Art

Spring Reading Selection

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Spring Reading: A review of some of the book I have enjoyed so far this year. 

The Opacity of Narrative by Peter Lamarque (Rowman & Littlefield)

We all like to tell stories but narrative is invested with meanings that make it more serious and questionable than we ever imagined. There is something called narratology –a term that Word 10 flags up as a spelling mistake – because a story isn’t simply a representation of a world that does or could exist. Fictional or not, a narrative is an artefact, not some entity in the natural world, and a postmodernist like Hayden White writes of historical narratives shaping the relationships that turn facts into a story with a particular significance. This isn’t saying historians constitute the actual facts but it does get close to saying the resulting narrative is not altogether different to a story that might emerge if they did. The historian shares something with the novelist: both recount and shape events within a temporal dimension, imposing a structure, and creating a narrative. Herodotus is a historian but what he writes is also a work of literature and the first Penguin edition classified it as fiction;  Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark was published as nonfiction in America but fiction in Britain; Hitler’s Diaries turned out to be fiction but this doesn’t make it literature. The Opacity of Narrative sets out with admirable lucidity the questions and queries and the tricky issues in the fields of epistemology, philosophy and aesthetics that arise when narrative loses any claim to transparency. It becomes important to work on identifying kinds of narrative practice, the different conventions they follow and the nature of the truth claims involved and this book succeeds in making you think about what is involved in doing so. A story is never just a story.

 

China Miéville critical essays edited by Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia   

Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville by Carl Freedman (Gylphi)

The form of fictional stories that monopolize the subject matter of newspapers’ book reviews and the display tables in bookshops is representative realism, filling in a story in reassuringly familiar ways as if there is a readily knowable world out there and a novel can capture it verbally just as a photograph shows us what it is a photograph of. A photograph or a realistic novel, we naively feel, stands in a causal, mimetic relation to their subject matter but, as the essays brought together by Edwards and Venezia and the critical study by Freeman show, there is a narrative complexity to China Miéville’s novels that rejects such a model of transparency  In place of a fixed line leading to a determined destination, Iron Council describes a train line (and the journey along it) that is always in the making: ‘Miles of track, reused, reused, it is the train’s future and its present, and it emerges a fraction more scarred as history and is hauled up again and becomes another future.’ In The City & The City the ability of
language to cement an ideology of seeing and unseeing is on show in a single city of two psychological halves, the inhabitants of one literally not seeing what is in front of their eyes. In Embassytown, a species incapable of understanding metaphor, for whom each word can mean one thing only since meaning does not depend on a system of differences, discovers what it means to use words non-literally. For Miéville, the issues raised by his imaginative stories are packed with political intent and this is what makes him the most interesting of all contemporary novelists.

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Artist and Empire

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The subject of this exhibition is representations of the British Empire by artists over the past four hundred years. You might expect a bucket of blood to confront visitors in the first room at Tate Britain but the subject has to be approached more carefully given a recent poll indicating that 44% of British people look back to their empire with pride. So the first room of the exhibition, entitled Maps and Flags, plays it safe with examples of early cartography and some splendid Ghanaian asafo flags. Brian Friel’s Translations comes to mind as a more insightful probe into the role of maps in the making of the empire.

The second room, Trophies of Empire, looks at the variety of artefacts and art associated with Britain’s imperial project and, given the size and extent of the empire, it is not surprising to find an astonishing range of material on display. There is Stubb’s grand painting, ‘A Cheetah and Stag with Two Indian Attendants’, illustrations of plants and animals by amateur scientists and naturalists and no shortage of material resulting from looting, bartering and purchasing by traders and soldiers. Carved heads from Benin, a small part of the systematic plundering conducted by British forces in 1897, are the prize exhibits here but a visit to the British Museum is necessary to appreciate just how magnificent was the art practised in a corner of Nigeria centuries past.

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Goya in London

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Art Review

Goya: The Portraits. National Gallery. Until 10 January 2016

The Goya exhibition at the National Gallery shares something with The World of Pop by bringing to the attention of our eyes an aspect of his art that had previously passed us by. Goya is not famous for his portraits — but if you’ve seen his ‘Antonia Zárate’ in Dublin (loaned to London for this show) you’ll know he can paint people like an angel — but he earned his keep by turning them out for rich patrons and only now, by bringing together so many of them, is it possible to take in his extraordinary achievement. 

