Everybody's Reading

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Review by Peter Flack of "Radio Sunrise" by Anietie Isong

Anietie Isong's Radio Sunrise is a bitter satire on life in post colonial Nigeria that would have pleased fellow Nigerian musician and political commentator Fela Kuti. It is the story of Ifiok, a radio journalist who wants to produce radio drama and do the right thing from the point of view of story telling, but keeps on running into nepotism, superstition and politics. It's a world of brown envelopes that would have even satisfied Neil Hamilton. 

Ifiok's radio show is cut due to government pressure for more time for religious broadcasts and official announcements, so Ifiok accepts a news job. He is sent back to his home region to report on the successful conversion of former extremists who engaged in attacks on oil pipe lines and kidnappings to peaceful educational pursuits. Ifiok teaches them how to make documentaries. Meanwhile the government has reneged on its agreement with the oppositionists, so they make a special documentary, for national consumption. 

This is a witty, sardonic book, that looks at the failings of human nature with a kindly heart. But it is still an incisive piece of satire. Do yourself a favour. Read it.

About the reviewer
Peter Flack is a former teacher and member of the  National Union of Teachers. He is co-founder of the Whatever it Takes literacy project and chair of Everybody's Reading Festival in Leicester.

Review by Katherine Hetzel of "The Knowing" by Kevan Manwaring

The Knowing follows the story of Janey, an American singer who, when we first meet her, is pretty much at rock bottom in her life. But when a mysterious journal is left for her, everything changes; she is forced to confront the past, clean up her act and find a new path with the help of her Scottish ancestors.

Janey discovers she has The Knowing – she is able to see beyond our world and into faerieland because of a curse laid on a distant relative and passed down through the female line. The journal provides the link between the two worlds, with Robert Kirk – captive of the Fairy Queen and one of Janey’s ancestors – writing about his life in captivity and living in the hope that, one day, a descendant of his will release him. In relation to fairyland, the author is knowledgable and draws on existing literature from Robert Kirk’s own research into all things faerie in the 17th century, as well as having done some serious research into the music that Janey sings and the Scottish landscape she visits.

What makes this book interesting is that, throughout the main narrative provided by Janey, there are points where the reader can hear parts of the story told by other voices – read Robert Kirk’s journal, or see the life of one of Janey’s ancestors through whom The Knowing is passed, for example. Although readers are assured that they can read the main narrative on its own without following these links, I did not find it so; in certain places, the main narrative would not have made sense without visiting the ‘other voice’, yet in other places, the break in narrative felt false and unnecessary, even annoying at times. I confess to not following all of them, because a lot of the information relating to Janey’s ancestors had been revealed by researchers Allen or Eliza before we encountered the same information, albeit told differently. Using digital media in this way is reasonably novel, so perhaps it is something to be refined in future works. The novel has an appealing plot and uses digital media in a clever way to bring other voices into the main narrative.

About the reviewer 
Katherine Hetzel is an ex-microbiologist who took to writing stories for her children when they were young. She now writes mainly for children, having published two books of short stories and one novel (StarMark) to date, with another due to be published this summer. She has also been published in several anthologies for adults, blogs at Squidge’s Scribbles, and enjoys visiting schools to deliver creative writing sessions. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932” (exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 11 February – 17 April 2017)

The Royal Academy exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 coincides with the centenary of the Bolshevik led uprising. The 1932 date relates to a particular exhibition held in Leningrad during that year: Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic. This brought together, for the last time under Stalin, both the avant-garde and Socialist Realism, which had coexisted since the 1920s (the RA aims to reflect this inclusive agenda). Following the Leningrad exhibition, Stalin decreed Socialist Realism as the only acceptable style for the Soviet Union, ending an era of vibrant creative activity.

The RA exhibition is comprehensive in its approach, and the visual arts it covers are painting, photography, film, graphics, ceramics and textiles. There is even a full-scale model of El Lissitzky’s 1932 Design for an Apartment for Narkomfin (People’s Commissariat of Finance), and a small room devoted to a reconstruction of one of Tatlin’s eccentric gliders.

