Poetry for summer: Lie back, and let the verse wash over you
Sunday 17 July 2011
The finest poetry collections have an internal consistency and a rhythm, a sense of order and unity between poems.
Unified in the most tragic way is Tim Liardet's The Storm House (Carcanet, £9.95), an elegy to a brother who died in mysterious, violent circumstances. It opens: "Trouble is with inventing a language, brother,/ when the only other person in the world who speaks it dies,/ you're left speaking to no one." The remaining poems tackle that paradox, speaking to "no one", yet also touching and engaging the reader.
"On Pett Level Beach" shows a family photograph: "the younger son with spade, dragging seaweed around his ankles", already "about to walk out of the picture". The gruesome formalities of death appal the poet. "I very gently drew out your brother's tongue/ and placed it back again, said the coroner,/ but began to feel it might have done it by itself." Two police officers on the doorstep could have walked out of a fairy tale: "They are pale/ and gamine, they speak in unison like twins and might/ be either men or women." They have turned up "to tell the/ truth of the mysterious dying."
The title sequence of 32 loose sonnets which closes the book is especially fine. "You lived among dangerous people. They were the men/ who picked the bits from your overcoat/ because they knew that shortly they'd be wearing it." The poet mourns: "Talking to the dead's not easy. I'm robbed in daylight/ of the gift of speech." This descent into the darkness is not morbid, but uplifting: "Look to the living... They should/ be kissed and kiss often and live to be a hundred."
In Certain Windows (Lintott Press, £9.95), the US-born poet Dan Burt tames painful memories into disciplined, memorable lines. "My heels rucked the kitchen rug as she dragged/ Me out at five to fight a bully," he writes of his mother, and now, "if lover lift a hand to caress my cheek/ I flinch." The family business was his blacking factory: "I was sent to the cold with men," he observes in "Ishmael". "Swaddled in white coat, chin to uppers/ I trained from twelve to butcher meat." The formal patterns of rhyme and metre are handled with equally sharp skill: "No angels graced that wilderness/ No wells, no Hagar, no augur..."
The central prose section, "Certain windows", is a superb memoir of the poet's challenging early life in a poor Jewish neighbourhood of Philadelphia. It has already been pointed out that the book's structure – poems, prose, poems – mirrors that of Robert Lowell's famous Life Studies, but Burt's hard-knock upbringing is the other side of the tracks from Lowell's sublime Boston Brahminity. The poet finds solace in fishing and sailing, a trait caught from his father: as the boatmen "pause – to watch sedge sway on flats/ Geese rise honking from wetland choirs", we savour the Keatsian echoes. Full of hard-won wisdom and beautiful lines, it's testament to the transforming power of poetry.
Lowell crops up in Rachel Boast's Forward Prize-shortlisted debut Sidereal (Picador, £8.99), a collection flavoured by the Old Testament and lit by the stars, "those on-lookers of the upper air". "On Reading Lowell's Imitations of Sappho" concludes "... a poem/ when at last it finds its true form/ seems as though it's been written before." Boast's true forms are triggered by love and travel, and poised between revelation and reticence.
In Edinburgh, "an inglorious hour" is spent "below street level, a dram with a clean finish/ set fair and square on the table." The tipsy poet observes "a better wine, on offer/ in a shabby newsagents", and descends "to the bottom/ of a bottle of Laphroig". "Blind Date" skewers a pompous swain: "He said he structured space with light/ for a living"; unsurprisingly "I was glad to be free." There's a fair bit of lying around on hillsides and tramping around harbours and, of course, star-gazing. A clever, lyrical debut.
Arthur Rimbaud's two collections, Une saison en enfer (1873) and Illuminations (1886) were ferociously intense and provocative works of art, setting the direction for poetry in the 20th century and beyond. Illuminations (Carcanet, £12.95) has now been translated by John Ashbery, and it proves a perfect match. Ashbery's brief introduction is thought-provoking and full of insight. These hallucinatory prose poems resemble "magic lantern slides", a "crystalline jumble" that is "still emitting pulses" today. These miraculous bulletins seem new-minted in Ashbery's deft renderings.
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