His pure skill as a painter reveals itself in the ability to render those parts of the human body not hidden in costumes or layers of clothing; witness the fine skin and eyebrows of Maria Teresa de Vallabriga, the young wife of Infante Don Luis. Goya was hired by the royal couple as a portrait painter and he grew to like them as people capable of being themselves, not straitjacketed by court protocols. And when painting the Duke and Duchess of Osuna with their children Goya seems equally enamoured by their personal qualities and portrays them with a sense of animated informality.

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Pop Art in London

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Pop art — a complicit reflection of and a critical response to the plethora of media that bombarded popular culture in the 1960s: magazines, photographs, billboards, colour advertising, television, brand names, celluloid – was bound up with the climatic ascendency of US power in its manifest destiny to conquer the world with military might and icons and logos of the good life and the free market. Baudrillard noted this in 1970 when he characterised pop art as the ‘total integration of artwork into the political economy of the commodity sign’.

crowd of people, even dissenters, becoming just a collection of potential consumers.

Tate Modern’s exhibition refocuses this debate not by bringing together the familiar works of Pop Art but by looking at its international face and showing how it was used by artists to raise
social and political issues that went beyond the remit usually associated with Warhol et al. For Evelyn Axell, the space age of the 1960s becomes a site of sexuality in Valentine (1966) by showing Valentine Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut, waiting to be unzipped in an act of erotic voyeurism that celebrates female intimacy. In Joan Rabascall’s Atomic Kiss (1968) the archetypal movie-inspired female mouth in red lipstick is juxtaposed with an image of an atomic explosion. These are interesting and arresting but other pieces on show seem lightweight, like Teresa Buga’s Cubes (1968) which looks like a dismantled Rubik’s Cube painted with graphic signs. It is supposed to anticipate a post-modern world where meaning is never fixed, always subject to deconstruction and reconfiguration, but if
you were unkind you’d say it would not be out of place in a children’s play area. Kiki Kogelnik, an Austrian who went to New York and met Warhol, Rauschenberg and the gang, gives us Bombs in Love (1962), a mixed-media sculpture of two found bomb-casings painted in lurid colours of hippydom. It has a curiosity value but a museum rather than an art gallery might best serve as its permanent home.

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The Continuing Story of Óglaigh na hÉireann

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All around the snot-nosed parishes of Ireland

small people of both genders, and neither,

are flapping open

copies of The Sunday O’Duffy

getting worried

about the continued existence

of the Citizen Army, Fenian Brotherhood,

Official IRA.

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We can’t have

parties who perspire to government

secretly controlled by cabals

of men (and ladies) whose faces

we never see; apart from those

faces prescribed by prevailing winds

and the agreed rules

of the European Union,

which we need never see

but rest eternally assured

are there. Or thereabouts.

s

The only weaponry allowed

those seeking elected office

are five piece suits to help little

men appear substantial,

and no more than six

plastic chairs on which the faithful can

every other month gather

to recite the Our Father,

or discuss the rising

price of sewage. Even

s

the Social Democrats must come clean

about the continued non-existence

of their army council, and what role precisely

Fintan O’Toole plays in its

military high command.

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A mature democracy like ours

needs parties whose manifestos

political correspondents

with excellent haircuts (and none) can safely

spread across their living room floors

and roll around naked on

without fear of being interrupted

by men and women wearing

illegally held

balaclavas.

s

KEVIN HIGGINS

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New Proclamation to the People of Ireland

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Proclamation
The Next President
OF THE
IRISH REPUBLIC
TO THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND

IRISHLADS AND IRISHLADIES: In the name of O’Brien, Martin-Murphy, Esat Digifone, the Dublin United Tramways Company, and of the dead executioners who met with unhappy accidents on their way to midday Mass, from whom she receives her old tradition of being neither this nor that.