Two Russian avant-garde isms —Futurism and Suprematism— predated the Revolution by a few years, but their leading artists shared its ideals and contributed to its causes of equality and justice. Early on, some of these avant-garde artists painted bright colours to decorate trains taking the optimistic messages of the Revolution to small towns and the countryside. This is a revolution we might still believe in, and I feel the RA exhibition could have shown more of what must have been genuinely exciting times. I remember once seeing and entering a mock-up of a carriage of one of those agitprop trains, and the colours and designs of the propaganda posters communicated the sheer energy and enthusiasm of those first revolutionary years in a way the RA exhibition fails to achieve. By perhaps not wanting to be too starry-eyed about a revolution that brought much cruelty and suffering, the RA misses showing the exhilaration also present, and a more complete representation of the time is lacking.

The exhibition of course has star names: Malevich, Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Popova, Tatlin, Rodchenko, and the Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky. Both experimental poet and graphic artist with his own bold and powerful style, his 1921 poster series Enemies Surround Us is exhibited. As satirical cartoons on the oppression of English workers, they have at last found their way home. In the same room, Rodchenko’s photograph of Mayakovsky presents him with eyes, one in half shadow, which continue to stare at us with an almost frightening intensity of vision and commitment. In 1930 he shot himself, at a time when he was disillusioned with turns the Revolution had taken. The 150,000 who attended his funeral are evidence of his popularity. To others, like the painter Marc Chagall, the revolution had become sour much earlier than 1930.  He had founded an art school at his home city of Vitebsk, and was also its Commissar of Arts. Nevertheless, disappointed, he left Russia for France in 1922.

In the late 1920s, the authorities were denouncing Malevich’s work for not showing social realities. Despite this, he was given a room of his own in the 1932 Leningrad exhibition. This is also the case at the RA, and they have included those works exhibited 80+ years ago: Suprematist abstractions alongside representational work attempting to conform. His paintings of peasants, though, show blank faces, commenting, it seems, on loss of identity under the communist system.

The RA’s Malevich room also includes work by one of his Suprematist followers, Nikolai Suetin. His designs on coffee pot, cup, saucer, plate, inkwell and vase, manufactured by the State Porcelain Factory in Petrograd, are one of the exhibition’s highlights. Still looking fresh and wonderful, they could also be labelled Constructivist, as might El Lissitzky’s apartment design. Constructivism was the only avant-garde ism developed in the Revolution. It is basically an extension into areas of design and production of Suprematist painting’s use of visual fundamentals.

Aesthetically, some of the very best exhibits are graphics. The Stenberg Brothers, Vladimir and Georgi, produced stunning theatre and film posters using photomontage in Constructivist compositions with dynamic angles, and space as an active element of the designs. The colours are also tremendous. On a personal note, after completing a design degree I studied at a teacher training college in 1981/82, and on a wall of my hall of residence room I placed a few postcards of images that were touchstones for my own creative aspirations. They included Russian Revolution film posters by the Stenberg Brothers. I valued their work highly, and still do.

The final rooms are profoundly depressing. Stalin’s centrally planned drive to industrialisation demanded images of heroic workers, especially the ‘shock workers’ who were promoted as examples of those whose productivity exceeded the official targets. The grim reality behind this propaganda included strikers and slow workers being imprisoned or executed. The Union of Soviet Artists suppressed the avant-garde, leaving only the dirge of Socialist Realism. Artworks from one of the twentieth century’s greatest times for artistic innovation were locked away in storerooms and cupboards. State terror claimed victims from all walks of life, including the brilliant avant-garde theatre director Meyerhold, who was tortured and shot. The exhibition ends with the emergence of this ruthless and brutal tyranny.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He has recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “The Sound of Laughter Isn’t Necessarily Funny.” An exhibition by Jonathan Monk: The Gallery, Vijay Patel Building, De Montfort University, Leicester, 27 January – 11 March 2017

After a period living and working in Los Angeles, the acclaimed British artist Jonathan Monk has been a long term resident of Berlin. With The Sound Of Laughter Isn’t Necessarily Funny, he returns, through this exhibition, to his Leicester roots. By showing at The Gallery, the exhibition space of The Vijay Patel Building, De Montfort University’s impressive new centre for art and design, he is back at the institution, when it was Leicester Polytechnic, where he completed an art foundation course before studying at Glasgow School of Art.

