Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

A Fiction Round-Up 2012

In Seasonal/End of year on December 23, 2012 at 5:35 pm

-Decided by Richard T. Watson

‘Tis the season to be making lists and round-ups of the previous year, so it’s just the right time for a look back over the year for Sabotage Reviews and our fiction coverage. Arguably, we could do this at any time of year, but it seems more fashionable in December.

Our Poetry Editor, (now Dr) Claire Trévien, has already given her best bits and highlights from Sabotage’s poetry coverage, which you can read here. Now it’s my turn.

Following last year’s pattern of giving a ‘Top Ten’ [or Three] of most-viewed reviews, I’ve prepared a list of the most successful fiction reviews of Sabotage’s 2012. The publications might be considered as Christmas presents for that special reader in your life…? Just a thought.

#1 I Wrote This For You
A printed selection of posts from Jon Ellis’ and Ian Thomas’s blog I Wrote This For You, which the two men have composed through a process of intercontinental collaboration. There’s a narrative and a theme, but much of it is left up to the reader – Ian Thomas claiming that ”There’s no story I can tell you that is as powerful as the story you can tell yourself”. Our reviewer, Ian Chung, praised the way that ”Thomas and Ellis seem to have distilled something of what it means to remain profoundly human in a digital society”.

#2 Acquired for Development By…
A hyper-local collection of poetry, fiction and non-fiction based around and inspired by the London Borough of Hackney, and published by Influx Press. Our reviewer, John McGhee said: ”The collection neatly pinpoints some of the most critical tensions in modern urban life – tradition versus innovation, the real versus the perceived, the modern versus the post-modern – and sees how these play out in a borough perceived as both lawless and cool.”

#3 Armchair/Shotgun #3
Following the success of Armchair/Shotgun #2 in this year’s Saboteur Awards, their third instalment has also been popular. Our reviewer, Rory O’Sullivan, had this to say of the New York-based collection of poetry, pictures and short stories: ”The magazine manages to embrace so many art forms and yet remain a predominantly literary offering; storytelling is at the heart of literature, and indeed central to this publication’s mission statement”.

On a more subjective and personal note (as if the previous paragraphs have been really objective), I was pleased that the winner of this year’s Saboteur Awards in May was the second issue of Armchair/Shotgun, a review from Sabotage’s Fiction stable, and that their third issue also got a very positive review. We also got a rather lovely mention over on the Guardian website, thanks to Dan Holloway.

If you’re looking for more round-ups of Sabotage activity this year, why not have a look at the results of this year’s Saboteur Awards?

This is also a good time to thank all of our reviewer team for their hard work in the past twelve months, and to thank you all for supporting the independent and often low-budget publishing we cover on Sabotage. So thank you all. Well done you.

Oh, and have a happy Christmas.

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‘The House of Forever’ by Samantha Henderson

In Pamphlets on December 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm

-Reviewed by William Howell

 Forever front cover RGB 600

Samantha Henderson’s collection of 21 poems, 12 of which have been previously published, presents what is at times an engaging group of work. A common thread, pointed out in the editor’s note, is the mixture of time frames in The House of Forever: from Neanderthals to aliens, King Arthur’s court to war time austerity, Henderson makes use of history, myth and fiction to depict a ‘tapestry of life’.

However, the poem from which the title is taken, ‘Veritas Was a Maid in the House of Forever’, draws the focus away from the ‘frequent theme [of time] in speculative … poetry’ that the editor strongly emphasises in the introduction onto a much more interesting question over the relationship of art and truth. The Maid, Veritas, serves the other inhabitants of the ‘House of Forever’, the ‘Milady’ and ‘Milord’ of the poem. She also serves the ‘weekend guests’, whose inability to understand robs her of all credible meaning.

Considering  that Veritas translates as ‘truth’, the poem (and the collection) takes on a more interesting position than a mere portrait of time’s ‘unraveling threads’. Veritas is found dead having hanged herself:

‘Finite, they find her,
Dangling at the end of the Butcher Boy’s rope,
Her head at an unnatural angle’

This, rather than recounting a tragedy, couldn’t be any more symbolic. ‘Truth’ being found hanging by the neck becomes a commodity, easily replaced by her relatives who arrive at the end of the poem. Truth, the ‘objective’, is reduced to the whims of the less permanent occupants that shape the ‘House of Forever’ who represent a subjective act of creation or shaping.

