Review: “In The Carnival Of Breathing” by Lisa Fay Coutley

In The Carnival Of Breathing

When reading through Lisa Fay Coutley’s chapbook In The Carnival Of Breathing (published by Black Lawrence Press) certain themes quickly become apparent. First and foremost breathing and breath are at the centre of these eighteen short works–though water also makes a strong showing. These two elemental forces are at work throughout the collection, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in conflict.

“Respiration” for example, falls definitively into the conflict category. In this poem men are hemmed in by water in the fragile bubble of a submarine. The pressure mounts with each line, culminating in a “fist / in the face”. The subtle violence of the piece carries through to the next poem “On Home”. Though this poem–which takes the point of view of a mother who feels threatened and trapped by her burgeoningly adolescent sons–doesn’t have a direct connection with either of the major themes, it still fits in perfectly with its held-breath tension.

There are many other highlights in the collection, moving from the early swell of violence to the more organic and temperate later poems. Water and breath remain ever present: icicles are “fangs of water / stopped. Mid-fall“, and in “Much Later, From Space” the narrator speaks of lakes being recreated by “tectonic, glacial and fluvial forces“. In “Dad and I Talk E-Cigs” we eavesdrop on a discussion between a woman and her father about the implications of artificial cigarettes: “You want me to suck air from a ball point pen. / Hell, even at 60, a man’s gotta have bounds.

Coutley writes in a clean but occasionally complex style. There are times when a line verges on abstraction, only to resolve itself clearly with the lines that follow. The exception to this is the few poems in the collection that are composed of language from other sources. These cut-ups–abstract as they are–are not as powerful as the other offerings, but are few in number. The body of the collection is solid, complex and evocative.

Another notable characteristic of the chapbook is how neat the poems are. Most are set out in clean, clipped rectangles of language. There are no straggling lines, no errata or unnecessary flourishes–as if even the words themselves have flowed to fill the page. As with the poetry itself there’s an appropriately clear and translucent feel to the presentation of this book.

In The Carnival Of Breathing is available from Black Lawrence Press at

Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England.