Having patiently perfected her zeal, having waited, resolutely as a cat bound and gagged all night in the outhouse, for the right moment to reveal herself on Facebook, she now seizes this moment, with her one good typing hand, supported by all her children who thankfully went away and quietly died in flats above chip shops at Cricklewood, and by gallant allies first in London, and now, Berlin, but relying in the first instance on her own weakness, she strikes in full confidence of her ongoing defeat.

I declare the right of others – henceforth to be referred to as the financial markets – to the ownership of Ireland, and their unfettered control over all Irish destinies –male, female, hermaphrodite, thin, fat, or medium sized – to be sovereign and indefeasible. Our long subjugation by foreign institutions and dudes named Rupert, or lately Gunter, who knew and still know what’s best for us, has extinguished us. Nor should we be ever again be spoken of, except by madmen roaring on street corners and those who will be henceforth called Shinnerbots on Twitter, our candle having been successfully quenched by our own hand. In every generation a rabble of corner boys (joined occasionally by Bernadette Devlin and her likes) have conspired in back alleys and attics secretly converted for said purpose to assert the lie of our right to national freedom and sovereignty; eight times during the last four centuries they have asserted it by force of pikes, Lewis machine guns and Kalashnikovs. Standing against such fundamental wrongs and re-asserting our most recent surrender in the face of Goldman Sachs, on legal advice received from Peter Sutherland Senior Counsel, I hereby proclaim the Irish Republic to be a state subjugated to people whose names I don’t even know, and couldn’t pronounce if I did, and pledge my life, and more importantly yours– and those of your inconsequential children – to the cause of our ongoing interest payments and GMC/Sierra Ltd, in which you should all immediately buy fucking shares.

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Rembrandt: Facing the Truth

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Visual Art Review: 

Rembrandt The Late Works (The National Gallery, London)

Rembrandt: The Late Works, Jonathan Bikker et al (Yale University Press)

Rembrandt’s Universe, Gary Schwartz (Thames & Hudson)

Rembrandt is one of those names, like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, that have ascended to a higher almost ethereal sphere and the person behind the name can only be lauded and lavished with imprecise praise. Shrink-wrapped and simplified for posterity, they are Famous and Exemplary and we are not invited to look too closely at their situations and achievements. Everyone knows Martin Luther King had a dream and that he was a good guy but that’s about it. And we know Rembrandt was a really great painter but not so sure what his greatness consisted in. The exhibition at London’s National Gallery (until 18 January), and two books on the artist, go some way towards taking the man off his pedestal and helping us see what is astonishing about his work.

Good painters are uncanny at playing with the movement of light and colours and Rembrandt is no exception in this regard but not all good painters can depict facial expressions with honesty, compassion and sublime skill. Rembrandt is the unrivalled master when it comes to faces. His abiding concern with capturing moods and emotional states as registered by posture and parts of the body, especially faces and hands, helps explain why he painted his own body some eighty times. Vanity, as you see when stepping into the first room of the National Gallery’s stunning exhibition, doesn’t come into it. The room has four self-portraits in oil and one etching, completed between 1659 and 1669, and they will bowl you over.

A day later I found myself in snooty Knightsbridge and a street mostly dedicated to high-end hairdressers and beauty parlours, one of which offered a ‘bespoke permanent make up service’. Rembrandt is the natural antidote to any such endeavour. He paints himself as he is: limp skin, slack jowls, wiry grey hair, drooping eyelids and a W.C. Fields-like nose. The self-portraits were painted during the years in which his common-law wife, Hendrickje, and his son Titus died, a period of grief compounded by his finances nose-diving into bankruptcy. When he died himself, aged 63, he was buried in an anonymous rented grave.

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Look How Our Leaders Tremble When They See Us Together

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Our leaders would like to inform us
that they are fine with protest
in fact they really respect us
so long as we follow their rules and do it
without any disruption of business, (preferably
at home in our own bedrooms where no one can see us,
and without any unnecessary shouting
that might upset the neighbours)
they’re fine with it then,
so they are.

Our leaders would prefer if we fought with each other
and if we absolutely have to protest in public they’d rather
we did it in the form of a strongly worded letter to the paper
or a phone call to Joe which their straw men could deal with
by saying they’ve launched an inquiry that’ll never be finished
and that they agree with us about whatever it is
that should never have happened,
haven’t they’ve always said it,
sure?

