Archive for September, 2008


I do so love getting the next month’s worth of poetry, gloating over its shiny covers and promise of new discoveries. This month’s batch includes two collections (Gross and Henderson) liberated from a box of books at my parents’ house (belonging to me), so would count in the original shelf of poetry that I aimed to read this year. The other three were lovingly selected at a shop rather than online (which is what I normally do); one was a recommendation from Tom ‘This is Yogic’ (the Hadfield). I can’t wait.

Sophie Hannah, Pessimism for Beginners (Carcanet, 2007)
Philip Gross, Cat’s Whisker (Faber and Faber, 1987)
Jen Hadfield, Nigh-no-place (Bloodaxe, 2008)
Stewart Henderson, A Giant’s Scrapbook (Spire/Hodder & Stoughton, 1989)
Gwyneth Lewis, Parables and Faxes (1995, from Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, Bloodaxe, 2005)

thirty-six: Fiona Sampson, Common Prayer

I can’t now remember why I picked Fiona Sampson‘s Common Prayer. It wasn’t the result of browsing in a bookshop, and I hadn’t heard of her before; I think it was a suggestion thrown up by Amazon that intrigued me, but I’m not really sure. But whatever made Common Prayer land in my hands this week, I’m grateful; it’s up there with John Burnside in how quickly it grabbed me, how dense and lyrical I found it, and how much it moved me.

Common Prayer opens with an immediately compelling piece, ‘Messaien’s Piano’. I’ve just recently discovered Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of time, and I can imagine this poem being a response to that. Tough, tender, beautiful – it hooked me in straight away.

I found that this collection echoed what Luci Shaw aims for: minute, precise observation of the everyday epiphanies that we experience, from watering in the garden to looking at your reflection in a darkened window to struggling to pray to driving at night. Sampson’s description in ‘The Looking Glass’ perhaps best describes what I sense in this collection:

And here it is again:
a mute, spatial awareness

of how things are,
unlearnt, unearned;
its grammar

something understood
before you stepped into the lights

and strange seeping-away clatter
of the Underground.

‘Trumpeldor Beach’ intrigued me, with its engagement with Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and its insistence (I thought) on the physical connectedness of things. ‘The Archive’, a sort of fragmented narrative of a refugee’s journey to Britain, was profoundly moving. I had to work hard, and did a lot of rereading, but found Sampson’s emotional landscapes deeply rewarding, and her elastic, free verse very musical and expansive. She’s written a lot, including a lot of theory, which I’ll definitely be hunting out.

Favourites were ‘A Sacrament of Watering’, ‘Common Prayer’, ‘The Plunge’, ‘Poznań’ from ‘Thresholds’, ‘Attitudes of Prayer’, ‘Night Fugue’, ‘The Dream of the Monstrance’ and especially ‘La Source’, which reminded me of two favourite poems, ‘Dart’ by Alice Oswald and Jean Sprackland’s ‘The Way Down’. Here’s that compelling first piece, ‘Messaien’s Piano’:*

Messaien’s piano
throws notes like handfuls of stones
to clatter
against a glass-
house God:
arrhythmic hearts,
they’re precipitated into the bluster
and terror of spring.

The beautiful world hardly responds
yet these go on – chorus, soloist. Make a joyful noise
unto the Lord.

Are you glass –
your absence a mirror?
Well, I lob stones.
Far off,
as from a distant copse,
hear what bodies do:
That long, perfect fall.

*Has she/the editor misspelled ‘Messiaen’, or are there two different ways of spelling it, or is another point being made? My guide to classical music, and the composer’s website, has it ‘Messiaen’…

Common Prayer, Fiona Sampson (Carcanet, 2007)

thirty-five: Sean O’Brien, The Drowned Book

I have to confess I hadn’t heard of Sean O’Brien until recently, when I found out he’d won last year’s Forward prize for poetry. So it seemed appropriate to start with his prize-winning collection, The Drowned Book.

