Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin – The Boys of Bluehill

Full Disclosure: First encounter with Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, though a couple of esteemed colleagues have recommended her previously. Most statements below should be read with a silent ‘I think? Maybe?’ Review copy kindly provided by the Forward Prize folks.

Review: Of all the poets to approach with little prior familiarity, Ní Chuilleanáin might at first seem a daunting prospect: all available reports online speak to her tendency towards the oblique, the riddling or parabolic, poems that seem impossible to locate in time or place with anything approaching confidence; certainly I read with the awareness that I was very likely missing a lot of resonances with her earlier work. I think there’s something much more important to these poems, however, than a distillable autobiographical self or self-figure. Ní Chuilleanáin perhaps avoids these blurbifiable factors to allow the book’s philosophical concerns to take centre stage, and poems set somewhere Ireland-ish at some time in the recent-ish past ramify into nuanced, topical and at times radical discussions about bearing witness to trauma, and how power is wielded against such witnessing, from the intimately personal to the governmentally mandated. As Aingeal Clare puts it, her poems ‘are exercises in historical memory, providing invaluable points of entry into the larger forces that shape our lives today’; even if food banks and austerity measures do not literally appear, the kind of mentality that occasioned them does.

On the other hand, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems are, if not exactly hermetically sealed, then at least uncommonly tightly bound (sometimes literally – the second poem is a weird riddle about a disused printing press and, yep, bindery; the poem’s implications are not necessarily warm to the world of publishing. Maybe). The collection’s closing poem, ‘The Words Collide’, seems in part a little parable for the reader who has, perhaps, just finished an unusually demanding book of poems, a provision of tools for a second reading. The poem features ‘a tough small woman forty years old’ trying to convince a scribe to write a dream to an unspecified compatriot, ‘the only one / who will get the drift’. The richness of the dream –

‘Among those beloved exiles
one sighed happy, as a curtain
lightened and the grammar changed, and the wall
showed pure white in the shape of a bird’s wing’

– is countered by the brute unimaginativeness of the scribe, who in the poem is the only one capable of accurately conveying her obviously urgent message. His refusals become ever more ludicrous and contrived:

‘It will weigh too heavy, it will cost too much,
it will break the strap of the postman’s bag,
it will crack his collarbone.’

Of all the book’s parables, ‘The Words Collide’ is perhaps the most straightforwardly decipherable, or reducible to its component parts (although a parabolist once noted that such poems can never be wholly distilled without residue, and that residue is where the poem lives). The woman’s esoteric, ostensibly harmless message (her toughness and persistence hint otherwise) is still regarded as suspect; those with the power to relate it to its sole capable interpreter are desperate to supress it by any means necessary. The poem acts (maybe) as a kind of translator’s footnote: read me again, but carefully this time.


As is hopefully clear from the above passages, The Boys of Bluehill also manages to convey a real sense of humour, a warmth and understated sharpness unapologetic for its subtlety. The poems’ dramatic and ironic movements come in small fluctuations in tone that underpin the poem’s central concerns. A poem with the unassuming title ‘Juliette Ryan and the Cement Mixer’ begins, tongue-in-cheekly, ‘The world is beauty and order, / beauty that springs from order’, and tries to render understandable the self-destructive impulse to touch cement mixer blades like ‘velvet […] or the skin of a muscular chest’. ‘Somewhere Called Goose Bay’ is set (maybe) in a small town in Labrador, on the rural west coast of Canada. The poem’s laconic observations of the locals and philosophical concerns about the divvying up of land into political spheres gives the lyric a distinctly, beautifully, Bishopy undertone:

‘I am stranded
in the pilgrim hostel where the only advice
I have been given is not to comment
on the goat’s hair in the butter, if indeed
it is fair to call it butter. Presently
a spruce old woman – I have seen her photograph –
is to come and inform me about the last four

Something in the poem’s vocabulary redoubles its air of mid-century leisure, while pressing on – however archly – with the poem’s (and the book’s) preoccupations about the possibility of knowing or understanding the past and how it unsettles the present:

‘there is nobody here except me
and the man who stands by the door. I’ve asked him
why it should be goose, he said what is a goose?
He says, Eat it up. You’ve surely paid for it.’

The twisting of tenses here makes the man’s gnomic response even more confusing, given the presumably straightforward ‘real’ answer. But the human impact on the landscape, the colonial act of naming (Labrador is just north of Newfoundland, the prototype British colony in the Americas) and its erasure of the past connects to concerns about truth-telling that are at the heart of the collection.

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This in mind, the opening poem, ‘An Information’, is an almost supernaturally well-wrought piece that aggregates many of the book’s recurring motifs and images: hidden places, wedding music, moving water, open or closed hands. The opening line is a perfect tonal encapsulation of the whole book: ‘I returned to that narrow street’, its intonations of an unwelcoming and uncertain home, a painful memory. The poem’s narrative seems straightforward: the speaker asks an unnamed ‘you’:

‘what did you say when you went out
so the crowds that danced at the wedding
would not know your whole story? […]

did they guess, in the shop where you got the duck eggs,
that you had a guest?’

The poem’s title seems to destabilise the apparently straightforward narrative about hidden pregnancy, or even raise questions about whether the episode should be read literally at all; given the undeliverable message of the book’s last poem, does the unusually singular ‘information’ here also carry symbolic weight? In any case, the poem’s closing passage also makes a shape to be repeated later in the book:

‘Open your hand,
let it fall down, whatever you were holding, […]
do not look back to see whose hand
finds it, or where it is hidden again when found.’

The poem’s ultimate gesture, its offer of some manner of closure or healing, I think, is the promise of a network of solidarity, a promise that others will – like the letter-writer’s friend – find, understand and pass on what is necessary to keep the truth in currency. Such is the care with which this promise is made, however, that I cannot be entirely sure of it.


Though I mentioned the book’s wit and warmth, it would be disingenuous to pretend it doesn’t also carry a throughgoing preoccupation with death and the erasing effects of time. As Patrick Crotty notes in Poetry Review, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems ‘resist particularity of time and location, as if distrustful of that same world’s claim to substantiality’; what is absolutely substantial is the feeling of lateness, of irretrievable time, that colours much of the book, particularly in the book’s elegies. In ‘For Eamonn O’Doherty, 1939-2011’:

‘even his shadow is hairy, has teeth and warmth. […]
an apple falls and rolls, fetches up at the root of the tree.
The shadow’s vast hand reaches, there’s the sound of a bite:
they still belong to him, they still have the taste of apples.’

The figure retains a disturbing amount of agency and sensual life; death seems only to have turned this vitality into something at once homely and unheimlich. In ‘Two Poems for Pearse Hutchinson’, the poet and translator’s death provides an occasion to think on the ‘small languages’, ‘Welsh, Galician, Platt-Deutsch’ and their threatened survival:

‘I could see the small languages clustering
like swallows on wires but then caught like the birds
beating their wings madly against the mad cage
of the imperial tongue.’

Galician has deep connections with Portuguese, but also contains a great many loan-words from northern Celtic languages; Platt-Deutsch is spoken in northern Germany and the eastern Netherlands and is descended from Old Saxon. Ní Chuilleanáin’s point is, I think, that small languages contain an inherent fluidity, a potential for subversive indeterminacy and flexibility that crosses arbitrary political borders and refutes imperialist narratives of purity. As the first of these two poems explains,

‘there was only one reader, and this time
he has not waited to explain
the rules of the game, which will not be played again.’

These lines might be among the book’s most affecting, bringing a sense of joy and confusion and playfulness into the elegiac frame, while implying that, despite everything, the game will go on. In The Boys of Bluehill, loss is very much an active, even vitalising force that raises questions about the passage of time, whether it really has the ability to fix pain or sadness in the past at all; in ‘Stabat Mater’, suffering ‘shivers because it feels your touch, / it’s alive’; in ‘Direction’ the speaker’s father ‘in the time / since last I saw him he has moved and changed more than in all of his life’; in ‘Teaching Daily in the Temple’:

‘the phrase I missed
still there in the coded
labyrinth I must infiltrate again,
the language of the scroll construe, hunt down
between those hedges an escaping prey
before night falls on the phrase, on the lips
that move in the grave.’

