Dave Coates – Dave Poems

So recently this site passed fifty reviews (or so), and I’ve been thinking over a kind of ‘what is this blog really about’ post for a while. Which might be a mistake. Here goes.

First, thanks to the folks who shared my work with a large audience for the first time and gave the first words of encouragement, without you I probably would’ve packed it in long ago. The number of people I owe for their thoughtfulness, their patience, their time and their good advice makes my head spin. I’m awfully lucky. Otherwise, thank you (yes, you) so much for reading.

When I started out four years ago, and up until relatively recently, I wrote about poems the way I wrote about films, or video games, as if poetry in these islands was a multinational billion-dollar market and my voice only one in a million. I felt like there was little consequence to saying the first thing that popped into my head, because hey, it’s not like anyone’s really reading these screeds, let alone taking them seriously, let alone the authors of the work in question.

I’m much more aware now that that is not the case, which should demonstrate how slow on the uptake I can be. Reading those old reviews feels like sitting with a friend in a pub who’s holding forth at great length and high volume. Specifically, I’d like to offer sincere apologies to Nick Laird and Emily Berry, whose work, though not my cup of tea, absolutely deserved better. In both reviews I questioned whether their work was really poetry when I should have asked whether my work was really criticism. It is totally possible to criticise – even dislike – a book and still write enlighteningly and generously about it. I’ve added editor’s notes to both reviews saying as much. I’m sorry. I can and will do better.

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There’s been a lot of discussion lately about prize-giving culture in poetry. Joey Connolly wrote insightfully on this in Poetry Review, a welcome call for transparency and inclusivity in a process in which few seem to have faith. Despite the handful of decent collections nominated for the TS Eliot prize this year, it is a deeply conservative shortlist, and Connolly is right to point out the ludicrous situation in which John Burnside can step out as a PBS selector long enough to be selected then step right back in. It would be laughable if it wasn’t a ticket to a 1 in 10 chance at twenty grand in a notoriously unlucrative genre.

For all the skulduggery, it feels like a good omen that Connolly’s article can be published in a journal that itself publishes some of the best critical work going. I spent an afternoon last week in the Scottish Poetry Library going through the periodicals for new reviews and essays, and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the state of criticism; as Claire Trevien demonstrated on a Facebook thread recently, many folk can name three or four quality critics or essayists each off the proverbial cuff. There is absolutely a warm glut of middling, mildly positive blurbism if you’re in a mood to look for it, but it’s not quite the end times. On the other hand, from a fairly unscientific first expedition the gender balance still seems heavily weighted towards male reviewers, and I expect an audit of the demographics of reviewers at large would show a relatively narrow field of reference. As a cishet white middle class able bodied well educated man I’m not exactly helping.

I don’t think it’s a painfully gauche daydream to wish for criticism as varied and complicated as the poets currently at work in these islands, though the Eliot shortlist again put pay to whatever optimism for the mainstream Kei Miller’s deserved victory in the Forward engendered. Poems that challenge our basic assumptions about the people around us require more time and thought – and run a greater risk of being misunderstood or simply ignored – than those that build upon or even exploit these prejudices. And sometimes critics like me just don’t have the experiential tools to speak valuably about it, even if our privileged positions might encourage us to speak authoritatively. In such cases the poet, the poem and the reader are all sold short.

Speaking of which, while a simplistic or compliant critical community is not necessarily an impediment to great poems, it does remove one good reason to work or think harder. More to the point, it perhaps willfully gaslights the reader, who is the supposed beneficiary from the work we’re supposed to be doing as, essentially, specialist readers. Encouraging this kind of knowledgeable, opinionated and empowered readership will probably not earn powerful friends as a by-product. Something that the best or most disruptive poetry does is highlight that the world, in more ways than we often care to acknowledge, is strange and awful. Recognising and expressing the ways in which art reproduces or even endorses strangeness and awfulness does not make you strange or awful, though it’s a good way to make life difficult for yourself (if it wasn’t already).

In short: more transparency, inclusivity and unwillingness to let harmful thinking stand unexamined, no matter how ‘masterful’ its control of language or its ‘musicality’, two words that give me the dry boak; the understanding that negative criticism is not a personal attack, and that personal attacks are not good criticism (Something I’m still working on – anger is a good motivator but a lousy editor); good criticism and journalism (see Connolly’s work, and Fiona Moore’s) are vital to holding the community to account, and posing a challenge to the astroturf canon presently being laid down for want of a mature discussion about what (and who) poetry in 2014 is really for.

But what is in our hands, and what Sabotage Reviews is already doing very well, is the ability to highlight and discuss work that deserves attention and struggles to find it, in a way that (at the very least) aims to be meritocratic. Poetry criticism, much like its opposite numbers in fiction, film, tv, games etc., should be a dialogue, should start a conversation, one that can be conducted in a transparent and safe space. I don’t think we’re all that far off, but it will take hard work and some difficult conversations.

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Okay, thanks for coming along this wee trip off the beaten track, hope it was worth something. See you next time with a review of Alan Gillis’ Scapegoat. Yes he’s still my supervisor, and yes there is much irony in reviewing my immediate professional superior directly after a post about transparency and meritocracy. Hope you trust me.

