John Field Reviews the Shortlist: Ailbhe Darcy – Insistence
For the 2018 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.
This week, John reviews Ailbhe Darcy’s second collection:
“Insistence is not without hope. The stanzas of the final poem, ‘Alphabet’, grow organically from the Fibonacci sequence, nature’s own numbers, suggesting that beauty and growth are independent of human affairs… There’s hope – but for how long?”
Ailbhe Darcy’s Insistence responds to troubled times: this summer, children took refuge from the searing sunshine, and drought laid Queensland to waste. The glacier on Sweden’s Kebnekaise mountain, formerly the country’s highest point, was its highest no longer. The planet’s political instability crystallises in the image of Alan Kurdi, drowned on a Turkish beach. Insistence is a troubling response to the spirit of the age but is not without optimism.
The collection’s epigraphs, taken from Kate McGarrigle’s song, ‘Prosperpina’, and John Jerimiah Sullivan’s essay, ‘Violence of the Lambs’, frame our response to Darcy’s poems. In the Prosperpina myth, Ceres’ daughter, Proserpina, is abducted by Hades and Ceres’ anger manifests as crop failure. The myth reminds us that we have always been aware of the fragility of the ecosystem. Sullivan’s essay, ostensibly a solid piece of research into animals’ violent responses to humans in a changing world, is a fiction worthy of Borges and warns us against our credulous responses to fake news.
Read against these touchstones, the opening poem, ‘Ansel Adams’ Aspens’, reminds us that perception is subjective and the landscape is a composition. We see Adams ‘kneeling on granite, choosing one filter over another’ (Adams shot ‘Aspens’ with a yellow filter to darken the sky). The poem adopts the form of the modern documentary, ‘says the voiceover’, as the reader sees Adams in a dramatic recreation of his childhood, ‘Helpless in his Biltrite pram’. In his essay, Sullivan uses improbable facts, double bluffing by inviting us ‘to verify these things as well, through Google’ and alerts us to our unwillingness to check facts. Darcy’s ‘Biltrite’ pram, a credible detail, problematises the media: as mind’s eye sees an image, it becomes true – but we cannot check it and usually lack the inclination to do so anyway.
If ‘Ansel Adams’ Aspens’ explores the small screen, ‘Jellyfish’ presents the big screen and starts with a close-up: ‘At first you only noticed one– / a translucent crisp nestling in the sand’ but the next stanza zooms out for the wide shot: ‘death’s full murmuration on the sand’. Yes, this suggests a sea of bodies on an epic scale, but also suggests low, barely audible sounds: the suffering of the dying. The catastrophe here is a natural one as, later, we read that jellyfish spawn ‘Where plastics – far away but you can’t help / knowing about it– / make an island’. However, that initial lone jellyfish was ‘nestling’ (such a gentle word) in the sand and reads as a metaphor for the tragedy we witnessed on the Greek and Turkish coasts: ‘Once you saw a photograph / of a child – / lifeless – / on a beach – / so did everybody’. As parents, we shift awkwardly under the guilty weight of our inactivity, omission and indifference.
Insistence is not without hope. The stanzas of the final poem, ‘Alphabet’, grow organically from the Fibonacci sequence, nature’s own numbers, suggesting that beauty and growth are independent of human affairs. We start with an image from Inger Christensen’s alphabet: ‘apricot trees insist; apricot trees insist’ but this natural insistence is immediately threatened: ‘but brand names insist, and battlefields, battlefields, / bombs still insist.’ However, political turmoil and rampant capitalism are not permitted free rein and the tenth section digs deep, stripping itself back to short lines and simple statements as it declares that ‘we are not doomed yet’. The poem leaves us in a rich landscape with ‘huckleberries, the skylark / waking and thinking, the sunshine hiding / and thinking, the rain ticking and thinking’. That word, ‘ticking’, crops up a few times. There’s hope – but for how long?
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: Terrance Hayes – American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin comprises a sequence of seventy sonnets and, into this crucible, Hayes casts the dreams and nightmares, love and hate of a nation. The result is fast-paced and disarmingly intimate, yet it declaims its politics of protest from the rostrum.
