Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

‘Etruscan Miniatures’ by Tim Cumming

In Pamphlets on January 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey


I love poets who are also visual artists – it brings something extra to their work. Tim Cumming, who was born in an orphanage and grew up in the West Country in England, is a film-maker and painter as well as a poet. This beautiful chapbook, produced by an Australian publisher, is Cumming’s sixth collection, and it is illustrated by his own watercolours, or ‘field paintings’ as they are described.

The poems and paintings take us to a summer in Umbria, Italy, within view of a medieval palace, vineyards and ‘the dramatic tufa of Rocca Ripesena, favoured by Pope Boniface VIII’ we are told. (The same pope who was consigned to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy.)

The collection opens with a small cameo introduction, where a Leica camera, a child’s chicken pox and a certain light all coincide at a ‘point of the compass/that once disputed/with ocean currents.’ Immediately, the reader is alerted to a setting where past and present merge though both personal and panoramic image.

This alternative perception is revealed again in the poem ‘Orvieto’, which introduces the town via its substrata: ‘Fish bones swam/through Orvieto’s/limestone tufa’. Later in the poem, ‘the ghost flicker/of dead trades and traders’ is seen in the details of frescos, with their ‘bright colours…egg tempura’. Continuing to describe the place from the bottom up, ‘Procession’ introduces the ‘caves for wine/ and birds fattened/ for feast tables’. Pattern and symmetry are important to this poet, who associates the ‘mist rolling in’ with the ‘Holy See’.

In Sean Borrodale’s collection, The Bee Journal, he notes the day to day happenings of the hive as he witnesses them. Here, Cumming observes the slow activity of the growing grapes in this beautiful landscape:

‘Toscano grapes, cool
conductors of white lightning
awaiting the still and
blend and ripening
in cellar chiaroscuco’

Like Borrodale, Cumming’s interest is in the minutiae of nature: he notes, in ‘Surface Depth’, ‘raindrops exploding/on the surface of the pool…the colours of impact and submission’. But sometimes, his associations are more laboured and unconvincing than they might be. The moment here moves from ‘plunging in/deep to life beyond reason’ to ‘tuning in to a tongue beyond reason’ in a corner café in Budapest. I feel the language could have been more accurately and delicately wrought here.

There is an impressionism to his observations. In ‘Mushroom Robert’, a morning mist, across a landscape where deer are grazing, creates the sense of a ‘crumpling hallucination/that swam through every mammal/like images on a closing fan’. There is a self-conscious self-awareness too, in his own placement in this setting: ‘We’re the last ones standing,/scattered around the terrace/like Etruscan statues’. Again, his associations conjure a geographical and psychic leap, between the mushroom-eating Robert (‘the human brain scrabbling for highs’) and ‘the sorcerer at Chauvet dancing/to Bowie tunes from Scary Monsters’.

‘Watermelon’ describes, in two sentences, both a physical and metaphorical journey: ‘wheel-buckling tracks’ which challenge the ‘next hairpin of a marriage’.  This poem conveys through its vivid imagery, a strong impression of conflicting emotions: ‘we cleaved it in two and twice again/and shared it out like an urgent message.’ The ‘cleaving’ seems symbolically suggestive of an imminent parting, but the line continues:  ‘burying our mouths in its soft pink oblivion’.

Oblivion appears to be a state of mind that is sought in this collection, as not only mushrooms but ‘the blossom of a young bottle’ lures with the possibility of ‘tak(ing) us bubbling’, and later (in ‘Fast Stars’), ‘we’re staring up at the Umbrian night sky/watching fast stars stir the drunken cranium’. Such sights lead to reflection: ‘In age, what we have left done or left awry/contains us like a landmark, an orbit’s/eccentricity/a destination in heavy weather/only we can see’.

Cumming’s free-associative, impressionist senses are enhanced in this setting, where a simple observation of last night’s debris, and anticipation of lunch, combine to flow, again in a single sentence, all the way to ‘the soul food kitchen/of Dante’s Purgatorio.’

More than anything, though, what the reader is conscious of (with the assistance of delicate blue and green and white watercolours) is Cumming’s visual focus: ‘The best pictures/are underlit’ he tells us, in ‘Exposure’: ‘a lighter trailing/a flare of gold over/moonbulbs of garlic’, which cause him to make a mental leap to ‘the sexy buttocks/of a spear-carrying/centurion turning against/the writhing of the sun.’

This chapbook, in spite of occasional false notes, is a pure delight. As a reader, you feel yourself cavorting through this ravishing landscape, into frescoes, into history and myth, below ground, and to other parts of the cosmos – all the while holding a dewy glass of white wine in your hand.


In conversation with Anna Percy

In Conversation on January 14, 2013 at 11:15 am

-Interviewed by Claire Trévien


Anna Percy was born and educated in Norwich, she gained a Joint Hons BA in Creative Writing and Contemporary Culture from Cumbria Institute of the Arts in 2007 and a Creative writing MA from Manchester University in 2009. She is one half of Stirred Poetry Collective who run a feminist poetry event in Manchester. She is the author of several chapbooks, notably He is in the Stars (2012) and Ghosts at the Dinner Table (2010). She is participating in the Penning Perfumes, which I am co-organizing.

1) First, thanks so much for taking part in Penning Perfumes, it’s great to have you on board. What made you decide to accept the challenge?

I write a lot from art and music and film so I think it was the idea of making poetry from something that isn’t poetry. That’s one of the qualities I find interesting in modern and experimental poetry. It’s also that smell is the strongest link to memory.

It’s a marvellously odd project, I’m so pleased to have been a part of it. Art and poetry should intrigue people.


2) How would you describe the place of scent in your writing up until now? Has this challenge made you more aware of it?

I have always attempted to use vivid sensory description in my work. I have written some purely smell memory poems and some that use it as it as part of synthesia as a device.

Sensory description is the thing I always impress upon people as being the most important thing for making people feel what you are feeling when I am running workshops. Smell is one of the most visceral like sound it just comes upon you and your brain fires up the memory unasked.

3) It often feels at spoken word nights that there is a pressure for poets to be funny, to the extent where the lines become very blurred between poetry and stand-up comedy. Can you tell me a little about what makes Stirred so different?

Through choosing the guest poets we have chosen who while are picked for their ability to perform poetry effectively are picked largely because they the qualities of poetry we think are important. These are for stirred first and foremost lyrical qualities, innovative use of form, feminist values and surprising use of language. We are a team and know exactly what we are looking for in a guest. I think it is this in part that ups the game of our open mic’ers. We also have a space that is very open to new performers, queer and mental health friendly and this leads to some surprising poetic voices.

4) Somewhat related, but who are your contemporary poetry hero(ine)s?

I love the way Moniza Alvi gently brings in the surreal into her gorgeous poetry in poems like ”I was born in a glove compartment”, I had the great privilege of being taught by Vona Groarke for my MA she writes very tight often short biographical poetry. Steph Pike is a local poet who manages to write beautiful lyrical political poetry, she and Becca Audra Smith’s (my stirred co host) ability to write seriously and well about the inequities that exist in the world inspired me

5) How would you describe the Manchester literary scene, what are your favourite nights?

The scene is vast so you can find events for any kind of poetry you can imagine and its very supportive I’ve sometimes had lovely emails from people checking their event isn’t clashing with mine. We have all kind of festivals that happen the last one Stirred was involved with was Sapphormation we ran a wonderful workshop on lesbian and bisexual women writers. Bad Language is consistently one of the best events around and is packed out. This coming Tuesday is this. Knowing the organisers I expect is to be gloriously political and experimental and raucous. There’s dozens more I could mention like Paradox or the 2nd Sadcore Dadwave event. We are totally spoilt here and its wonderful. I have started up a new purely open event called Shaken that runs the first Sunday of every night running from Fab Cafe which has a sci-fi interior so the theme runs through teh poetry and prose read its been running for several months and attendance keeps going up!

6) Any big projects in the pipeline?

The first Stirred Anthology is coming out this year our first collection of feminist poetry from men and women countrywide which we are very excited about. I have other things to announce later in the year!

Anna Percy will be reading at Penning Perfumes in Manchester on 23rd February. Buy tickets here.

‘mimesis, synaptic’ by Laressa Dickey

In Pamphlets on January 14, 2013 at 9:21 am

-Reviewed by Andrew Bailey


So it turns out one way to incline this reviewer positively to your book is to pack it like the sweets I used to get from the corner shop. We know this thanks to Miel, from whom a pamphlet arrived that I wanted to praise even before seeing it, simply because it came in a white paper bag with serrations on the opening. What came out was Laressa Dickey’s mimesis, synaptic, which lives up to Miel’s mission statement by being “Difficult, interesting, intelligent, deeply felt”.

It’s a pamphlet comprising ten brief prose poems, none troubling the lower half of the page, which distribute facets and glimpses disparate enough to feel the gaps in the sense, and close enough to fill them through inference. These electric connections are, I guess, where the title comes from, in their mimicry of the little leaps across synapses that make up the process of thought; not decisive, business-decision type thought, but a productive kind of dwelling without resolution. The gaps mean the synapses keep firing on re-reading, and I have been re-reading. They also mean the poems ask for enough readerly interaction to make this review more personal than usual – the backstory you bring means you may end up reading a noticeably different collection from me with mine. Which may be to spike my guns almost before I begin, but having done so, I quote:

‘Wind chill blows the crocus off its root. When will the women in this hollow
speak to each other? Even Rosie the dog has died. […]’

The opening sentence starts out descriptive, but is knocked into potential metaphor by the silent women, their coldness toward each other, if they are to be connected. What are we to make of the crocus, then? what is the tender thing if not literally a crocus? The dog, named as she was for a flower, resonates with that, but the “Even” makes her an addition to whatever fragility has suffered. The ‘When” is perhaps answered later in the piece, “when clouds relocate, and creek water quiets”, then again, “when gales skirt down hills, maybe then”. These are prophetic timescales, on the “till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane” level, which invite attempts, certainly from me, at trying to work out when this is – are we to think that clouds are constantly relocating, or are we after a moment to when all the clouds are gone, or the right clouds are here? Is the creek’s silence that is to go with it something that’s even possible, and does it matter when the second answer undermines the first, and itself with its “maybe”?

