Poetry Reviews

Here are some of the poetry books I have been invited to review. I’ve featured recent requests and I’ll keep adding to the list as I do more (most recent appearing first). If you would like me to review your collection or pamphlet please drop me a message via the Contact button.

Spectral Forest by Nisha Bhakoo (The Onslaught Press, 2020)

As the title suggests, trees do indeed haunt this collection, but it is a welcome visitation. This forest is a benign entity, presented in striking imagery, use of haiku form and through personification of specific trees which become characters with a voice of their own. Bhakoo starts with a poem about ‘Argan’ oil, a product loved worldwide, questioning how “this crooked tree” which produced it can remain so humble: “How does the Argan tree / keep its ego in check, / when its slender branches drip in goats and gold?” This poem thoughtfully establishes an ecocentric way of looking at the world, which is developed in the collection. Trees are also magical and otherworldly, they “glow green”, can be “a portal to the divine”, they can comfort or punish like the ‘Sweet Chestnut’ “throwing down hard fruit”. Bhakoo’s trees pique our curiosity and earn our respect. There are other engaging themes threaded skilfully throughout the collection: identity, a personal sense of belonging and alienation, shown effectively in ‘Gothic’ which depicts the speaker’s cultural identity being pickled and jarred in a “frost-white” pantry, a metaphor which offers a postcolonial critique of social and historical whitewashing. Bhakoo also challenges (‘TV Producer’), and, interestingly, celebrates, the world of media, film and television, with ‘Cinematic’ placed on the page to resemble a movie projector/reel or the flickering of images of an old film. Its pace is fast and everchanging, embracing the “I am” with a series of declaratives which take ownership of the self. This is accompanied by a Polaroid image of a woman changing the titles on a cinema (kino in German) billboard, visually supporting the idea that this world is constantly changing and we are always awaiting the next feature. Such images are placed throughout the collection as a dialogic device, expanding the conversation of topics and adding an inviting, personal touch to the poems. But trees haunt right up to the final poem ‘Afterlife’, with the adjective ‘pulpy’ connoting the richness of the tree’s flesh, and the image in negative of a pine tree ghosting the following page, as a visual memento of this Spectral Forest.  This is as much a collection for dendrophiles as it is poetry readers. Bhakoo’s linguistic flair and her sensitive, in-the-moment awareness of the world combine to make this collection a force to be reckoned with.

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

The Impact of Limited Time by Kitty Donnelly (Indigo Dreams, 2020)

‘Time’ begins this prize-winning and skilfully written collection, ‘tugging at your substance / like a thread’, and indeed there are constant reminders in the poems to follow, that time is precious and we should savour the moment, as life can be over in an instant. In some of these moments, Donnelly carefully slows time, creating juxtapositions between simultaneous actions. This is especially effective in ‘Birds in the Hospital’, which describes a medical procedure and its stark methodical imperatives: ‘Turn onto your left side, please –’ set to a backdrop of birds eating berries in ‘the narrow slot between ripe and rot’. There are subtle insinuations of the procedure in these gently unsettling descriptions of the birds ‘pecking the stitches of darkness’ and a tension created between images of fertile readiness for the plucking and an operation which requires a ‘scope’. As well as recounting personal stories, Donnelly delves into social and cultural history, voicing poet and artist (but more famously a Pre-Raphaelite muse) Lizzie Siddal, described as having ‘flame’ hair that attracted the artists like ‘moths’. Another dramatic monologue explores culpability connected to The Great Fire of London and Pudding Lane baker Thomas Farriner. But conversely, Donnelly voices the margins, presenting a confessional maidservant: ‘It was I, I with a candle / unable to settle, pacing the floor’ who describes her feelings of ‘claustrophobia’ and deteriorating mental health in a city closing in around her.  A more enigmatic but equally fascinating narrative is ‘Greenwich Foot Tunnel’, which is thoughtfully placed on the page to visually represent the long, thin, dark walkway under the River Thames. Donnelly insinuates a death connected to the tunnel, of a man who paradoxically ‘For his coffin / he chose the irises / his mother brought him / in a dream.’ The imposing gloom of the tunnel is seemingly more tangible with assonance and onomatopoeia: ‘to walk beneath / dripping cast- / iron – leaving / food-stalls, faces, / reams and reams of photographs.’ The closing poem ‘Migration’ is awash with varied imagery of the seasons shifting, ‘with seeds of flight, sewn in a dream.’ And this alluring collection ends where it begins, with the reminder that time is a precious thread ‘spooling from the wheel / then spent.’

