Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

"At or below sea level" by Elizabeth Sennitt Clough (Paper swans press, 2019)

The title alludes to The Fens. Maybe also to mood. There are poems from Stand, The Rialto, Magma, and some competition anthologies.

Two of my allergies are to higgledy-piggledy indents and contractual poetry. This book has a fair amount of each. The first poem, "Juno's Augury" is laid out as prose with some passages in bold. The bold text can be read alone as a poem - the passages end with "woke", "night", "moonlight", "bones", "stain", "flakes", "breaks", "pane", "smudge", "watermark", "lawn", "budge", "skylark", "dawn" - an abbacddcefgefg pattern. There's a storm with thousand-mile an-hour winds, a father, and many birds. A little research uncovered Aesop's Juno and the Peacock, and a Juno/Moneta soothsayer. And the planet Jupiter has violent winds. OK, so what's to be made of this passage - "Her voice is low, measured as she speaks: soaring birds have hollow bones. The marrow in my hips settle like evidence. They rotated him to remove the needle: they took what they wanted and left a stain on the paper sheet."? I don't know. The poem's tantalising though ultimately frustrating. "Creed" and "Gravid" use the same poem-in-a-poem form.

"Hum" riffs off the title - "Human ... Humbert ... humouresque ... humerous ... humdinger", etc. "The butterfly and the stone" has fluid symbolism - she=butterfly and he=stone? At first, yes - "she rests on the large grey boulder of him ... he wakes to something brushing the back of his neck ... the boulder is not capable of thought" - then "she" becomes "I" - "while he sleeps my wings open to night ... his mouth twitches as if in prayer when he closes me with his tongue ... I have a jar he says to preserve each piece of you"

I didn't like "Anonymous" - even if it's worth printing, it should be printed as prose. I didn't get "The Homemaker". I can see it's in 4/5/3 syllabics, but why the 1-tab/0-tabs/2-tabs line indent pattern? So each line has 5 "units"? I've problems with the content too. "Footnotes to a marriage" uses a cute idea and has some nice lines. I like "The Actress". But "Volta" has "last night's chip papers/ flap emptiness at our shoes/ grease our wayward steps", and an indent pattern of 1/2/0 0/2/1 1/2/0 0/2/1 1/0/2. I don't get "Jagged Lullaby". "Soham" presumably alludes to the 2002 murders. It's in 2 columns. Maybe it's supposed to be read either column-wise or row-wise, but the syntax is loose enough to make that a technically easy thing to do, and the content doesn't do much - is it about regeneration? I like "The Missing Moth Cabinet ...".

The book has many lines that sound good in isolation - "You no longer keep your threads taut/ in your dull patchwork of fields" ("Fen"); "Here futures are set in creosote" ("Fen Elegy"); "How the yellow bathwater made islands of me" ("Footnotes to a marriage"), etc. In the end however there were too many poems that I found difficult, and too many features that I look upon as warning signs - it's too advanced for me.


  • Paul Stephenson (I’ve heard that living at or below sea level can have an effect on a person’s physical/mental state. I don’t know how true that statement is, but it interests me .... I have travelled a lot, since my late teens with my own work and later with my husband’s job ... As a child, I didn’t want to be female because I’d been conditioned into thinking girls and women were weak/lesser beings by my stepfather (who beat and humiliated my mother). )
  • Chris Edgoose (She took it further and replied that the Fens are an ‘abused’ landscape, almost literally beaten into submission over hundreds of years of drainage ... But Liz has spent years away from the local dialect, living in Cambridge, the Netherlands and the US, and so she does not feel linked to the local language in a way that has allowed its use to feel natural in her poems so far.)

