Review by Ralf Webb Zaffar Kunial’s pamphlet explores the inherent connection between language and identity. Kunial seeks to analyse their relationship, and to reveal how language possesses the power to displace. Even the most basic words have the power to fracture selfhood, to create different, conflicting worlds and identities. ‘Butterfly Soup’, the fourth of Kunial’s 14 poems, owes a debt to Dickinson, with its ballad metre and gesture to transcendence. In three stanzas, we are brought from the ‘speckled, flitting’ butterfly to ‘that dense and nascent universe’, capped with a nod to chaos theory: ‘This point that bore that point before/flaps storms to Palomar’. This signals a recurring idea in the pamphlet; the disruptive potential held in the smallest minutiae. The next poem, ‘Fielder’, plays out the idea of displacement through longer narrative. Chasing a cricket ball – ‘a lost cause, leathered for six’ – into the bushes, Kunial’s speaker becomes momentarily unstuck in time: ‘A shady fingernail/of forest. The pitch it points at, or past, a stopped clock’. The power to remedy this temporal shakiness suddenly lies with the speaker, cast as a lonely, romanticised hero: waiting for me, some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave that brings the ball – like time itself – to hand. The importance of this gesture is revealed as absurd when Kunial’s speaker, on reflection, struggles to reconcile with that moment: ‘the thing is, I didn’t care/and this is what’s throwing me now’. For me, ‘Fielder’ is the strongest poem here, convincingly acquainting us with the genuine sense of disorientation – and at times Otherness – that permeates Kunial’s poems. Many, however, will recognise ‘Hill Speak’ – placed third in the 2011 National Poetry Competition – as the centrepiece. ‘Hill Speak’ is the most successful of Kunial’s explorations into the link between language and identity, where a stumbling, stuttering attempt to define his father’s language arrives at a rather upsetting mutism: even at the rare moment I get towards – or, thank God, even getting to – my point, I can’t put into words where I’ve arrived. ‘Placeholder’ and ‘Us’, however, don’t match up – the former’s self-referentiality and the latter’s repeated musings on the use of the word ‘us’ prohibit access to their emotional core. ‘On the Brief’ – which concerns, at face value, writing copy for a Valentine’s Day card – has similar difficulties, struggling to make sense of itself before delivering a flat punchline: ‘and with much…/it is written: Can’t get you out of my head’. There is genuine warmth, however, to the almost-sonnet ‘Q’, which concerns the Urdu word for love, ‘a bolt cued from the round heavens’. Kunial does take different directions with theme and form. ‘And Farther Again’ cartwheels through history, tracing the heritage of the mysterious Three Hares motif, before slipping nicely into a personal, domestic conflict. It’s also good to see the use of haiku in ‘Empty Words’. Although form and subject may be slightly discordant at times, the haiku
Review by Ralf Webb Will Burns’ 15 poems are linked, in part, by themes of place and family. They are written in a flat, unornamented language, which achieves a degree of directness and a declarative authority. The opening poem, ‘Country’, introduces us to this voice, where the speaker – like much of the pamphlet – takes a back seat, and renders a world without forcing us into it. What could easily be grandiose myth-making is instead a raw, fresh landscape: Some call it cloud country or lightning country. I have heard it called the nether country, Buck’s country, and thieves country Later, folk-tales take the charge in the two sepia-toned poems ‘Hundred Horsepower’ and ‘Strawweight’, which perhaps offer a glimpse into the future of Burns’ poetic interests. They sidestep faux-sincere nostalgia, a possible danger given the subject matter. Instead of letting us hang in the fabled and obvious company of the fair-man (named Hundred Horsepower), who could ‘hurl the waltzers round at a prodigious speed’, we fall on the less heroic school boys, ‘tanned and topless and with dirty fingernails’. Similarly, the ‘mahogany drawers full of dead butterflies’ that the once-great boxer in ‘Stawweight’ ‘netted and collected as a boy’ is a nice, peculiar detail that really drives the poem, even though the narrative framework is a little on the nose – the strawweight being gone like ‘an old folk song’. Burns runs into danger when the voice loses its authority, and becomes plainly declarative or factual. ‘Anser’ describes an unappealing ‘field/that is in fact a drained marsh/cleared of impractical plants’. Later, ‘A Change or Shift’ has the same difficulty: ‘the shadow of the house/had not yet cut