Full Disclosure: I, too, dislike end of year lists. They’re usually either confusingly partisan or uselessly inclusive, have as much potential to upset as to enlighten, and given that I literally spent the year talking about what books I like, this might well be a waste of time. HOWEVER, I do think there’s something to be said for taking stock of the year, doing a bit of memorialising before pushing off into a big bright shiny new one, and maybe underlining a few things that you might have missed first time round.
So this piece is less about which books I thought were Best Poetry Books 2015™, which would rely on a largely arbitrary and probably deeply compromised set of aesthetic norms and value systems (specifically, my reading history as an academically-trained white bro), and more about which books changed how I read, shed light on the (often unconscious) assumptions I bring to this or that poem. Maybe that’s not the kind of recommendation you’re really after; maybe you’ve already crossed these bridges; maybe this all misses the point in ways I can’t imagine.
In October, the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar wrote in TheGuardian about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, praising its formal innovation and timely examination of racism both daily and structural, concluding that ‘In Britain, we don’t talk about race and poetry enough’. In December Parmar published the essay ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ in the LA Review of Books. It’s a clear-eyed, intensely well-researched and damning appraisal of how monolithic British and Irish poetry remains; it demands that white readers work harder to make space for BAME poets that doesn’t insist on a kind of self-exoticising that leaves the white-as-central/normal, BAME-as-other binary untarnished.
Ten: The New Wave, with its generous selections of, among noteworthy others, Jay Bernard, Kayo Chingonyi and Warsan Shire, is not only a great example of how to anthologize (relatively few poets, a large enough selection to allow the reader to inhabit the poet’s idiosyncracies), but provides concrete ballast for Parmar’s argument: the dominance of white poets in the UK is not for want of talented BAME poets. What is it for?
A poetry book that reached a huge readership, and a powerful response to the question of whether poetry needs an active social conscience. Citizen is a beautifully, intricately composed piece of poetic work; every word is purposeful, each tableau masterfully pitched and weighted. If Citizen isn’t poetry, we all need to get new hobbies.
Loop of Jade is a curious, angry and humane collection that makes lyric poetry carry an uncommon amount of emotional and philosophical freight. A book that does that lovely thing of slowly releasing its deeper arguments as you pay closer attention. Incidentally, Howe’s critical prose is also staggeringly good.
Okay so turns out writing these blurby things is causing me borderline physical pain. The above three books are the ones I would happily and without reserve recommend to just about anyone. Here, in alphabetical order and by no means authoritatively, are some other really good books I read for the first time this year, which I’d also happily lend to people that I like and who like reading poems. NB: my memory sucks, and I’m not necessarily as up to date as I’d like to be. If you’ve recommendations please leave them in the comments; BAME, LGBT and women poets are preferred.
AK Blakemore – Humbert Summer [sharp, dramatic, making alt lit/post-internet tropes FUN] Harry Giles – Tonguit[probably the best politically-minded poetry I’ve ever read, also funny af]
John Glenday – The Golden Mean [humane, elegiac, heartbreakingly graceful]
Melissa Lee Houghton – Beautiful Girls (2013) [stark, clear-eyed, narrative poetry at its best] Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie [mindful, deep time-y, bolshy as fuck] Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty [generous, earnest, far stranger than I think I gave credit for first time round]
Warsan Shire – Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) [can’t believe yous let me go this far without reading this book, get your shit together]
Tl;dr: next year I’m keeping a spreadsheet. Thanks to everyone who reads this thing, and particularly to the folk contributing to my work via Patreon – it not only makes it so much easier for me to keep doing the work I’m already doing, it’s also the best motivator I’ve ever had. See you all in 2016, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Full Disclosure: Haven’t read her work previously.
Review: Positing any sure-footed ideas about Humbert Summer is a difficult prospect. It sometimes feels like reading several poets across a single book, and I’m not completely satisfied by connecting that to it being ‘written between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three’, according to the back cover. The poems aren’t specifically dated, and any attempt to say ‘this is a YOUNG poem’, ‘this is a GROWN UP poem’ is of limited value anyway. What is apparent, though, is the variance in tone between a poem like ‘temples’:
ghost is white in silent catnaps
and, for example, ‘double denim’:
‘allow them to wash over you,
her sequences, the sky pink as old hands
it’s almost comforting to know
that the colours
are the first thing
you will fail to recall’
There are several poems in the former category, constructed around individual bursts of declarative speech, exuberant lighting effects, punchlines; ostentatious and belligerent. Humbert Summer falls more substantially into the latter, however; a tendency towards contemplative, elegiac pieces that seem to mourn a moment still proximate enough to leave a wound.
