Tag Archives: Emma Lee

“a mix of specific and general images”

The Hitting Game, Graham Clifford, Seren, £9.99
reviewed by Emma Lee

the_hitting_game_cover_quicksand cover

Graham Clifford is a master of the knowing, wryly observed, composed magazine-length poem with a wide range of subject matter: pin ball machines (the title poem), relationships, job interviews, hotel rooms, the best poem ever or technology. In ‘Restoring “graham”’ he imagines being restored to factory settings:

a couple of hundred high frequency words
in a West Country accent;
the smell of Talcum, and jumper wool
after a Sunday morning roasting pork;
shoulder-length hair, lighter from the sun;
flared second-hand 501s brimmed over;
the recurring dream of being able to back flip;
your hand making the Millennium Falcon
skimming hedges; TV warming up
in the next room; cloud-rammed evenings;
a long, plummeting cello chord
from the music on a cigar advert;
perpetual municipal shrubbery;
the phone ringing – it’s always for you;
freckles they say will fade but don’t
until you decide you want them
charting teeming constellations
even on your lips.

This program is installed as a failsafe.
Good luck.

The reference to “high frequency words” so apt for a teacher. Its dry tone, slightly tongue in cheek, and conversational rhythm is typical of the poems throughout. ‘Restoring “graham”’ is a satisfying stand-alone poem with humour linking the list of slightly uncool images and a mix of specific and general images so the poem is both personal and recognisable to appeal to a wide audience. Accumulated images carry ‘What I Really Want to Do’ as well. The poem’s set during a job interview, although readers never discover what job the interview was for:

He tells me about him: he loves opera.
His hands are thick and small and he’s perspiring
in the receding Vs and he writes
articles on interview techniques for IT graduates,
and reviews opera.

He doesn’t say for whom.
Sometimes he’s in Geneva.
He has a suit on. No tie: it is Saturday.
But what do I really want to do?

I hold my hands out, palms up.
They’re empty.

It captures that sense of someone with no clear career path being offered an interview for which they are out of their depth because they know they can’t give the honest answer, “I need to pay bills and this seems OK.” But it doesn’t give any sense of the person caught in the dilemma. Readers can’t engage in the drama of the poem because they don’t know the narrator enough to know whether the job offer will be a good or bad thing.

In ‘Trying’ a partner asks the narrator about trying for a baby, telling him about the birth of a previous child. The first stanza:

You tell me there wasn’t one midwife
but you were visited by a set of four
on a rotating shift and when you split
like an overripe momento mori fig
it happened to be the nice one
with different David-Bowie eyes,
who stank of smoke,
telling you to breathe – like you’d forget!

In the second stanza the woman describes the feeling of the baby moving mid-pregnancy, like a moth fluttering. Readers never find out whether they try or not. Of course a writer may choose how much or how little to reveal about themselves and every writer draws on personal experience and I’m not suggesting that Graham Clifford should reveal more about his personal life, but the absence of information limits the longevity of the poems to one or two readings rather than rewarding repeated visits.

Emma Lee

“the times awry and nature out of it”

Sister Invention, Judith Kazantzis, Smokestack, £8.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

Sister Invention cover 10-2013 FINAL_Layout 1

Sister Invention is Judith Kazantzis’s first major collection for a decade and her subjects include death, both personal and via reported news, the reconfiguration of Greek myths from a feminist perspective, and the birth of a grandchild: all with a contemporary feel. Writing from the perspective of the overlooked wife of a historically famous figure is not a new idea and the success of such a poem relies on credibility: how likely is the voice in the poem that of the wife? Judith Kazantzis gives a voice to Mrs William Blake in ‘Mrs Blake’s Poe

Long long ago
the lion lay down with me
under the palm tree in the garden

His sturdy, meaty lamb,
I pulled the beauty
like stringy old beans out of his sore throat
line by line
There now, like – a red flannel!

