Christine Whittemore reviews ‘Ghosting For Beginners’ by Anna Saunders




Ghosting for Beginners’ amusing title poem plays on the idea of social-media “ghosting,” the act of going absent online after the end of a relationship, but there are many ghosts and hauntings in Anna Saunders’ fifth collection.

The poet’s delicate touch evokes the gauzy blur” of other-worldly encounters. A jealous lover returns shroud-bound from his suicide, and hovers over his beloved and her new paramour: All his sins are exfoliated now, his new skin/light as bible paper, lucent as rain.

These poems show not only how ghosts touch us, but also how that ectoplasmic life might feel; they lead us across the shifting boundaries between the seen and the unseen.

Ghosts are not all human, limbed and familiar;” there are other essences too. And who will speak of the ghost of the rain?”  Or of “the spirit of the air—the grassy fragrance/ plaintive amid the pollution…?

Hinted presences are almost tangible in this ravishing yet precise language.

There is variety of subject, tone, and approach, from humour to poignancy. Throughout, there’s loss, and sorrow; a lost father’s voice somehow becomes that of a bird, in the urgent song of a creature/asserting its claim on a darkening earth.”

In this poem and others, that claim of the living contrasts with the ghostliness in rich physicality: the body’s incense, smouldering.” For “Aren’t we all wild garlic/rooted into the dark woods/offering ourselves to the gods,/cowering from rough paws,/blazing our pure stars?

Whilst the rough paws buffet us, these poems delight and sustain.








Christine Whittemore is the author of Inscription, a novel. (Sowilo Press, 2015) and  Sudden Arabesquepoems(Oversteps Books, 2017)



You can order your copy of Ghosting For Beginners by Anna Saunders (Indigo Dreams, 2018) here:



Read More

Matthew Tett reviews ‘More than you were’ by Christina Thatcher




Losing a parent is hard and when it happens, it’s tough. It brings a glut of unexpected emotions and without a doubt, More than you were, Christina Thatcher’s debut poetry collection, deals with the death of her father in a beautiful, heartfelt way.

Thatcher, an American Ph.D student at Cardiff University, has written More than you were as a response to her father David’s death, in 2013, from a drugs overdose. Not knowing the deceased does not make the collection any less impactful. In fact, the poems deal with Thatcher’s grief in a multitude of ways from constructing her father’s obituary through to cleaning out his apartment.

In the opening poem, ‘First Drafts’, Thatcher explores the process of writing a suitably respectful piece for her father – and how, after she’d ‘read hundreds of them…’ she didn’t want her father ‘to look bad next to the other obituaries’. Further in the past is ‘Day One’ – and the room being ‘like molasses’ is poignant: time takes on a new meaning. It’s not something that can be imagined, or easily understood.

Interspersed throughout are ten ‘lessons’ – learning points, often focusing on what Thatcher learnt from her father, or has realised since he died. In ‘Lesson #3’, David Thatcher told his daughter that ‘some things were never mean to be loved.’ In ‘Lesson #5’, he kills eels, en masse, and explains this as a kind gesture. But learning is not just restricted to the ‘lessons’. In ‘There’, Thatcher realises how much her father was to her – ‘the everything in that room’. The disconnect of the nouns ‘expert, alchemist, front man composing lasagna’ show how much he meant to her – and how much fathers mean to many of us. In ‘Anticipation’, the focus is less positive – waiting for something that never comes. Thatcher was desperate for ‘the taste of cinnamon’ chewing gum but such desire was futile. It is fascinating how the adult memory can hang on to glimpses into the yesteryear of childhood. If only all responsible adults followed through with their promises.

Thatcher’s poems are short, often one-stanza affairs, each one conveying strong emotions that only the bereaved can ever fully understand. ‘Shaking hands at a funeral’ is reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’ – the main difference being Thatcher writes about death’s impact on an adult, whereas Heaney wrote as a child. But the fall out (‘death would strip me, leave me barren, like winter’) is the same. The tragedy of getting older, with funeral attendance being the norm, is clear in ‘Multiples’. In ‘Sharing’, a warmer sense is felt – where Thatcher debates where to scatter her father’s ashes, listing beautiful potential locations in her adopted Wales.

What really rings true in this collection is the contrast between what was and what could have been. In ‘Out’, there is a strong element of wondering – with reference to ‘bottles of Bud’. One can’t help feeling empty with the thought of wasted opportunities. But this doesn’t stop Thatcher reminiscing – particularly when it is the anniversary of her father’s birthday in ‘When you sneak up on me’. The longevity of grief’s impact is evident here, as it is in ‘Echo’ with its sense of finality – with ‘Everything being paid up.’ After a loved one dies, there is a lot to organise, alongside the grieving and emotions. Even though such jobs can be unwanted and tempting to ignore, their completion leaves a sense of everything being done.

Towards the end of the collection, Thatcher reflects on the present day. In ‘On learning to help myself’, she uses the analogy of ‘luck’ – and that she doesn’t have to rely on this in order to have a good life. Finality is confronted in ‘Your estate has closed’ – and in ‘Resilience’, accepting the truth (and internalising the loss) is tackled. The concluding poem, ‘Finding You’, sees Thatcher returning to one of her father’s old haunts and the impact a guitar has on her. It is a reminder to us all that the small things in life can cause the strongest emotions.

Having recently lost my own father, albeit in very different circumstances, More than you were hit home. The collection should be read as a whole, such are the effects of grief. Thatcher candidly writes about the myriad ways that a parent’s death can affect a child – and no matter the situation, her writing is beautifully executed and deserves to be absorbed slowly, with consideration and a sense of peace.



Matthew Tett is a freelance writer and teacher based in the south-west of England. He is Reviews Editor for NAWE’s Writing in Education and writes for various publications, including the Cardiff Review.


You can buy your copy of More than you were by Christina Thatcher here:

Read More

Jonathan Edwards reviews ‘Better Houses’ by Susie Wild


Susie Wild’s Better Houses announces a new, highly distinctive and exciting poetic voice. The subjects of this collection – a boyfriend mowing the lawn, an ill pet, a pub crawl – are universal, and give the poems an immediate accessibility. The author’s balance between opening the door for the reader, and then hitting them with the poem’s highly original approach to language and a slightly slant way of looking at the world, make these poems highly entertaining and rewarding.

One thing I was immediately struck by was the collection’s management of shorter poems. ‘The Elephant Fayre’ tells the story of someone deciding to run away at the age of six. The great title, and the poem’s opening, introduce the strong idea with admirable economy: ‘You were in a hurry to leave/home. The summer of ’85, and you were/six.’ From here, we move into a distinctive linguistic approach, which captures childhood perfectly: ‘you raced/flutterbies. Certain you belonged/at this festival of gadabouts…’ Most importantly, the poem has a great ending which really makes it stand up and live: after the runaway child has ‘found/a new family – a gypsy/caravan to call/your own,’ we have this marvellous last sentence: ‘They paid you/in ice cream, then – the traitors –/they gave you back.’

This great formula, of accessible ideas, distinctive language and a telling ending, enlivens a number of poems across the collection. ‘Thirst’ opens with a highly dramatic sentence:


My head is under

the surface,

my grandfather’s hand


holding it down for 1, 2, 3,

a punishment for something,

in the flooding shallows


of the stream.


From here we move into some lovely language – the sea ‘Spits me out grainy,/briny-eyed, starfish-limbed’ – before a jump forwards in time gives us this stunning ending: ‘Now I sleep beside a tumbler,/liquid lapping the brim.’


‘Delivery,’ similarly, begins with an everyday event, and these reflections on fertility:


When she collects,

spilling news

of her purchase –


a changing mat –

I realise she’s pregnant. Not

fat, our Kiwi at no. 23.


The opposite of what

people say about me, blooming

with my desk job diet.


The skilful shift in approach in the final sentence offers us a wonderfully evocative image, opening the poem out, and giving it a lingering power which has us coming back to it:


See the baby-grows

in rank: empty soldiers

on the washing line out back.


These exemplary shorter poems are complemented by the more sustained pieces in this artfully-sequenced collection. I was particularly taken by ‘Prep,’ a moving description of experiences at boarding school. Alongside a number of poems, including ‘The Lash Museum,’ the poem showcases the poet’s wonderfully clear eye for childhood memories. The emotive power of ‘Prep’ is maximised by its unusual focus. The poem’s first section concentrates on the trunk the speaker used to carry possessions back and forth to school, while the second section focuses on food. The poem is a sort of memoir-by-luggage-and-food then, and this unusual choice of focus really disciplines material which could be sentimental into something which is really powerful. The poem’s second section has some excellently-observed memories of childhood: ‘the thrill of Saturday movies in the boy’s halls, the gift/of changing the gears on the minibus drive/back.’ The first section is perhaps even stronger, giving that sense of lugging so much – clothes, relationships, anxiety – back and forth from home to school, which is so much a part of that experience. I loved this description of the trunk: ‘Wine-coloured, brass-tacked,/back then the trunk puff-chested a term’s worth of bedded/un-belonging.’ That verb ‘puff-chested,’ to describe the crammed trunk, but also the pride of the child heading off to school, is a delight.

‘The Art of War,’ a similarly sustained piece, draws on the famous Chinese military treatise to explore the realities of a contemporary relationship. The role of technology in love these days combines with the military vocabulary to strong effect: ‘I…wait for the artillery fire//of texts.’ The poem works through the anxieties of modern relationships – a borrowed laptop, speculation over engagement rings – towards this highly effective final sentence: ‘Deleting my browser history, I gather/the weapon of myself.’

Arguably even more intriguing are the two extracts we are given from a longer sequence, ‘Sex Change Disco.’ The first fragment is full of interesting and evocative lines: ‘a bashful Jack-the-lad smirk turns Jane,’ ‘I’m swan, laying belly to riverbed,/to wet stone, wriggling//in the hour between the dog and the wolf.’ The second extract opens with these descriptions and invitation:
All the creatures of the dark visit to take a look

at her. She is illuminated – a city species – in a glowing


glass box. See her dance. See her flap




This fragment works towards another powerful and troubling ending:


They ask ‘boy or girl?’

We might have to dissect her to tell.


The notes at the back of the book tell us that these exciting fragments are part of a longer sequence, a collaboration with an artist, and one thing I wondered was whether a website link could be provided to allow the reader to see the whole sequence. In this sense, ‘Sex Change Disco’ is representative of Better Houses as a whole, as, like all the best collections, it leaves the reader wanting more. The marriage of clarity and accessibility with the highly distinctive voice which is evident in these poems, excitingly and genuinely all this author’s own, make this an accomplished and auspicious debut, and make this poet’s future work something to greatly look forward to.


Order your copy of Better Houses by Susie Wild here:


Read More

John Mee reviews ‘Long Pass’ by Joey Connolly



The author of this cerebral and assured debut is the joint editor of a magazine called Kaffeeklatsch. Its manifesto suggests (in the midst of a post-modern welter of interlocking footnotes) that the reader of poetry ‘must be like the cat, flirt with everything’. Long Pass offers a wide variety of attractions up to which the reader may sidle and against which to rub his or her back.

One of the themes of the book is poetry itself and its making, the mutability of the words with which ‘[t]he darkness is swarming’ (‘The Draft’). Connolly is interested in ‘[t]he orthodontic meddling of language/ with the world, its snaggling malocclusions’: ‘[Untititled]’ (sic). At times, his language mimics the sound of nature, as in ‘Liguria’, which captures ‘the plump primary note/ of a woodpigeon swelling rhythmically into the air’:


‘ the glue goes. We pool so, it

schools us. The rules: yes, they fooled you, accruing …’

Demonstrating the scale of its ambition, the collection includes ‘reworkings’ of poems in six European languages. Connolly presents two new versions of each poem (except in the case of Rozhdestvensky’s ‘History’). In each case, the second version departs from the original to a much greater extent than the first. In his second version of Christine de Pizan’s ‘Third Ballad’, which tells the story of the drowned lovers Hero and Leander, the poet addresses de Pizan across the centuries:
‘Listen, Frenchy: the gap between our tongues

is just the blackest water, nothingy and unbreathable’.
The business of reworking is fraught since ‘ideas have words/ and words ideas and they get/ everywhere, sand in sandwiches/ at the beach’: ‘An Ocean,’.

And if poetry and translation weren’t difficult enough, there are also the poet’s ‘financial/ and romantic perplexities’ (‘Why?’), ‘a stack/ of unread books, the constant dull subpoena of alcohol/ and tobacco’ (‘Average Temperature at Surface Level’). An unconsummated love affair is recounted in ‘A Brief Glosa’, having been foreshadowed in earlier poems:
‘Twenty-four days, really, all told,

straggling Manchester’s dive-bars until five for the pretext of drink

between the kitsch and neons as if there was no agony

keeping our bodies apart.’


The poet stands at the edge of a city bridge in ‘I am Positioned’:


‘                 thinking of the woman who has asked

for us to keep apart, for two months, while she


works things out: the woman I love. Although

I didn’t, I suppose, make that clear.’


A defining feature of the collection is its willingness to engage with philosophical concepts. For example, ‘to the materialist’, Connolly says, ‘if you can’t ride two horses at once/ you shouldn’t be in the circus’: ‘Of Some Substance, Once’. The book’s centrepiece is ‘Average Temperature at Surface Level’, an extended meditation on information and human attention, and the relationship between seeing, describing and remembering. The ‘tone veers uncontrollably’ from abstraction – ‘object/ bleeds into type, the starvation-ration of quiddity’ – to the helpfully concrete: ‘new, still-wet permanent marker is the best plan/ for erasing old permanent marker’.

Connolly’s work places more demands on the reader than straightforward lyric poetry – e.g. I found myself looking up words such as ‘doxological’, ‘dialetheic’ and ‘ideolected’. Any poetry that is intelligent is in danger of being perceived as overly clever but, for me, Long Pass generally avoided this trap. Admittedly, the line may be crossed in ‘Poem in Which Go I’: ‘There but for the goes of going walks our lord. There/ but for the gauze of saying so goes all’. Another risky moment comes in ‘Fantasy of Manners’, where the poet flagellates himself in Latin for being too intellectual, albeit with deflating mentions of ‘bollocks’ and ‘shite’.

The title of the collection can be linked to the reference, also in ‘Fantasy of Manners’, to the poet’s ‘own hailmary explanatory’ – a ‘Hail Mary’ is a long pass in American football which is unlikely to find a receiver. The pessimism implicit in the title of Long Pass is belied by the excellence of the work it contains. The collection is a substantial achievement, which repays repeated reading. Ultimately, as reflected in his concluding poem, ‘Last Letter from the Frontier’, Connolly’s tenacity wins a strange victory over despair:


‘I know that we have years – perhaps forever – to wait

until the drawling missionaries and the thrill and the skin drums

of pirates. And until then, I am bricking myself in.’






John Mee is a poet and academic from Cork in Ireland. He won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2015 and the Fool for Poetry International Chapbook Competition in 2016. His chapbook, From the Extinct, is published by Southword Editions. Other Titles.html Twitter: @JohnMeeLaw

Read More

For Mental Health Awareness Week: Catherine M Brennan reviews ‘Caldbeck’ by Jenny Pagdin





Pagdin’s pamphlet, Caldbeck presents poems which are unflinching in focus, and confidently varied in form, as she explores her experience of sudden postnatal psychosis. The poems are thoughtfully arranged to trace the emotional and physical demands of her experiences from early concerns for the health of her unborn child, through to her time in, and beyond Caldbeck psychiatric ward.

The pamphlet begins with a ‘Definition of Love’. Compressed meaning is introduced in the opening poem through a reference to related Old English words for ‘leave’ and ‘lief’, and notions of what is left, abandoned or desired run through the collection. This is followed by the first definition of the ‘Verbal Noun:  something known by its actions’: a significant first definition, given the lack of agency and control Pagdin later recounts.  Within a few lines we have: ‘the press of breath against a diver’s chest…’. The image is unexpected, and Pagdin moves deftly from lighter, airier images to concluding lines of love like ‘bulbs at night…warm and sure; /rubbed roots which intertwine in earth.’  After this earthy reassurance, she concludes with a sharp caesura and ‘Anonym: heartache.’  The controlled lineation and language keep the poem clear of sentimentality, and this sets the tone for the pamphlet.

Pagdin presents the dislocating nature of her experience through imagery, but also through the lens she offers in the centrally placed ‘The Radio Times’, where she presents a series of distortions, a world in which sounds ‘Cannot be switched off’, and ‘wedding rings are 50p’: everything is too intense; nothing has real value.  The facing page contains two assured, tautly one-line poems which mirror each other, conveying the alienating, disabling nature of the psychosis.

Pagdin emerges from her journey with a haiku in praise of Japanese pots which are ‘more valuable cracked.’ The concluding ‘A Definition of Hope’ contrasts earlier images: from the heavier, brutal sense of hopelessness in ‘Crista’, where she states that by the fourth week she was ‘Finally broken – as a horse is broken in—‘ to the fragile birth of a butterfly with ‘ its wings still budded and moist’. The details are raw and precise, and hope shimmers uncertain, juxtaposed against ‘Antonym: nothing.’ It is a fitting, sober end-note for a pamphlet which explores a devastating experience with grace, and with tempered, spare diction.



On Whom the Rain Comes Down
Title from Thomas Hardy’s ‘An Autumn Rain-Scene’

People do say never to touch a tent
that’s heavy with water;
I barely even knew a woman could
get ill and hurt her child.

They said our baby could have Downs,
for six months our odds were penciled on the wardrobe,
while my auntie, cousins, friends,
succumbed to cancers, fraud or death.

They said our baby might have infantile hypotonia,
then he fainted and wouldn’t come round,
I was sick and fainted and was sick, sick, sick
and still it rained down, crosshatching the sky.



Jenny Pagdin studied BA English at Oxford University and MA Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She lives with her husband and son in Norfolk where she works as a charity fundraiser. Her first pamphlet, Caldbeck, with Eyewear Publishing, was shortlisted for the Mslexia pamphlet competition (2017) and selected by the Poetry Book Society (2018). She won the Café Writers Norfolk prize 2018.

You can order your copy of Caldbeck by Jenny Padgin, published by Eyewear, here:

Read More

Sue Burge reviews ‘Bottle’ by Ramona Herdman




This beautifully judged pamphlet explores the complexities of a personal relationship with British drinking culture and those who inhabit it.  The subject of alcohol for poets is not a new one, and the influence of alcohol on poets has been well-documented, but this slim volume does something refreshingly original with its subject matter.  Herdman introduces us to a cast of diverse characters to explore the ups and downs of alcohol, including the idea that its attraction might run in families.  Her carefully chosen words are non-judgemental.  Empathy, affection and humour bubble under the surface of every poem.

There are so many standout poems it’s tricky to select just a few.  There’s much to enjoy in Yes which contains both sly humour and sexiness, a trademark of Herdman’s poetry.  An off-licence employee is described as ‘not beautiful’, but a tempter all the same with his cheap bottle of pink fizz, ‘so yes, I will run away with you/at least as far/as the bins round the back/with the rest of the bottle.’

She’s not herself is a delicate portrait of an intriguing woman, ‘take her hand and see stars/gather round her head like midges’ exhorts Herdman.  It is lines like this which show Herdman at her most insightful, skilfully drawing us into a more complete understanding of a world full of spontaneity and the crippling highs and lows of dependency.

At the heart of the work are poems which evoke the narrator’s relationship with her alcohol-dependent father, now deceased.  In Drinking Partner, a poignant meditation on loss and absence, a glass of Bells is left out ‘like kids,/I hope, still do for Father Christmas. It makes/the morning smell of you.  This image is so apposite, it still brings a lump to the throat even after many re-readings.  In My Father’s Cough, age brings increased empathy as a bout of bronchitis makes the narrator want to ‘cough my heart up.  I want to get to the bit where I find him/on the garden bench,/tea steaming in weak sun,/the first fag of the day settling his chest.’

 A particularly striking poem is Mes Braves.  Who hasn’t cringed at the sight of groups of young girls heading off clubbing in skimpy clothes on freezing nights?  Herdman turns these thoughts on their head with a praise poem, ‘It’s freezing wet and for you it’s June./You make a mirrorball out of the rain.’