That said, the above is probably too blunt a demarcation, and several poems could fit comfortably in both categories; there’s little to be gained from approaching Humbert Summer systematically. Part of the book’s challenge is determining the precise levels of irony at work, which seem to vary drastically from one piece to another. There is an obvious delight in language and a deft sense of humour, as in ‘tofu’:
‘the bean curd claims
it is firm & silken
But i don’t like to eat something
so coyly insinuating’
There is also a complicated relationship between the book’s various postures and the poet’s intent; ‘ars poetica’ warns:
‘boy, you want to toss a while
in my dark and back-to-nature thoughts –
know that i am serially unkind
to those who love me
because i am young, have flame
in my skin and believe
that these people
exist in infinite supply – ’
This passage holds within itself both the defiant gesture and its own critique, the knowledge that one (flame-skinned thoughtlessness) begets the other (love’s finitude). Likewise the self-conscious hagiography of the book’s title poem, which asserts ‘you’re old, / you won’t get it’. Given the it in question is ‘four-day drinking in a basement flat’, it’s difficult to take it seriously in its immediate context; it could very well, however, stand as a useful warning to readers inclined to talk down to the book, that despite its most superficial appearances, Humbert Summer knows precisely what it means.
Maybe it’s worth discussing this more deeply. If you were so inclined, you could read Humbert Summer over an hour or so; it is syntactically straightforward, often conversational in tone, its references more often pop cultural than not. But a casual gesture is no more indicative of shoddy poetic craft than a stately rumination on Rilke is indicative of heartbreaking genius, and on closer inspection there is very clearly an ear attuned to rhythm and sound at work. The poems in the collection are in close conversation with each other and acutely aware of their cultural contexts (everything I noted about Jack Underwood’s middle class markers also applies here, including the poet’s awareness of them); their cumulative effect suggests a meticulous design behind the apparently throwaway, though I’d hesitate to put too fine a point on what message that design might carry. The book’s apparent contradictions seem more like necessary complications, the ostensibly self-aggrandising postures more a direct response to a casually cruel and often violent world than an idle daydream. In ‘kill all men club’, Blakemore speculates:
they’ll find us prone
one filthy fur
borrow a dress
and Dickinson’s dashes,
rip it up
and start again.’
The surface gesture – something like, ‘what we have might seem more decorative than beautiful but still carries the capacity for substantial change’, I think? – implicates the power structures that underwrite the gesture without necessarily bringing them into focus.
Later poems also throw new light back on earlier ones. The passage from ‘ars poetica’ claiming ‘serial unkindness’ is completely undermined elsewhere in the book; the absolutely stellar poem ‘Katharine’, for example, takes the elegiac tone elsewhere in the collection and finds it completely inadequate to the kindness the poem requires. It begins:
‘there was never
the tolling of bells,
just a sinking
on the stairs.’
The grand gesture is substituted for something far more muted, the poem alighting on Heaney’s last words, noli timere (‘don’t be afraid’), before the poem’s central testimony:
‘i saw them too,
by the motorway.
i sleep in the urge
to uncover and eat them.’
Heaney’s death and the extraordinary gesture of encouragement and solace that emerged from it are evoked beautifully here, an image of sweetness and pleasure passing at high speed, the speaker’s visceral desire to retrieve it. The poem’s closing stanza seems to acknowledge and very obviously push aside the poetic persona, make explicit what the poem has already embodied:
‘i could not find it in myself
to be cruel. for some time
but not what i meant to.’
Much like ‘kill all men club’, the piece gains strength partly from its own internal formal workings but also from its immediate surroundings; ‘Katharine’ allows a moment of calm and even vulnerability in a book where the construction and maintenance of a tough exterior is its own manner of self-preservation, self-care, or – in the poems above – a kind of feminist solidarity.
The collection features references to an unusual number of biographical figures, often appearing in the background or in passing, providing a kind of atmospheric wallpaper for the collection. There is an entire poem for Valerie Solanas, a feminist writer in 1960s New York who wrote the SCUM Manifesto and who gained notoriety for attempting to murder Andy Warhol. Here again, there is a strange tenderness among the asyndeton:
‘the sorry show made him
made Andy unlovable un
lovely as a slice of
peanut brittle spunked
snag-hag up the walls in hotels’
The poem ends, ‘her mother burned her belongings posthumously’. Blakemore dramatizes Solanas’ attempt to effect radical change within a culture that devalues and decontextualises such actions; the poem’s inability (or refusal) to make total grammatical sense seems to imitate the wilful misinterpretation of Solanas’ work by a culture that demands even the author’s family erase her.
