Category Archives: General

Vision – a short story by Laura Solomon

Vision

Gary was working in his dark room when the stroke took place.  There was nobody with him but he knew enough to know that something was terribly wrong as his balance felt suddenly off and his left arm had become uncomfortably numb.  He made his way into the living room and dialled 111.  The ambulance arrived shortly afterwards and he was taken to A&E and triaged.  The doctor, who looked half Gary’s age, diagnosed a stroke and Gary was kept in for observation as his blood pressure was 145 over 90, no doubt a contributing factor to what he had suffered.  They gave him medication for the blood pressure and let him go home after three days.  He no longer saw colour; his world had become black and white.  The doctor told him that the stroke had done damage to his occipital lobe.

Gary lived alone in Point Chev.  His wife had committed suicide a year earlier and he had fallen into a deep depression.  He had no interest in other women.  Gary didn’t know why his wife had suicided, but he knew she had always complained that he was too wrapped up in his work and never seemed to have any time for her, so he felt a requisite amount of guilt.  Following the death of his wife, Gary managed to continue with his photography but it was an effort, like wading through glue.  He was well respected in his profession and had held a number of successful exhibitions.  He knew he was one of the lucky ones; he made a living from his art, a rare and difficult feat in small, isolated New Zealand.  People called him egotistical but it was just a defence mechanism, a way of keeping his psyche intact when he was picked at and criticised.  He didn’t have too many friends.  People said he was ‘difficult’.  He spent most of his time holed up in his dark room, fiddling with chemicals, watching photographs appear in the developing solution.  Read the full story here

Amma – a poem by Sam Burns

Sam Burns
Amma

Amma rolls fatly
down the dusty morning chowk,
cradling a kadai.

Her dreamy grandson
totters at her heels. He lives
in another world.

Amma bends between
a bull’s hind legs and scoops dried
dung into the bowl.

She chatters gaily
to the barefoot toddler with
the thousand-yard stare.

Amma wipes sweat with
her bangled wrist. The child sways
in the rising sun.

The bull butts the gate
of the grain store. The road melts.
The whole city yawns.

Amma spreads her skirts,
squats, rolls dung, jokes with schoolboys,
secretly pisses.

Her small grandson stands
between the horns of the bull,
gazes till it runs.

***
‘Amma’ by Sam Burns was commended in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (August 2016) judged by Terry Jones.

Two Cups – a poem by Math Jones

Math Jones
Two Cups

Two cups set upon a stone, made altar.
At once naked and dressed in white,
linen on the rock. Silver and linden.

Two cups. Reach toward the one and it
will disappear, blink out of vision,
leave you grasping air. The other remains

to be drunk from. In the air now
is your life and beating days,
the nights like alternating breaths.

In the sky around is space to move,
to bathe within, and light that floats
and every touch is beauty’s truth and you.

The other remains, hard upon the rock
and to be drunk from. It does not disappear
if you reach a hand, or if you turn your back.

It is to be drunk from, if you want
its bitter taste, perhaps to have its poison
running through your veins, then

it will disappear, blink out of vision,
leave you grasping air, taking too
the memory that it ever touched your lips.

Two cups set upon a stone, made altar.
At once naked and dressed in white,
linen on the rock. Silver and linden.

‘Two Cups’ by Math Jones won third prize in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (August 2016) judged by Terry Jones.

The Greens – a poem by Lesley Burt

Lesley Burt
The Greens

She deserves more, the woman,
than heaving his autumn leavings
while he rides northerlies south –

than to blanket corms in warm loam,
graft buds in bark, bank up moss
while he palms a turquoise shoreline –

than to quilt leaf mould, stoke
sets and dreys with chestnuts and worms
while he sinks grappa with buddies –

than to brace up for the bite
when he storms back to her forest
to sprinkle his killer silver dust.

‘The Greens’ by Lesley Burt won first prize in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (August 2016) judged by Terry Jones.

