Dualities: reviews

Short reviews continue to come in for my poetry collection, Dualities.
Here is one by Catherine Baker … for which much thanks.

Dualities reviewed by Catherine Baker 

Sharon Larkin’s ‘Dualities’ displays eloquence and craft. She writes with tenderness and threat, an enticing combination, always connecting on a deep emotional level. I admired the dry humour, the way the poet can ‘thwack’ a word into a poem and how she plays with the meanings of words. Her unexpected endings can astonish; what seems a light touch suddenly cudgels. Variety is also a feature of this collection; there are people who are prodded and grunt, houses that sweat and stew, skulls, snails on razor blades and girls sitting on stairs. Memorable lines include: “honeysuckle smuggles her scent” ” lunacy behind your face” ” your outline above the vol- au-vent” … and many more. An excellent, enjoyable, stunning collection. 

———

For previous reviews and observations about DUALITIES, please see: https://sharonlarkinjones.com/2020/10/14/dualities-reception/

Performing ‘Dualities’

Poems from my new collection, Dualities, from Hedgehog Poetry Press are having regular airings at Zoom events and via streaming.

Thanks to fellow ‘Hoglet’, Damien Donnelly, I’ve shared three poems on one of his ‘Eat the Storms’ podcasts. These can be heard here:

https://open.spotify.com/episode/2rDglwxlGAGQFmAJ4elXr3?si=5BliT6fcSDOlyKCQS2k2gw

Thanks to Mark Connors and Gill Lambert, I had a guest slot on one of their Friday Night Word Club events in September, and am looking forward to joining them again on 30 October … at the open mic, this time.

David Ashbee has also invited me to be one of the nine guest poets at the Dempsey and Windle launch event for his magnificent collection ‘Poems from the Mind Shop’ on 28 October. It’s a 5-minute slot, and I intend to read a poem from my Indigo Dreams Pamphlet ‘Interned at the Food Factory’ (2019) as well as a couple from ‘Dualities’. The other guest poets are:

Belinda Cooke

Dónall Dempsey

Penny Lamport

Patrick Osada

M E Muir

Belinda Singleton 

Alicia Stubbersfield

Roger Turner

_______________________

I’m available for reading at other Zoom poetry events, so please message me if you’re looking for a guest poet … or if you are running an open mic. Happy to do a full 15-20 minute set, a swift 5-minute showcase, or simply to share a poem or two at an open mic.

Dualities – Reception

Thank you to the following poets who have commented on Dualities:

Endorsements prior to publication

Oz Hardwick (Professor of English, Programme Leader for Postgraduate Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University) has written: 

“There’s a lot to be said for / being an outsider inside,” and Sharon Larkin’s perceptive collection perfectly explores the dualities of being a stranger in one’s social and personal spheres, as well as in one’s own body. The poems explore the paradoxical intensity of dissociation, with delicate touches of domestic surrealism and scorched-black wit chalking the outline of desire, deception, and a secular redemption of sorts. This is uneasy reading, full of the naked-edged truth that lies unseen beneath so many magnolia-painted lives.”

Angela France (Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Gloucestershire) writes:

“Sharon Larkin is a keen photographer and her trained eye is evident in this collectionnot only in the precise, sensory, detail but also in the care she takes with the angle of approach for each poem. The poems cover a range of themes but the Dualities of the title is evident throughout, always subtle and often in the form of a surprising twist which delighted me as a reader. Sometimes it is a line, other times a single word which re-focuses the whole poem such as in ‘Mismatch’, where the word ‘proprietorial’ in the last line turns tender care to something else entirely.”

Pat Edwards (Welshpool Poetry Festival) has written: 

“This is both a romp and a skirmish, a disturbing dream and a garden of delights. Larkin forces us to encounter what we might call love, lust, longing, and examine these stormy forces through all the stages of life. Honest, sometimes cynical, the poems explore the sparks, flames and embers that burn us all. Perhaps the most stark warning concerns times in our lives we might compare with dusk, when our vision is not always clear, and we “must chance a snarl” in order to discern dog from wolf.”

Reviews since publication

Widely published poet Michael Newman has written:

“I’ve enjoyed every poem … am reluctant to pick out favourites, but ‘Nocturne’ really impressed me with its imagery and clever rhymes. And a real touch of humour. I was also much taken by ‘August Evening with Lonicera’ … again, imagery and a touch of humour. And humour really comes to the fore with ‘Skulduggery’. Gorgeous!”

Equally well published, David Ashbee has observed:

Reactions from David Ashbee

“I’m dipping into Dualities. My first reaction was to find poems that spoke to me and felt like I could have written. Later I found complexities and insights I couldn’t have put into a poem. The affidavit/ oath background to ‘Release’ is intriguing and gives a much deeper dimension. I remember ‘Armslengther’ from Cheltenham (Poetry Society workshop) and love it more now.”

David also asked to read the poem ‘Two Christmases’ from the collection for the forthcoming December issue of Talking Newspaper magazine for the visually impaired.

Dualities

My poetry collection ‘Dualities’ is scheduled to be published by Hedgehog Press on 28 September 2020.

This is what I think it’s primarily about … but it might, instead or in addition, be about a whole lot of other things!

Partnership

Partnerships are demanding. Reconciling two sets of expectations, hopes, ambitions, desires and demands is an exacting business. The ideal is surely a mutually agreed balance between give and take, rights and compromises, constraints and freedoms. Any intrusion into a partnership is capable of challenging it, rocking it, even destroying it … but mutual recognition of a greater good can seal and cement a relationship. With mutual well-being as an agreed aim, supported by good humour, grace and forgiveness, individuals might grow the kind of partnership that becomes something more than both of them, something greater than they might have imagined.

