Sharon Black

Publications

My first poetry collection To Know Bedrock is published by Pindrop Press, available direct from Pindrop's website. My second collection The Art Of Egg was published by Two Ravens Press (now defunct), available directly from me. (See reviews for both, below.)

My poems have appeared in The North, Agenda, Magma, The Rialto, Mslexia, Poetry News, The Interpreter's House, The Moth, Aesthetica Creative Works Annuals, Iota, Prole, Poetry Salzburg Review, The New Quarterly (Canada), Orbis, Envoi, The Frogmore Papers, Earthlines, The French Literary Review, The New Writer, The Bastille, Vallum (Canada) and Popshot magazines, as well as Morphrog (online) and several anthologies including Age (Emma Press), Glimmer, Storm at Galesburg, The Visitors, Feeding the Cat, A Roof of Red Tiles (all Cinnamon Press), All the Way Home (Leaf Books), Up to Our Necks in It (Black Tulip Books), Book of Sand (ed. Karen Dennison), A Complicated Way of Being Ignored (the Grist Poetry Anthology 2012), Entanglements (Two Ravens Press) and Alice: Ekphrasis at the British Library (Joy Lane Publishing). One of my poems appeared in the Mslexia Writer's Diary 2016.

Forthcoming work (as of July 2017) will appear in Prole, Stand and an anthology of animals by The Emma Press.

 

published 2011 (Pindrop Press)

Art Of Egg Cover

published 2015 (Two Ravens Press)

£12 (including p&p)
 

The cover image of The Art of Egg is by the artist Piotr Bockenheim who lives in Slupsk, Poland. See his work at http://peregrin71.deviantart.com/gallery/40032745/eggs

The image on To Know Bedrock is by the artist Isis Olivier who lives close to me in the south of France. Her work can be viewed at http://isisolivier.com.

 

Reviews of 'The Art of Egg'

Sharon Black's second collection, The Art of Egg, has three parts: The Thing You're Looking For, Spring Fever and House of Prayer. The first umbrellas everything that doesn't belong in the other two, simultaneously confusing and impressing with its diversity. One unifier is nature: Black inhabits it, luxuriates in it, eroticises it. Just two poems in, in Notions, we are seduced - by a carpenter bee:

enormous, black, shiny:
a polished knot of ebony
entering the yellow-green chamber
around the stamens of a red nasturtium.

The downright sexuality of the encounter - especially 'when the bee slips out' and, damn him, 'powers away, brazen as a Black & Decker', is deliciously memorable, but even more the response of the flower, which 'bobs up,' and, with the ambiguity of Little Weed in the Flower Pot Men, has 'the same frayed smile / fixed on its face'.

We explore a similarly sensual, anthropomorphic borderland when Silkworm addresses its carer: 'You tell me / I am beautiful, run your fingers / over every crease and bulge'. When metamorphosized, it declares: 'my only need is you, my belly oozing pheromones / we splash upon the sheets'. Indeed. There are sheets of a more familiar kind - 'chaste white' ones - in Just Married, where the protagonists (people, this time) 'pretended to be newly-weds'. Here, coyly sensual becomes overtly erotic, a cherry 'clenched / inside me, your tongue / parting me like a confession'.

Enough, enough. Well, no, not really, but there are other things to consider. Scorpion transcends Brockwell's fear of nature - the voice of an about-to-give-birth woman on spotting a scorpion in the shower is bold: 'We faced each other through the steam, / both in that instant unafraid / yet deadly to the other'. But Black goes further, addressing both the insect and the unborn child (potential killers, both) as 'you'. The 'sweet little nipper, / polished onyx, precious brooch' is still synonymous with the baby when, 'Six hours later, worn out, / blood still fresh between my legs, / I fastened you to my breast'. Polished? Absolutely.

