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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing