Category Archives: Book & Article Reviews

Book Review: How to Win at Kings Cross

Author:          Catherine Edmunds

Publisher:       Erbacce Press

ISBN:              978-1-912455-003

Pages:              96

Price:               £9.95

Reviewer:        Mandy Pannett

 

Cover of How to Win How to Win at Kings Cross by Catherine Edmunds is a stunningly rich poetry collection. Among the qualities that most impress me are its variety of themes and styles, an originality of approach and, most of all, an exuberance and freshness of voice in every one of the pages.

 

The first poem in the book shares the title of the collection. Here we have many of the characteristics found elsewhere. An immediate sense of urgency and pace is induced by the use of repetition – a technique which this poet excels at. ‘The trick is to enter at Granary Square’ is the opening and repeated line. Already we are in a modern, fast moving, urban setting where trickery counts in a game the narrator is reluctant to play.

 

Unusual details catch the reader’s attention. Swans and cygnets on Regent’s Canal swim ‘at half the speed of gossip’ while the narrator aches ‘like Salcedo’s crack in the floor of the Tate’. Striking images fill the poems – the person who speaks in How to Make Tea When He’s Not At Home feels as if her heart ‘is a hot, wet rat’ while in Wounded Women we find ‘Daffodils grow in lovely gardens as well as in shit,/and the chicken may well bear a beak/as fierce as that of any raptor.’

 

Frequently the imagery is surreal and totally unexpected. In Red Kite we meet astronauts who have come to ‘plant trees on pit heaps’ – a situation echoed in Cmtillery where we encounter a strange character who ‘Months after returning from space … still lets go/of objects in mid-air, fully expecting them to float./But he’s just twelve years old, it’s 1857.’

 

Humour blends effortlessly with surrealism in Anatomy for the Artist where a bored lawnmowed itself’ and a kettle leaves a note on the table saying ‘Sorry about the toaster’.

 

This is lovely quirky writing that appeals to me. Another quality I admire in this very readable collection is the way Catherine Edmunds introduces sudden twists and turns. How to Make Tea When He’s Not At Home develops a sense of unease in a scenario in which the narrator tries to take her mind off things by making a cup of tea after a lover has returned to Hull ‘after a brilliant few hours in Beverly.’ Gradually the details become staccato in tone and more and more repetitive as she instructs herself to ‘Squidge the bag back down,/Keep it there. Squeeze. Repeat./Throw the bag at the bin. Miss.’ In the last line we discover the reason for these obsessive acts: ‘Wonder who she is.’ The setting in Anatomy for the Artist is even more disturbing as descriptions of the narrator as artist juxtapose with weird events in the house in which something seems to be ‘dying’, books talk quietly to each other and chairs move themselves around ‘having nothing better to do’. I won’t give away the ending but an explanation and a whole back story is revealed in the skilful last few lines.

 

Different forms and layouts are used in How to Win at Kings Cross, each with a purpose. In Erosion the purpose is to convey humour through different line lengths.  A weathered and disintegrating statue of a king or a saint shows his features drooping and ‘his beard rippling like molten cheese.’ This image leads into the following lines:

 

‘and

that’s

when he

comes to life,

perks up when thinking

of cheese. His left eye blinks open

for a nano second: Mon dieu, mon dieu – ah! Fromage!’

 

At the end of the poem the character returns to his niche in Rouen Cathedral where he can sleep the sleep ‘of a ripe runny Brie.’ A delightful pen-portrait.

 

Sometimes the tone is ironic. In Jeans, but so fucking what the members of a committee spend a long time ‘talking about/the insane use of plastics/as if they intend to do anything about it’. The landscape here is one of broken trees with conversation at the level of Tupperware. There are undercurrents of menace in many poems. In Courage ‘The man arrives in a big car, dark windows’ as ‘pigs squeal’ and the narrator leads the children to safety ‘along the lane, claggy and stinking with cow’s piss.’ Juxtaposed with strong and striking narratives there is pain and despair. The title poem begins with an emphasis on ‘hurt’, ‘ache’, ’cracks’. In Time to Abandon Monogamy one faces a future of ‘life after sunset’.

 

Bleak words intersperse with humour, lightness of touch and tenderness as well. I find the poignancy in The Obstinacy of Owls almost unbearable. Here the owl and the pussycat have grown apart, their ‘pea-green boat has been confiscated, turns out to be nothing but ‘a dream, a hope.’

 

As I said at the start of this review, How to Win at Kings Cross is a stunning collection. These are poems with a difference, poems for today. I’ll end with a final passage from Jeans, but so fucking what which I feel illustrates the uniqueness of Catherine Edmunds’ work. The poem ends with a bang as the narrator hurls a tea tray at the window but before this happens we are given these lines:

 

‘Every evening we used to go for a walk

along the beach and throw pebbles into the sea.

You tasted of salt and seaweed.

We lit a fire and turned into smoke,

we drifted. We had sex in the sand

and the grit and it hurt

and I would give anything to have sex in the sand

once again with you.’

 

Later, as someone picks up the empty cups, there is a single, almost throw-away line: ‘Why did you die.’ SLQ

Aisling Tempany reviews Vermeer’s Corner by Graham Burchell

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

 

Same corner    same room    same woman

you see some alchemic transaction perhaps

made mystical with drapes

 

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

 

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

 

Vermeer’s Corner published by FootHills Publishing is available here

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

 

An Underground Country

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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