<b>To a Fault,</b> by Nick Laird<br></br> <b>Lucky Day,</b> by Richard Price<br></br> <b>Scattering Eva,</b> by James Sheard <br></br><b>Intimates,</b> by Helen Farish <br></br><b>Marabou,</b> by Jane Yeh

On Wednesday, the eve of National Poetry Day, the winners of the prestigious Forward prizes for poetry are announced in London. In the running are such well-known names as Alice Oswald, Alan Jenkins and John Stammers. But what of the new stars? Our poetry critic Stephen Knight assesses the shortlisted titles for Best First Collection
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Nick Laird's debut has that hard edge readers have come to expect from young male poets: the victim of a kneecapping is splayed like a signpost, someone wakes alone on the floor of the gents, cemeteries fill up "like car parks on a Saturday". (Is this modish carapace an attempt to compensate for what is feared to be a feminine art form?)

If such a studiedly unsentimental take on the world is, by now, predictable, there is no denying the writing's excitements. While Laird's word-play and dazzling imagery - an office block is "a latticework of boxed-up stars and dark'' - rarely cohere into satisfyingly complete poems, and though his technical flourishes do not always match his content, his panache sweeps us along as he begins to make space for himself in the cramped world of Irish poetry.

Those poems least like the current manner are the most persuasive; nocturnal reveries of the poet adrift, some tender love poetry, and a striking piece, "Done'', about the end of an affair. To a Fault has a palpable energy seldom present in more mature work.

Lucky Day, by Richard Price

In Richard Price's Lucky Day, language fractures and fails. Two lovers in a car at the end of their relationship struggle for the right words:
I wish you well."
"I wish you well."
Actually holding hands.
"You'll miss your."
"I'll miss my.''

There is something Pinteresque about such exchanges, and, like Pinter, Price is as concerned by what is not said, by what is beyond words. But whereas in drama silences are illuminated by the actors' expressions and movements, in poetry a lack of information can be frustrating, and Price's obliquities sometimes left this reader floundering. But when he employs his techniques to tackle material other poets might shy away from for fear of sentimentality, the results are strangely affecting. Love poetry unashamed to say "I love you'' is one example, another is "Hand Held',' about a young daughter whose handicap makes communication difficult. A sequence of lyrics, it underpins the book's procedures:
Tonight, we dribble, we slur, we
stutter -
mumbler Price, and his priceless
daughter, the spit.
Mute? Don't mention it - we
hardly ever.
We just mutter and gasp,
and laugh

Scattering Eva, by James Sheard

Attuned to history, James Sheard's poetry assays the Spanish Civil war, the Gunpowder Plot, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the bombing of Dresden (the latter tackled in the title sequence, 30 pages of fragmentary, elliptical lyrics). Scattering Eva is a dense, demanding collection, its first poem name-checking Herman Hesse, Otto Dix, Jan Hus and Hieronymous Bosch in the space of 12 lines. Sometimes, the results of all this learning are comically cryptic. The title and first line of "Ulrike in Stammheim,'' for example - "Roth-Handles were always rough on my Schilli throat'' - require three footnotes. In these brooding poems, violence seems always about to erupt. Serious, even a little stern, Sheard's clipped free-verse does not hold out much hope with its "sounds/of contempt, or of sorrow", where winter is "a palsied face grown frozen / and pressed to the window", and April mugs us. Ambitious poets like Sheard are a rarity, so it is probably churlish to want some friction between content and form, a touch of Auden's élan or Eliot's mischievious humour to leaven this accomplished debut.

Intimates, by Helen Farish

Helen Farish's debut opens misleadingly with "Look at These,'' in which the speaker imagines flashing her breasts "like a woman ready to mate". The kind of performance usually blurbed as sassy, it is uncharacteristic of what follows. Farish is a sensitive explorer of the nuances of relationships, and her attempts to articulate the emotional weather are low-key affairs. At the heart of the book are a number of pieces about the death of the poet's father; the flotsam of loss includes an old dressing-gown and a tape-recording of her parents.

Intimates is full of evocative atmospheres, an "acreage of ocean uncrashing, slowed / by the thick coat of day", or "the tall-grass wind, / sun bouncing off the bonnet". Mysterious occasions that do not glibly reveal their meanings are conjured with skill and economy; Farish is a poet of the less-is-more school, and half of the volume's 49 poems are over before they get halfway down the page. While her sober free-verse and plain language adroitly avoid the trap of prosiness, her strategy becomes rather one-note over the course of a whole book.

Marabou, by Jane Yeh

The American poet Jane Yeh's poetry, flitting from one thought to the next, is compact and funny (peculiar and ha ha). Marabou gives voice to the trapped: a Pompeiian priest caught by Vesuvius, 17th-century royals "laced taut / As an archer's bow", women in a Watteau painting "swaddled in frocks''. Meanwhile, contemporary figures button and unbutton a blue housecoat in frustration or plot revenge while awaiting a loved one's letter. This tight fit of form and content is never intolerable because Yeh has serious fun with her material. There is an alert, impish intelligence evident in these poems' bizarre first lines ("It seems unfair to the sheep", "First I blindfolded the revolting cat''), their twists and turns, the startling imagery ("Boats landed at Hastings like bats coming home/Their noses questioned me pointedly'') and the accompanying handful of notes, one of which reveals the unreliability of a poem's details. Concealment is another theme, with pieces about teenage spies and water diviners; and when Yeh dons animal disguises, she manages to avoid sounding like Ted Hughes or Les Murray. Marabou is fresh and surprising. If only all first books were this unusual.