Emma Simon reviews The Little God of Damage Limitation by Aileen La Tourette, The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru, and Urban Minotaur by Mehmet Izbudak, all winners of the Live Canon Pamphlet Competition 2021
[Trigger warning: one of the pamphlets deals with grief and references to suicide]
Pamphlet competitions have become something of a staple in the poetry world in recent years, with more and more publishers now running them. For smaller publishers in particular I imagine they are a useful way to generate some additional income via the entry fee while also managing a potential avalanche of submissions through a more limited reading window. For readers these competitions can be an excellent way to discover new voices and writers, particularly as the guest judges (and anonymised entries) often select an eclectic and interesting spread of winning publications, that don’t necessarily conform to a ‘house style’.
This is certainly true of the three winning pamphlets published by Live Canon last year – a publishing house which seems to go from strength to strength. Judge Hannah Lowe – winner of this year’s Costa Book of the Year – has picked three very different winners, thematically and tonally. But all are powerful reads with coherent themed narratives that invite us to explore often difficult internal and external landscapes.
The Little God of Damage Limitation by Aileen La Tourette
Aileen La Tourette’s The Little God of Damage Limitation is an extremely moving collection which focuses on the pain and unrelenting drudgery of existence after the death of the narrator’s grown-up son. These are unvarnished poems that don’t offer glib recovery arcs or false assurances that ‘time heals’. Instead they negotiate the day-to-day realities of deep grief, and give voice – often in an almost a matter-of-fact tone – to the urge to simply not carry on. How do you live with such huge loss, these poems ask, and ask again, without supplying easy answers.
More than half of the 30-odd poems are addressed to inanimate objects – ’Dear Garbage Truck’, ‘Dear Merseyrail Train’, ‘Dear Pockets’, ‘Dear Ceiling Fan’, ‘Dear George Washington Bridge’. These poems document how the external world has fundamentally changed and now reflects back a never-ending sense of loss. The use of the direct address creates a sense of the poet asking the world around her for some comfort or release, with many of these ordinary objects becoming the subject for a meditation on death or suicide.
‘Dear Pockets’ for example starts off with a familiar and pleasing image:
I’ve always loved you, two
by two on tunics and loose
smocky things, jackets and coats
The direct and plain style is lifted by the carefully selected language. I loved the nursery-rhyme echoes of ‘you’ and ‘two-by-two’ and the phrase ‘smocky things’. The familiarity and warmth of this (pockets we feel should be warm places) is then starkly pulled away from the reader in the next few lines:
places for hands to go, those hands
I flash on hacking off
since they stroked his cool cheek.
No-one should ever know what
they have known.
La Tourette then goes on to reference Virginia Woolf, who filled her pockets with stones before drowning herself. The conversational tone makes this all the more shocking. But in this poem, and throughout the collection, there are beautiful and startling lines rising from everyday diction. She opens the second stanza of ‘Dear Pockets’ with the line: “My hands fall into you like graves”. The direct address works well here, appealing to the pockets to protect her hands, not least for her surviving son’s sake. But the poems ends with the unsettling and memorable image:
Small pockets drop
like parachutes into the day’s grey
freefall. Night has deep pockets, amen.
These are unvarnished poems that don’t offer glib recovery arcs or false assurances that ‘time heals’
Other poems in this collection, such as ‘Dear Gun I Have Never Wanted Until Now’, ‘Dear Poison’, ‘Dear Blade, Knife or Razor’, make these intentions clear from the outset. This might make it sound as though this pamphlet is like a hard read, and emotionally it is, but the startling tone of these poems, to me at least, seemed to offer some respite. Take the matter-of-fact opening of ‘Dear Poison’ for example:
So many households poisons live under the sink.
Kurt Vonnegut’s mother went that way but
in time for him to live. Now it’s too late to die
before my child and I’m already posthumous,
but take you in with calculating eyes,
cleansers and toilet ducks, mouse and rat poison
I buy remembering his phobia.
