Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Disclosure: Met Alsadir briefly at a reading in Edinburgh in 2016. As ever, the book discusses many experiences outwith my own, not least motherhood and the pressures and anxieties women experience regarding public speech. Many thanks to Muireann Crowley for editorial and structural advice. Review copy purchased with help from my supporters on Patreon.

‘Transparence interests me, wrote Louise Bourgeois in a notebook. I want to be transparent. If people could see through me, they could not help loving me, forgive me.’

‘This book is for you (whoever you are)’
(Nuar Alsadir, Fourth Person Singular)

Review: A few pages in to a section of ‘Night Fragments’, a series of short stanzas written by the poet at 3.15am during a bout of writer’s block, the printed text is accompanied by a photograph of a page from a notebook, ‘All messy may / All messy maybe. / So messy it can’t stay on the page’. The handwriting in the photo is itself messy, paying no attention to the ruled lines and margins; without the reproduced text above it, it might be unintelligible. ‘Night Fragments’ is introduced by a lyric essay about the ‘true’, unedited self, Nietzsche’s aphorisms (‘little stabs at happiness’), writing that accesses the ‘sublime core’ by puncturing the conscious mind with something unexpected or disruptive, and enlisting the unconscious, dreaming mind into the creative process. Fourth Person Singular habitually takes an ostensibly simple, accessible thought (in this case, “I want to write in a way that is authentic”) and worries at its edges, unravels a series of possible avenues of enquiry until the very idea that someone might sit down at a blank page and merely begin feels breathtakingly hubristic.

The photograph in ‘Night Fragments’ seems something like a gesture of good faith. The rest of the book might be meticulously choreographed, it suggests, but these lines are just what the reader has been offered, notes written in the middle of the night, profound, nonsensical or both depending on your disposition; one fragment reads, in full: ‘I’m sure I’m breaking the rules – / let me hear them from the ones who care.’ Fourth Person Singular has no contents page, no poem titles in the traditional sense, and the several ‘sections’ are implied rather than signposted. The book may just as easily be read as a single, long poem in numerous formal guises, each of which is in conversation with the others. It’s a challenging book to read, to cross-reference the many recurring motifs (dogs, shame, crows, war) that insist on second, third sweeps. There’s also a lot of freedom for the reader to connect these ideas, though Fourth Person Singular warns against ‘a kind of intellectual Pointillism’, projecting one’s own meaning onto an unsupporting text.

The attempts in Night Fragments to access a socially unfettered self are part of a book-spanning concern with shame. From birth, Alsadir argues, via DW Winnicott’s research on child psychology, shame is a powerful inhibitor, an editor of disruptive or uncomfortable speech through one’s own mind’s projection of the future disapproval of others. Among the book’s opening aphorisms, the speaker (which the book seems to suggest is not-exactly-Alsadir, or one Alsadir among many) says ‘I have given a name to my shame and call it ‘dog’.’ It’s partly pitched for comedy, I think, but it finds a counterpoint thirty pages later in ‘Sketch 37’, which features the speaker’s dog’s joyful investigation of his own piss-marks. Here, a margin-note reads ‘kuntaton: most doglike, most shameless –’. The earlier line reads as self-deprecating, almost despairing, that undertone of ‘black dog’, but the act of naming it after its antithesis contextualises it, defangs it. By spacing this movement half a book apart, it incorporates the book’s thought processes as a key element of this (still understated, literally marginal) shift.

Or, maybe a dog returning with unselfconscious delight to the places he has soiled is a crude metaphor for the lyric impulse, which Alsadir describes as:

‘a kind of compulsion to invent explanations as a way of searching for and attempting to master what you fear finding that has already been experienced, an unthought known or a known that has been thought by a version of self that is yet to come’

The desire to – in Bourgeois’ words – be transparent, loved and forgiven comes into direct conflict with the socially conditioned instinct to amend oneself for the sake of palatability to others; ‘why is it’, Alsadir asks, ‘that writing a lyric poem that has an I that matches up with the person I consider myself to be in my everyday life induces shame?’ What the book does not say explicitly, but heavily suggests, is that not everyone is taught this self-editing impulse equally. A passage near the start of the book is one of several references to male figures failing to contain or control themselves:

