Books From The Pantry: The Cold Store by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough reviewed by Kev Milsom

How odd the imagination.
It often takes you close
To where the flowers grow,
Splendid and perfumed and failing
On their dehydrated stalks.
Then gives you an ashtray full of dogends.

‘Colitas’ by Elisabeth Sennit Clough

It’s fair to say that the talented poet Elisabeth Sennitt Clough has a passion for the easterly portion of England, known as ‘The Fens’ – or ‘Fenland’ –  covering much of the county of Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, alongside parts of Suffolk and Huntingdonshire. Indeed, her 2019 publication, At, Or Above Sea Level, focused strongly upon this region of marshland, and former marshland, much of which originally consisted of fresh, or salt-water, wetlands. Now, in her recent book, The Cold Store, Elisabeth returns to this area with a collection of imaginative and personal poetry. 

The title of the collection – a real place called The Cold Store; an automated warehouse located at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire; once the largest frozen food warehouse in the UK, until superseded by another in 2018 – is used throughout the poetry as a metaphoric, shapeshifting presence. Elisabeth morphs The Cold Store into different forms across The Fens, allowing her to address memories from her youth, as well as buildings of importance, specific characters and various objects. 

In some ways, the poems remind the reader of the Fens’ landscape; as they can be edgy, dark and mysterious. Yet, the poetry also contains consummate measures of light, with abundant detail and creative imagination, played out via Elisabeth’s choice, adept vocabulary to immortalise the flat landscape and unhindered skies that hold so much personal meaning for her.

Here, beyond the old toll gate
Where the edge-of-town factories
And car showrooms have long faded,
Agriculture becomes the only industry.
Each square of land carries me into the next
And a pink horizon emerges from dark Earth.

‘Fenland Elegy’

The poems are varied and eclectic. While some focus upon descriptive elements to create powerful visual descriptions, others are clearly more personal, focusing upon an individualistic glimpse into the past, such as the poem, Widowed Single Mother, 1970s’, that I could strongly relate to.

After she drops me off at the school gates,
I try to mimic the villagers, call my mother
By the names they give her.

Elisabeth’s mastery of words plays through this entire collection and produces strong, creative visuals within the reader’s mind. 

You can find more of Elisabeth’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: A Pocketful of Chalk by Claire Booker reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Brighton-based poet and playwright, Claire Booker’s debut pamphlet of poems, ‘Later There Will Be Postcards’ was published by Green Bottle Press. A further pamphlet, ‘The Bone That Sang’ was published by Indigo Dreams. She was a recipient of a Kathak International Literary Award in 2019 and, in the same year, travelled to Bangladesh as a guest poet at the Dhaka International Writers’ Festival. Her stage plays have been performed in Europe, Australia, America and the UK. She is a member of the Brighton Stanza Group.

Titles can be magical as well as memorable. Following in the footsteps of Agatha Christie’s detective novel, ‘A Pocketful of Rye’, Aisha Bushby’s novel ‘A Pocketful of Stars’ and Richard E Grant’s memoir ‘A Pocketful of Happiness’ we now have Booker’s first full-length collection ‘A Pocketful of Chalk’.

Of course, a ‘pocket’ can also be a seam, a cavity in a rock or stratum filled with ore or other material as opposed to a small patch of land or a space for carrying small articles in one’s clothing. In this collection, Booker digs deep beneath the surface to mine a rich vein of poetry from the chalk deposits of the South Downs. It is here where we see that Booker is very much a poet of place as she takes us over a range of coastal cliffs and hills such as Beachy Head, Folly Hill, and Beacon Hill to the inland grasslands and meadows of Sussex which are all very much a part of her landscape.

In an interview for The Poet Magazine, Booker says ‘I think words, for me, are often a way to delve into the unexplored, to fling my net and see what comes up.’ Nowhere is this more obvious than in her opening poem, ‘Breaking Out’, where space is used instead of punctuation to indicate the length of a pause. The full-stop (‘I’ve had it with full stops’) is not permitted to put in an appearance until the whole poem has ended, allowing nothing to hinder the full flight of her imagination, a dazzlement of constellations, butterflies, marigolds and dandelions. The lyrical drive inherent in this and many other poems in the collection comes from Booker’s love of English hymnody.

By contrast, full stops are very much in evidence in ‘Looking Towards Smock Hill’ where short sentences help to drive the poem forward, enabling it to cover a lot of ground, giving us a sense distance in the view out to sea.