In the Kingdom of the Complaint – a short story by Marie Chambers

In the Kingdom of Complaint

It’s a business lunch at Angelini’s. Kitchen noises marry sotto voce conversations in a restaurant the size of a small fishing boat.  All the waiters speak Italian.  With crooked teeth and the beginnings of a paunch, these men are clearly not in pursuit of the ubiquitous movie career.  They are career waiters, magicians of sanity amidst the illusory drama of a lunch meeting in LA.

There are four of us: the soon to be exhibited artist, my art dealer dealmaker boss, his girlfriend and me.  As my boss is a demi-regular, we’re seated pronto at a four-top near the window.  Pleasantries are exchanged.  Water arrives.  Scorecards come out.

“Nice place.”
“Yeah, reminds of me of Italy. We spent a summer there.”
“Oh which part?”
“Tuscany, you know that area?”

Phrases bump and grind their way out of the mouths of the players.  The artist’s pitch begins.  Then the girlfriend swings into action.  Sun is in her eyes.  Terrible.  Let’s all re-position our chairs, squeeze together to the left of the light.  Oh dear.  Still not right.  Let’s try another arrangement.

She hoists her palm towards her forehead to block the sun.  The blue of her eyes glistens. Her face is wide and pale as the moon and she apologizes with such delicacy, we scurry to nudge our chairs towards the corners of the table, attend to her needs as a roomful of fellow travelers pretend not to be inconvenienced by this myriad of rearrangements.

I realize I am here on false pretenses. My queries regarding process and transport of the artist’s large-scale panel paintings garner little attention from the dealmaker.  No exhibition specifics (my area of expertise) will be addressed.  The conversation stays rooted in memories of meals eaten in Italy and the New York art scene of the 1980s and 90s.  Smiles are exchanged in rapid-fire sequences, red wine – a wonderful bottle, yes I’ll have another glass – and sparkling water flowing as freely as their recollections of a more desirable past.

Despite all the pro-forma civility, I understand yet again, sadly yet again, I am not here to participate in this discussion; I am used as ornament.  I order an arugula salad and listen.

The dealmaker’s girlfriend is the widow of an artist, a very New York artist, an artist revered – His colors, man, I love that – by this living artist at table.  She spends her days providing care and maintenance for her husband’s paintings. Though eulogized and buried, acknowledged as officially deceased by all the banks, credit card companies and medical facilities that devoured the last years of his life, her former husband continues to weave his needs into her present.  She lives in the truly swell flat he purchased for them in the 1980s.  The sale of his work continues to pay her bills.  I feel confident the ‘sun’ that blinded her moments ago is yet another incarnation of his shadow, once again attempting to hypnotize her.

My dealmaker boss orders more wine and holds forth as to the status of wine making in the States.  When the bottle arrives, he insists on subjecting the test glass to a series of whiplash motions along the tabletop. Though he explains the necessity for this seeming violence, it feels excessive to me. As he sniffs at the decidedly ‘shaken and not stirred’ wine and contemplates what I can only imagine are memories of wines past, he launches into a story about a tour of the ‘fields’ with the ‘most important vintner in France.’  With every additional detail, he safeguards himself from interruption by increasing his volume.  By the time the specifics of bottle year and bouquet come tumbling forth, his approval of the wine choice secured, there is nothing for us to do but murmur appreciative non-sequiturs and re-read the menu again.

The artist’s eyes dart furtively from speaker to speaker.  I wonder if he has noted, forty-five minutes into the meeting we still have not mentioned his upcoming exhibit.  Nor have we actually spoken about his artwork.

Behind me, the front door swooshes open and then clangs shut.  The bustle of fresh-faced hipsters, loafer-wearing elders and women of a certain age with the bust-lines of a twenty-something continues.  Food orders are placed.  The waiters are patient – Can I get that without tomatoes?  Is it vegan?  No sea bass? Business as usual I suppose. Past tense reveries and disappointment seem to rule the day.

