Jan Harris




Mothers know the mercurial properties of time

Frail baby bird in your incubator,
arms bent like wings, unfledged and translucent,
your face foreshadows old age,
as if time must run backwards
for you to catch up.

Suspended, we hold our breath,
look only seconds ahead.
“Give her time”, they say,
so we place a scintilla in glass
and hang it from a thread.

With years shimmering behind us
I glimpse you at the window of your room.
Raven black, you stretch buy xanax no prescription into the night,
the arc of your back a yearning,
something feral in your eye.

An echo of your birth takes flight.
“It’s too soon,” I tell the quicksilver mirror
before my reflection ghosts away.



Jan Harris lives in Nottinghamshire and writes poetry, flash fiction and short stories.  Her work has appeared in 14 Magazine, nth Position, Popshot and Mslexia.  Her poem ‘Poppies’ was commended in the Poetry Kit Competition 2011.


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Sarah Bower reviews ‘Shi Cheng: Short Stories From Urban China’












Our western image of Chinese industrialisation, and the boom in the country’s economy since the most extreme rigidities of communism began to relax in the 1970s, is Dickensian. When writing about its booming cities, its huge industrial complexes, its vast mines turning out tonnes of everything from coal to rare earth elements, its proliferating power stations, journalists tend to employ the syntax of Hard Times. Much is said about intolerable levels of pollution and the dehumanisation of a downtrodden workforce, and the ruthless forward march of a giant industrial economy bent, it seems, on swallowing the rest of the world whole.

Shi Cheng, or Ten Cities, offers an alternative view, or rather ten different alternative views, of modern urban China, something much funnier, quirkier,  more transgressive and generally more human than the received picture drawn by political and economic commentators or those concerned with China’s human rights record. Each story is set in a different Chinese city, from worldly and westernised Hong Kong in the south to frozen Harbin in the far north, whose name, we learn, is a transliteration into Chinese characters of a Russian phrase meaning ‘where fishing nets dry’. While each of these cities lends a distinctive character to its story, the focus is always on the vibrant, eccentric, tragic-comic struggles for life of the individuals living in them.

In Wheels Are Round, for example, Xu Zechen lampoons the rampant consumerism of contemporary Beijing in a bitterly ironic fable about a man who builds a car out of junk, only to find it elevated into an object of consumerist desire worth so much money it is put beyond his reach. Xian Mingliang has come to the capital to pursue a dream, but he never quite manages to live in the city, merely in a suburb where he can look at it like ‘a patch of tropical rainforest, made up of endless tall buildings and the glow of neon lights’ from the roof of his house. His landlord is a man who makes a good living out of forging identity documents. Everything is fake, illusory.

This theme recurs in Ho Sin Tung’s Square Moon, which follows the small, sad life of a girl who set out to become an artist but finished up working in a gallery frequented by foreign collectors. Every day she commutes for three hours to reach her workplace and return home; though a native of the city, she is a stranger in it. As the mysterious westerner she meets and forms a relationship with remarks, as she is twenty-five, and he has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years, he is more Hong Kong than she is. Their affair is pursued through a journey around the world, but this world is a series of sordid hotels, where rooms can be rented by the hour, named Hotel Rome, Hotel Spain etc. The nameless westerner will not go home because his house is haunted.

The bleak sense of alienation which itself haunts all these stories is, perhaps, at its strongest and least compromising in Ding Liyang’s Family Secrets, in which a young woman newspaper columnist sits alone in her Shanghai office all night, waiting for the phone to ring and people to tell her their secrets. She is part agony aunt, part tabloid reporter, no good at either because she cannot empathise. When a young man rings to tell her he is suicidal after breaking up with his girlfriend, her first instinct is to tell him ‘that slashing your wrists didn’t necessarily kill you, and he’s better think of another way’, even though what she means to say is that ‘he shouldn’t be in such a hurry to kill himself, why not try and find another girlfriend?’ When a girl threatens to jump off the Jinmao Tower, the reporter’s response is that she doesn’t think it’s finished yet. Her feelings remain so suppressed that the only private life she has is with an imagined husband and child; only in the imagination can love be perfected.

The contributors to this anthology represent the most active and liberal-minded group of writers working in China today. Most began their careers underground, before the internet gave them the opportunity to self publish and to reach a much wider audience. Their work, with its implied, and sometimes overt, criticism of the totalitarian system which still governs China, carries risks, as the frequent impositions on the freedom of the artist Ai Weiwei, now much publicised in the west, attest. Several of these writers started out as poets but have resolved to continue their search for new forms and new voices appropriate to their rapidly changing society through fiction because fiction attracts greater public engagement and support. Although the stories are bleak, tough and often without hope, they are also very funny and characterised by writing which is sharp, powerful, refreshing and sometimes lyrical. ‘The sun was the colour of a bad quality soft drink’, writes Cao Kou in But What About the Red Indians?, tailoring the image with skill and vivacity to a tale of those who come to the city in pursuit of their fortune and end up trapped in an impoverished demi-monde of casual labour, illegal immigration, difficult and aimless journeys on intolerable buses, transitory relationships and plastic tablecloths.

Of course, the translators of these stories make a major contribution to our enjoyment by their skill and creativity in transforming modern Chinese idiom into lively, punchy English. The quality of translation in this collection, which includes work by Julia Lovell and Nicky Harman, who are among the foremost translators of Chinese literature into English, is excellent. The English versions, while works of art in themselves, never lose sight of the idiosyncrasy and originality of the authors’ take on the sad, funny, hopelessly optimistic underworld of modern urban China. Not, in fact, unlike Dickens at his best.



