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.”

Continue reading

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.”

Continue reading

Enter Mslexia’s poetry competitions

Button on Kilve Beach cr Judy DarleyMslexia’s Women’s Poetry Competition and Pamphlet Competition are open for entries of poetry pamphlets and individual poems.

Both competitions have a closing date of 6th December 2021.

Mslexia Poetry Competition

The winner of the single poem category will receive £2,000.

Second Prise is £500.

Third prize is £250.

There is also a new Unpublished Poet Prize of £250, which will be awarded to the best poem by an unpublished poet.

The four winners, plus 16 additional finalists will be published in Mslexia.

Award-winning poet Pascale Petit will judge entries.

The entry fee is £10 for up to three poems.

The winner and finalists will be announced on 1 March 2022.

Mslexia Pamphlet Competition

The winner of the pamphlet category will get £250 plus publication by Seren Books.

A selected poem from the winning pamphlet will be published in Mslexia.

The entry fee is £20 per pamphlet.

The judge Amy Wack, is Poetry Editor at Seren Books and started her career with Seren in 1989. She was reviews editor for Poetry Wales before becoming commissioning poetry editor.

The winner and finalists will be announced on 1 September 2022.

You can find full details of how to enter at www.mslexia.co.uk.

Got an event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw attention to? Send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud (dot) com.

Poetry review – Other Women’s Kitchens by Alison Binney

Other Women's Kitchens book coverThe winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2020, the 23 poems in this small but powerful volume capture the frustrations of being gay in a straight-centred world, but also the joys to be found in understanding who you truly are and having the courage to seek and accept love.

Opening with a prose poem titled The way you knew, Alison Binney speaks of the utter innateness of self-knowledge with a light yet poignant touch that rings throughout the pamphlet, making you smile while simultaneously feeling your breath catch in your throat.

Keeping the tone buoyant, Binney launches into Lesbianism by numbers, which resembles a found poem pieced from click bait: “9 awkward things that happen when you’re the only lesbian at work (…) 16 lesbian power couples from history who got shit done…”

The L word digs deeper at a soreness rubbed raw by a thousand unthinking comments and slurs as a child deciphers clues about her own nature. The quietly emotional response to the ‘L word’ of the title spoken as an insult reveal a quiet, burning shame that’s deeply moving: “Later it flicked like a spitball/ from the back of the class, and slipped down the nape of my neck./ If you wiped it away they knew it had stuck./ I kept it under my tongue like a piece of old gum/ brought out to chew in the dark…”

Continue reading

Poetry review – 100 Poems to Save the Earth

100 Poems to Save the Earth coverHow could a single poem, or 1000, hope to save our world? That’s the question laid out by Seren in their latest anthology, 100 Poems to Save the Earth. In 127 pages they answer time and again – through revealing the ecstatic beauty of nature, and its perilous fragility, as expressed here by poets ranging from Simon Armitage to Sheenagh Pugh to Alice Oswald.

The anthology’s editors, Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, state in the Introduction that “we live in a time of unprecedented crisis”, but that poetry “calls us to stay awake, to find the words to describe how it feels, to sing to what hurts, to reach out, to attend more closely and with more care, (…) to see all things as our kin.”

In Chorus, David Morley reminds us how “The swallow unmakes the Spring and names the Summer” while “The bullfinches feather-fight the birdbath into a bloodbath”. It’s a vivid reminder both of the majesty of nature, and the characteristics we’re prone to share.

Some of the poems ache with such exquisiteness that I felt a lump in my throat as I read. Carrie Etter’s Karner Blue is one such work, with its echoing refrain of “Because” drawing you in: “Because its wingspan is an inch./ Because it requires blue lupine./ Because to become blue it has to ingest the leaves of a blue plant.” And once we’ve marvel at the wonders that comprise this butterfly, the damning line is served: “Because it has declined ninety per cent in fifteen years.”

Yearning lines abound throughout, urging us into wild spaces: “I go and lie down where the wood drake/ rests in his beauty on the water” (The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry); “Stride out with your boots on, or, better still/ barefoot, and be inside the wind a while” (Water of AE, Em Strang).

