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Wild Persistence

Katrina Naomi
ISBN-13: 
9781781725818
Publication Date: 
Monday, June 1, 2020
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£9.99

‘...this is a liberating reminder that “there are different ways to live”...nothing can suppress the wild and quirky energy at play...Wild Persistence is the joyous affirmation we need.’ – PBS

“A collection of humour and revelry, lit by the repeated flare of violence and warmed by the unapologetic need to live the life of one’s choosing.” New Welsh Review

Katrina Naomi’s Wild Persistence is a confident and persuasive collection of poems. The first poem ‘Anti-Ambient’ warns us to be on guard for the off-guard, to suspend our expectations of pure realism and to stay awake for what comes next.  Initially, a move from London to Cornwall sparks poems that query and celebrate the natural world. London is mourned and also derided: “you’d taken on airs/ become grandiose with the possibilities of capital.” Yet the poem also admits that the choice of a move was made by serendipitous chance: “somewhere I’d visited long ago on a rainy night, playing pool/ in a pub near a seaside bus station.”

Cornwall is not seen as picture-box pretty but from the perspective of a dedicated walker, someone who relishes the outdoors, and as an environmentalist, who in ‘Swaling on Boscathow’, helps to supervise a controlled burn on a moor, and who observes nature ‘aslant’ as in a friend’s phobia about birds in ‘Maybe Owls’, and in the strange narrative from the artist who obsessively collects mud from the cratered soles of boots.

Though never didactic, the poetic voice convinces us of the need to live well, to take time to celebrate a birthday, make love, consider an artwork, muse over the biography of someone admirable. This also means that we need to come face to face with some of the darker aspects of our experience, in Naomi’s case the loss of a father through divorce when she was seven, and the illness experienced by her sister and partner.  There is also a strong section of poems that deals with the aftermath of an attempted rape. The poetic voice is full of invigoratingly fresh outrage and is unforgiving at a distance of years to the casual passers-by who did nothing to help. She also casts a cold eye on the assailant, whom she ultimately pities, imagining him now ‘fat and in his fifties’ and destroyed by his predilection for violence.  

Another appealing aspect of this voice is a wide-ranging and perpetually curious outlook, a sense of multiple voices that influence and overlay the main speaker. There are translations and adaptations from other languages, including Mexican Spanish and Cornish, plus poetry inspired by a trip to Japan. We get the sense that the poet’s love of other tongues is at one with her gusto for living. These other ways of imagining the world are evoked as something invariably enriching. In a similar vein, various successful poetic experimentations occur, with innovative stanza structures, as well as several sonnets and a ghazal.  

 

Katrina was recently interviewed on Los Angeles Poetry Cafe Radio where she spoke about Wild Persistence, her move from London to Cornwall, her interest in Kernewek (Cornish), translation, art and some of the inspirations for her writing. She also read some poems. Listen on SoundCloud

 

Enjoy a sneak-preview of the collection in this film of Katrina reading her poem 'Maybe Owls'.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Ailbhe Darcy, Body: Poetry, Prose, Word

Friday, January 29, 2021

It’s not Katrina Naomi’s fault that I bristled at being told how to celebrate my birthday by her poem 'How to Celebrate a Birthday.' When I read this poem, it was my birthday. But I couldn’t follow the poem’s instructions to turn off the computer, be with my friends, bother the neighbours, or swim in the sea. Thanks to the you-know-what, many of the once ordinary pleasures celebrated in Naomi’s third collection, Wild Persistence, were unavailable to me as I read. How I envied her London and Cornwall, solitude, airplane food, “a campsite, beers, talk in English and French,” or “a tourist drinking cappuccino / without a thought in her head”! Some of the ordinary luxuries celebrated in Wild Persistence, on the other hand, were all too available to me: brandy, cheese, bed, sidelong snarks about Tories.  

'How to Celebrate a Birthday', which arrives early on in Wild Persistence, has the same belligerent insistence on joy as the memes shared on certain social media sites – and we all know what a health risk they are in a pandemic. “It’s important to feel a little bit special, / even before the cava. And there has to be cava.” Smile, the poem directs us, make love, look at the stars and dance.