Buy your copy of  Shi Cheng: Short Stories From Urban China, edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Ra Page, Comma Press 2012, £9.99 here


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Dan Bowan


Death and sunflowers.

A tattoo of sunflowers around a baby’s face brings up thoughts of godlessness and anarchy from my stomach as each day wished away remains unformatted a broken line of roots a tree branch a stand-alone synapse gradually diminishing reaching out to nothing but still we are sure there is a point and a reason and a living to be made and living to be done yet still we shoot at the clock hands bows and arrows and shade our eyes from sunlight while lightning offers no more solace than any other demon we face striking out at us for our blood and we sit and write it all down to escape to destroy to remain complicit and subjugated while the id plots and plans like the rancorous enemy we surely are because just as the sum total of our resentment builds to cataclysm and pyroclastic flow at no point does the thought of stopping and speaking the cold hard truth ever enter our conscious mind knowing as we do that a single syllable would surely spell the complete end of our cursed and privileged time upon this crumbling planet full stop or maybe not but would you be the first one to gamble on the positive to roll the dice with angel wings and see what number comes up because I cannot truly say I have the strength to back that play knowing as I do that everything I have seen and heard up until now will only go on repeating like a single vinyl groove worn down by a single edged diamond so I keep the dice in clenched fist secret and selfish with no chance of foreseeable loss no rain no crowds no gravity no death no sunflowers.

Dan Bowan lives in South East London and writes prose/poetry and short stories. He has been writing for over 15 years been published in various independent magazines and art papers. His work was recently included in the Art in the Underbelly show, part of the Norfolk and Norwich Visual Arts Festival.  See more at: www.channelzeroprose.blogspot.com

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Robert Nisbet



Wanting Out

The rare sunshine of a stormy summer.
Greta, Gwenda, leave their checkouts,
slink from their supervisors, for a tea break fag.
By the pathway’s bench, they watch a cat in sun.
Basking, she’s found a cardboard carton,
16 by 4-ounce packs, somesuch,
has squeezed within, but then wants out.
So then that cat (the tart)
slinks her hips, wriggles her kitten’s butt,
is out, breasting the sunshine.
Then the girls have to scurry, break done,
as the cat goes back in the carton, slinks out again.
That cat wants in, wants out,
that cat gets in, gets out. The tart.

Robert Nisbet’s most recent collections are Downtrain (short stories, Parthian, 2004) and Merlin’s Lane (poems, Prolebooks, 2011)


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Leonid Storch





The sun’s a God’s button.

Perhaps at some point

He’ll come back to pick it up.

* * *

March.  Birds are singing.
I too would like to sit beside them and I’d sing
But I’m afraid the branch would break.
* * *

At midnight when I left, it rained.
Home is the place
Where no one cared.
* * *
A dark blue evening…
The moon nestles in the mimosa,
Listening to the birds.

* * *
Dawn.  Outside the blossoms open.
But your eyes hold the night
And winter is in your smile.




Leonid Storch immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1990 and presently teaches English in Thailand.  He has an M.A. in Chinese Studies and a J.D. Degree.  His publication list includes 3 books (all in Russian) and a number of essays, poems, and fiction that appeared in Russian-American magazines and European newspapers. He writes both in Russian and English.

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David Mac



I Never Fancied Forever

You with all your
black hatred

You with your
endless lips

Hard as rock
Soft as earth

Your sound a hiss
a whisper

Is silence forever?

You know I never
fancied eternity

A promise
not a threat

A reward perhaps?

But you always know me
you always have
and I always return

So explain
What do you want of me?




David Mac is one of the greatest forklift drivers to emerge from the UK. His words have appeared in many mags, journals, zines, sites and blogs. He hides out somewhere deep in the Bedfordshire Hell.

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Holly Magill




He doesn’t like these franchised places
with their name-tagged “baristas”,
groomed to be excitable and toothy.
(As students should never be.)

He doesn’t want cinnamon sprinkles,
organic sustainable stirrers
and blends christened according to
zeitgeist trending exoticism.
He could apparently peruse their website
(free wi-fi!) to assess which fair trade bean
meets his needs best.
Also, he doesn’t want tea that’s green.

He doesn’t welcome sweetened questioning
on whether he would like a muffin with that.
If he did, he would simply have asked.
And no, he’s not having a good day.

The Doctor told him last week to cut out caffeine.
He sucks the air in lung-deep, but leaves.
Unsatisfied. His loyalty card unstamped.

There’s a café down a side street
where the woman serving has no teeth.
She gum-mashes Nicorette with
comforting aggression and never looks at anyone,
Her forearms pump and plunge her urns,
her steaming weaponry. She harrumphs
under-breath curses. Could teach him
a few new ones.
Sticky buns slump their enticement
in a lump under violet-lit Perspex
and a fly-catcher that seems to have once
worked very effectively.

The tables are splayed with builders:
fluorescent jackets, copies of The Sun.
Slurping creosote-strength tea.
He hates his pinstripes, conspicuous,
and remembers his Dad.
Orders stewed black tea.
Steals a half dozen sugar cubes


Holly Magill lives in Worcestershire and blogs regularly at www.hollyannegetspoetic.wordpress.com. Her interests include cats, tea-drinking and badgers.


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