The collection’s exploration of subjective and objective becomes the driving force of much of what is interesting in Henderson’s poetry. ‘What Scuttles’ displays her ability to combine a variety of cultural references (‘Watch—your horror films: one with zombies; / or the Grand Guignol frisson of stepping into an open grave;’) to praise those that continue to do as their nature dictates in a world of artifice: ‘it’s in their innocence that they remain hallowed.’ There is also a knowing sense of irony at work on a number of levels in this particular poem: Henderson is aware that her experiments with perspective and truth are also shaped by a concept of ‘poetic art’, which she engages with despite the loose form of the majority of the work seen here. She finds her double in the Egyptian priests who scatter scarab beetles as part of the funeral rites, while at the same time associating the scarab’s instincts with that of the writer’s creative impulse.

The themes explored in The House of Forever are far from new, and return to very familiar ground without really giving it a good turning over. For a group of poems that explore the human proclivity to invent their own sense of reality, far too many question are asked without offering much in the way of critical engagement with those who have already visited this territory. ‘Hungry: Some Ghost Stories’ is a prime example of the problems with the way the collection reads as a whole. While offering a number of scenarios in which ‘ghosts’ and memories collide, the conclusion of each sub-section in a question leaves the reader unsatisfied instead of forcing introspection.

There are a number of poems in The House of Forever worthy of being read. Henderson’s ability to contrast history and popular culture leads to engaging narratives in her poems which raise timeless questions. However, the low points detract from the enjoyment of these more interesting poems watering down the collection as a whole. The potential of Henderson’s poetry is clear, but by the end you are quite glad that it does not go on forever.

‘One Day in the Life of Jason Dean’ by Ian Ayris

In Novella on December 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

Byker Books, in their own words, began their publishing mission with the aim of publishing and providing a voice for working class authors. While it may not seem like a particularly clear mission statement, when you delve into their catalogue of books, it soon becomes apparent that they are representing the gritty side of literature.

A fine example of this is One Day in the Life of Jason Dean, a Kindle-only novella from Essex-born Ian Ayris. The short and bittersweet text is one of the best novellas I have read in recent months, littered with powerful scenes and sentiments that will grab you by the shoulders and shake you until your emotions fall out.

Ian Ayris One Day in the Life of Jason Dean

The premise of the plot, as you may have deciphered from the title, is that the reader is weaved throughout an average day in the life of hard man protagonist, Jason Dean. Within the pages of this novella we are escorted throughout the urban side of town where Jason lives and works. In his role as debt-collector, thug and general dogsbody for the hardest man in town, Jason finds himself in an array of emotionally challenging situations which we as readers are also forced to experience. Through this first person narrative delivered by Jason we become intimately intertwined with his character, learning not only of his professional encounters but also of his personal ones, due to his frequent references to Beth, the wife that can no longer stand him, and Sophie, the daughter he clearly adores.

Perhaps on paper this novella doesn’t seem to offer anything outstanding but the execution of this plot is practically flawless in every way. The harsh perspective offered by tell-it-how-it-is Jason not only shows us the brutality of life but also the beauty of it, two things he naturally juxtaposes against each other.

An admirable quality of the text is the construction of Jason in a psychological sense – as a character he is truly fascinating. Amidst the bludgeoning, beating and cursing, Ayris has littered beautiful and completely unexpected excerpts of some of the most legendary poetic verse that England has to offer, ranging from Emily Dickinson to Wilfred Owen. It is Jason’s knowledge of these things that makes him such a captivating character – he is an artistically educated thug. Through the inclusion of classic poetry and prose, every challenging moment of this novella is heightened even further; the challenging moments in the text are met with poetic responses, highlighting the juxtaposition of brutality and beauty previously mentioned. The emotional reaction to murder is traumatic alone, but a brutal murder followed by beautiful poetic verse or enlightening prose does strange but brilliant things to this text which completely altered my reading of it. A clever technique to say the least, the extracts alone contribute to this top quality narrative before Jason’s character is even considered.

The in-depth understanding of the character, achieved through narrative style, is also central to the style and success of this text. We are inevitably drawn into the character’s vision; we see what he sees, we comprehend his emotional and intellectual reactions to everything he suffers through, we are in this book regardless of our reluctance to be drawn into the unsavoury world that it depicts.

Despite our reluctance to believe in the world in which Jason resides, we would be ignorant to deny its existence away from the page. Ayris should be commended for his depiction of a harsh but true reality, whilst also giving a reading audience a unique insight into the minds that live within it.

One Day in the Life of Jason Dean is a fine example of edgy literature that captures the grit and grime of life that literature so often chooses to ignore. Taking the likes of Dickinson and Owen out of their respective poetry collections and dumping them into the backstreets of rundown housing estates was a stroke of genius from Ayris, perhaps it was a similar stroke of genius that dictated Jason’s appreciation and knowledge of these authors. The text, if nothing else, will demonstrate to readers two very clear sides of what is often thought to be a one-sided coin, through highlighting the presence of intellect in an area in which society doesn’t expect to find it.

