Reviews of the Ephemeral

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‘EX3’ by Lucy Harvest Clarke

In Pamphlets on July 30, 2012 at 9:01 am


-Reviewed by Rosie Breese

Love and the night sky. Are these the oldest and most over-used ideas in existence? Is there such a thing as a clichéd subject? Lucy Harvest Clarke’s bold, unique collection EX3 (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) says no. Again and again, in ever more intriguing tongues.

Let’s start with the final poem in this collection, ‘Visits from other planets: Part V’. The first thing to note is the quiet wordplay of the title, which seems to suggest planets as protagonists in the delicate ballet of the encounter which unfolds over the next seven pages. Two beings seem to orbit each other; a set (or is it two sets?) of thoughts circles something beloved. Thoughts surface, are glimpsed by language, and fall again into silence:

‘…eyes have the silence…

…I stand still…

…I stand perfectly still silenced by your eyes…

…and the idea of the universe…’

Of course this might not be a poem about love, specifically. But the language used here is richly suggestive of a gravitational pull; something that holds and fascinates on a fundamental level.

Harvest Clarke’s language seems to be circling something that resists definition. The  ‘X’ sequence is sometimes an equation, sometimes a collage of voices:

‘Why is it is it in 3D?

+ shady

+ happy’

‘and we did that

said cat

to prince’

Venus is referenced in this sequence, as are aliens, stoves, park benches and touring vans. Harvest Clarke draws together the disparate as a tornado pulls in cars, trees and animals, drawing them into a heady circling of the void at its centre. Indeed, there is a sense that this collection of poems is grasping at the very void at the edge of language. It dips into the ineffable, translating it inventively via ‘a paper aeroplane’ or ‘a sexy moth’. The void is described by the collage of items in its orbit.

This isn’t a collection to be read or grasped quickly. In places, the whirlwind picking up and forgetting of objects doesn’t allow for a good look at any of them. There is sometimes the sense that ideas – locations, objects, utterances – are not explored; that they are presented and removed at lightning speed as part of an idiosyncratic shorthand for the space that is the ungraspable. Take ‘EX3 (measurements)’ for example:

‘x         park bench is your portion
x         job is apportion                                   x

x          wrong room                                         x

 _red                                                     x’

It is a code without a key and it could perhaps do with a little more to hint at the logic behind it. Thinking back to previous experimental work I’ve enjoyed, it does seem that underlying logic and balance is most apparent (if not immediately translatable) with just a few select ideas at work.

On the other hand, this relentless piling of idea upon idea is a fair and accurate reflection of the world we live in. Daily life is a collage, an imageclash, a soundclash. We are caught up in life, in orbit around a meaning we can only guess at. It doesn’t ‘make sense’ in the way we would like it to. So why should poetry? Perhaps the ideas we can’t immediately digest are the most telling.

Coming back to the theme of love, I wouldn’t be able to leave this review without mentioning the subtle yet very real eroticism running through this collection. The human tenderness of Harvest Clarke’s work is never more apparent than in stand-out poem ‘Horse’:

‘& you really do circle

me on horseback

with your thighs

inside my crossed

out lines…’

This beautiful poem, right-aligned throughout, has the sense of being something penned in the margins – an undercurrent of thought rather like the imagined and re-imagined movements of a lover in the mind. This time round, the poet picks up an idea more than once. The poem is the patient movement of a horse through the undergrowth of the mind, passing the same debris – ‘you’, ‘bed’ – again and again, circling one of the final utterances, ‘I love you’, ever more closely. Here, the poet goes straight for the vein and the result is breathtaking, ending in:

‘a ride off apace with

a death &

a brag &

a shotgun.’

More of this, please.

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‘The Jam Trap’ by Chrissy Williams

In Pamphlets on July 27, 2012 at 9:23 am

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

The Jam Trap, with comic-style illustrations for each of its short prose poems, around two characters who talk about Xboxes, marbles and this song, has an accessibility which belies its confident ingenuity. The majority of the lively two dozen poems are almost entirely dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘you’, in a familiar domestic setting. This restricted scope, and its borders, provokes many of the interesting ideas in the pamphlet.

The majority of the poems, and the sequence as a whole, work to create a closed-off domestic space – “our very own kitchen” (‘Tea Is Our Solution To Everything’) – built to contain the two characters independently. In ‘Clapham Is Where You Go’, the pamphlet’s recurring idea of the narrator’s desire to get a dog becomes the marker of the pair’s difference from the normal domestic narrative of ‘settling down’, (“But we’re not thinking of babies now.”[…]“We’re thinking about dogs.”). Hence, in ‘Ooh, Ooh, Ooh’:

“Then let’s spend our money on an enormous dog we can hollow out and move into.” I curled a bit closer into your shoulder, stroking the book while we slouched on the sofa.

Like a Donne poem which “makes one little room an everywhere”, many of the poems in The Jam Trap resemble oblique love poems in this way. The space, which includes the two characters as it excludes everyone else, is necessarily a linguistic one, and so much of the dialogue consists of things being described or completely renamed as other things: a fridge as a “cold oven”, a cat as a dog, a dog as a squirrel. The logical end-point of this is nonsense; in ‘Jam Trap’, the narrator ends with:

“I think I have a brain like a jam trap.”
“What does that mean?” you said.
I shrugged, beaming like an idiot.

I think nonsense is always inherent dissent from society. In refusing to explain herself, the narrator’s self-description alters the terms for the private domestic space, as it becomes a space which will have to include (as it is created by) someone with “a brain like a jam trap”, or disappear. It is not political action so much as refusal or withdrawal, but a paradoxical one in a globalised, inter-connected world where no one is “four hours away from anything” (‘Four Hours Away’).

