BOOKS : POETRY : Green thoughts in black and white

Among some of the best of the recent collections of verse, William Scammell takes on a 'womanly' American, a shuttling Irishman and a South African political virgin
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The Independent Culture
"I COME out of the stone-working-class of Detroit, where class and ethnic rage, racism, anti-Semitism, are all clear as billboards. I have been involved directly in civil rights, in the new left, in feminism ... There are no poetic subjects, only subjects to which we pay the right kind of attention." On the evidence of her new book, Eight Chambers of the Heart (Penguin pounds 7.99), Marge Piercy, who is acclaimed in America as a novelist and poet, deserves to be as warmly welcomed, and as widely read, over here.

Jewish, feminist, radical, earth-mother - all these labels fit Piercy, but none begins to define her joyous explorations of personal, social and political experience. It is hard to resist a poem that begins

Keep your legs crossed, Mother said. Drinking

leads to babies. Don't stand around street corners.

I rushed to gulp moonshine on corners, hips out-

thrust.

So why in the butter of my brain does one marble

tablet

shine bearing my mother's commandment, eat

fruit

and ends with her savouring an "extremely sophisticated pear that has seen five/airports and four cities and grown old in wisdom". Honesty, humour, a commandingly human tone of voice - part common sense, part supple and witty imagination - light up all the early poems in this book, from "that rich stew of masochism where we swim/ ... mistreated and cheated" to such matters as flirting, hair, bellies, buttons, eating, illness, "taking for granted", and those lost urgencies which come back to haunt in the middle of the night.

Part of the charm is that these works scarcely read like poems at all, but like a breath of fresh air that has grown a tongue, a large vocabulary, a good sense of timing, though doubtless a great deal of sweat lies behind this art that conceals art. There are times when she mounts the soapbox, exhortatory and soppy by turns ("A strong woman is a woman who is straining", "Doors open in the mind"), but then Wordsworth too was brave enough to be literal, obvious, unrelenting, banging his head against things people needed to be reminded of.

Justin Quinn is a young Irish poet who shuttles between Prague and Dublin, earning his living as a translator, and taking a pan-European fix on politics and culture:

Who would write haiku

When visions (huge) are needed

And impossible?

The 'O'o'a'a' Bird (Carcanet pounds 7.95) is impressively witty and serious, somewhat in the manner of Derek Mahon, whose exact, deadpan voice, nailed to the cross of the stanza, occasionally flaring with grief or terror, lies somewhere behind this one. "What else should we remember/But the autobahns of Albert Speer?("On Speed"). "And there were roads but there was no way out" ("For Robinson Jeffers").

Aphoristic couplets alternate with ambitious probings into the politics of town and country, the "small suburban freedoms" and "new burlesque" that are substituted for the overblown "heroic deaths" of Irish nationalism, the "nothing-could-be-simpler line" which might break free of lyric flim- flam and cynical opportunism, reconciling the personal and the public in some definitive utterance: "A state for you to wake up in".

It is a pity about the book's title, which seems unduly fussy, and likely to initiate small absurdist dramas across the bookshop counter. Maybe it's a pun of some sort, or nostalgia for the Gaelic. The poem it names is about pristine freedoms in the long-ago, overlaid by an ugly present of "consonants, fences, chainsaws". Evidently there was a time when the world was pure vowel. Quinn's love of architecture, however, reflected in his well-crafted verse forms, wards off any glib escape to the lake isles of the day before yesterday. The poems are a bit etude-like at times, conscientiously working their way through all the keys, but the rewards - see "Bohemian Carp" and "Attics" in the closing sequence - are much greater than the uncertainties in this confident debut.

