Urban Myths and Legends: Poems About Transformations ed. by Rachel Piercey & Emma Wright

– Reviewed by Bethany W. Pope – 

Urban Myths and Legends is an ambitious, fascinating, largely successful reworking of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that approaches the subject with a modern slant. In her introduction, Emma Wright describes the feel of the stories that Ovid told, which she sought to reproduce whilst editing this book:

He (Ovid) whisks the reader from one myth to the next, telling his tales with relish and moving us along from each tragic outcome with ironic asides.

Part of me finds this callous, but equally, last week I leant out of a first-floor café window to watch a fight break out on the street below, giving a running commentary to the people behind us who couldn’t see. ‘She’s pulled a pointy bit of fence out of her car! She’s waving it! The other one’s thrown a ketchup bottle! It’s gone everywhere! Now her Uber’s arrived!’ Whether or not one agrees with the ethos expressed in this passage regarding the behaviour of observers and storytellers (in the real world, of course, if a person is in trouble it is the responsibility of the observer to act), this excerpt does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the poems presented in these pages.

True to the malleable nature of the original verse, some of the poems are almost surreal. Others reveal a sudden change of perspective, a flashing revelation which utterly alters the view of subjects which were thought to be understood. ‘John The Bear’, by Richard O’Brien, is representative of the former type of metamorphosis (I could almost pick one at random, as the quality of these poems, across the board, is high). The poem describes the fairy-tale subject of the shape-shifting spouse in rhythmic, rhyming quatrains which seduce the throat and tongue into speaking it aloud:

A wife and husband lay in bed;
They’re whispering and kissing;
By the time that one awoke
The other one was missing.

After a few lines spent following a trail of discarded garments out into the garden, we discover where the lover went:

She’s gone into her own backyard;
She’s seen a silver beech;
She’s seen a dark shape climbing up
Until it’s out of reach.

The playful rhyme is deliciously undercut by ominous imagery and an appropriately mythic sense of danger.

The other side of revelation – the more ordinary-seeming (and more deeply unsettling) shock of discovering that something familiar, even loved, was never exactly what we thought it was – is represented by Joe Lines’ ‘The Foundling’. An unnamed couple discover a puppy in their garden:

When we heard him cry out from the dark garden
we thought he was a bird or the wind nagging the gate.
He insisted: we went to check.
A form slumped in the grass, eyes agog,
his flaring ears; how thin he was,
and russet in the kitchen light.

It isn’t until much later that the proud new owners have the obvious pointed out to them while walking in the dog park:

An old lady came by. Eyeing him, she said
that one of them had been sniffing round her bins,
and weren’t they getting very fearless — and
wasn’t that one very tame.

This poem is rhythmically complex and the imagery is both clear and intriguing, allowing the reader’s imaginary lens to shift and unpeel a new layer of reality.

Like most books released by The Emma Press, this anthology is filled with lovely, ink-sketched illustrations by Emma Wright. She depicts the usual metamorphic subjects – a boy sprouting the horns and hooves of a deer, people melting into trees – but they are charmingly done in a style which would feel at home in a Roald Dahl children’s book. These images reinforce the poems without detracting from them, contributing, in a playful but meaningful way, to the whole.

Slow Things ed. by Rachel Piercey & Emma Wright

Reviewed by Penny Boxall

Even on opening the postal package, I was certain I was going to like Slow Things. The Emma Press’ bitesized anthology is as appealing as any well-pitched children’s book; the cover’s enticing maroon and Quentin Blake-esque sloth illustration suggests another, less complicated world of the sort in which I would like to dwell. An initial flick through the pages revealed intriguing little sketches I immediately wanted to colour in. My gauge was set to ‘childlike enthusiasm’ from the start.

‘Poems about Slow Things’ explains the inner blurb, simply: but this is more gnomic and mysterious than it might first seem. Poems themselves – and these poems are no exception – are not that easy. Emma Wright, in her foreword, explains that selection for the anthology required the poems to be ones we can ‘sink into’.

This is a good strategy to get you in the contemplative mood. By poem one, I felt calm. By poem ten, I was blissed out. In foregrounding poems’ essential luxury – yes, they can (and should) be moving, provocative, startling; but they are also a past-time – the editors have made of this little book an invitation to cosiness.

Isobel Dixon starts with the lazy, contented question: “What are we to do with all this sky?” But her answering lines are taut rather than sloppy: “Here even the breeze / has water in” blends economical syntax with apt imagery. This is undermined a little by the page turn to the (to my mind) unnecessary closing tercet: I was so satisfied by “The grass tufts nod” as the closing image that to find an unexpected coda on the next page undid some of the good work.

