John Field reviews the shortlist: Antony Anaxagorou – After the Formalities
For the 2019 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.
After the Formalities is a spectacular collision of the public and the private, of little lives and the breaking of nations. Anaxagorou writes against the context of the comments made by David Starkey on national television following the riots that shook the nation in the summer of 2011. Starkey said that ‘A substantial section of the chavs have become black’ and, referencing Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, commented that Powell ‘was absolutely right in one sense. The Tiber didn’t foam with blood but flames lambent.’ Anaxagorou takes these trite remarks to task.
‘Cause’ starts, like Virgil’s Aeneid, in the middle of things, amidst the smouldering ashes of a civilization: ‘& to the burning I say / my worry is a whole country.’ The speaker travels with a ‘heavy trunk of silverware / museum glass polish / portraiture / of bent flags’. This nod to the razing of Troy destabilises Starkey’s notion of Romans and Vandals as Aeneas, Virgil’s legendary founder of Rome, is just a refugee pushing his chattels – the wreckage of a prized culture – towards a brighter future.
The stunning ‘Uber’ also enjoys an epic quality. Exploring ideas of home and homecoming, it’s a modern multi-national Odyssey, delivered in exhilarating form, terse as a fragmented start-stop conversation in a cab. Odysseus was a loner but in ‘Uber’, the displaced are everywhere, even out the window as ‘a car / makes an / emergency stop / a homeless / man / moves / like a saw / into traffic’, reminding us that ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ resist smug nationalistic notions of ethnicity. Love and work link us and the Uber driver keeps the photo of his nine-year-old daughter close as he earns the money to see her again.
Fatherhood too teeters on the brink. In ‘Things Already Lost’, stanzas walk the tightrope across the void between left and right of the page. The flattened pigeon on the driveway teaches the son a hard lesson as ‘Each morning for a week / he’d run to the window waving / at its disintegrating wings’ and through these means, ‘he learnt the perils / of grapes, to grip bannisters / & stand still for sun block’. These daily cares and rituals speak eloquently of our hopes and cares for our children. However, Anaxagorou digs deeper with fearless honesty. In the prose poem ‘A Boy Stood Still’, we revisit these hackneyed, timeless images of paternal tenderness: ‘With the top of my elbow dipped in, I float the yellow duck to be sure. 37o flashed a solid green’. The exactness of that digital thermometer flashes a convincingly geeky, manly green. On such familiar ground, nothing can prepare us for what follows: ‘my uncle made his son sit in a bathtub of ice water for half an hour.’ We are presented with two baths and two fathers and understand that life resists convenient generalisations – stereotypes – prejudices.
The final poem, ‘From Here the Camera Crew’ returns to unsettling images of apocalypse: ‘They’re sipping Old Fashioned / in their gardens tonight / deckchairs facing the sun’ echoes Nero, fiddling as Rome burned – a stern rebuke to Starkey’s ‘flames lambent’ suggesting that decadent torpor accounts for the state of a nation content to treat ‘the body of a boy in Dalston’ and Grenfell Tower as one and the same detached ‘brightness of a screen’. Anaxagorou concludes with a sickening yet optimistic image: ‘our nation a slow animal / unable to digest any more meat’.
These urgent, honest poems are borne of our times and walk a tightrope of extremes. Anaxagorou looks bravely into the abyss but love marks the path.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Fiona Benson – Vertigo & Ghost
In Part One of Vertigo & Ghost, the fig leaf of culture is whipped away, and the weaponized phallus of the rapist is revealed. It’s an uncanny effect as, through history, some writers and artists have treated sexual violence as a pretext for a gawp: we’re desensitised to myths where rape no longer looks like rape. The integrity of Part Two supplants the salacious painterly gaze and breaks a few taboos with its look at the woman’s body.
Part One opens with the joyful, colourful sexual yearning of ‘Ace of Bass’. Cliché is reinvested with power: ‘That was the summer / hormones poured into me / like an incredible chemical cocktail / into a tall iced glass, my teenage heart / a glossy, maraschino cherry.’ There’s a tempting ripeness here, but also the seductive artifice of emerging sexuality (the maraschino cherry is soaked in food colouring to catch the eye). Desire distorts language as the girls escape ‘from the boarding house to practise our backhand’.
