A (blue) light at the end of the tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

‘Future Libraries’

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

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

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


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

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

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

Dreams and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knees and never-endings

P.B. Hughes, Girl, falling (Gatehouse Press, 2019)

Girl, falling is a powerful collection of small moments and monumental thoughts. Varied and vivifying, the poems are fresh and innovative. The pamphlet inhabits a fragmentary space, aware of its own limitations but never ceasing to fight. The voice is vulnerable but assured, well-humoured yet urgent.

Hughes writes about writing with great sensitivity. In ‘The Writing Project’, she sets herself a Borgesian task: ‘You resolved to write and write until you’d written every word in the dictionary at least once’. The challenge highlights a desire for completeness which is never quite fulfilled. Indeed, the poet’s exuberance for words breaks down entirely in ‘Distance to the Ground’: ‘on my knee/ at the computer you wrote the letter K over and over’.

The language is at times haunting, at times beautiful, but never static. The poet describes herself and her surroundings with flare and relish: the tree ‘wore apples like smiles’ (‘Tree’) and ‘my arms are the plane’s wings’ (‘things i give my lover’). Sound is navigated with nuance. In ‘Diaspora’ we are encouraged not to take sound for granted: ‘Listening is more than inhabiting sound’. In a poem about refugees, such imagery of domestic instability hits the reader hard.

Like an escalator that goes round and round, the linguistic games repeat and accumulate. Sound is intrusive and hard to block out; similarly, the reader is urged not to ignore the plight of refugees. Loss and isolation recur, but so do knees and water, testament to Hughes’ careful balancing of mind and body, personal and political. Personality crashes into obligation in ‘Falling’, where a girl teeters on the edge of a swimming pool ‘in a body she was required/ to hate’.

The poem is an ever-evolving space, both welcoming and worrying. A balanced and skilful pamphlet, Girl, falling is an agglomeration of language and change. Each poem is confined but dynamic, fixed yet fleeting, like ‘snowflakes shaken in/ a snow globe’ (‘escalator’).

P.B. Hughes, Girl, falling (Gatehouse Press, 2019). Available here.

Just a Kid from Cortonwood

Mick Pettinger, Just a Kid from Cortonwood (Wild West Press, 2020)

Mick Pettinger’s debut pamphlet, Just a Kid from Cortonwood, is a raw portrayal of suffering and love. A punch-up between pain and healing, these personal poems are both confessional and vulnerable. Mick leaves nothing in the changing rooms, allowing his varied experiences to crash onto the page. From the death of his brother, to a childhood love of Ninja Turtles, to those people in the ‘photos in our minds and hard drives [which] slowly get wiped’ (‘Essence’), Mick pieces together all the ‘dates and times and dates and times’ (‘Chronology’) that make up a life.

We just wanna be normal
But what we really mean by normal
Is that we wanna cope

‘Finding Normal’

Mick’s authentic voice is heard in every line, swinging from angry to tender, at once bleak and life-affirming. These are poems that demand to be read aloud, narrated with Northern no-nonsense. Between conversation and monologue, the collection doesn’t hold back its punches. Mick knows he might get no reply (the opening poem, ‘Dear Steve’, is poignantly addressed to his dead brother) but this only makes him shout louder.

…without a care in the arse-backwards world!

Because today I am alive…

‘Cost Price’

Produced by Wild West Press, an independent South Yorkshire publisher, the pamphlet is beautifully made. The poems are also accompanied by a powerful and moving series of black and white photos by Mark Antony, featuring Mick and the South Yorkshire landscape.

Mick Pettinger, Just a Kid from Cortonwood (Wild West Press, 2020). Available here.

Fragments and forgetting

LOST FUTURES, vol. 1: ‘in search of lost time’ (January 2021), eds. Kieran Cutting & Christian Kitson

‘Go on a journey with me’ urges Kieran Cutting in the introduction of LOST FUTURES, a compulsion that grabs the reader and pulls them into its strange temporal and spatial worlds. If the first volume is a journey, we embark unsure of our destination, unsure if we will arrive and, by the end, even less confident we will ever make it back safely. We travel through time, space, memory and dreams on a journey ‘from out of the chaos’. The result is both enriching and enjoyable, disorientating and disruptive.

The zine’s vision is set in ‘two ghosts’ with the division (and disruption) of “real v imaginary” and “concrete v abstract”. The present-day “real” woman to whom the poem is addressed is absent for the poet; she is ‘a you’, one of an infinite number of possibilities for who she might now be. In contrast, ‘the you’ is a presence fixed in the past, but also a ghost, a non-existent entity who has ceased to be, and who is therefore painfully real. This rich poem hints at many of the tensions that resurface throughout LOST FUTURES: the rupture of past, present and future into an amorphous mess; the intricate balance between relationships held too long or relinquished too soon, and the search for ‘some shred, some tatter’ which is played out in the volume’s fragmentary multimedia work.

