Louise Glück – Faithful and Virtuous Night

Full Disclosure: Have read a little of Glück’s work, know a few folks who are big fans. This copy kindly donated by the Forward Prize folks.

Review: In an interview with the Poetry Foundation, Glück talks about the difficulty of approaching your 13th collection, about the heavy expectations on a career spanning half a century, and how even (or especially) now writer’s block and creative exhaustion are real and present threats to the artist’s emotional state. It’s a revealing interview, and I’ll come back to it later.

Faithful and Virtuous Night draws partly from the poet’s memories of childhood and partly from an imminent fear of mortality, and relates these stories through a very loose kind of free verse, including several prose pieces. They suffer from serious poemyness; the characters say poem things and explicate at length its metaphorical import. Some of the book’s epiphanies have to be read to be believed, poems routinely ramble to a halt, and subtext contentedly sits where the text should be.

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The collection is about beginnings and endings, and doesn’t let the reader forget it: ‘It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided / into those who wish to move forward / and those who wish to go back’, ‘It has come to seem / There is no perfect ending. / Indeed, there are infinite endings. / Or perhaps, once one begins, / there are only endings.’ (both from the title poem). In ‘Cornwall’:

‘It was all, of course, a great mistake.
I was, I believed, facing the end:
like a fissure in a dirt road,
the end appeared before me –
as though the tree that confronted my parents
had become an abyss shaped like a tree, a black hole
expanding in the dirt […]’

Nothing gives me night terrors like the thought that one day just all of this will be over. I do sympathise. But the book’s poems about death are lazy, overseasoned and undercooked. I read some of the more portentous lines to Rachel, who suggested reading them in the voice of the narrator from Welcome to Night Vale. The book’s stories are mannerly, civilised and tedious, concerning a rarefied world safely detached from recognisable emotion, and by god they talk about it at length. The opening poem, ‘Parable’, talks about a group readying for a great quest, who instead spend years planning it and arguing about it instead. Eventually:

‘one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.’

‘Ah’. The last lines are hand-wavy philosophising of the worst order, and a conclusion few who haven’t made a living from writing could come to; note the easy consensus the entire party arrives at, the open and closed debate. I’m deeply suspicious of any ‘parable’ that answers its own question. The book’s full of this sort of self-congratulation and intellectual flea-dressing. ‘The Sword in the Stone’ has the narrator with her analyst: ‘it seemed to bring out in me / a sly vivaciousness I was / inclined to repress. My analyst’s / indifference to my performances / was now immensely soothing’. If the poem has something to say regarding mental health and its stigmas, it is hidden behind flat versifying and an insistence on dour respectability: ‘Then the hour was over. // I descended as I had ascended; / the doorman opened the door’. Later in the same poem, she meets a friend for dinner and a ‘small argument […] ostensibly / concerning aesthetics’: ‘He was a writer. His many novels, at the time, / were much praised. One was much like another.’ Jesus. I think the tone is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, a sort of knowing raffishness, but largely thanks to the poem’s bottomless fascination with itself it comes over as tiresome humblebragging.


In ‘The White Series’ the poet moves in with her brother, ‘when my funds were gone’. In ‘a small house on my brother’s land / in the state of Montana’, the narrator ‘gave drawing lessons to my brother’s wife’, who ‘would stand mesmerized […] I see, she would say, the face of a child. // She meant, I think, that feelings emanated from the surface, / feelings of helplessness or desolation’. The presumptuousness is a little disturbing, not least when put into the poem’s real-world context. There is a poem called ‘The Melancholy Assistant’, in which the eponymous helpmeet, on telling the ‘Master (which was his name for me)’ of his inability to carry out his duties:

‘pointed to his eyes,
which were full of tears. I can weep, he said.
Then you must weep for me, I told him,
as Christ wept for mankind.’

Christ indeed wept. You get the picture. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this numbed by a collection, which could stand as a case study of how to mistrust your first creative impulses, or how a poem that feels like it has effortlessly attained deep significance might just have used the words ‘night’ ‘darkness’ ‘Not changeable, she said, like human beings’ and ‘Infinite, infinite – that / was her perception of time’. To go back to that interview, here’s Glück on the book’s early reception:

‘As for this book, any time your work changes, the potential for public humiliation intensifies. […] When I was first reading Meadowlands after The Wild Iris, audiences were not pleased; a certain dismay emanated from them. They wanted more flowers, more lyric extravagance. But I had done what I could, for the moment, with lyric extravagance; I wanted a more panoramic, worldly book. The first time I read Faithful and Virtuous Night at Yale, I had the sense the audience was completely aghast. Not spellbound. Horrified.’

Though there is of course a valuable tension in being wary of pleasing your audience, there is little to be gained from blaming then projecting ill-will onto them. Earlier in the same interview she frames the book’s publication as being ‘kidnapped by the world’. Faithful and Virtuous Night gives barely a second thought for the reader’s experience, and there is little to recommend it.

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Tl;dr: Nope. Suspect this book’s inclusion on the shortlist is a canny decision to attract American readers, as Jorie Graham and D.Nurkse have in previous years. Readers new to Glück should go back to her earlier work to see what she’s previously been capable of.


Colette Bryce – The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe

Full Disclosure: Have read little of Bryce’s previous work. My review copy kindly donated by the folks at the Forward Prize.

Review: Recently Bryce was described by Fiona Sampson as being ‘now part of the English poetry establishment‘, not, perhaps, uncomplicated praise for someone from Derry, particularly with regards to a collection that explicitly states her upbringing in a republican household. This can’t have escaped Sampson’s notice, and the line ‘the Northern Irish Bryce […] has found her topic’, reads a little like ‘as one might find one’s hobbyhorse’. Needless to say, The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe shows a deal more thoughtfulness than its ostensible champion. There’s a nice bit of background info in this podcast, if you’re curious, in which Bryce answers some slightly loaded questions.

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From its title onwards, the collection works within domestic spaces, figured both as boundaries to be overcome and oppressive inhibitors. The opening poem dramatises this dynamic as the narrator ‘stepped from my skis’ into deep snow, to ‘sleep in my own shape, happily / as the hare fits / to its form’. This formal double-bind points towards Michael Longley’s poem, ‘Form’, a four-liner worth quoting in toto: ‘Trying to tell it all to you and cover everything / Is like awakening from its grassy form the hare / In that make-shift shelter your hand, then my hand / Mislays the hare and the warmth it leaves behind.’ Bryce’s speaker, lying ‘chest deep’ in form-hugging snow (another Nordy poetry mainstay) will ‘finally drift into the dream of white / from which there is no / way back.’ All told, the poem frames the collection’s recollections as this inescapable, yet comforting (‘like a fossil in a rock […] warm and safe’) dream; through its nod to Longley it hints that this act of retelling might also be a distortion. Christ it’s fun to read poems.

The book’s title is deployed in ‘Derry’, in which the hometown of the poet’s youth expands to encompass or delimit the known world. The poem’s opening line, ‘I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside’ is a direct reference to MacNeice’s ‘Carrickfergus’, which begins, ‘I was born in Belfast between the mountains and the gantries’. Formally and tonally modeled on ‘Carrickfergus’, ‘Derry’ explores an uneasy identification with her childhood home, though Bryce invests less in the rhetorical force ‘peacock aura of a drowning moon’, more ‘The local priest / played Elvis tunes’, ‘We’d cross the border in our red Cortina’. It’s an effective, engaging piece of scene- and tone-setting; ‘Derry’ paints a hectic kind of family life against the backdrop of Thatcher, new flats, overdubbed Gerry Adams and undiscussed domestic violence, ‘I see blue bruises on my mother’s arms / when her sleeve falls back while filling the kettle’. At first glance this poem seemed flat, the neatly measured lines and rhyme scheme ill-fitted to the poem’s panoramic ambition; giving it more time, it feels more like restrained anger about a time and place too distant to fix, the only available redress as faithful a remembrance as possible: ‘I watched that place grow small before / the plane ascended through the cloud / and I could not see it clearly any more’. The resigned simplicity of the rhetoric in the last line packs its own manner of punch.

Broadly speaking, the collection’s first half largely concerns a home life in which the narrator is confined to quarters, either by the periodical intrusion of (very young) British soldiers or a distant and often violent father, in which the book affords its attention to the women in Bryce’s family, her mother apostrophised for her ‘gravitas / Irish stew. A sense / of the ridiculous’ and ‘A comic turn of phrase. / An iron constitution’ in the poem ‘Heritance’, or in ‘Mammy Dozes’, ‘Eighty years have lent her skin // a bruised look in composure, / a touch of purples / to the hollows, so Mammy dozing / resembles a boxer in defeat’; or the resilience of the family matriarch Bríd in ‘A Clan Gathering’: ‘immaculate in suit and shades […] intent, intensely feeling her way, / heels clacking on the oak floor’. The piece ‘A little girl I knew when she was my mother (After Louise Bourgeois)’ is a sudden, hyper-stylised but welcome bit of dreaminess. Bourgeois’ presence here seems to license the poem’s magic realism, its blending of the human body with the natural world (though Longley again might be an enabling presence), while Bourgeois’ well-recorded work ethic until her passing at the age of 98 hints at her place among Bryce’s extended family of resolute women. Bearing in mind the lines in ‘A Clan Gathering’, ‘I don’t mention my lover, / how we have to invent / for ourselves a blank, unscripted / future; her guaranteed absence / from the diagram, the great / genetic military campaign’, the inclusion of the LGBT equality and feminist activist Bourgeois in a poem that combines the poet’s mother’s childhood and old age in terms of art (‘the pages of a bed / from sheets the colour of old snow’) and rebirth (‘dragged her wings from a chrysalis / slipped from the folds of the Virgin’s robes’) seems to hint at fairly radical empathetic work going on in this poem, seemingly understanding the mother’s (or grandmother’s) lack of understanding. This is, admittedly, detective work, but it’s what made the poem make sense to me.

Elsewhere, in ‘Signature’, ‘A Simple Modern Hand’ and ‘The Quiet Coach’, Bryce explicitly discusses the lasting impact of her childhood and her mother within it; in the collection’s final poem, the narrator imagines that the locks of grey hair on the seat beside her belong to her mother, ‘whose journey southwards, / earlier today, was a textbook reversal of my own. […] She is steadily un-solving my Everyman / crossword, reinstating / each white space / as if in the wintry landscape / of her brain’. The closing lines, ‘I bow my head / to the questions’ are a fairly straightforward explication of this unresolved (or ‘un-solved’) relationship, and which point back to the book’s epigraph, concerning Rimbaud: ‘Like many inveterate travellers, / he was attached to his starting point / by a powerful piece of elastic’. While this uneasy relationship to home might be nothing especially new to poetry (not least to poetry written in Ireland or by Irish poets), the collection’s ambition to foreground women’s experiences in the light of 1980s Derry, strengthened by the poet’s almost superhuman compassion – see ‘The Brits’, in which soldiers enter the family home, are convinced to drop their weapons by the narrator’s mother, become ‘the action figures I played with as a child’, are dressed up in ‘little high street shirts’ and ‘hand[ed] back to their mothers’ – dry humour and what might be called bloody-mindedness (perhaps that ‘iron constitution’), make it a worthwhile book if you’re interested in an aspect of the Troubles little covered in such documentary detail.


Tl;dr: Understated and difficult to grandstand about, The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe is not prizewinner material. Happily, that is not necessarily a desirable trait in contemporary poetry. Weighing in at 30 poems and little over 50 pages, there are few books that achieve so much with so (apparently) little.

Kevin Powers – Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Powers’ work before. I’m aware that his first novel, The Yellow Bird, got some hella good reviews though. Review copy kindly donated by Susannah Herbert of the Forward Prize.

