John Field Reviews the Shortlist: Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
For the 2017 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again. This week, John reviews Tara Bergin’s extraordinary second collection: “Bergin’s notes help us to fix a pencil into a planchette, and to explore love, disappointment and betrayal through the voices of the dead.”
Bergin’s collection is a hall of mirrors and its reflections are comic, grotesque and extraordinary. Marx penned the first official English translation of Madame Bovary, and here, reflected and refracted by various translators, it’s a window on the world. If this sounds highfalutin, then rest assured. It isn’t. Bergin’s notes help us to fix a pencil into a planchette, and to explore love, disappointment and betrayal through the voices of the dead.
The opening poem, ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’, like the theme of a sonata, is developed and recapitulated: Marx, aged 43, dressed in white stained blue by a lethal dose of prussic acid. “So the urn that holds the ashes of the soft summer dress, / And of the woman who knew the power of the proletariat, / And of the chunk of poisoned apple she bit under duress, / Are taken to the offices of the SDF […] / There is a cupboard with two glass panes. / And there they place her to remain”. Bergin makes us wait for that verb phrase “are taken”. This, combined with the repeated connectives “and of” gives the line a Miltonic quality – “Of man’s first disobedience…” Marx is Eve and, if the apple is eaten under duress, then who is Satan? Marx’s faithless lover, Edward Aveling? Poisoned apples also conjure the Grimm’s ‘Little Snow White’ and, as Snow White battles the jealousy of her stepmother, so Bergin’s Marx is perhaps pitted against the other woman – Aveling’s wife Eva Frye. Short lines, and perfect rhymes help to recreate Marx as a mythic subject.
In ‘Are You Looking?’ Bergin plays with Geoffrey Wall’s translation of Madame Bovary and, read against that first keynote poem, it resonates with harmonics: “She kept pricking her fingers”. Sensitised by Bergin’s treatment of ‘Snow White’, we’re invited to recast Marx as Sleeping Beauty, also victim to another woman. We read that, at Emma Bovary’s wedding, the “guest list numbered / forty-three”. A judicious line break allows that number to sit in space in order to be seen. Her first poem informs the reader that Marx died aged 43. This is an irrational piece of numerology, but then this is an irrational collection, loaded with fin de siècle colour. In ‘Karl Marx’s Daughters Play on the Ouija Board,’ Bergin presents a script, allowing Eleanor to speak from beyond the grave as the planchette’s spidery line careers across the ouija board.
The poems enjoy a universality as they explore betrayal and grief. ‘Wedding Cake Decorations’ presents “A small white wife / with a small white face; / a thin white groom / on a round, white base. // They have no shoes / because they have no feet: / their maker thought them obsolete.” Bergin traps these unfortunates every which way: in language (“small”, “small”, “thin”), in couplets, in the shortest of monosyllabic lines.
The collection also charts recent, seismic fractures in society. ‘Talking to Anne-Marie after the American Election’ opens in “the office after the catastrophe” and the speaker discovers that she does not know Anne-Marie after all: “eventually Anne-Marie said from her desk: / Do you want to know something? / My name’s not actually Anne-Marie. / And I said: What? / And she said: My name’s not actually Anne-Marie. It’s Anne”. Perhaps politics were off-limits on that raw Wednesday morning, or perhaps the poem considers the reappraisal of neighbour by neighbour after the vote. You think you know someone, but then they cheat on you. Marx’s grief and betrayal articulate the pain of a society divided.
John Field Reviews the Shortlist: Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition
The poems of In These Days of Prohibition are disquieting: institutionalised, hedonistic, vacuous and nihilistic.
The collection, its epigraph taken from John Ashbery’s ‘The Problem of Anxiety’, plays with absence from the outset: ‘Suppose this poem were about you – would you / put in the things I’ve carefully left out?’ ‘A Surreal Joke’ opens with the end-stopped statement ‘One year is blank on my curriculum vitae’, reminding us how difficult life can be in a society predicated on uninterrupted work – keeping one’s nose clean. Bird’s speaker says ‘I was in the desert, convalescing, repairing my septum. I’d tried to die / expensively dragging it out over six months, locked in my university / bathroom with a rolled-up scrap of canto.’ Bird’s technical control is a joy; the poem accelerates as the death is dragged out expensively, moving from end-stops and accented caesuras to excited enjambment. The expensive death suggests cocaine – so it’s fitting that Bird drags this out – line after line.
