Recent Reading February 2023: A Review

The Strange Egg, Kirstie Millar, The Emma Press, 2023, ISBN: 9781915628022, £10.00

A Punch in the Gut of a Star / Un Cop de Puny Al Ventre d’Una Estrella, Anne Waldman & Emma Gomis, Pamenar Press, 2022, £10.00

OPEN YOUR BOOK!, concept: Bruno Neiva, design: Lisa Lorenz, Team Trident Press, 2022, edition of 50 copies, £7 + shipping

Contrapasso, Alexandra Fössinger, Cephalopress, 2022, 978-1838220624, £9.99

November rains, Charlie Ulyatt, 571 press, 2023, £3.00 or more

Mont-Saint-Jean, Lyndon Davies, Aquifer Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-8383587-7-8, £10.00

Kirstie Millar’s The Strange Egg is a set, series or perhaps the best word is cycle of 28 prose poems of varying length that inhabit a space somewhere the mundane and the mythic. The number 28 is, I think, significant as echoing the lunar and menstrual cycles. The pieces grow out of Millar’s experiences of endometriosis, and her resulting experiences as a female patient in an unsympathetic medical system, a fact that I discovered via a post on the Emma Press blog; the disease is not explicitly called out in the book. This reticence, if that’s the right word, means that the poems can be read as dealing with a difficult pregnancy, fertility issues, ante-natal depression, menorrhagia or other menstrual issues; all ‘women’s problems’ that tend to be dismissed by medical professionals; this is, if you like, the element of mundane horror that runs through the cycle:

                Me: But how am I meant to live like this?

                Doctor: The pain is yours. Nothing can be done. You must bear it.

(Inside of me)

The new egg. A bigger, stronger disease.

The mythic element is introduced from the beginning:

Picture this: white fawn, spotless and new, running and suddenly punctured by a particularly sharp branch. Mother’s salty tongue licking the wound clean.

Three drops of crimson blood steaming in the snow. Blood is terribly revealing. Blood for the hunters to see and also smell.

Picture this: the white fawn and its mother do not know the mistake they have made. Sadly, the hunter knows. Sadly, the sharp teeth always know.

There’s a good deal to unpack here. The image of blood on snow has a long history in folklore as an portent of troubles to come; Irish readers may be reminded of the great tale ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’. Equally the deer is widely represented as a shape-shifting animal, one which frequently is inhabited, or stands for, a human protagonist. In the Christian mythos, Jesus is represented as a stag, for instance. Again in an Irish context, the reader might think of Oisín (whose name translates as fawn) hunting a fawn (himself) as prelude to his adventures in Tír na nÓg. In the context of The Strange Egg, fawn and narrator share experiences and form a paired identity that is their way out of pain:

Outside, it is clean and glorious. I limp behind the fawn as if newly born. We go further until my body rages in pain and my wounds pulse. We go further until we reach our joyous destination.

[from ‘28’]

In the space between, doctors become hunters:

You emerge from behind the curtain, humming a little song as you squirt shimmering gel onto a pulsing wand. Without warning, you bluntly insert the wand inside of me. A small agony ripples out across my flesh; I try very hard not to scream.

[from ’16 (Examination Room)]

The reality of violation in the guise of treatment is all too typical of female experience of medicine, and this echoes through the book, with operations that are performed with no prospect of ‘success’, nurses that are as lacking in empathy as the doctors, and a general tone of ‘pull yourself together, woman’. Hospitals are a kind of nightmare from which Millar’s narrator is trying to awake.

In a brief review like this, I am of necessity skipping over much of interest, but I do want to talk briefly about the design of the book and Hannah Mumby’s illustrations. The square page shape and the use of the artwork as a kind of framing device give the whole a feeling of being a children’s book for adults, in a good way, highlighting the mythic tone and using colour and shape to illuminate the text. The final page, where the ‘joyous destination’ takes the visual from of a glowing egg doorway is particularly effective. You need to go read the book yourself to see what I mean.

[Note: After finishing this review, I came across Jennifer O’Connell’s review of This Won’t Hurt: How Medicine Fails Women by Marieke Bigg. O’Connell’s first paragraph reads:

‘Consider the following. One in ten women has endometriosis, toughly the same proportion has diabetes. Both conditions have similarly deleterious impact on quality of life, And yet research into diabetes attracts 20 times the funding of endometriosis, which remains a shadowy, enigmatic illness, to the extent that it takes an average of eight years to get a diagnosis.’]

A Punch in the Gut of a Star / Un Cop de Puny Al Ventre d’Una Estrella is a bilingual collaborative work by the great Anne Waldman and Emma Gomis, a writer whose work is new to me. The book opens with a pair of introductory texts in which the poets demonstrate rather than explain how they arrived at the work. These introductions discuss the language in, as opposed to of, dreams and the viability of using dream and telepathy as modes of collaboration under the conditions of Covid lockdown, with special emphasis on liminal hypnagogic states.

