some books, a little news, happy new year

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

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

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

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

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

Layli Long Soldier – Whereas (Graywolf)

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

 

Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)

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

 

Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)

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

Anne Carson – Float (Cape)

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

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

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

Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)

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

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

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

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

Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)

Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)

Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)

Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)

Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)

Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)

Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)

Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)

William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)

Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)

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

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

Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)

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

Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)

Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)

Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

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

————————————————————————————————————

Links to shops:

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

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Stanza 2016 Diary – Saturday 5 March

Full Disclosure: Part two of a two-part series on being at StAnza poetry festival. Still a paid gig, all of yesterday’s caveats apply.

10am: Aase Berg, Clare Best, SJ Fowler, Andrew McMillan, Justin Stephenson: Poetry Breakfast

As I sit down to write this on the mezzanine in the Byre, a poem translated by my pal Jessica Johannesson Gaitán has appeared projected on the far wall. Sometimes wee particles of unexpected joy hurl themselves at you and your heart is glad. Hey Jess! Your poem is wonderful. It’s called ‘Cathedral 2.0’, about a computer recreation of St Andrews cathedral, and has lines like ‘a tissue sustained by professionalised gaming-aesthetics’; ‘There are no stars upon my linen / or on the inside of my eyelids’.

After a morning’s formalities of tea and introductions, the Saturday morning panel was themed around the body in poetry. McMillan, whose book physical won the Guardian First Book Award (AND MY HEART), opened proceedings by introducing a few of the book’s guiding lights: Thom Gunn, whose candidness inspired him as a young reader, his free discussion of love, baths, and the AIDS crisis; Sharon Olds, who seemed to give permission to a confessional openness; and the Yorkshire poet Geoff Hattersley, bringing his daily factory shiftwork to the realm of poetry. Later, McMillan would speak about the politics of telling other people’s stories – an electrician whose granddaughter had died, and four days later was back at work – arguing that his duty as a poet was to bear witness: ‘the only way to go is to be totally sincere’. It’s this sincerity that marks McMillan’s work, and his questions about whether a straight male poet could have ‘gotten away’ with his poems about women’s lives and sexuality (‘Leda to her daughters’, ‘the things men take’) does raise important questions about who the reader ‘permits’ to speak for whom, and why.

Clare Best’s poetry about her mastectomy – breast cancer has affected every woman in her family, and Best took the decision to have the operation voluntarily – was similarly frank and clear-eyed about making choices about one’s own body, about taking control before control is taken away. Aase Berg, who performed yesterday, complimented this idea in a book on her pregnancy, ‘Transfer Fat’; she talked about how women writing on pregnancy are expected to ‘be the warm mother’, even though in reality she did not feel in control of her own body: ‘nature is not a Disney film, it is a Werner Herzog film’. She extended a similar critique to readerly expectations of poetry, that there is a Disneyfied, narcissistic approach to reading, that ‘you go out into the woods and meet a totem animal, a nice deer who likes you’. Poetry has the power to resist a self-centred, comfortable culture, the power to be unlikeable.

Stephenson played his video interpretation of Canadian poet bpNichol’s work, a neat, twisty poem about the process of writing and interpretation, how the physical tools of writing become part of the writing’s meaning: ‘this is a pen moving on paper / metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper / metaphorically the page is a window. it is not.’ Fowler made the very fine point that poetry culture tends to lean altogether too heavily on the idea of the individual genius producing ‘golden nuggets’ from the void. A lot of Fowler’s work comes in facilitating collaboration, and his project today involved tearing up a copy of his own collection and distributing its pages among the audience, who, on cue, read all pages at once; the resulting wall of voices was a neat metaphor for breaking hierarchies. In practice, it was pretty apt, as the audible individuals were the ones who just kept talking long enough. Mulling this over, one notes that one routinely just keeps talking longer than one should. Hm.

The panel concluded with Berg and McMillan’s valuable thoughts about exploitation in poetry – a tendency to beautify or poeticise suffering or other people’s stories. Berg’s collection Hackers features on the cover a photo of a Dutch sex worker; Berg questioned her own motivation – the poet described the image as ‘a Trojan horse’ for the collection to do its work, and recognised the complicated politics of exploiting others’ bodies or acts of witness to one’s own artistic benefit.

