Wednesday 24 July 2024

Review by Matthew Tett of "The England No One Cares About: Lyrics from Suburbia" by George Musgrave



George Musgrave’s The England No One Cares About: Lyrics from Suburbia is a fresh, original exploration of England’s suburbs: what they are, where they are located and why they are ‘forgotten.’ Throughout the book, which is academic in many ways but poetic in others, Musgrave writes autoethnographically about the important role that storytelling has in all of our lives.

Towards the beginning, there is a focus on Musgrave with others, including where he has lived: one example is ‘George & Victoria’ (Victoria is his mother) and then ‘Tuxford and Louth’ – places he has resided. There are even links to playlists connected to different life experiences. Readers are able to listen to these through the links provided.

The third chapter – ‘What Stories Do, Why Stories Matter’ – is of particular interest to me. Earlier parts of the book concentrate on Musgrave’s own story; but here, in this section, the focus is broader. There is a specific emphasis on rap music and songwriting as forms of storytelling. In the fifth chapter, ‘Small Town Lad Sentiments,’ Musgrave includes a collection of songs written over a four-year period  - all contain lyrics linked to the specific themes of the book. I really like the way that these song lyrics are included amongst more academic sections, although I can’t deny that these would be best if listened to, preferably being read by Musgrave himself.

Closer to the end, Musgrave explains that the book is ‘a deep and extended vignette on one person’s subjective experience of peripherality.’ This is explained further, thankfully, with Musgrave saying how it is linked to ‘a physical removal from centres of power and/or decision-making.’ Essentially, then, he is referring to many rural, or semi-rural, areas of the country. 

The book concludes with thanks, albeit subtly, to ‘George & Camille’ – his children. Musgrave states how his son is the fourth generation in a row to have the same name as him. 

The England No One Cares About: Lyrics from Suburbia is a thought-provoking, varied read, a book that offers plenty to all readers. 


About the reviewer
Matthew Tett is a freelance teacher and writer living in Wiltshire, UK. He is the creative producer for StoryTown and a developmental editor for the Flash Fiction contest. In his spare time, he enjoys running and hiking in the countryside. 

Tuesday 23 July 2024

Interview with Louise Peterkin



Louise Peterkin is a poet and editor from Edinburgh. Her poetry has appeared in many publications including Magma, Finished Creatures, Poetry Wales, The North and One Hand Clapping. She is a recipient of a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust. She is a poetry editor for The Interpreter’s House. Her first collection of poems The Night Jar was published by Salt in 2020 and she is currently working on her second. 

You can read more about The Night Jar on Creative Writing at Leicester here



Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor

JT: Your collection, The Night Jar, opens like a Pandora's box, full of "gorgeous paraphernalia." Why did you choose this opening image, and what do you think it tells the reader about the collection as a whole?

LP: The Night Jar is comprised mainly of poems that take the form of dramatic monologues. There are lots of characters in there – some based on real life or historical figures or ones already established in literature, popular culture, mythology. Some are of my own invention. I liked the idea of a poetry collection as a figurative receptacle which could be opened to unleash the stories into the imagination of the reader. I tried to focus on individual hypotheticals in the hope of investigating universal themes – love, repression, envy, desire, religion, sexuality, obsession. 

The collection starts an untitled poem from the perspective of a collector. The first line is "I open the Night Jar." The insertion of this poem was partly inspired by Anne Sexton’s Transformations, her dazzling revision of the Grimm fairy tales. That collection has a prelude poem, "The Gold Key," in which Sexton employs the voice of an archetypical "gather round the fire, our story begins" narrator. I tried to do something similar with The Night Jar – take on the introductory voice of the collector. And the nocturnal imagery within that poem indicates that the collection as a whole will have something of the dark or the numinous about it. 

A significant inspiration for me in informing the concept and to some extent the tone of The Night Jar was my fondness for compendium horror movies from the Seventies. Films like Tales from the Crypt and Dr Terror's House of Horrors which would usually consist of five macabre stories with a wraparound or run-through thread of a stranger bringing individuals together (the stranger usually turned out to be some sort of incarnation of the Grim Reaper come to round up their souls for moral transgressions). I’m also keen on The Night Gallery (probably an instinctive influence going on there with the title). This anthology TV series was the follow up to The Twilight Zone and was presented by Rod Stirling in the guise of an art gallery curator – at the start he would show these paintings which represented the creepy stories about to be broadcast. The Night Jar could be seen as a compendium, an anthology of strange and unsettling stories.

JT: Given the opening image and various recurring motifs and characters, The Night Jar is an unusually cohesive collection, which implies various overarching narratives. How did you conceive the collection? Did you write individual poems, and then common ground emerged gradually, or did you conceive it as a whole from the start?

LP: I was lucky enough to win a New Writers Award in 2016 from the Scottish Book Trust. Part of the awards package was a mentorship with Bloodaxe poet Cheryl Follon. We decided early on that my aim was to develop the poems I had written into a full collection to submit to publishers. Cheryl recommended that I should try to apply some thematic cohesion to the poems, to think about how the collection could be viewed as a whole as well as a series of individual ideas. I started to think about what the poems had in common. 

