- Life’s Stink and Honey by Lynn Valentine
- wild chamomile by Elizabeth Kelly
- Postcards from Ragnarok by Katy Naylor
- How to be a Dressing Gown by Charlotte Oliver
- Learning from the Body by Sue Butler
- Traumatropic Heart by Susan Darlington
- Hanging Fire by Louise Longson
- A Glimmer of Stars by Lynn Valentine
- When I think of my body as a horse by Wendy Pratt
This review first appeared in The High Window, Summer 2022.
The title of this collection, ‘Life’s Stink and Honey’, grabbed my attention from the start. For me, the juxtaposition of opposites reflects the themes running throughout these poems where working-class identity, poverty and childlessness, mingle with love and a deep appreciation for the landscapes and creatures of the natural world.
The 21st century is a time for even more women to step forward and speak of what has previously been avoided. Female poets have continued to gain a personal voice and have the means to increase its volume through the power of digital access. I’ve met Lynn in online workshops and it’s possible I might not have come across these poems otherwise. I’m so glad I found her! Lynn is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects head-on and shows great skill at merging the personal with the universal. These poems reassure the reader they are not alone in their experiences of death, loss and grief while also containing reminders that despite the difficulties, there is still much beauty, love and hope to be found in the world.
Many of the poems deal with poverty, a state all too familiar to those from working-class backgrounds, where it’s a struggle to pay for heating and food. It’s a world with never enough to go around so parents stay hungry while juggling the pennies. ‘Junk Drawer Day’ refers to ‘snipping winter kale for breakfast’ when you’re still days away from payday while ‘Born in the Slums’ seeks to emphasise the kindness of neighbours and existence of laughter, even though the basics are denied. There is no central heating, colour tv, or three meals a day, while prawn cocktail crisps are a luxury.
Those who know what it is to be poor will feel resonance with the freezing cold of an outside loo or the hunger of seeing a queue at the chippy when you can’t afford to join them. Poverty never leaves you and reminders are threaded throughout the poems. ‘Winter soup’ contains lines about ‘the mother who has to eke the last – of the beets to feed her hungry girls’ while ‘Winter Night’ speaks of the need to sell books to buy bread and parents who ‘…choose – to go hungry, take a third cup of weak – tea while children eat’. Food vouchers are ‘scrunched – down in purses’ which ‘blush-red with shame’ as choice is reduced to ‘Pasta, milk, tins’ or a ‘sweetie – hidden for the middle one’s birthday.’
Poverty and working-class too often exist side by side. In ‘The Cleaners’, Lynn writes about the ‘unknown people’, those who society depends on to keep the environment safe. They include Lynn’s father, ‘a council man’ who drove a snowplough to clear the streets in the early hours of the morning. Often clearing up after accidents and ‘clearing roadside drains, – other people’s silt and shit’, Lynn knew from an early age how to check for Weil’s Disease, a bacterial infection caused by rat’s urine contaminating water. ‘Ma faither at fower a.m.’, written in the Scots language at which Lynn is so adept, offers a glimpse of this life where ‘Mornins, ma faither whistled – as if the world wis his alane,’ and how the children ‘dreamit o Dad, – this suddent sneeze o a snawploo – chairgin tae life in his hands….as he clearit thi street, tried no tae – rouse the sleeper, the fidgeting bairns, folk bundilt in their jammies,’.
The collection contains a number of poems written in the Scots language. Lynn won the Hedgehog Poetry’s dialect competition (2020), and was runner-up in the Scots category of the Wigtown Poetry Prize (Scots category, 2021) with Thi Loast Bairn.
In Lynn’s first collection, ‘A Glimmer o Stars’, the Scots poems were printed alongside their English translation. In ‘Life’s Stink and Honey’ these poems stand-alone, showing off Lynn’s growing confidence in the use of her language, best heard as well as read. In the video below, Lynn reads ‘The Aunties’ from ‘Life’s Stink and Honey’.
The theme of childlessness is threaded throughout; a difficult subject but one which Lynn handles with great skill and emotion. ‘Sheela Na Gig, Rodel’, describes visiting a church on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The origins of the ancient carving of Sheela Na Gig’s is thought to represent fertility in the shape of a ‘hallowed, unholy mother’, and Lynn writes with feeling of how her ‘barren belly – concaves in the wet – afternoon, my waterproof – the only second skin I’ll own.’
‘Caring for Shrimps’ has the saddest of lines ‘Remember when we tried to make babies?’ while in ‘At Hallgrimskirkja’, Lynn imagines herself with ‘a belly drumming under my best woollen jumper’.
In some poems, I think childlessness is more disguised, as it so often is in real life. Family and friends ask the age-old questions about starting a family or hearing the patter of tiny feet, and answers have to be found which satisfy while also camouflaging grief. ‘At Culbin Sands’ deals with loss, but without naming the source. In the final stanza, ‘My voice gives way to pain’ is followed by the observation of a bar-tailed godwit looking for a meal in the surf. It’s a reminder of how the natural world continues to exist. Sometimes this awareness can offer solace, as in one of my favourite poems in the collection which is ‘Gloamin’. Here the poet reminds us of the existence of something larger:
And you look out of the window
and look really look
the mountains low
still snowed bunkered
into winter still
the sky high
the everlasting orange and blue
And you think
this is why
‘Life’s Stink and Honey’ is a powerful collection. It contains the sadness of loss but is also full of hope. This review has only given a glimpse into Lynn’s world. There is so much more which could be included and I would recommend seeking the collection out in order to discover the full beauty of all of its poems.
Life’s Stink and Honey, by Lynn Valentine, is available from Cinnamon Press.
‘wild chamomile’ is a collection of poetry and prose, recalling a childhood. The only difference between the two forms are their length and layout. Elisabeth’s prose is just as poetic as her poems, and both are equally satisfying to read.
Set on a Cumbrian farm, the atmosphere is somber. A gate is old and stiff, wood rots, a broken window spreads damp across the wallpaper, stone walls sweat, light is heavy and flat, the sky colder and darker, even a bus ride is memorable for the wetness on the glass, the rubber seal pealing way under curious fingers. Cheeks have darkness flowing down them, wellies leave harsh red lines on skin, heat is a suffocating mulch, summer is oppressive, flies seek out sweat, broken bottles, used to cut berries, are abandoned on the ground while maggots are stamped on for fun.
