Friday Books: Three poets of vulnerability

Friday Books: MY LIFE ASLEEP BY JO SHAPCOTT, OUP, pounds 6.99 HOLDING PATTERN BY CAROL RUMENS, BLACKSTAFF PRESS, pounds 7.99 OFF COLOUR BY JACKIE KAY, BLOODAXE, pounds 6.95
WHEN NEWS was leaked that Andrew Motion was to be the Poet Laureate, the poetry world found itself treated like a quiet cup of mixed tea. It was getting on with its business of being tea, in a whole swirl of different flavours, when journalists descended with radioactive spoons to stir things into a storm. Poets got rung up at midnight when they were drunk or asleep, or both, were asked to comment, and found their words blazoned over the world to Australia. Yet it is the media who are responsible for the idea that poets always fight among each other.

Many people were indeed disappointed that a government that came to power with fighting talk about representing women better should duck a heaven- sent opportunity to do just that. The perfect candidate was available in Carol Ann Duffy, who has had more influence on contemporary poetry than any poet her age in Britain. But since they have changed the Laureate tenure to only 10 years, maybe that day will come. Meanwhile, Andrew Motion is a generous, sensitive appreciator of other people's poetry, passionate about reading and representing it as well as writing it. I'm sure that he will have read and enjoyed all these books.

Jo Shapcott kick-starts her beautifully cadenced third collection with a Lewis Carroll-y quote from William Carlos Williams: "What are all those fuzzy-looking things out there?" Those fuzzy-looking things are the world. Tabloids, rattlesnakes, Noah's ark, motoring manuals, swallowshit: My Life Asleep presents a world of lunatic flotsam and jetsam. We have a two-way relation with it. We look at it, turn into it; and it - like Shapcott's uppity quark, who tells a scientist where to get off - talks back to us.

From a shape-changing sea goddess to dead Dennis Potter, "as live to me as the tongue in my mouth", bodies, animals, identity, sexuality and metamorphosis take centre-stage. Potter's resurrection is staged as "the most painful erection in heaven/ rising through its carapace of sores/ and cracking skin to sing in English." The 35 consummately worked, playful poems, with a lovely innovative music, turn sex, death, zoology, love and micro-physics into a range of profound, irreverent questions.

Blackstaff Press has collected all the Irish poems of Carol Rumens, an English poet who spends most of her year in Northern Ireland. Holding Pattern opens with brave, skilful love poems:

"Dear God I loved her./ But no, I'm a woman, English, not young. How could I?.../ Oh let me die now. And the dark was all flame as I drank/ The heart-breaking odour of Muguets des Bois and red wine -/ Hers, though I have to admit, it could have been mine."

But the whole thing is a love poem to Belfast itself: its female side, rather than the macho face familiar from the media. Rumens homes in on social divisions within its divided people: "I'm on three types of pills," she says, "It's dreadful,/ So it is. Abyssinia Street. A hellhole./ Do you really like Belfast? Are you going to be staying?/ I'm frightened to go out." "Couldn't you move,"/ One of the women says kindly, "To the suburbs?"/ Something collapses in the long silence./ Call it religion. Say what emerges, naked/ And guileless as the orange walls, is Class.

The double edge of "going to be staying"; the way the dragged rhythm of the "something collapses" line incarnates the social gulf opened up by that "suburbs" question (no inconvenient violence there) - all this, in understated technique, supports the tricky enterprise of a poet living and writing among people who do not have her freedom to choose where to live. Knowing she is the foreigner whose concern is always suspect, Rumens poignantly addresses questions of community and love.

Jackie Kay's third collection is an angrier, more humorous landscape. Like the tapeworm in Irving Welsh's Filth, disease is her metaphor for social cruelty, especially racism. An illegal immigrant is arrested, a black servant flogged; the Starr report expands the marital demands of "Paw Broon", her archetypal paterfamilias: "Christ, wait a minite./ I'm no a lollipop.../ Gie me a guid sook. C'mon, c'mon./ Haud on! Let me/ position masel./ Wisna the President/ staundin' agin a wa'/ or wis it the lavvy door?/ ...Whit the Hell's wrang noo?"

Kay, a black Scot adopted by white Communists and a prize-winning novelist, has always linked her poems strongly. The linking principle in Off Colour is identity, bizarrely intertwined (as in detective stories' identification of a corpse) with dentistry. The black immigrant, who died when her mouth was taped, had gorgeous teeth. ("Milk stones. Pure ivory.") A stranger tells the Poet she must be Ibo: "Those teeth are Ibo teeth, the stranger said./ I had no doubt, from the way he said it.../ that Ibo teeth are perfect pearls.

English, in love with Belfast; black, exploring identity in (literally) the teeth of a racism-rotten society; a surrealist whose vision of identity alchemises everything, herself included, into mad cows or Mrs Noah: these three poets place themselves in positions that force them to challenge the world. Their poems are witty, risky, lyrical, teasing; rich, strong, socially questioning. Cleverness is at the service of feeling. In different modes, they all stand for putting vulnerability, both emotional and physical, squarely on the line.

What else do they have in common? Oh, yes. They are all women.

Ruth Padel

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