Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

‘machine gun’ by Jean-Christophe Belleveaux

In Pamphlets on September 30, 2011 at 9:31 pm

-Reviewed by Claire Trevien

On one of my last days in Paris, I stumbled across what I’d been looking for for some time: pamphlets by a French independent publisher. Jean-Christophe Belleveaux’s machine gun stood out from the other pamphlets on sale with its lack of sentimentality and the terseness of his language. Editions Potentille, the publisher of these 13×18 chapbooks, was created in 2007 by Belleveaux’s wife, Anne. Refreshingly, this independent publisher escapes the monopoly of Paris by being both funded and located in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, in the North of France.

The pamphlet can be read as a collection of twenty poems or as an extended monologue. There are no titles, capital letters and practically no punctuation to fragment the whole. Yet, the short selections on each page suggest that this dual method of reading is intentional and indeed, most poems stand alone well. It is best, however, to read Belleveaux’s pamphlet in one sitting in order to fully get the effect of these otherwise fugitive pieces.

Throughout the collection is the taste of dusty travelling and war mixed with ultra-domesticity and Houellebecqian moroseness. From speaking of the afternoon that persists (along with the dirty dishes), Belleveaux switches to musing on poetry mixed with war:

‘j’aimai l’alexandrin

le staccato particulier de l’AK47’

(I liked the alexandrine / the peculiar staccato of the AK47)

It becomes gradually evident through the extended monologue that war is being conjured not as a trauma but as a beacon of hope. Indeed, he wishes that war could have wiped out all of his memories, most particularly the recent death of his mother:

‘j’aurais voulu un vacarme de bombardiers

un excès de réel

insupportable dangereux

qui efface tout : enfance, le lundi 4 juin 2007, le platane

de la place, etc.

au lieu de quoi : la suie des mots’

(I’d rather have had the racket of the bombers / an excess of reality / unbearable dangerous // that would erase everything: childhood, Monday 4 June 2007, the sycamores / on the square, etc // instead of which: the soot of words.)

He writes that these burned words speak of his sadness but not of his anger. Belleveaux mixes image difficult to decipher alongside straightforward narratives. These impressionistically build the complex portrait of a man of words struggling to control them. The end comes swiftly and devastatingly with:

‘la page est un nid dévasté’

(the page is a ransacked nest).

Overall, this is a moving collection that employs such tired subjects as war and writing-about-writing in a way that feels fresh. While the personal details can at times be at risk of shutting out the reader, Belleveaux is always careful to throw out a helpful hook. This is an inward-facing pamphlet, but the self-deprecation and wit are generous indeed.

Claire Trévien’s Low Tide Lottery Launch @ The Phoenix Artists Club

In Pamphlets, Performance Poetry on September 30, 2011 at 2:21 pm

-Reviewed by James Webster

It turns out Claire Trévien, Sabotage’s Poetry Editor, is a bit of a poet herself. I attended the launch of her first collection of poetry: Low Tide Lottery (published by Salt Publishing) at the charming Phoenix Artists Club.

I say she’s a bit of a poet, in fact she’s really very accomplished with writing published in Under the Radar, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Warwick Review, Nth Position and Fuselit and winning the Leaf Book’s 2010 Nano-Fiction competition.

The Phoenix Artists Club is a lovely little basement bar, with a kind of prohibition-meets-bohemian-Paris kind of feel. It seems the kind of bar in which you should be able to exchange poetry, prose or paintings for pints (but, to my knowledge, they only accept money).

Claire Trévien

Her themes

Seem to be the clash of sea and cities. Of old and new. In ‘The Swan’ (a wonderfully dirty and forlorn poem) a lonely German Shepherd, at once ‘a lonely dog’ and a ‘god transformed’, ignored by pedestrians on the streets that are ‘sweating trash’ trained only to look forwards and never take in the world around them. ‘Rusty Sea’ gives us an environment failing you, of something taken as a constant that turns on you, leaving the people to ‘wait for the tide to start again’. And ‘Low Tide Lottery’ seems to blend the ocean and the urban. It describes in spiky language the ‘rusty city’ exposed when a tidal pool shrinks and you can see the detritus sunk within. In her poems cities become wild and tempestuous and tides turn on you, becoming rusty and urban, while the mundane mixes with the mythical.

Her language

Trévien makes images and language do things they don’t normally do. In ‘Beg an Dorchem’ she comments that ‘the sky is crooked’ and hears ‘laughter catching fire’, showing us a landscape writing over itself. Her turns of phrase are lush and often playful, lines like ‘drunk on tables that spread their freckles’ resound with the anarchic revelry of bygone bohemians. Her language is contradictory and wild, but also often neatly beautiful, equal parts spiky and silk smooth.

Her performance

Is perfectly pitched. Her strong voice and grasp of tone makes poems like ‘The Shipwrecked House’ seem ghostly, all cracked and bereft. In ‘Belleville’, she revels in her language on the streets of Paris ‘minotaurs pulse from wall to wall’ and the ‘Rue de Belleville’s shirt is open’. When read, it sounds lively and joyous, her delivery setting off the poem perfectly. ‘Love From’ sounded like a well-thumbed poem, much like the postcards it described. Each place seemingly faded over time, let down by the correspondent who fails to identify the landmarks he’s sending. Her performance is precise, but brimming with meaning and emotion, bringing out her poems’ meanings.