‘The man across from me – lips narrowed, brows tilting downward towards his nose & falling into each other – stomps a foot. The stomp discharges his anger – a grain bounces off the door of the subway car and hits my eye – ’

Hardly coincidental, then, that this conflict between shame, social nicety and the lyric impulse has often been interrogated by women poets (Fourth Person Singular quotes H.D. and Marianne Moore on the matter), at a rate which seems to have intensified over the past few years: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009), Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013) (which Alsadir reviewed insightfully in the Spring 2014 issue of Poetry Review), Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (2016), Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (2016), Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017), all spend a significant amount of time on the basic permissibility of writing one’s true self, safely and with due respect. When Alsadir notes how Norman Mailer valorised the lines ‘Don’t waste your energy and your time … throwing stones at the dogs that bark at you on the way. Ignore them’, it’s significant that these dogs are ‘on the way’, on a journey, outwith a domestic, private interior. Unlike Alsadir, he does not appear to have an internalised shame-dog to ignore simultaneously.

The artful lyric essays in Fourth Person Singular are not just critical apparatus, then, but a full acknowledgement of the difficulty of writing lyric poems while retaining a connection to the multifaceted, untidy truth of one’s experiences. The book is in this sense experimental, as much a critique of the state of the lyric as it is the truest, simplest distillation of lyric principles for an individual the genre does not exactly accommodate. The essays are a fascinating exploration into an aesthetic tension of the poet’s relationship with lyric poetry; as Alsadir states, shortly after a brief deconstruction of a graffiti artist’s concise, provocative, ‘FUCK LYRIC’:

‘even though I’d developed an aversion to confessional poetry, the poems I found moving, which served as my measure of a poem’s value, were invariably lyric, written in the first person and addressed – as is all speech – to a second person […] a you without whom the poet wouldn’t, or, perhaps couldn’t, have been written.’

How to work in a genre that structurally does not love you back? The investigation that follows is one of the most thorough conceptualisations of the lyric transaction between (imagined) poet and (imagined) reader I’ve encountered, as it attempts to locate the exchange phenomenologically while retaining a sense of the beauty that exchange embodies. It’s extraordinary, and the way the essay ties together its ideas, returns to its original thought in a new, startling, intimate light, is worth the price of admission alone.

‘What works intellectually doesn’t always work in the gut and vice versa – the basis of discord and interesting music.’

Though the book is, unashamedly, an intellectual challenge, it’s no less human and messy and peculiar. There are some pretty delightful puns thrown in at the margins: ‘electric ecstasy / elecstasy’; a defaced notice in an elevator: ‘NO P[O]ETS’; ‘a crow, a caw, / a flapparition’. These things delight me beyond words, and are no less a valid artistic strategy than the more recognisably ‘serious’ passages. The latter of these puns is found in a section about the poet’s daughters; they are not mentioned in the book until this point (page 52 of 66), and seem to call back to an earlier discussion of objects and motherhood. Alsadir (via Heidegger) describes tools as existing in two states: ‘ready-at-hand’ for their proper use, or ‘present-at-hand’ once they are broken, their sudden uselessness making them finally visible to the user. Not only this, but ‘An object needs to be defamiliarized in order to be grasped, understood as separate from its use’:

‘What was formerly a mere object becomes an object-to-subject relationship, lyric.’

On a first read, the book’s opening section feels like a curiosity shop of philosophical non-sequiturs and free association. As more of these free-floating ideas are mobilised into the book’s deeper lines of inquiry, the unity of Fourth Person Singular starts to emerge, as its focus on the question of what lyric is, what (and who) it is for becomes clearer.

