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The Woman on the Other Side – A Review

To purchase the book from Doirepress, click on the image
To purchase the book from Doire Press, click on the image

 

TS Eliot once remarked:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding)

Stephanie Conn’s debut collection “The Woman on the Other Side” is a book of exploration. The poetry invites the readers into a world of fragments, between physical and internal landscapes. The collection is set in various locations and timelines, beginning from the opening passages inspired by the Dutch countryside and drawing a subsequent inspiration from its’ historic painters. However, Conn manages to superimpose her own vision and interpretation onto the paintings and leaves her written version lingering distinctly, like a melodious mid note hanging unobtrusive, in some corner of the readers mind…”He painted the lands lies below -/led us through small windows, into narrow interiors,/half-lit rooms draped with silk and shadow”( Vermeer’s Nether Land). The use of half-rhymes is used masterfully throughout the book to accentuate the significant pause for the readers to appreciate the same vivid details which was emanating from her spurts of inspiration. This reinterpretation is also given to other prominent painters in other locations, such as Chagal who resided primarily in the village of St Paul De Vence in the south of France; “Tell me of the green fields mapped in your mind/and the winding paths that always lead you back,/how your father held a scythe in his dark hands,/” (The Village)

In a 2016 interview with the Irish Times, Stephanie stated:
“Consumed by grief after my mother died, I felt terribly isolated and poetry offered comfort. The fact others had experienced this pain and survived also gave me hope” and the residue of this haunting grief and the resolve of hope can be seen and felt in the simplicity of lines like “it is June/but the curtains are pulled/and the candles lit/ … in an empty room/a fourteen year old girl/pores over her mothers diary” (Her Diaries).

Desolation and Resolution, a constant tug of war between the senses, ephemeral and empirical, act as a constant motif throughout the book. Attempts to balance between allowing the audience to gaze into her psyche and creating barriers play off each other in a manner that is truly remarkable. In Eclipse for example; “They said it would happen,/warned not to observe the sun/directly. I had been indoors” and “June.Again/ There have been too many/ birthdays and deathdays” (Abacus). The lines mimic the motion of a heaving breath but upon its release, we are left to somehow simmer in its bittersweet resolution.

Stephanie Conn was the inaugural winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, a prize awarded to her for the poem “Lavender Fields” .The line from the poem that could truly encapsulate the mesmerising quality of this book is summed up here;
“All this grew from a small bag of aromatic seeds”

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Review by Syed Shehzar M Doja

This review was published in the inaugural print edition of The Luxembourg Review.

Bone of my bone- A Review

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To purchase the book, click on the image.

Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman once wrote, “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments… when, in short, a people become an audience… culture-death is a clear possibility.” He discussed the “Catastrophe of Trivialisation” as the constant stimulation of mind in a digitalised western world would end up a utopian apocalypse. Nicole Rollender has similar observations but her outlet is an austere dystopia, but the sentiment of culture-death remains the same…

Bone of my Bone is a deep plunge into the physical and existential predicaments of our collective “Flesh Existence”. It is a frightening, courageous and daunting journey which has the power to force its reader to scurry around the gritty recesses of their own subconscious. However, despite the bleak nature of the work, a fundamental truth about the morose side of human consciousness is discovered. This chapbook strips flesh down to bone and contrasts the classic quandary between mind and body as they form a collective “Primal Fear”, “… God, if it’s you who destroys / if it’s you who spits out ghosts / … then I swaddle you, Lord … / Even if my mouth fills with one hundred severed tongues” (Vespers).

The chapbook begins with the poem “Lauds” which drags the reader into a “Vortex of Uncertainty” as the ineffable juxtaposition between the cosmos and the immediate experience of consciousness are explored consistently, “Outside the birds are dying of cold on their branches, / and you’re looking for a way into heaven” (Lauds, p.1). Rollender burrows into the egotistical nature of humankind, the ignorant destruction of our “Neglected Earth” and all which inhabits it for the gain of personal salvation. She achieves this with trademark intensity and graphic imagery which uncovers the precarious modern fears of lost individualism in the swathes of a dying planet. Bone of my Bone not only exposes our deepest fears, but confronts them directly. Rollender writes with clarity despite her use of challenging metaphorical imagery. Her poetry flows from an anxious mind, “if I can’t speak more sweetly, will they cut my tongue from my mouth?” (Tongue, p.7)

Rollender has the skill and confidence to utilise grim, vivid and disturbing imagery to highlight her nihilistic philosophical persuasions. In fact, the macabre hopelessness forms the anchor of this collection. The “Morbid Fascination” prevalent in the human psyche is revealed through a darkened and catastrophic world – where one is a vicarious voyeur to the experience of lucid madness, as if visiting an asylum in Victorian Britain where inmates mutter scattered verses from T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland.

