2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Stephen Sexton’s ‘If All the World and Love Were Young’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus) – reviewed here.

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

This year’s Forward First Collection shortlist is astonishingly good but, for its cleverness, its ambition and coherence, its technical mastery and above all for its vulnerability in dealing with the eternal themes of childhood, love and loss, death, time and memory, I hope Stephen Sexton’s book wins the award in October. It’s a curious read in some ways – superficially fast and easy, its technical brilliance well hidden, its narrative quite buried though not really hard to trace, its emotional heft at times blunt and utterly naked, at others complex and many-layered.

Halfway through the book, in ‘Forest of Illusion 2’, Sexton recalls fishing for rainbow trout with some success. The bait is taken and “with a flick / of the wrist [he] hoisted the fish from one world and into the next”. It’s this kind of transition that is the subject of the whole book though the direction of travel is clearer in the recurrent images of young Icarus. The boy who thought he could fly near the sun (filtered through Breughel and then through Auden) is aptly evoked in this poetic bildungsroman of a boy struggling with the traumatic transition from innocence to experience.

The book’s title is the opening line of Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ in which the Nymph rejects her suitor’s optimistically seductive blandishments:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

But Sexton’s particular withering is not one of romantic love but the loss of a mother to cancer and by the end of the book, the wriggle room implied by Ralegh’s opening word, ‘If’, is significantly altered to the much more brutal ‘when’. This is no hypothetical idyll but an actual, remembered one and the loss of it is unavoidable. The post-conclusion, coda-poem, ‘Yoshi’s House’, turns upon the reader with a compassionate yet clear warning: “some day dear friend [you will find] my sad head upon on your shoulders” (sic).

Sexton has written a genuine, contemporary long poem (not a long assemblage of lyrics). His lines are 16 syllables in length throughout, yielding a prosy, chatty, fluid sort of voice which avoids the risk of drag by keeping the reader on our toes by a relative absence of punctuation and a penchant for eliding two thoughts or images together in one single line. This generates occasional moments of misreading, but it is also the technical reflection of Sexton’s focus on the translation of innocence into the darkening of experience. The heard voice is quick, erudite and briskly allusive; despite being mostly in the present tense, it is not wholly the naïve voice of the child. The other aspect of the whole poem this fluid transitioning relates to is the exploration of the child’s obsession with the fantasy world of his computer games and the way he must slide from one world (on a screen) to the one we call ‘real’.

The computer games are specifically the Nintendo games of the 1990s which give the sections their odd names – Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, Vanilla Dome, Valley of Bowser – and account for individual poems’ titles, some of which I have already referred to. The games may be out of date but Sexton’s evident knowledge of them (love of them) means part of the originality of this book is they are fully integrated into the composition of the poems and raise questions about how absorbing such fantasy worlds can be and how the facts of reality are to be negotiated and reconciled successfully (perhaps, particularly by boys who seem so drawn to the former and so easily in denial about the latter).

Sexton’s own story is given in a Note and the poem called ‘Yoshi’s Island 1’. In the summer of 1998, his mother took a photograph of him, back to the camera, squatting before a TV, the family garden just glimpsed out of a window to the left. Here already, the screen world and the outside world through the window are juxtaposed. The boy is keener on the former:

Here spotted mountain and cirrus here sloping plateaux drawn down

carnivorous plants and no sun gold by the cherish underground

fly agaric throbs everywhere with fire plants and dinosaurs.

The vivid, colourful, playful and safe fantasy worlds of Nintendo – its caricatures, its rules – is one of escape:

On Kappa Mountain past the great lake circumscribed with goldenrod

the abandoned palace is full of treasure glowing underground

in granaries and arsenals and economy of losses

and gains the beloved is gone but there is always the story.

 

The man looking back at his younger self passes judgement: “one of the worlds I live in is as shallow as a pane of glass”. But this shallowness is immediately challenged when the child is told of his mother’s illness, of “cells which split and glitch”. The following poem has thoughts of his (real) father interrupting (if only for one line) in his screen time:

. . . for the first time in some time I thought of our father at home

the Sirocco in from the south turtle doves in the huge wheat fields

‘#1 Iggy’s Castle’ suggests the same thing: in the midst of oceans of lava, fantastical islands and cartoonish incinerations, the boy hears his mother moving about the house, a woman in real pain, “whose feet whose toes / whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire”.

Within 20 pages or so, a poem appears which resides wholly in the ‘real’ world of a family visit to the Ulster Hospital and a visit to McDonald’s since his mother “has lost her sense of taste”. The narrative suggests there follows a period of respite. The doctors – in the boy’s mind they come and go as wizard-like Merlins “in blue scrubs” – remove the cancer. Though back at home his mother remains weak and unsteady so the boy concocts a “mess in a tray” for the school bake sale. In awkward self-defence, he acknowledges, “No one is going to like this [. . .] but I have done my best”. His observation obviously has a far wider application in the circumstances, and one of Sexton’s great achievements in the poem – in amongst the allusiveness and technical skill – is to be as open and vulnerable as this. In ‘#5 Roy’s Castle’ he recalls his mother working “her old-fashioned Singer”. Roy Orbison is on the radio. She is making curtains for the room “she’ll in future return to” when she has become ill. The way time collapses in on itself in such a Wordsworthian ‘spot of time’, the way in which “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future”, is expressed with devastating simplicity: “the sewing machine ticks so fast these small years go by in minutes”.