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Chimène Suleyman – Outside Looking On

Full Disclosure: I first heard of Suleyman through the Influx Press editor Kit Caless, who asked if I’d be interested in a review copy. I said no because I was busy with uni work at the time, but followed Suleyman on Twitter, which convinced me to go get the book anyway.

Review: I’d recommend reading (and a content warning here for an account of deeply unsettling acts of violence) Suleyman’s essay in The Quietus about the torture and murder of her grandfather during the civil war in Cyprus in the early 60s. It is a remarkable piece of journalism: calm and clear-sighted and patient with a reader who knows little about the conflict. Second, I’d watch the video linked above. Suleyman is a confident and engaging reader, and her lack of ceremony or artsy preciousness is deeply refreshing. The poems she selected to read there are powerful, pointed and articulate. And there’s a lot of these qualities to admire in Outside Looking On.

In the video, Suleyman rejects the book’s framing device, the everlasting light of Canary Wharf. It sits strikingly on the book’s cover and features movingly in its introduction, signifying Britain’s failure to provide quality of life for its migrant citizens, particularly the poet’s father, a labourer ‘who cannot pass a building site without offering acute improvements on the development of it’, but features only peripherally in the poems. Outside Looking On is an intimate collection, full of complicated and unadorned examinations of the poet’s relationships (in her words, ‘I got dumped and drank some wine and wrote a collection of poems’, which is great, so did Rimbaud in all likelihood), and the tower seems a bit of a red herring. Anyway, what the book does is more interesting than what it doesn’t do, so here goes.

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Concision is crucial to Suleyman’s poetry, and it feels appropiate that the physical book is significantly smaller than the common/garden poetry collection. Outside Looking On contains 37 poems which rarely meet the bottom margin, and several pieces make explicit use of white space to convey their meaning, like ‘Postcard’ (a blank page with a short line at the very bottom, ‘Can you see it? I left it here for you’), ‘Instead of Working’ (a poem about trying to bring order to a bookshelf as a substitute for or model of bringing order to life, expressed by a bulky, margin-justified box of text) and ‘George':

‘I pour whiskey down my

my throat like I

am filling

a vase. And put

cigarettes like stems inside.’

It actually took me typing it out to notice the two ‘my’s in the poem. These pieces use their allotted space wisely, and sit comfortably alongside several other short poems that aim in their brevity to give just information to be understood and no more. In its own way this is a rare kind of risk-taking, the risk of understatement, and when it works (see ‘Coffee Table’, nine lines about an artefact that embodies the poet’s nostalgia with ‘A friend’s number carved into it. / Small holes, burns from rollies'; or ‘Tartan’, another poem in which memory is physically inscribed) it packs a punch.

The flip side is one or two poems remain (to me anyway, though I may be missing something obvious) just beyond parsing. Suleyman explains in the above video the story behind ‘The Altercation': the poet needed her passport renewed to attend a funeral, the clerk says there is the official note advising against it. Suleyman suspects, believably, that this note had been added in an act of racial profiling, and in solidarity the clerk renews it anyway. It’s a great story, a small victory against racist bureaucracy, but without this information the poem is a little confusing. Similarly, I suspect there is a bigger story behind ‘When She Calls’, its central turn, ‘You are // a good liar, I think.’ But the broader significance is frustratingly out of reach. Though again, I may just be missing something.

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On the other other hand, this drive for brevity allows the few poems that do stretch their legs, sometimes into flat-out prose, a kind of joyful ranginess, room to express themselves in greater depth. Some of the book’s most memorable pieces fall into this category, for instance ‘Smollensky’s’, in which a friend’s boss, ‘in his best / phone-answering voice’ says to the poet, on spotting her tattoos ‘Islam, sell it to me‘. The following poem, ‘Inland’, is a tiny piece dedicated to the novelist Nikesh Shukla, three lines about ‘black lentils’, a taste of home (and all the complications that idea entails) that animates Shukla’s most recent book, The Time Machine. Suleyman picks up the idea and runs with it to formulate a complicated and generous response in ‘Dear Boss from ‘Smollensky’s”. This poem cannot be done justice by quoting in part, not least because it is explicitly about the importance of private context, in this case the strength the poet draws from her grandmother and the ‘familiar smell of heat, and sweat, and molohiya, which itself smells of heat and sweat’. If the close of ‘Smollensky’s’ seemed to leave a narrative hanging, it is absolutely to the poet’s credit that the implicit answer to a narrow conception of the world is the time and space to broaden it. That the poem gets no (outwardly) angrier than ‘my grandmother [...] would rather stand still than be made to walk behind any man’ is astonishing.

It’s this generosity that survives multiple readings of Outside Looking On. Though I found several poems difficult to grasp on a first run, this may be a result of a) the poet’s unwillingness to slow down or compromise her depiction of a world little seen in the prizewinning books of contemporary poetry and b) my own unfamiliarity with such a world. More power to Suleyman’s elbow. ‘Brian’, a hospital porter who, if given the reigns of political power, would

‘middle the wages, like communism,
somewhere central and everyone gets a taste.
Then he’d raise the wages of porters so he could
quit politics and work that again. He shouldn’t
complain. Some people don’t have jobs.’

