Book Review: Dancing Naked in Front of Dogs

Dancing Naked in Front of Dogs, by Michael Maul, was offered to me by my contact at Fly on the Wall Poetry Press. It does not, however, appear to be one of their books (my assumption – no such claims were made). Does this matter? Probably not, although I am wary of taking any book that has been self-published. I read this one not realising it had been so no preconceptions leaked in. On discovering afterwards I was not surprised. It is a mixed collection in terms of quality of writing.

The poems were written over a six year period and are divided into four chapters. There are many that muse on aging and death. The author is a white American in his seventies who has stated he writes of the emotional toll of everyday life with the aim of offering poetry that is accessible. I found the poems reflecting on wider issues, featuring characters from a variety of walks of life, the most rewarding.

The collection opens with a punch to the gut. Anniversary Poem is a powerful reflection on the day the narrator’s brother disappeared.

“I stood on the sidewalk
by my parents
when my brother set off
on his first ride solo around the block
and never came back

For fifty years some of me has waited there”

This is followed by Chasing the Ex – a regret tinged remembrance of a short lived marriage and the person the narrator could have been.

“That what I thought I was, but then became
were not really both the same,
old enough now to see
no lights from days up ahead
shining even half as bright
as those I saw in her
and she saw, once, in me.”

Wedding Bouquet offers a picture perfect wedding moment that is then rejected and restaged when the ‘wrong’ person catches the titular bouquet. The cruelty of the mother of the bride is breathtaking, the other guests complicit.

Body Heat captures a simple moment between lovers, when one slips out of bed to take a shower and the other relishes the heat lingering on the sheets on a bitter winter’s day. Many of the poems try to capture such everyday snapshots, with mixed success.

Back to School deals with a parenting milestone, when a child first runs into school without thinking to say goodbye.

“Among parents still hugging their kids
I pretend to wave goodbye
to a boy
not only out of sight
but already gone.”

The moments written of in these poems are recognisable and relatable. They are significant to the narrator for a variety of reasons.

There are some that deal with heavy issues, such as Getting Something Off Her Chest (cancer) or The Clothes of Children Claimed by Fire (an horrific bus accident), yet somehow fail to resonate.

Others are crafted with a cadence that read as too contrived. Poetry requires layers and depth more than rhyme.

I enjoyed To The Little Girl Who Kissed My Dog, despite its lack of nuance for what the mother may be going through.

“Yours will be a better life than hers
And you are right to not eat everything
she puts in front of you.
Fear, after all, is a life-long meal,
that once begun your choices are two:
you feed on it,
or it feeds on you.”

The experiences offered are most often lived by a man, perhaps of a similar age to the author. The supporting cast too often appears two-dimensional.

The author may be writing for a particular audience, those who will recognise themselves in his words. It was only in glimpses that I caught a wider empathy between these pages.

My copy of this book was provided gratis. 

Book Review: Northern Alchemy

“Raised with two languages
is unconscious feasting: two ways of thinking.
One extends the other; can show us another world
yet how all worlds are just the same, but different.”

Northern Alchemy, by Christine De Luca, is a collection of forty poems that are printed in both the original Shetlandic and an English translation. This innovative format works well as readers may challenge themselves to understand the blended dialect of Old Scots and Norse before enjoying the translated version.

The sense of place in each of the poems is strong. There is an appreciation of the beauty and power of the natural world, and man’s place in it. Contemporary references exist but the overall feel is elemental, the language vivid and full-flavoured.

Not all are set on the Shetland Islands. This Material World describes an Icelandic volcano.

“earth rearranging herself, unslept, unsettled;
reminding us of her ways and timelines, our momentariness”

A feeling of timelessness permeates the collection. Beach work sees the narrator shunning the tasks they should be completing to appreciate the moment and treasure it. The importance of such prioritisation comes to the fore when considering the subject of What’s in a name? – the losing of memory when elderly.

“if the name I chose for you eludes me.
I’ll still sense mountain, water, love.”

Although poignant this is a reminder that parents can still exist, and find contentment, beyond their recognition of offspring.

Several of the poems explore the harvesting of nature’s goodness on both land and sea. There is a sense of freedom in walks taken as narrators observe and listen to birds, beasts, fields and streams. Those of different generations are appreciated, their lives leaving an imprint. Births are celebrated.

