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is Daniel Sluman’s second collection published by Nine Arches Press; sharp and unflinching work exquisitely rendered to convey aspects of mortality in all its bleak beauty.

Daniel is a UK-based poet with whom I first became acquainted participating in his Poetry of Pain course hosted online through the Poetry School. Daniel suffered with bone cancer when he was young and in these poems, he shares flashes of the trauma endured brilliantly, as well as those places and events no one wants to speak of.

In the terrible, there is pain and suffering, blood and release, acceptance and love, narcotics and knowing, and a frank realisation of the body’s fragility and the life it contains.

In ‘1991-2006’ we’re shown a fast-forward of father and son travelling in ‘a pounded blue ford’, ‘the faces from our life passing like boarded-up doors’. In ‘morphine’ ‘it waits for me to twist the lid’ and ‘dream of a wonderful weight on the chest sinking further towards the stalling heart.’ And in ‘angels’ there’s a bitterness, ‘as we reel the rope to knot around their chests’, pull and wait ‘for the snap of feather-bone & rib’.

The vessel in which we travel can be subject to ‘strange weather’ (a concept explored in ‘doppelganger’) threatening its delicate balance, and so I want to leave you with this poem, a poignant reminder the barely bearable is often shared:

 

& this is love

 

as she goes limp & falls into my arms

like an important looking letter

I help her to the bathroom

 

& sit on the other side of the door

tearing nails between my teeth

clutching the phone like a safety rope

 

& this is love    how we live between

the side-effects of glittering pills

the wads of her dead hair snarled

 

in the plug-hole    the morning cigarette

that shakes in her hand before her kiss

once again says whateverhappens    I ring

 

the ambulance when her head smacks

the floor    & in the crazed flutter of her lids

I see a million lives for us    each one perfect

 

Copyright @ Daniel Sluman 2015

is an exceptional collection by Angela Readman published by Nine Arches Press, one I couldn’t put down for the song calling and still hear.

The Book of Tides is Angela’s third collection of poems, described as salt-speckled and sea-tinged, they lure with their rhythmic magic and ability to weave the other worldliness with the normalcy of now. There are mermaids and fishermen, folklore and loss, love and murder, even a beard of bees:

The swarm began to flow uphill, a dark lace over the apple stuck in my throat (‘The Preacher’s Son and the Beard of Bees’)

each and every poem glittering with a visceral, yet incandescent, quality.

Angela’s work leaves indelible images, the titles alone capitulate these – ‘The Museum of Water’, ‘The House that Wanted to be a Boat’, ‘Our Name in Pebbles’, ‘Confession of a Selkie’ – and with sublime lines like:

Sometimes she stared at wolves chasing the window, landlocked clouds circled the house (‘The Book of Tides’)

and:

My fingers dry and uncurl, flakes fall. I leave freckles on the snow (‘The Woman with No Name’)

and:

The horizon is a closed ballroom where days of the week refuse to dance (‘The Woman Who Could Not Say Goodbye’)

these poems are keepsakes, the kind to net and stow in a sturdy, waterproof box.

The detail in Angela’s work is enviable, as the snippets above demonstrate, down to the quote she selected by Leonard Cohen by way of introduction – “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick everyday.”

The title poem won the Mslexia Poetry Competition in 2013, but I want to leave you with ‘To Catch a Fisherman’, one of several favourites of mine for its sculpted perfection, like the seashell you found as a child whispering wonders:

 

To Catch a Fisherman

 

The Singer grunts another steel shanty.

Mother puts a foot down on fish skins

bucking the light, an ocean in the room.

 

It’s a fine day to catch a fisherman, let

fog spritz a veil over a squirm of tail, shells

cutting patterns in my chest like dough.

 

I can cut a fisherman out of his boat,

if I sit still long enough, dangle the bait of

a song off the rock to a man looking for a story

 

to reel. There’s none who won’t come,

reach out for a myth to writhe in his hands.

