Poetry Review: Martin Grey – The Pretty Boys of Gangster Town (Fly on the Wall Press)

Martin is an experienced and active Nottingham based poet and event organiser who performs extensively across the Midlands, the Edinburgh Fringe and Berlin, winning the 2018 Southwell Folk Festival Slam.

He has supported several nationally renowned poets, including Jess Green and Dominic Berry.

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In Bones, Grey writes, ‘Held hushed by her helplessness and the fear on her breath’. This is an evocative image that transports me, without hesitation, to a world I remember well from a previous life. This is truth. A tale of desperation, modern Britain one might say – ‘I don’t know how to be alone with her in the street-lit stillness’. Indeed, this poem makes me think about the shame of charity, ‘protect me from/ her pain and protect her from the cracks we let her fall/ through’.

Reading on then, Fish, Chips, Bread and Butter and a Cigarette – the first thing to note is the shape of the poem on the page and I cannot help but ask, what does it add? I hold that it endows the poem with something of a metronome, in that the text synchronises with breathing, in then out. With, ‘In my still-warm fish I’d taste his story’, Grey conjures up the everyday, and by extension, the everyman. This is deceptively simple. So many readers will be familiar with the bus-rides, the cinema visits. This could perhaps be described as an example of blue-collar poetry.

I Should Have Said Something makes for particularly painful reading. Questions are asked of us all, are we merely passive observers, or actors? It is said that the ‘only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ and this is encapsulated with the resigned eyes of the poet-speaker. What can we do? Rather, how can I make a difference now? Readers are vociferously compelled to step up to the plate and act – perhaps owing to the guilt that I carry personally, the final line, ‘I said nothing’ stings like hell.

If I can segue into the poem Focus, I will draw your attention to the line, ‘I’ll make a cup of tea first. Then I’ll focus.’ This is another intelligent poem, and the poet employs a more prosaic form, which expands on the theme at the centre, the meandering mind, ‘Does anyone like their kneecaps?’ – ‘I bet my housemate forgot to wash up again.’ Underlying this, is a darkness – fuelled by guilt and self-doubt and it bubbles to the surface intermittently throughout. This guilt is less concerned with the non-actions of the passive observer and more a sexual encounter, ‘I probably shouldn’t have kissed her […] she must have felt like she was trapped’.

Dancefloor stands out to me, for it speaks directly to men of a certain age, for whom music was everything. There is a nostalgia to be found in, ‘we’d always remember/ how to hit every note/ when we strum the air’, and this is advanced by the repeated wish that ‘Dave was here’. A poem about the unattainable then, that takes me to a simpler place and time, that brings forward the ghosts of lost friends. In short, this poem is incredibly powerful and evocative for a man like me.

In Museum, the ‘talk in depth about yesterdays’ continues and I am struck by the lines ‘in my bright rooms of empty displays/ I build your legacies on sorrow’. Time is important throughout this collection, but never more so than here where the text is concerned with, ‘yesterdays’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘future plans’ and ‘eternal spin’. I think it is particularly interesting how the poet uses the idea of the museum and all those connotations, ideas of preservation and our relationship with history and historiography. This is in no way accidental.

While Grey’s poetry is often lacking in lyricism, it retains a sense of character. This poetry, I feel, draws us closer to the poet, through memory and meagre flourishes – much like when a television detective shines a high-powered torch on a dark crime scene – Grey ensures that we only ever see what we need to, he gives us the focus he bemoans that he is lacking. In doing this, the poet’s words carry much more weight. This is poetry without frill, rather an enormous amount of skill.  

The collection is available here.

