Pick Of The Year


The Odyssey of Homer, trs Robert Fagles, Viking pounds 25. The ultimate story-teller given a modern spin in this new translation which captures the sweep and flow of the original. Fagles's colloquialisms inject new vigour, but occasionally it's more C&W than ancient Greek, more Iowa than Ithaca.

The School Bag eds Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, Faber pounds 20/pounds 12.99. More solid and pedagogical than their earlier anthology, The Rattle Bag, this is a gallop through EngLit with detours into unfamiliar Irish, Welsh, Scots and medieval territory. The rule of one poem per poet occasionally makes for dull-but-worthy choices, but there's lots of fresh, unfamiliar stuff too. The notable failure is with women: surely Sylvia Plath is a significant omission.

Making for Planet Alice ed Maura Dooley, Bloodaxe pounds 8.95. The ideal corrective to Heaney and Hughes, this showcases 30 women poets who have published a first collection in the 1990s. And what a gang: Kate Clanchy, Sarah Maguire, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jackie Kay, Maggie Hannan, Alice Oswald, Ruth Padel, Sinead Morrissey and Katherine Pierpoint among them.

Kissing a Bone by Maura Dooley, Bloodaxe pounds 6.95. Dooley's own poems are alert, careful, and usually very short. She moves across registers from the political to the personal with ease, leaping from the Irish famine to the Berlin wall to her record collection and the contents of a handbag ("kleenex / several Polo mints (furry), a tampon, pesetas / a florin").

Salt Water by Andrew Motion, Faber pounds 7.99. A taut, enjoyable new collection, split into two halves: the first, poetical meditations on water, both fresh and salt; the second, a prose account of the sea voyage Motion took in an old sailboat, in the wake of John Keats.

Tales From Ovid by Ted Hughes, Faber pounds 14.99/pounds 7.99. Hughes's vigorous free translations of episodes from the Metamorphoses were the highlights of After Ovid, last year's anthology of modern responses to the Latin. Hughes has gone on to craft a book-full of these tours de-force. Hughes tears out bloodied gobbets from Ovid's intricate whole, and retells them to great effect.

A Painted Field by Robin Robertson, Picador pounds 12. "The Flaying of Marsyas", another Ovidian extemporisation, is the stand-out, a grisly account of the punishment meted out by Apollo to the satyr who tried to rival him. Startling in its gore and viscera, it's not typical of this observant, lucid, perhaps rather mild-mannered collection.

God's Gift to Women by Don Paterson, Faber pounds 6.99. There's wit and self- consciousness here, plus shovelsful of irony, as Paterson tackles the "difficult" second collection. A clever-clogs with soul, he likes Zen jokes, circumlocutions, obliquity, blank pages, enigmatic titles - and some not so enigmatic ("Buggery"). Dazzling.

Bargain With the Watchman by Eva Salzman, OUP pounds 6.99. "Masques", a 12-poem sequence, transposes the classical Muses into the modern world, where they meet in pubs, turn to crime or become hypochondriac. Elsewhere Salzman's cool, appraising eye and sharp tongue get to work on sex and men in an enjoyable second collection.

The Marble Fly by Jamie McKendrick, Oxford pounds 6.99. The title-poem sees the poet at Pompeii, admiring the detail of a wall relief showing a lizard "canopening" a cricket, "a mouse airlifted by an owl" and a fly. So hard, so still, perfectly preserved: "It can't have been long after / that much the same idea / occurred to Vesuvius". McKendrick has a fine eye for ironies, and for vivid images.

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