John Field reviews the shortlist: Natalie Diaz Postcolonial Love Poem
For the 2020 Prize poetry blogger John Field will once again be reviewing the shortlist.
As a Mojave American Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem considers the erasure of native cultures and peoples from the American continent. However, she engages with political and environmental problems at an aesthetic and linguistic level too. Although the greed, guns and environmental crises of a United States riven by inequality boil on its surface, the collection is, above all, love poetry, and Diaz’s jewelled and honeyed language oozes with the erotic. Postcolonial Love Poem promises the reader a rich, rewarding experience.
Early in the collection, ‘Catching Copper’ engages with American gun culture. The speaker’s brothers – or close friends – keep a bullet as a pet. It’s a disconcertingly tender image and the thin line between the bullet-proof exuberance of youth and tragedy is painful. They ‘Feed their bullet / the way the bulls fed Zeus– / burning, on a pyre, their own / thigh bones wrapped in fat’. In Greek, a hecatomb is a sacrifice of a hundred oxen, a burnt offering on a grand scale. Homer’s Iliad reeks with the Greeks’ offerings to the gods and the senselessness and endlessness of their war with Troy feels here like a criticism of The Second Amendment. There is no recourse to the law as the brothers live in a state within the state. They ‘pledge / allegiance to their bullet’ in a parody of The Pledge of Allegiance which darkens with a port wine stain as they make their pledge ‘with hands over their hearts / and stomachs and throats’. Diaz’s states are not united; the government is distrusted.
The States holds the Americas in a stranglehold. In ‘exhibits from The American Water Museum’, ‘US-headquartered companies bought the rights / to water in other countries’. The murky complexity of the companies’ organizational structures is at heart-breaking odds with the desperate Natives who resort to the gathering of rain as they ‘open / their beautiful water-shaped mouths to the sky’. The poem strikes a bitter note of satire as we are presented with the redacted BIA Watermongers Congressional Records: ‘To kill xxxx. xxx take their water’. The fig leaf drawn by the magic marker shows federal government protecting money, regardless of human cost. In ‘The First Water Is the Body’, we see the United States ‘teargassing and rubber-bulleting and kennelling Natives trying to protect their water from pollution and contamination at Standing Rock in North Dakota’. The poem is written in prose and shines a hard light on facts that don’t usually make it across the Atlantic.
‘The First Water Is the Body’ is the bedrock of the collection. Here Diaz shares a Mojave philosophy: ‘In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same.’ The good stewardship of the plant rarely looks like our priority. In fact, all too often, we demean it. In ‘Snake-Light’, even cruelty has a monetary value: ‘Americans celebrate the rattlesnake in rattlesnake rodeos— / round them up, kill them, sell them. Cash prizes / for the heaviest and longest rattlesnake’. Diaz’s ‘celebrate’ oozes scorn. The speaker’s Mojave great grandmother tells her that ‘We don’t eat snakes. They are our sisters’.
This interconnectedness is at the core of the collection’s eroticism. In ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’, drinking connects the lover with the beloved: ‘Maenad tongue— / come-drunk hum-tranced honey-puller—for her hips, / I am–strummed-song and succubus’. This is language at its sweetest, the mouth crammed full of those vowels, oozing like the honeycomb, echoing Keats and Hopkins.
Despite the fractured, dysfunctional aspects of society, these poems believe in the healing power of love and, held within them, a jamboree of the world’s cultures collide with pop culture and the result is an intoxicating beauty.
John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Sasha Dugdale – Deformations
Sasha Dugdale’s large-scale poems ‘Welfare Handbook’ and ‘Pitysad’ meditate on myth. The second of these works, ’Pitysad’ is an explicit engagement with myth as the reader encounters characters and scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. ‘Welfare Handbook’, working with fragments from Eric Gill’s letters, diaries, notes and essays, shines an unsettling spotlight on the artist. The poem casts a shadow across the collection and, in its shade, the pristine alabaster biceps and six packs of meticulously crafted fiction, masculinity, crack and crumble like cheap plaster.
