Konstandinos Mahoney’s Tutti FruttiTutti reviewed by Colin Pink
Tutti Frutti by Konstandinos Mahoney. £8. SPM Publications. ISBN 978-0993503580
There is something beautifully life-affirming about Konstandinos Mahoney’s first collection, Tutti Frutti. It is not in any way a facile positivism, a kind of Pollyannaism, it is positive despite confronting us with the complexities and difficulties of a life fully lived.
Like many first collections, Tutti Frutti is, at its core, an autobiographical journey through significant moments in the poet’s life. Through this immersion in the singular we begin to recognise many universal themes around family life, desire, and a sense of belonging or not. It is a life rich in variety in terms of culture, place and sexuality. There is no simple identity but a palimpsest of co-existing national, cultural and loving relationships. The poems dance with these themes and build up to a composite and multi-layered identity, replete with wit, that provides a welcome counterpoint to the simplistic sloganeering of today’s politicians.
Mahoney’s mother was Greek and his father was Irish/English; Mahoney lived for many years in Hong Kong and his civil partner is Chinese. We sense the convergence of these cosmopolitan roots and experiences in these intensely rendered visions of life.
The collection kicks off with a sequence of vivid snapshots from childhood. Mahoney’s larger than life mother comes across as a dominating presence. In the poem ‘Tutti Frutti’ the young Konstandinos comes home to discover his mother having an afternoon tryst with a female colleague from work. In ‘Riri’ she observes her son showing a more than sporting interest in the male tennis players in the park and in ‘Geometry’ Mahoney remembers feelings of nascent desire for a fellow schoolboy.
The blackboard is abstracted with equations.
On the desk – protractors, dividers.
I glance sideways at him,
try to measure the angle between us
In break time, beyond the playing fields,
We build a fire; twigs and branches spit and cackle.
He shimmers behind a veil of heat.
In double Biology, we sit together in the lab,
smelling of smoke and desire.
The dominant personality of his mother is wittily sketched in ‘Vampire Madonna’:
At nine I gave you a Valentine – plump red silk heart …
Later I killed you off in a dream, your bier drawn
by glossy black horses with purple plumes – I spared no expense.
When I fled north to university, you bombarded me with
food parcels, home baked cakes heavy as guilt.
We sense the hard to resolve conflict between familial and societal expectations and the hopes and desires of the individual. Mahoney doesn’t flinch from conveying the conflicts and pain that result from grappling with a shifting identity. Despite having feelings for other men Mahoney married and had a child but subsequently came out as gay. Some of the most moving poems in the collection (‘Handover’ and ‘Hotel Claire de Lune’) are those documenting snatched moments with his young daughter before having to return her to his estranged wife who is, one infers, incandescently angry at being betrayed by her husband’s sexuality.
Books a hotel, somewhere to go
for the six hours they have together
But down the corridor a crocodile creeps,
a loud legal clock ticking through its grinning teeth.
They hurry through the lobby to the hired car,
he fumbles with the child seat’s puzzle lock,
goggles at his watch grown dartboard size,
they stare at each other with saucer eyes.
He drives back bawling nursery rhymes,
windscreen-wipers beating frantic time.
On the dot, pull up outside the mother’s door
that slams shut on her tiny baffled face.
Even in our relatively liberal society the pressure to conform to long-established norms is still a powerful, albeit mostly unspoken, force. In ‘Pride’ a poem about attending the gay pride march in London, after the march is over and he and his partner merge back into the crowds around Oxford Street the poet notices: ‘… we’re no longer holding hands.
’We live in a world where newsfeeds of one form or another make it impossible to escape atrocities that ring the horizon. In ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, one of the most powerful poems in the book, Mahoney recounts an encounter with his TV after a tiring day:
flop down on sofa,
turn on TV.
Line of men kneeling,
bright orange jumpsuits,
soldiers behind them,
each with a curved blade,
a personal butcher for every man.
Grab the remote,
hop to a new channel,
land in a kitchen
all shiny and new,
showing you how
to butterfly lamb,
‘Run your knife slowly
,like this, down the centre,
then cut through the flesh
to reveal the bone.’
