Category Archives: Reviews

Landing Stage

Author: Joan Michelson
Publisher: SPM Publications
ISBN: 978-0-9935035-6-6
Pages: 65 pages
Price: £7.50
Reviewer: MANDY PANNETT

Landing Stage by Joan Michelson won a well-deserved third prize in the SPM Publications Poetry Book Competition 2016. It is a highly original book which deserves to be read many times, cover to cover, to appreciate the full impact of the themes of displacement and alienation from the 1930s to the present day.

In her Preface, Joan Michelson describes the ethos that underpins the collection and asks how individuals and members of a community can live with and learn from devastating tragedy and trauma. One possibility, she suggests, is to build on feelings evoked in response to situations and images. In Landing Stage she does just that, capturing ‘individual moments caught in the crosshairs of place and time.’

The collection is divided into three sections vastly different in content and layout but which overlap in terms of theme. The first section Reportage begins with these striking lines entitled If Not I, Who?

‘With no right, I step into your life.
With an ‘Alright’, I assume my right
to cross the border of your voice.’

The thirteen poems that follow are fragments of some of these borders, echoes of their sounds.

The overall tone is laconic and detached, the style of a news report but written in the speech rhythms of individuals in different cultures trying to convey their stories through unfamiliar English. Schoolboy, Serbia, 1992 is a strong example of impact achieved through detachment: ‘We lived in a block/of flats. My friend Moamer/was killed by a grenade. My/friend Aldin was killed by a/bullet while he was sleeping.’

This extract from Syrian Mother, Berlin 2016 where a whole family waits in one room for the asylum process to be completed, is poignant in its bleakness: ‘I say/that it is better than to be in/the streets and in tents. Just/we are waiting… And I leave my parents/because they are old enough/they can’t go with us… ‘As soon as/possible I need them because/I miss them too much. I am/afraid. They are not safe. I/don’t want them to die/before I see them.’
Some of the most tragic and telling words are spoken in Syrian Woman, Lesbos, 2015 which gives an account of forty-eight people being landed from a boat: ‘So dark. We arrive with/too many dead. All refugees/think here is heaven. Here is/nothing.’

Form and style are different in Section II The Reach of War but the feelings are the same. One poem that is heartbreakingly effective is Bosnian Girl which begins with the brutal lines ‘When they had finished with her and her mother/she climbed a tree and hung herself’ and ends with the narrator’s fantasy of turning back time so that she might free the girl by unbuckling ‘the woven belt she slung around a branch./Her slim bare legs are swinging down./Feet on earth again, up she springs and runs.’

This section is rich in striking poems but possibly the one that I’ll remember most is Half an Angel. Here a woman, sixty years after the war, tries to find out about her father ‘who was never mentioned.’ To her horror she finds a photo of him in SS uniform being condemned for war crimes. The poem ends with this:

‘She finds some solace in a witness statement
that describes her father as ‘half an angel’.
He allowed caps on during roll call.
And sometimes, he kept the killer dogs in check.’

The final section of this book is called Fire Goddess and adds an element of myth and folklore to the story of Bets whose father died in an Occupation Camp while she and her mother suffered a year in solitary confinement. These poems are multi-faceted and shift between narrative, reportage, letters and the lyricism of a poem like Oranjehotel where Bets dreams that her Oma (grandmother) is singing ‘And she woke./And saw the prison walls./And heard herself singing ‘Soo – lee – ram,/the song her Oma/used to sing to her/when she was small.’

Landing Stage is one of the most powerful and effective poetry collections I have read. Joan Michelson says she hopes that ‘feelings will rise from reading these poems’. They certainly do for me.

Buy Landing Stage here

Mandy Pannett, author of All the Invisibles</em> (SPM Publications), is the Poetry Editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Oranges in January

Author: Pansy Maurer-Alvarez.
Publisher: Knives Forks And Spoons Press.
ISBN: 978-1-909-44377-8
Pages: 119 pages
Price: £9
Reviewer: MANDY PANNETT

It is always a pleasure to read the poetry of Pansy Maurer-Alvarez and I appreciate this chance to review her latest, beautifully produced collection, Oranges in January.

