Everybody's Reading

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Review by Emma Lee of "Beyond the Tune" by Jayne Stanton



The title of Jayne Stanton's collection comes from the opening poem, 'Grace Notes,' a journey to Ireland via ferry where the final stanza invites readers to

'Wave on your luggage, walk the only road there is
till it runs out of tarmac and the salt air draws you. Listen
for the notes between the notes. Slip beyond the tune.'


It’s an apposite title because most of the poems invite readers to look beyond the words on the page to the images and thoughts conjured within. For example in 'Suave and debonair' a girl’s pride in her father glosses over but still recognises his faults:

'Daddy’s girl, my angle’s blind
to a thinning crown, the comb-over;
a weak heart under peacock swagger – and
you’re taller, somehow, out of overalls
in slacks with knife-edge creases down
to split and polish; hands in pockets
weighing small change possibilities.
You shrug your shoulders
into a hounds tooth blazer, square
the broken checks of green and cream;
leather buttons left undone, token casual.


My formative years in toughened hands:
our lifelines grafted till you learn the art of letting go.'


The accumulation of details allows the reader to build the picture in their mind’s eye. The use of end of line enjambment hurries the reader over the suggestions of doubt; the 'weak heart' is brushed over to the emphasis on 'peacock swagger.' 'Suave and debonair' isn’t the only poem to touch on memories of growing up, but, like the others, it doesn’t dwell on sentiment. There’s an acknowledgement of things not being ideal, but no hagiographic embellishment either. 'Vintage' epitomises this with a look back to family seaside holidays, triggered by discovering an old case in the attic, with its sense of making the best of things.

'Rediscover Pac-a-Macs as beachwear,
resurrect the swing coat, tartan duffle bag;
own the promenade in red T-bar sandals.
Strike a pose in that ruched nylon swimsuit
christened in trawler oil, your profile
caught in the blink of a box Brownie’s eye.'


'Pac-a-Macs as beachwear' is a succinct description of summer on a UK beach. Swing coats are back in for Autumn/Winter 2014 but are never fashionable in summer. Fortunately the Brownie isn’t high definition enough to capture goose-bumps. It’s the telling choice of which details to record that create a solid foundation for these poems.
 
The tone of the tune changes too. Near the middle is a sequence of four poems, 'Some stories from the other side' which take a darker tone. In '2. Pet' an ambiguous her has learnt to reduce her world to his house:

'feigns pleasure, throaty
as his fingers find the chip
that keeps her his.


He likes her stone-bellied;
she dreams of slipped collars,
a quick way out.


Each time he sidles back. Redolent
of feral nights in back alleys, he pins her down
with stories of newborns drowned in buckets.'


There’s love too, and not just in the poem’s title, 'Love in Led Zepplin album covers'

'We pissed lyrical in pseudo-psychedelic dreams;
dawns bled tangerine, our zepplins crashed
manila skies with hummingbirds and butterflies
whose roundel-painted wings we glued
in grounded chips of china blue.


The towers on Dudley Road are long gone;
you and I, my rock, my song, still ramble on.'


The shorter 'i' vowel sounds give way to the longer 'o' sounds as youth became older and the initial urgency of romance became enduring love. 'Beyond the Tune' lives up to its apt title.

About the reviewer
Emma Lee has published two poetry collections, Mimicking a Snowdrop (Thynks Press), Yellow Torchlight and the Blues (Original Plus) and has a third, Ghosts in the Desert, forthcoming from Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2015. She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com and is a blogger-reviewer for Simon and Schuster. She also reviews for The Journal, Elsewhere and London Grip magazines.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Live the Life You Love: A Review by Paul Towers of Carol Leeming's Choreopoem

This review was originally published in Western Park Gazette.


Everybody’s Reading is a 9 day festival of all things reading; whether it is about starting to write, read or just discuss, this Leicester festival aims to facilitate that interest.

A Chorepoem is really a dramatised monologue, but acted rather than just narrated. The form is something that the author is rapidly making her very own.

Local writer, singer and teacher Carol Leeming was commissioned to write three pieces of work based around Leicester’s Cultural Quarter. Live the Life You Live is the second of this trilogy following on from The Loneliness of The Long Distance Diva.

Tonight was the very first reading of the piece by the author at Leicester University’s Embrace Arts Centre in the Richard Attenborough Centre on Lancaster Road.

An expectant crowd gathered for a very different piece from Long Distance Diva. Written to be performed by a beautiful 20 something, mixed race gay man this was the story of 1980′s Leicester and how a young man could not feel part of any community due to his heritage. Abandoned by dysfunctional parents, Maz grows up using the one thing he has, his body, to get by.

Carol Leeming’s uncanny ear for the Leicester vernacular, honed no doubt by her undoubted musical talents, peppers this tale with her very idiosyncratic aphorisms, beautifully descriptive 2 or 3 word phrases which invoke all manner of emotions. Her reading of the piece brought it to life like no other.

Meeting a Scouse Toff in a gay club, Maz has to confront racism and mental illness and almost his own demise before hopefully emerging a more centred person.

I can’t wait to see this transformed into a complete theatrical show

See also: http://ptreviews.blog.com/?p=208
 
About the reviewer
Paul Towers is a writer and performer based in Leicester who regularly writes for The Western Park Gazette. See also: http://ptreviews.blog.com/.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Joiner Shows Us the Clues: Review by Rebecca Bird of "Melanchrini" by Maria Taylor


Maria Taylor’s debut collection Melanchrini is the music of archaeology. She digs deep trenches in the right places, uncovers the right amount of dust and earth, knows the histories and peculiarities of her subjects, yet finds inevitably that these past peoples – embedded as memories in her poetry – have been living deficient: missing something from their lives. Maria Taylor has an assured and informed grasp on this nature of absence, of departure, of death and importantly, of not-quite-yet and such excavation, we get true lyrical glimpses at the underside of normal and how the impact of ‘not-having’ resonates throughout ordinary lives.

