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Eighth Day: Music Poetry

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Spoken-word poems and poems that employ music—its powers, its rhythms—these are some of the richest, most evocative poetries that describe the indescribable and eschew the page. MOIRA RICHARDS shares five collections that have music at their hearts.

AngSeeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu

Arlene Ang

Cinnamon Press, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-907090-06-6

A black-gowned cellist bows a stormy wake for a white shrouded image of herself, half sucked into (half spewed from?) a heavy Pandora’s box-like chest/coffin. The cover of Ang’s fifth book alerts me to the unquiet read that follows.

Her poems are of bereavement and anguish; her poetry, turbulent, surreal, beautiful. I can’t stay long here – confronted, too vividly, by old pain I’d thought grown over with protective scabs. But I can’t resist returning – this poetry, an affirmation that death, as part of life, is magnificent too.

 

 

DeliveryRoomBeyond the Delivery Room

Khadija Heeger

Modjaji

Nineteen years since our emergence from the delivery room, South Africa and South Africans too, are as imperfectly perfect and as brimful with possibility as any teenager on the verge of adulthood. Like teenagers, we rail at what disappoints us, not yet sure of the extent to which we actually hold the power for change; like teenagers, we struggle to find our own true, rather than conferred by others, identities. Such is the stuff of this collection, first part of the trilogy, Separation Anxiety.

This performance poet’s poems remonstrate, repudiate and, sometimes, keen. Her words, written for speaking aloud, swell and recede along irregular line lengths and, with repeatings of sounds and phrases, wind a sinuous rhythm through the pages.

A sad yet optimistic love song for us and our not-yet-adult country, and I look forward where the poet takes us in the next part.

 

VanitasVanitas

Jane McKinley

Texas Tech University Press

How does a poet survive tragedy? Teenaged sister dead in car smash… This poet, at the open graveside, listens and ‘In seven notes of Bach, she has enough / to live. The boxwood sings.’ She stops writing poems; learns to play the oboe.

After ‘thirty years of silence, of images clutched / wordless in darkened corners of her mind’ she lays aside her instrument to write once more. She writes the music of that sorrow; memories threaded through with Mozart, with opera and especially, with Bach who lost a young wife and ten young children to death.

‘I gather up small pearls of Bach / … / an oboe’s dying phrases echo pain. / I linger at his Stammtisch, sipping tea.’

 

ConfidentConfident Music Would Fly Us to Paradise

by Carol Levin

MoonPath Press

Playing on life’s stage, cast as supernumerary (non-singing performer) for an opera company and subsumed in the flamboyant and sublime, is the poetry of Carol Levin’s fourth collection.

Whether girl with the giggles slid into a burlap sack doubling, at her mother’s behest, as the dead body of Rigoletto’s Gilda, or grown woman dancing the role of a Grace attendant upon Tannhäuser in the grottos of Venusburg, it is the spaces in the sounds the poet explores. The grander the music, the more profound the silences it communicates – as imaged in a poem describing the exquisite prelude to Das Rheingold in which Wagner “sets you adrift / on an inhale of the baton.”

And finally:

Wena

Ntsiki Mazwai

African Perspectives

ISBN: 978-0-981439-81-5

Before reading the poems in this collection, you’d do well to log onto the poet’s website, www.ntsikimazwai.co.za and listen, first, to the few sound tracks uploaded there. Hear Ntsiki Mazwai’s poetry performed to the mesmerising rhythms of music, get a sense of her work as performance, learn how you might read Wena out loud inside your head.

We’re none of us ignorant about what life serves up to South Africa’s women, whatever their ages, and this is a young poet who says, “I don’t write quiet storms.” Her collection of poems, the celebration of a spirit determined to triumph, refuses too, to be read in quietude.

 

Eighth Day: Love poetry

heart

Love and poetry go together like a bard and his red, red rose—and no better way to enjoy Valentine’s month than with a little lust, eroticism and reminder that neither are reserved for the young or heterosexual. MOIRA RICHARDS shares her thoughts.