More insightfully, here are what other poets are saying about ‘Dualities’:

“There’s a lot to be said for / being an outsider inside,” and Sharon Larkin’s perceptive collection perfectly explores the dualities of being a stranger in one’s social and personal spheres, as well as in one’s own body. The poems explore the paradoxical intensity of dissociation, with delicate touches of domestic surrealism and scorched-black wit chalking the outline of desire, deception, and a secular redemption of sorts. This is uneasy reading, full of the naked-edged truth that lies unseen beneath so many magnolia-painted lives.”
Oz Hardwick – Professor of English and Programme Leader for Postgraduate Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University.

“Sharon Larkin is a keen photographer and her trained eye is evident in this collection; not only in the precise, sensory, detail but also in the care she takes with the angle of approach for each poem. The poems cover a range of themes but the Dualities of the title is evident throughout, always subtle and often in the form of a surprising twist which delighted me as a reader. Sometimes it is a line, other times a single word which re-focuses the whole poem such as in ‘Mismatch’, where the word ‘proprietorial’ in the last line turns tender care to something else entirely.” Angela France – Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Gloucestershire.

“This is both a romp and a skirmish, a disturbing dream and a garden of delights. Larkin forces us to encounter what we might call love, lust, longing, and examine these stormy forces through all the stages of life. Honest, sometimes cynical, the poems explore the sparks, flames and embers that burn us all. Perhaps the most stark warning concerns times in our lives we might compare with dusk, when our vision is not always clear, and we “must chance a snarl” in order to discern dog from wolf.” Pat Edwards – Welshpool Poetry Festival.

Dualities is available from Amazon:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1913499278/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_btf_awdo_4BTAFbJ2F8T8Z



Or visit my Shop page to order a copy … signed, if you wish!
https://sharonlarkinjones.com/shop/

Somewhat Like a Pregnancy

Waiting patiently for gestation to culminate in delivery is an obvious analogy for the period between sending off a manuscript and its publication. There are moments of delight en route; hearing the MS has been accepted can be compared with the thrill of the ‘Yes’ – or blue line – on the pregnancy test stick. But the publication of a book will not, of course, be anywhere near the rewarding and life-changing event a baby will be. The analogy can only go so far.

As well as delight at the good news of acceptance, there may well be anxieties en route. You want to shout about your book it as soon as you know it’s coming but, as with pregnancy, you probably feel it prudent to wait until certain other ‘tests’ are passed. Each communication with a publisher is like a visit to the ante-natal clinic. Sometimes, during pregnancy, blood tests raise questions about the baby’s wellbeing … or the mother’s. The arrival at a ‘proof’ is somewhat like a scan … where you, at last, get to see something resembling a perfect ‘baby’.

You ask others who have been through the process for reassuring words … endorsements for the collection’s cover, perhaps. You work with the midwife-publisher to ensure that everything is ready for the big day of delivery-release. Is everything looking right? Is everything looking good (including the cover design)?  Have you acknowledged everyone who needs to be recognised for this body of work?

Is the name you have chosen the best one for your baby? Obviously in the case of an infant, there is the possibility of waiting until after the birth before the final decision on a name. Not so with a book. Again, the analogy can only go so far.

You make plans for the big day; the ‘where’ if not, precisely, the ‘when’. Whereas babies may arrive a little early, the publication of a book is unlikely to emerge ‘pre-term’. Requests for ‘induction’ – hurrying along – are not appropriate. The precise timing is tricky; the printer is, after all, an indispensable member of the ‘delivery suite’. 

But when the baby is pressing to see the light of day, to take that very first breath … mother is obviously subject to high levels of agitation. She must, however, follow best practice and definitely NOT push too early. So parent, or poet, must just pant … with intense anticipation.

My collection ‘Dualities’ (twins perhaps) is due out from Hedgehog Poetry Press in September. I am patient … quietly knitting … preparing the nursery.

Y Border Bach – Another Crwys Poem Translated

 

A few years ago, I was approached by fellow poet Chris Hemingway about a poem by William Williams Crwys  that he had found on an information board at a ruined mill at Trefin in Pembrokeshire,  I translated the poem here  and several interesting spin-offs happened subsequently, including my trip to Trefin, visit to the mill and chapel, having my translation of Melin Trefin included in a tapestry at the chapel and a magazine, and being contacted by a descendant of Crwys, resident in the southern hemisphere, and consequently locating out-of-print books containing further poems by this well-loved Welsh poet.

It’s funny how these out-of-the-blue events develop a life of their own, and all seem to connect up in some mysterious way.

A few days ago, in early August  2020, I was contacted by someone whose father, soon to be celebrating his 90 birthday, has an interest in another poem by Crwys – Y Border Bach.  I quickly located the text … and not so quickly … attempted a translation.

As with all translations of poetry, a literal rendition of the original language sacrifices the poetic language of the original. Rhymes, assonance, alliteration and …. in translating Welsh specifically, cynghanedd … are inevitably lost. However, if one strives towards preserving these elements in any translation, liberties have to be taken with the meaning, and the poet’s apparent intent. Compromise is therefore necessary.

I have made some decisions which stray a little from a literal translation in order to achieve a ‘feel’ for the original intent, as I perceive it. I believe Crwys wished the simplicity of the modest flower border in this poem to ‘stand for’ Wales, and Mam – the central figure, and ‘planter of the plant’ in any Welsh home – along with her neighbours, to represent the people of Wales.  ‘Plant’ is the Welsh word for ‘children’.

With such a reading, it is possible to infer something about the showier blooms in the mansion gardens, and their ‘pedigrees’, as well as seeing the dandelion colonising the garden – as an upstart interloper.

