Recent Reading August 2021: Live Canon

The Bone Staircase, Kerry Priest, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: ‎978-1909703698, £7.00

Fire in the Oubliette, Vasiliki Albedo, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: 9781909703711, £7.00

On Long Loan, Vanessa Lampert, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: 978-1909703452, £7.00

Dihedral, Mary-Jane Holmes, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: 9781909703704, £7.00

How High Did She Fly?, Tania Hershman, Live Canon, 2019, ISBN: 1909703826, £7.00

Why? And Other Questions, Robin Houghton, Live Canon, 2019, ISBN: 978-1909703773, £7.00

My Shrink is Pregnant, Katie Griffiths, Live Cannon, 2019, ISBN: 978-1909703780, £7.00

Out of True, Susannah Hart, Live Canon, 2018, ISBN: 978-1909703353, £9.99

With Love, Alice Willitts, Live Canon, 2020, ISBN: 9781909703957, £10.00

Confetti Dancers, Sue Burge, Live Canon, 2021, ISBN: 9781909703476, £10.00

Back in April I tweeted ‘I get sent a lot of really good, interesting poetry I’m still not getting enough books from women and people of colour to review, sadly.’ The result was immediate and almost overwhelming, as anyone who’s read my blog over the last few months can testify. Perhaps the single most enthusiastic response was when Live Canon Poetry sent me ten of their publications, seven pamphlets and three collections, by ten different women, most of whom were new names to me.

Live Canon is more than just a press, as they run events, have a performing ensemble, hold competitions, make poetry videos and even have a poetry and chocolate thing going on. And they’ve kept this going for well over a decade. And they publish anthologies and poetry be men. The pamphlets and collections they publish appear to be primarily selected by competition, with open entry and relatively modest fees which, I assume, fund the cost of publication. I’m not a fan of poetry competitions, but this is a better use of them than the awarding of money to individual poets, on the whole.

Kerry Priest is one of the new-to-me names. Her pamphlet The Bone Staircase is concerned with apparently autobiographical experiences of trying for a baby through IVF. The book is structured around three ‘rounds’, titled in order Biology, Astronomy, Anthropology (the last being a successful round). The conceit is to use the language of each discipline as a way into writing about the potentially painful with some kind of distance:

The cottonwood has evolved to give out so much seed,

but not many of its umbrellas ever make a tree.
  
The nurse explains the procedure over and over.

Perhaps some of this will stick.

[from ‘Over and Over’]

The pun on ‘stick’ here is not untypical of the tone of much of the writing here; a kind of ironic humour as survival mechanism. There’s also a strong sense of connection with other women through a shared experience of trying for and having children as a kind of offering to our DNA, the bone staircase of the title, especially in the Anthropology round:

We’ve done it in beds and on beaches,

pushed out wet babies in huts, in woods,

all for you, all for you.

[from ‘Gilt’]

Occasionally there’s a sense of a poet trying on styles and voices to see what fits; for instance ‘Song of Alice through the Embryoscope’ echoes ‘The Mouse’s Tale’. However, Priest’s own distinctive voice comes through strongly, especially in the Epilogue, a prose poem called ‘Womb’, which rewinds personal and human history through a process of birth reversal, reclaiming, in the process, history for and of women:

Soon, my mother is pushed back into grandma’s womb and women everywhere leave factories and start unpicking their knitting. Hemlines get lower and lower and dresses suddenly puff to a sheen as everything gets slower and slower, but there are still wombs. Marie Antoinette finds her head. Men wear wigs, then tights and Columbus or the Vikings lose America. The Mongols and Muslims and Goths and Christians and Romans retreat, retreat, cities disappearing. Cleopatra brushes off her make-up.

It’s a powerful ending to an interesting pamphlet.

The title of Vasiliki Albedo’s Fire in the Oubliette is a fair indicator of the main concerns of the pamphlet, which is suffused with images of fire and burning and a sense of confinement:

Flowers
  
Here’s a beautiful garden,

tend the flowers,

watch them burn.

In these poems, fire is both a creative and destructive force, capable of inspiring:

Manic fire in my throat

give me words to make you gloat

[from ‘Little Fire’]

but also acting as symbol of the darker side of experience:

oh unemployable fire

playing fetch with memories

fire of breakups and breakdowns

[from ‘To Heal the Burning Dog (a ritual for mental health)’

The idea of poetry as ritual or magic also runs through these poems, with titles like the above, ‘A healthy brew. Ingredients:’ and ‘A spell against wildfires’. The identification between poetry and magic or The Craft underpins ‘Poetry’, in which nature poetry as such is dismissed in preference for cat familiars. The poem begins

Trees never hurt anyone

except in falling

or with their fruit.
  
