May Poetry Releases: Blood & Cord Anthology; Connolly, Goss, Harrison
Apart from Monsters, my focus for May releases has been on poetry, with three Carcanet collections plus a poetry-heavy anthology of writing on early parenthood. Love, history, nature and parental bonds are a few underlying subjects that connect some or all of these.
The Recycling by Joey Connolly
Joey Connolly’s second collection reminded me most of Caroline Bird’s work (especially the mise en abyme ending to “For Such a Widely Used Material, Glass Sure Does Have Some Downsides”): effusive and sometimes absurdist, with unexpected imagery and wordplay.
In keeping with the title, there are environmentalist considerations and musings on materials, but also the connotation of reusing language or rehashing ideas. I appreciated this strategy when he’s pondering etymology (“Strange noun full of verb, noun / bending to verb, strange / idea of repeating repetition” in the title poem) or reworking proverbs in the hilarious “Poem in Which Is Is Sufficient” (“Sufficient unto the glaze / is the primer thereunder. Sufficient / unto the applecart is the upset / thereof” and so on) but perhaps less so during 22 indulgent pages of epigraphs. The distance-designated poems of the inventive “Solvitur Ambulando” section range from history to science fiction: “Abstracted, ankle deep in the proto-gutters of Elizabethan London: / how were you ejected from your life to wash up here?”
It’s such a versatile book. I loved the philosophical self-questioning of “Why Try and Be Good When This World” (“the / mental carapace required to weather the hardness / of indifference insulates you from what it means to be alive”) and the utterly original love poetry (“I will take out the bins, and I will try not to leave the keys / in the door, and I will continue / to love you / to the fullest extent to which I find myself able. Oh love. Checkmate”). Eminently quotable stuff. Here are two of my favourite passages:
amateur kintsugi enthusiast in the ruined chinashop
of my childhood idealism
What sweet sorrow
to persist within this disappeared world
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
Blood & Cord: Writers on Early Parenthood, edited by Abi Curtis
“The introduction of a new baby rearranges a life, and this requires a new language and a new kind of engagement with the world,” Abi Curtis writes in her introduction. These poems and pieces of flash autofiction or memoir are often visceral, as the title and cover image by Elīna Brasliņa indicate. Elizabeth Hogarth’s “Animal Body” tracks how primal instinct takes over. Second- and third-person narratives distance the speaker from the experience, as in Ruth Charnock’s hybrid “three tarot cards for the new mother.” As I’ve come to expect from The Emma Press, there’s a wide variety of formats, styles and even page layout, with some poems printed in landscape.
Curtis’s four poems are, together, the strongest entry. I particularly loved the final lines of “September Birth”: “We listen close but cannot fathom / Your new language. We will spend / The rest of our days learning it.” Naomi Booth, too, zeroes in on language in “What is tsunami?” A daughter’s acquisition of language provides entertainment (“She names her favourite doll, Hearty Campfire”) but also induces apprehension:
There are certain words that you dread hearing her say. The first is money. … You dread the way it will become as concrete to her as sky and cat and gate. Mu-nee. Mu-nee.
Not all of these are jubilant birth stories. There are children who are longed for but never arrive. There are also babies who never breathe, or soon die. Alex McRae Dimsdale’s “Bath” is a heartbreaking poem about bidding goodbye to a stillborn son:
It wasn’t the first time that a couple had to leave
the hospital without their newborn.
What could they give us instead?
Here, a small white wooden box –
inside, a packet of wildflower seeds,
your wristband, little
stripy hat. A curlicued certificate
inked with your footprints.
what maternal sin did I commit,
deciding who you were
for a whole life that was
already stopped before it started?
“Other Mothers,” a prose essay by poet Rebecca Goss (from whom more below), is about her infant daughter’s death in hospital.
There are a few male contributors, outnumbered five to one by women writers. Poets Liz Berry and Gail McConnell illuminate same-sex motherhood. The two short stories – i.e., those that are clearly fiction rather than memoir by different pronouns – were among the weakest pieces for me: the one piles cruel irony on misery (no real surprise as it’s by an author I’ve had a strong reaction against in the past; the only saving grace was a clever reference to Hemingway’s six-word story about baby shoes); the other is silly and contrived.
I think this was my seventh Emma Press book, and my fourth of their anthologies, of which I’d recommend The Emma Press Anthology of Love. This one was a bit more uneven for me, but I can see it holding appeal for new parents who are of a literary bent.
Published in association with the York Centre for Writing, York St John University. With thanks to The Emma Press for the free copy for review.
Latch by Rebecca Goss
Rebecca Goss’s fourth poetry collection arises from a rural upbringing in Suffolk. Her parents’ farm was a “[s]emi-derelict, ramshackle whimsy of a place”. There’s nostalgia for the countryside left behind and for a less complicated family life before divorce, yet this is no carefree pastoral. From the omnipresent threats to girls to the challenges of motherhood, Goss is awake to the ways in which women are compelled to adapt to life in male spheres. The title/cover image has multiple connotations: the first bond between mother and child; the gates and doors that showcase craftsmanship (as in “Blacksmith, Making”) or seek to shut menacing forces out (see “The Hounds”), but cannot ensure safety.
