The State of Poetry Criticism

Disclosure: These numbers have been presented in earlier forms at a panel at The Business, organised by Sam Riviere at the University of Edinburgh, and at Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000, a symposium at the University of Oxford. All my thanks to Muireann Crowley for being a sounding board and strengthening this article’s argumentative structure; to the Scottish Poetry Library for keeping a well-stocked and accessible magazine archive; to all folks at the symposium for their questions and inquiries about the project.

The figures cover a period of 24 months from April/Spring 2015 to May 2017 – while they do not account for every poetry review published in these islands, it certainly accounts for some of the most prestigious publishers of criticism, over a substantial period of time. Please note that these numbers do not refer to interviews, features, reports or other prose works, only what each magazine refers to in its contents as reviews.

Edit: Regarding the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, I somehow overlooked Tishani Doshi and Daljit Nagra’s wins in 2006 & 2007 respectively. Sincere apologies to Tishani, Daljit and the Forwards for this error.

Click the images below for a larger version of the data collected for this article.

Data:

Essay: In the past few years, it seems like poetry culture in these islands has been making small positive steps towards greater inclusivity – women of colour won both Forward Prizes in 2015 and 2016, and the 2014 anthology of new black, Asian and minority ethnic poets, Ten: The New Wave, edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, has proven a successful springboard for its poets, eight out of ten of whom have since published pamphlets or full collections. Literary journals and magazines have been less encouraging, if not downright antagonistic: Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize win was met with evidence-free claims of nepotism from Private Eye; TS Eliot Prize winner Sarah Howe was described by her Sunday Times interviewer as having ‘sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence’ before admitting he just didn’t understand the work; Oxford professor emeritus Craig Raine accused Claudia Rankine of ‘moral narcissism’ in her Forward Prize-winning book Citizen. Prize culture, at least in the past few years, seems somewhat more advanced in its discourse around work by poets of colour than the critical culture surrounding it.

From this starting point I wanted to investigate a possible disconnect between prize culture and literary review culture. While not all critical responses have been as hostile as those above, the most common response to work by poets of colour has been total silence.

I decided to conduct a basic survey of poetry criticism and prize culture. I identified seven magazines which most regularly print a substantial amount of poetry criticism, and started counting. The questions this research asks are simple: whose poetry is reviewed? and who is commissioned to review it? Those publications are: The Guardian, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Poetry Wales, Poetry Ireland Review and Magma. In each case I studied issues dating from April/Spring 2015 to the present day (May 29 2017).

There are obvious limitations on the data I have collected. These figures cover gender and racial/ethnic distribution. They do not cover other intersections of cultural exclusion like class, disability, access to education, or sexuality, and on race and gender they are unsophisticated. For instance, unless a poet or critic identified as non-binary gender in their bio, I could not collect that data.

The racial categories I have used are also unsatisfactorily binary: ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’. The decision to assign a particular category to an individual was based on available biographical information and the individual’s self-description. This reductive binary is also a matter of expedience: so few poets and critics of colour are published that by grouping them together the overwhelming whiteness of British and Irish poetry criticism becomes impossible to ignore.

Finally, one additional side note on terminology: ‘articles’ refers to a full piece by a critic, which may criticise more than one book. “Critic Z reviews Poet A, Poet B and Poet C”, for example, is one article by one critic covering three books by three poets. You may also notice that in the final columns some of the percentages don’t add up to a hundred – this was when anthologies were being reviewed.

Let’s start by looking at race. The 2011 census reported that people self-identifying as black, Asian or minority ethnicity comprised 12.9% of the total UK population, 5.7% in Ireland. While I do not believe that simply meeting this arbitrary quota will necessarily produce radical change within poetry culture, it is, at the very least, a useful, basic benchmark for what representative inclusion might look like on a purely statistical level.

Of all seven magazines, only Poetry London and The Poetry Review meet this most basic figure. In this data set, only twenty articles were written by just twelve critics of colour. For comparison, 18 articles were written by white critics named David, and 39 articles were written by white women named Katherine. It’s worth noting, however, that women aren’t being adequately represented either.

The Guardian: until the past few weeks, in which Kate Kellaway reviewed Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds and Ben Wilkinson reviewed Daljit Nagra’s British Museum, The Guardian had not published a review of a poet of colour in four hundred and forty six days, when Sandeep Parmar reviewed Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize-winning Measures of Expatriation on February 19 2016. Incidentally, Parmar’s article was also the last time The Guardian published a review by a critic of colour, a run which is currently ongoing at four hundred and sixty-five days. It is also the first time The Guardian has reviewed a poet of colour who has not won a national prize since Kellaway covered Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds on November 23 2014. You’ll remember Woolf as the editor of Ten: The New Wave. For reference, the last time this happened for a white poet was two weeks ago, when Nicholas Lezard reviewed Bethany W Pope.

PN Review’s poor showing of just ten reviews of books by poets of colour is somewhat misleading. Of these ten, five were pamphlets covered in Alison Brackenbury’s round-up articles, in which each book is lucky to receive more than a few sentences of critical attention. Of the five full collections, only one was given its own solo review, Alex Wong’s Poems Without Irony, published by Carcanet, where PN Review editor Michael Schmidt works as Publisher. In two years’ worth of criticism – 138 articles totalling around 140,000 words, at a conservative estimate – PN Review dedicated roughly 2,500 words to poets of colour, about 1.5% of its review space.

The Poetry Review boasts some relatively positive statistics. A major factor in these unusually high numbers is Kayo Chingonyi. Chingonyi is a British-Zambian poet and critic who co-edited the Autumn 2016 issue of The Poetry Review, commissioning 2 of its seven total critics of colour, and 7 of its 23 reviews of poets of colour; in the following issue, Chingonyi himself reviewed two more poets of colour. Across the board, Chingonyi wrote or comissioned 30% of all articles by people of colour in the UK and Ireland in the past two years. This is an unreasonable burden to place on one individual.

Poetry London’s positive statistics are also a result of a temporary change in editorship. The Summer 2017 issue, published last week, was edited by Martha Kapos and Sam Buchan-Watts, and featured five reviews by critics of colour, and reviews of nine books by poets of colour; this single issue accounts for 38% of Poetry London‘s reviews by critics of colour in the past two years, and 36% of its reviews of poets of colour.

It’s also worth noting that the twelve critics of colour who did achieve publication are exceptionally qualified: these writers have a disproportionately high number of literary prizes, lectureships, editorships, academic and artistic residencies behind them for their career stage. Dzifa Benson’s background offers a small variation on this trend: her residencies at Tate Britain, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Institute of Contemporary Arts were for performance theatre, not poetry. Again, she was commissioned by Kayo Chingonyi. It is an observable fact that white editors do not open doors for critics of colour unless they have already been institutionally verified several times over.

This is what I mean when I say just hitting quotas is not enough. A quota will not tell you when poets of colour are included as an afterthought or a token gesture. It will not ensure that the attention given to poets of colour is in any way a sustained, committed endeavour. If people of colour are not included at vital, decision-making positions, the systematic exclusion of people of colour in poetry criticism will not change, not least because white critics and editors are not sharing the burden of responsibility.

On gender, things are relatively encouraging. Aside from the PN Review and Poetry Ireland Review, most publications are approaching a basic level of gender parity, with Poetry Wales, Poetry Review and The Guardian leaning marginally in favour of female critics. All three are edited by women, and the Poetry Review‘s editorial practice has changed markedly since Emily Berry’s tenure began last year. In almost every case, however, female critics review more books per article than their male counterparts, and men disproportionately review other men.

As a poetry critic, being given space to review a single book is a chance to make a significant contribution to a critical conversation. These reviews are overwhelmingly commissioned to men, a total of 157 compared to just 72 by women across all platforms. Even more intriguingly, while women review male and female poets about equally (33 women to 34 men, with 5 anthologies), men almost exclusively review other men, by 128 to 22. Simply put, male critics and poets alike are routinely given more space and prestige than their female colleagues.

This is most starkly illustrated by Alison Brackenbury’s role as resident pamphlet reviewer at PN Review, where she accounts for ten of the thirty-five total articles by women and seventy of the one hundred books reviewed by a female critic. There is a gendered labour gap at work at the magazine which aptly matches its apathy towards poets of colour. PN Review is by white men, for white men.

At the outset of this paper I mentioned how recent victories for poets of colour might be seen as a sign of positive change. It is, however, vital to put these results into historical context. I studied four major poetry prizes: The Forward Prize (established 1992); The TS Eliot Prize (established 1993); The Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread Prize, which has been running a poetry award since 1985); and the Ted Hughes Prize (established 2009). To give an idea of the resources awarded by each: the TS Eliot awards £20,000 to its winner; The Forward Prize £10,000 for Best Collection and £5,000 for Best First Collection; the Costa Prize awards £5,000 with a possible £30,000 if the book also wins Book of the Year; the Ted Hughes Prize awards £5,000.

The questions this data set asked were also very simple: who is shortlisted for these prizes, and who wins them?

Only the newly created Ted Hughes Prize has awarded more women than men, by 6 to 2, and no poet of colour has ever won.

Between 1985 and 2000, the Costa Prize was won only once by a woman, Carol Ann Duffy in 1993. Jane Yeh was the first poet of colour whose work featured on the shortlist in 2005, its twenty-first year. In its thirty-one year history, no poet of colour has ever won the Costa Prize.

In its twenty-four years, the TS Eliot Prize has been won only twice by poets of colour, and only seven times by female poets. Its first eight winners were white men, and Derek Walcott was the first poet of colour to win, in the 18th year of the prize’s operation.

In a similar vein, only three of the first twenty Forward Prize winners were women, and only in 2014, its twenty-third year, was the prize awarded to a poet of colour, Kei Miller. The Forward Prize for Best First Collection is slightly different, in that Kwame Dawes won in 1994. Between 1995 and 2004, the First Collection Prize had all-white shortlists until Jane Yeh was shortlisted in 2005.

It may also be worth noting that of the ten poets of colour to have won one of these five prizes, only three self-define as British: Daljit Nagra, Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe, both of whom won their prizes in 2015.

Since 1985, thirty poets of colour have been shortlisted for awards a total of forty-one times, with ten wins. To put this into context, in the same time period six white male poets – namely, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Don Paterson, Sean O’Brien, Robin Robertson and David Harsent – account for fifty-three shortlistings and twenty-one wins. Poets of colour were also disproportionately awarded the Forward Best First Collection, twelve out of the total of forty-one shortlistings and five of ten wins.

