Thomas McColl’s Grenade Genie reviewed by Rodney Wood
Grenade Genie by Thomas McColl. £8.99. Fly on the Wall Press. ISBN 978-1913211134
It was Sydney Smith who said “I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.” I’ve fallen at the first fence as I read or heard most of these poems before these 25 poems were put together in this collection by Fly on the Wall Press, which describes itself as “A publisher with a conscience”. A lot has happened in the world in the space of a few weeks this year with the global pandemic and reaction to it which has turned the world upside down so the economic, political and social realms are unrecognisable. Unsettling times indeed, but then again if you’re truly alive times are always going to be a-changing:
but are you prepared,
on finding it encased inside a grenade,
to pull out the pin to release the genie
The poems have been put together in 4 subsections (not humours, elements or points of the compass) but an exploration of the 4 Cs – Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted, perhaps inspired by Christophers Reid’s 2015 book The Curiosities, a series of poems clustered around the letter ‘C’. The poems look at human behaviour and especially how and why we accept social norms and conventions so readily or without asking pointed questions. That all sounds terribly serious but a lot of the poems make you explode with laughter and McColl never takes himself too seriously. In ‘The Greatest Poem’ he writes about visiting the Nayland Rock Shelter in Margate Sands 100 years after Eliot went there to write The Waste Land:
Things in my favour:
My first name is Thomas,
I once worked for Lloyds Bank,
and I write poetry.
He’s worried though that may not be enough and he will become famous for writing the worst poem of the 21st Century. Nevertheless, a poet must write, even in these days of social media, especially Instagram, that has reduced peoples attention span so they can only read and “like” the platitudes, of say, rupi kaur (you/are your own/soul mate):
Thomas Sterns Eliot may well have been the best,
but there’s no room for that now.
No, it has to be four lines or less,
and totally trite.
No matter what happens McColl’ll be a success, and the measure of success is being able to write another poem, in his case using a voice that is both honest and perceptive. The poems are like meeting with an old friend outside Topshop and they start talking to you about tressle tables, class warriors, shoppers, their ‘shields of apathy’, passing buses and the
unstoppable tide of commerce
and all that’s left to confront it now
are four delusional Communist King Canutes.
From ‘Socialist Workers on Oxford Street’. The poems are based mainly in and around London, where Tom lives and works, but that’s not to say people will be unfamiliar with what he’s talking about. Consumerism and thinking of nothing else but brands and shopping is another preoccupation but again it is handled with humour. In ‘Shopping with Perseus’ who’s warning about a new type of gorgon the “fashion victim” who’s hideous and is in dander of being
turned into plastic.
You must believe it. Where did you think
those showroom dummies come from?
I was stunned by this revelation.
How could anyone look at mannequins and think what or who they used to be? But it’s a useful tip knowing that you can still buy a cap of invisibility from Gap.
The world McColl portrays may be like Eliot’s wasteland but it is also far more unreal. In ‘Literal Library’ there is a section for Nazis full of decadent books and a box of matches; one on capitalism is stocked with one book entitled “Choice”; and other sections on Islam, Liberalism, Communism, The Roman Catholic Church and Atheism which is
completely and utterly empty
(only because the books have all been borrowed –
and in the Literal Library
once a book is borrowed from that section, no record is kept).
Another fantasy based poem is ‘The Surgery I go to has a Two-Headed Doctor’ with jokes about being in two minds, having a second opinion and two-heads are better than one but is does make a serious political point about the takeover of the NHS by big pharma:
Apparently, his wife has two heads as well,
and two pair of breasts.
It’s said they met as impoverished
but physically normal students,
earning money by undergoing laboratory tests.
‘All the Beach is a Stage’ says the Moon who is a “stuck-in-the-silent-era” actor who plays to empty houses, or rather to an audience of two metal detectorists who find only “faded junk and seagulls’ bones.” Like them the moon refuses to give up hope and like today they have been furloughe:
-and as it will be ever thus-
that no-one’s getting paid.
In ‘No Longer Quite So Sure’
We are all living lives more and more unnatural,
and in this messed-up world,
where buses are bison and people are grass.
The world is a strange and baffling place and then he notices
a message etched in the glass –
We’re gonna take the city back –
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” So sayeth Karl Marx.
In these poems McColl shows he is a real poet writing honestly and perceptively, expoloring what it means to be alive in these unsettling times. He takes poetry seriously but never himself in poems that often make you expolde wityh laughter.
