REVIEW by Josh Brown

Oliver James Lomax

'God Missed The Last Bus And Walked Home'

Even before you read a single poem you know, this is something special!


There’s the intriguing, quirky title and the 69 acknowledgements listed at the end. Not a dreary collection of names that mean nothing to the reader but genuine loves and influences from Mr Potato Head to Percy Bysse Shelley by way of the likes of Jean Michel Basquait, Echo and the Bunnymen, Eric Cantona, Mark Rothko and Hilda Ogden!! The output is prodigious, this collection of 60 poems over more than 80 pages comes only a year after ‘The Dandelion Clock’ which contained 50. And then there are the endorsements on and in the book. Poets, Natalie Ann Holborow and Hugo Williams; comedian campaigner Mark Thomas; musician and broadcaster Tom Robinson (yes the Tom Robinson); Cerys Matthews (I mean, what Welshman wouldn’t covet a recommendation from Cerys!) and the inimitable Jeff Towns, the ‘Dylan Thomas Guy’, whose recommendation led me to buy the book. If Jeff Towns says this guy is good, I believe it! 


And he was right. 


These are lovely poems by a gifted writer. The subject matter of Oliver’s work is basic, human, caring. He lays bare scenes from working class life, his life, his childhood. Many poems reference his Lancashire family, especially his nan. ‘Working Class Love Poem’ about his grandparents is deeply touching, not sentimentalised but real, raw and beautiful, referencing the troubled interior of a love affair, with heart-wrenching lines like

                                   “she was perfecting his memory ever after

and once tore him from a photograph in grief and anger. I would

sometimes see her late at night, crying in the cantilevered light”


Oliver’s poems have that quality that comes from craft and talent, the simplicity and ease that is difficult to achieve. There is no pretention, no cloying ambition to his work. He writes so that his work reads comfortably, needs no contemplation or explanation to understand. It works because it is crafted and because its subject is common to us all, based in empathy and our shared experiences and humanity. These are impassioned, caring poems and God knows we need that after the year we have all shared, as we always need the love and illumination of poets. The great Russian actress and teacher Polina Klimovitskaya said to me of Dylan Thomas that she loved his work because there was no ego in it as there is with so many writers. She was right, I knew immediately what she meant about Dylan’s work. You experience it, the author does not put themselves in the way, even when writing about themselves. This is true of Oliver Lomax. We experience the subjects of his poetry, we feel them and – and this the great poetic achievement—they become a part of us.


Oliver investigates his own history and background with evident love and pride. ‘The Rucksack’ has the oblique method of the poet taking us stealthily from one simple human experience to another that is revealed to be of enormity, and we know that import because he connects the big stories with the human realities history tends to omit or mythologise.

“as he gathers up the silk of his future

and walks towards the war.”


All those sixty-nine diverse persons, real and fictional, listed in Oliver’s acknowledgements are there in these poems. He mixes them together with no thought of mordant propriety the same way Liverpool poets like Adrian Henri did half a century ago. ASDA and WW2 prison camps, Walt Whitman and pitmen (fabulous rhyme). But this is not pretention or irreverence because Oliver, like the marvellous poet Adrian Henri was, knows that this is how life is. You watch Peppa Pig with your grandchild, you glance away at portrait painted by a Spanish artist on your wall, then you hear the news of death somewhere in the world, after reading Byron and listening to an opera aria and a pop tune. Only the cramped conservative mind puts a demarcation between such things; between ‘art’ and the mundane, between culture with a capital ‘C’ and pop. So you get ‘Reading Crow by Ted Hughes On The Train To Liverpool’ (which begins with a quote from Captain Beefheart)


“I can hear my mother singing me

back to birth, as we cut deeper

into bedrock and earth, each chisel mark


blackened my page, pure verb

in its cage” 

This is not just poetry. In an era over-supplied with empty verse, this is wonderful poetry. And talking of titles; how about the magnificent ‘Northangerland (for Branwell Bronte 1817-1848)’? 


Or quoting Brancusi (“When we are no longer children, we are already dead”) after a childhood memory before


“And I'm older now and the world is new, and I'm lost in the places that once were the truth”


It’s inevitable that, if you are mentored by Jeff Towns, you write one poem ‘after Dylan Thomas’. Poems inspired by Dylan are plenteous, but they tend almost all to be about him or his subjects and often skirt close to the sickly. ‘Gun Turret From A Wellington Bomber’ has no reference to Dylan, his poems or their subject. It is, as its title states, about war. But the style, the evidence of internal rhyme and consonant chiming, is a fitting and rare tribute. And I say that as a lifelong disciple and angry defender of Mr Thomas!


                    “The only way to keep sane

is to find that place, in the heart of the heart

in the heart of the hearts heart” 


Beautiful? That, as we say in Wales, is Tidy.


