Tuesday 31 May 2022

Review by Lauren M Foster of "Terminarchy" by Angela France

There are so many excellent poems in Terminarchy, I found it difficult to decide which ones  to highlight, so I will start at the beginning. The opening piece, 'Poetry Makes Nothing Happen,' reminded me of what I once heard said about Alice Munro’s short stories: 'Nothing happens but everything happens.' There can be many positives to nothing happening in our contemporary world—such as during the lockdown of 2020 when nature, at least for a short time, appeared to thrive. 'Poetry Makes Nothing Happen' ponders possibilities, the idea of each decision creating an alternate timeline – like a poetic chaos theory. The second stanza seems particularly poignant right now given the situation in Ukraine:

           Or so that a fighter sits up almost all night reading Rumi, trying
           to understand death and blood, peace and love and sleeps
           too late to be ready for the knock at the door so tells them
           he’ll follow after because he wants to hold his son and play
           with his daughter and nothing happens as he kisses his children
           because he isn’t in the car when a government missile hits it.

France seems to have a relationship with the land, to love it the way one would love a person: she writes the land’s personality, its character, and quirks. I sense a deep sadness at the destruction of nature and the march of progress, something I can sympathize with. Loss runs through the work, as to be expected in any ecopoetic collection, and it explores absences and disconnections, with regards both to nature and other people: the poems 'Fallow' and 'What Remains' made me think of the artist’s exercise of drawing a tree by observing the negative spaces in-between. Longing, too, is present, perhaps for the material in a scientific sense: tangible things, the physical world around us.

'Water Mark' is probably my favourite poem in Terminarchy; its movement follows the bends and cambers, climbs and drops of the road in the work—and like the water of the leak which lends the poem its title, it finds its path of least resistance. There is the pseudo presence of a stranger the other end of a phone-line staring at a screen as they talk, a seeming non-awareness of a world beyond the call-centre:

         She says she can’t send a crew without a postcode.
         I could tell her I know that old sycamore, leaning
         over a crumbling wall, how this bend tightens
         if you come down the hill too fast. There are houses
         backing into the hillside, hidden behind trees
         and shrubs, stately gateposts by the road
         with blurred names carved
         into lichened stone, no numbers.

Journey-ways feature prominently in Terminarchy in works such as 'Desire Path,' 'Piggy Lane' and 'Strange Road.' There are adventures of the everyday sort, the familiar seen in unfamiliar ways, small joys, open spaces, the freedom of roaming, of the frogs and sparrows you might get to know in your back yard. There is a sense of wonder present that many lose after childhood is but a distant memory.

Online life and the false sense of having done something about injustices and the climate emergency is analysed in 'Small Gods,' 'Scrolling and Blame'—and 'Missing the Blood Moon' illustrates that detachment from a true-present endless digital media can bring. The Lockdown too, is a worthy subject, in 'After,' where people ‘came out, blinking in the summer light’  while others ‘step back inside, close their doors, pull down their blinds.’

Terminarchy is observant, thoughtful and well crafted with those small details, word choices and delightful metaphors which make a difference. In 'Muscle Memory,' France writes:

          The lift of a kettle, cup, the snug of peeler
          against my thumb, the stretch of fingers
          around a winter potato. How to tong coal
          on to a new fire or draw the flame
          with newspaper held tight across the grate.
          My hands remember how to rock a crying infant,
          how to wipe a child’s face, the O of her mouth
          disappearing like a moon behind cloud.

Terminarchy is not a didactic ecopoetic collection, but instead informs and engages the reader, as good writing should. It retains a warm and largely positive outlook throughout while acknowledging the damage the human race has inflicted on the natural world. There is kindness, compassion and a down-to-earth vibe that I enjoyed greatly.

About the reviewer
Lauren M Foster is a writer and musician based in Charnwood and a graduate of the MA Creative Writing at University of Leicester.

You can read more about Terminarchy by Angela France on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

Wednesday 25 May 2022

Review by Vic Pickup of "Machine Journey" by Richard Doyle

Machine Journey is a pamphlet of meanderings, listings and questions being asked. It holds our attention in the dramatic scenes of ‘Encounter with the Angel’ and ‘Detective,’ appeals to us in ‘The Writer’ about overcoming blockage and Imposter Syndrome, and charms in the wonderfully rhythmic ‘Slough in my dreams.’ Darting between place and time, the poet maintains a consistent voice and style through this collection of mostly prose poems. 

Doyle’s final entry in this pamphlet, ‘The Perfect Stroke,’ was the work that fascinated me most. Robert Frost once said, ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,’ and I can’t help wonder if the poet had a plan when he began writing this poem.