Daniel Bristow-Bailey’s wonderful title, ‘an excerpt from “the wholeness” (a work in progress)’ reflects on the impossibility of completeness. The seemingly autobiographical opening immediately complicates temporal linearity by starting before the author’s birth. The author narrates how his father escaped from a bubbling bar brawl in order to attend his birth, which he admits ‘may or may not be entirely true’. Of course, such a disclaimer could be applied to the past in general — history, myth, legend and fantasy are flexible categories that overlap more often than not. Regardless of how much truth is behind the story, the nascent brawl is a powerful example of a “lost future”: an event that may or may not have taken place, a mystery that doesn’t need solving. What matters for the author is that it became “a brawl” rather than “the brawl” when his father walked away to attend another beginning.

The rest of the story poses the question of parallel universes through the urban myth of Bob Holness’ sax solo on Baker Street. As well as the unreliability of the past — which is brilliantly expressed in the “imperfect perfect” construction ‘he used to have done’ — the introduction of ‘another universe’ raises the question of opposing spatial realities. This idea also forms a key part of Christian Kitson’s ‘parasite’, which contrasts ‘the reality of the moment’ of the reunion of lovers with ‘the simulated world I’d painstakingly built’ during their time apart. When these two ghosts collide, their incompatibility is destructive: ‘you, the stranger, collapsed my dream world’.

It is significant that imagery of orbits recurs throughout the volume. This reminds us that the basis of our existence is mere chance, that our environment (like time) never stands still, and that small bumps in the (orbital) path can set us off in a completely different direction. The collage built around the concept of ‘IF’ — a tiny word with enormous significance — is perhaps the best embodiment of our fractured and changeable existence. The dream of utopia is in fact a partial and messy reality, constantly reimagined and reframed to adapt to present experience. Meanwhile, in ‘new worlds’, language has the power to reinvent and reform our experiences. Do we taste and smell differently if we ‘hear waves of mint’? Can new wor(l)ds — or new combinations of existing ones — create ‘a future/ where we hold each other’s houses’? IF is both a powerful and crushing word: it communicates hope for something better and acceptance that reality is not how we would like it to be.

The collage’s screenshots of tweets and WhatsApp messages add a sense of fragmentation and ephemerality that characterise much of the modern age. This is, however, countered by the seriousness of the messages: imagine ‘if we reinvested in networks of care instead of surveillance’. Technology’s “lost future” had earlier been foreshadowed in references to MSN Messenger and CDs, examples of technologies that shaped (and, perhaps, continue to shape) our lives despite now being largely redundant. Likewise, Duunya’s powerful artwork ‘another day’ satirises both technology and modern jobs in its portrayal of a worker slumped at their desk. The figure has one hand on a keyboard and the other on a mouse, while the computer screen bears down on them from out of shot. As occurs throughout LOST FUTURES, absence makes the computer’s presence even more overpowering. In the background, frames of happier, more human moments dance out of sight, a potent contrast for an age in which many lives have been altered and many futures lost staring into cyber space.

This debut volume is a varied and skilful collection of work by Kieran Cutting, ‘some fantastic friends and some well-timed strangers’. Serendipitous connections are certainly appropriate for LOST FUTURES with its array of moments, missed moments, nearly moments, imagined moments and forgotten moments. The search for lost time — time lost to abusive relationships, believing something that was never true, or ‘holed up in a crumbling castle’ — is as paradoxical as it is imperative. These “lost futures” (‘the world-where-you-never-held-her-hand’, the space between IF and THEN, ‘missed connections, grey days,/ unescapable nights’) are neither real nor imagined, utopic nor dystopic, remembered nor forgotten. They are ‘possibility, nostalgia, regret’ all rolled into one.

LOST FUTURES, vol. 1: ‘in search of lost time’ (January 2021). Available here.

Absence, nostalgia and memory

Nigel Kent, Saudade (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019)

In Saudade, Nigel Kent traces lives and their losses, carefully threading themes of love, death and legacy to reflect on how we record and remember our existence. Art, poetry and the body’s demise all serve as frameworks, yet it is absence and nostalgia that dominate Kent’s debut collection.

Five poems are written after well-known artists, including ‘The Maids’, inspired by a 1987 painting by Portuguese-born Paula Rego. In this poem, hands are a powerful and ambivalent force, creating and destroying in equal measure. In ‘Lipstick Smile’, art itself is ambivalent: a father cruelly uses an artistic metaphor (‘like painting/ over flakes of rust;/ the past carries on/ corroding unseen beneath’) to warn his son about his choice of wife. The harshness of this message, as well as the father’s ability (or curse) to look beyond beauty to see what lies beneath, characterises the stark and poignant tone of Saudade.

