Wednesday 23 September 2020

Review by Sarah James of "Dressing for the Afterlife" by Maria Taylor

Even just a few poems into Maria Taylor’s Dressing for the Afterlife, I realise there are many options for how to approach this collection, many themes and threads that I can trace through it.

The opening ‘Prologue’ gives us dressing for the afterlife as learning to 'breathe again,' having stepped into the moment where 'you ended a former existence / and zipped yourself into the unknown.'

The examples of possible outfits to wear hint at the poems to come, as does the opening poem ‘She Ran’ with its list of things run past, the poet having taken up running at the age of forty. This culminates, as summer turns to autumn, with:

          I couldn’t get as far as I wanted.
          The lights changed. My ribs, my flaming heart
          and my tired, tired body burned.

In many ways, the following similarly beautifully pared, moving (and also at times humorous) poems enact and extend this opening, taking the reader through personal past experiences. Some read like the poet’s own; others feature advice, adopted voices and celebrity lives. The book closes with a counterpart to the opening poem ‘Woman Running Alone.’

Afterlife here is not what happens after death but the afterlives within this life, especially women as they age. 

          In summer I was a night-blooming flower.
          By autumn I was a hangover. Winter made me
          a Wall-Street Crash.

I used the word ‘personal’ earlier but this collection is personal in a universal sense, borrowing others’ clothes (experiences) and drawing out wider similarities and significances. This poem, 'I Began the Twenty-Twenties as a Silent Film Goddess,' is a film star talking (in industry terms), but it’s the continuing experience too of many other women now.

For me, Dressing for the Afterlife is also about finding, or reinventing, an individual’s sense of ‘self’ against this and many other backgrounds.

          I trespassed.
          At night I found myself ice-skating
          into someone else’s life.

I can read this poem ('Awake in His Castle') in a Bluebeard sense, but I feel it also chimes at a real life level – in trying to establish and make sense of individual identity, power dynamics and dangers at play all around us.

Another reading of the collection, not unconnected to that above and completely fitting with running, is the sense of everything in continuous flow. Water is a recurring image. 

‘The Floating Woman’ is a memorial to Lauren Stephen, half-sister of Virginia Woolf. The poignant Ophelia-like imagery has death / suicide as a sense of ‘returning’ to water, and life as rivers poured over the narrator. Everything feels fluid, form-changing, transient. This also applies to language: 'how every word / turned into water.'

Meanwhile, in 'The Fields,' 'rain dissolves / a  landscape you thought familiar' and the poem observes 'your place in this world an ever-shifting thing.'

Flow is present too in life’s dance and our steps of learning: 'We dance to learn about a part of ourselves / books can’t teach; it’s what our parents expect' (‘Learning the Steps’). In this case, that includes the moves of old island lives and leaping like salmon (water and flow), 'trying to catch scent of home, / as music pours through speakers like flood.'

It’s also in the passing and nature of time:

         People vanish into thin air every single day,
         even ghosts fade in time ….
         You’re no different. Look, here’s your own reflection.

More than this though, it’s in the pace of the lines, the use of recurring motifs, choices of line-breaks and punctuation, including the end of ‘Mr. Alessi Cuts the Grass.’ Here, a noise like a neighbour pushing 'something larger than dreams / over concrete' expands into a whole poem that ends on the full-flow leaving open of all possibilities of 'but for a moment –'

That the final poem of the collection ends with a similar dash is even more significant in these terms, as well as inviting the reader to re-submerge themselves in the collection, re-reading for more possibilities.  

Other strong elements for me in Dressing for the Afterlife include romantic hopes and family love, and with them the sense of belonging, or not belonging (as present in some of the poems already quoted).

In ‘The Distance,’ the narrator’s family can’t get the hang of England, as lives are scattered into flats, people calling to each other from balconies instead of olive groves:

         Years later I throw open my windows to rain
         knowing my aunt’s echoes won’t travel the distance,
         I’m here, I say to water, can’t you shout any louder?

Meanwhile, in ‘Role Model,’ famous and seemingly glamorous potential role models are rejected for the woman next-door with 'a walk that says I know where I’m going.' 

And yes, all these loop back and together with the elements of water, dance steps, the essence of ‘self,’ the nature of life, society and time: 'Maybe time moves like a figure of eight, / surging forwards then back on itself' (‘Loop’).

That poetry can, maybe even has to, exist outside of time is evident hopefully in the scope of what I’ve already quoted. Imagination does too and this is inherent in many of Taylor’s poems here, including those that place deft light-hearted observations side by side with sharper emotional insights and lines.

