Category Archives: recommended reading

Arja Salafranca’s The Thin Line

  
 
 
Arja Salafranca’s debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. She has published two collections of poetry, A life Stripped of Illusions, and The Fire in Which we Burn. Her poetry is also collected in Isis X (Botsotso). She received the 2010 Dalro Award for poetry and has twice received the Sanlam Award, for fiction and poetry. She selected stories for The Edge of Things, an anthology of South African short fiction, published by Dye Hard Press in 2011. She edits the Life supplement in The Sunday Independent and is studying toward an MA in Creative Writing at Wits University. She blogs at http://arjasalafranca.blogspot.com and is a member of SA Pen. 
 
 
 
 

  
 
 
The stories in The Thin Line hook the reader from the first one, and reel you in on that thin line. You will be haunted by the carefully drawn characters: by Corinna trapped in her huge teenage body, by Cleo in love with a married man after all these years, and poor skinny Mark, as he sees his lover teeter away from him. Salafranca is an accomplished, award-winning writer, this long-awaited collection is a box of jewels.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
“These stories chart a new direction in South African fiction, where each line, each page – each story unfolds subtly, reaching deeper and more intimately into the tender spaces that exist in all our lives between love and doubt. Reading them kept me up late at night, wanting to know more about the characters’ lives. I was enthralled by the clarity and compassion of her insights; and moved by her obvious love for our fragile country and the fierce power of our unrelinquished hopes.”
 
– Hamilton Wende
 
 
 
“Salafranca’s style in this collection is best described as cinematic. Each story plays out like a camera lingering on minutiae which, brought together, tell the reader a great deal about the characters and situations which form the subject matter.”
 
– Tanya Farber, The Star
 
 
 
“Searingly honest, sometimes painfully so, for both writer and reader, these stories will pop up in your head to haunt you long after you’ve turned the last page.”
 
– Kate Turkington, Joburg.co.za 
 
 
 
“There is a strong awareness of the structure of the short story and an implicit response to the tradition of the story.”
 
– Joan Hambidge, Die Burger
 
 
 
“Salafranca creates an almost other-worldly dimension as she takes the reader on a visceral journey into the lives of her characters. The stories range from explorations of modern relationships which do not have rules or traditions to guide their frail journeys, to examinations of characters from the past whose stories are shaped by the historical anomalies in which they found themselves. Whether you read about young South Africans debating their choices of staying in this country or looking for a less complicated future abroad, or whether you read about German Jews who have surnames imposed on them to make them more convenient to the regime in the 18th century, one thing is certain: Arja Salafranca is a short story writer at the pinnacle of her craft.”
 
– Janet van Eeden, Wordsetc and LitNet
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Couple on the beach
 
 
A middle-aged woman sits on the edge of the lagoon and watches a couple take photographs of each other. It is the beginning of a new year. It is low tide, and the waters of the lagoon have receded, leaving a vast expanse of wet beige sand. The couple stand in it with bare feet splayed, toes squelching into the coarse grains, taking photos with their expensive cameras.
 
It is nearly the end of their holiday together, and they are using up their film before they leave Knysna. They make an odd couple, as they take photos. The woman is wearing a smart jacket on this summer evening, it is too smart for this seaside town, too smart for this season, and too warm, too. The middle-aged woman wonders why she wears it, when her feet are bare and her jeans rolled up to reveal pinkly white legs. She can’t be cold. Although there is a breeze blowing, it is not a cold night, the day was warm, and the heat remains trapped as the sun goes slowly down. Perhaps it is to cover her body, perhaps she has gained weight and wants to hide behind her big black jacket. The middle-aged woman smokes a cigarette as she sits on the cement boulder and watches the couple. She knows all about gaining weight and hiding behind big clothes.
 
She has done it too. It is only now that she is older that she can afford to be freer, that she can wear anything and not be self-conscious and concerned that others, men, are looking at her, appraising her. She knows she is getting past the age of appraisal. She has read of the liberation that comes from middle-age – the loss of youth, menopause – she welcomes it.
 
Her hair is still mainly auburn, but lately she has been seeing the flash of silver streaks in it. They dart in and out between the dark strands, as though playing hide and seek, daring to be found.
 
The male part of the couple is tall and thin, as opposed to the female, who is shorter, slightly overweight, her gloriously auburn hair long and flying in the dusk’s breeze. He is skinny and awkward in his body, as awkward as the woman is in hers. He is uncomfortable in the casual T-shirt he’s wearing, and the middle-aged woman wonders why he wears it. Perhaps his partner, or whatever that girl is to him, asked him to wear it. The middle-aged woman has a feeling that he would be uncomfortable no matter what he wore. He is that kind of person, awkward in his body, in his life, hanging after this partner like a puppy dog eager to please her, compliant, pliant and soft, willing to do whatever it is that would make her like him, fall in love with him, something beyond this cold dismissive need of hers.
 
But she won’t let him go yet, she needs him, although she does not like him. She needs him and that is her weakness, that’s what makes her hate him, and hate a part of herself too. The middle-aged woman can see this as she smokes into the pale blue dusk, and watches the lagoon recede from this couple. She watches the roar of the sea at the heads, as it foams and dashes, as though the seas were a caged wild animal wanting to get into this quiet piece of solitude, preferring the domestic peace of the lagoon to the endless, deep, unfathomable sea. Her boyfriend keeps wanting to take her on the sea, perhaps on a small yacht, time and time again she refuses. She is afraid of the sea.
 
She smokes on the cement barricade, clutching the cigarette in her finger, looking at the beauty spot on her little finger that a man once found so attractive years ago, a dark mark on the fleshy folds of her baby finer. She watches couples take photos as the sky darkens and fish burns in a house nearby.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Patterns
 
 
I dreamed about you again last night. You were warm and funny as you helped me with some problem I had. It was so real, it felt just like old times. Except, back then, you did not like to help me with my problems, preferring to stay out of whatever would disturb the stasis.
 
I wondered then about the patterns in our lives and what brings us to the decisions we make, the people we choose to know. Whether we do it consciously or whether the reason is hidden somewhere back in our brains, somewhere that’s not easy to find.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Schmalz
 
 
In 1781, Emperor Josef II announced an Edict of Toleration for the Jews which established the requirement for hereditary family names. Jews were required to assume German-sounding surnames.
 

Shlomo comes in and says, “Here, you’re a Schmalz.”
 
Thrusts a piece of paper at me – not that I can read it – and says, “Look, says it there. You’re a Schmalz. So if you need to tell anyone, not that you will, you tell them Schmalz.”
 
Schmalz. Grease. Chicken fat. Schmalz! “That’s not what Dora and her family got!” I go outside, the piece of paper with the scribbles in my hand. “They’re Goldfarbers! How did they end up with gold in their name and we’re just grease?”
 