Fortunately for those of us reading it in lockdown, 'How to Celebrate a Birthday' is not characteristic of Wild Persistence. Indeed, I would venture so far as to say that no single poem in Wild Persistence is characteristic of Wild Persistence, which revels in contradicting itself in subtle and interesting ways. Every poem in the collection has, somewhere in the collection, another poem which is its opposite. If 'How to Celebrate a Birthday' is as oblivious of its reader’s complicated, ambivalent life as one of those “humorous” alcoholic greetings cards which exhort us to “Be-GIN the celebrations!”, another poem, 'Talisman'  somehow knows all about it. In 'Talisman', the poet dithers in a card shop, unable to “find it in herself to buy, / let alone send, A SISTER IS WORTH A THOUSAND FRIENDS.” In this other, darker, poem, Naomi is clear-eyed about the degree to which being told to feel special will not suffice to make us feel special:

                                                Cards as commands,
            white and black shouts on a carousel,
            IT’S CHOCOLATE O’CLOCK!
            The shopkeeper can’t even find it in herself
            to say good morning…

            […]

                                                She still doesn’t know what to send,
            what to say, as if sweet-sweet words on an angel,
            LOVE on a butterfly or a pale heart from China
            could keep her sister from harm.

Formally, Naomi’s poems in Wild Persistence are plain and driven by narrative, for the most part – loosely, but deftly, arranged. Apart from some gentle playfulness with space within poems that are otherwise conventionally shaped, they largely eschew virtuoso formalism. This raises another interesting contradiction, because one poem, 'The University,' is framed around a rejection of plainness and straight-lined efficiency. “I tried to admire the form and function / the ergonomics of it,” writes Naomi of the modern university building in this poem; “But it lacked flamboyance / any superfluous design.” It reads like an ars poetica, this declaration that “I like beauty – / have I said that before? I want more of it, / fewer straight lines, fewer courtyards with shale / or pebbles, and sensible dark green plants / with no flowers.” And yet Naomi’s poems themselves demonstrate that the plain can be beautiful, that straight lines functionally arranged, with clarity of purpose, can make a fine space to settle and think.

Violence is a persistent and complicating presence in a collection which ends with a gun not fired and an admission that: “I know not everything is in my control.” At the heart of this otherwise light-hearted collection are a set of relationships with archetypal men – the lover, the father, the rapist – which are explored with great care and seriousness, the men never allowed the comfort of becoming stereotypes, and the rape, recounted in 'If I Were a Different Person I Might Be Able to Forgive', allowed to be both devastating and survivable. I thought for a long time about this poem’s final lines:

           I’d like to forgive but can never forget
           how I focused on his gelled hair,
           not his eyes, his clothes, his hands,
           his body – not on what he was doing –
                                   but then I had to come alive.

In another brilliant poem, 'The Blade' the poet sees her own features reflected in a moving blade, one that will split a frog in two:

            scythed on the soft rush and purple moor grass, the frog’s
            topside looking back at me – the leg and head
            convulsing, then settling, the lower organs rearranged
            unmendably and below that half-life, the whiff of something
            butcher-fresh would stay with me. And my features
            in the blade’s trajectory, almost innocent.

Here, I thought inevitably of Seamus Heaney, that master of splitting the self into innocent and self-accuser.

But a far more constant presence, as I read this collection, was the late, great Matthew Sweeney. The stories Naomi tells are nothing like Sweeney’s. There are no nuns on motorbikes here, no drinks with Neil Armstrong, no poets swimming down the Lee – though there is, admittedly, a collection of cleats of mud pressed from the boots of men. Still, there’s something about Naomi’s deadpan tone that reminds me of Sweeney’s tone. It’s a wonderful tone, a tone that allows us to stay safely, gloriously uncertain. It makes possible a poetic world in which cava can receive all the appreciation it deserves, in which things can be at once true and not-true, and in which the true and the not-true contain multitudes.