The entire first section illuminates ‘not-having’ with family and personal memory. ‘Outside’ offers a stunning lyric about pregnancy and the expectation of birth: ‘I stroke your head through my flesh/the moon curve of you.’

‘At Her Grandmother’s Table’, almost a cold opening, references morning coffee over the years and the participants now long gone: ‘your grandfather hushed and stormless’ is a typical Taylor usage, similar to ‘unhistoried’ ('99/2000') and ‘unfathered’ ('Folk Tale') in that it implies something that is lost that can perhaps never be retrieved, or righted.

‘Par Avion’, an ode to air mail, lingers on homesickness as ‘an open wound’ and she seemingly lampshades these 'lost' themes in her work with the stanza:


Faces, half-recalled, revived by pen:
sisters getting married, fathers always busy,
babies getting born, you missing.
 
Taylor has a very self-aware, authoritative voice and it is striking to see how complete this collection is to itself. Although I cannot work out why the three sections to the book have been ordered so, there isn’t a single poem that does not belong. Put that down to a decent editor and a hard-working author.

Taylor does have a tendency to revisit ideas: ‘I keep my knees shut’ ('Thea') and ‘That I should keep my knees together’ ('Three Things I Learnt In Church') for example, but in the context of the collection as a whole, this works. It creates a fullness: too many collections of poetry turn out to be collections of poems. Not this one. Taylor creates big, beefy images, which sustain and keep you full until dinnertime.

The hit of the collection, for me, is ‘I Woke Into Birth’. It serves as the pinnacle of Taylor’s mastery of line-control and structure:


as if surgeons were washing up in the bowl of my womb
as if I were a matryoshka, exposing lathed children
as if a hunter had slit the belly of a doe to reveal butterflies’

I returned to this poem considerably during my inhalation of this book. All poets are at some point taught to not use too many images within a poem, as it leads to a kind of metaphor saturation which makes the writing inaccessible. This poem, perhaps in itself, taught me that if you have control over your structure and control over relevance, you can arrive anywhere you want to in a poem and let the reader look out the windows. It is Taylor's control within the line that means that the poem doesn't dry out from the weight of metaphor: everything that needs to be examined in a particular line is examined.

And it is this line-control that makes it the book. Pound would have it that poetry begins to atrophy when it is too far from music. I think Taylor would agree because she blends keen rhythm and timbre with informed verse and it is so akin to when good rock bands start bothering with their lyrics. She has a bass player in the walls of her writing hand.

Her poem ‘The Language of Slamming Doors’ could represent the collection, in that that she herself is a ‘joiner pointing out the scars’ of an old, empty house. She knows every bad floorboard, every secret passage. And she wants to show you.

Melanchrini is available from
Nine Arches Press.


About the reviewer
Rebecca Bird was born in 1991 and is the editor of Hinterland. She has been published in magazines including The Rialto, The Interpreter's House and Envoi. She currently lives and works in Guildford.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Collected Works of Gabrielle Zevin, reviewed by Rachel Wheeler


The Collected Works of Gabrielle Zevin.

I’m going to be completely honest with you; I am a MASSIVE Gabrielle Zevin fan. I have all of her books. One might say I’m obsessed with them, but I would probably use the word “enchanted”.

For many years, her debut novel for young adults Elsewhere was my absolute favourite book. I got it for Christmas when I was 15 years old (a random purchase by my Mum, an excellent choice!) and I remember sitting in the room we were staying in at my Granny’s house, completely avoiding my family (and crying, because the book is both so tragic and so beautiful) because I simply had to keep reading it. It tells the story of a girl, Liz, who is sadly killed in a road accident just before her Sixteenth birthday, and ends up in a place called Elsewhere. It is a gorgeous book full of lovely words, and so many beautiful quotes; my favourite being;

A human’s life is a beautiful mess.

After that Christmas, however, I didn’t really think about seeing if Zevin had any other books out, and although I occasionally got Elsewhere off the shelf and read it (usually in one sitting, or at least the same day!) I didn’t think about it all the much, and even quite forgot all about it at one point.

Several years later I was clearing out my bedroom, fishing around under my bed, and lo and behold one of my attempts pulled out my well-worn copy of Elsewhere! Cue me spending the next 3 hours reading it, crying even more than ever before and completely neglecting my tidying duties! It was then that I decided I needed more, and naturally I got online to see what else Zevin had written.

This led me to Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac and All These Things I’ve Done- which is the first book in the Birthright Trilogy.

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac deals with a teenage girl who suffers a fall and winds up with amnesia, finding that her personality and interests have completely changed. This is particularly tricky as she now doesn’t remember her boyfriend or find him at all attractive! The main struggle for Naomi however, is trying to do what makes her happy, without disappointing her friends and family, all of whom expect her to remember and be her ‘old self’. There is a very valuable message in this book about being honest, being yourself, and also about giving people second chances.