In ‘Drone Boys’ technology meets sheep. The sound and sight of them scything the air with their blades is distressing to the sheep. Reading it put me in mind of the dangers birds face when confronted with the whirling blades of wind turbines. Booker handles the clash of forces between machinery and the natural world very convincingly here. We ignore the needs of the natural world at our peril.

‘Long Man Dreaming’ is central to this collection. This is the chalk giant, known as the Long Man of Wilmington that is carved into the Sussex Downs. The jury is still out as to whether it is a guardian, some kind of war-god or a fertility symbol and its origins are unclear. The narrator imagines the giant dreaming himself back into the past to the point where the landscape returns to the seabed. Even the car the narrator is sitting in becomes a part of the transformation: ‘Inside the carburettor petrol chatters /its abrasive dialect of long-dead foliage… We sink / into blue haze. A brook has begun to babble / through my head.’

Thinking of another pocketful, the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence / a pocketful of rye’ several poems bear reference to childhood such as ‘Hey Diddle Diddle…,’ ‘The Horse in my Bedroom,’ and ‘The Museum of Childhood’ where

…the little train clatters along N-gauge tracks,
disappears into the papier-mâché tunnel.

A long heart-skip, before it emerges still guarding
its secret: the dark curved space,

a pin prick of light dilating like an amazed pupil
at the approaching world.

Even the name of the gardener in ‘Mr McGregor’s Seedlings’ is a distant echo from Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’.

In ‘Italian Hair’ Booker manages to convey a whole spectrum of moods ranging from envy to humour and pathos in five quatrains against a backdrop that swings between the romance of Italy to the reality of England, from Sophia Loren to the fictional character of Nora Batty.

‘Framed Woman’ is an ekphrastic poem based on a painting titled ‘Cape Cod Morning’ by the American realist painter Edward Hopper. In the actual painting, a woman is looking out of a bay window, her attention caught by something beyond the frame. She herself is framed by tall dark shutters and the shape of the oriel window. Booker focuses on the woman’s tense pose, the way her hands are ‘welded to a table’ and tells us her own take on the story of this woman and how she lives day by day in her own interior space.

‘News Flash’ reads like an intrusion into our settled lives. The violent headline haunts the narrator with endless repeats until the carefree girls playing on the beach become fully cognisant of it. The poem is the musical equivalent of the renegade snare drummer in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony who is given the freedom to ‘improvise’ to the point of waging a war with the full forces of the rest of the orchestra.

Many of the poems in this collection are about nature but there are others which explore relationships with family and friends. Whether she is writing about a father mending nets, an osprey fledging or mirabelle plums, Booker dazzles us with her inventive vocabulary and keen observation. Highly recommended.

A Pocketful of Chalk by Claire Booker is available from Arachne Press.

You can find more work by poet and reviewer Neil Leadbeater here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: Keep Dancing Lizzie Chu by Maisie Chan reviewed by Yang Ming Renee

Two years ago I reviewed Maisie Chan’s delightful debut children’s novel, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, about an eleven-year-old Danny Chung who loved drawings and hated Maths. One morning, he received an unexpected guest in his house – his grandmother who he had never met before. Over Easter break, he got to know his grandmother more, and his initial animosity towards her grew into an appreciation for her presence. Since its publication, the heart-warming story has won the Jhalak Prize and the 2022 Branford Boase Award. Now, two years later, Chan follows up her success with her second children’s novel, Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu, published by Piccadilly Press. This time, Chan doesn’t disappoint.

The novel opens with a twelve-year-old girl, Lizzie Chu, who finds her maternal grandad, Jimmy, whom she affectionately addresses as Wai Gong, ‘on his knees jabbing a piece of wire through the cracks in the roadside drain like he was trying to hook a duck at a fairground’ during one of her shopping runs when an eco bus threatens to knock him down. Lizzie rushes to his aid and saves him in the nick of time. We can surmise something isn’t quite right with Wai Gong. He has been acting strangely lately. He is becoming more forgetful than usual and spends a lot of time talking to Guan Yin – the Chinese goddess of compassion, kindness and mercy.

On the other hand, Lizzie has been holding the fort at home since the death of Grandma Kam. She has big shoes to fill, and her plate is getting full with caring for Wai Gong, running errands, sorting out the household bills and cooking while juggling her schoolwork and being a normal twelve-year-old girl. The question is, is Wai Gong feeling sad because of Grandma Kam’s passing or is it something else? One day, Lizzie and Wai Gong discover that Grandma Kam has left a golden chain with a jade circular pendant and four tickets to Blackpool Tower Ballroom. A light bulb instantly lit up in Lizzie’s head, and she devises a madcap plan. She’s going to bring Wai Gong on a trip of his lifetime to Blackpool Tower Ballroom, ‘the Mecca of Ballroom Dancing’ where he always longs to go with Grandma Kam.