Even the individual poem titles tell tales: “The Retired Agronomist Drives a Tractor in the Summer Because He Likes the Oily Smell of the Machine” and three with the enticing pattern “Woman Returns to Childhood Home…” Trees and animals provide much of the imagery. A few of my personal favourites were “Rooks,” “Weir,” and “In Song Flight.”
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
Kitchen Music by Lesley Harrison
Lesley Harrison is a Scottish poet with a number of pamphlets and collections to her name. Orkney and other remote islands are settings for these atmospheric poems filled with whale song and weather (“the vast dark hung with / ropes of song”), birds and wordplay. Language and folktales inspire the poet, and she engages in word association and creates rebuses built around middle letters rather than first. There are also black-and-white photographs, and whale images by Marina Rees punctuating “C-E-T-A-C-E-A.” My attention threatened to drift away from the sometimes wispy lines and paragraphs, but this would be well worth taking on holiday to read on location.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Recent Poetry Releases by Allison Blevins, Kit Fan, Lisa Kelly and Laura Scott
I’m catching up on four 2023 poetry collections from independent publishers, three of them from Carcanet Press, which so graciously keeps me stocked up with work by contemporary poets. Despite the wide range of subject matter, style and technique, nature imagery and erotic musings are links. From each I’ve chosen one short poem as a representative.
Cataloguing Pain by Allison Blevins
Last year I reviewed Allison Blevins’ Handbook for the Newly Disabled. This shares its autobiographical consideration of chronic illness and queer parenting. Specifically, she looks back to her MS diagnosis and three IVF pregnancies, and her spouse’s transition. Both partners were undergoing bodily transformations and coming into new identities, the one as disabled and the other as a man. In later poems she calls herself “The shell”, while “Elegy for My Wife,” which closes Part I, makes way for references to “my husband” in Part II.
“I won’t wail for your dead name. I don’t mean that violence. I wish for a word other than elegy to explain how some of this feels like goodbye.”
In unrhymed couplets or stanzas and bittersweet paragraphs, Blevins marshals metaphors from domestic life – colours, food, furniture, gardening – to chart the changes that pain and disability force onto their family’s everyday routines. “Fall Risk” and “Fly Season” are particular highlights. This is a potent and frankly sexual text for readers drawn to themes of health and queer family-making (see also my Three on a Theme post on that topic).
Published by YesYes Books on 19 April. With thanks to the author for the advanced e-copy for review.
The Ink Cloud Reader by Kit Fan
Kit Fan was raised in Hong Kong and moved to the UK as an adult. This is his third collection of poetry. “Suddenly” tells a version of his life story in paragraphs or single lines that all incorporate the title word (with an ironic nod, through the epigraph, to Elmore Leonard’s writing ‘rule’ that “suddenly” should never be used). The “IF” statements of “Delphi” then ponder possible future events; a trip to hospital sees him contemplating his mortality (“Glück,” written as a miniature three-act play) and appreciating tokens of beauty (“Geraniums in May”). “Yew,” unusually, is a modified sonnet where every line rhymes.
As the collection’s title suggests, it is equally interested in the natural and the human. There are poems describing the cycles of the moon (the lines of “Moon Salutation” curve into a half-moon parabola) and the wind. Ink pulls together calligraphy, the Chinese zodiac and literature. “The Art of Reading,” which commemorates important moments, real and imaginary, of the poet’s reading life, was a favourite of mine, as was “Derek Jarman’s Garden.” Fan also writes of memory and travels – including to the underworld. His relationship with his husband is a subtle background subject. (“Even though we’ve lived together for nearly twenty years and are always reading sometimes I can’t read you at all which I guess is a good thing”). It’s an opulent and allusive work that has made me eager to try more by Fan. Luckily, I have his debut novel (passed on to me by Laura T.) on the shelf.
Readalike: Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
Published on 27 April. With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
The House of the Interpreter by Lisa Kelly
Lisa Kelly’s concern with deafness is sure to bring to mind Raymond Antrobus and Ilya Kaminsky, but I prefer her work. Kelly is half-Danish and has single-sided deafness, and in Part I of this second collection, entitled “Chamber,” her poems engage with questions of split identity:
Is this what it is like for us all? Always having to relearn home
with a strange tongue and alien hands, prepared to open our mouths
as if to beg, to touch tongue-tip with fingertip to reveal ourselves?
The title poem relishes the absurdities of telephone communication, closing with:
In the House of the Interpreter,
Oralism and Manualism, like Passion and Patience,
are rewarded differently and at different times.
Hello, this is your Interpreter. What is your wishlist?
This section ends with “#WhereIsTheInterpreter,” about the Deaf community’s outrage that the Prime Minister’s Covid briefings were not simultaneously translated into BSL.
Bizarrely but delightfully, Kelly then moves onto “Oval Window,” a sequence of alliteration-rich poems about fungi. “Mycology Abecedarian” is a joyful list of species’ common names, while “Mycelium” notes how mushrooms show that different ways of evolution and reproduction are possible. “Darning Mushroom” even combines images of fungi and holey socks. Part III, “Canal,” is a miscellany of autobiographical poems and homages to Faith Ringgold, full of references to colour, language, nature and travel.