In contrast, All These Things I’ve Done is about New York in 2082; Chocolate is illegal (I know, I am as appalled as you are!), paper and water are very hard to come by, and our protagonist Anya- whose family are one of the main illegal chocolate manufacturers and distributors- is in a constant struggle to stay on the right side of the law, and do her best for her siblings, Leo and Natalia. Her parents are both dead from chocolate gang-related violence and her Nana- their legal carer- is bedbound, leaving Anya arranging pretty much everything, with the help from her father’s lawyer. Reading something so removed from real life is a breath of fresh air, and I was soon anticipating the release of the second book in the trilogy Because it is My Blood. Whilst browsing Zevin’s website, I found out about a competition to win a signed copy of Because it is My Blood, and you could enter with fan art. Naturally, this was my entry:




To my great delight, a couple of weeks later I found out that I was one of the winners! And after several more weeks of waiting (as the book was coming from America) I received a beautiful package in the post! The box itself was nothing special, but the book is just gorgeous. Remove the dust cover on any of the hardback books in the Birthright trilogy, and you are greeted by a chocolate bar! Not a real one, unfortunately, but I adore the attention to detail and inventiveness of the design. I was so excited to receive this book, not only was it signed but there was also a lovely personal note in there from Zevin, saying that my picture brightened her day! To be honest though, I have far more to thank her for, as her words never fail to brighten my day!



Mmm...books! Unfortunately my copy of “All These Things I’ve Done” is a paperback, so I only have two of the chocolate bars!

One of my favourite things about the Birthright trilogy, is how Zevin doesn’t shy away from challenging issues. There really are times, especially in the final book In the Age of Love and Chocolate, where you question whether our protagonist will even make it to the end of the series. Although these books are supposedly for young adults, I would certainly think plenty of adults would find them very engaging and thought provoking.
Moving onto Zevin’s books more specifically for adults; last Christmas I asked for The Hole We’re In and Margarettown. I unwrapped these on Christmas morning with much delight, and then hilarity ensued as I tried to read the blurb of Margarettown and realised that my Mum had managed to accidentally order it in Spanish! So I began with The Hole We’re In. This book takes a very different format to Zevin’s other books; every few chapters you find yourself hearing the story from a different family member’s perspective, and the story takes place over many years whilst you watch the family grow up and change. I didn’t find this quite as enchanting as Zevin’s other books, however with the subject matter (family falling outs, debt) don’t quite lend themselves to that so much anyway. The thing I do really like about this book is how down to earth and honest it is about life and families.
When I eventually got Margarettown in English, I found my new favourite book. It is about one woman, but how ultimately one woman can be many different women at once. I adore the metaphor used here. Although at times the storyline does seem a little far-fetched from realism (although to be honest if you want a realistic storyline I suggest you stick to the encyclopaedia or get an imagination... however the emotions and messages in Zevin’s work are always realistic and truthful) Margarettown can teach us all a lot about what it is to be human, how nobody is perfect and nobody is the same person every single day, but learning to love those little imperfections and changes in people is beautiful.
Margarettown proudly wore the title of being my favourite book for several months, until I got my hands on a copy of The Collected Works of A.J.Fikry (alternatively named The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry in the US, however the Collected Works is the original title.) The first thing that hit me was the gorgeous cover artwork. It is a sculpture by an artist called Su Blackwell, whose work I would highly recommend looking at! This cover hands down beats all of the other cover artwork (Yes, even the chocolate bars!), and it makes me very happy that such a beautiful book has a cover so befitting of its loveliness. As with the other books I really don’t want to give the plot away, in case someone reads this then wants to read it, but in a nutshell I would say this book is about someone being found when they didn’t even know they were lost, and also about the power of books, which seems an incredibly fitting way to round up this review, and indeed my collection (although I certainly hope there will be more books to add to it soon!).
When I mention Gabrielle Zevin to people I am still astounded at how rarely people have heard of her or her books, so I certainly hope at least one person reading this decides to give her a try, and I have to say in a way I’m almost jealous of anyone who gets to read them all for the first time! I don’t quite know how to sum up her work and do it justice, certainly my favourite thing about it is that she uses so many different topics, yet there is always a relatable message. However I think probably the best way to leave it is with a quote from Zevin herself (this one is taken from The Collected Works of A.J.Fikry):
I want to leave you with something cleverer than that, but it’s all I know.


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad: A Review by Caroline Gregory of M. R. James




Montague Rhodes James is, without a doubt, the ‘Founding Father of the Modern Ghost Story’ (Peter Haining, The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, 2007, p.xix), and our concept of the quintessentially English ghost story was perfected by James through the publication of over thirty supernatural tales during his lifetime. To read his stories of apparitions and the paranormal in the twenty-first century, one needs a quiet, dark candlelit room with the autumn winds howling outside. Or how about the 600 year old Guildhall in the heart of Leicester city; a place where history and mystery merge, apparently hosting five ghosts of its own before R. M. Lloyd Parry introduced further horror on the night of Wednesday 1 October to perform a reading of two of James’ tales – 'The Ash Tree' and 'O, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,' the latter which will be reviewed later in this article.

James was always interested in the supernatural. The superb 2013 BBC documentary, M. R. James: Ghostwriter, written and narrated by Mark Gatiss, explores the author’s early fascination with this topic and Gatiss reads an excerpt of a short ghost story written whilst James was in Sixth Form college (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOGZ4WQT2vg). He clearly had a knack for the genre from an early age.

Later, in 1893, just before Halloween, M. R. James enraptured his audience at the Cambridge Chit Chat Society gathering with the telling of ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ and James would continue to entertain fellow scholars with further readings throughout his lifetime, including what we now consider to be the traditional telling of horror stories on Christmas Eve. Indeed, most of his stories sound as though they should be read out loud, as shown during the Guildhall’s event, and the narrator’s voice often comes through as though he is talking directly to the reader, with comments and asides as if he knows the characters personally.

