some books, a little news, happy new year

It’s an end-of-year post! I’ve tried to keep it brief.

First, personal news: Next month I begin a part-time Research Assistantship at the University of Liverpool (which, happily, I can do almost entirely from Edinburgh). As this position will run alongside finishing a thesis and the other bits of ir/regular work that pay the rent, I’ve decided to put the blog on hiatus, at least for the time being and certainly in terms of the regular update schedule.

This also means, of course, putting an end to my Patreon campaign. I can’t satisfactorily express my gratitude to everyone who has contributed, or how life-changing it has been to see, in the plainest terms, how much faith those folk have in the work I do. Being empowered to consider myself a professional writer for the past two years is a gift I will never forget, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you. I hope I’ve done right by you.

(Links to where you can buy each of these books are at the foot of the post. Edit: forgot to add Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers, which I loved. Amended!)

Books I wish I’d had time to review this year:

Layli Long Soldier – Whereas (Graywolf)

The quality and intensity of political thinking in the foundations of many poetry books over the past years has been a serious joy. Lyric writing that treats its political work and its poetic work as coterminous is gradually finding an engaged and energetic readership in these islands, and in the meantime there is no shortage of work crossing the Atlantic. If I could wish for one book to reach a domestic publisher, though, it would be Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. The book negotiates with the various formal decrees from the US government to the First Nations, including the apology for the colonisers’ atrocities from which Whereas takes its name. Long Soldier explores how this legacy is engrained in every encounter with white America, from the interpersonal to the governmental. Her capacity to activate so many perspectives simultaneously, from the traumatic to the mundane, with subtlety, sensitivity and unflinching precision, demands close and attentive reading.

 

Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)

No one I’ve read writes like Pascale Petit. The way her densely wooded imaginative space, seemingly inescapable and full of vibrant, beautiful predators, spans multiple collections as a poetic theatre is by itself a remarkable achievement. It has not only been the punctum of multiple collections without feeling overworked, but seems to gather new dimensions in Mama Amazonica, its human and bestial subjects interweaving more fluidly and powerfully than ever. Additionally, the book is shaped and arced primarily as a book, to be read in order with discernible authorial control of the reader’s experience over time. There is a poem close to the end that just broke me. Some day I hope to come back and give the collection the attention it deserves, but I sincerely hope someone better equipped beats me to it.

 

Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)

There has been a heartening number of new collections this year which engage thoughtfully and critically with contemporary expressions of masculinity; Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds most obviously, but also Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours, Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Alarum, Rishi Dastidar’s Ticker-tape, William Letford’s Dirt, Raymond Antrobus’ To Sweeten Bitter, Keith Jarrett’s Selah; I’m sure I’m missing some. But Kumukanda stands out for its capacity for – or attraction to – jarring contrasts, a book that, like Long Soldier’s, holds moments of joy and moments of injustice in their due esteem, each illuminating the other. Chingonyi is a deft and skilful narrator, has a sharp eye for the small details that make a story get up and walk. His work is keenly aware of the canon, and exactly how much space it fails to make.

 

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe)

Chingonyi is among the astonishingly talented cohort to graduate the Complete Works mentoring programme; British poetry would be deeply impoverished without it. The most recent anthology maintains the promise and quality of previous iterations; suffice to say that if Raymond Antrobus, Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Leonardo Boix, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Will Harris, Ian Humphreys, Jennifer Lee Tsai, Momtaza Mehri, Yomi Sode and Degna Stone don’t have long and prosperous careers in these islands, it won’t be for of want of talent or ambition. The anthology is too rich and various to summarise and a paragraph, but if you only have room in the post-holiday budget for one book, this is the one I’d put in your hands.

 

Books I read this year that are not just good but fundamentally changed how I read poetry:

Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman (eds) – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches).

An education and a celebration. A dozen ways of thinking about art I’d never considered before. A clinic in how to make a many-minded book into a poem all of its own.

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)

Left my brain fizzing, a combination of surgically precise thinking and an utterly human earthiness. New thoughts every time I’ve come back to it. Great puns.

Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)

Risky, self-assured, angry, charismatic – evidence that working in traditional forms is no excuse for traditional thought. Bergin manages the shifting trustworthiness of the book’s narrators unlike anyone I can think of.

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2016)

A beautiful, hallucinogenic yarn, an intricately observed character study and artfully modernised myth. An excellent argument for critically studying pamphlets as full and completed works.

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)

Often acutely self-critical, an insightful challenge to generic expectations of elegiac poetry. Touches some tender nerves, but never sensationalises. Validates all aspects of grief, from the existential to the absurd, a deeply humane book.

Anne Carson – Float (Cape)

Like attending a party where everyone is smarter, funnier and more interesting than you but would be delighted to tell you some stories, if you’d like to listen.