The characters in the poems are often confined – in an asylum cell, in a convent, in a boarding school, in one poem inside the belly of whale. Or else they are stuck in a circumstance they cannot get out off: domestic grind, toxic relationships, some sort of psychological malaise or monomaniacal commitment. They are looking for some form of escape or autonomy or transcendence. If the speaker of the poem is not the captive, then they are the captor – they seek to coerce and possess but end up being the architect of their own discontent. It helped me to employ a congruence and give a shape to the process. I would write a poem and think Oh that could go in The Jar. Yes, that one's for The Jar! I didn’t restrict myself to writing solely monologue, character-based poems but that was what I was drawn towards. Some things were working on a subliminal level – it was only after I read through the poems grouped together, I realised how many motifs there were throughout that implied enclosure: trunks, boxes, gates, keys.

JT: As I say, the collection is full of vivid characters, some of whom recur (such as Sister Agnieszka). Many of the poems are, in a sense, character sketches. How do you view the role of character in poetry?

LP: It probably comes down to my own personal tastes. When I was in my late teens and really getting into contemporary poetry, the ones that appealed to me the most were ones where the poet would assume the voice of another person. I loved Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife which consists of poems spoken from the perspective of wives and mistresses of real life and fictional men throughout history, or male characters inverted into female ones – "Mrs Midas," "Queen Herod," etc. I savoured Margaret Atwood’s monologue poems, especially her longer sequences like "Speeches for Dr Frankenstein" and "Half-Hanged Mary" which allowed for an abundance of luxurious and unusual description and detail. 

Early on, I had attempted to write confessionally but always felt inhibited and stifled. The poems I was writing felt a bit off - inauthentic, affected or stiff.  Discovering monologue poems by other poets helped me towards the realisation that you didn’t have to write directly about yourself or your own experience. This went a long way in unfettering my own practice. By removing the speaker’s voice from my own in the main, I felt less impeded by the uneasiness or self-consciousness tied up with issues of autobiography and identity. I could explore some dark and complex emotions and themes with a greater measure of abandon and fluidity. It’s a creative mind trick I play on myself but it works. And in turn, it helps with the enquiry of the self, that process and catharsis. Because I’m in the poems too though separate from the narrator – my anxieties, my preoccupations – they are in there.

JT: What many of my questions so far imply, I suppose, is that there's a strong relationship in your work between aspects of storytelling and poetry. Do you see yourself as a storyteller? And how do you see the relationship between what you're doing in The Night Jar and, say, fiction?

LP: I do see myself as a storyteller or, on occasion, an interpreter of existing stories. But the medium of poetry is where I feel most at home. It’s the scope for imagination and invention the art form allows coupled with its command for discipline. The sententiousness inherent in the practice forces me to refine and distil my ideas and my language. I have attempted to write short fiction in the past but I always felt it was florid and overwrought. This pained me because the fiction I enjoy the most applies an economy of language and a continence to make it compelling or imminently readable. 

Also, I just take a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from the devices in poetry which differentiate it from prose. I don’t write formal verse so it is important to me to apply the mechanisms which give my poems music - assonance, consonance, half-rhymes, and the application of metre which, without adhering to a strict form, lends an intended rhythm and movement to the free verse.

JT: Do you see yourself as a surrealist? There are definitely surrealist elements in many of the poems, and a virtuosic playfulness in the way you use language. How do you see the relationship between your poetry and surrealism?

LP: I would say probably not. The situations in my poems can be surreal or fantastical or outlandish for sure but I think that fact that they are compelled by a narrative drive pushes them more in a linear direction or grounds them in some way. I strive to convey a clear and vivid story for the most part.

Perhaps the storytelling characteristic of my poetry is at odds with Andre Breton’s assertion of "the undirected play of thought" as basis to surrealism but certainly a lot of the images I have in my poetry come from a reflexive place. I think that some of my similes could be pegged as a bit weird but I’m fine with that because in order for an image to appear to the poet there has to be a cognitive association which in turn gives it validity or a truth – those automatic allusions or visual connections the mind makes. 

I think that your term "playfulness" is perhaps more key to my writing. I really enjoy wordplay and take pleasure in the licence poetry gives you just to enjoy language. My poems tend to be quite rich so I try to temper this with humour. I enjoy cooking and I like keeping lemons to hand in the kitchen as the sharpness cuts through the unctuousness of dishes – I try to use dashes of humour in a similar way in my poetry. And the poets I admire the most usually have a certain mischief and energy, and are quite audacious in their imagery – people like Jen Hadfield and Jane Yeh spring to mind. 

JT: As well as surrealism, there's a gothic aspect to many of the poems, or perhaps an uncanny element. How do you think this element of the poems arises? Is it to do with the subject matter you choose, or the language, or something else?

LP: I think perhaps its more to do with the subject matter and this probably just comes down again to my tastes – my sheer affection for horror cinema and literature and the macabre. The supernatural, the uncanny have always held an appeal for me, anything that gives you the shivers in movies, in fiction. I’m not so interested in real-life accounts of the paranormal – maybe I’m too sceptical. I’m not sure that you have to believe entirely or even a bit in order to be fascinated by the subject in fictional representations. There is much capacity in horror cinema or literature for the study of psychological or sociological demons. 

I would probably agree that I am interested in conveying a gothic atmosphere in my poems, with their heightened energy, and in their relaying of the tropes of cinematic and literary aesthetics – the mad scientist's lab, the Victorian asylum. As a child I loved looking inside things. Whenever we went on a family trip to some heritage site and there was a lighthouse or a tower, I was always despondent if we couldn’t look inside. I loved the idea of the interiors of mansions, castles, dolls' houses, of the lairs of villains in movies and TV. This probably translates in some of the poems in The Night Jar – a concentrated interest in setting a scene with detailed description. 

