Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia, 木蘭

‘I can never show anyone my map of Shanghai, not because it’s a secret, but because it is so huge and sprawling.’ (‘Falling City’)

Nina Mingya Powles is the editor of a small press, Bitter Melon 苦瓜, which specialises in small runs of beautifully crafted pamphlets – my copy of Jay G. Ying’s Wedding Beasts is on the couch beside me, with its sparkly gold thread, the paper slightly frayed at the perforations, the number 93 handwritten in black ink. Her own pamphlet, Seams : Traces, a study of the life and work of Korean-American poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, was risoprinted, scanned and uploaded to the Dead Women Poets website, with hand-drawn, livid red stitches running along the bottom of each page. Her book of essays, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, was published by the Emma Press last year. 

I mention all this to give a flavour of Powles’ aesthetics: her painterly eye for colour and composition, her creative and critical curiosity, the minute and tactile details that form the foundations of Magnolia, 木蘭. The first and last poems of the book concern Mulan, the 1998 Disney movie, but Powles waits until the closing poem to state explicitly that the Chinese characters in her book’s title signify Mùlán, the Mandarin word for magnolia. For a monoglot anglophone reader, it’s not until these final pages that the title comes into focus, indicates clearly (to me) toward an abundance of relations and contexts. It feels like a pointed strategy on Powles’ part, if one didn’t understand until now: go back, look again, look closer.

Magnolia, 木蘭 thinks deeply about the poet’s own position relative to the subjects of her gaze, be it a Disneyfied China or a bundle of zongzi; like the handwriting on a pamphlet, there is never a comfortable distance between artist and art. In the first and last poems of the book, Powles states explicitly her unfamiliarity with the Chinese language, and her experiences of being othered by a reflexively monolithic Western (read: white/colonial/European) culture. Throughout a deeply thoughtful, perceptive, rangy collection, Powles’ lyric selves attempt to locate themselves within multiple cultures that do not or will not accommodate them.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the book is so deeply rooted in the work of other writers, artists and artworks, from journalists Robin Hyde and Eileen Chang – whose vivid accounts of 1930s Shanghai Powles explores in ‘Falling City’ – to Rothko’s Saffron to failed Matt Damon vehicle The Great Wall. Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade also feels like a touchstone (I think there’s a loop of jade in the cover image of Magnolia, 木蘭), as does Will Harris’ RENDANG, in their diffusion of dramatic personae, critiques of anglophone lyric traditions, and their difficult, perhaps irresolvable questions about culture and belonging; all three collections have as a focal point an account of returning to the poet’s mother’s (and/or grandmother’s) home. In Powles’ book, the constellation of artists cited are a form of navigation, but also estrangement; describing Shanghai through the lenses of Hyde and Chang create a clear, vivid image, but of a place which has long since disappeared. Magnolia, 木蘭 is full of ghosts, shadows, bodies rendered unreal by gaps in language and time. Even Powles’ youth in Shanghai, touched on briefly in ‘Falling City’, is a haunted, painful memory:

‘I sought out exact places I had stood ten years earlier, let bright waves of nostalgia wash over me. I watched them coming from a distance.

I knew I needed to stop doing this soon or else something would break.’

There are many bright spots in the book in which Powles allows her lyric imagination to run wild, though, like ‘Wolfgirl’, in which San from Princess Mononoke makes supper, her life among the wolves seemingly faded from memory, or ‘Two portraits of home’, maybe my favourite single poem in the book, in which the contents of two photographs are simultaneously revealed and obscured:

‘morpheus butterfly wing blue albatross white
plastic-orchid blue hawthorn-blossom white

the blue of the sounds skimmed milk
the blue of the sounds the blue of the sounds unripe-mango green

distant-forest green feijoa tree green’

It’s a beautiful magic-eye trick that suggests a true, real image (the sections are named ‘[IMG_098]’ and ‘[IMG_227]’, like the automated file names of a phone or digital camera), but one rendered utterly open to interpretation, the chiral twin of the correspondent’s tone in ‘Falling City’. In both poems, Powles is trying to show the reader something easy to name – home – but impossible to recreate; maybe remaining faithful to experience demands anything but plain facts. Personally, I can’t know the feeling of travelling thousands of miles to where I might call home and arriving somewhere that refuses to fall into focus, familiarity, reality. But ‘Falling City’ and ‘Two portraits of home’, in harnessing both the essayist and the impressionist, articulate it in terms I can process. I won’t forget them in a hurry.

