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The question of how we should memorialize victims of injustice, those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known is a difficult one. Jay Bernard writes a powerful introduction to their book of poetry “Surge” explaining how they conducted research into the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre and claimed the lives of 13 young people. Many believed this was a racist attack and the reverberations of this unresolved case are still felt today - especially when there are eerily familiar new cases such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Bernard’s poems poignantly embody the spirit and voice of people involved in these incidents including family members in mourning, bystanders, protesters and even the victims themselves.

Some poems reflect more on Bernard’s own personal experience to discuss issues to do with gender, sexuality, national and racial identity because, as the author states, “Many questions emerged not only about memory and history, but about my place in Britain as a queer black person. This opened out into a final sense of coherence: I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.” What forms over this book’s journey is a communion and convergence of voices who rightfully insist upon a presence in the nation’s collective memory. These poems are artfully infused with a political urgency, sensitively consider the weight of history and punch through the past into the present day.  

A series of poems take on a strong lyrical quality with repetition and rhythms reminiscent of the songs sung in Jamaican patois that emerged amidst the protests after the New Cross Fire. Other poems are more reflective using imagery which considers the border between past and present, memory and forgetting, life and death. The poem ‘Pace’ meaningfully explores a sense of connection to those who’ve come before us in the physical space we inhabit. Still other poems speak with startling directness in the voice of restless victims: “No-one will tell me    what happened to my body”. Interspersed between the poems there are sometimes photographic images of individuals or banners involved in the protests following the New Cross Fire. There are also occasional quotes taken from a variety of media such as text messages, news reports and relevant books of nonfiction. These add to the texture of the reading experience suffusing the poems with a living energy.

Several poems are achingly intimate and form kinds of narratives based in memory. One describes the bravery summoned to join a Pride parade and the confused sensation of melding into a community: “am I the steaming black street, am I the banner and the band, the crush, lilting ale, tipsy hug, charged flesh and open eye”. The poem ‘Ha-my-ca’ recounts a trip to Jamaica and the experience of skinny dipping where a new relationship with the body is formed: “I learned of self and other when my waist left the water”. While the poems with a more personal feel stand slightly to the side of the poems which converse with the research concerning the New Cross Fire, they add a sense of intimacy to how the author isn’t disconnected from this mission of bearing witness but is also a presence made solid.

Johnny Osbourne - 13 Dead

Sometimes I’ll read poetry collections where only a few individual poems make much of an impact, but nearly all the poems in “Surge” made me stop and meditate on them. It’s a richly complex and accomplished book that demands answers for those who’ve been marginalized and rendered voiceless throughout history: “It’s the only question we ask. Will anyone lessen the losing? Will anyone lessen the loss?... Losing and losing and loss. Never recouping the cost.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJay Bernard
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There are some books which sit on your shelves for ages and you know you'll love them, but don't get around to reading them for some reason. “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong is one of these. First published in 2016, it feels like one of those break-out books of poetry that's been universally lauded. His poems have that arresting quality as they clearly come from the heart and contain an urgent desire to communicate. The book is comprised of three sections: the first mostly deals with family heritage/the Vietnam War; the second mostly concerns childhood/family life and the third explores adulthood and looking to the future. Together they form a portrait of a distinct personality and the creation of an independent voice while meditating on themes including the body, violence, sex and nationality. He draws upon references from Greek mythology and American iconography taking them into an entirely new context. It's a thrilling new perspective charged with so much energy and passion. 

Vuong has such an interesting way of discussing our bodies. Several poems give jolting new views on how we inhabit our skin and exist in relation to each other. In the poem 'Immigrant Haibun' he muses that “Maybe the body is the only question an answer can't extinguish.” And in the poem 'Headfirst' he considers how “the body is a blade that sharpens by cutting”. Still later, in the achingly self-reflective poem 'Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong' he states “The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother's shadow falls.” Together his poems form a creative new view in how to feel ourselves as a physical presence and conscious being – even when those around us don't acknowledge our perspective or value our bodies. The striking seven page poem ‘Ode to Masturbation’ is actually a heartfelt take on how we relate to our own sense of being: “a hand to this blood-warm body like a word being nailed to its meaning & lives”

Some poems are tinged with a sharply political edge. 'Aubade with Burning City' considers the human impact and violence of America's abrupt withdrawal from Saigon by pairing the sense of local panic/death with lyrics from Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas'. Others have a much more personal feel considering how non-white Americans are asked about their origins: “When they ask you where you're from, tell them your name was fleshed from the toothless mouth of a war-woman.” These poems highlight how America is not a harmonious melting pot and can't progress as a society without acknowledging and addressing the past.

One poem surprisingly inhabits the perspective of Jacqueline Kennedy. This is a decidedly queer point of view and other poems directly address violence against queer bodies such as 'Seventh Circle of Earth' which memorialises a gay couple burned in their own home where their voices only exist as a sequence of footnotes. Still another poem looks at gay on gay violence considering the case of Jeffrey Dahmer and obsessive/possessive love: “I want to leave no one behind. To keep & be kept. The way a field turns its secrets into peonies. The way light keeps its shadow by swallowing it.” Also, 'Trojan' looks at the battle gear of ancient warriors meditating on the expression of brute strength as a form of pageant beauty. It often feels like Vuong himself is like the piano player in his poem 'Queen Under The Hill' in which it's stated “I sit turning bones into sonatas.”

At times it can feel like the author is speaking in a voice so direct it's almost painful. This can be the case even when he's writing in the second person as in 'Because It's Summer' where he writes “a swarm of want you wear like a bridal veil but you don't deserve it: the boy & his loneliness the boy who finds you beautiful only because you're not a mirror because you don't have enough faces to abandon you've come this far to be no one”. Later on the poem ‘Notebook Fragments’ takes a very different style from the others recording observations like loose diary entries reflecting the author's changing state of mind. An earlier poem expresses a desire to lose oneself “You can get lost in every book but you'll never forget yourself the way god forgets his hands” but then the poem 'Thanksgiving 2006' feels like a declaration of independence “I am ready to be every animal you leave behind.”

Vuong's poems combine to form a view that's at once movingly personal and energized with a message that needs to be heard.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOcean Vuong
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When we enter the woods we can't help imbuing the natural world with so many of our own emotions. The beauty of trees, flowers and wildlife transform into metaphors for what we're feeling. In Seán Hewitt's pamphlet of poetry “Lantern” he explores the experience of entering nature, observing it and finding our selves there. We might enter it seeking solace or to hide or engage in an illicit encounter or as a respite from the business of civilization. It's where our language has no meaning: “the places where words extinguish themselves and leave all the things that cannot be fixed or forgotten.” In this way, he delicately illuminates the sense of being we get from entering a place where we cast our emotions out in an act of transformation, but find that we are the ones who are transformed. 

