1. bonnyman ember

    Jane Bonnyman’s first pamphlet, An Ember from the Fire: Poems on the Life of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, is a gothic wonder of a book, an adventurous, swashbuckling exploration of an extraordinary life. The pamphlet opens as the heroine travels from Indianapolis to California (her daughter in tow) to meet up with her first husband who is hoping to cash in on the gold rush. It covers Fanny’s scandalous divorce, her meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson, his death, and her quiet retirement in her own small Eden. The life expounded here is startling and vivid (it is difficult for me to believe that no one has written a collection about this subject this before) and luckily the writing lives up to the challenge, sheathing those good bones in appropriate flesh.

    The first poem, ‘Dawn’ traces Fanny’s journey across America in pursuit of her treasure-hunting husband. A taut, precise poem, it perfectly encapsulates the triumph of hope (in the guise of will) over the conventional stagnation of death. It begins with a description of seemingly-inescapable desolation:

    Among stagnant pools
    where dead fish float
    and coconut leaves drift
    over rotting flesh
    like helpless souls,
    and feverish women lie
    curled in hammocks
    chattering to revenants
    of their lost men

    Across this landscape, Fanny strides armoured with her purpose. She wills her way through the land of death, like a heroine from one of her future-husband’s books:

    she buys liquor, hot coffee
    for her daughter,
    finds a guide, three mules
    and a road that leads
    beyond the cemetery
    to Panama City

    ‘Dawn’ is structured in two evenly-divided parts; there are nine lines for death, and nine for forced rebirth. Not a word is wasted. The effect of reading this poem is very much like inhaling the first breathless fifty pages of an adventure novel, when the story first starts to get really good.

    ‘Newly Wed’ takes place fifteen years after ‘Dawn’ when Fanny has finally been able to obtain her freedom from her philandering first husband, just in time to marry Robert Louis Stevenson, who has fallen desperately ill and is very close to death. The poem is prefaced with an excerpt from a biography of her life, “…she took this step in the almost certain conviction that in a few months at least she would be a widow.”

    The tender details are startling here; Bonnyman imbues the borrowed-consciousness of her heroine with believable psychological depth:

    For dinner – wine
    and peaches she kept
    in the mouth of a tunnel
    she sheltered in from the sun.
    Wheels of light spun across her eyes
    as she steered into the echoing dark,
    never sure if she should go on,
    if the old timber shaft
    would hold her for long.

    After the fire of grief, from those fertile, dead ashes, rises lasting peace. ‘Santa Barbara’ is the portrait of a woman alone, surrounded by green, content if never happy. After the death of her husband, Fanny lives through her senses:

    She notes the vermillion of the hibiscus
    almost luminous in the blue shadow
    of the hollyhock she planted last spring.

    Everywhere the scent of lemon, loquats,
    geranium, Norwegian pine.

    The final poem is quiet, vivid, it brings the collection to an appropriate close.

    It is important to state that although there is a well-researched, thoroughly-developed ‘Notes’ section which provides background biographical context to the poems which it follows, the pamphlet holds together very well on its own and can be read without it. It is a testament to Bonnyman’s skill that she is able to form a coherent, stand-alone narrative out of so few, taut lines.

    Maria Isakova Bennett’s Caveat is a meditation on the unreliability of romantic love. Her poetry is polished, deliberately cool, and glacially smooth, constructing a surface clear enough to reveal insight, without inviting intimacy.

    ‘Keep Falling’ is a poem about a love affair with snow. Bennett has the ability to sexualize the inanimate even while her human lovers are reduced to rather sculptural objects. In this poem, nature becomes a lover; it seduces and is seduced:

    You swirl, slowly tumble,
    load branches, blanket fields and fells. Drift,
    wrap me in you while I throw back my head
    to taste you on my tongue.

    bennet caveat

    Natural cycles infuse every relationship in this pamphlet. In ‘Blue Moon’ an inconstant lover arrives at seasonal intervals which are as rare (and predictable) as the twice-monthly full-moon:

    The last time I heard from him,
    the sky was veined like marble,
    an August moon making day of night.

    This is a lover who arrives to be enjoyed and can be depended on to disappear again at regular intervals. The speaker’s daughter is old enough to note the pattern, but she lacks the experience to know that while human behaviour is mutable, an individual’s nature is not:

    You should be used to his disappearing acts,
    my daughter told me. But they are not acts,
    I wanted to say. They are real.