Other highlights include the book’s central sequence, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Here, Powles takes a strategy similar to Layli Long Soldier’s pieces on the Lakota language in Whereas, in which a single word (or name) stands untranslated at the top of the page, and the poem carefully turns it over, considering it from multiple angles. In Powles’ words: ‘I started to see the [Mandarin] characters as objects I could collect and keep close to me.’ The poems describe a slow, delicate, painstaking process of learning and unlearning, beautifully summarised in a single image in the poem’s sixth section:

‘Two days ago I smashed a glass jar of honey on the kitchen floor. The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing softly.’

Where the book’s opening poem acts as an overture or prelude, the closing poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’ functions beautifully both as an epilogue, and a kind of symbolic index. The varied aspects of magnolia proliferate here, as a tree in nature and as a word for the tree in multiple languages:

‘I want to know the names of the trees in all other languages so that I find out what they taste like to other people. But my mouth can only hold so much.’

as a fragment of memory, or imaginative communion:

‘Mum gave me a heart of jade wrapped in pink and yellow threaded silk. It belonged to her step-grandmother, whose name I don’t know, who walked under the magnolia trees of Shanghai.’

or as artefacts of a specific cultural context:

‘The official flower of the city of Shanghai: dark trees with ghost-white buds haunt courtyards and avenues. At night they loom and glow.’

The meanings of the word and the object we’ve been gathering as readers come into flower here. ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’ opens as many thoughts as it ties up, and certainly gave me a firm push toward starting the collection over with these new contexts in mind. It’s a quietly bold move, resisting an impulse toward closure on a narrative the book makes clear is still in progress.

Beyond its work as an extended essay into culture and belonging, Magnolia, 木蘭, is a real sensory pleasure. In most Ghibli films – which seem a vital source for Powles’ imagination; her tinyletter, Comfort Food, features a shot from Ponyo (2008) – there’s at least one scene in which characters cook for each other, in which the whole frame overflows with frying eggs, or steaming broth, or bread in the oven, the warm, homely yellows and browns and greens come to life, almost giving off heat, almost giving nourishment. There aren’t many poetry books that give me a similar experience (fellow Emma Press poet Padraig Regan’s Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real comes close), and it’s a joy to see Powles’ skill with other genres offering uncommon flavours to her poetry. It’s hard to believe that Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade was just five years ago, such has been the impact of Asian and Asian-diaspora poets in these islands since. Magnolia, 木蘭, in asking far more questions than it finds conclusive answers for, in keeping its map of Shanghai as elusive to the reader as the city itself is to the poet, continues in Howe’s tradition, clearing new space, opening new avenues, planting new seeds.

Magnolia, 木蘭 is available for £9.99 through Nine Arches Press.

Note: Hey all, trying something a little different here. Writing the long, more academic-style pieces I have in the past is fun, and fulfilling, but also very demanding in terms of time and energy. We’ll see how it goes in terms of consistency, but I’d like this blog to go back to being something like a reading diary, with more, shorter posts. Maybe I’ll do two this month and never again, but it felt good to put this piece together. In any case, happy new year, sending love and energy to you and yours, and thank you for reading. Thanks also, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing.


Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

Full Disclosure: This is my first encounter with Rankine’s work. For anyone new to the site, I am a middle class white fella, and I will do my best to recognise how that impacts my reading of Rankine’s work.

Review: Okay, straight out of the traps, cuz I want to get this out of the way, this is poetry. It is a bunch of words arranged with painstaking precision. There have been any number of successful poetry books in these islands that use prose extensively or even exclusively (see Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars), and focusing on the form too easily elides the vitally important messages Citizen delivers.

The book is a collection of stories, essays and traditional lyric poems that (in part) attempt to expose and explain the harm caused by structural and microaggressive racial violence; its recurring use of the pronoun ‘you’ is partly an attempt to circumvent whatever defence mechanisms we might have against the idea we might be complicit in racial oppression. The social mores that enable the situations narrated in Citizen are so basic, so much a part of the wallpaper of daily life as to be near-invisible; as Holly Bass notes in her review, “this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit. What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others”. The bare facts of Rankine’s readership demographics are of no small importance: of the top ten hits on google search for ‘claudia rankine citizen review’, for instance, eight reviewers are white; three of the top four are white men working for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and Slate. A relevant question might be, talented though these critics are, why these authoritative sites decided that white writers were best positioned to discuss this particular work. If your response is ‘they just picked the best writers available’, you should read Citizen. ‘The best writers’ is not a politically neutral category.

Seeing as the autocorrect on this word doc doesn’t recognise ‘microaggression’, here’s a brief definition. Racism and other oppressions do not maintain their social dominance solely by overt, conscious acts of bigotry. Microaggressions generally happen below the level of awareness of members of the dominant culture (cf Hilary Clinton’s speech identifying the ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens in America who fear black men in hoodies; when our own Prime Minister decides that our Muslim friends, family and peers do not deserve to live in peace, how does that impact the way our own ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens think about each other?).