Elsewhere, Simone de Beauvoir provides an epigraph (the collection is well-read on feminist theory), Naomi Campbell and fashion journalist Cat Marnell appear, Bowie and Leonard Cohen stand in as examples of (I think) over-praised pop icons, alongside Dalí, St Theresa, the cast of Friends, Rick James, Patti [Smith?] and Stevie [Smith?] in the book’s closing poem. There is an impulse to include the workaday stuff of the world and give it due attention and credit, to acknowledge it as appropriate substance for poetry. Though it ultimately seems to arrive at a punchline, the poem ‘Rick James’ enacts a delicate and transformative handling of several chemical antidepressants (‘Hydrocodone – / semi-synthetic, a droplet on a leaf’, ‘Digoxin […] instrument of / fairy thunder, bells of dead men, / threat-flower.’), seeming to mirror the poem’s transformation of the musician’s very public persona back to ‘James Ambrose Johnson Jr.’, a real person with mental health problems which were neither acknowledged nor attended to in his lifetime. It’s an unusual act that seems to very gently draw in the reader’s ability to connect with the poetic renderings of chemical medicine, before leaving on a note of wry, almost accusatory comprehension:
‘none were present in the bloodstream
of James Ambrose Johnson Jr.
in sufficient quantities to pose
a threat to life in and of
themselves, though in orchestra
they made a convincing explanation
for his prior behaviour.’
Humbert Summer is full of these attempts at understanding troubled or troubling people, acts of empathy in the face of often overwhelming acts of violence. And violence suffuses the collection too, both explicitly and implicitly, in the early poems’ repeated images of knives, broken glass, blood, the later poem’s intimations of abduction and abuse. Like ‘ars poetica’, ‘three abduction fantasies’ seems to both enact and criticise its surface drama. The poem is in one sense precisely what it purports to be, with ‘a blonde retrospectively / transfigured by female desire’, ‘the boy is beautiful, with his bones / nearly visible’. But the poem, unsurprisingly, doesn’t flinch from the fantasies’ attendant destructiveness. The lines:
‘he’ll make you feel like a child again:
naked and shaking –
down in the bright and blood-red leaves’
are among the most disturbing in the collection. The poem seems fully aware of the imagined scenario’s implications. The book’s final poem, ‘thunder ’14’, seems to give voice to these violent impulses, a sort of divinely inspired stream of consciousness that takes in many of the book’s most powerful images, the poem’s lines spilling over and running on breathlessly:
‘a thunderstorm and all the dogs are barking a thunderstorm and
you come back to me your glass-eyes full a portion a portion of
you for the gods and i say i think i believe in magic now: nature
likes to remind us sometimes / i will take on my nature
or flying rise to meet it’
It’s so unlike the rest of the book’s meticulous precision (or studious disarray), it’s difficult not to read it as a kind of catharsis, a letting loose where the other poems worked to retain their composure. At any rate it’s perhaps fitting that a book so preoccupied with understanding its place in the world (the opening poem, ‘sick of the beats’, seems to address this question directly – ‘wondering / what higher place it is / you walk in, where you sleep, // and how retain that / state of grace’) should end with a great confusion.
Stepping back from that brink, though, the last poem is not, I think, the last word in Humbert Summer. Towards the end, amid the tension and heightened emotion, there is an extraordinary moment of calm, a poem named ‘*’:
is a yellow sun-dress
floating on cold, superb water –
someday we’ll live
As you might know, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, but for this book to allow this frank a moment of quiet just knocked me sideways (listen to that wee chime on ‘water/together’). Blakemore, I think, is primarily a lyric poet, albeit with the trappings of her post-internet context, and moments like these are what put me in mind some of Dylan Thomas’ work, the poems that find some kind of beauty, moments of small ‘r’ romantic defiance in the face of violence or death. The moments of ironic grandstanding seem to be the necessary context for the moments of genuinely earned generosity, the signal payoff that explains or permits or redresses the noise.
tl;dr: Though it might appear slight, I think there’s a heck of a lot going on under the surface in Humbert Summer. There’s a tendency with first collections, particularly from young poets, to defer praise to the hypothetical Future Alpha Version whose work will actually merit close attention. Humbert Summer, I think, is already its own strange, multifaceted true mint.