For all the lack of pretention, for all the loving and humanity in Oliver Lomax’s poetry, there is no lack of humour, of wit or commitment. This poetry is not bombastic so when he takes on the government in ‘The Siege’ it’s with a quote from Mark E. Smith and begins


“Armed to the teeth

with their own history and red tape

they arrived at the city gates

the final letter of demand

still in Thatcher’s hand

like a bad remake of Lord of the Flies”


And later,


“but then, the ghost of Hilda Ogden

called heavenly over all of them

‘thou shall not pass’ "


As a lad from Lancashire, there is pride in that reference! There is fabulous humour too in ‘Free Range’ where two chickens abscond from a battery farm


“And if I die today hen, I know you'd never betray me,

but if they make a film of all this


Don't let Mel Gibson play me.”


But the poems are not froth and humour. They are, as Jeff Towns described them, “hyper-vivid”. ‘When Will It Rain In A More Democratic Way’ inspired by Albert Camus is a powerful, beautiful poem with lines like


“exchange a thousand truths

for one beautiful rumour

and let others construct sentences

capable of cluster bombing the heart”


It finishes with


“and unconscious of your own image

carry your sleeping body back across the border

undiminished

whispering I love my country too much

to be a nationalist.”


The last five poems are commissions. ‘Peterloo’ by The Working Class Movement Library who published this and the previous collection of poems was a tribute to the people slaughtered in Petersfield Manchester in 1819 on the orders of Wellington for daring to peacefully demonstrate for equality. It was performed by the actress Maxine Peake at a bi-centenary event. It is impassioned and moving but without the polemical tub-thumping most would-be poets would sink to. Oliver connects this historical outrage to today, gently, subtlety. It is such a brilliant poem it is impossible to select a couple of exemplar lines, you need to read it all. It ends with


“Look up two hundred years and see time like

a mirage, the ghosts of us, hold their dreams aloft

like something new-born.


And let us sit beside poverty, have a word in its ear.


Say, listen, ‘We are here’.”


I’m a slacker when it comes to reviewing poetry. I don’t bother with poems I don’t like or poets I don’t think are brilliant. I like to write with enthusiasm and direct people to poetry I think is truly worth the time and effort to read. I have the honour to lend my words to someone whose work astounds. Oliver is such a poet. The kind you want to press onto everyone you know, whose work you want to read, and re-read and can’t wait for the next one to be released. Oliver has written for film and TV and for the BBC during lockdown. He was Poet In Residence at the Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea. He works in partnership with the WCML to bring workshops to schools and will be performing at this year’s Laugharne Festival (hopefully). I urge you to buy this and his previous collection. 


As Cerys Matthews said, “Tidy boy. Tidy poems. Spend your filthy lucre on this book!” 


Hell Yes!


‘God Missed The Last Bus And Walked Home’ and ‘The Dandelion Clock’ can be purchased from Oliver’s website --  

You can learn more about The Working Class Movement Library at wcml.org.uk


REVIEW

Josh Brown reviews Tom Pennacchini

from New York City

We are sometimes honoured by poets who send us their work or ask us to review a collection. Tom Pennacchini wrote to us from the magnificent madness that is New York City sending us the poems now on our new "Our Poets" page. Tom describes himself modestly as a flaneur, actor and 'scribbler' but in truth he is a little more than this. As an actor, Tom is a part of the vibrant theatre scene in the Big Apple and has taken leading roles in well received off-Broadway productions such as 'Border Crossing' and appeared in the US TV series 'Hospital 2006'.

 His "scribbling" has appeared in numerous online publications including The Free Poet, Mojave Heart Review, Jalmurra, The Scarlet Leaf, Poems for All, Free Lit Magazine, Backchannels, Loud Coffee Press and Mason Street Journal. Sadly, there is not a published collection of his work available here in the UK but these website literary publications can be accessed and you can read more of his work there.


Tom is indeed a flaneur poet!  'Flaneur' is a gorgeous, replete French noun referring to a person. Its literal meaning is  a stroller, lounger or loafer but it has come to refer to an urbanite who wanders with no other purpose than to observe contemporary life. A perfect role for a poet and a perfect epithet for his lovely poetry, for much of it derives from superb observations of life and their meaning in New York's mega-urban environment which most would miss were it not for the insight his poetry provides. This is a supreme role for the poet, not to be a bombast, not to polemicise, but to lead the reader to awareness and empathy otherwise missed. 


What hits you as your read these poems is the breath of optimism and joy that is all too often obliterated in the claustrophobic alleys and high rise blocks of a big city like New York. Tom writes of a determination to remain in touch with the core of life itself, with the little delights that elevate us that are to be found if you only have the clarity to look and take the time to do so. You cannot help but be uplifted by a poem in which he describes sharing an early morning with a squirrel or casually mentions the companionship of a cat. All that makes New York an attractive, exciting place to visit is not necessarily geared to raising the soul, other than its fantastic art, theatre and poetry tradition. But Tom finds those gems that are there if you stop looking up at the soaring pillars of steel and the excess of bright lights. 


