Book Review: Are You Judging Me Yet?

Are You Judging Me Yet

Are You Judging Me Yet?, by Kim Moore, is a remarkable collection of essays and poetry that explore, as the tagline suggests, everyday sexism. The book started life as the author’s PhD thesis before being transformed into this reader-directed text. The innovative structure invites the reader to move between sections in a non-linear fashion, following ‘desire lines’ of interest. I chose to read it cover to cover and this worked for me.

In the essays, Moore offers a forensic examination of her encounters with sexism at poetry readings and in her personal life. There may be academic undertones but the writing remains humane and accessible. The author questions others’ behaviour towards her – male and female – and her immediate reactions. She then goes on to consider why what was said might be deemed socially acceptable. Included are poems that generated the responses detailed, and poems that were inspired by these.

Discussed are such issues as woman as a body. After the readings of her work, men approach to offer compliments on how she looks rather than commenting on what she read. These are small moments, perhaps not recognised by the perpetrator as sexist and dismissive. Women are expected to smile and accept, not make a fuss or complain.

“when you expose a problem, you pose a problem”

Not all encounters are what may be considered by many as benign. In writing about an experience of assault or more overt sexism, the author gives shape to the situation and its aftermath, rather than passively enduring.

“You pretend that nothing has happened,
you turn it into nothing, you learn that nothing
is necessary armour you must carry with you”

Women will recognise the ‘everyday assaults on integrity and personal safety’, how they are expected to listen without feeling attacked, to keep any discomfort to themselves. The essays herein offer intelligent and carefully considered thoughts on the sexist behaviour inherent in male and female relationships. When challenged through Moore’s poetry, men will often attempt to turn the tables, become defensive, accuse the author of treating them as she is claiming they treat her. The deconstruction of encounters includes attempts to pin down what is meant by words used, such as sexism and objectification.

As a female poet performing her work at literary events the author becomes the focus of attention – her as much as her words. She also discovers aspects of her poems she had not recognised before reading them aloud and observing reactions.

She writes of desire and is judged for this. She writes of violence and is blamed. The essays are interesting, detailed and thought-provoking. The poetry is incredible – mind altering and piercing.

A powerful and, in many ways, provocative book written with both rigour and empathy. The acuity is breath-taking. A recommended read.

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


Book Review: Festival of Cats

Festival of Cats

The Crumps Barn Studio bookshop and art gallery is situated in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. They have been publishing books since 2012 and Festival of Cats is a recent release. This pocketbook of poetry and short stories was created in conjunction with an art exhibition that ran throughout February 2023. Intended to ‘lend a bit of cheer to the winter months’, the collection offers a playful celebration of the role cats play in the lives of the humans they deign to share their homes with.

“While I was a parish priest in Leicestershire, I was allowed to lodge at the North West Leicestershire Cats Home. Also known as my rectory.”

Cats of all kinds feature, from those feeling abandoned and unloved in rescue centres to the felines who rule their territory and are loved unconditionally. A vampire cat eyes up a family as a source of food. A long haired tabby helps bring together a shy young lady and her crush.

Two stories I particularly enjoyed were Hero by Harriet Hitchen and Nine Lives by J.J. Drover. These offered a little more structure and depth than some of the entries. Many are anecdotal in nature, a simple sharing of why the author’s cats are so much appreciated. Feline antics may be tolerated, and often found endearing, but there is no turning away from certain habits that are not so appealing.

The meter of the poems can be somewhat simplistic but what comes across is the love for these furry creatures. The entries in which the cat is the narrator offer amusing perspectives, even if they do pander to a degree of anthropomorphism.

The book is nicely bound and presented, including a scattering of wonderful cat illustrations by Lorna Gray.

A fun little keepsake or gift for the ailurophile in your life. A reminder of the myriad challenges and rewards of accommodating a feline friend.

“You never choose a cat, nor do you ever own one.
You belong to them, and all being well,
They let you share their lives and reveal to you
their mystery,

Just a glimpse – every now and then.”

(My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Crumps Barn Studio)

Book Review: Imperfect Beginnings

Imperfect Beginnings

“The art of re-membering for me is a coming back to that which once belonged, that may have been cut off from us – or dis-membered. In our busy, defended and urban lives, we are often complicit in this – separating our selves, our bodies and our hearts from what sustains and nourishes us”

Viv Fogel was forcibly removed from her birth mother and adopted by two refugee holocaust survivors when she was ten months old. Her adoptive mother was bi-polar. Now a grandmother, the author writes of the challenges a family faces when collective memory and personal experience harbours such darknesses. In this stunning, new poetry collection she explores themes of displacement and trauma, and how art and nature have helped her cope.

