What Have I Been Reading: July – September 2015

Up-dated September 2015

Don Paterson’s 101 Sonnets is certainly a varied selection of the form (it strikes me it would be a good, coherent text for students to study). The editor is never short of an opinion, ranging from the good sense of “Academics, in particular, have talked an awful lot of rubbish on the subject of rhyme” to the much more questionable “the whole point of [a] poem – that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains”

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That the novelist Ursula K Le Guin should be a fan and translator of Lao Tzu’s 81 ancient poems/chapters known as the Tao Te Ching is perhaps less surprising than the fact that her translation is one of the most enjoyable around (and I’ve been reading plenty of them in preparation for my version’s appearance next Spring).

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Two chunky collecteds have been pre-occupying me in the last month or so. Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems is – by the nature of his aesthetic perhaps – uneven, but almost every page turns up new ways of writing and reading poetry: an invigorating pleasure.

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I have blogged on Bertolt Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 before – in more recent weeks I have been tracking him out of Germany, to Denmark and hence to the USA. Extraordinary how contemporary most of these poems feel, though already 60 plus years old.

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Updated August 2015

John Greening’s anthology of poems about music, Accompanied Voices (Boydell & Brewer),  is a lovely thing, full of variety, full of poems to be re-acquainted with from Hill, Hughes, Longley and Porter and brand new contemporary work including Stainer, Allnutt, O’Donoghue, Reid, Rumens, Shuttle and Greening’s own little gem on John Field (being walked all over by Chopin).

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I tweeted a couple of weeks ago that I found Carolyn Forche’s second collection, The Country Between Us (HarperPerennial, 1982) in a Highgate secondhand bookshop and having raced through the poems before going away I’m now keen to get back to them for a more reflective read.

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Tim Liardet’s poem-sequence of self-portraits, The World before Snow (Carcanet) is actually motivated and (to some degree evokes) an illicit trans-Atlantic affair. The poems have the density and intensity of Liardet’s previous work with an even greater fertility and fluency of imagination.

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On Narrowness, Claire Crowther’s third collection from Shearsman is a chewy, twisting, sometimes vertiginous read; that’s another way of saying I don’t know what’s going on half the time. But the poems are confident in themselves and leap boldly from one image to another.

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Up-dated July 2015

I find Yves Bonnefoy’s writing unfailingly nutritious though sometimes wonder if his ideas are at least as exciting as the classically restrained lexis of his verse. Beverley Bie Brahic’s 2013 translation of The Present Hour (2011) has Bonnefoy in sonnet-shaped Wordsworthian mood recalling his childhood, writing enigmatic prose pieces and a thought-provoking (because not always easy to follow) essay, ‘In a Piece of Broken Mirror’, once again discussing image, dream, reality and language.

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Perhaps is Alan Murray’s Acumen chapbook from 2013 and it quotes Nietzsche’s observation that the word ‘I’ is the point at which our ignorance begins and several poems do press at the boundaries and mysteries of the self. Murray is a philosopher as well as poet and his colloquial, skilfully turned verse sounds Larkinesque in its precision and equivocations. Great to read poems unafraid of complex ideas.

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Sheenagh Pugh’s 12th book leaves Cardiff and Wales for the Shetland Islands. Wide skies, rough oceans, bright stars. But I share her obsession with the passage of time and there are some powerful poems here, though I find her historical delvings less enjoyable.

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Collette Bryce’s ultra-brief outing (from 2014) into her childhood growing up in Derry during the Troubles is an object lesson in how to focus a collection (just 30 poems). She writes plain, rather withdrawn poems, but this seems right for the material which is therefore allowed to speak for itself.

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What Have I Been Reading: December 2014 – March 2015

Up-dated March 2015

Too little poetry-reading time recently has meant I’ve been thinking a lot about two texts we are using for A level coursework at the moment:

Tennessee Williams’ first great success, the autobiographical The Glass Menagerie, seems to strike chords in most modern teenagers and contains one of my favourite quotes: “I know I seem dreamy”, Tom says to Jim the Gentleman Caller, “but inside – well, I’m boiling!”

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This is being read alongside Sylvia Plath’s only completed novel, The Bell Jar. Plath divides students every time – poetry or prose – my one observation is that with repeated teaching the book thins rather than deepens.

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I’ve eventually got to read Colette Bryce’s recent new book, many of the poems about her childhood in Derry: short, focused, honest and managing memorable things within a very narrow linguistic palette.

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Anna Robinson’s new collection also works within a narrowed range of language choices. She produces strange folk-tale-like poems, which keep rubbing their eyes, not sure whether what they are seeing is contemporary London or some mythic rural past. Mysterious poetry.