In a regular love sonnet, the conceit is that the speaker cannot capture the beauty of the beloved in language. Hayes’s sequence starts here too. The lover is Poetry and s/he is impotent: ‘In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.’ Perhaps this is just a poetic conceit, as the sequence unloads its onslaught against the world’s most despised idiolect, against sonnet 40’s ‘honk of hollow thunder. / The umpteenth Believe me’. Hayes’s language testifies to a truth, to the belittling of a nation by ‘bumble bureaucracy / With teeny tiny wings too small for its rumpled / Dumpling of a body. Humpty-Dumpty. Frumpy / Suit. Instead of power, Hayes presents portliness and paradox as Trump is at once both corpulent and pathetically small. Presenting Trump as a bumblebee, and not as something dangerous and rapacious is supremely belittling. Trump is unnamed explicitly but 18 unique rhyming words – ‘thump’, ‘rump’, badunkadunk’ hit him like the jabs of a boxer, or perhaps he figures instead as J.K. Rowling’s He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named – the embodiment of evil.
Hayes has his sights trained on more than Trump. At the time of writing, 11 were shot dead in an attack on a synagogue on Pittsburgh. Once again, it was suggested that more guns: guns on the door and inside the synagogue would, as Trump put it ‘have been far better […] maybe it would have been a much different situation’. In sonnet 58, Hayes places the gun in a domestic space. Verbs twist and pervert as the ‘you have’ of ownership becomes an act of coercion: ‘You have a gun but to use the poison / You have your son dip a rose in venom / So strong the smell alone will kill someone, But the first to die smelling it is your son’. The poem reads like a disgusting literalization of William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’. A sacrosanct space, perhaps the family, perhaps America herself, has been perverted. This becomes even more uncomfortable as, in sonnet 22, the speaker observes that ‘Christianity is a religion built around a father / Who does not rescue his son’.
Race too is read with sensitivity and nuance. In Sonnet 62, ‘the Robert E. Lee statue was painted white / So often over the years it looked like someone / Covered in a sheet of glue’. There’s a touch of comedy to the image as a version of a confederate past is destroyed in the crude attempt to preserve it but there are disturbing undertones here too as imperceptibly, through time, Lee dons the clansman’s robes.
Hayes’s conclusions are uncertain and the penultimate poem reads as a litany of recent flashpoints and killings: ‘I remember my sister’s last hoorah. / She joined all the black people I’m tired of losing, / All the dead from parts of Florida, Ferguson, / Brooklyn, Charleston, Cleveland, Chicago, / Baltimore’. There’s a weariness and pessimism here. Yes, there’s a bright side of sorts too ‘Because we are all dust’ in the end, although there is small comfort in this communion.
If the American novel is a fine wine, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is its grappa: the distilled, heady liquor of a nation. Yes, it burns, but thrillingly so.
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: Zaffar Kunial Us
Zaffar Kunial’s debut collection, Us, infuses culture in language, identity in history. In Kunial’s hands, language achieves a simultaneity that is both playful and beautiful, but also gently political as he resists and questions cultural assumptions.
The ‘Us’ of the collection’s title feels global and inclusive. However, reading ‘Poppy’ in November, these titles shift in meaning. A combative ‘us’ is set against ‘them’ and the poppy evokes remembrance. Kunial takes this as his starting point as we read that the poppy ‘crops up where acidic ground is neutralised – in Belgium / blasted bones and rubble added their twist of lime / turning the disturbed earth red’. An equal amount of acid and alkali would be required to neutralise the ground, highlighting the cost, the futility of Kunial’s [ex]plosive Belgian ‘blasted bones’. Language shifts before us as ‘lime’, alkaline earth, becomes its chemical opposite, the citrus fruit, loaded with acid. This casual image changes the tone of the poem as language shifts, as one idea follows another.
The earth is ‘disturbed’ – raked, hoed, but also emotionally unsettled. So far, so thrilling. However, Kunial challenges this narrow view of ‘us’ as the poem shifts a gear in stanza four and travels east: ‘Who’s there in the first script, on a Mesopotamian / tablet: Hul and Gil – ‘joy flower’ – a cuneiform / cocktail’. Rolling through Chinese, Greek, Egyptian and Hebrew, the poppy assumes a new stature as a time-honoured easement from pain and death. And so, when we revisit the shattered bodies of the trenches, the poppy has grown in potency as a symbol: ‘Mother – last word of that bleeding, wrecked soldier, / as heard by the last Tommy, the last link to living memory – / spoken for now, like the countless millions // of mouthless dead’.
