2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2 – Phoebe Power

This is the second 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)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)
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Its publisher, Carcanet, describes Phoebe Power’s debut collection like this: “Wandering in central Europe, a traveller observes and records a landscape”. I guess this is meant to conjure the rootlessness and identity-angst of a modern Euro-existentialist but, for me, Shrines of Upper Austria, too often reads like the jottings of a year-abroad student. The posture is almost always of the naif – impressed, even a bit bewildered by the strangeness she finds, yet she tries hard to absorb and/or be absorbed into the foreign culture yet manages little more than a tourist’s view (if one with a striking ability to ventriloquise and a remote familial backstory in that country).

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An Austrian shrine

Power raises the humble note or jotting to an ars poetica, often collaging together such “brief records of points, usually used as an aide memoire” into disjointed sequences which don’t gather much cumulatively or possess much divinable direction. One of these has a protagonist in a café, his right hand on the “open pages of an empty notepad”. It’s not the author, of course, but the distanced observation this image implies is what the book mostly offers. Simply because what is being described has a European setting does not make ‘fasching’, for example, very interesting: “at Elli’s schmankerlstube it’s all / drinking and bosners” (End notes translate for us where required: here, a carnival before Lent; a snack bar; a type of sausage). The poem begins with these two lines of verse then resorts to prose for a couple of short paragraphs. There’s drinking, dancing, children, teachers, music and a “multicoloured snake or train of people tooting its bells and flute, curving down the road beneath the green banks and a big sky, the mountains”. I can see such a passage in many a poet’s notebook but the clichés and obvious word choices surely need more working up? And if the improvisatory quality is the point, then I wish the brief apercu had a good deal more striking ‘apercevoir’ about it. Likewise, an ekphrastic poem, ‘children’, baldly describes an Egon Schiele painting while trying to get a bit more emotional leverage with frequent exclamation marks.

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Egon Schiele: ‘Stadtende’

The note-taker in the café, appears in the poem sequence, ‘Austrian Murder Case’, which reads like a series of (prose) screenplay notes for an all-too familiar Scandi-noir that the director has torn the best bits out of: a dull quotidian town, a moody disengaged observer, lumpen exposition from the pension owner, a woman’s dismembered body in suitcases in a lake, her husband, the murderer, does himself in at the same time. The note-taking protagonist walks away having gained some “insight into one dramatic story” and for that I’m a bit envious. The best bit of all this is the lake (“the See”) which is personified and perceiving in ways beyond the limitedly human, the humans being left at the end trying to fit bits of the story together. It’s all a bit obvious.

x354-q80You will have gathered that one of Power’s things is to mix English and Austrian German. This happens several times in ‘A Tour of Shrines of Upper Austria’ (though in this book we only get 7 parts of the full sequence). An observer stops at various shrine sites, jotting down some thoughts and taking a picture or two. Nothing is developed though Power’s poems do show an interest in religion on several other occasions. ‘The Moving Swan’ opens with a centre-justified prose description of candles flickering in a cathedral and another poem is drawn to the grave of two goats, observing: “two heaps of ivy/straw / one unlit red tealight”. And ‘Epiphany Night’ is a more extended series of notes recording a local celebration with bells, dressing-up, boats, lanterns. This is all observed in loosely irregular lines by the narrator from her “wohnung” (apartment). To wring all engagement or emotional or imaginative response from such a text is, I suppose, quite an achievement but to spend 70-odd pages in such company really is wearisome.

