Everything in between

Carla Sarett, She Has Visions (Main Street Rag, 2022)

Between ‘Once, dying bees fell on me as I slept naked’ and ‘All I have left is | my departure’ is Carla Sarett’s transformative debut collection that interrogates grief, reality, the realities of grief and the griefs of reality.

The collection, like the poet, is in search of meaning. Following a life-shaking moment of grief, the foundations of life and death are unstable; previously sturdy landmarks have been uprooted – or vanished. In the collection’s opening poem, the poet wonders, what if,

[…] I forget what I am supposed to do
with all of this living and dying
and everything in between

Throughout the collection, there are more questions than answers – and deliberately so. She Has Visions is full of places and empty spaces. ‘I slept through most of Idaho,’ the poet states, ‘I missed the Snake River, the cracked black | dunes the astronauts trained on’. In absence is presence and in the present is absence. In many cases, the landscape is still standing but has been hollowed out: ‘No one’s playing at Oracle Park’.

Sometimes betweenness becomes an end point: ‘I waited for you at baggage claim until there wasn’t any luggage | […] You got lost somewhere between Terminal A and Terminal B’. Everything in between is the emotion, the personal stories and struggles that get blurred by cold, hard facts.

Temporal vagueness goes hand in hand with spatial nothingness: ‘April is not the cruelest month | […] This month is’. Although details are left out, the reader feels their force with acute precision. Misplaced calendars and repeated reference to Times Square bring a hyper-awareness of time into further relief. Memory imposes distance at the same time it brings closeness, reinforcing that the remembered events happened ‘a lifetime ago’.

I woke up thinking of a poem I had written,
but forgotten.

Aphorisms abound – ‘goodbyes never happen once’; ‘Only the living | need space and time’; ‘Everything’s new here, fresh from ruins’ – though the language always maintains a freshness that defies old patterns. Like its surprising guest list – John Wayne, Greta Garbo, Hecuba – She Has Visions is a patchwork of reality, imagination and myth. It is a collection that will leave the reader changed too.

Carla Sarett, She Has Visions (Main Street Rag, 2022). Available here:

Conversation with Carla Sarett, author of She Has Visions

Daniel: She Has Visions explores many realities, with imagination, myth and memory all cleverly interwoven. When writing these poems, did you have an overall “vision” for what you wanted your debut collection to look like?

Carla: Many of these poems were written in the crucible of grief following the sudden death of my husband in December 2018. That year then flowed into the global lockdown for COVID. In that period, I changed into the woman who wrote these poems. No one has been more surprised than I at the change. This book is for Paul Messaris, forever and ever and ever.

D: One of the most interesting / intrusive / human aspects of reading poetry, for me, is gaining access to the innermost thoughts and feelings of another person. But literary devices and poetic masks can cloud the words and leave a reader unsure how to respond to the first-person voice. What are your views on how personal lived experience translates onto the page? Does making a “real” event / person / feeling into a poem obscure or illuminate them?

C: Meditation gives me a framework to think about “personal lived experience.” We feel alone in moments of grief or alienation; but these feelings are themselves shared.That is reality. Every moment is fleeting – we inhabit a sea of different feelings and thoughts. Grief, I learned, isn’t 24/7 – it ebbs and flows in random ways.

To me, a poem attacks the randomness of feelings; if they were orderly, they’d become an essay. A poem makes order from a clash of ideas and feelings. I take a tour of The Alamo, and I’m crying. I look at a Bronzino painting and I see my dead brother. My walks through city streets become wells of memory. The poems in She Has Visions (even the surreal ones) do contain “real” memories, but refracted through the lens of loss.

So, to your point that the first-person poetic voice can “obscure” experience – I think I’d say poetry is a form of changing the experience. In She Has Visions, I am changing loss into …well, whatever my new life is.

