Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. This is the archive of past books of the month from 2023 for your perusal, allowing you to explore books in our collection we’ve highlighted in the past.

April: Ten Poems about Bicycles

As April flowers begin to bloom and the earth starts to turn through its most shining months, there’s nothing quite like taking a bike ride – or a pedal-powered poetry library – through the balmier days of spring. Happily, Candlestick Press has published Ten Poems about Bicycles (2009), edited by Jenny Swann – a lovely short anthology full of tales about these two-wheeled creatures. In ten poems this book covers a lot of ground, spanning from the late nineteenth century up to the start of the twenty-first. We find traditional rhyme and forms set against more contemporary structures, each poem drawing us into a strong narrative which opens up one of ten intriguing individual worlds.

The anthology begins with the classic, ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’, written in 1894 by Australian poet Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson. This is the story of a man trying to tame a ‘two-wheeled outlaw’ before reverting again to ‘a horse’s back’ as his preferred ride. It’s cheering to be lulled by tight rhyme and regular metre, and to be introduced to such a lively character as Mulga Bill, but this poem also offers insight into an era of transition – a period when mechanical development was transforming the cultural landscape in Australia and elsewhere – and it alludes to some of the challenges such changes might have brought.

Later on, we find a horse and a bicycle are compared in Jonathan Davidson’s, ‘A Lady Cyclist Learns to Cycle,’ again suggesting the continuance of this transitional era in a different location. Here, several gentlemen ‘feed’ oil to the bike and lead it ‘round the yard and garden / on a long rein’ before it is ridden. In this instance, though, this scene set in 1917 plays out with the ‘guns of Passchendaelle’ blasting in the background, casting the story and potentially the transition in a much darker light.

Towards the end of the book, we discover the brilliantly off-kilter ‘Machines’ by Michael Donaghy, which initially gives the appearance of having predictable rhyme scheme, metre, and form, only to deviate on all fronts. Almost a sonnet, but not, it compares the creation of the bicycle to a pavane by Purcell, concluding that balance and momentum are crucial to these creations, and intimating that the same is true more broadly. The unpredictability of this poem’s structures and rhymes feels apt, weaving as it does over slightly uneven ground – potentially a reflection on how even well built structures might wobble and suggesting that they require steady handling and firm momentum by their users:

Who only by moving can balance,

Only by balancing move.

This book has a refreshingly light touch; we learn about adventures on ‘a fine / Raleigh with five gears / And racing handlebars’, the freedom, joys, and pitfalls of riding with no hands or the comfort of holding on, and we read about an enchanting bike trip by a spider and an earwig. Which is not to say all of the stories which are included are light – there are thought-provoking, tragic, and touching elements. The ‘Boy on a Bicycle’ by James Roderick Burns is one of these moments – a prose poem which turns into devastating territory – and we later encounter an elegiac ‘bicycle garden’ invented by a columnist then made real by an engineer and the lost children it comes to represent. The choice and timing of these more challenging poems is perfectly curated, Swann guiding us over any tricky ground with deftly steady momentum and gentle balance, so that our journey through these pages might be full of interesting observations, insights, delights, together with those beautiful moments of deep pause, all of which feels very worthwhile indeed.

March: Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

It has been just over one year since the most recent war in Ukraine began and this month we’d like to look at Dancing in Odessa (2004) by Ilya Kaminsky. Born in the city port of Odessa, the American-Ukrainian poet and his family emigrated to the United States in 1993, shortly after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. This book, published ten years later, was his debut collection and it covers intense personal and historical ground, describing and encouraging enlivenment and imagination in the face of the deep trauma: ‘we dance to keep from falling’. Here, the words of his cultural and familial ancestors become ‘heaps of burning feathers / that rise with each retelling’, creating an elegy to the past and a prayer for the future.

The text is divided into five main sections: the personal stories of ‘Dancing in Odessa’, a re-envisioning of the life of Osip Mandelstam as Orpheus in ‘Musica Humana’, the love poems of ‘Natalia’, exploration of further literary influences in ‘The Travelling Musicians’, and the final ‘Praise’. Strong spiritual currents run throughout and the initial poem, ‘Author’s Prayer’, frames the collection as ‘a kind of petition’ to God – the poet vowing to ‘speak for the dead’ of his homeland, writing ‘the same poem over and over’ lest a blank page be taken as ‘the white flag of their surrender’. So devoted is Kaminsky to this petition that he resolves to praise ‘even the darkest days’ in his supplication: ‘Lord, / I will praise your madness’.