The opening poem, ‘Fielder’, plays with perspective and place as some aberrant fielding takes the speaker over a quintessentially English border, the cricket pitch boundary rope, and into an uncharted world, ‘a world hidden from batsmen, the umpires and my team’. Read against the collection as a whole, this conceit assumes more significance. If fenced in, even the smallest of locales can feel like a world and, the collection asserts, open borders, intellectual curiosity and multiculturalism are essential for the health of society.
Another ‘us’ explored by Kunial’s collection is the family. ‘Prayer’ riffs on George Herbert’s sonnet of 1633 of the same name. Kunial’s poem is in close dialogue with Herbert’s Christian framework in which prayer is ‘God’s breath in man’, ‘The soul in paraphrase’ but Kunial’s speaker, facing the loss of his mum, instead made an animal noise’. Living and dying in a secular world is harder than existing in a theistic one. At his birth, the speaker’s father prays in his ear ‘Allah hu Akbar’ but the speaker offers his dying mother a secular prayer: ‘Thank you I love you thank you’ and the poem’s doubtful ending, ‘I won’t know if she heard’ operates beyond religious frameworks, suggesting that family is all that we have.
Finally, the collection maintains a close dialogue with culture and, in keeping with its aesthetic of inclusivity, it’s no surprise to see the likes of Nick Drake rubbing shoulders alongside Shakespeare and Dickens. One of the final poems, an elegy, maintains a close relationship with Old English: ‘Where are those who were before us? / Hwær becomes Uuere becomes my where.’
This human chain links one generation to the next and back into the mists of time. It celebrates our humanity and challenges the reader to look for common ground, and not for borders.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Nick Laird Feel Free
In ‘Crunch’, Laird writes that ‘poetry / is weather for the mind / not an umbrella’ and in his collection, ‘Feel Free’, he presents his reader with challenging material. Poetry rarely flinches in the face of death but, by writing about Grenfell and refugees taking their chances on the Mediterranean, Laird presents some of the darkest moments of recent years. The result is an arresting, moving presentation of a cold, tangible world and a chillier digital universe.
The opening poem, ‘Glitch’, dehumanises us as a serious fall is described as ample to ‘crash the OS’. It’s a brilliant metaphor to describe the fragility and ineffability of consciousness. The fall threatens the ‘moist robot I currently inhabit’ and suggests a disregard for the physical person in the modern world as if, beyond death, we can migrate, via the Cloud, to a new device. The sonnet ‘Chronos’ claws the form to pieces. Torn into 7 unrhymed couplets, little remains of the sonnet beyond its fourteen-line husk. We are presented with a video game universe with a strict relationship between cause and effect: ‘I swim to earn endorphins and eat my greens / because I need the fibre and the vitamins’. However, the poem rehearses a moral collapse as ‘I do my best to clean the bath, / and then separate the bodies of the zombies’. Video gamers invest hours in virtual work: chopping firewood in Skyrim’s lumber mills for a few extra coins but then this world of ordered domesticity sits uneasily alongside the unhinged visceral experience of the inevitable bloodbath.
Laird develops this idea across the collection and its penultimate poem, ‘Extra Life’ delivers the body blow: ‘Press esc and wait. White / light. Five tender reports. / You are in a new room / and Father has gone missing’. This is standard videogame fare and begins in the middle of things like an action movie. Roleplaying games (RPGs) can force the player to make agonising moral choices and Laird’s poem simulates these branching narratives as it adopts the features of the form: ‘Click to turn the keys left / in the ignition, and ride the Harley // off the ramp and into Dover’. Laird’s final stanza opens: ‘Click to bring your children / back. Click to kiss them / on their lips. Click to resurrect / your wife and pick / the seaweed from her hair’. It’s a thrilling, sickening poem. ‘Click’ is repeated ad nauseum, suggesting, perhaps, our sense of impotence given the scale of the disaster, or perhaps the poem shines a light on a society which finds it easier to like and dislike images and videos in a digital world instead of reacting in a useful, physical way.
