Archive for the 'August' Category

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)

twenty-eight: Luci Shaw, Polishing the Petoskey Stone

Apologies for the lateness; most of August has been spent either on holiday, at a festival, or shuttling between these two blessed states of being. I’ve read all the poetry, but I find myself with four overdue posts, and the last festival of the summer looming… here’s the first; I’ll write the others next week when I get back.

Polishing the Petoskey Stone is another gift from the bountiful Thea (now Mrs Thea Reimer – congratulations!). I hadn’t heard of Luci Shaw before, so I’m grateful for the introduction. The book is an anthology of her work, so I read just the first collection, itself called ‘Polishing the Petoskey Stone’ (1986-1990).

Shaw is unashamedly what I suppose you would call a sacramental poet, in that although her poems do not all deal explicitly with Christian themes, they all start with the assumption that God sustains all things; so doing business with the world, with life, means doing business with God. As she says in her introduction,

All my life I have been requesting the same thing – a baptized imagination that has a wide enough faith to see the numinous in the ordinary. Without discarding reason, or analysis, I seek from my Muse, the Holy Spirit, images that will open up reality and pull me in to its center.

This starting point makes all of life, all of nature, a spiritual enterprise; and so we have, in ‘Conch’, these lines:

Know the whole world
a shell, and you the grit
caught in it, being pearled over.

At first glance these lines might seem just a pretty image, a bit whimsical; but I think they also manage to speak about the toughness of life – ‘grit’, the feeling of being ‘caught’, emphasised by the terse assonance of grit/caught/it – as well as the miraculous state of ‘being pearled over’, which brings to my mind a sense of grace that bowls you over.

Lots of dealing with the natural world, then, and lots of the sea; so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I loved this collection, a lot. Some of it made me cry (on the tube, commuting to work, no less). Favourites were ‘Seasleeping: Cape Cod’; ‘Polishing the Petoskey Stone’, ‘Travelling Montana’, ‘Subliminal messages’, ‘Winter chestnut: Five haiku’, ‘Flower head’, ‘Parabolas’, which is a reworking of some of Jesus’ best-known parables. Here is ‘Questions: 1985’ –

Beside me, under the sheet, his shape
is blurred, his breath irregular, racing
or slowing to the stress/release
of dreams. One lung – a wing of air –
has been already clipped. The scans
show the dark shadows on his bones.

His house of cells – blue-printed
by heredity, assembled season
by season, (the grayed wood
shrinking a little at the joins
under the wash of time and storm)
– will it collapse like a barn
settling into its field?
His spirit – iridescent as a pigeon
– will it escape before mine
through a break in the roof,
homing, homing through the sky?

Polishing the Petoskey Stone, Luci Shaw (Regent College Publishing, 2003)


I’ve already cracked on with the first of August’s collections, but here they are:

Luci Shaw, Polishing the Petoskey Stone (Regent College Publishing, 2003)
Alice Major, The Office Tower Tales (University of Alberta Press, 2008)
Tomas Tranströmer, The Deleted World (Enitharmon Press, 2006)
Jamie McKendrick, Crocodiles and Obelisks (Faber and Faber, 2007)

And as I’m behind on my projected fifty-two poets, what with one thing and another, I’ve added in a bonus collection in case I have time to read one more while on holiday:
Harry Smart, Fool’s Pardon (Faber and Faber, 1995)