Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

‘Hellhound On My Trail’ by D. J. Butler

In Novella on February 29, 2012 at 11:30 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Hellhound on my trail - D. J. Butler

In Hellhound on My Trail, the first instalment of his Rock Band Fights Evil pulp fiction serial, D. J. Butler introduces us to a motley crew of musicians engaged in a battle with the powers of darkness. Clocking in at ten chapters, the installment makes for a quick but highly entertaining read. Butler throws the reader right into the thick of the action within the first couple of pages, as the titular Hellhound bursts out and interrupts the band mid-set. The pace does not let up thereafter, effectively making Hellhound on My Trail one extended fight scene, albeit with enough tantalising plot reveals scattered throughout to keep things interesting.

This parsimonious manner of expanding the in-story universe actually reminded me of Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series The Dresden Files, in which lead protagonist Harry Dresden, private investigator and wizard, has the misfortune of constantly having to wrestle with the supernatural underbelly of Chicago. A compelling first-person narration has allowed that series to spin out its narrative twists and turns for 13 books and counting. Butler looks set to do something similar with Rock Band Fights Evil, since at the time of writing this review, the next two instalments, Snake Handlin’ Man and Crow Jane, are already available on Amazon and Smashwords (see the series website). The difference here from The Dresden Files is that each instalment appears to track the unfolding story from a different character’s perspective.

In the case of Hellhound on My Trail, that character is the hapless bass player Mike, whose position as the regular guy suddenly confronted by the supernatural mirrors the reader’s experience of the story as it develops. Mike starts off as someone who is just filling in for the band’s previous bass player. A life-and-death fight scene later, he learns the bass player was impaled on the player’s own instrument. A page after that revelation, he also finds out that he has the Left Hand of God on him, and while that means he is condemned to Hell, it is also the reason why Jim, the band’s enigmatic singer, has allowed him to tag along with the band, in the wake of the Hellhound’s completely destroying their gig venue. Jim himself is a fascinating character, who spends most of the story in silence while dealing damage to various minions of Hell. However, it turns out that Jim is one of the Devil’s progeny and he cannot speak because the fallen angels are listening out for him, whereas singing is perfectly fine for him because ‘[t]hey can’t even hear singing…They can’t hear any music. Music is Heaven’s gift to the angels, and when they rebel, they lose it entirely.’

While I really enjoyed the overall idea of a rock band that fights evil because of personal vendettas against the forces of darkness, changes its name for each performance and can never be signed by a record label, there were a few elements of Hellhound on My Trail that nagged at me. One such was Mike’s dead brother, Chuy, whose ghost haunts Mike throughout the story. What started out as a promising plot device (‘He hadn’t seen his brother’s ghost all day, and he needed a drink to keep things that way’) seemed to be sidelined once the supernatural action fully got underway. Even when Chuy pops back up at the most inconvenient of times for Mike (like while trying to escape the spawn of Hell), it is still hard to believe Mike’s tortured feelings regarding his brother.

Another problem was the overall lack of character development. Pretty much all the characters can be boiled down to some individual quirk. Besides Mike and Jim, the band consists of Eddie (the guitarist) who sold his soul to (unintentionally) become the world’s most awesome tambourine player, Twitch (the drummer) who is a transmogrifying fairy, and Adrian (the resident wizard) who is cursed with narcolepsy that appears to kick in whenever he tries to perform too many spells. It might seem unfair to criticise a work of pulp fiction for lack of character depth, but I would imagine there is still a limit to how far the quirks can propel the story without beginning to wear thin on the reader. That said, I expect these are minor issues that Butler will begin to resolve as the succeeding serial instalments flesh out more of this rock band’s gripping story. If Hellhound on My Trail is anything to go by, they should prove to be exciting reads.


N.O.N.C.E. – Steve Larkin

In Performance Poetry on February 27, 2012 at 5:45 pm

@ The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford

– reviewed by Paul Askew

The Performer: Steve Larkin is a bit of a legend of the Oxford poetry scene.

In fact, some would say he’s the reason Oxford has a poetry scene.

He set up and ran the infamous Hammer & Tongue night, which has now spread to other cities too, for eight years before backing down to concentrate on his own thing. His own thing being his new one man show, N.O.N.C.E.

If the title seems a little confrontational that’s because it’s meant to be. Steve’s never been one to shy away from politics in his poetry, so a show about the year he spent as poet in residence at a prison was certainly going to be no exception.

The Concept: a one-man show?

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. Yes, we’ve all seen the art of the one man/modern theatre show parodied so well on Spaced, The Big Lebowski, Family Guy, etc etc. Small theatre shows are generally treated with the same sense of general disdain as self published poetry pamphlets, possibly even more so, so it’s difficult not to approach this without some sense of caution. I’ve seen Steve Larkin perform poetry before, I know how good he is, but a one man theatre show? Really? Yes. Really.

The Show: Spoiler alert:  This show isn’t just good, it’s really bloody good.

The basic storyline is that Steve and a Doctor (whose name I’m afraid I forgot to note) regularly go to HM Grendon to run a poetry workshop for the inmates. At first it appears to be met with a lack of enthusiasm, but as the prisoners who sign up get more into the course, the more the worth of what they’re doing seems. This rise in professional success is offset by a deterioration of Steve’s personal life, creating an interesting dynamic. I’m reluctant to go into much more detail, as the show’s reveals deserve to be kept as such.

