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REVIEW: ‘History of Forgetfulness’ By Shahe Mankerian

Shahé Mankerian’s debut collection, History of Forgetfulness, recalls his childhood in 1975 Beirut through a series of shocking and heartfelt observations which depict the horrors of growing up in a warzone.

The poet’s battleground exists on the streets where he plays, at school, at home—even in his bed at night, where monsters lurk. Indeed, issues of abuse, domestic violence, loss of innocence and puberty all feature heavily in the turmoil encountered by our subject.

The book opens with ‘Educating the Son’, and a stanza which prepares the reader for the continuing juxtaposition of the mundane everyday with the horrific circumstances the poet finds himself in.

I got my schooling at the morgue:

a summer job, my mother thought,

would keep the streets out of her son.

Ready yourself, dear Reader, for the details to unfold—the ‘faceless men’, ‘their faces like shoes with no soles’:

and mothers who, like doves,

descended slowly on their sons’

decapitated corpses.

The poet writes beautifully, even when what he observes is marked by darkness and terror, as in ‘Before the Deluge’:

Ruptured copper pipes filled bomb craters

like cereal bowls. Bones and body parts floated like

cornflakes.

Here, the child’s eyes (through which we observe) and their innocence help the reader to somehow relate to these atrocities. But the real fear seems to be of the abuse he suffers when ‘Father wanted to speak / with his belt’ in ‘Baker’s Son’:

I closed my lids—

tight—to fake sleep.

When he reached

for my covers,

the hair of his hand

brushed my face.

By teasing the senses so subtly, Mankerian summons the dreadful feeling of what this simple gesture means.

A large part of the poet’s writing focuses upon growing up. In ‘Moses’, boys target a nun called Sister Francis, throwing rotten eggs at her and stealing her shoes.

On Saturdays, she disappeared. Once we followed

her to the basement of the chapel. There, she lay

on a bed of thorns and cried all night. We stopped

throwing things at her and never stole her shoes again.

The ‘normality’ of life continues as our subject attempts to navigate puberty, as shown in ‘Madame Bshara’s Black Skirt’:

Her ruler poked me.

I stared at the maroon

lipstick and the chalk

prints around her breasts.

This is our subject’s reality: the typical everyday contentions and life lessons amidst chaos, as people attempt to navigate the violence, lack of food, and have the resilience of their faith truly put to the test.

Our windowpanes shattered. The mosque collapsed

on the bridge. The violin broke from the neck.

The eggplants charred. Brother bled on the couch.

I waited for the rug to magically rise

and take flight into the night.

In this poem, the child holds on to the hopes and dreams of innocence in the final couplet of ‘Dear Mr. President:­­­­’ (above) – until experience teaches otherwise, as shown in ‘The Fall of the Welder’:

Don’t laugh, don’t cover

yourself anymore, because pleasure,

like a popsicle, melts before you eat it.

To buy ‘The History of Forgetfulness’ from Fly on the Wall Press, click here.

Reviews

owl unbound by zoe brooks

Owl Unbound contains many poems which depict rural life and are reminiscent of the country ways of my own childhood. However, Brooks’ images are so beautifully observed that her language makes the unfamiliar relatable and will resonate with readers from any background.

The collection opens with ‘Naunton Farm’, a concise and deeply moving poem. Whilst signing ‘executor’s deeds’, the poet discovers her mother’s words: “He died today.”

And the shock of it

makes my hand pause.

My hand reaches down

to the little cat

with no ears

[…]

You had hands big enough

to hold that cat

in your palm,

carrying her

away from the burning barn

Line by line overlaying layers of this shared history, the poet conveys love and character with such simplicity. Warmth radiates from Brooks’ depiction of her father’s large hands (and heart), as the rescuer of the injured kitten.

There are several poems in Owl Unbound which focus upon tilling the earth:  In ‘The Seedsavers’, Brooks’ imagery is astonishingly beautiful:

Later, when they depart,

she sees the birds rise

like wheat from the sower’s hand,

the rush of their wings overhead

is the sound of grain pouring from a sack.

These poems are rich with meaning brought about by an inherent understanding of the small things which marked each turn of season, each phase of life.

A treasure box in my memory was opened by ‘The Apples’:

The apples lie coffined in their boxes

[…]

Sometimes she comes and turn them over,

throwing away the bad.

The white foam of fungus […]

infects even my clothes with its sticky scent.

Brooks goes on describe the last few remaining by Christmas ‘like rows of shrunken heads; / their leathery and wrinkled skins […] peeled off in helter-skelter skeins’. Wow.  

And there’s more – owl pellets become ‘a galaxy of small bones and feathers / cocooned in fur’, the poet describes fishing for ‘sequinned trout’ and a stag beetle ‘in his Black Prince armour’.

This collection ignites a spark of recognition which makes each work feel deeply personal, the unfamiliar seem recognisable. These poems enable the reader to reach through time to touch people, places and moments depicted with heart and tenderness.

Reviews

A beautiful portrayal of love and loss

I was told I’d need tissues. Indeed, Victoria Bennett’s poetry about her mother’s passing evoked much emotion from me – but not always in the way I’d expected.

