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Aoife Lyall

Half the Human Race: A Review

 

Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems, Susan Uttings.

Two Rivers Press 112 pp; £9.99 ISBN: 978-1909747258

 

Susan Uttings touches on what it is to be all the women a woman is expected to be in Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems The experiences of daughters, school girls, mothers, spinsters, widows and old crones step, leap, and charge their way from the page, retaliating against the matrix of social challenges, expectations, and disappointments that women are too often expected to meet with a demure mixture of acceptance, acquiescence, and, most importantly, silence.

Tangible earnestness and tacit sincerity characterize many of the new poems.  From regaining a sense of hearing to reclaiming a sense of self, Uttings moves easily between diverse themes and ideas, joining them with confident and beautiful imagery. Silent loss is prevalent here, and Uttings’ careful poetic structures do justice to the strictures of dignified, unspoken grief:

 

You have your reasons, so I’ll let you go, quiet

as lambs, not a peep or a whimper, while I stay

here, tight-lipped against the almost of you

 

The poems taken from Striptease tantalisingly pivot around the naked female form.  An object of the male gaze in ‘Striptease’ and ‘For the Punters’, the ogling audience are far more naked in their intent and depravity then the women at which they gaze so lasciviously, while ‘The Bathers of the Ladies’ Pond’ fiercely protect their naked bodies from determined, unwelcomed eyes:

 

Each day before they slip their frocks and stockings off

and naked slide like knives through satin water,

one by one they shake the chestnut tree and wait

for any peeping Tom or Dick to drop like plums

 

These poems are followed by a triptych of female speakers enjoying their own bodies, be it the self-aware sensuality of ‘Hinged Copper Poem Dress’, wherein:

 

The ifs and buts of it are sharp against my shoulder blades,

at first its run-on lines strike cold against my belly,

buttocks, nipples – all the skin parts that it touches,

then the heat of circulating blood begins the chain reaction

 

or the reclamation of pleasure in ‘Lolita Paints Her Toenails’:

 

                        turning nails to pearls,

to my oyster satin pink instead of his red

 

or the reaffirmation of self in ‘The Artist’s Model Daydreams’:

 

My head is a spoon that dips and scoops

fine sugar from a china bowl, remembers

 

These poems remind us how often, in the fight to avoid the male gaze, women forget to gaze upon themselves, to experience the wonder that is their own body.

Houses Without Walls focuses more on the place of a woman either or out of a relationship, both statuses prey to harsh social scrutiny. The closing down of curiosity in ‘Catechism’ comments on how we treat little girls, fussing over their appearance and manners, while stifling their appetite for knowledge:

 

whose name was then chosen by men,

who taught her to lower her eyes, press

her lips, narrow her throat, swallow words

down; who taught me the power of hush, hush, hush.

 

‘For herself’ stands in marked contrast to this enforced passiveness, and highlights the ultimately oppressive performance that is buying flowers:

 

today she’ll celebrate

the lack of shilly- shally buying tulips

for herself, the absence of he-loves-me-

loves-me-not

 

It is telling that such a simple act is worthy of comment, that it is still considered something of a defiance, a revolution, a cause for celebration.

The final section, taken from Fair’s Fair, returns to the thematic diversity that opens the collection. These poems slip between having and wanting, trading and bargaining, gaining and losing. They are reflective and intimate. ‘Naked’ beautifully illustrates the raw anguish and vulnerability caused by loss, and is complemented in this by ‘Wanting the Moon’:

 

The sky is as wide as a sleepless night

and I miss the moon. I want it out

 

while the hope of ‘Fair’s Fair’ is counteracted by the despair in ‘The Things’:

 

For want of some rhythm, muscle,

blood, for want of a voice, the things

stilled themselves, quietened, fell apart.

 

Read this collections for its imagery and its voices: defiant, determined, intimate, and fierce with life.

 

 

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On Balance: A Review

 

On Balance, Sinéad Morrissey.

Carcanet Press 72 pp; £8.99 ISBN: 978 1 784103 60 6

On Balance, Sinéad Morrissey’s sixth collection, is a rich, intertextual collection that engages and challenges the potential of form as signifier, pushing the visual field of page poetry into new and challenging spaces. ‘The Mayfly’ opens:

Conspicuously mis-christened- what chink

            in the general atmosphere, what sudden

                        lift of bones and breath

 

                        allowed you to stand up straight in mechanic’s overalls

                                    (skirts are out of the question) and plot

                                                your escape into the sky?

 

                                                Like the right foot of Louis Blériot,

                                                            trapped beside one of his overheating

                                                                        engines, like the umpteen previous

This pattern is repeated ten times, with the last and first lines of adjoining stanzas being the only ones to share indentation points. This pairing elicits a sense of relationship and understanding across the empty spaces: a relay of stanzas pushing the boundaries on both sides of the page. Through this structure we see the determination of Lilian Bland (the first woman to design, build and fly her own aeroplane) to succeed, and of Morrissey, to perpetuate her feat of excellence.