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

"Fenland Poetry Journal (issue 2)", Elisabeth Sennitt Clough (ed)

Poetry (some of it more than a page long) and bios. There are nearly 50 pages of poems by several poets I've heard of. Jeremy Page has 6. In an age of cut-backs and web-based magazines it'll be interesting to see how this fares. It has an East Anglia flavour, which might help, and an editor who's in the ascendancy as a poet.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

"The Best American Short Stories 2019", Anthony Doerr (ed), (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2019)

In his introduction, Doerr points out that he picked many stories that break the rules -

  • Single point-of-view: Deborah Eisenberg leaps into a doctor's mind in two of her story's 13 sections. Wendell Berry waits until the last seven paragraphs of "The great Interruption" to introduce a first-person narrator - a character you didn't even know was part of the story
  • Don't start with backstory: Siaid Sayrafiezadeh opens "Audition" with seven long paragraphs of exposition
  • Make the reader identify with the main character: Sigrid Nunez uses an unlikable narrator
  • Have one main character: Jeffrey Eugenides and Ursula K. Le Guin both have stories with dual protagonists. Jim Shephard uses 4
  • Don't be preachy: Wike Wang's "Omakase" has a strong moral stance

He's picked extensively from some of the shinier magazines - "The New Yorker" (4 stories), "Zoetrope: All-Story" (3 stories), and "Harper's" (2 stories). There are 2 from "LitMag", which started in 2017. In her Foreword, Heidi Pitlor reminds us that "Tin House" and "Glimmer Train" have gone.

Crowd-sourced reviews are quite useful for anthologies like this, so here's my penny's worth.