Rodney Wood worked in London and Guildford before retiring. His poems have appeared recently in The High Window, Orbis, Magma (where he was Selected Poet in the deaf issue) and Envoi. His debut pamphlet, Dante Called You Beatrice , appeared in 2017. He is joint MC of the monthly open mic nights at The Lightbox and is also the Stanza Rep for Woking. You can find more information about Rodney and his work at rodneywoodpoet.wordpress.com
Carla Scarano’s Negotiating Caponata reviewed by Karen Izod
Negotiating Caponata by Carla Scarano D’Antonio. £6. Dempsey&Windle. ISBN: 978-1913329228
Lines from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913) lead us into this feast of a collection that works on the structures by which we build memories, with a richly associative set of poems that evoke the senses and the pleasures and vulnerabilities of being an Italian making a life in England, while also being elsewhere.
‘Pajarito’, an exquisite epigram of a poem gives us a sense of that movement; the batting to and fro required of belonging, or being rooted, in two places which is captured throughout the book. In ‘Negotiating Caponata’, ‘My Father’s Death, and ‘In Touch’, the three sections making up this collection, Scarano D’Antonio’s poetry ‘touches’ on what seems to be her ‘constant urge to be present’ ‘Flying’, and ability to be present in these captured moments of her everyday life.
Negotiating Caponata brims with the heady aromas, textures and tastes of a culinary exuberance. I want to be in that kitchen, have her cook for me, serve me up her ‘Mid-Winter Stew’. And in a way, I am; in the spaces where Scarano D’Antonio allows her mind to expand and where we first meet the dilemma and intricacies of choice:
it seems to matter
I use the hob to warm my milk
Not the microwave.
It seems to matter I choose rosemary instead of oregano….’
and to wonder what it is that matters and is being negotiated here. There are many possibilities: the roles of mother, daughter ‘Cyclamens for my Mother’, the task of keeping family ties ‘Your Last Words’, and in the title poem, the challenges, as I encounter them through this work, of the assimilation and acculturation of living in a different place –
The aloofness at times.
They are difficult to digest like peppers
Or sour like aubergines,
Floating adrift, or biting back
We see the detail of this, described poignantly in ‘What I was leaving’: time moving, colours shifting, transient thoughts and experiences that cannot be grasped, or which escape embrace.
Throughout this section we are introduced to the capacity to move beyond the immediate, to notice the otherness in the everyday, dip hands into flour that extends our boundaries ‘Farina Manitoba’. But this is not a daytime television of a cookery programme; there is a ‘bellicosity’ at times, worked through in the disentangling of linguine ‘Special Carbonara’, and a hinted at aggression: knives that pierce, the dissection of the blender ‘Smoothie’, a mashing and a beating.
It is perhaps not surprising that Scarano D’Antonio is a Margaret Atwood scholar, and her reference to The Edible Woman, in ‘Only a Cake’, is playful, sensual, and full of the cathartic pleasures of beating and whisking. In the simmering and melting, which is offered at times as a balm, there is also the potential to come undone, the vulnerability of dissolving, of losing one’s self, of a bigger hand calling the shots ‘Ants’, alongside the robustness and capacities to survive and be given a fighting chance with a glass of water ‘Parsley’.
The death of a father is another negotiation, and wonderfully done by a number of poets – I’m thinking of Jane Clarke’s When the Tree Falls. But here Scarano D’Antonio reminds us that each death is a separate death, a unique ending that somehow has to be faced and digested, of the painful realities of what is exposed in families once death creates a new space. These are sparse poems that don’t shy away from the messy business of dying, nor the ambivalence, or shame in relationships that death forces us to confront or avoid. Scarano D’Antonio’s imagery of her father, ‘A wounded hawk/ clutching his branch’, is quietly, yet brutally contrasted with the mother, ‘on her unsteady knees/forgetting all the past beatings and shame’, ‘Your Illness’; the culinary beatings of earlier poems now come to mind to find new resonances here.
In Touch, the final section, gives an assemblage of pieces, shedding light on family history, heritage, moving across a century, and given form in ‘Grandad Ciccio and Grandma Orsola’, a specular poem, which offers a sense of beginnings and endings that are infinite, whilst they are captured in a photographic moment. And we are back to choices again: the child’s capacity to smash or to save, ‘Snake eggs,’ choices to stay or leave wonderfully located in time and place, and filling in some detail to earlier accounts of parental relationships, ’Volcano’.