‘Das Ding An Sich’ is again a poem whose meaning is carried, indeed revealed, through its form:

a pig    two cows                     a dray horse     geese

by the back door                     a gaggle of grandmothers

kiln-dry barns                          hay until summer

gardens tucked into an orderly slumber

This is a structure that communicates as it miscommunicates. Its opening stanza gives the reader a sense of pastoral calm and the expectation of some higher truth from its sedate, prosaic images. The spaces between the words come as contented breaths: the disconnect between thoughts and words, ideas and semantics; until the poem’s final stanza reveals the gaps to be those of knowledge and understanding:

                                                                    or nouns

unmoored                                from speech

in the blistering static                          of Grossdeutscher

Rundfunk’s                              final broadcast

 

The reader discovers that these spaces are not empty, but filled with atrocities, unknown, unheard, and unobserved. Morrissey, through her restraint and form, forces the reader to confront their ignorance, fill in the blanks and, furthermore, to seek out the uncomfortable truths, to question, always question, those channels through which our knowledge of the world is formed.

‘The Wheel of Death’, in contrast, dazzles and dizzies the reader. The relationship between form and content is a playful one: the balance between anticipation and disappointment, fear and excitement:

 

we can’t undo

(though we don’t want to).

Wind lashes the outer awning

like the last of days,

we watch you rise

to the ceiling

 

in a wire-strung

cage – & then run

the length of its radius, round

& round, as the trussed

massive apparatus

rebounds

 

each time

from its own blind

hurtling momentum down & lifts

you through & high

& over & wide

of the lip

In the Wheel of the Death, the rider pushes back against the rules of gravity. To succeed they must travel at high speeds in confined spaces and retain complete control over their motorcycle. Any mistake could be fatal. In much the same way, the poet must retain full control of their form as they push it to its very limits, or the reader will be left unimpressed and uninspired.  The tension here is a thrilling one that stops the vibrant experience fading into static sepia. The poem is a moving one, inviting the reader not just to read it, but to watch it.

II

On Balance is not a collection of multiple narratives, but multiple dialogues: filled with poems that intersect with other poems, respond to other lives and art forms; poems that bring the reader, not poetry as product, but poetry as process; not rhetoric, but conversation. There are multiple poems that touch on similar topics, and series of poems that focus on a single topic from multiple perspectives. And they are all talking: to us, and to each other.

It is in ‘Articulation’, about the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse Marengo, that we get the strongest sense of this aesthetic of discourse:

 

for however long he lasts before he crumbles,

portal, time machine, skeleton key

to what cannot be imagined. Who could resist

 

Morrissey provides the bare bones: the reader reconstructs the objects mentioned, the events alluded to; but in doing so, we inevitably temper our renditions to our own experiences by the breed or colouring we assign its long-gone body, by the addition or subtraction of socks and saddles. The poem on the page, therefore, is never the same as the poem in the hands, and eyes, and mind of the reader.

III

A key component of this collection’s balance is that every topic, no matter how ancient or modern, universal or individualistic, is treated with the same gravitas: be it a grandfather’s internment, a treatise on a wasted life, global warming, or the role superheroes play in shaping a child’s perspective. Nothing is seen as underserving because: the eternal and ephemeral are companions here, not competitors.

This is a collection that can appear intimidating at first glance. It is strong, and unashamed of its strength. The confidence espoused through form and subject matter shows us, not just what Morrissey is capable of, but what poetry can do when we push and expand our definition of poetry. It is an exciting time to be a poet, and a reader of poetry.


To date, On Balance has been:

  • Winner of the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Collection
  • Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Choice Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Poetry Award
  • Shortlisted for the 2018 Pigott Poetry Prize

 

If you are a publisher in the UK or Ireland with a collection, chapbook, or pamphlet written by a woman in 2017/18 that you wish to be considered for review please contact me via the form in the ‘about’ section in the first instance.

Please also note:

  1. Due to time restraints and the nature of this project, I cannot guarantee a review.
  2. I will only write reviews of collections I think are exceptional.
  3. Review copies will not be returned, whether a review is published or not.

 

Drawing a Diagram: A Review

cover 

Drawing a Diagram, Rosemary Badcoe.

Kelsay Books 80pp; £10 ISBN 978-1945752391

Rosemary Badcoe’s debut collection, Drawing a Diagram, is meticulous and multifaceted, creatively engaging with intricate scientific concepts and theories from utterly original and thoroughly satisfying perspectives.

The first of three sections, ‘The Wiring Plan’ speaks to the essential, ultimately hidden, components of things. ‘On the Movements of Bodies’ is a sentient exploration of the difference between fact and truth, between plan and finished product. The facts tell us that the dodo is unviable as a creature, ‘how its sternum lacked the strength’ and ‘that gravity would…dislocate the stubby wings’.  And yet, truth will out and life will find a way. ‘The Star Goat Reaches for the Earth’, is a playful and profound consideration of a constellation and its earthly namesake; demystifying the heavens and elevating the animal, it creates something both fantastical and homely as ‘His limbs of hydrogen and nebulae/ twitch to learn of trees and growth’.