If encouragement can be taken anywhere, it is in the fact that of these forty-one shortlistings, twenty-two of them came in the past four years; while that does indeed mean that in the twenty-seven years from 1985 to 2012 only nineteen poets of colour were shortlisted for anything, it does suggest things are changing. If we take data from only the years 2013-2016, the percentage of poets of colour shortlisted rises to 18.6, and a remarkable 30% of all winners; likewise, the gender proportion is flipped, with 54.2% of female shortlistees and 55% of winners.

The idea that poetry prizes might be awarded to women is a relatively new one; that people of colour might also be rewarded for their work is newer still, and it is too early to say whether these changes mark a meaningful departure from the dominance of white male poets. Without a concordant commitment to the hiring of critics of colour and the reviewing of poets of colour, these islands lack the diverse critical culture necessary to understand in complex or nuanced terms the work of poets of colour. I fear that after these few positive years we – white critics and scholars – may consider the job done and turn a blind eye to the 100% white editors commissioning 96% white critics to write about 91% white poets. Prizes are a proven, if limited, antidote: of the eighty-five books by poets of colour reviewed in the featured data set, twenty-one were by prizewinners; indeed in The Guardian’s case, this is all but the only guarantee of critical attention.

As Sandeep Parmar notes in her seminal essay ‘Not A British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’: ‘Mechanisms in place systematically reward poets of color who conform to particular modes of self-foreignizing, leaving the white voice of mainstream and avant-garde poetries in the United Kingdom intact and untroubled by the difficult responsibilities attached to both racism and nationalism.’ Kate Kellaway’s review of Ocean Vuong, for example, invokes troubling cultural and racial clichés and stereotypes by introducing the poet as ‘born on a rice farm’ in her first sentence, and indebted to a white male mentor, Ben Lerner, in her second. This impulse to deliberately other poets of colour is precisely why the dire lack of critics of colour is such an urgent issue.

Earlier I mentioned the backlash against poets of colour in the literary press; when white male poet Jacob Polley won the TS Eliot prize this year, not only was there a distinct lack of outrage, The Guardian reviewed his collection, featured ‘Every Creeping Thing’ as Poem of the Day, and commissioned him three times to talk about his life and work, with such softball questions as ‘One review described what Polley does as a calling, “a kind of secular transubstantiation”. Would he agree?’ Where poets of colour like Vuong and Sarah Howe have orientalising narratives imposed upon them, white poets are commissioned to write their own stories on national platforms.

The scholar Sara Ahmed notes in the conclusion of her book On Being Included: ‘When a category allows us to pass into the world, we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped or held up by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us.’ As white poets, critics and scholars, we must acknowledge how centralising and normalising whiteness makes our creative communities exclusive by design. We must demand not just token inclusion of poets and critics of colour but that they be given equal space, resources and agency to direct critical and creative discourses. In short, writers of colour should not be compelled to spend their careers talking about nothing but race.

The work of a poetry book is only partly within its covers; the conversation, argument or statement it proposes is maintained or denied by the attendant critical community. In malicious hands, a book may be mocked or dismissed or simply ignored if that book does not behave itself as the reader demands, if it does not reinforce a given critic’s prejudices. It doesn’t take much searching to find reviews that misread or misrepresent a book’s intentions, intentionally or otherwise, coercing it into a state of palatability, or silence.

Even a preliminary study of British and Irish poetry magazines and prizes shows how ingrained is the culture of structural racism and misogyny. I hope these figures may be useful, and that knowing the true nature of our community is the first step toward changing it. Thank you for reading.

PS: At the time of writing, the figures I am working from are in a somewhat scrappy form; I am working to make this project into a fully searchable database using Google spreadsheets; this process is turning up small discrepancies in the raw data (mostly regarding anthologies and pamphlets), and once I have complete statistics I will update this article. I also plan on keeping these facts regularly updated, and investigating up to five years’ worth of material for a clearer view of poetry criticism’s recent history in these islands, perhaps expanding the number of featured platforms.

If you enjoyed this 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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Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Disclosure: Saw the poet read many years ago, don’t know Bernard personally. The book deals with social aggressions over race and gender, and a character in constant negotiation with their identity, or the identity imposed on their body. These are things I’ve tried to educate myself about, but have very much not experienced. It’s also a riff on a medieval text, which is not my specialism. Huge thanks due to Muireann Crowley for editorial advice.

The Red and Yellow Nothing was published over a year ago, and usually I’d take the loss and pay closer attention to pamphlet releases in future, but in part because of its Ted Hughes Prize shortlisting, and in part because I’ve never read anything like it, I want to spend a short time discussing it now.

Review: The Red and Yellow Nothing is a prequel to Moraien, a Middle Dutch poem about a Moorish knight who comes to Camelot to find his white father, Aglovale, who had abandoned him and his mother to continue his quest for the Grail. Bernard provides a brief but invaluable introduction and commentary on the original text:

‘The question of how a Moor, described as being black from head to toe, came to be the child of a knight of the round table is more about textual history than genealogy […] Morien is not racialised (except through contact with anyone reading this in the last five hundred years)’

I’ve talked on here about how truly radical texts need an uncommon amount of critical scaffolding to transport the (culturally centred) reader from canon-friendly reading practices to a place where those practices may be effectively criticised. Alongside this introduction Bernard has written two blog posts, at Speaking Volumes and The Poetry School, and they both helped me triangulate things in a book that does very little hand-holding. As Bernard argues, this quest is as much a textual as a physical one, and that requires a lot of lateral thinking, creative reading.

The first lines are not words but punctuation:

‘.
:
;
,
,
.’

Morien ‘enters page left on his horse, Young’Un’, and ‘a bard of indeterminate gender’ sings:

‘A silver wind came passing in
the distant land where books begin
where maids are men and hermits siiiiing
in the land before the story-o’

The poem’s action literally happens in a book, or a dramatized literary space, where postmodern ideas of text, contemporary slang and understanding of gender fluidity meet folk song and knightly romance. Wherever or whatever this ‘land’ is, it is a contested and uncertain place, and primes the reader to start making themselves uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s useful to visualise the story playing out onstage: The Red and Yellow Nothing regularly calls attention to its own artificiality and breaks the fourth wall, highlighting its episodic structure and the self-conscious humour of its narrative/stage directions. There’s that elongated ‘siiiiing’ that nudges the reader to imagine its vocalisation, the physical body behind the words. Maybe, again, this is a primer to think of Morien (and his dramatic monologue) as embodied also, both textual artefact and physical form; certainly the text and its players alike read his body like an open book. The narrator argues that ‘maybe we can empathise with the frustration one feels when the local people take one look at you, then hurry away from you before you’ve finished your sentence’. The ‘maybe’ seems pointed: as a middle class white reader I certainly cannot – the only thing that ‘maybe’ hinges on is who’s reading it. Morien, in turn, instrumentalises this fear:

‘Tell me where my dad is, or I’ll kill you. Wanna fight?
I’ll fight you. I’ll take this sword and run you through,
I’ll have a disco inside you.’

Before either poem or reader meet Morien, or see anything of his inner life, we meet his violent response to the world. Whether this is due to a preternaturally hot temper, a perfectly understandable response to prejudice, or a mix of both is finally unknowable. He is, for now, all exterior.

The following episode is taken up by two perhaps competing exteriors, both unreal in their own ways. The section begins with William Dunbar’s hateful poem ‘Of A Black Moor’, describing a white woman in extreme dishygiene and blackface posing as a black woman for the crowd’s entertainment; Morien spots a woman in the crowd, wearing red and yellow, ‘both cheeks shining black like whorls of wood’, ‘shoulders like a proto-stradivarius / lost to the sea’. She disappears and Morien wakes drunk in a field, ‘the dew that / cradles him finds the word: innocence’, a beautifully poised moment that allows Morien his youth and inexperience, and allows the reader empathy for a character who in this moment is completely lost. It’s possible the idealised and vanishing woman appeared in Morien’s imagination in self-defence against the collective ridicule of blackness, but the gloves left in Morien’s hands seem to suggest otherwise, and the section ends:

‘a red and yellow nothing stands with
her back towards him; red lace
yellow silk, and no-one there.’

The Red and Yellow Nothing is full of these doublings and halvings: Morien and his father dream corresponding parts of the same dream, there is a town split down the middle with one half in summer, one in winter, one character sings a song about promising a song, other examples abound. While a recognisable literary trope, and one that feels right in a medieval romance, its sheer abundance adds to the uncanny sense that the usual relationship between story and protagonist (or even reader and story) has broken down, is in transition to something stranger.

The book doesn’t shy away from the ghoulish. Later, a female convict is ‘hog-tied’, ‘hanging from a pole […] writhing like an errant C’. Though that last simile seems to point to the girl’s existence as a leftover trope of misogynist writing, her fate is still extremely gruesome. A figure called ‘The Something’, which might be the ‘red and yellow nothing’s grim counterpart, emerges from the trees and draws the woman bodily into its anus before releasing her for burial. Bernard’s account is visceral and revolting, giving the whole scene the air of an awful ritual or sacrifice. Like Morien, the woman is painted in innocent tones, ‘She is a child’s finger’, ‘crying for god and her mother’, and their connection seems substantialised by a later, crucial episode in which Morien is transformed and processed (‘Morien is currently a turd.’) by sinking to the lowest point in Earth’s sea and being ‘expelled’ ‘from the slippy slide / of time’. Where the woman’s ordeal is socially inscribed and compulsory, Morien’s seems to be the result of some psychological shift that originates in dreams and comes to reorder reality as Morien perceives it.

If it wasn’t clear, The Red and Yellow Nothing is, by any standard in common currency, extremely weird. But there’s something so clear and graspable and purposeful about that weirdness that has kept hold of my imagination weeks after first reading it. Shortly after the horrific scene discussed above, the whole adventure becomes increasingly surreal, increasingly subject to bizarre and arbitrary laws and rules. And yet those rules are almost followable, the story’s progression right on the brink of logical, while the meanings attached to Morien’s body become increasingly nonsensical, or perhaps their inherent nonsense is revealed.

I can’t help feeling that in someone else’s hands the book and its narrative would have felt pretentious, or merely arbitrary, rather than a faithful account of the odd trajectory needed to get from the book’s start to its finish. Throughout, there’s a wry humour (‘in which Darkness herself comes across Morien’s dreaming body and is like woah’) that keeps the story grounded, human, and for all its depictions of suffering and brutality, Morien himself (or themself, for a significant passage) is neither the butt of the joke nor a punching bag. The book clearly cares for him, however much it focuses on the change and uncertainty being visited upon him.

