What comes before after?

Michelle Marie Jacquot, Afterglow (Michelle Marie Jacquot, 2022)


How can we measure the pandemic years? Lives lost. Loaves baked. Or through poetry?

In the ‘Foreword’ to ‘Afterglow’, Michelle Marie Jacquot invites her reader to imagine ‘late May of 2022’ – the dying embers of the coronavirus pandemic or flaming birth of learning to live with the virus. The poet is ‘sitting on a concrete floor in a little white room out in the middle of the desert, surrounded by almost nothing’. Aware of the vagueness of her setting, she feels compelled to add, ‘Mercury is in retrograde, if that means anything to you’. Such uncertain temporal and spatial surroundings neatly set (or, perhaps, unsettle) the scene for the poems that follow.

Fate and the struggle to find one’s place in an uncaring universe continue to trouble Jacquot. In her previous collection, ‘Deteriorate’, this manifested itself mostly through a personal battle with social media. The influence of lockdown makes the focus of ‘Afterglow’ more metaphysical.

Before blurs with after, just as dark thoughts mix with triviality. These are ‘sometimes silly, sometimes sad, sometimes hope-filled poems’, the poet notes. Box sets and jam on toast might sweeten existential musings, but the mood is overwhelmingly dark. In ‘I Used to Have Dreams’, she laments:

I had a dream
once

I don’t anymore

Often, before and after are subsumed by an inescapable present. ‘I’m frozen in this flat/ with both my personalities’, she writes in ‘Split Ends’. Symbolic meant-to-be moments also fall flat: she describes herself as ‘born on Christmas Eve in a Seventh-day Adventist Church hospital that doesn’t serve coffee’.

The quality of the poetry slips as the collection progresses, with many poems feeling decidedly unpolished. But that is kind of the point, it seems. The collection is, as the poet forewarned, ‘an odd time capsule’. An all-caps rant about religion follows close behind the poetic epiphany that ‘I’ve never seen Santa Claus and God in the same room, not once’. Absurdity reigns towards the end of the collection, a fitting memento of a maddening era.

Interspersed with insanity are self-help mantras, which is perhaps no coincidence. ‘Let yourself sit quiet / Hear the wind inside your lungs’, the poet urges in ‘Gökotta’, shortly before she discovers that “Lennon” rhymes with “Heaven” in ‘A Place I’d Like to Go’.

Such varied insights into the poet’s thoughts reveal the strange and, at times, torturous experience of living in one’s own mind. Solitude is a precondition for mental plurality, which comes to the fore in ‘Imagine’, another Lennon-tinged poem:

I dare you to imagine
A place where everything goes right
One where the voices in your head
Only tell stories that you like

Brief reflections on nature in ‘Spring’ provide a glimpse into the outside world. But the collection is an introspective romp through the dark, twisting halls of the inner mind. The resulting poetry isn’t always pretty – but it is a revealing and relatable record of a difficult two years.


Michelle Marie Jacquot, Afterglow (Michelle Marie Jacquot, 2022). Available here.

Whispered Screams

Keely O’Shaugnessy, Baby is a Thing Best Whispered (Alien Buddha Press, 2022)


Keely O’Shaugnessy’s collection of short stories is a hard-hitting spin through scenes of horror and glimpses of hope. Screams are heard as whispers and whispers are screamed…

The collection is strewn with violence and fear. Domestic abuse, in particular, is a recurring theme. ‘Hidden in the Margins of a Gideon’s Bible’ is a grimly vivid snapshot of three characters’ responses to such horror: the mother, bloodied and beaten; the ‘kid sister’, inquisitive and fearful; and the older sister holding her family (and the narrative) together. All three lay in a single motel bed, aware to varying degrees of the perils of their situation, a disturbingly evocative metaphor for the widespread impacts of abuse.

For all the horror, however, O’Shaughnessy offers plentiful moments of redemption. Dreams spiral up, emerging from the darkness. In ‘Practising Tricks, Spells and Other Incantations’, the narrator opens with a wonderfully unstable first line:

You’re seven when I fracture my wrists, still young enough to believe in magic

The contrasting personalities housed within this line encapsulate the delicate balance between believing and disbelieving that runs throughout the collection. Magical possibilities interact with harsh realities, often losing but always putting up a fight.

