BOOK REVIEW / New collections in brief

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The Independent Culture
Phrase Book by Jo Shapcott, OUP pounds 5.99. Poems which have a way of turning physics into the physical, the sub-atomic field of matter into one vast erogenous zone: 'he reached somewhere/ very deep and fingered gold - / charms, stranges, tops and gravitons - / but not the words he wanted / which only come now.' The prevalent mood is one of joyful amorous curiosity: with the exception of the title-poem(an angled glance at the Gulf war), the collection can be read as a sequence of love poems, in which the poet impersonates Superman, Brando, Pavlova, a lettuce, a 'Mad Cow' and a speck of dust, so as to explore ever more intimately and minutely the realm of the senses. The voices which Shapcott assumes (Rilke's among them) are blatantly extensions of her own, yet they also indicate an impressively protean response to experience. A seduction by Byron, a walk with Wordsworth, a game of geological marbles with Goethe: her poems reflect deftly on writers and writing, but the treatment is anything but 'literary'.

Cacti by Matthew Sweeney, Secker pounds 6. The stories these poems tell move in a mysterious way, as though cut off at the knees. They offer intriguingly incomplete or misleading explanations ('As the artificial blood that saved him / was Japanese, he went to live in Japan') or, instead of explanation, they present a set of exotic and imperative needs: 'He wanted rim-bel-terfass and nothing else', 'He had already decided that sporadic / melon days were needed'. Frequently, the tone is convalescent or hypochondriac or ghoulish, and the settings are those of a hospital or some cave-like retreat. Sweeney is at ease with uneasiness, and, conversely, ill at ease with the easy and the festive. Throughout, the poems are subtly linked: the artistry is as evident in their arrangement as in his lean, unwasteful lines.

Hotel Lautreamont by John Ashbery, Carcanet, pounds 7.95. In the title-poem, a rambling sequence of pantoums, we are told that 'The world, as we know it, sinks into dementia, proving narrative passe'. Resolutely un-passe, Ashbery is concerned to dissolve away the last vestiges of a fixed perspective. The choice that lights on one word rather than another is taken with the utmost reluctance: 'Spiky was one adjective that came to mind yet for all its raised or lowered levels I approach this canal.' A friendly reading might be able to show how this open-endedness catches the random, makeshift quality of perceptions, and there are poems here, like 'Livelong Days' - 'Those were the days for living in a sack, / a loose one for answering the door in' - which move beyond the whimsical. But page after page of gauzy approximations are a high price to pay for such moments.

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