1pm: Em Strang, Samuel Tongue, Briget Khursheed, Lindsay McGregor: New Writers Showcase

Anna Crowe’s remarkably effective patiently-smiling-while-audience-settles-down brought the Council Chamber to order for readings from four recent winners of the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award. Em Strang, whose first full collection, Bird Woman, is coming out this year with Shearsman, read a long poem, a nightmarey folk tale full of fire and horses and cries in a language that might have been Scandanavian(?), entirely from memory. It left an Atmosphere in the room unlike anything I’ve seen at the festival thus far. ‘It isn’t our land but it’s all we need. It stood up to the night for a long time.’

Samuel Tongue is the poetry editor at the Glasgow Review of Books and read short lyric poems on language, the materiality of words (the poem ‘Alef-Bet’ analyses how the physical shape of letters affects what they do, ‘alef’ being ‘a stag head already tracking thought’), science and faith. One proposed the ‘extended phenotype’ (the theory that the environment a creature alters may be considered part of its DNA, cf beaver dams) for humans might be the ‘unplumbed lavatory’ left in the street. Tongue’s poems were thoughtful, generous and precise.

Briget Khursheed’s poems also paid close attention to scientific research and the natural world, with a poem for John Smith, the builder for a large part of Walter Scott’s Abottsford estate, admiring the craftwork of the windows into ‘The Little Gothic Orangery’ he had made, insisting ‘but I had nothing to do with the oranges’. Another observes otters and stoats in their natural habitats, ‘maybe dancing, maybe charming a rabbit’, ‘writhing rodent maps’. A poem about the exact moment Khursheed’s father died, with the line ‘heather so perfect it might hide Tunnocks wrappers’ is witty and heartbreaking.

Finally, Lindsay McGregor explored her new collection The Weepers, a historical group of paid mourners (‘rent-a-crowd’). The book concerns the scattering of her partner’s ashes, and ranges from medieval saints plucking out their eyes to escape unwanted courtship (‘she’ll cure the vision of anyone who asks / she is a lesson to us all’) to the life and times of the fairly monstrous Duke of Sutherland, one of the key perpetrators of the Highland Clearances and a firm believer in the efficacy of steam for just about any problem you could think of, but primarily lazy peasants. A poem on scattering ashes under a frozen lake to be eaten by fish is particulary powerful: ‘I let them / feed, then, fishing deep, I net them. / We must eat.’

2.15pm Martyn Crucefix on The Daodejing and Pascale Petit on Tomas Tranströmer Past and Present

Minidisclosure: I’ve met Petit a couple of times.

The Daodejing is a fifth or sixth century BCE document from China, reportly containing all the wisdom of a single librarian from the royal court, who wrote it all down at the behest of a gatekeeper on his way out into the wilderness; as Crucefix notes, that’s probably just a nice story. What’s certain is its concern with effective statecraft, with wisdom extremely tempting to transfer to the present day, as Harry Giles did with his minimalist Orcadian versions in Tonguit. Crucefix’s own versions turn the ‘sage’ or ‘wise teacher’ character into a woman, on the grounds that the text recurrently insists that good government uses ‘female’ power, ‘rising up from below’; this seems an odd and slightly distracting decision, not least given the text’s own advice to refrain from interference while exercising power. But Crucefix’s general interpretation is extremely valuable, insisting on the theory that those who desire power are worst equipped to wield it, ‘those who delight in the sword delight in its function’; he has clearly made an extensive study of the Daodejing and he seemed completely in his element guiding a tour through its ideas.

Petit’s talk on Tomas Tranströmer was a real pleasure, a thoughtful, incisive and evidently delighted close read of some of her favourite poems. Starting with his name, which in Swedish (I’m guessing with some creative license?) goes something like ‘tran (crane, as in the bird)’ ‘stromer (fast-flowing river)’; Petit took this as an aspect of the poet’s habitual birds-eye views and rapid changes of direction. Starting with his first published poem, ‘Prelude’, ‘waking up is a parachute jump from dreams’, Petit follows his ‘filmic’ zoom in/pan out techniques, the way Tranströmer renders abstract ideas in the comprehensibly immediate physical and sensory world.

