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.
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