Power’s playing with her two languages is unusual and there are occasions when her poems read as poor, incomplete translations into English. This draws attention to the poet’s materials – language/s – as in ‘Epiphany’ again: “step down drei konige / in fancy robe and blackface paint”. In ‘Installation for a New Baby’ the effect is more comical and perhaps reflects the muddled perceptions of such an occasion: “We save soup cans, bean and veg tins / to clatter where they trail the grass, / pin a spray of rubber dummies and a / pillow, sagging rain”. And ‘8th May’ has a Google Translate feel to it: “bells are ringing, there’s a fire / sailboats calmly over the lake”. Perhaps the problem with these experiments is that we never know who the “protagonist”, the speaker, is. When Power ventriloquises more explicitly the effects are startling as in ‘Isis and Marija’. Again, mixing verse and prose, this short poem conveys Isis’ concerns about her own name (she’s from Columbia and speaks Spanish) and Marija’s more dominating personality and immigrant background: “My mother come first from Croatia for one year. Then we all come. I live in a hotel, five minutes”. Here, the buckle and twist of the language is effective in illuminating the two girls’ uneasy residence in Austria. For an older Italian woman, ‘Georgiana’ does the same in the same way: “she sets up, gets the car, / takes German class and speaks / fast with a curly accent she won’t change”.
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Power’s ‘doing different voices’ also occurs in the longer sequence which circles around events in which her grandmother, whose name was Chris or Christl, was found abandoned as a baby in Austria, taken in by a family (but not properly adopted) then came to Britain after WW2. Other sections suggest that the author/protagonist has later returned to Austria in search of her origins., and/or is living for a while near Gmunden in Austria. There’s a fair bit of historical and biographical exposition needed and this gives Power’s style of notation room to switch from verse to prose and back again. It’s the pieces in Christl’s demotic voice that stand out: “now I’m a bit mad at me mam, never adopted me properly, why not?” Elsewhere, her ignorance of the existence of concentration camps is stunning as is her clumsily expressed and moving sense of the fragility of her own survival: “It’s funny life when you think you get born, you weren’t here before, then you die and it’s just, you’re not there anymore”. It’s this sequence (pp. 41–52) that you should start from when you read this book.

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Phoebe Power

Unfortunately, the collection trails away towards the end because, like any GCSE Modern Languages project worth its salt, there has to be section addressing Climate Change.  I’m not sure what Julie Andrews would make of ‘silver white winters that melt into springs’ but its two prose passages do little more than portray a before and after climate change. Also ‘notes on climate change’ is pretty much what it says in the title and, strangely, Christl’s voice begins to recur here too: “When I came to England first the weather was really / warm and I thought it’s warm in England nice here not so cold”. ‘Milk’ is an amusing, enjoyable prose piece detailing familiar anxieties about products like milk which adversely affect the environment though the irony that our avoidance strategies usually give rise to further problems is a bit obvious.

The closing poem is one of several in which Power interleaves two differing voices on alternate lines. I hear Christl’s voice here again, seeming to lament leaving Austria and perhaps the second voice is her granddaughter’s who might have been Austrian in another version of history. The result is a poignant sense of not quite belonging “here” but also of not really belonging “somewhere else”. It is this rootlessness that lies behind all of Powers’ poems. Not being at home in the world is an important and contemporary topic and, when she earths this in voices of specific characters, this works well. But too many of these poems record fragments without meaning without any attitude to those fragments without meaning. To end positively, ‘In and Out of Europe’ is a very good poem where the disjointed lives of grandmother and granddaughter are again aligned. But, on this occasion, it is during the June 2016 Brexit vote and the shared history of the family’s international link here has a much more profound significance and Power’s notes and jottings leap off the page with a purpose.
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2018 Forward Prize First Collections Reviewed: #1 Abigail Parry

This is the first in the series of reviews I will post 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) and here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique) and 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)
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)

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Jinx stands out for its level of vigorous inventiveness which emerges as rapid-fire, Raine-like, Martianesque figurative language on the micro level and a fecund spawning of memorable characters such as Mr Chop, Spook, the Jewel Thief, Geraldine, the Goatman and the Courtesan Jigoku Dayu. Parry also likes to experiment with form, though thankfully she steers clear of the current modish favourite, the prose-poem. In fact, she’s a poet’s poet evidently passionately in love with words (their sounds as much as meaning) and her use of rhythm and line is always – again this word is best fit – vigorous. The poem I repeatedly hear behind Jinx is Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ as much for its repetitions, its inventiveness of image (remember “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal”) and its tonal muscularity as its sexual politics. Surprisingly, Parry’s book’s focus is fairly narrow: male/female relationships, the fragility of the self and self-knowledge, the equivocal power of words (for truth or falsehood).

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All these elements feature in the book’s opener and Jane Austen tribute poem, ‘Emma, you’re a gamer’. Austen’s heroine’s often skilled gaming/manipulation of situations is celebrated in listy short phrases: “Emma, you’re a dreamer. You’re a strategist, a schemer – / the metagame of manners, / all those formal misdemeanours, / the compliments, charades. / Emma, you’re a charmer.” Both rhythm and rhyme carry an energetic admiration for the skilled player though the poem records her eventual defeat (in the games of “amore [. . .] same old story”). Her climb-down, self-recognition and accusation in the face of Mr Knightley concludes the poem: “Give it up now, little ego, / there’s a prize for second place, / and Emma, you’re an amateur, you’re up against a pro”. Parry’s poem adds little to our response to Austen’s book, though the up-dated lexis yields some increase in accessibility. The poem’s life is in its verbal vigour especially because Emma is seen from such a distance by an amused, disengaged narrator who can use a phrase like “same old story” and leave it at that. It’s a good poem, even a likely anthology choice, but Parry is much better when she pours more emotional petrol onto her linguistic flames.