    Expanding on this theme, ‘Caveat’ reveals the specific traits which makes this mutability so sexually appealing. While ‘Blue Moon’ focused on the externals, how such love appears from the outside, this poem pans closer to the actual experience:

    But he was a changeable man:
    one night lulling me to sleep with tunes he picked
    on a rosewood flute, notes wavering over
    deserted bridle paths; the next reeling me in
    with bed-time stories – he was the hero
    of every yarn he span; and the next
    Connell was stone-cold, silent –

    The poems in this pamphlet have been carefully honed, delicately edited with an eye for the overall effect. The style is cool, possibly too chill for some palates, but the central theme is thoroughly explored.

    Warsan Shire’s Her Blue Body focuses tightly on three themes; mortality, sex, and culture. It is at its most interesting exploring the places where those threats meet.

    In ‘Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle’ the speaker addresses an uncle who has attempted to excise himself entirely from his own culture. In doing so he has been embraced (in the physical sense) by the society he emulates, but he has never been absorbed. It is difficult for a poet to capture this very-specific variety of loneliness, but Shire has managed it here:

    Love is not haram, but after years of fucking
    women who cannot pronounce your name,
    you find yourself in the foreign food aisle,
    beside the turmeric and the saffron of mothers’ hands,
    pressing your face into the ground, praying
    in a language you haven’t used in years.

    When a person cuts themselves off from their roots they grow hungry and starved. During such times, the thinnest echo of home can be enough to set them reeling.

    shire her blue body

    In ‘St Thomas’ Hospital’ a brush with death becomes a meditation on the nature of friendship and fear. The speaker is presented with a potentially nightmarish truth and she must learn to face it. Thankfully, should the worst happen, she will not meet her death alone:

    The doctor points to a small dark spot.
    We found blood in your brain
    right here
    . I think of Yosra’s hand in mine
    walking out of this life together,
    like two friends should.

    Culture, mortality, now; sex. This pamphlet has a complicated relationship with sex. There are a great many poems about sexual abuse, rape, and cultural reactions to rape – all of which are important areas to explore – but the most interesting poems for me were the ones which risked a more positive attitude towards the subject. ‘Little Wolf Little Wound’ treated questions of sexual appetite and the mindset which views the wilful relinquishing of virginity as a variety of loss:

    pink sugar paper hymen
    purple jellyfish hymen
    brown brown blood
    warm warm oven
    dark red ribbons in my hair

    These are childish images, food images, the repetition graces even the blood with innocence, as in a nursery rhyme. It is appropriate, then, that like so many nursery rhymes this one ends with the image of eating:

           you pull in and out of me
    until I’m plump with love
    round enough to eat

    Rosie Miles’ Cuts opens a slit in the fabric of the world to reveal a fragment of the red, seeping reality which seethes underneath its clean mask. This pamphlet shunts across time and style, from the ancient to the modern, from the seemingly-simple to the satisfyingly baroque. If a poetic voice is the result of saying exactly what you want to, without fear of convention, then Miles’ is fully developed and deviously strong.

    In what is probably the most effective poem in the pamphlet, ‘Wragg’ centres around a poor woman who is used in love, abused by her employer, and who winds up a recipient of the unliveable mercy offered to Victorian women who found themselves ‘in trouble’:

    So I ate the slop they said was food, slept
    on the boards that passed for beds. I hardly grew
    and the baby never kicked. Not once. Until
    she slid out from between my legs like a dead thing.

    After sloughing off the dubious charity of the workhouse, the speaker looks down into her daughter’s eyes and sees a future that is a reflection of her own brutalized past, so she cuts it off. Wragg is, of course, caught and tried, paraded in front of ‘virtuous’ men (who could never be her peers) and sentenced to death:

    She says Mr Arnold pities me. There can be
    no songs of triumph while there’s still my kind.
    Nothing left of me now but my name:
    Wragg. Sally Wragg. Silly Wragg. Stupid fucking

    cunt of a Wragg. Tomorrow at eight
    I’ll stand on that trap and think of England
    and I defy you to look me in the eye
    you English men. Look me in the eye.

    As ever, Miles’ rhythmic wordplay is cutting and apt. Then, as now, ‘England’ wore a different mask, depending on your context and class. To ‘think of England’ was (and remains) a term for stiffening your lip and enduring something unpleasant — the sexual connotation (stemming from a time when rape was legitimized by the contexts of servitude or marriage) is intentional. This speaker has been abused all her life. She has a right to her rage, and her terrible mercies.

    miles cuts

    Following a totally different vein, ‘Match’ deals in an odd, humorous duality. In this poem the speaker would like to sort (her?) life out. S/he’d like to scrape it up to a conventional standard, but life (being animal) is having none of it:

    That’s really rude, I said to my life. I want
    to help. We could always go into joint therapy.