‘Patient Intake Questionnaire’ and ‘Star Vehicle’ pose question after unanswered question. ‘Patient Intake Questionnaire’ plays with the form of psychological diagnostic self-examination. Its imperatives demand responses and so, despite foregrounding the collection with Ashbery’s comment about material added by the reader, we are forced to engage with the questionnaire’s absurdity: ‘Do you peel bananas fearfully in case there is no banana inside?’ ‘Star Vehicle’ is more disturbing. This time, the poem is framed as requests, not demands. They start innocuously, and professionally. ‘Can I shoot you entirely in standard-definition digital video?’ but the poem darkens: ‘Can I shoot you suffocating inside a harp case? […] Can I shoot you shooting up? Can I shoot you shooting yourself?’ The list is exhausting. Some items, although excessive, suggest real relationships between artists and muses: ‘Can I shoot you every day for sixty-four years?’ is redolent of the relationship between the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki and his wife Yoko Aoki – whom he photographed obsessively until her death.
The collection satirises popular culture. In ‘Far From Civilisation’, ‘Gemma’s ankles were swollen / from the flight. She was ratty. / ‘I look like an elephant,’ she said / through microscopic cheeks’. The line break forces the reader to consider, for a moment, that there might actually be something wrong with Gemma. Bird makes us wait for line two before delivering a satirical punch and exposing Gemma’s vacuous hyperbolous vanity. Perhaps Gemma, Jewel, Elle and Pixie are on a modelling shoot, but they could just as easily be on a ‘gap yah’ and the poem’s title oozes irony: our intrepid travellers may feel far from civilization but the reader is invited to draw other conclusions. ‘Stephanie’ cocks a similar snook: ‘She was eighteen, used ‘party’ as a verb’. Tellingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of this meaning of the word is from the 1986 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Bill and Ted were icons of youthful vacuity, yet it takes Stephanie, a Sally Bowles figure, to spy ‘the part worth saving in me’ suggesting that, despite it all, high culture and popular culture need one another.
The collection’s final part moves towards the light. In ‘Public Resource’ ‘There is a place called The Open / where brave people put things’ and, in ’The Amnesty’, ‘I surrender my weapons: / Catapult, Tears, Raincloud Hat, / Lip Zip, Brittle Coat, Taut Teeth / in guarded rows.’
In These Days of Prohibition takes a hard look at contemporary society but is, ultimately, uplifting. If Brett Easton Ellis wrote poems, I’d like to think they’d be poems like these.
Since 2012, John Field has reviewed a wide gamut of contemporary poetry on his blog, Poor Rude Lines. Described as ‘teeming with thoughtful reviews and amusing poetry reading anecdotes’, it is recommended by Picador as one of the best poetry blogs. He has written and reviewed for the Poetry Trust, the Poetry Book Society and the Forward Prizes. https://johnfield.org
John Field Reviews the Shortlist: Douglas Dunn – The Noise of a Fly
The Noise of a Fly is a frank exploration of aging, of becoming one of life’s spectators. However, the collection has a contemporary political and social thrust and sees Dunn train his eye on Scottish independence and the state of the NHS.
Dunn’s epigraph directs the reader to John Donne’s Sermon LXXX, preached at the funeral of Sir William Cokayne on the 12th of December, 1626. Donne writes, “I neglect God and his angels for the noise of a Flie”. Donne acknowledges our tendency to prevaricate, the fading of our faculties, and the imperfection of the world. We are also reminded of Donne’s flea of youthful fleshly desire, the passing of which is mourned in Dunn’s collection.
In ‘Senex on Market Street’, Dunn’s speaker is the senex (the stock figure of an old man in Latin literature) while “Posh totty totter past on serious heels”. ‘Totty’ suggests good-time girls but good times are fleeting, as the alliterative plosive clack of those heels morphs into “the fateful tick-tock of the clock”. Dunn’s Elegies, a response to the death of his first wife, opens with ‘Re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories’: “A pressed fly, like a skeleton of gauze, / Has waited here between page 98 / And 99”. Dunn’s fly, its shrivelled bloodlessness the antithesis of Donne’s sexual ‘The Flea’ and is “one dry tear punctuating ‘Bliss’” but reminds us that love and grief possess their own immortality.
