top of page


Black Bough

Book of the Month

November 2023

Coyote in the Basket of My Ribs


 by Karen Pierce Gonzalez




Coyote in the Basket of My Ribs, Karen Pierce Gonzalez, Kelsay Books.

Review 1 - by Glenn Barker.

How do you navigate the terrain of traumatic loss, as a child, when all around you have shut down your only pathway to comfort and meaning? In this chapbook, San Francisco poet Karen Pierce Gonzalez takes us through that trauma wilderness, a landscape cloaked in the flat features of winter; cold, stark and unfamiliar.

The poet embraces the mythology of Coyote to find meaning in her profound and brutally painful loss - that of her younger sister.  It is the unique insight of her conversations with Coyote in her dream-state that builds understanding between them, and peace within her grieving heart. Coyote dream-spirit becomes her companion and her ally; her silent voice of healing.

‘Coyote Dream I’, first contact, opens a bristling sense-dialogue with this spirit anima, inner conflict with her abandoned heart, and a recognition of something calling to notice this enigmatic trickster-ally: ‘Fitful, in a den of sleep, / taut Coyote muscles twitch / beneath my skin. Spine arches. / I pull blankets back.

‘A Photo Marked Only Kids, 1963’ relates the traumatic death of her sister. It is raw, yet poignant, in the child's-eye vision of her sister’s ascent to heaven: ‘That morning my sister / was placed in a pauper’s plot, […] I see her. In the corner / of this black and white image, / the shadowed wingspan of a bird flying off’.

In alternating between real-state (loss) and dream-state (restoration) we read how Coyote begins to lead her through the wilderness as teacher: ‘Alone, making breakfast, I whisper. ‘ / Make friends with pine and redwood.’ […] ‘where Coyote / attuned to even the slightest sound / will find food’.

Then, we are wrenched back home, the shatter-point of glass; Karen has become un-adopted, left to die inside. And in ‘Scorched’, we read of the disconnected ‘it’, the crash scene horror where ‘metal crunch equals death instant’.

Her only emotional link and comfort in the home is Chatty Cathy, her sister’s talking doll. We read the agony of silent, inanimate, yet intimate communion with her sister: ‘When my sister died, / the doll, vocal cord worn out, / went into the closet. Grew dusty, / until, parents gone, I dug her out.’

‘Ferryman of Hades’ describes the heartbreaking abandonment of her mother’s love and care, as she too has died inside from trauma: ‘[Charon] sees she has left you behind. / Motherless, not ready / to feed, clothe, and / make shelter. / The boat master watches / you survive / the thirty-plus years / she huddles, numb, by his feet.’

The final real-state and dream-state poems lift us into the arms of restoration, hidden between the folds of reason and emotion. In ‘Taking the Plunge’ she returns to the natural landscape, and revelation: ‘my heart jumps / before words can explain / the leap…it dives / into the rush of westerly winds / and the cold, crisp splash / of waking up’. And in ‘Coyote Dream X’ lies the unspoken end-point of knowing: ‘Coyote…glances back at me before / nuzzling her narrow nose into the spicy herb leaves / where, in ceremony, I first found her / cradled inside the basket of my ribs’.

What has been taught and what matters is the rekindling of enduring bonds with her sister; love and memories that can be carried forward in the basket of Karen’s ribs.

Grief is an elusive and abrasive cold fog, the empty cavity of a misplaced heart.  Karen Pierce Gonzalez shows us the power of her mythological archetype, Coyote, to lead her out of the fog by example and play to negotiate the paradox of her sharp void. The appearance of Coyote, whether real or imagined, becomes her refuge and her teacher, healing her wild inside with adaptability, resilience and inner strength; mirroring Coyote in its own wild outside.

This is an utterly moving work that comes highly recommended.

