Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

Halloween Special

In Seasonal/End of year on October 31, 2010 at 5:44 pm

This isn’t the usual practice, but as it’s Halloween, please find below Helen Kitson’s ‘Day of the Dead’ from her collection The Family Romance (published by Indigo Dreams and taken from their website). Enjoy!

Day of the Dead

Mum chose my best dress, the blue one with lacy sleeves.

The arms were too short and crimplene made me itch.

She polished my shoes and I rubbed them on my socks,

Where they made pale grey stains, like shadows.


We held hands as we traipsed to the cemetery.

Someone had polished the marble till it shone.

Every grave had a fresh layer of glass chippings.

Mum filled our jam jars from the tap near the gates.


I spread the checked tablecloth on the grass

While Mum arranged the flowers – red, orange, bright pink –

Between three graves. Our family. Grandmother, grandfather,

Uncle. Three dates, separated by ten years, by twenty.


We unpacked fruit pies and cheese sandwiches, and apples.

Mum told me stories and sniffed the air.

Can you smell them? Can you see the pollen,

Dancing? Close your eyes…


I shut my eyes and felt someone blow on my eyelids.

A tickly kiss on my cheek. A tug on the hand that held the apple.

I took a bite and it tasted of honey.

There was no breeze but the yew trees shivered.


Mum passed me a skull made of sugar.

I tongued the eye sockets, felt the gritty sugar erode

And melt away. Sweetness filled my mouth.

Mum shook the tablecloth, scattering crumbs.


The graves opened up and took back their ghosts,

Each one tucked neatly beneath dark earth.

The smell of wormy soil lingered in the air.

It rained pollen. Mum held my hands and we danced.


Popshot #4 – The Modern Living Issue

In Magazine on October 28, 2010 at 11:12 am

-Reviewed by Lucy Ayrton

‘The Modern Living Issue’ is the fourth edition of Popshot, a magazine showcasing poetry and illustration, whose stated aim is to ‘hoodwink poetry back from the clammy hands of school anthologies and funeral readings.’ This laudable aim was only partially achieved. While, for instance, a sonnet about the X Factor neatly updates a well loved, well studied form to tell a very modern tale, in the main there was little new poetic ground broken in this collection. It’s true that I wouldn’t read a poem featuring a Prince Albert at a funeral, but I feel there needs to be more on offer than a cheeky penis joke if you’re going to lay claim to reviving the poetic form.

Popshot is, however, a seriously beautiful object. It is brilliant to see a magazine giving poetry and visual art equal weight and respect, and the layout is as excellent as you would expect from a magazine showcasing illustration alongside poetry – each page is more eye-strokingly beautiful than the one before. Each poem has an illustration commissioned from a different illustrator to accompany it, which makes every spread feel like a complete entity in its own right. I would be very interested perhaps to see a few done the other way around, with poems inspired by the illustrations.

The content was nicely balanced, with twenty poets, twenty illustrators and three interviews. Interviews were interesting and thorough; I especially enjoyed the one with Luke Wright, which I felt really captured the start of a successful career, a particularly interesting slant for the magazine’s readership, which is presumably heavy on aspiring poets. The illustrations were also excellent – there were a few that weren’t to my taste but all of them reflected the feel of their poem accurately.

The poetry itself was more variable. I really loved the wistfulness of ‘X Factor Sonnet’ by Jacqueline Saphra, and her image of the ‘sofa public, fingers kissing power keys’ was beautifully evocative. ‘MDMA’ by Daniel Sluman and ‘Never Again’ by Bob Beagrie were also finely crafted poems that answered the theme of Modern Living and accurately captured a moment. Some of the other poems, however, felt underworked and were less engaging. Also, while I would never condone censorship, I found the editorial decision to open with a poem lamenting the fate of ‘modern man, whose role has been defined by the recognition of women’s rights’ paired with an illustration of a threateningly gaping mouth/vagina unnecessarily provocative at best and thoughtlessly alienating at worst. The disclaimer on the back cover that the contributors’ interpretations are theirs alone and not the magazine’s – ‘Popshot is merely the vessel, not the cargo’ – was further irritating. Editorial control and selection of content is what defines a magazine, surely. Otherwise, you just have a paper internet.

