POETRY IN BRIEF

BOOKS
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The Independent Culture
LAID END to end, all the new slim volumes that drop through my letterbox, snuggled up warm in their jiffy bags, would pave any reviewer's way from Grasmere to Shangri-La. It's impossible to keep track of them all, and difficult to do any kind of justice to poets in a few sentences. Herewith a mini-guide to some of those that have escaped notice so far.

Alice Kavounas is an American of Greek parentage who lives in Cornwall. The poems in her intelligent and enjoyable first book, The Invited (Sinclair- Stevenson pounds 7.99), have that honesty and directness of attack one finds in Sharon Olds and other American contemporaries. Formally they're a bit ragged, but that seems a price worth paying for her sharp eye and unfussy lyricism.

Sophie Hannah's The Hero and the Girl Next Door (Carcanet pounds 6.95) has won her a reputation in some quarters as the new Wendy Cope. She comes on as a pert modern Ms who'll stand no nonsense, physical or intellectual, from the opposite sex, but one who's subject nonetheless to the same romantic dizziness as the rest of us. Gavin Ewart would have applauded her light verse skills, and so should we.

Paul Durcan's two early collections, O Westport In the Light of Asia Minor and The Berlin Wall Cafe have been reissued by Harvill Press (pounds 6.99 each). Celebrated for his electric readings, Durcan is by turns arresting and maddening on the page - surreal, mocking, sentimental, inventive, bathetic, impish, unstoppable. Mother Ireland comes in for a good deal of stick, together with mother church. Flesh and blood women, on the other hand, are the saviours of us all, beatitudes in motion.

Sean Rafferty (1909-1994), a little-known Scottish poet, dipped his toe into the literary London of entre deux guerres and then slipped off to west Devon to run a pub. His Collected Poems (Carcanet pounds 12.95) salvages an interesting talent which tries on a variety of modes, from MacDiarmid's lyrics to a sprightly Fitzrovian danse macabre ("A New Thing"). One poem rhymes Muse with "blues", and that's fairly indicative of his gruff, stoic attempt to mediate between the canon (Catullus, Villon, Baudelaire) and the Elephant and Castle.

Ivor Gurney's Best Poems and The Book of Five Makings (ed R K R Thornton and George Walter, MidNag/Carcanet pounds 9.95) continues the recuperation of Gurney's reputation, lit by a still-smouldering fuse that links us to the shambles of the First World War. Gurney's three obsessions are Gloucestershire, war and art, all mixed up together in strange and archaic verse. From 1922 until his death in 1937 he was confined in an asylum. Comparisons with John Clare are unavoidable - "But none have helped me. Deep to Hell Gloucester let betray me. / Pain no word can say of me. Hell has racked me, and God not helped me" - but Gurney's Georgianism often gets in the way of the poetry. Hard to disentangle what's due to him from pity for his fate and the siren song of nostalgia for MCMXIV.

Anvil New Poets 2 (ed Carol Ann Duffy, Anvil Press pounds 8.95) introduces nine new poets of some accomplishment. I most enjoyed Christina Dunhill's lesbian love poems, Kate Clanchy, and the hilarious "My Time with Biggles" by Mike Venner. The latter is billed as a performance poet but Venner strikes me as a lot more various and talented than that label suggests, not least in his engaging, new-found way of writing nature poems.

Tobias Hill also makes an interesting debut in The Year of the Dog (National Poetry Foundation pounds 5). He scoops up a lot of detail about mosquitoes and other insects, up-to-the-minute girls, "A Year in Japan", with a confident and somewhat knowing air, as of a young man in a hurry to be wise.

Alan Ross's After Pusan (Harvill Press pounds 9.99) is described as a third panel to add to his two volumes of memoirs-with-poems, Blindfold Games and Coastwise Lights. A prose Introduction tells us about his visit to Korea, in the company of an ancient guide book, and recovery from a suicidal depression, which prompted the poems that make up the body of the book. They range over his familiar preoccupations - travel, sport, love, memories of his submariner's war - with deceptive skill. "Waves like tin, discarded violins / Play tunes for dead sailors" ("The Old Captain"); Polish streets that "reek prayer, persecution"; the post-war Gulf "euphoric with birds"; mist rising over a pastoral landscape of "grunt and mud, / A liquid greenness" that "even now" can be imagined "laced with cyanide". Ross celebrates pluralism and survival, as only a survivor can.

William Scammell

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