A series of elegies also runs through the collection and Laird’s pained phraseology recurs, like the imagery from a nightmare. Early in the collection, in ‘The Vehicle and the Tenor’ we see ‘black stuff bubbling’ from a dying mother’s lungs and then again towards the end in ‘Cinna the Poet’. This structure helps the poems to worry away at the wound. The sonnet sequence, ‘The Folding’, offers a powerful experience of this as the speaker’s children cut snowflakes, oblivious to ‘that dull, almost inaudible pat / of obliterative fleck on the glass, / and the clock, and the held breath / as the kids concentrate on symmetries / or the blades’ irresistible path’.
‘Feel Free’ is a collection of extraordinary variety and ranges from formal to free verse. It is a collection of fragility and tenderness which retains the power to shock.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Fiona Moore The Distal Point
Forgive me the indulgence of writing this introduction to Fiona Moore’s poetry in the first person. I have read and reviewed her work since the publication of her debut HappenStance pamphlet, ‘The Only Reason for Time’, in 2013. Indeed, the review of this pamphlet is quoted on the back of this, her T. S. Eliot Prize nominated debut collection, The Distal Point. It is unflinchingly rational and objective as it explores some dark personal and historical moments and it punches with tremendous emotional force.
That first pamphlet was a meditation on loss, time and memory, and opened, as this collection does, with ‘The Shirt’: ‘I didn’t find it for months, your shirt / bundled into a corner of the airing cupboard. I / shook it out. It had been cut / with long cuts all the way up the sleeves / and up front, so it looked like a plan / of something about to be put together.’ Finding the shirt, the speaker is ambushed by grief, and by the futility of her denial: laundering and storing the tattered, useless shirt in the usual manner. The repetition of ‘cut’ jars: it’s both an unpoetic, raw statement of fact and an act of surgical precision. There’s a Gothic quality to this too: the shirt is a proxy for a body. There was no plan available for the physical repair of the body and the shirt haunts the house.
‘Taking Visitors to Auschwitz’ seeks refuge in that quintessentially modern void: the car park. However, even the speaker admits that this is a liminal space: ‘It’s here / except it’s not’ and, as such, is inside the threshold. The speaker hopefully continues ‘This could be anywhere’… ‘except it’s not’. Again, like the laundered shirt, the poem presents a refusal to engage but Auschwitz asserts itself regardless. Moore’s terse, short lines and crisp observations provide the scaffolding and Auschwitz is contained within. The poem’s repetitions as ‘Coaches drop off groups’ echo the trains of the Holocaust. Then and now, Auschwitz continues its industrial processing of humanity which Moore presents as uncanny, haunted, ‘except it’s not’.
Moore’s is a compassionate world. In ‘The Sounds Crowds Make’, it’s our systems that are violent, not people themselves. ‘The tube bursts out of the tunnel’ and the train doors have a ten year old boy’s neck ‘clamped’ in its ‘double guillotine’, trapped ‘between two worlds’. The tube train, like Auschwitz’s car park, assumes a liminal quality as at any time, in place, a portal to the timeless world of the dead threatens to open up. The audience in this theatre respond emotionally with ‘oh, a collective moan of shock’ but ‘the boy stays still, silent’ as if time stands still and we dumbly accept.
In the ‘Distal Point’, the collection’s title poem plays with a word that applies both to the anatomy (an extremity, a distant part of a limb, or organ) and to geology (far from a point a geological activity but close enough to have been influenced by it). ‘We stand at the point of greatest change– / the distal point’, a chaotic but beautiful landscape in which ‘the waves curl / and spill, lacing each other, forming a landscape that moves / leached of colour’. The poem is both Romantic and romantic as we feel awe and a sense of our insignificance but also the tenuousness of our togetherness as limbs and fingers – our own distal points – provide fleeting moments of connection. Yet, against the chaos, ‘no-one has stood here before’ and, in the chaos of Moore’s universe, this is a moment for celebration.
