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Black Bough Poetry
Book of the Month
February 2024

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'Wiregrass & Other Poems' by Moira Saucer, Ethelzine Press.

You could be forgiven for making some assumptions about Moira Saucer's Wiregrass & Other Poems from the cover, which features hand-sewn flowers, yes actual stitches on illustrations of yellow flowers. I assumed Saucer's book might feature gentle, sensitive, introspective poems, in a style reminiscent of Emily Dickinson; or that it would feature quite ornate poems. I couldn't have been more wrong. The deception of the cover, for me, was particularly pleasing - like a trick by the Alabama-based poet.

Saucer's book is, perhaps, the opposite of gentle and sensitive. These are poems of brutal honesty where the writer explores economic hardship, the loss of a more comfortable life and the ongoing battle to cope with social isolation and health issues, such as depression. The first poem 'When you fall' brings us straight into the life of someone beset with adversity:

When you fall

most people fall away.

It's human nature.

there you are

inconveniently 

sick and poor.

You are trouble wrapped 

in thrift store clothes,

a motley creature

with little possibility

for redemption.

The poet explores a developing sense of hopelessness through the process of ageing.

i fell from a great height,

losing job, apartment,

everything,

i moved

from place to place,

hot, menopausal,

stiff and exhausted

from pain

This is not so much wearing your heart on your sleeve as the direct, pretty unfiltered expression of personal truths, without any literary affectation. The language is mostly direct, interrupted with impactful images that just seem right, as seamless as the stitches on the front cover. Whilst resisting the temptation to read the author's life into each and every poem, the work as a whole seems to tell a very personal story of one life and the attempting to come to terms with a reversal of fortune - the difficulties of experiencing social disapproval through loss of status following the onset of fibromyalgia. The one-word lines with fierce line breaks depict the harshness of this life, the numbness or anger of each pause and the lack of capitals representing for me, as one reader, the loss of power and autonomy for this individual.    

Nothing

worked 

out.

i was unmasked,

marked 

as fallen.

The world judged me

harshly.

Felons at the group home

[...]

Gone are the expensive European glasses.

Gone, the costly clothed and shoes.

Gone, the extravagant Georgetown hairdresser.

The poet critiques mythic suffering, all the cliches of hardship having some kind of inherent meaning or virtue, despite what the 'shaman 'says or 'the Queen of Heaven/ Ishtar in the underworld, accused of hubris'. The second poem  'Homeless and broke' explores a trip to resettle in Alabama with fibromyalgia 'thrusting and turning/ into muscle and tendon. The portent of my death (from snarling dogs/ or starvation --/ my best guesses/ in a panic state) hung over me, a tent of opaque anguish.'  Yes, the snarling dogs and the tent of anguish. Brilliant, stark images that stay with the reader. 

There are poems about cancer and the charitable acts of others, such as the man from church who brings burgers to someone dying and their carer, and another poem, where the speaker witnesses a cancer patient with roaches crawling over their skin. While the writing is extremely bleak and spare, this is probably its greatest strength. As readers we're taken to a life at the edge and we're not distracted by too much elaboration or over-poeticism. The imagery is carefully chosen but not laboured over. The balance of the poems, on reflection, seems to be one that might have been hard to achieve (distinctive, strong writing is) and it strikes a chord because you know it is a lived experience.

The title poem 'Wiregrass' is one of my favourites, a more feverish piece where the writer depicts a state of delirium.

I am running from sorrow

Running from madness.

Running from the Devil

[...]

My days are spent cooking, cleaning,

doing laundry, praying.

Praying to stave off sorrow and madness.

Other poems deal with  the attempt to inspire an ill neighbour with the 'brilliant light' of tiny, white flowers from Walmart, an accusation of theft, a predatory man in the community, the abandonment of a father, the 'prismatic glitter' of new love at the age of sixty five and societal collapse in America, the poem 'Loss' being a particularly memorable symbolist poem representing wildfires, riots, economic breakdown, racial tension, the rise of eugenics and riots. This is a poem you'd like to hear read out loud as your mind zooms in and pans across apocalyptic landscapes with the satellites described, witnessing the chaos.

I won't forget Wiregrass & Other Poems. This is one of those authentic works that completely follows its own star, without any form of pretension. Yes, resolutely itself, its brilliant, hot light having the potential to sear part of your memory.

Matthew M.C. Smith is the author of The Keeper of Aeons, Origin: 21 Poems, 'Paviland: Ice and Fire' and editor of Black Bough Poetry.

  

 

Black Bough Poetry
Book of the Month

January 2024

A Map of Love: Twelve Welsh Poems of Romance, Desire and Devotion

Edited by M. Wynn Thomas, Calon Press (2023).