The problem with this private space is that it contains characters who shouldn’t be there; the second class of actors, who are willingly included, are computers. This inevitably creates anxiety, as these computers are unable to partake in the sophisticated level of interaction which is normally the requirement for admission into The Jam Trap’s privileged domestic space. In ‘Talking To Each Other’, for instance, tellingly illustrated by two figures sat near each other but facing away on two separate screens, the narrator complains that “cells in this spreadsheet aren’t talking to each other”, to which ‘you’ responds “I think it’s cute you said, ‘talking to each other’”. Similarly, in ‘Confused, You Said’, ‘I’ riffs on ‘you’ describing an “X-Box” as “confused”, questioning whether it is confused by the complicated storylines in The Godfather films, before we discover that it was only “confused” because a disk hadn’t been put in. In both of these instances, technology, the unacknowledged third party in their bicycle built for two, refuses to fit with the human, emotive terms placed on it, and so refuses to quite conform to the space into which it has been brought. The poem about a “personalityless integrated killing army of death-humans” – with “integrated” being perhaps the most important word – suggests the anxiety which arises from this.

This is, either way, a lot of theorising for an otherwise light-hearted series of poems, but I hope should show their cleverness as there is a danger for poems like these to veer into banality. Chrissy Williams has proven herself an interesting and witty writer in many of the important anthologies of the last year or so, including Salt’s Best British Poetry 2011, and it is great to see this followed up with a strong pamphlet. With its collaboration with artists, it’s also a perfect book to push onto friends.

Review: Tina Sederhom and Lucy Ayrton – Edinburgh Previews

In Performance Poetry on July 27, 2012 at 1:49 am

 @ The Old Fire Station

– reviewed by James Webster and Dana Bubulj

This month Sabotage had the chance to catch two upcoming spoken word shows by two of Oxford’s foremost poetic talents. Both were excellently feminist and political, touching on social issues that effect pretty much all women (and many men, for that matter), and both explored their chosen themes with depth and insight. Here’s what Sabotage thought.

This piece took the form of a full hour long poem, exploring the life of Evie (a relatable and beleaguered everywoman, hence the name) in a version of reality called the Calorie Galaxy.

Tina’s language expertly captures the viciousness of policing peoples’ weight (both internally and externally) so perceptively that it should possibly come with a trigger warning (as many blogs relating to calorie counting do). Indeed, the language is gorgeous throughout, especially in its descriptions of characters, while the language used to describe food throughout is alternately sumptuous (about cupcakes) and depressing (about celery). Only the occasional line falls flat and undercuts the effectiveness of the writing, such as ‘[you] feel guilty as a rapist if you eat a single biscuit’, which seems to make an unnecessary joke of a serious issue for a cheap payoff.

Tina’s performance is also good, whether as too-good-to-be-true Perfectionetta (Evie’s sister) with her tone all clipped and fragile; or in her Aunt Gloria’s impassioned eulogy to the messiness of life; and always as the harassed Evie: hounded on all sides by voices telling her how to live her life. Tina’s tone and delivery convey all this with aplomb, and her performance of the claustrophobic vaudeville of Perfectionetta’s TV-show towards the end is especially good (in a terror-inducing way). My only criticism would be that occasionally this slips and the characters end up sounding a bit too similar.

It’s full of fantastic world-building in the best traditions of speculative fiction and sci-fi. Tina evokes a world that is decidedly different, where the differences are both beautifully drawn and serve to expertly highlight issues within our own world. This is a world where every citizen must weight themselves daily (and are reminded by implants), where the inhabitants’ wages (‘you are 10,000 calories overdrawn’) and importance in society is determined by their weight and image. It’s a world where people are obsessed with food to the point that it is fetishised, cupcakes created by ‘sugarcane wizards … and warlocks of extreme pastry’ and admired as art, and you can get talking diet-books. Sedeholm uses the device of the Calorie Galaxy as a distancing effect to hold up a mirror to our own society’s views on food, weight, beauty and how insidiously people’s attitudes towards those things can be distorted by media and societal expectations.

Where the show falls down is that it seems almost trapped in the very judgemental attitudes it is so effectively railing against. There are references to models having eyes that ‘bely a certain emptiness’, while Perfectionetta is constantly criticised (both implicitly and explicitly) for embracing the values of the Calorie Galaxy. And while, of course, her attitudes towards weight/image are unhealthy (having a tummy tuck as part of her c-section, needing drugs to maintain her lifestyle of glamour and dieting), the show might seem less at odds with itself if it addressed how the society of the Calorie Galaxy makes its inhabitants judgmental and unpleasant, rather than judging them for being so. It seems that the only way Tina could advocate a balanced attitude towards food (expressed in Gloria’s sage advice of ‘eat when you’re a bit hungry and stop when you’re a bit full’) is by decrying other characters’ choices as bad, trading one prescriptive overbearing outlook for another (albeit a much healthier one).

Ultimately, this is a rare find: a show that is both entertaining and important; attitudes towards food/weight/image contribute massively towards many peoples’ unhappiness, and it’s great to see a show tackling this. But while it brilliantly shows the importance of making your own life choices (as Gloria’s ace final speech points out), it fails on its own terms by judging people who make another choice (e.g. anyone who might consider dieting or cosmetic surgery).

The language, performance and world building have such quality that this could be easily a 4-star show. However, the way the writing seems to undercut its own point means I must regretfully award:

Star Rating: 3/5

Lucy Ayrton – Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry

I had seen an earlier version of this at The Dogstar, and even then was amazed by how polished the show seemed to be. Ayrton’s show plays with lyrical storytelling, with a discussion of the origin of fairy tales wrapped in music. With each set piece, she introduces the concepts with a brief, personable precis that doesn’t bog the poems down but instead gives enough context for them to shine.

