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October 23, 2012

Shortlist for 20th T.S. Eliot Prize Announced

The Poetry Book Society is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Judges Carol Ann Duffy (Chair), Michael Longley and David Morley have chosen the shortlist from the record number of 131 books submitted by publishers.

Simon Armitage The Death of King Arthur Faber

Sean Borodale Bee Journal    Jonathan Cape

Gillian Clarke Ice Carcanet

Julia Copus The World’s Two

Smallest Humans Faber

Paul Farley The Dark Film Picador

Jorie Graham P L A C E  Carcanet

Kathleen Jamie The Overhaul Picador

Sharon Olds Stag’s Leap   Jonathan Cape

Jacob Polley The Havocs  Picador

Deryn Rees-Jones Burying the Wren Seren

Chair Carol Ann Duffy said:

‘In a year which saw a record number of submissions, my fellow judges and I are delighted with a shortlist which sparkles with energy, passion and freshness and which demonstrates the range and variety of poetry being published in the UK.’

Poets’ biographies

Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage was born in 1963 and lives in West Yorkshire. He has published nine volumes of poetry, including The Universal Home Doctor and Travelling Songs, both published by Faber in 2002. He has received numerous awards for his poetry including the Sunday Times Author of the Year, one of the first Forward Prizes and a Lannan Award. His bestselling and critically acclaimed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber) was published in 2007. In 2010 Armitage was awarded the CBE for services to poetry. His last collection, Seeing Stars (Faber), was shortlisted for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize.

Sean Borodale

Sean Borodale works as a poet and artist, making scriptive and documentary poems written on location; this derives from his process of writing and walking for works such as Notes for an Atlas (Isinglass, 2003) and Walking to Paradise (1999). He has recently been selected as a Granta New Poet, and Bee Journal is his first collection of poetry. He lives in Somerset .

Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff , and now lives with her family on a smallholding in Ceredigion. Her collections of poetry include Letter From a Far Country (1982); Letting in the Rumour (1989); The King of Britain's Daughter (1993); and Five Fields (1998). The latter three collections were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She has also written for stage, television and radio, several radio plays and poems being broadcast by the BBC. Gillian Clarke's most recent poetry collection is A Recipe for Water (2009). In 2008 she published a book of prose, including a journal of the writer's year, entitled At The Source, and was named as Wales' National Poet. In 2010 she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

Julia Copus

Julia Copus was born in London in 1969. The World’s Two Smallest |Humans and her two previous collections, The Shuttered Eye and In Defence of Adultery, were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She has won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. A radio version of the sequence ‘Ghost’ was shortlisted for the 2011 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She works as an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund.

Paul Farley

Paul Farley was born in Liverpool in 1965. He won the Arvon Poetry Competition in 1996 and his first collection of poetry, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1998), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The Ice Age (2002) was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and won the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2003. In 2004, he was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation’ poets. Further collections are Tramp in Flames (2006) and The Atlantic Tunnel: Selected Poems (2010). He currently lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster . He also writes radio drama, and several plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio. Field Recordings: BBC Poems 1998-2008 (2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. His book of non-fiction, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s Last Wilderness (2010), written with Michael Symmons Roberts, won the 2009 Jerwood Prize for Non-Fiction.

Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950 and raised in Rome . She has published nine collections of poetry in the UK with Carcanet, most recently Sea Change (2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers ' Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University . She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.

Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie was born in Scotland in 1962. She has published several collections of poetry, including: Black Spiders (1982), The Way We Live (1987), The Queen of Sheba (1994), Jizzen (1999), and her selected poems, Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead, was published in 2002. Her poetry collection, The Tree House (2004), won the 2004 Forward Prize (Best Collection), and was a PBS Choice. A travel book about Northern Pakistan, The Golden Peak (1993), was recently updated and reissued as Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan (2002). She lives in Fife, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2010 was appointed Chair of Creative Writing at Stirling University .

Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco . Her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. The Dead & the Living (1983) received the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1983 and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other collections include Strike Sparks: Selected Poems (2004) and The Father (1992), which was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Her last collection, One Secret Thing ( Jonathan Cape , 2009) explored the themes of war, family relationships and the death of her mother, and was also shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. She currently teaches creative writing at New York University .

Jacob Polley

Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle in 1975. Picador published his first book of poetry, The Brink, in 2003 and his second, Little Gods, in 2006. His first novel with Picador, Talk of the Town, came out in 2009 and won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. Jacob was selected as one of the Next Generation of British poets in 2004. In 2002 he won an Eric Gregory Award and the Radio 4/Arts Council ‘First Verse’ Award. Jacob was the Visiting Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College , Cambridge , 2005-07, and Arts Queensland’s Poet in Residence in 2011.

Deryn Rees-Jones

Deryn Rees-Jones was born in Liverpool in 1968 and was educated at the University of Wales , Bangor , and Birkbeck College , London . She is an Eric Gregory Award winner, and her collection The Memory Tray (Seren, 1994) was shortlisted for a Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Her other collections of poetry are Signs Round a Dead Body (Seren, 1998), Quiver (Seren, 2004) and Falls & Finds (Shoestring, 2008). She was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation Poets’ in 2004. Her critical work includes a monograph on Carol Ann Duffy, and the book of essays Consorting with Angels which accompanies Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2005). She lives in Liverpool.


December 01, 2011

Is Brendan Kennelly Essential?

Pile of books

Brendan Kennelly is certainly an essential poet but his editors, Michael Longley and Terence Brown, have done him a favour by distilling his burgeoning oeuvre to the 110 poems in this book and 36 poems on a CD (Kennelly is a highly skilled spoken word artist).

This is a strong introduction to Kennelly, and the editors are refreshingly candid about the poet’s lyric and epic strengths as well as his occasional failures of rigour (there are worse crimes than over-writing or writing too much).

What comes across in The Essential Brendan Kennelly is the poet’s spiritual generosity, a tonic sense of wonder and a project that allows new readers to reach the core of Kennelly’s poetry without being tripped up by thirty slim and not-so-slim volumes.