Transformation is a tantalising prospect in a world where escape is often a character’s greatest hope. In ‘What If We Breathed Through Our Skin?’, a boy turns into a frog. Less literally, motherhood transforms characters. The narrator in the collection’s opening story, ‘Baby is a Thing Best Whispered’, is undergoing perhaps the greatest change of her life but ‘the ’90s playlist we devised nights before’ is drowning out moment. The start of a new life blurs into ‘long and winding’ speeches in which the bride and mother-to-be barely features. Starting with a character who feels absent from her own story is a superbly disorienting technique, which sets the scene for the collection’s distinctive instability.

Meanwhile, the convincing co-existence of life-changing and trivial is one of the collection’s greatest achievements. Small details that seem scarcely to warrant a mention are in fact pivotal, like the shade of red on a car used for an extra-marital affair or the different sizes of balloon thrown in water fights as a pregnant narrator’s baby kicks. The ripped chinos the narrator imagines her father might have worn as he threatened her mother with a knife seem vanishingly insignificant yet somehow essential to the made-up memory.

In a collection with such carefully scrutinised memories, vagueness stands out. In ‘The Manicure’, the narrator’s throwaway reference to ‘a long dead actress whose name I can’t remember’ feels like a fitting epithet for many of the collection’s absent and self-absent characters. Loss accompanies transformation like night follows day. ‘How to Bake Cookies When Your Child is Dying’ is not, as the title suggests, a self-help guide for coping with grief; rather, it is an eight-step recipe that advances with unnerving inevitability. Baking, for the narrator, is a gesture. It is ambiguous whether this gesture is meaningful or meaningless. Simply, when going through the motions is all one can do, one must go through the motions.

O’Shaughnessy’s writing certainly does not go through the motions. Her rhythmic prose showcases masterful narrative control and her stories have the ability to surprise with devastating simplicity. Nowhere is this better seen than in ‘Teaching a Clean Front Kick’, where words spoken and unspoken are reflected in actions done and undone. The child narrator sits on her infant sister but is dragged off before she can cause too much harm. The ominous presence of Uncle Jerry, however, lurks over the story – and provokes its chilling final line.


Keely O’Shaughnessy, Baby is a Thing Best Whispered (Alien Buddha Press, 2022). Available here.

‘It seems that I find myself coming out/ as biracial’

Danae Younge, Melanin Sun (–) Blind Spots, 2022


Melanin Sun (–) Blind Spots is a poetic experience / experiment / excommunication in which a self-effacing poet fights to escape the echo chamber she yearns to inhabit. Awarded the 2022 Florence Kahn Memorial Award by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, the collection is a bereaved daughter’s attempts to define herself and her skin.

From the start, the self shifts incessantly. When discussing race, the poetic voice is impersonal in search of personality: ‘It seems that I find myself coming out/ as biracial’ (Just a Brown Girl’s Glass Box). The poet needs to find herself – and finds herself needing poetry.

Yet language obscures the search. The opening poem, ‘Reverberation/Redaction’, sings of instability: words are crossed out, concealed and clouded. Pretence reigns supreme; death is sugar-coated and draped in oversized clothes. In ‘Alibi’, one of the collection’s best poems, bagginess becomes an ‘undersized coat’ – then returns to being an ‘oversized suit’.

This constant flip-flopping characterises the duality of the poetic voice, which is as complex and interlacing as the braids she wears: ‘half rooted in [redacted], half on sale for $7.99’. ‘Alibi’ is framed between the explanation / confession / apology, ‘I looked up a list of Black girl braids before writing this’, which makes the poem drip with the feeling of insufficiency. But it also screams resolve: ‘Ask the photo on the shelf/ with books I’ve never finished/ he’ll tell you; he’ll testify. I said it again. And again.’

