Alan Gillis – Scapegoat

Full Disclosure: Alan is my PhD supervisor. He’s taught me a heck of a lot of what I understand about poetry.

Review: The epigraph to Scapegoat is from Jeremiah, and is as optimistic as you’d expect: ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’; the poems that follow play out under the shadow of this failure. The book’s cast of characters (and Scapegoat’s dramatis personae goes deeper than most) undertake a series of failed quests, attempts to wrest meaning from a huge, cold, complex and shifting culture that sometimes actively wishes them harm, sometimes  appears to be purposefully rigged to manufacture the powerless fall guys of the collection’s title. What Scapegoat does so well so often is to weigh its transcendent moments against its clear-sighted, unsentimental, unpolemic excursions into neoliberal 2014.

The book’s first poem is ‘Zeitgeist’, which in spirit and vocabulary borrows from MacNeice’s 1934 ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’:

‘What will happen to us when the State takes down the manor wall
When there is no more private shooting or fishing, when the trees are all cut down
When face are all dials and cannot smile or frown’

in ‘Zeitgeist’ become the refrain ‘with no smile, no frown, / I call you down, I call you down’, while the question ‘what will happen to us?’ underwrites much of the book. What both poems convey is powerlessness in a mechanical society, the poet a misfitting cog gumming up the works. The poem toes a fine line between panoramic scene-setting and the peculiarities of an individual life, and ‘Zeitgeist’ acts something like the ninety-second intro sequences to HBO drama series, using particular aesthetic choices to suggest the pattern of meaning-making about to be taken up. Here, the wandering, unsure-footed observer, the rock/hard place of occupational solitude and claustrophobic herd-mentality, the fear of understanding nothing in a time when the internet provides ‘a room / for all things’, all figure large in an impressively long-sighted book. These ideas, along with a syntactical circularity that implies a constant dicing with meaninglessness, seem to animate Scapegoat’s recurring conflicts and unresolved questions.

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So far, it might seem, so heavy. But one of Scapegoat’s great strengths is leavening its ethical-philosophical dilemmas with humour, generosity and an invaluable willingness to make the speaker look ridiculous, to wear its authority light. The very next poem, ‘Instagrammatic’, makes a point about the basic untrustworthiness of both technology and our own sensoria to accurately capture the world. The poem concerns a photo that begs the question:

‘what chance
have words, if even in a photograph
from a Song Cyber-Shot DSC-RX 100
the living moment is caged, held off-stage?
All that we might see or say is half-wrong.’

What the poem provides is a kind of mock-romantic portrait of the narrator’s beloved, ‘ your ears are biscuits’, ‘your legs are identical twins, / your chin is a dove or, at least, you have a bar of Dove soap for a chin’. It is that rare thing, the poem that permits itself to be enjoyed as it recreates the narrator’s enjoyment; in this it enacts a kind of relational mutuality, in which both subject (being described, or poetically ‘read’) and speaker (being literally read) are both designated givers of pleasure. This mutual gain is echoed in the following poem, the powerfully understated elegy ‘The Hourglass’, in the departed’s advice to ‘‘Remember, take and give, give and take.’’

The book’s few moments of unqualified joy come via sensory overload, in which ‘the proposition there is no // fixed position / is now the only / fixed position’, as prompted by ‘Lunch Break on a Bright Day’:

‘for you can’t take in this one tree,

the bark-brown
rutty dark of its bole,
its thick arms
upholding aureoles,

flavescent weavings,
branches sprouting
out of branches,
sprigs and spangs spouting

into a four thousand-
fingered trick of light […]’

The poem eventually falls to the ‘the rust and the ashes and the dust’ of the workaday, but suggests that if hope is to be had, it might be in the indefatigable cycles of nature, these life- and pleasure-giving rituals in the following poem, ‘Spring’, ‘the here- / it-comes and there-it-goes of everything.’

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If hopelessness is to be had, it is almost certainly in personal abuses of power, society’s complex network of oppression and often sexualised cruelty. In ‘The Estate’, a woman has her personal space invaded on mass transit by a man eating Monster Munch, ‘he was like look here missus / this here’s a public bus’. The humour and ostensible harmlessness of the scene is complicated by the following section, in which

‘a boy show[s] his hard-on,
tracksuit bottoms pulled tight,
saying her tits were satellite
dishes, saying she burnt her ears on his thighs
with sullen eyes, sullen eyes, sullen eyes.’

Two events, one character. This dynamic is quickly learned in the schoolyard: ‘Kylie’s a dog. Tracey’s a whore. / Ben has Simone groaning for his ringtone.’ Aiding and abetting this gendered violence, meanwhile, is its economic counterpart:

‘You queue and queue
for the intimidation of a too-
tidy desk, swanky office gear,
the bulletproof screen crystal clear.
Hello I’m here to kill you,
please sign here, here and here.’

An essay could be written on Gillis’ repentends alone. The poem closes with a section worth reading in full:

‘Sigourney was down to her knickers and vest,
the alien about to spring, when the fucking doorbell rings.
No the repo, but the Green Party canvassing.
I said I like your manifesto, put it to the test.
Oh go for a while with no cash flow no tobacco no quid pro quo
no Giro no logo no demo no lotto no blow no go no go no go no no no.’

There’s a lot to unpack. There’s the scene from Alien in which Ripley, momentarily aligned with the poem’s sexualised victims, finally destroys one of sci fi’s most Freudian monsters; note also this section’s decision not to disclose the speaker’s gender. There’s the intrusion of the Green Party, which perhaps suggests that even well-intended politics are the domain of the respectable classes. And there’s the closing lines’ echo of MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’, ‘It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw, / All we want is a limousine and ticket for the peepshow’, its critique of both the market forces that hollowed out Hebridean communities and the hollowness of the alternatives. The following poem, ‘Bulletin from The Daily Mail’, is a balladish broadside against the paper’s cosy demonization of youth and poverty.

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These poems lead into a series of (maybe, somewhat) autobiographical poems, episodes from adolescence in Newtownards and its surrounding hinterland. ‘Before What Will Come After’ and ‘A Further Definition of Memory’ in particular cast doubt on whether even fixed historical events are immutable; in the former the poet ‘can still feel my raw hands lose grip / of the shaking branch’, the latter posits that ‘Nothing of those times can be changed / although their connotations constantly change’. The past and present interfere in each other’s business. And again, these questions are posed by poems still rangy and various enough for lines like

‘Morning, when it comes, might snigger
the way Shonagh O’Dowd raised her finger
to McCandless, then split her smackers
at the sight of me in my undercrackers’

There’s context. The McCandless who debags the poet joins the UFF and eventually works as a driver for a ‘botched job / on Cliftonville Road’ in the poem ‘Scapegoat’ shares his surname with Chris McCandless, the enigmatic hero of the 1996 book and 2007 movie Into the Wild. Scapegoat’s McCandless is obliged to live by his wits on Scrabo Hill with nothing but a ‘bin bag of corned beef and baked beans’ while his colleagues ‘figure / how to handle the matter’. Like his historical counterpart, he suffers physical collapse; unlike the seeds that paralysed Chris McCandless, however, the mushrooms he eats in Scrabo Golf Club (implicitly) convince him he’ll be sacrificed like the stray dog he kills in a fit of psychosis. When they come for him with a gun and two shovels, he is as gone as Muldoon’s Brownlee, with only the slogan ‘No Surrender’ carved into an ash tree at the edge of Killynether, which, incredibly, is the real name of a real place. It’s a thoroughly odd poem that almost breaks the cycle of violence while suggesting it might be little more than a stay of execution. Again the following piece sheds light: ‘The Wake’ concerns the death of a local ‘Hard bastard’ who monetises his skill ‘teaching / what it means to police your back yard’ in ‘Kabul, or Mogadishu’. His son’s suicide, set in the poem alongside Bill’s spoken advice for shooting practice, hints again at an only partly broken cycle of murder passed from father to son, from UK to oil-producing, terrorised states; this pattern of violence moves almost seamlessly from the domestic to the socio-economic sphere, the powerful policing the powerless.1

Like McCandless, however, Scapegoat itself never quite surrenders to the void, and the book’s ultimate stoicism and good faith seem earned and genuine, bearing in mind that the eponymous ‘Scapegoat’ to an extent gets away with it and (maybe) starts a new life. It’s even possible to read Gillis’ own series of gentle, generous domestic poems (unsettling though some are, witness the ‘hazy form / in the mirror’ of ‘The Return’ asking ‘who are you again?’) as a counter to the familial disturbances elsewhere. The book’s last poem, ‘The Sweeping’, gainfully employs a raft of words doing double duty as both aural artefacts and carriers of semantic meaning, understood before defined. The poem’s baptismal rainstorm is a visceral event:

‘a glair and squelch
ooze and dreel
of curdled quags
gubbled and squinnied
in hinnying gallops’

that corroborates the book’s (I think) central message that life’s circularity (the closing lines’ ‘uprooted and reeling / yet circumfluent. / Good to go.’) have the potential to rejuvenate as much as stagnate. The poem is a more mature twin of ‘Lunch Break’ in its sensory exuberance and reclamation of responsibility, and above all else is a bloody joy to read aloud.