Popshot’s editorial voice is too present throughout, and has a patronising tone. Every poem is followed by a one line explanation, which I feel the pieces shouldn’t and don’t need and sucks the poetry out of the poems a little. I also bristled at the editorial, which informed me that I must give the magazine the time and attention it was due – really, I’m all in favour of respecting the form, but being told to sit still and be quiet does hit the “sullen schoolgirl” button in my brain rather. Similarly, being told that they should find a poem funny will never add to the reader’s enjoyment and will often reduce it.

Essentially, Popshot has absolutely nailed its visual style, but, while there was some great poetry in the issue, some of the substance grated.

‘From the Boat’ by Myra Connell

In Pamphlets on October 26, 2010 at 11:15 am

Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

There’s something dreamlike about Myra Connell’s pamphlet, From the Boat, published by Nine Arches Press. Look at it, all grey and unassuming:

That’s not what makes it dreamlike (unless you have dreams that are grey and unassuming). There’s a little joke in the way the title is reflected, as though the letters were a boat on water… see what they did there? The cover is grey, slightly textured, and wholly appropriate for the contents of From the Boat.

What’s dreamlike about Connell’s pamphlet is actually that, by the end of From the Boat, the reader has flitted through a range of memories and thoughts but can’t quite piece them together coherently. It’s as though half the links have been lost during the night, leaving the reader to try stringing together a jumble of episodes.

Connell opens From the Boat with an image of a boat drifting, itself an important theme, and waiting for the dawn. It’s night time, with a person waiting, and while waiting there is some soul-searching to be done. She closes From the Boat by returning to that drifting boat, two days (and forty pages) later, by which time both she and her reader have some thoughts and half-remembered dreams to mull over – as the boat drifts into the night.

So everything between those two moments on the boat comes, er, from the soul-searching on the boat. It becomes easy to see Connell’s first-person speaker (who begins ‘waiting for the water’ and ends ‘adrift again’) as searching through her memories. She’s on a quest, traipsing through quiet moments of loss and re-treading old woodland walks (see ‘The Quarry’ or ‘Old Map’).

Connell’s poems describe a world in which something is missing, often it feels like that something has been taken. The lines are stripped back to their basics, no messing about, this is language close to its simplest. That’s not to say the poems are without a sudden power. For example, ‘Note’ throws a curveball when it springs upon the reader the following questions:

‘Are the children screaming more today?

Or is it that the wind

the door-swing wind

is carrying their screams?’

Children screaming in the distance (from school playgrounds, I assume, rather than anything sinister) is a sound you only usually notice when alone. Like those questions, it’s the sort of thing that creeps up and catches you off-guard. Several poems in From the Boat are good at doing that. The faintly illogical ‘Peninsula’ alarmingly draws attention to the reader’s exposed neck, making it seem unnervingly vulnerable.

Admittedly not as vulnerable as necks appear to be at other times in From the Boat: ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ is an obvious example. It’s one of several Connell poems based on a piece of visual art to which she has added dramatic voice. In this case she’s interested in things hidden by the painting (by Puvis de Chavannes, since you ask), again searching for something and  ‘afraid of finding nothing’.

Unfortunately, finding nothing is a constant fear in From the Boat. Frequently, a poem is almost saying something, but slinking off and falling short before it manages to do so (see ‘Journey’ especially). The pamphlet’s blurb describes Connell’s work as ‘the opposite of heroic’, and that’s not wrong; the word they’re looking for is ‘bathos’.

That feeling of searching alone and of isolation that appeared in ‘Note’ crops up throughout From the Boat, especially in moments of people-watching like ‘Prayer’. Here the sounds of the city filter into a poem ostensibly about a woman and her salad, while barristas are ‘holding party court and flirting’. It may be at its strongest in ‘Dad’s Portrait’, where the portrait offers no company at all. Most importantly, this brief descriptive poem offers the biggest clue to the void at the centre of Connell’s poems: ‘he died cold blue’.