Herdman’s language is clear, striking and effective.  Each word is carefully chosen for maximum impact.  Images are used sparingly, thus packing a stronger punch.  Each line-break is carefully considered to draw the reader through an expertly controlled flow of language.  The varied poetic forms and attention to pacing are a masterclass in how a pamphlet should be put together.  I urge you to read this, to learn more about temptation, love, chance and familial affection and, above all, to join this cast of finely drawn drinkers, albeit temporarily, perhaps even soberly, in their colourful and wholly engaging world.



Order your copy of Bottle (Happenstance) by Ramona Herdman here:

Read More

Alan Price Reviews ‘In the Scullery with John Keats’ by Louise Warren



I’m fortunate to live in Camden and be very close to Keats house in Hampstead. This September I was on holiday in Rome and visited the house where Keats died and also the English cemetery where he’s buried. An image of the young, poor, battered by illness Keats resonates for me in those locations, whilst on Hampstead Heath I conjure up the Cockney poet out for a lively walk.

When I read Louise Warren’s In the Scullery with John Keats I encountered four poems where Keats, flitting round like a mischievous ghost, is re-located to a contemporary North London and Devon. In the book’s title poem, Keats comes into deep focus with the objects in his house. A dead rabbit in the kitchen swings on its hook. Keats startles you by daring the poet to touch it. It swings as “the camera missed a trick”. Then, in the next poem, he’s in the garden and after that the bedroom. At each dislocation, Warren makes you feel the increasing force of his presence. An erotic rolling over in a field of wheat into a Devon sea occurs. Warren’s imagination takes flight and she will “roll beneath him like a pin.” In the last Keats poem, In the Underground with John Keats a train pulls in at Chalk farm tube station. At this “he leant against the mast of a ship / he watched the moon rise up in a slop basin / it was all tales to him and poems.”

What’s so terrific about these Keats poems are their cheekiness, strangeness and subversive antics. It’s as if we where watching an old Ken Russell TV arts drama about a Romantic poet. All that’s missing is a wild music soundtrack. However Louise Warren’s often long rhythmic lines supply their own musical pulse.

“I smelt the heat of his arms the soft dip below his throat”

Even longer musical lines are conveyed in other poems. It’s brilliantly on show in the very moving, Sedgemoor Ward. This poem about a dying man (her father?) observing the hospital ward and the view of the countryside from his window ends on a note of hope.

“We gather our things
Outside the water and light make their strange perpetual motion.”

The elongation of that final line beautifully expresses the continuous flow of life still continuing in the face of an approaching death. It comes back full circle to the water and light mentioned in the poem’s first line. Nature may remain cyclic and indifferent. But not the poet. She has to record our very human act of carrying on.

The Language of Flowers is an eloquent example of how Warren can stretch out a fine lyrical line, only to follow it with words that collar it back to a sensual apprehension of a botanist’s study, when he enters with grass soaking through his boots.

It, a slight weak rain swelling the air to a woollen thickness.
Unlike the air in his study which is proper, as paper is, and the vapour
Of thin soup. An uncoaxed fire. A fear of sweating.”

This causes the poem to abruptly stop. Fear. Sweating. Anxiety is manifest. Then the poem re-commences with an amazing sensual assault.

“Wild Honeysuckle arouses his nostrils, and sharp unmade twigs
Dig into his skin, lift the hair from his scalp, disrobe him.”

Warren’s poems are elegantly paced and tightly worded constructions. Her subject matter is eclectic. A dead poets visitations, the sky at night, the dance of a curtain, country common names, John Tenniel’s drawing of the white rabbit for Lewis Carrols’s Alice, balconies at night and gall wasp samples. These are poems that are equally disconcerting and engaging, tender and prickly; both influenced by fairy tales and nursery rhymes that can morph into menace and sudden darkness. Or humour and tenderness that root out an uncertain light in the dark. Louis Warren has a highly original take on her invented worlds. She’s a demanding poet. That’s a big positive in my book. You have to make the imaginative leap and succumb to her style. Yet the effort proves richly rewarding.

Like her previous book, A Child’s Last Picture Book of the Zoo, the Keats titled pamphlet shows Warren’s continuing strong development. She’s a remarkable writer, not for everyone, but definitely for my taste. A memorably haunting voice in the current poetry scene producing highly individualistic work, that’s very good indeed.



Order your copy of  In the Scullery with John Keats (Cinnamon Press)  by Louise Warren here:




Read More