2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Richard Scott

This is the third in the series of reviews I am posting over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of 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 2018 shortlist is:

Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)

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311zpyQouQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The gateway to Richard Scott’s carefully structured first book is one of the most conventional poems in it. It’s a carefully punctuated, unrhymed sonnet. It is carefully placed (Public Library) and dated (1998). It’s the kind of poem and confinement Scott has fought to escape from and perhaps records the moment when that escape began: “In the library [. . .] there is not one gay poem, / not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads”. The young Scott (I’ll come back to the biographical/authenticity question in a moment) takes an old copy of the Golden Treasury of Verse and writes COCK in the margin, then further obscene scrawls and doodles including, ironically a “biro-boy [who] rubs his hard-on against the body of a // sonnet”. Yet his literary vandalism leads to a new way of reading as – echoing the ideas of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – the narrator suddenly sees the “queer subtext” beneath many of the ‘straight’ poems till he is picking up a highlighter pen and “rimming each delicate / stanza in cerulean, illuminating the readers-to-come . . .”

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It’s a moment of personal as well as lit/crit revelation, a funny poem and the flood-gates open in accordance with the Whitman epigraph to section 1 of the book: “loose the stop from your throat”. From here on, punctuation and capitalisation become rare breeds in Scott’s exploration of gay love, shame, trauma and history. It’s only 3 years since Andrew McMillan’s Physical graced the Felix Dennis shortlist but Scott’s parallel collection is far darker, more explicit and brutal (but not always at the same time) and with a fierce sense of obscured queer history and its literary canon.

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It’s an exhilarating, uneasy, accessible, relentless read. Section 1 goes some way in the bildungsroman direction. ‘le jardin secret’ declares “boys were my saplings / my whiff of green my sprouts” while ‘Fishmonger’ perhaps is set even earlier as a young boy is taken into a man’s “capable arms” in the back of his Transit van. A more aggressive and unpleasant encounter is evoked in ‘Childhood’ in which a seedy children’s entertainer (in a “caterpillar-green silk jumpsuit”) half-bullies a young boy to take him home for sex. But the poem’s perspective also suggests the child is an agent, making the decision himself: “I nodded and gingerly led him home / by the path that winds through the cemetery”. This is difficult territory (“makes for uncomfortable reading” Scott disarmingly mimics in a later poem) but erotic desire is powerfully acknowledged and (with a more caring partner) is later more satisfyingly experienced and expressed in ‘plug’ which, tenderly and very explicitly, records the moment of the loss of virginity (in fact, to a dildo).

Interestingly, the child takes the clown “through the cemetery”. Scott won the 2017 Poetry London Competition with ‘crocodile’ which also elides, blurs, even equates sex and death. The extended simile of the crocodile dragging a young man to his death is really “that man / who held me from behind / when I didn’t know sex”. The violence and destructiveness in this case is very evident but so again is the young man’s desire: “I have these moments when I / know I wanted it asked for it”. It’s in this way such poems can make for uncomfortable reading. Scott does not simplify either the allure or the destructiveness of the erotic.

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In two poems, Scott himself raises questions of authenticity. ‘Permissions’  reports, in choppy prose paragraphs, reports observations from a poetry audience, at first in admiration (“how daring how dark”), then more uneasily (“surely not this writer wasn’t”). This fragmentation evokes fleeting comments, half-finished thoughts but also an awkwardness because one of the burning questions seems to be “is the I you”. It’s as if the audience want to know if these are poems of witness, meaning of authentic biographical experience. Poems of witness also in the sense of the often traumatic nature of much of the material. ‘Admission’ is even more clear: “he asks if my poems are authentic [. . .] and by this he means have I been a victim”. In neither poem do we get a direct record of what the poet’s replies might have been and surely it hardly matters. One of the unassailable liberties of the poet is to make things up. But whether fiction or fact the resulting poem has to possess the feel of the truth and Scott’s work has this in spades.

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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

As I’ve already implied, many of the truths these poems convey are dark and shameful ones. The third section of the book is titled ‘Shame’, again quoting Sedgwick: “Shame, too, makes identity”. Here are untitled poems which make the queer pastoral of ‘le jardin secret’ rather more complex; another boy’s look or look away prompts “the hot-face / trauma the instant rash-jam” of embarrassed blush, made even more painful by a father’s verbal abuse. Elsewhere the father says, “don’t tell anyone you’re my son” and the narrator himself bitterly opposes any easy sloganizing with “the opposite of shame is not pride”. There is some support to be found in reading books by “leo / paul / mark / jean / eve / michel” and source quotes and allusions are noted in Scott’s margins here.

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Detail from the Warren Cup (BM)

It’s this very self-conscious sense of these poems appearing within a canon of queer literature and experience that jet-propels ‘Oh My Soho!’, the long concluding sequence to the book. Whitman again presides in the epigraph and in the free-wheeling, long-lined, detail-listing paean to the present, past and future of Soho itself. The narrative voice becomes a self-appointed “homo-historian” and Scott’s love of word play (which elsewhere can feel too self-conscious) here finds a suitable form and tone. The historical element takes in a discussion of the Warren Cup (in the British Museum) but is never far from subjective and exclamatory moments too. The vigorous, secretive, once-unlawful, now legal, still persecuted, lives of “homos” is noisily and slangily celebrated:

We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!