I serenade the speck of my house, sad

 

as a woman who can’t dance, wind rinsing

out recollections of sinking in the bath

pretending to be half-anemone, half-girl.

 

The keel of my voice creaks song

of Mother’s bad back, logs aching to be lugged,

a cold foot in bed inching for a warm sole.

 

She catches the lone fisherman in her net,

a sprat of man who sees me strip off my tail,

harpoon licking the hollow in his neck.

 

Together we bundle him back to the house,

Mother’s laugh is a shoal. It slips over us,

a glint of mermaids bringing the silver home.

 

Copyright © Angela Readman 2016

Having reviewed her son’s show, Susan Belperio asked if I’d review her photography exhibition, Under the Lens, currently on display at the same venue, The Lab, Queen’s Theatre.

A former medical practitioner and in addition to here, Susan’s work has been displayed in Queensland and the Northern Territory; she also had an image in a human rights exhibition in Tibet opened by the Dalai Lama.

For me, the exhibition comprises three parts, beginning with a stunning black and white photo of Josh either dressing or undressing for his show (it’s the voyeur’s choice), revealing the eight-inch scar travelling his skin. It’s an intimate scene, one of a mother portraying the glittering remnant of her son’s near-death experience.

In the cluster of black and white images that follow, hands and feet feature, snapshots of movement stilled. Two pairs of feet dangle carefreely from a balcony overlooking the beach. A pair of hands are clasped on a lap, the red painted nails the only colour calling. A circle of polished feet appears as if talking and a child’s hands are being introduced to the piano. Interspersed with images of the moon, birds, roads and the sea, they denote a journey well-travelled, be it flying, driving or sailing, elements that lead neatly into the final part.

The colour series is called Life’s a Beach, in which Susan conveys the multi-faceted sea, what it can give and take away. It’s a colour spangled dreamscape with each image expertly placed to both singularly shine and complement its neighbours. Humans are juxtaposed with the man-made and wild – the shadow of a plane over water, a lone feather, a child’s spade in the shallows, the ripples and twists found in the sand and sky. The sea dons day and night, carries time effortlessly, simultaneously evoking a distant longing and home.

Susan has an incredible ability to capture the everyday in a way that is not, to present indelible moments, to stop and embrace life. The exhibition, which is free to view, only runs until 17 March as part of the Fringe, so if you’d like to immerse yourself in some hauntingly beautiful images, I highly recommend a visit.

Giraffe is Bryony Littlefair’s fantastic debut collection. Published by Seren Books, it won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition in 2017 and it’s easy to see why.

Through 19 poems, Bryony skillfully presents everyday life – from ‘Tara Miller’, the bad girl at school who leaves an impression to the lesson of healing in the title poem, where happiness when it comes “will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.” We’re pulled into each scene, but it’s the insightful nuances that make these poems shine.

In ‘Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant’, Bryony relays her sister’s blood-taking (somewhat apologetically) through the eyes of the nurse:

Sorry for her ratchety stubborn fear,

which will make you late for your next appointment. Sorry, also,

for the 16k a year, for the commute

from Clapham North to Archway

where the light is piss-yellow and everyone is angry.

Coming home early from school in ‘Hallway’, Bryony catches her mother “eyes closed, somewhere else” playing the piano as Bryony:

…stood quiet and uncertain,

shivering like a just-plucked violin string;

washed up in the hallway, wondering at her life.

It’s an absorbing collection – a series of expertly rendered snapshots in which Bryony punctuates conversational tone with poignancy. I’ll end with one of my favourites, for just this reason.

 

Amsterdam, July 2011     

 

I might have stayed, in that lighted carriage,

with its lullaby of whirring tracks, but stepped off here,

where the girls stare out from glass

as though they know your secrets, as though

they are okay with them.

 

The streets sing hymns here. The buildings talk quietly amongst themselves.

You check out early. There is no breakfast. Fuelled

by hunger, you can go and go. The ecstasy

of open space declares itself, and knows

of your relentless need to run roads.