Forget that.

I adopted a clowder of cats.

The poem closes with an expression of language as power that closes the circle:

Then I knew I could command them all with one word.

That word was my fruit.

As counterpoint to this, there’s another strong thread of poems about violence, specifically sexual violence, against women: a psychiatrist forces a woman’s hand to his crotch, in ‘Panama Airport’, her medication leads to a strip search, and in ‘Resin’, perhaps the most powerful poem here, she fights off a would-be rapist:

the man to whom you said no
  
the force of that word that made him so weak

and the strength you found

That strength is poetry, the power to ‘put it on paper until it marks the page, like this.’

The poems in the first half of On Long Loan by Vanessa Lampert are characterised by a kind of wistful nostalgia, full of childhood memories, a circus the narrator wanted to run away to join, the image of a perfect park where the narrator can experience ‘[the] warm / weight of your hand in my hand.’ The image of the mother is also central, be it a young woman carrying her baby down a road in which ‘toads were walking home to spawn’, ushered safely across the road by caring residents. The end of this poem expresses the frustrations of motherhood:

I liked that after spawning

every single one on those toads was free

from family ties. I told none of this to the baby.

[from ‘Toads’]

This finds a mirror echo in ‘Canada’, in which the narrator having been told that her ovaries have been ‘shut down’ thinks on the unborn potential locked in:

I’d like to think

the little half-people made it safely out.

I’m picturing them looking like me

on the Isle of Wight or in Canada. Yes,

that’s the place. Say it with me. Canada.

Just after the mid point, the tone changes with two facing-page poems, ‘Therapy’ and ‘Pneumonia’ detailing the breakdown of a marriage:

Then, almost ready to tell the kids we’d be loving them

from separate buildings, you fell ill.

The poems that follow focus on freedom and loss, the freedom of a rescue dog that’s taken out to run in the open for the first time and the loss of two young men to suicide:

If you hadn’t killed yourself we’d have come up here

together to see the cooling towers demolished.
  
you would have been the first one awake, would have said let’s go

and legged it up the hill, the only boy among girls.
  
Now I walk to the highest place and wait.

The flat, almost matter-of-fact tone when writing about the most difficult of feelings is typical of Lampert’s perhaps Movement influenced approach to writing.

Mary-Jane Holmes’ work in Dihedral is more technically adventurous, with text sometimes laid out in columns, sometimes open field, and with the inclusion of found materials. There’s a focus on female experience and a dry interrogation of love set in an exploration of the conflict between the intrinsic and extrinsic elements of the poet’s work:

Walking the chapel trail, I am content

to name things and not to think
  
crab apple, chaffinch,

gravedigger, e-bike.
  
Up ahead, the sign says

River Walk Closed.

Steep Drop.

But everyone knows
  
all women are masochists
  
so I delve

into pestled mud, the mortared roots

of wych-elm the size of ox’s shin bones

  
and consider Ammon’s Eve feeding

rovings with delicate fingers

from distaff to spindle

  
the making of supper at her feet,

the fire a roar of anticipation

for the pot.

  
This was how I was taught

to see myself

in love.

[from ‘The Fall’]

This longish quotation is, I think, a fair representation of how Holmes’ writing works. The quiet music of assonance and muted conversational rhythm, the juxtaposition of long and short lines, all serve to underpin the move from the particularities of immediate experience to the equally particular, more insidious facts of cultural conditioning. The title of the pamphlet is also the title of a poem here dealing with the death of a father, but the idea of planes meeting at an angle, planes of experience intersecting in the poem, is apt for all the work here, from the bilingual Spanish/English piece ‘Dividing Line’, based on a manual for American ranchers to instruct their Mexican workers which develops into a kind of political commentary on the subject of fences, to the poem that is the centrepiece of the pamphlet, ‘Thirty-Six questions That Lead to Love (New Your Times, 2011) as responded to by a selection of named and anonymous Andalusian female poets from the 8th to the 15th Century’. The interleaving of magazine pseudo-psychology and recovered poetry forms a perfect dihedral that opens out both planes to the reader:

24
  
How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
  
How many of us have sung this to our mothers?

This madness must stop or I will die.

Somehow I must heal, fetch wine.

This is a rich and various little book that reveals more with repeated reading.

Half the poems in Tania Hershman’s How Hight Did She Fly?, the ones on the recto pages, open with quotes from Act I, Scene I of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. In her acknowledgements, Hershman records the ‘enormous impact’ seeing a production of the play when she was 16 had on her. It would be all too easy to assume that this impact had to do with the subject matter, young women being prosecuted for behaviour that sat uncomfortably with the Puritan society in which they lived, but on the evidence of these poems, it would appear that Miller’s language was at least as important a factor. Take, for instance,, this the sixth ‘Crucible’ poem, with the quote that opens it

REBECCA NURSE: A child’s spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and for love, it will soon itself come back.
  