Yet outside the sky remains so very cheerfully blue.

I head for the ladies room where I am greeted by a bowl of orange tulips, yellow edged with black centers.  They’re placed near a designer sink barely large enough for hand washing but are splayed open with such carefree excess I forget about the trio back at the table.  Beauty might yet win the day.  I resolve to emulate these flowers during the remainder of this meeting.

I check my lipstick and look myself in the eye. You are not this business, I whisper to my reflection.  This phrase gives me such pleasure I repeat it several times.  You are not this business.  You are not this business.  No matter how I inflect it, every time I say it, relief floods my limbs like medicine.

It’s really no wonder she keeps company with the dealmaker.  Though I have come to understand him as a man who honors the size of the check above all else and conjures insult when a hotel’s turn-down service fails to deliver (I have written many a letter of complaint for him), perhaps she’s lonely or weary and he’s noisy; he’s a distraction from some larger grief and perhaps that feels like kindness.

Throughout the meal, between bites, they complain sympathetically.  Joyfully.  Knowing glances arrive as punctuation to choreographed expressions of dismay.  The horror of undercooked veal. The reliable inefficiency of parking attendants.  What a time we live in, eh?  The daily assault on a refined sensibility astonishes.  It’s a grievance driven life and they are intimates in this distress.  But, a silver lining does exist, as he desires attention but no real involvement and she remains essentially married to her deceased husband, they are perfect for each other. They can shop for pillows, discuss the best kind of olive oil and where to order it, sigh in unison about the sorrows of his adult children and her mother ‘s illnesses and never breathe their secrets.

The artist has now ordered his third glass of wine.  I surrender all hope of discussion regarding his exhibition.  Everyone has a spoonful –Wow is that good.  Yes, but not as good as what you can get anywhere in Italy – of sorbet.

But the great rogue I know as happiness is elsewhere.  He’s exited this four-top and pitched his tent with the valet parking guys, the ones whose voices bounce back and forth like a song, the ones smiling at the traffic on Melrose, enjoying their time amidst the cacophony of Southern California.

As I watch my boss and his girlfriend evaluate their gluten free biscotti, sunlight strips the features from their faces.  They ooze contentment and I have no wish to begrudge them their pleasure.  But I can no longer un-see my dismay with the tone of this chatter, this entire enterprise.  My days as a hired hand in the kingdom of complaint are numbered.

I lean my face away from the glare and imagine an orange tulip behind my ear. SLQ

Marie Chambers

Marie Chambers

Marie Chambers received an MFA from the Professional Writing Seminars at Bennington College.  Her work has appeared in The LA Review of Books. The Atlanta Review, Talking Writing, The Quotable, The Ilanot Review, Printer’s Devil Review, the Seven Hills Review, Ironhorse Literary Review, the California Poetry Society and (coming in the fall) Bookwoman, a publication of the National Women’s Book Association. She was a winner of the 2015 ARTlines2 Ekphrastic Poetry Contest for work inspired by a piece of art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (judged by Robert Pinsky and published by Public Poetry September 2015.)

In the Kingdom of Complaint by Marie Chambers was highly commended in the Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2015 judged by Alex Keegan.

Extractions – a short story by Daniel Knibb

Extractions

In 1903 the house was almost new. Still young, not married a year, Mr Franks and his new wife embarked upon their first project together: the setting up of a new dental practice, not more than a mile from the great names set in brass along the Brompton Road and Kensington Gore.

‘A damned fool enterprise,’ said her father to Mr Franks once the ladies had retired. As new father-in-law, not to mention guarantor to the rental agreement, he let no opportunity for criticism go by. ‘Anyone in town with any money has already had their teeth out by Weston or Dromley-Kent. Got themselves a nice mouthful of Vulcanite.’

His voice was dreary, heavy with port, sluggish through an ether of cigar-smoke.

‘You can’t pull a tooth twice, young man.’