Too busy sending dick pics and I saw Saint Peter Tatchel shirtless [. . . ]

We are a long way from that library in 1998, but “normativity” remains the enemy against which Scott takes up weapons (one of which is his own body). ‘museum’ is a superbly sensual poem, expressive of a man’s desire for the damaged male body of a Classical statue. Here normativity re-appears in the “giggling pointing prodding” of a family also viewing the statue; their ridicule is self-transferred to the gay man who stands observing in silence. The persecutions pursued in the name of normativity are also disturbingly clear in ‘Reportage’, the reports being of the immolation of a gay man somewhere in Europe. And Scott’s own revolutionary and erotic zeal are unforgettably conveyed in the poem opening “even if you fuck me all vanilla”, going on with characteristically explicit descriptions of the ironically, self-consciously, unprovocatively, vanilla-ish act, he still declares at the climactic finish, “napalm revolution fuck- / ing anarchy we are still dangerous faggots”.

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Richard-Scott

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) – reviewed here

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.

 

 

 

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5: Harry Giles

This is the fifth and final installment in the series of reviews I have been posting of the collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy Campbell – Disko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book

Ron Carey – Distance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book

Harry Giles – Tonguit (Freight Books)

Ruby Robinson – Every Little Sound (Liverpool University Press) – click here for my review of this book

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book

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Thanks to Freight Books for providing a copy of Harry Giles’ book for review purposes.

I’d only come across Harry Giles’ work as a Guardian featured poem in June in response to his Forward short-listing. The chosen poem was ‘Piercings’ and suggested Giles was working the same area that Andrew McMillan did so successfully last year. What might be an autobiographical masculine narrative voice recognises a passer-by as an old encounter: “four years since / he hauled me into a lift with / Want to make out?” But the man had then been sporting various body piercings which have since been removed in order to become “employable, less obvious” whereas the narrator has continued making “more holes”, continued to accumulate the badges of a rebelliousness the other has given up on. The final question, “So what do you do now?” is therefore made poignantly redundant, each, surely, reading the tell-tale signs of the other’s body.

But ‘Piercings’ is by far the most conventional poem in Tonguit and Giles is no McMillan, nor does he want to be. On the facing page is a poem made from extracts from One Direction’s Harry Styles’ fanfiction. The title, ‘Slash poem in which Harry Giles meets Harry Styles’, gives a feel for its playfulness though the poem itself does not seem to amount to much. Perhaps it amounts to more if read in the context of Giles’ other manipulations of texts and discourses which have a more obviously seditious intent. The last poem in the collection offers ‘Further Drafts’ of a phrase often used by Alistair Gray: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. Giles works various rhyming turns on the first and last words of this phrase eventually to arrive at “lurk as if you live in the early days of a better sedition”. It’s ‘Harry Styles’, manufactured pop idol and X Factor/Simon Cowell cash cow, that is the real target of Giles’ poem (though it lurks with some seditious intent, it’s still not among his best).

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Giles is interested in the processing of texts, sampling from George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, or creating cut-up texts from information associated with Abu Dhabi’s artificial island and cultural centre, ‘Saadiyat’.  The satirical effects are delivered through simple repetition and disjunction, questioning the original source’s coherence and integrity, where ecological sustainability becomes “a core value integrated into the design approach / in terms of throughout the the the concept design” [sic]. ‘You Don’t Ever Have to Lose’ does something similar with advertising text from IT services company Atos. ‘Your Strengths’ is a more powerful text in its own right, this time using source material from the Department of Work and Pensions Capability Assessment, the UK Citizenship Test and other psychometric tests to make a thunderous barrage of questions ranging from the invasive, absurd, profound, squirm-inducing and piddling to the politically loaded. Giles also works textual legerdemain in ‘Sermon’, based on a speech by David Cameron in which the word “terrorism” is replaced by the word “love”:

 

We must make it impossible

for lovers to succeed. We need to argue

that love is wrong. To belong here

is to believe in these things.

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This processing of texts, often randomly, often derived from the internet or Google searches, sometimes with editorial influence in the final result is presented as politically subversive. As the Tonguit blurb suggests, it derives from the belief that we are all warped and changed by the language/s that surround us and inhabit us. The hope of the lyric poet working towards his/her own truth is devalued, considered delusional, impossibly bound up in Blake’s socio-psycho-political “mind-forged manacles”. We liberate ourselves by breaking these, unpicking or smashing the dominating discourses around us. And if our deliberate intention is already suspect then we must achieve it randomly, perhaps via a machine. It’s a form of surrealism which profoundly questions our use of language and owes a lot to the Oulipian experiments of Raymond Queneau. Giles’ collection title, Tonguit, productively seems to hover between an urgent imperative to individual vocalisation – tongue it! – and more passive implications about the way other people’s language/s oppress the individual – we have been tongued!

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The more imperative mood is obvious in ‘Curriculum’ which takes aim at normative education and gives it both barrels:

 

Mix me a metaphor of noble gases,

economic engines and avant-garde

taxonomies, with Kingdom Phylum Order

gone to bloody Dada. Get down and dirty

 

with transects, quadrants.

