Kaleidoscope by Laura Taylor

Reviewed by Grant Tarbard

Laura Taylor was born into a working-class family, and her whole body of work in Kaleidoscope speaks of love, harmony and equality. When poor people’s lives are like water running down the drain we can do with as many voices shouting about inequality from the rooftops as we can. Taylor identifies herself as a Socialist and a feminist, and one could consider Kaleidoscope her political manifesto. A foreword by Attila the Stockbroker invokes the spirit of punk, calling on the famous Adrian Mitchell quote; “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” I agree with Mitchell to a point: a lot of poets don’t let the street talk to them. That’s not to say they’re secluded from the mass of humanity, rather their poetry is personal, and it plays on the dull and rapid experiences that we all have; Geoffrey Hill said that ”Public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not.” Attila says: “Words exist to communicate ideas and NO OTHER REASON”. Well, I feel that’s a gauche statement. An idea can be framed with words, but thats nothing without feeling. Poetry is both a bird of paradise with colours flaming, and a greasy gull in a boxed new town. But if most poetry does push people away, this collection mixes a cocktail of humour, socialist thought and environmentalism.

This caboodle begins with the eponymous poem, ‘Kaleidoscope’, that seethes with redaction. The poet uses travelling on a road as a slim analogy for our power to select our own destiny, a person’s liberty:

Scenes unfold in simultaneous motion
as the foot, the wheel, the eye, the mind*
ride this road
in parallel / sequence.*

Represented, recorded, reordered;
kaleidoscopic eyes make choices

The asterisks denotes the ‘cross out as appropriate’ sections. And this works, disentangling a clear voice within the abstract.

‘The Propaganda Panda and the Autocratic Cat’ is a twenty-first century ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, with a right-on cynicism:

The Propagandas Panda and the Autocratic Cat
took a trip around the world in a new Learjet.
Champagne for breakfast and caviar for tea;
when recession hit, lived a life of luxury.

I’m reminded of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song, ‘Hiding All Away’;

Some were stuffing their faces with caviar
Some were eating cold potatoes

The poem’s almost childlike, the nursery rhyme essence gets stuck in your cranium. My favourite line is;

and when it came to pass
that the economy was fucked,
they developed Teflon shoulders
and tried to pass the buck

Quite unlike Lear! As Nigel Tufnel said; “You know, just simple lines intertwining”, like a sung warning against trusting leaders. Perhaps another musical interlude? Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.

‘For Aylan’ is a heavy-handed stab at the horror of the refugees fleeing from Syria across the Mediterranean face; the poem doesn’t puncture the emotional and physically exhausting impact of such a scene. Taylor uses this tragedy to get a political point across,

that your tiny little body in a picture on a beach
forced the powers of the world to rally round

No, it did not. As of 7th June, deaths so far this year are 2,809, compared with 1,838 through the first six months of 2015. And the Lebanese army raided a Syrian refugee camp. The list goes on in this ever decreasing world. However, the poem is not wholly lacking empathy, I found this line quite moving;

and you’ll never be a father or a lover or a man

I feel that Taylor ruined this eye of sympathy with the following;

but your passing in the tide has helped
the families who follow in your wake

We are nothing without insight into this communion of souls.

The pièce de résistance of the book is the five-parter ‘The Melting of the Ice’. I found this piece intriguing and would love to see more of this from the poet. It’s full of music.

This collection is unsophisticated, brash, not wanting to get dressed for the world, I like that sentiment but I didn’t find enough to sustain me here. Taylor paints her social commentary poems with a thick brush, and with a thick brush you can hold considerably more undiluted paint. In this case the paint is applied so thickly (like toothpaste) onto the canvas the reader is begging for a palette knife to scrape a layer off. I will leave the last words to Attila the Stockbroker, because he’s quite right. “The best poetry does not simply engage with people, it engages with people who think that poetry is a load of bollocks – and it changes their minds about poetry, about people, about the world.” Taylor’s work will either grab you and force you to look, or you will simply be fatigued and turned off.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge ed. by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee & Siobhan Logan

Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Over Land, Over Sea is a timely and generous publication (the proceeds from sales go towards a Refugee Forum and Médecins Sans Frontières), exploring what it means to lose your home and to be forced to flee a conflict that has obliterated the concept of living safely in the country of your birth. The contributors range from well-established poets to those at the start of their career, from migrants themselves to those who have campaigned or raised funds on their behalf. When poetry is written for a worthy social cause, there is a different, more focused, level of engagement with content. The anthology’s netting of such a disparate constellation of voices is part of its cumulative power.

Some poems communicate that vibrating force of fear which triggers the compulsion to flee, and remains buried in the body. It becomes a muscle memory, waking at night, stirring old fears in the stomach and pumping them to the heart: ‘jittery and wired to the scroll of scouring jets…’ (Roy Marshall, ‘Hayride’) ‘The smell is of sweat and fear and no sign of a toilet.’ (Joan Byrne ‘In truth I was afraid’); ‘clutching their hands on their hearts’ (Andy N, ‘Breathing from a Permanent Home’); ‘He wakes on the floor of his room…sweat…on his brow’ (Chrissie Gittins, ‘No Further’).

This is why the word ‘refuge’ is so important: it represents both physical and psychological safety, a sense of peace. As Mahendra Solanki puts it: ‘we seek comfort in this pull of green’ (‘from The Riverside Commission’).