Moore writes with integrity, discipline, economy and, above all, bravery. Medium and message combine to produce something truly memorable.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Sean O’Brien Europa
Sean O’Brien’s Europa presents an infernal dream vision of decadence and decay. It can be a stylised, noir vision, skeined in smoke and clad in stockings. However, its crisp thematic focus, and economy of form and language balance this with urgency. O’Brien’s language of borders, fences and walls gains power and resonance as it speaks of – and to – the geopolitical challenges of the present.
The scars of conflict mark the collection. It opens with ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’. Perhaps the title echoes the 1969 mural, painted on a gable wall in Londonderry, ‘You are now entering free Derry’, or perhaps the reader will catch an echo of the iconic sign on Berlin’s Friedrichstraße: ‘You are now entering the American Sector’. (The ghostly image on the cover is of Mies van der Rohe’s 1921 Friedrichstraße Skyscraper: a beautiful, bold look towards a better Berlin, impossible in a city subsequently bisected by ideology along that very street). The poem opens ‘The grass moves on the mass graves’, creating an unresting, unresolved atmosphere as the reader is reminded that Europe is built on bones.
O’Brien returns to this idea towards the end of the collection, in ‘The Sunken Lane’, ‘Where the dead are once more / Trying to assemble in the dark.’ Again, there is a sense of unfinished business, as if the ghosts have not accepted that the conflict has been resolved and ‘the ancient ordnance / Sweats and waits implacably // For Zero Hour beneath the ridge’. ‘Ancient ordnance’ suggests every war, not just the Great War, reminding us that the challenges we face extend far beyond the twentieth century. In the spectacular ‘From the Cherry Hills’, set in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ‘there lies / More history than any place can be / Imagined to accommodate’. ‘Lies’ suggests that this history is now buried, but the poem is uneasy about this, as its sheer volume defies containment and the dynamited mosque is rebuilt, suggesting the futile cyclic nature of history.
Time, that perennial subject, is given fresh urgency as the break-neck speed of social change is presented. In ‘The Chase’, we see a mock-Tudor Midland roadhouse, ‘Thirties-built to meet the passing trade / Long since diverted down the bypass’. It reads like an ironic twist on the country house poem, the poetic form in which Ben Jonson and Aemilia Lanyer praise their patrons’ pads. Instead, O’Brien gives us the collapse of middle England with his Midland hotel as we are joined outside by someone’s husband and his ‘shy-smiling bigotry about ‘Our friends from the subcontinent’’.
Weariness abounds. ‘Hence, Loathèd Melancholy’ is a rebuttal of Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’. Milton concludes ‘Mirth, with thee I mean to live’, but O’Brien gives us instead the utter vacuity of enforced social banality: ‘This will all be a lie’. In ‘Sabbatical’, the tyranny of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) compels ‘the lunatics who stick it out / In mortal terror’ to work without holidays in an intellectually bankrupt society: as ‘the West declines and does not read’.
Although these are serious poems for serious times, there is a human warmth to the Larkineque quality of the speaker’s world-weariness and isolation. There are also moments of comic satire. In ‘Mecklenburgh Square’ the speaker ‘roamed the streets of London town’ in a nod to William Blake’s ‘London’, where the speaker wanders ‘thro’ each charter’d street’. However, O’Brien’s tale of booze and abandonment reads like a twenty-first century ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ as the girl vanishes, leaving the speaker ‘to wander / Back through Mecklenburgh a while’.
O’Brien’s Europa proves that unsettling times produce excellent poetry.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Phoebe Power Shrines of Upper Austria
The Austrian Expressionist painter, Egon Schiele, is referenced early in Power’s collection: the ekphrastic poem, ‘children’, responds to Schiele’s 1918 painting, ‘Stadtende’. A colourful town locks the viewer’s eye in the centre of the canvas but, on the margins to the left and the right, in the darker paint, children jump from open windows and run through the trees. Power’s poems question the permanence of human society and, like Schiele, acknowledge the troubling voices we hear at the margins. Power evokes a sense of place with a vibrant, spare palette and her collection’s voices reflect and refract its theme of change.
