BOOK REVIEW / Celebrating Eve without killing Adam: William Scammell on new work by four very different women poets

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SOMEBODY up there loves Eavan Boland. She commands space in prestigious journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and three of her last four books have been Poetry Book Society choices. Perhaps she has been a beneficiary of the Irish poetry boom (a largely male affair), the women's poetry boom, and the transatlantic trade in 'finding a voice where they found a vision', as the dedicatory poem of In a Time of Violence (Carcanet pounds 6.95) puts it.

The title sequence offers vignettes of Irish history juxtaposed with womanly epiphanies about dolls, dresses, children's cots and language ('is concealed. Is perilous'), the last a clumsy borrowing from Heaney. It's meant to add up to a commentary on the Troubles - 'We are sewing coffin ships, and the salt of exile. And our own death in it. For history's abandonment we are doing this' - but seldom amounts to much more than a series of lugubrious gestures.

Her dogged literalism commands a sort of respect, but too often founders in portentous abstraction: 'To be the hostages ignorance/takes from time and ornament and destiny'. If ignorance took its hostages from 'space and finger-stools and destiny' would the line mean any more, or less? Occasionally the solemnity is punctured with metaphor - 'love had feather and muscle of wings/and had come to live with us,/a brother of fire and air' - but tends to the bathetic. 'Will love come to us again and be/so formidable at rest it offered us ascension/even to look at him? This posturing goes on throughout - 'In the end/It will not matter/That I was a woman. I am sure of it./ The body is a source. Nothing more' - clad in duff language.

Helen Dunmore has an arresting poem about war, 'In the Desert Knowing Nothing', in her new collection Recovering a Body (Bloodaxe pounds 6.95), which is glossed in the prose Afterword: 'We are forced into a conspiracy where we inhabit the same time as sufferings which we pay our taxes to inflict, but cannot alleviate. As we spectate we combine physical immunity with a profound, grievous sense of complicity.' Elsewhere she writes about marriage, pregnancy, sexuality, the strangeness of bodies, the poet in her versus colour-supplement accessories and the blink of the answering- machine. It's a strange mixture of insight and materialism, in which 'a writer's surroundings' are elevated into spurious importance, as though the role of poet could be marked out on a socio-political stage, and bought in from Romantic central casting.

Zsuzsa Rakovsky, a youngish Hungarian poet (born in 1950), makes an instructive contrast. She has brains, passion and technique, the only morality that might last past the end of the month. She too writes about love and sex, but with a precision and maturity born of real self-knowledge. New Life (OUP pounds 7.99), impressively translated by George Szirtes, takes in the urban hurry and scurry with a cool, undeceived eye, and builds poems that glow with scepticism and desire. She doesn't lose the spring in her step halfway down the page, as so many poets do when the initial impulse fails. In this, as in her fusion of classical form with a racy, modern voice, she is somewhat reminiscent of Brodsky - as is her translator, a known fan. Her poetry doesn't readily lend itself to excerpts. Read it for yourself.

Kathleen Jamie has impressive talents, too. Lately she's been experimenting with a new feminist voice that celebrates Eve without feeling called upon to do a number on Adam, and trying out a Scottish vocab alongside her jaunty English one. The results are plain to see in the title poem of The Queen of Sheba (Bloodaxe pounds 6.95), in 'Hand relief', 'School reunion', 'Wee Wifey' and others - poems which are hard-edged yet joyful, and whose free verse jigs seem to capture exactly the movements of an exuberantly watchful mind. She mixes genres and ingredients with an expert hand ('China for lovers', 'The Republic of Fife'), and squeezes the essence of the quotidian out of a 'Sad Bird' perched in a gutter. I'm less convinced by her all-Scots poems, 'Arraheids' and 'Skeins o geese', than by her macaronics, in which the riches of both languages strike sparks off each other. Maybe a courageous editor could have a word with her about punctuation and some sort of consistency in the matter of upper- and lower-case letters.