As Crwys was a minister of religion as well as a poet – or rather a bard and an eisteddfodwr – other assumptions can be made.  Particularly, the Old Man referred to in the poem, as well as being the common name for a specific garden plant, is more than likely a reference to God … especially as this ‘Sage’ is seen as standing over and caring for the other ‘plants’ in the border  … ie the people of Cymru, and the speakers of the Iaith y Nefoedd (the ‘language of Heaven’).

As a lover of simple wild flowers rather than brightly coloured, highly bred garden flowers, I can relate to this poem. My Welsh father was of similar mind … “y pethau bychain” … the little things … were important to him, as was his garden, and always a preference for the unpretentious.

Here is the poem, followed by the translation. While I have learnt Welsh to an advanced level as an adult, I am, naturally and in all humility as a non-native speaker of Cymraeg, open to correction,  So if Welsh is your mamiaith, please do comment in kindly manner if you detect error in my translation, or misinterpretation of the sense and intent of the poet.  Thank you.

 

Y Border Bach

 

Gydag ymyl troetffordd gul
A rannai’r ardd yn ddwy,
‘Roedd gan fy mam ei border bach
O flodau perta’r plwy.

Gwreiddyn bach gan hwn a hon
Yn awr ac yn y man,
Fel yna’n ddigon syml y daeth
Yr Eden fach i’w rhan.

A, rywfodd, byddai lwc bob tro,
Ni wn i ddim paham,
Ond taerai ‘nhad na fethodd dim
A blannodd llaw fy mam.

Blodau syml pobol dlawd
Oeddynt, bron bob un,
A’r llysiau gwyrthiol berchid am
Eu lles yn fwy na’u llun.

Dacw nhw: y lili fach,
Mint a theim a mwsg,
Y safri fach a’r lafant pêr,
A llwyn o focs ynghwsg;

Dwy neu dair brlallen ffel,
A daffodil, bid siŵr,
A’r cyfan yn y border bach
Yng ngofal rhyw ‘hen ŵr’.

Dyna nhw’r gwerinaidd lu,
Heb un yn gwadu’i ach,
A gwelais wenyn gerddi’r plas
Ym mlodau’r border bach.

O bellter byd ‘rwy’n dod o hyd
I’w gweld dan haul a gwlith,
A briw i’m bron fu cael pwy ddydd
Heb gennad yn eu plith.

Hen estron gwyllt o ‘ddant y llew’,
A dirmyg lond ei wên.
Sut gwyddai’r hen doseddwr hy
Fod Mam yn mynd yn hen?

               gan William Williams Crwys

 

Translation:

The Small Border

 

Along the edge of a narrow path
that divided the garden in two
my mother had her little border,­
the prettiest flowers of the parish.

A little root of this and that,
here and there, now and again
and, in this way, a little Eden
came quite simply into being

somehow, by chance, every time.
I don’t know how, but Dad always
swore that nothing ever failed
when planted by the hand of Mam.

Yes, almost all the plants were
simple flowers of poor people
and miraculous vegetables, notable
for goodness rather than appearance.

Among them were snowdrops,
mint and thyme and moschatel,
winter savory, sweet lavender,
and a vigorous bush of box.

Two or three primroses
and daffodils were sure to be
– all the plants of the small border
in the care of some ‘old man’.

They were a host of common folk.
None of them in that small border
could claim the pedigrees of those
blooming in the mansion’s gardens.

With a stab to the chest one day,
I came across an old alien, wild,
without precedent in the border –
a dandelion blown in from a distance,

smiling an insolent smile
in sun and dew, and­ I wondered
how that old coloniser knew
that Mam was growing old.

Notes:

  • Moschatel is Adoxa moschatellina, also known as muskroot or townhall clock.
  • Old man is a common name for Artemisia abrotanum, also known as sagewood.

    ………….
    Translated from the Welsh by Sharon Larkin, 3-5 August 2020

 

Poem for Pentecost

In the Upper Room

 

There is this fluttering, like palpitations,
or quickening, or perhaps butterflies
except not in the stomach, not low down.
This is up, aloft … a-hover now,
like a dove above a river
except that we are not outside.
This which we have waded into
has a strong current which is also electric.
There is a fragrance on the air,
and a wave-of-roaring sometimes,
a light tongue-lap other times,
or a flame a-flicker, a-dance overhead.
This is a presence that encompasses,
circumscribes like arcs around a radial dot,
except not one of us is just a dot.
Here, we are radiant motes
in the light from a scintillating source,
a focus for espousing photons – a touch
sometimes airy, featherlike, particulate
sometimes bright, irradiating, burning,
other times pulsing and as comforting
as a mother-hen, warm wings brooding.
This presence protects but is not safe.
This is like a breeze in the face sometimes,
other times, forceful – a gushing wind
to knock you backwards into a catcher’s arms
or to knee-buckle as if by your own free will,
whatever your will is anymore.
And sometimes there will be laughter
and sometimes groaning and sobbing,
or those silent tears that heal.
For This is That which was without,
and is now He who is within –
who is and was and will be …
up there, in here, now this side, now that
and, yes, even down
where we’d rather cover over.
He who blots out all trouble
calms all fear and flesh-nonsense,
retunes arrhythmia at the core,
clutches at lungs and announces
This is Pneuma
before breathing fresh life inside,
blowing the top of your head right off
for an instant neuroplasty
to rewire pathways, remap networks,
reignite dulled synapses,
wipe corrupt memories, install new software,
rewrite histories, recast futures.

 

 

Sharon Larkin, 31 May 2020

Postcards from Malthusia DAY FOURTEEN: Sharon Larkin

new boots and pantisocracies

Noli Me Tangere

We avoid alley, ginnel, snicket, jigger,

    favour wider lanes in rural areas

for dubious doses of fresh air, sun.

     Handshakes, hugs are supplanted

first by elbow bumps, then clasping 

     our own hands across our chests, 

gestures of intent, no eye contact. 

     A raised palm declares touch me not.

