Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry edited by Jeet Thayil £12

This is not a review. Sometimes poetry books don’t lend themselves to definitive judgements. Particularly anthologies, which cover so many different experiences and styles. If they’re really good, and this one is, they become more like an old friend. You don’t necessarily agree with everything they have to say, or how they say it, but when you meet, you feel a deep sense of engagement. Sometimes you can go for ages without reading them, but when you do, there’s no sense of discontinuity.
This anthology, which extracts from the familiar and the obscure, places side by side one of the world’s most energetic but disparate diasporas. For the first time in the UK, we have an anthology which juxtaposes Kamala Das with Vikram Seth, Kolaktar with Daljit Nagra. Styles are either modernist/ post-modernist or brilliantly traditional (e.g. Nagra’s almost Kiplingesque light verse in the mixed codes on Hindi English and Seth’s elegant narratives). Backgrounds range from Zoroastrian priest to marketing executive, sometimes that might even be the same person! One of the joys of this book is that each writer is introduced briefly by the editor so you get a sense of the remarkable communities which have informed the writing of the poets contained in this volume. Generally, speaking, there are Indian writers who increasingly seem to be part of the New Capitalism of graphic designers and public relations consultants. Then there are the American academics and the British poets, the latter engaged with the very particular struggle against racism and stereotyping, though please would someone explain why Moniza Alvi is missing, please (OK! OK! She’s of Pakistani origin but hey, let’s not be sectarian!).
I want to avoid the cliche about everything Indian being essentially various. But I would dare to venture there may be a sort of openness in the verse in this volume - whether it touches on sex or badminton or politics or love or history or philosophy - which is characteristic. When you read it, you are not left with a sense that the poets were playing safe when they were writing their verse, they do not edit out their passions or ideas, which is why the book is exciting, and why it is a friend and companion.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Charles Tomlinson: New Collected Poems


Charles Tomlinson is one of the best poets to have written in English over the last 50 years, but his work rarely seems to attract the attention it deserves. A poet who often focuses on observation and description, interrogating the concept of viewpoint, he also writes poems about music, people and history and seems genuinely engaged with left-wing revolutionary politics, which captures his imagination, if not, entirely, his approval.

To mark the publication of his New Collected Poems, I thought I'd write about a poem I came across recently which expresses the tragic but heroic history of revolutionary failure in the 20th century. It's called - appropriately enough - 'Prometheus'. There are three elements in the poem: a Summer storm, the revolutionary piece of music by the Russian composer Scriabin which gives the poem its title and the poet's reflections on what took place in Russia after Prometheus was written.

These elements and the reasonably regular 6 line stanzas make the poem into an Ode. Think of Coleridge's Dejection - an Ode for a comparison.

There are a number 0f features in the poem (personification, periphrasis, juxtaposition) which challenge the reader. In some ways, it is fairly traditional poetry, but it is not accessible like Larkin:

Cymballed fireseeps. Prometheus came down
In more than orchestral flame and Kerensky fled
Before it..........

However, the great men have now departed and we live in a more pluralistic, kinder, less interesting time:

History treads out the music of your dreams
Through blood, and cannot close like this
................................................it stops. The trees
Continue raining though the rain has ceased
In a cooled world of incessant codas.

Reality is not like the romantic dreams of Scriabin or Lenin who wrote 'the daily prose such poetry prepares for'. Instead of an ending which provides some sort of culmination there is anti-climax and continuation, in the form of the English traditional tune, Greensleeves, played on the bell of an ice cream van:

...an ice cream van circulates the estate
Playing Greensleeves, and at the city's
Stale new frontier even ugliness
Rules with the cruel mercy of solidities.

Not an easy poet to read then ... he doesn't adopt the saloon bar matiness of Larkin, yet in his seriousness and variety, he is in a sense more like a Victorian than the reactionary Larkin, who hated everything modern.

If the New Collected Poems seems to be too demanding a place to begin, try the Poetry Archive site and listen to Tomlinson reading from his work, including the beautiful, moving and restrained poem, entitled, 'The Door'.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

It's a Bomber! Zeppelins by Chris McCabe


There is a view that modern poetry is written by a small, self-reviewing clique, which is highly critical of outsiders but praises mediocre work highly if it is written in an approved style by 'one of us'. Personally, I think that this view is too simplistic. There is a lot of very good contemporary poetry which should be more widely read. However, there is a grain of truth in it too.

