Book Review: Singing in the Dark Times

singing in the dark times

“Your neighbours are at war with you, you know”

Singing in the Dark Times, by Margaret Corvid, is a collection of twenty-six poems that ooze anger at how humanity behaves, especially when times are tough. Many were written in the time of Covid and refer to the suffering this has created.

“the hacking cough and hasty sips of breath”

Those who work so hard to save lives are depicted as an army.

“the hospitals in frightful battle dress”

There are poems that look back on the atrocities of other wars and the dreadful actions man was capable of accepting.

Of course, wars are not always fought on a battle field or abroad. The class divide brings the dehumanising of the front line into everyday life.

“We learn we’re raised for slaughter”

Other contemporary issues are considered: the murder of Jo Cox, the toppling of a statue in Bristol.

The anger at the heart of this collection comes to the fore in Corona Requiem, but it is not just the many deaths from this new illness that raise the poets ire.

In School she refers to how children are moulded to fit society’s expectations, that they will behave and aspire to a limited future.

“I was just little when they killed my ‘me’,”

Small reprieves from dark considerations are offered, such as in Flowers, although even this depicts a relationship harshly.

In The Day it is assumed that all experience events that will make their outlook more bleak.

“Every one of us has the day when her heart hardens”

Anxiety is well depicted, as is the difficulty of surviving the never ending onslaught of dreadful news the media feeds.

There are references to how people treat others, often without thought for the impact.

“playing words back from long ago, longer than hate
in my old toddler’s heart, just before it was cored
and convicted and sentenced, hung out on the slate
because someone was frightened, addicted and bored.”

There is much in this collection that I admired, much that resonated. It is clear to anyone who reads of current affairs that ingrained prejudices thrive in a time of fear. I did, however, find the almost relentless, violent imagery taxing. I remain unconvinced that every ordinary person is as negatively affected as depicted, although perhaps this is denial on my part.

The cruelties of man and nature are evoked with passion. As a reader, I longed for more light to shine through the cracks, to hear a little more singing that could offer hope over anger.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

Book Review: The Mask

the mask

“I offer these poems to you as a celebration and tribute to my long-time artistic heroine and sister in pain – Frida Kahlo.”

The Mask, by Elisabeth Horan, is a collection of twenty-one poems, each inspired by a painting by the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. They are written mostly in English but with a smattering of what I assume is Spanish. Rather than detract from understanding, this bilingualism adds a flavour of intimacy. And the poems are deeply intimate, with many exploring the artist’s experiences during sexual activity – with others and when alone. She took both male and female lovers, seeking pleasure for herself above servicing their needs.

“I will be held. I will be touched.
I will die – on my own terms.”

The poems ooze both sexuality and sensuality yet, despite being vivid and explicit, this is never voyeuristic. What is being offered is a rare women’s perspective on foreplay and orgasm.

Kahlo’s life was shadowed by pain following childhood illness and then an horrific road traffic accident when a teenager. Along with her physical difficulties, she experienced miscarriage. Within these poems she is portrayed as unafraid to talk openly about such experiences, however men may try to encourage a quieter stoicism.

“My anger stare – my lack of emotion, at this point in my life –
Is not for your pleasure… it is not for the men;

Rather, the necessary steps I must take
To show women
The face of my suffering”

Occasionally the poems are written as though Kahlo is speaking directly to the author, adding to the personal evocation.

Recurring subjects touched on include: love, lovemaking, the pain of infidelity, child loss, the deformed body.

“To have had a child; to have kept my toes
Intact, my uterus intact; I would have had to
Praise the easel of a man”

Kahlo is depicted as strong in her principles even if not physically.

“I am not a thing to fuck

Without consequence”

There is a strong sense that the men in the artist’s life let her down, especially during times of crisis and loss.

“To touch and to love each other
Not turn away
As the other burns”

Kahlo does not appear to have adhered to the quietly accepting servitude some regard as a necessary aspect of being feminine.