Count those question marks. As a reader, if you can enjoy this state of uncertainty, you can revel in it here – and I have, whilst being aware of friends who would be infuriated by its lack of resolution. It’s a state that’s enjoyed by both of the supporting statements on the back of the pamphlet and on its webpage, with Maria Damon calling the chapbook “pleasantly tentative” and Arlene Kim explicitly contradicting herself in each new paragraph. As a reviewer I feel a bit like I’m short-changing you by not pinning it down to a definite description, so it’s nice to have precedent.

And description isn’t everything. The second poem starts out by describing people in a market in terms of their poster-paint colours – “Three monks in tangerine robes walk in rain the market’s length… A man riding a red motorcycle wearing a sky-blue poncho passes” – and closes by noting that “When night comes, the colors will quicken, tangle.” The quickening is where the tentative note I’ve been enjoying comes in.

With the colours unreliable, it’s the weight of the body in the centre of the piece that remains – “Each step they step they step to gravity.” There’s several uses of the body in the pamphlet – a brother’s big arms, a schoolboy who “jabbed a pencil into the flesh above my left knee” (‘Every book a man book. In’), and the final poem’s “Gravity teaches the spine’s length”. Dickey’s biography notes that she is a somatic worker and dancer as well as a poet, which may be the source of the attention to the body, and refers in her interview at Miels site to becoming “interested in the process of acquisition of new syntax and new vocabulary and in my mind/body’s response to that—the disorientation that comes from total immersion.” Whatever the source, it shows a collection that knows the mind not only thinks, but responds to and steers the body, holds the personality, and thus invites readers to share the holistic experience.

There’s even a stage direction to the reader, which might move past an invitation to an insistence that the poem should be inhabited: “Cover the mind with a hat. Is it here (point to heart) or here (point to pelvis)?” That’s only one of the moments of direct address – there are questions, instructions, statements such as “You can’t keep saying you ate mackerel out of a can” (‘Cover the mind with a hat’). Judging by the previous appearance of the tinned mackerel in a poem at Cerise Press, the address of ‘you’ is also an address to the poet, and thus the poems offer a sense of inhabiting the poet herself.

If that sounds like overplaying the hand, it’s probably my reporting on where the collection has taken me, rather than on the thing that does the taking, as I ought. The closing poem does ask, though, to “say where you go if you know.” While I’m pleasurably unsure if I know for sure that’s where I am, it is where the poems leave me wanting to say.

‘The Syllabus of Errors’ by Ashley Stokes

In anthology, Short Stories on January 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Described as ‘Twelve stories of obsession, loss and getting in a state’ Ashley Stokes’s The Syllabus of Errors is a collection of unnerving tales about people struggling to cope with their disappointments. Having read Stokes’s ‘The Swan King’ in the process of reviewing Unthology #2 for Sabotage in 2011 and found it an intriguing and melancholy read, I was keen to see if The Syllabus of Errors followed in this trend. Stokes doesn’t disappoint with these stories and each, like ‘The Swan King’, challenges you to read between the lines though you can’t help but rush forwards as the momentum pulls you towards the climax of the story.

The Syllabus of Errors, Ashley Stokes, published by Unthank Books

As well as the themes mentioned above, the stories are linked by an almost academic fascination with language, naming and categorising. The Syllabus of Errors even introduces a couple of playful new terms, used by different characters in a few stories, such as the unforgettable adjective ‘shoutybollocks’, presumably referring to an obnoxious and overbearing individual. Teachers and intellectuals also form the main source matter for the material – from students given to over-analysis to self-deprecating teachers who are thwarted in their desires by those they resent as intellectually inferior.

Despite the humour however all the stories have a dark, disturbing edge, epitomised in the first story of the collection. ‘Island Gardens’ serves as a statement of intent for The Syllabus of Errors with its delicate balance of paranoia, insecurity, disappointment, wry humour and unnerving tension. Unfortunately for the protagonist, and for all the characters in the collection, it seems that though their hopes may never be realised, their fears almost certainly will be, however self-deprecatingly the protagonist may try to foresee this eventuality.

In ‘Island Gardens’ our narrator, mild-mannered English teacher Grant Woods, is waiting for his maybe-girlfriend ‘V’ in the centre of a London that he barely recognises. Killing time and to stave off nerves he ponders how homogenised his surroundings have become since his last time in London, which has been newly populated by what he calls ‘Adverts’ and ‘Loomparettes’- young people wearing gaudy labels or excess tanning lotion.

‘V liked these words as well. She said she enjoyed learning all of the silly names
he gave to things and people’.

As Grant indulges in nostalgic musings, he creates wry character sketches of the surrounding people, and an ill-judged hesitation while fantasising about the back-stories of a couple indulging in public displays of affection turns the situation from a daydream tinged with anxiety into a tense and inexplicable manhunt.

Grant has been experiencing ‘ahnen’, the ‘sensation that something is wrong without knowledge of its cause’ throughout his wait, but he is in denial that the threat he faces isn’t the disappointment in love that he fears, but rather that of senseless, unprovoked violence that he refused to give credence to from the surrounding people.