A key feature of all her writing is its musicality. As she herself says in an article ‘poetry is first and foremost music … the brain automatically, instinctively, makes associations without one having to think.’ It is the sensuousness of the poetry and the intuitive awareness of connections that appeal to me. May, Apparently from a Calendar begins with a medieval pageant crossing a bridge into a crowded town ‘unnoticed’ by a ‘you’ who is one of a boating party on the river. Simon Bening’s painting shows May as a green month – an ‘allover green’, a ‘profusion of green’ but the predominant colour is red which becomes the link between the medieval calendar and the intimacy of a present day phone call as images mingle and shift as gradually as the river light in both scenes.

The poem, In Memory of the Unclaimed, is a perfect example of the subtle use of concept conveyed through metaphor. The unclaimed are the thousands who died during the heat wave in France in 2003 and whose identities were never acknowledged by their next of kin. Apart from a footnote no facts are given but the tragic events are depicted through the metaphor of ‘birdness’ which is ‘removed’ with the loss of air, flight and song. ‘This summer’, we are told, ‘the sky has dropped its birds/and doesn’t know them anymore.’ They are poignant lines.

Central to the poems in Oranges in January is the theme of memory. There is the kind that is both collective and personal, built into ‘Neolithic landscapes of/awakening and wonder’ where ‘our bones/retain a memory of living: of clouds/of things like jasmine/or milkweed;/a foot sliding into a shoe on a /grey and rainy (again) day;/of places that were dark and cold,’ (Spring’s Sudden This Year and Things Change). There are memories that are random, triggered by something as natural as ‘reflections seen in street puddles’ or ‘the swish of wet cars’(Coming and Going in Rain). In Particular (for snow) memories like this evoke other, deeper moments, precious as ‘bright petals/buried two years now in the snow’. Especially moving and beautiful are memories of the poet’s father, some elicited in dreams ‘as darkly coloured as water at night’, (Valediction), others that are tantalisingly elusive as in Draw Me Closer where ‘I listen for your story remembering the voice I know best but it has lost/ its face like one misplaces an earring’ and ‘I know you’re telling me something important enough to remember./You’re describing a picture that isn’t a picture. You aren’t using/ colours. You aren’t using words.’

Memory, then, is an important theme in Oranges in January. Possibly the poem that I find most meaningful is Water-Meadow with Birches where a video installation shows the reservoir that ‘served the kitchens and latrines of Birkenau’. Here the surface of the wind-moved water might stir the imagination into summoning up ‘living/memory’ of ‘nightmare shadows’ but, at the same time, ‘life/ goes on and people live nearby/Not everything comes to the surface of the water/Not everything is said or stops’.

It is this sense of a living memory that I find significant in Pansy Maurer-Alvarez’ poetry. Memories, she implies in Particular (for sunrays), are more than just a re-visiting of the past, more than a moment of nostalgia for ‘that yellow light’ in ‘our daisy fields’. They are a new experience, a source of ‘knowledge’ to be treasured and stored as if in an ‘exquisite box of/inlaid Japanese lacquer’ and glimpsed from time to time. ‘Inside is where we need to go’, she says, describing the source of her own creativity and inner life in ‘my personal compartment/inside the music where the poems go – where they run with the river alongside me/when night is low, the destination clear.’

The poems in Oranges in January are multi-layered, rich in imagery and shifting moods, personal and moving, mysterious, dreamlike, contemplative, elemental (especially evocative of air and water) – there are many, many facets to enjoy and linger over.

Buy Oranges in January

Mandy Pannett, author of All the Invisibles is the Poetry Editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly.

RESULTS AND JUDGE’S REPORT – SLQ POETRY COMPETITION (AUGUST 2017)

Oz Hardwick SF Presidio  Library I have, over the past couple of years or so, been involved in a number of conversations in which someone has bemoaned the dearth of political poems. My response has invariably been a bemused What? From the lone poem in a regular journal, through individual collections, to issue-based anthologies and epic projects like 100 Thousand Poets for Change, poetry – like all the arts – is articulating local and global political concern, engagement, anger, fear etc. on paper, on-line, and on walls.

 

It is of course legitimate to ask what use such poems are against the often overwhelming insurmountable-seeming challenges we – regardless of race, religion, or any other differences – face, both politically and environmentally. To the despairing (and I occasionally fall into that category myself), I’d suggest that poetry can give voice to the voiceless, can distil the core of human experience into engines of visceral communication at the sharpest edge of language, and in doing so can remind us of the strength of our shared humanity. It can also do a lot more, of course, but these are perhaps the most pressing calls upon the arts at present.