Statistically, farms are dangerous places full of potential hazards, while the instinctive reaction of livestock cannot be anticipated. They also represent gendered spaces where family are often expected to help out with seasonal chores, feed orphaned lambs through the night, supply food for hungry workers. Often away from urban sprawls, farms become tiny nations with their own culture and customs where solitary children can become islands, separated from the adult world.
This collection offers scant relief from the heaviness of remembrance. The subject matter has a hard edge, creating images to stay with you. Yet sometimes what isn’t said has the most effect. When it comes to other people, details are scarce. We don’t know who Elisabeth played hide and seek with, but we feel a sense of unease:
After tea we sit,
knees touching in that space
between your bed and the wall
while the summer storm unfolds.
Returning to visit the farm kittens is with someone who could be anyone. All we are told is:
a week later,
you come with your
mouth in that I am two
years older than you.
Is it a sister or brother, or the one with a sneer who moved away without saying goodbye? The reader is told little explicit about the family, but there are hints in the reference to a telephone call and raised voices, a car door slamming on Sunday afternoons, the traditional time for visits from absent parents. This lack of identity creates a suggestion of menace, while also encouraging the reader to turn the pages.
Who said: “If you poke your belly button your legs will fall off”. Who flew a favourite teddy bear out of the window and into the mud?
Who tells the child the bull is ‘calm really’ with a laugh, leading to the line which will resonate with anyone who has experienced how unequal relationships always involve “the dismissal of absolute power”, and “belittling of dominance” and how the knowledge of this will stay with you always.
Throughout the poems and prose there comes the sense of a little girl who doesn’t quite know how to fit into the world. Trips into town show that different lives exist because there were women who had “left the mud and ice behind”. The pineapple smell of crushed wild chamomile is a reminder of “long days always alone”. We’re told the narrator always “wanted to do the right thing” and there are references to trying not to make a sound, and caving in on yourself.
Any reader who experiences isolation would identify with these phrases. It’s about the need to protect yourself, to switch off feelings, to shut yourself down, and is often worse for girls, who’ve been bought up to do what other people expect. It’s too easy to then think everything wrong is your fault.
Research suggests children often blame themselves for problems at home. They think if only they were good and well behaved then nothing bad will happen.
Those living in rural settings, far removed from the local town, school and social events, are also at risk of learning a skewed view of the world. Somehow others seem have it better even though, if truth be told, there are too many who exist with difficult memories of childhood.
‘wild chamomile’ does not reveal many idyllic recollections, which helps make it a unique memoir. Farm kittens are genetically and scarily deformed through inbreeding. There’s guilt at the loss of baby rabbits and the death of a favourite horse. Maybe because of the darkness, the images of colour stuck in my mind; egg on white bread, red ankle strap shoes and red strawberries on the wall paper, a pair of favourite blue shorts with sailor buttons.
Memories are complex and rarely neutral. They can have layers of meaning which shift and blend so sometimes we forget if we remember truths or if they are desire made manifest. I found myself grasping at the splashes of colour and hoping some memories exist for the narrator which bring joy.
It takes skill, and I think a considerable amount of bravery, to recall difficult but indelible times in ways which are so compelling and striking. combined with a challenge to dominant media conceptions of rural life as representative of an idyllic existence.
For me ‘wild chamomile’ is a courageous collection. What happens in our early years can cause scars which are never quite healed but releasing these experiences into the public domain reminds readers it is possible to survive and turn negatives into strengths. The poetry is fluid and runs freely through the paragraphs of prose as much as it does the more traditionally laid out poems. This is an impressive collection to look out for; one which is both reassuring as much as it is powerful.
Elisabeth Kelly is a writer and poet living in the Scottish Borders, Scotland.
Being a lover of myth and legend, I was delighted to read Postcards from Ragnarok by Katy Naylor. Reviewing a collection is a good opportunity to live with a set of poems for a while, revisiting at different times of day and night, while using the internet to create a fully transmedia experience. I knew a little about Norse legends but not that Thor rode a chariot pulled by goats or the sea monster called the Kraken was so ancient!
I like poetry which introduces me to new information but Katy does more than this. Postcards from Ragnarok not only retells Norse stories, the poems seamlessly merge past with present, and in doing so, the relevance of myth is reinforced. The stories tell us how different civilisations made sense of the inexplicable vagaries of the natural world, but are also a reminder of how emotions have changed very little over the years.
Retelling myth often involves dealing with a mass of material, much of it conflicting. Katy shows great skill in skimming off the bones, giving the reader just enough to build a narrative in poetic form. It’s a small collection but each poem is a gem.
We’re introduced to Baldr, ‘the most beloved of the gods‘, who foretold his own death, causing his mother Freyja to call on ‘each creature, plant and rock, to swear an oath to protect him‘. Only the mistletoe refrained. Trickster god Loki persuaded blind Hothr, Baldr’s brother, to kill him with a mistletoe arrow. Everything in the land was asked to weep to save Baldr but Loki refused. We’re not told why. Instead, the poem appeals to the reader to put themselves in his place. ‘We too know the power….The wound opens, our words turn to ash and still we will not weep‘.
Guthrun offers the story of a woman seeking revenge for the murder of her brothers. She achieves this by setting alight the great hall and we’re asked to imagine nursing such pain…that you’d gladly turn on your own future, toss the brand that sets your roof alight’. The next stanza opens with ‘Monday, 7;59am, leaves blow across the platform, the air is bitter, my coffee’s growing cold…one step forward,’ before we’re told ‘Listen, you can hear it coming, you can already smell the smoke.’ The transition between worlds, in just 21 lines, is stunning.
Katy is also skilled in showing rather than telling. The poem Sleipnir includes Loki again. He has turned himself into a mare to mate with the stallion Svaðilfari. Sleipnir is their eight-legged offspring, with the power of flight and ability to travel between the worlds. We understand this power because the poem takes us to the shoreline where Katy writes:
….I will imagine that I am no longer confined by sea or shore or earth or sky or smoke or father or mother
I will feel my eight hooves thundering through the sand and the salt and the spray and the clouds in my name
I will know the joyful passage from sphere to sphere and back again….