Also key to Tranströmer’s work is his love of music, particularly Schubert – his poem ‘Schubertiana’ Petit named as a masterwork. Here, he explores the idea that from a particular point in New York one can look at the homes of eight million people; the city is framed as galaxy, and ‘within this galaxy coffee cups are pushed across the counter’; ‘plants have thoughts’, ‘I know that somewhere in those rooms Schubert is being played, and it is more important than anything else’. In ‘Allegro’, ‘I raise my Hayden flag… we do not surrender but want peace’. Among the technical artistry is an engaged and grounded political mind, a value system that considers coffee cups and music, the small pieces of ‘the vast machinery of a vital organism’ as important as the organism itself.

5pm: Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan: Five O’Clock Verses

Minidisclosure: I’ve previously reviewed both poets, and have had brief twitter chats with McMillan.

It’s been a couple of years since I first read Bright Travellers, Benson’s first collection. I hardly recognised those same poems, and hearing them read so passionately, and at such an intense emotional frequency, did that thing that I pretty much considered an industry cliché – it made them sound like new poems. The honesty and openness of ‘Love Letters to Vincent’ [Van Gogh], which could easily seem silly, workshoppy – imagine you are in a frustrating and emotionally unviable relationship with a historical figure – are in Benson’s hands totally convincing, viscerally affecting. There is powerful, wrenching emotional reality to these scenes, the Great Artist’s simultaneous dependency and disgust on the narrator, the narrator’s pity and desire, the nostalgia for the better person subject to ‘a vertiginous dark which is never done with you, old pal’ and the self-hatred for their own weakness, ‘and I let you in, and I let you in, and I let you in’. It was something special.

McMillan’s work carries a similar emotional maturity, often hidden behind the absurdity of the poems’ surface action; ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ (introduced as ‘If you’ve ever wondered what has happened to 21st century masculinity, watch men try to talk to each other in the gym. It’s like awkward ballet’) in particular benefitted from a live reading, the little ridiculous twists in each line getting properly drawn out: ‘they have turned water … into protein shakes’. The couple of new poems on show were also beautiful: ‘Fraternal’ has the poet watching his nephew looking after his new baby sister: ‘he is pretending to parent her… this is how we learn the basic wants of people… the body is needful, it must be undressed’. ‘Curtain’ is a brief and disarmingly candid account of a failed sexual encounter backstage, which ends with the speaker with his cock out, bowing deeply. It’s probably coincidental, but this poem came shortly after McMillan shared some of his less appreciative reviews; a recurring idea was keeping one’s feet on the ground. In any case, the reading was one of the best I’ve ever seen at StAnza, two hugely talented and confident poets giving everything for the audience. More of this sort of thing.

 

8pm Nora Gomringer: Poetry Centre Stage

Every time I’ve been at StAnza there’s been some cool sound or noise poetry event, but this was the first time I’ve seen it in pride of place in one of the main event slots. Gomringer is considered a leading German-language poet (acc to Annie Rutherford, who provided a bilingual introduction), and alongside jazz drummer Philip Schultz did a little bit to expand some ideas about what poetry can do, what it looks like, and how many squeaky dog toys may be employed in its creation. Gomringer and Schultz introduced their double act as taking the words of others (including the poet’s father, Eugen Gomringer), and reproducing them in new formats. The pair had a huge amount of energy and bounced off each other beautifully; Gomringer has a huge amount of stage presence and charisma, Schultz’s creative use of unusual percussion props its own kind of physical comedy.

Gomringer’s opening piece was a sound poem that involved play with the component sounds of the word ‘perfection’ (and kind of broke the ice by permitting some weird noises and silly faces). Other highlights included Dorothy Parker’s ‘Frustration’ (‘If I had a shiny gun…’) as performed by a nightclub singer; a performance based around the I Ching, one of the oldest written Chinese texts, including a really sharp bit of silent sound poetry (I guess you’d have to have been there); an autobiographical piece called ‘Family Thing’ in which the poet imagines herself a sister, instead of her seven brothers: ‘if my mother is the mother of invention then invention is my sister, my sister is… invention’. The set closed with a cute piece on being asked to babysit a dog that only speaks English and being given a book’s worth of instructions called ‘How to Love Dog’.