He laughed at me
flung the flannel dramatically
into the lavender
I discreetly skipped out of the way
as it were, into the shady fold
of the page

Not only is the scenario and language realistic but the poet also resists giving Mrs Blake a modern sensibility. Gardens are useful metaphors and their landscapes can reflect the inner emotional landscape of the narrator. This is used to good effect in ‘Dick Cheyney’s Garden’, a sequence where the narrator discusses events, political and personal decisions away from the pressures of the White House and heated debates of The Senate. In Part III ‘Walking the long lawns’, Dick Cheyney muses on the emblematic attack on 9/11:

I switch on. Toy puffs blow Meccano planes
into Lego buildings, like the Spitfires
my little brothers used to circle
like wasps over the red carpet, bang, bang.
You couldn’t wring from the box more
than the voice knew, that sequence all day,
as modern transport scored its third,
and for all time, we were told, assured
legislated to believe: The world intuned,
the times awry
                           and nature out of it.

The poem captures the sense of disbelief of seeing a game most children play a variation of: crashing a toy plane into a toy building enacted on an adult, real scale. It’s accompanied by the modern need to know more: to have the answers after a few taps into a search engine and the frustration that the TV can only broadcast to, not interact with, its audience. The final line quoted doesn’t just underline the unnatural act but is also a reminder that Cheyney in is his garden, and the garden does more than act as a backdrop. The long sentences mirror the narrator’s thinking: small jumps from one point to the next. This politician doesn’t have grand ideas or big answers but reflects and reacts. Judith Kazantzis doesn’t just stop at 9/11 but continues into contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Syria. ‘The bombed woman’ could be any women caught up in war:

All the times the screaming head,
the bombed woman,
sees the planes about to
sees her town, her children, herself.
All those times
inside this skull
out through this mouth
sorrow’s grinding scream
protrudes its lava

The description is visual and also non-judgmental. Her focus is on the victims not the perpetrators. Judith Kazantzis records and assesses with compassion. She doesn’t write the victims’ response for them or resort to cliché. There’s no space for sentimentality here.

Sister Invention is large in scope but successfully woven together with no frayed edges. Judith Kazantzis’s tone varies from contemporary detail to lyricism. Her poems reward re-reading and it’s a book to dip into frequently.

Emma Lee

“the lines of our lives connected…”

On Light & Carbon, Noel Duffy, Ward Wood Publishing, £8.99
reviewed by Emma Lee

noel duffy light carbon

Noel Duffy is clearly interested in science as the title, On Light and Carbon, suggests and poems within draw on scientific subjects, e.g. the big bang, the second law of thermodynamics. Here he discusses ‘Harmonic Resonance’ (the subject is the poem’s title) where a professor has set two pendulums in motion, each following the motion of a sine wave,

chasing the other and sliding gradually closer
as their frequencies moved towards harmonic
resonance, till both waves finally rested upon the other
and the pendulums swung in elegant unison,
a single pure note witnessed, though silent.

Yet, such abstract demonstration in a lecture
theatre, he explained, had meaning beyond
its hallowed walls, this knowledge enough
to stop an army marching as it crossed a bridge
for fear their heavy, unified bootsteps
might hit the structure’s hidden timbre
and the edifice would collapse beneath them
in a tangle of masonry and falling girders.
And so such soldiers were instructed
to walk at ease as they crossed its breadth,
their casual steps a brief respite from
the monotony of obedience and order.

This leads into the final stanza where a friend’s father, who served in the armed forces, would produce a tuning fork of unspecified pitch and let it sound before sitting down at a piano to play a sonata (presumably pitch and note perfect).

Noel Duffy doesn’t confine himself to only writing about science. In a sequence, ‘Timepieces’ he draws on his father’s relationship with his best friend identified as PJ, a friendship that survives divorce and an antipodean move. PJ is an artist. The poet goes with his father to an exhibition, after which PJ presents them with one of the paintings,

It was a small, mounted canvas
of a dark red sky, thickly layered

in daubed brushstrokes, the jet-black
tangle of a tree’s branches falling

across the thick light of the background
and drawing the eye to the right where

the sun hung low, its form not reassuring
or soft, but dense as a blood-red shield.