However, in ‘Zeus’, we revisit this gentle, sporting euphemism ‘as you let him do / what he wants / on your own familiar sheets / to stop the yelling / and the backhand to the face’. The teenage girls in ‘Ace of Bass’ are the mistresses of their destinies, the active subjects of the poem’s sentences, united by the first person plural. In this section of ‘Zeus’, we’re in the second person, isolated even from ourselves as we’re ‘looking down / thinking slut’ even judging ourselves as that innocent backhand becomes something else: the studied violence of the rapist. No space or age are safe as ‘familiar’ evokes the home – and the family home in particular – reminding us that Zeus rapes women in many guises.
Benson’s Medusa poems are exceptional. Perplexingly, Medusa persists in culture as demonised female rage. We’re supposed to breathe a sigh of relief when Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion horror gasps her last and Perseus wins Andromeda. Benson opens ‘[not-Zeus: Medusa 1]’ with the statement: ‘Poseidon the sea god / raped Medusa’ and we need to reflect on this. Why isn’t this the nucleus of the myth? Why does our culture gloss over this? On the opposite page, in ‘[not-Zeus: Medusa 2]’ we visit the unmarried mothers incarcerated in the Magdalene laundries of Catholic Ireland. The certainty of Benson’s statements ring like judgements and the third person perspective adds to their isolation as ‘The priest will tell them / they’re the devil’s own whores, / that he’s all around them, / hissing in their ears’. In Christian myth the serpent’s voice is the embodiment of evil, and Benson’s subversion of the priest’s judgement is bitterly ironic. Medusa’s snaky punishment is meted out by Athena, as women too are complicit in the abuses of patriarchy. Benson’s nuns ‘take their soft little babes / and bury them’.
In Part Two, human savagery is read against the indifference of nature. In the first of the ‘Two Sparrows’ poems, a sparrow is grabbed by a hawk but the flock ‘can’t seem to figure which one of them’s gone, / and the nameless dead of the human world / float endlessly down the corpse-choked river’. Life is cheap, death is banal and that ‘choked river’ teeters on the edge of environmental catastrophe. The collection sizzles with honesty. In the blood, excrement and offal of ‘Afterbirth’ Benson takes the trouble to view the body of a new mother eschewing pop culture’s maraschino cherries.
Vertigo & Ghost has already bagged the 2019 Forward Prize for Best Collection and it’s easy to see why. As she re-works old culture, Benson’s breaking new ground.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Jay Bernard – Surge
Jay Bernard’s Surge meditates on the New Cross house fire which killed 13 young black people in 1981. It’s an enraged, elegiac, erudite collection which views London through a wide-angle lens, considering the murder of Naomi Hersi, a trans woman of colour, and the Grenfell fire as it reflects relationships between citizen and state. Despite Bernard’s presentation of London’s mean streets, he challenges the reader to step forward and to witness to the truth.
The collection opens with ‘Arrival’, where the speaker commands the reader to ‘remember we were brought here from the clear waters of our dreams.’ The first person plural is an inclusive, welcoming opening but, in the passive voice, it suggests an enslaved people as it echoes Psalm 137’s ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.’ The poem establishes the relationship between Britain and its slaves who were ‘named, numbered and forgotten’. This, together with the ‘smoky mouths’ of the oppressed and the unsettling, unresolved ‘snap, crackle’ at the end of the poem recollects another burnt offering – another holocaust.
The prose poem ‘+’ feels like testimony: a father is rendered inarticulate by worry and broken by dashes and nervous ticks of repetition. He is treated without dignity by a police officer who said ‘oh, it’s very common for culprits to go missing – I said my son isn’t a culprit, and how dare he imply it – and one of the officers stood up by the window and looked out – he didn’t want to look us full in the eye – he made it clear, he made it clear’. The offhand ‘oh’ betrays indifference and the speaker’s repetition signals his impotent rage. Over the page, in ‘–‘, Bernard ventriloquises the dead son. Black skin and carbonised flesh are treated in the same way: ‘they were looking at me strangely, dad – like he couldn’t stand to look at me – couldn’t stand the sight of me – Police always looked at me like that’.