The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, edited by Terence Brown and Michael Longley with CD of poems read by Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 160 pp., £12.00, ISBN 978-1-85224-904-5

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 28, 2011

'How Snow Falls'

‘Married to Poetry… in Love with Prose’Flaky

Peter Reading’s Vendange Tardive and Craig Raine’s How Snow Falls have a strong sense of reaching shore after testing experiences, losses, voyages. Yet these latest collections by Peter Reading and Craig Raine arrive at styles of expression that are as comparably and incompatibly different as absence and presence. Peter Reading is absent from his work, his grump ghost and voice notwithstanding. Reality is favoured by Raine, even when it cannot be borne. But this written reality is made from himself, from remembered and imagined feeling. I know that, for a critic, subject should be secondary to style. I cannot help but feel that style in How Snow Falls is partly sacrificed for the purposes of shock:

…two days before she died, a question:

would I pluck the hairs out of her chin?

There were none on the ward,
so I bought some tweezers down the road.

Every time a hair was plucked,
she sighed, almost like someone being slowly fucked.

Yes, she said, yes. Yes.
The last pleasures of the flesh.

‘I Remember my Mother Dying’

As Kate Kellaway has observed the details seem not so much intimate as disinhibited. Raine’s early poetry possessed a poise of exactitude through its artistic inhibition: the poet edited himself very tightly; selflessness of vision made his metaphors ring with invention. His images extended how we might see, connecting with the reality of things, there being no reality but in things. There is still plenty of poetic CGI for those who like the spoils of eye-made art: ‘Ski lifts tireless as a trail of ants’; ‘The firs are herring-bone with snow’; ‘Trinity lawn, effervescent with hailstones’. Raine claims in this book that although he ‘will always be married to poetry’ he has ‘fallen in love with prose’, and the recent passion shows in the length of the book, an occasional breeziness of technique, and the privileging of subject.

It seems presumptuous of me to state of a writer and editor of his accomplishments but I think Craig Raine is a far better writer and editor than he is allowing himself to be. How Snow Falls might have been a shorter, sharper book. The final poem ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ releases brilliant, buoyant, elegiac energy (imagine a Martian Poet recreating Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’). But ‘A la recherche’ is a poem published ten years ago in book form by Picador (How Snow Falls is advertised as his first collection in a decade.). As Peter Reading is super-selective ‘eschewing utterance’ when there is nothing to say, Craig Raine is generous, but generous to a fault.

How Snow Falls, Craig Raine, Atlantic Books, hb., 168 pp., £14.99, ISBN 978-1-84887-285-1

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 18, 2011

'Now I Know What Love Is’ – In Memory of Peter Reading

Vendange Tardive grapes are left on the vine to dry and concentrate, creating exquisite dessert wines inHilbe Island the Alsace region. The term means ‘late harvest’. I do not imagine this is the last we shall be hearing from Peter Reading, not when there is no escaping what follows winter. For older poets, age might break or make you into seeing yourself and your work with more exactitude. I imagine age might feel like exile yet provide the solace of arrival. Edward Said believed the late style of creative artists ‘is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality’. Speaking of the final poems of Cavafy, Said commended ‘the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile’. Peter Reading has conducted most of his poetic career since Work in Regress (1997) in this late style. Vendange Tardive is a taut example of mature subjectivity, stripped, tellingly, of ego: ‘when there is nothing’ he writes in a Wittgenstein-like fragment, ‘eschew utterance’.

The volume opens with a modest plea: ‘For the attention of Penelope Reading (Nunc scio quid sit Amor)’, Reading acknowledging that we write – in fact, we behave - with more exactitude when, with Virgil, we know what love is and have set ourselves to serve its purpose, even when we also know love can neither save us or the world. Vendange Tardive offers the modest assurance that love and wine can console while the human world splatters about in an abyss of its own bloody making. The world is too much with us and is getting worse and worse and worse:

The rhetorical ‘How goes it, old boy?’;

the unnerving response:

‘Infinitely sad, old warrior,

infinitely sad – I’ve just heard…’.

[Untitled]

I cannot picture an oenologist becoming a nihilist unless he or she were producing plonk for some poisonous purpose. In an age of mass cultural plonk, Peter Reading’s poetry is vigilantly harvested and casked. David Wheatley has called Reading the world’s worst nihilist and he is correct. Peter Reading is too fine-tuned a technician; he is too funny a comic even at his blackest and gloomiest (he is poetry’s Eeyore of the eyesore); and he is still writing without tedium, derangement or barrel-scraping. I admire him for not stopping writing - despite or because of publishing Last Poems in 1994. There is no abdication of art’s rights in the late work of Peter Reading. His eye for the natural world, his sense for artistic detail, for order and for the beguilement of verbal pattern, vies with defeatism:

 Hilbre, winter, high tide.

Over the West Hoyle, hurl and white swash, and above,

the sky the colour of Blaenau Ffestiniog slate.

And the long-ruined sandstone lifeboat station brine-lashed,

the slipway thrashing the saline assault into spume.

from ‘Maritime’

Vendange Tardive, Peter Reading, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 56 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1085224-884-0

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 08, 2011

Our Singing Language

Our Singing LanguageDale Farm friend

There is no pure Romani language: there are several living, vivid, ricocheting dialects. These dialects sometimes take a loan from other tongues: language is absorbed as it is travelled through. The porosity of Romani dialects can seem to resemble the porosity of English except for one distinction. English, for all its riches, is a language of colonisation and globalisation; Romani, for its treasures, is a language of the invisible or enslaved. The Gurbet Romani dialect for example is influenced linguistically by centuries of enslavement of the Roma in Romania (the group term Gurbet means foreign work or aliens).

The Gurbet Roma group, like the Kalderaš and Lovara, is known for independence and entrepreneurship. A number of writers have arisen from it, the most prominent being Ilija Jovanović whose first collection of poems Bündel/Bodžo was published in Romani (and German translation) in the year 2000. News from the Other World: Poems in Romani is a bilingual selected poems by Jovanović. The book opens with the writer’s memories of childhood – accounts of the casual, unconscious racism of non-gypsy “friends” - as well as a short history of Roma people. The body of the book is made up of poems about settlements, hazards of travel, identity, love, childhood and salvation. These make for strong if, at times, severe reading: dark notes abound, duende is evoked and Jovanović’s Romani diction has fine, wry attack. Romani is phonetic, so you can listen in to his voice through reading the poems as you find them. To get the flavour of this poet, try sounding the buzz-note consonants and dammed-up internal rhymes at the close of ‘Lost World’:

Traden amen pe sa o them.

