Thursday 28 March 2024

Review by Megan Stafford-Adatia of "The Woman Warrior" by Maxine Hong Kingston

In her novel, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston shares the "talk-story" that has been passed down through generations of Chinese girls, without impairing the culture’s integrity or diminishing the painful history of womanhood that it encapsulates. In this way, Kingston unleashes the matrilineal voices that have been suppressed by society, allowing them to echo their impact on the reader long after The Woman Warrior has finished.

Silence becomes a "punishment" in the semi-autobiographical novel, one that, fortunately for us, Kingston refuses to participate in. No woman is left with their story untold. None are condemned to that historical culture of silence and erasure that Kingston presents as a reality for many Chinese women. The novel takes us through her life, the "talk-story" of her mother, her aunts (both living and dead), and even the myth of Fa Mu Lan herself—a story that has been so often distorted for Western viewers (Disney being perhaps the best-known example). The richness of the culture, the depth of the pains, the peaks of the victories—all are present in this novel along with the endurance of women who are fuelled by an independent spirit, yet concealed in a patriarchal society. Kingston not only awakens them to the light but shines a spotlight on "Warrior Women" who have been preparing to emerge from the shadows of silence for centuries. There are many different stories in this novel, both happy and heartbreaking. Yet with the glorious names of "Brave Orchid" (Kingston’s mother) and "Moon Orchid" (her aunt), Kingston demonstrates that your power does not depend on your history or life story; it depends on your strength in who you are. 

Maxine Hong Kingston refused to be forced into silence. I refuse to allow this book to fall into silence. We must, as Kingston stresses, "talk-story" about this educating piece of magnificence that establishes history in intersectional feminism.

About the reviewer
Megan Stafford-Adatia is currently a second-year undergraduate student studying an English BA at the University of Leicester. She was prompted to write a review in a Creative Writing seminar, and her passion for this novel led her here.

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Review by Gary Day of "The Silence" by Gillian Clarke


Charles Simic said that ‘poetry is a translation of the silence.’ Gillian Clarke’s collection goes a step further. It is not a translation of ‘the silence,’ whatever that may be, but an evocation of soundlessness. The world was a noisy place until Covid struck and then everything seemed to go quiet for a long time. But it was only the human world that was hushed: nature’s music continued, the wind in the trees, the songs of birds, the hiss of rain, the bark of a fox. ‘Listen’ Clarke enjoins, ‘water tells its rosary.’

The linking of natural phenomena and religious ritual is central to the volume. To that extent it brings to life Blake’s dictum that ‘everything that lives is holy.’ The reader is returned to ‘Eden before the Fall.’ Along with this restoration comes a liturgical conception of time. The first section of the collection is organised according to the canonical hours, Matins, Lauds, Prime and so on. These were times of prayer but the poems are not addressed to a creator. They are an account of daily activities and observations tinged with an awareness of the devastation of Covid. ‘We settle close, / Seek sweet diversion from the day, / Its pestilence, its wars, the daily toll, the dead.’ In times of plague, small things become precious: the ‘psalm’ of an owl, ‘the turning of a page.’

Silence is not always desirable, especially if it has been imposed. But those whose voices have been suppressed, particularly in Welsh history, find some some sort of restitution in poems like ‘Llywelyn’s Daughter’ and ‘FForest.’ Finding the balance between silence and speech in the face of great events or small incidents is the shaping force of this collection. Stunning imagery - ‘chalice of gold overflows / with a cupful of snow’ - made me feel as if I were in an art gallery while the recurrence of certain phrases creates a sense of unity as well as an incantatory effect. This superb volume gets pride of place on my poetry shelf. 

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer and the author of several critical works including Literary Criticism: A New History and The Story of Drama. His debut poetry collection, The Glass Roof Falls as Rain, will be published by Holland Park Press.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Review by Gary Day of "Selected Poems" by Hubert Moore

I do not know how I have missed the sight of Hubert Moore’s comet crossing my sky on its orbit round the poetic heavens. Thankfully I can now see what must have long been obvious to others: a poet who is acutely observant, piercingly lyrical and unwavering in his commitment to the breadth of human experience.