Before they were married, Franks would have forced a smile. Now, he allowed himself a certain boldness, a shiver of conviction. ‘Sir, we shall not be seeking the custom of the rich.’

A chuckle, unamused, evaded the stout obstacle of the cigar. ‘Young man, I find your logic obscure. I fear for my investment.’

Franks began to explain. The science of preservation, the new materials. The middle classes who wanted painless care and would pay for cocaine, but wouldn’t complain at being treated by gaslight. Let Weston and Dromley-Kent buy electric motor-drills; normal folk would take the treadle and be glad of it. In any case, he said with warmth, those grand old men see no more than six patients a day at a guinea each, and break their backs bowing and scraping. Whereas he’d see fifteen in a morning: a bob a nob for the decently-waged, less for the others. Children too; he’d joined the new school inspection society, he’d run a list once a week, get the poor mites out of pain and back into their classrooms.

‘There’s more,’ he said in a rush of passion, ‘than getting fat off the proceeds of fat smiles.’

‘Is that a fact?’ His father-in-law rose, and the young man, his eyes smarting from the smoke and a feeling of having pushed too hard, stood also. ‘Your faith in the rewards of charity are humbling indeed, Mr Franks.’

‘This is not charity,’ he said, less certain now, ‘merely good sense.’

He watched the old man leave, hearing through the fireplace’s crackle a softly venomous mutter. Something about misplaced optimism. Something about picking up pieces, who would have to do it.

1948, and the queue outside the house stretched around the corner. Women, mostly, with their children squalling in their arms or scuffling around their legs.

‘Dear God,’ said old Franks as soon as William arrived. ‘What have you done to us, Master Atwood?’

‘You know it’s the right thing, Mr Franks,’ William said. He seemed to have been saying that for six months now, ever since he’d mooted the idea.

‘Is that a fact? Dear me.’ Franks took his arm. ‘You have yet to convince your father. He insists he won’t come in today.’ There was a shout outside, then a child’s outraged howl. ‘I’m beginning to wonder whether I should have.’

‘Mr Franks, you’re indispensable.’ William squeezed the liver-spotted hand. ‘We wouldn’t be Franks and Atwood without you, would we?’

‘Evidently not. But I am seventy, you know. Old dentists never die, William,’ Franks said, ‘but at a certain point they do seek to extract themselves.’

‘No-one’s pulling you out yet, Mr Franks. Anyway, I need you to talk my father round. You know he’s all for ripping up the government contract.’

‘My dear boy, what makes you think…’

A squeak of hinges, a slam that shook the walls. Atwood senior stood, snorting, in the hall.

‘What the devil has he done to us, Charles?’ He didn’t even take his coat off before hurricaning down the hall.

William felt Franks shudder. He held the old man’s arm a little tighter and stood his ground.

The argument, the latest of many, didn’t take long. There was nothing new to say, except that there were a good deal more outside than they’d expected. William’s father spoke only to his partner; if referred to at all, William was the new associate, the recent addition, or simply the problem.

Debate concluded, his father turned to William and raised a hand. ‘See that?’

William examined the squat, clever fingers. One bore a new ring.

‘Solid gold. Look.’ His father pulled it off and bit it. ‘I had the lab cast it up from restorations in teeth I’ve extracted over the years. Now, you – ’ He poked William in the chest. ‘It’s all very well crying give me your tired, your poor, your galloping gob-rot, but how’s it all going to end, eh? In ten years’ time Charles here’ll be long retired, I’ll be going too, and you know what you’ll be doing? Working out how to pay your bloody creditors, that’s what. Handouts and social theories don’t keep a business in the black.’

He pushed the ring back onto his finger. ‘There’s no gold in amalgam fillings, boy.’ His heels attacked the tiles as he stomped out.

‘Not to worry,’ Franks chuckled. ‘He’ll come around. Mind you, he’s right. I’ll not be here much longer, and that’s probably for the best. But, you know…’ He tailed off.

‘Yes?’ William prompted.

