No fewer than seven new titles from the contemporary poetry scene, from pamphlets to paperbacks to anthologies, make up this month’s best new poetry picks. As always it’s Mab Jones who we’re thanking for highlighting this varied crop this August.
Rebel Blood Cells, Jamie Woods (Punk Dust Poetry, price: £2.99-£9.95)
As the title of this pamphlet – Rebel Blood Cells – suggests, the body can engage in dangerous rebellions – in this case, cells “recruit and disturb, disrupting means of production, / sabotaging the chromosomes”, as the author is diagnosed with a form of rare leukaemia. Jamie Woods tells the chronological story of his experience – of feeling unwell, being diagnosed, and successfully going through treatment. This is followed by some poems describing PTSD, however, and the book ends with the notion that, whilst the body may be recovered, the mind and emotions still have work to do.
The poems here are precise, powerful, and punchy, with a succinct and direct style that is wound through with a light lyrical sense and various pop culture references. Rebel Blood Cells is an accessible tome, therefore, although the mix of poppy and medical makes for a very affecting read, sharpening the scalpel of the story, as it were. There are sparks of humour, however, as well as sprints of wordplay, alongside the trauma and terminology, where “Hope is infused with ATRA and arsenic trioxide”. Heights, depths and sideways views are all here, in a slender book that packs a hefty and very powerful punch.
Mike Ferguson’s concrete poetry has caught my eye on Twitter/X, so Concrete In The Parallelogram I asked after in hopes of a review copy – and I’m so glad one came my way. Upon opening, the reader is greeted by myriad shapes and experiments in form and font: there are wings, shapes, repetition, triangles, columns, and visual puns. Fonts change size and density, spacing and starting place throughout the pieces, although the type in most remains the same, which is usually one of those resembling an olde style typewriter text.
A single word might appear on a page, or the page might be filled, almost top to bottom and side to side, dense as a wall of bricks. Words may be scattered, or splayed; they might overlay each other; they could, as they do in one case, spin upside down, or in another seem to sway like a column of smoke. Words within words are cleverly ‘brought out’, highlighted through form and line change; one poem, seesaw sonnet, plays with simple, sea-related sentences that echo “a sailor went to sea, sea, sea / to see what he could see, see, see”, with a touch of “she sells sea shells”. Altogether, Concrete In The Parallelogram is a lively, quick-witted, clever, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Octopus Mind, Rachel Carney (Seren, price £9.99)
From the body to the mind, in a sense, with this debut collection by Rachel Carney, Octopus Mind. Neurodiversity and the ‘invisible disability’ that comes with such are themes here, with the octopus acting as a metaphor for the mind and even self – “It took me years / to tame the octopus of me…”. Self-knowing and self-understanding are key in the author’s journey, as poems such as You See Yourself, Self-Portrait As Pieces Of A Saint, and Self-Portrait After A Party attest, with the latter poem beginning with an ending that cleverly summarises the poet’s discomfort and awkwardness as social gatherings: “closing the door at last / I slip into space / no longer stuck with legs like awkwards trunks of fragile flesh”.
A prose poem towards Octopus Mind‘s conclusion paints a lurid, almost surrealist picture of The Test Carney undergoes to, we assume, diagnose her condition, although the final piece of the book – Self-Portrait As Neurodivergent Tree – offers hope, with images of such trees “bursting into bloom”. Surely Carney is doing the same as a poet, as I find her work to be incredibly rich and refreshing. Here, you can lie down beneath her (poe-)tree, and marvel at the beautiful blossoms, leaves, and fruits above. There might also be twisted vines, strange birds, and unusual, iridescent insects. A wonderful collection.
Latch, Rebecca Goss (Carcanet, £9.35-£12.99)
Latch, Rebecca Goss’ fourth collection is on first reading, rich, thick, and full of complexity, with concentrated ideas and complex strings of imagery, and it requires several readings for me to immerse into it and be able to begin penning my thoughts. Some poets write poems that are like songs, and they might be in the genre of indie-pop (like Jamie Woods), or they might be something strange, more jazzy, classical, but encompassing notes of folk songs, hymn, and perhaps something older, without a name at all, as is the case here.
