Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

Above The Parapet by Alison Lock

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on September 23, 2013 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by David Sheridan-

‘Only a moment ago she had been enjoying the twist of her spoon in the syrup jar and watching the golden slick drizzle onto her waffle.’

So opens Above the Parapet, a collection of short stories from Alison Lock. It’s a telling sentence, and perhaps more so than the author intends.

Above the Parapet Alison Lock

It took me a lot of effort to get into Above the Parapet. I started reading it, which was fun, because it’s a series of evocative, emotional vignettes about a variety of (mostly) interesting characters, told with painstaking, utterly engaging attention to detail. But then I kept right on reading it, which was a mistake. Don’t get angry yet – you’ll see what I mean.

In ‘Ashes for Roses’, a woman and her brother cultivate roses for a garden show with a spectacularly passive-aggressive unspoken rivalry, while in the background, the memory of Eyjafjallajökull’s ash-cloud rises ominously. When freak weather conditions aim the debris-cloud at that same garden show, an Act of God of such startling precision and non sequitur as to more properly belong to Left Behind, we are first introduced to the surreal character of these stories.

‘The Mission’ introduces an improbably virtuous young man named Gabriel, who’s about to be let fly into the sky beneath nine hundred helium balloons. The angel imagery isn’t subtle, but then it’s not meant to be: as he descends, wings sprout from his shoulders and he flies back to the town, invigorated and empowered. The story’s bizarrely parochial idea of virtue also offers some sharp comments on English life.

These two stories ground surreal elements in the real world. That’s cool. I can get behind that. The next, ‘The Inventions of Mr. Pitikus’, tells a surreal story in a (kinda) realistic rendering of a surreal world – and within a sentence or two, Lock has established that her collection, while anchored in reality, will roam far across the multidimensional possibility-spaces of the surreal.

But that’s not Lock’s strength. She never seems sure if the dystopian surrealism is a means to an end, or the end in itself. In ‘… Mr. Pitikus’ the world itself is surreal, providing a safely pseudo-mythological backdrop for a climate-change fable. In ‘Tweed’ and ‘The Drowning’, two evocative second-person experiences, exegetic surrealism is used to illustrate the mercurial nature of memory, and it works far too well (before Above the Parapet, I’d never seen this kind of hypnagogic experience done well, and was sceptical about the possibility; Lock’s attempt is valiant, but my scepticism remains).

The strongest pieces are the purely sensory, the experiential vignettes painted in exquisite detail. ‘The Hanging Tree’, probably my favourite piece in the book, tells the last story of a hangman who, having performed his last duty, takes a short walk through a broken world before making the leap from the gallows to join his victims. This is a syrup moment, and I find myself rereading it – not, as with ‘The Drowning’, in bafflement, but because each re-reading is another spoonful on my waffle. Watch it drip, watch it gleam.

This is a good time to talk about dystopia. Lock’s blurb calls her characters’ world ‘dystopian’, but I don’t see that. Very few of her characters are happy to be living in their world, and it’s clear that something awful has happened offscreen that’s left many of her protagonists struggling in various states of post-civilised subsistence. But those various states – some, like ‘Seraph’ and ‘Erthenta’, envision vast ecological catastrophe and the collapse of civilisation, while others, like ‘Bugs’, portray a changing climate that’s little more than a nuisance – occur at different times, or in different worlds, or something. The difference is great enough to leave the reader a little adrift. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature have been so codified that it’s possible to portray them with shared reference, using very little explicit storytelling. Lock mostly tries this, but the trouble with shared-reference backgrounds is that you can’t keep changing them from story to story, then put the stories in anachronic order and expect a reader to keep ploughing on through. It’s disconcerting, and maybe that’s alright – but worse, it’s disengaging. I find myself, a life-long Asimov fan, missing his warm fireside-chat introductions. They would do this collection a world of good.

Of course, shared-reference storytelling allows an author to evoke powerful memes with a whisper – and Lock does so, repeatedly, with themes of death and heaven. Her characters’ deaths, when they come, are not always clear. Some of them just drift off, and their friends and surroundings with them, up into the sky where it’s bright and peaceful. In ‘Eggshell’, the most coherent of the several stories to feature dreamlike scenarios, a dead village presents itself as it was. The church with the crooked steeple stands as tall as it once did, and the ancestors of its present inhabitants go about their lives as if nothing ever changed for them. It’s beautiful, and when the story snaps back to the mortal realm, I don’t want it to. The same post-mortal experience occurs again and again, and these moments are some of the strongest in the entire collection.

This is Lock’s real strength: the experiential quality of her vignettes leaves a mental after-image which takes time to fade. That’s why it’s difficult, even jarring, to jump from one apocalypse to another, but it’s not a fatal flaw for the book: it just necessitates a different reading strategy. If you’re reading this book, don’t go at it one-story-after-another. Leave a gap. Read one a day, though perhaps not right before bedtime. These stories deserve the time it takes to consider them: the time it takes to watch the syrup drizzle. Give them time to digest, and when you’re hungry for more, go back without preconceptions. When you do, you’ll like what you get.


