Konstandinos Mahoney’s The Great Comet of 1996 Foretells reviewed by Anne Symons
The Great Comet of 1996 Foretells by Konstandinos Mahoney. £10. Live Cannon. ISBN 978-1-909703-55-1
This second collection from Konstandinos Mahoney, winner of the 2021 Live Canon Collection Competition, offers things heavenly and things earthy. The opening poem, which also gives us the title of the collection, is an account of sperm donation to a lesbian couple. The poet is ‘the chosen one’ who flies from Hong Kong to Boston USA to fulfil his role. Parallel strands of narrative cheekily relate this as a Biblical event; a phone call is ‘annunciation’, the sample container is ‘silver chalice’, an official form is ‘clay tablet’.
Religion also features in ‘Total Immersion’, an exuberant account of the writer’s Orthodox baptism ‘My Heart! My Golden One! / We drive off like film stars in Pappous’ limousine.’ The ‘shy skinny schoolboy’ surfaces to a ‘slathering of olive oil, taste sunshine, soil, / mum’s lettuce salad.’ This collection is a feast; the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the Aegean.
There are wonderful surprises of imagery. Crows perch ‘ beaks open like squeezed clothes pegs’, and ’ geckos of molten wax skitter down the sides of flickering candles’. In ‘Måistraki Beach’ the trellised vine is ‘shivering like a Roma tambourine’ while a party of drinkers awaits the arrival of a storm:
When the blue’s rubbed out of a blue world, what’s left?
The bleached canvas of beach umbrellas, pale-skinned pebbles,
tabula rasa of an alcohol-rinsed mind.
There is myth and fantasy. In ‘Tatterdemalion’. The ‘scarecrow who rides the skies on the back /of a blue goat with golden wings’ comes to life and goes to the local hostelry attracting harsh mockery:
Where you from Bendy man?
Where you park your caravan? Buy us a drink will you?
Lend us a fiver.
There is wide variety of form. Mahoney shapes the stanzas like a sculptor, making them fit his purpose. In ‘Falling Man’ the lines — just two or three words long — snake down the page like a Giacometti figure. In ‘Mother Olive’ the long lines straddle across the page like the 300 year olive tree of the title. The prose poem ‘Athos’ lies solid on the page, shadowing the mountain and monastery it describes.
This is a rich collection. Religion gives way to filmic description, surrealism lies adjacent to nature poems. We are treated to the exotic and sensual. In ‘Cut Flowers’ we step into a flower shop, a ‘floral mortuary’, and ‘waggle before pouting pinks / orange bugles on stiff wands’. There are touches of poignancy and darkness, and sensitive personal narrative displaced through the device of third person narrative, as in ‘Peace Pipe’:
He hopes this will bring them together, sharing a smoke, having a laugh. Out the window he sees people queuing at a bus stop in the rain. He counts them — five, six, seven — the years they’ve been apart.
We begin with conception, proceed though births, deaths, sensual encounters, and end with a leave taking — the Brexit inspired poem ‘Making the Bongs’, a ‘Tyburn carnival, ale and pies as / bodies dangle.’ The optimism and hopefulness of the early poems gives way to the exuberance of Greek culture and ends in the darkness of the river Thames and Brexit Britain. I wish it had ended differently. But I can always turn back to the earlier poems, plunge into the Aegean — and begin again.
Anne Symons: After a career teaching deaf children and adults Anne began writing poetry in retirement. Her work has appeared online and in print publications including Agenda, Alchemy Spoon, Dreamcatcher, Ekphrastic Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, Orbis, Poetry Salzburg Review and The Atlanta Review. She recently completed
Hélène Demetriades The Plumb Line reviewed by Rebecca Gethin
The Plumb Line by Hélène Demetriades. £10.99 Hedgehog Press ISBN 978-1913499334 . (Also signed copies available from the author: www.helenedemetriadespoetryy.co.uk )
Hélène Demetriades chose the perfect title for her award-winning, first collection: its cover shows a simple plumb line that drops vertically into the depths of her life in every poem. Divided into three parts, the poems explore her childhood before she was sent to boarding school and afterwards, motherhood and then the last years of her parents’ lives. The biographical narrative drives this collection, fuelled by suspense and deep compassion. The divisions have the effect of adding weight to the plumb line, each poem being a small accretion.
Her choice of language is direct and simple, her fearless voice speaks from heart and soul:
‘On a pebble beach draining into grey sea
a place so desolate I feel my life has died
I long for the mountains
the green belly of my village.’
In a poem tellingly entitled ‘Appeasement’ she gives three examples in short stanzas where she manages to dodge being assaulted. Her final No, I won’t do that setting a boundary in a perilous situation. Tellingly these are the only words the child speaks.