That statement comes as another startling twist to a poem, but sheds light on the minor strain of grief running through From the Boat. This opens up some meaning to the soul-searching in the night, as Connell’s ‘I’ comes to terms with her loss. Not that she’s any closer to closure by the end. In some ways, she seems to feel guilt herself; ‘How to treat someone who’s in shock’ throws out ‘She’s killed her father once again’ almost glibly, but the statement feels weightier than that.

Connell comes closest to articulating that sense of loss in ‘Earlswood Garden Centre Café’, a poem combining the isolation of earlier poems with the howling void occasioned by a parent’s death. It’s when she describes a ‘raw place in the gut’, the split ‘houses of a heart’ and being unable to ‘find South’ that she really nails it.

Mixing in with the loss and grief is a certain raw erotic charm to Connell’s From the Boat. Starting with early references to ‘our bodies skin to skin./ I loved a stranger in a sycamore wood’ she moves onto brutally visual descriptions of female forms – women who are fiercely provocative. Again, Connell is putting dramatic voice to visual art, in this case the unflattering drawings of Egon Schiele. Here’s one of the pictures Connell uses in ‘Egon Schiele (II): Squatting Woman With Boots (undated)’.

In this poem Connell’s writing is at its most vivid and edgy, with a playful yet confrontational sexuality. It’s a perfect companion to the expression Schiele’s drawing captures.

Schiele’s image is like Connell’s better poems – sharp, slightly painful and suddenly personal. But in general the front cover is a more suitable graphic representation of From the Boat – grey, bleak and downbeat.

Sparkbright #4

In online magazine on October 17, 2010 at 1:51 pm

-Reviewed by Alex Campbell-

The cover art of Sparkbright issue 4 (courtesy of Julia Spiese) is quirky and imaginative – even if the combination of goldfish and lightbulb personally gives me a wholly false impression that this issue is going to be about the transitory nature of memory – and suggests that the magazine’s contents are going to be equally original and whimsical.

The contents of the issue are something of a mixed bag. There are times when the youth and relative inexperience of the contributors begins to tell, particularly with regards to form and structure, such as when Kate Bergen’s evocative imagery of a pianist’s fingers dripping with sonatas is marred by a slightly clumsily constructed villanelle. Her abandonment of the more usual iambic pentameter in favour of a looser rhythm does not lend the piece as natural a flow as the subject matter deserves, and necessary adherence to the strict rhyme scheme means that some phrases are twisted and ungainly, such as in “Across the silence of my morning heart they quiver.”, which, sadly, is one of the repeated lines.

At other times the poet is so focussed on the structure that they allow it to dictate the content of the piece, such as in The Tangled Web We Weave, by Martin Broad (which, incidentally has nothing to do with lies or deception, so one is forced to wonder why exactly that title was considered relevant). Whilst Broad has clearly mastered scansion, lines like “Slow-burning is the pot that’s watched,” seems like a contrived way of ending the line with the appropriate rhyme, without thought to what is actually being said.

Conversation With My Veins, on the other hand, by Chloe Waterford, forgoes structure altogether, but whilst this gives a certain liberty to express ideas unconstrained, the final piece is a rambling, formless mass, rather more like a brainstorming session; the preparatory sketches, rather than the finished canvass.

Admittedly, the converse would have been much worse – perfectly constructed forms, without a single original idea or experimental thought expressed within. But it does seem to be the case that a lot of these young writers are more focussed on the look and the sound of the poem than its emotional honesty. It feels like they are trying to be clever, rather than trying to be themselves, and it is the lack of an individual voice, rather than lack of ideas, which is predominantly the sticking point for those pieces that don’t immediately grab you.

As to the prose, Dylan Luloff’s Going, and the opening piece, The End of the World, by Lili Leader, read more like they should be poetry rather than prose. They don’t seem to have a driving narrative force behind them. There is no progression; they just describe single moments, and while they do that well, they perhaps miss out on the nuances of flash fiction as a result. By contrast, stories like One Man’s Heaven, by Jessica Dall, or Jason E. Castro’s The Born Loser, are interesting concepts, and while they aren’t badly executed, again, there isn’t much individuality of style, or anything which really makes these stories stand out the way they should.