To go to hell and know I was just passing through.
Postcards from Ragnarok contains so many people, creatures, places and emotions, yet never feels too much. As well as Baldr, Freyja, Hothr, Loki, and Guthrun, there’s Fenrir the wolf, the Kraken sea monster and Yggdrasil, the sacred tree central to all Norse stories. Locations include Midgard, or Middle earth when humans dwell; the Nastrands or shore of corpses; Idavoli, home of the gods and Ragnarok itself, which represents the great battle at the end of the world. The poems are also full of emotion. Thor is a beautiful love poem, each stanza beginning with the line For you I would, joyfully… before concluding – once again – with the unexpected:
For you I would, joyfully
wrestle the serpent
that circles the earth
though you and I both know it will destroy me.
I think Fenrir is one of my favourite poems in the collection, alongside Guthrun and Sleipnir, although I loved them all!
Fenrir’s first stanza introduces the chained wolf, destined to swallow the sun, but having to break free in order to achieve this. The second stanza contains the segue to the present, with an image which has haunted me since I first read it.
It’s like sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool.
Light and sound distant and distorted.
My lungs scream for air and I long to break for the surface.
I think about the weight of water. I am heavy as a lead idol,
when it should be the easiest thing in the world to float.
Here’s the equivalent of Fenrir, trapped in chains, knowing they can be broken but he is helpless. The poem closes with a reference to winter shadows spreading across a kitchen and living room floor, being unable to take the action needed to light a match and lift the gloom, while the final line perfectly links the end back to the beginning; ‘Outside my window I can hear breathing and the soft scrape of metal, link on link.’
I was sorry to come to the end of the collection and would have happily read another ten or twenty similar style poems. It wasn’t just the insight into Norse mythology which I loved, it was the merging of then and now, and the reinforcement of how ancient themes are still relevant today.
Science has changed our knowledge of the world. We no longer need to create stories to explain nature or understand death, but we’re surrounded by books, films, drama and poetry which seeks to capture something of the universal.
Revenge will come back on you.
Destruction can be tempting.
Nothing really ends, it only changes its form.
Grief is painful but love is what matters.
For me, these poems tell of a world similar to our own. We’re still telling the same stories today. They might appear different on the surface but underneath they’re driven by the same emotions and desires. In Postcards from Ragnarok, Katy Naylor offers us a timely reminder of what it means, and how it feels, to be human.
How To Be A Dressing Gown contains an eclectic range of work. Each poem is a gem because Charlotte Oliver has a keen eye for observing the world around her, and the results are both humorous and insightful.
The collection begins with Charlotte locating herself in a world where people are afraid of words (My People),. In this environment, wages and care for others take priority over an artistic soul (Yorkshire Puddings) and the discovery that expressing emotions on paper is a revelation (Her Secret).
…she whispered her deepest feelings
into the void
and the peaks and troughs formed outside of her
and she saw that
they could be beautiful.
Family also appear in these early poems. Mum Gets Ready describes untying her housewife self, and hangs her on the back of the kitchen door ready for the morning. The young Charlotte watches as her mother gets ready for a night out, my film star at her dressing table – the red-lined jewellery box dribbles out her pearls. There’s the click of the curling tongs, hiss of hairspray and high heels which puncture the path outside my window as she leaves. The poem is full of visual images, as is Song Of My Granny, who comes to life on the page with her lipsticked giggle and painted nails.
Oh granny, creator of lemon meringue pies,
who cocked a snook at age – smoked at 9, ears pierced at 70,
a job at 75 playing music for the ‘poor inmates’
in the old folks home.
Charlotte sees poetry in everyday objects and the title poem, How To Be A Dressing Gown, offers a great example of her talent. Here something recognisable is made special. The role of the dressing gown is that of a hug, and a valuable source of warmth. It has the power of an unexpected sponge pudding with custard. Who wouldn’t rethink their relationship with their dressing gown after reading these lines!
Other day-to-day objects also become poems through Charlotte’s precise observations. It Could Be Anybody’s refers to the odd sock phenomena we’re all familiar with. This one is covered in dust from underneath the bed but when stretched out it reveals a rainbow, chosen because of a love of bright colours. Being Charlotte’s view of a sock, it’s also much more than an item of clothing as it represents the wearer with solid feet that keep us anchored…that cycle to work to save the world.
In Self-Portrait As A Tablecloth, embroidered flowers represent the previous generations who made and owned it, while Shopping List Bird offers a magical world where scraps of paper, receipts, torn notes and sheets lined deep in poems, all turn into birds at night, their countless wings unfolded to and fro as they soared up high towards the setting daytime.
Part of the appeal of this collection is its blend of styles and subjects. You’re can never be sure what will come next. Not only do the portrait and background poems contain lines of great depth and universal meaning, Charlotte isn’t afraid to leave behind the relative safety of humour. I suspect poems such as Nothing Happens But Everything Happens come from a deeper place. The sudden absence of humour in this poem, first encountered in Her Secret. comes into its own with lines such as these;
Like the silence when you ask if everything’s ok
and the words in their throat crumple up
like a paper straw sucked too hard
and you can’t straighten it out for them
For me, this and the following poem, Appointment, demonstrate Charlotte’s poetic skill on a different level. Appointment describes a hospital visit, and the struggles experienced when White coasted language, sugar-free, muffles my understanding where, after the examination, the narrator returns to the waiting room;
breathless, desperate to escape
the searing light that sees
bones and tissue, but not sadness.
These are accessible poems, with powerful images, making it a collection I’d recommend to anyone new to poetry as well as for more experienced poets. Charlotte offers her unique view of the world, often with lines which stay with you long after reading. In My Averageness the narrator describes herself as a brown crumb of Christmas pudding in a pile of shiny coins while being no prize specimen…but necessary so others can shine brighter, while the final poem, We Can Just Be imagines leaving behind the day-to-day world where the language of schedules and plans does not exist…leaving only this moment this moment this moment.
