New Chapbooks from Wayleave Press reviewed by Hilary Hares and Robert Etty

*****

Wayleave Press: Based in Lancaster, Wayleave Press produces a number of high quality poetry pamphlets which are both thought-provoking and wide-ranging in scope. A number of the cover illustrations are the work of the Editor, who is also an artist, and the high quality of these little books make them equally suitable to treasure or give as a gift.

*****

Hannah Hodgson’s Dear Body reviewed by Hilary Hares

Dear Body by Hannah Hodgson. £5.00. Wayleave Press. £5. ISBN: 978-999978-0-6

How many of us come into contact with complex illness and disability up close and personal? Those who are thrust into it as family, carers, teachers and medics know what a big deal it is … the rest of us probably have little idea of how a complex range of special needs infects every aspect of daily living and alters every expectation and aspiration that life can offer us. How brave of one young writer to peel back the lid, therefore, and show us what it’s really like to live in a body that betrays us in so many different ways. As she puts it in ‘Chronic Fatigue (not the syndrome)’ – ‘My body is like the weather/difficult to forecast’.
This, then, is a debut from a talented newcomer who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is with total focus. The writing is uncluttered and direct and, the fact that Hannah Hodgson approaches her subject matter with an unblinking eye reveals a maturity beyond her years. She’s unafraid of the blank page. As a result, her writing is stark and unsentimental and a number of the poems are short lines containing short sentiments. They all pack a punch, however, and all of them punch above their weight. As the dedication points out:

I am not a fairytale
My mind is a princess
locked in the tower
of my skeleton

This is not a rant, however, and one of the things I like most about the poems are that they challenge things about ourselves that we take for granted. Some of these points are brought home by the fact that Hannah turns the tables on us – sometimes you are as odd to me/as I am to you’, from ‘Unsaid’).

There is humour to be found here, too, much of it quite dark. In ‘Collection’ for example – ‘I am a display cabinet of infection/I’ll auction it off to the most suitable antibiotic’, raises a smile, even if it’s a wry one. Familiar characters from fairytale and nursery rhyme are also employed to help carry the message. ‘Invisible’, the opening poem, features, amongst others, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, Aladdin and Goldilocks ‘who can’t go to the ball/because there are no accessible pumpkins available’.

If there are themes within this pamphlet they are about marginalisation, lack of understanding and a desire to demystify the details of a life lived under severe constraint. What prevents it from being an uncomfortable read is the fact that the
poems are softened by threads of carefully crafted, tongue-in-cheek irony. ‘Dear Body’ the title poem is a good example:

I’d be handing you
a redundancy notice
if the end of you
didn’t mean the end of me.

All in all, this is a confident start and what impressed me the most is the fact that the poems encourage us to walk a mile in her shoes and, in fact, the shoes of so many people who will never get to walk that mile themselves.

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*****

Elizabeth Hare’s Testimony reviewed by Hilary Hares

Testimony by Elizabeth Hare. £5.00. Wayleave Press. ISBN: 978-1-9999728-2-0

It’s said that life will bring you what you need when you need it and, on reading Elizabeth Hare’s Testimony, I was struck by the fact that it would not have had nearly the same resonance if I had read it a few months ago before our lives were overshadowed by the threat of the coronavirus.

The title says it all. This is a testimony; a range of poems that cover a variety of topics in order to bear witness and they are clearly the work of a thoughtful observer. They offer a window onto a world of deprivation where the ‘have-nots’ frequently challenge the stereotypes and shine a spotlight on the many ways in which the System fails.

Many are short narratives with a point to make – perceptive social commentaries about the state of the world but it is a world which is redeemed by the fact that it is often the point of similarity rather than difference which are highlighted.

This is a poet who has learned her craft and she makes good use of both repetition and dialogue. There’s technical skill on display, too. The villanelle is a notoriously tricky poetic form to master and my acid test for a good one is that the reader shouldn’t be aware that they are reading a villanelle. ‘Bamburgh Beach’ is a good example of the form. The writing feels effortless and doesn’t show its workings.

Our journey through the pamphlet begins in 1660 when the first version of what became the Quaker Peace Testimony was delivered to the court of King Charles II. In the light of current events, how prophetic this now feels and those people currently over-crowding the London Underground or panic-buying in the supermarkets would do well to take note:

To seek peace and to ensue it.
To do what tends to the peace of all.
Bloody principles and practices we utterly deny.

