Friday 20 October 2023

Review by Gary Day of "The Omniscient Tooth Fairy" by Vic Pickup

First things first. This tooth fairy is not omniscient. One poem is called ‘Little did I know.’ Nor is she really - this may come as no surprise - a tooth fairy. As ‘Occupation’ shows, she is so much more: ‘a climbing frame,’ ‘a tissue,’ ‘a body guard’ - in other words, a mum. More tough fairy than tooth fairy.

The only reference to dental matter is in ‘Irretrievable.’ The speaker recalls not being able to retrieve her daughter’s tooth after dropping it down the sink where its ‘pale milkiness erod[es] slowly in the sewer dirt.’ This slight but powerful drama of maternal anxiety and lost innocence crops up again in the poignant yet stoical ‘Facts of life.’

Most poems in this delightful collection concern the ups and downs of the speaker’s many-sided domestic life: husband, babies, picking up children from school, shopping for a birthday, family outings. They are a beguiling mix of vividness and tenderness, streaked with darkness. Indeed why shouldn’t they be? Life isn’t all sunny side up. But even when things get on top of the speaker, humour is never far away, as in the dazzling ‘My New Fridge,’ whose ending packs quite a punch.

Outside the fraught but generally cosy domestic circle there are more ominous events such as the plight of refugees portrayed in ‘Jungle,’ which finishes with a devastatingly powerful image. ‘The Longing of Judith Kerr’ is the most lacerating poem in the volume. It asks the reader to imagine how the children murdered in the death camps could be coaxed back to life. There are also hints of personal tragedy and a keen awareness that not all is well in contemporary Britain.

The collection bounces along. Whimsical, profound, absurd, touching, joyous, courageous and deeply life-affirming. Buy it.

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author of several books including The Story of Drama: Tragedy, Comedy and Sacrifice from the Greeks to the Present. He has also edited a range of books including two volumes on British Poetry in the Twentieth Century. His debut poetry collection, The Glass Roof Falls Like Rain, is due to be published by Holland Press later this year. 

Thursday 19 October 2023

Review by Gary Day of "God's Little Artist" by Sue Hubbard

It’s not often that a poetry book comes complete with an introduction and notes but both do sterling work in providing a context for these poems about the life of the artist Gwen John whose achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by those of her more famous brother Augustus. 

Sue Hubbard brings her characteristic empathy and inventiveness to bear in telling John’s story from her life in Tenby, to her time at the Slade, to her move to Paris with Dorelia McNeill, on whom she may have had a crush, and who later lived in a ménage à trois with her brother and his wife Ida Nettleship. Gwen had to model to earn money and Hubbard concisely and dramatically evokes the humiliation such work could involve: ‘insolent hands on her small breasts.’   

The majority of poems in this splendid collection concern Gwen’s fateful relationship with the sculptor Auguste Rodin who was 36 years her senior. The verse pulls no punches in its evocation of desire: at one stage I had to loosen my collar. Hubbard is no less deft when it comes to conjuring the agony of being displaced by another in the affections of the beloved. One of her many gifts is to present love in the round, how it can abase as well as elevate: ‘she wants only to button his boots.’ 

After her affair with Rodin ended, John threw herself into her work. ‘The Poetry of Things’ is one of the standout pieces in the volume where ‘clouds of spray’ become ‘strings of prayer beads / lucent as benedictions.’ Art and religion offer a way forward for the broken self ‘only paint and prayer / can offer salvation.’ 

With its wonderfully glowing imagery this is a work to be treasured. 

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author of several books including The Story of Drama: Tragedy, Comedy and Sacrifice from the Greeks to the Present. He has also edited a range of books including two volumes on British Poetry in the Twentieth Century. His debut poetry collection, The Glass Roof Falls Like Rain, is due to be published by Holland Press later this year. 

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Review by Rebecca Reynolds of "Otherlands: A World In The Making" by Thomas Halliday

Thomas Halliday’s book is a biography of the Earth, told backwards. He starts 20,000 years ago, at the beginning of the decisive thawing of the mammoth steppe, which rings the top of the world and is home to horses, bison and the now-extinct cave lion. 

The book then travels the Earth, landing at different times and places. So there are abundant giant penguins 41 million years ago; a gorgon 253 million years ago with a painful mouth tumour and a leg which has never been the same since she fractured it hunting Bunostegos (a creature looking like a stumpy, tall crocodile); and rock-eating bacteria in the Devonian, 407 million years ago, which make the surface of the water in which they live, intolerably hot to every other lifeform, shimmer with bubbles. The climate and geological processes are given as much space as plants and animals. 

The book ends in the pre-Cambrian 550 million years ago, with no life on land, a 22-hour day before friction slows the Earth’s rotation, and the closer moon shining 15% brighter.

How does Halliday add drama and interest to processes that happen over huge timescales, mostly with no humans involved?

Firstly, he picks varied moments — differently configured landmasses and oceans, with different climates and ecosystems, for example before or after mass extinctions. Secondly, he focuses on movement. Movement of wind, waves and water and therefore of land; communities of animals migrating; individual creatures on the move. Thirdly, he mixes together disparate information — so as well as watching a short-faced bear rummaging in a mammoth carcass, we learn about Korean, Russian and European bear mythologies.