An early sequence, ‘Austrian Murder Case’, opens in a sleepy paradise like an Agatha Christie novel. The cake shop reassures us that our daily rituals tick with their reassuring regularity, ‘Close, warm, and humming with the relaxed sounds of post-midday Kaffee-Kuchen’ [coffee and cake]. Kaffee-Kuchen symbolises the bounty and dependability of the Austrian way of life. However, in ‘See (1)’ [where ‘see’ means lake], we’re reminded that this stability is an illusion. Florian, walking his dog, ‘preferred this less trodden, further side because it meant he has a good view of the town, busy and self-important on that nearer side’ and, with this change of perspective, the importance of human existence diminishes. Like Schiele’s ‘Stadtende’, we’re reminded of lawlessness that threatens to erupt in the shadows and, in ‘Hands and Feet’, a suitcase is removed from the lake with its load of ‘feet and hands’. Power’s lake is an all-seeing eye, a godlike presence. As the body parts are dumped, she closes ‘her soft, wide black eyelid’ and, in ‘See (2)’, the authorities attempt to piece the crime together ‘in their human way’, strangely diminished and displaced.
However, those dismembered cadavers, sliding into the silent waters of the lake create ripples. It is possible to read the detective novel as symbolic of a greater trauma, and not as an isolated murder. The corpse on the Edwardian croquet lawn is the violence of the Great War, dumped on the doorstep. The collection’s final section explores people’s responses to climate change. Prose fragment builds upon fragment, with a weight of experience: ‘This winter was wetter, Christmas was wrong. At the February carnival, one float was painted with unsaid words like the silent victim of a strangling – Wann wird es wieder richtiges Winter?’ [When will winter be right again?] The order of the poems accentuates this change, as the poem is followed by ‘silver white winters that melt into springs’. Statements are used to convey our former sense of certainty as ‘The winter was a thick covering of snow between late november and early march’.
‘Milk’ unpicks the predicament of the modern consumer, shopping in an ethical minefield. ‘Jessica has heard of the need to cut out dairy. Cows produce all that methane, that contributes to global warming’. The vague quality of ‘has heard’ articulates the lack of overall plan and policy and Jessica, keen to play her part, sources an alternative: a Tetra-Pak of rice milk and Power’s rhetorical questions articulate the dilemma of the modern consumer: ‘Surely here nothing can be wrong? The milk is sweet and thin; she images the delicate grains like splinters of shell poised on her tongue. But the paddies too take so much water to maintain. And all these cartons can’t be good either, with their chewy layers of cardboard, foil and plastic covering, tough to recycle’.
Full of voices and European colour, ‘Shrines of Upper Austria’ is indirect, building a compelling, troubling picture of a changing world.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Richard Scott – Soho
Richard Scott’s debut collection, Soho, measures personal experiences of gay sexuality and shame against a broader sweep of history and culture. The result is extraordinary. His poems land like punches and bloom like bruises, yet the collection is underpinned by a close engagement with decadent and queer culture, lending his poems a lyricism which serves as a counterpoint to their passion and pain.
Opening with ‘Public Library, 1998’, Scott evokes Orton’s and Halliwell’s antics defacing library books. Scott’s speaker is marginalised: ‘In the library where there is not one gay poem, / not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads – I / open again the Golden Treasury of Verse and write // in the margin’. The word ‘COCK’ is written in the margin. It’s an incredible poem. The marginalia of Medieval manuscripts are a riot of misrule: Christian morality takes centre stage but, at the edges of The Macclesfield Psalter you’ll see an ape peering up a man’s asshole while another pulls his robes to his waist to spread his cheeks. The poem revels in innuendo as ‘I underline those that nature, // not the printer, had pricked out; rimming each delicate / stanza in cerulean, illuminating the readers-to-come…’ like an irreligious monk in a queer scriptorium.