  • "The Era" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah - A first-person schoolkid lives in an age where children are encouraged to tell the truth, and gene-therapy is available for those with money. "I don't have any gene corrections. I wasn't optimised at all", he says. "Leslie is always telling lies about how great things are or how nice everyone looks and how everybody is special". He regularly get an injection of Happy from the school nurse.
  • "Natural Light" by Kathleen Alcott - a first-person woman, not separated from her much older husband, sees a photo of her now dead mother in an exhibition. She's doing something we're not told about. The persona contacts the photographer, learning little, then contacts her father, learning that her mother and he used to be (heroin?) addicts. The language often becomes more elevated when observations are made - "There was always one student who hated me. This was a problem I could solve more easily with young men, pretending to lessen my authority while I sharpened my argument. But with girls it was never clear, for their hatred was much more original, multifaceted, and they clung to it even while enjoying whichever dialectic I'd introduced to distract them"
  • "The Great Interruption" by Wendell Berry - a boy gets the chance to give birth to an anecdote that by word of mouth goes viral. The method of distribution and the way it comes to be associated with the area are dealt with.
  • "No more than a bubble" by Jamel Brinkley - a guy and his mate are at an upmarket student party. His black mother, having walked out on his white father, is soon to remarry. The two guys make out with two exotic black girls. At the end there's a jump to the father's funeral. The mother's there who the narrator's not seen for years. The narrator thinks back to the wild night, his father's advice, and tries to make sense of it all - of fathership and friendship.
  • "The third tower" by Deborah Eisenberg - A 17 y.o. girl takes a train ride past ruined towns to The City, for treatment. She suffers from hyperassociativity. "Her teachers said she'd grow out of it, but it's only gotten worse since school - words heating up, expanding, exploding into pictures of things, shooting off in all directions, then flaming out, leaving behind cinders and husks, a litter of tiny, empty, winged corpses, like scorched gnats or angels". There are hints of a 1984-like fist in a velvet glove.
  • "Hellion" by Julia Elliot - Alex, a townie, about 13, is staying with Miss Edna while his newly born premature sister is in intensive care. Butter (13) a distant cousin, befriends him, tells him the vulnerabilities of potential bullies. When Alex and Butter mess a shed up, Alex is humiliated in front of the bullies, and Butter's pet alligator is shot by order of her mother. She'd like to stay friends with him - she plans to leave the town and studdy. My favourite piece so far.
  • "Bronze" by Jeffrey Eugenides - A high, flamboyant male who's often hit upon by men, wonders about the signals he sends. He gets drunk with a stranger (a gay older man, an actor) and things get a bit physical. He leaves suddenly, drops in on a fellow student, a ballerina with a wheelchaired mother. We're shown the two men's point-of-view.
  • "Protozoa" by Ella Martinsen Gorham - About internet bullying. Didn't work for me. Samples are
    They moved to the front door, noses in phones. He typed something and Noa's phone buzzed. He had messaged her: 300 likes for nosebleed von hobo pants
    If you roast me, better make me look good, she replied. She remembered that he'd made up a rhyme for their music teacher Inez, a 'siren with all guns firin'."
    Smoking gun emoji. She folded her knees to her chest. Can you? Crying-face emoji, blue-face emoji. She took a raggedy breath
    "Are you going to cry?" a voice said. She shrieked. It was Callan, nestled in a corner
    "Don't sneak up on me like that," she said.
    "This is my perch," he said, bugging his eyes.
  • "Seeing Ershadi" by Nicole Krauss - Two women friends, the narrator and Romi, share a mysterious attraction to a foreign film, especially the main character, Ershadi. At the end after years apart they get in touch again.
    How much time we wasted, she wrote, believing that things came to us as gifts, through channels of wonder, in the form of signs, in the love of men, in the name of God, rather than seeing them for what they were: strengths that we dragged up from the nothingness of our own depths.
    The ending, which I like, is
    Romi wrote that the last thing that had surprised her was that when Ershadi is lying in the grave he's dug and his eyes finally drift closed and the screen goes black, is isn't really black at all. If you look closely, you can see the rain falling.
    I liked the odd page or so (when Mark appears, etc).
  • "Pity and Shame" by Ursula K. Le Guin - A young woman with an unreliable husband is looking after an old man. I lost concentration a few times during this piece. Paragraphs like "Something relaxed between them then. An inner movement, very deep down, definitive, almost imperceptible" don't appeal to me.
  • "Anyone Can Do it" by Manuel Munoz - A poor couple, Delfina and her husband, have moved to California from Texas in search of casual work. They have a little son Kiki but no phone. The boy takes a little car from a shop. A neighbour, Lis, invites her to do some peach-picking. Lis steals her car!
  • "The Plan" by Sigrid Nunez - Roden Jones plans to murder someone - "In his head he had strangled the assistant principal, several teachers and fellow students, and dozens, if not hundreds, or strangers. And one particular snub-nosed cheerleader many times". When he's about to kill his wife she leaves him so he kills a whore he frequents. I don't see much in the story.
  • "Letter of Apology" by Maria Reva - In the USSR an agent is assigned to extract a letter of apology from a poet who had joked about a leader. The agent suspects that the poet's wife is assessing the agent with a view to recommending him for promotion. In fact the wife, whose relatives have been victims of the regime, threatens him with a knife. He leaves, ready to apologise to his boss.
  • "Black Corfu" by Karen Russell - It's 1620. A surgeon cuts the hamstrings of the dead (even his own stillborn son) to stop them walking. He's accused of botching an op. They story had lofty passages - "Those few who do meet the doctor's gaze still fail to recognize him. Their paranoia trawls over his skin, and a monster springs into their nets. His timbre shakes, and they presume his guilt"; "In later centuries, new etiologies will evolve. Miasma theory will yield to germ theory, superstition to science. Yet every novel treatment breeds an equally novel genetic resilience, as only the hardiest survivors spawn. And so the cure teaches the disease how to evade it". It seems rather long and pointless it me.
  • "Audition" by Said Sayrafiezadeh - The narrator's a 19 year old son of a rich man. He's working on his father's building site to gain experience. He wants to be actor. He smokes crack cocaine twice with a fellow labourer and has insights about Seinfold and his own ambitions. He's still young. Seemed a minor piece to me.
  • "Natural Disasters" by Alexis Schaitkin - This involves a 24 year old freshly married couple, Steven and the first-person narrator - "In New York we were broke, but this was OK, even fun, because we assumed that someday soon we would be comfortable, and would look back on these days with a tender longing ... Perhaps our faith in this narrative is what allowed us to delight even in our frequent arguments".
    They move to Oklahoma and a big house - "We had arrived in a place where space was completely unprecious, and this notion was a astonishing to me as if the same thing were to be true of time ... I believed that I could nail this place by triangulating among its details, that this place typifying images converged upon a deeper truth". She's depressed, lonely. She gets a job writing copy for a realtor, visiting many houses. We get flash-forwards and reflections. "a place and its disasters - its fathomless, inscrutable unknowns - are not separable ... The disaster is always there, because it takes up residence inside of you". She visits a gorgeous house, the door opened by a gorgeous man. They have to rush to the storm shelter. She hopes to be seduced. She dreams about being stuck there for life. But it's his dead brother's house, not his. His brother's dreams died in a car accident.
    At the end there's "Maybe you think all of this is easy to interpret ... Maybe it is only my personal stake in the matter that makes me want to believe it was not that simple. All I can say is that when I pulled up to the house on Redtail Road I thought life was one thing, and when I drove away I knew it was another. I knew, quite simply, that life is not a story at all. It is the disasters we carry within us. It is amazing, it is exquisite, it is a stunning charmer, and it is noted in water and jotted in dust and the wind lifts it away". My favourite piece so far.
  • "Our day of grace" by Jim Shepard - Exchanges of letters during the American Civil War. Not my type of story.
  • "Wrong Object" by Mona Simpson - First-person therapist (female) has a middle-aged male client who eventually admits to liking little girls. We find out about the therapist's partner and her line-manager. There wasn't enough in the story for me.
  • "They told us not to say this" by Jenn Alandy Trahan - In the Walkman era, when daughters weren't given the same social liberties as sons, some girls admire a sportsman. They try to impress him by playing sports. "In practice after school we did suicides until we felt like puking. We did them in our driveways at night too". "We were brown like their daddies' secretaries ... brown like may I take your plate, brown like you think I need your charity "
  • "Omakase" by Weike Wang - Two years after they met online (dating by watching the same movie in different cities while linked with Skype) a finance analyst (38) and a potter moved in together in New York. Going out for sushi exposes their personality differences (she overthinks), which are analysed and explained.

