Book Reviews by J Dempsey
‘A Pocketful of Chalk’ by Claire Booker
Arachne Press 2022
I emerged from Claire Booker’s ‘A Pocketful of Chalk’ refreshed, as if from a journey across the downs and cliff-tops that she so clearly loves. In my reading I had accompanied the poet as she melded with the South Downs landscape in all of its dimensions: physical, emotional, ecological and temporal. She has a talent for communicating her sensory experience at all of these levels, in some poems interweaving subtle currents to hint at autobiography and loss. The first poem in the book sets out her dynamic agenda:
I’m sick of weighing the word I want
a Marbled White to burn my eyes with its
The Pleasure of Firing Back by Graham Buchan
Lapwing Press 2022
Graham Buchan’s collection The Pleasure of Firing Back falls into two halves. The first is a sustained exposé of the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man in times of war and under totalitarian regimes. The second is a medley: love poems with a sardonic twist; sideswipes at democracy’s more tasteless manifestations in the West’s media; a sarcastic observation of human civilisation’s reckless destruction of other species.
Paul McGrane’s debut collection is an enjoyable glimpse into the mind of a man whose tastes, formed in the last decades of the twentieth century, will chime with those of many readers today. His title acknowledges a debt to Mark E Smith of The Fall, the punk band first formed as The Outsiders in the 1970’s, whose glory years were in the late ’80s but whose music spanned 40 years. They named themselves after novels by Albert Camus. Perhaps it’s a fanciful idea but there is something of Camus’ cool but compassionate view of the plight of the ordinary citizen in some of these poems.
McGrane approaches social and political issues with a sharp eye for ironic parallels, as in “Toy Story”. Here the iconic film animation for children and collectible Victorian lead soldiers are the springboard for a meditation on the futility of warfare and the passing of the defunct British Empire. The definition of an army as “Made for the pleasure of others” shocks and surprises from the beginning. The images of children playing at war, with soldiers
‘ID marked and posted daily
for a child’s version of war
trapped in games
over and over again...’
Tutti Frutti by Konstandinos Mahoney
“Tutti Frutti” by Konstadinos Mahoney (PSM Publications)
Second Prize winner of the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition, 2017
A skilled observer, Konstandinos Mahoney communicates his enthusiasm for life and
language in every poem of TUTTI FRUTTI, his honest, warm, perceptive first collection.
Close encounters of every kind are the keynote. In settings ranging from London to Greece
to Hongkong, Prague and the USA, the poems introduce us to lovers, parents, children,
neighbours, ephemeral relationships that have left only a gleam of sensuality in the poet’s
mind, and deeper relationships that have left lasting scars or memories of love and
fulfilment. The rather garish cover of this substantial collection didn’t prepare me for the
range and depth of the poems inside, though the suggestion of “pick’n’mix” sweets in the
title is, on reflection, appropriate to its varied themes.
The first poems in the collection offer vignettes of a boy’s sensual awareness of his own and
adults’ sexuality. ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Aunt Aphrodite’ are memories of early encounters with
female desire and physicality: home from school, the boy “barges in” and sees
“… sun shining in stripes/on naked duplicated breasts…” and “little me” is drawn in to dance
with his mother and her friend to the ecstatic music of Little Richard.
'Jinx' by Abigail Parry
Abigail Parry’s debut collection introduces Spook, Jack of Hearts, Snake, Goat, Bette Davis and others in a cast of characters fictional, cinematic and historical, threatening and threatened, monstrously attractive, attractively deceptive, ambiguous to a fault. This is a book by a poet whose theme is deception and trickery as an art in itself as well as an endemic part of human life.
Parry’s poetic virtuosity makes her work very rewarding to read aloud as well as on the page. Without conforming to conventional forms she weaves lines in repetitions and refrains so that many of the poems resemble incantations, spells, charms or chants. In ‘Girl to Snake’ an adolescent girl invites “Ropey Joe” to slither upstairs (“thin enough/to slip beneath the door and spill your wicked do-si-do/in curlicues and hoops across the floor”) “There are things I want to know” is her refrain, elaborated from stanza to stanza with “Oh tell me tell me tell me/about absinthe and yahtzee…”; “about lightning and furies…”; “about hellhounds and rubies…” and a catchy, breathless, irregular pattern of internal rhymes, half-rhymes and end-rhymes that binds the whole confection together and is irresistibly addictive when read aloud.
'The Malvern Aviator' by Richard Skinner
Opening “The Malvern Aviator’, Richard Skinner’s new pamphlet, the words ‘not for the faint-hearted’ came into my mind. For this is not an easy read: Richard Skinner’s eclectic gathering of source material and his tangential approach to its significance at first left me wondering whether I was quite up to ‘tackling’ the dense content and inventive structure of his poems.
If the opening poem, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ sets a theme for the next sixteen, it seems to be that we need mysticism in an era without religion, and that we depend on material symbolic structures and signs. The title of the poem comes from the mediaeval book of mysticism which inspired the Protestant sect of the Lollards, who were persecuted in the reign of Richard III. Skinner’s poem describes a belief system as a finely constructed temple, built ‘on the dross of the land’, where ‘when we are slain,/we walk through a door/and enter the jardin.’ And find ourselves alone, with only the images of birds ‘in a wish tree’ and the sound of a bell, that ubiquitous element of religious ritual. The imagery is worthy of the Rubaiyat. The message is existential.