Explosions of feeling

Richard Tyrrell finds manicures, faxes and Creole laments in five new poetry collections

Bernard O'Donoghue was born in Ireland and teaches medieval literature at Oxford University. He has just published his second book and, if anyone could be said to carry learning lightly, it is he. The poems in Gunpowder (Chatto, pounds 6.99) are gentle, readable and subtle.

His title comes from Francois Muriac: "We owe to the Middle Ages the two worst inventions of humanity - gunpowder and romantic love." But for O'Donoghue, gunpowder and love are sources of celebration. Gunpowder reminds him of a lingering smell on his father's jacket, after the old man shot pests on the family farm. And the nostalgia of being in love is pitted against the reality of a physical woman, when he recalls that the colour of his lover's eyes is biologically the result of uric acid.

In one short poem, he imagines a poet, dragged to a Holocaust death camp, offering as his only useful skill the ability to tell his masters exactly what they want to hear. This is almost a black pun on the medieval notion of the court poet, but O'Donoghue resists the temptation to create a scholar's ironies. He tells simple tales, offers simple insights into his old Irish life in Cork. It is an artlessness that is the combined result of great skill and concentration.

Michael Longley is, by contrast, a complex writer. The opening piece in The Ghost Orchid (Cape, pounds 7) outlines his feeling that poetry always slightly misses its mark. He imagines, in describing a hare, that the effort of writing and reading may make us forget the warmth and "grassy form" of the real animal. Hence, the hare - and the orchid of the title - is a "ghost". And the poems of this book have a grave, whispering, "ghostly" fluency.

He writes about nature - snow, icicles, flowers - and draws on classical figures such as Ariadne, Hector, Baucis & Philemon. But Longley insists on natural decay as well as delight, change as well as charm. There is a fine image combining this in "The Sissors Ceremony", where he spies on an old woman clipping the fingernails of an old man: "Her white hair tickles his white hair." Life is something that fades serenely, but also flashes into sudden knuckly warmth - a blue tit "tweetles," a mad poet is "afflicted with the itchy nirls of jaundice", babies "nod off and nuddle." This earthiness makes The Ghost Orchid a haunting book that constantly refreshes our senses with the strangeness of things.

From the point of view of new poets, Gwyneth Lewis's Parables and Faxes (Bloodaxe, pounds 6.95) is an important event. Lewis is a Welsh writer whose first book was in Welsh, but her English poems are original and accomplished. Her starting-point is a mock-religious fervour - a typical example begins, "The Lord wants me to go to Florida ..." - which does for poetry what Jeanette Winterson does for fiction. The book is more "parable" than "fax", tongue-in-cheek yarns rather than brisk messages, but they are parables of wit and no religious conviction.

This doesn't mean she's not serious. Lewis sets out to contrast the world of imagination ("parable") with the world of observation ("fax"). But to prove the contrast illusory, she makes each poem as weirdly imaginative as it is carefully observed. For Lewis, both reason and the imagination provide only partial solutions. Such a view allows for a lot of playfulness. And she brings to her scenarios a fastidious control of form and words. Perhaps it's the result of moving from Welsh into English, but Lewis arrives as a mature poet, versatile and well worth reading.

At 70, James Berry is writing at the peak of his powers. Hot Earth Cold Earth (Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95) is his first full collection for 10 years. It recapitulates his sense of anguish and loss derived from being a descendant of African slaves. Berry's voice has achieved a mature passion. He opens with the forceful "Spirits of Movement", a Ted Hughes-like poem celebrating the forces of natural change, wind and water holding them up as a sort of totemic defence against the historical injustice inherited by Africans - as if to say, "all things change anyway, so history must be viewed with philosophy rather than hate."

What follows are poems in English and Creole. Many are vignettes of Jamaican village life. Others are a familiar cry of distress. "My Letter to You Mother Africa", the key poem, depicts Berry at 17 refusing to accept the inferior status of blacks, and urging his mind to create "a university in me". This may seem like poetry as catharsis, but Berry is too skilful to be characterised purely this way. It is Berry's most impressive collection.

Elizabeth Bartlett, born the same year as Berry, has been described as the chonicler of today's "damaged Britain". She shares with Berry a dedication to spoken language, unfussy, plain. But her style is vastly different. It is the voice of middle-class England.

Two Women Dancing (Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95) presents us with nearly 40 new poems, accompanied by a selection from her previous books. It is excellently introduced by Carol Rumens, who argues that Bartlett is a "published amateur", outside the academy, yet providing an emotional honesty that literary postmodernists can never match. There is a real case for regarding Bartlett as one of the most underrated poets in Britain: her work predates the modern social awareness of Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage. This is the definitive overview of her work. If you are at all interested in good poetry, read it.

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