Rollender likes the reader to play “God” in Bone of my Bone. From the dismemberment of an animal by “God the Butcher” – “He can’t cut these split carcasses on the block – / a butcher must crack backbone and find the deepest vein / to drink” (Lauds, p.1) – or an insect with “God as Nature”, “Dropping the torsos / in the stream, the water performed the final kill” (Disassembling, p.6), Rollender manages to create a distinctive poetic experience. At the heart of the work is a pendulum which dangles on the threshold of humanity’s fragility, “even if my arms are cut from my torso, sing you / into being, // even if my mouth fills with one hundred / severed tongues” (Vespers, p.9).

The Universe in Bone of my Bone is a shadowy place – Rollender employs bleak symbolism reminiscent of Ted Hughes’ pinnacle collection, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. She employs mythological imagery – most noticeably Christian – to reference consistently body image and the way it reacts to an existential world devoid of a benevolent Power. She blends effortlessly theological and pantheistic concepts into her work, “What is the divine, but God- / light, thorn and scourge, blood let, that bone / shine? What is also the divine: There is no saint / without a past.” (Sext, p.3), “the one / who cracks my pelvis, / he-who-hollows between / mountains […] Hold me, Lord” (Driving to the Hospital, After My Water Breaks Nine Weeks Early, p.8).

The consistent onslaught of desolation through the eyes of womanhood is a moving experience for reader and writer alike. She highlights a world where bodies are seen as decrepit when mothers are unable to produce milk for their starving offspring, and similarly when their wombs are unable to provide a safe passage between pregnancy and birth. Rollender deals with gateways and passages, blurring the lines between birth, life and death, “A woman’s skin / is one world. The birth canal is another”, “The women who don’t bear children / are held down and singed with black lines before // they return to work in fields, skin a book / of illumination” (Marked, pp.11-12).

The murky philosophy of death and hopelessness are the predominant themes in Bone of my Bone but within it are the occasional glimmers of light which gives the chapbook its substance. The continuity makes it satisfying to read all in one go, as one world a short story – the familiar images sew the collection together into a memorable poetic tapestry. Rollender manages to echo Nietzsche’s persuasions that “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses”. Bone of my Bone achieves this “Truth”.

Bone of my Bone challenges the reader to uncover the darkness beneath their veils. It reminds us to search for meaning in a world despite its harrowing destitution. This is an important poetic work which demands the reader to claw away their masks, to shock parts of their mind awake as they are too often placated by a digital world. Bone of my Bone is a dismal, chaotic yet worthwhile voyage into the “Concealed Blackness” of human experience, “You, the living / mother, shake salt from the table cloth, teach your / child to nest where it’s warm, tell your dead to head / toward whatever window is full of light” (How to Talk to your Dead Mother).


Review by Nathan Hassall

Dhaka Literature Festival 2015- An Overview

November 2015 brought with it tentative autumnal showers that kept winter firmly at bay in London, and news of the latest tragedy from home. On the last day of October, as children in London were donning generic and specific costumes to prompt a sugar high, publishers were being butchered by religious fundamentalists in Dhaka. A year of similar fatal attacks on freethinking, rationalist writers claimed another life. The incident was weighing heavy on my mind when I met Ahsan Akbar, a fellow Bangladeshi writer, with a third of the penultimate month of the year over.

Ahsan is a witty poet currently at work on a debut novel that is eagerly anticipated by his reputable writer friends – and he has many of them. He is also one of the directors of the Dhaka Literary Festival. He has befriended the distinguished men and women of letters in the course of fulfilling his responsibility of bringing them to the capital of Bangladesh for the annual celebration of literature for the past half a decade. We were attending a reading by one of them. Meike Ziervogel, like me, was due to travel to Dhaka in the following fortnight. She, like me, trusted the team behind the festival to have our best interests at heart, and remained committed to attending it. After a rendition of her precise, haunting prose, she reiterated this as she signed copies for waiting fans. She echoed the defiance of another guest, the esteemed Jon Snow: Now was the time to stand with Bangladesh, to show solidarity with those who were fighting for the soul of the country.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

These were the two memories – one deplorable, the other inspirational – with which I boarded the plane on the eve of the festival. I had opted for the functionality of the Abu Dhabi airport over the ostentation of the one in Dubai as my stopover. I sent a few messages to friends and family over WhatsApp and Facebook before departing for Dhaka. Upon arrival, I checked for replies repeatedly, but none came. The government had blocked most social media and messaging applications as a security measure following the murders and as a prelude to the imminent hangings of convicted war criminals. The religious right had called a hartal – political strikes that had steered so far from Gandhi’s principles of peaceful protest that success was measured in casualties and the number of vehicles burned – in response to the sentences, on the first day of the festival. This was especially problematic for me since I had to travel the length of the city to get from my parents’ residence, where I was staying, to the Bangla Academy, the historic location of the festival.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

