So, I’m back with another poetry roundup. As mentioned in our first roundup, I read a lot of poetry collections (121 in 2019!) and, because of this, I don’t review it as much as I should do, hence this roundup of books I recommend, and recommend you avoid. It should go almost without saying that these were merely books I read during these months, and not necessarily new releases (and also, I must stress, just my one opinion!) –
– Shiner by Maggie Nelson
– Acrimony by Michael Hoffman
– Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry
– If All The World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
– O Positive by Joe Dunthorne
– Of Mutability by Joe Shapcott
– In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller
– Surge by Jay Bernard
So much here I didn’t like and couldn’t get into. Maggie Nelson has become a bit of a superstar with books like The Argonauts, so I thought I’d try her first collection Shiner, which I bought. If I buy a poetry collection, I usually force myself to read the entire thing even if I don’t like it, since I spent actual money on it. Shiner, I abandoned and gave to the charity shop.
Faber, I’m sorry to say, of late has been putting out a lot of flat, featureless poetry. I really couldn’t get into either Berry’s Stranger, Baby, Joe Dunthorne’s O Positive or Jo Shapcott’s Of Mutability, which won the Costa Book of the Year in 2010. I need a bit more music in my poetry. Same with Miller’s In Nearby Bushes which “investigates the placeless place” but instead, unfortunately (as there is something of Miller that I like, but it’s never really paid off in his books), is much ado about nothing.
Finally, I’m here to be the grinch talking about books nominated for prizes. One of the most-hyped and most anticipated poetry books of the past couple of years is Irish poet Stephen Sexton’s first collection, If All The World and Love Were Young, and I honestly feel like I’m living in bizarro world, or that everyone is gaslighting me, because I hated it (there really is no other word for it) and everyone else seems to not just love it, but adore it. It is nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and I fully don’t get it. (Can anyone explain? Please?). Also, I got current Costa nominee, Jay Bernard’s book Surge, and boy, I really didn’t like it (the person who gave it to me for Christmas liked it, so I gave it back to them as a present, hah!) – the language did so little for me (for more on this year’s Costa, read on!)
Anyway, enough moaning, and onto the good stuff.
– Closet Sonnets: The Life of G.S. Crown, 1950 – 2021 by Yakov Azriel
– Death Magazine by Matthew Haigh
– The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus
– We Have The Melon by Gregory Woods
– Boss Cupid by Thom Gunn
– One Still Thing by Nell Regan
– Her Birth by Rebecca Goss
– Girl by Rebecca Goss
– Flèche by Mary Jean Chan
Queer poets, as you can see, are coming up trumps in the Recommended, so let’s deal with the other, smaller group first.
Reading Rebecca Goss this year was revelatory. I bought Girl on instinct and was blown away by her form and bought Her Birth soon after. Both beautifully written and immaculately constructed books, they are essential modern (dare I say) classics.
Nell Regan’s (whom, full disclosure, I know) latest collection is One Still Thing and it is by far my favourite of hers. I’m very excited for her translation of Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, the classic Japanese anthology (literally to the point that it’s on the curriculum there) featuring 100 poets with a poem each coming from Dedalus later this year.
Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance is a deft exploration of d/Deafness as well as his relationship with his father. Rightfully garnering a lot of praise, and winner of the Ted Hughes award (which is hysterical considering he literally erases one of Hughes’ poems, Deaf School, in his book).
And onto the queer poets. Yakov Azriel is a master of the sonnet form. This collection is, interestingly, subtitled ‘The Life of G.S. Crown, 1950-2021’, which was Yakov’s pen name prior to coming out. The book is glorious and beautiful and sad. Written exclusively in Petrarchan sonnets, it’s a masterclass of the form with close to 200 of them, dealing with what then to him was forbidden desire that he could not act upon. Essential, and deserving of a wide readership.
Matthew Haigh’s Death Magazine is a brilliantly surreal skewering of magazine culture. Using a technique (in places? throughout?) that I normally have little time for – cut-up – his poems are otherworldly revelations, as best evidenced in the cover image and promotional postcards that were used to advertise the book. A singular experience.
The next two are books by Gregory Woods (his first) and Thom Gunn (his last). In a lot of ways, Woods is a successor to Gunn, and was praised by him (Gunn blurbed him, and made contact first having fallen in love with Woods’ poems he read in magazines). We Have The Melon is a wonderful, and wonderfully frank, collection of poetry, in a variety of forms (including formal work, which I love) that is highly recommended. It’s my favourite of the books of his I’ve read so far (more to go). Gunn’s final book, Boss Cupid, comes eight years after winning the first Forward Prize for The Man in the Night Sweats and over the past year or two I have been working my way through Gunn – I have his collected and this book. Something, however, made me skip ahead to Boss Cupid and I’m glad I did. It takes all the lessons he’s learnt writing for 50 years and applies them. It is masterful, and a truly great volume to go out on.
