Pamphlets by Kuli Kohli, Jeff Phelps, Bo Crowder: Offa's Press
Offa’s Press has scored a hat trick - three publications from Kuli Kohli, Jeff Phelps and Bo Crowder that all deserve applause.
Kuli Kohli was born in Uttar Pradesh, India, but has lived in England since 1973. Based in Wolverhampton, she is a member of City Voices and helps to run Blakenhall Writers’ Group. The six-picture panel on the front cover ties in with the opening, title poem from which the collection takes its name. Kohli’s Patchwork is an intricate pattern woven of memory, reaction and experience. Its subject matter draws on Punjabi folklore, Bollywood romance, historical characters, life and work in the West Midlands, and her love of the natural world. Kolhi has a good sense of form and clearly enjoys the challenge of using different rhyme schemes and poetic forms and, most notably in ‘Patchwork’ and ‘Adder on the Chase’, experimenting with the most effective way to display a poem on the page. The use of the occasional Punjabi word (always explained in a footnote) adds colour and variety to the text.
Reading this collection, I was struck by Kohli’s sense of wonderment, her compassion for all created beings, and her positive attitude towards living with cerebral palsy. The pain of rejection, acutely drawn in a poem such as ‘Discarded’ and touched upon in ‘Resilient’ is quickly dispelled in other poems such as ‘Rag Doll’ – a poem written for “fellow rag dolls living with cerebral palsy”, where Kohli reveals her own special brand of brave humour, and the very moving poem ‘God Sent’ which is addressed to her husband. ‘Mine’ unlocks the key to her world. It opens with those words from Martin Luther King, “I have a dream” … and then everything that is stated in the poem is followed by the line “It belongs to me” until the word “love”: “I have a lot of love; please don’t hate me, / Love is mine to share.”
She shares with us her concerns about injustice – there is a very moving poem in memory of Jyoti Singh who was beaten and gang raped in a private bus in South Delhi in December 2012 – her concern for survivors and, most skillfully and effectively, her engagement with the natural world.
Jeff Phelps has been writing and publishing poetry for more than 30 years. He is co-editor of The Poetry of Shropshire (Offa’s Press, 2013) and has had two novels published by Tindal Street Press. He lives in Bridgnorth.
The title of the collection, Wolverhampton Madonna, refers to the painting Madonna and Child by the Austrian artist Marianne Stokes which is currently in Wolverhampton Art Gallery. The painting is reproduced on the front cover of the pamphlet. In his poem ‘Madonna and Child’, Phelps brings her down to ground level. The poem is provocative because of the way in which he chooses to position her in the context of the 21st century.
At the centre of this collection is the long poem ‘River Passage’. The narrative moves seamlessly from one character to another, rather in the manner of one relay runner passing the baton to another, starting and ending with a schoolteacher but travelling outside the classroom to the schoolyard and then on to the river. Phelps uses mathematical imagery to hold the taut narrative together. Despite its length, it is fast-paced and always holds the reader’s attention. If there is such a thing as a perfect poem, this must surely be it.
His poems are full of wisdom and they address for the most part the big issues in life. This is a poet who treats his readers on equal terms so that we can readily identify with what he is saying and feel engaged with his words. Beneath the surface his poems run deep. There is a wry sense of humour at work in poems such as ‘Cooking in a Bedsitter’ (a nod to Katherine Whitehorn’s classic Penguin book of the same title) and ‘Note of caution for a son going off to university’. These are counterbalanced by the serious tone of ‘Blackberries’ where Phelps quietly makes the connection between his subject matter in the opening and closing lines, just as he does in ‘Oxygen’ where he compares and contrasts two very different situations to dramatic effect. The clever wit displayed in ‘Angry Haiku’ rounds off the collection with panache.
Bo Crowder has been writing poetry for the last 10 years. A founder member of Staffordshire Poetry Stanza, he is nearing the completion of a creative writing MA at the University of Manchester. He lives on a smallholding in the Staffordshire Moorlands where he keeps rare-breed sheep.
Crowder’s subjects are many and various: fly fishing in Dovedale, renovating an old barn, reflecting on happiness, dealing with a house clearance, playing cricket with the children. Using succinct and precise language, he captures very neatly our love-hate relationships with computer passwords, the pathos of an old man collecting his pension, the sadness of a marriage where “the only thing they did together / was grow old”. He is a master at delivering the clever ending. ‘Hand Made’ takes on a second significance in the final stanza; in ‘House Clearance’ he subtly turns from objects that we throw away to characteristics that we inherit and in ‘Mother’s Day’ the last half of the last line brings the poem to its ominous close.
There is humour in the light-hearted ‘Contagious Magic’ and ‘Euphony’ and a sustained example of wordplay in ‘MinE’ in which the word “lie” is explored in different contexts in relation to Tracey Emin’s art installation My Bed. Wordplay is present in several other poems where Crowder employs combinations of lookalikes (prey – pray; angle – angel) to good effect. ‘Happiness’ and ‘Silverfish’ are good examples of list poems; both are fast-paced and hold the reader’s attention. Crowder’s gift of finding the right ending is exquisitely demonstrated in ‘The Last Pass of the Coronation Scot’ which is perhaps the most striking poem in the collection. In this poem the very last word, and only that word, suddenly and surprisingly links up with the title. The effect is astonishingly satisfying to the ear.
Each of three pamphlets runs to 36 pages, is attractively produced in stiff covers with designs by Marie Jones, typeset in Baskerville Old Face and printed and bound by Lion FPG Limited of West Bromwich. Full marks should go to this team who have succeeded in producing a smart, polished format that is immediately appealing to the eye.