‘The Ruins’ by Danny Broderick

In Novella on September 20, 2013 at 7:43 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Published as a Kindle Single on Amazon by Dead Ink, Danny Broderick’s The Ruins is a short story whose impact primarily derives from how it subverts the reader’s expectations regarding certain storytelling genres. The narrative begins in media res as a sort of spy thriller: ‘The woman was stripping the prisoner, tying him to a chair’. Already though, little details in the language prime the reader to expect a twist somewhere. Talk of ‘Fanatics’ gives way to a focus on how the prisoner ‘stretched his muscled body against the rope’ and the sexual frisson of how ‘the hard spike of [the woman’s] heels scrap[ed] concrete as she opened [the door].’

The Ruins by Danny Broderick

The hint of BDSM at this stage of the story suggests a shift into 50 Shades of Grey territory, a genre admittedly very much in vogue at the moment, as publishers seek to capitalise on that trilogy’s mainstream success. However, Broderick’s story appears to be building up to something more complex. As the dominatrix, whose name will later be revealed as Estrella, goes to the bar to have a conversation with Paco the barman, it becomes clear that what is being played out is a very specific fantasy scenario, for which she is ‘earning good money’. Nevertheless, Estrella is also coming to terms with losing the battle against time: ‘Saw a face getting older. Recognised the skin drawn tight around cheekbones and eyes where the lines were visible’.

Although The Ruins quickly establishes Estrella up as a compelling character, the problem is that the rest of the story then essentially continues to dwell on the fantasy scenario and how it plays out, as Estrella does her job and escalates the violence against her client, climaxing in her carving her name into his skin with a blade. Granted, through the intermittent conversations that Estrella and Paco have, there are suggestions that the portrayal of the transactional relationship with the prisoner is to be interpreted as a form of social commentary:

‘“The dreams you had and the plans you made are all dead,” she told him. “Gone with the collapse of the new city you thought they were building around you. So you have only what you have and must make your life here. In these empty ruins. The world did not transform itself around you. Your bar never did miraculously relocate itself to the centre of a new world. And what do you have? The poor workers, the unemployed, the drunks and hustlers. Who you tried to move on in anticipation, who you denied entry to, and who are now back through the door.”’

At the same time, there are issues of power and control at stake here. When Paco tells Estrella, ‘Give him his victory. It’s a game’, she counters that ‘it’s more than a game’, insisting that she is no ‘whore for hire’. However, given the space of a short story, there is perhaps also too much going on, thematically speaking. (It is hard to avoid seeing the Spanish setting of the story as yet another intentional level of meaning being encoded.) This is not really intended as criticism—since The Ruins is an intriguing piece of fiction in itself—so much as an observation that Broderick’s layered storytelling might be even better served by allowing the story more breathing room, given how its internal genre shifts already successfully confound preconceived notions of how the narrative should play out.

Albion by Stephen Emmerson

In Object, Poetry on September 20, 2013 at 8:03 am

-Reviewed by Paul McMenemy

albion test 6 

Albion is the product of an artwork installed by Stephen Emmerson in Inland Studios, South London over two days in August 2012. Five typewriters were arrayed at the points of a pentagram drawn in the middle of the gallery floor, with names from the Blakean mythopoeia written in front of them. On the walls hung four “visual poems” – black and white arrangements of typewritten capitals, pencil and biro marks. A specially-written soundtrack looped in the background. On entering, participants were given printed instructions: “Please use the typewriters to help create a new poem by William Blake. // Write whatever you want.” Below this was a half-page “introduction” giving a brief, selective précis of Blake’s work and an explanation of what Albion was intended to be: “a poem-installation based on psychogeographical information and psychic and paranormal investigations that explore Blake’s complex methods of composition and mythopoetics. It is also an attempt to reconnect with the political aspects of Blake’s work.”

photo (1)

The interest of Albion, the “poem-installation”, lay in the process, not the product. This is justifiable in an installation, but problematic in a poem. Consequently, Albion, the published artefact, reproduces as much of the installation as will fit in a hardback-sized box: the reader is given the instruction-sheet, the “visual poems” and six murky photographs of the installation for reference, and is advised to listen to the soundtrack (best described as “art installation music” – a polite industrial magnolia noise of strings and typewriter clacks) on CD whilst reading. Ideally, all this should prepare a sort of spiritual static, through which the poem can break like longwave radio.

Blake’s “new poem” (as dictated to his psychic typing pool) comprises 22 loose, roughly-cut, roughly A5 sheets of homemade-looking paper, each side of which contains some typewritten text. The typewriters provide another layer of interference – as well as the games that can be played with spacing and overtyping, there are the accidental effects of ineradicable typos, worn keys, dry ribbons, etc. However, text written in 6pt grey type on grey paper needs to be worth the eyestrain. It is a commonplace that those who want to write should “just write”; anyone who has ever followed this advice will recognise its results. Albion is 44 sides of blue-sky writing, apparently unedited – there are a couple of black marker redactions, but by whom they were made, when, and if these are the only excisions is unclear. We are also not told who (apart from Blake) wrote Albion – was everyone who visited invited to contribute? Did Stephen Emmerson play any role after providing the conditions under which it could be written?


The questions arise because while Emmerson has presumably spent plenty of time thinking about Blake, psychogeography and the other things mentioned in his introduction, there is little evidence that anyone else involved in Albion’s writing has. If one is describing something, however fancifully, as a new work by Blake, one must explain in what way this is the case. Even if we accept the dubious notion that Blake would decide to disregard his writing style and most of his pre-existing symbolic idiom, why would he replace it with prose of the sort written by teenagers who have just read Ulysses and have not yet realised that stream of consciousness is a style, not a method?

