Monday 24 June 2024

Review by Tracey Foster of "Wanderers: A History of Women Walking" by Kerri Andrews

"I like going from one lighted room to another - such is my brain to me. Lighted rooms and the walks in the fields are corridors" - Virginia Woolf.

Woolf was a passionate walker, a stroller of London Streets, an observer, gathering mental notes of the comings and goings she witnessed there. This was all great material for writing. She admitted in her correspondence to constructing the whole of To the Lighthouse whilst walking round Tavistock Square. Pacing, timing of key moments throughout a text, matters to all novelists but in Woolf's case the pacing was literal and physical. The freedom she felt when pounding the streets was an absolute liberation for her and other gentrified women of the period. She could rebuke social expectations and constrictions and wander freely amid other classes, eavesdropping on conversations and exploring characters at first hand. Woolf plucked ripe material like fruit off a loaded tree: "I keep thinking of different ways to manage my scenes; conceiving endless possibilities, seeing life as I walk about the streets, an immersive opaque block of material to be conveyed by me into its equivalent of language."

Andrews's book delves into the lives of ten women who were passionate wanderers: strong, empowered, tenacious females who threw the rule book out. Fear has always been a barrier, the one thing stopping all females from just setting off. The solo male had no such obstacles, men like Wainwright, who wandered over hill and dale, staying out till dusk, knocking on strangers' doors to ask for a bed for the night. Our history books are full of such examples, Wordsworth, R. L. Stevenson, Rousseau, Keats and Coleridge. Andrews aims to put the record straight with this book, delving into 300 years of women walking to discover themselves: adventurers, writers and poets. 

These include women like Dorothy Wordsworth, a more accomplished hiker than her brother, who completed much more arduous journeys. While her brother was lauded for his poetry, she was ridiculed for being unfeminine; her strong physical presence was an affront to the ideal female form and her activities seen as ungraceful. She dismissed this and revelled in the chance to walk outdoors: "I seem to be drawn more closely to nature in such places; or rather I feel more strongly the power of nature over me, and I am better satisfied with myself for being able to find enjoyment in what unfortunately to many persons, is either dismal or insipid."

Robert McFarlane noted that "walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge; it is itself the means of knowing." For Dorothy, the moors offered her freedom and the chance to fully find herself. Rebecca Solnit, a compulsive wanderer, observed this male dominance of the field in her book Wanderlust and is proved correct when we peruse any bookshelf; authors of words on walking are more than 90% male. She states: "Legal measures, social mores ascribed to both men and women, the threat implicit in sexual harassment and rape itself have all limited women's ability to walk where and when they wished. Even the English language is rife with words and phrases that sexualize women's walking."

Despite this, women have walked and written about it passionately but mostly in private correspondence with others. This book eavesdrops on their thoughts, emotions and discoveries. Some of these women turned pedestrian to escape very rigid lives or confinement. Ellen Weeton explored the hills of Lancashire to escape an unhappy marriage and abusive husband. Harriet Martineau had been confined to bed by illness for five years, and used her newfound legs to explore the whole Lake District. Anais Nin sought solace from depression on the streets of New York and Paris. These women took ownership of their health and wellbeing and recorded their progress intimately and passionately: "Ultimately,  the vitality, variety and significance of the different ways of walking of seeing, of ‘being,’ articulated by these women require us to re-evaluate  our walking history,  because that history has always been written by women."

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. 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, Zine Magazine and The Arts Council and she writes her own blog, Small Sublime. Her work is currently on exhibition at the Ikon Gallery.

Monday 17 June 2024

Review by Jonathan Wilkins of "Mother Night" by Serge ♆ Neptune


Beautifully written in a myriad of forms, structures and styles, Mother Night is a difficult and disturbing read. Having said that, it should be read as it opens up an underworld that we might have missed and experiences that demand questions from us without providing obvious answers.

It takes great courage to look so deeply into the past and this must have had a cathartic effect on Neptune as they examined the events that have had such a profound effect on them. The issues raised are at times hard to come to terms with but the quality of Neptune’s writing allows us some insight into their world, uncomfortable as it is. The descriptions of their early life are so skilfully narrated that they allow us to understand something of what the narrator experienced. This was an earlier life that was tainted by abuse and pain. 

That Neptune has grown from this only does them credit and the ability to put the experiences into words so skilfully is an art in itself. Quite disturbing in their intensity, the poems delve deep into the psyche of the writer and allow us as the reader to enter their world. The past is intensely interrogated and we are invited into a life deeply impacted by extreme events. But the beauty of Neptune's poetry is compelling. They use images and scenes that intrigue us and encourage us to enter their world.

The poetry almost acts to cleanse the past and to mediate a way forward, in a way that only this art form can achieve. The words bring clarity and make sense of the past as only poetry can do. As writers we know the sense of wellbeing that we can find by putting our thoughts and feelings onto paper and Neptune must truly have felt a release as they wrote this, trying to expunge the past, and to move forward, yet allowing us to share their memories with them. 

Does the narrator want us to learn from their life tales? Is the book a warning to us or is it a celebration of the fact that they have overcome the trauma to lead their current life? Neptune’s work is outstanding, though upsetting and challenging. The world can be a problematic place and we can face challenging things. It is how we respond to this that makes us who we are. Neptune shows he has learnt from life and his experiences and been able to move forward. That is the very least we would wish for ourselves.

