I hate end-of-year roundups. But I was so impressed by five books of poetry this year that I felt I had to mention them here. In no particular order they are Peter Carpenter’s After the Goldrush (Nine Arches Press), Hilary Menos’ Berg (Seren), Mandy Coe’s Clay (Shoestring), Peter Sansom’s Selected Poems (Carcanet) and Jo Shapcott’s Of Mutability (Faber).
After the Goldrush is Peter Carpenter’s best and most confident book. If you have not checked out his work before, this would be a great place to start.
What I love about this book is its variety, in terms of subject matter, tone, diction and form. There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Carpenter poem. To paraphrase the title of his first collection, the England he chooses to portray is one of exhausted cricketers, fluffed lines in restaurants and a tramp asleep in a bookshop impregnating ‘every last page of verse’ with her stink: ‘the entire Carcanet list, the brand new Armitage,/the Collected Muldoon, the Selected O’Hara, the new/Billy Childish, 101 Poems That Will Change Your Life‘ (‘Borders). The recoil of shoppers wrinkling their noses and paying by plastic is noted, but not commented upon. The poem closes with a neat twist: the tramp turns up ‘days later, unremitting, unbearable still, in page/after page of Paul Celan or Miklos Radnoti’. The poet eschews the option of separating himself from the emotion of ‘disgust’. In doing so, and in recalling previous witnesses of suffering, the poet becomes complicit in the complacency the poem implicitly attacks.
The silent recognition underlying this -hinted at, never mentioned- is what gives this book its force. It is a brilliant dissection of reserve and of the impact that it can make upon our lives. Carpenter does silence brilliantly: the silence between people, the silence of crowds at football and at the racing, the silence of defeat:
The keeper whoops and hurls
the ball to the skies. You walk without waiting
for the dreaded finger.
to a sealed cube with the door marked
VISITORS. Dust motes patrol heated air.
In among the grim socks, grass-stained
whites and open coffins, you take in
the smell of embrocation, shake off
gloves, stoop to unbuckle your pads. (‘Nightwatchman’)
Subtitled ‘an elegy’, this poem is about much more than what it is about. The ‘dreaded finger’, the ‘marked’ door and open coffins (kitbags) of team-mates all point towards death. Carpenter’s chief tactic, however, is not to persuade the reader of this but to present these luminous details -which point towards loss- with control and tact. Poem after poem in After the Goldrush accomplishes the feat of leaving the reader meditating on the strangeness of what has been described in measured syntax and precisely rendered detail. Here is a depiction of ‘Santa’, who is ‘Not some red-gowned fraud in Hamleys, all fake/white beard and seedy laugh’, but a thin Spanish saint, nibbling on cake, ‘incognito’ in a Galician market square:
On the actual day
he’ll eat fish, lift white flesh from feather-trace
of bone, wet slate of skin. Then he’ll break
the bread, listen for ages, wait for his god in silence.
I gave a cheer when Hilary Menos’ Berg won this year’s Forward Prize for best first collection. It is a varied, playful, assured and serious book, wearing its concerns lightly on its sleeve and all the more powerful for that. I was lucky enough to see many of these poems in draft/manuscript form as a co-member with Hilary of a writing group between 2002-06. I felt then and still feel now that Hilary’s great strength as a writer is to hold in tension the impulse towards celebration (which is in every poem) and the equally social need for analysis and critique. She balances these very strong impulses in her writing in a consistently polished fashion throughout Berg, which is why it reads so accessibly and fluently.
There are some great set-pieces in the book which demonstrate this. ‘Bernard Manning Plays Totnes Civic Hall’, ‘Tiramisu’, ‘Personal Ad’ and ‘Sleeping Lions’ all show Hilary’s gift of taking the found world and twisting it to tragicomic effect. The poems which moved me most, however, were those which use a quieter register, as though bending to speak sotto voce to upset child (‘Linus’) or to a lover after an argument (‘Contact’). In the book’s very best poems commiseration and celebration sit side by side in a ‘companionable chill’, the dominant tone of the collection:
Let it be done here, here where death
is all a day’s work, and by men who deal
in the thing itself. Spare me a slow decline,
years of pain and pills, months in bed,
weeks of too few visits, then too many.
Instead, give me a brief and rollicking ride
through Devon lanes, sun striating my face,
a gentler nudge out of the truck and into the gates
of the cattle race, the open arms of the crush
and the captive bolt’s blind kiss.