My dad put it up on the living room wall,
proud to have a piece of his great friend’s art.

He told me that such things mattered
and would endure.

It still hangs there now.

The thick red paint and leafless tree suggests the painter’s mood. The implication is that the painting is not likeable. It’s the act of loyalty in displaying the picture that is important. The last line is given poignancy because readers already know the father has passed on, survived by PJ. However, I found the poem’s rhythm prosaic and couldn’t see that setting it out in couplets added anything that wasn’t achieved in writing it as two paragraphs of a prose poem.

The poet’s mother was a seamstress, making dresses from patterns, although he didn’t like watching her at the sewing machine with its thick needle working so close to her fingers. In ‘The Pattern’,

Tonight I sit at another machine

and try and weave a pattern for you, Mother,
these lines like those pieces of cloth laid out
and marked, then brought together
with the same patience and care (I hope)
as the dresses you made in this house;
to make a gown for you of words

that you may wear some cold winter
evening when your work is done
and the sewing machine stilled – that
we may know each other
through such patterns made, the lines
of our lives connected like fine thread

and cloth, brought together finally
after years grown apart, and the shared
understanding of our chosen craft.

There’s a tenderness here and a reaching out to try and find common ground, despite mutual bafflement at one another’s chosen craft.

‘On Light and Carbon’ is a collection of quiet, considered poems which explore both personal and scientific themes and which are very similar in tone and rhythm.

Emma Lee

“our gift to the moon reflected back to us”

Earthshine, Mimi Khalvati, Smith/Doorstop, £5
reviewed by Emma Lee

Earthshine takes its title from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch which is reproduced on the cover. It refers to the way the moon’s landscape remains lit when the sun sets on the earth-facing side of the moon and the sun’s light is reflected on to the moon from earth giving the moon a crescent-shaped glow. Mimi Khalvati explains it more poetically in the title poem:

there, where we looked pointing, like an Oriental illustration
of Arabian Nights, lay the old moon in the new moon’s arms:

earthshine on the moon’s night side, on the moon’s dark limb,
earthlight, our light, our gift to the moon reflected back to us

and the duty we owe our elders as the Romans owed their gods
– duties they called pietàs, we call pity – shone in the moon’s pietà.

Each poem in the pamphlet is written in long line couplets. This gives spaces for Mimi Khalvati to start with an observation and expansively list associations and explore ideas radiating from the original observation. There is an elegiac tone but not a maudlin one. Perhaps because the poems feature small animals rather than people and use the weather as a metaphor for the mood of the narrator. In ‘Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur’

little living furry torch, eyes two headlamp luminaries, front
a bib of chamois, tip to tail – and mostly tail – barely as long

as the line I write in, despite illegal logging, slash and burn,
would survive longer than many folk, especially in captivity.

Only the barn owl, goshawk, to watch for in the dark – raptors
with their own big beauty. But Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur

is caught in the act – a chameleon clasped in her hands,
a geisha lowering her fan; the smallest primate on our planet.

The tone is gentle and playful. Personally I don’t like attempts to humanise animals so the use of “hands” rather than claws jarred for me. However, the “geisha lowering her fan” image is appropriate here as an animal who looks like a cute, long-tailed small ball of fur is revealed as a hunter, just as a geisha’s role as ornamental escort conceals darker desires. It gives the poem an undertow that stops it being just observation.

It’s the final poem, ‘Tears,’ that explains the purpose of the pamphlet: Mimi Khalvati’s mother’s death and its aftermath,

But in the weeks that followed, tears dried up

and world took up its stick and walked blindly
through the riverbeds. Had they been floodplains,

had there been no dams to render them obsolete,
nilometers would have measured the overflow

from faraway monsoons on stairs, pillars, wells.
Too high and there’d be famine, too low, the same.

I measured distances by her. My mother my compass,
My almanac and sundial, drawing me arcs in space.

Tellingly it’s the only sentimental poem in the collection. The others, with their focus firmly in the natural world, hint and suggest that nature became a means to heal grief.

