Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

‘Sonnets for Luke’ by Emily Critchley and ‘The Golem’ by Richard Watt

In Pamphlets on August 31, 2012 at 9:30 am

– Reviewed by Rob A. Mackenzie

I don’t know what I expected from Emily Critchley’s Sonnets for Luke, but it certainly wasn’t what I got. From the opening poem, ‘A Final Sonnet (for Luke)’ the disrupted syntax reminded me less of British experimental writing than of John Berryman’s unique form of American confessional:

  Poor Luke to be so querulous to life & talented.
  He that in that year
  Had very done much things. But to dismay.

Except that this is absurd, pastiche Berryman, and the pamphlet is an ironic swipe at the stunted vocabulary and expression of romantic love. If women have, at times, been portrayed as emotionally high-strung, Critchley’s precise diction and shifting tones eloquently parody the notion. The second (untitled) poem, set in a crowded metro carriage, has the narrator write to Luke:

  This city’s musculature, it spits me out at Greenwich,
  where I stay, feelingly, for news.

  Till then, so long.

Combine Mills & Boon-ish nonsense (“feelingly”) with casual anti-climax (“so long”) and you’re on your way to an Emily Critchley sonnet. In a later poem with the slapstick title, ‘Avec Fond Memories’, Critchley attacks labels:

  ‘Radical’ for that same old worn old habitude,
  ‘Kookiness’ for such pricks.

But ‘love’ is the label and signifier which attracts maximum derision. In one poem (untitled, as most are), after lamenting Luke’s failure to reply to her emails, the narrator exclaims, “Luke, I missed you at our wedding!/ But it’s OK.// I’ll see you at the next one.” In another, plain-style sincerity is mocked:

                              Why can’t signs
  that lovers make be read? I don’t know
  why can’t they?

  Then plainly say “I LOVE YOU”
  & the sonnet bangs awake.

Except that the final line rhymes (and therefore connects) with the poem’s opening declaration, “You’re such a flake!”, which then serves to undermine it. Critchley sparingly employs the traditional sonnet’s formal devices to compound irony.

This pamphlet is cynical and negative but also curiously illuminating. It’s entertaining but the laughs carry a sting. It’s all deconstruction and some people might prefer a rebuilding of love to relentless lampooning. If so, they better read something else. These poems are for readers who appreciate irony used with searing effect.

I hadn’t read Richard Watt before and my initial impression was of heightened diction combined with deliberately fuzzy narrative. I also got a strong sense of alienation from the “brute, mis-shapen” Golem of the title poem and the striking images of ‘City of Discovery’ where a fortune teller has dealt “the ace of traps, on its side”. The poem’s addressee feels increasingly disconnected from his own essential humanness – “You have felt trapped before/ but are becoming lignified” – and has to make do “with no television/ as the modern world deafens.” A lack of communication and belonging is reflected in the fragmentary narrative.

In ‘Bachelor’ the disconnection is also with time itself. The images are quasi-surreal, but don’t represent the gratuitous vacancy that surrealism often produces in the work of mediocre postmodernists. Instead, the narrator’s early lover, shockingly, is objectified

  wrapped in tissue paper and those
  squeaking figure eights of foam
  like a keepsake trinket I’d meant
  to return to.

The poem had begun with leaves changing colour, a familiar trope for time passing, but Watt doesn’t deliver the expected meditative lyric. Instead, the narrator crashes through his ex-lover’s windscreen:

  Seeing, as I shred
  that your hair has changed,
  somehow older
  and that I am not.

I take this as a symbol of stalled emotional growth, as if the narrator has just recognised (too late!) that the “keepsake trinket” is evidence only of a shallow investment in the past and a disintegrating present.

Watt’s poems always had points of interest. Occasionally, the effort to produce original phrases led to real clunkers.  ‘Louis Slotin’s Heavy Ghost’, after some bright moments, sank into the bog of portentousness:

  Ours is a teetering packet
  Of coldening dust,
  The stuff ingrained
  In your margins and collars.
  Cold softens the pencil’s scratch
  And the razor’s bite, in time.

Enough said, I think… But I still applaud the attempt. Ambition is much preferable to sticking with easy goals and banal themes, and the fact that Richard Watt often pulls it off is enough to make this pamphlet worth your effort and time. ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, the final poem, combines a playful nod to early Eliot with a veiled reference to Bede’s sparrow. A concert ends and musicians leave.

  Pianissimo, a lilting memory of fullness
  Bows the air in the empty hall.

As does all good art, including Richard Watt’s.




‘Goldfish Tears’ by Curtis Ackie

In Short Stories on August 30, 2012 at 11:51 am

-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney

Goldfish Tears by Curtis Ackie
Arguably, one approach to the short story is to take ordinary people and show extraordinary events happening to them – after all, we don’t want to read stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things. In Curtis Ackie’s Goldfish Tears, nearly all of the characters are extraordinary to start with, ensuring that his tales start with a high interest factor and go on from there. It’s a good technique.

Many of Ackie’s characters are afflicted in some way. The everyday fears and paranoias that people harbour under the surface are brought to the fore of their lives, and given an external force that can be resisted, but, often, not overcome. If this sounds as if Ackie has a fatalistic approach to the trials of existence, it may be true. And yet there is an overall cheerfulness in his writing that mostly lifts what would otherwise be rather downbeat stories.

Karin, the character in the opening tale, ‘Ordeal by Water’, is fixed to her armchair by an unknown force, as water rises around her. Her thoughts range from the dramatic – she may be immobilised against her will – to the mundane – a worry that the water will stain the walls, but at least this shows the optimistic belief that she will survive the ordeal. Her thoughts are assaulted by older fears, of the dark, of spiders, of school bullies, and she also focuses on both tender and damaging moments with an ex. The author gives these pointers to pinpoint the internal damage. We aren’t told where the water comes from, and, if you buy into Ackie’s creations, it doesn’t matter. You could decide it’s a metaphor for tears, but, again, it doesn’t matter: the stories demand that you accept the here and now of them.

