2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Ocean Vuong

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

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Saigon 1975

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

 

 

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

 

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

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Vuong with his mother and aunt -refugee camp Philippines, c.1989.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

 

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

 

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

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Ernest Hemingway and his son (plus guns)

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

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What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

 

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Archaic Torso of Apollo

 

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

 

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

 

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

 

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

 

 

The Lovely Disciplines by Martyn Crucefix (Seren Books)

Tears in the Fence

There is a tone of quiet humanity in these poems and that comes as no surprise as I look back on the versions of Laozi’s Daodejing that Martyn Crucefix published last year with Enitharmon Press (Tears blog 4/12/16). There is a seriousness in the poetry, an awareness of the passing of time, which does not resolve itself into an easily achieved sense of regret. There is no bitter twist that allows a reader to sport a wry smile to accompany his awareness of the value of lived experience. I make no apology for repeating some lines from Peter Robinson’s interview with Jane Davies (Talk about Poetry, Shearsman Books, 2007) that I used in my book Contemporary Poetry: Poetry and Poets since 1990 (C.U.P. 2009). Robinson was talking about poems which address lived experience in recognisable forms of human expression and in the interview he expressed some…

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The Cleansing Tang of Otherness: C. S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’

By 1956, C.S. Lewis was famous as a Christian apologist, literary historian, critic, BBC broadcaster and a writer of science fiction and children’s books (the Narnia books appeared almost yearly from 1950 to 1956). He had long been a confirmed bachelor, living with a housekeeper and his brother in Headington, just outside Oxford, since 1930. For most of his life he’d been a don at Magdalen College, Oxford. Just the year before, in 1955, he had accepted a new professorship at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but remained living in Headington. An establishment, if eccentric, figure whose views on so many things are scarred by the era in which he grew up, nevertheless he is a writer capable of remarkable insight.

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He first met Joy Gresham in September 1952 and the two grew closer over the ensuing four years. Gresham was an American whose marriage was collapsing. By 1956, she wanted to remain in the UK with her two children, but the Home Office refused to renew her visa. To secure her residence, Lewis offered to marry her in a civil ceremony in a registry office. He seems to have suggested that he already loved her in all ways but one – the erotic – and he would continue to do so. In fact, they had just four years of marital happiness (and a love that seems to have included the erotic) before Gresham died of cancer in July 1960. Lewis jotted thoughts down after the event, referring to it as a record, “a defence against total collapse, a safety valve”. What he wrote was published in 1961 (under a pseudonym) as A Grief Observed. A version of these events is played out in the film Shadowlands (1993).

A Grief Observed does what it says on the tin. Lewis observes the progress of his own grief after the death of Joy Gresham – she’s referred to in the text as Helen. For example, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” A little later: “I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts – real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.” It’s these thoughts about a closely observed mental process that particularly interested me.

 

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Lewis with Joy Gresham

 

Way back in 1926, in a now mostly unread long poem of ‘scientifiction’ (as he called the sci fi genre) called Dymer, an individual who for years has been refined, clipped, moulded and adorned by an oppressive regime suddenly acts freely: “Then came the moment that undid the whole – / The ripple of rude life without warning”. On that occasion, the rebellion of real/rude life takes the form of an almost inadvertent violent action. But this pattern of the mental/social construct being breached by an undeniable and more authentic reality seems for Lewis to have been one of those magnetic norths that serve to guide any reflective individual’s thinking. In Lewis’ religious thinking, the authentic was, of course, the presence of God. Epistemologically, he never doubted a real presence behind all perceived phenomena. And this is the point he makes in relation to his recall of his wife.

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The accumulating false image of Helen would, of course, be founded on fact, nothing fictitious as such, but the composition of the image would become more and more his own. He compares the process to the settling of snowflakes: “little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end”. Eventually, if the process continues uninterrupted, the image “will do whatever you want. It will smile or frown, be tender, gay, ribald, or argumentative just as your mood demands. It is a puppet of which you hold the strings”.

Lewis wonders if this is the real meaning of all those ballads and folk tales in which the dead return to the living to inform us that our mourning somehow does them wrong. Counter-intuitively, he argues it is our passionate grief that actually cuts us off from the dead. In such moments, because of the power of our emotion, all is “foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by [our] miseries”. The real presence of the lost one is swamped and submerged beneath a passionate egotism. Lewis observed something resembling this just a week after Joy’s death. An American, Nathan Starr, who he’d not met up with for years, visited him in Oxford and, in his notes, Lewis wrote: “don’t we often make this mistake as regards people who are still alive – who are with us in the same room? Talking and acting not to the man himself but to the picture – almost the précis – we’ve made of him in our own minds? And he has to depart from it pretty widely before we even notice”.