These later poems bring mother/child relationships to the fore. ‘Janet’ beautifully conveys a mother’s attempts to keep her child safe and close to home, while the limitations and possibilities of social media seem to provide a ‘good enough’ parenting (to quote the psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott), that we can sustain connection, imperfect though that might be and though the shapes and forms of that are multiple.
This is a lovely collection, written both ‘precisely and casually’, ‘Smoothie’. Some of the language is startling in its directness:
you camouflaged the fennels in thick white sauce and parmigiano
served it on cold chopping boards,
it was frightful.
her face is a riot
What the world throws at me
and it is this poem, which perhaps is the most difficult to know, yet is somehow the most telling. That life makes its marks on us, ravages, can’t somehow be resolved, yet continues with unknown possibilities in the movement and spaces of its final two poems.
The simple and direct style of this collection belies its strong emotional impact. It merits reading and returning to. I am left with a sense that this is a collection about identity, of identity that endures and carries with us, what it is like to connect and sustain relationships at proximity and distance, what we want to preserve, and what we might prefer to leave behind.
Karen Izod works as an academic in the NHS and as an independent consultant to organisations. She has published widely in magazines, journals and anthologies including Agenda, The Interpreter’s House, Channel, The High Window, New Welsh Review, the Journal of the British Psychoanalytic Council, and in a number of competition anthologies: Dempsey&Windle, The Stanley Spencer Competition Anthology (Two Rivers Press) and Best of British (Paper Swans Press).
Derek Adams’s Exposure: Snapshots from the Life of Lee Miller reviewed by Carla Scarano
Exposure: Snapshots from the Life of Lee Miller by Derek Adams. £8.00. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN 9781907435942
The astonishing life of Lee Miller is cleverly depicted in Derek Adams’s collection. She was a remarkable woman: a model, photographer, libertine and actress who lived in the thriving artistic Parisian hub in the 1920s, a war photographer for Vogue and eventually an alcoholic. Her complex figure became an icon and an inspiration for artists, lovers and writers. She had an incredible capacity for rebirth, transformation and adaptation and was constantly pursuing personal fulfilment and success.
She was strong and determined but also vulnerable because of the childhood traumas she experienced. When she was only seven, she was sexually abused by a sailor, who infected her with gonorrhoea. Her beauty was renowned; she was slim and elegant with golden hair and sky-blue eyes and her face was a perfect oval; she was an ideal icon for Vogue, for which she worked as a model and war correspondent. Her love life was a rollercoaster ride in the Parisian avant-garde environment. She was the muse and lover of Man Ray and then married Aziz Eloni Bey in 1934, an Egyptian business man, and lived in Cairo for a while. Back in Paris, she fell in love with the English surrealist Roland Penrose and moved to Farley Farm in Sussex in 1949, where she lived until her death in 1977.
The poems in the collection follow a chronological order, exploring important moments of Lee Miller’s life. They are snapshots of her career and are precise and essential, with a modernist quality like that of Miller’s photographs. Since she was a child, her father, an amateur photographer, had suggested that she posed naked in the photos he took. She was an ideal model with her neat profile, perfect body and disengaged attitude. She was therefore the object of the male gaze, which saw in her the perfection of the idealised woman:
Keep still Li-Li
and do not smile.’
I do not smile.
I think about going indoors,
Putting all my clothes back on,
the hot chocolate Papa has promised.
He inserts a glass plate in the camera.
Uncovers, counts two, then covers the lens,
says, ‘I will call this one December Morn.
He places my arms behind me to emphasise
my torso, positions me so the window light
shapes and caresses my form.
The camera’s two lenses stare at me.
I look away and down, not from modesty.
‘That’s good, Betty, hold that pose.’
As John Berger remarks in Ways of Seeing, women are constantly observed and controlled by the male gaze. Miller is surveyed and consequently she ‘must continually watch herself’ in order to comply with the image of woman that society offers her. How she appears to men is crucial to her success in life. Consequently, her self is split in two. According to Berger, ‘she is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself’, that is, the image that society persuades her to have. Man is her principal surveyor but she eventually interiorises this, becoming a visual object for man and for herself. During the course of her career, Miller transformed herself from being the passive object of the male gaze to being an active artist through her skilful use of the camera.
Most of the poems in this collection are inspired by the photographs, documents and journals of her son, Antony Penrose, which were found in the attic at Farley Farm. He promoted her work, publishing books on his mother’s life, art and career and creating the Lee Miller Archives. The poems reconstruct Miller’s figure, evoking her adventures and artistic career; at the same time, they deconstruct the myth that surrounds her, showing her vulnerable human side. She was part of the avant-garde surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s in Paris, and met artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Antoni Tapies, Paul Elouard and the film director Jean Cocteau, who was mesmerised by her beauty and charm. She became Man Ray’s student, muse and lover, working in his shadow but also learning from him:
I chase after him all over Paris.
At last, in the bar Bateau Ivre, I spot his beret.
‘My name is Lee Miller and I am your new student.’
So it is settled, artist and muse –
master and student, in art and in love.
‘My name is Lee and I am your mistress.’
(‘Meeting Man Ray’)
As in all her relationships, she was not always subjected to her male partner’s dominance and decisions. She also managed to reverse the roles, or at least to maintain her autonomy. In this way, she acquired power via her independent, disengaged attitude that allowed her to mould her own life according to her desires and goals. Furthermore, she was a brilliant photographer. She was not only inspired by surrealism in her work but she also discovered with Man Ray a new technique: solarisation, that is, a reversal effect when the film is overexposed. This creates a halo around figures, highlighting the contours:
And it happens sometimes,
that illuminating moment,
like a flashbulb popping
a shape held within
its contrasting bounding line,
Integritas, Consonantia, and Claritas.
A thrown switch
and colloidal silver,
struck by light, blackens,
reversing the negative’s
transparent background –
Man Ray seizes the idea,
poses Lee against
a plain background;
exposes her profile
in the darkroom tray.
The result, a Mackie line
borders her pensive
features and Marcelled hair,
Adams beautifully describes this new technique in his poems, connecting it to Miller’s personality. She was always overexposed in her life – she was the object of other people’s gaze and, at the same time, she was ‘isolated’ in her uniqueness, which the poet describes in a compelling image: ‘personal darkness’. Therefore, her frailty is drawn from her unconscious depths of her personality. This is also the source of her creativity, her vital transformations and her success.
In 1932 she opens her own photography studio in New York. Miller is now an artist; she has reversed the male gaze and is the protagonist of her own life:
Twelve exposures on a roll –
trap the pure moment
then wind on to the next.
of years past.
The poems depict in essential lines and sharp imageries Miller’s creative process and show her brilliant intelligence. She was a quick learner who thrived in response to her life experiences and the contacts she forged with the artistic Parisian world. ‘Exploding Hand’ in particular reveals the quality of her art that connects with a traumatic past but also ‘explodes’ in a present full of promises in a continuous renewal. The short, fragmented lines highlight this attitude. The process is sudden and implies suffering and change. As Susan Sontag remarks in her seminal book On Photography, photographs are evidence and a means of surveillance but there is also ‘an aggression implicit in every use of the camera’, which is ‘a tool of power’. Miller is on both sides of the lens. She is the war correspondent for Vogue and takes pictures of the Liberation of Paris and of the concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald; however, she is also the subject of many iconic photographs, such as the one in which she is wearing a helmet and looks ‘like/a knight of Charlemagne/on a quest’ or the famous ‘Dave Scherman’s photo,/naked in Hitler’s bath tub’ (‘Lee in War’). She remains the object of the voyeurism implicit in the use of the camera but she masters it too.
The final part of her life, which she spent at Farley Farm with her second husband, Roland Penrose, was characterised by ups and downs and an addiction to alcohol. She was forgotten, isolated and left outside the artistic hub that had so dynamically distinguished her pre-war years in such an exciting way:
Whisky gold as my hair.
Wine, red as my lips.
Pain eased with every sip.
Behind champagne-glass breasts
my Dionysian heart is sick,
its pain eased with every sip.
The collection ends with a nostalgic reflection on her past which becomes her present, with the Long Man appearing ‘chalked and ancient/on the Sussex hillside’:
A giant figure overlooking my life,
it seems he has been there forever,
dominating from a distance,
hidden in the mist,
appearing and disappearing
with the season.