This collection flexes with political purpose. ‘Songbook’ doffs its cap to Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose poems, like ‘Sonny’s Letter’, seethe with anger and indignation against racist police brutality in the early 1980s. Bernard’s decision to include images of protest: signs, posters and vigils anchor these poems to the real world.
The second half of the collection explores contemporary London, and ‘Pem-People’ (Peckham people) considers the murder of Naomi Hersi. The vigil at a pop-up shop invites the reader to make the link with the image of the New Cross vigil, suggesting that little has changed in London. However, the poem concludes by switching its focus: ‘I want to eat the bean stew alone // and watch Venus throw her serve across YouTube’. Venus Williams symbolises a changing world – a world in which black talent takes its rightful place on the podium.
Therefore, it is telling that when the collection revisits house fires in ‘Blank’, Bernard works with lines from the Manchester Weekly News campaign to save Robert Chilowa, who rescued children from a burning building, from deportation. Bernard contrasts his bravery with the evasive mandarin of government. Chilowa’s actions are instinctive and human: ‘He raced towards the ferocious blaze’ and ‘He ran to the house in his bare feet’, whereas official communications are pre-mediated and neutered as: ‘those involved have defended their actions and been given // been given / acquitted / retired with full pay / charged / acquitted’.
Surge is a work of phenomenal artistic and political power. People’s voices are given the space they need to resonate, but Bernard focuses them into a deafening cry.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Paul Farley – The Mizzy
The Mizzy explores our changing relationships with landscape and society. Tyre swings strung from trees jostle with smartphones as the individual is pushed to the margins. Above all, it’s a wonderful collection of poems: even the title is a pleasure. Mizzy is a beautiful word for ‘bog, quagmire’. It looks great on the page and that ‘z’ – an alveolar hissing sibilant – fizzes in the mouth. It’s a mysterious word with a poetic pedigree as, although its origin is now lost to time, the Gawain Poet is credited with its first recorded usage – Sir Gawain and his horse, Gryngolet, journey through ‘mony misy and myre’ in their quest to find the Green Chapel, thought by some to be Lud’s Church in Staffordshire. This dialect word anchors The Mizzy to a place – and, as a homophone for ‘mossy’, mizzy also evokes lush, green nature – and even, perhaps, the glories of Lud’s Church.
The opening poem, ‘Starling’, debunks quests, heroes and heroic deeds as ‘All I’ve ever done with my life / is to follow the average course of the crowd / and witter on about my hole in the wall’. Humanity becomes a river, a course, and we take the path of least resistance. The starling’s hole comments on the circumscribed nature of our lives and ‘witter’ sees Farley working with more dialect. It’s defined by the OED as ‘to chatter or mutter; to grumble; to speak with annoying lengthiness on trivial matters’ and feels like a wry jab at Twitter. Farley tackles this head-on in ‘The Gadget’, a not so fanciful mythologizing of the smart phone ‘that knows my blood type and search history’, equating the two.
The smallness of our lives is threaded through the collection. In ‘Oiks’, the word ‘oik’ initially connotes loutish obnoxiousness but, unlike the murmuring starlings, our communities have broken, knocking the wind from the sails of male bravado: ‘each bud, each mate, / each bruv were sappy words that glued them together, / then new words came to loosen those, like solvents, / and as the cities grew, oiks could be seen / in cafes, buses, or walking oikily along / keeping their sadness to themselves’. The collection also mourns the fading of the dialects that bound us together in communities as, instead, we celebrate television’s ‘blue communion’, each slack-jawed and alone in a darkened room, soaking up the monoculture offered by Netflix and Amazon.