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This matters less when the real person is on hand to breach and explode the fictional composition we make of them – though Lewis is right to note how tenaciously we hang on to our précis before accepting its divergence from the real. But in the case of the dead? “The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me”. In some of his most moving lines, this ageing don and once-confirmed bachelor argues: “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real”. One of Lewis’ great gifts was his ability to communicate. He often declared his belief in the vernacular, even (or rather especially) when it came to religion, arguing the vernacular was the real test – if beliefs could not be turned into it, then either you didn’t fully understand them or you didn’t truly believe them. In A Grief Observed, he describes what he misses of his wife’s real presence, “the rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness”. In contrast to the puppet-like, “insipid dependence” of the image or précis created by the person left behind, the lost one’s real presence was “obstinate, resistant, often intractable”.

 

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Lewis’ house in Headington, Oxford

 

Moving from this particular to the general, it’s here that Lewis memorably declares “all reality is iconoclastic”. Our true acquaintance with reality or real presence is the only way to cleanse and scour our egotistical preconceptions whether of the dead or the living: “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour”. In William Griffin’s hyper-episodic biography of Lewis, he reports a 1944 BBC broadcast given by Lewis in which he refers to Christians as “new men”, a new step in evolution. This is because they have abandoned their own personalities and allowed God to inhabit them. In looking for your self, Lewis argued, you find only hatred, loneliness, despair and rage. In turning away from the self we find “Him, and with Him everything else thrown in”. This is interesting as it’s a later (though ironically more traditional) version of Keats’ Godless explanation of the importance of negative capability (which I have discussed at length elsewhere).

Whether in Keats’ or Lewis’ view, what the individual – whether we think of ourselves as artists or not – must always bring to the table is our attentiveness. The etymology of the word attend shows its roots lie in the Latin verb tendo – to stretch, to stretch out. The effort implied is the energy and precision with which we must perceive and this energy breaches the accumulated shell, the snow-cover of our preconceptions. At the close of A Grief Observed Lewis says “Attention is an act of will. Intelligence in action is will par excellence”. The willing poet, of course, must apply attentiveness in 3 directions – to the outer world (including the living and the dead), to my inner conditions, to my language.

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My Grief Observed – May 2017

This week, I sat down to write a thinking piece about C S Lewis’ brief memoir about his wife’s death, A Grief Observed (published under the pseudonym N W Clerk by Faber in 1961), when this happened instead.

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My father died – I’m shocked at the passage of time – just over 8 weeks ago. At the age of 97, it was hardly unexpected though to be honest I had anticipated my mother (age 95 this month and seemingly physically far more frail) to be the first to leave the world. Though hardly unexpected it was still a surprise. It happened late at night – I’d travelled back to London thinking he was stable enough. By the time I’d returned the next day to the Care Home in Wiltshire, the undertaker had already taken him away. There were so many distractions, things to sort out, though we’d already sold the family home and his affairs were as simple as can be for a man with two savings accounts, a couple of State benefits and an utterly derisory works pension.

I did decide to visit him in the undertakers’ so-called chapel of rest. I’m not sure this was about saying goodbye – though circumstances had meant I hadn’t done this in any conscious way. The assistant took me into a little hallway where a door stood open, some classical music playing. A wooden chair and a table with a vase of flowers were all to be seen in the hallway. I have no recall of the music or the type of flowers. I was taken aback when she explained that some people prefer simply to sit outside the ‘chapel’ rather than go in to view the body. I felt reassured somehow that such a reluctance was not something I was feeling and it would be a sort of cowardice if I did. I felt brave, or just a bit braver. I was doing this for Dad. Though her observation then made me re-consider. Maybe I was really anxious, even fearful, about seeing him. I sat in the chair outside for a few minutes to see how it felt.

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Hilperton, 1954

It felt pointless. I was here to see him and to have done with it. I edged round the open door. The coffin was deliberately around the corner, out of sight until you got well into the room. It filled an alcove, supported at waist height, I supposed, on some sort of trestle. I’m enough my Dad’s son to think of such things. Later on, after I’d sat a while in the chapel I started looking – as he would have done – at the structure of it. It was just a plain room, almost certainly separated off from an original larger room. There was an RSJ across the width of it. Perhaps there was another such ‘chapel’ next door. Semi-detached. Like the house Dad had lived in. In fact, the one he’d help build in the mid-1950s. I was taken there at the age of one. I left there to go to university at the age of 18. We’d sold it for more than we’d expected about a month earlier. Semi-detached.

