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BOOK REVIEW / Post-imperial distress signals: William Scammell reviews three know-it-all collections

MONOSYLLABIC, throwaway titles are currently de rigueur. Self-abasement is the order of the day, for we have grown very humble about our place in the cosmos, our crimes and misdemeanours. Jokes are OK, too, and puns, and a syntax that almost falls over itself to embrace prepositions rather than the imperialist swagger of verbs and nouns. The last thing a modern poet wants to do is to seem to presume. Yet this last-ditch knowingness - been there, touched dirt, got the guilt - is simply the obverse of those flag-waving certainties practised by the Cro- Magnons of two or three generations ago.

A knowledge of German helps with Harry Smart's Shoah (Faber pounds 5.99), since the opening section frequently breaks into echt Deutsch. Food seems to feature quite often, as in the Martians. So does the list, the school-essay rehearsing facts and itineraries, tiny details standing in for enormous crimes, and the occasional stab in the direction of Rilke's angels. The title-sequence is a bald, pared-down, somewhat hermetic and yet ambitious account of the Old Testament Flood as the original Holocaust, seen through the eyes of 'the man', 'the woman', the dove, a crow, even the ark and the water itself. Twentieth-century horrors are present too, complete with reference to Claude Lanzmann's great film. Occasionally it reads like a minimalist version of Hughes's Crow or Enzensberger's Titanic poems, and the stony, merciless approach is entirely appropriate to the subject-matter. Yet biblical cadences float in the wrack too, as in some Beckettian endgame, exposing their shameless sublimity and incorrigible gleams of hope.

'This man is a bone stuck in the world's throat' says a poem about George Grosz in Martin Mooney's Grub (Blackstaff pounds 5.95), and the author clearly has ambitions to perform a similar function in Eighties Thatcherite London. He writes a gritty, comic poetry ('as if . . . the insurrectionary body might break up / . . . escape from itself / into a Balkans of erogenous zones') in a 'coal-under-the-door voice' that has been to school with the Irish wits and won't be deceived by anything less than a dying fall: 'Too stoned to stay awake, let alone fuck, / he goes under, as she climbs on top, / and dreams of being a splinter in her heel' ('Pieta'). There's a good deal to enjoy in Mooney's 'life stories taking a turn for the worse', such as a monologue from the dead Roberto Calvi hanging under Blackfriars Bridge, but too many poems go nowhere in particular, or peter out into reflexive glibness about the uselessness of poetry, la la.

The lyric vein in Michael Donaghy's Errata (OUP pounds 6.99) is not too convincing either. It alternates with dramatic monologues, celebrations of the unsung heroes of Irish folk music and good light verse such as 'The Age of Criticism', which neatly eviscerates the idiocies of patrons. 'Liverpool' is diverting, too - 'Ever been tattooed? It takes a whim of iron' - but, as with much of the observation in this book, its likeability evaporates on the tongue, like English ice-cream.