‘Welfare Handbook’ echoes the series of ‘Welfare Handbooks’ Gill worked on in the 1920s for the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic. The Roman Catholic guild espoused agrarian ideals and their handbooks adopt a catechetical tone, making the contrast between Dugdale’s form and the speaker’s transgressive mind a stark one. Gill sexually abused his daughters and Dugdale’s poems get beneath Gill’s clean, austere Classicism. One poem in the series opens ‘sex with children upsets us / more than it used to’. Where our terms for this, ‘abuse’, or ‘rape’, are pejorative, ‘sex with’ offers no judgement and, although we are disturbed by the spectacular understatement of ‘upsets’, we are consoled by the line break, which creates a statement of disapproval. (Note the speaker’s manipulative use of the first person plural ‘us’, drawing us into the poem’s murky world). However, the second line’s ‘more than it used to’ shakes the ground beneath our feet and we wonder whether the speaker is celebrating better child protection, or looking nostalgically to a time when the abuse of children was easier to get away with. At the heart of the poem lies an epic simile: ‘The prohibition / is like a seawall in the adult mind, but back then / the waters slopped in and out the harbour’. The force of the speaker’s desire is implacable – elemental. The destructive, eternal ebb and flow of the tide ‘in and out’ is horrific when read in sexual terms.
‘Welfare Handbook’ views the world through the prism of perversion. Another poem opens with an Imagist beauty: the changing colour of leaves in the breeze is like ‘tiny white flags’. The poem turns on another epic simile – up the skirt of a doll where ‘a different face, a different girl’ is revealed. Nothing natural and wholesome is safe from the speaker’s mind. Nowhere is this felt more powerfully than in ‘One X for Mary and XX for May’. The x, the symbol of love and affection, is a thing of beauty, ordered in ranks like a doodle in Dugdale’s concrete poem. Then we see the arrangement on the page: ‘— xx x xx x xx x’ and a record of abuse, not paternal kisses. We fear too the state of the mind that needs to keep this record.
In ‘Pitysad’, the Classical Athenian collides with the present day. As soon as Odysseus’s Boy’s Own heroism is recast in a contemporary setting, it darkens. ‘R & R’ evokes the American military, and the poem’s dust and IED locate it in the Middle East. A girl has caught Odysseus’s eye. He ’kept his book open on his knee / his body lolled, his eyes looked sleepy / but inside he’d never felt so alive’. It’s a studied deceit. The book might as well be a sculptor’s prop – the fig leaf of culture but, beneath it, there’s a reptilian menace stirring. The girl seems to want him but their ‘malnourished little bodies’ remind us that these girls are desperate. It is her poverty, not her will, that consents.
‘Pitysad’ concludes with a rapturous skit on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Dugdale’s Penelope would ‘brush away all the hero / all the myth’. What is so awful about humdrum insignificance? Self-aggrandisement and pride deform and pervert love. With its spare, muscular language, Deformations views our distorting predilection for myth-making with no-nonsense clarity.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Ella Frears – Shine, Darling
In ‘Sacred Emily’ (1913), Gertrude Stein describes a person named Rose: ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’ and, in Four in America (1947), she writes: ’I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years’. Sometimes, one feels that a fatty deposit of figurative language and idiom clogs our arteries. Conversation is tired and formulaic. The world’s great riches have slipped anchor – words have lost the strength to hold them in place.
Shine, Darling, Ella Frears’s debut collection, throbs with blood and radiates a visceral heat as she explores the female body – and the world around us – with clarity and honesty. The collection concludes with Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity, a sequence about the St Ives Modernists and the painter’s gaze. Looking and reading converge and Frears’s poems perform the miracle of shackling words to the world once more and, through their lens, we see the crispest of images.
In ‘I Knew Which Direction’, Frears’s opening poem, we encounter the moon, that womanly symbol of changeability and monthly cycles. Perhaps we feel that we know the script and that it’s hardly worth reading another poem on this well-worn subject. However, like Stein, Frears reinvests language with meaning: ‘Pray now, whispered the sand and I fell to my knees thinking: / moonlight, moonlight, moonlight ———— / until it was no longer a word but a colour and then a feeling / and then the thing itself’. Frears’ spiritual imagery revitalises language as incantatory. Words are magical once more. In ‘The Overwhelming Urge’, ‘The ground is dirty with dirt. The air, dirty / with smoke’.