JT: All of the poems in The Night Jar are fascinatingly varied in terms of form and layout. I really enjoyed this aspect of the poems, and felt that the forms really suited the varied subject matter, and different characters. How do you go about negotiating that relationship between form and content?

LP: I think that often the disposition or circumstance of the narrator is the preliminary point for me. I’ll give a few examples, citing individual poems. 

In "Sister Agnieszka runs away to the circus," I wanted to imbue the poem with a breathless quality to convey the frenetic and joyful feeling of breaking free. That poem runs in a long column of free verse with no stanza breaks. But within this I also tried to apply a rhythm and musicality that would infer the acrobatic movement of trapeze and also the rapid-fire tempo of circus music. Conversely, in "Sister Agnieszka addresses the poor and the needy" where the character is repressing licentious feelings for a gardener, the timbre is different – austere, haughty – and so it made sense for me to split it into stanzas for a more controlled effect. 

"The King who Ate Himself to Death" is essentially set out as a list of meal courses. I use anaphora – each line starts with the child-like defence of "But …" - and the poem becomes both a menu of food descriptions and a list of justifications for the narrator’s excess. 

In "The Snow Queen's factory," the musicality is deliberately subdued to create an anesthetizing effect – the lines do not run into each other and are intended to appear like something that would be chanted, perhaps even mumbled. The poem is a fable but supposed to imply real-life malaise, disconnect caused by work routine or domestic drudgery, a maternal remoteness, perhaps even a form of perinatal depression. Though there are few half rhymes throughout the poem there are references to bells, echoes, mantras – it’s like a nursery rhyme learned to be recited in parrot fashion, a mode of living to be repeated without feeling. 

I try to be true to my instincts while mindful of my craft, to use technique accordingly and consider the importance of shape and white space in poetry. The original format of "Notable Globsters," a cryptozoological poem, was laid out like a Wikipedia page with certain words highlighted in blue like hyperlinks but this wouldn’t have been feasible in a printed book. Probably just as well. I can go a bit far sometimes. 

JT: You weave stories around all sorts of real-life (and made-up) characters in The Night Jar. Who do you think are the main people (real or fictitious) who stand behind the collection? Who are your main influences?

LP: Sister Agnieszka was inspired by a story a friend from work told me. She attended a Catholic School in Poland and one of the nuns who taught her and was extremely pious and charismatic suddenly upped sticks in the middle of the night and it was all very mysterious. I sort of fill in the gaps and set her off on a series of adventures – four poems about her appear in the collection and this allows me to indulge (even though I am agnostic) a fascination with Catholic iconography. It also permits me to mitigate the themes idea of religious or patriarchal oppression with a bit of fun and sex and escapade. Interestingly, afterwards I found out that Sister Agnieszka is the name of a character in some Agatha Christie novels – I didn’t know this at the time, I was looking for a Polish name with a certain number of syllables and I chose that one. It’s quite a coincidence!

Many of the poems are inspired by characters in film or by my love of cinema - Indiana Jones, Bond movie henchmen, Hitchcock. I have a poem about Renfield, the institutionalized disciple from Dracula. I am attracted to the idea of villains probably, or those who are vilified justly or unjustly; those considered misfits or outsiders.

Some are inspired by fairy stories I loved when I was a child – The Snow Queen, Hansel and Gretel or sometimes they have a basis in mythology. The real-life figures I include were usually inspired by articles I read about them which had stayed with me for one reason or another. “The Interview with the woman who trepanned herself” was inspired by an interview in Vice magazine with an advocate of self-trepanation called Amanda Feilding. The poem assumes the voice of the interviewer but is not based directly on the Vice interviewer – I assumed the journalist's voice so the poem could explore the themes of creative frustration and writer’s block. 

I have never visited the US but I believe that some of the poems are inspired by and set in a sort of imagined Americana, one learned second hand through the landscape of cinema or American Gothic literature by Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Shirley Jackson. And some of the characters could be viewed as a subversion or extension of the femme fatale archetype in American film noir or old Hollywood notions of the bombshell. 

I love music and growing up I always was drawn to artists that incorporated an element of conceptual performance or played with the idea of identity – David Bowie, Debbie Harry, Kate Bush. I actually think that the song writing of Kate Bush inspired my writing almost as much as other poets have because the way she would take and existing piece of art – a novel or a film as stimulus and then create something that was so entirely her own. I found that thrilling and inspiring. 

JT: What are you working on at the moment?

LP: A second poetry collection. I’m still working on the structure but I think it will be split into three parts – the last of which is a narrative sequence of poems concerning a writer recovering from a breakdown who takes on a residency in a house on the Suffolk coast. The house is haunted by the spirits of two nefarious Victorian illusionists and Vaudeville entertainers. So yeah, leaning into my eerie obsessions once more but I want the collection to examine the themes of mental illness, addiction, dysfunctional relationships and the writing process itself – its potential for healing and harm as you retreat into an inner world. 

The overall arching theme of the collection will be divergence and conflict in personal relationships and within the self – our tendency towards self-sabotage and self-destruction. Having kept the voice at the centre of my poems at a comfortable distance for so long, in my new poems I find that I am balancing the fictional projections with a somewhat more personal aspect – it’s tricky and frustrating and a bit frightening but I hope it allows me growth as a writer. It’s going at a glacial pace. I will be finished in about twenty years at this stage. I need to get some momentum going. 


About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is the director of Everybody's Reviewing. His recent books include the short story collection Scablands and Other Stories (Salt, 2023) and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring Press, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. 