Schmailo#specialcharacters

Larissa Schmailo

Unlikely Books

As the titian-haired faun on the cover suggests, Larissa Schmailo’s collection limns the life of a lover—a lover who is a lusty lover of life too. The opening piece catches the first 12 Fibonacci numbers and finesses them into giddy remembrances of an octogenarian’s most significant birthdays. Then, as Fibonacci sequences do, the pages of poetry spiral with the 89-year-old, ever outwards, or perhaps inwards, towards her infinity.

Stream-of-consciousness narrations, witty footnoted asides, plays with parentheses and fonts, prose poems, list poems— they all fill in on the special character(s), subject of the book. The last section introduces the once successful poet, Ritar (“Ritar had had her 15 minutes of fame, many times over”), bottomed out, no longer “wave… disturbance in space-time… Cambrian explosion of creativity.” But she is still in control of her own infinity. Schmailo’s poetry sucked me into/out of its golden spiral.

TwoWhiteBedsTwo White Beds: Millie and Sam

Laura Cherry

Minerva Rising

ISBN 0989574547

This discreet, pocket-sized chapbook, winner of the publisher’s “Daring to be the Woman I Am” contest, comprises eight poem letters sent to “Dearest Millie” by Samantha at intervals during the year running from June 1882 to June 1883. All but one, perhaps two, were ever posted. Interleaved between them, are seven first-person musings by the respectable Miss Millicent in which the poetry touches on the unexpectedness of their love, on their self-imposed separation and their eventual decision to live a life together.

A deliciously period piece, subtly erotic through its imagery of full-blown peonies, perfectly ripened fruit, and feastings on oysters by young women who, outwardly, will present themselves to the Victorian English world as merely two of those ubiquitous “harmless maiden aunts / arm in arm along the boardwalk.”

Cloves&HoneyCloves & Honey

love poems

Athena Kildegaard

Nodin Press

ISBN-13: 978-1935666363

Kildegaard set out to write a love poem every day for 365 days – I’m inspired now to try and do the same. Then she revised and selected a quarter of the untitled poems to craft an ode to a three decades long, happy, marriage. Divided into four sections, matching the seasons of a year and drawing often on the images of nature, each became my new favourite as I read on through this celebration.

Understated eroticism and long-ago new beginnings in the poetry of spring; a languid sense of repletion suffuses the summer; the poems of autumn marvel at good fortune, recognise its ephemerality; and at the last, poems in which winter’s freeze is held at bay as two fifty-year olds (children grown and flown) divide and share the small chores and routines of their domestic life.

LiesThese are the lies I told you

Kerry Hammerton

Modjaji Books, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-920397-22-7

I’m a sucker for a great cover and, happily, the insides of books usually deliver on their outside promises. This, with its hot pink letters lying flat on their backs, is no exception. The poems run page over page to create a lusty tale of seduction, sex and falling in love; and heartbreak and love again and … well, you didn’t think I’d give away the ending?

Hammerton’s poetry tells the stories poets have told since back when – stories we never tire of living and reliving especially when told new. Her light, sometimes witty, sometimes understated control of words, make this telling deliciously new.

 

Eighth Day: History poetry

eighth day

Poems and history have coexisted since before writing began—as part of the remembering and passing down, from generation to generation, of oral histories. And today poets continue to explore people and events and retell those stories as poetry. MOIRA RICHARDS shares her thoughts on five collections of poems with history.

DLDAn Elastic State of Mind: D.L.D.’s Autobiography in Poems

Ren Powell

Wigestrand

Published together with Eirik Lodén’s Norwegian translation, this collection dramatises the life of 19th century champion of the indigent insane, Dorothea Lynde Dix – personal friend of the 13th president of the USA – who supported herself as author from age 22. Her first book reached its 60th edition in just 45 years.

Powell bases the poems on biographical studies, divides the book into three acts with a cast listing, and background notes about the subject – my favourite way to learn history, and to enjoy poetry.