The blurb says that much of this collection ‘takes [its] emotional tenor and imaginative cue from [Sean O’Brien’s] acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno‘. Unfortunately I haven’t actually read the Inferno, so I felt like I was on a bit of a back foot from the start. That said, the opening poems – all about water, rivers, the sea – are undeniably compelling, drawing you into their dark, subterranean world. Water seems to be a place of memory, haunted by the dead – perhaps the borderlands between this world and another… I loved the dark, knowing, and, in places, comic tone of these poems.

There’s satire, too, on Britain’s current political and social climate – ‘Valedictory’ was one of my favourites. But it was the watery poems that really captured my imagination, in particular ‘River-doors’ and ‘Praise of a Rainy Country’, as well as ‘Blue Night’. Here is ‘Water-Gardens’:

Water looked up through the lawn
Like a half-buried mirror
Left out by the people before.

There were faces in there
We had seen in the hallways
Of octogenarian specialists,

Mortality-vendors consulted
On bronchial matters
In rot-smelling Boulevard mansions.

We stood on their lino
And breathed, and below us
The dark, peopled water

Was leaning and listening.
There on the steps of the cellar,
Black-clad Victorians

Were feeding the river with souls.
They left us their things,
Reefs of blue ware

In the elder-clumps,
Tins full of rust in the shed,
And on the bookshelves

English poets, all gone damp
With good intentions, never read.
Their miles of flooded graves

Were traffic jams of stone
Where patient amphibian angels
Rode them under, slowly

Their voices came back
From sinks and gratings,
The treasure seekers

Gone downstairs, while all the time
In King Death’s rainy garden
We were playing out.

The Drowned Book, Sean O’Brien (Picador, 2007) Winner of the 2007 Forward Prize

thirty-four: John Burnside, Gift Songs

I had never heard of poet and novelist John Burnside until he was suggested to me by an agent to write a foreword for a book I was working on the year before last (he ended up writing a lovely piece). I suppose once you have come across someone’s name, you’re more likely to pick up on it in future, and I recently read (can’t now remember where) a compelling review of his latest collection, Gift Songs; so I thought it was probably long overdue that I finally read some of his work.

Wow. I think I can honestly say that, although I’ve read a range of utterly fantastic poetry this year, this is the book that has struck me most, with its beauty, its seriousness, its sheer weight of brilliance, and I think at the end of the year I’ll be wanting to say that this is the best collection I’ve read – not that I usually think in those terms. Really, wow.

What did I love about this collection? Firstly it was just beautiful to read. His writing feels very crafted and elegant – full of beauty but in a kind of opaque, rather than showy, way. I loved what he was writing about: really going deeply into a sense of place, the way we live our days, the way we look at things. I suppose I really enjoyed the seriousness of it – it felt like reading philosophy, or theology – a probing and pushing at things, at life. And I loved that, even when I didn’t feel I was following his train of thought, it wasn’t necessarily because there was a piece of the puzzle I wasn’t getting – and in any case, I could luxuriate in the gorgeousness of the writing.

The last section was, probably, the toughest. It’s called ‘Four Quartets’, and the blurb on the inside front cover says that it’s ‘intended both as a spiritual response to the string quartets of Bartók and Britten (as Eliot’s were to Beethoven’s late quartets), and as an experiment in the poetic form that the finest of poets, the true miglior fabbro, chose as a medium for his own declaration of faith.’ Like Eliot’s Four Quartets, Burnside’s are dense and rich and I don’t feel one reading is enough to even really have touched the surface – so I’ll be going back to this to read again and again (probably with Bartók on in the background).

So, a truly stunning collection, and I’ll definitely be getting all of Burnside’s back catalogue. The whole thing was amazing, and it’s hard to pull out favourites as there are lots of interconnected pieces and I fell in love with every line, pretty much. But the ones I marked were ‘Liturgy’ from ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’, ‘The body as metaphor’, ‘Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer’ and ‘Prayer’ from ‘For a Free Church’, ‘La Brière’ from ‘Saint-Nazaire’ and ‘Lares’ (which I think refers to Roman household deities), again from ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’:

All afternoon I have heard you
going from room to room, as if you would offer
the gift of a watchful presence, the gift of a look
to how the sunlight gathers in the folds
of curtains
how the shadows on the wall
flit back and forth, more sparrow, or swallow in flight
than birds would have been.

