The Friday Critique
Instigated by our Publishing Fellow, Manuela Moser, we're putting fast, short-form, reviews of new writing into the world, on a weekly basis.
Reviews are by students on our creative writing courses. Novelists, scriptwriters, poets, critics and readers; they are invested in contemporary literature, and dedicated to generating healthy, dynamic critical debate.
Matthew Rice’s debut collection is at times a portal for nightmarish scenes and at others, a graceful meditation on resilience and hope. The world has seemed uprooted and displaced for more than a year, and a return to normal is barely on the horizon, but it’s in moments like ours that The Last Weather Observer charges forward. ‘Conclusion’ is an odd poem to have not even halfway into a first collection as it snares readers on the ostensibly inaccurate title. In the aftermath of a storm in which “waves ride like exploding myths,” ‘Conclusion’ settles to the realization that “with things displaced and uprooted / I’ll be reminded of you”, lines that nod to this collection’s poignant timing.
Daunting challenges abound. In ‘How Do You Save The Rhino’ the speaker struggles to account for the complex “mathematics” facing conservationists of the Black Rhino. In ‘Pelicans’, the bird’s “seven-thousand-mile stare” aligns the distance of the bird’s migration to the distance we often feel between ourselves and others. But, as the title poem shows, crises can help us to develop tenacity and clarity. In it, Rice riffs lyrically on the story of Charles James Hall, “the kid in the news, surviving the flight into his own shadow.”
Grit and resilience animate the most hopeful poems in the collection. Despite all of the nightmares, the murderous figures, the dead boy “lolling” about in a speeding car, and the angry racist crowd at a football match, Rice reminds us that “[this] game is worth playing”. In “Bright Mustard Coat”, Rice shows his dedication to the game of poetry and progress, redirecting a familiar scene of Muldoonian circularity and entrapment, towards hope and perseverance. In the charming and humorous, final poem, Rice’s speaker locks eyes with a fox, and the pair wonder, as will readers of The Last Weather Observer, “what [will] happen next?”
If the purpose of a title is, like that of an hors d’oeuvre, not to satisfy appetite, but to provoke it by giving a taste of what is to come, then the title of Claudine Toutoungi’s second collection Two Tongues is a masterstroke. This little act of self-referential, punning brio revels a lot about Toutoungi’s poetics. Mishearings, misspellings, mistranslations, and other kinds of linguistic slippages abound in this collection.
In ‘Chronic Waiting Room’, the names of patients are mangled in the space between the nurse who calls them and the speaker of the poem who records them: ‘Shahido / Hulk? Dawn Carrier? Angela / Chart?’ In a later poem, ‘Amendment’, Toutoungi’s own name receives the same treatment. The poem begins as a deadpan imitation of a magazine correction (‘We would like to apologise to readers for the mistake / in last week’s issue and the misspelling of the name / Claudine Toutoungi’), before launching into a ridiculous and luxurious series of reformulations of that little sequence of sounds that have attended the poet, like a shadow, since birth: ‘Tutu Genie. Toutoulingini. Two / Tounge-y. Toutanjajee. Tao-Tao-Ngee. Tootle-Ingee / Tangerini’. In the poem’s final line, all this semantic play is revealed to be the expression of a frustration known intimately to those of us who’s names ask English people to expand their sonic resources, even slightly: ‘And furthermore she’s not as foreign as she sounds’.
Toutoungi is a poet who takes the pun seriously as a poetic mode: in her hands wordplay is able to bring us beyond the sense-logic of denotation and reveal something about the ineluctable materiality of words, both spoken and written. And the effect of this is strangely liberating: an expansion of linguistic possibility that reminds us that what we may take for common-sense (that most pernicious mechanism of control) may be made to be otherwise.
In a year of bingeing boxsets and constantly refreshing the news cycle, Julia Bell’s Radical Attention asks us to turn away from our screens and take a serious look at the devices to which we give so much of our time and energy. With swift and pointed prose, Bell guides the reader from specific consequences of our algorithmically trained ways of interacting with (or ignoring) the world, to studies of how those consequences came to exist. From incels to datamining, from clickbait to compassion, Bell asks how much our attention means, and what we lose as we gain access to continuous information and entertainment.
