Reviews of the Ephemeral

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Strangers in Paris: New Writing Inspired by the City of Lights

In anthology on July 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm

-Reviewed by Claire Trevien

Strangers in Paris is an anthology of Anglophone poetry and fiction inspired by the city of lights. The unifying thread varies depending on the writer, from writings where Paris is part of the fabric, to writings set outside of the city but written while in Paris, such as Isabel Harding’s Zombie Mermaid where France gets a passing mention. In contrast, in Rufo Quintavalle’s poem ‘Joined-up writing’, Paris is explored as a form of writing in itself, through the comparison of the constraints of a Parisian park to constraints on the page. While the anthology features big names such as Alice Notley and John Berger, it is in the less well-known names that we find the most refreshing takes on the city.

Paris has a long association with writers, most recently this romantic appeal has been touched upon in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where an aspiring novelist returns nightly to Hemingway’s époque. The image of the penniless American writer typing in his Parisian attic is a cliché, and yet, like all clichés, it is one that new generations bravely pit themselves against. Paris has in recent years strived to remove dust from that stereotype with a new generation of Anglophone writers. The energy comes from two main centres: Shakespeare & co, where a weekly workshop takes place, and Culture Rapide, where a weekly open mic is hosted. Both Anglophone, both open to strangers wherever they hail from, both led by one of the editors of this anthology: David Barnes. These are writers that are just as penniless as previous generations, just as passionate, just as flammable, and it is their determination to use this city without prejudice or fear of the footsteps they are walking in that makes this anthology, like a manifesto, so refreshing.

What is a stranger? It is of course a foreigner, a newcomer, an alien but also an unknown person with whom one is not acquainted. The word evokes disconnection too, a fracture, as is the case in the late Jessica Malcomson’s short story I’ll neologise you, baby which, while not in any obvious way set in Paris, captures an emotion that must be familiar to any stranger in a foreign town. It is a tale about the struggle to give each intangible thing its proper name and find it slipping out of grasp. Colin Mahar tackles the disengagement by translating Claire Malroux’s translations of Emily Dickinson poems. The results of this two-tiered translation process are less interesting however, than their premise. A more successful portrayal of estrangement occurs in Sion Dayson’s short story The Idiopath, where being a stranger is a self-imposed condition. The protagonist is emotionally stunted, unable to offer comfort whether it is to the epileptic girlfriend he left in the States, or to a suffering stranger on the metro:

‘He looks around at his surroundings, realizing he is a disease unto himself’

In several works, we can see a conscious effort to move away from a romanticized view of Paris. In Eleni Sikelianos’ ‘Untitled’, the café, that old Parisian trope, is rejuvenated. In this prose poem, the café setting encapsulates the slippage of the sense of self that can occur when placed in an unfamiliar setting:

‘I can’t see myself in the glass except when people pass. When people pass they block the light (light plays). I wait for myself to appear.’

It is only through other people that the displaced protagonist remembers who he is. Likewise, in David Barnes’ short story She always reads the last line first, the café is a pivotal location, hinting to the reader future developments as well as showing how the city is echoed here on a smaller scale:

‘The tables are the tiny round ones all Parisian cafés have, just big enough for two people. Paris is a city geared to the I-you relationship’

In Jeffrey Greene’s Cooking Octopus with Madame Esteves, relationships are an integral part of the Parisian experience too. The story is a reminder that Paris is both a city and a village with its gossiping, its spying, the compulsive intertwining of beings. The tale also masterfully exposes the way a foreign city can assault a person, imposing a new tongue and new rules, through such episodes as the French tutor forcing herself upon the protagonist:

‘She led me to her small cell-like bed, suddenly tutoyering me, forcing me to adjust my verbs while I was being undressed’

The loneliness of being a stranger weighs heavily on several of the writings of this anthology, but in Kathleen Spivack’s poem ‘Straining’, self-pity is avoided through the ventriloquing of Rilke. In this, loneliness itself is a stranger, sponging off a body, creating diseased writings:

‘Loneliness, that leech obscene

on his mouth, was sucking,

glutting out whole sonnets,

clots of sound’

Beyond the loneliness, the disconnection, this anthology is also a celebration of difference, of the clash between cultures, of the creativity that stems from being in an unknown environment. Perhaps most exemplary of this trend is co-editor Megan Fernandes’ poem ‘Red Umbrellas at La Nuit Blanche’, based on a one-off night-time installation by Noel Dolla on the Buttes Chaumont. Being a stranger here is to be an extraordinary anomaly, creating a temporary experience that lingers in the mind long after it has ceased:

‘The umbrellas laze,

breathy and indifferent from their usual call to action–

for how often do their faceless blooms gaze into a clear sky?’

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Superbard and Harry Baker, Edinburgh Previews @ the Brockley Jack Theatre

In Performance Poetry on July 28, 2011 at 12:53 am

-Reviewed by James Webster and Dana Bubulj

Harry Baker (‘s Super-Amazing Mega-Awesome Gap Year Adventures: Birth of a Champion)

He started out as a rapper, rapping about maths and geekery he didn’t quite fit into the ‘gangster’ mould, and he began his transformation into slam poet upon attending his first performance poetry event at the Edinburgh Festival. Soon after he entered his first poetry slam competition and won.

Since then he’s won more slams, been crowned slam champion of the UK and of Europe (slightly aided by the votes of his facebook friends) and saved up during his gap year in order to take a tour of the poetry hubs of America.

His show has a lot to live up to just in its title. And it does. Mostly. First: the awesome.

His style:

His transformation from rapper to poet has left him with a phenomenal grasp of rhythm, rhyme and repetition. You can see it in his rap ‘I’ve got 99 Problems, but Maths ain’t One’ where his verbal dexterity dances around a plethora of mathematics puns. Or ‘I’m a Man’ his poem on manhood: ‘Real men cry, that’s why they make man sized tissues for those man-sized eyes’, a catchy refrain that never seems out of place.

His simplicity:

Is deceptive. His language is never needlessly complex and never seems like he’s trying too hard. This belies the fact that his structures and rhymes are often very complex. His subjects also seem simple, simple ideas expressed with a basic elegance, but his light touch goes surprisingly deep, always seeking to distill some truth or message from his themes. Take ’59’ his love poem for odd numbers; packed with clever turns of phrase and jokes about numbers: accessible and witty.

His cleverness:

Harry Baker is very clever. I think. At least his writing is. It’s packed with puns, plays on meanings, witticisms and occasional factoids. His poem about a scientist proving that bees can’t fly is a good example. Linking the scientific theory behind bees supposed inability to fly into a heart-warming tale of self-belief. ‘Takeover’, his rap that segues seamlessly into a poem, is another example of his skill and intelligence.

His jokes:

Are often hilarious. And sometimes awful. His haiku (and he admits to using the term loosely) are most often a series of absurd puns (There’s a new origami channel on Sky: It’s Paper View). While in poems like ‘Dinosaur Loves’ and ‘Moon’ show a very deft comic touch (‘I wanna love you like a T-Rex, with a tiny brain, but a massive heart’). It never seems out of place; when he tells us that while he may not be able to say ‘I love you’ as it’s too scary, but instead ‘I’ll be able to look you in the eyes and say RRRRRRRROARRRRRRRR!’ it’s both funny and horribly endearing.

His problems:

Aren’t many. I doubt he really has 99. He has a tendency towards being too simplistic, sometimes letting himself down by trying to sum up broad ranging themes in one simple statement. He also may benefit from more variety; his style’s excellent, but some more changes to the fast-flowing rhyme and more breaking up of the rhythms now and again might bring a little more variety to his poetry.

It’s a hugely entertaining, often profound, frequently funny, and absurdly sweet show. With haiku-puns. Go see it, if you can.

Superbard (and the Sexy Quantum Stories)

Was vastly entertaining.

Superbard (one of the founders of Tea Fuelled Art and the man behind the excellent Flea Circus) is the resident storyteller at the Brockley Jack Theatre. He is also from the future.

The multimedia:

An innovative performer, using multimedia to aid his storytelling, he’s been featured on Newsnight, Radio 4 and The Jeremy Vine Show. His brand of immersive tale-weaving is innovative and involving, somewhere between spoken word, musical (yes, he bursts into song) and some kind of live film. The stop motion video-music sequence and song especially was incredibly filmed, a great climax to the show. If he really is from the future and this is where storytelling’s going, then I’m ok with it.

The plot:

His stories all centered on a guy called Steve, played on the screen behind him by, um, Superbard. It abounds with supporting characters (pre-recordings from actors or sometimes himself) with which he interacts. The premise: Steve’s life could have gone in two different directions, the story itself exists in a state of quantum flux, the events of which we’re told (thematically, rather than chronologically) may never happen to Steve, it all depends on his choice. It’s got quite a range as a show, touching on Steve’s varied youth, going all the way to his old age, taking in one particularly surreal encounter with an alien sex-jellyfish. The turns the tales take are often surreal and very funny, in a mad-genius kind of a way, but all weave together into a very cohesive whole. Oh, then he throws some incredibly poignant heartbreak in there. Just to mess with you I imagine. In the end we see that Steve, while deeply funny, also inspires a deep pathos.

The performance:

The surrounding cast of voices and projections make it seem like more than just a one-man show, however, adding depth and variety to Superbard’s already excellent performance. His timing, it has to be said, was something to behold. With only some minor hiccups he managed to keep in time with the music and the recorded actors; any mistakes were glibly set aside, his engaging manner helping to keep the audience with him through the few pauses while he waited for the soundtrack to catch up. His delivery also strikes just the right pitch with his material, catching the rhythms of the music and the tones of the writing (suitably animated and quirky in places, deathly serious and subdued in others) with aplomb.

It’s a great show. Perhaps neither truly spoken word, musical, film, theatre nor storytelling, but it has elements of all of them, and uses them all to craft one weird, amusing and (sometimes) deeply upsetting piece. I recommend you go see it if you’re in Edinburgh. If you’re not in Edinburgh, then go to Edinburgh and see it.

Oh, also, together the two of them made a film! Watch it!

Utter Nutters @ the Green Note Cafe 07/06/11

In Performance Poetry on July 25, 2011 at 11:25 pm

-Reviewed by James Webster and Dana Bubulj

Dear Utter: Spoken Word,

Re: Your ‘Utter Nutters’ event, 06/07/11

I apologise that it has taken me so long to write this review, Utter, but, well, I’ve been dreading it. You see, I like writing reviews, I like trying to capture a poet’s style and performance. But I had such a bad time at ‘Utter Nutters’, your night dedicated to the theme of mental health, that I honestly had no idea how to put it into words.

