Some (But Not All) Of The Good Books I Read In 2015, According To Ill-Defined And Highly Subjective Criteria

Full Disclosure: I, too, dislike end of year lists. They’re usually either confusingly partisan or uselessly inclusive, have as much potential to upset as to enlighten, and given that I literally spent the year talking about what books I like, this might well be a waste of time. HOWEVER, I do think there’s something to be said for taking stock of the year, doing a bit of memorialising before pushing off into a big bright shiny new one, and maybe underlining a few things that you might have missed first time round.

So this piece is less about which books I thought were Best Poetry Books 2015™, which would rely on a largely arbitrary and probably deeply compromised set of aesthetic norms and value systems (specifically, my reading history as an academically-trained white bro), and more about which books changed how I read, shed light on the (often unconscious) assumptions I bring to this or that poem. Maybe that’s not the kind of recommendation you’re really after; maybe you’ve already crossed these bridges; maybe this all misses the point in ways I can’t imagine.

Whatever the case, thanks for reading.

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Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe)

In October, the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar wrote in The Guardian about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, praising its formal innovation and timely examination of racism both daily and structural, concluding that ‘In Britain, we don’t talk about race and poetry enough’. In December Parmar published the essay ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ in the LA Review of Books. It’s a clear-eyed, intensely well-researched and damning appraisal of how monolithic British and Irish poetry remains; it demands that white readers work harder to make space for BAME poets that doesn’t insist on a kind of self-exoticising that leaves the white-as-central/normal, BAME-as-other binary untarnished.

Ten: The New Wave, with its generous selections of, among noteworthy others, Jay Bernard, Kayo Chingonyi and Warsan Shire, is not only a great example of how to anthologize (relatively few poets, a large enough selection to allow the reader to inhabit the poet’s idiosyncracies), but provides concrete ballast for Parmar’s argument: the dominance of white poets in the UK is not for want of talented BAME poets. What is it for?

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

A poetry book that reached a huge readership, and a powerful response to the question of whether poetry needs an active social conscience.  Citizen is a beautifully, intricately composed piece of poetic work; every word is purposeful, each tableau masterfully pitched and weighted. If Citizen isn’t poetry, we all need to get new hobbies.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade is a curious, angry and humane collection that makes lyric poetry carry an uncommon amount of emotional and philosophical freight. A book that does that lovely thing of slowly releasing its deeper arguments as you pay closer attention. Incidentally, Howe’s critical prose is also staggeringly good.

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Okay so turns out writing these blurby things is causing me borderline physical pain. The above three books are the ones I would happily and without reserve recommend to just about anyone. Here, in alphabetical order and by no means authoritatively, are some other really good books I read for the first time this year, which I’d also happily lend to people that I like and who like reading poems. NB: my memory sucks, and I’m not necessarily as up to date as I’d like to be. If you’ve recommendations please leave them in the comments; BAME, LGBT and women poets are preferred.

AK Blakemore – Humbert Summer [sharp, dramatic, making alt lit/post-internet tropes FUN]
Harry Giles – Tonguit [probably the best politically-minded poetry I’ve ever read, also funny af]
John Glenday – The Golden Mean [humane, elegiac, heartbreakingly graceful]
Melissa Lee Houghton – Beautiful Girls (2013) [stark, clear-eyed, narrative poetry at its best]
Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie [mindful, deep time-y, bolshy as fuck]
Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty [generous, earnest, far stranger than I think I gave credit for first time round]
Warsan Shire – Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) [can’t believe yous let me go this far without reading this book, get your shit together]

Tl;dr: next year I’m keeping a spreadsheet. Thanks to everyone who reads this thing, and particularly to the folk contributing to my work via Patreon – it not only makes it so much easier for me to keep doing the work I’m already doing, it’s also the best motivator I’ve ever had. See you all in 2016, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

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Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty

Full Disclosure: None! New book, new poet. Happy days.

POW from Owen D. Davey on Vimeo.

Review: In an interview with Republic of Yorkshire is the rather excellent poem ‘Soup Sister’, which makes Beauty/Beauty a rare poetry collection that passes the Bechdel Test, a fact worth mulling over. It’s also a cracking poem about love and friendship over too-great distances, anchoring a discussion about female solidarity amid heartbreak and structural discrimination:

‘One of us, though I forget who, said
do you think women are treated like bowls
waiting to be filled with soup?
And the other one said, of course.’

