Following a break from blogging I shall return to posting fairly regular blogs this month. In the meantime, I take this opportunity to Reblog from my Drop-in with Nigel Kent published this morning. Next Saturday his review of ‘Art of Insomnia’ will appear on the Nigel Kent – Poet website
Drop in by Peter A
Today I have great pleasure in inviting Peter A to talk about a poem from his moving Art ofInsomnia (Hedgehog Press, 2021)
My debut chapbook Art of Insomnia is personal in a way that is not very typical of my poetry to date. That said, in much of my previous and ongoing work I have tried to deliver an emotional punch where it is justified by the subject matter or theme of the poem.
Art of Insomnia comprises 22 poems written in the nine month period following the unexpected death of my wife; in it I attempt to express the impact of incomprehensible loss and signal the potential for a bearable way forward. The chapbook is divided into four sections and the poem I have selected is the second poem of the third section. Following the second section, which describes a temporary escape from familiar surroundings and people, this section [RETURN TO WHAT REMAINS] is about coming back to the inescapable reality of loss.
In the poem selected here, I mainly use a fairly conventional, uncomplicated, almost-conversational form of address direct to the reader, with many of the same words repeated in each of the nine-line stanzas.
The words which are unique to each stanza set out two issues which may arise when well-intentioned people try to offer comfort and praise at a time when the recently-bereaved person is at the stages of grief where he feels only guilt and powerlessness. These lines of the stanzas arrive in a form which is more poetic or dramatic in style leading the reader to pathos at the end of each stanza.
The title comes from the word ‘better’ at the end of the first line of the poem, and the word ‘fail’ at the end of its last line. Any resemblance to Samuel Beckett’s ‘Fail Better’ is fortuitous but also somewhat fortunate.
Thank you, Peter A. Next week read my review of this exceptionally powerful collection.
That Feverfew, the sixth and latest poetry collection from Anna Saunders, is laced with quality – at times luxury – is easily evidenced. What is more difficult to explain, though ironically it may be inherent in its stylish packaging, is the exquisite economy and value to be found in this publication.
In large part this may be attributable to the presence of forty one poems within a physical book-space of proportions which seem incapable of holding such an amount of treasure. Yet there is nothing cramped or cheap about its presentation. I guess the publisher Indigo Dreams must be due credit for the practical side of this, the design and typesetting, as indeed must the poet for composing poems which fit so well to the page.
Of greater importance, however, is the discovery that this collection has a literary and sensory quality which (like the divine accused characterised in one of the collected poems, The Prosecution Builds up a Case Against Jupiter) takes various forms. Some clues may be found in the cold and hot of the striking cover design; the proof is found in the assured crafting of words found within the covers.
Mythical references inhabit a number of the poems. Some of the named characters and creatures from Greek and Roman mythology will be familiar to non-scholarly readers, some not. Where I was unsure about the myths associated with a featured character I found it intriguing to read the poem first of all without research and enjoy it for its sounds and feel and discernible purpose; enjoy it purely as a poem. The nature of the myth would sometimes be revealed in a general way by this exercise, subsequent googling being largely confirmatory. In other cases, discovering the mythological root was an essential key.
In all those referring to myth the poet’s skill and imagination re-works the ancient to make it relevant to the modern reader, and to the contemporary message the poem is meant to convey.
As well as those which reference mythology there are works here which use the characteristics of wild creatures to tell the stories of humans, those which feature the nakedness of humans themselves, and those which feature spirits who have thrown off the flesh which formerly clothed them.
It is important to point out that, while this is a collection with serious intent making full use of grown-up literary techniques and devices, it possesses humanity, occasionally shows vulnerability and employs humour too (often in the guise of satire and/or the entertaining titles of certain poems).
Whether your mood calls out for reflections of love, lust, loss or consideration of abuse of power and animalistic instincts, there is something here for you. I have found the collection pleasing, rewarding, surprising and affecting to read and re-read.
Given the space I permit myself for Blog reviews there is not room to give examples of the many poems in Feverfew that touch or tickle my intellect, anima or shadow. So, as a discipline I have decided to look briefly at just four, hopefully providing a soupçon of the flavours of the collection.
What I Learnt from the Owl, the first poem in Feverfew, has something of Emily Dickinson in it. Its unflinching true depiction of an owl as bird of prey sets the reader up for some of the cold reality-checking which will emerge in subsequent poems and is also the perfect appetiser for the collection’s second poem – the first one I wish to discuss here – Time after Time the Same Bird is Born from the Flame.
In this piece, the phoenix of Greek mythology is transformed for the modern world. No longer is it the positive motif, eagerly adopted over time to represent renewal and in due course Christian resurrection. Anna Saunders’ phoenix is viewed as an unwelcome regeneration. The opening lines tell us that:-
Here it comes, … /a feathered doppelgänger of the last,/ an identical gold-eyed genesis/scattering a surplus of silver plate from his claws.