The example of malfunctioning tools and human-objects is one of the book’s several approaches to defining lyric, the passage concluding that: ‘Like a mother, an object in use is phenomenologically transparent’. (I’ve just noticed the ‘parent’ hiding in ‘transparent’.) When the book dwells on the poet’s domestic space, the idea of ‘mother’ existing as a tool or role to be used (the poet coins the term ‘Autoplot: the unconscious’s scheme to take over your story of self’) is not so much outright debunked as it sits quietly in the background, an uncomfortable awareness the reader must bear while encountering these scenes. The feeling is not assuaged by the opening line, ‘I send them into another room so I can think. They fill me with their gift given – stolen – want it back – never! – too precious refuse’. Keeping the earlier formulation of motherhood in mind, these lines seem perfectly congruous; the children are unaware of their ready-at-hand mother, the mother is resentful of this aspect of her tool-ness. But the speaker also seems to implicate herself in the unconscious transaction being played out: ‘my pain is in my guise, the many roles I play on autopilot.’ The larger social or cultural structures that shape these autopilot settings are not quite within the poem’s remit, but can be fairly easily extrapolated. But the fact the book spends so long in this space, long enough to complicate the simple object-subject (read: lyric) relationship between parent and children, is itself a potent counter to objectification. Just by existing, by positioning domestic life and domestic space as worthy of critical-philosophical interrogation, the section aims towards a rendering of family life that is both philosophically alert and ‘work[s] in the gut’; within a conceptual exploration of the lyric, there is space for haircare, sandwich politics, the early onset of childhood nihilism. It manages to be genuinely, quietly heartwrenching without a jarring tonal shift from earlier, more philosophically intensive sections.

My experience of reading Fourth Person Singular, as one of the multitudes contained in the ‘whoever you are’ which constitutes one pole of the book’s lyric diagram, is sometimes of trying to keep up with a lot of ideas travelling in different directions, and at high speed. Others, it’s like playing Gone Home, a video game in which the player moves between the artefacts of a person’s experiences and tries to piece together some emotional, if not always narratively linear, sense (of course, the poet has anticipated such a feeling, talking about Hemingway’s strategy: ‘take out the event and leave only its reverberations’; or her warning about ‘our inability to bear what is before us – the absences, the unknown’). While the nature of aphorism means some don’t quite hit the spot – tying an 80s ad campaign for Coca Cola to Lacan’s ‘the Real’ feels a more like a party trick than a meaningful question – the book is bursting with ideas, itching to take assumptions about lyric poetry, about constructions of the self/other, and acknowledge their fundamental complexity. In the book’s central essay, the speaker questions how to make ‘the I of a poem maintain the same multiplicity as you’, and a generous reader might point to Fourth Person Singular as a damn good answer. The lack of left-aligned rectangles of text should not deter readers of lyric poetry, hopefully for whom this won’t be a first encounter with alternative lyrical forms. They’d be missing out on one of the strangest, most provocative books of poetry to arrive in these islands in many years.

Further Reading: Interview with Alsadir: Liverpool University Press

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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.

3 LW

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.

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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.

2 EB

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.

2 DRJ

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?

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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.

3 JP

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.

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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.

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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.

Sinéad Morrissey – Parallax

Statement of Prejudice: I’m a big fan of Morrissey. I loved Through A Square Window, found the curious, provocative and deeply humane voice great fun to listen to. She’s one of the best poets at work in the UK today and I have high hopes for Parallax.

RealityIt’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as well-wrought and tightly bound formally and thematically as Parallax. Which is a great big way of saying it’s bloody enjoyable to read. Imagine! The poems talk to each other, the book knows where it wants to lead you, and it does so with wit, generosity and imagination.

As the book explicitly states in its epigram, Parallax is concerned with ways of seeing things from multiple perspectives, which as a foundational principle might not seem all that ground breaking, but SM explores it so fruitfully the recurring theme is barely noticeable, and thoroughly rewards repeated and close reading.

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Plus on a totally surface they’re exciting imaginative playgrounds, taking unusual and expected narrative twists without losing their emotional freight or narrative logic. Take one of the collection’s finest pieces, “A Day’s Blindness”:

He stood up to carry his plate and cup
to the sink and couldn’t see.
He sat back down. The clocks
went on consuming Saturday.

The poem conveys simply and directly the moment of sudden, irreparable panic. The poem’s close, a characteristically complex and extended single sentence runs:

He sat on at the table,

rolling crumbs beneath his thumbs
and waiting, either for what was taken
to be handed back –
the fridge, the kettle, his cuff-linked shirt –
or for the kleptomaniac visitor
he couldn’t shut out

to be done with it, finally,
and sever the link –
to haul him up out of his chair,
into the hall, and through the brown door
to a garden ruined with hooves
and there would be

horses set loose from the Bond Yard
where his father worked
in the Hungry Thirties,
their coats engrained with soot
and their heads encased in steam,
accusing him.

