Review: Keep on Spinning, a debut Chapbook by Jen Hughes

What happens if the planet stops spinning? 

Frankly, you don’t want to know. Jen Hughes seems to have applied that understanding to surviving challenges of life and love. Her debut poetry chapbook ‘Keep on Spinning’ sustains a planet-related theme without it becoming tiresome or forced. 

In the opening poem ‘Waiting at A London Train Station’ the planetary message is less obvious in respect that it represents a view through macro lens rather than telescope, illustrated by the striking opening lines  –

There are galaxies on these flower petals/ But to us they’re just dots

The final lines confirm Jen’s intention to employ a fresh way of looking at things – 

Some take trips to nature to get perspective/ But I’ve found that it’s much closer than you think.

When I open a new work of fiction or poetry I like to be challenged by the occasional unfamiliar word which requires me to find its meaning. As a non-scientist, I came across a couple in this collection. ‘I’m Like the Sun, Hun’ introduced me to the word ‘metastable’. I found the definition ‘pertaining to a body or system existing at an energy level above that of a more stable state and requiring the addition of a small amount of energy to induce a transition to a more stable state’ useful. Thus –

I’m not manic/ I’m metastable!/ I’m just a whole bunch of atoms in an excited state

In fact the whole poem is a burst of solar energy whose rhythm and imagery suits the jubilation reflected in one of its lines possibly re-calling a childhood hymn –

I’ll sing Hosanna past the break of day

‘Mercury’ is a suitably small and quiet self-reflection which starts with 

I am and always have been on the periphery

but ends powerfully –

I’m so much more than that

My second new word was found in the title of the fourth poem ‘My Caloris’. I thought it might be about heat. However, I discovered that Caloris refers to impact, specifically that of asteroids causing craters on a planet surrounded by a fragile atmosphere. Impacts and various sorts of trauma and holed damage are a recurrent theme in this and many of the poems which follow.

The chapbook contains many clever or humorous titles including ‘Venus Smirks At Me’, a poem which seems to speak of the author’s on-off love affair with love, and ‘Midsummer Night’s Reality’, which manages to squeeze a lot into four stanzas, playing with some of the devices used in Shakespeare’s rom com and even word-playing ‘ass’ into a love declaration.

‘Ultimatum’ paints a picture of a planet becoming increasingly hostile and unsafe, providing context for a relationship made toxic by the needs and demands of an overbearing partner. It describes the impact such a relationship has upon a generous and giving partner whose mental and physical state is being endangered by the relationship. Finally, it is a warning to the delinquent partner that this partner is prepared to lose the relationship rather than lose herself.

By contrast, ‘Planet Dance’ is a joyous affirmation of healing and fulfilling love –

We waltz and swing/ Ellipsing each other/ …I’m a fragment of my former self/ But you help me make the best of it/ I have stability now

Concluding with –

I want to keep dancing with you among the stars/ Even after death swallows us whole/ Even as dust and particles in deep nothingness/ I want to keep dancing with you then

‘Red Is The Coldest Colour’ sounds like a contradiction in terms, but makes sense when applied to the planet Mars. This poem seems to be here for balance. The speaker recognises that she can sometimes be the difficult partner and create a difficult environment.

I’m not easy to live with/…My past/ Floats in the vapour we’ll breathe/ …My vibrant red personality/ Won’t be enough to sustain you

In ‘Orbital’ we are told

…nobody wants to attend a pity party

In its second stanza we learn how painful it can be when depression has you alone –

…my misery turns around and says/ I’m nothing, and I have no-one./That I’m fat retarded scum/That I am really no fun/Anyway, so why bother/ with anything at all?

The next poem ‘Jupiter’ continues the theme of depression but approaches it in a novel way, referring to the effect of additional non-earthly gravity and density. However, once the problems are set out, so are the solutions exemplified in the final four lines, which also give the pamphlet its title –

This isn’t your final form and things can only get better/ The burden you carry will make you stronger/ So just keep on spinning/ You will get through this

Appropriately, this is followed by the Saturn-referencing ‘With These Rings’, a call to love yourself and reject the idea of having to conform to expectations –

We are complex people, multifaceted/ And like Saturn’s rings/ There are too many parts of us to name

Each stanza of ‘Pluto’ begins with the call Validate me, an effective repetition as the poet describes a fear of invisibility and a need to be fulfilled. The speaker appears frustrated that those around her do not understand her need for relationship as part of fulfilment.