There is a constancy to nature and a sense that it's timeless or, at least, that the woods experience time very differently from us. In one poem the narrator recounts planting trees as a school child and comparing his growth over the years to that of the woods which have grown more slowly. If we ever return to a tree we planted in childhood or a sapling we observed as a child we experience a moment of reflection and how we've changed in so many unexpected ways since the innocence of our youth. By comparison, the tree's growth seems incremental but no less monumental. In the poem 'Clock' it's observed “though I love you I know there is no such thing as held time, this tree seems suddenly like a stillness, a circle of quiet air, a place to stand now that I have had to leave” There is a reassurance to a tree's steady progress over the years and a solemn acceptance that we ourselves will experience radical transformations unlike this simple growth. 

I enjoyed how many of these poems give a sense of dramatic emotional events having occurred without disclosing the details of them. Instead they focus on this interchange between the narrator and the way nature has changed under his gaze. It can seem like a holy experience yet it is irreligious like a silver birch “for he does not observe liturgical time”. The poems also convey a sense of guilt from casting our experiences and emotions onto nature as if we've spoiled its purity: “I wonder if I have ruined these places for myself, if I have brought each secret to them and weighed the trees with things I can no longer bear.” Because entering the natural world is a form of reckoning where we hope to be altered, brought back to ourselves or made anew like in a poem where it's wondered “Are we all just wanting to see ourselves changed, made unearthly?” 

Many of these poems simply have a quiet beauty to them and I admire the way they contain so much feeling, but let it simmer beneath the surface. They make striking reflections on how we situate ourselves in relation to nature and how entering it allows us to return to our lives having cast ourselves into it as in the final haunting lines of the collection “I turn home, and all across the floor the spiked white flowers light the way. The world is dark but the wood is full of stars.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSeán Hewitt
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I hugely admire a book that can be so brazenly sexual and plunder the depths of personal experience to tease out meanings that are profound and revelatory. Richard Scott’s book of poetry “Soho” demonstrates a full frontal engagement with queer experience while vigorously searching for a gay lineage and history to connect to. In its opening poem 'Public Library, 1998' the poet performs an Orton-Halliwell stunt of defacing library books to insert the “COCK” and gayness into literature as well as highlighting queer subtext. The final long poem ‘Oh My Soho!’ documents a search for that history in the present-day manifestation of a queer community that feels in some was disconnected from its past. There’s a potent anger in how “We’re a people robbed of ancestors – they were stolen, hooded, from us” through stigmatisation and death by criminalization and disease, but also how reformed queer identity has become: “We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!” The double meaning of this line is blistering in its recognition of progress, but at the expense of behaviour which has been sanitised by heteronormative practices and a lack of political engagement. Scott seamlessly treads between the personal and political to create poetry that burns hot pink. This poetry gripped me, turned me on, made me teary-eyed and left me grinning.

In one of my favourite poems 'Sandcastles' a scene plays out where a family at a playground is encroached upon by a “tall gent”. The narrator self-consciously migrates between the identities of the people there to engage in furtive public toilet sex or become a nurturing influence to a girl building sandcastles or become the girl playing in the sand. So there is a mind-blowing simultaneous embodiment of these contrasting feelings of perversion and innocence. One of the most gut-wrenchingly emotional poems 'crocodile' describes what it is to have survived sexual trauma “I have died already and somehow survived” but tragically being made to feel like your tears are not valid. Several poems describe the negotiation between the childhood self and the fully-cognizant sexually-active adult. Some focus on how childhood abuse can be transformed into adulthood fetishes like in the poem ‘under neon lights my arms glow scar-‘ while others explore dark feelings of self-loathing “I hated still hate this body”.

Other poems have a much more light-hearted nature and poke fun at the cult of poetry such as 'Permissions' which invokes the community of chap books and poetry slams where poets freely fuse together imagery to titillate, disturb, connect or grieve “collecting rapey verse like a tramp pocketing bin-butts”. Another poem sees the poet critiquing himself for co-opting theorists and writers after having just presented a series of poems re-imagining the love poetry of Verlaine and splicing in quotes from writers such as Walt Whitman, Kosofsky Sedgwick, Mark Doty, Michael Foucault and Jean Genet. Scott lambasts himself ‘shame on you faggot for bending whitman to your will” in a way that endearingly shows he’s not taking himself too seriously while writing about serious things.

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Throughout the book there is a rigorous engagement with sex, the body and desire. These include feverish poems which celebrate the act such as ‘slavic boys will tell you’ whose format on the page takes on the evocative shape of a mushroom. But frequently there is a sense of sex being mixed with violence or death. One of the most striking is the poem ‘you slug me and’ whose startling invitation “ask the terrible questions of my flesh” describes how violence in sex can be a means towards self-discovery. Another poem ‘you spit in my mouth and I’ takes on a Jean Genet-like mentality to discover levels of beauty in sexual degradation. An entire section of the book includes poems focusing on shame as a complex attendant to sex, especially for gay people. Scott describes “those pre-grindr days when loneliness stung like a hunger” and how “my head's a cloud and my heart's a puddle”. The triumphant final poem ‘Oh My Soho!’ describes the desultory sensation “I’m chock-full of shame, riven with dark man-jostling alleyways, a treasure map of buried trauma.” An ever-recurring need for sexual gratification makes it seem as if we are condemned to a state where “this desperate place... is your home now”. But the poem 'the presence of x' epitomises Scott’s rejection of religion and “heteronormative bullshit” out of a commitment to “believe in sex the blue hours you've spent fucking me the bruises you left on my arms”. This results in an individual who gazes askance at society to resolutely declare “I am the homosexual you cannot be proud of”.

It’s so heartening to see a fresh generation of poets like Richard Scott, Andrew McMillan and Danez Smith whose writing engages with the dimensions and politics of queer identity in refreshing new ways. I loved reading this playful, moving and riotous poetry collection. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRichard Scott
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One of my goals this year is to read more poetry and I feel lucky to have started with a new book which totally gripped me with the intensity of its voice. The poems in “Don't Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith have the urgent force of a rallying cry. They pay tribute to individuals and groups who will not be silenced no matter how much they are oppressed, incarcerated or killed. Specifically Smith speaks powerfully about the experience of being a gay African American: how skin colour can lead someone to be targeted by the police or alternately excluded/fetishised in the gay community. These are poems drawn from somewhere very personal. They sometimes play off from lyrics from musicians like Billie Holiday or Diana Ross and use a unique variety of forms to convey meaning as much in their structure as they do in the choice of words. Like all great poetry it can be interpreted a number of different ways, but there is a clarity of self here which definitely has something to say.

