Category Archives: Essays

Review of ‘nothing more to it than bubbles’ by Jane Burn

‘nothing more to it than bubbles’ by Jane Burn
Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-910834-13-8    £7.99

…..Jane Burn’s nothing more to it than bubbles scintillates in its poetry. Images of light, movement and shining things abound – pearls, birds, stars, winds and clouds are gathered up and connect in metaphors of the sea in its many forms.
….. Linguistically, these poems sparkle as well. I love the poet’s deft phrases such as ‘lap the scald off tea’ (Come On Me), the image of ‘hook-in-a-fish-mouth sharp’(Byssus), the description of wolves as ‘Grey snarl, loll-tongue, teeth and sly’ (Path), the ‘thinning air and wizz’ of the final poem Perlemorskyer.
….. One aspect of this collection that most appeals to me is the range of tones and stylistic variations. There is humour with a bite as in I paid for love in pearls where the mermaid, treated as an expendable object, is forced to submit to human men ‘unclasping my clamshell bra’ as she faces rejection and the loneliness of being an outsider because  ‘You cannot take mermaids to tea shops/we do not know how to hold cups.’ In Till Death Do Us Part on the other hand the technique appears to be a simple narrative about lovebirds, who are ‘mild with adoration’ and croon ‘themselves to tameness’ in a idyllic pastoral scene. Yet this pretty tale has a sting to it for we are told, in the last lines, that these birds are suddenly dead, slain casually for sport by an insensitive boy:

‘I was sorry for the bodies on the grass.
I was sorry that a boy could want
to fill their souls with lead.
Could fire pellets into their hearts
while they were singing.’

…..Sometimes the tone is bitter and aggressive. The author has nothing but contempt for the followers of ‘the Daily Hate’, for people whose judgements are stereotypical and based on ill-informed bias and prejudice. There really are people like this,’ says Jane Burn. ‘They are right/in front of you in buffet queues.’ (The sea keeps company).Then there is the sadness, the telling lines and phrases that lament waste, loss, and unthinking cruelty. ‘The shanties only last for a moment’ says the narrator in I paid for love in pearls. The collection begins with a statement that there are ‘invisible balls of grief … the size of boiled eggs’ (I have this theory that’). Throughout the poems this invisible grief is the fate of the downtrodden, the refugees, the homeless and unwanted. ‘There is no place/for a stickleback on your streets’ says the mermaid towards the end of I paid for love in pearls. No place for the outsider either, is the implication.
…..One of the longest poems in nothing more to it than bubbles is The sea keeps company in caves and we have breakfast at Tonia’s. An intriguing title and an equally fascinating poem which I keep re-reading, discovering new surprises and gems of detail each time. The six sections are linked by an exuberant  character called Rocky who makes his home in a cave but this is not just narrative – there are many layers to this poem. ‘Everything here is unmasked,/whittled down to its raw …A brass tacks, bottom of the pits place’ says the narrator, describing both the cave and the pain of a broken relationship.  ‘This is the place you come to sort out Bad Things’, she says, ‘nurse the burst ribcage of a marriage, talk about/the state of your brain.’ In another section the writing strikes me as mystical, almost visionary:
‘Do not look for pity. The blocked tunnels are blinded
eyes, stopped mouths. The dark soup of water holds
the breast of an occasional bird. Walk so far
that the children are as small as a fingernail, walk
back and they become the size of a thumb, a hand.
Back until they are big enough to fit in the clasp of your arms.’

…..When I discovered, from the acknowledgment page, that this poem was written for and published by Writers for Calais a number of ideas and concerns in these poems began to connect. There is a wealth of themes and metaphors throughout but I feel that at the heart of the collection is a compassion for ‘groundling things’ who exist only ‘For hawks to press their talons to.’ (Kite, Above). There is an unforgettable image in The sea keeps company in caves and we have breakfast at Tonia’s where the narrator finds a glove on the shoreline – ‘a glove, that at some point had a hand in it.