The chutzpah of Donne’s ‘The Flea’ is absent from The Noise of a Fly. In ‘The Nothing-But’, “Slowly the truth dawns, the nothing-butness of it, / The fly in the dram, the flea in your ear, / Just-cleaned window now smeared with dove-shit, / Confidence that turns into abject fear”. The fly is recast as the ultimate truth. Stock idiomatic phrases cushion with their obliquity but the second stanza hits us: “To have kissed the lips of one who was dying / Is to have tasted silence, salt, and wilderness, / And touched the truth, the desert where there is no lying”. Dunn’s desert silence, its arid emptiness, might be read as nihilistic – but yet there is a but in this nothing. The silence at the heart of the poem possesses a spirituality – a hesychasm – the silence and prayer of the Christian ascetics living in the Scetes desert.
Despite the mutability of the collection’s memorial poems and desks cleared for retirement, it makes an impassioned plea for the current generation to retain the best of recent social reform. In ‘Class Photograph’, the pace of change is acknowledged: “One foot in childhood, one in adolescence, / Rock Around the Clock made far more sense / Even than The Battle of the River Plate“. The poem’s AAABBA rhyme scheme lends it a Burnsian quality (think ‘To a Mouse’) with the wearied social conscience that this implies. The regularity of the poem’s rhyme and its iambic backbone gives it a sense of certainty and order, adding to the power of its conclusion: “Destructive wars abroad… And yet, God bless / Democracy, dissent and the NHS”.
The penultimate poem, ‘English (a Scottish Essay)’ adopts a Popeian tone, handling the drama of politics with levity, all the speaker’s “bon mots / In somewhere else’s tongue! Why scourge and blame / History for what had to happen in it / When you can’t cancel it, not by a minute, / Not by a year, never mind an epoch?”
Dunn’s fly buzzes with health and shimmers in the light. These moving poems astonish with their beauty and bite with their truth.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Leontia Flynn – The Radio
The gossamer threads of Leontia Flynn’s The Radio connect present with past, highlighting the continuity and communality of human experience while acknowledging the fragility of the networks that bind us to one another – and that bind the individual, neuron by neuron, into a person.
We start, ‘In the beginning’, with a sonnet borrowing its title from Genesis and referencing the creation but debunking the desire to write hagiographies. We learn that ‘Darwin wrapped his trunk / in ice-cold towels’ and ‘trunk’ rehumanizes Darwin as solid, fleshly and mortal. The sestet casts its line ‘back through the Mists of Time to some first cause’ to find the first migraine, the first hangover and these link us as a human chain.
Later, Flynn translates Catullus 8. In the source text, Catullus opens introspectively as the speaker address himself in the second person: ‘Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire, (poor Catullus, ‘tis time you should cease your folly) whereas in Flynn’s ‘Give it up, moron: after Catullus 8’ it is, perhaps, the reader who is referred to as the titular ‘moron’ and, as a result, the poem widens its address: ‘Give it up, moron: forget it all. / Chalk up among your losses what’s now lost for good.’ In Catullus 28, he rails against corrupt bureaucrats, and specifically against the lackeys of Piso. Flynn’s ‘Government servants’ universalise the corruption and, where Catullus, screwed, was forced to take ‘the whole length of his beam’, Flynn’s speaker has been fucked over. The details of person and place are irrelevant: the shenanigans of the SPQR are replicated throughout history.
Flynn’s dialogues evoke the plays of W. B. Yeats. Yeats idealises and romanticises women and motherhood in The Countess Cathleen, presenting Cathleen as saintly: ‘I gave for all and that was all I had. Look, my purse is empty’. In contrast, Flynn’s ‘Woman, in receipt of infant under two years’ is unromanticized, trapped in a ‘cycle of blood and excrement’. Rearing a child, this cycle feels endless but, in the mode of Yeatsian symbolic drama, Flynn speaks of the timeless cycle of motherhood itself. Her ‘Man, impatient with the women of Ireland discovering the immemorial condition of motherhood for the first time’ seeks to silence her but Flynn’s woman is as earthy of mouth as she is in duty: ‘Fuck off. You praise ‘women’ while you fail them / like drunks and statesmen’.