Friday 5 July 2024

Review by Lee Wright of "Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain" by Corinne Fowler



American philosopher John Dewey said, “Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart's desire.”

The British countryside has long captured that heart's desire, with its poetic allure, rolling hills, meandering lanes, and quaint villages with their listed buildings, evoking a sense of tranquillity and wonder, and wealth. But in Our Island Stories: Country Walks through Colonial Britain, historian Corinne Fowler (joined by various companions) takes us back through time on ten fascinating walks through Britain’s rural landscape, and sets out to discover the unique colonial connections of the places through which she passes.  

From the Cotswolds to East Lancashire, Hampshire to the Inner Hebrides, to Dolgellau and Norfolk, Fowler is propelled by a personal desire to give us the facts in an era when our elected (and often unelected) politicians choose to remould reality, preferring fiction over fact. This book isn't afraid to tie a piece of string around the base of the sensitive rural tooth, and the other end to the colonial doorknob, then slam the door. History may be complicated, but it should not be reshaped. As the author says in the book's preface, “Knowledge is not something to be weaponized but to be shared.” 

Fowler's finely crafted book shows us why it is essential we explore imperialism. Each walk taken is accessible so others, if they so wish, can follow in the author's footsteps. Slavery was a vast system and the author's task is equally vast. As she continues to shine new light on Britain's past, some in Westminster and most of the right-wing press are fighting her all the way. Fowler encourages her readers to look at rural Britain differently. History has much to show us, and this book, and her walks, follow where the history leads. 


About the reviewer
Lee Wright has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester and is currently working towards a PhD researching memoir and film. His fiction and poetry have been published with Fairlight Books, époque press and Burning House Press.

You can read more about Our Island Stories by Corinne Fowler on Creative Writing at Leicester here


Monday 1 July 2024

Review by Tracey Foster of "The Living Mountain" by Nan Shepherd



This is such a light book, wrapped in a simple white and gold jacket, so unassuming and yet what a glorious explosion of colour, sound, texture and life tucked inside it. I'd heard great things about this book, the author's name often dropped by other great nature writers, such as Robert Macfarlane, Kerry Andrews, Rebecca Solnit. This tiny gem of sublime prose written at the end of the Second World War, hidden from publication for thirty years, labelled as 'mineral memoried' by Macfarlane, is a must for the bookshelf - a gift that will keep giving every time you read it.

Anna (Nan) Shepherd was also a tiny woman, slight in stature but mighty in voice. She began, like all visitors to the Cairngorms, seeking height, conquering peeks to look down on the valleys, but she began to understand them as one whole body and spent time on this body, not subduing it: 'I knew when I'd looked for a long time, that I had hardly begun to see.'

Each chapter breaks down her experiences into the senses rather than scenery; air, water, frost and snow are exquisitely explored and lead to the final chapter on just 'being.' She fully believed that time spent with her mountains led to a life of the senses, lived so purely that 'the body may be said to think.' Each foot placed and lifted was an act of breathing. This interplay of perception and reception is unique, slowing down the pedestrian to explore the person: 'I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.'

The introduction by Macfarlane calls the mountains Shepherd's 'inland island.' Her book is a love letter to her experiences. She called her book a 'traffic of love,' and she sends love from the mountains through her words to us - using her eyes to feel. 'How can I number the ways which the eye gives me entry? - the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces.'

Shepherd also understood that there are many perspectives when faced with such a wide vista. David Hockney noted that we see more than one focal point within one view. She revels in this change from moment to moment as mist and low cloud can shift the landscape at alarming speed. Often this leads to misconception as the eye is tricked by every rock, branch, or boulder. This serves to remind the walker that 'One walks among elementals, and elementals are not governable.'

War itself makes no appearance in this book as she leaves home to avoid any news of it, but she does mention the fatalities on her mountains; including the aircraft crew who misjudged the difficulty of the terrain and a party of school children who were caught by a sudden change of weather: 'Some are not rescued. A man and girl are found, months too late, far out of their path, the girl on abraded hands and knees as she crawled her way through drift. I see her living face still. (She was one of my students).'

The mountain is not always a friend but is constant and in a world of tumultuous change, it must have been a welcome diversion. In these times of difficult challenges, we all need a place to turn to that will steady us, a path to tread that will keep us moving forwards: 'I have discovered my mountain - its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances.'

Read this book and you too might discover its treasures.


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 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 CommaPress, 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.


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.


Tuesday 28 May 2024

Review by Maria Taylor of "Grief's Alphabet" by Carrie Etter



At its heart, Carrie Etter’s fifth collection Grief’s Alphabet poignantly explores the loss of the poet’s mother and describes the impact of bereavement. Yet Etter’s collection is also as much about death’s antithesis – it is a celebration of life and the love which binds parents and children. 

This is not a collection which shies away from the painful aspects of grief. Etter’s poems have a piercing clarity about the rawness and truth of grieving that I admired very much. In terms of form, there are a great many prose poems and pieces which work with the white space of the page. In "The Last Photograph," Etter works with the "golden shovel" form to recreate a poignant moment between mother and daughter:

"Smile" I said, positioning the camera for
the last time. You turned slowly; you
struggled to smile, the lamplight a halo, cultivation
of a minor saint. 

