Raymond Antrobus

John Field reviews the shortlist: Raymond Antrobus – All the Names Given

For the 2021 Prize poetry blogger John Field will once again be reviewing the shortlist.


In 2019, Antrobus’s collection, The Perseverance, received both the Ted Hughes Award and the inaugural Rathbones Folio Prize. His latest collection, All the Names Given, explores both the gaps between sound and silence, and the uneasy relationship between those who have been silenced and those who have silenced them.

Reading this collection is like having enabled the closed captions option on a television show: we’re not just provided with the text of the dialogue, but with descriptions of non-verbal sounds like [Emotional music] too. Antrobus’s closed captions play with this form, taking it to a metaphysical, spiritual level, as well as becoming a powerful commentary on imbalances of power.  The collection opens with ‘Closer Captions’, where we hear the ‘[sound of mouth and arms opening]’. We read the body language and, in the silence, we feel the warmth of a greeting.

The epigraph, taken from Juan Ramón Jiménez, states that ‘The body as it daydreams goes / towards the earth that belongs to it’. Antrobus’s poems stage this bridge building and reclamation. The first poem, ‘The Acceptance’, may as well be a Medieval Dream Vision as the speaker converses with his dead father. The dream is palpable and ordinary as, in the speaker’s hotel room, the father ‘laughs and takes // my hand, squeezes, his ring  / digs into my flesh’. The use of the present tense restages the vivid immediacy of the dream. We move beyond the everyday and into ‘the tall grass / by the riverbank’. The tall grass is like a beaded door curtain – we know that we are snatching a glimpse through the veil and, in this case, into a Yoruba religious experience as the goddess ‘Oshun, in brass bracelets and earrings, bathes my father in a white dress’. ‘Pearl’, the fourteenth century expression of love and loss, starts in much the same way as the speaker encounters ‘A gracious lady gowned in white’ (trans. Marie Borroff). Antrobus’s poem spans time, bridges cultures and, with its own shining hands, bids the reader welcome too.

In ‘The Royal Opera House (with stage captions)’, we encounter another cultural manifestation of closed captioning – the surtitles screened above the stage, used to translate arias sung in Italian or German into the lingua franca. Again, we’re in the present tense, our bums on the auditorium’s upholstered seats of privilege as we watch ‘A play. An all black cast in a South African Township.’ It sounds worthy enough but Antrobus’ surtitles perform the silences, the ‘[sound of speechless poverty]’ and, gradually, we zoom out and realise that ’We don’t see ‘the oil or the Coca-Cola Company’, or the hand holding the pen: ‘The writer, educated at Rhodes and Oxford University, has somehow freed himself from his own history’. As the audience rise to their feet to greet the production with a standing ovation, ‘none of the silences, none of them are filled’.

The collection stages the shadow between the emotion and the response and, miraculously, Antrobus’s poetry somehow holds this bubble of unfillable silence. In ‘At Every Edge’ we’re in a prison’s creative writing workshop. Again, we feel the human need for love and reconciliation: ‘One inmate squeezed my hand like a letter / he’d been hoping for’. He has murdered his wife and the poem ends ‘I wish / I knew her name so I could plant it here’. She’s hidden no longer in the shadows of the wings but she stands centre stage – mute.

Antrobus’s poems wrestle with the elemental forces of space and silence, yet from these borderlands he fashions something intimate and warm. Yes, All the Names Given, presents humanity at its worst: the police shooting of the deaf John T Williams, and the suicide of Tyrone Givens, whose hearing aids were removed before he started his sentence at Pentonville. However, this is a collection suffused with humanity and, working with the gaps between language, it is crafted with exquisite fragility.

Kayo Chingonyi

John Field reviews the shortlist – Kayo Chingonyi – A Blood Condition

For the 2021 Prize poetry blogger John Field will once again be reviewing the shortlist.


As well as being shortlisted for this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize, Kayo Chingonyi’s A Blood Condition – his second collection – was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. It explores absence and loss with a spirit of generosity and thankfulness. The collection is meticulously crafted: both at the level of the individual poem and as a whole. Echoes and reflections bounce and shimmer between its poems, layering meaning and lending it a gentle hauntedness.

Chingonyi opens with ‘Nyaminyami’, an exploration of Nyami Nyami, the river god of the Zambezi. The prose poem flows like a torrent, broad and wide as, on the page, the margins – the poem’s banks – are reduced to thinnest of strips by Chingonyi’s expansive lines, for ‘the river is wide and the flow gives life’. However, this Zambezi flows through memory, not through the present, as the repeated preposition ‘before’ circumscribes its flow: ‘before the valley was connected by the orderly topography of macadam and the valley’s footworn pathways, taught to the valley’s young by experience, were paved’. ‘Nyaminyami: …the river god’ follows next. Prose is swept aside and Chingonyi offers gnomic truth as the river’s snake god bites back at the Kariba dam and the collection’s first haunting is an environmental one as ‘we often make mistakes / make beds   in which our descendants sleep badly’.

