|Trawling the Lifetimes
(Neil Astley, ed., Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times, Bloodaxe, 496pp, £10.95 ISBN 1-85224-588-3)
Neil Astley's latest anthology is a celebration of poetry from the last 100 years. There can be few who are better qualified than Astley to produce such a collection, given his thirty year involvement with poetry as poet, editor and founder of one of this country's major poetry publishing houses, Bloodaxe. Uniquely, this anthology is virtually 50-50 male and female poets and although Bloodaxe poets are well represented, there are poems from the poetry world's top writers and also little-known poets. There are a considerable number of poems in translation and Staying Alive can justly claim to be international.
When I first read the sub-title, 'real poems for unreal times', I was forcibly reminded of Emergency Kit (edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney) with its sub-title 'poems for strange times'. Some of the poems which appeared in Emergency Kit also appear in Staying Alive confirming that this poetry is for and of our time. However, Astley has separated his choice of poems into 12 sections with headings such as Body and soul, Dead or alive, Growing up, In and out of love, My people, War and peace. Each section is prefaced with an accessible discussion of some of the poetry and why it has been selected.
There is an obvious parallel with Daisy Goodwin's popular series of small anthologies 101 Poems (published by Harper Collins), but where Goodwin's anthologies are packaged for the gift market (and if this takes poetry to a wider audience, great), Staying Alive is for the serious reader of contemporary poetry and the casual reader alike. The appendices contain an essay, 'The Sound of Poetry', which explains metre and rhythm, and an excellent glossary of poetic terms and these are helpful and informative. The aim of this anthology is to reach as wide an audience as possible and not to exclude or intimidate those who have little experience of contemporary poetry and I believe that he succeeds in this.
Opposite his introduction, Astley has included quotes about poetry; Archibald MacLeish says 'A poem should not mean/But be' and Christopher Logue has written that 'Poetry cannot be defined, only experienced.' The quotes encourage the reader to dip into this book. Once I started reading, I was loathe to put Staying Alive aside. It accompanies me to the bath, to my study, to bed, on the train, on the plane - I like to have it by me at all times.
I particularly like the way that Astley has avoided the cliché of 'love poems' by calling this section In and out of love and including poems about the break-ups, the heart break, pain, adultery - he gives us the fairy tale and ventures beyond with poems like Fleur Adcock's 'Advice to a Discarded Lover', Rosemary Tonk's 'Badly-Chosen Lover' and James Fenton's 'In Paris With You'.
Disappearing acts concerns death and naturally Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night' and the anonymous 'Do not stand at my grave and weep' appear, but Astley introduces other equally moving poems about death. Michael Longley's short but beautiful 'Björn Olinder's Pictures' with the lines 'beyond the headland/A glimpse of immaculate sand that awaits our footprints' brought tears to my eyes.
As Neil Astley says, 'Staying Alive is the culmination of one committed reader's lifetime trawl through thousands and thousands of poems'. The result is breathtaking - 500 of the best poems of our times and, at £10.95, phenomenal value. It is a perfect present to introduce someone to contemporary poetry.
(Clare Pollard, Bedtime, Bloodaxe, 64pp, £6.95. ISBN 1-85224-593-X)
Clare Pollard's Bedtime is not for the faint-hearted, nor the easily offended, and should probably have a sticker warning of strong language! This young poet (she's 22) is the voice of the 'in-yer-face' culture and is smart enough to compare herself to Tracy Emin in her poem 'My Bed'. This poem is the literary equivalent of Emin's controversial Turner Prize winning exhibit; 'don't sniff too deep, I haven't washed the sheets/for weeks, and there may be a tang of yeast.' The reader is left uncertain as to whether Pollard is being entirely 'tongue in cheek' and some of the images are frankly disgusting, but there is a strong rhythm and rhyme to this poem and it made me laugh.
To write Pollard off as a proponent of populist youth culture would be facile, however. Bedtime is a collection which covers a broad range of subjects. Her poems are littered with contemporary references to television, fashion, technology, city life, but there are also literary references to other poets - Keats, O'Hara, Plath, to classical figures such as Troilus, and to historical characters like Hitler, de Sade, Michaelangelo and Rossetti. Pollard misses nothing and is as eloquent when describing a smear test as the thoughts of a divorced father or the details of a fantasy dinner party.