He is introduced as a privileged creature, a royal bird which feasts on incense, whereas we pick at seeds and stringy meat.
The ‘we’, presumably the ordinary folk, wonder How did he earn the spokes of sun that ascend from his head…?
We ache for change, yet each creature that rules the court/is a rooster’s brother with jaundiced eyes.
Not even death will bring an end to this.
It quickly becomes clear that this poem, which on its surface references the exotic re-generating bird of myth, in its gut speaks of inequality and the apparent impossibility of bringing about necessary change in the cycle, the system.
How wrong we are to think that fire/can cauterise corruption, it continues. That could hardly be more plainly expressed, especially when followed by the line which gives the poem its title, Time after time the same bird is born from the flame.
A number of Ms Saunders’ poems deal with love and relationships, some tinged with eroticism, others with various difficult aspects and issues; each one is worth the reading and imbibing. For my second arbitrary choice I have selected one of the less obvious depictions of a controlling relationship, I come back as a Horse.
Ostensibly, it features a horse (probably a gentle mare) considering how it is treated by its human master and begins with what appears to be a sad acceptance that true freedom is no longer an option: –
My owner leads me in from the cold. /His heating makes my flanks steam, my breath plume and cloud. He shouts/as my skittering hooves crescent mark his shiny floor.
Next, we discover the extent of the horse’s value to the owner: –
He has pictures of the races all over his wall/strained mares taking jumps/ or being brushed down savagely/until their rumps blaze like precious stones. The mares, it seems, are there to win trophies, or be trophies, and the next stanza tells us of further restrictions of liberty –
We have to wear our harnesses all night./It is compulsory and our necks burn.
The narrator horse speaks disparagingly of humans choosing inappropriate names. I am not mine, she says unhappy with her naming, before going on to describe in a similarly sanguine voice the more shocking truth of what happens to horses who do not match expectations: –
A young one never came back. If your legs buckle,/if your back is too weak, there’s a bullet for you.
The implication of controlling threat (and a point where a familiar association may be drawn with hair-pulling abuse and assault) continues in the next two lines –
I love my mane, even when he winds it round his hand/to make a boxing glove.
Finally, following a statement of preference for the freedom of the fresh air, the poem concludes with the subtle but poignant –
Once, a child passed me, said I had kind eyes,/felt pity for me.
The third poem I wish to feature, Floundering, is one of exceptional tenderness, and admirable skill.
In it a poet speaks to her mother, who has recognised the reality that poets do not make money from their art and is offering her poet-daughter money from her purse. But there are other things going on and it is the skill of linking all of these threads and carrying all themes through to the end in a very naturalistic way which shows Ms Saunders’ deftness here.
To explain here the detail of how this is manifest, all its conceits and devices, would in my opinion spoil the pleasure of those I hope will go on to read it hereafter. However, as I must give you something, I’ll give you these two connecting elements as a tease and assure that there is much more taking place in the poet’s mind and in the physical environment surrounding mother and daughter:-
It reminds me of the tulips dad planted/so we’d have colour after he had gone.
This casual observation prompted by the shape of a heron’s head from behind appears early in the poem and is one of the themes echoed in the velvet glove punch of the final stanza, which runs as follows:-
Mum, you have your purse out again,/and that worried frown that dad used to have/when he was looking at the tulip bulbs,/wondering if they would come out in time.
The fourth and final poem I draw to your attention is one which is simultaneous easy and very difficult – So much Blood around my Name. I say easy because it is written in terms which are easy to understand even on first reading, not requiring much interpretation. The subject matter, however – as in many of the collection’s poems – is raw, visceral, uncomfortable, confessional.
There is much blood and guts within Feverfew but what we have here is quite different. This is not the remote blood and guts of mythology or that associated with the regular behaviour of the animal kingdom.
In this poem the first mentions of blood arise in a specific recollection, written in past tense, of a blood commitment symbolised by a fresh tattoo of the narrator’s name on her former lover’s arm (How deeply I’d been etched into your skin,/you bloomed blood.), a commitment which ended (…we needled each other,/until I left). The second reference to blood is in the present tense and comes with consideration of implied guilt which some would wish to place beside her name. It also echoes skilfully the blood which formed around her name at the time of the fresh tattoo :-
‘Years later I hear about your death.
He couldn’t go on without you. I am told.
I imagine your pale limbs under the earth. Those four letters extinguished by the dark.
Can love ever be perfect? Can poetry about love be perfect? Can two people living together for a long time be perfect?
In my humble view, those are time-wasting questions because answers to them are virtually impossible.