If the worst comes to the worst and, despite them warning us
that we should have due consideration
for the inevitable, unspecified but extremely sinister consequences,
we mount a demonstration against them
they’ll counter by saying that some of the people out marching
are reported to have once been spotted by someone
eating ice cream in Bangor which everyone knows
is north of the border
and you know what that means
or don’t you?

Our leaders would prefer if we’d focus our anger
on the unemployed carpenter who put up some shelves
for his mother when he knew full well that accepting
more than two biscuits counts as a nixer-
he’s the type that has ruined our country
they call him the benefit scrounger,
who was fully employed until 2009
but now has managed to squander something something million,
yes that exact figure, would you like to report him?
Click here please…
oh yes your call is important.

Our leaders would love us to whinge about the imaginary asylum seeker
who is rumoured to have left a thousand prams
at a thousand bus stops in every single city, small town and village
you know the woman? No, me neither,
because no one has ever actually met her
but it’s rumoured that her skin was darker than yours is,
or so they’ll tell us, our leaders,
because they’d love us to fight with each other
over any small difference and leave them alone while we’re doing it,

they’d love if we picked on the gays instead of the bankers
they’d love you to get riled up about Panti Bliss who wants
to come into your house and ruin your marriage instead of wondering
how the hell they themselves put us in bondage
to repay 60 billion to loan sharks we never did business with,
and they’d love if those in negative equity
squabbled with the people from council estates
and if they in turn would fight with the renters
who’d pick on with the travelers
and they’d rather you made like a fascist
and blamed the Roma who, they are happy to tell us
are the cause of the economy collapsing
and were somehow involved in causing global warming
I mean have you not spotted the sea levels rising
did you not see the floods in Cork like?
Of course you did, they won’t stand for it,
or something.

And it’s nothing personal that our leaders have
against any particular ethnicity,
it just that they hate to see us united and mobilised
they are afraid we might compare notes
and realize that the same things affect us all the same way,
they’re afraid we might lose the run of ourselves
and run them the hell out of office,
and what should we tell them?

That we’re in this together?
That every person of every class, creed and race
who wants something better is welcome? Is one of us?
Or should we tell them that when 85 individuals own more
of the wealth in the world than three point five billion
the problem goes deeper than skin colour, deeper than factions
deeper than their strategies for permanent growth on one tiny planet
should we tell them that our system is broken?
Or should we just say nothing
and watch how they tremble,
when they see us all sticking together.

Sarah Clancy
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Fight the Power & Parecomic: Two Graphic Political Books by Sean Michael Wilson

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Sean Michael Wilson is an Irish-Scot professional comic book/graphic novel writer, who often makes books on social issues, history, and politics and so his recent work might be of interest to readers. His most recent book, which came out last October, is Fight the Power, published by the New Internationalist and introduced by Tariq Ali. Fight the Power is described as ‘A Visual History of Protest Amongst the English Speaking Peoples’ and has a whole chapter on Ireland and Irish struggles.

Another one of interest is Parecomic, published by Seven Stories Press, which describes in graphic novel form the anarchist inspired participatory economics system of Michael Albert. The book includes an introduction by Noam Chomsky, who is also in the book several time – his first contribution to a book in graphic form.

Here are more detail on both books…

On  Fight the Power

In his famous history series A History of the English Speaking Peoples Winston Churchill seemed to think that history was about wars and made by great leaders.

Fight the Power! begs to differ and instead presents A Visual History of Protest Amongst the English Speaking Peoples.

Today’s occupy movements are part of a long history of struggle. This book visualises key moments in history where ordinary people have risen up and fought governments, corporations, even empires. When the 99% have stood up to combat exploitation and abuse or in pursuit of freedom of action and a better life.

This comic book covers 14 cases of such struggle over the last 200 years and in several English speaking countries including not just the US and UK but Australia, Canada, South Africa, Ireland, India and Jamaica.