A nod while staring at our own feet.

     Perfume from that girl trails 

behind for yards, sneaks sideways 

     up nostrils, stirs unease, disgust.

Late night treks to supermarkets, 

      scarf bandit-like around mouth

and nose. Gloves, strict time limits,

     bills kept below the swipe amount, 

breath held at checkouts, gasping 

     to the door as if already a case.

Fingers wagging through glass: 

     Leave it on the step, sign for me.

Spraying deliveries and doorknobs. 

     Neural networks retrained 

to ban fingers from facial orifices, 

      handwashing to Happy Birthday, 

Jerusalem, God Save the Queen

      or Killing in the name of. Asking

will…

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How to Carry Fire by Christina Thatcher (Parthian) – a review

“Keep it lit until you learn to glow” 

The two sections of Christina Thatcher’s collection How to Carry Fire are set in Pennsylvania and Wales respectively. The book takes the form of short, predominantly narrative poems, many presenting flashbacks of cinematic clarity, acetylene intensity. The first section follows a girl/young woman growing up in Pennsylvania, in a family challenged by financial hardship, where addiction, abuse and anger are mirrored – in the main protagonist, at least  – by determination, a sense of responsibility, compassion and remarkable resilience. She also displays an understandable appetite for renewal, regeneration, and, above all, love.  These she finds, although troubled by self-recrimination at not having been able to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ her drug-dependent brother, and by an irrational, post-trauma fear that she might, in some way, have been complicit in his addiction.

In the first part of the book, the reader rapidly becomes aware that there has been a devastating house-fire, probably resulting from drug use, if not arson. This spreads a shadow across the family as a whole, but also casts shade forward, to haunt the second section, where tragedy and trauma are translated, as is the habit of PTSD, into fear and anxiety … as difficult to shift as any addiction.

The second section follows the protagonist’s ‘flight’ to the UK, with ensuing themes of learning (an important word in the collection), growing self-knowledge, attempted resolution of past trauma, and the beginning of a new relationship, fuelled by passion, where trust can flourish and anxiety can be challenged. Recovery is painful and partial but there are glimpses of a happier present and the hope of a promising future, fuelled and fired by a startling creativity … and love.

The poems that ‘carry the fire’ are fresh-minted, spare and beautifully controlled, with an eye and ear for quality. There are many examples of inspired word selection where vocabulary works overtime.  A notable example is in the late poem Subtext – a poem about the legacy of poverty, neglect and ignorance … where the protagonist learns that she

“… must eat
green leaves until your insides gleam, pop enough blueberries
to grow neurons … shed your cells
like thousands of colourful scales.  Only then will you be new.”

In this poem – as much about healing and regeneration, as about healthier eating – ‘cells’ double up as lock-ups (associated with her brother) as well as her own anatomical building blocks, and ‘scales’ serve as the easily-shed outer covering of aquatic creatures – recurring symbols in the collection – as well as tyrannical measurers of superfluous pounds.

Ingenious line breaks are another notable feature of the poems, often intensifying meaning (fanning flames) or intentionally subverting it (acting like firebreaks).  Here is an example from the early poem Sentry:

“I was ready:
camping all those nights
on the living room floor, broken
door locks rattling.

In another example, from the later poem Detox Passage, we find:

“You tell the pastor you can do it. You believe
you can do it. God is with you, my son.
The jerks in your arms and teeth begin
to go. All you had to do was rid yourself

of temptation”.

The narrative impels the reader through the collection at pace, but rereading pays dividends, enabling slower-burning embers of nuance to be detected, repeated motifs and recurring images to be registered … for example, those associated with birds and animals (particularly aquatic creatures, of which there are many in the collection).

Loss is another key theme of the book. From the first poem, Insurance Report, an inventory is attempted, following the disastrous house-fire:

“the stained glass unicorn
that Sioux tribe necklace
our grandfather’s final brick”

The items tell of identity, heritage, ancestry and uncertain dreams – impossible to put a value on, but priceless in respect of shared experience, memories, inheritance and hope.

“We cried out for these totems:
Who are we without them? Who are we?

Only the inspectors answered back:
But what were they worth?”

We only have hints about the start of the fire: ‘the burn of bad people who’d let themselves in” (Sentry) but we recognize that the main protagonist will henceforth, be destined to remain ‘on duty’, since tragedy could happen again. She is called to be an “Ever watchful daughter” for ever-present, anxiety-inducing, danger. Such hair-triggers are the plight of any PTSD victim:

“ ….. It’s your job, house canary.
Just watch the door and call
if we need to run.”

We note the use of canary, as a caged predictor of air quality … and cannot fail to compare this role with that of her ‘parrot-brother’ later in the collection. Birds abound in this book. Unsurprisingly, in a collection with fire as its primary focus, temperature is also a recurring theme, as much to do with intensity of emotion as with the house-fire itself. A poker, associated with encouraging fire to flare, is also a potent symbol of family dysfunction and abuse.

“That weakness, years later, led you,
hot-tempered, to the fireplace,
to the poker you slid across

my mother’s neck,
pinning her to the wall
until her breath became so shallow
you cooled, and when you slept
she gathered up her things
and just enough courage
to brave the cold
and leave you
for good.”

In this poem, Making Fire, we witness fire ignited and kept stoked. We detect weakness, hot temper, a poker used as a weapon, followed by rapid cooling and the braving of the cold, Pictorially, the poem shows the gradual loss for words and the dying of love.