In the US and the UK alike, the dominant culture means middle/upper class white people, like myself, and if I know poetry culture round these parts, very likely yourself too. And it doesn’t take much research (though Fiona Moore’s studies are extremely relevant here) to see that poetry in these islands have a serious problem acknowledging and supporting work by black and minority ethnic poets. The message runs: white people have won prizes and are taught on the curriculum, thus are culturally central, thus constitute the category ‘good poetry’, thus white people make the prize lists [ed – the Forward Prize has done sterling work in this regard as of late]. White people are the default and will be met with little/no critical objection; BAME poets are other, their presence requires justification. If they write in a way that does not fit within the existing poetic norm, they are very easily ignored, filed away in pre-made and ill-fitting categories that diminish their intellectual work; note how much easier it is for academic white poets to pick apart these aesthetic prejudices. I truly don’t imagine, however, that these decisions are made deliberately (that would be relatively easy to deal with); they seem to uncritically follow the kind of social imperatives that (at one extreme) make us call human beings seeking refuge from international warfare ‘swarms of immigrants’. It takes a huge and conscious effort to identify and expunge ourselves of the reflex prejudices our culture wants to imprint on us; note, for example, the way the term ‘identity politics’ has been appropriated as a means of dismissing the very discussion of those complex and fraught relations.

If the above shows anything, it’s how time- and energy-consuming it is to get around to talking about a book that questions and rejects basic social norms. In an interview with Radio Open Source in Boston (which is seriously worth listening to), Rankine describes the process of accumulating these stories from friends and colleagues, that the book’s early sections – the short, sharp, confounding accounts of language becoming violence – are a kind of communal witnessing or testimony. They are also, as Rankine explains, a means of talking back, addressing what in hindsight seems a blatant act of ignorance and/or violence, but in the moment is simply too unbelievable to address or even process: the phrases ‘What did you say?’ and ‘What do you mean?’ return and return in Citizen. The first act of resistance is believing that these things did, in fact, happen exactly as they appeared to, and part of the book’s challenge to white readers is to see ourselves in these interactions, at the very least to see how these interactions benefit or favour us by making us more comfortable, more firmly situated as trustworthy, welcome, central and normal. Whether or not we are the university employee complaining about how affirmative action meant her son didn’t get into the right prestigious school, or the man who ‘tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there’, as white people we still benefit from these underlying messages and the normalised white supremacy that makes them acceptable. We need only stand by and watch to gain from them.

3 JP

In this regard Rankine’s voice is key to how the book expresses itself, and why listening to her read is so informative. Her voice remains flat, calm, reserving all possible energy for a rehearsal of what is, in actuality, one in a series of exhausting reminders of what her body means to a society hostile to its presence. Sections IV and V are dedicated to the poet’s management of her mental health brought about by a daily engagement with the kind of violence detailed earlier in the book. These later passages are difficult reading, elaborating on the impossibility of anything like safe mental space when ‘Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that.’ Perfectly logical emotional processes, like anger at having one’s individuality erased, are precluded by the world’s need to avoid addressing uncomfortable truths: ‘You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice.’

The sequence comes after an extended exploration of the career of Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time and a black woman. Rankine opens with a discussion of Jayson Musson’s (aka Hennessy Youngman) YouTube video encouraging black artists to commodify their anger, in a way that Rankine identifies as ‘tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations’. Musson’s ideal black anger that creates marketable personae and sells music does not make room for Williams’ real, unpalatable and ostensibly inappropriate anger, which ‘in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness’. Rankine aligns Williams’ story with Zora Neale Hurston’s line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”: that background includes the tennis venues Indian Wells and Wimbledon (aka the All England Lawn Tennis Club), and a professional sport that cannot or will not acknowledge its complicity in violence against an individual who refuses to bend or apologise for her brilliance. During Williams’ unbeaten run in 2012, Rankine describes the new narrative shaped by tennis’ commentariat: ‘She has grown up […] as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others’. Citizen makes it clear that no amount of success, achievement or contribution to the body politic can, under the existing cultural system, secure that individual love, respect or peace of mind.

