Poetry books round-up: From Nazareth to Didcot in rhyme

Suzi Feay puts in the air miles to cover some of the best new poetry

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The Independent Culture

Some membrane / between asylum and massacre has burst.” “Furies rise from black earth.” “Everyone finds what’s sacred to them here.” Ruth Padel’s new collection, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (Chatto, £10) has a terrible topicality in the light of current events in Palestine, but when are war and peace, dialogue and connections not relevant issues in the Biblical lands? The approach is lyrical and sensual, albeit with a keen awareness that in war zones, music, love and poetry are sidelined even as they become more vital.

Padel skilfully juxtaposes the modern world with the ancient. In the title poem, the instrument maker sets to work, but “On the sixth day the soldiers came /for his genetic code  / We have no record of what happened”, leaving the would-be owner to “[start] over / with a child’s oud bought on eBay”. The poet finds consolation at a synagogue first plundered by the Nazis, then attacked by arsonists, now adorned with “the Y of a pomegranate tree, lobes / of young fern, flesh spears of an iris leaf / and the soft blue stem of a Persian rose”.

Patricia McCarthy won the National Poetry Competition in 2013 with “Clothes that Escaped the Great War”, which opens her new collection, Horses Between Our Legs (Agenda Editions, £10). “These were the most scarey [sic], my mother recalled: clothes / piled high on the wobbly cart, their wearers gone.” The mother, a young girl, is as interested in “the old horse plodding” as the sad tale the empty clothes tell about boys lost in France. The book’s title refers to the switch from riding sidesaddle for women, another of the gender changes brought about by the war.

As well as the ordinary soldiers and the Fanys (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), through these pages pass well-known literary figures – Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Ivor Gurney, Helen and Edward Thomas, Eleanor Farjeon – but also many horses. Occasionally the requirement of rhyme brings tortuous inversions (“That’s what to the troops us girls bring”) or bathos (“None of the King’s horses, none of the King’s men / Could put Emily Davison together again.” But more often McCarthy’s stories of the homely tragedies of war have an eloquent grace.

Handling rhyme with assurance is the veteran Kit Wright; the title poem of his new book Ode to Didcot Power Station (Bloodaxe, £9.95) is a virtuoso address to the recently part-demolished eyesore in mock-heroic 18th-century style: “What vasty thighs outspread to give thee birth, / DIDCOT, thou marvel of the plain?” “They seem to resent the hours they have to shine, / Each one nailed to the sky like a ‘Keep Out’ sign, / Their influence even-handedly malign,” he writes in “London Stars”. Close observation and attention to form marks the cycle “Talking to the Weeds”, apostrophising the ivy, bindweed and rosebay willowherb of hedge and wasteground. A witty, brilliantly varied collection.

Liz Berry’s debut Black Country (Chatto, £10) takes inspiration from the Midlands of its title, with many of the poems making use of dialect words or local pronunciations: “wum”/home, “wammel”/dog, “ommer”/hammer. They voice metalworkers, bargees, truckers, “the last lady ratcatcher”, sweethearts and schoolchildren. Most successful are those with a tinge of the folkloric, with an imaginative span beyond the hard working life. “The Bone Orchard Girl” haunts the cemetery: “Er gid up [gave up] gooin home, night-owled, / robbed a bear from a babby’s grave, unpicked its stuffing / so woodlice crawled tussocky on her onds”.

James Franco’s Directing Herbert White (Faber, £12.99), utilises the deadpan modern American style, eschewing formal tricks of rhyme or allusion. At its least ambitious it risks banality, but no one has better stories to tell than Franco, whether it’s avoiding the annoying Lindsay Lohan at the Chateau Marmont, saluting Sean Penn or being telephoned by an admonitory River Phoenix from the underworld (“You’re all over the place, James”). A witty, concentrated poem enacts the paradoxes of fame: “There is a fake version of me / And he’s the one that writes / these poems.” Elsewhere he meditates on acting and directing, the songs of the Smiths, and mourns celebrity deaths and fuck-ups. A nimble and beguiling collection.