Chingonyi follows this with ‘Origin Myth’, a sonnet corona meditating on the genesis and legacy of HIV where ‘a ghost note in simian blood / is loosed by a novice butcher’s unsteady knife work’. We’re reminded, perhaps, of the Wuhan South China Seafood Wholesale Market, and Chingonyi’s use of the sonnet corona feels like an oblique reference to coronavirus. In the sonnet corona, the final sonnet’s last line becomes the first line of the first and Chingonyi’s concatenations lends ‘Origin Myth’ a cyclic quality, inviting us to consider when humanity will release contagion’s next ‘ghost note’.

The collection’s engagement with the poetry of Tony Harrison makes itself felt long before we reach ‘Postcard from the Sholebrokes’, written for Tony Harrison. In ’16 Bars for the Bits’, we encounter the collection’s first Meredithian sonnet, a form Harrison made his own in ‘The School of Eloquence’. The OED records ‘bits’ as Northern English and Scottish slang for ‘poor little children’ and Chingonyi’s 16 bars are both the 16 lines of his Meredithian sonnet where ‘the Youngers get bladdered and stagger’ and an epic pub crawl. It’s a relentless, intoxicated tour de force where 11 of the poem’s 16 lines use the same rhyme, and its presentation of the underbelly of the city reads as Chingonyi’s nod to Harrison’s ‘Durham’.

‘Ginnel’ explores a dialect word for a channel, or a long narrow passage between houses, and initially presents as a dictionary entry: its numbered stanzas akin to the numbering of definitions. The poem starts safely enough with ‘an interstice’ – perhaps a playful acknowledgement of the dictionary’s tendency to send its reader on a spiralling quest across its pages, as the words used in a definition create more problems than they solve. Chingonyi’s second line starts with an indent, a ginnel’: ‘     a quarter-tone’ and, somehow, his poem embodies this void, this ‘last known / whereabouts / of missing persons, this ‘gap in the teeth / of a terraced street’, and the void of absence becomes palpable, worried away at by the troubled tongue. In ‘landscape w/ motorway’ the reader’s mind returns to ‘Ginnel’ as we see ‘the spot a car abandoned its original / trajectory’ and, in a nod to Paul Muldoon, the ‘wayside shrine   a warning sign’ by the roadside speaking of another absence.

Despite his meditation on loss, the collection returns to its beginning, suggesting that the ebbing river will once again flow and ‘to this day pilgrims / sometimes see a momentary swell / in the course of the river’. Chingonyi’s beautiful, austere poetry leaves us on the brink of renewal.

Selima Hill

John Field reviews the shortlist: Selima Hill – Men Who Feed Pigeons

For the 2021 Prize poetry blogger John Field will once again be reviewing the shortlist.


Selima Hill’s ‘Jutland’ was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2015 and, in my review, I commented that ‘the world Hill creates seethes with obsessive energy and her poetry sings with painful authenticity’. ‘Men Who Feed Pigeons presents the reader with eight sequences exploring the relationships between women and men, and to read these is to enter a world in which the everyday suffers a sea-change into something rich and strange. Relationships and friendships are placed under the microscope and Hill finds both comedy and tragedy in the prosaic details of everyday life.

The opening sequence, ‘The Anaesthetist’, is a miscellany of men, some defined by their professions and others by relationships. Here, Hill’s pairs of couplets land with devastating satirical effect and signal her mastery of a craft stretching back to Alexander Pope. In the first stanza of ‘The Care Worker’ we encounter unconditional love: ‘The residents are old and so in love / it’s all the same to them if he’s chubby’. There’s a quiet little tragedy simmering away here already as the residents’ ‘love’ speaks of emotion with nowhere to go, displaced onto the only available object, the paradoxically entitled ‘Care Worker’. The professional distance implied by his job title only serves to make their love for him more painful for the reader. At the very least, the professional distance implied by this title should ensure the residents’ safety but, in the second stanza, Hill delivers the sucker punch: ‘or permanently stoned or if it’s him / stealing stuff from their bedside lockers’. The word ‘stuff’ implies worthless rubbish and feels like it belongs to the care worker’s idiolect. His casual pilfering of those final memories – wedding and engagement rings – reveals his contempt for their love, and the residents’ ‘lockers’ become pitiful. A locker might protect their stuff from other residents and their guests but, as everyone knows, the threat in the care home comes chiefly from within and not from without. Powerful as this poem is, it’s just one picked at random: they are all this good, and the power of the sequence lies in its cumulative effect. Some of its poems are affectionate, or just plain funny (read ‘The Duke’ and ask yourself why he’s afforded just a single couplet) but, overall, the focus of Hill’s vision makes reading this sequence as thrilling as wandering the galleries of the National Portrait Gallery.