It is clear to me through reading these poems that the poet has a sharp intelligence and dry wit. These aren’t poems that wallows in grief or self-pity but look outwards in a clear-eyed way that is far more powerful. I was reminded of the line by Samual Beckett from The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on”. These poems seem to mine both sides of this equation and that is where their power lies. They dare us to look properly at grief, into its darkest hollows, which is a place most of us prefer to skirt around.
In a book of stunning poems, the title poem stands out in particular. The repetitions, the domesticity of the kitchen, and the close-attention paid to the language of the poem is startling. There is something about the repetitive activity in a kitchen – chopping onion, making soup – that we think might provide some solace, but no, the narrator is making offerings to the little God of damage limitation, who it turns out is as capricious as any god. There is a real musicality to this poem and its long lines have deep meditative qualities which seem calming, for all the lack of comfort it ultimately offers. I love the attention to language itself. How this god “likes the verb to sweep. / She knows it contains weep. She likes cook, with the o’s. / Make next to ache“.
These poems are beautiful elegies. By addressing them to the man-made, urban, and largely unresponsive environment around us they perform some strange trick. We understand, devastatingly, that the ‘you’ in these poems isn’t just pockets in a dress, an extractor fan, or the garbage truck, but the one person the narrator really wants to talk to again, who is now just as unresponsive as the pots in the kitchen or the bridges outside.
Aileen La Tourette is an established poet, playwright and creative writing lecturer with a number of published collections; the pamphlets from Elena Croitoru and Mehmet Izbudak are both debuts. While The Little God of Damage Limitation is a relatively long form chapbook, the other two winning pamphlets are a more conventional length at 18-20 poems each.
The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru
Elena Croitoru’s The Country With No Playgrounds is series of poems documenting her experiences of growing up in Bucharest in the 1980s under the Ceaușescu regime, and then leaving Romania. It is an illuminating read, opening up a world I knew relatively little about. The poems are infused with a child’s perspective, and roam through classrooms, playgrounds and hospitals. But these familiar places all feel alien, with many walls and few open spaces, and their oppressive suffocating structures reflect the structures of the wider regime.
The starkness of this landscape is reflected in many of the poems. ‘Tower block 12’, which won first prize in the Charles Causley competition, is a particularly good example. This is a powerful poem whose blocky stanzas convey the imposing and enclosing spaces in which the narrator and her neighbours live. The poem, like many others, is shot through with fear and paranoia and a sense of isolation and loneliness.
It opens: “Tonight the piano on the fifth floor / falls silent as the militia dismantle it / to search for hidden notes.” The imagery is startling, and chilling, demonstrating the way the escape of music (and religion or stories in other poems) is also restricted, clamped down on. But the sense of threat increases as the poem progresses. Croitoru creates this unsettling, depersonalised atmosphere by not naming her neighbours, they are just occupants of numbered flats. The language is plain, a witness to the daily illogical brutalities: “A blue car ran over the man in flat 16 / because a photograph of him leaving the queue for / milk proved he’d wanted to defect.”
Like the majority of the poems in this collection, this poem returns to the personal – the narrator’s memories and the precarious position of her family – creating a sense of both peril and empathy. The poems ends:
[…] I wait for my parents
to come home & each time they do,
their footsteps are lighter as if
they’d lost something of themselves
& I think this means they would
shrink to nothing so each day
I have to weigh what is left.
Food, or lack of it, is a recurrent motif. There is a startling poem called ‘Fishbones by Candlelight’, where the lines interleave like bony spine of a fish. This is counterpointed by a fine poem, ‘Tangerine’, which juxtaposes the fall and execution of Nikolae Ceaușescu with the wild extravagance of a child eating an orange. The smashing of these two things together is original and unsettling: “I bit the glossy citrus skin, its oil // tasted like blood mist on my lips”. The poem compares the soft linings of tangerines to flesh, and Ceaușescu’s bullet ridden skin to the pitted tangerine peel that is also discarded.