You had promise. Your monthly events on selected themes ensure variety and can keep you on the pulse of society with events like ‘Utter: Coalition’, where your use of Alternative Vote to decide the winner of the Paid Gig Competition helped your event interact with the events of the day.

And the Paid Gig Competition! You give talented poets the chance to get paid to perform for the first time. As your website claims, you really do nurture new talent.

And it wasn’t all bad. It’s just that the good poets made the bad ones seem so much worse.

The Good

There was a little. But for the sake of positivity it will take up the majority of this review.

  • Cat Brogan’s cameo was a highlight with ‘I had a dream last night’. She skillfully weaved parallels between people with mental health issues, immigrants, those living below the poverty line; all groups who are made ‘other’ by their differences. It was very neat and very moving.
  • Rosy Carrick the co-host of Hammer & Tongue Brighton was excellent. The only truly excellent poet of the night in my opinion. She gave us an insight into stalking and psychological obsession. She tells us there are 2 kinds of stalking: the bad kind ends in death; the good kind does not. She practices the good kind.
  • Her first poem ‘Trochee’ was a joyous tale of twisted, kinky, obsessive weird-love. The idea of a woman in love with a train-spotter who ‘took her interest for abuse’ was well-expressed in beautifully awkward fashion.
  • Her 2nd was apparently based on host Richard Tyrone Jones’s false hand. It was resonant of Tom Lehrer, was very   funny and an intriguing take on getting over your past obsessions in sometimes grotesque fashion.
  • Her 3rd, on stalking Vladimir Maikovsky (posthumously) was odd, beautiful and really quite sensual.
  • Her final poem ‘Cat-Sitting for Nick Cave’ was (once more) surreal and so much fun. The narrator claims to be cat sitting for Nick Cave and so posts catfood through the letterbox and must intercept the postman to maintain the façade. All illustrated with Rosy’s odd little turns of phrase, like ‘like a magician I torture the thought that something’s about to fall’.
  • Dan Simpson the winner of May’s Paid Gig Competition. His poems were tight and well thought out. Especially good was his Mathematics love poem was filled with clever maths and physics puns, creating a lovely new language of scientifically expressed love.
  • In comparison his ‘Girl’ was a little prosaic and a little creepy. And his ‘We’ve Changed’, about being changed by your ex, had a good performance, but was an overplayed sentiment.
  • But his final poem on feeling sorry for the orange ghost in Pacman brought him back to his geeky and sweet best. Did you know the orange ghost is called (in different places and languages) ‘slow’, ‘stupid’, ‘crybaby’ and ‘clyde’? Now I do. And he managed to make me feel impressively sorry for poor ‘Clyde’.
  • Richard Tyrone Jones, the host. He was engaging and frequently funny. He had a genuine interest in the night’s mental health theme (he himself is Bi-Polar) and his material engaged with it frankly and intelligently.
  • His poem on male suicide was a strong start, encapsulating the urge to drastic action just to reach some resolution, but finding only separation.
  • His second on senile dementia was just as cheery. Sorry, I mean, heart-wrenchingly and soulfully depressing. It was horribly moving and captured an image of a life replayed and remembered in fragments.
  • His third, on his own manic phases, was a powerful performance that encapsulated how a manic phase can make you feel like you can (and almost have to) do anything, and also of the strengths needed just to go about a normal day.

It was a shame his enthusiasm for the, ahem, less enjoyable poets made his taste seem suspect and gave the whole mess of an evening a bizarrely self-congratulatory tone.

The Ok

  • Anthony Fairweather peaked with his first poem that segued neatly from intro into verse. It had a great rhyme and rhythm that really churned the poem along. That rhythm and superb performance kept going through all his poems, but often they seemed to lack meaning, acting as more of a vehicle for his verbal dexterity and aptitude for tongue-twisting rhyme.
  • Clare Saponia who played along to her poetry on some kind of strange and tiny stringed instrument, gave us ‘Good Medicine’ a deeply depressing meditation on medication and therapy. It was bleakly and rhythmically discordant, a haunting way to express the methods used to get people to cope for a little while before being discarded by the system. It just seemed like it needed a little more polish and accessibility as she didn’t quite keep the audience with her.

Sadly, due to the frankly horrendous standards of the vast majority of the night I am forced to submit the following invoice.

The Invoiced

Description: Hours of My Life

Amount: 1.5

Breakdown:

Helen Burke: 5 mins

(Her poem consisting of Eastenders jokes did not justify the time taken.)

Liz Bentley: 40mins

(A psychotherapist by day and poet by night: she managed to offend me several times. Her poems were mostly condescending and obvious, filled with barely thought through opinions and vacuous truisms. So bad I felt compelled to argue with her during her set.)

Ashley Reaks: 40mins

(Nonsensical poetry; distorted recordings of his own voice; twisted puppets of his grandmother reading nonsense football scores; and he tried to market his album as a suicide aid, which was in quite impressively horrible taste.)

Sid Ozalid: 5mins

(Has a new book out in support of MIND, which is getting some very positive reviews. Here he suffered from an overly long preamble, a strange sense of humour, and a pretense that a ‘quirky’ style and jokes about Adam West make good poetry.)

To be paid by: time travel. Or some other quantum chicanery.

