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Jennifer Wong Reviews Katy Evans-Bush and Alexandra Strnad

Broken Cities
Katy Evans-Bush
Smith Doorstop

H Is for Hadeda
Alexandra Strnad
Poetry Salzburg

Winner of the Poetry Business Competition judged by Mimi Khalvati and Ian Duhig, Katy Evans-Bush’s pamphlet Broken Cities explores the shifting boundaries between fiction and reality of urban living, locating the lives of city dwellers in their myriad individual and collective experiences.

In Evans-Bush’s poetry, the body of the city is fluid and full of contradictions. Objects, people and incidents—caught in fleeting moments—took on a sort of muted magic. From the people’s skepticism towards America’s first black president, to a letter to God, the poet challenges as she entertains with witty irony. The risks she takes in the use of poetic forms are fascinating: balancing rhyme and unrhyme, long and short lines, to create a sense of the impenetrable, beating heart of the city.

In ‘The Great Illness’, the poet explores the point of view of the geographically-immobile ‘Statesman of nothing’, whose place in the world is as an outsider looking in: “He is out of keeping/ with everything. Everywhere/ everyday objects scrape and push and clatter;/ their effort escapes him.”

In ‘Croonerisms’, the poet sheds light on the romanticised version of the city and the city-dwellers’ hunger or insatiate needs: “Waiter, waiter, escalator,/ salad lunch and golfing later.” Recalling Dean Martin and Lucille Ball, nostalgia is seen an act of self-preservation as much as it is indulgence:

Suntans are a form of nostalgia.
Optimism is a form of nostalgia.
Turn me loose, what’s the use?
Money is a form of neuralgia.

‘East London Song: or, Take Me to Your Hipsters’, her metaphorical, reworked version of Kurt Weill’s song, mocks the self-endorsing hipster image of East London: “Well, show me the way /To the next hipster bar. /Oh, don’t ask why.” Despite the moonglow and the vibe, the doubts and disillusionment of moving to the city remain:

The moon shines over Clapton
And now we must say goodbye.
Some of us live in Walthamstow
(though some would rather die.)

As a poet of dual nationality (British and Czech) who has lived in Prague for several years, Alexandra Strnad’s poetry demonstrates a keen sensitivity for language and cultural difference. Through her wide range of subject matter from girlhood to wildlife and eco-tourism, she unearths the power of the unexpected. The opening poem, ‘Christmas Biscuits’, shifts from the festive biscuits made by the poet’s Czech grandmother to the memory of her ancestral homeland: “mineral/ properties of milk from Moravia and flour/ milled from the drier lands of Central Europe.”

The title poem, ‘H is for Hadeda’, is an evocative portrait of a hadeda, a sub-Saharan African bird known for its shrill call. Capturing its ferocious appetite from the start (“earthworms, reptiles, pests are fine”), Strnad shifts to reveal the bird’s vulnerable side (“the only bird scared of heights”), celebrating the beauty of wildlife habitats and instincts for survival.

I admired the strikingly original perspectives in Strnad’s poems. Strnad begins ‘Gansbaai’ with a skeptical questioning of the traveller’s presumptions and right to intrude the local landscape or environment: “Show me the remains of the Trekboere,/ their homesteads in the milkwood forest”. At the end of the poem, the reader realises the traveller’s wish to watch the species is thwarted by bad weather: “the forecast veering, squally.”

Some of her more philosophical poems are wonderfully rich too, such as ‘Waiting in Lodi Gardens’ where the poet falls in love with India with its “hundred names of God […] inked/ on arches, girls in silk saris”, and envies the “arboreal home” of a brown barbet and the kura kura’s calls. An intelligent, complex and bold pamphlet.

Jennifer Wong

Broken Cities by Katy Evans-Bush is available from Smith/Doorstop press, £5.

H is for Hadeda by Alexandra Strnad is available from Poetry Salzburg press, £6.

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