Review: First off, I’m indebted to this review by David Clarke over at Dr Fulminare. It put a lot of the book’s most difficult elements into a comprehensible frame, and fully explores the feeling of critic-obsolescence in the face of real suffering, whether of the publicly-reported variety or otherwise. It also asks important questions about the remit of the war poet: conditions in the trenches, for example, became public partly from the writing of individual soldiers, the poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg et al valuable, widely circulated insights. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting has all the benefits of writing in a communications-based culture, and as such need not negotiate 1914’s relative ignorance or misinformation about the ‘enemy’; the book is explicitly focused, however, on the poet’s personal experiences (or what is presented as such, see this interview), with the war’s broader impact left largely incidental, with all the complications that infers. In the poem ‘The Locks of the James’, regarding ‘Christopher Newport’, the ‘accidental founder of this city’ and ‘a murderer of indigenous peoples’, the poet states: ‘If I’m honest, I don’t think I cared. / If I’m honest, mine is the only history that really interests me, which is unfortunate, / because I am not alone.’ It’s a complicated stance, one that seems aware of its own shortcomings but that openly elides responsibility for them; it seems like the reader is being quietly and unsettlingly invited to map these principles onto a wartime context. Other poems in the collection suggest this is a kind of emotional survival mechanism: how can an individual soldier take responsibility for state-sanctioned murder, in an arena in which a statement like ‘I appreciate the fact / that for at least one day I don’t have to decide / between dying and shooting a little boy’ is actively pressing? Yet how much more could be brought to the discussion by a clear-eyed examination of the principles that led the narrator here? Are we being presented with the wrong questions?


It leaves the reader in a difficult position: Letter Composed is, ostensibly, open about the narrator’s participation in wrongful killing, and equally open about his difficulty overcoming the trauma. However, the victims of ‘Death, Mother and Child’, ‘Field Manual’ and ‘Photographing the Suddenly Dead’ are left anonymous and with little significance outside the drama of the poem, where the poet has an entire book to provide background reading for himself and his fellow soldiers. It’s a question I don’t have a good answer to, and the book is at pains to emphasise its inability to adequately respond. ‘Nominally’, recounts the mass grave of a hundred people forced into slavery covered by a car park, disappeared names and children from underneath an interstate. The narrator replies ‘And I am unmoved by the cold / cardinality of this’, and ‘So what? Nothing / was counted.’ Bearing in mind poems like ‘Valentine with Flat Affect’ and ‘After Leaving McGuire Veterans’ Hospital for the Last Time’, it’s not unlikely that the poems dramatise this creeping inability to process external suffering, a phenomenon directly linked to the events contained in the Iraq poems and the narrator’s inability to process them. It’s a kind of vicious cycle, and while the raw, barely articulated anger in ‘Separation’ at ‘these Young Republicans / in pink popped-collar shirts’, the desire to hold them also accountable for ‘how scared I am still, alone / in bars these three years later when / I notice it [the poet’s service rifle] is gone’ might aim at easy targets, perhaps that ‘Young Republican’ identifier is telling. It’s as close as the poet gets to directing blame outwards; it’s noticeable that Powers never assigns responsibility to his superiors, who often seem as bewildered as the narrator, one sergeant stuttering, ‘after, like, don’t / worry boys, it’s war, it happens’, or the war effort at large. Michael Longley’s ‘Wounds’ comes to mind, with its depiction of the innocent brutality of teenage soldiers in the Great War and the Troubles. One of the book’s key threads seems to be the sheer unpreparedness of these young men sent, like Longley’s volunteers, to commit unspeakable violence in the name of a greater power which, in both ‘Wounds’ and Letter Composed, remains nameless and (explicitly) blameless.

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This might be a good time to talk form. Powers is primarily (or most effectively) a novelist, and the majority of the poems here have the compelling forward momentum of good short stories, with ‘Fighting out of West Virginia’, one of the book’s most fully realised vignettes, presented entirely as prose. This is not to undermine the book’s strengths as a collection of poetry. The loose rhythms of Powers’ free verse are the perfect fit for the poems’ conversational directness, and, given the book’s content, permit a vital clarity to the narrative. The later passages in the collection focus on the poet’s hometown and state, and obliquely insist on the war’s broader significance for the communities which disproportionately supply its foot soldiers. These are former factory towns suffering from extreme poverty, and the armed forces are a relatively well-paid and respectable career. Again, Letter Composed does not explicitly attack this position, but unmistakeably disproves it.

As Clarke argues in his review, there is a nagging unease at the book’s end about the lack of broader context it provides or explores about the war in Iraq, which I understand is given greater breathing space in The Yellow Birds, Powers’ debut novel. Whether the collection’s unwillingness to explore other avenues of experience stems from a traumatic incapacity or an artistic decision is, ultimately, irrelevant; it is an unresolved problem for the reader to negotiate, and much of your appreciation of the book may depend on your ability to suspend this judgement. The book is greatly supported by its moments of real lyrical energy, particularly in the poems for Powers’ mother, ‘Blue Star Mother’ (‘looking back / on the photographic / evidence of my life / one could easily be convinced / I was raised by a woman / whose face was the palm of a hand’) and ‘Portugal’, probably the book’s most full-throated venture into dream- or metaphor-driven narrative, and effective for its change of perspective. Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, is, if nothing else, a document of great value in an ongoing discussion of an ongoing war, and (hopefully) only the beginning of a vitally important conversation.

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Tl; dr: Letters Composed is a difficult collection, and by most conventional metrics not a pleasant one. It is, however, a valuable addition to the poetry community, and definitely worth reading.

Kei Miller – The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

Full Disclosure: Miller is a tremendous live performer, and one of the first poets I went to see after moving to Edinburgh, so I do have positive associations with his work. Met him once at StAnza many moons ago.