Yet these are not latter day hippy anthems or 21st century neo-romanticism, Tom's poetry is itself routed in the city and there is a clear debt to other prominent American poets in his style of writing. There is more than a little of Kerouac and Bukowski in the way he writes and the subject/message he is selling. 'Winged Ones' published in October 2020 by Mason Street Journal finds hope on the city street in the unlikely guise of a an eccentric old man with a dog. It may not be unique for poets to find insight and inspiration in the lowly and ordinary but it is a decidedly American predisposition arising out of its history as a land for the common man.  Chuck Bukowski made similar connections as does his natural inheritor Tom Waits and Kerouac drove that lonely 'Road' in search of the same insights eventually finding them in isolation and nature. New York is a wonderfully familiar place, you feel you know it and, when you first visit, it seems like somewhere you already call home. Tom's descriptions of early morning in his apartment made me feel homesick for a city I love and his poems are not a romantic against a soulless city, they are a paean to it and to its life that is vibrant and meaningful in ways beyond but including the obvious.


You cannot help but connect with the fact that these poems were probably written during and certainly arrived at Portsmouth Poetry in the midst of a global pandemic where we have all felt trapped and threatened. Yet they are a delightful antidote to the inevitable pessimism and depressive mind set Covid 19 has oppressed us with. Tom writes positive, energising poems about a life that can be good and uplifting even in a bustling urban setting, written in a precise easily read style. I urge you, check them out here on our page and then visit The Free Poet, Mason Street Journal, Jalmurra and Back Channels Journal for more.


You can find Tom Pennacchini's poetry on the following websites (and Portsmouth Poetry)

                https://thefreepoet.com/P.htm

                https://communityroomblogspot.wordpress.com/2020/10/19/two-poems-5/

                https://backchannelsjournal.net/

                https://jalmurra.wordpress.com/2019/09/01/space-enhancers-poem-tom-pennacchini/

REVIEW by Josh Brown

"The Coconut Girl" Sunita Thind

'Coconut' is a term used to denigrate someone as brown on the outside and white on the inside. "The Cocont Girl" is the second collection of poems from British born Punjabi poet Sunita Thind. 

 

BAME people born in the UK face complex and contraditory challenges arising from a double identity. They belong to a defined community – Bangladeshi, Sikh, Hindu, Afro-Carribean, etc. They participate in their cultural heritage , the rich legacy of dress, music, food, dance, poetry, etc. The wider world identifies them by their national background even if in a negative and prejudiced manner. Yet at the same time they are also ‘British’ or English, Welsh or Scottish. You may be Bangladeshi but born in Birmingham and identify also as Brummy. You are just as likely to enjoy a Big Mac, listen to the same commercial ‘pop’ as any other person of your generation and wear the same fashion.

 

This dual identity may not sit comfortably and can be a source of conflict both external and, more problematic, internal. Are you Brummy or Bangladeshi? Are you Welsh or Yemeni? The apparent ease and pride with which the celebrity chef Tony Singh inhabits his Sikh and Scottish identities with pride, wearing both kilt and Dastar (turban) is wonderful but almost certainly not typical. For many British born members of BAME communities this is a source of confusion, tension and conflict exaccerbated by the racism and steroetyping they experience on a regular basis. 

Sharing the values and aspirations of the host society can easily conflict with the different community traditions. This is especially so where those are deeply conservative or significantly at odds. It is complex and difficult to select national values in place of those of home and family and can be equally difficult to reconcile yourself with wider practices and beliefs that contradict those of your background. This is especially so for women if they come from a community with attiudes toward their role and definitions of what it is to be female that are in significant contrast to the behaviour and definition of 21st century post-feminist women.

There is a term to describe this plight, “Double Consciousness”, created in 1903 by the noted black American academic W.E.B. Du Bois to describe the conflict challenging Black Americans in his ground-breaking “The Souls Of Black Folks”. It is closely linked to the notion of “Cognitive Dissonance” the confusion experienced as a result of holding values or beliefs that either contradict one another or conflict with experience and reality. Du Bois’s concept has been extended by others, most notably Franz Fanon in his first book witten in 1952 “Black Skin, White Masks” and by black feminists who extended it to embrace the concept of “Triple Consciousness” resulting from being both black and female.

 

Poetry can readily confront both sides of such complexities, the positive and the negative, the up and downsides, the benefits and costs. There is another use of the term ‘double consciousness’ specifically in relation to poetry known as “Wordsworthian Double Consciousness”. This refers to the practice in poetry of examining apparently conflicting or contradictory concepts or emotions. Wordsworth did this in poems such as ‘We Are Seven’. So did Dylan Thomas most notably in his greatest poem ‘Fern Hill’. Perhaps the best and most succinct example is, of course, William Shakespeare’s perfect oxymoron “Parting is such sweet sorrow”

 

Not surprisingly, Du Bois’s use of the term has been examined by numerous black poets. There is a long list of them in the USA including Gwendolyn Brooks, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. The most recent collection ‘The Tradition’ awarded the Pulitzer for poetry in 2020 by the magnificent Jericho Brown examines both the bitter internal conflict of being black in Trumps America and being gay in a fundamentalist Christian community. James Baldwin produced probably the most acerbic statement of it in his 1960’s essay “The Fire Next Time” saying of his father “He was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”

 

Similar poetic exploration of the experience of those facing racism and bigotry have been provided in the UK by poets such as Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

 

Poetry is enjoying immense popularity at the moment but not without controversy particularly the criticism that too much poetry being published today lacks strength of content or focus. The importance of message and context is something Portsmouth Poetry values in the community, educational and open poetry competitions we have run. The choice of collections we choose to review is prefers those poets who use this powerful supreme art form to make significant and insightful statements which extend and enhance our understanding and humanity. So we have been waiting for a new writer to exploit the capabillity of poetry to investigate the BAME experience both with pride and the literary scalpel. 'The Coconut Girl' is such a collection.