There is the odd interesting underdeveloped idea, but there is only one page that engages with the remit in any detail. It begins:

“This ghost of a dead typewriter
A vision of the sun of albion
Luvah weeping by the thames
Asits chartered water pass by

“Urizen loom  loftily appo ite
Surveying the Scene, parcelling,
It up in consciouSneSS. But one
Sacred letter reSiSts hi  gaze” [sic]

It is entirely atypical of the whole. I cannot say it was definitely written by Emmerson, nor that it was written, or gestated, in advance of or after the installation (while it feels more “composed” than the rest, it also makes a feature of the typewriter’s worn lower case “s”, which suggests spontaneity), but if one compares it to the previous page, which reads in full:

“DOULTOID Said the money bank
FALLAN criclking pallour and argent
COMMEN crieo eeioldemmeraldinth and

one may see what I mean. Of course, this being a book in a box, presumably the pages can be read in any order one likes, but would it follow any better on this page:

“Hercules and diogenes walk to the cafe and order beans on toast and hash browns.
the sun makes their eyes hurt so they wish they had  unglasses









“the beans taste d lik  they had been sitin  in the fridge for weeks
absorbing the  smells of everythingaround

“hercules felt quite sick”

or the page which is a line of letters over which further letters have been typed making the whole illegible?

Typewriters might produce visually interesting results, but within the context of Albion’s conceit they present a difficulty: although ancient technology for most of Albion’s creators, they might as well be iPads for all the relevance they have to Blake. It could be argued that the physical act of imprinting ink on paper with metal provides some analogue to Blake’s practice, but it seems unlikely that the engraver would have appreciated the imprecise effects produced here. So again: what has any of this really got to do with Blake? Would this experiment have had any appreciably different outcome installed in North London in an unadorned room, the only soundtrack traffic and gallery-goers, Blake uninvoked and participants simply asked to sit down and type?

Of course, with no overarching concept to justify it, as an installation that would not have worked – which shows up the central confusion of Albion. Like This Press are attempting to sell the experience of two days last summer in a gallery in Camberwell, as so many pieces of paper. The two are different things: Albion may have worked as an installation; it does not as a poem.

Sage and Time’s 3rd Birthday 24/07/13

In Performance Poetry on September 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm

– Reviewed by Lettie McKie

sage & time 1

Why you should celebrate Sage and Time …

Three years ago I wrote a review (here) of the first time I ever when to London performance poetry event Sage and Time at the Charterhouse Bar next to Smithfield market.  Masters of the warm welcome hosts Amy Acre and Anna Le put everybody at their ease. At the time of my first visit I remember being amazed that such an open friendly atmosphere could be found in a faceless city bar and ever since I’ve been a regular open mic performer at this monthly night.

After a hiatus of three months since their last show Anna and Amy hosted Sage and Time’s 3rd Birthday with a specially extended night of open mic performances and featured slots. With a generously low £3 entry fee this night is extremely accessible and this time there was also birthday cake and whisky shots on offer!

As performance poetry veteran John Paul O’Neil pointed out on the night, anybody who can set up and sustain an event for this amount of time has done extremely well.  Through their dedication Anna and Amy have developed a poetic community, where poets can share their work, swap stories of their various attempts to get noticed and generally chat about their favourite subject into the small hours!

The hosting that makes it such a warm event …

The team were joined by fellow performance poet Richard Marsh in their hosting efforts, and together they worked (as they always do) tirelessly and efficiently to make sure everybody has a good time.

Richard Marsh hosted the first third of this evening and kicked off with his own poem celebrating performance poetry in general as well as Sage and Time in particular! The night got off to a hilarious start with Richard cajoling us into “Shaking that Assonance” and reminding us that “Spoken word by definition is not dumb, so we come”.

Constantly welcoming to newcomers the open mic (which was generously dispersed throughout the evening) included several Sage and Time ‘Virgins’ as well as more regular performers.  With approximately 20 poets performing there was an enormous mix of styles and experience levels. As a listener this eclectic hodgepodge means there is something for everybody to enjoy even though there are inevitably some poets whose work is not to your taste.

My open mic highlights …

Wizard of Skill: a passionate and heartfelt performer who has a unique perspective on pretty much everything. He combines a softly spoken delivery style with wild poetic streams of consciousness.

Richard Watkins: His considered and thought provoking poem about the human heart (asserting “the human heart is not a bone”) was a delight to listen to, taking a common metaphor and focusing in on its inadequacy explaining “the words we use to describe things are important”.  His second poem about growing apart from somebody was my favourite of the night, the line “these days we aren’t together, we’re adjacent” was particularly touching.

James Bunting: Delivered another thought-provoking poem, which was an exploration into how human life tries to understand itself. Although I felt it was slightly condescending in parts, in general I found its searching tone and imagery compelling.

Chris Kraken: Announced that he had found the perfect metaphor for love “it’s like being captured by aliens”. Although the pedant in me longed to shout out  ‘I’ll think you’ll find that’s technically a simile’, the poem itself was nicely delivered, light hearted and tongue in cheek.