Conclusion: There were some mitigating factors to ‘Utter Nutters’ but they were far outweighed by a night that really did make me wish for those hours of my life back. The worst part? They get Arts Council funding to book this dross.

In fairness it’s entirely possible this night was atypical of Utter and the usual standard is higher than this, and, call me a glutton for punishment, I will be back to see if they can do better. I just don’t really want to.

‘From There To Here’ by Michael Mackmin

In Pamphlets on July 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm

-Reviewed by Chris Emslie

The poems in this pamphlet are presented in the style of a gallery of paintings. From There To Here might best be characterised as a series of landscapes, interrupted by the odd portrait or sketch, but all bearing Mackmin’s distinct signature. There is a vividness to these poems that almost begs to be made visible, to manifest itself before the reader. This quality emerges from Mackmin’s clear awareness of poetic tradition and his own place within it – from a critical perspective, this pamphlet makes its own context.

The scenes Mackmin presents become increasingly varied. The opening poem, ‘Here’, is reassuringly bucolic, easing the reader in with a solid lyrical charm: “[…]clumps / of darker, large-leaved green where / squashes grow, swell yellow into / orange.” This is offset by a irreverent four-line epithet that establishes the poem in classical terms with a wry self-awareness. This flirtation with the classics recurs a few times in From There To Here, generally accompanied by the same wicked humour. In ‘Her father’, the titular character merrily quotes “Facilis / descensus Averno” on the stairs, joking as he approaches the entrance to a metaphorical underworld. In ‘The watchers’ and ‘Here’, parenthetical references to “Philomel” and “Cincinnatus (remember him?)” are made offhand, in a manner that could almost be called cheeky. Mackmin gets away with it, however: his wry use of allusion addresses the de-privileging of academia quite neatly.

There is an engagement with heavier concerns here, too. ‘Things fall apart’ has a dystopian chill which is borne out by contrasting images of “stickers—hearts / and fairies, stars” and a “pick-up truck […] full of the naked dead”. These images, bleak though they may be, are executed cleverly – the reader is stricken immediately by the mirroring of ‘a long arm’ and a ‘long gun’ at either end of the poem. ‘The trap’ internalises the darkness glimpsed in ‘Things fall apart’, painting the “heart trap” into a vista of “rot-choked fields […] ploughed clean at a whisper.” These lines (instantly conjuring the “clean rasping sound’ of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’) tint the pastoral scenery with an intoxicated blend of love and frustration.

What stands out about Mackmin’s poetry is that it is self-aware without resorting to brashness or self-pastiche. Few contemporary poets have the confidence to address the fabled “Ms Muse” directly and retain credibility. The muse in ‘The word’ is characterised as both demure and sexy, wearing at all times a knowing “flicked smile / at the joke it all is”. In her oracular voice, the reader gets a sense of Mackmin’s own self-critique: “you know you need / three more lines, an ending”. ‘This poem explains’, meanwhile, is a hilarious interrogation of the creative process and an undisguised jibe at the academy:

[…] I write

as my tutors here advise, of things

I know. They also say to show not

tell, which I also do. Philosophy

is my hobby, poetry my passion

as I’m sure you’ll see.

Here, Mackmin’s irreverence is offset by a wonderfully sardonic plea for validation (“I hope / you like my poem. I hope you like my poem.”). The flip interjection of historical material (“Hitler wanted all Jews / dead and nearly succeeded. Some say / he is misunderstood but I think not.”) recalls James Tate’s distracted monologue ‘I am a Finn’. In Michael Mackmin we have a poet and editor who knows his way securely around the history and form of his craft, and is not afraid to demonstrate it.  However, as the pamphlet progresses, the poems come dangerously close to repetitive. Opening with ‘Here’ and closing with ‘There’ gives the text a symmetry that, though aesthetically pleasing, leaves the reader unsure if they have actually gotten anywhere. The use of parentheses becomes wearisome also, and by the time we reach ‘Lost (in transit)’ and ‘The list’, it seems almost like a nervous tic that has left the poet’s control.

While the poems in this pamphlet are both understated and deeply felt, there is a feeling of the poet keeping his reader at arm’s length. That is not to say that the reader is excluded because of obscurity or difficulty, but rather that there is something guarded about the texts. Putting even slightly confessional poems out in the public domain is always likely to raise questions of ownership, as both reader and author can surely appreciate, but it is difficult to shake the idea that Mackmin is not showing his entire hand. Perhaps, though, it is unfair to complain about this – even if he isn’t giving us everything he’s got, he’s certainly given a us a lot to be going on with.

‘Do Not Pass Go’ Crime Stories by Joel Lane

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on July 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

‘Do not pass go’ has been chosen as the title for Joel Lane’s short story pamphlet, the first in the new Hotwire imprint by Nine Arches Press. But that other Monopoly phrase, ‘Go to Jail’, would have been just as suitable; for these are works of crime fiction and throughout the pamphlet there is a sense of foreboding, a fear that someone’s going to get hurt and it’ll all end in tears.

Do Not Pass Go: Crime Stories by Joel Lane, published by Nine Arches Press and reviewed for Sabotage by Richard T. Watson

But each of Lane’s stories is also shot through with the blues and an accompanying sense of regret, of sadness. Sometimes this is explicit, like when blues band Nine Below Zero play a gig in ‘No More the Blues’ – a brief story that burns as slowly as good, soulful blues and gradually reveals more about its narrator before sidling offstage and subtly leaving him to his fate. The first story, ‘This Night Last Woman’, though much longer is similar in the way that music and regret go together.

