Recent Reading July 2021 Part 2

History of Present Complaint, HLR, Close To The Bone, 2021, ISBN: 9798703799475, $8.99

The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster, Carole Bromley, Valley Press, 2020, ISBN: 9781912436477, £10.99

Inhale/Exile, Abeer Ameer, Seren, 2021, ISBN: 9781781726105, £9.99

Restorations, Rosalind Hudis, Seren, 2021, ISBN: 9781781726082, £9.99

Tantric, Rose Knapp, Hesterglock Press, 2021, ISBN: 979-8715759245, £8.00

The Attitudes, Katie Griffiths, Nine Arches Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-913437-11-4, £9.99

Ultimatum Orangutan, Khairani Barokka, Nine Arches Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-913437-09-1, £9.99

As far as I can remember, HLR’s History of Present Complaint is the first book I’ve reviewed that comes with a content warning, due to its ‘explicit’ references to mental illness and all its consequences. The book documents the history of a young woman’s tortured experiences of breakdown from age 16 onwards as a way of understanding and perhaps dealing with a ‘present complaint’ or trauma.

Through a mixture of documentary prose and verse, we witness an individual in need of help but in receipt of systemic abuse and cruelty at the hands of the police, hospital security and medical personnel. At the books core is an episode that opens the book:

They asked you what happened, so you told them:

There were five strange men in your house. You had never met them / seen them / spoken to them before. You were very scared but also very brave. You fought those men with all of your might for seven hours straight: the longest / hardest / toughest fight of your life.

As a result of calling the police to the incident, the narrator is subjected to violent detention against her will and with no legal basis. The text returns to this incident woven through other episodes of trauma.

It’s tempting to ask what happened really, but that’s the wrong question, I think. What this book does is to underscore the fact that for the person in mental breakdown the lines between objective and subjective reality are entirely blurred; what they experience is real, utterly real; to quote a later episode ‘it’s all real to you’.

Interestingly, this is not a single narrative of mental illness, although all the other narratives are drawn into that central vortex. The death of her father and the bitter ending of a relationship with a man who is the only one to show any real care for her become key elements in her distrust of all men, a distrust justified by her treatment. This is hammered home by some of the casual sexism of those charged with a duty of professional care recorded in a section titled ‘Out of The Mouths of Doctors:

Are these from rough sex or do you always bruise like a peach?

Look at the state of you. It’s such a shame, you’d be really pretty if you made a bit of an effort.

No wonder her constant instinct is to escape from ‘care’ or to lie her way out. And when she is discharged into the care of the community, the reality that emerges is that she has no community, no supports and nowhere to turn. It’s not just the professionals that fail in their duty, it’s society as a whole.

In the end, there is hope of a kind:

All you have is your truth, your heart,

and the wonderful end of the world.

In truth, HLR has a good deal more than that, primarily an ability to capture visceral experience in language that enacts as it describes.

Remove sleeve. Pierce several times.

And it scrolled on and on and on and on and over and over and over again and so you did: you removed your sleeve and pierced several times with a paring knife. STAB STAB STAB STAB. The blade bypassed bone, and the knife-point satisfyingly emerged from the underside of your skinny arm: straight through, clean. How many times is “several” anyway?

This is truth, but it is truth made into art. It’s a book you won’t forget in a hurry.

To turn to Carole Bromley’s The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster after reading HLR’s work is to be reminded of just quite how broad this thing we call poetry is. Bromley’s writing is rooted in what we might think of as ‘ordinary’ life, once you remember that aging, serious physical illness and death are ordinary, along with moments of illuminated elation.