Review: The Cartographer[…] is, ostensibly, the story of two largely allegorical figures, the eponymous cartographer and his antagonist, the rastaman. Their dialogue provides the book’s title and thematic spine, and could be read as Miller’s quarrel with himself in trying to understand (or perhaps to explain) his home, his origins, the cartographer’s empiricism versus the rastaman’s faith; the book however, quickly complicates this initial binary by highlighting the rastaman’s academic credentials (‘a PhD (from Glasgow / no less)’) and having the cartographer integrate into the local spiritual community, and eventually begin the doomed quest of the book’s title. Their story ties together the book’s sundry anecdotes, histories, folk tales and observations (arguably it is secondary to the book’s broader concerns); its qualified movement from a priori theory to experience mirroring the book’s overarching narrative.

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Very recently, Miller wrote powerfully and enlighteningly on being a black poet in Britain and on the history of racial and sexual prejudice in Jamaica; besides being brave and heartfelt personal accounts, provide contexts of which I was ignorant when I first read the book, particularly regarding Jamaican social-political history. In light of these pieces, The Cartographer seems an attempt not only for Miller to work out his own attitudes towards a deeply complex society, but also to frame those problems as – historically speaking at the very least – bound together with Britain’s own. If the tone of the unnamed third ‘character’, the non-participating narrator, seems to work double-duty as tour guide (and tour guides do make appearances in the book), it may be that The Cartographer also aims to provide introductions to the uninitiated. That it carries out this goal with humour and patience speaks volumes; reading the linked posts again, I’m struck by how unangry a collection this is, how powerful the calls for ‘heartbless’ that open and close the collection appear in broader context. Jamaica may still be suffering from the social and economic strictures introduced by colonial rule, but it also produced Lorna Goodison, Louise Bennett, Olive Senior and Dennis Scott (just for a kickoff), and the book insists on a complicated perspective on a country that has long suffered from simplistic attitudes at home and abroad.

This drive for context animates a lot of the best pieces in the collection, poems that undermine dominant narratives by highlighting the oddness or humbleness of their origins. In ‘Establishing the Metre’ two French cartographers set out ‘Like tailors who must know their clients’ girths’ and come back with the universal unit of measurement; ‘xi’ relates the story of Lady Musgrave’s Road, which ‘was laid / in its serpentine way / so that Miss Musgrave / on her carriage ride home // would not have to see a nayga man’s property / so much bigger than her husband’s / own’, and remains so; in ‘Place Name: Shotover’, the stately home once known as Chateau Vert is renamed by the descendants of slaves ‘little acquainted with French’, explaining: ‘bucky-master had was to catch back runaway slaves, so him would draw for him long musket and buss gunshot over dere, and gunshot over dere’. Though these poems are grounded in a deeply humane mock-heroism, the pain and violence at their roots is clear. The ‘Place Name’ series emphasises this colonial legacy in ‘Flog Man’ and ‘Edinburgh Castle’, insisting on remembering both their origins and how those origins shape present realities. ‘The Blood Cloths’ and ‘My Mother’s Atlas of Dolls’ depict small, hard-won, but priceless victories, shifting the poems’ focus from the historical to the domestic without conceding their intrinsic value. The personal lives of women are as important to The Cartographer as the maps of powerful men.

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All of which lends itself well to Miller’s facility with hymn-making, his reverence for the unrevered. Though the book’s postcolonial reclamations animate some of the book’s angriest and most moving pieces, this instinct for reclaiming the poetic foreground also expresses itself in the collection’s creative ecocentrism, as his poems for wildlife (‘A Prayer for the Unflummoxed Beaver’, ‘For the Croaking Lizards’, ‘A Ghazal for the Tethered Goats’) and their habitats (‘Place Name: Half Way Tree’, ‘Place Name: Bloody Bay’) bear witness.  ‘When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks’ is a tiny epic poem, ennobling ‘them who knew to break free from dark hold of ships […] to them / that pass in squeakless silence over the Titanic […] who instruct us yearly on the movement of currents; / those bright yellow dots that crest the waves / like spots of praise: hail.’ The phrase ‘in squeakless silence’ is probably my favourite line of the year. These poems, in insisting on the dignity of old goats and the stoicism of geckos, on focusing on the indefatigability of non-human life, find a way of criticising political hierarchy without bringing it explicitly into focus.

They are also – and this might seem a minor detail after its astute and pointed post-colonial/feminist criticism (caveat: I’ve still a lot to learn about both those things) – a great read. I’d encourage you to seek out Miller’s live performances, or failing that he’s got plenty of material on YouTube. His poems are intended to be spoken, and reading The Cartographer with his voice in mind is a real pleasure. More than any other book on the shortlist, these poems are, primarily, rhetorical performances, and the book reads best taken in one sitting, considered as a unified entity rather than an assembly of individual pieces. The book’s dramatic arcs are well-judged and artfully positioned, and although one could argue that a book that is (easily) readable in an afternoon lacks weight, The Cartographer rewards close engagement and multiple readings.


Tl;dr: Easily the best book on the Best Collection shortlist. If there’s any justice this will take the big yin, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Regardless, read it.

Fiona Benson – Bright Travellers

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Benson before, though a well-read pal had bigged her up on Twitter, so expecting something good.

Review: It took a long time to come round to Bright Travellers, but it was worth it. It is by some distance the angriest and saddest collection of poems I’ve read in a long time, maybe since Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, and its display of a sharp intelligence pushing itself to some uncomfortable and upsetting emotional places is like no other book on the shortlist.

The fact that the poet’s inner life is so openly dissected in all its messiness, so recklessly explored without (apparent) embellishment, means it isn’t uncomplicatedly recommendable, i.e. the natural first response is to be a little taken aback. To return to Stag’s Leap, where Olds’ anger is calm, directed and wryly at ease with itself, the most common mood of Bright Travellers seems to be a tension between its justified fear of the world it depicts and its anger that the world it depicts should provoke such justified fear. To this end, it’s almost disappointing that the collection should kick off with an apologia, ‘Caveat’, a perfectly fine lyric in its own right but one that begs forgiveness where none is due:

But consider the cactus:
its thick hide
and parched aspect

still harbour a moist heart […]

And, once a lifetime,
when the slant rains fall
there is this halo of flowers.