Two sestina convey a sense of some of this redoubtable woman’s underlying ambivalences but the villanelles… oh, the villanelles. Two close the first and last acts, a third lies midway in the second; all are in first person, in the voice of Ms Dix and sooo effectively bring to life, the woman, her determination, and her sense of self.

CloudPharmacyCloud Pharmacy

Susan Rich

White Pine Press

Central to this collection is the small group of poems that portray the work of Victorian photographer, Hannah Maynard who, employing the alchemies of mirrors, montage and multiple exposure settings, created fantastical self-portraits as means of coming to terms with her life after the death of her teenage daughter: “Look! I’ve learned to slice myself in three / … / three women I’m loath to understand—”

Around that core, Rich spins ephemeral images of her own (sur)realities in which memories, appetites and the ambivalences of half a lifetime swirl among almost tangible disquietudes: How to move beyond the compass of the past, its dead and its obfuscations to best live the dubious half a life left? “How to write your one blue life?”

FrancoisVaseTales of the François Vase

Julia Older

Hobblebush Books

Imagine, if you inhabited this world for two and a half millennia, what you might witness and experience! Older writes a variety of voices to recreate and dramatise the “birth” and life of a famed museum piece—ancient Greek wedding bowl used to hold wine for guests. In the opening poem, the vase herself sings an ode in celebration of her charge, as heady now as 25 centuries ago.

The poetry continues, narrating witness of the travels, diverse contents, and the three smashings and putting together-agains in the life of the vase… until at last she is set down quiet and secure in a light that shines upon all her stories: five bands of pictures depicting dozens of scenes and hundreds of figures from Homer’s Iliad.

PlumePlume

Kathleen Flenniken

University of Washington Press

Horror seeps gently yet relentlessly from the words in these pages—as uranium might from an underground contamination plume. The poems pick through the 70-year history of the USA’s Hanford nuclear production site that, inter alia, manufactured plutonium to build nuclear weapons during WWII.

Flenniken crafts images of the nearby dormitory town where she grew up, populated by government employees and their families in identical houses—all infused with the same patriotic pride, untruths about the river in which they swim and fish for food, and with stray bits of the radioactive waste of their labours; the tragic irony that many of them, too, become ill as did survivors of the Nagasaki bomb. Poetry of betrayal, dread, and helpless understanding of fathomless consequence.

TheEyeBbThe Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems

Laura Long

Finishing Line Press

Sister of the more famous Sir William, German-born Caroline Herschel was a respected mathematician and astronomer in her own right and lived to see her (also more famous) nephew, John, sail to Cape Town to chart the skies of the southern hemisphere in 1834. Long introduces this fictional autobiography as “imagination steeped in historical siftings and the breath between the lines”—my favourite way of learning about the people of the past.

Like a tiny constellation, these 21 poems (most of which contain at least one star) illumine the inner life of an unmarriageable former scullery maid who, enthralled by the Milky Way galaxy in her telescope, lived from clear night to cloudless night to read nebulae, catalogue stars and, perchance, divine a comet—or eight.

 

 

 

Eighth Day: Speculative Poetry

floating grass

Speculative poetry  – poetry themed on science fiction, fantasy, horror—some, any, sort of ‘other’ reality – can be funny, provocative, subversive and, since 1978, has been encouraged and recognised by the Science Fiction Poetry Association via its annual Rhysling Awards. MOIRA RICHARDS reviews a clutch of speculative poetry collections that have recently passed through her hands.

Thaliad-2Thaliad

Marly Youmans

Phoenicia Publishing

Modern-day epic poetry of the destruction of our 21st century world and the seven children who escape toppling mountains and the great inferno. One hundred pages of mesmerising iambic pentameter surge and swell, plunge and soar the journeying through the children’s grief and the rotting remains of what was our civilisation until at last (very) few of the seven triumph over danger and lingering evil and grow into adulthood to parent a new, post-apocalyptic future for humankind.

Blank verse on grand scale, heroic imagery, narrated by the latter day Bard of the Clave tasked with preserving the best of old-world literature and recording the history of the new. Wise beyond her years but, so endearingly, as susceptible as any 19-year-old to charm spun by a stranger with eyes “green as Glimmerglass in a storm.”