Mothers feature centre stage in the collection. In the sonnet ‘Yellow Lullaby’, Flynn opens with an epigraph from Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autobiography’ before riffing on this memory of his mother: ‘A yolk. / A yellow flower. / A candle flame’ but the line is stretched taut across the page like a gossamer thread, a thread which connects to the speaker’s own experience of motherhood and, ultimately ‘with the unborn and the dead’.
Threads of connection are broken painfully. In ‘Alzheimer’s Villanelle’, the poetic form is artfully employed to break and reform connections like misfiring neurons and, in ‘August 30th 2013’, Flynn elegises the death of Seamus Heaney. ‘Twitter erupts, it seems in shards of verse’ and suggests an ambivalence to the web of social media powering the modern world as ‘our standard is the dollar; / spurred by the age’s itchy self-promotion, / – our only term of value now ‘best-seller’. Flynn’s ‘shards’ suggest something broken about our world. It was ever thus: in ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’, Ezra Pound also rails at a world in which ‘The pianola ‘replaces’ / Sappho’s barbitos’.
In ‘The Radio’, Flynn wears her erudition lightly and this moving reflection on mothers, history and mortality never takes itself seriously for too long.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Roddy Lumsden – So Glad I’m Me
Enjoying a steamy bath with Madonna, sharing sweets with friends, savouring sex and cigarettes as the room spins: Roddy Lumsden’s So Glad I’m Me delights in the small things. Suffused with the bohemian eroticism of Baudelaire, Lumsden’s poems are a sensory overload of language, equally at ease with popular and literary culture.
The collection opens with some formally constructed treasures. In ‘Nikita’s Wedding Dress’, ‘The dress is lovely but / will widen the eyes of some drawn one / neither of us know’ in a direct echo of John Donne’s ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ where the mistress’s clothing is to stop the eyes of busy fools. Donne concludes with his domineering speaker addressing his mistress: ‘To teach thee, I am naked first’ and Lumdsen’s speaker concludes in the same way: ‘I’ll teach you / and you will marry in black’. Toying with Donne’s Jacobean strip-tease eroticism, Lumsden’s poem contains its own uncharted mysteries, tactile experiences and sensuality: ‘Black satin, black lace and black girl within. / Unknown pleasures.’ ‘Unknown pleasures’ references the debut album by the British post-punk band Joy Division, whose track titles stud the poem like sequins.
Music becomes even more important in the collection’s second section, ‘Soft Leviathan’. The blurb describes many of the poems in the collection as conflation poems, but it may be more helpful to think of them as mash-ups. The OED defines the mash-up as “a piece of popular music created by merging the elements of two or more existing songs using computer technology and production techniques, especially one featuring the vocals of one song over the instrumental backing of another.” If you’re curious about the results, find Missy Elliott’s mash-up of ‘Get Ur Freak On’ with The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’ on YouTube. The results are a sea-change into something rich and strange. And so Lumsden gives us poems like ‘Coldplay / Foreplay’ where nothing stands still: ‘I’m on the couch, a boat which I have sailed / on previous voyages’ and the metamorphic quality of the mash-up complements the poem’s chemically created ‘woozy waves’. Again, Lumsden’s poem enjoys a considered relationship with a canonical poet: this time Charles Baudelaire and the perfumed narcotics of Fleurs du Mal suffuse the collection. In ‘Parfum Exotique’, Baudelaire’s speaker is ‘led by that perfume to these lands of ease, / I see a port where many ships have flown’ and making out to music is endowed with a timelessness as we realise how many ships have berthed in this particular port.
The final section, ‘Kippers and Glitter’ offers its own stripped-down mash-ups of love. In ‘The Perfect Kiss’ (a New Order song title instead of a Joy Division one this time) Lumsden riffs, seemingly inexhaustibly, on metaphors for lovers – some familiar like Auden’s ‘my Sunday best’ and some satirising the materialism of our age: ‘my Bang and Olufsen’, ‘my cloth-shone brogue’. The language of the boozer receives the same treatment in ‘At The Standard’, where the timeless language of pub drama (Eliot’s ‘A Game of Chess’): ‘I cried all morning, said Francesca. / It’s bad, I said’ meets the obese language of the chain pub menu: ‘Now our buns are glazed, omega seeds / are scattered. Make the profiteroles large / to share’.