61L1aFcVHTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Mr Knightley is an absent figure in that poem, but Jinx is repeatedly visited by powerful, seductive, dangerous males who – in ways now very familiar since Angela Carter started the ball rolling – are morphed into animal figures. ‘Hare’ is an early example, leaning invasively over the female narrator at a wedding party, “those fine ears folded smooth down his back, / complacent. Smug. Buck-sure”. As in ‘Daddy’, the woman is drawn to the man despite (or because of) his obvious threat but unlike Plath’s powerful final repulse (“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”), Parry’s narrator is fatalistic: “Your part is fixed: // a virgin going down, / a widow coming back”. Elsewhere, ‘Goat’ and ‘Magpie as gambler’ work similarly and ‘Ravens’ is a particularly Plathian version: “In fact, every man I thought was you / had a bird at his back / and a black one too”.

Creature-From-the-Black-LagoonFor all the frenetic playfulness of the book, Parry’s mostly female narrators and subjects are beset by threats. ‘The Lemures’ re-Romanises the creatures into psychological pests, aspects of self-doubt perhaps, appearing on the furniture, at the roadside, in a reflection in a lift door: “They will steal from you. Pickpockets, / rifling the snug pouches at the back of your mind”. Parry is evidently a fan of mid-twentieth century film and she explores Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Wolf Man from the perspective of dark powers surfacing. The question being asked is whether such forces represent the overturning of the real self or the manifestation of it in contrast to what a later poem calls “the dreary boxstep of propriety”. Locks and keys recur in the poems – are we confined, or about to set something loose, or to leap to real freedom?

In the same vein, Parry loves the idea of masks. ‘The Man Who’ is a David Bowie tribute (with Plathian allusions), asking what happens when the mask becomes the man: “then you’ve got to burn out – / down to the fingers, down to the quick, / to the quick quick heart of a white-hot / boy like you”. ‘You Know Who’ also plays on the idea of masks/roles becoming a reality, in this case actors fearing that playing the role of Sherlock Holmes risks a displacement of their real selves. Like a psychic supermarket shelf, ‘Milagros’ lists 20-odd types of hearts that might be possessed though, interestingly, the effect on this reader is less of individual fragmentation (which one am I?), more a sense of a multiplicity of human natures – each with their own particularities – simultaneously existent, in fact, a vision of a society at large. I’m not sure if this was intended but it is an aspect of Parry’s work that might be developed.

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Abigail Parry

Three of the very best poems (two of them prize-winners elsewhere) are unprominently placed on pages 48, 62 and 78. All three are what might be called Bildungs-poems – narratives of growth and education. ‘The Quilt’ is the more conventional poem deploying Parry’s fizzily-listed details and internal rhymes to describe a quilt embroidered with various incidents from a life, including discarded men: “the dapper one, the rugby fan, the one who liked his gabardine, the one who didn’t want to be    another patch in your fucking quilt / but got there all the same”. ‘Arterial’ also has an autobiographical glow to it, the narrator discovering her own heart stranded on the M4 motorway (“This is not, / as you might think, a metaphor”). The heart is transmuted into drum, room, tyrant and the Plathian “rope-bag full of blood”. It’s a desperate account in many ways, perhaps only grounded by the fact that the poem turns out to be written to “you”, an addressee presumably ready to listen. Perhaps this is the couple who feature in ‘Pasodoble with Lizards’ though they turn out to be (as many of Parry’s individuals have been) haunted by bestial mirror selves, as in lines ironically re-writing Robert Frost’s ‘Two Look at Two’: “The two of us, / the two of them, and two eyes looking, looking back / at two eyes looking”. Using long lines and triplets, Parry let’s rip in this poem, sailing a narrow line between the nightmarish and the merely histrionic, both speed and volume to the max: “Here they come, ATOMIC MONSTERS!” But the distress and seeming hopelessness is real enough: “these hooligans, our lizard others. / They think they’re us. We don’t know any better”.