Targeted at young readers, the uplifting intergenerational story takes them on a rollercoaster ride, with unexpected twists and turns, which surprises them on every page. The journey to Blackpool Tower Ballroom has me sitting at the edge of my seat, and I can’t help but cheer for Lizzie. In contrast to Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, this novel has more awareness of inclusivity. In one of the chapters, Lizzie’s school teacher, Mrs Begum explains to the class:

We don’t call people names. We do not talk about other people’s family members. Luke, just because someone looks and acts different to what you’re used to, doesn’t mean that they are strange.’

We also are also introduced to an ensemble of diverse supporting characters that make Glasgow. Among them are Lizzie’s best friends – Chi, a self-centred but kindhearted and hard-core Comic Con fan, who is a mixed Welsh and Vietnamese and Tyler, a black British boy who has a gift of making clothes and has two fathers. Chan’s strength as an author lies in her knowledge of the Asian and British cultures, given her heritage. She cleverly weaves the classic Chinese folk tale Journey to the West into the narrative as a parallel to Lizzie and Wai Gong’s journey to Blackpool Tower Ballroom. She does it with sensitivity and meticulousness. She uses ‘Wai Gong’ for Lizzie’s grandad as Wai Gong is a commonly used term in Southern China to address maternal grandad and is widely used in Asia. Using the Chinese deity, Guan Yin as a motif adds depth to the novel and provides a good entry point in understanding Chinese culture. Chan further incorporates other British cultural references, such as the ever-popular Strictly Come Dancing and Comic Con event to show that one doesn’t have to lose sight of their heritage in another country.

Despite being a middle-grade novel, Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu doesn’t shy away from discussing weighty topics about death, loss, grief and illness. It sheds light on the role of young carers and their daily struggles. It acutely captures the carers’ initial denial of their loved one’s loss of cognitive functioning and their gradual acceptance of the condition.

This is a timely topic happening globally as the ageing population increases. The novel illustrates the dependency on a larger community during challenging times and why it is so important in a rapidly developing society. As the well-known African proverb says, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ But I believe in this story it takes a community to support one in need of help and to show that the human spirit is more resilient than what we can imagine.

Keep Dancing, Lizzie Chu is published by Piccadilly Press, which is part of Bonnier Books Ltd. The U.S version will be out on 28th March 2023. The children’s novel is now available in Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon UK.

You can find more of Yang Ming’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: British People in Hot Weather by Paul McGrane reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Born and raised in Ammanford, once the heartland of coal mining in West Wales, Paul McGrane is the co-founder of the Forest Poets poetry collective in Walthamstow, London. From 2006 to 2020 he was the Poetry Society’s Membership Manager. His first collection, Elastic Man, published by Indigo Dreams in 2018, won the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize. British People in Hot Weather (Indigo Dreams Publishing) is his second collection.

I have to admit that the title of this collection puzzles me. Arresting it may be, but there are no mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun which is to say that no poem matches the title, the phrase does not appear in any of the poems and the time of year is invariably winter. All this proves that you cannot judge a book by its cover. McGrane, I conclude, is a man who likes to surprise his readers, and there is plenty to surprise us here.

The main theme of this collection is centred round personal relationships. These relationships are seen through the lens of childhood and adolescence, a school nativity scene, a distant father-son relationship, a well-meaning next door neighbour, weekends with grandparents and characters from a Verdi opera.

McGrane writes more about his father than his mother. Both his father and his grandfather were miners. His father was a coal hewer to begin with, moving on to become a colliery repairer below ground. In the early 80’s he was medically retired before the mines were closed down. McGrane is proud of his working lineage even though his relationship with his father was a difficult one. In ‘Social Distancing’ he writes: ‘he’d see but look straight through me. / To him I was something that / my mother should take care of / like cooking and cleaning and the washing up.’ In ‘Your father’s gone to stay with cousin Cyril for a while’ we catch a glimpse of the domestic situation at home:

Bad husband, he was very rarely in,
spending all his time in the pub or the garden
sweet-talking seedlings into flower

but when they’d share a room
ice hung from the ceiling
and every cough or sigh could spark an argument
I’d be out of there as soon as I was old enough to leave.

In ‘Thrift’ McGrane sketches a picture of his mother through the extended metaphor of the sea pink. Like the Royal Mint, who used thrift as an emblem on the threepenny-bit between 1937 and 1953, McGrane plays on the double meaning of the word.

