Book of the Month:
River Ghosts by Merril D. Smith published by Nightingale and Sparrow
River Ghosts is an expansive and generous collection. There’s so much here to enjoy and appreciate – free verse, formal verse and a sprinkling of flash fiction – and American writer, Merril D. Smith writes with great clarity and precision. We move from medieval Europe to 20th Century pogroms to the present day, and there’s a lot in between.
The key question for me is asked in 'Dark Matter': “How do we see the unseen?”, and many of these pieces set out to answer that question. There are memories here, passed down through generations. In 'Observe, And Again' a “tiny glove in the street” lost by a child leads us to “freighted bodies bound for the unknown” – but we know. A grandfather “appears and disappears in photos, papers”, a child-grandmother hides in fear, her granddaughter “carries within me the burnt ruins of that long ago pogrom”. These are the stories passed on, “the wisdom of generations” that flows through the blood.
Food is a theme. Family ghosts “turning food to love”, women dancing in kitchens, “a trace of cinnamon and chocolate” accompanying figures that remain “just out of sight”, Passover candy is forgotten – “only ghosts remain”, milkshakes and burgers conjure up childhood memories.
There are myths and history here, too – Europa, the moon landings, plague, witchcraft, a prehistoric jawbone – and ghosts sneak in everywhere: flying “in and out of time”, travelling on scents, murmuring, screaming, forging links between us, seeking to be heard.
And if “how do we see the unseen?” is the question, the answer surely comes in Palimpsest, where Merril takes us down below the deep past, into the underland, where “blood and belongings” wait for us.
Review by: Sarah Connor
Sarah Connor is a retired psychiatrist, living in North Devon, surrounded by mud and apple trees. She is a Pushcart-nominated writer and her poetry has been published by Black Bough and Irisi, among others. Sarah has a collection coming out with Sidhe Press in 2023.
Book of the Month:
Waterbearer by Stuart McPherson, Broken Sleep Books -
Reviewed by Matthew M. C. Smith
Black Bough Poetry’s ‘Book of the Month’ for November 2022, goes to Leicester poet, Stuart McPherson, for his collection Waterbearer. McPherson and his publisher Broken Sleep Books, deliver a masterclass in 21st century confessional writing; a disturbing autobiographical collection that remains poetic, inventive and perhaps, most importantly, thought-provoking, confronting issues such as toxic masculinity, the dehumanisation involved in the consumption of pornography and regrets over fragmented relationships.
The book, dealing predominantly with childhood trauma and its aftermath, draws the reader in with sparse, arresting images and a series of poetic voices that seem distant, lost, sometimes dreamy, as the writer reveals through suggestive means haunting snapshots from his past.
‘My Daughters Photograph’ is one of the most unforgettable pieces, a beautiful meditation on the relationship between father and daughter that is presented as inter-planetary and cosmic – "So beautifully soft blue/ My gravity hasn’t failed you yet/ young moon", yet chaos is always at the edge “This mad old way/ I seem to spin”, and elsewhere, a mother-figure is described as an “ellipsing” comet with her children “pieces of her/ waiting to be aligned”. This imagery dramatizes on an epic scale the problems experienced by the individual within a family.
We progress through the collection with more astronomical and mythical metaphors. The cosmic chaos depicted in ‘Dysfunctional Family’, ends catastrophically with the italicised ‘no one/ looked after me”, an example of where juxtaposition is used throughout the collection meaning the poems remain startling and biting at every turn; the sense of grief, of loss, of injustice becomes at times overwhelming and an emotional experience for any reader. Egyptian myth and iconography is used in poems about the decline of siblings – this instils in the poems a real gravity to personal events, meaning they are not ephemeral but imbued with significance. McPherson holds us back, too, ensuring that there is some privacy and dignity that remains in these personal and often harrowing poems. This figurative, poetic approach means that the poems never lapse into the baldly literal but remain blisteringly poetic.
This is a startling collection revealing a writer who has real control over craft and difficult subject matter. Waterbearer is a personal, distinctive and frank look at what it is to survive abuse and neglect, as well as an exploration of contemporary masculinities - “My sex has been top shelved/ with falsehoods” - and the problems inherent in social norms around gender. Difficult to put down or to forget
Stuart McPherson is also our writer of the month on the Silver Branch series project with poems, information and an interview.