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? 1929

They’d put a crucifix on the wall above the coffin. Or rather, the cross was a fixture on the wall. Other coffins in series had lain beneath it. Dad always had a dislike of religion. I never could get to the bottom of why. Born in 1920 you’d have thought it would have been just part of the landscape he grew up in. Was it rammed down his throat to the point of the need to vomit it back up again? Was there something in his war years that made him see through it so vigorously that – even into his 90s – he never found a way back? His wife was quietly non-conformist, mostly Methodist. I’m sure she would have attended church in these more recent years (her younger sister regularly did). I’m sure she stayed away because of his hatred of it. Now here he lay under a crucifix in an inappropriately ‘holy’ setting with such tasteful lighting. Hurrumph, he might have said. Words were not his thing. I never showed him this little poem:

 

Words and things

 

Past ninety and still no books to read

your knuckles rap the laid table

 

gestures beside a stumble of words

so much aware of their inadequacy

 

it hurts us both in different ways

since a man without language is no man

 

finding too late this absence of words

builds a prison you’re no longer able

 

to dominate objects as once you did

the world turns in your loosening grip

 

I still feel a bit guilty about having written it. Agenda published it originally. It’s just appeared in my new book. But no – he never saw it. I made sure of that.

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North Africa

I looked at him in his box. My brother and I had decided not to dress him in his own clothes. His only suit was so old and shabby and he had little else that we thought was suitable (why did we agonise over it – I was the only person who knew him to see him in this state anyway). Oh for his old suit! He was dressed in a sky blue silk number, a ludicrous ruff about the neck: a sort of choir boy outfit. My main impression was of the newness of the cloth of the robe, its strong vibrant colour against the chilly greyness of what must lie underneath if his hands were anything to go by.

Then at last, I looked directly into his face. I’d been reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard and at the end of the novel, the dying Prince, Don Fabrizio, looks at himself in the mirror and wonders why “God did not want anyone to die with their own face on?” The last time I’d seen Dad was after he’d been brought out of hospital, back to the Care Home where he lay sleeping for hours on a mattress on the floor (to stop him rolling off and injuring himself). He puffed and blew a good deal, eyes shut. He rummaged his legs to and fro, tying the bed sheet in knots. But he never woke. In those hours, it seemed to be him. I sat beside him with my mother. I held his cold hand and repeatedly told him we were there, we were there for him, he was OK, he was not in hospital (god how he hated hospitals!).

But the face looking up out of the coffin seemed to be somebody else. Hard to tell what was plain natural death, what was the undertaker’s art, what the lighting, what my weird state of mind. All the clichés about the waxy, smooth look of the dead are true. His Crucefix nose – always fairly prominent – launched from his sunken cheeks and bony brow skywards. His chin – which in life was always weak and receding – also thrust forward and up in the most unnatural way. What had they done? What had they packed his jaw with to achieve this cartoon effect? His mouth with its pencil thin lips (plenty of times I thought them mean lips) was shut very tightly. I wondered if it was sewn shut? I wondered if they had left his dentures in? His eyelids – which in those last few hours of puffing and blowing, had often been leaking open, a segment of watery eye visible though no inner sight seemed ever to have registered – his eyelids now were also tightly bound. Closed down. Closed down long before the undertaker’s craft took hold. Now physically closed down to reflect the inner closing down that had taken place in my absence.

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?1939

As I stood beside the coffin and looked down, I had the powerful sense that he was not there. Not merely that this did not resemble the man I knew but more than that – he, in himself, was not there. He had departed the physical form that lay there more or less recognisable. I don’t think he was elsewhere. I’ve been with him on that bit of religion for decades now. But I still felt some relief. On his behalf perhaps. Recently he had been more muddled and fearful, obsessive about some things, angry about others. Life seemed to have very few pleasures left; lots of panicky moments, angry self-hatred, suspicions of people, distrust, downright fright. He was no longer living in that horrid morass. That must be some relief.

He was not there. But the hands, propped also choir boy style on his chest, clutching incongruously a white rose, were definitely still his. Emerging out of the stupid silky blue sleeves, the long bony hands were still familiar. How they used to float vaguely, not elegantly, but sometimes delicately, trying to add whatever was always lacking from his words, wafting to and fro following the right and left turns to the municipal dump, to the only local shop not closed down, to the bus stop (their life-line into town).

I never once touched him. I thought of the coldness. The lack of give, of elasticity. I didn’t think he’d mind. We seldom touched in life. But I did talk to him. I said I was there. I said goodbye. Those two things over and over again. My eyes and throat filled as I tried to say them aloud.