‘You well bate, blood,’ said the boy, separating his fingers and stabbing his thumb upwards.
‘Pardon?’ Said Grant. As he stood up it crossed his mind that back in Alex’s unforgiving pool hall world this one’s opening shot would have been a ‘Reverse English’.

Grant and his antagonist, the ‘Reverse English’, are lost in translation, and Grant inadvertently escalates the situation by refusing to be threatened by someone he still considers an extension of his daydream – safely labelled and given a fantasy history, thus neutralised. But he has misjudged the ‘Reverse English’ entirely and Grant’s refusal to be drawn further into confrontation has consequences.

‘Abyssinia’ follows in this trend of intelligent, lovelorn academics trapped in a dialogue that wrongfoots them. ‘Abyssinia’ opens with Mellis, a disgraced lecturer, waking up in hospital in urine-stained trousers and piecing together the events that have landed him there while preparing for his final act of defiance. A more visceral tale than ‘Island Gardens’, ‘Abyssinia’ plumbs the physical as well as emotional humiliation of its protagonist and extends the character sketches to farcical levels.

Mellis’s character weaves a dystopian narrative that flits back and forth in a framework of aspirations and hopes frustrated by bureaucracy, coloured by the fog of alcohol abuse and its requisite humiliating half-memories. Facing up to the events that have led to his most recent rampage he recalls a significant stand-off between himself and his HR manager, who is pioneering a new era for their institution (earning him comparisons with Mussolini) and who is also his love rival:

‘Now, you know why we’ve called this meeting, because we spoke last year about your redeployment…’
career ending […]
‘…and we did ask you to supply us with your CV so that we can assess what you can do for us…’
what else you can rob from me

As well as sharing the analysis of language, its meaning and interpretation that is in ‘Island Gardens’ (and there are a few moments where the protagonist mentions certain ‘types’ as well for good measure) ‘Abyssinia’ is also another tale reprimanding the protagonist for daring to dream of romance, a theme that unites all the stories in this collection. All the tales are:

‘embroiled in the oldest and most mysterious story of all. A boy strikes out, following some girl or light or icon or whispered promise, and whatever he does, whatever he finds, whatever he overcomes, whatever the frontiers he crosses, he never comes back’.

Overall The Syllabus of Errors is a tense, exciting and thought-provoking series of stories from the point of view of the alienated or underdog, encompassing humorous experiments in form such as ‘A Short Story about a Short Film’ and full of references to the return of the repressed and the major wars of the twentieth century – especially World War II and its Nazis, Fascists and Communists. There is also sharp criticism of the current state of society – the ‘types’ that Stokes’s characters see all around them are obnoxious, self-interested and materialistic, and many of the stories are set against a backdrop of recession and its effect on the arts and society, with all its accompanying ill-advised and compromising stop-gap measures.

‘Static Cling’ by Cathleen Allyn Conway

In Pamphlets on January 11, 2013 at 11:52 am

-Reviewed by Éireann Lorsung


Cathleen Allyn Conway’s chapbook Static Cling  begins with a quotation from The Mistress Manual about the presumed universality of the demand for ‘Girls’ to be ‘nice’ and of the effect on those ‘Girls’ of that ‘nice’ness. In full, the quotation reads, “Whatever your personal situation, you were raised in a culture that demands Girls be nice. Female Dominance isn’t nice. Fun, yes. Fulfilling, absolutely. But not nice.” What, precisely, ‘nice’ means is not elucidated; we can assume from context, however, that it is what ‘fun’ and ‘fulfilling’ are not. A preventative: the demand to be ‘nice’ rules out, here, ‘fun’ and ‘fulfilment’.

But this language—the generality of it, its assumption of what ‘nice’ is, what ‘fun’ is, what ‘fulfilling’ is, the location of these things on each side of a fairly rigid boundary—is so expected as to fall into the trap of clichéd winking about sex and liberation and what makes up each. In the end, this distinction engenders a more, not less, limited sense of the possible: this is good/liberating/fun; that is ‘nice’/repressive/not fun. Rather than continue, in a deconstructive sort of movement, to show the way that both terms depend on one another, complicating and contributing to the human experience of sex and relation, the quotation rests in its assumption. Unfortunately, most of the poems in this chapbook do likewise.

It’s not that this reviewer would argue on behalf of the bored bourgeois bride and groom in “Wedding Registry”, who sleep “on 800-count Egyptian cotton/Queen-size sheets in flannel grey and virgin white”, who attend Shakespeare in the Park and “empty Tupperware of Jamie Oliver antipasti”. Indeed, the critique of these poems is one for which many readers will likely feel sympathy: a critique of needless and meaningless acquisition, of adherence to tradition without thought (as in “Smoke”), of the misuse of power (“Femme Fatale”). No, I would plead on behalf of a more rich and complex presentation of the human beings and their situations on these pages.