Meanwhile, Isabel Galleymore’s Limpet & Drill-Tongued Whelk devotes 14 lines to seaside molluscs, describing a limpet as: “moon textured, the shape of light/ pointing through frosted glass.”

Elsewhere there are conversations with and between trees, and “redwoods veined with centuries of light” (Earth, John Burnside), while Kei Miller brings us the world’s palette in To Know Green from Green. In Sean Hewitt’s Meadow, loss of a loved one tangles in with “the beehive’s sultry/ murmur” as the poet watches “each floret and petal/ inscribe life in its colour.”

Nature in this context offers both consolation and affirmation.

The anthology contains countless lines of awe regarding our wild neighbours, from fungus to octopus, woven in with notes of foreboding. One of the most chilling for me vaults from Sina Queyras’ From ‘Endless Inter-states’: 1, in which the narrator offers “coffee, hot while there is still/ coffee this far north, while there is still news/ to wake up to, and seasons”.

There’s humour too, as in Rhian EdwardsThe Gulls are Mugging and Samuel Tongue’s Fish Counter, which offers “Wise lumps of raw tuna”, “Fish fingers mashed from fragments of once-fish”, and “Hake three-ways”, before delivering the warning: “Choose before the ice melts.”

Near the end, in Dom Bury’s Threshold, we uncover the urgency beneath these poems – these declarations of love, of alarm, of sadness amid beauty, as the poet shares the realisation “That we have to be taken to the edge of death/ to choose, as one, how we live.”

A thought-provoking, at times disconcerting, occasionally heartbreaking, but more often veneration-inspiring hoard of nature-observations, this anthology speaks the message we all need to hear: we must do more than just notice nature to save it and ourselves, but noticing is a good first step.

100 Poems to Save the Earth, edited by Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, is published by Seven Books and available to buy here.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com.

Poetry review – The Estate Agent’s Daughter by Rhian Edwards

The Estate Agents Daughter book coverOpening her collection with the title poem, Rhian Edwards immediately sets the tone: wryly humorous, unabashed, yet slightly self-depreciating, as she describes herself in the terms of a property complete with a ”white dogleg staircase”. With lines such as “Her writing desk has been nudged to the brink/ of the bay” and “cable-knit cardigans draped across Ikea chairs come as standard”, I feel I’m gaining an instantly relatable image of the poet in Part One.

‘House Share’ is a clear demonstration of Edwards’ observational acuity as we find ourselves in the midst of an apartment that is “a dog-eared novel, laced in saliva” where a lethargic Labrador “pricks up/ her envelope flap of an ear” before collapsing “into a coil of herself.” It’s so vividly written that I feel I know this dozy dog and the affection both felt by and towards her.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Your indie Christmas list

Christmas gifts by Judy DarleyI’ve been reading and rereading books from numerous independent presses recently. Here’s my pick of the titles I believe warrant a place on your festive wishlist.

Nia coverNia by Robert Minhinnick

Published by Seren

Written in a style that verges on stream of consciousness, this dream book follows protagonist Nia around her home down fringed by sand dunes, underground and through her memories. With no speech marks in place, it’s occasionally uncertain what is spoken and what’s thought, while some conversations drop all attempts at signposting who speaking. It’s akin to eavesdropping in a place where voices are murmurs blanketed by a sea breeze – curiously soothing. Minhinnick is probably best known for his poetry, and his innate lyricism glows throughout. “Dad down on his knees pulling away the ivy. The ivy leaving scars, that’s how close it clung. I can still see the nettle blisters on the backs of his hands. All these white bumps. Like the ivy scars on the stone.” There is threat here, at times, but the painterly scenes make this a far gentler read than the hint of plot supposes. Ideal for early mornings in bed while the central heating clanks into life.THE COLOUR OF THINGS UNSEEN cover

The Colour of Things Unseen by Annee Lawrence

Published by Aurora Metro Books

An unerring respect for the spaces required for cultural differences underlines Annee Lawrence’s novel. From Java to Sydney, she paints a young artist’s blossoming understanding of the world as he travels from his rural village to art college in Australia. Yet, the real journey is far more internal, as Adi grasps at his own expectations, particularly with regards to women, and learns that there’s more than one route to follow for a relationship to thrive.