At this point the Fife transport system dictated I must head for the hills, having consumed far in excess of one’s poetry RDA. I know this is a paid gig and superlatives are expected, but it’s a true fact that I’ve never seen crowds like it at StAnza, and paid or not I’ll be coming back next year.

[PS: apologies to everyone I didn’t get a proper chat with on account of running around headless.]

Pascale Petit – Fauverie

Full Disclosure: I’ve written a review of Fauverie for the next edition of Poetry Wales, who provided a review copy. Thanks to editor Nia Davies for kindly giving the go-ahead to this piece. Content warning: discussions of sexual assault.

Review: I’d encourage any potential reader of Fauverie to look first at this interview with Prac Crit, in which Petit elaborates on some of the real life contexts for the book. It is a tough read, and Petit talks openly and frankly about rape, mental illness and abandonment. Similarly, Fauverie works partly in light of her 2001 collection The Zoo Father, if at all possible I’d also recommend reading the earlier book.

Though it too has its moments of tenderness, The Zoo Father seems in its most emotionally charged moments an angry book. In the first section its imaginative strength is employed in disempowering, making safe or actively harming the father in something like acts of retribution; these poems explicitly relate what the father has done to his family, and are difficult and painful to read. It’s an important collection, one I wish I’d read sooner. Fourteen years later, Fauverie – though it too openly confronts plain facts of violence and abuse – is at heart, I think, a book about finding peace. Though the organising details – the poet visiting her father on his deathbed in Paris – are the same, it does not so much re-write the story as examine it from different angles. The third poem in the collection, ‘Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier’, quite explicitly questions the morality of returning to a story, or of selecting another imaginative reality:

‘The one a nightingale serenades
just because he’s in pain – that’s
the father I choose, not the man
who thrusts red-hot prongs in their eyes
so their songs will carry for miles.’

The poem ends with this certainty undermined:

‘He does not make canaries trill so loud
that the tiny branches of their lungs
burst. I am sure of this, though I am just
an ounce in the fist of his hand.’

The poem sets out the risk being taken in this re-examination; the book gives the father a voice on several occasions, and at times permits a view of him not solely as the monster of The Zoo Father, but as an old man himself confronting death; though the potential even for a dying man to commit or denote violence is, as in these lines, rarely far from the surface. It is noticeable, for example, that the father’s pleasures, like ‘Pâté de Foie Gras’ or ‘Ortolan’, require the incarceration and torture of wild animals. This tension between the conscious pursuit of healing and the acknowledgement of lived reality animates the collection; the zoo animals of the title seem to enact this dissonance in their being at once beautiful wild creatures and shut away from their natural habitats and instincts.

As the back cover blurb notes, the ‘Fauves’ were ‘primitivist’ painters – of whom Matisse was considered a member – noted for their use of vivid, undoctored colours, for depositing paint straight from the tube to the canvas. The answer to the darkness in both Fauverie and The Zoo Father is a barely-contained richness in the poems’ vocabulary and imagery, which often comes across as an insistence on the perceiver’s survival and ability to perceive beauty in the world. The ‘Fauverie’ refers to the big cat house in the Jardin des Plantes; in the Prac Crit interview Petit talks about her time spent in the Amazon rainforest, and in Fauverie there seems a deeply felt identification with the native animals in the Parisian zoo. These poems seem to act as a kind of exhalation to counter the tension in those focused on her father; see ‘Blue-and-Gold Macaw Feather’:

‘I could paint a world
with this brush, these hues.

Is this how God felt as he drew
His colours across the void?’

and ‘Black Jaguar with Goat’:

‘What is innocence?
He is devouring his meal as trained.
What is worse –

to be the too-real prey
or the predator
without instinct?’