Also present to celebrate the launch and entertain the audience were poets Luke Kennard and Katy Evans Bush.

Luke Kennard

‘To read him is to be startled into remembering exactly how exciting and energetic language can be’ Andy Brown

Luke won the audience over quickly, his good natured jokes on writing and anecdotes about bookshops were amiable and showed a witty charisma that sparkled through his poems.

His humour

Is very apparent. The staccato matter-of-fact and intrusive absurdity of ‘Tragic Accident’ is both a caustic condemnation of journalism at its most base and uses repeated staccato jingoism for hilarious effect. ‘4 Neighbours’ idiosyncratic characters are united in their comic absurdity, from the meticulously described meticulous neighbour to the man who seems ‘embarrassed to be alive’; and the final character who writes about his neighbours in a column, commenting upon the narrator’s habit of staring is a worthy punchline.

His way with words

Is somewhat unique. You see it in the blend of the humdrum and haunting of the narrator exclaiming ‘that’s the last time I have sex with a ghost’ before the ghost takes the narrator to ‘A Pergola of Exceptional Beauty’ (also the title) ‘and a tower block collapsed in his chest’. To ‘Spade’ where he takes a symbolist view of a spade describing it as a ‘lever that punctures the world’ or as ‘opposite of a knife, it cannot be used accidentally’, its use and meaning becoming more abstract until the object is divorced from itself. His verbal dexterity is impressive; his phrases seem to bend language over itself in new and flexible ways.

His charisma

He seems dryly and quietly confident in performance. His knowing banter combines with an assured delivery that makes his poems easily accessible. Take ‘The 6 Times My Heart Broke’, a fragilely beautiful and increasingly surreal tale of heartbreak (sometimes literally). Or his ‘Mouthful of Stars’ in which he states ‘I’m converting to optimism’ describes a surreal kind of captivity that also keeps his audience captive.

Katy Evans-Bush

Her Tone

She’s softly spoken, her delivery careful, caressing and quiet. The language in ‘Thibault’s Ribbon’, a super-cute poem on Gérard de Nerval’s pet lobster (‘un philosophe de la mer’) for example seems languid, but as words build and twist round each other it seems more coiled. ‘Rilke Puts Hammershøi out of his Element’ lightly sparkled, a supposed debate between two artists, she made the silence speak instead. The tone of her delivery coaxed the varied tones out of some very different poems.

Her Words that Enliven

Her poems seem to give life to the still, to build life and colour around little things. ‘Interior of the Great Hall at Lindegarden’, meanwhile, used phrases like building blocks, constructing a place for the audience to explore. ‘The Fabiola’ About an artist’s collection of portraits of St Fabiola, all copies as the original is lost, that form ‘a city in a room’ becoming a population or a congregation.

Her Words that Distance

The other side of her poetry, to me, was to create distance between objects and sometimes words themselves. ‘On a Note by Louise Bourgeois’ takes a phrase and tumbles it over, repeatedly rephrasing it, playing with ‘my memories are moth eaten’. With light nimble wordplay and ethereality to her words (‘my memories are the sails with which the moths fly), she rolls the phrase over and over until it’s out of sync with itself: thus reflecting the state of the subject. While ‘Portrait of Ida’ presents a portrait of a portrait being made, the subject and painter both alone, joined only through the brush on canvas.

It was a lovely evening, filled with some fantastic poets and poetry. I recommend you check them all out.

Two Nine Arches Press Pamphlets by Deborah Tyler-Bennett and Angela France

In Pamphlets on September 28, 2011 at 9:24 pm

 -Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Mytton…Dyer…Sweet Billy Gibson by Deborah Tyler-Bennett focuses on character portraits of three eccentrics from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, one of whom was Tyler-Bennett’s great-grandfather.

Tyler-Bennett is clearly attracted to larger-than-life personalities, and her poems attempt to capture the essence of these colourful characters, largely through anecdotal narratives. Her use of period language perfectly captures the era, and what I find most compelling is her use of particularly Anglo-Saxon (as opposed to occasional Latin) words: ‘wibbling’; ‘bawd’; ‘smudgery’; ‘smeary’; ‘harlotry’; ‘gawp’; ‘crofties’; – you get the picture. Overall, this creates a strange otherworldliness, due also in part to the cryptic lines and the colourful use of archaic colloquialisms: ‘penny-plains’; ‘hooch’; ‘glegs’.

