BOOKS: IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
2 In Patricia Beer's austere and aptly-named Autumn (Carcanet pounds 6.95) everything's pared-down, sharp-edged, gravely witty and long pondered. A 90-year-old finds "Husbands ... less dear than departed": "But the heart opens, / Peeling back like a sardine tin / To show silver children and great-grandchildren / Beautifully arranged/Lying in state". Sardine tins dates her, perhaps. Metaphorising them as a species of lying in state undates her into the realm of the Metaphysicals.

At the heart of the book is a sequence of poems about a near-terminal illness, written in Marvellian couplets yet with all the vigour and modernity of a Lowell or sharp-eyed confessionalist: "Night with its epileptic dreams / Is over, and for once there seems / To be some flavour in the day ...". Never mind that death nearly puts paid to her, she still won't answer to the hated "Pat", only to "Patricia". This patrician streak goes along with a moving account of her own terror and confusion, and mixing-up of the generations, as precisely noted as the earlier observation that new churches are "ridiculous, / Seeing that religion is on the way out."

Others might "wave their arms about / In paeans of caring", as they do in a painting ("Art History") and in our allegedly compassionate society. Beer's intelligence and moral good sense restrict her to more powerful gestures of restraint and benediction. Autumn is as readable and accomplished as anything this distinguished poet has ever written.

2 Martin Espada's Imagine the Angels of Bread (Norton pounds 8.50) takes as its brief the sufferings and indignities of those at the bottom of the heap: the poor, the immigrant, all those on the wrong side of the racial, cultural and financial tracks. "I only wanted what Jefferson said he wanted, / but the back of the booklet told me / I couldn't buy that with food stamps, either" ("Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Food Stamps"). At school "The inkwells had no ink". Out in the wider world employers have no jobs, or only rotten ones, and the American Dream is only for the made-its and those who trade in opiates.

If death is the literary man's biggest gun, suffering comes a pretty good second. Espada's good on both in this finely indignant account of particular cases and general political indifference. I was reminded of Philip Levine a little, and Raymond Carver, and the American socialist tradition, which never quite lies-down under the wheels of the stretch limos. It's a touch single-minded and idealistic here and there, as though the subject matter guaranteed authenticity and the moral high ground, but a fine alternative nonetheless to the cheap escapist thrills of Pulp Fiction and its ilk. The real horrors are so horrible that only minority pastimes like poetry will take them on.

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