These are primarily poems of place, with the people in these poems rooted in an imposing concrete landscape, one that that reflects their social conditions
It is worth pointing out that while the personal and the political are always mixed here, the politics are worn lightly. Ceaușescu is never mentioned by name throughout the collection and Bucharest itself is only mentioned in the penultimate poem (although the Danube gets a couple of references). I think this works well in helping create a sense of place where everything remains provisional, unsettled. As a reader we are not entirely sure where we are, what is happening and why. These are primarily poems of place, with the people in these poems rooted in an imposing concrete landscape, one that that reflects their social conditions. Croitoru’s talent is to make history come alive to us through carefully selected details that are both vivid and disturbing. The opening poem, ‘Playground’ brilliantly sets the scene:
We grew up in our spare time,
beyond a tower block island
where pearly cement dust lay
over the nerves of nettle and bindweed leaves
which clung to the fractured, pale soil.
Urban Minotaur by Mehmet Izbudak
Mehmet Izbudak’s Urban Minotaur is another collection set in a city, and another that touches on place and memory, although here the urban landscape is contemporary London. This is another tightly focused collection with all the titles of the poems referring to the eponymous Minotaur (‘Minotaur Waits’, ‘Minotaur takes to his Polish Neighbour’, ‘Minotaur is not in love’, and so on).
Initially we have nothing but questions – who is this modern Minotaur, is he as monstrous as we might fear? In one poem Minotaur dreams of being a hero; in another he appears to scare a child in a pushchair before just sticking out his tongue. But as the poems unfurl we have sense of the Minotaur as Everyman, struggling to find a way through life, lost in the labyrinth of life’s big and small decisions.
I found these to be witty and generous poems; they have a conversational tone and roam effortlessly around the city, hopping from image to image, line to line, in a casual, freewheeling style and crammed full of day-to-day details – meal-deal smoothies, yellow nylon washing lines, absorbent kitchen towels, traffic lights, Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noirs Champagne Brut, unwashed tea mugs. But these snapshots of modern life are mashed up against a more grandiose background which draws on classical myth, the bible, and Tarzan, and is scattered with Blakean-style angels and armoured knights on horseback thundering through “siren screaming streets”.
It is perhaps not surprising that poor Minotaur feels a bit lost at times, with so many reference points, and with history and geography appearing to merge at times. But I think these touches give the poems a real sense of energy and dazzle. In the first poem we watch Minotaur as he observes Venus emerging from “a Mediterranean of late commuters”, and at the start of ‘Minotaur and the probability tree’ we see Minotaur descending “with orphic serenity / floating down the gear-driven escalator / at Waterloo station”.
These snapshots of modern life are mashed up against a more grandiose background which draws on classical myth, the bible, and Tarzan, and is scattered with Blakean-style angels and armoured knights on horseback thundering through “siren screaming streets”
One of my particular favourites was ‘Minotaur dreams of suburbia’. I think this really captures the Everyman (or Everywoman) voice, always wishing to be something else, though perhaps not fully wanting it. The dream of suburbia itself is described as “an acquired taste” with its “equidistant lampposts / tapering towards a vanishing point”.
This is a poem that plays with the Minotaur imagery, and that sense of being split or divided – Minotaurs of course being traditionally half man, half bull. The poem riffs on ideas of half-ness. We see the Minotaur “half waiting” – for the end of his lunch break, in the way he waits for trains, caught between “dream and half dream / between wish and half wish”. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the titular character “cannot escape” but is left to ponder “half-escaping ” as he “bites into his roast vegetable and hummus wrap”.
The pamphlet itself seems to play this game, creating intriguing little poems where half the time we are picturing some man-bull striding around Brixton and half the time reading the character on a more metaphorical level. Do we get any nearer to solving the puzzle and finding our way out of the maze? Well, not entirely. The collection leaves us asking questions about ourselves. Where are we now? Are we following some path, or not sure where we going? Which option is better anyway? The last poem ends with Minotaur getting a job interview – a traditional way to move out or move up – but one that fills him with the blues. There’s a sadness here, I feel, about how getting on track can leave you feeling more lost than ever.
Emma Simon has published two pamphlets, The Odds (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) and Dragonish (The Emma Press, 2017). The Odds was a winner in The Poetry Business International Pamphlet & Book Competition. Emma has been widely published in magazines and anthologies and has won both the Ver Poets and Prole Laureate prizes. She works in London as a part-time journalist and copywriter and has just completed an MA via the The Poetry School and Newcastle University.