Edwin Morgan Prize 2014 – Stewart Sanderson, Molly Vogel, Tom Chivers

Full Disclosure: I read all three poets’ work for the first time in preparation for this post. I’ll be referring to Sanderson’s poems from Poetry Review 102:2, Dark Horse 32 and Northwords Now (Spring 2014); Vogel’s poems from PN Review 209, PN Review 214, the Fish Anthology 2014 and the project Isle of Skye; Chivers was kind enough to send me poems from his current manuscript, Dark Islands.

Stewart Sanderson:

Sanderson was born and is based in Glasgow, where he is writing his thesis on Post-WWII Scots Poetic Translation. The engagement with the musical value of words is totally evident in his poems, as is a rich engagement with visual art, both explicitly (three ekphrastic poems, ‘Hare’, ‘Windows in the West – Avril Paton, 1993’ and ‘The Confession of Chancellor Nicolas Rolin – Jan van Eyck, c.1435’) and written deeply into the poems’ genetic codes. These are poems of forensic attention to detail, at pains to assert the uniqueness of their objects, their sensory import. They are also poems of quiet and powerful feeling, particularly ‘Windows in the West’, best read, of course, after seeing the source material:

‘The backlit flats are still. A shaping mind
trills seventh chords, somewhere so faraway
we hardly hear for wallpaper. Light bends
while someone runs a bath.’

That feeling of being weirdly intimate-yet-distant with your immediate neighbours is a recognisable one, the deftly handled ottava rima the perfect form for roping together elements that are barely separated to begin with.

Among the poems in the recent Northwords Now, ‘Hare’ is an intricate evocation of Albrecht Dürer’s sketches:

‘First the lines on which the fur
depends like sailcloth,

woven wicker-like. Where scars
on tender skin should be

and where the ears
will stiffen at danger, soften down or flop

disconsolate. No creature like a hare
for melancholy.’

Besides their sense of humour, these lines go a long way to bring out the sheer generosity Dürer gave to his subjects, human or otherwise; as an ars poetica in miniature, ‘Hare’ has an innate and complex understanding of its own relation to the life outside the poem: ‘There is nothing like a hare / to contemplate you, // bound away as flesh, / stop there.’

Molly Vogel:

Vogel is originally from California, and is now a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Like her fellow Glasweigian, Vogel also turns a very fine hand in ekphrasis, again using Dürer’s painting – this time Self-Portrait as inspiration; the very pleasingly titled, ‘Lessons on how to Understand a Famous Painting’ positions humour as the critic’s most valuable tool. The poet contends:

‘In this canvas, people have seen their husband, an accurate depiction of the Flemish people, a portrait of Martin Luther disguised as Albrecht Dürer, a coat I am intentionally wearing so I can comment aloud to others viewing the painting that I am wearing a similar coat to the one in the painting […]

How often Albrecht Dürer painted his own curls and felt the curve of the brush between his fingers, bending and aching quietly like a piano bench, or a creased page in a book. But it was already too late and the hair was finished. Albrecht knew it and sensed it was a terrible mistake.’

It’s a great set piece that understands enough about art to say that in all likelihood even Dürer deployed enough self-awareness and self-criticism not to take his work 100% seriously, to allow his audience a flexible reading. This playful approach to art again comes to the fore in Vogel’s concise and subversively assertive rendition of Klimt’s Danaë, returning agency to the painting’s passive deity:

‘It’s been
thousands
upon thousands
of years of gold.
I was a god,
and this is what I did,
striking
without hands,
or hammer,
piercing
without needle,
without tools other
than gold,
gold,
the color gold.’

In ‘Glesga Prayer’ the poet shows her tonal range, allowing the lines to get slack and variable in a piece that seems designed for performance. As with her work at large, this poem’s voice is open, generous, and capable of a deceptively complicated relationship with the world:

‘Our Father who art in heaven, I am in love.
Again. For which I offer thanks.
Tonight, I step in dog shit. I don’t care.
I thank God for it.
[…]
At the gardens last week, I sat and watched
two boys blowing up johnnies. I could have
let it mean anything but was moved again
by how little we ask for.’

Tom Chivers:

Chivers’ first collection, How to Build a City, was published by Salt in 2009 as part of his Crashaw Prize win. As the title suggests, it’s a deep exploration of, almost saturation in, central London culture, the skyscrapers, tube stations, office workers and the poet in the midst of everything. A lot of the work done in this collection is to the fore of Dark Islands; the inescapability of technology and the impulse to escape seems to be the collection’s central tension. In ‘The Islanders’ Chivers sketches a civilisation of ‘digital natives’, who

‘spoke an elevated form of hypertext,
interspersed with Java: a dialect
I recognised as coded status updates.’

By the end of the poem, even this compromised idyll is taken over by suburban desires for comfort and commodified status, ‘a makeshift / hut overlooking the bay’, and even this society has its ‘outcasts’,

‘who’d given up the old ways,
switched their mobiles off,
refused to check their emails.’

The collection is strung together by a series of poems about (ostensibly) real and notional islands. These spaces are linked by their capacity for provoking or harbouring creative freedom and fluid perspectives, while their ability to stand in as a kind of otherworld gives Chivers an opportunity to comment on the rigidity of urban living by implication. The prose poem ‘Formentor’ (a beach in Majorca) moves from ‘Two boys are swimming on the island’, through a few passages of distant observation, to

‘They have returned from the island and are walking past us, bare-chested and in flip-flops. I see now they are not boys but men, with full, salt-and-pepper beards and the tanned guts of fishermen.