There might only be five installations but it is definitely a case of less is more, since they distil the vast themes of time and memory. It is rewarding, and indeed necessary, for visitors to invest a little of their own time in order to experience sounds from two of the artworks and movements of another. They take place at intervals that are not too long.

Conceptual Art can sometimes be dry, but, here, Monk’s version has the entertaining actors of chiming grandfather clocks, a self-playing piano, and a packaged but dismembered doll timed to move up and down, making its eyes open and close. The exhibition text helps to explain the personal meanings behind My Mother Cleaning My Father’s Piano and the animatronic The Way We Work Within The World.

Hand Holding Negative is a subversion of exhibition expectations, as it is a light box placed extremely high on a gallery wall (this positioning being part of the artwork). It is just possible to see it is Morrissey and read the words ‘The Smiths.’ Was Monk a fan during his Leicester youth, with the past now difficult to see? Or does he want to alienate the viewer, just as his two grandfather clocks, The Odd Couple, in another part of the gallery, closely face each other and turn their backs on us?

This exciting new venue for international contemporary art in Leicester has rejected the traditional white cube. There is more floor space than wall space, and it seems destined to be biased towards installations and sculpture. One of the longer sides of the gallery is entirely window, and Monk’s Senzo Titolo IV has been placed close to it, art either challenging the world passing by or blind and helpless. It presents not the head of a man but the sculpture of the head of a man, a man already in quotation marks. This is a pretend sculpture that Monk has deliberately damaged, which of course means it is not damaged at all. The subtitle of the piece is ‘Jesmonite bust with nose broken by Maurizio Cattelan,’ and this brings in the referencing of other contemporary artists for which Monk has become, in the art world at least, well known.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He has recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Interview with Melissa Studdard

About Melissa Studdard

Melissa Studdard’s debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, was recently released by Saint Julian Press. She is also the author of the best­selling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah; its companion journal, My Yehidah (both on All Things That Matter Press); and The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite Award, and two Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards. I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was listed as one of Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts' Best Books of 2014-2015. Melissa’s poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, blogs, and anthologies, including Tupelo Quarterly, Psychology Today, Connecticut Review, Pleiades,  and Poets & Writers. In addition to writing, Melissa serves as the host of VIDA Voices & Views and an editor for American Microreviews and Interviews. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence college and is a professor for the Lone Star College System and a teaching artist for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative. Her website is https://melissastuddard.com/

Here, Jonathan Taylor interviews poet and novelist Melissa Studdard, whose collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was reviewed in October 2016 on Everybody's Reviewing here

JT: Melissa, I hugely enjoyed your poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, which seemed to me original, strange and often sublime. At the same time, your neo-Romanticism is also accompanied by an eye for the beauty of the everyday - so that the sublime mixes with the mundane ("Washing clothes ... is an act of prayer," you say in one poem, and another is entitled "Starry Night, with Socks"). For me, I would say this was one of the hallmarks of your style - but do tell me if I'm wrong. How would you describe your style?

