As its title suggests, Jacqueline Saphra’s latest collection, All My Mad Mothers, is about women and family. Saphra’s poems examine the multifaceted nature of femininity, individual and universal, moving within, between and beyond the roles designated to women. This applies particularly to familial roles she inhabits – mother, daughter, stepdaughter – but also examined is the woman as guardian, friend, witch and – the other half of the title – madwoman.
The collection grabs us from the beginning with the short and intense “In the Winter of 1962 My Mother…”. This is written in free verse – a paragraph made up of a single, sparsely punctuated sentence that carries with it a sense of panic and lack of control – as the persona’s mother appears tries to run from her life:
until she found herself on Hyde Park Corner
traveling round and round in shrinking circles
not sure how to execute the move outwards
into another lane never having been
properly taught how to make an exit.
Here we have a woman trying to escape not the role of motherhood (she carries her infant daughter as she flees), but rather seeking “another lane”, another life as it were, for her and her child. All throughout the collection, the bond between parent and child is emphasised. Though the first poem is raw and gripping, other poems address this relationship more tenderly, like “When I think of you”, a mantra dedicated to Saphra’s son, reminiscing his childhood. It is a simple list poem which is nevertheless imbued with a feeling of intimacy and longing, with its references to old arguments about the practicality of shoes that no doubt recall for us similar, past discussions with our own mothers (or children)...
This is an excerpt of a review by Kai Durkin of Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers. Saphra will be giving the StAnza lecture; for more information on Saphra at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.
There’s an unexplained comfort in reading Luck is the Hook despite many of the poems dealing with pain and, often, discomfort. Each one contains a space devoid of explanation, a sacred place of intimacy for both the poet and the reader.
Awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2014, Luck is the Hook is Imtiaz Dharker’s seventh collection of poetry illustrated with 23 of her own drawings. These are black and white, each image relating to particular poems, and in their stylistic simplicity create a sense of unity within the collection. All drawings share a common sense of mystery, conveying emotions and allowing the reader to fully immerse himself (or herself) in the book and poet’s thinking.
Dharker’s use of metaphorical language has the exquisite capability of turning poems on their head and challenging preconceptions. In ‘Six pomegranate seeds’, both the title and the first stanza, which describes how the seeds burst on the tongue, suggest a descriptive, naturalistic poem. However, the second stanza brings an unexpected shift in tone, transcending what the pomegranate seeds are into:
the taste of the world I remembered,
the colour of gardens
before I threw away the sun.
Dharker brings these lines to life, creating a tonal intimacy, but still preserves its universal, impersonal reach, taking the world and the way people interact to a mystical, surreal level. There are poems where elephants walk across the frozen Thames and where pieces of broken china shift to create a new, wise, patient entity. Here swearing and praying is difficult to distinguish and only the rain can tell them apart. Not only her themes, but also her language contribute to the otherworldly effect. Dharker’s descriptions are clever, vivid and evocative....
This is an excerpt of a review by Dominik Szczepaniak of Imtiaz Dharker Ilya Kaminsky's Deaf Republic. For more information on Kaminsky at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.
... The Perseverance takes its title from a pub on Broadway Market, where Antrobus’s father used to drink, and from a fine sestina structured around the end-words: perseverance, minute, before, father, disappear, laughter. With the shuffling of these words, time is also shuffled, rendered irrelevant, or terribly relevant, but nevertheless an artefact. In the final tercet, before is carefully placed;
I still hear popping in for a minute, see him disappear.
We lose our fathers before we know it.
I am still outside THE PERSERVERANCE, listening for the laughter.
The phrase ‘listening for the laughter’ has power and nuance. Is there laughter, or not? Can Antrobus hear it? Is he listening for the ghostly laughter of the past? Is he ready to join in the bodily laughter that comes from joy? Is it ‘mirth [that] can laugh and talk, but cannot sing’ (James Thompson, quoted at the start of ‘Sound Machine’)? Both joy and grief are integral to this collection. A wild patience keeps Antrobus waiting outside The Perseverance, and the results are joyful, hospitable, generous and forgiving. He perhaps has even forgiven Ted Hughes, having blocked out the text of ‘Deaf School’ in a cathartic statement (‘Deaf School by Ted Hughes’), having written ‘After Reading ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi River’ (‘No one calls the river unaware or simple pools;’) and having won the 2018 Ted Hughes Award. Ultimately, Antrobus transcends his subject matter and the hearing world with engaging wisdom:
There is such a thing as a key confidently cut
that accepts the locks it doesn’t fit.
Call it a boy busking on the canal path singing
to no one but the bridges
and the black water under them.