D: That’s very moving what you say about the randomness of grief. As you say, poetry, like grief, is a complicated landscape of both solitude and shared experience. Within this contradiction is a battle, apparent too in how you described poetry as ‘a clash of ideas and feelings’. How does this idea of combat present itself in your poetry?

C: I do feel that if there’s no clash, there’s no poem. I have to be grappling with some bit of paradox, as in many of my poems about paintings. In ‘Saint Sebastian’, I view the Mantegna, and afterward am seized with “my departure” – the image offered the sublime, but now I’m thinking about food.

So, on the one hand, we want to experience the pure present – but that moment is (paradoxically) crowded with memory. I think in a lot of the poems in She Has Visions, I am trying to sift through the layers of loss, whether they’re aesthetic, personal or cultural.

D: I get what you’re saying about the multiple layers of the (ever-shifting) present. I also think this applies to how we read and respond to poetry: we can react differently each time we approach a text from a different temporal or spatial reality. As you write new poems (and books), do you feel like you are “recording” a particular time and place? If so, where do extra-temporal “events” (visions and hallucinations) fit into this?

C: I don’t feel that I am recording in a journalistic sense as I write. I don’t worry, for example, what did I really wear? But I am building on incidents and the emotions that accompany them. A good example in She Has Visions is the poem, ‘The Fourth Floor’. I’m riding my condo’s elevator, feeling my age – and then drift into “visions” of burials of Bronze Age women. So, the colours and beauty of the burials become my focus. The leap (i.e. to the Bronze Age) is what my brain just “does” whether I’m writing or not.

D: That’s fascinating, thank you, Carla, for such insightful answers. I notice you’ve released two more chapbooks this year. Can you say something more about these?

C: I love chapbooks, and what they offer – continuous threads, a burst of writing. WOMAN ON THE RUN (Alien Buddha) is a set of poems inspired by the themes of film noir – danger, cities, loss and of course, femme fatales. The poems sit at the intersection of feminism and noir, and the tone is stark and edgy. Some micro-poems too.

MY FAMILY WAS LIKE A RUSSIAN NOVEL (Plan B Press) is a series of memoir poems about my childhood and my older brother’s death. The poems (often prose poems) swerve between the a child’s point of view, and an adult’s, between enchantment and knowing.

D: Thank you, Carla!

C: Thank you for these thoughtful questions. They made me reflect on the “why” of writing poetry.

Carla Sarett, She Has Visions (Main Street Rag, 2022). Available here:

Holding smoke

David Greenspan, One Person Holds So Much Silence (Driftwood Press, 2022)

One Person Holds So Much Silence is a poetic experiment with far-reaching sources, an evasive methodology – and eccentric yet riveting results. Dense in places, whimsical elsewhere, the collection is an unflinching but frustrating meditation on language, the body… and cigarettes.

For a debut collection, David Greenspan’s project is nothing if not ambitious. His landscape takes in Wyoming fields, ‘vulgar Florida’ and fragmentary, anonymous cities. The poetry is bold and lively; it seems, at times, to surprise itself – like a symphony orchestra, spontaneously and collectively choosing to move from playing Liszt to Lady Gaga then John Lennon… then lacrosse.

Encounters take place on ‘this illegible night’, where indistinct landmarks enclose the poetry in its own self-contained world. It is a world where the protagonists are small, often knowingly insignificant. Florida does not need its human storytellers; it is ‘home to countless endings of its own’.

The themes can be dark. ‘The first time my father cut himself’ is a challenging poem but one that moves the reader closer to some form of revelation. Some lines stand out, demanding to be re-read,

A seed had been planted
beneath his facial hair
and that isn’t the right place
for a seed […]

Amidst it all, the body – and, in particular, the tortured body – is central. The poet asks, ‘how many times can I pick out | my eyelashes before they stop | growing back’? Elsewhere, he evokes ‘Splotched yellow teeth softishly | decaying’ and states, ‘my skin has a zipper. Most days | I pick, pick, pick & is that nostalgia?’ Despite all this tearing, the body won’t stop expanding,

One day we’re going to die
& isn’t that alone enough of a reason
to sit here & watch our nails grow?