MS: I love that assessment, Jonathan - especially that you called I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast “strange.” In pointing out the commingling of the mundane and sublime, you nailed not only my style, but also how I experience the world. I grew up in a secular home. My father is agnostic, and my mother is spiritual with a deep curiosity about supernatural mysteries. We didn’t go to church, but I would sit at the top of the jungle gym in my back yard and talk to god. I believed and still believe that god is in my backyard. That’s part of it. Also, there’s something a monk said to me years ago when I was learning Buddhist meditation. He said, “When you learn to relax inside your mind, you can be on permanent vacation, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” You don’t need to go anywhere or seek anything. The beach, the flower, the mountain - they are all inside you. So, yes, I carry them with me when I vacuum and put on socks. Then I realize that vacuum cleaners and socks are sublime too. So, I think I would describe my style as you have, except to also possibly add that I think figuratively. I’m sure I have driven people crazy with my constant metaphors and analogies in everyday conversation, but if I want to understand or explain something, my mind almost always reaches for a comparison.

JT: Clearly, there's a lot of cosmic and creation imagery in the collection.  What themes and ideas were you exploring in this respect?

MS: I was exploring a feminine, cyclical conception of god, time, and the universe. Rather than fashioning my poetic god in man’s image, I fashioned her in woman’s image. It was important to me that she be god and not the diminutive or adjunct “goddess.” I wanted to convey her as the origin and the all powerful, but I also wanted her to be present in the whole of everything. So, in I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, most everything is pretty much a microcosm of the divine and the all. That’s why a pancake is creation flattened out. It’s all interconnected, all divine. As well, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast plays with ideas of reincarnation, god birthing the universe, and god attempting to parent the world.  

JT: Would you describe yourself as a political poet? It seemed to me that the poems were sometimes overtly feminist, constructing alternative matrilinear historical narratives and creation myths, which were very powerful.

MS: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Second wave feminism said that the personal is political. I certainly embrace feminism, as anyone who knows me knows. But is the spiritual political too? I guess I resisted it for a while. I didn’t want my spiritual to be political. But it is, and the more overt I allow these connections to become, the richer and more fruitful their unions. As well, the poems I’ve written since I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was published and since Trump’s election have become more and more overtly political. It’s hard to look at anything the same way anymore when every day feels like a new political emergency. So, all of this is a long way of saying “yes.” I would describe myself as a political poet, and more and more so all the time. Yet I would not categorize myself as a political poet, if that makes sense.

JT: How does your poetry relate, do you think, to the other forms you write in (for example, novel-writing)? Are there major differences, or do you find they overlap? How does teaching help or hinder your work?

MS: I like to think of writing in different forms as cross-training. When I talk to my students about it, we talk about how football players and runners, for instance, sometimes practice ballet and yoga. I live in Texas, so sports analogies go a long way towards aiding student understanding. We talk about how cross-training keeps you flexible, fluid, and fit. There will always be something you learn in one genre that you can carry into another genre. In particular, poetry teaches me to trust the rhythm of my thoughts - to know that I can cultivate what is arising organically instead of trying to impose too artificial a structure on my longer works. Following poems to completion time after time grows trust in the process. Though, I must say, it’s never easy. Teaching helps my work in that it inspires me, but it hinders my creative work in that sometimes I give it far too much of my time and energy.

JT: There are quite a number of ekphrastic poems in the collection, which are inspired by particular pieces of visual art. Why do you think this is? 

MS: Painters like Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington just light up my imagination. They’re like magical beings bringing the dream world to canvas, and when I see what they’ve done with their canvases, I want to do the same thing with the page. I just have to sit down and write. 

JT: What are you working on at the moment?

MS: I’m happily embroiled in poetry at the moment. I do plan to write more fiction in the future, and possibly even a memoir, but I think the next two books will be poetry. I’m working on them simultaneously. One is a book about a girl who is sort of half-myth and half-dream. She has suffered some abuse, and the book is almost an out-of body response to that abuse, though there are other characters and multiple viewpoints. The other book is all the poems I am writing that do not fit into that book. Like with I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, I’m trusting that the organizational path will appear when I put my foot on the ground.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Review by Beth Gaylard of "Collegiate" by Natalie Beech, Brigitte Adela and Written Foundations Theatre Company

Collegiate is a production by Written Foundations Theatre Company, a partnership of director Brigitte Adela with playwright Natalie Beech.  Original music (by Selim Ben Rabha and Matthew Daly) and lighting were elegantly worked out to complement the drama, without distracting from it. I saw it in the Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester.