It would be more useful I suggest to dip into the approach adopted by Darren J Beaney in his debut pamphlet for Hedgehog Poetry Press, HONEY DEW; in a series of twenty one poems he sets out, in a sometimes self-deprecating way, to find ways (some of them very original) to encapsulate in words the various stages of a continuing love relationship without which he feels his life had been, and would be, pointless. That realisation is hinted at elsewhere but disclosed in plain sight in the eighth poem in the book, 32 to the power of 22.
This debut is infused with sincerity as much as it is with originality and vivid Punk-style colour. It is also very relatable.
The opening poem, though it carries the title LET YOUR HEART DANCE, moves with a deliberate lack of steady rhythm, chucks in an occasional internal rhyme – but don’t expect that to happen in a predictable fashion – and employing these devices captures the awkwardness of unexpected love-at-first-sight during a first dance. The designed chaos only reaches an end in the poem’s sublime conclusion:-
As we gasped/ without resting and kissed without breathing and fell without landing.
This is followed by the title poem HONEY DEW, a short but vivid expression of the sweetness of new love :-
A smile/ … that tempted with low hanging kisses/ ripe and ecstatic
The reason for the poem’s brevity appears to be summed up in the final two words – ‘tongue tied’.
The theme of combined shyness and disbelief at the suddenness of what is happening reappears in the reference to his belly hosting ‘a soulful band of butterflies‘ in the third poem, PLAYING BANJO ON BRIGHTON BEACH.
By poem five, LETS START SOMETHING WE WON’T WANT TO FINISH, there’s an admirable statement of ambition reflected in text which combines unconventional with conventional, even old-fashioned, and a little tongue-in-cheek without destroying the sincerity of its intention. For example, Beaney writes: –
Let’s learn to dance – foxtrot, tango/… I’ll …collect/ your falling blushes. When I have them all we will paint/our town, leaving our mark, creating a legend/ bigger than Terry & June.
Let’s take tea at the Ritz. I’ll get dressed up/to the nines with odd socks and no shoes…../You can slurp from your saucer/while I protect you from those uptight stares.
Where Shakespeare would write ‘If music be the food of love…’, Beaney writes and concludes the poem ‘We’ll wake each morning to … an eternal love powered by the energy of three chord guitar riffs’.
In a sometimes uptight world it is good to remember that romance can be fun and rebellious, and Darren Beaney’s writing conveys that in abundance in some of his work.
He is also capable of expressing unabashed praise of continuing love in more lyrical terms while maintaining his personal style, as in YOU AND ME, US TWO:-
Our love is driven by neat engines of persistence/shuddering to the twitch of our touch, firing the luscious/laughter and locomotion of a lifespan together.
I’d happily quote every stanza of this poem in full but will confine myself to the following further few lines as a taster:-
…Our relationship simple/as a new Puritan. Sustained without effort, lazy,/ as wonderfulas bunches of late May daffodils.
Our passion is as exciting as Caxton’s/very first page, printed with a love song for Cupid. Each day/is Valentine’s Day stuffed into our Christmas stocking.
As I now feel I’m in danger of giving too much of the book away for free, I shall curtail my notes and end this review with a brief reference to the last poem in the pamphlet THE MISSING BIT which, amongst other things, touches on the point I made at the start of the review. (A similar point is made by Beaney in the short poem THIS IS A LOVE SONG which appears a little earlier in the pamphlet.) In THE MISSING BIT, he is again concerned that he cannot sufficiently express all elements of the love he feels in order to be convincing. He writes,
And that is the bit/that is missing
And I want our love to mean/as much as Dr King’s dream/with as much passion/as a catalogue of first kisses
because we are so much more/ than love bites and candlelight
If you are looking for an original but relatable, generally schmaltz-free, story of a love relationship in 21 poems, HONEY DEW is available in various formats from Hedgehog Poetry Press http://hedgehog press.co.uk or from Darren’s own site http://djbeaney.wordpress.com . Prices direct from Darren are: UK £7.00 (inc. postage), Overseas £11.00 (inc. postage) and e-book £3.00.
I am glad I delayed writing this review. When I first received a copy of this poetry collection a few weeks ago I dipped in and out of it, savouring individual poems for themselves, not attempting to take in the effect of the whole collection. On a more recent day I sat down and read the work cover to cover, while taking the occasional break to read a Novella in Flash (of which I shall post a review shortly). That’s just the way my brain sometimes works! The delay however has made me appreciate Venus more.
I had already viewed a couple of videos and attended a number of online events in which Gaynor Kane read poems from this collection before I decided to purchase a copy, and having now seen the entire context on paper I realise that there is even more to her work than these recitations promised. Venus in Pink Marble is a substantial collection containing 61 poems covering a breadth of subject matter which work well and sit well alongside each other.