Something that connected me to these poems so strongly is the way that Smith frequently makes broad statements while also drawing the reader into the emotional core of his reality. He states “i am a house swollen with the dead, but still a home.” How brilliantly this expresses the architecture of being! That we can encompass all who've come before us and/or those who haven't survived, but our very structure is designed to accommodate this Genealogy and invite others in to experience it. I was continuously jolted by how startlingly personal these poems felt but I also frequently stopped to contemplate how their meaning is so beautifully expansive. Smith speaks for himself as well as others when he writes a line with such dazzling beauty like “let's waste the moon's marble glow shouting our names to the stars until we are the stars.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has revolutionized our dialogue for speaking about both institutionalized and rogue violence inflicted upon black communities. The very spirit of not letting the deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown pass without testifying to their injustice and how they are endemic of systematic racism seems wrapped up in the line “don't fret, we don't die. they can't kill the boy on your shirt again.” But Smith is also conscientious of the fact that many people who die or experience stultifying oppression aren't memorialised in such a way: “i'm not the kind of black man who dies on the news.” This is because there is also a death of spirit which isn't visible and which is more broadly felt by groups of people continuously ground down. He expresses this so powerfully in the line “some of us are killed in pieces, some of us all at once”. There are also moments when Smith doesn't hesitate to give his poetry a startling directness “reader, what does it feel like to be safe? white? how does it feel to dance when you're not dancing away the ghost?”

Danez Smith reads 'Principles'

This collection is also a poignant testimony to the way romance and sex are experienced by a black gay man. Some poems speak directly about how race and skin colour are listed as turn on or turn offs on dating/hookup profiles. Yet there are gorgeously romantic instances in poems which yearn for a transcendence of these imposed boundaries: “if love is a hole wide enough to be God's mouth, let me plunge into that holy dark & forget the color of light.” The poem 'seroconversion' has the most innovative and creative way of eviscerating identity to describe a conflagration of coupling that results in radical transformations and self-divisions. Smith doesn't shy from the raw power and sensuality of gay sex “praise the endless tub of grease” or the numbing anonymity of it “i'm offered eight mouths, three asses & four dicks before i'm given a name”. Still others pay tribute to instances of aching personal hurt: “I was his fag sucked into ash his lungs my final resting place.”

Smith's poems are also very cognizant of the effect AIDS and STDs have upon the gay community. There's a bracingly sympathetic moment when someone is waiting for test results and pleas “ask him to wait before he gives me the test results, give me a moment of not knowing, sweet piece of ignorance, i want to go back to the question”. Then there are a number of structurally innovative poems such as 'it's not a death sentence anymore' where the words of this sentence are whittled down the page until you're simply left with “a sentence” with spaces in between. This speaks so powerfully about a shift in common thinking that because being HIV+ doesn't instantly equal death anymore, it shouldn't be such a concern. 'blood hangover' fiercely forms what Smith calls “an erasure” of Ross' popular song to acknowledge the serious after-effects of sex. Elsewhere the words “my blood” and “his blood” are repeated until they collide and rapturously mingle on the page in the poem 'litany with blood all over'. It's so heartening seeing these complex issues explored in Smith's poems while also capturing the joy, romance and steaminess of gay sex. I admire how new young poets like Smith and Andrew McMillan are so thoughtfully exploring layers of queer life in their writing. 

I was totally captivated by the urgency and power of “Don't Call Us Dead”. These are poems that are, of course, political and personal at once. They have an invigorating clarity while also being complex enough to yield multiple meanings from rereading. Most refreshingly, this is poetry which feels of the moment.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanez Smith
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I bought a copy of this poetry collection when it first came out a few months ago, but its recent listing for the Costa Book Awards poetry category finally inspired me to pick it up. Kumukanda means initiation but since Kayo Chingonyi came of age in England rather than Zambia where he was born, he mostly records in these poems the rites of passage he goes through as a young black man in Britain. From cricket games to spending time in a Londis grocery store, these poems express his particular take on common experiences of modern English youth and the tributaries that fed into the creation of his particular identity.

Many of the poems describe Chingonyi’s affinity with music and especially his attachment and affection for cassette tapes. In one poem he writes “You say you love music. Have you suffered the loss of a cassette so gnarled by a tape deck’s teeth it refuses to play the beat you’ve come to recognise by sound and not name?” This invokes a real nostalgia not just for the music these tapes contained, but also the process of listening to this antiquated format. He observes how the static these tapes contained was part of the experience. One poem describes the background sounds which are accidentally recorded within tracks and how this can mentally transport the listener to the actual recording studio. These poems build to a sense of how music is a living commentary upon people’s lives and exists within the movement of time so that R&B artists work with “their lyrics written out on the backs of hands.”

There are references to musical influences from James Brown to Prince, but in some poems he also points to more complicated forms of broader song and dance imagery like Bojangles. This made me recall Zadie Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” for the way it describes a black individual in modern Britain contemplating racist imagery from the past and how that affects self-perception. Chingonyi describes in the title poem how he wonders what a version of himself that had been raised in Zambia would have thought of his British self. I admired how he describes in later poems that beyond any internal conflict of national or racial identity he recognizes a more fluid sense of being. In ‘Baltic Mill’ he describes a meeting point where it’s acknowledged “The exact course that brought us here is unimportant. It is that we met like this river, drawn from two sources, offered up our flaws, our sedimental selves.” I felt this worked in two different ways where it could describe two people meeting or someone reconciling different aspects of oneself as adding up to a unique individual.

This collection is a passionate and engaging take on one man’s coming of age.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKayo Chingonyi
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I’m often drawn to writing that acknowledges the awe one feels as an individual gazing at the universe but from an entirely secular perspective. The world and the fact of existence seems spectacular enough without attributing it to any grand design. (Nevertheless, I fully respect people who draw wisdom, comfort and community from different kinds of faith.) In her latest collection of poetry “All We Saw” it feels like Anne Michaels is beckoning the reader to join her on a spiritual journey that is entirely unconnected with religion. Her pared down poems describe the path of life as if travelling in a boat. She frequently makes pithy observations about the difficult process of cherishing our experiences without being too attached to them, especially with how this is done in writing and visual art. Her poems shift back and forth from the personal to the broadly objective to explore the tension of savouring what we love, but also learning to let it go. 