…..This is a beautiful, rich and revelatory collection of poems. Read it for yourself and see.
Mandy Pannett

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


Magic, Illusion and Other Realities. Essay by Simon Perchik



 ……….Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple. There are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many:

 ……….It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers move back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

……….Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader.  To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction.  Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

……….This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. Thus, one of the many definitions of poetry might be: Poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. To be made whole, to heal, the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning.  It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

……….This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

 ……….To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law, James R. Elkins, Editor (Pleasure Boat Studio Press. Also, Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins, Professor of Law, University of West Virginia.

……….The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, MD. who, in his Brain Storms, A Study of Human Spontaneity, on page 15 writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid writes on page 26:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

……….Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in his The Lives of a Cell, on page 138. describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty.  If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, 1 per cent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…

……….Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

……….In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 am I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

……….For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

……….Walker Evans     …..Farmer’s wife
……….Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth?  Sorrow?
……….Not too bad looking. Plain dress

……….This description went on and on till I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled On Various Words from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

……….Words –bricks and mortar
……….Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,
……….building the ant hill,
……….not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished
……….it’s too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

……….This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the above mentioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

……….Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

……….No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought  impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

……….Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract so my subconscious can talk to the reader’s subconscious, much the same as an artist abstracts the painting so the viewer’s subconscious can listen to the artist’s subconscious. There will be nothing anyone can point to and say, “That’s why”. Exactly like music, the most abstract of all the arts. Thus, for each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

……….Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain till it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling”, with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

……….Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

……….Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it.






Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review,The Nation, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013).  For more information, including free e-books, please visit his website at

Review of Knowing My Place by Bob Horne. Published by Caterpillar Poetry.

Review of Knowing My Place by  Bob Horne   Pub: Caterpillar Poetry 

ISBN 9780957504028

There is much to appreciate in Bob Horne’s collection and I find it hard to know where to begin. Maybe with the cover photo which, in sepia tones, shows the poet’s bicycle leaning by a road sign that is backlit by sunlight over mountains and rocks. Or maybe the title itself, ‘Knowing My Place’, is the starting point for these are poems rich with a sense of place – in Honister, for instance, there is a strong feeling for slate, the power and the painful toil of it:

‘I jog down the grassy toll road to Seatoller
following, too late by centuries, Joe Clarke,
who once shifted five tons in a day. Behind us
Honister Crag, worked-out, takes the sun full face.’

Place names and details throughout the poems bring immediacy. Charlie Soothill’s chip shop which supplies the ‘Best batter in the land’ is ‘Below the Wesleyan chapel, across from Smallwood’s farm,’ while the rabbit caught by a stoat ‘shivered an instant,/sagged and died on the edge of Holwick Fell/ below High Force, teeming after days of rain.’ (Odd Man Out’)

There is always a recognition of the value of things, however small – for the simplicity of ‘the donkey field/at the far end of our street/over by the railway …us, climbing thorn trees,/lighting fires from dry grass’ (Raw Material) and for ‘empty blue-black shells’ which, to Bob Horne, have ‘a significance/beyond my understanding, single-minded limpets/clinging to their piece of planet.’ (Rock Pool).

A vivid sense of place and time – and of the light which reveals and inspires.  The first poem in any collection, surely has a status of its own and this one, Exposure, speaks through the voice of William Poucher who was a leading British mountain photographer. Here we see him ‘loitering for light’ and declaring ‘Soon, with luck, sunlight will slant along the lake./ I am ready, lens focused at infinity.’ In the poem No Matter ‘the sun shone low/over Great Mell Fell/on the amber leaves of Autumn’ and we are given the extra detail that it was
‘late afternoon/that thirty first of October.’

Light – but shadows too. The boy’s shadow in firelight against a flickering wall is huge, hinting at what his ‘grown-up shadow’ may be (Living Room). In Likeness this shadow has become ‘a darker self against blue moor-grass, /time smoothed to an outline’.

