Karen Dennison

Poet and artist


Scene noir and old flames

This is the third time that Elly Nobbs and I have given each other images to respond to. It’s a great way to inspire new writing.


Photograph by Karen Dennison

Scene Noir — The Protector

The shadow by my elbow
says, Never mind. A gun hides
under wrapping paper.

It’s up to me to use,
thus saving
all the other party goers.

They have no clue.
I grip the thing, contemplate
its heaviness; hide

it behind, in the waistband
of my jeans like the FBI
agents do on Netflix.

Resigned that the plot calls
for this protagonist
to shoot her mouth off, roaring

Let’s be done with it!

E.E. Nobbs

Edwin Edwards's Old Barn 1978

Photo by Elly Nobbs (Kodak Instamatic 1978)



I asked Elly about the story behind this photo. In the 1960s her parents bought the adjoining small farm which had belonged to an ancient brother and sister. The barn was full of stuff of all sorts – old magazines etc…nothing ever thrown out. As it was gradually falling down it became dangerous so in 1978 Elly’s parents had the Fire Department come and burn down the barn.



Old Flames

He piled up her letters to him,
together with photographs, favourite novels,
diaries he’d penned, poured on lighter fluid.

How she and he melted in Rome and Paris,
fluttered like moths into the night, flames twisting
into ghosts, exorcised as smoke; words re-written as ash,
while the crackling edifice collapsed.

Years later, loss hits him like sunlight
through magnifying glass
onto the crumpled sheets of paper
where he’s written his heart.

What he would give to go back,
unstrike the match, save one photo,
frame the face he can no longer picture.

Karen Dennison

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My review of Smashed Glass at Midnight by J V Birch

smashed-glass-at-midnight-cover-imageThis chapbook of twenty poems is published by Picaro Press, an imprint of Ginninderra Press. It is notable for its narrow shape, egg-shell-like cover paper and transparent endpaper. The poems are about loss in a number of contexts including failing relationships, childlessness, hospital admissions and dementia.

Each poem brings a distilled image with an intense focus where the abstract and the unseen often become embodied things. For example, in Sense of an ending – ‘The air between us is tired/wants to lie down/dream of doors being open’ and in What the old house thinks ‘my yellow’ is a living thing that once danced and sang and has now been stolen.

Emotions also become living entities, through the use of visual metaphor, that communicate with, possess, and control the speaker. In Offspring loss has its own will, taking the form of an unwanted companion, and ends up being carried in the speaker’s handbag and releasing itself as a ‘god-awful sound’. And in Instinct, ‘..it stood awkward at her door/ in a uniform it couldn’t breathe in.’

The poems also have the feel of a dreamlike distance as if the speaker is looking back on the past, detached from an earlier self where there was a sense of loss of control; where her body, hands and mouth had their own minds. From Admission – ‘her hands restless spiders make nests in her hair’ and she ‘moves her words to her fingers/ touches her mouth when she wants to speak’. Loss of control also features in Body where ‘many women have choices/mine are made for me.’

The image of the mouth punctuates these poems, recurring like an archetype where sounds and words are involuntarily released and then purposefully held-back. In Release, ‘I peel down/unravel myself./ Start with the flap at my mouth that’s teased for too long.’

Paper and folding also feature as metaphors for fragility and acceptance / closure. In Revelation ‘you thin me to paper’; in What the new wife does ‘she folds into routine’ and in Leaving ‘I place my goodbye on the table/ seven years of tears/ line dried, folded in pairs’.

This collection really resonated with me and its images stayed with me long after reading, a reflection of their strength and symbolism. I highly recommend it.

To end, here’s 17 years in full which I have chosen because of the stunning ‘moths that martyr the windows’.

17 years

Our mouths are no longer in love
they forget their place
what they used to be.

After rising I pair lonely hellos
spend the day elsewhere
although you left some time before this.

And still we return
to goodnights like moths that martyr the window
until we fold into ourselves.

J V Birch is a British poet living in Southern Australia. To buy the pamphlet, see Picaro Poets Series.

This review was originally published on Abegail Morley’s Poetry Shed.

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Responding to images – more poems by Elly Nobbs and me

Elly Nobbs (author of The Invisible Girl) and I gave each other an image to respond to again (see previous post) and here are the results.

Here’s the image I gave to Elly:


I took this photograph in Brussels near the EC headquarters in 2013 and manipulated it in Photoshop

Elly’s response below was also influenced by the novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler and the three sessions of a stage performance course she attended. I love the way the poem bridges different genres and how it tackles this important topic.

Two Characters & a Situation for an Improv Skit

i. Freeze – Upstage Left, Person #1:

The old chimpanzee,
veins & vitals scarred from years
at this pharma research facility, behind bars
that reach to the sky, waits
for 5 p.m. supper, hoping something

unusual might happen; she’s lonely & hungry
(her stomach is rumbling)
& yes, she’s certainly dangerous
we agree…

ii. Enters – Downstage Right, Person #2:

The white-coated human, who contravenes
(just this once) Sect.1(c)-23
of the for-everyone’s-protection lab
SHE’S SEDATED – unlocks

the escape-proof cage door, scoots in (it will only
take a second) to retrieve the tray
from lunch ignoring the long pole with grippers
he should’ve used to safely slide it
through the slot

but slipping on a banana skin, he knocks
shut the door behind him when he stumbles
… the key flies from his hand
arcs through the air to hers…

iii. The Two Characters Interact Inside the Locked Cage:

Note — the two actors
agreed before the skit
that they must
find a way to help
the old chimpanzee

so used
by us

or we’ll not let them
off the stage.

