No 30 - Winter 2004 / 2005
The PBS Review
Olivia Cole reviews the PBS selections for Summer and Autumn 2004
This is the latest in our series reviewing the current Poetry Book Society choices, with the aim of giving readers an independent opinion of the books and encouraging them to make use of the Society.
Publishers in the UK and Ireland send new poetry books to the PBS selectors, a panel of well-known poets who four times a year recommend a variety of choices – new collections, anthologies, a translation, a pamphlet. Their PBS choice of the quarter is provided for members free and other books at a 25% discount.
All PBS-selected books are available to Magma readers post free (UK only) directly from the PBS. To order with a debit / credit card, and for details of overseas p&p rates, email email@example.com The Poetry Book Society is at Book House, 45 East Hill, London SW18 2QZ. Website www.poetrybooks.co.uk
As the PBS selections are made four times a year and Magma is published three times, this review covers books from both the Summer and Autumn selections 2004. The opinions expressed are those of the reviewer.
Roddy Lumsden’s Mischief Night (Bloodaxe), which is a PBS Autumn recommendation, will be reviewed separately in Magma 31.
Two innovative, highly individual examinations of the natural world are the most recent PBS choices: for the summer, Ruth Padel’s sixth collection, The Soho Leopard, and for the autumn Kathleen Jamie’s The Tree House. Both books were nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Collection (won by Jamie in the event), and Northern Irish Leontia Flynn’s debut, These Days, a summer recommendation choice, won in the Best First Collection category. Added to these are the Selected Poems just out from Charles Simic, and closer to home, Matthew Sweeney. All in all, then, two seasons’ worth of rich, not always mellow, fruitfulness…
Ruth Padel’s The Soho Leopard invites us to meet a whole bestiary of creatures, in a collection that is both well travelled and transfixed by the exotic elements of everyday city existence. The urban gardens and dark streets of North London are the settings for the first of the collection’s two wonderful sequences, The King’s Cross Foxes. In September, poet and reader are intent, looking out for the “late summer fox”, watching “St Pancras’ pinnacles / stamp phosphorous ribbons on a glory sky / of wine-dark lily, dawnglow apricot”. The sensual richness, the kind of descriptions that make you hungry, are the key note, while the title beast of the collection, the Soho leopard herself, is a sassy and streetwise romantic survivor. The way to escape the past’s hold over head and heart is to reimagine and re-tell, she counsels. “I was never your devoted
lover. It was gossip, / That. All wrong” goes the fiction,
But I’m still leopard now: frost fur, quicksilver, planting, pug-
Marks all the way down Dean Street, past Café Lazeez,
Trying not to hear through the open door
Of the Crown and Two Chairmen
That ballad you used to sing, ‘You Needed Me’.
The disastrous beast is the sort of tantalizing destructive lover who has stalked through the pages of most people’s history, the kind from whose memory you have to block your ears and eyes if you are to survive, but only Padel’s jaguar could run “through the sky all day / on his Lucozade paws” or “meet me in your end of town” in fake Armani, against the backdrop of “Fondant-blue winter sun; warty gourds among / those laminate menus on the window sill”. Like the giddy feeling of being in love, the images flick between the headily appealing and the queasily appalling.
The whole collection moves with a kind of rippling running panther energy, a restlessness that is matched in the layers of searching description. Padel’s ancestor, Charles Darwin, looms large and, while the book harnesses research for her forthcoming prose book on tigers, its real strength is the high wire dance between the human and animal kingdom, and its witty richly-coloured treatment of the instinctive forces that propel humans towards each other. “What does a girl in a wimple do when all that’s left // of her knight is armour?” is the question Padel poses in the faux-painterly titled Yellow Gourds with Jaguar in Dulwich Pizza Hut. Heading back to her end of town with notes for The Soho Leopard really does, in this case, make for a happy ending.
