Shouting out boldly from the back of the bus

Kate Clanchy prefers the raucous to the navel-gazing in a round- up of new collections

Kate Clanchy
Friday 11 October 1996 23:02

The imagination of the poet, according to Shakespeare, gives "to airy nothing /a local habitation and a name" - to an idea or an emotion, in other words, a tangible place and an audible voice: a home.

It is this sense of home that makes Rita Ann Higgins's poetry in Sunny Side Plucked (Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95) so refreshing. Higgins is blissfully sure of her voice. Like one of those extraordinary Irish women who will sit beside you on the bus, settle her shopping in her lap, fix you with one wild blue eye, and strike up an astoundingly colourful and confidential conversation, Higgins's poems simply launch into stories - "She wasn't always this bitter /I knew her when she sang in pubs"; autobiography - "My father just passed me /In his Fiat 127 /I was cycling my bicycle, hideous"; or fantasies - "I always /Have my hair done /So I can look good /In the bath /In case /Kim Basinger /Calls round" - with complete confidence that we know her relatives, history, hometown, her whole, off-kilter frame of reference. Which, because her world is so confidently realised, we soon do.

Higgins' voices are so distinctive and real that a whole world of semi- rural Irish poverty rises around the reader with the jolting acuity of an excellent documentary. Being drawn into Higgins's home is an hilarious, absorbing and thoroughly disturbing experience, and as such constitutes a political statement.

Paula Meehan explicitly takes on the idea of home in Mysteries of the Home (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95). Her vision is equally Irish but far more literary, crafted and careful than Higgins's. In "The Pattern", for example, she constructs the world of her early childhood and the dominant figure of her mother from precise details neatly rhymed:

Little has come down to me of hers

A sewing machine, a wedding band

A clutch of photos, the sting of her


Across my face in one of our wars"

Meehan's exact eye and mastery of evocative detail is equally effective when turned on the present ("My Love About His Business In The Barn"), or on the detritus of the past ("Two Buck Tim from Timbuktu").

Something, however, something crammed with moons, talismans, spells, archaisms and exclamation marks takes over her delicate language when she strays from this personal territory into the darker and vaguer area of myth. The individual, precisely realised mother of "The Pattern" becomes, in "The Ghost of My Mother Comforts Me," an abstract force promising: "Because /I am your mother I will protect you /As I promised you in childhood /You will walk freely on the planet /My beloved daughter"; and in the process loses all her character, common sense and individual voice.

Pauline Stainer's poems are extremely airy, both intellectually and sensually. They deliberately eschew, by reason of their extreme cleverness, anything so parochial as a local habitation. To read her new collection, The Wound- Dresser's Dream (Bloodaxe , pounds 6.95), you will need a working knowledge of Keats, Ruskin, Primo Levi, The Green Children of Woolpit, and Joseph Knecht ; and be prepared to toss around their names and probable dreams like post-modern juggling balls. It's actually quite fun in Stainer's world, so full of crystals, ice, and endlessly deferred meaning: weirdly light and fantastical, like lying in a greenhouse. It's not ever cosy, though.

There is little point in looking for comfort in Stephen Knight's new collection Dream City Cinema (Bloodaxe, pounds 6.95). Life, home and meaning just keep rushing past Knight. In between, people endlessly, poignantly miss things - their mothers, their grandmothers' death, their wife's surprise party - and are nibbled inexorably to dust by some superbly evoked bugs. Even the mermaid, that age- old representative of femininity or mystery, is locked in Knight's competition-winning poem, "In A Tank", and may only be seen through a glass, darkly. It makes for grim, if compelling, reading.

I'd advise Knight to move to the country, where poets have so often found meaning in daffodils and so forth - but Matthew Francis's first collection Blizzard (Faber, pounds 6.95) seems to indicate that things are no better there. Like Knight, he writes about not finding home, about not being able to give a name to his experiences, about the dissolving of the self. Thus, Francis's opening poem "Bee Storm in West Middlesex" is an exercise in high irony, its precise title a joke: the poem is about not writing about bees. The poet is alienated from himself ("He sat in high office") and from the poem ("It was a poem about bees") and bees, in any case, defy being written about. The resulting poem is evocative, open-ended, deeply lonely - a very fair introduction to a book which culminates in a long poem about an apocalyptic blizzard.

My suspicion that only young men can maintain this level of gloom and alienation for an entire book is confirmed by Tobias Hill's new collection City of Clocks (OUP, pounds 6.99). As Hill reminds us in his award-winning title poem, we are doomed to be separate. Even if "we hold hands /Our pulses chat against one another, like teeth: gauging the distance we are apart." Alienation is essential to Hill's persona, allowing him to observe with a cool, sharp, journalistic eye and taut turn of phrase, first the weird juxtapositions of modern Japan, where Mister Fatboy holds court in Hiroshima, then the daily grotesqueries of London life. Through all this, we gain curiously little sense of a person, or a voice. Hill remains, as he says, "stopped in mid-step /Watching where the action is"

That couplet would do for Francis and Knight too: they are not concerned with creating "a local habitation and a name" but with recreating the experience of nothingness. For all of them it is an authentically realised and no doubt profoundly felt position: but for myself, I prefer Rita Ann Higgins' voice, however crazed and uncrafted, shouting out boldly from the back of the bus.

Kate Clanchy's Slattern has just won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

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