Emma Lee

“in everyday vocabulary”

The Waving Gallery, Mervyn Taylor, Shearsman Books, £8.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

mervyn taylorThe Waving Gallery is split into three sections: “Leaving”, “Overstayed” and “In Transit” with poems appropriate to the section’s theme. In the title poem, which is in the first section, various relatives are seeing the poet off,

…Across the tarmac the line
of travellers moved slowly, and the hills seemed
closer. I think I made out people in houses,

children in yards who could see me from that
distance, going away to study English, as if
it were not the language spoken here.

Like a lot of poems in this section, it seems to take a while to ‘warm-up’ and dashes off the most interesting concept in a one or two line conclusion. That the whole island seems to be waving the poet off isn’t as interesting as the idea of him going to a foreign country to do something seemingly foreign: study a common language and literature at university.

The more successful poems are when Mervyn Taylor turns his attention to others. ‘Shorty’ is from the “Overstayed” section:

The Spanish guy who lives downstairs
recently lost his wife. I used to see them
out front, her wheelchair angled against
the steps, his eyes tired from being up.

In my bad Spanish, I’d offer, ‘Como estás?’
Her ‘mucho dolor’ turning the evening
purple, her hands on her knees. Since
her death he sits alone, announcing

he has a washing machine and dryer to sell.
And a freezer, he adds, arms extended
to show the dimensions, a gesture that
seems an offer to hug, the size of the pain.

The final image extends the poem beyond the page, inviting readers in. It’s a finely-judged note of compassion. As with every poem in the collect it sticks to a conversational, easy to read tone in everyday vocabulary. The poet’s intention seems to be to reduce as many potential barriers to reading his poems as possible, ensuring a large, inclusive audience. This risks losing readers who want poetry to challenge or provoke them or to be more difficult to read than a newspaper article.

From the “In Transit” section, ‘Embassy’ focuses on unsuccessful visa applicants and draws in contemporary references,

I sit among them in the bar and watch
the news from Libya and Cairo,
how they burn flags and lob
grenades, while here the locals

finish their petit-quarts and ask
when will they fix the bridge
up the road, and how long did
it take me to get mine.

The reference to Libya and Cairo is unusual because most of the poems have a timeless quality and focus on personal interactions and connections with neighbours, commuters or passers-by. ‘Embassy’ captures a strong note of resignation. His counterparts won’t go and fix the bridge or lob grenades but instead accept this is how things are.

That reflects these poems too: they are eloquent and welcoming but won’t say anything world-shattering. That’s not the poet’s intention. It’s as though he wants to reassess how things are and ask if readers are comfortable with that.

Emma Lee

“a nest of crocks”

Scrimshaw, Jean Watkins, Two Rivers Press, £7.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

Collecting and making decorative objects is a recurring theme, as would be expected from the title, Scrimshaw, named after carvings made by sailors on tusks, bones, shells or whatever was to hand, and brought home as souvenirs. ‘Glass’ explains how Jean Watkins began collecting antique glassware,

riffling through coats in Oxfam.
A slat of sun just caught it, made me go
over to the bric-a-brac shelves although
I knew nothing of glass. I liked its weight,
its clunkiness, the barley sugar coil
inside the stem. The way it swells
to a cone-shaped cup in perfect balance
with the foot. It felt right in my hand.
Of course it led to libraries, the V&A,
a change to Fine Art and you know the rest.
I still remember plastic hangers clicking,
a smell of mothballs just before I saw it.

I would have preferred the focus to remain with the contrast between the valued glass and its impoverished surroundings in a charity shop. The drift away to libraries and Fine Art feels unnecessary. The detail of the glass itself is far more heightened, sensual and poetic without being overtly so.

Most of these poems are free verse with one verbal mirror poem and one sonnet that follows the Thames through history from a foul waste cesspool to clean wildlife haven. Jean Watkins’ interest in nature comes through in other poems too, e.g. ‘Shinglebacks’ who are lizards who mate for life,

And when in a roaring cloud of dust a truck wheel
runs over a lazy lizard, which happens often,
its mate will stay for hours by the corpse,
nudging it gently, waiting for life to resume.