So too does another exit, the escape plan mapped out in Kathleen Jamie’s terrific new collection The Tree House. Even those who might regard themselves as urban thought foxes, immune to the charms of rural poetry, face a hard task here; the settings of this collection are a real departure for Jamie herself, but the more familiar cityscapes of her earlier work are never far away. This hardwon pastoral collection is one for which my opening poaching of Keats seems apt; like his, it’s an idyll that has only recently turned from the city. The speaker is “neither in the wilderness / nor fairyland’ - water flowing is not mountain springs but “snow-melt / sufficient for the almond / and orange trees, poppies / irises, pimpernels”. The flowers are rhododendrons, waterlilies and buddleias in the garden not the fields.
Tenancies, terraces, latches, stairwells, parishes and towns are part of the fabric, and the retreat in the title is to that most civilized of druid spots, a tree house. The urban shadows make the fragile peace all the more precious: as touching, vulnerable and rare as the swallow inhabiting a house, perched tantalizing on the edge of “the picture frames / like an audience in the gods / before an opera,
how late the daylight edges
toward the northern night
as though journeying
in a blue boat, gilded in mussel shell
with, slung from its mast, a lantern
like our old idea of the soul.
At sea with only the memory of souls floating onward, The Tree House offers an unusual, unfashionable kind of peace, as vulnerable as the occasional uses of Scots:
see, I’d rather
whummel a single oor
intae the blae or thae wee flo’ers
than live fur a’eternity
in some cauld hivvin.
Wheest, nou, till I spier o ye
will ye haud wi me?
I have no doubt I am not alone in being drawn to follow.
A quest also provides the central emblem for Tom Paulin’s new book of collected translations, versions and imitations, The Road to Inver. A fine companion to his earlier The Wind Dog, the book finds the poet searching on the trail once more. Lowell’s Imitations is the great model for these riffs and communions with other poets. How much time you will have for them depends, as with Lowell, on how much time you have for the translator-poet’s skill.
In thrall to the sounds and sights of “the huge dazzle of all ideas”,
swimming “like a mullet / with a hook bedded / in its soft mouth”,
Paulin is energized by the taste and sounds of someone else’s words. As so often in his allusive original poems, as for Lowell, the bedded hook becomes an endlessly rich way to speak, not a gagging, silencing device. As Paulin suggests in his translation of Pushkin, it is the poet’s prerogative to plunder and luxuriate in that stacked “kitsch lumber-room” of Parnassus.
Like Lowell, attentive to Rome with the shadow of the faltering American republic over him, these versions are loaded with a political as well as poetic sense of identification, an empathy with the oppressed that is particularly vivid in the Akhmatova translations collected here. The sharp sense of claustrophobia, as in Mandelstam’s Voronezh, manages to capture both the trapped feelings of the original poet and the atmosphere weighing down on a later visitor:
You walk on permafrost
in these streets,
The town’s silly and heavy
like a glass paperweight
stuck on a desk –
a wide steel one
glib as this pavement.
“Sledges skitter and slip” and the poet and the poem go on, the
resulting version as evocative of the place now as then.
This kind of gauzy poetic texture is celebrated in Sentence Sound from Leopardi, a poem that warns against seeking language with the “clearness of that blank windowpane”. “How many borrowed things do / I go about in or use all day?” asks Paulin in the title poem which is dedicated to fellow translator Jamie McKendrick. The ‘road to Inver’ becomes, like the lumber room, a naïf emblem for the canon: a windy road thick with echoing voices, to which the poet is content to add his own.
Leontia Flynn’s debut, These Days, is also a profitably cluttered book, delivered in a startlingly assured voice, slipping easily between a colloquial musicality and a more intent register. The romantic and lyrical earn their place in a universe as packed full of inessentials as beauty and truth. It’s a chaotic, appealing stance, reluctant to take
itself too seriously, as in Come Live with Me:
Come live with me and be my mate
and all the fittings and the fixtures of the flat
will bust with joy –
this flowered ottoman, this tallboy.