‘Ah!’ Franks patted him like a good dog. ‘You know, if I were your age again…by gum, I’d be right beside you.’

‘We’re not open till nine!’ Their receptionist bustled in, barking at the family at the front of the line who were making a push for the door.

‘Oh, let them in,’ said William, rolling up his sleeves. ‘Let’s make a start.’

‘Trust me,’ said the man, ‘1998 is the year places like this are going to explode.’

David tried not to look alarmed. He frowned at the card thrust into his hand: ‘TBMT Marketing Consultants’.

The woman, older than her colleague, led the way. Stiff back, stiff hair, heels clipping the tiles. ‘Of course,’ she said, glancing at the waiting room, ‘this would all have to go.’

The man grinned. ‘You were right to bring us in, Mr Atwood. We’ve had some brilliant ideas. So much potential.’

‘Mm,’ said David, uncertain. ‘It’s been a very successful practice.’

‘And, as practice principal, you want it to remain so,’ said the woman, leading them down the corridor. Her tone was that of a maiden aunt prevailed upon to look after a dimwit nephew: thinly patient, politely underwhelmed. By contrast, her colleague’s voice made elastic attempts to catch your attention, like an inexplicably chummy bloke down the pub.

‘You see, Dave – I can call you Dave, can’t I?’ said the man. ‘The way things are moving, it’s all centralising. Polyclinics, centres of excellence. One-stop health shops. Dentistry, chiropody, whatever. Homoeopathy, reflexology…’ His hands sliced the air as he spoke, dividing it up.

‘Sorry,’ David interrupted him as they entered Surgery One. ‘You’re putting all that into NHS dental practices?’

‘Don’t just think dental, Dave.’ The man spread his arms wide. ‘Dream large. And hey – we’re not just talking NHS here. Think partnerships, public and private, hand in hand. I don’t think we should be excluding services that people see benefit in.’ His sharp eyes smiled.

‘What I’m trying to say,’ David said, ‘is this place has always been about evidence-based care. I mean, my father was one of the first – ’

The man nodded, immediately grave. ‘Yes. And you know what? It’s the values of your father’s generation who brought the NHS this far. Without the William Atwoods, none of this would be here today. But, you know…’

He placed his hand on David’s arm. It stayed there, a solid pressure as if David were a barrier he were testing the resistance of.

‘If your father was here today, he’d be going where we’re going. Innovating healthcare for the twenty-first century. Creating visions. Taking them forward. Because we all want the same thing, Dave, yeah?’ The hand slipped up to David’s shoulder; any further and he would have had his arm around him. ‘Quality healthcare, affordable, there for everyone. For our families. For our children.’

His voice had hoarsened. For a horrible moment, David thought the man was going to weep.

The woman gave a small cough. ‘I think my colleague is saying that our evidence suggests alternative therapies are some of the fastest-growing, most profitable sectors in modern-day healthcare.’

‘I wasn’t talking about profit…’

‘Profit, Mr Atwood, means money for this clinic. More money, as I’m sure you appreciate, means more clinicians. More services. More patients receiving more and better treatment. It’s really not complicated.’

She turned away to inspect a dado rail, running a finger along it as though checking for dust.

‘Look, Dave.’ The man’s hand was back on David’s arm, escorting him out into the hall. ‘Bottom line, we absolutely believe this is the way ahead.’ The smile again. ‘You can absolutely trust us to deliver.’

Nausea rose in David’s throat. He wanted them to leave. His stomach growled, loud and embarrassing in the closing-time quiet. The man laughed, and David felt obliged to as well.

‘Sounds like you’re ready for something to eat. Follow me.’

As promised in their leaflet, they had brought a complimentary buffet supper. David allowed himself to be extracted from the room, feeling the redesigning eyes of the woman at his back.

The removal lorry’s back doors gaped, swallowing furniture, desks, old computers.

‘None of it’s worth a thing, David,’ Jenny said to him for the third time that week. ‘Let the developers shift it.’