Amen džas thaj džas

ni džanas kaj thaj dži kaj.

(They chase us across the whole world.

We move on and on, having no idea

when this will end, or where to go.)

Jovanović writes of Romani as ‘our singing language’ and Romani certainly possesses qualities, as with English, that pass beyond meaning: the sound of sense, the sound of sensuality, and the sound of a group’s shared sensibility. The poems are capably translated by Melitta Depner. My sole criticism is that the concentration and energy of Jovanović’s dialect sometimes carry abstractedly or blandly into English. The poet’s attack and duende are what vanish in translation. To take a fairly typical example from the poem ‘I Have No Home’: the syntactical crackle, alliterative strut and resignation registered by the line-break of ‘Čořope, bokh, maripe, mundaripe / traden ma than thaneste te džav’ registers in translation as dejected prose: ‘Poverty, hunger and violence /drive me from place to place’. The Roma are indeed a victimised people, but do not wish to behave or sound like victims - or be ventriloquised into that role. What I am saying is that the poems work best in Romani, but you do not need to be a Romani speaker, nor a specialist in the Gurbet dialect, to get something out of this attractive and truthful book of poems. It is probably a tiny miracle such a book has been allowed to exist and it is a welcome addition to Romani writing in English translation.

News from the Other World: Poems in Romani, Ilija Jovanović, Francis Boutle Publishers, pb., 152 pp., £9.99, ISBN 978-1-903427-54-5

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 10, 2010

The Wonderfurled World of John Stammers

Freshwater Stone People by David MorleyJohn John Stammers Interior Night is various and startling. The pose of the speakers in these poems can be grim and urban (‘The House Sale’, ‘Mr Punch in Soho’, ‘Dead Alsatian in a Vegetable Crate’) but, across the body of this evocative collection, there’s a childlike candour to his perception and poetic language that has much in common with Romantic poetry. You might say that the poet loads every vein with ore but knows the human cost of each gram. Stammers is attracted by hope, even at its most hopeless (‘A Dramatic Monologue’). His floridity of diction can be beautifully exact and natural (‘O’). He hears more than he wants to understand (‘in words culled of sense as if mastered by the wind’ – ‘Sands’). Possibly the best poem here ‘The Shrine of Proteus’ has the speaker and his friends create ‘a possible light diversion / for the boys and me during the summer holidays’:

Around the altarpiece we placed found items from the shore

and discarded or lost objects drained of their original affect

by casual disposal or the caustic action of the seawaters:

whin-feathered dune flowers, hardy but etiolated by the undercut

of salt breeze and the bitter, constant scratch of blown sand grains;

and two branches that the profound twist and torque of wave motion

had probably transformed into twin horses of the deep.

The poem invokes an encounter with a version of the Ancient Mariner as environmental catastrophist (‘some kind of sea-god of antic myth’) that leads to disillusion and remembrance of things past. This is a poetry of growing up and unlearning harsh wishes:

I was compelled to punish them that night for going too far

in their silliness. And I would have beaten the old sea dog

who had set their minds into such a ferment, had I been able.

There are boundaries I will not have violated.

Stammers’ mythic form of address and longer line are unerringly right for these slightly weird materials: affected as they are with literariness without being fake. Some of these poems unfold a fictional continuum in which plausibility and possibility are bent and reconstructed to make a strong and inevitable narrative - the kind of thing fiction writers like China Miéville prefer to call ‘weird fiction’ – enacting the kind of parallel universe which Simon Armitage’s collection also explores. In ‘The Encounter of M’ Stammers describes and re-describes a brief meeting between lovers that is transfigured by recollection, retelling and switches in time until ‘The sun was low and we cast no shadows / across the plush white lawn’. There is a weird music to the diction of Interior Night that charms and chills.

Interior Night, John Stammers, Picador Poetry, pb., 64 pp., £8.99, ISBN 978-0-330-51338-8

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this piece first appeared.

David Morley’s new collection from Carcanet is Enchantment. He is editing The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. His website is right here


November 09, 2010

Grave Robbing with Richard Dawkins: Simon Armitage

Hamlet

Photo copyright hkoppdelaney under creative commons

Simon Armitage’s recreations of the worlds of Gawain and The Odyssey were well received in circles that otherwise might never bother with the epic tradition; while his new collection Seeing Stars presents prose poetry to readers for whom it could be a revelation. Baudelaire said, ‘Always be a poet, even in prose’ and like decent poetry, the best prose poems generate imaginative mischief, linguistic and political escapade and a rapidity of combination of images. But the absence of the line does not mean the poet’s ear need not be alert to the sense of spoken voice - even when that voice is entirely in character. The poems in the Seeing Stars resemble a spree of proser’s yarns, parables and absurd monologues, often droll, moving and confidently voiced. The poetry has much in common with the tone and poise of James Tate’s poetry, an influence about which Armitage has been scrupulous, not least when Tate himself soars through ‘The Knack’ like King Wesley at the climax of It Happened One Night. That poem’s final slowing lines show how voice and line bicker with each other in a way that dares our understanding of when a poem is a poem and when it is not a poem:

                         Then James Tate, a

poet much admired in America, went by in an

autogyro, flicking Boris the V-sign. North America,

I should say, though for all I know he might be the

toast of Tierra Del Fuego, and a household name in

Bogotá.

‘The Knack’

Anything can happen in these word-worlds. The more incongruous the event then the more effectively realised the parallel world of the poem (‘Hop In, Dennis’, ‘Cheeses of Nazareth’, ‘Aviators’, ‘The English Astronaut’); and the challenge to expectation and the pure pleasure of invention owe as much to Vince Noir’s madcap tales in The Mighty Boosh as they do to James Tate or Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie. The parallel worlds that Armitage invents are not so much surreal as super-real (or strangely recognisable if you’ve spent time in the borderlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire). Many of them are successful on their terms once you tune into their fairy-tale frequency, flashes of magic and deadpan absurdity. This is the opening of ‘The Experience’:

I hadn’t meant to go grave robbing with Richard Dawkins

but he can be very persuasive. ‘Do you believe in God?’

he asked. ‘I don’t know’, I said. He said, ‘Right, go get

in the car.’ We cruised around the cemetery with the

headlights off. ‘Here we go’ he said, pointing to a plot

edged with clean, almost luminous white stone. I said,

‘Doesn’t it look sort of…’ ‘Sort of what?’ ‘Sort of

fresh?’ I said. ‘Pass me the shovel,’ he said.

