Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Disclosure: Normally this would be super short, just saying that I’ve read some of Oswald’s work previously but have no personal connection to her. Jack Underwood’s Brief Manifesto for Kindness, however, has important questions about how ‘full’ these disclosures actually are. He notes that having this section at best does a half-job, publicly clearing one’s conscience without really troubling one’s right or capacity to pass judgement, particularly on writers who experience more oppression than I do, i.e. just about everyone. And I guess there’s real danger of doing the same right here, so suffice it to say Underwood’s note about ‘tactical soul-searching’ has been bugging me constantly, I recognise the irony of doing this at the prompting of another privileged white man, and as ever, I hope you trust me – I’ll do my best to earn it.

Review: Insofar as a book as meditative as Falling Awake can be said to have a clear thought-line or theme, it may be the deconstruction of the primacy of human voices and bodies. The book features several ‘talking’ animals (albeit speaking a language to which the reader has no access) and humans in various states of decrepitude. This preoccupation with primacy is in tension with Oswald’s extremely precise control of pacing – although the imagistic element of the poetry may be of, for example, a swan’s decayed corpse or a badger falling to its death, what each poem has to say is delivered with a miniaturist’s attention to the information conveyed  by every odd detail. So the corpse in ‘Swan’ is ‘the plane-crash mess of her wings’, ‘getting panicky up out of her clothes’, climbing out of her own cockpit’, ‘the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone’, ‘the leather underdress / of the heart’, ‘my own black feet / lying poised in their slippers’, ‘the / frozen cloud of the head / before it thaws’, ‘the bride has just set out / to walk to her wedding’. Connecting the uncommon abundance of unique imagery is the swan’s own surprise at finding herself so suddenly grounded –

‘bending back for another look thinking
strange
strange’

– and the list of metaphors can be roughly sifted into two groups, ‘flight’ and ‘(wedding) clothes’, and although the connection is never made explicit, the poem seems to purposefully weave between these domains before arriving at its final image:

‘the little black-lit church
it is so cold

the bells like iron angels
hung from one note
keep ringing and ringing’

What starts with a swan’s dismembered body ends with a traditional church wedding, via several backward looks. There’s an entire short story’s worth of narrative here if the reader wishes to reach for it, and it doesn’t sound like a happy one. Extrapolating a defined plot, though, would risk distorting what seems to purposefully lie a degree out of reach, the poem’s uncertainty (which the swan seems to share – ‘strange / strange’) integral to its meaning. Behind its lyric ambiguity is, I think, a very pointed arrangement.

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The opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, I think is partly intended to prime the reader for precisely this intensity of composition, to read an organising force behind the book’s disappearing meanings. The poem is ten couplets in irregular pentameter, with polysyllabic rhymes that more often than not finish on an unstressed syllable; the last couplet echoes the first and the entire poem formally embodies the cycles of water and life. As in ‘Swan’, there’s an empowering dissonance between the poem’s formal solidity and its unstable substance. The poem relies on its music as much as its sense, the constant falling away and returning:

‘if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience’

The last of these three couplets feels almost too neat, leaning heavily on its rhetorical power to convey two relatively loud abstractions for a poem (and a collection) that finds its meaning almost entirely in the concrete, observable world. That such a noticeable exception to the rule appears in the opening poem seems significant. I think the line points towards ‘Tithonus’, the book’s closing long poem/performance piece about a mortal who fell in love with the dawn, who was granted immortality but not eternal youth, and thereafter waits every morning for a glimpse of his love. Maybe it’s a reach, but the book’s preoccupation with creatures (including humans) that barely survive or struggle to communicate might be rooted in the opening poem’s surprising note of optimism. There is certainly suffering, there is certainly decay, but there is survival, of the natural if not necessarily the human world. Maybe it’s only optimistic the way Beckett is optimistic.

Beckett might be a valuable touchstone in Falling Awake. The sequence ‘Village’ is the only poem that features reported human speech, and it renders that speech as almost-nonsense, perhaps attempting to make speech sound the way birdsong sounds to an untrained (human) ear, a gathering of stock phrases from which – like ‘Swan’ – a narrative could be inferred, if not one that could be easily or accurately translated:

‘somebody out thankfully not me out lost in the mud
somebody lost out late again say what you like
a boot by the granite not many of us left
living in the slippery maybe the last green places are you listening’

Like much of the Irish writer’s work, ‘Village’ is populated by folk just barely surviving, the poem relishing describing their bodies in unflattering terms: ‘that’s him bursting full of himself hook-nosed sinister walk / scars on each side of the wrist no teeth’, ‘spillikin legs always wet for some reason’. Oswald balances the sequence between a failure of communication and the will to keep going regardless, the poem’s last line sees its speaker(s) ‘living on the fluff of green of the last little floes of the earth’. Perhaps the undercurrent of Beckett’s apocalypticism makes this a far more troubling line than it might have been – those ‘very last floes’ sound rather conclusive.

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Although many poems in Falling Awake take place in the poet’s immediate physical space, along the River Dunt or in the poet’s back garden, more often than not the centred speaker is non-human, or, like Tithonus or Orpheus’ dismembered head, are subject to powerful debilitation of their senses of self. Arguably, of course, these alternate consciousnesses are filtered through the human and there is no escape from our own minds, but placed on a sliding scale it’s definitely towards the ecocentric end of the spectrum. Also arguably, this retreat from or occlusion of our own biographical selves is achievable for white people in a manner unavailable to poets of colour; Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation has at its heart this very problem, of recognising the essential shiftiness of selfhood while being compelled by colonialist politics to navigate someone else’s fixed and false expectations.