Bhanu Kapil – Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015)

Wish I’d found this sooner. Its close and nuanced engagement with British society and politics make Kapil’s lack of a British publisher somewhat glaring. A tough but enlightening book.

Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)

Very tempting to read in one sitting, materially altered my perception of colour. Originally published in 2009 in Nelson’s neck of the woods, tremendous to have it readily available this side of the ocean.

Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (Peepal Tree)

Ramlochan’s book is devastating in its directness, its refusal to mince words. I couldn’t manage more than a handful of poems at a time, but came back to it as soon as energy permitted.

(A very incomplete list of) Books I read this year which I loved and would unequivocally recommend:

Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)

Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)

Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)

Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)

Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)

Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)

Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)

Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)

William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)

Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)

Rachel McCrum – The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate (Freight)

Miriam Nash – All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe)

Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)

Padraig Regan – Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real (The Emma Press)

Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)

Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)

Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

Hope you don’t mind indulging a slightly exhaustive, hopefully not exhausting list to end the year; partly I’m concerned not to leave any loose ends before I switch the lights off for a bit. A huge, huge thank you to everyone who’s been reading this year. Here’s to 2018 being a little kinder. Love and solidarity.x

————————————————————————————————————

Links to shops:

Layli Long Solider – Whereas (Graywolf)
Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)
Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)
Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe)
Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman (eds) – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches)
Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)
Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)
Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat and Tears)
Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)
Anne Carson – Float (Cape)
Bhanu Kapil – Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books)
Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (Peepal Tree)
Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)
Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)
Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)
Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)
Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)
Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)
Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)
Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)
Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)
Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)
William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)
Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)
Rachel McCrum – The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate (Freight)
Miriam Nash – All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe)
Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)
Padraig Regan – Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real (The Emma Press)
Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)
Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)
Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

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TS Eliot Prize Shortlist 2017

The TS Eliot shortlist for 2017 was announced six weeks ago. As Sandeep Parmar pointed out in her short article in The Guardian:

‘For those who have championed crucial interventions in poetry publishing, reviewing and prizes, this nearly all-white shortlist cannot help but seem inexplicably naive and regressive. […]

I believe poetry must rise to the collective challenge of our times, not merely be a curio of intimate experience. But in the absence of rigorous critical debate over what poetry must do in our era, we have come to expect rather more from prize judges than expressions of taste.’

A discussion of the function of poetry prizes requires a discussion of the theoretical function of poetry criticism, which requires analysis of the function of poetry criticism as a professional practice, which requires discussion of the power structures that promote narrow and regressive ideas about what (and who) is considered worthy of celebration. In short, in a culture with a more diverse, inclusive, curious and principled critical conversation, poetry prizes would not have to shoulder the burden of being the year’s most visible act of criticism. Such a culture remains largely aspirational.

The TS Eliot prize is a long-established and very well-funded fixture in UK poetry publishing, and any decision it makes is, inevitably, a political statement. The stakes – visibility in the national press, potentially life-changing financial reward, international prestige – are too high for it to be otherwise. This year’s statement, in the simplest terms and among other things, is that these ten books are of higher quality or greater import than anything written by a British-based poet of colour in the past year. As Parmar notes, the difficulty of arriving at a consensus does not justify the pattern of omission. I tweeted a little about who had been excluded from the shortlist, but I think it’s worth scrutinising who was considered worthy.

 

Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx engages closely with the social and institutional structures that diminish women’s achievements and drive them from participation in public life, and is, as such, a very timely book. The poems are framed by explorations of the life and work of the eponymous translator and activist, and feature an array of time periods, locations and narrators of varying reliability. That the book never wavers on the thematic concerns holding these various threads together is an extraordinary achievement; that the book is both emotionally devastating and occasionally hilarious without severe tonal whiplash defies belief. The ideas given voice in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx about gender, emotional control and abuse, love and desire, are subtle, grounded in a recognisable reality, one which doesn’t shy away from confusion and the friction of the mundane. On top of its conceptual and internal complexities, the artistry at work in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx is all but peerless. Bergin has an ear for the unsettling, for dissonantly full rhyme, for rhythms of speech which veer off course with little warning and to great effect. It’s difficult to see in what capacity the other books on the shortlist can compete with The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx.

Full Review of The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx

 

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)

Bird’s oeuvre is a wonderful example of what can be achieved with ostensibly bright, colourful, welcoming surfaces, work that signals loudly and clearly something very different to what is going on under the bonnet. The internal realities that underwrite the drama in In These Days of Prohibition are complex and more distinctly defined than in Bird’s previous collections, and her willingness to combine a certain understated frankness (thinking particularly of ‘Beatification’ and ‘Ms Casanova on Life Support’) with the magic realism that has always been her poems’ engine-room makes space for some truly special work. It’s rare to see mental illness, addiction and doomed romance handled so lightly, with such a delicate touch, with such obvious care for the experiences of the reader. The love poems which make up a fair proportion of In These Days of Prohibition repeatedly manage that intricate balance between sentimentality and sincerity, expressions of unglamorous but powerful emotional architecture.