These take their time to follow a more recognisably logical train of thought – here is the physical object, here is the question the object provokes, however obliquely – and this ordinariness comes as a kind of relief, a re-alignment of the book’s magnetic north. These poems bookend the collection, and in the middle is an almost unrelenting quest (or series of quests) into the book’s subconscious; perhaps what is remarkable is that so many poems’ imaginative transformations are ultimately benign or restorative. ‘How to Hand-Feed Sparrows (Instructions to My Father)’ figures the father as a candle, melting away in its generous gesture:

‘Keep your hand steady, support it with
your other arm, until your flesh is stiff as wax
while other messengers of darkness and fire
fly down to taste your offering. […]
Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.’

In a similar vein is the superb ‘My Father’s Mirror’, in which the eponymous furniture ‘went walking / through the streets of Paris’, until:

‘The sun carried him as far as the bridge
then he lay down and became a puddle.

The snow, when it fell, was gentle,
the flakes gathering

like a sheet drawn over his face.’

These remind me of Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ and Longley’s ‘In Memoriam’ respectively, though that might just be me. There is something Longleyan in the poet’s ability to find peace or the peaceful image in the midst of suffering, though, for example at the close of the late poem, ‘Effigy’, in which the father has become an exhibit in the Musée du quai Branly:

‘This man is my father,
he speaks with the tenderness of flowers.’

I think that here is the crux of the collection. There are some powerful individual poems in the book, particularly the controlled rage and defiance of ‘Bullet Ants’, the nightmarish economy of ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Cellar’. But the basic unit is the entire book rather than its individual parts, and I think (perhaps optimistically?) that its narrative arc hits a nadir in the childhood cellar, with the imaginative interaction of child and adult poet:

‘She has been down there
with her father for fifty years.

I call her ‘she’
because she is the cellar ‘me’. […]

And she focuses there,
sends me out and up,

gargling run!
in her recurring dream.

She is the silence.
I am the scream.

and reaches to a peak at the close of the book in that reclamation of agency, that taking back of authorial power in ‘Effigy’, and the contemplative poems from the Fauverie that follow. The closing poem, ‘Emmanuel’ (both the name of the bell in Notre Dame cathedral and the Hebrew for ‘God is with us’) seems to support that theory in its ostensible belief in the efficacy of ritual washing and prayer, ‘Let all badness / be banished when he rings’. The final line of the poem and book is ‘I proclaimed peace after bloodshed’; for Fauverie to find this redress at a cost very clearly laid out in the body of the collection, this balancing of books where The Zoo Father perhaps did not, is a rather extraordinary gesture.

There’s little doubting that Fauverie is a difficult book, and some of its high-drama registers (‘My Father’s Wardrobe’, ‘Notre-Dame Father Speaks’) are challenging but necessary, I think, to establish its emotional disruptiveness and unevenness. Part of its communication is unworldly and grotesque, and the subject matter suits, if not necessitates, such a strategy. A useful touchstone here might be the Plath of ‘Jaguar’, perhaps elements of Olds’ The Father, as several poems feature a kind of fraught or compromised shift in the characters’ power balance which is subtle enough to be overlooked.  Fauverie, however, speaks in its own idiom and embraces and makes use of its own strangeness, and after a couple of reads it began to make sense to me, if that’s the right word.

Tl;dr: Fauverie is a difficult, painful but important book, and well worth the time and effort.

TS Eliot ’11 Part 5 – The Rest

Partly due to a shortage of time before the big day and partly to impatience I’ve decided to do five reviews at once. No man has ever attempted such a feat of daring. Will I survive? Will you be suddenly afflicted with a sudden case of who-gives-a-shits? FIND OUT….

NOW

John Haynes – You

A 78 page epic about the poet’s wife and her struggle to adapt to life in England after emigrating from Nigeria, written in 254 seven-line stanzas with a repeating rhyme scheme.
There is no reason for this to be a poem.
The book is a perfect example of form working against the content. There are no breaks or even separate titles for each poem that could divide the action into digestible sections and lend it some variation in dramatic emphasis. There should be a difference in tone between, say, the scene when they are allowed to pass through customs for the first time as a married couple and are faced with anti-immigration headlines from the tabloids, or when they have sex on a camp bed in her mother’s house. But there just isn’t. Each scene flows endlessly into the next like a man counting to a hundred then starting again. What’s frustrating is that it’s probably a story worth telling, which in the right hands could have become a deserved peer to Sharon Olds or Mark Doty. But it’s never given a chance, the author assuming throughout that the reader is fascinated not by the emotional arc of a relationship, not by the social criticism of both his home nation and his wife’s, not by an intimate investigation of the significant moments in their lives, not even by a study into the justifications for epic poetry, but by a kind of finger-buffet of everything.
There is so little emotional intensity in the speaking voice, so little desire to slow down a story that covers decades in one short book, such a lack of awareness of which thoughts are coincidental and which are worth investigating. It’s an absolute slog, unrewarding and frustrating. Much like this paragraph. Next.