(‘The Long Man’)
The Long Man is a god-like figure that is present in her life but is more of a surveyor than a source of guidance. Ultimately, this remarkable woman made her own life, creating her legend in a continuous evolution. She constantly reinvented herself, morphing her being in a relentless and restless attempt to attain fulfilment. As readers, we wonder whether this goal was realistic while at the same time cannot help but admire her incredible achievements and exciting, adventurous life.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Alongside Keith Lander, Carla won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 for their translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. She is currently working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading. Her most recent publication is the chapbook, Negotiating Caponata (Dempsey and Windle, 2020). http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/ http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/
John Wheway’s A Bluebottle in Late October reviewed by Alison Woodhouse
A Bluebottle in Late October by John Wheway. £10.99. V. Press. 978-1916109605
John Wheway’s brilliant debut collection, A Blue Bottle in Late October, is ambitious; a mini saga with a compelling narrative arc, told through a series of short, self contained lyrics grouped into three ‘acts’, with plenty of drama and action and memorable characters. An ordinary, everyday tragedy, made extraordinary by the telling of it. Nothing in this collection is ever one thing entirely. Consider the title. Late October reminds us we are in the autumn of life and what does a bluebottle do, except bash against a closed window? Is this how the narrator sees himself? Trapped? Futile? Pitiful? There’s a playfulness at work here, an almost gleeful, derogatory self-awareness alongside the ‘epic’ tragedy of broken hearts and glass, yet there is also an unflinching exploration of mind-blowing rage, perverse sexual jealousy and utter despair. The narrator eviscerates his own life, switches in seconds between self-knowledge (self-disgust) and self-preservation. The tale unfolds in the present tense, his narrating I, and weaves in his memories, further skewing the picture. The tension between who controls the narrative and the question of ‘truth’ engages the reader much more deeply than simply putting together the pieces of a story and Wheway does a magnificent job of maintaining the necessary ambiguity. I was constantly challenged to reinterpret, a very satisfying reading pleasure.
The first section, ‘The Skids’, opens with the ironically titled, ‘A Minor Crisis’ and a string of energetic verbs, ‘crash’, ‘leap’, ‘swerve’, as the narrator wakes to hear pottery breaking (household objects breaking runs metaphorically throughout the collection), their loving cups. By the end he is futilely ‘punching typos’, trying to text his wife to come home. ‘The Start’ is the third poem, ironic again, because who can ever truthfully fix the starting point of anything?
At breakfast that Monday she says
She slept with somebody
and she believes she is in love.
The time specificity of the word ‘that’ burns deeply, but the enjambment and sceptical ‘believes’ implies a tentative hope. This section ends:
It will take him years to realise
he’s never seen her so upset.
The change in tense is like a deep breath, a moment of clarity, borrowed from the future. He will be capable of recognising her pain, as well as his own, one day far hence.
In ‘Cartesian Dive’ (the title draws on the Cartesian diver experiment on buoyancy, specifically the image of figures rising and sinking, pressured by forces beyond their control) his wife still ‘washes his shirts’ and he is able, in odd moments, to ‘feel at home’.
However, though ‘they’re still afloat … it isn’t calm – ‘
he can feel the compression
before the sinking down.
There is, of course, a sense of helplessness in this image, of being caught in the turbulence, but at the same time he must abandon himself to the process, letting go of the natural inclination to fight against it. What choice is there? A companion poem ‘Laundry’, which opens section two, sees the narrator performing the domestic tasks alone. There’s almost triumph in his noting that he has found a better method:
the seams straight to count out ironing –
something she didn’t think of.
Yet he is soon overwhelmed by memories, ‘such a tangle, he could lose himself.’
The palpable sense of time passing is further supported by the eight poems concerning the narrator’s mother, a vigorous character when we first meet her in ‘Female Nude’, who loses her mind to dementia. In ‘Disappeared’ we learn:
Since it started, his mother’s gone
From bustling her trolley down the Gloucester Road
To inching forward in the corridor
On a Zimmer, …
Her descent mirrors his. In ‘Silent Night’, he questions his mother’s sanity as she claims she is hearing noises from next door that don’t exist. This is followed by ‘Jealousy’, a harrowing dive into the subconscious, where the narrator ‘sees’ a naked man curled around his sleeping wife.