Good god almighty that’s the stuff. The powerful emotional dynamics, the deeply empathetic narrative voice and nightmarish close aside, the music of this passage is downright inspired. Read it aloud if you’re somewhere convenient. There are so many small, careful touches that connect each line to another, that make the passage a sumptuous sonic unity. I’m getting carried away and can only partly blame it on too many cups of tea. “A Day’s Blindness” has a fairly obvious link to the book’s core, but it wears it lightly, and its familial concerns bind it up with much of Parallax.

Speaking of which, the series of poems explicitly about the poet’s own family, a pretty well-trodden genre for lyric poets, just about manages to toe the line between delivering a very personal and privately understood experience and admitting the reader into its broader significance. Or, SM knows you’re not all that interested in the charming foibles of her offspring. The series “Daughter” and the short lyric “Lighthouse” are both beautifully rendered portraits of family life in all its dys/function and carefully examined essays into the psychology of childhood. How do children cope with a world they don’t quite understand? Not totally unlike how grown-ups do. Her daughter ‘talks all day – / her toys, her toes,/ her pictures, her minutely/ attenuated hierarchy/ of friends – / like a businessman/ on the last train home/ after one too many espressos,/ selling you his dream.’ Her son, struggling to sleep, and a lighthouse outside his window, ‘the two of them partly curtained, partly seen,/ upheld in a sort of boy-talk conversation/ no one else can hear. That private place, it answers,/ with birds and slatted windows – I’ve been there.’ There is beautifully worked ambiguity in the closing line about whether it is mother or lighthouse speaking that ties together the poem’s concerns, builds a powerful hub of emotional information.

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The book is also keenly aware of (literal and figurative) perceptions of women, and chooses to put Parallax’s discussions thereof in a historical context – the repeated insinuation being something along the lines of this is not a new problem and we’re far from fixing it. In “The Doctors” and “Photographs of Belfast by Alexander Robert Hogg”, women are explicitly (in the former) and implicitly (in the latter) erased from photographs; what should be immutable proofs are either tampered with by state-sponsored ‘black balloons [over women’s faces]’ or simply not of interest. “Display” holds in balance the ‘brusquely charmed’ tone of the male commentator, the marginally unsettling motto of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty (‘movement is life’), the working men ‘all around the periphery […] mostly they just look, quietly and sharply focused,/ like eyeing up the horses at a racecourse, but with much more choice’, and the projected declaration from narrator to the women themselves, ‘To hell with it, they may as well be saying […] I’ve got the fresh-air-body they promised me. Twist. Its electricity.’ The deeply complex power struggles at play are given full freedom of expression, and the poem withholds explicit judgement on the women at the centre of it all, whose own opinions are guessed-at and simplistic, ‘for movement is life and they are keeping moving.’ But not far beneath the surface is recognition of the truly revolutionary nature of what at the time was perceived with the patronising ‘to them belongs the future!

For if there is one tool at SM’s disposal that sets her apart it is her ability to write intricately fashioned poems that still have room for a sense of humour. This is no trifle. THIS IS DEADLY FUCKING SERIOUS. But for real, a sense of humour in the right hands is a shiv to stick into the cracks of conventional thought, and SM knows the pressure points. Take “The High Window”. It’s a poem written in a Chandler-y drawl, ‘but from the blonde’s perspective’, which turns the pulpy male gaze back on Marlowe, ‘the type of man who gives/ a girl offence by offering advice about her gloves/ or hair or make-up uninvited.’ The punchline is far too glorious to spoil.

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And all this without mentioning “A Matter of Life And Death”, which got me proper choked up, the unbelievable precision of “Shadows”, “Shostakovich”: ‘In all my praise and plainsong I wrote down/ the sound of a man’s boots from behind the mountain’, the wonderfully vulnerable “Fool’s Gold”… it has depth. It has range. It has an emotional swoop and swell and shape that make it above all else a Damn Good Book. An incredible collection of poetry, but also something genuinely worth writing home about. The Forward Prize winner is announced later today, and while I’ve yet to read either Glyn Maxwell or Rebecca Goss’ collections, Parallax is far stronger than either Polley’s commendable The Havocs or MSR’s Drysalter, and SM should be gravely disappointed to take anything less than the win.

Tl;dr: Buy it yesterday.