Though undoubtedly a difficult and often puzzling book, The Boys of Bluehill is also tender, hilarious and often dizzyingly open-hearted, keenly aware of its contemporary contexts and the histories that inform them. There is a hell of a lot more to talk about here, like Ní Chuilleanáin’s preoccupations with monasticism, with folk music (the title is shared with a traditional Irish hornpipe), the ecocentrism and geological scale of some of her poems that seem to connect her to Kathleen Jamie’s work, her thoroughly weird metaphysical conceptions of time. But as I have a far more mundane understanding of the latter, I’ll wrap up here.

Tl;dr: The Boys of Bluehill is a stellar work, a book that promises to open up and open up. Read it several times. Take notes.

What is Reviewing For?

Full Disclosure: This is a slightly adapted/updated version of a talk I gave for students at the Oxbridge Academic Program in St Andrews in July. Cheers again to Tristram Fane Saunders for inviting me, it was great craic. This is also a bit of an apology for not getting more reviews out lately. Once again, thanks for reading. [ed: there’s a really good discussion about this essay going on in the comments.]

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A discussion about what reviewing is for is also a discussion about who it is for. Up until the very recent past writing about writing in these islands has been the domain of middle/upper class white men, with only a few notable individual exceptions. As with many poetic-critical matters, I first turned to the American poet-critic Randall Jarrell, whose essay on “Contemporary Poetry Criticism” in 1941 might have been written yesterday. Here, he identifies a distinction between publisher-friendly ‘good’ criticism, the kind that provides a kind of advertorial testimonial and drives sales, and the good criticism which “is often involved or difficult, and which always tells the public not what it wants but what is good for it”. Jarrell here co-opts the language of the doctor, probably for dramatic effect, though the connection between good art and a healthy body politic is rarely so clear-cut.

What has changed most noticeably since Jarrell’s time of casually using male pronouns when describing ‘the poet’ or ‘the critic’ is that such obvious markers of exclusion have faded out of use. What they have left behind is the more insidious means of silencing and erasing that characterise the culture at large: i.e. codes of practice that favour men very much like Jarrell, a university educated, cishetero, able-bodied, middle class white man. Literary research body VIDA’s recent figures on representation have returned some fairly damning statistics, particularly regarding the 80:20 male-to-female ratios in the London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement. In a subsequent discussion on Twitter, TLS assistant editor Michael Caines dismissed the statistics out of hand, even blaming women for not working hard enough to be commissioned by him. His behaviour is perhaps revealing about how such journals operate: cultural change is understood to be the responsibility of the oppressed, who are expected to overcome institutional prejudice simply by working harder to meet pre-existing male-friendly standards. This line of thinking allows editors to assume an ostensibly neutral position – ‘let the market decide’; ‘cultural change takes time’ – without examining their own roles in upholding those same prejudices about whose writing ‘matters’, in fixing whiteness and maleness at the centre of culture.

Economics also factor heavily in who can and cannot participate in an artistic community, and, given poetry’s scant resources, it’s perhaps unsurprising that low-paid or unpaid critical work or editing internships disproportionately favour middle class men with money, and thus time, to burn. I should point out (I should have pointed out earlier) that I am one such man: I was invited here off the back of a writing career I made online, for free, bolstered partly by financial support from home. In a recent interview with Claire Askew at the Scottish Review of Books, poet and artist Harry Giles argued that austerity measures make it ever more difficult for young writers to develop their work and support themselves, and that such measures are exponentially harsher on writers facing other forms of marginalisation: women, LGBTQ, racialized and disabled writers have suffered from cuts to public funding far more acutely. He continues:

“What’s needed are not nebulous opportunities and endless carrot-work, but schemes to make jobs for young writers (and artists of all disciplines) and bursary support. Initiatives like the Edwin Morgan Award, from which I’ve benefitted greatly, are very welcome indeed – but we also need initiatives that aren’t based in competition, and which enable writers to support each other.”

This last point is simply expressed but cuts to the core of how poetry culture in many ways reflects the aggressive neoliberalism of British culture at large; under the current system, only a select few receive huge portions of funding, and the substantial prizes that do exist (TS Eliot, Forward, Costa, the new Roehampton Prize) tend to favour older poets who often already hold lucrative and influential positions in academia, publishing or both. The ‘competition’ is rigged, stepping over other, less privileged writers is the norm, and the criteria by which artistic ‘value’ is judged are far from apolitical.

Meanwhile, in America, the fiasco over Michael Hudson’s use of a female Chinese pseudonym to gain entry to the Best American Poetry anthology shows how willing some white male poets are to maintain their perceived entitlement to cultural centrality. In an article for VIDA, the poet Purvi Shah identified the practice not only as ‘yellowface’ (which had been in currency since the story broke), but coined an extremely useful term: ‘literary manspreading’, the act of occupying more space than one needs, to the detriment of those who need it more. Perhaps more importantly, Shah identifies a number of ways to further equity in future; these strategies revolve around providing solidarity for poets of colour, and an increased emphasis on working collectively or as part of a community, for example, “the next editors of the anthology could be a collective of women of color poets across diverse communities and be given the latitude to set criteria for their poem selection […] it is too easy to throw stones at one editor from an historically-oppressed community”. I was guilty on that last count, and I find myself once again regretting rash words. Shah’s point stands: if we are genuinely concerned about including marginalised writers in the literary communities we as white writers and readers have taken so long for granted, it will take direct action, and (maybe) a certain loss of comfort. It will take monitoring the work of editors and presses and demanding positive steps towards inclusivity, even from poets and editors we know, love and respect. Perhaps particularly from them.

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I want to argue that poetry is not a sanctified space, and that the lines Seamus Heaney drew between “the actual conditions of our daily lives [and] the imaginative representation of those conditions in literature” are dubious at best. For a great many people, the ability to make poetry intersect with the reality of one’s daily existence is a matter of life and death; for a great many of our most lauded poets, it is an intellectual exercise.

This year’s TS Eliot Prize winner, David Harsent’s Fire Songs, is an excellent example of a poet in a position of no small privilege exploiting the language of atrocity (including images of torture and the Holocaust) to make rhetorical hay and, ultimately, pick up twenty grand for his trouble. The book is full of scenes of violence against and revulsion towards women’s bodies, and repeatedly treats female desire as untrustworthy; the book also contains insensitive depictions of mental illness and war crime. The authority of the speaking voice in Fire Songs, I would argue, is propped up by Harsent’s own privileges as a wealthy white male academic. There is little evidence in the book that he has questioned his own position relative to his subject matter, or what right he has to be handling it; the speaker seems to aspire towards a stance of apoliticality, as if his poetic messages and gestures are free from cultural context. If it wasn’t clear already, no such position exists, and the fact that such a pretence is so richly rewarded by one of poetry’s most powerful institutions has troubling implications.

In a review in Poetry London, Michael Hulse called Fire Songs “a dark set of meditations on destruction, loss, last things […] a Sebaldian natural history of destruction, a vision in which processes of pain and occlusion are hardwired into a fabric of existence that offers no redemption […] Definitely not for the faint-hearted”. What Hulse does not discuss is what message those meditations deliver, the political implications of a wealthy white man so richly imagining a world without redemption; what position would such a man hold in such a world? Note also his deployment of other powerful men for ballast, and the pre-emptive strike on the ‘faint hearts’ of potential critics; these acts are intended to frame both book and review as unassailable, to reject the very credibility of critique.

Hulse’s review is in many ways deeply conventional, in that it first discusses the poet’s past achievements, superficially relates the book’s content second, and leaves little or no space in which to discuss the mundane-world implications of the book’s ideas. Much like Jarrell, Hulse writes under a great many assumptions about the relationship between poetry and the society in which it is an active participant. Indeed, regarding “Fire: a song for Mistress Anne Askew”, Hulse seems to take as much pleasure in describing the poem as the poem does in describing Askew’s suffering:

“Passion comes with a gravelly, darkened beat, sounding as if a Kiplingesque long line of iambics leavened with anapaests had been broken on the rack. Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr at the centre of the opening poem, was broken thus before being burnt as a heretic.”