As we leave, the sun is low, and the island is cast half in light, half in shade.’

Though Chivers’ poetry is occasionally wired up to overstimulate the reader, his best work encourages a second look, a closer examination of those initial impressions.

If you want to find more you could check out Chivers’ personal blog, this is yogic, and he is the editor of the excellent independent poetry press Penned in the Margins.

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The winner of the Edwin Morgan Prize will be announced on Saturday 16 August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I feel confident that whoever wins will deserve it.

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Edwin Morgan Prize 2014 – Claire Askew, Niall Campbell, Harry Giles

So this is something a little different. The Edwin Morgan Prize shortlist has been announced, it’s Scotland’s biggest award for poetry, a huge deal for promoting poets under 30, and (even better) a very strong shortlist has been selected.

Full Disclosure: Three of the poets in question I know personally (Askew, Campbell and Giles) and the others have given me permission to write a paragraph or two as a sort of primer on their work. I hope you’ll indulge the air of positivity for now; only Niall Campbell and Tom Chivers have their first collections in the public domain, once the others do I’ll be the first to give them a sound reviewing. For clarity, in this post I’ll be discussing Askew’s most recent poems in the Winter edition of the Istanbul Review, Campbell’s recent collection Moontide, and Giles’ pamphlets Visa Wedding and Oam.

Claire Askew:

Askew and myself were in the same creative writing class back in 08/09, and even then, her poetry made the home, family and particularly the lives of older women the centre of her focus. This thoroughly unfashionable commitment seems to have paid total dividends judging by her most recent work, themselves very much connected to what she was writing on back in ye olde days.

‘The axe of the house’ concerns (what we can assume is) the poet’s move into a new house, whose previous owner has passed away. It’s a deeply unsettling piece that forces the reader to question who the key player really is: the speaker (and occasional narrator), June, the previous owner, Mary, next door neighbour and medium between the two? From the outset June’s presence is – very literally – overwhelming, ‘Her smell is on everything: / lavender, talc, menthol and something medical / behind it all’, so much so the narrator feels obliged to say ‘sorry / aloud, splitting floorboards, hauling down / ancient steel blinds that unravel and clatter / like train-wires or hail’. The poem establishes that this act of homemaking first requires a clearance, a difficult, violent and intrusive one, which eliminates the life that went before. Implicitly, it places the young homeowners in the same boat as the men who break in in section iv, ‘They took a bit, a bagful, all valuable: / jewellery, stuff they could carry’; implicitly, the dream in which

Inside, there’s only a folding stool

and June, folded down onto it.
Her hair’s been done.
She has on white, seamed gloves,

a string of beads like tiny,
iridescent eyes. She says
nothing, though you wait a long time.

places June as a silent, well-made, and judging part of the furniture. The closing section, ‘The axe’, uses its eponymous symbol as a kind of fulcrum around which the poem revolves, a quiet, threatening presence ‘buried erect and shining, / L of light, in the heart / of the shed.’ The close of the poem is a brilliant slice of nightmare, a kind of Frost-like short story all of its own, as the countryside and wildlife gradually decay, the narrator and the axe outliving everything.

The whole piece is illustrative of Askew’s strength with extended narrative; her best pieces are underwritten by their palpable reality, their strangeness by the underlying mundaneness. The other poems in the Istanbul Review are ‘Big Heat’, in which the narrative voice is given over to a woman on an unnamed island who assists the white, Anglophone tourists (again, we can assume, the poet seen from a reverse angle); in the poem she has the space to express herself that in reality she supresses: ‘I want to say / that crying is a stupid luxury / the island women can’t afford […]But I’m quiet, / pour a glassful for her from our fridge. / She sputters thank you in our language’. Again, the poet paints herself as not only a secondary character but one specifically excluded from the poem’s centre of authority. It’s kind of exhilarating. ‘Bad Moon’ is an excellent, good-humoured piece of deconstruction, and the palpable glee of its last stanza too good to spoil. If you get the chance, look it up.

Otherwise, Claire is @OneNightStanzas and runs a rather excellent blog.

 

Niall Campbell:

I reviewed Moontide way back when; I humbly ask you read that review instead of a ctrl+c-ctrl+v-ed version here. It would be unfair to the other shortlistees.

 

Harry Giles:

Visa Wedding pitches between America and Scotland, and it features (amongst other things) a speaking voice that is as assured and coherent as it is playful and resistant to taxonomy. The opening poem ‘Visa Wedding #1’ puts its cards on the table in (‘mongrel and magpie’) Scots, ‘Listen, hit’s semple’, before making a case that’s anything but. As the poem’s invocation of American and Scottish traditional standards suggest, the poem focuses on the performing ‘I’, its sense of self ‘tursit in that muckle myndin n ma’d-on / ancestry hit’s at lang n lenth hausable’; ‘Visa Wedding #1’ holds in its heart the hope, or ambition, that, since all selves are constructed anyway (cf the somewhat unconvincing nirvana entreated by the country-western lines ‘tak me hame tae the place / I belong’), the improvised nature of the poet’s own is no discredit.

