amadi, venerable old men, are still here. For the important task of documenting sovereign Africa’s struggle to liberate herself from whatever shackles remain and from whatever fetters she acquires as she modernizes and globalizes, the baton has passed to the new voices crying in the 21st century wilderness of Africa’s hopes, Africa’s doubts and her uncertainty.



Olatoun Williams is a graduate of French from the University of Bristol, UK (1988). She heads the Selina Group – a small Lagos based business started in 1990 which provides office, desktop publishing, recruitment and travel services. In 2003, she founded Sponsor A Child Nigeria which promotes child welfare in institutions for orphans and vulnerable children.  She is the editor and co-author of a series of manuals entitled “The Good Home Quality Service Advocacy Scheme™” which implements child rights in partner institutions.  Fiction she has written includes, “The Triumvirate” (Malthouse Press. 1992) and “Lagos Heat” (Malthouse Press. 2001).  She supports the literary arts by facilitating literary workshops for school children and moderating book readings and presentations. Borders Book Reviews, 1 of the 3 elements of her media based project, Borders: Literature for all Nations, was launched on Facebook in April 2015.

Review of Alison Lock’s ‘Beyond Wings’

Alison LockAlison Lock. Beyond Wings. Indigo Dreams Publishing.

ISBN 978-1-909357-83-9

‘Nothing is ugly in the garden, not even the dead’, says the narrator in Summering. ‘I am passive – a spectator to the blooming … the pear tree with its curled leaves is somehow exotic despite the rot that set in during the wet spring.’ These lines, I feel, are the keynote of Beyond Wings, revealing a spirituality and sense of wonder, an attentiveness to the heart of things. There are links and connections in this poet’s world – ‘gaps, cracks, openings’ in a stone bridge are ‘naming the times … speaking our lives.’ (Lifelines). The world and all things in it are important; throughout the collection are images of earth itself – roots and loam, the soles of feet, the ‘spongy fodder’ where life exists. (In the light). These are poems that invite us to share and to celebrate. Where some may see only ‘a tiny bird in a dull tree’, we are offered colours like jewels, bright feathers of kingfisher and peacock. (Kingfisher – upriver from Pulteney Bridge).

 Alison Lock’s book appeals to me for a great many reasons. I love the language of it including titles such as Delayed Murmuration: No Mexican Wave, Early Morning, Isle of Gigha, the lyrical sound of The Eucalyptus of Canterbury. I am also strongly drawn to the elements of folk-lore, legend and myth. One of my favourite poems here is Pegasus where, on a day ‘made of white and grey/a monochrome without the black’, the narrator whispers the name of the ‘horse with wing and horn’, knowing that in olden days she would have been condemned as a witch. There are hints of witchcraft and magic as well in After Matins where an abbess plucks a ‘mandrake’s silent scream’ from the earth and gathers sage, rosemary and rue for the fever sick.

Most of all I love the atmosphere of mysticism in many of these poems – the sense of something ‘beyond wings’, a reverence for silence and stillness and a precious secrecy that is ‘close at heart’.

There is much for the reader to discover in this collection. Alison Lock has a sure grasp of poetic forms and techniques and there is a richness of detail, stunning in its simplicity, and a love of language in all its wealth and subtleties. Read Delayed Murmuration: No Mexican Wave and you’ll see what I mean. Beyond Wings is beautiful collection from a very fine poet.

Mandy Pannett

Review of Breaking Away by Scott Elder

breaking[1]Review of ‘Breaking Away’ by Scott Elder.

Poetry Salzburg Pamphlet Series. ISBN 978-3-901993-52-7

 The qualities that most appeal to me in these poems by Scott Elder are their elusiveness and ambiguity, a mood of absence, an impression that what is not said is as important as the actual. ‘Her only presence is     a painful absence’ describes the woman on a train waving goodbye to her lover but distanced in her imagination so that she is ‘A ghost of herself’, a reflection in the window, her gaze ‘drifting through glass/through the man on the platform’. (Absence). In Esquisse the narrator feels him/herself carried by the spirits of ‘Blackbird, Elk, Wolf, and Swan’ while he measures ‘your absence in dust fall./Every mote on my lid tells its story,/and we listen to each till the heartbeat/ends.’

