Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Happenstance Press’

‘Close’ by Theresa Muñoz

In Pamphlets on June 19, 2012 at 9:32 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

As the title of Theresa Muñoz’s chapbook suggests, these are poems that have ‘been felt’ as Elaine Feinstein puts it. The poetry in Theresa Muñoz’s début chapbook has an almost haiku-like clarity, accessible and delicate, full of the imagery of early love: ‘the old rain glowing in the street’; ‘your hand on my back/the din of others round us’; ‘You, in winter//hatless, stepping/backwards’.

Muñoz’s opening poem establishes her voice immediately – ‘Zoo’ is a confessional piece about an afternoon spent apart from her lover, he to go to a gallery, she to a zoo, where for €17, she sees ‘drowsy creatures// yawning hippos/bowed flamingos/and jungle cats curled//in their wire enclosures.’  It’s only later, when she sees ‘you standing/beyond the exit’s/turnstiles’ that she feels ‘freed, the instant/we spot/each other.’

And yet, in many of these subtle, small moments, something else happens too, a reflection, a memory, a glimpse of a different aspect of the relationship.  In ‘Fight’:

‘judging
by the sounds
in the kitchen

you’re building a sandwich
and thinking,
what a mess

you and I
are making
living together’

The simple omission of the word ‘of’ in the last line changes the meaning, while the title creates the implication anyway. The parallel of ‘you’ downstairs and the speaker upstairs ‘under the covers’ symbolically reveals the rift between the two, his noisy action in the kitchen, while she lies curled up in bed, thinking ‘how things could be/if we didn’t know/each other’.

Muñoz favours two- or three-line stanzas, and there is the sense of each being a fleeting thought/image/emotion. A pumpkin becomes a metaphor: ‘who couldn’t love/a fat orange ball/its innocent plumpness?’ she writes, and then later: ‘who pushed a knife into its face,/carved features of hate?’ There’s also a Japanese wishing tree, ‘white slips tied/to a thin branch’, but later: ‘just/what you wished for/you might not get’. There’s a poignancy, a sort of innocence, with perhaps subconscious allusions to a children’s story: ‘am I or am I not/falling out of the sky?’ (Travelling).

Winter is the season of the poems early in the chapbook, and there are mirrored moments, first in the way ‘you’ ‘gaze at the spotted gray sky’ (‘You, in winter’) and then ‘I stop at the top/looking down/at the cold blue lights’ (December). The different angles (up, and down) of these observations evocatively suggest differing states of mind. As a Spanish-Filipino originally from Canada,  now living in Scotland, Muñoz is also displaced, and sometimes longs for the familiarity of home: ‘something about the early dark…takes me home,/warm waking/in a red-roofed house’ (December).

While there is a spontaneous, stream of consciousness atmosphere to these poem-fragments, echoes resonate throughout, adding depth. The image of ‘stepping backwards’ in ‘You, in winter’ is repeated later in ‘Hard to know’: ‘the sky clear for the first time that day/and both of us riding/backwards into it’ – only now there is the suggestion of an ending, not the beginning, of a relationship.

There are also moments of charm and magic, as, for example in Skin:

Nice tan said a man
leaning outside
The Captain’s Rest.
Thanks I said
and kept on running’

The contemporary world of regulations is also well evoked, and underneath the apparently matter-of-fact tone of acceptance, a silent protest can be felt in the last lines:  ‘rental agreements     bank statements/ the cat’s adoption certificate’(‘Settlement’); and ‘at security/I shrug off my jacket/pull off my shoes/pad through the frame//avoiding the face/of the woman whose hands/slide down my chest’ (Travelling).

There’s a painterly impressionism here, of landscape, climate, intimacy, and although none stands out as a key poem, the whole is gossamer-like, tender, sad. The title of the chapbook, Close, with its potential for a secondary meaning, is poignant and apt. It is in the accumulative effect of this chapbook that Muñoz communicates her internal world, her fragile and migrant soul.