The essay begins with a whirlwind of examples to show the ways our priorities, and our attention, have lapsed: CCTV shows a man drawing a firearm on a train going unnoticed until he shoots a disembarking passenger; Bell’s recent inability to write for hours uninterrupted; seven thousand years’ worth of porn on the internet. These snippets are interspersed with analytical prose about a self separate from the physical body, implications of call-out culture and consensus politics, and how spending so much time on our laptops, tablets, and phones allows businesses to turn a huge profit. Frequently, Bell’s picture of the world is very bleak; as she leaps from one subject to another, reading this can feel a bit like very satisfying doomscrolling.
Gradually, a solution emerges. Bell counters the commodification of our attention by suggesting that instead of allowing our slips in concentration to take us to social media/ a solitaire app/emails about discounts, we can train our minds to fall into critical and creative thinking. Bell asks us to, as Hannah Arendt says, “think what we are doing” so that we can reconnect with the world and “the parts of ourselves that have been outsourced to the screen” for the sake of ourselves and society.
Sinéad Burke’s Break the Mould is in essence a guide for young people who want to effect change in their communities. Burke is a disability rights activist, teacher, and little person, the term Burke uses in reference to her achondroplasia. Her stories are complimented by illustrations of diverse characters and whimsical typography by Natalie Byrne. This book gives young people a roadmap to build confidence, ask questions, and take steps toward a more inclusive and caring world. As Burke says, “The world is yours. Take your place and break the mould!”
Reading the book, I was struck by Burke’s unbridled curiosity and drive. Noticing that there was no Irish word for little person, Burke contacted Fóras na Gaeilge, an organization that oversees development of the Irish language. After just three days, duine beag, the direct translation of little person, was added to the Irish language dictionary. She became the first little person to appear on the cover of Vogue and assisted in creating the first little person mannequin. Her message is always the same: change comes when we use our voice and ask questions to challenge the status quo.
Privilege, allyship, and inclusivity are at the heart of Break the Mould. Burke explains these concepts in an age-appropriate and simple way that the book could (and should) be read by adults too. Burke strikes the right balance between telling hard truths about discrimination and oppression and giving young people hope that they can make things better. Burke encourages her readers to think of their unique qualities and differences as superpowers to help them bring about change.
This book would make a wonderful read for young people who feel different from their peers, and for budding activists, but we can all learn from Burke’s message: “You are enough as you are and the world can be changed by you, you don’t need to change for the world.”
‘Killing things is hard, sure, but keeping them safe and alive is much more difficult. Oh, boy, do I know about that,’ says Ted Bannerman, the protagonist in Catriona Ward’s novel The Last House on Needless Street,’ setting up a story exploring themes of identity, belonging and endurance.
The Last House on Needless Street opens with the crime fiction trope of a missing child, dubbed by the media ‘the Little Girl with the Popsicle,’ but the work defies genre categorisation being part Gothic horror, part crime thriller, part psychological discourse. Ward draws on the suburban Gothic of the mundane, to find horror within the family unit. Ted has constructed his own family: Lauren as his daughter; Olivia, the cat with her feline fluidity and sleek form; and his dead parents looking on from photographs.
Ward excels at unnerving the reader, in messing with our perceptions, dragging us kicking and screaming through brutality and revulsion, to tenderness and sympathy. At the heart of this work is a discourse on endurance and identity, and what transpires when the self is fractured. Plot in this work is wrought tight, delivering all that it sets up with its startling ending. Ward, perhaps knowing how unexpected and strange the work is, provides an afterword to explain how she ‘came to write a book about survival, disguised as a book about horror.’ Interventive, immersive, and disturbing – you’ll be thinking of this book long after the closing lines.
In Passerine by Kirsten Luckins the deep grief of losing a lifelong friend is animated, and an urgent voice emerges in 51 epistolary poems written in the span of a year. Like the October sparrows that go ‘from clinging, to flying’ off their branches, these elegies cling to absence through repetitions. The ‘Dear Sophie,’ that begins each poem makes vital ritual space for flights across ecological, maternal, and mortal landscapes. Luckins, as voyager, proclaims ‘I am voyeuse, voyageuse, voleuse, volante, vol’ and tenderly infuses the lives of mothers, flora and fauna, clouds and (so many) birds through bracing and darkly comedic observations on love and pain in an alienated world.