By the poem’s conceit, ‘this halo’ may be the book in hand. The immediate response is that a prickly and uncompromising cactus isn’t necessarily less interesting than a bed of daffodils. The collection proper kicks off with ‘Dumnonia’, a series of poems commissioned by two Devon-based arts groups. It’s an odd way to kick off a first collection, and while the poems are strong and do a decent job of establishing the collection’s direction, they have the feeling of being tacked on at the front. With each of Bright Traveller’s sections prefaced by a single poem, this group of occasional-feeling pieces feel a little extraneous and perhaps better deployed elsewhere. That said, ‘Rougemont for Temperance Lloyd’ is a powerful piece of historical recovery; Temperance Lloyd was one of the last three people executed for witchcraft in England, a witty and apparently fearless woman of around eighty, who the poem renders:

You are a thin thought turning over the walls
in a grey wind, transparent, spider-weight.
I’d have you angry and impenitent and brave.
I’d have you fly from the drop in the shape of a rook,
its rag-and-bone, its bloodshot eye.

before concluding that Lloyd is ‘pleased overall / to be looked at, riding in this cart, when all / your life you’ve been invisible and walked.’ Benson’s ability – with as little manipulation of the facts as necessary – to turn a moment of injustice on its head is breathtaking, performed as well as anything in Heaney. It’s a poem to savour.

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Immediately afterwards is ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’, a series she describes in an insightful interview with Granta as coming from a period of writer’s block. The sequence’s narrative (though narrative is not at all its main concern) is of the speaker’s uneven and often emotionally abusive relationship with Van Gogh, here depicted – as realistically as can be discerned by historical documents such as his own letters to his brother, one of which is quoted in the epigraph – as a sort of unstable genius. On first reading I was hugely put off by the sequence’s power dynamics: in the opening poem, the speaker describes herself as ‘your wounded girl, your damned and lovely prostitute’; in ‘Pear Tree in Blossom’ are the lines ‘your mouth sweet to kiss, / your sticky beard … Christ. I never thought I’d beg’; ‘Sunflowers’: ‘I listen to you move in the other room / and I burn; your meanest tread outside my door / and I almost come, but you never enter in.’ Ostensibly the sort of writing that I tend to chew out men poets for. And while it might be true that the early poems in the sequence partly perpetuate the powerful artist/silent, suffering muse dynamic, their aim (I think) is in foregrounding the woman’s perspective, and so undermining a very familiar setup. Benson presents this relationship entirely without frills or excuses, in all its taboo-exploring, self-destructive, Stockholm syndromey recklessness. We might hope that the poems’ speaker fare better in future, but ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ is an important account in its own right, depicting in no uncertain terms the damage done to both parties by the relationship’s uneven distribution of power.

The turning point seems to come in ‘Portrait with a Bandaged Ear’, in which the painter repeatedly shows up at the speaker’s door, ‘and I let you in and I let you in and I let you in – / remember the long afternoons of our youth / spent wrapped in the covers as if night would never come, / how fierce you were and clear, back then. […] we’re running / out of grace. Men will come and ask me to confirm / your name. I want you strong and well. Please stay.’ The speaker’s acquiescence is reframed as an active defence of the better part of a disintegrating mind, and the sequence’s focus changes accordingly. Van Gogh slips into the background, and the next piece, ‘Irises’ seems increasingly to speak to the poet over the painter: ‘Art’s not all you’d hoped […] There’s remedy yet. / Today you may not make a master-mistress piece: / so what? […] Get back to work.’ Intriguingly, the sequence’s conceit fades as the poet regains her own power of composition, as ‘Place du Forum’ puts it, gets ‘in it for the long haul’. It’s this capacity for layered reading that makes Bright Travellers such a fascinating, compulsive re-read, and makes its exuberant presentation of its own instability lodge in the imagination. As Benson notes in the Granta interview, Olds and Matthew Dickman are presiding influences, and while Dickman’s poems might err on the preening or the self-conscious pose, Benson is able to pack more of a punch without even a whiff of emotional grandstanding. This sequence is an exciting one, and it’s a real treat to be trusted enough as a reader to make mistakes on the first read.


The book’s final section features poems on pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, some of which are marvellously powerful and written in a kind of weary-but-undefeated tone established elsewhere in the collection. ‘Sheep’ in particular is noteworthy in its stoical assertiveness, conflating a horrific scene of a dead ewe being picked apart by crows and chickens with the poet’s own miscarriage, but ending with ‘Yet once it was done I got up, / gathered my bedding / and walked.’ Similar is the exceptionally dark-humoured ‘Repairs’, which sees the midwife ‘holding pins / between her tightened lips // as she works / with both hands / round the wound / to stitch me back in.’ These last poems are again impressive in their willingness, if not eagerness, to self-portray as frightened or discontent or simply absurd, and all in a form that never loses sight of its purpose, giving the poem the formal control that permits/compliments its imaginative unmannerliness. The lines toward the end of ‘Small Mercies’ are beautifully weighted and perfectly unresolved: ‘partly longing to be free / and partly unable to wish myself / anywhere but here’.

At the end of the second or third readings, the only sincere criticism I could think of is the book’s slightly incongruous title. The unit ‘bright travellers’ comes in a poem called ‘Visitations’, and refers not to the foetal outline on the book’s cover but the invisible beings the poet’s child stares at in ‘blank corners’ of the room. It’s a wispy phrase that does little to highlight the best parts of the collection, its controlled rage, its emotional frankness. I suspect shenanigans.