So Glad I’m Me effervesces with language and joy. It gets on with the business of living and loving. Where else would you find Caramacs and Double Deckers rubbing their chocolatey shoulders with Napoleon Bonaparte and ABBA.
Michael Symmons Roberts
Michael Symmons Roberts – Mancunia
Michael Symmons Roberts’ Mancunia tours dive bars and patches of wasteland; it swoops from the refugee shanty towns of modern geo-political displacement, down through sedimentary layers and back in time to the Roman fort of Mancunium. Mancunia explores identity and belonging, setting contemporary social concerns against the backdrop of history, acknowledging that there is nothing new under the sun.
‘Acteon’ highlights the unchanging nature of all things, as Acteon, the Classical peeping Tom, is recast: ‘Between back-to-backs along the alleys / he lifts wrung-out sheets / and shirts hung up to dry, / in search of a repeat // glimpse of a goddess out to get / a tan’. An iambic trimeter pulses at the heart of the poem, endowing a scene played out along a row of terraced housing with a Greek gravitas. We are invited to look again at Acteon’s hunting hounds and recognize that the dangers posed by status dogs are nothing new.
‘American Pit Bull’ recasts dog as victim as the speaker encounters one ‘caged in the unclaimed baggage area / of Terminal Two in August heat’ and knows that the dog’s ‘denouement will come / in some dank warehouse with a mob’. Globalization presses in on Manchester as wars overseas and international crime push in on the city’s liminal spaces. The Pit Bull’s ‘blood-line / served to bind him to his purpose’ and this metaphor for heredity becomes a physical leash, suggesting that we are slaves to our nature. However, the speaker, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, drifts from shore ‘as with each succession mine / has cut me further loose’ and articulates the tension between growing apart from one’s community and being ostracized from it.
In ‘The Value of Nothing’, ‘Two white dogs tear into each other / in a sunlight square, over nothing more // than a marbled twist of gristle’, slaves to their nature. It would be too easy to sneer at these dumb animals, risking life and limb over something so worthless but the poem resists this urge: they fight over ‘a marbled twist’. The gristle is aestheticized, and the reader too sees its desirability. The poem’s focus broadens to the trinkets of courtship: ‘My hunch is that their true fault lay / in thinking they could change their destiny // with amethysts as amulets, deep Russian, / dark as plum-blood, worth a fortune’. Symmons Roberts’s humanity is no more rational than the other animals and the smug divisions between species and ethnicities are questioned.
Tackling the Syrian refugee crisis, ‘In Paradisum’ presents Manchester as heaven for those prepared to travel the hard miles to ‘our city’ and the possessive pronoun warns of territorialism. Citizens ‘slow our cars past them as a mark of respect’ but it looks more like rubbernecking. The poem forces us to take an uncomfortable look at a human nature that struggles to see people as people unless a narrative can be associated with them: ‘the one in the Brazil shirt becomes Paulo, / and the one in the blue smock his cousin Lily.’ The poem closes as the warm, fuzzy dream of Paulo and Lily is banished by ‘some fox in a bin’ and the suspected nocturnal raids of animals presents suburbia as fearful, net curtain twitching Nimbies.
Mancunia is a collection for our times. Post-industrialism has created an identity crisis: both for urban spaces and for those who lived in them. Yet, at the same time, Symmons Roberts sees a timeless optimism in the human spirit and the utopian ambitions of our forbears live again through us.
John Field reviews the shortlist – Robert Minhinnick
In Diary of the Last Man, Robert Minhinnick meditates on environmental apocalypse before training his eye on Anglo-American atrocities in Iraq. Finally, he offers translations from Welsh, Arabic and Turkish. Minhinnick’s poems are a virtuoso display: reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins or Dylan Thomas, bringing the sounds of Welsh poetry to English. He also writes with the force and indignation of Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ as he attacks the obscenities of war.
