Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

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Sam Riviere – Kim Kardashian’s Marriage

‘I think I need to not live in a fairytale like that. I think I maybe need to just snap out of it and be a little more realistic. What I want isn’t possible.’ – Kim Kardashian, 2012.

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Full Disclosure: Haven’t met Riviere. Thought 81 Austerities had both its moments and its flaws. Review copy provided by Ben Wilkinson.

Review: Between September 2011 and December 2012, Riviere wrote 54 of the 72 short poems (accoring to this post) that were published on a password-protected blog in 2013 over the course of 72 days, mirroring the 72-day-long marriage between Kim Kardashian and journeyman basketball player Kris Humphries, and which in February 2015 has been published as a full-length collection. There has been much discussion of the project online (Charles Whalley and Frith Taylor have provided valuable insight), and an appearance on Radio 4 as part of a conversation on language and the internet.

The decision to publish these pieces now seems strange. In the meantime Kardashian has re-married – a reader unfamiliar with the project’s history might assume the book referred to her relationship with Kanye West – and its appearance in print drastically alters its significance. As Whalley points out, the project revolved around its formal transience; as ‘a sequel to 81 Austerities’ Riviere may be lampooning the very idea of a follow-up collection, the difficult second album, and yet here it is, from the hallowed halls of Faber & Faber. Which for Riviere might be part of the joke being played on poetry at large, or maybe just a useful circumstance; there’s good reason to glom on to a famous master of SEO (a Telegraph review was RTed by @KimKardashNews_), while occasioning precisely the kind of amused disdain that seems to fuel BBC programming on cultural marginality. Faber is not Tumblr any more than Steve Buscemi is a tween.

The politics at work in making a metaphor of Kardashian – who is, among other things, a highly successful businesswoman of colour – are fraught to say the least. Taylor says it best in her review, which is incidentally also the best analysis of the book as a book of poems that I’ve read:

‘Kim Kardashian is fair game because she courts publicity, because she is regarded as trivial, because she is staggeringly wealthy. It is difficult to see what is gained by using poetry to make simple criticisms already so well covered by gossip columnists. […] There is also the gender disparity in Riviere’s poetry to consider: in the majority of his poems, women are girlfriends or pornstars. Riviere is parodying a kind of male response to women in writing these poems, and they do hold an element of criticism. It is difficult not to wonder if Kim Kardashian would be made to seem quite so ridiculous if she were male. To put it another way, what are we laughing at when we laugh at Kim Kardashian? ’

Here, Taylor raises the question at the heart of the collection. Riviere is absolutely right in the BBC interview to describe Kardashian as ‘an emblematic figure whose private life is a commodity’, but there is a difference between the symbiotic (read: mutually profitable) relationship between Kardashian and celebrity magazines and Riviere’s (Faber’s?) appropriation of her as a recognisable marketing device. Does this not make Faber absolutely complicit in that commodification, and without paying the usual fee for use of her – however text-based – image? Though neither poet nor publisher have, of course, a fraction of her cultural heft, not that much is needed in the low-return realm of UK poetry.

RIGHT I’LL TALK ABOUT THE ACTUAL BOOK FINE

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The poems are divided into eight sections, each headed by a step in a make-up routine. Some of these seem to play on a connection between art and fashion: a ‘Primer’ is also an introduction, a ‘Gloss’ is a list of difficult words or concepts (or the elision of the same). Considering the book’s attitude to its own regularly inane content, however, it is difficult not to read these headings as participating in a pervasive trope regarding make-up as vain, dishonest or superficial. Again, the play between the respectability of a poetry volume and the triviality of a beauty regime seems to highlight their differences more than their similarities, with poetry on the side of the angels.

POEMS

The book was written by googling the title of each poem and rearranging (or ‘curating’) the results. The general effect is an authorless or multi-authored semi-randomness, which makes the moments of declarative speech somewhat disorienting, such as in the opening ‘spooky berries’:

‘my little lens wasn’t cutting it.
So I popped on my big lens
and got it all.’

The stanza seems to harness the freudian language of capitalist image-creation to Riviere’s own practice. If the little lens of personal experience isn’t enough, maybe the big lens of internet searches will be. The persona’s confidence in telling the whole story, or even considering ‘the whole story’ legitimately achievable, feels aggressively misplaced.

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The issue of locating the ‘true speaker’ in the collection is fascinating if ultimately unsolvable; by ‘true speaker’ I mean a voice that might reasonably be assigned to an early 30s white male British poet, allowing for a certain amount of ironic distance. Hence the problem. But there are genuine moments in Kim Kardashian’s Marriage when such a voice seems to appear. The central conflict in the book, far as I can tell, has little to do with Kardashian, America, or even the internet; as in 81 Austerities, the most emotionally charged moments come when the poet asks how – maybe why – the important things of life might be differentiated from the overwhelming dross. (Questions about the nature of that dross are part of the book’s less admirable aspects, tending as they do to be located in objectified women, in the ‘Hey guys! Keryn and I went swimming!’ insignificance of young women’s speech, or in the consumption of these tropes by the book’s male figures: ‘I spied on my sister / and her girlfriend tanning // after running / last summer. / HOLY MOLY.’ As Taylor says, there’s an element of criticism here, but the lines’ depiction of harassment and cutesy swearing let the scene off the hook, almost participates in its ‘boys will be boys’ narrative. Again, these are threads that were to the fore in 81 Austerities, and have not gained nuance here.)