In considering the title I spared the Google search and was relieved to find its meaning in a dazzling, lexical journey through ‘passerine’ at the geographic and temporal centre of the text. The speaker is more of a bird-understander (to borrow from the poet Craig Arnold) than watcher. Birds casually stray and violently strafe, sometimes across a single poem: “For the love of birds, I chase/ cats from the garden./ Still no wren this year./ Severed-head, cloud-/burst of feathers,/ claw lacuna on a back doorstep.” This skyward movement is also accompanied by a near constant occupation with cloud formations as a devastating, elegiac source.
In Passerine mourning is an unpredictable and volatile act of love that forms in visuals, prose-poems, fragments, and telegrams. After penning letters for a year, Luckins asks Sophie ‘What more can I possibly tell you?’ but of course, she digs past the shallow question and the poem goes on.
Passerine is a wonderous, fierce awakening out of a year of ‘hatefulness and rage,’ to an examination of grief unearthed and love endured. Despite its unsettled meanings, Luckins reminds us that ‘The world only asks us to love it […] The world is easy to love.’
‘Exile is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home,’ wrote Edward Said. And in Alligator & Other Stories, Syrian-American writer Dima Alzayat interrogates this rift, offering searing yet luminous glimpses of the pain of displacement.
The book opens with a young woman preparing her murdered brother’s corpse for burial; harrowing, yet Zaynab’s meticulous ministrations and the memories they spawn are beautiful. While his wife sleeps, the husband of ‘In the Land of Kan’an’ is tormented with desire for the hustler in the ‘too-big white jeans’ he had sex with long ago, in a Cairo alleyway. The child bride of ‘Daughters of Manat’ terrorises her family into annulling her marriage; she seems invincible, which makes her unravelling all the more devastating.
Alzayat is particularly good at showing the experience of being Middle-Eastern in post- 911 America. The affable stoner in ‘Summer of the Shark’ watches from his desk in a call centre, appalled, as the second plane hits the twin towers, and behind him a workmate says, ‘Dirty Fuckers’.
Underpinning the collection is ‘Alligator’: the formally audacious telling of a true story, the murder by the police of a Syrian couple in Florida in 1929. Using snatches of sources, both real and imagined, Alzayat constructs a story of corruption and racism. Somehow it is the detail that is most affecting: the internalised xenophobia of a grandson of the murdered couple; the resolve of the family to never speak of the killings, to never speak Arabic. Conflicts of geography and language are at the heart of this book. To quote Mahmoud Darwish: ‘I am from there. I am from here. I am not there and I am not here.’
‘The line is the line,’ writes Grace Wilentz in The Limit of Light, her first full-length collection published last autumn by The Gallery Press, ‘sometimes it runs without stopping—// it’s a different line if you stop’.
Wilentz’s poems trace this line through rituals that move the reader ‘through to a new feeling’ (‘A year with Two Springs’), whether that be learning string shapes in the game ‘Cat’s Cradle’, or the spine ‘curling and uncurling’ in ‘The Lioness’ and also in yoga, where it’s power lies in ‘making space within the body’ (‘The Story of My Neck’). In ‘Alsace Shabbat’ she writes ‘you longed/ for ritual and place—why you needed the candles—on a night/ when there were no candles around.// So you made some from the wax that coated the cheese’. The most ordinary of objects are transformed by the light cast on them in the poems—bolts of cloth become the robes of a queen, dried beans an offering, the body a source of light. Wilentz’s careful image-making celebrates everyday moments, imbuing them with meaning until they become expansive, filling in absences where things were lost.
