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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.


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’…

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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.


At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered

At the start of this collection, Levine’s third book of poetry, Ilya Kaminsky’s foreword focuses upon writing which keeps its secrets, evading comprehension, in order to transcend language, to explore the spaces between words and their meanings. He asks, ‘What is clarity?’ Upon reading At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered, the question itself becomes elusive.

Let me indulge in a metaphor of my own to explain: I began reading Levine’s poetry like walking a river. Following it with my eyes, not really understanding the course or predicting the direction it would go. In order to appreciate the poetry, I realised I had to lie down in the water, to let it flow over me. In doing so, I captured phrases I found evocative, words strung together in abstract ways, the sounds they made, the images which they created, the moments of absolute clarity washing over me and then vanished, gone. This may sound awfully la-de-dah, but Levine seems to encourage the reader to let go of the instinctive need to fully comprehend in order to enjoy, to disassociate from obvious signage and accept the lack of direction; to be open to interpretation. 

At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered is a mystical, cosmic, effervescent collection of verse. There is much music and romance within its poetry, from the sounds in ‘Low-Hanging Orb, Smudged Green’ (‘With ice-cold spoon, / snap the world open to the pulp’), and the musicality of ‘soft water – soft as the light, white breath of horses’ in ‘Egg of the Universe’ – to the words of love in ‘He Delivers Unto Her His Blessings’: ‘There is much to celebrate. She invites moments of unaccountable happiness.’ 

There are many beautiful, almost hypnotic lines and a central theme of light running throughout the writings, such as in ‘Other Effects’: ‘No light I know as light, but winter sky on ice stealing the sky’s milky hue.’ The collection is heavy with prose poems like this. Emotive, imaginative, like incantations, they create a dream-world, where the reader emerges not quite sure of what made sense or how it all fit together, but left within a kind of whirlwind made up of spools of film, with each image capturing another vivid image, all rushing past and evading capture. 

In ‘Although Madame Did It on the Grill,’ the poet writes: ‘Raking coals, straddles amid licks of flame, sparks rose up / from the earth, arced across the sky turning overhead in bright pinwheels,’ and later in the same poem, ‘and all that night, throughout the world, a terrible noise of sheep bleating and of bells from the church towers, of wooden houses cracking, and the cries of men and the cries of women.’ It’s artistic, vivid, nightmarish – like hopping out of a Monet and into Edvard Munch. 

Indeed, Levine is often inspired by works of art. His subjects are abstract, but beauty and meaning find their way through the language. In the final poem in the book, ‘Getting It Right,’ Levine concludes with a lasting, entrancing couplet: ‘I move the camera and your life comes out of you in colors, / I move it again, it goes back in.’ It’s a beautiful image, fully in focus. 

Returning to the initial question asked by Kaminsky: ‘What is clarity?,’ the richness and translucence of Levine’s writing makes me wonder: Does such ambiguity make poetry more accessible? If we are not busy trying to understand it, are we liberated – free to take the words, phrases or parts which resonate with our own minds – leaving the rest for another reader to find meaning? By throwing off obvious meaning, could this create a more impactful poetry? It’s a good question. And I’m sure the answer is here … somewhere.


Finding Sea Glass: poems from The Drift, Hannah Lavery

Stewed Rhubarb Press, 2019 £5.99

Knowing how to belong

The emphasis on Scots words in this pamphlet is essential in communicating Hannah Lavery’s message, with phonetic spelling and colloquialisms used to create a voice. So in ‘St Andrew’s Day, 2014’, she writes: ‘He hadne made it. I was what? No bothered? Aye.’

The tone is conversational throughout. This informality bonds the reader with the poet, helps us assume the perceived role of confidant. As a result, her outpouring of pain, grief and loss becomes more personal, more deeply understood.

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


The Bullshit Cosmos, Sarah Shapiro

ignition Press, 2019 £5.00

A bit of background first: Sarah Shapiro experienced a difficult education, growing up with learning (dys)abilities* and struggling to learn to read. The Bullshit Cosmos details her personal journey and the efforts she made to grasp and utilise language.

Shapiro’s poetry beckons to those who aren’t confident readers and appeals to those who are. She plays with form and uses rhyme and repetition for the sound they create to demonstrate the hardships faced by those with (dys)abilities, as shown in her first poem ‘Appleseed Reading Comprehension’:

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


The Hoopoe’s Eye, Mark Carson

Wayleave Press, 2019 £5.00

Coleridge described poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’, but in The Hoopoe’s Eye Mark Carson shows us that the positioning of each poem within a sequence is equally significant.

The pamphlet begins with a private correspondence informing us that there has been a flood. From here, the poet takes us by the hand to walk his journey, step by step, poem by poem.

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