The section finishes with ‘My Arguments’, skilfully highlighting the human disposition to compartmentalise troublesome truths. The speaker laments that their belief ‘for consciousness in cephalopods/ won’t prevent you from slicing and frying’, and petitions for recognition that ‘its preoccupations are yours’. Her protest resonates beautifully in the final lines, ‘I write you a note, and like squid/ use the ink to depart.’

Following from this, ‘The Director’s Cut’, is built upon the twinned ideas of revelation and change. ‘Please Hold’ speaks to the quagmire of inessential tasks we accept and perform with a ritualism bordering on the perverse. The poem reads not as the options on an automated system, but rather the reactions to those options; and just as stars are composed of disparate particles of matter, so the poem works two ostensibly disjointed concepts together to create a sublime celestial ending, ‘You’ve higher things to do than listen here./Go fulfil your destiny. Press star.’

Likewise, ‘Nocturne for Suburbia’ is an invocation to the reader to take their children ‘to the woods where the birch and the bilberry/ drift, half-aware, in the low-lying mist’, away from a restricted, controlled life where things happen, not like clockwork, but according to it; ‘You can hear last Tuesday, the way it bent/ Four o’clock back and forth till it snapped’. The observation is sharp, and sharply felt. The same may be said of ‘The Minoans’, in which we are told ‘We do not hand our fate to those we cannot touch.’ Our life is ours to claim and control, Badcoe reminds us: too often we are guilty of handing it to a higher power; too often we let someone else call the shots.

With this is mind, ‘The Last Act’ delivers poems that are raw and unapologetic. Where ‘Wake’, is unsentimental and unequivocal, informing the reader that ‘others spin the pattern built by cogs/ in their internal worlds and have no time for yours’, other poems in this final section are purposefully ambiguous. In ‘One Down’ a mental mis-step causes the speaker to see ‘from the corner/ of my sight… a tartan slipper droop from a foot’ that isn’t there.  The poem is not about the absence itself, the nature of which is undetermined, but rather how the brain habituates to the point of fabrication in order to protect itself.  The final poem, ‘The Last Act’ speaks to a sense of having missed out, the feeling that all great things have happened and passed the speaker by, as they wait for someone else to pass judgement. A resignation against the defiance of earlier years perhaps; perhaps the regret that we have not done enough, seen enough, understood enough, in our lifetime.

This is a collection to be read wrapped up in blankets and silence and time. With each poem standing up to robust analysis and dissection, be it crossways in sections or lengthways across the book, they invite and reward serious consideration.

Pisanki: A Review

 

“Only to scratch the surface has its own integrity; besides, a pattern is easier to understand than eggshells.”

Zosia Kuczyńska’s debut chapbook Pisanki marries history and art with an invocation not to sanitise or systemise suffering, for

all things that are capable of making patterns
are also capable of cruelty

Based on her grandmother’s harrowing childhood experiences of World War Two, ‘The train from Arkhangelsk to Bukhara’ is a complex and haunting introductory poem:

You wake to find your field is sown with metal,
as though an artist had labelled it in the night
with the knowing title, Midas died of hunger

Kuczyńska’s poetic landscape is constructed and deconstructed with guns thrown from a moving train by deportees whose “children rattle inside their skins like guns/ in looted crates”. The use of a second person narrative here adds a directness and urgency to the poem, imploring the reader to understand that nobody wins in war: that we are the farmers; that those who escape persecution are not free of its consequences.

Kuczyńska’s skill as a storyteller lies in the rich simplicity of her narrative.

When you cross the Caspian Sea
to Pahlavi and Tehran,
your sister and brother
do not succumb to typhoid.

At first glance, the lines recall the voice of an unquestioning child. But scratch the surface and the scourge of typhoid fever is readily revealed. Scratch again and understand that Kuczyńska’s grandmother contracted the illness. Finally, and with great feeling, “your sister and brother/ do not succumb” holds within it the comforting echo of a parental rebuke, from parents now dead and buried, their graves

as indistinct
from other parents’ graves
as telegraph poles from telegraph poles
or breadcrumbs from breadcrumbs.

Kuczyńska could have undoubtedly filled an entire collection with stories such as these, yet within the space of three poems the reader is abruptly informed “Enough of that: it’s over now.” This chapbook is not a eulogy for a lost childhood: the past may inform the present, but it does  not dictate it.

This stalwart attitude is reflected in the precise, restrained form Kuczyńska’s adopts for ‘Rochdale Nativity’, wherein we witness the ordinary miracles of a safe childhood. Kuczyńska’s does not weigh down the poem with obvious comparisons, and leaves readers’ eyes to turn “To these your daughters, who are jumping pearls,/ each crowned alike in bliss and Bacofoil.” It is the unassuming depiction of her grandmother that is so important here. Not refugee, immigrant, survivor, or any other term that, either by accident or design, strips the humanity away from  those forced to flee their homeland. She is just a mother, watching her daughters in a play, her past tucked away like a tissue in her purse.

