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Review: Yelp!, by Liz Almond

To say that Liz Almond's second collection Yelp! is impressive is an understatement. The blurb on the back of this book published by Arc Publication starts gently, explaining that Rituals of travel are at the heart of Liz Almond's book..., so I was unprepared for the searing agony of the work, and its intensity. For this is a book of occupation, dispossesion and loneliness, with images that left me shocked at their brutality but envious at the ease with which she was able to pin down those blistering descriptions and nail them to the page.

Almond writes with extraordinary strength, anger, bitterness and anguish, and occasional silver strands of unconditional love and tenderness, descriptions of the pleasure taken in the preparation and consumption of food, the necessity to continue writing regardless of the turbulence that is around her. This is absolutely not a book for the faint-hearted. It is a book that will make your heart leap at the sheer quality of her work.

From the beginning of the book, her poetic journey queries the necessity of need and what is real, embracing solitary confinement and the state of dismemberment the poet finds herself in after she has returned to the world, as in Quarantine:

I'm tempted to take up smoking,
Drink whisky, venture out of bounds
Onto the forbidden moor and mountain.
When I come out of solitary confinement,
I find that summer has passed me by
And I've skipped a season into autumn's
Dismembering, between what I was
And what I might be;
An altogether altered state

These themes of separate-ness, the need for solitude and isolation, and the longing for some kind of peace are threaded through the book. She writes about these things lovingly, as if they are necessities keeping soul linked to the earth, providing her with her sense of self, constant reminders of un-belonging, as if she was eternally in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In Negative once again she provides us with cruel images that describe an indifferent heaven and an unresponsive god within it, with little left for the living:

We're close to heaven
But heaven has no time
For plastic flowers or tawdry monuments
And it's obvious
The souls are drawn away
From stacked tombs that stifle them.

Here, there isn't a fear of death, just astonishment at the barrenness of it all.
Her series of seven poems collectively titled 'Satellite Cinema' are simply stunning - an extraordinary series of pieces working up a tremendously powerful picture. The images are raging, desperate, violent, bleak fragments of a corrupt and corrupting, greedy and vengeful world - the world Oroboros consuming itself - told with consummate flair and aptitude. Each of the seven pieces has something extraordinary to explore, from Nimiq 1,

When the cabin door is opened
And out we file handcuffed together
The first sharp smell of home
Wafts up from the ground
Pink as dried pomegranate seed,
Insides of mouths, dried blood,
Where are the antidotes to hood,
Humiliation and harm?

Through a series of vicious analogies and juxtapositions, sinister links of birth and death, warfare and destruction, to the final Hotbird 5, an endgame of clinical observation, a cold alien perspective of events.

I've grown out of trunks and carpets,
Long for more altitude, thinner air,
Realize the globe's fiction of blue and green
Is just that...

...and at the margins, deltas
empty into seas whose
currents swirl and eddy,
spinning water held in place by gravity.
Far enough away not to see
Gunfire, explosions, implosions
As the creatures argue among themselves.

There are no lies told here, just the savage truth where the line between poetry and poetic journalese grows increasingly thin.

Almond has a razor-sharp ability to make links between the ordinary (birds, lizards, flowers, food), and the deadly (revenge, death, disease, invasion). She has a keen eye for detail, transforming the commonplace into the outlandish, and sinister, as in Moorish Gecko:

A Moorish Gecko is good to eat
If large enough,
Steamed with tomato, garlic, parsley.
It tastes of the country,
Of thyme and rosemary
It's brushed against
Meditating
In the parched path
On why the good lizard died,
Belly up to last night's moon
Which was just too bright
For its old jewelled eyes
Whose lids are shut.

Here is much anger and resistance in her work. Every poem is an act of self-defence, a banner defying occupation. The ghosts of happier days, places, people, lovers, glide through the rage and bitterness like phantom ships. Almost every piece has a sting in its tale, uncovering a mirror-world of dark and light, where nothing is what it seems on the surface, and everything can bite, sting, wound or tear at whatever softness or beauty you imagine you are witnessing in the world. This poetry will bite you, shouting aloud for you to pay more attention. It will draw blood. Each word is a razor blade - for example, Bitter Water begins with the writer arriving on an idyllic tropical island, where all she wants is to be brown, brown as the boys who cluster too close, but very quickly realises life there is not exactly a TV commercial paradise:

I'm strolling through a communal latrine
no-one warned you that the beach
has other complexions, other functions
which burst your myth, smash your idyll

Another series of six poems, each one of which starts with the word girl in the title, also become another splendid example of how Almond joins ephemeral elements of this world to another more sinister place, full of madness and despair, yet somehow still horribly, terribly fascinating. From the first in the series, Girl Almost Writing:

Husbands barge into your dreams
In their heavy suits and boots like hooves
Kicking the bars of their cage.
Zoos breed neurotic behaviours;
Pacing, self harm,
And sudden eruptions of violence
Like the elephant who crushed its
Keeper's face with a foot.

She takes us on a journey of memories sometimes hiding horror, replete with madness and mirages leaving us wondering, as she does, what is real, whether she should be sectioned or sanctioned, especially after the short piece Girl Lifting Skirt to Dog:

Slowly I lift my skirt, my matador's cape,
Part of my suit of lights in which I ape
Teasing him with what I don't know I have...
...when Dog plunges his wet nose in,
relieves his pricked up ears of fleas
crazed by blood, my own grazed knees.

Are any of these poems a refuge? I don't think so, despite the unexpected gentleness of the final piece Girl Swimming, where we are suddenly and unpredictably in the Aegean, swimming:

...across the bay
in a dazzle of metallic blue reaches your ears.
The slow swim back towards land
Calls us back into voice and air.
We're losing our winter pallor,
Cherries are in season.

She is as skilful a writer when exploring her softer side, as in Bushcraft and Sweet Doing Nothing where she writes with poignant sweetness of her lover, as she is in all the other poems of despair and isolation. Expressing the lasting goodness of her love comes as an even greater surprise than a handclap. But it doesn't last long. In Postcard from the Zone, once again she plunges back into the state of 'between-ness' she seems to occupy so often, the space in the eye of the hurricane where she is unable to either control what went before or what is still to come, except with her writing, her eating...some of the time:

Intellectually I enter it
But in practice, hardly ever do,
Stuck on the threshold,
Tentative opening of window -
French, with its long pane
Of famously unstable
Supercooled liquidity.

As the collection draws to a close, she confirms that it is in her writing that she finds herself a real person, rather than a shadow living in shadows.

Writing takes up two whole hours;
Mechanical, precise as clockwork,
Or ragged as an unraveling skein.

Announcing that:
Replete with solitude
I climb into bed where my sense of self
Is either magnified or reduced.

If you want comfortable poetry about kittens, or Manga-eyed kiddies, look elsewhere... you won't find that comfort here. But if you want poetry that takes you by the scruff of the neck and underlines the fact that the world is an extraordinary, spiteful, desperate, violent, and remarkable place, poetry that is written by someone with an unfailing eye for both the beautiful and the brutal, then look no further than Liz Almond's exceptional Yelp! You're in for a bumpy ride!