Take, for instance, Chris McCabe's second collection, Zeppelins (Salt hardback, £12.99). This was praised by Poetry London, which I think was a pity because a talented and original poet - who works in London for the Poetry Library - has taken a wrong turning and needs some critcism to get his work back on the right track.

McCabe's first collection, The Hutton Inquiry, is a must-buy book which is likely to be seen as a signature collection for the age which is just (sadly imho) passing: New Labour's attempt to reconstruct Britain around a progressive consensus. This fell apart partly as a result of the foolish decision to join in with Bush's invasion of Iraq but also because it was based on an uncritical acceptance of modern neo-liberal capitalism. McCabe picked up on this at just the right time - when the 'chattering classes' were beginning to turn on Blair and Blairism.

Clearly influenced by the New York school of poetry (and maybe poets like Charles Olson?), McCabe's style was both immediate and highly intellectual. Here were ringing phrases reflecting an well-educated and eclectic mind in action (and reaction) to the events around him (or to his own random associations). For instance, in the poem #255:darwin, the subject rolls forward accruing ideas which are vividly and directly expressed:

greatest mystery
story ever
inquisitorial simulacrum
copies of copies
without a template
even and squatting
twelve inches in front
a train speeds
...........
epiphanies of gulls
grandchildren
sliding down
history's banister

Whilst there are still poems written with a similar wit and energy in his second collection, there are also some idle stinkers, the worst of which is his poem about getting married, The Nuptials, which includes a cute little doodle and lines like these:

I write each night
as you take your bath

the poured rioja
connects us together -

"We're having a great holiday
aren't we?"

Strangely (or should I say, entirely predictably) his wife never actually materialises as a person in the poem at all although she does get compared to a Greek goddess (yawn):

like Aphrodite was back
against the tide of fashion

This is jigsaw poetry with bits missing. The pieces supplied by the poet are supposedly witty and vivid and we, the readers, are supposed to be spurred into completing the scenes in our head. Unfortunately, I find that increasingly the poet's pieces are pedestrian or pretentious, or both:

life is good
but the rules
don't work,
make up
your own
and never live
by them
(Poems Overhead)

The best piece of advice to give McCabe is to keep on writing but stop publishing so much. He may have to find a mature style and perhaps a little self-doubt might ultimately assist him in doing so. Perhaps the powerful title poem shows the way ahead and I like to energy and confessional reflectiveness in Dovecot, Liverpool, one of a number of sonnets with some very good features.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Briggflatts by Basil Bunting: a new edition by Bloodaxe with DVD and CD


If you don't have this magnificent book, buy it. For £12, you get Basil Bunting's masterpiece, Briggflatts, a collection of short readable pieces about Bunting's colourful life and the poem, a DVD of a film made for Channel 4 in 1982 about Bunting (which simply wouldn't be made by that channel these days, proof positive of dumbing down big style) and a CD of the poet reading the poem in his gruff Northumberland accent (the 'r's are rolled at the top of the throat).

Annoyed by critical speculation about the 'meaning' of the poem, Bunting composed an entertaining note to set the record straight. Like the poetry, it is simultaneously authoritative and slyly elusive. he explains the scheme of the poem and then asserts: All old wives' chatter, cottage wisdom. No poem is profound

Given Bunting's irritation at the thought of critical dissection, I hesitate to put forward my thoughts about the poem except as a brief record of my experience of reading it to date, assisted by the film and Bunting's own reading.

For me, the poem reflects a sense of mortal transience set against the flinty longevity of Northumbrian English, the often harsh but sometimes lovely landscape of the far North of England and the power and wildness of the sea. It also encapsulates criticial moments from Bunting's own life in Northumberland, London, Italy and the Middle East. You will also find nuggets of history there, most memorably, the story of Eric Bloodaxe. Underlying this rich compost is a 50 year old love affair which the narrator in the poem (presumbaly Bunting) failed to pursue. It is therefore also a poem of regret and acceptance.

Somehow the poet manages to recreate in modern English, the sense of Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon and perhaps Norse) verse. Some of it is reminscent of the poem, so wonderfully translated by Bunting's friend, Ezra Pound, The Seafarer and of course Anglo-Saxon verse in particular was concerned with crisis, transience, loss and failure. But it's the sound of the lines which revive the dynamics of Old English verse, like these:

Furthest, fairest things, stars, free of our humbug,
each his own, the longer known the more alone,
wrapt in emphatic fire roaring out to a black flue.