I relied on my knowledge of safe modes of transport during hartals, and arranged an ambulance. This proved to be an unnecessary precaution, taken by an expatriate whose knowledge was showing some signs of rust. The famous resilience of Bangladeshis was in full display on the streets, flouting the inconsiderate, senseless moves of supposed politicians to go to work. The violence of hartals, the full force of which was felt in 2013 when they claimed more than a thousand lives, had also abated. I was greeted by a police roadblock when I reached the festival premises. The road on which sat Bangla Academy had been closed at the behest of the organisers. I walked past patrols of bored policemen sprinkled throughout the closed road, up to the entrance and, after being given a VIP pass, made my way to the Main Stage for the inaugural. The ambulance had collected me only after ferrying the hospital staff, which meant that, according to the schedule I was handed as I entered, I was late. The minister who was declaring the festival open, however, was running on Standard Bangladeshi Time. Therefore, despite my best efforts, I was early.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

Once it started, the first three hours, encompassing a musical recitation that I had missed, the inaugural and an opening plenary, set the tone for the rest of it. K. Anis Ahmed, a well-known Bangladeshi writer and publisher, and another festival director, delivered a succinct and comprehensive address in English and Bengali, establishing firmly the multilingual nature of the event. He touched on the absentees, as did Ahsan in his address. There are two types of writers in Bangladesh. The first is diligent and dedicated, constantly developing and contributing significant pieces, often with no reward. A handful of them had paid with their lives during the year, as their predecessors had during the independence movement. Their numbers had already been dwindling, arguably even skipping a generation since the new nation emerged. The second wants the fame without the work, the superficiality over the substance, the label that has not been earned. The growing English-language scene has seen more of the latter, the frauds, crawl out of their holes and multiply, believing their English medium education and overseas university degrees have equipped them to string two sentences together and pass themselves off as writers. They succeed at conning their way to the limelight because Bangladesh has simultaneously revered writers as intellectuals – dating back to the language and independence movements, and those who were slaughtered by Pakistani agents, to silence them – and had low rates of literacy and education.

A pratfall of these charlatans did not leave their Gulshan and Baridhara palaces in support of the written word and the freedoms of thought, speech and expression. At a time when these fundamental freedoms that make us human are under threat in Bangladesh and the region, when luminaries from foreign shores did not hesitate to show solidarity with us, the reprehensible actions of those who dare call themselves writers and Bangladeshis were conspicuous, were criminal. A few of the foreign guests had similarly absented themselves, citing security concerns. They should be reminded of what it means to be a writer. “We need to celebrate literature, and it is especially important to celebrate it in these troubled times when it is under attack in so many parts of the world…[W]e all belong to the country of imagination, and when an iron curtain comes down on our imagination, then it is time to act, and to act as writers,” said Nayantara Sahgal in her effortlessly eloquent keynote speech at the inaugural. The festival had begun, its special significance and greater duty to the world and literature underlined.

The opening plenary, vague and imaginative in equal measure in its title, “The World is Round”, set its sails to the wind unleashed by the inaugural. No sooner had the first question been asked by the moderator than the discussion took on a revelatory political flavour that audience participation at the end encouraged rather than dampening. Jon Snow, Jude Kelly and Ramachandra Guha represented the fair, rational and brilliant truth-seeker, the reactionary whose single-minded worldview is expressed in every sentence uttered, and the artful centrist that lend sensible political discourse the perfect blend of information and entertainment. Appetite whet, I raced to the Lawn, another of the six locations used for concurrent sessions – there were at least three running at the same time for the rest of the festival – for a quick look at the launch of Himal Southasian’s special issue on Bangladesh, before interrupting it to take in a tete-a-tete about culture and performance art through the ages between two of Bangladesh’s most celebrated actors, Aly Zaker and the effervescent Asaduzzaman Noor. The former, especially significant as one of two international magazines that had dedicated entire issues to Bangladesh for the very first time, kept the political flame that had been lit alive, while the latter delivered on its promise of mirth. The organisers had performed a minor miracle by getting the schedule back on track by then. I took a break to avail myself of the Authors’ Lounge’s hearty lunch service.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

 

A steady trickle of people was beginning to grow the sparse audience of the morning – a result of a working day and the trepidation of a hartal – by the time I made my way back to the sessions on offer. The first day saw the festival stretch its poetry muscles, showcase Bangladeshi writing, and delve into science, courtesy of Harold Varmus, an American Nobel Laureate who had defied his State Department’s overly cautious travel advisory. I met Naushad Ali Hussein in between sessions, a primary school classmate I had last seen almost two decades previous. Naushad, it seemed, had veered away from his mathematical inclinations at school towards the arts. He, along with the ever-exuberant Rajib Rahman Johney and Karina Zannat, was leading an energetic, enthusiastic and incredibly helpful team for Jatrik, the production company behind the festival. Headquartered inside what appeared to be a box office encased by glass converted into an office, the three were called on to solve problems of varying magnitudes – a jetlagged guest needed to go to the hotel, another needed a mobile phone charged, yet another needed to know where best to get jamdanai saris and how to get there, while another was nowhere to be found – during my poor attempt at catching up with Naushad. I was approached by a smiling volunteer, identifiable by the distinct purple “DLF 2015” t-shirt she had on and a similar badge to mine which gave her a different designation, who asked if someone had been assigned to me. When I answered in the negative, she promptly rectified the oversight. Progga Noshin is a bright, cheerful student from the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, one of the private universities that have grown in the country since the turn of the century, to try to make up for the egregious shortcomings of the state institutions. She made the remainder of the festival both enjoyable and considerably easier to navigate.

