Reviews of Recent Poetry from Cape, Indigo Dreams and The Poetry Bus

*****

Vicki Feaver’s I Want! I Want! reviewed by John Wheway

I Want! I Want! by Vicki Feaver. £10. Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 978-1787331815

A young girl, reading a stolen copy of Blake’s poems by torchlight and seeing herself with a Blake drawing of a child with ‘one foot on a ladder/reaching to the moon,/crying ‘I want! I want!’, decides ‘to be a poet.’ Vicki Feaver’s title poem appears as an epigraph ahead of the body of this wonderful collection, as notable for its rich picture of the psychology of desire as for its high poetic achievement. The child reads by torchlight after hours, and her book is ‘stolen’ – these transgressive actions creating an intensely personal version of the family aspirations of ‘The Ladder’, the poem that opens the main collection, showing her family driven by ‘the mantra/Climb higher! Climb higher!’, with mother ‘pushing us from behind.’ As the oldest daughter, the girl,’ expected to reach the highest rungs,’ climbs until the air is ‘too thin to breathe’ and longs to be again the child who sang of all things bright and beautiful things, ‘her voice soaring//into the rafters of the school hall,’ –an image resonating with Blake’s moonstruck child.

The girl as ‘War Baby’, is a child both of the Second World War and of the war between mother and grandmother, who, ‘like battle-crazed soldiers,…each grabbed hold of an arm/and a plump little leg//and pulled’. In ‘VE Day Photo’, she is the family scapegoat, posing ‘solemn and proud/as if carrying the grief/of the whole house’. Envious of the arrival of a baby sister, she breaks ‘The Doll with the China Head’: ’jagged pieces of scalp/and splinters of nose/and cheek and lips’ lead the doll-doctor to the verdict, ’There’s nothing we can do’, thus confirming her childlike conviction of her own wickedness; yet in ‘Grandma’s Bed’, after grandma has been transported from the family’s leafy suburb to ‘a cramped bedsit’ with ‘grey nets//a stained, beer-reeking carpet,’ her tears prompt remorse, like ‘when there’s a truce in a war,’ and her ‘father took the bed/to pieces again and strapped it/back on the car roof-rack.’

What of her ambition to be a poet? In ‘Elocution,’ her voice, far from soaring, is shamed and diminished: a teacher orders her ‘to lie on the splintery floor’ and enunciate like a princess. She can only muster ‘the voice of a little frog’. Another frog, in ‘Boy with a Knife,’ is speared, and ‘flung… into a gorse bush’. The perpetrator looks down ‘at my bare toes, like a row/of tiny bald creatures/pleading for their lives.’

Adolescence, in ‘The Dove,’ her rapprochement with mother pushes mother to a cliff-edge: in ‘Because Snow Had Fallen’, her loss of virginity is both comic and casual. In a poem titled ‘1974’ she is no further towards her vocation. 1974 was the year of Ann Sexton’s suicide, and at thirty-one, our aspiring poet is ‘the same age as Plath/when she turned on the gas’. Asked what she does, she ‘lies’ that she’s a poet, ‘jolting myself to life:/a woman buried under ice/with words burning inside.’

‘Bramble Arm,’ a dream narrative that compresses her struggle towards poetic expression into 13 terse couplets, the brambles encircling ‘the arm that wields//my writing hand’, ‘could be a punishment/for unlocking the voice//I was taught as a child/to soften or silence’ or ‘a weak woman’s arm//transformed into/a fearsome weapon.’ Bandaged not for healing but ‘to hide or smother/the barbed stems’ the bramble ‘still lives: roots twined round/sinew and bone;//spiked shoots/piercing the flesh’. Spikes are replaced by spines in the myth-like ‘Hedgehog Girl’, where her mother, and later she herself, tries to shape the poet into a girl who will ‘become the woman/of a man’s desire’ using a razor, tweezers and pliers to remove spines (or perhaps the ‘spine’ of autonomy).

Ambivalence, pleasure and pain mingle inextricably in, ‘The Smell of Rubber’, a smell ‘I half-hate/but am irresistibly/drawn to,’ that of a hot water bottle, evoking ’the johnnies we used/in the attic of the vicarage,’and ‘babies’ teats’. She pours ‘scalding water/into the floppy open mouth…hearing the burps/of squeezed-out air-bubbles’, the hot-water bottle-baby nurtured and tortured in the same act. ‘The longing to hold’ makes her ’hug/the small, hot, pliable body to my chest as I fall asleep’ – but ‘I know I’ll wake/with it cold in my bed,/and stinging burn marks/branded on my skin/like fierce red kisses’.