Tl;dr: It’s a great book, and if it took me a few reads to really get what it was trying to achieve then more fool me. Despite the very weird and not necessarily beneficial editorial decisions I’d happily recommend it to anyone, and I suspect it’ll be deep in the running when the prize winners are announced.

Hugo Williams – I Knew the Bride

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read any of Williams before. Faber poets don’t tend to do well on this blog.

Review: [A pre-review aside: Williams is currently searching for a kidney donor. Going by the campaign’s Facebook page, potential donors have been found. I sincerely wish him and his family all the best of luck.]

I Knew the Bride is an extended examination of loss and mortality, told with Williams’ characteristic whimsical airiness and plain speech. Its occasional lyrics are spread between two long sequences, ‘Now That I’ve Forgotten Brighton’, about the breakup of a relationship and ‘From the Dialysis Ward’, as mentioned above. The book kicks off fairly well, with ‘New Year Poem’, a wryly sad and slightly resigned piece about the increasing difficulty of getting out of bed: ‘The day is difficult to start. / I leave it at the top of a hill / the night before.’ This, as is tradition, is the best written and most deeply felt individual poem in the collection.

By contrast, ‘Now that I’ve Forgotten Brighton’ is a distinctly thin, often adolescent account of a breakup that kind of plays on the logical joke in the title, but is more consistently a fairly mopey response to amorous failure: ‘It should have been okay / but it turned out not to be’, ‘I suppose you’re right and breaking up / would be quite a good thing, / but staying together would be an equally good thing’, ‘I can only look on, while my hand / dials a number it knows by heart […] I will her hand not to pick up’. I imagine the simplistic register is a deliberate decision, but the poems lack sincere or difficult self-questioning, dampening their emotional power. The poem after this sequence, ‘Actaeon’ (the hunter killed by his own hounds in punishment for seeing the goddess Diana bathing), does a fine job of brushing off any remaining sympathy by kicking off with ‘I thought of all my girlfriends / gathered together on a stage’, ‘‘I didn’t know you girls all / knew one another’, I said, / seeing only a tumble of looks and limbs.’ Again, there’s probably some self-parody going on (you’d hope), but it’s clumsy and facile and presents more than it challenges. A similar scene in performs this exact function far more perceptively. Hot on ‘Actaeon’’s heels is ‘Twenty Yards Behind’, a villanelle with such insights as ‘All those things men find so intense / women take as the most tender nonsense’. One of the rhyme-words is ‘detumescence’.


The title poem, an elegy for the poet’s sister, quite clearly opens some raw and painful wounds, but in execution the piece feels a touch too allusive, a little too fixed in personal anecdote to gain traction as a public gesture; it introduces a number of reminiscences without slowing down to properly engage with them, and the poem peters out. The proceeding individual lyrics are little stories about railway porters, life at public school in the fifties, and an ill-advised fantasy about acquiring organs called ‘The Chinese Stock Exchange’ in which a ‘teenage con-girl in martial arts gear’ and a ‘man in pyjamas’ say ‘You pay me now I come back later’ and ‘Tonight very busy night’ respectively. There’s no excuse for deploying ethnic stereotypes for comic effect, and these pieces are united in their failure to fully explore their lyric conceits. One bright spot is a terrific translation of Cavafy’s ‘Garments’, short enough to quote in full:

In an old trunk or in an ebony chest
I put away the yellow clothes of my childhood,
my favourite yellow clothes.

I put away the blue clothes I wore as a boy,
the blue clothes that boys always wear,
followed by the red clothes of my youth,

the exciting red clothes of a young man.
I put away the red clothes, then I put away
the blue clothes again, more faded this time.

I wear black clothes. I live in a black house.
Sometimes at night I open the ebony chest
and gaze with longing at my beautiful clothes.

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The closing section, ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ feels like nothing so much as a missed opportunity. Again, there’s little sense of difficult questions being asked by the poems; many are straightforward reportage, including disdain for a male nurse in ‘A Healthy Interest’, (‘He looks disappointed with me. / My indifference in fear, he says. / I need to take an interest in my case’) and objectification of a female nurse in ‘The Angel of the Needles’: ‘The beauty of the Indian nurse / puts the fear of God in me […] Did she have to take a needling test / like other mortals? / Or did they let her in / for being one of the angels? // I want her to like me’. She’s a medical professional. This is not complicated. ‘Prayer Before Sleeping’ is the most effective poem in the sequence, aiming as it does for a sense of hopelessness, desperation and fear, ‘Slip me some sort of clue / that knows what to do with me / and I promise I’ll be good.’ It’s a moment that stands out for its clear-sightedness.

[Post-review aside: there’s a quote in the back cover of I Knew the Bride from Edna Longley, aka my hero, describing Williams as ‘Possibly the most original poet of his generation.’ Longley’s quote in fact refers to the 1985 collection Writing Home, and reads, ‘Possibly the most original poet of his generation in England.’ Omitting the quote’s full context is petty misinformation, and that sort of thing bugs the life out of me.]


Tl;dr: I Knew the Bride doesn’t deserve its spot on the shortlist by the quality of writing alone. The poems feel rushed and unpolished, and some of the writing’s underlying messages are unexamined and harmful. There are a few moments of real accomplishment, but these are few and far between the book’s formally and thematically scattershot entries.

John Burnside – All One Breath

Full Disclosure: Last time Burnside had a book out I reviewed it and hated it.

Review: If you liked Black Cat Bone, you’ll like All One Breath. The new collection begins with a series called ‘Self Portrait as Funhouse Mirror’, and if you thought that might portend something ludic you mightn’t’ve read Burnside before. In the opening poem, ‘Hall of Mirrors’ the child poet sees himself, ‘baby-faced / pariah; little / criminal’, before realising, ‘The backrooms of the heart are Babylon / incarnate, miles of verdigris and tallow and the cries / of hunting birds, unhooded for a kill // that never comes. / I saw that, when I saw this otherself’. The child then joins (or thinks he joins) his mother in seeing ‘what I was / beyond the child she loved, the male / homunculus she’d hoped I’d never find / to make me like my father […] a blear / of Eden from that distance in the glass […] that’s never ours alone, / including us, till everything / is choir.’ The poem rests on both presenting the story through the child’s eyes and explicitly investing the child with the understanding the poem presents. That choir image is reprised in the closing poem, ‘Choir’, but strangely tells the story of how the young poet didn’t participate in said choir. ‘Everything / is choir’ except himself; this is a neat encapsulation of the problems I have with the book.