What follows is a longish poem in alternating English and Catalan sections, with the English translated into Catalan and Catalan into English as footnotes (with some lacunae, intentional or otherwise). The languages are further disambiguated by using bold font for the Catalan and its English transpositions. This is perhaps easier to show than explain:

The result is a complex interweaving of not two but four voices, a kind of dream fugue of language with Waldman-in-English-and-Catalan and Gomis-in-Catalan-and-English expounding theme and countertheme. as when, for example, across facing pages 24 and 25 ‘poc a poc, la paraula es desfà’ (‘little by little, the word undoes itself’) is transmuted into ‘We said green we said enough’ (‘vam dir verd vam dir prou’). Both poets are pushing up against the boundaries of language, its ability to function in a radically, if temporarily, altered world, a kind of plague dreamtime:

    stay alert and rub down germs my battery my bulb my

handle my action on life

was all I got

it was signal of lights separating souls from their bodies at the


Appropriately, the poem ends with the one-word question ‘could?/podria?’ It is this sense of the numinous possible that permeates the book, a sense of being in the presence of an illuminating ordinary that reminds me of George Oppen: ‘delight & recognition of small things/delit & reconeixement de les coses petites’.

It is, I fear, almost impossible to do this work full justice in a language other than its own. I highly recommend it, and this video reading of it. Indeed, it’s worth exploring the full range of Pamenar videos on their channel.

OPEN YOUR BOOK! is another collaboration, with a concept by Bruno Neiva made real by way of Lisa Lorenz’ design. It’s a pocket-size book consisting of blank, uncut pages, closed by a strip of perforated card, the only text being on the front and back covers. In many respects, this is a classic conceptualist work, but the one piece of non-front/back matter text the reader is presented with, the blurb, betrays a utilitarian purpose behind the concept, which is less usual:

Taking the cue from colouring books for adults and their therapeutic properties, OPEN YOUR BOOK! is an unopened book with uncut, blank pages, especially designed for you to relax, with ease of use and effectiveness guaranteed. Whenever you’re feeling stressed or anxious, all you need to do to pull yourself back together is rip open a few pages with your bare hands.

It’s an appealing idea, and one which, as I’ve discovered, may lead to a degree of self-reflection. I just cannot see myself ripping open the pages of any book. I can and will cut them open carefully. I may even deface the blank pages by adding words to them. And so OPEN YOUR BOOK! may well be an invitation to look in the mirror. One way or another, it’s a lovely object nicely executed.

The title of Alexandra Fössinger’s Contrapasso comes from Dante, specifically the end of Canto XXVII of the Inferno, where Dante encounters Bertran de Born carrying his head like a lantern. Bertran speak, explaining his punishment to Dante, and his speech, and the canto, end with the line ‘Così s’osserva in me lo Contrapasso’.

The line is rendered in the prose of the Temple Classics version as ‘Thus the law of retribution is observed in me.’ Binyon’s verse gives it as ‘Thus retribution’s law I do maintain.’ And so we are dealing with a notion of justice as retribution, specifically fitting the punishment to the crime (En Bertran’s crime was that he figuratively decapitated Henry II by encouraging his son to rebel). This idea permeates the Inferno, but it is, I think, not insignificant that we encounter the word ‘contrapasso’, which has come to serve as shorthand for Dante’s retribution, in the punishment of a poet. In The Spirit of Romance, Ezra Pound makes this pertinent remark:

…the Commedia is an expression of the laws of eternal justice; “il contrapasso”, the counterpass as Betran calls it, or the law of Karma, if we are to use an Oriental term.

The book is structured in two sections. For the first part, Fössinger appends as epigraph, three other lines from Dante, the first three lines of Canto III, the beginning of the inscription on the gates of hell. In the third poem, ‘Sentence’, the reader encounters the idea that sits at the centre of this hell:

When the righteous speak

they proclaim each sentence twice:

the culprit and the one omitted are equally to blame.

These poems give voice to ‘the one omitted’, but not simply as victim, as a rounded human, specifically a poet. Fössinger possesses an observant eye that sees below the surface of things the shape-shifting nature of reality,

I notice a magpie

trapped in the body

of a crow.

[from ‘Eye-contact in four acts’]

A few lines later we see the poet noting down this observation under the disapproving gaze of an unknown woman. This serves as an explicit pointer to Fössinger’s real central concern, the ability of the human mind to shape language to make sense of experience, a potentially dangerous gift:

The persons we become

in other people’s narratives

are trite confabulations

that might eventually destroy our lives.

