Monday, June 12, 2017

The End We Start From - A Review


“What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

The story begins on the brink between the ending of one world and the beginning of another. While a woman gives birth to a child an environmental cataclysm leaves London flooded. Rumours swill around the cocoon of her hospital bed  that much of the city, including her flat with its newly decorated nursery, has been left underwater. This strange and frightening reality informs the physical and emotional landscape of this strange and beautiful tale and describes the waterlogged world the characters must navigate if they are to survive.

Throughout the story, the sense of immersion in a world made fragmented and disorientating becomes a beautifully wrought extended metaphor for the transforming and transfiguring nature of birth and motherhood. As the story continues, the city and it's inhabitants begin to emerge, through the pages, as if from some amniotic sac and the reader is left to reflect how easily collective constructs of reality can be dismantled by change.

Prophetic statements as if quoted from ancient, sacred text are interspersed throughout and they add a  mythological gravity to the story taking the reader out of the realm of ordinary time and space.

The writing style is exquisitely poetic yet sparse of superfluous detail. As is necessary in any emergency situation, only the barest essentials are required and this briefly sketched but well defined structure maintains the strong momentum of the plot. Indeed, I found the stripped down, starkness of the text created a sense of immediacy and intimacy which engaged me from beginning to end, or perhaps end to beginning in this case.

The mother's hope that she might salvage a somewhat normal childhood for her son along with the vivid descriptions of the child as he grows and changes, the wordless disappointment and rejection in her relationship and  the lifesaving comradeship between her and another new mother named O, create relatable characters. My only criticism is that these relationships could have been more fully explored as I loved the humanity they brought to the story.

The metaphor of new parenthood is beautifully echoed throughout, its internal conflicts reflecting  the disarray and confusions of the external world.
I found it interesting to note that when the dire and desperate nature of their situation becomes fully apparent the male partner begins to finds reason to distance himself from his family. When he eventually leaves it is done under the premise that he is seeking a way for them to survive.

Although the story is set around a cataclysmic event there is an intentional lack of hysteria and sentimentalism in the telling. The juxtaposition between the quietly recorded accounts of daily existence, and the overarching theme of survival and integration into a re-imagined world creates a kind of hyper-realism which makes the story scarily believable. 

The End We Start From is available to purchase here.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Plum - by Hollie McNish - a review


Hollie Mcnish's new book Plum is a page turner of a poetry book.
I read it in one sitting today, sitting in the afternoon sun, recovering from a bout of tonsillitis. Poetry is pretty good medicine, especially when it's as funny, moving and warm as this.

McNish is a spoken word artist as well as a published poet and her words beg to be read aloud, flowing, as they do, from the page to the tongue with ease. The deceptively simple rhyming structure and relatable subject matter at the core of her work have broadened the definition of what can be a pretty narrow and exclusive genre and have helped make poetry relevant, even for people who might not ordinarily think they like it.

Using a kind of contemporary ballad style McNish's poems tell personal stories that often follow a clear narrative arc where humour happily rubs alongside pathos enlivening and deepening it rather than negating or neutralizing it.

Plum includes poems and excerpts McNish wrote as a child along with freshly written poems and commentary in her non-pretentious, informal, style. Themes are diverse and include teen relationships, love, sex, modern childhood, family relationships, getting older, death, and gender stereotyping.

As a contemporary of McNish the anecdotes in the first part of her book, describing school discos, slow dances and first kisses jolted me back to the mid nineties with a mix of nostalgia filled with cringe-worthy memories of angst ridden arguments with classmates over Boy bands and Grunge bands.
After describing clumsy school disco kissing techniques the poem Macerena continues:

       "now little boys recoil to
line the edges of the room
- a centrifugal dread
the girls - darted to the loos -
eventually sneak back."

The poem Yanking about a mistake made during a first sexual encounter stings with the intensity of the experience in the mind of the adolescent experiencing it while making the most of the comedy value that comes with the advantage of hindsight and perspective. I can still hear the muffled Chinese whispers of such encounters ricochet around the refectory, quads and assembly halls of my old secondary school.