 

The Coconut Girl is a collection of 37 poems published in 2020 by Derby based poet Sunita Thind. Born in Bedford, Sunita is a Punjabi Sikh. The collection investigates and outlines the experiences of a Punjabi woman in the UK today including her battle with ovarian cancer which returned four years after her initial treatment. It is powerful moving poetry supplying an insight into the experience of others and a challenge to aspects of the BAME experience from a female perspective. The double consciousness is taken apart and placed under a literary miscroscope.

 

From the first poem it is clear that this is work with important things to say with righteous anger but with affectionate honesty. ‘Good Little Punjabi Girl’ describes the restrictions placed on women living in the UK with its opportunities and challenges. It is incisive, critical and contains some great lines such as the opening, “Shuffling off into extinction, she was the inferior protoype” and later “she is famished for freedom” and the moving description of a compliant sister as “adapted to the fundamental principles of sadness”

 

This is a poet unafraid to challenge the cultural traditions she clearly loves. The second poem “Punjabi School” relentlessly describes an abusive teacher “Mr C, by night a bone-chilling Punjabi Educator”.

 

Consider these opening lines for ‘Frozen Flowers’ about the death of an elderly woman:

“Her pale eyes still have lightening in them,

sliced peach cheekbones;

shimmering, pleated turban atop her halo

making acquaintance with death.”

Pretty impressive first two lines in an exultant and sensitive poem and it is followed, in contrast, by a raging angry poem about far right racism! Every poem is its own statement, a separate investigation of the beauties and terrors of being an ‘outsider’ in a land distorted by its empire past. 

 

How far this fearless poet is prepared to go can be guaged by the poem ‘A Child Bride Unfurling In An Adult Galaxy’ which fumes against the abomination of child marriage, taking the scalpel of her poetry to a topic many BAME communities would rather not have aired.

“Bitter is your adult saliva,

tongue circling this pre-teen mouth,

tsunami of lust in your pants.

You are not civilised in your grief, Mr.

Marrying this soiled cherub?”

Sunita Thind is equal in her rage against the bigots who would direct their hatred at her and the darker realities of Punjabi life in India and the UK. She uses her skill as a poet to voice her rage as dual citizen and as a woman.

“Invite the lust into this male brawl

by the boys gagging for my lady parts.

Do they know these iridescent planets?

Circumventing dark instalments,

a glimmer in the twinkle and dew morn.”

Or the rebuke to a father angry at his daughters failure to comply –

“Petrol coloured was your anger,

burning the fat off me with your sulfur slurs.

The level of scarring,

apart from my kin”.

These topics are powerfully viewed from a female perspective which is visceral and sensual in its images. They are testing and uncomfortable, rightlly so, to a male reader, and brutally defiant in the face of cultural repression. Lines like,

“In the ancient dark I wish to be newborn in the violence of love”

and the challlenge to religious conformity

“Stunted by deformity of faith,

force-fed scripture like a corn-fed duck

I grieve for my own faith.

Religious contraptions and false gods

hampered by dogma,

icons of irrelevance.

I was a thorny schoolgirl

of toffee-hued skin

listening to spiky sermons,

gagged at the Gurdwara.

The once heady bustle of my head is now dutiful,

a funeral of flowers in my hair”

The aliterative word use here is lovely, akin to what is known in Welsh poetry as 'Cynghanedd' (check it out in Dylan Thomas). A funeral of flowers - Wow! How much sadness is compressed into those last two beautiful lines?

 

In many of the poems, Sunita lays open the cruelty and lust of attitudes within her people that repress and victimise for the inescapabe sin of being born a woman. You cannot help but feel that such candour is incredibly brave and could come with a heavy personal cost did you not know that she is loved and supported by a husband and caring family.

 

The title poem,‘The Coconut Girl’ faces that bitter contradiction of double identity. It begins by stating the cruel slur "Brown on the outside, White on the inside" and returns to it to conclude,

“A Punjabi paradox was the Coconut Girl”.

Sunita also revisits the assault on her body and identity resulting from the return of her ovarian cancer. ‘My Womb Is A Park of Carnage’ is disturbingly candid poetry

This bountiful harvest of organs in the cracked sink.

Slurping bodily fluids on the floor.

The lonesome hair of this lab rat enduring tailored hopelessness.

Buttered by fear, blindly winking.

Depleting fertility, the youthful marrows.

Health culled, blister burns, solidified blood.

The hospital highs, vampiric skin.

A specimen in the jar, this disposable beauty.

The diagnostic conundrum, the monochromatic health.

No more premenstrual beauty.”

Read that a couple of times and not be moved. Read it and realise this is a stunning poet long overdue. There are several other women poets you could list her as sucessor to. Sylvia Plath for starters. ‘The Coconut Girl’ is a milestone publication in contemporary poetry. It has been a privelege to be able to review and recommend it.

‘Coconut Girl’ is Sunita Thind’s second collection published by Wild Pressed Books price around £10.