Glenn A. Barker

Glenn, a latecomer to poetry, started writing during the pandemic silence and confinement. He is drawn to the edges of what we see that transcends explanation; the separate realities that lie just beyond perception; and the dynamics of the human psyche, in a futile attempt to understand his own mind and the world beyond. Born in Worcestershire, he now lives in South Yorkshire. He has been published The Broken Spine, Dreich, Fevers of the Mind, The Wombwell Rainbow and Wildfire Words. He is a regular contributor to TopTweetTuesday. His Twitter handle is @Glenn_A_Barker

Review 2 by Matthew M. C. Smith

Coyote in the Basket of my Ribs, by San Francisco poet Karen Pierce Gonzalez, is a truly unique collection - superlatives really don’t do the work justice. The poems focus on the trauma of the death of the poet’s mother and younger sister in a car accident when the writer, herself, was a child.


This is one of the most moving collections of poetry I have read and it impacted me on the deepest of emotional levels with dream-filled, subliminal poems of the poet’s sister, interspersed with direct, personal poems about confusion, absence, loss and grief; turbulent emotions experienced by someone so young and the skill  of the poet is to take us into the complex mind of the bereaved child. Moments where your mouth goes dry or you get the chills. 


Let the trauma not put you off the book because, fundamentally, these are beautiful poems displaying real flair in poetic phrasing and use of metaphor. The haunting becomes is its own form of magic as the spirit-animal, the coyote that is a metaphor for her sister’s spirit, shifts through dreams, reveries and life events, always there, always following – “Not every pocket of inner wilderness is meant to stay wild, is it?”, one of the poetic speakers reflects.


There are moments of jolting shock in the book:


that morning my sister

was placed in a pauper’s plot,

four rows up from a statue of lambs

with Jesus who wasn’t her shepherd. ('Coyote Dream I')


The starkness of the work is weighted with poignancy:


But I see her. In the corner

of this black and white image,

the shadowed wingspan

of a bird flying off  ('A Photo Marked Only Kids, 1963')


before the camera’s lens could catch her.


The biting grief and confusion is palpable in the following poem:


It has been weeks since Coyote

slipped out of my fenced-in

days that now begin

with longing for her,

a carnivore who cut her teeth

on the raw edges of my heart,

crimping the protective

outer layer like it

were pie crust. ('Coyote Dream II')


Through the skill of the poet, the alchemy of the word, the spirit-animal is released out into the wider world, to us as readers – and we, in turn, become haunted by this shadowy, yet vital, presence - “She prefers uneven edges of nightfall./ Its darkness dissolves the calm/ of my certainty about which shadows/ are tame enough to clothe and feed,/ to give pen, paper, and paintbrush to.”


Each time I have read this book, it's made me cry. The sister as an imaginary, transforming friend is presented through the child’s eyes and it is this young voice that gives the poems such emotional resonance.


This morning I pat the quilt

for paw prints, anything,

to tell me, after hunting

her new country in a seasonal coat


I cannot brush or stroke,

Coyote still knows where her home is.  ('Coyote Dream III)


Reflecting on this work, I am reminded of the Welsh writer, Alun Lewis, and his suggestion that poetry should be ‘what survives of the beloved’. This is a wild and sacred work presenting the after lives of precious people in the imagination. It should be read widely as a brilliant insight into a child’s mind and how poetry always starts with the transformative power of the imagination.


I leave you with this poem by Karen Pierce Gonzalez.


Childhood Home


Happily-ever-after did not

paper the walls. Pencils

did not mark inches grown,

or the spine’s curve

bending right when, at 9,

I learned there were only

barbed angles in this house,

a skewered patchwork

of heated arguments, splintered

door frames, tainted truths,

and a roof that leaked

every time I cried.

Matthew M. C. Smith is the author of The Keeper of Aeons and editor of Black Bough.

karen photo.jpeg

Black Bough

Book of the Month

October 2023

Small, by Natalie Ann Holborow

Small by Natalie Ann Holborow (Parthian Books).

In her memoir, ‘The Time Between’, Nancy Tucker, then a 22-year-old student, writes of the “black reality of her body breaking down to the electric highs of starvation”. For Nancy, who is “too big and too small and too much and not enough […] the only solution is to get smaller and smaller […] and then one day disappear”.