Other than a vague familiarity with her painting style, I knew little about Kahlo before reading this collection. Having finished it I did some superficial research, gaining a very different, less positive, impression of the woman from that presented here. I pondered if this may be the view from a male gaze. It is still so rare for a woman to be accepted and admired when living on her own terms.

“I want the voices
to cease
shushing me”

These poems are thought provoking and interesting for the lens through which they present a woman who was a success in her chosen field but whose personal life was messy, albeit no more than many feted men. The author presents her as a woman whose myriad sufferings did not prevent her from seeking and expecting sexual excitement and satisfaction, someone who resented the lack of support she received at times of loss or pain from those who still expected her to cater to their needs.

I am grateful that this accessible collection was brought to my attention. Written with skill, verve and an obvious admiration, it proved a fascinating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Broken Spine.

Book Review: The Sun is Open

sun is open

“Around noon, the girl took her
auntie by the hand to the rows
of rose bushes where her father
wasn’t”

“Around noon, the men sent out
for fish and chips and as they sat
eating they watched the lunchtime
news to find out if they had
killed their target”

On the morning of March 6, 1984, Gail McConnell’s father was shot dead outside his home in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter. This poetry collection provides an innovative and powerful account of the affect this had on the author in the years that followed. It is built from memories and personal archive material taken from a ‘Dad Box’ she created. Several of the entries are wrapped around direct quotes from items stored therein, including: newspaper clippings, William McConnell’s student diaries, Beryl McConnell’s Statement of Witness.

Each page makes use of white space and indentation to effect. There is no punctuation and few capital letters. This approach serves to focus the reader’s attention. Meaning is clear. The stream of memories and violent imagery is gut-wrenching to consider.

The poems are more factual than political, emotive given context but never mawkish. By drawing on what was reported at the time, a picture of the terrorist mindset sits alongside a young girl growing up in the shadow of the void their actions created. And yet, no judgement is made here. Her father’s perceived character – “a man of high morals, honest, loyal, dedicated” and also “giving prisoners a hard time in Long Kesh” – sits alongside the man who made his young daughter a Wendy House, took her to the beach and created music with his guitar.

In a segregated society sides will be taken, community support provided even for killers.

“the stuff of thrillers wigs washed
in the kitchen sink two pairs
of rubber gloves burnt in the
yard the briefcase tucked up in
the attic sub-machine gun snug
inside clean towels for everyone
the spinner going on third
time that afternoon”

The author’s family are church goers, the child’s social life lived amongst Christian youth groups and protestant schoolfriends. The bible is quoted frequently, the bizarreness of some of its commands and stories quietly highlighted.

The strangeness of being a major news item is remembered, or rebuilt from items kept. In time, the author is cautioned against playing her ‘murder card’ to get her way.

“it’s what dislodges in my body
when I hear balloons pop pop the
birthday party I spent in the
corridor outside the room”

As an adolescent there were small rebellions but also a pulling in of what had been absorbed, the fallout from such a pivotal childhood event. The hurt from such a loss need not be explicitly stated to provide the undercurrent and occasional riptide in choices made. That the author avoids any call for sympathy in her writing – although obviously deserved – is to be commended.

The poems are both beautiful and poignant to read, the language employed all the more compelling for its concise simplicity. Depth is conveyed through what was considered ordinary for a girl in Northern Ireland – how strange the accepted behaviours are to look back on. And yet, it is not necessary to understand life during The Troubles to appreciate the schism caused by the sudden death of a parent. This collection provides a window into a life that perforce continued. It is an arresting and deeply moving read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penned in the Margins.

Book Review: Bent for the Job

bent for the job

The privileged often espouse a view that poverty of aspiration and achievement (whatever that means) can be improved through education and temperance. They hold a belief that a desire for self-improvement is an inherent quality in man, perhaps because of their blinkered experiences. The life Mick Guffan writes of in his caustic yet remarkable poetry makes no mention of such capital ambition. It’s not for me to say if the man actively looked to improve his lot and lacked luck or opportunity, but the snippets he shares here of day to day existence are shadowed by the elemental – violence, drugs, unsatisfactory sex – endured when the effort required to effect change feels pointless to the narrator. There is little mention of pleasure other than through temporary release.

For those who regard poetry as pretentious, this collection offers an antithesis. Its raw honesty grates against any supposed rules on taste or censure. It includes references to and casual acceptance of such realities as: lice, semen, the sharing of menses. These are dealt with factually, without recoil, cutting to the quick. The poems offer an evocative rendering of a man as he sees himself – flawed and flayed by life. He is in want, and often this is not pretty.

There are injections of humour, as in ‘A Visit to the Museum’.

Browsing the bottom shelf
three specimen jars in a row.
Antiquated floating pricks as pathologist reference-
near an exposed, dangling double socket.
A sign below them all saying:
“Faulty, do not use.”

There are insights that offer a window into the sharp mind of a man whose behaviour and outward appearance may have led some to dismiss him with misplaced condescension.

(Only the righteous
shall be saved)
Ah yes, all in good time.
There are
so many
different
people to be.

‘Progress’ mocks

them          clever
poems
with
words that         jump
about

poems that

tick / some / boxes
merit an    Arse Council    handout

What comes across is an impression that the narrator chooses his own path within the confines of the hand dealt him. There is no expectation of sympathy. He accepts responsibility for what he is.

The poems, for all their grimy imagery, somehow transcend. They take a scalpel to preconceptions of someone who is at times ground down, who is so much more than first impressions. If the reader is discomfited by what is being shared perhaps the onus lies within. Reality bites and Guffan chews over this with uncompromising skill.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press. 

Book Review: White Eye of the Needle

white eye needle

White Eye of the Needle, by Chris Campbell (illustrated by Sandra Evans), is a collection of twenty-five poems written over a six year period and including consideration of life lived in lockdown. Many of the poems exude admiration and love for a partner, at home and on trips abroad. The settings vary, often urban but with appreciation of natural elements that spring up where not cleared away. Observations made are appealing in their simplicity and yet, in that, are at times profound.

“there’s more to life than death”

The poems written in lockdown reflect the frustrations widely felt by those confined to home, who hanker after the holidays they would be planning if permitted. There are walks by a canal and a feeling of gratitude to be sharing confinement with a loved one. Pets feature, their previously private antics observed between Zoom or Teams meetings.

‘Must all the world’s beauty be a gift?’ is a short appreciation of unaltered looks that particularly resonated.

“Our plastic wealth of plucked lips; nip and tuck,
takes all attention from our individuality
and tries to rid all life of natural luck,
adding to inner ugliness that never sags.”

‘Virtual Coo’ reminds of the sadness that milestones must now be shared over screens rather than in person – a newborn baby offered the inadequate virtual hug.

Older poems recount highlights of trips away: a ski run, art admired in St Ives, a honeymoon in Madagascar.

‘No holding me back’ jarred against the previously expressed gentle love and support with its depiction of an argument.

“your tongue is an adder
striking poison through my heart.”

It offers a reminder of the more negative reactions life’s challenges can induce.

This short collection is enhanced by the varied and skilfully rendered illustrations.

white eye pic 1   white eye pic 2

An enjoyable read that offers human connection during a time when life can feel held in abeyance.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Heeding

the heeding

The Heeding is a poignant and powerful poetry collection written by Rob Cowen and stunningly illustrated by Nick Hayes. It reflects on the year following the first COVID19 lockdown and will serve in the time to come as a reminder of when the world changed profoundly – how we lived lives altered in previously unimaginable ways. The poems capture the concerns and frustrations of families required to deal with the challenges of: house arrest, homeschooling, a ban on visiting their cared for elderly. It provides an evocative reminder that nobody will live forever.