The collection is rich and funny too. The brilliant ‘The (Little) Death of the Author’ plays with Roland Barthes’ theory of the death the author (reader, not writer, creates meaning). The speaker’s chatty tone belies the poem’s conceptual weight as we ponder ‘How many times, aged thirteen or so, did you send a text / saying I’m in the bath…’ and, in the reader’s mind – your mind here too – the ‘body’s hot-water blush / suddenly the only thing they could focus on’. Frears concludes with a coup de théâtre as she breaks the fourth wall with the ‘text I continue to send: Reader, I’m in the bath… / Nothing more to say than that. And if you like / you can join me. I’m blushing. Are you?’ We spin deeper into her whorl of petals, into something new, echoing Italo Calvino’s postmodernity but nodding to John Donne’s ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ too.
In Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity, Frears responds to the work of artists whose work is on display at Tate St Ives: Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron and Alfred Wallis. The touching ‘Alfred / Wallace’ revisits the ideas explored in ‘The (Little) Death of the Author’. The omniscient narrator of ‘(1942)’ inhabits the flesh and blood man, Alfred, who dreams of the sea and when he ‘wakes, fear / lights up his mind like a flare’. The poem’s counterpart, ‘(2018)’, assumes the persona of a visitor to Tate St Ives who sees Wallis’ ‘lighthouses as jaunty as sailors’. Has the viewer / reader got it wrong? Does it matter?
Shine, Darling is an exceptional collection. Frears has an arresting ability to see the world. (Here she describes the loos at a service station in ‘Midpoint’: ‘The soap dispensers dribble / silky puddles / on the faux-marble counter’). Ideas and images segue and develop satisfyingly from poem to poem but, above all, she demands that her reader makes the world new. With her, we see the world feelingly.
John Field review the shortlist: – Will Harris RENDANG
Reading Will Harris’s debut, Rendang, is a rich, rewarding experience. Cities and interiors are evoked with deft economy and, in Harris’ hands, the kaleidoscope of context twists in a moment, fracturing and reconfiguring the world with a dreamlike surrealism. Rendang is a restless collection, flitting from explorations of identity and belonging, to a sheer joy in language.
Meaning is evasive. Even Harris’s opening dedication overwhelms the reader with etymology and regional variation. He writes from the perspectives of his Chinese, Indonesian and British heritages and rendang is a Malay spiced beef dish. ‘In West Sumatra they call rendang / randang. Neither shares a root / with rending. Rose and rose have / French and Frisian roots / you can’t hear. Context makes / the difference clear’. The rhyming of rendang, randang and rending is playful and the reader is deceived by a consonance which belies their difference. Context presents itself as a possible guide and Harris extends this invitation as he dedicates the collection to Tjandra Sari, his grandmother, writing ‘Here lies one / whose name was written in bahasa’. Readers familiar with the epigraph on Keats’s grave – ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’ – will involuntarily translate ‘bahasa’ as ‘water’ and suppose the dedication to be a meditation on mortality and impermanence. However, Bahasa is both a form of Malay and the word for ‘language’. It anything, it ascribes a degree of permanence to Sari, now memorialised in the collection. All of these possibilities ripple through the poem’s kaleidoscopic lens as Harris shows us the irresistible, distorting force of presumption and cultural heritage.
As it plays with context, the meditative prose poem ’Holy Man’ mourns the loss of meaning in its rebuke to consumerism. Joni Mitchell’s song, ’River’, opens with the plangent ‘It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees’. This cultural context endows Harris’s ‘Everywhere was coming down with Christmas’ with seasonal ennui and his ‘coming down’ turns the festival into an illness. The ground moves beneath us as we realise that the illness is not Christmas but the retailers’s October preparations – an act of violence in which meaning is ‘severed from the body of ritual, of belief’.