“Memories don’t stay the same. That’s why people need music, to help them remember.”

‘This Night Last Woman’ gently ties memory with melody, before letting the association slide, never to return; it feels like Lane’s missing a trick there.

At other times, Lane’s writing is oblique as he fills in one or two details and leaves his reader to plump out the rest of the picture themselves. This is probably most telling in ‘The Black Dog’, a sweaty and morbid story that eventually reveals itself as a Police report documenting a sweaty, sticky death. As with all the narratorial voices in Do Not Pass Go, this one reports back on life/crime seemingly at one remove, as though the speaker is never quite in contact with the life going on around him. There’s a certain disconnect between story and teller, between life and human – and a sense that the one isn’t fulfilling the other.

My favourite example of Lane pitching small details comes in ‘Blue Mirror’ (the story’s name is taken from the – this time fictional – blues band at its centre). David, the band’s singer, slips past two men to whom he owes money and bursts out of a club onto the street…

“Outside, he turned on a loaded shoe and ran in the direction of Hurst Street”

The inclusion of that single word, ‘loaded’, is enough of a small detail to not only remind the reader of the weight David carries about him (literally if he gets arrested with drugs hidden in his shoe, but metaphorically as well), and also of the reason he is now running for his life. With that one word, Lane effortlessly captures the world of music stardom crumbling around David through his drug-fuelled behaviour, as well as pointing up that the drugs cost and David can’t pay the men who are chasing him.

The final story, ‘Rituals’, digs deepest of all into the effect of crime on the psyche – as a gang member deals with the consequences of interrupting a gay porn film before the money shot. That makes it sound more comedic than it is: any laughs found in Lane’s pamphlet are dark and grimy. ‘Rituals’ shows Lane at his most insightful, though, treading close to the edge of showing sympathy for the criminal while the title denounces the habits and face-saving that characterises a life of crime. Indeed, in this case, those rituals seem to be the beginnings of such lives – lives wasted to serve no real purpose but crime.

That sense of regret, of loss, plays all the way through Do Not Pass Go. The abiding impression is that of lives wasted away and ended. Really, though, these aren’t people whose lives have abruptly ended, whose journeys have been pulled up short; they are people who never really had the chance to pass Go.

‘The Tradesman’s Entrance’ by Cameron Vale

In Novella on July 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

The Tradesman's Entrance by Cameron Vale, published by Vagabondage Press

If humour writing were crossed with erotica, one imagines the result would read something like Cameron Vale’s The Tradesman’s Entrance, a novelette from independent publisher Vagabondage Press. The ‘About Us’ page at the publisher’s website states that they ‘dislike the tendency in mainstream publishing to categorize and pigeonhole authors and their work into literary ghettos’, going on to declare ‘a commitment to providing an alternative’. Indeed, with its frank (but not entirely gratuitous) descriptions of gay sex, it is hard to imagine a work like Vale’s being put out by any of the mainstream publishers today, even if the sex is really secondary to what the publisher calls a ‘laugh-out-loud gay romantic comedy and treatise on class dynamics’.

For on one level, The Tradesman’s Entrance really is a straightforward story about fantasy coming to life. Protagonist Stephen Patterson writes romance novels for a living under the pseudonym Patience DeVere, but as the reader subsequently discovers, he also happens to be a virgin. As if just to pile trope upon trope, Vale introduces Dave the plumber (hence the title’s sexual pun) two pages into the first half of the novelette, Act I – Unexpected: Stage Left. Dave conveniently happens to be ‘a tall, tanned Adonis…sprung straight from the pages of one of [Stephen’s] over-wrought novels — dark, shoulder-skimming hair glinting copper in the sunlight, tastily trim and muscular body squeezed, but not entirely contained, by a low-slung pair of blue jeans and a tight, white workman’s vest’.

What follows is plenty of bantering between the two men over cups of tea and biscuits, which primarily serves to build up sexual tension that gets consummated in the second half of the novelette, unsubtly headed, Act II: The Cherry-Popping of Patience de Vere. Admittedly though, it is entertaining, watching Dave steadily break through Stephen’s uptight defences (psychological and physical alike), and ultimately, bed him in graphic fashion. As far as repartee goes, Vale’s writing is slick and solid enough to carry the fantasy forward, seeing it through even to its perfect ending that has been telegraphed pages before it actually takes place.

Yet what saves The Tradesman’s Entrance from being simply a casual romp is precisely how self-aware the storytelling is. From the sprinkling of deliberately bad writing (courtesy of Stephen’s abortive attempts at his new Clarissa Hart romance novel) to the grotesque physical perfection of plumber Dave, it is hard to escape the feeling that while Vale is unabashedly deploying the tropes of the erotica genre at full force, she is also implicitly skewering them because of how over the top their cumulative effect is. Personally speaking, there is also something aesthetically satisfying about the circularity of the narrative, all that sexual comedy being bookended by scenes of Stephen writing at his desktop. (I would definitely read a novel called The Biscuit Tin Philosopher.) The biographical note at the very end tosses out one last titbit, revealing that ‘Cameron Vale’ is itself a pen name. Calling The Tradesman’s Entrance metafictional would be a stretch, of course. It is, however, undoubtedly a good-natured blending of two writing genres that are not the most obvious of bedfellows.