“They are staring into a child’s eyes, wondering at the storm that’s coming.
How they might put themselves between what they love and everything”

The author is father to young children and his worries centre on them. He reflects on his own childhood and the lessons learned and valued from his parents and grandparents – often appreciated only in hindsight. He was taught to heed what was around him, particularly in nature. He now wishes to pass this valuable skill on to the next generation.

The poems have a depth that belies the ease with which they may be read. Incidents recounted are often everyday yet have an impact, a value, in the connections they engender.

Solidarity on a Saturday Night is a short poem about neighbours lighting up their backyards and somehow feeling together without the need to meet. This Allotment reflects on a humanity that is possible when people are accepting of difference in looks or creed – willing to offer practical advice and their labour along with excess produce.

“When heart-sore, I often wonder if this place is
secretly a model for what should be; how things could be,
were we not so preoccupied with property”

Last Breaths took my breath away, moving me to tears. It is a heartfelt account of a man in a nursing home, dying alone of this terrible plague. He remembers aspects of his life: war, a beloved wife outlived, a daughter who died in childhood, another now banned from seeing him – to keep him safe! The illustration that goes with this poem is perfect, as are so many here. The words brought home to me, perhaps for the first time, how my own father passed away last year – hand held by a nurse in PPE.

Another particularly poignant poem is Dennis, a man taunted relentlessly by local children whose casual cruelty makes their older selves squirm. The reason for his odd tics and behaviour is heartrending.

There are poems that describe encounters with birds and other creatures along with the Yorkshire landscape where the author lives. Nature is depicted as savage as well as beautiful, teeming with life but also death. There are reflections on more human concerns – failing businesses, history, politics, fearful unease.

“These cancelled birthdays.
These bans on being together.
These redundancies, uncertainties,
limits on impulse and joy,
on movement and autonomy.”

Black Ant highlights how we may try to save a tiny creature in difficulties, but will not tolerate those that threaten the structure or safety of our dwelling and family.

Pharmacy Cake brings home the loneliness of lockdown life for the elderly it was sold as designed to protect.

“This braving of sleet and virus;
this coddling of staff, is a way to treat a pain
more mangling, more unbelievably sore
than any of us are collecting prescriptions for.”

Viking Gold is a wonderfully evocative remembrance of a stern grandmother who, in the end, offered the author a window into all she had kept in check throughout her life, just before ‘her mind unspooled towards infancy.’

“Born of bleak moor and indoctrinated patriarchy;
the dark, meagre modesties of mill town terraces.
Be grateful for the least. Repent, repress
the sin of boastful joy; let your worries be endless
lest God give you, with a clout,
something proper to worry about.”

Lockdown, with all the mental baggage it has created, has certainly given the author much to worry about. He is scathing in his opinion of those who do not take the vaccine, especially those who spread fear about side-effects, branding them murderers. I pondered how many were living with such concerns and if this will change how they interact once guidelines are lifted.

Whatever views one ascribes to on this, the collection offers much to consider along with an appreciation of the natural world that continues to turn through the seasons however man is living within. I found this thought uplifting, that we too may choose to go on, perhaps still at risk but not allowing this to rob us of the joys to be found both in our back yards and beyond.

“Be kind. Forgive. Attend and heed.
Be strong, but lead with love not power.
Look for the universe inside the seed”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Owl Unbound

owl unbound

“In death
they shall inherit the earth.
Until this time
they have been living
on borrowed land.”

Owl Unbound, by Zoe Brooks, is a poetry collection that explores big issues man often ruminates over – life, death, disappointment, expectations. The author winds her thoughts around the wonder that is nature, where such things happen but are accepted as a cycle. Modern living demands control and sanitisation. There is a disconnect with wider existence – oft ignored interconnections that affect wellbeing.