Hulse’s conflation of metrical jargon and a real-life tortured woman is itself a deeply insensitive act, and speaks to the intellectual distance underpinning his critical work. And this is a key point; in the short space of a conventional magazine review (around 800 words, often less), there is little room for examining one’s own aesthetic prejudices; it could be argued that an appreciation of Fire Songs is dependent on the assumption that poetry does nothing, is removed from the workaday world, is consequence-free expression; again, imagine the social standing required for these conditions to be the expected norm. Under these conditions, criticism of the book’s overt misogyny may be explained away as over-literalism, a censorship of the imagination, or simply lacking the ‘heart’ to consume Harsent’s play with suffering, to see ‘how things are’. Under these conditions Harsent can play the taboo-breaking outsider or neutral bystander casting judgement from a safe distance.

Harsent, aided by Hulse and others, maintains his cultural authority through a systemic refusal or inability to permit discussion of his work’s underlying messages, or the power structures that allow, even encourage, such arrogation of authority in the first instance. As Charles Whalley puts it:

“The politics of established verse, where it has any, are predominantly Lib Dem: its emphasis is on individual freedom and dignity, while mostly ignoring the conditions through which that freedom is granted. In claiming, in its humanity, to soften the edges of C21st neoliberalism, it perhaps merely soothes the consciences of its beneficiaries. The suspicion remains that, as in much of the past, most poetry is only a store for the values of the affluent, only a ruling class talking of and for itself.”

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In short, it’s all sunshine lollipops and rainbows. But the point of this talk was to identify what reviewing is for. To the best of my understanding, it is this: reading. Jarrell argues that publishers need reviewers to boost their products, but that it is far more important that readers have trustworthy advocates; a reviewer is a specialist reader, an expert practitioner of a common skill. If our goal is to build a creative culture that respects the marginalised and holds the powerful to account, we need to first acknowledge how ingrained the resistance to such change will be.

To that end, if you want to review: first, that’s awesome, get online as soon as possible; second, read as much as your time, energy and sleep patterns will allow. Read poetry, read criticism, read essays you find on twitter. Our culture unduly respects voices that disrespect the marginalised and their experiences, voices that refuse to see abusive structures of power and how poetry aptly mimics them. It is the work of the reviewer to identify how these trends manifest in art, how art can be complicit in the systemic violence of society at large.

Pretending the world of the poem ends at the edge of the page is a dangerous falsehood; pretending the only poetry worth rewarding is written by liberal academics is harmful and culturally stymying. A good reviewer must first recognise their own position within these oppressive structures, and ultimately act according to their best principles. Which isn’t easy! Sometimes that will involve recognising your own prejudices, and maintaining a critical practice that constantly questions its own motives and cultural context. You will make mistakes sometimes, and you will sometimes do so publicly; the real test is how you respond. Understanding the artistic community not as a state of cultural Darwinism but a potential means of collective empowerment is an excellent place to start.

There is no way you hold within your person the means to understand every possible perspective, and you should be suspicious of those who claim authority where they have little or none (this essay included). Understanding and respecting the work of others takes time, effort and often a total rethinking of how you act or express yourself. It sometimes means creating platforms for or signal-boosting marginalised voices, even if that means relinquishing some of your own institutional power. Such acts are not easy, but they are, I think, a positive first step towards a culture that can speak honestly and openly about its past and future.

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

Full Disclosure: This is my first encounter with Rankine’s work. For anyone new to the site, I am a middle class white fella, and I will do my best to recognise how that impacts my reading of Rankine’s work.

Review: Okay, straight out of the traps, cuz I want to get this out of the way, this is poetry. It is a bunch of words arranged with painstaking precision. There have been any number of successful poetry books in these islands that use prose extensively or even exclusively (see Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars), and focusing on the form too easily elides the vitally important messages Citizen delivers.

The book is a collection of stories, essays and traditional lyric poems that (in part) attempt to expose and explain the harm caused by structural and microaggressive racial violence; its recurring use of the pronoun ‘you’ is partly an attempt to circumvent whatever defence mechanisms we might have against the idea we might be complicit in racial oppression. The social mores that enable the situations narrated in Citizen are so basic, so much a part of the wallpaper of daily life as to be near-invisible; as Holly Bass notes in her review, “this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit. What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others”. The bare facts of Rankine’s readership demographics are of no small importance: of the top ten hits on google search for ‘claudia rankine citizen review’, for instance, eight reviewers are white; three of the top four are white men working for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and Slate. A relevant question might be, talented though these critics are, why these authoritative sites decided that white writers were best positioned to discuss this particular work. If your response is ‘they just picked the best writers available’, you should read Citizen. ‘The best writers’ is not a politically neutral category.

Seeing as the autocorrect on this word doc doesn’t recognise ‘microaggression’, here’s a brief definition. Racism and other oppressions do not maintain their social dominance solely by overt, conscious acts of bigotry. Microaggressions generally happen below the level of awareness of members of the dominant culture (cf Hilary Clinton’s speech identifying the ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens in America who fear black men in hoodies; when our own Prime Minister decides that our Muslim friends, family and peers do not deserve to live in peace, how does that impact the way our own ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens think about each other?).


In the US and the UK alike, the dominant culture means middle/upper class white people, like myself, and if I know poetry culture round these parts, very likely yourself too. And it doesn’t take much research (though Fiona Moore’s studies are extremely relevant here) to see that poetry in these islands have a serious problem acknowledging and supporting work by black and minority ethnic poets. The message runs: white people have won prizes and are taught on the curriculum, thus are culturally central, thus constitute the category ‘good poetry’, thus white people make the prize lists [ed – the Forward Prize has done sterling work in this regard as of late]. White people are the default and will be met with little/no critical objection; BAME poets are other, their presence requires justification. If they write in a way that does not fit within the existing poetic norm, they are very easily ignored, filed away in pre-made and ill-fitting categories that diminish their intellectual work; note how much easier it is for academic white poets to pick apart these aesthetic prejudices. I truly don’t imagine, however, that these decisions are made deliberately (that would be relatively easy to deal with); they seem to uncritically follow the kind of social imperatives that (at one extreme) make us call human beings seeking refuge from international warfare ‘swarms of immigrants’. It takes a huge and conscious effort to identify and expunge ourselves of the reflex prejudices our culture wants to imprint on us; note, for example, the way the term ‘identity politics’ has been appropriated as a means of dismissing the very discussion of those complex and fraught relations.

If the above shows anything, it’s how time- and energy-consuming it is to get around to talking about a book that questions and rejects basic social norms. In an interview with Radio Open Source in Boston (which is seriously worth listening to), Rankine describes the process of accumulating these stories from friends and colleagues, that the book’s early sections – the short, sharp, confounding accounts of language becoming violence – are a kind of communal witnessing or testimony. They are also, as Rankine explains, a means of talking back, addressing what in hindsight seems a blatant act of ignorance and/or violence, but in the moment is simply too unbelievable to address or even process: the phrases ‘What did you say?’ and ‘What do you mean?’ return and return in Citizen. The first act of resistance is believing that these things did, in fact, happen exactly as they appeared to, and part of the book’s challenge to white readers is to see ourselves in these interactions, at the very least to see how these interactions benefit or favour us by making us more comfortable, more firmly situated as trustworthy, welcome, central and normal. Whether or not we are the university employee complaining about how affirmative action meant her son didn’t get into the right prestigious school, or the man who ‘tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there’, as white people we still benefit from these underlying messages and the normalised white supremacy that makes them acceptable. We need only stand by and watch to gain from them.

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In this regard Rankine’s voice is key to how the book expresses itself, and why listening to her read is so informative. Her voice remains flat, calm, reserving all possible energy for a rehearsal of what is, in actuality, one in a series of exhausting reminders of what her body means to a society hostile to its presence. Sections IV and V are dedicated to the poet’s management of her mental health brought about by a daily engagement with the kind of violence detailed earlier in the book. These later passages are difficult reading, elaborating on the impossibility of anything like safe mental space when ‘Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that.’ Perfectly logical emotional processes, like anger at having one’s individuality erased, are precluded by the world’s need to avoid addressing uncomfortable truths: ‘You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice.’