The poem is accompanied by a photo of "Modie," Etter’s affectionate name for her mother. I found myself going between reading the poem and looking at the photo and thinking about how "the strength" Etter’s mother took to "lift her face" is a key image in terms of describing the final shot. Etter is unafraid at exploring the more difficult aspects of grief, those in which the grievers somehow blame themselves for the pain of the final days: "Blame this photo on the love or the / selfishness of daughters before they meet the dark."

Etter’s poems have a pinpointed quality at placing the reader in the immediacy of the moment. In "Homing," Etter writes about a trip to see her mother, where the pair are reunited and their close relationship is instantly rekindled: "If rain fell, we lingered, enchanted in the rooms where it could best be heard." The "rain" here works as a cocoon, a natural shield in which mother and daughter enjoy a comfortable companionship: "… we talked like this for days. I was that red cardinal on the white lawn, easy in brightness, except I was two: we."

Grief is often bittersweet; interspersed in this collection are poems of deep love. "An Adoption in 360°" takes us back to the beginning of the "two" as mentioned above, becoming "we." There is something incredibly tender in how the poet describes the day of adoption:

From the front, she carries a swaddled infant,
And both the man and woman’s bodies curve to shield it,
Though it is April in Illinois and the day mild.

From either side the three are one. 

I loved this collection. I found it compelling and have already read many of the poems several times. The inclusion of photographs also heightened my relationship with the poems. Etter has succeeded in writing a deeply personal collection, which at the same time is notable for its lyrical precision and variety of poetic styles when thinking about grief in all its different guises.  Grief’s Alphabet is a deeply memorable and evocative poetic tribute. 


About the reviewer
Maria Taylor is a British Cypriot poet and reviewer. Her latest collection is Dressing for the Afterlife (Nine Arches Press). She has been highly commended in the UK Forward Prizes for poetry. She also works as Reviews Editor for Under the Radar.

You can read more about Grief's Alphabet on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Friday 24 May 2024

Review by Martyn Crucefix of "Mappa Mundi" by Paul O'Prey



Paul O’Prey’s beautifully designed chapbook from The Melos Press contains a mapping of the poet’s dealings with the world, though every step taken through the outer topography has a powerful resonance with the life within. The epigraph from Rilke’s Duino Elegies nudges the reader in this direction: ‘The world is nowhere, my love, if not within.’ The original Hereford Mappa Mundi was created around 1290 and is described in the opening poem with its ‘seas of fire, walls of flame,’ basilisks, and griffins. O’Prey takes these mythic elements as psychologically significant, rather than a primitive literalism: ‘More of a mirror than a map.’ These flames and strange creatures lie within.

‘South’ proposes an excellent exercise for poetry writing groups: ‘I take a pen and sketch my own mappa mundi.’ O’Prey’s own sketch straddles London, County Down, an unnamed southerly port of embarkation, tropical-sounding islands, a paradise-sounding garden. This outer journey again sustains, just bubbling underneath, its potential inner equivalent. There are several poems about the poet’s father, who ‘salvaged ships / during the war,’ and who worked and fished along the sea’s edge, absorbing it so much that ‘Last Rites’ images his last days as being subject to a ‘shipwrecked mind.’

These portrayals of English land- and sea-scapes enclose several poems at the centre of the book which look to the Mediterranean, the island of Mallorca in particular. Ramon Llull founded the hermitage of Miramar on the island a mere twenty years before the Mappa Mundi was made. The poem, ‘Miramar,’ vividly captures the island’s terraces, its stony soil, its few remaining hermit monks working the land. The ‘inner’ world here is explored in the poem’s meditation on the nature of prayer: ‘the accuracy of words / is irrelevant – intent is content.’ O’Prey’s mappings encompass the spiritual with the pun here on the content(s) of a prayer and the content(ment) it may bring to the one who prays. This is such a skilfully structured book of just sixteen poems, yet its lightness of touch belies the heights and depths of its journeying.


About the reviewer
Martyn Crucefix: Between a Drowning Man was published by Salt in 2023; his translations of Peter Huchel (Shearsman) won the 2020 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. A Rilke Selected Poems, Change Your Life, has just been published by Pushkin Press, 2024. Martyn's blog is here. You can read more about Between a Drowning Man on Creative Writing at Leicester here.  

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Review by Tracey Foster of "Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art": Exhibition at the Barbican

 


Textiles are vital to our lives. We are swaddled in them when we’re born, we wrap our bodies in them every day and we’re shrouded in them when we die.*

The symbiosis of text and textiles is as old as mankind itself. The allegorical text of storytelling draws from man's skill to clothe himself: the weaving of a plot, fabricating a narrative and the thread of a story, draw from fireside tales passed on while sewing and mending garments. Our ability to create both fabrics and fantasies has enabled us to record our stories in word and weaving. The current exhibition at the Barbican, Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles and Art, has curated a vast range of examples from different cultures and viewpoints that explore the ability of fabrics to record our narrative through touch. 

Entangled in a textile are the knowledge systems of Indigenous people, who for centuries have used thread as a means for communication - to share information, to tell stories and express themselves.

A single dyed thread of indigo cotton expresses a multitude of connotations - of empire, colonial ruling and enslaved peoples - and at one point was said to be in equal in value to the people who slaved to produce it. Textile artists have explored this tale by deconstructing dyed garments to their constituent parts and remodelling them into exhibition pieces, using stitch, applique and embellishments. The artist's mark making, like words layered upon the cloth, trace the tale of our recent histories. Stitching through time has been a subversive act, a mostly female occupation, and seen as the default setting for the demure, domestic members of the household. Young girls were taught needle work from the age of five and expected to learn contrition by being silently contemplative. The bent female head was often portrayed in paintings and tapestries throughout early periods. These females learnt to bend the rules even whilst being compliant - for example, by depicting midwives at the nativity scene despite their presence being banned by the ruling church. Defiance in diligence became a way for them to express themselves, using the power of the needle when the pen was denied to them. This act has transcended ages and has seen modern textile artists continue to express emotions and defy conservative views through fabrics.