And there is much madness to speak of – a school is bombed, his grandfather is shot, a girl is ‘gassed in her prayer’. In response, we find suggestion that psychological survival through these dark days might partly be achieved and have been achieved through the wild distractions and defiance of imagination, the soul’s music and dance, and laughter. In ‘Aunt Rose’, laughter is ‘each day’s own little artillery’ and the poet describes how his grandmother would pull ‘imagination like a blanket’ over his head for comfort. In these two examples, we find defiance and distraction. However, music, dance, and laughter might also be seen as ways to celebrate life – to praise, if you will. This reveals a potential duality: the text seems to hold praise, or defiance, or both.

Moreover, further duplexity is found in vocabulary of contrasts, in contradictions, and in stories wherein dance accompanies moments of violence. Kaminsky’s mother ‘moves so fast – she is motionless’ and we meet an American tourist ‘whose forgetting is a plot against forgetting’. We see his Aunt Rose, ‘her soul walking on two feet, the soul or no soul’ and learn that in ‘a soldier’s uniform, in wooden shoes, she danced / at either end of day’.

Indeed, the centre of this collection is enduring dance, as it seems to be for Kaminsky in a broader sense: ‘At the centre of my life: my mother dances’. This aura of ‘dance’ emerges not only from repetition of the word itself, from frequent images of dancing, and from the poet’s choice of song forms related to dances, but it is also felt through linguistic circling, woven through every element of the text. Some titles are repeated, for example, ‘Dancing in Odessa’ is not only the title of the book, it entitles a section within the book, and appears twice as poem titles. Further repetitions and parallelism abound, creating a sensation of whirling – of seeing the same or similar images, fleetingly, again and again as one turns: ‘the evening is asleep inside her shoulder – her shoulder // rounded by sleep’, and ‘yes, we lived. / We lived, yes’. We read that Kaminsky’s mother ‘becomes a stranger and acts herself, opens / what is shut, shuts what is open’ and that he writes his ‘friends / into earth, into earth, into earth.

These syntactic and metrical structures not only give the feeling that one is spinning, they also emphasise the text’s wider rhythmic momentum, enhancing its sense of music and enlivenment. The speed with which we shift from image to image, and between observation or memory and imagination, is dizzying. It feels very much as though one has been swept up into the twists of a war, into a spiritual dance of praise, or both.

In essence, this book offers a visceral and graceful rendering of the complexities of war and faith, and there is far more grace to be discovered than could been covered here. What begins with the poet’s vow to petition the Lord, concludes with his being able to see past ‘the obscurer thoughts of God’, to see past the ‘madness’, and to retain his own faith. But the text also serves another important purpose – as Kaminsky has explained: ‘The formal elegies are on one side, a bow. But on the opposite side these people are alive, in my imagination, where they still are’. Through this collection, these people and their voices are able to live on, their dance is seen, and a powerful petition has been made.

February: Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight by Sarah Watkinson

This month we have fallen in love with a gorgeous, surprising pamphlet called ‘Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight’. Written by local poet, Sarah Watkinson – who is also Emeritus Research Fellow in Fungal Biology at the University of Oxford – this is a booklet with refreshingly frank and unusual perspectives on cycles of transformation, particularly those of disintegration and reintegration. It opens up these themes through thoughtful observation of the natural world, striking graceful balance between deep scientific understanding and lyrical meaning-seeking with, at times, appealing levity. This is inventive and skilfully-crafted poetry, resonant with purpose.  

We begin with a tribute to Philip Gross’s ‘Mould Music’, a poem in which Gross explores the ageing process with relation to this minute pin-headed fungus: ‘the uninvited guest’. Watkinson’s antiphonal response, ‘The Wood Wide Web’, charts symbiotic networks of fungi and roots – ‘sharers / in the earth’ which run ‘underfoot’. Scientific insight is woven lightly into beautifully precise and evocative language – ‘rufous, violaceous, melanised’ – to describe the mycorrhizal relationships between plant roots and beneficial fungi. There is a strong sense of cyclical decay and the absorption of its energies into new forms of life and we end on a compellingly juxtaposed couplet:

‘They deal us whatever helps them:

disgust, death, delicatessen, musk.’

