Amaan Hyder – At Hajj

Disclosure: Have not met Hyder. The book discusses several aspects of Islam including the eponymous pilgrimage, and the experiences of moving to a hostile new country, of which I have no experience, and many nuances of which I’ve probably missed. Review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. Huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this review.

The old man has fallen over. He runs over to him and lifts him and the old man holds onto his arm and takes hold of his stick and he tries to sit the old man down but in his position it is more comfortable for him to lean on the cane. It is easier standing up. Sitting down, the man would be dependent on him completely.’ (‘At Hajj’)

Review: At Hajj is Amaan Hyder’s first collection. It’s comprised of a series of narrative scenes from the eponymous pilgrimage to Mecca woven among more traditionally lyric pieces, most, if not all, of which are set in an unspecified British space. The book’s twin threads are not connected explicitly (bar one poem which discusses trans-generational attitudes to religious traditions), and it’s reasonable to believe they may be enacted by different characters, the various scenes at Mecca told from the point of view of at least one man and at least one woman, and all in third person. Certainly the self at the heart of the book’s lyric poems is notable by their relative absence, performing fascinating acts of narrative positioning to keep the poem’s focus on the lives of others; the speaker’s parents, brother, friends, neighbours and neighbourhood:

‘You’re going to look back and

I’m going to look back and
there’s been this van up and down
past the shop really slow.’

The first instalment of the ‘At Hajj’ sequence, meanwhile, introduces a book-long quiet attentiveness to the thoughts and actions of others:

He sees people standing to pray, putting their hands on their knees and drawing up and going down to touch their foreheads to the ground. These are the movements his thoughts make. […] They sit long after the prayers are over and ask what they have to ask for.’

The ‘At Hajj’ poems are all printed in italics, a typographic convention that usually indicates quotation, emphasis, or voices-off. Here, it seems to act as the introduction to a special world, or an alternate form of address, a different frame of mind. The language is plain and spare and methodical. Its painstaking, precise description of the body and its motions feel strange on a first read; it is unusual to be asked to spend so much thought on so ordinary a motion. The passage of time in this scene is key: the ‘he’ doing the watching has clearly been doing so for a substantial span of time, watching the prayers without praying himself. There’s a kind of mirroring between how carefully Hyder has crafted the passage, in its precise ambiguity, and the attention the figure in the poem gives to the worshippers; there is more than one level in ‘the movements his thoughts make’. The last line pushed me gently off-balance too: are they asking for advice on what to ask for, or is this an elegant way of describing the manifold things people request in prayer? Perhaps this careful observation of the everyday, this dedicated, time-consuming attentiveness to the bodies and thoughts of others is the poet’s own act of worship.

The spiritual and the profane are blended and combined throughout the book. In two poems, ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ and ‘Calling Mohammed’ Hyder imagines the prophet as a contemporary, partly filtered through the speaker’s brother of the same name. The former begins:

‘I think Mohammed peace be upon him would have had one of those phones that aren’t big or black like you sometimes get in old TV programmes. […] I feel that he would have written his name on the back of his phone because he was a good man. […] I am certain that he would have kept his phone switched off so that he would not disturb other people.’

As in ‘At Hajj’, the most prominent note in both the poems’ atmosphere and its subject matter is this openness, this willingness to speak simply and invite understanding. The opening lines of ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ enthusiastically inhabit this sincere subjectivity (‘I think…’, ‘I feel…’), lending the speaker a kind of moral certitude  which compliments the casual confidence of their imaginative leaps. The whole poem might well be in a child’s voice, the way children, faced with difficult and alien ideas, attempt to draw them nearer to their own experiences, like asking why there are no dinosaurs in the Bible. The second half of the poem expresses this tone formally, as the prose gives way to ballad meter, with its rumbling, uncomplicated rhythms:

‘My brother’s called Mohammed.
He’s always in our room.
He’s stopped watching TV
and he hates middle school. […]

‘To make my brother happy
we go out on our bikes.
We stay away from others,
eat Bountys in the night.’

The poem’s objects are beautiful in their specificity, ‘The [phone] I mean is the one Faraan my cousin has’, the Bounty bars, their very singularity giving them radiance. The final stanza becomes its own sacred space for the two brothers, safe with the explicit treasure of sweets and the unspoken one of familial solidarity. Where, exactly, the historical-religious figure of Mohammed fits in this scene is hazy, as the poem is definitively rooted in earthly concerns, contemporary consumer society and family politics. The speaker’s imaginative lens provides space for what might be a deeply personal, immediately present interpretation of the prophet, somewhat at odds with the book’s frank, straightforwardly realist presentation of religious acts in its central sequence.