Another intriguing element to her work is a resistance to using pronouns except where absolutely necessary. Instead, her lines are terse, tight, shorthand, almost as though they are notes for a longer piece:

‘No more ‘Mytton Rides a Bear’,

‘To Hounds’, ‘On Fire’

(mad cure for hiccups),

frames fit only for the byre.’   (Death of the Popular English Print)

Yet Tyler-Bennett does evoke the mood and atmosphere of the day. She often uses vernacular dialogue: ‘Thought ’e said ’e were cousin Norman, / ’e got me messages’. In the wittily titled ‘Horse and Himself’, she captures a scene where the squire turns up at a farmhouse looking for a bed for the night – for himself and his horse.

‘Him, shivered in thinned coats,

impersonating jobbing labourer.

Horse? They’d harbour doubts

but let both in. ‘Wits gone

yon nag comes too!’

Beast and Master blocking fire’s

breath, insane to-do!’

Mytton’s behaviour breaks all the bounds of social etiquette, and he casts off ‘shitten, spoiled’ clothes to hunt naked. Even with animals: ‘when dog-snapped/Mytton seldom hesitates to nip the bastards.’ In ‘Squire Onomatopoeia’, she portrays him in an ‘unconvincing stilled’ moment, ‘clearly/better at mid-gallop, spill, /or thudding lea, this full-tilt chap.’

Her poems consider calling him up during a séance, how his ghost would behave in a different century, how ‘all-in-all’ he’d lived a ‘snarling, snuffing, / yelping life.’

One of her motifs is bees. Telling the Bees refers to the necessity of informing the bees of a death in the family: ‘telling the bees / how it was, how it always is’;  and fingers cupped around a bowl are ‘brawny as bee-bread’. In ‘At the Mortal Man Inn’, the snug is ‘slotted tight as bee hole’. In ‘Dale Fiddler, Downbanks’, ‘Ice bees gather’;  in ‘From Frankenstein’, Mytton’s horse is ‘bee-bothered.’ In ‘Back Lane Ballad Singer’, the musicians ply ‘notes weaving / room-hives, smoking out the drones.’

While the abruptness of these poems can appear too terse or coded on the page, read them aloud and they sing with music. Imagery is often an unexpected delight, and it’s fun discovering echoes in the different poems. In one, the dead have faces ‘closed for business’, whereas Melvin the toy monkey, in another poem, has a ‘worn face, perpetually sunny’, and in Bar One, the drink-sodden Mytton has a ‘red-veined, still comely face.’

Tyler-Bennett’s attention to detail makes these more than surface portraits – she has really envisaged their lives. In Shine: ‘Billy stroked uncombed hair.’ In ‘Telling the Bees for Jimmy Dyer’, the ghost of the ballad singer plays a midnight concert:

‘Only drunken stragglers to hear…

Cabbies waiting on last night’s fare

think strings daggy hill-blown winds.

Passing strays rub though his legs’

Superstitions abound, with all the charm of bygone times:

‘           Cover mirrors when a wake begins;

keep the Skep informed and happy;

Don’t forget to greet the Magpie,

ask after his wife; don’t bring hawthorn in;

or annoy the Hobthrush;

and don’t, and don’t, and don’t…’

In these poems, Deborah Tyler-Bennett chooses to remember the almost forgotten. This includes Billy Gibson’s son, who was ‘dead within scant days of being born’ – now a ‘windfall face safe within a star.’ Here is a voice that is mindful, and careful to avoid sentimentality, while evoking in the reader a genuine affection for her characters. A natural historian, and one who respects the creative, the lived life, the curious and the wayward, her poems brings to mind Chaucer’s portraits or Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End, another quintessential eccentric, as was Vivian himself. Tyler-Bennett’s work is a refreshing change from today’s usual fare, a tribute to eccentricity and a reminder that life would be vastly duller without such characters and their follies.

*

The title, Lessons in Mallemaroking by Angela France, sent me to Google, as ‘mallemaroking’ is a new word for me. The definition, according to the Chambers dictionary, is ‘the carousing of drunken seamen on icebound Greenland whaling ships,’ a word as arresting in its specificity as the collection is.

The opening poem, ‘First Person’, is a kind of  manifesto, giving us an indication of what to expect in this chapbook. Interestingly laid out in four sections, the last stanza is as follows:

‘I as I

don’t cage my own stories

I have woven them

into wattle walls entwined

with tangled braids of others’ myths

threaded with magpie pebbles

I speak in my own voice

through gaps left in the weave’

This is something all natural poets, writers and creative artists do – connect their threads to the universal story.

In spite of the first person voice of this poem, most of the poems here, as with Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s, avoid the personal, focusing instead on random individuals in an unsettled landscape.

There is a strong elemental pulse through these poems. ‘Mallemaroking’ and ‘Littoral’ focus on our connection with the sea-world: its salt, ice, risk to life. ‘Mallemaroking’ is stark and simple, the words mainly mono-syllabic: sing, salt, crack, groan, ice, brace, moans, creaks, grip, tide, pitch, roll, screech, fear, throat – the men carouse in ice-bound waters, to blur ‘the fear of being still.’ The poet invites us to empathise, by including us in their fear: ‘as they shift and screech, /drown the shriek in your throat’. There is a lot of music in these poems, the soundscape of this one evoking the ship creaking through ice.