I hesitate to use the words ‘magic realism’ to describe these stories. I think ‘absurdist’ is a better term. Both need to be done well to avoid looking like parody. Ackie is mostly successful in this, though I think some of the scenes in the last story, ‘Carnival Evening’, go a little too far in depicting people acting out everyday expressions: instead of dancing, a dancer cuts a rug with scissors, while a drinker, rather than drink, pours his beer onto a whistle to wet it – you get the idea; it’s absurd and funny, but makes a small point about language rather than serving the story. Luckily, the story is strong enough to carry itself, that of another ostensibly powerless woman assaulted in her own home by outside forces; the assaults in this case may come from dreams, but – again, if you accept the writer’s scheme – have a more immediate, frightening reality.

Both ‘The Bath of Mary’ and ‘Birthmark Like a Scar’ deal with attitudes to disability. The latter is a rant, a bigot’s efforts to get others to share his distaste for disabled people. It may have the people of the former Yugoslavia in its sights (the writer lives in Zagreb, Croatia) but you could substitute the birthmark for almost any attribute and see the story as a comment on prejudice. It works as a story because of the imagery, the language, and the latent sense of comeback on the narrator: ”Whatever I was doing the collection of collapsed angles that made up her face would pop up to spook me.” ‘The Bath of Mary’ looks at disability from a different angle: Henrietta prevails upon her wacky scientist husband to invent something to reverse her disability – the science is highly questionable, which I love. Again, you just go with it if the story’s done well. Ackie is, in some small way, trying to address disabled people’s views of their own disabilities.

Many of the stories here can partly be summed up by some lines from the opening of ‘Undone’:

The uncertainty of my whereabouts wouldn’t bother me half as much if I knew who I was. What I find most distressing is this vague sense that something is wrong, and for that to be true everything must at one point have been quite the opposite.

This is another tale featuring the inability to move, and to talk, and revealing a formless, irresistible antagonist. It then takes shape as a recognisable monster, who finally leaves the narrator alone; it seems that his lingering ‘sense that something is wrong’ is an even worse fate.

Another signifier of internal damage is personified in Sragnàc, the protagonist in ‘Shadowplay’, who wonders if it is ”at all normal for (hallucinations) to occur spontaneously in the sane”. Sragnàc’s independently-minded shadow seeks to embarrass him socially and at work – though Sragnàc is too vain and self-sufficient ever to be truly embarrassed – in a tale full of literary and cultural references. He finally faces the choice of whether to keep fighting it or to give in to it. Is the shadow supposed to be his conscience? Possibly, and that can serve as a satisfying answer, but, as in most of the other tales here, the literal answer is irrelevant.

My favourite story was ‘Oh, Blue Hag’. Egon admires his twin sister Eugenie so much that he seeks to become her, using invasive, conscience-free dishonesty and subterfuge. It is a story that goes beyond the ostensibly comic to the tragedy of his longing, his self-hatred and his selfishness. A wish-fulfilment fantasy, as in ‘The Bath of Mary’, the story seems to reach a conclusion that both satisfied me as a reader and still leaves me wondering what else might happen.

Curtis Ackie tells modern fairy tales, messing with our ordinary perceptions and knowledge to do so. Most of the stories are illustrated expertly by Lorena Matić in a style that wouldn’t be out of place in a children’s book; while not absolutely essential in a book of short stories, they add to the unreal atmosphere of what is a very assured and entertaining collection of stories.

Lies/Isle (The Horror Issue)

In online magazine on August 24, 2012 at 9:15 am

                -Reviewed by Thomas White

Lies/Isle declare that they invite submissions dealing with the ‘space between static and time based elements’. That is to say, those moments in which the temporal flow is suspended by a consciousness intent on taking in the minutiae of detail encircling it.

The protagonist of Ken Baumann’s ‘Cease’ shows consciousnesses of this irk, each paragraph a varicose vein of impressions (a knife, a mirror that shatters, symbolising…something) that quickly lose the rhythm they initially create. That is not to say that the phrasing does not have its moments of clarity – the action takes place at a point ‘high enough for a fall to become contemplative’. Unfortunately, such instances are offset by a frequent reliance on stock images and phrasing.

Helen Vitora’s ‘While in Captivity’ suffers from no such homogenisation of image and thought. A poem which sees the ‘shark’s replacement teeth’ become ‘cookie cutters’ and bruise the windowsill. Rather arbitrary line breaks suggest a poem straitjacketed because of visual rather than rhythmic considerations.

‘She enjoyed masturbating to the video as the victim was being killed’ reports the silent speaker in Mitch Patrick’s  ‘Killing Time’, a video that despite featuring clips  of masturbation (edited in such a way as to appear less like sexual organs and more like gaping wounds) fails to shock. It comes as no surprise when the masturbating subject climaxes at the point of the victim’s death, and the revelation that she was using her orgasm as a means to feel ‘something like dying’ fails to say much at all about anything. The video’s imagery, admittedly, lingers.

David Peak’s first two poems set about uniting the theme of architecture with head based trauma, the first describing  a face ravaged by cancer:

‘My face is an abscess
Cut the cancer off my face
Put metal in me’

Before touching upon how such trauma can alter our perception of the surrounding architecture; the basement becomes a ‘crawlspace’ and there is something wrong ‘with the angles of the hallway’. The second poem reveals the reason for the unlikely union between such disparate themes. We learn that his father (presumably a carpenter) taught him to ‘hammer nails’ and ‘eye the craftsmanship’ and that, as a result of this, when he  sees his father’s (presumably) autopsied head, he sees it in architectural terms; his mouth becoming walls and a floor that are ‘forever vanishing’. It is unfortunate that the third and final poem of the sequence succeeds only in extending the catalogue of mouth based horrors, rather than developing the intriguing links made by the first two poems.

The medical theme continues with ‘The Skin Game’by James Tadd Adcox,a piece named after John Galsworthy’s play of the same name, in which an interviewer asks for the definition of medical terms and is answered by a voice whose replies consist of snippets lifted from the play:

‘What do you mean by objective symptoms?’
‘Who touches pith shall be defiled’

The answer utilises a phrase which, in its original context (the Biblical Apocrypha), was a warning against the dangers of associating with the rich and influential. The resulting connection between the abandonment of social values and physical trauma to the body is so well developed that when the interviewer asks at the conclusion of the piece for the prognosis, there is no need for the second speaker to provide an answer (‘be quiet. There’s no mystery’) such is the aptness of the extended metaphor.