Dhaka may be unfashionable compared to some of the exotic hosts of literary festivals, but the emphasis on programming in 2015 made it a standout event. The main motivation behind the attending public was the quality of the programming and the topics of discussion, to learn from and be inspired by substance, not superficiality. An example was the session on science fiction on the second day. None of the panellists were household names in Bangladesh, but the interest in that particular kind of writing had resulted in all the seats being taken, people cramming inside and standing where they could, and two small queues outside the KK Tea Stage’s ajar doors. They caught the Cuban rock-star and writer, Yoss, explain how his mother cries when she reads his stories, and when she asks him how he can keep a dry eye, he replies, “My tears are on the page.” The hunger for science fiction had been met with a constructive dialogue between him, Marcel Theroux, Ranbir Singh Sidhu and the Bangladeshi writer Saad Z. Hossain, and the audience that plumbed the depths of the genre’s standing as more than pulp-fiction, as being relevant to understanding life through the ages, the human condition, even politics.

The second morning had already brought a pleasant surprise. Scholastica, one of leading Bangladeshi English-medium schools, had arranged a school trip to the festival on the Thursday. The hartal had forced them to cancel. The students were not to be deterred, however. They had forsaken their weekend sleep and convinced their teachers to reschedule the trip for Friday. Some had had to wake up at five in the morning to join the group that arrived at Bangla Academy before its doors had opened. Their hunger and determination gave the lie to the age of media sensationalism that constantly reminds us of the erosion of values and digitalisation killing literary and intellectual pursuits. Identifiable by their uniforms – white shirts and navy blue trousers for the boys, white shalwar-kameez with navy blue dopattas for the girls, the white in each case carrying the multi-coloured school logo – I spotted them listening intently to Sandip Roy, Mahesh Rao and myself discuss short stories with the Nepalese journalist Bikash Sangruala. Mahesh’s likening of short stories to flings and novels to long-term relationships was exemplified the former pair’s irrepressible wit and verve that entertained a largely young audience shaking off sleep. I later learnt that students of some of the other established schools had joined those from Scholastica, their civilian clothing allowing them to blend into the crowds thronging sessions on Palestine, Cuba, translation, feminism and the minor languages of Bangladesh.

Jon Snow, Kunal Basu and Zafar Sobhan were especially generous with their time when approached by the young minds in between sessions. The latter is the editor of Dhaka Tribune, a formidable English-language daily that was the festival’s title sponsor. En route to a session, I stopped by their stall to see what they were doing. Rumana Habib oversaw a warm, spirited and accessible team. Their planned activities included a poetry booth – a highbrow version of the carnival kissing-booth – and several workshops. This hands-on involvement with the festival was a refreshing change from the elitist approach adopted by Dhaka Tribune’s predecessor, The Daily Star. In an effort to live up to the high journalistic standards set by its British tabloid namesake, its coverage of this significant event in a country where freedoms and the space to exercise them were ever-shrinking was reminiscent of the government’s approach to said freedoms: denial, rejection and refusal. I was amused to see the supposedly most widely circulated English-language newspaper displaying the pettiness of a Hindi soap opera villain while its successor showed why it had been left at the altar for the other.

There had been an air of elitism and nepotism about the festival in its previous, imperialist form, which was absent in the reborn version. While the director past walked with a permanent spotlight hanging above, the directors present opted for bringing Bangladesh to the world over self-promotion. The Wasafiri special issue on Bangladesh, brought into focus in the warm early-winter afternoon of the second day, epitomised this. The only independent nation to emerge from Bengal, the crown jewel of British India and the region most coveted by the kings that preceded it, has failed to live up to the heady heights of its cultural heritage. Those within the country, spurred on by false senses of patriotism or nationalism and delusional pride, cling to that heritage with the zeal of a convert. They have not provided those without with a reason to have faith. Bangladesh remains absent in global conversations because the wealth of its Bengali literature has not been translated and its sparse English literature has not been communicated to the world. The Wasafiri issue is a step towards rectifying decades of negligence on part of the self-appointed gatekeepers and doyens of Bangladeshi culture. In that regard, it was a personification of the festival.

