Book Review: The White Book

“the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior”

The White Book, by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), is prose yet reads with the piercing beauty of poetry. It contains a series of haunting and evocative short studies on the ripples created by loss.

At twenty-two years of age the narrator’s mother gave birth to a premature baby, alone in an isolated house in the countryside. The child lived for less than two hours. The manner in which this firstborn entered and left the world remained as a shadow within the family. As the mother continued to mourn her dead daughter, her subsequent living daughter observed in the knowledge that she would not exist had her sister lived.

Each vignette in the collection is wound around a white object such as: swaddling bands, gauze, snow, a white bird, a shroud. The narrator has travelled to a strange city where she ponders her surroundings and their effect. She remembers aspects of her life thus far, including the stories she was told about her past and before she was born.

The observations are visual, internal and resonant. There is no sound other than the echo of her personal history. The narrator is living with the inevitability of loss, that all will one day die. For birth, marriage and death there are rituals – attempts to slow the erasure of those who have gone.

“there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever”

Just as freshly fallen snow adds a cleansing, soft beauty to the world it shrouds, so the writing is breathtaking in the visceral wonder it offers as it wraps itself around moments in time. The words are thoughtful and contemplative – hopeful in their acceptance of what cannot be changed.

“Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived”

This is writing to be savoured. An exquisite yet grounded read.


Book Review: Certain Manoeuvres

“You spend all your time with the few people that you know who almost speak your language.”

Certain Manoeuvres, by Lydia Unsworth, is a collection of prose poetry that delves into the disconnects felt while journeying through time and place. The linear narrative reports from the perspective of increasing ages.

There are memories of when a good time involved the over consumption of alcohol, seeking oblivion and accepting the aftermath as a story to be edited and later savoured. There are times spent at home, purposely hiding within walls, ignoring callers at the door.

The observations have a detached quality despite penetrating the minutiae of lived experience. There is a study of location, a seeking out of hidden corners, a questioning as to why the narrator has chosen to be wherever they currently are. Is pleasure in a place contrived due to expectation? Are photographs collected for a future boast, a tick on a bucket list? There is a need to conform, to appreciate a vaunted feature that the journey undertaken to get there will have been worthwhile.

Significant travels, events and encounters are remembered alongside acknowledgement that more also occurred. In later meetups, when others raise a shared experience significant to them of which the narrator has no recollection, there is pretence to avoid a contribution appearing unimportant. We each curate our personal histories.

“There is no such thing as exploration. Everywhere you have ever been acts as magnet for every step you are about to take.”

As time passes travels are less novel, jaded, locations merging – something like it has been seen before. A tour guide creates the stories others will absorb and take home. As time passes the journeying becomes a chore.

“I want to go to the tourist office and tell them I’ve got twenty-four hours. I want them to tell me that the best thing to do would be just go and sit down.”

Appreciation of cities is pondered – the history, gentrification, how it outlives a person even before they die. In moving along life’s travelator, gathered possessions become less important, an encumbrance. Memories so assiduously collected are no longer worth what they once were.

The collection offers a window into a series of moments and how perceptions change over time. It explores what it is to be here, now, amongst others, at locations cherished yet no longer truly observed.

One poem talks of a death, of a choice made to detach from the world and the impact this has when it is not yet known.

“They found him when his direct debits stopped transacting. Until then nobody noticed the smell. Nobody noticed the absence. Nor, therefore, we deduce, the presence.”

Travel is undertaken because it offers a maybe, the potential for something more. The lessons, ultimately, are for the traveller alone.

The spare, concise writing is both engaging and quietly devastating, peeling back comforting veneers, questioning how we exist in the now. It pulses with buried emotion. It is of our time.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Knives Forks And Spoons Press.

Book Review: Bristol

Bristol is an anthology of experimental prose poetry from the wonderfully subversive publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, under their DW Cities imprint. Created in collaboration with an array of literary groups, each book in the series is accompanied by a local event held in the city featured. Like the writing, the idea may be innovative but it is satisfying that such a venture is made possible by supporters and contributors. The literary world benefits from original thinking.

This slim title contains diverse work from six writers. It opens with a concept piece from Sarer Scotthorne which I interpreted as a commentary on the effects of zero hours contract relationships. There is a feeling of risk and disconnection – of those who sign up being expendable. Hours are described as ‘missing’, method as ‘island gropes’ or ‘into a kind of abyss’. It is strangely disconcerting.

Vik Shirley offers a series of poems on celebrity (Betsy) and their varied acolytes (vigilantes). Betsy is a has been whose continued fame relies on her intense following. They demand certain standards for inclusion and have become a power in themselves. The real Betsy is no longer needed for the vigilantes to continue as influencers.

David Turner sets his pieces in the Tate Modern and provides an entertaining alternative commentary on famous art installations. They are playful in their treatment of the conceits and rage of well known artists and their work.

Paul Hawkins’ contribution is more opaque. I took from it a cynical despair at continuing demand for vanilla living and writing.