In Detox Passage we are presented with a clear picture of the paraphernalia of drug-taking (spoons everywhere) associated with the cause of the fire. We also note the inefficacy of faith and deliverance to counteract addiction. In Relapse, with few words and the utmost clarity, we see the hallmarks of the addict: the hiding, the lying, the secrecy, the thrill of anticipation, the tension, the temporary relief. The dark humour of Becoming an Astronaut presents us with the utter improbability of the brother ever attaining the qualities and qualifications necessary for such a career – as opposed to being on a high, getting out of his skull, being spaced out: “Instead: you picked up a needle and took yourself to the moon”.  Hearing My Brother’s Name on the News comes as no surprise, given what we know. Yet this short poem is, paradoxically, a poem of happier times too, in the yard in summer, when the brother tellingly “makes his shirt a basket for fireplace twigs” and teaches his sister ‘to calm / chickens: holding their wings tight between / soft palms”  It is, on the face of it, a lovely scene … where fire only gets a passing mention. But that is enough.

In Vigilante, the main protagonist becomes theoretical accomplice, complicit (in dreams) with collecting tools, a “torch, gasoline, glyphosate” but, unlike the men in this family, who never seem strong enough, she is “strong enough to carry them” … to a deadly cocktail of countries associated with narcotics and conflict. In her dream she surveys ‘thousands / of hectares covered in poppy heads” and she, too, plays with fire “I light the torch: / throw flames with the expert aim / of a forest patrolman.”  There is again a sense of complicity, shared responsibility, shared guilt, when she might instead have had “the power to save” her brother from his dangerous dependency. In Rescuing a Hummingbird, the bird is associated with him, helpless and tripping … and, again, her sense of failure in trying to rescue him:

“Everyone else leaves it banging
its tiny beak against the glass,
its high-speed heart whirring
into body rippling panic.”

“I have no answers but take
the risk – cup my hands and coo:
it’s okay, little one, it’s okay,
as the bird terror-spreads

its wings through my fingers
until we reach the open door
and it flits into the jungle trees,
a flash of iridescent green”

In an Improper Kindness, her sense of failure in saving her brother sinks to a new low. She both regrets, and accepts as necessary, the kindness, compassion and understanding she shows him – improper though these could be regarded. She releases him to ‘halcyon’ … as she previously did the hummingbird. In Nodding off (a symptom of the opiate addict), she imagines him, not drawn towards the psychedelia of halcyon, nor as fragile and frantic as the hummingbird, nor as an astronaut-hero … but as a bathetic caged parrot with shrinking pupils, ‘miles away’. Chillingly, she visualises putting him to sleep – “sliding a pillowcase”, shroud-like and “the same weight as a body bag”, over his parrot prison. We wonder whether death will be the only rescue she will be able to offer him.

Earlier in the collection, the sister is more than once drawn to, and warned of, danger. In Temptation, it’s a salamander (“These colors mean / it’s poisonous … / watch out for them”) and she is no stranger to physical pain, as when her uncle roughly tugs her arm from the danger “so hard / the socket opened / briefly releasing the bulb / of a shoulder”.  She was thus drawn to the threat, then saved from it, but was hurt and damaged in the process. Similarly, in Learning to Escape she is drawn to a jellyfish which she wants to rescue  … as she does her brother, but our first view of him is urinating on her jellyfish sting, attempting to rescue her:

“… unzipped his pants to help with the poison,
but before his yellow stream broke, I wriggled free
and ran as fast as I could towards the sea.”

Running towards water, and the rescue/salvation it offers. is another repeating idea in the book, foreshadowing her crossing the Atlantic – an opportunity to escape the trauma of the past. The phrase “to help with the poison” is ironic, given the liability the brother is to prove. But another irony is that, in running away from the jellyfish and her brother’s attempt to deaden the sting, she runs toward the sea … where there could be even more jellyfish, more stings. Other themes in this book are surely blind panic … and blind self-destruction.

 Fire and water are arguably the most important metaphors in the collection, working at various levels, potentially cancelling each other out but also standing as inextinguishable elements in their own right. Fire at various times symbolises anger, violence, addiction, destruction and loss …  but also love, passion, desire and creative brilliance. Water in this collection has the power not only to quench fire, pain and memory, but it also enables buoyancy, escape and freedom. Water (the Atlantic) has to be crossed in order to begin the healing process, caused by fire. But it is also across the ocean that the fire of new love, passion and creative power begins to flare. Water, then, supports life, and facilitates new life. Representations of life, in various forms, are present throughout the collection, with a whole ‘inventory’ of creatures, especially spotlighting dangerous animals to which the main protagonist – let us assume it is the poet – is seen both drawn to and fleeing from. The effect of exposure to all of this, on a girl growing into young adulthood, creates a tender vulnerability, reactivity and alertness … but simultaneously an admirable resilience that is able to fan the flame of a fierce creative talent.

But, despite all the above, her childhood was not unremittingly awful. Ode to Ottsville is a delight of detail and sensory pleasures: “to splash barefoot in Tohickon Creek, / feel a hundred toe-hungry tadpoles wriggle,” “the fatness / of a sudsy sponge in my hands,” “leather oil soaking into my fingers”. There is gustatory appeal (waffle cones, ice pops, “plump blackberries from back pastures, / their juice staining my unwashed mouth for days”), olfactory reminiscences (“tire rubber stiff in my nose”), an assault of colour accompanied by ‘oohs’ of pleasure (“cool blue of a too-early morning”) and auditory memories (“sleeping hens’ soft cooing” … chickens recur throughout the collection). Fear, at this time, at least, was “just bats emerging from the paddock barn”.  A rare, happy flashback of a poem.

In the important title poem How to Carry Fire, we are invited to “conjure every fire you have ever read about … journals flaking / in the hot shell of your bedroom … / a furnace” and again we are reminded of the poker “your father pressed into / your mother’s neck.”  The poem continues “Take what those flames / can give you. Feel heat enter your stomach.” We feel that this is all a precursor to the creative process. Here we are introduced to the idea that as well as effecting loss, fire can also ignite ardour and passion … and we must not quench it. We met the terrible poker before … but now it has the potential to become, in the hands of a consummate poet, an instrument to stoke the fire of her art. She tells herself – and doubtlessly her brother –  “to stay wary” and “never let the light / go out, keep it lit until you learn to glow.”