The Performance: Steve Larkin is a warm and very engaging performer

It’s what made him such a good Hammer & Tongue host, so as he (and I’m loathe to use this phrase, but it really does describe it best) takes you on a journey through his year long placement, you go right along with him. It feels like he is talking to you, rather than at you (which in a full theatre is no easy feat). This presentation style is one of the main reasons why N.O.N.C.E. works as well as it does. It is never preachy, hectoring, judgmental or manipulative. Steve Larkin has the faith to just present his events and let the power of what’s happening be what affects us.

One of the other main reasons that N.O.N.C.E. succeeds as it does is by repeatedly taking you through Steve’s daily routine. This repetition is a clever trick, setting a framework for us to become quickly familiar with. It puts us in his place. He gets up, goes to work, certain same things happen, he leaves, stays in a B&B, calls his girlfriend, sleeps and dreams. By following this repeated routine, the changes are more highlighted and affecting. We are shown how Steve’s progress with the prisoners was slow to start, and each ‘Eureka’ moment makes us take more notice of it, because it’s outside of the framework. It’s unexpected.

The Prisoners: These people are people

A large part of the show deals with the interactions between the prisoners and a group of students that Steve is teaching in another job. The bringing together of these groups highlights a slight paradox in the way that the prisoners are taught and treated. These people are people, and when treated as such respond in positive ways and progress is made. Because they are people who’ve committed awful crimes though, they are never to be fully trusted. The interactions with the students highlight this conflict well, and it is a conflict that is never fully resolved.

There are a couple of uneasy moments in the Steve’s personal life side of the show, which serve to highlight how easy it could be for any of us to make an error of judgement and end up in the prisoners’ situation ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to think that you could, in one simple, unthinking moment, end up in the same position as someone in HM Grendon.

This is something we haven’t been given a chance to think about before. All the inmates who take part in the workshop are given the names of their heroes. This is said to be to enable them to loosen up and engage in the program, but I suspect it was also done in order to separate each person from their crime, so that by detaching them from what they’ve done they’ve done, they could see them as people rather than monsters. It works for the show too, as that’s the effect it has on the audience. It’s a lot easier for us to root for someone called David Bowie, say, than someone we know as a convicted murderer. It’s another little trick that really works in getting us involved in and sympathetic to the events of the show.

Conclusion: Moving, thought-provoking, superb theatre.

The ending of the show is superb. Again, I am reluctant to give too much away, but a couple of points are raised which confront us with our general perceptions and habits (both of which, I have to admit, I was guilty of), and this highlights another message of the show. We all have preconceptions, and these can often do a disservice to the people we have them of.

For all the uncomfortable moments and uneasy feelings we are given though, N.O.N.C.E. is in the end an affirming and uplifting show. Its messages are positive ones, and they are delivered in a way that makes you think about them long after the show is over.

Steve Larkin has created a moving, thought provoking, and, most importantly, a fantastic piece of theatre. I would highly recommend this show to anyone who has a chance to see it.

‘Poland At The Door’ by Evelyn Posamentier

In Pamphlets on February 27, 2012 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Reading Evelyn Posamentier’s Knives Forks and Spoons chapbook Poland At The Door, which Michael Heller describes on the back cover as ‘resembl[ing] a series of atomized clusters’, I was reminded of the poetry of Paul Celan, whose later poems especially were often similarly short and compressed. The work of both poets is also shot through with the horrors of Eastern European history, marked as it is by wars and the Holocaust. However, although Heller also characterises Posamentier’s poetry as being ‘semi-effaced characters like those inscribed on ancient rune-stones or stelae…double-edged ciphers’, I personally found Poland At The Door less opaque and enigmatic than say, Celan’s Fathomsuns and Benighted, while still making for an intriguing read.

Poland At The Door essentially functions as an extended poem cycle, the individual verses always preceded by the chapbook title in capitals. At the typographical level, this has the effect of partitioning the page into what increasingly resemble little rooms in which the verses are to remain safely corralled. The room-as-protection motif runs throughout the language of the poem as well, but here it is the poet seeking protection in the physical integrity of the room’s space: ‘oh god, I’ve left / the door unlocked’, ‘hold on. hold on. / don’t answer the door’, ‘they can’t find me in this room’, ‘it’s good to be a portable room. / ‘i gather the walls around me.’ Towards the end of the cycle, however, the ‘wobbly room’ appears to take on greater agency:

which door? the portable room

steps forward to accept the challenge.

the guests know not why

they have come. the room

shields itself with its own

pretense of freedom.

With this shift, the room mutates into something that paradoxically seems to simultaneously expose and hide the poet, expressed in lines like ‘the room withers my walls / closes in to conceal me’. Yet if ‘poland at the door’ is cast as the threat of history waiting outside, the room never seems to become entirely complicit in endangering the poet (‘this room / can carry me anywhere. / it is my lover, stepping lightly.’), functioning rather as a kind of interface with the world beyond the door (‘someday the room will escort me / to the free air, which of course / is no longer free’). It is also within the cocoon of the room that the poem reaches its crisis point on the penultimate page, as language symbolically fails to turn away the knock of ‘poland at the door’:

i shred these frozen notebooks

who make a mockery of my desk

i don’t care about their smirks

& willful pages, sneering

through helpless words.

a typewriter seethes in the corner.

wait for me, says the wall.

it doesn’t matter, says the opposite

wall. the neighbours read their lines.

i feel them pass the door.