In case any of you were planning to take your children to see this (though why you’d want to make them cry, I can only imagine), it’s not really a children’s show; the themes are universal in those who have lived a little. Her ‘Let me be Lost’ is a nice take on modern life and the roles given to us and the ones we struggle to live up to, especially as women (“herbal tea and tequila.. both taste of defeat”). In framing it as a semi-confession that is half admitted lest they give it away “in their sleep” works well: the desire to sometimes be carried can be tempting. ‘Bonfire Juice’ is another one that deals with modern reality, with the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong stirring memories of a past relationship and a holiday in the country, with Agas and whiskey once the milk’s run out. The repeated “do you remember…” keeps to the theme that stories are highly personal, fragile things to be passed down.

With the introduction of printing presses and an emerging cultural hegemony, stories become authored, mainly by white, Western men. With a rendition of Anderson’s The Shepherdess and the Sweep, Ayrton does discuss the patriarchy’s lack of decent roles for women or respect for their agency, but not in a didactic way that might detract from the flow of the show.

Ayrton has a beautiful singing voice, and it’s used well: Disney’s ‘Trust in Me’, becomes a surprisingly sultry, quiet coercion that you’d willingly give into. Similarly, my favourite piece, ‘The Nightingale’, has a really lovely sung refrain breaking up the story of a woman who falls in love with a knight other than her husband, spending the nights on adjacent balconies talking until they are caught, with violent consequences. She has a good voice, clear and emotive, well suited to her medium.

A cautionary tale for our time, ‘Tarquin’ learns not to be pedantic and correct demons, even if they think Battersea Park is the Ark they, the “frozen chosen” were to protect. The story is fluidly told, with a haunting melody played to complement the two voices in a childlike standoff.

She finishes with two stories: one written to be drafts of the most “perfect, right on, brilliant, hilarious story ever”, of a girl who makes it rain when she’s told she can’t do something, a delightful dragon, a slightly useless prince, and a typical fairy-tale feudal system. The story is tongue and cheek and very entertaining. To close, a piece crowd-sourced by the audience doing an exquisite corpse style version – which has been a delight every time I’ve seen it done.

The show is fabulous, with a strong narrative running through it and compelling set pieces. If you’re interested in stories and the power of narrative, then this is a must see.

Star Rating: 5/5

Review: Tea Fuelled Edinburgh Previews

In Performance Poetry on July 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm

The Dogstar

– Reviewed by Dana Bubulj

Tea Fuelled are sending their performers up to the Edinburgh Fringe. I got to see their previews, double-billed over three nights at the Dogstar in Brixton. They varied in finish, but with polish some should be some fantastic (and free!) shows to see if you’re up there.

Where to start with this show? His premise is to lightly mock his middle-class Guardian-reading sensibilities by listening to “the other view”. While he’s worried about being “preachy”, I’d be more worried that I’d not stuck to my point. While some of his juxtapositions (asylum seekers dying horribly as seen as preferable to children sharing schools) highlight the absurdity and callousness of some Daily Mail standpoints, and he touches upon ideas of shifting beliefs from youth to old age, it’s just not sufficiently developed to give the show any political bite.

He mentions, in his closing, that he’s “a bit of a twat trying to be good”, and that’s half right. He starts the show by ‘calibrating’ the audience by quoting stats and offensive jokes, and this would work if he took the right conclusions from audience noises and if he sounded less gleeful about the potential offence caused. Coupled with the smugness of his liberal views (such as his Greer-inspired explanation of why he uses ‘cunt’ over ‘vagina’), he doesn’t come across as that likeable.

His irrevent and laddish style does lend itself to discussing sex (“cheating is bad, flipside, orgasms are great”), politics and Christianity, but he needs to either better connect his material to his theme (or write some new themed material) or just let his material develop and not force it into a structure he never truly develops.

Star Rating: 1/5

This show, at its heart, is a fourth-wall breaking campfire-horror story that takes the literal nature of his words to the limit like some kind of event horizon of Chekhov’s Gun.

Opening with a ‘solitary figure walking through tautology street alone’, Heal narrates a story from a diary ‘found’ when researching his upcoming show about trains that rapidly descends into a madcap and rather violent escapade where not even Heal himself is safe from his character, Giles Rowntree.

Without spoiling the plot, I can say it was an enjoyable hour, although the running brothel gags got a little tiresome. Each line is intricately crafted, constantly subverting and playing with its meaning, leaving you almost trying to guess them beforehand, groaning with amusement as you do (particularly at his “with aplomb…I ate the plum with relish – it was a great relish…”).

With magic (or is it?) axes and “no reason to doubt a creepy voice of ambiguous origin”, the protagonist (or is he?) breaks his resolution of not killing anyone, having received a letter (or did he?) (enough of this – Ed) that threatened his life and that of our narrator Jack Heal, at the Dogstar. Incorporating the show’s location and its date keeps the audience on their toes, particularly in the show’s second half.

More clarity in the final narration would be helpful: near the end it was sometimes tricky to tell whether he was narrating Giles’ actions or his own as the story got too ‘meta’ for its own good. Similarly, I could do without the cheaper laughs and “slaggy” girls. That said, it was a tightly woven set that was a joy to watch, and I’d definitely recommend you catch it at The Banshee Labyrinth from 4-14th August.

Star Rating: 3/5

Mark GristRogue Teacher

In case you weren’t aware, Mark Grist is a teacher, turned professional poet, turned grime battle MC, who became a bit of an internet sensation this year by demolishing teen rapper Blizzard in a rap battle that now has over 2 million views on youtube.

We’ve reviewed him before, and those comments still stand. This show, I think, is perhaps his way to dismantle the hype that comes from going viral for something he now feels somewhat sheepish about. His famous poems are there (previously reviewed), with others wrapped up in friendly chatter and a heartfelt apology directed to Blizzard’s mum (bit awkward).

He is passionate about his school, and his set is littered with anecdotes about working with the kids and his colleagues. His poems also touch on these: one dedicated to his fellow staff, (including ones whose contempt of children should probably have them in another profession) and another has scathing words to say about examiners who dismiss children responding to poetry laterally. He uses a slideshow in a particularly teacherly way, with screencaps and photos to illustrate scenes or, during his sabbatical, his increasing debt and points on his licence in between surreal gigs.

