Poetry round-up: from the buzz around Helen Mort to Andrew Philip's 'sheer joy' in language
Verses to be savoured long after the thrills have faded
Sunday 22 September 2013
There’s been a buzz around Helen Mort for a while, and her debut, Division Street (Chatto £12) doesn’t disappoint. An alternative title would be North, only the late Seamus Heaney got there first. “The mills are plush apartments now,” she notes. “My favourite kind of shot? / A view of other people’s windows, / glowing on a terraced street at night.” (“Outtakes”.) “Miss Heath” is a tribute to an old ballet teacher (“Her French was wasted / in the north”), and by extension all helpers we don’t appreciate at the time.
The stand-out sequence is “Scab” (Mort was born in Sheffield and grew up in Chesterfield), concerning both the original “Battle of Orgreave” between striking miners and police in 1984, and the artist Jeremy Deller’s 2001 recreation. “This is a re-enactment. / When I blow the whistle, charge / but not before. On my instruction, / throw your missiles in the air. / On my instruction, tackle him, / then kick him in the bollocks, boot him / like a man in flames.” Some good poems came out of her stint at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, notably “Coffin Path” with an Armitagean last line to take away and ponder. There’s also a welcome touch of the Gothic in “Seven Decapitations”: “This is the last time, / and the first time you shout. / I wish I’d done it quickly / while the lights were out.”
Alas, the lights have gone out at Salt for poetry; their impressive list has been axed as they focus on fiction. Recently I enjoyed Edward Mackay’s pamphlet, Swarming (Salt £6.50), which is clever, accessible and formally inventive. A list-poem entitled “The Size of Wales” is printed in the shape of Wales: “the Amazon / we lost this year” “Helmand province” “the things I used to / know”. It reminded me of the joke: “Wales. It’s the size of Wales.”
The Scottish poet Andrew Philip’s second collection The North End of the Possible (Salt £12.99) brings back MacAdam from his first: an amateur physicist, metaphysician and Everyman. “Our man unsilos a sample of the night, cupping it as a child would do / a creature scooped from a cage or pond,” he writes in “MacAdam Essays the Truth of Each Dichotomy”. Philip’s sheer joy in the language shines out: that one poem has “gooey, glaurie dub”, “birls”, “wheech” and the great line “a mirk eagle raxing its wingspan”. Expensive, pound per page perhaps, but these are books to be revelled in long after the thrillers have fallen apart.
“Edges are where meanings happen,” writes the Welsh poet Christopher Meredith in his fourth collection Air Histories (Seren £8.99). The poem is “Borderland”, and you need the note to make full sense of it: “Ffin is the Welsh for border. It occurs inside diffiniad, which means definition and in Capel y Ffin, a place in the Black Mountains.” Borders are firmly outlined, and the poem is tightly constructed with a strict rhyme scheme; yet borders are also hazy and liminal (half-rhymes allowed). Meredith also likes concrete poems – here’s one in the shape of an arrowhead – and experimentation, though the confetti of “At Colonus” is largely space wasted. “Thaws and Disappointments” is a blinding play of images on a theme of winter dawn. The bare trees resemble “leggy fashion plates in sable tights” as fields like “Terry-thomas tweeds / turn silverplate, George Clooney sleek”, while the sun is an “idiot toff”. To the sardonic poet, it’s all rather naff. “The sky pulls on those criss-cross jet trails like / the diamonds on a pimpish golfer’s socks.”
Jean Sprackland follows up her Costa-winning collection Tilt with Sleeping Keys (Cape £10), full of poems that are unashamedly domestic. We begin with a house chimney and a china ornament, but already there is something sinister being enacted beneath the familiar. The “Shepherdess and Swain” knick-knack is ruthlessly analysed until it seems the only kind thing to do is “knock them onto the hearth and smash them”. “Homemaking” begins: “How simple the act of slicing bread, how nourishing” but ends with a knife in the hand, a “ruined street of bread houses” and a “desperate smell”. One to lay beside Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap; less flamboyant than the American, more restrained, but no less affecting.
Tara Bergin’s This is Yarrow (Carcanet £9.95) is a riddling debut, aloofly clever, somewhat Russian-influenced, and full of jumps and arcane references, with notes that don’t explain much. “All Fool’s Day: An Academic Farewell” seems to set out her stall: “In this paper / I will make no direct reference to the above title …” She can also earth herself with humour and a tender simplicity. I think she sometimes forgets the reader. But that’s all right.
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