She writes about the unacceptable, the tragic, the tabloid attention grabbing headlines. Pollard finds poetry in a child's murder in 'Knowledge', and in the public's fascination and greed for horror and tragedy in 'On Tragic Pleasure', 'To witness death/distantly./To know it yet know it won't touch us.'
In 'The Smear Test', Pollard perfectly captures a woman's ability to accept an unpleasant necessity without complaint, until a man makes the mistake of agreeing with her, 'No it was nothing to worry about.//And if her boyfriend hadn't told her that later...she would never have dwelt on it.' Poems like this, 'Chick's Flick' and 'Confessional Piece' show a poet at ease with her gender. The images she uses may be graphic but she writes about emotions with honesty and maturity.
Now I am my own reason -
for this body won't heal,
'Knowing Our Limits' is tender even while Pollard writes of a lover laughing 'to hear/my nasal bubblings; the jellied nose and lungs.' Nostalgia is explored in 'To Undefine', 'the gluts of conkers I would shell with heels,/and with my father, his hand mittening mine.' In 'Hometown' we have a clear picture of a young woman struggling with depression and 'Letter from a Father', about a failed marriage, is full of pathos, 'you said you'd change their name - /you said I'd never see my lovely boys.'
Humour is present in many of the poems in this collection; 'Frank O'Hara confesses he's a shopoholic, John mutters poof,/and Germaine Greer calls John repressed, which is probably true,/but I'm, not having one of the Beatles coming out at my dinner party...' ('Fantasy Dinner Party'). The last poem, 'And Another Bloody Thing...(after Wendy Cope)' where Pollard out- Copes Cope makes me laugh out loud. I read it to my seventeen-year old son and friends who all appreciated it too.
It is clear from Bedtime that Clare Pollard is a poet of extraordinary range and ability, but the elements that appeal to her generation are the ones that rattle middle England's complacency. I enjoyed this collection but much of it disturbed me and I found I could only read three or four poems at any one time.
(Mimi Khalvati, The Chine, Carcanet. 78pp; £6.95)
In her new collection Mimi Khalvati refers to 'bells / that keep ringing after they've stopped'. This might equally apply to her multilayered and finely crafted poems, which resound long after being read.
The Chine is divided into three discrete but interrelated sections. Mimi Khalvati's concerns are family, home, love, memory and, not least, the art of writing poetry. Her scenery is quintessentially English, with mist and rain set against light and shadow.
The first section focuses primarily on the poet's childhood. Born in Tehran, Mimi Khalvati was sent to boarding school on the Isle of Wight. Capturing textures, tastes and sounds in her opening poem, she observes that the chine is 'a form of urgency to reach the sea'. Deriving from Old English cinu, meaning crack or cleft, it also symbolizes the child's 'upper' everyday world and the 'lower' dream world. The music of this poem is exquisite; the voice measured, with an understated passion.
Mimi Khalvati's poems are intelligent and lexically adventurous. She imposes considerable demands on the reader with her elliptic style, and long, twisting sentences tracing thought processes. In 'Childhood Books' she remembers :
Yet she can also startle us with simplicity, such as in 'Holiday Homes':
My favourite poems include those inspired by the poet's residency at Royal Mail. 'Writing Letters' is so dexterous we're hardly conscious it's a sestina. This tricky form mirrors the child's determination to learn a new language, having left her own, literally, at home.
An intricate and illuminating sequence called 'The Inwardness of Elephants' forms the backbone of Section Two, if not the collection. Written in tercets, it demonstrates Mimi Khalvati's mastery of rhythm and the full spectrum of rhyme. We meet carved and embroidered elephants, an elephant and calf silhouette in watercolour, elephants mating in moonlight, and a 'silvery-white' elephant from a dream. In graceful parade, they lead us through domestic, exotic and cerebral landscapes as well as history and myth. A mother's anxiety for her 'heartbreakingly big' son is explored tenderly, and blended with details of elephant behaviour and maternalism :
The final section concentrates on love and art. Unafraid to write about writing, this is perhaps where Mimi Khalvati is at her most complex. Despite enjoying my wander through the fragile imagery of 'Life in Art', I never quite reached a destination, though I'll definitely be renewing my attempts. A welcome contrast is offered by playful poems like 'Moving the Bureau' and by 'Song', haunting in its spareness:
Mimi Khalvati ranges across form with authoritative ease. Towards the end she presents 'Love in an English August', her own adaptation of the sonnet redoublé. Staccato tones and accumulating questions reveal anger and frustration with a love affair, while elsewhere there is enchanting lyricism:
Although I admired the poetic gymnastics of fifteen linked sonnets, I preferred the light and delicate sonnets that punctuate the collection as a whole.
