Melissa Todd reviews ‘On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea’ by Maggie Harris

 

On Watching cover

 

I had the luck to watch Maggie Harris launch this collection at Tongue Punch, the Tom Thumb theatre’s monthly poetry night in Margate. The lilting cadences of her not-quite-placeable accent gave a glide and a swoop to her words, sending them soaring breathless over the storm-dark seas she refers to over and over in this collection. I fretted the work might not jump off the page with quite so much energy when I read it alone. But I fretted needlessly: her words are quite capable of standing without assistance. It’s perhaps vulgar to mention this of a poetry collection, but heavens, she gives you plenty of words for your wad – 66 solid poems, count em, none that can safely be skipped over, each a delight that deserves to be properly pondered.

The collection is divided by geography, the places that have informed and proved crucial to her life and work – Wales, England, Guyana, Ireland and Elsewhere. Landscape drives her lines, and also informs her identity: the poet seems as divided and torn by place as do her creations. In ‘Not Home’, part of the Wales section, we see her strung out between her various locations, one by birth, one by choice. Wales, in spite of the rugged, aggressive beauty which “flings itself in my face”, she decides she cannot call home.

The soil, the trees, the wind-hewn rocks, are all constant characters in this collection. “These staggered rocks”, “Budding heads of unnamed weeds”; “The wind is cutting and we’re keening after the thrill of watching the land slip away with a sigh.” No sight nor smell of her adopted terrain passes her pen by.

In the opening four part title poem, she spies a lemon bobbing, blowing across the sea, washed to Wales from – who knows where? Instantly we are transported to Maggie’s Guyana childhood, and the lemonade, “sprinkled with Demerara”, which her mother made. Before we say goodbye to the “self-contained cargo ship” at the end of part four, she has summoned plantations  – “I do not remember lemons, but limes”; her aunt – “arms thin as bamboo”; the “split-bellied” “slack-jawed fish” for whom a lemon might be destined. Instead, solitary,  lost between lands, incongruous and purposeless, it sits waiting. “But I/unsure of your heritage/refused you.”

In part two she describes setting the lemon free, “fresh and sharp as a sun-bright wind-cut winter’s day”, charting the waves crash and roar, cascading over the page with a fierce, insistent sensuality that leaves you tasting the salt on your tongue. At last the lemon rolls away on the tide, lost to view.  Instead Harris takes up its journey round the globe, through the landscapes that have sheltered and formed her. And that same sense of incongruity, of being found purposeless, in the wrong place, identity and geography at constant odds, goes with her.

The family members which geographical features unite or divide are also critical to this collection. Harris has the ability to tease out the tiny moments that mean the most: the sound of her mother’s voice “in our home rhythms”, her husband, “full with the love of birds”; “children braving the boundless waves”. Beautiful, touching observations which flavour her images like aromatic herbs. She returns to the sea over and over, her rhythmic, lyrical poetry equally brutal, relentless and awe-inspiring.

In this collection Harris has created a work which endlessly reflects upon itself, not discursively, but within its very fabric. It’s a meditation on the redeeming role of language to those without identity, and makes the crisis of an uncertain sense of self into its central core.

 

 

Melissa Todd is a writer and performer from East Kent and the director of Hags Ahoy Theatre Company. She is currently writing a book with award winning poet Matt Chamberlain.

 

Maggie Harris‘s On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea is published by Cane Arrow Press and available here: http://www.canearrowpress.com/books.htm

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Pat Edwards reviews ‘Rowan Ridge’ by Chris Kinsey

 

 

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I should start by saying that, although I love being out walking in wild places, I am not especially a fan of nature poetry. I always feel that poetry rarely does justice to things of great natural beauty and that I prefer the real thing. However, Chris Kinsey’s writing about the great outdoors is distinctly different. Her work does not just describe grasses, wildflowers, birds and water in close detail; it inserts human warmth, personal story telling and weaves a beguiling magic into the places she takes us.

From the front cover, through the sixty-odd poems in this collection, we are on a journey with Kinsey, who deftly invites us to savour the narrative and accompany her through various stages of her life. To say the poems reflect her love of and affinity with flora and fauna is to miss her humour, political opinions and commentary on the human condition.