Context is also revealed to be deeply problematic. The short lines and tercets of ‘Scene Change’ evoke a pleasing simplicity as ‘A row of Georgian / houses slopes / down to a meadow’. Neoclassical symmetry is evoked by ‘row’ and Austen’s wholesomeness wafts on the meadow’s breeze. However, the title’s ‘scene’ alerts us, perhaps, to its status as a construct – it’s a deception and, with the tug of a stage rope, will disappear. The meadow reconfigures as ‘barrows’ – still an undulating grassland, but one now concealing skeletal remains. The speaker climbs the bell tower and ‘taking in my / hands the tongue / the clapper / ring too slowly / at first aware / of my imposture’. Context still wrong-foots us as the bell tower insists that we are in a church and ought to feel uncomfortable but, in a coup de théâtre, we finally see the whole scene as we look ‘across the car- / polluted outskirts of the colony’ and wonder about the original purpose of that bell and think again about the speaker’s sense of imposture, perhaps caused by the enduring shadow of the past.
This is a rich collection and these few words fail to convey the range of Harris’s language and ideas. In ‘Half Got Out’, the speaker sees the tube ‘threading me like a / complex stitch beneath / and through the city’ in a brilliant image: he is woven into the fabric of the city… but then, perhaps, woven onto it. In a stroke, the title poem, ‘Rendang’, presents the strictures of modern living: ‘Then / she slid her hand behind the fridge. A strip light / flickered on’.
Rendang shimmers in the light. The colours of pop and high culture rebound and refract in a serious work of playful intelligence.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Wayne Holloway-Smith – Love Minus Love
Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Love Minus Love pulls off dizzying feats with language and structure in its forensic examination of the nuclear family. Through its sound and silence, we feel the forces tearing the individual asunder as the framework of the family collapses.
The collection took me back to Glyn Maxwell’s comments on the whiteness of the page in On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012). He writes that ‘With the best poets you can play an archeological game. Take a volume of the work, mist your eyes so you can’t read a word, flutter through the pages, get a sense of the forms the poems take. […] This is the place to begin, peering at shapes. Assess the balance of the black creature and the white silence’. As we squint at the pages of Love Minus Love, we feel the threat of a numbing nothingness pushing in. This use of space reminds me of the Abstract Impressionist, Mark Rothko. At first glance, the slabs of white suggest peace and purity, but appearances are deceptive. The poems are untitled and one opens with ‘what / is / the / least / a / person / can / reduce / themselves / to’. The lines are largely monosyllabic and, as the word ‘a’ comprises a complete line of poetry, we see language in an almost total retreat from the page. The thin, fragile column on the page suggests the tight, folded body language of someone wishing himself away.
The opening poem employs a similar technique – this time to explore a relationship. It is structured as two neat rectangles, divided in the centre by a white column, a centimetre wide. Through these rectangles and across the white barrier, a torrent of language runs: ‘Icouldbeafreegratefulguilt lessuprightsonandyoucould / beanuntroubleduntyrranic assympatheticcontentedfath / er’. The sense of the poem runs counter to the neat blocks as the speaker’s wishes for himself and his father bleed across both. On the surface all is well, but closer inspection reveals that the bonds tying us together are too tight to cut.
In Holloway-Smith’s hands, there’s an emptiness to language. One poem, ‘whenI / firstbe / ganto / speakp / ublicaly’, describes a mother who ‘thrived’ as her son enjoyed success by writing about a dysfunctional family but the narrative soon shifts and tells a different story. Or rather, although the public story remains unchanged, but we also read the fruitless attempt to conceal the seething words of the mother, who ‘wasenraged’. Love Minus Love is a jarring experience. As this poem illustrates, even the air between words has been squeezed out, creating a suffocating, stressful blackness. Perverse line breaks work to destroy language itself as the logical divisions of syllables are ignored. What we have instead feels arbitrary and violent like ‘speakp / ublicaly’. The familiar is made strange, broken, reminding us that on a domestic battlefield, danger hides in plain sight.
Holloway-Smith restricts our view. One poem opens with a breezy acknowledgement of the reader’s presence, ‘hi’, before we realise that we are not the implied reader. Distancing himself from a childhood experience, the speaker addresses himself, reliving an experience in the present. Initially, the mother is presented as a a model of duty and competence: ‘hi your mum is explaining / to you about menstrual cycles’ but, by line three, the camera zooms out enough for us to see that the room’s ‘unflushed bowl’ was the occasion of the conversation and the mother morphs into a drunkard struggling to roll with the punches of her day.