Few of the collection’s lyrics are so readily unpacked, however, and Hyder’s ability to convey meaning tonally and atmospherically is truly remarkable (presuming that I’m picking it up as intended). Many of these short poems create a sensory space for the reader to inhabit, by way of brief snatches of conventional syntax among ostensibly disconnected ideas or images. Here’s the opening section, Alif, from ‘The Clot’:

‘What is a fit?
A holy thing is a fit.
A life is a fit.

I hear fifty machines stitching,
inking a grip.
Someone came to the door.

Someone was listening to us.
When I wake I am told what happened.
I pressed eject, mouths my father.

I pressed enough, mouths my mother.
She leaves in a car that shoots light.’

The drama conveyed in a few dozen words is incredible. The haiku-like opening stanza is a formula one could spend hours exploring, the vital qualities of ‘holy’ and ‘life’ left tantalisingly undefined. The following stanzas’ combination of autonomous machines with human listeners creates a kind of dread that could not have been rationally expressed; the fact that the father and mother cannot physically speak, and communicate only in the low-tech language of magnetic tape, is deeply unsettling. That last line makes my hair stand on end, the passive verb, the supernatural vehicle.

Using similar techniques for near-opposite purposes, the opening lines from ‘Wet Collected’:

‘Dancers stamp
Earth! Earth!

Coy Beau, not gym,
don’t bury him in muscle.

The way of flightless birds.
Emerging first,

a drip diving hairs in a beard.’

Who the dancers are, whether they are vocalising ‘earth’ or whether this is the message their dancing bodies convey, is less important than the atmosphere those lines suggest, their notes of physical action, communal movement, joy in the sensory. Whether ‘Beau’ moves like a flightless bird, is a flightless bird, or the moisture in his beard is redolent of flightless birds is less important than the sensation of thinking all these things (probably more) at once. It’s a unique poem in At Hajj, a dreamy interlude in a book in which sensual pleasures are rare.

Bodies, as noted already, are in focus throughout the collection. ‘Sleeves’ is a gorgeous, playful poem about gift-giving and emotional labour. The poem closes as the speaker and his friend share a secret, intimate moment: ‘I put my hands in the pockets with his and our fingers overlapping go in and press and circle and out like zigzags snug-tight hot and the heat is another layer around us too’. The precision, again, is part of the way the poem expresses love. Even ‘What Were Giraffes?’, with its weird, catastrophically suggestive opening line, ‘Remember horses? They were like horses’, keeps the animal’s body at the centre of its thinking: ‘a tough skin / patterned like baked earth’, ‘They had thick eyelashes, Mohawk mane hair’. ‘What Were Giraffes?’ is partly, I think, an attempt to reconcile an unusual body with the human observer’s impulse to impose on the body the category ‘comic / gold’. The poem defends giraffes’ innate worth in a world where they are gone for good, closing on a note both defiant and accusatory, ‘Those were giraffes.’ However ludic its terms, the poem asks the reader how one considers the living worthy or unworthy of respect and survival, what it is about giraffes’ outlandishness that makes their destruction acceptable.

To return to the book’s central sequence, ‘At Hajj’, it’s remarkable how ordinary it often feels. These passages, as noted above, are at times both highly specific – in terms of the physical movement of bodies, the interpersonal dynamics of the pilgrims, the behaviour of a dog – and notably unfixed – there are at most a handful of proper nouns, and although it is heavily suggested that a multitude of peoples and tongues are present, the text denotes them only as speaking ‘in his/her language’. There is no attempt, in other words, to provide ‘local colour’, the market-friendly mangoes demanded by Western publishers and editors, as critiqued in Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation. Perhaps, then, this is one meaning of the italics; a typographical note that readers such as myself have been provided only conditional access to these scenes by narrators who themselves may be working by interpretation. Body language, as in ‘The old man motions that he will wait and gives him stones and tells him to throw them for him’, seems to operate on an equal footing to the spoken.

The poems also seem reserved, if not somewhat sceptical, about one’s access to the spiritual plane. Among their accounts of pilgrims’ struggles to move safely through a crowd, journeying in the desert with only a dog for company, and campsite politics, there is only one short section that even mentions divine immanence, and that with heavy irony:

Some onlookers believed that such a spirit was in the mall now, guiding the insiders round, giving them the energy. Yes, and some had their servants carry them the whole Hajj. There was no ghost in the mall but corporate spectre.’