 

There is a Wildean element to this sort of systematic over-turning though there is no doubt about Giles’ seriousness beneath the often funny, ludic quality of these poems and there is none of Wilde’s self-regarding quality. Harry Giles himself – as a recognisable, recurring, coherent, autobiographical figure – is curiously absent from most of these poems though I don’t doubt the sincerity of a poem like ‘Waffle House Crush’:

 

I’ll have you smothered n covered

diced n peppered n

capped n lathered n

lustred n smoothed n

spread

 

Giles’ various linguistic masks don’t hide so much as free him into more liberated forms of expression. I’ve deliberately not yet mentioned his most obvious, deliberately chosen mode of expression: what he calls his own “mongrel and magpie” form of Scots. Dave Coates has pointed out that, as in Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, Giles provides no glosses in the book on his particular Scots, “an implicit assertion of the language’s place within the broader spectrum of Englishes”. Giles’ Scots sets itself deliberately against discourses like those of the DWP and Atos as a declaration of variousness. Nor is he averse to something like a declaration of war:

 

Let’s be arsonists. Let’s birn the year.

[. . .]

Let’s mak like airtists

n birn the leebrars [libraries] acause we shoudna, n birn

Pairlament acause we shoud.

 

What follows is an apocalyptic conflagration of all things, down to the “thocht o fire”.

But the sheer vigour of Giles’ intent means his Scots is a lot harder to follow than Jamie’s. In fact, he does provide his readers with a full gloss/translation on his website. I needed this to be honest to deal with a lot of the Scots text, though the ‘translations’ then read as somewhat awkward, watered down versions of a quite different language (rather than a form of English). But it is worth the effort to really appreciate the tour de force of national- and self-assertion that is ‘Brave’. Like some Highland Whitman, making himself and his nation through singing (I’m losing some of the lay-out here):

 

A sing o google Scotland

o laptop Scotland,

o a Scotland sae dowf on [dulled by] bit-torrentit HBO

drama series n DLC packs fer

paistapocalyptic RPGs

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But also the Scotland “whit chacks the date o Bannockburn on Wikipaedia” and fears “o wan day findin oot / juist hou parochial aw hits cultural references mey be”. ‘The Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ takes all the clichés that phrase might suggest and instead describes a man who “has thay lang white scairs on / baith sides o his mooth fae smiling that damn wide” (my italics). This is of a piece with the Cameron subversion as we hear that the man is “that bluidy haird he’s a hairt tattoed wi Dulux on his bicep n aw hit says is A LUV YE”. There’s a risk of this getting as caricatured as the cliché it intends to subvert but Giles’ Scots is put to terrific seditious intent in ‘Tae a Cooncillor’ – a kind of one-sided flyting in which the local councillor who wants to close down a swimming pool is mocked mercilessly:

 

Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart,

whit unco warld maks ye wir maister?

Whit glamour has ye risin fest as

projectile boak?

Hit’s time tae gie yer feechie fouster [nasty fester]

an honest soak.

 

This is committed, bolshie, rebel-script done with great skill and immense energy but Harry Giles is too interested in too much to settle merely for this. I was interested in his Scots (or rather specifically Orcadian) versions of a few chapters of the Laozi’s Daodejing. He astutely titles these ‘Aald rede fir biggin a kintra’ [Old advice for building a country] again recalling Alistair Gray’s dictum. The opacity of the language makes Giles’ versions a hard read but (if I may) here’s his boldly economical version of chapter 53 (some indentations lost here again) followed by my own recently published version:

 

53

a bit wittins

whan waakan the wey

are a rod tae dree

 

the wey is snod

an fock cheust fancy the ramse

 

govrenment divided

sheens growen-up

kists empie

but heidyins’ claes are braa

thay’ve barrie blads

are stecht wi maet

gey rowthie

 

caa this the darg o reivers

an no the wey

 

Crooked avenue

chapter 53

 

—perhaps you have begun well

one step after another along the way

 

yet you walk in fear of side-tracks

the great way running level and plain

 

still who can resist those side-tracks

soon as good governance is in place

 

we’re liable to neglect our business

too soon the tall barns lie empty

 

sooner wear fashionable clothes heels

daggers for glances glut on food and booze

 

have more than we can sensibly use—

dawn breaks on some crooked avenue

 

what was it happened to the way

 

Tonguit is a bubbling cauldron of a book, willing to take risks that don’t always come off, but guided by a belief in the need to challenge the assumptions and languages of the status quo. Harry Giles is a fascinating figure (go to his website here ) and his characterisation of his Scots as “magpie” is as much applicable to his multifaceted work in theatre, software, twitterbots and visual arts, all forms of “art about protest and protest about art”. Whether contemporary poetry, as in books like this one, will prove sufficiently interesting and flexible for his creativity remains to be seen.

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Two Great Days at StAnza Poetry

Writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words – Charles Simic

I arrived at about 8pm on the Friday evening. Leuchars station is not close to St Andrews itself and (it made me feel at home) there were roadworks disrupting the usual route so instead of 5 miles it was a 10 mile trip. Actually, it was dark and I had no idea where I was so I’m just quoting the chatty taxi driver here – who also lamented the decline in business in recent years. Lack of local money generally he said and the changing habits of students who go out less, pre-drink more and choose to stumble home rather than call his cab. We waited a few minutes for Pascale Petit’s train to arrive. She’d been travelling for 12 hours (from Cornwall) which made my 5 hour train ride feel like nothing much. Unpacking, I reflected north is a very long way north.