There are shadows of life as well. The poem Neighbour ends with the death of one who has, the papers record, ‘been depressed for some time’. On his way to this final ‘focussed moment’ the man ‘scratched his hands on the brambles/as he climbed the embankment/and lay on the Ilkley line/in front of the evening train’. Christine, the name of Charlie the fish and chip man’s daughter, is an equally poignant poem for she, a Downs child,  may have ‘Laughed when we offered a seasoned chip,/laughed at summer sunsets, snow,/ dust blown down the street on darkening days’ but  is still isolated, always ‘on the other side of the glass.’

There are a great many poems in ‘Knowing My Place’ that I like but I want to comment on two in particular. The first is Friends Reunited where the narrator meets up with one who may have been a teenage sweetheart although their encounter came to little more than listening to songs from West Side Story and the Glen Miller Band with the ‘approval’ of the girl’s mother. Half a century later, in the ‘perspective of decades’, the memory has ‘tapered’ to a girl in a yellow PVC raincoat making her way from the 41 bus to where the boy lolled
‘combat-jacketed,/by the Gents in George Square’. There is both the sweetness of nostalgia and the sadness of time passing in this memory.

The other poem I find stunning in its impact is Old Road, a poem about war although the specific battle in this case refers to one from the English Civil War when Fairfax’s men were defeated on the nearby Adwalton Moor. These following stanzas, these metaphors, speak poignantly about the tragedy of war – any war.

‘A soldier throws his pike
amongst the daisies and docks,
draws his sword, slashes a sapling

clean through its young stem,
sprawls among the wild oats
that have grown here a million years

or more, as an age’s unfinished birdsong
is scattered from oak to ash,
barbed branches of thorn.’

At the beginning of this review I mentioned the sepia look of the cover photo and I realise how much this is intended to enhance the atmosphere, the motifs, of this whole beautiful collection. In The Cricketers at Keswick the mood seems timeless, ageless. The landscape is the one seen by the Norsemen, by Wordsworth, by men in the thirties, by the players now and by Bob Horne himself. ‘Light on the wind and the eye’, says the poet watching the cricketers,  ‘in their mayblossom whiteness they seem like a newsreel’. A perfect image that sums up a perfect book.



Mandy Pannett

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 by Patrick Osada of Poems for a Liminal Age

Title: Poems for a Liminal Age (An anthology in support of Médecins Sans Frontières)
Editor: Mandy Pannett
Publisher: SPM Publications, 2015
Reviewer: Patrick. B. Osada
ISBN: 978-0-9927055-6-5
Pages: 246

pfala2016In recent times there has been a vogue for publishing anthologies in support of charities and good causes. Some of these have relied on the celebrity of certain contributors to attract submissions, promising the opportunity for the poems of “unknowns” to rub shoulders with contributions from the famous.
There are no poems from Laureates (past or present) in Poems for a Liminal Age, or any celebrity verse. What editor, Mandy Pannett, has skilfully assembled is a gathering of contemporary voices associated more with the “indie” poetry press and magazines than with the Costa or Forward prizes.

Many of the contributors, whilst not household names, will be well known to readers of magazines such as SOUTH …there is a preponderance of work from respected poets, editors and academics. Mandy says, in her introduction, that the book “offers a view of the way a certain group of people at a certain time in their history see their lives and the world they live in.”

Often their vision is gloomy, if not quite apocalyptic – the more pragmatic poems reflecting the unsettled time in which we live. There are poems on war, pestilence and flood; world issues like climate change, terrorism and the casualties of armed conflict. Yet there is a breadth of subject matter : besides topics like earth-quakes, tsunami and ebola, there are poems with a more personal focus exploring old age, declining health and relationships; whilst others define alteration to the natural world : the loss of habitat and changes to the countryside.

However, bleak as some of these poems may be, out of tragedy sometimes something positive can grow, as in this poem by Linus Lyszkowska:

…A 13-year-old boy in far-away England watching the stories unfold on television… vows that he, too, one day, must become a carer, a doctor, perhaps even a surgeon… (The Healers)

Poems for a Liminal Age is available from the SPM Publications Shop, all Amazon channels, and Barnes & Noble. £5 from each copy of the book sold goes to the charity.

