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.

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.