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 regular 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.
“I love the parables […] and all those great old stories” remarks Marie Howe in conversation with Krista Tippet. “They’ve struck me as poems. They hold so much mystery and complexity. A story is all there, but we know the story, the real story, is inarticulate. […] I love the space in between what happens”.
This exactly crystallises Howe’s intention in her fourth collection of poems Magdalene (2017), a book that dramatizes and re-imagines a Mary Magdalene voice as a contemporary woman.
These poems are startling plainspoken, and almost free themselves from metaphor, often conversational, and full of pain-staking clarity. ‘Magdalene—On Romance’ describes Magdalene…in romance, as “a dog/instructing ducks”, before reaching the remarkable stillness of the final image: “The screen door banged a few times, then stopped./ How quiet the room then,/ when I sat in the white wooden chair.”
In this book Marie Howe’s primary concern is Magdalene’s subjectivity, hijacked and transformed as it was by many over centuries by patriarchal and conservative theologies and societies. The first poem in the book, ‘Before the Beginning’, directly addresses Magdalene’s historic treatment, in the form of four simple questions: Was I ever virgin?/ Did someone touch me before I could speak?/ Who had me before I knew I was an I?”
Magdalene has no biography according to the Gospels except Luke’s record that seven devils were cast from her, and perhaps a crowning achievement of Magdalene is ‘Magdalene—The Seven Devils’; Magdalene tries to list each devil here, failing each time. “The first was that I was very busy.” “The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living.” “Ok. The first. was that I could never get to the end of the list.” This is a crucial and innovative book of poems by, I think, one of the most remarkable and humane poets writing.
In the post-place logic of postmodernity, where we admit everywhere is more or less the same under late capitalism, where there is no new ecological wilderness and no chance for a return, what are the implications for the travel poem?
Here, Andrew Rahal’s focus is not on finding destinations, but on meeting himself and others amid journeys. The poet hears Seamus Heaney’s call in ‘Postscript’: ‘Useless to think you’ll park and capture it/ More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass’. The reader’s journey through this fourteen-poem chapbook mirrors Rahal’s non-hierarchical kaleidoscope of locales, from American deserts (‘The farther I drive, the faster my rituals shed like skin’), to pastel dunes with ‘teens drunk off neon’, then to Sappho (WA) where the animals are ‘just muscling through.’
Rahal investigates what new spaces bring to the surface of the self, aware that what one notices may reflect the self as much as any observed situation. In the brilliant, standout poem ‘Border Crossing’, the arbitrariness of map lines is exemplified by a dizzying and dazzling hustling together of images: ‘the bluegrass rushing under a train/ or the Bible Belt sky/ over/ a crayon blue Atlantic and/ a plane landing into European smoke/ and the endless transfers from tarmacs to towns/ back to tarmacs or churches’. Place becomes memory in ‘Bratislava’: ‘the rooftops curve and smile,/ as precious as a fragile painted wood,/ growing smaller and more inward.’ In ‘Nashville’, the speaker confesses, ‘I have cheated the pizza man, his home and backroads. I have lived on cul-de-sacs/ where I witnessed delivery drivers going in circles.’ In this lyrical homage to the journey, Rahal remains calm and upbeat about the personal and political challenges ahead: ‘I am heading west today and despite the rain and fog it feels bright and clear.’
I rarely indulge in a ‘Halloween read’, but this year I found Come Closer on a rushed trip to the bookshop, barely looking as I grabbed it from the shelf. Now, having read it, I have to wonder if the book didn’t appear a little too conveniently in my life…
In this horror novella Amanda, a successful young architect, is checking off life goals at a ferocious rate until a supernatural entity begins to turn her life upside down.
This is a novella that trusts the reader to understand when powers are shifting, and when a small detail will be vital down the line. It would be easy to lose your footing in this tale if it wasn’t for Gran’s straightforward, pared-back prose; the unravelling thoughts of Amanda power the novella. Here, the moments we really need to worry about are when the voice slips from “I” to “We”. Namaah (the unearthly and apocryphal antagonist) is with us, behind us, for every word of the novella from this point onwards.
The brevity of Come Closer is partly what makes it so chillingly effective; in just 150 short pages we are invited to watch an ordinary life implode. It is also full of horribly comedic moments. Already aware she is not quite herself, Amanda tells us that “no living creature looked at me favourably anymore… Yet here I was on my way to a psychiatrist’s office, trying to convince myself that I had a regular psychological problem.” This is a protagonist who tries to rationalise her way through every situation, a hallmark of Gran’s writing that makes the horror so convincing.
At one point Amanda tells us that “the most shocking truth was that, previously, I had been so stupid as to think I had any understanding of the universe at all.” Amanda is wholly disorientated, but Gran never lets the reader join her in this darkness - we are guided by the careful prose. Ultimately, in Gran’s hands, we are walked through a portrait of demonic possession that is not wholly dark, illogical, or resistible…
'With others in your absence’ is the second stunning pamphlet by poet Zosia Kuczyńska. And as a caveat, I should mention, that Zosia and I are friends, but that in no way impeaches my reading of these poems (it probably does).
The poems in this pamphlet explore the poet’s grief, following the loss of her father, and also, in Zosia’s own words in a video (link below) ‘the friendships that help you navigate that grief, to help you live with and through it.’
