Poetry Books of the Year by Suzi Feay: 'Dead – and alive – poets'

Suzi Feay
Sunday 13 December 2015 13:20
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Elaine Feinstein celebrates the writers and translators she has known in her latest collection Portraits (Carcanet £9.99). The bulk of the poems are elegies: “April Fool’s Day” for the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, referencing the “cosmopolitan rat” of his best-known poem, “Break of Day in the Trenches”.

Novelist Jean Rhys shimmers through “Life Class: A sketch”. In “Immortal in Kensal Rise” she contemplates the relics of dead poet friends: “We … wonder/ how long their songs and stories/ will survive in a digital age./ Will the young still come across them …?”

A similar anxiety laces “The Realms of Gold”, in Andrew Motion’s new collection Peace Talks (Faber £14.99), where the poet meets D J Enright’s biographer. “Nobody reads Enright now”, apparently, and his poems “Gather dust in second hand bookshops”.

This gloom by proxy surely means Motion too has an eye on posterity.

Defying oblivion are some big subjects, including memorials to victims of Auschwitz and Hiroshima; and Motion continues his vein of war poetry, giving voice to service personnel past and present. A substantial and satisfying volume.

In Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe £9.95) Matthew Sweeney downs a fair bit of red wine, though the mood of his offbeat stories is madcap and sinister rather than truly festive. He too has dead friends in mind: “I want to drink a bottle of Petrus/ with you,” he declares to John Hartley Williams. “I want … to tell you I can’t stand/ being in this crap poetry world without/ you.” Know what you mean, Matthew.

The phallic mushroom on the cover of Neil Rollinson’s Talking Dead (Cape £10) made me laugh out loud. England’s earthiest poet is back, having al fresco sex (“Picnic”), or peeing round the back of Sainsbury’s (“Ode to a Piss”). But there are also poems of extraordinary delicacy and transcendence.

The Seasons: The nation’s most treasured nature poems (Faber £10.99), a Radio 4 Poetry Please tie in, is the most obvious stocking-filler here, with some surprises and outliers among the familiar stuff.

Finally, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade (Chatto £10), is an ambitious and erudite debut (one poem references Homer, Roethke and Horace), exploring the poet’s Chinese heritage in supple, inventive lines.

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