Where love is mentioned it is as a search for something personally fulfilling, or as a loss.

“Our love is without sap,
like the flayed ash”

There is a loneliness in relationships referenced.

“I stole the moon for you,
but you did not even notice”

Many of the topics explored are presented with a degree of bitterness, but there is also humour in the musings.

As well as nature, history features. Fossils are found on a beach and a young boy wants to believe they are from dinosaurs, not simple sea creatures. The ghosts to be sensed in old buildings are ignored by those uninterested in a past that inexorably shaped people and place, concerned as they are only by current experiences.

Punch is a powerful series of poems that use the traditional puppet to portray cause and effect of attitudes and actions – resentments felt by some men and where this leads.

There’s Nothing To See is a clever play on aspects of ageing, including the increasing invisibility of the elderly as they move through society.

“I have taken off my body
and hung it on the wardrobe door.
It has become too much for me.
I am tired of pulling it on
each morning rumpled by sleep.

I have worn it so long
it has lost its shape.”

There are observations on living in a female body, within and without – menstruation, pregnancy, the souring of friendships, disappointing love affairs, watching a parent die.

The writing is penetrating in the insights shared although with an undercurrent of despondency. What comes through is the importance of surroundings – noticing and appreciating small details that offer perspective on personal problems that must be dealt with.

I took from my reading of this collection how man puts himself at the pinnacle of existence despite the short time each spends amongst the living.  The poems reflect how much better life can be with less naval gazing and more quiet reflection on the wider views to be found all around. Carefully written and offering much to consider, this was a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: We’ll Meat Again

well-meat-again

“The owls are hooting in the afternoon again

or maybe the world is just quiet enough to hear them.”

We’ll Meat Again, by Benjamin Myers, is the third title published by the recently formed Ration Books (I review the first here and the second here). These are pocket sized quick reads intended to be: disposed of, passed on, left for other readers to find. Ration 3 is described on the back cover as ‘quarantine dream scenes disguised as fleeting poems’. In reading them I pondered if the author had been ingesting the special cookies (not that I am suggesting he indulges in such behaviour).

Myers’ trademark appreciation of nature, alongside his willingness to face down brutal realities, are injected with elements so surreal that they at times perplexed this reader. His lockdown observations are undoubtedly pithy and witty but some remained opaque even after several attempts to decipher meaning. Others honed in on tropes that garnered media attention as life grew ever more constricted. Images evoked are often playful, if morbidly so. This is not an offering that celebrates the best of what man can be in a crisis.

“A man accidentally strangles himself with the clanking chain of his sex swing

Neighbours are alerted by the black smoke pluming from his burnt sourdough”

My reaction after first perusal was to question what I had just read. Be assured, enjoyment improves with rereads. There is play on language alongside a reminder of what lockdown featured. Perhaps this work is intended as an aide-memoire for the times we have experienced over the past year.

“Keep two claps apart
and wash your metres

Social the unprecedented
extension hands.

Isolate a lockdown.
Panic immediately.”

As a literary reminder I personally prefer Jonathan Gibbs’ Spring Journal. There is, however, room on my shelves for a collection such as this that both provokes and entertains.

Book Review: We Are All Somebody

we are all somebody

“I realised how powerful poetry can be. It can instil hope, it can inspire and you can feel the emotion in the words.”

“Listen to our young people”

We Are All Somebody is a poetry anthology written by street children who were chosen to represent their countries in Street Child World Cups. Starting in 2010, these international events are organised ahead of the world’s biggest sporting competitions in cricket and football. Their aim is to bring together street connected young people from around the world, and to advocate for change in the way they are seen and treated.

The anthology was compiled by Samantha Richards who, in 2018, represented the UK at the Street Child Football World Cup in Moscow. Inspired by her discussions with members of other teams from across the globe she put pen to paper and wrote out her emotions in a poem. She invited her new friends to contribute in poetry or artwork.