As to the title, the word ‘jynx’ can be traced to the 17th-century word jyng, meaning “a spell” and ultimately to the Latin word iynx (or jynx) referring to the Greek name of the wryneck bird, iunx, itself associated with sorcery. There are certain word spells which, through naming a thing in a variety of ways, power is hoped to be gained over it. It is an aspect of many poems and Abigail Parry seems to me to be majoring in this. Interestingly, the wryneck became a symbol of passionate and restless love and was given to Jason by Aphrodite and, ominously, by pronouncing magic words, he roused the love of Medea. So Parry’s Jinx carries deep resonances concerning magic, love and lust, male and female power, the emitting of persuasive, deceptive and potentially ruinous sounds: it’s powerful poetry, then.

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Wryneck or iunx

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

My work here is almost done . . .  This is the fifth and last 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 below

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

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

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Do poets owe their readers explanatory notes? The pro-accessibility reply is ‘On principle, no!’ The googlers reply is ‘Not necessary – let your fingers do the walking’. Others might concede, ‘On occasions, maybe, for clarity’s sake or to take the piss out of critics and academe (see T.S. Eliot). But reading Eric Langley’s debut collection – if it’s proving hard to hang on to his erudite coat-tails – perhaps you cry ‘Yes, yes, for goodness sake!’ In fact, such pleas have already been answered by a curious, anonymous website that has sprung up to explicate many of these poems. Talk about poetry moving from the writer’s desk to the academic lecture hall without passing through an ordinary reader’s hands! It’s because Langley scrupulously offers us no help at all in positioning ourselves to read about the Chinese tradition of walnut gambling, Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, Picasso’s father, Stephen Grosson’s 1579 book Schoole of Abuse, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Derrida on postcards, Argus, Eurydice, Zeno, Edgar Allen Poe and (twice) the art historical term pentimenti. And that’s mostly from the opening 50 pages of this 128 page book (I think it’s about 40 pages too long).

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On the other hand, Langley often writes with a vigour and robust rhythmical quality to perform (all these poems are very performative) a sort of Elizabethan riffing to scatter-shot effect. He has a slightly annoying, almost reflex habit of sampling bits of Shakespeare mid-poem (especially from Hamlet) but Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s language that it was “an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, [a] weirdly expressive underswell of musical neargibberish” (‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (1971)) and at his very best Langley catches some of this. Literally born into the Cambridge school (Langley’s father, R. F. Langley, with his son, would often holiday with J. H. Prynne), Langley junior invigorates that difficult style with a 1590s fizz and gristle (his day job at UCL is studying the bard and more obscure Elizabethan texts) in poems whose image field is most often ekphrastic, whose emotional stance is often surprisingly sentimental and whose dominant atmosphere is one of loss.

The loss is key. Fundamentally this is about language (Cambridge School again) as the poor relation to ultimate reality. Our every living moment is a catalogue of loss; certainly our every communication is a clumsy moon-shot at a too-fast moving target, a shot also plagued by the drag of our words’ etymologies. But this is also (like the Forward short-listed books by Nick Makoha and Ocean Vuong) a book about lost fathers (Langley talks about this and other things and reads a poem in this interview). In addition, Langley’s sense of loss is elsewhere associated with the recall of a romantic attachment, what he refers to at one point, transmuting Anthony Burgess, as “memory’s ultraviolence”. This stirring of long-buried materials is what the book’s title alludes to. Raking light is used in art historical investigations to reveal the artist’s false starts and abandoned intentions – a sort of alternative historical version of the final painting. In fact, it’s that often over-done, old poetical favourite, the palimpsest, in art historical terms.

So ‘In raking light’ the narrative voice explains “in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up”. Perhaps my ‘explain’ is not the right word here – there is a sort of querulous (lover’s?) complaint going on in the tone as if the voice resents this uncovering of the past.

 

Once, there was life here –

residual and errant –

hushed since, shucked under

the thick skin, the tough slough.