He appears three more times in the collection, someone who has suffered but refuses to make others suffer, yet remains a believable, unliterary presence. He is not the fisherman in Connemara, and enjoys a parity of narrative esteem with the poet herself, which is rather extraordinary.

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Tl;dr: Outside Looking On is a strong, thoughtful, challenging first collection, and I’ll be keeping tabs on Suleyman’s work in future. She’s on Twitter and you can get a copy of the book for a mere six bucks forty from Hive.

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Miriam Gamble – Pirate Music

Full Disclosure: Miriam’s a mate, we talk poetry fairly regularly. Hope you trust me to be impartial.

Review: Pirate Music is one of those titles that accumulates meaning as the book progresses. My initial response to the phrase is the imperative ‘download music illegally’ or ‘music illegally downloaded’. If I’m feeling a bit fanciful maybe ‘music played by (seafaring) pirates’. I’ll come back to this.

If there’s an aesthetic trend in recent poetry from these islands, it might be towards a kind of surface grubbiness, striking an attitude that says ‘look at how open I am about my awfulness, aren’t I a straight-talking and unillusioned Gen Y poet’. While it’s true that there are a great many aspects of anglophone culture that are truly despicable, and certainly they must be a factor in any valuable artistic response, grandstanding about the poet’s moral ambivalence (or generally rendering injustice as a source of titillation) seems rather beside the point; perhaps grandstanding at all in the face of a society propped up by grandstand thinking seems problematic. Pirate Music often figures its narrator and (remarkably various) cast as a tragicomic product of comprehensive social conditioning; the sheer number of malfunctioning protagonists hint at the nature of the society to which they belong.

Belonging in Pirate Music is no simple matter, of course, and some of its finest work comes out of this tension between social demands for normalisation and the personal imperative to be weird as balls. Poems like ‘Mi Territorio’ and ‘Meditations on a Dead Pigeon’ dramatise this in their remarkable management of tone, playing highfalutin vocabulary – ‘its gorge rises at the slightest hint of a calumny’, ‘this clutch in the throat // this drenched, foul fragment of the universe’s / nether spaces’ – against its base subject matter. In ‘Meditations…’ underneath the swooning, hand-to-the-forehead ‘Take it away’, a transaction is suggested: in exchange for the pigeon’s proper disposal the poet ‘will scrub, bleach, pledge to don the bustle and the corset’, ‘Bring in, after all, the big boys. I can learn to live by rote.’ ‘[T]he boys’ here strikes a very Ulster note, and the connection between the ability to look a dead pigeon in the eye and the capacity for self-determination is a bleakly comic one. It’s also tempting to read this as a parody of some poets’ outright revelling in the presence of dead animals, but that’s probably just me. What is clear is that weakness – and compassion, implicitly, is weakness – will not be tolerated.

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And this seems a key point in a collection that invests humanity (maybe personality is a better word) in animals to an extent rarely seen since Ted Hughes heyday, and not with such clear-sightedness, such philosophical rigour. Much like Hughes, Gamble’s animals are often more complex than their sapiens cousins; over the course of several poems Gamble’s horse becomes one of the book’s major symbols, not least in ‘Dressage':

‘I who would not be tamed
have turned my mind to taming you.
The world is out to rub our edges off:
we must bend and submit, bend and submit. […]

Why am I learning? Why are you yielding?
I want to drive smack into a concrete wall
singing I am an Antichrist, I am an Anarchist
at the top of my unacceptable lungs.
I never wanted to be in it for the long haul.’

Though once again deployed in a semi-ironic mode, ‘Dressage’ ropes in concerns from throughout the book. There’s an almost-irrational solidarity in the blunt syntax of ‘In the Fall': ‘You arked this flood together. / Horse must never be betrayed.’ ‘Normalisation’ frames preparation for social acceptability in terms of horse-grooming, in the vocabulary and tonal primness of a finishing-school aristocrat: ‘Take from the kit a metal curry-comb / and begin tackling the most intransigent layers […] Repeat, until you know your left foot from your right’. That closing line seems to draw comparisons between sectarian identity-politics (‘what foot do you kick with?’) and the politics of respectability: what are you willing to sacrifice in exchange for admission? What simplistic formulae will you obey in exchange for safety, comfort, normality? The erasure of social media for professional purposes in ‘Wipe’ results in ‘a Wild West showdown with a taciturn computer / that doesn’t believe in anything, and has no history, / and laughs and laughs and laughs and laughs.’ It’s not paranoia, the book suggests, when they are not only out to get you, but enjoying it.

‘Dressage’ is a thoroughly unglamorous poem, even down to its invocation of the now-golf-playing, butter-advertising Johnny Rotten. The following poem, ‘Bodies’, suggests this brand of song-lyric anarchism will indeed fall short:

‘A horse must learn to carry its own weight […]
like the mind-hand’s realisation
that a song does not work by sound alone –
that you must listen to the words and write it off
if you do not like them. That you cannot have
‘fuck this’, ‘fuck that’ and ‘I’m not an animal’
without ‘she’s a bloody disgrace';
that you cannot merely sing along to the good bits’

That this immediately follows the book’s most fervent annunciation of nonconformity seems significant. Nothing is quite so simple, and nothing happens without the ‘light but present […] watchful eye of the law’.

The music here points back to the figure smack in the middle of Pirate Music, the dying whales that feature in three consecutive poems, ‘Précis’, ‘Pirate Music’ and ‘It’. In the first, a whale is beached and becomes ‘property // of the Lord Paramount of Constable’, ‘the skull emptied of its fluid; / It lights, beneficent, // towns with its bulbous head’. This whale is literally exploited for material gain, ultimately ‘a lone child’s playground, / apparatus, animal shit’. The last, ‘It’, concerns the whale that entered the Thames estuary a couple of years ago and died of the noise of the city, ‘the bosom of a populace agog // with good intentions – we want to make it / one of our own‘, bearing in mind the book’s deep aversion to this kind of unasked-for assimilation. The sting in the tail: ‘Later, interpreters of sonic bleep / intuit peace was not what it had come for.’ These two poems seem two sides of a coin: the whale that appears in self-sacrifice for the benefit of others (much like the unrecompensed tailor in ‘Dressing Fleas’) and the whale uselessly but determinedly ruining itself ‘within sight of the English throne’ (like the incalcitrant feral kitten in ‘An Encounter’, ‘on the uncontroverted throne / of its scalding freedom / the little fucker sat’). The book repeatedly finds itself drawn between obedient belonging and vainglorious ‘freedom’.

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I mentioned the shifty nature of the book’s title, and the title poem throws unexpected light on it:

‘For ten plus years
they monitor the call, deepening and desperate,
off range,
of a whale
believed to be
the only one
of its kind

no other marks
his particular rhythms;
with timbre
and timing out of sync
he is doomed
to understand
and not
to be understood […]

turn the dial;
he is in
your neighbourhood
and this is not
a parable’

Unlike the democratic illegality of pirate radio, the whale’s ‘song’ is pitched outside the range of other whales; its individuality condemning it to solitude. The closing line is partly a cute rebuff to interpreting the poem as ‘poet = lonely, noble, unique animal’ and partly to emphasise that this is a natural phenomenon that has significance of its own; the natural world does not exist to reify the world of humans, and the whale’s solitude is legitimately moving (perhaps more so) without the reader’s impulse toward metaphor.

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Elsewhere, there is a hell of a lot to admire, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book multiple times for the sheer pleasure of it; probably since Miller’s The Cartographer… Morrissey’s Parallax, maybe Olds’ Stag’s Leap. The book has a sense of humour that acknowledges the formal conventions of poetry as far as they facilitate its humane and unselfconscious desire to communicate, to be heard and understood. To put it another way, I defy the reader to find another recent book of poems that curses so effortlessly; when the wild cat in ‘An Encounter’ is ‘the little fucker’ it is the most fitting way of describing it, not, as Taylor Mali has it, the Acceptable Poetry Swearing ‘to show that I am fuckin serious, man’. There is so much more to talk about in this book, which I will leave to other reviewers (of which there should be a great many); Pirate Music has a wonderful line in poems about paintings (particularly ‘Albrecht Durer: Lansquenet and Death, 1510′, in which the mercenary confuses Death for an addict, ‘Here – buy yourself a burger or something‘), unsettling tableaux (‘After Keith Douglas’, ‘The Horses’), and in love poems, for instance the beautifully odd ‘Cuba’, ‘Let us not grow watertight’.

Tl;dr: Read it read it. If this doesn’t get on the TS Eliot I will personally riot.

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Louise Glück – Faithful and Virtuous Night

Full Disclosure: Have read a little of Glück’s work, know a few folks who are big fans. This copy kindly donated by the Forward Prize folks.

Review: In an interview with the Poetry Foundation, Glück talks about the difficulty of approaching your 13th collection, about the heavy expectations on a career spanning half a century, and how even (or especially) now writer’s block and creative exhaustion are real and present threats to the artist’s emotional state. It’s a revealing interview, and I’ll come back to it later.

Faithful and Virtuous Night draws partly from the poet’s memories of childhood and partly from an imminent fear of mortality, and relates these stories through a very loose kind of free verse, including several prose pieces. They suffer from serious poemyness; the characters say poem things and explicate at length its metaphorical import. Some of the book’s epiphanies have to be read to be believed, poems routinely ramble to a halt, and subtext contentedly sits where the text should be.

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The collection is about beginnings and endings, and doesn’t let the reader forget it: ‘It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided / into those who wish to move forward / and those who wish to go back’, ‘It has come to seem / There is no perfect ending. / Indeed, there are infinite endings. / Or perhaps, once one begins, / there are only endings.’ (both from the title poem). In ‘Cornwall':

‘It was all, of course, a great mistake.
I was, I believed, facing the end:
like a fissure in a dirt road,
the end appeared before me –
as though the tree that confronted my parents
had become an abyss shaped like a tree, a black hole
expanding in the dirt [...]‘

Nothing gives me night terrors like the thought that one day just all of this will be over. I do sympathise. But the book’s poems about death are lazy, overseasoned and undercooked. I read some of the more portentous lines to Rachel, who suggested reading them in the voice of the narrator from Welcome to Night Vale. The book’s stories are mannerly, civilised and tedious, concerning a rarefied world safely detached from recognisable emotion, and by god they talk about it at length. The opening poem, ‘Parable’, talks about a group readying for a great quest, who instead spend years planning it and arguing about it instead. Eventually:

‘one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.’