The poems which follow pluck gay experience from the margins of life and place it in the centre of the page. The collection’s first part, ‘admission’, plays with ideas of initiation and guilt. Initially, there’s a tender beauty to the natural imagery of ‘le jardin secret’: ‘boys were my saplings / my whiff of green my sprouts’. His unpunctuated list and short lines are breathless and unrestrained but darken in tone as ‘boys were my / pitchers my fly-traps my / venus a petalled mouth wet / throat around a grave’. It’s a heady, fin du siècle image and evokes the violence coded in Mapplethorpe’s calla lilies. Similarly, ‘crocodile’, winner of the 2017 Poetry London Competition, is a visceral, breathless extended metaphor of abuse as Scott’s speaker was ‘held from behind / when I didn’t know sex’ and he ‘gripped my mouth like a muzzle / and unsheathed his anger / stubble grazing my neck’.
The second part, ‘Verlaine in Soho’, reworks the poetry of Paul Verlaine in enigmatic unrhymed quatrains. In ‘blue-screen’ things are not as they appear, and the brash primary colours of a Grindr profile do not necessarily mean happiness. ‘your grindr profile is an emoticon paradise / where camels and kittens go / dancing and flashing but I can tell they are 🙁 / beneath their primary colours’. Gay culture has ascribed its own meanings to emoticons: according to the Evening Standard, the camel represents humping. (You can guess what the aubergine means…) Codes lie beneath codes, lie beneath codes. Below the Grindr app, we reach its ‘programming and code’ ‘CC++’. Yes, C++ is a programming language but ‘CC’ also suggests sissy. Grindr becomes a kaleidoscope, abstracting the self until all grip on reality is lost.
The collection concludes with ‘Oh My Soho!’, a paean to the queer folk of London’s finest ‘Urine-lashed maze of cobble’ and takes a historical look at the oppression of gay culture, from Roman times to the present-day threat of the geneticist. Scott’s language remains resolutely playful and perverse, as the speaker submits his flesh to the ‘grindstone – my only weapon against normativity!’
Sex remains a weapon to the end but rather than being its victim, the speaker has learned to use it for the defence of the ‘homo-land’. Soho is a thrilling exploration of language and identity, delivered with terrific emotional force.
Tracy K. Smith
John Field Reviews the Shortlist: Tracy K. Smith – Wade in the Water
As a cultural artefact, the song ‘Wade in the Water’ carries a range of meanings: most recently it is associated with the Biloxi Beach civil rights wade-ins of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when people waded into the water to demand equal access to the public beach; it was sung at the full-immersion baptisms conducted along the rivers and deltas of the South; it was coded guidance given to slaves contemplating an escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad, where wading in the water was a means to elude pursuing bloodhounds. Smith writes with an economy of word and symbol, allowing a deep engagement with history and our husbandry of the planet.
The opening poem, ‘Garden of Eden’, wrong-foots us: we presume that the title is simply a Biblical reference but it initially refers to “the Garden of Eden / On Montague Street”, a fresh food store. Exclamations and lists fill each line to capacity, mirroring a basket stuffed with “glossy pastries! / Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!” However, as we are lured into the poem’s fullness and salivate at its exotic abundance, the speaker distances herself from this fallen behaviour: “My thirties. / Everyone I knew was living / The same desolate luxury, / Each ashamed of the same things” and the poem abruptly closes as something – her bank balance, the march of time – slams her “in the face – / The known sun setting / On the dawning century”, echoing Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, suggesting that decadent profligacy cannot be sustained.
If ‘Garden of Eden’ documents our inadvertent, individual abuses of the planet, ‘Watershed’, partly written in response to Rob Bilott’s New York Times article, ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare’, implicates big business in its calculated exploitation. There’s a circularity to this as J sells 66 acres to DuPont. He “did not want to sell / but needed money poor health / mysterious ailments” caused by DuPont polluting his drinking water. Smith’s free verse disconnects the whys and wherefores with space on the page, suggesting DuPont’s desire to deny the link between J’s “poor health” and the behaviour of his “deranged” cattle. Water, that sacramental symbol of life and rebirth, has been perverted for profit.
Smith locates many African American slave experiences within this context of capitalist rapaciousness. The erasure poem ‘Unwritten’ works with a family’s correspondence regarding the sale of the slaves Patience, Porter and their children. “Much as I should miss the mother, I am / Persuaded that we might come / To some understanding about a change / Of investment”. Even in personal letters, common nouns are employed to reduce the slave: initially to a functionary, and then to an asset in a ledger. In ‘I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All about It’, Smith works with the letters and statements of former slaves who enlisted in the Civil War to powerful effect. Illiteracy and fluidity of name leave soldiers and their families ripe for yet more exploitation as pay and pensions are stolen. With heart-breaking patriotism, these new citizens uphold democratic values as they express their grievances in painstaking print, writing to “Mr abarham lincon”.