While arriving in England is undoubtedly a life-altering event for her grandmother, Kuczyńska’s chapbook makes no attempt to anglicise its narrative. There is no gratitude here, no erasure of self: both current and insidious expectations of a misplaced national entitlement. These poems are the patterns on the shells: we may enjoy them without expecting, or presuming, to understand the depth of experience beneath the surface. What makes this chapbook so satisfying is that it is not a book of egos. Both the reader and the poet are members of the same audience, listening to the same stories without the impetus or invitation to pour ourselves, or our unspecified guilts or outrages, onto the pages. Humility is a welcome perquisite here, when all too often we witness emotional responses that overwhelm, or simply ignore, the voices of  those who experience tragedy and hardship firsthand. ‘Medico della Peste’, the chapbook’s penultimate poem, adroitly uses our carnivalesque past to expose our absurd present:

The plague doctor is
a symptom thought of as a harbinger

and masks himself against the symptoms rather than the cause

With governing bodies who scarcely get by in peace-time, and lack the wherewithal and acumen to cope in times of real social upheaval, Kuczyńska reminds us to look beyond the trappings of prestige and worldliness that politicians are so quick to defend themselves with:

The plague doctor is
nothing but a counter of a bodies

and could be anyone behind his shield of lavender.

‘On Hoisery’ then challenges outright the comfortable narratives we weave from tragedy. Citing the retrospective glamour of war-time ingenuity, Kuczyńska lays before us the ugliness that so often predicates beauty.  In the reduction of “fierce tradition” to trinket “in tour-guides’ hands in Chinese factories” we see the fetishized journeys of refugees, stripped of cause and consequence, heralded as a feat of human determination, not act of abject desperation. In the face of such overwhelming circumstances, Kuczyńska’s message is a significant one:

Survive to hope…
that every damage done as though by moths
can be told as art or history or both.

***

Pisanki is a chapbook of balanced beauty, one that neither masks nor celebrates hardship. It speaks to our need to find serenity in terror, life in death, hope in fear; our need for an order, a pattern, a belief that there is a purpose that can be found.  Full of strong narratives woven into patterns both complex and recognisable, this is an authentic and earthy collection with something important to say.


 

Pisanki by Zosia Kuczyńska, Emma Press. 36pp; £6.50. ISBN 978-1-910139-72-1


 

If you are a publisher in the UK or Ireland with a collection, chapbook, or pamphlet written by a woman in 2017/18 that you wish to be considered for review please contact me via the form below in the first instance.

Please also note:

  1. Due to time restraints and the nature of this project, I cannot guarantee a review.
  2. I will only write reviews of collections I think are exceptional.
  3. Review copies will not be returned, whether a review is published or not.

 

A Cowardly Act

When I announced that I was going to use this blog to review 12 female poets this year I was given plenty of support and encouragement from writers, publishers, journals, and various groups on Facebook and Twitter.

Last night Clochoderick Press tweeted (Read clockwise from bottom left):

 

This is the DM (Direct Message) they sent to me on Twitter, after I requested data from them. They blocked me before I could reply. I have underlined and annotated in brackets the parts I take particular issue with.


Sorry to private message you, (Then why do it?)

I come in peace by the way. (That immediately dictates how I am expected to react to what you are going to say, and gives you a platform to retreat to should I ‘misinterpret’ what you say next. It is the equivalent of ‘With all due respect…’ or ‘No offence but…’

I can’t write enough on twitter. (So be more succinct)

You want data in regards to defining an under-represented writer (Yes, DATA- the ‘conclusive’ facts, figures and statistics you asked me for)?

It is those who have been shunned by mainstream industries. It is those who have to depend on small presses to get their work out there and read. Those who have the same literary talent as those in the mainstream industry but because they have not slept with the directors of such industries or shook someone’s hand in secret, will never have their work see the light of day from these arenas. You want data for a definition, that definition, I am afraid, which I can admit, can be argued until the end of days (Still waiting on that data…).

You were talking about statistics (A word I did not use) with your argument, about how women are under-represented regarding reviews. I wanted to know in which sector (which I should have explained). In the mainstream sector, with bigger publishing houses, this is the case. (Okay, now we are getting to a place where I could have engaged, clarified, perhaps opened up an interesting dialogue…just wait)

I do not see it though in the smaller presses, which run the majority of literature magazines (A statement devoid of any…you guessed it…statistics).

And in the UK the smaller presses, especially within poetry, are growing quite fast (Yes, I agree with this wholeheartedly).

Most of them all for equality, (as though it is some cute new fad) a good number of them run by women (What number? What % in 2017? What % 2000-2017? What % 1900-2017? And what is a good number?).

There are two females on my board, me being the only guy. (So not ‘males and females’ or ‘men and women’- ‘females’ and ‘guys’. Not two women on our board. I cannot find any information about this board online, and do not know if these two ‘females’ have seen this message, sent from the official Clochoderik Press Twitter account, by a ‘Robert’ who didn’t feel it important to include his last name.)

And, just take a look at who were publishing. (My focus is on the reviews, not the initial publishing.)

Women outnumber men. (And?)

So, If you are talking about the mainstream, well, why bother with them? (I never said that my focus was on the mainstream publishing- it is on reviews- yet the rest of his reply turns on this.)