The book begins and ends with longer poems, but smaller ones are sandwiched in between. The final poem in the fifth section ‘Ask Aloud’ struck me most as simulating something like a prayer. In the bold statement “To love another more than oneself. To know this is to know everything” Michaels seems to be forming a mantra through which to live. She asks a series of questions and rather than assuming there are answers she declares “Not surmise. Sunrise” as if certain kinds of truth can only be understood fully by looking at nature. Imagery of the natural world repeats and crops up in various poems where knowledge can be better gleaned from the physical world rather than through a process of deduction or received wisdom. The poem ‘You Meet the Gaze of a Flower’ also acts as a kind of entreaty or prayer about confronting life head on. Nature can also encompass a sense of emotion which can’t be expressed in words: “how much that hope hurt and yet purple dusk, yellow winter sky”. I love the way in which you’re suddenly thrust from a place of deep personal feeling into the expanse of a colourful skyline.

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Point of view can shift in fascinating and moving ways throughout a single poem in Michaels’ writing. This probably occurs most dramatically in the poem ‘Bison’ where the description moves from the creation of a picture to inhabiting that picture to the dying artist who created the picture. The focus switches so fluidly it’s breathtaking to be drawn through it and creates a thoroughly unique resonance. This is very different from the blunt emotion to be found in ‘I Dreamed Again’ which describes how we can get lost in dream states where loved ones who are now deceased can physically exist in our lives again – something like what Joan Didion describes in her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Such longing for a connection with another is consistent with the existential panic that can result from absolute solitude. In her poem ‘Not’ she seems to assert that we possess innumerable uncertainties in life but we can be certain we are not alone when another person is with us. I also like speculating whether this poem is a play off from Samuel Beckett’s famous piece for the theatre ‘Not I’ and offers a different kind of answer from the loveless life of the narrator in that dramatic monologue.

The title poem which concludes the book touches back on water imagery found in the beginning. It also harkens back to a kind of communal spiritual practice where she states “we had only to bend our heads as if reading the same book open between us”. To surmise that the same truth about all the manifold experiences and emotions of life can be understood by looking at the natural world is a beautifully optimistic one. Yet, I also like how she seems to intimate that horizons can create a false belief. A skyline gives the illusion that there is an endpoint when in actuality it will continue on no matter how much you run towards it – just like our images of future happiness will inevitably dissolve because we will always desire more. The book “All We Saw” is a beautifully spare and artful creation.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Michaels

“A new book?” my boyfriend asks when he sees me reading, as usual. “What’s this one about?”
I tell him it’s a book of poetry.
“Poetry?!” he frowns (half joking).
I try to explain how it’s a particularly engaging and fun collection.

The general public, even regular readers often view poetry as inaccessible or perplexingly elitist. But Hollie McNish is a great example of a modern poet with writing that’s so easy to relate to. It’s also smart, humorous, bawdy, political and socially-engaged. “Plum” is a book that also draws you into the author’s life. Many of the poems in this collection are headed by the age at which McNish produced them and the context within which they were written. This not only helps the reader understand the motivation behind them, but builds an ongoing narrative of a girl growing into a woman, a worker, a friend, a wife, a mother, a citizen and a poet. We see her change from a teenager working at a chemist’s who sniggers at customers buying condoms to being a woman feeling embarrassed about buying condoms herself. The collection as a whole beautifully captures a sense of McNish’s evolution as a person and a writer as her style changes over time.

There are poems about discovering sex, getting groped in bookshops, arguing with the television, learning other languages and the chaos of taking her daughter to a children’s party. They all draw the reader into McNish’s life and articulate so meaningfully the contradictions, inequalities and shame she sees in society. Her poetry is particularly strong at highlighting the often maligned working class who are diminished and patronized by politicians, the media and middle class. Rather than really trying to engage with their point of view, they are often talked down to "as the poor wait and rot labelled yobs by headline cops". The poems also enumerate McNish’s own experience working a number of different jobs which gives a special credence to the way she describes a waitress’ shift so strongly: “in the heat of her boredom and beckoning orders the hands of the clocks just keep slowing down”. It’s a tradition that the queen sends a birthday message to every person in the UK that turns 100, but McNish states plainly and powerfully how “the poorer you are the sooner the queen should write”.

I couldn't find any poems from this collection online but this poem 'Embarrassed' is from McNish's book "Nobody Told Me"

Many of the poems describe the body in a way which is frank and refreshing. It reminded me of Andrew McMillan’s collection “Physical” for the way she captures the oftentimes awkward way we inhabit all this flesh. McNish gets the humour and ridiculousness of our physical development as well as its poignancy when our roles in life change. She also doesn’t shy from highlighting how it feels like language fails to describe the full complexity of this. "Morphing into an adult's body feels so odd. I tried to capture it here, but I can't." She describes the way children are spoken to in a condescending way and (especially in the striking poem ‘Voldemort’) the way girls are commonly taught to be ashamed of their genitals in a way that boys are not. She frankly deals with sex with all its pleasures and pitfalls. It’s particularly fun when she inhabits the voice of Constance Reid from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to show her daily life and fulsome sexuality. And also, the powerful poem ‘Shrinking’ powerfully describes a modern day waitress dressed as “Alice in Wonderland.” As the book progresses, the poems grapple with how McNish is coming to terms with her own mortality noticing graying hairs or the slacking of her stomach after giving birth. The final section is dedicated to poems specifically about particular parts of the body in a way the creatively rounds out this very personal collection.

Unsurprisingly, McNish is a popular performer. I was lucky enough to see her read some poems at a Picador author showcase event and she captivated the audience. Not only does her animated language have the power to grip listeners, but she also has a direct and frank way of delivering her poems that seizes your attention. As well as encouraging you read this vibrant collection, I’d recommend that you go see her perform if she’s giving a reading near you. Of course, not many people will be able to do this but she has a YouTube channel where you can watch her reading several of her poems: https://www.youtube.com/user/holliemcnish/videos

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHollie McNish

I’ve been taking time with the poems in this collection for a couple of months. This is such a short book, but I often find I need to be in the right headspace to really hear what a poet is saying. Since I read so much fiction I find it difficult not to read a narrative into a collection of poems. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing this, but it feels to me like the primary aim of poetry isn’t to tell a story that can be easily summarized. It’s more like an artistic arrangement of language that should wash over you. Nevertheless, if I had to describe an overarching theme to the moving poems in this collection I’d say it’s about dealing with a mother’s death. The collection is prefaced by a quote from Freud: “The loss of a mother must be something very strange.” The poems frequently delve into the complex psychology of trying to understand this sometimes embattled relationship, especially after death. A cluster of the poems at the centre of the book give nods to Freud. Just how or why the mother died isn’t entirely clear although there are indications of self-harm or suicide: “People you love can be removed from the world (They can remove themselves).” But the overarching impression of these poems is of someone dealing with that grief, reflecting on the condition of loss and the way she still carries the presence of this lost mother.

