Anthony Caleshu’s A Dynamic Exchange Between Us reviewed by John Rogers
A Dynamic Exchange Between Us by Anthony Caleshu. £9.95. Shearsman Books.
Anthony Caleshu turns to the prose poem in A Dynamic Exchange Between Us to explore a stimulus to change, presenting the speaker’s struggle through the later stages of married life. The chameleonic form seems appropriate for Caleshu’s new work, which weaves in language from several sacred texts as the searching voice lays bare his limitations in the fight to salvage love.
The two characters at the heart of the work are never quite in equilibrium. The first-person speaker often laments his lack of agency, and his thinking is influenced by metaphysical concerns. Therefore, we experience prose poems such as ‘I am weary (and must rest awhile)’, which draws on the Gospel of Buddha. In scripture, the Blessed One calls on Ānanda to lay out his robe, so that he can relax on it. But the speaker in Caleshu’s work cannot find comfort on such ground. There is even the suggestion of betrayal when he turns to his distracted spouse: ‘Question: when does the world not travel with us?’ Their private moment is broken by ‘what you have hashtagged on these granite walls.’ and foreshadows the growing distance between them.
And so, the book oscillates between expressions of love and pain. Even in the most tender reflections, frustration hounds the speaker. Caleshu’s character has an urgent voice, which brings a form of dynamism to the table. When the speaker’s restless activity gives over to quieter moments, as in ‘Anno Domini’ though, a reader sees him cling tight to autumn’s offering: ‘Under the boughs, we hold pinecones to our chests, as if the young of our own species.’ This imagery might be romantic, but the march of time is an immediate threat to the couple. Sentiment turns to sadness in the plain first line of the next poem where ‘Our children are starting to feel sorry for us.’
Caleshu has successfully presented love’s challenges in this one-sided depiction of married life, and while this book is in some ways a clear stylistic departure, in others it is not. His previous collection, The Victor Poems (Shearsman Books, 2015) comparably put a voice in conversation with a silent ‘You’, albeit that book featured a narrative quest for the eponymous character. Both combine the familiar with the farfetched, which is perhaps why the reading experience of A Dynamic Exchange Between Us doesn’t all hang together. The writing is often disorientating, in ways that are unhelpful, and in spite of, Caleshu’s prefatory warning, in which he quotes Emily Dickenson:
Wonder – is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not –
However, a reader could be forgiven for lacking the mental agility to shift between ‘exemplary brain surgery’ and symbolic octopuses, between ghosts and burnt-oblations.
Nonetheless, and to quote The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry (2019), Caleshu endorses ‘order and chaos’ – as many questions are generated as answers are given. Those wanting neat closure where the speaker is transformed will be disappointed. ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’, for example, is more horrifying thought than vow renewal, even though the speaker seems to have come closer to accepting his lot:
‘At dinner, we’re reminded that we are the reason endings get written slowly […] We plan to stay awake until bed, where we’ll perform with just the right amount of duty and neglect.’
Ultimately, Caleshu isn’t afraid of projecting the mundane and he manages to do so with impressive energy and heart.
John Rogers is an MA Creative Writing student at Nottingham Trent University. He studied BA English at the University of Hull and was awarded the Joseph Henry Noble Scholarship in both 2012 and 2013 for continued performance. He achieved a PGDE in secondary education in 2016 and maintains a keen interest in providing English Language and Literature tuition.
Wendy Holborow’s Shipwrecked reviewed by Rowena Somerville
Shipwrecked by Wendy Holborow. £12. Lucy Quieter Press. ISBN: 979-8602156300 2020 9
This collection, the author’s tenth, is entitled Shipwrecked and and features one of her own paintings, with the same title, on the cover. That word, and the imagery of the painting, suggests disaster, turmoil and fragmentation, and the dedication is to ‘family and friends who have died’. However, the poems – while many address heartbreak and the loss of those who are loved or admired – are instances of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (as Wordsworth deemed poetry to be) and speak of the survivor’s sadder, wiser strength, keeping on keeping on, in the face of life’s turbulence. The poems of loss of love acknowledge the love that was, the poems in memoriam offer a heartfelt and sometimes celebratory valediction; the collection is a testament to survival, rather than a cry from the wreckage, so reading it is essentially uplifting, whilst acknowledging the reality of grief.
The poems have been written over a number of years and, of course, subjects and styles are varied, but the fragility of love is a recurrent theme – whether that love be romantic, familial or of friends. Sometimes I found that rereading a poem which I had first assumed to be addressing an errant or lost lover, revealed that it might equally be exploring the loss or betrayal or the diminishment of some other kind of relationship – the ‘you’ might be any significant other, might even be the poet addressing herself – the stereotypical pattern of thought had been entirely mine.
