Matthew Paul reviews Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter by Sarah Mnatzaganian (Against the Grain, 2022), Maggie Mackay reviews Following Teisa by Judi Sutherland (Book Mill, 2021) and Hilary Menos reviews Badlands by Hugo Williams (Mariscat, 2021)
Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter by Sarah Mnatzaganian
I’ll start with a cliché: you know that if you go to see a film with subtitles, the chances are that it will feature key scenes in which family members sit around a big table, eating and drinking with gusto. If you enjoy the everyday human warmth of such drama and the intergenerational stories which underpin it then I’m certain that you will also relish tucking into Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter. The quality of its poems is astonishing given that Mnatzaganian appears only to have started writing poetry with serious intent after attending an Arvon course in 2015. (That it was run by Ann and Peter Sansom is less surprising: so many poets in the UK and beyond owe a debt to their wisdom and encouragement; one might suggest that they are the poetry equivalent to the influence which John Peel exerted on music.) But as is so often the case with comparative latecomers, what Mnatzaganian possesses is an accumulated, half-century’s-worth of stories which intrigue, entertain and provide the basis for splendid poetry.
The importance of family is evident right from the off, in ‘Egg Time’, a paean – dedicated to the poet’s Yorkshire mother – to eating a boiled egg:
[…] May this teaspoon
teach my tongue the taste of lunch hour
on a school day when I’m six, hugging
the bump under mum’s dungarees.
Even in this short extract, one can intuit Mnatzaganian’s poetic skill: the unusual but highly effective wish cast by that “May”; the jaunty meter; and the economical and subtle conveying of information to the reader, especially that last, rather lovely image mirroring the shape of the egg. That the dedication reveals that her mother’s name is Madeleine adds to the Proustian nature of the memory.
It is, though, Mnatzaganian’s patrilineal, Jerusalem-Armenian side which imbues the pamphlet with its most intense flavours and memorable lines. ‘My father taught me at night’ recounts how he whispered “love words into the womb”, at first in Armenian and then:
[…] in West Bank Arabic
to darken my hair and make my heart
strong enough to live:
Ahlen wasahlen habibti.
May you arrive as one of the family, darling
and tread an easy path on your way.
More languages follow. Mnatzaganian’s mixed heritage yields a diversity of experience which she bestows upon the reader as a gift to be cherished. In ‘Araxi’, one of the pamphlet’s many highlights, we watch her “aunt’s comely neighbours in Jerusalem”:
They spoon spiced coffee into a steaming pan,
watch it bubble, foam and slowly rise three times
and three times stir it back into peace,
soothe it with sugar and fill row after row
of tiny cups to warm the mourners of Araxi, 85,
whose house the priests now claim as theirs[…]
The accretion of detail here, augmented by the anaphora of “three times”, is very impressively rendered. The poem ends unforgettably with the majestic image of the priests sitting, “bearded and beautiful, waiting for baklava // bought fresh this morning from the souk / by Araxi’s daughter who leans against a wall, / pale with jetlag and a migrant’s guilt.” It is Mnatzaganian’s ability to say so much with such concision which makes this poem so enjoyable.
Mnatzaganian’s word-choices are suffused with a palpably inherent and generous sense of love, warmth and humanity
The marvellous title-poem is one of three commemorating Mnatzaganian’s Uncle Hagop. It relates, wonderfully, how, years ago, he “planted lemon trees outside his house / where small passionate tortoises collide each spring / with the hollow pock of a distant tennis match” and goes on to depict him, very movingly, as he neared the end of his life. An elegy, in the form of a direct address to Hagop, is equally moving; but it’s the third of the poems, ‘Uncle Hagop in Stratford-upon-Avon’ which is arguably the most remarkable. In it, Hagop tries a spot of wild swimming:
His joy buoys him up like Dead Sea water.
Floating head and shoulders high, he walruses
his favourite lines:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
If music be the food of love
He’s in his element, twice.
The natural comedy of this scene is enhanced by that ‘walruses’, an enviably perfect piece of poetic daring.
The women of Mnatzaganian’s family, herself included, are no less heroic and worthy of celebration, as some of the pamphlet’s best poems amply illustrate. The densely-layered praise-poem ‘In Praise of Armenian Cooks’ encompasses the genocide of Armenians undertaken by the Ottomans in 1915 (and which Turkey still refuses to acknowledge) – “I cook in memory of women / who lifted heavy breasts / into the mouths of children / whose fragrant heads / were snatched from their arms / and broken against walls” – and her forebears’ tradition of making dishes which Mnatzaganian continues: “Let’s make lahmajoun, ma’loubeh. / Mince the lamb fine, grind allspice. / […] / Our children are coming home.” Three poems feature Mnatzaganian’s daughter, and three feature Mnatzaganian busying herself in maternal assistance to her son, including ‘Food Run’, which describes her loving compilation of what my own mother used to call ‘a Red Cross parcel’, and the bittersweet loveliness of the couplets in ‘Cake Again’:
When there’s no way to touch
or give anything but words
it’s time to reach for butter eggs
spice syrup honey nuts apricots,
to melt-stir-beat myself into a bowl
and ask what more to add of zest
or juice to his tomorrow.