 

An earlier acclaimed collection ‘The Barging Buddhi and Other Poems’ was published by Black Pear Press and also written from the perspective of women living between two cultures.

 

Both are available from the usual sources. Portsmouth Poetry urges you to buy through independent local booksellers when possible.

REVIEW by Josh Brown

“Songs of Suicide” Onkar Sharma

The poetry we have reviewed this year has been strangely, wonderfully relevant, almost prescient. Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition’ exposing the murderous cruelty of US racism, Jo Lilley’s ‘Endings’ questioning extinction at the start of the pandemic caused in part by the trade in endangered species. The toll of Covid-19 has been more than lives lost and its impact on mental health will probably take longer to overcome so Onkar Sharma’s collection of poems investigating suicide published in July is overdue in the poetry catalogue.

 

“Songs of Suicide” was inspired by his mother’s mental health problems bravely outlined in the introduction. Suicide is a growing problem and one not readily or easily handled by poetry. It is a brave decision to make it the subject not just of one or two poems but a complete collection. The sensitivity of such a complex and 

significant mental health issue is such that the outcome, no matter how well intentioned, could easily be mishandled or misunderstood. So, the fact that this collection of poems adds to our humanity in the face of an issue widely and often dismissively misunderstood is a notable achievement.

 

The poems in the collection investigate different aspects of or perspectives upon the tragedy of taking one’s own life, affording a variety of insights which enable us to expand our understanding and ability to empathise. The opening poem ‘Panchatatva – The Five Elements’ reconstructs a fundamental of Hindu theology, the five aspects of God, into five situations in which an individual is driven to suicide. A fired executive contemplates leaping from a bridge, a failed student prepares to hang herself, a farmer is driven to a cliff edge by the drought failure of his land. In ‘Live-In No More’ a man cuts his wrist following a conviction for rape and in ‘Cocaine Queen’ an aged model compares herself to the women adorning the roadside billboards. (The implication for society’s facile standards of beauty does not need to be stated.) If these seem bleak and unpoetic topics, they are not. The subject may be grim, sad, painful, but the poems take us to an area of what it is to be human and help us to find something more than mere sympathy.

 

In “Sensitive Mind” Onkar examines the torment of mental illness as it drives its subject to self-immoliation and elsewhere poems examine the impact of poor mental health and self-harming on those close to a suicide sharing vicariously their suffering. That impact often causes people to question the apparent selfishness of the suicide but in many poems Onkar challenges the view that concern is missing outlining the practicality of death and the love and concern for others that often accompanies a seemingly distanced and disconnected act.

please feed the moti on time so it doesn’t die

please water the plants so they don’t dry

please open the piggy bank when i’m gone

please get yourself an iphone from amazon

to my lovely sis, that’s my last gift”

The title of another poem presents us with an alternate view often not recognised, ‘Let My Journey Be My Destination’! That essentially Indian approach to our fragile and suffering existence leads to a uniquely compassionate and understanding grasp of what is easily shelved as just mental illness.

 

This collection begins with five poems re-working a key aspect of Vaishnavist Hinduism and, inevitably, similar cultural references run through the collection so it is appropriate that Onkar returns to them in the final poem ‘A Jilted Bitch’ which places suicide in a sympathetic context it needs if we are to makes sense of it and make positive inroads into improving mental health in an increasingly fragmented and distored world.

my search to seek meaning in life

was like discovering music in commotion

salt in sand and water in parched land”

Inevitably, the subject matter of this short collection of poems published in Kolkata by Hawakal and distributed by Amazon risks being too challenging to the potential reader. They dare to approach daunting realities. But disheartening they are not. There is a current of humanity running through them no doubt deriving from his own experience and the ancient culture they reflect and they really are uplifting empathetic poems. Their appearance is timely. You should read them.

“Songs of Suicide is published by Hawakal and available in the UK from Amazon.

 

Onkar Sharma is a business technology journalist and cyber security consultant and former editor of India’s leading IT magazine. He manages LiteraryYard.com a leading international literature e-journal.

Josh Brown reviews the 2020 Pulitzer Prize

Jericho Brown 'The Tradition'

Jericho Brown is the most exciting poet in the USA today. On May 4th he was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his latest collection ‘The Tradition’ which Pulitzer described as

 

“A collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of the bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence”

 

Two previous collections had established him as a voice for the voiceless, oppressed by virtue of their colour or their sexuality. The murder of George Floyd three weeks later (to the day) gave Jericho’s work a bitter prescience that measured just how pressing that ‘historical urgency’ was.

As the BLM protest erupted across the world challenging centuries of historical complacency in the face of injustice, violence and oppression, as the facts of racism were reflected in the higher pandemic fatalities amongst people of colour, ethnic minorites, the poor and disadvantaged, The Tradition could be its manifesto. Poetry is enjoying heightened popularity but few poets riding the crest of its wave can compare to the talent and impact of Jericho Brown.

 

Before ’The Tradition’ was published last year Jericho Brown was already recognised as a poet of exceptional importance. Winner of a host of prestigious awards. Published in some of the USA’s finest including The New York Times, New Yorker and Time magazine. The Pulitzer placed him at the end of a list that runs from Robert Frost (sadly not without prejudice) to W H Auden and Allen Ginsberg.