In ‘Hypothetical,’ the 'conversational frolic' of a friend asking the narrator if they’d sleep with Daniel Craig is a wonderfully humorous poem. But it also speaks to the nature of the world we live in with its sometimes obsession with celebrity-status and lives turned into public drama.  ‘How to Survive a Disaster Movie’ is similarly deliciously light-toned yet profoundly chilling. 

These are some of the ways I have read this collection. The beauty of strong poems is that they leave space for the reader to find their own truths in them, having given the images, ideas and narratives to do this with. This sense of multiplicity of paths and routes – in life, identity and reading – is most explicit in ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ another poem that is simultaneously funny and heart / dream-breaking.

Reading and re-reading Dressing for the Afterlife, I’m struck by new and different striking images, lines and resonances. Each time, now matter how deep these may cut, I come away with a sense too of exhilaration, much like the woman of the closing poem:

          The rhythm fills her with flight – 
                                            and her wings,
                                                   what wings she has –                             

About the reviewer
Sarah James/Leavesley is a poet, fiction writer, journalist, photographer and editor, who also runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Her latest project is an Arts Council England funded multimedia hypertext poetry narrative > Room. Website:

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Review by Gary Day of "A Sense of Tiptoe and Other Articles of Faith" by Karen Hayes

This volume stand out from many collections of modern poetry in its willingness to go beyond the here and now. In some respects it is a return to the metaphysical tradition, though the poems here lack the sinuous complexity of Donne and the piercing lyricism of Herbert. But how could it be otherwise? Karen Hayes is turning her eyes skyward after nearly four centuries of spiritual atrophy. True, there have been exceptions, the visions of Blake and of course T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets standing solemn and monumental; but neither a vital influence on the contemporary scene. 

Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ is Hayes’ point of departure, a poem that registers the loss of faith and the need to connect to something greater than ourselves. Hayes’ ‘At the Cathedral’ captures something of Larkin’s offering, particularly in the descriptions of architecture and accoutrements, but in her account the dead do not nudge us to wisdom, they are the sharpness of pain and loss. A contrasting poem is ‘Ralph,’ for me the most moving in the volume. Here nature transmutes grief into the glory of the garden. There are historical poems like ‘The Women Who Shaped the Church,’ redeeming those who helped to make history but were then forgotten by it, and seemingly pedestrian poems, such as ‘The Twelve,’ which convincingly fuses aspects of Christianity with the workings of the judiciary. 

Hayes is extraordinarily receptive to the whispers and ripples of the great unknown. It was easy for the metaphysicals. They believed and had the rich expressions to go with that belief. Anyone today who wants to grapple with the divine is faced with the enormous task of overhauling the language, of stripping it down and retuning it to the heavens. On the evidence of this collection, Hayes has made a good start.

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. His research mainly lay in three areas, the  history of literary criticism, the workings of class in British literature and the persistence of sacrificial ritual in the development of drama. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has also edited two volumes on the history of British poetry as well as the three volume Wiley Encyclopaedia of British Literature 1660-1789. He hates management speak, has been involved in amateur theatre for over thirty years and is still trying to write poetry.

Thursday 17 September 2020

Review by Peter Flack of "Brazil That Never Was" by A. J. Lees


I've never been to Brazil but I did once get within forty minutes of the border while luxuriating in the coastal enclaves of Uruguay so I understand the attraction of exploring in South America.

Andrew Lees' book is about Brazil and Amazonia as an unknown and perhaps unknowable mystery. From his opening, gazing down as a boy from the Overhead Railway on the Ocean Liners and freighters tied up in the port of Liverpool that plied their way across the Atlantic, he is steered towards his subsequent quest by a book given to him by his father. The book, Exploration Fawcett, describes the adventures of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who from 1906, for almost twenty years, explored and mapped the jungles, rivers and gorges of Brazil. On his final expedition in 1925 he disappeared and was never seen again.

Fawcett, in his many reports to the Royal Geographic Society, recounted with glee the privations he endured and the fabulous creatures he encountered. These included a sixty-foot man-eating anaconda, a double-nosed tiger and cyanide-squirting millipedes. Each time, he emerged as the hero of his own tales, calming forest-dwelling tribes with a song, escaping cannibals and braving rivers where piranhas lurked to gobble down all but him. He even reported the existence of a valley where a large brontosaurus-like creature still dwelt.

As each new expedition began it became apparent that Fawcett's imaginings went further than inventing landscapes and incredible animals. Fawcett was now searching for a lost city inhabited by mystical beings who existed beyond time. Emboldened by dabblings in theosophy and the occult he came to see himself and his son as chosen ones. When he set off that last time he was sure he knew where he was going.