Shlomo looks up at me, scratches his chin, runs his hand meditatively around his greying beard. He’s scraping some kind of shit off his good leather shoes; he carries on scraping in the weak sunlight, and ignores me. He’s hoping I’ll shut up, go away; runs a stick through the shit.
 
I hold the piece of paper under his nose, “How did we become Schmalz and Dora is a Goldfarber and Rosa and her family are now Diamond?”
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
A man sits in a Johannesburg park
 
 
A man sits in a Johannesburg park on a late summer’s afternoon. He releases the lead attached to his spaniel’s collar and she bounds off to sniff trees and play near the river, perhaps she will even go for a swim again. The man will then take her home and turn the hosepipe on her, washing off the slime of the river water. The man’s name is Andrew Barker, a good ordinary enough name, a solid name that is easy to pronounce, easy to give over the phone. It’s an afternoon late in the week. The man is alone. His wife and children are packing, and this is the dog’s last run in his company. Tomorrow he takes her into six-month quarantine.
 
It’s hot, midsummer and Andrew’s face is red as he sits and waits for Lucy to finish bounding through trees and river. He sits, waiting, quite tired all of a sudden. He’s escaping the claustrophobia of the house, now almost emptied of furniture. His wife and children packing suitcases, still busy throwing out black plastic bags of rubbish, and still anguishing over what should not be thrown away. And Lucy, running through the litter of lives being packed up, tongue lolling to one side, excited, excitable.
 
 

*
 
 
 
Desire, with borders
 
 
It was a type of desire.
 
It was a desire without love, a desire with borders.
 
If you shut your eyes it could be any man, no names, just a man, fulfilling what a man is supposed to do. It was a hot February night in Johannesburg and the windows couldn’t be opened wide or the cat would get out. She didn’t want the cat to get out, her female tabby was a shy frightened thing, easily terrorised by the Toms in the neighbourhood.
 
And instead of a man with no name, he had a name. An exboyfriend, an ex-boyfriend who was now in the process of becoming involved with another woman, yet here they were, naked on her bed, hot, but still close enough for him to roll on top of her, to kiss her, to awaken something.
 
 
 
*
  
   
The Thin Line (Modjaji Books, 2011)  is available from Loot, Kalahari, Exclusive Books and Amazon.
 
Visit Arja’s blog.

The Alexandria Quartet

  
 
 
“As for me I am neither happy nor unhappy; I lie suspended like a hair or a feather in the cloudy mixtures of memory. I spoke of the uselessness of art but added nothing truthful about its consolations. The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this — that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern. For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfil it in its true potential — the imagination.”
 
 
— Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet (Faber & Faber)

Jacqueline Saphra’s The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions

© Image by Naomi Woddis

 
  
 
Jacqueline Saphra read Drama at Manchester University and is a screenwriting graduate from the National Film School. Her plays have been commissioned and produced by touring companies and repertory theatres including the Watford Palace and Manchester Library Theatre. She is on the editorial board for Magma Poetry and organises a regular poetry night, The Shuffle, at the Poetry Café. Her poetry has been widely published and anthologised and she has won several awards including first prize in the Ledbury Poetry Competition. Her pamphlet, Rock’n’Roll Mamma was published by Flarestack in 2008 and The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions (flipped eye publishing, 2011) was developed with the support of the Arts Council of England. She lives in London with her partner Robin and four children.
 
 
 
 

 
  
 
 
A man claims ambush and assault by women’s underwear, Houdini’s diametrically opposed counterpart waits taped and shackled for her man to save her, and girly-weak is not an option. Described as a poet of the world, Jacqueline Saphra’s work dances between the personal and the profound to offer a striking vision of growing up and growing older, mothers and motherhood, femininity and gender relations, all framed against the backdrop of a modern world, itself subject to growing pains.
 
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
“The eternal triangle of childhood, sex, and death doesn’t make for happiness, but if memory is indeed the mother of the muses, then it furnishes a rich and haunted house. In Jacqueline Saphra’s case the house is full of energy – even at its darkest it remains light and brisk on its feet. Her ear is sharp and her eye sharper still. The heart aches, the shoulders shrug but the feet dance.”
 
– George Szirtes
 
 
 
“Jacqueline Saphra’s poems are simultaneously as searing, sexy, funny and cleansing as any poems on earth – she has the gift of the sifter mixed with the power of the big sharp knife! Do not miss these savory pleasures.”
 
– Naomi Shihab Nye 
 
 
 
“A strikingly confident first collection, notable both for its formal skills, and for the poet’s ability to explore challenging and complex relationships in memorable and agile language. Here is a poet of the world and not of the ivory tower. Fiercely intelligent; a remarkable debut.”
 
– Penelope Shuttle
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
An Unofficial History
 
It must have been at night and no doubt they kept
the light on because each of them liked to watch
whatever they were touching and desired moreover
to be seen. And what a night it was, of steam and invocation,
mutters, cries and wishes, miraculous lust, irrevocable
 
human error. Sometimes the most unlikely combinations
can produce a tangible result. Strange to think that just
the common heave and thrust, the usual universal ecstasy
could be their marriage glue, transcend, over years, such rank
incompatibility. As unofficial chronicler of that night, I believe
 
there must have been a mutual outrageous climax, that
it was a pivotal experience imbued with unexpected
gravitas, as was the bracing follow-up, that twitching race
of the ridiculous, those nearly-beings making for one huge
stranded cell ripe for the breaching, programmed
 
for a kind of mad union, that two half-lives might be salvaged
to make a whole. I can’t say I was there precisely but I swear
my floating soul was witness to this chance, the sweetest, gravest
and most typical of mistakes and that this story was laid down
in my bones, because I was waiting, willing to be conjured.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
The Striking Hour
 
I’m the girl in black with gravitas who rocks
with the pendulum, the one who won’t forgive,
the diva who lives and re-lives the drama
 
of the tick and toll, bruised in the places
where I trip and trip again, running for trains.
Maybe that’s why I break so many watches:
 
I overwork the cogs of memory, wind and rewind,
tune in, tune out of eras till the springs give way.
Though it makes me sick, I travel backwards
 
too often, stopping at those pinch-points:
what if, if only, where nothing can change.
But sometimes, I see myself humming
 
on some bright platform, beside a pyramid
of broken clocks. I sychronise my selves
call them to heel all dressed in lipstick, feathers
 
of unnatural pink, outrageous tights. I smash
a few plates, kiss somebody, anybody, slur
my sorries into the mic. Make up for lost time.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
The Pick-up
 
This is the girl
the front seat tramp
with the haversack
and the long cigarette
and the Spanish guitar
and the bong that she smoked
at your side in the car
who spread her legs
on the burning bed
and gave you her heat.
 