That said, many of the writers show real promise, and there are one or two gems that do stand out for me. iDrew’s iAmbient is a love song for the digital age, sprinkled liberally with the ubiquitous lower-case i, but not in a way that detracts from the poem, or feels too gimmicky. If anything, the understated elegance of the “i” compliments the quiet lyricism of lines like “…i collected all the passion laced / expired breaths / tokens / for the dream archive / in the cupboard…”: in short, ee cummings meets ipod.

Seduction, by Joe Dresner is a good example of fitting form to purpose, and not the other way round. The poem, arranged on the page to suggest the shape of the stairs, doesn’t waste time with elaborate ways of overstating the case, it instead relies on honesty and clarity to express itself, and its simplicity speaks volumes.

Raindrop Baby (Michael Lee Johnson) and Hey You in the Rain (Luigi Monteferrante), are both short, but punchy and to the point, and slightly reminiscent of the Beat Poets of the fifties. There is an energy to both of them, and each has a distinct voice.

On the prose side of things, Daniel Davis’ It Slips Through Your Fingers Like Rainwater in Jakarta, could perhaps do with a shorter title, but the absurd and wonderful premise of the story is backed up by a prose style so understated it gets away with it, and keeps the reader engaged when it might otherwise have been difficult to suspend belief.

Overall, while this is a very mixed collection, there is enough raw talent in Sparkbright that, with a little more polish, it could shine very brightly indeed. I look forward to seeing what some of these artists produce as they mature more, and find their voices. Roll on edition 5.

Silkworms Ink Chapbook #8 : ‘Short Stories’ by Jen Spyra

In online chapbook on October 15, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Silkworms Ink are the new(ish) kids on the block that specialize in the publication of online chapbooks as well as literary t-shirts. An unusual but clever combination since I suspect the latter provides the financial backing to allow accessibility to the former. The chapbooks have found themselves gradually included in their blog providing a theme that influences each of its posts:

‘Each week we take a theme and construct a magazine of sorts that forms as the week progresses. Intro Monday, Poetry Tuesday, Fiction Wednesday, Music Thursday, Chapbook Friday, Mixtape Saturday and Mini Essay Sunday.’

It’s not a traditional technique and for the most part it works. The relentless output means of course that there are a few dud posts, but also some stand-outs, in particular Phil Brown’s Wikipedia manifesto, Sam Kinchin-Smith’s Luke Kennard musical tribute, and Jon Ware’s indescribable ‘They Call Him Doctor Turnips’.

I’m a bit late at reviewing Jen Spyra’s online chapbook. Since its issue, 24 more chapbooks have been posted online by the Silkworms Ink team and yet, this is the one that has endured the most in my mind.

Spyra’s five short stories range from the exhilaratingly mad to the disappointing. Amongst the better stories there is the ‘Glorious Emergency Status Report On The Order Of The Blood Of Thoth’ that imagines the bankruptcy of a secret order. Bloodsmen are warned amid other cost-effective suggestions that the ritual burning of airline tickets be restricted to tri-state area tickets, adding:

‘And Bloodsmen, if you haven’t registered for a Rapid Rewards account yet, don’t wait for Miranda to send out another email. It’s a quick and easy savings that we can’t turn down right now. ‘

Spyra excels in this story at contrasting the grandiose with the mundanity of economic failure. The tone is perfectly judged and like the best short stories it looks like the glimpse of a much larger world.

On the other hand ‘Recession, Schmessession’ and ‘MOMMY BANGERS, EPISODE 105: SHE ORDERED SAUSAGE’ are more disappointing offerings. In the first, the flippancy of her tone and gratuitous self-referencing are more grating than amusing. ‘MOMMY BANGERS…’ on the other hand is a facile but entertaining satire on political correctness within the context of a pornographic shoot. Spyra changes tact here by giving us the script of this imagined porn, complete with directions and for the most part it works:

‘DELIVERY BOY: I’m getting hard. Say that again.
HORNY HOUSEWIFE: We’re two consenting adults who are alone and want to have sex outside of the workplace.’

Spyra is a gifted comic writer but this story is a case example of her lack of ambition. The problem with ‘MOMMY BANGERS…’ is that the story is so very satisfied and excited at its risqué choice of subject that it stops itself short of doing something interesting with the material, or even the chosen format.