Most of all, I think, this is a story about blackness and how the world responds to it. The white people at the fair and the people in the book’s first episode won’t talk to Morien, and the brutal execution scene is implicitly enacted by white society. Darkness appears as a character, and while she doesn’t interact with Morien either, she is invested in his story and knows he is both closer to and further from Camelot than he thinks. Five African soldiers in Scotland speak the book’s most peaceful and mindful sequence, on ‘the strangeness of the land they’re in’, articulating a complex thought about empathy and mutual respect:

‘Their footsteps of mine.
I want to know what people
to whom I give everything
feel when they think they are me.’

The book’s climactic scene has Morien encounter the figure of Saint Maurice, a character who the writer of the Medieval POC tumblr – which Bernard cites as an originary source for the book – argues might be cognate with Morien himself, given the shared linguistic root of their names and the habitual shuffling of characters’ identities in romances of the period. Given this final muddling, the final passage seems deeply significant:

‘The statue stirs, like it’s about
to speak, then of its own accord, blows away.’

This may be the story’s final doubling, or the final doubling’s reconciliation. The canonised Christian martyr Maurice gives way, of his own volition, to the transformed, multi-identitied, genderqueer Morien, to whom Christianity and its official sanctioning have meant nothing. The next moment, Morien finds Camelot, and Moraien begins.

It’s incredible that so much has been fit into about 24 pages, including the handful of full-page illustrations by the poet, without feeling overburdened. The Red and Yellow Nothing has the feel of a heartfelt and intense investigation into something complex and significant, a true poetic quest, and one that has compromised little, if anything at all. It’s confusing, it’s challenging, it’s deeply satisfying, and it would be a real mistake to let such an exciting piece of work pass by uncelebrated.

The Red and Yellow Nothing is available now from Ink, Sweat and Tears Press.

Further Reading: 

Jay Bernard – Breaking Ground – Speaking Volumes

Jay Bernard – How I did it – Poetry School/Ted Hughes Award

Medieval POC tumblr

Review by Theophilus Kwek – The London Magazine

Review by Fiona Moore – Sabotage Reviews

Review by Emma Lee – London Grip

OPOI by Helena Nelson – Sphinx Review

PS: If you enjoyed this 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.

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Disclosure: I gave Berry’s first collection, Dear Boy, an ignorant as hell review, now deleted. The book explores trauma of which I have very little experience. Have not met the poet.

‘Some people don’t put question marks at the end of questions any more
In case anyone should think they’d be so idealistic as to expect an answer’

(‘Everything Bad Is Permanent’)

Review: Stranger, Baby is a book-length exploration of the emotional fallout from the death of the poet’s mother, an often gut-punching, sometimes remorselessly frank collection. Unlike many elegiac projects, particularly the monumental kind poetry culture has historically adored, Stranger, Baby has an acutely self-critical conscience, persistently adjusting and complicating its narratives and arguments when the ability to speak plainly and sincerely (let alone passionately and grandly) is found wanting. Among this wrangling between speech and silence, sudden, fleeting but painfully moving moments of clarity pierce the darkness:

‘If it was up to me, I would not have her back.

It is not up to me, and she is not coming back.’

(‘Sleeping’)

One of the central questions in Stranger, Baby, which is never quite tethered to a question mark, is not so much how the poet’s mother might be remembered – she appears only briefly, elusively in the book – but how the poet might faithfully make sense of something almost impossible to encompass, how a situation of such unremitting sadness might be survived. It does so with an unflinching, bleak sense of humour and a willingness to investigate the unspectacular, mundane aspects of grief and loss: ‘I feel like that grubby place / beneath the door handle, the place everyone touches / as they leave’ (‘Girl on a Liner’). The book moves with remarkable poise between self-erasing despair and cool distance without falling into either, and the very act of proceeding through the carefully plotted and paced collection is a bold, heartening experience. One thing Stranger, Baby does better than almost any book I’ve read is in its intensity of care for the reader, its careful management of the poems’ often brutal subject matter. The book doesn’t aim primarily to shock or appal the reader with its ideas, but it doesn’t shy away from them either. Rather, it leads the reader through the fine, painful details of a time of massive psychological pain and seems in the end to say look, you made it. It’s a rare and admirable achievement.

One of the book’s recurrent thoughts is how the act of grieving is located physically, an incontestable bodily impulse whose open expression, the book implies, brings shame on the grieving individual. This is tied to the book’s assertion that poetry is a natural facet of existing as a human body, as ‘Part’ argues: ‘I wanted to put my body into these words / I wanted this to be a part of my body / This part of my body’. Several poems render this embodied embarrassment (metaphorically or ironically) as a burden or an endlessly recurring emotional trap:

‘I veiled my tended wound. I veiled my narrative. […] I run out into the street. I find someone. I tell them everything. ‘I have got it in me!’ I shout. ‘Undigested! Whole! The dead body of a woman!’

(‘Tragedy for One Voice’)

‘I stopped agonising because it started to seem as if agonising was hurting me’

(‘The photo that is most troubling is the one I don’t want to show you’)

The irrational blocks against the natural expression of grief are expressed rationally and systematically, often with devastatingly bleak comic effect. It’s worth noting how often the poems seem to critique professionalised care, perhaps how certain modes of thought reinforce harmful mores: ‘They did not ask if it hurt when they did not touch me’ (‘Ghost Dance’); ‘“I am afraid of…”’ they explained, / ‘might be better rendered as “There is a fear of…”’ (‘Girl on a Liner’). These lines might be somewhat ironic, but the pitch feels weary, as if these attempts to help fall some way short of addressing the messy, ugly, unscientific hurt.

If it’s not clear already, a major part of the book’s texture is in making clear just how much work it is to address and confront prevailing prejudices regarding grief and mental illness. In similar fashion to Denise Riley’s Say Something Back, Berry’s poems are a kind of defensive action against silence, simultaneously a refusal to fall to the pressures that would silence her writing and a refusal to ignore the force those pressures exert. Also like Riley, these poems do not fear being read as ostensibly ungainly or clumsy (remembering Riley’s ‘one glum mum’) at the expense of giving a faithful voice to their emotional realities. They operate in full awareness of their artifice, remaining sensitive to the unspoken contract between reader and grieving poet: this is a book about mourning, and to some extent, the reader will anticipate some performance of sadness. Standing back and looking with a cold eye at the much-vaunted elegiac tradition in English poetry, being a reader of such work and gaining aesthetic pleasure from others’ suffering is, well, more a bit weird, and Stranger, Baby seems perfectly alert to how grim the whole affair could be without due sensitivity. A few of the early poems address this matter at oblique angles, negotiating this very odd generic arrangement. For example, in ‘Picnic’:

‘I like it when I am writing a poem and I know that I am feeling something
To be poised and to invite contact
Or to appear to invite contact’

This correction reverberates throughout the book. The entirety of ‘Tragedy for One Voice’ feels like an attempt to convert some essence of lived experience without inviting reductive terms like ‘confessional’ or ‘autobiographical’. The speakers are very clearly labelled as fictional/dramatic constructs, and, as Ralf Webb points out, directly quote the psychiatrist Sandra L Bloom and the critic Al Alvarez; although their words are not authored exclusively by the poet, the effect their exchanges produces absolutely is. The poem feels self-consciously self-conscious (noting that the poem is anything but for ‘one voice’), as the characters ‘Me One’ and ‘Me Two’ appear, according to the stage direction, ‘Alone on stage with a coffin’, and deflect from the specificity of their story: ‘Day of the week: immaterial. Time of year: immaterial.’ What seems to underwrite the whole process is the sense that telling it straight or making it explicitly personal would be insufficient, even embarrassing. The last spoken line – ‘Me Two + Chorus (of baritones): –SAVE HER’ – feels disarmingly melodramatic, a kind of deflationary tactic in a poem fizzing with tension.

‘Drunken Bellarmine’ takes a different tack, driving headlong into poisonous social tendencies and wearing them as a badge of honour. It asserts that, ‘shame is also revelry, and a body / is a spillage, or an addiction’; drawing attention to the body as the right and natural home of unruly, uncontrollable feeling, the poem is glorious and grotesque, and amid the defiance there’s a powerful celebration of the self, albeit wrapped in the charged language of bodily filth and impropriety:

‘I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,
raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.’

It’s worth noting that these lines are earned off the back of an entire poem’s worth of self-correction and doubt, a full-hearted entanglement in repressive thought processes:

‘Every time I say the word ‘I’
I am ashamed. When I say ‘I want’ I am triply
ashamed. I want my shame to be a kind of proof
that deduces the world, and that’s the worst
shame of all.’

This is an intensely knotted and complex unit of thought. By articulating the circular logic that prevents someone in pain from expressing that pain, the poem makes space to resist it. One of the finest aspects of the collection is how meticulously it leads the reader through these traps, repurposing its logic into something that acknowledges the speaker’s humanity.

As a couple of critics have noted, fire and the sea are powerful, multifaceted symbols in Stranger, Baby. It’s worth exploring how they function throughout the book, hopefully without assigning them to too neat an imaginative system. Many poems deploy a flat or ironic tone, even when the literal action is highly emotionally charged: ‘Colour all over my hands, I get down on the floor of a tiled, white room’ (‘Summer’); ‘her ghost took / many forms […] it was / a lovely sunny day’ (‘Aqua’). At an imaginative stretch, one could map this voice onto the figure of the sea: calm on the surface with destructive faculties only suggested underneath. A handful of times this tone is interrupted by poems or passages of visionary brilliance, a blaze of near-Romantic faith in the power of lyric to contain a true feeling. Again, if you squint a little and are of a generous disposition, you could call this fire; fire imagery often appears during the book’s dreamy, parabolic moments. The sea and fire seem complimentary forces in the book, both capable of destruction (‘Tidal wave don’t sing […] Tidal wave crash’), both capable of arresting beauty:

‘My, yes, salty, wet, ocean-coloured eyes
Albeit that in the dark they were the colour of the dark, and on fire’

(‘Picnic’)

The book’s opening poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, is difficult to unravel, and features both these elemental symbols at its climactic moment. It opens with the speaker, ‘at the dangerous shore. / Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders’; she ‘picture[s] my protective symbols’, the eponymous anchor. However:

‘I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.
I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.’

