Seeing things and seething

Julian Bishop, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023)


Seeing is ambiguous. Less active than ‘watching’ or ‘looking’, it nevertheless involves some level of engagement with the world around us. A witness might proudly declare “I saw it all” when giving testimony; God (in various guises) is often described as all-seeing; when flicking through Twitter, we often see things we can’t help but click. Whether informants, deities or doom-scrollers, we are all seeing the Earth weep.

Some see with open eyes; others with a shifty sideways glance. Many are peeking through the gaps between their fingers. And too many are trying to keep their eyes shut. We are seeing one third of Pakistan submerged by floodwater. We are seeing more than 8 million tons of plastic end up in oceans every year. And we are seeing insect populations plunge, threatening 40% of species with extinction within decades.

Different types of observer fill the pages of Julian Bishop’s We Saw It All Happen. There are angry seers. Sad gazers. And detached viewers, who watch on, Gogglebox-style, as though the burning world were only on TV. At times, readers might themselves feel uncomfortably implicated: in a climate emergency, should we even be reading poetry?

The only riposte to such (legitimate) doubts about poetry’s utility comes from poetry itself. In one of the collection’s best, the poet alludes to ‘Four Forms of Denial’: ‘[idle]’, ‘[CARNIVORE]’, ‘[personal]’ and ‘[PRESIDENTIAL]’. In the final section, the deranged voice bellows,

YOU | DON’T NEED MONEY TO FIGHT WILD FIRES | WHAT YOU SEE AND READ IS NOT WHAT’S HAPPENING

With (wilful) climate change denial still staggeringly prevalent, the step from apathy to authoritarianism is dangerously narrow. Bishop’s catalogue of catastrophe is the perfect counterweight to the Orwellian ‘greenwashing’ (and outright lies) of Big Oil and the Meat Lobby. When ‘The Party’ tells us to reject the evidence of our eyes and ears – ‘their final, most essential command’ – more voices are needed to remind us that what we saw really did happen.


The starting point for We Saw It All Happen, as is often true of the most powerful poetry, is personal experience. Bishop, a former Environment Reporter for BBC Wales, uses poetry to turn the lens on himself. Reflecting on his career in the ‘Preface’, he writes that he used to hope that,

my reports might go some small way to change hearts and minds. I think it’s fair to say I failed which might explain some of the frustration and sadness expressed in many of the poems

Frustration permeates the whole collection. Humans are pirates, who ‘keelhauled the lot to give us more space’. In ‘Highlights of Mining for Gold in Indonesia’, the consumer is squarely held as culpable for the devastating effects of deforestation. ‘Look inside the lovely ring, at a gold chain, your piercing…’ the poet urges, and you will see ‘a gold vein threading | together diminishing jungle but an inconvenient gorilla | to the two men with chainsaws’.

From Cinnabar moths to dung beetles, the collection plays host to hundreds of tiny creatures that are too often overlooked. When you can’t see something, you can’t see that it is disappearing. ‘Strange that catastrophe should announce itself |on such small feet’ the poet muses.

In drawing attention to the extraordinary biodiversity that ‘make[s] the world go round’, the poet advocates for a new way of seeing: photographers fawning over tigers neglect the beetle in the same way that people, so wrapped up in the pursuit of personal goals, forget to nourish the Earth that ensures their survival.

To reinforce this need for visibility, the beautifully produced collection – published by (the aptly named) Fly on the Wall Press – features an illustrated flip book of beetles. Seeing is believing, which makes foregrounding something that is usually invisible a powerful act. Flipping the beetles away serves as a vivid visual reminder of the extinction that humans are inflicting upon the insect world.

Indeed, poetry itself encourages a different kind of seeing. Different perspectives compete; different voices compel attentive listening. Bishop’s collection is a graveyard of humanity’s errors. This graveyard is so huge and overwhelming that the best way to (try to) understand it is on the personal level. That is poetry’s place.


‘To All the Insects I Ever Squished’ is a deceptively poignant elegy to the vast range of insects the poet has killed – deliberately or otherwise. His apology to wasps (‘for prizing a sandwich more than your lives’) is especially telling. It is hard to read this poem without feeling a tidal wave of despair but its ending is too glibly defeatist. Pleading that the deaths were the result of a ‘congenital human urge to eliminate’ leaves no hope for redemption – and, more importantly, it undermines the sincerity of the poet’s apology. We can help it. We need to help. However hopeless the battle might seem, we cannot simply throw in the towel. Having made this mess, we owe it to every squished insect to at least try to clean up.

Bishop is right to focus on the worst perpetrators. Fossil fuel, meat and dairy, mining and aviation companies hold the keys to a liveable future for all. To Big Oil, he says, ‘You barrelled across the Earth like you owned it | and to a degree or two you did’. He satirises the politicians complicit in these ruinous activities in ‘Eton Mess’. His recipe involves mixing ‘No deep thought or application’ with a sprinkling of Latin, a perfect summary of the last decade of British politics. Naturally, the finishing touch is to ‘Dust conservatively with icing sugar (or cocaine)’.