 

The word ‘influencer’ is nowadays associated with those with a viral social media following, people capable of shaping opinions, tastes and having an impact on popular culture. Whilst Welsh literature, in both the English and Welsh languages, remains a relatively minority interest in Wales (if we go by booksales), few can be said to have had such an influence on the resurrection of literary traditions as Professor M. Wynn Thomas of University of Wales, Swansea, who founded CREW – the Centre for Research into Welsh Writing in English in the early 2000s.

Prof. Thomas is known for his research on (and literary executorship of) R.S. Thomas and his leading research in modern Welsh writing in English, with research on Gwenallt, Saunders Lewis, Tony Conran, Lynette Roberts, Gillian Clarke and Robert Minhinnick, to name but a few. ‘Internal Difference’ (1992) and ‘Corresponding Culture’ (1997) examine the diverse tributaries of the literatures of Wales, remaining seminal academic texts, focusing on the traditions of Welsh writing, and its diversity. Professor Thomas has also carved out an international reputation for his work on Walt Whitman, for example in ‘The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry (1987) and taught post-war American poetry for many years at Swansea, with visiting professorships at Harvard and at Tubingen.

The Black Bough Poetry book of the month is Professor Thomas’s ‘A Map of Love’, an anthology of Welsh writing, featuring twelve writers with one poem each. The selected poems, translated by different writers, function as portals into different periods of Welsh history. This is a neat concept, allowing a wide range of readers to be transported swiftly into the past and speculate on a) the intended meanings of the poet b) the authenticity/ accuracy (if such a thing could ever exist) of translation, c) contemplate the cultural relevance of their work and d) assess Thomas’s penetrating analysis. We may not get every historical reference, or necessarily always agree with Thomas often provocative ideas, but, my goodness, his perspective is both astute and informed. 'A Map of Love' leaves us all the more enlightened in our understanding of Welsh poetry with poems by Dafydd Ap Gwilym, Gwerful Mechain, T. Harri Jones, Bobi Jones and Emyr Humphreys; known and lesser-known names in the canon.

A special mention should go to the cover designers and Ruth Jen Evans who provides illustrations for the anthology. Each black and white print, somewhat abstract and minimalist in nature, helps to add resonance to each poem and its adjoining analysis by Prof. Thomas, a kind of triangulation which creates a powerful impact on the reader, transcending what could otherwise be a dry academic experience for some – yes, it’s a work of art as a small book, following from ‘The History of Wales in Twelve Poems’, which was its first instalment of the series.

This is a project that must have meant some difficult decisions for the editor. I wondered why there was no poem by Dylan Thomas, nor by Vernon Watkins, Dannie Abse or Tony Conran – some of the most obvious names that could have been anthologised. Yet Wynn Thomas has always slightly resisted Dylan worship and wanted to include a broad spread of writers in his research, some of them almost completely on the margins, which often feels like cultural resuscitation or the creation of legacies to highlight the array of literary talent in Wales. Plus the brief was twelve writers and Thomas featured in the first anthology.

 

Prof. Thomas explores different forms of love in his chosen poets, drawing fascinating links with non-Welsh poets and cultural icons – it’s therefore a little surprising to see comparisons drawn with Christopher Marlowe and Hart Crane but even more with Madonna and Lady Gaga! These links make the work entertaining and bring some lightness to arcane and obscure poets and subject matter.

M. Wynn Thomas doesn’t hold back and I laughed at his description of T. Harri Jones’s ‘philandering’. I was very happy to see Gillian Clarke’s ‘The Sundial’ included; also pleased to see the quiet intensity of Brenda Chamberlain’s talent represented. Yes, less is definitely more with this bijou anthology.

‘A Map of Love’ will be of interest to Welsh and Celtic lit fans. It’s user-friendly without dumbing down in any way. It’s snappy and concise but Wynn Thomas has enough opportunity to expand and elaborate. I look forward to a sequel, the third in the series, and I’ve heard that the books have sold more copies than Welsh cakes in Swansea, Llanelli, Bridgend, Neath and Cardiff markets combined on St. David’s Day. These ’12 Poem’ anthologies could be one of Wynn Thomas’s most popular and well-known works in terms of bringing people in future to Welsh writing. Highly recommended.