But the cancer has returned. ‘Choco-Ghost House’ is unique in that we hear Sexton’s mother’s voice, nervously complaining of a “pain in my side like a bird in a holly tree”. Her son, still half inhabiting his fantasy world of wizards and exotic settings, is perhaps now starting to use that experience to get a handle on what is really happening. The doctor – now a “Hippocrates” figure – is described as going about “the magic task / of grinding down a rhino’s horn to infuse with ground down rubies”. Even these sorts of quasi-defensive imaginings are eventually dropped and the bald reportage of a last hospital bedside conversation between mother and child is almost too painful to read. The long syllabic lines here have room for the hesitations and repetitions of such emotionally-charged moments without any ironic distancing:

It’s me I’m here is what I say but I am not since she is not.

Then she says I want to go home once more for one once more one night

and I say you can’t go home now she says I know not now after.

The sequence ends with the longest poem in the book – still barely the length of a page – which recounts the mother’s return home in her coffin. Even here the young boy blurs the arrival of the “wood panelled box” with the arrival of the “sharp-cornered TV” before which he has so often squatted to play his Nintendo games. Penguin’s blurb talks of the poem ultimately suggesting “the necessity of the unreal” but actually we see the child fighting his way free of it. Halfway through this final poem, the revelation comes in a fluid, unpunctuated instant: “I felt my head turn into stone no it wasn’t the old TV”. It’s in this poem that Sexton alludes to the title of his book. Hedged around with the necessary qualifications imposed by the passage of years, by the unreliability of human memory, the cloaking device of powerful emotion, he recalls a childhood safe and secure in the light of his mother’s presence, the flashlight of her camera behind him, before him the vibrant, simple colours of Nintendo:

[. . .] her voice moves around the edge of the world and now I think I

remember what I mean to say which is only to say that once

when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing

once in the corner of the room once I was sitting in its light.

2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Jay Bernard’s ‘Surge’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

Jay Bernard’s Surge is a slim volume carrying with it a great deal of political as well as publishing history. Its early stirrings seem to have been Bernard’s residency at the George Padmore Institute in north London where they explored documents relating to the New Cross Fire in January 1981. Often dubbed the ‘New Cross Massacre’, thirteen young people died in a fire at a birthday party. The fire may have been racially motivated arson and certainly the authorities’ response to the incident was unconvincing, possibly obstructive. There is a direct line from this incident, through the imposition of SUS laws and ‘stop and search’ in South London and the SWAMP 81 police crackdown and the subsequent, so-called Brixton Riots of April 1981. The Scarman Report in November of that year laid the blame for the riots squarely on the police action. In our contemporary landscape, and especially after the Grenfell Tower fire and the still-unresolved shameful treatment of the Windrush Generation, it’s easy to see why Bernard wanted to write about New Cross.

new-cross-fire-houseBut Surge itself has since gone through various forms. There were 10 original poems written quickly in 2016. There was a performance piece (at London’s Roundhouse) in the summer of 2017 (it was this version that won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in poetry in 2017). But it has taken 3 years for this Chatto book to be finalised. In an interview just last year, Bernard observed that they were still unclear what the “final structure” of the material would be. I’m possessed of no insider knowledge on this, but it looks as if this “final” version took some considerable effort – reading it makes me conscious of the strait-jacket that a conventional slim volume of poetry imposes – and I’m not sure the finalised 50-odd pages of the collection really act as the best foil for what are, without doubt, a series of stunningly powerful poems. The blurb and publicity present the book (as publishers so often do) as wholly focused on the New Cross and Grenfell fires but this isn’t really true and something is lost in including the more miscellaneous pieces, particularly towards the end of the book.

Bernard writes of events in the past by deploying a multiplicity of voices which are given the power to haunt backwards and forwards through historical time. Unusually, their own voice is heard in ‘Ark’. They are here searching through an archive of documents of “flaking Letraset and amber glue” that also (punningly) acts as an ‘ark’ to bring the dead back to the present. What preoccupies the narrator is how and where to “file / the damp smoke and young bones” of the New Cross victims. The conclusion seems to be they cannot be securely and finally located anywhere while the country still experiences “the burning house, the child made ash, the brick in the back / of the neck, the shit in the letter box and piss up the side of it”.

memorial2Bernard’s poetic voice is at its best when making full use of the licence of free forms, broken grammar, infrequent punctuation, the colloquial voice and often incantatory patois. So a voice in ‘Harbour’ wanders across the page, hesitantly, uncertainly, till images of heat, choking and breaking glass make it clear this is someone caught in the New Cross Fire. Another voice in ‘Clearing’ watches, in the aftermath of the blaze, as an officer collect body parts (including the voice’s own body): “from the bag I watch his face turn away”. The cryptically titled ‘+’ and ‘–’ shift to broken, dialogic prose as a father is asked to identify his dead son through the clothes he was wearing. Then the son’s voice cries out for and watches his father come to the morgue to identify his body. This skilful voice throwing is a vivid way of portraying a variety of individuals and their grief. ‘Kitchen’ offers a calmer voice re-visiting her mother’s house, the details and familiarity evoking simple things that have been lost in the death of the child:

I have held this house

in my arms and let it sob

on the bathroom floor, heard it in

the background of a call,

heard it speak a kind of love –

A vigorously rhythmic patois voice is used in ‘Songbook’, recycling the horrific narrative again as a young boy and girl dance happily until:

Me seh di heat ah di night ah come up thru di floor

Black smoke ah rise tho dem nevah did know

[. . .]