Then there's Drawing Room, after Matisse's The Window, 1916. Yes, that ekphrastic badge again, but Black makes it her own, nature still zinging, even in a vase - 'forget-me-nots, stung with sun / so that each purple flower fizzes / in its own halo'. Her poems are speckled with erudition (another necessary poet badge, this?) - one in the voice of Sisyphus, and, in a wildflower sequence, footnotes giving Latin names (why?) and other details. The poems perhaps overly depend on those notes. For example, knowing the French for St John's Wort translates as 'a thousand holes' and that dots on the plant's leaves look perforated when held up to the light, is the complex way in to the final couplet - 'Memorise each constellation. / Use them to find your way back'. The poems call to mind Alice Oswald's Weeds and Wild Flowers collection but, while Oswald lassoes the plants' entire personalities, Black uses key qualities to encapsulate the whole, making her versions cleaner, sharper and, to my mind, more satisfying.

By the time we get to Hawking Considers Bluebottles we know Black can write about pretty much anything. We begin with 'Three flies on a broken branch' like it's some kind of joke, and it is: that a fine brain might consider flies, that a cocoon might 'hatch / the theory of time travel / or fathom flaws in / the human brain'. But then comes that trademark spearing of the essential beauty of living things - even flies: 'gemstones sprung / from a snapped necklace'.

The collecion's second section describes with mesmerising honesty an extra-marital affair. Starting with the mild eroticism of gloves forgotten at a friend's house - 'I wonder if you tried them on, / if they were still warm when your hand / slipped inside' - Black shows us the husband agreeing to tolerate an affair, 'to embrace this creature pacing round an open cage, / claws bared, teeth gleaming;' and then, 'Three weeks in', his ultimatum. It's compulsive reading.

In the final section, the poet returns from Europe to her Scottish roots. 'I'm here to find my language' she says in 8.15 Glasgow to Oban, and does - not just the lilt of it, but the hard jewels of landscape - 'clots of red anemones,' a basalt stump that was once 'a fiery arrow; magma flung from the core'. Form here is delicate and lovely: the little couplets of Rim of Shell, a conversation between woman and shell; the swaying arrangements of tercets in On Staffin Beach echoing the tideline. And, in the collection's title poem, The Art of Egg, the sensuous description of eating an egg - the 'bright glut / of yolk in slippery albumen'. The art is of turning everything into a 'yes' moment. And Black has that art.

"The Art of Egg is Black's second full collection which is divided into three distinct sections. In the second section, 'Spring Fever', Black writes with lyrical and tender grace about a love triangle, a relationship and an affair. In 'Distracted' she is sure that 'This is why I never stay long '/ when you invite me in - don't trust myself not to / return home unravelled.' The language at the ending of the affair is sensuous in 'Strawberries': 'your lips pursing round them / like a full stop.'

The third section, 'House of Prayer' is a series of poems about the poet returning to her native Scotland as a tourist and as a pilgrim. She visits Glasgow, Mull, Skye, Iona and Harris. In '8.15 Glasgow To Oban' she asserts: 'I'm here to find my language. I search for it / on maps, station signs, a postcard of the train, a tossed-away Scotrail magazine.' Unforgettable images about a language lost over time.

I have saved the first, longer section for last because it is the much better part of the collection. She has a fine eye for detail which engages her readers in the minutae of life. Her commitment to using poetry as a mediation between her inner self and the natural world around her is immediately apparent and is full of dense, exhuberant colour, rooted in the everyday world. She challenges us to imagine that 'The Thing You're Looking For', the title of the first section and the first poem, could be: '... that runnel chittering / from the tip of a fallen chestnut leaf, / palpitating the dry riverbed.' And she urges us to stop and look: '... this bridge that you cross, panting, / without a backward glance.' She wants us to tune in with all of our senses, not only our sight as she says in 'Notions' when writing about the carpenter bee '...the bee slips out / and powers away, brazen as a Black & Decker.' Imagery that will be hard to forget. But it is not only the sights and sounds of nature that enthrals her. In 'The Bonsai Master's Wife', the narrator says of the husband

I swear at night
he places her in a raku dish
and checks her limbs
for growth spurts, clips off

any excess, adjusts her wires
before polishing her foliage, ...