Armitage has taken the possibilities of the prose poem and remade them for the mainstream. What this book also refashions isn’t so much the poetic form as the poet himself, allowing him to travel artistically from the hewn, tensioned speech of epic to a circling, roundabout, confident yarning. This is not to suggest the poems are all marshmallows around a campfire. Some of the throwaway brutality in these poems is unsettling not least because the characters using it are true to their word and recognisable in their casual contempt (‘the peaks and troughs it produced had a confidence about them…like…a graph of Romany populations over the centuries’). There are many moments of astonishing emotional momentum that take your breath and defy the gravity of either prose or poetry. And there are also flickering shifts in register, usually towards the end of a poem, in which epiphany and a folkloric vision create a coda of grief and glory.

You have been reading about Seeing Stars, Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, hb., 74 pp., £12.99, ISBN 978-0-571-24990-9

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this piece first appeared.

David Morley’s new collection from Carcanet is Enchantment. He is editing The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. His website is right here.


July 25, 2010

Made, Measured and Heard

Lundy Church

Waiting is nearly always a better form of writing than rushing. Lachlan Mackinnon is a genuine poet who takes time to get it right. Small Hours is his fourth collection and a distinguished piece of work. Opening with mostly occasional poems including a fine-hewn homage to Edward Thomas and a poem in memory of Mick Imlah, the book moves into a long poem ‘The Book of Emma’ that unfolds over fifty-four sections cast mostly in prose. It explores a repressed relationship between the speaker and ‘Emma’, a young woman of considerable distinction; it discloses few real secrets, even the particulars of Emma’s untimely death (‘You fell off Lundy’); and yet releases a powerful current of conscience, honesty and loss:

You are an open wound in me…People who come across members of your family hear of you and are curious to know more though a generation has passed and you left so little trace in the world. So small a footprint yet the shovelling jealous sea has not erased it…

Of course in making this thing about you or around you I am talking about my youth and homesick for it. But that is not the point. The point is that at one time in one place I met someone who became to me a living conscience.

‘The Book of Emma, XLVIII’

Ezra Pound’s belief that poetry must be as well written as prose is an appealing principle to apply to ‘The Book ofLachlan Mackinnon Emma’, which is neither prose poetry nor poetic prose but a vivid series of elliptical, connected flash-backs that have the quality of flash fiction – except we are clearly hearing a poem. There is a little or no tranquillity to these recollections: the speaker seems scalded by his skill at holding and harnessing memory, by the doubleness of his insight. This is a poem in which an alternative universe is being uncovered, and a parallel life is slowly drawn from the darkness. Mackinnon (right) seems to be talking to a ghost, but that ghost is as much a ghost of himself. ‘The Book of Emma’ makes for brave writing and complex feeling; it is a highly successful experiment in form.

Sinéad Morrissey’s previous collections showed us that the pleasures we take in poetry owe less to what is said and what that means, and more to how well something is made, measured and heard. Through the Square Window is a book of many achieved pleasures: serious, speculative and authentic. This is a book of immense variety and intense, formal panache. The opening poem takes the subject of a storm but makes so much more than a drumming description; it summons a sense just this side of Gothic, and is wonderfully heard:

…Evening and the white forked

parting of the sky fell

directly overhead, casements

rattled on hinges and Thunder

may as well have summoned

the raggle-taggle denizens

of his vociferous world:

the ghouls, the gashed, the dead

so bored by now of being

dead they flock to gawk—

sanctuary was still sanctuary

except more so, with the inside

holding flickeringly, and the

outside clamouring in.

‘Storm’

Sinead MorrisseyMorrissey’s conjures her poems confidently. The reader trusts, and is held. There are poems here of marvellous adventure that are as good as any being written in English. ‘Matter’, a long poem as strange and as familiar as its subject – childbirth - has an extraordinary edginess and grace. These are the final lines:

Stay the wind on a river eight weeks after equinox—

witness blue-green mayflies lift off

like a shaken blanket; add algae

and alchemical stones to the lake floor

in the strengthening teeth of winter, what swans.

‘Matter’

Morrissey’s authenticity feels like the authenticity of folklore, except that it is of our human world, written slant. Her exuberance lies in her ability to let language sling itself through its registers without losing the rule of sense and sound. I wish I could fitly express the artistic attainment reached by the music, poise and life of her language. To realise a book so completely requires a writer to go far out of themselves. It is a measure of our respect to acknowledge their safe return by reading them. Through the Square Window is an authentic, exuberant, fully realised book of poems by a poet of true powers and gift.

It’s a positive sign that Sam Willetts waited and worked on his poems before releasing them at the relatively late age of forty-seven. New Light for the Old Dark is a powerful introduction. He writes observantly, vividly, if inwardly. He desires to represent a state in which, to paraphrase Barry Lopez, he has absorbed that very darkness – in this case, heroin addiction - which before was the perpetual sign of defeat. When he unleashes his experience into metaphysical language he takes us with him, as in the fine poem about the death of his father:

His new state exposes the stark child of him,

and un-sons me. No answers now to a son’s

questions, about this, about the sense,

for all his slightness, of a long life’s mass

coming to rest, a settling that churns up

grief in a rounding cloud. Dad

dead; end of the opaque trick

that turns our gold to lead.

‘Trick’

There are similarly terrific poems throughout this book. At other times the poet’s sense of self-defeat defeatsSam Willetts itself, forgivably, and leaves some poems not quite surviving (‘A Moral Defeat’, ‘Coup de Foudre’). This makes for a mixed reading, a frustration of achievement and potential. The book feels as if it were edited by several minds. What we have is a bright and at times brittle first collection, tethered by the occasional loss of nerve and almost continuously allusive (Michael Hofmann might have written half this book which is great unless you’re not Michael Hofmann).