In the end there was no more to do. He was not there. I was in a room with a box and some kitschy lighting. I sidled back out round the door. I looked back in, feeling, of all things coquettish, as if I might surprise him about to move, to sit up and grin, it was all a joke. No. He was not there. He was not coming back. Not this way.

I went out through the hallway, past the flowers again, the music receding, out into the front room of the undertaker’s shop. The assistant was not around. I gathered my bags and left. The daylight was white. Two men were slumped nearby drinking from tin cans. They looked up at me. I suppose they had seen the door I’d come out of. Perhaps I had death all over me. The High Street seemed tissue-thin, like a poor stage-set. Everybody else actors. I walked down it, then back up, unsure where to go. In the end, I sat in a pub for an hour over two pints of bitter. My train was not till around 6pm. I passed the time googling an old girl-friend’s name.

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April 2017

 

 

 

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Nick Makoha

This is the third in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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Many thanks to Peepal Tree Press for providing a copy of Nick Makoha’s book for review purposes.

Poetry is an art of the relative, but the ability to write about contemporary events beyond one’s personal sphere always strikes me as an absolute and rare talent. Yet it always turns out the poet’s individual circumstances contribute to such escapes from the personal and this is so with Nick Makoha who has talked of writing in exile from Uganda. He fled civil war and the rule of Idi Amin as a five-year old boy in 1979. Many of the poems in Kingdom of Gravity are shocking (and so powerful in particular ways as art) and their obsessive subject is power without justice in post-colonial Africa.

There are moments when early Auden seems a useful comparison. Each poem creates its own world of suspicion and unease, often of violence. Each poem is spoken by a human subject – I thought of Glyn Maxwell’s phrase “the presence of a human creature” (On Poetry, Oberon Books, 2012). This is maintained even though the materials of the poems are journalistic, clogged with stuff, hawked up, hacked off incidents that most of us are only familiar with from news, TV and film. The forms are often shaped but roughly so; Makoha’s voices often make use of anaphora/repetition and tend to the epigrammatic. Such patterning is mostly ironic because if there is one thing this collection expresses it is a sense of exile and disconnect, a loss of all moral compass. The construction of the book seems to encourage this sense of disconnect. Three poems evoking Uganda’s 1979 turning point (after Amin’s 8 year rule) are scattered across 2 of the 5 sections of the book. Each of the 5 sections are introduced by poems linked with airports and travel, distance, arrivals, departures – exile again – and these set the tone.

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The figure of Amin – and those in the ensuing years who have resembled him – recurs. The book is full of father figures, often distorted, corrupt, vicious, God-like, their hands covered in blood. A crocodile is considered in one poem, the creature imagined as Idi Amin’s teacher:

 

Wrath the only nature of God you taught him.

What of mercy, peace and Uganda?

 

Our bodies still rest in your jaws.

 

The book’s opening lyric, ‘Highlife’, praises the power that comes with “Presidency” and these include the power to throttle another man, to spare a life, to change perception by force, to be acknowledged as “God”. Such big men always promise much to gain adherents but in promoting themselves they soon threaten far more than they deliver:

 

This man is a firm knot in our chest. A landlord draped

in Savile Row suits, who uses our towns as a race track.

 

Mark the length of his shadow; where it reaches,

men fall.

(‘Big Nation’)

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The book’s title poem is like this. Re-writing Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and Auden’s 1939 ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ from the inside, Makoha speaks as a man wanting to create a world wholly in his own image: “What makes a man name a city after himself, / asking bricks to be bones”. His conviction is that he has been spoken to by “an oracle”; he claims to be searching for “a place to call home” but ominously is equally “in search of fire”. The kingdom of gravity is the condition of “having the world at your feet” and Makoha’s analysis of tyranny looks deceptively open-ended, asking if once the world is believed to be fully known, a reflection of the power-hungry self, then “how will you be sure that nothing is lost?” Such absolute control is an impossibility, of course, and for the tyrant the only solution is a call to arms: “Smear your bodies in red oil. Tonight we split the darkness. / We will be remembered as the wild cats // who smeared their bodies in blood” (‘From the King’).

As this makes clear, tyrants need followers. They are well represented in the book – both as victims and as the breeding ground for the next wave of tyranny. ‘Watchmen’ seems voiced by a man in whose calculations his wife, children, contraband, money, beer and a prostitute all seem interchangeable counters in his mind’s equations. Hard to follow what happens next – the border between fact and fantasy is uncertain – but a powerful male figure rips a sheep to pieces, offers it to other men if they become his “true bloods”. There are plenty of takers:

 

Some say he had promised land, others positions,

and yet others gold. The truth is we all wanted

to be kings with wives and cars.

There is a drone in our voices.

 

The night’s coolness has not yet gone.

The apparition snatches a Kalashnikov from a shepherd’s fist

and slips into the river. What’s weird is we all break rank

and like a swarm follow singing his incantations

and like a swarm follow singing his incantations.

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The willing yielding up of individuality implied in the choice of the word “drone” is driven home in the final lines which repeat Frost’s repeating trick in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ but turn his swooning/determined ambiguity into an unambiguous, threatening, weaponised, overwhelming “swarm” of humanity.

The speaker’s sense that something “weird” is happening, the potentially redemptive sense of the growth of evil is reflected in a few other poems such as ‘The Liberation’ where someone who “used to be a boy” now moves “like smoke across the red dirt towards the second terminal”. In this case, such drastic shifts in human behaviour are considered “a costume” to be worn when the earth “erupts” but the potential reversal of the process implied by this metaphor elsewhere looks like liberal wishful thinking. ‘Candidate A’ seems voiced by a tyrant selection committee, enumerating an individual’s qualities, making him suitable for elevation to “His Excellency, Field Marshall, / Effendi etcetera”. Love of his own reflection, unprovoked violence, rejection of the rules, an appetite for acclaim and acquisitiveness replaced by “immediate gratification” mark out this fanatic among the ranks for a bright future though ultimately he’s to be used by whomever is speaking: “in his effort to be remembered, we will make our mark”.

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I was reading this book partly while visiting Guernica in the Basque region of Spain. In the commemorative museum, I was struck by a quotation from Gandhi: there is no way to peace; peace is the way. As in Picasso’s painting of the bombing of the town in 1937, Makoha’s poems give us more of the horror of when things break down, but also remind us that peace is more than just the absence of war. Poems like ‘Resurrection Man’, ‘The Dark’ and ‘How to Make Blood’ ask great determination of the reader and also ask us where we stand as we read them. The poet’s stance is driven by a form of survivor guilt. His escape to the UK meant an equivocal freedom:

 

My own country rebukes me. I hold the world on my back.

 

Look for me in translation. In my own language you will go unanswered.

My Ugandan passports are a quiet place of ruin.

 

One of the airport poems, set at Charles De Gaulle, Paris, perhaps speaks in something like Makoha’s own voice. It is about the impossibility of telling a story fully. He has no problems with endings – the difficulty is that “I have lost where I began”. The condition of the exile is always liminal, not living fully in either of two places. In Makoha’s case this gives him the space to contribute to English poetry a dark, knotty, often difficult kind of music, plainly relevant in its response to some of the horrors of the contemporary world. The book’s cover has been well-chosen by Peepal Tree Press: a grey scale image of a child standing beside an utterly devastated tree trunk. Hands by her side, she seems to be waiting for something to happen. Something else to happen.

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Charles De Gaulle, Paris

Too Short an Arc: Robert Frost’s ‘A Soldier’

I recently posted a discussion about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’. In this post I’m looking at one of the poems I’ll be teaching next year from the Cambridge International Exam Board’s list of set texts. See page 47 of the Specification. Essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a student’s wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes).

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Robert Frost’s seldom discussed sonnet, ‘A Soldier’, was first published in West-Running Brook (1928). The choice of the indefinite article in the title contrasts immediately with a war poem like Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in which some effort is made to capture an individual voice, a specific occasion for grief. In Frost’s poem, the soldier’s death is rather an opportunity for the poet’s characteristic reflections on life’s limits and freedoms, on boundaries, on the relationship between our place on earth and our aspiration to something else.

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked

And tripped the body, shot the spirit on

Further than target ever showed or shone.

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On the page, Frost does not divide the structural elements of this broadly Petrarchan sonnet, but it is useful to think of them for the sake of analysis and I refer to quatrains, octet, sestet and volta where relevant. Here’s me reading the poem with the text differently chunked into units of sense.

Line 1 immediately treats the dead soldier to a metaphorical (more strictly metonymic) transformation – he becomes his own weapon. But the kind of dehumanisation suggested by the ‘man=lance’ image does not lead to more obvious themes about loss of individuality in war time. Also why Frost chooses such an archaic weapon as a lance is not clear – perhaps he was thinking of a painting, perhaps he wanted to distance the death from more contemporary images of war (the poem first appeared 14 years after the end of WW1), perhaps he felt it would give him more freedom to explore the symbolism of the death without personal, (distracting?) human entanglements. The opening 3 lines of quatrain 1 (Q1) are as follows:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

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The repetition of the verb “lies” is striking and emphasises the soldier’s passivity in death and the subsequent stillness of the lance. The adjective “fallen” confirms this idea. The end of line 1 seems to mean something like ‘the lance lies just as/in the way it was hurled’. So the throw was a failure, an ineffective effort, as also suggested in line 3 where we are told it has merely “plowed the dust”. The lance’s metaphorical ploughing of the earth further suggests an ineffective, unfertile, unproductive act. Line 2 reinforces these images of passivity, inaction, ineffectuality, as the lance “lies unlifted” over a length of time (duration suggested by the hesitations of the heavier punctuation in line 2) likely to give rise to both “dew” and “rust”. So this is not an image of death and failure in the heat of the battle; it may indeed be long after. Frost seems more than happy to draw the reader’s mind away from what might be the actual condition of the flesh and blood soldier himself by this stage. His dewy, rusty lance, plugged point first into the earth, stands in for him. This is not a poem of personal grief or lament for a warrior’s lost life. That it ought to have a bit more concern for that theme (to be a bit less exploitative) is one of the reasons why we may find reading the poem an uneasy experience.

Line 4 introduces the plural pronoun and – crossing the unmarked boundary between Q1 and Q2 – we are off into more generalised realms of philosophical speculation.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

The image of ‘sighting’ along the lance perhaps re-instates more modern methods of warfare (rifles with sights?) but whether ancient or modern, Frost suggests, in looking for a suitable target or “mark”, we fail, we see “nothing worthy”. This is more hyperbolic than factual perhaps, given that we are sighting along the lance and apparently gazing “round the world”. It’s this latter phrase – its easy familiarity enabling Frost to smuggle it past the reader’s guard against inappropriate pretention – that initiates the poem’s elevation from battle-field incident to generalised speculative discussion about human aspiration and limitation.

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The simile in line 6, comparing the observing “we” to “men” has been noted and criticised by H. A. Maxson (On the Sonnets of Robert Frost (1997)). He objects that the observing “we” are surely “men” (in the sense of human) and so the simile barrenly compares like with like. Maxson suggests Frost intended something like ‘isn’t it just like men’, a sort of frustrated, critical aside (self not excluded) that human beings have very limited powers of observation. Another way of reading the moment may be to emphasis the gender specificity of the reference: is this limit to our sight a specifically male problem?

Of course, it’s not mere shortness of optical sight that is the issue, but a “Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere, / Our missiles always make too short an arc”. The phrase “as fitted to the sphere” works in the same way as “round the world” did earlier. Frost is urging us to forget the battlefield where the poem began; the discussion now is about our place in the world/sphere and how we perceive it or not. Though the use of the word “missiles” does suggest a return to the militaristic, it works as a more generalised allusions to human tools, all carefully “fitted to the sphere” but because of that they/we are unable to contemplate what may lie beyond it. For this reasons our tools, missiles, thought and perceptions all fall short, they “make too short an arc”.

 

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Robert Frost

 

The arc image reminds us of the interim statement in Frost’s ‘Birches’ that the narrator would “like to get away from the earth awhile”. In ‘A Soldier’ the desire for a similar escape is expressed more indirectly in the constriction and thudding physicality beyond the volta, at the opening of the sestet, descriptive of all lances’ fate when limited by human “sight”:

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

The short phrases, heavy punctuation and repeated 3rd person pronoun as well as the violence of words like “rip”, “striking” and “break” convey Frost’s sense of the tragic, destructive quality of such limited aspiration and vision. There is a double wounding implied as the lances intersect and puncture the earth itself and in doing so “break their own” (curve, I take it).

Frost’s use of the word “cringe” in line 10 is interesting. The root of the word is relevantly related to Old English cringan, crincan to ‘bend, yield or fall in battle’. Its modern meaning is to bend one’s head and body in fear or apprehension or in a servile manner or to experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust. So our human failure to see or aspire beyond the earth – represented here by the lance’s metal point striking stone – becomes a defeat of sorts, an act of weakness or servility, at least of embarrassment or disgust at our own inadequacy. It is as if the birch swinger in Frost’s other poem has no other option but to remain in his despondent state, “weary of considerations”:

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

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It’s at this point the birch swinger expresses the wish to “get away” from earth by climbing the tree and swinging on it. But this is no simple, one-way,  transcendent wishfulness. In ‘Birches’ the narrator always intends to come back to earth and “begin over” because – in two of Frost’s most moving lines – “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

‘A Soldier’ lacks the uplift (for reader) and complicating paradoxes of ‘Birches’. The sonnet dwells long and hard on our limitations, our poor aim and aimlessness, the burns, tickles and cobwebs. But the sestet ends in a declarative mode, not typical of Frost who works more usually via hints and guesses.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked And tripped the body, shot the spirit on Further than target ever showed or shone.