Seen from this perspective, the last lines of the poem might appear curiously passive: ‘my planet stands still’, ‘the footsteps have followed history / into the town square. / they have passed.’ After pages and pages of attempting to avoid ‘memories of / ancestors on the attack’, ‘the guests’, ‘the neighbors’, ‘poland at the door’, has the encounter with history then not palpably changed the poet after all? I would suggest this apparent problem can be resolved by recourse to earlier lines in the poem: ‘did someone say something / about a meeting point? / it must be beyond the door.’ If ‘the door might swing open / like a shiny new century’, then stepping through it is to look in two directions at once, embracing the future even as one is embraced by the past. Since the final lines of the poem imply that the ‘i’ of the poem is still observing from within the room, the ‘meeting point…beyond the door’ has not yet been approached. Thus in declining to offer a tidy and convenient resolution to its ongoing narrative, the poem instead leaves the reader poised on the cusp of change and meaningful engagement.

Ultimately, I believe that Poland At The Door is a fascinating read because it carefully regulates its own approach to that singular final moment, paring the journey into manageable portions. Taken in isolation, the verses’ imagery can sometimes seem downright hallucinatory, but what binds the cycle together and keeps it grounded are the linguistic repetitions running through it. While the repetition of the title fosters a looming sense of urgency, this runs parallel to permutations of the phrase ‘the days of awe, the days between’. This seems an apt description of what history actually looks like to most people, with days that leave an indelible psychic mark on personal or collective memory and the days in between them that can just pass us by. Typically occurring as single lines interspersed among the other verses, the phrase acts to slow down the poem’s pace. What could otherwise have been a frantic attempt to shut out the memory of the past is transformed into a moving chronicle of the poet’s steady journey towards engaging it. We all have our personal ‘poland at the door’. Reading Posamentier’s chapbook is one way we can begin to address and welcome it.


Poetry Jam @ The Tea Box 13/01/2012

In Performance Poetry on February 26, 2012 at 12:26 am

– reviewed by Claudia Haberberg –

By the time I arrive at the Poetry Jam, the Tea Box is already full to bursting. Had my friend not arrived some time before me, I wouldn’t be able to sit down. The organisers – Anna Le and Amy Acre, of the equally popular Sage & Time – seem surprised and delighted in equal measure by the event’s evident success. With the mix-and-match antique aesthetic of the venue, the breathless excitement of the hosts, and the occasional delays as poets clamber over each other in order to reach the microphone, the atmosphere of the event can be best described as adorably shambolic.

The Poetry Jam plays host to a rich variety of poets, from the completely uninitiated (such as John, who has never read at an event before and brings us a collection of lunch hour limericks), to spoken word veterans such as Peter Hayhoe and tonight’s featured poet, Niall O’Sullivan, who runs Poetry Unplugged at the world famous Poetry Café.

  • O’Sullivan brings us excerpts from his most recent endeavour, The Mundane Comedy, written in terza rima and modelled on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The title says it all. O’Sullivan covers racism, class prejudice, open mic night culture and the Star Wars franchise with his characteristic brand of world-weary sardonicism that can, when mustered, pack a powerful punch. The Star Wars poem may have been ill-judged for a middle class, largely middle aged audience of poets, but the geekier, pop-culturally aware among us certainly enjoyed its forays into meme. He maintains that the greatest weapon against prejudice is humour. This might be subject to debate, but it certainly makes for an entertaining set.
  • The evening had an unofficial theme of specular poems, a form which Amy Acre uses to great effect in The Ends of the Earth. The first stanza paints a portrait of an ordinary Nepalese woman – whom Acre met whilst travelling – and the second turns it, both literally and figuratively, on its head. Acre’s flawless delivery, the rich colours and deep brush-strokes with which she paints, and her thorough grasp of form make this poem deeply compelling and a joy to hear.
  • Vanessa, we’re told, has come up from Bristol to be with us tonight, and I hope her journey was as worthwhile for her as it is for the audience. Her poem, Strawberries, is an achingly beautiful, sweetly nostalgic, charmingly awkward and very funny vignette of first love, centring around the taste of strawberries, the heat of the summer, and the differences between Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. [I believe this is Bristol-based poet Vanessa Kisuule, ed.]

The evening also brings us a promising young poet in the form of Ameen Outspoken, who reads I Know Nothing, a thoughtful elegy on learning, reading and politics. His smooth delivery, pulsing rhythm, and engaging subject matter make him one to watch for future events.

We are also treated to a promising older poet, Terry, to whom age has brought cynicism and wit in equal measure. He is great fun, with subject matter ranging from doctors humouring their older patients to a workaday romance.

Peter Hayhoe is the final poet of the evening. Sabotage has not been recalcitrant in his praise in the past, and this review is no exception. He presented us with a poem, freshly written that day, about a festival romance. He juxtaposes the mundane (the morning after the night before) and the magical (emotions soaring as new love begins), the joyous (the experience of live music) and the grotesque (festival toilets), to form a funny, charming and engrossing whole. It gave the night its perfect cadence.

An open mic night is always hit-and-miss, and Poetry Jam is no exception. We hear the clumsily rhymed, curmudgeonly first world problems of Julia and Jan, and MC Little Mo and Edward Unique have little more than misogyny to offer. But the best poets of the evening are more than capable of eclipsing them, and I leave with a smile on my face and tea in my belly.

An Evening of Poetry and Music Visuals – by London Poetry Systems and Ferment

In Magazine, Performance Poetry on February 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm

@ The Albion Beatnik 28/01/2012

-reviewed by James Webster

So I’m in the chaotically colourful, bustling and amazing bookshop that is the Albion Beatnik in Oxford and it’s very crowded and I am terrified of spilling my beer on a book. Here, London Poetry System have teamed up with Ferment ‘zine to deliver an evening of ‘cross media poetry’ which can apparently be translated as ‘poetry with technical hitches’, and aside from my fears of beer/book-related accidents, I’m having a whale of a time.

