Rain Dog

Dog wearing purple'Through the Cat Flap’ Poetry Review 

These reviews have appeared in issues of Rain Dog. They're listed here in alphabetical order of author. If you've got a pamphlet (or book) you want reviewing send it in to: Rain Dog, Manchester, M19 2XD

Rain Dog likes being positive about the poetry she reviews so she only tends to review those pamphlets she likes. If she doesn't like it she won't review it (though she might chew it up).

Arkady, Emma-Jane: Bipolarity: Poems of a Disorder
Coren, Pamela: The Blackbird Inspector
Gilfillan, Caroline: Drowned in Overspill
Hadfield, Jen: Almanacs
Johnston, Joan: What You Want
Kinsey, Chris: Kung Fu Lullabies
Knaggs, Peter:  Cowboy Hat
Leckey, Dennis: No, Not Sonnets
Longstaff, Marilyn: Puritan Games
Mangnall, Jim:  Song Cycle
McColl, Thomas: The Beast in the Bag
Matthews, Lisa : Postcard from a Waterless Lake
Nagle, Frances: The War in Fraxinus Excelsior
Noakes, Kate:  Ocean to Interior
Pridham, Francesca : Red Jam
Woodford, Anna:  The Higgins' Honeymoon
Wilson, Robin Lindsay:  Ready Made Bouquets
Winslow, Pat: Skin & Dust
Velocity: The Best of Apples and Snakes ed. Maja Prausnitz
A Twist of Malice: Uncomfortable Poems by Older Women ed. Joy Howard


Issue 2

What You Want: Joan Johnston (Newcastle: Diamond Twig, 1999): 

One of the eye catching, A6-sized black shiny books of Diamond Twig’s Branchline series, Joan Johnston’s What You Want stands out from the jostling pamphlet crowds. It is a collection I loved instantly. I saw myself in nearly all of the 30 short poems. Ordinary incidents are made poignant because the humanity is there radiant in each poem. Urban, comfortable things from the past capturing everyday life, reminding me of Apostle spoons, hat pins, petticoats, Playtex. The observations are striking, the emotions familiar: ‘And the next day, missing her, / in order to feel how she’s real and dead / I look in the cupboard. / You can always find your dead mother / in her kitchen cupboard’ - Subjects include death, marriage, divorce, schoolgirl crushes –  whatever she tackles the result is successful and strikingly moving: ‘Just last night / she cried out to me / “I’m exhausted being dreamt. / It’s been years’. It’s an accessible evocation of a Northern up bringing and well worth the price.

Drowned in Overspill: Caroline Gilfillan (Manchester: Crocus, 2000)

Humour is the first thing that grabs with this colourful collection of very very competent poems. The phrases are short and terse as is if she knows time is short in poetry-land She says exactly what she wants to say. The poems made me want to find a pen immediately - to see if I could do it: ‘I strawberry your / milky neck, / then gather brine within my mouth / and learn the taste of pale.’ Weddings are a recurrent theme so are seaside resorts: (Morecambe, Brighton, Clacton…). The  descriptions are clear, evocative, original : ‘I’ll hire a saw. Hack off a branch. / Remake you as a chiselled queen / with breasts big as goldfish bowls.’ Towards the end the nastier side of human nature comes more to the fore.

Red Jam: Francesca Pridham (Manchester: Crocus, 2000)

This is a wintery collection of human truths and evocative description. The darkest time of the year is evoked again and again in poems about the little truths of everyday living. Subjects are loneliness, fear, and most of all failure. In a poem about a broken marriage she says: ‘If only failure were an independent thing / a plastic bag to fold away forgotten in a drawer’. The poems are accessible, personal and at their most successful in those moments where she steps out into the surreal: ‘They have slid my head into another skull’ - to convey personal moments of fear and confusion with original imagery. The poems convey resilience in a bleak landscape combined effectively with the minutiae of everyday life.
Issue 3