This is the girl
with the sky tattooed
on the soles of her feet
who sat in your truck
full of sugar and salt
the hard-boned bitch
who flicked your switch
at the edge of a cliff
the girl who felt
the bite of your belt
who cut herself free
with a silver knife
and jumped from the bridge.
 
This is the girl
with brine for eyes
with floating limbs
and a voice unhinged
who festers and sighs
who gurgles and sings
who laughs at your lies
in her bloated disguise
your trouble and strife
with the golden ring
whose scent still clings
to the skin of your life.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Seventeen and all that Shit
 
You wore ugly like seventies corridors wore their skin
of anaglypta. Your ugly wink flickered like the vacant signs
 
that beckoned from motorways; twitched in dayglo mirrors
in hotel lifts. You fasted ugly round your neck in strands
 
like fake pearls, took it naked to bed with third rate
touring drummers, taxi drivers, men with diaries and wives;
 
you flaunted ugly like cheap knickers retrieved on many
pinked-up mornings, sun rising like a boil. You let your ugly
 
seep into these envelopes of photographs carried home
from chemists, and you turned your head away.
 
But now you stare, blinded, at these clean sheets
of negatives, backlit with hindsight. There was no ugly;
 
only youth with its tilted longings, and those myths
written in lipstick on the mirror, the ones you took for truth.
 
 
 
 
 
from The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions
(flipped eye publishing, 2011).
 
Pre-order The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions here and here.
 
The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions will be available from
flipped eye’s online bookstore from 7 July.
 
Visit flipped eye publishing’s website.
 
Visit Jacqui’s website.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Midsummer launch details

Date: Tuesday, 21 June 2011
  
Time: 19h00
  
Venue: Woolfson & Tay, 12 Bermondsey Square, London SE1 3UN
 
Tel: 0207 407 9316

Wine and canapes.
 
 
Live music from Fiona Bevan and short, sweet star turns from
Nii Parkes, Alison White  and Jacqui.
 
 
Please RSVP to poetry@jacquelinesaphra.net.
 
 
 
 
*

Simon Barraclough’s Neptune Blue

  
 
 
Simon Barraclough was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, but has lived in London since 1996. He won the poetry section of the London Writers’ Prize in 2000 and his debut, Los Alamos Mon Amour (Salt Publishing) was a finalist for the Best First Collection in the Forward Poetry Prizes 2008. In 2010 he published a boxed ‘mini-book’ of commissioned poems, Bonjour Tetris (Penned in the Margins). His work appears in the anthologies Identity Parade (Bloodaxe, 2010) and Poems for Love (Penguin, 2009). In 2010 he devised Psycho Poetica, a collaborative celebration of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was performed at the BFI, The Whitechapel Gallery, Latitude Festival and the Royal Festival Hall.
 
 
 
 

  
  
  
“Simon Barraclough dazzles with his luscious iconography, his intriguing observations, obsessions and predilections. These poems are complex, acrobatic, inventive, intelligent, exuberant, funny, tender and … bloody marvellous.”
 
– Annie Freud
 
 
 
“I read it as though I’m reading a phrase book from a new country called Barraclough, a country we should all discover. An excellent book.”
 
– Ian McMillan
  
  
  
*
 
 
 
 
We’ll Always Have CGI Paris
 
Open on the galaxy, dolly zoom
through Doppler shifting stars, leave the local planets
in our wake, brush off the moon
and rummage through the clouds to find
the crouching continent where Paris piggybacks.
Pinpoint the pyramid, dogleg along the Seine
until the camera starts to weave between the struts
of youknowwhat and youknowwhere
to finish on us kissing in the festive, fireworky air.
 
But we were never there. My sitcom kept me
in LA, your slasher movie debut
saw you junketing in hotel rooms out east.
We shot green screen on different days: my face
a balloon taped to a broom, your waist a tailor’s dummy;
our foggy breath was lifted from Titanic;
the cutaways to clasping hands were cut in
from a jewellery ad as all of Paris waited
to be pixellated, cut and pasted.
 
But we’ll always have Paris,
although our eye lines never matched
and everything we tried to hold onto
our phantom fingers passed clean through.
 
 
 
 
*
  
  
  
  
Saturn
    
Solar system’s undisputed supermodel,
moon-mad, sixty satellites and counting,
Saturnine werewolves howling for a night off.
 
Snapped from every angle
by NASA’s paparazzi,
it’s well you have no flaws for the gawpers.
 
We gorge on your gorgeousnes
but there’s icy music buried
in your spiralling grooves.
 
They sent a crew in a Bakelite spaceship,
the Anglo-Russian Dansette Conquest,
to lower a stylus onto your discs
 
and ever since they’ve been gliding
towards your spindle, listening
to ‘Cruel Sun’, ‘Box of Stars’, ‘Chaos of the Galaxy’.
 
 
 
          i.m. Mark Linkous 
  
  
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Pizza Heart
 
Squat ellipsoid of dough.
Yeasty, pummelled, elastic.
You knuckle into it,
it takes the dimpled kneading
of your need,
you twirl it thin and wide, ridiculous dervish.
Into the fire with it.
Delicious.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Sol
  
          Et ellu é bellu e radiante cun grande splendore
                    —
St. Francis of Assisi, Cantico delle Creature
 
  
I heard of one who thought himself too much i’the Sun.
I had to laugh. And blast a billion lethal particles
across your path. You say you want your place in the Sun,
so be it, but know that I am Heaven and Hell in one,
your saintly haloes and your branding tongs,
an inquisition which no atom can resist,
a thirteen million Kelvin kiss. I must admit
I’m one that loved not wisely but too well.
 
Consider my poor off sprung offspring;
there’s one that’s just been taken into care;
two cold and gassy monsters so remote they never think
of picking up the phone or sending me a probe;
a starlet sucking up my limelight, barring me from all her shows;
a bully bending comets on his knee and tossing them my way;
a red-faced tin pot despot sulking in his rot;
a hellish vixen boiling off each residue of love;
an iron bullet—kryptonite to any star—poised above my heart.
 
But here she comes: my one success, the fertile fluke,
dreaming in her just-right, just-so, bed,
her arm thrown back across her brow.
I mustn’t get too close. I mustn’t be so ardent.
I’ll learn to keep my distance, for now.
 
 
 
 
from Neptune Blue (Salt Publishing, 2011).
 
Pre-order Neptune Blue here, here or here.
 
Visit Simon’s website.
 
 
 
 
*

Tamar Yoseloff’s The City with Horns

  
 
Tamar Yoseloff was born in the United States in 1965. She is the author of four collections of poetry, including Fetch (Salt, 2007) as well as Marks, a collaborative book with the artist Linda Karshan, published by Pratt Contemporary Art in 2007. She is also the editor of A Room to Live In: A Kettle’s Yard Anthology. She lives in London, where she is freelance tutor in creative writing. Her blog, Invective Against Swans, explores the intersection between poetry and visual art.
 