Full review of In These Days of Prohibition

 

Douglas Dunn – The Noise of a Fly (Faber)

Dunn’s career has been long and hugely successful, and it would take a harsh critic to question his credentials as one of Scotland’s finest lyricists. Until the TS Eliot prize institutes an award specifically for lifetime achievement, however – and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t – each book on this shortlist must be taken at its own merit. (The number of times I’ve heard questionable decisions justified with ‘but their last book should’ve won’ is deeply frustrating.) The Noise of a Fly begins strongly, with painstaking ruminations on aging, deft and surprising turns of phrase and image (‘I don’t feel like Sisyphus, I feel like his boulder’), and thoughtful investigations into the art of poetry itself. But this quality is not sustained throughout, and too often lapses into prosaic and nonspecific complaints about the state of the world or the poet’s own diminished energy; the latter shows admirable self-awareness, but its repetition makes for unedifying reading. Dunn’s poetic voice is personable, kind, principled, ‘Facing what happens without self-pity’, but a handful of excellent lyrics aside, The Noise of a Fly is not up to his own high standard.

 

Leontia Flynn – The Radio (Cape)

I can’t pretend to be objective about Flynn’s work; her poems’ inner realities and vernacular are often very familiar, their scepticism and self-deprecation blended with hard-won optimism touches many personal nerves. In ‘Out’, for example (‘The opposite of simply sitting about / in your head, like an egg in an eggshell. That was ‘Out’.’), I could swear blind I’d been to the same pubs in my teens; knowing the size of Belfast, I probably was. The Radio marks, I think, a formal and substantial moving-on from Flynn’s previous books; this new collection is, in many ways, marked by a weariness markedly at odds with the rambunctious irreverence of Flynn’s 2004 debut, These Days. The overlaps in content between the first book and the most recent, however, feel like a kind of coming full circle; Flynn has a wonderful talent for putting into words the powerful connections built between friends, shared experiences of what, on paper, should be all the dull stuff of the day. Her argument that ‘Poetry is bullshit egotism’, fits perfectly into a collection, a whole body of work, that asserts that the quotidian is sacred, that what will save us is ‘the faint persistent hum of the first Real Thing’. The pieces about the poet’s mother, the regret and gratitude for an inner life never fully respected by the poet’s teenage self, are truly heart-breaking. Though the book occasionally has a scrapbooky feel – a series of energetic renderings of Catullus rub shoulders with a McGonigalesque piece in the voice of a Dairy Council spokesman – The Radio feels like Flynn firing on all cylinders, a book that has a clear sense of its emotional stakes and a drive to convey them with care and candour and a joyful sense of humour.

 

Roddy Lumsden – So Glad I’m Me (Bloodaxe)

It’s perhaps a poor reflection on the state of inter-generational poetic communication round these parts that one of the most striking things about So Glad I’m Me is its formal and aesthetic affinities with younger poets. Which would be purely academic if not for the book’s deep thoughtfulness, its constant attempts at exploring shared emotional states, the way it values empathy and permitting complex and difficult thoughts their full complexity (‘For people merely think they only / think they think that / no one thinks like them’). There are also few male poets who can write love poetry with Lumsden’s blend of delicacy and earthliness (‘The sherbet of liaison. Our twosome walks, too few.’), and with a pure joy in the tactility of language:

‘co-ordinates of murmur or yowl
Emperors, you did not favour it. You clambered
and rode the horse and whipped it to snorting
when it wanted the meadow, the sugared grass,
the tale of there not being a tale, some nothing.’

These pleasures aside, the book runs more than a little long at just under a hundred pages, and the middle third’s memories of teenagerhood and music lack a little of the conceptual and emotional urgency of the opening and closing lyrics. The less said about a rhyme between Coldplay and foreplay the better. That said, there are beautiful, unexpected moments throughout So Glad I’m Me, a commitment to asking uncomfortable questions of one’s own place in the world, and of the means by which one navigates it.