‘Going viral’ is another loaded title in which McGrane explores our recent experience of trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the pandemic. Despite all the rules around handwashing, the germs in this poem keep spreading.

Two poems that really caught my attention in terms of wit and originality were ‘Unit 8 / Series 53 has died (and, oh, the difference to me)’ and ‘Search: Mark E Smith’. The former explores the question of whether robots have feelings and the latter the frustrations we have all faced at one stage or another when trying to identify a particular person who happens to have a very common name. (My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Jones so I can sympathise with the dilemma that this imposes when searching through family history).

Other subjects covered in this collection include ‘Dying Words of Patrick Moore’ which hints at the possibility of life on Mars and ‘Press Gang’ which compares and contrasts the fate of two people in different time frames: Brigstock Weaver, forced to loot ships by pirates in the 18th century and the teenager Jaden Moodie who got caught up in low-level crime and was murdered at the tender age of 14 by a rival gang member in East London in 2019.

British People in Hot Weather by Paul McGrane is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

You can find more work by poet and reviewer Neil Leadbeater here on Ink Pantry.

Books from the Pantry: Athletes Who Rock by Motez Bishara reviewed by Kev Milsom

‘During the interviews, I would often return to fundamental questions that explored the rarefied air these people occupy. How does it feel to be unstoppable on the basketball court, baseball field or tennis arena?  And what is it like to be grooving on stage, to a point where you and your audience are travelling together on an unpredictable journey?’ Motez Bishara

As a lifelong devotee of cricket (For American readers who wonder what on Earth cricket is, imagine baseball on Valium), I distinctly recall watching a recent TV programme about the former English batsman, Mark Butcher. Expecting a fascinating hour of listening to Mark enthusing solely about his county and international cricket career, I was amazed as he picked up a guitar and proceeded to both play and sing Dylan’s classic, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ with high, professional expertise. I’m not quite sure if I was more shocked or impressed, but it certainly got me thinking about my own youth, where playing sports and creating music were my two most important goals; along with realising (in hindsight) these were the two moments in life when I became most focused and relaxed. I definitely wish that I had practised a heck of a lot more, so I could have hopefully kept up with Mark Butcher’s considerable skills as both an international batsman and more-than-adept guitarist/singer. Therefore, when I became aware of Motez Bishara’s new book, Athletes Who Rock, I was naturally drawn to the author’s creative concept. 

Across the two hundred and forty-one pages, Motez reveals his long standing fascination for those talented individuals who can excel both within a sporting environment and also achieve musical prowess.

Motez begins the book with an exploration of the psychological ‘flow state’ that strongly occurs within those who play sports and music to the highest levels. The late, Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934 – 2021) identified this flow as, ‘(A state of) being involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost’.

Flicking through each of the chapters, it’s a joy to observe that none of the individuals’ stories lack depth, energy and passion. For example, former professional surfer, Lindsay Perry, had a difficult time growing up; losing her mother and sister in a car accident and an aunt to murder when Lindsay was just eighteen. She says, ‘My therapy was the ocean and surfing…to not think about the things that I had just gone through’. Her career as a surfer went from strength to strength and, for years the sport allowed her to generate a healthy income. However, since the age of fourteen, Lindsay had also immersed herself into learning to play guitar and focusing on creating music. After retiring from surfing and modelling, she focused her considerable energy into music. When asked the inevitable question of ‘which gives the greatest thrill?’ her answer is honest. ‘A high is a high. Your adrenaline is your adrenaline. Now the adrenaline I get is being on stage in front of a full crowd. I can substitute missing out on surfing for that high I get from a crowd’. And what about the determination and drive that it took to be good at both sports and music? Again, her answer is honest. ‘When my mom passed away she was forty and not able to do a lot of things. I want to be the best at anything I can be so that I can create a legacy for her. She didn’t get to see any of those things. I didn’t even know she wanted to be a model. So, it’s pretty cool that I get to fulfil my mom’s dreams and start new ones’

Returning to where we came in, one chapter is devoted to Mark Butcher, whose national and international cricket career spanned from 1992 to 2009. We learn that, like Pat Nevin, music had always been an important foundation in life for Butcher, who received his first guitar at age thirteen. After buying a Jimi Hendrix cassette tape for £1 at a motorway service station. His mind blown by Hendrix, the ex-cricketer vividly recalls watching Queen and Clapton at Live Aid in 1985. Now intent on emulating the sounds he heard, Butcher saved up for a Telecaster knock-off guitar. Recounting a remarkable, yet bittersweet and uproarious, life, Butcher opens his heart to the author and leaves little to the reader’s imagination. A revealing aspect comes when he is asked about the links between both his sporting and musical worlds and what uniquely joins them.