‘Ah’. The last lines are hand-wavy philosophising of the worst order, and a conclusion few who haven’t made a living from writing could come to; note the easy consensus the entire party arrives at, the open and closed debate. I’m deeply suspicious of any ‘parable’ that answers its own question. The book’s full of this sort of self-congratulation and intellectual flea-dressing. ‘The Sword in the Stone’ has the narrator with her analyst: ‘it seemed to bring out in me / a sly vivaciousness I was / inclined to repress. My analyst’s / indifference to my performances / was now immensely soothing’. If the poem has something to say regarding mental health and its stigmas, it is hidden behind flat versifying and an insistence on dour respectability: ‘Then the hour was over. // I descended as I had ascended; / the doorman opened the door’. Later in the same poem, she meets a friend for dinner and a ‘small argument […] ostensibly / concerning aesthetics': ‘He was a writer. His many novels, at the time, / were much praised. One was much like another.’ Jesus. I think the tone is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, a sort of knowing raffishness, but largely thanks to the poem’s bottomless fascination with itself it comes over as tiresome humblebragging.

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In ‘The White Series’ the poet moves in with her brother, ‘when my funds were gone’. In ‘a small house on my brother’s land / in the state of Montana’, the narrator ‘gave drawing lessons to my brother’s wife’, who ‘would stand mesmerized […] I see, she would say, the face of a child. // She meant, I think, that feelings emanated from the surface, / feelings of helplessness or desolation’. The presumptuousness is a little disturbing, not least when put into the poem’s real-world context. There is a poem called ‘The Melancholy Assistant’, in which the eponymous helpmeet, on telling the ‘Master (which was his name for me)’ of his inability to carry out his duties:

‘pointed to his eyes,
which were full of tears. I can weep, he said.
Then you must weep for me, I told him,
as Christ wept for mankind.’

Christ indeed wept. You get the picture. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this numbed by a collection, which could stand as a case study of how to mistrust your first creative impulses, or how a poem that feels like it has effortlessly attained deep significance might just have used the words ‘night’ ‘darkness’ ‘Not changeable, she said, like human beings’ and ‘Infinite, infinite – that / was her perception of time’. To go back to that interview, here’s Glück on the book’s early reception:

‘As for this book, any time your work changes, the potential for public humiliation intensifies. [...] When I was first reading Meadowlands after The Wild Iris, audiences were not pleased; a certain dismay emanated from them. They wanted more flowers, more lyric extravagance. But I had done what I could, for the moment, with lyric extravagance; I wanted a more panoramic, worldly book. The first time I read Faithful and Virtuous Night at Yale, I had the sense the audience was completely aghast. Not spellbound. Horrified.’

Though there is of course a valuable tension in being wary of pleasing your audience, there is little to be gained from blaming then projecting ill-will onto them. Earlier in the same interview she frames the book’s publication as being ‘kidnapped by the world’. Faithful and Virtuous Night gives barely a second thought for the reader’s experience, and there is little to recommend it.

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Tl;dr: Nope. Suspect this book’s inclusion on the shortlist is a canny decision to attract American readers, as Jorie Graham and D.Nurkse have in previous years. Readers new to Glück should go back to her earlier work to see what she’s previously been capable of.

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Colette Bryce – The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe

Full Disclosure: Have read little of Bryce’s previous work. My review copy kindly donated by the folks at the Forward Prize.

Review: Recently Bryce was described by Fiona Sampson as being ‘now part of the English poetry establishment‘, not, perhaps, uncomplicated praise for someone from Derry, particularly with regards to a collection that explicitly states her upbringing in a republican household. This can’t have escaped Sampson’s notice, and the line ‘the Northern Irish Bryce […] has found her topic’, reads a little like ‘as one might find one’s hobbyhorse’. Needless to say, The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe shows a deal more thoughtfulness than its ostensible champion. There’s a nice bit of background info in this podcast, if you’re curious, in which Bryce answers some slightly loaded questions.

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From its title onwards, the collection works within domestic spaces, figured both as boundaries to be overcome and oppressive inhibitors. The opening poem dramatises this dynamic as the narrator ‘stepped from my skis’ into deep snow, to ‘sleep in my own shape, happily / as the hare fits / to its form’. This formal double-bind points towards Michael Longley’s poem, ‘Form’, a four-liner worth quoting in toto: ‘Trying to tell it all to you and cover everything / Is like awakening from its grassy form the hare / In that make-shift shelter your hand, then my hand / Mislays the hare and the warmth it leaves behind.’ Bryce’s speaker, lying ‘chest deep’ in form-hugging snow (another Nordy poetry mainstay) will ‘finally drift into the dream of white / from which there is no / way back.’ All told, the poem frames the collection’s recollections as this inescapable, yet comforting (‘like a fossil in a rock […] warm and safe’) dream; through its nod to Longley it hints that this act of retelling might also be a distortion. Christ it’s fun to read poems.

The book’s title is deployed in ‘Derry’, in which the hometown of the poet’s youth expands to encompass or delimit the known world. The poem’s opening line, ‘I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside’ is a direct reference to MacNeice’s ‘Carrickfergus’, which begins, ‘I was born in Belfast between the mountains and the gantries’. Formally and tonally modeled on ‘Carrickfergus’, ‘Derry’ explores an uneasy identification with her childhood home, though Bryce invests less in the rhetorical force ‘peacock aura of a drowning moon’, more ‘The local priest / played Elvis tunes’, ‘We’d cross the border in our red Cortina’. It’s an effective, engaging piece of scene- and tone-setting; ‘Derry’ paints a hectic kind of family life against the backdrop of Thatcher, new flats, overdubbed Gerry Adams and undiscussed domestic violence, ‘I see blue bruises on my mother’s arms / when her sleeve falls back while filling the kettle’. At first glance this poem seemed flat, the neatly measured lines and rhyme scheme ill-fitted to the poem’s panoramic ambition; giving it more time, it feels more like restrained anger about a time and place too distant to fix, the only available redress as faithful a remembrance as possible: ‘I watched that place grow small before / the plane ascended through the cloud / and I could not see it clearly any more’. The resigned simplicity of the rhetoric in the last line packs its own manner of punch.

Broadly speaking, the collection’s first half largely concerns a home life in which the narrator is confined to quarters, either by the periodical intrusion of (very young) British soldiers or a distant and often violent father, in which the book affords its attention to the women in Bryce’s family, her mother apostrophised for her ‘gravitas / Irish stew. A sense / of the ridiculous’ and ‘A comic turn of phrase. / An iron constitution’ in the poem ‘Heritance’, or in ‘Mammy Dozes’, ‘Eighty years have lent her skin // a bruised look in composure, / a touch of purples / to the hollows, so Mammy dozing / resembles a boxer in defeat'; or the resilience of the family matriarch Bríd in ‘A Clan Gathering': ‘immaculate in suit and shades […] intent, intensely feeling her way, / heels clacking on the oak floor’. The piece ‘A little girl I knew when she was my mother (After Louise Bourgeois)’ is a sudden, hyper-stylised but welcome bit of dreaminess. Bourgeois’ presence here seems to license the poem’s magic realism, its blending of the human body with the natural world (though Longley again might be an enabling presence), while Bourgeois’ well-recorded work ethic until her passing at the age of 98 hints at her place among Bryce’s extended family of resolute women. Bearing in mind the lines in ‘A Clan Gathering’, ‘I don’t mention my lover, / how we have to invent / for ourselves a blank, unscripted / future; her guaranteed absence / from the diagram, the great / genetic military campaign’, the inclusion of the LGBT equality and feminist activist Bourgeois in a poem that combines the poet’s mother’s childhood and old age in terms of art (‘the pages of a bed / from sheets the colour of old snow’) and rebirth (‘dragged her wings from a chrysalis / slipped from the folds of the Virgin’s robes’) seems to hint at fairly radical empathetic work going on in this poem, seemingly understanding the mother’s (or grandmother’s) lack of understanding. This is, admittedly, detective work, but it’s what made the poem make sense to me.

Elsewhere, in ‘Signature’, ‘A Simple Modern Hand’ and ‘The Quiet Coach’, Bryce explicitly discusses the lasting impact of her childhood and her mother within it; in the collection’s final poem, the narrator imagines that the locks of grey hair on the seat beside her belong to her mother, ‘whose journey southwards, / earlier today, was a textbook reversal of my own. […] She is steadily un-solving my Everyman / crossword, reinstating / each white space / as if in the wintry landscape / of her brain’. The closing lines, ‘I bow my head / to the questions’ are a fairly straightforward explication of this unresolved (or ‘un-solved’) relationship, and which point back to the book’s epigraph, concerning Rimbaud: ‘Like many inveterate travellers, / he was attached to his starting point / by a powerful piece of elastic’. While this uneasy relationship to home might be nothing especially new to poetry (not least to poetry written in Ireland or by Irish poets), the collection’s ambition to foreground women’s experiences in the light of 1980s Derry, strengthened by the poet’s almost superhuman compassion – see ‘The Brits’, in which soldiers enter the family home, are convinced to drop their weapons by the narrator’s mother, become ‘the action figures I played with as a child’, are dressed up in ‘little high street shirts’ and ‘hand[ed] back to their mothers’ – dry humour and what might be called bloody-mindedness (perhaps that ‘iron constitution’), make it a worthwhile book if you’re interested in an aspect of the Troubles little covered in such documentary detail.

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Tl;dr: Understated and difficult to grandstand about, The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe is not prizewinner material. Happily, that is not necessarily a desirable trait in contemporary poetry. Weighing in at 30 poems and little over 50 pages, there are few books that achieve so much with so (apparently) little.

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Kevin Powers – Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Powers’ work before. I’m aware that his first novel, The Yellow Bird, got some hella good reviews though. Review copy kindly donated by Susannah Herbert of the Forward Prize.