Set on a campus in freshers’ week, Collegiate is a story about friendship and pseudo-friendship, as well as sexual politics. At the heart of the play is a rape, which is not accepted as such by any of the characters, not even at times, by Tash (played by Rebecca Tubridy) to whom it happens. The brutality of the assault (not portrayed graphically) is matched by the nastiness of Tash’s and Kev’s friends. Tash’s friends scrutinise her behaviour and withdraw their affection in the aftermath of the assault - while Kev (played by Stephen Love) is the butt of more savvy young men, whose laddism contributes to the events. It’s the laddism that is really under scrutiny here – the play effectively challenges assumptions about sexual consent.
The portrayal of Tash’s situation (and its consequences) avoids the ‘victim’ stereotypes associated with those who’ve suffered a sexual assault, focussing on the personal horror – the uniqueness of the experience and the isolation it brings in its wake, as onlookers decide for themselves who’s at fault. 

All this is conveyed through a fast-moving script and excellent acting. There is humour in the piece, but like the music, it complements the story and never detracts from the serious subject – and both actors convincingly portrayed the dilemmas of Tash and Kev.

This is a piece of work that deserves a wider audience – particularly of the young people it’s aimed at, so I was pleased to hear from Written Foundations hope to stage Collegiate at the Edinburgh Festival in August. Catch it if you can. And incidentally, if you happen to have any links with sixteen plus education, it would be well worth booking a performance workshop for your students, as they think about heading off for university themselves.                                     
About the reviewer
Beth Gaylard is a teacher, writer and MA  student at the University of Leicester. She lives in Leicestershire in a weird modernist house that will one day feature in a bestselling novel or film, hopefully her own.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “A Monster Calls” (2016, film, directed by J.A. Bayona)

In what seems those distant days before CGI, Walt Disney introduced to popular cinema, with Song of the South, the combining of live-action and animation, and a signature lightness of touch in doing this was further developed in Mary Poppins. Now, with CGI, it has proliferated, and sometimes applied to more weighty themes. This is the case with A Monster Calls.

Set in contemporary England, a boy, Conor O’Malley, struggles to come to terms with his divorced mother’s cancer, an apparently unsympathetic maternal grandmother, and an ultimately disappointing visit from his father, remarried and living in Los Angeles. He also has to live with the attentions, including physical violence, of a school bully.

The nightmarish CGI sequences are transformations of features Conor can see from his house: a hilltop church with a graveyard and yew tree alongside it. The tree becomes the eponymous monster, voiced in ways both threatening and avuncular by Liam Neeson.

At intervals, the film includes the monster telling Conor three stories, related in an oblique way to his situation. These stories also take the form of animations, but they are in a very different style to those of the main plot. They are more like looser, sketchbook illustrations. In the final sequence, this storybook style makes sense while simultaneously providing mystery (I will avoid the detail of this, since it would be a spoiler). The monster demands of Conor that after the third story he should tell a fourth, working out the underlying truth behind his own terrifying visions.

A Monster Calls has some excellent performances. Lewis MacDougall, as Conor, succeeds in communicating awkwardness and aggression while remaining a character who is essentially likable. Sigourney Weaver gives a focused performance as the controlling grandmother, but with her own stresses and frailties occasionally showing. Toby Kebbell pitches it right as the well intentioned but failing father, and Felicity Jones, as the mother, further establishes herself as one of our finest screen actors, conveying the weakening condition of cancer in a poignant but unsentimental way. There is a brief scene where we see her naked back, and just through Jones’s posture we can believe in the seriousness of her character’s illness.