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‘Spinning Plates’ by Richie McCaffery

In Pamphlets on June 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Richie McCaffery’s Happenstance Press pamphlet, Spinning Plates, is a collection of layers, interweaving birth and death, each of them with an arresting element. There are miraculous survivals, such as his own mother’s, abandoned as a baby on a doorstep, ‘tiny lungs like strawberries / full of pneumonia. ‘ There’s the late admiral, which miraculously hatches in a pub, ‘in darkest winter’. One poem builds on another, to create a fascinating portrayal of a mother, a family, a dynasty, a legacy. As the title suggests, there is also a familiarity with ceramics, and the poems are rich with visual and tactile imagery of domesticity: cups, plates, mosaics, bowls, vases, spoons. In this collection, the speaker asks questions. ‘Some are pointless / as wasps and the pain they give. / Others will take you many lungs / to satisfy the depth required’ we are told in the opening poem, ‘The professional’. ‘Lungs’, or an association with lungs, is a motif: ‘He has six months of breath left’ (‘Ash’).

The poems delve into secrets and hidden things: the discovered underground copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with an inscription ‘To Renée, my sweet’ from Sid in Dunkirk: ‘All that way in a kitbag, / through panzers and snipers. / Bullets hitting the water / like kingfishers’.  The unexpected, paradoxical beauty of this last image is one of McCaffery’s trademark characteristics. In another poem, ‘Arrival’, he similarly associates death imagery with something beautiful: his mother, ‘left out like a parcel / on a stranger’s doorstep…her lips sapphire blue’. Another poem, titled ‘Mother’ is full of startling imagery, and I feel the impulse to quote it in full here:

An orphan, sixteen, with T-Rex pin badges
and homemade flares, she wades
to her bare waist in long wet grass.
A fallow graveyard of spent Victorian grief,
Broken pillars, pink obelisks, Kestrel cans.

As her chipped blue finger nail traces
the golden genealogies, the baby
gives a sharp Geoff Hurst kick.
The anthology of wild flowers in her hand
won’t go round all this standing granite.

So much is going on here. The poem veers towards sentimentality with the opening word, ‘an orphan’, but circumvents it with the immediate follow-up of the ‘T-Rex pin badges’ which instantly gives her an insouciant air. The erotic image of her in the long grass, the detail of the chipped nail, the Geoff Hurst kick make the reader smile, only to feel, a moment later, the poignancy of the last two lines. There is approaching birth, contrasted with all the death in the graveyard. The ‘blue’ of her fingernails echoes the blue of her lips in the previous poem, where she was near death as a baby herself.

In a subsequent poem, he describes his mother as being ‘mad as mercury / mad as a silken Disraeli stovepipe hat / hiding a gypsum-white rabbit’. Again, the reader is smiling – just before the next stanza, which describes her previous miscarriages. Again side-stepping mawkishness, these are described as ‘seminal drafts’, and there follows, in the title poem, a beautiful simile / metaphor:

She said being pregnant
was like spinning a bone-china plate
on the thinnest stick inside you –

breakages were bound to occur.
It was a question of which piece
could drop intact and roll around

on a hardwood floor, its rim ringing
with cries.

There’s a strong sense of lineage, of legacy, of roots and bones, as well as the joy of birth. In ‘Ivories’, ‘He’s is as old as one new ring, / another inch in a tree trunk’s waist’.

As well as disclosures of one sort of another, there are revelations on the ‘tabula rasa’ of a blackboard: ‘the truths so far about God and arithmetic / with the expungible white of fossil shells’.  The interesting word here is ‘expungible’, as though certain information must be gleaned quickly, or lost forever, with the swipe of a duster. Luckily for us, Richie McCaffery is a collector of gems, which he shares with us. A wonderful, original new voice.

Poetry Pamphlets: A 2011 Top Ten

In Seasonal/End of year on December 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm

-Assembled by Claire Trevien

Pamphlets make the perfect Christmas present or stocking filler. For one, they’re usually gorgeously produced objects, for another there’s something manageable and enticing about their small size. So, if you’re trying to convert a loved one to poetry, you could do worse than spring one of these chapbooks on them. This list is a mixture of favourite pamphlets reviewed on Sabotage, suggestions from others after issuing a call-out on twitter and facebook (democracy in action!) and my own subjective taste. You will find below pamphlets for wrestlers and nature-lovers, for burlesque dancers and do-gooders, for neuroscientists and performers, something for everyone then.

