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.
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
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.’
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:
of years of gold.
I was a god,
and this is what I did,
without tools other
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.’
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.
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.