Review: First off, I’m indebted to this review by David Clarke over at Dr Fulminare. It put a lot of the book’s most difficult elements into a comprehensible frame, and fully explores the feeling of critic-obsolescence in the face of real suffering, whether of the publicly-reported variety or otherwise. It also asks important questions about the remit of the war poet: conditions in the trenches, for example, became public partly from the writing of individual soldiers, the poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg et al valuable, widely circulated insights. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting has all the benefits of writing in a communications-based culture, and as such need not negotiate 1914’s relative ignorance or misinformation about the ‘enemy’; the book is explicitly focused, however, on the poet’s personal experiences (or what is presented as such, see this interview), with the war’s broader impact left largely incidental, with all the complications that infers. In the poem ‘The Locks of the James’, regarding ‘Christopher Newport’, the ‘accidental founder of this city’ and ‘a murderer of indigenous peoples’, the poet states: ‘If I’m honest, I don’t think I cared. / If I’m honest, mine is the only history that really interests me, which is unfortunate, / because I am not alone.’ It’s a complicated stance, one that seems aware of its own shortcomings but that openly elides responsibility for them; it seems like the reader is being quietly and unsettlingly invited to map these principles onto a wartime context. Other poems in the collection suggest this is a kind of emotional survival mechanism: how can an individual soldier take responsibility for state-sanctioned murder, in an arena in which a statement like ‘I appreciate the fact / that for at least one day I don’t have to decide / between dying and shooting a little boy’ is actively pressing? Yet how much more could be brought to the discussion by a clear-eyed examination of the principles that led the narrator here? Are we being presented with the wrong questions?

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It leaves the reader in a difficult position: Letter Composed is, ostensibly, open about the narrator’s participation in wrongful killing, and equally open about his difficulty overcoming the trauma. However, the victims of ‘Death, Mother and Child’, ‘Field Manual’ and ‘Photographing the Suddenly Dead’ are left anonymous and with little significance outside the drama of the poem, where the poet has an entire book to provide background reading for himself and his fellow soldiers. It’s a question I don’t have a good answer to, and the book is at pains to emphasise its inability to adequately respond. ‘Nominally’, recounts the mass grave of a hundred people forced into slavery covered by a car park, disappeared names and children from underneath an interstate. The narrator replies ‘And I am unmoved by the cold / cardinality of this’, and ‘So what? Nothing / was counted.’ Bearing in mind poems like ‘Valentine with Flat Affect’ and ‘After Leaving McGuire Veterans’ Hospital for the Last Time’, it’s not unlikely that the poems dramatise this creeping inability to process external suffering, a phenomenon directly linked to the events contained in the Iraq poems and the narrator’s inability to process them. It’s a kind of vicious cycle, and while the raw, barely articulated anger in ‘Separation’ at ‘these Young Republicans / in pink popped-collar shirts’, the desire to hold them also accountable for ‘how scared I am still, alone / in bars these three years later when / I notice it [the poet’s service rifle] is gone’ might aim at easy targets, perhaps that ‘Young Republican’ identifier is telling. It’s as close as the poet gets to directing blame outwards; it’s noticeable that Powers never assigns responsibility to his superiors, who often seem as bewildered as the narrator, one sergeant stuttering, ‘after, like, don’t / worry boys, it’s war, it happens’, or the war effort at large. Michael Longley’s ‘Wounds’ comes to mind, with its depiction of the innocent brutality of teenage soldiers in the Great War and the Troubles. One of the book’s key threads seems to be the sheer unpreparedness of these young men sent, like Longley’s volunteers, to commit unspeakable violence in the name of a greater power which, in both ‘Wounds’ and Letter Composed, remains nameless and (explicitly) blameless.

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This might be a good time to talk form. Powers is primarily (or most effectively) a novelist, and the majority of the poems here have the compelling forward momentum of good short stories, with ‘Fighting out of West Virginia’, one of the book’s most fully realised vignettes, presented entirely as prose. This is not to undermine the book’s strengths as a collection of poetry. The loose rhythms of Powers’ free verse are the perfect fit for the poems’ conversational directness, and, given the book’s content, permit a vital clarity to the narrative. The later passages in the collection focus on the poet’s hometown and state, and obliquely insist on the war’s broader significance for the communities which disproportionately supply its foot soldiers. These are former factory towns suffering from extreme poverty, and the armed forces are a relatively well-paid and respectable career. Again, Letter Composed does not explicitly attack this position, but unmistakeably disproves it.

As Clarke argues in his review, there is a nagging unease at the book’s end about the lack of broader context it provides or explores about the war in Iraq, which I understand is given greater breathing space in The Yellow Birds, Powers’ debut novel. Whether the collection’s unwillingness to explore other avenues of experience stems from a traumatic incapacity or an artistic decision is, ultimately, irrelevant; it is an unresolved problem for the reader to negotiate, and much of your appreciation of the book may depend on your ability to suspend this judgement. The book is greatly supported by its moments of real lyrical energy, particularly in the poems for Powers’ mother, ‘Blue Star Mother’ (‘looking back / on the photographic / evidence of my life / one could easily be convinced / I was raised by a woman / whose face was the palm of a hand’) and ‘Portugal’, probably the book’s most full-throated venture into dream- or metaphor-driven narrative, and effective for its change of perspective. Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, is, if nothing else, a document of great value in an ongoing discussion of an ongoing war, and (hopefully) only the beginning of a vitally important conversation.

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Tl; dr: Letters Composed is a difficult collection, and by most conventional metrics not a pleasant one. It is, however, a valuable addition to the poetry community, and definitely worth reading.

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Liz Berry – Black Country

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Berry’s poems before. The review copy of Black Country was kindly donated by Susannah Herbert at the Forward Prize.