Having set out from the past, however, Elizabeth Hare quickly moves on to the realms of her own experience, or rather her experience of other peoples’ experiences. In ‘You can’t do Shakespeare with these kids’, her days teaching in a deprived area of London’s East End is brought to life with a series of little word pictures of the children, characterised by the parts they play: ‘And Prospero himself, captain of the football team,/who tried so hard to grow a beard,/six feet tall at seventeen’.

We then move on to her work with homeless people and her interaction with refugees.
‘Lunchtime stories’ is a great juxtaposition of cultures and circumstance which highlights their heartrending experiences:

He said he’d hidden in a freezer lorry,
running on the spot all night
just to stay alive.

‘Borders’ also makes its point powerfully. It starts out with the Berlin wall and moves on to Ireland where an old man ‘crosses a bridge/between two countries every day to feed the ducks. […]/When asked, he says he didn’t know it was the border/because both sides looked the same’.

The final poem, ‘Beneath the Surface’ ends on a note of hope despite the fact that ‘the world [is] at odds with itself’. In summary, then, although the writer approaches challenging material with a light touch this is still a thought-provoking read and one which, I suspect, will repay revisiting again. I’m looking forward to the next time I dip in.

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*****

Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’s The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here reviewed by Hilary Hares

The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs. £5.00. Wayleave Press. ISBN: 978-0-9935103-9-7

The mystery of a man who left a quart of blood as a legacy is immediately compelling, especially when it turns out that this was a man who was lost at sea! Everyone loves an enigma and, right from the title, this pamphlet encourages us to pursue an illusion which never quite materialises.

As we’re told in the blurb, ‘This sequence of poems emerges from the poet’s attempts to find out more about the elusive and enigmatic figure of his grandfather, to “fix his likeness” as it were. This proves to be quite a challenge because of the sparsity of information the poet is able to discover about him. Nevertheless there is skill on show in bringing the man to life even though they never met.

In terms of the structure of the writing, the poems and are written in reverse order to ‘mimic the trajectory’ of the research. This effectively creates an air of mystery – not so much a who-done-it as a who-was-it? The overall effect is that we feel we have dipped into a moment of time in this man’s life. Is he fully fleshed out? Not really. Is this significant? No, because it adds to the intrigue and keeps us engaged in the quest.

The source material barely equates to a pound of flesh:

Such evidence
as this is all there is and barely fills
the donor’s card
that’s propped, dog-eared, beside the quart of blood
which he bequeathed me.

In ‘Birthright’, the opening poem, we learn that this was an Irishman who changed his name when he came over to England in order to anglicise it. From there, he joined the Merchant Navy and went on to sail the world, even crossing paths with Dame Nellie Melba at one stage:

She might have liked the Leitrim slant
across his words; and he was handsome
for his age.

Nautical images and a spirit of adventure abound but the poems are not entirely insular. The pamphlet gains depth by touching on a number of bigger issues. These include both the Irish Troubles (‘More or Less Irish’) and modern day terrorism (‘Irish Question – Canary Wharf, 9 February 1996’). The poet’s desire to establish his own Irish identity is also explored, sometimes with a touch of humour: ‘There is general agreement/that Mrs Rooney would remember/something if she wasn’t dead’ (‘Root Finding’).

As might be expected, the poems gain in confidence as the story progresses until, at the end, the poet feels he knows his grandfather well enough to write not one but two postscripts in his imagined voice. The poet may not know ‘…the deep slow burn of peat/or the winding length of memory’s fuse (‘Irish Question’) but he vividly evokes both the era and the spirit of the man. This is skilfully done but it did set me wondering what traits of his grandfather have manifested themselves in subsequent generations. This might make interesting material for a subsequent sequence!

Hilary Hares’ poems have found homes online, in print and in anthologies. She has a Poetry MA from MMU and has achieved success in a number of competitions. Her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon supports Loose Muse, Winchester, and Red Queen is available from Marble Poetry. http://www.hilaryhares.com

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*****

Lynda Plater’s Saving Fruit reviewed by Robert Etty

Saving Fruit by Lynda Plater. Wayleave Press. £5.00.
ISBN 978-1-9999728-5-1

The cover of Saving Fruit, Lynda Plater’s warm and observant second pamphlet from Mike Barlow’s respected Wayleave Press, features only the title, author’s name and a striking watercolour of an apple by Plater herself. This focus on essentials hints at the finely tuned writing to follow. There is no contents and the pages are not numbered, which enhances the sense that, while the 21 poems are separately titled (with 13 of them dated and ordered chronologically), they interweave to form an intimate record of one family’s life across more than a century.