Chilling and true it is the kind of poem that requires one to put down the book and take a moment or two to recover. Quickly switching channels, Mahoney provides us with many wryly observed poems about the places he has visited: Athens, Prague, Hong Kong. In ‘Praha’ someone steals his passport and wallet:
You can’t recall the exact moment
you were singled out,
but it’s close to the time the Staré Město
with its bohemian charm, stole your heart.
Now, unencumbered, you are more truly
a stranger, free to discover
who you want to be.
In a beautiful love poem called ‘The One’ he recalls how he met and fell in love with his partner in a noisy bar:
and in that teeming aviary of tipsy men
shrieking above the boom and thump
of dance anthems, we are drawn into a
stillness so singular that when the lights
go up on a shabby, shrunken dive,
we are still in wonderland, my heart
spinning like a glitter ball and I know
this is the moment, you are the one.
It is not surprising that a cosmopolitan poet, who celebrates the power and beauty of hybridity, should have written the powerful anti-Brexit poem ‘Dr Mirabilis and the Brass Wall That Will Save England’ which won the Poetry Society Stanza prize in 2018. He unleashes a joyous skill in satire, in a mock heroic style, as he depicts the principal players in the Brexit cause as characters in an Elizabethan farce, who hire an alchemist (Mirabilis) to protect England by magically constructing a brass wall around it.
‘How,’ she muses, ‘do we keep them out?’
‘Mirabilis will know,’ pipes up the fool,
a mop-head jokester swamped in crumpled clothes,
‘he’s as wizardly in truth as in trickery.’
‘Go fetch,’ she charges, crossing leathered legs.
Forth he bumbles, north to distant shires,
home to freckled Vikings
and offspring of the Commonwealth,
finds the alchemist hard at work
transforming foaming pottles into piss.
The magician duly promises he can:
…circle England round with brass,
a shining wall sprung from your mouth,
command and it shall ring the English strand,
bolder than the slabs that sliced Berlin,
the barricade that stays the Latin tide,
encircling like the mighty ring of Jove
from Dover to the market-place of Rye.
In the poem England is saved (from Brexit) by the unlikely figure of the ghost of Margaret Thatcher:
A flash of lightning, Big Ben wakes and booms,
a witch swoops in with a frozen leg of lamb,
‘This meat is not for turning,’ she declares,
and brings it down hard upon The Head – the wall is dead.
Alas, at time of writing, we are still waiting for that leg of lamb to save the day, while the daily news constantly swings between farce and tragedy. As I hope I have shown, this collection has a great variety, held together by the author’s personal story and a strong sense of human empathy.
Mahoney’s warm-hearted, thoughtful and timely poems invite us to live a life without constructing barriers around ourselves, without fearing the other and giving way to ignorance and prejudice.
Colin Pink Review of Kate B Hall’sThe Story Is
The Story Is Kate B Hall, Bad Betty Press, 2018 £10 ISBN 978-1-9997147-3-4
When and how do we decide who we are? And is it something that we can, in any meaningful way, ‘decide’ on at all? It seems to me that these difficult questions are at the heart of Kate B Hall’s fascinating collection of poems.
The cover of The Story Is shows a photograph of the author as a little girl looking up (being consciously engaging) at her father as she walks down the street with him and her older sister. Many of the poems in the collection have that veristic snapshot quality of the cover image, able in a flash to reveal a great deal about the subject, in a very economical way.
Hall’s collection of poems constitutes a subtle social history of Britain, from the end of the Second World War to the present day, as reflected in the experiences of the author. The poems form an autobiographical sequence beginning with childhood in the late 1940s; for instance ‘Our War’:
This was our war even though we couldn’t remember it.
Our city was in ruins, punctuated by bombsites
In 1949 we still had gas masks and gas mask drill at nursery.
Mine had ears; it was supposed to look like Mickey Mouse
It was only when we had to give the gas mask
and the box back that I understood the war was over.
