2006 Forward Prize: Love, death and Sugar Puffs

The 2006 Forward Prize shortlist is a mixed bag. Stephen Knight assesses the finalists
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The Independent Culture

When that faintly desperate adjective "accessible'' appears in a review, the book in question is sure to be poetry. Judging from the near invisibility of the stuff in bookshops and on the literary pages of newspapers in recent years, however, it doesn't seem to be winning the art-form many readers. Does "accessible'' even imply quality?

Happily, Vicki Feaver's The Book of Blood (Cape £9) is both accessible and good. It is difficult to imagine her work deterring anyone, though readers in search of elevated expression will be disappointed by its phlegmatic rhythms. Made strange by the use of myths and fairy tales, her episodes of life's anxieties are immediately recognisable: bad marriages, murderous thoughts, ageing. Particularly impressive is Feaver's ability to conjure unease with little overt rhetoric; a pond is "Not deep enough for a drowning'' and her heart sounds like "the Morse/of a beak tapping/on the wall of an egg'.'

Where blood soaks Feaver's carefully assembled collection, Kate Bingham shapes Quicksand Beach (Seren £7.99) with the word "love''. A novelist as well as a poet, Bingham skilfully captures the niggles, the jockeying for position between couples; one of three sestinas begins: "Let's not have an argument this year/about my birthday''. Both poets favour plain language, but Bingham is the more formally ambitious poet. Her poems are occasionally weakened, however, by low-key realism. "March'', for example, begins "I promised/once a week to take her/somewhere new/ and today it's the playground/over the road/between the tower blocks'', which is clear enough but no great shakes as poetry. Is it heresy to suggest that a writer can be too accessible?

Both Bingham and Paul Farley have suicide poems, and Farley also has her Larkinesque feel for the quotidian. Tramp in Flames (Picador £8.99) accommodates Sugar Puffs, Oxfam shops and baseball caps as it appropriates the ephemera of contemporary culture: the stop-motion illusions of cinema's Ray Harryhausen feature in "Lapse'', for example, a poem with a walk-on part for Ursula Andress as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, while a seascape with gulls reminds Farley of "car adverts with the sound turned down''. Both his raw material and his confidence of address are reminiscent of contemporaries including Don Paterson, Simon Armitage and the late Michael Donaghy (mourned in the longest poem in Tramp in Flames and also the book's dedicatee). The passage of time tempers Farley's brashness with a strain of melancholy, lending his poetry a likeable vulnerability. He ends the fast-forwarding "Lapse'' with a plangent demand to "Give us back the giant day. Give us back what's ours''.

Unusually for a British poet, Farley is as comfortable in the countryside as he is in the city, amusingly bringing urban language to a heron's begrudging take-off: "fucking hell, all right, all right,/I'll go the garage for your flaming fags''. More inclined to the timeless than the demotic, Robin Robertson sees a swan "heaving himself/up off the lake, wingheats echoing,/the wheeze of each pull/pulling him clear''. Swithering (Picador £8.99) is a book of transformations and departures, clipped rhythms and stark language. There are many tender moments, particularly when the poet is watching his daughters grow up and away from him; one girl's prints in the snow thaw to "wafer-thin footsteps of glass'', another swims while her father stands in the shallows, holding her clothes - the latter poem echoes Robertson's own tribute to Michael Donaghy, who is imagined as a selkie returning to the sea.

Violence and "inconsolable sadness'' are never far away: Actaeon, changed into a deer, is torn apart by his hounds; people drink to forget; August Strindberg writes until his hands bleed; and even the landscape is disconsolate: "Grass struggles in its thin veneer of earth... The land is draining of colour and life.'' Those last lines are from "Between the Harvest and the Hunter's Moon'', which ends with what seems to be another nod to suicide:

I reach the elm-wood

under the rookery,

slip a bullet in the breech and wait here

in this dark

In Redgrove's Wife (Bloodaxe £8.95), Penelope Shuttle writes of the deaths of her father and of her husband, the poet Peter Redgrove:

All trees were the product of our love,

every bit of woodland listened to us

Ours was the tabernacle of light,

the sun our sphinx of the air

Aesthetically and temperamentally, the book is like no other on the shortlist. She admits to weeping inconsolably in shops, but "I am trying to love the world/back to normal'', she says at one point. Effusive, celebratory, poems pour down the page, two-thirds lacking a final full-stop. The effect can be dizzying over 80-odd pages of verse; but Shuttle's originality is everywhere evident, her response to loss both surprising and moving (and not a word of suicide).

Redgrove's Wife would be the pleasingly eccentric choice for the prize, Seamus Heaney's District and Circle (Faber £12.99) the obvious one. If the Forward prize were awarded to a reputation rather than a book, then Heaney would win every year he published a collection. While not as impressive as his mid-career work, District and Circle is his best miscellany for a decade; its range, ambition and the vigour of its language eclipse the writing of most contemporaries. Seamus Heaney needs neither the publicity nor the cash, but then again he has never won a Forward prize, and he is certainly accessible.

The winner of the £10,000, 2006 Forward Prize for Best Collection will be announced on Wednesday. For more information visit: www.poetrysociety.org.uk

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