Born and raised in Shreveport Louisiana part of ‘Bible Belt’ American, Trump country, Jericho Brown is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and director of its Creative Writing Program. He was speechwriter for LaToya Cantrell the first black woman to hold the post of mayor of New Orleans.

 

His first book, ‘Please’ (2008), won the American Book Award.

 

‘The New Testament’ (2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award which honours written works that make an important contribution to the understanding of racism and the appreciation of the rich diversity if human culture.

Earlier recipients include Allan Paton, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer and Zadie Smith, pretty impressive company.

 

In 2011, he received the Fellowship for Poetry awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts an American NGO under threat of defunding by POTUS Trump. In addition to his academic work, Jericho is assistant editor of ‘Callaloo’, a quarterly literary magazine of the African diaspora and the longest continuously running African-American literary magazine.

This impressive CV reflects the unique quality and power of Jericho Brown’s poetry. He follows in exalted footsteps in both the majesty of his poetry and the righteousness of its causes – Gwendolyn Brooks, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and others walked that difficut path too.

 

The people of my country believe

We can’t be hurt if we can be bought”

 

When Shelley claimed poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” he was talking about more than polemics. There is a place for slogans. There is a time for anger, for demonstrating. Anger and statements of truth are the blood in the veins of the poetry of Jericho Brown.

 

“Gratitude is black----

Black as a hero returning from war to a country

that banked on his death”

 

They hit you in lines as deadly as gunfire, mirroring the violence that is part of the everyday life of black folk in the USA and over here.

                  “I will not shoot myself

                  In the head, and I will not shoot myself

                  In the back, and I will not hang myself

                  With a trashbag, and if I do,

                  I promise you, I will not do it

                 In a police car while handcuffed

                 Or in the jail cell of a town

                 I only know the name of

                 Because I have to drive through it

                To get home.”

'Please' 2008

The New Testament' 

2014

But the true power of poetry is not just that it produces a good line, a punchy combo of words that can grace a placard or make an epitaph. What places poetry above other communication is its ability, in the right hands, to make us understand that which we have never experienced, what we may never experience. To make us know and feel what that person feels, what it is like to be in that situation. I knew what love and heartbreak were before I met either through the poetry I read as a juvenile. Owen and Sassoon and the many other ‘war poets’ didn’t just rage against the slaughter, they take you into it, its tragedy, its lack of meaning, its horror and its crippling ennui. In an interview in 2018 Jericho said 

 

“A poem should go beyond what you already know……….. I do want poets to feel empowered to announce politically, but I also want them to go beyond the pronouncement.”

 

This is the core of poetry, to take you into the most complex, unbelievable, horrific or beautiful of circumstance through the medium of just a few lines. This is its potential, to get you to feel what it is to be another human being and, through that, to know and change yourself.

 

It is a subtle craft, easily mishandled, but when done well the result is breathtaking.

 

                        “The opposite of rape is understanding”

 

Jericho does not merely rant at the injustices that are the daily experience of black Americans, he examines its chillling normality, the banality of evil. He places it into the context of his own experience as an African American, as a gay man, as a son and as a lover. He connects the political and the societal with the individual. Tracks its line from the general to the specific. Into the home, the breakfast table, the bedroom.

“I love a man I know could die

And not by way of illness

And not by his own hand

But because of the colour of that hand and all

His flawless skin.”

 

The generic of prejudice and oppression is personalised, made at once political and intimate. It is not just the ‘big issues’ of black experience Jericho Brown exposes, it is the cloying suffocating corruption of everyday existence on the street, in the home, among family and between lovers.

With the same incisive verse he lays open the experience of love and intimacy.

“Come, love, come lie down, love, with me

In this king-size bed where we go numb

For each other letting sleep take us into

Ease, a slumber made only when I hold

You or you hold me so close I have no idea

Where I begin—where do you end?—where you

 

Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies”

Poetry he said in an interview for Barren Magazine

 

“is better when it comes from and happens to real people we can imagine. No oracles!”

 

His poetry includes modified sonnet and the use of ‘ghazal’ both in content and the way he writes. An Arabic form, ghazal expresses both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. One of the poems in ‘The Tradition’ is called “Duplex” reflecting that duality. It talks of both the cruelty of an early lover and that of his father. The potency of ghazal can be seen in the closing lines,

 

“None of the beaten end up how we began

A poem is a gesture toward home”

 

'Duplex' is the term Jericho uses to describe his decision to write sonnets in a shortened or ‘gutted’ form, a series of repeated couplets. Embracing the sonnet and the metric traditions of ghazal allows him to question America but not be constrained in response.

 

“If I can take a sonnet and I can take a ghazal and I can take the blues—we’re not gonna get around taking the blues, since I’m black—if I take those three things, is it possible for me to merge them into a single coherent form?” And that’s how the duplex came to be.”

 

Asked to reflect on the harsh childhood which features in his poetry he said,

 

“Literature is about opposing characters being right. So poetry is about opposing feelings being right, about ambivalence being the proper state of being. I’m glad my parents are old and that I’m older. There’s really a wealth of new language born from reflecting on this.”