the lawn/into two different tones’. This image is all too similar to one in ‘Spring Dawn on Mad Mile’, where ‘No brightness or structural/shadow has revealed/the line or flesh of anything’. Likewise, the six stanzas of ‘Tools’ don’t fully embody their objectivist outlook, failing to offer any startling, new picture of the objects described. The problem here isn’t so much a lack of spark or electricity – that’s not Burns’ style – it’s a lack of weight, a heavy, brooding mood that he achieves elsewhere in the pamphlet. I’m thinking of the two poems ‘How I Learned to Live Without Candles’ and ‘Stretch’, where the speaker steps forward a little and paints short stripped-back scenes in a language reminiscent of Raymond Carver, in its ability to craft simple images and unflinchingly lucid thoughts that speak from an individual moment to universal ephemera, as in the ending of ‘How I Learned to Live Without Candles’: I had forgotten about the roof, and about your aunt and all our problems. There was just life and death and a fire in my mind The boldness of that last image, its simple honesty, crushes any possibility of cliché. The ending of ‘Stretch’ is also particularly affecting, balancing a folksy note with a cutting personal discordance, letting their juxtaposition do the work for him: They
Review by Ralf Webb Rachael Allen’s pamphlet is incredibly exciting, and one which will undoubtedly divide audiences. Roughly half of the poems are prose-poems which take their titles from image boards of 4chan, signaling a joint focus on that which is easily consumable, like Allen’s hurried and colloquial voice, and that which is fleeting, like the teenage years at the heart of Allen’s poems, too readily disappearing before the ‘encroaching ledge of age’ (‘Rapidshares’). These poems fit a trend in younger contemporary UK poetry that celebrates an anecdotal neo-confessional style, a sort of O’Hara-but-British renaissance. I’m thinking in part of Faber poets Jack Underwood and Emily Berry, but the strongest similarity is Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities. The prose-poems slip into a pitfall that often accompanies this anecdotal style – there is an element of detachedness and irony which blocks the reader’s access to emotional authenticity: ‘Maybe once our eyes met/through a satellite or something I think maybe that’s too/romantic’ (‘Cute/Male’). Quick jolts between dislocated images betray a manufactured quirkiness that soon begins to wear: The main bit’s where Naru and Keitaro kiss and in character Keitaro was Declan who lived in Pensilva and had a cast (‘Animu & Mango’). The prose poems seek to unravel themselves at breakneck speed in an effort to attain that sought after realisation, the elevation from anecdote to lyric truth. However, when re-read at a slow pace – unpicking the successions of random images and jerky narrative jumps – they tend to fall short. They aren’t without their moments, though. There is an originality to the ‘suburbs where the/pink dust settles like a trapping net’ (‘Cute/Male’), and a tenderness to the puberty-centered ‘Science & Math’: my mother would step out of the bath each evening unashamed and frosted with bubbles and even though her body was my body I was yet to see these rings of flesh as mine The prose-poems will be the most divisive – their smirking charm and easy appeal will be inviting for some, and irksome for others. The rest of the pamphlet, however, is undeniably strong and compelling.‘Goonhilly’ pulls-off second-person narrative – a notably tricky device – with an ethereal gloss: ‘hold the small of her back and draw her gently to you/(smelling lily of the valley and copper)’. The eerie ‘laughing man/who walks backwards into night’ of ‘Kingdomland’ captures rural life in all its shadowy menace, so too does the nightmarish ‘The Slim Man’: During a certain moon children are said to have seen a slim man walking over the field in a low mist. Small-town claustrophobia and stagnation is another of Allen’s themes, one she portrays with cut-throat accuracy: ‘The light in the village/is lilac and patient./I’m always expecting/something to happen’ (‘Regional Tendencies’). Meanwhile, ‘Polruan’ is packed with gorgeous description (‘The sea’s a lurching drunk, savaging itself so we are blind/to what’s beneath’) and ‘Early Harbor’ boasts a beautifully cutting climax with pitch-perfect rhythm: The firm, acrid hospital seat is the burnt orange of rough wire. I steer