The sequence comes after an extended exploration of the career of Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time and a black woman. Rankine opens with a discussion of Jayson Musson’s (aka Hennessy Youngman) YouTube video encouraging black artists to commodify their anger, in a way that Rankine identifies as ‘tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations’. Musson’s ideal black anger that creates marketable personae and sells music does not make room for Williams’ real, unpalatable and ostensibly inappropriate anger, which ‘in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness’. Rankine aligns Williams’ story with Zora Neale Hurston’s line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”: that background includes the tennis venues Indian Wells and Wimbledon (aka the All England Lawn Tennis Club), and a professional sport that cannot or will not acknowledge its complicity in violence against an individual who refuses to bend or apologise for her brilliance. During Williams’ unbeaten run in 2012, Rankine describes the new narrative shaped by tennis’ commentariat: ‘She has grown up […] as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others’. Citizen makes it clear that no amount of success, achievement or contribution to the body politic can, under the existing cultural system, secure that individual love, respect or peace of mind.

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The essay also illuminates the extreme care and precision that characterises the book’s own use of language. Each sentence moves slowly, treads purposefully – there is little relaxation, little of the personability or openness that typifies lyric poets like Sharon Olds or Mark Doty. Rankine seems prepared for her ideas to be minutely scrutinised, intuits that only the most rigorously exercised thoughts will stand a chance of being heard. And hypothetical anger – dynamic, animating anger that for most lyric poets is a central weapon – will only be pigeon-holed with Williams’, labelled as ‘crazy’ (for a high-profile example, cf Taylor Swift lashing out at Nicki Minaj’s valid criticism of the music industry, and how swiftly that industry moved to frame Minaj as the aggressor). That Rankine creates both absolute clarity and valuable complexity is an incredible achievement, and deserves to be recognised as such. She is a writer of almost peerless skill, and in a better world this review would be free to discuss her talent with subtle organising metaphor, details that seem perfectly incidental until it emerges that they underpinned the entire endeavour. That she has proven the lyric form capacious enough to hold some of the most complex thinking on racial inequality I’ve ever read is worth celebrating on its own. For what that’s worth; lest we forget what countless awards and achievements have done for Williams’ emotional wellbeing.

Returning to her Open Source interview, Citizen is a book about the intimacy of racial violence, about how the body can be made into the locus of racial hatred, how that process becomes gradually corrosive in the most personal ways, and how resistance to these acts will be wilfully misinterpreted. The short sequence on Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi, after the latter called him a ‘Big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger’, quietly but joyously reframes the episode: ‘The rebuttal assumes an original form’. Zidane, a brilliant and articulate athlete hitting back against a career’s worth of diminishment and abuse (‘what he said “touched the deepest part of me”’), was still unable to control the subsequent narrative which, like Williams, refused to contextualise his actions. Rankine’s book is a reminder that Materazzi, like the line judges at the US Open, like the employees at the university or commuters on the train or drivers in the car park, all act in the interest of maintaining white supremacy, from which people like myself benefit every day. As Rankine asks an English colleague regarding the death of Mark Duggan and the subsequent riots in London, ‘How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?’ This is an important book, and hopefully the catalyst for a long and difficult discussion.

Tl;dr: Citizen is an astonishing work, an accusation and a call to action. Read it over and over.

Further reading:
Claudia Rankine’s Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race and Poetry
Holly Bass in the New York Times
Nick Laird in the New York Review of Books
Interview with Rankine on Open Source
Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker
Shaelyn Smith in The Rumpus

Sean O’Brien on Jack Underwood – Happiness

Full Disclosure: I just reviewed Underwood a couple weeks back. O’Brien was my external examiner when I did a creative writing masters in 2008, and he marked me generously. So, Underwood 0 Me 1, basically.

So Sean O’Brien reviewed Jack Underwood’s first collection on Saturday in the Guardian. O’Brien has several collections under the belt dating back to the 80s, TS Eliot and multiple Forward Prizes to his name, an influential book of essays, a professorship at Newcastle University and the Vice-Presidency of the Poetry Society. Underwood has just been published by Faber and is pretty much set to have a lengthy and high-profile career in the business, alongside his academic post at Goldsmiths. So when I say the review is first and foremost a kind of intra-mural bullying, I’m speaking in pretty relative terms. Underwood will be just fine. However, I think there’s something useful in examining O’Brien’s approach here, the particular guise of his critic/poet relationship, and the assumptions that inform that relationship. So hop on the ol’ Close Reading Express, destination: THE MAGIC CIRCLE.

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O’Brien: “When his initial Faber pamphlet came out in 2009, Underwood appeared to show Donaghy’s influence, but now he recalls a poet of an older generation, Hugo Williams, for whom, as now for Underwood, the world is largely a personal matter composed of the problems of love and selfhood, as well as that of Frank O’Hara, whose presence is now as ubiquitous as weather, with his “Personism” manifesto seeming to promise access to all areas.”

Throwing three major poets’ names around in your opening lines performs two functions: i) it overwhelms the new poet in existing authority; ii) emphasises the critic’s mastery of the scene, very literally putting the poet in their place. If I was Hugo Williams I’d be feeling some severe shade in this paragraph; I don’t think the comparison is complimentary. What exactly prompts O’Brien to ‘recall’ Williams is a mystery. They both… talk about themselves? In kind of a funny, wry way?

O’Hara is a bit more believable, but the claim of ubiquity as it stands here can only illuminate so much without going into specifics; how (or if) he functions in Underwood (and Happiness is a homebody of a collection, decidedly anti-cosmopolitan) is different to how (or if) he functions in any of Underwood’s peers. Did Personism really ‘promise access to all areas’? Wasn’t O’Hara acknowledging what had been the case for years? Which areas were inaccessible before? Is Hugo Williams really the primary exemplar of a modern poet making the world a matter of love and selfhood? Precious little substance so far from O’Brien.

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SOB: “By moving in this direction Underwood has apparently renounced the implacable rigour on which Donaghy’s own playfulness was founded. At times, indeed, Underwood seems to be aspiring to invertebracy. […]The cartoon detail, combined with a tone at once demonstrative and short of affect, mark a kind of indie house style that can be read (and perhaps more significantly, heard) almost anywhere at present.”

Is Faber indie now? I think ‘Indie’ is a kind of pun here, signifying ‘fashion-conscious young people’, while ‘house style’ suggests some kind of young poets’ union whose aim is to sound indistinguishable to careless outsiders. And they’re anywhere at present. Terrifying. As we know, no generation of poets who have grown up working alongside each other experiencing the same social conditions have ever wound up sharing influences, aesthetic common ground, or, yes, a ripping good in-joke. Real poets, as we know, spring fully-formed from Zeus’ skull with a unique and peerless aesthetic. O’Brien’s distinction between good, rigorous, real men’s playfulness and the cartoonish, limp, undergraduate variety is spurious at best. The vicious lack of generosity in this paragraph reminds me of a young me. And that guy was terrible.

SOB: “Innocence, of a kind clung to like a pillow placed over an alarm clock, is perhaps his central subject for now. It is, inescapably, a studied state, composed partly of the innocent egotism that moves attention back from the child to the beholder, partly of openness to the steady rain of impressions and to the fleeting absoluteness of happiness and of “cack-handed LOVE”.”

O’Brien, you’ll note, hasn’t forgotten that Underwood is, to his discredit, YOUNG, and thus his aesthetic cannot but be immature and a stay against adulthood as O’Brien defines it. Because, again, as we know, older poets are famously mature, generous, selfless souls who cannot bear to take centre stage, as O’Brien’s missive in a national daily demonstrates. Seriously though, Happiness has at its core an understanding that love is anything but absolute, and arguing that a poem about a newborn artificially takes attention away from the child discredits similar poems by Yeats, MacNeice and Paterson, just off the top of my head. A baby’s interiority is not quite as interesting as one might hope. Also, look at that ‘for now’. Soon, O’Brien implies, he will come back to the proper established fold, like all mature artists. It’s worth noting, too, that this review returns time and again to question Underwood’s manliness (as opposed to childishness, in this case). It seems a matter of great concern.