In ‘Moss’, human society is pushed to the margins. Manchester’s close by and we can hear the traffic rumble. Perhaps we’re even at Lud’s Church – it feels like it. Nature is in charge and has the power to stop traffic ‘where buddleia // holds the signal at maroon’ and the moss has reclaimed the motorway cutting with ‘ferns the green of a banker’s lamp’. There’s a hint of the apocalypse to the poem as ‘plinths // of concrete stand with no discernible function’ and ‘the first landscape of speed is gathering moss’. There’s something old and powerful at work. Farley echoes the fissure in the rock with a deep caesura. As the cutting ‘passes through the fossil record’, so the caesura jolts us from the present and into an Old English poetic form. We see something similar in ‘Swing’, where the childhood rope swing looks more like a pendulum marking our time, a hangman’s scaffold, dispatching the generations at the crack of doom: ‘History isn’t looking. Before / they hand the tethered baton on / and everybody in the line moved up one, / they practise their escape until it’s dark. / The tree records them in its rings and bark’.
If all this sounds rather earnest, be assured that it isn’t. The Mizzy is deft and joyful and, above all, it revels in language.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Ilya Kaminsky – Deaf Republic
A sequence of free verse poems comprising a two Act play, Deaf Republic ostensibly documents events in the fictional town of Vasenka, garrisoned by the army and under martial law. The poems explore the townspeople’s resistance and the soldiers’ attempts to impose authority. The notional Eastern European setting grounds the poems. However, Deaf Republic cries out the miserable truth of every military occupation in an arresting, vivid, timeless exploration of resistance – and complicity.
Kaminsky opens with ‘Gunshot’, spoken by the chorus, the townspeople of Vasenka. The chorus, a feature of Classical Greek theatre, points to a conflict on a par with Euripides’ Antigone: an irresistible force meets an immovable object, lending the poems a timelessness and truthfulness. Winston Churchill is credited with the earliest recorded use of ‘theatre of war’, in a letter from 1914 discussing the Western Front, and the Chorus declaims that ‘Our country is the stage.’ At one level, this invites us to imagine the stage as a warzone, but it also acknowledges the world’s willingness to watch a tragedy unfold from the comfort and safety of a plush, upholstered seat.
Kaminsky’s language is arresting and elemental. As Sonya kneels by the body of her cousin, Petya, shot to death by soldiers on the street, she ‘kisses his forehead – her shout a hole // torn in the sky’. Kaminsky works the stanza break: first we see the black O of her mouth, and then our perspective spirals outwards to see the rent torn in the universe. Metaphor is almost unbearably painful as ‘She stretches out / beside the little snowman napping in the middle of the street’. In ‘That Map of Bone and Opened Valves’, Gora’s wife is torn from her bed ‘like the door off a bus’ but, despite the savage power of Kaminsky’s figurative language, his eye maintains its focus on the human tragedy: ‘The body of the boy lies on the asphalt like a paperclip. / The body of the boy lies on the asphalt / like the body of a boy’.
Kaminsky’s play is framed by a pair of poems: ‘We Lived Happily during the War’ and ‘In a Time of Peace’. They provide his theatre with its audience. In ‘We lived happily during the war’, as atrocity unfolds, we // protested / but not enough’. The first person plural implicates us in a collective indifference before the speaker comments more explicitly on his own splendid, American, isolation: ‘I was / in my bed’ and in ‘our great country of money we (forgive us) // lived happily during the war’. ‘In a Time of Peace’ asserts that we are in ‘a peaceful country’ – the presence of cops puts us back in America again. There’s a repeated refrain: ‘It is a peaceful country’. It’s a statement, but the repetition undermines this – it’s an act of self-delusion, a dream. The poem’s reality is watching ‘neighbors open // their phones to watch / a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license. When the man reaches for his wallet, the cop / shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.’ Again, the line break creates a freeze-frame and we’re given the space to hope that those neighbors are opening their doors. However, no-one gets off the hook here as the speaker too is complicit, watching people watching on their phones.
Deaf Republic exists beyond time and place. It’s a book we need and is certainly one we deserve. Come and see.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Sharon Olds – Arias
When we think of arias, we think of bombastic numbers from great operas, but the word’s root is in ‘air’, reminding us that even the music’s keystones exist fleetingly, as soundwaves, borne on the moment before spiralling into nothing.