David tugged his grey beard. ‘We’re supposed to leave the place empty. And there’s nothing wrong with this stuff, it’ll come in for something.’

Jenny did that thing with her eyebrow, just as she used to when David asked her to squeeze a thirty-minute crown-prep into a fully-booked day. ‘TFT monitors? iPads? They must’ve been here longer than I have, and I started ten years ago.’

‘Not ten years.’

‘Yep, 2015. The year you did that nano-research-thing with the hospital.’

‘Oh, the self-assembling enamel peptides. Fancy you remembering that.’

‘I was very impressed. Painting bad teeth with nano-whatsits to regrow enamel. Thought you were quite the dashing pioneer.’ She glanced at him. ‘Didn’t last long.’

‘Neither did the peptides. Study folded after six months, didn’t it?’

They shared a smile.

‘There’ve been a few successes, though, haven’t there?’ David didn’t like the beseeching note in his voice. ‘We were in at the start when they introduced ID-chip veneers.’

‘And we were the last practice round here to still have NHS patients, before that all finished.’

There was pride in Jenny’s voice. It made him sad.

‘Yes. That too.’

She didn’t look at him when she said, ‘You could carry on, somewhere else. Ultrabrite’d have you, now McReady’s going.’

He shook his head. ‘No. I’m sixty-six; I can’t begin again.’

‘Why not?’ She sounded angry. ‘Why should age matter? If you’re still good enough, why not keep going?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Out with the old, in with the new.’ He tried a chuckle. ‘I’ll scrimp till they give me my pension and then…’

‘Slowly decay?’

‘Something like that.’

Once the men had filled the lorry’s maw, David went back inside to lock up. Jenny called goodbye from the front step.

‘Don’t hang around too long,’ she warned him.

But he did. He lingered till the sunlight died, pacing room after room, examining stains where chairs and cupboards had sat, mentally reconstructing the place. They should have had Surgery Two the other way around; better, surely, with the chair facing the door. That way you could fit a desk in, and that’d free up the consulting room, which meant –

Stop it. Pointless. All over now.

His shoes on the tiles reverberated, too loud. He took his coat from the hook by the door and remembered his father.

The Yale lock clicked home, soft as a root snapping. David hurried away and didn’t look back. SLQ

Daniel Knibb

Daniel Knibb

Daniel Knibb is a proud member of the NHS, and in his spare time writes short fiction and poetry. In recent years his work has found success in the Sentinel Quarterly poetry prize, the Harry Bowling Prize and short story competitions from Cardiff Women’s Aid, Writers’ Village, Leaf Books, Sentinel Quarterly and Exeter University. He lives in Devon.

“Extractions” by Daniel Knibb won first prize in the Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition 2015 judged by Alex Keegan.

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:
……….blood-marred
……… 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.

Skins by Reuben Woolley. Reviewed by Nick Cooke

Skins by Reuben Woolley (Hesterglock Press, 2016)
ISBN 978-1-326549-97-8     pp 54        £7.50 

 
Reuben Woolley’s instantly recognisable poems, always in cummingsesque lower case and often broken up in both layout and syntax, could be said to resemble pieces of shrapnel scattered across a particularly scarred battlefield. Indeed, the opening poem in skins appears to enact the devastating effects of the bombs it mentions, as well as conveying a tension between destruction and counterbalancing hope, via first an image of hand-holding, survival-seeking solidarity and then a characteristically neat wordplay, with ‘shells’ suggestive of both explosions and potential birth:

 
 ……………& fire doesn’t welcome
  
………………they’re hiding
………………from blades & bombs
…………….. see fear
 ……………  come down dark hills

 ……………  hold hands
……………  .for survival …………….hoping
 …………..  .for a better god &
 ……………..wooden doors
…………… ..are no protection ……hear
 ………….. ”the first shells break

 …………..  & isis
…………..   was the name of a river

 

However, for me the most useful analogy when looking at Woolley’s work overall would be a radio with poor reception. Listeners are aware they are being presented with important material, but have to struggle to catch every word, with much lost and left to conjecture.  Can we be sure we have heard the most vital elements in the poet’s message, or only clues as to the true meaning? The act of reading becomes a mystery, a jigsaw puzzle – one might almost say a game, were the themes and the tone not so hauntingly near the emotional and psychological knuckle.