The collection comforts through Wilentz’s unflinching acknowledgement of life’s darkness. She writes about her mother’s cancer treatments and bereavement. In ‘Belly of the Whale’, Wilentz recounts the story of Jonah in words that are easy to relate to in the grief that isolates so many of us throughout life, especially now: ’After days/ of not speaking to anyone,/ the sound of my voice/ echoes back to me/ like the voice of a stranger.’ But rather than feeling mired in this darkness, I found in it ‘a landscape where I could begin to grieve’ (as she writes in the collection’s titular poem). Grounded in the ceremonies and stories of Wilentz’s Jewish heritage, the collection is a welcome reminder of the seasonality of all things.
Simone Atangana Bekono’s ‘how the first sparks became visible’ addresses the social stigmatization of race and gender across nine arresting poems. “Confronted by how white the space was” at art school in The Netherlands where this work first began, (quoted from Salma El-Wardany and LionHeart 27/01/2021, BBC Sounds) Atangana Bekono roots her poems across sometimes surreal imagery rich with anticipation: ‘I anger the water goddesses and I anger the lions / unable to remember why I walked out into the sun’.
Translated from Dutch by David Colmer, in his second translation for The Emma Press, it is the form of ‘how the first sparks became visible’ that allows the content to excel. Written as a sequence but individually numbered under the encompassing title ‘friction’, these poems are loosely punctuated and rarely consistent in stanza or line length. This allows the reader to enjoy and interrogate all the opportunities a poetic line and line break can bring: ‘On this March day I am not in love / for twenty-five years now I have gone into spring / without being in love’.
Atangana Bekono creates tension with ease, with repetition and imagery that is at once both looming and definitive: ‘we run laps around the black water / we water-ski across the black water / we flap like fish on the sand / after touching the black water’. This tension, at its best in the hunting pastoral ‘VII’, hits a crescendo in its closing stanza: ‘and I feel guilty / because I feel incomprehensibly attracted to the black water / like us standing on the edge of a cliff / a towering cliff, looking down’. Atangana Bekono stands on the edge of the precipice of expectation and experience with flashes of brilliance sparking across the page.
Daisy Lafarge’s debut collection Life Without Air, forms part of an intriguing recent development in ecological writing. Like Daisy Hildyard’s painstaking and persuasive account of the complexity of ecological interaction in The Second Body, and Rebecca Tamas’s studies in intimacy between the human and the non-human in Strangers, Life Without Air recognises that developing sustainable modes of living is co-dependent with imagining new political structures; that both ecology and economics are a matter of oikos.
The book may be seen as building upon the work of environmental philosopher Timothy Morton, whose study Ecology Without Nature goes beyond the deconstructive commonplace of saying that nature can only be designated as such from inside culture to argue that the concept of nature itself inhibits our understanding of the complexity of ecological interactions and the scale of our impact on other forms of life. Everywhere in Lafarge’s poems, she refuses the exceptionalism of the individual body: ‘she can no longer be considered detached as a gable end. // like a shared roof, she has implications / and is implicated’
This is a book whose parts (good as they are individually) work in concert to form a project of serious intellectual integrity. A forensic and clear-sighted examination of a toxic relationship in ‘A Question for Zeno’ is mirrored in the poisoned landscape of ‘Dredging the Baotou Lake’, whose titular location is a man-made lake in Mongolia formed as a result of mining minerals needed for wind turbines and solar panels. Personal and scientific truths are set alongside each other, in a way that does not relegate either to the status of metaphor, but condenses both to their essential dynamics of exploitation and reciprocity. This is a book which refuses to allow the ecological truth of mutual dependence to be abstract, but gives it form and flesh.
“I am so full of names,” writes Polina Cosgrave in her debut poetry collection, My Name Is. Indeed, throughout the collection, Cosgrave is preoccupied with naming—herself, her heritage, the world around her; under her watch, no ancestor is forgotten, and the smells of cities are catalogued. The title poem is a litany of those who have come before her—the old man whose “head was torn off by a bomb and / whose body was left on the frozen soil of Stalingrad,” a father who had his name etched on a Nagant revolver, and his wife, “Siranush, which means love, the / only name that should be given to a woman.” The lines are long and loaded as the narrator breathlessly works to record everything.
