Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

‘Oh-zones’ by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

In Pamphlets on September 28, 2012 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is a performance poet, and there is something of the immediacy of the spoken word in this chapbook.  But while the spoken word relies on an instant connection, not only to the words, but to the physical presence of the poet, here, we simply have the words on the page. Burnett has used the visual space of the page well, however, offering poems of different shapes.

In the Preface to Oh-zones, Burnett refers to the poems as ‘sensory-zone-poems: ‘inhaling, releasing and resonating through stress’. We are also told that ‘whords’ – words experienced as chords – ‘explore simultaneity in perception and identity’.

In the opening poem, ‘available sky’, the lines are short, the images accessible. The poem manages to convey the sensory overload of living in an urban environment through interesting line breaks and juxtapositions of sales-pitch phrases with nature elements. There is a sense of disconnect between urban and rural. There’s also a bitter wit:

‘1/3 off hugs with your son
if you see
something suspicious press the
sky sags with
trees bedecked with plastic bags
from costcutter’

The third line, ending in ‘the’ both cuts off a connection, and also runs on, to a new tangent. The assonant ‘a’ sound of ‘sags/bags’ is effective, and the repetition of ‘with’ adds to the weight of  the sagging sky. The idea of the sky ‘sagging’ with trees is quite arresting and this image certainly stopped me in my tracks, physically inaccurate though it might be. Where daylight fades, ‘gusting neon super / market lights’ root ‘every item to the earth / discounting nature ducting.’ Again, ending the line with ‘super’ is beautifully ironic.

Continuing the theme of neon lights, and equally humorous, is ‘villanelle in green’:

‘asda, with your green light
I prefer you to lidl’

and later:

‘it irons the air bright
yellow with red middle
bricks of sick light’

While I feel that the poem was let down by the word ‘sick’ (too telling), the ending redeems the poem:

‘I look out of light
it is april

the sky is an apple’

These are the poems of an eco-warrior, and  the poem ‘sharks, in their absence’ reveals how the absence of sharks near a coral reef shows that ‘the entire system is under (dressed/duress…’

The poem keeps interrupting itself with bracketed asides and indentations, and the repetition of as…as…as… shows the simultaneity/consequences of every action upon our environment:

‘at 30 degrees these deeds
seethe (look up
controlled environment
marigolds) as the soft
collapse of coral
barely registers as nudity
washes backless
over water freshening
as one thing becoming another’

The oil companies get a battering of course, although ironically, ‘…who funds ethics, but oil)’. And poets are clearly as essential to the ecosystem as (the good kind of) sharks. Because:

‘in their absence

My favourite poem here is ‘refuge wear’, where ‘disturbance is routine’, such as the air ‘unblueing’, causing the narrator to ‘chafe across car parks searching for / a blue fix’. The shape of the words on the page is like a broken up prose poem, effectively conveying the ‘disturbance’. There is a sense of unraveling with all the negative words: ‘unchecked’, ‘unbuttoning’, ‘undoing’, ‘unblueing’.

The last two poems are ‘breath-chords’ and ‘sun-chords’ – in the first, there are lists of words in columns across the page, while the second begins like a kind of yoga class instruction:

‘begin with inhale
together breathing syntax
we arrive at words

The words follow, in small blocks, or in a paragraph of words and phrases. And yes, there is tension, and stress, in the juxtaposition of ‘hot, low, clouds, litter, filter, cost, traffic, sunflowers’. The final three lines don’t save the day either:

‘warning hot shiver
shimmer and lift open pink
unbuckling clouds’

but perhaps, the pink helps us to ‘inhale, release and resonate through stress.’

All in all, the chapbook offers a pleasing soundscape, and impressionist impact. While the poems are political, they are not stridently so, and yet there is substance and innovation too. I would love to see them performed.


Poetry Olympics: Word Games 17/07/12

In Performance Poetry on September 21, 2012 at 1:59 pm

– Reviewed by Dana Bubulj

@ Theatre Delicatessen

It was rather difficult to miss the looming [Redacted] over London this season. What better way to respond to this is by appropriating it for poetry? In a pop up Theatre Delicatessen, housed innocuously in an old BBC building, Cat Brogan hosted an alternate [Redacted], with poets hailing (or having grandparents) from all across the globe. The venue itself was gorgeous, a very red Twin Peaks-esque draped basement with cushioned benches and low lamps. As an official slam, the poets had three minutes, but in the absence of score cards, audience judges (and increasingly their entire rows) called out scores. With only three judges, there were no discarded scores, so the standard biases (humour, acquaintances etc) were a visible and embraced part of the event. The prizes suited the ‘grandeur’ of the corporate-free occasion: homemade medals, fruit shoots, vegan cheese & toilet roll.

Cat Brogan was an effusive host, full of energy despite the sheer number of poets involved, many of whom were slam champions in their own right. She performed two pieces: first, a fantastically scathing comment on the rigmaroles of the [Redacted] and its shadier practices where “wetland marshes become marchés”; second, an abridged epic history of the Irish (accompanied by a bodhran) that was suitably mesmerising.