The mother serves another important function. Several of the poems dip into childhood memories and these are suffused with a sexual embarrassment. In ‘Female Nude’ his mother decries ‘Filthy sex’, and in ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ the narrator as a boy, rummages in his mother’s purse with its,
… big mouth with brass lips,
its satin folds shadowed with cavities,
valuables deep in a belly
and when he hears her coming he pulls out his fingers just in time,
trying to slow his breathing, to show
the look of innocence she needed.
This memory surfaces immediately after his wife has told him of her affair. In ‘Making Up’ he watches his wife dress for another man and sees ‘his mother in her,’ remembering the ‘eagerness in her pace’ as she left to meet the Polish captain who ‘was not his father’s friend’. The narrator has a life long fear of abandonment and associates love and sex with loss (both of innocence and love itself).
The poems in the latter part of the second section mark a change of tone. Less frenetic and more reflective (less bluebottle window bashing). ‘On Reading Donald Hall’s Without’ the narrator understands how a dead wife would leave an unbearable void. ‘What is Lost’ is a gentle paean to the nurturing intimacy of love, too often taken for granted. A list of seemingly unremarkable moments, such as: ‘Her pointing out the stars / As an owl flits over the moon’ ends with ‘His getting ahead of her on a walk, her dropping behind until she is out of sight’. This is picked up in the final poem. In ‘Steady’ they’re ‘almost at the end of their walk:
When he looks over his shoulder,
his wife’s still there, behind him
at a distance that remains
constant, more or less.
This collection has the heart and narrative scope of a novella, elevated into something special by the poet’s eye. Just open at random and enjoy, for instance, Provence on a hot afternoon, the walls and curtains ‘cerise, sea green, peach’, that harmonious combination of syllables and colour, or the stark imagery of his wife losing control on black ice and the ‘sheering off (of her) wing mirror, which twists on a wire as if hanged’, or the very particular way her ‘absence scoops out the space beside him’ when he is waiting at a café. Yet also, like the very best of stories, this one lives on. We want to know they’ll be okay; we think they will. We’re invested. We care.
Alison Woodhouse is a teacher and writer of flash fiction and short stories. She has won and been placed in many competitions and her work is widely published, both in print and online. She is part of the team who run the Bath Short Story Award and has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa. Her debut Novella in Flash is available from AdHoc Fiction.
Liz Bahs’s Stay Bones reviewed by Alex Josephy
Stay Bones by Liz Bahs. £10. Pindrop Press. ISBN: 978-9993559-5-1
Liz Bahs’ debut collection starts with a haunting:
There’s a girl living
xx beneath the floorboardsxxx I only catch
glimpses of –
This girl, who could be the poet herself, or perhaps a visitation from the past, lays an enticing trail:
xxxxx leaving my skin
salted from her kiss
xxxxxxx new and sharp within me as stars
The promise held out in these delicately sensual lines is fulfilled in poems that range widely from childhood to maturity, from America to the UK, through friendships, love (both of women and men), family, travel, adventure, and, it must be mentioned, pedicures. Motifs, themes and an understated timeline interact to shape the collection and leave plenty of space for surprises.
Some of the most striking poems explore versions of intimacy. In ‘The Thinking Chairs’, two sisters are drawn together for punishment in chairs ‘facing each other, knees touching’. They subvert this treatment, escaping joyfully into imagination:
…that afternoon, our two chairs
a wooden ship, tied with socks to secure us,
like pilgrims we sailed to The New World.
We fell asleep at sea, the sun low
behind the grapefruit trees, small bare legs
entwined, stuffed toys clutched
to our unrepenting chests.
Further on, a short sequence explores a passionate relationship with a woman, and later a parting. I especially liked ‘Dried Mango’, in which the poet and her new or about-to-be lover eat the dried fruit while driving (dangerously I suppose – which is of course part of the point!). The shapes and lusciousness of the fruit are deftly entwined with queer desire and the naming of it:
She takes each strip out
xxxxxx holds it up to the sun
names the shapes
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxone by one
like the first naming of things
xxxxxx – foetusxxxxlabiaxxxseaweed –
It’s a lovely, tender poem, achieved with an admirable lightness of tone.
In ‘Moving In’, she finds layers of meaning in the process of moving house:
Each day we unwrap more stories,
shifting boxes; slowly she tumbles my heart
out of its bubble wrap,
hands me back joy, startling
as a new skin.
There’s so much in these spare lines. Unwrapping is balanced against wrapping (in a new skin); stories emerge from the rediscovery of personal things in a new place; everything shifts. And once read, how could the unexpected word ‘tumbles’ possibly be replaced?