 
 

  
 
“Every artist paints what he is”, said Jackson Pollock, the iconic figure of the American Abstract Expressionist movement. His tumultuous life and his revolutionary vision provide the storyline for the main sequence of poems in The City with Horns, Tamar Yoseloff’s fourth collection, in which Yoseloff plays ventriloquist to the voices of Pollock; his wife, the painter Lee Krasner; and his mistress, Ruth Kligman (who survived the car crash that killed him). The characters of James Dean, Frank O’Hara and William de Kooning are also woven into the narrative. And it is Pollock’s dictum that provides the departure point for other poems which chart the attempt to find hidden meanings – whether through driving blind on a road at night, reading James Joyce in a Japanese restaurant, or gazing at a concrete wall. In The City with Horns, you will find journeys through the poet’s adopted city of London and through turbulent weather, on trains, into fields that conjure up the past, and around junk yards where treasure can be found. This is Yoseloff’s most challenging collection to date.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
“In the title sequence of this collection, Tamar Yoseloff breaks new ground with poems that flow and rush and fizz in ways reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. From the turmoil of Pollock’s life, Yoseloff powerfully re-creates a vision in which everything knots together, a way of seeing that is intoxicated. But if the central sequence overflows with plenty, then the outer sections of the triptych speak of emptiness and pain in a poetic voice more familiar, curbed and astringent. Here, Yoseloff continues to explore territory she has made her own in earlier collections: snap-shots and “little fables” of up-rooted individuals whose tokens, found objects and souvenirs struggle towards articulacy. These are poems offering few consolations, but the strength of The City with Horns lies in its chastening honesty, its ability to evoke a sensibility that feels never less than modern.”
 
– Martyn Crucefix
 
 
 
“Tamar Yoseloff’s Fetch is a delicate book of haunting strength, of strangeness uncontained. These poems are irresistible.”
 
– Alison Brackenbury
 
 
 
[Speaking of Fetch]: “These are dark poems in the best sense of the word, edgy, unnerving, but glittering, too. Tamar Yoseloff can make a visit to the dentist or a lamb curry sexy and sinister. I’ve followed her career from the beginning; Fetch is her most ambitious book yet, and her best.”
 
– Matthew Francis
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Cedar Nights
 
Kerouac baptised the ashtray with his piss,
Rothko gazed into his glass, lost
in a haze of smoke (later he would slit
 
each arm, two razored lines, maroon on white),
while Gorky picked a fight with every stooge
who strayed within his reach (his wild eye,
 
hangdog face, peasant hands, the dreams
he couldn’t shake). De Kooning pontificated
over water (bastard) and by his lead
 
women shattered into pieces, all lips
and tits. Klein splattered the bar in black,
while dizzy Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters
 
swore, and sang, and toppled off their stools,
then hurled themselves into the negro streets;
Frank was brashly erecting something new
 
from shreds of Rauschenberg and Lady Day.
And Jack? He was painting up a storm,
(when he was sober), admiring his fame
 
from the summit of the Gods, until the night
she breezed into the Cedar, all ass
and attitude, looking for a guy,
 
and there he was, the prize, the mark, the Jack
of Hearts, the cover boy. She sidled over:
what’s a girl gotta do to get a drink?
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Alchemy
 
Guggenheim Museum, Venice
 
 
Just when I think nothing can move me,
room after room of Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini,
the Virgin granting me her doleful eyes,
her pearly tears,
 
I enter a cool white palazzo,
find his huge canvas, which shows me the truth
of water and fire, in this place
of canals and candlelight, a city he never saw.
 
What he made was a world
in perpetual swirl, violent red, yellow bile,
the way the galaxy might look to a man stranded
in space, before science and logic takes hold.
 
And I stand before this picture,
the man who painted it
dead, like the masters shut away
in these palaces of art, their works their tribute;
 
wanting to pin beauty to the canvas,
dusty and flightless. But this picture lives, black
against the midday sun, legions of day-glo tourists
bobbing along the canal,
 
and I feel tears
welling up before I can make them stop.
I don’t know why; I’m tired,
vulnerable in my light summer clothes,
 
he and I foreigners to a faith
which isn’t ours: Christ on the cross,
the martyrdom of the saints, spelled out in
blood and gold.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Reading Ulysses in the Teri Aki Sushi Bar
 
He would have liked the concentric circles
of the California roll, whorls of salmon and avocado,
brightwhite rice, the ginger fanned
across the plate – like Molly Bloom,
her legs apart – the saki hot
in his throat, a trill of syllables.
 
He would have admired my discipline,
my quiet journey with Leopold
and tuna maki – squintyeyed
over the page, the words
running away from sense.
 
 
The Dublin streets swell with rain,
delicate perfume of dung, and
there’s a man hurrying home,
brown eyes saltblue, with no umbrella.
          I will know him, oh yes, by the shrug
of his shoulders, hunch of his coat,
the way he looks up, suddenly,
comprehends
 
               that somewhere a girl, pretty,
captures a fishy gobbet in her chopsticks,
raises it to her lips, that first bite releasing
brine, bladderwrack, the green rot
of the ocean floor.
                           If only he
could sit across from her, worship
her perfect little teeth.
 
 
He will pass me on the street
one evening when the rain
smells like the ocean,
 
          flame memory for an instant
before we turn our separate corners,
pull our collars to our throats.
 
 
 
Previously published in Shearsman Magazine.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Mannequins on 7th Street

for Robert Vas Dias, after Anthony Eyton
 
 
We desire them to be perfect:
limbs without blemish, Malibu-bronzed,
robed in fuchsia and gold, smouldering
goddesses in a city leached to grey.
 
We, merely flesh, race past, hail cabs,
jump buses, never to strike
their timeless pose.
 
We must embrace the gift of the street,
the glare of chaos, of things being various.
The frail instant needs us to record it;
the mute made audible, still life animated.
 
They keep watch from their temple
of glass, stranded in silence, all dressed up
and nowhere to go.
 
 
 
from The City with Horns (Salt, 2011).
 
Order The City with Horns here.
 
Visit Tamar’s website.
 
Visit Tamar’s blog, Invective Against Swans.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Launch with Katy Evans-Bush’s Egg Printing Explained
 
 
Date: Thursday, 2 June 2011
 
Time: 18h30 – 20h30
 
Venue: Purdy Hicks Gallery, 65 Hopton Street, London SE1 9GZ
 
For other readings, please check Tamar’s website.