I carried this optimism into the final day. Conscious of its impending end, the festival paraded its greatest hits. Jon Snow charting his life and its intersection with key moments of contemporary history was a delectable breakfast, Nayantara Sahgal’s liberalism and activism a luscious lunch that came with a dessert course comprised of lively discussions about London and Kolkata. Tea came in the shape of cricket, the passionate nation’s favourite sport, and science with Harold Varmus. I satiated my palate, having already enjoyed my personal highlight the day before. I had spent an hour and some change in the company of Jon Snow. What was supposed to have been an interview became one of the most inspirational, enlightening and awe-inspiring experiences of my life. The wisdom he had imparted with deft articulation was admirable, but being in his presence had reminded me of what it really meant to be human, and that was invaluable. As twilight approached on the last day, a travelling troupe of performers whose bus had broken down, delaying their arrival at the festival by a quarter of a day, gave a mesmeric folk-drama rendition in the Lawn that was painfully beautiful. They had not eaten since breakfasting at dawn, and the rural-dwellers were in the cultural heartland of the classist urban capital, but their discomfort was absent as they entered a trance and exploded onto the stage.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

I slipped away to the Main Stage, to hear the closing remarks of Professor Emeritus Anisuzzaman. His name, like those of many others celebrated at the festival, was on the various hit lists released by the fundamentalists, and he had received death threats in the days leading up to it. His speech was one of defiance and endurance, one of the need for Bangladesh to converse with the world through its literature, one of what it can mean to be a Bangladeshi. I stepped out into the Dhaka dusk, the spell cast by his powerful words reverberating within me defining the festival. I saw a rush to the exit as rumours about the hangings of the war criminals and the response of the fundamentalists in their aftermath abound. Dhaka Literary Festival had ended, but it was not over. A microcosm of the nation that was birthed by indubitable hope and, despite being pushed towards becoming a failed state, remained full of promise and indomitably hopeful, it was necessary. A country that would not have been born had it not been for words now sees people killed because of them. Although the millions who were Charlie Hebdo value brown lives less, there is a home-grown platform of thoughts and ideas that demands the world take notice of Bangladesh, and demands Bangladesh fight for its soul.

BY IKHTISAD AHMED

Ikhtisad Ahmed is a human rights lawyer turned humanist and absurdist writer from Bangladesh. His writing credits include the socio-political poetry collections “Cryptic Verses” and “Requiem”, and short story collection dealing with similar themes, “Yours, Etcetera”. Twitter: @ikhtisad

The Earthen Flute- A Review

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Click on the picture to check out the book

To neglect poetry is to neglect a fundamental aspect of the Human Condition. Poetry is a tool used to reflect this, a means of meshing together abstractions to create an experience of continuity. Kiriti Sengupta’s The Earthen Flute is a carefully constructed collection of poetry which fearlessly exposes the Human Condition – brought to life visually with illustrations by the talented Tamojit Bhattacharya.

Sengupta has published eight books of poetry to date, as well as two translations. His proficiency has catapulted him into recognition in India and various international writing circles. The Earthen Flute is Sengupta’s most recent collection of poetry and prose, which focuses sharply on the emotional aspect of the inner consciousness, using a mix of mythology and personal meditations.

On the one hand, The Earthen Flute plays out like a precarious melody sitting on the threshold of our perceived “World” and the “Other”. This articulate collection employs intriguing whimsical poetic techniques which swing the reader into a “Higher State of Awareness”. For example, in the first poem, “Keep an Eye”, Sengupta references the Hindu goddess Durga, whose left eye connotes desire, right eye action and the central eye knowledge. The central eye is fundamental to this particular poem. Sengupta describes the eye as, “… kept open / full or half” (Keep an Eye, p15), which leaves the reader contemplating a world beyond the limitations of their sensory experience. This poem is accompanied with the image of Durga by Bhattacharya, whose interpretation of the third eye is a white void; an open, inviting space which can only be filled by “Knowledge”. This can be seen as the answer to humanity’s spiritual vacuum, where one can awaken to “True Awareness”. In this poem, Sengupta encapsulates delicately a statement from Plato, who believed that “Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge.” The eye is a key component of The Earthen Flute. It is referenced consistently in a myriad of metaphorical surroundings, as it takes on an omniscient quality, “trust me, the eye can see” (Cryptic Idioms, p37). “My soul seeks, but the eyes fail to see” (Seventh Heaven, p40).

Occasionally, the work in The Earthen Flute feels overly calculated and does not suit the lucidity prominent in the rest of the collection. However, halfway through the collection, Sengupta’s “Dreaming Eye” plunges the reader into an exciting chimera of surreality. In the poem, “Clues to Name”, Sengupta captivates the reader with ethereal yet powerful prose. Each piece is merely titled “#” and manages to remain serene in the context of a chaotic dream. This poem is the most cryptic of the whole collection, a genuine exploration of the Self and its liberation, “Water has no call, no décor either; it floats the bone and the mortal flames free!” (Clues to Name, p33).