 

I was heartened by the number of poems submitted for the competition that focused on issues from the wilful decimation of the British NHS by a self-interested government, to human displacement on a global scale: and, beyond this, they were very good poems indeed. Both ‘Lethal Theory’ and ‘In transit’ are excellent examples. The former employs military acronyms and the impersonal language of medicine, perfectly balanced around the human tragedy of those caught up in events within which they are barely acknowledged. Specific, yet chillingly universal, the poem’s strength lies as much in what is avoided as what is said, culminating in the blunt negative of that unforgettable final line. The latter is a very different poem, but no less powerful, the second-person address and controlled vagueness concerning detail places the reader uncomfortably into a limbo without full stops that continually stacks the odds against the shadow of hope that is desperately introduced mid-way through the final stanza.

 

            Lest all this imply a single-mindedness of approach to subject in my assessment of the range of poems submitted, the ekphrastic ‘Vanitas’ stood out as a beautifully tight response to a painting that – as with all the best poems of its type – goes way beyond its descriptive surface, tapping into questions of faith and very corporeal connections and absences, resolving into that rich image of the ‘thick and wrinkled’ wax. Additionally, of course, it vividly evokes the private, domestic space and the dangerous unknown without, as – in their own ways – do the previously discussed poems. And if there was one overriding theme that arose time and time again in the submitted poems, it was this idea of the home, with all of its connotations of security and fragility. Indeed, of those dozen poems that made my short-list, more than half directly addressed the theme in one way or another: an indication, perhaps, of a shared response to uncertain times in which we are more conscious of our need for the safe and the known – and, I hope, for a place in which to welcome and be welcomed.

 

            The pleasure in judging this competition was the difficulty of the task, and in the reaffirmation of poetry’s – and art’s more generally – importance.

 

Oz Hardwick

 

THE RESULTS

 

Special Mentions:

Labile – Sharon Phillips

Surrender – Kelly Nunnerley

Your windows – L Thompson

Commended:

Our Father – Michael Brown

Swinger – Kathleen Strafford

Some have entertained angels unawares – Inky

Highly Commended:

Frozen Ringtone – Maria Isakova Bennett

What does the heart mean in popular culture? – Sharon Phillips

The Softening – Diane Cook

Third Prize:

Vanitas – Gabriel Griffin

Second Prize:

In transit – Greta Ross

First Prize:

Lethal theory – Noel Williams

 

competitions@sentinelpoetry.org.uk  / office@sentinelwriting.com

Venturing beyond our daily mien, Jude Neale reads from Splendid in its Silence

By Rebecca Tunnacliffe

Jude Neale Reading

For most of us, reading poetry is an uncommon occurrence. Poetry requires a focus and stillness we don’t often afford ourselves. So when our Island poet Jude Neale recently read from her latest collection, she offered us a rare and quiet contemplation. Splendid in its Silence is Jude’s fifth book of poetry which delivers what we seek in poetry – entry to deep thought and elevated feeling.

Jude read a dozen poems to Sunday’s full house of appreciative listeners. Her artistic gift is the ability to capture an everyday moment and elevate it to an iconic experience. In Jude’s poems we can dwell in the rarified space that poetry opens for us.

She began with the title poem which set the tone for all that followed – the memorializing of life’s fleeting yet monumental moments. We feel the intimate longing at the side of a dying spouse, the push from the wind urging a lover’s decision, the child’s elation of first communion in new shoes. The most poignant moment for me was a mother’s emptiness in the wake of her daughter’s leaving home as she experiences the fading warmth, the lingering scent, the impression on the bed. The images and ideas in Jude’s condensed expressions invite our vulnerability and reward us with an unexpected perspective, a tilt through her characteristic turn of phrase that elicits an emotional reaction – a tear, a gasp, a chuckle, even a shiver.

Hearing Jude recite in her mellifluous voice from Splendid in its Silence was to be transported to a rich inner life. Her melodious performance drew on her singer’s talent, and gave lilt and phrasing that will now forever echo in my future readings. Whether in recitation or on the page, Jude’s poetry touches us, and offers our community a connection to our deeper selves and to each other. We can relate to her poetic expressions that speak to our shared experiences as Bowen Islanders and to a world beyond our daily mien.

Jude Neale’s volumes of poetry can be found at the Phoenix and at the SPM Publications Shophttp://judeneale.ca, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca,

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 http://sentinelquarterly.com/2016/05/john-freeman-interviewed-by-mandy-pannett/

 

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.

SLQ REVIEW

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.