‘Billy’ presents a friendship between a man and a woman and, in many of these poems, Hill works with just a single couplet. Poets have forever mined the couple(t) for expressions of union but Hill finds other possibilities. ‘Raging Torrents, Soaring Peaks’ promises the sublime, a transcendental moment of connection between a couple, but ‘Unmoved by raging torrents, soaring peaks, / he’s busy looking forward to the cakes’. It’s a brilliant piece of bathos and, in the seething silence flowing around the poem, we feel the female subject’s raging torrent of anger. In just two lines, ’Semolina’ presents a vista of Gothic horror. It starts: ‘If he’s fed until he can’t move’ and casts the speaker as Hansel and Gretel’s witch, her conditional ‘if’ plotting a crime. The poem finishes ‘I can do whatever I want’. Given the opening line, my first thoughts were of John and Lorena Bobbitt, of knife-wielding domestic horror, but there’s a simpler, more painful desire for space here too: a space savoured in fleeting snatches, waiting for him outside the gents and hoping that ‘he’ll take ages’.

Selima Hill is a one-off, and her restless magpie mind unpicks the fragile seams of everyday experience, revealing the darkness beneath. We can choose to laugh, or we can choose to cry, but there’s no easy escape from the disconcerting experiences Hill promises her reader.

Victoria Kennefick

John Field reviews the shortlist: Victoria Kennefick – Eat Or We Both Starve

For the 2021 Prize poetry blogger John Field will once again be reviewing the shortlist.

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Buck Mulligan tells Stephen Dedalus that, ‘You have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way’. To be raised as a Roman Catholic means to read the world as a Roman Catholic, regardless of one’s current beliefs. Eat or We Both Starve, Victoria Kennefick’s debut collection, reads the world through Catholic culture and, in its echoes and reverberations, we grasp something of how history’s long shadow influences the individual.

In ‘Second Communion’, nothing is as it seems. Kennefick opens by describing Holy Mass: ‘Father Madden enters, his chasuble fluid as milk; / a shaft of sunlight pierces the Christ embroidered in tinsel’. As milk, the priest himself is wholesome, pure and nutritious, perhaps because of his ontological difference – at the consecration of the bread and the wine, the priest is Christ. His ‘fluid’ chasuble underscores his Protean form. The piercing ‘shaft of sunlight’ evokes Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’ and, at one level, suggests that the ‘Christ embroidered in tinsel’ is a part of the sanctuary’s statuary – but it also refers to the priest himself: at the moment of consecration he is pierced as Christ was. Furthermore, this consummation also feminizes him. The host becomes Christ’s flesh and the wine becomes his blood. The congregation watch the priest consume Christ – consume himself – before queuing for their turn at ‘the chalice sloshing with blood’. Kennefick’s ‘sloshing’ reimagines the chalice as a trough of swill. It’s a weird experience drinking from the same cup as a couple of hundred other people, and the poem’s young speaker wonders ‘If I eat Jesus will he want to eat me?’

If ‘Second Communion’ explores a response to consumption, then the following poem, ‘Forty Days’, explores abstinence through the Lenten fast. We visit a family home, ‘mother, cutting / tiny slices of bread in the kitchen corner, / eating from doll plates. She couldn’t be prouder / of our ecstasy of denial, little letter-box lips / refusing the sins of the tongue’. It’s an inversion of the accepted maternal role in which the provision of food is virtuous. Food brings joy but, here, we’re back with the ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’, and ‘the sins of the tongue’ bring us back to Eden where eating did no-one any good.

The collection engages with the hagiographies of female saints to powerful effect. ‘Hunger Strikes Gemma Calgani (1878–1903)’ works with chapter titles: ‘Chapter 11: St. Gemma’s Heroic Mortification’ uses the language of action and masculine strength to present her subjugating her passions and appetites. In Roman Catholicism, mortification possesses connotations of strength and virtue, and focuses on the eternal hereafter, not on the transitory pleasures of the present. However, the OED records the principle meaning of mortify as ‘to deprive of life; to kill, put to death’. Kennefick’s footnotes subvert the energetic hagiography. Chapter 12 explores ‘Attacks by the Devil’ but the footnote voices the Saint: ‘All night I dream of food, Jesus take the taste from me’. Since time immemorial, people have been encouraged to shun the temptations of food as another pleasure of the flesh – yesterday’s saint is today’s anorexic.