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I was staying at the Greyfriars Hotel but walked up to the Byre Theatre on Abbey Street, the main Festival venue. The headline reading for the evening was Lemn Sissay (who I’d just missed) followed by Don Paterson. I arrived at the interval and the talk at the bar was of a local heckler interrupting Sissay. I never got to hear how he dealt with it but it seemed to say something about the tone of this festival that there was as much talk about inclusion as there was annoyance at the interruption. The auditorium was sold out (typical of this StAnza while I was there – you needed to book your event fast). I had no ticket but Jim Carruth took me to the studio theatre to a live relay of what remained of the event. Paterson read mostly from 40 Sonnets including ‘Here’, ‘Wave’, ‘A Powercut’, ‘Little Aster’ and the curiously moving death-of-a-dog poem ‘Mercies’. He also read aphorisms from an iPad and I remember ‘Poetry is not a vocation but a diagnosis’. And (one for his students, he said) ‘If a poem is read slowly enough we begin to hear things – which – are – not – there’.

I was woken by seagulls in the grey dawn and through a gap in the Greyfriars curtains I could make out a CCTV camera on its right-angled gantry across the road, white and intent and about the size of a large gull. Perhaps I was dreaming. I was reading next morning with Tracey Herd in St John’s Undercroft, a long brick-arched room, with a great acoustic and atmospherically lit. Andrew Jackson generously introduced us and I read most of my A Hatfield Mass sequence which I think of as celebratory poetry about nature, perception, growing up/older, the body. Tracey’s book Not In This World was a PBS Choice and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize this year and is her first collection for 14 years. She did not read those poems about film stars or racehorses for which she’s justly renowned but powerful, recent poems of loss: “Somewhere, someone much loved is leaving”.

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I was also reading in the afternoon at a ‘Past and Present’ event – where poets talk on writers from the past. This was the first occasion (in the Council Chamber of St Andrews’ Town Hall – where marriages are performed we were told) at which I could read some of my new, just-off-the-press versions of the Daodejing. Pascale Petit was also appearing and she talked about her enthusiasm for Tomas Transtromer, in particular the way in which his poems often use an aerial perspective; from his first published poem: “Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams”. I’m sure she said she’d consulted a Swedish friend who said his surname meant something like crane-over-water – ornithological crane obviously.

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Later in the afternoon, at the Parliament Hall, Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan read. Benson was nervous in front of the large crowd (and who can blame her) but she was soon absorbed in the poetry itself and her demeanour was not at odds with the work. Sections of ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ (Van Gogh) were read with great intensity. Other poems of pregnancy, miscarriage, birth and motherhood were more moving and (as Dave Coates has suggested) her book’s up-beat title, Bright Travellers, misleads. The contrast with McMillan was not to either poet’s detriment. I reviewed physical on this blog back in July 2015 and his (in various senses) naked poems, even when sad, manage to stir great pleasure in the audience. In person, he adds to this a wise-cracking, witty style of introduction and between-poem chat. Given his marvellous success this year I wasn’t sure why he wanted to discuss some of the negative criticisms he’s had but even that does not prevent me wanting to use that old Hollywood term ‘star’ in listening to McMillan perform.

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Nora Gomringer

It was another sell-out in the Byre Theatre on Saturday evening with an event indicative of the Director, Eleanor Livingstone’s innovative approach to programming (and part of the German poetry emphasis to this year). Nora Gomringer performed work (with percussionist Philipp Scholz) which reminded me at moments of Laurie Anderson, at others of the much-missed Bob Cobbing (who I saw read/sing in London in the 1980s), at all times evoking a jazz-like improvised feel. Quite brilliant. Jo Shapcott had the tricky job of following this and chose to read a number of ‘The Roses’ poems from Tender Taxes, her responses to Rilke’s poems in French. These are a bit delicate and brief to come over very strongly in a live reading and other new poems on pain (but without mentioning the word) I found not easy to appreciate. But the brilliant prose poem ‘Scorpion’, the touching ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ and the finisher, ‘Piss Flower’ ended the evening in style.

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I had a train to catch next day but managed to get to stride along the Chariots of Fire beach early in the morning plus take a peek at St Andrews Old Course before the Poetry Breakfast discussion on translation. Diplomatically and informally chaired by Annie Rutherford, the theme emerged that we ought to think more loosely, more liberally about the idea of translation.  Aurelia Maurin suggested we should think of it more  as we do cover versions of songs. Claudia Daventry opened the field up by quoting Charles Simic’s idea that all poems are translations from silence. Nora Gomringer remembered a professor urging her to find ‘the game’ of any poem she intended to translate not merely to work line by line. She’d been asked to translate Yoko Ono’s poems into German but felt unable to and the importance of the rightness of a translator to a source text was demonstrated when, on another occasion, she’d translated from Russian (I think) and had actually been spat at by a disapproving reader. I was struck – as before – by what powerful emotions the idea of translation stirs up, involved as it is with ideas of truth, honesty and fidelity. I especially liked Daniela Seel’s take on the process, stressing the almost chance meeting of suitable translator with appropriate source text and the way in which the linguistic and emotional ‘body’ of the translator (his/her resources) need to be matched to the varied demands of the source text.