Greg Delanty milks his expatriatism more openly in American Wake (Blackstaff pounds 5.99), mourning and celebrating a well-upholstered exile in New England, though in a visit to "Christopher Ricks's Oxford" he allows that he may be "a parody of the Irish/with my hangover & rebellious inferiority, or was it superiority?/ Both, perhaps". Brendan and "boreens" and "aislings" make a strong showing throughout, but remain literary props, as do "the gold coin of the sun" and the "shebeen ... loud with glorious banter". The stronger poems, such as "On the Renovation of Ellis Island" and "Backfire", get down past the stereotypes into an unvarnished and convincing present.

Bernard O'Donoghue has inherited something of Christopher Ricks's Oxford - he teaches literature there - as well as an Irish childhood, so he has a quieter and more tasteful line in nostalgia, though he's not above collapsing into epiphany at the sight of "bird-filled shores" or "The smell of hayseed". Gunpowder (Chatto pounds 6.99) tries out English and Irish voices in a variety of modest ways. The first carries a vivid touch of wit - for instance the lobster-pots "On the pier, up for cruelty,/ Exercising their right of silence" - the second too often sounds like a pale re-run of matters that Heaney and his contemporaries have handled with much greater skill and depth. There's one indubitable success, "The Iron Age Boat at Caumatruish", but mostly these poems read more like apologetics than like urgencies:

The odd poem (two in a good year)

Won't do to make the kind of edifice

I'd hoped to leave.

"Edifice" is odd since it's exactly what these poems don't aspire to; and the mock-diffident boast of the parenthesis doesn't do much to strengthen the reader's belief in these pieties. More coughing in ink, I fear, than Catullus.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Portraits and Elegies (1982) and The Lamplit Answer (1985) were notable for their refined craftsmanship - she was New Formalist before the phrase gained currency - and warmth of family feeling. Her ambitious new book, A Gilded Lapse of Time (Harvill pounds 7.99), cranks up the voltage by taking on God and human suffering, no less, in a breathless, burnished aestheticism that strains credulity and the reader's attention. The title refers both to Byzantine art and architecture, in the Second Age of Rome, and to some mysterious personal crisis: "love ... driven back upon itself/... a lapse, where my life should have been/... I stood/At a standstill before the gate filled with mud". Dante is quizzed at length, together with many religious paintings and artifacts, and behind him stand Mandelstam, subject of the third poem in the triptych, and (I think) Brodsky, all three exiles and martyrs.

Geoffrey Hill's interrogations of the deity occasionally come to mind, though these are less dour and trenchant than his, more given to long verse paragraphs bejewelled with names, symbols, allusions. There's also a hint of Hecht at his most exalted and worshipping, Amy Clampitt at her most rococo. I found the half dozen lines on grasshoppers more interesting than the gorgeous palace of mirrors or such palpitations as "The humid whorls of childhood's breath". All honour to her for attempting large issues in the grand manner - of which we've grown mortally afraid - rather than repeat earlier successes, but the enterprise is flawed by pastiche and mock art. Its hommage does credit to her bump of veneration but seals itself off fatally from the living voice in favour of "a block of marble.../With a starry hoard of words/Like tiny prisms on its lips".

Finally, a brief welcome for Evangeline Patterson's Lucifer, With Angels (Dedalus pounds 5.95), which has something of Marge Piercy's womanly wisdom - see "Armaments Race", "Outsider", "Instructions for a Funeral" - and for Adam Schwartzman's The Good Life, The Dirty Life (Carcanet pounds 8.95). Schwartzman is a 22-year-old South African whose "Vote" wittily records his loss of political virginity ("I've waited to do this with you ... It was my first time too") in the first full and free election of 1994. "Liberals" is quietly impressive too:

Wanting to forgive among the flower beds

the liberals hoped for justice but loved their

children more...//

so fought part-time to give it all away

and be free to walk in smaller gardens

guiltlessly.

Understatement has to take on more than its fair share of the descriptive burden, perhaps, but maybe that's a product of his inheritance, Englishness as a bulwark against Afrikanerdom. Generally he shows all the signs of becoming fluent in "the language the world was made in", green thoughts in a black and white shade.

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