Mark “Mr T” Thompson: A great performer and crowd pleaser, experienced poet Mark showed us how it is done with a hilarious poem about learning how to dance just for the fun of it, even if you’re shit!

And the special guests at this birthday party …

There were two featured slots of the night which were an absolute delight. Poet Paula Varjack, who took her show ‘The Anti Social Network’ to Edinburgh this summer and singer/songwriter Maddy Carty.

Paula is a consummate performer with charismatic stage presence. I found her poems powerful and hilarious. My favourite of her pieces was ‘His Perfect Ex-Girlfriend’ in which she described a sickeningly beautiful, intelligent and successful girl in great detail, wittily playing on her own sense of inadequacy and jealousy. Her excerpt from the Edinburgh piece was also brilliant describing the awkward moment of bumping into somebody in the street who she slept with three years before.

Singer Maddy Carty’s performance was the perfect end to the evening. Her soulful voice and down to earth lyrics were upbeat, heartfelt and charming.  She quickly developed a rapport with the audience with a chilled out style and absolutely beautiful music.

Anna and Amy rounded off the night with a performance of ‘The Thing’, an interactive poem that grows with the night incorporating lines from every performer.

Sage and Time is not an ordinary poetry event. It’s uniquely friendly with a buzzing and creative atmosphere. Roll on 3 more fantastic years!

Sage and Time‘s next event is tonight at the Charterhouse Bar at 7.30pm. Featuring the amazing poets Sophia Walker and Raymond Antrobus, we advise you to be there or … no, just be there!

Cars & Girls #FEMNOIR Sampler (ed. Evangaline Jennings & Tee Tyson)

In Short Stories on September 18, 2013 at 11:10 am

-Reviewed by Andie Berryman

Gun-toting and out for revenge, the main characters in Cars and Girls are fully fleshed out through the course of their quests for revenge, put in impossible situations caused by patriarchal constructs and shooting their way out.

cars and girls

At first glance it seems genders are flipped i.e Arnie becomes Amanda, Stallone becomes Suzy. It becomes clear that the narrative throughout is that of ‘don’t be a victim, do something about it!’. But how to achieve that in a so-called post-modern world still ruled by patriarchal institutions?

In ‘500’ by Zoe Spencer, we find ourselves riding shotgun in a sleek sports car driven by the aristocratic Emily. Emily has social capital, money and happens to be a handy shot (shooting on different country estates whilst growing up). Her father is killed by a man who wants to make her his possession and will go to extreme lengths, so Emily must first escape her gilded cage of security detail in order to get to him first. Spencer cleverly sets the main part of her story in Oxfordshire and takes us to locations that Emily wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb, such as Oxford. Emily is smart and knows that her status will allow her story to be heard by the media and police, if she gets caught it’s likely she’ll get away with it.

Holly Hellbound (‘Roadrunner’ Tee Tyson) knows her status will only bring her certain death when she wreaks her revenge, so she takes it anyway. As a white trash version of Tarantino’s The Bride from the Kill Bill series, Holly exacts her vengeance and finds redemption along the way, knowing full well it doesn’t matter to the authorities what horrific abuse triggered the bloodshed, the fact that she kills people who ‘matter’ is enough to send her to the chair. Out of the collection, Tee Tyson’s writing excited me the most, Tyson perfectly (ahem) executes the fast, furious pace of her story and had me shaking with adrenalin, as if I were riding along with Holly, putting the pedal to the metal in her Daddy’s lime green road-runner.

Daddy’s pride and joy also plays a part in a night of perfect revenge exacted in Madeline Harvey’s ‘Barracuda’, an unadulterated tale of a woman (Etta) teaching her younger sister about the art of revenge in small town America. This tale seemed simplistic at first until I realised this story was the spine that held the pages of the collection together. The main narrative running through the collection is not that of pure revenge, it is about a key feminist action: I’m standing up to this so you don’t have to. The secondary narrative is that of the love interests (or as the writings go, fuck interests), the male love interests are considered briefly, used and then cast aside as women portrayed as love interests in action films generally are. The women lead characters are leads in every sense, they know what they want and get what they want.

The final story in the collection, ‘Crown Victoria’ by Evangeline Jennings, delivers a wonderful twist surpassing anything the film The Sixth Sense and its ilk could deliver. Once again we are out for revenge, this time in a decommissioned American police car circumnavigating the Southern states in America. This story completely emphasises the tedium of the double-checking women face in real life, the removal of possibilities of violence, the back-up plans and the constant communication check-ins. This story is cleverly placed as it teaches the reader (by the end) never to settle in a familiar fictional routine.

Writing portrayed as post-modernist is supposed be be knowing, you’re supposed to know what happens at the end as soon as you read the first chapter. What this collection does is spell out what the oxymoron of Post-feminism is, and indeed the button badge ‘I’ll be a Post Feminist in a post patriarchal society’ seems apt. I’m going to dispense with any more academic phrasing and simply say, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, I loved that the characters got their revenge, I love how the lead characters (less one) got a happy ending. I heard there’s a new Cars & Girls Vol 2 out soon; my first thought was ‘Shut up and take my money!’.