At first glance, Sharon Olds’ latest collection might feel operatic. It’s a substantial volume, weighing-in at 205 virtuosic pages. However, it delivers a heart-breaking, forensic exploration of fragility and mortality. It’s metaphysical poetry at its finest and Olds channels the fearlessness of John Donne. One might be forgiven for presuming that there is available fat to trim from a collection this size – but not so. The poems offer a broad spectrum of experience, but the collection focuses this into a beam of pure light and energy. The result is exhilarating.
Olds’ trademark domestic and physical intimacy comments on broader social and political issues and she sets the tone with the opening poem, ‘For You’. The speaker fixes breakfast, watching the birds in the garden: ‘I report them as I seek them, / so as not to forget: tray, cell phone, / purple martin, Trayvon Martin’. Here language is unstable, configuring and reconfiguring in the mind – evidence of the barely repressed trauma bubbling away in the American subconsciousness: the young Trayvon Martin was shot to death in the gated, guarded community in which he was staying in 2012. That a 2012 gun crime opens a 2019 collection comments on the cumulative damage dealt by every fresh outrage to the American psyche.
Olds questions her right to document American trauma. In ‘looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers had Been’, she speculates about whether ‘song can be harmful, in its ignorance / which does not know itself as ignorance’ and apologizes to ‘that raw bright metal / we contain’. As Olds focuses her forensic gaze on matters of combustion and chemistry, she still finds our dignity and beauty, ‘raw and bright’.
It feels significant that Olds includes both time and place in the title of ‘My Parents’ Ashes (New York City, October, 2001)’. As the collection explores intimate moments, the World Trade Center casts its long shadow. Personal and private histories intermingle, and the speaker wonders whether ‘a molecule of her / has lain beside a molecule / of him’. At one level, the reader is reminded of the painstaking forensic science undertaken by the team identifying the victims of the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center from the smallest scraps of DNA. Olds is a poet of breath-taking intimacy and here, her gaze bores deeper, seeing the electrons spinning around the nucleus ‘as if they could circle one / nucleus, like parents a crib, / share an atomic weight, their / cold embers conjoining’. Look closely enough and you hold infinity in the palm of your hand.
The collection celebrates the raw and the authentic. The title, ‘No Makeup’, might be read as a protest slogan, or simply as a statement about the self. Denuded of makeup, the speaker exhibits ‘the thin features of a gray girl in a gray graveyard – / granite, ash, chalk, dust,’ those harsh, plosive alliterating ‘g’ sounds and matter of fact utilitarian vocabulary (the repetition of ‘gray’) assert her right to not to have to dress up the truth.
Death stalks the collection like a drawing down of blinds and yes, sometimes Olds’ conceits, her spinning electrons and microscopic universes, feel like John Donne cocking a metaphysical snook at death. However, Olds’ intimate observation of the body becomes a profound articulation of grief and desire. These poems do not end with ashes and dust, but in the lightness of air.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Vidyan Ravinthiran – The Million-petalled Flower of Being There
The cover of The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here shows a Leonids meteor storm in 1833, people taking a break from the humdrum to look to the heavens in wonder. Ravinthiran’s sonnets offer something similar: moments in time bloom and we’re invited to stop for a moment and look.
The collection opens with ‘Today’, the title of which lends an immediacy further enhanced by Ravinthiran’s first person address: ‘I was reading my book by the window / waiting for you’. The book, the waiting, the window, present a mind focused on elsewhere, killing time and steadfastly rejecting the offer made by the present moment. However, there’s an epiphany and the broken stem of a flower in a vase is transformed: the orange gerbera’s ‘glow’ and ‘radiant petals’ lend it a divine quality and the world around is enough.
However, Ravinthiran is quick to burst the bubble of his own numinosity. The sonnets are arranged in pairs, so ‘Today’ is paired with ‘Aubade’, inviting the reader to ponder their relationship. If anything, ‘Aubade’, a hymn to the dawn, should wax lyrical about the lover’s body, ‘completely naked’. Instead, Ravinthiran leaves us with the promise of cleaning the bathroom: ‘The sound of the curtains yanked apart / is the morning clearing its throat’.