Though not often, there are times when airy overtones make it difficult to follow the flow of the poetry. I found the poem, “Womb” – a journey both personal and uncomfortable referencing the concept of birth – difficult to digest, “World, you may comment on material loss / Only the mother understands rupture pain” (Womb, p17). Other times, the poetry can lack the core essence of expression, with occasional cliché phrases like,“We continue to live being frightened”, (Gateway to God, p25) or “I don’t call it a feeling, / I would rather name it / My experience (Experienced Personified, p23). These appear seldom, but are still disruptive to the reading experience. Nevertheless, these are pickings against a backdrop of otherwise authentic work.

This collection pulls the reader through Sengupta’s daily life as he tunes a fine juxtaposition between the outside world and the emotional side of the inner self. The strongest work which juggles the outside world and inner experience is in his short poem, “Envy”, where Sengupta transcends his experiences into a metaphysical observation, “Jealous– / A Dentist can say if you are one // Your teeth deviate from / The occlusal table / And thus, lips suffer from bites” (Envy, p.26). This poem appears lighthearted but honest, connoting a fear of falling short of perfection – an imagery-laden treat.

Although Sengupta is not too concerned with strict rhyme schemes, the clearest use of rhyme appears in the poem, “Cryptic Idioms”, “A flute sounds along the serpentine track / Breath tunes it from mute to high . . . to crack! // For eons religion or its absence / appears back-to-back . . .” (Cryptic Idioms, p.35). Sengupta continues the modern tradition of free verse, not limiting himself to stricter forms of poetry. There is delicate wordplay which bring to life images in a spiritually dormant world, as memory is used as a vessel, “Memories unveil themselves / Through snapshots, even / The moon has its glory / Pinned in poetry” (Moon – The Other Side, p18).

The Earthen Flute is a book of poetry for the spiritualist, or for someone looking to connect with their “Essential Nature”. Its digestible style makes it an inviting collection for both the poetry neophyte and veteran to read. The mix of experience in the context of mythological fantasies form the basis of this intriguing collection. Sengupta begs us to use vision beyond our eyes, awareness beyond our senses, before the abruptness of our part of the Human Condition ends:

“Like an inevitable death / An enormous God steps in” (Gateway to God, p25).

A Review by Nathan Hassall

Pigeons and Peace Doves- A Review

Click on the link to check out the book
Click on the link to check out the book

Pigeons and Peace Doves 

The sadness must have been contagious / I could see it with my eyes / it was covering her skin / like climbing-grey ivy, creeping from her hand’s tips” (The Full Weight of my Head, p.5)

Pigeons and Peace Doves is an award-winning chapbook written by Bristol-based writer and artist Matthew J. Hall. It was published by Blood Pudding Press in June 2015.

Pigeons and Peace Doves conveys emotion through a minimalistic style, which is refreshing in the  somewhat confusing world of postmodern poetry. With each poem less than a page long (one being only four words long), this collection is a light read upon first glance. However, its relative shortness may not prepare the reader for the vicissitude of dark awakenings for Hall. Hall is brutally honest, not shy of addressing the heavier topics from the recesses of thought through poetry.

Although many of Hall’s poems follow this minimalistic form, the imagery is usually quite engaging. A handful of Hall’s poems pull you into the darkness of his room, where he is at his most introspective.  This is best reflected in this passage, “I found a dead moth / and placed it in a matchbox / I put the box in my bedside drawer //… the box had become a coffin” (Many Shades of Brown, p.10) However, there are instances where Hall uses clichés, which unfortunately disrupts his poetic projections. These are relatively infrequent but can taint some otherwise decent poetry.

 In Pigeons and Peace Doves, Hall uses the imagery of the pigeon and the peace dove to bring about a sense of continuity in his work, giving his collection a sense of togetherness. They are used to some success, “I woke up warm / and the rhino was still asleep / his tusks aren’t as sharp these days / the petals and the peace dove have him subdued” (She Sedates the Rhino, p.1) One problem with Hall’s chapbook is that the continuity can become repetitive, with the majority of poems either taking place in his room or on the street. Place is important in poetry, a mix up of images and narratives can throw the reader in unpredictable directions. One of the standout works which breaks this repetition is the poem ‘Dear Confidence‘, where Hall addresses a personified Confidence, with an interesting hook and mysterious ending, “take stock, Confidence / pull from the ground up / reacquaint yourself with Quiet / spend some time with Reflection / let Introspection kiss your forehead and for all our sakes, learn how to cry.” (Dear Confidence, p.7)

Hall’s chapbook is filled with potent lamentations and the woes of loss. Single lines provide an insight into Hall’s mind and there are occasions where shorter passages reflect his most insightful work. Other times, though, the poetry can come across as needlessly in-your-face and not necessarily polished. On the other hand, this works sometimes, as Hall is a poet who is not afraid of telling a story for how it is,“and I wept and confessed / I didn’t want to live // but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her / that I had swallowed every damn tablet in the house.” (The Full Weight of My Head, p.5) “Death is always uncomfortably close / like tight skin wrapped around aching muscle and bone” (The City is Sad and Angry, p.4)

Pigeons and Peace Doves is an exploration of the self and its relation to others. It encompasses the claustrophobic feelings of depression, heartbreak and yearning for love. It is an interesting read but the collection is unlikely to linger long in the memory. Though Hall has put forth a few solid individual poems, future work would benefit from further rumination of concepts so that the writer can have greater authority over his poetic voice. Hall’s work is quite readable but I feel he would benefit from imposing himself more in future works.