Readalike: In the Quaker Hotel by Helen Tookey
Published on 27 April. With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
The Fourth Sister by Laura Scott
Back in 2019 I reviewed Laura Scott’s debut collection, So Many Rooms. Her second book reflects some of the same preoccupations: art, birds, colour and Russian literature. Chekhov is a recurring point of reference across the two; here, for instance, we have a found poem composed of excerpts from his letters. Scott also writes about the deaths of her parents, voicing resentment towards her father and remarking on life’s irony. As the title suggests, her family constellation includes sisters. Her godparents loom surprisingly large; her godmother was, apparently, a spy. My favourite of the poems, “Still Life,” imagines the whole of life being prized as a glass in an exhibit, appealingly pristine and praiseworthy in comparison to what we usually perceive: “the raggy sprawl of a life … the wrong turns and longing of it.” Elsewhere, metaphors are drawn from the theatre: performing lines, taking items from a wardrobe. I loved the way the pull of nostalgia is set up in opposition to the now.
Published on 23 February. With thanks to Carcanet Press for the advanced e-copy for review.
Read any good poetry recently?
Spring Reads, Part I: Violets and Rain
We had both rain and spring sunshine on a recent overnight trip to Bridport, Dorset – a return visit after enjoying it so much in 2019. Several elements were repeated: Dorset Nectar cider farm, dinner at Dorshi, and a bookshop and charity shop crawl of the main streets. While we didn’t revisit Thomas Hardy sites, I spent plenty of time at Max Gate by reading Elizabeth Lowry’s The Chosen. Beach walks plus one in the New Forest on the way back were splendid. This was my haul from Bridport Old Books. Stocking up on novellas and poetry, plus a novel by a Canadian author I’ve enjoyed work from before.
Now for a quick look at two tangentially spring-related books I’ve read recently: a short novel about two women’s wartime experiences of motherhood and an elegiac and allusive poetry collection.
Violets by Alex Hyde (2022)
I was intrigued by the sound of this debut novel, which juxtaposes the lives of two young British women named Violet at the close of the Second World War. One miscarries twins and, told she’ll not be able to bear children, has to rethink her whole future; another sails from Wales to Italy on ATS war service, hiding the fact that she’s pregnant by a departed foreign soldier. Hyde’s spare style – no speech marks; short paragraphs or solitary lines separated by spaces – alternates between their stories in brief numbered chapters, bringing them together in a perhaps predictable way that also forms a reimagining of her father’s life story. The narration at times addresses this future character in poems that I think are supposed to be fond and prophetic but I instead found strangely blunt and even taunting (as in the excerpt below). There’s inadequate time to get to know, or care about, either Violet.
Can you feel it, Pram Boy?
Can you march in time?
A change, a hardening,
the jarring of the solid ground as she treads,
gets her pockets picked.
And your Mama, Pram Boy,
yeasty in her private parts.
Granta sent a free copy. Violets came out in paperback in February.
Rain by Don Paterson (Faber, 2009)
I’d previously read Paterson’s 40 Sonnets, in 2015. This collection is in memoriam of the late poet Michael Donaghy, the subject of the late multi-part “Phantom.” There are a couple of poems in Scots and a sequence of seven nature-infused ones designated as being “after” poets from Li Po to Robert Desnos. Several appear to express concern for a son. There’s a haiku-like rhythm to the short stanzas of “Renku: My Last Thirty-Five Deaths.” I didn’t understand why “Unfold i.m. Akira Yoshizawa” was a blank page until I looked him up and learned that he was a famous origamist. The title poem closes the collection:
I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;
one big thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame
to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
I liked individual passages or images but didn’t find much of a connecting theme behind Paterson’s disparate interests. (University library)
Another favourite passage:
So I collect the dull things of the day
in which I see some possibility
I look at them and look at them until
one thing makes a mirror in my eyes
then I paint it with the tear to make it bright.
This is why I sit up through the night.
(from “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?”)
And a DNF:
Corpse Beneath the Crocus by N.N. Nelson – I loved the title and the cover, and a widow’s bereavement memoir in poems seemed right up my street. I wish I’d realized Atmosphere is a vanity press, which would explain why these are among the worst poems I’ve read: cliché-riddled and full of obvious sentiments and metaphors as she explores specific moments but mostly overall emotions. Three excerpts:
All things die
In the flowering cycle
Of growth and life
Like sand in an hourglass
Feelings are changeful
Like the tide
Ebbing and flowing
“Love Letter,” a prose piece, held the most promise, which suggests Nelson would have been better off attempting memoir. I slogged (hate-read, really) my way through to the halfway point but could bear it no longer. (NetGalley)
I have a few more spring-themed books on the go: Hoping for a better set next time!
Any spring reads on your plate?
Reading the Rathbones Folio Prize Poetry Shortlist
I borrowed the whole of this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize poetry shortlist from my local library and have enjoyed reading through it to see what the judges felt was worthy of recognition from 2022’s releases. Of course, personal taste comes into the appreciation of poetry, perhaps more so than for fiction or nonfiction, so I liked some of these more than others and suspect the judges’ final decision may differ from mine. Still, it’s always a pleasure to discover new-to-me poets and/or debut authors.