The Beast in the Bag: Thomas McColl (Nottingham: Poetry Monthly Press, 2000). 20 A5 pages  £2.00

These 16 poems are sparsely written offering whimsical rye cynical comments on life. Imagery is scarce until the third poem: Tom’s Presentation, where the  battlefield and guns metaphor make the poem come alive because of their originality. Some of the ideas were interesting and funny - The Pub that thinks it’s a Bus and The Gamble Account worked well because of this.   Coming of Age has the teenage son ‘caged’ in his room - this kind of visual aspect, expressed through a concise image, makes the poem memorable. The Silent Call and The Teachers first day - were other good examples of what this writer is capable of in terms of imagery (especially the budgerigar in Silent Call). The poems do occasionally fall intothe familiar trap of telling readers what to feel. The Queen of Dooley Street does to some extent, but it also tells a good story: ‘the whole world ignores her / even her plants / which bow instead towards the sun.’ Overall a good taut collection of poems, of which I liked The Silent Call best for its economy of style and effective use of imagery. 

Bipolarity: Poems of a Disorder Emma-Jane Arkady (Redditch: Flarestack, 2000). 28 A5 pages £3.00

‘Bipolar affective disorder’ is the more correct name of manic depression. The 18 poems in this  pamphlet swing between despair and mania, there isn’t much hope but there is humour and always a fierce detachment. 

The dramatic poems in which there’s a character, something tangible, are the ones which work best for me: Sarah in Sarah’s Very Exciting day, Paul and Jan in Precious Metal the conversations and interplay between characters in Response When Sober and Ellipsis. In these poems, through the consciousness of others, we are allowed to glimpse the emotion lurking behind the events, which are otherwise related in quite a dispassionate style. Even when the character is merely an anonymous figure like the farmer in Relapse, he gives us something tangible to hold on to. Against the seeming normality of these characters, the emotional turmoil can be properly displayed. I found these external examples of misery worked  better than more internal cerebral poems like: Spaceship Understanding Despair or Contrast in Paradise. I found many poems I liked here, but particularly Four weeks of Mania, Regenerated Bus Stops, and Ellipsis stand out because in poems like these the humour that permeates the collection is at its grim best.
Issue 4

The Higgins' Honeymoon: Anna Woodford (Liverpool: Driftwood Publications, 2001). 22 A5 pages  £3.00

A collection of mainly short, clever poems. Many of them read in a kind of direct ‘bulletin’ style but then surprise with an oblique take on things. It gives the overall impression of a set of sketches shown with a slightly tongue-in- cheek narrative. Evening Class was brilliant and stood out for me as easily the best poem in the collection - giving a funny precise description of people attending various classes before unexpectedly depicting the misery that can sometimes be behind such self-betterment. I did like the longer poems best - feeling that the more I was given to read the better I understood / liked the poem.

Song Cycle: Jim Mangnall (Liverpool: Driftwood Publications, 2001). 26 A5 pages  £3.00

This collection has really grown on me with re-reading – there is some very strong work here but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with some of the pieces. To me they lacked sufficient music to call themselves songs. The pamphlet consists of 14 songs and 6 apparently unrelated poems. The songs start off strongly with a surreal and strangely hesitant version of creation: First there was light, / I think and the poets song is a weapon against the bleak wilderness. This theme continues with: imagination having the potential to heal the urban landscape, but nobody looked up/ and everything stayed wrong. I started to feel a bit confused as the cycle continued; suddenly the sun causes madness and darkness is healing. When the poet turns to love gone sour and love unrealised I found the songs less convincing. The cycle ends with dislocation and only a sort of sunrise. Maybe Icarus who closes the collection is the key So many strange, illusive things to find / and having found them fall. 

Of the other poems I liked the Lorcaesque Les Chiens Andaloux. The others seemed to me weaker and in the case of Five Travel Tankas, surprisingly clichéd. But overall an enjoyable collection and at its best  an original  and interesting voice.