In What the Newspapers left out, we hear for the first time about ‘that final call for me / from across the ocean: / Bring the fire with you. / Leave everything else behind.’ Here, is an indication that her escape (by water again) will take her to a new life in the UK … and she is told to ‘bring the fire’ – to make something out of previous disaster … something creative, such as a poetry collection of power.

In How to build a boat she is preparing to run to the sea … or is building an ark to flee from peril, to rescue herself … or is about to launch a boat in which to explore new worlds. But before she leaves she takes My last American Road Trip and entertains second thoughts about leaving for “some unknown country” admitting “I am afraid”. But, on learning about the geological connection with Wales: “rocks … broken apart over millennia / … once connected / to Wales, Pembrokeshire, famous / for its stretching coast, just like home” she bravely continues with her plan. Before long (in Transport Decisions), she is in a taxi, in the UK, lying about her parents, her “healthy” brother (“We’re close”) … and a fake picture of “a happy American family, / shining like polished apples, / clean as Sunday clothes.”

In Keeping warm (my favourite poem of the collection) she notes that:

“Wales is a small coat
with deep pockets, so I plunge
my hands in to search
for treasures …”

“…They are so much deeper
than I thought—these pockets
made of Brecon caves,
dark and light, hot and cold,
drawing me in to this good
and steadfast place.” 

Soon, she finds blackbirds …  and a place of salvation and healing:

“I pull out steeples, churches,
the sounds of singing, bells,”

There are new sensory pleasures where new scents are discernible:

“My fingers smell of damp /
and wood smoke, thin wisps
of cinnamon, strong home brews.”

In Touring Tenby with the Man I Will One Day Marry, the reader is delighted to meet ‘him’ so soon in Section 2 of the collection. But knowing ‘her’ propensity for being drawn to the dangerous, the reader might be alarmed to read “once, / as a teen, you bashed up a car / and ran, rum heavy, from the police.” Is this future husband going to prove as potentially dangerous as her brother?  But “children pocketing / fat slabs of Caldey chocolate, fleeing / from monks” …  is reassuringly innocent in comparison, and soon she and he “move closer until our legs touch / from hip bone to knee.”

In Proficiency we witness the couple’s growing intimacy, trust, knowledge of each other … and knowledge of self:

“All we know, in fact, is that our bodies

are ridiculous:
eager as geese after corn,
inelegant as windsocks, soft as chinchilla fur.

All we really know is we are gleeful ,,,”

… “just desire
fizzing up like Mentos in Coke.

All we know is our bodies are just bodies,
a tangle of sponge and limbs. All we know is
how they can cry and cry.”

Most Days is another consummately tender poem, looking back at the bad times and forwards to a contented present and future. In it we learn of:

“… the perfect cigarette burn
he seared into my calf, just out
of sock’s reach, the tiny craters
on my face.”

This cigarette burn might previously have escaped notice, and we must assume that there were other instances of abuse we don’t know about.

In the poem Husband, When You Go, the protagonist’s fear and anxiety bubble up again.  She thinks of losing him to “some incurable disease / or high-speed traffic accident,”  Despite this, she concludes “I will wait, let the poems come / back to me, back home”. She has the certainty that poetry, at least, will survive. But dread continues. In Hold she dreams of a plane crash two days after their engagement. It is a vivid nightmare, and a graphic poem. But she has a consoler now … someone, and something, precious she does not want to lose.

In Sex After Marriage, the couple are likened to aquatic creatures (that recurring motif of the collection):

“Together we are Coho Salmon cresting,
silvers slipping upstream. We are natural
…..

Here, in freshwater, our brains have no work to do.
Here we give over to our bodies.”

Reiteration is another important poem in this collection. The girl might have been taken out of Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania cannot be taken out of the girl. She is tugged back by memory and family ties, and especially to the ‘complicit captivity’ of addiction, albeit not her own. Just as PTSD sufferers may imagine scenes from their past superimposed on current images they see, so she recognizes her brother in every subsequent falling addict:

“A couple falls
in a familiar alleyway,
limbs collapse, grit sticks
to the whites of their legs.”

“I recognize her …

… her thick film of need. /
She is you, my brother, you.
They are all you.”

Relation is another poignant poem in which the protagonist admits “I am addictions’ daughter sister cousin niece …  terrorist victim bomb builder bystander …. firefighter smoke water steam … next of kin.” The poem tells of the nightmarish and continuing sense responsibility, the memories and the guilt, that people in this position are rarely free of … even with oceans of space and time between. The PTSD of recurring memories, blame and guilt get in the way of living in the freedom of a new life, in a new country.

Despite all past and current pain, this collection remains supremely a love story, encompassing the new love – the lover and husband, but retaining the memory of intense bonds between siblings, however flawed and tested.

Knowing You is another tender poem, and another favourite of this reviewer:

“tell me something dark and fetid about Welsh history,
you still say things I never thought you’d say,
still unfurl yourself slowly, a wet fern
in the forest, so I can breathe deep
and keep going.”

How to Love a Gardener marks a significant development in the ‘Transatlantic transition’ through the protagonist’s observation of the specifically British flora and fauna mentioned in the poem: Horse chestnuts, red squirrel  pheasants, hedgehogs and newts. We are drawn, with the poet, to the acceptance that:

“Love like every green thing ever planted
will live long and never burn.”