For the most part, these quiet poems could be described as anecdotal, but minus the neat snap of the moral ending that so often mars that genre. The writing is ling in observed detail and short on simile and metaphor, her birds are given to us as birds, for the most part:

They own the Yorkshire air, riding

its currents, shrugging off cold winds that bring

leaves rattling and children pedalling

on Boxing Day bikes, and couples hiking

hand in gloved hand, not looking

up at where they tremble on taut string

[from ‘Red Kites at Harewood’]

Although the book is presented as a collection of individual poems, clusterings bordering on sequences emerge. The first starts with an ill mother, moves through her death, funeral and aftermath and then picks up on a memory of a school pal who died young and other dead friends. At the heart of these poems is the idea of emotion constrained, kept private until it is released through some small trigger, such as the mother’s hand-written recipes:

I cry for the days of Frosty Strawberry Squares,

for your brown ink, your neatly rounded ‘a’s

your ‘1 pkg. Dream topping’, for the thought

of you in the old kitchen ‘stirring occasionally’.

The second major clustering deals with the poet’s own illness and recovery, beginning with the discovery of a Rathke cleft cyst in the poet’s brain. This is a kind of cyst that develops in the embryo and typically emerges in adulthood with potentially devastating effects. They also appear twice as often in women as in men:

Strange to think you were there

when I queued for Beatles tickets

and that policeman said Now, now

don’t get hysterious

[From ‘Rathke’s Cleft Cyst’]

There’s a telling contrast between the treatment of Bromley’s physical illness and that of HLR’s mental health issues. Bromley’s treatment at the hands of the hospital staff is professional, kind, exactly what it should be, unlike HLR’s experiences. Nurses perform their tasks and chat to patients with no hint of threat. Across the great distance between their approaches, these two books end up speaking to each other.

The pun in the title of Abeer Ameer’s Inhale/Exile is key to the entire book; exile and displacement are the air these poems breathe. Ameer is a recorder, a rememberer, a story-teller in an ancient tradition of story-tellers, and her stories are, for the most part, of those who flee because they must and, for the most part, survive the potential consequences of their small acts of resistance to the brutality of Saddam and his machinery of power.

He once saved a life

by a movement of his head:

a nod to his student

on the for execution list

to usher the fugitive

out of the window.

[from ‘The Teacher’]

Technically, her range is wide, from sestinas and villanelles through ghazal and free verse to erasure poetry. The constant is the centrality of the individual human being, scarred by experience but enduring. Not that survival comes without a cost, there is a constant suspicion, a fear of betrayal, which is recognised in the sequence called ‘The Fugitive’ Wife’, eight poems that are interspersed through the book like a loose spine:

Do not trust

other exiles.

Safety and Freedom

are not real.

and again in the image of a man who digs for water to save his children’s lives, and retains the well long years after running water is installed. All too often exile leads to a land of hostile strangers, or worse, return to a home that is no longer home, and equally full of hostile strangers.

Ameer brings us tales that are both ours and not ours, written in a language that is English with an Arabic inflection. Based on my recent reading, an admittedly limited sample, her work appears to be part of an interesting growth of poetry in English by poets of Arabic descent.

The poems in Rosalind Hudis’ collection Restorations are also concerned, as the title indicates, with preservation. The starting point is the act of restoring works of art, and a good number of the poems in the book are either directly ekphrastic or deal with art in general through the eyes of those whose care is restoration. By extension, the book is concerned with the preservation and restoration of tradition, or perhaps more correctly traditions. The layers of accident that result in one thing enduring and becoming a touchstone while others perish is at the heart of ‘Theory of Stradivarian Sound’:

Stradivari sound could be pinned

in insecticide: a coating of chromium

fluoride, borax,

Chemicals for the next life, their crystals

mixed, like an afterthought of snow

into the hollowed body, cloaking

the dried-out heart.

There is a great deal of ekphrastic verse being written currently, it seems, much of it simply exercises in description. What makes Hudis’ work different to most is an intense engagement with the materiality of the painter’s (and the restorer’s) art. These poems are fascinated with the tools and materials that are essential to the work of the artist, and art is work, its beauty build on a basis of literal body fluids:

I chew on a rotter wafer of dried fish glue

my saliva in the mix. How else to stretch the hue

of some frosty cleric? My paints are part kill:

rabbit skin, horse hoof, pig’s blood.

I knife, mine, grind, churn, pound, steep, sweat

my way to that primal blue you worship.