Throughout the collection, betweenness manifests itself abundantly. With religion, there is a failure of performance: ‘I could never get myself to believe in God’ (Just a Brown Girl’s Glass Box). Musicality too is an ever-present ambiguity. At times, the poetry is knowingly beautiful: ‘wet warmth dresses the trees like tapestry’. But music can also be a burden; in ‘Black Pinocchio Jazz-Cat Drummer’, the father is ‘Limping from his backpack of songs’.

The absent father figure comes back time and time again. In ‘Nectar | Names’, ‘the spiral peel of his name’ spills down the page; in ‘Driveway, 5/03/20[redacted], ‘he gardens./ His silhouette fluttering like dark chiffon’. The reverberating echo chamber is contradiction in its most literal sense: a space where the poet speaks against herself.

Younge’s poetic space is a multitude of multitudes. Her language is constantly evolving and every line has the capacity to turn a poem upside down as suddenly as day can become night. In ‘Some Things Aren’t Meant to be Metaphors’, the poet suggests that ‘“like” carves a/ crawl space, but there’s not enough room to hide unless/ you make a home in the shadows’. Melanin Sun (–) Blind Spots is at home between shade and sun. The collection is a truly accomplished debut.

Danae Younge, Melanin Sun (−) Blind Spots (2022). Available here.

Alone and alive

Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022)


‘Sweetgum County is a place where death lingers on the doorstep of the soul’ declares the author before we have even reached the Acknowledgements. A faint-hearted reader might turn no further.

Death is certainly ubiquitous in Leah Holbrook Sackett’s literary landscape. But her short stories (many of which first appeared in one of an impressive array of literary journals) are often more surreptitious than sinister.

The collection uses its distinctively bland setting to paint a vivid picture of small-town midwest USA. Marriage, religion, school… characters’ concerns are mostly everyday in this place of ‘suburban sprawl with limited options’, as one character, newly arrived from Kansas City, puts it.

Nostalgia and anonymity run through most of the stories. Yet Holbrook Sackett’s prose is easygoing and intimate. Her observant descriptions are full of wit and piercing little asides that masquerade under a cloak of neutrality.

Solitude is also a common theme in the collection. Although Sweetgum County appears a tight community, many of its residents are desperately lonely. In ‘Spooning’, Nancy, alone after her husband of 35 years has absconded with a younger woman, replaces physical intimacy with ice cream. ‘Let Your Uglies Take Root’ uses Kafka, Boo Radley and Nirvana to highlight the isolating effects of bullying. In ‘Most Marriages Performed’, solitude is more ambiguous: ‘Moira and David had a renewal of their wedding night… blissfully alone in their union’.

In Sweetgum County, disappointment goes hand in hand with loneliness. ‘A Spot Not Blue’, first published in Issue 1 of Briefly Zine, stages the awkward meeting of a swimming pool and a boy, ‘as he realized the water was just clear, water without color’. Meanwhile, in ‘The Rome Club’, six acquaintances partake in an old tradition, whereby ‘the last man of Sweetgum County standing wins’. Even this ultimatum does not lead to foul play. And the winner sobs rather than celebrates upon discovering his lonely victory.

On occasion, the author forays into cultural clashes. An illiberal weddings policy is ‘a small threat in an otherwise accepting culture’, according to the narrator of ‘Most Marriages Performed’. Yet backwards traditions sometimes clash with more forward-looking mores, notably in ‘The Ron Jeremy of Klingons’ where a Trekkie must leave Sweetgum County to achieve her sexual liberation. It is telling that, in the end, she isn’t tempted to stay in her new fantasy world, concluding her adventure with matter-of-fact resolution: ‘It was time I headed back home to Sweetgum County’.

Sweetgum County is both a magnet and a vacuum. Things are happening; things that should be paid more attention. As the narrator muses in ‘Going to the Chapel’, ‘It’s one of those moments that doesn’t get captured, but it should. It is the apex of video posts on Facebook, very likely to go viral. But there was no one to capture the event.’ Catawampus in Sweetgum County captures an array of events, both ordinary and extraordinary. The reader too will be pulled back for more.