Review by Ralf Webb Few contemporary British poets venture near the seemingly outmoded role of poet-as-prophet, soothsayer, or visionary. Acknowledgement of this poetic heritage – I think of Blake’s prophecies, and in America, Whitman – yet alone embodiment of it, has become embarrassing, unable to be remarked upon save in irony. In part, this is for good reason; not only is it terribly difficult to pull off, but the poetic shift in focus from the universal to the individual, instantiated by the Confessional movement of the mid 20th century, has made that heritage seem archaic, dried-up. In Fire Songs, Harsent embodies this role so well, and with such brutal authority, that any query as to whether it is appropriate or ‘current’ enough is quickly set aside. ‘Fire: a song for Mistress Askew’ opens the collection, and Harsent’s speaker becomes entangled in the gruesome death of Anne Askew, instantiating an ahistorical mode essential to the collection as a whole. Fire here is death and promised salvation: at once a ‘shrivel-hiss/of burning hair’ and God as he ‘stoops to take up your soul’. This is a maddening, feverish death-vision, well-grounded in Harsent’s eye for acute details and human particularities: ‘Only that you knew best/how to unfasten your gown while they waited at the rack’. Such details are scattered throughout the collection, placed with a delicate precision that safeguards against the potential grandiosity of his themes. Later, the ghostly atmosphere of ‘A Dream Book’ – a long fragmented sequence following two lovers – succeeds in dancing the infinitesimal knife edge between obscurantism and sentimentality. Imagined landscapes and cryptic symbols (‘the cave is starlit and smells of sleep… she’s held by the music in water’) are matched by those human particularities (‘In this/he’s doing a chicken dance. He turns away and puckers up for a kiss’). The somnambulistic quality of ‘A Dream Book’ signifies a creeping feeling of unease which gathers from the beginning of the collection – with the heartfelt elegy to ‘Bowland Beth’ and the frenzied staccato rush of ‘Sang the Rat’. I can’t help but feel a chill shiver down my spine when a lover utters: ‘You think you’re safe. You’re not’. This unease quickly becomes terror as the central poem ‘Fire song: end scenes and outtakes’ explodes in a nightmarish apocalyptic vision. More shocking lines – ‘When rape is a sweetener’ – are counterpoised to just the right amount of black comedy: ‘there’s the butt-end of prophecy for sure’. Whereas ‘end scenes and outtakes’ offers a vision (very interestingly framed through the medium of film – ‘Dreamwork delivers jump-cuts’), ‘Fire song: a party at the world’s end’ embodies its reality. I am reminded of Rimbaud, and a little more than a hint of Eliot: ‘They are drinking the last of the wine having drunk/the last of the water… through veils of smoke and smut the blank/stare of angels as they tread the air, as they ransack the sublime’. Bold reminders for sure, but the voice here isn’t stuck in some
We are delighted to announce that the winner of our 2014 Under the Influence Poetry Competition is Fran Lock for her poem ‘Dazzler’, influenced by The Duchess of Malfi. The competition was judged by Roddy Lumsden, and the top prize was £500. The Winners First Place – Fran Lock ‘Dazzler’ Second Place – Geraldine Clarkson ‘Miss Marple loosens her bra’ Third Place – Catherine Ayres ‘To Disappointment: An Assay’ after Jane Hirshfield’s ‘To Spareness: An Assay’ Many thanks to everyone who entered – the standard was incredibly high and we were delighted to have so many impressive poems to read. Briony Bax, editor of Ambit said “We had a great response to our competition with over 500 entries. All poems were read completely blind by all judges and administrators and we are delighted with the three winning poems. Many people cited numerous different influences from Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, JD Salinger and Jane Hirshfield. We hope this will become an annual event and I’m really looking forward to hearing the poets read their work in October.” The Brief Do you like to write outside, inside, or off your head? Scrawling ink across paper, or scribbling in bed? Is it nature, is it nurture? Anything goes – from interpretations, translations, and fevered type. Whether you’re influenced by another poet (living or dead), music, sport, art or experience, show us your brilliance, and stand a chance to win cash, publication, and priceless Ambit hype. Prizes 1st place – £500 2nd place – £250 3rd place – £100 The three winning entries will also be published in issue 218 of Ambit Magazine. The winners have been invited to read alongside Roddy Lumsden at the launch of the issue on Tuesday 28 October 2014 in London. Judges The judges of the competition were Roddy Lumsden, award-winning poet and editor of Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets, assisted by Declan Ryan, Faber New Poet and Ambit poetry editor. The competition was managed by George Jackson and Ralf Webb at Ambit.