Poetry exists in the moment of reading and Charlotte’s poems use words to create worlds which are both personal and universal. Blending the two takes talent and this collection shows great skill in bringing these qualities together in ways which blend humour with deeper insight. The resulting poems capture moments of emotion, suggesting this is a poet to follow. I’m already looking forward to reading Charlotte’s next collection.
The title ‘Learning from the body’ drew me in. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with my own body, and wondered if this collection by Sue Butler would offer insight or affirmation. After all, women and their bodies have always been problematic… haven’t they?
The text on the back cover describes Sue as a mother, wife and daughter. These were perspectives I could identify with, but Sue is also a doctor, a profession I know little about. Reading the opening poem, The Work of Women, I realised a lack of medical knowledge didn’t matter.
Doctors are half of a relationship and I’ve often been the patient on the other side of the desk or bed. The Work of Women took me back to being stitched after my first experience of childbirth. Here was the pain from a different perspective with a doctor who had learned to sew flesh by making French seams on fabric. I loved the image of the cone of starch white light over her shoulder as Sister did, pushing her wire rim glasses down her nose, and the mother and baby as they begin to learn their separation. The poem segues between present and past with the absorbing catch on skin of needle, lips, fingers, merging with the memory of nuns and how they prayed together for each other. Reading these lines, I felt confident the collection would contain poems I’d understand, despite knowing little about medicine. The lack didn’t matter because good poetry contains spaces for the reader to fill in and this poem was allowing me to do this.
Sue’s poems are precise and well structured. The clarity of the images invites the reader into a different world such as the title poem Learning from the Body which introduces the experience of autopsy. A basement room is separated from pedestrians on the other side of the frosted glass window, where sunlight slips in and burnishes the skin of his thigh to the rich, smooth texture of polished ebony. All the senses are evoked, especially sound; the clang of scalpel against the metal tray, the seep and reek, the rasp and snap which precede his final release. Practical observations of the colour of skin…state of lungs, heart, weight of liver merge with something more personal as the certainty of death trickles over my forehead, down the creases of my nose. All the while outside the pedestrians pass soundlessly to and fro. This is great visual writing.
We all exist in multiple worlds, but are often unaware of what is happening in the next room or across the street. Poetry can shine a light on the unknown, making us aware of different experiences, as well as creating resonance. I felt this particularly strongly in the poems which stepped outside the surgery and hospital.
Whale, Walking away and Walking up Quinaig are centred in the natural world, in places of water, dales and mountains. It’s not difficult to think this is where Sue might find an escape from the ever-present sickness and death encountered in her profession, and maybe searches for answers to the inevitable questions we all ask when faced with the loss of a loved one or on encountering disease with family and friends.
Walking away is one of my favourites in the collection. It takes the reader to the Yorkshire Dales where
falls across the grits
and scars of the dale,
the clints that skin
shins, the grykes that turn
ankles, the wind that whips
chilblains into cheeks.
There are ewes and lambs, lapwings, fossils, and low flying jets, their roar trapped by the wiles of the landscape, alongside a burst of hailstones, hard as pickled conkers. I loved the images of those long gone, the Roman legionnaires and the miners, and how the echo of their lives remains in the landscape
Nature is never far away from Sue’s poems. The Rhododendron is set in a hospital and contrasts the reality of a discussion about an imminent operation with the beauty of flowers with flirting petticoats as they shimmy their ruffles of sugar candy pink, shot with magenta. Ways of looking at a bruise sees it ripe and purple as a plum, sun warm on the palm...flesh soft and wet as unset jelly while the haunting It seemed that some of us were made of nothing describes the shallow water where reeds snagged fragments of coal that crumbled from the seams of the lake.
The theme of family runs through the poems, calling attention to how every doctor and patient brings other people with them. Whether it’s being forced into the choice between taking a child to its martial arts class or contacting Mrs Briggs about her chest pains in Six o’clock, or the new widow in Last rites whose first automatic action after the death of her husband is to put the kettle on for a cup of tea, these poems remind us how no one exists in isolation.
The relationship between a doctor and patient is confidential but in this collection, their communication is opened up for sharing. The reader is offered insight into a normally private world where illness is the trigger for bringing together people, often strangers, but who have become dependent on each other.
It’s always hard to pick out a favourite poem. I liked Striae, the Latin word used to describe stretchmarks. This is probably because I have the scars and found the idea of life lines to be compassionate, especially the reminder of their association with a new person. It’s too easy to think of striae as cosmetic and forget what they really represent.
this is where all arms first stretch
this is where all feet first kick
I was particularly moved by the final poem Cum Scientia Caritas (knowledge with compassion, the motto of the Royal College of General Practitioners). It’s a short poem but for me, the shifting roles for mother and daughter, sums up all of life, succinctly and with beauty.
Age outruns science.
Healing simply fingerstrokes
in the evening sun.
The beloved daughter
now sponges, clothes, quietly sings.
The caring seasons turn.
Grey plait, white pillow.
Cool lavender draughts.
Life neatly closing.
Sue’s collection showed me how medicine and poetry are more linked than I realised. In the midst of statistical data and clinical precision, doctors need to find and care for the person as much to cure and heal the disease. They deal with life and death, which are the bookends of what it means to be human, while poetry also deals with similar fundamental issues.
This collection takes the reader on a journey, one which deals with facts as much as the poetic imagination. The Greek Apollo was the god of poetry as well as healing. The connection between them is old and Learning from the body offers evidence of how this ancient relationship remains true to this day.
I love a new collection. The first encounter is always a privilege because you only get one chance to experience that initial read through. The anticipation, which comes from not knowing what lies ahead, is exciting. I’d already been drawn to the title of this new collection by Susan Darlington, where traumatropic refers to the modification of something, such as the root of a plant, as a result of wounding. Intrigued, I settled down to the title poem, unsure of what to expect, but suspecting I could be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.
Traumatropic Heart begins with an image of a felled oak tree with blackbirds nesting in its crook. So far, so ordinary, then I reached the second stanza.
I swallow them both ~
and they fly – resolute –
into the heavy chambers
of my traumatropic heart.
I felt in the presence of an imagination I could relate to. Here was something special. The depth and breadth of these poems was fascinating, while the mix of otherworldly subjects, alongside day-to-day reality, ensured going out for a walk would never be quite the same again. From now on, I’ll be seeing the natural world in a different way.