Gyal fall back inside an we no see her no more

No bright green dress up pon di third floor

Bernard acknowledges their debt here to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s earlier poem about the New Cross Fire; you must listen to Bernard give a mesmerising performance of their own great poem here.

linton-kwesi-johnson-golden-penI’m guessing most of the poems I have referred to so far come from the early work of 2016. Other really strong pieces focus on events after the Fire itself. ‘Duppy’ is a sustained description – information slowly drip-fed – of a funeral or memorial meeting and it again becomes clear that the narrative voice is one of the dead: “No-one will tell me      what happened to my body”. The title of the poem is a Jamaican word of African origin meaning spirit or ghost. ‘Stone’ is perhaps a rare recurrence of the author’s more autobiographical voice and in its scattered form and absence of punctuation reveals a tactful and beautiful lyrical gift as the narrator visits Fordham Park to sit beside the New Cross Fire’s memorial stone. ‘Songbook II’ is another chanted, hypnotic tribute to one of the mothers of the dead and is probably one of the poems Ali Smith is thinking of when she associates Bernard’s work with that of W.H. Auden.

104-artontheunderground-14jan14But when the device of haunting and haunted voices is abandoned, Bernard’s work drifts quickly towards the literal and succumbs to the pressure to record events and places (the downside of the archival instinct). A tribute to Naomi Hersi, a black trans-woman found murdered in 2018, sadly doesn’t get much beyond plain location, a kind of reportage and admission that it is difficult to articulate feelings (‘Pem-People’). There are interesting pieces which read as autobiography – a childhood holiday in Jamaica, joining a Pride march, a sexual encounter in Camberwell, but on their own behalf Bernard seems curiously to have lost their eagle eye for the selection of telling details and tone and tension flatten out:

The bus heaves past Loughborough, to Camberwell,

to the green, buzzing with students drunk on Friday,

drunk on art and trendy and young: wine bottle young,

rollie-young, tight, flat-chested young. I follow you down,

I follow you up to the stairs of your flat [. . .]

grenfell-the-sunThe mirroring architectonic of the collection emerges with the poems written about the Grenfell Tower fire. So we have ‘Ark II’, two pools of prose broken by slashes which seem to be fed by too many tributary streams: the silent marches in Ladbroke grove, the Michael Smithyman murder and abandoned investigation, Smithyman’s transition to Michelle, and the burning of the Grenfell Tower effigy, the video of which emerged in 2018.

In an earlier blog post I was thinking about “the (in)adequacy of a certain English poetic voice to confront the scale of ecological issues, or as a vehicle for expressing certain cultural differences, or as a way of exploring the kind of tragic and grievous event represented by the Grenfell fire and its aftermath”. I think Bernard offers answers to this sort of question in their New Cross Fire poems but the challenge of Grenfell (is it the lack of historical distance?) does not yield the same sort of success. The final poem in the book, ‘Flowers’ is a case in point. Each quatrain carries a rhetorical question, creating a formal rather than urgent or passionate impression, and the valid question is will “anybody speak of” the kinds of issues raised elsewhere in the book. Yet the canonic imagery invokes the speech of flowers, the transition from summer into winter (done much more effectively in ‘Stone’). In the context of a live reading, in the context of the horror, the grief, the injustices, the historical perspectives raised so very successfully elsewhere in Surge, I’m sure this sort of poem has an impact. But in the cold light of day, Bernard’s voice here sounds confined by expectations they ought to be ignoring and ends by giving a rather awkward performance – especially when it’s compared to the fluid, passionate, skilful, clever, eloquence of something like ‘Songbook’.

2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Raymond Antrobus’ ‘The Perseverance’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance has already received a great deal of coverage since being chosen as a Poetry Book Society Choice in September 2018. It is a collection that has achieved the difficult task of transcending the acclamation of the poetry world to a much more widespread appreciation, such as winning the Rathbone’s Folio Prize 2019 (awarded to “the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form”). In many ways it is a conventional book of poems – its voice is colloquial, it successfully employs a range of (now) traditional forms (dramatic monologues, prose poem, sestina, ghazal, pantoum), its forms, syntax and punctuation are nothing out of the ordinary (compared to the work of Danez Smith, for example, a comparison that Antrobus invites). Its subject matter is to a large extent dominated by a son’s relationship with his father, by questions of racial identity and (this is what is especially distinctive) the experience of a young Deaf man. Besides the latter, what really marks the book out as special is that impossible-to-teach, impossible-to-fake, not especially ultra-modern quality of compassion.

I think the portrait of the “complicated man”, Raymond Antrobus’ father, is remarkable. This is a warts and all portrayal as can be seen in the title poem, a sestina, in which the boy’s seemingly endless and repeated waiting for his father to come out of the pub called ‘The Perseverance’ is reflected in the repetitions of the poetic form. The neglect of the child (and of the mother of his child) is made perfectly clear; one of the repeating rhyme words is ‘disappear’. But another is ‘perseverance’ itself which sets up sweetly ironic resonances in relation to the experiences of both father and child. But a third rhyme word is ‘laughter’ which transmutes in significance as the poem develops. At first it is the distant din from the inside of the pub. It grows into a sort of paternal life-view: “There is no such thing as too much laughter”. In the end, after the loss of the father, it is what the son remembers, rather than the neglect: “I am still outside THE PERSEVERANCE, listening for the laughter”.

