On the basis of these five first collections, there is no reason to assume the careers of the poets who wrote them will be anything other than long, ambitious, and very fruitful.
Tackling emotionally complex, often difficult material with honesty, directness and supreme technical control, each of them presents, opens up and navigates fully realised universes which give insight into what it is like to be alive in these islands at the start of the twenty-first century.
The ‘sintered, nuclear core’ of Fiona Benson’s Bright Travellers is the body, from prehistoric fertility symbols and Van Gogh’s bandaged ear to the rawness of miscarriage and childbirth. It is a book of griefs and miracles, circling again and again the question of what it means to be creative, and how we overcome the barriers that might prevent us achieving it. Bright Travellers weaves history, myth and landscape into a personal cry of gratitude for ‘the marvellous elsewhere’.
The central metaphors of Niall Campbell’s Moontide are that of the singer and the song: ‘Am I some whistling ferryman,/ trailing my pen hand in the wake?’ It is a book of stories, and stories about stories, beached whales, late whiskies, and messages in bottles which ‘sink/ between the pier and the breakwater’. The book celebrates, ‘allows’ and answers all the songs it encompasses: ‘day song, dusk song and night;/ the boatmen’s tunes, the Spanish elegies.’
Jonathan Edwards’s My Family and Other Superheroes walks that most difficult of poetic tightropes: the heartfelt memoir of family which dares to be both tender and funny. The titles alone are to die for: ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family’; ‘Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Crumlin for the Filming of Arabesque, June 1965’; ‘Half-time, Wales vs. Germany, Cardiff Arms Park, 1991’. Edwards has a fine way with set-piece forms which do not read like forms –and an even finer way with endings, pulling the rug from under the reader’s feet with surprise and delight.
‘What can we offer but love – / love and wonder’ is the question which permeates the poems of David Tait’s Self-Portrait with The Happiness. This is a book which merges self-awareness with undisguised frankness (‘As for beauty: I think I’ve experienced/ that moment in life that will flash/ before me at the end’) on the ‘hammerthrow’ of falling in love. Familiar with both midnight and the ‘cool gloom’ of dawn, Self-Portrait transforms those liminal spaces we all pass through – cigarettes at dawn, roadside laybys, the Gare du Nord, broken down cars and launderettes – into something strange and sacred.
‘It’s not the face we shrink from but the name’, writes Helen Mort in ‘Beauty’. Names are important throughout her remarkable Division Street, from the poet’s own (‘The French for Death’, ‘The Girl Next Door’) to those we know, but gloss over or ignore (‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’). Or in the force of the name-as-insult, intended to hurt for a lifetime: ‘someone/ has scrawled the worst insult they can – / a name. Look close. It’s yours’ (‘Scab’). The names of the locale that make a culture: pubs (‘Fagan’s’), forgotten comics (‘Stainless Stephen’) and ballet teachers (‘Miss Heath’); the name of the middle of nowhere (‘North of Everywhere’); even the name of not having a name: ‘in this town[…] we don’t have// twenty-two words for anything’ (‘Twenty-Two Words for Snow’). On every page there is music, toughness twined with tenderness, and absolute control, always an amazing sense of control. Division Street is properly and richly ambitious, speaking to culture now in a way that is both eerily prescient (‘Seven Decapitations’) and a mirror to what has been lost (‘Scab’, ‘Pit Closure as a Tarantino Short’). That the book achieves this so consistently, and on so many levels – personal, psychological, historical – without ever sounding less than natural is a cause for celebration.
Helen Mort wins the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize