Ariane Synovitz is looking at a butter-coloured sky

Butter-coloured sky  
 
 
The snow fell all day.
 
We rolled and rolled
whiteness
down the hill;
a snowman our final victory.
 
Snowflakes flew everywhere,
spiralling against the butter-coloured sky,
willing Spring beyond silence;
birds broke into song.


* Even though she is a native French speaker, Ariane Synovitz enjoys writing fiction in English. She currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.

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Jan Harris is off the beaten track

Off the Beaten Track
 

A pheasant scutters through the undergrowth and Rufus gives chase. He plunges into the bracken, tail tip waving like a flag, then disappears. I shout, whistle, follow the trail of trampled foliage through the trees. Rufus howls and I find him on the edge of a clearing where a huge oak crouches.
 
Rufus stares at the tree and refuses to step into the tangle of roots. An almost imperceptible shift in something; the light, Earth’s axis, God’s attention, and I see every barb on the feathers of a thrush on the topmost bough. It lifts its head and sings allegiance to the darkling sky where Sirius and Rigel fight the march of streetlights, neon signs, motorway trails of red and white.
 
Another shift, into bright sun, where a Purple Emperor butterfly sips honeydew from an oak leaf. Its proboscis unrolls and sticky liquid rises through the central canal. A flash of beak, a tremor, the sound of diggers; nothing changes, everything changes. All possible futures fall through the spaces in a spider’s web.
 
The leaf drops to the ground where the roots of the great tree burrow past fallen branches covered with lichen, into heavy soil. They thread past a store of acorns, a stash of coins, the skull of a cow, an axe head which felled timber for the ships of the Queen’s Armada.
 
The ground creaks and tips under my feet. I cling onto Rufus and we slide down the hill. When I glance behind me the tree has gone. The moment scatters like pollen.
 
 
 
* Jan Harris was born in 1956 in Farnsfield, a small village in North Nottinghamshire. She combines her role as a carer with working from home as a freelance write/editor. Her work has appeared in Mslexia, Flashquake, Nth Position, Popshot, Ink Sweat & Tears and other online and print publications.

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Sarah Bower reviews 'The Afrika Reich' by Guy Saville

ART OF DARKNESS

The Afrika Reich
by Guy Saville,  Hodder and Stoughton February 17th 2011

It’s 1952, and the war has been over for twelve years. In the heart of Nazi Afrika, Walter Hochburg works to consolidate the Third Reich’s hold over power. The old colonial powers – France, Belgium, and in particular Britain, emasculated by its humiliating defeat at Dunkirk – are weak and ripe for the plucking and Hochburg, the architect of the Afrika Reich, is ready to move.

Burton Cole, retired mercenary and disillusioned patriot, wants nothing more than to settle on his quince farm in Suffolk with his pregnant mistress. But he is offered one last job, and it’s one he can’t resist because, if he succeeds, he will destroy the man who almost destroyed him – Walter Hochburg.

The operation begins smoothly but quickly descends into hellish chaos. Both Cole and Hochburg are forced to confront old harms as scars are re-opened and scores settled just reveal more layers of pain and resentment beneath. Cole finds himself fighting, not just for his fee, not even for his life, but for his sense of himself and everything dear to him.

On one level, Guy Saville’s debut is the stuff of airport bookstalls, action movies and computer games, but it is a lot more than that. You can read Cole as the model action hero (you can even see the plastic figurine in your mind’s eye, preposterously muscled and bristling with tiny weapons), but there are also, in him, elements of the Virgilian hero, the warrior who fights, not for the love of it, but for the world he longs to return to, his farm and his family, who is steered more by his moral compass than by blood lust. Hochburg is a monster worthy of Ian Fleming, but he is also Kurtz, made evil by the fragility of his heart. He, like his nemesis, Cole, is a fruit grower, but he puts the produce of his garden to uses of shockingly imaginative violence.

In The Afrika Reich, Saville has found the Holy Grail of the mass market novel which also features characters who are fully rounded and developed, and this goes not just for Cole and Hochburg but a splendidly motley supporting cast of Angolan women freedom fighters, broken-down sharpshooters, ex-Foreign Legionnaires, SS thugs and a man called Kepplar with bad skin and innovative methods of road building. Everyone has reasons for the actions he or she takes in the furtherance of a plot which is fiendishly complex but skilfully and carefully hung together. In all 430 pages of the novel, there isn’t a bum note or a wasted word.

The excesses of the plot also serve to invest the novel with a kind of black, deadpan humour. I’m sure the audio book will be read by someone butch and gravelly like Richard Armitage, but to my mind, it could equally well be Jack Dee. It is telling that the book’s promotional page on Facebook features a link to a very funny Alias Smith and Jones sketch which sends up cinematic clichés of Nazi generals. As with the best action movies, even though the characters stand up and the plot is breathtaking in its combination of ingenuity and plausibility, you also know you’re in cartoon territory here.

Which serves to makes the novel’s most serious point all the more forcibly. The best lies are those which contain an element of truth. Saville’s alternative history is based on meticulous research into plans for Africa which Hitler had already drawn up before the outbreak of war in 1939. As we now know, Britain came very close to surrender in 1940 and probably would have reached an accord with the Third Reich if it had not been for the intervention of Churchill.

The underlying truth, however, is both more subtle and more immediate, and lies as much in Africa’s real present as in its many imagined pasts. The novel is set largely in what is today the absurdly named Democratic Republic of Congo. While the savagery of Hochburg and his crew may be more elegant and aesthetically satisfying than what is actually going on in DCR today (I doubt there are parade grounds made of skulls, though Damien Hirst may yet build one) the violence that is tearing it, and other African countries, apart is an aspect of the real world brought constantly and disturbingly to mind by Saville’s fiction.

The Afrika Reich is a terrific read. Definitely one for the beach, or the long flight to get you there…or the long wait in the airport for the long flight etc. etc. But a book that may well stay with you long after you would expect to forget it. I am already looking forward to the first of two planned sequels.



…reviewed by Sarah Bower


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Isobel Dixon is the only brunette on the beach

The Only Brunette on the Beach

The only brunette on the beach,
I keep a safe distance from the sun,
my eye on the smalt-blue sea
where the Kraken sleeps.
Adamastor holds his stormy breath.
The Flying Dutchman lies becalmed.

Perhaps he has no wish for harbour
here, now, after all those years
under full press of sail, cursing
this Cape of Storms.
O brave new world, after the deluge,
to escape, so narrowly, unharmed –
 
my tide-swept landing without Indiaman,
or ark.  On the old battleground
of Bloubergstrand I lie and track
the ferny singe of lightning flowers,
but know, as lost as one of Nonqawuse’s
wretched cows, I have the drowning mark.




*Isobel Dixon grew up in South Africa, and now lives in Cambridge, England. Her collection A Fold in the Map is published by Salt.  Her next collection, The Tempest Prognosticator, comes out from Salt in July 2011.  

This poem first appeared in The Warwick Review and will be published in the forthcoming collection The Tempest Prognosticator (Salt, July 2011)

Note:

The mythical Adamastor was a symbol of the forces of nature in Luis de Camoes’s 16th Century Portuguese epic poem Os Lusiadas. Nonqawuse
was a 19th century Xhosa girl whose prophecies led many in the nation
to kill their cattle, believing that the ancestor spirits would arise to
drive the British settlers into the sea.






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Ken Head reviews Matthew Sweeney's 'The Night Post'

The Night Post:  A New Selection  Matthew SweeneySalt (Modern Poets Series)
ISBN:  978 1 907773 01 3    Hardback:  £10.39.   192pp

As any editor will tell you, writers aren’t always the wisest judges of their own work, either of its quality or how best to present it to potential buyers of their books and having been a reader of Matthew Sweeney’s poetry since the nineteen-eighties (Is it really almost thirty years since A Dream of Maps?), it  occurred to me to wonder, as I began The Night Post, how well this selection by the poet himself would work.  Would there be a sense of dèja vu?  How many previously unpublished poems would be included?  How much very early or very recent work( Sweeney’s last collection, Black Moon, was published in 2007)?  Having published so much, how would he go about sequencing such a generously extensive new selection of (unless my adding up is wrong) one hundred and thirty-two poems?  Needless to say, when read, the poems themselves, as they always should, not only answered all my questions, but at the same time raised others, about context, what effects new juxtapositionings might have on the way poems would present themselves and how I, as a reader, would respond.    

Sweeney was born in Donegal in 1952 and is one of a distinguished generation of post-war Irish poets, so that it is not without significance that his chosen title for this collection should be taken from a poem that plunges us back into the world of The Troubles.  The Night Post connects to Sweeney’s life in a more personal way as well, in that his brother, from whom he has said the basis of the poem came,  is a recently retired member of the Gardai, the Irish police force.  The scene is set quickly and economically, an isolated police post, a cold night, 3 a.m. or thereabouts, a moonless / sky, two officers checking vehicles for contraband and weapons, the unspoken question made very clear when the Mercedes hearse came along:

I moved my beam down the long box
trying to picture the bloodless face –
was a beard still growing there, or
did it breathe, indeed, eyes on the lid,
or were there dozens of Armalites?