The events in these poems start innocuously enough but tension accumulates as the fragile vulnerability of this lonely child, navigating the world from the background of what proves to be such an insecure home, is revealed. Even the reserved mother recognises this in ‘Letter from Home’ where she states, ‘not having Daddy around would be a relief’ while she herself is trapped alone at home with him. It’s ironic that a child needs a secure home background to survive well at boarding school. Furthermore, we read in ‘The Aluminium Grater’:
‘Mum is the star I revolve around.
She leans into the grater daily
Bolstering herself, I spin away.’
The tone is set from the outset where the poet’s thumb (the speaker in this poem) provides no comfort because ‘she skinned me / with her teeth’ so it is ‘sheathed in a black leather / thumbstall / tied to her wrist’. This poem illustrates from the very start how her line endings often feel like little gasps or sharp inhalations. They are as precise and effective as the deftly placed word chimes.
There’s menace in each poem, rendered more powerful by its understatement. In ‘Playing Dead’ we read about the tortures perpetrated by boarding school companions who ‘squeeze toothpaste into my nostrils’ compared to a memory from home when
‘….. I fell out of bed
too afraid to cry out to my mother
who slept next to an ogre.
I lay on the floor
squeezing my anus
tight as a rosebud.’
Is it because of the father’s frequent rages are to be avoided at all costs? The extent of his abuse is never revealed but remains a looming presence throughout. His outbursts are cruel and he stones a blackbird caught in the raspberry cage so seems capable of anything.
Along with suspense and trepidation the reader experiences a dark wit and often a self-deprecating humour. The effect is often surprising as in ‘My Sister Takes a Happy Family Photo’ where she describes herself:
‘My eyes are half-closed
in a plump face,
bright bag and shaggy coat
spilling over my arm
head jerked back
like a horse refusing to jump.’
or in this poem entitled ‘Whitegates (1)’ about the family home:
‘The playroom houses the dog and black and white TV,
the kitchen a chequered floor
where I cower, a small pawn, arm across my face.’
Demetriades’ courage shines in every poem. Clear-eyed and lucid she documents in this first section her father’s unfatherly utterances and her mother’s lonely helplessness except for the (one) ‘time Mum has intervened’ in ‘On Being Sent Away to Boarding School’. The last poem in this section captures how her father seems unable to express affection without it being sexual in ‘My Funny Valentine’:
‘… you send me a Valentine
of a man baby holding a heart
over his genitals and he’s blushing
and the card is saying,
IF YOU CAN’T BE GOOD
BE MINE. ‘
Later in life he quips that bees may pollinate her and the taxi driver ‘will think I’m your beau, (although excuse me, you’re 80), you are my father.’
A vein of menace and unease runs through the second section, ‘Gravity’, too, from the difficult childbirth and a dash to hospital in ‘28 Hours’:
‘Clutching the back seat of the car
I stare out at the world tuning without me.’
to ‘Keeping You Close’ where,
‘That night on the ward dark figures loom
in spectral succession at the end of my bed
admonishing me for keeping you
tucked to my chest.’
Although I feel there’s more to explore here in a later collection, I admire the poet’s choice of irregular stanzas. It gives the feel of words tumbling out in a rush, that there is no order, that everything find its own level. And yet these are short poems that are packed with nuance. Another skill is her dexterous use of ordinary things which carry significance beyond themselves. Nothing seems extraneous in these spare, compressed poems where the words have been wisely chosen. For example, in ‘Goodies’ her daughter comes home with doughnuts and broccoli from her Sunday morning job which reminds the poet of her father returning home with walnuts, pistachios and Swiss cheese. The last two lines strike deep:
‘Every evening the kitchen was filled
with his bounty and tyranny.’
The final section, ‘Departure’, the poet and her aging mother have reached a quiet trustfulness in the first poem entitled, ‘In Solitude Together’:
You at the river’s edge, your walking stick
and painful hip, me wading to the spot
where the rivers join, turning my head,
catching your eye. This is our church –
the quietness of the river’s gush and pour,
the sullen rocks, a mother’s longing
for her daughter beyond the hailstone chatter.
The eye is introduced here and remains a repeating image throughout this section when the father’s eyes are hooded like a hawk’s; do not close in sleep and then ‘break the surface’ and later pulse with light; then become ‘polyhedrons’ after death. The language of the body and its basic needs creates tenderness.
Ultimately there is sympathy and compassion for her dying father. In the title poem the plumb line’s weight or gravity, its conscious work, provides the compassion needed to become the ‘safe-keeper’. Every breath becomes important, a counterpoint with the echo of death. In ‘Final Call’ she receives his kiss and’ feels the us of everything’. In ‘Daddykins’ she writes,
‘I stroke your cheeks,
whisper you sweet nothings,
sing you broken bits of nursery rhyme.