A Monster Calls has not been a box office hit, possibly because the writer, Patrick Ness (adapting his own book), and director, J.A. Bayona, commendably avoid easy answers, and as an audience we are confronted with both sadness and rage. There is also, though, hope when the difficult relationship between child and grandmother is resolved. It is, for sure, a film worth seeing, and there is a depth of purpose to reflect on, not least the way stories can interpret, and even negotiate through, life’s tragedies.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He has recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and he is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Review by Terry Potter of "Goat Music" by Will Buckingham

This review is also published on The Letter Press Project here.

The stories and myths of the Classical World remain an enduring source of inspiration to contemporary authors who reinterpret, rewrite and recreate both the stories and moral lessons the originals are so rich in. Will Buckingham, novelist, philosopher and university Reader, has added to this body of work with his take on the tale of Marsyas, the Greek satyr who challenged the God Apollo to a music competition.

One of the attractions of revisiting the original sources lies in the way the stories are so open to interpretation - character, motivation and detail can be invented and reinvented time and again without compromising the integrity of the tale. On top of the written versions, the oral tradition can also add a layer of extra interest or complexity to the stories and these versions provide more material to draw on. In crude terms the original stories of Marsyas tell of how he found the double-flute or aulos made by the goddess Athena which she has cast aside in a rage when the other gods made fun of the face she made when she played the instrument. The satyr goes on to claim his musical prowess is greater than that of the great Apollo and challenges this infamously wrathful God to a competition. Marsyas loses and is flayed alive for his presumption.

These tales are often interpreted as a warning against hubris - how could even the most talented mortal being defeat a god? How could he be so deluded? Other commentators have focussed more on the fact that Marsyas is actually defeated by a rather underhand trick that unfairly benefits Apollo and emphasise the great skill and wisdom of the satyr - qualities unusual in their kind. A line of thinking that Buckingham has seized on in his retelling.

The story Buckingham tells us gives Marsyas and the gods he associates with a much more rounded - even modern - set of characteristics and back stories that make the individuals come alive. He's largely sympathetic to the satyr who, although by no means perfect, is ultimately the flawed hero of the book and a victim of a cold, vengeful, chilling Apollo who punishes the mistakes of mortals with no hint of mercy or proportion. Indeed the tale Buckingham tells us is essentially a humanist one - the gods are largely spiteful, arbitrary, self-centred and generally driven by shabby motives and the only sense of mercy or empathy is found in the mortal but chastened Midas - who has learned the hard way that the gods are not to be trusted.

This is indeed a story of incautious hubris but in Buckingham's hands its also a tale of the arbitrariness of power and exercising that power for the pleasure of the cruelty it can inflict. Power exercised in this fashion robs the victim of their identity and their dignity just as Apollo robs Marsyas of his skin.

I read this story at one sitting and that's a tribute to Buckingham's storytelling powers - this rips along at a fair old pace - and it's full of incident and pretty graphic detail. This is, of course, one of the other advantages of using these stories of the Classical world - they are ram packed with sex and violence and Buckingham embraces these elements with glee.

Whatever messages you take way from this reinvention of the Marsyas stories the one thing I can guarantee is that you'll be drawn into a vivid and visceral reading experience that you'll find hard to put down
About the reviewer
Terry Potter is a Senior Lecturer in Working with Children, Young People and Families at Newman University, Birmingham. He is also joint founder of The Letterpress Project, a not for profit initiative that promotes the importance of the printed book.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Review by Jayne Stanton of "Rough Translation" by Cathy Galvin

Reviewer’s disclosure: No prior knowledge of the poet or her work.  A biography on the pamphlet’s back cover, however, lists her credentials as a journalist and a promoter of short fiction (Galvin is founder and director of the Word Factory) as well as a poet.  There’s also praise for a first pamphlet, Black and Blue, a ‘masterclass in poetic risk-taking.’ 

First impressions: Beneath the title on the front cover is a poem – or what appears to be a poem.  From the opening lines, ‘We stake a claim, lay foundations / build and watch it fall’ to the final ‘Our homes are built to go’ there’s a return of wilderness once ‘tamed, contained’ and a leaving of the land by its inhabitants.  Most intriguing of all is:

‘Take away it all
and what is left is who we are.’