Another unifying thread is photography. Interspersed throughout, there are poems linked to photographic terms – ‘motion blur’, ‘polaroid’, ‘slow shutter’, etc. I confess to taking a nerdish delight in these per se; they also add a distancing effect, an implied comment on ‘ways of seeing’ (as in John Berger’s seminal book). These are not standard ekphrastic poems, in which a still photograph is examined, described, then mined for emotion or connotation or developed as a story; more interestingly, Bahs finds fresh ways of looking at life, in all its constant motion, through the lens of photographic language. This seems to tilt the lines slightly, so that for instance in ‘Engaged,1973 [shutter lag]’, an image is partially lost (‘my shutter’s too slow’), giving the impression of a shifting swirl of memory.
The prose poem ‘Her Skirt’, linked to the term ‘image transfer’ is another example. A grandmother’s skirt tells the story of her youthful hopes and their eventual suppression:
…it was the only thing…she made just for herself, made at fifteen, before she knew she’d have to marry the Smith boy she’d camped out with. The one whose soft voice and tight rage wouldn’t allow her to wear a skirt that bright, that thick with flowers, a skirt she’d stayed up all night stitching with fine green thread.
The granddaughter wears the skirt ‘through college’, caught up in its colourful invitation to rebel, enjoying the ‘image transfer’ across generations, then gives it away, poignantly enacting the careless way in which we so often lose touch with our own histories:
I don’t know how in the world I let it go.
Bahs adapts and uses form with impressive ease. There are several prose poems (one of these, ‘Mowing’, could be a new take on Lydia Davis ‘A Mown Lawn’); a found poem; a clever, surreal specular; an airy sequence of short pieces about a love affair with an okapi (is it really an okapi?) Throughout the book, there’s a tone of underlying optimism. Bahs does not avoid what’s difficult, but is inclined to focus on what’s interesting or amusing in human behaviour.
Among the many delights to be found in the book, I must mention one more.
On first reading, I thought the title poem, ‘Stay Bones’, stood out from the rest as less personally derived, more of a researched piece. Having reread the whole collection, though, I see how it sheds further light on the often ambivalent nature of women’s experience, and how characteristic it is of Bahs’ elegant use of language.
‘Stay Bones’ refers to the busks used to make nineteenth century women’s corsets (‘stays’). Whale bones or baleen were carved with images and messages, then sent by sailors to their sweethearts to incorporate into their stays. They acted as reminders of commitment, pleas for fidelity, intended to be placed close to a woman’s skin. Bahs uses repetition and wordplay to hypnotic effect; the stay bones are both a reward:
the finest bones
if you stay, if you wait
and a goad:
Feel the bite of bone, carved
with thorn and rose.
It’s a mesmerising poem, sharply imagined, both beautiful and threatening, ending on a sensual promise:
Watch as the flowers appear, see
the sea rising; ships slide into view as we free
the bindings, the spine’s curve, bone by bone.
This first collection has left me hoping that the next will appear before too long, with the added attraction of not quite knowing where it will lead.
Alex Josephy lives in London and Italy. Her collection, Naked Since Faversham, was published by Pindrop Press in 2020. Other work includes Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016, and White Roads, poems set in Italy, Paekakariki Press, 2018. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK and Italy. Find out more on her website: http://www.alexjosephy.eu
Dawn Gorman’s Instead, Let Us Say reviewed by Ruth Sharman
Instead, Let Us Say by Dawn Gorman. £8. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435904
I have read and re-read my copy of Instead, Let Us Say to the point where the pages are falling apart and the pamphlet needs replacing. These are haunting poems written with seeming effortlessness, the lightest of touches, dancing off the page. This is the language, these are the idioms, of everyday life but manipulated to produce phrases, lines and images that stop us in our tracks, surprising, thought-provoking and often luminously beautiful.