That first reading of ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ set the template for James’ work yet, somehow, he is never repetitive, or if his style is, the writing is so tight, the audience doesn’t notice or simply enjoys the similarities between his stories whilst waiting for the next twist in the tale.

His style is now known as the Jamesian technique, and his stories were either set in an idyllic country / coastal location or an ancient European town; the protagonist is usually an erudite scholar with a hint of naivety or a reactionary view on the world outside his understanding, and something is discovered which is linked to the past and, therefore, becomes the conduit of whatever malevolent force James will unleash onto his hero and the expectant audience.(See
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/31/how-to-tell-ghost-story).

Another key aspect of his tales, as laid out in his Some Remarks on Ghost Stories, is that his stories were set in present day. What could be more spookier to his Chit Chat Society friends than hints of the supernatural experienced by characters that sounded like them, who visited the places they visited, and had the same interests; as opposed to the Gothic novel, popular in the earlier part of the Victorian era, which often created distance between the reader and the events because there was little, if any chance, of the reader experiencing the horrors of Gothic events.

M. R. James is described as combining the ‘mundane with the horrific’ (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOGZ4WQT2vg), and this is what piques our imagination because James will describe something ordinary, if not a tad boring, and then suddenly we are presented with the horrific. James developed the technique of not giving too much away and he seemed to appreciate that the imagination of the reader is far more creative than anything he could write. He never truly explains what is actually happening so our minds are left to their disturbed devices.

‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Comes to You, My Lad’ published in M. R. James’ 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary contains all these tropes and, even now, the 21st century reader relishes the chills that tingle down the spine because we don’t really understand what is happening to the protagonist, Professor Parkins.

Parkins is visiting the East Coast for a golfing holiday with the Colonel and where he will also take advantage of exploring a part of the shoreline where the Templars were reported to once live. Whilst rambling and excavating, he comes across a small object. He knows it is of ‘considerable age’ but Parkins quickly forgets about it, until the servant of the Globe Inn tells Parkins he has placed what appears to be a whistle, on his chest of drawers in Parkins’ room after finding it in latter’s coat. The fact he has forgotten it rings alarm bells for the reader who knows instinctively it will be the cause of later mayhem and should not have been dismissed.

On finally examining the whistle, Parkins sees there is a Latin inscription which translates as ‘Who is this who is coming?’ Can a single line be any more haunting and loaded with mystery? Parkins blows the whistle and seems to become entranced by it. Only when he realises that the wind is howling outside, is he shaken out of his reverie.

That night, Parkins has a distressing sleep, tormented by a bad dream. The nightmare is universal in the sense of who has not experienced a dream of being chased by something, trying to get away from something and ‘looking up in an attitude of painful anxiety’? (M. R. James, ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Comes to You, My Lad’ in Peter Haining, ed., The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, p. 12). When he awakes, James continues to appeal to our own experiences of waking up, confused and distressed, convinced there is something in the room with us, and we all know the feeling of that blurred reality between waking and sleeping which James plays on so sinisterly.

Parkins is established from the beginning, though, as a rational man and even when the maid comments on the dishevelled state of the second bed in his room, he has a logical explanation. Again, whilst playing golf with the Colonel, Parkins continues to dismiss any notion of the supernatural or myths of ‘whistling the wind’ and he only seems mildly perturbed by the young boy who crashes into them, when they return to the Globe, saying he has seen something in the window that turns out to be the Professor’s room.

Professor Parkins’ refusal to acknowledge there is any malice associated with the whistle until the final act, as it were, makes it all the more terrifying when he is finally confronted that night by the ‘thing’ that is in the second bed:

Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realised, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion. (p.19)

The description of the professor’s cries, as the thing comes towards him until he is half out of the window, is actually very limited. We don’t need James to give us any extraneous detail because we can ‘see’ it. An author can never know the true limits of an individual’s imagination, but our own mind certainly does! Our own supernatural ‘horror’ haunts us in this final scene because leading up to that point, James provides all the mechanism for our imagination to fill in the gaps at the crucial moment.

M. R. James is succinct in his endings. It is jarring when the Colonel saves Parkins yet there is no discussion of what has happened. The protagonist is clearly affected by the horror in his room, but that’s all we need to know an
d we are always left wondering.

About the reviewer
Caroline Gregory is a Leicester born writer who is finally gaining the courage to share her work! She specialises in Victorian Studies, graduating with an MA from the University of Leicester, and her favourite genres are sensation fiction and the supernatural (although she makes a clear distinction between horror and the horrific, and you’ll never catch her watching Saw!). She is also passionate about animal welfare and her three rescued pooches sit at her feet whilst she researches and writes, and occasionally they even inspire the creative process. Caroline published several articles in Dubai, where she lived for six years, about the plight of abandoned pets in the UAE. She is currently working on a screenplay with her husband and the plot exemplifies her love of the macabre.
   

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Chemistry of Holding: Review by Maria Taylor of "Nitrate"

This review was first published in Under the Radar Magazine, published by Nine Arches Press.
 
 

 
 
 Nitrate by Simon Perril (Salt, 2010), reviewed by Maria Taylor

The history of cinema began with an antivivisectionist. The French physiologist E. J. Marey wanted to understand the rudiments of movement without physically tampering with the living creatures he was studying. He invented the chronophotographic gun, an instrument which didn’t hurt flesh but instead captured time and space. The gun itself was actually a camera, capable of taking twelve photos a second - a device which, rather than compromising skin, fur or feather, could only ‘graze the skin of space,’ as Simon Perril puts it in his new collection Nitrate.
 