This review was first published in South 53 2016.

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.

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein. Reviewed by Nick Cooke

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein
978-1-90685662-5  Oversteps Books 51 pp  February 2016   £8.00
‘You ain’t been blue; no, no, no.
You ain’t been blue,
Till you’ve had that mood indigo.
That feelin’ goes stealin’ down to my shoes
While I sit and sigh, “Go ‘long blues”’

So goes the first verse of the Duke Ellington number providing the title for Wendy Klein’s third collection. If it suggests deep gloom as the prevailing mood of the book, the impression would be false, as this is primarily a joyous if ambivalent celebration of the lives of the author’s close relatives, in particular her father, a schoolteacher who never realised his youthful literary ambitions and lived largely in ‘his own head where he swears he’s forever stalked/by the same-old mean-old who-am-I blues’ (‘Who-am-I Blues’).  The title poem establishes the context rather more accurately, as Klein recalls that point in her childhood (or more likely, adolescence) when she was ‘too old to tickle’ and her father decided to take her back, narratorially speaking, to his youth in the New York City of the jazz age. Through a typically astounding act of compression, in which 26 lines cover a whole era in her father’s life as if a whole novel were flashing before our eyes, Klein takes us through a time when, ‘hanging out with other chorus boys back-stage Broadway’, his ‘bottom got pinched…by guys you guessed might be too young/to shave’, to ‘wild parties in Greenwich Village,/fuggy dance halls in Harlem’, finally reaching his memories of Ellington’s music, putting on an old 78 of the song and dancing his daughter around to it. The memory is illustrative of Klein’s technique in being as multi-sensual as it is vividly detailed:

……….You take me round the waist, count out the beats,
……….hum the tune in my ear, your aftershave still strong

……….despite the five o’clock shadow on your cheeks, your chin,
……….as we move around the floor avoiding chairs,

……….a hooked rug, the coffee table, the glass with your second or
……….third Jim Beam on the rocks, waiting nearby.

This passage epitomises the central section of the book, dominated by two-line-stanza, ghazal-style pieces all based around photos, memories and tales of her father, where the lines and sentences are invariably long and flowing. Klein is remarkably adept at maintaining the grace and rhythm of extended, reflective sentences, which are especially well-suited to the poignant, often elegiac tone of these poems. Possibly the best and most dramatic of a highly impressive bunch is ‘My Father Nearly Half-way Through’, where the final sentence is ten-and-a-bit lines long, taking us ‘from the years of his recovery’ after the death of  Klein’s mother, through his frustrated attempts at writing fiction, ‘crouched in front of a typewriter’, culminating in the revelation of a key new relationship, where the concertina-d closing section enacts a child’s-eye view of the speed with which the ‘new mother’ is installed (to the accuracy of which I can personally attest, being also a child of re-married parents:

………..until he emerges with Ruby, my would-be new mother
……….on his arm, on the beach, in his bed (shhh – don’t tell),

……….in his kitchen frying bacon, on a swing in the park, me on her
……….lap, Ruby in a flowery summer dress, in our lives to stay.

In case we anticipate a wicked-step-mother scenario, however, subsequent poems establish anything but, as the warm-hearted if conventional Ruby ‘shoulders the domestic side’, which includes the brunt of childcare duties. ‘Seen From Below’ pictures the family on a camping trip ‘in the high Sierras’, with ‘Ruby and I/wrestling with the tent in the dark -/me a scrap of an eight year old, holding the centre pole/upright’. Though Klein is rarely laconic, she is almost always economical in her own way: how much, in terms of enlightening the reader as to the burgeoning relationship, can be read into the simple phrase ‘Ruby and I’.