Kennefick echoes this series of hagiographic hunger strike poems in ‘Hunger Strikes Victoria Kennefick’ where ‘she cannot wash herself clean / the way she’d like’, where food is seen as filthy and sensual, stuffed ‘into a wide / moist orifice’.

These personal histories are linked to the broader passage of time. In ‘Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, Dublin 2016’, the speaker puts her ‘finger into the bullet holes’ to ‘poke around in its wounds’ as if the GPO were Christ’s mortified flesh, and ‘Researching the Irish Famine’ takes us not to 1845, but to the mass graves of Ireland’s orphanages. Babies ‘Wasted away / like potatoes / in the ground. The whole / country rotten’.

Returning to Ulysses, ‘History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. In the visceral Eat or We Both Starve, Kennefick shakes us by the shoulders.

Hannah Lowe

John Field Reviews the Shortlist – Hannah Lowe The Kids

For the 2021 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.

Tony Harrison once said that he ‘write[s] sonnets fairly continuously – like someone tapping a barometer’. Hannah Lowe once taught English Literature in a London Sixth Form and The Kids is her barometer, one she taps regularly through the school year, charting the kids’ highs and lows. The final sequence, addressed to her son, rounds her collection off with intimate warmth.

Lowe’s epigraph is taken from William Blake’s ‘Nurse’s Song’, one of his Songs of Innocence, where the children beg their nurse to ‘let us play, for it is yet day’. Lowe’s ‘The Sky is Snowing’ is a Song of Innocence for the twenty-first century. The speaker’s voice is didactic, standing with her son at the window: ‘The sky is snowing, Rory’. The son is dressed in ‘burglar stripes’ but, while we usually think of the burglar breaking-in, this crime is one of breaking-out: ‘Let’s lift the window open, just a slip, / and catch this snowstorm on your fingertip’. Yes, Lowe has taught in school, but the collection asks us to consider the negative as well as the positive effects of institutional education. Sometimes education comes from parents and the world outdoors. There are no easy answers here though, as ‘Players’ presents a less wholesome side to the parent as teacher: ‘My parents taught me smoking’.

For teachers, it’s the first of September that heralds the new year but, for some students in Year Eleven, GCSE resits rain on the parade. Lowe’s first sonnet takes the register – of course! – but then it’s down to business with ‘Try, Try, Try Again’. According to legend, Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, was on the run, hiding in a cave, when he coined this phrase while watching a spider struggling to weave a web. Inspired by the spider’s stoic example, he routed the English at Bannockburn. Lowe’s poem translates Bruce’s predicament to GCSE results day, dazzling us in the spotlight of the second person to ensure that we feel suitably paralysed. The octave asks, ‘Why would anyone want to do again / the thing they’d failed?’ It unpicks the easy ‘Try, Try’ platitudes fed to the young at school assemblies and, opening the dreaded statement of results, we’re in the subjunctive, dreaming of escape as ‘you’d rather pull the sheets / above your head and flick through Instagram / with earphones in’. At least Bruce’s cave offered some respite. Through the music, ‘you can hear mum / repeat: You’ll never get a job without it!’ Lowe’s sonnet ends with a dash, a cinematic cut, mum’s diatribe in full flow and no solutions in sight. Bruce’s derring-do will surely fuel school assemblies in perpetuity, but Lowe’s sonnet, in contrast, is painfully humane.

‘The Sixth-form Theatre Trip’ offers a change of tone and reimagines a group of students finding their seats at the theatre as a pack of dogs. Perhaps we prejudge them as unruly and noisy. Lowe plays with these preconceptions, as we see ‘One badass dog in headphones mooching / up the aisle’ but, as the curtain rises, we’re at the volta, and ‘their shining dog-hearts fling wide open’. Later in the collection, in ‘Balloons’, five-year-olds are reimagined as helium balloons, ‘their small hands shooting high to give an answer, / any answer, just the chance to try’. We’re reminded of the sixth form theatre trip and feel a sense of optimism: the puppyish enthusiasm of kids is a universal constant, regardless of their age. However, we’ve encountered that word ‘try’ earlier in the collection, and we’re reminded that some of those hands will stop shooting up. Others will no longer even be in the classroom.

The Kids asks awkward questions about institutionalized education, but retains an unshakable faith in the kids and the joy they derive from learning and from their world and, because of this, it imagines a bright future.

Michael Symmons Roberts

John Field Reviews the Shortlist:  Michael Symmons Roberts – Ransom

For the 2021 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.