Apprehensiveness is what drives many of these poems – uncertainties, absences, fear of the repercussions of our lack of husbandry. We have not taken care of our earth, and now are faced with the consequences. In ‘A Letter Home’, ‘The well is full of dead rabbits, Mother.’ The animals begin to disappear: in ‘Bad Tidings’, ‘Nights were empty of the vixen’s / yip and screech’.

In other poems, a lack of awareness is noted: ‘People stop looking, drivers / keep eyes ahead, windows /on trains and buses blinded by newspapers, coats, bags.’ Even horses ‘stay in line…don’t whicker or whinny’ at changing weather.

The elements are present but strange: in ‘Dry Dock’: ‘wind/lashes her scarlet-tipped toes with grit’. Even in the urban landscape of ‘Voyager’, ‘skinny trees’ could be found ‘sprouting through cracked concrete.’ Its absence is noted: ‘a rock has been moved/from my path; its shape marked/by the flat of worm-pocked soil,/edges of clustered moss.’

In ‘Hide and Seek Champ found Dead in Cupboard’, a boy who has perfected the art of hiding, ‘waits for someone who’ll seek’.  As an adult, he ‘hides from taxes and utility bills, paternity suits/and parking tickets.’

Like Deborah Tyler-Bennett, France is attracted to the eccentric and the strange. In ‘Voyager’, a man ‘collects paper from the pavement; stoops slowly for receipts, bus tickets, lottery slips’, from which he makes tiny boats. These he places in any crevices and cracks he finds on his way home. In ‘Matryoshka’, ‘below the morning’s clatter/of gym-kit loss, late homework/office-politic moans’ she crushes the ‘smile, the aproned belly’ of the wooden dolls.

There is the sense that our focus is on the wrong things, that we are missing the bigger picture: in ‘Salt’, a woman walks inexorably into a doom-laden future, as she and her friends ‘taste sherbet/and jangle bracelets.’ Yet: ‘I can see my years/laid out on the grey hillside,/and know my mouth will forget/the shape of my own name.’ In another poem, ‘Dry Dock’, a woman ‘with improbable breasts’ opens her fur coat for a photographer, while ‘clenched/calf muscles drive her feet down/onto stilettos’ and ‘her pink and white smile shivers’. Angela France creates disconcerting scenes and allows readers to come to their own conclusions.

While Deborah Tyler-Bennett looks back at a vanished world, Angela France warns of a future vanishing – the world as she portrays it is unsettled, on the verge of fracturing, and yet we are not paying attention, in spite of our awareness. Instead,

‘We watch the river, the barrier,

the water rising. We read tide-tables,

discuss depressions and surges

as if knowledge were sand-bags.’

Like Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Angela France has a command of her craft, and her language has a compelling force and lyricism. In these diverse ‘magpie pebbles’ of poems, there is a universal narrative, a sense of our place in the ‘weave’. And food for thought.

‘Vintage Sea’ by Marion McCready

In Pamphlets on September 26, 2011 at 9:17 am

-Reviewed by Mark Burnhope

If reading McCready’s debut pamphlet puts me in mind of two or three poets in particular, that’s not to say anything, necessarily, about wearing influences on sleeves. It’s probably fairer to say that Vintage Sea carries its salt in its water. Sylvia Plath is ever-present here, but rather than appearing in a thick oil of confession, her influence is diffused across the pamphlet, in images, motifs, rhythms and sounds which together form McCready’s sense of place (the Firth of Clyde, and the islands off Scotland’s west coast, rather than Plath’s Yorkshire moors). One recurring motif is the sea as bringer and breaker of life. ‘The Herring Girl’ reads almost as the feminine echo of Plath’s ‘Full Fathom Five’:

 

Under a cloud of shoals she lies.

The peaty moon

 

rising from her knees,

sailing the length of her curves.

 

Her herring bone hands

hang by her side.

 

There’s a subtle but palpable motif of birth and miscarriage in ‘The Captayannis’, which makes effective metaphorical use of Greek mythology (the three goddesses of vengeance named the Furies are evoked), and the Greek sugar-carrying vessel which sank in the River Clyde in 1974. I’m not entirely convinced by the confusion of the first two lines in this portion, or ‘buried / like a treasure’, but the poem is affective, and affecting, overall:

 

            A part of me crept inside her

            while she slept in my womb,

            smaller than a plumb.

            I imagined I could keep her buried

            like a treasure. But even the Captayannis

            could not keep her cargo.

 

Throughout Vintage Sea is the accumulation and distillation of things that Plath did well – situating the self in / seeing the self through landscape; myth-making as a way of making sense of experience – but without the baggage of vitriol that (sadly) makes so many contemporary readers recoil. That’s not to say that McCready shrinks back from intense feeling, but that like a seashore forager, she often draws our attention to the subtler elements we might have missed in our distaste for the depressive and melancholy. On one hand, McCready’s lyrical ‘I’ pushes through its sadness to find escape from Plath’s claustrophobic ‘Wuthering Heights’ horizons:

 

My hair rests on the waist

 

of the North Sea.

My dress balloons around me.