This collection may have begun with dysfunction and tragedy but it moves … not only to a new continent, and specifically to Wales, but also moves from trauma towards healing through the power of love, experienced through patience, empathy and understanding – of oneself as well others – as continuing and residual fears and anxieties are worked through and resolved. In witnessing the devastation and courageous rebuilding, the reader – and reviewer – of How to Carry Fire are also moved … and privileged to have witnessed a powerful work of art taking shape, as a phoenix arising from the ashes.

Collaboration and Networking – Keys to Happy Poeting

I’ve been active on the poetry scene in Cheltenham since about 2004 and shortly after began to go to Angela France’s Buzzwords (when it was upstairs at The Beehive) and Cheltenham Poetry Society (CPS) meetings at Parmoor House, Lypiatt Terrace. A highlight for me during that time was winning a place in a Gloucestershire Writers Network (GWN) competition to read at Cheltenham Literature Festival and, soon afterwards, I began an MA in Creative and Critical Writing (Poetry) under Nigel McLoughlin and Kate North at The University of Gloucestershire, graduating in 2010. Shortly after that, I became Chair of CPS and was also on the Committee of GWN for a few years, when Rona Laycock was in the chair … and I co-judged the GWN competition one year. In recent years I’ve also judged the Chipping Sodbury poetry competition and co-selected poems for South Magazine. These are the kinds of poetry activities I enjoy most, along with selecting and publishing poems for my Good Dadhood project which I ran on-line a few years ago, attracting wonderfully affirming and positive poems in praise of fatherhood from poets all over the UK. I also enjoy doing occasional reviews of poetry collections, but as my method of reviewing is very ‘in-depth’ I don’t undertake many of these a year!

I began organizing Poetry Café Refreshed in August 2015 – a popular monthly guest poet and open mic event at Smokey Joe’s, Bennington Street, Cheltenham. I’ve booked nearly 70 guest poets (and one or two musicians) from all over the UK since ‘Refreshed’ began, hosted on the night by Roger Turner. One of the things I enjoy offering at ‘Refreshed’ is a good photographic record of guests and open mic poets, thanks to my husband who is a keen photographer. Usually, I share a video slideshow to Facebook within a few hours of the event, and this seems very popular. We welcome everyone to ‘Refreshed’, from beginners to experienced poets, whether they favour page or performance poetry or spoken word. Everybody is welcome.

As for Cheltenham Poetry Society, I’ve been Chair for most of the past 10 years, with a couple of ‘respite’ breaks, while I’ve nevertheless continued in a ‘communications’ role. At present, Roger Turner has taken the chair back for a period while I try to focus on my own work, but I still attend all CPS meetings, and organize events with the corresponding promotion and publicity. CPS runs workshops for developing poets, a monthly series of writing group meetings for experienced poets, and a poetry reading group, as well as the popular Annual Awayday Writing Retreat at Dumbleton Hall in May … and occasional readings and recitals. We’re always keen to link up with other groups for joint events, as we’ve done previously with Winchcombe Poets and Evesham-based poets. We’re especially looking forward to a joint event with other Gloucestershire poets during Gloucester Poetry Festival in October 2020, thanks to Gloucestershire Poet Laureate, Ziggy Dicks. CPS takes its community engagement programme seriously too. In recent years we’ve run various readings and recitals in local churches, and one of the most rewarding activities for some of us is reading poems and running collaborative workshops in local care homes. This led to me giving talks to groups of community workers in Cheltenham and Gloucester last summer, about the kinds of activities CPS are able to offer. Demand seriously outstrips the number of volunteers to participate in these activities, alas.

As well as writing, reviewing and event management, I also edit and publish anthologies through my publishing label, Eithon Bridge Publications. The most recent book to appear from the press (January 2020) is an anthology on behalf of CPS – Poetry from Gloucestershire. The book features 33 poems by 12 members of Cheltenham Poetry Society, and over 30 photographs illustrating the poems. It was thrilling to have endorsements from Alison Brackenbury and Angela France for the back cover, and I am very much looking forward to the launch of the book at Suffolk Anthology Bookshop on 24 March, with readings from the contributing poets. We are also presenting an illustrated performance of poems and photos from the book at Wotton under Edge Arts Festival on 21 April.  I am hoping for many more opportunities to promote the anthology over the coming year or so. The book is on sale for £9.99 from Suffolk Anthology Bookshop in Cheltenham and Alison’s Bookshop in Tewkesbury, or is available direct from the contributing poets, or for £9.99 plus £1.80 p&p by email to eithonbridge@gmail.com  More information about the book, and about Cheltenham Poetry Society is available by emailing cheltenhampoetrysociety@gmail.com or watch out for an article in March’s edition of The Local Answer! 

Publishing this book came hard on the heels of another anthology – Invisible Zoos – which I co-edited with poet/editor/publisher Simon Williams and published through Eithon Bridge in November 2019. This book featured 36 poems by 12 poets who had been on the weeklong residential Invisible Zoos masterclass with me at Ty Newydd in North Wales in September 2018, tutored by two wonderful poets, David Morley and Pascale Petit. The poets attending the course and subsequently contributing to the book came from all over the UK … and also from Canada/USA and France/Switzerland. Previous to that, I co-edited and published the illustrated All a Cat Can Be anthology in support of New Start Cat Rescue in 2018, featuring poems from poets all over the UK. Before founding Eithon Bridge, I also did the bulk of the work to edit and publish the illustrated Cheltenham 300 anthology for CPS in 2016 … for Cheltenham’s tercentenary as a Spa Town. All four of these anthologies, and an earlier CPS one, Chance Encounters, were printed by Stroudprint, based unsurprisingly in Stroud, who provide an excellent and very helpful service.