  • It’s hosted by George Topping, who has a flustered energy and likability, kind of channeling a Matt Smith vibe. He kept things moving smoothly, and was entertainingly cheeky towards latecomers.
  • He warms us up with ‘Love-Knot’ about warmth on a boat. It’s filled with amusingly dreadful puns (he’s ‘not a monogamist’, but a ‘mahoganist’) and funnily clunky rhymes.
  • The first feature is Lucy Ayrton, whose ‘Tarquin’ is the first multi-media poem of the night. And it sparkled, its twinkly and ominous backing music providing the perfect pitch to Ayrton’s cautionary tale of why you shouldn’t talk to strangers (especially if they’re demons). Tarquin makes an effective mixture smart-Alec and helpfulness, while the demon is coldly spiky in both description and dialogue. Combined with the music it makes for chilling listening.
  • Her other poems are full of slickly intricate rhymes, with a very natural delivery that belies her language’s complexity. She’s also very funny. ‘Fuck You Corporate-Land’ is an amazing performance of disappointment at the monotony of corporate environment (‘you’re disappointed? I was going to be the first ever brain surgeon/rock star’). And ‘I Don’t Hate Men, I Just Hate You’ is a highly amusing and perceptive piece on feminism and a certain kind of misogyny.
  • Then Paul Askew, the co-founder of Ferment (available on the night for the reduced price of £3) steps up to the plate.
  • He starts with this gem of an exchange with the audience:

Paul: “Can you hear me at the back?”

Audience Member: “No.”

Paul: “I suspect that was my mum, she likes to fuck with me.”

Audience Member: “Not literally …”

*Paul leaves, like, literally walks out the front door in a faux huff. The audience piss themselves laughing. Not literally.*

  • He does come back, treating us to some of his delectably surreal poetry.
  • He starts with some joke-poems about death, but he really gets going with a spectacularly meta acrostic about Oxford, that is about, um, trying to write an acrostic about Oxford with helpful hints (and eventually criticisms) from the city itself (‘I’VE GOT DREAMY SPIRES, LOOK AT ME!’). It’s also his poem from this issue of Ferment.
  • ‘The Time I Tried to Work in a Café’ is a showcase in using his absurdist tendencies to illustrate bizarre profundity. Describing the Chaos Café, a trendy student hangout, designed by the owner to be as anarchic as possible as she ‘loves chaos … want[s] to kiss its lips’. Balancing chaos against the shadow of perfection which is ‘hollow and so fragile you’re afraid to move’ Askew meditates on how lives court chaos, how they can embrace or control their own lack of control.
  • And he finishes with ‘The Crow’, a bit of a crowd favourite, with a nicely drawn character of the comic curmudgeonly crow and a funny situation that gives rise to an unlikely connection.
  • Next were two more multimedia poems, from LPS poets Jennie Cole and Jericho. Now, multimedia performance is a really exciting genre, and I’ve seen some really strong performances utilising video and sound, but both these poems came across as pretentious and inaccessible.
  • Jennie Cole’s ‘Cockaigne, A Pastoral’ shows us some interesting themes and phrases, but way too many of the lyrics were only vague poetical aphorisms and ultimately it’s too disconnected and oblique for me to connect with.
  • While Jericho’s ‘Vertigo’ feels like an über-pretentious fan video to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s even more inaccessible and self-indulgent than ‘Cockaigne’.
  • Caroline Bird is next on, another poet who examines life through the lens of funny surrealism.
  • She treats us to a big mess of scare-stories, feelings and amusing randomness as she explains to us what’s happening ‘in every city of the world’. It’s all different aspects of city lives thrown onto the wall and somehow it all sticks.
  • ‘Our Lollypop Lady’ is not only a splendidly bizarre poem, but an excellent piece of common sense. Suggesting that relationships need an umpire she brings to life an ultra-fair character who ‘lives in the middle of the kitchen in a yellow tent’. It’s intelligently conceived and humorously realised.
  • While ‘Let the People Starve’ is on how love can make you stop caring about other things, taken to a ridiculous extreme (‘let’s … sink knives into everyone who said it wouldn’t last’).
  • ‘Pity the Female Casanova’ is very insightful on the falseness of adoration, while remaining impressively witty and ‘Facts’ gives us the facts around the edge of an experience; a poem coquettishly hinting and suggesting at a just perceived something.
  • Ross Sutherland, the final performer, gives us some more multimedia poetry with superb results.
  • Starting with an hilarious retelling of Little Red Riding Hood (that almost makes me snort beer out of my nose onto a nearby copy of The Forsythe Saga) with certain words replaced with the words 23 places below them in the dictionary, thus making the title ‘Liverish Red-Blooded Riff-Raff Hoo-ha’. It turned into a bizarrely coherent and political poem (‘Great Britain is illiberal and weaponless’ was a favourite) that was delivered with considerable verbal dexterity, while the accomplished video kept it grounded in the source material.
  • His ‘Experiment to Determine the Existence of Love’ is superbly sweet, with a perfectly pitched video. It recounts a date as a scientific experiment from hypothesis to conclusion. It mixes the science into the poetry seamlessly.
  • ‘Symphony’ is an amazing interactive poetry project: Ross wrote a poem, it was translated into different languages and various people playing the Hide and Seek weekender had to find people to translate it back. And Sutherland reads both his original poem and the resulting translated poem, both to the same elegant music and affecting video. Both poems are wonderful, steeped in the sounds and feelings of London, but the best bits are definitely where the translations differ massively and comically.
  • But by far Sutherland’s strongest poem in my eyes (and the strongest of the night) was an uproarious and poignant poem that worked as a meditation on death and the ‘trappings of grief’ while also perfectly describing the action of the opening credits of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that played behind him. Flawlessly imagined and performed, it was equal parts heart-rending and heart-warming.