The absence of commas to punctuate the list of ingredients is well-judged, as is the compound verb before that surprising yet vital ‘myself’ – as if she really is putting herself into the cake which, as the poem shows, she goes on to take down to the Post Office for despatch to her son away at university. Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter also poignantly touches, in ‘Intifada Street’, on Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians; in this, as with the rest of its bountiful poems, Mnatzaganian’s word-choices are suffused with a palpably inherent and generous sense of love, warmth and humanity.
Matthew Paul lives in Rotherham and has worked as a local government education officer since 1992. His first collection, The Evening Entertainment, was published by Eyewear in 2017. He is also the author of two haiku collections, The Regulars (2006) and The Lammas Lands (2015), and co-writer / editor (with John Barlow) of Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku (2008), all published by Snapshot Press. He co-edited Presence haiku journal, has contributed to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’ column, and reviews poetry pamphlets for Sphinx. Matthew Paul’s blog is here.
Following Teisa by Judi Sutherland
Judi Sutherland was born in Stoke on Trent to Geordie parents, spent some time as a child in Northern Ireland, and since then has lived all over England. Her poetry is mainly concerned with place and belonging, and she has an interest in landscape, history and mythology. Following Teisa was written between 2014 and 2020, when she was living in Barnard Castle, County Durham.
This beautifully illustrated long poem pamphlet was inspired by the 18th century writer Anne Wilson’s sixteen-hundred-line piece on the Tees from source to mouth Teisa – A Descriptive Poem of the River Teese: Its Towns and Antiquities’, published in 1778. As a newbie to the area, Sutherland researched the full length of the wild landscape of the River Tees in painstaking detail. You can stop at named riverscapes along the way, engaging with viewpoints, local history, and the ever-changing sensory effects of water and activity.
There’s a powerful legacy of river poems in the canon, given the unbreakable relationship between human settlement and access to a water course. Writers have always focused on wildlife, riverbank activity, the action of water or industrial development. Their language reflects the wonder and energy of moving water, its life affirming velocity and its status as a powerful and necessary resource.
Four published river projects come to mind. In The River Duddon: A Series of Sonnets William Wordsworth writes about his beloved local river. It’s a celebration of its location at the confluence of three counties, Westmoreland, Cumberland and Lancashire. A painterly piece, the river is likened to a snake. Flowers and birds are admired. It exists to “heal, restore, soothe and cleanse.” We read light and shade in green hills and bleak winds. Sutherland follows similar paths in the ways she plays with movement, mood and reflection. In his illustrated collection River (Faber, 1983) Ted Hughes explores more broadly, and with a fisherman’s eye, changes in aquatic ecosystems over the course of the seasons and the qualities of aquatic creatures – sea trout, otter, eel, salmon, insects and plants – in the British Isles, Japan and Alaska.
In recent days, I’ve also been thinking of the Dnieper, the river which rises near Smolensk, Russia, before flowing through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, cutting right through the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv
Alice Oswald’s award-winning collection Dart (Faber, 2002) develops the world of the river through the voices of those living on / by it. It’s a long dream work which combines verse and prose and tells the story of the River Dart in Devon from a variety of perspectives. Watch Marc Tiley’s film based on Alice Oswald’s collection Dart here on Bing video. Beholden by Wah and Wong is a lament / eco poem focusing on the exploitation of resources of The Columbia River from its source in British Columbia to its mouth in Oregon. There is a powerful current carrying this poem which can be found in any successful writing about a river in motion. Buy beholden: a poem as long as the river by Fred Wah & Rita Wong
In recent days, I’ve also been thinking of the Dnieper, the river which rises in the Valdai Hills near Smolensk, Russia, before flowing through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, cutting right through the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and her seven bridges. It’s a constant expression of the history of the Slavic identity and an ancient trade route. Rivers impose huge personality on the global stage. They provide a central focus and sense of belonging to whole peoples.