Review by Vicky MacKenzie, New Welsh Review

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

This review was first published in the autumn 2020 issue of New Welsh Review. Subscribe to read the full review.

From the very first line, ‘A joy of noise’, there’s humour and revelry in Katrina Naomi’s third full-length collection.

...

But amidst the jokes and pleasure are deep undercurrents of sadness and poignancy – certain lines seem to come from nowhere and pull the reader up short: ‘I can’t seem to love like poets love’, or in the devastating ending of ‘Dualism: A Manifesto’:

One side of me could be utterly lovable         The other
                                                                               who I really am

...

...when Naomi writes about the things most personal to her – her partner, the children she didn’t have, her own, long-absent father – her register and vocabulary become noticeably plain, flat even, as if she cannot bear to dress up topics of such emotional intensity with images or metaphors... This plain register creates a sense of vulnerability, which renders the lines even more touching. 

...

Violence flares repeatedly in the book, including disturbing memories of sexual violence, and anger for the way people around her responded to the attack... Naomi is perceptive about our instincts, however ungratifying they may be.

...

A sense of needing to live the life of one’s choosing (whether permission is sought from others, or simply from oneself), is a recurring theme. This is a collection of joy, but also quiet wisdom, with a recognition that, ‘There are different ways to love.’

Review by Neil Leadbeater, Write Out Loud

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Prize-winning poet, translator and critic Katrina Naomi is the author of two previous full-length collections of poetry and four poetry pamphlets.  She has a PhD in creative writing from Goldsmiths and is a tutor for Arvon, Ty Newydd and the Poetry School. Wild Persistence is her first full-length collection since moving to Cornwall.

The poems in this volume cover a wide range of subject matter: unloved buildings, unpromising suitors (“the good-looking I won’t tolerate, let alone the rest”), camping under the stars, sexual preferences, making love, gun culture and violence, to name but a few. It also covers some of the darker sides of life – in Naomi’s case, the loss of a father through divorce when she was seven, and the illness experienced by her sister and partner. There is also a section of poems that deal with the aftermath of an attempted rape. 

The cover photograph, ‘Martha Graham – Celebration (trio)’ 1937 by Barbara Morgan is the perfect fit for Naomi’s poem ‘How to Celebrate a Birthday’. In it, she says “It’s important to feel a little bit special, / even before the cava. And there has to be cava.” She urges us to “celebrate” who we are and –

     if you can - and you can – dance some more.

     Dancing shows us who we really are

     and who we might become. Go on, dance.

     And look up at the stars on your way

     back, look at them for longer than usual.

     Find one that might burn for you; name it.

 

These lines are well-crafted. Attention has been paid to key words that have been positioned for special emphasis (“dancing” and “dance”) at the beginning and end of the line. I also like the way the reader is made to return to the left hand side of the page for the word “back” to give  a visual interpretation of what is happening.

Naomi’s interest in different languages and cultures is reflected in her translations of two poems from the Mexican poet Yohanna Jaramillo, a translation of a poem into Kernewek (Cornish) and poems inspired by a trip to Japan.

Collaborating with other artists - in particular, the visual artist Tim Ridley and the poet Judy Brown - has provided the catalyst for a number of works in this volume. Residencies at places such as the Arnolfini and the Hawthornden International Writer’s Retreat have also sparked ideas for several poems in this book.

‘London – A Reply’ and ‘Dualism – A Manifesto’ reveal Naomi’s inventive wit. According to these poems, Naomi is a poet who is tired of London but not tired of life. She is a poet who “could belt out Shirley Bassey, “,”eat vegan sushi in a revolving restaurant in Tokyo”, and “knock back two / jugloads of gin / Cornish of course” in one go. In another poem, she turns the tables on Billy Collins (who once wrote a poem entitled ‘Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’) by taking off his own clothes. The contrast between Collins fumbling with the mother-of-pearl buttons on Emily’s long white dress and Naomi taking off his “lemon cashmere sweater” (at least it’s cashmere!) and “crumpled denim” could not be more marked and is done for its humorous effect.