Love Minus Love radiates an austere, sculptural beauty. This playful creativity forms an exquisite counterpoint to the poems’ pain and the collection pulses with honest immediacy.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Bhanu Kapil – How to Wash a Heart
In the notes at the back of How To Wash A Heart, Kapil quotes from her discussion with interventional cardiologist Ankur Kalra. He explains that the immigrant heart is subject to the trauma of anxiety and shock, and that ‘There’s a medical diagnosis attributed to it: broken heart syndrome or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Takotsubo is the Japanese term/word for octopus trap. The heart gets ‘stunned’ during acute emotional/psychological stress, and it affects the heart muscle and its pumping function. It loses a lot of its pumping function and assumes the shape of Takotsubo’. In her collection, drawn from her 2019 Institute of Contemporary Arts show, Kapil explores the convalescence of the injured immigrant heart.
The way in which the poems sit on the page is striking. They are compact (around twenty lines), short, and justified to the left. Squeezed into the corner of the page, despite the space available, this creates an impression of awkwardness. Have they retreated, self-consciously, arms folded defensively, or have they been corralled there, trapped like an octopus? Kapil concludes that it’s a bit of both.
The collection opens on an optimistic note as the speaker thinks ‘Perhaps I can write here again’. Addressed in the second person, the reader becomes the speaker’s host. Our relationship with the immigrant seems to enjoy a foundation of kindness as we are told that ‘You made a space for me in your home’ and ‘your adopted daughter, an “Asian refugee” / As you described her’ makes the speaker feel happy. Perhaps the comment was well-intentioned, but the inverted commas around the crass generalisation “Asian refugee” hit the wrong note. This nugget of insensitivity is filed away by the immigrant and the cracks in the relationship start showing.
A couple of pages on and the life of the immigrant guest looks like a relaxing weekend with its ‘Mornings with coffee / And TV’, yet the simplicity of Kapil’s language and the emptiness of the page suggest social exclusion, boredom and fatigue. Beneath this relaxed surface, the speaker confides that ‘It’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever’. Being a guest ought to be a temporary state, not a ‘forever’ one so, scaled-up to eternity, it has a hellish character. Hospitality assumes an unwholesome power dynamic as ‘the host invites / The guest to say / Whatever it is they want to say’. ‘Invites’ foregrounds the host’s despotism: even free speech is a luxury, a gift to receive, when you are the mercy of charity. The tone continues to darken: ‘Prick me’, the guest imagines the host threatening, ‘And I will cut off the energy / To your life’. Beneath a thin film of kindness we catch an echo of Shylock (‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’) and we worry how this great debt will be repaid.
The collection’s terse lines become rich and lyrical when the immigrant imagines her past. Her grandfather invites her to taste the sweetest fruit and ‘On the far side of the orchard / He grew saffron and the mangoes there / Were red and pink’. The orchard looks idyllic but a repressed memory bursts the bubble: ‘This is where they threw / The bodies […] I smell the pollen of the flowers of the mango tree / Which once concealed / A kill’. In the reader’s mind, the sweet, swollen pink and red fruit becomes grotesque, inedible, fleshy. Faced with a monotonous present, most of us can retreat into the pleasures of memory but, for an immigrant trapped between states, memory becomes another country from which she flees.
How To Wash A Heart breaks a powerful taboo: the requirement for gratefulness. Kapil’s poetry is courageous and honest. There is no convalescence for the immigrant heart and the domestic microaggressions it endures at its destination are just a different kind of war.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Daisy Lafarge – Life Without Air
The impetus driving Life Without Air, Daisy Lafarge’s debut collection, is Louis Pasteur’s investigation of how organisms respond to airlessness. The collection’s coda works with material from his notes from ‘The Physiological Theory of Fermentation’ and, to the modern ear, the colourful scientific language of the nineteenth century is troubling: ‘Under observation she seemed to languish / She showed every sign of intense unease and asphyxia’. Although yeast is alive, assigning it a gender and endowing it with emotions adds a cruelty to his endeavours. Lafarge’s collection is rich and allusive. Airlessness speaks of the claustrophobia of modern living but also of a world facing the Climate Emergency.