As for my own poetry, I’ve had over 150 poems accepted/published in anthologies (from Cinnamon Press, Eyewear, Indigo Dreams, Smokestack, Fair Acre, Zoomorphic, Beautiful Dragons, Yaffle and others), in magazines (eg Magma, Obsessed by Pipework, Prole, Here Comes Everyone, Reach, Picaroon, and more), and on-line in many ezines such as Ink Sweat and Tears, Atrium, Rat’s Ass Review, Riggwelter, Amaryllis, Algebra of Owls, Snakeskin and many more. I’m also a fan of Visual Verse website, and enjoy writing to the time constraint stipulated. My pamphlet Interned at the Food Factory was published by Indigo Dreams in 2019. I’ve enjoyed ‘touring the book’ with readings locally as well as in Bristol with Silver Street Poets, Wells with The Fountain Poets, Welshpool with Verbatim and the highlight, The Poetry Café at Betterton St in London last September, with fellow Indigo Dreams poets Brett Evans, Holly Magill and Marie Lightman. Other places I’ve read in recent years include Colwyn Bay (with Prole magazine) and Llandudno Pier (with Prole and Picaroon). I’ve also very much enjoyed going to Welshpool Poetry Festival in 2018 and 2019, curated by the indefatigable Pat Edwards, which has fabulous visiting poets and workshops … as well as a bumper open mic on the last day.  A visit to the excellent Poetry Pharmacy in Bishops Castle, pioneered by the wonderful Emergency Poet, Deborah Alma, was also a highlight last year.

So, what began as a hobby fifteen years ago has mushroomed into a varied portfolio of activities and a widespread network of contacts … many now firm friends … throughout the UK. This networking was facilitated further by participating in Jo Bell’s ground-breaking 52 Group on Facebook a few years ago, and attending festivals in various other towns not too distant, eg Swindon and Evesham … but, most of all by the collaborative and supportive poets throughout Gloucestershire, and bodies such as Cheltenham Arts Council and Gloucestershire Writer’s Network, Rona Laycock’s wonderful Writer’s Room sessions on Corinium Radio, and Anna Saunders’ Cheltenham Poetry Festival which runs an incredibly rich programme of events each spring. I especially valued being one of the reader’s at the Indigo Dreams launch for For the Silent anthology in support of the The League Against Cruel Sports last year, and CPS gave an illustrated reading for their Cheltenham 300 anthology at Cheltenham Poetry Festival in 2016 – rerunning a similar event at Cheltenham Literature Festival’s Locally Sourced programme that October.

Now a fresh wave of ‘poetic energy’ is sweeping over the county thanks to Gloucestershire Poet Laureate, Ziggy Dicks; Cheltenham Library’s Poet In Residence, Josephine Lay; and other poets from Gloucestershire Poetry Society, with whom I’ve read a few times … and will do again, with the CPS anthology poets, during Gloucester Poetry Festival on 18 October 2020. I also read with Gloucester poets for International Women’s Day in March 2019, with Angela France and many other great women poets … and I’m looking forward to another IWD event in Gloucester this March, thanks to Josephine Lay.

It’s wonderful having poets like Alison Brackenbury and Angela France in the county. I’m indebted to Alison for supporting the anthology and launch for All a Cat Can Be, and for inviting me to be one of the readers for the launch of Candlestick Press’s Ten Poems About Horses, which Alison edited, and which was launched at Alison’s Bookshop in Tewkesbury last year. It’s also good to have poets locally like Jennie Farley, running New Bohemians in Charlton Kings. Readings I have coming up this year are at Piranha Poetry, Stroud, with Jonathan Muirhead from Swindon … thanks to Gary Death; and Writers at the Goods Shed in April, with Belinda Rimmer … thanks to Phil Kirby. This will be the second time I’ll have read with Jonathan Muirhead already this year. We enjoyed sharing a poetry event for Burns Night at The Rising Sun on Cleeve Hill on 25 January. It’s good to read with Belinda again too.  We shared a launch event for our Indigo Dreams pamphlets at Suffolk Anthology Bookshop last summer, and will be reading together again at Buzzwords in July, thanks ­– again – to Angela France. I’d also like to give a big shout out to Philip Rush, a fabulous poet, who also runs great workshops at Museum in the Park, and the wonderful Yew Tree Press which showcases the work of poets in Gloucestershire and beyond.  Philip’s Wool and Water pamphlets, timed to appear alongside the exhibition of that name at Museum in the Park, were super … and I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to the Wool one, sheep being close to my heart!

What’s next on my ‘Poetry agenda’? I ran a couple of workshops last year for a group of poets near Cirencester, under the ‘Stanza’ banner, having taken over the Gloucestershire Stanza Representative baton from Angela France earlier in the year. This year I want to develop more activities as the county’s Stanza Rep. The next such event will be a workshop at Parmoor House on 7 April, in conjunction with CPS, where I’ve invited Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery to come and give us a workshop on the genre of poetry film. I would love this to spark a flourishing of poetry films from Cheltenham/Gloucester poets over the coming months and years!

I hope readers of the foregoing can detect my enthusiasm for poetry in the county … and beyond! There are so many opportunities for collaboration, reciprocation and mutual support throughout the poetry community in the county. If you’re not yet into poetry, why not join CPS at a workshop soon? Or perhaps the special Poetry Film workshop coming up on 7 April, when we will be gaining lots of valuable information on how to get started with this incredibly powerful genre … or why not come to Smokey Joe’s to hear wonderful poets like David Briggs (19 February) and Raine Geoghegan and musician partner Simon Callow (15 March) … and grab your spot at the open mic. New poets are always welcome!

You can contact me via Facebook http://facebook.com/sharon.larkin or Twitter SharLark, or Instagram Sharolarki, or you can email cheltenhampoetrysociety@gmail for details of the Society’s activities.

Edited 20 March to record the fact that many of the events mentioned as scheduled after 9 March have been cancelled or postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. A time, instead, for more writing … and learning new skills … including videoconferencing via Zoom, thanks to encouragement from Charlie Markwick.