The novella was an absolute pleasure to read and I have no hesitation in recommending this to anyone looking for something that pushes the boundaries of conventional literature.

‘Post-Experimentalism’ from Bartleby Snopes

In anthology on December 14, 2012 at 9:20 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Post-Experimentalism is the new project from the Bartleby Snopes team, and bills itself as the world’s first issue of Post-Experimental fiction’. This naturally raises the question of what constitutes post-experimentalism, and both the Post-Experimentalism issue and website offer up several definitions. Reading through these, two related threads emerge. One has to do with the belief that post-experimentalism blends – or even transcends – storytelling genres. The other is the notion that, as Bartleby Snopes Associate Editor Rick Taliaferro puts it, ‘Post-experimentation, what the writer owes to the reader is literary satisfaction’. So the pendulum of post-experimentalism swings away from formal and structural experimentation for its own sake and back towards story, to settle somewhere in their middle. Nathaniel Tower, Bartleby Snopes Managing Editor, describes this as:

“Something different going on with the form that pushes it past traditional writing, but it’s underneath the story. Form becomes background, but it still is functioning in a major way that affects the story. The form is manipulated somehow, but not at the expense of story. And the story takes nothing away from the form. It’s a harmony of story and form.”

Post Experimentalism Bartleby Snopes

Definitions aside, the stories in the issue do not disappoint. There are too many to go into each in detail here, so the stories mentioned here are the ones that particularly stood out for me. The stories have been grouped thematically, and the issue opens strongly with Christopher James’s ‘Sweet Enough’, under the heading of ‘Friendships’. James’s story is written in tweet-sized paragraphs, intended as a reflection of what he calls ‘something lacking in the attention span of a lot of people nowadays’. Of course, there is a wonderful irony in that the act of reading for pleasure should demand that we slow down and pay attention, even as James’s sentences act to compress decades in the lives of a group of friends into a couple of pages, hurtling them towards their fates and us towards the story’s downbeat resolution.

Other stories in the issue seek to deconstruct the techniques of how we build narratives. Jacqueline Doyle’s ‘The Last Metaphor’ makes us privy to the thought processes of a writer ‘[d]runk with the power of words’, who copies down a quote from Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness: ‘Just as a novelist turns his anxiety into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a sick person can make a story, a narrative, out of his illness as a way of trying to detoxify it.’ The quote is intended to be sent to a writer friend, who then dies of cancer, with the beautiful description of her as ‘curled like a comma around her silence’ at the end. Doyle’s flash fiction ultimately ends with an empty numbered list, which is supposed to be a catalogue of things for death to be compared to, which seems like a wry statement on either the incommensurability of death or the failure of metaphor.

On the other hand, Leland Neville’s ‘American Outlaws’ offers a topical commentary on the absurdity of how the contemporary phenomenon of reality television constructs stories to pander to its voracious audience:

“After emerging victorious Emma will be inundated by questions during the obligatory media junket. “What is your definition of love?” “How should the criminal justice system be changed?” “Do you believe in gay marriage?” “Is the government doing enough to stop terrorism?”
Emma will charmingly ignore the verbal ambush. Her public won’t be disappointed in her evasiveness because it already knows all about Emma.
For one hour a week she is you.”

The most striking story in Post-Experimentalism, however, is Andrew Battershill’s ‘Laundry under cover of darkness’, placed under the theme ‘Innovations’. The story is divided into two columns, proceeding down the page in parallel, which allows for simultaneity of perspective as it tracks how the lives of three people intersect in a laundromat. Battershill’s story reads like a film script breakdown, complete with descriptions of character close-ups and interior/exterior shots. This is also one of the longest stories in the issue, which gives it time to build to an emotionally gratifying ending, as the couple Nicole and Sergei experience ‘the desire to take Arthur’s hands on either side like dads and moms’, right when Arthur feels ‘the desire to have his hands held, as if by parents’. The final page of the story only has a single column, as the arc of all three characters merges into ‘the physical processes of holding hands; three smiles; the physical processes of looking; a set of triangular metal racks, their points facing towards each other like dinosaurs a second away from kissing’, in a graceful moment that bears out Taliaferro’s comment on the importance of ‘literary satisfaction’.

The Portable Museum (Ox and Pigeon)

In online magazine, Short Stories on December 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

The Portable Museum is a literary journal curated by Ox and Pigeon, a digital publisher keen to use the electronic format to share stories in translation from around the world. Four short stories furnish the first edition, each originally published in Spanish from Latin America or Europe. This makes for a compact and fairly rapid read, but the texts included here have real depth and reward the reader with each return visit.