Too little exists between the lines of Erik Wennermark’s ‘The Candidate’ to be of more than fleeting psychological interest to the reader.  Though ‘The Candidate’ himself (a Goatman, ‘gifted with balls’ but ‘without a cock’) exists in a world solidly realised, his inner life fails to garner the complexity that his outer form would suggest. Where writers like Anne Carson present a middle ground where the boundaries between mythology and reality are indistinct, the resulting hybrid saying something about both, Wennermark explicitly and inexplicably denies us the pleasure of disentangling metaphor from reality; ‘I am not a metaphor. I am a Goatman without a cock’   ‘The Candidate’ says in aside, before indulging predictably in violence.

Ben Segal’s first story, ‘Maldoror, Suffering From Kidney Failure, Tapes his Weekly Television Show’, explores the horror of living in a spotlight afforded to you by a terminal illness. He relies on rather heavy handed metaphors in order to do so by speaking as someone suffering from Kidney failure who, given airtime, threatens to tear out the teeth and kidneys of his viewers. However, in his second offering ‘Mother Tongue’, Segal deftly literalises the metaphors that we speak in when we talk of learning our mother tongue. In doing so, he creates a fable in which the mother’s tongue provides literal sustenance as seasoned meat, and in which the mother, feeling her tongue re-grow, exclaims ‘I’ve still got some things to teach!’.

Pieces by Tyann Prentice, Nate Dorr and Elizabeth Witte follow, each distinctive by virtue of their formal experimentation. Prentice pitches his highly Latinate, pseudo medical verse in an almost capricious arrangement of aside lines which fade, reappear and overlap, seeming sometimes to comment on and clarify the horror, sometimes to obfuscate. Dorr presents his musings on dentist waiting rooms in one solid block of text – a form appropriate to the atmosphere of claustrophobia he succeeds in creating.  Witte uses parenthesis to intriguing effect; ‘Where (in the[most beautiful] harmful place)’ and like Prentice’s verse (‘ spook speed/ collapses space in the toque fist of its logic’) finds power in the rhythm of the words as they trip from the tongue rather than in any concrete meaning.

William Vandenberg in ‘This is How we Move Through Homes’ presents an attempt to piece together the long departed residents of houses from the objects found there. It is an exercise that fails – the memories that they conjure are connected only by ‘loose strands of thread’ and the residents manifest only as shadowy figures. It is at times powerful, but sometimes reads like a description of a series of photographs or a conceptual art exhibition, and I was left floundering for anchorage.

The strongest pieces on offer in this Horror edition of Lies/Isle  utilise horror as a way of making the  intangible all too tangible. Moral decay is given a physical presence in ‘The Skin Games’ while an ageing mother, whose daughters no longer need her words of sustenance and knowledge, finds an appropriate metaphor for her plight in ‘Mother Tongue’. At its weakest, the horror exists as static images that fail to ignite interest, as a substitute for ideas, or as a justification for impenetrable voices that demand of the reader too much whilst giving too little in return.

Clayton T. Michaels’ ‘Monster’, the last piece of the collection, disintegrates into a series of footnotes within footnotes. Initially delighting with its depiction of cancer as ‘henna headed’ and consonants as ‘lousy lovers’, it soon sets about thwarting any desire to look beneath the surface with a series of gruesome images that may or may not be part of an overarching metaphor. As such, ‘Monster’, whilst delivering unique imagery, falls foul of many of the complaints that can be levelled at several of the pieces that precede it in this edition of Lies/Isle.


‘#romance’ by Jess Green

In Pamphlets on August 22, 2012 at 9:26 am

-Reviewed by Éireann Lorsung

Imagine—maybe this is easy, maybe you have to strain a bit—that time when you were just done with university. Anything could happen. Hopped up on the expectations and praise and challenges of your tutors, you head out into the world. And then what? In Jess Green’s chapbook, the ‘then what’ is drinking gin, making noise, writing poems, hoping for emails from someone who rarely writes, following people on Twitter.

Jess Green’ chapbook #romance is about moment. We know this not only by the hashtagged title (which is nothing if not of our moment, not to mention the signifier of things which, in a moment, will no longer matter or even make sense) but by her insistence on the now of the poems, which happens also to be our recent now, in a very specific here. We’re in England, 2011 or so, in these poems. We’ve got a Royal wedding (as distraction), dinners with the Beckhams, and a rather heavy-handed mention of class war (“Stop the Poetry”); we’ve got Coronation Street as signifier of class; we’ve got Red Stripe and D:Ream and Outkast and, Dyson dryers and David Tennant as Doctor Who (“Potatoes”). The poems mention GCSEs, BTECs, the ‘Daily Hate’, iPads, Kindles (“Beyond the Kettle”), coeliacs, Bargain Booze (twice), and Primark, Wigan and Toxteth and Eton and Egg Café. Although Shakespeare, Eliot, Keats, Browning, Plath and Hughes make appearances, it is notable that most of these take place in a poem (“Scratch Your Degree”) which imagines, with irony, the erasure of three years of university. The past—including the literary one—is not the primary subject of the poems, despite its importance to them and to their speaker.

The insistence of these poems on their moment, on the now of hashtags and pop culture references and gadgets—but also on the now of just-out-of-university, the now of being in your early twenties and not knowing what will happen and kind of flailing a bit—is double-edged. On one hand, it makes the poems urgent. Green very clearly evokes a certain desperation, anxiety, and mania that often accompanies early adulthood, and the references to the speaker’s surroundings, whether geographical or cultural, site the emotional experiences in the poems. But the now-ness of the poems also makes them feel closed off, topical, a little predictable. In “Stop the Poetry”, for example, the speaker’s protest against the conservative government (one which will “spend our pensions on dinner with the Beckhams”, “[distract] us with a Royal wedding”, “penalise the unmarried/and patronise the women”) is unsurprising. The poem ends with the image of an unstoppable poetry “telling the tales of the war you’re raging/ on the unrich, the unprivileged, and the unmiddleaged [sic]”. In all its sincerity (and for this reviewer that is a value-positive word), the poem seems to have forgotten that other poets have written in the face of repressive governments. Poetry really has survived and helped others to survive—need I mention Akhmatova, Neruda, or any other famous examples?—but in order to do this it must reinvent the world, actually re-form it, not just re-present it, with the fugitive promise to “prance along bars until they listen”. When the poems take on these responsibilities, their now-ness is a hindrance to them, because a lasting political poem must be about more than its subject. But perhaps here again Green is emphasising the ephemerality of things; perhaps the poem is not meant to last, not meant to speak beyond its now any more than today’s hashtag on Twitter would, three weeks from now.