Other reviews

  • Good reads
  • Kirkus review (A highlight is the opener, an assured work of post-apocalyptic fiction by young writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah ... If the collection has a theme, it might be mutual incomprehension)
  • Anjanette Delgado

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

"Meet me at the harbour" by Michael A. Brown (Eyewear, 2019)

I like paragraph 2 on p.14. I like the idea of "Property playground" but not its execution. I like the title on p.36 - "Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe and a report to tell me how dangerous it is". I like "In memory of my red RNLI hat". A few of the more raw poems begin well enough - e.g. "Mercury poisons me" - "I feel wrapped in metal/ my kidneys are pissing toxic tales// I've forgotten your name again/ my skin becomes pink and peels"; They open wounds/ tearing off emotions like plasters" (p.35)

I didn't like p.13, 19, 22, 42, 44, 48, 56. Where I expect a punch-line too often there's banality. An insight which merits a section on p.27 is "Lighthouses/ remind me/ that despite darkness/ there is always light.". p.31 ends with "The sun goes down on City Lights where ideas open up like books, minds, and hearts". List poems are a problem. "Border" is a list ended by "From space there are no borders" Really? "Wildlife of Fraggle Rock" is another list - "Noisy mallard ... A cute rabbit ... A solitary heron ... A Christmas-card Robin". "Charlestown Harbour, Cornwall" begins with "Carefree boys swim,/ bob like buoys" and ends with "I harbour this feeling.".

If you're going to write about poems and IKEA it had better be good because several people (me included) have done it before. "Finding a poem in IKEA" might have preceded them all.

The punctuation and line-breaks of "Cormorant" puzzles me even more than that of the other poems. He tries rhyme in "By the book", which begins with

She does things by the book
while giving me an evil look
no reason for hands to be shook

"I think that's the trick with Cambridge/ hang around long enough and suddenly you stick" (from "Cambridge Problem"). Damn, my secret's revealed.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

"Rattle (issue 57)"

Over 100 pages, 10 of them bios and 18 of them an interview with Ken Meisel. The magazine has 7,000+ subscribers, which is impressive.