Lees is gentle in recording the consuming madness of Fawcett, last of the great Victorian explorers. Perhaps, in retrospect, his disappearance was his greatest achievement.

When Lees finally visits Brazil he finds that nothing is left of Fawcett's 'magical' kingdom. A salutary dose of reality.

I loved the book. I have now ordered a copy of Exploration Fawcett. It was that good.

About the reviewer
Peter Flack is a former teacher. He was co-founder of the Whatever it Takes literacy programme for Leicester schools. He also chairs the Everybody's Reading Festival.

Friday 11 September 2020

Review by Laura Besley of "This Alone Could Save Us" by Santino Prinzi


          What would be lost if the moon were to disappear, how ordinary the sky might be
          without it.
- Santino Prinzi

The moon features heavily in Santino Prinzi’s flash fiction collection, This Alone Could Save Us. Sometimes a recurring character, always a metaphor for each of the powerful stories in this collection, the moon is steady, looming large above us, but also pulling away at a pace that is imperceptible to the naked eye. It’s in these gentle shifts that Prinzi’s stories shine.   

The first and last stories of the collection act as bookends, almost mirroring each other. At the beginning of the collection, people are desperate: ‘When we realise the moon is shifting away, we beg it not to go. We vow we can change. ’ By the end, this desperation is intensified, but has turned against the moon: ‘Following the will of the people, the government decide to nuke the moon .… Some people believe the moon is the source of all their worldly problems and it’d be for the best if the moon was gone.’ Prinzi’s layered messages in 'The Moon is a Foreign Body, We Can No Longer Trust It' shine as bright as a full moon on a clear night. 

This is a fabulous collection, exploring a range of emotions and situations. There is hope for Louise and her fourth husband, Edwin, who find their way back to each other in 'It Sometimes Snows in April' and the boy who is finally freed from his mother’s snapping in 'How to Make the Magic Work'; sadness for Clyde in 'Bonsai and Clyde,' and something in between for the characters in the title story. Highly recommend. 

About the reviewer
Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online, as well as in print and in various anthologies. Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020. You can read a review of it here. She tweets @laurabesley.

Thursday 10 September 2020

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Wretch" by Ansgar Allen

A novella.
A stream of consciousness.
A tale set perhaps in the past, a present or a foreboding future.
We don’t know when or where.
A tale of a prisoner.
The Wretch.
Why is he there?
Physically and mentally rotting away in a prison where he copies
(“A diligent copyist”) 
“Producing my own words, or more exactly reproducing and reordering words I have heard!"
A world where travellers explore the unknown city.
The unknown regions.
What are they looking for?
Who threatens them?
Returning mad.
Or not at all.
What breaks their sanity?
Writing reports.
Hiding reports.
Collecting reports.
Returning reports.
On paper that rots away.
The paper mill produces
paper that disintegrates.
Another metaphor.
For what?
There is no hope for the Wretch.
The Wretch copies.
His writing machine breaks.
Or he destroys it.
Replaced, he copies.
This is his life compared to the travellers
with their burdens.
Reminding them of what?
Just as the Wretch carries his burden.
His machine.
Punishment for what?
Reminder or crime?
And their struggles in a frightening outside.
Why do they lose their teeth?
A novella full of metaphor but so
black and white.
Full of repetition.
Emphasising the solitary 
repetitive world of
the Wretch.
His life is repetition.
Who put the Wretch away?
Why are they threatened?
As many questions as answers.
The answers are for you to find.
They are what makes this novella unique.
Wretch by Ansgar Allen:
an experimental novella of an experiment?
You decide.
It is an ugly world inside and outside of the known city.
Discover it.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-four. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstones’ bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading. You can read a review of Jon's recent novel, Poppy Flowers at the Front, here

Sunday 6 September 2020

Review by Samantha Nicholson-Hickling of "Purl" by Jo Dixon

Jo Dixon’s Purl is a well crafted, satisfying set of poems which are observant and focus on the big themes in life. In these uncertain times, authority is just what is needed, with a bit of finesse to round it all off.

As her first full collection, Purl boasts three sections or chapters worth of poems, each with their own internal theme which intertwine with the meaning of the title.

Section one coats you in a sheen of familiarity, talking about Bisto, Sunday roasts, the clicking of dentures and coats hanging on pegs. It creates a feeling that you know the characters and settings in these poems, while also as a reader making you believe you are a voyeur on their lives.

A personal stand out of this section, for me, is ‘Leading Lady,’ a peek back into the Kodak timeline of life, with its vivid imagery of the hiss and flicker of the projector's beam, alongside the sadness of the recalled memories. The layout and typeface decisions were what initially drew me to this particular piece, and it serves the poem well to highlight those more personal moments.