When addressing Starbucks (proxy for big, immoral business), the consumer is also to blame: ‘we cradle the stain | of a disposable cup in our hands’. Indeed, amid the hopelessness of stopping the wealthy from taking short-haul domestic private jet jaunts, we need some reminders that individuals are not innocent bystanders.

This is most apparent in the title poem. The walrus scene in Our Planet is a tragic visualisation of the effects of climate change. Ice-free waters are forcing walruses to return to land to rest; exhausted and overcrowded, they then topple to their deaths. The poet uses this horrifying image – and the walruses’ helpless wails – to mirror humanity’s guilt and shame at having caused such suffering. The twin images of a family eating a fish feast on the sofa and the walruses plunging to their deaths create an excruciating echo:

now we’re all wailing
kill the sound

In a book centred on the power of sight, it is sound that has the most enduring effect. The poet heightens his message through exceptional command of white space. The page becomes a scene of failure, the meeting point of cause and effect, a space for the slow-motion playing out of something that could have been avoided.

The repetition of ‘I’ve got the zapper in my hand’, so rich with meaning, is a refrain for the age. We have the power to change the channel and pretend it isn’t happening; or we can stare in horror for a few long minutes, then go back to eating our takeaway. Or we can turn up the volume, take responsibility for our mistakes and do something to correct them. We Saw It All Happen is essential reading for the poetry world – and anyone who still cares and hopes. In ‘Ash’, the closing poem, Bishop makes clear that he does,

A desperate last gasp to save the planet,
I want the world to warm to my plan.


Julian Bishop, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023). Available here: https://www.flyonthewallpress.co.uk/product-page/we-saw-it-all-happen-by-julian-bishop

‘A Theme Song for Our Lives’: 98 Ways to Hope

in a world of disorder and chaos,
and rage,
we plant poems
on pages. Seeds of hope
as a way to cope.

Claire Thom

‘Hope is a Group Project’ is the debut anthology of The Wee Sparrow Poetry Press, featuring 98 international writers alongside original illustrations by Colin Thom. It is an inspiring and revealing compilation

Ebony Gilbert, writing in the ‘Foreword’, states that she has always loved it when a ‘heat wave brings people together’, noting that ‘shared difficulties almost force connection’. Although a grimly prescient message in a world of climate catastrophe, the statement reveals something fundamental about the anthology’s purpose and power. Hope is both personal and collective, and a poetry anthology that collates almost one hundred unique perspectives is a wonderful site for its many contradictions to play out.

Hope is often linked to faith. It exists as a substitute for certainty: ‘When we do not know | we must lean into hope’ suggests Kate Phipps in her contribution to the anthology. Serendipity brings together the tiniest of protagonists in Robert Edwards’ poem, ‘Two Grains of Sand’, with the poet describing the journeys of ‘Two fated to live a lifetime together’ out of ‘Countless gold grains, washing ashore’. These two grains will ‘go with the flow’; hope, perhaps, resides in relinquishing control.

But hope can be a decision too, as Emily Tee writes: ‘now I’ve reached a point of crossing’ from which she can choose to be led by the ‘embers of hope’. As well as divine, hope can be banal: it is ‘something stuck in between your teeth’, writes Jerome Coetzee.

Light is a recurring theme. ‘Hope is magic, | a light shining through the darkness’ writes Arjumand Rasiwala. ‘It’s a light so bright | Etched in eyes | Sparking the dull and lost’ adds Madeleine S Cargile. Or, for Satya Bosman, it is ‘the sun peeking over the | clouds’. In Agrene Bouwman’s ‘Icarus’, hope is strikingly described as ‘Elysian light through medieval glass’. With light comes lightness: Lisa O’Hare in ‘M. I. A.’ expresses hope as arriving ‘Out of nowhere | Radiating a lightness’.

Nature – and the promise of a better future more in tune with natural systems – is a common theme. Sarah Jeannine Booth vividly conjures ‘a forest wreathed in green’. Unsurprisingly, seeds recur too. ‘I keep planting hope’ says Emma Conally-Barklem. Emily Mew, meanwhile, portrays hope as ‘a hardy plant | flourishing in harsh terrain’ but also a bird with ‘gilded wings’ that carries her heart through the night.