I have become your whole life’s bane
as once your belief and trust I breached
so I readily bask in your disdain.
All protestations have been in vain
you spit in spiccato, enunciate, preach
that I’ve become your whole life’s bane.
Pour yourself an ouzo,
clink ice to cloud the drink.
You are sitting outside your house,
writing those eternal lists of things to do,
staring at tomorrow’s date
then scribbling with intent.
The in memoriam poems speak strongly and warmly of those lost. In the poem i.m. Mark Montinaro she says,
So, I am having imaginary conversations with you
and I hope you can hear me when I say
the world is a much more dismal place
without you in it.
but let me bexxxas clear as a mirror
that reflectsxxxxxx nothing
I had a good lifexxxnoxxx a great life
and I was afraid of deathxxxxbecause
xxxxxxxxxxxxI had a life worth living
Several poems address the final stages and eventual deaths of her parents, her father passing first,
Only in the last months of his life
was my father aware of the trees
near his window.
the changes, from spring green
to autumn fall.
His lungs a dry crackle,
his death quicker
than the last fall of leaves
She speaks warmly of her parents’ love for each other,
Their love was loud and boldly spoken,
the years danced by so fast
and of her place in the family history,
By giving me life, my parents
have condemned me to a certain death and sometimes, fuck is
just the right word.
xxDa Capo al Fine.
Wendy Holborow has evidently travelled extensively (her collection ‘Janky Tuk Tuks, set largely in Africa and India, was originally published by The High Window Press in 2018) and her writing has an alert wider world view. Her poetic vocabulary is enriched by other European languages (as above) and by classical allusion.
In that primrose light I am Melissanthi for a while, you, Apollo –
I can almost hear the lyre you play,
tinkling across the hushed unbridled white horses of waves
in that nectar sea where I believed my heart was whole.
Her vocabulary can be challenging. Sometimes this is acknowledged, as in the poem ‘Sesquipedalian’ which uses (and explains) the subtitles: Anthocyanin, Crytoscopophilia, Deipnosophist and Paraskevidekatriaphobia. My computer required me to add these words to my dictionary (demonstrating the limitations of Microsoft), but she uses these (defined) subtitles cleverly, and each of the poems clearly exemplifies its subtitular definition.
Elsewhere I found some of the rarer words rather a barrier to my initial enjoyment of the relevant poems (eg acheiropoieta, ecdysis, plouter) but once I had discovered their meaning, I could honestly say that they genuinely were the best possible words in the best possible places, so the poetry gods had been well served, and I had learned something worth knowing, so who could complain?
One of my favourite uses of an unusual word was not of a word that I didn’t know, but of a word I knew but generally had encountered only in scientifically appropriate circumstances. Here it is used in an unexpected but very descriptive way (I think most of us will have seen this mechanism in practice at least once) –
I kept away this time
asked friends politely
how is he?
distanced, detached because
I did not want you to
leave me heaving on the shore
of the osmotically insane.
Shipwrecked contains poems of loss and grief, but for the reader the experience is not painful but rather that of fellow feeling, of being alongside someone exploring their own sorrows with honesty and clarity, whose poems can help us examine and survive our own jagged feelings, our own stormy seas.
Rowena Sommerville has written poems and made things all her life, the last thirty years of which have been lived in lovely Robin Hood’s Bay. She has worked in a huge variety of community settings and arts organisations. Having left full-time work in 2017, she is now freelance, both as a creative and as a project producer. She also sings with and writes for the acappella band Henwen which has been performing locally and nationally for a long and harmonious time.
Amy Kean’s House of Weeds reviewed by Benjamin Francis Cassidy
House of Weeds by Amy Kean (illustrated by Jack Wallington). 8.99. Fly on the Wall Press. ISBN: 978-1913211158
‘The world needs the weeds to define what it means to rise’, is a perfect place to begin to think about this collection as a whole: what it means, why it was written, and in turn who the poet is and what they’re all about. The phrase runs over three lines, near the start of the first poem ‘Ricinus communis (Castor Oil Plant)’. As well as the music of the line acting as an incantation, a chant to individuality and creativity. More than an accompaniment, the illustration of this poem draws on colour and connectivity, with person and stem one and the same. The theme is set, and the journey is about to begin.