John McCullough’s The Frost Fairs

John McCullough © Morgan Case

  
 
John McCullough’s poetry has appeared in publications including London Magazine, The Guardian, The Rialto, Poetry London and Magma. He teaches creative writing at the Open University and the University of Sussex. His first collection is The Frost Fairs (Salt, 2011).
 
 
 

  
 
 
The Frost Fairs is a compassionate book with a global and historical scope, tackling science and city life from a range of surreal yet poignant angles. It explores love in many forms, from modern transatlantic relationships to hidden gay and cross-gendered lives from the past. The pieces travel from ancient Alexandria to twenty-first century bars and council estates, behind everything the vastness of the sea and sky. The array of voices here is striking: taxi drivers report their most outlandish fares and hermaphrodite statues flirt with observers; abandoned lovers watch frost fairs melting on the Thames and drag queens revel in the freedoms afforded by the Blitz.
 
Formally deft and carefully crafted, this diverse range of poems uses language that is always musical and alive. Surprise and the uncanny are cherished as ways of returning to us the strange leaps and enduring power of our deepest yearnings. In this collection, longing and losing condition all we see and hear, making the impossible suddenly plausible. Whether exploring Brighton seascapes or questions of empire, there is always in McCullough’s writing an openness to seeing the world from an alternative point of view. At once bold and haunting, The Frost Fairs opens the door to a new country in the reader’s imagination in its exploration of the possibilities of the human heart.
 
 
 
*
  
   
 
“In this immensely enjoyable collection there is an immediacy and tenderness that is outstanding. These vivid moving poems have such a sharp eye for those telling daily details, the particulars. All of this, plus their humour, creates poems that are so solidly tangible and believable. The title The Frost Fairs tells it all. The vulnerability and changeableness that threads our lives, the shifting ice below our feet.”
 
– Lee Harwood 
 
 
  
“John McCullough’s poems are never far from wonderful. He shows a lovely mixture of ease and energy, so that there’s a feeling of improvisation even in closed forms. Unpredictable, tender, resourceful – why shouldn’t Wallace Stevens hold hands with Tintin?”
 
– Adam Mars-Jones
 
 
 
“John McCullough is a poet for whom language is a flexible gift. He can be formal and controlled, colloquial and intimate, sensuous and saucy. He enjoys risk-taking in his work, forging unusual juxtapositions of images and ideas, and it’s this playfulness and humour which makes his work, like a stiff sea breeze suddenly hitting you in the face, so refreshing and invigorating.”
 
– Catherine Smith
  
 
 
“I’ve been reading John McCullough’s poems for several years and never saw him as ‘promising’, rather, as a verbal magician who had already performed, with a sureness and brio anyone might envy. The startling range of subjects can be partly accounted for by his ability to enter the imaginations of personae from odd walks of life or curious moments in history. He is even able to work out what Michel Foucault’s spoons might have thought about their owner! In poem after poem one senses the encroachment of an exalted vision held at bay by this poet’s commitment to conversational tone and offhand irony. I don’t want to round up the usual superlatives, but I do urge you to read this landmark first volume.”
  
– Alfred Corn
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Motile
 
What sticks is the hum
of the fridge in your basement,
a plane ticket lying flat on one chair.
The way, fag in hand, you order me to stop smoking:
you’ll damage your cilia
 
and you conjure those tiny threads stroking together,
pushing wayward particles where they belong.
You drain a glass of vodka,
write my name in your diary on the page
where you’ll wake in a new country.
 
You keep your promise:
two hours and twenty dollars on a dodgy line
from a city without Marmite
where you tussle with silverfish
and baseball shirt slang.
 
O much assailed friend,
in these fathomless times
I walk down to the ocean at night
to set my hand on its skin
and my mind on rowing, rowing, rowing.
 
 
 
*
  
   
 
Night Writing
 
In humid months, at the estate’s unwatched edge,
the boys gather for an after-hours cigarette
 
before trashing field gates. All boast Reeboks, earrings,
their honed geezer-laughs rev-revving
 
with the engines of graffiti-tagged bangers.
Customized stereos thump out speed garage,
 
the race kicking off in a blizzard of chalk dust,
their bouncing charge towards a crooked iron post.
 
Death and dew ponds can’t stop them while they swerve
past quivering teasel, conquer the bone ridge’s turn,
 
skeins of wool lifting from gorse as banners
for the night’s whooping, fist-raising winners.
 
Further off, the crews unite for a slow drift, melt into hills
but leave the empty sky with headlamp trails:
 
blazing ghosts still performing their necessary work,
still scribbling their names on the dark. 
 
 
 
*

 
 
The Disappearance of St Anthony’s Church
 
Hard to tell exactly when it vanished –
local rumour says late or early summer.
They stole the thing discreetly, brick by brick,
an anti-miracle. Curt officials blame
the village but no infidel’s been punished,
the two best clues a chisel by a tomb,
a distant maze of tyre marks from a truck –
though some insist that these came later.
 
They left behind foundations, one unwanted wall
and a different view of pines, the snaking river.
Next spring the first grass sprouted in the nave,
the chancel’s earth disturbed only by lovers
and the odd partridge hunting for snails
or a place to rest in silence for a while.
 
 
 
from The Frost Fairs (Salt, 2011).
 
Order The Frost Fairs here.
 
Visit John’s website.
 
 
 
*
 
  
  
Launches
 
 
Brighton launch

 
Date: Wednesday, 27 April 2011
 
Time: 20h00 – 23h00
 
Venue: The Red Roaster, 1D St James Street, Brighton
 
There will be readings by John and guest poet Lisa Handy.

This event is part of the e.g. poetry series. Entry is £5/£4 conc. 
 
 
 
London launch
 
Date: Tuesday, 17 May 2011
 
Time: 20h00 – 23h00
 
Venue: The Phoenix Artist Bar, Phoenix St (Off Charing Cross Road)
 
There will be readings by John and guest poet Sophie Mayer, author of The Private Parts of Girls (Salt, 2011).
 
Entry is free.

Sophie Mayer’s The Private Parts of Girls

  
 
Sophie Mayer currently teaches Creative Writing at King’s College, London, and is the author of The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009) and Her Various Scalpels (Shearsman, 2009). She won an Eric Gregory award in 2004, and is included in Andy Brown’s lyric anthology The Allotment (Stride, 2006) and in Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010). As well as writing regularly for Sight & Sound and Horizon Review, she blogs about books as deliriumslibrarian. She is a Contributing Editor at Hand+Star, and Commissioning Editor at Chroma.
 