Clearly Kinsey, although at times in her life an effective teacher, found being a child in the classroom very boring and deeply confining. The riches of the rivers and hills of Mid Wales were as friends and offered a more meaningful education. In Private Collection, the headmaster seems the only one to recognise this, with his advice to ”keep going for bike rides”.

Kinsey employs many different poetical forms and often plays with how the words look on the page. In Clarach Bay, there is a vertical string of tumbling capital letters spelling out the movement of shingle, and in other poems Kinsey uses spacing to make the words occupy the full page with a rare confidence. There are sonnets, High Summer on a Shropshire Hill, prose poems, Private Collection and Cut, poems in neat three or four line stanzas, and so much more. This willingness to experiment is like a challenge to the reader to take notice and it definitely forces you to keep turning the pages.

My own particular delight is in how Kinsey uses the senses, notably the sounds of everything she encounters. Many of the poems demand to be read aloud to get the cries of curlews, the irritation of the “scratchy biro” in an exam, the fabulous dialogue in Last Train from Aberystwyth. Kinsey gives us drama in False Orchids, so full of the sounds of a medical emergency with its “Beeps. Cheeps. Shrieks”, and the “whischt” of a heron taking off in Confession. Her mastery of alliteration and internal rhyme is effective as in “the standing stones have shrunk, sunk deeper” and the stones “bite through a beard of bracken” in Four Visits to Mitchell’s Fold.

Kinsey demonstrates her wry wit on many occasions. In First Aid she relieves the boredom of “rolling healthy strangers into the recovery position” by clearing her airway “with a draught of deep September”. Occasionally she pokes gentle fun at religion. In Another Church Tour, she muses on how she might “switch a hymn number to 666”, and in To Enlli she acknowledges her pilgrimage would be “not for sainthood, but for words buoyant as fronds of bladderwrack”.

I like the use of quotations from people such as Carlo Levi, WB Yeats, RS Thomas, WH Davies, Milton and others, both as epigraphs and within the body of a poem, to add texture and authority. Kinsey often refers to the cycles and changes of the seasons; she may even use this as a kind of extended metaphor running through the collection to explain how she lives her days. Another theme throughout is her love of faithful companion dogs who are evident both in passing and when whole lines or poems are populated by them. What a joy is her poem Call the Greyhounds with its hyphenated descriptors “Quilt-snuggler, Dream-twitcher, Hearth-gracer”. Perhaps the seasons and her hounds come together in perfect harmony in Watching for Season Change:

“When fresh grass spears turn my greyhounds to grazing gazelles and the great cherry races start, I submit”. The poem finishes with, for me, the most telling lines in the whole collection, “if climate shifts out of calling range we will all lose our footing.”

Kinsey proves her worth in these lines; she is not a sentimental describer of nature but a writer whose own awareness of her surroundings makes us examine our whole relationship with one another, with animals and with the wider world in its modern context. Kinsey is so much more than a fine nature writer, but an observer of the interaction between people and places, sights and sounds, myth and reality.

 

 

Order your copy of Chris Kinsey’s From Rowan Ridge (Fair Acre Press) here: http://fairacrepress.co.uk/shop/from-rowan-ridge-chris-kinsey/

 

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Nick Browne reviews ‘tutti frutti’ by Konstandinos Mahoney

 

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Konstandinos Mahoney’s debut collection fizzes with joie de vivre. Though it doesn’t flinch from the difficult, even the tragic, it’s sexy and life affirming: rich in sensual detail, acute, precisely, expressed observations all underpinned by a wry wit. In Ladyboy ‘A woman’s face and form, bar one small detail,/smooth legged she strides along the Silom Soi.’ In Night Market ‘mosquitos hum and whine, a soft voice purrs,/”Girl sir, want girl? Young girl? Boy Sir? Opium?”’

Tutti frutti  jostles with memorable personalities; their multilingual voices subtly conjured  or directly present in the text. There’s Aunt Aphrodite: ‘Mum’s spoons start disappearing./she’s stuffing them down her drawers,” dad says;/In her defense, I say, “she doesn’t wear any” (Aunt Aphrodite); the woman speaking with ‘martinet briskness,’ (Ring, Ring); the Reverend Doctor ‘how empty the bottle has become/how he’ll fetch another one. (An Evening with the Reverend Doctor); the child whose ‘words sprout in her mouth like milk teeth (Six Hundred) and the crazed voices of Dr Mirabilis and the Brass Wall That Will Save England “et nunc et semper, amen” an owlish friar drones/(while taking selfies for his Instagram)’

 

Mahoney’s geography is equally specific and vividly conveyed: ‘a council flat off the Lillie Road,’ ‘ a grand house in Kononaki’, ‘the dark Mekong’, ‘the slopes of Canlaon Vulcan,’ ‘In Montreal our hostess, gives a Gallic shrug.’ Such details  evoke both a powerful sense of place and an awareness of the transience of experience: the poet is one place then another. The world of this collection is broad and the poet seems to share an adventurous restlessness with his mother who in Athena Nike  ‘… conjures Smyrna in flames, flight to Alexandria, Athens in the occupation, liberation,/civil war, and English soldier, love, London, me,’. Here, Mahoney’s use of a list helps to telescope then expand time within the poem.

 

Elsewhere, repeated emphasis on single details distils the essence and striking singularity of events, people and places so that they live on the page. Mahoney implies, with great economy, a vibrant sensory hinterland within each poem: in The Alexandrian the eponymous hero has ‘ sex with sailors, waiters, stevadores,/muscled torsos, alabaster,/ideal bodies, olive skin,/mechanic’s grease, sweet jasmine’. A merchant seaman passes stalls: ‘With pomeo, pak choi, bitter melon;/shops stocked with jars of fungi, penis/horn…’ inn Aberdeen Street. In Maenad ‘she sets off tout de suite in triple time/Bourree, valeta, mazurka, tarantella’ a line which itself trip sat a dancing pace. This technique is nowhere more successful than in  After access where Mahoney’s use of the concrete creates both humour and pathos through careful juxtaposition: ‘an abandoned sandwich/small crescent bit/[…]/spell in a bucket/yipped down the sink/man on sofa/stiff drink’

 

The poems shift in mood and tone but are unified by Mahoney’s sharp eye for the absurd, the telling detail and the incongruous. In Ladyboy ‘ She lip-synchs Whitney at the Colosseum,/The songs she sings to me are out of tune,’.

Vampire Madonna ends ‘ Once, on a Greek island, I saw a woman call her son/from the sea, “Kostaki! Kostaki!”/He waded out, balding, pot-bellied, hair-chested,/and she wrapped him in a towel and led him away.’

 

These are poems in which Christmas tree are amputees, ‘Stripped bare, peg-legged, balding,’(Twelfth Night,) where bees are ‘Bright as soft chips off a tiger’s back’ ( Beeze,)

where Cherry blossom ‘Comes sudden as ecstatic foam/that blooms on epileptic lips.’ It is a collection full of unexpected turns as well as poems that tremble with desire and loss.

The earliest poems  in tutti frutti deal with burgeoning sexual desire then move on to familial relationships, death and the loss of relationships. Emotion is measured, often ambivalent but all the more powerful for that:

 

‘Holed up in his room, the son,

Too scared to get close,

To look upon in an iron god in rust,

Wary of unknotted tongues,

The crippled tenderness

That still might show.’

(Death of Poseidon )

 

‘He gave me my values,’ she whimpers,

Dabbing moist eyes,

Next morning, they leave –

Earlier than planned.

 

Car turns the corner.

Gone.

(His Values)

 

tutti frutti is as affecting as it is exuberant, the writing as meticulous as it is surprising: a scintillating  and powerful debut.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Nick Browne has taught creative writing at Oxford University ( Continuing Education) Arvon, the British Council and a number of other universities. In addition to publishing short stories and poetry, Nick has published nine novels with Bloomsbury.