3 PF

The essay also illuminates the extreme care and precision that characterises the book’s own use of language. Each sentence moves slowly, treads purposefully – there is little relaxation, little of the personability or openness that typifies lyric poets like Sharon Olds or Mark Doty. Rankine seems prepared for her ideas to be minutely scrutinised, intuits that only the most rigorously exercised thoughts will stand a chance of being heard. And hypothetical anger – dynamic, animating anger that for most lyric poets is a central weapon – will only be pigeon-holed with Williams’, labelled as ‘crazy’ (for a high-profile example, cf Taylor Swift lashing out at Nicki Minaj’s valid criticism of the music industry, and how swiftly that industry moved to frame Minaj as the aggressor). That Rankine creates both absolute clarity and valuable complexity is an incredible achievement, and deserves to be recognised as such. She is a writer of almost peerless skill, and in a better world this review would be free to discuss her talent with subtle organising metaphor, details that seem perfectly incidental until it emerges that they underpinned the entire endeavour. That she has proven the lyric form capacious enough to hold some of the most complex thinking on racial inequality I’ve ever read is worth celebrating on its own. For what that’s worth; lest we forget what countless awards and achievements have done for Williams’ emotional wellbeing.

Returning to her Open Source interview, Citizen is a book about the intimacy of racial violence, about how the body can be made into the locus of racial hatred, how that process becomes gradually corrosive in the most personal ways, and how resistance to these acts will be wilfully misinterpreted. The short sequence on Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi, after the latter called him a ‘Big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger’, quietly but joyously reframes the episode: ‘The rebuttal assumes an original form’. Zidane, a brilliant and articulate athlete hitting back against a career’s worth of diminishment and abuse (‘what he said “touched the deepest part of me”’), was still unable to control the subsequent narrative which, like Williams, refused to contextualise his actions. Rankine’s book is a reminder that Materazzi, like the line judges at the US Open, like the employees at the university or commuters on the train or drivers in the car park, all act in the interest of maintaining white supremacy, from which people like myself benefit every day. As Rankine asks an English colleague regarding the death of Mark Duggan and the subsequent riots in London, ‘How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?’ This is an important book, and hopefully the catalyst for a long and difficult discussion.

Tl;dr: Citizen is an astonishing work, an accusation and a call to action. Read it over and over.

Further reading:
Claudia Rankine’s Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race and Poetry
Holly Bass in the New York Times
Nick Laird in the New York Review of Books
Interview with Rankine on Open Source
Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker
Shaelyn Smith in The Rumpus

John Burnside – Black Cat Bone

The Forward Prize has gone to John Burnside, nominated three times before without winning. Too bad. I don’t think it’s a particularly strong field they’ve chosen, particularly when Alan Gillis has been overlooked for both of the major awards, which is nothing short of criminal. Nurske I haven’t been able to get my hands on, O’Brien and Hill were blow-outs for different reasons, and Longley’s book, while not his best, is still a damned sight better than Black Cat Bone. Longley’s book has warmth, humour, still one of the finest ears in the business, and goddammit he says things about things. I miss that.

The book has been praised for, amongst other things, being ‘liminal’, exploring the state between waking and sleeping, which is appropriate because that’s precisely where reading the forsaken thing put me. ICE BURN. There’s only so often you can tell me about the snow, the drifting snow, the miles-deep snow… The physical presences are usually mere shadows, there’s a veritable menagerie of dead animals that pile up through the book, and the only humans that pop in are so ill-drawn and bloodless as to question the good of their presence.

The book goes to disappointing lengths to keep the reader at bay from any kind of insight into what in god’s name he’s talking about. There are several epigrams, most in foreign languages without an English crib; in a bygone age these would have been chaff-sorting shibboleths, keys cut only for the bescholared few to gain entry into the back rooms of enlightenment, but glory be to google translate which gave me the sullen truth that if there was some glimmer of profundity in the originals it’s passed safely over the head of the poem that follows.

They feel like so much window-dressing and add to the pervasive air of ‘up yours for trying to read me, you vulgate’ that surrounds the book like a huff. There are a number of poems that use Bible verses as epigrams – one includes an English translation, one a latin translation, and two only the chapter and verse reference. Why not include the passages in the notes in the back of the book if it so sullies the appearance of the page? Can’t he see we just want to understand??

Of course these are peripheral frustrations with an airy and unfocused book from an author, who, while clearly well-read (he gives us no chance to believe anything to the contrary), does not appear to have absorbed the lessons of Kafka, Stevens and Melville, particularly not the comic timing of any of those three. Say what you will about Stevens’ dryness or coldness, at least he had a rakish angle to his chapeau. Burnside… I don’t even know where he fits into that metaphor. I’d wager his chapeau is barely at an angle at all.

Okay, look, Burnside displays some competence with narrative and atmosphere in his long-form poems. “The Fair Chase” is a short story dressed as a poem, but as a piece of writing it is an effective one, even if any argument it makes is inferred. He can certainly string an unusual sentence together, and does not shy away from the darker elements of his dreamlife. Whatever you might say about the frustrating lack of emotion, death is constantly a presence.