Book of the Month:
The Dredging of Rituals by Louise Mather - Reviewed by Rhona Greene
"stand by, for it to show itself, to teach you something about prisms, from the underworld, skirring the dark gorge the three moirai pursue your temporal destiny. Nothing is ever as you first imagined" ('The Three Moirai')
Inspired by Frazer's The Golden Bough and informed by the author’s personal difficulties, including endometriosis (a chronic disorder that compromises reproductive and general health), The Dredging of Rituals by Louise Mather is no ordinary book of poems. Anchoring her experience in multiple realms including mythology, fertility rites and symbols, folklore, the natural world, philosophical and scientific thinking and so much more, Mather challenges, fascinates and enchants the reader with this multi-layered, esoteric and utterly compelling exploratory collection.
Whilst these poems are often abstract and open to interpretation, they contain distinct threads and echoes from reservoirs of myth. Mather weaves strands of destiny and belief, cycles of death and rebirth into her own personal journey creating a poetic tapestry from her complicated relationship with fertility and the "screaming, mourning, torture" of her precarious predicament. Her poems immerse the reader in hauntingly beautiful imagery "within bounds of visions seraphic transcendental’, where the mythical is enriched with gothic undertones and wolves "who died long ago with cleaved necks" stalk these blood-soaked pages and "ravens hold rapture to delirium time will never fathom".
Dredging the seabed of the past - like the divers recalled in her poem ‘Bells of Nemi’ - Mather sifts through the "sediment" and "melting fragments and traces" laid down in time’s grand continuum, trawling for meaning in the deeper universal truths that anchored bygone belief systems in an effort to transform them to ease her own journey:
I am not sure who I would be
I wish I was not a seeker of the
to glimpse an epiphany
the core of us all
is myth ('Festival of Epiphany')
In her opening poem, ‘The Fringes’, we are taken back to a time "before Inca, tempestuous, backwards with death cherries to Pleiades" , back to "the fringes of the desert where we walked at candlelight" and "wreathed shards far away debris from the auroral ether dug into the ground like rugged glass", recalling our startling origins, our emergence into ceremony and the simultaneous conception of myth, highlighting how inseparable these are from one another and from our sense of self and perhaps also referring to the harsh fragmented realities and traumas of her own experiences.
In a surreal, kaleidoscopic swirl of poems, we spiral through blood, rituals, trauma, grief, plagues and myths in their various guises and transformations. In ‘Moon Parade’ we return to a time when the moon was the archetype of female power and women were revered as the means through which the moon spilt her blood: "the darkness was her illusion / the blood only hers and hers alone." Mather eloquently explores the potency of cosmic-centred beliefs where cycles of nature and fertility are reflected in human ceremony: "each moon was lost to a deluge of stars each nearing of ceremony pinioned to iron bones’".
In subsequent poems, we follow "sylvans and the prophetess", "retracing steps/the huntress and the deer and the leech". In an exquisite poem ‘The Three Moirai’ we meet the three fates embodied in the "death’s head, sphinx, butterfly", "so many lives to remember" as they intertwine with the author’s quest to impose order on her own chaotic experience compounded by a less reassuring "temporal destiny" and uncertainties where "there are no footprints, an absence of cilia to follow through the chimney to the pharos."
‘It is later now/ the last of the light dripping/ scattered / from the vaults’ (The Vaults)
Mather finds little solace from the "numbness or trauma" and in her poems ‘The Vaults’ and ‘Somnolentia’ she mourns the loss of comfort and certainty these ancients myths, rituals and beliefs seemed to provide:- "imploding what have we become/ slithered cold misspoken words" and she bemoans the fact that she "never owned/ a delusion/ to know of".
These poems embrace an epic quest for meaning, an aching for something to believe in and reflect profoundly on the complex tangle of a life beset with pain- the "ugly violet jags and rails of lines without anchors" so poignantly expressed in ‘A Fairy Tale in Retrograde’. And yet it is still a life enriched by tender joys and flickering hopes as elegantly expressed in ‘The Equation of Sunrise’ where the "reins of curved grass, the merging of summer/ goblets of pollen drifting into days" culminate in a "glimmering outwards hailing its lifeblood".