And it is that fixation with the pursuit of ‘smaller’, the descent into an eating disorder, that we read about in the latest collection 'Small' by Natalie Ann Holborow, a Swansea-born writer of poetry and fiction. Natalie’s published poetry includes 'And Suddenly You Find Yourself' (Parthian Books, 2017) and ‘The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass’ (Black Rabbit Press, 2020) with Mari Ellis Dunning. Her work was listed in Wales Arts Reviews 'Best Of The Year' for 2017 and 2020.

This collection immerses us in the conflict between self and other; the animal struggle with the indefinable (Small) personified from a mind and body dislocated by diabetes and anorexia. The narrator describes her inner unrest and deceit, hurt and pain; a voodoo doll to pin and punish, out of kilter with the world. Small is cloaked within, binding the individual sinew and sense in the constant need for attention.

‘We all have our favourite demons. Small is born

out of angles and nerves, has a brain

the weight of a fingernail. Clunks into life

like a terrible clock, counting the bars of her ribs.’

‘GOOD MORNING SMALL’ is our introduction to a creature gaining form and fury, a twist on the conventional norm of gaslighting of a malign human influence and deception. The poetic speaker’s malevolent alter-ego exists only within her own psyche.  And ‘BATHING’ takes us deeper into that distorted room of mirrors and one of many inner-voice taunts from Small, using well-crafted and charged imagery, spike-laden tones and intrinsic speaking rhythms:

‘I took to bathing at odd times of the night. […] At night, tired of wishing myself

slim as a cat’s whisker, ribbon-thin, […] Wiping the mirror / she found me like frost,

bath-wrinkled and laughing - / Bent my bones to her / like brambles, like hunger.’

In ‘DIAGNOSIS’, we read about a young person’s disorientation around what diabetes means; how it suddenly changes everything; her pancreas ‘this bunch-of-grapes useless inside me, a bobbing fish flipped over.’ It is a likely trigger for her eating disorder; the endless turbulence of treatment and hospital visits (‘HYPERGLYCAEMIA’) and diabetes burnout, combined with the loss of someone close (‘GRIEF’ and ‘DEFEAT’) and the fallout of broken relationships (‘SMALL SENDS HIM PACKING’ and ‘ADDERS’). All too much, all too soon in life. She holds our attention throughout by the intensity between the physical and the psychological. She draws us directly into contemporary perceptions of body and mind, and the inner voice that constantly tests our human frailties.

In ‘GESTALT THERAPY’, the narrator is twisted out of comfort’s shape, biting her psychiatrist back with an acid tongue. Here we catch full force of a voice and onomatopoeic sound hints of confrontation:

‘what is empathy / earth roots / wires / hissing dirt / the mad garden hand patting / wet compost fists / what colour / is empathy / wipe old nuts and dust / from my tongue / citalopram weighs / an eyeful of coins / tell me / no tell me / ever snapped a chair leg and felt it’

As readers, we cannot help imagining Small becoming part of us, seizing our inner identity, seeping into every area of our lives. The alter-ego Small is always in the room and serves as counterpoint critic - our worst cellmate. Holborow is skillful in maintaining this sense of war and inner-turmoil.

The constant onslaught of the poetic speakers’ warring conditions in this collection is punctuated by a series of interludes, including poems touching on Shakespeare, Greek mythology, the Angel Gabriel, and portraits of India. Here is ‘Romeo’, with more than a hint of love’s urge and sexual attraction:

‘These days, Juliet forgets on purpose / to draw the curtains, smacks /

here thighs, talcumed and pink, / armpits still crackling / with bubbles. […]

poor Romeo / circles the bushes below /waiting for a glimpse / of bare arse, nubbed breasts, /

nipples stiffening / on powdered ribs. A smudge of oil / glistening on one clean shoulder.’

These interlude poems are playful and dance with a vibrant humour that demonstrate the writer's wide ranging skill to inhabit the minds and bodies and indeed personalities of others. Her characters are inventive and irreverent. She also paints a gorgeous canvas with her impressions of India, casting lines of sensation with aplomb.