Here, ideas are introduced which then thread through the rest of the pamphlet; the interrelated energies of life shifting form and nature, with a view that death and disintegration are not clear endings. 

For the second poem, we hear from ‘Honey Fungus’ itself: ‘excited’, sensing ‘a tree felled by snow’. This reveals an interesting slant on the demise of a tree, as we witness continuation following its disintegration, its energies transforming from one life form to another. We are able to access the fungus’s own experiences, to feel ‘sweet monomers tingle on my skin / infusing me with power.’ In addition, there are moments of wonderful sibilance and assonance here, interleaved with plosive sounds – ‘my body squeezes close, flat to the bast’ – evoking the complex creep of fungus as it takes hold of timber, and this strong attention to sound continues throughout the pamphlet, drawing us in with its musicality and opening up the subject matter. An ash tree is ‘earth-moulded / moss-muffled / leaf-gloomed’, ‘moss makes the most of clouds, / spreads photovoltaics to the misted sun’, and ‘Rhacomitrium / on wind-skimmed summits, dries hoary-grey in summer, like shed wool’.

Similarly, choice of form is used to great effect. We find appealing variety, including prose poems, sonnets, concrete poems, mirroring the shapes of trees or the spine of an animal on a taxidermist’s table. Each form enhances the content so we are able to enter, at times, unfamiliar territories through appealing visual frameworks.  

One of the elements this variety of form reinforces is the wide array of voices and perspectives. A dung beetle looks to constellations for guidance, believing ‘those lines of light shine down for me’. An orange-striped Siberian tiger might be seen too brightly in the ‘dull forest’, but the tiger reassures us that its ‘stripes join the ranks of bare trees / and when I stand still / my back is sunset snow’. Both of these demonstrate how situations can be seen differently, from different standpoints within the natural world. This is carried through with a taxidermist, taking the bodies of dead animals and refreshing them as new objects. We even meet ‘Clorinda’ – ‘The First Green Human’ – being interviewed by The Observer: ‘Think of my back as a solar panel. One day everyone will be like me.’ Here, energy is again seen being transformed from one state to another.

This use of varied voices communicates a powerful sense of contextual energy and death; that which is disintegration to one animal or plant leads to sustenance or purpose for another. This is most powerfully shown in the final poem, wherein the paradigm on life cycles shifts entirely, from biological vernacular to that of physics. This allows for energy to transform, to end in one form and begin again in another, without any mention of decay. ‘Birds are made of light’, their ‘spare energy is transformed into song’, and when at ‘sunset they darken and vanish – / new ones will condense again at first light’

This pamphlet is full of invention, surprise, and beauty. It lifts us into intricate, scientifically-detailed worlds – old as the sky, possibly new to many readers. We share in the journey of a spore, imagine the lives of timber, the open sea, and places where ‘leaves are a billion islands’. It reveals these sometimes daunting worlds, with their inevitable energy transformations, differently – with openness and hope – and asks that we might see them differently too.

January: Rendang by Will Harris

On the first Tuesday of every month, the OPL hosts an open mic night at The Community Works, our physical space on Park End Street. For our first open mic of this year, our theme is ‘Roots & Wings’, and our January book, Rendang (2020) by Will Harris, meditates on these concepts beautifully. These are poems that soar across continents and between historical and cultural threads to consider the very essence of ‘rootedness’, ‘rootlessness’, and the spaces between these two states – liminal midpoints likened to the ‘scary […] moment before sleep takes hold’.

Will Harris has been a much-watched writer in recent years, and this, his debut poetry collection, does not disappoint – a spacious and considered journey into his own Anglo-Indonesian origins, revealed in fractured, surreal narrative, and without simplistic resolution. The book appears to follow a contemporary trend for thematically cohesive collections, and, as such, one might say it centres around reflections on mixed-race identity and self-perception, but it opens out broadly and introduces unusual slants across these themes, with two main aims in mind. The first, to understand and accurately communicate the poet’s own state of being: rent, ‘rootless and unclear’. The second, to discover an identity which has meaning: ‘A life should not just be, but mean’.