Mather’s work is fertile and dark, full of poetic inventiveness, creative re-imaginings and vulnerable truth. Labyrinthine and universal in scope it ingeniously reflects the meandering physical form of the author’s chronic condition, taking us beyond the boundaries of expectation. It is not simply a book of poems, it is "a boat from a surrogate world" and a site for creation and reproduction borne of an illness that conspires to deny these very capabilities and as such it is both uniquely imaginative and strangely subversive - "the parts/ we cannot/ conquer we now/ imbibe/ to/ solace". ('Oracle')
Reader, prepare to deep dive, line your pockets with lead and immerse yourself in the unique ritual of this exceptional poetic experience:
listen with unguarded tears
not heedless finality
stories found once again ('Overture of Magic')
Rhona Greene is an emerging writer from Dublin. She is published in several Black Bough Poetry editions, is shortlisted in the Dai Fry prize and her poem in Afterfeather gave the edition its name, making her one of the featured writers with Zoe Brigley and John McCullough. She is also featured in Sarah Connor's Advent poems. Twitter: Rhona_Greene
Book of the Month:
The Language of Bees, by Rae Howells, Parthian Books.
I’ve been long-awaiting a poetry collection by award-winning writer Rae Howells, and ‘The Language of Bees’ is the Swansea poet’s debut. Parthian Books know the value of commissioning an arresting cover and ensuring a tightly-assembled collection and it would be impossible, firstly, not to be grabbed by the cover’s appearance, with three, yellow-gold worker bees surrounding a giant queen bee against a dark green background; the impressive presentation of the work is complimented with testimonies by Welsh writers Mari Ellis Dunning, Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Francis and Robert Minhinnick. This is definitely one of my favourite covers on a poetry book this year; so far so good.
As readers we are offered various points of perspective. There are poems that look at bees from distance and use aspects of their appearance and behaviour metaphorically for poems about the self and the human world. One of my favourite poems, ‘Silk Buttons’ takes the reader on a family outing and ruminates on the magic of childhood and loss of childhood innocence.
I am afraid to break the spell
of childhood in you. Your waterlily eyes,
hair flying up like swallows
Another personal favourite, the first poem ‘Honey’, wittily presents an ageing queen bee undressing for her lover and another poem on the visceral, painful re-enactment of breastfeeding, which culminates in the feeling of complete intimacy between mother and child. There are also observation poems about bees, for example, several ones presenting their death of bees, such as in a takeaway box, a watering can and a box of Lego, symbolizing the continuous threat of humans.
What a disappointment
to flick his tongue in hopes
of honeysuckle, and find only
acrylonitrile butadiene styrene.
In other poems, we are taken swiftly and immersively into a micro, alternate world, somewhat distant from the looming, threatening backdrop of human activities that destroy their habitats and threaten global insect populations. This is evident in ‘Stories’, which focuses on the sound of bees and Egyptian myths surrounding the creature. It’s this microscopic focus, from a poet who harvests lavender from a Gower field, that enables us to explore much closer the life of insects and gain an unexpected and strange look back at human existence.
This collection was refreshing, intellectually invigorating and a rich, imaginative experience. The lyrical density of some of the poems, their thick sound patterning and onomatopoeia, together with profuse, layered imagery, made this book a rich visual and sonic experience (rather than a drone! Sorry) and I was lucky enough to hear Rae perform some of these poems at Cover to Cover bookshop, Mumbles, in May.
In ‘The Language of Bees’, the reader is treated to transformative, inventive poems. This is a highly recommended collection and a Book of the Month for August 2022. Surely a contender for Wales Book of the Year?
Matthew M. C. Smith
Book of the Month
In the Jitterfritz of Neon by Damien B Donnelly and Eilín de Paor, Hedgehog Poetry, 2021.
This collection from Damien B Donnelly and Eilín de Paor whirls us from Paris to Dublin to New York and back again. This is a collection that exudes night’s cocktails and cigarette smoke, tattered dreams and “thread fern memories, furled with promise”.
There’s so much to love here – the detailing is so specific: “pound shop boas, picked up dresses in bargain bins”, “golden gorse-tinged taste of Malibu”; these are real memories, real stories. And at the same time these poems are imbued with a sense of nostalgia, so that I became nostalgic for someone else’s memories, and my own.
This is a conversational collection. Poems bloom out of other poems – you can trace the lines: Damien’s fruity Parisian queen reminds Eilín of a Dublin “maitress d’ snaking between gingham tables” in a bistro no-one else remembers. Eilín ’s “clink of ice queen heels” echo in Damien’s glitterball memories. It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation in a bar, or perhaps more like being drawn into that conversation, your own stories sparked by these reminiscences. It’s fascinating to see two different voices working individually and together to create something so coherent.