Tensions of opposites are often what make for good poems. And Amy Kean knows this, skilfully utilising the concept. The seemingly simple opening line of the second poem ‘Anagallis arvensis (Scarlet Pimpernel)’, reads ‘Gluttons for punishment love the Gemini’. Always, every word in the line matters, as well as the sentence as a whole. This statement at first reads as a plain declaration, but scrutinising brings out not just the duality of the Gemini imagery, but the greed for what is thought to be bad for one, that thing proscribed. At the end of the same poem it’s revealed that ‘ it’s easy to be tricked into thinking Gods and Monsters are the same thing’. The magic in this relatively short poem is all that lies between the two lines, that allow the beginning to become the end. Phrases like ‘rubber mask’, a covering but one of a pliable material show the intelligence of the work, and the careful planning of each choice made. Many poets are afraid of using simple terminologies; for it to work everything else has to, too. It does, here.
Further into the collection Kean shows her prowess at shaping the poems. Sometimes criticism overlooks the simple fact that how the poem appears on the page is the very first thing we see, and it may even impact upon how we receive it. The lovely little lyric poem ‘Dipsacus fullonum (Teasel)’ mimics the shape of the subject, with the sentences creating a winding down effect, and each shorter than the rest. Why it works is that every word, including crucially those that appear in their own lines, count. The bold feel of victorious/misted/muscles/standing/ground (last five lines) as you say them contrasts that which is disappearing to the memory of them that remains, long after the stalks have vanished into the Earth. Just like people who’ve lived proudly as themselves and are no longer walking and talking, the memory of them remains if we make it do so, by actively remembering. We bring them back into existence, through refusal to let them die.
The final two poems here show that this volume as a whole has been considered. Tones of death and re-birth are weaved through the whole thing. In the penultimate piece ‘Oenothera biennis (Evening Primrose) this idea is explicitly spoken in the opening line, as the narrator recalls that ‘I remember the first time I died. The opener to the second stanza is ‘By the morning, I was resurrected’. And there you have it: women don’t get three days to resurface. They have to learn to do it overnight. It shouldn’t be, but for women and so many others, simply living has to be an act of fighting to survive. Kean closes off, choosing ‘A rebellious life is one well-lived’ as her final line of the work, in the last piece, a short but packed prose-poem, ‘Campanula poscharskyana (Bellflower). A ringing piece of work, that invokes the funereal imagery of the title (the knelling of goodbye . . .), but of course sets it off against the melodic chime of her florid language, always conjuring up the very essence of being alive.
The illustrations are reminiscent of some of the late Leonard Cohen’s pencil sketches. Faces are the common motif of the artist responding to the poems. The way they’re drawn carves latent emotion onto the page (many faces are blank, but the bodies ‘talk’ as they are captured in motion), leaving just enough space to add what you will in. As a response to the poems (it’s clear the artist knows the poems well) this couldn’t be any more apt; after all, that’s what poetry does – suggests and lets the reader do the rest. On that note, some works appear so esoteric that they alienate readers. These don’t. The titles contain both the Latin terms for weeds used as conceits, and the English (common) terms. They want to include the reader, remaining accessible.
Themes within the poems are deep and complex, with eroticism there, mysticism and many other aspects of humanity (mingling and overlapping), in all its glory and rawness; layers, carefully placed and inviting discovery. The writings are songs, not just of the spirit, but for the spirit, too. Like all good poetry they are for reader as much they are for the author. The author, whether intentionally doing so or not (I suspect so) evokes the likes of William Blake. The interpreting of divinity fused with the ability to see like only a poet’s gaze can. Kean’s able to recast Blake, so that injustice and discrimination prevalent in today’s societies standout. The ever-present threat to the feminine, both in the scared sense and the everyday attacks on women, simply for being women. These poems call to the dispossessed and forgotten. In a world where so much gets overlooked, so many people and their voices are marginalised, either deliberately or through apathy and lethargy, this collection shouldn’t be. It needs not to be. Read it. re-read it. Respond to it, anyway you want to. Write, sing, dance, paint, scream, make love . . . even if you think you do any or all of those things badly. Do them and love doing them. They matter, and most of all, you do too. That’s the take-home from this wonderful new work.
Benjamin Francis Cassidy was born in Blackpool, in 1982. He lives in Manchester with his cat, Lucy, where he gained his Degree, from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2018, in English and Creative Writing. Non-fiction work includes publishing by Louder Than War, Sci-fi Pulse, Mad Hatter Reviews, and Fly on the Wall Press’ Blog. He appears in two new writer anthologies by Comma Press. Ben writes poetry, too. All his work attempts interpreting what he feels is a very strange world.