In ‘Clearing Out’, a woman agonises over the objects that have shaped her life, unable to throw away such distinctive memories. Her insistent refusal, ‘Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!’, will later find an echo in the collection’s powerful non-ending (‘linger, linger, linger’). It is not possessions, however, but poetry that serves as the most pertinent evidence of having lived. The collection opens and closes with performances, which frame the sequence as a poetic memory. The speaker in ‘7.30 p.m. at the Art’s Workshop’ is inextricably bound to her creation: she has ‘iambs/ beating loudly/ in her chest’. Poetry is not the words she voices, but the marks they make on her body.

If poetry is necessary, it is also corruptible. Indeed, the innocence of ‘those naked words/ [that] shivered/ on the page’ will later be twisted into ‘oily opalescence’ by the smooth-talking speaker in ‘The Urban Shaman’. Here, the body (and our abuse of it) reveals the truth: ‘a city of a thousand/ cuts laid bare/ her sleeves ripped back/ to show the weeping wounds/ that she conceals’.

Diverse bodies populate Kent’s poetic landscape, many of which are in decline. In ‘Dignitas’, the subject is naked again, requiring assistance to carry out one of the most basic human necessities, his dignity washed away ‘like the dirt swirling and gurgling/ down the drain beneath his feet’. Another potent symbol for this degeneration comes in ‘Sweet and Sour’, where ‘frayed bags for life/ filled with Kilner jars/ of pickled strawberries’ reveal the layers of our existence. The poet contemplates how long this drawn-out life can last, the heart still beating while the body decays.

beating loudly
in her chest

‘7.30 p.m. at the Art’s Workshop’

Kent is arguably at his most poignant in the prose poem, ‘Bleak, dark, and piercing cold…’, which takes its title from Oliver Twist. Through a deceptively profound analogy between a homeless man and discarded piece of chewing gum, he shows how bodies can be turned into unwanted stains on a landscape: ‘They spit you out like gum that’s lost its taste, yet they complain it’s you who litters the city’s streets’. The problem won’t go away however much we try to ignore it: the politician ends up ‘irked by the sticky glob embedded in the tread of handmade shoes’.

A tension also exists with technology, which is brought out prominently in ‘Faraway’. In this poem, a worried father checks his phone in the hope that his daughter will have texted. The wait for this elusive message tests his patience, a virtue that continues to dwindle in the modern world. Although technology seems to offer an immediate solution to saudade, in the end it merely reaffirms the absence. This is reflected in ‘Saudade II’ where technology cannot resolve the poet’s longing: ‘I try once more/ to cut and paste you/ by my side’.

Ultimately, reading Saudade is an enriching experience. The reader will share characters’ frustration at an inaccessible past or evasive present/presence, as well as sadness at the body’s inevitable decline. But, more importantly, she will feel quietly invigorated. For Saudade is full of small moments of pleasure and beauty which give us something for which to yearn.

Nigel Kent, Saudade (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019). Available here.

‘Under the Influence of Nothingness’ by Dan Provost

Dan Provost aptly describes this collection as a series of ‘confessional’ poems. Every word is scraped from the depths of his heart — the effect is sometimes messy, often uncomfortable and always heartfelt.

As we enter the poet’s mind, things quickly get dark. Provost chronicles ‘The Beginnings of My Despair’ in which he addresses the oppressive nature of time. From a young age he would stare at the clock ‘with direct horror’, interpreting each ticking second as a step ‘closer to eternal darkness’. We all have moments like these, forced to confront our own mortality by the imposing presence of an external influence. The language here is raw and honest, a striking statement of despair and misery.

The stains of a self-
inflicted failed life lie
directly in front
of you

Extract from ‘Overrated’

Self-reflection is a theme which resurfaces time and time again in this collection. Pascal famously wrote, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. Provost doesn’t seem to struggle with this; it’s just that he doesn’t like what he finds when he does.

The poet also observes others. In ‘The Little Notebook’, he describes ‘jotting simple observations… just to prove I can witness’. Tired of introspection, this notebook allows the poet to turn his gaze outwards and ‘see all the budding traps an occasional man or woman may fall into’. The notebook collects little anecdotes of failure.

But in the end it is not such a symbol of despair: rather like a poet, the author of this notebook puts the misery of his surroundings into words, turning failure into art. And to whom does he want to prove his capacity to witness? To himself presumably. In which case, perhaps he hasn’t given up all hope.