Annie Freud – The Mirabelles

I had high hopes. A poet who enjoyed rhyme! My goodness! But she’s shit at it. In “Pheasant”, after stopping her car beside a dead pheasant (yep) by the roadside:

I pick her up by her scaly feet,
and, laying her gently in the boot
home I go with my fabulous loot.

Christ. Listen to the torture she gives that last line to force it into scansion. From “Head of a Woman”:

I remember the mornings before Pap died
long before I’d heard of things like suicide.

These are just two sentences that happen to end in the same syllable. I imagine it’s supposed to sound aloof and debonair like Judi Dench in a period drama but I can’t help reading it as Nursey from Blackadder II. This is the ongoing problem through the book, what it seems to being aiming for and what it hits are so far removed. “Marc Almond Poem” and “Sting’s Wife’s Jam Has Done You Good” are flimsy little pieces built solely on the names dropped, and Freud does little to play with our expectations after the title. The former is a straightforward retelling of the events of Marc Almond’s first gig after a long absence, the latter makes mention neither of jam, Sting or his wife, and it all adds to the sense that Freud is content to replace humour with whimsy. At the very least I got to the end without resenting it too much and there are a couple of interesting pieces: “The Egyptologist’s Honey Pot” uses its long lines to invest some story and complexity into its characters, even if it adds to the book’s feeling of being written by a minor character from Poirot. On the other hand there’s a piece about her being Lucian Freud’s daughter, the less said about which the better. It’s at once painfully self-regarding and impossibly unaware of its own pose. The closing six (long) poems are renderings into verse of her mother’s letters, and if there has been much creative editing in its conversion it is impossible to tell. Again, the presence of this frothy collection in a shortlist of the nation’s best work can only be political. Which is thoroughly depressing. Moving on.