Divided into five sections, the first examines exile and rootlessness, the effects of poverty – material and emotional.

“Cuckoo’s first call is heard on April 14th,
my birth date. Taken to another’s nest,
with name and feathers I could not keep,
I became the strange one who did not fit.”

In the second section Vogel writes of the horrific memories her adoptive parents carried, the shadows these cast over her and their relationship.

“I wasn’t meant to hear about the officer’s
leather belt, his polished boots,

of the baby tossed
into the air, skull
cracking beneath the boot.”

For anyone who has visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin with its memorial installation, ‘Salekhet’, the cover of this book will be familiar. The author reflects movingly on what this represents.

“There are other holocausts
other stories      other memories
but this      this is what I know
is what I came from”

Practical UnEnglish is an incredibly powerful poem about her deeply damaged and flawed adoptive mother. Although the reader may baulk at the cruelties inflicted, there is an element of forgiveness, an acceptance that much of the abhorrent behaviour was due to her illness and history.

Vogel goes on to write of her own challenges as a parent. And then there is a softening as she spends time with her grandchildren. Two For Joy recounts a day spent at a playground with the youngsters and offers a sunbeam of happiness.

What Remains (a conversation) demonstrates the beauty of small details when time is taken to notice them.

“the leaving and the return
as the tide comes and goes
the breathing in      the breathing out”

These more hopeful themes carry on into the final section in which a new partner brings unexpected love to the author’s life. Night Drive provides a reminder that, despite how man has denuded the natural world, beauty remains in such moments as a darkening sky, a rising moon.

The final poem, How It Is, offers both acceptance and deliverance. The impressive and lingering imagery delivers a fitting ending.

An emotive collection but one written with such poise and precision it may be savoured despite elements of bitterness. Fogel delves without dwelling, offers honesty without resentment. This is poetry at its most accessible and yet profound.

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

Book Review: Bunny Girls

Bunny Girls

“Here’s to you, for making purple a sports car and sharing
the map to let us go roaring into our dawn.”

Bunny Girls, by Angela Readman, is a collection of poetry exploring eclectic facets of being a girl and then young woman. It is insightful, at times funny and dark. It offers a reminder that much of what seems so important at the time is often a blip in the macrocosm of which one is a small part.

Snippets from childhood feature frequently, reminding how this period shapes what a girl will become. There are: games with dolls that explore burgeoning sexuality; unwanted kisses; religious rituals in which children are required to partake without understanding.

Pica provides a wonderful evocation of how it feels to watch others play while never being invited to join in.

Bunny Girls features a girl experimenting with provocative dressing, its impact on others. An older man’s reaction leaves a disturbing aftertaste.

Peat offers a realisation of an individual’s transience and what matters, through the medium of weddings, or their lack.

There is an underlying violence in many of the relationships, with peers and family.

“A playground is a concrete boardgame without instructions.”

Developing sexuality is a recurring theme, how girls naturally wish to explore, then find themselves objectified.

When the Body Refuses to be a Temple was one of my favourite poems in the collection, skilfully portraying how a person perceives themselves over time, how each change comes fraught with difficulty.

“Look out tonight, through the blackhole
of mouths sucking the lights out of the house,
telling you, telling you why you’re no good.”

At times there is dissociation in observations. Many poems inspire a renewed desire to notice what is happening beyond personal issues. Flora and fauna continue to change with the seasons whatever one is going through.

Hush provides beautiful imagery, putting into perspective a marital argument.

Bringing Back the Day is inventively moving on the importance of taking in the beauty of surroundings for future reminiscences.

Loss is explored – how a simple sight or sound can unexpectedly trigger a memory. There is vividness in how what may usually be overlooked is then viewed after an absence.

I was tickled by the idea of dusting a husband when his participation in a relationship grows akin to a long sleep.

“Whenever I miss hearing
someone whisper my name, I fling
the windows wide open and let everything in.”

A varied and memorable collection from a skilled poet whose work is well worth seeking and consuming. While there is much to ponder in each succinct and arresting poem herein, their obvious intelligence is never a barrier to gratifying reading.

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

Book Review: Spooky Ambiguous

spooky ambiguous

“Nothing is ever as it seems”

With spooky season approaching it is time to select this year’s Halloween reads. First up for me was Spooky Ambiguous, straplined Ghost stories and poetry, fangs and fairy tales. This latest offering from the tiny but fierce Crumps Barn Studio includes: short stories, poetry, and artwork that perfectly complements the varied gothic tales. Its shades and shadows offer images that, while recognisable, remain somewhat opaque. Draw up a seat by the fire and listen carefully. Those strange creaks and muffled voices you tell yourself is likely the wind may truly be something to be feared.