In no particular order:

  1. Megan Fernandes, Organ Speech, Corrupt Press. This ‘unnervingly good’ debut pamphlet is the perfect present for those dragons who ‘read / they were dinosaurs and became / conservative’. Technically rigorous stuff that handles neuroscience with learned ease and is still generous enough to let you in. Read the review here.
  2. Jon Mitchell, March and After: poems from Tsunami Country, Printed Matter Press. Christmas is all about giving, so what could be better than to offer a limited-edition pamphlet with proceeds going towards Peace Boat operations in Tohoku?
  3. Emily Hasler, Natural Histories, Tim Cockburn, Appearances in the Bentick Hotel, and Mark Burnhope, The Snowboy, all from the Salt Modern Voices pamphlet series. A special mention goes out to JT Welsch’s Orchids and Amy De’Ath’s Eric & Enide whose pamphlets, published in December of last year, narrowly miss out from the narrow criteria of a year-by-year list, but are also excellent. The whole series is worth investigating and I am cheating a little by mentioning so many as a single offering but this is in part because they look wonderful together (as well as separately).
  4. Sarah Dawson, Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals . For those people out there who can only read on their Kindle, Dawson’s short collection is the perfect present. Created especially for electronic consumption, the usual hindrances of reading poetry on a screen are avoided.
  5. Angus Sinclair, Another Use of Canvas, Gatehouse Press. Who said poetry can’t be butch? When the world of wrestling and poetry combine, the reader is treated to a glimpse into a new exciting world. Read the review here.
  6. Deborah Tyler-Bennett , Mytton…Dyer…Sweet Billy Gibson, Nine Arches Press. Nine Arches produce beautiful pamphlets too and the content of this one, with its larger than life personalities, is sure to be the perfect present. Hand it out, read it out loud and enjoy.
  7. Luke Kennard, Planet-Shaped HorseNine Arches Press. Many have tried to imitate Kennard’s wonderful mixture of absurdist, acerbic wit and seeming off-handedness, but very few have succeeded (a trend that’s perhaps worse than Bukowski imitations). This poem-play is a gift you should give at all times of the year. Read the review here.
  8. Kirsten Irving, What To Do, Happenstance Press. Irving needs no introduction to regular readers of Sabotage, we loved her numerous collaborative projects with Jon Stone, while this pamphlet got an excellent review from Chris Emslie here. Buy this while stocks still last because Irving is a poet to watch.
  9. James McGonigal, Cloud Pibroch, Mariscat Press. McGonigal’s pamphlet was the winner of the Michael Marks award and was also a PBS choice. Don’t let the accolades put you off, this pamphlet is a quietly impressive work that’ll make you look at nature afresh. Read the review here.
  10. Wayne Holloway-Smith, Beloved in Case You’ve Been Wondering, Donut Press. If aesthetics are your primary concerns then Donut Press should be one of your first points of call – they make thick, well-crafted objects with beautifully designed covers. Holloway-Smith’s is no exception, but the content is decadently wonderful too. Holloway-Smith gives us a world full of masks, sleeze and burlesque dancers, but of strange beauty too. It must sound like someone you know, give it to them.

A Pamphlet that I Have Not Read but Which I Am Told is Excellent

I have not read Roisin Tierney, Dream Endings (Rack Press) but it has been nominated several times so I put it forward as a Wild Card Bonus. According to the internet, it begins with the poet’s dying sister and ends with an exuberant funeral. Having read Tierney’s poetry in The Art of Wiring I can only expect this pamphlet to be an excellent & well-crafted pamphlet.

‘From There To Here’ by Michael Mackmin

In Pamphlets on July 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm

-Reviewed by Chris Emslie

The poems in this pamphlet are presented in the style of a gallery of paintings. From There To Here might best be characterised as a series of landscapes, interrupted by the odd portrait or sketch, but all bearing Mackmin’s distinct signature. There is a vividness to these poems that almost begs to be made visible, to manifest itself before the reader. This quality emerges from Mackmin’s clear awareness of poetic tradition and his own place within it – from a critical perspective, this pamphlet makes its own context.

The scenes Mackmin presents become increasingly varied. The opening poem, ‘Here’, is reassuringly bucolic, easing the reader in with a solid lyrical charm: “[…]clumps / of darker, large-leaved green where / squashes grow, swell yellow into / orange.” This is offset by a irreverent four-line epithet that establishes the poem in classical terms with a wry self-awareness. This flirtation with the classics recurs a few times in From There To Here, generally accompanied by the same wicked humour. In ‘Her father’, the titular character merrily quotes “Facilis / descensus Averno” on the stairs, joking as he approaches the entrance to a metaphorical underworld. In ‘The watchers’ and ‘Here’, parenthetical references to “Philomel” and “Cincinnatus (remember him?)” are made offhand, in a manner that could almost be called cheeky. Mackmin gets away with it, however: his wry use of allusion addresses the de-privileging of academia quite neatly.