I am evergreen, never shedding tears or leaves.

 

Yet this evening I have cried a loch

into my bed. I sleep,

I sleep with a breath. I dream

 

castle ruins, wet sand and steps

that sink to seas. I think

I may be swimming to Norway.

I think I may be free.

 

On the other hand, that Plathean darkness is still here (the Herring Girl ‘slits throats in her sleep’) but it’s distilled, filtered perhaps through Williams’ ‘No ideas but in things’ dictum, or Pound and the Imagists’ almost unwavering reliance on imagery. In ‘Bramble Street’, the suicide idea is built into the things of language via metaphor and simile. The poem finishes two strophes too late for me, and the final lines are too neatly conclusive. But overall, this searing subtlety is one of McCready’s hallmarks:

 

They ripen to mosaics,

sweet stains hanging mid-air.

Then one by one

they succumb

 

like a family of suicides.

 

Of course, that ‘No ideas but in things’ idea, like others, has been further developed in contemporary poetry. Even Wallace Stevens was getting tired of the separation of ‘ideas’ from ‘things’ when he began to conflate the two in his later work. Similarly, whilst McCready doesn’t doubt the essential ‘thingness’ of the image, it isn’t quite enough, so her poems are filled with multi-sensory effects: words, images, rhythms and sounds are often very carefully chosen to get at every one of the senses, as if we ourselves were able to walk these lands and seascapes. So many lines (too many to quote) from ‘Sargassum Lullaby’, ‘The Cockle Picker’s Wife’ and ‘Life Rafts’ are tactile, smelly, tasty.

 

My favourite poems here are highly musical, and their sparse forms, clipped lines and taut linebreaks support their close sound recurrences and small units of meaning. In this, I’m reminded of Elizabeth Bishop, who was also at her best when she zoomed into small poetic ingredients. The concentration on the ‘bones’ of language in poems like ‘In the Waiting Room’ and ‘The Fish’ gave us pause for contemplation at various lines, lifting words which might have otherwise seemed plain, to higher metaphorical or symbolic significance. This placing of language elements in close proximity can have its pitfalls, one of which is that clichéd or simply well-worn phrases can appear too prominent. But a second, related problem can happen when McCready’s lines are unravelled (indeed, even the longer lines of Bishop’s ‘One Art’ are arguably too reliant on the villanelle’s form and metre to achieve their effects). McCready writes largely in free verse, but I can’t help wondering if her longer lines are more forgiving of, and better at hiding, the occasional awkward abstraction, slightly tired image or trite rhyme:

 

There are bodies in the surf, a face in every crest and fall.

You carry her in your tummy, alive. Your wallet hides her soul.

What did you do to her? You swallowed her whole.

 

Aside from these hesitations, there’s much to admire and be transfixed by in Vintage Sea. I warmly recommend it, and look forward to seeing how McCready’s work develops.

‘An Animal’s Guide to Earthly Salvation’ by Jack R. Johnson

In Novella on September 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

In Jack R. Johnson’s An Animal’s Guide to Earthly Salvation, protagonist Jeffrey Rawlings is an assistant at a veterinary clinic, but as the publisher’s blurb notes, ‘it’s not just the animals that need a cure’. Jeff’s family is rife with dysfunction, from his hypochondriac mother Dorothy, to his sister Caroline with dollar signs for eyes, and not to forget the overbearing Uncle Raymond, who has spent his whole life making Jeff feel bad about himself. The neighbourhood Jeff lives in is no walk in the park either, especially when resident transvestite Scott starts handing drugs to Clara, the runaway whom Jeff suspects of being underage after he has slept with her. All in all, a crazy cast of characters that seems ripe with comedic potential.

Oddly though, I think this potential doesn’t get explored fully in the course of the narrative. There is that moment in Chapter Seven where Jeff has brought Clara to visit his mother in the hospital (who was finally warded at the start of the story with an actual life-threatening illness), and at the end, out of Clara’s earshot, Dorothy says to Jeff, ‘She is sweet. But…that girl doesn’t eat enough’, rather than commenting on her chewed and dirty fingernails or her dubious political affiliations. Otherwise, a lot of the humour in An Animal’s Guide to Earthly Salvation involving the human characters tends to come across as overly scripted. Even what should have been the big reveal of Jeff’s mother and Uncle Raymond’s affair in the next chapter feels like it was included for the sake of further (and somewhat predictably) complicating the entanglements of the Rawlings family.

On the other hand, when the animals become involved, the story can rise to a blackly comic level or invoke moments of pathos. Chapter One actually opens promisingly in the former vein, with Jeff trying to break a dead Doberman’s legs, so he can take it out of a cage and to the dumpster. Except he fails and a colleague has to do it for him with a fire extinguisher because ‘That’s the way you have to do it.’ Cue shift of gears in Chapter Two, when Dr. Fitzhugh at the clinic appears to save a German Shepherd through nothing more than the sheer power of prayer. It might be cheesy to some, and Jeff himself is clearly sceptical, but honestly, what kind of person would you have to be in order to hope for that dog to die?