The collection opens with ‘axiology’ and ‘axia’ is the Greek word for worth / value. We start in the familiar territory of the aubade, the hymn to the dawn, as the speaker tells us that ‘I woke up’, but she’s awoken by ‘the grating / wrack of a mechanical sun, / it was ticking on its side / just across the street, spun / off its great medieval wheels’ and not by rosy fingered dawn. The reader is presented with the remnants of a pre-Copernican universe and we realise that this is no aubade – it’s a lament. There are echoes of axle in axia and, at the centre of the Copernican universe, the Earth is fixed to an axle and the universe orbits around it. We have failed to reconcile ourselves to our obscure position on an arm of the Milky Way and, despite the fact that we should know better, we cannot help but view ourselves as central. In the poem, ‘wrack’ suggests catastrophic destruction, flotsam from a wrecked ship. The world is broken, as is our misplaced sense of power and importance.
A sequence of poems, ‘Dredging the Boutou Lake’, explores the Inner Mongolian man-made lake of toxic waste – a catastrophic byproduct of the tech industry. The title of one of these poems, ‘Discharge’, suggests a positive action – release from an unhappy state. Lafarge’s speaker uses the first person plural: ‘we would like to leave the city’, suggesting the force of the sentiment, but the subjunctive ‘would’ sees the people trapped – not by an oppressive regime, or economic necessity – but by their own fear and paralysis. The positive ‘Discharge’ becomes a ‘rip’. Change is too unpalatable, too violent to entertain and we remain where we are – like a frog in a pan of slowly boiling water, unwilling to leap out until it’s too late.
‘Fossil Dinner’ explores the suffocating vacuity of relationships. The poem opens with a stage direction, ’Enter my husband’. We become an audience, watching the drama of a dinner party unfold. Given that the speaker is writing the play, we hope that she might also be in control of the situation. The gap between the rational and animal self creates bathos; as one guest, a theologian, ‘holds forth about the ecclesia’, while the speaker notices that ‘Tonight there’s a papery crust around his mouth like yeast’. It’s a repulsive undercutting of humanity’s airs and graces, and the reference to yeast points the reader back to Pasteur’s experiments with fermentation – and the airlessness of the situation. By the end of the poem, the guests are ‘forcing me under on all fours’, behaving like animals.
The poems suggest that society is becoming less comfortable with air and space. ‘How to leave a marriage’ opens with the observation that ‘To begin with I watched the dentist’s / receptionist select a four-hour video / of sea-turtles on YouTube’. The duration of the video is mentioned first: time and space must be filled and the content doesn’t matter as long as the time is filled with something offensively inoffensive.
Life Without Air is an unsettling experience. It challenges our narrative of progress and reveals that the species remains the same troop of naked apes that it always was – and the stewardship of the planet is in our hands.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Glyn Maxwell – How the hell are you:
Like Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Love Minus Love, How the hell are you also brings us to Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012) – the most helpful, entertaining book I’ve read on the subject. In the first chapter, ‘White’, Maxwell considers the empty page: ‘Regard the space, that ice plain, that dizzying light. That past, that future. Already it isn’t nothing. At the very least it’s your enemy, and that’s an awful lot. Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white. Call them sound and silence, life and death, hot and cold, love and loss’. It’s easy to dismiss writing about writing as narcissistic, to view it as a hothouse flower too delicate to survive in the real world. However, How the hell are you is rooted in pain and loss, in humanity’s insignificance. Yes, it’s brilliant on writing (and reading) but it’s warmly human too. These poems are authentic and urgent – sweated in the night.
‘The White’ celebrates creativity and opens by reminding the reader that ‘When you first made a sound you made a sound / on nothing. Not on peace, / on nothing’. I’m reminded of John, chapter one: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. The addressee enacts the miracle of creating sound ex nihilo (from nothing) and Maxwell reinvigorates language, endowing it once again with a spiritual power. There’s a simplicity, a confidence and an honesty to his restrained vocabulary. This is a quality of the whole collection and his words feel weighed – and weighty. There’s a gravitas to them. ‘The White’ was written in homage to the Metaphysical poet and clergyman, George Herbert and, looking back at Herbert’s work (’Jordan’(II), for example) we see the self-satisfied writer suddenly realising the impossibility of his task, the inadequacy of his language. Maxwell’s speaker realises the same thing as ‘you saw that stanza break…’ and ‘vague oblivion’ pushes against him. This human chain, from Herbert to Maxwell, is never contrived or heavy-handed and reading the collection is an encounter with the spirit of Poetry – with a capital P.