Several of the pieces have starts or endings that would work well for stories -

  • Start: You stick the chicken's head through a hole in a bucket. There's no guillotine or ax, just a little sharp knife to cut their throats, and you say, "Goodbye little chicken" and slit, slit, slit. It takes a couple of minutes for them to bleed (Edward Derby)
  • Start: I inherited from my mother the knobbly joints and square ends of my fingers. From my father, I got the habit of biting my nails, their shortness. The frayed missing skin had never bothered me but now I have a son and he has begun to bite too. (Ananda Lima)
  • Ending: His case was distinct from mine, the doctors reassured me, I could be cured again and again (Andrew Miller)
  • Ending: I startle a flock of birds, that will never again be still (William Evans)
  • Near-ending: She kept my books and a few LPs because I was going to come back (Ed Ruzicka)

"Pardoning the turkey" is prose, despite its couplets. "Pancake Dilemma" is à la Lydia Davis. "Who am I?" by Kelly Fordon has rhetorical repetition, but that's far from justifying its classification as poetry. Kelsey Hagarman's "The Visit" looks like something written as the result of a Flash prompt - except for the line-breaks. Dillon McCrea's "Self-portrait as an inkblot" uses a device that's used in other pieces too - it begins with a surprise, then tells a story whose ending repeats the image at the start, which now makes sense.

"Weed whacker" by Nancy Whacker is amongst the pieces I like.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

"La vita bugiarda degli adulti" by Elena Ferrante (Edizioni e/o, 2019)

In the first sentence we're told that 2 years before he left home, the narrator's father said to her mother that the narrator's ugly. The first-person narrator, Giovanna, is nearly 13. Puberty isn't easy. Her parents (André and Nella) had her late. She's worried that she disrupted their lives - they seem sadder than other parents. Her father's sister Vittoria has a bad reputation in the house. He claims that he saved her from a relationship with Enzo, a married delinquent with 3 kids. She's been blacked out of photos.

They live in Naples, which feels like many cities rather than one. She doesn't like speaking Napolitano - her parents don't. She reads a lot. So does Angela, her friend. Angela has a younger sister Ida, who reads even more. She asks her friend if she's ugly, if puberty has made her more ugly. Angela's parents, Mariano and Costanza, are the best friends of Giovanna's parents.

Giovanna wants to visit her aunt because Giovanna thinks she's becoming like Vittoria. But when a meeting's arranged, Giovanna thinks Vittoria's beautiful despite her nasty personality. Vittoria still hasn't got over Enzo even after 16 years. She claims that Enzo's death was because André told Enzo's wife about the affair. And he wasn't a delinquent, he was a policeman, though he threatened André with a gun. Vittoria encourages Giovanna not to think of herself as the daughter of a narrow-minded intellectual, but as belonging to a wider family of non-intellectuals.

Who is Giovanna to believe? She's attracted by the strength of Vittoria's passions - at home she has to hide emotions. She starts lying to her parents, and lying to friends. She bunks off school for her second meeting with Vittoria, to visit Enzo's grave. Giovanna's never been to a cemetery before. At the grave-side Vittoria talks to Enzo, then is anatomically explicit about her relationship with Enzo.

Vittoria's very friendly with Enzo's widow Margherita and her 3 children - Tonino, Corrado and Giuliana. She takes Giovanna (Giannina) to visit them. Giovanna's friends are fascinated by her newly discovered relatives and want to meet them.

Giovanna thinks Mariano and her mother are having an affair. Before long her parents divorce. Apparently André and Costanza had been lovers since before Giovanna's birth. She has to re-take a year at school, but isn't supposed to tell anyone about it. Angela and Tonino get engaged. Giovanna and Corrado get friendly.

A bracelet that André's mother owned gains significance. Was it a gift from Vittorio to Giovanna? How did it get into Costanza's hands?

Giovanna, nearly 15, gets dressed to lose her virginity to Corrado, but she finds herself in church and falls in love at (nearly) first sight with the priest, Roberto, who's the fiancé of Giuliana. He was born in the area, trained in Milan, son of a well-known lawyer. He plans to return to Naples to repay some kind of moral debt, and marrying Giuliana is part of that repayment. But he doesn't send her the articles and papers he's had published

Vittoria is Giovanna's point of contact with Roberto, so she make friends with her again, and studies the bible. This commences the least believable phase of the book. She wants to be friends with Roberto, a high-flying (albeit unpretentious) intellectual 10 years her senior. She had been envious of Vittoria's everlasting love for Enzo, then was introduced to sex (she's growing fast), then she learned the power and politics of attraction. Having looked down on her father's intellectualism she now uses him to prepare for discussions with Roberto.