Nature has generative cycles, where everything has a purpose, even when abandoned. Antlers in ‘Dry Velvet’ are discarded by the stag in a process of growth and development. But even though they’re no longer of use to the creature, they still have a function. What we leave behind can be used by others and transformations like these reflect one of the themes running through the collection.
‘After the storm has passed‘ is full of mystery such as the stranded whale which ‘heaved itself up and into the waves’. I loved the descriptions of sea glass, worn by the tides, the water both polishing and staining its surface and blurring the edges. It made me think of life and how it can batter us at times, still retaining its beauty but continually reshaping it.
I thought ‘It’s said’ was a perfect poem. It introduces the acorn as having a soul, the heart cracking and ‘breaking for those it left behind while its roots are searching for friends who are already on the other side. The poem contains a delicate transition to the personal in the lines I look at the acorns scattered – under the oak tree- and wonder which one is you’. I don’t think there are many people who’d be unable to connect with this.
‘Autumn’ has a stunning first line; ‘Fox carries autumn on her back‘ and later, she pulls the harvest moon into her eyes. It’s an example of the magic and mystery which flows through the collection, sometimes gorgeous but at other times, more malign. The poem ‘Owl’ is positioned across to the first of several line sketches which I thought beautifully enhanced the collection. Owl is sinister; ‘she can take away your fear if you name the right price’ suggesting an otherworldly power, one which needs to be encountered with care, as the final stanza warns the reader.
She opens her other eye, turns her head,
and fixes you with a tunnel black stare
that freezes you with a fear great enough
to take away all you’ve previously known.
It begs the question, what would we give to lose fear, but what is the price of feeling good again?
The sense of something more powerful, and not always benevolent, is another theme. In ‘Magpie eggs (two for joy)‘ the narrator rears the chicklings until they are two weeks old. The strongest pair are then removed and drowned with ‘the rest of the brood within their sight.’ ‘Demolition‘ also speaks of destruction, as does ‘The Trapeze artists’ where one can ‘feel his fingers start to loosen from my grip’, and the ‘Snow Angels’ which are destined to melt ‘over the roots of skeleton trees and into the sea.’
Susan does not shy away from difficult subjects. ‘Hope‘, introduces the theme of the dead or unborn child. who appears again in ‘Ladybird winter‘, ‘Skimming stones‘, and ‘Stone babies‘. Like learning about the word traumatropic, I needed to do some background reading. ‘Stone Babies’ is the name given to a calcified foetus, which can remain undetected for decades. The thought of carrying multiple stone babies without knowing stayed with me long after the first read. I was haunted by lines in this poem such as ‘in one another they have the only company they’ll ever need‘ and ‘they make an unspoken pact – never to be born’.
The sense of difficult loss reaches off the page many times. In ‘Skimming Stones‘, not only has the narrator purposely ‘twisted a leg off the water boatman’ and squeezed the insect ‘between thumb and finger until blood ran’, there is also the creepy presence of the lost village below the reservoir, where the eighth chime of the underwater church bell tower ‘drowned our child’s laughter’.
it’s always hard to pick out favourites, especially from a collection where every poem contains memorable lines, but standout poems for me were ‘Dolls house‘ with its vivid depiction of anger, and the closing poem ‘Translate the notes‘ which has more wonderful images of transformation;
And then one day
I didn’t even need the piano,
I swept its ivory keys
into the concert of my skin
and laid them in the caesura
between my vertebrae.
If I had to pick out one poem, I’d be torn between ‘Vanilla’ with its tender portrayal of love, and ‘Silver Birch‘ which speaks to the reader about a dryad, or tree spirit. The poem suggests an ambivalent relationship between the spirit and its host. There are hints of cruelty where ‘the cuffs of silver birch bind her wrists’ with ‘splinters of bark scratching flesh. She has the very human ability to feel pain and restriction where ‘The vertical of her body is broken‘ and ‘twigs that were lashed in the gale – have ripped and caught in her tights’. As ‘Vanilla’ was full of soft-sounding words, the first stanzas of Silver Birch are more harsh. ‘Bird song is stifled’ and the ground is parched before a roe deer appears, unheard. There is a powerful visual effect in these lines where the deer
‘scratches its neck against her hipbone
and lazily nibbles at the ferns
that have germinated across her skirt.
This is followed by the effect of its breath. It turns her blood to sap and the dryad begins to photosynthesize, a biological process for creating energy. She becomes even more evanescent until finally disappearing altogether.
This image of dissipation stuck with me. It’s not hard to believe trees have a unique essence of their own, beyond rational understanding. Although recent research suggests trees are capable of communication, the existence of dryads remains a pagan tradition, but one I don’t find hard to have sympathy for. Trees are special. A walk in the woods or forest can be both settling and uplifting and something about this poem resonated on a deeper level. The relationship between carbon dioxide and oxygen is essential for life, and the meeting between the physical deer and immaterial dryad, creates change. Already spirit, she evolves into the air we breathe.
It’s not dissimilar to the loss of loved ones where our memories from the times we knew them remain. For me, the poem touches on the universal experience of life and death. It made me want to lean up against a tree and in doing so, feel a different lifeform, one we don’t fully understand but is integral to our existence. Any lack of scientific knowledge creates a space for poets and other artists to fill, and I thought this poem achieved that beautifully.
Traumatropic Heart captured me. Not only were the glossy pages a pleasure to touch and turn, each poem invited me on a new journey of discovery. I was sorry to reach the final page but delighted to find the debut collection by Susan Darlington, titled ‘Under the Devil’s Moon‘, which I immediately ordered. It’s another collection I’d highly recommend, but to say any more really needs a separate review!
- Traumatropic Heart is published by Selcouth Station
- Under the Devil’s Moon is published by Penniless Press
- Susan can be found on Twitter as @S_sanDarlington
- images from pixabay
Hanging Fire is a chapbook containing 16 beautifully crafted poems. To me, it feels like a collection of pagan poems which speak of life-mysteries as much as day-to-day reality. Each one has the polished feel of careful editing where the removal of superfluous words leaves clean, visual images. Some of these jump off the page while others are more still and quiet. Only poetry can summon such a broad range of emotional responses, and Louise crafts this effect with great skill.