However, the fluidity of the subject matter gives the poem a Modernist (and Post Modernist)feel.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Collected Poems by Michael Donaghy with an introduction by Sean O'Brien (O'Wow) published by Picador

This substantial but portable hardback is a bargain at £12.99. The first thing that you may notice about it (assuming that you don't have a visual impairment) is the dust cover, from which the author peers, with an intense, if slightly psychotic stare, enhanced by the fact that the top of his head and chin have been cropped off the image.

Given Eva Saltzman's revelations in the lastest edition of Poetry London about the author's love of raves, garage and house music, I can't help feeling that the possessed stare might have some sort of chemical basis. If his regrettably early death in 2005 from cancer was hastened by drugs, then that adds to a long list of people whose lives were irreparably damaged by the desperate hedonism and DIY communitarianism of the 90's rave scene.

The intensity of the cover is mirrored by the contents of the book, which has a useful introduction by Sean O'Brien, which manages to be, by turns, authoritative, tub thumping, subtle, perceptive and opaque ( a polite civil service term for 'being up your own arse', as we say in Yorkshire). This is followed by Donaghy's 4 published collections and some uncollected poems right at the end. Unfortunately, there is no first line index or index of titles.

O'Brien points out that the best poems are influenced by John Donne or Browning (or Eliot in Portrait of a Lady). The poetry is unusual in having both intellectual scope and a tendency to rhyme. I think O'Brien is wrong to say that it completely avoids the dull autobiography of so much modern verse. From time to time Donaghy dabbles around in his Irish-American identity so he can write poems about his Mum.

He often writes about failed seductions or tries the odd seduction poem out and does a pretty good job of it. Not an easy task for someone to complete successfully in the late 20th century, but he has a much more limited emotional range than Donne - or even Robert Graves for that matter, whose love poems are just as clever whilst demonstrating a little more maturity. Sadly, maturity was beginning to display itself in his last collection, Safest, which he wrote when he knew he was gravely sick and dying, though not a maturity which destroys his playfulness and zest:

Don't worry. I gave the dancing monkey your suicide note.
Was it something important? How was I to know?
He's probably torn it to pieces now or eaten it
or substituted every word for one adacent in the dictionary
(Hazards)

What I love his poetry for is its polish, its fertile imagistic invention and his ability to start with a great first line, or from an odd perspective. Apparently, he had some difficulties getting poetry magazine editors to publish his work - possibly because he never mastered the Zen art of taking everything you might be interested to read in a poem out of it. However, neither is he didactic nor does he use his poems as a vehicle to dump trite thoughts or emotions on the reader.

Enough of my interpretation ... if you want comment, buy the book and read O'Brien's chewy (but largely digestible) introduction. Then get stuck into the poems, which form one of the best dessert selections you're ever likely to come across. Here's some great lines to whet your appetite:

We shared a dream beneath
a dream-beneath-a-dream.
Our tears became a storm
that washed away our names
and our voices blended with the rain's.
(5:00/5:10/5:15)

I touch the cold flesh of a God in the V and A,
the guard asleep in his chair, and I'm shocked
to find it's plaster. These are the reproduction rooms,
where the David stands side by side with the Moses
and Trajan's column (in two halves).
It reminds me of the inventory sequence in Citizen Kane.
It reminds me of an evening twenty years ago.
(Erratum)

Me, I heard a throaty click at the end of 'wedlock'.
And Niagara on the long distance line.
(Cage)

And if you're still not convinced, try The Raindial on page 108 or Music and Sex and Drinking on page 14, for the re-introduction of the Renaissance 'conceit' into English(ish) poetry

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Mystery revealed

You may wonder why there is a photo of Soviet public art at the top of this blog (in fact, it's the monument to the dead who fell in 'The Great Patriotic War' which can be found in Riga, Latvia).

The following link to a poem of mine published in nthposition may help to explain why:

http://www.nthposition.com/theforgottenwhereabouts.php

Unfortunately, I haven't had time this month to write a review but hope to next month. So you'll have to suffer one of mine!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Indian Poetry in English: Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar

I bought this volume in the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones. The edition I got was published by the New York Review of Books and, I'm sorry to say, was in a cut-price sale. Talk about bargains, though! Originally written in English, Jejuri is a masterpiece of contemporary Indian poetry and my edition also contains an illuminating, engaging and erudite biographical and critical account of Kolatkar's work, written by Amit Chaudhuri, a distinguished author from a younger generation, who has already won the Commonwealth Writer's prize.