Nitrate is a collection born out of Perril’s interest in the birth of cinema and Marey’s work. Perril himself has described the collection as ‘idiosyncratic’; he does not write of actors or Hollywood glamour, but instead deals with the mechanics of early film and the constituents of which it was made: ‘bladders, putty, collodion.’ He is also interested in the scientific processes used to keep the image on the frame, what he calls ‘the chemistry of holding.’  In particular, Perril is intrigued by the notion of the still, as well as the moments in between these images that Marey couldn’t capture:
           
I reached The Intermission
fallen through a here-shaped hole.
The minutes pile up like snowflakes.
 
‘Here-shaped’ would be a good way of describing Nitrate; since many of his poems are concerned with the static rather than the mutable. In ‘Death by Snowflake,’ not only are there more snowflakes, but also inertia and the relentless nothingness of nothing:
           
The minutes cover a man
like snowflakes
                       
lost on impact, skin
thinks nothing
             
Marey’s experiments in the 1890s fortuitously collided with the arrival of the moving image; with his chronophotographic gun he’d inadvertently invented the ‘shot.’ Of course the term still exists and Perril pays homage to Marey in ‘The End of Portraiture.’ Here, Perril considers ‘photography’s slow thaw’ from static freeze to movement. He is concerned with the concept of that ‘thaw,’ when the still wings of a bird assume movement on the ‘lunar slither’ of photographic film. No accident perhaps then that the front cover of Nitrate features a collage by the poet himself of a camera being destroyed - or perhaps vivisected - to show the release of birds from within.
 
Which brings us to the title, Nitrate: Cellulose nitrate was the substance used as a film base in early cinema photography. It had one significant drawback in that it was highly flammable, so much so that the US Navy showed trainee film projectionists warning films of nitrate reels on fire even when they were fully submerged in water. Perril describes ‘the nitrate symphony / glinting incandescent / for an age / learning to dissolve. ‘And yet collodion was also used in early film, a substance which in liquid form was used for dressing wounds. The irony of early film having healing and destructive properties emerges as a significant theme, as evinced in ‘Succession’:
           
Each time we talk of the ‘shot’
a glass plate drops: pieces of photo, gun cotton collodion
continually dressing the wound
leaking frames.
 
There is an implicit appreciation here that the materials used to capture film have their own inherent life and purpose like the images they depict. The beauty of this poetry is its immediacy and its ability to crystallise language. The poet’s skill is in achieving directness and economy, there is nothing superfluous here: ‘flux-wrapped / wave-swept / pulse thwacked.’ Perril succeeds in balancing delicacy with punch.
 
The collection is divided into three parts: Nitrate, The Intermission and Forward. The second of these, The Intermission, is Perril’s attempt to capture ‘lost time,’ the moments in between Marey’s shots, ‘an enforced intermission in which we’re waiting for our lives to begin’. These poems are much more personal and have a ‘lived-in’ feel whilst still retaining the cinematic themes of the collection itself:
 
The idea of cinema
in the mind of a painting,
 
my daughter puts small objects to bed
they dream
 
the idea of audience
in the mind of a poem.
 
There is here a more domestic, dreamier outlook on the notion of the still, whereby inanimate objects somehow conjure themselves into life. In Perril’s hands, the poem similarly conjures itself into life:
           
The radioactive weaponry of the poem
comes to life; the fructification of nothing
 
Echoing Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ Nitrate could be seen as a comment on the beauty, intricacy and nothingness of art.
 
 
About the reviewer
Maria Taylor is a Leicestershire-based poet. Her debut collection, Melanchrini, was published by Nine Arches Press in Summer 2012, and was subsequently shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. Her writing has been published in The North, The Guardian, The TLS, Staple and others. She blogs at http://miskinataylor.blogspot.co.uk/
 
 
 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Review of Brigid Brophy's 'In Transit' by Charles Wheeler








Author’s note: This article features heavy use of “they/them/their” as a gender-neutral pronoun. This is a) necessary, for reasons explained within, b) entirely consistent with historical use, and c) only technically incorrect by recent convention.

Brigid Brophy was never one to mince her words. Her lifetime saw her undertake staunch activism for the rights of both authors and animals, and her most famous foray into non-fiction was co-authoring the gleefully antagonistic Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without (including Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights and Hamlet, if you were wondering). But while that work may be somewhat of a throwaway gag, that same spirit of boldly confronting the status quo with mocking wit underpins the staggering literary and cultural brilliance of her 1969 novel, In Transit.

Told from the perspective of Pat O’Rooley, an introspective, awkward Irish person who forgets their gender while trapped in an airport, this “Heroi-cyclic novel” is an unforgiving deconstruction of gender roles, binary essentialism, and wider notions of identity. Pat (Evelyn Hilary, officially) experiences this crisis in the form of an engrossingly labyrinthine internal monologue, in which their thoughts move at breakneck speed and jump to conclusions from the smallest piece of evidence.

Pat’s interactions with other characters are often brief and fraught, as Pat scours every sentence, every bit of body language, every tangible action or reaction for clues. Brophy lays out a tight yet wild narrative, putting Pat through myriad trials ranging from simple social awkwardness to actual physical danger and pseudo-espionage. It’s a rollercoaster ride that is, when viewed objectively, considered and well-structured, but in the moment feels utterly out of control and even frightening. Even a chance meeting with an old friend’s husband and an unexpected appearance on a television panel show being filmed in the airport raise more questions than they answer, as Pat’s observations and assumptions contradict, mislead, and confuse.