But I had to catch my train and, though exhausted, I spent some of the six hours back re-reading Montale’s loving lament and memorial to his wife, Drusilla Tanzi, here translated by G. Singh:

With my arm in yours I have descended at least a million stairs,

And now that you aren’t here, a void opens at each step.

Even so our long journey has been brief.

Mine continues still [. . . ]

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Montale and Drusilla

Forward First Collections: Some Early Results 2015/2014

The 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for Best First Collection (with its £5000 cheque) will be awarded finally on 28th September. I have been reviewing the shortlisted books this summer as follows:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

Who will win?  I can give you what blog-mathematics tells me and I can give you my own modest opinion and I can give you a prediction of who I think might be picked by the judges who are A L Kennedy (Chair), Colette Bryce, Carrie Etter, Emma Harding & Warsan Shire.

  1. Judging merely by hits on the reviews on this blog (statistically wholly unreliable) the winner will be Andrew McMillan – agreed this might just reflect the fact that he and his supports are more social media savvy than others but I suspect it reveals an real interest in his work out there. (And for completists among you, the remaining rank order was then Arshi, Howe, Siegel, McCarthy Woolf).
  2. Who do I think should win? All five books have been hung on topic-hooks by their publishers (illness, ancestry, cultural difference, sexuality, miscarriage) though only Howe and McMillan really justify this as complete volumes. It’s a sign of the need to market a book these days and I’m sure this trend will grow more powerful though I don’t think it’s a great idea for either writer or reader (is it an appeal to the ‘general’ reader?). But the ground being broken by McMillan has been thoroughly ploughed by his (acknowledged) hero Thom Gunn and Howe’s cross-cultural explorations and formal experiments I find interesting but not necessarily volume-coherent. My favoured book was actually the American one, Blood Work by Matthew Siegel which I thought was a wonderfully coherent, moving, funny and achieved collection (despite being a first book). So he’s my pick – and I’ll be wrong on the night!
  3. Who will the judges choose? McMillan – that combination of (sufficient) controversy and accessibility.

Whoever it is in the end, congratulations to them and to all the shortlisted poets.  It’s been a feast and thanks to those who have been following my travels through these books.

As a final footnote, in October last year (somewhat after the event, I confess), I reviewed Liz Berry’s winning first collection and as a bit of context I’ll post that again below. For the record, I think her book is better than any of this year’s five.

Liz Berry, Black Country (Chatto Poetry, 2014)

If a reputation can be earned through the writing of half a dozen poems of real worth then Liz Berry has probably already written them, earning her place in the landscape of early 21st century British poetry. Her debut collection (containing 14 poems from the earlier chapbook The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls (tall-lighthouse, 2010) has charm, accessibility and a humour that belies the serious ways in which she exerts pressure to counter the hegemonies of language, gender, locality, even of perception. Berry is a teacher by profession and will, no doubt, have equivocal feelings about her work appearing in classrooms – but it will rapidly and rightfully find a place there.

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We resist what tries to define and suffocate us in part by declaring who we are. Berry’s confident, natural, even uninhibited use of her own Black Country dialect is one of the most superficially striking things about this book. Against “hours of elocution”, she opts for “vowels ferrous as nails, consonants // you could lick the coal from” (‘Homing’). Variously her grandmother and mother influence her in this and, in ‘The Sea of Talk’, her father also urges her never to forget the place of her birth with “its babble never caught by ink or book”. The definition of a community against the pull of a conventional linguistic centre is explicit here. Her grandmother is a frequent role model and the growing girl studies “her careful craft”. “Right bostin fittle”, the older woman declares (ie. great food – brains, trotters, groaty pudding) and the budding poet willingly touches her “lips to the hide of the past” to inherit the authentic gift.

Other poems, making it clear that locality is as much a component of who we are, record and celebrate the Black Country as “a wingless Pegasus” composed of scrub, derelict factories, disused coal shafts, yet still a “gift from the underworld” whose nature and fate is enough literally to make grown men weep (‘Black Country’). Berry takes huge pleasure in enumerating the details of her locale. “Come wi’ me, bab, wum Tipton-on-Cut” invites one poem which then takes a tour of waterways, allotments, parks, mosques, steelworks and canals (‘Tipton-On-Cut’). Similarly, ‘Christmas Eve’ seems to improvise from the great concluding paragraphs of Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, using the ubiquitous fall of snow to lead the reader across the landscape of Beacon Hill, Bilston and Molineux.

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We elude being imposed on and defined by others by changing. This, for me, is the more profound aspect of Berry’s work; so many poems unfold as processes of self-transformation. A mark of the book’s self-confidence can be found in ‘Bird’ which announces this motif of liberation: “When I became a bird, Lord, nothing could stop me”. Here, it is the mother’s voice urging, “Tek flight, chick, goo far fer the winter”. In keeping with this, the poems display a formal variety – free verse, short-lined quatrains, couplets, tercets, ballad forms, punctuation comes and goes. This is further reinforced by Berry’s bold, category-dissolving imagination which instinctively reaches for metamorphic possibilities. In ‘Birmingham Roller’ the escapee is a bird again, “jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting”; people become dogs, trees, pigs, fade to mere echoes, girls become boys. The donning of a pair of red shoes invigorates, eroticises: “rubies that glistened up a dress, / flushed thighs with fever” (‘The Red Shoes’).