 

Jericho Brown’s poetry has enabled him to move beyond just anger, though it is righteously justified, so it gives the reader the same opportunity. To understand, to empathise, to be outraged but to see the journey’s end where strength and humanity, possibly love, is more powerful.

 

Jericho Brown is a professor who says that reading Milton taught him how to rhyme and calls him his ‘homeboy’. As you’d expect, he is prodigiously well read, an intellectual. But the language of his poetry is clear, precise, engaging. There’s a musical influence, no doubt coming from the church which he still attends despite the less than ‘Christian’ response of most non-conformist denominations toward being gay. Just as Gospel fed Soul so hymns and the music, which is still the greatest cultural gift America has given the world, has seeped into the way he uses words and constructs his “gutted sonnets”. (That, of course, should be the greatest gift Black America has given the world!) You can feel it, for example, in the opening line of the poem “Dear Whiteness” quoted earlier. A poem which even repeats the chorus of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”.

 

In another interview he explained how he starts a poem, 

 

“I usually get (or overhear) some series of sounds I find musically attractive. I try to transliterate those sounds into lines and follow them with lines that riff off of the sounds of those lines. I don’t concern myself with sense, at first.”

 

The poems in ‘The Tradition’ remind me of something James Baldwin said in ‘The Fire Next Time’.

 

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within"

 

The cover notes say “The Tradition is a timely, necessary book….” Published just months before George Floyd died at the hands of a white policeman you could not have gauged just how timely it would be save for the fact that these injustices are decades, centuries old. It continues, “….from one of the most vital poets of our time” Amen to that.

 

©Josh Brown 2020

  

‘The Tradition’ is published in the UK by Picador Poetry and is available from the usual sources for a mere £10.99. His earlier collections, ‘Please’ and ‘The New Testament’ are also available.

 

We urge you to purchase from small booksellers struggling under the impact of Covid-19 and to buy ‘The Tradition’ if it is the only book you buy this year.

You can find out more about Jericho Brown on his website

 

https://www.jerichobrown.com

 

You Tube has pleny of clips of Jericho being interviewed and reading his work.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DsG-tMZjKY

 

The Barren Magazine article can be found at

 

https://barrenmagazine.com/jericho-brown-interview

REVIEW by Josh Brown

Joanna Lilley

"Endlings"

A beautiful, moving examination of our destructive cruelty

The pleasure of Portsmouth Poetry is that we get to meet, to know and to work with talented writers and artists to play a small part in their development and the increasing awareness of their work. One such is Joanna Lilley, a poet and novelist from the Yukon in Canada. Author of a collection of stories, a novel and two collections of poetry, her third collection, “Endlings”, was published in March by Turnstone Press and is available in the UK from April 15th.

 

The release of this collection in the midst of a world pandemic known to have originated in part from the trade in endangered species, is chillingly apposite. Yet to be recognised by the OED, the word ‘Endling’ refers to the last individual of a species facing or having become extinct. As she says in the opening pages, “It is probably only a matter of time” before the word is included; it is painfully relevant to the time in which we live.

'Endlings' Turnstone Press

Available in print and as E Book

Copiously researched, Endlings is a collection of poems outlining the fate of 63 animals lost to our benighted world. From the Woolly Mammoth, past the Dodo, to the Yukon Horse, the Tasmanian Tiger, the Falklands Island Wolf and the St Helena Earwig!

You are not the only ones

who need tools, who,

without them, would be

as obliterated as me.”

     [Flightless Bird of Mauritius – Dodo]

Powerful, controversial topics like the environmental crisis easily become polemical, uncomfortably moralistic or cliched. The poet may be politically driven and angry (so many of the greats have) but the soul of poetry requires the tender subtlety of approach witnessed in, for example, Wilfred Owen’s approach to war to find a way to enable us to ‘feel’ the issues explored and to experience them through the eyes of those they touch. This is what Joanna has done with this remarkable collection of poems. These are not simple diatribes against stupidity and destruction, they enable us to experience the tragedy and to understand the loss. So much so that, in the end, it is ourselves we understand too; our callous disregard for the world we co-habit and the tragedy we heap upon ourselves. As the Canadian environmentalist and science broadcaster David Suzuki says

“This book is a reminder of what we have lost within human memory”.

If reading these tender, beautiful poems were to leave you feeling frustrated and righteously indignant they would have been timely and worthwhile. If they moved you to re-examine your own interface with the rest of our vast planet that would be success. But they do more than that. They produce a sadness that had me both tearful and ashamed.

 

There is a carefully structured anger and empathy in these poems as when Joanna lays out the psychopathic cruelty of the Lepidopterist

© Photograph by Michael Edwards 

“The man will carry me in his jar as far

from shore as his collection.

He’ll pinch my middle with his thumb

and forefinger to stun me

stop me

from flapping, damaging myself

so that he can

relax me to death”

No slight achievement to let you feel the terror of an insect and empathise its fate!

 

These poems examine not just the callousness of our kind but the incomprehensible stupidity that often attended the loss of these creatures and continues to do so.