The “obstacle” here is the earth, plugging the lance, tripping the soldier himself, a pratfall in the obstinate materiality of the world. But Frost’s plainly concluding tone is now undermined by a more characteristic paradox in what has tripped the soldier’s body is precisely what also shoots his “spirit” beyond the merely everyday. The sonnet’s final line suggests the apparently unworthy “mark” of line 5 (now referred to as a “target”) has indeed been transcended towards something “Further”. Frost’s final phrase, overly pushy and hyperbolic, overly alliterative, the rhyming couplet also raising the poetic stakes a bit too high, strikes me as vacuous, its faux shimmer and shine propelled more by wishful thinking than precision of thought. Of course, what Frost intends to say – something about the generative tensions that exist between matter and spirit – may well be inexpressible but in poems like ‘Birches’, ‘Mowing’ and ‘After Apple-Picking’ he gets closer to it than he does in the confines of this sonnet.

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2 – Maria Apichella

This is the second in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing)

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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Many thanks to Eyewear Publishing for providing a copy of Maria Apichella’s book for review purposes.

A psalmody is a collection of psalms – sacred hymns or songs – or the act of singing such songs. In Reflections on the Psalms (1964), C. S. Lewis argued the psalms of the Old Testament are poems: “not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons [but] lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry”. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody adheres to this to some degree but also comes with a massive dose of narrative and characterization which too often conjures up bad romantic novels. This uneasy cocktail is integral to the whole project. Apichella has said she wanted to “write my own Psalms; that is, poems as authentic prayer [. . .] speech acts which called out to God, the self and the world [. . . ] without being kitsch, or ironic”. She also intended to tell “a contemporary story about the love between an atheist and a Christian”.

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She chooses to do this in a very readable, even racy, form of free verse in the voice of the young Christian woman (like Apichella, she seems to be a post-graduate student, studying the Psalms, at Aberystwyth University). The love interest is David, a Welsh squaddie, home on leave from a vague posting “in flatlands, sand, thudding heat”. The 93 poems make a great play of being rooted in the everyday, most notably through an almost obsessive itemizing of food and cooking, a delight in everyday slang and bathetic details – Lidls, Barclays, the Bus Stop, Aberystwyth in general – while also addressing Apichella’s chosen religious questions. When it works the effect is brave and begins to heal the rift between the material and spiritual that deforms our modern world; when it doesn’t work it’s like watching your Dad dancing. Psalmody sacrifices a lot to appear relevant. Surprisingly, this collection reminded me of Ted Hughes’ Gaudete – also a mix of speedy narrative and spiritual intent. These days most critics don’t rate Hughes’ narrative but they do praise the brief, prayer-like poems (based on Kannadan vacanas) that conclude the book. Apichella’s more psalm-like pieces are scattered throughout the narrative, but are worth searching out (for example, poems 26, 28, 44, 45, 55, 57, 72, 74).

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So – girl meets boy. Besides gender, the two are set up as complete contrasts. She is a “pale believer”, he’s a “Godless” folk singer; he’s a “narrow-minded atheist”, she’s a “holy-roller”; he likes jazz, she likes the psalms; she likes The Protecting Veil, he still likes jazz (Miles Davis especially). She’s angsty, tense, rather reclusive; he’s calm, kind and talks domineeringly. And couples are like this – and I can see these stereotypes have a larger, symbolic purpose – but the female narrative voice slips so easily into a Mills and Boon mode. David’s face is like “corn-stubble”; he is “chisel / copper / grizzle”; he’s a “pebble of strength” (this when he introduces her to his middle-class mother); he likes his coffee strong, though he’s “soothing / as tea, strong as a leather arm / chair”. The term ‘mansplaining’ might have been invented for David and our heroine often feels “he’s right (about so many things. / More clear and kind than I)”. To give Apichella her due, there are limits to this, especially later on. David is called a “wife” because, though he does fix a dripping tap, he also “roasts chicken / for a saffron paella”. The narrator does begin to challenge David as the relationship develops, but the first half of the book can feel like wading through some very thick, treacle-y, gender stereotyping at times.