Although it comes relatively early in her poetry career, this publication feels like an attempt to set down an opus for future reference, a work which will reward study by others. For the author, it must give a sense of satisfaction that she has succeeded in including so much she wanted to document and opine.
As well as the warmth and humanity infusing many of the poems, there is research and authenticity in those which portray technical matter or historical episodes. There are word lists and word pictures which take the reader with ease of authority to a period or a place. Many of these are poems to inhabit or at least to visit frequently. There are stories of people, notable, mythical and everyday but all are given equal care in Gaynor’s skilful hands.
In order to encompass the broad subject matter the collection is divided into three sections – The Lock, Letter to Me and A Life Drawn
It is invidious, and would anyway take too long, to select particular poems for praise, especially as I keep spotting ‘new favourites’ when re-reading. Some of your favourites will differ from mine in such a varied selection. However, in an attempt to give a flavour, I shall pick a couple of examples from each section.
From Section 1, Dead Short on the System, Belfast, 1923, just four stanzas long, recounts the story of a rat chewing through power station cables bringing trams to a halt throughout the city. Some of the text suggests a nervous humour about the incident but the killer words are found in verse two –
Those tram-trapped, fear the curfew more than the rain
Whereas most of us would think about the inconvenience of getting home on a New Year’s night that was ‘dark, damp and sticky like a new born’, in the midst of a civil war other considerations apply.
Also from Section 1, From Benin to Belfast sets out a quite unique perspective and is a remarkable and original piece of work which took my breath away on first reading. I still get a chill when the ‘ivory masks’ to which we are introduced in Benin (modern Nigeria), having travelled the bloody way of Imperialism, in another form are represented in a Belfast church in troubled times. The significance of the word mask and the colours ivory and red in this piece, which I see was long listed in the 2018 Pendle War Poetry Competition, create themes holding together a work which otherwise may have had to be explored in three separate poems.
From Section 2, the poet’s more personal pieces, I have picked The first time I saw him cry and Polyester.
The first time I saw him cry – a title which is a narrative in itself. In less skilful hands this might have been a cheap effort, building the image of a strong male just to describe his vulnerability. Instead, it is a matter-of-fact telling of receiving news of loss within the context of everyday events. It is made all the more authentic from its accurate placing in an earlier time when telephone landlines were not universal, mobile phones non-existent, and there was great dependence on public transport and walking. Told from the point of view of a child hearing one side of a conversation, nothing is said within the text of the poem about her father crying but only implied in his curt imparting of sad news to her.
Polyester is a Christmas-related story of near-tragedy prevented by the quick-thinking and actions of a mother. Like The first time I saw him cry this poem is written in first person from a child’s point of view and I assume it is autobiographical. The first stanza lulls the reader into a cosy state ‘Slippered…/feeling the glow’ but the second stanza travels from ‘drowning in heat, like a Christmas /pudding drenched in brandy’ to ‘fire /licking my hair, hugging my back’. By the end of the third verse the child is rolled in a saving mat and, referring to earlier metaphors, ‘brandy-snapped and smoke-smothered’.
The poem concludes with a calm Christmas morning, almost as if nothing untoward had happened, but presents include a replacement dressing gown of cotton rather than the flammable material.
From Section 3, relating to art, I have selected A Life Drawn and The Vampire of Lazaretto Vecchio.
A Life Drawn is inspired by the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition – A Life in Drawing and is told from the perspective of a naked artist’s model, standing still in a room in a man’s world kept cold deliberately, being exposed to an artist kept warm by ‘tunic, robes, headscarves’. Her position is due to poverty, lack of opportunity and necessity rather than choice. He does not appear to acknowledge her living humanity –
Our eyes do not meet. He inhales me.
The Vampire of Lazaretto Vecchio is an exercise in beautiful expression, tenderly cadenced, expressive poetry with a Gothic quality which suits the subject matter. It is a joy to read and re-read and I am delighted that the poet was able to achieve this atmospheric work, inspired as her Notes reveal by hearing the story of the discovery of a skeleton with a brick lodged in its mouth on an Italian plague island. Just a couple of extracts here (from verses one and three) to provide a sense of the quality of description –
……sailing to the sanatorium
in the white boat. White for the uncontaminated
the blessed and clean.
Rancid heat retreats at dusk, the sick wards weep
like religious statues, infecting the air with howls for help.
At the end of this review, it will come as no surprise to you that I recommend this work without reservation. If I was the sort to indulge in puns I might call it a Venus in PinkMarble-ous first full collection.
Instead I’ll just say there’s still time before Christmas to secure your copy as a gift for you or someone you know who appreciates honest and skilful writing. For your copy go to Gaynor Kane at http://gaynorkane.com/bookstore
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.