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

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

Stewart Sanderson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

disconsolate. No creature like a hare
for melancholy.’

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

Molly Vogel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Chivers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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