Leah Holbrook Sackett, Catawampus in Sweetgum County (Adelaide Books, 2022). Available here: https://adelaidebooks.org/products/catawampus-in-sweetgum-county-short-stories

Myth and micro fiction

Michelle Christophorou, Kipris (AdHoc Fiction, 2021)


Kipris is an individual’s journey from Cyprus to Liverpool mapped onto a nation’s path from foreign occupation to independence. The result is a moving and engaging novella, which brings to life the political and personal impacts of transformative historical events.

The plot focuses on Alexandros, an entrepreneurial Cypriot boy born into the British Crown Colony, who yearns to fight against the injustices of his colonial rulers. Alexandros grows up through a series of micro stories, vivid snapshots that chronicle the struggles and oppression of British Cyprus. As the injustices accumulate and his childhood innocence unravels, Alexandros’s understanding of his country’s fate is consolidated and his political views harden.

Christophorou’s prose is lyrical and energetic, compelling the reader to hurry through the pages. Her descriptions of Cyprus are sumptuous and place the reader directly into the orange groves and musky earth she describes. Yet the micro form also invites slow reading and re-reading to fill the gaps between words. Like the sea, her stories roll in and out reliably – but there is always a sense that a big wave is coming to catch you unaware.

As the woman stands and imagines the pull of the currents claiming her, a figure rises from the foamy surf.

‘Bedtime Story’

‘Bedtime Story’ is a highlight, richly mythical and highly evocative. It is the story of a woman’s self-sacrifice for her child, a divine interaction that infuses Alexandros’s tale with mythical status. This encounter with Kipris at Aphrodite’s Rock is aptly illustrated by Janice Leagra’s stunning cover design.

Alexandros is not, however, ‘mysteriously handcuffed to history’ in the same way as Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Indeed, Christophorou brilliantly subverts the reader’s expectations, denying Alexandros the heroic denouement his name anticipates. His eventual exile in ‘Goodbye Is Not Farewell’ is a tenderly human conclusion to a novella that expertly intertwines myth and history.

The human touch is also at the forefront of ‘An Old Friend’, one of the novella’s more poignant moments. The story’s deceptively reassuring narration slowly gathers momentum as it builds up to the sucker punch at the end. This thoughtful, rhythmic control is where Christophorou excels.

“It’s funny” I say. “Now that I do have tales to tell there’s no one in the village to share them with.”

‘An Old Friend’

Throughout the novella, the narrative voice flip flops from third-person omniscient to the first-person narration of Alexandros. This patchwork of perspectives contributes to Christophorou’s blend of personal and public, while enriching the overall reading experience.

Gaps between (and within) stories allow the reader to indulge their imagination, while imploring them to discover more about the historical reality of Cyprus. As the action accelerates and the absences widen, it is hard not to crave more details. That is the beauty of the micro form: a whole picture is not presented all at once but as a jigsaw puzzle that must be carefully reconstructed. Kipris is a hugely enjoyable novella that the reader will piece together again and again.


Michelle Christophorou, Kipris (AdHoc Fiction, 2021). Available here.

Words + Shapes = Poetry

Elisabeth Kelly, Mind Mathematics (HybridDreich, 2021)


Mind Mathematics is a poetic experiment and eye-opening experience. While we tend to associate poets with descriptions of shores and trees, Kelly’s poetic persona shifts the focus to shapes and degrees.

Intangible, internalised feelings are mapped onto a geometric landscape. In ‘Lines’, ‘hope [is] paralleled, across the field’; in ‘Rhombus’, yearning is grounded in concrete measurements: ‘One hundred and eighty degrees away,/ you walk,/ leaving patterns of solitude/ on a shifting beach’. Kelly constructs her poetic environment with deft skill, stripping nature to its core mathematical elements before ‘silently building us a new picture, a new whole’ (‘Patterns of You’).

Like wholeness, balance is a recurring theme. To a logical mind, the practice of mathematics possesses a reassuring quality, an unequivocal certainty amidst the chaos of the outside world. In ‘Subtrahend’, the poet strives for stability. She laments efforts ‘to subtract,/ to lose parts of me’ that she has spent a lifetime trading with ‘desperately attempting to add’. This ‘sum/ I hoped would balance’ represents the elusive ideal towards which we all struggle; perfect equilibrium is harder to find in real life than on paper.