 ‘Rhythm. When I was playing (cricket), if I was in a good place, I would have a song in my head – and that would be the only thing in my head. Because thought is the enemy of being able to play – or at least it was for me. Time and rhythm are both things that apply in equal measures in both pursuits’. Mark Butcher

Inside this book lies a ton of information and it would have been easy for the author, Motez Bishara, to create a lot of factual information that didn’t gel together. However, the author has clearly done his research and, luckily for readers, Motez has considerable skill at conveying the various depths of each athlete/musician into a very readable and fascinating form. Every question asked is designed to open up more information to the reader, allowing valuable personal insights into their lives. In return, it’s clear that all of the athletes/musicians respected the author, allowing a sense of relaxing communication, without holding anything back.

The end result is a fascinating glimpse into the world of both those involved with professional sport and the world of musical creation.

First published by Joyzine.

Books from the Pantry: The Former Boy Wonder by Robert Graham

It’s a rainy August in Manchester and music writer Peter Duffy’s life is falling apart. He’s knocking on fifty, his career is flatlining, his marriage is failing, and his teenage son barely speaks to him. 

And then a friend from university days invites him to a party at the manor house where he met his first love, the dazzling Sanchia Page. All the old gang are going to be there, and although it’s a long shot, maybe she will, too, which wouldn’t be helpful. Or would it? 

Robert Graham writes exclusively for Ink Pantry on the theme of setting in The Former Boy Wonder (Lendal Press):

In The Former Boy Wonder, I set out to use setting to characterise and to create emotional tone.

In the narrative strand that happens when he’s young, Peter Duffy, the novel’s protagonist, meets and falls for another student, Sanchia Page. The allure of the novel depends greatly on my portrayal of her. I wanted her to have a mystique, to be attractive to the readers, bewitching and magical, and aimed to make her a full-blown romantic heroine. Part of the way I characterised her was through setting. Before I introduce her, the setting includes only positive details. As Peter makes his way to the party where they will meet, I mention the pale, warm sun. Autumn mist hangs over the road. Two lanterns mark the bottom of the drive that leads up to Loston Manor, the mansion where the party will take place, and he arrives in the last of the evening sun. The necklaces of coloured bulbs that hang across Loston’s façade have a warm halo which glows in the evening light. Across the façade of the house, “necklaces of red, green and yellow bulbs hung on cables, and the warm halo of each glows in the early evening light”. On the way to his first sight of Sanchia, he walks by “a miasma of colour – red anemones, purple chrysanthemums, pink asters – passing rose beds to come and stand “beneath a fig tree in its sweet, coconut scent”.

Another setting I used to characterise Sanchia was her room in a student house-share. The books on her shelves (The Scarlet Letter, Vanity Fair, Dubliners, Bleak House, black-spined Russian classics, and grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics) and the contents of her desk (more books, sheets of paper filled with writing, notebooks, a pot of pens and pencils) indicate that she is a serious reader and a committed student. Reproductions on postcards of paintings by Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Bonnard, Magritte and Chagall and photographic portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Doris Lessing and Mahler add to this, developing his impression that she is more cultured than he. Her record collection, which also sits on the floor, leaning against a wall – like her books, not on shelves, not conventional – includes jazz (Dave Brubeck’s Take Five) and classical (Bach’s Goldberg Variations). No pop, no rock, no rock’n’roll. She isn’t just a literary person, she knows about art, she knows about music. To Peter, her taste is unusual, which is exciting, but also eye-opening. Although he’s an Art student and a reader, she is more well-rounded than he, and, he thinks, much more sophisticated. Exotic, serious, well read, cultured, sophisticated – and all conveyed to the reader through the use of setting.

Settings loom large in The Former Boy Wonder and some of the time I used them to create emotional tone. The love affair between Peter and Sanchia ends in Morecambe and to create the emotional tone I included only negative details of the setting. A few hours before they break up, they eat in a cheap Italian restaurant, and the setting is designed to create a particular emotional tone. Their waiter wears a greying white shirt and a greasy black tie, the cook, an Iron Maiden T-shirt, a skull ring, and boots with chrome studs. I mention the sweating cheese of the pizzas the down at heel waiter sets before them. The emotional tone of this Morecambe chapter doesn’t come from me telling the reader that it’s a bleak, melancholy, miserable place. No. The tone, I hope, is made real for the reader because it is suggested by the specific details and the vocabulary I chose.

