Reviews of the Ephemeral

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‘There are no Americans in Baghdad’s Bird Market’ by Dikra Ridha

In Pamphlets on February 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm

-Reviewed by Alex Campbell-

It’s always hard, as a Westerner, reviewing a collection of poetry centred around the war in Iraq, without coming off as condescending. You are the American being invited into Baghdad’s bird market, and asked to comment, despite the fact that you are, perhaps, intruding. It’s tempting under such circumstances to just give an unequivocally good review – who are you to judge the distant suffering of others? You can’t get away from the fact that these aren’t just poems; the events they describe are real and have happened, somewhere, to someone. You don’t ever want to pass comment on the events instead of the poetry. You always run the risk, as an outsider, of not understanding.

But Dikra Ridha’s collection, There are no Americans in Baghdad’s Bird Market, makes it very easy to understand. It’s a very personal collection, picking out individuals from the mass of destruction and focusing right down to the painful sensations of ‘[becoming] an insect in your own home’ (‘Ordinary Evening’), or the nuts and bolts methods of coping, the ‘two thousand and three hundred [shoe shines… to] buy a can of baby milk on the black market’ (‘Voices from Nadia’s House’). The reader is drawn right in, so close it’s almost painful.

The poem ‘One Hour of Light’ is especially enlightening, juxtaposing a privileged middle-class experience of Earth Hour – an eco-friendly gesture, switching the lights off for one hour in the evening – with the real hardship of someone who only has one hour with the power on, per day. For someone whose hour ‘Off’ is about ‘peace/ and quiet, [ignoring] the day’s chores and [snuggling]/ with a hot water bottle,’ it is the height of hubris to pretend to understand how it must feel in the other situation. ‘You spend all day in your coat/ waiting for the lights and I turn them off when I want.’ Just that bland statement of fact is enough to drive the message home, without overstating the point.

Ridha’s skill is in laying the situation bare for us, and by giving us a new insight into the impact of war, reminds us that we should never presume to know too much. Her style is beautifully understated, giving the images a quiet potency, and allowing the voice of the poem to come through clearly and eloquently.

The poetry never slips into polemic or diatribe, which it could so easily do. The politics are stripped away, for this collection, and it’s not about the rights and wrongs and the statesman’s rhetoric, but just about families trying to survive the day to day. Even as a Westerner, it’s hard to feel alienated by them, as the political is made so much more distant from the personal. Familial customs and relics, like a pack of cards (‘Jiddu’), and every-day sayings (‘The Enemy Came from Above’) are full of so much more depth and meaning than military orders, or the speeches of politicians.

The opening poem of the collection, ‘The Enemy Came from Above’, is based around one of these sayings, which simplified is ‘Me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against my friend, me and my friend against my neighbour, but all of us unite against the enemy’. I don’t know if the saying is originally Iraqi – it may well be – but I have heard other versions of it before, and it seems to have wormed its way into our language as well. Whether or not the poet intended it, the irony that a saying about conflict could actually be a similarity between the two warring cultures is not lost. Yet the dehumanisation of the unnamed enemy from above, and the bombing shutting off communications is a poignant reminder of how war really can break the bonds between all people, no matter how much they may have in common.

Ridha manages to say so much with so little – despite the subject matter, the poems themselves seem effortless, open and honest. The language is simple, but there isn’t a word out of place. Overall, I feel that the good review is the right one to give; not because I feel guilty, or want to err on the safe side, but because I believe these poems genuinely elicit one.


‘The Dead Queen of Bohemia’ by Jenni Fagan

In Pamphlets on February 23, 2011 at 4:27 pm

-Reviewed by Claire Trevien

Blackheath Books is an independent artisan publisher specializing in the making of original books and pamphlets. Hand-letterpressed on recycled paper, limited in edition, their pamphlets are made with love, and it shows. Less inventive in design perhaps, than Adelle Stripe’s Cigarettes in Bed, Jenni Fagan’s The Dead Queen of Bohemia is still a glory to behold. It has been published in a limited run of 100 signed and numbered copies, mine was #30, but given Blackheath Books’ propensity to sell-out, I wouldn’t wait too long before purchasing a copy.

With a name homophoning Fagin, Jenni Fagan’s poems read like half muddy snapshots of streetlife. But this isn’t the city as you know it, the sirens are whale songs (‘The Ether’s Scribe’), chimneys can ‘rattle like umbilical tin’ (Fiddler’s Green) and a naked woman hoovers the street, ‘the plug trails along behind her / like an unwanted toddler’ (‘Watching From the Window at 6am On a Come Down’). The streets she bounds across have a history as dark as the drug-addled present she describes, they are the sites ‘where witches / got drowned poked, pricked and burnt’ (‘A Poem for 10. Nicholson Street). This pamphlet feels both persona and personal, fragmented yet connected by this same rusty, bohemian voice.