It has been clear for decades they talk non sense, put authors on platforms they do not deserve (not all of them, but a damn good number of them) and most of them being male. Yes, I agree, the mainstream is male driven, but why bother with them? (REALLY?! So he both agrees with, and completely dismisses, the premise of my reviews while simultaneously mistaking the focus of my efforts.)

They are narcissistic anyway, as are most of the mainstream artistic industries, they are full of junk, for the most part. (How do such sentiments support or promote the arts at any level?)

What you are saying though undermines the efforts of small presses who are trying to balance everything out, who lookout for the best poetry and not the best gender (Because ‘best’ is an objective term, that is in no way influenced by time, place, circumstance, or gender politics?)

I am sorry, (No you are not; worse, you are trying to break it me gently) but by excluding men from reviews, do you not think you are just playing the same game as those who you condemn? (No. My goal is to help balance the ratios of reviews, the way small presses are, according to yourself, balancing the ratios of their publications. How can one support one thing without being seen to ‘exclude’ another? If my focus was BAME writers, would I be accused of ‘excluding’ white writers?)

Is Mslexia, a magazine for women only, one of the biggest circulating in the UK, not enough? (I do not feel that the discerning reader needs my commentary here…)

What if there was a male magazine, only for male poetry – there would be an outcry! (I feel it incumbent upon me to point out the historical accuracy of this statement most magazines published work by men for men until relatively recently. Also- I’m not talking about magazines or publishers. I’m STILL just talking about reviews.)

They would be sued into the middle of next century. (I am very much beginning to feel that this is no longer about my 12 reviews, and has not been for some time.)

I am on your side in regards to equality (It’s not a side because it is not an option), and it does you zero good to become pedantic with me, as in where does it get us? (So now this essay has descended into full rebuke mode with ‘zero good’… bearing in mind that this ‘pedantic’ comment derives from my request to see the Press’ data while I COMPILED my own, which was requested from me as above. Data which they clearly have no actual interest in seeing as I was blocked from contacting them via Twitter before I could reply- so clearly this conversation has gotten ‘us’ nowhere as I was given no right to redress.)

I was civil enough, (so not polite) in that you made a bold claim (What was bold about it?) which was statistically driven (I never mentioned statistics), and I wanted to see that data (but provide none of your own), that’s all! (The accusations and insults in this essay clearly state otherwise- particularly in this next section…)

I just disagree with a lot of how females go about trying to sort out this whole equality thing out, which, to be fair, really only rears its ugly head at the top of society where EVERYONE at that level is psychotic anywaytherefore why should we even care about them, any of them, men and women alike

(This just baffles me- the opposition and collusion, the us v. them, the ultimate why bother of it all- baffling)

Please don’t get mad at me, (see opening comment about coming in peace)

I am not the one who disagrees with equality – your choice though, (What is my choice? I actually have no idea what is meant by this. Equality? Asking for the same type of information that was asked of me?) but getting into silly tic tac argument should not be the way here. (Bearing in mind I asked for clarification re: the data being asked for, and asked for data that supported their MO as a press)

If you are serious about equality between all people (as opposed to equality between some people?), then understand when you exclude men (not support women), especially within the arts (why especially?), you are becoming the monster you are trying to fight, (At no point did I say anything about monsters, fighting etc.) that is all I am saying (No it is not…clearly). Happy new year, and for the love of all that is good, peace! (Which I could maybe understand if we had had an actual dialogue about any of this…)


As I have said, I do not know if this essay was sent with the consensus of all the editors but, as it was written to me in a private message by someone untraceable who then blocked me so I could not reply, it is a cowardly act the Press need to distance themselves from. A small independent press that claims to promote the under-represented writer, I simply can not see where this vitriol has come from and how it can possibly have a place in Scotland’s contemporary literary scene.

All my Mad Mothers: A Review

 

Jacqueline Saphra’s debut collection, All my Mad Mothers, is one of observation and experience, resistance and discovery, inhibition and abandon. The poems within are vivacious explorations of daughterhood, adulthood, and motherhood, a spinning wheel of rebellion, conformity, protest and revelation.

Analogous to reading the old family encyclopaedias, these poems contain the secret thrill of self-discovery, an exhilarating exegesis of the female body as it responds to age and expectation.

The collection begins with ‘In the winter of 1962 my mother’, a poem that navigates the silence and isolation of a woman who fails to subscribe to contemporary social norms:

travelling round and round in shrinking circles
not sure how to execute the move outwards
into another lane never having been
properly taught how to make an exit

Given the deluge of fairy tales ready to instruct generations of young girls on how to acquire a husband (a passive mixture of charm and frailty), and the plethora of instruction manuals and magazine articles designed to create the perfect wife and mother, there were scant, if any, resources a woman could turn to in times of marital problems and breakdowns in 1962.  It was the woman’s role to keep the family together, whatever the cost, physically or emotionally.  This collection then, is about precisely this: the roundabouts and wrong turns, red lights and give-ways we go through as we figure out where we want to go, how to get there, and who we want to be when we arrive.