The Portable Museum 1, Ox and Pigeon, reviewed by Martin Macaulay for Sabotage Reviews
Fabio Morábito’s ‘The Mothers’ is a dazzling beginning to the collection. A dream-like retelling of a rite of passage that twists the archetypal mother, at least for the period of June, into a savage seeking refuge up trees and hiding on balconies. During this month they are wild and naked as they feverishly hunt their prey: ‘an office worker, a manual labourer’. The mothers descend from their hideouts at dusk to rest in doorways, allowing their children to nurture them, clean their wounds and feed them. The cared-for temporarily become the carers. The role of the mother is displaced and they are portrayed as creatures both feral and uncontrollable. Yet throughout, they retain the silent respect of society as this ritual passes. Originally published in 1989, ‘The Mothers’ is a compelling fable worthy of (re)discovery.

By contrast, ‘Nazi Girl’ by Álvaro Bisama first appeared in 2010, but is a fine complement to the opening short story. This is a tale of a girl brought up by Nazi fetishist parents as she enters adulthood, set against the background of the Pinochet regime in Chile. At face value it is a tale of a girl, struggling to fit in, who latches on to the fanatical element instilled into her by her parents. Dabbling with Nietzschean philosophy, she asserts her own world view, proudly able to set herself apart from her classmates. As she matures, BDSM and Nazi role-playing take a stronger hold, but the distinction between consensually-inflicted pain and the suffering of fellow countrymen and women is brought sharply into focus. Despite glimpses of black humour – ”Soon everyone forgot about my reputation as a Nazi” – the inescapable brutal reality of the past is never too far away.

In ‘The Japanese Garden’ by Antonio Ortuño, Jacobo seeks to find a lost companionship of a different sort. As a child, his father hired a girl, Fabiana, to keep him company and spend the night with him. When his father passes away his guardian uncle decides that this irregular practice should end too. After a while Fabiana moves out of the neighbourhood and Jacobo loses all contact. Despite the passing years, he can’t stop thinking about her. When his father’s estate passes to him he decides to find out what became of Fabiana. ‘The Japanese Garden’ raises some interesting points around the currency of friendship, and the relationship between artifice and happiness.

Finally, this small collection closes with Enrique Vila-Matas’ ‘Loves That Last a Lifetime’. Ana María is a high school teacher who lives with her grandmother. She is trying to deliver bad news to her grandmother; the story revealed to us through Ana María’s inner and external dialogue. A thread of unrequited passion pulls the characters together, but ultimately it’s the weight of history and lasting impact of colonialism that tears at individual responsibility.

Each short has much to offer. One story may share a theme with another – fascism, family, unreciprocated love – but the thing that cuts across them all is the calibre of writing. Disappointingly it features an all-male cast, but this does not detract from the final product. If The Portable Museum is to thrive in this digital age, with ever-increasing traffic and monetary devaluation of artistic endeavour, it needs to position itself apart from the others. The voices of literary magazines and journals can get drowned out, lost within the electronic chatter and noise. Fortunately, this journal speaks loudly and with a clarity that should allow it to be heard above many others. For only a couple of quid, you get four outstanding stories. The second issue is due in the first quarter of 2013 and I’m looking forward to its arrival already.

Here Comes Everyone: The Heroes Issue

In Blogzines, Magazine, online magazine on December 12, 2012 at 9:15 am

 

-Reviewed by Jonny Aldridge

 Heroes-Issue-Cover-719x1024-300x336

The Heroes Issue is the second offering of poetry, short stories, and non-fiction from an embryonic community-led magazine called Here Comes Everyone, and published by the not-for-profit Silhouette Press. As I am usually a sucker for the literary canon, I was excited to read the cutting-edge works of unknown writers: I expected vigorous, irreverent prose and compact, personal poetry.

My expectations piqued during the editorial introduction, which—via Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Dambusters, Genghis Khan, and David Attenborough—teased out many of the key issues within the theme. Heroes, it was suggested, can be humanitarians, inventors, “people who brought great social change”, or more mysteriously “a facet of an idealised person who I wish I was”. There was considerable space given to the idea that it is one’s perception of heroism which is paramount over the hero himself, and it was promising to hear the editor muse that “an individual’s personal heroes can say much about them”.

As a literary blogger who has considered the role of heroism and ‘superhumanism’ in modern times, I think that this is a satisfactorily nuanced reading of the hero. So I suppose what I desired after this editorial was what anyone desires from a themed magazine: an impressive range of creative responses which combat, elude and explore the idea. Read individually, the pieces I was given didn’t really do this. The poetry was mainly a slightly flabby form of free verse, and approached the theme from the rather conventional perspectives of war heroes and celebrity culture. The short stories were a little underwhelming in their character/plot and literary texture: they tackled the “Olympian guts” it takes to jump into a swimming pool, the militant nationalism of “Ireland’s heroic martyrs”, and the everyday heroism of a busy father.