Ephemeron by Fiona Benson
This is Benson’s third collection but my first time reading her. I was fully engaged with her exquisite poems about the ephemeral, whether that be insect lives, boarding school days, primal emotions or moments from her children’s early years. The book is in four discrete corresponding sections (“Insect Love Songs,” “Boarding-School Tales,” “Translations from the Pasiphaë” and “Daughter Mother”) but the themes and language bleed from one into another and the whole is shot through with astonishing corporeality and eroticism.
The form varies quite a lot – bitty lines, stanzas, blocky paragraph-like stories – and alliteration, slant rhymes and unexpected metaphors (a wasp’s nest as “a piñata of stings,” “this avant-garde chandelier” and an “electric hotel / of spit-balled papier mâché”) make each poem glisten. I’ll even let her off for the long section inspired by my pet hate, Greek mythology (so gruesome, so convoluted), because of how she uses these melodramatic situations to explore universal emotions. She does something interesting with the story of the Minotaur (Asterios), suggesting that instead of being born a literal bull he was born deformed or disabled and no one knew what to make of him, but even so he had a mother’s love.
Here’s one section of “Magicicadas” as an example:
summons them up
after seventeen years,
down their backs
like the wet head
of a baby,
of their tight old skin
like an orgasm,
like an ecstatic gymnast
on the high trapeze;
their damp wings lemon
before they stiffen
and straighten, lattice brown.
Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Protest doesn’t have to be loud; sometimes it can even be silent. In her debut, Bulley, a British-born Ghanaian poet, makes that especially clear with the pair “[ ] noise” (= white noise, inescapable) and “black noise” (an erasure poem). She models how language might be decolonized (particularly in “revision”) and how Black femininity might be reimagined (“fabula”). Along with her acknowledged debts to Lucille Clifton, bell hooks, Mary Oliver et al., I spotted echoes of Kei Miller (her “there is dark that moves” sounds like his “there is an anger that moves”) and Toni Morrison (Bulley includes the line “Quiet as it’s kept,” which is the opening of The Bluest Eye).
The collection is bold but never heavy-handed, and the seriousness of its topics (also including an early miscarriage) is lightened by poems about cats and snails. My two favourites were “not quiet as in quiet but,” which juxtaposes peacefulness and the comfortable life with the perils of not speaking out about injustice; and “Epigenetic,” about generations of traumatized bodies (“if your pain is alive in me / so too must be your joy.”).
Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
Kinshasa is also a dancer, and in her debut the British-born Barbadian intersperses poems with choreographed dances, transcribed via hand-drawn symbols explained in a key at the end. I confess I couldn’t picture them at all, though they make attractive patterns on the page – you can see one in purple on the cover. This and the Caribbean patois in which she voices narratives of historical atrocities and contemporary microaggressions against Black people (particularly women) are the collection’s claims to novelty and probably impressed the judges. Yet I found both strategies to be affected and looked forward to those poems in standard language. Some of the events are given specific dates and places in Barbados while others are more generic. Female victims of sexual oppression seek revenge, as in the gruesome “Miss Barbados Is No Longer Vegan.” This probably works best aloud, to allow one to appreciate the musicality of the voice and the alliterative lines.
Some lines I liked:
we gambled all our wishes on dandelions,
now we celebrate de little tings
every unburnt rice grain & regrown eyelash
vaulting between lemon vines and dog friendly cafés.
just because we do what needs to be done,
it doan mean we nah ready, we just aware
there are too many of us to be martyrs
(from “Sometimes Death Is a Child Who Plays With Rubber Bands”)
The work is dangerous; writing into history is like feeding unknown seeds while attempting to control the rate of their growth. Sometimes when I danced, I inhaled the language of my ancestors’ captors, and they became mine.
(from “Preface: And if by Some Miracle”)
if you want something to become extinct
doan give it attention.
(from “Choreography: She, My Nation”)
England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial
A collection in praise of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, with poems about hedgerows and butterflies; cricket and the writings of the Brontë sisters. There are autobiographical reminiscences as well, most notably “The Crucible,” which describes the meeting between his Kashmiri father and his English mother’s father, who had refused to acknowledge the relationship for its first three years.
Kunial clearly delights in language, with wordplay and differing pronunciations fuelling “Foregrounds” et al. I particularly liked “Foxgloves” (“Sometimes I like to hide in the word / foxgloves – in the middle of foxgloves. The xgl is hard to say”) and “The Wind in the Willows,” where he wonders if the book title appeals to him just for its sound. This wasn’t as immediately cohesive and impressive as his first book, Us, but still well worth reading.
Some favourite lines:
“Prayer is not the words / but having none and staying” (from “Empty Words”)
“Life // is wider than its page. And days are a cut field, clipped and made to run on” (from “The Groundsman”)
Manorism by Yomi Sode
Like Surge or Poor (or what little I read of Citizen), this is driven by outrage and a longing for justice for Black people. I suspect that, like those precursors, it is a book best heard in performance, given that Sode honed his skills on London’s open mic circuit.