There’s a mixture of styles and design. Traditional equal-length stanzas in Sunset at Samhain, which I read as an account of Persephone’s descent into the underworld, mingle with unbroken lines in The Star Paradox, an unpunctuated flow like a continual thread of an idea, or thought stream. The line ‘at the same time’, is repeated four times in its 17 lines. It should be too much but it isn’t. Instead, the refrain brings together the elements of the poem, where what we see today in the stars has already long since happened.
Star watching is the closest we can get to time travel. It’s like being in a museum where objects are still present, despite their owners being dead, often for millennia. On those rare occasions when you get to hold something of great antiquity, you can close your eyes and imagine the past in the same place as the present. Reading The Star Paradox gifts a true poetic mystery.
Evening: Overlooking Padstow Harbour is another poem without pauses. The reader finds themself alongside the narrator, looking out through ‘a picture window our aquarium…’ where the boundary between earth and water is blurred through phrases like the ‘shoals of sightseers’ who are ‘swimming by’ with ‘bubbles pluming rising into the air…’
This blurring of worlds can also be found in the title poem Hanging Fire. Here the forest ‘Sometimes feels like an underwater world…’ where trees are ‘barnacled with lichen‘, on a ‘coral reef of leaves and pine needles‘, alongside the wonderful image of tidal light ‘ebbing and flowing with the wind‘. Even the quiet is described in watery terms as ‘ a submerged hush.’ The final lines of this poem refer to the Hanging Fire sculpture by Cornelia Parker.
It seems as old as the forest; an ancient rusting
fire, a flame that perpetually burns.
The flames are symbolic images of perpetual fire, hanging from the trees in a circle, as if fragments of the sun have fallen and been captured in cast iron.
Something I love is when poetry introduces me to something new. Thanks to the internet, I willingly fall down rabbit holes full of associations. With Louise’s collection, it was the title poem Hanging Fire which led me to the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail by Cornelia Parker and others, before the rabbit hole extended off into different directions.
The trail looks wonderful and it’s a shame it’s so far away from the northern town where I live. Cornelia Parker has several sculptures there, including one of leaves positioned like fungi on the bark of a tree. With this in mind, re-reading Louise’s collection made me think about sculptures as poems.
Poems can raise visual images in your mind. The moon poems Selene and Moonbathing made me think of the silver light of a full moon, rising over fields and woods in the distance. Visual art triggers specific words and phrases. It’s a two-way relationship and, thanks to Louise, I’m now wondering about this further.
An example of sculpture as poetry is Strandbeest, a kinetic structure by Theo Jansen. Strandbeest is a giant object with moving parts which is propelled by the wind down a beach. The giant skeleton, constructed from plastic tubing, moves with incredible grace. It’s also a little disturbing, almost the stuff of nightmares, like a poem can touch home in ways you might not have chosen to experience.
One such poem in Hanging Fire was A Ritual to Escape Madness at Nightfall. The opening line ‘When the moon rises, I must gather my wits‘ set me up to expect a sabbat, or some other ritual ceremony, maybe in the woods at night. I didn’t expect what followed. It’s an example of a poem containing the unexpected. Its final lines ‘This is the last time, the last time, the last…‘ shares the universal cry of the addict who knows they must stop, but only has the power to think this when in the grasp of a fix.
It’s always hard to select a favourite poem from a collection but Theia ticked all the boxes. I like poems that take on the voice of inanimate objects and I loved the imagery of the collision between the earth and Theia, an impact where tons of molten material hit the earth’s atmosphere, before congealing to create the moon in ‘a first, only, kiss…’ As if this were not enough, I was unfamiliar with the story of Theia, so learned something new. For me, it contained all the elements of perfection.
Outside of Hanging Fire, Louise has written other poems including this one, published by One Hand Clapping.
St. Michael’s Churchyard (Autumn)
Even on the calmest evening,
when the trees stand mute
and the leaves of ivy-covered
graves are motionless,
nothing is still.
White winter pansies shake
their neurasthenic heads on
slender stalks and I remember
your hospital gown; the thinness
of your limbs; your breath’s last rush.
Sounds carry, even in
this airless space – voices
of lives that are not our own
insist on being heard.
a radio blares. Each evening
there’s another final harvest.
Hanging Fire is Louise’s first collection. It’s full of magic, mystery and the promise of more to come. I’m looking forward to seeing what follows next year and would recommend Louise as a poet to watch out for in the future.
- Hanging Fire by Louise Longson is published by Dreich
- Louise tweets as Louise Poetical https://twitter.com/LouisePoetical
- images without captions in this post are all copyright free from pixabay
Each of the sixteen poems in A Glimmer o Stars by Lynn Valentine, has been published in Lynn’s Angus Scots as well as English. On my first reading of this lovely new pamphlet, I covered up the English so I could experience the Scots.
There were places where I wasn’t sure of the meaning, but found speaking them out loud offered useful clues, like haun haudin for ‘hand holding’, efternuin for ‘afternoon’, and I sik yir for ‘I seek your’. I’m so glad Hedgehog Poetry Press did this.
Sometimes, text on the page can reveal less than the voice does and I’m now thinking how lovely it would be to listen to these poems while ‘haudin the buik in your haun‘ at the same time!
A Glimmer o Stars contains poems of great tenderness. Set in Scotland with ‘the smell of smoked fish that still makes my veggie mouth water’, and ‘the red of the cliffs bright at any time of year’ (The Language of Home), alongside the ‘small snow of lambs‘ and ‘daffodils drowning in hailstones’ with ‘sly winds starting low then taking over the whole length of sky‘ (A Lost Friend).
There are poems about family and friends, they speak of love and loss, while being a testament to those no longer with us. The theme of remembrance runs through the book. There’s the ‘boy in class, the one that could always make us laugh’ who now has their name ‘written on the harbour stone, I mark your passing every time I’m home‘ (A drowning).
For the mother, the weather map on the tv represented the locations of her family, it ‘tethered and tied us to her coordinates, located her son in the centre of things, held my sisters’ summers in the same spot as hers’ (My Mother’s Complaint).
