Posts Tagged 'Forward Prize for Poetry'

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

twenty-seven: Kathleen Jamie, The Tree House

Apologies for another late post; I’ll make it a short one, otherwise with being away with most of this month, I won’t get the chance to write anything.

Last week’s collection was Kathleen Jamie‘s The Tree House, which I picked partly because I remember poetry Andrew recommending it, and partly because of its beautiful title. Jamie won the Forward Prize for Poetry for it in 2004.

It’s a slim collection with, as you might expect from the title, the theme of human interaction with nature running strongly through it. Perhaps that was part of the reason I warmed to it instantly: I loved the dialogue with birds, trees, puddles, flowers; and I loved the shimmering clarity and conciseness with which she writes. Another one of those poets who I read and think, ah, this is what poetry is for me. I’ll have to dig out her first collection, Jizzen, which I have to confess makes me snigger.

There was quite a lot that I wanted to find out about: where is the specific wishing tree of the first poem? What are the traditions of Water Day? Who was Hölderlin, and should I read him? I plan to look some of these up, but the only frustrating thing was my lack of Scots dialect, which rendered a few poems incomprehensible.

Favourites – and I’ll list them all, although they seemed to be every other page – were ‘The Wishing Tree’, ‘Alder’, ‘Water Day’, ‘Before the Wind’, ‘The Swallows’ Nest’, ‘The Whale-watcher’, ‘The Buddleia’, ‘Daisies’, ‘Reliquary’, ‘The Brooch’, ‘The Puddle’ and this achingly beautiful, fragile sonnet, ‘Swallows’:

I wish my whole battened
heart were a property
like this, with swallows
in every room – so at ease

they twitter and preen
from the picture frames
like an audience in the gods
before an opera

and in the mornings
wheel above my bed
in a mockery of pity
before winging it

up the stairwell
to stream out into light

The Tree House, Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2004)