Black inhabits her poems and takes the reader to these places with a fresh eye. She writes from the perspective of a Pimpernel, a Silkworm and even Matryoshka. There is a Culpeper in these poems with Oregano, St John's Wort and Mallow, for exampl, in 'Mallow:' 'They planted it upon the Ancients' graves / to feed their ravenous remains: / the pink flowers knitted new skin / over dessicated soil'. In 'Interrogation,' after drinking the Milky Way dry, joy-ridden the Plough, loosened Orion's belt, and undressed Cassiopeia, she claims to have '... chained my black dog / to a barren corner of the galaxy / and left him there to howl.' One of my favourites in 'Sisyphus', partly due to my love of Greek myth:

But though the early years were hard, I grew
to love the ebb and flow, the squall
of sinew then the silence,
the steady certainty of the task -

and ending:

they don't understand what it's like
to inhale the whole sky into your lungs, breathe it out
through your fingertips into granite
and watch it roll -
a bubble on a gradient of air.

and partly because this is a clever and alternative slant on how Sisyphus is content in his work, a positive take on a difficult task, persuading the reader to look at things from a very different angle, in this poem as in all her others. An exciting read."


Janet Sutherland, in The Frogmore Papers (autumn 2015)

"The Art of Egg is a very nicely produced collection, split into three sections, 'The Thing You're Looking For', 'Spring Fever' and 'House of Prayer'. The poems are set with plenty of space around them and are closely observed. There is a delicacy of intent with the nature writing which sometimes for my taste hovers a little close to explanmation, leaving less space for the underbelly of the poem to develop. At her best, though, the poems take flight gracefully, taut and delicious; the third section of 'In the Buddha Garden, for instance, which could sit so beautifully on its own: 'Buddha's head rests / upon his bent knee.// His expression fills me / almost to bursting.// A cricket unzips itself / over and over'."

Testimonials to 'The Art of Egg'
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"Sharon Black doesn't just write about the world - a rock, a flock of starlings, an affair - but into it, inhabiting each subject with sensual passion and immense lyrical grace: a true indwelling. Superb."

Susan Richardson, author of Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, Where the Air is Rarefied and skindancing:

“Sharon Black's evocations of the natural world are unforgettable. Whether she turns her attention to moon jellyfish, carpenter bees or Hebridean seascapes, or chooses to write from the perspective of a scarlet pimpernel, her startling imagery inspires the reader to engage with the subject in an entirely fresh way. And alongside her explorations of physical landscapes is a fearless journey through the landscape of human relationships, from the spiritual to the erotic.”

“Over seventy poems jostle for your attention in Sharon Black’s second full collection. Sharon is a prolific poet – her name must be familiar to anyone who reads poetry magazines or scrutinises the lists of competition winners – but her output is as nothing beside the new level to which she has taken her work. The energy in this collection – effectively three collections in one – is astonishing, as are the wonderful that’s-nailed-it analogies. ‘A cricket unzips itself/ over and over.’ Can you listen to a cricket again without hearing that?”

Roselle Angwin, author of Looking for Icarus, All the Missing Names of Love and Bardo:

“From the first page I knew I’d love this collection: Black’s poetry is infused with a natural unselfconscious sensuousness. She has a fine eye for observed detail, an uncanny nose for the potency of line-break, an ear for both uncluttered diction and originality of expression – and a sense of humour too.”

“This is a poet who stayed in my head long after my reading. I’m delighted by the Hebridean images and the shape of her thinking in the sea poems. The love poems speak, I should think, to everyone, but I feel they’re all her own that she shares with us and which then transform into our own lives.

I like how she has the poems ‘in hand’ without any suggestion of ‘control’. Also her gift for the unlikely word. It happens in ‘House of Prayer’ - she writes the cat’s life, ‘rescued’ but also ‘unsteady’. But it’s the big concepts I really like in her book -
‘Sisyphus’ opens up from what we already know into the huge panoramas of myth and the idea - new entirely to me - that all those sufferers were given choices. I’m listening too to Sisyphus finding positive effects in his granite, from the perpetual summit.

Mostly I’ve read and gone back to these poems just for the newness of them.”


Reviews of 'To Know Bedrock'

"Sharon Black’s is a first collection which reveals sound skills, a wide scope and a poetic maturity sometimes lacking in debut publications. Her poems exude a physicality which is precise and evocative at once. In ‘Trimesters’ (two), the poet imagines herself in utero:

my firsts unfurl like peonies
touch the edges of light;
my mother’s palm caresses her belly

and in the final stanza of (three), the explosion of birth is already foreshadowed by death:

I who am beyond the horizon
watch the sun begin to rise,
hear paws padding closer
hungering for blood.