‘Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës’ (ed. A. J. Ashworth)

In anthology, Poetry, Short Stories on September 17, 2013 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

A.J.Ashworth, the editor of Red Room – a collection of short stories (and a poem) ‘all inspired by the Brontës, their lives, their work’ – writes in her introduction to the collection that ‘[t]he Brontës fascinate us’. There is no doubt this is the case, despite the passage of over a hundred and fifty years since the death of Charlotte, the last Brontë sister. Such continued adoration was recently evidenced by a story in the Telegraph, concerning the sale of a Charlotte Brontë letter, written to an admirer of Jane Eyre, which fetched around £24,000. It was with interest, then, and a shared love of some Brontë texts, that I approached Red Room, a collection of stories ‘written by some of the best short story writers in Britain today’.

Red Room Bronte

A percentage of the sales of the anthology will raise funds for The Brontë Birthplace Trust in Thornton. Trustees and readers will not be disappointed by their efforts. This is a marvellous little book; the stories themselves only take up about 120 pages, but they are brilliant evocations of the Brontë novels, poems, or scenes from their lives. The book contains a useful list of biographies at the end and – cleverly included by the editor – a collection of notes recording the inspiration behind the stories, helping the reader understand how each writer came to construct their story, and the Brontë novel/poem/experience that they took as their springboard.

A couple of the writers in the collection I was familiar with – Man Booker-shortlisted Alison Moore and Saboteur-nominated Tania Hershman. Moore’s story, ‘Stonecrop’ takes its inspiration from a line in Wuthering Heights, and portrays a timid, dominated young girl who turns out to be not so innocent or naïve after all. Hershman’s story, ‘A Shower of Curates’, takes the first lines of all the Brontë novels to create a mid-Victorian remembrance; that is, a kind of diary entry written by a nameless male. A fun exercise for the reader would be to go back to the Brontë novels and see where Hershman used the first lines and how they inspired her.

David Constantine’s ‘Ashton and Elaine’ is a hauntingly brilliant piece of writing, one of the best stories I have read this year. His intention had been to provide ‘a sort of utopian answering back against [the] cruelty’. He is achingly effective in depicting a damaged, broken child in Ashton, who had been hurt by people unknown to the extent that he ‘shook as though under the skin he was packed with raddling ice’. Mute though not uncommunicative, Ashton is sent to a children’s home, standing on the moors in a ‘scoop of frozen stillness’, in order to recover. Surrounded by snow and ice, he does not see desolation or isolation in the moors; instead, the snowfall opens up chinks in his silent defence – ‘nothing very concrete or easily describable, more like a shift of light over a surface of ice, snow or water.’ The rugged landscape of the moors emblemised the passionate relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights; in ‘Ashton and Elaine’, Constantine teases out the nurturing, less violent benefits of the moors. Ashton’s slowly developing relationship with Elaine and her family is handled tenderly, never mawkishly, even during the very moving scene when Ashton finally speaks. This is a lovely story, containing passages that I returned to and read again because of their understated beauty.

Equally powerful is Sarah Dobbs’ ‘Behind all the Closed Doors’, which ‘was written as an attempt to understand the grief that goes with losing a parent at such a young age.’ Dobbs doesn’t specify which – if any – Brontë novel or poem she singles out for inspiration, but the impact of her story loses none of its resonance for that. Through gradual hints and suggestions, we learn that young Henry’s mother has died. Random adults care for him, an uncle who ‘looks a bit like Dad. If Dad’s features had been smudged away like the numbers on the board’. Henry’s life has disintegrated. He goes to sleep dressed in his school uniform. In a powerful reflection of the family’s now-shattered life, he cuts his mother’s favourite book – presumably Wuthering Heights – to pieces. Although riddled with grief, the story has comic passages (said uncle, mashing eggs in the kitchen smells of ‘poo and pepper’), and captures the probing, inquisitive nature of a child’s bereavement.

Felicity Skelton’s imagining of an amorous meeting between Charlotte Brontë and Napoleon is also well written (‘The Curate’s Wife – A Fantasy’); Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘Emily B’ is disarmingly subtle yet powerful with its portrait of the Brontë sister. A gorgeous opening: ‘Too much rain/in the blood. Too much/cloud in the lungs.’

If I were a Trustee of The Brontë Birthplace Trust, I would be proud to have Red Room as a means of raising funds. This is a fantastic collection of stories, a real treat for all Brontë-lovers and for those who simply love a good read.

We Don’t Stop Here (ed. by Ivy Alvarez)

In anthology on September 17, 2013 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by Holly Jazz Kotzé


Reading a poetry pamphlet based on Mulholland Drive is a bit like having a dream about a dream that someone else once had that told you about it in another dream you once had before.

As a fan of the film and of David Lynch myself, I found that reading this pamphlet brought about a constant flow of triggered reminders, snap shots of memory of a film that I love and characters and scenes that I felt like I knew long ago. “The opening poem ‘Go Somewhere With Me’ by Collin Kelley gives us the beginning and the end all at once in the first lines with:

‘I’d follow you until I split into,
two smiles in my good girl purse,’

Later in the same poem the Club Silencio scene is recast to sum up perfectly the moment when everything changes while still bringing you back to the haunting atmosphere of that song:

‘so the night you take me clubbing
at 2am and the seizures come,
shocking me out of this reverie,
that you will never love me,
will leave me… llorando…’

And it’s nice that throughout this pamphlet there’s focus on characters outside of the main storyline such as the director and that scene where he comes back to find his wife in bed with someone else and his revenge is to pour paint into her jewellery box . The poems are playful and thankfully free of pretension. As a piece of fandom it’s spirited and brimming with detail, especially seen in Emilie Zoey Baker’s numbered ‘No Hay Banda. There Is No Band’, which charts our way from beginning to end of the film and had me smiling all the way through:

‘4. Black slides out of his mouth.