Perhaps the problem with An Animal’s Guide to Earthly Salvation is that after getting through it, a reader might sense that there are two competing stories trying to be told here. One has to do with Jeff’s human relationships, although even the strand of the plot that tracks his relationship with Clara, the most sustained one apart from the drama revolving around Dorothy’s illness, is more a stutter-stop affair than something that organically evolves. The other attempts to tie together animals and philosophy, dropping in a bit of Kierkegaard here and there, while offering up handy aphorisms like ‘Humans are animals that failed’. Yet even Johnson’s breezily readable prose style, capable as it is of propelling readers through the book’s largely episodic structure, is not quite enough to seamlessly stitch the two stories together.

‘Maybe This Time’ by Alois Hotschnig (translated by Tess Lewis)

In Short Stories on September 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Peirene Press has been producing a series of short story collections called The Man, which follows on neatly from their previous series, The Female Voice. Peirene aims to bring international writers to an English-reading audience, through translations of short story collections – their previous publications feature three female then three male authors. I admire a publisher with that sort of commitment to gender equality and international outlook.

I also admire a publisher producing small books as lovely as those printed by Peirene Press. Their short story collections are all about clean lines and a certain simple elegance. They’re also a very handy size for carrying around with you, and won’t take long to read through – especially if all of the collections are as engaging as the one I’ve just finished.

The third collection in Peirene’s The Man series is Alois Hotschnig’s Austrian German Maybe This Time, translated by Tess Lewis. Hotschnig’s stories are largely told by explicitly male narrators, and that seems to be how Maybe This Time (or Die Kinder beruhighte das nicht, in the original – and several stories contain the idea of troubled children mentioned in the German title) fits the theme of The Man series. There are no flashy car chases or explosions here, Hotschnig’s work unfolds gently and rewards close reading, saving its shocking (and sometimes beautiful) moments for a story’s closing image.

Maybe This Time Alois Hotschnig Peirene Press

And some of those moments are beautifully bittersweet. That may not be the case with the final image of ‘Encounter’, in which a dying insect is devoured from within by ants, but is very much the case with ‘Morning, Noon and Night’, in which the sense of loss comes like a hammer-blow at the end of a story that has wandered and drifted around summer’s day street, tragedy lurking beneath the surface. But it is a beautiful hammer-blow, in its subtlety and in the way it smashes a hole through the otherwise peaceful street, subverting all that has gone before it without anyone noticing.

Hotschnig returns time and again to that sense of loss, of something not being in the right place or lacking altogether. Peirene Press compare him to Franz Kafka, and there is something Kafkaesque about two stories in particular in Maybe This Time. They are stories where identity is fluid, shifting and impossible to pin down – the very elusiveness of this identity means it’s not identity at all, but rather a misplaced concept of self that doesn’t equate to reality.

Loss sits heavily over other stories, for example in the case of a man looking for his son and allowing other children to briefly take his son’s place. The fisherman, his endless quest quietly muted and understated, allows the identity of other children to slide in his own mind, filling a hole in his life for a moment. In ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’ an elderly woman is compensating for her grown-up children’s absence with dolls she thinks of as her children – dolls who look exactly like other children of the neighbourhood. Hotshnig builds this creepy little story delicately and masterfully, gradually allowing his narrator’s life to be first absorbed into the woman’s and then dominated by her. There’s something of Roald Dahl, never mind Kafka, at work.

Karl, the narrator of ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’, demonstrates perfectly the principle at work in so much of Hotschnig’s writing. The stories of Maybe This Time are stories with a gaping hole which sucks in everything around it. Karl knows he shouldn’t return to the dolls and the woman’s house, is even afraid to, but can’t stop himself. The narrator of ‘The Same Silence, The Same Noise’ doesn’t want to keep watching his indolent neighbours on the next jetty, but can’t draw himself away – in fact, their indifference to him merely serves to fuel his obsession.

Hotshnig’s stories are stories on the edge. Stories on the edge of obsession, almost always, stories on the literal edge of a lake, sometimes. ‘The Light in My Room’, with the fisherman, gives a good idea of the feature common to much of Maybe This Time. The room is on the edge of the fisherman’s lake, in the centre of which lies an island that draws to itself all the people nearby, at one time or another. Children flock to play on it, and it draws the attention of the adults whether they realise or not. That island is the gaping heart of Hotschnig’s stories, an absence that attracts as it repels. The people around the edges are forever looking in, watching, unable to escape or look away. Hotschnig explores the little obsessions in life that grow and grow and come to dictate our very existence.

Peirene Press has done well here, and Lewis’ translation serves the original text well, conveying that deep loss as well as the sense of watching life from the edges. In 2012, Peirene has another three collections coming out – this time the theme will be bite-size epics, and they’re bound to be just as lovely little books as Hotschnig’s.

At the heart of Maybe This Time is an absence that attracts, a rejection that draws the reader and character inescapably inwards, and I advise you to read it because it’s beautifully done.