As with any collection, there are favourites.

Mirror Mirror, by Michael Bartlett, was such a sad story, featuring a lonely philatelist who wishes he could tell a colleague how he feels for her.

Naming, by Harriet Hitchen, gets across wonderfully the conceit of humans in believing they can control that which they do not understand.

Who’s Haunting Who? by Daphne Denley proves that a fine story may be told in an impressively succinct poem.

Relocation, by Angela Reddaway, is an imaginative take on how it can matter where you are buried – and that may not be next to the old man you were required to marry as a teenager.

Within these stories and poems, witches are both feared and befriended. The latter is not always welcomed spellcaster given how some will try to use other’s gifts for their own advantage.

Message Delivery, by Angela Reddaway, employs a clever use of repetition.

The Flooding, by Amaris Chase, contains a clever twist I didn’t see coming.

Some of the stories are notably weird. Several are a tad raw. There are ghostly beings that are seriously disturbing, creatures buried alive that should probably remain so. What comes across is the potential loneliness in an afterlife, and how this can affect those who died leaving unfinished business. There is both good and evil, just as in the before.

Diabetes X, by J.J. Drover, ended ambiguously – or maybe I just wanted laid out what I had guessed would happen.

Penance, by Joe Robson, completed the collection with a quiet menace, eerily understated.

Whatever my reaction to each individual entry, the authors may take credit for eliciting a reaction. This collection serves as a delicious reminder that, however determinedly pragmatic and logical one may be, inexplicable malignancy can still exist in the shadows.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Crumps Barn Studio.

Book Review: Mathematics for Ladies

Mathematics for ladies

“Why do they insist on thinking
that women are, by nature, foolish?
They block us from learning
and then mock us for not having learned.”

It is well known, for anyone who has been paying attention, that females have long been discouraged from pursuing a career in the STEM disciplines. This has not put off a great many women scientists throughout history who, despite the significant obstacles placed in their way, and despite their male co-workers often taking the credit, have been responsible for many remarkable and life changing advancements.

Jessy Randall has taken a cross-section of these pioneers and created a collection of poems, each focusing on aspects that affected one individual in pursuit of her interest. The tone is almost playful although the facts conveyed make for sobering reading. The costs to women in science – from family opprobrium through to the stark choice between work or children, and then myriad health issues suffered from working on experimental processes – were not enough to put off these women driven to find answers to their challenging hypotheses.

Some chose to marry although perhaps to enable a working partnership that did not draw criticism.

“The truth is I married for science,
it was a way in. Like
a radiate, I got what I wanted
without attracting undue attention.”

Others railed against the expectations placed on them despite their professional achievements.

“Stop requiring women
to be charming and delightful!
Just let us do our work.”

Although readers may be familiar with many of the names included and their discoveries (despite the barriers placed in their way) there may be others whose stories are less well known, or whose contribution has not been widely credited.

“No, I didn’t tell my husband. Why
should I have? I didn’t need his permission.
It was my money built those cars.”

In amongst the success stories are episodes of sadness, and the double standards under which women often suffer blame.

“I neglected my daughter no less
than her nihilist father did.”

Certain ‘discoveries’ are mocked by the woman credited as being typically human centric – a plant or creature previously unknown to man that nevertheless existed quietly, undisturbed, and therefore more likely to flourish.

“No, I didn’t discover the Peninsular Dragon Lizard,
except in the stupidist, most human sense.”

Women who were key in moving science forward but in collaboration with men were so often reported as mere assistants, if mentioned at all. Perhaps, it is posited, it is not the female who is the weaker sex.

“let the men have the recognition
and the fame. They need it more.
They seem to die without it.
They seem to fade.”

Sometimes there are more pertinent reasons for women stepping back when men seek to excel. Lise Meitner worked in the science labs at the University of Berlin…

“I was the mother of nuclear power
and I laughed all the way away
from the Manhattan Project, in which
I refused to participate.

In that project, the men who worried
about my hair created enough fire
to burn 200,000 bodies down to nothing.”

It is sobering to consider how some things do not change however much supposed progress is made. Prejudices remain ingrained whatever proofs exist.

“In 1949, Granville was one of only two
African-American women to earn a Ph.D.

Two years later, she was denied entry
to her national conference. The hotel was whites-only.

In mathematics we say a number is even
if we can divide it by two,

or to be more precise, if we can divide it
evenly by two. Anything can be divided

by two. Anything can be divided.”