Black has the ability to make an adventure out of every human experience. Looking back at an island landscape, ‘After Skye’, she links it to the birth of a child years later:

Eight years on you break my own waves,
shiny from sweat, vernix, brine;
the tiny squall of your body

concluding with ‘mouth wide open, rooting / for the island of my breast’. What begins as a nature poem, ends up with intimate physicality. Also from childhood memory is ‘Sleeping in Elephant Print Bedclothes’; after a brief metamorphosis as the elephant, the child wakes to find ‘…the only sign of him on waking / is his footprint deep in my pillow’.

Just when you have been lured by her apparent transparency, Black unseats you, producing what appears to be an episode from a relationship seen through the troubled eye of an insecure partner. Taking gardening as a metaphor, she begins ‘you kneel in the garden of us // scrape out a hole,’ and concludes with the arresting couplet: ‘I breathe in the blowzy pollen / sharp as Round-Up’.

The poem, ‘Sabotage’, uses the imagery of mounting specimens (insects or butterflies), tender and curious at first ‘I want to capture the spirit of you / hold it down gently’ and  ‘I want to swaddle it in cotton’, leading to suffocation: ‘I want to know its strengths, its limits, / the precise moment / at which it begs for air’. She introduces a metaphorical language of sado-masochism – to hurt, in order to comfort later ‘…that the pin in my hand in just t hold it / nice and steady’.

The length of this collection, taking in Black’s wide knowledge and poetic skills, makes for a slight sense of editorial pressure: of trying to include everything. However, in my view, she really gets down to bedrock in a sequence of ten poems which relate her experience of breast cancer ‘chink’. From initial examination:

She mounts the slide on white fluorescence.
my breast a galaxy, a freeze-framed swirl
of gas clouds and asteroids, orbiting on black

to pre-admission, where she uses the language of camping and backpacking to contextualize the situation:

I plan my route. Shadows will be my footholds.
Along with stove, canvas and hunting knife,
I pack a change of clothes.

A swimsuit for the other side.

Radiation-therapy becomes ‘Navigation’ where ‘a motor whirrs / and I’m fed backward into a red objective; and invisible darts / target the bleached blubber / of my organ – numb, swollen, scarred.’

The final poem of the sequence, ‘Conciliation’, for me one of the most powerful in the book, is the apotheosis of Black’s skill: physicality meeting landscape, meeting triumph over adversity in stunning language and original imagery. Black uses a palomino horse, ‘Mustang-wild,’ form which her rider has fallen, but is now in the saddle again, and the horse, which represents her recovered body: ‘understands… / that I never needed to forgive her at all’.

This is a book of huge variety that will continue to give pleasure through many readings."

 

"Sharon Black has a curiosity which takes her through many states and regions. Some of these are literal: summers of childhood, the ever-surprising terrain of the Scottish isles, tracks below the Atlas Mountains. Some are figurative and imaginary: the condition of the heart in situations of loss or betrayal; the behaviour of the body while it anticipates and endures surgery; the times and places that books have known before they come into her possession.

A key theme that emerges in To Know Bedrock, one which unites these varied conditions, is the contrast between the world in movement, however small, and the world at rest, for however long. In 'Walking on Eggshells', the static condition refers to any situation where someone's false move might trigger a cataclysm. Black casts the scene in almost literal terms, imagining a room that is effectively carpeted with shells:

Exhale steady poles of light / through your fingertips / then step lightly from one peak to the next
with a tight-rope walker's concentration. If you're lucky you will make it / to the other side of that day's clutch

The intense concentration required, emphasised here by the synaesthesia of "Exhale ... light", is deftly caught in these lines. But this isn't whimsy: "If you're lucky" and "that day's clutch" remind the reader that, for some unlucky people, eggshell-walking is a chronic condition.