Political: A Gender @ the Royal Vauxhall Tavern 01/09/11

In Performance Poetry on September 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm

-Reviewed by James Webster and Dana Bubulj

‘The Cutlery Drawer’: a project raising funds for charities through music, cabaret and poetry events.

‘Political: A Gender’ : their second event, in aid of the charity Gendered Intelligence. With all performances interacting with the themes of gender, sexuality, queerness and trans issues, it featured comedy, burlesque, music and, of course, poetry, and was somewhat excellent.

Gendered Intelligence: A community interest company who run youth clubs, camping trips and provide guidance and advice in schools for anyone who has questions over their identity or gender. Finn Greig from GI gave a very elucidating talk on the activities of the charity, highlighting the good work they do, how inclusive they are, while making sure to enthusiastically thank Hel and the team, and generally coming across as a lovely human being.

Fabulous: The performances, audience and organisers.

Host:

  • Hosting was Hel Gurney, the driving force behind Cutlery Drawer and from who’s fertile brain the idea for Political: A Gender leapt and was also the night’s charming host, and is generally a fabulous and engaging activist.
  • Their hosting style was endearing, engaging and full of warmth for the delicious melting pot of acts on display.

The Poets:

  • Elaine O’Neill was horrifyingly erudite. Her mixture of humour, eloquence, emotion and wordplay was a winning combination.
  • Her poems well elegantly phrased, from appropriately transcendent thoughts on the multiple meanings of trans (culminating in ‘Optimus Primary Transexual’), to collections of acronyms seamlessly segued in ‘Acrophobia’, before losing me in verdant natural imagery. She then tied me up in clever wordplay while giving me advice about doctors and concluded with a deliciously subversive poem about sexuality and cake.
  • Roz Friggin’ Kaveney  is a legend. One of the premier commentators of pop (and geek) culture, a trans activist and writer of no small repute. A member of the Midnight Rose science fiction collective and a founding member of Feminists Against Censorship.
  • She performed a plethora of poems; a touching, haunting and glamorously brave tribute to Steve Frances and drag gone by was followed by her Sappho interpretation, its sometimes staccato painful language matching its sentiment perfectly. She broke this up with a poem she feels she’ll be remembered for ‘a poem about [her] cunt’ that was a visceral confirmation of identity tied up in a tender sensuality, which contrasted to her gently heart-breaking vignette of a relationship ending, of a love that ‘just won’t do’. She mixes poems about objectification that both point out the subjects allure while remaining conscious of its own voyeurism with incredibly sweet poems about her partner with its love of ordinary things at night time.
  • What stood out for me in her enjoyable set were her pieces on Amy Winehouse (Blues 5) where she describes the singer’s voice as ‘both the rose and the thorns’ encouraging us to ‘listen to each song, she lives in those’ and her 18th Century fictional narrative poem that had a feminist queer-gendered Kill Bill/Sweeney Todd cycle of revenge vibe to it.
  • Hel Gurney: Fun fact, I witnessed this poet’s first ever performance and reviewed the second. And Hel’s come on leaps and bounds since that first night.
  • ‘Exhibitionism’ was an engaging start with its simple repetitions, humour and knowingly indulgent introspection, moving on to ‘First Snowfall in the Village’ which was idyllically short and sweet. ‘Men’s Seas’ made a personal progression sound universal, whilst being very funny and ‘Picture of my Love’, about a snap carried with you on a phone was adorable. ‘Nec Femina Dice Nec Puer’ the last Hel performed is a typical example of this poet’s style. At once contemporary and classical, mundane and mythological, it toys with time, space and gender.
  • But my favourites of Hel’s poems were firstly the poem on ‘the person you were and are no longer’, a memory of a person who was fearless, was sure of themselves and their future, a reader, fighter, explorer of all things immaterial. And how that person can diverge from the person you are and become a stranger that on occasion you ‘flicker though like the ghost of flame’. And secondly Hel’s poem on feminism ‘Gender Rubble’ (with particular reference to the odious Julie Bindel and the excellent Judith Butler) a poem on how gender roles can be used to stifle you, but also as almost boundless expression and variation, culminating in the desire to ‘make gender a Kaleidescope.’
  • Sophie Mayer had no poems about meerkats (despite numerous audience requests).
  • She started with ‘Bourgeois Foreskin’ (apparently read at Louise Bourgeois’s funeral) a poem that presented the penis as a handbag containing the decadent and ruined detritus and archaeology of a life. She continued the penis-theme with ‘A Brief History of the Deely Bopper’ (those little headbands with antennae that stick out) that was this broad-ranging list through time, all steeped in historical decadence.
  • A poem followed on Medusa, re-imagined as an intersex cabaret-style performer, who’s still, y’know, a gorgon. It charts her accelerated puberty all ‘hairs and nipples everywhere’ as she’s ‘sprouting like a Venus Flytrap’. It’s a hissing, open wound of a poem, revelling in its neo-classical grotesque. ‘XO the 5th Sea-Nymph-ony’ was a fun pun of a title, backed up by plenty of deft aquatic language, making for nautical poetic fun. ‘When Our Lips Meet Together’ was a slightly fractured, list-poem, the focus floating in and out of different snapshots of lips doing different things together which went well with the sultry, luscious and clever ‘Sapphic Cookbook’.
  • Jo Johnson’s first poem were in a conversational style, first using childhood sports to point out sexism and highlighting the flaws in believing we live in a ‘post-feminist society’ and stressing why feminism’s still so important. Poems about unsuccessful kind were them mixed with a list of annoyances at political apathy and unchallenged bad behaviour: engaging, earnest and thoughtful stuff.
  • The last poet was James Webster. Yes, that’s me. Rather than reviewing myself I’d just like to mention what fun it was performing here. The crowd were lovely, seemed amused by my first poem (‘M.C.W.A.S.P.S.M.’), I think were relatively engaged by my second (‘That’s So Straight’) and were amazing for my third (‘The Sea, The Limpet, The Mer and Me’) coming right up to the stage making for a really intimate performance. So much fun.