“The heavens themselves blaze forth nativity,
wrap a blessing round a little one whose first breath
reincarnates the dust of galaxies”

The beauty and pathos within these pages offers a strong evocation of people as just one, transient part of wider nature. Senses are heightened and what is of true value respected. Although never sugar coating, the poems are appreciative of the life and beauty of existence.

An uplifting and powerful collection. Recommended for all, not just those who already enjoy reading poetry.

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

Book Review: Planet in Peril

“This anthology was founded upon the belief that words have the power to change.”

Planet in Peril, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, is an anthology of poetry, photographs, artwork and think pieces focusing on climate change, pollution, and man’s impact on Planet Earth. Whilst timely given current interest in the subject matter, it is not exactly cheery reading.

An early poem, Mother Earth by Rachael Ikins, injects early controversy with a possible solution to the humans causing so much damage to their beautiful home and life support system.

“She urges them to genocide, war, the moon;
sends in viruses, bacteria, her fiercest warriors the smallest –
anything to rid
the plague that consumes her”

I was entertained later in the book by a poem written by one of the younger contributors, Niamh Hughes, whose Animals reversed imagines the outrage a person would feel if Earth’s other animals treated people as humans treat their fellow creatures. Throughout the book human actions are shown to be selfish and damaging to all, including themselves.

Early entries explore the importance of trees and the true cost of deforestation.

There is a section focusing on the polar regions – a sanctuary under which people dump their nuclear waste.

Preserved in Ice by Dr Sam Illingworth offers a strong portrayal of man’s grasping invasions. Information provided after the poem explains that researchers have collected and radiocarbon dated samples of ancient plants in the Canadian Arctic continually covered by ice for at least the past 40,000 years, until now. Whilst I understand the concerns about melting ice and rising sea levels, I was curious about the time when these plants grew. Planet Earth has experienced fluctuating global temperatures throughout its existence.

The many photographs included of our world and the beautiful creatures that inhabit it are a joy to peruse. I did wonder at the footprint left by the scientists cited and the artists who captured the images. Habitats and species are best preserved if left to nature rather than adapted for man’s convenience, even when intentions are worthy.

In some ways this book felt like an elegy to the world as we know it today. Life on Earth is constantly evolving. Whilst it appears obvious that modern man is a scourge, our own actions may eventually provide the cure. This is a difficult process to dwell on and one many refuse to contemplate despite their lifestyles bringing it ever nearer.

The blazing sun and what to do about it by Peter Ualrig Kennedy takes a wry look at human attitudes, capturing typical responses to growing but ignored crisis. As is pointed out later by Geoff Callard,

“we humans are incredibly bad at trading off short term gratification for long term gain”

There is suggestion that the speed of current change prevents other species adapting. In the futuristic Specimen by Joanna Lilley, Homo sapien is described as “architect of annihilation”. Our unwillingness to radically alter our behaviour is cleverly captured in Sleepwalking by Amélie Nixon.

“we are tired
put your alarm clock on snooze;
shove your head back under the pillow.
just 10 more minutes.”

Another young contributor, Jenna M, provides a poignant hand drawn picture of Planet Earth and the creatures suffering man’s pollution and incursions.

Automachine by Aviva Rynne Browne brings vividly to the fore how wasteful we are with resources, and how little we seem to care about this.

The contributions may be moving but are somewhat didactic to read. The lack of hope would be my main criticism however realistic the portrayal may be. The purpose of the anthology is to inspire change in human behaviour. The bleak picture painted puts into question how possible this is.

There is talk in the news of tipping points, and perhaps the damage wreaked has already taken us beyond what can be fixed. As a species it is troubling to consider that Planet Earth may only flourish if we are removed.

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

A proportion of the profits from this book will be donated to The Climate Coalition and WWF.

Book Review: 60 Lovers to Make and Do

60 Lovers to Make & Do, by Sophie Herxheimer, is a collection of metaphorical contemporary love stories – vignettes written in playful poetry. They are presented with associated artwork in collage format which are a delight to explore. Each subject is introduced by their occupation. These women make use of whatever objects are to hand to create their ideal lover. Of course, lovers rarely turn out to be ideal. As in more conventional relationships, some of the pairings work and many do not.