Insofar as the poems remain in a single mode—the mode of separation, of uncomplication—I am left without a sense that the images of humiliation (Welch’s jam “plopped all over his bedspread” in “This Romeo”; “He snatches the whip […]/No, no! You’re doing it wrong!” in “Femme Fatale”) and transgression (“I can root through your linens/criticise your placemat patterns” in “Wedding Registry”) are more than reactionary posturing, or that the worlds imagined in “Pillow Dictionary”, where lovers lie among page proofs, writing on one another in red ink, are more than fancy. There is no sense of the desired becoming real on the page; it is a fantasy-by-numbers, where the choices are humiliation or proscribed transgression, a consequence of the tyranny of ‘niceness’, perhaps. In one instance, the speaker defuses her own desire: the opening ‘What if’ of “Motel Interlude” leads only to the revelation that the lovers do not act on their fantasies (including one of the few points in the chapbook where the female speaker is, at least in her imagination, an active participant in sex) but “just [talk] about it”. Is it the requirement to be ‘nice’ that doesn’t allow the speaker to demand an hour in the cheap hotel with its vibrating bed? Does she really want it? Is there anything else to want? Is wanting something else too ‘nice’, with the attendant sense of somehow not being—what? Fun enough? Fulfilling enough? The women in the poems do not seem fulfilled; they are passively receiving BBS messages about clichéd sex (“This Romeo”), they are “not what you ordered” (but what does she, what do they order?; from “Orange County”), they have a voice that “quavers” and hands that shake even when they pick up “the spit-slicked/cat-o’-nine tails to snap” (“Femme Fatale”) and even then their (male) submissive corrects them visciously. Someone else is doing their French homework for them, is pulling them onto laps; the lips the women want to kiss are “retreating from [their] opening mouth[s]” (all from “The Professor’s Son”).

There are two moments in the chapbook at which we are presented with a particularly active speaker. One is Inanna, in “Inanna in Illinois”, who “tramps” and searches, and who “rose from the Underworld,/sucked you into her squall, weeping rain”, with “blood in her mouth”. But Inanna is a disappointment of fantasy; the poem is addressed to someone who desires “a sozzled goddess,/rolling up in a chariot Camaro, stinking of cheap/beer and cheaper cigarettes”. In “Smoke”, the speaker has beaten Prometheus to the building of a fire, where she will burn “two twigs forming a steeple”. If only the human speakers could be as capable and complex and ferocious (even as fiercely disappointing) as these supernatural, mythological ones.

That said, Conway’s poems are at their best when they acknowledge the complexity of relationships and of the humans who undertake them. The inconclusive, elusive exchange in “The Butcher, The Baker”—where the tenderness of a man who painted his ex-fiancée’s toenails, who  “painted/the tip of her smallest toe because/she cut the nail so short it would bleed” is matched by the woman’s holding “his tongue in her mouth, moist/and warm, waiting for it to rise”—does not push its reader one way or another; the people and the poem hang there, allowed to be as their situation requires. The speaker’s desire in “The Ghost Position” to “make him who I wanted him to be”, to “mold him,/chew papier-mâché from his letters […]/give him back his language” is not unviolent but does reflect the difficulty present in life and in loving others, and the relation between love, desire, and violence. (The poem also contains what is for me the most striking image in the collection—comprising most of the last stanza: “I put a slip of paper/with my name on it into his mouth/the holy word”.) If all the poems interrogated this question, this relation, more intently, the collection would be very interesting indeed, and very ‘fulfilling’.



Cerise Press: Fall/Winter 2012-13 (Vol. 4 Issue 11)

In online magazine on January 9, 2013 at 9:33 am

-Reviewed by Harry Giles


One of the things I appreciate most about web journals is their architectural nature: where a book is a linearly curated experience, themes developing more or less rationally, a well-built website is more obviously a co-curation between editor and reader, with multiple pathways and directions of reading readily available. Every web journal is more like a room of writings than a book, and that makes it easy to draw parallels to other architectural experiences. Cerise Press‘s regular editions are like stepping into a gorgeous (yet tasteful) salon filled with an intimidatingly erudite and international crowd of writers, talking with each other about a myriad of fascinating and impossible things in at least seven different languages at once.

Cerise curates English language poetry, international poetry in original and English translation, fictions, essays, interviews, reviews and photography and art galleries. I’ll concentrate here on the poetry and fiction; Cerise’s expansive scope would require more than one review to fully cover.

The original English poetry is all from poets based in America, and all from poets with impressive cultural capital: NEA awards, teaching positions, editorships, multiple prizes and major credits. This stands out in a web journal, and, along with Cerise’s elegant design, lends the site unusual gravitas for the internet. In style, there’s also little evidence of alt-lit, Flarf, or other of he more vernacular and searching internet poetry movements, though their influence is present.

Mia Ayumi Malhotra’s ekphrastic ‘Horse, Rider‘ gives a clear example of the curatorial style: her measured, stately lines strongly summon the poem’s statue, with alliterative devices singing through the stanza:

“Eyes gleam like rabbits’ through the fetlock,
what remains: a leg, fractured in four,
fused and balanced on the hoof’s edge.”

In Malhotra’s elevated diction, the broken statue finds a contradictory wholeness and completeness – the poem is not fractured, does not dwell on what is absent and elusive, but on the statue’s mineral presence, its “Parisian marble left unsanded at the neck / each curl tightly wound.”