The poem ends neatly poised between the desired reality and the imagined scene, focusing on a beloved detail which puts me (inevitably) in mind of Longley’s unanswerable questions to lost or missing friends:

‘how long do you stand
staring at the socks in your drawer
lined up neat as buns in a bakery,
losing track of time and your place in the world,
in the (custardy light of a) morning?’

Perry here deflates the potential melodrama with a descriptor that keeps the poem grounded, while also turning the complaint of the opening stanza – ‘it bothers me greatly that I can’t know / the quality of the light where you are’ – into an imaginative solution. Here, losing track is its own way of coming home, while that question mark remembers its ultimate inability to truly bridge the gap.

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The book’s recurring attempts and failures to convert artistic strategy into meaningful contact seems a key concern. ‘Sweetheart, come’ lists, in an odd, partly-centre-justified square of text, the things that will not suffice in place of the beloved (‘All the tea and buttered toast in the world is not enough’); ‘A Guide to Love in Icelandic’ makes similar hay out of its repetends in its almost obsessive attempts to find a suitable, perhaps composite, metaphor for love:

‘it’s like love
when the sun disappears for months
and when you stick cloves into an orange.

And when, in the woods, antlers fall from deer onto grass
it’s like love.
To persist into spring when you have lost
some part of the whole self.’

Take also ‘Poor Sasquatch’, (Perry’s Twitter handle), in which the mythical beast meets an altogether quotidian fate, ‘found face down on a dual carriageway’. Its body, inevitably, becomes a celebrity, a plaything of the rich and a curiosity for the public, ‘who came in droves to see this thing so long denied to them’. The last stanza has sasquatch follow the narrator into dreams, where it has both its dignity and agency restored, with an attraction to the vital surface that mirrors the poet’s:

‘peering in through the shop windows at the colourful cakes,
which he longed for.
And when I walked along a pavement
he was on the traffic side, taking the hits,
the headlights of a million cars setting him on fire.’

The poem, I think, works partly in light of another, ‘Pepo’, in which the narrator relates the movement from childhood innocence to the knowledge that her imaginary friend is just that; in both pieces the fabulous is given a kind of human dignity in the face of more animalistic humans. In ‘Pepo’, the child narrator escapes an 8th birthday party (‘her living friends screeched in the garden / like mosquitos’) to give her imaginary friend a kind of last rite by placing watermelon slices round the pond where they met, ‘then leaves them to contemplate this / new state of being, the insurmountable water’. Both poems dramatise the capacity of the imagination to provide strength or solace on one hand, to act as a psychically-rendered reminder of loss on the other.

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It may be valuable here to address an important factor in Perry’s aesthetic. I’ve sometimes been guilty myself of dismissing work that dared to prioritise a surface liveliness ahead of the weighty contemplativity that is surely poetry’s first business. Some of the worst books of recent years, however, have been those that aspire to great authority, beating you about the head and neck with their hidden depths. Don Paterson wrote recently, in the introduction to Smith: A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy: ‘his poetry was occasionally dismissed […] by that class of critic who can only acknowledge the existence of complexity when it has announced itself in what they feel is language of appropriately commensurate difficulty’; Perry is not Donaghy, but the principle holds. In the right hands, in the right context, custard is as jarring, moving, perspective-altering as the archaic torso of Apollo, and which did you encounter more recently?

Anyway. Point being that words like ‘quirky’, as Eva Wiseman points out, is one of many ways to undermine women’s work, that ‘in being named, you’re being rendered safe […] Water is poured on your potential to shock’. And Beauty/Beauty’s ability to use representations of (ostensible) weakness or vulnerability as powerful poetic tools should not be underestimated; it is poetry that demands the reader take its images and ideas seriously.

The first poem, ‘Pow’, makes clear this strategy while keeping a close eye on the needful/fashionable ‘pow’-ness of a modern poetry collection’s opening salvo. This poem establishes the terms on which the book will proceed, laying the boundaries between real chicken- or cow-hearts (strung up by the / side of the road in Kochin, blurry with flies, their tubes open to the sky’) and the fact that ‘chicken-hearted means easily frightened, | and has nothing to do with the heart’; Beauty/Beauty, while happy to explore the possibilities of relational metaphor, is also aware that sometimes a flower is just a flower:

‘Simplicity                    is a rainbird.                        A rainbird is a bird that can forewarn of rain.’