‘The Diary of the Last Man’ is a sequence of 23 poems, perhaps indicating that, for humanity, time is running out and will be cut short. Loneliness and uncertainty dominate as the speaker muses ‘Perhaps / I am the last man’, with the line break highlighting his doubt as he hums his ‘hymn of sand’. Minhinnick suggests the deadness of the world as the sands of time run fast through humanity’s emptying glass. ‘Hum my hymn of sand’ repeats consonants in the same order, akin to Welsh cynghanedd, resulting in an arresting formality and beauty. The collection enjoys a Protean musicality as sounds morph and shift as they sift through Minhinnick’s hourglass: ‘Slack? / Slake? / Lake? / Meres and mosses and mirrors and mortuaries’. Some might see environmental catastrophe as an unmitigated disaster but Minhinnick’s second poem, ‘Snipe’ presents ‘Two of them, two lines of barbed wire / across the sky, two voices’ and, for once, humanity is outnumbered as nature begins to reclaim the planet.
Another sequence, ‘Mouth to Mouth: A Recitation Between Two Rivers’ alternates between prose and poetry and is reminiscent of William Dyce’s painting ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858’. Dyce’s figures scuttle, dwarfed by the geological strata in the cliffs and, above, Donati’s comet, with an orbital period of roughly 1,739 years, crosses the sky. Sand, ‘formal as fossils’, drifts through Minhinnick’s poem and its shifting landscape renders it an ‘unchronicled country’. The landscape is indifferent and insatiable as the dunes swallow human history and Minhinnick’s deer echo Ted Hughes’ ‘Roe Deer’: ‘two shamen praying to the lightning god, / or so they might well be in this unearthly light’.
The ‘Amiriya Suite’ memorialises the bombing of an Iraqi public air raid shelter by the United States Air Force in 1991, killing hundreds of civilians. In the first part, end-stopped lines accent the poem’s cutting bitterness: ‘One body with four hundred souls / is exposed in a photographic flash. / They pick the wedding rings and wisdom teeth / from crematorium ash’ and the facts of the event are re-read as obscene ironies: ‘Think of a smart bomb. / Not so smart’. In the rest of the sequence, Minhinnick gives us unrhymed couplets, suggesting that nothing hangs together in a world of lies and sexed-up dossiers, where ‘a farmer had written nuclear formulae / on the skin of a watermelon’.
Towards the end of the collection, his translations of Erozcelick Seyhan invite us to reconsider the temporal sands running through ‘Mouth to Mouth’ and the ‘Amiriya Suite’. Here, ‘we rise like incense through the sky, / people who become a plume of smoke’. The translation echoes Psalm 141, ‘May my prayer be set before you like incense’ but, for Minhinnick, ‘there is no Jesus in geology’ and nature will just have to make do.
Diary of the Last Man presents an unsentimental, indifferent world, filled with cruelty and atrocity but, while there may be no Jesus in Minhinnick’s geology, there is no shortage of beauty and, filtered through the sands of his language, this beauty is arresting and memorable.
John Field reviews the shortlist – James Sheard
When moving house, the child’s bedroom ceases to function as castle keep. Those gaudy walls, emblazoned with animals, are no longer totems. Stripped of furniture and the ephemera of childhood, it’s just another set of scarred walls and the mural forest scene is either tawdry, or pathetic. James Sheard’s The Abandoned Settlements views loss and change through the prism of place and space, and the result is painfully, exquisitely fragile.
Sheard’s opening poem, ‘Line Break’, states that: ‘We’re all pilgrims. We’re all / more or less aware of that’. ‘Pilgrims’ makes itinerants of us all and, perhaps, implies a quest for religious enlightenment. Reminding the reader that everyone is just passing through works against the fallacies of stability and permanence architecture offers us. Perhaps the poem’s brevity – a single couplet – also echoes our transitoriness.
Over the page, and we reach the collection’s title poem: ‘Think of it like this. The spine you once caressed / is the bony turf at Wharram, the only thing left / of the walls that held you, the hearth that warmed you.’ Yorkshire’s Wharram Percy was possibly abandoned as rising wool prices in the late Middle Ages reshaped agriculture, and love, bones and buildings find their locus in that place. The poem reads as a litany, as abandoned places are memorialised and achieve a saintly immortality – an immortality heightened by the referencing of towns like Oradour, site of a massacre by the Nazis in 1944. However, thrillingly, Sheard recognizes that love ‘walks towards us / in a stranger’s body. How it sets itself in high memorial / above the utter transformation of our lives. Love, that is: // For love exists, and then is ruined, and then persists.’ Sheard’s poem breaks with its tercet form to ring the changes for that final statement and the internal rhyme ‘exists, ‘persists’ emphasises the haunting, redemptive possibilities of any moment, no matter how bleak it may first appear.
