BOOK REVIEW / Uncovering the heart's tattoo: Art v polemic: Eva Salzman on four new collections by women

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The Independent Culture
EVEN NOW, women poets can find themselves diminished by reviewers praising the content of the work, as if that were relevant to their literary worth. Women as serious about their craft as their politics have no need of such allowances.

Audre Lorde's Undersong (Virago pounds 7.99) is an example of unchallengeable, politically correct polemic, dealing with racial and sexual politics. Though brave, ardent and angry, the language tends to fall back limply on to the page, often into cliche: 'And even the earth is crying / because Black is beautiful but currently / going out of style / that we must be very strong / and love each other / in order to go on living'.

Anne Rouse has a tough, challenging, opaque style, composed of jacked-up vernacular and a careful attention to form. Her technical competence can be seen in the first and last poems of Sunset Grill (Bloodaxe pounds 5.95). 'Memo to Auden', one of those homages or letters which are usually simply an opportunity for the author to display his or her erudition, is refreshingly brash and humble. The heightened poetic of 'A North London Planetary System' is effectively undercut by the author's typical irony. Here is 'Mars (Arsenal)': 'His is the red inversion / Of your flesh, Venus; / BASTARDS, is the heart's tattoo.' Rouse's feminist angle is too sly for raw polemic, but hers is emphatically poetry with a social conscience. She plays by the rules, but with them too, subverting through a dry humour.

Patricia Beer and Gillian Clarke have a predilection for the elevated rather than the colloquial, though both have a strong sense of history and place. Beer's sequence of sonnets, 'Wessex Calendar', in her new book Friend of Heraclitus (Carcanet pounds 6.95) is deftly written: 'Nailsea do-gooders founded Sunday Schools. / The blowers had their own theology / And called the furnaces Hell Mouth. The flames / That led to drunkenness and nudity / Ended as cool green glass. Their hands and names / Were black, their wares bright as saved souls.' The tired title of the section 'Observations' should be forgiven, as it contains poems like 'Storm' and 'Houses in Holland', the former characterised by a cool understatement, the latter by neat humorous turns. Beer always manages to retain an element of surprise in spite of her unflappable demeanour.

Not to linger too long in the land of myth and legend must be difficult for any Welsh writer. Mainly a nature poet, Gillian Clarke rightly enjoys indulging her descriptive powers: 'She'll gather their cloudiness off the evening sea, / indoors, cast one and watch it settle / for the keel of her iron to plough, / her glasses misting in a hiss of starch.' The ambitious title sequence of The King of Britain's Daughter (Carcanet pounds 6.95) impressively shows off Clarke's expansiveness, her ability to weave together past and present. Other poems, with more blatant messages, are subject to the obvious pitfalls of naked sentimentality, or are carried away on a tide of earnestness. It is only this tendency to go for The Big One that makes for uncomfortable reading; one never doubts Clarke's love of Wales or of language itself.