Other stand-out moments come in Lightsey Darst’s pair of poems, showing a quite different style. Here there is meaning in the gaps between words and lines, fractured syntax, idiomatic phrases – though these moments are spare and carefully deployed, rather than the structure of each poem. In ‘Swiftly, in an ice mistake‘, for example, creative theology builds to a moment when:

“He withdrew

to make space in which we, remnant, contract
can trace that rivering wind from mars along your spine-bones

never mind.”

If the contemporary American poetry that headlines the collection forms a definite and steady whole, a showcase of dominant local movements, then the translations are a much broader selection, more wide-ranging and eclectic. This edition features new translations from Rilke’s ‘Windows‘ and of Du Mu’s ‘Spring, South of the Yangzi‘, alongside much less well-known poets like Italy’s Francesca Pellegrino and Vietnam’s Phan Nhiên Ho. It is thus harder to draw conclusions here about Cerise’s role and positioning, save that it is doing much-needed curation in giving space to international voices and styles, which is again particularly unusual in English language web journals. This role is particularly well-performed by excellently-designed presentation, allowing for viewing originals (in good font-sets) alongside translations.

Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry, in translation by Hai-Dang Phan, is a highlight for me here, with huge scope and breadth of feeling. Fish in a well presents a simple narrative with multiply-layered meaning:

“When we were young my cousin
caught fish and fried them
some he dropped into the well
its water muddy and shallow
he said: ‘These are the lucky ones’”

The direct description and story-telling here contrasts with the more abstract explorations of other poems, such as the witty ‘Flying a single engine airplane, fuel almost empty, and need to pee‘:

“How much longer can I keep flying
this arthritic airplane looking down at the line of people
waiting for some meat at the Temple of Literature.”

Here inward-looking speculation jars against defective machinery, the stuttering self replayed in a distinctly non-American view of technology as as unwieldy and deficient as the body of the writer.

Unfortunately, not all the translations are as well-introduced as these. While the notes on these poems and on Rilke’s are illuminating, some of the others are more preoccupied with interpreting the writing or saluting stylistic flourishes than explaining national and poetic context. When reading poetry in translation, what I find I need is an understanding of where a poet sits in their national poetics and what their particular use of native language accomplishes artistically and culturally. I found engaging with Chantal Dupuy-Dunier’s and Gleb Shulpyakov’s in particular more difficult for this reason, with the translators perhaps assuming more knowledge on the reader’s part than may be present.

Like the translations, the fictions collected are more eclectic, and also international in outlook. It is peculiarly noticeable that the authors here tend to have less luminous credits than in the poetry section, though the work is also excellent – this, along with the section’s brevity and positioning under “Essays”, leads me to assume that fiction is not Cerise’s particular speciality.

Jozefina Cutura’s  Bosnian-based stories have a simple style that nonetheless conjure distinct images of Bosnian experience. Their directness allows for rather than prevents mystery – rather than using narrative devices to construct literary puzzles, the enigma at the heart of  each is simply what makes people act as they do, as mysterious to the first-person narrator as to anyone. Jadyn DeWald’s short fictions (prose poems , perhaps?) come from an entirely different literary place – cerebral, full of stylistic verve and delight in description, while J.M. Villaverde offers a wry and delightful fable in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams. With such variety in only three authors, it would be exciting to see Cerise expand its ambition in this department.

Cerise Press’s work overall sees a more established (and better-resourced) poetry culture – one with firm roots in academia, with its benefits as well as its restrictions – moving into the online sphere. While many contemporary web journals are rooted in digitally native poetics, and driven by youthful and web-driven social currents, Cerise Press brings the work we’d more often expect to find in print journals freely to an online audience. We are lucky to have such a high quality and ambitious publication expanding the reach and abilities of the web journal medium.

‘limite désir’ by Meghan McNealy

In Pamphlets on January 9, 2013 at 8:34 am

-Reviewed by Éireann Lorsung


Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text (my version is the 1975 Miller translation), writes that “Neither culture nor its destruction is erotic; it is the seam between them, the fault, the flaw, which becomes so” and, a bit later on the same page, declares that from this distinction we might  find “a means of evaluating the works of our modernity: their value would proceed from their duplicity”.  What the erotic wants, he goes on to say, is “the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve [italics in original] which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss”. The more, here, now of linguistic presence, of text on a page or screen, of image in the mind couples with the no, not, almost of language’s breakdown. The limit of desire is also the site of bliss, and the bliss of the text is in its unfurling, its decontainment.

At the very beginning of her chapbook limite désir, in “Prologue” (whose tone and form—numbered paragraphs, a semi-biographical statement on the poems, a footnote—are didactic), Meghan McNealy offers the reader an exegesis of those titular words. The limit to which they refer, she writes, is “not the symbol of impassibility” but “a space in its own right” within which transformation takes place. Like Barthes, she sites possibility in the space of the liminal (at least for herself; she writes that she lives “in a universe where everything is real and anything is possible”—not everyone lives in such a universe). Playing with her own language, McNealy goes on to deform limite désir to l’imite désir—the imitation of desire, or, in her words, the story of desire which we imitate as we go about our own desiring. Thus we are given the two tenets of the chapbooks: the limit, and the desire we imitate and finally, ideally, improvise.