Moving eventually to old age, in ‘Ascension’, the girl who dreamed of climbing to the moon has,‘ended up in a bungalow,/in a valley hemmed in by hills,/often cut off by snow,’ though still ‘in my dreams I soar.’ ‘Home is Here, Now,’ finds her having let go of anguished memories and aspirations. Peeling an orange ‘at the end of the day’ (and with the end of life clearly in view), she is with ‘my in-and-out-breaths/and the faint tearing of pith/parting from flesh’.

Two poems form a coda. In ‘You Are Not’, she bathes and dresses her mother, in her head still ‘a giantess’, but actually a frail old woman, so she can ‘watch flycatcher chicks/leaving the nest, hearing/ the peep peep peep/of their mother’s warning call.’ ‘Finding My Father’ imagines her father as a choirboy ‘who in a clear high treble sings’ divine praise. This echo of ‘The Ladder’ where she longed for her own voice to rise ‘soaring// into the rafters’ brings us full circle.

Each of the poems in this book works on its own, yet how they resonate with one another, with motifs and images transformed from poem to poem, how tellingly they are juxtaposed and sequenced, give this collection a breathtaking emotional and formal coherence. This work is a monument to the ambition it portrays, and is Vicki Feaver’s finest achievement.

John Wheway’s poems have appeared in New Measure, Stand, Magma, The Warwick Review, Poetry Review, the Yellow Nib, Poetry Quarterly, the Compass Magazine, South Word, Agenda, the High Window, And Other Poems His flash fiction has also been widely published. Anvil Press poetry published his chapbook The Green Table of Infinity, and Faber published his novella Poborden. He has a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa. His collection A Bluebottle in Late October published by V Press was reeviewed recently in The High Window.

*****

Louisa Adjoa Parker’s How to wear a skin reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

How to wear a skin by Louisa Adjoa Parker, £9.99. Indigo Dreams Publishing.
ISBN:9-781910834985

Louisa Adjoa Parker writes poetry, fiction and Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) history. Her first poetry collection and pamphlet were published by Cinnamon Press, and her work has been published and performed widely. She has been highly commended for the Forward Prize, and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She is of English and Ghanaian heritage and has lived in the south west of England for most of her life. Among other things, she is a co-founder of The Inclusion Agency (TIA) which provides consultancy around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion to a range of organisations as well as delivering diverse Arts and Heritage projects in the south west.

Parker’s poems in ‘How to wear a skin’ are concerned primarily with the subject of identity. In this collection, identity is explored in a range of different guises. It is chiefly to do with place and history but it is also manifested in terms of genetics, temperament, cultural traditions and habits. It can even be defined by the clothes we wear.

Being of English and Ghanaian heritage, Parker is steeped in two different cultures with an ocean of difference between them. Navigating these seas is no easy matter. In ‘What I Have Lost’ she reflects on school holidays in Ghana, ‘living with two cultures / side by side like twins / who are completely different.’ She knows that she is ‘someone who is more / than just one thing – / a bit of this and a bit of that’. The need for acceptance and belonging is palpable in ‘Beach Huts’ where she wants to tell a woman with a little boy who trails behind her ‘I lived here once, I lived here, me.’ In ‘Land, Real And Imagined,’ she addresses the question of where she is from, a question that is offensive to many BAME people in our society today.

‘Take Back Control’ is a powerful political poem that touches on many issues that are endemic in society: racism, nationalism and migration to name but a few.
Her love of language and the ingenious games that can be played with it is self-evident in ‘Breaking Point’ where the first stanza explores the word ‘breaking’ and the second the word ‘point’ as separate entities in their own right. These explorations knit themselves together to create a pattern that is pertinent to the title itself.

‘The Scarlet Ladies Come To Town’ plays with language in a different way by revolving around the key word ‘Scarlatina’ – an alternative name for ‘scarlet fever’. Innocence, temptation and experience are all woven into the fabric of this poem about a mother’s concern for her daughters who are being set on fire (metaphorically speaking) by the ‘rose-cheeked’ scarlet ladies who have ‘lips the colour of post-boxes’ are ‘heady with excitement’ and can’t wait to ‘paint the town red’.