Sacrificial Poet was the “Usain Bolt of poetry” Harry Baker, whose tale of proper-pop-up-paper people (after which his Edinburgh show was titled) was sickeningly slick. His political alliteration was astounding, in his pop-up metropolis of paper people hurt by all the “paper cuts” of “paper thin policies”. The last third, about people as inspiration, was almost less powerful for giving us time to breathe. (25.5)

First Round Highlights

Esther Poyer (Guyana)’s ‘Fruitcake’ was a nicely paced story about moving to a Victorian-terraced-England of fine china and English tea carrying an awkward box of Caribbean fruitcake steeped in demerara sugar. “We in England now, we must leave behind silly things”, her characters say, reluctant to put it down. It was her first slam, and I hope to hear more. 22.75

Mark ‘Mr T’ Thompson (Jamaica) is a familiar face, and his Cultural Chameleon was fabulously performed, discussing the possible concept of a cultural “mean, mode or median” between roots in Jamaica and London. 27.5

David Lee Morgan (USA) Another Sabotage regular, Morgan performed an impressive ode to giving in to primal natures (“when the tiger hunts me I become the tiger”) and the disassociation/coming to terms with thoughts (“outside tiger, inside tiger, outside me”). 22.3

Michael Wilson (Northern Ireland) ECT poem was powerful, and the use of BSL added an interesting element to the relearning of communication (“my mind struggles into the clothing of thought”). 24.7

Stephanie Dogfoot (Singapore)’s ‘Asian people eat a lot of weird crap’ was great, both comic (“we look into its eye and dig eye out”) and mouthwatering in its conjured smoke and blistering chilli. 24.5

Ingrid Andrew (Australia) created a quiet personification of trees after bushfires, a “charcoal woman” with a “broken back where light comes through”. The extended womb analogy, while not novel, was very atmospheric. 21

Rose Drew (USA) had two particularly cutting political poems, one on the Olympics as distracting pomp (“leap like Superman over trash they can’t afford to collect”) and the particularly prescient ‘Dead Republican Girls’, a comment on the current erosion of Roe vs Wade in contemporary America. 23

Also ran (First Round):

Young Dawkins performed ‘Streets’, a nicely ponderous take on having done their time protesting as a younger man, now supporting from the “window seat” rather than frontlines. (21)

Oskar Hanska (Sweden) gave an exhilarating sensory explosion, but might have done better without the screaming. 24.25

Trudy Howson (England), whose poem is being used by the BBC for the [redacted] themselves offered up ‘English’, a succession of hat-tips that certainly hit all the traditional jingoistic name-checks. 22

Dareka Daremo (France)’s ‘Nouveau Globe’ alternated languages throughout in a fluent rhythm, with talk of the “chaos of endless night” and “les yeux d’un fou”. The times in which he committed content to one language rather than repeating multi-lingually was much more effective. 24.5

Ian (Canada), while published, has never performed, and it was evident; Hs ‘Rhapsody for Minimum Standard’ was dry and while he stated it was “no pedantic tirade”, it was monotonous and lecture-like (despite good intentions to “emancipate” the mind and dethrone corporations). 20.5

Matt Cummins (Canada) performed ‘I was a teacher’s pet’, an ‘it gets better‘ poem on being “kicked out of the closet” but lucky in having his friends’ support, urging people to turn the cross your bear into “wooden wings”. 26.5

Sophia Walker (Malaysia) performed a satirical take on ‘desirable’ laddish stereotypes. The seductive tone of “oh baby, I will separate your whites” made it, though the reveal that she is bereft of bad examples of men in her life could have been more incorporated. 29

José Anjos (Portugal) performed ‘I’m Walking’, a somewhat scattered succession of images of “one million worlds in one glance”, trapped in a search for both meaning and a place share or call his own. 22.9

Mel Jones (Wales) performed ‘Mmm’, an alliterative poem on bestiality (a pub challenge, apparently) with a relish suited to riotous filth. Like the acts described between Mandy and her mog, the poem was “magnetic, messy, moreish”, though often mildly disconcerting. 25.

Ant Smith (Rep. Ireland) was asked for raucous, and certainly delivered with a kinky rhythmic song that might have done better with less repetition of its chorus. As such, it dragged a little despite its sexual energy. 19.7

Chuquai Billy (First Nations: Lakota/Choctaw) spoke of gatherings and the ceremony of family and traditions to a rising soundtrack, but he also kept the piece rooted in the modern and quietly scathing of the outsiders with binoculars “convinced sage is a narcotic”. Unprepared for a second round, he later performed stand-up. 25.4

Alain English (Scotland) asked us about the “losers” of history, during this time of podiums, whose “endurance should inspire”. It was a rallying cry to the “survivors” of “overworked mothers”, the “lonely” or “caught-in-between” left “without a future”. 24.4

Final Round: Matt Cummins, Mel Jones, Mark Thompson, Chuquai Billy, Michael Wilson, Sophia Walker

Sophia Walker‘s ‘To the Man Who Punched Me’ was a fantastic piece: taking the “dyke” thrown at her, and reclaiming it with its original meaning (“please accuse me of holding back the sea”). 28.1

Matt Cummins‘ Valentines poem was a sweet stand against the overblown theatrics of the movies, with fireworks and orchestra-soundtracked declarations in favour of quieter affections. 25

Mark ‘Mr T’ Thompson had a nice poem on respecting people and learning the “true value” of love and those around you. While it did advocate a particular type of relationship, it boiled down to “don’t be a superficial arse”, which we can get behind. 23.8

Mel Jones performed ‘Family’, a lovely domestic scene in a child’s memory, with a “wall full of eggs, tipping tapping shells” to the adventures of “invincible youth” and feeling the “Welshness in bones”. 25.3

Michael Wilson‘s poem to an old friend who committed suicide (an endemic problem in NI) definitely marked him as my favourite poet of the night. The quiet grief of looking through his room, seeing a “half pack of gum – he collects them, sorry, collected” was palpable, as was tying it to the greater context: “they say it’s the Troubles, but we always had troubles”. 27.5

1st Place: Sophia Walker
2nd Place: Michael Wilson
3rd Place: Matt Cummins (after Mel Jones’ disappearance disqualified her)

Verdict: Chaotic but enjoyable night. The sheer amount of poets dragged on a little, but it was a friendly atmosphere that made it fun, with some real gems to make it shine.