In the devastating final poem, ‘SMALL GETS RESUSCITATED’, even at the pivotal moment of A&E emergency resuscitation, the voice of the anorexic co-conspirator. Small lies ready to pounce amid the narrator’s ongoing maelstrom of diabetes and anorexia. The narrator literally captures the charged air in the sonic bursts and intensity of her voice:


‘Curtain snatched upwards in a gust of emergency / ribs split /

like a binder / someone tugs up here sleeve / there it is […]

stand clear / the panicked slam of my desperate hands / haul her back from the tunnel /

the rib snapped shut / a sudden myocardiogram paddles back to life /

and Small is back, laughing her head off’


The poetry of Natalie Ann Holborow in 'Small' takes us whole. It shreds us with the turmoil of mind and body, with pulsing tones and the ostinato punch, the cadence and characteristics of a dynamic, live-performance poet. The text is sparkling and visceral, with breathtaking insight into our vulnerabilities. There is an urge to bring the text fully alive and present the exorcism of demons within. ‘Small’ has a musicality that is both contemporary and classic.


There are echoes of Holborow’s hometown Dylan Thomas, and parallels in the balance between love and death, the language that inhabits that balance, and the loss of innocence and youth. And there are resonances with the psychological landscape in Sylvia Plath’s poems: the modern insecurities of women and an intense inward focus around issues of mental health, relationships and emotional pain.

'Small' is brave, honest and straight-eyed, overlaid with a rare passion that confronts the edges of human fragility. The weight and force of its characters are centre-stage in a raw telling that shines a soul-trapping and valuable light on the invisible stigmata of pressure to conform to body-image perfection.

Glenn Barker, September 2023 

Glenn, a latecomer to poetry, started writing during the pandemic silence and confinement. He is drawn to the edges of what we see that transcends explanation; the separate realities that lie just beyond perception; and the dynamics of the human psyche, in a futile attempt to understand his own mind and the world beyond. Born in Worcestershire, he now lives in South Yorkshire. He has been published The Broken Spine, Dreich, Fevers of the Mind, The Wombwell Rainbow and Wildfire Words. He is a regular contributor to TopTweetTuesday. His Twitter handle is @Glenn_A_Barker

Small natalie.jpg

Black Bough
Book of the Month

September 2023

Zoë Brigley

Zoë Brigley’s Aubade after a French Movie (Broken Sleep, 2020) begins with two quotations which give an insight into this charged short collection, which is concerned with women’s bodies and pleasure but complicated by the views and voices of men who condemn or eroticise female spaces. The first quotation sees male critic Leslie Harris dismiss the Welsh medieval erotic poet (who is to play a big part in this short collection) as ‘nothing more than a whore’. A contrast to this is offered in Anais Nin’s criticism of male fear of female sexuality, positing instead a politics of freedom and escape.


The first poem ‘The Men We Are Meant To Love’ explores types of men, privileging those who are able to pleasure women sexually, whilst being gentle with “sweet intimacies”, “those good men who feel it too who open up read books” and


do not shove a woman into

the spare room at the college party do not touch

the behind of their co-worker do not force

their lover to have an abortion do not prevent

their lover from having an abortion


The unpunctuated breathlessness of poems like this are effective in conveying the inner life of the female poetic speakers and how they can be taken advantage of at any moment by predatory males.


A quote from Audre Lord is used later to describe how female powerlessness can be combatted by being in touch with the erotic, as a counter to “depression, self denial”. This brings us to Brigley’s translations of Gwerful Mechain’s poetry (inspired by the Welsh medieval poet and the scholarship on this by Katie Gramich), which focus directly on sex. In ‘Gwerful Wets Her Petticoat’ and ‘How Gwerful Will Fuck Dafydd Llwyd’, Gwerful revels in describing her “sweet, silky panties” and “Lit thighs open”; deeply carnal, short poems. These poems are not for the reserved as they describe in detail the physicality of sex in detail culminating in “How good/ the match struck as ecstasy explodes”. Gwerful is revealed as being reflective and soulful. I particularly enjoyed the contemporary feel of ‘Gwerful Tells Dafydd Llwyd About the End of the World’, another recreation of Gwerful that takes the poetic speaker out of the past, giving a sense of more contemporary relevance:


Before the wars, we’ll look to the stars – more miracles

                               happen on oceans than at altars,

              and though presidents do give orders,

              witches strip and dance on the shore.