(‘I Want the Confidence of’)
... Anaxagorou is British of Cypriot descent; a complicated position, as Cyprus is a place that is often ‘omitted’ from a ‘list[s of] Britain’s ex-colonies’; a name that, upon hearing it, his ‘Mates would say where?’ (‘Ecumene’). It is lonely to be placed at the fringe of the fringe of an Empire’s history, where one might only ‘[find] myself a murmur’, even in corrective post-colonial histories (‘Four Small Indiscretions’). Again and again, Anaxagorou recounts being asked about where he is really from, and such is the relentlessness of this line of inquiry that it sometimes seems he is asking himself the question.
But he knows the answer, even as a racist outside a KFC drives ‘his skull into [the narrator’s] like a belief’ (‘After the Formalities’). Indeed, this is the answer: a story of inter-generational trauma, tumbling from his grandparents down to him, that he maps out quite expertly. But is there healing in this? Possibly, possibly not. Put another way: does an untold story of survival, once told, become ‘myth or ganglion’? (‘Ecumene’)
This is an excerpt of a review by Nick Mulgrew of Anthony Anaxagorou's After the Formalities. For more information on Anaxagorou at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.
Deaf Republic begins with a gunshot. As an innocent deaf boy falls to the ground, the townspeople choose silence over the sound of a child’s body hitting the street, a sound that would be filled with pain and injustice: ‘The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water’. The rest of the collection tells the events unfolding in an occupied town, Vasenka, in the midst of a political conflict; Vasenka engulfed in silence. A town where people communicate using sign language, yearning for freedom.
Born in the Ukraine Ilya Kaminsky is a hard-of-hearing translator, professor, critic and a poet. After Musica Humana and Dancing in Odessa, Deaf Republic is his third poetry collection published in English. The collection feels more like a script split into poems than a poetry collection. Every poem follows directly from the previous one, all of them connecting to tell a story that is so cinematic and engaging that at times I had to remind myself I am reading a book, not watching a play or a movie. Split into two acts, the collection first follows the dramatic relationship of Alfonso and Sonya, where happiness of a newlywed couple is overshadowed by the pain of premature loss. The second act revolves around Momma Galya and her puppet theatre leading a silent revolution, luring the soldiers with sexual pleasures, making them disappear behind the curtain.
In this exceptionally written collection, poems that would be powerful enough to stand on their own reach new heights when put together. Brutal and uncomfortable, the imagery reverberates page after page and long after the end. Kaminsky shows the despair on a personal scale masterfully, focusing on the details that evoke deeply rooted emotions despite not naming them:
For our child I fold the newspaper, make a hat
and pretend to Sonya that I am the greatest poet
and she pretends to be alive-
If pain was the defining feature of a great poetry collection there would be too many great poetry collections; Kaminsky understands that he has to avoid making Deaf Republic shallow by only leaving his characters in despair. Again focusing on small details, he shows the beauty in Sonya’s and Alfonso’s marriage, the naive mutual fascination of the newlyweds:
You step out of the shower and the entire nation calms-
a drop of lemon-egg shampoo,
you smell like bees,
a brief kiss,
I don’t know anything about you-except the spray of freckles on your shoulders!
This is an excerpt of a review by Dominik Szczepaniak of Ilya Kaminsky's Deaf Republic. For more information on Kaminsky at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.
In his marvellous essay on writing about 9/11, ‘Can poetry console a grieving public?’, Mark Doty sets out the difficulties of writing about public tragedy. Can one bear witness to ‘the inchoate stuff of experience’ ─ intensely felt private pain or even anger ─ and yet also keep faith with ‘language’s project of discovering and articulating meaning’ which is, of course, the poet’s task as writer?
A Portable Paradise is one robust response. Divided into five sections, book’s first section comprises eleven poems on the Grenfell Disaster which circles around the burning tower and its traumatic legacy. In a mixture of prose and poetry, ‘Haibun for Lookers’, there are searing images of confusion, chaos and desperation as Grenfell inhabitants are trapped by the destructive flame racing up the building like a malevolent giant snake, its light ironically mirrored by light of mobile phones from spectators below. In the days after, little gestures and small rituals that the living use to shore up against deep despair are particularly poignant. A daughter brings breakfast, ‘combs her mother’s hair and lays clothes on the bed’; she reads while hearing ‘Umm Kulthum singing about her heart on the radio’. In ‘The Portrait Museum’ makeshift posters capture portrait snapshots from ordinary life; these are ‘flimsy faces of hope for the living’ who ‘refuse this first day of mourning’ ─ but they are gradually blown away. ‘The Missing’ is heart-breaking; the dead are imagined to float,
a conveyor belt of pure air,
slow as a funeral cortege,
past the congregants…
mutter[ing], What about me Lord,
why not me?
But such an ‘airborne pageantry of faith’ is not abstract but built up from a small range of individuals, imagined in all their quotidian diversity. Two simple lines at the poem’s end bring home the mythic power of the Biblical Rapture but reimagined as anguish:
They are the city of the missing.
We, now, the city of the stayed.