Drugs, poverty, violence all feature prominently and when there is danger of these becoming romanticized Fagan whips out startling imagery to bring us back out. ‘Absinthe Abbattoir’ is both Fagan’s worst and best poem in this respect. In it, a group of druggies rub coke on their genitals before taking to the streets. So far so cliché, including their walk down ‘cobbled / streets with guitars / on our backs’. Fortunately there is a blade to the poem with its taut, short lines on which enjambments are cut: ‘our clothes stank of rehearsal /rooms, dust on valve amps’. The poem reveals itself like a lament to castration, the inability to live, ‘too bored to fuck’. The end performance never happens, the guitars are to remain strapped to their backs. The ending is the showstopper:

‘kissed only strangers
in the absinthe
where they pound
down the bones’

Yes, Fagan may be walking on well-trodden ground, but the success of the poem hinges on her failing in that respect. The gratuitousness is essential in leading us to the cold edge of those final lines. The rest of the pamphlet is similarly divisive, there is a laziness to some of the poems  (‘It’s an I thing’, ‘Bleeding Heart Lane’, ‘The Happening’) that undermine the whole, but even these less accomplished poems have a seductive exuberance to them. The Dead Queen of Bohemia is far from perfect, but neither are the lives that it tries to capture – it is its very flaws that make it endearing.

Nutshell #2

In Magazine on February 16, 2011 at 6:46 pm

-Reviewed by Joan Standwick-

The closure of Pen Pusher Magazine has come as a shock to me, and countless others. I have been carrying its back issues for a while now, pondering on the necessity of reviewing them – surely they are doing well enough on their own? Pen Pusher was that rare thing: beautiful, critically approved, whilst remaining accessible. Yet, their closure shows us that no literary magazine is safe, and it is more urgent than ever to support them.

It is in the spirit that I bring to you Nutshell #2. Nutshell is a perfectly packaged literary magazine, aware that it is part of a rare club. It states in its inside page: ‘Every issue is an achievement and the proof that literary magazines have an audience, and a loving one’.

A mixture of poetry, short stories and illustration, Nutshell’s style can be summarized as eclectic, impressive yet irreverent. The writing has a twisted sense of humour, whether it’s in the film-pastiche ‘Oyster Brats’ by Nikesh Shukla, the deadpan delivery of Paul McGrane’s poems, or the desperate madness of an Adam J Maynard. Nutshell is also capable of wild, raw, poetry, that holds a sensory knife to your throat, as is the case with Alexandra Lister in ‘To a Daughter of Roan Inish’:

‘Shelling crabs, you stand in your white

work dress – lovebirds in drawn thread pull

against your chest, the trails of burnt morning honey

set on thewarp and weft’

Refreshingly, Nutshell allows an average of two poems per person and a significant percentage of these, as well as the stories are given tailor-made illustrations. The informed and entertaining interviews of Don Paterson and Simonetta Agnello Hornby are one of the many highlights of this magazine’s issue.

Let us hope Nutshell is sticking around for a while longer, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’ll survive without you. It won’t. So go and buy it now, it’s only £3.50 and worth every penny.

St Valentine’s Day Special: Jacob Polley

In Seasonal/End of year on February 14, 2011 at 10:40 am

Rather than publishing some Neruda, the Valentine’s day special will be an antidote to Valentine’s day. I have finally acquired a copy of Identity Parade after attending a reading at Shakespeare & co of four of its poets. The below poem, which I’ve lifted from the anthology, is by Jacob Polley. Polley was born in 1975 and was a winner of the Eric Gregory Award in 2002. His first book, The Brink, was a PBS choice and shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. His second book, Little Gods, was a PBS Recommendation.


as fishing nets, a wedding dress,
rain that defies rain’s downwardness
and spools past the windows, frame by frame –
film after film of Edwardian rain.
Rain as haunting, rain’s ghost-train.
Rain bleeding black from the cracks in bricked-up chimneybreasts;
rain’s wall-maps, rain’s damp lands, outlined in great stains.

Old rain, the same rain, my father’s father’s cold rain
taken up like a tune, confessed
to the city, hurried into the drains
and the dark and piped under playgrounds and cold-frames.
From the hills comes rain as more river, not falling
but fattening – bales of newspapers, abandoned books,
hemp ropes, rotten logs and fungi: rain feeds.

From the top bar of a five-bar gate hangs
the green world stilled in a water seed,
while the river slides by, echoing and echoey.
Rain as lost shoes; drinkers huddled like rooks.
Rain that’s put paid, done you out of a day. Rain’s patter,
rain’s slang; rain’s bespittling of the spider’s webs.
Rain’s pillars of smoke, rain’s rooms outside the room

you watch from as rain runs through its embodiments –
a bride swinging like a bell, a lunch-hour factory crowd,
the shadow of a matchstick girl: the smudgy, underdeveloped dead
rain remembers as spaces it once rained around.