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The challenge initially is that David’s bluff, masculine, physical, atheistic presence troubles and changes the female narrator. To begin with, she is clear that her faith defines her. Driving to a party, psalms run through her head, “whispering like a cassette”. Her interest in David is expressed through asking “Does he know the Lord?” As much as he is defined and confined by his military role, she also believes the same about her religious belief: “Love’s the law I obey”. In Poem 10 she describes herself as “a Monastery carved into a granite hill” (she also compares herself to Aberystwyth’s Constitution Hill, another rocky outcrop) and the psalms surface once more: they “bubble / with words free from context, emptied of time and place, / as I wish to be”.

 

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Constitution Hill

 

The self-regarding quality of such comments and their absolutism prepare the reader for change. David arrives in cycling shorts, hairy legs, noisily spilling things, liking raw mushrooms, not following recipes, quoting Dylan Thomas’ “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. The two are surprisingly drawn to each other. David besieges her in an unlikely conversation:

 

Stony one. You are

no monastery.

They are full of men,

mutts, beggars.

If you are,

you must let me in.

I am all these and more”

 

She explicitly grapples with what is happening as a battle between Eros and Agape, the former initially termed “ridiculous”, the latter is “the anchor / I cannot lose”. Perilously echoing a thousand romantic novels again, she slowly accepts Eros and the body as “good” and ultimately “Holy”, though Eyewear’s blurb’s promise of “vivid eroticism” is hardly accurate; more typical is the comment, “Why will you kiss me but not finish the job?”

A second gap in the text is exactly what sort of religious faith the young woman adheres to. Poems 45 – 47, record her taking David to church, insisting “If David won’t hear me worship / he’ll never know the core of me”. David surprisingly seems embarrassed by the expressiveness of her worship and the occasion distances the lovers from each other. Her personal faith is discussed using the catch-all term “numinous”, glossed as a sense of interconnectedness, of “webbed dimensions”, a filling of “all that can be filled”, a “merging” and perhaps the slow unlocking of the monastery to a stronger erotic sense is consistent with this. But the woman also retains her belief that David himself is in need of religion. For me there’s little in the text to suggest this, other than her insisting that he is “blind”, that he “may be lost”, but more importantly perhaps – and a third gap in the text – is the absence of any discussion of the nature of evil, in contrast to the numinous good, and David’s military connections would surely offer fertile ground for such a debate.

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David returns to his military duties later in the book. What he does is again left vague, if not downright evasive:

 

[His] job’s all jargon, bullet-

holed paper work.

[. . .] plans to occupy, re-make cities,

countries, traditions, bedrooms.

 

His own description is “cartographer” or “paper-pusher”. The book ducks the real challenge here. As a woman of faith, the narrator’s issues would surely be more with David’s complicity in war, death and destruction than with whether she takes him to bed, to church or gets him to like the music of John Tavener. Unfortunately, David’s singing and his warrior status have more to do with linking him symbolically with David, the singer of the Psalms, and they create complications for the reader that Apichella does not engage with.

It’s a surprise when the relationship resumes. David returns (vaguely, “Wounded”). I take Poem 88, making a virtue of his bluntness, to be recording his voice:

 

So,

it turns out

I want you,

after all

the fannying about.

 

He now seems to accept his need for spiritual guidance: “Your words are direct as a good map”. She accepts him back in the most cryptic line in the book: “David’s an atheist after God’s own heart”. I like the paradox; but I can’t make much sense of it. Apichella’s recurrent and usually grounding food imagery also reaches a strange apogee here. She is imaged as a fallen apple; David a carrot. The powerful, pleading imperatives of the Biblical Psalms are re-deployed here to ask for a greater power to turn them both, to merge them both, into an apple and carrot salad. I kid you not.

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I  have tried hard with this collection. Its intention to interrogate “love and faith in the contemporary world” interests me. The idea of re-writing the Psalms for a modern context is exciting. But the artistic choice of the romantic narrative proves inappropriate and exerts too much of its own stereotyping gravity. Nor do I feel Apichella is wholly in control of the tone, irony and symbolism she uses or takes David’s military role seriously enough. Her ambition is to be applauded but a recent collection like Hilary Davies’ Exile and the Kingdom more successfully tackles many of these issues. (I reviewed Davies’ book in January 2017 and have also posted an interview with her).

 

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Apichella’s narrator concludes by admitting her talents are not in music but her ambition is still to “roar / a song” and her greatest strength is her ability to “respond”. Psalmody is not yet the roar but if really responsive – if Apichella can more convincingly come down off the “granite hill” – I will be eager to read her next collection.