Book of the Month: December 2020
The God of Lost Ways, by Jane Lovell. Indigo Dreams publishing.
A collection centred on the notion of journeys, Jane Lovell's 'The God of Lost Ways' explores the changing identity of place through time. The poems find their location in rural landscapes, where secret places are experienced in solitary walks around edgelands. In poems such as ‘Orchards, Greensand Way’ a tranquil space teems with wildlife and holds ghostly memories of the struggles of people and their manual labour – “hands that led the plough, that hauled and/ dug and cropped”. Lovell uncovers the old ways of the countryside, through lanes and open fields with a shifting focus between the present and the rural folk culture of the past. Hers is often a wild landscape unseen by human eyes with birds – kestrels, starlings and owls - holding dominion over the landscapes.
Lovell’s research into natural history is evident in her carefully selected images of flora and fauna, giving atmosphere and authenticity to poems such as ‘The God of Lost Ways', which playfully describes a force of nature that binds town and countryside, from “cracks in pavements” to “paths/ across your discarded landscapes”. To use the poet's words, we experience “the light of ancestors:/ scattered shadows thrown across the warm / earth of another world, and those it/ sheltered / gone to bone".
Observational and sometimes detached, Lovell's work taps into a tradition of British nature writing with an omniscient poetic voice. Lines such as “the globe is his eye capturing the whole world and you/ in a quiet blink”, reveal the poet's interest in the juxtaposition between joy in the moment versus the bitter realisation of mortality. There are lighter moments in this work, with descriptions, such as “her blooms loll like woozy ladies on / a lawn brilliant with lipstick and scandal”.
This is a luminous, memorable collection not only to return to but also to hear. Lovell is a fine reader of her work and her voice leads us into her private and introspective world. If you like Edward Thomas, Laurie Lee, Ted Hughes, Catherine Fisher and Gillian Clarke, Lovell's book is a must.
Click here for Jane Lovell's Silver Branch series feature.
Matthew M. C. Smith
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Book of the Month: November 2020
'Venus in pink marble' by Gaynor Kane, Hedgehog Poetry Press.
To adopt Gaynor Kane’s words, her collection ‘Venus in pink marble’ contains “words of love, loss, and grief, their weight/ made immense”. The sixty-two poems, some of them illustrated by the poet and divided into three sections, focus on industrial and maritime heritage and the loss of the cultures that formed around generations of working-class communities in the onset of the post-industrial era in, and around, Belfast. Kane has a keen eye for detail and a focus on the layers of history as her poetic eye switches from the fossil layers of the mountains of her homeland to the docklands with its littered remnants of the past - “Ghost signs and negatives etched/ on buildings pointing to the past” from “ancient streams and forgotten dreams”.
Elsewhere, there are galvanising, feminist poems inspired by the suffragettes and poems critiquing colonialism and economic inequalities. In a collection full of range and contrast, Kane also explores subjects such as her own family to startling, impactful poems, most notably ‘A Lifetime Later’, which hauntingly describes the recovery of a man’s body as it is released by an alpine glacier in its gradual retreat. The symbolism in this poem is truly chilling; a poem for our times.
‘Venus in pink marble’ is a captivating collection full of personal and social history, with authentic snapshots of people and places, skilfully rendered. Kane is a storyteller with an accessible writing style that holds nuance and resonance. This is a collection to be read out loud and listened to as histories are evoked.
It’s worth mentioning the cover by Dave Goring of 2789 Graphic Design and the pink end pages mixed with cream pages in the body of the text, which really give the collection a special quality in presentation and demonstrate the attention to detail given to this book by its publishers, Hedgehog Poetry Press, and editor Mark Davidson. Given the allusions to people, places and events the explanatory notes are helpful in assisting readers. The work deserves a wide readership, including colleges and Universities literature courses, given its particular focus on heritage and identities. In chronicling rapid social changes, the loss of particular communities and the stories of people rarely told, its stands as a valuable cultural document.
Book of the Month: October 2020
'Eat The Storms' by Damien B. Donnelly, Hedgehog Press.