However, when read as a group, the pieces did begin to say something very interesting. They showed such a vast range of human emotion and expression that it made me feel like I was dipping into strangers’ minds as I passed them on the street: there was a woman who evidently fancied her martial arts instructor, a man who wished he were Perseus, and a man with separation anxiety retained since childhood. There were also some standout pieces, namely the ones which approached the theme in innovative, oblique ways—i.e. that alluded to heroes or heroism without having to write “he was a hero to me that day” or the like.

Emily Densten’s short story ‘Smile for me’ playfully describes the narrator’s imagined rant at a man who tells her to “smile, sweetheart” as she waits for a tube. I took her “dreamed” cathartic tirade (“I’m not here to be set decoration for you”) to be an exploration of everyday timidity; that is, why people can find it so difficult to “stand up for themselves, finally, for once”, let alone act heroically.

Another favourite was ‘Hard Times For Tolerance’ by Ben Nightingale, the first opinion piece by HCE’s regular columnist, which was a stinging defence of “freedom of speech” against “jihadis who would take it away from us [and] those among us who are determined we should cave in and give it away”. As I am a generally tolerant person, Mr. Nightingale had a hard task of convincing me that the best way of combating the religious intolerance of Islamist fundamentalism was with religious intolerance of Islam. However, his “consciousness-raising exercise”—supposing that the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon had instead been about The Koran—was entertaining enough to retain my attention in spite of his more controversial claims. Furthermore, HCE is evidently achieving its aim of creating a communal space for literary types, as contributor Eugene Egan has already commented on Mr. Nightgale’s piece online: “He made me question some of the things I’ve taken for granted which is excellent.”

On a less positive note, it was very off-putting to find multiple errors of spelling, punctuation and syntax. It detracts from the writing, betrays sloppy writing and neglectful editing, and produces an unpleasurable reading experience. Needless to say, if one is a literary type one should take care not to write “pixcelation” or “men who’s ambition”. Having said that, I was intrigued and amused by the image of pigeons cooing “Like wantons retuning home for supper”. I was happy to overlook the magazine’s slightly-lacking design—it hasn’t got the gothic style of Popshot magazine (‘Birth’ issue out now), nor the slick minimalism of Peninsula magazine (only one issue published, called ‘Visitation’)—but these mistakes are unforgivable.

All in all, Here Comes Everyone’s Heroes Issue is a promising prospect which just doesn’t quite get to where it wants. However, as a “network and resource point for people who want to get involved in the world of publishing and the arts”, HCE and Silhouette Press seem to be attempting something worthwhile; to which end, you can find out more at herecomeseveryone.me and @HereComesEvery1.

 

 

Published Poetry 2012: a Top 10

In Seasonal/End of year on December 10, 2012 at 12:14 am

-Listed by Claire Trévien

June

As the end of the year approaches, it is customary to attempt round-ups of sorts. Last year, I asked for people’s favourite poetry pamphlets on twitter. This year I will be taking inspiration from last year’s fiction top ten and providing links to the top ten most read published poetry reviews (from this year). If you are looking for gift inspirations or wanting to stumble on something new, you could do worse than take a look at this list.

They are:

1. Four 2011 Poetry Business Prizewinners (Smiths/Doorstop 2012). Reviewed by Sophie Mayer.

2. Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot. Reviewed by Harry Giles.

3. Human Shade by Robert Peake (Lost Horse Press). Reviewed by Martha Sprackland.

4. lapping water by Dan Flore III. Reviewed by Ian Chung.

5. ILK #1. Reviewed by John McGhee.

6. Fleck and the Bank by Rob A. Mackenzie (Salt Publishing). Reviewed by Harry Giles.

7. All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head by Tony Williams (Nine Arches Press). Reviewed by Charles Whalley.

8. Antiphon #1. Reviewed by John McGhee.

9. Poland at the Door by Evelyn Posamentier (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press). Reviewed by Ian Chung.

10. Four Rack Press pamphlets. Reviewed by Angela Topping.

Originally published in 2011, Charles Whalley’s review of Megan Fernandes’ Organ Speech (Corrupt Press) would have otherwise appeared third.

There’s a pleasing presence of webzines and self-published work on this list. Group or anthology reviews also appear to have been popular, though I suspect that the popularity of the Smith/Doorstop and Catechism reviews is in part due to their controversial natures – but if so, where is Eireann Lorsung’s thought-provoking meditation on poetic tourism in Colette Sensier’s début pamphlet How Many Camels is too Many?

So far the least viewed review of a poetry publication is Diidxadó by Víctor Terán (Poetry Translation Centre), which seems a shame considering its reviewer, Judi Sutherland, describes it as ‘Pablo Neruda in a bitter mood’, what’s not to love?