“But all we know for certain is that cave bears are extinct and too many soldiers die in wars and Germans plunder the caves because they needed phosphate so they could blow more people up.”

A few days ago, there were bees and terracotta butterflies in my garden, blackbirds and little birds in the thorn tree singing. Such commonplace beauty. So needed in viral isolation imposed to fight a killer that our continuing abuse created. You will probably, need to read this collection in sections. The tragedy they bring the reader to feel, the anger, sadness and guilt they induce would be overwhelming if you read the complete collection in one go. But read it you should. When we finally emerge from our current crisis we will need to question everything about how we have lived and find new routes to our own happiness and security. “Endlings” should be essential reading in that desperate rethinking of ourselves. We should be glad this poet had the sensitivity to examine the world of the Carrier Pidgeon or an earwig!

Joanna grew up in England and has lived in the Yukon, Canada since 2006. She has an MLitt in creative writing from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, is a Humber School for Writers graduate and helped to set up the Yukon Writers' Collective. Her first poetry collection, 'The Fleece Era', was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. Her novel, 'Worry Stones', was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award. Her poems and stories have been published in Canada, the US and the UK.

 

“Endlings” is published by Turnstone Press and is available in the UK in print and Kindle Edition Her previous books are also available.

Publications:

The Fleece Era (Brick Books)

The Birthday Books (Hagios Press) Stories

If There Were Roads (Turnstone Press)

Worry Stones (Ronsdale Press) Novel

Endlings (Turnstone Press, 2020)

PORTSMOUTH POETRY WILL [HOPEFULLY] BE HOSTING POETRY WORKSHOPS AND READINGS FEATURING JOANNA LILLEY, MAGGIE SAWKINS, EMILY PRIEST AND TESSA FOLEY AT PORTSMOUTH GUILDHALL ON JULY 11th

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Josh Brown REVIEWS one of our most talented local poets

Emily Priest

"Nicotine and Napalm"

Emily Priest

[a.k.a. Emily-the-Writer]

Is a freelance writer, consultant and stand-up poet

She has a BA in Creative and Media Writing

Emily lives in Portsmouth

You can catch her  @    http://emilythewriter.co.uk

www.facebook.com/emilythewriter1

@EmilytheWriter1

Emily Priest – Nicotine and Napalm

Emily Priest is one of the most exciting new poets I have encountered.

Poetry is a condensed communication. Poets say things in a few lines where other writers take chapters, even hundreds of pages to say. The mechanisms poets use to do this are designed for brevity. But this makes reading poetry difficult. The intensity of poetry makes it hard to consume in large batches, the literary equivalent of over eating a rich meal.

 

I read poetry constantly but I can rarely read more than a few at a time before I am overwhelmed even with poets I know and love. So ‘Nicotine and Napalm’, the first collection by local ‘stand-up’ poet and writer Emily Priest, is a unique experience.

 

Last year, Portsmouth Poetry co-curated the headline event of Portsmouth Festivities, “20 Love” marking the twentieth anniversary of the founding of this annual 10 day arts event. Poets were invited to produce and perform works inspired by each of the poems in Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair”. We were commissioned to find two rising poets on the stand-up circuit. I almost despaired finding a young writer locally when I discovered Emily. Not only is she a talented poet, her work is similar in style and content to Neruda.

 

And she can perform. Video clips of her reading her work are breath-taking in their passion and crafting. Around the time she was involved in ’20 Love’ in June 2019, Emily published this first collection in print.

 

I took a copy with me on a train journey expecting only to start reading it. I began late on a cold November night coming home from the annual memorial for Dylan Thomas at Westminster Abbey.

 

But this time it was not just a handful of poems! Captured from the first pages, I read slowly and intently through to the end and I was genuinely blown away! I knew Emily was talented but was not prepared for how amazing this collection is!

 

Nicotine and Napalm chronicles the path of a doomed relationship from its initial intensity, its growing frustrations and disappointments, through break-down and break-up, the nagging aftermath, to its final resolution.

 

It is an account of the passion, joy, disappointment and re-growth that leads to a new strength.

 

It is frank and honest, sometimes painfully so, sometimes explicit in its openness. Few women write about the exhilaration and despair of love, emotional and physical, with such clarity and intensity. The parallel with Sylvia Plath may sound exaggerated but it fits. Few poets of any gender dare to be so honest, to be prepared to investigate and lay bare what it means to love, to struggle with love that is not equally and fairly reciprocated, to admit to the page the short-comings and disintegration, the delicate and needy aftermath before the growth that is the positive result of pain.

 

The final poems are in contrast to the doomed trust and dependency of the failed love. They include stunning statements of female empowerment and courage. (I am reticent to call them ‘feminist’ only because too often such writing is more polemic than poetic.) They are determined, angry poems from someone who has found strength through heartache without letting it deter her from loving.

 

I would encourage you to read these poems and to read them in a single sitting so that you follow the path of the poet’s growth and the narrative that connects them. It is a work all women would understand and identify with. A collection you would want to give to your daughters before they plunged into the maelstrom of love, sex and relationships. And, like Plath, it is a work all men would benefit from reading!

Josh Brown Copyright 2020

Nicotine and Napalm is available to buy on Amazon at

or contact Emily through her website 

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