Some examples then to illustrate my consternation, then. Here’s a cracker, from the poem “A Game of Marbles”: ‘The things I love / I bury in the woods / to keep them safe’. That’s nice dear. Try to picture what Burnside is describing here, in “Amnesia”: ‘where a man / is almost there / raising his hand / to wave, / or turning back, / precise / and random / like an early film / and pausing / in the snow, / as if to listen –’ That’s the essence of the shit Taylor Mali is calling out in this video. From “Faith”: ‘not him, not her, but something of the two combined.’ Who him and her are is completely down to the reader’s imagination because god knows the poet’s not telling. I choose Peter Falk and Fiona Bruce. Now there’s an image.

The padding that fills out the book is all the usual cream-filled humbug that people make fun of when they say they don’t like poetry, and they need only point to the consistent lack of emotional engagement with the world conjured up to be fully justified. From “Nativity”, a poem in which the speaker’s mother dies in childbirth: ‘the warmth of my mother / fading, as the lights go out // in house after house, from here / to the edge of the world, // her slack mouth, then the darkness in her eyes / the first thing I see / when the midwife returns with a candle.’ There’s a coldness to the whole poem, ending in close-up, it doesn’t suggest a steely sadness, just an apathy that reminds me of our friend RR. It’s unfair to expect a reader to invest emotion into a work that brings none of its own.

As for the albatross of scholarship that so clearly encumbers Burnside’s writing, it saps the poems’ personality and feels like the product of almost any undergraduate who had read Frost and gotten sick of all the friendliness. Maybe that’s unfair. There are some words in here that undergraduates might not know, like ‘vellum’. There’s also a grim-faced shoulder-to-the-grindstone dedication that certainly I didn’t bother my arse with in my bachelor days.

Speaking of Peter Falk, just one more thing. Burnside, while not quite in the same league of objectifying maverick Robin Robertson, still has a fair dig at portraying women as interchangeable and merely the sum of their physical attributes. From a little passage of poems whose titles seem taken from or imitations of blues songs: “Death Room Blues”, “Hurts Me Too”, “Oh No Not My Baby” etc. ‘my mouth / a sweet spot in the dark // she thinks is safe / until I drink her in’. Sound familiar? ‘that tomboy sweetness in her face / of one struck dumb with awe.’ ‘at the end, / she scattered from my hands, no longer hurt / so beautifully, she seemed more song than woman.’ These are characters with their humanity dampened and this is a narrator with unchallenged power over its subjects. His women are silent, controlled, and lifeless. These several poems are a particular struggle.

Judging by the chatter Burnside has picked up the Forward Prize largely off the back of his failed nominations in the past, very  likely for better efforts. This automatically puts him deep in the running for the TS Eliot, and undeservingly so. Leontia Flynn still stands as the one to beat, but once I get my mitts on the rest I’ll have a much better idea of how upset I’ll be when she doesn’t win.

Michael Longley – A Hundred Doors

Longley is one of my patron saints but it’s awfully dreary when people start reviews with gushy praise about well-established writers. Takes the suspense away. Anyhoo, ML’s poetry draws me with its singing line, its engagement with the long-lasting facets of writing, its precise moral compass and rare sense of poetry’s role in social commentary in a medium saturated with declarative sentences and emotional confessions. The fact that you me and the dog worked this out years ago makes him terribly difficult to review. Where do you begin?

with a shitty jpeg

A Hundred Doors is an unusual book in that it comes seven years after his Collected, and has a few telltale signs of being an occasional collection rather than a directed whole. Longley himself has said, “I hope by the time I die, my work will look like four really long poems. A very long love poem; a very long meditation on war and death; a very long nature poem and a playful poem on the art of poetry.” There’s a lot of unpacking to do there, not least the slightly hidden injustice done to his books as individual collections, which do as much talking within their discrete domains as in the larger narrative between books. Reading that by the time I die again I get a bit of a chill from the knowledge that his work has already achieved this four-long-poems sweep, and AHD reads very much like someone turning over the barstools of their life. More later. And of course it’s more complicated than that: his best poems knot up three or more of those threads – I’m thinking “In Memoriam”, “No Continuing City”, “The Ice Cream Man”, “Anticleia”, “Ceasefire” and “The Butchers” for starters – though it wouldn’t be unlike him to be deliberately modest.