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I’ve been dipping again into The Book of Love and Loss, eds., Rosie Bailey and June Hall (Belgrave Press, Bath, 2014), in part because I am reading from it at the end of next month at Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.

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Blake Morrsion’s Shingle Street is his first full collection since 1987 and while there are flashes of the poet I once admired (I thought Dark Glasseswas very good) the book is full of rather dull thoughts – nature, ageing – and language that fails to lift off the page.

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Up-dated February 2015

Jonathan Edwards’ Costa Poetry prize-winning first collection from Seren is as accessible and diverting as the front cover would suggest and any poet inspired to write by the Simpsons is OK with me. Whether the jokes, caricaturing, a rather sit-comy stories survive repeated reading is something I’m still debating.

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Rose Auslander’s minimalist gems are hewn out of the silences associated with her suffering in the ghetto in Czernowitz (and influenced by her friendship with Paul Celan). I am pleased to be reviewing this refreshed collection from Arc for a future Poetry London alongside Volker Braun’sRubble Flora – see below .

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Peter Robinson’s most recent Shearsman collection continues his lyric exploration of the profundities to be found just beneath the surface of the everyday.

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Mario Petrucci’s Crib from Enitharmon extends his experiments under the influence of Black Mountain. Poems sometimes stunning and economical, at others too self-consciously aware of language as an object (blocking the reader’s view). There’s certainly not much else like this around British poetry at the moment.

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Emily Berry’s poems don’t attend much to Glyn Maxwell’s concerns with the tension between black ink and white space (see:https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/08/13/the-art-of-the-line-break/). The poetry is in the connections or lack of them and therefore leans to the surreal, with some palpable hits and other dead passages.

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Up-dated January 2015

Patricia McCarthy’s chunky Agenda issue on The Great War is full of fascinating original poetry, translations and essays on French, German and Italian war poetry and reconsiderations of Edward Thomas, David Jones and Ivor Gurney among others.

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Josh Ekroy has been appearing on prize lists all over the place recently and his debut collection from Nine Arches Press is full of engaged, disturbing poems, capable of dealing with militarism and warfare:

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I’ve been reading George Oppen’s work via Louise Gluck’s admiration for him; I’m still working on it . . . .

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Debra Albery, an American friend who works at Warren Wilson, recommended this book of new poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt, full of the natural scenery of Vermont and fascinatingly eschewing all punctuation (like WS Merwin) to track the little manoeuvring negotiations of mind with world:

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Wislawa Szymborska’s chatty, deceptively easy-listening poems in this 2010 translation make poetry writing look easy and able to encompass almost any topic:

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Up-dated December 2014

Nathan Hamilton’s big baggy collection of new poetry from Bloodaxe:672e5f96e2707467131a6f685241870c

Christine Keneally’s comprehensive review of contemporary ideas on the evolution of language:m000463281_sc7

Martha Kapos’ powerful new collection from Enitharmon:Kapos_Likeness_cover_final.indd

Brilliant selected poems from German poet Volker Braun, translated by Karen Leeder and David Constantine (Seagull Books):Layout 1

Pascale Petit’s powerful and strangely lit memorial to her father (Seren):

Forward First Collections Reviewed – #2 Karen McCarthy Woolf

This is the second 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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Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet/Oxford Poets): Woolf’s website.

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Carcanet’s colourful cover image of fluttering songbirds belies the terrific freight of grief that this book carries. The poems are presented as highly autobiographical and there are actually three deaths involved: that of a friend from cancer, a mother-in-law, and the central focus is the stillbirth of the author’s son in August 2009. The very personal nature of the materials makes critical discussion difficult but, in reading the poems, I found myself thinking of T S Eliot’s observations about what he regarded as the failure of Hamlet. This is the 1919 essay in which Eliot proposes his idea of the objective correlative, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion”. The emotion is re-evoked in the reader when the objective correlative is supplied by the writer. But Eliot argues Shakespeare could never quite unearth or disentangle the true emotions which he hoped would empower the play’s chain of events of a father’s untimely death and a mother’s remarriage.

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McCarthy Woolf’s book suggests something quite the opposite in that the specific emotions and key events of the child’s death always form the underlying premise on which every single one of these poems runs. This is both a strength and a weakness. The problem can be seen in ‘The Sooty Shearwaters’ which plainly describes the birds heading out to sea to feed. Their return at night time is aided by the switching off of TVs and streetlamps so the birds can “navigate by starlight / to find their young”. The birds’ cry is unique we are told; DJs come to sample it. But what the poem gives us is a chain of events, an objective correlative, which fails to evoke a strong response unless and until the reader brings to the poem the prior knowledge of the stillborn child’s loss. Only when plugged into that does the shearwaters’ determined, instinctive return to their young (and the island population’s touching assistance to that end), really gain force.