‘Pasolini’s Satan’ engages with Pasolini’s film, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, his retelling of the life of Jesus using ordinary people instead of professional actors. One of the actors speaks: ‘I’m no one still, like every / face you’ve seen. They cast us from round here. / We looked real, we’re gone now, / we are nobodies, we happened to be there // when the maker came’. Once again, the page is marked momentarily by black ink, a moment’s rage against the dying of the light but oblivion beckons Pasolini’s ordinary actors.
However, oblivion is not the worst thing we can imagine. In ‘The Shudder’, the speaker, in an unguarded moment, imagines his ‘grim suitcase / packed, the kitchen thrown a final look, / keys posted through, street gone from, all the work / of time and trace of us // discarded’. Maxwell’s quatrains, his first person speaker and his intimate tone echo another Metaphysical poet – John Donne. (‘The Heyday’, a couple of pages before, was written as a homage to Donne). Faced with this terrible prospect, the speaker looks again at the white void of oblivion, comparing it with the loss of love, and concludes that at least ‘death was a local, of this parish’. It’s heady stuff. Love and death. Black and white.
‘Seven Things Wrong With The Love Sonnet’ celebrates the white space, the breeze, the unpredictability of life. Sonnet form, the speaker contends, ‘lets no silence in’. ‘It’s planned – we weren’t’. There’s no glib, insincere fetishisation of poetry here. Maxwell understands his tools: black and white, sound and silence, and this qualifies him to speak of love and loss, life and death in a way that demands our attention and tears at our hearts.
John Field reviews the shortlist: Shane McCrae – Sometimes I Never Suffered
Sometimes I Never Suffered feels like a Medieval Dream Vision: a rebuke to the present and an arresting reimagining of eternity, a hope for a better future. Like Paradise Lost, the collection opens with a fall as ’The Hastily Assembled Angel Falls at the Beginning of the World’ but, by the journey’s end, we see Jacob’s ladder, the golden staircase connecting Heaven and Earth, and the possibility of justice, redemption and reward.
The collection’s first sequence of poems, the ironically entitled ‘Fresh Eyes for a Fresh World’, follows the deeds of the Hastily Assembled Angel, a mix of Adam and Satan. Like Adam, he attempts to name the beasts ‘but nobody / Would name the things he saw the way he named them’. The poem reminds us that language is a consensus and that a world of fake news and Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ is a world in which language and truth are destroyed. The Tower of Babel, overreaching humanity’s attempt to build its own golden staircase between Heaven and Earth, only brought dissonance and chaos.
It’s oblique, but McCrae’s dream vision satirises Trumpism. The angels did not want to live with the other creatures on Earth ‘and so had voted to / Build their own angel but they hadn’t asked / Permission first instead they all together / Threw him together’. We’re in the Book of Exodus and the people of God, impatient, build and worship a golden calf. Or perhaps it’s 2017 and we’re at the West Front of the Capitol, watching the inauguration of the 45th president. The poem is riven by deeply tabbed caesuras. Left and Right, blue and red, are forced apart. The body politic is broken. Punctuation, the rules governing the rational and intelligible have been abandoned and the jarring internal rhyme of ‘together’ and ‘together’ feels awkward and thoughtless.