To get to the point, AHD isn’t his best book. “The Lifeboat”, “Call”, “White Farmhouse” and a handful of others stand well individually, but much of the volume is composed of the slight, cumulatively-effective lyrics ML took on in earnest in Snow Water. That said, “The Lifeboat” is a painfully good poem. The first section has Longley tread similar ground to “Detour”, in which he stage-manages his own funeral procession through Ireland’s small towns. Here, he gets even closer to the quick by imagining his own death in Charlie Gaffney’s pub in Louisburgh: ‘As I, at the end of the bar next the charity boxes, / Expire on my stool, head in hand, without a murmur. […] He doesn’t notice that I am dead until closing time / And he sweeps around my feet.’ All rather grimly whimsical (grimsical) until it turns sharply and self-chastisingly: ‘But it’s Charlie Gaffney / Who has died. Charlie, how do I buy a fishing license? / Shall I let the dog out? Would the fire take another sod? / The pub might as well be empty forever now.’ Suddenly the poem is direly wrongfooted and ML finds himself without his intended shepherd into death, while the pub’s innate life departs with its caretaker. ML’s voice takes on a helplessness, a frustration at all the things left to learn and the sudden impossibility of learning them, his treatment of death as a symbolic gesture exposed by sad ordinariness.

A couple of other poems deal head-on with ML’s seeming (and I damn well hope inaccurate) conviction that his time is short. The poem “Mars” does so with a kind of contorted time-logic, as the proximity of the planet reminds ML of seeing it with his wife Edna ‘so long ago / It reminded us of the Neanderthals.’ From this undefined moment in the past [is there a case for placing it on the same night as in “Epithilamion”, the first poem in his first book? The neatness is pleasing, and the poems share concerns of mortality and what lives on after death], ‘under a beech tree / That could have sheltered United Irishmen,’ they look forward to a time presumably close to the present when the beech tree has grown close to their home: ‘‘I hope it touches the house before it dies.’ / ‘I hope it touches the house before we die.’’ Very quietly it pulls the rug from under us as the tree’s relative immortality is drawn into focus beside the fleeting star-gazers. How many orbits are there in this eight-line stanza? The action is circled by Mars’ apsis, human evolution and Ireland’s political gyres, and in that light the tree’s movement seems like nature’s reclamation of the humans’ stony outpost than the religious blessing it initially resembles. [PS: this suddenly reminds me of MacNeice’s “Star-gazer” from his final collection, its comparison of the lifespans of stars and their watchers. I’m also put in mind of how much gentler and more hopeful AHD is by comparison.]

The poem “A Hundred Doors” is an odd yin [more info here]. Sean O’Brien has voiced his support for the ‘xenophobic sacristan’ who blows out ML’s candles and ‘shortens [his] lives’. I suppose the poem is really concerned with the small cruelty of picking his ‘flame- / Flowers […] only minutes / Old’ in a temple that dates back to the Attic sculptor Praxiteles, who himself predates Christ by a few centuries. Here, I think, is the rub: the (almost over-)subtle friction between the busy, prickly, workaday priest, the poet’s self-image as ‘The sentimental atheist, family / Names a kind of prayer or poem’ [italics mine] and the ancient sculptor who also devoted himself to Aphrodite (P was supposedly the first Greek to sculpt a full-size naked woman. Imagine that day); think of how these strains of religion, spirituality, love and poetry blend in ML’s work. It says a lot to me that he had decided this was the name of the collection over a year before its publication (though this is probably just standard practice). I reckon this is a buried and riddling little manifesto. Look at the line breaks in the last stanza:

The sacristan who picks my flame-
Flowers and blows them out, only minutes
Old, knows I am watching and he
Doesn’t care as he shortens my lives.

It’s very rare for him to disturb the metre and line so bluntly, and were it almost anyone else I’d suspect a bit of draftiness. But as it’s ML, and the title poem, I’d guess the note of tetchiness O’Brien detects is deliberate. The temple, P’s marble and ‘the intelligence of stone’ will outlast the candles, the poet and the priest alike, leaving only the ‘names and faces’ he mentions in the second stanza. A reach? Maybe. But ML invites this kind of investigative paranoia, and few poets leave these kind of mental monkey bars to swing around and make a fool of yourself on. Bless him for that.

I originally wanted to talk generally about the air of the book, the atmosphere. But I feel like the book really doesn’t insist upon any direction that isn’t imposed upon it (however gently) by the reader. Is this the best way to run a railroad? Define best. Define railroad. [I suppose that’s a no.] His poems to his children and grandchildren are sweet and occupy a prominent spot in the book, but aren’t overly memorable. His war poems similarly follow extant threads, and “Cygnus”, in praise of stoic pacifism, feels leftover from the other metamorphosis poems from The Ghost Orchid. But the lines still sing. As a practitioner of a neglected craft he is peerless, and even though the book lingers a little overlong on his own imagined death, there is a joy in the existing and future worlds that raises its sights even above Walcott’s White Egrets, which concerned itself more with retrospection and inwardness than blessing the world to come. There are few poets willing and capable of walking this difficult path between the lasting sense of the world as it will be long after the writer and ‘gosh birds are pretty. Hills too. Just think.’ His recent inclusion in the Forward Prize shortlist is well-deserved, even if I hope the competition is good enough to beat him.