The first third of the book is under the heading “Aneephya,” a word Sode coined and defines as “the stress toxin of inherited trauma” – from slave ships to police checks. My two favourites were from this section: “L’Appel du Vide,” in which he ponders microaggressions while cooking a traditional West African mackerel and okra stew; and “A Plate of Artichokes,” about the time a waiter made him pre-pay for his meal and he went along with it even though he suspected other customers weren’t being asked to do the same.
Nigerian culture, rap music, being a father, and Black brotherhood are other themes, with recurring allusions to the work of Caravaggio. I also liked the long section on the decline and death of his great-aunt (“Big Mummy”) from cancer.
This was a book that made me feel super-white, but that’s not a problem: I can recognize its importance and appeal while also accepting that it’s not necessarily supposed to be for me.
Which of these poetry collections interest you?
Phantom Gang by Ciarán O’Rourke: Dylan Thomas Prize Blog Tour
As part of the 2023 Dylan Thomas Prize blog celebration, I’m featuring the second collection by Irish poet Ciarán O’Rourke, Phantom Gang (2022).
There is an elegiac cast to much of this, with scenes that evoke historical warfare from the American West through the Second World War Resistance to Afghanistan. The title line references the discovery of the victims of an ancient raid. Even the love poems and descriptions of the natural world are more redolent of desperation and decline than they are celebratory. “Book of Salt,” in the tradition of Catullus, is the longest poem in the book and voices unrequited longing. Its short lines and end rhymes are in service of a passion mixed with hatred. There are lovely descriptions of curlew and starlings, but also mourning for the loss of the corncrake.
A favourite passage of mine was from “Portrait in Red and Black”:
Only the goldfinch
feels alive –
a skeet of colour,
stout as a cloud,
his knuckle and plunge
of plumage stark
against the slipping boughs.
I watch him thrum
and pluck terrifically,
marshalling the morning
with my heart in his mouth.
That excerpt is representative in that most of the poems are composed of two- or three-line stanzas, with assonance, alliteration and internal rhymes more common techniques than end rhymes. Although there are some mentions of recent figures – James Dyson, Elon Musk, Donald Trump – the collection as a whole feels inclined towards the past, with Bertolt Brecht and John Clare as stars. It’s austere, refined work, rooted yet ranging in both time and place.
More favourite lines:
Our one sick world spins on –
returningly, and slow
and with birds
the rising days begin,
the rage and ache
we call the spring,
a word for what
the carnage reckoned –
and still the birds returning.
~from “The Tree”
(My thanks to The Irish Pages Press and Midas PR for the free copy for review.)
I’ve reviewed Dylan Thomas Prize-longlisted poetry in several previous years as well:
- Eye Level by Jenny Xie
- If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
- Auguries of a Minor God by Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe
For a reminder of the full longlist, see my post from last month. I’ve read 3.5 books from it now and would be delighted to see Nell Stevens’ debut novel (my review) make the shortlist. This will be announced on 23 March, with the winner on 11 May.
Happy St Patrick’s Day – this is also my token contribution to Reading Ireland Month!
February Releases by Nick Acheson, Charlotte Eichler and Nona Fernández (#ReadIndies)
Three final selections for Read Indies. I’m pleased to have featured 16 books from independent publishers this month. And how’s this for neat symmetry? I started the month with Chase of the Wild Goose and finish with a literal wild goose chase as Nick Acheson tracks down Norfolk’s flocks in the lockdown winter of 2020–21. Also appearing today are nature- and travel-filled poems and a hybrid memoir about Chilean and family history.
The Meaning of Geese: A thousand miles in search of home by Nick Acheson
I saw Nick Acheson speak at New Networks for Nature 2021 as the ‘anti-’ voice in a debate on ecotourism. He was a wildlife guide in South America and Africa for more than a decade before, waking up to the enormity of the climate crisis, he vowed never to fly again. Now he mostly stays close to home in North Norfolk, where he grew up and where generations of his family have lived and farmed, working for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and appreciating the flora and fauna on his doorstep.
This was indeed to be a low-carbon initiative, undertaken on his mother’s 40-year-old red bicycle and spanning September 2021 to the start of the following spring. Whether on his own or with friends and experts, and in fair weather or foul, he became obsessed with spending as much time observing geese as he could – even six hours at a stretch. Pink-footed geese descend on the Holkham Estate in their thousands, but there were smaller flocks and rarer types as well: from Canada and greylag to white-fronted and snow geese. He also found perspective (historical, ethical and geographical) by way of Peter Scott’s conservation efforts, chats with hunters, and insight from the Icelandic researchers who watch the geese later in the year, after they leave the UK. The germane context is woven into a month-by-month diary.
The Covid-19 lockdowns spawned a number of nature books in the UK – for instance, I’ve also read Goshawk Summer by James Aldred, Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt, The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, and Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss – and although the pandemic is not a major element here, one does get a sense of how Acheson struggled with isolation as well as the normal winter blues and found comfort and purpose in birdwatching.
