Books: A lyric of chilblains and sin

New poetry collections: William Scammell is keen on some recent work the new poetry collections plans them with panache. Michael Bateman meets
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The Independent Culture
LOVE springs eternal, and so does the attempt to make words and noises adequate to its marvels and rapacities. All the fol-de-rols of technique are ultimately about honesty and entertainment, those terrible twins who refuse to be parted or to stop hurling insults at each other's head. Somehow the music hall and the church service must be reconciled, the chat-show lie down with CNN News, the lyric take on board chilblains and original sin. Hence that oldest of tropes, tragedy as a song and dance. Anyone who can body forth that mystery, from Hancock to Beckett, Marvell to Mahon, is likely to get our vote. A lively crowd of summer books - more than I can mention here, though I hope to return to the subject - tackles the lobby of heartbreak hotel with uncommon gusto.

Gwyneths Lewis's title, Parables and Faxes (Bloodaxe pounds 6.95), neatly summarises some of the issues at stake. It swings between Wales and the wider world and nails itself to a religious outlook with prayerful hands. There are good moments but the visionary nature poetry of "Illinois Idylls" is a bit preachy for comfort: "God of buoyancy,/ give us more breath so that we may be/athletes in Your sufficiency"; "We are words in the mouth/ of daylight, undone by the dark"; "There is a light of last things here"; "this thirst for the lovely commonplace", etc.

Piety laid on this thick and old-fashionedly is as unpersuasive as the techno-speak that is in love with selfish genes and territorial imperatives. Nice details surface now and then, such as "trees stand delta to the sky" (she's good on trees all round), but in general the technique seems inadequate to the large ambition of the title sequence, for all the massive encomia from Joseph Brodsky and Peter Porter on the back cover.

Robert Saxton's diction in The Promise Clinic (Enitharmon pounds 5.95) swings between the literary and the demotic, and this is mirrored perhaps in his oscillation between strict forms (sestinas, villanelles) and free verse. But there are excellent poems of all kinds in this book, from the surreal childhood terrors of "The Alligator Hotel" to the light lyric touch of "Lawn Aerator Sandals", and he has a fine line in thoughtful similes. I was also very much taken with "The Manatee and the Dugong" ("sounds like a dunce, / A bumpkin clapped in the stocks merely for existing"), one of those ruminative poems whose deadpan recital of facts is really an empathetic scream of fury at what we have done with the stewardship handed down in Genesis.

Robert Rehder earns his living as a professor of English and American literature, and it shows, but for once the effect is joyful rather than one of leaden imitation and allusion. The Compromises Will Be Different (Carcanet pounds 8.95) is dryly intelligent, acute and convincing. Big and little occurrences are tagged free of solemnity or facetiousness. He acknowledges the dizziness of events, and the abyss of our ignorance, without being overwhelmed or reduced to breathy platitudes. Imagination is seen in one poem as "the market where we exchange our purchases". The world is "More difficult to read/Than a novel written in lemon juice". As transcribed in his casual, prosaic-seeming couplets, though, it fizzes with possiblility and delight. The imagery of "Antarctica" has a terseness worthy of Plath. "Queen Mab", after glancing at career possibilities and the friend who "Shocked his Wellesley class/By comparing the look of a new-born baby/To a penis", answers Freud head-on: "What do women want? I can tell you./They want the future". It's not often a poet combines playful learning and real humanity with such casual grace.

Jane Duran, who is also of American extraction, shares something of Rehder's skill at finding exactly the right tone of voice. Childlessness is a recurring theme in Breathe Now, Breathe (Enitharmon pounds 5.95), together with the freemasonry of women, the regrettable bellowings of men ("The apostolic hairs on his chest/are many"), good love poems and poems to friends such as "Three in the Morning" and "Conversation with Lois". In "Braided Rug" she stands on the "all America rag rug" that reminds her of her roots: "In the middle of London/ I am elsewhere. To the long gone,/to the dead in me/ I cry breathe now, breathe./I know my bailiwick./I stand on my rug".

It's an attractive debut, rich with convincing detail and warm understanding, from camels with their "wide-of the-mark/ and fluid side-stepping" to the great grandfather "set about with himself,/as if all the forests of Lancashire/ had been used to build him".

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