Asteronymes – Claire Trévien

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Asteronyme is the word for a sequence of asterisks used to hide a name or password. I wonder what this book of poetry is hiding.

Poetry is a like a window into a person’s soul, but not all windows are clear. Words can paint the desires and emotions often left hidden in the depths of the unconscious mind but it is not always apparent what emotions the words are hiding, just as you can never been sure of the meaning behind the asterisk in any given password.

In some ways I find that poetry is the most personal form of literary expression. There is always passion in writing – even the most terrible novel, or simplest anecdote can tell you something about a person – but delve into the world of the poetical and you have something more. Sometimes the simplest method of expression is in poetical thought, but to express doesn’t mean to be understood.

The poems nestled within this obscure blue cover relay extremely personal experiences, and linguistic experimentation. Trévien takes the reader with her on a journey through the Scottish Island of Arran, a remote place wrought with contradiction, where ancient rocks and history meet the cruel harsh reality of digital life.

Alongside caves adorned with the mythical carvings of old, where snow-peaked mountains meet coastal palm trees and the post-industrial rush of life, past, present and prelife experiences come together to explore the remote Scottish countryside. Trévien’s voice emerges in an explosion of lyrical, poetic exploration which speaks of the destruction of timeless places by the passing of time itself.

Ruin, neglect and progression come together in an expression that is all at once playful, creative, and explorative, and challenges the boundaries of traditional poetical construction. Trévien’s words are at times humorous and crass, and other mournful and waning, serving as an elegy to destruction and neglect throughout time.

I don’t often take the time to read modern poetry, preferring instead to stay loyal to my grandfather’s dusty edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and a crumbling copy of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but I’m very pleased I decided to pick up this humble little collection up. It really is a breath of fresh air, and I found myself wanting to experiment with some of the new techniques and styles uncovered within the text. To be sure my attempts are nowhere near as eloquent as Trévien’s, but it was lovely to have the desire reawakened within me.

If you are looking for a new collection to revive your senses and inspire your creative spirit you really need look no further than Asteronymes. Trévien is definitely a very exciting new voice to the world of poetry.

Short Works – Ross Tomkins

“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky, We fell them down and turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.” ― Kahlil Gibran

9780262162555However uninspiring the title, Short Works, may appear, this is much more than just a book of poems, translations and short stories. The work nestled within this simple cover, accumulated over five decades, is nothing short of a literary treasure trove. It makes me wonder whether there is perhaps something more to the title Short Works – is this just a literal description of the contents in its rawest form, or does it mean something else? The works are really not short at all. I would go so far as to say they are relatively ‘long’ works. While the reader could easily make short work of reading the book – I myself succeeded in a lazy afternoon – it is clear that the author took more than a little more time in writing the book. Perhaps I’m looking too much into this – but I like to think that the, perhaps somewhat dull, title has a deeper meaning, one which alludes to something of the comedian in the author’s personality.

The first half of this book is a collection of poems, past and present, which speak volumes as to the life of the author. Tomkins’ wonderfully melodramatic and fantastic younger years overflow with the essence of youth, while largely avoiding the embarrassment of childhood innocence. Later years fall into the metaphysical, the metaphorical, and the philosophical. The works clearly span not just decades, but continents, and more than one or two frames of mind, exhibiting a truly unique voice, at times jumbled and jarring, at others fantastically vivid, presenting creatures, settings, times and places that form and reform before your eyes, like images from the screen of Disney’s Fantasia.

The author’s words are at times beautiful:

Under an opal moon
Metallic scorpions scuttle

Toad winks, blinks, and gulps
Wings sticking tattered to damp lips.

At others morbid:

I remember hide and seek
And a dog dead under a bush,
Its pebble-teeth scattering the path,

But always, above all, vivid and resounding.

I was delighted by the section given over to ‘Poems from Poems’ – although I can’t be sure, exactly, what Tomkins means by this. I imagine this section is where translations and found poetry come into play*. I absolutely love constructing poetry from other poetry, it has a charm all of its own, and I like to think that the author shares and has explored this passion. A story does not need to have a meaning before it is written, sometimes, it is in the writing that a meaning is born. This section of the book goes to show just this.

The section of short stories is perhaps the most difficult to pass judgment on – with so much content, how can you give adequate coverage to everything? On the whole, Tomkins’ short stories are well-written – remarkably well-written in fact – concise, intricate, and beautifully flowing. The works really bring character and setting to life, with the imagery exhibited in the poetry brought to a whole new level, delivering a picture the reader can really see. The stories are so open to interpretation, leaving their mark and giving the reader something to think about long after they have turned the final page. The characters, each unique in their own way, have hidden secrets, desires and aspirations that the text can only allude to, a mystery which can only be imagined, a silent, niggling message which can never be fully understood. I love the power of the short story to make you think, fill out the characters and create your own story, within the verbal landscape of the author.