A very entertaining night that reflected very favourably on LPS, Ferment and the growing genre of multimedia spoken word, with only some inaccessible videos letting the side down. I recommend you check out LPS’s events and buy Ferment. Go do that now.

‘Frankie, Alfredo’ by Liane Strauss

In Pamphlets on February 24, 2012 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

To read Liane Strauss’s poems is to sharpen your mind, deliciously. This chapbook is full of witty, clever, wry poems, which build up the impression of a consciousness resisting vulnerability, developing a sassy voice in response to perceived ‘sour grapes’: ‘you, full of voluptuous objection, / because my verses spill over with push-up / bras and low riding tangas think I’m a girl!’. There is a sprung energy and edginess to her language and content that continually subverts expectation. Perhaps as a defensive gesture, perhaps to satisfy her own intellectual thirst, she references Archimedes, Catullus, Lady Suwo, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Lady Macbeth, Éluard, Byron and Li Ch’ing Chao, among others.

She invites questioning at a conceptual level, by her use of simultaneity, as in the opening poem, ‘Alone in the Night’. Here Strauss jumps between apparently disparate situations, a news piece where ‘Emergency rescue has just freed / the woman trapped for twelve hours / underneath the ice’ and the speaker’s own state of loneliness, where ‘I try to write a poem in which / two ice floes drift and dissolve like willows’. Although there is a self-consciousness here, the wry tone makes it deliberate. This self-consciousness is apparent again in ‘Boy’, where the loved object is treated carelessly, until lost, and then anger sets in and the child turns merciless: ‘She snapped / the head off every last doll she possessed / and heaped the headless bodies on her bed’. She tells us these details, ‘to satisfy those for whom cause and explanation, / and not the simple disposition of parts, is paramount’.

A number of poems deal with the mental engagement, jousting and flirting that occur in relationships, as in the brilliant ‘Archimedes and Me’: ‘that mock-indulgent tone you adopt / whenever you don’t want me to know / how adorable you find me’; and later in the same poem: ‘just as when I really am talking to you / I’m talking to myself again.’ In the title poem, ‘Frankie, Alfredo’, the speaker throws down a gauntlet: ‘Name the dawn. I’ll take your mouths and your money / both hands tied behind my back, in a blindfold / and ten bona fide inches of stiletto’. In other poems, there is a sense of aching sadness for the earlier days of blossoming love: ‘how I used to navigate the corridor as if I always wore / a careless coy chignon in hot weather’ (‘Transcriptions from Éluard’).

Strauss explores all the processes of relationships, from beginnings, to middles and endings, where, it is hinted, the treacherous damage of rumour and gossip are a factor: ‘Like an airborne influenza, word got around.’ (‘Rumour’); ‘although nothing happened, / I have become the subject of gossip’ (‘Variations on a Theme by Lady Suwo’). In the latter poem, Strauss takes a stanza by Lady Suwo, and in a kind of Chinese whispers sequence, cleverly alternates and elaborates on the lines to distort the original meaning.

Many of her poems convey different states of mind using the symbolism of objects: ‘my cold cream’s gone off / my hair clip’s yanked too tight’ (‘Alone in the Night’); ‘I lay gorgeous, enormous eggs / and hatch the most beautiful babies’ (‘Three Ostriches’); ‘a fox dangling from a chair-back / like a provocative suggestion’(‘Self –Portrait’).

These different facets / personalities are revealed in the sequence of sonnets called ‘Three Ostriches’. The first has ‘legs long as summer afternoons and quick as convertibles’. In the second,

‘like a felled tree, I collapsed,

my poor knees buckled back,

thump, in a great roar of dust

like some defenestrated sack

for everything I know I lack.’

Then in the third, where the ostrich has her head buried, ‘I find treasures all the time, / And it’s so wonderful to be invisible.’

Desire and longing are never far away from these poems, but they need to be kept hidden until safe to reveal. In ‘The Museum of Desires’, there is a subversion too, so that the speaker is not only talking about her own desires, but the desires of the person addressed: ‘here are the thoughts you can’t have / And here are the feelings you can’t touch’. In ‘Hymn (to Sappho)’: ‘in your eyes / neither mercy nor the hunger of desire can be detected’.

There are also be-careful-what-you-wish-for warnings. In ‘The Seamless Future’: ‘sidewalks won’t have cracks….doors will open out of walls like in old houses / with fascinating secrets, but without hinges’. But this idealized future becomes more insidious when, ‘given time, even you and I will emulsify’ like ‘face and fathom, like hours, / like every disappearance, seamless.’

Sometimes, however, her cynicism is shelved in favour of naïve hope, as during the eclipse in ‘Transcription of Éluard’, the couple ‘staked all our love against indifference,’ in spite of faking nonchalance.

It appears to be one of Strauss’s defence mechanisms to use transference. Her frequent and witty use of other speakers, different voices, may be a device to shield close-to-the-bone sensitivities and memories. This strategy serves Strauss well.