 

Robert Minhinnick – Diary of the Last Man (Carcanet)

There is nothing so concerning to Diary of the Last Man than man himself. The opening sequence is the account of a man in the post-catastrophe, ostensibly the sole human survivor (the circumstances of his survival go unexplored). The poem’s initial rumination on spirituality in times of distress soon becomes a kind of wish fulfilment in which the speaker breaks into Downing Street hacks the Prime Minister’s computer to sneer at his [sic] emails. The second long sequence, ‘Mouth to Mouth: A Recitation Between Two Rivers’, gives a similar focus to human subjectivity; its repeated query about whether the speaker ‘belongs’ in the poem’s landscape renders nature as a granter or withholder of a single man’s self-actualisation. At one point the speaker announces, without introduction or context, ‘Choughs’ to a passing woman in the middle of nowhere and delights in how she ‘looked alarmed’. In ‘The Body’, the speaker finds himself near people with tattoos and piercings, and decides to imagine that ‘there were wedding rings through their foreskins; / there were swastikas in their labia.’ What unites all the above is the speaker’s assumption of centrality, normativity; those unlike the speaker must be policed, corrected. Aesthetically, Minhinnick seems drawn towards the most forcefully striking line, thought or image, irrespective of the impact it has on the poem. A piece about the first Gulf War, for example, revels in the spectacle of a ‘fog of flesh’ and ‘bodies foaming like phosphorus’. What these images reveal about the nature of war or grief is undone by the act of recreating violence, making a scene; that the poem’s political commentary goes little further than ‘Think of a smart bomb. / Not so smart’ is difficult to forgive. Diary of the Last Man is content to reach for rhetorical power, reluctant to wield it responsibly.

 

Michael Symmons Roberts – Mancunia (Cape)

The lyrics in Mancunia are characterised by smooth rhythms, a rich, painterly eye, and a teacher’s impulse to manoeuvre the reader along the poems’ intricate watercourses. Roberts’ speakers are immaculately turned out, effortlessly erudite, but their suavity comes at the cost of a more satisfying exploration of uncomfortable or disreputable ideas; I expected a few more socio-political brass tacks from a collection that frames itself as an essay into a Manchester of the mind. When the collection does dip into the specific (street names, named shops), the demands of the poems’ smooth lyric flow prevent the poem from slowing down enough to shake off its abstracting distance, its bird’s eye view. Roberts’ work in Mancunia is marked by certain aesthetic tics, such as its repeated catalogues of unusual, beautiful objects, taking a concept (e.g. unfolding a cloth) and playing it out to its magical, but logical, conclusion (the cloth unfolds to cover an entire county), or reader-addressed imperatives (‘Sit down’, ‘let / me lead you’). There are plenty of pleasures to be found in the collection, but for all its technical gifts, Mancunia left me a little lukewarm.

 

James Sheard – The Abandoned Settlements (Cape)

The Abandoned Settlements is fifty-odd pages of James Sheard’s enthusiastically heteronormative sexual ideations. Read on for fine pieces like ‘James Sheard Would Like You To Know That He Not Only Fucks But Gives Head’, ‘James Sheard Is Thinking About You Masturbating’, and ‘James Sheard Knows You Dumped Him But Have You Considered That You Are Wrong’. There’s a blessed passage from p31-35 in which Sheard doesn’t mention sex. On p36: ‘the cunt crude and flared’. While it’s tempting to make light of yet another in a dismal list of dull, emotionally juvenile and shamelessly misogynist books achieving national renown and call it a day, the extensive conversations around #MeToo demand a better calibre of response. It has become impossible to ignore the pervasiveness and acuteness of violence against women in our community, both aesthetic and embodied, and it is high time that when a poet tells us exactly what he thinks, we believe him, and act accordingly.

 

Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)

Saphra’s inclusion in the shortlist was a serious highlight. Not only for a representative of the consistently groundbreaking Nine Arches, but for a book that quietly, carefully tore my heart to shreds. All My Mad Mothers is an exploration in part of Saphra’s youth in the London of the late seventies and early eighties, in part of the life of her artist mother. The poems are often domestic, close-focus vignettes that suggest no small amount of pain and trauma below the surface, but Saphra has a gift for ushering the reader into a place of hurt with often overwhelming kindness, or a wry recognition of the absurdity that sometimes accompanies suffering. The unintrusive calm of the narrative voice only breaks on a handful of occasions, and these are some of the book’s finest individual lines: ‘not saying you have a broken heart, but if you ever do, that’s a lovely, normal thing’; ‘I miss you. I wish I was a skink’. All My Mad Mothers is remarkable for its refusal to treat its subject matter as something in need of excuse or explanation, that expects the reader to approach these accounts with the same openness as they are presented. The collection is one of only a few on this shortlist that works beautifully as a realised unity, and I think it’s the consistency of Saphra’s narrative voice, its dedication and love for its subject matter, that sustains a full collection’s worth of exploration. It’s massively heartening that a book of this character and quality has been recognised at the highest level.