 
 

  
 
The Private Parts of Girls (Salt, 2011) follows Alice down the rabbit hole, Kassandra onto Agamemnon’s boat, and Red Riding Hood into the forest: it conjures the most mysterious landscape of all, the mind of a girl – a girl who might be a dancer, a warrior-bride, a transatlantic traveller, the Messiah, sick of being compared to Sylvia Plath, airborne, born in space, or lost in a sunlit feld, discovering love. From Battlestar Galactica to The Clash, the poems mix tart, smart pop culture goodies into the dreamspace of fairy tales, as they take us on a journey – hallucinatory with culture lag – through the mind and body of a modern girl. This is poetry for Buffy fans (and Twilight haters), for readers who grew up with Angela Chase’s voice-over for their lives and Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides on their iPods, for everyone who ever wondered if Beauty secretly was the Beast.
 
 
 
Previous review quotes

  
“[Mayer's] non-sequiteurs arrest you by their very strangeness, then draw you into a sensory chain where they seem just … true. Brilliantly disconcerting.”
 
– Luke Kennard
 
 
 
“Full of zest, variety and intellectual ambition. There is no such thing as a typical Mayer poem, diversity being her great strength. Dazzling.”
 
– Jane Holland
 
 
 
“Sensual and vivid, exploded erotic imagery rewrites the love poem in new terms, reinvigorating our restrained and anecdotal poetic moment.”
 
– Wayne Burrows
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Trial Proof for The Blue Feet (Kiki Smith)
 
Lysa has stars tattoed on her feet. Did it hurt, that
art made scintillant point by point. I don’t
ask. Flexing its paleness against red tiles,
her foot says ‘no.’ She’s a dancer, after all,
always has been: her feet are an earthquake-
buckled landscape — somewhere beyond
pain or trapped eternally within it. Pushing up
on bruised pad and ball, she perches between
the toast crumbs and the broken tap. A spring,
and those toes — étoiles — are pointing out
towards me. Black painted nails, cracked beneath
(I’ve heard the stories). The stars pulse over
roped veins, startling calluses like galaxies
formed from the dust of grinding the self
into grace. Into light. Over the doorway
of the main room, there’s a photo that I love:
half-naked against the lens, bride-tulled, pale
breasts a blur — meteoric streak of her slanted
through silver and emulsion. Falling hard
into the black holes of her eyes, I almost
don’t hear her graphic yes to my unasked. Of
course it hurt, and what hurts more: wearing ink
away beneath tap shoes and cowboy boots,
fading in sunlight from midnight to twilit
blue. Her feet ache with dawn, she says:
dew cold under her skin. Old bones turn out
fossils of past leaps, seamed with bright striations.
En pointe, arabesque. These carbonised remains
of what once took to the sky, one part
rock to one of fire, and fell to earth, blue into blue.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Easter Parade
 
Careful now. All the knives must be aligned
or the city falls. Twitch and wake. Rain
 
arrives with dawn — season out of time,
no butterflies or moths. Squirrels hunt cats,
 
cats shelter with foxes. The girls lounge
in the fallen blossom of cigarette ash.
 
They are more beautiful than they can
imagine, and not only to the low-slung
 
driver thumping bass like a blood-thrum.
In the doppler of his wake, they roll
 
their skirts up higher, compete to see who hates
their legs most. At night, they twitch, restless
 
with nicotine and vague desire (indeterminacy
is its nature) (and its power). They want
 
the world, those girls, and stickily compete
to see who hates it most. That’s how bad
 
they want it, with its extinctions
and expulsions, evasions, invasions and
 
evaporations. With every crack
that doesn’t break their backs, luck flips
 
them past the row of knives, the low-slung
bass, the sullen sky. Newly-hatched,
 
like rain at dawn, they glisten cold.
Cold, and ashing into beauty.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
The Cantor’s Daughter
 
Her dress is alight with
          god particles
and gematria, her velvet is night;
her brilliance as impossible
 
as a talking cat. Her name
          is Córdoba,
is heart-flowering jasmine
and the lovers celtic-knotted
 
beneath its fragrance. She is
          berenjenas, honeyed
gazelle-golden plazas at prayer-time:
bimah and medina, heart centre.
 
In the guitar’s blue voice
          she mourns
the grafted rose, the drying-up
of the courtyard’s fountain,
 
the closed gates of paradise; these
          her poems,
woven in gold thread on scraps
of leather, inscribed (right to left)
 
on flyleavs, and worn around her neck:
          gold coin
to buy her passage, a house-key
carried in the skin-fold of her generations.
 
 
 
Previously published in ouroboros review.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
On Being Dismissed as ‘Plathlike’
 
She rose at nine that December night; above the horizon I saw her come. She could shine yet with pale grandeur and steady might; but that star verged already on its judgement day.
 
— Charlotte Brontë, Villette
 
 
She rises, at once inside and out, twig
fingers at the window; wraithlike,
she could haunt the moon. She is nothing,
and nothing is like
 
the breath that steams through
what is said of her — it flits, mothlike,
spectral. His words. Her words.
Annotations cross and writhe like
 
thrown punches. His hand. Her hand.
Nothing could be less lifelike
than this — this throwaway. This
trashing. It leads us false, a marshlight
 
wisp of a will not her own rewriting
her flight into myth. Like
the many she stands for, one more blonde
American. Stepford wifelike,
 
you domesticate her, canonised
and tamed so we cry for her strife like
she was directed by Sirk. Come,
critic, this is fat that your knife likes
 
to cut through. Cast aside. Who needs
fat? And so she is waiflike.
Her body, her work: hysteria,
anorexia. She eats herself. Like
 
it or not, that’s your thin
volume. Your scorn is like wrath, like
envy, perhaps. Perhaps
incomprehension. Or fear: stealthlike,
 
the ghosts you invoke will show
your thinness, waft like
breath through you. Discard you, a worn sheet.
And rise, then. Plathlike.
 
 
 
from The Private Parts of Girls (Salt Publishing, 2011).
 
Pre-order The Private Parts of Girls here or here.
 
Visit Sophie’s blog, Delirium’s Library.
 
Visit Sophie’s website.

Orchidelirium

   
  
  
I’ve only read a few chapters but I’m pretty sure that if you loved John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (as I did), you’ll love Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (Vintage, 2000).
 
It was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes and Noble Discover book, a Borders New Voices selection and the subject of the movie, Adaptation. It promises to live up to its reputation.
 
The back cover reads: “The Fakahatchee Strand, Florida, once a vast swamp awash with indigenous orchids, was plundered during the orchid boom of the 1890s. Its remaining plants, now fiercely protected by law, still attract the unwelcome attentions of thieves. John Laroche is one such self-confessed and convicted thief. Intrigued by newspaper reports of his trial, Susan Orlean followed Laroche on an enthralling exploration into the eccentric world of the obsessive orchid collectors; a subsculture of aristocrats, enthusiasts and smugglers whose passion for plants is all-consuming.”
 
 
 
 
 
“Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can’t believe there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water.”
 