Visa Wedding puts this first principle to good use in its several love poems, each of which take off from engagingly off-kilter perspectives, performing a neat turn in self-deprecating-self-aggrandisement in their bright and oddly scientific conceits (the seduction of rational, fact-based learning in ‘Curriculum’: ‘Get down and dirty // with transects, quadrants’; the moving amount of intellectual effort that brings ‘An Experiment was Carried Out’ to the conclusion: ‘I have failed to prove / the null hypothesis / that I do not love you.’). ‘Sermon’ is an excellent satirical set piece that rewires a speech given by the Prime Minister at the Munich Security Conference by replacing ‘terror/terrorists’ (or similar) into ‘love/lovers’: ‘We need to be / clear on where the origins of love lie’. The book’s most obvious bid for a complicated understanding of sexuality is in ‘Vows’: ‘one of the reasons I can put up with marrying you is / that we both think many-valued logics are / HOT / are much sexier than metaphors’. It might be a sign of the skill with which these ideas are deployed that it’s far easier to quote them than unpack them.

The closing poem, ‘Brave’, is a Ginsberg-y, Whitmanny declaration of contemporary Scotland: ‘I sing o a Scotland whit hinks thare#s likely some sort o God, rite? / whit wad like tae gang for sushi wan nite but cadna haundle chopsticks’. For a poem written at least two years prior to the current independence debate, it shows some remarkable prescience.

Oam: Poems fae Govanhill Baths, published in November 2013, exactly twelve months after Visa Wedding, shows a remarkable development both of the personal/political scope of Giles’ poems and the imaginative confidence of the books’ Scots. As the pamphlet’s afterword explains, Govanhill Baths Community Trust is now well underway in its four-year plan to fully reopen the swimming pool and ‘steamie’, and is already open as an arts venue. The reopening came after a seven-year long community-led campaign, and the book’s sense of the baths’ history is at the heart of its aesthetic. The poem ‘Scenes fae a protest’ puts the telling of this history into the hands of the protesters, brings it into clear-sighted and undramatic terms: ‘auld wifie brang a poly bag / luikit pangit wi sandwiches / Ah thocht ye’d need this’, ‘bluidy pineapple! whar / wad we get a pineapple? / naw thir wis mebbe / five hunner eggs but Ah nivvir / saw a pineapple’. The collection is about putting human experience first.

Oam aims to redress political balances, and, much like Visa Wedding, undermines social constraints as it goes. ‘The hairdest man in Govanhill’ is a totally joyful poem, simultaneously unravelling and rebuilding masculinity into something positive and communitarian: ‘the puils o his tears stap traffic / n weans sweem in thaim / n he greets hairder juist tae please thaim’. ‘Tae a cooncillor’ is a wee bit of political poetical genius, taking a template from Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ in a way the bard might well have clandestinely approved. ‘Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart, / whit unco warld make ye wir maister?’, the poem asks, and has a bloody rollicking time answering. It’s probably the sole note of anger, however ironic, in a book more concerned with asserting the best of the community’s achievements, and even then there’s a joy in its flyting:

Gin maraounjous wirds seem awfie sterie,
a weird whit’s oot o whack, a theory
owerfane – yer wrangs war peerie –
Ah’ll wiss insteid
ye see yersel as ithers see ye:
awready deid.

Harry too is active on the Twitters, and verily runneth a superb poetry-art-activism blog. For more of his work, I’d first check out this fantastic live performance of the series ‘Drone Poems‘.

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Kei Miller – The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

Full Disclosure: Miller is a tremendous live performer, and one of the first poets I went to see after moving to Edinburgh, so I do have positive associations with his work. Met him once at StAnza many moons ago.

Review: The Cartographer[…] is, ostensibly, the story of two largely allegorical figures, the eponymous cartographer and his antagonist, the rastaman. Their dialogue provides the book’s title and thematic spine, and could be read as Miller’s quarrel with himself in trying to understand (or perhaps to explain) his home, his origins, the cartographer’s empiricism versus the rastaman’s faith; the book however, quickly complicates this initial binary by highlighting the rastaman’s academic credentials (‘a PhD (from Glasgow / no less)’) and having the cartographer integrate into the local spiritual community, and eventually begin the doomed quest of the book’s title. Their story ties together the book’s sundry anecdotes, histories, folk tales and observations (arguably it is secondary to the book’s broader concerns); its qualified movement from a priori theory to experience mirroring the book’s overarching narrative.

3 KS

Very recently, Miller wrote powerfully and enlighteningly on being a black poet in Britain and on the history of racial and sexual prejudice in Jamaica; besides being brave and heartfelt personal accounts, provide contexts of which I was ignorant when I first read the book, particularly regarding Jamaican social-political history. In light of these pieces, The Cartographer seems an attempt not only for Miller to work out his own attitudes towards a deeply complex society, but also to frame those problems as – historically speaking at the very least – bound together with Britain’s own. If the tone of the unnamed third ‘character’, the non-participating narrator, seems to work double-duty as tour guide (and tour guides do make appearances in the book), it may be that The Cartographer also aims to provide introductions to the uninitiated. That it carries out this goal with humour and patience speaks volumes; reading the linked posts again, I’m struck by how unangry a collection this is, how powerful the calls for ‘heartbless’ that open and close the collection appear in broader context. Jamaica may still be suffering from the social and economic strictures introduced by colonial rule, but it also produced Lorna Goodison, Louise Bennett, Olive Senior and Dennis Scott (just for a kickoff), and the book insists on a complicated perspective on a country that has long suffered from simplistic attitudes at home and abroad.