Part of the reason these poems feel so painfully personal is the way the daughter narrating can sometimes lambast herself for not being self sufficient and for needing a mother that she can’t have. There’s also a frustration at not being able to accurately translate into language all the riotous emotion which accompany this state of being as in the poem ‘Drunken Bellarmine’: “I cannot make manifest this collection of feelings, but look at me: I want to be loved for the wrong reasons. I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons. I have been lonely.” There’s the anguish of being left alone even though she intellectually understands death and accepts this, but it can never be fully accepted. This causes her to perceive the mother as both a care-giver and a tormenter. She imagines the mother sneering down at her “We all have to die sometime, Your Majesty”

This creates a dialogic within the narrator where she understands the departed mother’s point of view, but she can’t reconcile the reality of it. This creates within her a split sense which prompts Berry to write some of her more technically ambitious poems. Some take the form of scripted plays where there is a conversation between Me One and Me Two. It also inspires a lot of imagery looking at water or reflective surfaces where the inner and out life blur into each other. Other poems suggest how she retreats infinitely inward like in the poem ‘Two Rooms’ where she exists “in a room inside a room” and only once within these walls within walls can she feel “safe.”

From a localized story of grief, these poems expand out to meaningfully consider larger issues of love and relationships. The fact that the people we love are capable of surviving without us can feel like a betrayal. Although we’re aware these feelings are entirely selfish it doesn’t detract from the pain of knowing people’s lives can carry on without our being a part of them. In the poem ‘Once’ which narrowly trails down the page she writes: “I sent my loved ones away & kindly they went I imagined them active in my absence & it was like rehearsing my death their capacity for survival was thus proved & mine too insultingly so”. The converse perspective of this is that we are also able to survive without our loved ones if forced to do so and if we can find the strength to carry on. The final poem ‘Canopy’ beautifully encapsulates a possible strategy for doing so.

I really connected with this collection. These are poems worth lingering over.

You can hear Emily Berry read her poem ‘Everything Bad is Permanent’ here: https://soundcloud.com/faberbooks/everything-bad-is-permanent

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmily Berry

Every time I read a book of poetry I wonder why I don’t read more poetry. I was prompted to read this collection after it won the poetry category of the Costa Book Awards and I’m so glad I picked it up. The title “Falling Awake” feels apt as Alice Oswald has a dizzying way of turning the world upside down, making it fresh and inverting expectation with her stunningly beautiful acrobatic language. Many of the poems in this collection focus on nature whether that includes animals, insects, the weather, the setting/rising sun or the transformation of the seasons. A few draw in references to figures from Greek mythology such as Orpheus and Tithonus. Their inclusion melds with the tone of the other poems giving a striking perspective on time’s movement and how we perceive the world as it flows around us.

Most of the poems are quite brief, but the most sustained poem is at the end of the collection and is written as a sort of performance. It concerns Tithonus, son of a water nymph who asked Zeus to make him immortal. His wish was granted but he continued to grow old so he persists through life and we’re told that we can hear his “babbling” thoughts for a period of 46 minutes with an accompaniment of music. This poem seems to encapsulate the major themes of the entire book which often presents consciousness as if it were a Samuel Beckett play. The thoughts and physicality of the subject are raggedy: “so the voice stumbles and the feet can’t get comfortable and the eyes flicker” but still time persists “first this: the sound of everything repeating / then this: the sound of everything repeating”. It gives a powerful sense of the claustrophobia Tithonus feels stuck in the nightmarish scenario of living in a decrepit state for infinity. But at the same time we can relate to it because like him we wake up day after day, contending with a world which partly changes but mostly stays the same.

These same sentiments are echoed in ‘Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River’ where “a Roman water nymph” seeks to change limestone into a river. I believe Oswald is describing a statue in this poem which is frozen in place with legs and one arm lost. But nevertheless, this being is caught in a repetitious state and continuously fails. There remains the expectation that things might change or work at any moment with the continual prompt to “try again” and “go on”. Again, this feels very reminiscent of Beckett’s writing. In ‘Evening Poem’ I wondered if Oswald was at all influenced by Marghanita Laski when she states how someone appears “as if you’d sprung from the horse-hair of a whole Victorian sofa” which felt similar to Laski’s novel about a woman who falls asleep on a chaise-longue and wakes up in Victorian times. Several poems convey this sense of tumbling through time which is both limited and infinite or slightly disordered like the state between sleeping and waking.

I felt one of the most powerful lines in the book came towards the end of the Tithonus poem. Tithonus describes that there is “the makeshift character that springs from speaking and looking on and letting everything pass and then the loneliness of being left here endless lost to my lethargy like a dripping tap”. This so beautifully encompasses the nature of being, how identity is formed through our interactions with the world and how there is a quiet centre to life once we are alone again. It makes me feel how no matter the intensity of our connections with other people or how fully formed we might appear in their eyes, each of us are ultimately a primal kind of being when left on our own. Only a few of the poems give a sense of community or a polyphony of voices such as ‘Village’ where a number of voices express the devolvement of civilization as if the world is being returned to nature.

“Falling Awake” is filled with curious insights into how we perceive the world around us, the cyclical rotation of days and the sometimes hazy border between the conscious/unconscious mind. Reading Oswald’s poems is invigorating because it makes you want to listen more closely.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlice Oswald
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It was reported on RTE at the beginning of this month that the number of homeless families in Dublin has surpassed 1000 and the number of homeless individuals totals over 5000. The property crash in 2007 created an economic strain on the country which is still being felt today with many people being rendered homeless primarily because rental prices are rising to an unaffordable degree. Writer Kerrie O'Brien has witnessed the increasing amount of people living on the street in Dublin for years. She decided to take action raising money for Simon Communities, one of Ireland's leading homeless charities, by creating and editing the beautiful anthology “Looking at the Stars” which features fiction, poetry and nonfiction by some of Ireland's leading writers. All the money earned from selling this book is going to the Rough Sleeper Team at the Dublin Simon Community.