Like you I have felt it today, that space in our house
where doors might swing open
messengers appear:
the curve of a bowl, or the red in a vase of carnations
softly assuming the forms of a visitation.

We go for weeks and never catch ourselves
like this, the trace of magic we possess
locked in the work of appearing, day after day,
in the world of our making;

we go for months with phantoms in our heads
till, filling a bath, or fetching the laundry in,
we see ourselves again, at home, illumined,
folding a sheet, or pouring a glass of milk
bright in the here and now, and unencumbered.

I think it’s also worth a mention that this is a really beautifully produced book – a gorgeous cover, really nice typesetting, lovely heavy paper and – joy – french flaps. All in all a beautiful read.

Gift Songs, John Burnside (Jonathan Cape, 2007)

thirty-three: Lavinia Greenlaw, Minsk

Oh dear, late again…

One of the great things about the school I went to for sixth-form was what was called Wednesday Eight. For the last period of the day on a Wednesday, we’d get a talk from someone outside the school – and it could be anyone, talking about anything. The two poets I remember coming to do readings were Simon Armitage, who was a familiar name, and Lavinia Greenlaw, who was not. I remember being captivated by what she read – which I think was from either Night Photograph or A World Where News Travelled Slowly – and she’s remained vaguely on my (very weak) poetry radar since then, although it wasn’t until the week before last that I finally got around to reading a recent collection by her.

I really enjoyed Minsk. The first section has some really beautifully observed, delicate and wry pieces about childhood, adolescence and growing up. In particular the very first poem, ‘The Spirit of the Staircase’ was enchanting (as well as reminding me of a poem I wrote about childhood experiences of stairs and a brother). From childhood to a section on London Zoo, and from there to wider vistas, including the Arctic Circle.

I think what I respond to most in poetry is when something is written so plainly, sparsely even, but manages to suggest something unutterably beautiful or true beyond itself; where the beauty is in suggestion and obliqueness, somehow. There were a couple of pieces in this collection that really did this for me, where you sort of catch your breath, including one I recognised from the Poems on the Underground initiative, ‘Sisu’:

To persevere in hope of summer.
To adapt to its broken promise.
To love winter.

To sleep.

To love winter.
To adapt to its broken promise.
To persevere in hope of summer.

I really couldn’t explain why I love this so much, but it sends shivers up my spine.

Favourites were ‘The Spirit of the Staircase’, ‘Lupins’, ‘Essex Rag’, ‘Sisu’, and this one, ‘What makes for the fullness and perfection of life’:

It only came back when I stopped to consider
the small ways in which a garden holds water
and paused halfway through the door in suspense
like the dream which, early that morning,
had flicked its magnificent tail then was gone.

Wow. I’m definitely going to be looking up Greenlaw’s previous two collections. I also came across this book in a bookshop recently, which looks totally fascinating (and which I might buy for my sister for Christmas).

Minsk, Lavinia Greenlaw (Faber and Faber, 2003)


Here are September’s goodies, which I’ve already started on, given the lateness of my August postings… Interesting that all but one are from last year (not a conscious choice).

Lavinia Greenlaw, Minsk (Faber and Faber, 2003)
John Burnside, Gift Songs (Jonathan Cape, 2007)
Sean O’Brien, The Drowned Book (Picador, 2007) Winner of the 2007 Forward Prize
Fiona Sampson, Common Prayer (Carcanet, 2007)

thirty-two: Harry Smart, Fool’s Pardon

This was my bonus holiday read, to help me catch up with my fifty-two poets (there was a bit of duplication with Saul Williams, and then I fell behind in May, I think). I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop while browsing; I’d read one poem by Harry Smart, courtesy of Jeanette Winterson’s poetry pick on her website, and thought I’d like to read more.