The sonnets document an itinerant rootlessness. In ‘Our first house,’ the possessive pronoun ironically implies ownership, yet the house is ‘lost in months when the owners chose to sell’, their freedom of choice in stark contrast with the speaker’s hard necessity. The volta, that twist at the heart of a sonnet, typically placed at the beginning of line nine, is premature, jumping the gun at the beginning of line 6, perhaps suggesting the unexpected brevity of the tenancy. With a powerful turn of phrase, the speaker reflects on the neighbour ‘with whom we shared a wall and nothing else’, exposing divisions of race and class (‘We were the only renters’). Meanwhile, at the bottom of the page, in ‘A gift’, an infinitely more sociable cat annexes ‘to her domain of scents the place we lived’ in a wry, oblique condemnation of society.
The collection acknowledges the challenges of living together, whether at an intimate, domestic level, or in a wider sense. In ‘Thought experiment’ the speaker explores his presumed, friendly relationship with the reader: ‘If I love you can I love everyone, / even the stranger reading this page’. It’s an uncomfortable effect, as Ravinthiran’s first person narrator shuts us out, questioning our intentions and acknowledging the divided nature of our community before delivering the body blow: ‘Thugs in the riots sniffed the oil / in men’s hair to check, were they Tamil. / Victims were pulled close in a strange intimacy / and then embraced by a burning tyre.’
One of the joys of Ravinthiran’s poetry is his engagement with popular culture and The Million-petalled Flower works with Strictly Come Dancing, The X-Files and Super Mario Bros, showcasing the virtuosity of his magpie mind. If anything, these sonnets are among the collection’s most poignant, as the ebullience of Mario, his momentary invincibility, is contrasted with a world in which ‘Time salts all wounds’ and the ease with which the player can move Mario with a ‘quick flick of the stick’ will not be enough to help us to negotiate our own ‘wall of fire’.
In The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here, Vidyan Ravinthiran weaves the personal and the political into a tender, honest consideration of our relationships. Despite our dividedness, he concludes that love will have to be enough.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Deryn Rees-Jones – Erato
Erato revels in the sheer joy of language and holds a mirror to society’s seamier, darker side. The collection comprises a series of prose poems, interspersed with formal lyrics. The poems work well in isolation, but Erato works best in conversation with itself.
Rees-Jones’ epigraphs offer a useful steer: the first, taken from Book VII of Virgil’s Aeneid, invokes Erato, the muse of love, as Juno sows discord between the Trojans and the Latins, causing them to scrap over the possession of Rome. She also references Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Man-Moth’, Bishop’s response to a newspaper typo which transformed a mammoth into something superhuman.
Initially, we’re likely to guess at the meaning of ‘Erato’ and our knowledge of language points us to ‘error’ and ‘erratum’, and Rees-Jones’s reference to ‘The Man-Moth’ permits these fanciful associations. ‘The Owl Husband’ doffs its cap to Bishop as it cocks a snook at the Owl Bible’s misprinting of ‘own’ as ‘owl’, lending 1 Peter 3:5 an unexpected dash of the fantastical. Rees-Jones opens ominously in the woods, in the isolated, fairy tale locale associated in our minds with the wolf – with sexual predation. Here ‘You pulled me down: mud, leaf-mulch, / feather moving shade and shadow. Did I tremble in the face of beak / and wings?’ The shapeshifting quality of the Owl Husband evokes Zeus, and especially his assault of Leda as a swan. The encounter haunts the collection and, in ‘Erratum’, Rees-Jones riffs on the theme, linking it to the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd – transformed into an owl for unfaithfulness and this, in turn, adds a sinister subtext to the collection’s final poem, the sonnet ‘Nightjar’, whose ‘sound electrifies the heath’.
‘Eyes to the Right, Nose to the Left’ wrongfoots the reader as the title suggests a playful distortion of the division of parliament. Instead, we’re offered a childhood memory of Sindy’s ‘long, nylon locks’ and the ‘rough blonde head’ of Action Man, ‘who had a little serrated switch at the back of his head’ to move the ‘Eyes to the Right’. It’s an innocent age in which the children understand that the dolls are best kept apart. However, Rees-Jones returns to Westminster, to the divided nation originally proposed by the title and politicians ‘unreal in their dissimulation’, concluding that, in this toxic environment, ‘Poetry / stood very still’. Here, she’s shaking it up again.