Raymond Antrobus

Antrobus’ epigraph to ‘The Perseverance’ quotes from ‘Where you gonna run’, a lyric by Peter Tosh: “Love is the man overstanding”. The latter word means a form of understanding that emerges after all untruths have been overcome. The poems scattered through this collection make it clear that a full overstanding of his “complicated” father took a while. The disciplining of his child often took the form of “a fist”. When Raymond knocked loose wires from his father’s sound system, the response was a beating. Yet, “every birthday he bought me / a dictionary”. His father could recite “Wordsworth and Coleridge”. He never called his son deaf, but rather “limited”, and he would read with him in the evenings (more of that later). But then he might regale his son with tales of his extensive sexual experiences, “three children with three different women”. In the end, as so often, the child ends nursing the infantilised father who is suffering from dementia. The father’s mind is filled with the past, his own growing up in Jamaica, his first kiss, his later, difficult life in England. ‘Dementia’ deploys a second person address to the condition itself:

 

you simplified a complicated man,

swallowed his past

until your breath was

warm as Caribbean

concrete —

In the final poem in the book, Antrobus again uses a traditional form – a pantoum this time – to evoke some of the moments of closeness between father and son as they read together. In ‘Happy Birthday Moon’ the father’s attentive, gentle, encouraging side is memorialised as is the Deaf child’s desire to please his father:

 

Dad makes the Moon say something new every night

and we hear each other, really hear each other.

As Dad reads aloud, I follow his finger across the page.

 

Much earlier in the book, Antrobus writes of clearing his father’s flat after his death. On an old cassette tape, stowed away for years, the poet now listens to a recording of his own two-year-old voice, repeating his surname: “Antrob, Antrob, Antrob”. The final syllable is missing because the child could not hear it. At the time of the recording, no-one in the family suspected there was an issue. Years later, Antrobus sits “listening to the space of deafness”. Other sections of this early sequence, ‘Echo’, document the Deaf child’s experiences of slow diagnosis (“since deafness / did not run in the family”) and the tests that finally revealed the truth. These are important poems for the hearing world to read; the lazy inaccuracies and limitations of our imaginations always need re-invigorating with the truth of lived experience. The first section of ‘Echo’ takes us straight into the experience of “ear amps”, of “misty hearing aid tubes”, of doorbells that do not ring but pulsate with light.

Antrobus’ subject is only partly the frustrations of Deafness (capital D refers to those who are born Deaf – hence a state of identity, a cultural difference – as opposed to small d which refers to those who become deaf, having acquired spoken language, whose relationship with deafness is more as disability, as medical condition). One poem uses the repeated refrain “What?” Another, with courageous humour, records every day mis-hearings such as muddling “do you want a pancake” with “you look melancholic”. But it is more often the capability of the d/Deaf that Antrobus wants to proclaim: whether the doorbell is heard or seen, “I am able to answer”.

Inevitably, there is anger to be expressed. We feel the heat of this especially in ‘Dear Hearing World’ which, as Antrobus’ note confirms, contains “riffs and remixes of lines” from ‘dear white america’, a poem by Danez Smith included in Don’t Call Us Dead (Chatto, 2017). Smith’s example – a prose poem full of frustrated anger and a desperate wishfulness for better race relations in the USA – seems to liberate Antrobus’ voice. He wishes – or rather demands – better treatment for the d/Deaf: “I want . . . I want . . . I call you out. . . I am sick of. . .” The hearing world is castigated for its mistreatment of the d/Deaf: “You taught me I was inferior to standard English expression – / I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter”. Antrobus also takes aim at some high profile figures for their attitudes to d/Deafness. I remember being asked (and refusing) to teach Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’ (collected in Moortown (Faber, 1979)). Antrobus here reprints and redacts the whole poem, following it with an excoriating commentary on Hughes’ patronising and presumptuous comments. Elsewhere Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell come in for criticism.

Of course, such blinkered prejudices about d/Deafness and race remain rife as ‘Miami Airport’, a fragmented account of an interrogation at the US border, makes clear. With Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, the British-Jamaican poet, Antrobus, would say, “I am from there, I am from here”. Born to an English mother, his father always tried to keep his Jamaican heritage alive. But even his appearance speaks two stories as in ‘Ode to my Hair’: “do you rise like wild wheat / or a dark field of frightened strings?” And the subtly shifting meanings of repetition in the ghazal form of ‘Jamaican British’ cleverly brings out the liminal spaces imposed on individuals who share Antrobus’ ancestry.

But despite the many issues raised in this book, it is not in the end to be praised for its campaigning zeal. In the wonderfully titled ‘After Being Called a Fucking Foreigner in London Fields’, Antrobus confesses, “I’m all heart, / no technique”. He’s talking about fist fights here, but it’s certainly not true of his poetry. There is plenty of technique and skill on show, but it is put to the service of the “heart”. Not in a sentimental way at all – these poems can tell brutal truths – but in the compassion, the love, that most of the poems exude. There are plenty of essays and definitions of identity around these days and there is rightfully plenty of blame-work, but Antrobus finds it in himself to forgive. Instead of punching his abuser in London Fields, he “write[s] until everything goes / quiet” and in ‘Closure’, addressing someone who knifed him years ago, he finds the strength to say, “There is no knife I want to open you with. Keep all your blood”. This is a first collection that barely puts a foot wrong and thoroughly deserves the praise that has already been heaped upon it.

Michael Rosen talks to Raymond Antrobus on BBC Radio 4

 

2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2 – Isabel Galleymore’s ‘Significant Other’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet)

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

71_CxNfwxvL_grande-288x460Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other cuts incisively and deliciously against several fashionable poetic grains in being committed yet dispassionate, quietly concise not shrill, impersonal rather than nakedly biographical. In Carcanet’s blurb, Rachael Boast praises the book for its “simplicity, empathy and sheer Blakean joy”; in truth, it needs to be praised for far tougher virtues such as its probing intelligence, its metaphorical brilliance, its lover’s relational sense of angst. Galleymore certainly possesses an astounding gift for figurative language. It’s tempting to allude to Craig Raine’s Martianism in this context, though Galleymore interrogates the metaphorical process in far more important and interesting ways.

Her main subject is the natural world and our relationship with it and the book is studded with a number of bravura pieces which – as Ted Hughes put it in Poetry in the Making (Faber, 1967)manage to ‘capture’ something of creaturely lives. But rather than foxes and hawks, Galleymore writes about starfish, mussels, slipper limpets, goose barnacles, seahorses, whelks, frogs, spiny cockles and crabs. As Hughes’ versions of the natural world – even a harebell or snowdrop – tended towards violence, Galleymore’s creatures tend toward sensuality and – even when the behaviour is predatory – the descriptions have a sexual quality to them. So the starfish’s attack on a mussel rises to a climax when

 

[. . . ] the mussel’s jaw

drops a single millimetre. Into this cleft

she’ll press the shopping bag of her stomach

and turn the mollusc into broth.

Asterias-rubens-71ed816

There is indeed a sort of empathy here but, at its best, this kind of metaphorical language – the shopping bag, the broth – is accurately based on precise observation of actual behaviours.

9781905208289_Dazzle_Ship_300But Galleymore also sees dangers. In her 2014 Worple Press pamphlet, Dazzle Ship, the poem ‘Forest’ sought to limit such likening of one thing to another: “It shouldn’t go further / than this flirt and rumour”. The consequence of this failure of (for want of a better word) tact is itself imaged in the sloth that mistakes her own limb for “an algae-furred branch” and plummets “through the tangle / of the forest canopy // holding only onto herself”. ‘Forest’ is not included in Significant Other, but a closely related image occurs in ‘Once’. This little poem tracks human relations with nature from our early fears of “being eaten”, through the beginnings of farming, the awakening of metaphors comparing ourselves to Nature, towards the Romantic notion of being “at one”. Yet often there is a bullying, colonising quality to such a sense of oneness – we co-opt Nature into our world on our own terms. In ‘Once’, we are “at one and lost / as the woman wrapped in her lover’s arms / who accidentally kisses herself”. Such ludicrous, solipsistic love-making echoes the sloth’s mistake and downfall.

Several commentators have picked out ‘Choosing’ as a significant poem in this book, most seem to take its statement about loving all “eight million differently constructed hearts” (the number of species currently living on earth) as a genuine example of environmental good practice. But there is irony at work here when the poem goes on to indicate the difficulty of achieving such a multiplicity of loves, using incomplete statements, awkward repetitions and – as Galleymore often does – the language of human lovers to express it. So:

 

To say nothing will come between us,

to stay benignly intimate was –

 

sometimes not calling was easier –

sometimes I’d forget to touch you

and you, and you [. . .]”

 

And these inevitable failures to live up to such ideally multivalent webs of relationships lead to “breakups” (in the lover’s parlance) which I take to mean extinctions (biologically speaking):

 

like the others it seemed you’d just popped out

for a pint of milk and now

nothing’s conjured hearing your name

 

So Galleymore sees figurative language not only in poetic terms, but also as its shapes all human knowledge. ‘Uprising’ (also in Dazzle Ship only) compares the fluffy seed-head of a dandelion to a microphone, ready to transmit “a hundred / smaller scaffoldings // of a thought or an idea”. But such likening of one thing to another (when taken beyond flirt and rumour) like any human relationship is at risk of an unbalanced power dynamic. ‘Seahorse’ is unusual in this collection, opening as it does in the human world, in a restaurant, a man speaking for the woman he’s with, his presumption described as “shocking”. Yet the narrator seems complicit in such a relationship too:

 

like a hand shaping itself inside another’s

the way my hand tucks into his

like a difference pretending it’s not.

 

Like two separate identities, one pretending not to be really separate at all. Or not being allowed to regard itself as separate at all. This is close to metaphor as a form of gaslighting.

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In several poems, Nature is the exploited, submissive partner but in ‘No Inclination’ it is shown fighting back. The metaphors we have long used to domesticate and describe the natural world are shown to be breaking down:

 

[. . .] a surprising number of gales

didn’t know what it was to howl.

The woebegone voice of the willow

confirmed it had no reason to weep.

 

It is our presumptuous, mansplaining tendency not to see Nature for what it is – but only in our own invented metaphors for it – that contributes to our planet’s endangerment. Our assumption of the benign, life-giving smile of the sun (Telly Tubbies anyone?) is not something we can rely on for much longer (record UK temperatures anyone?):

 

It couldn’t be denied: that fiery mass

possessed no inclination to smile.

Household after household poured

whiskey-cokes to toast the news,

the ice melting fast in their drinks.

IMG_2836-752x440In ‘Significant Other’ itself, a cloud may be likened to a tortoise but the cocktail of power and presumption is complex; the relationship is not reciprocal. As the tortoise owner once erroneously anthropomorphised her pet, so in later life she mistook her lover’s sexual fidelity. The truth is not always as we wish it or as our metaphors construct it. At the close of the poem, the tortoise continues in its own “tortoisey” way, resisting any further efforts to colonise it, to humanise it. It is and remains significantly Other. And in this cool-toned, often fascinating book, Galleymore knows the Other needs to be allowed its distance, allowed its dynamic, changeable difference, its wealth of richness in being different, whether that Other is a lover or the natural world itself:

 

‘I Keep You’

 

at a difference:

a thought I won’t allow myself

to think for thinking

it’s a matter of time

till you, a cargo

ship of foreign goods,

cross my kitchen table

like a butter dish.