About the reviewer
Jonathan Wilkins is 68. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones’ bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester and Warwick Universities. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

You can read more about Mother Night by Serge ♆ Neptune on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Review by Harry Whitehead of "Merchant" by Alexandra Grunberg



Grunberg’s promising debut paints a dark picture of a far future, climate-broken, quasi-fantasy Earth where the few survivors of "The Flood" eke out meagre lives on mountain tops above lethal seas. Jessica, a half-Jewish girl and the "merchant" of the title, lives in a Venice relocated to the slopes of K2 in the Himalayas. Cem is a Venetian boy slowly falling into the mindless "hiss" of the Feral who haunt the darker caves. Shinobu is a scribe to the Empress of Fuji, whose people provide algae-block food for the world’s few human survivors with their still-functioning tech.

Jessica has memorized all of Shakespeare’s plays and regularly performs them in the segregated streets of Venice. But when she pushes a Fujian sailor into the sea to be devoured by the ever-present eels, she sets off a riot that results in many of the other Fujian sailors’ deaths and the algae blocks stop. Now Jessica must travel to Fuji to persuade the empress to forgive the Venetians and not to let them starve. And Shakespeare will have final word.

There’s certainly much to enjoy in the novel, with unusual settings, and folding Shakespeare’s words intrinsically into a dystopian, fantastic world, as well as loosely using The Merchant of Venice as a story model. Some of the writing is truly unsettling and often beautifully rendered. Broken statues "wore their pain plainly, told it clearly, even in their resolute silence." Less clearly carved at times – forgivably in this the first novel by the author – is the narrative direction, the central crisis and its direct connection to the actions of the protagonists. Jessica helps inaugurate the journey to Fuji (and, of course, pushes the sailor to his death, though we do not directly see this vital inciting action). Yet then Jessica becomes often almost invisible through the novel’s second half. She is a bit-part player, a pawn for others – the Empress, the antagonist (if there is one) Dario from the cannibalistic city-state, Les Alpes. The story meanders, rather, through the second half, towards – for this reader – a somewhat abrupt conclusion.

But I don’t want overly to critique an often potently imagined fantasy eco-fiction by a debut novelist. The book is professionally produced by Goldsmiths Press (although the non-indented, double-spaced paragraphs look more like a philosophical tract of aphorisms and, at first, had me trying to read more meaning than there was into a paragraph. The work’s genre and style do not suggest such a layout). Overall, Grunberg has written a deeply imagined and passionate novel and I look forward to seeing how her work evolves.

About the reviewer
Harry Whitehead a novelist, academic and researcher on climate change and the arts at the University of Leicester, UK, where he directs the Centre for New Writing.

Thursday 6 June 2024

Review by Peter Raynard of "Still City: Diary of an Invasion" by Oksana Maksymchuk

There has never been a time of global peace; the nearest was the two hundred year Pax Romana (Roman Peace) at the crossover into the Common Era. Today sadly, after millennia of technological and social progress, wars still abound, whether in Sub-Saharan Africa, Myanmar, or Gaza, Syria, Yemen of the Middle East. Then there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine over two years ago and its continuation of almost WW1-like trench conflict, where unknown thousands of young men die in combat at the whim of the autocrat Putin.

The Polish American poet Czesław Miłosz criticised a vein of poetry that divorced the poet from society. Urging a poetic that was witness to history (which for him was the dehumanising effect of Soviet totalitarianism in Poland post-World War Two), he called it the Witness of Poetry, not ‘because we witness it, but because it witnesses us,’ inferring that because of his experience in Eastern Europe’s upheavals, he is both witness and citizen.

Oksana Maksymchuk is also both witness and citizen. By being so, the urgency and historicity of Still City: Diary of an Invasion (with no daily dates), punches the reader with each entry. There are many dimensions within the experience of modern warfare, for example being both a land war and a digital war.

Friends of friends have died
on the front line
locked up in cellars
buried alive
in their own beds

We mourn them online

There is a deep ricochet of disbelief in what is happening, not knowing how long it will last. Separation is a key theme throughout: ‘he sends a picture of his classroom, desks / abandoned in haste.’ The normality of the past is a haunting in the present, which changes the nature of time (another key theme): ‘was it / years or days ago / that we read our poems / in an underground gallery?’ Life becomes subterranean, so you lose sight of what is going on.

Of course death is ever present, in reality and fiction.

Some say it didn’t happen
others that it was staged
corpses from the morgue
laid out
for an exhibition

In the poem ‘Blank Pages’, she references Hegel’s ‘History is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.’ History is thus reduced to either a blank page marking peacetime, or in this case filled pages of horror and destruction.

So you cling to the idea of the old normality, when the present is trying to erase it, replacing it to the point where the invasion becomes ‘the unspeakable.’ So we must be glad that Maksymchuk, as witness and citizen, has spoken, and filled these vital pages of history.

About the Reviewer
Peter Raynard is a poet, and editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working Class Lives. His latest collection is Manland (Nine Arches Press, 2022). His debut poetry pamphlet, The Harlot and the Rake: Poems after William Hogarth, and academic essay on the poetry of Fred Voss and Martin Hayes, are both forthcoming in 2024.