Fool’s Pardon had a real thread of concern with humanity running through it: war, place, people. Favourites were ‘The Don’, ‘Lucky Man’ and the fantastic ‘Praise’, which was the one I’d read before:

Praise be to God who pities wankers
and has mercy on miserable bastards.
Praise be to God who pours his blessing
on reactionary warheads and racists.

For he knows what he is doing; the healthy
have no need of a doctor, the sinless
have no need of forgiveness. But, you say,
They do not deserve it. That is the point;

That is the point. When you try to wade
across the estuary at low tide, but misjudge
the distance, the currents, the soft ground
and are caught by the flood in deep schtuck,

then perhaps you will realise that God
is to be praised for delivering dickheads
from troubles they have made for themselves.
Praise be to God, who forgives sinners.

Let him who is without sin throw the first
headline. Let him who is without sin
build the gallows, prepare the noose,
say farewell to the convict with a kiss.

Fool’s Pardon, Harry Smart (Faber and Faber, 1995)

thirty-one: Jamie McKendrick, Crocodiles and Obelisks

I’m not sure why, but I fell out of love with poetry when I was at university (studying English language and literature). I can remember liking Milton and John Clare, but the rest is a bit of a blank. It’s a shame, because in my first year our practical criticism tutor was Jamie McKendrick, and he generously offered to give us poetry writing workshops, weekly, if we were interested. What I wouldn’t give for that now…

I found this collection pretty hard. Maybe because i was back from holiday, and back to reading poetry on the tube? There was a lot going on – lots of intertextuality, politics, history, places, references to other writers and poets – which made me feel a bit ignorant. But I loved the tender observations scattered throughout – ‘An Encroachment’, for example, which is just beautiful. What I really liked was the incredibly subtle rhyme – you can sort of hear it chiming, and then you have to go back and actually work out the rhyme scheme.

Favourites were ‘Obit.’, ‘Guide’, ‘The Key’, ‘Polonius’, ‘Hearthstone’, ‘Adjustment’ and ‘H2O’; and this is ‘An Encroachment’:

Now I can take over your side of the bed
I discover the little space between
the bedside and the wall I’d been
unaware of – where you’d made

an installation like a survival kit:
biros specs nailfiles novels magazines
tubes of mild medicaments and creams
one decorative box with nothing in it.

I lift the nothing out and stare at it.
Never has nothing looked more splendid.
Fearful I’ve left a smudge and marred it
I quickly put it back and shut the lid.

Jamie McKendrick, Crocodiles and Obelisks (Faber and Faber, 2007)

thirty: Tomas Tranströmer, The Deleted World

I suppose this one breaks the rules: it’s not (I don’t think) an actual collection, but a selection of poems that another poet, Robin Robertson, has translated – or as the cover has it, his ‘versions’.

(While we’re talking about the cover, a quick moan: it’s nasty. The photo looks like it’s been oddly processed, turning an interesting image into a weird one, and the typography and design is just horrible. Honestly; it looks much, much worse in the flesh than online. And all this from Enitharmon, a publisher renowned for its beautiful editions of poetry – I have their absolutely gorgeous Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems, which I recommend highly.)

Another moan, though I feel a bit mean saying it: there wasn’t any indication on Amazon that this is a bilingual edition, so when I got the book and realised that I had a rather measly fifteen poems for my £8.95 I felt a little short-changed. I understand that contemporary poetry is, largely, a loss-making venture, and translated poetry even more so (I have been on the other side of that fence, working in publishing for a small press). But still. They did get sponsorship as well as Arts Council funding.

Anyway, that’s enough of the moaning. Slight though it was, I enjoyed it. I thought I’d take a punt on Swedish poet Tranströmer having read a couple of his (translated) lines at the Poetry Library a while ago – sadly I can’t find them online now, though I do have them copied out somewhere.