6. He swings into Mulholland Drive, his wife is
covered in ripples but the pool is as still as a skull.
Her jewellery turns strawberry milk pink.

10. Night winds blow the lovers and they
land in red velvet. Everything is a recording.

8. The audition.
There was so much breath in the room it
would relax an asthmatic.’

‘Lip Synching’ by Juliet Cook is playful in its form and rhythm and dances around the lip synching theme which is a nod to the ‘This Is The Girl’ singing audition scene in the film.  The lines change around in each stanza, until the reality has shifted to something else entirely.

‘This is the girl

with the shimmering blue box
so blue and cold and gloomy
with her sequins shimmied off
so blue and hot and doomy
with her shape-shifting mirage
another screen test another dream
desperate suckling of key-shaped pricks


so blue and hot and doomy
with her cream beginning to clot
with geriatric insects floating to the top
they clink her limbs sting her sickly sweet
girl-on-girl mirage   balloon the jitters
the cryptic jitterbug contest dream
in which her fingers spread   her blue nails shed
like dead sequins in a key-shaped can
in another indiscreet screen test
desperate suckling of the metal rim’
Karen Head takes a slightly different approach in her poem ‘Amnesia’. Instead of referring directly to the film she talks about the experience of watching the film in a cinema with older ladies tutting at the lesbian scenes. The image of watching this film at the cinema is itself a little play on the theme of people playing characters and she gets nicely meta as she refers to the actors themselves as she writes:

‘In the movies,
everything is illusion.
Watts and Haring play
Betty and Rita, are Diane and Camilla,
and in reality we can be
anyone we want –’

The theme of illusion and dreams is fervent throughout but I cannot stress enough how jam-packed this little pamphlet is with everything in between these dreams too. Every line is like a strobe that throws light on a scene you’d forgotten about, but that’s not to say that these poems don’t stand up on their own merit. It’s hard to tell what someone who has not seen the film would make of these poems, I’m quite sure a lot would just go over the head but like the film itself, you don’t necessarily have to understand what’s going on (indeed it took me about 4 viewings to understand the twist) to appreciate the imagery and humour and tension. The film aside, parts of the last poem ‘Untitled’ by Esther Johnson stand up alone:

‘Without the blinking light
Perhaps then things would be mundane
But which is more terrifying?

Roy Orbison for the end of a dream
Just one way your heart can break
How many is too many?’


Deep River Apartments, ed. by Ivy Alvarez

In anthology on September 16, 2013 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by John Canfield


Having already published chapbook anthologies tackling Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, The Private Press have now delved further back into David Lynch’s oeuvre to his 1986 noir thriller Blue Velvet (what’s the statute of limitations on spoiler warnings, by the way?). As Alvarez says in her introduction “It is not easy to leave a mystery alone”, which neatly explains why Lynch’s film has endured for so long, with its enigmatic mixture of black humour, Lynchian surrealism, strikingly grisly imagery and quotability. This also makes it a pretty ripe subject for poetry.

The eight poets involved have come at the film in a variety of ways. Shann Palmer’s opener ‘In five minutes’ uses only dialogue from the film, but with a brevity and subtle employment of rhyme that make for an arresting opening. J.L. Thompson and Dionisio Velasco both tackle the scene of Jeffrey as voyeur, hiding in Dorothy Vallens’s closet (within the titular Deep River Apartments). Thompson takes a straightforward descriptive approach, but Velasco writes from the first person and mirrors the film in making us complicit in the act: “Dark shadow/slats line my face. O/to get an eye full/of you, baby”, going on to subtly conjure up the erotic and illicit thrill from what is witnessed.

Later, back in the same room, Elaine Borthwick’s ‘Bullet from a Gun’ focuses in on the grisly fate of the Yellow Man and his gravity defying post-mortem posture: “The miracle is I’m still standing, fuckers!” It’s brief, but succinctly conjures the bizarre horror of the scene as we hear the “disembodied voices” from the police radio in the dead man’s jacket.

The image that is perhaps most often associated with the film, is that of the ant covered ear Jeffrey finds in the grass, and it’s unsurprisingly referenced by a number of the poets. In her second contribution, J.L. Thompson again opts for a more straightforward, but strikingly descriptive approach in ‘A Decidedly Undomesticated Appendage’, as it crouches “crablike and belligerent…a turncoat clad in mold”. Sam Rasnake approaches and investigates the ear in A Fable, but with a keen sense of the subtext of the image as he shows us: “a single ear lost in a field,/unable to translate the ants/marching through”, observing that this ear is no longer able to hear the “screams/of desire from the dark/throttle of bodies”. It’s an evocative poem that impressively manages to encompass the themes of the film in an economical 14 lines, and as the chapbook’s closing poem, makes for a strong finale.