Green seems to aim to fulfil Ezra Pound’s dictum to make it new by introducing new things to the poems. The titular hashtag, for one, is successful: it disrupts the habitual reading of a word and a title and forces the reader to reconsider the function and form of each. Writing about recent occurrences, however, is not enough to make a new poetry. Many times reading this chapbook I found myself wishing for more consideration of line, of image, and of language that would convey the immediacy and desire that seems to be the root of these poems. The poems do feel urgent, but they also feel sloppy (and, unfortunately, the book’s production and editing add to this—my copy had poorly aligned pages which stuck out above the cover, and I was disappointed to find typographical errors and inconsistencies throughout the text).

Despite my desire for more depth and richness here, Green’s willingness to be vulnerable, to be sincere, to write about “being nineteen/ and so desperately wanting to be fucked up” (“Another one broken”) and to “stand up/ and speak my secrets to strangers” (“Potatoes”) are strengths, and the willingness to be vulnerable especially is rare and necessary. #romance, with its emphasis on what passes, ends, disappears, and fades away, tells an aching and raw story of its speaker’s early adulthood. Whether or not that story is destined for the same “half of a bottom shelf” where the library keeps its “useless ancient monologues” (“Scratch Your Degree”) is perhaps beside the point.

‘How Many Camels Is Too Many?’ by Colette Sensier

In Pamphlets on August 20, 2012 at 11:20 am

-Reviewed by Éireann Lorsung

There is an essay by the poet Adrienne Rich entitled “Tourism and Promised Lands” (it’s in her book What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics), in which Rich examines what she calls tourism in poetry. By ‘tourism’, Rich indicts the assumption underlying the use of the ‘exotic’ in metaphor and image: the poet  observes, picks through, and makes use of parts of cultures other than her own as and when they are useful to her, without a deep engagement with or understanding of them. Poetic tourism, in Rich’s view, ignores the existence of other poets and other poetic traditions in favor of ‘decorating’ one’s own poems with “brilliantly colored flowers, fronds, views”. Those whose cultures are so appropriated by the white or Western poet become “abstract figures on a simplified ground”. The exotic is “that way of viewing a landscape, a people, a culture as escape from our carefully constructed selves, our ‘real’ lives”. Rich calls it “a trap for poets”. The exotic is a trap. Not only can it reduce otherness to decoration (a violence so thoroughly discussed I will not go into further detail here), it reduces otherwise strong poems to beautifully designed houses with MDF roofs. Unlike the hybrid—wherein there is a possibility for play within historical and present power structures, and for unpredictable intervention in authority—appropriation of the ‘exotic’ maintains power in one place—that of the active, observing poet.


In Colette Sensier’s pamphlet How Many Camels Is Too Many?, poetic tourism regrettably undermines some of the best poems. Take, for example, the marvellously constructed world of “We’ll meet again”, wherein the “total resurrection of the body” leads to the image of all the clipped fingernails of one’s life following one to Heaven like a very human comet-trail. The family life we’re given in this poem (the father biting the baby daughter’s nails and cutting her hair; the “cosmic butchers” where pints of blood wait to replenish lost organs; the grandfather’s hip “come running at the final call”) is unique and strange and believable, which is not necessarily to imply autobiographical, nor by any means to argue on its behalf. But the poem ends with the image of the grandfather being coated with his lost fingernails “like feathers on an Aztec eagle”. Why? Where does this come from, in the world of the poem? The use of the image feels like a bid for some kind of ‘authenticity’ in a poem which has already established a world that’s authentic to itself and on its own terms. The poems elsewhere in the pamphlet resort to similar images, which seem to come from outside their own structures and systems to add or create meaning; we find the god Shiva pushing “through the colour of the earth” in “In Praise of Light Pollution”, ostensibly in contrast to the “gods// of metal, shaped in endless, boring bombs” later in the poem, but the comparison only serves to idealise a god of elsewhere who is not boring, perhaps only because not familiar. Of course, Shiva’s depiction as destroyer might be pertinent (besides the bombs in the poem, there is also “dangerous smoke”, “burning”—but the image of “bonfires float[ing] before us, upside down” and the light “smiling in purple in red” imply fireworks rather than actual bombs). But the fact is that the god appears for a moment and then disappears; this is not a deep metaphor, not a sustained one. Later in the collection, in the poem “Cyclops”, the figure of “the Cyclops filtered down through history/ into an elephant growing smaller and smaller”, which is striking on its own terms, is complicated by a comparison, in the poem’s last line, to “Kumbhakarna in the Ramayana”. What necessitates this comparison? Perhaps the brief mention of India earlier in the poem. But I do not think that is enough to demand the image, or to demonstrate that it is more than an embellishment designed to make the poems seem worldly. In the end, the effect of these images is to reduce the reader’s confidence in the poems, or at least in their ability to make worlds sufficient to themselves.

Sensier is a young poet, and one who has already had quite a bit of recognition. This is lucky: she has time and some success on which to build. Her poems will benefit from the confidence and awareness she is sure to develop as she goes on. She clearly has an interest in big ideas—the Freudian comes up in “Toothlessness”; the biblical and mythological make several entries—and there are a few tentative but interesting formal gestures in this collection, notably in “Orpheus” and “Llama”. The strengths of How Many Camels Is Too Many? lie in Sensier’s imaginative images: the grandfather coated in his own lost fingernails, the sheep galloping over fields made of biblical books, desire as frog croaking uncontrollably (in “The Croak”; echoes of Emily Dickinson here, as well as of Wallace Steven’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”). If we can wait, we may be rewarded by the poet’s trust in these images and her ability to handle them.