In Following Teisa Sutherland guides the reader along the Teesdale Way, propelled by the energy of the Tees and energised by the activity on its banks. Rural and industrial, vibrant and elegiac, the language surges with the ebb and flow of water. Rhythmic phrases are populated by a range of voices telling the history of landmarks and nature of landscapes. The poet writes like a guardian of this living water. The wordplay expresses her intent. There’s a forceful current pulling the reader towards the Tees, investing in its story.
The journey begins in Teeshead. Immediately, we hear a vigorous pace, sense the detailed terrain. Water traverses “a trickle of old stones, then hurtles rocks, purls and pools in reeds.” I’m right in there “among the tussocks, haggs and groughs,” carried forward by muscular vowels. The northern voice speaks of “the stain of iron and bitumen / and the death of flowers as it flows “roiling, bubbling, waterfalling.”
Moving on, the walker encounters The Tees Roll, a phenomenon, a flood capable of crushing bridges, drowning men. There’s the peril, danger which lives long in memory. Mood turns and tosses with the power of water. Things turn sinister at Flatts Wood. Peg Powler, Hag of the Tees, crouches in reeds “with her crown of suds and her hair of weeds,” waiting to drag you under. Her eyes stare out from the fine pen and ink illustration, leaving you quaking.
This is a glittering traverse of a living water, showcasing its experience of human activity, of endurance and change, of flowing on and on. Sutherland is a storyteller par excellence
Barnard Castle, infamous in recent years, is beautifully described through Anne Wilson’s Halcyon eyes and the kingfisher as a town “in the bowl of the hills, a clutch of eggs in the nest” towards moor where I’m greeted by “the punch of weather.” As the Teisa flows on over pages, across Teesdale, I’m led to Meeting of the Waters, a fascinating exploration of geological history, of deep time. At Piercebridge the Roman world joins the journey. I find this so appealing. The lines spill over with lovely human detail. Roman soldiers on Roman bridges, silver denarii, a leaden goat on an island shrine, farm buildings, “low and limewashed with red-tiled roofs.” This section perfectly shows the blend of the natural and the man-made, both leaving their stamp on the river.
Sockburn teems with “dragons, wyverns and worms.” A serpent falls from the moon. The Viking prow of a warship glides round this river bend – “the stone end-beast / of a hogback grave.” Shivers. Then a change of tack. The heyday of industry is celebrated in Stockton. “Shipwrights, marine engines, sheerleg cranes / and blast furnaces” inhabit the riverbank, cut to run straight. The focus is “the wool and the butter / the lead and the pig-iron, the coal and the rope.” The Industrial Revolution imposes its weight on the Tees. ‘Middlesbrough’ is a lengthy story of a halfway house of named farmsteads and coal staithes, woods and churches replaced by foundries. Rich in conflicting tensions, it embraces a lament for the loss of manufacturing in the sight of a rusting Brent oil rig. This reminded me of the themes in the TV programme, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, best expressed by the line: “This thug river has ‘love’ and ‘hate’ / tattooed on its knuckles.”
Take the black path, the saltmarsh path, the ancient way towards Redcar. Walk the beach in a place where once steelworks, furnace and a rolling mill thrived. Sutherland’s lines end calmly as the river “empties into the sea.” Here, at South Gare, in a “ship of cloud” the Tees joins the infinity of the global water cycle. This is a glittering traverse of a living water, showcasing its experience of human activity, of endurance and change, of flowing on and on. Sutherland is a storyteller par excellence.
Maggie Mackay loves family history, winding it into lyrical poems in print and online journals such as Ink Sweat &Tears, Prole, Spelt, Southlight and in several anthologies, including ‘MeToo’ and ‘Bloody Amazing!’, both winners of Sabotage Awards. Her pamphlet The Heart of the Run was published by Picaroon Poetry in 2018 and her collection A West Coast Psalter, Kelsay Books in 2021. The Poetry Archive WordView 2020 awarded her poem ‘How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt’ a place in the permanent collection. She is a MA poetry graduate of Manchester Metropolitan University and a reviewer for Sphinx Review.
Badlands by Hugo Williams
The first poem in Badlands, ’The Plunge Club’, opens with seven naked girls and an invitation to the narrator to join in a “watery celebration / of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”. Sex simmers under the surface of the second (and titular) poem, ‘Badlands’: “She’s probably rounding up / one or two maverick stallions as I speak”. The tightrope walkers in the third poem, ‘Disco Love’, are “mating in public on a spotlight’s beam, / coupling and uncoupling in mid air”. Whew!
This wham bam opening trio is followed by poems involving references to bite marks down the backs of knees (“or somewhere thereabouts”), the narrator stealthily untucking the bottom of the bed and “crawling in like a crocodile, biting the inside of her leg”, and a poem about condoms. It’s all about sex and girls. And, possibly, love, in passing.