His “Dear Me, age 13”, a dialogue, epitomised the show for me: in it, Grist asserts his own independence with humour and a visible desire to be seen as more than an internet sensation. Grist talks about life as a teacher and a performing poet in an eminently likable and unstructured way, as if down the pub, but while the result is enjoyable and likeable, it’s also a tad forgettable.

Star Rating: 3/5

The conceit: a “corporate presentation” of a new start-up assassin agency inspired by watching Leon. There’s some nice satire of business jargon, with a “global vision” of the “mortality market”, with demographic charts and marketing lingo as the characters attempt to convince potential investors of their business model. They also amusingly offer the audience a free murder, as a taster.

They’ve a gloriously awful logo (the Vitruvian man WITH A GUN), a purposefully failed video promo, which has them kill a (feline) target, and the convoluted application forms (where you don’t want to mix up boxes but can specify death preferences) are a great idea. The intricacies and hyper-legal terms and conditions make for an amusing premise when taken to their extremes.

They continuously (and amusingly) undercut their professionalism with their pitch, interrupting each other with enthusiastic “Top FIVE” countdowns, but the show falls flat as the interruptions become more personal. The characters become increasingly separate from their pitch, degenerating into standard stereotypes of the straight man and the somewhat unstable woman. And you can’t help but feel that the script would have more punch if they got to the climax of the show a bit earlier. Instead you’re stuck in the uncomfortable territory of watching a couple have a blazing row (complete with exes). Awkward.

The twist in the show’s climax is appropriately dramatic and it does partially resurrect the show’s momentum, but the earlier awkwardness still drags it down a little.

It’s an interesting show, with potential. At the time of the preview they were still in early stages, with lines to be learnt and technical problems to solve, so there was definitely time for them to rehearse and revise (so if you’re free, do catch it at The Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh at 12.05 from the 4th til the 14th of August.)

Star Rating: 2/5 (though a more polished version could get 3 or 4).

We’ve reviewed Superbard before, so I was looking forward to this show. While I was expecting rehearsed media interaction, I had not expected how much the show relied upon the audience. Or more specifically: two members of the audience whose new-found love might save the world. They are given scripts in envelopes (a neat take on audience interaction) that carefully don’t give away the plot, which has some interesting twists so that they are able to enjoy the night despite being called on periodically.  My one sticking point with the show, in that it does rely upon the goodwill of the chosen actors, also that they’ll play along should they not be heterosexual. But Superbard also does a good job improvising when things do not go to plan, so it isn’t all lost if don’t play along.

The premise that Superbard is a time-traveller from the Future is mined richly, using several set pieces that are both moving and amusing. There’s a school talk by the embittered office-bound time police agent disabusing us of the glamour of the job (“it’s mainly spreadsheets”… “I studied history! I just wanna see a witch drown!”) and a drunken night in the future, featuring some excellent world-building with subtle nods to the fantastical (being beaten up by super-soldiers “silhouetted by the fake moon”).

What is also particularly fun is the playful take on the act of storytelling, deconstructing it through having actors whose actions he both narrates (“it’s ok, it’s just a script, he thinks”) and sometimes instructs, with a fantastic exploration of fate (Pirandello, anyone?). The impending doom is the “slowburn apocalypse”, where we know each other “less and less” and become strangers. Intimacy and love will carry the day, it seems, which should warm the heart of even the bitterest cynics like myself.

Very enjoyable, and do catch it if you can.

Star Rating: 4/5 (5 stars with the right audience members)

‘Disc-0’ by Russell Barker

In Novella on July 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Russell Barker initially completed what would become Disc-0 during NaNoWriMo 2008. Having set the novel aside for a couple of years, he has recently revised and self-published it. Unfortunately, although it has an interesting premise, the final product still ends up reading like a first draft. The story begins promisingly enough: ‘And there it was. The holy grail, a copy of The Roaring Parsnips’ one and only single on 12”. For years Danny Clutterbuck had dreamt of this moment and now he held it in his trembling hands.’ Despite supposedly being rare and commanding a high price on the collectors’ market, this vinyl is ultimately never anything more than a MacGuffin to propel the novel’s plot forward.

Although the narrative is kept humming along, its structure is not without problems. For starters, around a dozen characters is clearly too many to service within a novel that clocks in at under 130 pages, so character development tends to remain at the level of stereotype. The narrative also needs to set up the characters’ paths to cross, as their various stories slowly intertwine, thanks to the vinyl’s movements. This sort of narrative structure understandably calls for some suspension of disbelief (e.g. romantic comedies like Love Actually, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, or the globe-spanning coincidence of TV series Touch), but Barker seems unwillingly to trust his readers to appreciate the emerging connections on their own.

So instead, he repeatedly telegraphs them, e.g. ‘For now though their paths hadn’t crossed, so he struck out on his own.’ Later on, the underlying device is made even more explicit with a bit of clunky exposition:

So Barry and Danny sat mere feet away from each other having breakfast, neither realising the impact they were having, and going to have, on each other’s lives. They say that sometimes it is destiny and that you can almost run into that person many times before contact is made, changing your life forever. Whether it is a relationship, a business proposition, or merely a great friend, eventually it will happen, as it was bound to with Barry and Danny.

There are also further inconsistencies in the third-person narrative voice, as in the following passage: ‘He [Danny] got to know Ted a while before this though. It had been inevitable I suppose, what with Ted being the man with access to the records.’ Furthermore, chapters 24 and 25 are in the wrong order, reversing the novel’s chronology of events to no apparent purpose. There is also a moment of unwitting irony near the end of the novel, when Danny begins ‘to worry that he had walked into some schmaltzy film where everyone lived happily ever after. As Danny well knew, that was very rarely the case.’ The problem, of course, is that the whole novel has been playing out various stereotypes and narrative tropes all along, from clueless Danny and the but-they’re-not-gay jokes linked with petty criminal Pat and his two different partners, right down to the fake-out ending, which then devolves into a car chase in the city.