"     apparently
"up and down"
did not mean
like a lever
like a door handle
like a joystick
like a casino slot machine."

McNish's style is well suited to political subject matter too, often building emotive cadence with a clever use of internal rhyme, meter, assonance and the rhythmic punctuation of short lines following long. Layered over these devices are pointed messages that ring with clarity, acerbic wit and authentic outrage at gender stereotyping, marginalization and narrow mindedness.

In the wonderful No Ball Games, McNish confronts the use of "mosquito gadgets" used in urban areas to disperse gangs of youths by sending out painfully high pitched noises that can only be heard by those under the age of 20.

"NO SKATEBOARDING", no wheels, no
bikes all public concrete set with
       still headlines cry - obesity!
- computer games! - too much TV!
 no teens allowed."

Likewise Aspiration a poem about when she decided to stop watching the build your dream home show Grand Designs, hits the mark with precision aim.

and i stare at our walls and the
picture-hook holes and the mark
on the carpet i couldn't scrub out and i
imagine fresh paint and wallpaper
patterns and affording thick curtains
that trail to the ground
        and tim's sitting down with the
architect now and he wants "bigger
windows to let in more light" and
sarah is showing off heavy silk fabric
that they haggled to five ponds in
bali one night."

The collection also contains the brilliant Language Learning which I remember watching McNish perform on channel four years ago. It was probably my first proper introduction to spoken word. The genre helped me understand how sound could underscore, underwrite and underpin the whole  meaning of a poem. Until then I hadn't fully explored or valued meter, rhythm and rhyme which spoken word artists use so adeptly.

One thing McNish does very well is describe a vast range of experiences relevant to contemporary life such as public breastfeeding dilemmas,  parenting, body image, and the lack of coherency and meaning in our 24/7 social media recorded lives and whittle them down into beautifully formed anecdotal points that feel both inclusive and deeply intimate.

What more can you ask of a poetry book.

Plum is released on June 15th through Pan Macmillian.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Four Poems on Liminal Places

adjective: liminal
1.     1.
relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2.     2.
occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.


If prose is a map that leads you from A to B, poetry would be the landmarks in between. Prose seeks a destination, a linear narrative as a guide and lots of provisions for the journey. With poetry, you bring your own tent and sleeping bag.

 The satisfaction of a poem is often its lack of resolution, its depth rather than the breadth of landscape it covers, the spareness of words acting as leaven in bread; collecting invisible spores from the collective consciousness and rising slowly in the warmth and darkness of the individual heart. 

 The lack of explanation, resolution and clear direction in a poem can open a space where possibilities collide in free association to form radical, new perspectives. It's a kind of chemistry. Mixing sounds, ideas, words, meanings and symbols to describe thoughts, experiences and feelings that are beyond the scope of literal expression creating their own ecosystems where thought, feeling and experience can be explored in new ways. This is a liminal space, a space between departure and destination where we can pause, sit, admire the view, absorb the images, let them stir within us, allow them to weave and spin, recreating patterns of understanding, redrawing the field guides and maps for our individual and collective journeying.

The poems below directly address and describe the liminal spaces between one realm and another in a variety of different ways.

Mary Oliver's Maybe, speaks of a spiritual threshold  which demands a complete reconsideration of life. In this way it evokes Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo.

A Herd of Does by Hugh MacDiarmid makes tangible the brief glimpse of the ephemeral, ethereal "other-world" of spirit or illumination in the form of a herd of Does that glimmer in and out of sight.

Mark Doty's Migration draws the reader into a dimension suspended between the ordinary and the extraordinary by contrasting the everyday, mundane excursion of going to the local grocery store with the innate, knowing navigation of migrating geese that fly like some transcendent thought above the often aimless nature of human endeavor.