[from ‘The Artist Mixes Colours in the Renaissance’]

This passage also gives a flavour of Hudis’ characteristic verbal music, which is dense, almost baroque in its twists and turns. Alliteration features strongly, as do the piled up assonances and dissonances of clustered vowels in structures that verge on the fugal.

Early in the book, in a poem called ‘Isinglass’, we encounter a line that, I think, is key: ‘nothing restores without emptiness’. This is as evident in the hollow body of the violin as it is later in the book in the parent-shaped holes that emerge from a set of poems that chronicle the dementia and death of a father followed by the illness and death of a mother:

Some returned to the hospital

to scavenge syllables

the nut-shape of an ‘o’.

We were keeping watch

by a too wide window

that laid her silence bare.

We were keeping watch

for a sound to root

like a chip of bone,

grow.

‘o’ would be enough

to restore her.

In these poems of loss, Hudris extends her concerns for restoration by applying her tools and materials to the lost parents, returning them to a kind of new life through her words. It’s an impressive achievement.

It’s not easy to place Rose Knapp’s work in Tantric on any of the conventional axes. This is writing immersed in the sound of language, where ‘sense’ is subsumed into syntax. In some respects, Knapp reminds me of early L=A=NG=U=A=G=E poetry, particularly the work of Robert Grenier, P. Inman and Ron Silliman circa Tjanting. This comparison really derives from Knapp’s assault on the conventional sentence as a kind of political act. More than this, there’s a kind of Dadaist irrationality about the way the poems progress through a process of sound association.

But Knapp’s is a post-internet poetry, macaronic and full of references to popular culture. Her characteristic rhythms are staccato, spikey even, and the stress patterns are reinforced by liberal alliteration. It’s poetry to be read, not to be written about so most of this review will consist of extracts:

Hieroglyphics hierarchs appear with

An orange Apple entertained it even

I can’t understand program solution

I don’t empathize with euonymus

Either/Or origami Romanized original

Surely Siri Milo these white sans

Will save our esteemed estranged halogens

Waves woods wolves gates hello morphine

[from an untitled poem]

There is direct engagement with the Modernist tradition, specifically the work of Ezra Pound, both through a number of references to Confucianism and Italian cityscapes and direct address:

Neo-Modernestá Haiku

Four two de fleur Pounds pure pulse

Weiss Cantos syncopate

Rhythms slit black Beats

Nothing Alles daseins eveningstar

Techne crescendos

Crushing formality

In one singularity

Haiku coup de grâce

(As an aside, the book contains a number of playful poems in haiku form that are a kind of commentary on contemporary poetics by themselves.) Pound is, of course, a kind of forebearer of the kind of poetry Knapp writes, but his politics are clearly anathema to hers, and the link to his Fascism is called out more or less explicitly:

Confucius orders

Whiter-window-Franco-frames

Chiến tranh biên

[from ‘Molotovs Mescaline Hanoi’]

Elsewhere, the political statement is more forthright, under the pressure of events in which the world is more irrational than any Dada intervention:

Omniscient Reductio Ad

A black man gets hand

Cuffed for no reason

Other than suspicion

On the Baroque black

Handles of clubs dead

Dictated to diversity en

Turing I feel falsely sick

I crank Orphic doors of

What white reality star

Junkies call yogic pre

Sent to squared squalor

I’d read very little of Knapp’s work prior to this, and the experience has of discovering more has been a rewarding one. This is poetry that stands outside the ordinary modes of contemporary verse and beckons the reader to explore other ideas of the possible.

The title poem of Katie Griffiths’ The Attitudes is a riff on the New Testament Beatitudes (‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’):

Insipid are the moonbathers

for their light spills in small places.

Torrid are those who amass

for their trinkets will devour.

This curiously playful engagement with religion, ironic in tone (‘those who amass’ is an apt enough description of the churches founded on the New Testament) is a major strand that runs through the collection. For instance, later on we encounter a kind of parody of Psalm 23 called ‘god is my feeder my bearer of trays’:

for god is my feeder my bearer of trays

and home delivery is all I demand

and doorstep deliverance is al I demand

Elsewhere, we have a mock editorial on Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, a couple of poems featuring a priest, and finally near the end of the book a piece called ‘The Platitudes’, the title saying it all.

