<preform>Newborn<br> Corpus<br> The Tree House<br> The Strange Hours Travellers Keep<br>Snow Water</preform>

The winner of the Forward Prize for best poetry collection will be announced this week. Stephen Knight scans the shortlist
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The Independent Culture

Newborn by Kate Clanchy (PICADOR £12.99)

Newborn by Kate Clanchy (PICADOR £12.99)

This is that rarity, a poetry book intent on happiness. Kate Clanchy's 38 engaging, anecdotal poems are both self-contained entities and components of a narrative, beginning with a snapshot of the writer unaware of the days-old life inside her and ending with a toddler carried on the hip. In the process, Clanchy garners some striking images, as when she describes herself, in the ninth month, cycling through tall hay while thinking of the physics of ships, how a keel cuts best through deep waters under a certain pressure of freight.

But the outstanding poem in the volume, "The Other Woman'', in which Clanchy the mother goes for a drink with her younger self, is memorable in concept rather than execution. The poetry is - to take the title of one piece - "Plain Work''. Poems are nicely paced and rhyme is artfully discreet; but they contain little that is unexpected. Stanzas overflow their banks in more of a trickle than a rush, and, singing the same tune, poems sound a lot like one another.

Perhaps the fear that happiness writes white explains the scarcity of suites of poems about parenthood. There are, of course, outstanding examples of the genre, one of which, Ted Hughes's "Full Moon and Little Frieda'', is riskily recalled by Clanchy's "Moon, O Moon!'' From there, it is a small step to Sylvia Plath. With so much charm in Clanchy's poems of bath-time conversations and rainy days, it is perhaps harsh to note that not even the best of Newborn can match Plath's own unreasonable poems of motherhood, "Nick and the Candlestick'' and "Morning Song''. Then again, whose can?

Corpus by Michael Symmons Roberts (CAPE £8)

An individual voice in contemporary verse, Michael Symmons Roberts writes a numinous poetry that listens "for the footfalls of God in the garden'' or brings episodes from the Bible to vivid life. Appropriately, then, his fourth book, Corpus, is organised around the body and ways of leaving it. A structure that can seem somewhat willed - several poems read more like space-fillers than necessities - it nevertheless includes enough successes to vindicate the strategy.

Some of Symmons Roberts's subjects might have led to a graphic poetry: a corpse charts its decomposition; another details its own post-mortem; a soldier chops off the hands of villagers in enemy territory. It is to the poet's credit that as tabloid as his material sounds, the poetry he derives from it is decidedly broadsheet; thoughtful and unsensational.

These qualities are both a strength and also, perhaps, the reason why Corpus is unlikely to bring new readers to poetry. While there are a few cases of verse as crossword clue - "Genes of sand, these grains / are rummaged by the backwash" - Symmons Roberts's poetry is not so much obscure as unfailingly dignified. His versification is not excitable. Beginning "Geneticist as driver...", "Mapping the Genome" takes the reader for a bracing spin; but, more typically, poems follow a rather stately progress. The imagery is elaborate, at times overwrought: the moon is an "orb of silence", wind is "sonorities / of breeze in grass", and viscera are perfect livers pale as sand at ebb tide, lungs light and intricate as coral, kidneys like soft turtles' eggs - depending on your taste, these are examples of a transformative imagination or applications of lacquer to the surface of the world; the writer placing poetry on top of his material rather than drawing poetry out of it.

Is it too much to want a memorable line or two? Perhaps there is something coarse - tabloid, even - about an imagination that reduces the world to headlines, like Larkin's "Life is first boredom, then fear". Michael Symmons Roberts's sensibility is too refined to opt for such a tactic.

The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie (PICADOR £8.99)

The Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie announces the tenor of her fifth volume in a bold, almost reckless manner. The first poem is spoken by a wishing tree "neither in the wilderness / nor fairyland", the second describes a pair of copulating frogs squashed by a car, and the third quizzes an inanimate object: "Are you weary, alder tree, /in this, the age of rain". Elsewhere, the soul and the heart are invoked without embarrassment. The displacement of apologetic irony by an earnest, Romantic sensibility is unusual, to say the least. Don't let this put you off. The Tree House exerts a hypnotic hold on the reader.