But the poems are not limited to the past; with “Surnames,” the collection turns toward the present, as the narrator situates herself within the lineage she has established. In the poem, she describes herself as a “Russian girl with an Irish surname, / who was a Russian girl with a Jewish surname” and follows this pattern backward through multiple generations, acknowledging finally that her own name is the result of every name before her “opening and eclipsing the other / like a Russian doll.” And, as she is “eclipsed” into her family history, she looks to the future of the daughter she is pregnant with, already itemising the world into which she will be born and ascribing a new and unique language to her: “She is talking to me / from the womb, this girl / She is reading / in her native language”.
Cosgrave was born in Volgograd, Russia, and moved to Dublin in 2016, but the collection is hardly limited to her own story; she processes issues of identity, trauma, and the concept of home with a delicacy and sincerity, as she invites readers to both learn her name and “Say it like it’s yours.”
Alycia Pirmohamed’s Hinge is a book of borders and belonging, of the body and the self, the land and the sea, of heritage and realisation.
These intersections are embedded within Pirmohamed’s exploration of homeland and migrancy. In ‘Homeward’, as “the engine of the Boeing roared to life”, the speaker details the everlasting impact of a trip across the Atlantic as she demonstrates how journeys—in whichever directions they might take—are always shaped by previous ones:
“In the heart of every migrant, there is a windrose pointing home
and while the needles within your own cells
flicker back and forth, your father is steadfast in direction:
homeward, a course you have only ever imagined, a flight path
you have learned may never exist for you”
As she writes in ‘My Inheritance is to Long for [ ]’, identity is for Pirmohamed “a generation of crossings//becoming and unbecoming”, a space in which heritage and potentiality compete and intermingle.
Each poem treats the borderline with utmost suspicion—its influence is restrictive and at worst confrontational: “You know better than to feel welcome at anything resembling a border” (‘Welcome’). Rather, if the body is a forest as the first poem contends, “loosened borders” offer emancipation. In ‘Endearments’, this unmoored landscape is where the speaker and her lover come together:
& exist within one another—
The way you disappear into the trees
& I follow.”
It is no coincidence, then, that a poem titled ‘Elsewhere’ ends on the curiosity of that word “belonging”.
Pirmohamed’s lyrical dexterity is fresh and full of wonder, yet rooted (if the poems allow such a word) in a belief in the possibility of language and poetic form. There is an openness to these poems that is both inquisitive and arresting; the voice that navigates them appears both natural and unique. Without fear of exaggeration, this pamphlet is stunning.
The coming-of-age story is a well-trodden path for many young poets, but what stands Jake Hawkey’s debut chapbook Breeze Block apart is the portrait of the working-class area of South-East London. In the “Laughing Poem” ‘A lecturer says collage should perform a balance of sort’, and collage is a key technique for Hawkey as he brings together a wealth of references to religion, architecture and popular culture, to realise the complexity of his world.
Dedicated to the poet’s late father, Breeze Block’s main theme is grief, exploring the myriad of constructive and destructive ways in which we come to terms with loss. For example, in the four-part poem ‘Dad’s still in a coma so I’m sent’, Hawkey injects humour and wit into a situation that is fraught with emotion, ‘Look at me, I’ve found the biggest chip in the world!’
Like Tony Harrison before him, Hawkey examines the anxieties of class identity as he moves through education and into the middle-class. The prose poem in the middle condenses many of the themes (lockdown, addiction, literature) into a series of vignettes that reverberate throughout. The love poems are the most affecting with ‘Chin’, the opening poem, a stand-out: ‘love will show in a myriad of complexions/love will shed in a myriad of complexions.’ In Breeze Block love is the cement holding the book together.
Published by Lumpen, an imprint from The Class Work project, a co-operative organising around working-class writers. Breeze Block is a reminder that the issue of class in society is and will always be a fitting topic for art. That Jake Hawkey writes about it with the utmost compassion and humour is a testament to the balance he achieves.
‘I don’t want to beautify our collective trauma’, Bhanu Kapil declares early on in this, her first full-length book of poetry to be published in the UK. In How to Wash a Heart, then, we find internal organs ‘exposed to view’; pain is held out to readers, within touching distance, but never ‘beautified’. Rather, it is examined meticulously, in a collection that ruminates on place and displacement, the experience of exile and the difficulty of finding—or creating—a home.
Each poem is untitled; each spoken in the voice of an immigrant guest, a woman of colour, adapting to life with a white host family in an unnamed new nation. Making away in a taxi from a scene where bodies are buried under mango trees, the speaker’s first home ‘explodes in the rear-view mirror’, and the remainder of the collection tracks her efforts to put down roots in a new land—as well as her struggle to feel truly accepted in a place where hospitality only ever feels performative. (A note on the title, at the end of the book, tells us that these poems are, in part, drawn from reflections on Kapil’s experience in university settings: ‘an outward-facing generosity or inclusivity that had not, always, matched the lived experience of moving through corridors and faculty meetings of the “mostly white” spaces that a private, liberal arts college in the United States so often is.’)
Recently shortlisted for this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize, How to Wash a Heart announces Kapil as a singular force in contemporary poetry. It is an instruction manual for empathetic living.
Kostya Tsolakis’ pamphlet Ephebos begins with an epigraph from a poem by C P Cavafy. Tsolakis explains how this poem’s title is translated variously from Greek to English: ‘In the Harbour-Town’; ‘In this Port’; ‘Safe Haven’. Tsolakis’ pamphlet—in its tender traversal of a queer, Athenian coming-of-age—explores the spaces in-between translation, and the people that find themselves in this in-between terrain, unsure of the language to express queer life.
There is violence and menace laced through Ephebos (‘Someone Else’s Child’ elegises Zak Kostopoulos’ fatal assault by police), as well as the insidious pressure of heteronormative society, the “phantom shackle around my wrist”. This makes the moments of deep-feeling tenderness all the more qualified and affecting. ‘Fragments of Emails from My Mother in 2011’ is a found poem of just that, and complicates the theme of queer emancipation from the stifled city: “we miss your voice/ your laughter/ your arguing”.
The pamphlet begins and concludes with breathing. The speaker of the opening poem grows bold through their devotional attention to sculptures (“glossy athletes,/ gods and heroes, in bronze”), yet despite this boldness, the imaginative transport of youthful queer desire is scuppered by the speaker finding it “harder and harder/to breathe” in a locked bathroom.
The last poem in the pamphlet, ‘Athenian Light’—in echoes of Cavafy and Mark Doty—describes this Greek light: “sweet and hued at sunset/ like the seeded flesh of figs”. Menace returns as the last stanza depicts a child learning to swim, while the poet recalls their father’s advice that “you can drown/ even in the clearest light”. The threat of drowning, being overwhelmed by circumstances, by distance, are a low-burning threat throughout Ephebos, but crucially the drowning never occurs, the difficult relationship not abandoned. The emphasis, and joy, in these poems is their ongoingness.
“I didn’t tell a soul I was sick,” begins Elaine Feeney’s debut novel, As You Were. The story of Sinead Hynes centres on the denial of her own terminal illness, which she keeps as a secret from her husband and sons. The story journeys through Sinead’s life on the hospital ward and Feeney writes it with an undercurrent of social commentary, which acts as a metaphor for how intimate, personal histories are laid bare and exposed in the reality of illness, covered only by the looseness of a hospital gown.
The novel is structured with swathes of white space, where chaotic musings occupy the in-between of inner thought and car-crash dialogue, brought to life by the motley of interactions with neighbouring patients. Feeney’s poetic tongue is felt in her sparse, lyrical acuity and her prose shoots like gunfire into the heart of female grief. “We’re seeing the inner lives of the character, and much like reality, that isn’t always going to be lovely,” said Feeney during this year’s International Literature Festival Dublin. “Our interior world is complex and it’s a complicated space.”
As You Were achieves a sense of moral intensity defined by Sinead's secrecy and described by Feeney as bearing the weight of “unmotherly-ness". The novel contextualises female identity by leaving a profound stain on why and how we are stirred into the judgement of women. It argues how unlikeable female literary figures act as a corollary of the impeachable cultural standards women are held against, examined spectacularly through a dying woman's eyes.