Conjure you into a loving daddy
with my breath.’
And in the very next poem, ‘Familial Intimacy’ his rage surfaces again:
‘We are chugging to your death
on the panting rhythm of your breath…
… you’re hopeless! you hiss
You are the death adder, Acanthopis
I flee your bedside. You slip back
into your body’s fevered decoupling.’
While he lies on the ‘frontline of death’ she sings Buddhist mantras for him, watching him leave as he breathes ‘in and out, in and out’ until his last inhalation from which he ‘take(s) wing’. These elegies are sharpened in the final poem by the ambivalence of the poet’s feelings where spaces between the words accept wordlessness in the face of this man’s life and death and the face that she’s been concentrating on throughout these last poems finally crystallises itself: ‘I’m gazing at the mask of a Greek monster’.
Rebecca Gethin has written five poetry publications. She was a Hawthornden Fellow and a Poetry School tutor. Vanishings was published by Palewell Press in 2020. She was a winner in the first Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition with Messages. Her next pamphlet is to be published by Maytree Press in 2023. She blogs sporadically at www.rebeccagethin.wordpress.com.
Gareth Culshaw’s The Memory Tree Reviewed by Helen Kay
The Memory Tree by Gareth Culshaw. £9.95. Hendon Press 2022. ISBN 978-1-7397785-0-7
Gareth Culshaw’s previous two collections, The Bard’s View and The Miner (FutureCycle Press) have established him as a distinctive, working-class, Welsh voice. The previous works also reveal his affinity with and knowledge of nature. Though nature is present in this book, it is more a backdrop here of changing seasons and light, or a place where people make a living or retreat. As the title suggests, Culshaw’s third, and arguably his strongest collection, records memories of family, football, neighbours, village life and friendships which allow the poet to write with greater confidence and more emotional depth.
A distinctive feature of Culshaw’s work is the pervasive use of striking images, for example the dog walker with ‘nursery rhyme hair’ or the anonymous girl at the bus stop who had ‘Vimto-swigging lips’ and ‘wore yesterday.’ The images not only succeed on a visual level, but they are also part of a pervasive, sometimes risky, surreal humour as when the dog walker’s ‘eyebrow paints the horizon.’ They reinforce a sense that the people in these poems are connected to or grow out of the earth: for example, when writing about the jail sentence of school Culshaw says: ‘hair grew/ on our skin like gorse on a hillside.’ This connection of human and landscape recalls the work of R. S. Thomas. Often the images have a dark quality as in the poem about a labourer called Roscoe who: ‘had his past in his pocket and scrunched it up with his hands.’ Worn down by work: ‘the pain he suffered came out of his mouth like blood from a fresh wound.’
Culshaw is an astute observer of the individuals who have peopled his world at different stages of his life. He creates a series of poetic portraits from The Old Lady That Whispers Her Life to Her Cat, and The Bricklayer who Laid Books. Many of the people are defined by their work with the land or in construction, others by familial relationships or by being neighbours. Although Culshaw allows us to smile at their idiosyncrasies, the poems exude a quiet, non-judgmental affection for people coping with work, hardship, ageing and loss. There is compassion for Colin who: ‘smiles with forgotten teeth/ kickstarts cigarettes with Swan vestas,’ and for the sawmill worker who: ‘fills his sandwich with yesterday’s headlines, leaves on the moon as he turns off the light.’
Although compassionate, the poet is not sentimental about his subjects. Frequently, poems evoke the sadness of people, hiding away from life or not communicating with each other, including the poet’s own family as in Ink for Blood and Sunlight. In this world people seem alone even when with others. Culshaw writes candidly about male friendship in the darkly-surreal poem Skin that deals with the response of males towards a person who breaks away from their group: ‘the others picked up his skin, / tore pieces off and put it in their wallets.’ This sense of separateness of human beings is handled poignantly in the Covid-inspired poems where regulations underline the existing physical separation of his mother who lives in a home while her son waits in the dark or sits at home: ‘with only work to go to.’ These poems are quieter with simpler images giving space to emotional depth.
Whatever deeper themes occur in the poems, the final images are often rooted in the normal – cups of tea and ornaments from B&M, and this creates a sense of the poet moving on although sometimes even the normal is unsettling. In Sunlight the light is noticed by the boy while he peels an orange in a house where his father never talks to them. By the end the son: ‘peeled sunlight into the bin’ in a scene where nothing and everything has happened.