This drive for context animates a lot of the best pieces in the collection, poems that undermine dominant narratives by highlighting the oddness or humbleness of their origins. In ‘Establishing the Metre’ two French cartographers set out ‘Like tailors who must know their clients’ girths’ and come back with the universal unit of measurement; ‘xi’ relates the story of Lady Musgrave’s Road, which ‘was laid / in its serpentine way / so that Miss Musgrave / on her carriage ride home // would not have to see a nayga man’s property / so much bigger than her husband’s / own’, and remains so; in ‘Place Name: Shotover’, the stately home once known as Chateau Vert is renamed by the descendants of slaves ‘little acquainted with French’, explaining: ‘bucky-master had was to catch back runaway slaves, so him would draw for him long musket and buss gunshot over dere, and gunshot over dere’. Though these poems are grounded in a deeply humane mock-heroism, the pain and violence at their roots is clear. The ‘Place Name’ series emphasises this colonial legacy in ‘Flog Man’ and ‘Edinburgh Castle’, insisting on remembering both their origins and how those origins shape present realities. ‘The Blood Cloths’ and ‘My Mother’s Atlas of Dolls’ depict small, hard-won, but priceless victories, shifting the poems’ focus from the historical to the domestic without conceding their intrinsic value. The personal lives of women are as important to The Cartographer as the maps of powerful men.

3 PF

All of which lends itself well to Miller’s facility with hymn-making, his reverence for the unrevered. Though the book’s postcolonial reclamations animate some of the book’s angriest and most moving pieces, this instinct for reclaiming the poetic foreground also expresses itself in the collection’s creative ecocentrism, as his poems for wildlife (‘A Prayer for the Unflummoxed Beaver’, ‘For the Croaking Lizards’, ‘A Ghazal for the Tethered Goats’) and their habitats (‘Place Name: Half Way Tree’, ‘Place Name: Bloody Bay’) bear witness.  ‘When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks’ is a tiny epic poem, ennobling ‘them who knew to break free from dark hold of ships […] to them / that pass in squeakless silence over the Titanic […] who instruct us yearly on the movement of currents; / those bright yellow dots that crest the waves / like spots of praise: hail.’ The phrase ‘in squeakless silence’ is probably my favourite line of the year. These poems, in insisting on the dignity of old goats and the stoicism of geckos, on focusing on the indefatigability of non-human life, find a way of criticising political hierarchy without bringing it explicitly into focus.

They are also – and this might seem a minor detail after its astute and pointed post-colonial/feminist criticism (caveat: I’ve still a lot to learn about both those things) – a great read. I’d encourage you to seek out Miller’s live performances, or failing that he’s got plenty of material on YouTube. His poems are intended to be spoken, and reading The Cartographer with his voice in mind is a real pleasure. More than any other book on the shortlist, these poems are, primarily, rhetorical performances, and the book reads best taken in one sitting, considered as a unified entity rather than an assembly of individual pieces. The book’s dramatic arcs are well-judged and artfully positioned, and although one could argue that a book that is (easily) readable in an afternoon lacks weight, The Cartographer rewards close engagement and multiple readings.

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Tl;dr: Easily the best book on the Best Collection shortlist. If there’s any justice this will take the big yin, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Regardless, read it.

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Fiona Benson – Bright Travellers

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Benson before, though a well-read pal had bigged her up on Twitter, so expecting something good.

Review: It took a long time to come round to Bright Travellers, but it was worth it. It is by some distance the angriest and saddest collection of poems I’ve read in a long time, maybe since Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, and its display of a sharp intelligence pushing itself to some uncomfortable and upsetting emotional places is like no other book on the shortlist.

The fact that the poet’s inner life is so openly dissected in all its messiness, so recklessly explored without (apparent) embellishment, means it isn’t uncomplicatedly recommendable, i.e. the natural first response is to be a little taken aback. To return to Stag’s Leap, where Olds’ anger is calm, directed and wryly at ease with itself, the most common mood of Bright Travellers seems to be a tension between its justified fear of the world it depicts and its anger that the world it depicts should provoke such justified fear. To this end, it’s almost disappointing that the collection should kick off with an apologia, ‘Caveat’, a perfectly fine lyric in its own right but one that begs forgiveness where none is due:

But consider the cactus:
its thick hide
and parched aspect

still harbour a moist heart […]

And, once a lifetime,
when the slant rains fall
there is this halo of flowers.

By the poem’s conceit, ‘this halo’ may be the book in hand. The immediate response is that a prickly and uncompromising cactus isn’t necessarily less interesting than a bed of daffodils. The collection proper kicks off with ‘Dumnonia’, a series of poems commissioned by two Devon-based arts groups. It’s an odd way to kick off a first collection, and while the poems are strong and do a decent job of establishing the collection’s direction, they have the feeling of being tacked on at the front. With each of Bright Traveller’s sections prefaced by a single poem, this group of occasional-feeling pieces feel a little extraneous and perhaps better deployed elsewhere. That said, ‘Rougemont for Temperance Lloyd’ is a powerful piece of historical recovery; Temperance Lloyd was one of the last three people executed for witchcraft in England, a witty and apparently fearless woman of around eighty, who the poem renders:

You are a thin thought turning over the walls
in a grey wind, transparent, spider-weight.
I’d have you angry and impenitent and brave.
I’d have you fly from the drop in the shape of a rook,
its rag-and-bone, its bloodshot eye.

before concluding that Lloyd is ‘pleased overall / to be looked at, riding in this cart, when all / your life you’ve been invisible and walked.’ Benson’s ability – with as little manipulation of the facts as necessary – to turn a moment of injustice on its head is breathtaking, performed as well as anything in Heaney. It’s a poem to savour.