Sam Willetts is without doubt a good poet in the making and there is a grave truth in him. He is magnificent when he is plainest (‘August 9th’, ‘On the Smolensk Road’, ‘June 3rd’) and maladroit at his showiest (‘Rubberneckers’, ‘Home’, ‘Green Thought’). In some ways New Light for the Old Dark is oversold when it would have been better undersold: the writer of the blurb, who may have had a hand in creating the book, makes solemn claims for significance. This collection will receive attention mainly for the right reasons, but also falsely because the poems and the poet are partly sold on an experiential premise that has little to do with authenticity. Yet I predict great things for Sam Willetts not least because he is a better literary artist than he, perhaps, believes. Try him.

David Morley

Books discussed:

Small Hours, Lachlan Mackinnon, Faber and Faber, pb., 90 pp., £9.99, ISBN 978-0-571-253-500

Through the Square Window, Sinéad Morrissey, Carcanet Press, pb., 60 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-847-770-578

New Light for the Old Dark, Sam Willetts, Cape Poetry, pb., 60 pp., £10.00, ISBN 978-0-224-08918-0

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this essay first appeared.


July 22, 2010

Rebounding Flowerheads

Highlands

For Thomas A. Clark, walking is a form of poetry, a personal rite for writing. The Hundred Thousand Places is a single poem that steps through the Scottish wilds over the space of a day. It moves forward through subtle quartets, the pauses between them invisibilized by a blank page: a cloud coming across the vision. And inner- and outer vision are really what this poet offers in gently-sculpted, clear-eyed variations:

the rock in the water

breaking the full

weight of the flow

produces melody

the rock by the water

broken by bracken

tormentil and heather

releases colour

Solvitur ambulando—it is solved by walking; and the world is a series of connected and out of the ordinary problems that might be solved only by moving through them. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, ‘Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world’. For Thomas A. Clark, walking doesn’t solve anything in any final way; it explores and perhaps resolves in part the problem of our ultimate loneliness. The short poems that make up the whole poem possess a strict sense of precision inherited from Ian Hamilton Finlay: a summation of perception and connection which could be carved on a granite slab in Little Sparta:

from rock

heather

from astringency

colour

I’m sure Clark would agree with Solnit’s statement that ‘A lone walker is both present and detached, more than an audience but less than a participant. Walking assuages or legitimizes this alienation.’ Thomas A. Clark’s lovely and somewhat lonely poem releases many valuable visions and a deep sense for the music of the natural world. I also think the poetry explores a form of legitimized alienation, something ‘more than an audience’ and ‘less than a participant’; and is more honest to itself and its readers for doing so.

Like Thomas A. Clark’s book, Frances Presley’s Lines of Sight takes many a wild walk through the natural landscape, this time in the South-West of England. Similarly Lines of Sight reads as though it were written as a whole book, so scrupulously have the sections and poems been woven and riven together. Richly impressive are the poems from ‘Stones settings and longstones’, a highly kynaesthetic sequence inspired by the Neolithic stone monuments on Exmoor. Prose poems, concrete poems and free verse are madly and delightfully mixed with arresting artistic control and design making them almost slippery when quoted out of context:

Not against wind

we have won wind

the house is standing against

abutting the hillside

                          abetting

buttery butts

the water but

cannot save austral ia

              this sliver of stone

compressed

glivers

revested

                          from ‘Buttery stone’

The prehistoric stone monuments on Exmoor are evocative and strange: geometric arrangements of sandstone slabs in quiet combes; willowy standing stones on open moor; and stone rows, one of which was recently discovered. The geometric and highly patterned orchestration of Presley’s book feels as if it arose from being composed on a moor then pressed letter by letter into the earth. Her work was fresh to me and I found it a highly pleasant revelation, at once thoroughly alert and judged yet delightfully manic and far-reaching in its wildness, risks and resultant freedoms.

Janet Sutherland prefers a pared back, uncluttered free verse for the poems in Hangman’s Acre. The understated tones and hewn forms create a careful performance (there’s a judgement to be made for poems whose proximity to pain and death is pretty well face to face). But Sutherland’s poems do not gloom or mope; and like the poets above Sutherland is a gifted and observant nature writer:

the voice of the chainsaw echoes in

valleys  smoke hangs high and drifts

the terraces are held against the mountain

by the dead and the living  their hands

their muscles  the salt of their skin

at dusk the mountains shift to grey

layers of rock are smoke and mist

and the sound of the chainsaw stops

just this spade and this pick scraping

making the little difference   and underfoot

the cloudy cyclamen and by the side

the dark-leaved aromatic myrtle

from ‘Underfoot’

There are many delicacies in such an approach: deftness of image, delays of space. Of course, Elizabeth Bishop’s attentiveness of voice hangs over this whole collection but the influence is one of tone. I can’t help but admire the fact this poet can yield such music, movement and scent from a rebounding flowerhead and a slown down spondee-sprung myrtle.

the poetEiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has been publishing excellent collections since 1972. Her selected poems were recently co-published by Gallery and Faber. The Sun Fish is to my mind Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s best single volume. It contains an impressive number of outstanding poems including ‘The Witch in the Wardrobe’, ‘On Lacking the Killer Instinct’, ‘The Door’, ‘Ascribed’, ‘Calendar Custom’ and the title poem. Any reader new to this poet would do well to begin with these poems and to read them out loud, taking aural delight in the rhyme-patterns and stanza break in ‘The Door’ for example, quoted here in whole:

When the door opened the lively conversation

Beyond it paused very briefly and then pushed on;

There were sounds of departure, a railway station,

Everyone talking with such hurried animation

The voices could hardly be told apart until one

Rang in a sudden silence: ‘The word when, that’s where you start —

Then they all shouted goodbye, the trains began to tug and slide;

Joyfully they called while the railways pulled them apart

And the door discreetly closed and turned from a celestial arch

Into merely a door, leaving us cold on the outside

‘The Door’

Read alongside her Selected Poems, The Sun Fish provides a completely convincing case for Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s international reputation. Given that The Sun Fish reached the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist, I hope it makes her work much better known in the United Kingdom.

David Morley

Books discussed:

The Hundred Thousand Places, Thomas A. Clark, Carcanet Press, pb., 96 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-84777-005-9

Lines of Sight, Frances Presley, Shearsman Books, pb., 116 pp., £12.99, ISBN 978-1-84861-039-2

Hangman’s Acre, Janet Sutherland, Shearsman Books, pb., 90 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-84861-074-3

The Sun Fish, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Gallery Books, pb., 64 pp., €11.95, ISBN 978-1-85235-482-4

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this essay first appeared.