Though stillness is a state that many understandably seek, through escape or meditation, it can also be imposed. This is a thread that runs through 'Chinks', a sequence that explores the experience and process of breast cancer surgery. The speaker is simultaneously there and not there: taking in explanations about what will happen to her yet also, understandably, evaluating what it means for her essential self, that unique world we all inhabit below and beyond clothes, names, status as child, parent, employee, NI number. In 'Soft Fruit', the doctor demonstrates how much will need to be removed, the speaker construing her word in terms of softness and corruption:

a fruit quartered to the quick to expel the slippery pips,
these seeds that fall without trace
to spread their inscrutable roots.

Elsewhere in the sequence, the stillness and inscrutability of other objects become a strange kind of comfort. 'The Waiting Room' finds the speaker regarding "two non-flowering plants", those embellishments placed in hospitals or other sites of fear to console those who wait for what they don't yet know:

Hard to tell if they're real
or replicas, though one is tilted towards a closed velux
the suggestion of an outside world.

In the context of the whole sequence, the phrasing here is eloquent. The lines echo Larkin's 'The Building', where hospital patients catch glimpses of the so-close, so-distant world they have had to forsake, complete with "Red brick, lagged pipes, and someone walking by it / Out to the car park, free".

Action and stillness can meet in other situations. In 'Scoring', Scrabble offers the battlefield for a relationship in which the man has strayed. Admittedly, "Years have passed since the night / you flouted the rules". Forgiveness, however, doesn't necessarily mean forgetting. The leisurely pace of a board game like Scrabble contrasts with the abiding pain of the speaker's feelings:

You play trial for 14 points / (triple letter, double word); / I use my whole hand on sentence for 80 (double word, 50 bonus points).

Hurt and condemnation, it seems, can be as eloquent via the rules of a game 'by an open fire' – even more so.
Sharon Black's curiosity about what makes people tick – and how places and events can slow the tick down or speed it up – comes clearly through in each poem of To Know Bedrock. Though she has been widely published, says the back cover, her poems 'are collected here together for the first time'. It is a good thing that they are.
"

 

"Despite the fact that this is framed with poems about words and, specifically, writing, and despite the moving 'Palomas' in the middle, which details beautifully the communications by a trapped Chilean miner, neither words nor poetry itself is the central concern. Isis Olivier's painting 'Hebrides' graces the cover: a nude woman arching backwards, a compass rose on her left breast, the line of the Hebridean islands dictating the arch, eyes looking towards the Scottish mainland off-canvas. Immediately, the collection is gendered, and I was not surprised to find the central characters mostly to be female. Nor to find that Black's native Scotland is similarly gendered; literally the Motherland, in the eponymous poem:

coastline mapped in tendons and arteries,
in erogenous zones and birth marks,
your moon-curves pushing back landslide, bays and cliffs.

Or in the brilliant 'Cowcaddens', a tale of an immigrant woman brought to Scotland as a bride, having no other identity, and no way of communication. Another image runnng throughout, lightly punctuating the book, is the moon. It equates with the female body but in 'Cowcaddens', it is harsher:

the moon, Chandra,
that keeps its distance
while roulette balls below her feet
narrow their target.

Other moons drift into and out of focus. In 'Learning to Swim', we find that 'No alarm is required / to break the moon of my sleep,' while Black writes 'her throat is a pale bridge stretching / from her chest to the moon' in 'Morning After'. Being female is not, however, portrayed as being unproblematic. From the displaced woman ('Cowcaddens'), the relationship between nascent daughter and mother in 'Trimesters', the complicated saving of (female) angels in 'Twelfth Day', the stymied housewife found 'In Her House' to the 10 poem sequence about breast cancer, 'Chinks', with equal skill, each challenge and delineate identity. 'Chinks' in particular, dominating the second half of the collection, roots it not just in the feminine, but the sexual feminine. Like the other themes, it is not didactic, but simply exists - though it does not exist simply. Because of cancer's invasion of the breast, both speaker and breast become objectified. The latter becomes 'a fruit quartered to the quick / to expel the slippery pips, / these seeds that fall without trace'. Finally, her post-op body is 'a mare / I'm riding bare-back,' which the speaker assures 'I never needed to forgive... at all'. Here then, is conciliation. Here, the female body is unshakeable bedrock. I wish there were more space to limn it, and limn the excellence of this brilliant collection."