‘Organon’ by Meredith Andrea

In Pamphlets on September 19, 2012 at 9:12 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey


In this chapbook, the reader is challenged to work out Meredith Andrea’s ‘means of reasoning, system of logic,’ which is the definition of the chapbook’s title, Organon.

Andrea’s poetry has a subtle distinctiveness; painterly, with surprising associations. Several of her poems appear to be ekphrastics, indicating her interest in the visual arts. Some of her poems are playful, revealing an eye for detail, and interesting lists: ‘glyphs, pits, holes, grapeshot, blotched freckles tattooed in winter’s epidermis.’ (‘Meltwater’). In fact, a notable aspect of the chapbook is Andrea’s obvious attraction to lists, or linguistic taxonomy – images or words grouped because they almost rhyme, or have other connections.

There is a strong sense of balance and arrangement in this collection, which is not only pleasing, but fun. (Her first poem directs our eye ‘from the bottom left corner/to top right’, and the last poem describes a beagle asleep ‘at the top right-hand corner/of a first floor window.’) The poems almost all engage with nature, or with heifers, bulls, rams and other creatures. Certain other images also reappear, such as ‘latch-click’ in ‘Sneck’, ‘latches’ in ‘Corpus Christi’, and ‘unlatched’ in ‘Remnants of a library of Russian classics.’ As with any recurring motif, the reader is apt to attribute an increasing symbolism to these images. Incidentally, a ‘sneck’ for those, like me, who didn’t know, is a mechanical fastener used for joining two or more objects – an appealing Northern word, and an apt symbol in this collection.

Andrea deals with concerns that at first seem unrelated, but which prove themselves to be inextricably intertwined in her mind. Here, the bees share her compulsion for colour coding:

‘Sort spines by colour. Eau de nil to pistachio
to pink carnation – a working scale of flavours.
Through the glass, sun.
Watch codes in bees answer
codes in flowers, stronger in shadowbounce on brick.
Found the old picture postcard –’
(from ‘Grass of Parnassus’)

The change in tone (and tense) with the word ‘Found’ and the subsequent list, indicate the way a mind creates associations, either through meaning or sounds:

            ‘gorse garlic bell heather horse honeysuckle bugles
            waves sounding slow arise arrive departing and
            Grass of Parnassus like many tiny knotted stitches darning evening.’

But Andrea is equally capable of creating an extended cinematic image. From an attic room:

‘First light, prise the skylight
wide to cold fog, sea-breathe, seagulls, larks – stretch up –
dress standing, waist deep in a field of slate.’

(from ‘Giotto’)

The last image is surprising and appealing, one that I keep returning to, and in her best poems these carefully considered, beautiful images are Andrea’s strength. Another, from ‘Overwintering’: ‘the moon/takes its slow turn and/after no applause crumples its silent/white costume back in the dark safe’. There are one or two lines in ‘Overwintering’ that jar for me, but that final image transforms the poem.

Andrea is also diverse, in both technique and subject matter.  ‘A dry old woman with no conversation’, goes back to old Chaucerian language, which, intriguingly, includes quite Muldoonish words: ‘bubblegalls’, ‘resinooze’, ‘bloomsmooth’, ‘pucker-end’, ‘zingy bong’.

Another poem, ‘Stir’, creates a kind of conversation between contemporary language and old, as though the resulting concoction, like a witch’s brew, will inject new life into the poem as ‘with rayn water thyn herbis to renewe.’

There is clearly a pull towards bygone eras, as seen in ‘Little Etruscan’, found ‘among the vast marble gods/in the museum of echoes.’ I particularly liked this poem’s beautifully placed line endings, the way we are drawn into this painting: ‘one muscled creature,/ram and man, listening, full of light.’ I love the idea of these painted creatures ‘only finger-length, the pair of them’, merging into one, as attentive as the viewer/reader. So much is going on, in so few words. But unfortunately, the repetition, later, of ‘listening’ and ‘full of light’ undermines its initial impact.

While most of the titles are arresting, one, ‘Corpus Christi’, appears to be an elephant in the room at first, although, ‘we broke our sandwiches’ saves it – just – by suggesting the biblical breaking of bread. Unlike her other, more exciting images, however, the images in this narrative poem are earnestly environmentally conscientious: ‘The sky is huge on allotments’; ‘I put the plastic in a bag for re-cycling, spat apple pits into the soil.’

Much more interesting, to me, are the more oblique poems, such as (the misspelled) ‘Spicey’ –

‘& what did she see in the rear view mirror as she drove?
Tongue: to paralyse
and then release. To answer
lexis;  ‘Vide: lilies
with an undertone of wet rot; or a morning
of chill rosewater, alone, or: ash on the soles, or:
you step on bladderwrack, and it bursts
            or indecent musk; or in the salthouse.’

Her best poems engage all the senses:

‘Cycle home in the stench of gunpowder,
rain drenched. Coal pigment and bodycolour
more bled in grey from nowhere bearing down
big brushes loaded over slipshod sheds. Crows
rise hoarse against it.’

(from ‘Grass of Parnassus’)

While I found myself visiting Google once or twice for definitions, there’s no fake-clever obfuscation here, just sheer pleasure in nature, and in the sounds, shapes, and meanings of unusual words. I found this chapbook a real pleasure to read.