The Receptionist

The Receptionist

The Receptionist and other Tales

Lesley Wheeler

Aqueduct

A feminist spec-fic fantasy in which a dastardly college dean, who will quash the budget of any campus colleague rash enough to attempt a thwarting of his sexual predations, is served his just deserts. So too, after some little nudging from Yoda and the (re)discovery of her own powers, is the reluctant hero of the novella.

Lesley Wheeler narrates her tale in thirty-three 10-stanza cantos, every one crafted in the plaited terza rima form that is as seductive of the senses as ouma’s koeksusters. And, albeit in a different sort of way, just as sweet.

You have to read The Receptionist once through to root the hero on, as you boo the villain; a second time just to savour the metaphors; and a third to marvel at the craft with which the poet finesses the form into the service of her content.

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Linda Ann Strang

Honest Publishing

The work of this South African poet from the Eastern Cape appeared in online and print journals the world over before an indie UK publisher snagged her collection of fabulous women. Crafted with startling images and deft twirlings of language, they’re as diverse as a bruised wife who wears her “gore like an evening dress – / tanzanite, rubies, and blueberry pearls” and a feisty grandmother who “beats her demons into frothy submission / with a wooden spoon and broom, / and bakes them to keep watch at her gate / like good dogs.”

For some, Strang writes love scenes so erotic that “even the warty witch / with her frog’s egg fingernails, // has drenched herself in Chanel No. 5 – / secretly longing for valentines this year.”

Darlings Hands, Darling Tongue

Darlings Hands, Darling Tongue

 

Darling Hands, Darling Tongue

Sally Rosen Kindred

Hyacinth Girl Press

Kindred’s speculative poetry digs into the silences of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, giving resistant voice to some of the characters. Tinker Bell wishes to be less dependent, less ephemeral—with more physical (and sexual) substance; Wendy Darling picks away at glossy idealisations of mother; Tiger Lily, the story’s “dusky Diana”, elects to shut, and walk firmly away from, the book that objectifies her as exotic beauty and allows her to say nothing at all.

Threaded among these poems of fantasy/social commentary, are the most moving bits—poetry of sombre reflection on the precarious responsibilities of mothering in a dangerous world, and poetry of little boys lost to their birth mothers. Some of whom may be found again through adoption; others, destined to remain forever lost, never some mother’s darling.

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name?

Zara Raab

Finishing Line Press

This narrative poem spins the old fairy tale celebrating the triumph of good over evil into an exploration of greed, the powers men exert over “their” women; of a young woman’s loss of innocence, coming of age and her ultimate subversion of imposed power.

Subtitled as a comedy in seven scenes, the play’s cast list is reminiscent of period farce: the chorus of three hoary village elders remaining on stage to help the story along with droll comment and innuendo; a miller father who, we’re told, is barely distinguishable from the manipulative, pointy-shoed and pointy-nosed imp; a Saint Bernard dog, politely bored by the momentous goings-on around him; and Rumpelstiltskin himself, more a suggestion than a tangible presence, less a threat than those who feel threatened. A jolly presentation of thought provoking ideas.

 

Q & A: Moira Richards – Poetry Reviewer

eighth day
 Moira Richards

Moira Richards

On the eighth day of every month, Moira Richards, poetry reviewer, will review a clutch of collections that are linked in some way. Not Not Darling, I’m Reading asked Moira eight questions.

1. Your day job is accountancy, which seems somewhat at odds with your abiding interest in reading and writing poetry. Or is that sort of question more indicative of an interviewer’s penchant for stereotyping than an accurate accounting of obvious contrasts?

No contrast at all, actually. I recently retired from practicing and teaching accounting to free time for my writing and editing work, but teaching Taxation to undergraduates confirmed to me the value of poetry to accountants (if not vice versa). Reading poems—engaging with unfamiliar words and word usage; getting inside the text of someone very different to you; teasing out the meaning of phrases and sentences and finding ways in which it applies to wider circumstance—those are all tools essential for learning and understanding the Income Tax Act as well as the myriad other legislation anyone in the business world has to navigate.