A Meeting Missed by Rabindranath Tagore is a cry of one in exile, suspended between this world and the next. The poet speaks as one who has experienced the divine and fears forgetting or forsaking that experience in his everyday life. Each, post it note to self like stanza becomes a knotted rope thrown out from the brink of an illuminated horizon into the gritted streets of the world like a life raft.

Mary Oliver

Sweet Jesus, talking
   his melancholy madness,
       stood up in the boat
          and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry,
   So everybody was saved
     that night.
       But you know how it is

when something
   different crosses
     the threshold — the uncles
       mutter together,

the women walk away,
   the young brother begins
     to sharpen his knife.
       Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
   like the wind over the water —
     sometimes, for days,
       you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
   after the multitude was fed,
     one or two of them felt
       the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
   before exhaustion,
     that wants to swallow everything,
       gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
   as they are now, forgetting
     how the wind tore at the sails
       before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
   as he always was —
     a thousand times more frightening
       than the killer sea.

A Herd of Does
Hugh MacDiarmid


There is no doe in all the herd
Whose heart is not her heart,
O Earth, with all their glimmering eyes
She see thee as thou art

Like them in shapes of fleeting fire
She mingles with the light
Till whoso saw her sees her not
And doubts his former sight.

They come and go and none can say
Who sees them subtly run
If they indeed are forms of life
Or figments of the sun

So is she one with Heaven here,
Confounding mortal eyes,
As do the holy dead who move
Innumerous in the skies.

But now and then a wandering man
May glimpse as on her goes
A golden movement of her dreams
As ‘ twere a herd of does.

Mark Doty

Near evening, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts,
seventeen wild geese arrowed the ashen blue
over the Wal-mart and the Blockbuster Video,

and I was up there, somewhere between the asphalt
and their clear dominion – not in the parking lot,
the tallowy circles just appearing,

the shopping carts shining, from above,
like little scraps of foil. Their eyes
held me there, the unfailing gaze

of those who know how to fly in formation,
wing-tip to wing-tip, safe, fearless.
And the convex glamour of their eyes carried

the parking lot, the wet field
troubled with muffler shops
and stoplights, the arc of highway

and its exits, one shattered farmhouse
with its failing barn…The wind
a few hundred feet above the grass

erases the mechanical noises, everything;
nothing but their breathing
and the perfect rowing of the pinions,

and then, out of that long, percussive pour
toward what they are most certain of,
comes their – question, is it?

Assertion, prayer, aria – as delivered
by something too compelled in its passage
to sing? A hoarse and unwieldy music

which plays nonetheless down the length
of me until I am involved in their flight,
the unyielding necessity of it, as they literally

rise above, ineluctable, heedless,
needing nothing…Only animals
make me believe in God now

– so little between spirit and skin,
any gesture so entirely themselves.
But I wasn’t with them,

as they headed toward Acushnet
and New Bedford, of course I wasn’t,
though I was not exactly in the parking lot

either, with the cars nudged in and out
of their slots, each taking the place another
had abandoned, so that no space, no desire

would remain unfilled. I wasn’t there.
I was so filled with longing
– is that what that sound is for? –

I seemed to be nowhere at all.


A Meeting Missed
Rabindranath Tagore

If I am not to meet you again in this life then I want to feel that I have missed the meeting, don’t let me forget, let me feel the pain of it in my dreams and while awake.

As the time passes in the black dust of the body, and I get fat with money, I want to feel that I have gotten nothing out of it all — don’t let me forget, I want to feel the slivers of pain in my dreams and while awake.

When I walk up the steps, exhausted and tense after a long trip, or when I climb into some lonely bed, I want to feel that the long trip is still ahead of me — don’t let me forget, I want to feel the pain in my legs both while asleep and while awake.