‘Hall of Mirrors’ is easily the best poem in the collection, which might be why it’s at the front of the book and will likely be quoted at length in the breathless Guardian review when Burnside wins again. It has many of the poet’s signature features: self-reflection both literal and conceptual, nature as pathetic fallacy, other humans as pathetic fallacy (‘her face was all / reflection’), ‘dusk’ as indicator of liminal space, an ending that elides all semantic responsibility by literally/grammatically qualifying itself out of reasonable accountability. To that end, if you were to wordcloud All One Breath ‘almost’ would probably loom large, alongside ‘half’. It’s totally reasonable to describe an experience as ‘half-imagined’, but doing it twice in the same collection (‘such fauna as I only half-imagine / are ghosts out of Bewick’, ‘I felt [the dead goldfinch’s] mercy, / something only half- / imagined’, not to mention ‘I half-believed / that nothing would be there’) speaks to a narrowness of imaginative range, the poet as primary custodian of common sense and meaning. In the poem ‘Erosion’, for example, the poet looks on in scorn at his countryside neighbour rounding up sheep with a quad bike: ‘Soon he’ll have turbines up; he’ll buy out / my better neighbours, building, field by field, / his proud catastrophe / of tin and mud. / I loathe him, but it’s nothing personal […] and yet not enough in him / of worth or life / to qualify as foe’. It’s unedifying stuff, placing the poet’s own ‘wind-slender / kinship of sea and blood / and the kinship of the earth / with everything that crawls beneath the stars’ directly in contrast with his renewable energy-loving (how dare he) neighbour. The poem suffers from a logical disconnect: nature is presented as mysteriously bestowing kinship on man (via ‘sea and blood’), but it is within the poet’s remit to refuse this same kinship to his fellow. Where does the poet really believe the kin-making power lies?

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There’s little escaping the sense that the ecological in All One Breath is yoked to the semantic plough. Nature does not appear in its own right (see Michael Longley, Edward Thomas, or for a more recent example Jen Hadfield), but as background colour for the performing poetic self. There are plenty of kittiwakes and larks and sparrows, but the poems in which natural life is given individual focus are ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768’, which focuses not just on the bird’s suffering but the fear it causes in young women, and ‘Instructions for a Sky Burial’, in which a coyote’s rotten head gives rise to the poet’s wish to be disposed of similarly, ‘unwashed and naked […] where the crows / can find me’, giving back to his imagined corpse the centre stage. It’s telling that on both occasions the studied animal no longer has living agency, unable to supersede the needs of the observing self.

This habit has a particularly uncomfortable effect on the collection’s several elegies. In ‘The Day Etta Died’, for the singer-songwriter Etta James, we first watch the poet ‘marking a stack of essays / on Frank O’Hara // and each had a Wiki- / paragraph to say // who Genet was, and who / was Billie Holiday’. His students do not have the same cultural references as the poet, and are thus condemned; how does this increase our understanding of the life and importance of the singer? ‘Nocturne: Christmas, 2012’, i.m. Dennis O’Driscoll, begins ‘When I heard you had died, I went out into the yard / and stood a while, like something that belonged / to darkness’ and ends ‘[that Christmas Eve] the headlamps snagged on a ewe, in the first wet snow / and I stopped, by the side of the road, / to untangle the wire.’ Again, the elegy’s power to revitalise and restore is elided in favour of self-presentation, and a few gestures towards ‘We all need a second life’, ‘Say what you will, all making is nostalgia,’ leave only a passing, passive impression of the man elegised. Witness also the weird power dynamics in ‘The End’, in which ‘Strangers are making love / in my grandmother’s house / forty years after she died,’ and the poet wishes to address the new man of the house (the woman is off doing woman things, presumably), ‘If I could, I would tell him / a story I heard long ago […] It’s a story he doesn’t know, but halfway through / he sees that it has to end / in the safety of fog’, the unknown man becoming an extension of the poet’s authority.


Tl; dr: All One Breath is not a ‘bad book’. It’s perfectly competently put together, the lines flow and there’s plenty of dark darkness to make it sound like some deep emotion is being played out. But what this collection and The Dark Knight Rises have in common is mistaking that darkness for emotional complexity, for a challenging philosophical stance. Dude writers have been brooding over dead things for quite some time, and this isn’t breaking any new ground; it’s the book’s sheer conventionality, the artistic conservatism that pushes me away. That’s without addressing the whiff of misogyny that appears any time a woman is subject to the poem’s eye, or the epigraph addiction, the near-identical register and rhythmic similarities of each poem. In short, All One Breath is not an enlightening book, and there are a great many poets more deserving of your attention.

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Full Disclosure: This book was recommended to me by a pal before Forward came about. Nice to have a good reason to review it.

There are no videos of Ravinthiran’s poetry online. This has never happened before.

Review: The phrase ‘Grun-tu-molani’ is explained by the book’s epigraph, a passage from Saul Bellow’s 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King, and means ‘I want to live’. The context seems fairly complicated and tied up with western privilege and should probably be investigated by someone who has read the novel. Anyway, if we take Henderson’s excited, life-affirming outburst at face value, it largely matches the register of Ravinthiran’s first collection, a wild, unpretentious, occasionally misstepping but thoroughly pleasurable book.