There is an engagement with heavier concerns here, too. ‘Things fall apart’ has a dystopian chill which is borne out by contrasting images of “stickers—hearts / and fairies, stars” and a “pick-up truck […] full of the naked dead”. These images, bleak though they may be, are executed cleverly – the reader is stricken immediately by the mirroring of ‘a long arm’ and a ‘long gun’ at either end of the poem. ‘The trap’ internalises the darkness glimpsed in ‘Things fall apart’, painting the “heart trap” into a vista of “rot-choked fields […] ploughed clean at a whisper.” These lines (instantly conjuring the “clean rasping sound’ of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’) tint the pastoral scenery with an intoxicated blend of love and frustration.

What stands out about Mackmin’s poetry is that it is self-aware without resorting to brashness or self-pastiche. Few contemporary poets have the confidence to address the fabled “Ms Muse” directly and retain credibility. The muse in ‘The word’ is characterised as both demure and sexy, wearing at all times a knowing “flicked smile / at the joke it all is”. In her oracular voice, the reader gets a sense of Mackmin’s own self-critique: “you know you need / three more lines, an ending”. ‘This poem explains’, meanwhile, is a hilarious interrogation of the creative process and an undisguised jibe at the academy:

[…] I write

as my tutors here advise, of things

I know. They also say to show not

tell, which I also do. Philosophy

is my hobby, poetry my passion

as I’m sure you’ll see.

Here, Mackmin’s irreverence is offset by a wonderfully sardonic plea for validation (“I hope / you like my poem. I hope you like my poem.”). The flip interjection of historical material (“Hitler wanted all Jews / dead and nearly succeeded. Some say / he is misunderstood but I think not.”) recalls James Tate’s distracted monologue ‘I am a Finn’. In Michael Mackmin we have a poet and editor who knows his way securely around the history and form of his craft, and is not afraid to demonstrate it.  However, as the pamphlet progresses, the poems come dangerously close to repetitive. Opening with ‘Here’ and closing with ‘There’ gives the text a symmetry that, though aesthetically pleasing, leaves the reader unsure if they have actually gotten anywhere. The use of parentheses becomes wearisome also, and by the time we reach ‘Lost (in transit)’ and ‘The list’, it seems almost like a nervous tic that has left the poet’s control.

While the poems in this pamphlet are both understated and deeply felt, there is a feeling of the poet keeping his reader at arm’s length. That is not to say that the reader is excluded because of obscurity or difficulty, but rather that there is something guarded about the texts. Putting even slightly confessional poems out in the public domain is always likely to raise questions of ownership, as both reader and author can surely appreciate, but it is difficult to shake the idea that Mackmin is not showing his entire hand. Perhaps, though, it is unfair to complain about this – even if he isn’t giving us everything he’s got, he’s certainly given a us a lot to be going on with.

‘What To Do’ by Kirsten Irving

In Pamphlets on July 10, 2011 at 5:29 am

 -Reviewed by Chris Emslie

Kirsten Irving’s What To Do is deceptively titled. The poems in this pamphlet present a series of speakers, each one snapped at a crucial moment. Whether this moment is one of crisis or epiphany, these characters are certainly in need of guidance. Rather than address this pressing question of ‘what to do’, Irving focuses on the moment itself as a sort of psychic interrogation, as if she herself has no idea where her various speakers will turn. It is this almost microscopic attention to a single point in time that makes Irving’s poetry so arresting. She has a gift for characterisation, an accolade not usually reserved for poets. But given the use of epigrams from Clifford Allen’s The Sexual Perversions and Abnormalities, it is safe to say that Irving is a writer fascinated by human nature and with a keen eye for psychological detail.  This pamphlet’s thirty-two pages are more densely populated than some anthologies, and though the precision of Irving’s character studies can be uneven, the poems are consistently credible and compelling.

 

Arguably the standout work here is ‘Recreation period’, a sequence of poems which scoops characters out of classical mythology and sets them down in the surprisingly familiar setting of a juvenile mental hospital. The conceit is executed with unexpected delicacy, though Irving does not shy away from the humour of it: the repeated line “Leda won’t come to the park” makes you laugh even though you know it probably shouldn’t. There is darkness here, too – the second poem in the sequence conflates the myth of the ritualistic madness of Agave with a stark and realistic story of a girl’s traumatic encounter with insanity. This is achieved with an admirable seriousness that prevents the poem from descending into farce.

