Poetry review – The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru

The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to have your empathy heightened and awareness deepened.

In her debut poetry pamphlet The Country With No Playgrounds, award-winning British-Romanian poet Elena Croitoru has captured a place and period in time so precisely and skilfully that you’ll find yourself transported.

Stark scenes are highlighted with words that seem fondly chosen for their beauty: “We grew up in our spare time,/ beyond a tower block island/ where pearly cement dust lay…”

Relayed with disarming matter-of-factness, many of the poems are almost cinematic, such as in The Last Wedding: “She looked out of the window/ at the militiamen who watched our balcony/ from below, the way one would watch/ the funeral of someone still moving.”

It’s heart-stoppingly alarming, yet clearly for the inhabitants utterly normal, to live with such a palpable threat. As worrying as the situation must have been for the adults she mentions, for the children Croitoru counted herself among, this was nothing more than ordinary. This gives her the tools to describe moments with a lightness of touch that draws us in rather than pushing us away, so that we read each stanza with wide open eyes.

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Poetry review – We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to immerse yourself in wonder.

The contents page of Carolyn Jess-Cooke‘s third collection offers a clear indication of the skill at play here. Poem titles are mini-masterworks, with each offering sense of perilous climatic times we live in couple with an awe for the world we inhabit.

Section 1, Songs for the Arctic, illuminates scenes by scattering words across the whiteness of the page. in We Flicker too briefly, you can roll the flavour of the lines over your tongue: “Bone sky./Ocean’s oil-dark/cloth unsettled” and “green sky-rivers/ arrows of geese/ water scythes of whales.”

Section 2 opens with the title poem, which sets the tone for a sequence about beauty and strength in fragility. In Birdsong for a Breakdown, we’re introduced to the extremity of sensations experienced through the rawness of mental ill-health: “Because sweetness amidst such unnameable dark/ is magnesium, too bright to miss.”

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Poetry review – Much with body by Polly Atkin

Much With Body book cover. Shows figure floating in green water.Book Balm recommendation: Read to remind yourself to pause and pay attention to your natural surroundings.

From frogs and toads ambling into her home to the herons glimpsed nearby to the imposed quieter times of lockdown, Much with body by Polly Atkin is a reminder to take a breath, open your eyes and observe.

In Lakeclean, Atkin immerses us in the magic of wild swimming. The lines are dizzyingly visual and elemental, while hinting at the freedom and physical relief offered fleetingly in water, as opposed to time spent on land. Atkin alludes to the joy of  being: “released from the tyranny of gravity”, dwelling “in transparency”, and sweeping “mountains aside with our arms without wincing.”

Notes from a transect offers series of determinedly hopeful snippets, each of which works as a standalone poem. In What’s Under Your Feet she records: “One school wins a visit from a scientist. When she asks/ does anyone have wildlife stories to share?/ the whole school put up their hands.” In Windows we glimpse “Those lightless days when pain/ keeps you in, under, and the feeder/ at the window is the only source of movement/ you count birds.”

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Poetry review – Fontanelle by Helen Sheppard

Fontanelle cover by Helen SheppardFontanelle by Helen Sheppard opens aptly with ‘Opening’, a poem that deposits us directly in the most intimate of situations – a birth. We’re at the business end with Sheppard, guiding a person into the world with all the gunge and wonder it entails.

And herein lies the power of Sheppard’s poetry. As a former midwife, her awe at this daily miracle is evident, even garlanded in the gravy of bodily excretions. Far from shying away from squeamish sights, Sheppard celebrates them for their essential role in our most earthbound and miraculous acts.

“A gestation reaches its timely conclusion./ Her muscled hammock softens, slackens./ I am with her wet slit, hands quiet, ready.”

In Safe Harbour we meet a person yet to breathe: “You flex and stretch/ and wallow in water,/ all bump and tail./ You tether, then float,/ wriggle to sea sounds”.

The writing is visceral, yet tender, each layered emotion wound in with exquisite tension.

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Poetry review – Bloodlines by Sarah Wimbush

Bloodlines by Sarah WimbushSarah Wimbush won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2019 with this slim yet seductively insidious collection. Wimbush’s verses creep in under collar and cuff, sending shivers across your scalp.