Adi is a character who is difficult to know, as Lawrence keeps him at arms’ length. His emotions always take on an abstract sense that not only reflects his own artwork, but illustrates how he feels as he navigates Australian values, so at odds with the ones he has grown up with.

Lawrence’s descriptions of Adi’s painting process, as well as of the locations in Java and Australia, make this an evocative novel that will inspire the urge to travel and discover the richness of cultural diversity for yourself.

Read Annee Lawrence’s guest post for SkyLightRain on how writing connects us across cultures and borders.

The False River coverThe False River by Nick Holdstock

Published by Unthank Books

“It had ben a year of four funerals and a poisoned cat,” writes Nick Holdstock in his story ‘New Traffic Patterns May Emerge’. “His flat had been burgled; his car stolen; he’d been punched in face by a stranger. His perfect girlfriend Rachel had tried to stab him, then broken up with him by text.”

Don’t you want to read on?

This story trembles with the narratives that ripple beyond its confines, sometimes overtly with lines such as “Fifty years later, as he walks through an airport, one of the huge lights will drop from the ceiling and miss him by only a foot.” Holdstock has harnessed the omniscient viewpoint with an enviable aplomb, walking a tightrope between characters that keeps your focus taut. It’s a skill evident throughout his debut collection.

She Was A Hairy Bear, She Was A Scary Bear coverShe Was A Hairy Bear, She Was A Scary Bear by Louisa Bermingham

Published by Valley Press

For something entirely different, Valley Press’ most experimental title to date should tick a few boxes. Not quite poetry, and not quite prose, the story of a fuzzy, passionate bear succeeds in covering issues around depression, self-doubt and the power of embracing our inner bear. Every page features author and artist Louisa Bermingham’s quirky mixed media artwork, with line drawings and paintings brought to life with bundles of her own hair trimmings, not to mention elastic bands and other household scraps.

Don’t let the hair put you off! Our Hairy Scary Bear is a fierce, vulnerable and entirely lovable heroine who will remind you that it’s healthy to have the occasional emotional outburst, but that you might do better to fight fire with water in tricky situations. Plus it’s beautifully printed, so there’s no risk at all of bear hair ending up in your tea.

the everumblethe everrumble by Michelle Elvy

Published by Ad Hoc Fiction

Without a doubt, this is my favourite book of 2019, if not the decade. Just thinking about it, my head fills with its colours and textures.

Described as a small novel in small forms, this book is far larger than the sum of its parts. I know people who devoured it in a single indulgent sitting, but for me it was so quenching that I drip-fed it to myself – page after page, moment by moment. It offered me a place to return to for peace, quietude and stillness, and now that I’ve read it from cover to cover, I know I’ll return again.

Delivered in a series of flashes, served up with plenty of space to hold the words and ideas safe, this is a book of contemplative joy.

Author Michelle Elvy has somehow conjured a multi-sensory experience through her writing, and, even more powerfully, compressed sensations onto the page that will eke into your everyday life.

Weaving in dreamscapes with glimpses into a long life, set against geography and literary musings in the form of notes on books that have captured Zettie’s attention, the everrumble is a glorious odyssey of one woman’s exploration of connectivity.

Read my full review of the everrumble by Michelle Elvy.

A coppice of poetry

Three Seren poetry titlesI recently experienced the joy of arriving home to a package full of poetry collections from the inestimable Seren Books. It got me wondering what a collective noun for poetry collections should be. A library seems too literal, so I began thinking about what poetry offers – how it provides the space to pause and reflect before carrying on with the busy act of living. So, a poetry collection is a coppice, in the forest of everyday life.

Each of the collections on my doorstop hummed with its own resonance.

Footnotes to Water cover

Footnotes to Water by Zoë Skoulding immediately rose to the surface, in part thanks to the quirky duck feet displayed on the cover as though glimpsed through ice. This quiet collection shines with Skoulding’s finesse – she plays with shape, form, punctuation and alliteration to paint an impression of rivers’ movements against your skull. Throughout, we’re invited to view water in its relation to human feats of engineering, and to compare our own dances and dalliances to that of a river, as in Observation Chamber, “where no light falls surface/ except * in pin-pricks on red water*” Gorgeous.