Finally, in this section, as previously threatened I’m going to talk about the Costas again, this time, much more positively! Mary Jean Chan’s debut collection, Flèche , is a wonderful collection about a young Chinese poet whohas moved to the UK, her coming out, her relationship with her mother, and her first romantic relationship. Gorgeously written, it is definitely concerned with its topic but not to the detriment of it (like Bernard’s Surge, which, to me, feels all topic and little poetry). An assured debut that is garnering a lot of notice however, it is not our pick for the Costa’s (it was just edged out), as there is another in our Highly Recommended…
– Haiku in English: The First 100 Years, edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland and Allan Burns
– The Man in the White Suit by Nick Drake
– The Quick by Jessica Traynor
– Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough [ROUNDUP PICK]
I spent a lot of these six months reading and writing haiku and of all the single- and multi-author collections of haiku I read, Haiku in English: The First 100 Years was my favourite, an immaculately edited collection full of robust, imagistic yet decisively western haiku. Including, of course, one of the proto-western haiku (even if it doesn’t conform syllabically), Ezra Pound’s
“In the Station of the Metro
The appartition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on wet, black bough.”
Another favourite from this collection was Cor van den Heuvel (quite the Name in haiku circles) with this haiku:
the mime leans into a wind
that isn’t there”
Trying to pick a Roundup pick amongst the final three selections was so difficult I had to reread all three books! […] Okay, time has now passed, and I’ve done that, so let’s talk about the three books.
Nick Drake (no, not the singer Nick Drake)’s first collection was a bolt from the blue for me. It’s language was just so clear, but also dense, when I read it from the library, I immediately bought a copy for myself. Full of the strangeness of countries, and cities, it is a deserving winner of the 1999 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. I read his most recent collection, and didn’t have the same response with that as I did with this, but I’m still looking forward to reading his middle two.
I first heard some of the poems from Jessica Traynor’s second collection, The Quick, live at a reading. She read a number of pieces from an early sequence of the book called ‘Witches’ that jumped out at me as utterly essential. The stanza that stayed with me was from the third part, ‘The Witch’s Love Song to Her Ex’, was its powerful ending: “as we wrap a hundred scarves around your neck / and wind and wind until you find you’re choking – and isn’t it only what’s best for you. And doesn’t it serve you right”. Such an Irish way of talking about and delivering vengeance.
Upon rereading however, the book, that won out was John McCullough’s Reckless Paper Birds. Nominated for this year’s Costas (but, since writing began, Mary Jean Chan’s Fléche won), John’s third collection is a distillation of his work. Out of the books of his I’ve read (the chapbook Cloudfish and his second collection Spacecraft), Reckless Paper Birds is by far and away my favourite. Deft, assured and full of quietly devastating craft and the most wonderful use of verbs (the book opens with the phrase ‘The day connives’ and man, using that verb there says more than novels), its lines sing a beautiful song rooted in John’s hometown of Brighton and queerness and poetic flights of fancy that somehow are still grounded in the real – often intrusively real- world. Sad and beautiful and weird and possessing of a poem entitled ‘Your Kindness Has Snapped Me Like An Old Deckchair’ which, if it doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what will, but also seems to sum up the themes and motifs rather nicely.
A deserving winner of our Roundup Pick, as is custom, I’m going to close by featuring a poem from it, in this case, the poem, ‘Stationery’ (this poem has some indenting, like a slight staggering with the second line slightly indented from the first, and the third indented twice as much as the second, but it will not for the life of me, whatever I try or do, take hold in WordPress! So you’ll just have to imagine it!). See you all in July for Roundup #3.
September is going all out to ease us in.
The clouded sky is a whiteboard for helpful diagrams,
the first cool air as welcome as your hand inside my jeans.
Autumn zips round with its orange highlighter
and you provide nifty shocks and marshmallows,
leaving pornographic Post-its that ask me to rendezvous,
please, for hot chocolate. I am the type of man
who likes unnecessary displays of manners,
who appreciates thank you cards, warning signs,
a forest of regretful notices for building works.
I admire rows of gingkos that lose all their foliage
in one drop to form a Yellow Brick Road.
I am a desperate Lion today, stalking Scarecrow.
I chew biros, glimpse at my watch too often. I was so afraid
of being late to see you, once, I turned up six days early.
Love is horrific like that. First it’s a rabbit, then a duck,
then it’s a ravenous, one-eyed sock puppet;
but the rest is yoghurt adverts. And you fasten my thoughts
with the most beautiful paperclips, even the filthy ones,
like the time I saw a grove of ripening chilli plants
become a rainbow of penis trees. Do you wish to continue,
says the voice of a self-service checkout. Yes, yes I do.
Between the shops, the sea snuggles under its blue leaves.
The clock tower waits patiently for Christmas,
a familiar figure below it waggling his arms
to lure me over. Succeeding. Your skilful face punches
a giant hole in the day and I jump through it.