‘White Roses’ explores a different sort of abandonment, as a room has been abandoned recently: ‘Well, I know what it’s like: / you have been walking your room, // sniffing at your white roses / and shivering. There is a sip // of almond liquor in a glass / on your desk, and a note’. ‘Walking your room’ perhaps suggests a sense of confinement and the ‘almond liquor’ and ‘note’ hint at suicide and the titular white rose taken on funereal connotations.
‘Shadow Self’ offers a more uncanny, Gothic sense of haunting, as ‘He’s living it, / your shadow self. / He owns your flat / and fucks your wife.’ Sheard’s third person narrative creates a sense of observation and paranoia, and the poem’s iambic dimeter and repetition create an obsessive relentlessness.
‘Dedication’ knits sensuality and architecture as the poem visits a temple – perhaps in India – decorated with scenes from the Kama Sutra, or another text of physical love: ‘You are scattered about the stone temples – / made of poor-fired clay, or carved / from soft rock’. At one level, the poem’s ‘you’ is dead already, and the scattering is a reminder of mortality but the scattering of clay and soft rock figures makes these figures uncanny too. God breathed life into Adam’s clay and the softness of the rock renders it fleshy – the common bonds of humanity unite the species as Sheard’s lyric poem delivers its own hymn of longing and desire.
The Abandoned Settlements is a beguiling collection. Working with restraint, Sheard’s empty space and short lines are as eloquent as the broken stones of a ruin yet, when he lets fly, the collection pulses with erotic energy.
John Field reviews the shortlist – Jacqueline Saphra
Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers is a moving rumination on motherhood. Interspersed with prose sketches, the collection is warm and intimate as it explores love, sex, ageing and family.
She opens with ‘In the winter of 1962 my mother’, and we see the mother attempting to escape from a marriage, baby in arms ‘on Hyde Park Corner / travelling round and round in shrinking circles / not sure how to execute the move outwards’. Marriage is a confinement of planetary proportions: the Mini attempts to achieve escape velocity, to resist the gravitational pull of the relationship. The cost of relationships is explored further in ‘Eddie and the Pessaries’ where the mother gave up ‘freedom, ballet, photography, figure skating, pottery, fossil hunting, trapeze, playing the piano and French’. She ‘could’ have been more than ‘just someone’s woman’. It’s brutal: the possessive pronoun, the reductive quality of ‘woman’ – as if she’s just a functionary of her sex. Saphra’s hypothetical ‘could’ leaves her future empty.
In the ekphrastic sonnet ‘Spunk’ (after Jacob Epstein’s Adam), Saphra animates Epstein’s slabs of flesh and semi-erect cock. It is ‘primed to score’, with ‘primed’ making the cock a loaded gun and its spunk as destructive as gunpowder. ‘He forced an opening, she let him in’ exploits the fabric of the poem as the caesura forces its own opening. Saphra then leaves a gulf of space between the octave and sestet, between the act and the aftermath. The poem ends with a bitter couplet: ‘It seems so far for us to fall. / Must this man be the father of us all?’ Thankfully, other men in the collection are shadows of Epstein’s monstrous man. In ‘The Day My Cousin Took me to the Musée Rodin’ the cousin affects Adam’s licentiousness: ‘he placed one sweaty main upon my / firm nichon and one upon my fesse.’ French highlights and fetishises tits and ass although, at least on this occasion, the cad ‘sauntered off into the crowd’.
The collection asserts the unchanging nature of humanity. In ‘Volunteers, 1978’ a young woman works on a kibbutz where ‘brown, perfect boys’ ‘lay down their Uzis / like handbags beside steaming bowls / of chicken soup’. Their submachine guns echo Adam’s ‘primed’ cock but the simile ‘like handbags’ undermines their attempt to play the alpha role. Towards the end of the collection, we read the sonnet ‘Valentine for Turbulent Times’. The first quatrain is suffused with kisses and coffee but, in the second, the wider world encroaches, ‘grinning from / its armoured tank as it exits the hatch / to trip you up with its big dirty boots’ and love, that powerful emotion, is rendered ‘small and useless like the unseasonal / ladybird’.