The poem’s loose rhythms become far more purposeful in that last line, the blunt force in ‘looked back’ perhaps speaking to the scene’s finality. The ‘ash rain’ in the penultimate line is a blend of the book’s two core images, and comes directly after the silencing effect the sea has on the speaker; fire/sea again seeming in some way emblematic of unrestrained expression. The collection has only a few of these more identifiably parabolic pieces, ‘Canopy’ (of which more below) and ‘The photo that is most troubling […]’ being examples; the latter contains the lines:

‘Skies suddenly so dark
And the way home on fire
Through the forest, loud and forgetful as a burst of rain
In case you could hear me
On the backs of horses’

It’s probably not coincidental that the moment in which the poem veers away from its internal struggle about speaking with the dead (‘My mouth opened and I breathed flame’), in which the speaker ironizes herself and her attempts to do so (‘Excuse these intense but beautiful bouts of emotion’), once again draws together fire and water. Working in tandem, they seem to underpin the book’s most powerful, image-driven passages, moments in which the poet speaks relatively unburdened by socially inscribed fear or shame. This reading might well underplay the flexibility of both figures in systematising them, however; what I hope it demonstrates is the uncommon intensity of artistic direction evident throughout the book. These extraordinary lines from ‘Procession’, for example:

‘Once I saw my mother rowing

At night across water

I called to her and she looked back

Smiling beautifully’

Or ‘Picnic’, in which the sea is connected directly to feelings which are inarticulable or impossible to faithfully reproduce, again raising the question of the poet’s capacity to do likewise:

‘Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person
I tried to do that
All that year I visited a man in a room
I polished my feelings’

Or the recurring figure of mermaids, figures perfectly at home and comfortable in the sea. Berry  recently interviewed Luna Miguel, a Spanish poet who inspired Berry’s poem ‘Song’, and for whom mermaids are an image that connects her to the memory of her own mother. ‘Freud’s Beautiful Things’, which begins ‘I have some sad news for you / I am just a symbol, a shadow cast on paper’ later asserts, ‘Not a mermaid, but a lovely human being’.  The symbolic afterlife (or the afterlife of symbols) is not free of responsibility to the living. Stranger, Baby is in constant negotiation with the fictional – that is, artful – nature of its work.

I mentioned ‘Canopy’ earlier, an example of the book’s parable-poems. For the first time in Stranger, Baby, I think, the poem’s central symbol is a tree, held up as an exemplary survivor:

‘And the trees shook everything off until they were bare and clean. They held on to the ground with their long feet and leant into the gale and back again.’

Not only that, but an enabling force, a provider of words:

‘They got inside us and made us speak; I said my first word in their language: ‘canopy’.’

The poem’s conclusion is utterly heartbreaking, a perfect resolution and continuation of the book’s concerns, a note of encouragement and, most importantly, a new imaginative realm, a new means of heading out into the world beyond the collection. It’s an incredible gesture, and I don’t want to spoil it here. You’ll have to experience it yourself.

As ever, there’s a hell of a lot going on in this book that I haven’t discussed. Its formal elements are fascinating, there are a bunch of poems one could close read for days, there are tiny, sort of funny, sort of crushing poems like ‘Safe’ and ‘So’, poems like ‘Aura’ which deftly combine form and substance to utterly heartbreaking effect, moments of hard-earned semi-triumph like the all-caps ‘The Whole Show’. It’s an unusual book, and it makes no effort to soften its edges, but it’s glorious in its idiosyncrasies, the dense and intricate language it uses to animate its inner world. Please read it.

Further Reading: Emily Berry interviews Luna Miguel at The Quietus

Charanpreet Khaira reviews Stranger, Baby at The London Magazine

Ralf Webb interviews Emily Berry at The LA Review of Books

Jen Campbell reviews Stranger, Baby on her YouTube channel

PS: If you enjoyed this 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.

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

Disclosure: No personal connection to the poet or publisher that I’m aware of. Yanique’s book features experiences of structural misogyny in the Virgin Islands and the USA, and brings both feminist and post-colonial understandings to her poems’ discussion of marriage and how the institution interacts with conceptions of love and sexuality. It’s worth bearing in mind the obvious point that I have no personal experience of a lot of what Yanique describes, and may be missing a lot of nuance. As ever, I’m operating with what I hope is an open mind.

Review: Right from its opening poem, ‘Dangerous Things’, Wife may be characterised by its ability to express complex power dynamics in more-or-less plain language:

‘This is the island.
It is small and vulnerable,
it is a woman, calling. You love her
until you are a part of her
and then, just like that,
you make her less than she was
before – the space
that you take up
is a space where she cannot exist.’

The poem asserts that critiques of colonialism and of male formulations of desirable femininity are, at their core, inextricable. The following lines, ‘The island / is a woman, therefore / dangerous things live below’, neatly enfold two oppressive schemes of thought that permit dehumanisation and the exercise of control over both colonised land and female body. It also starkly highlights the problem with turning either into a metaphor, in which the particularities of each may be ignored, simplified to the point of violence. The poem concludes:

‘True, we will never be
beyond our histories.
And so I am the island.
And so this is a warning.’

Figuring the poet’s exact position within this system is tricky. The first person hasn’t appeared previously, so the speaker’s taking on of an identity already established as politically restricted feels partly defiant, partly resigned. Maybe only resigned insofar as acknowledging the real and current situation allows a clearer sense of exactly what she is in fact defying, hence the ‘warning’ to the incoming reader. The ‘we’ in the quoted passage feels universal, perhaps not just the speaker and the oppressed people she stands in for, but the predatory ‘you’ from earlier in the poem. History is affirmed as an active force in the present; the poem infers that if the poet/speaker/Yanique is the island, it follows that a white colonist/male reader/addressee may remain the invading force. The poem recognises these as the book’s starting positions, and its ‘warning’ may be its demand not only for close attention but sensitivity to its argument.

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The poems that follow, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘Body Logic’, continue the trajectory of ‘Dangerous Things’ in its movement from the political towards the domain of personal experience. The former walks a very fine tonal line, modulating between the dreamy violence of Garcia Lorca’s play of the same name and a deeply morbid turn of humour:

‘A spouse is only a surgeon
passing her own organ through the mirror

dear
beautiful
kidney’

There’s something at once posturing and grounded in these lines, not quite rejecting the doomed love narrative, relishing its visceral imagination while keeping sight of the ‘myth cleaved / from the mirror’, marriage as a culturally sanctioned behavioural control. The best poems in Wife find this place of tension between the poet’s will to artfully and faithfully render her desires, and her awareness of the forces that would punish such forthrightness. As ‘Body Logic’ suggests, those forces are not always external:

‘The body has its own
infant logic.
Its own way to know
if what you speak is true […]
It will open you
and leave you open.
And you’ll have to read it
like a sonogram.’

Again, there’s no straightforward way of rendering the body as hero or villain, and the penultimate sentence is just beautiful in its balance, those reverse angles on ‘open’. Taken together, the poems leave the impression that their speaker is beset on all sides, that even the faithfulness of her own senses cannot be taken as read. Most importantly, I think, ‘Body Logic’ figures an oppositional relationship between bodily instinct and outward expression; its closing line presents the reader with a literal image of the body’s interior to be ‘read’ by the body’s owner, who may or may not be doing so reliably. The poem seems to argue that not even private feelings can be trusted implicitly, that even these deeply intimate moments are subject to the same confusion and frustration as any social moment.

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In her interview with the Forward Arts Foundation, Yanique notes how Claudia Rankine (named in the book’s notes as a teacher/mentor) ‘screws and bends form to say things that otherwise might be impossible to say’, and Wife is noteworthy for its refusal to speak the same way twice. Zuihitsu is a form of personal essay or fragmentary thought in Japanese literature, literally the words “at will” and “pen”; Yanique’s ‘Zuihitsu for the day I cheat on my husband, to my fiancé’ explicitly turns the matter of intimate personal relationships into a literary concern. The poem is a complex, often wry exploration of relationships both romantic and familial, those roles often unrecognisably blending:

Queen: The title a husband gives to his wife only after first giving it to his mother.’

‘I will tell Baby [the lover] that I do not want people. I want family. Your husband, he will say, is your family, right? And I cannot tell if he is directing me to remain unattached or if he is pleading with me to adopt him.’

The poem doesn’t necessarily pass judgement on these fusings and echoes, and it treats what might be called infidelity not as a flaw but a feature of the institution of marriage:

‘I wept. Thinking, already, of the day this one would become the lover. Mourning, already, the pummelled beauty of our affair.’

‘Loving a spouse, says my husband who is not yet my husband, is like praising One God, whom you will betray.’

Adultery: a fetish for monogamists.

What the poem seems to argue for, by way of performing it, is the kind of double-edged openness that appeared in ‘Body Logic’, a frank awareness of the price of respecting, or indeed not respecting, one’s own needs. Like ‘Blood Wedding’, it sees perfect fidelity as an unsustainable artifice, a mortally damaging lie compared with the temporarily hurtful truth (‘pummelled beauty’) of the affair.

In ‘Dictionary’, the poet again employs the prose poem, laying out the political connotations and linguistic origins around the word ‘wife’. Again, the tone balances between humour and scathing critique:

wife – (European origins) a married woman. As in slave in the house. As in chef, maid, nanny and prostitute. But unpaid for these services. […] In the colloquial, wife means woman: as in “Old wives’ tale” meaning a story passed down by ignorant old women.’

As in the social-to-personal progression earlier in the book, each paragraph moves towards a more dehumanised understanding of the word, from ‘wifey – (American Negro origins) diminutive of wife but more desireable. Girl who cooks, cleans, fucks and gives back massages’ to ‘get wife – (Caribbean origins) to have sex, to fuck a human female. […] “Wife” is a direct translation of “sex”.’ Though the poem makes clear that both word and institution are colonial imports, it is clear-eyed about its thorough integration into the poet’s home society. The poem is driven by its assertion of the speaker’s agency, fighting back against social stricture by naming it.

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Alongside the book’s social realism are several poems in which anxieties about racial and misogynist oppression are given full, uncanny voice. In ‘I try’:

‘In the high branches of a tree
there is a bride’s
veil
swinging
Of course, there is a story
here

Though, perhaps the veil is nothing
more than a white
garbage bag
But I know better
I don’t believe my eyes’

Coming straight after ‘Dictionary’, this is a stark and suggestive piece, leaving ample room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the horrific blanks. Alongside the book’s ongoing consideration of how the body may be enlisted against the individual’s ability to identify her own suffering, the poem ends with intimations of lynch mobs, a history of violence against people of colour:

‘Now we may try the ghost bride
for answers

Such as
what do dead bodies mean
when swaying
from trees?’

Where ‘Dictionary’ may find bleak humour in its exasperation, ‘I try’ reaffirms the lived reality of where such deep-seated cultural bigotry leads. That the poem can only express this understanding through a layer of self-doubt (‘this odd telepathy’) leaves space for the reader to choose whether or not to believe the poet’s testimony, whether we ‘believe [her] eyes’. Among the bolder or more dramatically performed statements in Wife, ‘I try’ stands out among its moments of quiet horror. Likewise, ‘A poem to mark when we were afraid’ draws on imagery of Bible Belt America (‘the RV Park’, ‘the revival’, ‘cattle and Hummers’, ‘bumper stickers that read “Follow me to Christ”’), as the speaker and their partner ‘are received as the representatives / from the Pygmy Goat Association’. Within the dreamy world where people are ‘a sir’ and ‘a ma’am’ – people identified by social honorifics rather than individual, humanising features – the poem takes a turn:

‘From the official pamphlet we learn:
pygmies are black pagans and the goat is a metaphor.
That night, though you sleep beside me, the steers stamp me into meat.’

The book was published in November of 2015, and the poem’s composition predates the recent mainstreaming of white supremacy likely by even longer, but its rendering of the monstrousness of white America’s social adhesives is painfully prescient. Again, the departure from the book’s more prosaic waking world is expertly handled, carefully wrongfooting the reader.

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The book’s penultimate piece, ‘Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse’ may be read as a kind of coda. The poem’s form requires each verse to contain the word ‘belong’, and once more, the poem shapes away from social duties (‘Before you even know / you are your own, / you know that you are / someone else’s) and towards the interpersonal. The poem adds to the book’s previous formulations, however, by including a sort of intermediary between the arbitrary, somewhat overbearing institutions of family, religion, state and employment on one side and lover on the other:

‘You are part of a tribe,
It is not a shackle. It is the true story
of self-creation.
It is what makes you.
You come to belong to yourself.
You say I am
and call your own name.’

The ‘tribe’ – notably differentiated from family or place – appears as one of the few enabling forces in the collection, one that empowers the individual via communal support. Where the poem ends by somewhat ambiguously describing the married couple as ‘claiming’ each other as in the first stanza their parents ‘claimed’ them, the tribe is allowed to stand as an unfixed and positive space.

A majority of the book’s finest pieces come in its first section, leaving the later stages of the book feeling a little light. ‘The Story of Our Elopement’, for example, while an interesting narrative, doesn’t quite push outwards from the specific moment that occasioned it. ‘Confession of the five foolish brides’ is an interesting re-think of the parable, but feels a little drawn out. Again, these are by no means bad poems, but the sheer quality elsewhere makes these merely adequate pieces feel a little dry, slow down the hectic pace of the collection.

Despite this, Wife is an extraordinary first book, one that demands slow reading and unbroken attention. Yanique’s skill with capturing atmospheres of implicit violence, allied with her ability to make broad societal structures feel human and intimate, allow for some intensely good poems, with impressive artistic range and depth of understanding. Very well worth her Forward Prize victory, and I hope it finds its due readership on this side of the Atlantic.

Further Reading:

Interview with Yanique by Forward Arts Foundation

Review in St Lucia Star

Review by Becky Varley-Winter in Sabotage Reviews

Review by Martyn Crucefix

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

Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

Full Disclosure: None. First encounter with Capildeo.

‘the sense that this incident is one of many, that the personal is historical, that ‘you’ are a stone already worn down by the water-torture drips, is what Rankine seeks to convey about the predicament of the non-‘white’-skinned individual whose daily life cannot be individual, cannot be pure and spontaneous – cannot be lyric – in so far as it is subject to the encasements and flayings of racialised perception.’

– Capildeo, “On Reading Claudia Rankine”, PN Review 228.

Review: Right in the middle of Measures of Expatriation, in the fourth of the book’s seven sections, is ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’, a response to an exhibition of the artist’s work. The poem’s first section is titled ‘Felt Pen’ and offers explanations – of varying conviction – for the artist’s iconic choice of instrument:

‘‘Because a red felt pen is Freudian.’
‘Because felt is fuzzy, and she’s female.’
‘Because red is menstrual.’ ‘Labial.’ ‘Dangerous.’ ‘Primal.’’ […]
‘Because a red felt pen is
a substitute for the phallus,
and also an American flag stripe
signifying the absence of France.’

Capildeo offers a further possibility:

‘Because it was bloody well there,
and in a fix or in a fit, the artist
fiercely repurposes whatever is to hand.’

In a state of either pressing necessity or mental unrest, the artist transforms quotidian junk into acts of resistance. Measures of Expatriation aims to unravel some densely knotted and poisonous ideas and manages to do so with wit, patience, and an often bone-dry sense of humour. Underwriting everything, though, is this determination to hook every theoretical abstraction back into the living, breathing world of unstable but powerful signs. It’s noteworthy that in this passage above, Capildeo is not ruling out the possibility that each of the anonymous suggestions might, on its own, contain a nugget of truth; far more important than the pen’s symbolism, however, is the fact that it was used at all, that the threat of silence is far more pressing than the triumph of one theoretical network or another. The fact that those few lines carry so much freight is true of the collection at large, it’s a long read and a dense one, and every word has clearly been agonised over. Just thinking about the mental labour involved to produce this book makes my head hurt. Yet the challenge seems to be part and parcel of the book’s purpose, and it would be naïve to think that its substantial and sustained challenge to the imposition of restrictive identities (racial, national, gendered or otherwise) would be easy reading.

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And yet the sum of its dense, allusive and syntactically outlandish linguistic performances is an extremely human book. Even when obscured by layers of persona or dramatic irony, Capildeo is a thoughtful and curious guide through her poems’ ideas; the profusion of prose texts in this collection seems to me to be evidence of a will to empower the reader, to spell out her arguments in much plainer fashion than in the more recognisably ‘lyric’ pieces. Looking back at Capildeo’s 2013 collection Utter shows a far greater faith in the column of left-aligned text most commonly recognised as ‘a lyric poem’, and it may be that the greater reliance on non-traditional poetic forms in the new book is continuous with her strategy of ‘fiercely repurpos[ing] whatever is at hand’.  As in Capildeo’s reading of Rankine, the poet and her writing have been disallowed from comfortably inhabiting what a reader of canonical Anglophone poetry might recognise as lyric. As Capildeo explains, ‘If this is lyric, lyric must rise as a spring which acknowledges sedimentation, an inspiration which knows it breathes in shared, polluted air, which sings its body of ‘you’ because its ‘I’ is treated as an ‘is not’ or a ‘they’’. The knock-on effect, of course, is that talking about the content of the work, its revolutionary substance, is deferred as the form it takes must be scrutinised, must first defend its right to claim lyric space. In other words, instead of getting bogged down in questions of whether this is poetry, ask why poetry needs to take such radical form.

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It’s noticeable how often the book returns to questions of belonging, of feeling at home either in one’s own skin or in the place one lives. In ‘Too Solid Flesh’ (from Hamlet’s soliloquy: ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!’), the poet appears to be suffering from an acute bout of depression, one that connects homesickness (‘She four-thousand-miles-away-across-the-ocean hasn’t been herself lately’) with a feeling of physical disconnect:

‘I am feeling out of touch with my body: it feels like something I have been given to look after. When I bathe I feel that I am washing it, not that I am bathing’.’

The poem explores several scenarios in which it is not so much the poet’s inability to ‘acquire weight’ that is at fault, but the world itself fails to fill the gaps in the poet’s perception. A ghoulishly disfigured member of the displaced Arawak people appears in a dream, ‘her flesh no longer covered skull’: ‘‘I’m as solid as you are,’ she said loudly and tonguelessly. […] But I was alive, and she was not.’ As Sandeep Parmar explains, the scene complicates a simplistic power narrative, forcing both poet and reader to locate themselves in a much broader understanding of historical violence. On that note, it’s probably not coincidental that the next figure to beset the poet with social expectations is an ‘Armed Forces man’, someone sitting at the crossroads between social and gendered authority:

‘had the kindness to ignore the others at the dinner table, in order to explain to me how I might acquire density: essentially, I was the same as any woman, if we could put aside the intellect.’

Like many other figures in the scene, the Armed Forces man is partially disfigured in the poet’s (apparently) malfunctioning perception, ‘His head not only disappeared; it also came apart.’ This inability or refusal to acknowledge him as a full person has the effect of stripping him of his surety, his unquestionable authority: it’s certainly grotesque, but there’s also something funny about him taking on ‘the aspect of a pegged grapefruit of which one quarter had been eaten’. The poem also encounters a half-faced literary agent, advising the poet to sell the mangoes, coconuts, yams, rum and ‘a grain of salt’ that fall magically out of her books. Selling images of her assumed Caribbean identity are figured as the only business-friendly means of acquiring literary weight, in a world where women in academic posts:

‘trundle towards the apex of a career, wild for the literature that has been written, for no more need be written, for literature is the province of the dead, and how can I have something to add to it?’

Again, the poet’s capacity to enact significant change, to assert her right to shape her own identity and narrative are circumscribed by the norms of literary culture, which will only let her participate with colonial strings attached, and academic culture, which in its over-emphasis on traditional anglophone literature excludes counter-canonical thinking by design. If it all sounds heavy and worthy in summary, the experience of reading the poem is one of following a sharp and wise observer through a series of experiences so ludicrous that comedy almost feels like a coping strategy as much as a literary one. The sequence’s penultimate tableau is a near-fatal attempt to acquire Tamiflu from a wilfully obstructive health bureaucracy that leaves the ailing poet a ‘childless, no-news nowherian’. And yet it finds something hopeful in ‘An older woman’s voice whispers disapproval in my ear’:

If you see the pictures like Auntie Sati had […] we never covered ourselves up. Covering ourselves up, that is a new thing. Maybe it is a Mulsim thing, maybe it is a Western thing. […] I do not know whether what the older voice says is true.’

Given the emphasis in ‘Too Solid Flesh’ on distorted perceptions of reality, it’s possible that the poet’s final scepticism is redundant – how much of any of this is ‘true’? Yet the reminder that behavioural norms are arbitrary, relative, and subject to change permits a note of real hope, so that even the subtly comic wordplay in:

‘‘Black,’ my mother says darkly, ‘is a colour of joy.’ Kali is black. Black contains all the colours; it is the ultimate colour.’

also contains sincere optimism, a reassertion of a meaning that runs contrary to the (Western) norm. The poem’s last word, ‘This has been thought for you’, makes me want to punch the air.