It's not all fun. What night out is? There are poignant moments here: Eilín remembers the time “back when no one needed us”, Damien recalls “the drunkenness of dawn not yet crossed over into unconsciousness”. It’s grubby at times – “conspiratorial catch-ups in toilet queues”, “the ammonia waft of laneways”, “that box, scented of stale ashtrays”. That grubbiness is part of the charm, part of the glory of being young and “owning nothing”. It’s moving, too. The difficulty of being gay in Dublin at a time when that was something to be kept quiet - “the compromise of community” – contrasts with the hedonism of Amsterdam and Paris, where there’s flesh and cocktails and cigarettes to be smoked.
It's funny, too. Eilín's 'First and Last fake tan' is a genuinely funny poem. And isn’t this what we all dreamed of in lockdown? Sweaty nightclubs, stumbling home with friends, restaurants and that dress you didn’t get to wear for two whole years. We all learned how to feel nostalgic then, and this collection took me back to that isolation, and then back further, to a whole host of memories of my own.
Review by: Sarah Connor
Sarah Connor is a retired psychiatrist, living in North Devon, surrounded by mud and apple trees. She has lived and worked in several countries, and plans to travel more once the pandemic ends. Her poetry has been published by Black Bough and Irisi, among others.
Book of the Month
Briony Collins, Blame it on me (Broken Sleep Books, 2021).
Originally published in 2021 by Broken Sleep Books, Briony Collins’s Blame it on Me is a collection comprising 28 poems, most of which focus on the death of the writer’s mother, when she was just five years old. A sample of poems from the collection can be read in Briony’s Silver Branch (writer of the month) feature here. This is the first time a writer has had a book of the month
and a Silver Branch feature - a special occasion for us.
There’s a particularly impactful start to the collection as we are immersed in the smell of her mother in the first poem, ‘Harbour’ - “sand & tobacco, / wool and sea salt, sweetness of moss”. With the detail of her mother’s shape and form, Collins takes the reader into that almost mystical, half-forgotten realm of physical intimacy – near symbiosis - between parent and child. The ache of physical loss and disconnection with the mother-figure is further apparent in the short poem ‘Montbretias’ where the mother's hair catches sunlight and “gifts it back as copper”, only to be part of a body that breaks down in nature. This physical breakdown, decay after death, is partly associated with beauty and new life in the cycle of nature as energy contained in roots and flowers but this is sharply contrasted with the palpable sense of loss of the person.
‘Sunset’, the third poem, has a really epic quality and, for me, is the standout poem, as the poetic speaker keeps vigil with her mother, imagining all of the places they could visit but, in the end, all her mother wants on her “last Earth night is a glass of water”. The simple, haunting refrains throughout the poem, such as “Stay with me please” and “Don’t go just yet” really capture the mixture of dread, fear and fragility of people caught in this helpless position, a far cry from the dreams of going to “Rome to stand at the feet of Gods, /Hadrian’s Venus, Saturnalia until sunset”. These are beautiful, subtle, affecting poems (these three originally published in Black Bough poetry and the latter was the first poem broadcast on the Dylan Thomas Birthplace podcast).
The aftermath of a mother’s premature death is detailed in poems such as ‘To Fall Towards Stars’ and ‘What Goodbye Looks Like’, which contain vivid, dream-like memories of her mother, contrasted with the harrowing reality of day-to-day life without her - children searching for food in kitchen cupboards while “her husband soaks up his permanent/night, buries himself in her pillow”. There are many heartbreaking moments throughout the book and this, for me, is achieved by Collins’s deliberate use of contrast – the mother as she is presented in an almost idealized way (through the speaker’s ability to access vital memories in a multi-sensory way) to the biting emotions of grief and the cold reality of a whole family bereft, struggling to cope from day-to-day.
The collection focuses, too, on the loss of other people and the complexity involved in close relationships; also an examination of the ‘acceptance stage’ of grief and contemplation of the afterlife. On a literary level, the writing is well-honed and often dazzling, lacking an overly-complicated, off-putting style that can alienate readers. It's difficult, perhaps, to compare Collins to another writer for a reference point but I was distantly reminded of the great Welsh writer Alun Lewis, a romantic poet but an unsentimental one, with a fine balance and poise in his writing. Lewis was interested in what "survives of the beloved" in poetry and the power of poetry to evoke the essence of lost loved ones. Robert Graves spoke of Lewis's "poetic integrity" and this seems apt for Collins's writing - no grandiosity or pretension - just hard hitting, soulful words that linger with sadness and a sense of beauty, reflecting this writer's vocation to the craft. I read Blame it On Me last summer and the collection has stayed with me ever since. Perhaps this is the highest compliment you can pay a writer; that their work follows you and you still remember individual lines a long time after.
Review by Dr. Matthew M. C Smith