 

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Nightcries: Liz Berry’s Motherhood Poems

 

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One of my very first reviews here – in August 2014 – was of Liz Berry’s Black Country. I was so impressed with the ways in which she exerted “pressure to counter the hegemonies of language, gender, locality, even of perception”. Most obviously she was doing this through the use of her own Black Country dialect, but I thought a more profound aspect of this was how “so many poems unfold[ed] as processes of self-transformation”; transgressive energies were being released through language, the erotic, myth-making and the surreal. The earlier book concluded with poems anticipating the birth of a child and – at the time – I felt these were less startlingly good, inclined to fall into ways of saying that the rest of the collection so triumphantly avoided.

tumblr_inline_ozdhmnTB2W1vr6098_1280It’s interesting then – in The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto, 2018) – to read more of Berry’s poems written since then, since the birth of her two sons and after a period of relative creative silence (more of that later). I nominated six stand-out poems from Black Country that I felt would establish her reputation – and the title poem of this pamphlet must be added to that list. It’s the most political of the fifteen poems and is propelled by the tensions located between motherhood as social norm or expectation and the personal/social grain of that particular experience. The paradox of the opening lines is that entering into the republic of motherhood (shades of Seamus Heaney’s 1987 The Haw Lantern, with its ‘From the Republic of Conscience’), the mother also discovers a monarchy, a “queendom, a wild queendom”. Much of the poem lists the realities of early motherhood – the night feeds, the smelly clothes, the exhaustion, the clinics and queues – a great democracy of women taking up a particular role. But there are signs too of an external compulsion, a set of expectations to be lived up to. The mother is expected to play the queen too as she pushes her pram down “the wide boulevards of Motherhood / where poplars ben[d] their branches to stroke my brow”. The public role of motherhood comes with demands: “As required, I stood beneath the flag of Motherhood / and opened my mouth although I did not know the anthem”. As much as any new parent feels woefully inadequate and ignorant of the needs of their young child, the young mother is faced with additional social expectations about instinct, affection, abilities and fulfilment which are quite impossible to realise. And on this point, there remains a conspiracy of silence: “[I] wrote letters of complaint / to the department of Motherhood but received no response”.

D19WzebWoAMAN5cThe mother in the poem also suffers postpartum depression and Berry seems here to allude to experiences of First World war soldiers, wounded, repaired and sent back out to fight again, without fundamental issues being addressed: “when I was well they gave me my pram again / so I could stare at the daffodils in the parks of Motherhood”. She ends up haunting cemeteries, both real and symbolic, and it is here she finds even more tragic victims of motherhood, of birth trauma and of psychosis. The final response of the poem is to pray – though it is a prayer that has scant sense of religion but combines empathy with other women with a great anger expressed in the phrase “the whole wild fucking queendom [of Motherhood]”. The paradoxically inextricable sorrow and beauty of motherhood becomes the subject of the rest of the pamphlet, but this poem ends with the mother echoing a baby’s “nightcry” and erasing her own self, “sunlight pixellating my face”. The poem’s rawness is unresolved. Having crossed the border into motherhood (that decision is never questioned here), the contradictory pulls of Motherhood (capital M) and the stresses of mothering (small m) have a devastating impact. In a recent poem called ‘The Suburbs’ – Berry’s contribution to the National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology – she records the effect of mothering even more starkly: “my world miniaturised”. Listen to Liz Berry talk about and read this poem here.

After the tour de force of ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, the pamphlet takes a more chronological track. ‘Connemara’ seems to mark the moment of conception as a moment of self-abandonment (“I threw the skin to the wind, / sweet sack”) which, in the light of the preceding poem, takes on greater ironies of naivety: “Let them come, / I thought, / I am ready.” One of the joys of Berry’s work is her sense of the animal-physicality of the human body (revel in ‘Sow’ from Black Country) and ‘Horse Heart’ figures a ward of expectant mothers as a farmyard stable: “the sodden hay of broken waters, / each of us private and lowing in our stalls”. She captures the high anticipation and potentially brutal arrival of the all-demanding babies as a herd of horses; “the endless running / of the herd, fear of hoof / upon my chest”.  These two poems can be read here.

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Birth itself, in ‘Transition’, is to be feared (“I wanted to crawl into that lake at Kejimakujik”) and gotten through in part by absenting oneself into the past in ‘The Visitation’. The latter is addressed to Eloise, a figure who appeared in a Black Country poem, ‘Christmas Eve’. Here, a schoolgirl memory of a loving encounter with Eloise takes the narrator away from the pains of contractions, “as my body clenched and unfurled”. ‘Sky Birth’ is the one poem that challenges the brilliance of ‘The Republic of Motherhood’. It takes the image of climbing a mountain to evoke the physical pain and endurance required (Berry welcomes all those traditional associations with spiritual climb and progress), yet the poem never loses its sense of the real situation. The breathlessness of the climb suddenly flips back to the mother howling “over the voice of the midwife, the beeping monitors”. It is the figurative climb as much as the literal pain of giving birth that makes her “retch with the heights” and in the final moments, the mountaineer is “knelt on all fours” as most likely was the mother-to-be. The height is reached in a moving conceit:

 

when it came it came fast, a shining crown

through the slap of the storm,

for a second we were alone on that highest place

and love, oh love,

I would have gladly left my body

on that lit ledge for birds to pick clean

for my heart was in yours now

and your small body would be the one to carry us.