AHD sports a cloudberry blossom on the cover. Cloudberries are tiny, rare and delicious and grow exclusively in northern, wintry climates.




Ryan Van Winkle – Tomorrow We Will Live Here

NB: This piece, astonishingly, is unlikely to be 100% objective. I am aware of this! I hope it doesn’t feel unnatural to begin with a critical caveat, but I’d feel weird otherwise. Many of the poems in the collection I’d read or heard months or sometimes years before the book arrived, a few I helped with in the editing phases. How do we proceed? I’m going to begin as if nothing was the matter. If this ceases to be the case so be it.

The acknowledgements to Tomorrow, We Will Live Here extends to twenty individual names and a clatter of magazines and institutions, and there is an accordingly huge variety of characters who appear in the book, not just as foils for the semiautobiographical speaker or the ubiquitous ‘you’ (youbiquitous) of love poetry (though commonly a cipher it is not necessarily a bad thing cf Paterson) but as ostensibly independent figures with internal lives independent not only of the speaking voice but of the needs of the poem. When the running coach in “Cassella: The Pastor’s Son” says the runners have ‘a time to commune, / pray, talk sport, speak our blessings’, it feels authentic –

Digression: whether or not it is authentic is irrelevant. If you’ve been to Ryan’s shows you’ll probably know from introductions which poems are based on real, historically experienced events in Ryan’s life, and which aren’t. This is useless information beyond the needs of our internal taxonomist. What is important is that the reader interrogates and absorbs it without rejecting it like a dud punchline.

– and enlarges the emotional capacity of the poem –

Sorry, me again. You may remember me being fairly techy about the TS Eliot boyos for a number of reasons. After reading Tomorrow, We Will Live Here I spotted a sore I’d left completely unsalved: the presence of an overweening director. Let’s imagine a poet at a desk with paper and pen, for argument’s sake. Picture Ryan if it makes you happy. The instant before the pen touches paper the embryonic (emByronic) work has more potential and possibility than it will ever after. The act of writing the poem is one of elimination wherein the poet delineates his/her tenor, vehicle and all that stuff s/he would have the reader take away. Willetts and Sampson are particularly apt examples of writers who mistrust their readers to such an extent that no point is left unhammered-in, which completely unparadoxically ensures the failure of any emotional impact that point might once have carried.

Back on point: Ryan toes this line with remarkable ease. Plenty of poems directly address death (eleven of the thirty-five by my count), but they assume the reader’s capacity to process it and tend towards open endings (“Cassella: The Pastor’s Son” ends with St. Sebastian’s prayer; “Everybody Always Talking About Jesus” ends in a light switched off in someone else’s bedroom; “Ode for a Rain from Death Row” with the imagined absolution of the condemned prisoner). Priority is for the expansion and illumination of the poem’s world beyond the potentially narrow aims of the directing poet. This review is now more digression than not and I think I’ve made the point I was going to in the first place. It’d feel kinda weird to go back to that little sentence up top.

– nah it’s cool I was done anyway

Thanks bro. So, what do you have against the book? What an excellent question. “My 100-Year-Old Ghost”, “Gasoline”, “They Will Go On”, “Oregon Trail” and “Bluegrass” have a degree of faux folksiness (fauxsiness) to them which is initially off-putting. Ryan’s appreciation for Bruce Springsteen is well-documented and his influence is occasionally tangible (‘Griswold  says // they ain’t gonna raise his pay’; ‘“Gonna storm,” [Martha] says.’ Oof). Even then, at their best they are immersive, deeply involving, and, I can’t help feeling (particularly with the primacy given to the disappearing and alluring figure of “My 100-Year-Old-Ghost”), deliberately at odds with some of the more intimate pieces that happen in a more recognisably contemporary space, the lasting effect of which is the provision of a decomposing past through which the raw present springs. “Necessary Astronomy”, “Knots”, “Babel” and “And Table, You are Made of Wood” are excellent lyric pieces, the latter a title with huge imaginative potential. The table is being addressed! [sincere] What resignation in those words, what an audible sigh [/sincere]. And Oregon Trail is also a computer game, so that’s cool.