There is no straining for contemporaneity or spurious relevance in these meditations on plants and creatures, but a connection with poetry's oldest traditions. Jamie's poems are not especially about nature; they haunt with metaphors of life's evanescence, of what it is to be human. Jamie achieves her effects with remarkably few words: her lines are short, tending to four stresses or fewer, the line-breaks perfectly judged, and nearly a third of the poems are shorter than a sonnet. Fleeting, deceptively brief, they resonate beyond their final images. Many drift mysteriously to a close, daring to strike a note of profundity.

Quotation cannot do justice to The Tree House; whole poems are seamless, poised creations, their cadences persuasive. This is a nuanced, affecting book.

The Strange Hours Travellers Keep by August Kleinzahler (FABER £9.99)

American poets are enviably relaxed. Perhaps it's a matter of geography: they have vast spaces just beyond their doorsteps, we live on an island; their finest poets handle free-verse with aplomb, ours craft sonnets and other boxed-up forms. The title of August Kleinzahler's latest book attests to its author's itchy feet, a key element of his work to date and here acknowledged as an aesthetic principle. The book begins "The markets never rest" and ends with the Tartar hordes, "for whom the back of a horse / Is their only country / For whom a roof and four walls is like unto a grave."

As comfortable in the past as the present, the book sets us down in Montreal, Paris, San Clemente, Berlin, the Hereafter and the inside of a cranium. Freneticism is tempered by melancholy. While military jets roar overhead or airliners "make their nightlong journeys / Across the oceans and steppes", Kleinzahler is below, evoking the ghostly atmospheres of the modern world: in "Back", a traveller reacquaints himself with home - "a box of staples in the sideboard's drawer,/or the garlic press,/found at last behind the vinegars and pastes" - while "On Waking in a Room and Not Knowing Where One Is" attends to the unfamiliar, the noise of traffic, a dripping tap, the quality of shadows.

Epigraphs from William Carlos Williams, Willem de Kooning and Robert Burns signpost the book's restlessness while underlining Kleinzahler's eclectic imagination: his poems are sprinkled with found material - "STRANGE TRIUMPHS IN SUDDEN DEATH'', presumably a reference to the golfer Curtis Strange - introduce naturalists and janitors, and are as likely to deal in bits of Hollywood gossip as describe episodes from the history of music. (Ava Gardner's scurrilous quip about Frank Sinatra's manhood is a laugh-out-loud moment.) American poets can surprise with their conjunctions. This is a risky business - the parts can fail to cohere - but such is Kleinzahler's confidence that we are happy to go along for the ride, not quite sure where we will wind up.

Executed with panache, August Kleinzahler's exciting poetry never intimidates. He is probably among the least well-known of the American poets published in this country, but, for all that, one of the very best.

Snow Water by Michael Longley (CAPE £8)

Michael Longley continues, in his eighth collection, to investigate the big themes by working a small area. Favourite subjects and props revisited in Snow Water include the First World War, the Classics, the flora and fauna of the West of Ireland, and a friend's metal sculptures. The book is autumnal; this is the poet heading towards wintery old-age.

He has made a virtue of brevity, perfecting a delicate, careful poetry. This work was novel when Longley re-emerged over a decade ago, but it has become set in its ways. Perhaps we ought not to expect surprises from a sexagenarian poet with a publishing history of nearly 40 years behind him. There is, though, a touch of complacency here, a cosiness in the dispatches from the Longleys' holiday-home and the family lore.

But Michael Longley is too good a poet for his particular intensity not to bear fruit in a book of 63 poems, and "The Pattern" is good enough to stand with his best work: it turns on the poet's discovery of the pattern for his wife's wedding dress, which he holds up

in snow light, for snow has been falling On this windless day, and I glimpse your wedding dress And white shoes outside in the transformed garden Where the clothesline and every twig have been covered.

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