 

That final plural personal pronoun reminds me of a comment made by Jonathan Edwards in reviewing this pamphlet. Edwards wonders briefly about the absence of the father figure. Is the ‘us’ here the mother and child? Or is this one of the few references in the pamphlet to both parents?

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I hope this is not just a male reviewer’s concern. It may be an artistic or political decision on Berry’s part. Or a personal one. But given the thrust of much of the work – that mothering is an utterly taxing and even deranging experience – I’m troubled by the father figure’s absence, if only in that it risks representing the idea (the toxic flip-side to the expectations laid on the mother) that fathers need have little part to play. The father does appear in the final poem, ‘The Steps’, though the questioning tone and syntax casts doubt over what of the parents’ relationship will survive the experience of the child’s arrival: “Will we still touch each other’s faces / in the darkness”. I also wonder if the father figure is implied in the image of a boy riding his bike up Beacon Hill in ‘Bobowler’. This is a beautiful poem on the image of a moth (‘bobowler’ is the Black Country word for a moth). The moth is a messenger, coming to all “night birds”. The boy on the bike is one such, his heart “thundering / like a strange summer storm” which perhaps echoes those thundering hooves of the approaching young child. Perhaps there is some recognition here that the father’s world too will be turned upside down. And the message the bobowler brings may also relate to the parental relationship: “I am waiting. / The love that lit the darkness between us / has not been lost”.

41zU1eXgU-LBut such optimism is not a frequent note. Most of the remaining poems deal with the experience of depression in motherhood. ‘Early’ is almost as happy as it gets with mother and child now like “new sweethearts, / awake through the shining hours, close as spoons in the polishing cloth of dawn” (what a glorious image that is). But even here there are demands from the child that will need “forgiving” by the mother. One of these concerns her role as writer, particularly the difficulty of writing in the maelstrom of mothering: “every line I wanted to write for you / seems already written, read / and forgotten”. And this is why Berry chooses to co-opt lines from Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s terrifying story, The Yellow Wallpaper in ‘The Yellow Curtains’. Both texts can be read as studies of postpartum depression, but the despair has as much to do with the women as writers, confined, and – as in Gillman – the husband voices the demands and expectations of convention, of queendom: “He said [. . .] I must / take care of myself. For his sake.”

‘So Tenderly It Wounds Them’ is a more public account of the trials of young motherhood, of women who “are lonely/ though never alone”, women who find themselves “changed / beyond all knowing”, waking each morning only to feel “punched out by love”. The more recent poem ‘The Suburbs’ also contains the same paradox that motherhood is a state of “tenderness and fury”. ‘Marie’ seems to record a debt to a supportive female friend and it is only through the ministering (that seems the apt word) of “women in darkness, / women with babies” in ‘The Spiritualist Church’ that the young mother’s despair has any hope of being redeemed. Redeemed, not solved, of course: what the women argue is that “love can take this shape” and perhaps it Berry’s sense of art, or her personal experience, or a recognition of human resilience, or a final succumbing to a traditional narrative, that makes her place ‘Lullaby’ as the penultimate poem. It ends sweetly though the final poem sends us back to the start of it all – the dash to the hospital. So Berry book-ends this little gem of a collection with time shifts that argue motherhood’s simultaneous complexity of animal and human love as well as its pain and awful boredom and personal diminishment.

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Important Notice

To my regular subscribers and followers:

From 1st March 2019, I am planning to post a series of new poems on my blog on a daily basis and, if you are in the habit of getting notifications via email, I would like to apologise in advance for cluttering up your in-box much more frequently than usual.

On the other hand, these new poems have been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited of kingdoms and, dear reader, if you like what you find, I would be most grateful if you could share them as widely as you can, in whatever format you wish. I am waiving any copyright concerns because the underlying belief I am expressing in these poems is that bridges need building.

Virtual-Office-Threadneedle-StreetThe working title for the sequence is Works and Days of Division – it opens somewhere near Threadneedle Street, not far from a child’s brightly coloured picture book, and roams the UK, talking, shopping, walking, driving, through earth and air, water and fire, in sickness and in health, to end with a death of sorts on a certain lake shore in the northwest of England.

The two main sources of inspiration for the sequence of poems have already been the subjects of a couple of recent posts. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express a great deal of personal anger, puzzlement, even despair.

The central, pivotal poem has already been kindly posted/published by New Boots and Pantisocracies and can be read by following this link. The poem is an abecedary, wishing to encompass everything from a-z, but wondering why nothing connects anymore. If you like, please share.

nijole-miliauskaite-skaidres1_bigAlso, as regular readers will know, I have always regarded translation optimistically as one of the key bridge-building activities in the literary world. And I am delighted to provide a link also to Modern Poetry in Translation‘s just published digital pamphlet of Lithuanian Poetry which includes my own translation (and a recording) of an untitled poem by Nijole Miliauskaite. I was pleased that the translation was selected as the best from all those submitted to the MPT Lithuanian Translation Workshop.

So – Works and Days of Division will begin posting on Friday 1st March and will reach its conclusion on Friday 29th March by which time – well, no, we don’t know where we’ll be by then, do we? 

 

Harpic and Gravy: a review of Sean O’Brien’s ‘Europa’

Sean O’Brien’s recent book, Europa (Picador Poetry, 2018) has made it onto the 2018 T.S. Eliot award shortlist. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Magma magazine on-line to write a brief review of the book (alongside Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear (Carcanet Press, 2018) and Alice Miller’s Nowhere Nearer (Liverpool University Press, 2018). What follows is an expanded version of my original review of O’Brien’s book.