So, yes we have grief and friendships, but the other main character in these poems is the ‘classic’ series of Doctor Who (about which I know nothing and it definitely does not impeach my reading). Zosia elegises her father via Doctor Who because it was their shared territory: a ‘vocabulary of images’ that she has been gifted; a vessel. ‘The day is melted like a painted clock’ she says in ‘July 6’, ‘let’s dawdle brazenly’.
The second poem in this pamphlet (‘Here we go again’) made me weep, all of a sudden, in the queue to board my flight to Bristol this week and I've barely been able to read a poem since. Which is to say, I'm finding it difficult writing this critique; trying to find the words to say anything intelligent about these poems when each time I read one all I feel is emotion.
There’s an honesty in these poems, conveyed through language that is raw, open-hearted, simple, and yet at the same time, weaves around each part of itself, to complicate matters beyond (my current) comprehension: ' Imagine that my friends are patient with me; that they have offered me their ears and arms and company like Jelly Babies because I'm sad and we don't know what to do.' And I trust Zosia with my own ears and arms and put myself in her company, trusting her with the familiar (poetic) journey of grief.
‘Until we meet again we will / not meet again. Home is either coming or going / and I am always going. Until we meet again.’
G.C. Waldrep’s self-described book of ‘walking poems’ bear the poet’s physical and spiritual witness in stark and iridescent language.
An unmistakable sense of lostness surfaces in the opening poem “American Goshawk”: “The land beyond the pond had been logged/ and I lost the path in the refuse, the clotting punk” and the sense of lostness reappears in the disarray of American rust-belt towns, Welsh castles, British country-sides, churchyards, disused farmhouses, and recovery wards.
The long narrative poems that make up most of this collection venture both conversationally and historically into these spaces to praise their mystery and curiosity. Waldrep’s ear is closely tuned to questions of personal faith in crisis: “I have a fever and its name is God,” a patient remarks from a hospital bed. And walking through Ely Cathedral, the speaker discovers affirmations in the slow thrill of being alive in surprising detail: “Yes to praise, the soul’s milled dentures. It makes the slightest sound,/ like an animal licking itself.”
The Earliest Witnesses meanders into conversations with musicians, artists, poets, and philosophers such as Saint Ephrem, Ernst Chladni, Simone Weil, Syrian mystic Dadisho, Welsh St. Melangell and an omnipresent God; and further still, the ordinary encounters with friends and caretakers (hospital orderlies, sextons, gardeners, etc…) nurture a space for spontaneities, impieties, and intimacies to roam just as freely.
If writing is resistance, then this book resists the clamouring for reducible moral certainties and “the rage to classify, to collect” human errors and transgressions. The Earliest Witnesses grapples with pain, splendour, faith and love and Waldrep shines as a provoker of what we see and think. Line by line the reader can see belief transfigured on the page, gathering the urgency of agitations and testimonies that catch “the world readjusting all around, as worlds do.”
I picked up Scenes of a Graphic Nature at No Alibis as a treat for finishing my master’s dissertation—having spent the summer thinking about poetry, I wanted something different.
This novel features Charlie, a struggling filmmaker who lives in London. When her film gets accepted to the Cork Film Festival, she is given a chance to visit Clipim, the mysterious island off the coast of Ireland where her father grew up. When she arrives, a critique of her film causes her to reconsider everything her father has told her about his heritage—and why he left Ireland in the first place.
While ultimately a thriller, the tensions of the novel competed with each other. The mystery of the island vied with the romance between Charlie and Maria, a local barmaid, and the friction between Charlie and her longtime friend, Laura. While entirely plausible, Charlie’s personal battles, such as her father’s worsening cancer and her foray into amateur pornography, felt too convenient. These sub-plots overshadowed the novel’s central tension, leaving me unsatisfied with the big reveal in its resolution.
Despite this, I felt this was a fresh and compelling take on the thriller. It grappled with identity, notions of failure and success, and family duty while retaining a lightness through Charlie’s humorous narration. I found myself chuckling to myself often while reading, especially when introduced to Satan the dog. I enjoyed stepping out of my life and into Clipim, I’m just not sure I would visit again.
Brendan Cleary’s The Other Place is made up of three sections: ‘Ghost Tapes’, ‘Esme Letters’, and ‘The Other Place’.
The opening poem, ‘Pucks Lane’, takes the reader on a journey through Cleary’s native Whitehead in east coast County Antrim, which is also my hometown and Cleary remembers every yard perfectly: ‘past Haverons butchers / at the turn into something // past the Marine Bar / James & Molly at the fire // past the Rangers Club / where Paschal sometimes drank’. I, too, frequent The Marine and spent part of my MA introducing my classmates to its sailorly charm. The poem is populated with images of the dead, (some of whom I also knew), the past tense doing the unspoken work of commemoration and ending up ‘past Pucks Lane / always at the edge of something’.
This ‘something’ is always achingly beyond Cleary’s reach, such as his late mother in ‘Some Days’: ‘days without your cupboards / days without your spoons’ as he tries in vain to ‘hear the clock / chiming over your fireplace’. These are short and subtle poems whose economy hit home all the harder for it. ‘The Leaves’ is so devastatingly bare that it’s hard to process how it can be so affecting in only 22 words: ‘I knew in October / you’d go // but I didn’t say / because of the leaves // & their messages / & the silver birch tree’.
The character of Esme in the middle section is an empathetic version of Berryman’s ‘Mr. Bones’, an invention Cleary resorts to when the dead will not answer: ‘& Mama & Dada vanished / Big Facey died in his yard / Esme I hope it’s OK / to tell you stuff like this’.