 

Irving has a knack, it seems, for anchoring her fictions in human experience. The poems ‘Ittan-Momen’ and ‘Nancy Archer steps out’ use Japanese folklore and cult sci-fi respectively to access some all-too-universal feelings. Sidestepping the obvious feminist allegory of Attack of the 50 ft Woman in the latter, Irving instead dredges up a visceral jealousy that’s like a punch to the reader’s gut:

[…] if I take my thumb and dash your heads

into the Bacharach-piping jukebox

or stake you with a huge incisor

and write liars in your combined juices,

it will be a half-cough of revenge,  the kind

that doesn’t quite clear the throat.

 

That’s not to say I won’t.

 

The comic aplomb of this poem is grounded by an epigram from Aristotle. The synthesis of these two demonstrates Irving’s ability to extract her crucially human moments from the least likely of settings. Even supermarkets can become arenas for fantasy and prophecy. In ‘Pathogenesis’ an ostracised young boy foresees his own death “in the pasta aisle, in the chemist / wherever you take your scrawn”. In ‘Explaining it’ the speaker ruminates on his fantasies of a nubile cashier: “And yes, she’s my mother / and it’s my mother / and the stars are my fucking mother.”

 

There are times when Irving’s use of form is not quite in step with the ambition of her images, but these are blessedly few. The potential of ‘Bluebeard’s Photo Album’ is fragmented by single words that can’t quite hold the weight of a line. The final poem in the pamphlet, ‘Discharge’ conveys grief with great tenderness, but the lineation (“Tom is dead / or in Bombay”) discourages the reader from lingering on the real heart of the poem. The mournful second stanza is brief and peremptory, sticking in the throat rather than allowing the feeling to resonate.

 

Perhaps the best word to sum up ‘What To Do’ is unyielding. Not only does Irving pin her characters to the most pivotal (and potentially troublesome) poetic moments, she refuses to let them – or the reader – escape. What the reader takes from these moments is down to them; there is ammunition in Irving’s poems for both laughter and tears. Either way, the force behind these poems is inescapable. Irving takes the familiar and introduces a rogue transformative element. These poems look you in the eye and won’t look away before you do. This is difficult to sustain in the dialogue of ‘Restorative justice’, but the unsettling power of Irving’s poetry cannot be avoided. ‘What To Do’ may not provide its readers with instruction, but it’s fair to hazard that they’ll find something in these poems to keep them asking.

 


‘The Thief’ by Gill Andrews

In Pamphlets on March 16, 2011 at 6:27 pm

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Gill Andrews delivers a lightness of touch in her chapbook, The Thief, which opens with a poem called ‘The man who paints the bridge’ (a title that reminds me of the simplicity of Wislawa Szymborska ‘People on a bridge’.)  The first two stanzas ring with clarity: ‘His left hand holds a can/or dark red oxide paint. His right hand//lowers and lifts the cradle,/ slides it along to the next diagonal.’ But as the poem progresses, a more surreal note slips in: ‘People on Battery Road/set their clocks by him. They measure his beard//to see how long they’ve slept.’ The man who paints the bridge understands his craft intimately, and Andrews captures his work with vivid visual detail: ‘how it barnacles unevenly/how its colour degrades. And the claws/within salt, the sugar in rain.’ The poem becomes more lyrical, meditative, rising to a beautiful climax: ‘He knows/why teals and swans migrate/and the happiness of steel at the hugeness of trains.’

This is an attentive poet, then, and a reflective one. Her next poem, ‘Skein’, is conversational in tone, and starts with a surprising line: ‘What we make is finer than on the Earth.’ Immediately there is intrigue: where are we? ‘Folk can’t fathom us/living up here but there’s not much weaving work/back home nowadays’. One imagines it’s out in space somewhere: ‘it’s all to do/with gravity, and the starlight not being filtered/ by any atmosphere……’

There is a light dusting of humour in many of her poems; wry portrayals of self-satisfaction (‘Is’) or the way the public is so readily judgmental (‘The candidate’).  In both these poems, repetition is used to very good effect: ‘You should get one of these….You should have one of these…You should plant some of these…’

There is also the incongruous charm of imagining the speaker in ‘Lawyer’, attaining his dream ‘when all this is over’: ‘I want to lie awake at night/listening to little oinks and snorings,/ eleven siblings in a row alongside their mother’s teats’.