When my house is all cleaned, and drinks are set here and there, and I hear people laughing, I want to feel that I haven’t invited you to my house — don’t let me forget, I want to feel the pain of that grief both while asleep and while awake.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Writing Motherhood - A Review

Sharon Olds

I lightly tap these words and watch them tip toe across the quiet, ordered screen so as not to stir my grandson as he sleeps soundly in the bed beside me. This is about as much quiet and order as I've been able to wring out of the day thus far.
Practically speaking, a mothers time is  limited by her children's needs and routines and the  constraints of the childcare available to her.
Free time feels luxurious and rare these days, especially for mothers. Free time is akin to a favorite Saturday morning sweatshirt that makes allowances for natural breadth and freedom of movement. As both a full time mother and a work at home mother I have, at times, over the years, felt metaphorically as bound in bone corseting as any pre- twentieth century woman.
A mother often plays the centrifugal role in a family and as a result her own identity often becomes an extension of that role. In the early weeks and months after having a baby, identity becomes a question that many mothers wrestle with. Much of this book illustrates the ways in which mothers navigate their roles in order to make time for creativity and how, post birth, they can emerge with an identity that may be re-defined but that they are not solely defined by. The over arching message in this book is optimistic. Not only can motherhood make space for creativity, it can often be a catalyst for it. The excerpt below written by  Rebecca Stonehill, titled "Writer and mother: How children can help (and not hinder) the creative process." suggests that perhaps one is flint to the others steel. Perhaps, the experience of motherhood can, actually become tinder for the creative flame to kindle.

"Prior to children, my right-hand companion to my writing process was procrastination. With three small children to care for and a supportive husband who took them out on Saturday mornings so I could write, I didn't have TIME to procrastinate anymore. Here was my precious opportunity and I had to seize it with both hands. 
Those mornings came to form a vital pulse of my writing, with many short stories and sections of my novel springing from them. 

Writing Motherhood edited by Carolyn Jess Cooke is full of thoughtful essays and poems that examine the role of motherhood in a womans creative life. The diversity of experience detailed in the book share the common theme that motherhood can be a window into a woman's creative expression rather than a door which closes her to it.

A mother's life is made up of many constant re-negotiations of time, needs and priorities. The obstacles mothering presents to creativity are real, sleep deprivation, breast feeding and birth recovery being the most immediately pressing and physically demanding. These difficulties are not shied away from, indeed they are described at length from many diverse angles throughout the book. Yet the breakthroughs that come like morning light are equally as present. The kind of re-emergence of self that motherhood brings is beautifully described from the perspective of the child as his understanding of the world around it simultaneously grows ever more coherent in Rebecca Goss's exquisite poem, "The Baby who understood Shadows."

"This baby she washed, fed,
kept close as fog, now able to see through

the branches of her arms, find the sun's rays,
his own shadow, all things that are not her."

Though motherhood draws boundary lines around space and time it just as powerfully forces a blurring of boundaries between self and other. Empathy with a child's rhythms can expand a mothers sensory experience of the world. Exploration of the world through the budding sensory perception of a child is detailed in the playful internal rhymes of Sinéad Morrissey's poem "The Camera" which describes how  her young daughter steals and stashes random, ordinary objects around the house and wraps them in "blankets."

"pine cones, driftwood, rocks -
the waist- high were your common subjects

and while I watched, the air above me stretched"

The photographs  her daughter takes take this extra perspective to a poignant conclusion.

"your own bright smile framed twice),
you've nevertheless led me back
to an earlier time, before we swapped

the kitchen table for a sturdier one
or painted the doorframes brown,
when you were four, unschooled, unkempt,

absorbing this house and your place
in it: bewitched by the marvelous - 
and then stealing it."

Motherhood provides more than just new insights and creative inspiration though. In the chapter titled Mothers Work, Holly Mcnish deftly argues that the skills required for negotiating with a toddler provide better qualification for a chief ambassador to the UN peacekeeping force than a PHD in conflict resolution. Her piece concludes:

                 "Have you ever had to settle a dispute with a child or group of children without resorting to fist-banging, shouting "Ra ra, Mr Speaker", raising your voice or laughing in a pompous, arrogant manner at them?
                Er no.
                Ok, thank you. We'll let you know. We were really looking for someone who has toddler-care skills. Primary teaching might work too. We'll call you."