By the middle of the pamphlet these rather risqué moments have given way to something darker. ’Sol y Sombra’ marks a step change. The narrator remembers the luminous skeletons which hung outside the London club where he and his partner used to dance. The skeletons “jiggled their bones in the wind, bumping their bodies together”. More sex? Probably. But by the end of the poem the dance that the narrator and his partner are doing is a danse macabre, and it’s not about sex at all, it’s about ageing and the foreknowledge of death.
The poems that follow become increasingly wistful, disillusioned, unreconciled. In ‘Blue Angel’ the narrator wants to go “back to a place / where broken songs are mended”. In ‘Nowhere Man’ he mourns his “peculiar ruined afterlife”, but concludes “where else is there to go?” The final poem, ‘The Story So Far’ tells the bitter truth:
At this point in the story
all we can say for sure
is that one of us goes on ahead
to explore the difficult terrain
where everything remains to be seen
while the other stays home
tossed this way and that
on the cross-currents of memory.
Memory looms large for Hugo Williams throughout this pamphlet, as through much of his work – mostly his memories of women he has loved, lost, danced with (and perhaps bitten).
As you’d expect from someone who has been publishing poetry since 1965, and has claimed the TS Eliot prize, the Costa Book Award and the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry, William’s handling of language is always assured. Look at the alliteration and assonance in:
I’m hot on her trail
riding the rails across town.
struggle to the surface of the mug
and burst open like spiders’ eggs
His poems here – all fourteen lines, some more sonnet-y than others but none obviously sonnets – are readable, conversational, modern. He makes the business of writing a poem look effortless, but the apparently artless surface is underpinned by a full understanding of the craft and a complete mastery of tone. Only Williams could make us feel the full horror of the ageing process in a poem about Horlicks!
Memory looms large for Hugo Williams throughout this pamphlet, as through much of his work – mostly his memories of women he has loved, lost, danced with (and perhaps bitten)
Some poems, however, talk about women in a way that make me feel uncomfortable. In ‘Sunset Hour’ the narrator watches an (actual or imagined) slide show of a past partner “perched on a late bar stool, / her hips and hair and shoulder blades / dawdling …” until the projector jams and the slide melts
and the apparition goes up in smoke,
a silent burn hole blossoming
where her mouth used to be.
The three following poems, ‘The Letter’, ‘Some Hope’ and ‘Life at Sea’ together deal with the end of the relationship. The first tells how the female partner ended it. In the second the narrator protests that he would never phone to beg her to come back. “I would pull back from the brink / and hang up without saying anything / knowing my number could be traced.” What is going on here? Does he want to be revealed as the silent caller “begging her for mercy”, or not? And isn’t this just a little bit stalker-y? And in the third “a man who knew what he was talking about” mocks the woman by pulling a “pleading, little girl face” and accuses her of “the same unreadable signals / the same chains of yellow hair / lashing him to the mast in a storm.” There’s quite some sexual innuendo here, and an ambivalence towards women at the very least: the burn-hole mouth, the chains of hair, the mocking.
Both here and elsewhere Williams seems to imply that women are unknowable, un-claimable, unreliable. In ‘Bite-marks’ he writes:
Are women naked, do you think,
or is it impossible to say
when they turn their backs
and walk ahead of you across the room.
In ‘Sell-by Date’ (about ‘johnnies’) he writes: “You kept one in your wallet for years, / until it disintegrated from neglect.” And in ‘Them’ – a poem dedicated, I think, to women – he ends:
If one of them was willing
to sleep with us in our dreams
and was still there next morning,
everything would be strangely peaceful
in our lives and I for one
would be rich and famous by now.
That’s a lot of responsibility to lay at women’s collective feet.
Williams’ romantic yearning for the flame of youth, his obsession with memories of past love (by which I probably mean past sex) and his dissatisfaction with the ageing process – a dissatisfaction that borders on bitterness – would be more difficult to read if he wasn’t so self-aware, so human, and if the poems weren’t so nicely turned. ‘Bad Sex’, for example, describes the narrator feeling “put out” when a woman “thirty years my junior and related to me by marriage” gets engaged (to someone else – outrageous!) and suggests that as a wedding gift Williams writes a column in the TLS about her fiancé’s new novel. The poem ends with him parroting, waspishly, what we assume are her words, “After all, it wouldn’t cost me anything.” We know, and we know Williams knows, that this, at some level, costs him everything. He’s aware of what this says about the size of his ego – isn’t he? – and his saving grace is that he’s still willing to share it with us.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. She won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010 with Berg (Seren, 2009). Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020), won The Poetry Business International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019. Her newest pamphlet is Fear of Forks (HappenStance, 2022)