Tundra bean, taiga bean, brent … I don’t think I’ve seen any of these species – not even pinkfeet, to my recollection – so wished for black-and-white drawings or colour photographs in the book. That’s not to say that Acheson is not successful at painting word pictures of geese; his rich descriptions, full of food-related and sartorial metaphors, are proof of how much he revels in the company of birds. But I suspect this is a book more for birders than for casual nature-watchers like myself. I would have welcomed more autobiographical material, and Wintering by Stephen Rutt seems the more suitable geese book for laymen. Still, I admire Acheson’s fervour: “I watch birds not to add them to a list of species seen; nor to sneer at birds which are not truly wild. I watch them because they are magnificent”.
With thanks to Chelsea Green Publishing for the free copy for review.
Swimming Between Islands by Charlotte Eichler
Eichler’s debut collection was inspired by various trips to cold and remote places, such as to Lofoten 10 years ago, as she explains in a blog post on the Carcanet website. (The cover image is her painting Nusfjord.) British and Scandinavian islands and their wildlife provide much of the imagery and atmosphere. You can sink into the moss and fog, lulled by alliteration. A glance at some of the poem titles reveals the breadth of her gaze: “Brimstones” – “A Pheasant” (a perfect description in just two lines) – “A Meditation of Small Frogs” – “Trapping Moths with My Father.” There are also historical vignettes and pen portraits. The scenes of childhood, as in the four-part “What Little Girls Are Made Of,” evoke the freedom of curiosity about the natural world and feel autobiographical yet universal.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Voyager: Constellations of Memory—A Memoir by Nona Fernández (2019; 2023)
[Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer]
Our archive of memories is the closest thing we have to a record of identity. … Disjointed fragments, a pile of mirror shards, a heap of the past. The accumulation is what we’re made of.
When Fernández’s elderly mother started fainting and struggling with recall, it prompted the Chilean actress and writer to embark on an inquiry into memory. Astronomy provides the symbolic language here, with memory a constellation and gaps as black holes. But the stars also play a literal role. Fernández was part of an Amnesty International campaign to rename a constellation in honour of the 26 people “disappeared” in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 1973. She meets the widow of one of the victims, wondering what he might have been like as an older man as she helps to plan the star ceremony. This oblique and imaginative narrative ties together brain evolution, a medieval astronomer executed for heresy, Pinochet administration collaborators, her son’s birth, and her mother’s surprise 80th birthday party. NASA’s Voyager probes, launched in 1977, were intended as time capsules capturing something of human life at the time. The author imagines her brief memoir doing the same: “A book is a space-time capsule. It freezes the present and launches it into tomorrow as a message.”
With thanks to Daunt Books for the free copy for review.
#ReadIndies and Review Catch-up: Hazrat, Nettel, Peacock, Seldon
Another four selections for Read Indies month. I’m particularly pleased that two from this latest batch are “just because” books that I picked up off my shelves; another two are catch-up review copies. A few more indie titles will appear in my February roundup on Tuesday. For today, I have a fun variety: a history of the exclamation point, a Mexican novel about choosing motherhood versus being childfree, a memoir of a decades-long friendship between two poets, and a posthumous poetry collection with themes of history, illness and nature.
An Admirable Point: A brief history of the exclamation mark by Florence Hazrat (2022)
I’m definitely a punctuation geek. (My favourite punctuation mark is the semicolon, and there’s a book about it, too: Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson, which I have on my Kindle.) One might think that strings of exclamation points are a pretty new thing – rounding off phrases in (ex-)presidential tweets, for instance – but, in fact, Hazrat opens with a Boston Gazette headline from 1788 that decried “CORRUPTION AND BRIBERY!!!” in relation to the adoption of the new Constitution.
The exclamation mark as we know it has been around since 1399, and by the 16th century its use for expression and emphasis had been codified. I was reminded of Gretchen McCulloch’s discussion of emoji in Because Internet, which also considers how written speech signifies tone, especially in the digital age. There have been various proposals for other “intonation points” over the centuries, but the question mark and exclamation mark are the two that have stuck. (Though I’m currently listening to an album called interrobang – ‽, that is. Invented by Martin Speckter in 1962; recorded by Switchfoot in 2021.)
I most enjoyed Chapter 3, on punctuation in literature. Jane Austen’s original manuscripts, replete with dashes, ampersands and exclamation points, were tidied up considerably before they made it into book form. She’s literature’s third most liberal user of exclamation marks, in terms of the number per 100,000 words, according to a chart Ben Blatt drew up in 2017, topped only by Tom Wolfe and James Joyce.
There are also sections on the use of exclamation points in propaganda and political campaigns – in conjunction with fonts, which brought to mind Simon Garfield’s Just My Type and the graphic novel ABC of Typography. It might seem to have a niche subject, but at just over 150 pages this is a cheery and diverting read for word nerds.
With thanks to Profile Books for the proof copy for review.
Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
This was the Mexican author’s fourth novel; she’s also a magazine director and has published several short story collections. I’d liken it to a cross between Motherhood by Sheila Heti and (the second half of) No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Thirtysomething friends Laura and Alina veer off in different directions, yet end up finding themselves in similar ethical dilemmas. Laura, who narrates, is adamant that she doesn’t want children, and follows through with sterilization. However, when she becomes enmeshed in a situation with her neighbours – Doris, who’s been left by her abusive husband, and her troubled son Nicolás – she understands some of the emotional burden of motherhood. Even the pigeon nest she watches on her balcony presents a sort of morality play about parenthood.
Meanwhile, Alina and her partner Aurelio embark on infertility treatment. Laura fears losing her friend: “Alina was about to disappear and join the sect of mothers, those creatures with no life of their own who, zombie-like, with huge bags under their eyes, lugged prams around the streets of the city.” They eventually have a daughter, Inés, but learn before her birth that brain defects may cause her to die in infancy or be severely disabled. Right from the start, Alina is conflicted. Will she cling to Inés no matter her condition, or let her go? And with various unhealthy coping mechanisms to hand, will her relationship with Aurelio stay the course?
Laura alternates between her life and her friends’ circumstances, taking on an omniscient voice on Nettel’s behalf – she recounts details she couldn’t possibly be privy to, at least not at the time (there’s a similar strategy in The Group by Lara Feigel). The question of what is fated versus what is chosen, also represented by Laura’s interest in tarot and palm-reading, always appeals to me. This was a wry and sharp commentary on women’s options. (Giveaway win from Bookish Chat on Twitter)
Still Born was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the USA on August 8th.
A Friend Sails in on a Poem by Molly Peacock (2022)
I’ve read one of Peacock’s poetry collections, The Analyst, as well as her biography of Mary Delany, The Paper Garden. I was delighted when she got in touch to offer a review copy of her latest memoir, which reflects on her nearly half a century of friendship with fellow poet Phillis Levin. They met in a Johns Hopkins University writing seminar in 1976, and ever since have shared their work in progress over meals. They are seven years apart in age and their careers took different routes – Peacock headed up the Poetry Society of America’s subway poetry project and then moved to Toronto, while Levin taught at the University of Maryland – but over the years they developed “a sense of trust that really does feel familial … There is a weird way, in our conversations about poetry, that we share a single soul.” For a time they were both based in New York City and had the same therapist; more recently, they arranged annual summer poetry retreats in Cazenovia (recalled via diary entries), with just the two attendees. Jobs and lovers came and went, but their bond has endured.
The book traces their lives but also their development as poets, through examples of their verse. Her friend is “Phillis” in real life, but “Levin” when it’s her work is being discussed – and her own poems are as written by “Peacock.” Both women became devoted to the sonnet, an unusual choice because at the time that they were graduate students free verse reigned and form was something one had to learn on one’s own time. Stanza means “room,” Peacock reminds readers, and she believes there is something about form that opens up space, almost literally but certainly metaphorically, to re-examine experience. She repeatedly tracks how traumatic childhood events, as much as everyday observations, were transmuted into her poetry. Levin did so, too, but with an opposite approach: intellectual and universal where Peacock was carnal and personal. That paradox of difference yet likeness is the essence of the friendships we sail on. What a lovely read, especially if you’re curious about ‘where poems come from’; I’d particularly recommend it to fans of Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty.
With thanks to Molly Peacock and Palimpsest Press for the free e-copy for review.
The Bright White Tree by Joanna Seldon (Worple Press, 2017)
This appeared the year after Seldon died of cancer; were it not for her untimely end and her famous husband Anthony (a historian and political biographer), I’m not sure it would have been published, as the poetry is fairly mediocre, with some obvious rhymes and twee sentiments. I wouldn’t want to speak ill of the dead, though, so think of this more like a self-published work collected in tribute, and then no problem. Some of the poems were written from the Royal Marsden Hospital, with “Advice” a useful rundown of how to be there for a friend undergoing cancer treatment (text to let them know you’re thinking of them; check before calling, or visiting briefly; bring sanctioned snacks; don’t be afraid to ask after their health).
Seldon takes inspiration from history (the story of Kitty Pakenham, the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas), travels in England and abroad (“Robin in York” vs. “Tuscan Garden”), and family history. Her Jewish heritage is clear from poems about Israel, National Holocaust Memorial Day and Rosh Hashanah. Her own suffering is put into perspective in “A Cancer Patient Visits Auschwitz.” There are also ekphrastic responses to art and literature (a Gaugin, A Winter’s Tale, Jane Eyre, and so on). I particularly liked “Conker,” a reminder of a departed loved one “So is a good life packed full of doing / That may grow warm with others, even when / The many years have turned, and darkness filled / Places where memory shone bright and strong. / I feel the conker and feel he is here.” (New bargain book from Waterstones online sale with Christmas book token)
There are haikus dotted through the collection; here’s one perfect for the season:
Maids demure, white tips to
Mob caps… Look now! They’ve
Splattered the lawn with snow
Have you discovered any new-to-you independent publishers recently?