 

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape)

Vuong’s collection was big news even before it had a UK publisher, and it’s not surprising to see it here, not least due to his Forward Prize win. It’s been four years since a poet of colour was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize without first being shortlisted for the Forward. But this shouldn’t distract from Night Sky With Exit Wounds being a truly outstanding book. It achieves a level of thematic consistency that’s rare for first collections, and there’s a gentle, yet unmistakeable sense of purpose to the way the poems return and return to questions of immigrant identity, familial love, sexual pleasure, among others. There’s a wry humour to many of the poems which undercuts and makes a lot of the historical violence that informs the poet’s present easier to digest, as in ‘Notebook Fragments’ (‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. // Yikes.’); the intimate and structural violence present throughout the book is neither shied away from nor indulged. For all this, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is, I think, an essentially hopeful collection, one that fights for healing on a personal level without ignoring the social forces that would prevent it.

Full review of Night Sky With Exit Wounds

 

Out of the ten shortlisted books I count one that has no business being included and three highly questionable selections. I acknowledge that this is as personal and subjective a response as wondering why Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumuanda, Nuar Alsadir’s trailblazing Fourth Person Singular and extraordinary work from Emily Berry and Pascale Petit (to name a few) did not make the cut while so much middling work from white men did. When the white men on the judging panel (average age: 58) are of an almost identical generation to the white men on the shortlist (average age: 60), however, the privileging of familiar subjectivities is impossible to ignore. It’s difficult to look at the history of the prize and expect bravery or a commitment to inclusivity, but I refuse to accept this very obvious failure without comment.

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition

Disclosure: Have met Bird a few times now at readings. She’s an excellent human. The book discusses, in part, mental health issues, addiction and rehabilitation, of which I have no experience. Review copy was purchased with help from my supporters on Patreon. With huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing.

Review: The first poem in In These Days of Prohibition is titled ‘A Surreal Joke’, a piece which stands on its own as an introduction to the book’s treatment of mental illness and emotional truth while acting as a small, powerful ars poetica. George Szirtes’ review of Bird’s last collection, The Hat-stand Union, published in the Spring 2014 issue of Poetry London, signs off with: ‘Any poetic voice is perceived as an angle to the world and Caroline Bird’s voice is precisely that. I am perfectly convinced by the angle. It’s just that I don’t want things all angle.’ Though Szirtes’ critique is largely celebratory, there are a lot of assumptions at work in his last point, not least that angle-free poetry is possible or desirable. Bird’s five collections are marked by their operation within a weird, restless, hyperreal and, more often than not, (certainly more often than credited) quietly tragic imaginative space. ‘A Surreal Joke’ ends with the speaker in conversation with their ‘assigned counsellor’ (noting the tone of coercion in ‘assigned’):

‘My assigned counsellor told me I used
poetry to hide from myself, unhook
the ballast from my life; a floating ruse
of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook.
I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try
to write the simple truth? I said, why?’

It’s worth bearing in mind that the poet recently discussed her time recovering from addiction in an interview with the Evening Standard, and clearly there is some degree to which the protagonists of In These Days of Prohibition and their creator overlap. What’s just as clear in these lines, however, is that ‘the simple truth’ has little overlap with the poems’ ambitions as art, and the ‘not jokes’ they want to convey; poetry is not autobiography, even when it presents as such. Note also that the speaker here does not directly contradict the counsellor’s suggestions, though the book embodies what his perspective overlooks; the question of whether truth is accessible in the first instance, or truthfully communicable in the second. In ‘A Surreal Joke’, the speaker’s defence against the assumption that surrealism and comedy may be read and positioned as antithetical to ‘truth’ or ‘seriousness’ seems like an assertion that it is possible to write truthfully without granting the reader access to one’s private reality. Or, as Bird herself puts it in the video above, ‘this poem is true but contains no facts’.

The variety of dramatic shapes Bird’s poems take is impressive; with few exceptions, the poems in In These Days of Prohibition wrong-foot the reader, pushing the poem into unexpected places, recontextualising or destabilising everything that went before. ‘Sentinel of Anything’, for example, begins:

‘I am guarding this sofa with my life         my nights
are long                but I do not sleep             Roger    Copy that
Over      4:08 AM a suspicious beep          4:11 AM Beep
has not returned              4:22 AM               think I imagined beep’

The poem drifts between grim comedy and outright anxiety; the first line signals that all is not well, that an unseen other is interfering with the scene, the speaker is unable to confirm their reality. The set-up is silly, the speaker’s determination and sense of duty wildly out of synch with ‘a suspicious beep’ and the bedsit which ‘smells / of lemons    Is this suspect?’ Ordinarily this would play out by leaning into the disproportion, but ‘Sentinel of Anything’ maintains its tension by not quite delivering the big laugh the opening ostensibly promises. Lines like, ‘These items are now under / my protection   I solemnly vow to keep them safe / If needs be I’ll die’, do nothing to dispel the idea that the speaker is not performing, that this is not another ‘surreal joke’. Their unprompted will to self-destruction begins to feel horribly real. The speaker’s various threads of thought become tangled and confused, and the close, ‘what matters is / I am true to my word     over    6:55 was me breathing’ take on a terrible literalness, the speaker not waving, but drowning.