The best poetry is as accessible as it is profound, conveying a depth of considered opinion in succinct language that is both elegant and coherent. This collection, as well as being fascinating, at times rage-inducing but always entertaining and engaging, provides a masterclass in how to bring poetry into the literary mainstream. It deserves to be widely read for the importance of the message conveyed, but more than that, for the sheer pleasure of reading such skilfully crafted stanzas. Highly recommended for all readers, especially those who may not feel they always ‘get’ poetry.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publishers, Goldsmiths Press.

Book Review: A Sprig Of Yarrow

sprig of yarrow

A Sprig Of Yarrow, by Jim Ghedi, is the fourth publication put out by Ration Books. These pocket sized literary delights offer ‘small books to be read in short sittings’. They are a welcome diversion from their bulkier counterparts.

What we have here is a collection of poems and songs. Themes explored are often political but the focus is on community, how it has been fractured, and the enduring beauty of nature, despite contamination by man.

A few highlights:

Terrace Row is a powerful evocation of poverty in a former mining town. The voice is working class, dripping with anger. Characters are presented as clotted by resentment at the turn their lives have taken. The next generation festers or has left.

Sheaf & Field offers a similar story but set in an area blighted by the closure of its factories and forges. This is one of the longer poems, the lyrical cadence belying the bitterness entwined due to the subject matter.

Raven At Arbor Low looks at grief. Running through all these poems is an appreciation of the natural world, here taught by the person now being mourned.

“the unknown that you taught me to see,
in every moment.”

Stolen Ground is a song that tells of the scavengers who have uprooted a people settled for generations, moved on that more money may made by landowners.

“the landless weep on pastures cleared
as the sparrow rides the wind.”

The book is dedicated to Keith How, whose poem written during the first Covid lockdown prefaces the collection. This offers a reminder of the hopes we had then that things could change. What comes across in Ghedi’s work is how futile such thoughts proved. The wealthy and powerful will trample on all and any to maximise their profits, and always have.

Despite the somewhat depressing depiction of the working class people detailed, these poems and songs offer enduring hope in the form of nature. A prompt to look up and out, to walk gently and listen to the trees.

Book Review: Fool’s Paradise

Fools Paradise

Fool’s Paradise, by Zoe Brooks, is a poem for voices that was first performed in 1992 and published by White Fox Books. This reissue has recently been released by Black Eyes Publishing. The monoprint used on the cover of the book was created by Hannah Kodicek, a late friend of the author who she accompanied to Prague immediately after the Velvet Revolution, a visit that proved a major inspiration for this work.

There are four key voices in the poem – three travellers and a fool they meet at a crossroads on their journey. The fool is accompanied by his dog and becomes the travellers’ guide.

“Perhaps your country
was never mapped
for target practice,
your timetables never structured
for the movement of troops”

The journey is divided into four parts followed by an epilogue. The story being told is opaque and dreamlike, yet it provides a vivid account of the confusion and loss to be borne in the aftermath of conflict. Between the lines, questions are being asked about how it all happened, why the people acquiesced to their leader’s demands.

“The madman leads the blind”

The travellers make their way to a city, fearful of meeting militia, remembering their lives before they became exiles. On reaching the city they observe not just the shadows so many people have become but also the damage wreaked on infrastructure – and continuing danger. They lament their personal losses, including small talismans that are all that remain of their before.

“I have forgotten the taste of bread,
I am forgetting that I ever lived.”

Interactions between characters are riddle-like which brings to the fore how traumatic enforced exile can be – the internal scars caused. The travellers are tired to the bone yet sleep brings no relief. When separated from the fool they dream of him – the boundaries with reality quiver and blur. They observe people held in a cage, remaining there despite the padlock on the gate being open. Perhaps they have forgotten how to take the initiative after their willingness to follow.

The final section, titled Hell and Back, portrays an aftermath in which the fool returns and grey souls are observed, one of whom is ‘that man who held the world in chains’.

“At the brush of his pen, millions died.
At the sweep of his arm
babies burned”

Traveller 1   Why does he weep?

Traveller 2   For conquest lost perhaps or lust unserved.

Fool             No, he weeps for paintings he did not paint.”

The epilogue is a looking back. All has changed and yet the experience remains seared within.

It is clear that this poem would provide the basis for a powerful performance. Reading it demands pauses and rereads to peel back layers and consider what is implied within each conversation. The dreamlike structure and language add a dark beauty to what is an horrific ordeal that too many are forced to endure due to power hungry leaders. It is a reminder of the lasting cost of oppression and exile, and that supposed victory is not lasting.

“You say that you have gone back to the city and all is changed, that the angels are gone, the candles extinguished, that the bridge is lined with trinket vendors and all is turned into pettiness.”

A disturbing yet deeply thought-provoking read, written with succinct perspicacity. The voices in this poem deserve to be heard.

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

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.