Review of the reads – December 2023

Words by:
Yusef Sayed
Featured in:
December 2023

Yusef Sayed’s review of the reads.

Really Not Really by Fee Griffin
Published by Broken Sleep Books, price £9.99
The title of Fee Griffin’s second poetry collection echoes that of her debut, For Work/For TV, suggesting two ways of identifying, categories of experience. But without the punctuation mark Really Not Really also hints at what makes her writing so engaging and unique. Are these poems about virtual worlds and fake news? Or the oldest puzzles of metaphysics? The phrase has a poetic ambiguity and effect all its own, removing binary difference and ordinary logic.

Griffin’s poetry takes it all in, born of our era of Google search, celebrity gossip and compulsive screen-based media while showing a wide knowledge of natural history and social history – the facts of how we got here. And how language does what it does. She writes, ‘I hadn’t known that ‘is’ was a verb, that just being, now, was enough’.

The poems in Really Not Really spotlight domestic details, nostalgic fragments (VHS recordings, an ‘Austin A55 mk2’ manual), everyday chat, and touch on universal themes. Griffin can transform commonplaces and find surface or subliminal connections between seemingly unconnected ideas, images and emotions – painful and playful.

Griffin stays attuned to her Lincolnshire surroundings – Skegness Pier and the Fossdyke feature – and at the same time there is an ease with which she can switch from ground level to the astronomical (‘Futility of Trying to Enter a 240-Year-Old Public House from Orbit’). Griffin mines deep seams and writes of ‘1.975.8 light years from here’. This agility is also shown in the final poem in the book, which refers to the passing of astronomer Reg Spry, and familial loss.

There is an endless sense of curiosity in the possible forms of poetry available too. Griffin uses alignment, redaction, repetition, permutation and genre to find how best to organise her sentiments and descriptions (or what might prove productively antagonistic).

Just as the poems are full of elemental references – to ‘fire’ and ‘water’ – Griffin breaks words and source materials down to the core to find new energy and potential.

Happiness, Sadness, And All Things in Between (Edited by Fee Griffin)
Published by Broken Sleep Books, price £9.99

This anthology, also new from Broken Sleep Books and introduced by Fee Griffin, shares work by 20 students on the University of Lincoln’s BA Creative Writing programme.

An atmosphere of anxiety and persecution runs through much of the work. Phoebe McBurney’s unflinching poems deal with oppressive fathers, while Charlotte Brown’s ‘The Moon and Her Man’ takes familiar symbolic associations between the moon and femininity as a way to reflect on misogyny.

The several historical fictions included in the anthology draw on distinctly different eras, from the court of Elizabeth I and her relationship with Walter Raleigh, to the life of Florence Nightingale; while Eleanor Gray’s macabre ‘One Wednesday in June’ evokes the murderous experiments and biological warfare research carried out by the Japanese in the 20th century, against a backdrop of quiet eastern domesticity and ritual.

There are deadly games too: in ‘Sacrifice is Mandatory’, Joshua Kevin Carr introduces an unfamiliar card game against a shadowy opponent, where the only way to survive is to adapt to new rules in no-time. Kalon Douglas-Torr’s short story meanwhile features a sudden, monstrous intrusion during a Monopoly game.

There is, then, little of the ‘happiness’ suggested by the title of this anthology, the writing instead conveying the uncertainties, fears and fast-changing circumstances faced today, particularly by young people.

Aside from Ella Lounds’s twist on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, the writing is fairly light on allusions to past authors and poets, or obvious parodies. But hopefully such a course engages a passion towards creative reading and the literary past as much as alternative historical narratives, raw personal testimony and contemporary culture – and this might come through in future writing.

Standout among the contributions are Maya Shell’s three poems. As with many of the texts, there is an underlying unease, but here the sense of historical weight, present discomfort and morbid curiosity come together in the most striking, musical ways: a ‘tapestry pulling tight’ on the lungs – and at an Egypt exhibition, a ‘tongue running over sore gummed gaps / where ancient history has cut my mouth’.

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