You set the constant,
the old beech glinting,
the balance in my equation.

‘My Equation’

The pamphlet’s success comes from its portrayal in poetic form of an experience of the world through a purely mathematical perspective. The poet uses this contradiction to unite two seemingly irreconcilable worldviews and in so doing enriches our overall outlook. Kelly reconciles mathematics and poetry, science and art, logic and creativity, and demonstrates that what falls under these labels should not so hastily be kept apart. In the end, ‘Mind Mathematics’ is a beautiful expression of unity.


Elisabeth Kelly, Mind Mathematics (HybridDreich, 2021). Available here.

Ships, salt and a social conscience

Seaborne Magazine, Issue 1 (May 2021), eds. Adriana Ciontea & Kevin Woodley


The inaugural issue of Seaborne Magazine is a treasure trove of writing and artwork inspired by the sea. Beautifully crafted, the magazine celebrates the maritime in all its glory: the editors’ and contributors’ love of the sea makes every page sparkle. This passion is punctuated only by pressing messages surrounding the threats facing Earth’s oceans and seas. The co-existence of awe and warning is apparent in the magazine’s spotlighting of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, to which 15% of Issue 1 profits are being donated.

The sea is a timeless theme for literature. In Carolyn Stockdale’s powerful story, ‘High Tide’, the reader notes its power to unite disparate time periods. The spatial contradiction of the sea, which both connects and separates land masses, is reflected in the temporal bridges it builds and disrupts. The pregnant narrator provides the connection between three generations and represents the cyclicality of sea and stories. Likewise, Nicole Kelly’s poignant micro, ‘The Last Keeper’, emphasises this bond between humans and the sea, and portrays the devastating impact of its rupture.

Today only one word is written in the ledger: Decommissioned. He puts his pen down. His swim in the waves today will be his last.

‘The Last Keeper’

This changeability is approached through a cerebral lens by Roberta James. Her poem, ‘After the Memo’, embodies the shifting patterns of the waves: words are washed in and out again in a different order. Paired with Amy Corcoran’s stunning artwork, the poem reminds us of the sea’s unpredictability. Such a message can be frightening: ‘It seems all has turned fish, but she is gill-less’.

Faith Paulsen offers a wry yet worrying glimpse at the extent of plastic pollution in the sea. Her poem takes the reader to the depths of one of Earth’s most remote locations, which has nevertheless been unable to resist the scourge of human contamination.

They call it a record-setting dive,
a great exploration. Still, it turns out,
like Leif Erikson, a stray Dorito bag
got there first.

‘Letter to Mariana Trench’

This warning connects the wonderful poetry and prose to the issue’s social engagement. In an important interview, Jana Sirova (General Manager of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary) educates the reader on these incredible animals and the dangers they face. The threats are commonly wrapped up with their charm: ‘Netting entanglement is also sadly a very common injury with seals… Seals are naturally very curious animals and will investigate and play with anything they find floating around’. Opening the issue from a conservationist perspective guides the reader to link their love for the sea with the harm they might inadvertently be causing it.

The difficulties of representing the sea are brought to life in Natalie Hart’s ‘Writing the Ocean’. ‘I do not know how to write about the ocean’ she writes, before beautifully capturing the complexity and beauty of these vast expanses. Similarly, Linda Hibbin’s delightful descriptions in ‘The Living Canvas’ depict the beauty of the sea, whilst also expressing frustration at our failure to do it justice: ‘How long before these pebbles are grains of sand? How many grains of sand are in the world? More, or less, than the stars in the sky?’

These two pieces embody the battle of the intellectual and emotional. Born in the sea is a deep connection, something that bypasses words and sentences and paragraphs. Ultimately, for Hart, everything can be reduced to the touch of the water.

Close your eyes, push your hand
into the waves,
touch this water with me,
and tell me it is not worth protecting.