SOB: “Combine these conditions with intense self-consciousness and it might all, to an ancient and sceptical reader, sound like adolescence outstaying its time. Yet as a depiction of conditions prevailing among many of Underwood’s generation (he was born in 1984), it sounds accurate. In the last half-century in the west, the process of getting older has ceased to necessitate (or perhaps even permit) what would once have been thought of as growing up – for example, in the wartime conditions in which Keith Douglas (dead at 24) or Wilfred Owen (dead at 26) wrote.”

I mean. This is just bizarre. Summoning Douglas and Owen from their eternal rest to fling them at inadequate millenials in the middle of what is ostensibly a poetry review is an odd move. Is warfare the true test of maturity? What of the non-combatant poets of both world wars who didn’t have the chance to be forcibly matured by their circumstances? Are we really holding up social conditions of the 1910s and 40s as a better time for poets? ‘An ancient and sceptical reader’. Sir, you are 63. You are not Melmoth the Wanderer. Again, the call to dismiss adolescence is inadequately articulated. Adolescence is a time of great change and upheaval, and without a precise definition of the adulthood one should move into, ‘adolescence’ is a meaningless concept. Harsent just won twenty grand for one of the most adolescent collections I’ve ever read, one that thinks insensitivity to suffering shows how much you understand it. Maturity is complicated, and doesn’t always come in wearing a plain, serviceable pin badge that says ‘I am a grown up’.


SOB: “By its own neurasthenic lights this may be honest, but it doesn’t wholly deflect the unworthy, unwanted and unprecedented urge to say: get out of the house more; take up the biathlon or cage-fighting.”

Witness the Raine school of saying by not saying. The irony of demanding that a poet get out of the house a bit doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind (note also the STRONG MANLINESS of those alternative pursuits). The urge is unworthy and unwanted – I’ve no clue what ‘unprecedented’ is doing there, I’m sure I can find some other established poet berating the new starts – and utterly meaningless as criticism. Telling a poet to get their life in gear is not within a critic’s remit, and O’Brien knows it. This is lousy behaviour, an extra-curricular, real-life insult.

SOB: “And what a whimsical, winsome battleship that would be: very hard to resist sinking it with a deftly hurled rubber duck.”

The condescension. Underwood has clearly spent a lot of time on Happiness, and O’Brien thinks he can tear it down on a whim. The posture here is ‘this is so beneath me I’m not even going to dignify it, despite asking the Guardian if I could spend 900 words dignifying it’. If there was the least engagement with the ideas explored by Happiness, O’Brien might have a case to make, but he hasn’t even tried. He is caught between wanting to cast the book into the darkness and refusing to sufficiently engage with it to do so, and we get this insubstantial nonsense.

SOB: “Altogether more substantial is “Wilderbeast”. This is partly a matter of the quality of attention Underwood brings to the series of nightmarish transformations through which, it seems, male sexuality reveals and condones itself, before a glimpse of the redemptive possibility of love and a final return to mirror-gazing: […] It’s an ambitious and energetic piece of work. It’s also, in contrast to some of the other poems here, attentive to line, to the tercets that frame the lines, and to the accumulating rhythmic consequences of a poem conceived as something more than a clever accident.”

Discussing a poem! Saints be praised. Look at him almost give some credit. He just can’t help dropping in that punitive ‘mirror-gazing’, though, and the back-handedness of the second half – ‘unlike some poems I could mention’. Something more than a clever accident? Underwood spent eight years (or more) on this. You think it just sorta happened, that he only bothered his arse on this poem? Happiness pays extremely close attention to its lineation, and the vast majority of its poems are very regularly patterned, even those which don’t make that patterning typographically obvious.

Again, it seems like O’Brien first identifies a quality he values (formalism) and then accuses the poet of failing to embody this quality. But it’s completely unfounded criticism. How could he have missed this? Is he thinking of one of Underwood’s indistinguishable peers?

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SOB: “That Underwood has entertained not only this charged, highly wrought kind of work but also some narcotic inertia might indicate that he risks losing his way. But, on the other hand, he is not content to be the acolyte of a perceived formalist orthodoxy. He is after something that has yet to take shape. His talent is obvious even when he seems to be misapplying it. In music it used to be the third album that was the test, but time has accelerated, so a good deal will depend on what follows Happiness.”

This mess needs serious unpacking. Losing his way from what? How does O’Brien know what ‘his way’ is? A ‘perceived’ formalist orthodoxy? Is the central influence on British poetry of formalists like O’Brien, Paterson, Muldoon, Robertson, Symmons Roberts, Burnside and Harsent all in our heads? Why would Underwood be content as an ‘acolyte’? Is his attention/lack of attention to formalism the central tension in his work? Wasn’t Frank O’Hara the orthodoxy back in the first paragraph? What is the something he’s after that’s yet to take shape? What ‘shape’ should it be taking? How should he be applying his talent, and where does he so frivolously abuse it? What in the name of fortune does that last sentence even mean?? Time has accelerated, but young people don’t grow up these days, plus difficult third album that makes the earlier ones irrelevant so who even cares about this one, something something Wilfred Owen?

The review is a patronising mess, a collection of unsubstantiated accusations and aesthetic prejudices, and it doesn’t take a clever Freud with a calculator to see why O’Brien has jumped at the chance to take Underwood down a peg. His poetry is barely under discussion here. O’Brien summoned the straw poet of his mind and set fire to it, all under the banner of a national daily newspaper.

Jack Underwood – Happiness

Jack Underwood – Happiness

Full Disclosure: None. Haven’t met him or seen him read.

Review: Happiness is Underwood’s first collection, published a full eight years after he was awarded an Eric Gregory, and has already been compared to work from other talented poets of a similar poetic generation. There may be some surface justification here: on a first read, Happiness seems to operate in a fairly familiar tone, a kind of archly ironic, sharp-witted and self-deprecating voice acting more or less helplessly in the face of the world’s evils. And while Happiness doesn’t aspire to any direct assault on the bastions of neoliberal British society, there is a kind of concerted worrying around the seams of what that society considers ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’; the book seems almost obsessively concerned with the terms and conditions bound up in the el dorado emotional state of the book’s title. What is the cost of happiness? What does it look like? What’s with all the Fibonacci numbers? (More on that later.)

For background reading, Underwood’s address to James Allen’s Girls’ School gives a very clear indication of the poet’s basic principles, namely a kind of faith in poetry’s ability to forge new systems of value separate from that of the society that hosts it, a call to challenge and redefine what matters. A recent review of Michael Donaghy’s work in Poetry Review illuminates his own critical lens as much as the poems under scrutiny. Here, Underwood highlights Donaghy-as-trickster, a charming Marvellian rake/ringmaster:

‘Donaghy’s poems show off openly – ta-dah! “My people were magicians”, says the speaker of ‘The Excuse’: the artifice, the owning of the stagecraft is part of the appeal.’

In Happiness, Underwood too ‘tends to keep the immediate subject of a poem, and the logic of its enquiries, open and clear’. The poems often draw attention to their own theatricality (what Underwood refers to as a ‘campy note’), the falseness of the surface meaning/feeling that still hints at a frustrated or reticent sincerity working underneath; it’s in the gaps between what is said and what is left to the reader to decipher that the book does its best and most discomfiting work.


On a first read, several of these pretty fascinating set pieces, particularly the list poems ‘Some Gods’ (‘God with eagle’s head and five-pointed-star insignia on palms of hands; God connected to seven IV drips with fire coming out of mouth’), ‘Accidental Narratives’ (‘A crab on the phone box floor; the armless mannequin on the chapel roof at dawn’) and ‘She loves you like’ (‘She loves you like your hair smells proteinous; she loves you like pausing to move a snail somewhere safer in the rain’) seem kinda like ostentatious poetic exercises. The book makes repeated use of this disjunctive trope, comparing one thing with an off-kilter other: ‘we’ll notice we’re singing the way you notice / a police car pulling up the drive’ (‘You Are Definitely Coming, So Why Not Now?’). One could argue this fascination comes with being pretty bloody good at it. But I think it comes back to Underwood’s conscious drive towards the performative, the belief that poetry is primarily (by no means solely) an act of entertainment, that the hard work that makes a magic trick look effortless is also a powerfully generous gesture.