‘Peneloping’ by Amy Hollowell

In Pamphlets on September 17, 2012 at 10:29 am

-Reviewed by Suzannah Evans

 Amy Hollowell‘s Peneloping is published by Corrupt Press, a small press based in Paris. For the most part they publish work in English by writers from non-Anglophone countries. Director Dylan Harris’ mission statement on the press’s website  is encouraging; ‘Those poetry sects…I don’t care for them. I do care for interesting poetry, high quality poetry, from anywhere. I do care for different poetry, doing things well I’ve not seen done before. I do care for traditional poetry, doing the same again, very well indeed. I want to be excited by poetry’.

It is fair to call Amy Hollowell’s pamphlet ‘exciting’ by any standards. Short even for a pamphlet at a mere 19 pages and delightfully produced, the contents are somewhere between Harris’s definitions of the different and the traditional, but both are achieved.

The influence of James Joyce is evident in this collection even before you begin reading. In the book’s epigraph Hollowell honours ‘the Bringer of Plurabilities’ in the words of Joyce, taken from Finnegan’s Wake. This is a book of plurabilities, if we can use such a word; the poet displays a love of wordplay and puns to rival Joyce himself. Invented words spring from these poems; ‘wildwombeness’, ‘nightdark’ ‘gentling’ all surprising and effective; Hollowell mines out language in a journey to the source of expression. She uses words as physical sensation and the effect is visceral, somewhat reminiscent of the poems of Valerie Rouzeau; the reader has no choice but to allow its strangeness to inhabit them.

Hollowell’s poem Back Window Bloom is a morning-after episode, a sequel to the Penelope chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s attempt to express female stream-of-consciousness includes almost no punctuation, but thankfully Hollowell sees its necessity.  The poem’s images and phrasing are among the strongest in this collection; lines such as ‘Remains a rosy condom on him, his thumb in a ripe tomato,’ and ‘Brown bird on a bare limb perching / songs it, off and on’ resound with joyful newness that is greater than mere novelty and rewards repeated reading. The expression of female sexuality here is lush and colourful, and a touch more believable than Joyce’s.

There are times when Hollowell’s unusual phrasing works better than others; the last poem in the collection, Vita Nova, lost my commitment, at times seeming overly whimsical; ‘a red alarm beepbeep beepbeep beepbeep beepbeep / bebe bebe bebe bebe/ be up be up’. The poet also makes use of some slightly over-used cultural concepts; the use of a cavewoman as an expression of female sexuality seems a bit predictable and the ‘answering back’ element is there too in Song of Herself with a nod to Walt Whitman.

With an abundance of intertextual references, this collection is quite demanding for the reader in terms of prior knowledge and I am certain that there are references within the pamphlet that I missed; I love Hollowell’s re-imagining of Molly Bloom but I’ve never attempted Finnegan’s Wake, for example, which would perhaps enrich my reading of it. However at its best this collection is daring and sexy and there is the potential to enjoy and trust its playful language without reaching for referential certainties.


‘Weakdays’ by R L Raymond, and ‘At The End Of The Street’ by Jay Passer

In Pamphlets on September 15, 2012 at 11:47 am


 -Reviewed by Andrew Bailey

corrupt press, the determinedly lower case publisher behind these pamphlets, declares that it exists because the founder, Dylan Harris, wanted to share the poems of interesting poets in his adopted Paris who were finding it difficult to get published – wanted “to put poetry into heads”. The short version is that these do that, leaving me grateful for the introduction to two poets previously unknown to me.

The first, Weakdays, very much aims at a comprehensible whole, based in details from the implosion of a marriage and an epigraph praising the virtues of story. Building up a narrative from the various spoken and unspoken nigglings and irritations is a neat trick, letting a reader dwell in the unpleasant pleasures of annoyance:

she glares at him
french vinaigrette dripping
from the mesclun
on the tines pointing down
the wrong way
Can’t you take anything seriously?

(from ‘Not any closer’)

This is typical in style of the nineteen poems, clean clipped language, and each line constructed around a single detail. Eschewing verbal fireworks means selecting your details well, and that’s generally true here – the sulking picked up in the decision to bend paper clips to breaking point rather than join a partner and drink wine, for example, or the wedding ring ominously smashed with a DIY hammer along with the hand that wears it in one of the earliest poems. Where I find misses, such as a joke about Occam’s razor that overbalances a poem somewhat, I’m carried past them by their companions, and by the narrative quality that brings you from poem to poem. (I’ll also note that I don’t understand why the title was chosen.)

The narrative quality also encourages links across poems, such as the echo of the smashed ring finger in the wife’s cutting her own through the ring of a bagel in a later poem – and it prevents me from talking about the last pair of poems, favourites as they are, as that would be giving out spoilers. I can say that they close off the sequence satisfyingly.

A good demonstration of the difference between Raymond and stablemate Passer can be found in the first sentences alone of their back cover biographical notes:

R L Raymond is a writer from London, Ontario.

Jay Passer, b. 1965, is a native San Franciscan, schooled in the gutter muse and service industry-bard, seen most often haunting the public house, city library and long pavement of the metropolis.

That self-mythologising note is the force that binds At the End of the Street together, in place of Raymond’s narrative. His first line is “What worries me”, his last two are “I was eleven / years of age”, and there’s an extended comparison of the poet as superhero in between.  When it works, when it compels you to take the world through the same hyperbolised senses, it’s a powerful rhetorical whirl of a force:

you lie fallen or in repose like the bum on the parkbench
it’s Spring
and the wildlife is fucking righteous again
for the last time and final a note before expiring
happy birthday world I blow out your candle.