A brief, hopefully relevant aside: in the first six reviews of Falling Awake returned by google, Oswald is compared to: Don Paterson, Ted Hughes (x4), Tennyson, Homer, Marvell, John Clare, Whitman, Larkin, Beckett, Dylan Thomas, Heaney, Blake, Eliot, Dickinson (x3), Anne Carson, and, bizarrely, Claudia Rankine. Of note here is that if you make your favourite poets public reviewers will take that little shortcut to heart, also that this list has many men. In some ways it makes sense: Oswald is a classicist, and in an interview with Max Porter the poets she names are mostly male, Ovid, Hughes, Clare, Shakespeare and Edmund Waller outnumber Dickinson and Jorie Graham. Graham is the only living poet and one of only two from the last century. Judging by that same interview, in which she agrees with Porter’s statement that ‘I think it’s one of the great problems of our culture that we aren’t allowing people to think in certain ways’, Oswald doesn’t seem much taken with recent British poetry or its adjacent culture, arguing ‘We allow [poets] to be marketable, which means they must be categorised in order to be sold’. Those statements need a lot of unpacking: maybe ‘we’ indicates reviewers and publishers, and as ever it’s not clear who imbues these individuals with powers of censorship, but the fact Oswald reaches so far back into the word hoard so matter-of-factly seems significant. As Charlotte Runcie argues, Oswald ‘has made a career of writing powerfully about earth, strength and physicality – tropes many poets would earmark as masculine’: it’s a powerful thing to acknowledge that dividing subject matter into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ piles is nonsense. The fact that such topics remain gendered, however, is an indicator of how entrenched such gender norms are in anglophone poetry, and how important is Oswald’s occupation of that space. Perhaps the fault is not with poets being faced with either engaging hundreds of years of canonised poetry (some of which isn’t terrible) and being fixed in a hierarchy of dead men for life, or working further from the mainstream and being ignored/wilfully misunderstood. Reviewers could work harder to take poets on their own aesthetic terms and not be so eager to quick-fix someone’s authority/authenticity by invoking the dead. (I realise I mentioned Beckett earlier – I hope that was sufficiently contextualised.) What’s important, I think, is that Oswald gives gender essentialism exactly the respect it deserves; when in ‘Fox’ the poet mentions that the fox arrives in the poet’s garden:

‘in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name’

there’s probably some manner of reclamation work going on. As Runcie also points out, addressing gender so directly is not Oswald’s usual way. The fox appears ‘in her fox-fur’ and ‘her black gloves’, depicted in women’s clothing in a notably similar way to the swan in her ‘black feet … in their slippers’, is referred to by female pronouns and ‘trespasses’ in an effort to find food for her cubs (‘hungrily asking’):

‘as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf’

On one level it’s an uncanny encounter with the wild, a moment in which the comfort of the human is contrasted with the uncaring objectivity of nature; but gender is woven into the short poem’s fabric. It doesn’t seem a grand leap to read this as the female poet’s unwelcomed (‘no name’) intrusion on the comfortable ‘house’ of the anglophone canon; that it appears to be an exercise in self-sacrifice also rings true, considering the recent ignorant outbursts from such literary policemen as Private Eye and the Spectator (not to mention the much quieter, more respectable exclusions by the TLS and LRB, as noted by the VIDA count). Falling Awake may be primarily concerned with the difficulty of maintaining consciousness, but it bears in mind how this difficulty intensifies where it intersects with gender.

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The book’s finale is ‘Tithonus’, mentioned above. The book’s pages collaborate in the performance, as page numbers are discarded, not exactly replaced by a vertical line somewhat like a musical stave, denoting measures of time. Like much of the collection, ‘Tithonus’ is largely unpunctuated, except where space on the page is unable to represent pauses in speech (Falling Awake is rather remarkable in being so closely tied to traditional lyric yet so focused on recreating a human voice in action). Beyond the innovative presentation, though, is a profoundly sad telling of the myth. The poem is superabundant with skilful and keenly observed renderings of the dawn’s beauty into language:

‘here come cascades of earliness in
which everything is asked is it light
is it light is it light
the horizon making only muffled
answers but moisture on leaves is
quick to throw glances
and bodiless black lace woods in
which one to another a songbird asks
is it light is it light

 

 

not quite’

It is also keenly aware of Tithonus’ suffering among all this beauty, his inability to speak back to it (‘like a traveller staring through a / newspaper mouthing the headlines’), to communicate in it, only to observe it over and over in its constant variability. By the time the dawn has fully risen the poem  has considered the dawn from an incredible number of angles (‘every morning the same repeti- / tion spreads its infection a kiss gives / off a swoosh’), allowing humour and beauty and death a similar weight, Tithonus’ final, unbearably humble ‘may I stop please’ pulls at my heart even the third or fourth time round. It’s a remarkable piece, and I can only hope a live performance (which was staged with a harpist) gets recorded for posterity. One can dream. In any case, the poem’s tension between death-wish/acknowledgement of beauty reverberates throughout the book, quietly but firmly, and forms a powerful undercurrent, a constant reminder of the stakes in play. Runcie notes in her review that Oswald is at a remove from the London/BBC poetry scenes, and it may well be true that Falling Awake moves at right angles to the any of the prevailing aesthetic winds, to the point of feeling adrift in time. But it is a powerful, thoughtful, often funny book, with a significant message about the natural and human world.

Further reading:

Charlotte Runcie – review in The Telegraph
Max Porter – interview in The White Review
Theophilus Kwek – review in The London Magazine
Alice Oswald – lecture, ‘The Bearer-Beings’: Portable Stories in Dislocated Times

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