 
Susan Orlean on Florida:
 
“It is a collision of things you would never expect fo find together in one place – condominiums and panthers and raw woods and hypermarkets and Monkey Jungles and strip malls and superhighways and groves of carnivorous plants and theme parks and royal palms and hibiscus trees and those hot swamps with acres and acres that no one has ever even seen – all toasting together under the same sunny vault of Florida sky.”
  
 
Read more about The Orchid Thief at Susan’s website.
 

Sally Douglas’s Candling the Eggs

  
 
Sally Douglas was born in Cornwall in 1962. She read English and European Literature at Warwick University, a course which involved a fair bit of Latin and Middle English poetry, but nothing more contemporary than Yeats. More recently, she has been awarded a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing with Distinction from the Open University. She lives in Devon.
 
Sally has been widely published in magazines including The Rialto, Smith’s Knoll, Envoi, Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, Iota, Acumen and South. She was a prize-winner in the Challenging Poverty Competition and was awarded joint first prize in the Cinnamon Press Poetry Awards.
 
She will be reading (with Anne Caldwell) at Lumen, Tavistock Place, London, WC1 on 15 March 2011 and will be featured poet at Uncut Poets, Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter, Devon on 28 April 2011.
 
 
 

  
 
Candling the Eggs (Cinnamon Press, 2011) explores the ways in which we both hide and reveal our experiences and perceptions of life, the ways in which we are able or unable to speak. Images of water, birds, paper and dolls, and allusions to myth and history, thread their way through the collection illustrating fragmented stories in a landscape of light and dark, of silence and sound.
 
The poems in this collection are precise, lyrical and beautiful, sometimes disquieting and strange, often pushing at the boundaries of language and into silence. This is a mesmerising and accomplished collection.
 
“Sally Douglas’s poems are disturbing and beautiful; broken, elliptical narratives, monologues from subtle, unpredictable perspectives. There’s a sense they are written from a place of loss, or damage. She’s a poet who can evoke, and conjure, who understands the power of what is left unsaid. At the same time her poems sing, and it is precisely this pervasive, darkly lyrical tone that allows them to be heard, and felt, with such emotional and dramatic force.” 
 
– Greta Stoddart
 
 
 
 
Mute
 
If you had done what you say you have done
you would have scars.
 
If this had happened as you say,
someone would have noticed.
 
If he had done this thing you say he has done,
you would have spoken then.
 
If what you say is true, there would be records,
not poems.
 
We have looked for records.
There are none.
 
If what you say is true, the dark would be spooling out
behind you.
 
But all you have done is create these things,
opaque as swans.
 
 
 
 
Path
 
There is a silent line
under her skin.
Trace its route from earlobe, neck,
down to the margin of breast,
skimming the border between front and back
where she is always cold.
 
Sweeping, silver, to the groin,
and down like a pungent trickle
that dried many years ago,
then kissing the braided cavity of knee
and the ankle’s egg-like bone.
 
It’s all that’s left from when
he stitched her with harebells
culled from the verges of the Wissenweg –
the thread so fine
it hardly hurt at all.
 
 
 
 
Abdication
 
Adam’s task was the invention of language,
to name each thing.
 
 
Because they do not dazzle her,
she gets to name the white things.
Teeth, feathers, bandages, the old man’s beard, bones.
Plaster casts, the face in the river, the sand.
 
She can feel their shapes with her tongue.
Ointment, ghosts, marble, snow, paper, kaolin, milk.
Tissues, tampons, sanitary towels, lies,
the small round pills, the sheets, the suds.
 
 
 
 
The Robe
 
She threads her warp on a strange loom:
weaves red symbols through the white.
               Ovid: Metamorphoses
 
 
You swaddled me with furious proofs,
wrapped me in cloths bleached brightly with rage.
And as I grew, I joined you at the loom:
wove shadows of the things I’d never seen.
 
Now I prowl the riverbank,
dragging the robe like broken wings.
I can’t unpick this history you’ve stitched to me.
 
 
 
 
Candling the Eggs
 
Carefully as a jeweller – fore-finger to apex,
thumb to base – she holds each one close
to the forty watt bulb set up in the corner of the barn.
 
Leans forward, as if to an airless bell-jar
in an eighteenth century study, assaying
futures as the egg inhales light.
 
There are three possible conclusions:
fertilised, edible, bad.
 
She thinks of how these dark trawls
are cloaked in words of light.
 
Last night, for instance, lamping in the fields –
rabbits, frozen in the rapture of the beam;
the shotgun’s long pragmatic aim.
 
Tomorrow, it won’t be light that candles
her, but slender waves of sound.
 
Carefully she holds each one, as if it were
a tiny skull: thumb to occipital crest,
fore-finger to unclosing fontanelle.
 
 
 
 
Role Play: Therapy in Three Parts
 
 
Patient
 
When you’ve left home,
they said.
So he left home.
 
When you’ve got children of your own,
they said.
So he built a house on salt-drenched sand.
 
When they’re both dead,
they said.
 
So he waited till they died.
But it all still flickers like a broken film
strobing at the corner of his eye.
 
 
Actor
 
He starts like this:
Leichner 5 and 9, slick as butter,
skating the planes of his face.
28 for the shadows.
Black around the eyes.
The flick of a match:
lit, spent.
 
Then to brighten himself
in that bleached bowl of light:
he takes a cocktail stick
to gouge out carmine, white;
stabs careful dots
tight in the eye’s soft angles.
 
 
Fossil Hunter
 
He stumps over the shale beds
which slump from the undercliff,
that brink where land falters,
loses balance.
 
He picks over spoils
like a crow at road-kill.
Places the shapes of the dead
in a red plastic bucket.
 
When he gets home, he’ll grind them to powder
trying to find their hearts.
 
 
 
 
from Candling the Eggs (Cinnamon Press, 2011).
 
Order Candling the Eggs.
 
Visit Sally’s poetry-themed blog.

Tamar Yoseloff’s Fetch

Tamar Yoseloff

  
Tamar Yoseloff was born in the US in 1965. Since moving to London in 1987, she has been the organiser of the Terrible Beauty reading series at the Troubadour Coffee House, Reviews Editor of Poetry London magazine, and from 2000 to 2007, Programme Coordinator for The Poetry School. She currently works as a freelance tutor in creative writing.
 
A pamphlet collection (Fun House, Slow Dancer Press, 1994) was followed by her first full collection, Sweetheart (Slow Dancer Press, 1998), which was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation and the winner of the Aldeburgh Festival Prize. She received a New Writers’ Award from London Arts (now Arts Council England, London) for a manuscript in progress, which was eventually published as her second collection, Barnard’s Star (Enitharmon Press, 2004) Her most recent book, Fetch, was published by Salt in April 2007, as well as a collaborative book with the artist Linda Karshan, published by Pratt Contemporary Art. She was the editor of A Room to Live In: A Kettle’s Yard Anthology, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (Salt, 2007) and the Poetry Editor of Art World magazine from 2007 to 2009. Her upcoming collection with Salt, The City with Horns, will feature a sequence of poems inspired by the life and work of the American abstract artist, Jackson Pollock.
 