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

The Collective Nouns for Birds by Amanda Huggins (Maytree Press, 2020)

As suggested by the intriguing title, nature runs like a golden thread throughout this pamphlet collection. It begins with the sea, and memories of youth made magical through Huggins’ sparkling imagery in the titular poem: “mermaids sang / and jellyfish danced in puffball skirts.” There is also a delicate expression of loss conveyed in the sombre tone which harmonises with the subject-matter beautifully: “at dawn he slides beneath the waves / drowning with the names still on his tongue.” Many poems celebrate a love of language and wordplay, with unusual choices such as “wreck-necked”, “ziggurat” and “tow-haired” linguistically fizzing on the page. Huggins’ poems are structurally sharp, with each word earning its place. But there’s equally a warm, playfulness in many poems, which the reader can imagine being delivered with a wink. ‘Chris Clarke-with-an-e’ is one such poem, and a great example of how to show with subtle details, creating a sense of pathos and kind humour in the recollection rather than scorn or regret: “‘You’re my bird for keeps,’ the love note said / scrawled with a cheap dip pen / and smudged where you’d folded it too soon.” Huggins also presents a strong narrative in places, exploring linearity in ‘Sparrows’, which shifts from action in the present to a triggered memory. There’s even unreliability plus a pleasing twist in the way that what first appeared to be trapped bird is actually the “tattered shreds of a bin liner.” Indeed the variety, both in subject/theme and use of form, make this a compelling collection, carefully stitched with that thread of the sea, and mermaids, birds, imagination, memory, loss, place and relationships. It would be difficult I think for any reader not to make some kind of personal connection with these poems. Like the “violet cream” gently pressed to the lips in the poignant closing poem, this is a collection which will linger sweetly in the heart and mind.

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

Charred by Andreena Leeanne (Team Angelica Publishing, 2020)

Charred by Andreena Leeanne is a collection like no other I have read before. It is a verse-autobiography with the poet’s portrait on the front cover, taking direct ownership of the voice present throughout the poems. With its titular metaphor for resilience and strength through change, this is a personal, and at times disturbingly frank, narrative of a life which has suffered the pain of many burns but survived to tell the story. It is also generous in its advocacy of writing as a way to help the reader express her/his own voice; indeed, the last two pages have blank lines for self-reflection and sharing. Leeanne says “my mind / should be on the national curriculum”, demonstrating the importance of understanding inner thoughts but also the tongue-in-cheek humour that runs gently throughout the poems, despite their subject-matter ranging from childhood trauma to homophobia, and the difficulties of expressing a true identity in the face of family and tradition. ‘Smile through the pain’ is a beautifully crafted poem about wearing braces, but it carries a deeper resonance when read within the wider context of the collection: sex, friendship, family, body image, racism. “Silence” plays like an underscore to ‘Covid-19 in silence’, to highlight the isolation of a pregnant woman shielding. The collection’s careful structure and thematic placing of poems guides the reader through the darker times to reach a place of hope. It is as if the reader has been invited into the pages of a personal journal whose poems read as confessional songs, each carrying its own focus, with repetitions, refrains and rhyming sounds making this as much a collection to hear as view on the page. Therefore, Charred is not a collection to take with a pinch of salt but rather taste its textures, and the natural bittersweetness of each word uttered.