A review can only scratch the surface of a collection as wide ranging as this. In ‘Unrest in Baton Rouge – after the photo by Jonathan Bachman’, Smith suggests that only the civil disobedience of “love’s blade” – the dignified nonviolence of protestors like Leshia Evans, nurse and mother to be – has the possibility of defeating “the men in black armour”. However, the historical repetitions Smith observes do not underestimate the task ahead. Wade in the Water is a book of love, but it resists glib platitudes posing as solutions for America’s troubles.
John Field Reviews the Shortlist: Hannah Sullivan – Three Poems
This week, John’s final review is of Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems and he comes to an unqualified verdict on the collection: “Three Poems are a sensual encounter with language. The combination of Sullivan’s disciplined couplets and riot of language create a memorable meditation on living and dying.”
Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems trains a steady gaze on the details of urban existence: its beauty, joy and pain. Like the work of Eliot and Pound before her, there’s a simultaneity to Sullivan’s presentation of time and even the medical particulars of birth and death converge into experiences which are disorienting in their similarity. The personal and the public combine in the crucible of Sullivan’s language into a disciplined, structured object of terrible beauty.
The first poem, ‘You, Very Young in New York’ stages the dizzying, numbing revolutions of the timeless city. "Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground. / ‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’ / But nothing seems to happen. You stand around // On the same street corners". The rides repeat themselves endlessly, and the fair itself is, in essence, unchanged from season to season. But Sullivan irreverently throws entropy into the system and reminds us that no fairground ride can go on forever: "You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator's batteries are low / And the plasticine-pink stick rotates leisurely in your palm". Sullivan’s presentation of time and space has a distinctly contemporary feel as the modern workplace rejects these old demarcations. Internationally, every workspace is the same anonymous "Lego-maze": "In Chennai, meanwhile, a man is waiting for your analysis, Eating his breakfast of microwaved dal and mini-idlis, // Checking the cricket scores on his computer, reading Thoreau, / Wondering what New York looks like at night, the snow".
The sequence ‘Repeat Until Time’ takes as its starting point an epigraph from the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: "On those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters keep on flowing…" The sequence starts conventionally enough – with a river and the predictable, Heraclitan ebb and flow of nature: "Other old women step delicately into the same floodwater" but the poem’s final, lonely, single-line stanza strikes a more uncertain note: "It is hard to say if there is progress in history" and, in the final part, we revisit the first successful nuclear detonation: "T = 0 = 5:29:45 a.m. / It is very important that the thunder comes". Perhaps Eliot’s ‘What the Thunder Said’, the final part of The Waste Land, delivers enlightenment, perhaps it delivers oblivion, but Sullivan ends with the words of Kenneth Bainbridge, Trinity project director: "‘‘Now we’re all motherfucking sons of bitches.’’ / [And repeat.]" Language echoes through time but, like cancer cells, which "divide interminably", the nuclear chain reaction generates itself: life and death are one and the same.
The final sequence, ‘The Sandpit After Rain’, takes a more domestic view of entropy ("jumpers bobble") and debunks some of the more portentous aspects of high Modernist poetry. Eliot’s The Waste Land ends with the mystic mantra "Shantih shantih shantih" but Sullivan’s speaker, a pregnant woman, tries yoga and Sanskrit chanting as she prepares for birth: "Om Sahana, / Om Shanti, What faith did I have in the wisdom of the east? / In Hypnobirthing?" In a memorable image of the restaurant fish tank, Sullivan presents the saltwater eel: "Chosen and not yet chosen, neither living nor dead, / Eddying between two walls of bubbling glass" and the condemned eel is both the certainty of death and the certainty of birth. The oxytocin of birth and the morphine of the hospice are analogous to one another.
Three Poems are a sensual encounter with language. The combination of Sullivan’s disciplined couplets and riot of language create a memorable meditation on living and dying.