 
Woolley is the energetic and politically committed founder and editor of two vibrant poetry websites, I am not a silent poet and the recently inaugurated The Curly Mind, which features experimental and avant garde work. In skins he focusses specifically on the current refugee crisis, and it is typical of the man’s spirit and generosity that he is donating all profits from the book’s sales to CalAid, an organisation dedicated to meeting the basic needs of displaced people.

 
The horrific realities of war, in the era of ISIS and similar organisations, are a constant if tersely-worded concern. They include sexual exploitation and commercialisation of minors, as explored in ‘detonator’:

 
……………a girl
……………a weapon
……………of mass destruction
……………this is how
……………to win a war.children
……………come cheap

……………girls cheaper

Just in case that message is not quite clear enough, it is driven home in the next poem, ‘they said’, where the age-old value of education is seen as having been undone by a new, completely amoral code of priorities, and the sexual degradation is underlined by deliberately pornographic spelling:

 
……………this light of books
……………is untaught you
……………on dusty ground.new
……………lessons are written
……………in cum & blood
……………& smiles are foreign now

However, we are soon reminded that the young victims of this aspect of modern reality were not in fact born to be chattels or objects of abusive gratification, but human beings who, though marginalised with even less power than their uprooted (or very possibly dead) parents, and whose suffering is often too much to bear for the average TV news viewer, have overflowing memories and past lives, just like other children. In ‘heroes’, Woolley’s wordplay centres on ‘brimming’, which suggests both tears and abundance:

 
……………so much
……………went missing today

……………& on the edges
……………the children.huddled

……………whole stories brimming
……………in their eyes

……………mute the tv
……………let me read through dust

 

In ‘dark eyes any time’, the chilling conclusion summons up a poet who may well be a key influence on Woolley, as it recalls (if in a context that signals contradiction as well as homage) the end of ‘The Hollow Men’:

 
……………the children don’t cry
……………& dogs
……………………..don’t whimper

 

They don’t cry, or whimper, one assumes, because they are dead. We are certainly inhabiting a real wasteland, as barren as anything in Eliot’s post-World-War-One terrain, and one reflected in Woolley’s layout, as well as his even-sparser-than-usual language and the use of shocked repetition:

 
……………the empty

…………………………eyes
…………………………& holes
…………………………………….gouged
………….crumbs
…………………………& dust
………….& dust       & holes

 

Much of the book’s second half centres on drowning, not merely the physical horror involved, but all the levels of obliteration denoted by the specific instances of drowning as a would-be refugee. There’s another echo of Eliot – a double one, not only of ‘The Hollow Men’ but also the ‘clangs/The bell’ of ‘The Dry Salvages’ – in ‘lampedusa’, where the idea of drowning (though dimly hinted by the title) only comes in at the last minute and is couched in harrowing euphemism:

 
……………in the waves
……………the shadows

……………i hear the hollow bell

……………& shall we go
……………& meet them at the tolling

……………no flowers
……………no floating

‘waves’ spells out the theme, while echoing the earlier poem and making the ‘fl-’ alliteration still more poignantly commemorative:

 

 

……………i take the sea
……………when i move  ……………always
……………on the edge of drowning
……………shuffling steps
……………these drifting bones
……………speak in salt
……………i’ll sail again
……………in high wind spray
……………leave

…………   no flowers floating
……………are not ghosts here

 

And a few poems on, Woolley becomes still more direct, naming a poem ‘drowning’ which begins ‘here/they breathe water/till darkness comes’. But again there is a glimmer of renewed hope in the next piece, ‘dark water’, which ends