3 JP

Immediately afterwards is ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’, a series she describes in an insightful interview with Granta as coming from a period of writer’s block. The sequence’s narrative (though narrative is not at all its main concern) is of the speaker’s uneven and often emotionally abusive relationship with Van Gogh, here depicted – as realistically as can be discerned by historical documents such as his own letters to his brother, one of which is quoted in the epigraph – as a sort of unstable genius. On first reading I was hugely put off by the sequence’s power dynamics: in the opening poem, the speaker describes herself as ‘your wounded girl, your damned and lovely prostitute’; in ‘Pear Tree in Blossom’ are the lines ‘your mouth sweet to kiss, / your sticky beard … Christ. I never thought I’d beg’; ‘Sunflowers’: ‘I listen to you move in the other room / and I burn; your meanest tread outside my door / and I almost come, but you never enter in.’ Ostensibly the sort of writing that I tend to chew out men poets for. And while it might be true that the early poems in the sequence partly perpetuate the powerful artist/silent, suffering muse dynamic, their aim (I think) is in foregrounding the woman’s perspective, and so undermining a very familiar setup. Benson presents this relationship entirely without frills or excuses, in all its taboo-exploring, self-destructive, Stockholm syndromey recklessness. We might hope that the poems’ speaker fare better in future, but ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ is an important account in its own right, depicting in no uncertain terms the damage done to both parties by the relationship’s uneven distribution of power.

The turning point seems to come in ‘Portrait with a Bandaged Ear’, in which the painter repeatedly shows up at the speaker’s door, ‘and I let you in and I let you in and I let you in – / remember the long afternoons of our youth / spent wrapped in the covers as if night would never come, / how fierce you were and clear, back then. […] we’re running / out of grace. Men will come and ask me to confirm / your name. I want you strong and well. Please stay.’ The speaker’s acquiescence is reframed as an active defence of the better part of a disintegrating mind, and the sequence’s focus changes accordingly. Van Gogh slips into the background, and the next piece, ‘Irises’ seems increasingly to speak to the poet over the painter: ‘Art’s not all you’d hoped […] There’s remedy yet. / Today you may not make a master-mistress piece: / so what? […] Get back to work.’ Intriguingly, the sequence’s conceit fades as the poet regains her own power of composition, as ‘Place du Forum’ puts it, gets ‘in it for the long haul’. It’s this capacity for layered reading that makes Bright Travellers such a fascinating, compulsive re-read, and makes its exuberant presentation of its own instability lodge in the imagination. As Benson notes in the Granta interview, Olds and Matthew Dickman are presiding influences, and while Dickman’s poems might err on the preening or the self-conscious pose, Benson is able to pack more of a punch without even a whiff of emotional grandstanding. This sequence is an exciting one, and it’s a real treat to be trusted enough as a reader to make mistakes on the first read.

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The book’s final section features poems on pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, some of which are marvellously powerful and written in a kind of weary-but-undefeated tone established elsewhere in the collection. ‘Sheep’ in particular is noteworthy in its stoical assertiveness, conflating a horrific scene of a dead ewe being picked apart by crows and chickens with the poet’s own miscarriage, but ending with ‘Yet once it was done I got up, / gathered my bedding / and walked.’ Similar is the exceptionally dark-humoured ‘Repairs’, which sees the midwife ‘holding pins / between her tightened lips // as she works / with both hands / round the wound / to stitch me back in.’ These last poems are again impressive in their willingness, if not eagerness, to self-portray as frightened or discontent or simply absurd, and all in a form that never loses sight of its purpose, giving the poem the formal control that permits/compliments its imaginative unmannerliness. The lines toward the end of ‘Small Mercies’ are beautifully weighted and perfectly unresolved: ‘partly longing to be free / and partly unable to wish myself / anywhere but here’.

At the end of the second or third readings, the only sincere criticism I could think of is the book’s slightly incongruous title. The unit ‘bright travellers’ comes in a poem called ‘Visitations’, and refers not to the foetal outline on the book’s cover but the invisible beings the poet’s child stares at in ‘blank corners’ of the room. It’s a wispy phrase that does little to highlight the best parts of the collection, its controlled rage, its emotional frankness. I suspect shenanigans.

Tl;dr: It’s a great book, and if it took me a few reads to really get what it was trying to achieve then more fool me. Despite the very weird and not necessarily beneficial editorial decisions I’d happily recommend it to anyone, and I suspect it’ll be deep in the running when the prize winners are announced.

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Hugo Williams – I Knew the Bride

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read any of Williams before. Faber poets don’t tend to do well on this blog.

Review: [A pre-review aside: Williams is currently searching for a kidney donor. Going by the campaign’s Facebook page, potential donors have been found. I sincerely wish him and his family all the best of luck.]

I Knew the Bride is an extended examination of loss and mortality, told with Williams’ characteristic whimsical airiness and plain speech. Its occasional lyrics are spread between two long sequences, ‘Now That I’ve Forgotten Brighton’, about the breakup of a relationship and ‘From the Dialysis Ward’, as mentioned above. The book kicks off fairly well, with ‘New Year Poem’, a wryly sad and slightly resigned piece about the increasing difficulty of getting out of bed: ‘The day is difficult to start. / I leave it at the top of a hill / the night before.’ This, as is tradition, is the best written and most deeply felt individual poem in the collection.