In general, though, this is a collection of unusually fulfilling poems. The opening poem aside, they have excellent endings; I felt changed a little by each one. Rob Walton’s ‘dining’ is otherworldly but avoids the fey: slow things round the table (sloth, snail, tortoise) wait for their slow meal (will it ever come? It doesn’t matter) and consider, at some point, fixing the grandfather clock: “we wouldn’t regret it”. Alexandra Davis’ ‘Weekend’ is thick with internal rhyme: “We arrive, the working week a smear / of rush, a comet’s dust, / streaking out behind us.” Tell me more! “Like too-stretched bubblegum it sags[…], dead skin in the space of yesterday”. Yes, that’s the stuff.

Little pictures also serve to slow the very process of reading. Charlotte Buckley’s creepy archaeology in ‘Ice Well’ (“In darkness for years, / there is a sense of it coming to light”) is separated from (or linked to) Juana Adcock’s mysterious ‘Waking up the Stones’ by a careful line drawing of a tiny broken nugget, its lines assured. More books should be accompanied by visuals – these surely enhance the reading experience.

Other poets’ lines I would especially like to single out: Sara Nesbitt Gibbons‘ “patient as rust or a barnacle”; Di Slaney‘s “the colour of my jelly shoes shrieking fun- / time red”; Cameron Brady Turner‘s “all this way just to / slowdance a wardrobe up the stairs”. These are tiny word-gems, and there are lots of them.

In fact, there are really no weak links; I was able to explore the collection safe in the knowledge of its quality, so that if poems didn’t grab me it was a quirk of my taste rather than failure of their craft. More like this, please, Emma Press – you’ve convinced me to take it slow.

The Emma Press Anthology of Dance edited by Rachel Piercey & Emma Wright

– Reviewed by Jessica Traynor 

Poetry anthologies can sometimes seem like publications without a market. Some poetry readers take a slightly snobbish attitude to the anthology, looking upon it as a sampler for the dilettantish reader who doesn’t quite have the attention span for a slim volume. In a world where this is the case, is there room for another anthology, particularly one like The Emma Press Anthology of Dance, which showcases the work of emerging poets alongside their more established colleagues? Are these anthologies too easily edged out of the limelight by yet another rehash of the nation’s favourites, or a round up of the usual schoolbook fodder?

I would argue that there is always room for one more anthology, especially when the anthology’s aim and market are clearly considered. As a reader, writer and teacher of poetry, the anthology is my best friend. The Emma Press, a recent enough addition to the poetry publishing scene, are doing great work in anthologies, as testified to by reviews of their prior publications on this website. Their cleverly themed slim volumes are accessible and nicely designed, with Emma Wright’s Quentin Blake-ish illustrations punctuating the text and demarcating the book’s various sections.

The book opens with a number of poems which engage with the physicality and sensuality of dance. Here, George David Clark’s “Lullaby with Succotash”, with its collision of the domestic and the surreal, stands out:

Maybe start talking say I like those
dangly things on your ears they’re called earrings
I know that and while you’re talking get out a bowl
and start peeling oranges and to your lady say
can you do the succotash?

Pam Thompson’s mysterious but compelling “His Sister’s Version” and Sophie F Baker’s tender and fluent “My Mother as a Horse” are two highlights of the second section, although I would question the necessity of the long epigraph in the latter, which pre-empts the poem’s subtle (but surely clearly stated?) message. This second section takes us out to the edge-places of the world, to Scottish highlands and pier-ends, where the dancers in question are either exposed to the elements or sheltered by tradition and community. The dancers in Francine Elena’s “Orcadian Strip the Willow, Hogmanay” dance in the wake of their ancestors:

We are clumps of snow dissolving in a river,
Breaking from ourselves in clumps of family colour.
The aurora borealis from a Viking archipelago.

The book’s third section, focusing on ballet, feels the most literal. Some poems indulge in lucid fantasies – Hilary Gilmore’s “Ballerina of the Night-Pool” – while others seek to undercut them. Catherine Smith’s “My Dancers” deserves special mention for its humour and brio, capturing a young girl’s rampaging imagination and her teachers’ misguided attempts to rein it in:

I wanted to dance them away from the teacher,
from the chalk dust, glue, the morning tapes
of Elgar or Shostakovich they played
to civilize us – it wasn’t Swan Lake,
my classmates were lumpen and wrong.

These ballet-themed poems are followed by poems exploring relationships with parents and the effects of ageing. Geraldine Clarkson’s “The dancers on graves”, which has real staying power, imagines a society of dancers gathering on the year’s longest day to jig their revenge on the graves of their enemies: “And a lady of ninety (who never forgot // the man who wronged her at seventeen), / resplendent in furs, performs a perfect foxtrot.”