The collection is a wonderful meditation on what it means to be alive while loved ones have gone to the ‘other place’ invoked by the title, and yet still Cleary manages humour in grief: ‘aye it’s a strange carry-on / me talking to the dead so much’.
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? This refrain poses the central questions in the feverish dream world of Untold Night and Day by Korean writer Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith.
The story follows a former actress named Ayami over the course of one night and day during a blackout in the sweltering heat of a Seoul summer. But that sense of time is warped by changes in tense and perspective. Recurring motifs, like pockmarked faces, starched white hanboks, ‘skinny calves corded with stringy muscle’, and the drone of unseen radios, repeat throughout but bounce from character to character, melding them all into different versions of one another. Ayami herself is, at times, also possibly her German teacher, a pharmacist’s wife, her own mother, and a once-famous poet.
The fragility of borders between the characters, between dream and reality, and between night and day forms a tension throughout; in a memory of her childhood, Ayami recalls picking up a pebble in the road to reveal another mirror world beneath, where ‘Ayami was her future self or her past self. And she was both, existing at the same time’. This, she concludes, ‘was the secret of night and day existing simultaneously’. One such border that lingers at the corners of Suah’s tenuous reality is the 38th parallel dividing North from South Korea. In a final scene, Ayami repeats to herself, ‘Take me to another world’, a request she knows is impossible, as the train she’s on is limited by the hard border. These meetings of the ethereal—shadow people, ghosts, hallucinations—with realities like war, familial separation, and illness, merge to create a disconcerting and disorienting portrait of personal and national identity, trauma, and the myriad roles each of us plays.
Jess Mc Kinney’s Weeding opens with “37 more shades of blue” then “the wet sound of an orange” but it doesn’t take long for the reader to be immersed in an ecosystem of lush green. “In most dreams I wake up here, on the edge of green with shale in my pockets.”
This treatment of colour extends from scientific HTML colour codes to the ephemeral ‘The Good Kind of Green’. As a reader, we roam forests, seas, and skies searching for the gloomy surprise in each poem and we are rewarded well, especially in the prose poems where secrets are shared, “I remember you swearing that photography was the greatest liar of all, second only to poetry. I was just happy to know we were bound together in sin.”
The realm of these poems extends beyond the natural world and is enriched by the appearance of other artists: Ansel Adams, Edward Hopper, William Morris. “Licking wallpaper is never a polite way to behave”, sometimes jocose, sometimes sincere, Mc Kinney asks the reader to consider an artist’s gaze and their impact on the landscapes they’ve captured and created permanence with.
There is often a careful tension between the people in the landscapes. This is heightened in ‘Dampen’ where a canal boat is “anointed in kerosene and surrounded by forest singing evening…Thoughts never far from the children born as fires burn, into a world where everything is hopeful enough to make your throat ache.”
We move quickly across land and water and back again in these poems. In the closing poems, ‘Distracted Kisses’, ‘Crest’, ‘The Assignment’, ‘Latency’ a sense of anxiety builds before we return back to the thing that first inhabited the rich landscapes of these poems, an “animal running through the storm.”
Like all great works of art, Jess knew the colour palette mattered and the earthy tone of Weeding, like the colours evoked in 'The Good Kind of Green,’ is a beautiful thing.
‘I notice a certain harmony/ for the first time in an old song,’ Will Burns writes of riding the train through the English countryside where there is ‘almost nothing to see.’ Noticing a certain harmony in an old song is an apt description for Burns’ collection, Country Music (Offord Road Press, 2020). Burns takes the ‘almost nothings’ of the world and shows how much music they actually hold whether a mobile home in America, watching YouTube videos late at night, a disused MOD site, or going on a camping trip.
This collection asks us to look at what we romanticize and feel nostalgia for – the things we find comforting. Burns presents these comforts and refines them from the kind of comfort that comes from a local café where the baristas know your order, to the uneasy comfort of visiting the town where you grew up and being forced to notice the many ways the town has changed and the even more numerous ways in which you are different now too.
The thoughtful and vivid language of Country Music suits Burns’ attention to the details of the world. This intensifies the contrast between the ‘trash of living things’ on the beach where ‘bodies do not wash up… but show themselves at their leisure,’ and the gannet still diving for fish. Change (frequently for the worse) is everywhere coexisting with things that have always been there. Poem after poem, readers are confronted with the rippling effect of people’s choices.
Country Music shows us a world of striking landscapes and wildlife simultaneously packed full of humanity’s messiness. Will Burns generously puts on a Merle Haggard record in the background while pouring a much-appreciated beer for us to wash it all down with.
I might as well fess up. I was ‘involved’ in Stephen Sexton’s latest collection, Cheryl’s Destinies. By which I mean, I read the book in its initial stages. By which I mean, I offered some meagre advice. By which I mean, my name appears in the Acknowledgments. I mean ‘fess up’ because people who appear in the Acknowledgments of a book and then review said book as if they’re you, the reader, encountering the book for the first time, are annoying.
This being said, I don’t have a firmer grasp on the book after having read it (possibly) a few more times than you have. This isn’t a book of ‘firm grasps’. Take the opening line from ‘A Quarter Mile of Voices’, a veritable thimblerig: ‘A loaf steals a bread of starving man’. Or this from ‘You Don’t Say’: ‘A gorgeous big lump of a horse of a bar / of English elm varnished with lightning.’ Sexton, though, is always safely at the wheel. If syntax is a journey, he knows a short cut that ends up being longer than the long way round, in the course of which he’ll reveal to you an entirely new prospect of landscape or of language.