However, the chapbook redeems itself with the closing stories of ‘Mr. Tambellini’s School of Driving’ and ‘The Olympian’. ‘Mr Tambellini…’ was published by McSweeney’s and is also the oldest story in the collection (at least in terms of publication if not inception) and its maturity shows. Spyra restrains her style by staying on the safe side of deadpan:

‘Based on what I’ve heard from my friends, typical driver’s-ed instruction consists of lectures and videos. Mr. Tambellini’s instruction involved an old episode of Cops and him holding his hands up to an improvised steering wheel, encouraging me to “go like this.”’

‘The Olympian’ is perhaps the strangest story yet in the chapbook: the first-person narration of the anti-athlete personified who is convinced that she will be taking part in the Olympics. The good humour of the narrator bellies the unnerving feeling that her perception of herself is untrustworthy. It seems fairly certain that she is delusional but Spyra persists, like a devellish Jiminy Cricket, in trying to convince us that there is truth in the madness.

As the unapologetically nondescript title of the chapbook suggests, ‘Short Stories’ is an odd assortment of stories. They veer from the epistolary, to script, to more traditional formats with subjects as wide as the Olympics, the recession and a driving school. The only constant is Spyra’s not always successful irreverence towards her subject matter. However, whilst the quality may be patchy in this chapbook, the worlds created by Spyra’s over-active imagination are never dull. It is a collection of short stories easy to dip into and harder to leave.

Turbulence #4

In Magazine on October 8, 2010 at 9:09 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung-

The Editor’s Note to Issue Four of Turbulence makes a bold claim for the current issue: ‘a very strong selection of poems…from some quite excellent poets’. The magazine itself is a humble, minimalist affair on the inside, although this issue happens to have a delightfully quirky, paint-splattered cover design that suits the magazine’s name admirably. (That said, I spotted a couple of typographical errors and inconsistencies that marred an otherwise professional-looking publication.) While Turbulence is based out of Hull, from which it appears to draw the bulk of its contributors, its reach is nevertheless now trans-Atlantic. A remarkable feat for what appears to be a labour of love being run on a (presumably) shoestring budget, and the team behind the magazine deserve to congratulate themselves on this achievement.

It is true that there are some exceptional poems in this issue. Margaret Fieland’s ‘Snapshot’ is a compact aural gem, delivering a rolling series of visuals in lines that are held together by the acoustics of alliteration and internal rhyme. Julian Woodford’s ‘Spare set of keys’ is a delicately rendered Shakespearean sonnet, which also demonstrates a similar playful awareness of the sonic possibilities of language. Its closing couplet embodies finality in the curtness of the ‘shut’/‘cut’ rhyme, especially when compared to the long vowels that are in the preceding quatrains. The most striking poem, however, is surely Cameron Conaway’s ‘Eva’ sequence, which reels you in slowly, before delivering a smack-in-the-gut ending that is harrowingly frank: ‘i can’t / take this shit and sweep it clean’. Along the way, you also get a reworking of popular carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, whose ending is equal parts hilarious and chilling when situated in the context of the sequence: ‘and a cartridge in a glock twenty-three’.

However, there are also a good number of poems in the issue, especially from the younger poets like Charlotte Bartle and Arielle Karro, which seem unfinished, for lack of a better word. Consider Karro’s ‘My Muse’:

‘An endless view, color splahes [sic],

In every hue. Imagination soar.

An open door. I walk through.

Discover unseen core.

Let me explore. You.’

Here one finds the same playing with sound that occurs in the poems of Fieland and Woodford. The trading back and forth of the vowel sounds within the lines is an interesting touch, but by the end of the poem, one is hard-pressed to say why exactly it was necessary to pay a subscription to read a poem like this.

Thus the sole misgiving I would express about Turbulence Issue Four is that when considered as a whole, it seems to me not quite to pull its weight as a subscription magazine. Considering how the Internet has led to the proliferation of online magazines, writing of a standard (and style) similar to the likes of Karro is simply not very difficult to find. Admittedly, this is not really the fault of the Turbulence team, but it is nonetheless a fact worth bearing in mind for a magazine that asks potential readers to pay for access to new poems, however nominal that fee actually is.