Insightful, precise, alluring and mysterious, this poem drifts from the obvious to the … not so obvious. Each stanza begins ‘The best thing about swimming is …’ before exploring a sense of challenge, ‘I can swim from start to finish with only two breaths,’ then ‘that sense of freedom. / No clothes or money or shoes, just your swimming trunks, / goggles and a locker key.’ 

Lists are a feature of many of Doyle’s poems, and this serves to lull us into a methodical rhythm, pleasantly subdued for when something out of the ordinary appears. And that’s precisely what happens here, as ‘the other swimmer’ appears at the end of each section: ‘My eyesight is much better with / my goggles but I could only glimpse a blurry shape moving / through the water.’ 

‘Every time I stopped to look / across, the swimmer turned around and dived deep.’ Depth is a point of intrigue for me – the casual reference to the beauty of swimming, how the water becomes you, then this other creature emerges, dives, and the poet is suddenly questioning our ancestry, back to when ‘humans were / semi-aquatic and this is why you can submerge a newborn / in water and they will hold their breath and start paddling.’ 

In the final stanza we arrive at ‘the perfect stroke,’ the ‘sweet spot’ where the subject is at one with their environment, twisting and moving, evolving into something quite other. I can say no more without spoiling the poem, other than Doyle concludes with a sudden turn which he is adept at reproducing throughout his work – a skill which makes his poetry fun, engaging and full of surprise. 

About the reviewer
Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the CafĂ© Writers and Cupid’s Arrow Competitions, and shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth prize on YouTube. Lost & Found is Vic’s debut pamphlet, published by Hedgehog Poetry Press and featuring Pushcart-nominated poem ‘Social Distancing.’ @vicpickup / www.vicpickup.com

Monday 23 May 2022

Review by Gary Day of "I Left My Hair in San Francisco" by Sallie Durham


Lucky the reader who stumbles on this debut collection. Here they will find balm for the spirit, succour for the soul. Sallie Durham’s poetry is wistful and gentle with tinges of melancholy and, very occasionally, a hint of the macabre. Her great achievement is to conjure a feeling for the being of things, whether it is her mother’s old cook book or sunflowers - one of her favourite subjects. In one poem they speak of themselves with pride and stoicism: ‘we, who were once goddesses- / suddenly old dames in hard hats.’ 

The connection between females and flowers is apparent in one of the best poems in the volume, ‘Iris,’ whose life cycle ‘recall[s] the lives of women / our weeping and our bleeding disguised in fine attire.’ Durham’s nature poems are quite different from the moralising Wordsworth and the melodramatic Ted Hughes in that she insists on identity and kinship, even with the humble ‘The Crane Fly’ whose stumbling dance of death proves as much a work of art as a poem, a defiant gesture against inevitable extinction: ‘slumped down on the windowsill / his last two fingers up in a V.’ 

The poems about love and family are deeply touching. ‘Ladders’ will resonate with anyone who is, or has been, in a long relationship. ‘Vigil,’ a poem about Durham’s dying father, is full of tender, piercing images and uses rhythm to great effect, repeating the same words at the beginning of the poem at the end but changing the earlier chugging sound to staccato sobs. The tonal range is impressive from the comic title poem to the slightly manic ‘Finland’ but it’s the imagery which stays in the mind. It is consistently striking and inventive: ‘The clouds continue to bank / their platinum.’ One can only hope there is more to come from this new kid on the block. 

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author or editor of a dozen books including a two volume history of modern British poetry. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has been actively involved in amateur theatre for many years.

Friday 20 May 2022

Review by Gary Day of "Slowly as Clouds" by Jane Campbell

Jane Campbell’s poetry has edge: it glints rather than glows. ‘Degrading’ is one such example in this raw, uncompromising but strangely beautiful collection. The poem recounts a group of girls surrounding the young poet demanding she prove the arrival of her first period. The ending brilliantly transforms this humiliation into a triumph: ‘recasting them / in perpetuity / slow for their age.’ 

The theme of change or metamorphoses is present in many of the poems, particularly those to do with parents or lovers. Campbell pays tribute to the political activism of her mother whose frailty in age is a spur not to forget how she impressed her daughter ‘with the importance of rights / that once they had bite were revoked.’ But this tribute has a darker feel in ‘Fairy Tale’ where the speaker apologises for tormenting her parent. 

Campbell’s portrayal of her father follows a similar trajectory. At first he is a monumental figure, ‘an army of hands and feet’ but then we see him shrivelling in a hospital bed, while the poet envisages his evolution into a ‘butterfly, then rabbit, then antelope.’ The ending of this poem, ‘Metamorphosis,’ is not only exquisite but also a demonstration of Campbell’s knack of finding new and unusual rhymes. 