A bizarre Q&A-style poem, ‘Where are the worms in my mouth brother in your mouth’, occupies a dozen pages in the middle of the collection. What message can a reader pluck from these eclectic pages? The impossibility of answers? The futility of asking questions? Faced with the words, ‘Q: Dear selfish chemical, do not resuscitate’, on an otherwise blank page, it is hard to know where to begin.

The “real” Q&A, included at the end of the book, provides engrossing insight into a creative mind. ‘Poetry seems good at detecting/recording shades of uncertainty, multiplicity, expansiveness,’ David writes, in response to a question from interviewer Jerrod Schwarz. Ambivalence is certainly key. The mantra-like statements in ‘Three: The Dead’ are fitting: ‘we lived with memory | we have no answers’.

History and its smudginess are acknowledged throughout; the recurring ‘incomplete histories’ are some of the best poems. After memories, cigarettes are another prolific reference: ‘Our oldest friend nicotine’… ‘aluminium in my lungs’… ‘when we snuck out of class & smoked cigarettes’… ‘sour cigarettes’. The poems are as transitory as a puff of smoke; as enduring as the effects of smoking on the lungs.

Subtlety dwells within even the most jam-packed poems. In ‘Other Noise’, buried deep beneath the ocean, sidewalk, newsprint, tomatoes, pears, apple trees, Greek myths, concrete, ice cream, squirt guns, surgical plates, semiotics and paint thinner, are the haiku-esque lines,

we made a self
a fugitive choice
mirror of ache […]

These lines stand out for their slow, contemplative nature despite, or perhaps, because of, the abundance of imagery either side. In the Q&A, David confirms that isolation and context are at the forefront of his mind: ‘What is a specific line saying or doing when freed from the context of what comes before and after?’ This ‘self’, this ‘choice’, this ‘ache’… these are the silences held by one person.

David Greenspan, One Person Holds So Much Silence (Driftwood Press, 2022). Available here.

Control and chaos

Kris Spencer, Life Drawing (Kelsay Books, 2022)

Eclectic in its themes, subjects and forms, the poems in Life Drawing are bound together by the verve and verbal freshness of Spencer’s observations

Kris Spencer’s debut collection is chaotic and carefully controlled. Formally, the poems chop and change: classical odes sit side by side with free verse; sprawling lines reach across to prod the contours of narrow shape poems. Some poems contain recipes; others erasure and repetition, or enjambment and a jumble of references that span centuries and continents. All poems achieve a rhythm that keeps the reader turning pages.

The poet has a deep respect for odes but is not afraid to remodel and modernise. Part Two opens with a self-aware erasure poem, ‘Ode to Jean-Michel Basquiat in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out’. In this poem, the self-effacing poet paints himself into the world by continually adding and removing lines even before the original has had time to settle. Brilliantly, in the closing lines – ‘This day is too light | Somebody SHUT the door’ – the erased verb could be an imperative in response to the light or an explanation for it. Through this ambiguity, Spencer creates more open doors than closed ones.

The ‘Ode to Jean-Michel Basquiat…’ also contains a stroke of genius in the positioning of an allusion to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) immediately before a crossed-out line from Hamlet’s address to Ophelia at the end of To be, or not to be. Such linguistic playfulness fills the pages of Life Drawing.

Alongside grandiose literary and classical allusions, small details of family life also nestle cosily into place. In ‘Enough’, the simple joys of the present are a refrain: ‘Today, we give our daughter some pencils… | Today, our son rides a bike…’. In these isolated instances, life is stripped back to its most basic foundations; the poet’s sincerity of expression propels the reader to adopt a childlike innocence too.