After reading this collection several times over I keep coming back to ‘At Noongallas’ and ‘Swaling on Boscathow’ – two of my favourite poems. The former is a fine example of a specula (mirror) poem where the second stanza repeats the first, but in reverse order. These are tricky to pull off. The latter is an account of a controlled burn on a moor, “swaling” being a local word in Devon and Cornwall derived from Middle English swelen meaning “to burn”. I like the edginess of this poem which “is all surface and speed” and retains that ability to thrill right up to the final two lines:

 

     We breathe in the distant danger

     paraffin rides the air.

 

The darker aspects of this volume - in particular, the poems dealing with human relationships and sexuality - are unsettling and confrontational and one senses the unease with which they were written. Beneath the hard exterior of their lines there is a potent vulnerability. These poems should be commended for their lucidity and honesty in addressing difficult subjects.

Review by Peter Gaskell, Wales Arts Review

Monday, July 20, 2020

Wild Persistence is Katrina Naomi's first collection of poems since moving from London to Penzance. Engagingly assertive and reflective in equal measure, several poems are set in the Cornish landscape as she observes and comments on diverse themes through the lens of her distinctly personal perspective. 

On love and relationships, some poems seem cathartically personal, others showing detachment as if they are observations of other people’s behaviour and experience. The most obviously autobiographical ‘Ghazal for Tim’ cleverly narrates the course of their relationship with the repeating forever completing each couplet with a different significance. Love is well-described for the effects of its physicality and with much reference to the effect of travelling and distance; psychologically too, as in contemplating the suitability of suitors: ‘I prefer the lovely prison of my own making...choose to listen to the colour of a voice…not how they choose to show themselves’, suggesting the poet is not one for subscribing to dating sites. Those poems which lead somewhere unexpected are satisfying. After a trip across the county for a massage, the finely-crafted ‘The Gift’ resolves with a pleasing result for both teller and reader.

‘Holidayish’ is another poem that goes somewhere you don’t expect. It is one of several about the mental state that can take you while waiting for someone dear to endure a hospital operation and recover. ‘My Sister and the Heavy Magic’, curiously enjambed into triplets, is cogently written from the perspective of a cancer lodged in the breast and hoping for travel as if on holiday throughout the rest of her body.

Katrina Naomi certainly isn’t shy of confronting life’s darker aspects, of surviving misfortune and trauma. There are poems about rape, abortion, adultery all with an unusual take or a remarkable last line, with a twist or to leave you pondering the meaning. A rape victim finally commenting on the reactions of observers: ‘You might just have asked how I was’, then in ‘The Reveal’, the effect of somebody she knows well showing her scars after mastectomy: ‘this celebration of damage as if passing on trauma could somehow lessen hers’.

Another referencing scars is ‘Three Horses’ about a painting perhaps though I wasn’t sure, it being one of a few poems where I found meaning hard to derive; also ‘Elemental’ a close tight portrayal of ordinary things where I wasn’t sure of the point the narrator was to aiming to get across. Where Katrina Naomi is successful in this, it is often by reference to colour. She can’t stay at university because the buildings are too grey, a colour scorned in the first poem in the collection for its safety, its ambience. It should be split to ‘spark a choice of dark or light’, suggesting a preference for danger. This first poem makes a strong statement with a reference to gunsmoke, while the last poem in the collection called ‘The Guns’ is about a man who wants to show her the pistol he unwraps from a fluffy duster; her reaction is less fear than to muse on why he ‘focused on the contrast between yellow and black; how he’d chosen danger colours’ and why it is not in a woman’s nature to have emotional attachment to a gun in the same way as such a man. For light relief, she likes to follow this one at poetry readings with ‘Boasting Sonnet’ that concludes with the couplet: 

‘Wish you could see my scything and lindyhop. I’d say much more but sonnets make you stop”.