The poems trace the poet’s sense of identity, as it evolves through childhood, youth, motherhood and finally mature contentment in a lesbian relationship. Different poems address different previous selves, unearthing memories and feelings of guilt, as in ‘Epitaph for a Younger Kate’: ‘Her hand slips into my memories, / prises them open, an oyster’s cringe / just before swallowing.’
Hill grew up with a German mother in an atmosphere of anti-German feeling in post-war Britain. ‘Knackwurst’ (the standout poem in the collection for me) is about prejudice, feeling different, and trying to fit in:
The K pronounced, the A more like a U,
onomatopoeic the sound of a knife
through the skin of my favourite
German sausage. Saturday treat
sometimes accompanied by sauerkraut
and mashed potatoes …
Not the right era for cultural celebration.
I had been called Kraut at school
and any sort of foreign equalled bad
What did you have for your dinner?
Sausages and mash.
This poem wittily and perceptively expresses how socially enforced norms put pressure on people to ‘pass’ as something they are not and keep their true identity undercover. All of us have experienced the uncomfortable sensation of not fitting in and Hall provides us with a cathartic expression of these anxieties. In ‘Tribute’ she highlights how it is often the most maligned people who are actually the kindest and most fun: ‘my aunt was a tart / I remember her / she was beautiful’.
The significance for ordinary peoples’ lives of the post-war Labour government’s establishment of the NHS is beautifully expressed in ‘Thank you Mr Bevan’:
Always, according to my mother, a difficult child,
at three I contracted double pneumonia and sank
into a coma. My sister remembers sitting
with our parents round the bed, like something
out of a Victorian melodrama.
They were waiting for the doctor,
in his grey Morris Minor to fetch
Penicillin, the new wonder drug,
from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, courtesy
of the even newer National Health Service.
The alarms imposed by the threats of ill-health to the self and others runs like a leitmotif through several of the poems, as in ‘Watch and Wait’, where punctuation takes on increasingly sinister overtones:
Life punctuated by scans and results, four months apart,
general anxiety roots itself, grows to terror;
life not simply interrupted or punctuated,
nothing so clear as a full stop, though that may come later.
As one turns the pages multiple layers of the author’s self seem to peel away, revealing joys, sorrows, and remorse: ‘Those things that I have said / cannot be unsaid, no magic / can undo the saying.’
Even though, as Henry de Montherlant said: ‘Happiness writes in white ink on a white page’, still one might wish that there were more moments of joy and excitement expressed in the book, especially since, when she does write about passion (for instance in ‘Lick Spit Shiny Coming of Age’) the results are highly evocative:
My skin thinned
to your touch
and an electric shock
from my tongue
to my stomach
and back again.
Often there is a sense of nostalgia, of something lost, slipping away or out of reach, such as ‘My Mother’s Autograph Book’:
… ‘Begun in Germany when she was 11,
mostly written by her school friends;
neither of us understands these entries.
We wrote rather formally
… except that one time
when I was three and did a drawing;
I was in big trouble but my artwork remains.
My sister is beginning to forget
the most recent babies in the family
and what happened yesterday.
So as our shared history is forgotten,
I covet this book, left to her
and, to my shame,
think often of stealing it.
Life is full of possibilities and choices, and Hall skilfully evokes, in a clear and poignant style, those feelings of looking back on life and weighing all the multiple threads that bind us to others and our own sense of identity. I highly recommend this book, which succeeds in being both deeply personal and universal at the same time. Here is ‘Parallel Universe’:
I imagine another life
where I am childless, an academic,
for a moment my heart
is brimming with pride
but then I see my not-born children
floating up into the clouds.
I pull them back,
like lost balloons
and tie them round my wrist.
Colin Pink lives in London, England. He studied Philosophy at the University of Southampton and Art History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He works as a freelance writer and art historian. His plays have been produced in London (Defining Dawn), New York City (The Inner Circle, Minotaur), and Berlin (Minotaur, Bitter). He wrote Touch which won numerous awards for best short film at international film festivals. His poem “Games the Dead Play” was long-listed for the National Poetry Prize. Acrobats of Sound is his first collection of poems.