Weaving in the salt and pepper of Traveller idioms, Wimbush draws us into a journey through her own heritage, where we meet heroes and queens of lanes and fields.

You’ll learn some gorgeous terms along the way: “nose warmer” for pipe, “hedge mumper’ for tramp, and “drum” for road, as well as less familiar words, such as “yog” for fire and “chokka” for shoes. Some felt familiar without me knowing why – “mush” for man, for instance, and “shushti” for rabbit. It all adds to the richness of the telling.

In some poems Wimbush conjures the litany of a life in just a handful of lines, such as with Our Jud, who “rarely missed a fisticuffing up the Old Blue Bell./ And that time calmed the lady’s filly bolting up the road.” Each sentence has the fireside flavour of a blustering anecdote, yet summons facets of courage, heart and honour beside the bravado. Any of us could be proud to be seen as clearly as Wimbush describes Jud.

And yes, there is romance in much of the lustrous imagery, but unfrilled and honest. There’s a nod to the rebellious, the eternally loyal and the larking, with hints of hardship and hard work among revelries.

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Poetry review – Empire of Dirt

Empire of Dirt coverThe poems in Thomas Stewart’s debut pamphlet Empire of Dirt share the enchanted forest feel of the darkest fairytales. Nature appears on these pages as something elemental and vaguely sordid, with humans only one footfall away from entering the shadowy, loam-scented spaces on the fringes of suburban streets.

Moving, enticing and richly redolent, these poems summon the paradoxical sense of peace laced with disquiet that’s so particular to woodlands, where the unseen creeps ever closer.

Many of the poems are about observing. In And then The Flowers Came, he writes: “outside/ the trees can/ smell me, their/ roots/ brew plots,/ they’re watching/ me, with/ everyone else”.

In Skull, Stewart invites us to become the voyeurs, ogling the intimate miracle of Adam birthing his Eve.

More contemporary suspicions come into play with the awareness of a neighbour spying from between the petals of a hibiscus across the road: “she watches/ how many cigarettes/ I smoke/ or how many times/ I check Grindr/ on my phone.” The tension between timeless and modern, and between threat and temptation, is palpable.

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Milk Poetry review

Tom DenbighUnfolding in Foyles Bookshop Bristol as part of Bristol Festival of Literature, Milk Poetry wound through our ears, hearts and minds, reminding us that words have a life beyond the page. This group of skilful poets and their guests each imbue their lines, rhymes and musings with startling individuality and honesty.

Malaika Kegode founded Milk Poetry in January 2015. “Milk Poetry was conceived to be a friendly, nurturing night that treated all performers with equal respect, warmth and room for growth,” she says. “The impetus behind the night was to offer equal billing and opportunity for up and coming poets, with a focus on artist development. Many poets can get stuck in limbo after performing for a couple of years; not quite a headliner but creating work more advanced than standard open mic fare. So Milk Poetry was created to bridge that gap and offer chances for people to hone their skills on stage and perform shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘big name’ acts, so they can feel like the true artists they are!”

She adds: “As Milk Poetry has grown, I think that nurturing backbone has just become stronger, and some artists who started performing for the first time at Milk Poetry have gone on to be major players in the poetry world.”

Tom Sastry

The evening opened with the wit and self-depreciating humour of Tom Sastry. Tom is one of the 2016 Laureate’s Choice poets. He brought us the first and only use of the word “ersatz” and wrote of “ganging up on our past selves who we secretly love” and “dead cakes in cellophane.” Many of his poems were a whisper away from being reclassified as flash fictions, pouring whole lives into our ears distilled down into a few vivid lines.

Malaika Kegode. Photo by Judy Darley

Next up, Malaika Kegode’s poem rattled through and over us, drawing us into a train journey, a relationship gone awry, and an ending so tragic that it made my teeth shake. There’s something powerfully filmic about her composition, so that you see the train carriage and its passengers, see the passing fields with their excess of sheep, and see the moon and the sun each highlighting what went wrong.