Review by Nathan Hassall

Circuits by Jennifer K Dick- A Review

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Jennifer K. Dick, American poet who currently teaches American Literature, Creative Writing and Civilisation at the Université de Haute Alscace, France, unleashes a surreal, tantalising look into the poetics of psychology. Her current academic research focus is the merging of the field of poetry and of visual poetics. She has written three books and four chapbooks to date. Circuits, her most recent publication, was published in 2013 by corruptpress.

Circuits is a poetry collection based on George Johnson’s 1992 book on the science of memory, In the Palaces of Memory: How We Build the Worlds Inside Our Head. Throughout, Circuits echoes the scientific side of this work, sometimes falling short when translating it into poetry. Poems within Circuits are rarely less than one A4 side in length with few line breaks and thus, it is definitively a challenge even to the sophisticated reader of both poetry and psychology.

Despite this, when the technical language and concepts begin to strengthen in the brain as the collection goes on, what the reader is left with is a difficult, confusing, at times frustrating and other times, liberating exploration into the poetics of psychological memory. This exploration is best narrated through this segment of Dick’s work,

“the idea that memory is a bright light in the brain, one neural network responds to its intense competing hypothesis – different features for what is already open to scepticism. It was much of what Anderson was leading to: Certain brains pick the horizon as just another star, but deep inside are the various ways to guess it is Venus.” (‘Resonance and Reality, p.8). Enigmatic and esoteric, Dick has created a poetry collection unlike any other I have encountered.

Circuits is a poetic exploration of psychology and neuroscience and it is not a collection catered for the layman. Prior knowledge of these scientific fields are almost essential, unless the reader wishes to spend dedicated time looking up words such as ‘erythrocytes,’ ‘dendrites,’ ‘calmodulin’ and ‘neurotransmitter’. For the unprepared reader, this could be an enduring process. However, in spite of this, many of the poems come together by the end, as after reading them, revelations about memory, human behaviour, love, lust and confusion is bound in a purgatorial state between science and the arts. Dick’s poetic ability is not really in question, with stunning visuals such as, “She woke, tongue of her tulips, Marlboro or Lucky – the packet shaved. Cool tile in the blue-eyed auburn night crossing the doublings.” (A Hostile Reception, p.22) and “It was possible you were building an architecture we could be models for, human skulls stacked book-like on the shelves peering over your shoulder.” (Intuition & Ambiguity, p.30) Nevertheless, these pieces are rare gems to be plucked out from larger poems, leaving stanzas more exciting and together than the whole, due to the intellectual nature of the work.

Circuits captures in poetic sentiment the inescapable reality of a materialist’s focus: that we are merely our brains – soulless and without a mind – running on sophisticated algorithms (or Circuits, as the title aptly articulates). On the other hand, Dick’s has finesse within her writing that fleets about topics like a dragonfly’s non-linear movement over a lake. She exposes memories and emotional states at their most dreamlike in a precarious state of collective uncertainty, for example, “He was quick as the sound of room. Dirt. I mean space. I mean I need some.” (An Exotic Phenomenon, p.35). These shorter passages are what separate this book from being a condensed academic summation and into the realms of poetry where the imagery is vivid and interesting, tossing the reader between the taxing natures of mysterious wordplay and academic psychology.

There are moments when society is beautifully reflected in Dick’s poems, for quote, “try soup with multivitamins under surveillance” (The Porcupine Effect, p.4) crosses the barrier between lab experiments and modern life, a concoction of consumerism, prescription drugs and surveillance. One of the tasks of poetry is to make the work relevant to the day, as poems become as much of a historical artifact as they do a cultural magnifying glass on contemporary society. There are abundant times where Dick achieves this fundamental aspect of poetry.

The standout poem from Circuits, personally, was ‘Celestial Navigation,’ which evoked a poetic, psychological perspective between science, belief and faith as it merged the various topics seamlessly together. The human instinct to rely on their memories as a playback machine rather than a fragmented recollection, merging memory and imagination as highlighted, “Memories. Even in truth,” you began, / “is rooted on gut in faith.” (Celestial Navigation, p.47)

Overall, Circuits is a collection for anyone who is intrigued by science and art formulated together into poetry. Dick’s intellectual platform is fascinating and her work echoes human behaviour dressed up in metaphors using neurons, thought patterns and lab experiments. It is a collection which demands attention and reading around the subject area, but if the reader is dedicated to accessing an enigmatic collection of work and puts in the right amount of focus, not only is there solid writing laced with more than just a twist of psychology, there is a lot to be learnt from Dick’s poetic interpretation of science. It is not the sort of collection you are likely to curl up with on your sofa and read in one sitting but the power of this work exists through the readers’ willingness to learn.