There is sober realism in the poems about love; a celebration of its joys in ‘May moaning from our mouths,’ and an acceptance of its sorrows. There is a particular poignancy in ‘Let Go’ where though desire has run its course that ‘doesn’t mean / I don’t still love us.’

Campbell is highly versatile. She can write a shocking futuristic poem like ‘Always Alice’ and a gentle, almost Hardyesque one like ‘Wishing Well’ which should be included in any future anthology of English poetry. An ever-present consciousness of mortality does not sour her sense of life’s abundance. ‘Compost Loo’ shows that even waste is a form of enrichment. 

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author or editor of a dozen books including a two volume history of modern British poetry. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has been actively involved in amateur theatre for many years.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

Review by Beth Gaylard of "A Mile of River" by Judith Allnatt

I just read this in one sitting and really enjoyed it - thanks to Jonathan Taylor for recommending it. It’s a story of farming folk in the 1970s. Although the action takes place over the summer of 1976, when England and Wales were in the grip of a drought from May until September, the catalyst is the mysterious break up of the farmer’s (Henry’s) marriage and the disappearance of his wife Sylvie over a decade before the novel opens. Allnatt is ruthless in describing Henry’s emotional illiteracy but she is also very precise and concise in her language, which makes everything he says and does to his long suffering children feel like a knife stab to the reader. But I didn’t stop reading; I really cared about Jess and Tom (and Tom’s kitten) all the way through. This is one of Allnatt’s first novels, and already, she is skilled in presenting powerful negative emotions and the damage they do. When Henry should reach out to his family, or when he could do, he does the opposite - a mean action, a spiteful put down. It's not clear why, either. It just seems to be behaviour learned from his (annoying) mother.  

The descriptions of the rural farming landscape and how it alters in the 1976 drought are evocative; I was sixteen that year and remember it being very much as shown. Only two thunderstorms in the whole four months, I used to go for midnight walks when it was too hot to sleep. It was my little secret and helped me deal with 0-level nerves (I deserved to be nervous, all my revision was so last minute).

There are positive moments too, including an upbeat ending (no spoilers). I think this novel well deserved its initial success; and since then it has taken its place in the body of fiction about the darker aspects of life in rural England.

About the reviewer
Beth Gaylard is a writer and PhD Creative Writing student at Leicester University. Published works include an SF novel Firebrands and various poems. Her work in progress is a piece of rural dystopia. Her home is in Leicestershire.

Tuesday 17 May 2022

Review by Beth Gaylard of "Creative Writing Student Showcase" at Literary Leicester Festival, 2022


I attended lots of events that ran as part of the recent Literary Leicester Festival, but one of the most memorable for me was the showcase for Creative Writing students. Usually, as students listening to each others’ work, we are in a forum where commentary and critique are required. It’s quite rare to get a chance to listen and absorb peers’ work, without that requirement. For recently enrolled MA, PhD and BA students, working on our research through the pandemic, there hasn’t been the opportunity for any networking offline for ages, so there was a bit of a ‘school’s out’ atmosphere.

Ten writers, poets, storytellers and novelists chose extracts or short works not necessarily connected with their current projects and read them aloud to an audience of peers and their guests. Some were published, some not. The main objective was to choose something you liked that you’d written yourself, and read it aloud to a roomful of near strangers. While some readers confessed to feeling nervous, the event wasn’t billed as a performance, and most if not all of us read off the page. There was a feeling that it was a positive opportunity. Hopefully the listeners enjoyed it as much as the readers; they seemed to, judging by the applause and the buzz of conversation afterwards.

There is a simple pleasure in sharing work with an attentive, mutually supportive audience, and this is enhanced in the experience of hearing your own words aloud. You get that ‘leap off the page,’ that is so empowering when you’ve spent a lot of working time in a quiet place, on your own, perhaps feeling quite unsure that what you’ve done has any potential, let alone any significance.  

So … Please can we do it again!

About the reviewer
Beth Gaylard is a writer and PhD Creative Writing student at Leicester University. Published works include Firebrands, an SF novel and various poems. Her work in progress is a piece of rural dystopia. Her home is in Leicestershire.

You can read more about the Creative Writing Student Showcase 2022 on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 16 May 2022

Review by Victoria Delderfield of "The Former Boy Wonder" by Robert Graham

Consider the adages: Fifty is the new forty! If you haven’t grown up by the time you’re fifty you don’t need to! Or, my favourite, from David Bowie: “Ageing is the extraordinary process of becoming who you should have been.” Mid-life is the time to regain a positive sense of oneself, explore one’s interests and generally make the most of your remaining innings … But what if mid-life feels more like hitting a dead wall? When the pillars of marriage, children and career begin to crack and possibly crumble. This is the dilemma facing Peter Duffy, protagonist in Robert Graham’s playful and extraordinarily well-observed ‘coming-of-old-age’ novel, The Former Boy Wonder.