2. Do you remember the first poem that sunk its teeth into you? What was it? How old were you? Where were you?

Yes! I was about 10 years old, helping get up some sort of a show to entertain parents and there was Lewis Carroll’s poetry! I wanted Jabbberwocky with its delicious mouth-filling words, and the dastardly Walrus and Carpenter and all those eager little silly little oysters, and Humpty’s zig-zagging cliff-hanger of a poem that ends with “but—”. I didn’t want to ever let them go so I memorised all three poems and decades later, still have snippets in my head.

3. How did your interest in poetry develop from there?

I think Carroll started me on a love affair with words—how they can play and draw and touch as well as talk and teach, which I also love. Poetry in the education system here is (was?) so much dead white men’s angst that there’s little to really kindle fire in anyone who’s not a one of them—and so much that’ll have the resistant feminist roll her eyes and decide poetry’s for the (old) dudes.

My interest in poetry developed, I think, in the last 15 years when I began reading contemporary women’s work to write about it for book reviews. A bit upside down, I suppose, but my approach wasn’t that of an “expert critic” but that of a reader exploring the genre and like Alice (again) I found myself in a wonderland.

4. You practise form poetry and have a special love for renku. What is it about set forms that excite you?

I admire poets who can execute in form because I find it so difficult and I know the work and persistence it requires. Poems in form, can easily become all tied up and prisoner of the form, but when done well, poetry uses form as invisible scaffold from which it can reach into doing amazing stuff. The joy of renku is that it’s collaborative poetry—a whole new approach to poetry (and to one’s self-image as poet) to write with others :-)

5. Do you read anything at all except poetry? You seem to get through at least one collection a week. Is there time for other reading?

I currently read and review a collection of poems every week—the reading only takes an hour or two, it’s the thinking about the poetry and getting inside of what the poet is doing and finding words to convey that, that takes a long, long time. But I carry it all around with me inside my head and bring it out during quiet times with my vegetable garden so there’s time left for enough fiction that I usually have something to talk about at book club every month. Reading so much poetry has made me an impatient reader of fiction—those authors get very few pages in which to grab my interest enough to read their book through.

6. Do you only read poetry written by women? If so, why?

I don’t actively seek out poetry or fiction by men. I already get to hear so much about what men think and want and do—male opinion and ideas are slathered all over television, radio, newspapers (check the VIDA-count of your favourite medium) and etc. What I’m really interested in, is to find and hear the women who are never asked or permitted to speak—there’s usually pretty good reason why certain voices are marginalised by the mainstream.

Steyn, Yaa De Villiers, Molebatsi, Metelerkamp, Moolman, Schimke

Steyn, Yaa De Villiers, Molebatsi, Metelerkamp, Moolman, Schimke

7. How does South African English poetry measure up to what’s being done in other countries where most of the poetry is in English?

Maria Steyn’s tanka are admired and published in Australia, Canada, the USA, and further. A few years ago, Phillippa Yaa De Villiers placed in an annual international haibun contest judged in Japan. I’ve watched Natalia Molebatsi hold her own on the same stage as performance giant Patricia Smith. Joan Metelerkamp, Kobus Moolman and Karin Schimke, like poets abroad, have gone beyond realist, confessional “experience into words on the page” work and on into a music-like non-narrative transformation of words into experience. Perhaps, if South African readers were more adventurous, even more of our poets would be encouraged to be more adventurous too?

8. To which poets do you return?

So much to read, not much chance for returning, but I never miss a new collection from Finuala Dowling (surely it’s about time for another?) and do find Edna St Vincent Millay’s sonnets have something to say for every occasion. Here’s a couple:

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

Oh, Oh, You Will Be Sorry For That Word

  •  Moira Richards is a freelance editor and writer, and (co)author of a number of accounting and business textbooks. She’s been reviewing fiction and poetry since 2000 and, with Norman Darlington in Ireland, occasionally publishes renga, renku, haibun and other fine work, but mostly renku www.darlingtonrichards.com.