The Chine is not a book to dip into on the bus or train, but for the reader who's prepared to read and reread, it offers rich rewards. Mimi Khalvati is so clearly being true to herself and her art, that we should relish the challenge of following her.
( Sujata Bhatt, A Colour for Solitude, Carcanet. 112pp; £7.95)
The mesmerizing gaze of a woman illuminates the cover of A Colour for Solitude, setting the tone for a book-length sequence of highly sensual and colourful poems. All centre around the German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907).
Sujata Bhatt's sixth collection is prefaced by an introduction outlining the life and relationships of a woman who had aleady produced an extensive body of work by her untimely death. The introduction also offers fascinating insights into the writing process, such as how the poet is attracted to subjects that demand research, because 'the facts often free the imagination to probe deeper'.
Sujata Bhatt has granted a voice to Paula Modersohn-Becker and her friend Clara Westhoff, the sculptor wife of Rilke, and we also hear the poet's response to their paintings and sculptures; the three voices interweave to form an intimate and compelling narrative.
The poet's light and fluid style is achieved by repetition, off-rhyme and assonance:
Internal space and irregular line lengths create poems of pleasingly irregular shape. Her widespread use of dashes, however, becomes slightly distracting, and there are occasional lapses into prosaic language, when lines are employed for mere scene setting:
One of the joys of this collection lies in its evocation of the senses. Sujata Bhatt seduces us with an array of scents : lilies, oleanders, jasmine, lemon and orange blossom. Sounds, tastes and textures are sensitively crafted; we can almost touch the cool clay being warmed in Clara Westhoff's hands. These are also atmospheric poems of fire and water, heat and cold, day and night.
The colours are lush, with white, green, black, blue and red predominating. Tracing shifts in Paula Modersohn-Becker's private and artistic life, Sujata Bhatt reimagines the many self-portraits. In 'Self-Portrait with a Lemon' she brushes in colour as vibrantly as any artist, striving for the exact shade where a woman's sari meets her hair:
She excels at revitalizing even the background details of paintings, as in her delicate rendering of irises:
Colours are also the tools that probe into dark corners of the painter's inner world, including the anguish over her marriage, and disturbing undercurrents accumulate, such as in 'Self-Portrait with an Oversized Hat and a Red Rose in the Right Hand':
Above all, these poems chronicle the close and complex friendship of two women, with Rilke a persistent but shadowy presence between them. Sujata Bhatt opens the door onto the Rilkes' chilly and remote house, showing us both artists at work. Later poems explore the couple's estrangement following Paula Modersohn-Becker's death. The title shared by the collection and one of the most significant poems, refers to Rilke's abstract definition of love as 'two solitudes greeting and saluting each other'. Paula Modersohn-Becker's voice suggests they were 'simply a man and a woman / unable to let go of each other'. There is sadness, that both she and Rilke married the wrong person, but also recognition of their incompatibility.
Few poets would devote an entire collection to a lesser known painter, and it may be insufficiently varied for some tastes, although every poem earns its place. At times I longed for a selective exhibition rather than an entire gallery of paintings. Yet I admire a poet who follows her obsessions and infuses us with the thrill of her discovery. A Colour for Solitude will delight and surprise you.
(Moniza Alvi, Souls, Bloodaxe, 80pp, £7.95)
'Who could bear to look at their own soul?' asks Moniza Alvi in a poem from her fourth collection. With passion and energy she does precisely that, persuading us to accompany her on the quest.
Moniza Alvi was born in Pakistan and grew up in the UK. Duality of country and culture has been a recurring theme in her work. In Souls we find her probing deeper still, into the realms of the human psyche.