The title of the collection (and the title poem itself) enhances this impression of intangibility. ‘Wind hissing through a dozen halyards/confirms that somebody’s gone’ says the narrator as ‘A gull floats off in the broken half-light./Then another, and still another.’ (Breaking Away). In another poem we have a man ‘who might be an angel./He seems to be looking this way… I can’t quite piece him together. His look is familiar as scent remembered,/yet something keeps falling away.’ (The Man by the Roadside).

The poems in this pamphlet are lyrical and mysterious. ‘Listen to yourself listening’ says the poet. (Drowning at Sunset).The world depicted is ‘a freeze and a cringe, a fox/in full leap, suspended in time.’ There are images of seagulls, sparrows, feathers, breath and the wind, all dancing, flying, falling – a ‘Winged Stillness’, a finger-tip touch. (Gift of an Artist’).

Elusive, fleeting images – yet there is brutality too in Scott Elder’s poetic world. ‘The kick and bite of a .350 Magnum’ makes ‘a brutal entrance’ (Witness) as it does in the words of Penelope who says ‘When you came into Ithaca/I loaded my gun.’ (Penelope). Throughout, there are references to myths, folk songs, fairy tales, a wealth of symbolism and intriguing surreal touches as in Before the Fall where Dumpty sits for hours listening ‘to the whispers of swallows in a dingle dangle dusk.’

Scott Elder’s publication from Poetry Salzburg is rich in subtle, evocative poems. It is the forerunner, I am sure, of a great deal more.

Mandy Pannett

Aisling Tempany reviews Vermeer’s Corner by Graham Burchell

Poems on paintings are an interesting concept, but the success depends on the artist or paintings in question. This collection of poems on the work of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer highlights the limitations of this as an idea, particularly for the whole collection. Vermeer, after all, painted only around 40 paintings in his career, and many of these are painted by the same studio window – Vermeer’s Corner, as the title suggests. Not much is known about Vermeer’s life. What is known though is that he was mainly a working painter, doing art on commission for money. As descriptions of the paintings, they are vivid, but the limitation of Vermeer’s subjects comes through quite soon. I have only seen a few Vermeer paintings, but the rest, I can imagine more or less from Burchell’s detailed descriptions, and the similarity.  This is even highlighted in ‘Judgement Day’, as if even Burchell was becoming exhausted by the repetition:


Same corner    same room    same woman

you see some alchemic transaction perhaps

made mystical with drapes


The most interesting poem is certainly ‘In 1944’, a poem discussing the x-ray of Vermeer’s Woman with a Lute, revealing further details of the scene that were painted over, ‘so many/lives rolled over/so much dust to smell.’ Of course, this is not an uncommon occurrence for artists, so while interesting, any painting could be the subject. Burchell, with a degree in Art and Education, misses an opportunity to divulge some technical aspects of painting and art, for which some of his paintings are quite notable. ‘A View from Delft’, a close second with ‘In 1944’ for the stand-out poem, also fails to draw upon the false nature of the supposedly realistic seventeenth century view, which is highlighted elsewhere. So often, Burchell attempts to give a voice to the women of his paintings, but gingerly avoids certainty. ‘Mystery’ suffers the most for this. Based on the painting ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’  where the girl asks ‘who am I do you know.’ Considering this painting was already the subject of a novel by Tracy Chevalier, and a film in 2004, which solved the mystery of the painting by saying ‘You’re Scarlett Johansson, who really loves mixing colours and the butcher’s son.’


To people familiar or interested in Vermeer’s paintings, this could be an interesting read, interpreting the paintings with more flair than an art book, or blurb in a gallery could do. To anyone else, it is a concept that suffers because of the limitations of the original artist, as opposed to the poet. The poems are too repetitive, and alike to really accurately reflect the poet’s work. Individually, many poems are fine, but together, they cancel each other out. Every poem repeats the words ‘pearl’ and ‘light.’ Vermeer’s obscure life means there’s nothing being said about the artist, there is perhaps nothing to say there. When the last poem, ‘Finale’, begins ‘so finally we come to this’, I hear it so exhaustedly, with a sense of relief that the book is finished. Burchell may be a fan of the artist, but the many girls in pearls and yellow window light make for a collection much like Vermeer’s paintings – technical and skilled, but mostly lacking excitement.