Below is an article about Satyendra Srivastava, longtime contributing editor to Ambit, who sadly passed away earlier this year. A shorter version of this article will form the core of Munni’s speech during an event organised at the House of Lords in remembrance of Satyendra on 30 July. My husband, Dr Satyendra Srivastava, poet and academic, long associated with Ambit, died on 15th June of this year. Much has been written about his poetry and his ‘official’ persona but I would like to tell you about a young man of 23 who arrived in London in the late summer of 1958. It was his first trip out of India and he often used to describe the strange mixture of feelings he experienced as he watched the Gateway of India fading into the mist from the deck of the ship that brought him to Marseilles from where he travelled by train all the way to London. Satish, as he was known to his family, was born in Azamgarh in Northern India on 5th August 1935 but his parents soon brought him to the family house in the Durgakhund area of Varanasi – the holy city on the Ganges, perhaps better known to older British readers as Banaras – so that his whole childhood was indelibly linked to this extraordinary place. The family were traditional landowners but his father and uncles had broken with tradition in the late 1920s and started a large stationery business so that his and his cousin’s life was very comfortable not to say privileged. Alas this idillic world was marred by the death of his father when Satish was a small child: in fact he hardly had any memories of him. The great influence in his life was his mother who by all accounts was an extraordinary woman. While her husband was still alive, she had heard Mahatma Gandhi’s call and become involved in the Quit India Movement and her convictions and courage are recalled in the much anthologised poem: Sir Winston Churchill knew my Mother which was published by Ambit and reprinted recently. Left a widow at a young age, she raised her son with great love and encouraged his artistic and literary tendencies, sometimes in the face of opposition from his elder uncle who was the head of the family. His childhood took place against the amazing backdrop of temples and palaces in Varanasi, running round the tiny alleyways, playing on the ghats or swimming in the swollen waters of the Ganges to his mother’s dismay. He had a partner in crime in all this: Kailash Gupta, life-long friend and constant childhood companion. Kailash was a naughty little boy who often got them into trouble. After we were married I met Kailash and we became great friends. I would look at the face of this fifty-something man and could see the grin of a cheeky eight-year-old looking back at me! He is the one who delighted in recalling how, aged ten, they would sneak into mango groves through holes in the fence and gorge on the delicious fruit
First Prize: £500. Head Judge: Roddy Lumsden Do you like to write outside, inside, or off your head? Scrawling ink across paper, or scribbling in bed? Is it nature, is it nurture? Anything goes – from interpretations, translations, and fevered type. Whether you’re influenced by another poet (living or dead), music, sport, art or experience, show us your brilliance, and stand a chance to win cash, publication, and priceless Ambit hype. What’s your influence? Send us your best poems and we’ll see who gets our hearts racing. Prizes 1st place – £500 2nd place – £250 3rd place – £100 The three winning entries will also be published in issue 218 of Ambit Magazine. The winners will be invited to read alongside Roddy Lumsden at the launch of the issue on October 22nd 2014 in London. Judges Roddy Lumsden, award-winning poet and editor of Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets. Declan Ryan, Faber New Poet and Ambit poetry editor. Read the rules and how to submit
Thanks to everyone who came to our writing workshop and panel discussion at the weekend. We really enjoyed both events, and hope that you all came away with heads packed full of advice and ideas. See you next year! And also at all of our other events, of course.
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Oh, hi there. So on Wednesday 19 March there’s a chance to see the work of 50% of Ambit’s art editors. Jean Philippe Dordolo has an exhibition with Lewis Betts called ‘Come Closer’. Read more on the Art First Projects website or check out the flyer below. Tel: 020 7734 0386 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Address: 21 Eastcastle Street, London, W1W 8DD See you there!