‘Pub Stuntman’ by Tim Clare

In Pamphlets on August 17, 2012 at 9:15 am

They dragged him from the podium
the mic fell slack and squealed
and back inside his hotel room
his tortured mind unpeeled.

                        (‘The Strange Death of Charlie Wordsworth: Stand-Up Poet’)


-Reviewed by Seán Hewitt

Pub Stuntman is Tim Clare’s debut collection, but it comes as the product of an already-established poetic career. Clare has done worldwide tours, written an award-winning memoir, presented a Channel 4 series, and even staged events with the likes of Vic Reeves and the legendary John Cooper Clarke. And yet, despite his enviable credentials, Clare’s poetic is one of self-deprecation, even sarcasm: it constantly attacks pretension, offering humour, as opposed to exclusivity, as a vehicle for poetic insight.

These poems, even on the page, retain their origins as spoken performances, and their humour often arises from the casual asides and thought-processes we can see developing. The reader can hear Clare’s voice, and can almost picture the wry smile widening over his face as he gestures to us, performing on the page:


I stiffen my felt death warrant
with mercury. This is my pet
barrister, Stephen Quinn.
Say hello, Stephen.


It is the little turns of comedy that make Pub Stuntman such a breath of fresh air and such an enjoyable and easy collection to read. There is none of the heavy-handed ‘ULTIMATE SOUL PAIN’ that Clare mocks, and he is the polar opposite of the poet who, in the collection’s final poem, wears ‘his condescension / like a giant gilt-edged monocle.’

But that’s not to say that Clare’s poetry is incapable of serious thought or poignancy; in fact, it is often the case that Clare and his eclectic cast of characters (Mr T., an unemployed hangman, the Home Secretary to name just a few…) seem to use humour as a defence mechanism, and Clare opens up various wounds through laughter. In one of this collection’s best poems, ‘In Which You Are Decapitated On A Rollercoaster In Budapest’, the ‘headless lover’, whose vulnerable head is variously described as ‘a scoop of peach ice cream’, ‘a cannonball’, ‘a winter moon’ and ‘a Christmas pudding’, becomes a way of exploring quietly touching moments of loss:


I write about the weeks that come after,
about giving your books to the charity shop
then regretting it,
the loneliness of finding a glove in the garden,
grief’s raw boredom.


Needless to say, Clare doesn’t let these words hover in the air for too long before quickly deflating them with another blunt comic progression: ‘Near the end of the poem I write about you / getting your head knocked off.’ He assumes the role of the intellectual poet in order to tear through it from the inside, leaving the reader constantly suspended between comedy and more potent images and aggressions.

The atmosphere of the festival poetry tent is evoked in Pub Stuntman with a quick wit and a knowing eye. Occasionally the use of more prescriptive rhythms and rhyme schemes get in the way of the comedy, as in the collection’s opening poem, ‘Welcome to the Poetry Arena’, but it is worth reading on and rooting through for the hidden gems, the gleaming comic moments and the more earnest and touching observations, the little wisdoms and truths. There’s a little of everything to be found here, and the poetry of Tim Clare is rare in that it manages to leave the reader both thoughtful and amused, with an ‘inscrutable smirk / smeared all over his cheeks like jam.’


‘Human Shade’ by Robert Peake

In Pamphlets on August 13, 2012 at 9:16 am

-Reviewed by Martha Sprackland

if what is true brings us sorrow,
if what sorrow brings is truth…

                                (‘Desdemona’s Apology’)

Human Shade is, unusually, a pamphlet published in a single volume sandwiched between pamphlets from two other poets, and it is in reading the whole that Peake particularly stands out. This is the sort of poetry that should be finding a home in pamphlet form – rough-edged, tender, sad. The collection orbits the black hole created by the loss of a child, to whom five poems in memoriam are plaintive rather than passé. The more poetic evocations of grief, ‘goodbye / was already on your lips, a silent prayer’ earthed by the poem’s plumb weight line, ‘to be brutally honest, I loved you’ (‘Father-Son Conversation’). Somewhat reminiscent of Paterson’s ‘The Swing’ (in Rain), the poetry in Human Shade is imbued with the child, saturated with its absence. ‘Of course, my son, who lived / too briefly for my liking, / was there with me as well’, Peake acknowledges in ‘Koi Pond’, that clever linebreak resolutely setting the tone.

Throughout, Peake manages the subject of his son’s death both dextrously and eloquently. The line ‘I lash my faith to the mast of a boat’ (‘Elegy for the News’) is entirely appropriate for a collection in which the tidelines of grief are oceanic, dynamic, ever-changing, lapping up against the edges of the poems yet crucially avoiding the spill into sentimentality. Indicative of the poet’s skill is the way Peake is able to address his grief; in a poem about his son he is controlled, silent, ‘I disown the alphabet / unsaying each letter’ (‘To Friends Not Knowing What To Say’), whilst a poem about a road sign at the Mexican border is allowed to contain the line about the child ‘who rises as though winged in a blaze of light’ (‘Road Sign on Interstate 5’). The poems are shared, spliced, images from certain pieces belonging to others, yet all coalescing on the child, and all the better for their displacement.

There are, admittedly, some weaker poems; ‘Radish’ and ‘Recipe for the Broken’ feel a little like padding against the stronger poems on either side. There are, inevitably, clumsy lines which jar, too-soon pushed into the poem before they’ve gone through the editorial mill: ‘Now grief sparks again in my dome-covered brain’.

The lasting impression of the collection is, however, of strong work gathered intelligently and often beautifully around a poignant and well-executed set of core material. Images of water and ice, stasis and kinesis, arrested movement and flow pull a thread through the poems, drawing them together without gimmick to leave a lingering sense of submerged sadness, crystalline hope and the muted half-light of grief.