Jennie Cole’s ‘An Ear for Music’ also makes reference to the stray lobe, but uses it more as a springboard to explore fragments of image and dialogue from the film. This is the chapbook’s most stylistically fractured poem, elliptical and heavily tabulated and not overly concerned with a comprehensible narrative. In this sense you could argue it is the closest in tone to the film itself, throwing in seeming non sequiturs, refrains, things that almost make sense but don’t really, back stories never fully filled in. Appearing mid-way it provides a pleasing tonal and stylistic shift and it takes in a much broader view of the film as a whole.

Another poem that takes more of an overview is Angela Readman’s ‘After the Robins’, starting with the film’s conclusion: “We’ll end it there, with birdsong at a window,/opening bone envelopes that can only hold love” then widening out to an interrogation of Jeffrey and Sandy’s bizarre courtship throughout the film. The poem’s strength is in its ability to conjure up Lynch’s imagery of the “fences painted porcelain white” then to puncture that picture of suburban perfection with the darkness that lurks behind and beneath it: “Because all it could take is an oldie between stations,/to snip the neat seams of our street, hand me back/naked to a brunette asking ‘if I was a bad man, who wanted/to do bad things?’” Readman then returns to that concluding image, but using it, as Lynch does, to unsettle us: “But we’ll just end it there, with a robin at our window,/say nothing of beetles spilling blackly from its beak”.

The ear crops up once more in Kirsten Irving’s standout poem ‘Suave Ben’s Panic Box’, this time extrapolating on how it came to become detached: “Clean off/with Frank’s blade, the bound man/screaming like a she-cat”. Irving’s approach is to fill in the potential back story of Dean Stockwell’s enigmatic cameo as Suave Ben. Surprisingly, it’s the one poem in the book that really touches on the horror that is Frank Booth and the fear he provokes in those around him. Irving speculates how Ben might truly feel whenever Booth decides to visit: “You do not flinch. As gassed as he always is,/at the first sniff of fear or dissent,/Frank is a trapdoor spider”.

Irving’s confident language puts us, trembling, into Suave Ben’s position and gives us a glimpse into the inner life of those caught up in this psychotic whirlwind. In Frank’s absence: “Ben screams, snots and cries/into the soft lining” but, as survival dictates, upon his arrival: “the deathmask back on,/he obediently boots a dying man in the groin”.

Irving leaves us with the final queasy image of Ben “miming Orbison’s In Dreams/swaying with clownish sorrow/as Frank claps, listens like a child,/tears running freely down his face” highlighting the contradictions within them both. It’s a strange world, indeed, and just as Lynch does, Irving puts us right in the centre of it, horrified, but unable to look away.

For any poetry loving David Lynch fans – and I’m guessing that particular Venn crossover section is reasonably well populated – this is a smartly produced chapbook that pleasingly compliments the film, but also stands confidently on its own and gives us an opportunity to glide through this disconcerting world from a number of different perspectives. Can we have Eraserhead, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway now, please?

‘London Lies’ (ed. Cherry Potts & Katy Darby)

In anthology, Short Stories on September 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm

-Reviewed by Claudia Haberberg-

The Liars’ League is a monthly live literature night held in central London, where actors read stories that have been written for the event. I specify this for those who, like me, are not particularly hip to the live literature scene. London Lies is a collection of stories by nineteen authors who have been showcased in the event’s six-year lifespan, and pays homage to the city where it has made its home.

London Lies Arachne Press

There is a lot to be done with a theme of ‘London‘, even for those authors who do not live here. As someone who was born and brought up in London, and has lived there for the best part of 26 years, it would have been easy to take it somewhat personally if this collection had in any way failed to deliver. Luckily, this is one of the most enjoyable story collections I’ve had the pleasure of reading in several years.

It is clear that the Liars’ League is a select group. Each piece, lasting only a few pages, boasts a completeness that only an accomplished writer can achieve. The breadth of styles, settings and subject matter is excellent. We have repeat viewings of the same film; we have a ‘two blokes in a pub’ story gone horrifically wrong; we have a football riot and a street party of two; we have an apocalypse scenario and a mysterious plague. Many writers have published more than one story in this same book, and they are skilfully arranged – and written – so that we are never given a chance to tire of one person’s voice.

In some ways, the consistently high quality of London Lies makes it difficult to review. Every time I have sat down to start writing, I’ve wanted to highlight different stories. I will, however, begin with a constant favourite: as a lover of fairytales, I particularly enjoyed Emily Cleaver’s ‘The Frog’, a 21st century re-imagining of the story of the Frog Prince. It is, by turns, disturbing and sad, bringing some of the realities of modern dating into harsh relief. Several stories in this anthology are about romance and dating, but this was by far my favourite – like London, it is older than the hills at the same time as being new.

Those stories that are either faintly surreal, or introduce an element of the bizarre to an otherwise regular situation, are the ones that have stayed with me most easily. ‘The Escape’ (Cleaver again), in which an ordinary London market is introduced to the bull chases of Seville by a strange and ill-conceived prank, is one of the more memorable. ‘Rat’ (Liam Hogan), a story about talking rats, reminded me of nothing so much as Terry Pratchett, but the concept of every Londoner having a rat familiar was sweet and the twist in the tale was very well presented.