“We must encourage each other to be the best version of ourselves before we can expect others to do the same.”

The book opens with profiles of the young leaders in the competitions from various countries. Their plea is to be treated fairly and with compassion. What they want is: shelter, food, clean water, healthcare, education. They ask for protection from: violence, exploitation, sexual abuse, trafficking, child marriage. Key to accessing these basic rights is a legal identity, often hard to come by.

“They are children like any other children in the world.”

The poems that follow are heartfelt cries for needs to be met without discrimination. Several include references to COVID 19 and the difficulties of adhering to recommended guidelines when access to proper sanitation is limited.

“insecurity and hunger are their greatest threats”

The street children are exploited by all they come into contact with, including at times each other. Despised, unprotected and blamed for their situation they have no recourse to justice.

“We sleep in a group
If you sleep alone, you are sexual prey
If you sleep too deeply, your money gets taken”

Although raw at times, the message herein is powerful. The contributors ask that their voices be heard on behalf of other street children. I hope they find readers who will listen.

original_112459ce-2741-4d1f-a61a-39d4857ec5f5_IMG_20210401_125217564_HDR

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly On The Wall Press.

Book Review: About a Lover from Tunisia

Ouafa and Thawra: About a Lover From Tunisia, by Arturo Desimone, tells the story of a five year love affair between the part-Jewish narrator and a beautiful Arab woman. They lived in an apartment by a mosque, the calls to prayer marking their days and bookending their love-making. Structured as a poetry collection interspersed with line drawings there is an element of myth to what is the tale of a modern relationship.

The edition sent to me for review was bilingual – original Spanish alongside English translation (by Lucas Brockenshire). The prologue was not translated. The English edition linked to above includes an essay by the author that, as the publisher explains, adds context. Interesting though this would be to read, I was fully able to enjoy each of the poems standalone.

The collection opens with a poem in homage to a girl once loved. The narrator muses on her beauty, how much he enjoyed her naked body and the dark raven curls of her hair. In leaving her country he lost her. There is regret but also acceptance – pleasure in the memory.

The setting – Tunisia – is evocatively portrayed. Mentioned are: the minarets, latticework, encroachment of modern accoutrements, suspicion of locals towards camera wielding tourists. Referenced are virulent opinions separating Europeans and Arabs. The woman, though, is regarded by her lover as an equal.

“That din, that din I was forced to hear
for five years –
But the only inequality between us
was in height: when we stood I had to bend
over her
like beaten up crescent from a molten minaret
to thank her for translation.”

Their are musings on their differing heritages – on forbidden love and forbidden desire, religions attempting to police behaviour. The narrator is aware that women are neither powerless nor incapable.

“All those secret cops,
work for the great Stellar pimp”

“she barely needs me,
to drown her enemies.
She doesn’t depend
only on me,
to tighten the pink scarf
of her enemy –
but it’s the gesture that resonates.”

Although this is a modern love affair, the writing has tones of earth and fire. There is history, myth and tradition that predate the origins of current conflicts. There is so much beauty to be savoured in people and place whatever their daily trials.

When the man leaves Tunisia he takes with him regrets that linger.

“I want to speak to you again,
and that our voices are not dead in each other’s souls.”

She, however, has drawn a line under their affair.

“my Arab girl
across the ocean in Tunisia,
no longer thinks of me,
no longer waiting,
no longer”

The gorgeous imagery of the text is enhanced by the line drawings which offer much to unpack and are well worth making time for.

The language employed is reminiscent of a more ancient appreciation. The woman is depicted as more than beautiful – as powerful and independent. Unexpected juxtapositions add force and flavour to poems expressing love for a person and place.

That both parties have moved on reminds the reader that passion may be enjoyed and fondly remembered without it overriding what comes next.

A paean to a relationship that transcended the petty rules of religion and nationalism. Poems to savour for the many pleasures shared that are still valued though their time has now passed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.