 

Loneliness does not exist here, where every face looks like

one you might have loved in a previous life.

Undrunk vodka. Sky cool in my throat.

 

Like an empty suitcase, my heart flies open.

 

Copyright @ Bryony Littlefair 2017

This is an exceptional award-winning collection of short stories by an exceptionally gifted writer. The sort you never want to end. And when they do, they stay, having made a remarkable impression.

Published in 2016 by Jonathan Cape, part of Penguin Random House, the synopsis sums up the book beautifully:

The Fen is a liminal land. Real people live their lives here. They wrestle with familiar instincts, with sex and desire, with everyday routine. But the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a – well what? English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention – in Fen, these elements have come together to create a singular, startling piece of fiction.

Each story is unique, exquisitely and lovingly rendered. ‘Starver’ and ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ bookend the collection. In the first we find Katy, the eel-girl, her transformation told by her sister as Katy refuses humanistic needs to become something else:

They kept giving her oxygen. I wanted to tell them it wouldn’t work, it was no good. She was drowning in air. At night I brought her bowls of water, lowered her face in, watched the bubbles, saw how she came up just about smiling.

‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ returns us to water, where the keeper discovers an unusual being one day while out on the rocks trying to retrieve an umbrella:

The fish came cresting up. It was narrow-bellied when it rolled to curse her, the dark flesh sliding off to white before it reached the stomach; the eyes, when it lolled frontwards and ogled her, round as marbles. She stood watching the lope of it, the way it surfed up to jaw wordlessly at her.

In between, the richness continues. We meet further fantastical creatures, some human, others not so much, but all with a sense of purpose, an allusivity made real and gleaming you want to pocket it and keep it. This is, without a doubt, one of the best short story collections I have ever read. Makes me want to explore turning poetry into another way of being.

When we first moved here, over 5 years ago now, I was keen to immerse myself in Australian literature and quickly learnt that Tim Winton is iconic.

And so I began with Cloudstreet, arguably one of Winton’s most famous novels, in which we meet the Pickles and the Lambs, two working class Australian families who live together in a house in Perth and whose lives are charted over a twenty-year period. It’s a captivating read, winning the Miles Franklin Award in 1992 and one that firmly established Winton’s writing career.

Winton himself hails from Western Australia. Awarded the Centenary Medal for service to literature, he’s been named a Living Treasure by the National Trust. Reading him, you can see why. Winton’s writing is music with no unnecessary note as he conducts matters of the human heart – love, sorrow, pain, desire – in a spellbinding way.

I was so inspired after finishing In the Winter Dark I wrote a poem to try to encapsulate what it left me with, such a hauntingly atmospheric novella about human existence among others. I’ve also read Dirt Music where the wife of a local fisherman legend becomes fascinated with a stranger poaching fish, which inevitably has consequences. Have yet to read Eyrie.

And now I’m part-way through Minimum of Two, an absorbing collection of short stories with characters and plots that will linger for a while. Perfect little snapshots of life.

So, if you’re not familiar with Winton’s work I strongly recommend you be. You won’t be disappointed.

Supported through Crowdfunder and published by Nine Arches Press, Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back is an invaluable addition to disability literature.

Edited by Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman who themselves have disability, the anthology examines D/deaf and disabled poetics from personal, social and political perspectives, culminating in a beautifully rich collection of voices.

Split into ‘Bodies’, ‘Rules’, ‘Maps’, ‘Dreams’ and ‘Legends’, the experiences of those with physical, mental and emotional challenges are shared through poetry, essays and photos to:

showcase a diversity of opinions and survival strategies for an ableist world.

It’s gritty stuff; confronting perceptions of people who are considered and/or observed to be different. Some work is followed by a short biography offering further insight into its contributors. And there are a plethora of conditions both visible and unseen – deafness, absent limbs, MS, mental illness, autism, rheumatoid arthritis to name a few – stripped bare and laid out in indelible forms.