But Strauss gives as good as she gets, and her powers of observation are arresting and perceptive, often oblique and humorous too: ‘his hands / which were small, and clever, / like a couple of Marx brothers’ (‘Poetry Lover’).

How we live our lives is another theme, encapsulated beautifully in a lovely sonnet called ‘Digging Ditches’, where the epigraph quotes Byron: ‘If one’s years can’t be better employed than in sweating poesy, a man had better be a ditcher.’

These poems describe the connections, transitions, processes of our days and our relationships in an accessible yet stimulating manner, constantly shaking up our perceptions. Strauss’s attitude is encapsulated in a lovely paradoxical line: ‘what’s love but a Molotov cocktail’.

In fact, her work might be summed up in ‘Childhood’, a stunning poem of paradoxes, which manages to capture life’s contradictions, changes of direction, allegiances and discoveries. And here we see her resilience too: ‘Each has seen a world disappear, / seen another rise up out of oceans to meet it.’ She reminds me of Scarlet O’Hara – and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

‘The Glutton’s Daughter’ by Sinéad Wilson

In Pamphlets on February 22, 2012 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Wit and clarity are two words I’d associate with Sinéad Wilson’s chapbook, The Glutton’s Daughter. Her opening poem, a sonnet, reflects the formality of religious rituals through the ‘litany of quiet names: altar, vestment/chancel, nave’, in a poem where the adolescent speaker hopes ‘for something bordering on proof from the young vicar/or the older kids, nibbling custard creams in the break’. But the closest she comes to faith is when she observes, over a period of weeks, ‘Tom’s un-squeezed whiteheads….inching down the gospel of his cheeks.’ For all the crisp word selection and tight lines, she maintains a lightness of tone that is refreshing and credible, while the objects of this poem give it a reassuring solidity. It is a well-chosen first poem, as the theme of communication, bodily references, and the ‘ink-streaked photostats’ link to the poems that follow.

‘Memories of Berwick Street and Dyfrig’ vividly describes recollections of a neighbourhood where children communicate using ‘yoghurt-pot-and-string telephones’ while ‘ladies in balconettes and underwireds/lean out on sills to smoke and try to catch your eye.’ Again, humour is evident, as Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is invoked: ‘I speculate the value you’d put to my pounds of flesh’. When the ‘you’ of the poem names one of the women Portia, she asks, ‘Portia as in Shakespeare?’ ‘No,’ comes the answer: ‘Portia, as in the car.’

The poems are beautifully arranged, moving from the balconette bras to a wonderfully wry ‘found’ prose poem about a bedroom view. Wilson has an eye for the quirky detail, and also for connections:

‘Once they saw Bardot marry Jourdan/twice in one afternoon,’ she says of two small boys who hold hands outside a church in Fonataine. This image of the hand-holding boys is echoed in the final line: ‘Fontaine left in the hands of two small boys’.

‘The Anatomy of the Poem’ describes how the speaker tries to penetrate her lover’s dream, after he utters a phrase in his sleep. She imagines he’s ‘lolling in an Oxford punt,/the lunch of drumsticks, tartlets, the chilled/white burgundy, the emptied hamper/a cushion for your lazy head…’ Her attention to detail is beautiful: ‘there’s a boater tipped to a squint/at the bridge of your nose, so you don’t see/the friend in cricket whites drive down his pole/to the river bed, then with a suck, kick off/and climb it, hand under hand, up out again.’ Only someone certain of her craft could get away with so many prepositions – down, off, under, up, out – in three lines.

Poems continue to talk to each other, even with the merest of connections. The next poem contains a couple, and wine, and further recollection: ‘down the descending scale of years,/you can now disclose how her voice/tightened your pubescent grip/and pulled you, groin-first, closer/to your partner’s stiff propriety.’

In  another imaginative leap, Wilson adopts the voice of a cynical American forties crime detective in ‘Le Film Noir,’ ‘with just a wisecrack, a license, a loaded .38’ who sits in his office, nursing ‘a pint of bourbon on my desk/until someone spills their guts’. All the clichés of the film noir come together to recreate the black and white world of ‘the mad, the drunk, the grifters’ guns’.

In ‘Cape Farewell, Greenland,’ the speaker, feeling a pang for ‘whatever home means’ asks, ‘Why did we come?’

The symbolic value of objects continues to connect the poems thematically, as fabrics are named in ‘Mourning Dress’, and linens appear in ‘Removing the Ring’, where starched Egyptian cotton is folded, like origami, into a sailing boat ‘in the small of this last night’ so ‘he’s left without a doubt.’ This poem, like the origami folds described, is tightly restrained with rhymed line endings.

‘The Glutton’s Daughter’, a dramatic monologue, beautifully evokes the bitterness of a woman past her youth and beauty, who once modelled for Toulouse Lautrec and Degas, and who claims, ‘I could still turn to anything – landscapes, still-lives, sea views,’ but clearly hasn’t. In a strangely similar poem, the magical and quirky ‘Twenty to One’, an eccentric and we assume retired, dog takes himself back to the track, alone, where he joins the race,  winning one more rosette. Maybe the woman in ‘The Glutton’s Daughter’ will surprise us yet, and do something similar.

Taken together, the poems are wonderfully wry observations of the human condition: the quirky and often pointless things we do over the course of our lives. TS Eliot’s ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’ comes to mind, although these poems are much lighter and more hopeful.

Sinéad Wilson is a strong new contemporary voice and I look forward to more of her work.


‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg (translated by Fleur and Emily Jeremiah)

In Novella on February 22, 2012 at 10:05 am

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Asko Sahlberg has written a tight and compact little saga in The Brothers (entitled He in the original Finnish – which I gather translates as ‘They’ in English). This English translation, courtesy of mother-and-daughter team Fleur and Emily Jeremiah, is the first in Peirene Press‘ new series, The Small Epic.

You might remember Peirene Press translations from our review of Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time, part of 2011’s The Man series. For 2012, Peirene’s focus is on The Small Epic, and there are two more to come in this series. As its name implies, The Small Epic is all about big stories told in a short form (I polished off The Brothers in a matter of hours). This particular Small Epic takes place in what is now Finland, just after the Finnish War (1808-9) between King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden and Czar Alexander I of Russia. In February 1808, the Russian Czar began a war against Sweden intending to draw that country into Napoleon’s Continental System; his prize for doing so was the newly-created Duchy of Finland.

The Brothers, by Asko Sahlberg, translated by Fleur and Emily Jeremiah - Peirene Press
The Brothers begins as it means to go on: with a sense not only of the Finnish cold but of the immediacy of everything. That’s not just because of the present tense narrative, but also because the Jeremiahs’ translation makes a virtue of this and it all feels punchy and immediate – there’s no messing around or unnecessary waffling here. There is a tension in the first few lines that never quite goes away and that always threatens to erupt into violence.

‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming. Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth. The brothers are so different. Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone.’

Elder brother Henrik treads heavily and has a lot of baggage to carry around. He’s returning to the family farm, in the isolated, snowy Finnish countryside – he has been to the war and it shows in his face. But Henrik fought for the Russians and will never be quite at home anywhere again. His betrayal hangs about the pages of the book, mingling with the bitter clouds of betrayals by his mother and brother. These are high emotions and deep feelings (high and deep not only in the sense of being intense, but of carrying a human nobility and universality); they are experiences of the human condition as much as they are the experiences of specific human beings: regret, bitterness, lust, despair.

But then Sahlberg’s characters are very much frail human beings, whose failings make them who they are, for better or worse. The Brothers is shot through with a bleak truth and honesty, and that’s most visible in the characterisation. It’s as true of the Farmhand, the Old Mistress and the brothers as it is of their cousin Mauri and the local bailiff. That each of these characters gets to voice their thoughts and perspective through a first-person narrative is another strength of Sahlberg’s writing, making each event and character multi-faceted as we see them from inside as well as outside. It makes for a genuinely three-dimensional realisation of the Finnish farmstead in the prose, even before that makes its way to the imagination.

The background to Sahlberg’s story is certainly the stuff of epic. Empires and kingdoms clashing, Napoleon, families torn apart by war, betrayal and secrets, and whole life stories piling into the briefest chunks of time. But what Sahlberg has done is make a pivotal moment in Scandinavian history accessible and empathetic. The Brothers makes the sweep of history personal and shows its impact on individuals, on people with whom we can identify much more easily than we can with kingdoms, empires or their rulers. That’s what The Small Epic is all about, and that’s its great strength.

Beaconsfield Reading Series – Poetry and Wine 23/11/2011

In Performance Poetry on February 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm

-reviewed by James Webster

@ Royal Standard of England

There’s something wonderfully quaint about Claire Trévien’s Beaconsfield based poetry night. Maybe it’s the gorgeous surroundings of the Royal Standard of England (oldest alehouse in England apparently) with its warren of low-ceilinged rooms. Maybe it’s the charmingly mixed audience, comprising all different ages and a mix of locals and visitors. Maybe it’s Claire’s glittering hosting. It’s a very relaxed, supportive and fun environment in which to enjoy some poetry.

HostClaire Trévien

  • Claire began proceedings herself with her ‘Novella’. Apparently it usually goes down well (woof), and, with its nostalgic and joyful look at pretentious and bohemian youth and incredible turns of phrase, I could see why.
  • Next was a piece written using the ‘hipster poetry generator’ method: start with a place, a list of things, vague references to a person and cut the first and last stanzas. It was suitably pretentious and incomprehensible.
  • Finally she read a sort of sestina called ‘Love From’ that started with expressive poeticism and then seems to wear itself down to flat, but exposed, disappointment.


