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Emergency Mints – Paper Swans Press – reviewed by Rennie Halstead

Emergency-Mints-front-coverEmergency Mints – Karen Jane Cannon

Paper Swans Press £5:00

Karen Jane Cannon’s debut pamphlet  focuses on a childhood and coming of age by the sea. Only the passage of time and the transition to adulthood takes the poet away from the coast.

Emergency Mints is seen through the eyes of children remembering a father sailing the English Channel and packing packets of Polo mints, labelled EMERGENCY MINTS in case he runs into a disaster.

He is their:

            polar explorer,
arctic adventurer.
 
We charted your route, coloured
the curved waves of land, solid
blue slab of sea.
 
And after his return the children are enthralled by exciting tales:

we listened to your stories of basking
sharks and places orcas go to die, or you lashed
to the mast in a great wild storm, sucking
 
mints like tiny life belts.

Daughters of Thor has a very different take on life by the sea, from the perspective of three girls watching a storm unfold.

We watched for the flash of electricity
 
that split the sky so wide-
once we climbed a jagged fork of light,
 
crawled inside. We stared down

at the channel churning below, marbled as a tombstone,
 

saw the look of horror on the faces of sailors
trying to turn into the wind.

They watch the coastguard:

slip from his bed,
his life neatly rolled up on the shore.
 
After the storm, the girls’ mother:

swept up the debris,
sewed the house back together again.
 
She tried to fix the sky split
with a plastic first aid kit, rolls of lint.

 
But on a bright day
you can still see the scars.
 

Wavelengths picks up  the joyous freedom of summer on the beach, with three girls racing across the ridged sand wondering:

 
                        if this is how you age
the Earth — count the rings
on connecting shores.

The sand turns:

 
                        from soft biscuit crumb
to sleek whale skin, silent thuds
become wet spatters on bare legs.
 

Dolphins in the Lido has a much more end of childhood feel, with the girls beginning to consider their environment from a different perspective. The three dolphins in the lido:

making waves
in borrowed water…
 
                        …leapt
alphabet letters, dived to cool blue tiles, nosing
 
grilled drain covers, spinning and twisting
up for air.

 
But along with the appreciation of their beauty and graceful movement dawns the realisation that the dolphins are captives:

I wished they could lift
those covers, follow drain tunnels, one by one…
 
…and reach open sea.
 
…Could they smell the sea, just feet away? Feel
the pull of the coastal tide, the call
 

of some distant pod?

The girls grow up and another group of poems references the sea from a more mature perspective. In Tears of the Sea we learn how the sea fills the imagination:

I saw a baby iridescent
in a rock pool, looking up
 
at me, saw myself lying in a circle
of spat stones, heard a gull cry.
 
The sea kept the rest of me,
just gave me back my face

The sea and beach has filled the persona here.

                                    Broken
doll spat from the sea – I haunt
the shore, too old to be newborn.

In Along the Shore we watch two donkeys on the beach where the sea breaks her silence along the shore and the sand bar is lost in the mist that never lifts. The donkeys pause:

to nip the saltgrass tufting along the shore.
 
Almond eyes outlined with the ash of past lives,

We pass the memorial bench, with references to the ship’s surgeon, The Ruler of the Waves and The Breaker of the Rules, and see the gulls:

wheel and fall
into the waves that break, break, break along the shore.
 
The hissing shallows call my name, draw me
weightless as echoes, along the shore.
 

 

We move away from the sea with another group of poems that trace aspects of the wider family. The found poem If you will be kind enough is taken from a letter to the author’s grandparents from the National Children’s Adoption  Association in January 1937. Not normally a fan of found poems, I liked this spare and moving account of the adoption process. The official language with its business-like coldness contrasts with the implicit emotion of adoption, and captures the tone of the time.

Ellen, has a cold and Matron asks:

Would you be kind enough
however to telephone her
tomorrow morning,
 
when she will let you know
how the baby is.
Her number is Park 4601.

Advice follows about the clothes that need to be bought for the new baby: warm woollen things and the offer of help:

But any clothes Mrs Buttress
has not got yet
Matron will be glad to lend
 
if you will be kind enough
to return them to her
when you get home.

Family matters return in the very amusing Postcards from a War Zone which follows a post war journey across Europe by Grandfather and the family in 1951.

Grandfather stuffed pound notes into cavities in his Ford Prefect to drive across war torn France to Switzerland. They passed through:

flattened villages of Normandy,
roads heaped with rubble.
German helmets with bullet holes
still lay by abandoned pillboxes.
 
French ‘peasants’ came out and shook his hand
thanking him for winning the war.

The family sleep in tumble down farmhouses, over the cattle byre, negotiate Switzerland’s hairpin bends, and photograph everything on their box brownie camera. The most memorable part for Grandmother, however, does not appear to be the devastation they have passed though so much as the beauty of Switzerland, with:

 
            an alpine horn blowing.
It sounds lovely!
We are higher up than an aeroplane.

Most moving of the family poems is the account of old age and decline in Hells Bells & Buckets of Blood where we meet a much loved and struggling parent. The poem has great tenderness:

 
You walk slower now, spine curved
into a question, holding on.
 
And again:

I chat, though I know you can’t hear me…
 
…We walk in a silence deafening everything
 
…You stumble, clutch me, swear –
that same old pirate curse on your tongue,
clotted as Cornish cream.

Emergency Mints has a richness and variety of subject matter, from the intensely personal to the exuberant memories of childhood to the sadness of decline into old age.

Rennie Halstead has been writing since he was eleven. He writes reviews, poetry, flash fiction and short stories.

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