The idea for the anthology came from a desire to create a UK equivalent to the American anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Interestingly, this has recently been achieved here in Australia with Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain, developed as a companion to Articulations: The Body and Illness in Poetry in the US. This is an expanding field; one we should all make time to explore.

Having been reacquainted with Sylvia Plath’s poetry recently through one of my poetry groups, I thought I should revisit her only published novel.

The Bell Jar was one of many mandatory texts during my English degree and rereading it some twenty years later, the wow factor’s still there.

It’s a haunting account of a young girl’s breakdown and recovery, drawn from Plath’s own, which began in her late teens.  The protagonist, Esther Greenwood, wins an internship in New York but, unlike her colleagues, she is not wooed by the glamourous lifestyle; quite the contrary, it frightens her.  Bit by bit she unravels, plunders depths and herself, before slowly rising to the surface again.

With its sharp lyrical prose, it’s clear this is the work of an extraordinarily gifted poet:

‘I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.’

Losing yourself is a complicated thing; the dysconnectivity rendering you apart from every thing and one around you, reducing you to scattered pieces until there’s seemingly no way of reattachment. Plath eloquently captures this painful undoing and descent of the bell jar, which eventually sealed itself over her own brilliant mind.

is a must have collection. Published by Puncher and Wattmann and edited by Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave, this 658-page book anthologises Australian poetry for the last 25 years.

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Taking 10 years to compile over 200 poets and 500 poems, it really is a landmark publication, a credit to the Australian poetry scene, and includes some incredible poets – Ken Bolton, Jennifer Compton, Peter Goldsworthy, Jill Jones, John Kinsella, Mike Ladd, David Malouf, David Mortimer, Les Murray, Jan Owen, Dorothy Porter, Mark Tredinnick, Fiona Wright, not to mention the editors themselves.

It’s being launched in Adelaide at the SA Writers Centre next Friday, which unfortunately I can’t make (off exploring Noosa), so I promptly ordered a copy. Flicking through for the first time, because this will need endless reads, two poems caught my eye – ‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Allen and ‘Snowflake’ by Anthony Lawrence.

Elizabeth is a Sydney-based poet and her chapbook Forgetful Hands is on my wish list.  Hers is a powerfully poignant piece about her sister, who having lost her ‘Botticelli curls’

‘…has been looking into people like mirrors

but does not know how to make a face

that resembles the pain inside her.’

Anthony I saw at Mildura’s Writers’ Festival the year Sharon Olds headlined, who I was lucky enough to meet.  His poem centres around his mother who cultivates a snowflake in the freezer ‘between the peas and the ice cream’, setting sapphires into her teeth:

‘At dinner I would pretend

to be a good son, and her smile

enameled the table

with points of dark blue light.’

This is a remarkable anthology, to be read, smiled, laughed, cried and absorbed between breaths, bit by brilliant bit.

I’m a bit behind the times, having only just gotten around to reading The Outcast by Sadie Jones.

 

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Originally published in 2007 by Vintage Books, the story is a harrowing one punctured with beauty.  Lewis is a young boy trying to cope with the aftermath of a tragic accident, surrounded by people who don’t understand him nor want to.  With the exception of Kit, four years his junior, suffering stifling domesticity herself and who has him on a pedestal, until the day he falls and saves them both.

 

The book won the Costa First Novel Prize, was shortlisted for the then Orange Prize and is a number one bestseller; you can see why when you read it.  Jones is a talented insightful writer with the ability to deliver haunting prose in vivid fluidity:

 

At the top of the stairs he stood in front of the door and it seemed to him that his mind was so noisy it would shake the air in the still house…

 

Similarly, after a particular brutal event at home, Kit reflects on her situation:

 

Her head hurt, under her hair, where she had hit the floor, and it made her whole head feel full of tears that she couldn’t cry. 

 

Jones conveys the pain and struggle of both Lewis and Kit with conviction and compassion; it’s absorbing from the start – the repression and menace elegantly done.

 

So I’ve just ordered Jones’s latest novel Fallout, which I anticipate to be just as enthralling.