In Mancunia, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2017, Symmons Roberts explores our urban spaces, touring dive bars and scraps of wasteland. Ransom is something more metaphysical and is both a dazzling cinematic treatment of confinement and release, and a contemplation of the divine.

It’s fitting that a poem entitled ‘The Note’ opens Ransom. Both the reader and the speaker are tempted to think along the well-worn lines of the cinematic cliché of the ransom note: ‘scissors and glue, // a stack of newspapers / to spell out where and when’. However, the poem also strikes the collection’s key musical note – the heart of the collection is ‘Vingt Regards’, a response to Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, a series of piano pieces contemplating different aspects of Christ. Ironically, the poem’s attentive listening also presents us with a cinematic cliché: we listen not to the music but to the sounds beneath it, searching for the ‘dialects of distant dogs, / to figure where they held you’. Headphones plugged in, we believe that we are paying close, critical attention but still, somehow, manage to miss the point. Symmons Roberts’ final couplet surprises us with joy – and a jump – as, ‘When you walked in, / you scared the life out of me’. It’s gloriously disarming – at one level we all recognise that jolt, but there’s a quiet spiritual profundity to it too – the miracle of the incarnation.

The collection sees the digital world as one of imprisonment. In ‘The Tears of Things’, even the natural world is subject to its strictures: ‘the night sky winter-clear, / universe bent to the shape of an eye, // curved to the full extent of vigilance’. Again, we’re reminded of just how far we now view the world through the photographic lens: ‘My neighbour leaves home and walks out of shot’. On the next page, the title ‘Ware’ primes us to expect watchful care and safe-keeping, but what we find instead is ransomware, a malicious piece of software that encrypts the victim’s files until a ransom is paid. Needless to say, on attempting to open a file, the hapless victim will instead receive a ransom note, and so the poem is addressed to the second person, presenting the attack as ‘no jail cell // but a curl of hair / shut in a heart-shaped pendant’, in a grotesque piece of self-delusion.

If ransomware is the darkest form of digital ransom, we probably find that, post-COVID, we view streaming TV services as benign – as a godsend, even. Instead, ‘I Saw Eternity the Other Night’ prefers to imagine the simpler screen of the evening, viewed from a domestic window: ‘I sat and waited for the shapes // of rooftops, geese, mill chimneys, / to soften as my window // pulled the world outside to in’. The practical details of the physical world contrast with the cynical artifice of ‘TV’s illumined bait’ where ‘all its shows […] captivate’. Symmons Roberts resists rhyming his couplets until this point, but ‘bait’ and ‘captivate’ snap his couplet shut like the spring on a mantrap.

The collection concludes with ‘Takk’, a sequence named after a coffee shop on Manchester’s Oxford Road, directly below the Mancunian Way flyover. Again, the world is viewed in cinematic terms, or perhaps as a hipster’s photographs, ready to be uploaded to social media. The speaker looks out at ‘the scene framed by this crate window’ and sees a world of off-white walls. However, as the reflections seen in the window of ‘I Saw Eternity the Other Night’ reflect into infinity, so does the view imagined from the coffee shop. It reveals ‘a vista worth waiting for, / like some imagined Finca Miravalle / with swathes of ice-cream-bean and cypress trees’. The poem acknowledges our need to escape and Takk serves as the perfect metaphor: it is a series of shipping containers, themselves contained by the concrete walls and the roof of the flyover – boxes within boxes. Yet, even here, under tons of concrete, we can experience revelation and escape.

The poems in Ransom reflect one another like shards of mirror. Using the collection as a whole, Symmons Roberts creates our gilded cage and the glimpses of infinity we snatch through its bars.

Daniel Sluman

John Field reviews the shortlist: Daniel Sluman – single window

For the 2021 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.

single window is accompanied by photographs shot by Sluman and his wife, Emily Brenchi-Sluman. As the collection marks the passing of the seasons, it explores both the limits of the couple’s world, and the day-to-day challenges of managing pain and caring for one another. The result is poetry of extraordinary intensity and, viewed by the light of a single window, this is a collection which, above all, teaches us about love.

Brokenness is apparent immediately: Sluman works in free verse and stabs of language lie scattered over the opening pages of ‘autumn’. The margins of the domestic sphere are redrawn and the sofa, typically a space for evenings and weekends, becomes ‘the sofa we’ve lived in / for the last eight months’. The couple are pinned by pain as ‘fatigue stirs through our bones / anchors us into the stained sheets’. It’s a leaden image and, as the flukes of an anchor bury themselves in the muck on the seabed to hold the vessel in place, so the speaker and his partner are buried in domestic alluvium. The vessel’s anchor holds it fast, defying the otherwise implacable tidal forces that move the water around it – and so Sluman’s speaker and his partner remain, surrounded by a frowzy autumnal decay, ‘slick with rotting leaves’.