The intimacy between artist and subject suggested by the collection’s title courses through the poems’ veins. Life drawing requires attentive observation and a willingness to commit to seeing that which is right in front of us. Like an artist’s attempts to reduce the complexity and changeability of a real-life scene to a single (undoubtedly flawed) interpretation of it, the poet’s task is similarly imperfect.

Unsurprisingly, human bodies occupy large swathes of space in Life Drawing. Even so, some of the collection’s best poems have no human subject at all. One particularly interesting set of recurring images involves birds. The poet looks at birds with open eyes, steering clear of tired associations that plague too many animal poems. Instead, Spencer has a keen eye for observation and discovery, as well as a freshness of expression.

‘Magpies’, first published in Issue 6 of Briefly Zine, and ‘The Enormous Matter of Landscape’ provide contrasting examples of man’s destructive capabilities. In the former, humanity’s selfishness costs cackles their chance at life. The poem’s claustrophobic form, tragically paired with the image of the ‘plastic bag’, gives way to a much freer expanse in the latter. Nature has returned – ‘hills’, ‘old reeds’, ‘insects’ – accompanied by the poet’s much-loved ‘Brightness’. The human subject, ‘drunk | in the afternoon sun’, continues to embarrass himself, but now the panorama has zoomed out and rendered man an insect. Even if the inebriated poet is barely aware of wings soaring above him, he is at least self-aware enough to admit he does not control the surroundings: ‘I cannot say this is my place.’

A similar perspective-shift occurs in ‘We Need to Find a Forest’, one of the collection’s most subtly urgent poems,

In a moment, I see the world through my son’s eyes.
Following ants on the pavement,
crouched and earnest, he says:
They won’t ever know we are here.

The sincerity of the child’s words cuts deep. In a world on course for climate catastrophe, ‘with the light failing’, the poet cannot help but be affected by the innocence of his son’s remark. The title’s urgency comes from a stinging awareness of a future without the self and a recognition that chaos is close.

Indeed, the collection closes along similar lines, with ‘The Song of the Self’, a Sanskrit-inspired poem that sheds more light on the complexity of the human subject. ‘The Self lies beneath five layers, | felt through the scratch and flare of the Self’, the poet states enigmatically. As such, ‘When the five veils unpeel… | the Self lies revealed through the reflection of all that moves and changes’.

Life Drawing is a debut collection that doesn’t stop moving. Its poems flit between layers, keeping the reader guessing what is revelation and what is reflection. It is a collection that speaks to a changing world.

Kris Spencer, Life Drawing (Kelsay Books, 2022). Available here (US) or directly from the author (UK) via email: spencer.j.kris@gmail.com

Conversation with Kris Spencer, author of Life Drawing

Daniel: Life Drawing is a wide-ranging and far-reaching debut collection. For how many years were you sketching, shading, re-painting and putting the finishing touches to the book?

Kris: I started writing poetry a couple of years ago and soon became hooked! I wrote five poems in quick succession. Thought I was Auden. I was writing to myself; getting that great feeling we all get when we create something. I wrote all summer. Sent my poems off to journals but nothing was happening. I realised I was off the mark. But I think it was useful to have written this off-the-mark poetry.

Then I got three poems accepted. It gave me a boost, at the right time. I wrote some new poems. Through the Poetry Society, I was able to show these poems to Rachel Long. Speaking with Rachel was crucial. She gave me some great advice. More than this, she was able to share and communicate her joy of poetry. It was a huge boost. That’s been my approach since. Work, re-work, re-work again. And, then, when it all gets a bit gluey, I show my poems to another poet.

D: These are some really helpful points about the need for collaboration and conversation. Poetry is essentially dialogue: speaking to other poets always helps unstick things.

K: I found, for Life Drawing, the Ode poems were helpful too. They gave the collection a punctuation. The chapter quotes were also useful. And I worked with a great editor at Kelsay Books. She was involved, and had an excitement for the project.