April 03, 2010

The Amazing Samuel Menashe

Sam Menashe

‘I never thought it was a poem. I thought it was just [Menashe slides arm slowly downwards] a sigh’. This is Samuel Menashe speaking in the film Life is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe by Pamela Robertson-Pearce which comes packaged with the book. Menashe writes concise poems. It’s rare in a review to be able to quote a poem in full but with Menashe it’s open season. Here are two untitled poems that possess the sigh of pure brevity:

The sea staves

Concave waves

     * * *

A pot poured out

Fulfills its spout.

Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote that ‘I feel more and more that the purest poetry exists in single words or seemingly minute effects. These are what lodge in one’ (quoted from Thomas A. Clark’s suitably spare edition of Finlay’s letters on poetry and making A Model of Order.) For Menashe, purity of diction requires a purity of contraction:

The niche narrows

Hones one thin

Until his bones

Disclose him.

‘The Niche’

Eleven words. Fourteen syllables. This is a poem about which Donald Davie once commented, ‘[Menashe’s] poems have to be compact and close because only in that way can English words—any English word, if the right tight context be found for it—show up as worshipful, as having a wisdom and an emotional force beyond what we can bring out of it when we make it serve our usual occasions’. As Menashe might have said, less is more as God is love. (Being a tireless reviser and refiner Menashe would probably file this down to ‘Less is love’.)

Reading this excellent selection of poems, you can’t help but admire Samuel Menashe’s integrity of perception, his self-possessed seriousness, and the precise, often playful awareness of the importance of space—space as another means for stating, imparting, whispering.

Menashe’s restrained epiphanies come over strongly and unstrained in performance. I met this fine poet at the Ledbury Poetry Festival last year. His resonant, gentlemanly, measured delivery woke rich meanings and sounds from the stringed air of each poem. This is what so-called Slow Poetry should sound like, honed not only in drafting but in delivery.

It helps to hear him, and it is a pleasure to watch him articulate his working methods andMenashe transcribes his poem aesthetics. The film of Menashe reading his poems in his tiny New York apartment is a welcome extra and shows fine moments of generosity and insight. Any open-minded reader of poetry will warm to this man and this book.

New and Selected Poems, Samuel Menashe, with a film on DVD by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 240 pp., £12.00, ISBN 978-1-85224-840-6

My thanks to Fiona Sampson of Poetry Review where this piece first appeared.


March 28, 2010

Growth Rings in Poems: Poetry in Translation

Growth-Rings in Poems

Growth Rings in Trees

Antonio Machado claimed that, ‘In order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet who will write it’. It might be a smart move to invent your translator while you’re at it. Robert Frost’s over-celebrated remark that ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation’ may make poets feel unattainable, but what Frost went on to say was, ‘It is also what is lost in interpretation’ which makes attainability a little problematic. And it says more about the nature of poetry than it does about the process of translation, or of criticism for that matter. Few enough writers realise that good translation, like good criticism, is a vocation and practice as thorny as original composition.

In fact, for many creative writers, translation shares the table with writing, just as for literary translators it is another form of creative writing. Translation is always a negotiation. To paraphrase Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translation moves beyond and around language. Some words are charged with particular meanings in their host language; that does not entail their carrying those associations into another tongue.

It is not only the spectrum of meaning that is considered in excellent poetic translation. There are polyphonies of factors: the physical sound of the poem’s internal movement; the speed, shiver and intent of word-notes, taken individually, within a line, and within a whole poem. And what about the meanings of the sounds of words, the tongues and voices ringing and ringed in the grain of poetic lines, and the notion of locality in how a word is spoken and understood?

The Dutch poet and archaeologist Esther Jansma may have a view given that she established the age of wooden artefacts from growth-rings in the wood which could be applied to timber in The Netherlands. Are there growth-rings in a poem’s language and form? Her translator writes in her introduction to the excellent What It Is that ‘if a source poem is rhymed, some translators see the rhyme as somehow “separate from” meaning… I feel that if rhyme is used, it is part of a poem’s meaning…’. Author and translator held a painstaking negotiation over every draft, and their teamwork makes for a very convincing, clear, almost scientifically-eyed poetry:

If we have to dress, when all is said at last

against the cold or in something’s name

in what remains of this or another past

tales and aides-memoire which simply claim

that we were here and nothing more

in time which existed before today…

from ‘Archaeology 2’

With the exception of Jane Holland’s persuasive and energetic versioning of The Wanderer, the books under review are all ‘beyond and around’ translations in that they are neither re-imaginings nor imitations. That does mean they are any less under-imagined than Holland’s delightful appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon original. She states ‘the switch from Christian to secular beliefs and the switch from male to female narrator were acts of reinterpretation…Those who find this change too much of a strain…should consider that each age must reinvent the classics rather than simply ‘translate’ them…’. She is correct of course except there is nothing simple about translation, whereas reinterpretation (pace Frost) sets up another force field for the reader.

The translator makes a choice of an author’s work, decides the posterity of certain poems. For example Driven by the Wind and Drenched to the Bone by the Argentinan Daniel Samoilovich is a beautifully selected collection or sharp, startling, colourful lyrical poems. Conversely, I got the underwhelming feeling in Starve the Poets! that the selection of work from ‘controversial Chinese poet’ Yi Shah shows him to full disadvantage. The translators have done almost too good a job in rendering into English - what seems to me - a self-regarding, self-important, sexist set of work. It’s almost as if Yi Sha had taken the least attractive tonal elements of Bukowski then done his best to divest his poetry of the quality of mercy. The trouble is that we passed through this kind of phase some time ago: half-pretending to enjoy poems that yielded you zero as a reader except corrosion of precious attention. Eye-wateringly, this appears to be one of the stated intentions of the author except he believes he’s being laconic, as opposed to tedious:

Walking across life’s stage.

Just now

as I handed him a cigarette

he gave me a light

Walking across life’s stage

In the flickering flames

I got a glimpse of his cigarette lighter –

well, what d’you know?: it was shaped like a mini-

fire extinguisher

from ‘Crossing the Stage’

Many poets argue that all writing is translated in that it is translated from silence. Midnight and Other Poems by the Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti reads like a series of skilful resurrections, through language, of a silenced majority:

After the dust and smoke

have cleared from the house that once stood there

and as I stare at the new emptiness,

I see my grandfather wearing his cloak,

wearing the very same cloak –

not one similar to it,

but the same one.