Vermeer’s Corner published by FootHills Publishing is available here

Sanya Osha reviews A Review of Basil Diki’s Two Hangmen, One Scaffold Book 1, Baiting the Hangman by Basil Diki


An Underground Country


Zimbabwe, since its independence in 1980, has produced an interesting crop of prose stylists. Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera and Tsitsi Dangarembga are all known as trail-blazers. Lately, Brian Chikwava, Petina Gappa and Noviolet Bulawayo have emerged to carry on the illustrious tradition. All the names just mentioned have had considerable international impact. However, there is much more to be said about contemporary Zimbabwean literature than we are presently led to believe.


Basil Diki is another engaging and energetic novelist and playwright that should be added to the interesting list of Zimbabwean literary artists. His novel, Two Hangmen, One Scaffold Book 1 (2012), centres on the lives of Binga Jochoma alias Akar Muja, his wife Matipa and their son, Peza. Akar works in a mine enduring a punishing work schedule that brings very little by way of monetary returns. We get to know he is a far more conflicted personality than he presents to his wife and family. He lives with his customary law wife, Matipa while he has a common law wife, Nomathemba, living in another city. Finally, he has an undergraduate girlfriend, Gillian to complete a complicated emotional picture. By some sort of schizophrenic twist he is able to keep the separate strands of muddled emotional existence apart. He convinces himself he needs Gillian to serve as an antidote for his creeping sexual impotence. His main dream in life is make enough money to keep his women in different metropolitan centres of world namely, Oslo, New York and Johannesburg so as to be as far as possible from each other’s throats. Clearly, his job as a menial mine worker cannot aid the realisation of his dream and so he has to resort to a Malawian sorcerer to assist him in his quest for unparalleled financial wealth.


Akar plans on stealing Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from its fortress in Europe which he hopes to sell. Indeed Akar is a mess of contradictions: down-trodden mine worker, ex-soldier, a fervent adherent of juju practices,  a lover of literature and the fine things of life who plans to come by wealth through art for good measure. But alas, there are even more head-spinners. He is sexist though he somehow never beats on his wife. However, there is a secret his wives and family do not know. Akar is a cold-blooded murderer who haunts derelict mines in order to dispossess illegal miners of gold and money. He disappears for many days on end prowling through underground tunnels in a bid to supplement his meagre income. If he doesn’t, it would be impossible to buy Christmas gifts for his loved ones and earn their respect. One of his disappearances earns him the sack from his bosses and which is when his hobby becomes his main source of income.


Diki unveils a multitude of graphic images on the Hobbesian world of illegal mining that make the world illustrated by Emile Zola appear rather humane. The realities of illegal mining in Zimbabwe are peopled by desperate souls, ghouls with broken dreams and ruthless killers. Accidental falls down shafts and man-made pools that rip off flesh, hair and bone are a common occurrence. Poisonous snakes lurk in crevices and machete-wielding killers lie in wait for victims in all manner of places both within and outside the mines. Indeed the concealed turf of illegal mining is more gruesome than one would expect:


There were many ways to die in the tunnels. Gangs roamed underground and robbed the illegal miners of rich and ore and gold. When thugs floored a victim with fists and machetes, pinioned him to the ground and pressed a knife against his Adam’s apple, he invariably yielded all the gold or ore on him. Venomous snakes in the tunnels killed those who stepped on them (p.103).


Diki’s Zimbabwe is many leagues away from Marechera’s and his contemporaries. The seizures of white-owned farms, a national economy experiencing rapid implosions coupled with foreign economic sanctions have severely devalued human life in the country. The Marxian axiom that religion is the opium of the masses is granted especial force. Matipa lives under the perpetual guidance of Prophet Jatropha and personal religious dreams, nightmares and visions. For her and so many others who belong to her sect, when all else fails it is only natural to turn to the phantasmagoria of charismatic Christianity. Unfortunately, she does not often recognise when her rigid faith threatens her marriage. Her husband’s life lurches jerkily under the compulsion of a sordid and absurd mix of animism and vaunting machismo. There seems to be no respite for anyone as everyone writhes within the relentless grip of personal and societal melt-down.