The alliterative cliché should have been cut: reptiles aren’t lazy anyway, they can’t move if their blood isn’t sufficiently warm. I’m not convinced the mate can be “waiting for life to resume” either and the line could be cut because the previous line shows what’s happening and doesn’t need an explanation. There is a great subject for a poem here, but this poem isn’t doing it justice.

I wanted more poems like this one, ‘Teacup’

I dig over heavy clay soil,
Earthworms siphoning themselves away,
my spade clinks of a nest of crocks:
china like shark fins; once a cup,
fluted, gilt-edged, painted with tulips

Imagine the artist leaning to her work,
her small round spectacles and apron
daubed with paint. The brush’s flame
igniting petals in a cold workroom
at Hanley, Burslem or Stoke-on-Trent.

And a young man’s too large fingers
clutching the curved and pointed handle
of the teacup, hers crumpling the corner
of her embroidered napkin, her parents
clawing sugar cubes with their silver tongs.

How in 1917 the cup slipped
from the daughter’s sudsy hands,
cracked into five pieces, while he
lurched over mud, was ruptured
by a shell, buried in clay heavy soil.

It’s focused, it conveys a satisfying image of the cup’s journey from manufacture to ending up as broken crockery in a garden and epitomises what Scrimshaw is about.

Emma Lee

“your weight on the note really comes from the feet”

The Seed-box Lantern Diana Hendry, Mariscat Press, £10
reviewed by Emma Lee
seed box hendry
Diana Hendry wants to invite readers in to listen. Her tone is conversational and she wears her reading and knowledge of poetic devices lightly. The enjambment in ‘Artemis, Still Hunting’, gives the poem a feel of urgency and desperation:

Alone, a smoker and, god love us, reading a book! He has
the kind of cough it would be nice to wake to in the middle

of the night. I make all ‘hello’ noises known to man –
glass-clonk, lighter-click, unignorable see-how-much-we
have-in-common flutter of pages. Arrow-tang. Cough.
Nothing. The young Swiss boy, working at the baker’s,
(starts at four a.m.) stops on his early way to bed
to chat about his day. The Greek at the table next
to mine asks what I’m reading. ‘Po-et-ry’, I say

The chase ends in the disappointment of the discovery the men she’s been eyeing up are immortal. The dense packaging of words doesn’t give readers much space to stop and think. There’s an underlying assumption readers have the same sympathies as the poet. This isn’t a risk when poems are on more universal subjects, but risks turning readers away when they don’t share the poet’s sensibilities. In ‘An Englishwoman Eats a Vegetarian Haggis in a Scottish Hospital’, the poem’s narrator is commenting on a patient’s meal choice. The patient is English:

                And chosen while
poorly, as though the national dish – their
national dish – might in some way be healing,
as their country has been to me in
my incomer stay of ten years, which is why,
come 2014 I’m going to vote YES
even though the hospital’s version
of vegetarian haggis is perfectly inedible.

The poem’s narrator does not ask the patient why she chose the vegetarian haggis but assumes that the patient chose it because it “might in some way be healing”. Usually in hospitals there’s only one vegetarian option so the English patient’s choice was the vegetarian haggis or nothing (not much of a choice when you’re in hospital and need nutrition). It’s the poet’s opinion that the vegetarian haggis is inedible. She doesn’t ask the patient for her views. We never find out if the patient was making a willing choice (yes, I’d love to eat the haggis) or a default choice (I don’t want to be hungry so I’m choosing the vegetarian option, whatever it is). There are a lot of assumptions being made. We never find out whether or not the patient liked her meal either.

The poet is trying to turn this into a metaphor, suggesting that the poet’s move to Scotland has been healing which is why the poet is going to vote for Scottish Independence in the referendum in 2014 even though the political system post-independence may be no better than the Parliament is now. However, a yes vote would enable the Scottish culture that has been healing for the poet to continue. The metaphor doesn’t work for me. It shows little empathy with the patient within the poem and assumes that by simply identifying the patient as an Englishwoman, there is a shared and common cultural background. The assumptions, combined with lack of information about the patient held up my reading.