Romantic entanglements inform the fifth and sixth sections, with the poets engaging in that tango between the physical and the spiritual. Emma Jeremy’s “The One Where I Sleep Next to You” negotiates a moment of fractured intimacy between lovers, while James Coghill’s Eeyore-ish exploration of the artistic brain and its apprehension in the face of the physical world in “Munch was Probably a Terrible Dancer” raises a smile:

You asked about my mood
and I replied: amphibious
then slithered out onto the floor
as you hung up
into a small, horrible puddle of me.

The thematic structure loosens in the book’s final grouping of poems, seeming to gather together a few strays which might easily have been housed in earlier sections of the book. The final poem, Anna Kisby’s “Grandmother Was a Showgirl”, is a fitting end to the anthology, memorialising a figure of giantish proportions in the poet’s personal mythology, in a manner that brings her vividly to life. This is a fitting testament to the transformative and empowering potential of dance, an enjoyable anthology, which should appeal to poetry fans and acolytes alike.

Campaign In Poetry ed. by Rachel Piercey & Emma Wright

Reviewed by Sohini Basak

Strikingly, the poems in Campaign in Poetry are as much about contesting lack of concern about democracy as about the people, the individuals who are the units of the democracy. I will start with a poem on the centrefold, Rachel Long’s ‘Aunty’, which depicts what the most basic political scenario is often about: an encounter with the other. The poem narrates a series of movements and mind games set in a public bathroom, between the narrator and a cleaner, who the narrator deduces is Yoruba, as her mother also ‘is’ or ‘was’. Each time the narrator thinks of starting a conversation by calling her ‘Aunty’, she withholds herself, afraid that it will take a familiar turn:

I want to tell her No! I know you don’t.
I want to tell her a secret,
my Mum is Yoruba, or she was,
before she came to England.
But Aunty will ask, What people? What town?
I won’t be able to answer.

Meanwhile, each time, the cleaner thinks that the narrator is going to say something demeaning. Finally, when the conversation does not happen (other than two separate imagined ones in their heads), she reads the narrator’s mind and can only react with a contradiction:

My laugh echoes
foreign against the lockers.

Luke Kennard’s “Poor Door”, which appears just before “Aunty”, is another piece combining satire, form, fact, and empathy in exact doses, to talk about the way our society, or its tangible structures, will always be designed to feed the beast of inequality:

Our monogrammed postboxes are extra wide to allow for
the quality of stationery. It’s not that we look down on you – our
gentility’s unimpeachable − it’s that you’re out of place here: a
peach with genitals. It’s not about where you came from it’s how
you’re getting in.

Another point of satisfaction, in reading this collection, is that there is a good balance of poems written in response to key events of the past years, and poems about people and politics on more allegorical levels. James Trevelyan’s poem “Understanding the collapse of the economy” is an acute tongue in cheek commentary:

when Katie
Robbins got off
with four boys
in one night
at the Rugby Club
and I didn’t care
cos one of them
was me yeah
it’s a bit like that.

Other poems in response to current affairs include Rosie Miles’ “Cuts”, which takes a jab at the NHS with can openers, Ellie Danak’s “What I Know about Voting in the Scottish Referendum”, “In Fashion” by Anna Kisby – written in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse – and “On the day Obama was inaugurated”, which the anthology ends with.

Satire and animal allegory has long been associated with writing about politics; one only has to glance at a basic literary shelf housing Orwell or Swift. It is therefore apt that Campaign in Poetry opens with Holly Hopkins’ poem about bees. Only it is not about bees. It is titled “The General Election”, and it stings. Clare Pollard’s “Hamelin” is also an excellent inclusion, about the rat-infested town where the collective thinks “We must face the nature of the threat / and extend the powers of the catcher.” On a similar ground of myth and the politics of island geography, Mona Arshi builds a picture of ‘wireman’ and his seemingly perfect wire family in her Reduit Beach prose poem “Wireman”.

A running concern in these poems, and in our everyday dialogue about politics, is the gap between speech and action, between promise and brainwash, or to borrow from Clare Pollard, the dangerous campaigning of “Common Nonsense”. Stephanie Arsoska’s poem “Proper Procedure” is a brave take on this loophole that is doublethink:

You are true citizens now.
True citizens follow the rules.
True citizens are golden.
True citizens will be looked after.

and these haunting lines with which the poem ends:

We are watching.
We love you.
We are watching.
Be true to yourself.
This is a message of hope.

Ewan Stevenson’s “Election Line” is another gem of a poem on the role of media and censorship in political campaigning. The editors, Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright, point out in their introduction that the idea behind the book was to shake up voter apathy, by presenting poems that would “make clear how important it is to think” about what is happening around us, and what needs to change. On this front, Ellie Danak’s poem “Stop” hits the nail on the head (and is an appropriate cue to end this review on):

And are you not moved some days
to run out of your house, your arms
whipping the air, to cry out ‘Stop’?