Review by Dr Matthew M. C. Smith, author of The Keeper of Aeons and editor of Black Bough Poetry

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Black Bough Poetry
Book of the Month

December 2023

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December's book of the month is Alan Parry's Jim Morrison-inspired chapbook of poetry, Twenty Seven, published by The Broken Spine, Dec. 2023

The eighth of December, 2023, would have been the 80th birthday of rock star and poet Jim Morrison, who died in Paris in 1971, at the age of 27. Morrison is in the pantheon of rock and roll gods - those 'taken too early', 'live fast, die young' cultural figures, one who can be seen to embody the spirit of 1960s American counter-culture as lead singer of The Doors.  Morrison's literary ambitions are well-chronicled by his numerous biographers and he went into rock semi-retirement to live life as a poet in Paris.

Southport writer, Alan Parry, author of 'Neon Ghosts' and 'Echoes' approaches a short poetry collection, with its tribute to Morrison, in a reasonably subtle way. I couldn't find any direct riffing off song lyrics or poems, nor could I find any poems about the man known as The Lizard King/ Mr Mojo Risin' - not directly, at least. For me this was refreshing, almost a relief, as my own reading experience of poems about singers, rock stars, figures from popular culture hasn't always been the most fulfilling, or inspired. It's all too easy for writers to find it difficult to break out of rehashing popular conceptions of their icons, to rehash stereotypes, or to struggle to find their own voice in the process. There are references to Morrison's life or scenes reconstructed but only in elusive/ allusive ways.

In Twenty Seven, then, there's nothing derivative, or overly Morrison-esque about Parry's work. What you get from the collection are poems that inhabit the kind of oblique, esoteric, symbolist style of Morrison, that slip inside that skin, but also lean more towards the raw, confessional-masculine style of Bukowski. The result is sharp, muscular and vivid, with stand-out lines that resonate after you've closed the book. Whilst there is a hat-tip to a '60s icon, Twenty Seven  can be seen to be a work that stands on its own two feet, that reads as a polished tribute to 1950s/ 1960s beat culture, albeit one from a distanced vantage point.

We begin with the poem 'Lost innocence', a community that is traumatised by a tragedy, where residents leave 'melting flowers' amongst a 'razed scene'. In the second poem, about a mother figure, she is described as 

    always dressed for a getaway

 

   my mother

   is drunk salsa dancing on restaurant tabletops

   [...] she is the bend of birds on the wind

That cut-away from the physicality of the living figure to being an ethereal presence, a shape in the elements, was one that stayed with me. The poem 'Pain Sings Like the Hope of Youth' is the most relatably Morrison-esque poem, referencing the rock star's time living on a rooftop in Venice beach before and during the early days of The Doors. I liked the 'fizzing flares' juxtaposed with 'iron smoke skies' - a vivid, multi-sensory quality to the writing.

 

   & poetry ought to be recited

   on rooftops; by naked flames;

   walking beaches by night –

   while fields of fizzing flares

   spoil iron smoke skies

Parry is a good couple of miles from Morrison's works like The Lords and The New Creatures and American Prayer when he explores relationships, attachment and love. The same kind of aphoristic style is employed - again, a quotable fragment which stuck in my head.

   i think of you – burn matches –

   carve your name on my thigh

   loss is a heart-shaped hole ('Casualty')

These are poems of wandering through a cultural wasteland, of beat-era border towns, 'on the road', the America of ​Kerouac and Ginsberg with its dust-bowl border towns, its cheap glitz, poverty, exploitation and violence. Parry's voices through the poems often seem numbly observational:

   decades wandering sanguine highways

   honouring pillars of curiosity ('Border Towns')

and

   fleshy shadows & a

   slide of curves in pinto light

 

   shock of nylon legs in pent taxis –

   the shriek of motels & token girls ('Night Time')

In contrast to the numb, lone moments of wandering, Parry adds voltage to the work through raw expressions of desire, with transcendence possible through the explosive power of sex.

   whip-hot

 

   ardent harmonies

   cease to exist

   & we make our own time

 

   confusion of heat & hands

 

   exploding flowers

   darkness reels

   death thrusts me into light '(Lovemaking')

My favourite poems were 'Human Film', which reflects Morrison's fascination with, and writing about, filmmaking, as a former student of UCLA; also I was drawn to 'After the rapture'', with its

   sepia leaves

   dapple plated pools

   & cats salt away - into the

   quickset

This is a memorable chapbook of emotional range with several poems that are particularly vital and hard-hitting; others allow you., at the very least, to enter into a kind of trance-like state where you move in slow motion through the reels, the human films of Americana, enabling you to bask in its dusty atmosphere and its sepia-like images. Poems for different moods and mind-states. At less than £5 on Amazon, go and enter Alan Parry's own wanderings through the doors of perception.

Reviewed by Matthew M. C. Smith, a writer and editor from Swansea, He is 'Best of the Net' and Pushcart Prize-nominated and the author of Origin: 21 Poems, The Keeper of Aeons and 'Paviland: Ice and Fire'. 

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