Ashley Capes reviews “Everyday Static” by Toby Fitch and “Felt” by Johanna Featherstone
by Toby Fitch
Reviewed by ASHLEY CAPES
There is a fascinating tension in Toby Fitch’s Everyday Static, where beauty is wrung from points where the cityscape and the natural world intersect. On one hand the city is a great provider of poetry for Fitch, both through its parade of objects (especially objects of transit, like trains and cars, even shopping trolleys) and the way it stars in many of the poems within. At the same time he presents the city as a place accented by the images and hints of the natural world, where it presses in and survives, in mountains beyond busy harbours, in rain, in clouds, sunbeams and the moon.
The opening poem “On the Slink” embodies this idea, where the owls are placed beside wires, alley cats beside bottles in gutters
Sobering up, a breeze –
if I cast a stone up through the air,
between the wires, the tooting owls,
beyond the rooftops
into the twisting funnel of stars –
I could almost crack open the night
Set against the natural world is the street, with its traffic jams and stoplights and gutters, like a great, frozen urban river. An undercurrent to the collection is the theme of movement suspended, or even denied. Fitch places the reader inside the car in poems like “Tangents”, “Everyday Static” and “Junction” or within adjunct spaces, beneath lampposts and walking the streets, effectively trapping us in the narrative. It reveals a real disappointment when such movement is denied, a place of potential that has become but a place of traffic jams and bottlenecks. We look through his windshield and feel the same city
Driving along alone
between unforgiving buildings,
raindrops flicked up by tyres,
like rain on a windscreen
from “Everyday Static”. In “Junction” we see traffic “piled up in the rearview mirror/like a whitewash of words/none of which can tell me the right way.”
But in the street, in the jam, in the collection itself even, water is often a saviour. A titular poem “Everyday Static” exemplifies this, where the crush of routine and being trapped with flat tyres and tired windscreen wipers, is challenged by the water, which holds the potential for escape:
the world at water level as we pulled up
and gazed out into the harbour,
mountains and rain dissolving in lumpy waves
and in “Reaching Out” where we might
scale the ocean’s abyss,
soar up, above,
beyond the last port of call
and leave behind
a thousand thoughts,
a hundred hearts,
Fitch’s poems possess strength of imagery and metaphor, one that lies often in their unexpectedness within the context of a given poem. In fact, it’s really pleasing to see such inventiveness, such surrealism at times, in the pieces. Perhaps my favourite stanza in the collection (from “The River Seine”) reveals this skill best “you can see the horn-sounds/as colour above the river.” “Floe” is another example, we are given an ocean liner wedged in “fat” ice within a “skull full of hard rain” or the “wheezing stars” from “Irritations” and in closing poem “Winded on a Trampoline” an explosion of colour:
I clutch at clouds, burn my brow on sunbeams, lick blue moons with a rainbow scythe.
“Meanwhile”demonstrates the same stunning imagery, where falling snowflakes are “emptying the sky of stars” which are later thrown like “great shooting snowballs.” “Meanwhile” is one of the poems in the collection, which stands out, partly because we catch a glimpse of Fitch in a more relaxed frame as a writer, and the poem is beautiful in part due to this lessening of tension.
Everyday Static is cohesive collection of fourteen short poems that develop an undercurrent of struggle between movement and stasis, city and natural landscape, one that impresses not just with the narrator’s role within the themes, but with its attention to image, juxtaposition and metaphor.
by Johanna Featherstone
Reviewed by ASHLEY CAPES
Johanna Featherstone has collected an intimate group of (mostly) short poems in her chapbook Felt, poems that explore the personal and universal with a welcome attention to detail.
Take the opening poem “Expectant”, which reveals that attention to meaningful or evocative detail that is a hallmark of the entire collection. It offers a gentle beginning on a beach where “boats nose the horizon” and small hands collect objects hurled up by the deep. The short poem is like a film or an experience, where we as readers see a clean moment in time without having it described to us. It is this deft touch that I enjoyed so much throughout the collection, a touch that draws memory from the reader, linking it to the poetry.
Featherstone’s imagery is often an effective mix of the abstract and the beautiful or the innocent and the worldly. “Argyle Diamond Mine”, “Toyko Metro” and “Bedside Table” are but three which rely on such juxtaposition. The miners in “Argyle Diamond Mine” for instance, hide walls “stuck with glow-stars and fast-car posters” but are also presented as dealing stoically with the realities of adult life, where “…each man de-underpants/for the shower, swaying as he shaves and soaps free grit/from under the hood of his penis.”
In the meditative “Bedside Table” we see the world around a nursing home described most convincingly, through Featherstone’s use of colour, enjambment and her haiku-like eye for detail
Waking up in the same space teeth
brush after teeth brush, from below, a
gentle snare drum swish,
the ground is being
patted and brushed in ‘shhh’
steps: fluorescent green vest of a mammoth
council path sweeper, against
a newly popped orange rose.
The other great strength Felt possesses is its heart – making ‘Felt’ an apt title. The autobiographical elements of the chapbook are not self-indulgent; they balance personal remembrance and universal detail. They reveal a poet aware of language’s power to stir emotion, especially when it is used to describe objects which take on new and different meanings after momentous events, like the beautiful portrait of “Woodwork Classes” or “After the Funeral”, which hits hard
Toiletries, wallet things,
collected from the hospital, weigh down the single bed
that recently held his butterfly body…
…Fuzz settles on rubbish bags
packed with his clothes, ready for the tip.
A sense of loss and the sharpness of memory are themes returned to throughout the collection, usually as they can be applied to immediate family groups or friends. In “Mother looking into her son’s bedroom” the idea of loss is many-fold, but most interesting is where Featherstone includes the heartbreak associated with lack of mobility. The poem touches on the struggle associated with ‘care’ and weaves through memories that heighten the loss
After decades of friendship, he remains bedridden. Once, with a surfer’s frame, he’d ribbon through Bronte’s tides. Every Saturday, with friends, fry eggs on hot, waxed boards.
Featherstone places my favourite poem “Toyko Metro” toward the end of the collection. This compact but richly poetic piece stands out the context of surrounding pieces, by nature of its subject matter. It does not deal directly with family, but rather places familiar people within a snapshot of Japan’s train system; schoolgirls, “palm-sized grannies” and “loyal businessmen.” Here, as elsewhere, the poet’s descriptive skill holds attention
Thigh-high in uniforms, a posse
of pigeon-toed girls flirt through text
messages & languid blinks
palm-sized grannies fold into bows & nap
alongside loyal businessmen who store
years of sleep in bags beneath their eyes
everyone dreams between stops
on these overpopulated trains,
silent as chopsticks on rice.
The poems in Felt are refreshingly free of conceit to my eye, poems written with care and respect, wasting no syllables and punctuating for clarity. It would be interesting to see how Featherstone might bring the strength of her economy, restraint and tact to longer narrative pieces.