By contrast, ‘Now that I’ve Forgotten Brighton’ is a distinctly thin, often adolescent account of a breakup that kind of plays on the logical joke in the title, but is more consistently a fairly mopey response to amorous failure: ‘It should have been okay / but it turned out not to be’, ‘I suppose you’re right and breaking up / would be quite a good thing, / but staying together would be an equally good thing’, ‘I can only look on, while my hand / dials a number it knows by heart […] I will her hand not to pick up’. I imagine the simplistic register is a deliberate decision, but the poems lack sincere or difficult self-questioning, dampening their emotional power. The poem after this sequence, ‘Actaeon’ (the hunter killed by his own hounds in punishment for seeing the goddess Diana bathing), does a fine job of brushing off any remaining sympathy by kicking off with ‘I thought of all my girlfriends / gathered together on a stage’, ‘‘I didn’t know you girls all / knew one another’, I said, / seeing only a tumble of looks and limbs.’ Again, there’s probably some self-parody going on (you’d hope), but it’s clumsy and facile and presents more than it challenges. A similar scene in performs this exact function far more perceptively. Hot on ‘Actaeon’’s heels is ‘Twenty Yards Behind’, a villanelle with such insights as ‘All those things men find so intense / women take as the most tender nonsense’. One of the rhyme-words is ‘detumescence’.

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The title poem, an elegy for the poet’s sister, quite clearly opens some raw and painful wounds, but in execution the piece feels a touch too allusive, a little too fixed in personal anecdote to gain traction as a public gesture; it introduces a number of reminiscences without slowing down to properly engage with them, and the poem peters out. The proceeding individual lyrics are little stories about railway porters, life at public school in the fifties, and an ill-advised fantasy about acquiring organs called ‘The Chinese Stock Exchange’ in which a ‘teenage con-girl in martial arts gear’ and a ‘man in pyjamas’ say ‘You pay me now I come back later’ and ‘Tonight very busy night’ respectively. There’s no excuse for deploying ethnic stereotypes for comic effect, and these pieces are united in their failure to fully explore their lyric conceits. One bright spot is a terrific translation of Cavafy’s ‘Garments’, short enough to quote in full:

In an old trunk or in an ebony chest
I put away the yellow clothes of my childhood,
my favourite yellow clothes.

I put away the blue clothes I wore as a boy,
the blue clothes that boys always wear,
followed by the red clothes of my youth,

the exciting red clothes of a young man.
I put away the red clothes, then I put away
the blue clothes again, more faded this time.

I wear black clothes. I live in a black house.
Sometimes at night I open the ebony chest
and gaze with longing at my beautiful clothes.

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The closing section, ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ feels like nothing so much as a missed opportunity. Again, there’s little sense of difficult questions being asked by the poems; many are straightforward reportage, including disdain for a male nurse in ‘A Healthy Interest’, (‘He looks disappointed with me. / My indifference in fear, he says. / I need to take an interest in my case’) and objectification of a female nurse in ‘The Angel of the Needles’: ‘The beauty of the Indian nurse / puts the fear of God in me […] Did she have to take a needling test / like other mortals? / Or did they let her in / for being one of the angels? // I want her to like me’. She’s a medical professional. This is not complicated. ‘Prayer Before Sleeping’ is the most effective poem in the sequence, aiming as it does for a sense of hopelessness, desperation and fear, ‘Slip me some sort of clue / that knows what to do with me / and I promise I’ll be good.’ It’s a moment that stands out for its clear-sightedness.

[Post-review aside: there’s a quote in the back cover of I Knew the Bride from Edna Longley, aka my hero, describing Williams as ‘Possibly the most original poet of his generation.’ Longley’s quote in fact refers to the 1985 collection Writing Home, and reads, ‘Possibly the most original poet of his generation in England.’ Omitting the quote’s full context is petty misinformation, and that sort of thing bugs the life out of me.]

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Tl;dr: I Knew the Bride doesn’t deserve its spot on the shortlist by the quality of writing alone. The poems feel rushed and unpolished, and some of the writing’s underlying messages are unexamined and harmful. There are a few moments of real accomplishment, but these are few and far between the book’s formally and thematically scattershot entries.

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John Burnside – All One Breath

Full Disclosure: Last time Burnside had a book out I reviewed it and hated it.

Review: If you liked Black Cat Bone, you’ll like All One Breath. The new collection begins with a series called ‘Self Portrait as Funhouse Mirror’, and if you thought that might portend something ludic you mightn’t’ve read Burnside before. In the opening poem, ‘Hall of Mirrors’ the child poet sees himself, ‘baby-faced / pariah; little / criminal’, before realising, ‘The backrooms of the heart are Babylon / incarnate, miles of verdigris and tallow and the cries / of hunting birds, unhooded for a kill // that never comes. / I saw that, when I saw this otherself’. The child then joins (or thinks he joins) his mother in seeing ‘what I was / beyond the child she loved, the male / homunculus she’d hoped I’d never find / to make me like my father […] a blear / of Eden from that distance in the glass […] that’s never ours alone, / including us, till everything / is choir.’ The poem rests on both presenting the story through the child’s eyes and explicitly investing the child with the understanding the poem presents. That choir image is reprised in the closing poem, ‘Choir’, but strangely tells the story of how the young poet didn’t participate in said choir. ‘Everything / is choir’ except himself; this is a neat encapsulation of the problems I have with the book.