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Review: AntiMidas or, Bankers in Hades, The Opera

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The collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy, the unemployment and emigration that followed, the cuts in vital services and payments, the boarded-up windows, the ghost estates, the buddleia that sprouts where dreams of riches or steady employment died, not to mention the commitment made in our name, and enforced painfully in our daily lives, that speculators must be winners – all of this seems to have triggered seething anger, resentment and cynicism, but no flaming of popular resistance, no widespread demand for political or social transformation.

Late last year, it was reported that an opera about the banking meltdown was about to open in the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin. Was this to be the unlikely spark that would light the flame? Would Dublin on the twelfth of December 2013 be like Brussels on the 25th of August in 1830, when (so the story goes) the patriotic fervor voiced in Daniel-Francois Auber’s opera The Mute Girl of Portici (La muette de Portici) – set in Spanish-ruled 17th-century Naples  –  so stirred certain members of the audience that they rose up spontaneously and (after a lively bust-up with more conservative elements) poured out into the streets, lit the flame of resistance, drove the Dutch out and so created independent Belgium. Sadly, this heart-warming story is a little too good to be true. The audience participation, as it were, was in fact pre-scripted by the revolutionaries and the conclusion of the opera can be read as arguing that popular revolution needs guidance from a wiser and socially superior leadership.  Nonetheless, it is very likely that some ordinary citizens unsupplied with revolutionary scripts were spontaneously moved and, rising from their seats, did join the revolution. What’s more, by leaving before the last act, it was as if they were, in the words of James H Billington, ‘in search of their own ending’.

In the cold or watery light of January 2014, it is clear that AntiMidas, or, Bankers in Hades, the opera that played for three days in December has not triggered a revolution or significant social unrest. So, if we didn’t have the excitement of incipient revolution, was there excitement of any other kind at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in December when Trinity-based Evangelia Rigaki’s opera played? Happily, there was. Let’s set aside matters of definition (who can say what is or isn’t opera today?) and focus on the pleasures that were on offer. What we witnessed was almost cartoonish – a morality tale or parable in which the incarnation of the lust for gold, AntiMidas the supremely arrogant money-maker, was hurried towards his fall by an alliance of powerful enemies to a cackling commentary from a chorus of Media.

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PHOTOGRAPHING MURDER

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Two very different books sharing a niche interest that will strike some as macabre: one concerns the work of an American freelance photographer, an ‘ambulance chaser’ who arrived at violent crime scenes with camera at the ready; the other offers psychoanalytic readings of British murderers on the basis  of archival crime scene photographs taken by the police.

How Can I Too Become A Weegee?

Weegee: Murder Is My Business, Brian Wallis (Prestel, 2013)

Weegee and his ’38 Chevvy cruised the mean, dark streets of New York from the mid-1930s to the mid-’40s — working at night was his forte — with his fedora and tools of his trade on the front seat and accessories in the boot. His mission was film noir, literally: Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, apocryphally for his psychic-like ability (as in Ouija board) to know where a crime had taken place, was a freelance photographer. He had the nose of a nocturnal trufflehound for what was pleasing and his dish of choice, served best whilst still warm, was homicide; preferably a mobster killing, though brawls, fires and grisly car crashes would do at a pinch – as long as a person, dead or alive, was in his frame. Often, he was indeed the first to arrive at the crime scene, sometimes before the cops, helped by having a police-band radio in his car and another in his one-room apartment situated very close to the Manhattan Police Headquarters. He worked with a cumbersome, large-format Speed Graphic camera – usually set at f/16 at 1/200 of a second with a set focus distance of ten feet — and, what was a fairly new piece of gear at the time, a large, bulbous flash. Nothing else was required, except his special pass issued by the New York Police Department that allowed him to cross police lines. After all, murder was his self-declared business and as he explained years later in an interview, ‘when you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.’ And get it he did, time and time again, earning his living by selling to tabloid newspapers the kind of photographs reproduced in this book.

Nowadays, of course, a crime scene is strictly off-limits for press photographers and the generic kind of pictures the public are allowed to see have to be taken from behind the ubiquitous police line of coloured polythene tape. The close-up shots of suspects that could once be taken are now rare. One of the photos in Weegee: Murder Is My Business shows Anthony Esposito, a hoodlum probably but with his humanity on display, about to be booked on suspicion of killing an officer of the law in New York in 1941. He is handcuffed to one detective, is cut under one eye and his shirt is dishevelled, while the back of a second, broad-shouldered detective commands more space than the man in custody. Both lawmen have turned away from the camera to avoid their faces being shown.