Stitching can be a subversive act: thread can work as a language to challenge fixed ideas and voice free expressions.

Tracey Emin’s quilt, No chance, allowed her to voice her feelings as a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977, the year she was raped. Old blankets and clothing were used to express these emotions and combine home comforts with the raw truth of her experiences; the decision to pick out the powerful text in a homely blanket stitch conveys the duality of safety and violation. 

For Judy Chicago’s Birth tear/tear embroidery, she collaborated with over 150 women to share birth experiences of the mythical, the celebratory and the painful to create a visceral response to the iconoclastic images of the virgin birth. Her method of using nine needles at a time each with three threads emulates the numerical symbolism of the holy trinity and the stitching following painful childbirth. 

T. Vinoja’s Border and Bunker explores her experiences of the Sri Lankan Civil War, creating aerial maps informed by her own memories and the testimonies of others. Stitches and salvaged textiles form borders, excavation routes, tents, checkpoints, bunkers and burial sites. During the war, she and her father used clothes to craft bunkers and temporary shelters by filling used saris with earth. She has spoken of the individual stitches as reparative sutures, emulating how fabric was used as first-aid to wrap and cover wounds.

Textiles are part of our everyday routines — they are in close contact with our bodies and our homes, they are used, felt, touched and seen. As such, the material is invested with personal narratives, making it uniquely suited to communicate the intricacies and complexities of lived experience.

Not all the contributors to the exhibition are female as men also turn to fabrics to explore their feelings and express their frustrations of conforming to male stereotypes. They use a perceived feminine artform to play with expectations and social narratives.

Women, men and nonbinary artists have both resisted and reclaimed these limiting approaches to the medium, questioning gendered and value-based binaries and using the act of stitching as a radical practice.

Jeffery Gibson drew from his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage and traditional powwow ceremonies, particularly those worn by the Northern Paiute people as spiritual protection in the pacifist Ghost Dance movement, in order to explore his identity as gay man. He plays with the nonbinary gender roles found in many indigenous cultures and his garments are deliberately ungendered.

Politics and art have always been unique companions; this is demonstrated nowhere more simply than the blank wall gaps where artist work has been withdrawn because of the current war in Gaza. Exhibition, explanation and discussion have always been the point of creative artwork, to open dialogue and demand a further look at the intended focus. This exhibition allows a dialogue to be created across cultures, genders, stereotypes and societal norms. Long may the thread be an advocate for communication and understanding. Long may we see more artists using textiles to tell their individual stories.


*Italicised quotations are taken from the exhibition catalogue.


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 SublimeHer work is currently on exhibition at the Ikon Gallery


Friday 17 May 2024

Review by Joe Bedford of "The Son of Man" by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

 


Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s latest novel, The Son of Man, opens with a promise. It introduces a context for human experience that places humanity within a continuum that stretches back millions of years, and within an ecology in which our species is far from the centre. But quickly, this promise evolves into something unexpected. While Del Amo’s forensic prose style works to decentre and estrange the human experience, the family at The Son of Man’s core firmly re-grounds the novel in a familiar, all-too-human drama. The drama is contemporary, yet fundamental – the burden of a son trying to understand his difficult, authoritarian father. It is so fundamental as to form a kind of anthropological abstract, a kind of basic human story that could be applied as easily to Neanderthals as to us. In this sense, the obsessive precision of Del Amo’s prose does less to paint our species as another animal, an integrated part of a wider ecosystem, as it does to portray us as a species bound to predictable human melodrama. Whereas other novels have decentred the human by placing us within our ecological context (as in The Overstory by Richard Powers), The Son of Man works to remind us that to resist the personal, as Del Amo achieves, is not to transcend the human. As an exercise in naturalism, Del Amo rarely attempts to rise above the basic human myths that we recognise not from nature or experience but from the history of narrative fiction. And perhaps this is the point. The Son of Man is not the story of a real human family, seen in naturalistic detail as if under a microscope, but a story of archetypes that subtly reflects upon our species as storytellers, not as animals. If the human experience is decentred within the novel it is not replaced by a biological core but by a myth of humanity which has informed the stories we tell about ourselves for thousands of years. It is not a hopeful story. It is not, by definition, an original story. It is rather a story which the reader could imagine stumbling across on the walls of a Palaeolithic cave – a story which, no matter how we develop as a species, will be told again and again and again.


About the reviewer
Joe Bedford is an author from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely, and have won numerous awards including the Leicester Writes Prize 2022. His debut novel A Bad Decade for Good People was published by Parthian Books in June 2023.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Review by Tracey Foster of "Shadowlands: A Journey Through Lost Britain" by Matthew Green



Imagining our home, town and local landscape as a wasteland; envisaging the future for our sea-ravaged coasts and climate-battered green spaces is a real prospect that we face today. Matthew Green makes this all the more possible with this well researched book as he takes on a journey through existing derelict sites here on our own British soils. These include places simply eradicated through disease, plagues, coastal erosion, storm surges and land acquisition, leaving us with a ghost map of former communities. Green, a historian, writer and broadcaster, knows how to tell a good tale and evokes a sublime sense of the uncanny with descriptions of visits to these sites. Abandoned homes, half-shelled churches, submerged dwellings and fake buildings make ideal sites to set a horror movie.