In contrast, the prose poem, ‘Siren’, explores a different sort of shapeshifting. It first presents the reader with the ‘wail of an ambulance’s siren’. The doppler effect means that a siren appears to change pitch as it moves and, as the speaker ‘thought instead about the word siren and the strange bird-women who sang between treacherous rocks’ the siren changes from sound to mythical bird woman (with echoes of Blodeuwedd). The hospital becomes an unsettling environment: ‘You had to run a mental algorithm to distinguish what was a sign and what was a picture. There were posters of smiling nurses and chief executives and patients being advised on how to have their say. No one looked real’. What wizard, we wonder, has spirited away the NHS we knew and loved?
The shapeshifting quality of the collection, its exploration of mistakes, darkens further in ‘Drone’ where a drone operator is interviewed and asked ‘Do you ever think about the people you’ve killed?’ and the answer, an emphatic ‘No, no, never’ rings hollow in Rees-Jones’s structure of error, the epigraph from the Aeneid reminding us of the enduring relationship between arms and the man.
Erato is a riot of associations and ideas, but Rees-Jones marshals her material to devastating, virtuosic effect.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Roger Robinson – A Portable Paradise
Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise is a scathing polemic, and a meditation on love. It attacks the economies which saw Grenfell Tower clad with substandard materials. It stares unflinchingly at the legacy of slavery and yet, at its heart, it believes in kindness and community.
The collection explores our interconnectedness. It opens with a series of poems considering the Grenfell Tower disaster. ‘Haibun for the Lookers’ works with the Japanese haibun form: an agglomeration of prose and haiku. There’s a voyeuristic quality to the public’s response to the disaster as ‘In the lights of mobile phones, shadows wave like makeshift flags’. As the poem continues, the aestheticization of horror deepens as ‘The spectacle’s now more like a painting of a building on fire […] black velvet night rippling orange-yellow and punch-red acrylic flames’. In a shocking culmination to the description, Robinson shifts perspective and writes in the first person with the arresting immediacy of a haiku: ‘The heat at my back, / I throw my baby out the window. / Catch him Lord!’ The reader has a different perspective, aware of the multitude below, phones in hands, and we’re left hoping for an act of heroism unoffered by Robinson. ‘Blame’ also presents those keen to keep their distance. It is structured as a series of buck-passing clauses: ‘the council blamed the contractors / who shredded all the papers; / so the contractors blamed / health and safety’.
The collection makes arresting, painterly use of perspective. ‘Ghosts’ sucks us in with its provocative use of the second person: ‘You feel it as soon as you settle in your new flat, perhaps when you are making rocket salad with lemon dressing’. The mise-en-scène is a picture of affluence, disturbed by the phantom smoke and screams of Grenfell as you sit ‘looking out your extra large window at the view you’ve paid so dearly for’.
The ekphrastic ‘A Young Girl with a Dog and a Page’ responds to Dandridge’s 1725 portrait of a girl, her dog and a slave, euphemistically referred to as a page, as it provides another shocking painted perspective. Although boy and dog wear matching collars, he is confined to the background shadows, whereas the dog shares the foreground with the girl. Robinson’s speaker addresses the boy – and even this simple act is a powerful revision of the painting’s hierarchy.
The collection’s final section presents the best of humanity. ‘Grace’ also opens with an image: ‘green blips on screen’, this time measuring the fragile life of the speaker’s newborn child – who weighed just one kilogram at birth. The nurse, Grace, refuses to give up, even with the dying, ‘rocking that well-fed baby // held to her bosom, slowly humming the melody of “Happy” by Pharrell’ and the title gains a theological resonance, as we witness her love, freely bestowed.