These Days is rich with literary as well as pop encounters, for example When I was sixteen I met Seamus Heaney - met accidentally before the poet was old enough to get excited (“I believe he signed my bus ticket, which I later lost.”) - and my favourite, the hilarious The Second Mrs De Winter which I cannot resist proffering as a preview:
I am the second Mrs de Winter:
cack handed, fumbling a jar
of sushi in ginger, cracking the noseable bowl
of a fine, long-stemmed wineglass
while my original stares, implacable, from the wall.
Depression and elation compete - These Days has its powerful flashes of grief, as well as wit, most movingly in the poems about the poet’s father. These cluttered, bookish poems add up to a special, studenty, slightly drunken variousness, lightened with an irrepressible sense of the comedy of being wrapped up in literature.
Fabulist Matthew Sweeney, whose great poetic playmate Charles Simic is also enlivening the autumn PBS choices with his much welcomed Selected Poems, is always appealing, but there really is an extra something to his eighth collection, Sanctuary. The times are still strange and Sweeney is still attuned to the black comedy of the everyday, but the ‘I’ at sea in them is a more vulnerable figure, willing to give more of the self away, without ever losing the absurdist edge. The territory mapped both is and isn’t what his fans have come to expect. Except, as ever with Sweeney, ‘expect’ is the wrong word…
The title poem Sanctuary has a Marvellian persuasiveness, momentum and wit, that’s half back in the world of extremes and madness and half in more vulnerable, realistic territory.
Stay awhile. Don’t go just yet.
The sirens are roaming the streets,
the stabbing youths are out in packs,
there’s mayhem in the tea-leaves.
goes the cheerful opening. Prescient seduction is Bordeaux and “a goat’s cheese to fast for”, with the one ear listening out hopefully for the sounds of public calamity:
You’re the kind of girl I like.
Listen, that was definitely a bomb.
Maybe the civil war has started,
the one they’ve all been promising.
Well, there’s nowhere to go now,
so let’s kill the lights and retire.
Brancusi’s squat obelisk version of Rodin’s The Kiss is the image on the cover, a choice that hints touchingly at very human lovers finding refuge in each other, but also evokes the artist, like the Romanian sculptor, at work, against the odds, in a bleak and oppressed time.
As Sanctuary proceeds, the spectre of disaster is increasingly no joke. As has often been perceived, the horror of September 11th was heightened by the fact that the events unfolded as they might have in some Hollywood action film.
So too Sweeney seems to suggest in A Night in a Mexican Hotel, they might have been conjured by any surreal poetic temperament:
a dust-ball the size of the moon
squeezing between skyscrapers, chasing
men and women in front – and all this
repeated over and over, like a video backdrop
to a song –
A Dream of Honey seems possessed with so powerful a sense of absence and hopelessness that the absurd dream root of the poem becomes almost eclipsed. The lost substance lingers like a lover on the lips:
I dreamed that bees were extinct,
had been for decades, and honey
was a fabled memory, except for jars
hoarded by ancient, wealthy gourmets.
In the dream fable, one woman arrives “by horse and cart…and set up her stall with jars of honey”; emails “sped everywhere” transmitting news of “this resurrection of honey”, but the dream leads nowhere and “the woman never appeared again”.
In Red, Yellow, set in the shadow of Big Ben, the Thames slides by and the jets soaring overhead threaten to descend with an arrest warrant: “was I being accused of being an artist?” wonders the speaker. A sense of marginality, half serious, half in jest, gives a particular vulnerability to the safe houses and rooms of stanzas. The poems are packed as much with melancholia as with a sense of comedy, and striking the right, wry tragic-comic note has never seemed harder or indeed more winning. In Sweeney, as in all of these collections, it’s heartening to find that there really is more than an email rumour or a memory of the real thing. After all, you really can taste the difference. Some consolation, if nothing else, for whatever life throws our way.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The