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Performance Publishing Reading Telltale Press

Jessica Mookherjee’s ‘The Swell’ – hear her with Judy Brown, Siegfried Baber and Michaela Ridgway 19th Oct in Lewes

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Jessica Mookherjee earlier this month

Gillian Clarke’s remarks on the pamphlet flap for Jessica Mookherjee’s Telltale Press pamphlet  The Swell are spot on. Among them she says Jess’s poems are ‘Bold, fiery, truthful, they tell an original story with power’.

Other than reading The Swell at a fairly late stage before publication, I had little to do with Jess’s pamphlet. Sarah Barnsley, who along with Robin Houghton, helped Jess edit The Swell said that, in the process of finalising the selection, Jess had a whole sheaf of possible replacements for each poem. Amazingly prolific at the moment, Jess is already well on her way to forming a first full collection, and her work is frequently cropping up in many magazines. The reason is that they are fabulous.

The first poem of the The Swell pamphlet, ‘Snapshot’  depicts the loss of a mother’s attention away from the little girl ‘I’ of the poem. ‘I passed on my birthright to all those unborn/ boys,’ the mother tragedy spills into the poem, she becomes a person who needs her ‘worried forehead’ soothed, needs to be watched over:

Stood behind my mother as she prayed
at the front door, led her to the kitchen,
made sure she looked at the babies.

but finally we are left with an image of childhood abandonment, how the absence of attention leaves its mark with an image of neglect:

There is no photograph of me climbing the stairs
two at a time, no evidence that I tried
not to slip and break my neck.

One thing I love about Jess’s work is the balance between such nuance, and unabashed boldness. In the poem ‘Red’:

The red curtains in my mother’s house
looked like someone had shot her.

A colour is shown as a symbol for domestic disagreement, and disappointment:

I tell you not to wear that that red shirt,
it doesn’t flatter.
There’s blood in the bathroom again,
this month.

The pamphlet is fraught with thwarted hopes and expectations, and its arena is the female body.  We glimpse the weight of expectation on women to have sons, to create families, to select the right partner. I find the poem ‘Mother’s Day’ to be eloquent about assigned roles. The poem opens, with typical boldness, describing a delivery of flowers:

Delivered like unwanted children,
I didn’t put them into water.

I find a passion and rebellion in The Swell.  I can’t recommend it enough. And if you’d like to hear Jess’s next reading, at the Telltale Press & Friends reading in Lewes with a fine array of poets. These include Judy Brown, whose book Crowd Sensations is becoming one of my favourites of recent times, and will write about it on here soon. It’s a great opportunity to hear Telltale’s Siegfried Baber up from Bath, and Brighton’s own Michaela Ridgway showcase their work too.

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Categories
Poetry Reading Readings

Two short reviews: Tamar Yoseloff and Clare Best

A look at two recent publications. A Formula for Night, New and Selected Poems by Tamar Yoseloff, and Cell by Clare Best with art by Michaela Ridgway.

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Tamar Yoseloff at the launch of A Formula for Night

New and Selected Poems: A formula for Night by Tamar Yoseloff from Seren Books. A New and Selected is a point of significance in a poet’s career, and shows someone unafraid to challenge herself conceptually and in her choice of form. There are distinct phases in work,  persistent engagement with visual art is a theme too such as in the poems from Formerly based around the decaying facades of London’s built environment, in a partnership with photographer Vici McDonald. It’s a simple concept but beautifully executed, allowing peeling incomplete words to leak into the work.

The longer poem ‘Fetch’ is one of my favourites here. The poet includes a definition of a Fetch as an apparition or double. The poem starts “I send her out/into the cold dark night.” Having written about doubles myself, I was struck by how freshly and successfully Tammy approaches the idea. We see the world through a woman who may or may not be the poet, and we are remotely piloted through her investigations with a sense of mystery derived from the blurring of identity.

The collection is so varied, I have tuned into some bits faster than others. A few lines from a earlier poem ‘Moths’ have stayed with me because I’m so effortlessly drawn into them, and I find they are emblematic of her restless poetic development. Our protagonists are leaving a US diner:

“We pay, go back into the night. The car picks up
its tune of old motor and stuck gears where it left off,
the radio zeroes in on a voice, a snatch of a song,
clear for a moment then gone. The darkness is complete,
except for the moths, illuminated as they are caught
fluttering towards the headlights. In the morning
you will wipe their powdery remains
off the windscreen then drive away.”

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Clare Best reading at the launch of Cell

Cell by Clare Best, illustrated by Michaela Ridgeway and published by The Frogmore Press.

This beautifully-realised group of poems is based on the true story of a girl of fourteen who took a vow of solitary devotion.

We are told she was “enclosed in a cell built onto the north wall of the chancel of St. James’ Church, Shere, Surrey. She spent more than one thousand days in the cell before asking to be freed.” This was in 1329, but Clare Best‘s theme of female constraint and aloneness is timeless and relevant.

I love this kind of tight brief a poet can give themselves. The tension between physical and spiritual animates the sequence. And the medieval horror of it all is not shrunk from, nor how the mortification of the flesh somehow stands for a spiritual purification:

“Loosen teeth – pull them
one by one
from shrunken gums.
Two rows on the window ledge.”

(MLXXX)

“…this scalp
alive with lice.
My body rots, a holy
wilderness. My night-bird spirit soars.”

(CCCMLXXI)

Michaela Ridgeway’s intense charcoal drawings of female figures exude energy and constraint in equal measure, and so excellently complement these poems. It is a lovely project.

And as someone who has worked on a thousand junk mail formats as an agency copywriter, I always appreciate a bit of ‘paper engineering’ and this collection opens up and forms a cell of paper.