The rest of this section explores the significant and potentially lethal difference between the examination of biological sexuality and the expectation of political sexuality. ‘Sicily’ presents childhood curiosity, “The boys show me their penises… so in return, I present my vagina…” The aftermath involves going to the balcony “to practice spitting, wave at Vespas,/ local kids and tourists before we amble/ down to lunch”. ‘The Sound of Music’, however, reveals the devastation of clinging to received ideas, realising too late “that you can squander a lifetime/ trying to stay small and pretty.”

Cataloguing the implements of her mother’s beauty routine in ‘My Mother’s Bathroom Armoury’, Saphra acknowledges and rejects the double-edged sword of prescribed beauty. The structure and rhythm of the poem echoes the cadence of the three witches in Macbeth, determined to ensnare and manipulate him:

Cutting edge of lady-razor
Glint of sin and lure of danger
Woman’s flesh a fading treasure
Braced for pain but honed for pleasure

The historical suspicion surrounding make-up is well-documented as the last recourse of the lustful and wicked, suggesting that make-up denotes a magic, a power of sorts, something to be feared and avoided. In this vein, it becomes the armour in the title: war-paint that is empowering and invigorating. But armour is donned to protect areas of the body that are weak, prone to attack. As such, the:

Smudged remains of caked mascara
Iron clamp of eyelash curler
Usual instruments of torture

are invoked to protect the wearer from unwelcome and critical eyes, and, as such, become a form of submission: in succumbing to the physical pain involved, the woman is protected from the social stigma of being ‘unwomanly’.

The section finishes with ‘All my Mad Mothers’, a well-marinated, sun-chaser, puddle-swimmer, arsonist and confectioner of a mother. Saphra presents seven images of her mother across seven stanzas, a rainbow of identities that the inverted prism of ‘mother’ is expected to turn to white, wholesome, light.

The second section develops this idea of multiplicity through the ring-fencing of burgeoning sexual awareness. The female body is man-handled through the free-for-all indulgence of supposed bodily pleasures in ‘Crete, 1980’, “naked, mouth grazed with the taste/ of smoke and strangers’ kisses” and the political landmine of ‘Getting into Trouble’, where “Mr Giles…made me take the pro-abortion poster down”. This poem also touches on the social construct of female virginity, exonerated by “My boyfriend, who was stupid but useful”, and dismissed by her mother as “burdensome”, something to be “sorted in that lull/ between O Levels and results”.

‘The Day My Cousin Took me to the Museé Rodin’ embodies the stark and opportunistic threats women face when they engage with sexual words, ideas, and behaviours. The poem opens with a list of excuses that justify the presumptuous and aggressive behaviour of her cousin: the weather, the erotic artwork, and then, inevitably, herself:

Perhaps it was … my blatant boasts
of l’armour libre of which I knew, in fact, rien
that galvanised my cousin to try his luck with me.

It as a universal assumption that a woman in possession of a body must be in want of sexual attention. The use of French reflects both the speaker’s inability to articulate the nuances of these unwanted sexual advances, but also the shame and silence expected of, and experienced by, its victims.

In ‘Hampstead, 1979’, Saphra shows us the values that women are meant to appreciate in a man, regardless of their own feelings and desires, while the exciting wildness of men who disregard these rules in ‘My Friend Juliet’s Icelandic Lover’ is muted by the pathetic nature of those who can’t follow them:

                          More like
that dull Sunday in your hard-to-let flat
in Mile End while Martha was feeding
the baby in the other room and you
murmured sorry sorry sorry, one hand
on my cheek, one hand on my hand.

The penultimate section moves on to focus on motherhood through a mixture of introspection, expectation and caution.

In ‘Chicken,’ we witness the youthful intensity of a daughter who lives by high-cast principles (“If you choose to eat an animal,/ you must first learn to kill it”), balanced by the pragmatic wisdom of a mother who “snipped the plastic film,/ plucked some stray feathers/ and rubbed salt into the skin.” This maternal self-restraint is seen again in ‘What time is it in Nova Scotia?’ a poem full of questions that wait to be asked, advice that aches to be given:

I won’t ask about your cough, whether you’re eating
oranges and learning French or if you like the vest I
sent. I wish I could brush your hair. Remind me to send

Its depiction of “sailors who’d trap a calf/ and torture it” to capture an adult walrus addresses the knowledge, and guilt, of a parent that cannot protect its child from everything. The poem acknowledges the importance of this enforced silence, recognising that you cannot protect someone by attacking them, or heal them by exposing their weaknesses. You can only wait, respect this new-found need for space, and be ready to provide love and support at a moment’s notice, an understanding beautifully articulated in ‘The Doors to my Daughter’s House’.

she’s made it plain that I must never lean against
those doors she’s carved, the ones that swing
hjg
open and shut on oiled hinges at intervals
I can’t predict…

Fittingly, the collection’s final section opens with the line ‘If I could do it over, I think’. The poems that follow speak of heirlooms, old habits, old friends and old fashions in a voice that recognises love as beautiful, complex, painful and, more often than we would like to admit, anticlimactic. The closing poems are more affirmation than resignation, spoken with the wisdom and self-confidence so lacking on that opening roundabout.

***

Saphra does not seek to create art separate from its artist; timeless, weightless, open to vague assumptions and misappropriations. She is writing as daughter, woman, mother, a female poet with a female body, here and now.