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

This is Virus by Joe Williams

This is Virus by Joe Williams is a conceptual work of poetry which wouldn’t be out of place on the walls of MIMA. In book form it is appealing to the eye, with a striking reverse-out cover, and being entirely composed of blackout poems, using the letter from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the nation at the beginning of Covid-19. Like all good found poetry, Williams uses the original material to explore the subject-matter in a way that both satirises and creates irony. Blackout is a dialogic form – it invites the reader to enter those shadowy spaces. And indeed these poems strike up a lively conversation about how we all coped, or rather didn’t cope, during lockdown. The concept of ‘living in your home’ being ‘simple’ is an excellent example of how Williams creates witty juxtapositions on the page. And despite the inevitable starkness of the form, this collection is full of heart, being dedicated to the NHS. Clever, challenging and visually striking – experimental poetry at its best.

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

Cheap Fish for Kings by Janet Philo

The intriguingly titled Cheap Fish For Kings by Janet Philo begins with ‘Let’s go!’ – a unifying command which welcomes the reader into this beautifully presented pamphlet published by Black Light Engine Room Press. And, once in, there’s a reluctance to leave. Philo’s skilfully crafted verse weaves through varied subject-matter, from close observations of nature ‘and the gold inside / the blackbird’s eye’, to lamentations of a lost industry: ‘the fire in his eyes flickers and dies.’ All have their heart and soul in the North East landscape. There is an eco-critical thread running through many of the poems but it is expressed with care and subtlety, juxtaposing peaceful moments in nature with glimpses, like the ‘silver balloon’ with its ‘white plastic tail’, of an intrusive synthetic world. Philo’s lightness of touch makes these poems memorable. The closing poem is just as welcoming as the first: ‘Take your place / share the space’, and indeed, despite the seriousness of the themes, there is a warmth and generosity to Cheap Fish for Kings. So don’t read but rather feast on these poems.

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

God the Banana by Tim Ellis

God the Banana is a highly inventive and clever verse-novel told in a skilfully crafted narrative consisting of sonnets. To achieve this alone is no mean feat for a poet, however, with the added strengths of attention to detail in the characterisation and quirky presentation of themes, this collection becomes a very distinctive work. Humour is a powerful driving force throughout, with its irreverent and refreshing approach to subjects many readers might find taboo. God the Banana undoubtedly is laugh-out-loud funny but there is also a poignancy in the way it challenges our perceptions on life.

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

Last Song of the Universe by Dominic JP Nelson-Ashey

Last Song of the Universe is an ambitious collection which explores corporeal themes to an underlying score of the celestial. Experimental and boundary-testing in places, these poems are deftly crafted, showing great skill in handling a variety of forms. This is a collection about coping, with illness and death, where moments of irreverent humour break the taboo and we have permission to laugh at ‘death jokes’. But there are quieter moments, such as in ‘My Mate’s Wife’ where a gentle tone conveys the frailties of life with subtlety and poignancy. This accomplished collection deserves its place amongst the must-read poetry books for 2020.

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

Nothing is Meant to be Broken – Mark Connors

“From the off”, this is a collection that sings a compelling personal narrative. Birds swoop in and out of the poems as a reminder of a life-long love that began in childhood, and, as is so poignantly expressed in ‘A Fairy Tale from Nowhere’, a way of unpacking emotions: “By the time I was seven, / I knew birdsong was more anger than joy.” Carefully placed and structured, Connors demonstrates deftness in handling many poetic forms to make his subject-matter fly. This is powerfully shown in ‘List’ which uses “When” as an anaphora to present the possibilities of what a genuine relationship could be like between two people: “When there’s a hint of tragedy / in each other’s sputum.” ‘Nothing is Meant to be Broken’ is a migration of poems that travel between countries, relationships, open wounds and issues way beyond the edge of the page, but they always find their way back home again.

Buy a copy here or order from your local bookshop/library.

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