I had certain initial reservations about a sequence of forty poems on this subject. Is it possible to stretch an abstract idea that far? Furthermore, 'soul' is one of those words which, according to current literary trends, should be used with caution. Moniza Alvi, on the other hand, has already proved herself to be a poet capable of risk-taking.
The first poem, 'Presents', introduces us to the souls opening their Christmas presents. Moniza Alvi's signature strengths are immediately apparent. She delights in creating juxtapositions that both surprise and unsettle us:
Poems open conversationally, drawing us in. Here is a poet with a light touch, whose language is deceptively simple.The reader's challenge is to engage with the elusive souls. Poem by poem, we're allowed to glimpse them, like 'a name left behind' and 'a slip / hanging an inch below a skirt'. Moniza Alvi builds up a wider picture, albeit a shifting and contradictory one.
The souls come to life imperceptibly. We shadow them through landscapes ranging from the body and the bedsit, to outer space and 'the room reflected in the window'. We enter their world, a tantalizing inversion of ours. There are quiet and meditative poems, while others are playful and exhilarating. A wry and gentle humour is also much in evidence. In 'Beds' we're invited to peep through the keyhole:
The poet's images are refreshingly apt. Her precise and painterly eye is explicit in the poem 'Out There', where the souls long to escape by 'merging into the fields - / as one brushstroke disappears into the next'. It's difficult to do the many glorious images justice here, but my favourite vignette is of the lighthouse keeper 'so used to the souls / repeating themselves / on the tips of waves'.
The ambivalence between soul and human being is another preoccupation of these poems. The souls, we learn, work hard on our behalf; one takes a break by billowing inside a shirt on a washing line. The poem 'Quiet Work' shows the soul performing its duties without complaint:
A poet who makes continual leaps of the imagination is bound to lose her footing occasionally, however. One or two poems appear somewhat contrived. In 'Who Can Blame Them?' for example, we meet 'chicken souls', victims of forced growth. They failed to convince me. Yet these quibbles didn't detract from my overall pleasure in the poems.
The remaining third of Souls is concerned with birth and death, parenthood, and the dislocation caused by moving between cultures. The autobiographical poems are perhaps the most resonant. 'The House with One Window' is a moving and delicate exploration of the death of a baby, witnessed through the eyes of his young sibling. Struggling to make sense of his disappearance, she holds him within her 'as a camera / might hold inside it / the ghost of a photograph'. The fragility of all life is underlined with devastating simplicity:
The book closes with the poem 'Of Chairs and Shadows'. Moniza Alvi's inventiveness brings them alive before our eyes. We're treated to shadows teasing chairs and chairs boasting. The intangible power of shadows echoes that of the souls: it is a satisfying conclusion.
Souls is an exuberant and assured collection. This is not spiritual poetry in the conventional sense, but it's certainly spirited. I flowed through these poems; they also flowed through me, leaving an imprint. In a fast-moving world they may dazzle you into slowing down.
(Maura Dooley, Sound Barrier, Poems 1982 - 2002, Bloodaxe,156pp, £8.95)
Maura Dooley's Sound Barrier contains poems covering twenty years. It is a varied and enjoyable collection, broad in its subject matter and approach. I particularly liked the Irish section 'Moss' which combined poems from two previous Bloodaxe collections, Explaining Magnetism (1991) and Kissing a Bone (1996). This section examines aspects of Irish life, from the spiritual 'St. Brendan Explains to the Angel', to 'Crossmaglen', which encapsulates the long drawn out nature of the Irish situation:
'Moss' follows another section of poems from Explaining Magnetism: these poems are enjoyable but there is no thread to connect them whereas the 'Moss' poems are not only bound by the Irish element but also the lyricism present in poems such as the beautiful 'Kerry Blue' ('she is fading violet/or the dusty bloom on a damson') and 'Vanished Lives'. There is a strong feel of the landscape and Dooley pursues her Irish heritage in the section's title poem, 'the tower so softened by moss it's vanished utterly/slipped back into the land, like the language you left.'
Maura Dooley has a strong sense of rhythm and this is often conveyed by alliteration:
The 't' sounds sustain the image of a beating heart and Dooley uses the rhythm to emphasise the irregularity of her father's heart, nearing the end of his life.