There is so much that Gorman is “good” at. She’s good at writing about relationships – with lovers, in particular, although there are moving poems about her daughter here too. She’s good at observing, and extracting the full emotional impact from, tiny poignant scenes – a man and child walking by the shore, the final moments of a hare… She empathises with the plight of suffering creatures and engages with our threatened planet, hearing the “silence howl”. She uses prompts from the world of art and – as in all powerful ekphrasis – takes us to places where we never expected to go, a piece of sculpture evoking the memory of her child, all elbows and knees, butting up against her in the womb …
Many of these poems are characterised by a quiet, easy familiarity with the natural world. Boundaries blur between the human and natural so that in “Confidante”, for example, the poet finds herself asking advice from a hill. The opening line – “I asked the hill what she thought about this” – is intriguing, the “this” never spelled out, although by the final two lines of the poem we have a pretty good idea, a sense that “this” has to do in some way with “damsel flies mating”.
Sensuality marks the point of intersection between the two worlds, as we see perhaps most clearly in the remarkable poem “Old Baptist Graveyard, Mid-May” – one that ought, if there were space, to be quoted in full. The natural scene mirrors a moment of human intimacy: gates moan when touched, the “speedwell’s blue eyes” watch “the way skin meets skin”, the blackbird releases “the ache / in his throat”, while the very headstones lie back and mouth words that reflect the physical and emotional transactions occurring at the poem’s heart. There is something here of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the energy that invests his poems – think of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, the sense of all life as noisy and expressive, giving voice to itself in the only way it knows how – while Gorman’s startling final line (another thing she is good at) reads like an epiphany: the ecstasy of “a shout and a shout of blue” belongs to the sky but to the earth and to these two human beings too.
Gorman’s poems themselves are “loud with life”, her language muscular, strong and lean. “This is the blood of me”, she writes, daughter of a mineworker looking back at her roots in “Clout”. “This is the blood of me / men squinting at sunshine / through dust dark as moleskin…”, the word “moleskin” suggesting not just the colour but also the texture of that darkness, the air smothering, unbreathable. Her poems capture the urgency of the moment, life at its most elemental, unstoppable, the “feral drive” to live and love, but set against what she describes in “Memorial Spoon, 1664” – an eerily prophetic poem about plague victims – as “that swift scything to nothing”.
In “If we are all one”, we read
When that dunnock on the fence post
stops and looks straight at you,
can you imagine how the thinnest of wafers
could possibly slide between you?
This is how close we are to the world around us. But it’s also how close life is to death. “Portrait in the Museum” captures a sense of this wonderfully well. Gorman conjures up a life, a few imaginary details, for this unknown woman whose story, even as she poses for her portrait, “is unravelling / like a ball of fine thread”; but, as the poet turns to leave, her own reflection in the glass seems more ghostly than the image of the dead woman herself, “a passing shape, / nothing more than that”.
Death stalks these poems and Gorman’s ability to unsettle her readers in subtle ways is testament to how skilfully she works behind the scenes, despite the apparent effortlessness of the writing. “On Hearing Alice Oswald Read Memorial” is a poem unafraid to focus on mundane, everyday details – the McDonald’s vouchers “ripped from papers on the Tube” and the topping up of an Oyster card – and place the lofty and the mundane side by side so that each gains potency from the other. This poem, like so many others, demonstrates the poet’s instinct for finding just the right word: “startling homes for the tip of an arrow” offers a disturbing association, the only comfort here afforded for the cold metal of the arrowhead, while the transition from “cold metal between teeth” to “on the poet’s tongue” cleverly brings together the physical and the abstract, the action of speaking and the reality of dying.
The ending of a relationship, and with it the fading of joy, is in a sense another kind of death, and in “Compulsion” the poet links the irresistible pull of sexual attraction (and here its inevitable aftermath) to the strange and inexplicable urge of beetles to cross a road, “swap these nettles for those”, oblivious to the oncoming car. The glittering optimism of the woman who has replaced her in her lover’s bed finds its parallel in the “hopeful iridescence” of the beetle – where human emotion has been subtly transferred to the animal world – and, once again, love and life on the one hand, death on the other, are separated by the “thinnest of wafers”.
There are 25 poems in this pamphlet, every one of them meriting discussion – great riches in a relatively small space. Having read and repeatedly re-read them, I find myself wanting more and look forward with pleasure to seeing a full-length collection from Dawn Gorman.
Ruth Sharman was born in South India and moved to England when she was six. She read Modern Languages at Cambridge and now lives in Bath, where she works as a freelance translator specialising in French. Birth of the Owl Butterflies, her first full-length collection, was published by Picador. Scarlet Tiger won Templar Poetry’s Straid Collection Award for 2016 and Templar is due to publish a third collection focusing on India and the poet’s search for her roots.