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‘Hall of Mirrors’ is easily the best poem in the collection, which might be why it’s at the front of the book and will likely be quoted at length in the breathless Guardian review when Burnside wins again. It has many of the poet’s signature features: self-reflection both literal and conceptual, nature as pathetic fallacy, other humans as pathetic fallacy (‘her face was all / reflection’), ‘dusk’ as indicator of liminal space, an ending that elides all semantic responsibility by literally/grammatically qualifying itself out of reasonable accountability. To that end, if you were to wordcloud All One Breath ‘almost’ would probably loom large, alongside ‘half’. It’s totally reasonable to describe an experience as ‘half-imagined’, but doing it twice in the same collection (‘such fauna as I only half-imagine / are ghosts out of Bewick’, ‘I felt [the dead goldfinch’s] mercy, / something only half- / imagined’, not to mention ‘I half-believed / that nothing would be there’) speaks to a narrowness of imaginative range, the poet as primary custodian of common sense and meaning. In the poem ‘Erosion’, for example, the poet looks on in scorn at his countryside neighbour rounding up sheep with a quad bike: ‘Soon he’ll have turbines up; he’ll buy out / my better neighbours, building, field by field, / his proud catastrophe / of tin and mud. / I loathe him, but it’s nothing personal […] and yet not enough in him / of worth or life / to qualify as foe’. It’s unedifying stuff, placing the poet’s own ‘wind-slender / kinship of sea and blood / and the kinship of the earth / with everything that crawls beneath the stars’ directly in contrast with his renewable energy-loving (how dare he) neighbour. The poem suffers from a logical disconnect: nature is presented as mysteriously bestowing kinship on man (via ‘sea and blood’), but it is within the poet’s remit to refuse this same kinship to his fellow. Where does the poet really believe the kin-making power lies?

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There’s little escaping the sense that the ecological in All One Breath is yoked to the semantic plough. Nature does not appear in its own right (see Michael Longley, Edward Thomas, or for a more recent example Jen Hadfield), but as background colour for the performing poetic self. There are plenty of kittiwakes and larks and sparrows, but the poems in which natural life is given individual focus are ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768’, which focuses not just on the bird’s suffering but the fear it causes in young women, and ‘Instructions for a Sky Burial’, in which a coyote’s rotten head gives rise to the poet’s wish to be disposed of similarly, ‘unwashed and naked […] where the crows / can find me’, giving back to his imagined corpse the centre stage. It’s telling that on both occasions the studied animal no longer has living agency, unable to supersede the needs of the observing self.

This habit has a particularly uncomfortable effect on the collection’s several elegies. In ‘The Day Etta Died’, for the singer-songwriter Etta James, we first watch the poet ‘marking a stack of essays / on Frank O’Hara // and each had a Wiki- / paragraph to say // who Genet was, and who / was Billie Holiday’. His students do not have the same cultural references as the poet, and are thus condemned; how does this increase our understanding of the life and importance of the singer? ‘Nocturne: Christmas, 2012’, i.m. Dennis O’Driscoll, begins ‘When I heard you had died, I went out into the yard / and stood a while, like something that belonged / to darkness’ and ends ‘[that Christmas Eve] the headlamps snagged on a ewe, in the first wet snow / and I stopped, by the side of the road, / to untangle the wire.’ Again, the elegy’s power to revitalise and restore is elided in favour of self-presentation, and a few gestures towards ‘We all need a second life’, ‘Say what you will, all making is nostalgia,’ leave only a passing, passive impression of the man elegised. Witness also the weird power dynamics in ‘The End’, in which ‘Strangers are making love / in my grandmother’s house / forty years after she died,’ and the poet wishes to address the new man of the house (the woman is off doing woman things, presumably), ‘If I could, I would tell him / a story I heard long ago […] It’s a story he doesn’t know, but halfway through / he sees that it has to end / in the safety of fog’, the unknown man becoming an extension of the poet’s authority.

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Tl; dr: All One Breath is not a ‘bad book’. It’s perfectly competently put together, the lines flow and there’s plenty of dark darkness to make it sound like some deep emotion is being played out. But what this collection and The Dark Knight Rises have in common is mistaking that darkness for emotional complexity, for a challenging philosophical stance. Dude writers have been brooding over dead things for quite some time, and this isn’t breaking any new ground; it’s the book’s sheer conventionality, the artistic conservatism that pushes me away. That’s without addressing the whiff of misogyny that appears any time a woman is subject to the poem’s eye, or the epigraph addiction, the near-identical register and rhythmic similarities of each poem. In short, All One Breath is not an enlightening book, and there are a great many poets more deserving of your attention.

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Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Full Disclosure: This book was recommended to me by a pal before Forward came about. Nice to have a good reason to review it.

There are no videos of Ravinthiran’s poetry online. This has never happened before.

Review: The phrase ‘Grun-tu-molani’ is explained by the book’s epigraph, a passage from Saul Bellow’s 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King, and means ‘I want to live’. The context seems fairly complicated and tied up with western privilege and should probably be investigated by someone who has read the novel. Anyway, if we take Henderson’s excited, life-affirming outburst at face value, it largely matches the register of Ravinthiran’s first collection, a wild, unpretentious, occasionally misstepping but thoroughly pleasurable book.