On the whole, Disc-0 could have been the interesting heist novel it clearly aspires towards, but it definitely needs more work to tighten up the storytelling. At times, I also found myself wondering why more was not made of the musical aspect of the plot given Barker’s own experience as a music reviewer, beyond surface details like the vinyl-as-MacGuffin and the brief glimpses into the musical backgrounds of some of the characters. Music does feature in the chapter titles, which are taken from a song lyric (a full list of sources is provided at the end for true audiophiles), typically making some sort of oblique or ironic comment on that chapter’s events. A fun little detail, but not quite enough to make up for the novel’s shortcomings.

‘Convergence and Conversion’ by Neil Ellman and ‘Wherein? He Asks of Memory’ by Jeremy Balius

In Pamphlets on July 24, 2012 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by Alex Campbell

Trying to review ekphrastic poetry provides the challenge of either trying to judge the poetry on its own merits, or become an impromptu art critic. Ekphrasis – or the translation of works of art into different media, in this case the visual into the written – is a long standing pursuit, and one which can produce some truly spectacular results, but is one which requires the reader to approach a poem from a different angle to the one they are used to.

Neil Ellman’s Convergence and Conversion, a series of poems drawing their inspiration from abstract art, is a difficult but rewarding collection to explore. At first, the slightly jerking, stuttery quality of the poems, with their frequent line breaks and arrhythmic stanzas, threaten to jolt the reader from being able to derive meaning or hold on to a single idea or thought, but if you look at them, not as poems, but as word-pictures, they have a certain staccato lyricism. In some cases, the jerkiness actually adds to the effect. For example, in the final stanza of “…Whose name Was Writ In Water” (p13) “There is no other/ no other / no other name / other than / my own”, the line breaks convey an echoing quality that has a haunting poignancy.

The question is whether or not it is appropriate to divorce the poem from the artwork which inspired it. There is a worry that without the “map” of the artwork to guide the reader’s imagination, an essential aspect of the art is missing. And yet, even without the context of the art, there is something compelling about phrases like “Whichever way wind blows / imagination / zigzags” (“Dozen and short Dozen”, p10). And poems like “White Flag” (p19) and “The End of Everything” (p8) stand alone very well without the artwork to back them up. “The End of Everything” in particular, for me, conjures up a fascinating image of a rusty car driving off the end of the universe, which isn’t necessarily an image which is borne out by the original artwork, but is intriguing in its own right. Surely, the essence of an ekphrastic poem is that it reproduces the essence of the original art, thus rendering that original superfluous.

Jeremy Balius’ Wherein? He Asks of Memory is, to my mind, a less successful collection. Though based around a single work of art – the oft-repeated For Paul, a sculpture by Ursula von Rydingsvard – it is not exactly ekphrastic. The sculpture is more akin to a character in the poem, and an influence upon it than its subject. But characters require either a narrative or some kind of development, and that is a much more elusive quality in this collection.

This is the kind of writing that always makes me feel as if I have missed the point, or the poet has. It feels like the poet is trying too hard to be intellectual, or deliberately obtuse, and as a result it is exceedingly difficult to penetrate the meaning of the poem. It doesn’t elucidate in the same way that Ellman’s work does. Each of Ellman’s poems are small snippets that can be viewed easily as a whole, much like a painting on the wall of a gallery can be viewed in its entirety, but Balius’ work is a much bigger chunk and can’t be taken in all at once. While this is in some ways more appropriate, since the For Paul sculpture is a much larger piece of work than any of the paintings Ellman has used, it is still a work that can be seen at a glance, while the poems here representing it are not. As a result, Wherin? He Asks of Memory is a far less accessible collection, if for no other reason than the sculpture which inspired it cannot be used as a guide to meaning in the same way, and the reader is left to puzzle out the meaning of such snippets as “sensory incontinence in a dimensionless existence” (“Of the fourth consideration: memorable”) on their own, which proves something of a difficult task.

Whilst I’m sure that Balius has many deep insights and moving scenes to impart, they are in danger of getting lost in his sesquipedalian loquaciousness and his reluctance to employ one word when he can get away with half a sentence. In a way, this could also be said to be a result of problems in translation. The opening stanzas of each of his “considerations” (Part II, form consonants) are an impenetrable wall of text – quite literally, since they are set out in a justified block, broken up by “/” instead of line breaks. And while this does call to mind the brick-like layering in the For Paul sculpture, it is essentially off-putting to the reader searching for a coherent sentence. In addition, the surrounding stanzas are full of extra spacing – again reminiscent of the textures of the sculpture – but it seems to be a case of style over substance as the effect doesn’t really add anything by way of meaning, and the poem becomes a series of jerky fragments that it is nightmarish to try and link together.

It becomes terribly frustrating, because there are occasional moments of lucidity in the poems which offer tantalising glimpses of what this collection could have been. Snippets like “It is easy to detect an onward from a tradition/ rather than the attempt to preserve it” (“Another fiery ordeal”) could perhaps have done with more focus and elaboration. Likewise, the italicised sections of song in “form consonants” have a lyricism to them that I would have liked to see more of.

In conclusion, the brevity and condensed composition of Ellman’s work is more effective at creating an affecting word-scape than Balius’ wall of text. If we look at the work as a canvas, the minimalism of the former wins out, while the latter’s meaning gets lost in the over-layering of brushstrokes; when painting a picture, less truly is more.

‘Muses Walk’ by Christodoulos Makris

In Pamphlets on July 24, 2012 at 9:13 am

 

-Reviewed by Rishi Dastidar

Where do you find your muse? Can you find it on a street? And if a street is destroyed, can you use words and pictures to begin to rebuild it, and not just your memories, but other people’s?

