Lotus Moon with Blossom poetically charts the life and times of Otagaki Rengetsu, a Buddhist nun, artist and writer in 18th century Japan.
Sheila Hamilton reveals a fascinating portrait of a woman and we are shown glimpses of Rengetsu’s woes and joys as she navigates through her life. Nature and animals provide a symbolic framework on which some of the poems build themselves. In Monkey Bodies, Monkey Minds, we find ourselves among a troupe of monkeys ‘trading punches over something/that right now seems desperately important’. These observations are accompanied by Rengetsu telling us how ‘The mind leaps like these monkeys’ and how their activities mirror the havoc in her head before sleep. ‘There are nights I want to shout out/be still, mind.’
On other nights, Rengetsu finds solace in the animals around her. In Wood Owl an owl becomes a companion:
Marking out dust and dawn
with that steady voice.
Here, Hamilton procures a calming contrast for Rengetsu, where order and security are found as opposed to those nights when her head is full of monkeys. Moon Pictures explores Rengetsu’s childhood and readers may draw conclusions that her childhood was often troubled:
a child in Honchu
when I saw the beach crawling:
In Rengetsu, The Nearest We Get To A Portrait Of You, Hamilton illustrates, despite her research into her subject, that Rengetsu is still an enigma to the poet and a defining image of her remains elusive:
Maybe you said “No”
for spiritual reasons,
or because you disliked
the sight of the tripod,
tall black thing wanting to catch you.
So, Hamilton has to rely on her own research:
So I look elsewhere,
at the things that leap into, sprout out of
your poems, your prints…
The most devastating poem in the pamphlet is The Survivor Trees, so robust and tenacious that they survived the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Again, Hamilton creates exquisite connections between nature and her subject:
Your death happened
and the bamboo kept on living slowly…
and seventy years later,
those were trees that survived
even the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima,
their roots able to heal and to thrive…
In a footnote at the end of the poem we are told that trees only suffered damage above ground and their roots remained intact. By illustrating the connection between Rengetsu and these trees (‘Whatever you were Rengetsu, there were trees’) Hamilton immortalizes both the trees and Rengetsu as the survivors they undoubtedly are.
After reading these beautifully crafted poems, the reader is left with a beguiling portrait of a life well lived, a life full of beauty and wonder, a survivor who will live on in the hearts and minds of those who encounter these poems.
Remote by Sarwa Azeez begins with the following quote from Anne Frank: ‘I can shake off everything when I write. My sorrows disappear; my courage is reborn.’
One hopes that Azeez feels the same way. It is evident that, throughout this startling and moving pamphlet, Azeez is both witness and reporter of the patriarchal world her subjects inhabit and haunt.
The pamphlet begins with a leaving, where we are drawn into a war-torn winter in Iraqi Kurdistan ‘where children play/making desks from bricks and stone’, where ‘Friends’ fingers dipped in fire soot (draw) birds on cardboard walls.’
Leave is a telling opening poem where resilient kids live their childhoods as they should, despite the oppression and devastation of war. The poem ends with the narrator being asked to leave by the birds drawn on the wall. And it doesn’t take long to realise why the birds asked the ‘me’ of the poem to leave.
In Today Another Yazidi Virgin is on Sale we are taken to an auction market where a buyer chooses Virgin Beautiful. This poem chronicles slavery and subjugation in powerful images where Mothers and Daughters live in ‘the worn house’ where ‘everything’s entrenched in dust’ Azeez deftly connects these women slaves with all ‘jawary’ (the plural of the Arabic word jarya, meaning female slave) that have suffered throughout history:
The rusts of her slavery
Penetrate deep down
To the ancient vaults of jawary bazaars
In Renunion, which is ‘fun’ for the ‘I’ of the poem, the ‘I’ meets the children of her classmates and the reader soon knows the Mothers in question are young. Azeez describes the children as ’round’ and ‘little’ with sweet smiles but when the final stanza delivers its devastating final image, we are left in no doubt that this recurring cycle of oppression in a patriarchal world seems impossible to escape from until death.
I keep staring at their faces
which look exactly like their moms’,
fearing that one day my daughter
may inherit my exact mummified mouth.
Azeez’s startling, often haunting poems give voice to those with no voice. The oppressed girls and women of war-torn Iraqi-Kurdistan are forced to exist under patriarchal power structures that can be as oppressive and devastating as the war which seems to perpetually rage around them.
These two pamphlets are excellent examples of the thought-provoking titles that 4 Word Press continue to publish. It marks them out as a small press determined to shine a spotlight on poets writing about a wide range of cultural and international issues, in varied and powerful ways.
With further titles out now and on the horizon, 4 Word Press is a distinctive poetry publisher that are one to watch in the poetry world. I’d be surprised if its sterling work doesn’t lead to nominations for its innovative approach to publishing when the awards season comes around.
Lotus Moon with Blossom by Sheila Hamilton and Remote by Sarwa Azeez are both published by 4 Word Press and available to buy now