Throughout the book Klein exhibits an almost miraculous eye for the telling detail in a photo or anecdote, to the point where if she every tires of poetry she could surely perform admirably as a researcher on Who Do You Think You Are? In ‘Spit and Polish’ I admired the clever avoidance of cliché as she describes her sixteen-year-old father, then a cadet, as having a trouser-crease that was ‘meat-cleaver keen’ (the obvious choice would have been ‘sharp’). The observations that follow fuse the imaginative with the emotionally sensitive, as Klein explores the confinements, and by implication the underlying fear, of the young man’s new metier: ‘the braid on his jacket/dissects his narrow chest, squeezes his ribcage, restricts/his breath’. The implication is spelt out directly a few lines later:

……………………His lips are compressed as tight as his uniform,
……….as if he has finally been taught to keep his mouth shut.

In ‘My Father insists on Laugharne’, there is a nice subtlety through which the ghost of Dylan Thomas, evoked in references to Fern Hill and Under Milk Wood – school texts that Klein’s father is trying to teach to an unresponsive student – implicitly hangs over the whole collection, through a poem that is not actually mentioned. The man at the centre of so much of the book never fulfilled his ambitions but kept plugging away at them, including his piano-playing, even though he never showed any talent at it: ‘you had to hurry;/knew you had to make the best of what was left.’ (‘My Father in a Street in Seville’) We sense that the man did not go gentle into that good night. And in the final poem to mention him, ‘My Father as the Picture in the Attic’, the suspicion is confirmed to the extent that we  learn he showed his diehard spirit to the end, by keeping on driving until his licence had to be revoked, for his own safety. But lest the last glimpse be a sad one, this poem has earlier celebrated happier times by capturing his comically young and women-pleasing appearance in middle-age – he was once asked for ID by a cashier fooled by his ‘full head of hair, the crew cut/so convincingly youthful’, when 45 years old.

Although some readers might feel that Klein would have been well advised to focus her book entirely on her father’s fascinating and touching story, rather than dedicating the second half largely to other concerns, I felt the collection was enriched by the subsequent shifts in tone, style and form. ‘Friar Mendel’s Children’ is a delightfully witty look at the relevance of the famous geneticist’s work to his own family, while ‘Tracking the wolf’ reveals a sparseness of diction that belies the earlier verbal abundance, as it slips into the stylistic groove of Cormac McCarthy and half-subverts, half-reveres the mythology of fairy-tale and fable:
……… the bone  the boy the poet
……….who against reason
……….will take the wolf’s side
……….not knowing
……….what everyone must surely know

……….that no one can ever
……….save the wolf
……….that the wolf cannot be saved

‘The people of Sahel consider rain’ displays an unexpected Hopkins influence, with marked use of alliteration and a daring form of sprung rhythm which is in effect only a slight intensification of what could be called Klein’s default ghazal-esque tempo:
……….…the way it would steal from the sky,
……….gather speed, shimmer like silver needles,

……….the way it would feel on the face, the hands, its patter;
……….how it could carve creeks on dust covered backs,

……….on legs and arms that cracked with the lack of it, and mouths
……….pinch-parched, thirst unslaked by the slick of it…

‘Freeze-frame’ is a wonderful vignette comprising captured moments of heightened emotion, based on Anna Karenina, or rather the Vivien Leigh film thereof. Again all the senses are invoked in an almost Keatsian way:

……….and you almost believe you hear bells a troika
……….the jangle of harness
……….the snap and whistle of a lithe whip  savour
……….the tang of ardent kisses
……….secreted in the musky furs that shroud the lovers
……….who huddle there red with cold
……….and kisses as they race across frozen
……….fields to their fatal destinations
……….a battlefield or a ballroom…

Perhaps most memorably of all, ‘Nothing to declare’ provides a return to the characteristically compressed narration of the two-line stanza-form, but updates it, so to speak, by bringing the story up to the present, and showing how, through her own poetic skill, the author has in a sense fulfilled her father’s literary dreams. Returning home from a family holiday, Klein has nothing to declare to the customs official at the airport, but in fact has much in terms of memories and images, which only a poet or an artist can ‘declare’ in the fullest sense:

………………………………..Nothing to declare

……….but the soft rain outside last night, or the five of us –
……….two generations gathered around a table

……….sharing crême brulée and pivotal memories.
……….The eldest tells why she never eats onions;

……….how when she was forced to, she vomited;
……….her sister relates the tale of being small…

The poem’s ending encapsulates so many of this splendid collection’s qualities, exuding a warmth and lucidity through both the surface meaning of its words and their deeper associations:

……….Nothing to declare but yesterday’s sun, warming
……….their backs as they scrambled over oak-leaf carpets

……….their long, strong legs, their laughter, their coats
……….swirling through the dappled light.

‘Resonance’, a poetry collection by Gary Beck. Reviewed by Mandy Pannett

Resonance by Gary Back. 
Dreaming Big Publications. ISBN: 9781523916405


Resonance begins with an introduction by Gary Beck taken from his longer essay The Evolution of Poetry, and I’d like to begin this review by looking at this as I feel the content is important, not only to the author himself as it sets out his personal direction for writing, but also is relevant to the role of poetry in this twenty-first century world.

‘I must deliver what I believe to be a necessary blunt message’, says Beck who has been frequently criticised for doing just that. In turn he is scathing about what he sees as ‘a type of indulgence’ whereby, in his opinion, the culture of western poetry (particularly in the States) seems to favour ‘an endless stream of ‘pictorial imagery’ based on ‘personal agonies and confessions’ which degrades ‘the uniqueness of verbal description’.  This is an age, continues Beck, ‘of insecurity and danger’ in which poetry has a diminishing influence on world events. There should be alternatives, he says, ‘to academic products and disclosures of angst’. Among these alternatives are the blunt messages of ‘direct communication’.

I had the pleasure last year of reviewing Gary Beck’s previous collection Conditioned Response which adopted the same hard hitting stance in its hatred of corruption, acquisition, consumption and media manipulation. Dire Prediction, the opening poem in Resonance attacks ‘bloated consumers’ and adds a plea for the return of ‘men and women/who will walk through fire, bullets, blood,/to protect us’ from the world of power where ‘men stand by the buttons/of weapons of mass destruction, eager to slay millions,/while we sit in comfort in our homes’ (Children of Deprivation). The scenario in Radiation Rhapsody is even more chilling for here we have a landscape that includes

……….No more rush hour.
……….No quick latte at Starbucks.
……….Just a large crater
……….that will glow at night
……….for the next hundred years.

Gary Beck, in his introduction, states that he may have abandoned ‘metaphor and simile’ in his preference for direct confrontation with social and political issues. Resonance, however, shows few signs of this. Certainly the language is stark but there is no shortage of lyricism. Condition Grave may attack an ‘aging land’ which is ‘tainted and diseased’ but it begins with memorable lines ‘What is the hunger of water-falls,/little men of tiny boats, flirting with whirlpools?’ Images from myths and legends are plentiful as in Mythos where the death of Balder in Asgard is a cause of lamentation as ‘the wind goes howling and shrieking/through naked trees’ and ‘The creaking of frigid limbs/splits the darkness/as the wild hunt goes on.’

The collection does also include some poems seemingly of a more personal nature. Opium Escape is one such where the narrator says ‘I watched you walk away/out of my dark, bewildered life./I cursed you then.’ I also like the imagery and lyricism of Fond Pause where memories of leaving/being left bring ‘thoughts of musty windmills,/mouse ghosts/unsqueaking in shuddering rafters’
However, it is the ‘tougher’ poems I prefer – the kind of poems Gary Beck has said he wants to write, that need to be written. Bleak Highway, I think, says all of it:

……….It is inky night.
……….We are driving, driving, driving
……….into the impenetrable blackness
……….of the heart of America.
……….There are no stars visible,
……….just never-ending darkness
……….broken only
……….by the passing gleam of headlights
……….from wanderers forever lost
……….in a confusing land.