This is not to say that the more realistic stories are less impressive. There was something sweetly convincing about the idea of riot police turning up to a street party held in the rain (‘O Happy Day’, David Bausor); something thrilling about Simon Hodgson’s ‘Thieves We Were’, a story of Irish gangsters in the 1930s; and something horribly compelling and familiar about David Mildon’s ‘Red’, in which children of football fans are taunted simply for cheering for the ‘wrong’ team. This last, in particular, shows how unfriendly and forbidding this city can be to those who’ve come from outside. This story was immediate, well-paced, and left plenty of food for thought.

If someone asked me to define London, I would unhesitatingly point to the ethnic and cultural diversity of its population. One of the things I love most about my city is that people from all over the world, and from across the spectrum of gender and sexuality, rub shoulders together on a daily basis. If anything is missing from London Lies, it is a firm sense of that diversity. The love stories appear to focus on heterosexual couples, and any characters from minority ethnic backgrounds tend to be incidental. I would love to see a little more of the richness of London’s people in future anthologies from the Liars’ League.

[Ed: Review edited to credit David Bausor for ‘O Happy Day’]

‘Mammal’ by Jared Joseph

In Pamphlets, Poetry on September 11, 2013 at 9:58 am

 -Reviewed by Rosie Breese


Jared Joseph’s collection Mammal begins with a wall of sound – a riotous rattling-off of terms from the animal, human, and physical worlds; a litany that mixes all three into a kind of primordial soup laid thick over the page. It’s insistent, persistent. There’s no scanning, no skipping. There are rhythmic patterns of substitution and conflation, the animal for the human, the physical for the animal, and all permutations in between:

‘Animal-drowning noise, give me animal falling from sky, wax instead of wings,   glue-char instead of wax, hoof of horse instead of burnt, burnt umbra instead of half of anything …’

And there’s the recitation of a kind of idiosyncratic etymological genealogy:

‘like Christian comes from Christ, like Lazarus comes from rest, from lessness, like Islam comes from is lamb, like lamp comes from oil comes from holy-lubed revealed word, like the shower curtain…’

Here, we see what’s to come in the rest of the collection: the physical/animal world is brought up against the world of human concepts with a wonderful, boundless freedom – sonic links substitute for semantic ones, the visual for the conceptual.

The wall of sound soon gives way to a series of sections, each taking a different animal as a starting point, musing on its physicality, riffing outwards from the animal to the human, to the world of objects and back again, inhabiting all and collapsing the distances between them. The poems, or sections of the wider poem that is Mammal, seem to be drawn endlessly forward through a sheer joy in sound association, as demonstrated here, in the section beginning ‘Now I am a mule’:

‘We’re hot to trot on rasping coughs
The floor is hot.
The limestone floor is hot to trot.
The sock hop is an out of body experience’

There is a jangling percussiveness to this writing, as hypnotic as listening to a drummer jamming. There are lines that surprise, there are unexpected fills. There is something transcendent about the frenzied rhythms and repetitions and the hypnotic quality of these, together with the evocation and inhabitation of animal bodies and voices. A shamanic dance would be an apt way to describe it. It is indeed an ‘out of body experience’.

As such, these poems could be seen as places of metaphysical enquiry and contemplation, the themes of birth, sex and death frequently surfacing through their twists, turns and rhythms:

‘Cheryl’s death is all about.
The end line lies about the table with vermouth
the table is sopping with vermouth
the end is vermouth
drink death down the gullet!
death to vermouth’

These moments of physical transformation are ever-present, and the objects and sounds that surround them are repeated almost obsessively, mutated, turned this way and that, and incorporated into sonic-semantic fantasias that draw you in through curiosity and a desire to link theme with object with being. You’re then yanked through a set of steps so unexpected that you forget what you started with and realise that perhaps you’re just there to join the dance, along for a jolting and magnificent ride and that that is a joy in itself.

Even so, this constant riffing makes space for some wonderful moments of quiet drama:

‘..just load a gun & love
like a crushed bird too tired’

‘I’m son.
I’ve laid with everyone.
I’ve been the light weighed on their skin.’

And then there’s the moment something dazzles and distracts the drummer, who gets stuck beating a shining cymbal:

diamonds diamonds
diamonds diamonds diamonds’

There are a zillion other treasures within this collection; enough for me to bang on for several more pages, but I want to leave some for you to discover for yourself when you go and download it and spend some good, long afternoons in its gloriously unpredictable company. It’s free, by the way.

The one thing that could be improved upon (and I’m really nitpicking here, but if you’re shallow like me, you do indeed judge a book by its cover) is the look of the physical copy that came bounding through my letterbox. The shiny black cover, the vaguely bondagey artwork and the translucent paper all combine to give this collection the look of something less professional than it is. That said, it *is* primarily available as an ebook, so who the hell cares. It’s what’s inside that matters, right? And what’s inside is really, truly exciting.

Jared Joseph’s irreverently dazzling collection forms part of 79 Rat Press’s  ‘NOTHING TO SAY’ series, which showcases the work of six uniquely inventive writers. 79 Rat Press is a publisher of conceptual ebooks, established, as their website states, with the worthy intention of ‘creating moments in contemporary literature that bring an awareness of the glorious, spectacular possibilities of words’. This is something that this collection achieves in showstopping style. I certainly look forward to reading more from this series.


Mammal is available to download for free at along with 5 other collections by Paul Askew, Sian S. Rathore, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Emily Harrison and Andy Harrod.