Meanwhile, the father ‘whistled as if the world was his alone’ before starting up the snowplough for ‘his careful handling of a snoozing town, as he cleared the roads‘ (My Father at 4 a.m.). These are lovely poems of remembrance where, as in so much Lynn’s work, the everyday mingles with the universal, as in Opening.
We are changed, marked by this year –
a furrow of losses ploughed into the soil –
the earth trembles, crows watch,
our hands raw from prayers.
Love and loss are huge themes but Lynn treats them with delicacy, finding meaning in small details and running a thread of subtle humour throughout.
As well as remembrance, these poems speak of ‘involuntary childlessness’ in ways so powerful they seemed to jump off the page. ‘My barren belly concaves in the wet afternoon, my waterproof the only second skin I’ll own‘ (Sheela Na Gig, Rodel). Visiting a rag well with ‘nervous giggles‘ speaks of places where hope and prayers are manifest in gifts to the earth. ‘We knotted our wishes round the well…white for a child, blue for a cure.’
The reader wants there to be a happy ending but the truth is more painful. ‘You away by midsummer, me and my belly empty‘ (Clootie Well).
Poetry has a way of giving voice to unspeakable things so they can be shared. Reading Lynn’s poems is like opening locked doors, and finding you’re not alone after all. This can be a great comfort, in particular when it comes to difficult subjects.
The title of the pamphlet comes from the poem Snow Blind, one of my favourites. The opening lines pull you in and carry you on to its sad, but beautiful, ending.
She can sense the emptying of the sky
though her sight’s nearly gone, her eyes
a glimmer o stars. This cold snap
came on quick and now everyone flies.
She can’t hear the housemartins
anymore, their small cheeps
above the fields. She listens to the geese
going north, their song of for snow, for snow.
By winter, if she’s spared, she’ll be
snow-blind, neither use more ornament
to anyone. She’ll choose a course,
~go travelling for snow or sun.
There’s so much to like and love in A Glimmer o Stars. Lynn’s poems are full of stunning images like the sparrows with cold children, where the poet saves loose dog hair, ‘pushing it into trees to warm their nests‘ (A lost friend).
The line ‘hope was measured in small things’ returns to the theme of memories, and how small objects can carry so much meaning. The line describing a street in Prague, filled with bundles of wool and shelves of tins, put me in mind of a collection of poems like this pamphlet, where each blank page is an opportunity for the poet to ‘…weave, shuttle and loom, knot gaps for other peoples dreams’ (Lacuna).
The image of weaving reminded me of ‘rhapsode‘, from where we get ‘rhapsody’. In Ancient Greece, the name was used for the performer of epic poetry such as Homer, and can be translated as ‘sewing songs together’. Lynn takes the imagery of the loom one step further, by knotting gaps for other people’s dreams. I interpreted this as ‘resonance’.
We turn to poetry for different reasons; comfort, pleasure, recommendation, or simple curiosity. Sometimes, when a line resonates, it becomes part of the attraction. I liked ‘hands raw from prayers‘ (Opening). The words not only reinforce the passage of time, but speak of longing and desire, as evidenced in Pickers, where the womb of the earth quickens, birthing potatoes as children.
Pickers also offers examples of Lynn’s lovely, gentle rhymes, so subtle they risk being missed, especially when reading to yourself. I’d suggest reading them aloud to fully realise their cleverness and subtlety. These rhymes are as much about the sound a word leaves behind, or the shape of it in your mouth and on your tongue. It’s the best type of rhyming, as in ‘field and leave’, ‘work and earth’, and the repetition of ‘ing’ in the final stanza.
Readers are shown the power of language in these poems, not only to communicate but to physically mirror who we are. Language can both unite and separate, but I prefer to think of it as linking people together and Lynn is gifted at this.
It’s also clear that Lynn treasures language. The opening poem The Language of Home (after Roger Robinson), sets the tone of the pamphlet with its closing words I will take this gift and pass it on, write my words, sing my songs.
The closing poem All sunflowers turn, is another of my favourites. It describes Lynn packing the weather into a bag, with the intention of emptying it onto her mother’s bed, a gentle repetition of the weather theme introduced in My Mother’s Complaint.
Memory is fixed in the setting sun, which is always different, always beautiful. It represents the time of day when we’re reminded of the breadth and depth of a world bigger and greater than we are, and provides a beautiful image to end the pamphlet.
I will open your eyes to the reddening sky,
turn your head westwards, stay for always.
What are poems after all, if not attempts to pin life onto the page for sharing, to be read in quiet places, or as windows to be looked through by strangers.
The best poems are like rags tied to the trees at Clootie Well, made and left behind for others.
Lynn’s poems are physical evidence of presence in a world of multiple voices. If you want to write poetry, but don’t know where to start, I’d suggest reading A Glimmer o Stars. The poems offer ways into poetry which are accessible and have meaning, while also demonstrating how the heart of a poem often lies in its unexpected twists and reminders of universal experience, something Lynn does so well. I loved these poems and am looking forward to reading more when Life’s Stink and Honey, Lynn’s first full collection, is published by Cinnamon Press in 2022.
A Glimmer o Stars is published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press. The print version has sold out at Hedgehog, but the e-book is still available. Alternatively, a print version can be ordered via Lynn’s website lynnvalentine.com where you can read more about Lynn and her poetry. Finding a Voice Lynn Valentine is another page worth visiting, and lastly, to see and hear Lynn herself, watch The Aunties, a poem not from this collection but one which includes the line Life’s Stink and Honey, to be published next year by Cinnamon Press.
Motherhood is a universal club women take for granted, until they find their entrance is barred. The poems in When I think of my Body as a Horse by Wendy Pratt are about the struggle to gain membership to this club. They are beautifully written poems, but not easy to read because they deal with the death of Wendy and her husband Chris’s daughter, Matilda. The collection is a testimony, not only of Matilda’s life but also the siblings who were conceived, then lost.
The book follows the journey Wendy and Chris made as they tried to start a family. Like so many others, they had no idea what the future held. This is poignantly shown in the intimate Sleep (for Chris), which contains a terrible prescience in its final lines. A single star in the sky
can stare straight in at our nudity
our utter innocence.
With no indication of what lies ahead, we are innocent of future delights and tragedies. Instead, we live from day to day and in The Language of Pre-Motherhood, Wendy is unable to find the moment of change when the decision was made to become parents.
