Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Kirby Wright’

Literary Bohemian #14

In Blogzines, Magazine, online magazine, Website on April 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

-Reviewed by Harry Giles

Literary Bohemian is a lavishly produced webzine, dedicated to ‘travel-inspired writing that transports the reader, non-stop, to Elsewhere’. Its homepage splash is a carefully designed collage of faux-retro travel iconography: luggage tags, postcards, coins and coffee in the hippest of sepia tones. There’s a full and well-organised archive of 14 issues, along with book reviews, travel photos, links to lodgings and destinations – a gorgeous wealth to enjoy. It’s lovingly put together, but I’ll admit the aesthetic irked me. I worried that this would be acquisitive, appropriative, with the destinations checked off like tallies in the bathrooms of backpacker hostels. Would it be travel as bourgeois privilege or aesthetic necessity?

It is, unsurprisingly, those poems which are totally immersed in and part of their locations which stand out most from the latest issue. In Sean Edgley’s ‘Postcard from Belgrade’, for example, the city is built from a complex scatter of images and energetic physical moments – a skinhead ‘erupting in biceps’, a girl with ‘hips poised like the centered swivel of scissors’, a city suffering ‘the sadness of Chinese restaurants’. Edgley patiently constructs his Belgrade through profusion and surprise: there is despair and disrepair here, but it is part of a living, breathing whole.

Athena Kildegaard’s ‘Five Views of Guanajuato’ takes a similar approach, though with more delicacy. The state is seen through five perspectives, and each summons a world experienced by believable people, operating within softly sketched social context. The language is direct but full of care, from clever use of sound (burros ‘sound one slack-jawed heave. / Brave bougainvillea bloom’) to shockingly perfect simile (‘tethered animals sad as beans’).

It is probably no coincidence that the most effective of the narrative pieces, the ‘travelogue’ of Doug Clark’s ‘Love in the Time of Facebook’, succeeds partly because the travel in it is essential, rather than chosen by pins in a map. Here travel is compelled by a love that feels true through its problematic as much as through its expressed emotion, and it has a liveliness that sings in direct, honest prose. (And all this despite an over-glib, ironising title!)

Less successful are those pieces where the speaker’s presence and judgements obscure the sense of place and movement. In Ken Turner’s ‘Crossing the Border Near Lahore’ all is heavy poetry (‘ghost trains groaned through the border / leaking their loads on the rails’) carrying a burden of external observation. Though ‘fear / swelled like a corpse in the sun’ has power, if somewhat laboured, it is  not given enough real context. ‘The birds must know / the history of this place’, but it’s not clear the author does, beyond the guidebook version. The poem is an unloving judgement, rather than a considered exploration. In his ‘Saigon Streets’, as well, every noun needs its overblown verb: ‘shutters snapped’, ‘motorbikes swarm’, and if that’s not enough they swarm ‘like angry bees’.

Similarly, in Sy Margaret Baldwin’s ‘Berlin’ the city feels pre-determined, expected. Despite often felicitous word choice (‘the first hairs of frost in a hard winter’ particularly struck me), pedantic sentences cramp the poem: ‘a waterfall of cheese / that coagulates in a sticky pool at the exact level / of my neck.’ Of course this Berlin is war-torn, is ‘bullet-pocked’, has a ‘bleak construction site’. And of course this is winter. I feel as though I am watching the film of Berlin, not being transported there. Even then, though, Baldwin does close with a sharp indrawn breath of insight – and it is true that even the least moving poems here all still take me at least some of the way.

Even when I was frustrated or bemused by a piece, I was glad to have read it. In Jennifer Faylor’s ‘After Your Funeral I Set Out to Find You in Different Time Zones’, I found the bland procession of unnamed countries (‘dark with foreign numbers’, ‘a beach somewhere’) something of a missed opportunity, but there was still beautiful control of sound and tightly paced revelation. Timothy Kercher’s ‘Lazarus’ is at its most convincing in the description through powerfully disjointed sentences, but less lively when the speaker enters the picture, overplaying the metaphor. ‘A town that is no longer / a husk shucked’ is a perfect, gorgeous image – so why add the lurching ‘like me’? And though in Mary Kovaleski Byrnes’s ‘Christmas Emotion Salad’ the humour may occasionally be too blunt or clunkily idiosyncratic – the opening line has far less subtlety in its cheer than the delicious closer – the poem is still in its own when the food arrives, summoning memories and futures and making my mouth water: sloppy and spicy, it is a delicious, over-seasoned, massive American meal.

The whimsy of travel has a strong place in the collection, especially in the ‘Postcard prose’. Jennifer Faylor’s ‘Buttons’ employs a magical whimsy just on the right side of sickly – occasionally overplayed, but very strong when parsimonious, especially in its closing sentences. In Kirby Wright’s ‘The Enemy Tree’ the playfulness is simpler and blacker, played calm and straight: the prose gives us one image, one experience, very clearly indeed, taking me straight to its strange country. Back in poetry, Jennifer Saunders’s ‘The Changing of the Flowers’ is a thoughtful villanelle whose sweetness and clarity of meaning almost carries it through the stumbles. Perhaps the peculiar off-beats and scattering of not-quite-rhymes are there to highlight the way her ‘immigrant clock runs counter / to this native marking of the time’, but if so it is a too-easy metaphor of form. Nevertheless, it caught me and held me and I returned to rethink the poem more than many of the others.