The poems themselves are shuffled and dealt out of Cheryl’s tarot pack. The book as a whole has an architectural grace. Poems of love and friendship; of loss of loves and friends; of boyish joy (& the violent potential it contains); of making (& the violent potential it contains); of being alone and being forced to be alone together (‘Siamese Dream for the Cloths of Heaven’ is the best poem to come out of successive lockdowns I’ve read, and it hardly mentions it); of the future and the threats to it.
Cheryl’s Destinies’ achievement is the ability to survey our moment and its attendant confusions and anxieties, its heady mixture of decay and renewal, while managing to maintain a rareness of sympathy and integrity and a fascination with the possible – of what could have been, or what will be.
In The Sun is Open, Gail McConnell has created an important, moving and dynamic text, a carefully composed set of poems concerning what is, to many, seemingly impossible to approach: the murder of her father, in terms of both the personal and the political.
These poems take the form mostly of concrete passages, commanding pillars in the centre of each page, and feature appropriations from other texts, such as newspaper articles, Bible entries and her father’s diary. These texts’ significance lies in how they inform the author’s feelings regarding her own upbringing, one that’s likely plagued with the feelings of loss, and how she approaches the traumatic event. For me, the most striking use of this is the found poem on page 48 in which a young McConnell edits Psalm 23, ending it in “my enemies see/ me/ know/ my/ house.”
This religious language appears throughout the book and draws parallels between the pious and the every-day, particularly with the word ‘father’ and finding the balance between using this to describe the personal relationship between father and daughter and the holy connection between God and human. In this language, there are delicate and subtle political connotations, as religion is often used as the territorial and baseline identifier for the conflict in 1980s Northern Ireland that composes the context in which the murder of her father occurred in 1984.
Overall, this book is a generous offering from Gail McConnell to the reader that offers insight into her own journey of processing the events. The switching of voice between that of her childhood self and of her present-day self highlights the difficulty of this task at the time of the event (when she was only three-years-old) and now, 37 years later. The Sun is Open displays an account of grief presented through engaging and impassioned verse that reminds us of the personal impact that our country's violence has had for those who have lost loved ones.
In her first collection, What Kind of Woman, Kate Baer lassos womanhood and, pulling tightly on every dark detail, presents the everyday flesh and bones of a life. She writes, ‘Pick up your heavy burdens and leave / them at the gate.’ It is a fitting instruction for a book like this, in a collection full of experience, pain, desire and humour. The reader is welcomed in an embrace of familiarity, a sisterhood of acknowledgement; you may suffer, but you do not suffer alone.
The book ranges from acute societal observations as in ‘My Friend Bethany Rages at the News’, and ‘Female Candidate’ which examine how women are portrayed in the media, and the achingly intimate ‘Deliverance’, in which she writes of a child being born, ‘What is the word for when the light leaves / the body? What is the word for when it, at / last, returns?’ This range gives us the opportunity to access Baer’s sharp commentary on the ways women are constantly harangued about every aspect of their lives; their weight, their sexuality, their intelligence, but it also acts as a salve to this noise. Filtered throughout the collection are poems about love, told with tenderness and heart through the voice of a mother.
One of the best things about Baer’s writing is her tone of resilience and quiet encouragement in the face of the things which can knock us down or make us feel a certain way about ourselves. These poems say, don’t do it, you’re better than that, like in ‘Moon Song’ when she says, ‘You may be a woman of / commotion and quiet. Magic and brain.’ Most of the poems in this collection are short and blocky stanzas, reading like little kicks of truth and wisdom, and these deliver reinforcement, ’Life will rough you up. / Throw you to the / shore like a wave crashing’. This is a collection to read in one sitting, but to come back to again and again.
After at least a year of isolation, returning to a city full of people has forced me to think about bodies in ways I’d not taken time to before: the wonders as well as the failings of our bodies, and the ways our relationships with bodies influence us as people. Jess Arndt’s Large Animals (Cipher Press, 2017) has been a wonderful companion in this.
The twelve stories in this collection are full of bodies, people talking about bodies: bodies that surprise, support, and betray characters constantly, from the mundanity of a pedicab driver talking about weight loss, to someone waking up with a block of wood where their face should be, and from phone calls about top surgery to pervasive dreams of walruses.
Arndt’s use of language is imaginative and engaging — chandeliers of a casino “spaghettied from the ceiling” and a brother is “probably under a roll-neck of Xbox and bong smoke.” The frequently-unnamed narrators ask questions of the reader, usually about bodies; questions like: “Was it a universe-made law – some bodies need more space?” and “Instantly pregnant – was there any other way?” which rarely have a straightforward answer.
For all the seriousness with which these stories question what it means to be human, they keep a surreal playfulness of language. They are also full of uneasiness as plots leap just as the reader grows comfortable with the direction of the story. One moment the narrator is driving in their car, next they are in a crystal cave built in a parking lot swap meet.
Jess Arndt’s questions, leaps and playful language transform these stories into the undoable and the unavoidable; ultimately we must inhabit whatever body we have. Large Animals is a collection of stories that can be read and re-read. They will always reveal new joys and new insights about the ways in which our bodies move us through the world.