The non-poetical acts were also awesome:

  • Lashings of Ginger Beer Time had a wonderful collection of radical feminist songs, sketches and burlesque. Successfully satirising Gok Wan, Disney’s heteronormative nature, ‘anti-obesity’ campaigns, Daily Mail’s perceptions of lesbians, and was generally an amazing celebration of diversity in gender, sexuality and queerness.
  • Sally Outen performed some amazing stand-up comedy. Starting from her own experiences and ranging all the way to the hilarious wrongness that is the book ‘Duncton Wood’ (which seems to be essentially Mole-porn), she was hilarious.
  • Jason Barker: Very funny comedy on the menstrual cycle performed in a ‘uterus’ costume.
  • And Naith Payton was a somewhat lovable comedian. His sketchy material was overcome by his engaging nature.
Overall a great night, entertainment, intelligent discourse and lots of lovely people. I highly recommend you check out the next Cutlery Drawer event.

‘Indignez-Vous!’ by Stéphane Hessel

In Pamphlets on September 5, 2011 at 8:59 am

Reviewed by Claire Trevien

This review was originally written on 31 January 2011 but for various reasons can only be published now – as such it may seem rather out of date, but try to put your mind back to the January climate and its backdrop of student protests!

Indignez-Vous! is the title of the unassuming bestseller by Stéphane Hessel that’s been taking France by storm. At just 30 pages, written by a nonagenarian and published in a south of France attic, this political essay has all the makings of an underdog cunningly overtaking its more expensive peers. And yet, when read, its success seems unavoidable in the current climate. For one, the timing is fortuitous, though it is, for now, only available in French, its population are not blind to the protests spreading like wildfire in the UK, Tunisia, and at the time of writing this, Egypt. While to an outside eye the French have had more than their fair share of protests, these are generally dominated by those already in possession of a job and seeking to add security, an increase in pay or fewer hours to their load. We have not seen the end of protests from the increasingly unemployed younger generation and nor should we.

Part of Hessel’s success comes from the part he played in the French Resistance during WW2 giving his reasoning more credibility. In 1941, Hessel left France to join the De Gaulle in London but soon returned in March 1944 with orders to liaise between different resistance groups, and facilitate the transmission of information in preparation for D-day. Unfortunately, Hessel was betrayed and arrested on 10 July 1944 and experienced the camps of Bunchenwald, Rottleberode and Dora. Hessel’s post-WW2 life is no less interesting. As a diplomat with the UN, for instance, he helped to draft the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. He reacted to the election of Jacques Chirac in 1995 by becoming a socialist, further debunking the common wisdom that one becomes more conservative with age.

Unsurprisingly, the Resistance plays a central role in the opening pages of Hessel’s essay as a blueprint for a state of mind that should be applied to today’s situations. Hessel states that the Resistance was based on a feeling of indignation and reminds the reader of the achievements of the Resistance government as a consequence of this indignation after the war: the creation of Social Security to ensure to all citizens the means of surviving even when unable to work, an independent free press, the right to education. There is perhaps no need to remind ourselves that these are all under threat today, not just in France, but in the UK too thanks to cuts (and increase in costs) to these vital services. Indignation during WW2 might seem simpler to muster than today, Hessel concedes, acknowledging the numerous inequalities that tug for our attention, but that is not a reason to give up. To Hessel, there is nothing worse than indifference, it’s better to pick one or two important subjects of indignation (as he does) than none at all.

The rich life Hessel has led is part of the fabric of this essay which delves into his later experiences, such as his visits to Gaza in 2008 and 2009. The example of Gaza in the essay serves to illustrate Hessel’s point that neither violence nor terrorism are effective. ‘Violence turns its back on hope’ he writes, and hope of non-violence is the path that must be followed. Hessel’s choice of closing words, ‘To Create is to Resist / To Resist is to Create’ summarize the educated optimism that pervades the essay. The poetry of Hessel’s prose, his peppering of literary and artistic references (including an illustration, with Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus), his sudden dives into minutiae, intensify rather than distract from his message. Indignez-Vous! is a rousing, resonant work that needs to be read by all generations, now.