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In the title poem, ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, Capildeo examines how language itself conspires in racism, how the words ‘Expatriate. / Exile. / Migrant. / Refugee’ are applied to different bodies with different political goals in mind. As Sophie Collins notes in her review in Poetry Review, ‘colonial forces behind national languages are foregrounded throughout, the pervasive myth of an essential ‘mother tongue’ debunked’. In this poem, Capildeo contrasts the arbitrary, artificially fixed boundaries of political entities with the living realm of language:

‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. […] Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. […] Yet thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound.’

The collection is full of such moments of rhetorical power, in which Capildeo demonstrates an excellent ear for rhythm, for the impassioned and genuine, something like an intellectual call to arms. More often than not, however, such moments are immediately deflated by the mundane or ridiculous, as the impulse to keep a sense of proportion does its work. In ‘Five Measures…’, the next words are the children’s-book-like ‘One day I lost the words wall and floor’, though even these are shot through with the will to overwrite meaningless boundaries, ‘There seemed no reason to conceive of a division’ (noting that the Trinidadian response to the formation of Pakistan referenced in ‘And Also / No Join / Like’ also operated on ‘the lines of what had not been a division’; the linguistic and the political are continuous). Capildeo is extremely careful to never let the messiness of reality be erased for the sake of political cleanliness.

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As Amanda Merritt notes, that same messiness occasionally looks more like plain confusion, and there are certainly times in Measures of Expatriation where I found the poems’ rejection of conventional syntax or deep etymological punning a little too dense to follow. However, where these strategies hit their mark, the book rewards the necessary close readings, including the wonderful ‘Un Furl’, which might be the most heartfelt language-love-poem I’ve ever read, which begins:

‘Any love
meant as equal
is momentary
momentarily unequal
is equal
if love
reckons time
knows not equals’

Given the collection this poem appears in, the sincerity of the quest to formulate a working and positive definition of a healthy romantic partnership is an absolute sucker punch. If any sticklers for formal convention were to read the book’s dreamy and powerful short stories (which Collins beautifully names ‘itinerant prose pieces’) and ask where the poetry is, where, ultimately, is the lyrical work for which all this unlineated writing is trying to create space, one may point right here. It’s a green shoot in a desert, it’s the feathers on the book’s cover flying again. This may be a thoroughly polyanna reading of a collection that is under no illusions about exactly what kind of world it lives in, or about the structures that hold its worst offenses in place. There’s something deeply heartening, however, in the fact that a full half of the book’s poems are dedicated to friends and peers (if Shakespeare’s ‘Weyward Sisters’ count), asserting a community, a federation of individuals where a white-centric culture would see an undifferentiated ‘they’. Measures of Expatriation has an unshakeable grip on what anchors the poet to her humanity in spite of constant dehumanisation.

This is not an easy book by any reckoning; it is long and densely written, it often leaves the reader without footholds and deviates from recognisable tradition. Parmar argues that ‘Capildeo’s integrity and intelligence put her several steps ahead of publishers, academics and critics who might foolishly marginalise her work in Britain’, and I’m pretty darned excited by the idea that this book could open new possibilities in terms of how we read poetry, and what mainstream poetry is capable of discussing. That means pushing readers out of our comfort zone, asking important questions about how such comfort is constructed, who it benefits and who it excludes, questioning the morality of what we (by ‘we’ I mean particularly privileged readers like myself) take for granted every day. I can’t think of a better definition for the work of poetry.

Tl;dr: if you like to have your assumptions challenged, if you enjoy sharing the ideas of a deeply thoughtful, witty and principled writer, read this book.

Further Reading: Sandeep Parmar review, The Guardian.

Amanda Merritt review, London Magazine.

Sophie Collins review, Poetry Review (Summer 2016).

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Full Disclosure: Have met Padraig a couple of times. Stephen Connolly, one of the Lifeboat editors along with Manuela Moser, is a pal.

Review: Padraig Regan’s pamphlet Delicious opens with ‘10 Game Fowls after Juan Sánchez Cotán’s ‘Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits’’. Almost all the titles in Delicious follow painterly conventions – ‘Love Poem with Sandwiches’, ‘Red Interior with Savoy Cabbage’, ‘Vanity with a Breakfast of Apples’ – and all are arranged in a neat justified block down the centre of the page. There is tension between the poems’ formal and dramatic artfulness, their luxuriant vocabularies and exquisite syntactical angles, and their homeliness, their close-focus/high-stakes tableaux.

’10 Game Fowls’ embodies this tension, its single sentence divided across two stanzas. The first is a verbal exploration of Cotán’s painting, drawing out the still-life’s lines of action, reconstructing the painting’s directions for its own reader/viewer:

‘Five of the six sparrows tied
to a pole have turned their
heads to where a bundle of
orange carrots bruised with
purple, or purple carrots
blushing, underline a few
inches of black space &
describe a trajectory to the
base of a white cardoon
whose architectural sweep
curves towards a pair of
partridges displaying the
tincture of their azure chests
& putting to shame a pair of
finches which intersect
between the partridges &
the apples suspended on
individual strings which
twist together like a maypole
adjacent to where the black
background snags on a twig
with three radiant lemons &’

I think it’s worth trying to read this aloud, figuring out where breath falls in such a dynamic, multifaceted sentence, its ostensibly arbitrary breaks in the poem’s short lines keeping the eye and ear moving too fast to fully process how much strangeness is going on. The poem is precise to the point of pernicketude, as each straight-faced detail – splitting the difference between bruised orange carrots or healthy purple carrots – builds a scene of either unbearable richness or unparseable confusion. What seems clear is that the poem cares deeply about not just the painting’s cast of characters but their relationships, investing the birds with partly comic, partly grim agency in their turned heads, displays and shames.

The poem, like many in Delicious, is an odd creature. The care with which these elements have been arranged follows no specific logical or emotional thread that I could follow, barring documentary accuracy; all that is apparent is that painstaking care is at work. Deliberate emphasis on care: I believe Delicious is one of the finest books of comfort, of self-care, that I have read in some time. More on this later. What matters in ’10 Game Fowls’ is that pleasure is there to be taken in the arranged beauty of these dead animals, perhaps in the face of their death, in the sensuality of ‘bruised’, ‘blush’, ‘tincture’, ‘azure’, ‘radiant’, and the conclusion the poem has been building towards, the stanza-break’s formal hiatus after that last ampersand:

‘all this above the plinth
where Juan Sánchez Cotán
has faux-engraved his
signature & added the date
1602: one year before he
gave up eating the flesh of
beasts & fowls & joined the
Order of Carthusians in
Granada.’

The poem doesn’t resolve exactly; Cotán’s decision is given far less space than his lush still life, its inner dramas are far more active and involved and strange than his mere ‘gave up’. Yet the Cartuja monastery in Granada is famed for its baroque architecture, and for its view over a city itself renowned for its glamour; turning away from flesh and aristocratic patronage is not necessarily a turn from beauty. If Cotán’s choice is partly framed as an act of negation, it casts no particular judgement upon him, no more than it judges the sparrows for turning or not turning their heads towards the bundle of carrots. To be blunt, in the right hands even carrots are beautiful.

AW2

Similarly, ‘Epithalamium with Peach Melba’ reads at first like a hymn to decadence, with its references to the dish’s creation by the Duc d’Orléans in honour of an opera singer (Nellie Melba), and a line from Wagner that translates as ‘this sweet-smelling room, decked out for love, now takes you in’. The poem embodies the gaudiness of the scene – ‘a swan / sculpted in ice with the space / between its scapulars // mounded with ice-cream & / peaches’ – the chime between ‘sculpted’ and ‘scapulars’ suggests that the poem, like the duke’s dessert table, is relishing the act. The register then shifts into a kind of aspirational housekeeping guide, advising the reader to ‘Serve it on the patio, in cut- / glass 20s bowls so your guests / can marvel at the contrast / between the orange peaches // & the deep cerise of the / raspberry sauce.’ You might not have ice-swans, but you can still dazzle the neighbours. The poem offers one last option:

‘If
nothing else it sure feels great

to slip your thumb under a
peach stone & push it out. & if
it tears & a little sticky juice
spurts from it,

remember that it is only a
prelude to the moment you bite
in. Remember that eating is
always an act of theft.’

The last line is surprising, but perhaps a logical conclusion; dressing up the peach til it’s fit for nobility does not erase its basic, survival function. Posing this kind of (perhaps) moral question in a poem that clearly enacts – and takes pleasure in enacting – material excess is a complicated business, maybe vital to the book’s aesthetic: does poetry’s formal decoration distract from its own survival function? Does Peach Melba distract from the peach? If eating is an act of theft, can it be enjoyed with a clear conscience? Yet these closing stanzas clearly move a rarefied experience into an accessible realm, the markedly casual ‘it sure feels great’ within earshot of a duke. The answer, I think, is that acknowledging basic moral compromises is not to refuse the question altogether; recognising the complexity inherent in even the most elementary acts is kind of poetry’s bag.

So, too, is there a complicated relationship between what the poet reveals and does not reveal about their own fictionalised self. Though many poems in Delicious seem to originate in a biographical sphere, the construction of a poetic self is very much secondary to the poems’ drama. ‘Love Poem with Sandwiches’ describes a plan to inscribe titles like ‘Nocturne with a Bottle of / Sparkling Wine or Aubade / with Figs & Water Glass’ on slices of bread:

‘& feed them to this guy I
was dating because the first
time I saw him naked in
daylight the hairs on his
belly reminded me of that
texture you find at the centre
of a loaf when you grip the
crusts & pull it apart.’

That ‘because’ is doing an unseemly amount of heavy lifting. The association is clear enough – downy body hair is like fibrous bread – but the justification for (comically-sinisterly) ‘feed[ing]’ the guy poem-sandwiches is absent, and the reader is left with both an intimate daydream and more questions than when the poem began; the ‘because’ is beside the point.

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Likewise, ‘Bowls, Plates & Cups in a Garden with a Shower of Rain’ actively obscures some apparently vital information. In prosaic terms, the poem describes a dropped bowl of soup rendered alien by their fall out of context, but the poem moves on all too quickly for such a mundane possibility to sink in, the single sentence running away towards its emotional, if not exactly narrative, conclusion:

‘in the hope that among
the cubes of pepper, red
onion & cucumber I might
find a few more details

to piece into the story which
I know ends with me in an
all-night self-serve restaurant
in Madrid five years ago

pale & sweaty under the
fluorescent tube-lights’

The ‘I know’ seems key, drawing a line between what the poet knows and what the poem needs the reader to know. The sudden arrival of this memory is what matters, and not the any number of narrative possibilities it might suggest. This too, I think, is contiguous with the book’s generosity: what matters is not an intricately crafted poetic self in performance, but an emotional space for the reader to encounter on their own terms.