Then, there’s a majestic work of beauty like ‘Beatification’, whose first line runs: ‘My father was a hundred and five years old when he discovered the pleasures of crystal meth’. The poem plays out the way ‘Sentinel of Anything’ does not, pushing the premise toward exaggeration, as the centenarian finally enjoys his body and sexuality without compromise. The only reference to the past is his reminiscence of a youthful courtship: ‘Those days were clogged with woollen tights and shame’; though the book to this point has been doused in a creeping sense of wrongdoing and guilt, this is the first time ‘shame’ has been explicitly articulated, the first of three instances in the book, one in each section. This seems like more than coincidence, and I’d argue that the collection’s three-act structure is built around processing socially-inscribed guilt and making tentative steps toward accepting oneself as worthy of love, both by the self and by others. Of course, this could be over-emphasising one aspect of a collection that is at least as concerned with its boisterous, breathless poem-by-poem action as it is with sustaining a dramatic arc. In any case, ‘Beatification’ is on one hand a beautifully committed scene of sexual comedy, as the speaker’s father describes his new business plan: ‘Bondage. Water Sports. Sadomasochism. People will pay good money to lick the toilet seat of a silver fox’. On the other, the poem is weirdly touching:

‘‘But you’re a hundred and five years old…’ He sunk in his sweater. ‘…Which is all the more reason’, I added, ‘not to waste another minute.’’

The timing is glorious, but if the poem enacts a struggle between humour and pathos, the latter ultimately wins out. As the speaker attempts to bring her father normal pensioner things – ‘the Radio Times and that John le Carre audiobook you asked for’ – he is lost in the embrace of a bodybuilder: ‘He wasn’t coming down again. Not for anyone. He was with the angels now.’ Like ‘Sentinel of Anything’, these lines push the reader just a hair back from the poem’s basic conceit, the closing sentence’s overfamiliarity made strange by its unique surroundings. The poem’s closure is a dramatic opening.

Though the book’s three sections aren’t explicitly tied to any one theme, there are dominant notes in each; where the first seems mostly concerned with mental wellbeing, the second explores romantic intimacy, though guilt and the unreliability of the perceiving self are present in both. ‘To Be Explicit’ and ‘Adultery for Atheists’ face each other on opposing pages, and might well be companion pieces. Both are short-lined, comprised of a relentless single sentence at a high emotional pitch, and where the former seems to outline the speaker’s desire for a fast, intense, but ultimately doomed encounter (‘pocket just one / souvenir feather and / leave you in peace.’), the latter is consumed with guilt, quite possibly from the explicit desires of its partner-poem. It spills from line to line with wry, self-chastising irony and anger:

‘[It’s lucky I] know of no
rational reason to carry these
pellets in my heart absorbing
shame like tampons somehow
expanding inside me’

The poem ends with another characteristically stylish dramatic turn. Where the speech up until this point inhabited the conceptual nowhere of lyric thought, the last few lines bring it back to the abruptly unsettled, physical here and now:

‘[what luck to be so unperturbed by] this
very peculiar black cat sitting
on my bed after midnight just
staring at me calmly.’

One thing I’m noticing by analysing Bird’s poems is how difficult they are to quote in chunks, how they demand to sit in context with the entire piece. For all the pinpoint execution of the conceit, the beautifully disorienting hyperreality and the tonal humour, the poems in this middle section are laced with what feels like self-loathing, barely being held beneath the surface. There is a nightmarish bite to these pieces, and the free reign Bird gives to these self-destructive voices made my heart hurt.

All of which makes the tentatively hopeful notes, the air of calm, in the final act a hard-won pleasure. It’s introduced by an epigraph from James Tate: ‘But we still believe we will come through it! / I signal this news / by lifting a little finger’. Tate’s wry rejection or deflation of uncomplicated belief is an apt tone for a series of poems whose victories are often small, compromised and precarious. The first, ‘Public Resource’, is a brief inquiry into social expectations about survivor narratives:

‘There is a place called The Open
where brave people put things.’

‘Public Resource’ argues, gently and with great humour, that a public impulse (or ‘hunger’, in the poem’s terms) for uplifting stories from brave strangers does not reflect the inner reality experienced by survivors themselves. As Bird puts it:

‘The will be no rising
smoke, after-odour, no bell-ringer […]
no consequence unless
you dive in with it.’