Order your copy of tutti frutti (SPM publications by Konstandinos Mahoney here: http://www.spmpublications.com/shop/tutti-frutti-konstandinos-mahoney.html

 

 

 

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Chris Hardy reviews ‘Patina’ by Kavita A. Jindal

 

Patina

 

‘It was just lying here

the poem, the dream

by the window sill’

 

These verses, from ‘After The Recital’, illustrate ‘Patina’s’ atmosphere: life is contingent, magical. Poetry tries to catch that, but is itself strange and hard to find. The poet must be ready –

 

‘if we don’t write it this minute

we will never write it’ (‘Ellipsing, Elapsing’).

 

The poems address a core of concerns, expressed in concise language, using what we can see and feel to suggest what may be impossible to state. In, ‘It was in May ..’, a narrative of loss and sorrow is contained in two lines:

 

‘The day the gutters overflowed

I left Kotapuram Port’.

 

Employing images to express emotion the poem indicates what happened, (‘The long brown train awaited the flutter/ of the guard’s green flag’) and ends by accepting that our needs will not be noticed by time and change:

 

‘It was in May. The sky poured. The gutters overflowed.

I left Kotapuram behind. The trains ran on time.’

 

This shows why Kavita is a prize-winning author of short fiction as well as a poet. Reflections on leaving and departure are also the subject of other poems: in ‘Kabariwala’  a young man, who makes a living collecting materials for recycling says he is, ‘Going foreign’, where there is, ‘free love .. probably England’. He is happy to escape, but in ‘Where Home Was’ another aspect of emigration is considered: a ceiling fan becomes a metaphor for how leaving home and community is an irrevocable separation, ‘nomads have freedom, if no home .. because the voyage is endless’:

 

‘In the whirring blades of this fan

My future was glimpsed; sliced ..

 

.. I saw clearly that I would leave

The past would be segmented; diced’

 

Elsewhere it is not only the émigré who has no home: all of us are only here briefly, something we must defy and embrace –

 

‘ .. our world will drown you

burn you, bury you ..

 

.. when you bow your head the earth

won’t grant you forgiveness ..

 

.. The nomads of the desert remember

 

and they kiss the ground ..

before stamping hard on it to dance.’

(From ‘Such a thing as a cloud ..’)

 

And ‘Capilano Bridge’ describes the terrifying, exciting experience of crossing a swaying suspension bridge, showing we must face the chasm of death, ‘The wintry canyon below waited for us to fall’ .

 

Several poems consider women’s experience. The poet uses wry observation in ‘Beach Apparel’, and in ‘Piccadilly Line Salon’ three women doing their make-up on the tube, ‘ .. peer, pout, slick, flick/ they are good; they are quick’, prompt the narrator to worry about her own, post-breakfast appearance. ‘Faucet’ also starts humorously, ‘A woman/ may buy a tool-kit and know how to use it’, but is then indignant at how women are treated in Saudi Arabia and the Punjab. (See also, ‘For You Who Wave ‘Women For Trump’ Placards’!)

 

The tone in ‘Faucet’ remains ironic and cynical but becomes enraged in ‘Katra’, about two sisters murdered by being hung ‘from the mango tree’.

 

‘My sisters

don’t forgive

bequeath your souls to the breeze

so the perpetrators hear you

carrying with them always

your unforgiveness.’

 

There is something of Shelley and Plath here  – vengeful, righteous fury.

 

Great care is taken over structure: a variety of stanza forms, using blank space, rhyme and half-rhyme and as few and precise words as possible, make a fine collection of elegant, forceful lyrics.

 

One of the most moving poems is ‘My Birth Telegram’, in which the writer’s father learns about his daughter’s birth, expressed in a code agreed with his wife:

 

 

‘If it’s a girl she’ll be a poem, a white bloom ..

At sea, he received the news on board.

 

THE WHITE ROSE ARRIVES STOP
POETRY THRIVES STOP’

 

A note explains, ‘Kavita’ means ‘Poem’ in several Indian languages’. And poetry does arrive in the world with ‘Patina’.

 

 

Chris Hardy‘s poems have been published widely, some have won prizes. His fourth collection is ‘Sunshine at the end of the world’ (Indigo Dreams). He is in LiTTLe MACHiNe. “A guitarist as well as a poet Chris Hardy consistently hits the right note”. Roger McGough.

Order your copy of Patina by Kavita A. Jindal (the wind in the trees, 2019) here: http://www.thewindinthetrees.com/

 

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Wendy Klein reviews ‘Chagall’s Circus’ by William Bedford.

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Chagall’s Circus is set out in five sections with poems alternating between pristine tercets that give each stanza room to breathe, and relatively short blocks of text in contrast.  Poems are headed by quotations from Chagall’s autobiography ‘My Life’ (1923), and facilitate the storytelling.

Chagall, in his long life, experienced some of the most dramatically troubled periods of history.  Bedford writes of it boldly, slipping seamlessly into the painter’s voice.  The poems are never simply descriptions of the paintings; but are set within history and biography.

In the opening poem, Self-Portrait with Brushes (1909), Bedford has extracted the painter’s shtetl childhood, incorporating images:  the flowers, the cow, the fiddler, that run throughout Chagall’s art  — All the poetry of life glows in sadness,

 

and his (father’s) silence is a forest of imagined flowers,

like the cow sleeping on the roof of our barn,

the fiddler leading the bride to her wedding.’

 

The second poem-painting, Grandfather’s House (1923) is of a child-like sketch of a house, with two windows.  The voice is Chagall’s, a boy experiencing the vibrant world around him:

 

I spent my childhood devouring horizons,

seeing angels in the pattern of the carpet.

 

but warned ‘of the hunger hiding in colours, / the graveyards at the end of rainbows.’ Bedford unpicks the folkloric mythology Chagall created of his childhood in Vitebsk, his vibrant colours in marked contrast to the grey reality of poverty and fear experienced by Shtetl Jews.

 

The poem, Red Nude Sitting Up (1908), references Chagall’s romantic and sexual awakening:

 

my canvas was all nipples and angels

and despite the wild nights of St Petersburg

I painted my red nude sitting in Vitebsk.

 

All roads, inevitably, lead back over his shoulder to Vitebsk.

 

In the final lines, Bedford is the painter ‘covering the canvas in a horse blanket / to protect the villagers from their own fear,’ noting that his family ‘always preferred photographs.’  One recognises the stiff family portraits of that period.

 

In section 2, ‘The Paris Years’, the poet-painter takes on the art establishment labelling Chagall’s work against religion and poverty as ‘surreal.’

 

Yes, the man has the head of a bull,

and the girl wraps herself round his shoulder.

You can see that any night in Montmartre, (To my Betrothed, 1911)

 

In the following poem, I and the Village (1911), Bedford builds on its epigraph: ‘But perhaps my art is the art of a lunatic:’ He writes: ‘My clownish inner world was all I needed …

 

I have collected these fragments from my dreams

the paintbrush fingering clouds’ (ah, fingering clouds!)

 

concluding with: ‘The poet naming what the painter painted. (the poet here, Chagall’s-friend, Blaise Cendrars)

 

That was not what I meant at all

My art may be the art of a lunatic,

but Surrealism is only the name of an era.

 

I love the way the poet Cendrars acts as a counter-balance between the poet Bedford and the painter in critiquing the process between art and poetry and art.  The effect is of a history of history within a history of art where politics, religion and love make up the Chagall circus:

 

But I had the Louvre inside me. The Fiddler

became The Praying Jew, the praying Jew

became The Smolensk Newspaper,

The Feast of Tabernacles became my feast. (The Fiddler (1912-1913)

 

The penultimate poem, Couple on a Red Background, references the painter’s second marriage to Valentina Brodsky.  Bedford uses some lyrical description: ‘The man is tenderness, / his arm, the arm of nature’s protection,

 

The painter-poet voices join in unison, leaving us with ‘Stalin fiddling with his black moustaches, / Hitler saluting the gods in his mind.’

 

This collection is a banquet for the senses, which in other hands than Bedford’s, could be overwhelming.  That it is not, begins with the poet’s skill in setting up a sound, containing layout.  The narrative, no matter how intense and detailed in its content, tells the story of a life with grace and precision.  Here is a book that that can be consumed with relish once and returned to with pleasure again and again.

 

 

 

 

 

U.S.-born Wendy Klein has published three collections:  Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) from Cinnamon Press, and Mood Indigo (2016) from Oversteps Books.  She is currently working on a selected and assorted pamphlets.

 

You can order your copy of William Bedford’s, Chagall’s Circus, (Dempsey & Windle) here: https://www.dempseyandwindle.com/william-bedford.html

 

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Claire Booker reviews Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collection ‘London Undercurrents’

 

Image result for Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire's collection 'London Undercurrents'

 

For five years, Hilaire and Joolz Sparkes have been on a mission to excavate the hidden histories of London’s long-forgotten women and celebrate their lives in poetry. Thanks to in-depth archival research (partly funded by an Arts Council Grant) London Undercurrents offers a cornucopia of female experience across four centuries, from spirited cockneys and land girls, to factory workers and women in service. The result is both fascinating and educational.

 

The poems speak clearly from each page in generous point size, with only a letter S or N to indicate the poem’s provenance. For the curious, Joolz Sparkes has written the north London poems, and Hilaire, the south-of-the-river poems. But it’s quite possible to relish these stories without needing to attribute authorship. It’s a truly collaborative project – not just between two poets, but across time, and between each poet and her subject.

 

I decided to read the poems right through without interruption. They flowed, dare I say it, like the river that runs through the whole collection.  Reference notes at the back are handy. Some are small prose poems in their own right. Others reveal the journey the poet took to find her subject. A few divulge shocking information. Coining money was a capital offence, for example, but I had no idea that male counterfeiters were hanged, whilst their female counterparts were burned at the stake.

 

So what of the poems themselves? They are largely free-verse, with a handful of form poems, including a classy villanelle about a missionary wife; a delightful concrete poem across two pages which ‘shows’ a tightrope walker crossing the Thames; a ballad in rhyming quatrains about a gypsy encampment; and two sonnets about work in a fountain pen factory.

 

Many of the poems carry the rhythms of natural speech, creating a deceptive simplicity that is wholly appropriate to their subject matter. Mostly they’re written in the first person.

 

A French Huguenot plants asparagus in ‘First Crop’ – “fervently/ larding the beds/ with manure, praying/ for engorgement/ embonpoint.” In ‘Sacked’, a girl who “never pilfered, never dibbed/ a wet finger in a sugar bag/ for a sneaky suck,” is caught dancing the Charleston on the worktops of Cook’s Confectioners.

 

The sheer escapism of cinema is captured in the aspirations of a 40s housewife in ‘Hollywood’ Comes to Holloway’: “I’ll style my hair like Joan’s, drape over/ the settee bought on HP, dream of the man/ who doesn’t leave his socks on the floor/ or try it on when he’s back from the boozer.”  ‘Dido Belle Sits for Her Portrait’ introduces one of the black women to feature in this collection: “Father shipped me/ half-slave, across/ waves of guilt.” Dido, the natural daughter of a slave owner, is “full-placed/ in an artist’s/ composition yet/ kept at the edge/ of the real canvass.”

 

There’s fun too – plenty of it. The ‘Lady Cyclist’ in Battersea Park, circa 1895, cares “not a fig/ for my flushing cheeks/ my runaway hair/ the flash of azaleas/ nor the gentlemen who stare.”  And there’s rebellion under the surface in ‘Clippie, Top Deck’: “I won’t be cooped below stairs/ when I’ve had the run of London. . . .Whatever peace brings, from here on in/ I’m polishing nothing but my own boots./ Step up now./ Hold tight./ Ding ding! Ding ding!

 

Some poems tell a tough tale. In ‘Cat and Mouse’ a suffragette waits “to cast off knee welts, for gums/ to bud skin torn by metal jaws.” The brilliantly titled ‘Marking The Sheets’ offers us a 13 year old apprentice laundress who spends 9 hours a day stitching household codes into sheets, then finds her own sheets marked “for the first time, a fistful of cramp/in your belly, staining the sheets,/ helpless to staunch the flow.”