 

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You know why they chose to do it but Picador’s presentation of Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection as a book about Brexit does nobody any favours. It’s a far more heterogeneous set of poems – there’s a good dose of elegiac texts, for example – though the opening 19 pages certainly does have the UK and Europe steadily in their sights. It turns out, what these two blocs share in O’Brien’s view, is a history which is ironically mostly one of conflict (a view also reflected in O’Brien’s Robert Graves Society lecture recently published in P.N. Review 244) . The opening poem, ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ repeats the line, “The grass moves on the mass graves”. The poem goes on to ask how many “divisions” the grass has at this activity and the play on words manages to evoke both military logistics as well as peace-time political conflicts. The narrative voice is downcast, speaking in short breathless little phrases as if anything more lengthy would be beyond him or not worth it. The steadying recourse is merely “my work” which serves to sustain but for no other obvious purpose than to arrive at “the graveyard I become”.

Other poems draw on material from the Great War or the Balkan conflict while ‘Wrong Number’ looks back to visits to the divided city of Berlin, visits that read like a catalogue of failures ending in a self-regarding and (later) self-ironised “species of moral exhaustion”. How effectively poetry – or a literary sensibility – can engage with what is really existing in political terms is one of the themes here:

 

I chose not to mention this

Because it was too obvious or literary,

Like making something out of nothing

 

For the sake of poetry, as if that were a sin.

 

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But O’Brien is always at his best engaging in his love/hate relationship with England. ‘Dead Ground’ explores who owns the English countryside. It describes a ‘theme park’ landscape, a fantasy “[w]here things are otherwise” than what they really are, yet an exclusive park round which ancient walls “will be built again, but taller”. O’Brien’s second person addresses are always discomfiting, levelling an accusing finger at the reader more than most contemporary poets though it’s effect is complicated by the clear sense that he implicates himself as well. Art again gets short shrift – here it is batted away as “[t]he never-was and never-will” in contrast to the brute facts of ownership and possession. Is it the sensibility of the artist/poet again being prodded and provoked here: “The liberties you think you claim / By searching out the detail / In the detail”? Again, this is a task that seems to end nowhere better than “your six-foot plot”. In fact, in O’Brien’s vision of contemporary England, the most vital activity is wholly mercenary, “counting the takings”.

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Those who live outside this country’s circles of possession and privilege, those to be found in “Albion’s excluded middle”, are more than likely to end up in the kind of neo-Nazi meeting so brilliantly described in ‘The Chase’. Here, in Function Rooms where “gravy fights it out with Harpic” O’Brien finds “[w]ould be Werwolfs” who are planning to make Britain great again. The narrator’s antagonism to them is clear enough – the poem enjoys mocking their “banal resentments”, their abortive calls to phone-in radio shows, their “bigotry” – but the moral stance is complicated by his inability directly to confront such attitudes, though he acknowledges that he should: “Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think / These people do not matter. Then they do”. Here too, the “you” does a great job of skewering the complacent reader.

O’Brien’s smokingly apocalyptic visions, familiar from earlier collections, recur in Europa, though (again) to pin these to the shameful, self-wounding moment of Brexit is surely too reductive. ‘Apollyon’ is a scary vision of destructive power as a “[g]ent of an antiquarian bent” and ‘Exile’ relishes the blunt pessimism of its given-and-snatched-away conclusion: “It is from here, perhaps, that change must come. / You are garrotted by a man your hosts have sent”. One of the instigators of betrayal and disaster, in what begins to heap up in the book as a modern wasteland, is recognisable in her “leopard shoes and silver rings” and it feels particularly pointed that O’Brien has to go as far as Mexico City (and a more mythopoetic mode) to find a strange man/beast at a bar who suggests the possibility of “living in hope despite the mounting evidence” (‘Jaguar’).

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As I have already hinted, the equivocal role of the artist has long bothered O’Brien and – it’s my impression – that he beats himself up more frequently nowadays over the poet/artist’s impotence. The hilarious but ultimately cynical account in ‘Sabbatical’ of university life (especially Creative Writing) paints a depressing scene:

 

Apres moi, Creative Writing, dammit.

Good luck, my friends, my enemies,

And those of you to whom in all these years

I’ve still not spoken. Now I bid farewell,

Abandoning my desk, my books

And thirteen thousand frantic e-mails

Enquiring about the Diary Exercise

On which the fate of everything

(To whit, this institution) hangs

 

The collection ends with ‘A Closed Book’, a poem which has clear echoes of Shelley’s apocalyptic, unfinished last poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’.  Someone – it’s “you”, of course – impotently watches a parade (“a cart”) rolling through an unspecified European square where he is sitting like a tourist (or someone on a sabbatical). The figure does little other than observe and wait, “As if this one venue would give you / The secret entire”. But here too, the knives are elegantly brought out. It is for such a moment “you spent your life preparing”, we are told, and though hopes of “transfiguration” and “perfection” are voiced, the sense is more of an exhausted spirit, of self-delusion.

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Drowned Shelley’s melodramatic memorial at University College, Oxford

Europa is full of such unflinching, incisive moments, combined with a breadth of vision and dark sense of humour that few contemporary poets can match. But I worry that in so frequently denigrating his own art (ironically because he expects so much ‘achievement’ from it), O’Brien ironically runs the risk of allowing darker agencies too much influence in a culture that, for its many faults, permits a high degree of liberal civilisation. A civilisation, in the interstices of which (at the risk of sounding too complacent), pass lives of relative peace and achievement, where even art with fewer explicit political designs should be lauded and encouraged, since it too plays an ethical/political role, as if to say, ‘this is what must be protected’.

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