Bringing us back and forth with the rock and ebb of the poems and the distant light of recovery, Peake is first ‘frozen on my couch / I blinked into the sunlight, and you were gone’ (‘To the Bear in a Neighbor’s Tree’) before musing ‘Who knew the river of death would be beautiful?’ (‘Acheron’). In ‘The Ice Has Come Back’ he writes ‘I sleep / in ice’, again anaesthetised, motionless, managing, before the tide rushes in again and ‘it comes down on me – everything I pushed out of my mind’ (‘Human Shade’). In the final poem, ‘Meteorology’, the waters calm and the light pushes in through ‘a break in the clouds, / which were never evil’. The collection ends on the promise of hope without the trite self-help conclusion too often found in collections assembled around a death. Although ‘it is over’, there is no divine light, the sun is streaming in ‘not as a symbol, / but the simple refraction / of light’. There’s no beating of the breast or falling to knees, just fragility, possibility. The triumph of this collection is configured in the last poem’s cautious approach to hope; no miracle, just the tentative possibility of respite, ‘the gentle / indifference of rain.’

‘Braking Distance’ by Calum Kerr

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on August 11, 2012 at 11:13 am

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

Of late, motorways appear to be enjoying some sort of a renaissance among creative writers. Erbacce Press has just published an anthology of poetry and fiction titled In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway, and now Calum Kerr, in only the second Salt Modern Voices fiction pamphlet, offers us a different take. As Edward Chell writes in the foreword to In the Company of Ghosts, compared to the American freeway, ‘the British motorway is a more subdued sibling; less epic, more dowdy, with its own peculiarly subversive enchantments’. Kerr’s approach in Braking Distance challenges this notion by attempting to bring out the epic side of your average dowdy service station.

Calum Kerr's 'Braking Distance', reviewed for Sabotage by Claire Trévien

Braking Distance is a collection of interlinked short stories all set on the same day in the same motorway service station. The stories vary wildly in structure and subject but are linked together not just in space, but through reoccurring set pieces, such as a tray of tea falling in the cafeteria. The incident of the tea tray becomes the trigger for a series of thefts and murders, both by humans and aliens. It also prevents a suicide and sparks the beginning of a love story between two strangers. The world is built subtly so that the interconnectedness of the stories is not immediately obvious, making the realizations all the more satisfying.

Take for instance the two opening stories, ‘Two Households, Both Alike’ and ‘Take a Break’. ‘Two Households, Both Alike’ begins the collection with a sweetly awkward teenage love-story between Rowan, a Burger King employee and Julie, a KFC employee. The Romeo and Juliet connotations add mock-gravitas to the situation: ‘Neither had been warned about fraternising with the enemy, but each knew from the comments of colleagues that theirs was an illicit liaison.’

Their ‘daily pilgrimage’ to the smoking shelter where they secretly meet is interrupted by an accident in the cafeteria (the falling of the tea tray, though it is not explicitly stated), the clearing up of which becomes Rowan’s duty. He is left to hopelessly watch ‘Julie’s back disappearing’ without being able to warn her of his absence at the rendezvous. It is a slight but entertaining snapshot highlighting the monotony of fast food work and affectionately depicting crude teenage love.

‘Take a Break’, in contrast, is the monologue of an alien justifying his choice of location for a break:

‘The car park is big enough for me to land easily. Strange how no-one ever seems to notice that my car comes down out of the sky’.

In this short story we get the first real mention of the tea tray, and a glimpse at what caused its fall, through the alien’s observation of a woman running through the service station with a ‘vintage pistol’. Upon entering the cafeteria she knocked ‘a tray full of tea out of some man’s hand, and then she ran through the fire-exit and into the night. No-one really seemed to notice her, they were too intent on the fallen tray’. This idea of noticing and not-noticing is one that re-occurs throughout the collection, whether it is the paranoia of gangster Reg in ‘Constant Vigilance I’, or a serial killer’s perusal in ‘You Caught My Eye’, suggesting that the banality one expects to find in a service station blinds us to the Romeos and Juliets, and the fantastical adventures that may be taking place within it.
Yet, the banality is still there, a veneer even the most fantastical of these short stories have trouble piercing. In ‘Extrinsic Justice’, the alien from ‘Take a Break’ kills the Godfather-type character Eric with all the nonchalance of a Scarlet Pimpernel:

‘I don’t normally do this — I only popped in for a cup of tea and toasted teacake — but you really had to be stopped. In all my travels you have to be one of the most heartless and evil men I have ever come across’.

The words fail to convince, perhaps because neither of the characters have been given enough time to develop. Elsewhere, the meta-references are grating: ‘The author bent down, bringing his face close to his dying character. “Leave. Bob. Alone,” he said then straightened up and walked back out of the story’. The tone throughout the collection is too satisfied with its own cleverness and the characters too unlikable for one to feel invested in their fate. As a result, the final deus ex machina is just there for cheap laughs.

These short stories fall short as standalones, but fortunately, they are not meant to stand alone; the weaving of the narratives elevates Braking Distance to an intriguing exercise in style. This is a light-hearted, fast-moving collection, but if you want more than caricatures from your short stories you should look elsewhere.

Edinburgh Reviews Day 7 (07/08/12) part 2: The Girl with No Heart, Evie and the Perfect Cupcake, Ash Dickinson @ the Inky Fingers Minifest

In Festival, Performance Poetry on August 10, 2012 at 11:05 pm

– reviewed by James Webster and Dana Bubulj –

These are the last of the Edinburgh reviews from Sabotage’s Performance Editor James Webster and his stalwart reviewer Dana Bubulj. We had a great time in Edinburgh, saw some amazing spoken word artists and reviewed 35 shows. And although this means we mightn’t  have new bumper-reviews every day, we’ve got some people on the ground at the Fringe, ready to catch the things we’ve missed (although, still no competitive crop dusting).

If you haven’t checked out the previous reviews then you can find them here: Day 1,Day 2Day 3Day 4 part 1Day 4 part 2Day 5Day 6 part 1Day 6 part 2, Day 7 part 1.

Evie and the Perfect Cupcake

Tina Sederholm’s vision of an alternate reality, the ‘Calorie Galaxy’, where the world is ruled by ‘The Thinners’ and weight is obsessively monitored and obsessed over, is a near flawless depiction of a world that is all-too familiar.

As mentioned in the review of the preview, the world-building is creative and gorgeous, full of clever devices and inventive ideas (the ‘warlocks of extreme pastry’ who create desserts to be admired as art and never eaten are my favourite) that highlight the way the damaging food-dystopia of the ‘Calorie Galaxy’.

What had changed from the previous review was that the show was far more smoothly performed and had been cut, stitched and streamlined (now coming in at a very manageable 45 mins) and this more focused performance made for a stronger show. And while there were still moments that were judgemental of the deliberately flawed characters, they came across as brainwashed mouthpieces for the ‘Thinners’ (rather than 2-dimensional straw men/women), which made for a better and more coherent show. I warn you though: it still carries a trigger warning for anyone sensitive to the subject of weight/calorie-counting or casual rape jokes.

The show’s message about the damage of societal obsession with weight and size instead of health came across strongly, with Tina’s language fluctuating from luscious to fragile and perceptive, it made for a heady mixture and a very powerful show.

Star Rating: 4/5

Evie and the Perfect Cupcake was on at 5pm at The Banshee Labyrinth and the last show was on the 9th August. If you can see this show in another venue in the future we heartily recommend it.


The Girl with no Heart

The Girl With No Heart, from Sparkle and Dark’s Travelling Players, combines live action with puppetry to create a heartbreaking story of a paper world ravaged by war where children’s hearts power nuclear blasts as they are torn in two. The puppet characters were stunning, and they were moved and spoke very expressively. The idea of the paper-hearts, which the children kept on their person but hidden, say on their sleeve, was reminiscent of Pullman’s daemons, particularly in the energy from their violent severing.

World building is introduced through the eyes of our protagonist, an ingénue from a parallel Eden-like world. As such, her wide-eyed wonder at the bleakness of war and its fallout made for a played-out dynamic, but it was rescued by the use of story-telling as a mechanic for escapism and as a way to properly compare the ‘reality’ of the ash-world with her own. There is a great use of origami cranes, both as a means of transport and potential escape and their relation to the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima.

It is a powerful and enjoyable play, but make sure you get a view of the front of the stage, because much of the story-telling is set there, and it is easy to miss a lot of detail.

 Star Rating: 4/5

The Girl with no Heart is on at 5pm at Bedlam Theatre, from 9th-25th August (not 13th)


Ash Dickinson @ the Inky Fingers Minifest

The Inky Fingers Minifest is running alongside the Fringe festival in Edinburgh until tomorrow (the 11th) with a plethora of interesting literary and performance events. On Tuesday Sabotage saw multi-slam winner Ash Dickinson, supported by Graeme Hawley, at Pulp Fiction Books.

Graeme Hawley gave a thoughtful and occasionally angry set; ‘Ambition’ explored his fascination with the people who place 6th or 7th and was a sweet tale on those athletes who train as hard, but don’t win, whose ‘fireworks went off in daylight’, ‘Additives’ was a brilliantly phrased poem using mayonnaise as a metaphor for all the things we mess things up and try to fix (instead of not messing up), and ‘Mosaic’ was an ace piece railing against debt culture, accompanied by an actual mosaic made of chopped up credit cards. That said, I feel with a better performance and more interesting language, he could be even better.

Ash himself (runner-up of the UK All-Star competition) performed an entertaining set filled with short punchy comedy pieces, including some great haikus, while his poem on ‘Shoes’ explored one of the few areas where men suffer more than women: lack of interesting clothes (though he may have overlooked the fact that heels can be somewhat painful). He does redress the balance with a nice, if simplistic, piece on women’s magazines, expressing a simple message of confidence and inner beauty that wasn’t too preachy.

A few of his other pieces were also a little simplistic, such as the funny ‘The Boy Who Ate Only Butter’ or the well put, but slightly prosaic ‘Status Update’. It’s not that that’s inherently bad, it just seems like he could have done more with them.

Where he excelled were his more speculative pieces, ‘Daytrip From Your Heart’ was a brilliantly realised journey through a loved one’s body, taking it in as if it were a tourist attraction, with an amusingly downbeat ending. And his poem on doing a life swap with the ocean was phenomenally imagined, with some lovely lilting language, great comedy and a brilliantly wistful ending.

Star Rating: 3/5

Inky Fingers’ Minifest continues tomorrow with guerrilla street performance at 2.30pm at a surprise location, then Poetry Polaroids (a great project of collaborative poetry artwork) at 6.30pm and the closing party at 8pm, both at Pulp Fiction Books.

Edinburgh Reviews Day 7 (07/08/12) part 1: Oddlie, Charlie Dupré Presents the Tales of Shakey P, Perle, Other Voices: Alternative Spoken Word

In Festival, Performance Poetry on August 10, 2012 at 10:51 pm

– reviewed by James Webster and Dana Bubulj

These are the last of the Edinburgh reviews from Sabotage’s Performance Editor James Webster and his stalwart reviewer Dana Bubulj. We had a great time in Edinburgh, saw some amazing spoken word artists and reviewed 35 shows. And although this means we mightn’t  have new bumper-reviews every day, we’ve got some people on the ground at the Fringe, ready to catch the things we’ve missed (although, still no competitive crop dusting).

If you haven’t checked out the previous reviews then you can find them here: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 part 1, Day 4 part 2, Day 5, Day 6 part 1, Day 6 part 2.


From Bag of Beans Productions, this was a stunning piece of one woman (with occasional instrumentation as background) spoken word/poetry/theatre, narrated, sung and performed by Aleshea HarrisSet in a “city of garbage heaps”, we follow a quiet girl grown up an outsider compelled by seeing some particularly great oration in the town centre very reminiscent of the civil rights rhetoric to find her own voice/magic. She does this with the help of another outcast, Sasha, an old woman suffering from the “disappearing disease” (an AIDS analogy) who used to be a Griot herself (“I was a tsarina of rhyme, a princess of powerful plosives”). The characters are compelling, with fantastic and distinct voices and mannerisms and the acting is brilliant, not to mention a wonderfully lyrical script.

It had some fantastic commentary on the process of finding a poetic voice, a process not for the faint-hearted, and the cathartic finding of expression that evolves from finding the “imperative” in life (rather than the simply “important”), writing and performing as separate steps does not make this piece a simple poetry version of training montage: it does not come easily, and the resolutions are painful but right and beautiful. The characters served as good contrasts to each other, particularly as the play progresses. Oddlie’s final soliloquy is a thing of beauty, dedicated to life, to poetry and to her friend that mustn’t be missed.

