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?
An Anthology for the Coming Winter
“the short dark days of winter
dear to me
as a bully to his mother.”
~from “Skulking,” a poem from Helen Dunmore’s The Malarkey
After more than ten years here, I still struggle with English winters. It’s not that they’re colder than what I grew up experiencing on America’s east coast. In terms of temperatures, snowfall and ice buildup, there’s no real comparison. I keenly remember the winter of 2004, when the wind-chill was about 10° F and all the fountains in Washington, D.C. froze solid.
But English winters have particularly disheartening qualities: they’re overwhelmingly dark, bone-seepingly wet, and seemingly endless. I’ll never forget when, in my first-ever winter in England (during my study abroad year in 2003), I looked out a University of Reading library window around 3:00 in the afternoon and realized the sun was setting behind the trees.
All these years later, I still find that dim mid-afternoon light depressing, and the damp cold nearly intolerable. In our study abroad information packet we were warned that British interiors are kept 10 degrees cooler than American ones. But because we’re both thrifty and environmentally conscious, our house is significantly colder. Most of the time I’ll wear four to seven layers and huddle under blankets rather than turn on the heat – why warm a whole house for one person and one cat? I’m not entirely joking when I say to my husband that I wish I could hibernate from roughly November to April. Just wake me up for Christmas.
Ahhhhhh, Christmas, which the English do wonderfully – much better than Americans, in my opinion. Carol services, dense dried fruit desserts, booze in and with everything, a gentler tinge to the commercialism, plus maybe some nostalgic Dickensian tint I’m giving it all in my mind. I’ve had some wonderful Christmases here over the past 12 years.
So I’m ambivalent about winter, and was interested to see how the authors collected in Melissa Harrison’s final seasonal anthology would explore its inherent contradictions. I especially appreciated the views of outsiders. Jini Reddy, a Quebec native, calls British winters “a long, grey sigh or a drawn-out ache.” In two of my favorite pieces, Christina McLeish and Nakul Krishna – from Australia and India, respectively – compare the warm, sunny winters they experienced in their homelands with their early experiences in Britain. McLeish remembers finding a disembodied badger paw on a frosty day during one of her first winters in England, while Krishna tells of a time he spent dogsitting in Oxford when all the students were on break. His decorous, timeless prose reminded me of J.R. Ackerley’s.
The series is in support of the Wildlife Trusts, and a key message of this volume in particular is that nature is always there to be experienced – even in what feels like a dead time of year. Kate Blincoe observes an urban starling murmuration in an essay that nicely blends the lofty and the earthy; Nicola Chester takes a wintry beach walk and documents what she finds in the strandline, such as goose barnacles; Joseph Addison celebrates the pleasures of a winter garden; Patrick Barkham examines the ways butterfly life* continues through the winter, usually as eggs; and Richard Adams (author of Watership Down) insists, “Wild flowers are like pubs. There are generally one or two open somewhere, if only you look hard enough.”
As in the other volumes, Harrison has chosen a lovely mixture of older and contemporary pieces. Occasional passages from Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster on the timing of natural phenomena help create a sense of chronological progression, from November through to February. The contemporary nature writing scene is represented by previously published material from Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie. Classic literature is here in the opening of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and the Great Frost passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There are also excerpts from Coleridge’s diary and freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s account of seeing snow for the first time. In general, this volume is better at including diverse voices, like the final piece from Anita Sethi on her family’s unlikely garden in Manchester.
Christmas doesn’t really appear here; it’s a book about the natural year rather than the cultural year. But another event does, very powerfully: In another of my top few pieces, Jon Dunn (who authored my favorite piece in Autumn) tells how the overpowering darkness of a Shetland winter is broken by the defiant Up Helly Aa festival, in which the residents dress up as Vikings and ceremonially burn a longboat. Life goes on, no matter how bleak everything seems. That’s an important thing to keep in mind after all the troubling events of 2016.
*My husband’s piece, positioned between John Fowles’s and Richard Jeffries’s, is also about the surprising insect life that can be discovered in the winter.
My review of Summer.
My review of Autumn.
[I came late to the series so will be reading, but not reviewing, Spring next year.]
More beautiful lines to treasure:
- “Claws of grey rain break to rake through a gold half-light and the squall moves like a huge aerial jellyfish, obscuring then revealing this wreckers’ coast of muted blue headlands. Swirling white snowflakes move against a grey mass, turning Lundy Island into a Turner painting.” (Nicola Chester)
- “I am the garnet shock / of rosehip on frost / the robin’s titian flare.” (Julian Beach)
- “the tower blocks are advent calendars, / every curtain pulled to reveal a snow-blurred face.” (Liz Berry)
- “A whole year of concerns, worries and squabbles sloughed off in a bone-chilling baptism of copper water.” (Matt Gaw)
- “Two hundred jackdaws drape the skeleton of the winter beech like jet beads around the neck of a Victorian mourner.” (Jane Adams)
With thanks to Jennie Condell at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.