Pianos are a common feature throughout The Seed-box Lantern, giving a unifying thread to these new and selected poems which span 1995 – 2013. One of the new poems, ‘How to Play the Piano’, is a series of responses to references from Jozef Gat’s ‘The Technique of Piano Playing’, here the instruction that some players might need to sit closer to the piano,

Come to the instrument with your hands and heart clean
And your nails clipped. Straighten your spine. Remember
That your weight on the note really comes from the feet.
Saying Grace would not come amiss. This is an occupation
Much like prayer. You are about to enter someone else’s mind.

It could read as instructions for approaching The Seed-box Lantern; readers are about to enter a world of clarity and truth described with an observant wit.

Emma Lee

“Rome means nothing except we come…”

Illicit Sonnets, George Elliott Clarke (Eyewear, £12.99)
reviewed by Emma Lee

A sequence of sonnets between two lovers loosely inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, her sequence of sonnets about her love for Robert Browning. George Elliott Clarke’s sonnets are more explicit, move viewpoint between the two lovers and aren’t restricted to rhyming iambic pentameters but are a mix of traditional form and a freer, contemporary monologue that retains the volta so the resulting poem is quite recognisable as a sonnet. His lovers are Salim (a Moor) and Laila (a Nordic), their skin tones referred to in “My dark hands quivering your ivory breasts” [‘Istanbul II’], “Ophelia opens to Othello” [‘A Trieste’] and ‘Black and White’:

I’m black, bull-black, and handsome as dark wine –
Or the swarthy grape, the Othello grape.
But on that sable couch, you are sunlight,
Ice-cool, in your pose, yet white-hot to touch.

Fine! We do complement one another –
Just as ink is black to clarify light,
Or shadows mimic flexible mirrors:
Blackness welcomes whiteness as its balance.

Laila means night, but you show passion
Of snow, to conform to contours, to wax,
To gleam as phosphorescent as the sea.
(Ain’t night happiest when the moon is whole?)

Bright, feminine image, I render you
Darkness most tender, blackness that is sweet!

‘Rome’ is a sonnet from Salim’s viewpoint – he’s given to declamation and grandiose gestures:

Rome means nothing except we come – and come
Again, again and again, together:
Gratification beats beatification.
Rome’s cathedrals and monuments are ruins
Compared to the opera of Love – the scale
Of it, masterpiece and epic and song.

Laila on the other hand has a complementary directness, ‘To Salim II’

You unzip – and I’m undone,
or you’re undone when I unzip.

Our loving isn’t just good, but gaudy –
and bawdy, as we like it.

Next time, take me into the woods I love:
Take me hard in the soft grass, crushing it softer

Illicit Sonnets has a celebratory, exuberant tone and was clearly written by a playful stylist. Some poems touch on the difficulty of translating a physical act into words. A joy to read.

Emma Lee

“music, dancing and storytelling”

The Courtesans Reply, Shazea Quraishi, Flipped Eye, pamphlet, £4
reviewed by Emma Lee

courtesan's replyThe Courtesans Reply is a sequence of poems written from the point of view of Indian courtesans, who were famed for their skill in music, dancing and storytelling as well as love. Some of these courtesans are happy to imply that they are in charge, manipulating their clients, e.g. ‘Ramadasi’

Untie my belt, open
the silk cloth
covering my waist,

let my oiled limbs, my
perfumed skin
envelop you

as the rose
the bee.

Although as both line length and stress patterns tail off towards the end of the poem, it seems to belie the confident message. The rose may swallow the bee, but the bee still gets the nectar and has a choice of flowers; all the flower can do is make itself as attractive as possible. The sexual imagery is both appropriate and effective. Not all courtesans are as confident, in ‘Madhavesana’

After I have washed the sweat,
the trails of saliva from my skin,
I stand at the open window,
let the breeze dry my face.