I was particularly taken by ‘The Sands of the Sea’ – although ‘Mr Lippstadt’s Holiday’ was certainly not without its charm – being drawn in firstly by the delicious descriptions of Ferdy’s newly found bookshop. I was delighted by the description of the books as living creatures, hopping from shelf to shelf, following Ferdy on his search, as though desperately excited at the prospect of purchase. The last book, however, is something more insidious, with the elusive work crawling through the bookcases before coming to rest, like some predator, to lie in wait, inconspicuously, silently, on a final dusty shelf.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

Overall I found Short Works to be refreshing, thoughtful and surprisingly readable. While undoubtedly magnificently written, this book is not self-important or difficult for the sake of difficulty. The poems and short stories alike are sure to delight wordsmiths, and leave the reader with one or two things to think about.

* Explanatory note from the author: ‘What they are in fact are translations in the form of condensations where I hope I succeeded in cutting away fluff and padding to get at the raw heart of the poems – pushing towards the interplay of images and away from the explanatory.’

The Hard Word Box – Sarah Hesketh

“She almost thought she’d said the words aloud, but she hadn’t. They remained trapped in her head, but not because they were barricaded by plaques and tangles. She just couldn’t say them aloud” ― Lisa Genova

The Hard Word Box – Sarah Hesketh

thwb_smI found this book on the Penned in the Margins Facebook page and was automatically drawn to it. A poetry book based on someone’s experience of time spent in a dementia care home is something I have not come across before, and I felt as though the book had the potential to be something truly amazing.

I realised that what was most important, was not that Maureen used to like jazz, or that Bill had once been a butcher, but that Jack tells great jokes, Phyllis likes helping others to the table – that’s who these people are now. They are still living their live, and these lives are what need to be represented.

‘What would happen if you placed contemporary artists in dementia care settings and asked them to create responses?’ – this is exactly what Sarah Hesketh strove to find out, and The Hard Word Box is the result.

The individual pieces within The Hard Word Box are a combination of poems, interviews, short stories and anecdotes. The poems are made up of words and phrases included on care plans and posters, as well as those words spoken to Hesketh by the residents of the care home. One particular piece contains every word a certain resident said to Hesketh during her time in the home. The piece, ‘Elizabeth’, is incredibly poignant, spanning several pages, with the words few and far between, casual phrases in a sea of silence.

Of the three interviews Hesketh published, it is the one with Marlene, the sister of a dementia sufferer, which I found to be the most moving. She speaks at length about the stigma of dementia – which is of course, something that those with developed dementia cannot do themselves – as well as the seven years she spent caring for her brother as his mental state declined. Marlene spoke of how isolated she became once her friends began to draw away because they could not cope with her brother, and this, she says, is something she will never learn to forget. People fear dementia, and they are embarrassed by it, but this only makes it worse for those for whom dementia is a reality. Getting old is terrifying, not just for those who grow old, but also for the people left behind.

Reading The Hard Word Box was an incredibly emotional journey for me. I was reminded of the time my own grandmother spent in a dementia home, before she eventualllost her battle with old age. She was once the most motherly of creatures, always there to make a cup of tea and offer a warm blanket on a cold day. Once in the care home she was a very different lady, she no longer spoke much, and liked to fuss around in the sitting area, rearranging magazines, dusting shelves and continually wiping the care assistants’ names off the white board.

I could draw so many parallels to the stories and poems, not just from my grandmothers own situation, but those of the people I grew to know in Nanna’s care home. Elizabeth, who didn’t like cats, and just wanted Blanchy (her daughter, who never visited) to put that ‘thing’ outside; Grace, who, at 103 years old had spent her entire life in care; and a group of ladies whose names escape me, who, every afternoon, could be found sat in the television room, happily singing along to the radio. I could see so much of these times in Hesketh’s work, the high-backed chairs, sterile bathrooms and regimental bedrooms somehow at odds to the colourful array of personalities nestled within the care home.

Through The Hard Word Box, Hesketh has given a voice to some of the most outspoken members of society. The individual stories and poems are so sad to read, but it is beautiful to see the words as these people have said them. For me, Hesketh’s work is ground-breaking not in what it says, but in how it says it.

I’ve never read a book before which touched me in the quite the same way as The Hard Word Box did. Elizabeth is Missing, with its presentation of dementia, came close, but I felt safe in the knowledge that the book was fiction – written to make you think, but ultimately, to entertain. The reality of The Hard Word Box is something which really struck a chord with me – these people and their stories, lives and words are real. Hesketh made me feel a terrifying array of emotions: I felt cold, lonely, frightened and – ultimately – ashamed. Dementia is such a difficult subject, one that a lot of people simply do not know how to deal with. I will be the first to admit that I find it difficult, but I am learning. The words need saying, but they are, indeed, hard words to say.

Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes – Harry Graham

I was rummaging through some old books this weekend and I came across my Grandparents’ old copy of Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes by Col. D. Streamer (Harry Graham).

Have you heard of it? If not, you’re about to. As part of my Obscure Poetry journey I thought I’d share some of my favourite rhymes with you.

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But first, a little background. Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes was published in 1898 and is full of delightfully cruel little rhymes, which are to the point and completely without moral.