These, and other questions, are obliquely posed in Christodoulos Makris’ limited edition chapbook Muses Walk. It is more than just a chapbook though. Makris has described it as artist’s book, and also a ‘performance’, in the sense that he has no plans to reprint in its current, lovely form: 32 A6 pages, hand-bound, on heavy, ivory card.

This emphasis on the form the words are delivered in is important because it is also a tribute to the power of literature, and a specific street where it was challenged. On 5 March 2007, a bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, the historic centre of bookselling and intellectual and literary life in the city. Located in a mixed Sunni-Shia area, bookshops, outdoor stalls, cafes and stationery shops were destroyed – with 30 people killed, and over 100 injured.

Makris, Cyprus’ representative in the recent Poetry Parnassus in London, was one of 250 writers and artists around the world asked to produce something to re-create the ‘inventory’ of some of the physical stock that was lost in the attack.

His starting point is one of his existing poems, from his last collection Spitting Out the Mother Tongue, and a rather tricksy challenge: writing a new poem based on, or inspired by, each line within the poem ‘Muses Walk’. It’s almost a form of exegesis on his own work, or rather, an attempt to create a ‘para-poem’, the ‘poem’ that’s lurking within every line of an already existing poem.

‘Muses Walk’ the poem is, in Makris’ words, ‘an attempt to write a specific street in the centre of Nicosia as it stood at a (less) specific period of time’. Short, sharp lines butt up against observations made by a cold, detached eye, which doesn’t miss a thing:

‘The white hour.
From beyond the buildingtops the muezzin’s call spikes the air.
Rows of shop owners push up steel shutters.
At the confectioner’s, apprentices observe displays of cake-making: layers of
marzipan, fresh cream splashed thick in between, brushings of syrup,
flourishes with jelly.
Cold water runs on tap.’

As it turns out, these and the rest of this poem, are all intriguing jumping off points for his new poems. Makris does not limit himself in terms of form in these creations: prose, staccato couplets, even bulleted lists. Dotted through the chapbook are also low-resolution, black and white photos of different scenes – a shop window’s shutters, street signs, porticos with flagpoles and statues – which gives the whole project an attractive air of WG Sebald, and his epic journeys.

Where the conceit of the chapbook works best is when there is space in the original line for the para-poem to take wing itself, and find its own way. Take ‘In a bookshop pervaded by dust an old man sits alone leafing through miscellanies and maps’; now, we have a chance to meet the old man:

‘The Russian knows about facts
and about books, about the histories
of countries and about how things
were made – or became. He’s not

Russian at all, they say, it’s just a name’

And it’s the little moments that one spies out of the corner of the eye that really snag, like ‘no matter / how many lemons are crushed / beneath his feet // they still itch’ in ‘Columns of ants carry bits of potato chips to their nests’. Makris also doesn’t just stay in the one locale. It’s a breathtaking moment when, in ‘A narrow corridor leads to a cramped office space among dense columns of textile rolls; at the back, a hole on the floor is the only decent toilet on the street’ when suddenly we have moved countries: ‘and drizzle that swamps / my baguette – / the new phone captures Paris’.

Sometimes Makris’ showing around his street falls into telling, like the over-eager tour guide who grips our hand a little too firmly while taking us round an unknown town. But generally, the notion of the street as a muse is artfully explored through these sixteen poems, and Makris strikes an excellent balance between a sharp, urban sensibility, an unhurried languor and an elegiac air which reminds us that, even on our streets, there are always stories to be found, to be recreated and to be inspired by.

‘Reasons not to live there’ by Humphrey Astley

In online chapbook, Pamphlets on July 23, 2012 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

This small, self-published pamphlet opens with ‘Homework’, a stream of consciousness that flows, like Joyce’s Molly Bloom soliloquy, unhindered by a single full stop. The ‘blood-red Spanish wine seeping my studies’ is in a mug, but as soon as the reader has smiled at that small detail, some unsettling images are introduced. Although the speaker’s friend has a ‘foreign girl’ who ‘begs for him in London and begs for him inside her’, he ‘would never make a slave of a woman who can’t be alone so…he must be good we must be good unlike the young men responsible for the recreational drug rape of my sister…’

The speaker allies himself with his friend who, he feels, is not exploiting someone – and yet he is, by getting her to beg for him. These moral shades of grey are what define this pamphlet. Today, the virtual world has become, for many, almost more real than the concrete world, and the speaker is conscious here not only of his apathy (‘I have no opinion’), but also his altered sense of reality: ‘in the parallel universe known as the real world…’

The text moves from one situation to another, from the present to the past, his Irish mother who ‘gave her youth to England only to be spat on in the street’. But in spite of the injustices he mentions, the speaker simply wants to get drunk and ‘sing off-key and in the azure morn raise with tongues like two dry leaves’. Here again, he reflects the passive stance of those who just want to have fun: ‘I’ll stay here with my wine…’

In the next poem, ‘Resolution’, this notion of taking the path of least resistance persists. It’s the end of a relationship, but

‘you are staying together,
because if either of you leaves,
there will be less warmth for the baby.’

Once more, all is not as it seems: ‘Your happy home is as real to me/as a haunted house.’

‘St Mary’s Road’ opens with a defensive line: ‘They weren’t Pakis to us’. Again, there’s a grey area: while the speaker’s family avoids this politically incorrect word, he uses it here, to show us that this wasn’t the reason for the tension between them. Instead, ‘we had our own reasons/for hating them.’ These reasons appear to include ownership of a ‘two-timing’ tree that grows ‘right through the wall’ between the two gardens. In the next stanza, the kids next door are referred to as ‘Indian’ – perhaps a more accurate word than the earlier ‘Pakis’. The tree gives the kids an excuse for ‘make-believe claims/on its roots’. It’s an interesting poem, because the moral ambiguity apparent in previous poems continues; while there was some sense of patriarchal ownership over women in the earlier poems, here, it’s territorial. And with the mention of ‘us’ and ‘them’, of race, comes the implication of empire. Even between children, in contemporary England, the notion of conquering is all-consuming: ‘How many times could we have/the same argument? As many as it took to give them what for.