The cult of the picturesque began in the eighteenth century and the hunt for the ideal gothic ruin set the middle classes wandering over our own local sites of abandonment. Prior to this no one cared enough to notice and nature was left to take over where man had fled. The passion for old antiquities saw an outbreak of "ruin poetry," waxing lyrical about the joys of the desolation and pathos that surrounded such sites. Old ruins became national monuments and were put back on the maps. The romantic movement that followed revelled in the desolate, evoking reverie to ponder life, death, longing, absence and mourning. One such place to inspire scores of collections of poetry was Dunwich, Britain's lost Atlantis. This was a whole city built on the Suffolk coast, comprising several large churches and a thriving port. A series of huge storm surges eroded the cliffs beneath it and its demise was recorded in early photographs and newspaper reports. The sad sight of a graveyard tumbling onto the rocks below brought many visitors to the site, to write, paint and muse on life's fragility. The writer Henry James being one of them, this prompted him to say: "Sadness hung in the air like the salt spray of the sea; a sense of squandered potential pervaded everything and yet was somehow uplifting."

Green also gets special permission to visit the military training zones on Norfolk. This was land acquired during WW2 that encompassed several old villages on the promise to return them after the war. Several residents left notes pinned to their front door for the army, asking them to take care of their family’s homes in the anticipation of a return. What is left behind now is a ravished wilderness and bombed-out buildings. Very little remains for those families to return to apart from the church where they are allowed back one day a year at Christmas to tend graves and gather to sing hymns: "The path of lime trees leading to the church is specially illuminated and on those bittersweet occasions, the cadences of their song, the streaks of the choir, the gushing of the air through the bellows of the organ effuse from the glowing nave, soaring over the shards, the mounds and the ruins of deserted and disfigured villages, transforming them through the redemptive power of sorrow, and resurrecting them in the theatre of the mind."

What Green did find there was a range of fake building shells, made up in fine detail to replicate medieval Normandy towns, German hamlets, post-war Soviet concrete jungles and even a market town of Basra, simulating the ongoing challenges of today's army recruits: "It was one of the eeriest, most disquieting places I have ever set foot in."

Green travels from the top of Scotland in St Kilda on a journey through lost Britain to the submerged village of Capel Celyn in Wales and takes us with him. Embarking on this journey and in the process losing his father and his marriage, he faced a long period of emotional turmoil: "Ambushed by memories, with the past hanging like a pall in the air, the present seemed so thin as to barely exist at all."

His personal circumstance is in tune with our times. The British psyche, used to change, as our land mass alters and shifts through waves of invasion and geological movement, looks set to face the greatest alteration of all. This book is a fascinating insight into the previous lives that were altered, communities that were lost and the warnings we can take from a long view of nature's reclamation. 


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, Zine magazine and The Arts Council and she writes her own blog, Small Sublime, here


Monday 13 May 2024

Review by Constantine of "Legion of Lost Letters" by Debasish Lahiri



Legion of Lost Letters is such a wonderful title, the alliteration bringing with it the promise of historical adventure and discovery, and it delivers.

These are poetic stories. To call them "Poems" is apt, yet I feel the need to mention that these, while not as epic in scope as the Greek and Latin poems of old, are no less complete in the picture they create. Most modern poetry, by contrast, tends to lend itself to a singular frame in time, a snapshot of an object or feeling

The book opens with "Ovid Contemplates writing his Fasti at Tomis," and while the form and meter are the author's own, I was amazed at how Ovid’s voice came through the piece.  Indeed I could hear the same voice and inflexions in my mind as I would hear when reading a translation of Ovid's works (I alas have no Latin).

With the next poem, though it confused me with the given date, I could again feel the authenticity of the voice. To be sure, the poems / stories here are the imaginings of the author. However, even so, they paint as real and vibrant a picture as one could hope for. Each voice is different enough that you can suspend disbelief and let the characters live out a life in your head. Some voices are colourful, using the most beautiful and descriptive of words. Others are less educated, and younger, but no less real or vivid. 

Most seem unwilling travellers, though. They have landed in Albion (except dear Ovid) and are trying to make the best of what they have. There are anachronisms in plenty for those in the know, and they are intentional as far as I can tell. Indeed the author warned me to "Look out for the anachronistic embedded in the authentic." ( Words I feel he might have mentioned in his introduction).

For myself, I am left a tiny bit wanting. Not with the poetry, it is beautiful. Not with the stories: they resolve as far as they should and with skill. But I wish the author had added a bibliography of works, papers, etc. that had inspired him. Still, this is a small thing in a wonderful work, and possibly I am the only one who would care. Indeed for those who love this period, these poems could be a wonderful jumping-off point for your own study,

In short, the poems are beautiful. The ill-fated Aelle and her lover now have a life lived in my imagination. I have seen Royal Roman elephants in Chester through eyes that were not my own and felt the remembered rays of a Latin sun under a northern sky. 

Read it.  


About the reviewer
Constantine is an autistic writer and father best known for Pablo on CBeebies and The Cats of Charnwood Forest. He left leicester university in 2022 after completing an M.A. in Creative Writing.

Monday 6 May 2024

Review by Jon Wilkins of "The Empusium" by Olga Tokarczuk



A horror story – not my usual thing.

Olga Tokarczuk – I have heard of her but never read her work.