Review: In an interview with the Birmingham Mail Berry makes the point that writing in Scots is very much its own tradition, practiced broadly and with great skill, and that she wanted to do something similar for the Black Country dialect, which is a really awesome goal, particularly as (to my knowledge) there is very little such writing at large in contemporary poetry. There seems to be occasional inconsistencies in the transcription of the dialect regarding where certain letters are dropped or how certain words are pronounced, but there could be contextual factors I’m not up to speed on. Besides, when was the last time I kicked off a poetic tradition. Anyway.

Black Country also engages very deeply in what I guess (please correct me if mistaken) is regional folk songs and fairy tales, or at the very least writes in a similar register, cf the FilmPoem at the top there. The book has a great imaginative range and the courage of its convictions to go in some very unusual places and paint some rather unsettling images. This habit gives the pieces that do plant their feet on the ground, in particular ‘Christmas Eve’, the second last in the book, one heck of a punch. Here, Berry deftly and unobtrusively blends dialect into a standard English narrative that takes a panoramic view of a town in the Black Country under snow, holding in tension the impulse to glamourise and sanitise a place ‘tinselled by sleet / falling on the little towns lit up in the darkness’ with the raft of observed detail: ‘sleet is tumbling into the lap of the plastercast Mary / by the manger at St Jude’s, her face gorgeous and naïve’; ‘the old boys are up at dawn […] to walk their dogs and sigh / at the cars streaming to call centres’; the statue of footballer ‘Billy Wright / kicking his dreams into the ring road’. That Berry keeps it all just inbounds of the overfamiliar to deliver a message so unexpectedly, so unguardedly personal it knocked me right into touch. It’s a fully achieved poem and the book’s highlight.

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Also on the positive side is the series of poems about sex that form the book’s core, in which, variously, gender roles are questioned, traditional sexuality is painted as one-sided and oppressive, and the often violent nature of the eroticism of fairy tales and folk songs are brought into stark focus. The cumulative intent of these poems seems to be to present the worst parts of such stories and social trends for close scrutiny; however, several poems have problematic elements that undo their good work and benign intentions. In ‘The Red Shoes’ the narrator ‘smashed the belly of the fat piggy bank’ to buy the eponymous shoes, which from the first line are connected with new adolescent sexuality: ‘Crimson. Like flames, like the first sear of blood / that came in the night and daubed a heart on my bedsheets’. The narrator first experiences approval from her peers (‘Some girls clapped’), harassment from boys ‘[I] drew lads whistling from the high windows, / catcalling my name’, before arriving at a wood where she hears ‘the screams of girls who had danced // before me, their ankles severed, toes / still tapping’. Here, rather than empathise with fellow sufferers of abuse, the narrator asserts ‘But I was not their kind. I out-danced the axe.’ The arc of the poem seems to suggest a connection between female sexuality and violence, but the distinction between the brutalised women and the exempted narrator leans too heavily on the poorly defined term ‘out-danced’, the grounded realism of the poem’s opening poorly served by its airy closure. Similarly, the subversive potential of ‘When I Was a Boy’ is undermined by a narrative in which gendered emotional neglect (‘The girls loved me: / held my hand while I ignored them’) continues unabated; the speaker’s transgression failing to disrupt the systemic discrimination that necessitated it.

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Other poems, like ‘Trucker’s Mate’ or ‘Dog’, similarly figure transgressive sexuality as something clandestine, better hidden; they happen in literally dark places and in the dramatization of the poems at least draw some of their tension from the desire to remain hidden. These are explicable attitudes, considering the standard response to freely expressed sexual self-definition, but the poems often fall short of approaching the broader question of why such sexuality is supressed to begin with. Take ‘Sow’: it’s a fully-formed rejection of basic gender roles, placing the narrator (in some of the book’s most joyful deployment of Black Country dialect) in direct opposition to the pressure to be self-abnegating (‘afeard / of the glut of belly and rump’) and sexually passive (‘prancing like a pony fer some sod to bridle’). It’s an angry poem that fully embodies the sow’s being ‘out of me mind wi’ grunting pleasure’ and asserts her own agency. Where it falls down, however, is in the prominence of its epigram, ‘‘Dainty footwear turns a young lady into an altogether more beautiful creature…’ – Eliza Sell, Etiquette for Ladies’. The poem already counters this statement in the body text, and placing it before the poem as a kind of foil directs the poem’s anger away from the sods with the bridle and towards Eliza Sell, who almost certainly suffers the same behavioural pressures as the poet.

Other poems, such as ‘Fishwife’ and ‘Gosty Hill’ seem to exploit the sexualised violence of folk song more than provide a counterpoint to the routine violence in traditional stories. Again, there is plenty of evidence elsewhere in the book to suggest that lines like ‘I baptised mah wench in the dark o’ the cut [canal]’ and ‘I’ll be waitin at Shutend with steel in me ond’ are being presented with the intention of provoking the reader into rejecting their implied misogyny, but it could have been more exciting to use the stories’ powerful built-in rhetoric to undercut these tropes more explicitly.

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Tl;dr: Black Country is a thoroughly odd book, sometimes very pleasing in its oddness. Some clearer expression or sharper precision of its potentially radical aims would give these poems a hell of a punch. I’ll keep tabs on Berry’s work in the future.

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