Mudluscious #16

In online magazine on July 12, 2011 at 9:46 am

-Reviewed by Caroline Crew

Content over style.

Exactly how worn out is the idiom style over substance? Probably entirely. However it is a balance we have to work with and online literary magazines really seem to bring out this tension. None more so than Mud Luscious Press’ quarterly offering, Mudluscious. While MLP’s site is all colourful minimalism and swagger, the magazine is the bleakest of designs. No colour, no illustrations, and available only as a PDF download—a fact that really seems at odds with the potential that digital platforms offer literary magazines. Especially perplexing is this resistance to really embrace the opportunities of the online existence when Mudluscious is embracing some truly challenging writing.

We open with the marvellous Parker Tettleton’s short prose-poem ‘What I Want & How I Live’, the meta-narrative of which seems to set the stage for what follows. Something I’ve noticed with Tettleton’s prose-poetry it the extent to which he really achieves the blurring of lines that a true achievement in this genre requires.  In this piece the expanse covered—from the actuality of the writer at the page to the universality of the male and female ‘thrust and ache’ as Louise Glück describes it- melds together the exactness expected of prose with the metaphoric leaps granted to poetry.

This genre crossing that is one of basic hallmarks of contemporary writing that rejects the mainstream. I hesitate at the descriptor ‘experimental’, as more often than not this is just shorthand for the myriad of more alternative approaches to creative writing. However, ‘experiment’ seems the most apt way to describe Jonas Williams’ intriguing piece ‘Ranch-Ready Crop-Tops’. There is an inherent tension in this fiction between the two sections ‘Vocabulary’ and ‘Applied Vocabulary’ that is in tune with the consumerist tension of our capitalist society—the product set against yet within the human, mass-production against organic. By absorbing as well as creating a jargon of industrial food production Williams does a great job of pulling the reader to the centre of the piece with a compelling verfremdungseffekt, making the familiar landscape of a grocery store entirely alien.

However, do not flee from Mudluscious if you think ‘experimental’ writing is not your thing. There is true lyricism to behold here. Molly Prentiss’ ‘How the West Was Lost’ is drenched in sensual landscape and disarmingly poignant advice:

 

And triangles are the strongest shape, but not emotionally. Here:

you must have an odd number of tattoos but an even number of lovers.

 

There are many, many other highlights—remarkable for such a small collection, that to discuss them all here would steal the joy of discovery.  It is a delight to read a magazine that not only has no filler, but that is also aware of its consumption as a whole. The care and attention with which such a collection has been put together and arranged is marred only by the decision to shove the pieces together. The writing explodes in the mind but has no room on the page; instead the works muscle in on each other. Still, this stylistic limitation cannot truly impact the explosive content.

‘What To Do’ by Kirsten Irving

In Pamphlets on July 10, 2011 at 5:29 am

 -Reviewed by Chris Emslie

Kirsten Irving’s What To Do is deceptively titled. The poems in this pamphlet present a series of speakers, each one snapped at a crucial moment. Whether this moment is one of crisis or epiphany, these characters are certainly in need of guidance. Rather than address this pressing question of ‘what to do’, Irving focuses on the moment itself as a sort of psychic interrogation, as if she herself has no idea where her various speakers will turn. It is this almost microscopic attention to a single point in time that makes Irving’s poetry so arresting. She has a gift for characterisation, an accolade not usually reserved for poets. But given the use of epigrams from Clifford Allen’s The Sexual Perversions and Abnormalities, it is safe to say that Irving is a writer fascinated by human nature and with a keen eye for psychological detail.  This pamphlet’s thirty-two pages are more densely populated than some anthologies, and though the precision of Irving’s character studies can be uneven, the poems are consistently credible and compelling.

 

Arguably the standout work here is ‘Recreation period’, a sequence of poems which scoops characters out of classical mythology and sets them down in the surprisingly familiar setting of a juvenile mental hospital. The conceit is executed with unexpected delicacy, though Irving does not shy away from the humour of it: the repeated line “Leda won’t come to the park” makes you laugh even though you know it probably shouldn’t. There is darkness here, too – the second poem in the sequence conflates the myth of the ritualistic madness of Agave with a stark and realistic story of a girl’s traumatic encounter with insanity. This is achieved with an admirable seriousness that prevents the poem from descending into farce.

 

Irving has a knack, it seems, for anchoring her fictions in human experience. The poems ‘Ittan-Momen’ and ‘Nancy Archer steps out’ use Japanese folklore and cult sci-fi respectively to access some all-too-universal feelings. Sidestepping the obvious feminist allegory of Attack of the 50 ft Woman in the latter, Irving instead dredges up a visceral jealousy that’s like a punch to the reader’s gut:

[…] if I take my thumb and dash your heads

into the Bacharach-piping jukebox

or stake you with a huge incisor

and write liars in your combined juices,

it will be a half-cough of revenge,  the kind

that doesn’t quite clear the throat.

 

That’s not to say I won’t.