This direct address is a key aspect of Happiness. Though as a whole the book is weird and sad and deeply personal, retrospectively the opening poems look purposefully normal, a conscious effort to establish some common ground with the reader. [Side note: this common ground is not a context-free space, and yes, in Happiness it is thoroughly coded as middle class, with markers like hockey, cricket, English Literature students and an extensive list of fresh produce. A more politically minded critic might point out the worlds of these poems focus far more on the individual than on wider social systems, or indeed that this is the default focus of most contemporary poetry, to the extent it seems faintly ridiculous to point out that one book or another seems light on social consciousness. But that’s criticism of the context in which Happiness finds itself, and not Happiness.] So when ‘A man is dragging a dead dog’ turns its focus on you, the reader, the sudden implication in the poem’s pocket nightmare is disconcerting:

‘And since you already have a street in mind and perhaps a breed of dog […]
Why not try
to understand this thing you are doing: how the dog came to be dead
and you came to be dragging it, what this means to you and where it is
that you are going?’

It’s a near-identical movement to Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (‘Since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, / Imagine being Kevin’), but with the graphic awfulness of its inexplicable act delivered with academic specificity. It almost sounds like a creative writing brief. ‘Why not try to understand?’, meanwhile, is kind of a key thought for the collection.

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Where Happiness does encounter broader social trends is in its handling of masculinity, in ‘The Bomb’ and ‘If guns’ in particular. The former has its speaker sitting naked astride a huge bomb, like Major Kong in Dr Strangelove:

‘I felt proud of the bomb, scared and a little sexy.
I don’t think I’m a bad person when I admit
I lent down and touched my face against it.’

It’s a grim wee poem, and could be read as a fairly straightforward parodying/playing out of a fragile kind of masculinity that locates safety, affection and sexual power in military-level violence. It’s significant, I think, that neither poem figures the victim(s) of either weapon; for the fantasy to be effective, the fantasiser must maintain the moral right to wield their power (witness the growing phenomenon of white male victim complexes). Compare with ‘If guns’:

‘[if guns] were more popular in our culture
I’d be attracted to people who had guns the same way
I am attracted to people I suspect don’t like me. […]

I’d watch them slide out the clip and droop the gun
to me like a kneeling horse. I’d look in its hole,
blow my cheeks. Thank you, I’d say. Thank you.’

I think these poems add up to a deep mistrust for unchecked accumulations of power, which when fed through Happiness’ imaginative lens becomes this craven kowtowing – even the horse acquiesces. The book is full of speakers in various states of personal powerlessness, insecure and constantly on the verge of emotional collapse. Take ‘The Ashes’, a pretty great longer poem that weaves in between a speaker doing chores at home, listening to cricket on the radio and the encroaching awareness of their own mortality. Also in this category is the fantastic ‘Caboose’, in which the speaker is trapped in the eponymous vehicle with only a grim-reaperish figure for company: ‘The driver’s hands sweat black juice and I never / see him eat. […] He refuses / to learn my name.’ The poem runs from one disjunctive thought to the next, the sense of urgency and anxiety building to the last line, a faintly pleading ‘there’s nothing / else to read on here unless you like letters home.’ These Kafka-ish moments seem to be leavened only by reference to immediately proximate loved ones or to the formal organisation of poetic artifice (and even this through a fairly sturdy layer of irony). The other poets in the book – Akhmatova, Mascha Kaléko, a rather hammed-up version of John Donne (‘I’m not sure I remember what we did / before we LOVED’) – themselves seem in thrall to forces beyond their control, writing love poems against the darkness.

It’s to this last detail that I think the book’s mulling over on happiness, security and anxiety comes round: what exactly is home under these conditions, particularly when the domestic space is itself such a source of fear? And okay, now I’m gunna discuss Fibonacci sequences, which for the novices among you goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 and so on. For reference, I don’t hold much stock in perfect ratios, numerology, what have you, but Underwood clearly does, or at least wants the reader to think so. The problem with discussing Fibonacci sequences in poetry of course, is that it makes the reader look like a conspiracy theorist, which is a pretty neat defence mechanism, but whatever. HERE ARE SOME OBJECTIVE FACTS ABOUT THE BOOK, HAPPINESS. I PROMISE IT WILL ULTIMATELY BE RELEVANT.

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In Paterson’s book on Donaghy, Smith, Paterson talks about how sonnets should really have an octet and a quintet, if they were to properly follow the golden mean, but this was largely squashed by Elizabethan superstitions about the number 13 (the fifth Fibonacci number and a general bad omen). Donaghy himself was obsessed with number games, and often inserted them into his work, including the poem ‘Where is it written that I must end here’, which resembles the ‘demon traps’ written by medieval scribes in its coiling around to vanishing point, structured around a Fibonacci sequence (more on this shortly). Happiness itself contains a half-dozen 13-liners: ‘∞’, ‘Second’, ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘Canto XIII’ (of course), ‘I promise when I lift your egg’ and ‘Accidental Narratives’.

As indicated by the opening poem, the book is in some ways a mirror image, with two perfect halves. The first poem is answered by the 41st; the perfect halves of the onion (‘Certain’) turn into a bird grotesquely dismembered by a fighter jet (‘Thank You for Your Email’). The eighth (Fib #5) is answered by the 34th (Fib #9); the many aspects of an unnamed god (‘Some Gods’) reflect the single, constantly changing and grotesque body of the devil (‘Wilderbeast’).

This means the middle poem, ’13 Say’ is the twenty-first poem (Fib #8). Its ostensible occasion is the death of Neil Armstrong, in which ‘you’ say:

‘Of the 89 comments on the article, 13 say “he’s on
the moon, now”! Why would he be on the moon? It’s absurd!’

89: Fib #11. And the poem goes on to do precisely that, putting various dead people on the moon, to:

‘a quiet place, out of reach and strange,
with a hard wind that rushes through: a rolling headstone
that requires a giant leap, and a sad and happy lie, to get to.’

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After all that, I think there’s some evidence to suggest that Happiness revolves around precisely this ‘sad and happy lie’, the illusion of safety, and the questionable, even harmful, happiness it brings. In the second poem called ‘∞’, Underwood describes the state of the dead:

‘how fear for them is a wrong
number calling, how we needn’t lead them
through the cordon in red blankets,
how fixed and safe they are.’

I think this big, supremely weird structure Underwood has produced is itself a pretty powerful acknowledgement of and fight against fear; it may be the entire book is his version of Donaghy’s demon trap, an attempt to keep himself and those he loves safe. But, as here, ‘safe’ itself is a word most commonly used in Donaghy’s work in reference to death. The closing lines of the book’s last poem are an unhappy mirror of the metaphorically flawless onion (‘calling one half Perfect / and the other half also Perfect.’), as the poem sweeps away all its artifice, all its fine work, and simply calls it what it (maybe) is: ‘the fearful and forgotten things I’ve lied to myself / about, and to my friends, and to my family.’ The safe lie gives way to the vulnerability of confronting something closer to the truth.

Happiness has some pretty marvellous individual poems, but it has been carefully put together, I think, to be a coherent unity. Given that, I think the poems are intended to be read as a continuing question, not ‘art’ vs ‘honesty’ but a tension held between the two. That it does so with charm, warmth and a determined attempt to build empathetic bridges is something quite special.

Tl;dr: I certainly had a lot of fun trying to get my head around the knotty philosophy of the book. The tone is a lot to get used to, and the blunt strangeness of the endeavour is ultimately quite demanding, but Happiness is a remarkable first collection in terms of its aesthetic unity and maturity, and well worth multiple reads.

Jo Bell – Kith

Full Disclosure: I’ve met Jo a bunch of times, she’s excellent people and her constant support of my writing is greatly valued. She also chaired the panel I was on at the Sabotage Awards; I can only assure you this’ll be the last time I bang on about that time I won a thing.

Review: Kith appears in the wake of Bell’s 52 project, a year-long community of five hundred poets centred around weekly writing prompts. 52 took the Sabotage Award for best one-off event, and not without good reason; the sheer scope of the project (which eventually had to turn people away, such was the demand) and its underlying message – poetry is something you can do, now and in the future: look, here are hundreds of people who agree – should not be downplayed. The project shows a hell of a lot of people will write poems, given the chance, that doing so is a skill that often needs only the slightest encouragement to become something weird and valuable. In interviews Bell has commended Carol Ann Duffy’s work as an ‘ambassador’; given Duffy’s appearance as a blurbist for Kith, I think it’s fair to assume she provides one model for Bell’s writing practice.