Diki’s highly descriptive novel manages to say quite much with not too many digressions and indeed there are some which is not unusual for a book of such considerable length. Zimbabwe isn’t only Diki’s sole point of reference even though it is the main one. Current affairs such as European soccer leagues and events and lifestyles of Euro-America often crop up for mention. Perhaps this isn’t always very effective. Indeed the finely assimilated products of his powerful imagination are really what would bestow his art with a transcendent quality.


It is a pity that this work which is a perceptive and honest critique of the political situation in Zimbabwe cannot be entered for the Commonwealth literature prize by its publishers Langaa, as the country remains suspended from the body. As a result, not only Zimbabwe but the entire world suffers.


Two Hangmen, One Scaffold Book 1, published by Langaa, Bamenda, pp.346, 2012, is available here: | The Sentinel Bookstore



Sanya Osha is an author who lives in Pretoria, South Africa. His latest novel is An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012).

Susan Skinner reviews All the Invisibles by Mandy Pannett

Mandy Pannett’s poetry has its own musical quality that threads through each poem and leads each one to its natural conclusion. On the back of these rhythms we are taken through time and space to varying landscapes:


He know a rock upon the moors

That legend says was once a Troll.

From Stunted


to animals:


All he can tell is that his world

His scary and stinking-of-animals world

From A Mesolithic slant.


to Nordic mythological beasts and people, such as Ask and Embla who were created at the beginning of time out of driftwood. In this collection we can also find a variety of painters and poets (Durer, Ravilious, Seurat, Keats) and historical events – we even hear the voice of a horse from the Bayeux Tapestry!  We are in an illuminated world where viewpoints allow all the invisibles to hide in-between.


To read these poems is to peep through a kaleidoscope where colours and objects shift and shake and where momentary illuminations of scene and feeling are juxtaposed by images that make a prism for the poems.


Mandy Pannett uses many forms of poetry, from sonnet to free verse. She excels in choosing the right form for each poem.


All the Invisibles published by SPM Publications is available here: | | The Sentinel Shop


Eilidh Thomas reviews All the Invisibles by Mandy Pannett

If you only buy one poetry book this year – buy this one. A collection so sumptuous and full of wonder, that I hardly know where to begin.  In her poems, Mandy explores the breadth and depth of human history and the natural world as vignettes of time.


Here you will find a myriad of images and themes, mysterious and complex yet at the same time striking and simple. Each poem offers the reader the opportunity to enjoy the poet’s love of language for its own sake, or to scurry and research the meaning and back story to so many of the poems. I shall pick out some of my favourites.


The first poem ‘Best After Frost’ is a perfect opener – succulent and almost decadent in suggestion of the medlar as a “smutty fruit” it impacts on all the senses from the smell of ripe cheese “like Camembert” to  “the feel of rainfall in Montmartre”. By the end I really wanted to “suck this flesh and luscious rot” for myself.


A millennia of time is contained in the twelve short intimate lines of ‘A Fossil’s Chirp’ where the reader is compelled to stop and listen “I have heard them at dusk, those crickets,” and consider their existence back into the Jurassic age.


With a poet’s insight ‘Heartwood’ empathises with the “Firescar” of a burned out wood and like a lover, concludes at the end “There is still sap/ in heartwood   fecundity/    in roots.” This poem is filled with the longing of a ballad and the acceptance that life goes on.


‘Later, All at Once’ seems to me to be the heart of the collection – a capture of its essence – a story within a story if you like – a microcosm nestled in the middle like a Russian matryoshka doll. The poem ranges backwards and forwards across history. Don’t try to know everything that has gone on in the poet’s head, but relish the journey on which you are taken.


 And so to the title poem – ‘All the Invisibles’. It sits enigmatically as the third last poem in the collection. Who or what are the Invisibles? They are everything you have been reading in this collection; they are nowhere and everywhere, mysterious and imponderable “as we wander the way of the shell”. Behind the landscape you are looking at is the landscape which you cannot see – everything that is under the skin, in the depths of the oceans, around the next corner, in the darkness of history and in all human emotion.


But I have only begun to tell of what is on offer in this marvellous collection. Dip in again and again – a book at bedtime in each and every poem. It is a collection that you will go back to for years to come, and continue to find something new and fresh every time.


All the Invisibles published by SPM Publications is available here: | | The Sentinel Shop