The collection presents the relationships between women as the interesting ones. In ‘Virginity’, the mother speaks first and has planned this irksome job into ‘that lull / between O Levels and results’ and paves the way for Paris, ‘where anything might happen’. Losing your virginity becomes something to get ‘sorted’, like a leaky tap and Ian, with ‘his nascent paunch / at only seventeen’ is the one serving a purpose.
All My Mad Mothers is frank and iconoclastic. The media offers an infinite slurry of submissive, airbrushed totty and Saphra’s women are an antidote. They have no illusions about men: fathers disappoint and their sexuality narrows the world (in one prose fragment, the father paints naked women so obsessively that his stored canvases make the room smaller). Lovers are little better – but mothers, with all their faults and contradictions, are priceless.
John Field reviews the shortlist – Ocean Vuong
Night Sky with Exit Wounds meditates on violence. The Vietnam War’s legacy of trauma is considered through these searing, painful, playful, beautiful poems.
The first section opens with ‘Telemachus’ and ‘Like any good son, I pull my father out / of the water, drag him by his hair // through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail / the waves rush in to erase’. The poem’s couplets suggest a relationship between father and son but the poem references the Odyssey’s Odysseus and his son Telemachus, estranged for 20 years by the hiatus of the Trojan War and fraught, protracted homecoming. The father is passive, weakened. Despite the violence and power of his knuckles ‘carving a trail’, he is impotent as the ocean erases him.
In ‘Aubade with Burning City’, Vuong’s free verse explodes in floral beauty on the page like a fragmentation grenade. In the later ‘Notebook Fragments’, we read that ‘Some grenades explode with a vision of white flowers’ and so, in ‘Aubade’, Vuong’s ‘Milkflower petals’ gain a sinister meaning with re-reading. During the 1975 fall of Saigon, Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ as the code to initiate the final evacuation and Berlin’s bonhomie forms a sharp counterpoint for Vuong’s fear, panic and violence. Berlin’s Yuletide snow also shifts in meaning, ‘The song moving through the city like a widow’ in funereal white.
The legacy of violence is suggested as Vuong returns to the subject of fathers in ‘Always & Forever’: ‘Open this when you need me most, / he said, as he slid the shoe box, wrapped // in duct tape, beneath my bed.’ The effect of the stanza break momentarily leaves the reader with a gift-wrapped box before Vuong’s harsh, improvisatory ‘duct tape’ – a tape more easily associated with abduction and murder than with gift wrapping. The poem’s title references Luther Vandross’s song of the same name, and the notes and acknowledgements indicate that this song is Vuong’s father’s favourite, suggesting a loving, if difficult relationship. The box is surely America’s Pandora’s Box: it contains a firearm, a ‘Colt .45 – silent & heavy // as an amputated hand’. That a child can recognise the make and model of the pistol is dark testament to the right to bear arms and Vuong’s simile speaks of the violent uselessness of gun culture. However, with a metaphysical shift, the speaker wonders ‘if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning’ and an imagined round punctures the fabric of the universe, revealing lighter possibilities behind the veil.
The cheek by jowl nature of light and dark is in evidence throughout. In ‘In Newport I Watch My Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Back’, the poem is torn asunder as half lines are alternately justified left and right, leaving a wound through the centre of the page. The father’s altruism is evident but, ‘The last time / I saw him run like that, he had / a hammer in his fist, mother / a nail-length out of reach’.
Towards the end of the collection, Homer’s Odyssey is revisited in ‘Odysseus Redux’. ‘He entered my room like a shepherd / stepping out of Caravaggio’. Like Caravaggio’s, Vuong’s chiaroscuro feels necessary. There is no glossing over the violence from which America was born yet, as ‘Into the Breach’ suggests: ‘Tenderness / a thing to be beaten / into’. Vuong’s poems consider war, terrorism, hate crimes and domestic abuse but his optimism and compassion provide the collection’s shaft of light.