Indeed, if Ravinthiran has a dramatic flaw™, it might be his drive to include everything, to speak quickly and incisively then move on. In several pieces, like ‘A Chair Addresses Jackie Chan’, ‘Fallout 3’ (a personal favourite), some excellent translations ‘from the Puranaru’ and the required-reading ‘The Zany White Poet (after Benjamin Zephaniah)’ (‘so liberated / from history’), this impulse for sounding out the odd and wonderful gives the collection a sense of urgency, a diary-style thought-recording that many poets attempt and few accomplish; in his acknowledgements Ravinthiran thanks Leontia Flynn for her editing, and the poets’ affinities are clear to see. Not all of these set pieces hit their marks, however. ‘The Lecture’, in which Ravinthiran figures his students as assorted birds – e.g. ‘the owl thought he knew better’ – feels a little condescending; the speaker is figured as human rather than (for instance) adult bird, and the closing line, ‘but it was time to fly. I threw the windows open,’ is a shade to the wrong side of patronising. Similarly, the ambitious ‘Anti-circ’ is a little unclear in its message. The title refers to being anti-circumcision (for which the poem suggests we read ‘anti-Semitic’), and begins with an epigraph from Nabokov, ‘we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame’. The poem itself is a series of responses to various writers, starting with Nabokov, who campaigned against anti-Semitism, ‘Once I cracked Lolita’s spine I found myself knee-deep in cheesecake / my not-quite-fist unclenched, disclosed a wet cluster of blackberries’, and finishing with John Updike (who Bellow once described as ‘an anti-Semitic pornographer’) and Enoch Powell:

Updike’s prose flaunted the revealed

cleanliness of a girl’s arse, its well-briefed sway up the stairs ahead;
and when I called up from the stacks Enoch Powell’s uncut First Poems

her skilled tongue agitated my thankfully intact frenulum.

The poem seems to run in two threads: each writer’s anti-Semitism and the reader’s pleasure; as the former intensifies the latter tends towards sexual exploitation, highlighting the sexual location of hatred in the poem’s title. The poem might well be drawing attention to the links between two kinds of oppression, but this remains in the subtext. I absolutely believe that ‘Anti-circ’ has nothing but good intentions, but the poem slightly muddles an issue of some gravity, and in its last lines falls into the trap of presenting rather than challenging oppression.

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The long poem, ‘Sigiriya’, is a much deeper and more complex quest into the roots of male power-hunger. Sigiriya, as the book’s notes explain, is a rock-fortress in central Sri Lanka, about a hundred miles from Colombo, which was once home to King Kasyapa, the poem’s main character, in the 5th century CE. Alternating between third- and first-person narrative, the poem relates the king’s homicidal megalomania, ‘Perhaps Sigiriya was no fortress […] but his try at a separate state, / a state of one, just one just man,’ his eventual overthrow by his brother and the rock’s contemporary status as tourist attraction. In Ravinthiran’s hands the story gains traction in its discussion of familial expectation and the search for home, albeit inflated to vainglorious proportions. The most impressive feature of the poem, one reflected throughout the collection, is the poet’s ability to manage its tone, to deploy the precisely humanising line that brings its heterogenous tendencies back to shared emotional ground. Hence Kasyapa’s acceptance that ‘When I went down to fight from my red rock, I could have been Wilde, / finding it harder and harder to live up to his blue china.’ The poem’s final section, printed in italics to signal its divergence from the main plot, has an English archaeologist ‘discover’ the site in 1895, ‘led, he admits, / by a ‘brave Sinhalese lad’ // who had the nerve / to precede / the archaeologist.’ The cycle of imperial hierarchy starts again.


Another sequence, ‘Foreign Bodies’, explores the poet’s own family history, telling the stories of ‘Rajes’, ‘Kuthimama’, himself and his parents. These poems thoughtfully relate the violence and injustice that each family member has experienced: Rajes’ suicide amongst talk of her ‘adulterous body’; Kuthimama’s life as a doctor in Trinco, where ‘they said he stitched up men he should have turned away’; as the poet reads a letter rejecting his poetry as ‘just another ethnic ort’, he notices racist graffiti on the bathroom wall, graffiti which he in turn admires for its ‘craftsmanship, / painstaking, light-years beyond your token / swastika in wobbly biro or felt-tip… / Yes, how I relished each letter of rejection!’ The poem’s closing section has a beautifully conceived vision of the poet’s mother being ‘driven through every council estate the BNP // exploits, speak, love-fluskering, to the people / from your own Pope-mobile,’ a figure of pure, innocent positivity:

when you first came to this country
the snow you’d never seen before went on for weeks.
As kids gurn at sprouts, you must have gawped with joy
at that strange white – till your face got fixed that way.

Not for the first time in Grun-tu-molani, rejection is countered with acceptance.


Few of Ravinthiran’s symbols appear more than once, and snow is perhaps the most obvious. The poem ‘Snow’ (a significant title for Flynn and MacNeice fans, and MacNeice’s poem is at the heart of this one) is a stunning piece of imaginative acrobatics, connecting snow’s mutable nature to the importance of emotional sensitivity and flexibility: ‘Sure the anchors call it treacherous / but I’ve met it down dark alleys all my life’, ‘The difference between snow and water is / the difference between dialectic and a kiss, / between a birth certificate and spare change’, ‘white shapes of breath that want, like the smoke / from a cigarette, or the super-slow-mo ripples / of a cube of gelatine bounced off tile, to be / the drapes and folds of statuary’. Wow. ‘Snow’ conveys its meaning but is not easily explained, and, in its demonstration of what a writer engrossed in and given over to their symbol can do, is one of the collection’s great pleasures, and this poem might well be at the heart of the collection’s understanding of the world. careful and various and too much to be simply comprehended; the book’s success comes from its productive engagement with the attempt.

Tl;dr: Grun-tu-molani reveals more of its odd, bold and generous perspectives with each reading. Though some of its poems don’t quite offer up their ideas or fumble the attempt, the collection is full of energy, wit and sensitivity, and is very much worth reading.