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The vowel music in these few lines illustrates one of the pleasures of Langley’s work, but the “thick skin” is a gift to those who might accuse him of tending to bury hurt and loss under an avalanche of erudition rather than bringing it to the light. Indeed, it’s debatable whether this poem (in 8 sections), as it continues to offer multiples of synonymous formulations of this buried/hidden trope, manages to express a humanly complex emotional state or simply obscure it in a playful, bravura performance. The poem to read alongside this one is ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ which – once it has got past its tacked-on allusions to Orpheus’ lost wife and Proserpina – proceeds much more nakedly and accessibly:

 

Come back up stairs

if you read me

 

up in the subway

missing the tube travel,

 

missing the coach trips,

all the seaside rides,

 

the telephones, the postcards,

telegrams on spun wire;

 

come back up stairs,

and I’m hanging on

 

subjunctives, hanging on

superlatives, hanging on

 

the sound of someone

long gone to static

(apologies for some loss of formatting here – blame WordPress)

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The more linguistic and epistemological losses that preoccupy Langley are clear in the opening line of the opening poem, ‘Glanced’: ‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.” The interruptive full stop is (ahem) the point (Langley’s love of puns can be infectious). The idea is then played out (again in a riffing, repetitive style) via another old favourite, Zeno’s arrow, though this time the target is Zeuxis’ painting of grapes which (in legend) was so realistic that birds swooped down to peck them. Art imagined to be closing on the real – of course, it proves a delusion. The arrow does strike the canvas but penetrates what is really nothing, then slams into a “wall”. The final section of the poem, in fact, does suggest some possible success (see Hughes’ comment on Shakespeare’s ultimate expressive achievement through signals and hints). The concluding lines display Langley’s vigorous use of anaphora, rhyme, punning and Shakespearean allusion:

 

So glancing blown by,

so palpably hit away, so

 

keep so lovely looking still

keep lovely looking till

 

until each hungry bird

has flown and had his fill.

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The sequence, ‘Albada: Pigeons on pink’, starts (once we’ve done the googling to find out) with Picasso’s painter father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco. He liked to paint pigeons and for a few sections he sounds pleased with the results. But then young Pablo asks for a pencil and his father is astonished at the boy’s skill, or the degree to which his art seems to approach reality: “all these real these / really real pigeons”. Via another allusion to Hamlet, Langley then morphs the poem into an address to his own father (who wrote a poem called ‘Jack’s Pigeon’) though the two sons – Pablo and Eric – are blurred together, avoiding filial arrogance in a burst of filial piety: “it’s all still yours, still yours to say, Jose”. An albada is a Spanish love poem – this one has been re-geared into a piece about the son’s love of a father.

The two poems called ‘Pentimenti’ return to the ideas linked with raking light. The Italian word means ‘regrets’ and in art history it refers to changes an artist makes and covers over in the process of creation. The first of the poems is shorter and mixes images of painting with those of telephoning and it’s the latter that suggests this is really driven by a broken relationship in the modern world: “lost out here – dialling, dialling”. Such loss of contact and communication trips all Langley’s switches. A similar instinctive, welling up, or inundation, of potent material can be seen in the over-long, repetitive sequence in the middle of the book. This springs from a detail recounted by Galen of Pergamon that Ptolomaeus, King of Egypt, in assembling his great library, would take books from any ship that sailed into port, have them copied, then give back the copies, retaining the originals for his own book shelves. So language, knowledge, forgery, copies, signs, semiotics, morse code, the Dewey system of classification, plus Hamlet on the pirate ship and the final Alexandrian conflagration – Langley throws it all into the mix  and gives it a good stir.

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For me, the second ‘Pentimenti’ is a much greater success, presenting itself as a literal palimpsest of the earlier poem – the thoughts, drafts and revisions that might have led to it. The performance here is not the dazzling, often impossible to follow footwork of other poems in the book, but rather one of hesitations, lines of thought taken up, then dropped, crossings out and (literal) fadings out. For me this expresses the difficulties of expression more effectively than many other poems, especially in the revisions we witness which involve a switch of verb tense from present to past. Most of these observations seem (again) to be focused on a romantic relationship so that what is the case (first draft) is being transformed into what was before our very eyes. I think (actually, I’m not sure) the sequence drifts latterly towards the relationship with the father again but even the obscurities here play an affecting role and the collection’s final lines remind me of the tragic, closing moments of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, in which the Gaelic language, culture and memory seems to be fraying and withering to nothing even as we watch and the lights dim.

Langley’s book will infuriate many and please the few. There is an impressive peculiarity here, a performative jouissance concerning language and learning which the Forward short-listing committee must be responding to. But I do wish he’d had a tougher editorial voice to cut the length of the book which – especially in the mid-sections – indulgently outstays its welcome.

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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.