‘Eat the Storms’ (Hedgehog Press) is a sensory reading experience, with an accessible, appealing and multi-layered voice. Each new reading reveals different shades of meaning and all the nuances of Donnelly’s lyric poetry.
At once tender and lyrical, there are poignant and troubling moments throughout: the pain of experience – ‘the simple route the river runs, the rustle of the red rose tipped with thorns’; the recurring motif of fragile relationships; the conflicting desires for belonging and freedom; the gut-wrenching theme of being deserted; the complexities of identity and the ever-shifting sense of self we experience – ‘beneath the red ink tipped into this flesh’.
This is a striking, powerful collection, which achieves a balance between a personal, expansive and lyric style and the taut control needed to achieve fine poetry.
Matthew MC Smith, poet and editor of Black Bough Press
Book of the Month: September 2020
'The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass' by Natalie Ann Holborow and Mari Ellis Dunning. Infinity Press and Black Rabbit Press
'The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass' is a riotous collection of poetry that retells fairytales and myths from the perspectives of female protagonists. The feminist approach in this work is clearly evident, achieved most notably by humour, as fairytales, myths and archetypes are sent up in uproarious fashion through the interior monologues of the characters.
Traditional figures, such as Rapunzel, Mother Gothel, Helen of Troy and the goddess, Hera, are represented as being limited, stilted or silenced in their original stories, which are usually centred on male heroism, framed by patriarchal narratives. Instead, characters are vividly reimagined. Whilst our understanding of these characters, and our sympathy, becomes more developed, there is an anarchic spirit at work. Any over-sentimentality is abruptly stopped - satire, farce and mock heroism encourage us to see these women as individuals, some of them highly idiosyncratic, forcing us to recognise their complexity. We are drawn into their chaos and drama of their lives. Rapunzel is bemoaned as
fishing for nameless heroes,
some fully-grown dumb Casanova
to spin me off into the sunset [...]
sullen princess, drop-dead gorgeous
with nothing to do but swing her hair, stifle the scream
when the roots tear slow from her skull.
Helen of Troy, another 'bored' princess, laments being imprisoned within a myth, as well as being a serial abductee. Amusingly, the archetype of female beauty, is compared to a goose brought home from a hunt.
it’s the second time for me.
Stolen, bagged like a prize goose
and hauled from home, head clunking
against his glowing armour.
Instead, the poem (and others) question the process of stereotyping and idealising women. The goddess Hera has learned to be submissive to Zeus but is secretly resentful:
I pour him a drink, toast his health,
grin through the slats of my teeth.
Cheers, you big godly bastard.
A kind of grotesque realism is at work throughout the poems; women from myths and legends are not just two-dimensional cut-outs, nor are they explicitly drawn as female heroines. They're shown to be the opposite - hyper-real, larger than life: eccentric, chatty characters portrayed with exaggerated characteristics, brought to life through a battering ram of similes, in a world around them that is similarly chaotic: the playfulness of Under Milk Wood and Sexing the Cherry brought up to date for the 21st century.
Arguably, the strength of this work lies in the contrast between Natalie Ann Holborow as a carnivalesque writer, contrasted with Mari Ellis Dunning's starker, more elemental style, although both writer's work shows this contrast.
Reading the book is an intoxicating literary experience, a heady mix of Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Jeanette Winterson. Old tales are given new life here in these irreverent re-tellings of fairytales that will leave you smiling; an invigorating collection of poetry that readers will return to again and again.
By Matthew M. C. Smith
Natalie Ann Holborow
"The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass was created as both of us have very similar poetic inspirations and have styles that we felt would naturally complement each other. We both give voices to marginalised female characters or explore alternative viewpoints from the perspective of women in fairytale and mythology, most of whom are often written by male writers and shaped by patriarchal expectations. The book took us by surprise in a positive way as our voices quite naturally came together and made it such an absolute joy to write. We hope this paves the way for more collaborations in future! It's a process we should be promoting more - it doesn't always work, but if you find the right collaborator it's almost magical to see the poems appear in the most magical of ways."
Natalie Ann Holborow