[from ‘Traumgesicht’]

This, clearly, draws a parallel between the storyteller and the judge, and Fössinger is concerned in these poems with avoiding the trite. As a German who speaks Italian, the fact that she is making these poems in her third language may help her avoid the native speaker’s bland cliché, to become, as she puts it, ‘a raptor of memories/stubbornly piling up words’.

The second part of the book opens with two lines from the start of the Purgatorio:

e canterò di quel secondo regno
dove l’umano spirito si purga

In the underlying narrative, this purging of the human spirit does not result in a conventional ‘happy ending’. (There is no third part, no Paradiso.) The prisoner is release, but things, inevitably, do not return to as they were:

While you rest on your bed,

perfectly immobile,

letting yourself sink in

to what is space again, and again.

I am in the adjacent room

on another continent

[from ‘Return’]

The feeling here is of Dante’s Prepurgatory where the repentant slothful are found. The space between the two figures is as unbridgeable as that between Dante and his late friend Belacqua, the former compelled to move on, the latter unable to do so. In the end there is a kind of acceptance of what is and what might have been:

a mirror image, doing things in our place.

[from ‘July’]

Charlie Ulyatt is one of our most accomplished poets of the minimal. His poems partake of the lightness of haiku without his limiting himself as regards to form, and he pays as much attention to the disposal of words on the page as he does to the words themselves. The poems in November rains come out of a self-imposed challenge to write his way out of a temporary slump, and we should be glad he did so, as they are very fine indeed.







One factor that links Ulyatt’s work to the haiku is that the call to attend, to learn from the world, does not extend to telling us what it is we should learn. The poems are a proverbial finger pointing at the moon. They are also characterised by a careful, understated sense of music. Take, for example, this last poem of the set:






The long ‘a’ in rains ‘e’ in evening and ‘i’ in sky frame a sequence of short vowels that reinforce the sense of pace created by the very short lines that slow the reader, focusing attention on every single word. Then the consonances create a kind of crosscurrent or countermelody. This is unfussy composition, effective because it refuses to call attention to itself and is, in my view, the product of a true poet’s ear. This is a small book that deserves time from the reader.

The basic premise of Lyndon Davies’ Mont-Saint-John is clearly stated on the back cover:

The poems … attempt to reimagine for our present age of political and viral
pandemonium the confusion of processes, responses and representations set in motion by this cataclysmic event [the Battle of Waterloo]. Scenes, objects, exploits and ideas flourish for a moment into language and dissolve, as if a lens was drifting over a field of action as much internal in its realities as ‘out there’, the whole woven through by the warping effects of weather, time, fantasy, physiology and high explosive.

The book is structured in three sections of numbered individual poems: a short, 10-poem, ‘Prologue: – A Ball’, the main section ‘L’AffaireI – The Thing Itself, with 70 poems and another short section, the 7-poem ‘Epilogue – A Kit’. Each poem is nine lines in three unrhyming tercets. I’m describing the structure at length because it strikes me as fundamental to the working of the book, which is something like a sonnet sequence without the sonnets, enabling a sense of progression without an explicit narrative thread. This links to the ambition to have the matter of the poem ‘flourish for a moment into language and dissolve’. For instance, in No 6, we see the notion of the dance serve as a figure of the battle to come, the first dehumanised to reflect the reality of the second:

as if an entire history
begins with a frisson
sparked from two celibate engines

of overheated gristle chaffed
through a common knot, well anyway
it’s a stepping off point

This extract also displays one of the book’s defining characteristics, the scrupulous avoidance of ‘period’ language, of the quaint. The use of contemporary language helps fix the poem in the now of Covid and Brexit, and debates over concepts of sovereignty defined as ‘not them’:

They say a king didn’t want what the emperor

wants what the king didn’t want the emperor

wanted the king to want

[from 40]

The syntactic ambiguity on display in these lines is another device that Davies uses to some effect throughout, as in poem 45, where war is melded with communion and cannibalism:

Eat friends eat

of this unincorporable body

friends eat friends

and the opening of hostilities in 29:

Drum drum drum drum drum

This serious linguistic play reaches a kind of climax at the crucial moment, when the sequence of poems from 70 to 74 sees the same text run through a set of erasures so that we end with a set of spaced and lineated vowels in a process of disintegration that matches the notion of the dead coming apart on the field.

In the Epilogue, Davies circles round attempts at making sense of how Waterloo is remembered through art and artefact, such as a scale model of the site. It is a possibly failed process of reintegration:

so many scattered engrams

if there must be an outcome

it will come in pieces

then somebody must gather them all up

and glue them, there are no

instructions on how to do that

Mont-Saint-Jean is  record of Davies’ attempt at reconstruction without instructions, and it makes for fascinating reading.