In To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre, the poet spares us the dramatics, instead staying true to the title and portraying death with calm observation of the details, seemingly small in many cases, but deeply meaningful. So attentively put together, this pamphlet is filled with a warmth which I found ultimately uplifting.

‘The Suede Shoes’ opens the collection. The first line of which reads ‘No good news from now’. But the poem continues:

Why bother planting that seed?

Why turn the beds

for a summer that will never come?

Why bother buying the pretty suede shoes?

We choose the shoes because

we can still find joy in a step.

We plant the seed because

we still love the way

it insists itself into life.

In its final line, the poem confirms: ‘and there is still good news.’

Of course, there is anger within these pages. Where there is love and loss, this is inescapable. But there is also a furious energy which liberates, at once brutal and bright.

At night, I brush your weeping hair,

button the new nightdress,

fingers tender like a mother’s,

tracing each lace flower.

When she can no longer move,

the doctor cuts it from her skin,

frees her flesh from its hold.

This garden has grown wild.

This freedom in death is further explored in ‘The Last Vigil’:

I almost missed you leaving.

You travel upwards,

weightless,

turning cartwheels […]

You leap from star

to star and then,

you are gone.

The quiet of the dark,

faint night-singing.

Next, in ‘December Hovers On The Advent Hour’, the poet writes ‘I am sure I hear you laughing, riding / the back of the storm, all the way.’

The aforementioned tissues are indeed a requirement when reading Victoria Bennet’s pamphlet. But what I draw from my multiple readings of it is a message of love which shines through the sadness, inextinguishable, making the grief worth surviving.

A perfect example can be found in the final lines of ‘How To Watch Someone Die’:





watch the morning come.

Try all over again

to let go,

and live.

‘To Start The Year From Its Quiet Place’ by Victoria Bennett is published by Indigo Dreams (2020).


		
				
								
	
Reviews

The colour of hope

Despite being written during the dark days of the pandemic, The Colour of Hope is full of beauty and splendour – based upon a simple idea: what makes people happy?

Former Young Poet of the Year, Jen Feroze, started the collection by writing a poem for a friend based upon three things which brought her joy. This evolved into forty-five heartfelt poems for forty-five women in the poet’s life, each unique yet echoing similar sentiments and images.

This book is a treasure chest stuffed with jewels. The poet’s ability to capture a moment and give it lasting definition is masterful, and though each poem is personal, the moments and objects are universally meaningful.

In poetry, repeated expressions and familiar symbols are sometimes ringed with a red pen, but here they take on the freshness of their original meaning. Bring on your rainbows, flowers, dawn skies, your sun-bathed afternoons, laughter and bubbles – for these are the things which have made our everyday beautiful during this time.

There are so many golden lines I wanted to pull off the page and hold close to my heart, as in ‘For Andri’:

‘This is a howl for summer unfettered. / For ageless hot nights, rich beats, / for salted hair and perfumed sky / and the ballroom of the stars’

‘FOR ANDRI’

The poet’s writings are evocative and full of wonder:

‘The warm winding of cats / like smoke around my ankles […] / In the hazy blue distance / the mountains rise. Cold and certain. / Full of their own stories.’

‘for sarah’

Born out of friendship, more than once in this collection we drink tea, sit a while, are drawn to small observations which imply shared time.

 ‘We’ll sip lemon-scented tea, / while the bees play drowsy symphonies / among the young flowers, / and the sun slips away to other gardens, / other distant shorelines.’

‘for gayle’

Food and drink must have featured on many lists, as a large number of these poems appeal to the sense of taste:

‘salt-bite of squid, lemon tanged; / bread that drips with golden oil, / sun-warmed green olives, / bigger than a thumb.’

‘For charlene’

My mouth is watering. Then there’s the (much missed) communal eating in ‘For Kate’:

‘happy chatter / on full stomachs. Pass the bread, / mop the sauce – every last glossy drop.’

‘For kate’

The rousing of senses closely linked to memory is highly effective at sharing an experience with the reader.

My favourite poem of the collection is ‘For Sophie’, which captures the blurry haze of having young children, and cherishes the loveliness of an idle Sunday morning breakfast:

‘Instinctively wrapping you in our arms / and our duvet when it’s too early / for adult brains to be awake.’

‘Then pancakes, the hot drop / and sizzle of batter and bacon / in the pink heart of the kitchen. / Pools of syrup on the table. / No rush to be anywhere but here.’

‘for sophie’

The sounds of ‘hot drop’, ‘batter and bacon’, the simple imagery, and the sense of time slowing down is  pure and joyous. The lull of each line invites the reader to step into the picture and savour each moment alongside its subjects.

What a wonderful example Jen Feroze is setting here. In today’s world, we are surrounded by politics, opinion, scandal and unreachable expectations, so it’s hardly a surprise we’re leaving a pandemic and stepping into a mental health crisis. The Colour of Hope is an important reminder – that gratitude, friendship, and seeking refuge in what’s around us is paramount in being well.

This is beautiful writing, full of gorgeous moments, a wonderful book to give as a gift for any lovely lady in your life (including you). To echo the poet’s closing line of the foreword: ‘Here’s to resilience. Here’s to joy. Here’ to hope.’