In the more experimental poem ‘A hard-on in the shower,’ the speaker is again sitting on the fence, or more literally, hanging ‘in the doorway.’ But as with other poems in the pamphlet, inexplicable line endings and indentations make this a less than satisfying poem, both visually and in terms of meaning. For example, the word ‘the’ is indented and also stands alone, as does ‘our’ ‘and’, ‘with’, ‘and my’, ‘with the’ etc. As Don Paterson puts it, well-considered line endings allow for key words to ‘resonate into silence’.  There was an opportunity for powerful resonances here, and in other poems, which the poet missed.

‘The Big Society’ is a gentle dig at the PM who chats with his children over breakfast as it’s ‘good practice for dispensing little pearls’ even though ‘at this rate the kids’ll be late for/the best school’. His inner circle ‘seal him in a circle’ and ‘like to smell the money in each other’s musk’. The internal rhymes and assonance (crest/chest, dress/peck/ desk/press; spilling/pillow; golden/yolk/ hook/neck; stack/tabloid/rags; world/pearls) throughout the poem create a neat cohesiveness. Again, the idealistic colour ‘azure’ appears. Twice, for added irony. But after the moral ambivalence of other poems, the authority of the speaker to be critical lacks credibility.

Having said that, the following poem, ‘St Giles’ Street’, is, in my opinion the most convincing in the collection: because the speaker puts on ‘an oversized suit’ and makes a stand, even though the two repeated lines return to his more usual tentative tone: ‘These are not patterns,/but prayers of a sort.’ And yet, what the poem suggests is that a pattern is finally being broken.

‘Reasons not to live there’ and ‘Holiday’ are similarly heartfelt and intimate. Underlying the cynicism (‘I’ll have to get you wet with booze and/mould you into someone I can/use for a foil’) a longing for some kind of constancy can be detected. Remote places, such as the Scottish highlands or the beaches on the south coast, are simplest, where ‘the attractions are old fashioned’.

Today’s world is complex, and in his pamphlet, Astley has captured the confusion faced by the youth in Britain, where identity is no longer established simply by an accent. Here is a thinking poet, with a natural talent, whose work shows considerable promise.

Literary Juice (June/July)

In online magazine on July 20, 2012 at 9:16 am

-Reviewed by Diane Tingley

Literary Juice is a bi-monthly online magazine, its blurb states that it is dedicated to extracting “100% originality from its writers.” This is a bold statement. Indeed I find much to like in the approach of the small editorial team – but why do I also get the nagging feeling that someone is trying to squeeze a square peg into a hole?

The positive includes the admirable home page. It has an effective black and white design that does not lack in beauty. Another plus is the user friendly links to professional-looking About, Submissions and Contact pages, with an arty splash of ink (the literary juice?) in the top left hand corner (surfer zoom territory) repeated on every subsequent page of the magazine, as are interesting quotes about writing; all  suggest a well thought out concept.

Niceness of the staff comes across in the about page: “all submissions will be strongly considered” – but, and this is where the issues begin: “this could take 1-3 months”.  In what can be chilly wastes of cyber space, that’s a long time; could they not go the way of successful literary magazine The Fleeting, who promise to get back to successful submissions within a few days? I suspect that the magazine staff are squeezed for time; why else would this online magazine only be updated every two months?

The second problem is, unfortunately, an example of the first. As though the editorial staff were busy on other tasks, there is a disparity between the submissions guidelines and what is actually published. Again I draw a negative comparison with The Fleeting, who quite rightly state sexism is a no no (in the interview with the editor accessible from their home page). In Literary Juice, the admirably stated: ‘We are NOT looking at stories with intense sexual content. You do not have to be vulgar to be talented’ is somehow completely undermined by the first of the short fictions in the June/July edition (current when this review was written).

Mess, by Billy Coté, is the most stunning example of feminist back lash I have read – and no, it isn’t sufficiently well-written to qualify as irony. The internal monologue of the first person narrator is just embarrassingly obvious about the abusive feelings the writer harbours toward women in general; which he personifies in the main character (presumably the honorary Mess). Experience must come before writing and tellingly, the narrator struggles to converse when “a woman walks into a bar”. The characterisation techniques of the writer struggle to name this female as anything but mute (‘Drunk-y’) sex object. For example:

‘Wish she would shut -up about all this. In need of respite I glance back at her rear, and notice it’s retained its shape, its roundness, even though its breadth has increased greatly from even a year ago’

Even that’s the least of it. The whole story is even plotted to exploit the oft’ told women’s fear of getting fat. His musings tell it how it is (not) by escalating fat clichés: “she traps me in a clumsy embrace and I feel how big she’s become, her bra digging into the flesh on her back”. The denouement is the writer’s thrill at seeing her – so inebriated, she cannot keep her elbows together on the bar- having sex with a random stranger, in sight of all, the narrator has spent a while watching the stranger “knead” the aforementioned posterior. All is painfully badly related.

With submissions like that I can almost forgive the lack of editorial enthusiasm which suggests itself in the poetry pages; the disproportionately big picture of a tree on this page, with two words: ‘poet tree’ either side, poses the question whether this department is not exactly top of the to do list. The poet in me does feel slighted, particularly as the submission guidelines stipulate only poems of fewer than twenty lines will be considered; which is a little short. This is a shame, because there are some grittily inspired poems here: Virgine Colline’s The Predator, three stanzas of Haiku about men in bars; Ben Reinhardt’s Paper Girl; and Benjamin Nash’s The Transfer which interrogates the concept of death row.