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Poetry Review: Lydia Unsworth – Yield (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres (KFS, 2018) and Nostalgia for Bodies (Winner, 2018 Erbacce Poetry Prize), and two chapbooks. Her latest chapbook will be released by KFS Press in 2020. Recent work can be found in Ambit, para.text, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, Blackbox Manifold and others. Manchester / Amsterdam. Twitter: @lydiowanie

The collection begins with Outer Play – a prose poem, where the language does not exactly excite, but is incredibly effective. Unsworth writes of ‘day-to-day demands’, ‘rustling newspapers’ and ‘nameless patches of housewear’. Consider the semantic field of the everyday on show here – curtain/mirror/bedroom/cupboard/coats/home and compare that to the title of the poems and this throws up a juxtaposition of sorts. What this poem says about the collection that follows is telling, they are not esoteric texts, but they are intelligent and purposeful.

'Yield' by Lydia Unsworth (40 pages)

Beget Each Other is perhaps more poetic, ‘don’t tell the gods I left a mess, tell them to send more clothes’ and ‘We’re growing faster than wild roses’ show a different side of the writer. One that has a philosophical edge and a raw beauty, ‘It teaches us about… a life in time, about letting oneself go.’

In Quiet Ambition and Strengthen Spine, there appears to be a blending of the poet’s own voice and that of the poet speaker, ‘I want to want nothing’. This poem signals a rejection, of sorts, of societal expectations/external demands; although it ends with that dangerous feeling of hope that we can ‘go on being beautiful’.

Untangle seems to tackle, more overtly, the theme of womanhood that has bubbled just below the surface of these poems to this point, ‘This is not the average time it takes a/ person of my age to get their body off the floor.’ Gradually, the poems become more concerned with femininity, or rather the poet becomes less interested in tiptoeing about the issue. In Much Talk we have the killer lines, ‘No one else could make me sadder than a line of you’, and ‘If you drop your/ wife in a car park, spin her round three times, and make a run for it’. Weighty topics handled with genuine courage and humour.

In Seasoning, Unsworth offers witty and valuable life advice, ‘Take what you need, not what you want’. The poet’s attention here turns to body image and which could be said to continue the thread of femininity. This is something which appears to be at the centre of Goat, which states that, ‘It is only because I have a body that I am seen’.   

As concerned as Unsworth is with issues of femininity, sexuality and body image, her poems also deal with environmental issues, ‘Stay empty or/ you will be rendered so: stripped of atmosphere, bland as punishment.’ – ‘We’re pitching our tent and leaving no trace by the/ side of the water.’; and consumer culture, ‘Fashions change’ – ‘Plastic-wrapped humps of landfill sprout parks’. In Yield, Unsworth shows herself, repeatedly, to be a poet with a conscience and a sharp eye, able to focus on the foibles of society in a way that engages rather than preaches, while at the same time she offers up introspective work. It is perhaps her blunt honesty, and diffident wit that gives her work its authenticity. Unsworth is an exciting voice that deserves your attention.

Yield is available here.

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Poetry Review: Black Bough Poetry, Deep Time: Volume 1

Black Bough Poetry, founded in 2019 by Matthew M. C. Smith, has reignited the independent poetry scene in the United Kingdom through their publication of high-quality, imagist poetry and their engagement with poets and presses of all backgrounds through their amiable Twitter activity. It has been a genuine pleasure to watch the project develop, and further, to have been offered opportunities to actively participate and have my work published. There are few editors I trust more with my work than Matthew and his team of guest readers. So, when I was invited to read and review their first print release, Deep Time: Volume 1, inspired by the work of Rob Macfarlane, I was more than excited.

However, I feel I ought to begin by making this clear, I had reservations about this specific project when I first saw the submission call. I had not, and have not read Macfarlane’s text, Underland. On the surface, it does not appeal to me in terms of genre. With that being so, what follows is an honest review of a poetry that ‘mines a range of deep spaces, plummeting into mythologies, histories and deep geological time.’

What is immediately apparent, is the range of contributors. Indeed, there are a number of superbly talented writers among the contents listings and some other less familiar names. Seeing poets such as Ryan Norman, Dai Fry, M.S. Evans and Kari Flickinger is enough to whet one’s appetite and helps me to put aside my reservations. The collection is arranged into five chapters, and the texts are carefully arranged by theme. Despite their connections, there is a great deal of variety in terms of writing style that warrants attention.