 

The comic aplomb of this poem is grounded by an epigram from Aristotle. The synthesis of these two demonstrates Irving’s ability to extract her crucially human moments from the least likely of settings. Even supermarkets can become arenas for fantasy and prophecy. In ‘Pathogenesis’ an ostracised young boy foresees his own death “in the pasta aisle, in the chemist / wherever you take your scrawn”. In ‘Explaining it’ the speaker ruminates on his fantasies of a nubile cashier: “And yes, she’s my mother / and it’s my mother / and the stars are my fucking mother.”

 

There are times when Irving’s use of form is not quite in step with the ambition of her images, but these are blessedly few. The potential of ‘Bluebeard’s Photo Album’ is fragmented by single words that can’t quite hold the weight of a line. The final poem in the pamphlet, ‘Discharge’ conveys grief with great tenderness, but the lineation (“Tom is dead / or in Bombay”) discourages the reader from lingering on the real heart of the poem. The mournful second stanza is brief and peremptory, sticking in the throat rather than allowing the feeling to resonate.

 

Perhaps the best word to sum up ‘What To Do’ is unyielding. Not only does Irving pin her characters to the most pivotal (and potentially troublesome) poetic moments, she refuses to let them – or the reader – escape. What the reader takes from these moments is down to them; there is ammunition in Irving’s poems for both laughter and tears. Either way, the force behind these poems is inescapable. Irving takes the familiar and introduces a rogue transformative element. These poems look you in the eye and won’t look away before you do. This is difficult to sustain in the dialogue of ‘Restorative justice’, but the unsettling power of Irving’s poetry cannot be avoided. ‘What To Do’ may not provide its readers with instruction, but it’s fair to hazard that they’ll find something in these poems to keep them asking.

 


‘Twelve Nudes’ by Ross Sutherland

In Pamphlets on July 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm

-Reviewed by Joshua Jones

The first poem in Twelve Nudes, a three part prose poem, is quite simply a Luke Kennard poem. If I or anyone else familiar with Kennard’s work had read it without knowing the author, I imagine they would immediately have attributed it to him. It is enjoyable, surreal, absurd, funny; but entirely unoriginal. When I read Sutherland’s debut, Things to do Before Leaving Town, I felt the same way. It was impossible to read without Kennard’s superior poetry in mind, and as such the more praiseworthy aspects of the collection were subsumed. So it is with great pleasure that the rest of Twelve Nudes – the title sequence in particular – displays a definite progression towards a performative style of the author’s own, still familiar within the context of Stammers/Kennard absurdist lyric/narrative, but idiosyncratised, personalised.

At the core of the sequence of twelve poems that make up Twelve Nudes is the contrast between the idea that “…poetry aspires / to the simplicity of the nude. / To be naked [is] to speak without footnotes” (somewhat mired by the speaker’s belief that “a naked person / usually has more explaining to do than anyone”), and the computerisation of contemporary society – the digitalised world within which we all, for the most part, now live. The idea of nudity and nakedness, of true interpersonal connection, is now filtered through the other type of connection – the kind that comes with passwords and line rental – via which we attempt to connect with one another. Which is not to imply that the sequence is some kind of modish Facebook poetry. Rather, the speakers in these poems seem desperately to want to connect, and have to reconcile this desire with their technologised surroundings. More, there is an awareness of the untruth of representation and the conflict inherent in the urge to be able to represent and comprehend oneself nakedly while engaging in the decidedly not-naked act of representation.

The opener emphasises these connections, perhaps a little too heavily. The speaker is talking “through the bathroom mirror” to his lover, who is “drying [her] fake tan with a hairdryer”. He bemoans the “roar of static behind the curtains, / the endless frustration of the city too powerful / to appear within my limited bandwidth”, and concludes

‘Your body is too much. London is too much.

I can barely even connect two parts of it.

The diagrams we use are useless on the surface.’

Later, the idea of a “diagram for lovers” will reoccur, further denoting the attempt to contain and understand the essence of something or someone through acts of representation inextricable from big, technologised cities. In the prior example, though, is an apt summary of what is happening in ‘Twelve Nudes’: self explained through computer terminology and interpersonal relations fractured through mediums of representation.

Sutherland does not offer a solution to the issues raised. Instead, we are offered a navigation of the linguistic world  he has set up, representative of the real world it addresses, in which the speakers do not so much attempt to change or rectify their situations but respond and adapt to them, like an information feedback loop. Sutherland strives to show that in this world of technology and isolation, the attempt to connect and to stand naked and to love is possible, if opposed to the ideal quoted from the first poem of poetry’s, and thus self’s, aspiration to be understood, to speak without footnotes. While it’s “unclear / what-is-a-metaphor-for-what”, and “[l]ayered over this scene is another”, and this continual bringing forth of the confusion between image and the real is a “pitching”, similar to the “way a salesman / stands behind their product”, the individual can still engage in their own acts of meaning-seeking representation and learn to work and live within this world:

‘In fact, I consider it a privilege

to pile on enthusiasm where it is not wanted.’

Through humour and punchlines and light absurdism – “A heart big enough to smuggle in a bungalow of cocaine / without arising suspicion” – Sutherland attempts to foreground a human self despite the litany of diagrams and bandwidths and “endless footage” towards the real, or rather an unavoidably fractured version of the real:

‘You are rushing backwards into us

and you cannot remember the last time that you felt pain.’