In the book’s titular story, Kawakami plays with deixis, personal and temporal. While one narrative arc dominates the vignette structure – an ostensible love story – the reader is unsure whether the ‘I’ of the tangential digressions is the same speaker. This fluctuating capacity of narrator is mirrored in content, as Kawakami explores metamorphosis: the speaker becomes a horse, a loach; the ‘I’ sprouts mushrooms from her neck. Similarly, the timeframe is intangible, giving everything an unmoored effect. ‘When I awoke, time was at a standstill,’ the speaker says, but then, ‘Good morning, I said. It’s too early to say that, she said.’
During an interview, Kawakami expressed her admiration for Natsume Soseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams. The influence is clear, especially in ‘Record of a Night too Brief’, as Kawakami’s landscapes mutate under the jurisdiction of a mercurial night. Similar to Soseki’s work, there is palpable helplessness, redolent of dreams generally. However, unlike Soseki’s, where patience in the face of the incomprehensible is rewarded, Kawakami’s dreamscape is more malevolent: questions go unanswered and unease permeates. In ‘Missing’, a girl’s brother vanishes without explanation. ‘Will I too just disappear?’ she asks.
With the first person, we might be tempted to assume the speaker an agent of control. The events of this book, however, arriving like non-sequiturs, render the protagonists as pliable to the narrative’s penumbras as the reader.
Across the trio themes recur. There is love’s ability, be it familial or romantic, to make individuality mutable: its subsuming nature, how it alters. There is the fallibility of memory. There is grief, its permutations. There is the strangeness of intimacy, our imperviousness to it. What is impressive is Kawakami’s ability to elicit anhedonia from the sparsest prosaic style. Her talent for writing gesture and mood makes her work deeply atmospheric, and prone to lingering.
‘Kiwi / Kiwi / Kiwi’, the opening poem in Bebe Ashley’s debut collection Gold Light Shining from Banshee Press, has an apt phrase for a collection like this: “It is not normal”. And it isn’t normal to have a book of poetry about Harry Styles, let alone one where the man himself is utterly absent except for the well-hidden and delightful easter eggs. Nor is it normal that Ashley has brought us poetry from the realm of fandom, a world often stereotyped as vapid.
If we expect her to mediate the theme of celebrity through the character of Harry Styles, she subverts this expectation in poems that utilize the rich texture and acute attention of this misjudged world. In the compact poem ‘Ever Since New York’, Ashley aims her fluorescent spotlight of appreciation and ‘celebritizing’ gaze on the usual faces known to any early city riser: the porter, the bagel cart worker, even the regular at the bagel cart. These are the characters often overlooked on New York’s sidewalks, but to Ashley they are the stars of the poem.
In Ashley’s skillful and empathetic poem, ‘The Boy Who’, we find a boy in the midst of a drunken crisis having “kissed a girl just to impress his friends”. Ashley makes his experience central to the poem by relaying his stream of consciousness to the reader, thereby introducing us to another celebrity. This time he’s in a “borrowed jesus t-shirt… hiding in the bathroom of a house party”, rather than on a bustling city avenue.
This is Ashley’s own gold light shining through this book: everyone is worthy of her spotlight. Such is the case in ‘Give Pop Music, Give Peace a Chance’, where one would expect an ardent case to be made for Styles or his music. Instead, Ashley choses to cast a grandmother peacefully watching her grandchildren playing in a park as the lead role, exemplars of why we ought to give peace, and indeed everyone, a chance.
‘I want my poems to be useful and to help people to practice empathy’, Roger Robinson has said in an interview with The Guardian, proving that for Robinson poetry can make something happen, and what it makes happen is empathy. Many of the poems in A Portable Paradise, Robinson’s second collection, reckon with the question of how people tell their own stories, while recognising the burden of continuing generational trauma. ‘I woke up in chains in the belly of the slave ship’, begins the poem ‘Woke’.
Robinson reports on the broken political system that enabled disasters such as the Grenfell fire, which is fiercely remembered and commemorated in the opening section. In ‘The Missing’ spirits of victims float towards the sky, ‘finches darting deftly between them’. In ‘Ghosts’, someone moving into a refurbished flat in Grenfell is haunted by the family who once resided there: ‘You feel it as soon as you settle in your new flat, perhaps when you are making rocket salad with lemon dressing’.