This writing gives a dynamic look at the condition of homelessness – from inside perspectives of children, families and individuals left without anywhere to live to people working on the front lines assisting those in need to ordinary citizens who witness its effects only peripherally. Not all the writing deals directly with homelessness, but considers different angles of loss, empathy or hope. There are several moving and thoughtful accounts written by people who have experienced homelessness themselves. A piece by Tara Flynn creatively addresses issues of safety and security. Some of the fiction gives vivid depictions of people in need. A mother and her baby are scammed out of money in Sarah Bannan's 'Because Privacy'. The story 'Louise' by Belinda McKeon gives voice to an eleven year old girl living with her family in emergency shelter at a hotel where she must learn the restrictive rules and policies which make them into second class citizens. Whereas Donal Ryan's 'Detached' shows a man trying to care for his family and explain to his children why their house now belongs to an American bank even though it will be left vacant. One of the most vivid accounts of the grimy harsh reality of homelessness comes in Sinéad Gleeson's 'Counting Bridges' which makes you feel the bitter chill and continuous humiliation of living on the street.

Anyone who has spent time in a city encounters homelessness in some form and it always creates a personal dilemma. You can reach out to someone obviously in need by offering some form of support or walk past them. Poetry by Afric McGlinchey confronts this awkward question. Mary O'Donnell considers how the homeless can become merely “shapes” to us. Although we have statistics about homelessness we never know how many people are truly in need because they might not be counted in these collated numbers. Madeline D’Arcy presents the story ‘Census’ about a boy who has gone off the grid, but ironically finds himself being counted anyway. Meanwhile, Jane Casey's tense story ‘Runaways’ shows girls whose home lives have become untenable and embark on an unknown journey. Similarly the protagonist of Danielle McLaughlin's ‘The Woman in the Bowl’ can no endure her home life so takes drastic and much darker action.

More troubling to consider are people in need who are understandably tempestuous from the considerable strain they live under. Colin Barrett presents an intense inner view of an irascible character's thought process when he's plagued by feelings of isolation and feels disconnected from others. Nuala O'Connor's story 'Eulogy' considers the problematic life of a woman who can no longer be saved. Similarly, Jaki McCarrick gives us the point of view of a character who only witnesses the aftermath of a troubled individual's life and recognises how “this sensation of life being weirdly 'alien' must worsen, deepen” when someone is plagued by mental illness or absolute poverty. Dermot Bolger's striking poem considers a more complex meaning for the word home whereas Patrick Cotter's inventive poem 'The View' gives an entirely different perspective.

Issues of faith come up in several pieces in this book. Stephen James Smith's poem ‘Relit Flame’ shows a faithless person seeking solace in a church because he/she has nowhere else to go. Similarly, Mary O'Malley finds that “Habit takes you to an empty church”. In 'Jamie' by Christopher McCaffrey the issue of extreme faith is considered from the perspective of a person who can't stop himself from helping the homeless. The story '1988, Sabina' by Kevin Barry shows how an ordinary object like leather police boots can become something sacred when it takes on a historic and symbolic personal significance.

In a society where the division between the rich and poor is widening it's shocking to consider how ostentatious wealth can sit so smugly alongside cruel poverty. Gerard Smyth looks at the way prized horses receive much better treatment than people in 'The Horses of Kildare'. Anne Enright writes a story about absolute resistance in the face of these untenable gaps in society. Rick O'Shea considers the reality of the situation by looking at developments on a particular street in his piece 'Molesworth Street' where he recognises “We're living in a time where things are going to get harder for those on the margins, not easier.”

It's heartening to see writers take direct action not only be creating an anthology whose profits will go to combat homelessness, but which also make readers consider the issue from so many points of view. As Kerrie O'Brien writes in her introduction “Our government is not doing enough for homelessness – so maybe we all need to do something as individuals – be it a gig, a bake sale, a sponsored run, anything.” Buying this book is certainly a good place to start and reading it will leave you enriched and inspired. You can find out more about this anthology, the Dublin Simon Community and where to purchase the book here: http://www.lookingatthestars.ie/

At just sixty pages, “Loop of Jade” is a strong slender book of poetry. I had an odd experience reading it over a number of days as I found myself occasionally flipping to the back to see how many more poems awaited and every time I checked it felt like there were more. It was as if they were continuing to multiply or that the book was growing a tail to extend out further and further. I think this is because poetry, and particularly Howe's evocative poetry, has the effect of levelling time. The past, present and future can be experienced together. Even though many of the poems in this book obviously come from a very specific personal place, the weighty themes of identity and particularly society's diminishment of women are universal. There is a feeling in the language used that what has come before is coming again, that our patterns of thought and that our memories too spin round and round, that we live and travel in ever widening and continuous circles. This is informed poetry with something important to say.

Some of this writing such as the devastating poem ‘Tame’ have a more narrative or fairy tale feel. Here the value of female life and freedom is superseded by their perceived economic value. The poem 'Islands' is in a similar style yet has a more coming of age structure and surprises with lines of brutal reality that hit like a hammer: “She said she saved me from the refuse heap, from being eaten by the dogs with other scraps.” In the extended title poem ‘Loop of Jade’ micro-poems seem embedded within the larger poem which is composed of the stories told by a mother. There is an intensely felt gap between the experience between the mother and narrator: “myself a waving spot, unseen, on the furthest shore.” Yet there is a sense of continuation and connection between generations in the inherited “loop” which serves as a talisman forming a physical connection to the past and possible future.

There are poems here about love affairs and the act of creativity as well as strong poetry about identity and the question of place. This repeated phrase in 'Crossing from Guangdong' takes on great profundity: “Something sets us looking for a place.” The inclusion of multiple languages in the excellent poem 'Others' pays tributes to the blend of cultures and skin itself through generations. One of the strongest themes of this collection is the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. This is particularly true in China, but in the west as well. The institutionalized way in which women are valued below men so that we become blind to the ways in which this occurs. It seems to me that the intention of many of these poems are to sharpen our focus on how this works. One poem gives a perfect metaphor for this shift in point of view: “like at a put-off optician’s trip, when you realise how long you’ve been seeing things wrongly.”

Howe intelligently reexamines attitudes about gender in classical figures. In ‘Sirens’ she traces the disfigurement of women through literature that makes them into strange creatures because of a fear of desire: “for lust brings with it many monsters.” Later the same scrutiny is put to the Sphinx and the dividing line between genders. She also takes on Shakespeare stating in one poem that “On the heath, Lear assumes all ragged madmen share ungrateful daughters.”