A nod to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain – a novel I’ve not read.

Empusium – I could not find a definition.

The story begins in September 1913. We meet a young Pole, Mieczyslaw Wojnicz, who is suffering from tuberculosis as he arrives at Wilhelm Opitz’s Guesthouse for Gentlemen in the village of Görbersdorf. 

This is a health resort in the Silesian mountains. We meet the staff. We see the beautifully described landscape. The director's wife commits suicide. Life goes on as normal.

Each night the residents of the resort meet to take a hallucinogenic local liqueur and we read their conversations as they interact. Together they discuss the great issues of the day: should there be a Monarchy or should democracy prevail? Do devils exist? We are asked if women are born inferior? Must there be war, how do we find  peace? 

The residents' place in the novel seems ambivalent. But they decide that the female brain is smaller than a male's; that women are delicate and sensitive, and impulsive. They find that women are at an earlier stage of human evolution and that because women are socially challenged, they must always rely on men. 

Misogynistically, they decide that the female body belongs not to individual women, but to humankind in general. They affirm that nature having endowed men with fertility, nature didn’t give the female the ability to control it. 

It is painful to read these views. Despite this, Tokarczuk assures her readers that all the misogynist passages in Empusium are taken from writings including such as St Augustine, Conrad, Darwin, Freud, Hesiod, Lawrence, Milton, Nietzsche, Plato, Racine, Shakespeare, Swift, Wagner, and Yeats. The residents of Herr Opitz’s guesthouse are obsessed with patriarchal ideas. To them, patriarchy is the natural order.

How does this all impact on the story that flows from these people? You will need to read the novel to find out!

Tokarczuk tells us that, as life goes on in the sanatorium, disturbing things are happening in the guesthouse and the surrounding forest and hills. There seems to be someone, or something, watching them, attempting to penetrate their sheltered world. As Wojnicz tries to unravel the truth and the malevolent forces outside the guesthouse, fate has already chosen the next target.

What is Empusium? Tokarczuk has come up with her own definition, melding together roots Empousa and symposion. But who, or what, is the Empousa? I quote from Samuel Tchorek-Bentall: "In the comedies of the playwright Aristophanes, she is described as an enormous shapeshifting beast, a bull at one moment, then a mule, then a beautiful woman, then a bitch. Her entire face is on fire, one of her legs is made of bronze, the other of cow dung. Meanwhile, in the third-century Life of Apollonius of Tyana, she makes an appearance as a man-eating spectre, a being 'little affected by the passion of love,' fond of nothing but male flesh."

Need I say more?

This is an amazing book, mysterious and exciting. We have to read on to learn the outcome: it is as if we are taken over by the threatening forces in the book, compelled to turn the next page, to discover who the evil spirits actually are. 

Obviously, Tokarczuk doesn’t take the misogynistic beliefs of her characters seriously. Consequently, the best parts of the novel are not the rather self-indulgent dronings of the patients, but the signs of malevolence that keep appearing: the slimy toad, the headless duck, the mystical female figures created from moss, sticks, fir needles, rotten wood, and other organic materials, which the perverse coalmen use. 

The Empusium is not an easy read, but it is astutely written. The style is old fashioned, but this matches its setting in the 1910s, and adds to the intensity of the tale. Who or what is the malignancy that threatens? Who will survive to tell the tale? It is intoxicating.

A horror story – perhaps I should read more.

Olga Tokarczuk – I need to read more of her work.

A nod to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain – I must read it.

Empusium - a sexist symposium that Tokarczuk dubs an empuzjon, a neologism derived from the Greek Empousa and modelled, incorrectly from a strictly philological point of view, on symposion, the Greek word for "banquet."


About the reviewer
Jon 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 University. 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. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot! 


Friday 3 May 2024

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Neurological Birdsong" by A. J. Lees




It was with some concern
that I received a package stamped
RLW Institute of Neurological Studies.
Was there something wrong with me?

Relief was clear when opened.
Neurological Birdsong
a book of poetry
by A. J. Lees.
A treat indeed.

300 poems. 300 gnomes.
Lifted from Tweets
crafted and perfected
over years by eminent neurologist
Andrew Lees.

Inspiring. Riveting. Angry
aphorisms redolent with love and experience.
Insightful. Thoughtful. Disturbing.

Never was birdsong
so apposite
as words flow into each other 
expressing the experience of a life well lived.
A vocation delivered.
A people served.

These are wandering thoughts
of lyrical intent
evoking history, literature,
science and travel afar
to learn and achieve.

26 Sections
from A to Z.
Observations on Burnout:
Bad Science.
Bad Medicine.
Bad Management.
Secrets unveiled.

Parkinson's Disease to COVID Blues,
a myriad of tales
of experiences
opinions and views from an
endangered NHS.
Work. Anecdotes. Reminiscences. 
A litany of thoughts
from past 
to present day.

Advice. Anger. Despair.
And also hope for our future.
The future of his craft.

Where has humanity gone?
Trapped by 
Administration.
Targets.
Meetings.
Trends.
Irrelevancies.

The Patient is all.
The Patient is key.
Never forget the Patient.

A vibrant, intelligent expose
of a system under threat.
From inside and out.

A wonderful collection of 
thoughts and experience.
An unforgettable piece of work.
Do read. With people like Lees
We should never despair.


About the reviewer
Jon 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 University. 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. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot! 

You can read more about Neurological Birdsong by A. J. Lees on Creative Writing at Leicester here