Like Tate’s own muted celebration, the poem seems to recognise that the reward for ‘coming through’ is little more than the opportunity to raise a little finger in acknowledgement and keep going, the endless hunger of The Open be damned. The section is also marked by its several attempts to render something approaching, if not self-love, then self-kindness or acceptance, however hedged it might be. ‘Megan Married Herself’ has no business being as moving and heartfelt as it is, conveying real breath-catching joy through a situation that is patently absurd:

‘She strode down the aisle to ‘At Last’ by Etta James,
faced the celebrant like a keen soldier reporting for duty,
her voice shaky yet sure. I do. I do.’

The jokes are spot-on, beautifully timed and pitched, but the poem creates an inner, emotional space in which Megan’s marriage is worthy of dignity, celebration, delight. The poem knows exactly where the line is between vanity and social-norm-rejecting comfort in one’s own being, and leans heavily into the latter. Given all that’s gone before in In These Days of Prohibition, the guilt and inward-facing castigation that pushes down on much of the collection, ‘Megan Married Herself’ is a remarkable break, a small sunburst.

Though a few poems, particularly in this last section, don’t have the same emotional fizz as the best in the book (several of which I haven’t discussed here; a good half dozen are straight on my dream-anthology longlist), when a poem’s dramatic argument is not quite up to Bird’s usual standard it is still buoyed by dynamic associative play, a serious glee in its weird logical leaps. When everything comes together, as in ‘A Toddler Creates Thunder by Dancing on a Manhole’, it’s a wonder to behold. The poem’s energy is in a league of its own, and embodies everything that makes In These Days of Prohibition the beautiful, essentially optimistic work it is. ‘A Toddler…’ is unusual in the collection for its positioning the poet-figure as a visible observer, neither the poem’s focal point or wholly moved to the sidelines. The speaker exists as a kind of foil to the toddler, who is one of a pair of twins operating as a performer-audience or active-self/critical-self partnership, carrying with them a childlike purity of thought and action (‘Toddlers always dance like marionettes, / their brains still learning the strings’) that clearly leaves a mark on the in-poem poet:

‘the tiny dancer is a celebrity, applauded
by her own mirror image. […] I pick up my phone, type
‘I’m sorry’ then delete it.’

Taken in its own local context, the poem reads very much like a real-life anecdote, but in relation to an entire book in which real-life has been held at arm’s length, the metaphorical potential the poem has, in terms of its discussions of how one encounters one’s self, is deceptively hefty. This, I think, is what Bird does best, presenting difficult and quietly unsettling ideas about surviving in a world hostile to your wellbeing, but in terms which at first glance seem works of entertainment first and foremost. It’s a pretty old-timey word, but I think ‘parable’ is the one that fits best. Bird’s finest work marries the mundane, granular stuff of daily coping strategies with the kind of imaginative situation that stays long in the memory.

Further Reading: Interview in the Evening Standard

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Caroline Bird – The Hat-Stand Union

Statement of Prejudice: I’ve met Bird a couple of times and seen her read once. She’s an engaging performer, and has a vital ability to win over an audience to her skewed, wry universe. She also performs from memory, which always looks like sorcery to me.

Reality: You’d be forgiven for arguing The Hat-Stand Union doesn’t make a great first impression. The opening poems make explicit reference to their own ‘pose’, have at their heart a kind of playfulness that could easily be grating in the wrong hands, and run very tight to the sentimental touchline. There is a cumulative effect at work, however, and by the first section’s title poem, ‘Mystery Tears’, the subversive current boils over. The poem concerns an imaginary drug that allows the user to cry at will; Bird chases the conceit down to a very human point, that at some time in our lives we will be very literally addicted to our own emotional extremes. The closing line ‘Each day she woke up// calmer and calmer,’ hits unexpectedly hard.

Bird deploys this strategy throughout the opening section, toeing the line between her whimsical set-ups and often brutal punchlines, constantly negotiating between an impulse for the dreamy, illogical endless possibilities of the imagination and the flat, inconsequential responsibilities of life. Though a few pieces are slightly overwhelmed by their own creativity (‘Snow Hotel’, ‘Faith’), they still function as valuable counterweights to the shocks of realism (or real feeling maybe) in the strongest pieces in the section, ‘Method Acting’, ‘The Dry Well’ (a personal favourite because of its economy, stoicism and clear message that could almost be an ars poetica), and ‘Genesis’, one of several poems in The Hat-Stand Union that directly confront the discrepancy between middle-class disbelief (‘The people from the London suburbs don’t believe in God’) and a deeply felt need for something to replace it. The poem’s submerged suggestion is a more thoroughly engaged care for the other members of a shared community than ‘sigh[ing] for the economy’, ‘criticis[ing] each other’s choices when we love/ with all our hearts’, or the easy superstitions of Ouija boards and (implicitly) big cars, prescription drugs and fluffy liberalism.