 

"Sharon Black's debut collection is beautifully assured. Beginning and ending with poems which touch on the moon, the poems within explore varied territory but always with strength and grace. As winner of the 2011 Frogmore Prize for the poem 'Fibonacci Ponders the Origin of Life', re-titled here 'Fibonacci Takes a Walk to Clear His Head', she does not disappoint with this full collection. Strength is apparent from the first poem where her husband's eyes / are a folded prayer book and the clock slugging restless seconds... with the strength of Sisyphus, / rucks the silence. Favourites come as sequences. The opening sequence 'Trimesters' explores the poet unborn. In the second of the three poems we have through my lids colours blush / as if embarrassed / to be seen smeared // somewhere so private. In the sequence 'Chinks' she explores a diagnosis of breast cancer through investigation to surgery and recovery. This is absolutely lucid writing. In the third of ten poems in the sequence she describes a consultation where whilst being told where the scars will be she watches a white car in the car park, its jagged trajectory symbolic as it is carving a trail through the hospital car-park."

 

"Pindrop Press is a new press with a keen eye for excellent poets. In her debut collection, 'To Know Bedrock', Envoi poet Sharon Black establishes an individual voice that moves from the tender to the unsettling. There is a deep sense of rootedness in these poems, whether to place, people or life itself, and an ability to combine rawness with deep compassion and a questing imagination, as in 'Trimester':

I who am being drawn
towards a new orbit,
towards a spill of milky stars
with which to seal my bones

or in 'Unborn':

You came to me too late - me, the mainland,
already with whole civilisations to support.

In a visceral collection, earth, water, skin and bone feature prominently, forming a landscape that is both of place and metaphor, as in 'Motherland - (v) Resting Place':

For I have returned to peat, granite, brine.
Soon the Atlantic will flood my veins,
my outline will have risen
as a livid scar of coastline
and the dust of me will have slipped below sand.
I shift to make myself comfortable
as the tide sucks me flesh-wards.

Full of lyrical rhythm and compelling imagery, this is a quietly assertive poetry that deserves to be heard."

 

Testimonials to 'The Art of Egg'


Roselle Angwin, author of Looking for Icarus
, Imago and Bardo:

"Whether she's writing of birth (real or metaphorical), of love or of journeys, Sharon's voice is an original one: tender, tough, imaginative. She doesn't flinch from the harsher aspects of being alive: the unborn child, breast cancer and loss all figure in her work. Here too are passionate, visceral poems that hold together both love and death. Many of her poems are rooted in her native Scotland, with the Hebrides a recurring motif. There's a mysterious Other in some of her work - one perhaps of and in the land, perhaps beyond it. Her work might be that elusive treasure brought to the surface in 'the net of the moon' trawling 'the sea of the night."

 

"Sharon Black's poems are meditations on memory and family, on the way the present triggers images of the past. They are also gentle explorations of the skin and bones of bodies, and the oddities of landscape, deft and highly tactile: a series of deceptively quiet lullabies to the inner and outer world. Hidden among the gentle, teasing and tender images there are also suddenly disturbing moments, as in a poem about a terrorist bomber, which makes the reader want to go back and search the poems for the little inklings of pain as well as the sensory delights. This is a really absorbing first collection, with a constant enjoyment of the individual power of words."

 

"If Sharon Black were a singer, she'd be a dramatic soprano with a wide and varied repertoire. This highly accomplished and polished collection tells many tales, not least that it is to be a woman in a strange world and a strange body. Here is a voice that needs to be heard and reheard; it simply gets better each time."

 

"Sharon Black's poems are hugely impressive: sensual, gentle, poised between the 'storms of the heart' and the head's 'light rainfall', they have the secret, echoing force of subterranean streams."

 

"I purchased this first collection after enjoying Ms Black’s work in Poetry Kit‘s Caught in the Net 98 (featured poet showcase) and Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon blog review.  Several poems in the collection have won or been shortlisted in competitions and poetry prizes.  Amongst my favourites: Sabotage, a poem about control, containment, the breaking of spirit.  Chilling, powerful.  Palomas (“doves”), the nickname given to Chilean miner Victor Zamora’s poems, sent to his wife in plastic capsules during the 69 days he was trapped underground in 2010.  Beautiful. These poems speak to my ear: great sounds, whether sub-vocalised or read aloud."