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Also, as an exploration of the experience of grief, the book faces inevitable limitations because of the nature of the loss. There are several poems set in the acute moments surrounding the stillbirth and immediately afterwards but the majority are set sometime later (the book was six years in the making). Poems are arranged in a broadly chronological fashion and in an interesting reflection of the way a reader must keep in mind the premise of the original loss, many of the poems record the mother’s inability to move on from that same loss so that she, and the world around her, is repeatedly haunted by it. There are powerful moments here to be sure but no broadening religious dimension (Tennyson’s In Memoriam), no political thread (Tony Harrison’s The School of Eloquence), nor can there be any development (other than speculatively) about the nature of the lost one as in Hardy’s 1912 poems, Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, Anne Carson’s Nox, or Rilke’s Requiem for a Friend. The utterly tragic nature of the child’s loss in still birth imposes its own limits on the artistic response.

Nevertheless, An Aviary of Small Birds is admirably experimental in formal terms, some successful, others reading (surprisingly) like exercises carried out. For example, ‘The Museum of Best Laid Plans’ is a prose listing of the items on a bedside shelving unit, ending with a lock of infant hair. In contrast, ‘Morbleu’ takes us into the panic-stricken, semi-chaos of the delivery room, which is frighteningly conveyed through typographical layout and spacing: “ – we haven’t got – / a heart beat”. These are examples of the poems that stand up well independently, communicating fully to any reader whether in the context of this intensely-focused collection or not. Some of the best and most moving of other pieces take a markedly tangential approach to the tragic circumstances (perhaps the only way to approach such a grief). So ‘The Paperwork’ focuses on filling in a post-mortem form and makes powerful use of the tone and language of formality and administration so that one of the last options to be considered acquires, by contrast, even greater emotional weight: “Eyes not to be touched. / The doctor bites her lip, writes it in the box”. ‘The Registrar’s Office’ also manages to contain and convey its grief through indirectness as the bereaved mother, in a lightly punctuated flow and flurry of words, unburdens herself to the Registrar, but ends being more concerned about the windowless room in which the woman works. This illogical transference of the mother’s grief to a separate object is clear and credible and powerfully communicated to the reader.

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What the book does not offer in a sustained fashion is a more forensic analysis of grief, its impact and evolution; it says mainly that grief does not go away. ‘Where Steel Clatters’ is a strong poem describing a threatening-seeming landscape of whining saws, bullet holes, “a burnt-out Renault” – but the bereaved mother is unmoved by it, having learned that “the worst things happen in brash, / fluorescent rooms where steel clatters / and silence is the total absence of movement”. ‘Starlight’ is a curbed, curtailed, halting poem – as if it were weighed down by grief – expressing more directly the desire to be “away / from the gurney // and the empty metal cot”. It is perhaps through experiences with the natural world that some sort of consolation begins to be felt. ‘The Calf’ is set off the Canary Islands and makes untypical but important use of the islanders mythic belief that “the animal you need // always comes to you”. What the bereaved mother wants is to swim with a pilot whale calf, though this is “against the law”. There is a sighting from a boat: “then he’s gone // down into the dark. / Something is better than nothing.” In fact, the poem, which has surely ended here, goes on for another four lines (over a page break) and there are a few other moments where a final edit might have been considered.

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McCarthy Woolf has great empathy with the many animals in her poems and not only concerning the bird motif that runs through the collection. A dead hawk lying in a stream provides some “comfort” in a godless and faithless age; the “return to water, to the stream, to the earth” suggests some sort of cycle of life thing. And this is one of the most moving aspects of these poems of contemporary grief – the signal lack of outlets or rituals that might serve as ways of dealing with the loss. Latterly, rivers are imagined as speaking of the need to “endure” and the title poem itself redeploys the image of the lost child as a small bird in an aviary. The instinct of the natural creature, its need to be let go, is what teaches right action to the atomised, isolated, faithless individual of the mother in this book: though there is precious little evidence of moving on to be found in the collection, there is a realisation that it will be achieved only when the mother learns “to leave the door ajar”.

So: critical comment feels inappropriate at times with this book but it is presented to the reader as a poetry collection not a memoir. There is, throughout, a reaching for poetic variety not wholly matched by a variety of perspectives on the fundamental grief portrayed. There are several very powerful poems which I admire as technical achievements (given the powerful emotions from which they are derived, I don’t mean that as faint praise). But there are also a few make-weight pieces. McCarthy Woolf, whose book runs to only 63 pages, might, even so, have learned from the ultra-brevity and resultingly intense focus and consistency of a book like Colette Bryce’s The Whole and Rain-domed Universe (Picador), which weighed in last year at just 49 pages.