 

 

 

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Nick Makoha

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

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

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

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wrath the only nature of God you taught him.

What of mercy, peace and Uganda?

 

Our bodies still rest in your jaws.

 

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

 

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

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

 

Mark the length of his shadow; where it reaches,

men fall.

(‘Big Nation’)

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

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

 

Some say he had promised land, others positions,

and yet others gold. The truth is we all wanted

to be kings with wives and cars.

There is a drone in our voices.

 

The night’s coolness has not yet gone.

The apparition snatches a Kalashnikov from a shepherd’s fist

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

and like a swarm follow singing his incantations

and like a swarm follow singing his incantations.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

My Ugandan passports are a quiet place of ruin.

 

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

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Charles De Gaulle, Paris

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2 – Maria Apichella

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

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing)

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

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Constitution Hill

 

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

 

Stony one. You are

no monastery.

They are full of men,

mutts, beggars.

If you are,

you must let me in.

I am all these and more”

 

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

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

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

 

[His] job’s all jargon, bullet-

holed paper work.

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

countries, traditions, bedrooms.

 

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

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

 

So,

it turns out

I want you,

after all

the fannying about.

 

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

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

 

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

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1: Richard Georges

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

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing)

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books)

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

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

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Many thanks to Shearsman Books for providing a copy of Richard Georges’ book for review purposes.

The seed if not the full, rich fruit of Richard Georges’ Make Us All Islands can be found in Derek Walcott’s 1979 poem ‘The Sea is History’. The mostly unwritten narrative of the Caribbean slave trade, the colonial and post-colonial experience of the transported peoples is the subject of Walcott’s poem: “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? / [. . .] Sirs, / in that grey vault. The sea. The sea / has locked them up. The sea is history”. Born in Trinidad and raised in the British Virgin Islands where he still lives, the sea is also the depository of the brutal struggles and stories of the Caribbean past for Richard Georges, though the ubiquity of the sea in these often painful, often very beautiful poems, means its symbolic burden deepens and broadens to something nigh-existential without losing any of its historical or political power.

To begin with, Georges makes poetry from some of the very few records that have survived. The words of one transported African – known by the name Abednego – lie at the heart of ‘Griot’. The poem title (pronounced gree-oh) is a West African word for a historian, storyteller, praise singer or poet and, placed at the opening of this book, is both a confident declaration of intent by the poet and an erasure of the Western tradition’s Homeric image of the bard. Rather than heroic military exploits or mythical wanderings, the “cross of the griot” is to “speak for the speechless, / to grip the stem of the bone and coral sceptre, / to be mounted, to sing light into the bleakness”. And the words of Abednego that come down to us turn out to be a dismally familiar, devastating precursor of the 2013 Black Lives Matter movement: “Abednego the griot, the spectre / speaks: In slav’ry days, the black man’s life count for nothing”.

 

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A griot

 

Poems like ‘Offering’, ‘Birth’ and ‘In the Moment Freedom Comes’ make some of those black lives count through re-deploying details of Spanish or Portuguese slave-ships wrecked or captured in Virgin Island waters. In the latter poem, the woman Ungobo languishes in the hold of the Atrevido until it is attacked by an English ship. But her sense of a liberation into sunlight and salt air seems brief if we give due weight to the concluding image in which the English sailors pluck the slave-ship’s cargo “from the hold like fishermen / clearing their traps”. Many of the figures focused on by Georges are survivors, the kind of “folk” who built the church for the community of liberated Africans in Tortola, Kingstown. Their dramatic survival from the wrecking of the slave-ships is vividly imagined:

 

Dream them gripping

snarling rocks as black sea claimed the broken hulk

of their prison. Amidst angry sea-spray coral

heads rise in watery light, their minds routeless,

home as far as Babylon

 

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Richard Georges

 

Likewise, George’s post-colonial figures are survivors too, of injustice and straitened economic circumstances. In ‘The Fisherman Measures Life’, the man’s labour and his rickety boat are un-romanticised in the steady-paced, long-lined tercets. This man carries with him a sense of the island’s history, recalling the “griefs” of the slave-ship Donna Paula, but his observations of nature prove no more consoling. Recalling the hunter/hunted imagery of the mid-twentieth century German poet Peter Huchel, the Fisherman watches seabirds chasing fish:

 

“It is much the same on land,” the fisherman thought.

Shark suited men sweat and chase American cash

like fishhooks, mouths transpierced with incandescent lures.