‘Variations on Jim Limber Goes to Heaven’ is a sonnet sequence exploring the life of Jim Limber, a boy of both White and Black descent who was adopted by the family of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States. In the cultural imagination, Heaven is surely the whitest of spaces and McCrae’s reimagining of it challenges this stereotype. ‘Jim Limber on the Peace Which Passeth All Understanding’ opens ‘First thing I saw that heartened me in Heaven / Was a dead field first thing behind the gates’. The plantation house pops into focus for a moment and we realise that the verdant avenue and the white house are symbols of oppression. Read against this context, the Pearly Gates promise pain, not peace, to the African American. The White idyll carries a heavy Black cost. The dead field usually takes us to Exodus, to the wrath of God, to the aftermath of the plague of locusts, to desolation and starvation. Here, the dead field means no slaves have been broken tilling the land, and Limber concludes ‘I had never seen that / Before death with no people in it’. Perspective is everything and a new language, a new iconography, a re-imagining of heaven, is required if the mind is also to be freed from the shadow of bondage. Again, even reading the poems is an awkward experience as the eye stutters across McCrae’s caesuras, struggling to make sense of a voice marginalised by another Babel.
Sometimes I Never Suffered is both timeless and timely. Humanity has always erred and strayed like lost sheep but the collection ends with an opportunity for a Paradise Regained. The final poem, ’The Ladder to Heaven’, references Jacobs’s Ladder, and offers the hope that humanity will be restored to a better version of itself. McCrae’s anonymous protagonist climbs the ladder and ‘stepped from the rung to Heaven’. We hope he steps up, not down – although we cannot be sure.
J O Morgan
John Field reviews the shortlist: J. O. Morgan – The Martian’s Regress
J.O. Morgan – The Martian’s Regress
In British poetry, ‘Martian’ is a trigger word. It harks back to the Martianism of the 1970s and 1980s, to Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’, to a vision of an invigorated prosaic in which books perch on hands like birds. The Climate Emergency indicates a different response and, in Morgan’s speculative poetry, the Martians are jaded colonists who dodged extinction by fleeing a dying Earth. We might suppose that the luxury of a second chance would have altered the species for the better but ‘regress’ suggests not only their return to the mother planet, their re-entry, but also the backwardness of their thought. We delude ourselves into thinking that endeavour is progress but The Martian’s Regress takes a more sober view of our nature. Morgan’s Martianism offers not a fresh way of seeing but the tragedy of a species condemned to its nature, doomed to repeat its mistakes.
The collection does not pull its punches and opens cinematically with the body horror of the Alien franchise: ‘They found her drifting / Sleepy-headed / Barely a breath left in her’. We feel instinctively that we have been here before. The lone woman, drifting through the outer reaches of space is an analogue of Ripley, Ridley Scott’s bad-assed heroine who adopts an ethical stance in the face of corporate exploitation and greed. Morgan’s poem then turns on a dime: ‘They offered her water, she sipped / They tipped the cup, she spluttered, gagged / They jammed the bronze head of their hose / Between her teeth / And eased the pressure up’. The nightmare of extraordinary rendition pops into focus and we revisit the opening lines of the poem. We’re no longer in space; we’re drifting in the Mediterranean, praying for a safe haven but finding only exploitation.
Another way to understand regression is as a mathematical process: the application of the same formula to its own result in a futile loop of feedback. Morgan uses this twisted logic and ‘The Natural Course of Things’ presents a series of conditional clauses: ‘And if the sun had begun to burn itself ever brighter / We widened the hole, we let new dazzle in // And if the air had already started turning foul […]’ One would hope that this messy regression would afford humanity the opportunity to take stock and to learn a valuable lesson. However, Morgan’s first person plural shows that a species divided by discontent and greed is at least united in a self-destructive stupidity shrugged off as insouciance: ‘We might have stayed on for several millennia more / But there’s much to be said for a change of scenery’.
Towards the end of the collection, ‘The Body Martian’ presents a series of three sonnets and the first opens with another cinematic moment: ‘A pilgrimage for the rising of the winter solstice sun’. It points to a moment of connection with the cosmos but, instead, all we are capable of is small-minded self-interest as ‘those impatient at the rear began as one to push / And those up ahead ceased all at once to be martian / Behaving instead like a fluid under force’. It’s a brilliant conceit for the devastating impact of our herd mentality and shows us that the stiffest challenge we face is our own nature.
The Martian’s Regress reminds me of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel, We. ‘Lovemaking’ is permitted upon the presentation of ‘official documents’ and the species is condemned to a cloistered life in a ‘walled garden’. However, Morgan holds this dystopic mirror to our faces and we’re reminded that, sometimes, poetry functions as prophecy.