‘Inside the Black Star’ informs the reader of the poet’s perpetual fear of inescapable low mood returning –

No light can get in or out./ It feels like/ you have never known it/… It’ll always pull you back in. All-consuming nothing

The title ‘I Write Because’ sounds like a creative writing class prompt. If it was, something special happens within its confines –

It’s the energy between the atoms/ Without which I’m just/ Dust

Short and effective is the concluding poem ‘Collective’. Its own conclusion –

…together we surround the system/ and we can change things

With these thoughts on just a few of the poems contained therein, I recommend Jen Hughes’ chapbook ‘Keep on Spinning’ scheduled to be published late October 2020 by Dreich Publishing. It gained third-prize in their 2020 Chapbook Competition.

Jen confirms that her debut ‘explores mental health issues and the human condition through the motif of space and the solar system. The collection was formed after my diagnosis of bipolar disorder as a young adult.’

‘Writing this chapbook was my way to help make sense of what I was going through at the time.’

‘I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, and bipolar disorder at the age of 21. Some people would consider this a blight, and sometimes it can be difficult.  However, it also makes life vibrant and is such an integral part of who I am and my creativity. I wouldn’t change my mind for the world.’

I read her poems and wrote this review before becoming aware of Jen’s history and motivation but fully appreciate why she treasures the individual perspective she possesses.

‘Keep on Spinning’ can be ordered now from or the publisher

Humans and Dancers

In a recent creative writing class we were given a prompt based on a misquote from an Adrian Mitchell poem. I thought – but probably just misheard – that the line we were given Just look at your beautiful hands was the title of the poem. After I had written my rather sentimental effort (which I have attached for your perusal) I took time to find out about the Adrian Mitchell original. I was delighted to discover it was called Human Beings and fell very much into the category of anti-war poetry with which he is often associated – and importantly very pro-human-get-on-with-life inspiring. I also enjoyed the fact that it ended with a reference to dancing as encapsulating the positive things we can usefully do (rather than all the negative stuff) –

lets try to be human


I don’t have the rights to reprint the poem here but it is easily found online and I recommend it with enthusiasm. My reading of the Mitchell poem triggered a related thought. There was a piece of music in my head which mentioned ‘human’ and ‘dancer’; it was ‘Human’ by The Killers. Unlikely as it seemed, I wondered if Brandon Flowers had been influenced by Adrian Mitchell’s poem. I had misgivings, particularly as ‘dancer’ in the Killers’ track seemed to be a negative reference. And so it proved. Flowers explained in an interview that he was inspired by a Hunter S Thomson quote – 

America is raising a generation of dancers, afraid to take one step out of line

So that blew my theory right out of the water!

Undeterred, I now move on to make an another quite random connection. Just read a New York Times article about the association between walking and writing, which reminded me of an online writing course I completed a few years ago. It covered lots of genres and I suspect I learned more useful practical tips than this but one of the most unlikely elements of the course remains lodged in my brain clear and immoveable – dancing. Yes, dancing as a cure for writer’s block. You heard it here first…unless of course you did the same online course as I did, in which case you heard it here second.

P.S. there were many other activities recommended as a break from unproductive writing effort, some of them physical and mostly involving fresh air and moving – as in the New York Times piece I just read – but, because it seemed so ‘outside the box’ dancing is the one that sticks in the brain. Although the writing course didn’t mention this – nor did the New York Times feature – I think remembering to be human from time to time also helps.

Finally, as promised the sentimental WIP inspired by a line from ‘Human Beings’

Look at your beautiful hands

Look at your beautiful hands

No longer little podgy sausage fingers sprouting

No longer the sole instrumental modes of communication 

pointing at what you wanted when

you didn’t know the word

No longer the dirt-bearing

snot-encrusted trowels

held up at tearful eyes

when the time came to return indoors

at sunshine day’s adventures ending

Look now as your beautiful hands play

upon instruments of transcendent universal communication

Propel magical notes from wood and metal

Fill listening spirits with heightened feeling

Words composed in your beautiful soul laid

down in script by the same beautiful hands

Just look at your beautiful grown-up hands