If I were to construct my own personal 2012 list free of the constraints of what has been reviewed in Sabotage, and comprising magazines, anthologies, and pamphlets, I should no doubt curse my poor short-term memory. Such a list would undoubtedly include however: Cat Conway’s Static Cling (Dancing Girl Press, being reviewed soon for Sabotage), Agenda vol. 46 no. 4, Azita Ghahreman’s Poems (Poetry Translation Centre), Kayo Chingonyi’s Some Bright Elegance (Salt Publishing), and Adelle Stripe’s Dark Corners of the Land (Blackheath Books). A couple more impose themselves, but would be ineligible since I have poems in them: Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins), Fuselit: Contraption, and Poems in Which. What would be on your list? Please do share in the comments.

Review: Content by Mixy @ The Albion Beatnik 04/09/12

In Performance Poetry on December 5, 2012 at 10:50 pm

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reviewed by James Webster

Who is Mixy?

Why, MC Mixy is one half of The Dead Poets (the rap and poetry duo that Sabotage have reviewed before)! He is also a talented solo performer, indeed his one-man show, Content, was one of the Spoken Word successes of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, given four stars by the Scotsman who said his show made “Mike Skinner of The Streets look decidedly average”. Having missed the show in Edinburgh, I was really happy to get to see it in a performance in Oxford back in September (massive ap0logies for the delay).

He sounds awesome, anyone else cool there?

Well, he was supported ably by Lucy Ayrton’s intricately rhymed rebelliousness and Claire Trévien’s lyrical turns of phrase, so it was a very enjoyable evening. But the main attraction was Mixy rattling through his spit-fire mix of rap and poetry, linked together with engaging and amusing anecdotes.

Amusing? So he’s funny too?

Yup. Of particular amusement was his ongoing conceit that he was dating the audience, even giving us an endearing nickname ‘Chinchilla-hips’, which elicited plenty of chortles throughout the evening (even if in the end he did leave us for another audience, the bastard).

So he pretended to be in a relationship with the audience?

Yeah, he did, it was both funny and appropriate, as a great deal of the show dealt with Mixy’s relationships, in particular one relationship that was especially momentous for him in how it interplayed with his ongoing happiness. He set the tone for this with his first piece, ‘Upbeat’, a nice avowal of taking life lightly, with inspired rhyme punching out like the click-clack of a typewriter.

But it’s not all upbeat, right?

Indeed not. Another aspect of his life that informs the show is his anecdote of having been ‘born stillborn’ and having to be resuscitated at birth, which is a superbly gripping story, out of which comes some excellent poetry. One such piece is a hugely entertaining conversational rap-battle between himself and Dr Stix, the doctor who saved his life when he was born, and is really the crux of the show. Mixy indulges his pessimistic streak and the depression of having messed up the relationship he cared about to confront the doctor, essentially asking ‘how dare you bring me into this unjust world’ and the doctor’s response is fun, clever and life-affirming. From the entertaining put-down ‘the first thing you did was shit on me’ to the simple ‘are you telling me you never made anyone happy?’ the doctor’s no-nonsense approach is an effective foil to Mixy’s self-loathing.

And he does do the self-loathing thing very well, capturing the romantic self-pity evocatively and insightfully, eloquently wallowing in his misery (‘words cut through my side like a blunt knife’) while remaining just self-aware enough to wonder if maybe he should take responsibility for his own unhappiness.

So the show’s about him being, y’know, a bit unhappy?

No, it’s far more poignant than that. Ultimately, Mixy’s meditations on what it means to be happy and on the consequences of your own behaviour is what the show’s all about, and his trance number towards the end ‘For Granted’ in which his words floated between the music, hitting each beat like a featherweight boxer, did a good job of summing this up. Saying we should ‘thank those who break our heart’ and that ‘we all come at a cost’, it was a powerful celebration of all the experiences, good and bad, that made him who he is.

So it’s all good in the hood?

All good in the what? Ahem, well the show’s not exactly flawless. Where the show possibly suffers is in the details of the relationship. The story of how they met and got together does come with some fun poems about working in a call centre (‘I rock that telephone headset with elegance’) and messing up a job interview by being too candid about your flaws (a dirtily self-denigrating rap, the opposite of gangster-rap arrogance, that’s a bit like Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ but for a hip-hop audience). But at points it feels like he’s dwelling on the details too much and you lose the sense of how it fits into his overarching narrative, becoming just a story about a relationship that ends badly because of his ubiquitously dick-ish behaviour. As such, the show sags a little in the middle and his messy story of a night out with a colleague that goes too far, while amusing, lacks the insight and weight of his other pieces. Plus, now and again there were a couple of off-colour jokes at the expense of women that I found off-putting, but that might just be me.