Reviews

Where less really is more

Wood End, Susan Shepherd

Shoestring Press, 2019    £6.00

What Susan Shepherd can convey in a list is startling. In stark sentences, often no more than a noun phrase or name, the poet encodes a subject, a narrative, and gives us something to really feel for.

Click here to read on.

Reviews

Soul Land, natalia clarke

Matador, 2020    £9.99

Pure and simple

Natalia Clarke’s pamphlet is brimming with adoration and praise for a place she regards as home — Scotland, her Soul Land.

The beauty of this collection lies in its simplicity. Clarke’s work is highly descriptive yet uncomplicated, written in first person perspective and with very few full stops. Instead, the poet chooses to divide much of her work into short stanzas, so that each sentence exists within its own space: the poem works as a sequence of individual thoughts.

Click here to read on…

Reviews

Dinner with superman

Red Squirrel Press, 2020    £6.00

Romance, at last

Dinner with Superman recounts a series of disastrous dates and failed relationships with prospective superheroes — and as a hopeless romantic, it absolutely charmed the socks off me.

Amidst scenery changes and rehearsed lines, Jane Bonnyman describes let-downs and abandonments, her romantic aspirations at the mercy of men in red capes or brandishing spider logos upon their chests.

Click here to read on…

Reviews

‘The Authenticity Project’ by clare pooley

Bantam Press, 2020, £12.99

Are YOU Authentic?

‘Write what you know’ has always been the golden rule for authors, but that’s easier said than done. Because what you know is often what’s personal, feels unique to you, exists somewhere deep within (and for a reason). So it takes a monumental amount of courage to publish something that truly is what you know more about than anyone else. And that’s why I loved Clare Pooley’s The Authenticity Project so much.

The title is a giveaway – it’s about us being ourselves and the struggle it takes to get there, if indeed, we ever do. How lucky you are if you’re one of the few living a life that is honest with no tendrils of falsity connecting you to the outside world.

Clare’s book focuses upon a green notebook, inviting a diverse group of characters to pen their truths, then pass it on. What happens is remarkable: the crossing of lives in a community, support networks revealed, tenderness that’s so readily available to us all, if only we’d let it in.

Yes, this is fiction, and yes, the world’s not always buttercups and chai lattes – but then, when things do go wrong and we are left battered and bruised, the goodness in the world can help us to heal. If anything shows this, it’s how the large percentage of us have responded to others in our communities during the Coronavirus outbreak. I know that I’ve stood outside my house for the last three Thursdays at 8pm and fought back tears of pride at the realisation of what, and who, is on my doorstep. The realisation that we are connected – we really are all in this together.

With this in mind, The Authenticity Project is a timely read, indeed. Expertly woven, warm and genuine. The author’s acknowledgement of the loneliness and inner difficulties which so many of us contend with on a daily basis made this book feel like a safe space in which to be.

The part I like best? (This may come as a surprise) – the acknowledgements. Here, Clare Pooley reveals her own chapter of honesty. About addiction, about feigned perfection, about a struggle – and what led to her achieving the book I held in my hands. She writes with humility. She inspires with her honesty. She pays it forward by thanking everyone (and I mean everyone) at her publishing house, or who touched her life, in a sincere and genuine way. I’m totally in awe and charmed by her.

We all have our ugly bits we hide away for fear of rejection. We all have days where we put on a brave face to just get through it. But it comforts me to know that although we have our secrets, we are not alone – no (wo)man is an island.

Books are full of sadness, misery and woe, goodness – there’s even a whole section in my local bookshop dedicated to childhood trauma. If writers write what they know, that’s suggestive of the inner pain and turmoil experienced by many. But then, there are fairy tales, there are romance stories, coming of age tales, inspirational biographies, fantasy – and many more genres which gives us hope.

Life comes in many flavours, and we shouldn’t feel, just as Pooley’s characters learned, that we can only project the sunny ones in order to be a part of the world. It’s much better if we’re honest.

Reviews

Many red fish

Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019     £7.00

Uncanny echoes

I write this review while in isolation — and somehow Steve Spence foretold this in his pamphlet, Many Red Fish.

In truth, the poet can’t have known about the impending outbreak of Coronavirus or the impact it would have upon society, and yet many lines in this collection echo phrases in the media today ­— like this, from ‘In the public realm’…

Click here to read on…

Reviews

Like Horses, Jasmine Simms

Smith/Doorstep, 2019 £5.00

Jasmine Simms uses repetition in her pamphlet Like Horses to set a scene, create a strong sound and make a point, powerfully.

In ‘School’, the writer reflects the emotion and whimsy of a teenager in a science lesson:

In Physics I drew love hearts, or bent and unbent
paper clips into the shape of love hearts.

Through the repetition of ‘love hearts’, ‘bent’/‘unbent’ and with ‘love’ used again in the line that follows, Simms introduces us to a prominent theme in her poetry. Indeed, kissing and love are referred to frequently throughout this pamphlet.

Please find the full review here at Sphinx Poetry Reviews, Pamphlets and Features.