Shortlisted for the T S Eliot Poetry Prize,  All my Mad Mothers is a sensual, intimate, honest, virile, expansive, and explosive debut.


All my Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra
Nine Arches Press. 72pp; £9.99. ISBN: 9781911027201


If you are a publisher in the UK or Ireland with a collection, chapbook, or pamphlet written by a woman in 2017/18 that you wish to be considered for review please contact me via the form below in the first instance.

Please also note:

  1. Due to time restraints and the nature of this project, I cannot guarantee a review.
  2. I will only write reviews of collections I think are exceptional.
  3. Review copies will not be returned, whether a review is published or not.

 

Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks: A Review

 

(This review was oringally published in The Poet’s Republic, Issue 5)

Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks, Magi Gibson. ISBN9781910745861: Luath Press;

£7.99

Magi Gibson embodies and emboldens real women here, the ‘untouchables’ who live outside the strict codes of expected femininity.  Many of the poems in Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks speak to authority over the self, and the gall that accompanies such flagrant, unbecoming autonomy in a woman. Providing a refreshing and revitalising deluge of perspectives from which to appreciate both the complexity and simplicity of the female position, each poem nevertheless comes down to the same fundamental principle: that a woman’s right to represent and speak for her own body is, and should be recognised as, inalienable.

‘Woman Sunbathing in Bridgeton’ is thus fittingly and deliciously self-absorbed, its protagonist triumphantly refusing to even acknowledge the masculine tropes women have been taught to fear since childhood: the white van man, the angry dog, the drunk, the youths, even Death itself as it rolls by.  Instead, ‘Serenely she applies/ more lotion.’

We often forget the incredible significance and emblematic nature of the ordinary things in our lives. In Gibson’s hands, lipstick is elevated from spurious indulgence to social marker. In “Barflower”, ‘Her lipstick…/signals more warning than welcome’; in “Gift” it is as quintessential as the ‘toothpaste, tampons,/ shampoo, soap’ slipped into the Refugee Appeal bag.  “Lipstick” brings Gibson’s guilty conscience to the fore.  Seeing her own make-up ritual as ‘a daily act, a sacrament, a quiet solemnity’, she chides herself for the importance she ascribes to it:

But how can I think of shopping for lipstick

while food banks sprout like bindweed in our towns,

while refugees flee burnt-out homes, while bombs drop

on bathrooms just like this…

only to be reminded of its importance by a refugee on the news:

I’ve lost my home, my family,

She tells the camera.

I will not let them take my femininity.

 

Then she smiles. a lip-sticked smile.

A smile of scarlet defiance.

This sentiment is hauntingly echoed in ‘Liberation of Belsen’, where the freed women have been gifted lipstick and are seen ‘wandering/ like wraiths…/their lips, smiling, scarlet.’ No longer a frivolous expenditure, lipstick becomes the marker of friendship and danger, pride and despair, survival and political defiance. And above all else? Autonomy and control.

The collection’s eponymous poem is its penultimate one. ‘Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks’ is a message: do not judge what you do not understand. Struggling to survive:

Her mother and her aunts complain she’s saddled

With a man who’s not a man, who fails his wife and son;

The boy sobs hard so sad he is his  father does not come.

The speaker is bewildered by the ‘Flame-haired fireball’ who ‘deign(s)/ to wash her absent husband’s socks’.  We, as contemporary readers, are called to arms, called to scorn and pity the broken-spirit of this once-fierce ‘virago’.  And yet we must be cautious; the actions of others are so often, and so easily prescribed convenient, negative, motivations.  Gibson delves deeper into the sentiment behind Valda Grieve’s ‘Send me your dirty linen’, using the poem to explore, not superficial wifely duty, but the intimate physicality and sexuality of a woman separated from her lover, a woman who perhaps:

…stripped

off her clothes, snipped the tangled twine, ripped off

the wrap, breathed in the distant, lonely smell of him…

Somehow this woman is all the women in this collection; suffering, yet suffering for a higher purpose.  She does not wash his socks because she is told to, because it is expected of her, as a woman, as a wife. No, ‘She washed his socks for love.’

Underpinning this narrative, several of Gibson’s personal poems reflect the sadness, if not regret, that comes with recognising a disconnect from one’s past. The divide is represented through the shift from the physical labour of her father, and his generation, to the intellectual pursuits of her ‘arty-farty glitterati’, who appear to have lost their grip on reality, ‘Nibbling crumb-sized canapés, not/ From silver trays or porcelain plates,/ But old roof slates’. These poems acknowledge with irreverent finesse a distinct sense of otherness and, through Gibson’s recognition of the ironic construction of her world, the reader gains a fresh, sharp perspective on the flimsy realities in which we are often so desperate to enshroud ourselves.

Magi Gibson’s latest collection is an effusive and vibrant celebration of womanhood.  Presented without apology or qualification, its poems are at times joyful, dignified, sorrowful, proud, and ridiculous. Some poems read more as interludes between riveting sequences, but this is a minor point in an otherwise enthralling collection.  To be read in the bath, or at the gym, or up a mountain; wherever it is that you are most yourself.