………………………………………….a phrase
……………painting pictures
……………in water ……….flow
……………in dark rivers i don’t
……………fully

 

……………understand   ……….i swim
……………cross-current
………………………………not drowning
……………not always

 

There are survivors, even if so many are lost. A later piece, ‘crossings’, attempts to weigh up the tallies (perhaps a little too baldly, making this one of the less effective):

 

……………we’ll take our children
……………& sail
……………………..& some
……………survive

……………walk  ……….long
……………& unwanted
……………………………..waiting
……………unfairly
………………………….& some
……………will drink salt
……………………………& sink
……………unfairly

 

However, any slight wavering of technique on Woolley’s part is soon rectified, and the book’s later poems confirm its dignified power and the memorable effect of so much of its imagery:

 

…………………………& here
……………the dark scarecrow

……………in the empty field
……………where hands rose
……………like harrowed wheat          (‘targeted’)

 
……………i could say this otherwise
…………………………………the dead
……………are only slightly buried.we dream
……………of orbits & hurtling stars
……………………walk
……………quietly
……………& think it all a different way    (‘tired eyes blink in daylight’)

 

That final passage, once again redolent of Eliot (the ‘That was a way of putting it’ section of ‘East Coker’), and possibly also of Larkin (‘see it all again in different terms’ from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’), encourages different viewpoints of the subject-matter, in a way that implies Woolley, as passionate as he may be about the issues, does not want to come across as dogmatic or manipulatively polemical. What he has essentially done is present the images that strike him as key, and invite us to make of them what we will. Ultimately he is an imagist/symbolist, in a tradition extending back as far as Eliot and Pound’s own poetic mentor, Jules Laforgue, and this book is a worthy addition to that branch of the modernist canon.

Two Poems by Susan Gray

SUSAN GRAY

The Dopamine Fiend

The dopamine fiend loses her buzz
Her prefrontal cortex to derail
In a tunnel of absolute
To silence
Contemplate the present
To strip
Avoidance anesthesia
To expose
Chugging vacuum void
No pithy exchange to expend
Nothing flashes, none to speak
Synaptic siding
Not to join at the golden spike
His words lost steam
She uncoupled hers
To climb
Over the influence
To love
Is not to be high

Kiss
It was only because the sunlight took a longer path
That the morning air scattered the violet and blue
That the windshear billowed the altocumulus
Or the distant rain cascaded in fallstreaks
It was only the drawing of Cupid’s Bow
The pressing of vermillion
Deglutition’s organ playing sweetly
In the oral vestibule
Souls bonded through free-range chemicals
It was only because together, we had discovered death

Susan Gray is a graduate of Emporia State University currently working as a high school journalism teacher. She has published articles in newspapers and magazines.

Payer le Café – poem by Lee Nash

LEE NASH

Payer le café

I took a lover the colour of coffee,
a red wine stain on his neck,
who gathered girolles in the forest,
butchered boar, brought home fresh black bass
and drank Ricard with grenadine and ice.

Reeled in I was, as he could cook
a mushroom omelette to perfection,
would never leave a lightbulb on,
replaced the lids of felt-tip pens and taught me
words I didn’t know: déboussolé,

which means de-compassed, lost, the needle
flitting nervously to find its north.
Rebellious, I rejected this lodestone,
repelled the animal magnetism
(in search of my lodestar),

because it’s the little things that
drive you mad. The way he’d inch his chair
in my direction: I would smile
(still looking for affection) yet inwardly
cringe and shout – give me some bloody space!

Heavy, but he got the message,
packed the suitcase not so long unpacked,
took his parfum de dimanche and comb,
searched the wardrobe for his short-sleeve shirts,
and left. Je vais te payer le café.

Lee Nash lives in France and freelances as an editorial designer for a UK publisher. Her poems have appeared in magazines and e-zines in the UK, the US and France including The French Literary Review, The Lake, Inksweatandtears and Silver Birch Press.