In ‘Duffel Coat’ Parker keeps us guessing as to whether the person she is portraying is alive or dead. It could be an obituary since everything is stated in the past tense but it could also be a recollection of someone that the speaker once knew who may still be alive. Every detail in this 32 line poem defines the man. The red Citroen that he drove, the way he would inch it up the drive, the grand piano in the drawing room, his love of parties, the fact that ‘he didn’t do housework but liked to mow the lawn’ all act as identity-markers. They build up a picture, a kind of identikit of who he was (or still is), right down to the fact that ‘sometimes he’d wear a duffel coat for days,’ a piece of information that Parker lets slip at the very end of the poem bringing it full circle in terms of linking it with the title.

Several poems address issues such as drug and alcohol addiction and others hint at domestic violence. These short, powerful poems are imbued with strength and send out a warning to others. In ‘The Best Years of Her Life,’ Parker cuts straight to the chase:

The Best Years of her Life

went up in smoke; sitting
in hazy bedrooms, dis-used sheds

watching the orange tip spark and glow
in the darkness, waiting her turn,

heads nodding lazily to a reggae beat.
Washed down with booze

bought from dodgy pub landlords
or begged from older boys.

Anger gives way to compassion in the emotionally charged ‘How To Be A Good Daughter’:

Forgive him. Wholly and completely
even though last week you’d decided
it was better not to see him. Dig deep
into the chambers of your heart.
Do not forgive, then un-forgive, and then
forgive again. Understand
he is a person too.

Parker is a survivor. Often there are more questions than answers but that does not stop her from trying to find out the right answers:

Fruit Machine

I want to bang my head
against a wall until
the right answer falls out of me
lands at my feet
like a coin
from a fruit machine.

Two memorial poems, ‘Bones: an end and a beginning’ and ‘Pearls’ reveal a remarkable sense of empathy for events from the past that clearly still resonate with us today. The first of these commemorates Melanie Hall, who disappeared on 9 June 1996, following a night out at Cadillacs nightclub in Bath. It was not until 5 October 2009 that her partial remains were discovered, after a plastic bin bag containing human bones was located by a workman on the M5 motorway near Thornbury, South Gloucestershire. The second commemorates Henrietta Lacks an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important in medical research that continues to be an invaluable to the present day. As was then the practice, no consent was obtained to culture her cells. Consistent with modern standards, neither she nor her family were compensated for their extraction or use.

A series of love poems, in particular, ‘Warm Pebbles,’ and ‘Black Orchid,’ which act as a counterweight to some of the more difficult subjects aired in this book, are sensual and exotic and show a lyrical side to her writing.

In this collection Parker writes with compassion and conviction about her experience of being a BAME person in the south west of England. In doing so, she also writes about issues that we can all identify with, and learn from, in our quest to build a better world.

*****

Kitty Donnelly’s The Impact of Limited Time reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

The Impact of Limited Time by Kitty Donnelly, £9.50 (PB), Indigo Dreams Publishing,
9-781912876402.

Born in Oxford and of Irish parentage, poet and critic Kitty Donnelly is an MA student at Manchester Writing School and has degrees in English and Mental Health Nursing. In 2019, she received a Creative Future Award and was commended in the McLellan Poetry Competition. A regular reviewer for Mslexia, she also assists in editing the online journal The Beautiful Space – A Journal of Mind, Art and Poetry. She currently lives in West Yorkshire.

The Impact of Limited Time is Donnelly’s debut collection and it is dedicated to her father, the writer and lecturer, Hugh Donnelly (1951-2003) who taught her to value limited time. The collection was joint winner of the Indigo Dreams Collection Competition for 2019.
Drawing on crime novels, police work and the judiciary and her own personal experience of working in mental health, Donnelly conjures up narrations from the past and the present on subjects as varied as childhood and childbirth, missing persons, states of mental health, Pre-Raphaelite muses, loss and single parenthood with compelling power. The unsettling nature of some of these poems have the edge of an Edward Hopper painting. They have the power to convey so much through what is unsaid after Donnelly has painted in words the briefest of introductions.

The title very much conveys the theme of this book. Titles in the table of contents: “Time,” “Limited Time,” “Age of 37,” “After the Solstice,” and “The Day The Leaves Let Go” bear this out. To Donnelly, time is ‘a dull insistence’ that tugs at us ‘like a thread / spooling from a wheel’. In an interview for The Wombwell Rainbow (11 January 2020) Donnelly gives us an insight into the problems of time management in terms of finding or making time to write.
In that same interview, she speaks of her ‘extremely down-to-earth childhood where finding a ten pence piece in the lining of the sofa was an event of high excitement (meaning sweets or being able to go to Brownies),’ a subject that is covered in her poem “Church of Sweets”.