‘Writing the Ocean’

Seaborne Magazine intersects and blurs lines. Folklore sits side by side with tangible present-day threats; scientific perspectives infuse the literary, and literary flair explains the scientific; messages in bottles float for centuries unread, and we read impossible messages from the depths of the Earth. As Gill McEvoy writes, many pieces seek ‘that spot/ where the haze of sea and sky are one’ (‘Sea Captain’). Such unity seems achievable by the sea. Indeed, the editors’ greatest achievement might be combining disparate strands of maritime literature into one memorable and distinct reading experience.


Seaborne Magazine, Issue 1 (May 2021). Available here.

Cycles, signs and silence

Laura Besley, 100neHundred (Arachne Press, 2021)


In her second micro collection, Laura Besley weaves together one hundred stories of one hundred words to create one neatly jumbled narrative web. Arranged into four equal sections (to represent the seasons of a year), she uses a clear framework to complicate the seeming simplicity of the cycles that underpin our lives. Under Besley’s masterful control, the seasons are simultaneously signs and silence, fundamental but inadequate.

A sense of absence haunts many of these micro narratives. The narrator draws our attention to words in the margins, to an unrecorded note, a discarded notebook and words left unspoken. Voids can appear in busy settings and absence is shown to be liberating. In ‘Empty Nest’, a woman delights in the opportunity to be (by) herself: ‘For a couple of hours, I’m not a wife, not a mother. I’m just me.’ Motherhood is a recurring theme, whether individual or collective, and Besley presents the joys and challenges of being (or not being) a mother in a sensitive and balanced way.

The most poignant season is “Spring” in which Besley portrays a menagerie of missed opportunities. The section chronicles a series of countdowns and failed cycles that culminate, fittingly, in a warning from Mother Earth: ‘I tried to warn them, and/ they grumbled about the clouds of ash which/ grounded their planes…’ (‘Early Warning’). In this story, Besley makes use of poetic shape to contrast the signs available with human inaction. After reading the chilling final lines, the reader feels obliged to flick back through the whole section with a more attentive eye.

I only needed to post a letter, but managed to make the errand last all morning

‘Invisible’

An important aspect of 100neHundred‘s composition is the combination of past, present and future. Futuristic scenes of robots taking over homes share the stage with blasts from the past (Blockbuster makes an appearance in ‘Five Digit Pin’). These conflicting temporalities meet head-on in a complicated present that can’t leave the past behind despite being aware of the need to move on. In this context, Besley plays an interesting temporal game in ‘Don’t Look Ahead’ where the present-day character supports the future self. The story subverts the traditional carpe diem message by infusing it with a more subtle and responsible quality. A new (less succinct) mantra could be: don’t obsess about the future and make sure you enjoy the journey, but don’t forget that today’s decisions create tomorrow’s world.

Besley writes with sensitivity and an acute awareness of what to include in the frame and what to omit. In ‘How the camera lies’, she stages the limitations of the snapshot to remind her reader to look beyond surface appearances. Every story in 100neHundred is worthy of a re-read; the entire collection deserves many more. The careful reader will be rewarded with new connections each time: the dynamic, shifting images feed off one another to deepen meaning and trouble our superficial interpretations. Besley’s mini cycle is a huge success.


Laura Besley, 100neHundred (Arachne Press, 2021). Available here.

A (blue) light at the end of the tunnel

Michelle Marie Jacquot, Deteriorate (Michelle Marie Jacquot, 2021)


I hope you enjoy this e-book
about hating anything “e”

Michelle Marie Jacquot’s second book of poems (her first pamphlet) is rooted in contradiction. In Deteriorate, the poet is nostalgic for a pre-internet age, for the simplicity of skipping rope and playing ping pong. She laments the ever-falling modern attention span and the pressures of social media. Yet, ultimately, she accepts that technology has come to dominate our everyday lives, and that it’s now up to us to learn to live with it.

Jacquot’s style is intuitive and unpretentious. The verse is sparse and free of decorative adornment, which allows her words to cut through the noise of modern living. An actress and songwriter, Jacquot has a knack for rhythm and musicality; she writes lines that will stay with the reader like a catchy song lyric stuck on repeat.