While uneven in terms of craft and poetic quality, the diversity of approaches and attitudes, of time frames and variations of migration, is exciting. A refugee runs ‘across continents / over rivers / through forests / through deserts / and through tunnels’, prompting, not the expected compassion or fear, but inspiration, for Ambrose Musiyiwa. Kerry Featherstone inhabits the voice of a mother to prompt empathy, but also hints at darkness: ‘Here is my son, Aymal, /who must keep bloody secrets.’ Sally Jack acknowledges individual refugees by name: ‘Tarek’s false leg gives him pain but Tomas offers a ride on his bicycle. //Amira’s feet are bleeding, Sayid gives her his trainers.’

Truths are told of an inadequate official response to the crisis. Peter Wyton highlights the bitter irony of authorities belatedly naming an abandoned newborn: ‘There is a procession in his honour. …Callum …is in his rightful place, at the forefront of the whole assembly, carried by a single undertaker.’ (‘Callum’s Day’)

Gregory Woods marks moments of a refugee’s life in twelve stark and poignant tercets:

He takes to languages
like landscapes: in each
a job, a girl, a question.

(‘Life History’)

Other poets approach the situation from the point of view of the receiving country. Ken Evans points out that if someone starts a sentence with ‘I’m not racist but…’ the only response is to ‘turn and refuse to accept that caveat.’ (‘Citizens’) Lydia Towsey apologises for those who are unwelcoming to the refugees, with a razor-sharp reminder of sins of the past:

Slip your shoes off,
take this blanket
it’s the least that we can do.

I am sorry for our manners,
when we visited you last
the mess we left

(‘Come In’)

Several poems refer to the photograph of Aylan Kurdi:

I just wanted you to know
your lovely bones have not been wasted

writes Laura Taylor poignantly in ‘Aylan’. Danielle Hope’s ‘Exodus’ lists the names of vessels and ends with the evocative line ‘Empty shoes carpet the sea.’

In a more slant approach, Chrissie Gittins describes jars of Elsinore strawberries, which hang ‘in their syrup / like air balloons in a red sky’, confiscated from her rucksack at the airport:

I hadn’t lost my clothes, I hadn’t lost
my childhood in photographs,
I hadn’t lost my country.
And still it cuts me to the quick.

(‘Frontiers’)

I relate to the concrete and individual, rather than the abstract, amorphous multitude. Reading personal narratives gives a jolt of recognition and connection. Sally Flint’s ‘We Arrive By Truck’ contains many vivid images that will pierce mothers in particular: ‘That’s not kohl around her eyes; it’s dark tracks of sleeplessness’; and ‘She knows she should give her infant water, /but the orphan children who drank /from the river all disappeared.’

The most interesting poems approach the current refugee crisis from an alternative or lateral viewpoint. Rory Waterman uses juxtaposition and perspective to startling effect: ‘…on the verge of silence. / A butterfly bounced across. A plane hit a mountain / but slid out the other side like a threaded needle.’ (‘Ave Maria’) The bright, singular quality of these paired images, that endorphin-like impact, which strikes like a happy blow on the head, makes us believe the simile is simple, but like the best moments in poetry, it exceeds logic.

Another poet who layers images interestingly is Ammar Bin Hatim, war ‘exhibiting its ugly boobs like disfigured whore.’ He addresses the virtual Norman:

‘We are very similar my friend
we both put a red novel and a grenade in our khaki bag,
we both can’t look at dead cats and we are asked to Fight!
Have you heard, Norman?
The crash of ribs under that crazy tank!!

(‘Me and War’)

In Jasmine Heydari’s powerful poem, ‘The first time…mother decorated the windows of our rooms with / a duck-tape in the shape of the letter X /was the day of my fifth birthday’. Later, the first word she writes beginning with W is ‘war’ (‘The First Time’).

There are some poems that make effective use of form. Rod Duncan’s ‘but one country’ dramatically uses the speculum form to subvert the viewpoint offered in the first stanza. Daniel O’Donnell-Smith also plays with variations of a single sentence to present disconcerting conclusions. (‘and the sea did give up those dead in it’). David Belbin’s redacted poem, ‘From a North Atlantic Island’ uncomfortably communicates both resistance and a hesitant guilt.

Marilyn Ricci compares the current refugee plight with the Irish exodus after the famine: ‘uncle Mick and aunty Mary …bawling out the songs in the Emerald Club, though they wouldn’t go back, not now.’ Mariya Pervez reminds us of the first white lab mouse to be sent to the moon, that ‘Died in the rocket, a pocket-sized / Martyr to the cause of discovery’ (‘The Whiteness’). Also venturing space-wards, George Symonds considers future migration: ‘they’re coming over here, and taking our space/say the stars, the planets/the moons and supernovas’. Siobhan Logan, on the other hand, harks back, to the very first nomads, driven on by ‘scouring hunger’ and ‘desert winds’ who found themselves at the shore of the great water, the point from which, we are told in a footnote, our earliest human ancestors embarked to leave Africa:

When a sharp-eyed hunter spied land over there
we began to think
how to reach this new place, how to put
ourselves into the water.

(‘The Gate of Grief’, or Bab-al-Mandab, Red Sea)

This same apprehension is conveyed in Rose Scooler’s poem, translated by Sibyl Ruth, which rings with a heart-wrenching authenticity:

Almost we’d begun to feel that life in the camp was safe.
Now the way ahead’s unclear…nobody knows what’s going on outside;
where our families are, if loved ones have been spared.
We have become weak. The very thought of being told
our future makes us tremble. We are that scared.

(‘Goodbye to Theresienstadt’)

What marks the anthology for the most part, is a relational vibration, a sense of community, rather than a differentiated ‘they’ or ‘we’. Through an assembly of voices and pluralities of experience, resonances are triggered: above all, this anthology is about connection. Tania Hershman uses the theory of relativity to show how:

we are all bound I nudge space
you
are shifted

(‘Relativity)

I hope Over Land, Over Sea gains a wide readership, and achieves just that.