The book was described in an editorial by the Times as embodying a world where ‘there are no values nor standards of conduct or feeling, and where the plainest sense is the plainest nonsense.’

Now, on with the rhymes. Enjoy!

Impetuous Samuel
Sam had spirits naught could check,
And to-day, at breakfast, he
Broke his baby sister’s neck,
So he shan’t have jam for tea!

The Stern Parent
Father heard his Children scream,
So he threw them in the stream,
Saying, as he drowned the third,
“Children should be seen, not heard!”

Nb I once read this poem (The Stern Parent) as part of my primary school’s Christmas production. My choice. I don’t think the teachers approved.

Nurse’s Mistake
Nurse, who peppered baby’s face
(She mistook it for a muffin),
Held her tongue and kept her place,
“Laying low and sayin’ nuffin’”;
Mother, seeing baby blinded,
Said, “Oh, nurse, how absent-minded!”

The Fond Father
Of Baby I was very fond,
She’d won her father’s heart;
So, when she fell into the pond,
It gave me quite a start.

Misfortunes Never Come Singly
Making toast at the fireside,
Nurse fell in the grate and died;
And, what makes it ten times worse,
All the toast was burned with nurse.

I remember often reading these as a child, and pretending to find them funny to impress the adults, while all the while puzzling over why having jam taken away was a punishment.

As an adult I’m able to appreciate how bluntly hilarious and ahead of their time they are.

Oh, one more thing, the illustrations are great!

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“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” ― Winston S. Churchill

I’m feeling thoughtful today, so it seems like a good time to share my latest piece of Obscure Poetry.

This piece was published in a young writers’ poetry book by a friend of mine back in primary school. She spoke to me after reading my own poem, refreshingly over-the-moon by the fact that we were both young poets, and told me all about hers. ‘It’s a rhyming piece told from the perspective of a dead WWII soldier’ she said – ok, if I wasn’t already interested I most certainly was after hearing this. I needed to see the poem.

It didn’t take long I got my grubby mits on it, and she was even kind enough to let me share it here:

Watching

I watch the millions of crosses in a row
I watch the bright red poppies, in Flanders’ Fields’ grow
I watch the people lay their wreaths with a sigh
I watch, and as they salute I start to cry

I see the crumbling stonework carved with names
I know that terrible war is the one to blame
I hear the gunshots ringing through my ears
Their bitter sound has brought so many to tears

I watch the un-marked grave, it pains my heart
As I think of those men it tears my soul apart
Those soldiers were my friends brave, happy, kind
And as I watch that grave from heaven, I know it’s mine.

She doesn’t seem to think much of her poetic younger self. I, however, am quite fond of this little poem. It’s poignant, sombre, and really quite moving, and, indeed, made all the more so more so by how young she was when she wrote it.

May I remind you that my poem was about a cat. I am suitably humbled.

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“All glory comes from daring to begin.” ― Ruskin Bond

Throwback Thursday.

I don’t normally opt into the whole #TBT thing, but this just seemed to perfect to pass up!

I recently came across an old book while unpacking one of the many forgotten boxes of my belongings which occupy our storage room.

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Those of you who live in East Anglia might be familiar with this little gem. This book was published by the group Young Writers, an organisation which runs competitions at primary schools for children to submit poetry and the like. The lucky winners have their work published in a book which is available to buy direct from the organisation.

This edition, from 2000, which no doubt once had pride of place on my parents’ book shelf, includes a poem written by me at the tender age of ten.

Warning: Contains scenes which some may find distressing.

The Prince of Darkness
Black cat snoozing in the sunlight,
You are the prince of darkness,
Coat like charcoal as black as night.
Your eyes are like two red hot embers,
Shining in the darkness.
Your call is like a lion’s roar echoing in
My mind.
You flick your tail to and fro to warn
Off unwanted predators.
Your teeth are like sharpened rows of
Sharpened daggers, sinking into the
Innocent flesh of poor helpless mice.
You prowl the forest all night long
Searching for your midnight snack.

Ominous isn’t it? I especially like the repetition of the word ‘sharpened’, it really emphasises the sharpness of that cat’s teeth.

“I want my kids to have the things in life that I never had when I was growing up. Things like beards and chest hair.” ― Jarod Kintz

I was terribly secretive and mysterious in my last post and said I had something in the pipeline for my next round of obscure poetry, which I’m sure you’re all eagerly anticipating. So I’m very sorry to have to tell you that it failed.

The one that got away was the N+7 method (if you don’t know what that is, look it up, I’m sick of the thought of it) and try as I might I could not I love it as much as I wanted to, in fact, I couldn’t love it at all.

So now I’m back to the drawing board 😦

It’s not all gloom and doom though. Today, despite starting off feeling less than literary, I was inspired, with the help of one or two others, by a truly exceptional sentence: ‘Governance enables the government to govern’ ― It just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? 

It seems almost inevitable that such masterful words would feed ones creativity, here’s what we came up with:

Governance enables the governed to govern;
Spying enables the spider to spy.
There’s hardly room to groom succession;
Incumbents have virtually no room to try.

And that’s it, I’ve no method to share this time, just the words themselves.