Through this, Pat develops into a reliably unreliable narrator – we see their thought processes in explicit detail, and furthermore, we see the issues therein. Pat’s willingness to over-extrapolate conclusiveness from any clue with which they are presented is a clear shot at the frenzied binary essentialism and heteronormativity which dictates social gender and sexuality conventions – the central edict of which is that Pat, and indeed everyone, must be a boy or a girl, and that this identity is easily established from simple cues and behaviours. Brophy is having none of it, and Pat’s clawing towards one extreme or the other is a cutting parody of these attitudes which lays their sheer ridiculousness bare.

However well In Transit’s narrative is put together, though, it’s the language and physical structure of text in which Brophy’s true genius lies. Saturated with puns and wordplay, the novel does at times stray towards being offputtingly dense, but is always worth the extra effort – some passages may only reveal their virtues after a couple of reads, at which point I found myself questioning the point of sentences one can understand instantly. Where’s the fun in that?

Along with the challenging plain text, there are also plenty of stylistic quirks employed. They’re never mere bells and whistles, though – as with the more challenging passages, the effort of digging deeper pays off. Consider:

I now regretted having so cavalierly {lpeats sgeod  buyp  tthhee  bvoaalridd i t y  o f} my boardingpass.

Brophy employs this multiple-choice trick several times, along with several others – quoting operas, splitting text into multiple columns, puns with foreign words – the lasting inference being that both action and meaning are fluid, changeable, and ultimately a performance. As Pat explores their gender, grasping for any plausible truths, Brophy’s true intent is abundantly clear.

Even with the commentaries on gender norms he cultural commentary of In Transit is never more acerbic than in the novel’s closing section. The airport plays host to a revolution, started by the lesbian subculture of manual workers we meet earlier in the novel, but gradually adopted by the majority of passengers. As they give speeches, play music and make grand yet empty declarations over the PA, Pat’s crisis continues unseen. The revolution is aimless and self-congratulatory, and does nothing to solve the problems faced by Pat – in fact, it facilitates them being ignored entirely. The parallels with numerous facets of 21st century political activism are so stark that the novel would seem ahead of its time had its 2002 reissue been its initial release. For commentary from 1969 to ring so true today is as astonishing as it is upsetting – Brophy observed and criticised so much, and the world did so little.

As a work of fiction and as a work of criticism, in spirit and in execution, In Transit remains cutting-edge 45 years after its release. Brophy’s desire to pull apart accepted meanings of gender identity results in a brutal and hilarious work which lets no assumption or convention escape unexamined. It’s political art which sacrifices neither art nor politics for the sake of the other. It is balanced, challenging and absolutely vital.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Only Write What Only You Can Write, by Jayne Stanton


(Photo of Cathy Grindrod, by Writing East Midlands)

This review is also published on Jayne Stanton's blog here.

With National Poetry Day falling slap-bang in the middle of Leicester’s Everybody’s Reading festival, I wish I could send out little pieces of me to all the concurrent events I’m missing, in order to attend/participate in others.  Buy, hey, what a social whirl it makes for (and, for those who know me well, my poetry social life is a standing joke – in a nice way, of course)!

Last night, nine women attended Cathy Grindrod’s workshop, Only Write What Only You Can Write, hosted by Soundswrite women’s poetry group as part of Everybody’s Reading festival – one of two free and open-to-all events we received funding for, this year.  (2013’s ER workshop with Kim Moore was packed to the rafters).

Cathy Grindrod is a widely-published poet and former Derbyshire Poet Laureate.  She also writes plays, scripts and literary fiction and works as a literature consultant, poetry tutor and mentor.  I met her a couple of years ago when she ran a workshop for shortlisted candidates for a mentorship programme.  (Under her guidance, I was able to hone my rather vague aspirations as an ‘emerging poet’ into a finite list of achievable short-term aims).

By way of introduction, we shared ways in which we, as writers, ‘keep the faith.’ These included attending writing groups to give and receive honest feedback, co-mentoring, and reading/sharing published work by others.  During the course of the two and a half hour workshop, we explored ten ways that Cathy has found useful in her writing life.

We spent some time reflecting on our personal beliefs and whether we felt these were evident in our writing.  We were also invited to consider who we write for, and writing with the reader in mind.  For me, this was a reminder of how easy it is too become too inwardly focused, to say nothing of the lure of publication in highly-regarded poetry magazines.

And we discussed the importance of being ‘in the world’ and learning from others.  I know I’ve benefitted most from writing groups that are outward-looking and have a keen interest in all that is current in the world of poetry, as well as the wealth of its past.

At number four on the list was ‘recognising poetic snobbery’ – how refreshing!  We each had our own view of what this constitutes.  If we recognise it for what it is, we can set it aside.

We also engaged in some short writing exercises.  As well as coming away with a nugget or two, I’ve discovered new ways into a poem that I’m keen to use again.  For now, will I be able to leave those nuggets alone for long enough to come back to them with a reader’s objectivity?
 
About the reviewer 
Jayne Stanton is a poet, teacher, tutor and musician.  Her work appears widely in print and online poetry magazines.  Her pamphlet, Beyond the Tune (2014), is available from Soundswrite Press.  She blogs at jaynestantonpoetry.wordpress.com and tweets @stantonjayne.