McNealy proposes that “by living in the moment with an awareness of the limits, we are able to create our own story of love, to open it and see what it really is” (an assertion Barthes would likely trouble, substituting an ongoing chain of seams and gaps for arrival at a point where all is revealed—the end of the striptease, as it were, which divorces the erotic flash from the now ‘merely naked’ person). What guarantees the ‘real’ of this story, of these tellings? McNealy points to “extreme awkwardness, anxiety, embarrassment, even destruction”. I presume that these feelings come from what McNealy identifies as “improvising our lines with intelligence and compassion—instead of reading them off of worn-out placards”; the ‘real’, then, as the moment of transformation between the established stories and the limit beyond which we cannot see but toward which we must go.

And ‘must’ is the word. The speaker here is not shy about telling us what to do and how to do it, beginning with the identification of what real is (and how it feels and how we will go about experiencing it) and continuing on through the footnote, in which she tells us that the poems are meant to be read aloud, performed—and informs us of the “subtle sarcasm” and “facial expression” which are important to her work and which “[change] everything”. We are informed that lines “in italics and quotation marks are meant to be sung” and that one of the poems “is performed with specific hand gestures and sounds accompanying it”. A glossary of the French terms used in the poems is provided. If only the prologue to these poems trusted its readers to be in the delicate space of the limit, where nothing is determined and we must struggle with the poems toward diffuse meaning! If only, that is, we were trusted as readers to read “with intelligence and compassion”.

Because we can read these poems, these spacious and intricate and complex and well-made poems, with intelligence and compassion. They demand it, in fact. It is definitely my own preference as a reader for texts which entrust themselves to me—for writers who can do the difficult work of allowing their texts to be read without preamble—which speaks above. In McNealy’s poems I have no trouble finding a concern for the liminal space whether or not I know precisely what the marks she has used signify. In the end, whether the mark is ‘—’ or ‘You’, its exact coordinates are lost between the maps of our readings, our knowings, and (yes) our desires. I will improvise, readerly.

But let me tell you what I very much enjoy about this book.

  • That the poems’ lines are unafraid: unafraid to be exorbitant (long, inclusive, evasive), as in “Rêverie-Flânerie”, where I find so much to like, and much pleasure in language as well—“We will begin again in a small room; the presence of a ghost is certain—/—she comes vivacious” and “In another moment I am in search of the train who can drag me on—/—the soot of the city just lying there” and “Ghost-drawn axis of trees along the sidewalk in front of the station—/—no I haven’t got a cigarette”. Unafraid to join on the page as in life the absent (unseen, inhuman) with the present (known, believed, ‘real’). Unafraid to ask questions (“do you feel weird?” —in “Au début, en fin”) that are not ‘poetic’. The dailyness of language perching beside the image of the flâneuse and her strolling, incorporating much. The daring of these poems’ forms, and their willingness—their desire–to allow their limits in make up for the occasional moment of laxity or lack of tension in them.
  • That in her poems McNealy wants to signify the joining of the body and the voice and the eye and the text; that the text is not lonely, but accompanied. That the body is acknowledged as part of what generates the text. (Not only by the presence of lines we are told have been written to be sung, or marks we are told stand for movement—which in any case do move on the page as well—but also by “breath”, by “tract” and “blood” [“Jetez je/tu”], by “tongues” and “jaw” and—better yet—“jawing” and the skin which is the most human of walls [“Reculer”] and singing and throbbing and being eaten [“Équinoxe”].)
  •  That there is play in the poems; that meaning and its representation are as slippery as the fish which appears in “Epilogue” out of the conjugations of three lines—“a lackluster finish: unstable/a lacquer-finish: un table/a lack of fish”.
  • The fragment “by now the birches ossify” (“Epilogue”).

Limite désir is true to its name. It goes on searching to the limits (which draw back and draw back): is this a poem? What is a poem? What is a sentence? What is my language? Where is my searching? Where am I bound? Who am I bound to? What do I love? Where is desire bounding off to now? We do not arrive (except at an ending: at which point we begin again/anew the life outside the book). We move toward the limit and are asked to reinvent as we go along.

‘Tusitala of white lies’ by Iain Britton

In Pamphlets on January 4, 2013 at 3:43 pm

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey-


I was interested in this chapbook, by a New Zealander, because of the potential of  its culturally different image-base, approach and perception, and also because the physicality of the chapbook is  satisfyingly aesthetic.

Immediately, the title arouses curiosity. What is Tusitala? It is, Google advises, both the name for a spider, and the Samoan word for a storyteller. So we have the exotic element immediately, as well as a provocative theme.

Visually, the poems are experimental, with lower case, forward slashes, spaces, etc., laid out in meandering, double-spaced lines for the most part, with the exception of the last section of the final poem. The titles attract with their strangeness: ‘extravaganza’,  ‘the last lamp post in the world’, ‘tusilala of white lies’, ‘profile of a yellow circle’, ‘spiked’, ‘glass cathedral’.