I’d feel remiss without looking closely at an individual poem, though I think the book holds together more strongly when taken as a unified collection. Let’s have a pop at “Everybody Always Talking About Jesus”, to my mind the strongest single poem. (As an aside which I didn’t want to include in the paragraph above, “The Grave-Tender” is not a good poem, and this is because the pantoum is the worst form in the world. There, I said it. Fucking pantoums.) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is itself a small series of poems. One of Ryan’s strengths is that (all aboard the jargon express) where his grammatical syntax is simple, his syntax of imagery is allusive, instinctive and complex. The first section is a delightfully f’d-up piece about pubescent sexual deviance that captures a simultaneous feeling of decay and blossoming, something wholesomely clandestine, ‘I was so happy, I took it all; her arms sweating / like horses. My father and sister never knew / but in that house noise always dried like palm.’ Placing this story beside the subsequent evidence of his father’s sexual waywardness puts both in a light that could not have been achieved otherwise. We even learn that they were probably happening at in a similar timeframe, the ‘red-head / that was not my mother’ (how much hangs on that rather than who?) appearing in the back row at ‘high school plays’, the playfulness and mock-serious tone of the first section oddly mirrored in the photo of her asscheeks being ‘rosy as if slapped / or left out in the December snow’. The emotional fallout in the final section is palpable, and the feeling of confusion and paralysis is beautifully rendered in the closing exchange between the two remaining children: ‘Dad left me the car, you can have half the car. But no, / she says, the car’s seen too many stations / she doesn’t want to think about. She spits // her toothpaste and I watch / the light beneath her door / til it’s gone.’ The longing in the last stanza is heart-wrenching. More importantly, this habit of reining in a series of images to create a single intricate whole is repeated throughout to great effect. I had included a line here about Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius but then I took it out.

I’d been thinking about writing this review pretty much since the TS Eliot debacle started, and here’s my conclusion: this book is easily better than half the TS Eliot shortlist. I talked previously about having a novelist’s eye/ear for developing personality in a restricted form, and it is this quality of narrative that distinguishes Tomorrow, We Will Live Here. While there are occasional rambly or overdone lines or stanzas, the collection has emotional depth and engagement, finds imaginative ground to share with its audience, and what it lacks in technical flair it makes up with a sincere curiosity and fearlessness about presenting and exploring innately unappealing and emotionally fractured characters. An inclusive spirit pervades the collection, and the ‘we’ defined by the title is movingly enlarged by the book’s close, though the penultimate poem “Unfinished Rooms” gives the distinct impression that even with its abundance of detail, its tireless effort to get everything on board, the culmination of its work remains just out of reach. The poem’s last lines: “It is almost done, // they say, / just a few more things // and the room / will be complete.’

How Simon Armitage Stole Christmas

It was a perfectly pleasant winter’s evening that could have been warmer, sure, but was tolerable enough, and Simon Armitage hated that, because he is awful. “I’d rather be doing anything than writing poetry,” bellowed Simon Armitage from his Cordoban leather sofa in front of a roaring fire fueled by quality books by better writers inside a giant mansion in Hertfordshire he’d purchased from the inexplicable retail successes of his own work, “I really really hate poetry. It’s really the only explanation for my actions.” He placed a sound boot between the third and fourth ribs of one of his loyal kitten slaves, who dragged Heaney’s translation of Beowulf onto the billowing flames, becoming badly singed in the process. “CURSE YOU, VILE CUR!” Simon Armitage screamed at the blackened, weeping, hitherto adorable baby cat, “now I’ll need to buy more kitten butlers with the money I’ve made from my illegal diamond mines, which I also have.”

Suddenly, a brilliant light filled the room. It was me. I was the light. I floated in the middle of the room, looking kind of angelic, but in a more badass way than that. And truly Simon Armitage was afraid, and he should have been, because he was about to get his. He threw kitten upon kitten at my feet, screeching “take them instead of me” in a little girly voice. Just as suddenly, he ran out of kittens and threw up his hands in penitence. “Forgive me, underachieving online critic who’s only writing this because of long term unemployment and is dying a little inside with every freshly-typed word, like five hundred little miracles imploding inside his heart. I knew not what I did.” Except he totally did know, he was lying. “You’re right, I am. I was popular and talentless and decided to squeeze out a cleveland steamer of a collection of short stories all over the nation’s literary chest, none of which exhibited any sign of warmth or good grace or built on any of the themes accumulated throughout creating the growing impression that you’ve been cornered at a party by a member of the local stand up comedy society who discovered at college that surrealism is a perfect excuse to circumvent emotional complexity and social analysis, and then I became really aware of the flaws in my own work, and told you about them.”

Then it struck me that all off this was a complete waste of time, that if Simon Armitage would always be terrible, even when he dressed up a short story collection as a book of poetry, then sarcastic reviews would be also; then I used a semicolon. Next I used the wings that I had to fly away and do something worthwhile, stop wasting the precious years of my youth and get a job.

Tune in next time for Derek Walcott, who is good!