Book review: Bitter Language by Elka Cloke

Posted September 14, 2010 by 7 Comments


Readers will find themselves transported to a hidden world by the verses of Elka Cloke’s first poetry collection. Lush language and evocative words yield a blend of the fantastic-within-the-mundane.

”Cloke’s gift is in unerringly choosing the perfect words to describe a feeling, sensation or moment… a lyrically transportive work.” –Cassandra Clare

”Lush and decadent yet precise, Bitter Language is a book to be devoured in greedy gulps.” –Holly Black


A confession: This reader has two degrees in English, but — generally — I don’t like poetry. (My former professors are disowning me right now.)

So why did I decide to reach out to Elka Cloke? Because it’s good to try new things, keep an open mind, etc. And I liked what I’d read of Elka Cloke’s work in Cassandra Clare’s newest book, Clockwork Angel. Plus, when I contacted Cloke, I asked her about her choice of topics.

She said,

The major themes of the collection are cities, rivers, mysticism, fairy tales and fantasy. Some poems are about supernatural themes (vampires, magic). I love to read fantasy and I love science fiction, so when I write poetry I often do so as a fan. I also love to travel and almost all of the poems which are named after specific places were written in that place.

Thames River was written on a ferry boat on the Thames and is also steampunk, which is a fun genre to write.

How can you not love that?

On to the collection: Most of the poems are on the short side, which is fine by me; it makes them more digestible. True to author Cassandra Clare’s statement above, they are “lyrically transportive.” Case in point: “In the Cathedral.” Here’s a particularly descriptive stanza:

In gold we trust. They mock me with this chant, but I hear it
coming from the churches, from the gilded cross,
the silver candlesticks, and the velvet robes of painted angels.
So why do I feel the presence here, in this house of fear?
These walls were built by human hands.
These hands were built by God.

While I don’t know which specific cathedral Cloke is referencing, I was instantly transported to Westminster Abbey in London, which I visited with my English class one summer. I could feel the chill coming off the stone, hear the whispers of tourists and see the high arches flying above our heads.

Transportive, indeed.

For those looking for something a bit more contemporary, “Initiate” won’t disappoint — fans of the undead can insert their favorite vampire.

My favorite, however, is a short poem called “Paper Leaves,” because it is simple, elegant and musical. Cloke said she wants her poems to be “understandable in the way that song lyrics are understandable”; readers will most definitely be able to imagine “Paper Leaves” as a love song to those lazy afternoons spent lost in a favorite book.

While sophisticated readers will find plenty of food for thought with references to Odysseus, Lilith, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and poet Li Po, relative novices will also appreciate the accessibility of the pieces. “Shadows” speaks to those fears we all have in the night, first as children and then as adults; “When I Write” could serve as the theme song for struggling writers; and “Cloister” cuts to the very heart of the struggle between good and evil.

I’m thinking I should revise my stance on poetry.

Bitter Language is available at most major book stores.


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7 responses to “Book review: Bitter Language by Elka Cloke

  1. Carmel

    OMG I have to get this collection of poems by Elka I’m already becoming a fan after seeing these small snippets. After recently seeing “Bright Star” based on John Keat’s poetry and his relationship with Fanny Brawne (played wonderfully by Aussie Abbie Cornish) I’ve felt an interest to look into some poetry rather than just read novels. My daughter will be keen to read this as she loved Elka’s poems within Clockwork Angel:) Also, The Odyssey was one of my favourites classics I studied at school so I’m going to order it right now! Cheers

  2. I am going to have to purchase this book. There are so few collections of poems written for young adults. My students love to read poems and novels in verse. It’s hard to keep my shelves stocked! It’s a great problem to have. Thanks for the recommendation.

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