Best Friends Forever (ed. by Amy Key)

-Reviewed by Fiona Moore

BFF-product-300x300

Emma Press anthologies – charming, quirky, heartfelt – are becoming part of the poetry landscape.  Best Friends Forever celebrates female friendship.  Editor Amy Key says she found that most people’s favourite friendship poems were male, with themes such as brotherhood, war and intellectual rivalry.  So an imbalance is being redressed: I was at once interested to see how people would address the theme.

Here we find passion, the circus, celebrity emulation, shared rites of passage, domestic interiors, heartbreak, escape and much else.  Many of the friendships are celebrated through memories.  Catherine Smith’s ‘Snakebite’ captures the exhilaration of an early drinking session, with added poignancy from the dedication to a friend who died young:

                                           Tomorrow
we’ll feel sick as dogs. But tonight,
here, under a bright, full moon,

we’re amazing, and as we hug
on my doorstep, I taste you,
kiss the snakebite off your lips.

The tone of these poems is often nostalgic and they contain enough cultural references to keep a social historian happy for days.  These add a glitter and swing to the book, and provide a backdrop for emotional experiences.  The friends in Camellia Stafford’s ‘Roller Girls’ were “daredevils striped in rainbow light” at the roller disco.  Sophia Blackwell’s ‘Listening to The Streets’ has two student friends, a soundtrack of The Streets, “cigarettes //skinny as sugar twists”,

then off we staggered through the sleeping bricks
to stand for Grace in tube tops and kimonos,

your hair purple and vertical, me with the cornrows
from that day you were bored.

Best Friends Forever has that characteristic all anthologies need: it’s delightful to dip into, not knowing what you’ll find next.  This is from a loving little-sister poem from Rachel Piercey, ‘Bath time’:

I slapped
            against the taps,
got lost hunting
            big fish soap,

[…]

So I call your little arms
            compass,
give your tiny legs
            the title map.

There’s a good mix of known and less known names, and just about everything is quotable.  Liz Berry and Kathryn Maris both have stand-out contributions, the former passionately longing, the latter witty and sophisticated.  Berry’s two poems book-end the anthology.  US poet Brenda Shaughnessy contributes a poem of sister-theory, ‘I Wish I Had More Sisters’, which plays with variations on this idea:

My sisters will seem like a bunch
of alternate me’s, all the ways
I could have gone.

I suppose there are more stereotypes than counter-stereotypes, so it’s good when Fran Lock at 3am “so tired I’m seeing / dancing skeletons” declines “the capable sweetness / of female friendship”.  Not that these friendships are all sweet, by any means – the book is divided into stages including breakup and loss.  “I am the underlined blank in your sentences”, says Claire Trévien’s narrator in ‘Homecoming’, a poem in which childhood friendship may not have survived the first signs of adulthood.

Little is overtly political, though it does occasionally surface amidst the personal.  This is from Rebecca Perry’s ‘Soup Sister’ (nice conjunction of weather and soup-image):

Steam curtained the windows, whiting out
the rain, which hit the house sideways.
One of us, though I forget who, said
do you think women are treated like bowls
waiting to be filled with soup?
And the other one said, of course.

Only a few older writers figure – life-long friendships are in short supply.  One such is Kathy Pimlott’s ‘Zero Balancer’, a praise- and character-poem addressed to a woman who at twenty “could turn a cartwheel /of such slow grace”.  It ends:

Freckle-handed,
we trump grandchildren, annuities, aches.
There’s not one small bone in my body
you can’t nudge back into its comfortable place.

This is a book with many straightforwardly narrative and descriptive poems, so it’s good to come across the occasional one that uses extended metaphor, like Sophie Collins’ ‘Hot Corona’, which starts “Today I caught the sun”.

It was difficult to maintain
a middling distance
she was so buoyant
despite her weight
and gravity was growing furious

and the alienating landscapes of Sharanya Manivannan’s ‘Reconciliation’:

             I will cross the desert

where I have lived like O’Keeffe,
a basket of bones on my head
like a pile of braids

A stroppy schoolgirl speaks in Nia Davies’ entertaining ‘Dear Diary’, and that could have been a title for the book.  Almost everything is in the first person, singular and plural, and the tone is generally intimate; but that generalisation hides much variety.  There’s refreshingly little irony but plenty of love, excitement, sadness or disillusionment for any reader to empathise with, not to mention all the nearly-shared experience.  As Amy Key says in her heartfelt introduction, the “magic force” of empathy is at the heart of the best friendships.