BOOK REVIEW / Could be much verse: William Scammell dips into the raging torrent of new poetry

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The Independent Culture
WE ALL cheered, 15 years ago, when Bloodaxe Books was born in Newcastle, fathered and mothered by the indefatigable Neil Astley, and cheered some more when the enterprise grew into one of the most energetic poetry publishers in Europe. Bigger imprints stole some of its stars, and began to look to their own faded laurels. But more doesn't always mean better. Some of its finds were frankly awful, others - Ken Smith, Brendan Kennelly, Irina Ratushinskaya, Tony Harrison's topical salvoes - were puffed up beyond their intrinsic merits. The list is now so extensive and its quality so variable (see Astley's revised and updated Poetry With An Edge, pounds 8.95, together with his Irish, American, Women, Performance and Translation categories) that it is in some danger of swamping these islands with a verse-lake to rival the Brussels butter mountain.

The latest titles include Elena Shvarts's Paradise (pounds 8.95) in a dutiful but dull translation by Michael Molnar, the enjoyably quirky John Hartley Williams's Double (pounds 6.95), and W M Herbert's Forked Tongue (pounds 7.95). Herbert comes freighted with ideological baggage about his Scottishness, a la MacDiarmid, and a head so buzzing with ideas that the poetry has to fight for breathing space. His manically funsy and ironic modes are more convincing, at the moment, than his lyric ones. Peter Didsbury's That Old-Time Religion (pounds 6.95) should also be investigated. It's not quite as rich as his previous two books, but this secular mystic with the lugubrious tongue likes playing with linguistic registers, contriving a surreal Mullishness 'where archaeologists' (and no doubt the rest of us) 'get what they deserved'.

Flambard Press, newer and smaller, also hails from Newcastle. It already has books by Christopher Pilling, Andrea Capes and Peter Bennet to its credit. Two Darknesses by Anna Kamienska (pounds 5.95), a forceful Polish poet, is just out. Forthcoming titles include Patricia Pogson's The Tides in the Basin (pounds 5.95) and Flambard New Poets 1, with interesting work from Annie Foster, Fiona Hall and Caroline Smith.

Another enterprising newcomer is Dave Tipton's Red Beck Press (24 Aireville Road, Frizinghul, Bradford), whose titles include Geoffrey Holloway's The Strangest Thing (pounds 3), John Greening's Winter Journeys (pounds 3), and Elizabeth Bartlett's Look, No Face (pounds 4.95).

After a 10-year gap in its poetry publishing, Jonathan Cape is re-entering the lists with five smart new wraparound paperbacks: David Dabydeen's new and selected Turner, Eleanor Cooke's Secret Files, Vicki Feaver's The Handless Maiden, John Burnside's The Myth of the Twin and Peter Redgrove's My Father's Trapdoors (pounds 7 each). Critics have been alternately praising and damning Redgrove's polymorphous fecundity for years, but it's no use playing the critical Canute: so long as he continues to throw up things as good as 'Fatherly' and part three of the title-poem we should save our breath for trying to keep up with him.

Vicki Feaver does a nice line in man-eaters - Circe 'in the damp, ripe, gooseberry rot/of my sheets', Judith despatching Holofernes - and goes on to reclaim other aspects of womanliness, including ironing, jamming and frolicking with all those macho gods. She's absorbed Plath, I think, instead of merely imitating her, and her tough-minded eroticism is of a generous disposition. She's especially good on everyday things and feelings, tracking those immensities that loom just out of sight - 'If I dived into the black light/of your pupils, I'd break my head/in a dry pool. If I took an axe to you, / you'd weep like a fir -/resinous tears, amber drops/hardening in the air'.

Cape's Robert Robinson once ran the Secker list (and scandalously dumped some of its luminaries overnight), which has now been assimilated by Sinclair-Stevenson. The latter is relaunching its list, with a revised format, this spring. The new titles are Anthony Thwaite's The Dust of the World, Alan Brownjohn's In the Cruel Arcade, Martyn Crucefix's On Whistler Mountain, Ruth Fainlight's This Time of Year, James Michie's Collected Poems and Jon Silkin's Selected Poems (pounds 6.99 each).

Welsh poets get looked after by, among others, Seren Books, run by Nick Felton at Poetry Wales Press. They have just published Robert Minhinnick's Hey Fatman (pounds 5.95) - a rock 'n' roll title that doesn't really name his talent for warmly fastidious description: see '5 Minutes M4' and 'The Swimming Lesson' - and Duncan Bush's Masks (pounds 5.95), enjoyable contemporary narratives which read like a cross between Lowell and Raymond Carver. The voices don't always convince but he sinks his teeth into the global village with relish and aplomb.

In Ireland, that nest of singing birds, there are also a number of good presses, notably Peter Fallon's Gallery and John Deane's Dedalus. Richard Kell's Rock and Water (Dedalus pounds 5.95) has some good advice for poetic misanthropes: 'They buck you up, your mum and dad,/Or if they don't they clearly should. . .' Dennis O'Driscoll's The Bottom Line (pounds 4.95) takes us into the bureaucratic world of the office to see if the muse can find air to breathe among the sales-charts. Dedalus also publishes Thomas Kinsella's pamphlets Madonna and Open Court (pounds 5.95 each), and a reprint of his interesting, angry poem about Bloody Sunday, Butcher's Dozen (pounds 4.95), which should be made compulsory reading at the Northern Ireland Office. Deane himself has translated the distinguished Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer's For the Living and the Dead (pounds 4.95).

Most of the small presses find at least one poet who catches the public eye and earns them some money. Carcanet has Les Murray, Peterloo has U A Fanthorpe, Anvil has Carol Ann Duffy. Enitharmon Press could use one more than most, since unlike the others it receives no subsidy, but it proceeds honorably on its way with Neil Curry's The Bending of the Bow (pounds 7.95), illustrated by Jim Dine, a version of Ulysses' homecoming in the Odyssey, Chris Woods's Recovery (pounds 6.95), Nicky Rice's Coming Up to Midnight (pounds 6.95), and Duncan Forbes's Taking Liberties (pounds 5.95). There's a handsome pamphlet series, too - C H Sisson, David Gascoyne, Christopher Middleton and others (pounds 3.50) - and a poet-and-artist series.

Peterloo poets are sometimes praised for 'having something to say', as though substance could exist independently of form. Peterloo Preview 3 (pounds 7.95) showcases six new talents. I particularly liked Diana Hendry's 'Soliloquy to a Belly' (woman in custody of her growing baby) and 'In Defence of Pianos', and the poems of Joan McGavin, whose love affair with language suggests that she has the real right stuff. Peterloo's other two spring publications are Stuart Henson's Ember Music and John W Levett's Their Perfect Lives (pounds 6.95 each).

The little mag New Poetry helped many a beginner on his or her way in the Seventies and Eighties, so the festschrift for its editor Norman Hidden, now in his 80th year, is richly deserved. Hidden Talent (Russell Hill Press pounds 8.95) brings together many of his best-known contributors, including Herbert Lomas, who tells us 'All life is rearrangement'. Amen to that.