Skoulding writes of our attempts to confine and control rivers, and of the floods that follow rainfall: “wicking up cracks in plaster/ where the houses drink it in.”

Her rivers mirror our bodies; each striving to speak and make themselves heard, and each craving to explore beyond their outer edges. There’s something ancient in the descriptions surfacing here, even as Skoulding’s sculpted lines tether modernity: “There are/ three days of gathering clouds/ and the cheapest is free.”

The collection is divided into three parts too, with Adda, focused on Bangor’s covered river, followed by Heft, a word meaning, Skoulding explains in Notes & Acknowledgements, “localised knowledge passed on through generations of sheep” or “habitat”. At once, we’re redirected from webbed feet to hooves, celebrating the “twitching flanks”, “wild primrose eyes” and “the silences between.”

Part three is Teint, dreamt up during a Paris residency where the theme of habitat and hidden rivers is continued with the idea of movement, of sound and repetition carrying us back and forth and forth again, so that progress towards our conclusion is barely discernible yet inevitable. Each of these begins with what Skoulding is not describing: “Not flooded marsh but ice/ with skaters engraving/ continuous serifs/ on the halted waters.”

Skoulding examines how we sit against the world around us, as well as how we strive to make it fit around us.

A Second Whisper cover

A Second Whisper by Lynne Hjelmgaard takes us on a different sort of journey: “It opens with the sweet lapping/ of water on a rock/ and closes gently where the tide/ has nowhere to run.”

A deep tenderness ripples through evocations of quiet intimacy. Examinations of time, memory and seasons thread stanzas with subtle fragrances – the smell of yellow autumn leans and the scent of old paper anchor hints of a richly sensuous life. There is humour in the fondness captured here: a baby magpie described as a “little trollop”, daffodils are “still hibernating”, and rats leave teethmarks “on apples and soap.”

Simultaneously, seemingly light lines shiver with feeling: “whenever it rains/ now or anywhere the rain/ stops everything/ to think of you.”

In Once, Hjelmgaard remembers a long friendship: “Now we write careful letters/ as if they are to lost versions/ of ourselves.” To me this describes the entire collection of thoughtful, inward-reaching poems, and we are privileged to be privy to them.

The Black Place, titled after Georgia O’Keefe’s name for a beloved yet desolate strip of land, is Tamar Yoseloff’s unflinching look at the subjects we shy from. Beginning with The C Word, “Not to be confused with the other c word/ that cuts at both ends”, the poet lets us know at once that the contents may challenge and delight in equal measure.

Touching on fairytales and mythology, Yoseloff treads a line where glib and godly rest side by side: “There is a God,/ at least a guy who’d buy a round/ for the lads outside The Pineapple.”

Elsewhere, in Darklight, Yoseloff harnesses words like the shooting stars she describes as making “a sound like a scratch in vinyl”. “Our lives are brief”, she reminds us, “like the bank of candles in cathedrals, each a flame for someone loved.”

It’s a comfort to cling to those stanzas as Yoseloff draws us onwards towards Cuts, and has us consider the bleakest of prophesies: “I’m an open book/ I want to close.”

There’s beauty in this collection, trussed to hope and a hunger for life. Perfect for days when dusk insists on arriving early.

All three titles are available to buy from Seren.

Seen or read 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. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

Poetry review – Afternoons Go Nowhere by Sheenagh Pugh

Afternoons Go NowhereTime, in Sheenagh Pugh’s hands, has a tendency to turn gleefully slippery. In Afternoons Go Nowhere, her tenth collection, Pugh turns her poetic sorcery to humanity, history, geology, nature, and the spaces between all those magical things.

Silken strings of words offer up glorious catches: bewildered kings, harangued statues, a lord’s horse, a  bored husband building cairns, and monks speculating about saints exhale alongside bus passengers “postponing goodbyes”, not to mention glacial water scooping “a hollow in limestone.” In Pugh’s eyes, it seems, each of these has equal gravitas.

Lit by Pugh’s keen gaze, every plant, stone, animal or person has the potential to grow playful or impatient, coy, attention-seeking, or ashamed. Unexpected characters emerge humming tunes that seem familiar, but which curl with their own original lilt.

Continue reading