The first poem, ‘extravaganza’, introduces sunflowers that ‘reflect what has been carefully given’, and inviting the reader to do the same. The word ‘extravaganza’ is lavish and rhapsodic and conflicts with the word ‘carefully’, creating an interesting disconnect.  Part 2 of the poem introduces the narrator’s voice, who, rather than reflecting what has been carefully given, has:

‘been caught out

      demolishing petals

and spitting sap

a Morpheus finger

      pok(ing) holes in the afternoon’s somnambulating journey’

These lines increase the sense of a jarring disconnect, the violence of ‘demolishing’ and ‘spitting’ contrasting with the lulling mention of Morpheus, the somnambulating day, and I find myself wondering what effect the poet intended.  The impact is muddied further with another less clear image:

‘the earth’s curvature

      is a showcase of people peering

through red-frosted light’

The next stanza introduces ‘Hypatia’s theatre / of yellow hibiscus moons’. There’s a sense of underlying dissatisfaction or fear: ‘I risk losing a sea and all its singing companions / I risk the loss of purities’. Later: ‘I’ve been caught in the act / of being where I’m not wanted.’ Images recur, setting up the premise of motifs, and it’s up to the reader to work out their symbolism, for instance, in this repeated image of the earth as a ‘showcase’:

‘the earth’s a showcase

      in a fat man’s skin.’

Of course, we all actively seek meaning in what we read or see. We hope there is some meta-construction in the mind of the narrator, and these are not just random images haphazardly thrown on the page exquisite corpse style, to create an impression of obscure poetics.  Here we find that these often beautiful images do accumulate to suggest a morbid disillusionment with life.

In ‘The last lamp post in the world’, I am reminded of aspects of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – the pointless waste of time, the inexorable movement towards an ending, without anything having been accomplished:

‘often enough it’s a creeping


        an advanced decrepitude /

            or exposure’

the pendulum shifts:

    ‘from one foul breath to another’

We move from the lamp post, to vineyards:

‘…owned by women

        who drink the earth dry,

              dig in the carcases of their mothers,

              and their mothers’ mothers

        their fathers too’

and then the pendulum shifts again to an island where:

‘the women plump up

        in summer

        shoot botox shoot sun-tan serums

              inflate smiles’

Having set up a mood of hostility towards certain women, the  lamp post begins to gain in symbolism as it:

‘shifts its gaze – stares blindly

its back has been broken then straightened then broken

      the air

         seems artificially sweetened’

The tension of these images effectively culminates in the final stanza:

‘I feel the rain

     the wind’s nerves

          the sky chewing on a power line’

Throughout the chapbook, I am looking for the ‘white lies’ – in ‘celestial presentations’, in the ‘supermarket’s optimism’,  in ‘the room we call home’, in cradle rhymes,  in the ‘flavoured’ future, even in intimacy. But these are not clarified.

In a number of poems, the narrator appears homeless: ‘the river uses me as a thoroughfare’;  ‘I’ve come to a bed where itinerants sleep’; ‘fur coats of grass/are readily affordable/for the scrabbling hungry’ – hungry not only for food (a number of times, food parcels are mentioned, knives and forks, a table, consumption) but for spiritual nourishment:  at the font in the glass cathedral, ‘now’s the time…for the mouth to tell the truth’.

The title poem begins with a potent image of nature fighting back against the ‘white lies’ of society, of the church:’a million blackbirds / fling full stops at the horizon’. As in a kind of Prufrock, there is a series of characters. Who, the narrator asks himself, does he believe?

the lady in black feathers

      who owns and occupies a fig tree

or the slothful bugger

      who lives in the letter box


      or the toilet roll author of Kingdom Street’

The reader is also invited to consider whether to believe the narrator himself. He is, he tells us: ‘the tourist guide bus driver jesus janitor / the son reorganizing the future footprints of a family yet to cement its language in stone in grubby layers broken like old teeth’. Perhaps he is the tusitala. Perhaps there are many.

As for who the narrator will believe, he decides he prefers:

        ‘the brunette

her feather cloak

her moulting shadow              her strut’

It is escapism the narrator’s looking for, an ‘astral flight / with no strings dangling’.

The language of this poem is arresting, but non-specific and contradictory, as the narrator retreats ‘into the hood of my consciousness’ while at the same time

‘groping for the lady’s


her tightening grip – this flesh

    and blood

mix of polarities’

While the rest of the chapbook has many imagistic high spots, however, the last poem, ‘glass cathedral’ has a few ‘ouch’ moments:

‘my ribcage’s not for hire

the thistledown’s

    not there for the privilege of matting-up

my groin’

This final poem is six pages long, but the last two pages suddenly change,  from the same form as the rest of the chapbook, to a Joycean stream-of-consciousness prose. This compression might have been intended to intensify the content, but instead, it simply jars visually. The message does end on an apparent note of hope, but while the beginning of the poem instructs us to ‘tell the blackbird’ the final instruction is to ‘tell the bald eagle’.

While there is much in this chapbook that is intriguing, the overall impression, unfortunately,  is of a collage of ‘murky elaborations’ drip-fed onto the page. As a reader, I find myself struggling through these inconsistencies, sometimes tripping, sometimes falling.  Certainly there is an assertive voice here, but while I’m all for visual poetry (and many of the images do have power), ultimately, I feel I’m in a mudbath of images which blur the overall message.