“the world is full of climbers
putting the win on instagram

hucksters pumping sherbet after sherbet
of effects into the stratosphere

balm ready
going super soft option for the whining win”

Lizzy Turner opens with a quartet of diary entries highlighting the problems of living with anxiety. She then blacks out increasing sections, thus bringing to the fore the ongoing darkness of such a condition. It is a powerful evocation.

The final contributor is Clive Birnie whose bio explains he works with appropriated text. His six interrelated poems are about deals and money-making. Their protagonist, The Lemon Squeezer, is a ‘cease and desist investor’. There is mention of disgrace and deteriorating conditions, of catastrophe ‘becoming commoditised’ – advise given:

“A fool should sell himself, while
he still has something left to sell.”

One of the difficulties of reviewing experimental writing is a concern that my interpretations may be wide of the mark intended. Such is the risk taken by any writer publishing their work. As a reader I enjoyed unpacking this collection. It benefits from rereads and offers much to consider.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the editor, Paul Hawkins.

Book Review: Warewolff!

Warewolff!, by Gary J Shipley, is a collection of prose poetry that is intentionally the antithesis of linguistic beauty. It takes a mash-up of recognisable deformities and inverts them, playing with what is considered distasteful and thereby mocking what is socially acceptable. Perceptions and behaviours are stretched beyond possibility but at its heart is the hypocrisy of what modern man will tolerate when he chooses to look away.

The pieces included are between half a page and three pages in length. Reading and trying to interpret them put me in mind of a walk through a high end art gallery. I was aware that there was more to each offering than I was appreciating but from time to time an image would resonate.

As an example, the following excerpt from Foot Glut put me in mind of how a lover attempts to own their beloved, yet in doing so causes change that is unlikely to be desired. They spoil what they loved by attempting to keep it only for themselves.

“I cut off his feet to keep him from leaving. It would take a month, perhaps two, but a new pair always grew back. This was the first of many taunts. I was receiving an education. I was being told that if I wanted to keep something I’d have to mutilate it, and keep mutilating it. That that’s just how things are kept, how lives are maintained. Eventually I cut off his head, and waited for that to grow back. But it didn’t happen. Instead a spider came and nested in the neck. Suspecting it of laying eggs, I killed it with a rolled up magazine.”

Throughout the collection the human body is deconstructed, reactions to what it contains masticated and regurgitated. Few baulk at the idea of taking in other’s saliva when kissing, sexual gratification occurs when a lover is willing to allow semen to enter an orifice, yet who would consider swallowing faeces? The imagery offered is grotesque but it raises questions.

Likewise, few wish to think about the animal parts eaten in processed food. What is done to bodies – human and animal – is twisted to extreme. Actions considered ordinary – sex, cosmetic surgery, transplants, eating, disease – are perverted and then presented in gory, stench filled detail. Cruelties that should be shocking yet are not so far from what is known to happen, kept at a distance where they may be ignored, are reimagined – starvation, rape, incest, cannibalism. The language used is not always easy to interpret and is often weird, intended to sicken.

The raw stream of consciousness with which each piece is narrated is explicit and disturbing. Direction is often unclear, language difficult to elucidate. It is a fantasy horror show that is grimly challenging, horrifically portrayed with a chilling detachment. What is conveyed is appalling, but also appallingly familiar.

Not a book intended to be read for enjoyment, I found myself less upset by it than by more prosaic offerings where men behave abhorrently yet are treated as typical lads having fun. There is no fun to be had in this book, but shocking behaviour is seen for what it is. Man may not do exactly what is detailed but somewhere, someone is doing something as dreadful.

Warewolff! is published by Hexus Press.

Book Review: Extravagant Stranger

Extravagant Stranger, by Daniel Roy Connelly, is a memoir told in the form of prose poetry. It offers the reader a collection of personal snapshots to peruse covering several decades of the author’s life. The depictions are grungy in places but searingly candid. Cultural references are made which I did not always recognise, resulting in certain pictures remaining opaque. The majority however are presented with razor sharp clarity, the subjects dissected with wit and precision.

The collection opens with musings on conception, birth, memories from childhood and then coming of age. On Getting Laid For The Third Time offers a droll account of inexperienced sex.

The author recounts moments in his life from various countries where he has travelled, worked and resided. His ongoing battle with depression adds poignancy, a shadow that never quite disappears.

Look Left, 2001 packs a powerful punch from New York City. Five People And One Animal I’ve Sat Next To On Planes is exactly what the title says, the entertaining list capturing a depth of meaning from the simplest of observations.

Poetry requires a degree of focused concentration but with a collection that resonates like this the endeavour is more than repaid. Each work is flavoursome, bold and substantial yet never cloying or heavy. There is a strong sense of place alongside reactions to being there.

The later poems suggest greater mordancy but are also drenched in fatherly love. No matter how tired from the effort of living, time spent with the author’s young son is relished. There is sadness when the child grows old enough to be constricted by timetabled living. Mardi Gras, 2014  – father and son on the set of a Marvel movie – offers relief after more serious contemplation.

The book concludes with an imagining of the author’s death and the reflections wished for. Thoughts are with cushioning the son from lasting sadness, a request that the child believe in his father still.

This is an accessible, unpretentious collection despite its impressive reach and intensity. A reflective, subtly powerful, rewarding read.

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