For me, setting is almost as important as character or plot, and if The Former Boy Wonder affects readers in any way, I believe that that’s achieved by using the houses, streets, and rooms the cast of the novel live in to characterise them and to create emotional tone.

With special thanks to Isabelle Kenyon from Fly on the Wall Press.

Books from the Pantry: The Mask by Elisabeth Horan reviewed by Claire Faulkner

I think I was in an art lesson at school the first time I saw the work of Frida Kahlo. I’m not quite sure how old I was, but I remember the impact it had on me. I was intrigued and completely spell bound. I remember how the colours stood out, but also how they seemed to weave together to tell a story.

The Two Frida’s is an artwork which has stayed in my memory bank for years. That was until I read The Mask by Elisabeth Horan, and the image came flooding back to me. The Mask is the second collection of ekphrastic poetry by Horan in response to the artwork of Frida Kahlo.

What interests me the most about ekphrastic poetry is connection. How the reader connects with poetry through art, and how poetry can provide the reader with a different interpretation of the original work. Ekphrastic poetry also raises questions about the relationship between the reader and writer, and I was interested in whether my reactions or interpretations would be the same as Horan.

The Mask provides a mix of emotions, and Horan’s work has a touch of raw honesty and openness to it. Sometimes difficult to read, but worth the effort. The words, much like Kahlo’s colours, are intense, sometimes fierce, but each one adds value and strength to the story of both women.

There were a number of poems in this collection which stood out for me. Of course, The Two Frida’s, an inner struggle about duality with themes of desire and attraction, of who you are underneath, and who you want to be on the surface.

In Con Mi Cama (Ella y Yo), Horan describes the inter dependence and relationship between a cripple and her bed, with a dream like quality.

‘I know you are only a bed, amora / And I, but a cripple…/That’s what we have together~~~/

To touch and to love each other / Not to turn away / As the other burns.’

Nectar of the Gods and a Woman’s Throat is based on the self portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. A painting full of symbols and meaning. For me Horan’s words emphasise not just the pain Kahlo is presenting, but also strength and resilience of a woman searching for love and security.

The Mask, Vol 2 was perhaps the most impactful poem in this collection for me, and I feel this highlights Horan’s skill as a writer. Shocking the reader with the opening ‘I want the voices / to cease / shushing me’. The words reflect the darkness and uneasiness of the painting which inspired it.

Female strength and resilience feature heavily in this collection, but if you’re a fan of Kahlo, and are familiar with her work, I think you’ll enjoy reading this. Horan says the poems are a celebration and tribute to Kahlo, and I think this collection is a remarkable group of poems influenced by Kahlo’s art. The Mask by Elisabeth Horan is published by The Broken Spine.

With special thanks to Isabelle Kenyon from Fly on the Wall Press.

Books From the Pantry: Pearl Blades and Painted Silks: The Language of Fans by Worcester Poet Laureate Leena Batchelor reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Prior to writing this review I was listening to a recording of Elgar’s ballet ‘The Sanguine Fan’. Written in 1917 for the benefit of wartime charities, the name derives from the fact that the theme of the piece was inspired by a scene depicting Pan and Echo that a local artist had drawn in sanguine on a fan. There are three things in common between this ‘coincidence’ and the book I am reviewing here: the connection with Worcester, the birth of an artistic creation inspired through the medium of a fan and the fact that the proceeds were to go to a wartime charity.

Leena Batchelor is a Worcester-based poet and spoken word artist, Worcestershire Poet Laureate 2020-21 and Poet-in-Residence for The Commandery, a museum dedicated to the Civil Wars. She is the author of three previous solo collections and uses poetry as a medium to raise funds for various charities, including mental health and the armed forces.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is far more than a collection of poetry. Batchelor, who has a particular interest in fans, has researched her topic assiduously. This has involved visiting specialist museums, consulting the Guild of Fan Makers and reading widely around her subject. The result is a fascinating combination of factual history and inspired poetry which is complemented by many beautifully reproduced colour photographs of fans and a useful glossary of fan types.

The collection begins with this quote from Madam de Staël (1766-1817):

“What grace does not a fan place at a woman’s disposal if she only knows how to use it properly! It waves, it flutters, it closes, it expands, it is raised or lowered according to circumstances. Oh! I will wager that in all the paraphernalia of the loveliest and best-dressed women in the world, there is no ornament with which she can produce so great an effect.”

In this collection, Batchelor is quick to point out that throughout history fans have not only been used as a means to send signals, express preferences or emotions, but also as liturgical objects for the depiction of hand-painted biblical allegories, as modesty screens used by both sexes in Roman baths, and as a feature found in heraldry. More surprisingly, they have also been incorporated into a form of T’ai Chi, been utilised for the setting down of a secret language called Nushu which was known only to women and as accessories that determined one’s rank in a French court.