One might hope that a window would offer a change of scene, a breath of fresh air, but the sense of suffocation Sluman creates is unrelenting. In order to see the weather, instead of looking outside, ‘you log onto your phone / to see how near the clouds are closing’ – and the ‘closing’ clouds only serve to confine the couple a third time, like a tiny matryoshka doll in a series of enclosures: couch, house and clouds. The only heavens here are viewed through the lens of analgesics, and the only time here is measured in the moments until the next dose is permitted: ‘we count down the seconds / before the pills sing their gospel inside us // we rock in our seats / eyes rolled back // towards the heaven / of improved conditions’.

Light does penetrate the neutral tones of Sluman’s single window. At one moment in ‘spring’, he works with lines comprising single words: a beam of light ‘poured / through / like / cans / of / paint / flooding / the / tiny / aperture’. The joy and colour is overwhelming and ‘flooding’ offers both an image of cleansing and renewal, but is also an act of erasure. Later in the poem, Sluman presents ‘full- / throated / reds’ in a nod to Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, a poem flirting with oblivion, and attracted to the dull opiates of Lethe.

‘summer’ brings intimacy and the ‘electrical cord snaking between your thighs’ presents one form of this but, without missing a beat, Sluman segues into the intimacy of care, where each nurses the other, where the speaker nurses his partner ‘with a patience / [he] could never summon for anyone else’. ‘summer’ presents us with a rare glimpse of the outside world and, as the collection closes, we see ‘commuters shouldering / past each other / eyes fixed / on the smouldering sidewalk’. The heat of this image, together with those eyes, fixed to the ground is something straight out of Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, or from Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and this dog-eat-dog world looks even more horrifying than usual when compared with the unconditional love and vulnerability Sluman presents in his indoors world.

single window is a work of clarity and intensity, and the photographs contributed by Emily Brenchi-Sluman add to its collaborative quality. The collection celebrates human dignity and, above all, reminds us that love is the drug – that love is enough.

Joelle Taylor

John Field reviews: Joelle Taylor – C+nto & Othered Poems

For the 2021 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.

It’s rare to encounter a collection that opens with a Preface. Think of Wordsworth’s Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads – it announces the collection’s radical politics. As revolutionary France shook off the old order, Wordsworth worked to bring the elevated language of poetry ‘near to the language of men’. Taylor’s Preface is no less radical. She reminds her reader that, ‘according to the Human Dignity Trust it is illegal to be a lesbian in almost a quarter of the world’s countries’. She concludes by writing that ‘Unity has never been more important, but in order to achieve that, we must reflect on our histories, when they converge, where they differ, and make a joint decision on where we are going — and how we get there. We build the road we walk on together’. This is a collection that walks the revolutionary road of this country’s finest radical writers as it explores the lives of women from the butch counterculture.

The first chapter, ‘Vitrine’, mourns the loss of the spaces that permitted LGBT+ culture the air it needed to breath, and the light required to flourish. Instead, Taylor reimagines the sun as ‘a hole through which the sky is draining’, leaving us trapped in the lifeless sterility of a vacuum. Wandering the streets of London, ‘A man is taking down a sign that reads Old Compton Street & replacing it with a sign that reads Old Compton Street’. Everything appears to be the same, but that which once lived and breathed has been curated, deprived of its life, and placed behind the bars of a museum where ‘Tourists shoal, mobile phones pointing to a series of large glass display cases lining the pavement’. Taylor presents her poem in the form of a shot list – the list of camera angles and movements a director uses to compose a film, and this adds to the impression that Old Compton Street, once a focus for the LGBT+ community, has been preserved in aspic: ‘my pretty Pompei’, as Taylor describes it.

‘C+nto’, the collection’s second chapter, is Taylor’s personal response to her sexuality. These poems are listed numerically as bouts in a boxing match and so, like ‘Vitrine’, life is imagined as a semi-choreographed media event. The stage is lit for the cameras and the protagonist is trapped within the confines of a ring that guarantees confrontation and violence. ‘ROUND ONE the body as battleground’ addresses the reader in the second person, denying us a comfortable distance from which to view the drama. ‘you awaken / in no man’s land     gunfire from over the horizon     & / women     are crucified on hashtags across the dark hills’. At face value, ’No man’s land’ is a blunt statement, and reminds us that the female body is not male property. However, even attempting to name it as such automatically turns it into that other no man’s land: a dangerous, disputed territory and neatly – tragically – encapsulates the difficulties and dangers of being lesbian.