I don’t remember a discussion,
but there must have been one
there must have been a catalyst
the thinnest slice of the thinnest razor
splitting the moment
when we went from being two
to the imaginary three
Membership of the Motherhood Club guarantees common ground, one which offers affinity with strangers and provides topics of conversation which can be relied on. You gain automatic entry with the birth of your first child, while the months prior to birth are like standing in front of its open doors. looking inside. This is the time when baby shopping is validated, and you’re exposed to the vast range of products you had no idea existed. You think of your own mother and grandmother, and how it’s your turn to perpetuate the archetype of motherhood. Wendy describes this in the language of sainthood.
And I waited meekly for my turn
as one by one the others were beatified
rising up: a rapture of motherhood…
… Until there was no one left
who spoke my language.
The language was infertility. Diagnosis tells the reader there are problems on both sides, with just two lines representing 60 individual months of hope and subsequent loss.
The five years we’ve been trying
to conceive: a waste of time.
I’m not entirely sure where Matilda first appears. It might be the thirteenth poem titled Embryo Transfer, where Wendy and Chris have to wait 14 days to know if an embryo has embedded.
In exactly fourteen days,
the morning will arrive and you may
be carted away; a mote of a dream
on the razor edge slant of the morning’s light.
Until then let me keep you with me,
held fast with blood and imagination,
longing and love.
Two poems later, there is the wonderfully titled Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, dedicated to the memory of M. If this is Matilda, these are the poems where she exists. Nesting is about shopping for ‘tiny baby bits’ and putting the Moses basket together. My Favourite Memory describes feeling like a Russian doll with infinite babies inside, and the sensation of being kicked ‘down into my cervix, pushing up under my ribs’. The poems fill the reader with hope until Tachycardia tells us something has gone wrong. The title is the medical term for a heart rate over 100 beats per minute and this appears to be the point where the baby dies.
The aftermath is Air, a poem which refers to a funeral, white coffin, the tiny grave and contains the heartbreaking cry ‘Houdini Girl, how did you disappear? Air is followed by The Circle of Sisters where Wendy describes the shift from expectant mother to becoming the woman who was different.
I became an embarrassment. I was no longer
a sister of the circle, but my body
couldn’t forget their dance, so I danced
in the shadow of my sisters, and shouted
my daughter’s story through the gaps.
The drive to become a mother is primaeval. Women are biologically, socially and culturally guided towards parenthood from their earliest moments. Every month contains the possibility of pregnancy, too often followed by loss. In Warning, the reader is reminded how the painful process manifests itself. Like the single reference to five years of trying to conceive in Diagnosis, this poem ends with the painfully brief sharing of two further bereavements.
All the time I am warning others,
My body has become a broken machine
sparking life then promptly distinguishing it.
I warn myself not to get too happy,
not to get too comfortable, or too complacent
with the tiny heartbeats in my womb. But I do,
and death comes, twice more.
The theme of hares runs throughout the collection. They include the wonderful When Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, Hare Enters the Bedroom, and The Hare Refuses to Speak. Hares are associated with rebirth, the coming of spring and new beginnings. In Hare we’re told,
My husband buys me hare-themed
gifts; we have hare cushions
and hare notebooks.
Hares are also icons for fertility and a symbol of hope, but in this collection, it’s the pattern of loss which continues. Sixth Birthday shows Matilda’s memory living on as Wendy imagines a day spent with Chris and their daughter at the seaside.
In Seven, Wendy visits Matilda’s grave and in Packing the Maternity Clothes Away, another step on the journey of acceptance is painfully taken.
How limp they all look
how dispossessed, how empty.
It’s like I dropped them here,
when I heard she was leaving,
and returned seven years later.
Eight revisits some of the time Wendy and Chris spent with Matilda.
I held you like a doll.
I should have touched
those still-wet curls,
sucked those little fingers
kissed your foot soles
while you were warm.
In Nine, the annual ritual is played out again, with this poem containing what, for me, is one of the saddest lines in the collection.
The pause where we
wait to hear your first breath
has lasted nine years.
After a bereavement, common phrases are used by family, friends and strangers, such as time heals, you’ll get over it, you can always try again and so on. The truth is, time doesn’t heal and you don’t get over it. All you can do is learn to live with loss and it’s within the process of living where something eventually shifts. This is beautifully shown in Nine Years of Mourning.
There is a snap of umbilicus.
We slide apart. I step away.
Today I climb out of my skin;
my mourning dress. I am nude and white
as a stripped willow branch. I leave the dress behind,
stiff with the sweat of surviving.
The following title poem, When I Think of my Body as a Horse, speaks more about this acceptance.
I do not blame it for lost babies,
it did its best. I do not blame
myself for lost babies. I did my best.
I ride my body in a slow companionship.
Comforting it at the end of the day
and I say, Body, you are beautiful,
you are beautiful,
There is no language adequate to describe the loss of a child or children, and no social vocabulary for childlessness by circumstance rather than choice. Becoming a family is taken for granted and most couples are not taught how to live fulfilling lives on their own, or given advice for dealing with years of failed attempts to conceive.
In these 50 poems, Wendy has started the essential process of finding ways to speak about losing your babies. In doing so, she has created a collection which will resonate with anyone who has been through a similar situation, or knows somebody who has.
The book ends with hope of a different kind. At the end of the day, two people chose to make a life together, neither of them knowing what lay ahead. Eventually, the time arrives to draw a line under the failed attempts for a viable pregnancy. The decision is made to abandon the fertility clinics and rounds of IVF. The couple accept they are two, and not three or more. The people who met and fell in love continue to exist, and it’s recognising and cherishing this partnership that matters most of all.
When I Think of My Body as a Horse, by Wendy Pratt, is the winner of the 2020 International Book & Pamphlet Competition judged by Imtiaz Dharker & Ian McMillan. The book can be purchased from the Poetry Society website here
When I Think of My Body as a Horse is Wendy’s third full collection. It follows Museum Pieces, published by Prolebooks and Gifts the Mole Gave Me published by Valley Press.
Wendy’s website, Wendy Pratt Writing, contains further details of publications and poetry courses.