Lynda Plater is a poet from Lincolnshire, and she and I belong to the same poetry group. This is how I am able to confirm that her spare, tender poems are entirely authentic and hard won. Every careful word has earned its place, and the lines have been crafted through painstaking drafts. As is often the case, an apparent simplicity belies the depth of the content.

A list at the back of the pamphlet names five members of the Cook family. Great-grandad is George ‘Ratty’ Cook (approx. 1858-1942), cockler and market gardener. The latest on the list is Mam, Edith Mary Macdonald (neé Cook), who died in 1971. This genealogy underpins the poems: these are the people whose lives their writer descendant evokes and reflects on.

That they lived close to the elements is reflected in Plater’s pared-back poems, whose short lines are precise and near the nerve, with broad margins suggesting the openness of Lincolnshire then and now. Work depended on seasons, land and sea: we read in an insider’s detail of preserving plums, breadmaking (‘Then sides / of the bowl cleared / of the mix by / the palette of her hand’), raking cockles, digging, gathering samphire. In the first poem, ‘Monday, February 1908’, where Plater describes Great-grandma washing worn sheets ‘In the watery house, / a lean-to with / whitewashed walls’, vivid language recreates the toil and arouses the reader’s compassion:

Muscles ached
with mangle turn.
The clothes-line drawn down
sagged with the weight
of sodden linen
which dripped down
the nape of her neck.

In ‘Great-grandad at the cockle bed, 1910’ (in which ‘He is the line of sea, / drawing in rills and runs / of tide as he rakes cockles’), Plater’s neat understatement implies the fortitude which drives these people on:

At the yard, enamel buckets
rattle as man
and wife rinse shells:
he on pump, she with
water rills up her arms.
They are both singing.

In some poems Plater uses a past tense, establishing small histories from routines or particular events. In others (such as ‘End of a living, 1931’, below) the present tense replays the past, and the interim disappears:

He will no longer be heard
calling from Eastgate
as women wait with cups
for a gill of cockles
raked from Donna Nook.

Great-grandma has come –
leads her man home
where numb stars
wash about his dark.

Original, compact expression, as in the last two lines above, often brings Plater’s reader up short. In ‘Saving Fruit’ there are ‘windfall words’, in ‘Turning’ autumn is ‘curling’ into winter, and in ‘Rooks in winter’ the birds ‘make an etch of marsh in winter / with their span on papered sky’. This is where (part of) the poetry is, and what draws us back to a line where another reading will reveal a further meaning.

In over half of her pamphlet Plater writes, with affection and insight, about previous generations. She takes us out of Lincolnshire in two poems about Sid Cook during and after WWI, and brings us inside living memory in ‘Laboured hands, 1951’, where the harshness of cutting vegetables (‘greens’) in frost is painfully conveyed. There is, of course, no lack of poems (and prose) about deceased relatives, and it is a mark of Plater’s recognition of the pitfalls of the genre that each family member is depicted with minimal authorial comment, and any unfitting intrusion is avoided.

In the remaining, more expansive poems Plater’s painterly eye turns to her home landscape today, celebrating a vital continuity, and her evocative description of nature emerges in, for example ‘The ring ouzel, November 2018’: ‘Small bird, sloe-grey eyed, / a white collar like a pastor …’. She seldom appears at the forefront of her poems, and the occasional first person pronoun comes as a surprise. By ending the poignant opening sentence of ‘Lipstick’ with ‘kiss me’, Plater makes real the weight of the past:

On the sideboard,
red lipstick
in a gold-tone case
of vintage Arden
has the smell
of Mam when
she bent low
to kiss me.

‘Gather’, the sharply visual final poem, describes how for yet another year ‘… fields are ploughed / in lines of brown corduroy’. ‘In the mercy of a dry hour’ the speaker and a companion watch a murmuration of starlings ‘fold into the cloth of dusk, / its soil and reed, its hedgerow’. The poem closes with ‘As we walk home / our sleeves and shoulders brush’. It is a lifelong brushing with people who have known and worked the Lincolnshire land that is at the heart of Lynda Plater’s accomplished new collection. Her feel for a touching phrase, her ability both to show and tell, and (not least) her sincerity ensure that this pamphlet, while standing as a unique tribute to her family, will stir the emotions and admiration of those who read it.

Rob Etty’s poetry has been widely published. His most recent collection is Passing the Story Down the Line (Shoestring Press, 2017).

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*****

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