How simple is a precognizant bird, though? Or, maybe, how much can be achieved through ‘simplicity’? ‘Pow’, I think, makes it clear that lateral thought is necessary, that simplistic formulations will be of little use. In any event, this poem also taught me that ‘camelopard’ is an archaic word for giraffe, and I thank it for that.

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Often in Beauty/Beauty, physical objects act as a kind of punctum, a detail that draws painful emotional significance, around which several poems are arranged, such as the cherries in ‘immortelle’, or the toad in the excellent (sort of) version of Lorca, ‘Casida of the Dead Sun’:

‘blinking inside its nobbly body as it contemplates
the infinite civilisations of the world,

the disappointment of having
only ever truly known this one.’

The poetry is full of beautiful, unusual stuff, all of it greatly valued and presented to the reader in sharp focus, and Perry has a habit of elaborating a kind of mythos around or through them. ‘Alabaster Baby’, for another example, features a series of museum exhibits, ‘an oil painting of a bowl of fruit […] a mummy with hair on its feet’, culminating

‘in front of a life-size marble effigy
of a girl about my age
her hands forced into prayer
I want to lean in and kiss her cold lips’

This insistence on the presence of things seems to act as a kind of counterbalance to the absence of people; in ‘Dear Stegosaurus’ this reads something like an ars poetica:

‘Your spikes are dull and magnificent

a row of abandoned kites, rusted by a tough winter,
in a tree stripped of guts. You’re not a fighter, though

you will fight.’

This poem affords an opportunity to read the collection’s most valued qualities – stoicism, a kind of battle-ready calm – onto its subject, and Perry relishes this opportunity for a rather hard-nosed kind of creative empathy. In a similar vein are two stunningly odd and beautifully achieved poems towards the end of the book, ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ and ‘Exemplifying Grace’. The former is a dialogue between Grey and her executioner, which – unlike much of the collection – gains its strength from its economy, making the executioner’s potentially cheesy line, ‘I’m sorry about the birds’, hit with no small force. The latter concerns the painter Botticelli, and again draws out some of the fear and obsessiveness he seems to have suffered through its short lines and insistent repetitions:

‘Botticelli has specified his burial place
Botticelli dislikes shadows
Botticelli paints
Botticelli possesses linear rhythm’

Empathy, I think, is a major driving force in the collection, an impulse to hand over an impressive amount of care and attention to both the human and non-human subjects of the poetry. As ever, the book’s back cover copy sells it short in emphasising ‘adorable dogs’, ‘ghost mouths hidden inside the mouth you are kissing’, which out of its proper context is indeed unbearably twee. But Beauty/Beauty’s generosity is reinforced by the poems’ recognition of time’s ever-present threat to these beloved things and people, and a kind of emotional toughness achieved through deliberate poses of vulnerability is constant.

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The final poem, ‘A Woman’s Bones Are Purely Ornamental’, explores a few of the larger social pressures that underwrite the book, and expands on ‘Soup Sister’ in its dissection of beauty standards and the results of the expectation that women should passively experience life:

‘One girl had cuts on her thighs,
one girl was pregnant.
People lost their virginity mostly on sofas
or in the backs of cars.
We were told to make the most of our bodies.’

That last line has a quiet anger unlike almost anything else in the book. As in much of the collection, however, the response is in empowering friendship, and the book’s final image, of the poet and a friend, ‘our words in white puffs, / what we spoke of’ is a fittingly private one.

All that said, while it has a great deal to recommend it, Beauty/Beauty is by no means perfect, and, perhaps inevitably for a book that expresses itself directly and with striking openness, some pieces cross a line into sentimentality or what might be read as self-indulgence; a piece like ‘immortelle’, however, with the lines, ‘the writer feels verbose and embarrassed / by her overwhelmingly positive experience of life’, shows a counter-balancing self-awareness. After a disappointing season in which the dull sort of authority had its day, it’s encouraging to read a collection that sees nothing weak about admitting, confronting, even celebrating, times of weakness.

Tl;dr: Beauty/Beauty is an unusual, generous and adventurous first collection that balances its impulse towards the colourful detail with a hard-earned sense of value in what is fleeting or outright lost. Well worth a read.