Occasionally, I felt a poem might have been more effective if it had ended earlier, as with the appealingly titled ‘On not being able to phone you because I haven’t got your number’. This poem is two and a half pages long. One would have sufficed, with a potentially powerful final image: ‘mistakes a baggie of heroin for a baggie/of cocaine/and overdoses’.

In her personal poems, such as ‘Greater love’, Andrews makes effective use of dialogue and, again, repetition. The surprise of this poem is on the facing page, where there appears to be a separate, untitled poem, as it begins half way down the page and is justified right. But the linking word ‘remote control’ connects the two – and also gains symbolic meaning in the reading of this second, very poignant section.  Another personal poem ‘Pleasure beach’ again uses dialogue to create a sense of suspense and rising panic: ‘No you didn’t. You didn’t ask me. I never heard you ask me./ I was up the arcade I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.’

Other poems in this chapbook are responses to artworks by Picasso and others, sassy with attitude. One, entitled Caryatids, describes sculpted female figures with ‘marble hips, magnificent/hairdos’, adding ‘There’s nothing//chaste about their robes.’ Andrews uses eclectic sources for her subject matter: for instance, one poem is inspired by a nineteenth century diary entry, while another describes a ‘Rickets Display’ in a museum. Before turning to writing, Andrews was a lawyer. A couple of poems, ‘Workstations’ for example, draw on her experience of this world, where ‘trying not to cry always takes so long.’

The title poem, ‘The Thief’, is an exhilarating and surreal play on words, where each stanza begins with a word from the previous one. ‘Oxygen, you’re the red dress of a thousand sequins/and your hemline has purple round the outside.// Red dress, you’re the bad parent, driving in the small night/to unfamiliar streets and leaving me there without any money.’

Sometimes this chapbook feels a little too mild, or playful for its own sake – but the competence is undeniable and there’s a charm about Andrews’ imaginative world that allows for these small flaws. Throughout ‘Thief’, Andrews shows a light but sure touch, and the colloquial ease with which she handles her subjects ensures that her work is accessible rather than over-poetic. Yet the counter-point to this lightness is what makes her work striking and memorable: the surprise, the turn, where something altogether unexpected happens. Her work is both the ‘singing of sky and scrapings of white cloud.’

The Long Acre by Frances Corkey Thompson

In Pamphlets on February 1, 2011 at 10:57 am

-Reviewed by Julia Bird

It rains heavily in Frances Corkey Thompson’s Long Acre. ‘Rain blew in’ in ‘The Beeches at Pickwell’, ‘it’s often raining’ in ‘The Garden’ and the rain in ‘Fiat Deus …’ is ‘god-awful’ and ‘hammering’. When the poet looks through the window, through this blurring rain (‘I witness through glass’ – ‘The Garden’, again) to whatever lies beyond, it’s when her vision is paradoxically the clearest. Unfiltered topicality and anecdote is presented too starkly in some of her less successful poems – the ‘sensible colour’ of ‘Looking For My Mother in Marks & Spencer and Finding Her’ only serves to illuminate a moment where the generations mistake themselves in a mirror reflection, and we’ve all seen this too many times in poems before. It’s when she squints or looks sideways at her subjects that her poems are strongest. Speech bubble spouting human beings in ‘Stonechat’ are a barely felt presence, and the poem’s delicate unpuzzling of avian identities is all the better for their absence. ‘It is look, and oh!, and flit, // all sense and verb’ – this is the merest nudge towards a contemplation of what it means to name and be named.

The collection’s keenest pleasures are autumnal – muted colours and dimming lights. The gentlest investigations of ageing, memory and mortality bring a chill in the air … but frost is what makes the apples sweet.


End of Year Round-Up: Jon Stone

In Seasonal/End of year on December 24, 2010 at 10:35 am

A continuation of the End of Year Series, you can read Luke Kennard’s answers here and what our reviewers have to say here.

Jon Stone is the production editor and designer of hand-crafted art and literature magazine Fuselit and its press imprint Sidekick Books.  His poem ‘Jack Root’ was highly commended at the 2009 National Poetry Competition. His debut poetry pamphlet Scarecrows was published by Happenstance press in 2010.

Has 2010 brought to your attention any outstanding literary magazines (be they online or in print), if so, which?

It’s hard to pick an ‘outstanding’ one out of a raft of enjoyable discoveries and newcomers, including Nutshell, Polarity, Silkworms, Sabotage itself. I also discovered for the first time that Poetry London is actually rather good.

What event sticks out in your mind as the literary event of 2010 (it can be a personal accomplishment)?

Obviously not being very objective here but the Fuselit 5th birthday party was a roaring success. Sarah Hesketh compared the line-up and audience to the cast of Gosford Park, ie. if a meteor struck the room, it would wipe out an entire generation of talent in one fell swoop. Plus we had cake and prizes. I don’t think I went to any really ‘big’ literary events (I much prefer the more intimate ones), so my selection may look ludicrous in the light of these!

What was your favourite literary discovery of the year (it can be a single poem, a novel, a pamphlet, a press, …)?

Again, very, very hard to choose. I might go for Matthew Caley, probably my favourite of the poets that Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade has introduced me to.

‘Escaping the Cage’ by Kate Scott

In Pamphlets on December 20, 2010 at 6:22 pm

-Reviewed by Alex Campbell-

You have to wonder what cage Kate Scott is escaping from with her new collection of poems from HappenStance, since what the poetry seems to demonstrate most of all is a kind of lyrical freedom that banishes all sense of contrivance or pretension.

Escaping a teeny tiny Cage

The poem which bears the collection’s title, ‘Escaping the Cage’, would suggest that the cage is one of convention and propriety – one which the poem bursts out of delightfully. The image of swearwords, held in the mouth like “some hard-boiled sweet” before being spat out into polite company where no-one really knows how to react, is one guaranteed to make you smile. But it is alone in construing the cage thus.

A more likely cage to bind together the collection is, perhaps, family. Not so far away from ‘convention’ as all that, since in most cases we are talking about the traditional nuclear family; something that fewer of us are growing up in now, but which is still prevalent enough that it will never be a stretch to empathise with Scott’s poems. This is not a question of alienating, or presenting the familiar in an unfamiliar light. The poems of Escaping the Cage feel much more like articulations of something that was on the tip of the tongue – the familiar presented in such a way as to be instantly recognisable, provoking a gut-feeling of instinctive identification.

So many of the situations strike a chord – whether as parent or child: who hasn’t been in that car, driving home late after a family visit with the kids “singing buggerbugger in the back”? (‘Relief’) or been on that family picnic, where the kids are just too old for it, but the parents “don’t know enough / to stop trying.” (‘Outing’), and all too many of us are likely to be familiar with the scenario of ‘Sometimes’; and the mental weight of the knowledge  of “cancerous cells / doing addition in the blood, / in the veins of someone you love.”

In fact, the thread that seems to run through the pamphlet is one of inescapability. The poem ‘Some Afternoons’ is reminiscent of Tony Hoagland’s ‘Perpetual Motion’, in its sense of not-quite-wanderlust, but Scott’s version, though capturing just as much of the romance of travelling as Hoagland’s, manages also to portray the realist’s eye view; “the weight of a life” that holds you back, and all the reasons why you can’t give in to the pull of wanting to be anywhere but here. Perhaps the ties that bind hold more strongly for a woman, but the emotional content of ‘Some Afternoons’ is pitched more vividly than ‘Perpetual Motion’, leaving more of a sense of frustration and longing than merely dissatisfaction.

Some of the poems seem to be about not wanting to escape; of being content to  live with your decisions. Similar to Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, Scott’s ‘All the men I’ve never slept with’, does not linger on the expected regret. The choice made seems to be enough to scatter the other possibilities “to the walls, rattled like dry rice”, and that the “brand” of that choice is described as “warmth” suggests comfort and security, rather than emptiness or disappointment. Going one further is ‘Blind’. The poems have a similar structure – one stanza of regrets; or rather the things now given up; described in tantalising detail, “their apple tight buttocks, their courgette thighs” “the language of wide eyes and teasing fingers”, followed by a stanza of what has replaced them, “you lay your hand upon my head”, “seeing you folded next to my heart / I am blind, blind, blind.”. Neither of the second stanzas seem less inviting: though something has been given up, what it has been exchanged for seems both smaller and yet more substantial than any of the imagined possibilities. It’s not a question of size, but of weight.  It is that substance, that sense of reality and permanence, that seems to be the key.

‘Relief’, possibly my favourite poem of the collection, conjures such a sense of comfort distilled from the everyday annoyances of life, simply because of the people surrounding you. It’s not a cage if they’re in there with you. Or perhaps they are the cage, but when “he begins to whistle a tune she loves” you realise you don’t want to leave. Scott encapsulates it neatly; ‘Barometer’, on the facing page ends with: “when his granddaughter asks him/ What makes the silver rise? And he answers Pressure, / he means love.” That phrase could possibly sum up the mood of the whole collection.

The poems are deceptive in their simplicity of language. Scott has a real facility for conveying meaning, depth and emotion, without waffle or indulging in sentimentality. Families are portrayed honestly, but sympathetically – a balance that is often difficult to strike. Whatever cage Scott feels she has escaped, this collection is definitely flying free.

Speed Dating Four Poetry Pamphlets: Stone, Quintavalle, Dunthorne, De Vries

In Pamphlets on September 2, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Speed Dating: four pamphlets from Indie presses

Today I am going to be speed dating four pamphlets from four different independent presses. I will be superficially picking at physiques, point out their best attribute and let you know which one is best value for money. I hope this glimpse into these pamphlets will tempt you into purchasing one (or more) of them and so support the future of British poetry (no pressure).

Value for Money

Jon Stone, SCARE-Crows (HappenStance, 2010) – 20 poems, £4

Rufo Quintavalle, Make Nothing Happen (Oystercatcher Press, 2009) – 21 poems, £4

Joe Dunthorne, Faber New Poets 5 (Faber and Faber, 2010) – 15 poems, £3.50

Ellen De Vries, Girl in the Air (Pighog 2007) – 16 poems, £6

Verdict: As far as price to poem ratio goes, Quintavalle is the clear winner with Stone breathing heavily down his neck. De Vries is the clear loser with each of her poems costing £0.375 compared to Quintavalle’s £0.19047619 poems.

Aesthetic:

Stone: The cover is in the usual sparse style of HappenStance, the few variations come in terms of cover colour and illustration. In this case, the cover is beige with the gangly drawing of a man dominated by an overlarge head. As with other HappenStance pamphlets, it’s easy on the eye and could fit into a moderately small clutch should you be so inclined. It’s like builder’s tea, predictable yet satisfying.

Quintavalle: This pamphlet also comes in the usual style favoured by Oystercatcher Press. The picture here is of a blowfish on patterned carpet. The paper is satisfyingly smooth compared to the rougher paper of Stone’s pamphlet, but I’m just nitpicking, at least Stone was allowed a biography. Of the four, it’s the least impressive looking, a bit like Monopoly money.

Joe Dunthorne: There’s something satisfying about the bold colours of the Faber New Poets series. It’s a good-looking pamphlet with its fireman red and willful simplicity. You’d like to get caught reading it on a tube. The cover is satisfyingly stiff, almost enough to make you forget the staples on the side.

De Vries: The most expensive of the four but also the only one with its own unique design aesthetic. The title is too pale for my liking and I’m not sure I like the drawing of the falling mouse but I admire the effort gone into fully illustrating the pamphlet – that’s got to make a poet feel good.

Verdict: Whilst I am most attracted to Dunthorne’s pamphlet I think De Vries is the clear winner here. Her pamphlet’s design both inside and out makes it a unique work of art. In comparison, the other pamphlets feel like factory products.

Standout Poem

Stone: There’s plenty to choose from with the chewingly shamanic ‘Jake Root’ and the cringingly amusing ‘Bullshit-Related Injuries in the A & E’. My favourite, however, is ‘Bedhair’, Stone’s reworking of Yosano Akiko’s tankas. They’re raw like a fresh graze, sexy, and smell strongly of booze.

Quintavalle: The standout for me is ‘Nowhere Special’ for managing to make the act of doing nothing so tense. The tightly packed words are like a coil waiting to take your eye out. It sums up to me perfectly the message of Quintavalle’s pamphlet and its deliberate contradiction of Auden’s utterance ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’.

Dunthorne: I am hesitant here between picking a poem that entertained me, and Dunthorne’s more serious material. There’s plenty of the former in this collection with ‘Future Dating’, ‘Sestina for My Friends’ and the grimly wonderful ‘The Actual Queen’. I think I’ll have to pick ‘Cave Dive’ however for its skilled personal exploration of time: ‘His slow mind thinks time / is just another surface’.

De Vries: Again, it is hard to choose just one, but I found her closing poem ‘Arabic’ particularly beautiful with its sensual, organic description of a ‘language / wet with seeds’.

Verdict: You can’t make me choose my favourite child, but if I could only pick two on a desert island they would probably be Stone and Dunthorne’s pamphlets. Why? Because their poems are surprisingly eatable and know how to make me laugh. That being said, each of these four debut pamphlets have an impressive voice worth hunting down.