But overall it’s a good show?

Absolutely. One might even say very good. His winning nature keeps the audience with him and the wordplay, rhythms and emotional resonance of his stronger pieces more than make up for the occasional filler.

In the end he leaves it on a bittersweet note that is very appropriate for the show. ‘Wet Summer’ lets the words spill over a forlorn backing track to great effect, showing nostalgia for a relationship that ‘swerved and it crashed’ but bearing in mind that some clashing is inevitable in relationships and even though ‘we remember pain so well’ he stresses the way love can be rewarding as anyone will ‘know if you’ve ever been a half of a whole’.

Whether self-indulgently sad, aggressively self-deprecating or powerfully life-affirming, this is a show that hits highs and lows of emotion that are skilfully expressed and eminently relatable.

‘Dark Corners of the Land’ by Adelle Stripe

In Pamphlets on December 4, 2012 at 9:21 am

-Reviewed by Dan Holloway

 adelle

Dark Corners of the Land, Adelle Stripe’s third pamphlet issued under Geraint Hughes’ unctuously gorgeous Blackheath Books imprint, is one of those books I placed in front of me and, after cooing over the endpapers and production values, I opened and closed and opened and closed nervously. Stripe’s ‘Sacred Heart’, a beautiful, bustling, heartbreaking elegy to Paris from her previous pamphlet Cigarettes in Bed, is one of my very favourite poems. And having favourites is dangerous. You wait for that moment of disappointment, the confirmation that your idols have faded.

Fortunately, when I did emerge from Dark Corners of the Land, there was good news and bad news. The good news is that, in ‘Bad Blood’, the collection contains one of the best poems I have read in years. The bad news is that, as a reviewer, it is nice to be able to balance the positive and the negative of a book. And there really isn’t a negative here. Not even in the ordering of the collection, which is something I’m usually ridiculously fussy about.

Formally, Dark Corners of the Land shares the diversity of Adelle Stripe’s other work. There is everything from a ‘Dead Leaf Haiku’ to the gloriously sprawling ‘Bad Blood’. But this stylistic range hangs together perfectly within the context of the collection, offering zooms and washes within its single canvas.

At first, that canvas seems to be that of the rural idyll. But whilst there is sentiment, even a glorious sentimentality, about the land from which she chisels her poems, there is nothing idealised. We start with a tiny detail, a rabbit savaged by myxomatosis and dogs, served up to the narrator of ‘Reward’: “still warm, / the blood / spilling out / on my hands.” This is the perfect programmatic opening (I said this was a beautifully constructed set of poems). Dark Corners is a collection in which the land opens its diseased and damaged heart as a last gasp offering to the poet, and Stripe takes that responsibility on board and gives the land a voice.

Little about the land Stripe describes is unspoilt. This is georgic, the poetry of farming and its ambivalent relation to “nature”. “We stood in the dreek/ farmyard” begins ‘Sweet Meat’, about the castration of a calf. ‘First Milk’ tells a story that is both heartrending and everyday about a still born lamb. The message is clear – those who work the land are drawn to it, rooted in it, dependent on it emotionally and physically, but can do little but skim its surface. In the end they bring as much destruction in their own way (myxomatosis) as the encroaching urbanites who bring “oil, drip-dropped from the motorway planes”

Everyone in Dark Corners is drawn to the darkness, helpless to resist, and like grotesque inversions of Midas they each bring their own destruction that, in reality, does little but hasten nature’s own cannibalisation of itself. This should make for incredibly bleak reading, and indeed it does. But like the glorious supernova of a planet’s sun, or a Peter Greenaway film, there is a hypnotic beauty in this decay. The key poem in understanding this deep ambivalence is ‘In Utero’, which opens with:

“Women ask ‘will you have children?’

What follows is the truth behind the glib response that “my poems are my children.” It is a horrific account of a calf’s stillbirth witnessed by a fourteen year-old.

“We wrenched the bulldog calf
out of the bellowing beast”

the story concludes,

“slopping its glutinous body
into the wheelbarrow
ready to be sold
for dog meat.”

It is an event that clearly encapsulates nature as a whole, and infuses Stripe’s piercing reply to those who ask the initial question:

“I do not tell them the truth, for fear
of spoiling polite conversation
or their own infatuation with maternity.”

Nature is a sun in the last exquisite phase of its dying. Those who understand only the first of these things, its beauty, fail to see the truth about nature – that we are in its end times, that the seemingly ceaseless cycle of the generations is over, that the only rational response is to let the present moment soak into us.