E.E. Nobbs

Here’s the image Elly gave to me:

Skiff of snow

Elly took this photograph early one Sunday morning, December 2015. It shows a part of the Confederation Trail (the old railway line) where it passes through Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

When I saw Elly’s photo Skiff of Snow, I was struck by just how many footprints there were in the snow but how the path was empty of people. It felt like a visual metaphor for the journeys we make through life and their inevitable endings.

Skiff of Snow

A snow-coated path
funnels the horizon, narrows
to a tree-lined gap, births
a wide heavy sky.

Ahead, a frozen flock
of ice-black footprints
recede to mottled-grey.
A pilgrimage of people

have passed this way,
marks unnamed,
their clouds of breath
swallowed by air.

Karen Dennison


Stephanie Arsoska’s Girl in Blue

Stephanie Arsoska is one of the poets that has contributed to my ongoing Book of Sand project where poets respond to art and artists respond to poems. Below is Stephanie’s beautiful and haunting poem and her thoughts on the experience of taking part.

Girl in Blue

The knife daughter
slices yesterday into boxes,

cutting all the little things away.
Her song is a dark needle

reaching to where sky
hems the land.

Here a girl can start
to unstitch herself,

unravel ghosts,
until her broken voice

clears the sky.

Stephanie Arsoska

“Participating in the second Book of Sand was a very special experience. I hadn’t anticipated how intimate it would feel to both be sent a piece of artwork to respond to and then to see someone else respond creatively to my own work. It was exciting to see how someone had chosen to lift my words from the page and make them into something beautiful. I don’t usually write from images either so it was a new way of working for me and I certainly can’t draw or paint myself so it was fascinating to collaborate with people who work in this way. I just hope I have done the piece of art that I was sent justice with my response! I am very much looking forward to seeing the whole thing come together, the interaction between the two forms is something unique and I am excited to see how the final book looks.”


Responding to images – poems by Elly Nobbs and me

My friend and fellow poet Elly Nobbs (author of The Invisible Girl) had the neat idea to give each other an image to respond to and below are the results. Check out Elly’s web page.

When Elly sent me the bird image it helped me to go back to a couple of fragmented lines I’d written and abandoned which I was able to incorporate into something new.

I love where the image I sent Elly took her. It’s interesting what links we make with abstract images to concrete ideas.


“Sunprints”, layered photographs by Karen Dennison

For the child

life’s like a hole
where once there was a stove pipe
in the kitchen ceiling
of an old house

with a bedroom
above: she’s on the floor
not sleeping
— one ear over this chance
to learn secrets

and no, the sounds
weren’t like seas inside a conch
shell or comets

— poem by E.E. Nobbs



“Betwixt”, digital drawing by E.E. Nobbs, using Sketchpad (based on “Blackbird”, photograph by Tom Myers)


I pull on the shape of the crow’s
silhouette, wear it like a hooded coat,
push my arms into its feathers.

I plant my feet in the branches of a tree,
autumn leaves jigsaw beneath me.
My field of sight moves, widens.

Sky is my country now. I’ve sacrificed
words for wings, speech for song.
I hover above our house, squall farewell.

— poem by Karen Dennison


The Memory of Water by Abegail Morley

I recently collaborated with Abegail Morley on her poetry pamphlet The Memory of Water (see one of the poems below). She wrote the poems as poet-in-residence for the National Trust at Scotney Castle (see Poet-in-residence – is this for you?) and I responded with photographs which I took at and around the castle and then layered and altered using Photoshop. The images appear on the cover and inside to mark the beginning of each of three sections. We decided to use black-and-white photos to reflect the atmosphere of this collection.


Puzzle of Brick and Stone (front cover image)

“In these beautiful poems, inspired by the medieval manor house Scotney castle, in Kent, the water of its famous moat is custodian of the manor’s history and does indeed lick at the past, tasting broadswords, releasing the heady swell of wild garlic that grows on its banks. And the language reflects this medium, is fluid, musical, reflective, as it raises characters from Scotney’s past – a hidden priest, the smuggler who faked his own death and burial – and interweaves these histories with imagined occupants and visitors with dramas of their own…”

Jo Hemmant, author of The Light Knows Tricks (Doire Press)


What the moat knows

For a long time afterwards water carries the burden
of its trauma, remembers how shifting ripples

once reached the moat’s edge as it made way
for the body heaved into its depths. Stunned fish

shot under logs, staffs of light silently dashed
for cover as his limbs, swung like rope, turned

and knuckled into dark corners. It was the stones
that weighed him down, pressed him through

the slits of the moat’s velvet cloth. His heart
already hushed, his doll-eyed stare left watching silt

whirl upwards until there was nowhere else to fall.

Abegail Morley

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Snow poem


Clumps hoodwink the bushes;
a drudgery clings to the tree, muffling
its limbs.  She moves unseen.

Her hands and fingerprints crumble
to powdery snow. A windfall fills
her footprints.  She uncouples

from all she knows, freezes over.
People look through her –
she’s becoming a ghost.  She sleeps

under a crumpled duvet of snow,
clumps shovelled up at the roadside
in the morning.  Her voice shatters,

flurries wordlessly through air, separate
and together, like flocks of white birds.
Mute, invisible, she haunts the streets

as if immortal.  She remembers the edge
of something, a childhood drawing
that flutters around the blind spot of vision.

She blows her name and the name
of her brother across her palm
into whirlwinds of snow.

She passes the roadside cross
for a fallen mother, the ragged rotten
sodden flowers encrusted in snow.

Tears are glittering snowflakes
that surprise her cheeks.  There is stifled music;
a father and daughter whistle an Adagio of snow.

A child’s face glows like a full moon
from a car window, wanting, not wanting, to go. Snow
slips down the pane,  slurs the street lamps’ halos.

by Karen Dennison

Published in poetrywivenhoe 2011 and Counting Rain