In some respects, this collection feels like an extension of his previous, essayistic book, Mixed-Race Superman(2018), in which Harris yearns for an identity which not only situates him comfortably within his own currently western surroundings, but supersedes it to glide beyond environmental and cultural constraints altogether. Aspirational mixed-race figures are offered in the form of Barack Obama and Keanu Reeves, conflated with his Matrix character, Neo. Similarly, the narrator in Rendang might be characterised as a Neo-esque flâneur, wandering through primarily urban and technologically-advanced spaces, questioning purpose, meaning, and identity.

In addition to this search for insight into one’s own context, there are other correlations with the Matrix trilogy, such as use of the films’ signature green as a repeated motif (also the predominant colour in the West Sumatran flag), and the sense of wakeful sleep or semi-consciousness. This dreamlike atmosphere is achieved through almost fractal cycles extending throughout the collection. Many of these poems begin with a thought, explore in seemingly random fashion, only to return to the initial thought from a different angle. Similarly, their structure and syntax, replete with frequent repetitions of phraseology and vocabulary – occurring not only in quick succession, but also between poems or sections – mimic an untethered state of mind. For example, in the final poem, ‘Rendang’, we find an initial reference to the comfort of ‘a circle of soft toys’ which cycles back towards the end, when the narrator lays ‘the pages of this book’ around himself. We also discover that the ending passage, wherein the narrator speaks to these book pages, has occurred previously, half-way through the poem.

And this part consciousness is cemented by several modernist elements, including surreal content and situationist psycho-geographies, in which the narrator flows through locations according to emotional or psychological preference. These blend effectively with Harris’s flâneuristic narrator, in whom we find relatively detached observation and assessment of his largely urban environment, attention to history, the interleaving of cultural texts and frames of reference, and a desire ‘to distil the eternal from the transitory’ (Baudelaire, 1986, p123).

In the course of the narrator’s journey, we encounter a curious selection of characters, including a monk, a random drinker called Dai, his grandparents, and a Chinese conjuror. We also find an eclectic framework of reference, including Rainer Maria Rilke, Keystone Cops, The Tempest, Bruce Springsteen, Sonic the Hedgehog, Buddhism, and Dr Dre. As a reflection of identity, this almost pointillist rendering is strangely effective – creating the person through his effect on, or reactions to others or to that which he experiences.

This key method of navigating purpose and identity through contextual meaning is also suggested in a broader sense; a word, item, or person gaining identity through its placement within its surroundings. In the opening poem, ‘In West Sumatra’, we are told that, where the meaning of a word is uncertain, only ‘context makes / the difference clear’. The following narrative draws us through Harris’s own context, both that of his familial ‘Mother Country’ of Indonesia and the urban stretches of other homes, searching for his own ‘transmembered’ identity and meaning as an individual. We pass over ‘the lane in Devon where [his] dad / grew up, and the river in Riau where [his] mum played’, look ‘along the banks of the Ciliwung’, and meet the ‘unearthly / scent of Bayside Breeze’.

In addition, we can notice the importance of contrast in moments when, for example, the narrator measures ‘sweetness / by its incongruity’. Conversely, we see that objects like coloured fabric ‘taken out of context’ signify ‘nothing’, moreover, colour is only meaningful to the narrator through its associations, such as the green of his ‘favourite Power Ranger’ or ‘a jade statue / of the Buddha’. In this way, things are repeatedly given meaning through their context; by what they relate to, or by what they are not.

If this interrelatedness seems wide, wandering, and cyclical, it is. This atmosphere of free association opens the text so that the unconscious can be accessed – its moments of rare clarity and recognition. These techniques all combine to create a realistically shifting landscape of identity and understanding. The most we can hope for is, perhaps, approximately distilling ‘the eternal from the transitory’ and discovering ‘rootedness’ in single moments, rather than that which might be found through familial, environmental, or cultural origin.

These brief moments of clarity eventually prove overwhelming for Harris, who ends the collection imagining himself ‘unborn’ and/or receding into his own ‘wakeless days’. This endpoint feels rent ‘rightly’ – realistic and refreshingly incomplete. Harris’s identity is, like anyone’s, a work in progress and, at times, he understandably wishes to regress, remain ‘half enwombed’ or find momentary protection from truth or uncertainty – ‘scary’ midpoints between consciousness and unconsciousness – in a ring of soft toys or the pages of this book. Ultimately, this is a collection which offers a peculiar, relatable, and beguiling reading experience. It is definitely one not to be missed.