There are poems of revenge, too. One where Gwerful curses a man for beating a woman


In his chest, let a sharp stone slide – slanted

                              down to split his sternum wide


At a linguistic level, Brigley’s translations/ imaginative reconstructions of the medieval Welsh poet verse forms show a great deal of craft with strong, sustained sound patterning giving energy and purpose to these animated, spirited poems. The poems attempt to capture the spirit of Gwerful rather than compromise on this by focusing too much on verseform.


We come to the climax of this series of poems. In Welsh literature, Gwerful’s ‘Ode to the Cunt’ is notorious and Brigley’s translation brings the poem into a contemporary context with its reference to “dumb-as-fuck”, mansplaining poets and to “Wind Street”, Swansea’s renowned watering hole. The poem revels in bodily pleasure, reinforcing the theme of this work – that women’s empowerment can come through sexual expression and through the celebration of this through poetry rather than pornography. Brigley suggests to the reader (via Breillat) that “pornography is only a commercial invention of sex”.


The title poem ‘Aubade after a French Movie’ takes us again to the relation between man and women with French cinema as a moody backdrop. The romance and sexual charge of this poem comes out, once again, with strong bodily imagery, enveloping darkness and images, such as a cloak, veil and lace.


The poem ‘Because This Love’ is one which I found particular affecting with its mix of connection and intimacy and fragility. This is a gentle, beautiful and mysterious poem:


because this love is strong as a rope;

because words on a page are not kisses on the mouth;

because I am strong & I am not strong


because there is a crack in the eggshell

because something is tapping its way out


By channelling the spirit of Gwerful, Zoe Brigley opens up a medieval Welsh female poet explosively to a legion of new readers and both politicises and re-defines the erotic in

Welsh poetry.


Review by Dr. Matthew M. C. Smith. Matthew is a widely published Welsh writer with a PhD on Robert Graves and Welsh Celticism. He is the author of The Keeper of Aeons (Broken Spine, 2022) and is widely published.


An interview with Z Brigley

Matthew M.C. Smith in conversation with the author of Aubade After a French Movie (Broken Sleep Books)


Is your more recent work developing out of the themes of this work?


In a way, it is ... Gwerful set me free a little bit because she breaks the rules of what is allowed to be said or not in poetry. I remember reading her when I was 19 and thinking, wow, that's wild. Maybe she gives me space and encouragement to write about things that shouldn't be written about. 


What were the challenges and inspiring aspects of translating Gwerful’s work?


I had to make some decisions about how faithful I was going to be. Katie Gramich has already done some very faithful translations of Gwerful Mechain, so I thought I needed to do something different. And my main thought was to modernize it in a very stark way so that you could read it and feel the modernity of speech and issues. 


I did change lines that I thought were a bit dodgy - exoticising type imagery for example of Arabian princes - I just didn't want it in my version. I updated the dubious priests of her version to men who sexually harass women. I inserted places that mean something in Wales like Wind Street in Swansea which is renowned as the site of loads of wild partying.I worked on including modern language like fleek, mansplainers, and himpathy. 


Are there any other strands of Welsh writing that you wish to experiment with?


I am actually still writing and responding to Gwerful. I have just been writing about her poem 'In Defence of Red Annie' which is a long riposte to another poet who criticises Red Annie and all women. Gwerful writes a response. I am not writing a translation this time, but working on writing reflections in response about how women are judged in court, which is something I have thought about a lot through my anti-violence advocacy. 


Has Gwerful become a heroine for you and are there other Welsh female writers that are similarly iconic?


She is a heroine for me. It sounds corny but when I was going through a very painful and difficult time with my marriage breaking up I was writing these poems, and I was having to do readings - it is quite a thing having to read Gwerful's poems out loud to people. I don't think that I am a naturally outgoing person and so I had this idea to start a routine of just talking to Gwerful in my mind before readings, and asking her to give me the heart and the spirit - the hwyl as we would say in Wales to do her poems justice. We have many brilliant women writers in Wales, and I have been lucky to be encouraged by many of them - Gillian Clarke, Menna Elfyn and Pascale Petit for example - but Gwerful is more mysterious as someone from the long past - there is so little that we know about her beyond the poems. 