    I’m open to that. My life just farted

    and squatted down in the corner of my study.

    Life, the force which keeps every body in motion, isn’t clean and won’t suffer pretensions. Life knows what it wants (more life) and it doesn’t particularly care about your other, seemingly more lofty goals.

    Miles’ has a knack for revealing the beauty in ugly things. She points out that the things which we distain most frequently are beautiful because they are unapologetically themselves. A corpse is a corpse is a corpse. A piece of litter will not take a shining. ‘When I Am Dead, My Dearest’, the final poem in the pamphlet, perfectly embodies this philosophy. This is a self-written eulogy which celebrates facets of a life that a less honest writer would sooner bury:

    remember I lived under the Austin Expressway
    in a room of concrete girders and crisp boxes
    held together with twine. Tell the cars
    how I foraged and fumbled for a life worth living
    among the abandoned mattresses and drunken trolleys.

    Miles’ poetry is funny, sad, and occasionally sweepingly profound. It is more honest than ‘quirky’ — a term which has already been applied to it in an attempt to undermine the strength of the work. It isn’t an ‘easy’ book, but then nothing good comes easily at first, and this, being good, is no exception to that rule.

    Bethany W. Pope
    Bethany W Pope has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012) Crown of Thorns,(Oneiros Books, 2013), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014), and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). The Rag and Boneyard will be published soon by Indigo Dreams. Her chapbook Among The White Roots will be released by Three Drops Press next autumn. Her first novel, Masque, will be published by Seren in 2016.

    An Ember from the Fire: Poems on the Life of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson by Jane Bonnyman is published by Poetry Salzburg, £4.50.
    Caveat by Maria Isakova Bennett is published by Poetry Bus, €8.50.
    Her Blue Body by Warsan Shire is published by Flipped Eye, price unknown.
    Cuts by Rosie Miles is published by HappenStance Press , £5.

    (to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

  2. Magma 64 Launch on the theme of ‘Risk’

    Written by Wes Brown at March 20, 2016 12:12

    The launch of Magma 64 will take place on the 24th of March, 7pm at The London Review Book Shop. Formed around the theme risk, we were delighted with the huge variety of poems that we received. Risks in every form, size and daring, cunning, moving shape. The challenge we had was weighing every one. To see if the risks paid off, to see if after all, the poem was worth writing.

    The event will feature readings from contributors to the issue and a guest performance from Philip Gross. Tickets are free but booking is essential. Click here to reserve your place.

  3. Poetry Film: Poésie d’Alphaville – Paul Éluard

    Written by Wes Brown at March 10, 2016 15:00

    The rise of Poetry Film much like music videos and Fashion films, breathes contemporary life into work.

    Poesie D’alphaville by Paul Eluard is a timeless expression of love, Mathis Sananes directed with his team of Tara Trangmar (producer) and Eric Gonzalez Garcia (DOP). The short film is narrated by Yohan Agelou to bringtender visuals to this celebrated work. Combining poetry, music and motion picture, the project focuses on bridging three contemporary relationships with an eternally relevant text.

  4. Magma Competition celebratory evening at Keats House

    Written by Lisa Kelly at March 7, 2016 12:10

    The winners and special mentions of the Magma Poetry Competitions – for the Judge’s Prize and the Editors’ Prize – will be reading their poems at Keats House in Hampstead on Friday 11th March at 7pm, and you can buy your £5 ticket here or pay on the door and join us for a wonderful night of winning poems and a reading by Daljit Nagra, as well as some sparkling refreshments to celebrate.

    For the Judge’s Prize judged by Daljit Nagra:

  5. Peel & Portion

    Written by Lisa Kelly at February 29, 2016 11:04

    Magma’s third National Conversation Event: Peel & Portion organised by board members John Canfield and Ella Frears opened up a fascinating discussion about the poetic process and different attitudes to drafting, editing and when a poem is considered finished.

    Poets Kathryn Marris, SJ Fowler and Rebecca Perry in conversation with Patrick Davidson Roberts revealed their individual approaches and showed examples of their poems that had gone through several drafting stages, sometimes spanning years.

  • Views expressed on this blog are those of the individual authors -- Magma seeks to present a range of views, not a single Magma view.
  • Receive the Magma Blog for FREE

    Receive the Magma Newsletter for FREE

    * indicates required
  • Recent Posts

  • Categories

  • Magma on Facebook

    Facebook logo

  • Follow Magma on Twitter