(from ‘Candle’)

I keep coming back to this poem, and its repetitions and elastic phrasings have not palled on re-reading. The whirl, sadly, isn’t always forceful enough for that to be true of all of them; making an equivalence of the thermonuclear end of the world and the speaker not having insurance in ‘Read All About It’ flirts with bathos, for example, and the closure of ‘Ballpoint Washed Off Hand’’ being a punchline demotes the rest into a mere feed.Those noted, though, there’s much to enjoy, such as the closing poem’s convincing memory of the USA’s 200th birthday for a pre-teen, with nothing of the day’s historical importance being able to hold a candle to that of the experienced day’s poison oak and borrowed Playboy.

Some impressive titles absolutely must be noted too: ‘Sinatra Like A Bulldozer Over Paris’, say, of ‘Screaming Within The Corpuscle Of The Word’. How to resist? And the choice detail of the “delicate chiseling / of aspen against snow bank” in ‘New Mexico’ is one that will certainly stay with me, one of the several from these pamphlets that have been – in corrupt’s terms – put into the head, and are welcome.

‘The Space Between Things’ by Charlie Hill

In Novella on September 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Like a time-lapse recording, a sound recording, of a period and time when people were drawn together by a combination of narcotics, techno and a swelling anti-establishment noise-mongering, Charlie Hill’s The Space Between Things vividly documents a growing counter-culture movement. The account is fictional but so grounded in early-90s historical accuracy that it is difficult to believe that this story didn’t occur. Hill writes with a charm that doesn’t alienate the reader who is either too young to remember or was just never part of the scene at the time.

The Space Between Things by Charlie Hill

The Space Between Things is a story about people. About how we find people and lose people. Sometimes, it’s not until they are gone, or in danger of slipping away, that we appreciate the role they have had on shaping our existence and world view. Arch and Vee spend the night together after meeting at a party. When he awakens, she has left. They are both out with their respective partners when they bump into each other the following day. Ella, Arch’s girlfriend quickly figures out what happened the previous night and dumps him. It takes some time for Vee to make an appearance again, but during her absence Arch finds himself replaying things she said to him the night they were together. The Space Between Things explores a spectrum of politics and questions individual and collective commitment.

Arch is a bit of a dabbler, in blow, music and poetry. He lives in Moseley where the ‘young radicals’ once lived and a place which ‘had the political in its petals. Back then, everyone was trying to make sense of the world…There was even a culture you could counter.’

But the fight has been sucked out by more than a decade of Tory rule. Thatcher has just resigned and an air of directionlessness permeates:

‘…by the time she’d gone she’d won. They’d won. Worn us all down. There was no politics.’

Instead the inhabitants of Moseley turn to partying. There is an open house culture. Arch moves from party to party, and we meet a kaleidoscopic array of Moseley’s residents. The variety of drugs increases and Arch’s musical tastes develop. The parties become more sophisticated, sound systems are ferried across locations. When Arch decides to go to a free festival in Castlemorton his outlook is changed forever. It’s not just the combination of ecstasy and techno; it’s the realisation of what people can do when they work together – a free festival:

‘Fuck Glastonbury,’ says Sorrell, ‘Glastonbury’s all about money, yeah? This is about love and respect. And party people.’

People across cultures are brought together: the travellers and the ‘scallies’ or as Arch is corrects, the ‘cheesies…cheesy quavers – ravers.’ In two days of discovery, of techno and ecstasy, he recognises there is a bond amongst the people. They have a sense of unity and togetherness. Eventually when the police come to dismantle the site, people stay behind to help the local council with the clean up, strengthening Arch’s belief in community and the possibility of a new political movement. Unfortunately rave culture has become staple fare for the mainstream media and this has got the Tory government worried. The Criminal Justice Bill seeks to destroy that which Arch and his mates partied so hard to create. Partying has reawakened their political activism.

Arch receives a postcard from Vee postmarked Split and we get our first inkling that she has a different set of political priorities. When she returns, it’s through the silences of her time in what was formerly Yugoslavia that we begin to piece together the hidden narrative. The juxtaposition of what motivates people; erosion of personal liberties against humanitarian war crimes is neatly teased out. Arch’s arguments are genuine and real enough, yet poorly formed and ill-thought through. Vee is frustrated at the level of engagement he and his Moseley-ites have with the outside world:

‘What gets my goat is that some people, people like you Arch, for Christ’s sake, supposedly sussed, politically active educated people, people like Moseley, are so precious and cosseted and wrapped-up in themselves that they’ll march for the right to party but need stirring-up about genocide.’

The author never brow-beats and it’d be wrong to think that this is a tub-thumping novel. It is anything but. The characters may be loosely sketched but they are oh-so vibrantly drawn. The names evoke classic comic creations: Nervous Mark, Jimmy Wibble, Shifnal Phil and Little Bill. The dialogue is energetic and the novel races along effortlessly. In places the novel is very humorous if not bewitchingly funny:

‘I don’t trust him. He has the conviction of the dim.’

‘I know what you mean,’ I said, ‘there’s definitely something missing. And all that running around he does. He’s got far too much energy if you ask me. He’s a bit like a more sinister version of Kenny Loggins, on the quiet.’

At its heart though, The Space Between Things is about Vee and the impact she has on Arch’s life. Early on she cautions against the Beat movement, or rather ‘what it’s become. That whole Beat vibe’s just a bit of an excuse for self-indulgence now, isn’t it?’ It’s a note that resonates loudly at the end of the book. Educate yourself and choose your battles carefully. Make it your duty to know. Don’t just accept what you are palm-fed, and if you are ready to commit, make sure it’s for a worthwhile cause. The Space Between Things is an accomplished and relevant novel which deserves to be widely read.