Kate Sweeney - Side[4615].JPG

Black Bough
Book of the Month

August 2023

Sarah Connor

The Black Bough Poetry book of the month is The Crow Gods by Devon-based poet, Sarah Connor (published by  Sídhe Press). 


Sarah Connor’s first poem in The Crow Gods focuses on the human desire for stories and takes us on a metaphorical journey through life’s ‘twisting caravan’ with ‘stories at night, the stories of stars—of men, and beasts and gods and flaming suns’. With its focus on myth and metanarrative, this is an epic way to begin a book of nature poetry, weaving in landscapes and flora and fauna. In this work, too, human beings not only tell and share stories but become those ‘stories, wrapped and tangled’, a hint, here, of human complexity and difference. Connor encourages us to explore the fictions we create as humans which define, contain and enthrall us; storytelling is presented as an utterly essential to humanity.


 In ‘Spring in the woods’, we’re taken to a spring wood, where the force of nature is strangely symbolised by candles and flames, only then to be cast abruptly into space. These giant leaps and awe-inspiring transformations reveal the imaginative jumps in Connor’s work that seem to ever-proliferate; the poet’s voice transforms into a darting hare in one poem (‘Hare voice hare'), and in another, rooks return home to a sky that’s a ‘paper lantern/ lit by the tealight sun’. This collection often features strong images of fire, warmth and picturesque, illuminating beauty; I’m more used to Sarah’s frosty poems written with her mini ice pick of a pen so the radiating warmth of many of the poems were beautiful to read and easy to conjure in the imagination; optimistic, too - it’s impossible not to feel hopeful when we read that ‘It’s hard/ not to see joy/ where we see/ life’, despite the skepticism expressed when Goldfinches are unable to ‘keep the world together’ when they stitch ‘the hedge/ to the sky’.


A humanist vision is implied when we are encouraged to celebrate the beauty of nature – ‘and everything’s humming/ and singing and fluttering - / but this is as far as we’ll go’. In this collection, we have stories, pictures, sound, movement and connection. Live is vital and fast-moving. Conversely, death is all-powerful and is both terrifying and awe-inspiring. We see this in ‘Peregrines’, where the female peregrine falcon ‘praises’ her deadly male mate, an ultimate predator of small animals.

One of the most memorable pieces, arguably, is the title poem, which for me, plays particularly darkly on Ted Hughes’s mythology of the crow to bring out the full horror of having cancer. In Connor’s version, the crow-gods, pull apart a woman, taking a breast, ovaries and causing burning flesh.  Tropes of punishment, suffering and sacrificing that are deeply resonant of ancient myths give this short collection gravitas.  Contrasting poems show careful ordering of poems to create shifts, difference and range, showing what Sarah Connor can do. Another memorable poem is ‘Car’, which allows us to contemplate the family moments that feel so immediate but are so fleeting and become quickly nostalgic, a subject of poignance, as children grow up and parents grow older. Everyday, banal memories become elevated through time when those moments are gone.

This car is full of ghosts – echoes of us,

Trailing muddy boots, wet swimming costumes, snatched coffees.

Oh, we’ve lived here. Spilt water, secrets, fizzy drinks.

Shouted – at the radio, at the sat nav

At the end of the poem, the family are imagined as ‘still driving down those country roads’, a reminder perhaps to never be complacent, to never forget that all moments have the potential to be precious and to be enshrined in memory.

The Crow Gods is a heady experience as we are taken through Beltane, Lammastide and Solstice; through the seasons and old customs, to the present of city skylines and back then to the deep past. From star-gazing to contemplating ‘the wisdom of the roots’. Sarah Connor’s book is a beautiful, moving one; authentic, without any affectation. If you like Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin, Rob Cowen and Robert Macfarlane, this is a valuable addition to your library.

Review by Dr. Matthew M. C. Smith, author of The Keeper of Aeons

Sarah Connor was our featured poet for Christmas 2021. See Sarah's Silver Branch series feature, here.

Clichere for the last six months of reviews!

sarah connor book.jpg
sarah connor.jpg
bottom of page