In ‘Twelve Nudes’, there is no “dead centre of the narrative”; instead there are simply twelve engaging, accessible and often very funny lyrics, linked through ideas and motifs yet without a driving argument, a goal, a political urgency. For better or worse, the poetry retains the world it depicts. It is its own endpoint. As Sutherland writes:

‘[…]you remember the idea

that the waking mind cannot hold:

that this is not a hospital

but the memory of a hospital.

Therefore it cannot cure you.’

‘All Safe All Well’ by Caleb Klaces

In Pamphlets on July 5, 2011 at 10:13 pm

-Reviewed by Vikki Littlemore

As a collection, Caleb Klaces’ All Safe All Well feels steeped in necromantic images that create an other-worldly miasma made-up substantially of speech; spoken by who, we don’t know, and often reflecting the awkward, imperfect patterns of naturally spontaneous conversation.  The collection opens with an unidentified speaker; ‘A lot of the painting here is painting over. / Can everyone at the back hear over everyone?’, and immediately takes one out of the expected, and into something unfamiliar linguistically, and bewitching in terms of imagery; ‘Everyone is a blast of light seeping across the film. / All day high toothy windows whiten in flashlight’.  From the first few lines, you are lulled or transfixed, as with something beautiful that you can’t take your eyes away from.

‘Painting over Aya Sofia’ , which opens the collection, creates a pounding beat, like the rapid droning of a machine, with repetition.  At first the words are repeated here and there, fairly diffusely, but not offensively so thanks to the delicate, dreamy images, and dialogue-like cadence.  The pattern begins slowly:

‘A woman kisses her cross and crosses herself.

Another is kissed by a pink polo shirt and camera.

A camera will not put the rest of Christ back in.

It will not take away the crowd around Christ’s toes’.

The reiteration of words is not unpleasant, and feels like a comforting, rolling rhythm.  However, in the final stanza, the repetition intensifies, and becomes more dominant without feeling oppressive.

‘The crowded reference image accompanying the fragments.

Pigeons wing through the high windows and up in fragments.

Christ’s toes; Christ’s fingertips; Christ’s thigh; Christ on high.

Sandals expose toes in the highlights’

There’s a modicum of humour in those final lines which is enough to maintain a lightness, and stop the repetition feeling inartistic.  This pattern has cleverness, rather than a lack of skill.

‘Cheering the Relief Boat’, five poems into the collection, comprises two separate parts, both very different.  In the first, the images are so distinct that they breathe life into the environment and foster it, making it vivid and raw to every sense.  In each sensory line, you can smell and hear, feel the sea, and the boat, you can see the greyness, taste the salt.

‘Marston heaves in his greasy furs, aiming a shell at the horizon.

Hoosh boils in the hut. Black smoke hangs in the air.

Limpets clamp. Marston weeps in hoosh smoke. The sea slaps itself’.

In either of its parts, this is not a poem centred around form, or stylistic displays.  It is purely and simply an exercise in imagery.  That isn’t to say that it is without form, but it feels too stripped down for that.  This poem is an opportunity for the images contained in it, for the natural language that feels so viscerally red-raw, like the hands of the narrative men who provide its backbone, that it should stand alone.  The only small device, it would appear, is the use of short sentences, of one or two words, broken by the pause a full-stop brings, which evoke a sense of the metronome of the waves, with its natural, rhythmic steadiness, but this doesn’t detract from the beautiful simplicity that allows the imagery to stand-up and be heard;

‘The horizon shouts. Hurley boils. The sea weeps Marston ashore.

Hurley clamps Marston. Marston heaves. Feet disperse.

Hot hoosh shines Marston’s iced lungs in the hut.

Bones whiten in skin. Seals aim the football around the rocks‘.

The collection ends on a note of revelatory beauty, by which I mean beauty standing on its own for the celebration of itself.  The final two poems are characteristically clean and uncomplicated, with the easy flourish of a hot night, when the body feels other.  They have a confident elegance, and un-laboured charm.

                ‘Language is her Caravan’, the penultimate poem, depicts a girl who clearly faces problems in some way, perhaps with physical or mental disability.  A statement is made; ‘“My sister can’t express herself properly’.  The next stanza creates a circus, with all the synonymous connotations of danger and excitement; big tops, lion tamers, trapeze artists.  Then comes the concluding statement, corresponding to the opening declaration about the sister; ‘Language is her caravan on bricks, / with tiny little windows in”’.  With only a few lines, and without extensive convolution, an image of the girl, and her story, are given life. The gentle beauty of the language, infused with brotherly tenderness, generate real sympathy, sadness, and make you avid to have more knowledge of her.

Amongst the current vogue for somewhat austere poetry, where it seems the inclination is to obfuscate the subject matter so greatly that it barely makes sense, Caleb Klaces feels like a survivor from another time.  This isn’t to say that he is in any way old-fashioned or outdated, far from it!  But he manages to stay in touch with the anachronism of writing romantically and beautifully, while not being at all frilly, or ridiculous.  This collection is both modern, clipped, and contemporarily artful with language, and also poetic in a traditional sense, in the illustrative and imaginative way that a lot of modern poetry isn’t.  It feels filled with light, and joy, and a love of language and imagery.  It is a positive, uplifting experience to read it, rather than a lesson in modern austerity. Take this poem title; ‘How now we scare ourselves’, and its opening lines and you’ll understand what there is to love:

‘On cloudy nights the moon is sunk through algae blooms,

a coin caught under rock, flashing white

in the light of the moon, in the pool with hermit crabs,’.