This powerful poetry affirms the need of books to widen our view of history to include points of view which have no voice. There is a striking statement about the dominant political forces which have seized the narrative of history, but are mindful of the alternative narratives they've suppressed: “In their dreams, our long-lost books nightly buckle & char.” There is also much playfulness and humour to be found in this book which mentions Michael Flatley in one poem and where folklore mixes with research on Wikipedia. Howe demonstrates how she is in dialogue with many other poets as well referencing authors as varied as Theodore Roethke, Homer, Horace, Ezra Pound and Peter Streckfus. The most startling and beautiful thing about Sarah Howe's poems are the way she uses colours and shading to form images in the mind so I felt like I'd spent a long time gazing at paintings rather than simply reading.

Sarah Howe is one of the writers shortlisted for The Sunday Times/Peter Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. The winner will be announced this month. I'm so glad this excellent prize has introduced me to Howe's writing. 

Read an interview with Sarah Howe here.

When reading the poems in “Deep Lane” I like to imagine that I’m lying on a patch of grass listening to the poet speaking about his life, relationships and thoughts about existence. Because that’s what the experience of reading this collection feels like. It’s intimate, immediate and suffused with a sense of being immersed in the natural world. But this isn’t a cosy idyllic space; there are worms and thorns and inclement weather warnings. It’s also not so serious. He comically stumbles into a grave. He locks himself out of his house – twice! These experiences are drawn in to suggest meaning, but are acknowledged at the same time to be meaningless. The title poem spreads itself throughout the book taking several different forms as Doty describes the process of gardening and the environment surrounding his home. It has the effect of creating a personal landscape which the reader can recline in to hear Doty’s beautifully articulated meditations and penetrating observations about the way our lives are guided by unruly desires.

The poet conjures a number of disarmingly haunting images throughout the book. For instance, in one poem it’s described how a boy runs in a figure eight pattern between gravestones. More than a comment upon the connection between new life and death, it felt to me that this was a strong symbolic representation of the way in which our consciousness can remain in a childish or naïve state throughout our lives. Although we can’t help being highly aware of our own mortality as we continue to age and experience loss, a sense of active innocence persists weaving us around death as a way of carrying on despite the inevitable. In another poem he describes a church as a “breathing cloud of stone” which creates an image that perfectly fits with the emotion of a specific significant moment when he commits to his relationship with another man. It’s similar to prayers which feel so substantial that it’s like they are physically real but are only, after all, just words.

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  “the skull-buzz drone singing cranial nerves”

“the skull-buzz drone singing cranial nerves”

For Doty nourishment in life is inextricably mixed with the toxic. In one poem he envisions himself as an extinct beast with “Mother’s milk in my belly and a little of her shit, too.” There is a sense of being stunted by what is meant to make us grow, but this fouled sustenance is a part of the ecstasy of living. As he remarks in the poem ‘Apparition’ “with intoxication, I am unregenerate.” And these notions are given a more emotionally weighty form in the poem ‘Crystal’ about intravenous drug use which describes altered consciousness and groping for an articulation of meaning beyond language. Here the injection of impurities is a necessarily dangerous path to a more profound sense of knowing and developing.

Doty is playfully conversant with both language and his influences. He remarks in an aside when describing a suicidal boy’s legs “(I want to spell long with two n’s, as Milton spelled dim with a double m to intensify the gloom of hell).” Elsewhere he likens an emotional connection with another to “The way that nothing in Vermeer has an edge.” Another poem is a more direct dialogue with Jackson Pollock’s artistic method and pondering its meaning in relation to the active change of the city around him. These references effortlessly draw in the ideas of predecessors while arguing, building upon and expanding them.

Rather than letting ideas float out too far into detached realms Doty draws them back into solid experience and the world around him. He shows an endearing pleasure in nature and animals noticing “goat yoga” or faded hydrangeas that are like “the very silks of Versailles.” Moving through this landscape he articulates how we are beings driven by desire, but that we are “taught by craving.” Although we are hampered by nostalgia for what is past, experience can never be fully recreated and so we “want all the harder.” But, in one of the most profound poems in this collection ‘Hungry Ghost,’ Doty poses a fascinating counter argument to the Buddhist notion of extinguishing desire to extinguish suffering. If desire persists beyond the mortal then there is a kind immortality but also a form of existential horror “to be ravenous, and lack a mouth.”

“Deep Lane” is an extremely thoughtful collection by a poet who can burrow into the personal and particular to discover revelations that feel universal.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMark Doty
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I work part-time as a massage therapist and this job has made me highly conscious about how we inhabit our bodies. Although the basic structure of our physical being is the same, the way we carry ourselves varies dramatically. The relationship between mind and body can be as changing and tumultuous as our relationships with other people. The poems in “Physical” by Andrew McMillan speak beautifully and meaningfully about how we live within all this flesh and bone, the ways in which physical intimacy can make us redefine ourselves and the transformative impact our presence has upon our surroundings.

Many poems in this book focus in particular on the male body and queer experience from relationships with boyfriends to anonymous gay encounters. ‘Saturday Night’ creates a dialogue with a poem by Thom Gunn bridging commonalities of gay life over time touching upon the disappointment, exhilaration and insecurities tied up with cruising and romance. Online porn is an inevitable part of men’s experiences and in relationships it can play both positive and negative roles. In ‘Screen’ McMillan shows the complications which emerge from mingling mental images with the physical presence before you. More darkly, a mixture of violence and sensuality permeate the poems ‘Choke’ and the mythological-inspired ‘Leda to Her Daughters.’

Masculinity is referenced directly and indirectly in several poems. In ‘Strongman’ the challenge from a male family member is recalled. This physical provocation takes on deeper meanings than simply a macho test of strength. The closeness of the encounter provokes questions about intimacy and homophobia within the family. A unique challenge to all men is the experience of standing beside one another at urinals. In ‘Urination’ McMillan uses the mixture of embarrassment and excitement of these encounters to speak about the degrees of closeness we have with others throughout our lives. As in several poems in this collection, there is a switch partway through from the impersonal to the personal. Here, the commanding voice speaking to “you” evokes the sensory experience and power of connection found in the most intensely domestic morning setting.