So, the matter of care. Delicious is certainly interested in care in an explicit sense; ‘An Exhibit Illustrating the Life of Neolithic Man’ concerns a lie the narrator told ‘you’ about whether the taxidermy was real, and the fallout from this lie:

‘I’m tasting
it still when I can’t
distract myself from all
the stains of all the lies
I’ve ever told & that
I’ve listened to,
knowing that they were
lies but desperate to
accept them. & the
next time we talk
they’ll be there, taking
the shape of a ceramic
bird which neither of
us will recognise.’

Here, the poem’s surface drama is its emotional drama. Trust is broken, the damage is not only done but made into an iconic form. Yet it came partly from a place of kindness, a wish not to hurt ‘you’, or at least to avoid having to confront ‘you’ with a difficult reality. The narrator recognises that a well-intentioned lie is not necessarily more noble than the other kind, owns their faults and even takes ‘your’ position, recognising the temptation to believe a known untruth. The first impulse is not to sensationalise the whole episode but to understand its inner workings. This empathy extends to how Delicious engages with its audience, how it achieves complex and authentic emotional realities without demanding the reader experience unrewarded stress; what exactly happened in Madrid or the museum is not as relevant as how these scenes carry the poem’s deeper meaning.

‘But why should a poet refrain from telling difficult truths difficultly?’ bellow a phalanx of free-speech fundamentalists, ‘isn’t that self-censorship???’. There’s a place for that approach (and no shortage of publishing deals), and there’s certainly no stopping litbros from dispensing all manner of emotional detritus in the name of ‘bravery’ or ‘honesty’, the way it’s brave or honest to acknowledge the aspects of one’s personality that align perfectly with social expectations. There’s also a place for taking responsibility for what you ask of your reader, and what you offer in return; giving voice to your revenge fantasies might be hugely cathartic to the writer, but deeply harmful to a reader who has been subject to very real abuse. It’s also possible to bear witness to one’s own trauma in a way that provides comfort to that same reader; there’s no reason why all poetry should aspire to shock or awe. Readers are people too – if the very idea of reader-care seems alien and objectionable to you, it might be valuable to ask why that is.

cat

What fantasies Delicious indulges seem comforting by design; I’m thinking of the poem ‘Aoshima’ (the Japanese island where cats outnumber humans by 6 to 1):

‘I imagine you stopping
somewhere along the
infinite ribbon of white
sand & kneeling down to
give your dog one last
scratch behind the ear,
then taking off & burying
your shoes. You wade into
the water which is
decorated by the sun with
a thousand scraps of
lemon rind & warmer
than you expected. If you
can, stay true to west by
south west until once
again you feel the
feathering of kelp
between your toes, climb
out onto a new beach,
walk to a low brick wall
which marks the
boundary where grass
rubs against sand, & sit &
wait until the island’s
hundred cats introduce
themselves, individually,
to your ankles.’

The line ‘decorated by the sun with / a thousand scraps of / lemon rind’ is just perfect, the poem warm and understatedly sad. The poem is a simple gesture, but in context with all things external to the book, a hugely affecting one. Recently Harry Giles wrote an important essay on the role of shock and care in art, how in a culture traumatised by austerity’s demand for precarity and anxiety, especially in those suffering cultural marginalisation, art that gives space for audience care makes a radical statement. Delicious, in its capacity to both indulge and question that indulgence, to accept responsibility and to invite understanding, challenges the assumption that art should be inherently violent or disjunctive, or that the poet knows best what the reader can or should experience. The last line of the book’s last poem ‘almost begs for you / to take it in your hand’; it encapsulates the book’s generosity and kindness, its valorising of the body’s capacity for both pleasure and solace.

tl;dr: Delicious quietly provokes serious questions about how we read (and write) poetry. Funny, generous, and emotionally complex. My copy’s already a bit weatherbeaten, and I reckon I’ll be reading it for a long time yet. Buy Delicious here.

Further Reading: Shock and Care by Harry Giles

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Jen Hadfield – Byssus

Statement of Prejudice: Hadfield’s last book Nigh-No-Place came along at a time when I was doing a lot of entry-level thinking about poetry, and remains a pretty important book to me. Have seen her read a couple of times, she reads very slowly and deliberately, emphasising the poems’ aural qualities.

Review: Byssus is an odd, highly readable, lexically pleasurable book. The poems paint Shetland as populated primarily by its flora and fauna, and the human characters as somewhat embattled wildlife. Hadfield’s wry, affectionate humour animates many of the individual pieces, and is a personable and imaginative guide through what in many hands could be a prompt for heavyhanded existentialism. If Hadfield has a poetic tick it’s finding a scrap of fairytale or an imaginative hook in the minutiae of day to day life, although – far more than Nigh-No-PlaceByssus acknowledges and registers the underlying precariousness of island life.

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Okay, so that’s a fairly reviewish response so far. Byssus is a kind of difficult book to get a grip on, many of the pieces employ a kind of absurdist register towards, say, the cat, a carton of milk, stars (many many stars, another Hadfield mainstay), birds and so on. It’s difficult to agglomerate a direct or reducible response to the poems’ subjects; the lasting impression is that the Shetland of the poems is a harsh, unwelcoming, but nevertheless beautiful place, once you get your eye in. Again, more than in Nigh-No-Place, Byssus features an active human community; ‘Hydra’ (for D & S & F & A & L), ‘The Wedding Road, with Free Bar’ (a personal favourite and prime example of aptly-formatted free verse, witness ‘grasping our brok / en dahlias // while the con / sternations  // park / thems / elves’) and ‘The Sessions’ all feature groups at work/play in the present day. The nature of Hadfield’s documentarian, scientific narration keeps the poems at an observing remove, however, and even in the poems where the body (often human, more often animal) is in focus, the poems remain curiously disembodied. This is not necessarily a criticism, however, and much of the book’s joy in turning a skewed perspective on life might be lost by straying too close to the action.

‘In Revolution Politics Become Nature’ (after Ian Hamilton Finlay) is an unusual poem and I think worth examining more closely. Beside the title’s tricksy grammar (revolution turns politics into a state of nature? revolutionary politics suit nature? eco-politics are revolutionary?), it seems to hold (or maybe I’d like it to hold) a key to the poet’s attitude to nature writing, which constitutes a fair portion of Byssus’ run time. Note that the word ‘byssus’ refers to a kind of filament by which certain molluscs attach themselves to hard places, a kind of natural binding. Worth noting also that Hadfield habitually figures herself in zoological terms. Is the poet the byssal limpet? Shetland society at large? What of the loud echoes of the ‘abyss’? The poem in question is an interesting little portrait in which ‘A SNEEZING SHERIFF’ (the poem is in Finlayan all-caps) slowly turns from seal-like human to human-like seal, ‘R / EPRESENTATIVE OF THE SILENT MAJORITY THE / DARK GREY NATION IN / THE KELPBEDS’. Perhaps, then, Byssus should be read as Edward Thomas-ian ecocentrism, human society as one amongst many. There is certainly plenty of evidence of an observing eye in love with nature’s aesthetic possibilities, its renewing cycles (cf ‘A Very Circular Song’). Perhaps most pertinently, the number of poems in which the poet is alone in nature – on a ‘moon-walk’ in ‘Ceps’, handling quartz in a valley in ‘Quartz’, talking to lichen in the book’s opener, ‘Lichen’ – or in which nature is observed entirely outwith human agency, or in which the poet is, as mentioned above, figured in ecological terms.

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If many poetry books have a ‘single’ – a poem that works as a standalone event, uses an unusually memorable hook etc, see Nigh-No-Place’s title poem, or the title poem of Paterson’s Rain – ‘The Ambition’ (after Rabelais) fits the bill here. Hadfield frames her body as part of the landscape: ‘If my knees knocked it was two flints striking / My skin shagreen […] My fingerprints finely-carved trilobites of the shore’ and finishes with ‘My breadcrumb sponge my ephemeral path home.’ It’s a cool little poem, pointing towards an eco-friendly, humanist dissolution of the self, with a fine line in self-effacing humour (‘if my kidneys complained, they were Bert and Ernie’) that could well be the crux of the book. Hadfield presents (or proposes, or, as here, has semi-ironic ambitions towards) a non-hierarchical image of nature, with humanity as one among many. Cool! I like that view of the world, one in which nature isn’t a vague threat, or something to be dominated or overcome. It’s refreshing to read a sustained encounter with nature that is not necessarily animated by reaping a poetic harvest, or positions the natural world as exotic wallpaper. Hadfield manages to convey a relationship to her surroundings that is at once hard-won and affectionate, and, in ‘In Memoriam’, is the backbone of her aesthetic: ‘are we taking up the first language / or must we coin / a new one? // If we’re going to speak about this / I’ll need a tinderbox and tent / and waterskin. // We will need to use the nights / as fully as the nesting birds.’ It’s an intriguing thought, and one of the frustrations of the book is that one senses Hadfield has something interesting to express about her own aesthetic, but largely keeps her cards face down.

Whether you enjoy the book might hinge on how well you negotiate occasional cutesiness, the occasional indulgence of a conceit (‘The Kids’ won the Edwin Morgan Prize a couple years back, but the conceit (Monday’s child etc), while neatly handled, compels the poem to run maybe a section or two longer than it can sustain), or not always fully-sublimated Shetland vernacular. The last point, of course, is fraught indeed; the words are interesting in their own right, and are afforded great musical value within the poems, but sometimes feel like the subject of observation rather than the equipment that enables that observation. I will happily concede this point to anyone with a facility in Shetlandic, however.

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Tl;dr: I thoroughly enjoyed Byssus, and the re-reading necessary to write the review reminded me of the sheer number of dense, aurally pleasing and neatly painted pieces throughout Byssus. Perhaps the insight afforded by the longer prose pieces doesn’t quite match that of the tighter lyrics, and perhaps I was occasionally thwarted at times by the poet’s reservation when it comes to connecting the ecology of the poems to the larger political system. That’s probably unfair, as Byssus might have no such ambition, but it struck me. Anyway, Hadfield has written a worthy, mature successor to Nigh-No-Place, and I thoroughly recommend giving it a shufti.

Helen Mort – Division Street

Statement of Prejudice: I’m a fan of Mort’s blog Poetry on the Brain, but haven’t read much of her creative work. Fairly optimistic though.