I Can't Wait for Friday: Review by Liz Gray of Nicci French's "Blue Monday" Series




I first came across Nicci French in my local library: I had joined a crime reading group because I wanted to widen my circle of crime fiction and to discuss books with other readers.  At that point I had only read Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, and the crime shelves were so packed with writers that I didn't know where to begin.  But the group facilitator produced a list, and early on we picked out a Nicci French novel, Blue Monday.
 
Nicci French is in fact a pair of writers, husband Sean French and his wife Nicci Gerard: and together they write very successful crime fiction.  Blue Monday is the first of a sequence of novels featuring the psychotherapist Frieda Stark who works with the police in much the same way as Tony Hill in Val McDermid's Wire in the Blood series.  So far the sequence has got as far as Thursday and includes Tuesday's Gone, Waiting for Wednesday and Thursday's Children.

The novels are hard-hitting and often feature highly disturbing scenarios: the abduction of a small child; the murder of a popular local woman who turns out to have had a secret double life; a confused young woman trying to serve tea to a rotting corpse – these books do not pull their punches, but there is always a resolution and that is what makes them satisfying: that, and the fact that it's impossible to guess the outcome.  Nicci French is a master of narrative twists: there's always more than one plot-line and the pace rattles on, interspersed by glimpses into Klein's largely dysfunctional personal life.  She is typical of the therapist who can't sort out their own emotional life: clear-sighted and helpful with her patients, she is unable to sustain a long-term relationship herself, and in the latest book, Thursday's Children, she abruptly finishes with Sandy, the lovely, understanding man who has given up a life in America to be with her.  I'm sure this is not the end of the story; but we'll have to wait for Friday's book to find out.

Setting is very important in crime fiction, and the area of London where Frieda lives is evoked in vivid clarity, as is her basement flat which houses a number of strays passing through, such as Josef, the Polish builder who becomes her friend and confidant.  But the novels sometimes step outside London as well, to the Suffolk coast where Frieda grew up and where she is forced to return in order to investigate a case.

The appeal of the psychotherapist is that, unlike with police dramas where we see the who, the what and the where, here we are able to see something of the why.  And that is something we all surely cry out to know: when we hear of terrible murders or abductions or attacks or even senseless robberies, more than finding out whodunnit we want to know why they dunnit.  And here's where the psychotherapist scores over the policeman: though Frieda Stark is modest about her achievements, she does give us a window on the inner workings of the criminal mind; and that, to me, is more fascinating than any number of car chases.

If you haven't caught up with these stories I urge you to give them a go.  Personally, I can't wait for Friday ...

About the reviewer
Liz Gray is a well-known Leicestershire poet.  She has performed at Word!, Simon Says and more recently has featured in the Everybody's Reading event, 'Women's Words.'  She is a published writer and reviewer and has led poetry workshops at the Richard Attenborough Centre and at local libraries. Her blog can be found at: lizardyoga.wordpress.com.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Pelt" and "Work Horses"

A version of this review was first published in Leicester's own New Walk Magazine.
 

Reviews of Sarah Jackson, Pelt, Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2012, ISBN 9781852249311, 64pp, £8.95, and David Cooke, Work Horses, London: Ward Wood, ISBN 9781908742001, 73pp, £8.99.



In his 1921 essay, ‘Psycho-analysis and Telepathy’ (1921), Freud tentatively suggests a connection between the ‘science’ of psychoanalysis and certain forms of ‘occultism’: 'It no longer seems possible to keep away from the study of what are known as “occult” phenomena .... It does not follow as a matter of course that an intensified interest in occultism must involve a danger to psychoanalysis. We should, on the contrary, be prepared to find reciprocal sympathy between them …. Alliance and co-operation between analysts and occultists might … appear both plausible and promising.'
 
In various ways, Sarah Jackson’s fascinating new collection, Pelt, might be said to take its cue from Freud’s suggestion: many of her poems, that is, seem to investigate a ‘plausible and promising’ alliance between psychoanalytic and occult imagery. In her prose poem ‘The Red Telephone,’ for instance, there mingles a Freudian, infantile wish-fulfilment with an occult, telekinetic violence:


The boy stands at the bottom of the stairs clutching an apricot in his right hand so tightly that the juice runs down between his fingers. In his left hand he holds a toy telephone. It is red plastic with a curly white cord. It rings when you pull it along the ground by its string.
           
The boy pretends to telephone his mother who is upstairs in the bathroom, changing her tights because she has a ladder in her heel. Fall down, he whispers. Fall down. And I swear to you, when her kneecaps crack the bathroom tiles, the small red telephone rings.
 
 Jackson’s poems often seek to visualise such moments of psychic violence between parent and child; to give another example, in ‘What Daddy Built,’ the daughter, ‘wanting to be still-small ... climbed inside the doll’s house / that Daddy built’:

                        You stroked its door, finger-felt its floor,
            placed your cheek on glossy gables. You ran your tongue-tip
            all up the walls, bit down, the wood splinters sweet, cool.
 
            You licked the shiny red roof and it was so slick it slid nearly
            deep inside you. Truly, you could eat this doll’s house that Daddy built
            or it could eat you ....
         
                        Finally you slept,
            your head in the kitchen window, a doll in your teeth.