The Selected Poems come with a useful introduction by Lawrence Sail giving a brief outline of Moore’s life, his career as a teacher, the death of his first wife and his eventual remarriage. One of the many delights of the volume is the opportunity to trace Moore’s development as a poet. There is a whimsy about some of the earlier poems. Rabbits ‘look like / a group of friends, Romans and countrymen / lending an ear to each other.’ This fusion of direct observation and classical allusion is just one feature of Moore’s early style.

Another is an almost matter of fact description of mysterious actions such as letting down the tyres of a bicycle, apparently belonging to a complete stranger. A bicycle appears in a later poem about poverty. Moore’s social conscience is particularly marked in a number of poems about asylum seekers where he draws on his own experience of working with refugees. Poems of mid-career such as ‘At the Bottle Bank’ show a deftness in capturing the complexities of lived experience in a single image. Poems dedicated to his children and to his first wife are, at times, almost unbearably moving. Some of the more recent poems are cautiously receptive to experiences which transcend the physical.

Lovely lines abound throughout: ‘that rare gift of rhyming with oneself.’ You can do that, these poems suggest, if you can keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the stars.

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer and the author of several critical works including Literary Criticism: A New History and The Story of Drama. His debut poetry collection, The Glass Roof Falls as Rain, published by Holland Press, is due out in February.

Thursday 7 March 2024

Review by Tracey Foster of "Orwell’s Roses" by Rebecca Solnit

In the spring of 1936, a young author set about planting a garden in his rented cottage. Awaiting the arrival of his new wife and hoping to put behind him the experiences as a serving police officer in colonial Burma, Orwell turned to nature to heal both his lungs and calm his mind. His first attempts at recuperation saw him live in extreme poverty, which he later recorded in detail in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. These were places that were a source for great fiction, but it was in the little hamlet of Wallington where he decided to settle his mind.

Solnit begins with Orwell's essay from 1946, "A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray," that focused on the beauty of a mature yew tree which long outlived the vicar that planted it. After a lapse of time, all that is left of him is a comic song and a beautiful tree. From this spark of a thought, Solnit decided to track down Orwell’s cottage garden and see if his plants had also outlived the creator. He had mentioned revisiting his garden in that essay of 1946 and noted that that too had thrived in his absence. The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble.

Orwell was passionate about nature and the earth; he was a keen gardener and a naturalist. He took many long walks with friends who later commented on his knowledge and alluded to his fear for the future, drawing attention, with anxiety, to this shrub budding early for the time of the year. Solnit urges us to revisit and look deeper into Orwell's prose, to seek out the passages of flora and fauna and promises us that if we do, the grey portrait will turn to colour. Even in his novel 1984, deeply political and prophetic, there are moments of joy. Nature itself is immensely political, in how we imagine, interact with, and impact it. He was ahead of his time in this interpretation of our living world. 

Extolling simple manual labour with direct visible results must have appealed to Orwell, a passion that led him to further expand his small holding with animals, an orchard and a vegetable garden. Finding predictability with effort that gardening promises was a complete contrast to the uncertain life of prose. He referred to gardening in his many essays, extolling the virtues of the simple, cheap Woolworth rose, the common toad and country life. He advocates for a simple life, in tune with our surroundings. Solnit sums this up with her phrase: "Even when the agenda was bread, what spills over is roses."

This book takes us on a journey through culture and art to society and socialism to examine how roses have represented our desires, passions and goals through the centuries. Throughout these meanderings, Solnit discusses the written words of the essayist, his humour and humanity, his politics and passions to understand him better.

Orwell finally died of tuberculosis aged just 46 after suffering with bronchitis most of his adult life. His final request was for roses to be planted on his grave: "Outside my work, the thing I care for most is gardening – for like the rest of us, it’s beauty for today, hope for tomorrow."

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature and The Arts Council.  She writes on her own blog site The Small Sublime.