Next up, multiple slam winner Tom Denbigh (picture at the top of this post) delivered a story in the form of a poem, setting word choices at curious angles that created a sense of eavesdropping, and getting caught. He brought us the evening’s first use of the word “cardigan.” Offbeat and comic, the poem twitched with a sense of the search for identity, and of trying to solve the puzzles that make up the people we encounter.

Sam Grudgings. Photo by Judy Darley

Milk co producer Sam Grudgings, who describes himself as a poet perpetually on the edge of collapse, had rather delightfully brought his granny along. Taking us collectively by the hand, Sam led us on an excursion into a haunted house, speaking not to us but to the ghost herself, with her “arson fingers.’ Exquisite imagery drew us into a gloriously painterly scene, pegged with emotion.

Beth Calverley. Photo by Judy Darley

The potent Beth Calverley, co producer of Milk and Chief Operator of The Poetry Machine, performed Witchcraft, a poem laced with tenderness. Her words glimmered as though lit from within, with echos sounding quietly on the peripheral of our hearing. As Sam said in introducting Beth, her poetry is comprised of layers of meaning – there’s far more here than a single read or listen can reveal.

Rebecca Tantony. Photo by Judy Darley

Our final poet Rebecca Tantony shared a set of poems rooted in the complexities of family. Visceral, raw and compellingly intimate, Rebecca’s poems sent tremors oscillating the bookshop’s air, rustling pages and ricocheted empathetic shivers down listeners’ spines.

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Seen, read or experienced anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

 

Poetry review – Visiting The Minotaur by Claire Williamson

Visiting The Minotaur by Claire WilliamsonDrawing on myths to make sense of our mortality, Claire Williamson’s first collection with Seren is at once heartbreaking and comfortingly human, with the skill to make your spirits soar.

Seen through Williamson’s eyes, a half bull, half man hybrid is nothing compared to the complexities of surviving your average childhood. From the aching tenderness with which she knits memories about her own daughters to the grief and confusion of losing a sibling and mother, Williamson immerses you with such conviction that you can’t help but empathise.

There’s a distinct irreality to much of the carefully conjured imagery, which only serves to heighten the stark honesty of the sensations being shared. Family members long gone return as horses: “She thrusts her black muzzle/ into the cleft of my torso and arm/ and I feel her warmth for the first time/ since she drank that poison.”

Bereavement is a theme throughout, but even in the bleakest contemplations, Williamson manages to find humour in the moments she captures.

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Poetry review – Hope Alt Delete by Nikki Dudley

HopeAlitDelete CoverPoet and author Nikki Dudley’s first full length collection is small, spiky and full of attitude. Rolling out and tuning into a multitude of voices, it feels like a conversation only half-overheard. Tantalising segments glimmer on the page, inviting us to move closer, listening harder, and maybe pocket a shining phrase or two to carry home and examine at our leisure.

Nikki’s energy rustles behind each line, as she plays with familiar words and makes them at once more explicit and more unknown. Sentences stretch in strange, beguiling directions, or curl up tight, and words skip defiantly into slots that seem meant for something else, or break up entirely in ways that insist we regard them anew.

“Can you under-stand me?
Can you over-stand me?”

In other spaces, words are superseded by font, punctuation and blank lines that express everything you need to know. Continue reading

Poetry review – Short Days, Long Shadows by Sheenagh Pugh

Short Days, Long Shadows by Sheenagh PughAs we hurtle towards the time of year when this title becomes ever truer, I’ve been drawn to pick up Sheenagh Pugh’s 12th collection again. I reviewed it for Mslexia’s Sep/Oct/Nov 2014 issue, but with only a handful of words to play with, feel the need to take another, perhaps deeper look.

Sheenagh writes of the tenacity of living things to live while speeding towards their own inevitable demise. Yet her pragmatism makes this a far from melancholy thing. Indeed, she seems to suggest that our mortality should make the joy of the everyday that bit more intense.

In her opening poem, Extremophile, Sheenagh marvels at the ability of life to take hold and thrive in the least hospitable environments: molluscs “in the night of the ocean floor”, lichens “on Antarctic valleys where no rain ever fell.” It sets the tone for a collection celebrating vitality in all forms. Continue reading