The collection is divided into two parts; the first presents fans across ages and continents which is interspersed with some of Batchelor’s personal memories of dressing up amid her grandmother’s collection of fans, silk Chinese dresses and lace Victorian outfits, and the second presents the stories of the 1860s lady from debutante to dowager through the language of her fans.

The Chinese and Japanese were among the first innovators of fan use and the most common fan in early China was the screen fan used by modest girls when out in society. Batchelor reflects upon this in her poem ‘By Parchment Veiled’:

I wish to hide,
My visage is not one for you to look upon,
I am not free.
I offer you a painted scene,
For maiden modesty,
An embroidered reflection of my story –
The fishing heron awaiting its catch,
Beautiful ribbons of water beneath webbed feet.

I wish to hide,
My visage is one for you to wait upon.

The image of the heron makes it clear that a fan in a woman’s hand was not exactly a passive accessory.

In ‘Allegorical’ Batchelor’s lines bring together both God and Mammon:

According to the scripture, parables in pearl, painted upon
sheaves of vellum, holy writ was learned.
According to the market place, parables of games, printed en
masse for the mass of material gain.
Crying of churches losing ground, how to spread the word?
Crying of factories, how much have they earned?

I could not help but notice the judicious placing of this poem between ‘A Pauper’s Offering’ and ‘Dancer’ which inhabit two extreme ends of the spectrum between material poverty on the one hand, and riches on the other.

Flirtatious uses of the fan are summed up succinctly in ‘Elocution and Flirtation’:

The lover becomes a reed in the hands of the one who uses her fan with skill,
Pliable and playing her tune,
But only when playing society’s rules.

In the second part of the book, which is set in the second half of the 19th century, Batchelor’s “1860s lady” experiences her debutante ball in a poem entitled ‘White Rain’:

The start of the ball, my debutante night, presented to the queen in state.
Spied from the stairs, the ladies of the dance trilling, bidding
their wares for a dance’s calling card.
Showers of pearl and lace float upon clouds of tulle, debutante
and dandy guess at meaning,
hesitation and trepidation in society’s marriage market hall.
The wary captured in pearled starlight as a confetti of fans
shower hope and fear across the dance floor.

Far from the innocence suggested by the word ‘white’ in the title, this astute lady seems to be well enough aware of what is going on around her even though she knows she would be experiencing butterflies ‘if it weren’t for the stomacher laced tight.’

Stylistically, the 29 poems / prose poems that make up this collection display as much variety as the fans themselves. One of them incorporates visual elements while others make occasional use of internal or end rhymes and most of them make use of very varied line lengths.

Whether writing about Samurai warriors, a cabaret at the Moulin Rouge, or a Victorian drawing room, Batchelor’s wide-ranging take on the subject is sure to impress fan collectors, poetry lovers and those with an interest in the history of costume accessories everywhere.

Pearl Blades and Painted Silks: The Language of Fans by Leena Batchelor is available from Black Pear Press.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

You can find more of Neil Leadbeater’s reviews, interviews, and his own poetry here on Ink Pantry.

Books From The Pantry: Tiny Universes by Zach Murphy reviewed by Claire Faulkner

I’ve always been intrigued by flash fiction. Short, micro pieces of writing which cleverly tell impactful stories often leaving you thinking about a bigger picture. Tiny Universes by Zach Murphy (published by Selcouth Station) does exactly this. It’s a wonderful collection, the style is poetic, the language beautiful yet direct. This collection definitely leaves the reader wanting more. Each story, as the title suggests, gives the reader a glimpse into a different life or world.

I get the impression that Murphy takes notice of everything, and inspiration must come from almost everything he encounters in his daily life. One of the joys about a varied collection like this is that every time you read it something different will jump out at you or make you think about something in a way you may not have considered before.

There were a number of pieces in this collection which jumped out at me, and looking back they all seem to encompass a strong sense of place or incident, with themes of hope and survival running through.

The collection opens with ‘Before My Very Brown Eyes’, a piece about identity and self-acceptance. It’s a positive piece, which left me encouraged to read more.

‘A Fair Amount of Ghosts’ is beautifully atmospheric and full of soul. I couldn’t decide if Murphy was telling us a ghost story or recalling memories. Either way, it conjured up a vivid picture in my mind. The description of the house and the lines, It isn’t a place to live in. It’s a place to dwell in, tells you all you need to know.