[Charlie Hill will be co-hosting the PowWow LitFest in Birmingham on September 23rd, an event featuring Joel Lane, whose work has been reviewed by Sabotage last year – Ed.]

‘Garden (dec unit)’ by Monty Reid and ‘Ships Made of Fake Fur’ by James Jewell

In Pamphlets on September 10, 2012 at 11:20 am

-Reviewed by Seán Hewitt

In Monty Reid’s Garden (dec unit) and James Jewell’s Ships Made of Fake Fur, Corrupt Press offer us new musings on sparseness. The pamphlets themselves are simple, paper booklets, uninspiringly yet neatly designed. But it’s what’s on the inside that counts…

Monty Reid, Garden (dec unit) (Corrupt Press, 2012)

Canadian poet Monty Reid’s Garden (dec unit) sequence is more of a ‘collection’ than Jewell’s Ships Made of Fake Fur (see below), in that it follows the months of the year and the place of the gardener (and the garden) as the seasons work themselves over the land. One might call it a modern-day attempt at the Shepheardes Calendar. Reid begins with a moonlit December scene and continues through to the following November, offering minimalistic, uncluttered observations and thoughts inspired by the garden.

When Monty Reid looks at plants, gardens, nature, he plunges straight into a world of abstracts and ungraspables. ‘It is unobservable’, and he likes it that way. This poet has settled himself nicely into the ecopoetics currently being spearheaded by writers like Alice Oswald, also a gardener. Unfortunately, Reid does not fare well from the comparison. As in the work of Oswald, nature is indifferent to the poet’s gaze, refusing to be colonised. It is alive and autonomous, and Reid grapples with this idea in the Garden sequence, trying not to impose himself on the landscape. The best example of this is, perhaps, in the seventh poem, ‘June’:

If our apprehension of the world cannot be contained
by thinking – at least not by thinking as philosophy has traditionally
conceived it – then the last thing we should do
is to try to think it again.

It’s not my garden.
I just work there.

However, it seems here, and throughout this pamphlet, that instead of applying any new philosophy to his own work, and exploring it there, Reid seems to be working out a new philosophy via poetry, which can sometimes lead to confusion or abstraction. Where Oswald might dismantle the tradition of English Romanticism in her wonderful ‘Another Westminster Bridge’, instructing Londoners to ‘go and glimpse the lovely inattentive water / discarding the glance of many a bored streetwalker’, Reid instead chooses to explicitly work with philosophies:
It is not art, but everything
splits the real world into a real world and an imaginary world.

There is little pleasure to be gleaned from a philosophy whose bones are so unceremoniously exposed. There are moments of clarity in this pamphlet, and Reid has a great sense for an ending, with lots of these poems having a great sting in the tail. However, Reid’s Garden (dec unit) often strikes as a series of jottings, of thoughts waiting to be turned into poems, somehow incomplete in their minimalism. Maybe that’s where the reader comes in.

James Jewell, Ships Made of Fake Fur (Corrupt Press, 2012)

James Jewell’s Ships Made of Fur, at a first glance, seems to take the opposite approach to Reid’s Garden (dec unit). A singer-songwriter, originally from Pennsylvania, Jewell’s poetry seems more openly conversational, comic and, in parts, verbose. The chapbook consists of prose poems, odes, observational sketches and short lyrics, and in this it is more obviously eclectic than Reid’s.

It is anchored in modern life (the ‘ships’ of the title are, in fact, people roaming a cityscape: ‘The floundering ships / made of fake fur are floating / through the coffee shops, / restaurants and cinemas of Amsterdam’), and Jewell is clearly most comfortable in the realm of the colloquial and the comic. He has the comedian’s ability to draw acute examples from the everyday, bringing out the oddities of chance encounters, making them both poignant and light-hearted by turns. The best of these little sketches is ‘Three Beards’:

standing in a semi circle.
Three beards of different lengths
and one without a beard,
looking at each other,
“My boyfriend had a beard as long as yours.”
She shows us pictures.

In these few lines, Jewell manages to pack a mass of suggestion and curiosity with an unassuming ease. There is the sense of competition between the men, brought out by the way the girl trumps the other three with her boyfriend’s superior facial hair, there is the sense of separation (the girl from her boyfriend, who is featured in the past tense; the three men from home etc.), and the small hints of friendship and kinship between the ‘three beards’. The final image of the photographs confirms this collective yearning for an elsewhere. Jewell finds the casual, everyday emotion in such encounters, skilfully working it into his verse in a way that is both unobtrusive and effective.

He spins thought-provoking tales, featuring characters as diverse as Bob Marley, Napoleon and the Cookie Monster, but always keeps the emotional core of the poem visible beneath these comic layers. Jewell’s poetry avoids abstraction by cutting close to the issue at hand without revealing it explicitly, and this is where his talent lies. He has the ability to situate his reader, he talks to them not from the poet’s ‘imagined height’ but eye-to-eye, and it is on this common ground that we are able to relate to him, and feel the humorous sentiment of his sketches.

‘Pauses at Zebra Crossings’ by Janette Ayachi

In Pamphlets on September 6, 2012 at 9:10 pm

-Reviewed by Judi Sutherland

The contents page of Janette Ayachi’s chapbook Pauses at Zebra Crossings reads like a travel journal. Ayachi’s varied cityscapes take us from Manhattan to Bergamo, Newcastle to Nuremburg.  The theme is mostly love and lost love, in series of bedrooms, streets and airports. There’s an underlying feeling of dislocation and a search for permanence.