Sexuality features so prominently in Black Country in part because of its potential for transgressive energy. I’m sure ‘Sow’ is anthology-bound with its “farmyardy sweet” female narrator, rejecting external definitions (“I’ve stopped denying meself”), accepting her true nature as a “guzzler, gilt. / Trollopy an’ canting”. This is a real tour de force of dialect, imaginative transformation and downright feminist self-realisation that “the sow I am / was squailin an’ biting to gerrout”, even daring the reader to “Root yer tongue beneath / me frock an’ gulp the brute stench of the sty”. Berry’s power of imaginative transformation is so powerful that the book creates mythic figures at will: the sow girl, the Black Country pegasus, the patron saint of school girls, Carmella the hairdresser, the Black Delph bride, the last lady ratcatcher. ‘Fishwife’ presents another of these figures like something from a quasi-pornographic Grimm’s tales. Attending a 17 year old girl’s wedding, she brings the gift of oysters, erotic energy, transgressive flirtation, power and ultimately pleasure:

                                            I slipped
from my bare skin
alive oh alive         all tail           all fin
how the tide tossed
until alive ohhh alive
the waves flung my shining body        upon the rock

She kisses the bride with “her tongue a plump trout” and other poems also resist categories to the extent of a sensation of gender-bending, or more accurately gender neutrality. I’ve already mentioned the girl who becomes a boy. ‘Trucker’s Mate’ reads like a homosexual “romance” and ‘In the Steam Room’ positively drips with sexuality – but of an explicitly “sexless” kind in which “any body / might give you pleasure”. ‘The Silver Birch’ achieves the extraordinary feat of evoking “sex [. . .] before sex” (eroticism before gender), “when I was neither girl or boy [. . .] a sheaf / of unwritten-upon paper”.

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With so much dissolution of the normative, Berry dallies with the surreal and there can be dangers if the work does not also bear a weight of darkness. A poet like Tomaz Salamun writes in the tradition of Rimbaud’s systematic disorganisation of the senses, but combines, as Ed Hirsch suggests, “exuberant whimsy and fierce rebellion” to resist too easy a relationship with the pressures of the real. Happily, Black Country encompasses some richly productive tensions between the real and imagined, home and away, past and future, conformity and rebellion, sex and death. The latter rises to the surface through the middle of the book in poems like ‘The Bone Orchard Wench’, ‘Echo’ and the murder ballad ‘The Black Delph Bride’, acknowledging that the traffic between real and imagined contains plenty of irresolvable grit, impossible to wish away in any facile manner.

The collection concludes in more plainly autobiographical terms with the approach of the birth of a child and perhaps there is less imaginative pressure here, a risk of sentiment, “waiting [. . .] for the little creature that grew inside me”. Nevertheless, in reviewing first collections it’s traditional to look forward to achievements to come but this is inappropriate with Black Country simply because there is so much confidence, focus, shapeliness, already achieved uniqueness. Rather, this is a poet whose work presently demands our admiration. Oh yes . . . and what about those half dozen or so poems of real worth? I’d suggest ‘Bird’, ‘Bostin Fittle’, ‘Black Country’, ‘Tipton-On-Cut’, ‘The Silver Birch’, ‘Sow’, ‘Fishwife’. You’ll hear more of these in years to come.

Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Andrew McMillan

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); author’s website here.
Article from The Independent on Andrew McMillan here.

A man’s torso, from just below the shoulder to half-way down the rounded buttocks, tastefully lit from the back to catch the curves, his left hand visible clutching (quite hard) his own right flank. It’s sexy and lonely and longing and anonymous. It’s a bit Fifty Shades but Cape Poetry’s cover image does say something about Andrew McMillan’s first full collection, though it’s too confining. It’s the sort of sharply targeted thing marketing people come up with and the author (who is achieving cleanly-shaped, clear, bold things in terms of subject-matter and form) may squirm at.

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But the image is flauntingly male (and happily the skin blemishes have not been air-brushed) and what it is to be a man is certainly one of McMillan’s concerns. In ‘strongman’ a nephew wants to be bench-pressed by the male narrator and (even from the young child) this is a clear challenge as “his mother’s lover” often does it, the boy has declared the narrator’s boyfriend “illegal” and he brings with him the freight of traditional masculine values: “his dad’s voice and jaw”. The narrator obliges “because / what is masculinity if not taking the weight // of a boy and straining it from oneself?” It’s not just the bench-press requiring careful balance here in the close masculine contact, the show of strength, the carefully maintained distance in the preposition “from”. The inculcation of traditional male values starts early as in ‘The Schoolboys’ who clamber onto a bus, all bulge and muscle and “sprints of growth”, wrestling “to impress the girls”. The poem ‘things men take’ is one of McMillan’s lists, articulating a more adult version of this: they take “the room above the ceiling / the better pay the jobs / your space at the bar”. But it’s with a poem like ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ that we begin to see this poet’s determination to challenge the status quo in its brief fantasy of male affectiveness: “their hearts have grown too big / for their chests their chests have grown too big / for their shirts [. . . ] they are crying in the toilet”. There is real humour here as the gym is turned from a place of physical exercise to a place where emotions are released and flexed, a re-definition of those traditional ideas of ‘strength’: “they don’t hear / the thousands of tiny fracturings / needed to build something stronger”.