Each poem is short but neatly conveys the complexities of living with a lover – the unexpected turns such alliances can take.

The desire to find a compatible lover is the driving force behind the creative activity. Subjects make the paramour they believe they want but cannot then control what has become a sentient being.

Some of the lovers turn out to harbour interests that were not predicted. The relationships are, very much, reflections of more conventional encounters.

There are a variety of reasons why certain relationships do not last. The bespoke creations turn out to be as varied as those met in other ways.

I mentioned the artwork that accompanies the poems. These collages are cut from a range of sources and it is fun to try to work out connections. They mostly depict the lovers as cutouts and pose them alongside the gap left from their removal.

There are also cut out words and phrases put together to add a further layer of interest.

As well as the poems – the occupations – the index lists the items needed to make the lovers detailed. This was a quirky addition that amused me.

The collection is entertaining throughout but raises serious issues about desire, control and expectation. A distinctive collection of art and poetry that is well worth perusing.

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

Book Review: Bad Mommy Stay Mommy

Bad Mommy / Stay Mommy, by Elisabeth Horan, is a collection of poems that provide a visceral and often harrowing account of the author’s postpartum depression. Following the birth of her second son, Horan found her world unravelling. Her behaviour made others uncomfortable and, at times, angry. She was not behaving as a new mother is required by society. Most of all though Horan struggled to cope with the change in herself.

“I am you in mixed acrylic on a Pollack canvas”

The author writes of the guilt she feels over how she treats her two young children due to her illness. The boys know that she is sad but must still bear the brunt of her mood changes.

“Who am I? lashing out –
my tongue a leather whip
leaving verbal welts
on the back of someone so small”

In Wellbutrin in my Brain, Horan recounts the effects of the medication she was prescribed.

“I’m fat and puffy yet endlessly hungry,
my hair in my hands and
my back to the wall of a cliff;
then falling, falling
into a Dali sea –

Rife and roiling with
lunatics like me.”

Efforts to be around her family are depicted in raw, emotion. She writes of prowling through night’s darkness and of regrets when, exhausted, she lashes out again.

“But what of the little boy?
Cowering, looking to me for shelter”

Basement Mother is one of several poems that reference her self-hatred. This leads to suicidal thoughts that are expanded upon. In Mother Maple she writes of the cost to her family.

“Funnny, how they hold up
The felled trunk of me
Even as they succumb
From my smothering –
From the immense weight
Crushing them.”

Despite the torment she knows that her family wants her. She struggles to see how, in this state, she can be good for them. She becomes desperate to find a way out of the abyss.

“Gnawing on one’s own failure bed
my prone heart
the same the same”

A climax is reached in Better off without me which is powerful, painful, and should be read in its entirety.

As the title suggests, eventually Horan finds a way to stay alive.

“t’isn’t easy being in the world now
as a member, not an inmate

My own warden.”

It is rare to find such an honest depiction of a new mother’s wounds and shortcomings. The complexities of mental illness are balanced with the love felt for the children, love that is written between the lines rather than sentimentalised. Despite the depression so searingly depicted there is hope in this collection.

A stark yet spirited window into a condition rarely brought into open, honest discussion. An important portrayal that overflows with a rare candour. Hear her roar.

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

Book Review: Moments

Moments, by Daphne Denley, is a poetry collection that recounts how the author dealt with difficult times and emotions following her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Writing became her therapy, a way to vent as she struggled to cope, especially with the need to retain a stable routine for their young daughter.

The early poems express an appreciation of quiet moments and the importance of making memories, of stepping back from the daily hustle before that time has passed and the opportunity gone.

In Cards Apart Denley writes of those she sends birthday and Christmas cards to but no longer meets.

“Truth be known, we’d rather leave
The past behind, just memories keep

Good times we had, but that was then”

Whilst aware of the need to treasure her daughter’s childhood there is exhaustion as she taxis the child to her many activities or simply struggles to get her ready for school each day. Parents will recognise the frustration of misplaced keys and offspring who won’t comply with simple requests and instruction.

The poems do not shy away from the difficulties of dealing with the expectation that parents remain calm and positive whatever they may be feeling or personally dealing with at the time.

The stress of the ongoing situation is obvious and at times false fixes are sought – shopping, alcohol, gambling. The guilt and regret that follow add to the relentless load carried, and yet some form of diversion is required.