Former music journalist, Peter, is confronting humankind’s fundamental question, that of purpose: “If time is now limited, is this how I want to spend it?” Pushing fifty, Pete wonders if his choices so far have been satisfying or sacrificial, courageous or cowardly. If he’d acted differently at key junctures, would he be happier at life’s mid-point? The monsoon of longing that unravels is highly relatable, whatever your age. This is a book with enormous heart, cloaked in wit and wry intertextuality.

For Peter, the re-appearance of his first love, Sanchia Page, triggers a quest – part fairytale, part DC Comics - to re-write his narrative, tear up unworkable plot lines, change the genre of his life from tragedy to romance and start again at the beginning. (Imagine Peter as a middle-aged Billy Fisher, the fantasist who prefers his "imaginary country" in Billy Liar). To do this, Peter first has to remember everything correctly and that, of course, isn’t easy. Memories are slippery and can morph with time. A look, a gesture, a decision can all be remembered wrongly, even misinterpreted. Peter admits, “I may not be capable of summoning up the true past … I’m looking for truth here.” That truth, about himself and his actions – when finally grasped – might just be the making of Peter Duffy, aged forty nine and three quarters.

About the reviewer
Victoria Delderfield is author of The Secret Mother. Her website is here.

You can read more about The Former Boy Wonder by Robert Graham on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Monday 9 May 2022

Review by Robert Richardson of "In Glad or Sorry Hours: A Memoir" by Alastair Niven

I first met Alastair Niven in 1988 when, as Director of Literature at the Arts Council, he provided me with a letter of support for the events I was organising, for the following year, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the origins of Imagist poetry. This helped open doors to cooperation from The Poetry Society and the literature venue within the Royal Festival Hall. It was also the beginning of a friendship that continues to this day.

With a mere outline of his life—Dulwich College, Cambridge, Director of Literature at the Arts Council and the British Council, Principal of Cumberland Lodge (an institution with Royal patronage at Windsor)—it would be all too easy to dismiss Alastair Niven as a conventional establishment figure. Such sketchiness would be unjust and inaccurate, as his memoir makes clear. He inhabited these roles as an enlightened (small "l") liberal, but for a more complete portrait he was, and remains, a radical internationalist.

The book shows his defining experience to be early on, with the time immediately following his graduation from Cambridge spent teaching at a university in Ghana. This led to a strong interest in African literature, and it was also where he met his future wife, Helen, who provides the foundation of a happy personal life. Though mainly focused on his professional activities, the memoir also skilfully weaves in aspects of his family background.

His commitment to post-colonial literature was deepened through a doctorate from Leeds University and an academic post at Stirling. Subsequently, he left full time academia to direct the Africa Centre in London. Niven had the vision to combine a welcoming environment for African writers, and those creating in all art forms, resident in London, or visiting it, with solid policies and initiatives to promote their work and develop audiences.

Approaching the first twenty-five years of the twenty-first century, with diversity casting becoming standard in theatre, film and television, Niven, in his time as Director of Literature at the Arts Council in the 1980s and 90s, can be seen as a pathfinder for the consciousness necessary for this. He shifted funds to make sure they included black and Asian writers and supported placements that launched the careers of ethnic minority professionals in mainstream publishing. Wasafiri, a journal he initiated during his Africa Centre days, received Arts Council funding, and in 1994 his department helped bring about Out of the Margins at the South Bank Centre, the biggest celebration of black and Asian literature ever to take place in London. There was an "emphasis on the determination of writers from minority communities to be heard at the centre of British culture." These initiatives from the past are now a marker for the present and future, and this book importantly places them on record.

His relatively short time at the British Council was not so happy or productive, its structures limiting the number of positive impacts he could make. He was even cornered into closing libraries, with the poet Christopher Logue once saying to me "Alastair would want to be opening libraries, not closing them."

His final appointment as Principal of Cumberland Lodge became his "dream job." Its founding agenda was as a place for the discussion of ethical issues, primarily by groups from universities, although other groups visited too (one included a third of Britain’s Chief Constables). To these types of programme, he also added more emphasis on the arts.

Niven’s retirement is predictably busy, and he continues to show that an appreciation of a post-colonial world leads to the enjoyment of a better world.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work appears in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London), and it is included in collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. In 2021, he was a Residency Artist of the Digital Art Observatory: Ukrainian and British artists combining for online exhibitions, and in 2022 he was selected to present work at the first European Digital Art Fair. His website is here.