The final sequence, ’O, Maryville’, follows the narrative of a night in a dyke bar. Here Taylor shifts register and a poem like ‘Psalm’ reads like a skit on the ‘O Antiphons’, the Magnificat antiphons used during the last seven days of Advent, addressing Christ’s many names using the vocative: O Wisdom; O Root of Jesse; O Dayspring. Taylor’s litany of praise gives us ‘o Maryville / o swagger / o keychain & denim’ and appropriates a language of love and adoration. Inua Ellams describes C+nto as ‘an altar of a book’ and, after pain and sacrifice, Taylor gives us a moment of transcendence, of all that is holy veiled in flesh in a glorious celebration of sex and sexuality.

Taylor refuses to let her reader escape with a misplaced sense of euphoria and, as the collection closes, she gives us ‘Eulogy’. It works with ‘The Litany of the Saints’ — an invocation and appeal for the intercession of the saints. Taylor’s ‘Eulogy’ carries the memories of murdered lesbian woman and recognises their deaths as martyrdoms and, by extension, shows us that they bore witness to something sacred. Taylor opens: ‘& I carry / Roxanne Ellis / within me. / & I carry / Ashanti / Posey within / me’.

Using the tools of a Judeao-Christian tradition, Taylor works with some of the oldest forms of poetry, and C+nto demands that the reader acknowledges how these histories converge. We are asked to build a road that all are safe to walk: day, or night; accompanied, or singly.

Jack Underwood

John Field reviews: Jack Underwood – A Year in the New Life

For the 2021 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.

This week John Field reviews A Year in the New Life and concludes that it ‘embraces the anxieties we face. It acknowledges the cruelty and indifference of both the universe and human nature but, somehow, despite this, it smiles at us. There is warmth in its embrace. We know that the path we will walk will be walked together.’

A Year in the New Life explores fatherhood, the challenges posed the climate emergency, and human nature more generally. With the skill of an escapologist, Underwood has a knack for burdening his reader with the heaviest of chains but, with a wink and a smile, he releases us into the light and a ripple of applause. As he struts through literary history, Sharpie in hand, he’s an iconoclastic graffiti artist too, and just because we’re asked to take life seriously doesn’t mean that we’re asked to be serious.

‘Poem Beginning with Lines by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’, the second in the collection, opens with four lines from Aurora Leigh in which Barrett Browning’s character considers the flame of her poetic inspiration in earnest terms and wonders, ‘Who had set it there?’ Underwood’s speaker replies with disarming levity: ‘Not me. I’m just a slug on the wet inner face / of the discourse’. There’s a wilful, perverse ignorance pervading the collection, and Underwood’s speaker continues, saying, ‘I’ve no idea what drags the chair, bruises / the fruit, leads a child towards a dead rabbit / and bids them not weep’. Yet Underwood’s speaker eventually reveals that his apparent confusion is a posture. He knows perfectly well how inspiration works and, commenting on the childish game of playing dead, he relates that, ‘All summer I did it, / repeating the drama, which is how a song is made; you make a phrase and turn it / over and over…’ At the last moment, just as the speaker and Barrett Browning appear to be on the same page, Underwood’s speaker is off again: ‘… like a dead rabbit, finding on the other side, o look, this rabbit, dead, too’. There’s a gleeful perversity at work here, as revelation remains one step out of reach.

Literary graffiti punctuates the collection, puncturing the balloon of the inflated ego. ‘Poem Beginning with Lines by Walter Savage Landor’ starts with the puffed-up voice of Landor’s ‘Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher,’ who claims that he ‘warm’d both hands before the fire of Life’ – spouting the empty cant of carpe diem. Underwood’s speaker’s having none of it, and retorts: ‘It doesn’t trouble me that I didn’t fuck around or win / a haunted heirloom from the panel’. Indeed, ‘What Happened Here?’ goes as far as to suggest that nothing good comes from warming one’s hands by the fire of life. The poem is structured as a dialogue, and tells us that ‘A great burning happened here’. We might hope that ‘great’ would relate to the size of the burning, but apparently not, as we’re later told that not many were burned, ‘Only a committee or so’. So, ‘great’ in this context surely means important, significant, or outstanding. Given half a chance, it seems, we’ll exploit one another any way we can, even if just to warm our hands on a cold evening. We’ll enjoy it too.