  • Dan Holloway (curator of 8 Cuts, winner of Literary Death Match and whose books are available on Kindle) was a strong performer and very aware of his audience (and wearing particularly dashing braces).
  • ‘Adam’, the first of two poems on Old Compton Street, flowed with slightly destructive hedonism; Dan talks of ‘this absinthe in my blood’ and ‘haunt[ing] the shelves of Foyles’. It was moving and softly seductive.
  • The second ‘How to Make a Soho Quilt’ was at once both rich and actively stripping itself bare. It spat up pictures and images that formed a ‘patchwork skin’ made up of strange places with an urban-bohemian-grime feel to them.
  • ‘Holly’ was on an artist attempting to recover a lost week by spending 40 days locked away trying to get that mad again. It was filled with verdant language that used slick rhyme to race from one image to the next (almost too fast to follow) that earned a chorus of appreciative ‘mmmmmm’ noises.
  • ‘Petals’ was a piece on the Kurasawa film Dreams. It melded the romantic, personal and political in a harrowingly engaging portrayal.
  • Finally ‘Her Body’, on the way peoples’ lives are appropriated after they die, blended fond remembrance with the jolting and grievous loss of a person ‘made of pieces of pain that no longer hurt’. It was triggering and hauntingly beautiful.
  • Laila Sumpton, of the Keats House Poetry Group, was next. Her poetry was steeped in a family history spanning larger than life personalities and a fair amount of strife that went through Bosnia via Pakistan and Hull.
  • ‘Patterning’ was on the characters in a family’s history that almost blend into mythology. It was resonant, using imaginative, interlocking language, but there’s almost too much to take in.
  • ‘Pakistani Postal Collapse’ was a surreal take on a sugar shortage, amusingly describing ‘black market cafes in upmarket homes’.
  • ‘The Only Photo’ (if I can read my own handwriting) was a moving poem about the two objects that survived the war inBosnia. A rescued coffee grinder becomes a ‘device that would defeat everyone’ and you can feel a real sense of pride and resilience reflected in the image of a family gathered in front of the wreckage. It’s a piece that is planted in destruction and struggle, but becomes so joyous. Ace.
  • Jill Wallis, editor of Rhyme and Reason (a poetry collection-cum-diary), read a selection of poems from their last edition which all offered something different.
  • Her poems, while not always as rich or imaginative as other poets, are full of gut-wrenching emotional honesty that really resonated with the audience.
  • ‘Owl Pellets’ described the ‘horde of tiny bones wrapped in hide’ in eloquent and poignant language, almost digesting the idea of the lost loved one and her own feelings, just as the ‘Owl Pellets’ do.
  • Her poem about dying in hospital built a really strong connection with the audience, as she described clinging to your last night with a loved one.
  • ‘Dust to Dust’ expressed the inability to scatter the departed’s ashes. She used hurt, clipped sentences with the smooth assonance of breath, as at the end of the poem she says ‘deeply, deeply, I breathe you in’.
  • Her final ‘Walk by Moonlight’ was a clear expression of the difficulties of using ‘the grotesque props of immobility’. It invited the audience in, then surprised them with the otherworldly beauty of the moonlit walk.
  • Simon Barraclough has been published in the Financial Times and Guardian, and has three collections: Neptune Blue, Bonjour Tetris, and Los Alamos Mon Amour.
  •  ‘Los Alamos’ evocatively compared love to an atomic bomb test in an entertaining (if pretentious) extended metaphor of destruction and recreation.
  • ‘Saturn on Seventh’ started with some nicely expressed grumpiness, then takes a lovely turn into describing a ‘homeless astronomer’ who lets you ‘See Saturn for a dollar’ leading to a charming and fleeting transcendental moment.
  • Poems on hearts: ‘Starfish Heart’ was pleasantly whimsical; ‘Pizza Heart’ was expressive and alliterative; only ‘Celeriac Heart’ disappointed, as it seemed slightly pointless.
  • Poems on planets: ‘Earth’ was amusingly phrased, with nice interwoven imagery running through it as he described ‘God’s gobstopper’. While ‘Neptune’ was quietly and jocularly fond of the planet that’s ‘so blue/ you probably think that Jarman’s Blue/ is about you’. While ‘Sol’ made the danger of impending apocalypse seem so sweet.

The Open Mic

  • Anne‘s ‘Terminal Therapy’ cleverly summed up how airports seem to distil emotions, with some nice phrasing on the ‘second hand arrivals’.
  • ‘White Noise’, on the sound installations of Bill Fontana, highlighted the contrasts of the bustling city against sea noises, but the imagery was a little suffused and unfocused.
  • ‘Evolution in the City’ gave a well-realised portrait of their life, but both the rhyme scheme and the ‘I just want a man …’ message were a little simplistic.
  • Mary‘s ‘Release Me from This Hell’ about Milton returning to London was impressively resonant of Milton’s rich style, making me feel the heat and smoke of industrial London.
  • And her ‘Ultramarinus’ was a lovely delicate sounding poem, all crystals, gems and precious stones.
  • Ted Pike introduced himself with a confident preamble, his ‘Man of Other Peoples’ Words’ was a concisely clever picture of a committee clerk’s life.
  • While ‘West Whittering’ was a charming celebration of human insignificance compared to nature.
  • Phillip read a series of haiku that were in places beautiful, sweet and adventurous. He gave us some really engaging snapshots of a mixture of subjects; rainbows, capitalism, airports, tears and umbrellas.

Summary: a fun, welcoming and moving night, with plenty of different voices, in a warm and inviting venue. If you feel like venturing out to the sticks for some poetry, definitely check it out.

Saboteur Awards 2012

In Blogzines, Magazine, online magazine, Saboteur Awards on February 14, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Vote here!

This year we’re going to do things differently, and leave the choice of winner down to you, the reader. In this post we feature all of the literary magazines we’ve reviewed on Sabotage since 30th April 2011. Voting will close on 30th April 2012 at midnight, with results revealed on 1st May 2012 to celebrate Sabotage‘s 2nd Birthday.

The Saboteur Awards exist to celebrate literary magazines be they online or in print. To read all about our 2011 winners go here. There are no monetary prizes, however, the winning magazine editor(s) will be interviewed for a feature on Sabotage Reviews, they will receive a logo to put on their website, and bask in the knowledge that they are appreciated.

We encourage you to read the reviews and read the magazines before you vote. Who knows, you may discover your new favourite publication that way! The magazines in the running this year are (in no particular order):

Fantastique Unfettered
New Linear Perspectives
Night and Day
Five Dials
Mythic Delirium
Curbside Quotidian
Used Furniture Review
Paper Darts
Brittle Star

Voting is now open!

Click here to cast your vote!

Voters are encouraged to leave comments explaining their choice.