It’s the most wonderful time of the year: when literary review pages get filled by people recommending books for free.
Here’s my twopenn’orth in the Times Literary Supplement, plus some other TLS poetry tipsters.
C+nto & Othered Poems (Westbourne Press) by the poet Joelle Taylor is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Partly autobiographical, it excavates, foregrounds and celebrates the lives of butch lesbians through the most memorable and often astonishing poetry that is at once epic and intimate. Those who challenge the heterodoxies of heterosexuality are seen as outlaws and outsiders, and this collection shows us what it takes, and what it costs, to be free — to be yourself.
Holly Pester’s beguiling, astonishing, undefeatable Comic Timing (Granta).
Two coruscating poetry collections pinpoint Irish themes: much in Martina Evans’s American Mules (Carcanet) could be a McGahern novel in verse, while Gail McConnell’s overwhelming The Sun Is Open (Penned in the Margins) addresses a brutal murder by the IRA via a visionary collage of fragmentary records.
Beyond the publicity, good and bad, Gallery Press still has a great list. Derek Mahon’s The Poems (1961–2020) brings together, in final form, all the verse he wished to preserve. A variorum will have to wait — there is a lot of life in Mahon’s variants — but this huge compilation is neither a catalogue nor a catafalque. Vona Groarke’s Link: Poet and world is a deceptively simple, oddly philosophical sequence about being visited during lockdown. I was quickly drawn into Peter Sirr’s prose work, Intimate City, which wanders through the back streets of Dublin. Look out for the essay on curtains. Finally, new talent shines in Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s The Poison Glen, which has a base in the Donegal Gaeltacht and a ghastly backstory in the industrial schools, mother and baby homes and other institutions of church and state.
The Roman writer Maximian, fingered by Auden as “a really remarkable poet”, was raging against the dying of the light some fifteen centuries before Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Inspired by Maximian’s Elegies, the poet and translator James Womack’s long poem Homunculus (Carcanet) is a deliciously grouchy howl at the indignities of the ageing body, studded with great jokes and brilliant shards of pain.
The slave trade lies behind one of the many haunting images in Shane McCrae’s quite brilliant Sometimes I Never Suffered (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):
Heaven’s a horse a train a ship with no
Captain or with a captain but the captain is
Sam Riviere’s Dead Souls (Weidenfeld) is a poet’s novel, about poets, that contains no lines of poetry. Instead, it pursues an implacably dystopian monologue that made me laugh every couple of pages with its horribly steely conceits, such as the secondhand bookseller who burns unsold anthologies “like a common extremist”. From extreme satire, however, emerges an unspoken vision of poetry as the elusive thing all around us, “like bubbles grouping together against the curvature of the bottle”.
Waiting Behind Tornados for Food (Materials) is the first UK publication by Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Franciscan Poet Laureate and educator on the extrajudicial killing of Black people. Here, poetry is “a torrential continuum of language through which we chase liberation”. Line by line, Eisen-Martin’s lucid, jagged voicings of the violent reality of white supremacy do not miss: “A non-future dripping with real people / I mean, real people … Not poem people”.
Forced by the pandemic to rely increasingly on a colourless Zoomtalk, poets have responded by producing new forms of experimental writing. The French-Belgian Jan Baetens’s Frankenstein 1973–2020 (Granada) is a series of short lyric riffs on Viktor Erice’s great Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), in which an enchanting six-year-old girl living in a quasi-deserted village (the backdrop is the dying Franco regime) has a series of increasingly frightening experiences, triggered by her seeing a Frankenstein film. Christian Bök’s The Kazimir Effect (Penteract) takes the “limit-case” of Malevich’s “White on White” (1918) as “a sparse prompt for the creation of visual poetry” – sixteen collages that then morph into haiku translated into kanji signs. Each page brings new and surprising collocations.
A. E. STALLINGS
Two poetry books I loved this year were Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves and Valzhyna Mort’s Music for the Dead and Resurrected (both Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Solie is at the height of her powers: this is that rarest thing, a “project” book where every poem rises to its occasion. Mort’s intensely personal lyrics intersect, sometimes brutally, with Belarusian history. “To Antigone, A Dispatch” is one such: “Pick me for a sister, Antigone. / In this suspicious land / I have a bright shovel for a face”.