Ayachi was born in London but moved to Scotland at the age of thirteen, and both Edinburgh and Glasgow feature in the poems.  One of the most striking stories is in ‘Extra Curricular’ where she describes a very early morning after an illicit night in a teacher’s flat overlooking Glasgow Green:

I know that you are tired streetlamps

as I watch you

close your flame      in envy      of the sun

‘London Child’ is a poignant poem about the childhood Ayachi left behind, with her Algerian father. She remembers ‘dialling Algeria from a fountain pretending it was a phone’. Then there is a series of postcard-like memories of trips with a lover, to Barcelona, Amsterdam, Los Angeles. These are strongly descriptive pen-portraits of each place and often focus on the lonely and unkempt inhabitants of each city as well as the narrator and her lover.

Ayachi is a free-verse poet and does not use rhyme or form to heighten her language.  She relies on strong description and metaphor to make her poetic effects. Some of these are startlingly effective.  In ‘Beneath the Bracken’, an elegiac poem, Ayachi describes a bar which the deceased used to frequent: ‘The fabric of the seats unthreaded to sponge / the same colour your face was near the end’ and in ‘Youma and the Moon’, one of the most successful poems in this set, the last stanza is powerful:

Outside the sea gloriously
chanted the names of all it drowned
it was then for the first time ‘youma’ sounded
only like a murmur and the moon was handed out
in pieces like all of her gold.

I also enjoyed this passage in ‘The Artist’:

Like Vincent to Theo you ask for more sulphur yellow
and I send you stars of the stuff that blind you briefly

opening the envelope would be like staring
into the ruptured vestibule of a sun.

There’s a lot of complex metaphor in this work and many of them feel like they have been stretched to snapping point. In ‘Airports’ we are told that the cabin crew ‘walk their suitcases like small dogs’ which is a lovely, clear image that really tells us something about their demeanour, but it is part of a more elaborate construct:

An army of hostesses hosting high hair
high fashion and high eyebrows
walk their suitcases like small dogs
where every surface is a runway.

In the same poem there is the baffling image: ‘time is suspended, hangs from the beaks / of scavenger birds that drop morsels of time to other places’.  In the title poem of the chapbook we encounter ‘crevices or cavities / of thought, an elevated platform hiatus, a cellular lacuna.’ I am now spatially confused, not knowing which way is up, and unable to construct an image from the words. Ayachi also abhors the lonely noun.  In the same couplet in ‘Our Barcelona Ending’ we find ‘obsidian blue’, ‘glassy moon’ and ‘siren whisper’, forming a predictable pattern of overblown poetic descriptors.  There are also mentions of ‘tellurian’ and ‘amaranthine’ which sent me to the dictionary. What can we make of this apparent non-sequitur?:

Many dreams of prison
as stars halo a tiara of keys
above our rooftops
and a light bulb balances
above each organ.

There are too many chaotic collisions of image in these poems for the reader to deduce much meaning. A more coherent, but equally infelicitous instance is in ‘Landscapes with Still-Life’:

Your eyes as stagnant as pond-life repelling
fresh-water with their nonchalant slime

Another issue for me in these poems is their purpose.  Ayachi gives us what seem to be biographical vignettes of cities and lovers, but I am left asking – why is she telling me this?  I keep looking for a deeper meaning that the poet derives from her experiences – something profound or fundamental about life, love and visited places; but apart from a general melancholy, I didn’t find a lot of new insights here.

On the evidence of this chapbook it seems that Ayachi is prone to fatal over-embellishment. I’d like to suggest that she pauses, edits and simplifies her work, ensuring that every word earns its place in her narrative and adds to the clarity of her message.  Poets generally do well to embrace the minimalist dictum ‘Less is More’.

The Long and the Short of It – Richard Purnell and Gary from Leeds

In Festival, Performance Poetry on September 5, 2012 at 3:53 pm

– reviewed by Anna Hobson –

Anna Hobson kindly reviews one of the Spoken Word shows from the Edinburgh Fringe that James Webster and his winsome sidekick Dana Bubulj didn’t manage to catch.

There was a good crowd in the slope-ceilinged, chilled yet moist underbelly of the Banshee Labyrinth that afternoon (no mean feat when the weather outside was delectable). Chairs scraped on the flag stones, and the wet air clung to our skin as The Long and the Short of It prepared to deliver a poetry consultation to a willing and eager audience.

The pair’s asymmetrical dynamic set the scene at first glance, and as soon as the accents were thrown in this became a comedy duo to anticipate with relish. They introduced each other (affectionately, melodramatically) and began with a couple of poems, delivered with a tragi-pathetic whinge, with their subtle acting skills highlighting the humour in the poetry.

The entire performance was riddled with dichotomy: their significant height difference, the North/South divide, the subject matter and length of poems; and yet they worked seamlessly brilliantly together.

We were taken on a linguistic journey, a lyrical adventure; subject matters such as allergies, maladies, justice, death and public transport slapped us in the face immediately, and we were taught that these themes underpin all decent poetry. Richard Purnell began with a theatrical lament about celebrities, and hinted at the hypocrisy of grieving for these false idols. This was swiftly followed by a poetic burst from Gary from Leeds, making me laugh out loud with Freud’s Knock Knock joke. This was one example of the tumultuous ricochet between solemnity and brevity from our Consultants, who consistently delivered a satisfying mix with their comedic rapport.

There was a lightness of touch and a deft dexterity woven into a sharp script that sustained the verbal tour upon which we had embarked. I did appreciate the social and political commentary that rumbled beneath; it added a bit of meaty flesh to the proceedings.