Notes on the Sonnets is full of Luke Kennard’s wry sardonic humour and experimental exuberance, but is a book far removed from the tone of earlier collections. A sequence of 154 prose poems loosely inspired by a different Shakespeare sonnet, Notes follows a first-person speaker through a house party that to any frequent party-goer is the physical representation of hell on earth.
Kennard has the ability to feed our experiences back to us: ‘I have a friend who breaks into uncontrollable screaming at the first sign of small talk.’ 'The strength of Notes is in these moments of commonality between the speaker and reader that create an ‘Ahh Yes' moment of recognition. Anyone who has attended a party knows what it’s like ‘to want to disappear into the night with all the apology of a firework.’
Notes is more than a series of vignettes and its breadth of subjects is impressive. Using the great bard’s words as a springboard, the collection is less a conversation between Kennard and Shakespeare than Kennard and his younger self; at its heart, Notes is a book about family and the importance of settling down. The most affecting poems are the ones addressed to or about his son. If maturity is to improve on what has gone before, Notes is a book on the cusp of middle age.
Full of the ‘solemnity and regret’ that comes with family and ‘obligations’, Kennard knows that the past is the past and ‘nostalgia is just a self-microwaving cup of coffee’. There is enough of the old Kennard for the diehards to appreciate, but there is a tender wisdom that can only come from time and parenthood. Only those who know, know ‘Why is there a seven-year-old at this party?’.
Joanna Walsh’s novel Seed follows the daily life of an 18-year-old girl in the summer of 1988 as she navigates the strange in-between stage of life between finishing secondary school and beginning university.
The main theme of this coming-of-age novel is that of constraint: in both the content of the book and in its form. Our unnamed protagonist clumsily deals with her growth from school girl to adult during a time when information was not easily accessible via the internet as it is for those growing up today. Throughout, the narrator evasively alludes to sex in fearful language as though it were a hurdle she must overcome as opposed to a rite of passage that is deemed meaningful and exciting in our culture. While doing this, she manages to still communicate a deep tone of sensuality through the act eluding of the word itself.
The self-restraint of the protagonist is mirrored in the form of the book itself. Prior to being picked up by No Alibis Press for print publication, Seed existed as an interactive online story in which the reader moves through illustrated “story vines”. The physical novel stays true to this original layout as each chapter contains two strains of text in standard font and in italics that don’t always correspond to each other, much like the branches of a tree or leaves from the stem of a flower.
Walsh depicts the coming-of-age of this young woman with a sensitivity and reverence that does not mock the girl, but treats her with the care and respect that women typically do not receive during this developmental stage of life. She also manages to tell such a seemingly simple narrative that has been told many times before in fiction with such complexities and nuances that give the plot a breath of fresh air and space for readers to have their own interpretations on the story.
Marie Aubert’s debut novel, translated by Rosie Hedger, opens with ‘Other people’s children, always, everywhere.’ At first, it seems flippant – redolent of that idea that it’s only your own children you find tolerable. However, the book’s protagonist (sharp-tongued, ambitious, single Ida) does not have children. She wants one, though. This ‘Other’ implies her resolve to conjure a child into existence and what follows is an excoriating exploration into the psyche of this aspiring mother, as well as the grief that accompanies her realisation that it may not happen
Alongside this, Ida is grappling with another adversary: her sister, Marthe. Ida’s feelings towards Marthe, rooted in a history of perceived preferential treatment, have been allowed to mutate from sibling rivalry into pernicious rage, fuelled by Ida’s anxieties regarding her own future, her inability to sequester those feelings amidst fraught family dynamics, and her perception that Marthe has been gifted the very things Ida feels she deserves. That first line comes into play again, reminding us that, despite being women, Ida and Marthe are, themselves, someone’s children, and are not immune to the infantilising regression that occurs when we are reminded of our status as offspring.
The irascibility Ida feels for others’ progeny she administers upon herself and upon Marthe, and as her pain permeates their relationship, there comes a denouement of quietly disastrous domestic upheaval. Although it ends abruptly, the novel’s conclusion is perhaps absolutely appropriate for a character who is left, once her unwieldy fury has exacted itself, with little to work with but silence, and time.
'The reader is mercilessly flung into Daniel Hardisty’s Rose with Harm and is the better for it. There’s no room here for a banal my-place-in-the-world preamble. Our first clue about what we’re encountering comes in a set of symbols – representing Venus, Neptune, Saturn and Mercury – which act as subtitles for the collection’s four sections and introduce a poetic of constellations rather than one of easily-followed co-ordinates.
A decade in the making, there’s so much crammed in. Returning for a second read, it feels as though the human universe has been refolded in a different array – and thus so has its folklore, mythology and physics. In ‘Neptune’ for instance, we don’t know if the speaker (who’s in the bath) feels God-like or insignificant under the heft of an ice giant planet.
Hardisty respects craft, but not in some tired traditionalist way. There's a sureness to the language, where the syntactic and the sonic are in harmony with the sense – ‘our bodies // moisten in their beds / like bread’ (‘Elm Hill’). Nobody wants to be compared, but if you like Michael Donaghy or Frances Leviston, you’ll love Rose with Harm.
And the collection's eclecticism of subject is as dazzling as its formal nous. The speaker becomes a geist. One minute, we’re in Los Angeles where the ‘desert sands [sleep] | beneath the baking street’ (‘South Orange Grove’), the next we're back in Blighty, in a dream, where a retiring granddad declares he’ll drink away his pension in the pub, before morphing into a fish ('The Fish'). Yet for all its duende shapeshifting and continent-hopping with Hardisty as puppeteer, there’s a tender core here; this is most acute in the final poems about fatherhood, which are moving but specific and so authentic and devastating: ‘These months together are ours alone, / where I must play father-mother to your self / then deliver you to your mother’s home’ (‘Mercury’).'
'I wouldn’t think to hide in such a lumpish vessel/ as the moon jar, is hemispheres of bright clay joined/ for the storage of rice, soy sauce and alcohol.’ And with this, the final poem in Growlery, Horrex provides us with a perfect metaphor to describe what is contained within the pages of her first collection. The book, a moon jar, crafted carefully together and filled with precious, delicious morsels. Each poem navigating the precision of language in stanzas that feel like raindrops, each one falling after the next, tumbling down the page.
This precision could fool you into thinking that this is a book of simple poems, but with this precision, Horrex pays such close attention to detail that the images shine. Unafraid to look at the minutia of the world (‘worms are teased to the grass by gulls’, ‘the veins/ of the roses’, ‘moth holes/ in the vacuum of the ovum’) and allow these smallness’s to illuminate what might be a bigger picture. I say might, because there is a charming hesitancy to these poems, they do not assume that they are illuminating anything, which is all the better when they finally do: ‘How like wishes to reveal/ themselves, even when they’re buried – the way ripples on an ocean wheel like fins.’
Mrs Jarndyce in Bleak House says: ‘Where I am out of humour, I come and growl here’. This is the idea of a growlery. And this collection is Horrex’s place to growl. Some of these poems are about attempts to become a mother, and it is in these poems that the growl is most felt: a deep guttural animal drone lining the heart of the book: ‘I am waiting for my body to snow’; ‘I stayed, hand shoved under my coat and jumper,/ til I felt a movement – a flutter – that was not, thank god,/ the moon dissolving.’
The poems in Safiya Sinclair’s debut Cannibal are sprawling across and blooming out of a land and language in disrepair. The collection makes savage and satirical work of mythical and colonial figures. Sinclair writes of a lost island life ‘in the songs of unknown birds, an extinct diction’ to evoke an unsettling politics of a Jamaican-born, Black woman confronting whiteness in America and the harsh demands of living in exile: ‘This hour a purge/ of its own unselfing/ She must make a home of it.’
While the book is framed by Shakespeare’s The Tempest - lines by Caliban, Miranda, and Prospero introduce each of its five sections - Sinclair’s mythification of colonial violence transcends the literary and academic. At the beginning of The Tempest the ship carrying the Duke of Milan and his men is splintered into pieces and Cannibal finds the language of this moment over and over. Sinclair shatters historical ideals and society’s perceptions of womanhood through an intense lyrical focus that creates spectacles of collision and erasure.
These poems live in the private wreckage of ‘this broken world’ and ‘its double gaze’ and the speaker finds provocative language to interrogate its colonial legacy. In her five “Notes on the State of Virginia” Sinclair turns antagonistic, uninvited questions back on their historical sources: “How does it feel to be a problem? The mute centuries shatter in my ear./ The aimed black spear. This body, a crisis./ A riot. A racket. The whole world whistling.”
Cannibal reveals colonial thinking as a damned thing by way of medusas, mermaids, female Calibans, astronaut mothers, an Eve as the Anaconda. These bodies and voices nurture, ambush, devour, disassemble and reassert themselves “across the hijacked decades, inventing Paradise” to build a mythic collage of woman becoming beautiful, powerful, and monstrous on her own terms. In this reclamation Sinclair never shies from the body’s private violence and historical anger, self-hate and erotic desire, shames and joys. This rewilding and re-culturing of female identity is unflinching and unforgiving. Writing as her reclaimed Eve-Canibal, Sinclair invites her reader to move through this lush and hazardous Paradise but cautions: ‘Know nothing here will grow politely.’
Near the centre of Sumita Chakraborty’s debut collection Arrow, the reader encounters a set of prose poems whose titles declare them to be ‘essays’: on the order of time, on devotion, on thunder and on joy. While I wouldn’t say these are the best poems in the book (if only because such a distinction would make very little sense in a book of such consistent quality, and whose constituent poems work together to form a totality of such richness and ambition) I would suggest the reader pay them particular attention. They are, in a sense, representative of Chakraborty’s unique voice: a voice distinguished by its remarkable ability to combine the intellectual with the emotional, the abstract with the somatic, the essayistic with the lyrical. Chakraborty’s range of reference is impressive enough (Stendhal, Barthes, Spinoza, Foucault, Stevens and Dürer all receive at least a passing glance in these pages) but what makes these poems the miniature masterpieces that they are is not their display of knowledge, it is their display of thought: Chakraborty does not use her intertexts for their own sake but as stepping stones or footholds in her own dazzling logical trajectories. In her essay on devotion, she writes ‘in the business of poetry, you are Death’s Fool’; a thought like this, gem-like in its clarity, may have been arrived at through Dürer and Stevens, but it is pure Chakraborty.
Elsewhere, the collection vacillates between extremes of loquaciousness and concision. ‘Marigolds’, the books opening poem, is eight pages of linguistic magma: studded with just enough solid matter to let the reader know that something is happening beneath the poem’s surface, while remaining inscrutable in its own unpredictable flow. A sequence of poems each titled ‘O Spirit’ are stripped back to their most essential mechanics (some are as brief as two lines, but still manage to contain Chakraborty’s characteristic mixture of rigour and surprise). These extremes represent attempts to make language commensurate to the violence that is Chakraborty’s subject matter. In the book’s final sequence (a long text made up of small fragments) neither is abandoned (though Chakraborty is a poet with no compunction about exposing language’s inherent capacity to fail) but they are somehow combined to create a language that might just be enough.
London isn’t everything, but London has a bit of everything—including some of the highest levels of deprivation in the developed world. As Ciaran Thapar writes, inequality in London is timeless and by design. ‘Ethical’ capitalism is pushed to justify inequality against a backdrop of youth services cut by 70 per cent and ‘Cut Short’ gives a holistic view on the impact of austerity. Stories and arguments converge, mirroring the bustle of the metropolis.
Thapar propels discussion about Serious Youth Violence into a direction of compassion and collaboration, by being compassionate and collaborative. He gives the statistics on London’s psychogeographic landscape: ‘two out of three 13-18-year-old young offenders in the capital came from families that had broken down, 50 per cent of persistent offenders had themselves been victims of abuse and 90 per cent had been excluded from school at some point.’ Ending death on London’s streets is not achievable without cooperation between all areas of civic life, yet beneath the showboating of short-term solutions by successive governments and ‘market efficiency’, the amenities needed for genuine, trauma-informed public health have been sold off. Parts of the country where the worst cuts had been made to youth services also witnessed the biggest spikes in knife offences.
Thapar analyses factors affecting youth today: overworked teachers punishing their way to peaceful classrooms; under-resourced inclusion departments; the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affecting Black students; hyperlocality and postcode beefs; hypermasculinity and the sharing of violence online for social capital as more traditional routes of obtaining validation become inaccessible. Pay youth and care workers properly; stop blaming young people for their own disenfranchisement. ‘Cut Short’ testifies to how much we can learn when we listen.
The eight stories in John Patrick McHugh’s debut short story collection, Pure Gold, are set on a fictional island off the coast of Ireland which becomes a petri dish for human deception. McHugh peels back the ‘steady laughter and fundamentally cuddly abuse’ of the masculine emotional landscape revealing a rare glimpse of his characters’ inner longing and deep insecurities—sexual shame, class distinctions, or fear that they have ‘saggy sandcastle tits.’ This is not a quick read, but the heavier moments of the collection are cut with absurdity and humor, such as a horse storming into a house party, and the ever-present witty dialogue.
Many of the stories take place in the shifting consciousness of substance-altered reality, in living rooms and pubs that become mazes of uncertainty. McHugh is an expert at manipulating the narrative so that the reader is forced to empathize with the narrator’s own unreliable perceptions. In ‘Hoarfrost’ McHugh places us immediately into the shaky certainty of a woman attempting to save her marriage through swinging—a marriage built on the stories she’s told herself about how ‘you had to scrap for love.’ But lest the reader be lulled into a sense of false intimacy with McHugh’s characters, the self-aware final piece, ‘A Short Story,’ which begins like any other story in the collection, twists as McHugh breaks the narrative by asking ‘And what happens next? […] Does the story have to end like this?’ We are reminded of the fictionality of these pieces and as we are twisted about, the dark playfulness of McHugh’s words echos ‘You only mock the people you really like, so what harm?’ What harm if McHugh mocks us, dangling our investment over us, sure its only because he likes us?
A short story collection for short story lovers: think Flann O’Brien’s metafiction meets Sally Rooney’s careful emotional extractions.
“Even if it is quiet around me, there is always this deafening wheel of thought which manifests almost like a physical noise. It makes my surroundings more prominent and noticeable,” Kristen Kalicharan said over video call when I asked about the inspiration behind her debut poetry ‘quaranzine’ Dreaming of Boxes. I have known Kristen personally for five years and feel compelled to say she is a devoted, industrious poet. Designed and bound entirely by hand, this short, emotionally charged collection is a product of months of pandemic-induced confinement and a curious, restless imagination.
Behind the façade of dark humour and sarcastic wit, these poems are laced with profound melancholy. The opening piece, “bed bugs” describes a zany night-time encounter with an owl and a beetle before morphing into a meditation on violating sacred places. “ode to my amazon packages” reveals a conflicted speaker who aspires to strike a balance between maintaining individual beliefs and succumbing to capitalist culture. The quirky “my lover, Batman” flows along with the speaker’s stream of consciousness and offers comedic relief to break any tension with ideas of “claustrophobic bat sex”.
Kristen reflects on the constraints of space – physical, mental and emotional – and the inevitable frustration of “breaking circularity” once a habit becomes all-engulfing. Her work explores a range of dualities; “in the deep blue” addresses the need for communication but also the sharp pain of silence, toxic like “corroded razor blades” making the zine all the more relevant because of the current global health crisis. “It’s about trying to bring love into the spaces where I might feel cut off from it,” she explained. Kristen searches her “orchestral brain” for meaning in a world of love, sorrow and confusion, the lone performer in her black-box “disaster theatre”.
Cathy Sweeney’s debut short-story collection Modern Times is filled with bite-sized fairy tales suffused with contemporary quirk. In one piece, a woman buys her husband a sex doll and takes unexpected comfort in its presence; in another, a woman—and then the world—begins turning blue; the book opens with a woman “who loved her husband’s cock so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.” There’s a woman with multiple mouths, a man who fills his apartment with oranges, and a woman whose son is actually a very old man. These unnamed characters live in a mixed-up world of fable and modernity, of sex, scandal, and loneliness; Sweeney sums up much of the book when she writes, “We are much better off with fairy tales. But since people always want to know how things end, I’ll tell you.”
Despite their punchy humour, the stories are imbued with melancholy. In “Flowers in Water,” a divorcé spends several months with his semi-estranged daughter. He never sees her again, but reflects for the rest of his life on that small window of happiness. And the stories are short; “The Cheerleader” fills only half a page. Yet, Sweeney navigates entire relationships in this span with a direct narrative style, pruning the stories to their essential elements with the eye of a poet. This is a sharp collection that combines the surreal and mundane, the cosmic humour and misery of being alive, told in a clear-sighted and wholly unique new voice.
In The Yak Dilemma, Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal takes the reader on a nomadic expedition, repurposing maps as her speaker tramples partitioned land and roves through “the hullabaloo” of multifarious cities – crossing the Himalayas through Cairo and Istanbul before arriving here in Belfast and navigating beyond.
It is a collection that wanders contemporary love and living, and rejoices in its literary pursuits as much as it does in “two-for-one cocktails” – doing both simultaneously during a trip to London: “I got lured by a flyer advertising day drinking/with Keats’s ghost” (‘No One Wants to Think of Marigolds in September’). It is, too, a collection that rewrites Patrick Kavanagh’s Dublin with an eye to the current housing crisis, whilst also celebrating the result of Ireland’s abortion referendum with a box of After Eights.
Dhaliwal’s meditations on language are as expansive her travels. Languages often encourage possibility and self-exploration, intersecting and diverging as her speaker sees fit, as in the prose poem ‘In Istanbul’: “I dreamt in a language I understood vaguely […] When the word for Hello landed on my tongue in Turkish—mehraba, my mouth relished the taste in every crevice”. Yet languages can also be sites of friction and act to instil a sense of unbelonging. In ‘Migrant Words’, it is these difficulties that her speaker encounters: “somewhere I cannot now go/I buried some words from my dictionary of lament—/a language I spoke long ago”.
Moments like this, it seems, encourage Dhaliwal to carry on; like in ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’, though she “come[s] crawling/back to the mountains” at times, there is always a desire to pick up her “most worn-out shoes” and continue walking.
The cultural critic Edna Longley begins her 1968 review of Derek Mahon’s debut collection, Night Crossing, with a quip: ‘I have known Derek Mahon and his poetry for a long time […] It is for the charitable reader to decide whether I think he is a good poet because he is my friend, or he is my friend because he is a good poet.’ I mention this by way of introduction to Tennis Lessons, because I, similarly, have known its author and her work for a long time and count her as a friend. (Tennis Lessons is Susannah Dickey’s debut novel, but she writes poetry too, and has published three pamphlets of it.)
Knowing Susie, though, did little to prepare me for the experience of reading this blistering, disorienting book, a bildungsroman that hinges on the protagonist’s experience of a sexual assault, in language that grapples with the trauma of that event. Written in the second person, in a series of quasi-diary entries, Tennis Lessons immerses the reader in the world of this unnamed character, and makes frequent, brilliant use of simile: a man’s penis is ‘as substantial and rounded as a tube of roll-on deodorant’; his lips feel ‘like raw chicken fillets’. Like Michaela Coel’s recent TV series I May Destroy You, Tennis Lessons is a powerful and revelatory exploration of consent and trauma; like Alice Lyons’ debut novel, Oona, it conveys the protagonist’s estrangement from herself through the strangeness of its prose. In its fidelity to the truth of adolescent and young adult female experience, it is deeply relatable; in its linguistic imagination and playfulness, it is unforgettable.
Once I’d spied it in No Alibis, I wasn’t leaving without a copy. After reading Erskine’s collection, Sweet Home, I’d gone evangelistic – making sure everyone I knew who would read it had read it. Beyond a sad sort of fan loyalty, the design of the thing grabbed me. From a series of four – a collaboration between the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic and Rough Trade Books – this pamphlet achieves something amazing in just forty pages. Illustrations by Steph von Reiswitz do what Quentin Blake’s do in Roald Dahl’s books: they’re an indispensable component rather than a condiment.
In the first story, ‘Endor’, Christine (the narrator) veers off into poetry to describe her boyfriend as Wallace Stevens might: ‘Competent’s pretty pejorative, I know. The dull diligence of it. But Sam was so competent’. Sam goes missing in Amsterdam, and when Christine has a breakdown, it’s utterly devastating (but also hilarious). Erskine’s weird is the sort that wins you over by making you complicit. When Christine adopts a paranormal being called Furfur who shapeshifts between a ‘deer’, a ‘little girl’ and a ‘monkey’, you think, Fair enough. In the second story, ‘Bryght Gehenna’, when teenage protagonist Jamie begins to lose his faith and starts performing satanic rituals in his bedroom, you think, Fair enough.
I love the Belfast that’s conjured – more full-on resurrection than mere ghost – through various means, including the use of words like ‘dopey’ (silly) and ‘boot’ (unattractive person). I could go on, at some length, about how these stories delve into the colonial past that weighs so heavy on the city’s soul (a soul kept buoyant with the upthrust of psychological repression brought about by an unhealthy relationship with the dodgier aspects of Christian theology), but I’ll just say this: they’re important, excruciatingly entertaining and envy-inducing for anyone who writes or wants to.
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.