Some expressions of hope, however, tip into lazy stereotype. Tim J Brennan contemplates geese, musing that they ‘think not of previous loved ones. | they don’t seem sad, | seem not to think about dying’. In fact, geese are sentient, emotional beings who mate for life and go through a prolonged mourning process, which includes withdrawing from their flock, when their partner dies. Elsewhere, Justin Farley vividly describes the suffering of salmon at the hands of humans (‘fiercely fighting, | desperately trying to snap your line | and swim downstream’) yet bizarrely tries to use this disturbing image as a reason for hope: ‘In the depths of suffering, | joy can still be tasted | by eating the fruits of hope’. Finding joy in the suffering of others seems a difficult message to swallow.

More engaging are the anthology’s more equivocal poems. Hope ‘lingers secretly’, writes Sarah Fawcett. It’s not an in-your-face emotion; it ‘dies so easily | But can never be killed’. Fittingly, the anthology’s subtler poems, those in which hope remains half-hidden, convey more powerfully its true essence. In ‘Capnomancy’, Danielle Gilmour connects burnt toast, a burning planet and President Bush’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. In this blistering poem, hope is ambiguous and moveable.

Dynamism is also present in the soundscapes of many poems, which build musicality into their body. Hope is a ‘theme song for | Our lives’ writes Jane Hanson. One of the anthology’s best poems is ‘On a January Morning’ by John Birtwhistle. Sight and sound contrast and compel; ‘a leafless oak’ is the unimposing setting for the sonic spectacle: ‘A song thrush breaks into song […] And “I can see its little mouth.”’

The anthology reminds us that hope is powerful. It also reveals its danger. Indeed, hope can be a political tool – for good or evil. In the ‘Foreword’, Ebony Gilbert draws on the pandemic-era ‘clanging saucepans and banging bin lids on Thursday nights’, a symbol of the fleeting togetherness of communities but, more acutely, of the manipulative power of hope. Sadly, goodwill towards ‘key workers’ has not since been converted into a more equitable society.

The major achievement of this collection, then, is its meaningful thematic engagement with an emotion that is rarely treated with much depth. Hope – an overused word and under-developed concept – is central to all our lives. Its absence can be devastating; its presence can be euphoric. It is an ever-changing feeling – a feeling that is both cause and effect. Importantly, it is a deeply personal response to our collective existence, which makes this poetic jamboree all the more worthwhile.


Hope is a Group Project, ed. Claire Thom (The Wee Sparrow Poetry Press, 2022). Available here (all royalties donated to the NGO Project Hope).

Weathering Words

Mandira Pattnaik, Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople (Fahmidan Publishing, 2022)


‘Ιn eerily muddled prescient thoughts | of an eventual doom’ Mandira Pattnaik welcomes her reader to her debut poetry collection. Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople is, in the poet’s own words, a snapshot of ‘small-town India’ and ‘the changing dynamics of my country’.

In a climate crisis, catastrophe is never far from the poetic surface. In a recent interview with Fevers of the Mind, Mandira explained how climate-focused writing was her most meaningful. The fragility and necessity of climate writing quickly asserts itself on the collection. In the opening poem, the ‘lashing undue storm’ and ‘jingling leaves barely clinging to discordant branches’ give a sense of natural systems at tipping point.

Punctuation is thrown off course too: after the storm,

we’re praying

, praying again, for

an indulgent rain.

In a turbulent landscape, however, some pre-determined roles remain. ‘I scoop the soil in our backyard | as wives are expected to do’ the poet muses in ‘forever afternoon’. Yet even here, not everything is as it seems. When she plants seeds, she is ‘not dreaming of plucking fruits, | only a shade from the punishing sun’.

Motherhood is cleverly associated with climate breakdown in ‘Parturition’. The ‘three years of clinic visits | and three failed cycles’ bestow an ambiguity upon the miracle of new life. The hope of ‘a tiny fist in my palm, a heart | within ours’ is born of a broken cycle: as one reality ends so another begins.

Such interactions between different times and places are where Mandira is at her most perceptive. In ‘now and beyond’, she calls ‘the history of tomorrow’ the place where we ‘hang our wobbly world’. The present is constantly moving and the reader – disoriented, disturbed, delighted – must also adapt to a poetic landscape in constant flux.

Narrative heft intermingles seamlessly with lyrical flourishes. One minute, ‘Mum was struck | off the payroll’; the next ‘The beach was a cake, freshly baked’. Dreams are ‘scattered volcanic islands on placid lakes’. The poet revels in ‘lavender sky and candy clouds’. Abstract and concrete images team up in one of the collection’s best poems, ‘A River Name’: ‘While on a walk round the garden you | tended, I discover a tapestry of your thoughts…’.

Mandira’s keen descriptive eye and vivid imagery convert the twists and turns of doubt into an enriching journey. Navigating ‘the fog of | yesterday’ and ‘the palm of tomorrow’ could be a précis of the ongoing COP27 negotiations. Her climate warning is stark – and her poems are a reminder of the beauty and richness of life on our planet.


Mandira Pattnaik, Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople (Fahmidan Publishing, 2022). Available to pre-order here.

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.