Come back, it will soon –

itself a child – stand still, stand

still, never catch. Running after you

is a child, love. Love

and spirit it must itself. Never catch

a spirit, soon a child

will come.

The syntactic variations on Miller’s words serve as a kind of commentary, both on the play and on the world outside the play, by opening up new vistas along a corridors of words. Implicit in this is a reminder that poetry has at least as much to do with sound as with sense, and that its primary material is language itself.

This approach is mirrored in the ‘non-Crucible’ poems, in which Hershman recounts encounters and experiences in language that enacts without necessarily clarifying:

I say to the chef,

Make me something

with cheese. The chef
  
is my mother, my father,

my uncles and aunts,

the grandmothers
  
I never had

[from ‘Fed’]

Many of these poems circle round the unknowability of other people, be they strangers encountered on the street or in the park, aunts who advise avoiding being exceptional to the confusion of the advised child, or lovers who are drawn together and yet repulsed by the force of gravity. And under it all, the importance of connection, of belonging in some small way to the company of others:

Screen-Shot-2019-11-26-at-15.45.18

This is another pamphlet that rewards multiple readings. There are, to simplify greatly, two kinds of poets, those who write poems because they have something to say, and those whose poems are what they want to say. Hershman, it seems to me, belongs firmly to the second group.

Robin Houghton is a poet whose work I am already familiar, having previously reviewed her pamphlet All the Relevant Gods. There’s quite a different tone to these poems than the ‘gentle surrealism I noted in that earlier work. This pamphlet is, essentially, a series of vignettes concerning things removed, absent, gone, sometimes recovered. Thieves steal a Barbara Hepworth statue for scrap, elsewhere a father is rediscovered through a stone memorial to the Home Guard. in ‘Cut | Burn | Poison’, man destroys in order to defend a spurious notion of beauty:

man lights fire         burn  the dark dirt patch

cauterise the blades all good and clean   sterilise

the deep wrong colour hole of beauty

to be saved by man

Elsewhere a mother lost to forgetfulness is recovered through an old black and white photograph. This latent conflict between our tendencies to make and mar, find and lose, is most strongly captured in a pair of poems, ‘Drowning the Doves, 1916’ and Under Hammersmith Bridge, 2016’, about the destruction and recovery of the Doves typeface, an arts and crafts metal font created by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson and then thrown into the Thames by him in a dispute with his business partner. The first poem is sympathetic to the act of destruction:

With each piece of type, a piece of himself also–the moon

as witness–bequeathed in bits to the river, rag and bone:
  
four parts sacrifice, six parts revenge.

The second poem, dedicated to Robert Green, who was responsible for the physical recovery of 150 pieces of typeface from the river, is a kind of closure, the healing of a wound:

Because the beauty of letters lasts longer

than the exit strategies of wronged parties. U is underwater,

horseshoe-like, for luck. E is no longer the enemy, just water

under the bridge. H is what happened, and Q is the questioning

eyes of pike and passing barge men. D is for utter devotion.

And diving. E for even now, eventually. A, alone and always.

This sense that it is possible to recover that which was lost is central to the poems here. As Houghton writes in ‘Missed’, a poem about a taxi journey to an airport for a plane that won’t be caught ‘I will write about this one day. Maybe I’ll change the ending.’ It is our creative impulse that allows us to repair the damage.

Katie Griffiths is another poet whose work I’ve previously, as recently as last month, in fact. It’s interesting to read her work in reverse order, so to speak, first the 2021 book, then the 2019 pamphlet. The ironic humour of the former is here in abundance but set in a much tighter frame. The 47 short poems here, each with a title beginning ‘My Shrink…’ that also serves as first line, relate a series of patient/psychiatrist sessions or encounters over the six months from September to March, with the titular pregnancy being announced in November.The basic premise is a kind of role-reversal, with at least as much being revealed about the shrink as the client:

My Shrink is Late for our Appointment:
  
because she’s just had her toenails painted,

stayed in the salon as long as she could

to let them dry.
  
And even though it’s February,

she pads across the Maplewood floor

in flat tan sandals

with ten shiny fuchsia petals

on the end of her toes,

the omens of summer.

As the relationship, and the pregnancy, advance, the therapist is drained of here power by circumstances, the relationship becomes more mutual, as in the lines ‘My Shrink is Sad Today//and I want to give up my seat for her’. In another poem, she ‘nods off’ while the client is talking, or she drops her notes on the floor and gathers them up randomly.