Alongside the outwardly public and political, this book also contains poems that are intensely private: in ‘Grace’ Robinson details the premature birth of his son with raw emotion (‘if by some chance, I’m not here and my son’s life should flicker,/then Grace, she should be the one.’) And in ‘On Nurses’ he writes a love letter to the NHS, how ordinary care translates into extraordinary love, showing how often there is little that separates the public from the private.
Robinson writes with furious beauty, subverting anger so that therein might be found the seed of something beyond the emotion itself, a connecting tissue that links our common humanity. This book will prove to be important as legacies are rethought and history continues to be re-evaluated: A Portable Paradise is a powerful social document.
‘In The Odyssey there’s mention of a plant called moly’ begins Erika Meitner, in the opening poem to her fifth collection, Holy Moly Carry Me. The poem stretches out over four pages, catapulting about like an elastic band, using the title’s words to forge connections between the Torah and Levitical law, Dublin in the 1930s, Captain Marvel, a German thrash metal band, Syrian refugees, Elton John, the poets’ ‘post-war refugee’ mother on a boat to America, a ‘German displaced persons camp’, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio’s anti-refugee stance, Roosevelt and ‘fear is fear’, ‘torn passports’, and ‘the slow vanishing of everything including memory’. ‘Holy moley!’, ‘Holy Moses’, ‘Holy moses let us live in peace’.
With this book, Meitner gives us a document of America⎯specifically Southern Appalachia, its ‘apocalyptic sunsets […] like / a bruised clavicle’, in the 2010’s. We encounter political themes from gun violence and parenthood (‘I ask my son what he would do if someone came to his school with a gun’) to religious and racial identity (‘I am / neighbor and other. I am a Jew and the mother / of one white son and one black son.’). But that is not to say that this book takes itself too seriously (‘Holy Moly, if I have the gift of prophecy’).
Written in Meitner’s characteristic narrative style with fast-paced language and revelatory turns, these are poems of violence and survival, that show ‘beauty as it hurtles through darkness.’ Amid all of the frenetic energy of the poems, Meitner still manages to cut through the anxieties that plague the last and current decade, creating a relevant and original poetic world, her HolyMolyLand. This book is really good. Go read it.
‘This is a female text’, begins A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s prose debut; a richly layered story of a woman’s communion with a dead writer, the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Years after encountering Ní Chonaill’s long poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’ (‘Lament for Art Ó Laoghaire’) as a schoolgirl, Ní Ghríofa returns to it, immersing herself in the work. Simultaneously, she’s adapting to her new role as a mother. The writer brings to bear on this book both a scholarly intensity and a gift for lyricism, skilfully intertwining Ní Chonaill’s narrative with her own.
We follow our protagonist through the ‘whirligig’ of days spent cleaning, cooking, parenting. (‘There is a peculiar contentment to be found in absenting oneself like this,’ she tells us, ‘subsumed in the needs of others: in such erasure, for me, lies joy.’) When she falls pregnant with a fourth child, the possibility of tragedy—of stillbirth—looms, but does not come to pass. And so, Ní Ghríofa settles into a new routine, caring for a daughter as well as her three sons; embarking on a quest to discover what she can about Ní Chonaill’s biography.
This ‘female text’, then, is a messy, loud, joyous affirmation of life, warts and all (whether that life is lived today or was lived in the 1700s); a meditation on the relationship between bodies poetic and physical. In her quest for an adequate translation of her source poem, Ní Ghríofa is routinely disappointed: ‘Many of the translations I find feeble—dead texts that try, but fail, to find the thumping pulse of Eibhlín Dubh’s presence’. She rectifies this absence—the book ends with her brilliant translation of the caoineadh (or ‘keen’) in full—and Ní Ghríofa’s own pulse thumps alongside Ní Chonaill’s in this vital work. A Ghost in the Throat lingers in the imagination long after reading, revealing how texts can haunt us—and how we can haunt them back.