There’s another issue explored by ‘Caransdasi’ who wonders whether her clients find her as necessary as she finds them.

Tell me what you read in books
and hear in coffee houses,
at wedding parties. Teach me.

When our tired, gladdened bodies
drift onto the bed,
kiss me like a husband..

The epilogue uses found text from “Glimpses of Sexual Life in Nanda-Maurya India” translated by Manomohan Ghosh and the Karma Sutra and concerns the art of courtesanship rather than how the courtesans feel, e.g. in ‘How can scratching and biting, even if they are painful, create pleasure?’

Just as a whip
when used by the charioteer,
makes horses mindful of speed,
so the use of nails and teeth
during intercourse
engross the heart in the pleasure of touch.

What the poems explore is the sense of power the courtesans have over their clients. The client may appear to be in charge because he is buying their services, but once alone with him, it’s the courtesan who controls him through manipulative and sensual skills. She controls the speed at which things happen, how far he can go and how pleasurable that experience might be. It’s a false sense of power as he could still overwhelm her, fight back and hurt her or simply walk away but each is confident in her ability to influence how the time together will go. The courtesans don’t fear violence because they assume their skills in love will deter and encourage a gentle reaction. The poems are polished and pared down to explore their topic with a single voice per poem. Tonally, however, they are practically the same with each woman using very similar vocabulary and elocution. That said, the poems are skilfully written and make for an engaging read.

Emma Lee

“a balancing and a completeness”

Travel Light Travel Dark John Agard, Bloodaxe, £9.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

john-agard-travel-light-travel-darkTravel Light Travel Dark suggests a balancing and a completeness. Reflection is a persistent theme, the act not only of an individual looking from themselves to the outside world but also looking from outside in. The collection is loosely based around themes, starting with the colour poems which are untitled and don’t seek to distinguish shades or hues. Red is simply red, never scarlet, carnelian or poppy. The concern is with what the colours represent, e.g. “They say the poem dressed in white/ takes on the role of the angelic host/ for those who trust in the footprints of ghosts.” The generic “they say” and “those who” suggests the poet’s narrator doesn’t share these beliefs but is writing at one remove. These aren’t poems of solid foundation where a narrator shares a viewpoint, but rather rafts where the readers come aboard and let the river carry them.

A discovery that Jimi Hendrix had lived at 23 Brook Street Mayfair and Handel at number 25 inspires ‘Jimi Hendrix and Handel Under One Roof’ as the building is now combined into one.

Rumour has it a pair of ghosts, one white one black,
would flutter over chords and choral counterpoint.
Sometimes they’d share a hug, sometimes a joint.

But you know how gossip multiplies the truth.
Mostly H and H spoke of hippy rugs and lost love days
when childhood’s oratorios bloomed in a purple haze.

I appreciate the rhythms and references but wanted more detail rather than the throwaway comment, “spoke of hippy rugs and lost love days,” which is too generic to be specific to Hendrix or Handel

An actor considers the ethics of “blacking up” to play a character in ‘White Actor Prepares To Be Othello’,

Shall I invoke the muse of melanin?
Perhaps root out my family tree
for traces of a darker kin?
What if I inject a street-cred note
with some hiphop in my stride
to modernise his Moorish pride?
Ah, Max Factor to the rescue.
Mahogany, my instant hue.
We’re halfway there.
I smell catharsis in the air.
Yes, I shall blacken my face
and be quite beautiful.
A relaxed lion.
I’ll thread the thin line of race.
Inhale his story.
Lose myself in the folly
of skin.
A white handkerchief my nemesis.

Again, John Agard builds the raft but lets readers decide if this is a successful Othello or not. It successfully captures that there’s more to becoming a character than painting skin or donning a costume. There’s history, attitude and pose. The white actor never asks if he should play the part at all: the readers get to do that.

Travel Light Travel Dark has a thematic coherence and shows a poet in command of language. John Agard has a keen ear for rhythm using colloquial speech, or traditional calypsos, with some poems using phonetic spellings to capture accented speech and cross-cultural connections.

Emma Lee