The poems are also full of quiet absences: there are no trees outside the office window, a dropped stitch mars some knitting, when aske what pet she had, the client answers that she never had any, but dreamed of owning a grapefruit. Near the end f the sequence, the shrink produces an eraser ‘as if to adjust the images/I’ve carried ever since that morning’.

What this amounts to, I think, is that under their ironic façade, these poems are asking some very serious questions about the process and value of therapy and the possibility of professional exploitation is ouched on in the final poem ‘My Shrink is Planning to Peddle My Dreams’ whose closing lines round off the central preoccupations of the whole:

me distilled through her through me through her,

our leakage, our botched edges.

Susannah Hart’s work in Out of True is primarily concerned with the power of stories in shaping our worlds. The title phrase is embedded in ‘Loft’, a poem about someone’s entire life story, such of it as remains, being hidden away in an attic from where it threatens to bring the whole house down, but it could be applied to most of the poems in this collection. Hart’s stories are both aslant, the world out of kilter, and tales that emerge from what is true. This is the case whatever the source of the story may be. Some of them are reworkings of children’s stories and nursery rhymes:

Baa bass ego, have you any id?

Oh yes, oh yes, I’m chock full of it.

Id full of cravings, id full of lust’

Id that hangs round sheepishly till ego turns to dust.

[from ‘Four philosophical nursery rhymes’]

In this short extract we can see Hart’s method at its best, transfiguring the familiar to disconcert the reader’s expectations. In other poems, the source story is based in myth, a particularly fine example being ‘The glass courtesan’, a reimagining of the Pygmalion story in which the statue of the ‘ideal’ woman is made of glass, with inevitable, harrowing but entirely deserved consequences when the man’s list results in him being literally ‘pierced by love’.

In ‘Hypotheses about the hypothetical ancestral mollusc, Hart turns her slantwise gaze on the language of science, or rather reimagines that language in terms of a kind of conventional poetic diction, a bringing together of two distinct, sometimes possibly hostile, linguistic fields:

H3: No. It slid, sluggish, slack and slimy,

across the sludge of a swamp, just a slub,

a plug of slop, lugging its bulk through a slew of slurry.

The exuberant over-abundance of alliteration, assonance and rhyme here leads the reader to a consciousness of artifice in both fields, to a kind of askew reconciliation.

There are a couple of poems here that read like exercises that didn’t quite come off, one an ode ‘In praise of rats’ whose contrarian attitude reads a bit contrived:

Praise the rat whose enemy is the world

whose world’s the enemy,

the rat whom no one welcomes in,

for whom no plate is ever filled.

The second is an erasure piece based on a text about the Time Magazine Person of the Year award which seems to this reader at least just a bit too obvious in its focus on gender imbalance. These are minor cavils, however, in a collection that is intriguing and well written. The book closes with an unlikely evocation of the spirit of Ezra Pound, via another reworking, this time of his ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ (one of my favourite poems, I should add) called ‘Two small people’, which in part constitutes a kind of self-criticism:

I’m looking back

at my superfluous words, Ezra,

all the different words,

too deep to clear them away.

The quality seems to me

very uneven

and perhaps there is

after all nothing

to be done with the news

that I grow older.

This is exactly the kind of self-awareness that bodes well for any poet.

Some books are so entirely themselves as to almost defy review. This is the case, for me at least, with Alice Willitts’ With Love. The book is not so much a collection of individual poems so much as a single sequence in three parts, LOVE 1, LOVE 2 and LOVE 3, with a short appendix. Section 1 consists of six prose texts with pendant footnotes in verse, LOVE 2 is itself a sequence of 21 parts, the first titled ‘love’ and the other twenty al bearing titles that begin ‘love /…’. The final section is a single 13-page long poem.

Willitts is a gardener who sews as well, and these two disciplines inform much of the writing in this book. while here central theme is love, and the poems are written ‘with’ love in both senses of the phrase, her underlying concern is ecological. In the first prose piece, she introduces the idea of Boro, a Japanese mending technique in which ‘(t)he original garment is mended hundreds of times until the stitches themselves seem to replace the garment with decades of layering.’ As you read on, this layering takes on multiple resonances: enduring love is also a process of mending and layering, as both people and relationships change over time; the analogy also holds for the process of writing, of patching words and ideas together to make poems that circle around a handful of threads; most directly, there’s a rejection of the fashion industry as it is currently constituted with a focus on ‘reduce, reuse’ enshrined in repeated references to clothes made over, borrowed and repaired.