Sometimes the form of the poems themselves casts scrutiny over the way men are meant to behave. ‘How To Be A Man’ is set out like a dramatic play where a man is prompted how to react to the impending loss of his father. It’s a contradictory aspect of traditional notions of masculinity that a man should build muscle and puff himself up physically, but also keep all his emotions in. McMillan literally bursts this understanding in his poem ‘The Men Are Weeping In The Gym’ where emotions spill out not in tears but in sweat. The denial of feeling takes on an eerie destructive sensation as McMillan observes how the process of weightlifting tears muscles apart to make them stronger.

The poem ‘Yoga’ speaks about the way we relate to our own bodies and the way physical connections with others can change the way we see ourselves. However, others poems such as ‘I.M.’ and ‘The Gift’ are about the insurmountable gaps created from lost connections and repressed emotions where physical distance exists. But unity is found in the poem ‘The Schoolboys” where a young group witnesses the burning of Thatcher dolls following the former prime minister’s death where they have little understanding of the historical context which has led to such celebrations.

Listen to McMillan read the final poem in this book 'Finally'

The most sustained poem in this book ‘Protest of the Physical’ fills the entire second section and it begins with an epigraph by Virginia Woolf from her ingenious prose poem of a novel “The Waves.” In a way, this is the most hypnotic and elusive piece in McMillan’s collection as it weaves together elements of a physical local landscape and a broken relationship. Language breaks down “what town of day is it?” Images and ideas literally slosh back and forth across the page as if the words are grasping for escape from the confines of the page and the voice from the confines of the body.

The poetry in "Physical" has the unique and astounding ability to make you reassess how you exist in your own body. It provokes ontological questions about whether a person’s mind is couched in the gray masses in our heads or the neurological connections within our bodies. Throughout the book the author has a disarming way of dividing physical acts from the body and then drawing them back in to distil the accompanying feelings so they are more concentrated. What's left are the intense emotions which have overwhelmingly permeated the memories of physical encounters. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with many of the poems in this forceful, moving collection. I discovered fresh insights and asked more questions with each rereading.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndrew McMillan

Saeed Jones’ debut book of poetry “Prelude to Bruise” reads like a complete narrative, but one which is constructed of intense glimmers of experience told in a lyrical way. The six sections of this book carry the reader through a journey of self-discovery. Most of the poems follow the story of “Boy” who in many instances is literally an adolescent/teenager. Even when the poems aren’t specifically about “Boy” much of the feeling is singed by the fire of his personality. By the end of the book, the label of “Boy” has taken on so many meanings and connotations – of naivety, of a wayward son, of social inferiority, of a racial expletive, of gay slang, of the submissive partner in sadomasochistic role play – that when, in the final poem, the boy emphatically denies this label it strikes an optimistic note. His real name remains private and unknown to the reader giving him a dignity and sense of selfhood which has thus far been denied him. This distinct personality finally steps out of the circumscribed role set by those around him.

It’s admirable the way Jones’ writing orchestrates an interplay between the imagination and reality. By blending images, a poem about friends play fighting while out for a swim suddenly takes on a serious tone of eroticism and violence. In ‘Drag’ the personality created through costume assumes a life of its own: “the dress begins to move without me.” This gradually yields to a deeper confusion of self and also revelation: “I don’t even know what I am in this dress.” In one of the final and longest poems in the book the boy is taken to shooting practice by his father and later this pretending might turn into real danger as the boy invades his parents’ bedroom while they are sleeping. There is the sense that we are both in the boy’s mind and in his spatial reality at the same time.

Jones writes forcefully about the power of desire and the dynamics of sexual discovery. Not only does he capture the all-consuming feeling of the act itself, but the emotions which fuel the before and after of it all. He describes how irrepressible sexual urges can physically take over the body: “I’ve got more hunger than my body can hold.” The boy learns the danger of his gaze when his focus on another boy’s muscular thighs and the gap in his shorts is rebuffed with verbal homophobic abuse. In ‘Kingdom of Trick, Kingdom of Drug’ the object of desire takes on the characteristics of a tree and the passion shared decorates it with weighty symbols in a way which is incredibly sensuous and moving. The title poem ‘Prelude to Bruise’ takes the reader into complex corners of desire with the representation of a kink-edged encounter. Through effective use of alliteration invoking words such as boy, black, boot, body, broke, bruise the author portrays the variegated emotions involved in hard play. He shows how sexual aggression can be shaded by racial politics and how sexual punishment can be simultaneously seductive and repulsive. Another poem effectively represents the post-coital tristesse which follows cruising: “I relearn my legs, mud-stained knees, and walk back to my burning house.” But in other poems there is also romantic hope as expressed in this beautiful line: “you are the first hour in a life without clocks.”

One of the most compelling and forceful poems for me is ‘Boy Found Inside a Wolf’ which is a sort of summation of Jones’ themes about fathers, violence and sex. Eroticism is implied by his use of line breakage and the double meaning of his verbs. But it is also heavily mixed with danger, threat and destruction. At the same time the poem radically imagines a father giving birth to his son. Paired with the other poems' commentary about the alternating tenderness and antagonism between father and son, this poem movingly represents a complicated layered familial relationship.

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“Prelude to Bruise” confronts issues to do with race and sexuality in a way that challenges and changes the reader. More than this book’s engagement with identity politics, some of the poems it contains deal directly with instances of key political and historical significance. Creating a ghostly sense of unease, Jones describes the aftermath and repercussions of the tragic storms and flooding of New Orleans. In another poem dedicated to James Byrd Jr who was kidnapped and violently murdered by white supremacists in 1998, Jones vividly re-images the event with the imploring words “go back” reverberating significantly throughout the scene. Jones' invocation of these events shows how their meaning has both personal and broader long-term implications.

Each section of the book shows a different stage in the Boy’s development and evolution towards a more assertively individual sense of selfhood. Although some times this comes in the form of regression: “Run hard, look back, go back, owned.” But there is an awareness that one must always carry forth as is demonstrated by the warning line “If she retraces her steps, the footprints will eat her.” The final more distinctly prose-like poems take him mentally backward to deal with his relationship with his parents. This takes the book full circle. Some of the poetry shows direct influence from other writers such as Lucie Brock-Broido or Alexander Chee (one poem borrows a phrase from his daring novel Edinburgh). But Jones’ style is arrestingly fresh. His distinct voice is the thing which hooks you in this poetry which varies between different forms and methods of arrangement. (To borrow a phrase from a divine songstress) it’s a voice that plays tough as nails with his heart on his sleeve. Saeed Jones has created a radically different coming of age narrative distinctly his own through forceful, original poetry.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSaeed Jones