What’s more visible in these narratives than spiritual uplift are physical sacrifices made on the behalf of others. Two separate sections note that their protagonists have hurt their shoulders: a man holds back a crowd to let an elderly man safely use the public toilet; a woman guides an elderly woman get through a bottleneck in the crowd. The narrative voice remains neutral throughout, their suffering simply another fact in an accumulation of facts: ‘What she knows very keenly now is the pain in her shoulder.’, ‘He thinks on what he had done. He puts a hand to his shoulder which aches.

Although these italicised passages in Mecca are more obviously disconnected to the lyrics set in the West, they are strongly connected by their characterisation of society as a great, unfeeling and irresistible threat punctuated by moments of kindness, ‘Save announcements / of change, it has made a mockery of / all of us’ (‘Inheritable Landscape’). The pilgrims risk their bodies to help those who need it, a man hides the flaws in his friend’s gift, or, in one of the most remarkable poems in the book, ‘Grain’, the weary repetitions of the pantoum form converts the opening stanza:

‘We will look back on our time
as ruined lives and think doing
good work will bear some reward,
but it gives only false impression.’

into a final, hopeful, if to some degree ironised, assertion:

‘Good work will bear some reward.’

It only takes the faintest gesture toward the great evils at work in the world to remember how important, and radical, a thought this is, how substantial change begins with kindness for the vulnerable and contempt for the powerful, how one’s body may be a tool for fighting oppression. At Hajj is intelligent, kind and resolute in its politics, curious, precise and inventive in its aesthetics. It’s a book worth spending time over, worth keeping in mind.

Further Reading: “Coats” by Amaan Hyder in The Guardian

Review of At Hajj by Jeremy Noel-Tod in The Times

Review of At Hajj by Richie McCaffery in The Poetry School

PS: If you found this useful or informative and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

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Caroline Bird – The Hat-Stand Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon Olds – Stag’s Leap

Statement of Prejudice:  I quite like Olds. I remember reading The Father several years back, after I’d heard it was all (shudder) ~fiction~, and thinking it was still rather affecting. I’m usually put on the defensive by overtly confessional stuff, seeing as poetry usually ends up confessing more than it intends to anyway, but Olds has a good ear and some complex emotional moves, and I’m optimistic.

The book’s divorce storyline has been drearily trotted out every time Stag’s Leap is mentioned, so I’m trying to ignore the marketing ploy at work there. The blurb in the book’s flyleaf is utter tripe and whoever is responsible for its publication needs to feel bad about themselves and think hard about what they’ve done.

Reality: So far so good. I’m four poems in, and “Material Ode” has just knocked my socks off. The poem does a lovely job with its little refains, the voice turns inward and as Olds describes the post-announcement-of-potential-break-up sex she addresses us with ‘Reader, I slept with him’ in a grimly resigned and forlorn inversion of the Bronte thing. It’s so self-pitying, and knowingly self-pitying, and knowing that self-pity is still a powerful thing that can move us, cuz who hasn’t felt that, the pain of another human’s animal self-interest, or caused it? This is a ruddy good poem, one that looks frankly and woundedly at its own delusion and presents it unflinchingly. Or it at least seems to.

One last side note on the whole poetry/fiction thing: if Olds is fibbing, and this is all a big scam, then she is capable of almost pathological imaginative empathy, and worth spending a lot of time over. Whether this is of the I-feel-your-pain species or the look-at-how-sad-I-might-be-maybe is trivial.

“Last Look” is another stupidly moving piece of work. Okay, the subject matter of loss, particularly the loss of love, is as close to a gimme as poetry gets, but Olds does something pretty unusual with it all. The last lines, “not to have lost him when he loved me, and not have / lost someone who could have loved me for life” should be schmaltzy as hell, but the fact that they’re only a little schmaltzy, and still powerful in their schmaltz, the sheer bluntness in the expression of the emotion put beside the complex understanding of the politics of the relationship is near-unique in the contemporary poetry of my acquaintance. Shouldn’t there be some irony here? A wry smile? On the other hand, there’s still sixty-odd pages of this book left, let’s not prematurely reckon the poultry.

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Aaaaagh and “Stag’s Leap” is wonderful too. Gosh darn but I’m nearly ashamed of myself for enjoying someone so successful. Again, the whole husband =stag = domineering and careless masculinity doesn’t quite map out that simply in the poem, as Olds just about transposes her own image into the cervine label on the wine bottle, ‘Even when it’s I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.’ Sure, it’s the self-pity thing again, but it feels real, and more like a confession (in the telling your friends way rather than the religious/poetic-taxonomic way) than a pose. Just listen to this:

His fur is rough and cosy, his face
placid, tranced, ruminant,
the bough of each furculum reaches back
to his haunches, each tine of it grows straight up
and branches, like a model of his brain, archaic,
unwieldy.