What a novel way of grabbing the reader’s attention and inviting further reading between the black end papers of this slim volume.  The Contents page places the title poem midway through the pamphlet but, on exploring further, the reader is re-introduced to the cover-featured lines: they form section 3 of the third poem, ‘Walls.’ 

Rough Translation is the poet’s attempt, over time (these poems were written over a three-year period) to capture, in words, the essence of her people – the Connollys of Mason Island, Connemara – their way of life, and the familial and cultural roots that continue to draw the poet back.  

Throughout these poems, there are strong links between the land and the sea.  In ‘Kate Connolly,’ limpets are fuel for the fire and shells are ‘treasure to be broken,’ the harshness of island life necessitating the gathering of sea bounty.  In ‘On the Tide’, those born on the land leave by the sea.  The poem has a strong, wave-like rhythm; there is tension between land, sea and air, between waiting to go and parting.  And in ‘Cork’, there’s a raft to ‘carry/ his dead weight / across an ocean…or / burn bright / one the one for / the whale-road.’ 

Kate Connelly, the poet’s namesake, has gnarled black hands and a parting kiss of ‘sea, iron…’ yet it is ‘all we don’t understand,’ and ‘all we thought we would never be’ that engenders ‘the eighth sin – / fear.’  She ‘Smell[s] of earth, warm milk from the cow’ too, and, in ‘Naming’, there’s vulnerability as she ‘Stepped in to/ the ocean.   Shed shawl, / shape.  Fed on fish’ while her menfolk bury at sea ‘the cold babies,’ the ‘infants / never named.’  She, and they, are seals that ‘slick the under-swell/ of deep beneath the light,’ reminiscent of the opening poem where child and mother are seals ‘Beneath and above / the swell of birth.’  

In this pronoun-rich collection, Kate Connelly is the only named individual – and the lynch pin, it seems.  In reading back and forth between poems, it seems that all lead back to hers.  Is the subject of the title poem, living in a Midlands tower block where ‘Lifts bring us back / to you’ one of ‘her children,’ ‘freed…to stray beyond’ her ‘folds of wool wrapped round’ or the mother herself?  Is it Kate who is laid to rest ‘in red Coventry clay’ in the poem ‘Coventry Kids’?  The phrase ‘her Connemara moorings’ is telling; it underlines the precarious futures of those who live on islands such as this, taking the reader back to those walls without a roof, those ‘homes…built to go’ (in Walls) and, in Starlings, ‘cottages impossible / to sell; others let to the wealthy.’  

Galvin’s roots run deeper than laid foundations, though, and their pull is evident in many of the poems.  One of the most poignant is Borrowing Soil: the peat top-soil that ‘doesn’t belong,’ is ‘borrowed’ – another impermanence – ‘This earth/ so far from home.’  Home, for the poet, is found in a ‘going back to sources,’ of spoken language:

‘These are the sources that I seek.  Have yer tidied pots?
Have yer sidey’t table? Yes Mummy.  Yes Daddy.  Their voices
deeper than any soil.’

These poems are mysterious and sensual; truth is hard-won – ‘rough’ or inexact rather than invented – and therein lies a magic, of sorts.  Rough Translation is a distillation of lives and their legacy, Galvin’s poems giving voice to those ‘tongues stilled.’  Words are hooks and pins as the reader searches for a way in.  The poems invite and richly reward re-reading.

About the reviewer
Jayne Stanton is a teacher, tutor and folk musician living in Leicestershire.  Her poems have appeared in numerous print and online magazines and anthologies.  She has written commissions for Harborough museum, University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing, and has recently completed a poem sequence about life in Leicester as part of a city residency.  Her pamphlet, Beyond the Tune, is published by Soundswrite Press (2014).  
Jayne blogs at jaynestantonpoetry.wordpress.com and tweets @stantonjayne