Tag Archives: Smokestack

“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

“caught in life and brushed with death”

If This Were Real, Gerda Stevenson, Smokestack Books, £7.95
reviewed by Gregory Leadbetter

if_this_were_realThere’s a poem here that brought me to a stop. In ‘Co-Op Funeral Parlour’, the speaker contemplates her own child, as the infant lies in a coffin:

your head in my palm yesterday,
skull barely masked by paper skin,
you were undeniably mine.
An imposter lies in this small white box
we ordered – a collector’s doll,
lace-framed face mounted
on a slice of shop-window silk.

I would quote it all if space allowed. The poem’s vertiginous emotional charge is achieved by the unflinching control of the language in the face of intimate, inscrutable devastation – as if daring itself to find the image, and let that image do its dark work. This fine poem feels like the hinge of a collection – despite its concerns with war and politics – frankly autobiographical in basis. The book is filled with the correlations of yearning and nostalgia, loss and hope, a sense of being caught in life and brushed with death. It is unapologetically personal; the mental states it cycles through all clear.

The virtues of If This Were Real will also be its faults. It does not give the impression of being terribly concerned with finding the leading edge of contemporary poetry – which may not matter, but which may have something to do with the feel the poems sometimes have of being gifts for friends and relatives. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive: this poet’s acknowledgement of her interconnectedness with other people is also attractive, but there is often a lingering sense that a memory, say, which a poem might address, is left more alive for the poet than the poem is for the reader.

The poem ‘First Love’ (alas!) is one such piece: it does not quite make it past the personal and into something more. The reader arrives at the poem’s final lines, when the lovers “foot it back, home to the hills/ in the frosted air” with the belief that this was a special time for the two concerned – but not enough has been done to give the reader an imaginative experience independent of the event in which the poem has its origin.

On a related point, too many verses don’t quite earn their keep. As an opening line, “On a mellow spring morning” leaves an awful lot for the rest of the poem to do – which it might just have achieved but for the final line: “in the bright sunshine of another year” (‘Passing Through’). There is simply not enough happening in the language here for it to hold the attention, as poetry. Imagery and rhythm occasionally fold flat into something that sounds like cliché: “His eyes hold the tale he/ has to tell, cinnamon eyes,/ and a smile spiced with loss” (‘Asylum Seeker’).

Thankfully, there is much here that retains the advantages and sidesteps the dangers of Stevenson’s idiom – as when “your white face rises over the ridge,/ small moon cradled in low-slung boughs,/ and my love rises at the gift of you” (‘Child in the Woods’).

If This Were Real puts me in mind of a personal exhibition of watercolours, as opposed to a Turner-esque blaze of being. Nevertheless, the collection has something of a quest about it – of a homeopathic, self-healing process, and the desire to pass on something of that process to its readers. Its animating, pervasive feeling is akin to unaffected human kindness – and of resilience in remaining open to experience. Two lines from the collection’s final poem capture something essential to its character: “Still a fillet of sunlight on the brow above,/ my goal to be splashed by those rays” (‘Beyond Fairliehope’).

The best poems here – like ‘Co-Op Funeral Parlour’, with which I’m still light-headed – fuse figurative and emotional life to haunting effect. It will be interesting to see which directions Stevenson takes from here on.

Gregory Leadbetter