The opening poem of the collection, Laura Wainwright’s, Poem found on a cave wall, makes creative use of white space and sets the standard for the rest of the collection. This text helps to direct us, below surfaces, into other worlds, ‘unfazed, forging beyond cold… going/ deeper,/ travelling further’. The texts themselves serve as footholds in the readers descent, ‘After the ice age, after the fire,/ five mass extinctions./ I reach to high-five handprints of burnt ochre,/ silhouetted on stone.’ Karen Hodgson Pryce picks up where Wainwright leaves off, and her manipulation of the page in the poem, Drawn, is eye-catching. An expertly crafted text, where the actual written word is equal to the free form, ‘when steel/ meets cloud,/ and whales/ are lost/ in the/ choked sea’. Black Bough have developed their reputation publishing striking, imagist texts, and this would sit neatly alongside anything previously published.

I should also take time out to mention the images printed alongside the poetry, which only heighten the experience for the reader. Beautiful, raw and deceptively rudimentary images that display a primitiveness, that A.A. Parr’s line could be describing, ‘histories revealed themselves/ as red powder on white rock bone.’

The juxtaposition in the opening line of Ankh Spice’s poem, Solstalgia, ‘Half-done sun flares the water, light lancing clear depths’, highlights the craftsmanship of the work on offer throughout. While the texts eschew traditional form and structure, the poems remain poetic and the language in this poem (and throughout) is inventive, surprising and sometimes challenging. This is no criticism. My personal taste has been tested here and I feel more inclined to read beyond the parameters I had created for myself previously. Perhaps this David Bowie quote is apt here, given the subject matter and themes thrown up in this collection, ‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being’. If this collection has done anything, it has widened my experiences.  

You can order your copy from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Bough-Poetry-Deep-Time/dp/B08928JBHD

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Poetry Review: Paul Robert Mullen, ‘disintergration’

“disintergration” (2020) is Mullen’s fourth poetry collection, following “curse this blue raincoat” (2017), “testimony” (2018), and “35” (2018). It is a text that shows the writer to be working at the peak of his powers.

In terms of style, each of the collections have strong similarities. However, Mullen’s acute ability to say so much with so little has never been more apparent. The individual poems, by their very nature, are both pithy and incisive and the craftsmanship displayed is truly remarkable. As a reader who has closely followed this writer’s development, I can say with authority, that the writer has evolved into one of the foremost and exciting poets in the independent poetry community.

Mullen eschews the restraints of form and structure, preferring to write with total freedom. He sees the page as a tool in itself and makes intelligent use of space to breakdown his work, and in doing so makes it that much more immediate and accessible. Those readers who claim to be unable to ‘get’ poetry, this is the work for you.

There is a muddying of the line between the poet’s own voice and experience, and that of the poet-speaker. In this way the poetry has a transient quality, and I am in awe of Mullen’s capacity to find beauty in the banal. This is perhaps most apparent in “images”, ‘like blackbirds preparing broods in colour/ you will see yourself in teardrops/ in autumnal mists/ over russet meadows/ in spider-web-december sonowflakes’. Such elegance.

There is a common theme, centred around death and rebirth – a regular juxtaposition between gravity and hope that throws light on what it is to be alive. Consider, ‘i pull out the notebooks the pen/ but the words aren’t there’ in contrast with, ‘the next day / blossom under branches/ faces in the woods’. Such peaks and troughs are a constant throughout. While Mullen writes about the end or disintergration of one relationship, he also proffers great optimism for those yet to come.

The beauty of the chapbook, is that it provides the writer with a platform to compose a series of themed and inter-related texts. In “disintergration” Mullen has taken this form of publication to new heights. It is a superb addition to the poet’s existing ouevre, that shows great development of skill and exposes a vulnerability, that was until now absent.

“disintergration” is available now from https://www.animalheartpress.net/p/purchase-disintegration.html?m=1

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