Indeed, if Ravinthiran has a dramatic flaw™, it might be his drive to include everything, to speak quickly and incisively then move on. In several pieces, like ‘A Chair Addresses Jackie Chan’, ‘Fallout 3’ (a personal favourite), some excellent translations ‘from the Puranaru’ and the required-reading ‘The Zany White Poet (after Benjamin Zephaniah)’ (‘so liberated / from history’), this impulse for sounding out the odd and wonderful gives the collection a sense of urgency, a diary-style thought-recording that many poets attempt and few accomplish; in his acknowledgements Ravinthiran thanks Leontia Flynn for her editing, and the poets’ affinities are clear to see. Not all of these set pieces hit their marks, however. ‘The Lecture’, in which Ravinthiran figures his students as assorted birds – e.g. ‘the owl thought he knew better’ – feels a little condescending; the speaker is figured as human rather than (for instance) adult bird, and the closing line, ‘but it was time to fly. I threw the windows open,’ is a shade to the wrong side of patronising. Similarly, the ambitious ‘Anti-circ’ is a little unclear in its message. The title refers to being anti-circumcision (for which the poem suggests we read ‘anti-Semitic’), and begins with an epigraph from Nabokov, ‘we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame’. The poem itself is a series of responses to various writers, starting with Nabokov, who campaigned against anti-Semitism, ‘Once I cracked Lolita’s spine I found myself knee-deep in cheesecake / my not-quite-fist unclenched, disclosed a wet cluster of blackberries’, and finishing with John Updike (who Bellow once described as ‘an anti-Semitic pornographer’) and Enoch Powell:

Updike’s prose flaunted the revealed

cleanliness of a girl’s arse, its well-briefed sway up the stairs ahead;
and when I called up from the stacks Enoch Powell’s uncut First Poems

her skilled tongue agitated my thankfully intact frenulum.

The poem seems to run in two threads: each writer’s anti-Semitism and the reader’s pleasure; as the former intensifies the latter tends towards sexual exploitation, highlighting the sexual location of hatred in the poem’s title. The poem might well be drawing attention to the links between two kinds of oppression, but this remains in the subtext. I absolutely believe that ‘Anti-circ’ has nothing but good intentions, but the poem slightly muddles an issue of some gravity, and in its last lines falls into the trap of presenting rather than challenging oppression.

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The long poem, ‘Sigiriya’, is a much deeper and more complex quest into the roots of male power-hunger. Sigiriya, as the book’s notes explain, is a rock-fortress in central Sri Lanka, about a hundred miles from Colombo, which was once home to King Kasyapa, the poem’s main character, in the 5th century CE. Alternating between third- and first-person narrative, the poem relates the king’s homicidal megalomania, ‘Perhaps Sigiriya was no fortress […] but his try at a separate state, / a state of one, just one just man,’ his eventual overthrow by his brother and the rock’s contemporary status as tourist attraction. In Ravinthiran’s hands the story gains traction in its discussion of familial expectation and the search for home, albeit inflated to vainglorious proportions. The most impressive feature of the poem, one reflected throughout the collection, is the poet’s ability to manage its tone, to deploy the precisely humanising line that brings its heterogenous tendencies back to shared emotional ground. Hence Kasyapa’s acceptance that ‘When I went down to fight from my red rock, I could have been Wilde, / finding it harder and harder to live up to his blue china.’ The poem’s final section, printed in italics to signal its divergence from the main plot, has an English archaeologist ‘discover’ the site in 1895, ‘led, he admits, / by a ‘brave Sinhalese lad’ // who had the nerve / to precede / the archaeologist.’ The cycle of imperial hierarchy starts again.

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Another sequence, ‘Foreign Bodies’, explores the poet’s own family history, telling the stories of ‘Rajes’, ‘Kuthimama’, himself and his parents. These poems thoughtfully relate the violence and injustice that each family member has experienced: Rajes’ suicide amongst talk of her ‘adulterous body’; Kuthimama’s life as a doctor in Trinco, where ‘they said he stitched up men he should have turned away’; as the poet reads a letter rejecting his poetry as ‘just another ethnic ort’, he notices racist graffiti on the bathroom wall, graffiti which he in turn admires for its ‘craftsmanship, / painstaking, light-years beyond your token / swastika in wobbly biro or felt-tip… / Yes, how I relished each letter of rejection!’ The poem’s closing section has a beautifully conceived vision of the poet’s mother being ‘driven through every council estate the BNP // exploits, speak, love-fluskering, to the people / from your own Pope-mobile,’ a figure of pure, innocent positivity:

when you first came to this country
the snow you’d never seen before went on for weeks.
As kids gurn at sprouts, you must have gawped with joy
at that strange white – till your face got fixed that way.

Not for the first time in Grun-tu-molani, rejection is countered with acceptance.

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Few of Ravinthiran’s symbols appear more than once, and snow is perhaps the most obvious. The poem ‘Snow’ (a significant title for Flynn and MacNeice fans, and MacNeice’s poem is at the heart of this one) is a stunning piece of imaginative acrobatics, connecting snow’s mutable nature to the importance of emotional sensitivity and flexibility: ‘Sure the anchors call it treacherous / but I’ve met it down dark alleys all my life’, ‘The difference between snow and water is / the difference between dialectic and a kiss, / between a birth certificate and spare change’, ‘white shapes of breath that want, like the smoke / from a cigarette, or the super-slow-mo ripples / of a cube of gelatine bounced off tile, to be / the drapes and folds of statuary’. Wow. ‘Snow’ conveys its meaning but is not easily explained, and, in its demonstration of what a writer engrossed in and given over to their symbol can do, is one of the collection’s great pleasures, and this poem might well be at the heart of the collection’s understanding of the world. careful and various and too much to be simply comprehended; the book’s success comes from its productive engagement with the attempt.

Tl;dr: Grun-tu-molani reveals more of its odd, bold and generous perspectives with each reading. Though some of its poems don’t quite offer up their ideas or fumble the attempt, the collection is full of energy, wit and sensitivity, and is very much worth reading.

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