Writing Motherhood covers all aspects and stages of mothering including, most movingly a chapter on loss, absence and suffering.
In Postcards from a Hospital, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, writes with aching clarity about the time her newborn spent in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Poetry glimmers through each starkly written paragraph.

"Blood blood - Blood blood - a steady thud."

"Every hour I descend to the basement in search of my Persephone."

The sharing of such experiences through the art of writing gives voice to the experience of motherhood from mothers themselves, as Sharon Olds writes:

 "Someone who has knowledge of a subject like motherhood, which through most of human history had not been memorialized or embodied in art, has precious knowledge."

Considering how the experience of motherhood effects us all as human beings it does seem extraordinary that the writings of mothers on the subject of motherhood hasn't been more widely available.

As a writer and artisan who is also a mother to five and grandmother to one I thoroughly enjoyed reading Writing Motherhood, in-between nap-times, exam coaching, cooking, taxi driving, changing nappies and school runs of course.

Suffice to say, the picture below paints a thousand words. And yes, I have written this piece in several child, interrupted installments.

"Writing Motherhood" is available for purchase from Seren books.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Five Poems for Mid-Life


A Year of Being Here
 Kerrie Hardie

I used to wait for the flowers,
my pleasure reposed on them.
Now I like plants before they get to the blossom.
Leafy ones—foxgloves, comfrey, delphiniums—
fleshy tiers of strong leaves pushing up
into air grown daily lighter and more sheened
with bright dust like the eyeshadow
that tall young woman in the bookshop wears,
its shimmer and crumble on her white lids.

The washing sways on the line, the sparrows pull
at the heaps of drying weeds that I’ve left around.
Perhaps this is middle age. Untidy, unfinished,
knowing there’ll never be time now to finish,
liking the plants—their strong lives—
not caring about flowers, sitting in weeds
to write things down, look at things,
watching the sway of shirts on the line,
the cloth filtering light.

I know more or less
how to live through my life now.
But I want to know how to live what’s left
with my eyes open and my hands open;
I want to stand at the door in the rain
listening, sniffing, gaping.
Fearful and joyous,
like an idiot before God.

Salt and Pepper
Samuel Menashe
  Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest—
Age seasons me
Gives me zest—
I am a sage
In the making
Sprinkled, shaking

An Old Woman
 Arun Kolaktar

She wants a fifty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.

You've seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.

She won't let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.

You turn around and face her
with an air of finality.
You want to end the farce.

When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?'

You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.

And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.

And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls

with a plateglass clatter
around the shatter proof crone
who stands alone.

And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand. 

Carpe  Diem
Stewart Conn

From my study window
        I see you
below in the garden, a hand
        here pruning
or leaning across to snip
        a wayward shoot;

a daub of powder-blue in a
        profusion of green,
then next moment, you are
        no longer there – 
only to reappear, this time
        perfectly framed

in dappling sunlight, with
        an armful of ivy
you've trimmed, topped by 
        hyacinth blooms,
fragrant survivors of last
        night's frost.

And my heart misses a beat
        at love for you,
knowing a time will come
        when you are
no longer there, nor I here
        to watch you

on a day of such simplicity.
        Meantime let us
make sure we clasp each
        shared moment
in cupped hands, like water
        we dare not spill.

Suzy Kopliku

Mid- life is a place of transition, it's liminal, a halfway -
House where all that seemed coherent is broken down, remade 
And cleared away to make space
For something more. Or less. Well defined lines are retraced
Erased to plumes of dust like leaves in the fall.

Layers peel, masks flake like plaster casts, 
Hard edges erode, become soft as loam.
All is worn down to the jewel inside the stone.
New ideas stir like seeds under the earth, bare bones, 
Whitened like driftwood weathered, wind blown, 

Sea-washed and a little more brittle but still dancing
Our own dance now
Hearing the music with a keener ear
Like an owl moving through darkness, silent and clear
Now part of the music, part of the darkness.