Cowboy Hat: Peter Knaggs (Hull: Halfacrown Publishers, 2001). 86 A5 pages £6.99

The titles of the poems read like captions of pictures or titles of  how to manuals. They were urban poems quick accessible serious bleak, & grim. There was a strong sense of place which I liked (though it meant some mysterious words: nash, shan, gratey, radgy, chaver, bimph, rek o’t’een. etc..) They were concerned with minutiae of daily life: tin openers, toast, chippies, conkers, the lives of working people.

Of the 4 sections in this book by far the best for me was the 3rd: Wake up it’s the Slubberdegullion which contained some excellent poems. Eudipe - a nice understated poem about the Grand National . The 4th section was also very good:  The Tombola Prize was a quickfire set of portraits of people with good detail and imagery. The 1st section (mainly poems about domestic violence) was the most accessible and also the one I liked the least. Related dispassionately the tell-rather-than- show style made it hard to empathise. The violence of Knife was chillingly well expressed but undercut because the point is spelled out for us at the end. I liked the anomaly:  Neighbourhood Watch  best which was more subtle. The 2nd section: Conjecture was similar but more successful for me having some continuity - recurring characters and a story of a missing boy.  On the whole the book was a very good effort but would have been stronger without part one.
Issue 5

Puritan Games: Marilyn Longstaff (Darlington: Vane Women Press, 2001). 32 A5 pages, £4.

An accessible and enjoyable collection set in various Northern towns: Stalybridge, Ashton, Saltburn, Whitby, Jarrow. The pamphlet begins with a short prose piece explaining the nomadic Salvation Army life which inspired these poems. It’s a unified collection, occasionally surreal but reassuringly matter of fact. The best poems focus on a single incident: Pub-booming, Puritan Games, Circling the Rectangle. Good use is made of repetition which works like music at times: ‘Rough edges tossed in grit smoothing and soothing / Rounded and grounded; ground down, down’.  I was also impressed with the originality of the imagery which leapt out from time to time (such as the cherry blossom -  ‘Rizla thin / like dead wasps wings’. I liked the subtle humour which sometimes came to the fore, as in: Ned – Animal Rights Activist, Savaged by released mink. The only poem that didn’t work for me was Lament – a bit too didactic. On the whole very competent and enjoyable.

The War in Fraxinus Excelsior: Frances Nagle (West Bromwich: Dagger Press, 2001). 32 A5 pages, £3.50. 

Probably one of the most memorable pamphlets I’ve read. Frances Nagle imparts a quite breathless, conspiratorial feel to these poems. And there wasn’t one duff one here. The imagery is succinct and spot on. I especially liked the ‘fluffy acrobats’ (squirrels) of the title poem. Even with light almost flippant subject matter there is an urgency and drama invested – something lesser poets often try unsuccessfully.  ‘Priceless’ was my particular favourite (although there were many favourites here). The subject matter was varied, always interesting, it seems anything Frances Nagle chooses to muse on is worth listening to she engages emotions & intellect equally. So go and buy it.

Postcard from a Waterless Lake: Lisa Matthews (Newcastle: Diamond Twig Press, 2001). 36 A6 pages, £3.95. 

One of the very impressive Branch Lines series. Looking at the contents page of Postcard from a Waterless Lake I was initially reminded of a list of workshop exercises. On closer inspection I found a series of 4 sequences of well crafted poems which work very well together as a whole. The poems I liked best (though they were all good) were the 9 ‘postcards’ about personal relationships, loss, stolen illicit moments. Lisa Matthews is the kind of poet you read and then end up saying ‘yeah…I know what you mean’. The poems find a deep emotion underneath the everyday – sometimes conveyed in an everyday gesture: You do that thing with your hand, / that means the subject is closed or depicted with an original exact image:  How she can take a room / and turn it on its side. They are poems that raise questions, nothing is over-explained but the underlying pain is unmistakable and often the build up of passion ends in an explosion of short terse phrases. I like the starkness of  the language: all you revealed / was the side of your face (Hotels). A writer I would love to read more of.

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