There are moments, however, where the cut-up and hide-the-author techniques permit a certain degree of Romantic lyricism, in the right light if you squint a little. This latent lyrical tendency might be a motivating force behind the collection, the lamentable absence of meaning that implies a need for meaning (for ‘meaning’ perhaps read ‘god’: the book’s interaction with scripture is fascinating). There are occasional lines where this shines through: ‘I don’t wanna feel the emptiness’ (‘grave sunsets’), ‘God does not force anyone to heaven’ (‘american heaven’). A couple of poems could even be read as committed critiques or self-critiques:

‘a salesperson
corny:
lacking new ideas
unpleasant and sometimes rude

who used to delve
into this unique entertainment industry
by paying homage
to strange and frightening experiences’ (‘spooky sincerity’)

‘When will disreputable nihilism become boring?
Hopefully never. They flatter with their tongue.

What explanation can you offer to me for pretending
in matters of importance style is the vital thing?’ (‘grave sincerity’)

I don’t think it’s an accident that both pieces concern, however obliquely, the question of sincerity, perhaps integrity. In Riviere’s essay ‘Unlike’, the poet says this about tradition and style:

‘If we can say that in poetry the genuine tradition is anti-tradition, and that continual overthrowing of entrenched styles is desirable, then it is worth looking at exactly what form of interruption this new strand of poetry proliferating on the internet takes, and how valid it is in it positing itself as alternative writing.’

How revolutionary can a change of ‘style’ be, and what is meant by the word? ‘Style’ in the sense of fashionable, insubstantial surface seems to be what the collection parodies; ‘style’ meaning the manner in which a poem is formed/created, on the other hand, might be closer to his intent. I’d argue that overthrowing entrenched prejudices and oppressions would be more desirable than altering the manner in which those prejudices are communicated, though I may well have misunderstood Riviere’s terms.

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However convoluted the provenance of Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, I still want to credit Riviere’s unwillingness to play the game of poetry careers, to make things easy for the blurbs of the national dailies – even if this book seems to have been printed with an eye to just such an audience – and I do genuinely believe his work reflects the faith in satire noted by David Wheatley in his review of 81 Austerities, even if Riviere tends towards the pessimistic end of the scale noted in Wheatley’s essay on the topic from last year. On the other hand:

‘His wife’s graveside service
was just barely finished,
when there was a massive
clap of thunder, followed
by a tremendous bolt of
lightning, accompanied by
a sunflower’s pollination.’ (‘grave weather’)

Is Kim Kardashian’s Marriage really an embittered jeremiad? Is the poem’s echoes of ‘What the Thunder Said’, of the renewal of natural cycles, really so unlikely? Moments like this are few and far between, but arresting nonetheless. The quote at the top of this review comes from the same Daily M**l interview as the collection’s epigraph (‘I want that forever love’). In context, Kardashian’s words acknowledge the impossibility of such a thing, a need for sustainable pragmatism. True, this would appear to have played out in terms of a more effective business plan, but in terms of the collection, I can’t imagine the quote’s broader significance is accidental. What is poetry’s ‘forever love’? Does Riviere suggest poetry’s pretensions to authority are phony as a ten-week marriage? I think part of the book’s joke is that such possibilities are there to be read, but are also potentially indefensible; the absence of an authorial voice ensures its intentions are finally elusive. And yet look at ‘beautiful dust’:

‘Yes, the Lord giveth but he
has come a long way since then.
Reserved, faithful, melancholy,
to dust I shall return. I have.

Which is not something you get
to say every day to those
that prefer to use their disguise.
Believer, enjoy this amazing dust.’

On a personal note, I’m a lapsed presbyterian, and this kind of wry, embattled, semi-ironic belief does chime for me. But here it is, a call to faith in the middle of one of the most resigned collections of poems I can remember. Or maybe it’s not and the joke’s on me. Fine. Everything about Kim Kardashian’s Marriage is a kind of provocation, and that’s where my reading ends up; dust, yes, but amazing anyway.

Tl;dr: If it’s possible to dislike a book and be fascinated by it regardless, this is the one. Doing a bunch of stuff I can’t stand and still itching away at something inscrutable. I still suspect marketing shenanigans are at the heart of bringing these poems to paper and ink, but that hardly makes it unique. No doubt I’ve already egg on my face, but if that’s the price of effective satire, I’ll happily cough up.