I wonder what they teach in schools these days
and what kinds of robots
these robots
will breed

‘Future Libraries’

Jacquot writes with wit and humour, which gives the pamphlet its characteristic balance of exasperation and acceptance. She is attentive to the arbitrariness of life, its injustices and shortcomings. Her poetry focuses on many pressing themes: body image, addiction, the effects of celebrity culture, fake appearances. One such consequence of technology that interests Jacquot is the impermanence of creation. This can have a sad but liberating impact, a contradiction the poet picks up in ‘Sing Along’. In this poem, she wryly acknowledges the rapid changes we have lived through, whilst warning of the dangers this can pose: ‘If you get enough numb people mumbling/ they will repeat anything you want’.

In ‘The Blue Light’ Jacquot raises an interesting paradox about the measures we take to protect ourselves from technology. Bemused by adverts for blue light glasses, she asks ‘Would you poison yourself on purpose/ in any other circumstance?’ Reading this poem onscreen reinforces the doubly ironic message. Our agency in the digital age is subtly questioned in the phrase ‘on purpose’: technology addiction robs many of this control.

Do we think the kids will be alright
If we leave them nothing to lose?

‘Sparknotes’

At times, the poet’s frustration bursts forth in an uncontrollable wave: ‘I’d like to rip my hair out/ one by one and count them all’ (‘Spears’). The self-destruction of the body is a painful consequence of an age where virtual connections replace physical contact and body image is determined by airbrushed appearances. The tenderness with which we treat our devices (‘Your cell phone is dying’) is too often absent from our own self-care. The solution lies in moderation and a healthy attitude that neither immortalises nor vilifies the body. Jacquot sums it up neatly in ‘Personal Best’: ‘My body may not be a temple/ but of it I’ve grown quietly fond’.

In the end, these seedlings of hope push through the negativity. The balance between self-representation and spectatorship is a recurring theme throughout the collection. The poet offers a liberating take on a classic mantra: ‘dance/ as if they’re not watching/ because, simply, they aren’t’ (‘Your Advantage’). This poem embodies the two-step positivity needed in the modern age: it is from deterioration that the capacity for celebration grows.


Michelle Marie Jacquot, Deteriorate (Michelle Marie Jacquot, 2021). Out July 7th. Available to pre-order here.

Dreams and beyond

Rachel Ka Yin Leung, chengyu: chinoiserie (Hedgehog Press, 2020)


The chengyu (“idiom” in Mandarin) condenses something meaningful into four characters. In her debut collection, Leung follows a similar pattern, translating Chinese sayings into English and using the resulting amalgamation to carve out her own stories. These stories gain power through their brevity; they are fleetingly endless and endlessly fleeting.

but stirring, i return to the
hum and cry of this brief world, and
bare, and cold

‘sea oath, mountain treaty: till the end of time (海誓山盟)’

The poet looks out over the immensity of the ocean and then looks at herself. Like the seemingly never-ending expanse of water, Leung’s language is a contradiction. Her descriptions are simultaneously incisive and open-ended, vivid and vague.

One highlight is ‘a long night is fraught with many a dream: before morning comes (夜長夢多)’ with its powerful focus on liminality and boundaries. Leung compels a sense of danger and transgression from the start: ‘i am crossing over / in the dark’. Through an array of transcendental images, Leung takes us “beyond”, wherever that may be. Once there, the language used to describe ‘these dream-infested waters’ is exquisite. Leung has a delicate and subtle touch for sound and its limitations. The dreamer is aware of ‘bendy silence’ and of her ‘eyes ticking, ticking like the / black time’.

i am confused.
i think
my blueness is a shade of red
like a baby bleeds

‘drunk on life, dreaming of death: living life as if befuddled (醉生夢死)’

Time and sound are inextricably linked. Both are flexible but suffocating. Similarly, the poems of chengyu: chinoiserie feel confined and freely formed, confused and lucid. Leung skilfully twists our expectations throughout the collection, showcasing the fluidity and stickiness of language. This is perfectly exemplified in Leung’s phrase, ‘syrupy noonlight’ (‘a trickle of water runs long: always (細水長流)’), one of the collection’s many beautiful and sharp observations that will stay with the reader.

Rachel Ka Yin Leung, chengyu: chinoiserie (Hedgehog Press, 2020). Available here.