The eroticised imagery here demonstrates a brave willingness to tackle some of the more disturbing aspects of Freudian and post-Freudian conceptions of father-daughter relationships – what she calls elsewhere ‘the watery / secrets of daughters’ – and this is a bravery which distinguishes much of Jackson’s poetry. The poem visualises an erotic and nostalgic desire for a lost union with the father, symbolised by the doll’s house ‘that Daddy built’ – a desire, that is, to be ‘still-small’ and un-alienated from the close bonds between father and daughter of early childhood. Concomitant with this desire, though, is a kind of violence: the longing for union with the father is also a longing to be ‘eaten,’ or consumed by the doll’s house; and, in this respect, the poem demonstrates that psychic self-survival for the daughter becomes a matter of eat-or-be-eaten: ‘Truly, you could eat this doll’s house that Daddy built / or it could eat you.’ As with many of her poems, Jackson exposes the Darwinian subtext of the Elektra and, indeed, Oedipus complexes: self-survival becomes a matter of psychic violence towards ‘the other.’

Such psychic violence, then, is part of the child’s experience in splitting from the parent; and, although this violence is usually repressed in the unconscious, Freud argues that it can be glimpsed in displaced and symbolic form through dream imagery, and, indeed, in the work of ‘creative writers and day-dreamers.’ In much of Jackson’s collection, poetry takes on the mantle of the Freudian dream-work, and becomes ‘the royal road to the unconscious.’ In Jackson’s imagery, we glimpse, in displaced form, the desires, horrors and, indeed, occult-ish forces of the unconscious. As Freud makes clear in late works such as ‘The Uncanny’ and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the unconscious is the place not only of repressed desires, but also of the irrational, of ‘primitive’ rituals and superstitions, of the infantile and occult-ish belief in psychic omnipotence – of, that is, the infantile and occult-ish belief in a kind of psychic power, which might make a mother fall to the bathroom floor just by wishing it.



If Jackson’s collection is primarily about the vengeful psychic violence exercised by children on their parents, David Cooke’s new collection, Work Horses, might well be read as its mirror image, in its recurrent concern with the attempts by parents and, indeed, past generations to control the future. Whilst Jackson writes about the ways in which children split from their parents, Cooke’s recurrent concern is with the attempts by parents and, more generally, past generations to control their offspring. Throughout the collection, fathers, teachers, priests and rulers loom large, attempting to shape the future in their own image. In ‘Faith of Our Fathers,’ for example, Cooke writes of his Catholic heritage:

            The creed we’d inherited, it was unambiguous
            and always claimed us as its own ....

            Behind it all were generations
            who had prayed like us and chanted,
            professing faith in our creed.


            Sustained by desperation and the certainty
            that human ties will cease,
            they had sought continuance,
            their dreamscapes

            shimmering through isolation.
 
This seeking after ‘continuance’ on the part of past generations – past ‘fathers’ – is a recurrent concern of Cooke, and in poems like ‘St. James Primary, Reading,’ he feels ‘swamped / by history’:

            In our tiny enclave we were swamped
            by history: a Victorian church,
            where we crocodiled to Mass on Wednesdays,
            interceding for the re-conversion of Russia ....


            Boys and girls, we never discovered
            the mysteries of the others’ playground,
            but chanted tables daily –
            our paean to the god of rote learning.

In this poem, there is no release from the past, from ‘rote learning,’ history and religion; other poems in the collection, though, do offer poignant moments of resistance, in which the future tries to escape from the shadow of history. This is Cooke’s strength: his ability to encapsulate powerful moments of tension between past and future, both on political and individual levels. The poem ‘Shadow Boxing’ deals with the latter, recounting an episode from childhood when Cooke was persuaded by his father to take up boxing:  

            I, too, might have been
            a contender when I did my stint
            in the ring, my dad convinced
            I had the style and the stamp of a winner.
            But in the end I just got bored.
            You had to have a killer’s instinct
            to do much better than a draw.

If, in this stanza, the poem captures the moment that Cooke gave up boxing – and hence moved away from his father’s desires – the final stanza generalises the experience into a metaphor about father-son conflict:

            In the gym the lights are low.
            It’s after hours. I’m on my own ....
                        Shadow boxing
            like the best of them, I will show
            him feints, a classic stance,
            trying always to keep up my guard.

Shadow boxing here becomes a powerful image of the relationship between father and son, past and present: an image of reflection and resistance to an absent figure. The father figure may be gone, but is still there – to be echoed and resisted – in shadow form.

Absent-present father figures haunt Cooke’s collection in other forms as well. In ‘The Bronze Horseman,’ the father of St. Petersburg, Peter the Great, haunts the future not as a shadow, but as a statue:

            Gazing implacably into a future
            that only he has willed, he is seated
            squarely on his mount in what might be heroic
            poise, or a pose of self-aggrandizement.

The rider might be ‘about to fly,’ Cooke writes at the end of the poem, ‘were he not restrained / by the invisible ropes of the air.’ The poem, that is, both acknowledges the power and grandeur of the statue, whilst also undercutting its hubris: despite appearances, it cannot defy gravity, and nor, by extension, can Peter really ‘will’ the future in his own image. The subsequent poem, ‘An Irish Maid in St. Petersburg,’ makes this even clearer, providing a satirical counterpart to ‘The Bronze Horseman’:

            [She] looked across a river
            five times as wide as the Lee –


            until the heart was put
            across her by the vision
            of a horseman leaping a rock,
            who it seemed was only a statue,
            a fool of an emperor called Pater,
            Pater the Great, or something like that.

Though his statue can still momentarily put ‘the heart / across’ the viewer, this is hardly the future willed by Peter the Great: rather, this is an Ozymandias-ish future, where Peter is now ‘only a statue’ and a ‘fool’ whose name is not even remembered properly. This is a future where ‘fool’ and ‘Pater’ – that is, of course, ‘father’ – are compounded. This is a future which has wholly escaped from the father’s shadow.

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta Books, 2007). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.