Another major concern is the body and self-harm, both in the poem ‘Scargazer’:

Scar, she says, was the breakthrough,

suave as a flick,

clean as a plunge.

and in the six-part sequence called ‘Dough must not enter the body’ that is dispersed through the book, and which I find the most satisfying work here. These poems deal with eating disorders, but in the light of the religious strand, may be also read as a rejection of communion:

iii

She holds her body to ransom.

Surely the negotiators will come.

it’s in the balance.

Food is

life.

Food is

death.

There’s a wry dislocation to Griffiths’ writing that it’s difficult to capture in extracts, sometimes almost surreal, at other times reminiscent of the Martian movement as was:

Because she’s coastal, her hair’s never been cut.

She drapes it over a harp and watches

white-fronted geese on the Wexford Sloblands

draw to hunger.

[from ‘Minor chords – their place in the pecking order’]

This sense of displacement is best captured in the second to last poem in the book, ‘S’index’, where, for example, the entry for ‘Incarceration, accidental’ refers the reader to a poem called ‘Purgatory’. Elsewhere, this eye for humour in the serious is turned on Donald Trump in ‘#PowerToPardonMyself2’, a nicely tuned take on the ex-supposed-president’s prose ‘style’:

I have the prerogative

as well as the genius and looks

to wipe the slate clean.

One achievement of the book is that it brings these multiple strands together in a coherent whole, a book well worth reading.

In Ultimatum Orangutan, Khairani Barokka is primarily concerned with questions of dominance and exploitation: colonial, linguistic, gender, ableist and racist forms of oppression come into focus, not as separate things but as parts of a web of expropriation, an interlocking whole. And this idea of a web is particularly apt given that the matter of human dominance and exploitation of the environment runs under everything.

To take one instance, the title poem opens with an image of King Kong as exemplar of the othering of Indonesian maleness, ‘his big hairy hands on a blonde ingénue/on the needle of white capitalism                      the Empire State Building’, and them moves on to the role of the Orangutan as publicity material in the campaign against palm oil farming at the expense of rainforest as being something that must be saved, while ignoring the human victims of environmental depredation, knowing that these two things are really the same thing, that the animal is valued more than the othered human. This insight is then applied to the refugee crisis that has made its way of the front pages but continues and is likely to get worse, much worse:

melt of no power, no pain

relief in climate refugee camps,

no shield against rape

in climate refugee camps.

[from ‘situation report’]

 Earlier in the book, a visit to a natural history museum becomes a meditation on how we have turned nature into another commodity among many:

i sit in wonky wheelchair, museum-provided,

my friend vertical behind me. tyrannosaurus rex

moves his silly, twin forelimbs about before us,

electric strands moving his painted neck, head

aloft like a chicken’s. we missed them by too

many millions of years, we rebuilt from hunch

and stringed paths connecting phyla. preferential

choice to resurrect those with eyes, a menace

in their paws, phylum chordata. my friend will

buy me a tear-shaped stone in the shop, tinged

just like sugus orange-flavoured candy. and we’ll

lie down, discuss vile scourge that’s human

populace, apologise quietly to theropod dinos,

descendants eaten with sweet potato fries.

[from ‘the event’]

just as humans were/are commodified as slaves or, of ‘vulnerable’ as hazards to be avoided in a pandemic or we live in a world where ‘we wash our warm hair in rainforest, rinse our clothes in pools of chemicals pried from a home that thousands are jettisoned to leave’.

Against this chaos, Barokka posits the power of tradition as expressed both in the Indonesian language, that threads through this writing as a reminder of what can be lost and in the vital presences of mothers and grandmothers, of the matrilineal line that supports the poet’s very being.

Ultimatum Orangutan is, for want of a better term, ecopoetry, but its great strength, the thing that differentiates it from most so-called ecopoetry that you’ll read, is that it is grounded in a wider vision, an understanding that climate justice is part of a continuum of justice that means recognising that our crimes against the planet form part of a wider pattern of exploitation, the crimes of the powerful against those who are perceived as weak. In this, it is exemplary