Section two has a more whimsical feel, almost a sense of the ethereal. Nature appears to take centre stage, with the water, the trees, the pollen and Spring all appearing throughout. ‘Taking the Water’ this time grasped all of my attention, with a first line that had my mind immediately questioning, wanting answers on what was happening and why. It takes you on an exciting journey through Rag Beck.  The ‘Perfect Setting’ brings happier thoughts, with beautiful imagery, easy to picture and impossible to forget.

The last section promised to be more tumultuous, with the word purl meaning to capsize, to fall head over heels. I was not disappointed, with the first poem of the set ‘Grand Canyon’ having a sense of urgency and excitement. Dixon sustains this sense of excitement, as each poem tantalises the imagination and has you turning the page almost quicker than you can process what you’ve read - right until you hit an abrupt stop with ‘Stopper On The Poacher Line.’ This poem's interesting choices make it a perfect moment to catch your breath, re-adjust your thoughts and just take in the imagery: the watery in the ditches, the pheasants.

One poem which sticks out from this section, a jarring moment of pure emotion, is 'NICU I and II.' The images are still as clear as before, but are almost purer because of the sadness you feel. It is an emotional rollercoaster and the perfect way to round off Jo Dixon’s first full collection.

About the reviewer

Samantha Nicholson-Hickling is a former De Montfort University Creative Writing student. Since completing her degree in 2011, she has attended Cambridge University and now teaches in a primary school in Oldham. She is involved in the local writing scene in Oldham, supporting Create Oldham's Hack Writers group, a weekly meet up for professional and amateurs alike. 

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Review by Vic Pickup of "Unaccomplished Cities" by Jayant Kashyap

Pushcart-prize nominee Jayant Kashyap’s second chapbook, Unaccomplished Cities, released as part of Ghost City Press’s Summer Series (available to download for free here), is an exploration of the darkness of humanity, the impact of war and destruction. 

His ten-poem sequence revisits key points of trauma in human history — from man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to the ashes of Pompeii, bombed-out Düsseldorf and the bloody past of the poet’s native India.

Exploring harrowing tales of global conflict, Kashyap condenses atrocities down to single images, vividly described and highly evocative. In ‘Pompeii,’ he writes of the buried city: 

          like a body, picked from grave, bitten to cavities; 

          the city has cavities the size of women, and men, 
          bent in rituals – making love 

The juxtaposition of the entombment of people preserved in the very act of living – of passion – is horrifying and emotive. 

In ‘Death Sonnet,’ Kashyap describes a basement in Düsseldorf where the families ‘only recognised each other by voices.’ He explores the darkness ‘in which ‘deathbirds circled dark cities every night ꟷ / where even a little light meant death.’ These strong images enhance the literal and metaphorical darkness of wartime Düsseldorf in blackout. 

Life and loss are the key themes of this sequence. In ‘The Destruction of Nalanda,’ Kashyap transports us to Bihar in 1193, when The Nalanda University was burnt for the third time by Turkish Ruler Bakhtiyar Khilji. In his poem he mourns the destruction of the nine million manuscripts stored there: 

          jealousy took the toll, it was three 
          months until each page had burnt itself alive 

           — a slaughter of cultures

Kashyap describes the atrocities which occurred in his native India in ‘Aftermath of the Freedom Struggle,’ where up to two million people were slaughtered in the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan: 

          Everytime the last of the bodies comes out of the
          train, bone cracking from heat, smoke fills the sky,
          even in the neighbouring cities; the train cleared of 
          deathsmears, readied to take people home, again,
          alive from this end.

The poem ends: ‘people pray for their / loved ones: be safe. Nothing ever changes.’ The poet reflects upon the futility of life, which is echoed in the tragedy in ‘Husne Ara Parvin’ ꟷ here, Kashyap describes a mass shooting in a New Zealand mosque focusing on a woman, Pavin, who was killed whilst sheltering her wheelchair-bound husband. The poem’s final lines are deeply poignant, observing what is lost and gained:

          ... When the curfew 
          ended, the world had become both an ounce 

          more, an ounce less of love.

Despite the core themes of this sequence, Jayant’s writing is anything but bleak. To quote one of his own poems, Unaccomplished Cities retells ‘the tales all of us knew something about’ with poetry that is bold, powerful and evocative. 

About the reviewer

Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the Café Writers and Cupid's Arrow competitions, and was recently shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth contest. Her debut pamphlet Lost & Found will be published by Hedgehog Press later this year.