Rain’s pencil-leads, rain’s sketchiness,
rain writing, but whatever it tries to read back
drowned out. Rain’s inconsequence to the sea.

A few pins drop, then rain’s loosened like hair,
or it steps with the night clean out of the air.
Rain’s sound is the sound of the day, undone,
the rustle of cellophane, someone and no one.
But at dawn, in the silence just after the rain,
the wet black earth of the bare field lies –
frankincense for you and me.

The Long Acre by Frances Corkey Thompson

In Pamphlets on February 1, 2011 at 10:57 am

-Reviewed by Julia Bird

It rains heavily in Frances Corkey Thompson’s Long Acre. ‘Rain blew in’ in ‘The Beeches at Pickwell’, ‘it’s often raining’ in ‘The Garden’ and the rain in ‘Fiat Deus …’ is ‘god-awful’ and ‘hammering’. When the poet looks through the window, through this blurring rain (‘I witness through glass’ – ‘The Garden’, again) to whatever lies beyond, it’s when her vision is paradoxically the clearest. Unfiltered topicality and anecdote is presented too starkly in some of her less successful poems – the ‘sensible colour’ of ‘Looking For My Mother in Marks & Spencer and Finding Her’ only serves to illuminate a moment where the generations mistake themselves in a mirror reflection, and we’ve all seen this too many times in poems before. It’s when she squints or looks sideways at her subjects that her poems are strongest. Speech bubble spouting human beings in ‘Stonechat’ are a barely felt presence, and the poem’s delicate unpuzzling of avian identities is all the better for their absence. ‘It is look, and oh!, and flit, // all sense and verb’ – this is the merest nudge towards a contemplation of what it means to name and be named.

The collection’s keenest pleasures are autumnal – muted colours and dimming lights. The gentlest investigations of ageing, memory and mortality bring a chill in the air … but frost is what makes the apples sweet.

Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories

In anthology on February 1, 2011 at 10:51 am

-Reviewed by Tori Truslow

Once a little-known subculture, Steampunk is now studded all over the fantasy genre like so many burnished bolts, its gears a-whirring with the excitement of history-that-never-was, valves opening with the hiss of adventure, pouring forth veritable clouds of Victoriana – and there’s the rub. Steampunk often ends up being highly West-centric, somehow equating ‘the nineteenth century’ with ‘Victorian London’. But there’s a whole wide world out there – and Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories does a damn fine job of exploring it. Not only is this anthology delightful in that its characters – its adventurers and inventors, its rulers and airship pirates, its heroes – are queer women doing things on their own terms, but also in that they are multicultural, from all over the world, or from alternate worlds that are more than just magical versions of Europe.

From sweet pistol-totin’ romance down in old New Orleans in NK Jemisin’s ‘The Effluent Engine’ through to Amal El-Mohtar’s alternate Damascus and breathtaking dreamscapes in ‘To Follow the Waves’, editor JoSelle Vanderhooft has chosen stories diverse in character, setting, genre and mood. If the first couple of stories follow an enjoyable but predictable romantic trajectory – a pair of very different women meeting, sparks flying – the book as a whole doesn’t fall into that pattern. There are brilliant new spins on old tropes, and some stories that twist expectations around quite sharply – Matt Kressel’s ‘The Hand That Feeds’, which seems to be building towards a romantic criminal escapade through a magical New York, changes tone in a sudden and shocking way that’s very well done. The same story is a particularly bright example of the diversity that is such a strength of the book, with an Indian and a Jewish woman taking centre stage. Jessica and Divya are both flawed and likeable, their defiance and decisions in the face of hardship thoroughly believable.

Though most of the stories in the anthology are enjoyable, the best are those that are utterly engaging works of fiction in their own right and examinations of Steampunk and fantasy in general at the same time. Amal El-Mohtar’s tale of an artisan who cuts dreams into precious stone is a beautiful piece of worldbuilding, an aching romance, and also a deeply probing examination of romance and worldbuilding. Shweta Narayan’s ‘The Padishah Begum’s Reflections’ is a gorgeous alternate Mughal history that is both playful and heady in its layering of narrative, a story about power and storytelling. And Mikki Kendall’s disturbing ‘Coppers for a Trickster’ is full of weird magic and looks at what happens when its characters apply their own narratives to an unknown land.

This is a surprising and brave book, uplifting and harrowing by turns, that delivers what it says on the tin and a whole lot more. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in the way dominant narratives can be picked up, tinkered with, de- and re-constructed or just plain opposed.