Published this month, The Elephant’s Foot is M. A. Oliver Semenov’s (Mao) “first and maybe final” poetry collection, filled with the vibrancy and poignancy of life. With poems that depict childhood memories of the narrator’s mother, to Skyping family on birthdays and Christmases, it provokes feelings of nostalgia through distance and time. It explores how memories are eternal and remain with you, keeping relationships and bonds warm even when distance tries to make them cold.
Mao utilises the poetic form and the economy of language in poems such as ‘Toes’, which tell a whole life without saying too much or too little:
“before my sisters went their own way,
and I went mine –
before the fighting began”
Poems such as these are melancholic, reflecting on childhood from a point of maturity. Throughout the collection, language is accessible, rhythmic, and conversational. ‘Eliot’ offers advice to his doppleganger, a boy observed by the sea who reminds the narrator of his younger self, while ‘The Relationship between my Psoriasis and I is One of Love’ turns ‘ugly’ things into beautiful constellations:
“The could not appreciate
the beauty of my constellations,
each crust of skin a falling star.”
Mao transforms the daily minute details and experiences of life into something majestic and extraordinary. There is an underlying tone of the narrator dreaming of other places and other lives from early on. ‘Lodger’ depicts home through images universal and relatable to every reader, while poems such as ‘Photograph’ employ humour, parallel to shock, fear and dead cats in ‘Memorable Firsts’. The collection therefore is about life, a reflection and a celebration of it. The poems serve as mini snapshots of a life well-lived; from death and tragedy to the everyday such as tea making and contemplation of everything in-between like religion, love and the 21st Century. Mao balances all these moods perfectly and eloquently, evoking a strong connection with the reader and inspiring thought and self-reflection.
Poems such as ‘Collected Sayings by American Tourists’, ’40 Pence of Three for a Pound’ and ‘Scugnizzi’ paint fantastic caricatures of the UK and specifically, Cardiff and Newport, that will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with Wales:
“(Outside St David’s Hall on St David’s Day)
This country is so cute. You got dragons and love spoons, and even some of the road signs are in Elvish. It’s just like being in The Lord of the Rings.”
They employ humour, while others such as ‘IMMIGRUNTS’, ‘There are No Problems in the United Kingdom’ and ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ comment on and satirise the current British politics:
“Austerity Britain is the perfect answer to the financial crisis […] They do not feel feel forced into running their own community libraries for no pay because libraries are not being closed down at a rapid rate.”
Among these, many of the poems are also about living in Siberia, away from Wales, adapting to a new way of life and the fear that comes with living in Russia. ‘Clearing the Dacha of Snow in Early April’:
“Self-exiled from Welsh life,
I have begun to disappear from the bottom up”
In poems such as these, and the title poem, ‘The Elephant’s Foot’ about the Chernobyl disaster, tell the hard hitting truths of living in Russia and the author’s fears of radiation and safety. Yet even among these, there are beautiful moments and descriptions of life in Siberia.
In summary, the collection is refreshingly honest, humane and poetic, something much-needed in today’s chaos. Reading the collection and connecting with the narrator so strongly on the page becomes a therapeutic experience, and I would hugely recommend The Elephant’s Foot, especially to readers in Wales.
I recently did an ‘Author of the Month’ piece on Mao, which is live on Parthian Books’ website. It includes a short interview and links to a few articles where Mao talks about life in Russia and specifically about the processes behind writing The Elephant’s Foot, that I found hugely insightful and interesting to read. So go check these out:
Parthian Books – Author of the Month July 2016: M.A. Oliver-Semenov
Wales Arts Review – Writing ‘Elephant’ by M. A. Oliver-Semenov
New Welsh Review – ‘The Elephant’s Foot: Accidents, Disaster and Poetry’ by M. A. Oliver-Semenov