 

Back-street abortions, lead poisoning, sit-ins by Gujarati workers, frost fairs on the Thames, 18th century lavender harvests, knitting for the Spanish Republicans – wherever women have tilled, toiled, laughed, suffered or survived, Hilaire and Sparkes follow, with empathy and imagination.

 

Very occasionally the vernacular tips towards cliché, but capturing speech patterns across 400 years is no easy matter.  The poets have tapped into a rich array of character and circumstance and transformed it, with exuberance and clarity, into poetry which is fresh and accessible. The design is vivid and inviting – and at £10, London Undercurrents is surely ludicrously good value. Exactly the kind of book you can give friends and know it’ll be a hit. That’s Christmas sorted, then.

 

 

 

 

Claire Booker lives in Brighton. Her poetry pamphlet Later There Will Be Postcards is out with Green Bottle Press ((www.greenbottlepress.com/our-books).and her work has appeared in Ambit, Magma, The Rialto, The Spectator and Stand among others. She blogs at www.bookerplays.co.uk

 

More details about London Undercurrents and copies of the book are available at www.hollandparkpress.co.uk

 

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Alison Graham reviews ‘While I Yet Live’ by Gboyega Odubanjo

 

 

 

 

While I Yet Live begins sudden and bold; the speaker of ‘Obit.’ Announcing

i will die in London in the neighbourhood
i grew up in…

When the poet writes:

…sweat
-ed tongues and pidgin song to cease

Stumbling is put upon the reader’s tongue by the cut of the line. There is an exactness in the handling of the clipped, high ‘i’s of pidgin and spreading low of ‘tongues’ and ‘song’. I think this balancing act, of speakers always just on the brink of becoming, is in part why the pamphlet is exhilarating. In ‘John 19:28’, restraint and expanse work in tandem to create an ecstatic feeling. The reader anticipates entire sentences and space on the page denies these, in

of me       please       everything    on me

Only by letting go of expectation and leaning in on loosening syntax can you proceed through the poem. There is a movement forward by relinquishing. I the reader pass through lighter, more motile. With regards to the how the speakers of these poems move, I like how attuned Odubango is to his speakers invoking themselves, often with Biblical urgency. The poet outlines his subjects by writing of these subjects outlining themselves. In

you tar
me so

“you” comes before “me”; the ‘I’ is dependent on you to begin. These lines are dense with vowels, but none of the same; it is a moment of  differences held together. The gathering of varying things is shown again in ‘We’; the self-negating of

talking nothing
but nothing but

brought together under “my own name”. There is no shying from contradictions, or falter. It is said because the speaker wants to say. Odubanjo is closely attuned to spoken speech outside poetry; to everyday conversation, and how to bring it through into poetry, inflecting it newly. In ‘Ineffable Name’, the poet makes “cos” the line’s point of orbit, patterning sound around it, just as it turns the line casually.

you don’t know no more cos he had your name

The sequence itself is one of differences held together. I am struck by the range of forms. There is the found poetry of ‘I’. Here, Enoch Powell’s speech is appropriated. It is broken open, into a river that breaks “intractable” from its course. There is the blank verse of ‘Watershed’, the poem writing its own rules just as the “we” within explores and finds

…cds our parents kept
in cabinets

The poem is studded with detail; the nostalgic texture of “soft carpet on toes”, the precise cultural marker of “when michael sang ma makoosa”. Blank verse is rendered more sparsely in ‘Songs in the Key of Terror’. Repetition beats dynamically amongst this pared-back language, as in

so petite mort
so rumpunchblooded
so in the flesh

In these poems, the speakers seem to exist, suspended, just before they come into singing, and when Odubanjo begins singing through them, these ‘I’s start to gather themselves into bodies ardent to be alive.

 

 

 

 

Order your copy of  Gboyega Odubanjo’s While I Yet Live (Bad Betty Press)  here: https://badbettypress.com/product/while-i-yet-live-gboyega-odubanjo/

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