There are repeated mentions of bullying but also the importance of friendship. There is concern over the damage inflicted from the consumption of ‘bad’ food and subsequent weight gain. Alongside the negative are positives including an appreciation of nature. Daydreams take time from a busy day but are a necessary distraction.

The poems read as song lyrics more than poetry. The author is a singer in a local band and writes in the introduction that she is ‘happy with rhyme’. The word order is often Yoda like to achieve this.

I suspect Moments will be valued most by those who have gone through a similar experience. If they provide any sort of comfort in such difficult circumstances, to author or reader, they are worthwhile.

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

Book Review: Poems of the Mare Nostrum / Costa Nostra

Having recently read a number of crowd pleasing novels it felt good to sink my teeth into this challenging poetry collection. Subtitled, ‘Poems for the twilight of the shipwrecked’, the author opens by explaining the main title.

Places go by many names over time. What we now call the Mediterranean, the Romans referred to as Mare Nostrum, meaning Our Sea. Today, Costa Nostra refers to

“beaches, and the Pan-European defence of coastlines and borders: a machinery which only intensified in recent years.”

Desimone looks to ancient Greece for heroes and beasts

“all of whom seem to have enjoyed significantly more freedom to wander, especially in the light of today’s more clearly defined barriers”

This theme of borders and beasts, ancient and modern, along with the plight of immigrants and refugees and how this compares to the treatment of tourists, permeates a collection alive with anger and contempt for those who dehumanise others in order to protect their privileged existence, despite having more than enough available to share.

Set largely in and around the Mediterranean there are musings on who is allowed in and who must sneak across borders and the sea. The history of the area is referenced along with the many sites over which wars have been waged. There is mention of religious zealots who indulge in alcohol and harlots, against the texts they demand others adhere to. Tourists are mentioned – plugged into headphones rather than listening and engaging, who capture photographs rather than absorbing and dissolving their being into that moment’s experience.

When looking at art – illustrations by the author are included – there is consternation amongst the Muslim brotherhood over depictions of female nudes. Imposition does not just come from the capitalist west.

The poems explore freedom and what this means. They look at walls, borders and prescribed behaviour, at (in)tolerance of non conformity.

“there is nothing remote about control”

Man, with his war machines and war mentality, his striving for capitalist or religious ideals that he then wishes to protect against rebels and invaders, is compared to earlier societies in the area. The author asks if education is the eradication of tradition, and what is lost following polish and cleansing – of the masks donned in so called modernisation.

“erecting new office buildings,
jagged edifices of stress, vomitous,
against the sea”

“They expect to live forever;
they want to sleep with the famous
and to vote for absolute evil,
in the elections
of the continent of good ideas”

Several poems refer to the death of a gypsy woman on a French street, and the attitudes of those going to work in their smart suits who ponder when the body will be tidied away.

I particularly enjoyed Welfare Rat which explores the resentment felt by the well fed when asked to provide a means for the hungry to acquire food. This is followed by Poem Against Switzerland which rails against the country’s expense and values.

“Fear Swiss static: its glaciers birthed
streams of expensive water,
and echoed the birth
of the anti-dream

To the Swiss lands
of Evian for downing Prozac,
I by far prefer Greece:
Onira Gleekee they say before
sending you to bed, “Sugar on your dreams””

The striving for eradication of dirt and smell, for the spread of order and convention and distaste for anything else, is a repeated theme. Also tourists taking, then talking as if knowledgeable of a culture they briefly experience but have not inherited and had ingrained.

Later poems look at fear and how it is generated. How, over time, it has become hidden – a school of sharks transformed into submarines and torpedoes.

“The game of mongering dread, aversion:
today our masters call it “deterrence””

In amongst the anger were mentions I baulked at – the prostitutes, a reference to ‘bestseller housewife novels’, the ‘sexiness of fake blond’ – I disagreed.

I cannot say I got all the references, and nor could I make sense of many of the author’s line drawings. And yet, I understood the passion and resentment that a way of living was being imposed – striving for acquisition a driving force over acceptance.

The poems are best read as though being listened to – as urgent, spoken word poetry. The powerful collection gives more on each rereading.

“In the end,
Sun and Moon can destroy
and recreate like no human can.”

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Prote(s)xt.