There is, as ever, plenty left to talk about, not least the book’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, its syntactical gymnastics,  its ability with the line-break punchline, the thematic significance of adolescent sexuality, or the gloriously bonkers ‘No. 8’, which might be the best single poem I’ve read all year. I sincerely hope there’s an audience for a book that seems to care little for social nicety.

Tl;dr: Scapegoat makes no compromises, and asks the reader to implicate themselves in some strange and unpalatable ideas, but the journey (or quest) is its own valuable reward. Wholeheartedly recommended.

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Kate Tempest – Hold Your Own

Full Disclosure: Volunteered at her gig at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh, which was organised by Rally & Broad (Broad being my partner Rachel McCrum), and the Scottish Poetry Library (where I work Saturdays).

Review: It’s not vital for reading this review, but if you are going to read the collection, I highly recommend watching videos of Tempest’s performances (or going to see her live if at all possible); these poems sometimes deliver their meaning as much through intense or repeated sounds as the words that contain them (noticeably ‘aw’ – as in ‘core’ – which appears at several key moments). I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that Tempest demands a different kind of reading from the PBS poets, or that to ask one’s audience to retune their ears is apostasy.

Hold Your Own is Tempest’s first full poetry collection, if you discount her self-published Everything Speaks in its Own Way and take Brand New Ancients as a single performance piece. The categories are encouragingly blurry. In any case unprecedented quantities of bumf have been written in the past couple of years – just google ‘kate tempest interview guardian’ for more exercises in poet-as-brand-narrative. All of which is a distraction from some seriously accomplished work.

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In a similar vein to Brand New Ancients, Hold Your Own takes structural cues from Greek myth. Here the story of Tiresias opens the book and provides its thematic template, following him from boyhood to womanhood to manhood to prophecy, a neat organising principle for a collection that at 107 pages at times feels unwieldy. ‘Tiresias’ brings myth into a modern setting, or rather blends the two so that snakes coupling in a forest can be found beside shopping trolleys and used prophylactics. But the setting is secondary to the substance, and Tempest’s version of the myth is certainly the first that I’ve read that fully explores the implications of suddenly and violently changing gender. Tiresias is forced to abandon their life twice and the poem quietly implies that these changes are by no means of equal difficulty. As a woman, Tiresias ‘learns to be small and discreet. / She learns to be thankful for all that she eats. / She learns how to smile / Without meaning an inch of it. / She learns how to swim in the stink / And not sink in it. / It’s as if this is all she has known.’ The reverse provides a quiet, comfortable life: ‘He’s found a lovely partner / And they’ve made a life together […] He’s started doing pottery. / He’s joined the local choir’. What’s striking in the poem is that Tiresias does not change much within their own person; the opening lines strongly suggest the boy Tiresias is already considered outwith accepted norms: ‘They’re always laughing, / The kids at the bus stop. / He tries to ignore them […] Hating himself’. Through the story’s phases, Tiresias’ basic character traits (openness, optimism, pragmatism) remain constant, what changes is how others interpret them. Becoming a man means middle class respectability; becoming a woman (or perhaps just losing male markers) means dropping out of society altogether. That one piece can carry such sharp analysis and the dramatic astuteness to have Lad Bants Zeus say ‘Mate … ah mate’ when Tiresias is divinely blinded is refreshing to no end.

One of Tempest’s great strengths is building this kind of nuanced (often far-reaching) idea by first grounding it in personal terms. The section ‘Childhood’ emphasises that the worst abuses of adulthood are learned early. The innocence of ‘I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now’: ‘Collected things that we found on the ground. / Always the goalie. I never complained. / I told the stories; they did the sounds. / We painted potatoes whenever it rained’ quickly turns to self-policing in ‘School’ and ‘Bully’, and the blunt statement of inequality in ‘Thirteen’: ‘The boys have football and skate ramps. / They can ride BMX / and play basketball in the courts by the flats until midnight. / The girls have shame.’ These poems map out, plainly and credibly, how very basic abuses of power run in no small part through the collusion of those it oppresses. The boys in this section are barely visible, only ‘daring each other to jump higher and higher’ or, in ‘Sixteen’, ‘follow us to ask her why she’s with me’ and ‘grips the back of both our heads / and sticks his tongue into our mouths’.

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The collection offers no easy answers. In ‘The cypher’ Tempest’s skill with lyrics gains her social acceptance: ‘I move like the boys, / I talk like the boys, / but my words are my own’, ‘my soft arms are clasped, I’m embraced like a man’. The very next poem, ‘Age is a pervert. Youth is a fascist’, however, states in no uncertain terms the poet’s understanding of what masculinity means, and perhaps why the welcome in the previous poem can only be given to a ‘cypher’, a male-friendly stand-in. The latter piece identifies the male other-hatred that demands female self-hatred: ‘Youth […] stares at the sagging mouths of his elders / and feels utter disgust and it makes him annoyed. / Why aren’t they ashamed of themselves?’ Compare also the line ‘When he steps out onto the street, / everyone is speaking his language’ to almost any other poem in the book. For Tempest’s characters, acceptance is something hard-won and deeply compromised, an all-encompassing, generations-old negotiation; note the line at the end of ‘Bully’, regarding the title character’s relationship to her emotionally abused sidekick: ‘Their mothers had been friends since they were at school’. These problems are not peculiar to the present and they will not disappear without a fight.

Hold Your Own‘s moments of (mostly) uncomplicated optimism come in its love poems. Taken out of context in the collection, ‘On Clapton Pond at dawn’ is heavy on the schmaltz:

‘You told me I reminded you
of Venus when I smiled at you,
or angels that go flying through
the paintings in the quietest rooms
of galleries. Renaissance girls,
all soft curves and floating curls.
We sat there and the light shone through
the leaves and we admired the view.’

But Christ, you’d need a heart of stone. After the rest of the book, such a quiet, gentle moment feels completely earned and real above anything else, and given the complex emotional understanding of a great many other pieces this captured moment of simplicity is powerful in its purposeful omission of wider concerns. Elsewhere, ‘You eat me up and I like it’ is a love poem of sufficient intensity I didn’t notice it was a sestina til the third time I read it. This section has half a dozen poems to match Cavafy at his best, full of skin and blood and unfettered desire, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read poems that had the technical ability to match the urgency of its emotional expression; Tempest gets away with so much by the quality of her ear alone. When she writes in ‘The old dogs who fought so well’, ‘these yearsdead writers wrote whatever it was that made the blood run in your veins again, just for you’, it feels very much like reading her own ambitions. It’s an audacity so impressive you could almost forgive a poem that humours Bukowski.

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This patience, however, frays slightly in the final section, ‘Blind Profit’. Where previously Tempest builds her arguments through credible psychological profiles and recognisable social settings, poems like ‘Ballad of a Hero’, ‘Progress’ and ‘Cruise Control’ sell their worthwhile subjects short with over-generalisation and heavy-handedness, the few instances where the universal ‘we’ feels loosely defined or unearned. It’s noticeable that even in this section the most powerful moments come when close-up trumps panorama; ‘The downside’ explores the daily implications of Tiresias’ power, ‘They asked me for the football scores / They asked me for the winning horse […] All I could see / in flickering, ultraviolet pixels // Were their great-grandchildren / ripped to pieces by the missiles’. The collection is hugely ambitious and has complete confidence in its own voice; I guess what’s really impressive is that so few poems come off second best. I’d be shocked (and disappointed) if this was Tempest’s last word on matters of government, however.

There’s still a hell of a lot to talk about in this book. Why the decision in ‘Tiresias’ to capitalise the first word in each line? Might the authority Tempest arrogates itself be problematic in a non-aesthetic sense? Why Greek myth? I’ve barely even touched on the poems’ rhythmic complexity, their ability to wrong-foot the reader and still come out dancing. Or their sense of humour, particularly in the distinctly Patersonian aphorisms in ‘These things I know’. Or how refreshing it is (in an interview with Charlie Rose) to hear a poet using the word ‘responsibility’ with regard to their work. In any case I hope Hold Your Own gets the attention it deserves, less personality-fixation in the national press (which more than a few times smacks of deep-set condescension) and more taking Tempest seriously as a writer.

Relatedly, I hope many more ‘performance’ poets (the distinction is, I think, ultimately academic) get national publication, though of course from a practical point of view, not everyone gets nominated for the Mercury. On the other other hand, Penned in the Margins is already doing great work on this front, and they have printed some of the most unusual and exciting work in recent years. Imagine Holly McNish going up for the Eliot, eh?

Tl;dr: It’s not perfect, but the quality of Hold Your Own far outweighs its few missteps, partly through the sheer pleasure of the noises it makes. Wholeheartedly recommended.

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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.

AW3

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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