‘A Portable Paradise’ closes the collection, acknowledging the links that bind the generations. The speaker recalls his grandmother’s advice to store paradise in his heart. Her suggestions are vivid and sensory as she imagines a paradise with a ‘piney scent’ and ‘white sands, green hills and fresh fish’. However, our loved ones are all the paradise we need – and their foundational support is immediately obvious to us. The first line of Robinson’s poem reads: ‘And if I speak of Paradise, / then I’m speaking of my grandmother’. The collection is outward facing. This is its final poem and it exhorts the reader to return to the world with a renewed love for our brothers and sisters in life.
While A Portable Paradise is a portrait of the worst of us, Robinson never loses sight of our better selves. Yes, the collection is challenging but it is also rewarding and, ultimately, uplifting.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines
John Field reviews the shortlist: Karen Solie – The Caiplie Caves
The Caiplie Caves is the literary equivalent of a geological core sample, drilling deep into Fife’s history and, in so doing, Solie achieves a rich simultaneity of experience as she explores our relationship with space and place.
The Caves of Caiplie are inscribed with both Pictish and Christian symbols and were occupied by a hermit in the mid-twentieth century. It is believed that Saint Adrian (Ethernan in Gaelic) who lived on the nearby Isle of May was also associated with them. The first part of the collection opens with ‘The North’, voiced by Ethernan and his brothers, perhaps, as they travel north in search of a suitably austere ascetic experience. The speaker asks: ‘Where should we find consolation, / dwelling in the north?’ It’s tempting to see ‘consolation’ as synonymous with comfort. However, it’s a curious choice of word and echoes Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. In this context, it suggests the stoical strength to endure – to offer one’s suffering to Christ. This asceticism is set against worldly power as ‘The leisure class // commends the virtues of hard work / above all else, and we labour under / frost-cramped statutes, the black / letters of legislation’. The next poem, ‘Sauchope Links Caravan Park,’ suggests that little has changed and that those trying to eke anything more than a meagre living from the land are still subject to black lettered legislation: ‘Here is the insurance to tell us we’re not // safe, and here is the loophole which allows it / to not pay’.
The environment too is unchanging in its changeability. In ‘The Meridian’, we are presented with the tragedy which claimed the Anstruther trawler, ‘The Meridian’, as it guarded shipping from repairs to an oil pipeline. It’s a hard lesson as, despite the tragedy, ‘The harbour’s full of sightsee daycruisers’ and ‘the sea, // even knowing what it knows, dares flood back in here’. On the facing page, Solie presents the reader with ‘Whose Deaths were Recorded Officially as Casualties of ‘The Battle of May Island’’. ‘The Battle of May Island’ is a grim euphemism for the deaths of 104 Royal Navy personnel on their way to exercises in the North Sea. Solie nods to Kline’s translation of Ovid’s great homage to change, Metamorphoses, referencing Book 1’s opening creation myth: ‘Unstable land, unswimmable water, air needing light’. In the Loeb Classical Library edition, Frank Miller translates the lines as: ‘Though there was both land and sea and air, no one could tread that land, or swim that sea; and the air was dark’. We should be able to swim in the sea but, for those doomed sailors, the environment was transformed: ‘Chains of the wake around their ankles’.
‘Goodbye to Cockenzie Power Station, A Cathedral to Coal’ celebrates a power station once named by the World Wildlife Fund as the nation’s least carbon efficient. We see its ‘Brutalist winding tower’ and ‘Two five-hundred-foot towers / visible from Edinburgh’. Naming the Brutalist qualities of the architecture condemns it, perhaps, as an affront to the landscape. However, it also has a stark dignity wholly in keeping with the sea-lashed rocks. Solie offsets stanzas describing Cockenzie on the left of the page against stanzas detailing May Island (‘Stevenson’s lighthouse / a gothic castle’) on the right. Solie’s opposites suggest that it’s too easy to be sententious regarding modern developments. May Island’s lighthouses, typically regarded as picturesque features by tourists, are referred to in utilitarian terms as ‘infrastructure repurposed’, denying us that simple contrast between an idealized past and a polluting present: humans have been using and abusing the islands since Ethernan’s time – and before.
The Caiplie Caves is a rich, even-handed meditation on our impact on the environment, and the environment’s impact on us. The Fife coast enjoys an empty, stark beauty and these poems are as cold as stone and as salt as the sea.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines