Six fresh dispatches of poetry for April taken into consideration by Mab Jones, with two publishers – Prototype and Welsh faves Seren – each supplying a brace of books, plus another pair with eyebrow-raising titles.
Little Dead Rabbit is a very pleasing, beautifully-made poetry book (Prototype, price: £16.50) sits large in the hands and feels a little like a picture book for adults with its thick, creamy pages and promise of artfully rendered visuals. Of course, it isn’t a picture book, but the interplay of abstract, experimental die cuts sweeping through the pages alongside the text is very exciting. Neither does this lovely tome come off as mass-produced, instead, possessing a strong handmade feel; it is just the joyous artistry, and artful sense of play that brings the picture book analogy to my mind, and it’s an extremely positive thing.
The poems, too, are highly imaginative, jumping this way and that, rather like a living rabbit – or, the spirit of one. Profound, elegiac insights interweave with a clear love of art, words, and language that’s refreshing, even stimulating; whilst observation and themes of death draw us deeper, this liveliness assures us of life’s brilliance and beauty, its ability to move us beyond loss and, ultimately, to heal. Little Dead Rabbit is a startling, uplifting, exciting, and supremely remarkable book of poetry indeed.
Another really interesting collection from boundary-pushers Prototype (price: £12), Island Mountain Glacier features strange linear drawings on its front cover that, when scrutinised, reveal themselves as a nude male and female form. Scribbles on the back cover are of mountainous terrain – or, rather, breasts. These illustrations are also by the author and point to a Lennon-esque sense of the absurd or even a Shrigley-like sense of the vulgar; although these British-facing references perhaps undermine the originality of the Dutch author, which is copious, and no doubt one of many reasons why Vegter was, in fact, the first female poet laureate of the Netherlands.
Philosophical or silly, unsettling or reassuringly everyday, these are poems which are described as ‘elastic’ and seem, to me, to have the same tensile properties of rubber bands – they can stretch back or hold disparate concepts together; lie still or ping, with sometimes starling force, into your face. The subjects are extremely varied, and the writing is daring, lively, even experimental, so that the reader never quite knows what they will get – which makes, of course, for a fantastic reading experience.
Song, singing, and music are central to this collection, As If To Sing, (Seren, price: £9.99), by a poet who is also an accomplished musician. The origins of poetry as a spoken and sung form are, therefore, as you would expect, honoured in these equally lyrical poems, although the music they portray might be of sadness (“I heard a woman’s grief”; “the blood-red rivers sing”); of the mundane (“the paper van’s bale”); or even of a passing repetition (“A pipe knocks in an engine room”). Tractors sing and the sea applauds; lanes have tongues and winds ‘flamenco’; music, dance, and audio are everywhere, and the absence of music or sound is also noted (“This house keeps a silence”).
This exploration of sensory language, images, and associations winds through poems that examine multivarious subjects, from the poet’s own memories and experiences to imagined situations and scenarios to flights of fancy that seem like fairytales, parables, or myths. This is a poet who, despite the lyrical aspect of the writing, offers up poetry that is very finely, very thoughtfully honed. Not a word is wasted. The title poem of the book looks at loss, cutting through to the heart of the reader with its succinctly articulated narrative, and this is a book which, as a whole, also cuts through. Songs can strike right through to our souls; so can poems, as this brilliant book shows.
This (Seren, price: £9.99) is a book of two parts – the first, entitled 163 Days, after the poet’s longest period of hospitalisation, is a kind of diary poem, documenting the poet’s experiences over this time, alongside the case notes written by doctors and nurses on her medical record. As you would expect, Hodgson’s view is highly personal and subjective, whilst the notes that follow are clipped, cool, and seemingly objective; except that, differences between the poet’s experience and the medical notes often emphasise how soulless and even disconnected from the patient’s lived experience the latter of these are. Also documented is the invasive nature of the procedures the poet undergoes, the inhumane treatment that she is sometimes subject to (including abuse by one nurse, and a near-fatal error by another), and her shifting, flailing sense of self at a time when “Normalcy is long gone”. It’s very powerful writing indeed, and profoundly affecting, especially when considering that the poet in these poems is still a teenager.
In the second part of the book, Hodgson learns to navigate life as a disabled adult, in poems that are no less potent. Poignantly, we find that the poet is still at the mercy of the medical establishment – “The doctor raises his eyebrows. As an emperor, / this signs my death warrant” – and there are further shocking images of the body, whether that of the poet or another’s, e.g. seeing “a mother / with her womb inside out”, people “who sell their bodies whole”, and stomach lining “that peeps / out from the surgical opening / like a flower”. As a book, it’s unsettling, uncomfortable, and often challenging; but also the writing is consistently evocative, visceral, and visually stunning. Remarkable.
Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic (Verve Poetry Press, price: £10.99) explores the author’s experience of living with type one diabetes after having been diagnosed as a young child of just six. Although in one poem James writes that “Diabetes lurks in all corners”, and whilst these poems document her struggles with the life-threatening condition, there is also, within this finely written book, hope and heartache, family and friendship, love, loss, and a wide-reaching life, with illness being just one aspect of existence – “Not all of my childhood was illness”.
Whilst the poet admits that, sometimes, “I smile until my smile / becomes a dinghy that could carry me / across the choppiest oceans”, and there are unsettling articulations of social awkwardness, ageing, and dying / death, there are also images of kissing, baking, drinking tea, lovemaking, and other tender moments. This is a book which therefore encompasses all of our human experience, and doesn’t shy away from the more difficult times or the calmer, quieter moments that can often escape our attention or be taken for granted. Tender, sensitive, and insightful, it’s also beautifully written, of course.
I asked to read and review this poet’s collection, Life’s Stink & Honey, (Cinnamon Press, price: £9.99) after being wowed by a couple of their poems that I saw over on the Twittersphere. So, I probably was an admirer already, but I hoped that this book would make me a fan – and, it has. The fairytale elements to some of these pieces really appeal to me, including the darker and more gothic side of such; the poems in Scots dialect further delight, adding a fetching sense of voice and an intimacy and immediacy that’s compelling.
Valentine is a poet with a strong lyrical sense and a talent for transmuting the everyday into something striking, poignant, or magical. There are profound moments as characters inhabiting the poems – whether that is the poet or another person – encounter animals or ancient carvings, stand in a field or visit a library. Even looking out from a window – an ordinary experience for most of us on a daily basis – provides a richesse of observation and understanding, an opportunity to note “the everlasting orange and blue”. Unique lines gave me, over and over, a kind of ‘poet envy’, wishing I could write like this. A truly beautiful and life-affirming book that, despite loss and life’s many challenges, brims with an appreciation for the world.
words MAB JONES
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