He hugs me and maintains a silent gaze,

as if his look

could order the rubble to become a house…

from Part 1 ‘Midnight’

‘Midnight’ is clearly an ambitious sequence, a montage of images from the land of his birth, and rewards being read aloud. One gets the feeling it is written to be heard, and can be considered part of a wider debate about language, land and dispossession, rather like the interesting poems in Flowers of Flame by some new poets of Iraq.

Moving finally to the resonant and gloriously complex Prague with Fingers of Rain by Czech writer Vítězslav Nezval, first published in 1936, and translated here by the brilliant Ewald Osers. This is an expertly evocation of Prague’s interwar liveliness and polyvalence. What’s especially exciting is how landscape and streetscape are rendered clearly and precisely within an apparently ‘surrealist’ confection of forms and strategies. Unlike the tired strategies of Yi Sha, we are only just catching up with such approaches (John Hartley Williams and Luke Kennard spring to mind). It is unlikely you will have read anything else quite like this collection, not only in terms of meaning and structure, but also ricocheting forms and acutely-judged sound.

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.

What It Is: Selected Poems, Esther Jansma, translated by Francis R Jones, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 96 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-780-5

Lament for the Wanderer, translated by Jane Holland, Heaventree Press, pb., 22 pp., £4.00, ISBN 978-1-90603-806-9

Driven by the Wind and Drenched to the Bone, Daniel Samoilovich, translated by Andrew Graham-Yooll, Shoestring Press, pb., 60 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-904886-60-0

Starve the Poets!: Selected Poems, Yi Sha, translated by Simon Patton and Tao Naikan, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 96 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-815-4

Midnight and Other Poems, Mourid Barghouti, translated by Radwa Ashour, Arc Publications, hb., 240 pp., £14.39, ISBN 978-1-906570-08-8

Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq, edited by Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haider Al_Kabi, and Dan Veach, Michigan State University Press, pb., 96 pp., £14.50, ISBN 978-0-87013-842-3

Prague with Fingers of Rain, Vítězslav Nezval, translated by Ewald Osers, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 64 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-816-1


March 25, 2010

Wild Bees: The Poetry of Martin Harrison

Wild Bee Nesy

Joy in making, seeing and connecting; simplicity without simplification: complexity without complication: that’s a single-breath summary of Martin Harrison’s hugely impressive poetic technique, a technique I feel caught out by in all the nicest ways. His work was entirely new to me yet I felt immediately at home in these fresh, vivid poems. I’m sure most British readers will feel the same especially if they are familiar with the techiques of Robert Frost, Les Murray, Elizabeth Bishop, Raymond Carver and Allen Curnow. Yes, those influences are there but Martin Harrison is very much his own maker: he’s simply assimilated the best of these poets as he travelled through their diction.

Harrison has travelled the world; his early years were in England. There’s a fine and painful poem about his father, a travelling wine salesman and amateur poet in Northern England who in the evenings ‘jotted screeds of ‘nature poetry’’:

He called it doing the accounts.

Sincerely, he hoped I’d do more, with more success:

but “study money, not poetry” was his long-lived, bleak

advice. In his 80s now, his steady observation:

“I’ve given up making sense of things. Work only

for yourself.” A palimpsest is what’s scraped away:

a scarping which reveals a trace, a ‘beneath’ that’s covered

over with new scrawl. Are memories like that trace?

‘Letter from America’

Harrison spent some time in New Zealand before settling in Australia. He’s an exported - now imported - writer of unusual range and observational skill, and that sense of being outside things helps him write some of the most brilliant metaphyical nature poems of our time, for example in ‘The Platypus’:

…it can shift from one medium

to another—from scrabble to dig to swim.

Fur, blood and bones, it lives out a warm theorem:

how cells communicate with mode and shape.

It’s pure exuberance of style. No post-modern,

it benefits from natural history. No victim,

it even shows how to adjust thoughts to

that maya, that dream, where illusion’s both true

and false…

In poems like ‘The Platypus’, ‘The Coolamon’, ‘Stopping for a Walk in Reserved Land Near Murra Murra’, ‘Late Western Thought’ and the two ‘Letters from America’, Martin Harrison takes a natural setting or creature and explores it scrupulously, writing it sideways - or should I say Harrison allows the pressures of the developing poem to write him sidelong: images blinking in at themselves, birdlike in their movement through his mind’s eye and the mind of the reader.

Sometimes the process risks sentimentality, but that’s one of the recognised hazards when writing such technically brilliant and emotionally alive poems, and Harrison gets it right each time. I recommend Wild Bees with extreme prejudice; this book altered my mood, my whole day and made me write a new poem.

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.

Wild Bees: New and Selected Poems, Martin Harrison, Shearsman Books, pb., 168 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1-84861-008-8


March 24, 2010

The Raven in Ravening: the Poetry of John F. Deane

The Raven in Ravening

Raven

In an anguished polemic titled ‘Dream of a Fair Field’ published in The Furrow the fine Irish poet and editor John F. Deane wrote, ‘The ground of all my living and writing has been an attempt to fashion a language and imagery suitable to the translation of Christian faith in these modern times, and for this I have suffered ridicule and rejection … How can [a poem] bring a sense of integrity and morality to a political system in our own country that works by subterfuge, aiming at perpetuation of power rather than the good of the citizens when political life has become shameful and overtly dismissive of the deeper values by which Christianity ought to flourish. A poet may be noisily praised and lauded in public but is ignored and dismissed as having nothing ‘real’ to offer to the ‘real’ world. …’

I quote from this essay because the poet intends it to be read and considered: the piece is republished on Deane’s personal website. If we accept that these are legitimate assertions and questions for a poet of faith then Deane’s beleaguered response is perfectly understandable. However, the stance of his language gives the impression that Christian faith is already cornered - cornered by the ‘‘real’ world’, even though Deane is sharing that corner with his God. Poetry gets him (and his faith) out of this corner. Poetry serves his cause (and his God) clearly and beautifully. The poems in A Little Book of Hours release little worlds; Deane’s perplexity becomes articulate energy and the means for clear-eyed self-exploration—exploring if not quite never answering those questions in his essay. Here is an indicative quotation from the poem ‘Towards a Conversion’. In Deane’s poems an ecological sense of conversion, of ‘translation’, is always tangible within his spiritual perceptions:

… I walk over millennia, the Irish

wolf and bear, the elk and other

miracles; everywhere bog-oak roots

and ling, forever in their gentle

torsion, with all this floor a living thing, held

in the world’s care, indifferent. Over everything

voraciously, the crow, a monkish body hooded

in grey, crawks its blacksod, cleansing music;

lay your flesh down here you will become

carrion-compost, sustenance for the ravening roots;

where God is, has been and will ever be.