The pervading atmosphere of several of her poems is that of mystery. The first poems she read that inspired her were “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes and “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare. Both of them have a mysterious quality about them and that quality can be felt in Donnelly’s “Dusk in an Empty House” and the unsettling “A Year in the Butcher’s Flat” with its reference to Suzy Lamplugh, the estate agent who was reported missing, presumed murdered, in 1994 and whose case still remains unsolved.
There is much to admire in this collection. For a start, there are some eye-catching titles: “Swansea on the Rocks,” “Relative Who Leapt From His Breakfast and Was Never Seen Again,” “Dusk in an Empty House,” and “She takes the room in Miller’s Court.” There are some good turns of phrase: ‘when subtlety cracks like a river bed,’ ‘timers touching noses over alleyways,’ and ‘pockets of cold questions / jangling like coins long out of currency’ and there is the musicality of repeating vowels and consonants in ‘I Used to Work Here Once’ where she writes:

……….A girl scales
stile and furrow, the cycle of seasons
ingrained in her bones, as tide
ridges rock, or rings of an oak
map winters without nourishment.

The economy of ‘Field Mouse in the Rat Trap’ where so much is said in five short couplets is perfection itself. Donnelly is also a believer in strong end lines. These are especially evident in “Mr Sparks,” “Woodman,” “Age of 37” and “Pudding Lane” – a poem about the Great Fire of London seen through the lens of the maidservant.

The sonnet, “Birds in the Hospital” delivers on two levels simultaneously – nature and man, man and nature within the framework of an invasive hospital procedure. The surprise attack (‘abush’ in the urban dictionary) of the birds ‘pecking the stitches of darkness’ on berries and stripping the holly bare is likened to a scope that is placed inside a patient and then finally withdrawn.

“Whitestone Farm” relies on the use of contrast (the frost-cast hillside versus the fire in the valley’s pit) for its visual impact and under its original title of “Night at Whitestone Farm” was long-listed for the Canterbury University Poet of the Year, 2016. “Fall” is Donnelly at her most personal. Here are the opening stanzas:

before towers had fallen
before cells misfired and multiplied
before we had the language to describe
what we were sheltered from
when we loved and were loved
where shadows were long

there were pale summer afternoons
when midges hovered in low clouds
and apples from the garden
shrank our tongues with sourness
where we ran ragged leaping streams
unselfconscious as animals

With the exception of two lines of recorded speech, the whole poem is without punctuation. It is as if this is a subject that can never be ended with a full stop because there will always be more to say, to remember and to be grateful for. This, and many of the other poems contained in this volume will continue to resonate long after they have been read. ‘The Impact of Limited Time’ is a very fine first collection from a poet whose voice is fresh and open, resonant and memorable.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019).

*****

Melissa Diem’s This is What Happened reviewed by Emma Lee

This is What Happened by Melissa Diem. €19.70 inc worldwide p & p. PoetryBusPress http://thepoetrybusmag.wix.com/change
ISBN 978-0-9576903-3-2

This is What Happened is a collection of poems and artwork – chiefly photographs of buildings and interior scenes, usually peopleless. Both offer a play on possibilities, dreams and flights of fancy and the poems frequently use an image as a jumping off point, e.g. in “Glimpsed Auntie in New York”, where “These days I spend more time imagining lottos and picking out real estate/ it’s structured over a dune a long legged hollowed out animal on its way to the beach”. The poem continues:

She has a high-waisted bikini on, oversized sunglasses and Jackie O smile
This is the image I play of my aunt it must’ve been the Hamptons
it must’ve belonged to someone else a sunburst and sparkly eye opener to a seven-year
old girl who secretly wished she was adopted but someone arrived and limbs moved
quickly and my auntie could be heard make sorts of apologies and explanation
I was wearing culottes and my hair in a bun
My father said it was typical and something about real world commitment
But my aunt wasn’t the one fleeing New York in a yellow VW Beetle

It’s accompanied by a collage image of a house with walkway down to the beach and a VW Beetle with a black and white photo of a young girl in the back. The aunt on the beach seems to be the one with a dreamy lifestyle which is criticised by the father (it’s not clear if the aunt is his sister or a sister-in-law), yet he’s the one who drives away. The poem states he drove to Florida, the location for the following poem and photo, “Coordinates of Time and Place” is a photo of a house in Key West with the poet’s pregnant mother on the porch:

I want to go back and watch us me and my sisters from the outside I want to see
what we looked like and my brothers while I’m at it
how we talked and moved and got in and out of cars before we left the continent
maybe make some cuts change some scenes I want to walk the streets of New York
in sixty-nine and the early seventies
I want to meet this other self who I would have been

Don’t we all find ourselves wondering what might have been if a different decision had been made? The long lines typical of most of the poems create a sense of expansiveness, taking an idea and seeing how far it will go. The longer gaps between some of the phrases suggest pauses in thought, as if the poems are real-time recordings that capture the points when thoughts drift or the thinker has to wait for a word to surface. Leaving America was a decision imposed by parents on their children so naturally one an adult child looking back might consider and explore what might have been if they’d stayed. That idea the speaker not having automony is picked up again in “Red Dress”:

I wore a small red dress
It was not for me to decide
what would happen next

It’s not clear if the dress is small because the wearer is still a child or if it’s an adult wearing a short (small) dress. The choice of “red” is tricky. Children are often put in primary colours or it might be a favourite colour or it could be a signifier of (potential) passion. Whichever, the speaker is waiting for something, that they appear to have no say in, to happen. In “My Father Has Emphysema,” the speaker is an adult looking back:

I’m climbing into the pit of my childhood to grab a few things and get back out again
before he sees me while sights and sounds hurl towards, around and behind me –
and I’m wondering why people don’t check out more often

The use of “check out” creates the idea that childhood is like a hotel adults can check in and out of at will. But the memories created in childhood don’t get left behind even if you do check out of them, a little like “Hotel California”, the song by The Eagles where you can check out but can’t leave. Later in the poem there’s a reference to “dolls in red dresses” so the earlier poem “Red Dress” could be read as a doll’s voice, something inaminate waiting to be aminated by a child. “My Father Has Emphysema” contains a note of childish defiance, “I’m pushing my future around because you’re not! going to be its determinant.”. A now-adult child pushing herself to be independent from her father. The emphasis of the exclamation mark isn’t just childlish but also an implication that her father made some wrong decisions or wants a different life for his daughter.

Ideals meet reality in “An American Road Trip in Ireland”, where the speaker imagines, “I’m wearing high heels and flipping poker chips as though I lived in Paris Texas” meanwhile:

all those smoke-filled rooms in midland towns with long crossed legs on tipped back
to the ceiling chairs where our conversations rose like clouds of moths
as we planned our escape on a road trip out of Ireland never having figured in
an ocean or your luggage and the birds were watching
from the wires while it all played out and the foxes nearly weeping
for where it might have gone
with a bit more road

Ireland doesn’t have America’s expanse and the practicalities of making a trip happen scupper the reality of making it happen. The moths of conversation fly towards the light but continue into the dark beyond. “Falling” has a speaker at the airport unable to choose where to go:

as you stand with your flight all arranged out of here and me going nowhere –
under a roof that rests on walls only because its wants to fall and I’m staring
at these meaningless coins falling from my palm Halved between two selves –
one falling apart and the other unchanging with eyes that are dying to shut
or to see and waving you off at the terminus with nothing to say
and it took me so long to find you

The separation has triggered a sense of unbelonging, a feeling common to migrants of being caught between two countries and not fully belonging in either. A feeling that can be buried until something, here “you” leaving, triggers it.

The collection’s final poem, “Surrender”, ends on a notion that an insect landing on the speaker would take a mouthful of her away and:

if I just stay still then this insect would take bites of me away
that this stillness could somehow change me pare me down
piece by piece until I would be left
with only goodness

It’s a fanciful notion that somehow sloughing off the ‘bad’, when an individual’s actions or decisions resulted in hurt for someone else, would be possible. The desire to edit a life is understandable but characters who are only good or only do good are boring. It’s flaws and how they are handled that make for interesting reading.

This is What Happened is an exploration of alternatives and desires, how the impact of decisions, particularly by parents that impact on children, can linger long after they’re made. The poems start with an image and ask ‘what if?’, what if a different decision was made? What if that journey was not taken? What if a life could be edited and re-written? What if we could ensure what survives us is the good we did, not the embarrassments? The long lines and gaps in place of punctuation recreate the experience of allowing thoughts to drift and make connections, the spaces where a word or image has to be found. Through the combination of poems and complementary images, Melissa Diem asks readers to engage and imagine back to their own lives. What happened to you? How would you have made a difference? The questions are asked without an agenda. “This is What Happened” is a gentle, thought-provoking collection.

Emma Lee’s poetry has been published widely and she is a regular reviewer for The High Window.