Colour too has association with identity and consciousness. In ‘The Beach Couldn’t Be Found’, where the beach didn’t know it was a beach, ‘The sea was no colour’.  Then after ‘The Table My Father Made’ exposing as false the claims of her father who left home when she was a child, ‘All Those Years’ when after his death a photo is discovered, it is tellingly in ‘a satin frame whose colour was no longer true’.

Whiteness has particular significance. ‘Hello Wilhemina’ celebrates the ‘colours of push..chanting their own revolution..there is too much white in our lives’, then ‘Spared’ peppered with images that are white portraying marriage as an unwelcome bird, and ‘Not Really About Snow’ about a train  journey from Paddington with the curious line about her carriage ‘quiet as snow falling upwards’. A favourite has to be the ‘Poem In Which She Wears Her Favourite Wedding Dress / which is a marriage of sea and birds’, another where title becomes first line, where white is only one of several colours linked to what is in the land and seascape. Wild Persistence has the bonus of this translated into Cornish also.

The other translations are from the Spanish by Mexican poet Yohanna Jaramillo. Both poems address their issues on a cosmic scale that is breathtaking but sometimes also mystifying in meaning and intent, so a note to say what inspired these to be included in Wild Persistence would have been useful. ‘Open Letter’ starts as a dedication to a lover, then reads as a series of non-sequiturs related to the spinning behaviour of sub-atomic particles, some intriguing such as ‘I know that the only thing that doesn’t grow with heat and water is time, that’s why the sun is ecstatic’. Puzzling over this, I was wondering if this line might link to another poem on the big themes of the universe and mortality, ‘The Sun And Me’ where the poet considers her stage in life as parallel with the sun doomed to run out of hydrogen, ‘not far from me on the periodic table’; a powerful and cleverly-wrought poem.

Referred to in another poem ‘Suitors’, Emily Dickinson is often cited as a poet influenced by religious sensibilities, if not doctrine. Religion in Katrina Naomi’s poetry is directly referenced in the title ‘How Religion Works’. With its ‘haze of purple’ colour association, religion almost has her kissing the crucified foot in a foreign Catholic church but the rationalism she implies in ‘Dualism: A Manifesto’ or the shocking last lines about a nihilistic and mean-spirited God in ‘This Isn’t A Yellow Cake’ won’t let her be seduced even by the power of vivid colour. Her sense of the sacred is rather to be found in ’The Snug’ where in the second-person she reveres a drinking parlour for its character as a confessional to whom she can tell her secrets with impunity.

Impressed with the extent of her work as a poet, as mentor for aspirants also, it surprised me to discover Katrina Naomi established herself as a poet really by accident. When a piece of her writing submitted for publication was judged favourably for its poetic qualities, her reaction was surprise as she had hitherto disavowed poetry as elitist. Since revising that view, she has come to prominence deservedly and is now tilting her talents at other languages also. 

In Wild Persistence, Katrina Naomi shows wide versatility. She is comfortable addressing what delights and appeals in nature, what appals in human behaviour, the significance of private events and public celebration days, the minutiae of objects that raise larger or unexpected questions. She is prepared to stretch and mould the form for it to present her personal take on the themes that attract her probing mind and stir her feelings. By her own account, she will play around with a first draft to see how she can surprise herself and when deciding on a poem’s structure and layout on the page is delightfully open to the idea of letting the poem tell her what it wants to look like. I look forward to her next body of work which I expect to cover a further array of topics and more unanticipated cultural references. This collection includes the first of her poems to be published in Cornish, one of her finest, and will surely encourage the vitality of that language into perpetuity.

Review by Poetry Book Society

Monday, June 8, 2020

Ranging from the Cornish coastline to Japan, this is a liberating reminder that "there are different ways to live". A fantasy of undressing Billy Collins sits alongside darker poems about attempted rape, the menopause and cancer, but nothing can suppress the wild and quirky energy at play: "I know the secret of broccoli: / It wants to be the drag queen of vegetables". It's hard not to read everything through the joyous lens of our current crisis but Wild Persistence is the joyous affirmation we need: "let go of any worry – like the string of a balloon... go on, dance / and look up at the stars". 

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