Circuits is an interesting collection which captures intrigue, contemplation and inspiration, but that – occasionally – falls short of its potential due to its ambitious and demanding nature.

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Review by Nathan Hassall

Nathan Hassall was born in the United Kingdom to an American mother and a half-English, half-Greek father. He received a BA Hons in History at the University of Kent, with a Year Abroad studying at the University of Massachusetts. He is the author of three self-published poetry collections, Nascent Illusion (2009), A Conscious Void (2011), and Of Gods and Gallows (2015) and endeavors to study an MA in English and Creative Writing at a British University in 2016.

Bullets & Orchids by Rewa Zeinati

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bullets and orchids

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 Bullets & Orchids is a cryptic, yet highly relevant collection of contemporary poetry written by Rewa Zeinati, a Lebanese-American poet currently based in Dubai. It was published by corrupt press in 2013.

At first glance, Bullets & Orchids presents itself in a manner which is as surreal as it is intriguing, evident by Zeinati’s skilful manipulation of juxtaposing imagery in the title. This sets the tone for each of the 58 poems within, all titled with merely a number and rarely following a numerical chronology. Even this represents something stranger, something more hypnotic. Zeinati manages to create successfully a unique, gloomy atmosphere, piecing together fragments of glistening imagery from the depths of empathy and her own experience. Bullets & Orchids deploys themes which illuminate the darker perplexities of our times – prevalent themes such as war, famine, love, loss, corruption, greed, religion, death and trauma – are weaved from dissonance into an elegant poetic tapestry, alive with an essence of uncertainty.

Zeinati is not afraid to pull you into her psyche from the beginning, the collection jumping at and around the reader like a restless dream; an incessant thought which can neither be pinpointed nor grasped:

“She travels,
her body still//

Upon the bed…

Sometimes it hurts.”

Disparity is echoed throughout the work and as the pages are turned, Zeinati puts a spotlight on the perils of sleepless nights:

“The ceiling: so tired of leadership. It must come down in the morning.

No one to look down upon until dusk.”

Though many of the poetic ruminations in Bullets & Orchids show a level of philosophical pragmatism, Zeinati is not concerned with making her work palatable; defying the casual reader an easy route to the heart of what the collection is ultimately about:  the Self and its relation to the human condition. Bullets & Orchids is filled with imagery sure to resonate in the psyche of the attentive reader, with segments likely to grip, such as, “And if memory fails / Then memory, / wins.”, “Nothing left but the glint of steel and bloodstained sand”, and, “Like weeds pulled from the earth. That’s how you get rid of the past”. However, there are times when this type of enigmatic writing becomes almost nonsensical, with parts of the poem becoming more memorable than the whole. Meaning is lost sometimes in the stuttering nature of the work, which can lose the message the poem seeks to convey.

Throughout Bullets & Orchids, repetitions and references to poems in various parts of the collection are found. This ties together the different themes. For example, one poem ends in, “I saw bullets though. Many were shaped like tongues”, and later on in the collection, the words, “did you ask me? The artery asked the bullet”, jumps out at the reader with an emotional realism, unique to Zeinati’s poetic voice.

Every now and then, complete poems (or, perhaps more aptly, fragments), come in the form of a single word, seeking relevance from the poems around it. This may come across as contrived, as the words; “nothing” and “today” form whole pieces, which can be frustrating. The disjointed nature of the shape of some poems disrupt the flow, distracting the reader from the full enjoyment of the work, as incomplete sentences read more like hiccups than a flowing voice.

Bullets & Orchids illuminates the absurdity of the world we live in, highlighted by the bluntness of the poem referencing the death of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, “A 42 year dictatorship ends. Another one continues,” (42.) and this is the clearest indication of Zeinati’s frustrations with the world; that one regime terminating does not solve the complex, political and historical problem of oppression.

Bullets & Orchids presents itself as a collection for the enquiring mind, for it takes significant thought and effort to find roots of meaning within the poetry. This should not put off the avid reader, for one of the challenges of poetry is to break from tradition, regardless of whether or not it reads easily.

My favourite poem from the collection; the one which bore the most resonance with me, welds parts of Zeinati’s poetic expression to my own consciousness:

“London burns and Libya burns and Egypt is thrown behind bars. And the same old man wakes up in the morning like nothing ever happens and wears a suit and tie. The same suit and tie. The same morning. His beaten wife asleep in the next room.

Mistake?” (52.)

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Review by Nathan Hassall

Nathan Hassall was born in the United Kingdom to an American mother and a half-English, half-Greek father. He received a BA Hons in History at the University of Kent, with a Year Abroad studying at the University of Massachusetts. He is the author of three self-published poetry collections, Nascent Illusion (2009), A Conscious Void (2011), and Of Gods and Gallows (2015) and endeavors to study an MA in English and Creative Writing at a British University in 2016.