Reconnecting to roots is the overriding theme of Latch, and reconnecting to land in particular. And so, there are houses, farms, fields, trees, barns, alleys, gardens, and other places and spaces that speak of “countryside”. Some poems are memories; others are meditations or observations. In all cases, there’s depth and grace that give the poems beauty but also a sense of bigger, much vaster things: time, for instance. Loss, for another. In all, the ‘song’ of this book is one that seeps and sings through to the very bones. Deep, thoughtful, and affecting.
Saved To Cloud, Kate Foley (Arachne Press, price: £4-£9.99)
In poems that are deft, fresh, and full of life, Kate Foley skips around in Saved To Cloud, taking a tour through memory, and so we find ourselves: in Amsterdam; in a cave; thinking about a father, or grandmother; listening to the call of a rag-and-bone man; beachcombing, and walking; perusing books, or using a smartphone. One poem is about an egg; another, about religion and the concept of God. The meaning of life – if there is one – runs though these poems:
‘What’s it all for?’
my father asked grumpily
before he died.
Human nature and nature itself are further themes. In one poem, Foley seeks to describe a starling murmuration – a subject I’ve seen other poets try, and have also attempted myself; poets are drawn to the magic and mystery of such, it seems – and there are images of nature also, including a keen sense of its fragility and the damage we are now causing to it. We only have this world once – “Will it build again, / our earth?” – and these poems seem to suggest that we have one life, too, through their immersion into and enjoyment of existence and the everyday. This makes Saved To Cloud inherently enjoyable, and a real pleasure to peruse.
Not Quite An Ocean, Elizabeth M. Castillo (Nine Pens, price: £7.50)
Not Quite An Ocean is – forgive the pun – awash with water and sea imagery. Divided into sections, each of these is named after a particular stretch of ocean: Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic, Indian. The book’s cover is covered in waves, and there’s a similar sense of movement throughout the book, via language that is sensory, vibrant, sometimes graphic, and contained within forms that strengthen their effect on the reader through the use of tools such as refrain and repetition. Some pieces perhaps come under the description of ‘list poem’.
As such, I got a sense that these would be great poems to hear read aloud, but they also work very well on the page, a twin feat which isn’t very common in my experience. Elizabeth M. Castillo’s themes are varied, but one, as the title Not Quite An Ocean suggests, is the judging and measuring of women as ‘not enough’. Not being enough generally (because not being male) equates, then, to the individual not feeling (good) enough, too.
This is a culturally ingrained notion and, as such – and because of Castillo’s awareness and experience of this – there’s an anger in these poems, alongside a kind of wounding / vulnerability. It gives them a fire, though the main sense is of water – flowing and finding a way forward despite such repression / restriction. Powerful poems, eloquently elucidated and marvellously wrought: Castillo is a new poet to watch.
Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things, Matthew M.C. Smith [ed.] (Black Bough Poetry, price: £11)
Over 50 poets have contributed to the fantastic anthology, Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things, in which imagist poems are interspersed with the odd very short piece of flash fiction or an illustration. The poems are generally ten lines or less, with some exceptions, and what this translates to is both a more exciting reading experience, with each poem brightly glistening or darkly glinting in its own way before you move on, as well as a chance to note links and threads between pieces much more readily, which is both satisfying and interesting.
For example, the use of the words ‘tomb’ and ‘papyrus’ resound through early poems; towards the book’s conclusion, a clutch hold a final image of ‘gold’, leading up to the last line of the final poem, which describes gold as the “loneliest colour”. This thoughtful editing and placement of poems again adds greatly to the reading experience. Contained within the short pieces are vast worlds – swathes and swarms of space and meaning.
It’s pretty amazing how very little, very small poems can hold such, but it’s proof positive of another great poet’s most famous lines: that you can “see a World in a Grain of Sand… / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” (William Blake). Absorbing, meditative, and encompassing aeons, reading this slim volume is very much like that – despite its size, and that of its poems, what it holds is huge. With superb pictures illuminating scenes along the way, too, Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things is a spectacular read.
words MAB JONES