Despite the issues mentioned, it is not difficult to report back with a big positive. Upon my initial flick through the site, I sensed a good deal of creative energy being squeezed in the direction of Pulp Fiction. I hadn’t previously heard of the genre and was delighted upon googling, to discover that it is rooted in post first world war entertainment beloved of nose-to-the-grindstone American masses. These were racy, exciting storytelling magazines; cheap because of the “pulp” on which they were printed; and the poor wages for the writers; but (of necessity) exciting and covetously designed. In honour of this tradition, the link to that page brings you to a part of the site more lovingly than even the most lovingly designed of all the other pages, and guess what? All work published here is fresh, alive:  a really enjoyable read – little snippets of existence which send the imagination to flight.

I know the direction I would take this magazine in were I the editor; the parts I would develop, and those I would leave in someone else’s peg bag – there are good skills here, humility and likeability in spades, definitely foundations to string a line from.

‘Aqua Rosa’ by Sarah Crewe

In Pamphlets on July 18, 2012 at 9:20 am

-Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

‘it’s a port and i’m a girl’

There, in the final line of Sarah Crewe’s poem ‘grebes do alice at albert dock,’ is the heart of this collection: the playful tensions between the world and the poet, between the city (Liverpool) and its inhabitants, between concrete reality and literary transfigurations, between Victorian imperial grandeur and pop culture weirdness. The speaker is Carroll’s Alice ‘on a Grace Slick mission,’ a Carrollian riddle that asks: how can a grebe (freshwater diving bird) be like the curious anti-heroine of Victorian childhood made curioser still through the mirror of the 60s rock diva who renewed her? Ways and means of being a girl collide and condense. Alice is a figure of the English poetic tradition of riddles, and Crewe – like her iconic heroine – favours ‘time saving in dark reflection’ rather than the closure of a worked-through, workshopped metaphor poem, or the colloquial chat of much contemporary lyric.

Alice is both girl and port, a welcoming harbour for Crewe’s concerns. She re-emerges through the mirror as ‘An Alice to a lucid glare’ in ‘Alice Through Obsidian’, one of two poems in the chapbook commissioned by Dr. Camilla Priede for the Rock Museum in Sheffield. The other, opening poem ‘Axe Actual’ makes merry both with the dual meaning of rock (mineral and music), and also with the juxtaposition of (hard) stone and (soft) femininity, imagining the axe describing itself, in a rather Björk-like way, as a ‘cryptocrystalline … Queen of the Stone Age / Mammoth bone blood and bouffant hair.’ This is poetry to rock out to.

This vivid, swift linguistic intelligence is the collection’s hallmark: there’s a physicality to the vocabulary and the figures Crewe chooses for thought-language and its movement. From its title onwards, the collection’s second poem ‘17 Seconds, Four Doors Down’ speeds irresistibly towards the reader with its description of ‘The boy [Bruce] Lee,’ again mixing figures of masculinity with a sense of camp joie de vivre in virtuosity:

Your mother cannot watch.

Barefoot bolt. Grove gazelle.

Leopard boy belts gilted safari.

Prince of Cats spins his own

The split lines echo and evoke Lee’s classic ‘Leg-kicks diagonal’ pose, as well as the rapid-eye motion of watching choreographed fights on screen. The rest of the collection holds mainly to the right-hand margin, bar two skilled prose poems that mash up memory, architecture and cultural icons to create densely collaged anti-postcards that, like Rachel Whiteread’s tippexed and hole-punched postcards (examples here), use their frame to make us rethink how we inhabit and imagine places.

The closing prose poem ‘My grandmother as Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King Liverpool’ brings to a climax the collection’s insistence on remembering the lost, marginalised and dead with the irreverence with which they lived, rather than the sentimentality too often insisted on. ‘Spiky bridesmaid’ starts the poem, punning visually on the trappings of marriage, the art of the crucifixion and the architectural embellishments of the cathedral. In its brisk, assonant observation, Crewe’s phrasing refuses such ornamentation. Sometimes, as in love poem ‘such trouble’, this insistent simplicity risks both vagueness and blandness: ‘perfect place of / beauty in mist’ does not convince.

Subjects more specific than kisses keep the poet’s eye sharp and tongue sharper. Injecting political wit into a consideration of colour in ‘Spectrum,’ Crewe enters the chromatic territory of poet Anna Mendlessohn, whose pen name (Grace Lake) and chapbook titles such as Viola Tricolor suggest the significance of colour terms as a way of parsing the politics of language. Crewe’s ‘Spectrum’ (in which orange is glossed as ‘Victor placed in / Yulia plaited headlock’, referring to the ongoing political crisis in the Ukraine) leads into a sequence that takes up the gift of Rosa Luxemburg’s name to play through the pink and red resonances of Luxemburg’s Marxist feminism. In ‘rosa luxemburg’s ghost on a free forum’ Rosa, or her contemporary online avatar, is named a ‘shop steward blood bride’, at once dressed for a protest march and to take part in Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre. The usually separate cultures of the hard Left and the uncanny feminine are re-united, as they were in Luxemburg’s pioneering feminist writing.

Crewe’s ‘scouse elf terrorist / spartacus siren’ kicks off in her ‘red fem booties’, working through the warm shades and their binarised meanings (life/death, the feminine/the warlike, the political/the sentimental) that are the book’s signature. The book cover exhibits Dorothy’s red shoes; Alice encounters (or perhaps becomes) the Red Queen; hard stone and soft girl again blur into each other in ‘Rose Quartz,’ where the stone is deliciously described as ‘pink pearl clitoral’. ‘it’s a port and i’m a girl’: the world is a hard given, inlet and outlet, rough and tumble – but as rosa, the poet’s alter or persona, writes to performance poet puma perl, ‘to be / thought of as trouble makes me tingle.’ With that superb line-break, Aqua Rosa continues the brilliance of Luxemburg, Lake and Crewe’s grandmother: girls remaking the world with the click of their heels.