All of which is relevant, I think, to the ideas at the heart of Kith, which in a post on Sarah Jasmon’s blog Bell defines as ‘the opposite of kin’, ‘a self-made mesh of love affairs, near-strangers, lifestyle companions and lifelong friends’. Self-made, in the above context, is particularly important. The poems in Kith almost obsessively return to themselves, push back against potentially compromising forces; their willingness or determination to say no, their clear sense of who is unwelcome in the tribe (which in a great many poems is a tribe of one), is just as keenly felt as those who are admitted with an open heart. For all that, Kith is overwhelmingly a warm and sharp-witted collection; while I’ve doubts about the quality of Duffy and Armitage’s recent output, Bell shares many of the qualities of their early work, particularly in their light touch and clear communication, and has keener self-awareness, I think, an active willingness to deflate her own poetic authority.

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The poems themselves kind of wrong-foot any promotional bumf I could find on the book, in that while sex is certainly the vehicle in several poems, it’s the tenor only rarely; many such poems are more interested in a shared, preserved moment, like the beautifully gentle ‘Whales’:

‘Naked, out of bed and both surprised to find ourselves
standing at all, we lean together. These are clearer waters
than the day can offer us.’

For all the apparently straightforward language, the dynamics in these poems are against the norm. They insist on framing such relationships as even-handed, well-matched, and strongly reject situations where such an understanding is absent, as in ‘Eve naming the birds’ or ‘Talking to myself’, a one-sentence poem moving from idealisation to unpleasant realisation, and ending in the one-word line ‘leave.’ ‘Given’, ‘Cuntstruck’, ‘Beginnings’ and ‘First, cause no harm’ are all clear-sighted poems of experience, which see – in terms that still manage to be humanising and engaged, ‘We made a travellers’ pact to go wherever water let us pass, / together until each stood in the other’s way’ – all the pieces on the board.  It maybe shouldn’t be that shocking to find a healthy attitude to sex in contemporary poetry, but contemporary poetry has a way of reminding us what an uphill battle there’s still to be had. What’s remarkable about Kith is how normal all this feels, how little of a deal it should be to demand respect from one’s partner, and, vitally, respect for how one represents this artistically.

As a mostly-aside, the poem ‘Fair play’ (published here by B O D Y Lit) is a weird anomaly in this regard. Here’s the opening stanza:

‘Men, believe me. If in doubt, just
look her in the eye and say I want to fuck you.
It will work one time in three.’

I’ve no doubt the tongue’s in cheek here, but this is pretty blunt advice. The following stanzas make it clear the speaker is referring to herself, but its framing as a generally applicable tenet is deeply questionable. The implied interchangeability of the object of desire (just try twice more!) runs counter to the vital specificity of the other poems’ lovers, and introduces an unappetising market-forces attitude to finding a partner. Again, the good work done by the rest of the book argues that there’s some explanatory context here, but it’s missing from the text of the poem, and leaves ‘Fair play’ as close to outright cynicism as Kith gets.

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For all the book’s promotional bumf tends to give primacy to these poems (‘Love, sex, boats and friendship’, begins the blurb), Kith seems at least as comfortable in its more contemplative modes, when the practicalities of canal life are allowed to sit still long enough to take on some new aspect. The nine lines of ‘Severn, from Purton’ seem plain enough on a cursory glance, but they do extraordinary work in harnessing the experience of guiding a small and low-powered vessel along the island’s longest river to being in love, by way of Sonnet 116:

‘this fluid strength is what we borrow,
what we lean against when love inhabits us.
It alters when it alteration finds, alright

and so it should. There is no ever fixèd mark.
The bark’s the thing: the dot that battles tides
and if the river lets it, makes its small unlikely win.’

Shakespeare might have been emotionally hyper-aware but he was a tad prescriptive. This poem embraces such variousness, the needful negative capabilities. Incidentally, the opening line ‘Don’t take my lightness lightly’ could be a keyphrase for Bell’s aesthetic.

The book’s opener, ‘Crates’, is its own Donaghy-ish magic trick, somewhere between the teacher’s pay attention and the magician’s nothing up my sleeve: ‘Observe that when I speak of crates / your mind supplies one straight away’. The following stanzas describe with uncanny accuracy what springs to mind – ‘the fruiterer’s crate: / a shallow slatted box of rain-napped pine’, ‘the sturdy plastic tub / of the eco-minded council’. Et voilà, the final stanza:

‘Your crate exists as soon as it is thought.
Its shape is shown in speaking of it.
Now, let us speak of love.’

The poem has clearly thought long and hard about the direct physical experience of reading, about what can be achieved by creating this kind of direct address and shared space. And the conclusion isn’t just a neat touch; it emphasises that although the following stories are explicitly personal, they carry more than a simply journalistic import. The love you think of when prompted by the poem is every bit as legitimate as the magical crate, and that’s before you get into the ways the book puns on that first ‘crate’: as boat, as house, even as stanza. Maybe.


In a similar vein, ‘Lifted’ is maybe my favourite poem in the book, and if anyone’s thinking of putting together an anthology of self-care poems, it has to be a contender. The premise is simple but convincing, examining the mechanics of a water-lift:

‘All water wants, all water ever wants,
is to fall. So, we use the fall to lift us’

It’s in a similar conceptual mode to ‘Severn…’, acknowledging difficulty and struggle but ultimately trusting in some large and ungraspable ideas. Maybe it’s me being a massive softheaded polyanna but the closing lines get me something fierce:

‘Wait, then, for the shudder in the gate,
the backward-drifting boat that tells you

there and here are equal, an imbalance
righted. Ask of water; help me rise

and water says: I will.’

Kith makes this attempt to speak as straightforwardly as possible about some pretty deep stuff, which is laudable enough in its own right; it’s easy to imagine such poems in less careful hands turning to conventional wisdoms or dead-white-dude-endorsed authoritativeness. (Not that this plain-spokenness doesn’t occasionally stray into self-parody; ‘Silbury Hill’’s ‘our northern pre-historic strongholds are better than your fancy southern megaliths’ has a bit of the Monty Python about it, however genuine the archaeological basis.) Bell’s first principle, I think, is to build common ground, to establish some firm footing for the book’s more ambitious pieces to leap off from. As the 52 project showed, accessibility and ease of communication are valuable and difficult skills; Kith, I think, argues that they are not an impediment to excellent poems.

Tl;dr: If you’re trying to get non-poem pals into poems, Kith’s a dang fine place to start.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Full Disclosure: Met Howe at this year’s Sabotage Awards on a panel regarding the Culture of Criticism. Review copy provided by Vintage Books.

Review: Loop of Jade is Howe’s first collection, in part an account of the poet’s journey to Hong Kong and China to learn about her and her mother’s past, in part a set of imaginative lyric adventures taking in Kung Fu-tzu, Pythagoras, Titus Andronicus, LA Confidential, Cormac McCarthy and Chinese political blogging, amongst others. I’ve slated writers before for wielding their education like an overseer’s whip; Howe’s poems are close-read and empathetic explorations into each text that recognise their value as real-world artefacts above and beyond their capacity to bestow literary authority. The giddying breadth and scope of attention the book achieves is held together by Howe’s calm-but-engaged, precise-but-emotionally-present narrative voice, its open-minded, casually unshakeable dedication to presenting uncomfortable and occasionally devastating stories and ideas, turning them to the light and making them shine. Loop of Jade also features some of the most sure-footed long-line narrative poetry I’ve read: she’s up there with Longley for loading up a line and keeping it airborne.

RHAPSODISING MUCH. So that para’s an attempt to get to the heart of a book with so many overlapping ideas and interwoven narrative strands (the epigraph is from Borges, for pete’s sake) it’s hard to know where to begin. The Borges poems, concerning ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’ and its weird classifications of animals, form the a kind of formal backbone and a kind of parallel stream to the book’s more historical-biographical (or geographical) work, as themes and ideas from one overflow into the other. The overriding sense is being taken on a strange and unpredictable journey by someone who knows exactly where they’re going. If you’ve the time I’d recommend reading Howe’s diaries for Best American Poetry, both for its insights into the book’s themes and a straight-up fascinating bit of travel writing.