Star Rating: 5/5

Oddlie is on at 11.45 at Venue 13 from 9-18th August (not 13th). GO SEE IT.  

Charlie Dupré Presents: The Stories of Shakey P

Rap is just a form of poetry, right?

Well, yeah, but there’s often reluctance on both sides of the Spoken Word/Hip-Hop divide who see poetry as stuffy or who look down on rap as ‘not proper art’, so it’s refreshing to hear Charlie Dupré point out the similarities between the forms (highlighting the similarity between 5-beat bars in rap and iambic pentameter) in this rap-infused poetic history lesson.

Dupré’s lyrically inventive re-imaginings of Shakespearean plays (and one Marlowe play) are really well done; his spitfire rhymes and rhythms make the theatre of the pieces come alive and give them a modern relevance. He teases out parallels between the subject matter of ‘Shakey P’ and modern hip-hop with a light touch, especially effective in his take on Othello (covering Eminem’s ‘Stan’), the classic tale of obsession, rivalry and sexual jealousy transferring very well to a hip-hop context.

There are some dips though: his takes on Much Ado and Macbeth are still good fun, but compared to his other pieces come across as a little prosaic, mainly just recounting the plot, albeit with excellent lyrics and interesting framing devices (Much Ado is done as a wedding speech, while Macbeth recalls all the decisions that led to his death in a clever take on causality).

But the rest of his material really lifts the show, from the amazing rap-battle between Shakespeare and Marlowe that is incredibly effective and hilarious in the way it recreates them as rival school MC’s, with amazing Shakespearean insults and theatre jokes (‘hate to break it to you mate, but no-one really rates The Jew of Malta), to his awe-inspiring take on Hamlet (where Hamlet’s madness is personified in an aggressive and cocky rapper-style voice, pouring lyrical fire into Hamlet’s ear), the show breathes life into these timeless tales.

Star Rating: 4/5

Charlie Dupré presents: The Stories of Shakey P is on at 12.30pm at The Banshee Labyrinth, 4th-25th August



Dancing Brick’s ‘live comic book’ was part mime, part play, part comic book, part interactive theatre and a truly touching tale of loss and grief. Myself, I think of it as an ‘Unspoken Word’ show.

A slightly oblique take on the medieval poem of the same name by the Gawain Poet, the tale was told entirely by a silent character using narration, sound and cartoon from chunkily retro television set to tell his fractured narrative. He uses some really inventive and well timed physicality, hands disappearing behind the TV to be shown on screen, and an incredibly fun scene where he makes a sandwich on the screen.

He also used effective written instruction to lure the audience onstage, using them as characters in the narrative, and even converses with an audience member using dialogue on the screen (hilariously mismatched).

This funny and forlorn show may not be for everyone, the oddball silent character and disparate narrative could put a few off, but the audience on the day found it enchanting and heartbreaking and I couldn’t agree more.

Star Rating: 5/5

Perle is on at 1.45 at the Assembly Roxy, 2nd-25th August (not the 13th)


Other Voices: Alternative Spoken Word Cabaret

Today’s Other Voices had:

Fay Roberts in her absolute element with a gorgeously sensuous poem to a mermaid lover, for whom she’d “turn sailor”. It had some lovely imagery, such as casting nets to “catch the moonlight” and the rhythm of the sea that throws itself again and again; this was a delight. Her later poem ‘Thanatos and Eros’ was a fabulous short lesson in the difficulties of various insults to carve into a car in runes and her last, ‘Dedication’, on struggling with queer stereotypes and finding her “own colours” was a nice way to address lesbian culture.

Sarah Thomasin had a great take on David Starkey’s racist comments on the riots with ‘Mind Your Language’, with some nice commentary on the evolution of spoken word (“language RIP as we RP”). ‘Going Nowhere’ was another nice take on community dialect (cab drivers using transport metaphors) that sadly fell for easy jokes (“friends all had ride [on bus/girlfriend]”). Her ‘Stand off at Cashpoint’, with yells of “Withdraw!” was a cute modern Western. ‘Normal’ was another similarly simplistic subversion: where the dysfunctional families were not as “strange” as families where people could be trusted. She ended on a battle rap response to defend her fondness for poetic structure, in a witty reminder that raps are forms too, despite people’s aversion to learning at school as it wasn’t cool.

Alison Brumfitt had some comic poems that could have been a bit more fluid. She had an exuberantly filthy take on chocolate vs sex (where she’d “rather have a shag”) and a serious point on the absurdity of sex-ed classes both coming too late and with no focus on mental health, coupled with the useless analogy of condoms on brooms (whose constant rigidity make poor stand-ins). Unfortunately, the point of emotional wellbeing/healthy relationships was lost in the advice on having “shagged a nutter” (sigh). Her other poem had the strongest content, although was a bit stumbly. It took on gender stereotypes and their use solely as creating insecurity and thus markets for advertisers, calling on us to truly own our own body.

Mika Coco argued that any music/poetry was effective (be it “Dylan or Bieber”) if it reached people and elicited emotions. That said, his introduction was somewhat offensive (and against the event’s raison-d’etre) and as such, didn’t endear himself to me (or the audience).

Chella Quint finished the night with a Sesame Street style sex ed song on menstruation, with a trip through the cycle that included “they float on your vagina on a RIVER OF BLOOD” in the chorus. Just a bit cheering.

And some familiar voices:

For the occasion, Harry Baker performed his Man Poem on traditional masculinity and James Webster‘s somewhat primal love story ‘Long Ago’ suited the catacomb venue. Lucy Ayrton‘s ‘Fuck You Corporate Land’ was appropriately full of repressed frustration, ‘Al is not really a Vegetarian’ was sad about nice mackerel being dead and Tarquin (from her show) is still a great set piece.

Performers Star Rating: 3/5 for a mixed bag, but certainly a fun event.

Other Voices: Alternative Spoken Word Cabaret is on at 2.50pm at the Banshee Labyrinth from 9th-25th August (not Wednesdays)