Furculum = ‘little fork’, meaning the antlers. See also ‘bifurcating’. Anyway, isn’t that great writing? Look at what we can pick up about the husband from this, how easily we can see the deer and how pretty all the words sound. It also builds beautifully on from earlier poems, ‘the cindery lichen / skin between the male breasts’ in the book’s opener. Again, another killer ending, as the poem goes further into the image on the wine label, into the distant vinyards and the almost certainly imaginary glassblower creating the press’ bottles, ‘growing at the ends of their / blowpipes as dark, green, wavering groans.’ Aaaaaaahhhhh. I am making that gesture at the end of a meal where you put all your fingers and thumbs together and kiss them and open your hand and go ‘mwah’.

So after that one I just went heave-ho right to the end of the book almost in one sitting – reading in the NLS and got hungry, such is life – and was at no point bored/impatient. The book is long and monotopical, but, given that the topic is love, its nature and interpersonal complexities and particularities, that’s a fascinating question to dive into, and one on which Olds has a darned solid grasp.

This is an emotionally complex, self-aware chunk of writing that sounds bloody good, free verse at its finest. Olds knows how to construct a singing line, even if many of her lines sing rather similarly, and can pack a punch when that rhythmic pattern is broken, as in the last line of “Tiny Sirens”, a poem in which she finds a photograph of her husband’s lover in the laundry: ‘Just for a few minutes I had felt a little nervous’ is brutally powerful in its sudden absence of guile.

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Stag’s Leap even talks openly and frankly about the role the poetry might have played in the real-life divorce, and Olds’ perspicacity about not just her writing but the personality that produced it is tough love to say the least. But it works: in the writing the balance of power between the two actors is believable, engaging, and when, in “Not Quiet Enough” Olds wonders ‘did his spirit turn against the spirit which / tolled our private, wild bell / from the public rooftop, I who had no other / gift to give the world but to hold what I / thought was love’s mirror up to us’, there’s a sense that this is more than just elaborate, elegant, aurally bountiful rhetoric.

It’s not always easy going, and I imagine as many will be totally revulsed as engrossed, but Olds aims at some fine emotional targets, and hits more often than not. It’d be pretty easy to dismiss it as much of an Oldsness, but Stag’s Leap is a more considered, complex and curious book that any that came before, and I present the Marmitean “Sleekit Cowrin’” [sic: shouldn’t that be cow’rin? – ed] as evidence. Smack in the middle of the book, it presents its metaness in the title and talks about a dead beastie in a trap being eaten by bugs, ‘as if the rodent / were food rejoicing.’ All well and morbid, but here’s how it ends:

And I know, I know, I should put
my dead marriage out on the porch
in the sun, and let who can, come
and nourish of it – change it, carry it
back to what it was assembled from,
back to the source of the light whereby it shone.

I think this might be the key to whether this book will complicate your ideas about a life shared with other people or make you politely place it back where you found it. It seems like Olds resigning herself to the necessity of her own (perceived or not) personal failings as much as justifying the content of her poetry. The two are intertwined. And okay, maybe the poem figures her work as a corpse and the reader as ravenous coleoptera but that does ask questions about the contract we enter into when we open the newest Sharon Olds, when she presents her life and we take something from it. How does that make you feel?

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The easy answer is to say ‘pretty good, I’m enlightened and entertained, and no one made her write it’. But Olds’ questions run throughout the book: could the marriage have lasted if the poetry hadn’t happened? Olds takes full responsibility, of course, but she repeatedly wonders about the nature of the relationship between herself and her work (and, obvs, her relationships). What are you willing to sacrifice for art? What if the sacrifice produces further art? And what if that art changes someone’s understanding of love, as Olds hopes in “Sleekit Cowrin’”, and prevents further mishap? The relationship between artist, art and audience is also tricky, and I found it difficult while reading Stag’s Leap to imagine the audience as a non-factor in the equation.

ANYWAY. The tl;dr is that this is a pretty great book, and hits its marks powerfully and engagingly. Read Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture if you think an entire book on love is a tap-in. There are a couple of early poems that open with variations on ‘when my husband left’ that cause a little emotional fatigue, but only a couple, and the book’s Winter-Spring-Summer etc structure mitigates the usual mid-collection doldrums.

Of course, I’ve only read two books on the shortlist, the next on the list being Kathleen Jamie, so I’m thoroughly ready to rescind this opinion at zero notice, but for now, huge congrats to the TS Eliot judges for choosing a worthy winner.