I admire the spoken music here: the mind’s flight-path for the crow across lines and stanza; and the transformational release of the raven in ‘ravening’. Good news for his readers that all the poems in the book are as wide-awake and as interesting as this example. The long elegy ‘Madonna and Child’ is the masterwork, eventfully spiritual, almost a dream-work in the way it stirs at memory – memory which is both observed and imagined. In ‘Dream of a Fair Field’ the poet mourned the loss to contemporary poetry of the language of the ‘Song of Solomon’. In ‘Madonna and Child’ he liberates and refreshes this same language for his own invocations and revivifications:

As an orchid among buttercups is she, as a peach tree

among brambles in the wood; as exile

in a hostile land, as drudge among the very poor.

Michael Symmons Roberts wrote in a recent Poetry Review, ‘The relationship between creative freedom and religious belief is far from limiting…religious faith was an imaginative liberation…’. That’s true of John F. Deane when he is creating poems. However, in the same way that the composer John Tavener’s work has been seen as more of a challenge to the world than a consolation, Deane’s poems offer ‘the rising recurrent sorrow of the merely human before loss, its unacceptability, its disdain’ (‘Madonna and Child’). These are beautiful, solemn, gravid poems, best read aloud for, like John Tavener, Deane has to be heard to be believed.

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.

A Little Book of Hours, John F. Deane, Carcanet Press, pb., 100 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-85754-970-6


March 23, 2010

The Currents of Myth: the Poetry of Moniza Alvi

The Currents of Myth

Europa

A writer’s fidelity to reality can make for good art but only because our own reality is partly an art. The art of memory makes stories and myths of us all. Rereading Moniza Alvi’s first five collections of poems in Split World was a numinous experience. They make for a strong book, made more sinewy by the fact that the poems are skilfully chosen by the author. She does not elaborate any flaws by repeating them; the author scalpels them out. By doing so, Moniza Alvi makes her readers more aware of talismanic variations in her handling of language and subject, especially their binding of myth and fairytale. As I read her selection alongside the old published versions, I grew more appreciative of what I consider the most interesting aspects of Moniza Alvi’s project. The real (and unreal) country at Alvi’s shoulder is her imagination, an other-world of myth, power and strangeness all of which are considerably demonstrated by this selection and by her excellent new collection Europa.

K.K. Ruthven once tried to define myth as partaking ‘of that quality acribed to poetry in Wallace Stevens’ meticulously evasive aphorism: they appear to resist the intelligence almost successfully’. In Split World it is Moniza Alvi’s fidelity to what she does not know that gives her work power; that throws her poems open to possibility; and this aspect is most illuminating about reality and identity when Alvi engages with, and creates for herself, the currents of myth. Myth and fairytale work for Alvi as ways of knowing herself through the enticing genre that Marina Warner describes in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers as ‘promiscuous and omnivorous and anarchically heterogeneous, absorbing high and low elements, tragic and comic tones into its often simple, rondo-like structure of narrative’. These qualities came to the fore in collections such as Carrying My Wife and How the Stone Found its Voice, the latter reminiscent of fairytale strategies in the ‘Games’ and ‘Quartz Pebble’ poems of Vasco Popa:

Was it widthways or lengthways,

a quarrel with the equator?

Did the rawness of the inside sparkle?

Only this is true:

there was an arm on one side

and a hand on the other,

a thought on one side

and a hush on the other.

And a luminous tear

carried on the back of a beetle

went backwards and forwards

from one side to the other.

                       ‘How the World Split in Two’

The personal can also be mythic, as Alvi’s earlier collections showed in her writings on her Pakistani heritage: ‘Azam passes the sweetshop, / names the sugar monuments Taj Mahal. // I water the country with English rain, / cover it with English words. / Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.’ (‘The Country at My Shoulder’).

Where myth and tale coursed through Moniza Alvi’s previous books, it waterfalls into the ocean in her new volume Europa. The whelming language and whirlpool patterns of the central sequence ‘Europa and the Bull’ are remarkable for their apparent solidity. A curved wave of narrative carries the pattern. Simple, candescent images crest the fluid dynamics of its language (I admire that the ‘lie’ here is white without being named so):

She was softening, melting,

collapsing onto the sand.

And a beast was stepping towards her

dragging the sea behind him –

light in step as a dancer,

white as a boulder,

a snowy mountain,

a ship’s sail,

a lie.

Orchid-white,

violet-white,

rose-white,

not white at all.

A bull blessed with the costliest

golden horns, each gleaming

to outshine the other.

             ‘V: Europa and the Bull’

Writing this piece must have required a sea-surge of imaginative concentration, and there is a sense of the poem overflowing its pages’ shores. The poem floods across the whole book, leaving pools and traces of images in other poems; at times making whole poems that address the subject of abduction and rape from other points of view: ‘King Agenor’; ‘Europa’s Dream’; a mermaid ‘slit / down the muscular length / exposing the bone in its red canal’; or a rape victim trapped in a Volkswagen Golf in ‘The Ride’ - ‘Nothing else for company. / Just the bolting forwards - // and a neighing / heard through water.’

Writers are often told (or so they tell themselves) to write what they know, but the problem is we do not usually know enough about what we know because we do not know ourselves. Cynthia Ozick once said, ‘The point is that the self is limiting. The self—subjectivity—is narrow and bound to be repetitive…When you write about what you don’t know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination’. This statement describes clearly what makes Moniza Alvi a fine poet and why her poetry eludes and finally escapes some of the more exploitative definitions that have been foisted upon it.

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.

Split World: Poems 1990-2005, Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 304 pp., £10.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-802-4

Europa, Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 64 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-803-1


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