Lastly, he embraces human-centred ways of description. Literary quotations head each chapter (including Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’ — ‘Yet portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge forever be’). He chooses anthropomorphic language such as ‘cyanobacteria discovered the magic of photosynthesis,’ and is happy to translate from the academic to the literary; so the academic term ‘index fossils’ (fossils which are so abundant they can be used to date the rocks they are in) becomes ‘fossil timepieces’ later in the same paragraph. The book ends with a plea to work together to stop climate change. 

This book tells us the world will never stop being in the making, or in the unmaking.

About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds is an English language teacher and editor. She has just finished a Research Masters at Liverpool University looking at differences between reading, speaking and listening to poetry. She published her book Curiosities from the Cabinet: Words and Objects from Britain’s Museums in 2017. Website here. X: @rebrey. 

Friday 6 October 2023

Review by Margaret Royall of "Rain Falling" by Sarah Leavesley

Rain Falling is a stirring long poem, a battle-cry for action from humanity. Sarah’s innovative formatting of  her urgent message is astonishing in its very complexity. It is a poem sequence formatted in the shape of capital letters which spell out the title ‘Rain Falling.’ The poems forming each letter reveal the ravages of climate change on the planet, the extinction of many species, the neglectful role that humans have played and continue to play by their systematic failure to act effectively to halt the impending doom.

This is not an easy or comfortable read, requiring the reader to decipher the various ‘codes’ which the author employs. For instance, the first poem, formatted in a capital R shape, turns into a spectral poem where the top circle of the R joins onto the /\ shape and then reads backwards, mirroring the words above, perhaps throwing our culpability back at us. 

In the final G poem, the words at the base appear to be a jumble until you realise that they are repeated higher up but with some missed out and rearranged, so the reader has to figure out how they were first used and what changes have occurred. This unravelling suggests a parallel to the unravelling of the planet. Links in the eco chain go missing and humans are not effecting a lasting repair, which results in the chaotic weather we are now experiencing and the loss of species.

The author employs stark imagery to drive home her message: striking phrases such as 'raindrops ... falling like a skipped heartbeat,' 'ice as saving Angel,' 'slick with equilibrium,' 'nothing grew from the underbelly of our thundermakers,' 'reality’s overshimmering,' etc.

Rain Falling is a highly accomplished chapbook, intelligent and convincing. If the reader were ever sceptical about climate change, this will convince him/her to think again, and more than that, to act now, before it is too late.

About the reviewer
Margaret Royall has published five books of poetry and a memoir. Her work has appeared in print, online and in anthologies and has won or been listed in competitions. Her collection Where Flora Sings (Hedgehog Press 2020) was nominated for the Laurel Prize. She leads a Nottinghamshire poetry group and co-tutors a Hebridean writing retreat. Her next collection, Toccata and Fugue (Hedgehog Press) is due out in 2023. Website: Twitter: @RoyallMargaret Instagram: @meggiepoet

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Cockroach" by Elizabeth McGeown

The 2022 UK Slam Champion, three-time All Ulster Poetry Slam Champion, and winner of many other spoken word plaudits Elizabeth McGeown delivers up her debut full-length collection, a book version of her successful hour-long live show, Cockroach. An exploration of self-identity, from teenage awkwardness to perplexing adult encounters, we find personalities of movie stars tried on and cast off in a litmus test of affinities, the rejected cockroach character searching for answers in pop culture, in art, within seclusion and amongst perceived peers.

McGeown’s preferred style of delivery feels rapid-fire and urgent on the page; the reader is often caught up in the intensity of delivery through short lines that drive the narrative forward. Such form can threaten to become staccato, fired out like so many other spoken word performances for the sake of a neat series of rhymes. Rather, here we sense that the narrative turns against itself, the speaker questioning and analysing along the way, evoking angst and self-doubt.

Sometimes the source of such anxiety and hesitation is internal, from fibromyalgia and other medical complaints (this reviewer challenges anyone to try and find a better poem about self-applying an enema for a gastric issue), but often the sources are external; we find mention of #MeToo, and McGeown’s experiences of gatekeepers and sexism in the fields of music and the spoken word scene. We see school bullying, and the weight of expectation to conform:

          I did not pay the daily toll
          and call Angela pretty
          when the prettiest thing about her was
          the relief we felt when she left.
- "Witch"

This blends naturally with the larger search for the self that the collection is primarily concerned with, and McGeown is aware of the perverse paradox that the self is frequently defined through the company it keeps. Hence, we find various house parties, dates, the need for space and solitude conflicting with the search for meaningful company. This leads to compelling observations such as "a misfit + a misfit = a kind of sanctuary." We also see this attraction reflected in a self-deprecating style:

          A painting of a loser is vivid
          perhaps never quite so vivid
          until witnessed by another loser.
- "Villain (ix)"

Indeed, self-deprecation is something McGeown excels in, as there is enough humour, spark and playfulness to stop the poems ever descending into self-pity or despondency. Ultimately, we find an authentic voice that isn’t afraid to question or defend itself. Cockroach is postmodern mal du siècle, enjoyable and engaging from start to end, and never losing any of the energy and tension McGeown brings to her live performances.

About the reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.