 

And in the end, he is as much a part of this brutal economy of hunter and hunted; as he pulls up his fishing pot, “its wooden frame comes to view / the cloudy depths dissolv[ing] in slippery shadows”.

Interestingly, in his recall of the wreck of the Donna Paula, the fisherman sees both “black and white hands” trying to survive. This is more than just a fleeting image in this book. Elsewhere, George carefully considers both “mariner and cargo”(‘The Heavy Anchor’) and this, alongside his concerns for survivors as much as fatalities, begins to transmute the rolling, destructive, slavering image of the sea in poem after poem into an elemental force (while still representative of historical/political forces), becoming one of the conditions of human life more generally. The opening section from ‘Proverb’ puts this succinctly: “God / fashion man / from mud / and put him / right back / when he / done.” This is a sentiment to make even Beckett’s pessimistic view – that we are born astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more – look sanguine. So the body of rooster lies rotting on a river bank; a stone lies in the water.

 

The stone smoothed by flood or famine if asked

could tell of slave and tsunami, or of when it was

a rough rock perched on the hillside

 

and a radiant rooster crowed

 

In the vivid and fertile Caribbean landscape, time passes and erodes; death dominates. Here are the key words from the tiny lyric ‘Light Sound Land’: deafening, spat, lose, scatter, bending, splinter, lose, bowing, shrinking, din. The sea is usually the agent of these grim conditions and the book’s title – make us all islands – emerges not as a plea, imperative or warning but as a resigned statement of fact, the consequence of the conditions in which we live.

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The title phrase appears in ‘At the Waterside’, a brilliant, sustained, survivor’s meditation in 5 parts, drawing together many of the themes in the collection. The sequence has an unusually clear and stable lyric ‘I’, a man who sits watching ferries arrive on the Virgin Islands. Unlike the “white-capped tourists” (but like the Fisherman), the narrator sees the present day through the lens of history or, to be more precise, the general neglect of the island’s history. The authorities prefer to construct “concrete totems where [the island’s] cedars groan”. But for the narrator:

 

It is here where the Empire unravels, crumbling

in Ozymandian ruin – preserving only

an ancient anger held by hands burnt black in sun.

 

Perhaps it’s the same fisherman here who sails perilously out to Buck Island, to where “sparkling blues betray the reef’s lying rocks”. The narrator twice cryptically insists that “something greater” covers the fisherman. It is partly history (the clouds hang like “ghosts of slaves”) but also (and in a poetic defiance of gravitational logic) it is the ocean itself, the “whipping waters”, an omnipresence in these poems, suggesting that, whether mariner or cargo, all individuals are both authored and erased by the sea.

 

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Buck Island

 

When you buy this book, I suggest you begin by reading the final poem, ‘Oceans’. Here too the sea is “effervescent” with history – “the bones // of slaves, of sailors” – but it also represents a more existential “abyss consuming even light in its depth”. Here is Richard Georges reading from this poem. The narrator demands to know what language might express it, how it may be securely held. The ocean also lies in the lover’s body: “And so we all remain. Divided. / Like the shores of islands”. To counter-balance such division and alienation, the little poem ‘Draining’ suggests one of humanity’s constituent drives is “a life / desperate to drink / the air outside of / us”. The metaphor is quickly switched; what runs through us is a river intent on returning to the sea. In ‘Mural’, a second ‘griot’ figure in a bar directs the poet to watch a turtle rolling and turning in the ocean. The man in the bar is a seer. Like the Fisherman and like the narrator of ‘At the Waterside’ too, what he sees is the “writhing mural / of hope and history / always carrying on”.

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The stoic instinct to hope emerges in these poems as powerfully as the poet’s instinct to speak. Perhaps surprisingly, what remains with me after reading Make Us All Islands is the great beauty of Richard Georges’ language and verse. Battered by the power of his literal and symbolic ocean he humbly suggests the difficulties of articulation, imagining only a “broken book of poems”. But time and time again, he successfully evokes the light and dark of past and present and he takes on the “cross of the griot”. The rightness of each word and line-break in the poem ‘A Place in the Earth’ is a case in point:

 

The dumb bodies

lie like leaves

in the dirt.

 

Death drags

the drying lips back

drawing mouths

into snarls

 

bracing the teeth

against the whistling

flute of the throat.

 

The living

philosophise

over the bones

 

while the yellow love

laughs from the trees

above.