Reality: Maybe the most impressive poem in Division Street is a miniature, dreamy piece sitting unassumingly towards the end of the collection, ‘Thread’, into which the book’s concerns are quietly herded:

From now, your movement
is a kite’s: you have the sky
and yet you’re tethered
to a man below, an ancestor

who looks on silently
from an old print: your face
in his and his in yours.
Even when he yields the string,

he’s set your course. The breeze
may intervene, but you are lifted
by a finer thread, like all the living,
anchored by the dead.

There’s a tendency in poetry reviewing to ignore the physical presentation of the book (maybe because a lot of reviewers get advance copies without covers? lack of space?), and Division Street is almost actively hampered by its production. There’s an admittedly compelling cover photo, (a man /with a handlebar moustache and a Support the Miners badge on a home-made police helmet facing a row of actual police), but it has little to do with Mort’s book. The lines quoted from ‘Scab’ on the back cover do indeed refer to the miners’ strikes in Sheffield, but it’s the book’s only extended rumination on the topic; a few other poems note the closure of pubs and working men’s clubs, but the action takes place largely in the present. ‘Scab’ itself is a long consideration of the poet’s own feelings of betrayal on taking up a place at Cambridge, a deeply felt and angry exploration of the contrasting worlds of hometown and college; the politics of striking are secondary to the poem’s thinking about loyalty, family and social mobility so tightly composed in ‘Thread’. The close of the poem, and its hostility to closure, is among the book’s most powerful moments.

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Which is why it is so frustrating that the very book in which such an accomplished poem is printed should so distort the individual poem’s express intentions. Division Street is a sure-footed, occasionally excellent first collection, but Mort very clearly positions the exploration of a divided life (which is not the cover’s simple division of police (state? establishment?) and miners) in the epigram from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with further essays into split allegiances throughout the book. Even the title poem is the story of a failed relationship and a near miss with an STD. I suspect positioning the book as ‘the one about miners’ was an easier sell, but frustrating nonetheless that the quality of the poems should be sold short by their packaging.

Division Street, as indicated above, is at its sharpest when animated by righteous (not in the pejorative sense) anger, as in ‘Fur’, ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’, and the sort-of-sequence ‘Thinspiration Shots’, ‘Miss Heath’ and ‘Beauty’, which form a far more convincing thematic core than the strikes. ‘Thinspiration Shots’ is a deeply unsettling piece about the eponymous pro-anorexia sites centred around photographs of (especially young) women with eating disorders, justified in this case by ballet aspirations. The poem’s strength comes from Mort’s ability to understand and contextualise systemic pressures without judging or blaming the individual; the pictured ‘models’ are compared to a mermaid, a hummingbird, being winged, a doll in a music box; appealing, traditionally gendered images of unattainable physical refinement that erase the practical needs of the real-life person. ‘Miss Heath’ and ‘Beauty’ are close readings of the harm caused by such unrealistic expectations; Mort’s ballet instructor who ‘never made the stage’, ‘her eyes/avoiding ours’, using dance as a means of escape. ‘Beauty’ is a much stranger piece, one of several poems in the book that feature a kind of doppelganger (see ‘The Girl Next Door’, more or less a twin poem, appropriately enough). Here, the eponymous figure is an explicitly threatening one – the speaker hides when she knocks the window – and one quite obviously emotionally (if not physically) damaged. The poem’s blunt vocabulary and heavy rhyme give the piece a nightmarish nursery-rhyme atmosphere, the speaker’s incorrigible curiosity and realisation (‘it’s not the face we shrink from but the name’) hiding a complex understanding of the effects of homogenising beauty standards in plain language.

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Elsewhere there are a number of accomplished individual pieces; ‘Outtakes’ is a neat love poem that harnesses the strategies of filmmaking into emotionally framing unrequited love (‘Look close enough, you told me once,/and anything’s significant’), ‘Pit Closure as a Tarantino Short’ another nice example of cinematic technique in miniature, ‘Year of the Ostrich’ a Kay Ryan-y parable about not quite fitting the bill. There are just as many poems, however, that rely too heavily on the neat resolution of their conceits (‘The Dogs’, ‘Items Carried up Ben Nevis’) or that drift off more obscurely than mysteriously (‘Grasmere Oak’, ‘Fox Miles’), particularly towards the end of the collection, occasionally lapsing into that ‘I’m the teacher you’re the pupil’ tone currently plaguing contemporary poetry.

Tl;dr: Division Street is an unusually solid first collection, well-paced and in places satisfyingly disturbing. Well worth a read.

Jacob Polley – The Havocs

Statement of Prejudice: Polley is a writer I’ve had a vague opinion about for a while, as being a fairly nondescript and slightly pretentious Poet (caps intended), and I’m aware of a fascination with Wordsworth which is totally fine and above board and legit but a bit like finding out someone’s favourite band is Led Zeppelin. I am totally aware of and have just now come to terms with the shallow nature of this opinion, however.

Reality: I am in two minds about this book. Heavens! The shock may kill you. But The Havocs is composed of some genuinely cracking little poems and an uncommon skill with the whole rhetorical/rhythmical craft thing and a capacity for evoking a Frost/Hughes-type dark-and-deeply wintery pastoral without invoking those poets’ nihilism/overweening lust-for-dominance respectively; it also clunks on occasion and has a bad habit of enjoying its own vocabulary at the expense of the lyric exploration.

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It’s also a book that richly rewards a second run. If I’ve name-dropped out the wazoo already it’s because Polley is a writer deep in an English-language tradition, and to approach The Havocs without that in mind is to miss a lot of the book’s finest qualities. The opening poem, “Doll’s House”, is an intricate lyrical essay on the act of observation and the fear of writing poems in which nothing moves (as in both emotively and locomotively), as in ‘the shelves of depthless books / lining a room where nothing’s read’. It’s also delightfully creepy and should put the howling fantods up anyone looking for a comprehensively comprehensible arrangement of Polley/poet’s voice/reader. That the effect is somewhat undone by the unsatisfyingly lax “Hide and Seek” on the next page is kind of a shame: the second poem’s sort-of-a-riddle goes on for too long without quite coming to the boil.

Between “Doll’s House” and the next truly stand-out poem, “Keepers”, The Havocs maintains a tone of the implied menace of recently-departed things through recurring instances of silence, absence, and negation, JP’s constant resort to childhood giving the speaker a child’s lack of agency, an inability to counter the darkness with light, the meaninglessness with meaning. “Keepers” does introduce the possibility for upsetting the status quo, as the child speaker spies on the pure white space-suited beekeepers through the hexagon-shaped wire fence (nice), and the poem recalls Saint Ambrose lying ‘in his crib while the bees dances / over his lips, conferring eloquence. Slipping / from book to dusty book, I’d wondered when he spoke / if goodness had lit like honey his every cell.’ That is one neat, tight, evocative bit of metaphor-making, and it even sounds good. ‘But we were who we were’, is an ambiguous conclusion to such a busy and almost hopeful poem, suggesting waking from a dream, returning from Narnia, a voice still searching for Ambrose’s gift.

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The title poem and “Virus” both share an explicit strategy of employing words outwith their common usage, and both take this opportunity to make the book’s key political-social-type statements. Naturally, nothing is quite clear cut, and I’m still rather unsure of how to deal with them. Initially, both were in the column marked ‘bad poem’ in my notes, and on first reading, “The Havocs” is frustrating and dull, a succession of clever-clever subbings of the word ‘havoc’ into stock phrases, as if Muldoon had never been, and some fairly standard liberal-y assertions about social justice, human rights, Batman and ‘narrowing the gap between the rich and fabulously rich.’ It’s not a whole lot better on closer examination, barring a slight self-aware self-deflation as it emerges that the caped crusader is the poet and his havoc is the one that I the reader am not taking seriously, just as the poem predicts. But it still comes in a little underweight politically; these are fine statements, but it feels like half the argument, and its broken syntax leaves a string of half-finished ideas that do little to serve the interests of political engagement. This is one occasion where a little declarative speech would go a long way. But then I find myself trapped in the vortex of ‘aha, maybe the speechlessness is what he meant all along’ and ‘aha, that still sucks’ and ‘aha, maybe the problem is you being a crappy reader’ and then my head hurts and I regret giving up drinking even temporarily.

“Virus” expresses itself with a little more clarity, being a nice little Foster Wallacian game of imagine-what’ll-be-slang in the future around an odd little tale of fractured meaning, poverty, art chic and brain damage. Underlying both poems is a protest against the devaluing of language in art, commerce and governance, against neglectful reading of ‘big books we felt too heinously / short-lived to waste our eyes upon.’ Respect is due for even attempting to address a social issue (an inclination notably absent from the majority of the TSE shortlist), and if the message is a little incomplete the execution is at least playful and in keeping with the book’s discomfiting tone.

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A quick note should be given to the neat, sparse short poems interspersed throughout the book,in particular “Spike”, which I hope you’ll forgive my quoting in full:

From the wood, a winter fruit
with pips of air inside,
its core like light, like light slowed down;
like nothing, crystallised;

fetched from the dark like light itself,
like light itself grown old:
we touch what can’t survive our touch
but scalds our hands to hold.

Good stuff. Though I can’t budge a feeling that more could have been done with that second doubling of light. Heigh ho. Similarly, “Potsherds” shows a keen observant eye, skill with complicated syntax, and a flair for the rich conclusion: ‘only those parts / of the world whose keeping / required of us an art.’ The poem has a message to convey and does so unassumingly and directly, and is extremely pleasing for it. Shout-outs also to “The Ruin”, an impressively authentic-sounding rendering of an Anglo-Saxon poem and “The Weasel”, a poem about a drunken break-up and breakdown to the rhythm (or tune if you’re feeling frisky) of Pop Goes The Weasel that finds five rhymes for its refrain ‘white winter flowers’.

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There are some mis-fires, like the weird ballad about a stabbing, “Langley Lane”, which upon googling doesn’t appear to refer to any particular real-world event and seems to have entered the book without any emotional teeth (it might be telling that the one poem that intends to provoke an emotional response, “Gloves”, is more sentimental than moving, and reveals little about the father-son relationship at hand), while the book en mass could be accused of leaving too much to the reader or hiding an individual poem’s paucity of meaning behind an extensive vocabulary and attractive surface sheen. Though, again, a sheeny surface is by no means a given.

Tl;dr: This is an occasionally frustrating, occasionally dry, but ultimately unsettling and memorable book, with a coherent and befitting aesthetic, impressive formal wit and productive engagement with its predecessors. Plus a fine example of my prejudices being precisely wrong. Totes worth a peek.