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But masculinity as in what it is to be a gay man in love is even more central to physical. A definition of love emerges at the end of one poem which begins with awkward fears of (literally) bumping into men in a urinal, causing spillage, splash, a turning, the revelation: “neither of us will look / or he’ll look at me avoiding looking / feigning interest in the hard cream tiles”. This is funny again though halfway through the bluntly titled ‘urination’, McMillan considers the privacy and intimacy of “the toilet”, the poem lifting into praise of waking to hear (and smell) a lover pissing “the morning’s pale yellow loss” into the toilet “and take the whole of him in your hand / and feel the water moving through him”. Such intimacy of contact is one of the provisional definitions of love: “the prone flesh / what we expel from the body and what we let inside”. Poems that explore the physicality of the male body make this book remarkable, even given McMillan’s acknowledged debt to Thom Gunn. Much after the pattern of ‘urination’, ‘yoga’ begins with the physical stretching and breathing of the class, but shades seamlessly into a love-making which echoes the breath, control, weightlessness and absence of “judgement” in the discipline of yoga. ‘Saturday night’ takes lines from Gunn’s poem of that name this time to explore a more roaming, disjointed experience of love and sexuality. The rule of ‘Boss Cupid’ is no more reliable than in the straight world, of course, and McMillan gives us other images of sleeping with “Thom night after night / open at the spine”, rather than any flesh and blood lover. And ‘screen’ imagines how even a gay porn star, so perfect and capable on screen, in real life “without direction” struggles to express himself, “stopping mid kiss pulling back mumbling”.

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As my quotes suggest, McMillan abandons most punctuation in these poems, using only line and stanza breaks and long spaces to create pauses and some sense of syntactical form. This works well – it doesn’t for me interrupt or confuse at all – and contributes to the often passionate flow of the poems. It’s hard to convey this in short quotes but ‘choke’, running for just 22 lines, takes us rapidly through a relationship break up, weeping, talking, loving and next day reflections, managing to evoke the agitation, fluidity of feelings, and final resolve “to tough it out” and the lack of pointing is part of this success. Elsewhere, the flow and even blurring achieved syntactically is just right for the loss of self-consciousness associated with sexual pleasure.

Jacob and the Angel - Epstein
Jacob and the Angel – Jacob Epstein

What is interesting is that beside the passionate and “carnal” (Michael Symmons Roberts) nature of much of this book and alongside Thom Gunn as mentor and role model, McMillan also name-checks C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The opening poem of the book portrays gay sexuality with Jacob wrestling the angel and I’ve mentioned the paralleling in ‘yoga’ and those beefy men crying in the gym are said to have “God” entering them as they weep. Furthermore, ‘revelations’ argues that each subsequent love is only a searching for the first, “in the manner of the humble saints who make / the worship of a nameless god relatable”. Each lover is renamed, Saint Gavin Saint Ged Saint Unknown / of Manchester Bedsit”. Humour is used here but it hardly disguises the poet’s interest in the more spiritual implications of the physicality his poems work so hard to evoke. This religious sensibility emerges in the brief foray, moving from Eros towards Thanatos, in poems in the third part of the book. The deaths of a grandfather and a young girl strike a very different note and suggest that McMillan may have found in Gunn not merely ways to explore his own sexuality in verse but also (from early Gunn) that existential sense, so wonderfully expressed in ‘On the Move’ (1957), that movement (whether on a motor bike or in bed) is at least one way towards self-definition: “astride the created will / They burst away [. . . ] Reaching no absolute in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still”.

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Thom Gunn

There is something of this in the final poem of physical. Ironically titled ‘finally’, it evokes a new morning in “the xylophone / of sunthroughblinds”, but the lover is gone, not to return and the poet is like the birds who, though it hasn’t rained, pretend that it has, so “they can sing”. Earlier, the longer sequence ‘protest of the physical’ noted “there is beauty in the ordinary” but this is a pallid observation in contrast to this poet’s determination towards self-definition through loving, through singing when the loving is over.

In a collection full of humour and sadness alongside the plain-spoken eroticism, I really like what McMillan is doing with the fluidity of his form. I don’t think the longer sequence ‘protest of the physical’ is as good as the other sections of the book (I believe it preceded them in terms of date written) but here is a really talented and bold writer and I can see further areas of exploration opening up and it will be exciting to follow him there.

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Forward First Collections Reviewed – #1 Mona Arshi

This is the first in a series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

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Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) Mona Arshi’s webpage

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Despite the ironic lack of capaciousness implied by its title, Small Hands is a brimming miscellany of poems. Many of them suggest interesting growing points for the future, but Sathnam Sanghera’s claim that Arshi is “Britain’s most promising writer” and Moniza Alvi’s talk of “genius” is premature and liable to drag the reputation of blurb-writing even deeper into the mire. A trying-on of various recognisable styles or voices is expected of any first book, compiled as they usually are over years awaiting a publisher’s call, but Arshi’s arrival at a full collection has been swift. Publicity suggests she only turned from a profession in law to poetry around 2008. It’s for this reason that her influences (Alvi, Petit and Khalvati most obviously, perhaps Emily Berry) are so clear.