Sam Willetts – New Light for the Old Dark

Again, I had very high expectations. The title is reminiscent of Muldoon’s first collection New Weather, which presented a real departure and a voice that opened creative possibilities wherever it set its gaze. Thinking about it, that may be revisionism, but the point stands, Muldoon made waves, and Willetts is attempting a similar trick. Few readers will take the blurb on the flyleaf as reliable criticism, but its claim that “Sam Willetts emerges now – suddenly, and apparently from nowhere [italics mine] – as a fully-fledged and significant English poet,” is categorically wrong. He is absolutely not fully-formed, and many of these poems have a clumsy, undergraduate feel. More on that later. But how much of a story is there in those words? Where is the somewhere from which poets usually emerge? Do we assume that new poets will announce their arrival ahead of time? That they will make their contacts in the industry well in advance so Faber and Cape and Picador will consider them a sure thing before they burst onto the scene as simultaneously fully-fledged and barely pupated? I’m being very naïve. But poetry (like any branch of the arts) is worth being naïve about.
Willetts is, like many of the nominated poets, not untalented, but seems to ascribe to the idea that poems should not only play with their emotional cards firmly to their chest, but that the whole enterprise should unfold like a piece of kabuki theatre, with the audience left to colour in all the intensity the author has decided to omit. The second poem in the collection is “Stroke City, 2001”, a piece set in Derry/Londonderry that seems blissfully unaware of any political advances made in the 25 years since Sunningdale and plods merrily down the well-worn tropes of oppressive masculine violence on the part of the army and disarming humanity for the Bogside residents. Calling the watchtower “Permanent / numb hard-on of an intimate war” is lifted unexamined out of 1970s Heaney, and characterises much of the collection. After this piece of retreading, Willetts also decides to name a poem “Digging”, a fairly grim little piece that recounts the mental processes during the act of shooting smack without investigating the motivation behind it, an aspect left confoundingly blank; a poem called “Ghetto” that hopes you haven’t read Longley’s poem of the same name, or in fact any of Gorse Fires; and a poem that uses the same metaphor and track of thought as Heaney’s “St Kevin and the Blackbird”, the poet plumping for “You and St Kevin and the Birds”. His major flaw is his search for originality on a surface level forgoes deeper significance, substitutes a broad vocabulary for insight, and sensationalism and the liberal spread of f-bombs stand in for intensity and emotion.
Let’s have a close look at one word that ticked me right off. It’s from “Truanting”, and unlike Paterson’s “Two Trees” that’s all it’s about. Here’s the line: “By the little-sister river / spring calves jostled, saint-francissed me”. Yes, you’re a very clever writer! Look at you juxtaposing incongruous qualifiers and coining an ingratiating new verb. Have a biscuit. It’s all so self-admiring, the subject gets lost in the poet’s overweening desire to show off. “Saint-francissed me”. Saint Francis was a man so holy the beasts of the field and the birds of the air brought him food in recognition of their high regard. Here, Willetts bestows that regard upon himself. Over-analysis? Maybe. But it illustrates a recurring failure where the poem’s subject is lost in the act of portrayal, and it’s worth noting that in a series of poems about his mother’s escape from Nazi-occupied Poland, most of which are overplayed and forcefully melodramatic, the most engaged and moving piece is “A Moral Defeat”, which relates his own tearful breakdown after a visit to a concentration camp. There’s nothing wrong with making yourself (or even the ‘you’ that happens to appear in the poem) the centre of attention– it’s almost unavoidable – what I object to is the disingenuous use of heroin addiction and the holocaust to force sympathy. There is a lack of a sense of irony, of self-criticism, that would have transformed this book from an interesting debut into a generous-spirited exploration of modern politics and worthy award-winner.
Again, I should point out that my frustration is borne out of the high regard given these books by their nomination for the country’s most prestigious poetry prize. It just isn’t good enough.

Pascale Petit – What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo

Earlier, I mentioned how this collection would live or die by how Petit negotiated with the towering presence of Frida Kahlo. The short answer is that she doesn’t seem to have tried. The book is phenomenally frail. The poems, which are supposed to be ‘based’ on Kahlo’s paintings and share their titles, are more often than not verbal accounts of the visual narrative the paintings already suggest. Having no great familiarity with Kahlo, I decided to experiment with reading the book first, then googling the paintings, then reading it again. The book doesn’t survive on its own. My suspicion was that the text relied heavily on Kahlo’s own writing, so incongruous was the wording of some of the passages, and the acknowledgements proved me right, because I am amazing. The whole book took about 45 minutes to read, and with the paintings in front of you there is little the book doesn’t give up on its first reading.
As for interacting with Kahlo’s legacy, I found it difficult to tell who was the ventriloquist and who was the dummy. The effect was to take the already flighty and surreal text to another degree of removal, unsatisfying for those interested in the thoughts of the poet, and of little value to students of Kahlo. Its nomination seems for novelty alone.

Seamus Heaney – Human Chain

This collection made me very sad. As sad as you are after reading all this shit, I’d wager. After a few quality pieces, including the fantastic “Miracle”, it starts to meander, and the recollections of the poet’s childhood that make up the bulk of the book seem to have lost the buried significance they carried so securely in previous collections. The heartbreak comes less from the poems themselves and more from the sense that Heaney might be slipping away from us, not necessarily in terms of his health, but certainly as the great poet he has been for the past four decades. In one of the closing poems he says “As I age and blank on names, / As my uncertainty on stairs / Is more and more the lightheadedness // Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging, / As the memorable bottoms out / Into the irretrievable, // It’s not that I can’t imagine still / That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt / As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.” I’m hoping Heaney still has better things in him than Human Chain.

So that just leaves Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light which I’ll be giving its own spot tomorrow. Tune in for the last throes of this regrettable little enterprise that has taken hours of my time and all of my faith in the TS Eliot judging committee.

Edit: nope. Out of time. Maybe on Wednesday.