Three on a Theme: Frost Fairs Books
Here in southern England, we’ve just had a couple of weeks of hard frost. The local canal froze over for a time; the other day when I thought it had all thawed, a pair of mallard ducks surprised me by appearing to walk on water. In previous centuries, the entire Thames has been known to freeze through central London. (I’d like to revisit Virginia Woolf’s Orlando for a 17th-century scene of that.) This thematic trio of a children’s book, a historical novel, and a poetry collection came together rather by accident: I already had the poetry collection on my shelf, then saw frost fairs referenced in the blurb of the novel, and later spotted the third book while shelving in the children’s section of the library.
A Night at the Frost Fair by Emma Carroll (2021)
Maya’s mum is visiting family in India; Maya and her dad and sister have just settled Gran into a clinical care home. Christmas is coming, and Gran handed out peculiarly mismatched presents: Maya’s older sister got a lovely brooch, while her own present was a weird brick-shaped brown object Gran says belonged to “Edmund”. Now the family is in a taxi home, crossing London Bridge, when Maya notices snow falling faster than seems possible and finds herself on a busy street of horse-drawn carriages, overlooking booths and hordes of people on the frozen river.
A sickly little boy named Eddie is her tour guide to the games, rides and snacks on offer here in 1788, but there’s a man around who wants to keep him from enjoying the fair. Maya hopes to help Eddie, and Gran, all while figuring out what the gift parcel means. A low page count meant this felt pretty thin, with everything wrapped up too soon. The problem, really, was that – believe it or not – this isn’t the first middle-grade time-slip historical fantasy novel about frost fairs that I’ve read; the other, Frost by Holly Webb, was better. Sam Usher’s Quentin Blake-like illustrations are a bonus, though. (Public library)
The Weather Woman by Sally Gardner (2022)
This has been catalogued as science fiction by my library system, but I’d be more likely to describe it as historical fiction with a touch of magic realism, similar to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock or Things in Jars. I loved the way the action is bookended by the frost fairs of 1789 and 1814. There’s a whiff of the fairy tale in the setup: when we meet Neva, she’s a little girl whose parents operate one of the fair’s attractions, a chess-playing bear. She knows, like no one else seems to, that the ice is shifting and it’s not safe to stay by the Thames. When the predicted tragedy comes, she’s left an orphan and adopted by Victor Friezland, a clockmaker who shares her Russian heritage. He lives in a wonderfully peculiar house made out of ship parts and, between him, Neva, the housekeeper Elise, and other servants, friends and neighbours, they form a delightful makeshift family.
Neva predicts the weather faultlessly, even years ahead. It’s somewhere between synaesthetic and mystical, this ability to hear the ice speaking and see what the clouds hold. While others in their London circle engage in early meteorological prediction, her talent is different. Victor decides to harness it as an attraction, developing “The Weather Woman” as first an automaton and then a magic lantern show, both with Neva behind the scenes giving unerring forecasts. At the same time, Neva brings her childhood imaginary friend to life, dressing in men’s clothing and appearing as Victor’s business partner, Eugene Jonas, in public.
These various disguises are presented as the only way that a woman could be taken seriously in the early 19th century. Gardner is careful to note that Neva does not believe she is, or seek to become, a man; “She thinks she’s been born into the wrong time, not necessarily the wrong sex. As for her mind, that belongs to a different world altogether.” (Whereas there is a trans character and a couple of queer ones; it would also have been interesting for Gardner to take further the male lead’s attraction to Eugene Jonas.) From her early teens on, she’s declared that she doesn’t intend to marry or have children, but in what I suspect is a trope of romance fiction, she changes her tune when she meets the right man. This was slightly disappointing, yet just one of several satisfying matches made over the course of this rollicking story.
London charms here despite its Dickensian (avant la lettre) grime – mudlarks and body snatchers, gambling and trickery, gloomy pubs and shipwrecks, weaselly lawyers and high-society soirees. The plot moves quickly and holds a lot of surprises and diverting secondary characters. While the novel could have done with some trimming – something I’d probably say about the majority of 450-pagers – I remained hooked and found it fun and racy. You’ll want to stick around for a terrific late set-piece on the ice. Gardner had a career in theatre costume design before writing children’s books. I’ll also try her teen novel, I, Coriander. (Public library)
[Two potential anachronisms: “Hold your horses” (p. 202) and calling someone “a card” (p. 209) – both slang uses that more likely date from the 1830s or 1840s.]
The Frost Fairs by John McCullough (2010)
I knew McCullough’s name from his superb 2019 collection Reckless Paper Birds, which was shortlisted for a Costa Prize. This was his debut collection, for which he won a Polari Prize. Appropriately, one poem, “Georgie, Belladonna, Sid,” is crammed full of “Polari words” – “the English homosexual and theatrical slang prevalent in the early to mid 20th century.” The book leans heavily on historical scenes and seaside scenery. “The Other Side of Winter” is the source of the title and the cover image:
Overnight the Thames begins to move again.
The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,
merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about
On islands given up for lost. They race,
switch places, touch—the printing press nuzzling
the swings—then part, slip quietly under.
I also liked the wordplay of “The Dictionary Man,” the alliteration and English summer setting of “Miss Fothergill Observes a Snail,” and the sibilance versus jarringly violent imagery of “Severance.” However, it was hard to detect links that would create overall cohesion in the book. (Purchased directly from Salt Publishing)