If ‘In Utero’ is key to understanding Stripe’s approach to nature, then central to understanding the collection’s whole world view is ‘Bad Blood’. With its litany of phrases beginning with “who”, the poem sets itself up in the mould of Howl, announcing its own importance. Only instead of “the greatest minds of our generation” we have plastic bags:

“Over the water, plastic bags hang,
mottled old rags in the cold March wind
[…]
each plastic bag a broken genealogy
[…]
faces from way back burned in the bark”

Humanity, bringer of ugliness and destruction, is something viewed “over the water,” something other, leaving its ugly scent marks on the land in an attempt to claim them with its vandalism, an attempt that is ultimately futile and serves only to damage itself.

“Each branch of my own family tree
is strangled with plastic”

the poem concludes. Humanity and nature are not separated by the water after all. They are one, and the cycle of violence they perpetuate against each other is a death hold of self-harm. This is both Thelma and Louise and Butch and Sundance, facing death with an exquisite romanticism, and Leaving Las Vegas, the last pathetic breaths of a co-dependency that cannot escape the cycle of destruction.

In conclusion, this is a pamphlet that offers wonderful insights, single, beautifully-painted brushstrokes. But it is also woven from many layers into a remarkable, beautiful, heartbreaking, destructive, magnetic tapestry, which serves as a perfect metaphor for the unravelable relationship between humanity and nature.

‘Threadbare Fables’ by Ian Seed

In Pamphlets on December 3, 2012 at 9:41 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

One definition of ‘fable’ is: ‘a short, allegorical narrative making a moral point.’ As this word is used in the title, I found myself looking for the moral point of each fable.

These unusual prose poems – or fables – appear to be fragmented, but chronological, moments from the life of the narrator. There is something intriguing about the way both his internal and external worlds are revealed; the dislocated thoughts that occur at, say, the moment of spelling the alphabet with one’s tongue across a clitoris. Or the ‘regret mixed with relief’ when his father dies, resolving the difficulty of buying him a suitable birthday present. There is often a detachment, or dissociation of emotion in these poems.

‘Bright and Early’ describes a symbolic Paulo Cuelho-type journey where the narrator finds himself in a village, but: ‘Each morning I couldn’t shake the weariness from my bones to get up and leave.’ In another poem, after his father dies, he tells his companion, ‘We’ll miss the funeral,’ but ‘you sat there in silence, admiring the colours of the vanishing sun, as if I hadn’t spoken.’ This ennui, or inability to act, persists throughout the chapbook, and a sense of melancholy accumulates with gathering force. What happens? What doesn’t happen? During a card game which ‘has its adventures’, her stockinged knees press against mine’. Later, ‘I’m trying in vain to restore a face to my mind.’

Some of the poems/fables appear to be simply anecdotal, and don’t work as well as others. Yet an intangible sense of almost-discovery is experienced in most of them. For example, Ex-Pat describes a mugging by a ‘scrawny youth’ whose ‘eyes were vicious’ but whose ‘lips were pretty and feminine’. There is an erotic undercurrent here: ‘I grabbed him round the neck and wrestled him to the ground. The smell of his sweat was sweet. I held his trembling body against mine until the police arrived.’ Perhaps the experience, which left the narrator wanting to ‘chase after him with the vague idea of making amends’ is that he feels guilt/confusion about his feelings after this encounter. At any rate, there is a quality of mystery here, as with most of the fables.

Many of these random, unresolved encounters describe a moment of potential intimacy or connection that nevertheless fails to develop further. The narrator looks for the house of an old acquaintance he hears is terminally ill, but cannot find it. The jovial friendliness of a neighbour changes over some weeks, becoming hostile, as the narrator suspects him of abusing his young daughter. He meets a man on a train, whose manila folder, left on the table, is spilled, revealing suspicious contents. Yet he accepts a drink from him ‘after only the slightest hesitation.’ At work, the HR man ‘never spoke, but I could feel his gaze linger over me with wistful regret.’

In other pieces, conflicting messages continue to occur. The narrator watches a documentary of a man recovering from a mental illness: ‘He could be swallowed at any moment. Yet his smile radiates confidence.’ In another fable, he is tricked by a statue of the bleeding Christ, which turns out to be ‘a man dressed up’ and begging.

These prose pieces, unadorned by simile or metaphor, are all the more thought-provoking for their simplicity of language and anonymous settings – a train, a travel agent’s, a church, apartment block. There is also a cohesiveness to the mood of the collection, which is an achievement in itself. And yet – what is the lesson to be learned? That we are living in an era of moral ambiguity? Existential angst? That nothing is what it seems? These are the questions I’m left with, and the reason I feel compelled to go back and read the fables again. An unsettling, but interesting chapbook, and I look forward to discovering more work by this poet.

Afric McGlinchey