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The book’s opening and title poems both concern Howe’s mother, so I think it makes sense to start there. ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ is the first of several short-lined, impressionistic lyrics that act as breathing spaces between the more narrative-intense poems. This one is kind of a way in to the book, an exercise in seeing the way the book sees, magnifying the poem’s small, shining things and drawing them together with ‘lupin seeds’ and ‘horseflies’ eyes’ as items of equivalent worth. A sceptical reader might be put off by the poem’s niceties, even kitschness; the poem serves as an important bridge from the everyday to the collection’s special worlds, and the poem’s ostensible free-floatingness alters drastically as its images gather meaning across the book.

The poem ‘Loop of Jade’ itself is just incredible. Gunna put that out there. It’s an astonishing piece of writing, an intimate portrait of Howe’s mother, her life, her habits of speech, her struggle to speak and to be understood when she does; also, quietly, the poet’s own feeling of distance from the roots of these qualities: ‘like watching her wade, one dredged step at a time, out into a wide grey strait – myself a waving spot, unseen, on the furthest shore’. One of Howe’s great skills, I think, is maintaining a precise, almost disinterested narrative tone, to the extent that when a disturbing detail appears, its delivery in that same unflinching voice makes it all the more stark. So when she relates her mother’s story about her childhood tenement building, its communal toilet beside its communal kitchen, the impact on the reader’s imagination is visceral:

‘How despite themselves her eyes would follow to the nearby drain, as it sprouted – here she giggles, shivers – the glistening bodies

of cockroaches, like obscene sucked sweets.’

And this is another great ability, to house two apparently conflicting but wholly coherent details in the same lyric space; it would be easy to say the cockroaches were just horrifying, or kind of funny, but by doing both the mother’s perseverance and relief are both recognised and respected, two aspects of one response. Elsewhere in the poem is a long consideration of her mother’s speech patterns, a hesitancy implicitly prompted in part by her traumatic childhood and partly by her foreignness to the English language:

‘in her early forties, in a new country, she spoke more slowly than now, and with a subtle, near-constant nasal hum, more of a nnnnnng – so natural to Cantonese –

but which filled the gaps between her otherwise fluent English like the Thereminy strings in a Mandarin film score.’

The poem also puts the reader in the mother’s shoes (and it’s worth noting that Howe notes the strangeness of the word ‘mother’, only using it ‘at an immigration office, perhaps, to total strangers, or inside the boundaries of a poem’), by setting part of it in her voice; the section enacts these hesitations formally, challenging the reader to keep pace with hers, to render a physical voice on the page. It’s an unassumingly beautiful moment, and noticeable that humming itself is a recurring feature of the poems, like the cicadas in ‘Pythagoras’ Curtain’, the factory machines in ‘Faults Escaped’. The concluding section brings the jewellery of the title into focus, a bracelet blessed to protect the child wearer. The closing line manages to be both heartbreaking and clear-eyed, an acknowledgement of her mother’s faith and a sincere questioning of it. It’s too powerful to spoil here.

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PHEW right, believe it or not there are other poems in the book. Like I said up top, Loop of Jade consists largely of unusual, often pretty funny, lyric adventures, often with a fable-ish sting in the tail. Which all sounds rather tame, but taken en masse the poems have a genuine bite behind the calm, articulate front. Take ‘Embalmed’ (a poem with an epigraph from Chairman Mao about the mass murder of scholars) in which the smell of the thoroughly mortal Emperor’s rotting corpse is masked by piles of fish, or ‘Innumerable’, a deeply powerful piece about attending race day at Hong Kong’s Royal Jockey Club in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square:

‘On rainy race days the turf workers, still bamboo-brimmed, would wear transparent macs dotted with drizzle and the determination of a search party. Where they pressed the clumps back down, you would never know.’

On their own, they are strong pieces; the latter particularly conveys a powerfully empathetic political message through image alone. Over the course of the collection, this facility for conveying radically challenging political thought (note the implication of contemporary Britain in the Jockey Club’s ‘Royal’ moniker; caustic governmental policy is not a foreign concept, and for more on Britain’s history of economic violence against China, read Howe’s essay on Jardine, Matheson and the opium trade) almost subliminally is one of the book’s great strengths. Power structures are noted and critiqued, the poet’s own position as authority is constantly under scrutiny; ‘Sirens’, a poem that redresses the poet’s misunderstanding of a line from Roethke (and when did you last read a poem where the poet so enthusiastically acknowledges their fallibility?), also addresses the misconceptions and potential abuses of the elder poet’s relationship with his student:

‘A tutor watches a girl click-to the door
of his study with reverent care, one winter evening –
And understands Horace on reining in fantasy.’

An awareness of one’s power over someone is one thing, refusing to exploit that power quite another. The poem lets no poet off the hook.

A struggle to find a voice, or means of expression, also appears repeatedly. The beautifully measured ‘Having just broken the water pitcher’ begins with a provocation from 13th century Chinese scholar Wumen Huikai: “If you cannot call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?” The poem then reads into the developmental similarities of kanji script and the punning that allows Chinese bloggers to circumvent official censure:

‘He ponders how strange it is (how useful…) […]
that sensitive words (as in filters,
crackdowns) sounds exactly like breakable
. Done typing, he clicks Submit.

Recall the old monk’s koan, the correct
reply to Master Baizhang’s question:
His pupil kicked over the pitcher and left.’

An apparently absurd or childish gesture can point towards a resetting of the terms of debate, a radical rethink of the question, or of the system of power that poses it. Similarly, the single densely packed sentence of ‘Banderole’ takes in the act of providing a voice to a character in a painting. The ‘boot-faced shepherd’ in the face of heavenly glory is granted ‘a Latinity beyond / his own lacked letters’ by a ‘tawny scroll’s / unfurling coil’. The artist giving their subject an inauthentic voice is as important to the poem as the act of making the ‘mute canvas speak’: the act is only partly a failure, only partly a success. See also ‘That from a long way off look like flies’, in which a dead midge squashed in a book becomes ‘a glyph in a strange alphabet’. The poem features perhaps my favourite line in Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus’, ‘how, if that fly / had a father and a mother?’ The play intends this as evidence of Titus’ ill mental health; the poem, in the line ‘At empathy’s darkening pane we see / our own reflected face’ suggests the act is not so very unusual, that it in fact requires far more conscious empathetic effort than simply ‘scrap[ing] her off with a tissue’ (note the personal pronoun), confronting the difficult what ifs of our activated mirror neurones.

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There’s a lot to admire in Loop of Jade: its surprising angles and insight woven into a warm and careful register, its acknowledgement that kindness and care are subversive political acts, its determination to foreground humanity wherever possible, even in the face of great cruelty. ‘Stray Dogs’’s account of Ezra Pound’s imprisonment in custody of the Allied forces manages to focus on a thoroughly human need to exercise his mind without losing sight of his own acts of racist violence. The poems’ formulae are never simple. Nowhere is this clearer than in Howe’s poems about home, her physical pilgrimages (see Raleigh’s ‘give me my scallop shell of quiet’, referenced twice in the collection) and empathetic journeys. Always at arm’s distance to the place she spent her early years, she is at pains to do it justice on its own terms, to get her own self, her own ego (though there are few books where that word is less appropriate), out of the picture. The closing poem, ‘Yangtze’, ends with the image of the forest ‘persisting’ under the surface of the Yangtze river, the trees’ ‘Roots rot deep in the hill / where buried rock / is still dry’:

‘Windows film,
doors drift open
in the empty concrete
shells of houses
towns that once
held hundreds
of thousands
slowly filling with
what, what is it
they fill with?’

The book asks direct questions only infrequently, often in moments of rhetorical intensity like this one, where the submerged city becomes a reflection of loss, of lost home, a lost ability to belong to a geographical place, even the poet’s ability to accurately describe it is ultimately out of reach. It’s a perfectly fitting end to a book that refuses simple answers to complicated questions.

Tl;dr: Absolutely read this book, several times and slowly. I hope it gets the attention it deserves, and, unless there’s a truly spectacular work in the Forward list I haven’t read yet, must be a strong contender.