I don’t know if it was a conscious selection on the part of the translating poet, but all the poems seemed stereotypically Swedish – about the cold and the dark, about winter. All rather bleak, and something that might have fitted my mood better in autumn or winter (rather than on a summer holiday). Most of it seemed rather melancholy – but then, I quite like that (in poetry). What I really liked about it was the quality of being wistful and bittersweet, but at the same time very absolutely concrete and crafted.

Favourites were ‘The Couple’, ‘To Friends behind a Border’ and ‘Black Postcards’. I find it hard to choose between the ‘Black Postcards’ and ‘Face to Face’, but the latter wins – just because it features spring as well as winter, and seems almost a reverse of Louis Macneice’s ‘Snow’…

In February life stood still.
The birds refused to fly and the soul
grated against the landscape as a boat
chafes against the jetty where it’s moored.

The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth
measured by the stubble poking through.
The footprints grew old out on the ice-crust.
Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.

Suddenly, something approaches the window.
I stop working and look up.
The colours blaze. Everything turns around.
The earth and I spring at each other.

The Deleted World, Tomas Tranströmer (Enitharmon Press, 2006)

twenty-nine: Alice Major, The Office Tower Tales

In June I went to Poetry ‘in’ the Crypt at St Mary’s Church, Islington, where I heard Mimi Khalvati read from her latest collection, along with Canadian poet Alice Major. Both were fantastic, but I was especially captivated by Alice Major’s readings from her latest book, The Office Tower Tales – which I decided had to be a holiday read, due to the fact that it’s a massive 252 pages long.

So I took it to France with me a couple of weeks ago, where I simultaneously devoured it and fought off my family’s attempts to borrow it. It’s without a doubt the most ‘moreish’ of the poetry I’ve read this summer, in part because there’s such a strong narrative pull, and perhaps also because there is so much of it – it felt really good to have a great big meaty book of poetry to wolf down in the same way that you would a novel, rather than just nibbling at five or so dainty morsels on the way into work every morning.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that a food metaphor seems apt in describing how much I enjoyed this book. The central conceit is that, in a sort-of reworking of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and One Thousand and One Nights, three office-workers – Aphrodite from reception, Pandora from accounting and Scheherezade from public relations – meet at their break to drink coffee, eat muffins and talk about their lives. There are seventeen tales in total, each with a prologue that sets the scene and introduces both the three central women and the things they’re concerned about; some of the tales also have an epilogue.

It’s a brilliant idea and superbly executed; each tale is by turns moving, comic, wistful, tragic – and each feels like an utterly true evocation of white-collar working women at the end of the twentieth century. I loved how the writing was deeply real and honest while at the same time incredibly poetic, riffing around unexpectedly beautiful, interlinked images. I also loved how Aphrodite, Pandora and Scheherezade were not at all just a conceit, but very real, central characters – as hackneyed as it sounds, I was sad to say goodbye to them at the end of the book.

My brother picked this up on the first day of our holiday, and said that it was the only poetry to have engaged him since Simon Armitage; so although it is, as my mum pointed out, very much written about women and their concerns, its appeal isn’t limited. I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone, whether interested in poetry or not – it’s that good, and that accessible. Of all the books I’ve enjoyed reading this year, this is the one I’ve been most delighted to find.

Most of the tales are pretty long, too long to type out here, and it would be impossible to choose a favourite anyway. Instead, here are the first three stanzas to the opening prologue:

April’s entrance. A city on the plains
gives frost the silver brush-off, lays
its welcome mat for pilgrim robins.
The planet’s orbit spins into the phase
of northern warmth

like a coffee mug revolving
slightly off-centre in a microwave,
absorbing heat into its porcelain bones –
morning sun the caffeine we all crave.
Black-billed magpies,

rhomboids with long tails, usher spring
along the green carpet of the river
like resident Black Rods. April scripts
her throne speech, while leafing alder
rustles sceptres.

The Office Tower Tales, Alice Major (University of Alberta Press, 2008)