1 4

Worth noting here that Bird is more alert to and a better practitioner of rhetorical patterning than the vast majority of her contemporaries. She builds a convincing argument through repetition and variation of phrase that gives her work a structural energy lacking in most other poets (witness ‘This Was All About Me’, ‘Sea Bed’, ‘2:19 to Whitstable’, ‘The Promises’ and the superb ‘Medicine’). She’s also keenly aware of the comic potential of these structures, for example, ‘A Dialogue Between Artist and Muse’, in full:

John Donne: A fly is a more noble creature than the sunne, because a fly hath life and the sunne hath not
A fly: I find you extremely patronising

Also worth noting are ‘There Once was a Boy Named Bosh’, ‘Fantasy Role-Play’ and ‘Spat’, each of them capable and convincing little nightmares of suburban walls slowly closing in on their protagonists and their variously successful attempts to escape. which might be insufferable but for the implicated sincerity conveyed by Bird’s omniscient narrator.

The middle section, ‘The Truth About Camelot’, is an odd little sequence about Arthur’s violent madness and the inevitable disintegration of the kingdom. The sequence falls a little short of providing either a rounded narrative or a fruitful vantage point from which to criticise life the way the first and last sections do, and is perhaps better understood as an entertaining, if slight, breathing space between the book’s more emotionally demanding passages.

2 DRJ

The third section, ‘Sea Bed’, is very much a return to form, its opening poem ‘Damage’ hitting like a mailed coif after ‘Camelot’’s relative flippancy. Here, Bird’s characteristic run of free-associative sentences on the same subject (in this case a woman’s fanciful traumas) culminate in the narrative voice’s late intrusion: ‘I met her during the winter./ She said, ‘I need someone to save me.’ I did/ what any sensible person would have done. I did/ what any sensible person would have done.’ Those line breaks are heartbreaking. The poem is a good example of how to manage a surface that at first glance seems problematically twee; in Bird’s hands it provides a means of discussing trauma and emotional damage without exploiting or sensationalising the traumatised individual. In its idiosyncratic details it leaves the reader to imagine the true circumstances that the poem’s realistic and recognisable conclusion leaves implied, its specifics productively open-ended.

[Disclaimer: I’m studying Louis MacNeice in some detail at the mo and this para might be wholly coloured by that.] The third section also features – in ‘Sea Bed’, the thoroughly MacNeicean ‘The Promises’ and ‘The Stock Exchange’ – three examples of something often attempted but rarely well-executed in contemporary poetry: parable. By parable I mean semi-narrative piece that uses a central metaphor or repetend to explore an idea, which may only have meaning for the reader (for better definitions, cf MacNeice’s Varieties of Parable). In The Hat-Stand Union, these explore romantic negotiations, what is won or (more often in these poems) lost in our most complicated relationships. ‘The Promises’ is a particularly fun outing in which Bird shows such a deft hand with meter and (occasional) rhyme it makes one wonder why she does it so rarely. The story follows a fairy-tale series of changes of fortune and identity that cannot sustain its own idealised vision of love, and leaves the narrator only one active choice: to reject the narrative wholesale: ‘I flipped my God one last ‘You are…’// I took my seat at the bar.’ ‘The Stock Exchange’ and ‘Sea Bed’ are altogether more violent discussions, the former’s refrain of ‘you can have my body […] in the hope I might get something’ and the latter’s ‘He cared. But he didn’t care enough’ both leading to the same conclusion, that it is perhaps safer, if duller, to be alone.

This thread is very ably counterpointed by the absolutely scintillating ‘Medicine’, which in a different book might appear flimsy or simple-minded in its formulation of ‘My head says…/ My heart says’. In this collection it appears as the hard-earned note of optimism pulled from a world of failure, a grace note that is aware of its place in a largely grim collection, but also of its own internal patterning, as the simple oppositions of ‘head’ and ‘heart’ are complicated and, tentatively, synthesised. The Hat-Stand Union closes on a similarly positive note of hard-won optimism in its elegy for Joan Littlewood, ‘The Fun Palace’ (‘She tore up scripts. She guffawed. She changed the world.’), the collection’s only (more or less) straightforward love poem ‘Marriage of Equals’ and the final prayer-like ‘Corine’.

3 SB

Tl;dr: The Hat-Stand Union is one heck of a book, and totally contradicts some of my own thinking about poetry collections, particularly its length. Many times it pushes the boundaries between studied pose and moving reality, and a certain suspension of disbelief is required to make the leap into Bird’s imaginative scenery, but the book’s command of its own idiosyncrasies, its accuracy with its punchlines, its awareness of poetry’s dramatic qualities and rhetorical potential are nigh on peerless. Read this book.