There is a sense of balance about this collection, which I find very satisfying; with poems about childhood in the earlier sections, moving through love affairs and the death of parents, to motherhood, while in the last poem, 'The Playground', the past becomes the present with dreams of a headmaster set beside a daughter asking to visit the swings again. Two of Dooley's poems in particular, 'Into Holes' and 'The Mirror', beautifully span three generations, with Dooley herself as the pivot between parents and her daughter. Those poems addressed to her family are particularly lyrical:
Dooley is not afraid to address social and political issues, particularly in her early work. 'Mind the Gap' questions why a man committed suicide under a train and is very moving without being sentimental. 'Eating Out' sets the end of a love affair in context against the actions of the Greenham peace protestors, and is very much a comment on the late 80s, as is 'Success': 'From where I stand/you are the very face of it, someone who has learnt to say no.' which is a damning statement of the selfishness and greed of late 80s Britain.
In Sound Barrier, Maura Dooley demonstrates that she is a poet who is in touch with reality. She refuses to succumb to sentimentality, even when writing about the death of a parent as in 'No Harvest' where she slips in a gentle pun,
At the same time, the restraint she displays when writing about strong emotions underlines the depth of these feelings. Dooley is a poet of integrity and genuine feeling.
(Sarah Maguire, The Florist's at Midnight Jonathan Cape £8.00)
This wonderful, if slim, collection takes the reader on a journey across continents and through gardens in pursuit of scented beauty. Sarah Maguire's opening title poem juxtaposes the repellent and the exotic with 'stems loosening their sugars/into dank waters in zinc buckets' beside an arum lily whose 'snow-white wax shawl/curls round its throat/cloaking the slim yellow tongue'. This contradiction appears again in 'Gardenia', 'Jasmine in Yemen' and 'Colchicum (The Autumn Crocus)', and makes us aware of the transience of flowers, how quickly they die.
I found my senses seduced by Maguire's images. In poetry written primarily about plants, one expects the words to conjure up scent and colour and this collection does not disappoint; I could smell the herbs of the poems 'Rosemary' and 'Zaatar' (which is Arabic for thyme, as explained in the helpful and informative notes at the back of the book). As Sarah Maguire says in 'Cloves and Oranges', 'Memory is smell.' This poem, 'Hibiscus' and 'African Violet' are particularly rich in colourful imagery. 'Hibiscus' combines the excitement of Marrakesh, its souks and a romantic encounter with a stranger on a Vespa, the pace of the poem driven by three line stanzas, the use of repetition and a strongly controlled rhythm
Maguire embraces the eroticism of plants and flowers in these poems, especially 'African Violet' which is a metaphor for female sexuality,
After the sensuality and, at times, blowsy indulgence of the first half of the book, the poem, 'Watershed' literally provides a watershed by describing the difficulty of maintaining a bowling green during a drought. Maguire proves that not only can she write engagingly about the beauty of flowers, but that she understands the mechanics of gardening and can write humorously about them as well, 'feeding slips of cartridge paper/into the hive of sharpened blades'.
The final pieces are more concerned with the processes involved in plant rearing and 'My Grafting Knife' is a eulogy to a vital tool. The last third of the collection seems to be written in shades of green and brown evoking earth and foliage and provides a fine counterbalance to the rainbow colours of the earlier poems until the last poem, 'The Garden of the Virgin'. This is a very powerful work which tells the story of monks tending the Virgin's garden and slaughtering female beasts, yet at the end, a monk dreams of himself as a wolf, 'opening out his lungs/to greet the moon', which represents the Goddess.
Sarah Maguire likes to use stanzas of equal length in most of her poems. This works well to create balance and control the rhythm. Occasionally she strikes an incongruous note; in 'Umbellularia Californica' we read of a duck 'motoring' across a pond, and in 'Trotsky's Garden' she describes Lev Davidovitch as 'happy as Larry', both these images seemed at odds with the poems but I enjoyed this.
This collection has been published to coincide with Sarah Maguire's anthology, Flora Poetica (Chatto), both of which I would heartily recommend and not just to those with botanical interests. The Florist's at Midnight left me with a sense of pleasure, 'As simple, as thoughtless as a bruise.' ('Gardenia').
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