It is ‘A Photo of Pennsylvania in Fiji’, another Byrnes poem, which most represented the collection for me – this tension between the poems which summon a place with poetry’s magic, and those which obscure it with tendentious metaphor or weighty language. Her Appalachia is reflected in worn signifiers polished to a shine, whether through sound (‘coal / bucket, cricket dusk, hair gray static’) or insight (‘The Saturday church will heave with your wishes’). Her Fiji, though, is barely a sketch, and has the inevitable ‘Children dressed in American t-shirts’. It is as if Fiji is being seen from Appalachia rather than the other way around –  but perhaps that is how we travel: memory more present than observation, which is indeed the poem’s territory.

A mixed bag, then, but one I was delighted to rummage in. I like the motivation of the curation, its direction and drive, and am impressed with the variety and poise of the selection. I’d like to see more focus and commitment from the poets and the editors: what is it really that they want travel poetry and writing to do, and how does a writer really transport us? The best writers here are those fully absorbed in their places – for me the real successes of Literary Bohemian are, of course, when I am truly moved.

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Neon #28

In Magazine, online magazine, Website on March 7, 2012 at 10:30 am

Reviewed by Barry Tench

Sometimes you can look and look and then you have to really look; then you might see the light, even if it is the faint light of a Neon sign creeping across a hotel bedroom. You might listen in the dark, you might listen closely and perhaps you might make out a voice. It might be the voice Kerrie O’Brien describes in her poem ‘Blurring’:

‘Now I know I’m saying

None of this out loud.

But I’m hoping you’ll hear it in me

This time,

If you’re listening’.

Neons neat presentation and well placed poignant photographs make it an attractive proposition on a wet and wintry evening. What is even more impressive is the copy online, which you can also download for free and gently peruse over a mug of cocoa. I received #28 to review which says something for the longevity of Neon and its lasting appeal.

If there is a collective voice of Neon it has the terse and uncomplicated tone of a rail against the alienation of modern living. Take Danica Green’s ‘Me, You And Everything Else’:

‘blinding nights and charcoal days blending with the uniform

grey of what generally constitutes a normal life’…

…‘No one comes home. I sometimes take respite in my

stone-cold bed, and when I wake up from the dream, the world is

on fire.

I felt a kinship with writers trying to get to grips with the awkwardness of relationships: the etiquette of social interaction, the disquiet of staring down the twin barrels of loneliness and rejection. Despite tackling common poetic subjects, many of the poems use language that is both fresh and engaging. Kerrie O’Brien’s poem ‘Escape’ struck me for the line ‘it burns to be still’ and then again in ‘Every Morning’ she gives a cliché a nice turn when she writes ‘life off / the pedestal’. Catherine Owen’s poem ‘The Autopsy Report’ also stood out and I particularly enjoyed the phrase ‘post-haste to The Hall of Turning Things Inside Out’. In another poem, ‘The Climbing Accident’, Owen challenges us with images as surprising as ‘the T-bar of pharmaceutical barrenness’ and ‘her mind tallying up this budget of flesh’.

Patrick Gabbard makes interesting use of form in his poems. In ‘The Pines of Bucharest’ he manipulates spacing, line lengths and endings to give the poem an uneasiness. The jagged edge is perfectly suited to Gabbard’s surrealist images:

‘Between his thumb and forefinger her nipple –

She laughs again, louder this time before she collapses on his chest

And he thinks   I am a warm dead galleon’.

Light in the darkness of contemporary life is captured in the short stories in Neon 28. Danica Green gives us an existentialist reflection that has its lyrical moments: ‘Nothing ever happens uninvited, the most beautiful and painful experiences welcomed through an open window’. Allana Balek’s short story ‘An Ending’ is another existentialist narrative that has some poetic images: ‘I turn off the music and we listen to the wind. I wonder how long the sunset will last and if we’ll ever get to see another one’, and ‘Clouds, she says. Dreams. Sunlight. Catchy music and long, lazy afternoons.’ It’s a nicely crafted piece with a hard hitting punch line.

There is strong imagery in Emily O’Neill’s poems too and the final stanza of ‘Last’ is very sexy (don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining): ‘so you sat me on the desk and pushed my skirt up around my hips’. In ‘Before the Elegy’ there is imagery of a very different kind but just as striking: ‘a car crash or bullet in lieu of that coward needle’.

Neil Sloboda’s poems are typified by his use of unexpected images. For example, in ‘After the Buyout’ he writes:

Perched on the edges

of cold metal chairs,

we hectored one another

about how best to employ the time:

rip apart rotting decks, tear off asphalt shingles,

or fell dying trees behind our homes?

I also liked the unusual juxtaposition in this poem: ‘unpacking / daydreams and peanut butter crackers’. There is an evocative metaphor in ‘Hives’: ‘the diamond-backed lancers’ and I love the idea of ‘a flip-toy dog who never lands / on his feet’. Sloboda, like all the writers here, shows a willingness to experiment with language and imagery to stir our emotions.

Kirby Wright’s stories, ‘Ticking Clock’ and ‘Green Fruit’ veer toward prose poetry whilst giving us strong narratives dotted with clear imagery: ‘The highway skirted a pineapple field that stretched to the horizon’. But again there is this feeling of disconnection: ‘Did I walk through that door?’ and the battle of coming to terms with emotions in a harsh landscape ‘As he drove East, he prayed the baby would never be born’.

The light thrown by Neon 28 is modern and edgy but it keeps enough hidden in the shadows to keep us guessing at what is really there, what is hiding in the corners and under the bed. My biggest concern is that what we find there might dissolve in the bright light of day.