The later poems in the collection depict someone making sense of his adult self through nature and poetry. In Sitting in My Bookshed, Culshaw can: ‘mould who I am around verbs,/ and a simile found in a sweet wrapper.’ There are images of walking, physically and metaphorically, and of escaping the human landscape he has drawn. This is no simplistic joy here: growing older brings ‘arthritis’ and ‘decay,’ but the book’s humour and striking imagery provide a quiet optimism. This poetry is above all genuine.
Helen Kay’s pamphlet, This Lexia & Other Languages (v.press) was published in 2020. She curates a project supporting dyslexic creatives. In 2021-22 she was highly commended in the Welsh Poetry Awards, 3rd in the Rosemary MacLeish Competition, shortlisted for the Canon Live Collection and one of five finalists featured in The Brotherton Anthology (Carcanet). She is known on Facebook for her diva hen puppet, Nigella. Website: dyslexiapoetry.co.uk fb Helen Kay twitter: @HelenKay166
Susan Taylor’s La Loba Speaks for Wolf reviewed by Rachel Clyne
La Loba Speaks for Wolf by Susan Taylor. £10. BX3. ISBN: 978-1913958367
Back in the eighties, when Clarissa Pinkola Estés published her seminal book, Women Who Run With The Wolves, young women like myself felt the call. We had been through two decades of Women’s Liberation, a largely political movement, but something deeper and more spiritual was needed. We looked for it in ancient Goddess traditions and the notion of the divine feminine. We also rediscovered folk tales with women as central characters, wild women who spoke to our experience. Pinkola Estés used indigenous folk tales to reawaken our archetypal and instinctual power. La Loba is a Mexican wolf woman and a collector of bones who resurrects the wild spirit from the Underworld. She preserves especially that which is in danger of being lost to the world. La Loba decides to join with the wolves and sings over their bones to bring them back to life. This tale in particular spoke to our buried feral selves and we discovered our howl. As I read Susan Taylor’s collection, I realised that tuning into my body response was key; it rattled my ribcage and stirred my heart and limbs. In Wolf Watch, she writes:
It knows our type,
remembers what we once were:
at one with the wood…
now one of many to take it for granted.
Taylor has spent years getting into their skin and the wolf’s perception of being at one with their surroundings. The book is partly about the loss of wolf to the environment and their ecological value. Recent reintroductions of wolves to certain places have demonstrated a positive impact on the landscape. They maintain species balance and prevent overgrazing and on occasion, even help reroute rivers. The book is also about our loss of splitting ourselves off from being a part of the natural world, a split which has resulted in epic destruction and exploitation. First Nation Americans traditionally revere wolf as a wise teacher. Wolves live alone and in packs, their strong social order and loyal bonding makes them successful hunters. Man’s ‘greatest companion’ is descended from wolves, who learned long ago that hanging out with humans meant easy meat and warmth. La Loba asks us to remember our animal nature, our feral instincts. In Wolfkin she writes: Let us begin again to be wolf / rust-grey in the dust on the pass… La Loba takes stock of the mess we’re constantly making.
To kill for food, as the pack does, is just
to kill for vengeance
– what manner of beast does this?
Susan uses a variety of forms and shape poems to express her visions. Illustrations are dotted through the collection, including a wolf-faced lunar calendar. La Loba is guardian of the wildwood, its shamanka and chantress. The more La Loba follows the wolf’s call, the more she becomes wolf, experiencing a joyful agility and sensuality:
her skin is a buff sheen and it tingles
like sand at a tipping point off a ledge.
Insects begin to hum and tik-tok ,as they cling
in tassels of leaves, brushing her with kisses.
The poet herself urges us, from a deep and ancient place, to cast off the veil of the dead and re-find the joy of being alive in kinship with all living beings:
to howl wolven,
howl for joy
and the wonder of being
a link to sound
between earth and sky.
An international ecocide agreement has at last been signed, to preserve and replenish 30% of wildlife in every country. Since the 1970s we have witnessed a catastrophic loss of 70% of wildlife. Wild fauna has been reduced to a single figure percentage of life on planet Earth. Susan Taylor has chosen wisely in making La Loba her spokesperson. Susan is also a performance poet and storyteller and has used those skills in the way she weaves the collection’s message. There are chants and beautifully drawn illustrations. The poet has not lost her ability to call in magical power to enrich her work and hopefully keep our precious wild spirit alive.
Rachael Clyne is widely published in journals, her collection Singing at the Bone Tree (www.indigodreamspublishing.com) concerns eco-issues, her pamphlet, Girl Golem (www.4WordPress.org) explores her Jewish, migrant background. Her new collection, You’ll Never Anyone Else, expands on themes of identity and sexual orientation and will be published by Seren in 2023.