Demonstrating how impactful flash fiction can be, in just 29 words, ‘Ceilings’ left me with more questions than answers. A clever piece of writing.

I think my favourite piece in the collection is ‘The Garden’, told from the viewpoint you don’t often hear. It may be a short piece of writing, but it tells us such a bigger and important story. A bee in distress feeling the impact of environment change. Truly powerful.

I’m new to reading flash fiction. Murphy’s work is often micro short and punchy, others like ‘In Rotation’, are a bit longer. Each one made me think. Each one has it’s own story, and I liked that. Some I wanted more of. Some left me with questions, but maybe that’s the point.

My book cases are filled with poetry collections and novels. After reading Tiny Universes I would definitely consider making room on the shelves for flash fiction. I recommend you start your flash fiction journey with Tiny Universes by Zach Murphy.

Books From The Pantry: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock reviewed by Kev Milsom

Ink Pantry Editor: ‘Hey, I have a new book here that focuses upon female voices and…’

Me: ‘Hmmmm, I’m not sure that’s quite me. Who wrote it?’

Ed: Emily Bullock.

Me: ‘OMG, send it over, tout de suite!!!’

I’ve been so very fortunate to review Emily’s first two novels (The Longest Fight – 2015 – and Inside the Beautiful Inside – 2020 -) for Ink Pantry and both have astounded me with their elite levels of literary va-va voom. Yes, okay…I’m sure that Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster would find more suitable flowing vocabulary, but when it comes to the writing of Emily Bullock I’ll gladly stick with va-va voom. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of encountering Emily’s novels then I would urge you to seek them out and you’ll understand.

So, what’s the new book about? Well, Human Terrain is a collection of short stories that focus upon the lives and energies of various female individuals, allowing us to observe a small part of their life story, especially when it pertains to emotional bonds of love and loss. In total, we have twenty mini biographies, some lasting less than a page or two, while others stretch deeper and cover a lot of ground. Within this book we meet women who demonstrate strength of character, such as someone known only as ‘Pig Lady’; a woman who delivers food to a chip shop. At other times, the stories are all shades of sad, illuminating, poignant and powerful, such as ‘Back Issues’, where the main character is male and his wife, Barbara, is mentioned only in name, yet the loss of her influence within his life becomes a dominant factor as he slips helplessly into dementia.

Every snapshot within this amazing book is written with a perfect balance of tone, colour and detail, as if Emily is slowly composing an oil painting in deep layers, based on scattered pencil drawing plans and sketches, before the paintbrush even dares to touch the canvas. The characters range in age, from teenagers playing hooky from a London school trip to buy weed in Hyde Park, to Ivy, an elderly widow reflecting back upon her life as it draws to a close. From the opening sentence of Ivy’s tale, we are immediately gripped by her dilemma and can begin to easily visualise the elderly lady and her surroundings.

‘Ivy, who was now two years a widow, lay alone in bed. She gripped the front of her nightshirt; her skin thin and creased as the cotton. Maybe this would be the day. She’d waited long enough’.

Covering such a wide range of human emotions across twenty snapshot glimpses into people’s lives comes with obvious risks. How easy it would be to fall heavily into emotional torment and harrowing tales. Alternatively, to build too many bricks of humour into a fragile, emotional wall of observation, as we look on from a distance. Thankfully, Emily’s writing skills are blissfully adept and it’s clear that her understanding of human behaviour is likely forged from countless hours of similar observations. Yes, some of the tales are sad/poignant, yet at no point do they ever fail to reflect the grey shades of real life. Sometimes, there is no Hollywood, Walt Disney ending, accompanied by Dick Van Dyke in a blazer and singing/dancing penguins. Sometimes, life just plays out its scenarios and we have little choice but to play along with it. How we react, or adapt, is the key. Sure, many of Emily’s carefully constructed characters have lives and issues that we would choose not to adopt. Not one of them ever comes remotely close to being two-dimensional or dull. Spread over twenty separate stories, that’s quite a literary feat in itself. 

From the book’s outset, we know we’re in for a journey, as we take a cursory peek into the life of two women; a daughter who boxes for a living, and her mother who is there for her in between rounds of fights, to patch up her daughter’s wounds.

‘My job is to stop the blood, cool her off, wash her down. Who knows her better than her mum? I rub the yellow carwash sponge across her head, smooth my fingers over the braids, sweeping away water with the back of my hand’.  

Powerful writing, yet beautifully balanced and honed, like a knight’s favourite longsword, this is an outstanding book and well worth reading from cover to cover. One is eagerly awaiting Emily’s fourth novel.