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The Alma Fetish, a New Opera by Raymond Deane (Music) and Gavin Kostick (Words)

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The Alma Fetish is a new opera by Raymond Deane (music) and Gavin Kostick (text) which will be conducted by Fergus Sheil in the world premiere performance at the National Concert Hall on Tuesday 17th September. This is the second opera presented by Wide Open Opera after our acclaimed Tristan und Isolde last autumn. 

It’s a totally new opera, based on a bizarre true story, concerning the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka and his love affair with Alma Mahler (wife of Gustav Mahler). As Alma was mourning the death of her husband, she was swept off her feet in a passionate affair with the younger artist. It didn’t last, however, and Alma, eager to move on, suggested that Kokoschka should go and fight in World War One. Grievously wounded, he returned to Vienna and was too depressed to return to painting. An inspirational thought struck him and he commissioned a life size doll of Alma, subsequently living with the doll as a partner – eating meals – going for a ride in the carriage – even taking the doll to the opera! His mood lifts and he returns to work. Everybody credits the doll with his “recovery”. He dislikes sharing the credit, and at a party he “beheads” the doll, while raucous students dismember her, throwing limbs in every direction. In a haunting postlude, Kokoschka meets Alma in a café in Venice, twenty years later. They reminisce and move on….

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Sponsor This Poem Or I’ll Kick Your Head In

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I won’t name the entity that’s colonising creativity
except to say that it has been turfed off the sportsfield
for low tackles and foul behaviour already, you will find it in
a million spewed up burgers on our city pavements
and it was there while a thousand boy racers
had single vehicle collisions and left their mothers crying
it stood and watched wife beatings, gay bashings, street violence
it leered at women with their skirts askew in doorways
it sat at the cliffs while friends of mine jumped off them
and quicker than you can say tax-payer- funded
public- service- broadcasting it mixed with pills and sadness
in lonely apartments and killed people, worse it appeased
our post colonial state so much that we can’t mount
even a strongly worded letter and now in the last bastion
where people can create something, in one last Arena
of no profit ventures ,in a refuge of free breathing, seeing
and of open fulfilling disagreements It has the nerve to ask
if it could be allowed to enter, it says it’s at our service,
but to be honest I doubt it. Sponsor this poem or I’ll bottle ya.

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Consent, by Kimberly Campanello

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Book Review: Consent, by Kimberly Campanello, Doire Press, 2013 

Consent is alive with poems that move the gut, that shock and excite in equal measure.  Eating and shitting, fucking and childbirth, living and dying – all are on full display and the end result is a collection that celebrates the body’s strengths and its breakdowns, and Campanello treats both with a tenderness that demands the reader pay attention.

Humour and defiance are out in full force throughout this collection, and each serves to highlight Campanello’s kindness to the body as it struggles to navigate  a world bound  by the ‘antonyms that bind consent’. In the opening poem ‘Consent’, physical acquiescence due to lactose intolerance, ‘My bowels are bound/by cheese and fear,’ is handled with humour that reads slightly of defiance –  ‘Meaning my shit is bound/for another bright port’.   In short, this sort of breakdown is nothing to be ashamed of.  In ‘The Eggshell Rule’ defiance – born of the notion that it is the fault of the skull, acquiescing for being so thin, a thinness that permits death –   turns to talk of equality, pushing the poem to an ending that is greater than the sum of its parts:

I just want to tell you,

I am a man and you are a woman.

But we are equal

in my mind.

fffffff

And how did I find you?

And you, me?

As is.

Elsewhere, as in ‘Grandma’, a poem about the body’s breakdown to Alzheimer’s, humour and defiance give way to love –

You burn through the bottom

of four coffee pots

You serve your grandchildren

raw sausages on Sunday

When you’re hungry

you eat ice cream

fffffff

 You forgo shots of botulism in the face

to stop the twitching in your eye

You are still beautiful

Like a baby mouse

your bones and veins

breathe through your skin

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