Does the narrator do his duty and risk a bullet or let the hearse pass without looking inside the coffin, in the same way he’d earlier waved a whiskey-smuggler through / after receiving a sample?  The last two lines of the poem give us his answer, wry, laconic and cinematic, too:  I bid the man a gruff goodnight, / walked in, envying his Brando face. A Godfather moment, potential violence sidestepped with deadpan humour, but dealt with just the same, as the narrator tells us what he won’t include in his official report or admit to in front of television cameras, that he doesn’t want to die.

Sweeney is a master of such concise narratives, poems whose sheer readability draws us into their many levels of tension and complexity.  In The Night Post, the central issues are moral and political, to do with the nature of duty and its limits, but turn the page and The Mugging, for example, takes us into an equally edgy world, though this time of casual street violence in which the narrator dreams he is the victim, mugged twice … / on Leather Lane and Gray’s Inn Road, a nightmare from which he is grateful to wake and find that This time … the dream-borders held.  Not that the distancing mechanism of the dream lessens the impact of the poem, quite the opposite:

The first boys were amiable, even joked
as I fobbed them off with a fiver each.

The second lot went through my pockets,
kicked me, left me with my clothes.
I recognized no one in either crowd.

The light from the lamppost showed rain
as their steps echoed through empty streets.

Insecure frontiers between order and chaos, safety and violence, helpless individuals always under threat even if they don’t know it, these are recurrent concerns.  Fog, for example, which opens the book, describes humorously the problems of coping with thick fog, but does so in language imbued with threats of violence:  Masked like a murderer, I / miraculously find a busstop … / And the fogsoldiers close in round me, while towards the end of the selection, A Day In Calcutta, which describes exactly that, leads us along (Might this be travelogue?) gently enough, despite warning references to the redness of the flesh of Indian mangoes and the fierce red eyes of the black goddess Kali carved in stone, but looking as if she could tear us into pieces, until:
    
we were outside
and heading back to our shoes
when I saw, in a crowd of men,
two tethered goats,
one young, one a baby, both  
big-eyed and curious,
especially the eldest, until grabbed
at both ends, his neck stretched,
then a flash
of a knife and his head was in the dust.

Violence, or the threat of it, bloodshed, or the threat of it and the poet bearing clear-eyed, unflinching witness to the world he passes through:  

‘Did Blackstaff do it?
Is he the fucker we want?’
We banged on the hatch of that houseboat,
under a blood-red moon,
while a police siren weaved among the flats
and a dog howled till a shot rang out.

‘Tell Blackstaff there’s a bullet
waiting for his skull,’ we shouted …

(from The Houseboat)

This, for me, is what makes Sweeney’s poetry both valuable and interesting.  He doesn’t emote or moralise and isn’t sentimental, but looks his world (which I feel also to be mine) in the eye and tells, through the voice of one or other of his many different narrators and often with very deceptive simplicity, the stories of what he sees:

The clarinet is playing through the ruined church,
gathering the ghosts to stand in the choir

and rescue from their deaths the voices they had,
which they send soaring, swooping on the wind

and each ghost remembers the coffin stood there,
the relatives weeping, the secret of the light.

(The Ghost Choir)

For readers who know Sweeney’s work, this selection represents a real refresher course in what exciting modern poetry’s about, were I reading him for the first time, I’d find it a treasure trove.



…..Reviewed by ©2011:  Ken Head  


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Two new poems by Myfanwy Fox

French Polish

A morsel of coke
between manicured fingers
nails polished
au naturel
for a botox generation
pink as a Botticelli bottom
with a bone white tip and moon
 

# # # # # #

 

Old Etonian Recipe
 
In an insulated atmosphere, sift
blue blood, old gold, new media, testosterone:
time-honoured recipe for today.
Do NOT stir.
Allow to rise and rise and rise and rise –
groundlings may lick-up trickle-down Mess.
 

* Eton Mess is a desert of broken meringue, whipped cream and strawberries.


* Myfanwy Fox wanted to be a Clanger but she never learned to knit.

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Mark Burnhope's Snowboy

The Snowboy

No.

What to make
of what’s becoming
nothing more than a mound of snow?

The one where he takes a thick grief
from its hook, and wears it
out to step into

a freezer, and the glow
singes his eyes. For hours
the sky wavers over blues, to rest
back on a transitory red,
like blood a mother could not but have shed.

Which repeats on you. Where

coals that lent sight, a smile
and buttons have been removed
by the fingernail wind,
hands fanned,
still scraping blades against the barn. Where

the one
we conceived on Christmas Eve
pools,
swaddles grass, clear as glass

through which we might
even have seen ourselves.





*Mark Burnhope has a BTh from London School of Theology and a Creative Writing MA from Brunel University. He has poems in Magma, nthposition, Other Lives, and forthcoming in Horizon Review. He currently lives and writes in Bournemouth, Dorset.
 

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