'Nirvana or Mozart on the playlist,/four or five pillows to prop head upright,/can't hardly read even, scandal without books,/talking barely, coughing,/eye waver with dancing light visions'
'Silent Screams' p.30
by Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi
Unnerving. June 2017.
Breathe Breathe could tare itself apart with the amount of raw emotion contained in its fifty-seven pages. In this three part book, Al-Mehairi sheds light on difficult topics such as abuse, anxiety, loneliness and love that hurts more than heals. This is the first poetry I've seen to come out of Unnerving, though I am only a recent reader of its bone-tingling books and admittedly I was quite surprised to see a poetry chapbook appear on its shelves.
However, in the first part of Breathe Breathe, Unnerving's typical horror theme raises her head, as the first handful of poems appear to be depict Edgar-Allen-Poe-style tales of murder, magic and fear, making it clear why the book slotted in with their other publications. I was pretty impressed by Al-Mehairi's bravery in tackling this kind of poem, as it is quite an outdated format and it isn't an easy one to tackle, as it demands quite a strict rhyme structure - or no rhyme scheme at all - and a narrative plot that flows well.
In Act One - Breathe Through FEAR, 'A Different Kind of Fisherman', the first poem of this book, does this very well. There is no rhyme, but the short punchy sentences allow a clear visual image of what is happening and it leaves the revealing sucker-punch to the last verse. 'Peboan, Ojibwe Spirit of Winter' follows on with the same minimalist lines but in a descriptive form rather than a narrative. There are a few lines here in this poem I particularly liked, such as 'chilling wanderer/conniving to contain...' whose verse held a repetitive alliteration.
However the verse ended in rhyme where there had previously been none, which I did find a little jarring. This habit of dropping rhyme into a predominantly non-rhyme poem persists in 'Night Stalked', which is possibly the most storytelling poem in this collection. Maintaining her minimalist style, Al-Mehairi tells the fast-paced tale of a woman running away from some form of male monster who smells of rotten fruit. Al-Mehairi takes many brave risks with her poetic narrative technique and I fear - for me, it didn't quite work, as to me it just felt like prose but 3-5 words per line. I wasn't entirely sure why poetry was the chosen format. But I applaud the daring of this poem and despite it not particularly effecting me, I admire it nonetheless. Part One continues the trend of poetic narrative of mystery and macabre, mainly favouring the first person so we are drawn by the complex situation of her characters through their thoughts and feelings. There are some wonderful lines such as 'black-pitch myths' ('The Strangling of Jane', p.20) and 'Snow White wanderings' ('Buried Alive, p.23). These poems play with mythology in terms of haunted lochs and witches, while nurturing a powerful emotional core.
In Act Two - Breathe Through PAIN, Al-Merhairi turns inward and concerns her narrative with internal struggles, whether they are personal or told through a different voice can be left up to the reader's interpretation. Many of the poems in this part focus on love and anxiety, sometimes speaking to someone such as in 'The Way You Love Me'. While all these poems had their own unique focus, I did found them a little too similar at times and felt there needed to be some differentiation been the narratives, otherwise they sound like one long run-on poem with sub-headings, which is perhaps what the poet intended by separating her book with 'Acts' rather than 'Parts', hinting to the fact that YES, this is one extended narrative told through two separate voices: that of the external (the outside-in, the mythological, the horror story) and the internal (personal, self-reflective, raw emotion).
Finally we get to my favourite part of the book: Short Stories. Two short stories meet the reader of Breathe Breathe and appear to sum up the Internal v. External themes I just mentioned. In the first story, Dandelion Yellow, we meet a little girl called Somer who is obsessed with her dandelion yellow crayon. When it runs out and cannot be replaced, we see that the girl has been using the colour to mask the horror of the real world. I truly loved this story, I felt it was perfectly paced, I loved the details and I personally found this the best example of Al-Mehairi's talent, as it perfectly described to me what it feels like to be trapped in a terrible situation and how you will do anything to make it better. I felt the characterization was spot on, the personality of the protagonist was excellently done - it is never easy to write child main characters - and I felt the power of this tale as its harrowing ending came to a close. 'Life-Giver of the Nile' was less to my tastes but complimented 'Dandelion Yellow' in that it explored a more mythological standpoint about being trapped in a situation beyond your control. Here the protagonist is forced again and again to sacrifice parts of her soul to keep the life of the River Nile (Egypt) going, repeating the process over and over - forgetting each time - for a greater good that is ultimately evil if it demands the lives of young pure females.
I was conflicted throughout this little book, because while I applauded the raw honesty, emotion and bravery of Breathe Breathe, I found the rhyme style not to my tastes. The poems that did not indulge in rhyme I enjoyed, however most of the poems kept on a half-rhyme-half-blank-verse style that I personally found jarring. In some poems, such as 'In My Bedroom' and 'The Lure of the Loch', I found there was too much rhyme, which unfortunately has the tendency to translate as a technique used by novice poets. A quick Google will tell you that Al-Mehairi is not a novice when it comes to writing, so I was sad to feel this way about her technique and believe it is more a matter of taste rather than the book being at fault. I felt some of the poems, while very good, could have been improved upon by longer lines. While I can see Al-Mehairi wanted to convey a sense of panic and anxiety, illustrated by the fast-pacing of her narratives, I felt some would have benefited from longer lines, as this would have allowed the potent emotions she was showing us to sink in more.
I was concerned by the lack of any copyright information in this book, which is a serious thing not to include in any published work, as it leaves the author's work completely open for anyone who might want steal her poems. Unnerving has included copyright in their recent publications such as 'Monsters Exist', so I found it troubling that it didn't appear in this book.
In his Foreward to the book, Brian Kirk talks about Al-Mehairi writing with an open heart and experiencing many of these emotions herself, so I absolutely praise her for such bravery and honesty. I would feel I was doing this intriguing writer a disservice if I wasn't honest with my feedback and I truly hope that my constructive criticism is taken as just that: constructive criticism, rather than the negative bashing other I've seen reviewers do. I really want to see what Al-Mehairi will do next and what exciting risks she will take in her future works!