Not begging for a banquet
of sincerity… but a moment of truth

Extract from ‘The Ghost of Coins’

Amidst the nothingness are many nobodies, including those in the subtle and understated ‘A Quintet of Champions’. The five men who sit at the bar ‘day after day, year after year’ are a sorry sight, a symbol of the hopeless misery of human existence. But the lives of this quintet don’t fall into complete despondency: they remain together and are united by a common pursuit, each ‘searching for discounted utopia’.

The utopic moment of truth eludes the poet and reader throughout Under the Influence of Nothingness. Ultimately, we are left with a dull sense of despair because Provost sees few redeeming glimmers of hope. But this is authentic life, sticky and heart-wrenching, repetitive yet unpredictable, a brief journey from an unknown beginning to an uncertain destination.

‘The Burning Chambers’ by Kate Mosse

Gripping plot. Fast-paced action. Lifelike characters. So what’s missing?

The Burning Chambers is an epic adventure that takes the reader to the heart of sixteenth-century France, a country in turmoil amidst the bloody Wars of Religion. Set primarily across three southern cities — Carcassonne, Toulouse and Puivert — the historical backdrop is painted vividly, showcasing the author’s extensive historical research and interest in her subject.

Mosse manages to convey the fear and uncertainty of a country ravaged by years of infighting by creating believable characters that bring the history to life. Particularly strong are her portraits of Vidal, a power-hungry Catholic priest, and his deranged mistress, Lady Bruyère.

At times, however, these characters can tip over into types. The formulaic, rather predictable plot is constructed along starkly divided oppositional lines and each character is included to fill a particular role. Moreover, in the closing scenes, Mosse relies a little too readily on unlikely coincidences to advance the plot to its dramatic denouement. This diminishes some of the vraisemblance she had earlier developed.

If I may allow myself to offer a piece of writing advice to an international bestselling author whose novels have been translated into thirty-seven languages, it is that she often overuses rhetorical questions. This becomes more noticeable as the story progresses. Presumably, Mosse’s intention in doing so is to increase the suspense, but this is not the effect: the constant questions frustrate the reader and slow our progress.

It is this sort of contrived technique that raises our awareness of the book’s formulaic structure and ultimately stops the reader from fully engaging with the text. Of course, all books are artificially constructed, but the best ones are those that are able to hide this and make you forget you are reading. The Burning Chambers doesn’t achieve this because the plot follows a predictable pattern and is engineered to progress through a series of unbelievable coincidences.

Despite these minor grievances, The Burning Chambers is a lively and addictive historical novel. It won’t be your book of the year, but is well worth a read.

‘The House at the End of Hope Street’ by Menna van Praag

Living rent-free in Cambridge for 99 days really would be magical.

Menna van Praag’s debut novel is an easy read: a heart-warming story about three dejected women who find hope in a magical house.

But the plot is far more nuanced than it might first seem. The various narrative strands are intricate and are interwoven effectively through regularly shifting viewpoints. Moreover, the characters are all vivid and complex, which makes their actions and reactions believable.

The fantastical elements are successfully integrated into the story. This is particularly the case with Alba’s ability to see the colours of words, a lovely idea that allows van Praag to paint some beautiful dialogue scenes.

Peggy, the “Fairy Godmother” of Hope Street, is an interesting character. Her personal intrigue highlights how those who devote their lives to others are at times the ones most in need of a helping hand.

The only thing that tempered my enjoyment of the novel was the number of typographical errors it contained. For a book that celebrates the beauty of writing, I found that the style didn’t always live up to these high aspirations. In fairness, this became less of an issue as the story progressed, which is testament to the powerful narratives.

This charming tale is surprisingly compelling. A much-needed distraction in dark times.

‘Quichotte’ by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, famed for his flamboyant and fantastical style, offers a work of mind-boggling meta-fiction for his fourteenth novel.

Needless to say, Quichotte does not aim to innovate: there have been countless Don Quijotes since Cervantes first penned the character in 1605. True to the original, Rushdie’s take is unashamedly self-reflective, littered with references to popular culture and stinging satire of our degenerated modern society.

If the narrative is at times exuberant and pretentious this is not gratuitous; rather, it is in fitting with the original Don who, lost in his made-up world of medieval honour codes, takes himself far too seriously. Comparing Cervantes’ romance-obsessed hidalgo and Rushdie’s reality-TV addict highlights the staggering advancements made in the past four hundred years, but simultaneously reminds us how little we’ve really changed.

Unsurprisingly, the dual narrative, which combines the life of a struggling crime writer with episodes from his latest creation, quickly unravels to merge fiction and reality into an uncertain muddle. This confusion is augmented by the abundant fantastical elements – a Italian-speaking cricket for starters – that pierce “reality” and threaten our ability to distinguish truth from appearance.

Quichotte is dizzying, dazzling and stunningly profound. An unforgettable journey.