Behind the collection’s anxieties about the human nature and the condition of the planet are the sentiments of the new father. Towards the end, we read ‘There Is a Supermassive Black Hole Four Million Times the Mass of the Sun at the Centre of Our Galaxy and You Are Pregnant with Our Daughter’. The length of title is comedic, as too is the move from the sublime (Black Hole) to the ridiculous (Our Daughter). Viewing humanity along a cosmological time continuum puts our fears of survival into perspective: had we but world enough and time, we’d all see the sun extinguished. Yet, as Underwood’s speaker opens, ‘We are not unique, and we are’ and, as the speaker ends: ‘There is a supermassive black hole four million times / the mass of the sun at the centre of our galaxy / and she already responds to our voices’.

A Year in the New Life embraces the anxieties we face. It acknowledges the cruelty and indifference of both the universe and human nature but, somehow, despite this, it smiles at us. There is warmth in its embrace. We know that the path we will walk will be walked together.

Kevin Young

John Field reviews: Kevin Young – Stones

For the 2021 Prize, we’ve asked poetry blogger John Field to review the shortlisted titles again.


Kevin Young is the poetry editor for the New Yorker and, in Stones, he explores love and and loss with a tenderness and humour that lends this collection warmth and humanity.

He opens with ‘Resume’ where the speaker is already in the past, and describes a bygone world, ‘Where the train once rained / through town / like a river’. The homophone ‘rained’ also gives us ‘reigned’ and adds to the sense of deposition: nothing lasts forever and humanity’s mightiest works lie half sunk in the soil. A verdant world is exchanged for an arid one in which ‘women speak / in burnt tongues’. Burials figure large in Stones but here, ‘someone’s daddy sinks a latrine shaft, not a grave. It’s ‘so deep / up from the dark // dank bottom springs a tree’, a reminder of the possibility of new life, even from the darkest, dirtiest places.

The world Young presents is a cruel one. The speaker in ‘Dog Tags’ presents time passing at a furious lick, as the poem opens with ‘Of us there is / always less. / The days hammer // past’. Throughout the collection, Young works with tiny lines: ‘Of us | there is’ is a line of iambic dimeter but, with ‘al-ways less’, Young subtracts a syllable from that. Line breaks create their own tensions and dramas: that neat first line appears to present a positive statement, ending as it does with ‘is’ – an assertion of being. Yes, life is fleeting, but our stone monuments to posterity sell us the idea of some kind of lasting presence. ‘Dog Tags’ chips away at this idea, as the speaker wears his father’s ‘dog tags a tin / pendulum on my chest’ and his insolvent cousin has been buried by gambling debts. She left ‘dirt a pile above her / but no stone, nothing // but the tinfoil name / from the funeral home – / the fresh plastic // flowers that still wilt / in this heat’. The present continuous ‘still wilt’ condemns the deceased to an unbiodegradable tribute of tawdry horror.  A few poems later and ’Boneyard’ also invites the reader to consider the ‘fake // flowers [that] will outlive / even doubt’. Young suggests that our memorialising instinct is futile, as even our seemingly permanent tributes will weather like Ozymandias’s great statue. In ‘Chisel’, the speaker comments that ‘Our words hope to mend / what wind / wants instead – // carved by hand, this stone / soft enough to chisel’ will not endure.

The collection’s domestic warmth lends it a tender, painful humanity. ‘Joy’ recalls the names of various bath-time unguents and opens ‘Once we bathed  / in Joy […] Sometimes accidentally // our own pee’. The brand name, ‘Joy’, becomes an abstract noun and a verb too, loading this universal memory with overwhelming emotion. Young refuses to take himself too seriously, and the bath(os) of childish pee is an essential addition to this cleansing ritual. As adults, we fear dirt. Perhaps we’re all too conscious that we are dust, and to dust we shall return but, back when we were children, ‘dirt / & each other / was all we loved’.

There’s a numinous quality to the natural world Young presents. One of the final poems in the collection, ’Evensong’, puns on the sequence of psalms and prayers typically recited in the evening. Young invites the reader to hear ‘The evensong // of frogs like monks / in the dusk / making the cedars // their abbey’ in a revelation of music, light and beauty.

The collection closes with the spectacular Last Post of ‘Trumpet’. In the Christian tradition, the trumpet is the instrument associated with Armageddon and the bodily resurrection of the dead. The poem acts as a riposte to the tawdry rituals of death. In a poem full of longing, the speaker asks ‘Let forever the flowers bloom – not like the plastic perennials / but these daylilies that repeat // out of the peat’. The reader is pointed back to the plastic bouquets of ‘Dog Tags’ and ‘Boneyard’ but this time we connect to the ground with an earthy honesty.

Kevin Young’s Stones is a hymn to the dearly departed. He resists that timeless human urge to aggrandise the dead with magnificent edifices, but his humble memorial creates something far more affecting.