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Or, in more practical form:

… — in the morning

I choose a patch — I’ve kept our old shirts and jeans, scraps

I cut a circle of shell brown and with pricks of pink, stitch down a pattern

like cats tongues, overlapping the love that mends us.

[from ‘love / same old sex my pretty elbow’]

What, you might ask, does this have to do with love. Willitts’ answer, as I read it, is that love is the thread that binds us all, human and non-human, animate and inanimate, into an interdependent whole:

and whoever said

the four ages of man —

we were wrong

we need to say

for the ages of

all living things

beating the song

in each cooling body

[from ‘love / life is change’]

Through the book we see the poet’s concern for the future of her children in a world potentially doomed, but the writing is not without hope, and that hope lies, as it must for the poet, in the words at her disposal:

Language that makes

Loves also makes

Lives.

We’re told

Love lies

To the eye

Poets are the poorest liars

That’s on of

Our mending powers.

With Love,

[from the closing pages of ‘LOVE 3’]

Poets make bad liars because they see the necessary interconnectedness of everything, and the need for mending the weave. The great strength of With Love is that it reminds us of this vision; it may be that poetry makes nothing happen, but it can point us to what is happening beyond our notice.

In an interesting post on her website, Sue Burge fills in some background to the poems in her Confetti Dancers collection, and also notes that the structure is based on that of a ballet, with three acts, and interlude and a coda. The book is informed by her personal experiences of the world of dance as it was devastated by the AIDs pandemic in the 1980s and ends with poems written during our current health crisis.

Act I centres around an idea of Eastern Europe (broadly enough defined to include Germany and  Zurich) as a ‘place where rumours start and people are scapegoated for their dreams’.  There are a number of versions ‘after’ poets from the region, and these are the most interesting poems in the section, on the whole, particularly ‘Interlude in a Locked Room’, after Yehuda Amichai, which ends:

A row of old shoes, full

of sweat and air; a windowsill smeared

with fingerprints, witness to nothing

that can easily be recalled.

In contrast to this precise vagueness, there’s a sense of strain to some of the effects in Burge’s original poems here an overdetermined striving for the poetic

The chill of a milk blue day evaporates

in the womb of the cabaret boat.

[from ‘Concert on the Herzbaracke Cabaret Boat, Lake Zurich’]

However, the book comes into its own in the second act, with he move from the general to the specific, with Burge focusing on her time working at The Royal Academy of Dancing in Battersea in poems that commemorate the living legends of the dance world she encountered there (‘I have made coffee for the women who danced for Diaghilev’) and the friends she lost to AIDS, especially the choreologist Bryce Cobain:

the boys, the boys, the beautiful boys

all in a line to take their bows

smiles bright in the spotlight

until tomorrow guns them down

and we’re clapping an empty stage

sobbing Bravo! Bravo!

to the echoing wings

[from ‘Confetti Dancers’]

Here the diction abandons the poetic in the face of direct experience, the result being very fine, moving poetry.

The Interlude, an ekphrastic piece called ‘Read My Lips’, is based on a documentary film called Battle of the Somme continues the theme of young men dead, literally gunned down in this case, and the impact on ordinary life of these extraordinary disasters, the broader focusing in on the specific:

In her narrow Manchester bed

a woman dreams of her lover

runs towards his muddy back

the distance between them undiminished

until, in a moment of stop-motion illogic,

she is touch-close,

rising on tiptoe

to kiss him

where his mouth used to be.

This leads us nicely to the third act, a set of poems relating stories from Bruge’s family history, a history formed by the cataclysms of the wider history of the last century and how that shared history formed her own childhood and her mother’s mental health issues:

and I have made a list of the words I don’t want to talk about/the first item is two words stomach + pump/I’m not going to talk about how old I was/when I first heard these words/what I believed they meant/how they seeped into everything like slow damp

[from ‘Today there was a cliffside’]

But behind the bleakness there is hope, the survival of the child and emergence of the poet in the teenage ‘hippy-me’ who we get a glimpse of at the end of the act/ballet proper.

The Coda brings us up to date and closes the circle, in the sense that it comprises poems relating dreams of wholeness captured during the 2020 lockdown. They bring the book to a fittingly ‘repaired’ ending:

Let’s rethink this. Look, the seed-heads are like clusters of stars. Gaze upwards – the generosity of the bright night sky will show us how to navigate this fearful newness.

[from ‘Glow’]

These ten publications are refreshingly diverse in their approaches to writing. While Live Canon may have a house style when it comes to the physical objects they publish, they don’t when it comes to the poetry those objects contain. In fact, they appear to be refreshingly open to the multifaceted nature of the art. Long may they continue to be that way.