 

The Growing Season: A Review

 

growing-season-books-page_proof-2

The Growing Season, Helen Sedgwick’s second novel, does not set out to radically alter the reader’s world view. Its goal is neither to posit advances in medical science as something to be feared and abhorred; nor to euphorically postulate these advances as the inevitable, triumphant epitome of a species that has transcended itself.

The pouch has long been accepted as the best way to have children, as it allows adults to circumnavigate the plethora of biological, socio-economical, political, and religious issues that dictate natural birth.

In a world that recognises pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood as society’s cornerstone (not its inconvenient truth), the pouch is the perfect, perfectly safe, perfectly equal way to have a family. Its parent company, FullLife, appears open, honest, and genuinely passionate about its work, offering care plans and payment options to suit every circumstance.

By the time the novel begins, the wonder and marvel of the pouch’s technology has been relegated, much like a smartphone, to its novelty features. Pouches are no longer just life-givers (and life-savers), they are fashion accessories: celebrity endorsements, sensory inputs, and seasonal covers have become the way to guarantee your unborn child is up-to-date with the latest trends on their Birth Day.

Indeed, it is the advent of smartphones, and Sedgwick’s light, meticulous touch that makes the pouch so palatable. Twenty years ago, this novel would have seemed fantastical, futuristic, and fundamentally untenable. Now, with a generation rising behind us who have never known a world without the internet, we can easily, if uneasily, appreciate how such paradigm-shifting technology has been so seamlessly integrated into everyday life. Who, now, would go to the library before reaching for their phone? Who, then, could possibly choose a natural birth, with its inherent and varied risks, over the pouch?

This is the challenge faced by Avigail and her daughter Eva. Working against the common belief that the pouch is without fault (even when they themselves have benefitted from its invention), Eva is forced to shut down her mother’s campaign for answers and accountability because people simply do not want to know. That is, until an unusual media silence and a chance connection stir Eva’s suspicions, and compel her to finish what her mother started.

Sedgwick successfully navigates the complex and multifaceted intricacies of The Growing Season by refusing to sensationalize the characters and events of her story. There are no social avengers, determined to destroy life as we know it; no evil corporation hell-bent on treachery and malicious deceit; no star-crossed lovers who can only live and die in absolutes.  That is not to say the novel is without loss, heartache, and pain. But the circumstances are human, and so, it follows, are their consequences. Replete with human efforts and error, The Growing Season beautifully captures a paradoxical but fundamental truth: the knowledge that perfection is unattainable does not diminish the worthiness of its pursuit.

(Harvill Secker, 320 p. ISBN-13: 978-1911215950, £12.99: Published 7th September 2017)

 

 

5 things I’ve learned since…

…I started submitting my work for publication.

1. Simultaneous submissions are a mixed bag

Simultaneous submissions feel good in the beginning when you don’t have a lot to submit and want to get your foot in the door. That said, they really only work when the rejections come first.  Last year, I had a particular poem submitted to three different journals. The first response was a shortlisting for publication, so I did the right thing and withdrew it from the other two.  In the end the shortlisting journal didn’t accept my poem, which meant I lost out on, not one, but three, potential opportunities to see it in print.

2. Always have more submission opportunities and deadlines lined up than you can keep track of…*

Starting out I could tell you every deadline and every turnaround time for every competition, grant and journal I submitted to.  It drove me (and my nearest and dearest) around the bend. I would wake up almost frantic every morning, check my phone, mope around all day, check, check and re-check my email.  When something eventually pinged up, I was instantly euphoric if it was an acceptance; devastated if it was a rejection. Either way, N&D were subjected to the extensive ‘I’m on my way’ or ‘The end is nigh’ monologue. It was just too intense and, ultimately, unsustainable.

Now I aim to have at between 5-7 submissions on the go at any one time, with turnaround times varying from 6 weeks to 6 months. It means I always know something is being considered somewhere, making it hard to fixate on one particular submission.

*…in your head.  Always, always, always keep track of submissions on paper or electronically.

3. Make it fun 

Submitting is a labour of love and at times the labour can outweigh the love, especially if you’ve had a string of rejections. So do something to take the edge off.

I recently created Submission/ Publication bingo cards for 2017 and stuck them to my fridge.  There is a different publication, competition, or award in each square. When I submit, I draw a blue circle around that publication.  Every time I’m succesful, it’s a red heart on the Publication card.  A line of blues and I’ll treat myself to a cd or new book; a line of reds, an extra subscription or a workshop.

A simple enough idea but it keeps my momentum going, and keeps it light.

4. Don’t be afraid to submit to the big names

Or to keep submitting to them if you’re not successful.  Three of my publications this year have come from journals I have been submitting to for several years now.  In each case I waited six months to a year between submissions, to give my writing a chance to get better.

5. A literary calendar can be a very useful thing

Something with nice pictures and lots of writing space for each date.  I use it to record deadlines, submissions, acceptances, publications, and launches, as well as workshops, readings, writing days, and other literary things I do.  It lets me plan my submissions, celebrate my successes, and appreciate just how far I have come.

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