Bad Machine, By George Szirtes. Bloodaxe, £9.95


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The Independent Culture

George Szirtes is the most consistent, prolific British poet. All his collections are challenging and rewarding. Bad Machine is more various, more versatile, and might take longer to get into. At the book's heart is an almost hallucinatory series about the fragility of reality, of life, of the body. The title poem is about discovering the body is a faulty machine. Like many others, it is aphoristic: "There's no machine that's not a bad machine". Elsewhere, we find "We're handfuls of dust breathing in dust" and "Life being ordinary is the extraordinary thing".

The sources of Szirtes's poems, astonishing as his formal bravado, include allotments, images of his father dying, the songs "Mony Mony" and "By the Time I Get To Phoenix" and McGuffins. One poem comes from the looting in 2011; another, "Children of Albion", from the same theme.

But the dominant sources are artworks, particularly those of Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer's paintings and sculptures present the viewer with images of ruin, the aftermath of destruction. A fashionable term for responding to art is "ekphrasis". But as Szirtes notes in the introduction to his Collected Poems (2008): "Most bad writing about visual art is ekphrastic. Good writing is after something else." Szirtes's poems are not homage or referential: they have their own, often appalled resonance.

And resonance is what characterises his formal experiments: from sestina to the much more demanding canzone, in which key words keep recycling themselves – as in madrigals, or poems that run a series of end-words forwards and then backwards – to the most testing of all, "postcards" that twin curiously opposing images, as on reverse sides. For example, "Untitled, monument" offers a nightmare of broken monuments that turn into bodies scattered like detritus, "disposed among rubble, tables and chairs,/ left on a tip". The parallel piece is a surreal prose depiction, post-apocalyptic, of a chatty gathering of strangers, optimistically discussing their prospects.

Bill Greenwell is co-author of 'From Language to Creative Writing' (Bloomsbury)