She holds a MPhil in Writing from the University of Glamorgan, and a PhD in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University. She teaches for a number of institutions, including Birkbeck, Spread the Word and the Poetry School. In 2005 she was Writer in Residence at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as part of their Year in Literature Festival. She divides her time between London and Suffolk, and has recently completed her first novel.
 
 

  
“Though she holds life precious, she is not precious herself: alert to Tommy Cooper, paper cups, biros, belisha beacons … Seduction, sharp edges, high seriousness, satire – this book has them all … Fetch, her sensitive, sassy third collection, is her best yet.”
 
– Anne Berkeley, Seam
 
 
“These are dark poems in the best sense of the word, edgy, unnerving, but glittering, too. Tamar Yoseloff can make a visit to the dentist or a lamb curry sexy and sinister. I’ve followed her career from the beginning; Fetch is her most ambitious book yet, and her best.”
 
– Matthew Francis
 
 
“These compressed and vivid poems have a mind and a music all their own. Tamar Yoseloff is emerging as one of the best poets of her generation.”
 
– Thomas Lux
 
 
“Tamar Yoseloff’s Fetch is a delicate book of haunting strength, of strangeness uncontained. These poems are irresistible.”
 
– Alison Brackenbury 
 
  
  
 
The Firing

“If I had any chance of recovery, this passion would kill me . . .
I have coals of fire in my breast.”
John Keats
 
 
Our bodies, ignited by touch; however light,
flesh can singe with pleasure, the heart
can burn itself to cinder.
 
We leave relics in the sheets,
our sweat and skin, what’s dead of us.
In the half dark I listen
 
for the shuttle of my heart.
Blood wells up through a cut
to taste the world.
 
I am a vessel, open
to your body. If only you could
move through me, enter
 
the spleen, the coiled intestine.
You are already in
my eye, my brain.
 
*
 
Fire takes the manshape
like a lover: the clumsy arsonist,
the heroic father, the monk
 
in saffron robes. No matter
what they believed,
how they lived, in the end
 
reduced to this: a ribcage
forged in flame, curving
like the branches of a tree.
 
*
 
In the story my mother read me,
the tin soldier burned for love,
reduced to a molten heart,
 
the dancer’s tinsel rose
shrivelled to a dark fist.
I longed for the happy ending.
 
Strange shapes would form
in darkness as I lay in my bed
at night, wondering
 
what it was like to die.
I found a bird’s skull in the yard,
ran my finger over the beak,
 
the eyeless hole,
the smooth cranium,
then buried it in the ground.
 
*
 
A man stands before a wall
of fire, holding a cross
on a chain against his heart.
 
His likeness is on ivory
and although so small,
I think I see the flicker
 
in his eyes as he beholds
the woman who held
this image to her heart
 
four hundred years ago.
To think of the flame
he burned for her
 
snuffed out, four hundred
years in his grave, his love
reduced from flesh to bone
 
to soot; but flesh remains
in memory, the feel of her skin
beneath his fingers, like fine clay.
 
*
 
Coal and ironstone, silica, bole,
sea earth, marl, the soil yields
hard treasures, breaks down matter.
 
In the hill top cemetery the graves
fall in on themselves,
marble crumbles to dust,
 
loved ones tumble
into each others arms, their bones
knit and form a whole.
 
*
 
Gold fillings, titanium,
a wedding ring, calcium.
What doesn’t burn
 
is sifted out. A light package
without heavy limbs
and troublesome heart.
 
When I die, scatter my ash
on water, so I curl the waves
on a cloud of dust,
 
each particle of me alive
to sunlight, floating,
a little boat of myself.
 
 
Published in Fetch (Salt, 2007) and based on the work of
the potter Julian Stair
 
 
 
 
Illumination
 
Gold leaf, cadmium, ochre, saffron—
indelible once set on vellum.
 
The monks ground azurite and lapis
for perfect blue, took care
 
to cleanse their hands of poison
that made words sacred.
 
We place our fingers against
each other’s lips, a vow of silence,
 
sense the touch mark even after.
I am brimming with words
 
but none can hold that moment
when our faces, edged in gold
 
glinted in the water’s mirror,
the invisible sun within us
 
so I let them fly, lead white
against a white sky.
  
 
 
 
Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape
 
They stand, not quite touching,
before a world after storm.
 
There are drops of moisture in her hair,
in his scarf
                     the colour of a gentler sea, his eyes,
 
while trains depart every minute, steaming
into the future, where the hills
 
unroll themselves,
vast plains of emerald and gold
 
            (she undressed for him, slowly,
            her skin like cloud under dark layers)
 
after rooms of Rubens and Fragonard, flesh dead
against old brocade
                             (their flesh alive in the white sheets).
 
 
 
There are trains departing.
                                         When they part
it will be night, outside a theatre, near the station,
 
          and the sky will be blown with stars,
too dim to see in the glare of neon.
 
They will stand on concrete and asphalt,
                                 the innocent shining sands
 
lost. The world tilts to meet her face,
he holds her face close
 
          and something closes in on them,
the weight of silence in the street,
 
the winter horizon, bright, huge,
the moment before
                              the sky opens and it pours.
 
 
 
 
The Venetian Mirror

“When I first hung it in our bedroom we could not sleep all night,
it was like having the moon for company, so bright it shone “
Jim Ede
 
 
1.
 
Silver has its day, recedes
to reveal the surface beneath
 
gone black—
its own Dorian moment.
 
It reflects back what we have
not been able to understand,
 
an abundance lost, just hinted
in the etched leaves, tendrils lacing
 
the frame. What’s inside is
rust, a pox on a lovely face,
 
still we trade its dimensions
for our own: dumbstruck, vain.
 
 
2.
 
The basilica behind a slick
of rain, gold diminished
 
to dun. The colour of nothing.
The bulk of it jagged
 
on the darkening sky.
The end of day, odic light
 
illuminates a shrivelled rose;
all the sadness we contain
 
in this drop of rain, its
crystallised gloom.
 
 
3.
 
The ghost hulk of the palazzo
leans into the canal. Narcissus crazed.
 
Tarnished jewels, pink marble
dulled to flesh. Shiver of a ballroom
 
out of season, sliver of broken
glass, the first glistening of frost,
 
as the campana strikes,
mourns itself in echo.
 
 
‘The Venetian Mirror’ is featured in Identity Parade
(Bloodaxe, 2010).
 
 
 
Order Fetch.
 
Visit Tamar’s website.