I felt that although the tongue-in-cheek seminar structure of the show could have been emphasised more, the experience was thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable. Happiness Graphs, Poetic Sweet Spots and creative audience participation were sure-fire ways of ensuring I left with a smile on my face.

Four 2011 Poetry Business Prizewinners (Smith/Doorstop 2012)

In Pamphlets on September 4, 2012 at 4:00 pm

-Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

The four 2011 Poetry Business prize-winning pamphlets, chosen by Carol-Ann Duffy and published by Smith/Doorstop, set out their ambitious stall in their titles: Kim Moore wonders If We Could Speak Like Wolves; Julie Mellor imagines Breathing Through Our Bones; Suzannah Evans names our Confusion Species; and Rosie Shepperd looks, paradigmatically, for That so-easy thing. These are prize-winning, widely-published poets, three of them with degrees in Creative Writing, whose titles suggest the range and facility of their verse. Given the career trajectories of previous Poetry Business pamphleteers, these four poets seem destined for prominence in British poetry. Their concern with the relationship between the human and the natural world, engaged via a combination of poetic impressionism and scientific vocabularies, reflects a dominant trend in the British mainstream, as does the ability of all four poets to shift from a modern use of conventional poetic mise-en-page (left margin stanzaic poetry in prosaic syntax and punctuation, rhymed or half-rhymed) to modernist mise-en-page such as prose poems and breath lines.

All the familiar modes are here, particularly the confessional rendered oblique by thick description à la O’Hara. Shepperd’s ‘I start to understand yellow,’ a poem for her grandmother, not only rhymes ‘Jensen’ and ‘less than,’ for an inappropriately Bacharach and David feel, but builds its affect from the exoticism of casuarinas and Verna lemons that she associates with her grandmother’s memory. Also common are the lightly surreal persona poems that speak for the supposedly mute, whether archaeological remains or animals. Perhaps in imitation of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’, these poems often take the first person plural voice. But whereas Plath’s poem uses the plural to imagine the plural singularity of fungal consciousness as alternate to human, Mellors’ ‘Blackberries’ and Evans’ ‘Swallows’ use it as a workshop exercise. Morever, Evans’ poem revisits the pre-Darwinian theory that swallows overwintered in Britain: hard not to read this as a denial of migration and global interconnection.

‘That so-easy thing’ seems – across these pamphlets – to be taking the Western relationship between poetic self and world for granted, among other returns to the mood and mode of pre-twentieth century poetry. Animals are allegories, analogies, metaphors: the wolves in ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ disappear into a metaphor for a human heteronormative relationship, as the poem concludes that were wolfish behaviour (described in anthropomorphic terms such as ‘grace’) possible between humans:


…then we could agree
a role for each of us, more complicated
than alpha, more simple than marriage.


These are the wolves of Jack London: Others who offer moral lessons to humans (an outdated mode of thought exposed in Evans’ ‘North,’ in which a – presumably – EuroWestern woman receives a classic Dances with Wolves epiphany by living with the Sami, who are presented as dislocated from history, having “lost the future tense”). Moore’s poem’s romanticised yearning reinstates a sharp difference between (and therefore hierarchy of) human (EuroWestern) and animal (non-EuroWestern) that is simplistic, and deeply problematic.

Alongside these unstated, persistent ‘Lyrical Ballad’ values are the poems’ (again unstated) adherence to Wordsworth’s ‘natural language of men.’ ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ ‘imitation’ of wolfspeech (biting, smell) is told, rather than being shown through an apprehension or analogisation of wolfspeech that might alter poetic dictioning. Apart from the decision to eschew capital letters and all but the final period, the poem proceeds syntactically. Even Shepperd, who is least committed to the left margin, replicates the prosody of the middlebrow novel, with Sauvignons and beach holidays conveyed to the reader via direct statement and reported speech, reproduced in such a way as to suggest depth can be mined from their banalities. ‘For a while, let this be enough,’ her collection ends.

It’s that kind of bathetic understatement that repeats throughout these collections, undercutting their apparent ambition by remanding them in the space of the conversational, the domestic – more properly, the bourgeois – the familiar. All familiar charges against women’s poetry that are awkward to repeat, given that all four poets are female, and selected by Duffy, a path-breaking poet of female experience. Julie Mellors comes closest to the radical charge of Duffy’s daring – her crafty, precise speaking of the unspoken – particularly in ‘Autobiography,’ a poem that half-rhymes sister, grandmother, lover, another, Jack the Ripper, supper, mattress, ulsters to end:

… I’m the daughter
in this history of mothers.

Strong and clear – but also a re-statement of the material of the poem, an explanation of what it has already given us through its careful form. Closure, whether oblique or over-stated, is another trait common to these poems: the desire to deliver meaning directly to the reader omits the possibility of ambiguity across the body of the poem, and particularly at its conclusion.

‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant,’ Emily Dickinson famously wrote. Her poems were embedded in the domestic and natural worlds – and continue to scintillate by engaging the familiar through language that forces the reader to look again, to look anew, and to re-think relation. It wasn’t good business for Dickinson, who barely published in her lifetime. Conversely, these pamphlets are definitely poetry business: each of the poets has a firm grasp of the contemporary, and oft-garlanded, neo-Romantic mode, massed in careful observation and a strong commitment to a singular, unambiguous poetic truth stated in the clearest possible language. But the world is complex, fractious, ambiguous and open-ended: the gift of sight is present, but it needs to be extended beyond the surfaced neatness of these poems.