Two early poems in the book allude to the idea of catastrophe. ‘Practising Your Skills’ faces an accusation about a “tendency to catastrophise everything” and this also emerges in ‘Bad Day in the Office’ where the narrator is trying not to regard rainfall as “catastrophic”. These instances may be ‘character’ points but such a ramping or ratchetting up of the ordinary is often evident elsewhere in the book and tends to caricature, a dramatic arc-lighting, unexpected (literally cata-stropic) links between disparate ideas or images and hence a love of listing: in other words, forms of surrealism. This is something Arshi has spoken about, regarding and admiring poetry as a discourse utterly counter to the kind of language-use she once employed in the law. So ‘The Lion’ is out of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber via Pascale Petit and evokes a strange relationship between a woman and an older man. It’s a powerfully disturbing poem because the male figure is accorded such power, language, sensuality, wisdom and a sort of droit de seigneur over the female narrator who seems disinclined to question the set up. As with several of the quasi-pornographic pieces by Sam Riviere, the critical question here is where lies the irony? Hard to tell, especially as this is the book’s opener.

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Arshi’s somewhat whimsical surrealism is better seen in her portraits of female figures alone. ‘Cousin Migrant’ is a visitant “from the skies” as well as a paradox (“her arms are thin as margins yet she can lift my children / with ease”). The Cousin’s transgressive – or more accurately, indefinable qualities – are conveyed clearly, humourously, the narrator, in contrast, is nothing more than “a storm in a tea-cup”. The confines or otherwise of female lives are treated in more conventional poetic form in the object and memory piece, ‘The Gold Bangles’, evoked as a cultural inheritance of value though the narrator prefers to think of their owner’s wrists before the gift, “still unadorned and naked”. As here, there are several other poems that draw on Arshi’s background, born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London. ‘Jesus Saves’ is also a more conventional poem of childhood memory, on this occasion hearing a racist speaker in 1979, on Hounslow High Street, “long after Enoch”. But elsewhere, Arshi prefers to construct enigmatic poems, hovering just beyond the edge of anything one might regard as a clear and present body of evidence. This is especially so in what seem to be ‘relationship’ poems like ‘Entomological Specimens’, ‘Practising Your Skills’ or ‘Insomniac’ which cryptically advises: “Never marry an insomniac. You will have / to mind yourself”.

At the centre of the book are several poems about the tragic loss of Arshi’s brother, Deepak, at the age of 41. These poems are moving and suggest contrasting aspects of her work: deep levels of tact and restraint. Moving through the experiences of learning of his death and the family’s adjustment to his loss in slant poems about a phone call, practical details of the mourning process, officialdom, the family garden, the urn, the loss still feels raw and unresolved and there will be more poems to come on this topic I’m sure.

Mona Arshi

The other prominent and enjoyable aspect of Arshi’s work is its sensuality and awareness of the body; this is a collection full of hands, feet, mouths, lips, eyes, wrists, hair and, ubiquitously, skin. In ‘Lost Poem’ she talks of “taking in language / through my skin” and there is a clear project developing here in that, at their best, these poems unfold through a language of the senses rather than the intellect. Elsewhere, Arshi writes of wanting to “sequester” and “foreignate” words, de-familiarising them, wresting them away from conventional denotation. I first heard her read aloud when she won the Magma Poetry Competition in 2011 with the ghazal-like poem, ‘Hummingbird’, here tucked away at the back of the book. I now read that poem against ‘The Lion’ and this is the one I prefer for its originality. The narrative voice (undefined) addresses the ‘you’ which is mostly the hummingbird itself, though as with ‘The Lion’ the creature is also interchangeably / metaphorically human. The tender, persuasive imperatives almost immediately carry an erotic charge, though where the “fingers” probe and slip is mostly into “spaces”, lacunae. But the hummingbird figure has none of the over-bearing masculinity of the lion; we are told it is capable of “curing”, dissolving, even pronouncing the speaker. But the speaker here is not as passive and compliant as in the earlier poem. Though she will allow him/her to open the “bone-zip of my spine”, the insistence of her voice gives her an active role in the relationship. The hummingbird is invited to “anoint” the speaker, a significant contrast to the shallowness of the lion’s crude “undressing”. (Arshi discusses this poem on the Magma website here)

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George Szirtes’ rather more restrained blurb observations suggest that he reads in Arshi’s work an “erotics of the spirit”. Without doubt, ‘The Hummingbird’ is a sexy, enigmatic, yet precisely expressed poem that is going to repay our re-reading of it. And if that is not the case with many other poems in Small Hands we should not be surprised. Arshi combines a liking for obliqueness, sometimes even coolness, with a desire to push what language can do and a willingness to experiment with form. Her cultural background is relatively unexplored here, yet promises much if that is the way she wishes to go. Not a winner of the 2015 Forward First Book award for me, but an intriguing writer, potentially a unique voice if she can achieve the right distance between herself and her powerful formative influences.