Roll me over the grid in the next room
into the warm and expert hands of these,
the last men on earth to hold me; men skilled
in the precise and subtle use of knives,
the exercise of necessary force.
Then inch me through to where the others hang,
trimmed and tagged, bumping haunch to haunch,
couched in the companionable chill.
Mandy Coe’s Clay contains titles like ‘Sunflower Sex’, ‘Creationist Homework’ and ‘Sometimes it Occurs to Me that I am Dead’. There is not a dull poem in it. I have always loved Mandy’s restlessness. She dares to look at life from new angles, where ‘words are often chalked to the underside of tables’ (‘Life is Simple’) but begin in ordinariness and even pain:
where nothing happens.
that fill our lives.
Not the field bright with poppies, but
the times you walked, seeing
no leaves, no sky, only one foot
We are sleeping
(it’s not midnight and
there is no dream).
We enter a room -no one is in it.
We run a tap,
queue to buy a stamp.
These are the straw moments
that give substance
to our astonishments;
moments the homesick dream of;
the bereaved, the diagnosed.
If there is a undertow of sadness in that poem, it makes for memorable reading spread out across the whole collection. A new note seems to have entered Mandy’s writing. For each celebratory description of the actual (from ‘Ants in Zero Gravity’ to ‘Listening to Flies’ to ‘The Breath of Rocks’) there is also awareness of loss. The improvisation of staying alive can come to end at any moment, and there are not always neat ways to describe the new territories we find ourselves in:
Remember when you couldn’t remember
where you were one morning, as if
your bed were standing on end, or turned about?
How the familiar looked abstract
and you considered an angle of cupboard,
a fold of curtain, and how for a moment
you were released from the grind of recall. (‘Not Alive, Not Dead’)
I took Peter Sansom’s pamphlet The Night is Young, new poems from which appear in his Selected Poems, to a conference this year. I was presenting with Emma Metcalfe and Matt Oliver from the Bath Festivals’ Write Team findings from their project on writers in schools. Emma suggested I read out a poem before we went on, to remind ourselves what we believed in and why we were there. I chose ‘Autumn Term’:
You couldn’t call it grief, but it’s something
to not hug, just smile by the stairs to Y6,
and retrace my steps across the hopscotch.
I don’t stop to not see her in Miss Duke’s
magic cave of a room, whose tables and chairs
made a giant of me on open-door Thursdays,
when we snuggled together in picturebooks
more colourful than life can stay. No, I walk on.
But even so, and although it’s coming on to rain,
I detour through the park, to maunder down days
when the tall-tall slide and climbing frame
were terrifying though she mustn’t know;
and find myself beneath the leaky umbrella
of an oak, late for work, while the brilliant leaves
let go and fall slowly like stones through water,
so lovely despite me, I should laugh at myself,
the picture of misery; but I don’t.
Like a lot of Peter’s work this feels artless, improvised, spoken in an intimate half-whisper of amazed recall which is not unaware of its teetering on the brink of sentimentality. To borrow from an earlier book title of his, you feel everything he is saying is true, down to the name of the teacher and poorly-disguised vertigo. I love the self-mockery of this, but also the way this distancing effect is undercut by very real feelings of ‘grief’, even though we are assured that is not the right word. This poem and countless others in this compact Selected are what Seamus Heaney calls ‘bedded in a locale’ of lived and actual life (‘Your dad died convinced you were his dad’) which poetry too often ignores. It is a masterclass of restraint and covers the big themes of education, class, ageing and death that novels four times as long cannot match for precision and timing:
What you offered those days in good faith
has taken me this far, not far I know but far
for a boy going nowhere, till now
I have the means to write this at least – at last –
from wherever I am to wherever you are. (‘Poem’)
Finally, a book which completely swept me aside this year, Jo Shapcott’s remarkable Of Mutability. The book is Shapcott’s first for nearly a decade, practically a lifetime in poetry publishing terms. I am reviewing it for the next issue of the North, so do not want to spoil the party here. But it is worth mentioning just what a scrupulous and life-affirming book Of Mutability is, even though its main subject is disease and its effects on the human body. Shapcott has gone on record as saying that she has not used the book to ‘chase her own ambulance’. What is so potent about the stance of the poems towards cancer is how they take the reader into that experience, on a cellular level almost, without ever forgetting the primary concerns of art-making. It is by turns forensic, controlled, angry and ultimately celebratory.
You can view Jo reading a poem from the book on the video below.