I have also benefited from your feedback at Briefly Write. Useful, warm, authentic. By the way, how do you approach feedback on poems?

D: Thank you! First (and foremost), we read with great respect for the words on the page. Writing can be a deeply personal experience and, as readers, reviewers or critics, we should never underestimate this. Second (and contradictorily), we try to read without fear. After reading the same lines time and again, familiarity can cloud the poet’s ability to “see” their own words clearly. Fresh eyes can help with that. Third (and crucially), we do not try to “correct” anything or find the perfect solution. Poetry is subjective; every writer and reader bring unique layers of meaning to a poem.

K: It is so good to hear your reassuring answer. I recognise that warmth and respect from my own experience of working with Briefly.

D: One meeting point between the individual and collective is popular references: we might all know the same names but we have different experiences of and reactions to them. The range of references you call upon in Life Drawing is vast, from Confucius to Iggy Pop, Pikachu to Goya. What common threads hold together these diverse creators and creations?

K: I think we have to be careful. Firstly, to give our readers credit that they can delve into and get references. And, then, to also guard against things that are obscure or highfalutin’. I do try for this balance. Referring to a work or a person can work in a poem as imagery – it’s also pretty concrete. Undoubtedly, it can also help to authenticate a poem (whether the reader buys into this is another thing). I would not want to refer to something or someone just for effect. So, in that, there is an element of curating. I think a fair bit of how I write is about curating.

I also think it’s more than just wheeling out our heroes. I wrote a poem about Elvis. He means much less to me as a musician than, say, David Bowie. But there is more space around Elvis, and so I was drawn to writing about him, and Priscilla. I once visited Graceland. Carrying all my British irony. The reality was that there was no irony for my fellow visitors, or in all the diners and bars around the site. Just love and respect. It was a sharp lesson. So my poem has some sadness and ennui, but no irony or postmodernity. (I still haven’t seen the film but I suspect Baz Luhrmann went the same way.) I wrote an ode to Jean-Michel Basquiat which aimed to mimic one of his paintings. So that was pretty literal.

D: That’s a fascinating way of putting it. For everything we write, there are a billion possibilities of words, images and references we could use… but ultimately we must settle for a select few in each poem. Can you say a bit more about your experience of ‘curating’ your first collection? How did you decide the poems and messages you wanted to include or exclude?

K: I was interested in colour and light. In this collection not every poem ended this way but that was something that I fell back on, probably too much. Colour and light are my happy places in terms of imagery. For this collection, these were all the poems I had, and I was writing up to the wire. My choice of inclusion, for the most, was based on whether the poems had been taken up by a magazine or journal. I have a very poorly developed sense of what poems will work for other people. I get caught up in the act of writing.

Quite a few poems are about my children and my wife. There were some which were more experimental (in my head, at least). And then some that were about art and creativity. I put each group together as best I could, and then tried to find a bit of rhythm in how they were placed against each other.

It may all be moot, all this time spent curating. Whenever I pick up a poetry book, I start in the middle. I can’t read a lot of poems in one sitting. But I do go deep when I find something. It’s a bit like visiting an art gallery – after four or five great paintings I’m looking for the café. In terms of messaging, in a way I am writing for my children as adults (they are seven and nine, at the moment). So, even in the darker poems I want to communicate a respect for people (and words). And, I suppose, the importance of looking up and noticing things in the moment and on reflection.

D: Projecting your poems into the future raises some intriguing ideas about time. One of my favourite poems in the collection is ‘Imagine’, in which you hypothesise a (Lennon-inspired) utopia… without people. ‘Imagine you were the last person on Earth,’ the poet muses, with the power to bring eight billion humans back: ‘Would you do it?’ Do you have an answer to that question?

K: The answer takes us out of the realms of poetry! I think this has become a central question for us all. Are we humans inexorably flawed? We do terrible things, as a species. But we also do beautiful, kind and wonderful things. I am of a view that, for the most, we do those great things for ourselves. And yet as a teacher and father I have great hope in our young people.

It is in my lifetime and my generation where we have messed things up in terms of the environment: the rise of central heating in every room, motor cars, affordable foreign travel, plastic, globally sourced supermarket produce… supermarkets! And, yet, having said all this I would be reluctant to give up any of these (apart from maybe plastic and out-of-season raspberries) for the greater good. That’s the problem. I am the problem.

It’s going to be around 10 billion people by 2050. Then we stop growing. 25 years, or so, to make things better. I don’t see it. The world seems to be dividing rather than uniting. The future looks to be a chilling prospect. We must believe that science and technology have what it takes to get us out of trouble (if we can’t trust our governments) but science and technology got us here in the first place.

D: Let’s return to poetry then! One of my favourite poetic techniques is enjambment (where meaning spills over the end of a line). You use this to great effect in the title poem where you write, ‘Like Velásquez looking at | the Infanta Margaret Theresa’. In this way, the end of the line opens up a hundred possibilities for seeing differently. The reader is forced to pause (albeit momentarily) to ponder where the painter is looking… and it is fitting that the answer is one of the subjects of Las Meninas, his enigmatic perspective-shifting painting. To what extent do you use spaces outside the poem to change meaning within?

K: That’s a lovely question. Not least, because it was so daunting to me, when I first started out. The basics that you need to write a contemporary poem. You have it spot on – to my mind the white space around the poem is the key. Certainly, to lyric poetry. I think the shape of the poem is everything. If the lines are boxed that means one thing. If you have a line jutting out – why? I am no expert on enjambment. I am more interested in the shape of poem: if you scrunch your eyes up what does the poem look like on the page?

But there is no doubt that you can have bad line breaks, and also good ones which, as you say, open things up or suggest a question – or leave something hanging which might even suggest a second meaning. I like to write long, thin poems; when you have lots of short lines it is mostly about sensible breaks but sometimes you might happen on something that adds to the meaning and flow.

As an aside, one thing that amazes me is the power of the tercet. You write a long, dense, single stanza poem – redress it as tercets (or couplets) and suddenly the poem has some air and it looks fresh. Why is that? And I should end by saying Las Meninas deserves a poem on its own. Such a thing.

D: This has been an illuminating conversation. Thank you, Kris, for shining more light on your (brightly lit) poems. Any closing remarks?

K: How to close things up? I have found our dialogue to be a lovely thing – beyond that, it has been enriching. I say this selfishly, on a wholly personal level (I have written two poems since we started this, informed by what we have talked about). It makes me think of dialogue and collaboration in poetry. I have been helped by a number of very well established poets. I wonder if there is any other art form where one can have access to the great and the good so easily. And with such warmth. Ted Kooser says there is no money in poetry, that is what makes it great. But, we do need enough green in the system to keep journals and competitions – and poets – moving happily along. Have you any thoughts on what a sustainable future for poetry might look like?

D: ‘The future of poetry’ seems beyond the scope of our little literary space! There are a lot of things we want to achieve with Briefly Write but the fringes are a comfortable place for a small journal like ours. It’s great to hear, though, that our conversation has fuelled more poetry! Do you know where your poetic journey is going to take you next?

K: My thoughts are now on my next collection, which I know is not a foregone conclusion. That great uncertainty that we talked about earlier. I do think poetry gives us an excuse to look at things, an excuse to notice. And then, the writing of the poem gives us the chance to measure ourselves against the thing – are we up to communicating what we see? From my perspective and experience, one can only get close if you listen to where the poem is taking you rather than force or lead the meaning. Easier said than done, but one might think it is there for a moment. And, that’s more than worth all the trying.

Kris Spencer, Life Drawing (Kelsay Books, 2022). Available here (US) or directly from the author (UK) via email: spencer.j.kris@gmail.com

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,


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

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