Tonino and Angela break up. Tonino leaves in a hurry, to Venice. Tonino was the chaperon for Roberto and Giuliana when Giuliana went to Milan. Giuliana's having doubts about Roberto. Giovanna offers to phone him, and later agrees to act as chaperon. She and Giuliana take the train. They're invited to a gathering with Roberto's colleagues. Giovanna notices how hard Giuliana tries to show Roberto that they're made for each other. She notices how his presence at the gathering is what holds the group together. That night (Giovanna's 16th birthday) Roberto and Giuliana sleep together - not for the first time. On their return journey they discover they've left the bracelet behind. Giovanna goes beck to collect it, hoping to sleep with Roberto - the ideal being to lose her virginity to. Yet when he invites her to his bed, she refuses.

Back in Naples she discovers that Ida has a failed her exams but doesn't care because she wants to spend all her time writing. Giovanna has a chance to compare herself again with Vittoria - her body and future - and is keen to lose her virginity to someone or other. At the end, as an educational exercise and on her terms, she choose Rosario.

A primary theme's Nature vs Nurture - how much upbringing and education affect outcomes. Loyalty to self needs to be balanced against loyalty to family and clan. Idealised Love loses out to pragmatic considerations. In the end, Giovanna turns out ok.

There were hints that the men who treat girls with dignity are gay. I expected more to come of it.

Why do the teenagers let Vittoria have so much control over their relationships?

Other reviews

Saturday, 14 March 2020

"Lighthouse (issue 20)" (Gatehouse press, 2019)

It's an issue that features Flash (Tania Hershman, Meg Pokrass, etc), though there's still poetry, prose-poetry and prose. It's interesting to see different types of short texts side by side. I've written elsewhere about how to shorten texts. They can be made more narrow, more shallow, or (least successfully) just scaled down. Clarity can be sacrificed. If you take some prose, knock out a few words, remove punctuation, then add line-breaks, you can create something that readers are prepared to reconstruct into prose, as long as you call it poetry. Classified as prose, readers might think it badly written. Several of these shortening options are exploited in this issue. Poetic language and dislocations happen as much in the texts with many line-breaks as in the paragraphed texts.

Some well-known Flash writers have been giving a chance to supply blurb-sized quotes. It's difficult to find new ways to say that short texts can have big effects. Here's Christopher Gonzales - "Flash fiction is a writer's playground for form and voice. Great flash fiction can offer you the world in a pill-sized package". The first sentence makes Flash sound self-indulgent. The second sounds like drug-pushing - "pill" has negative connotations for me. Maureen Langloss writes that "Compression, intensity, and nuance are my favorite things about flash". My guess is that many poetry readers admire the same features. Are they any harder to pull off in prose? RB Pillay loves flash because it allows for traditional narrative, and because it also permits "a type of radically compressed narrative that is impossible to replicate at any other scale." Pillay's comments seem to accept the need for narrative of some sort. It's this requirement that cuts across the desire to add more poetic features. If a text sacrifices narrative, and has flashy imagery, I think it's more fairly described as poetry. Finola Scott's piece contains "On the unravelling pasture occasional trees cluster for company", which as prose might be considered purple. If the piece lacks line-breaks and is more a mood piece than a narrative then it's I'd say it's short prose rather than poetry or Flash.

I've noticed that people who offer their pieces as poems often don't like them to be re-classified as prose. The term "Poetry" still has an aura.

I didn't notice any Formalist pieces in this issue. A shopping list is a prose construction capable of managing discontinuities. The list format is used by poets, but I think prose writers could reclaim it. Ditto with Abecedarians - some foregrounding of language and form is possible in prose. The content, the amount of foregrounding, and the context will determine how successfully the writer might claim that the result is poetry.

Novel readers often don't like short stories. I wouldn't be surprised if short story readers didn't in general like Flash. I think certain poetry readers might like it, those who like accessible, character-based free-form poems with a bit of a twist. Such readers will appreciate the features that the Flash practitioners admire - compression, nuance, sense-based descriptions, lack of back-story, etc.

My favourite piece was Cheryl Pearson's poem, "What a fish dreams of".