The work is post-modern in its irony and detachment, but don't let that put you off: Kolatkar is vivid, immediate and funny. Whilst not didactic, there is plenty of sly comment on religion and priests in particular (one is described as having 'a lazy lizard stare').

Chaudhuri's introduction says more about the poet and his book, better than I could ever hope to, but I do have some small observations for you, if you will do me the favour of reading them.

The first point to make is that the collection is really a sequence of poems which present some snapshots of one person's pilgrimage (or visit, since the narrator does not appear to be overwhelmed by conviction) to a religious shrine. Generally, the kind of poetry Kolatkar writes can be observational, almost off-hand at times:

That's no doorstep.
It's a pillar on its side.

Yes.
That's what it is.
(The Doorstep).

Often there is a narrative element:

The door was open.
Manohar thought
it was one more temple.
(Manohar)

At other times, the poems can be like little allegories (think Ted Hughes in Remains of Elmet, but with a sense of humour):

sweet as grapes
are the stones of jejuri
said chaitanya

he popped a stone
in his mouth
and spat out gods
(Chaitanya - there are a number of poems with this title in the book, perhaps the collection is organised around musical principles like Eliot's work)

Kolatkar uses a number of rhetorical devices, which give his short lines intensity and focus - qualities which he usually manages to display at the same time as being humorous. These seem to involve mixing up abstract and concrete elements:

a herd of legends
on a hill slope
(Chatanya - a different version from the one quoted above)

Kolatkar's comments on religion are sly and cheeky but he seems to show how religious thinking has permeated and shaped every aspect of Indian life. Thus, at the end, when he describes the somewhat haphazard railway station from where the narrator intends to make his return journey, he states that:

the booking clerk believes in the doctrine
of the next train
(The Railway Station)

Linking in with the appearance and reality theme of The Doorstep, he seems to be saying that the imagination transforms this rocky tumbledown place into the stuff of dreams and legend. Scratch a rock, he says, and a legend springs.

Ultimately, the poem is affirmative and the last image, if I'm not mistaken, is taken from the Indian flag:

the setting sun
touches upon the horizon
at a point where the rails
like the parallels
of a prophecy
appear to meet

the setting sun
large as a wheel
(The Railway Station)

This may contain an element of irony but it is allied to affection and a deep sense of loyalty. I enjoyed this book very much indeed and note that Bloodaxe have just published an anthology of contemporary Indian poets who write in English. Thanks to Jejuri, I shall certainly be getting it.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Six Czech Poets: ed. Alexandra Buchler. Arc Publications £10.99


Petr Borkovec, Viola Fischerova, Petr Halmay, Zbynek Hejda, Pavel Kolmacka, Katerina Rudcenkova. (The photograph to the left shows my one year old daughter holding the book, which she finds particularly attractive, blowing a raspberry)

This is one in a series of interesting books presenting poetry from Eastern Europe and the Basque country. The editor, Alexandra Buchler, contributes a helpful and engaging introduction which places the poets represented in the volume firmly within mainstream Czech cultural traditions. However, the introduction is not simply informative; it is also a stimulating polemic, which criticises the focus in the West on the poetry of the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, whose work, we are told, is not at all typical of the kind of verse written in the Czech Republic. Holub's work is described - somewhat perjoratively - as 'cerebal poetry of linear thought ... and easy-to-decipher allegories'. Some of the poets in this volume began writing under Communism; others emerged after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism but all of them tend to write descriptive or lyrical poetry, with emotive undertones, in a pared down though sometimes slightly melodramatic style.

I can't say that I am excited by their work as I was by Holub's or by David Huerta's for that matter. However, 3 of the poets are growing on me:

Viola Fischerova writes surreal poetry grounded in keen observation. The poetry in this volume concerns old women and mother-daughter relationships:

But they elude us
those old women of dust
and sackcloth

Dried in baths
by robust
handsome dead
husbands

those old women
with crimpled faces
no longer recognised
even by the mirror

those old women
calmly
reflected
in themselves


Pavel Kolmacka writes subtly metaphysical verse in a spare style, which speaks of the pain the Czech people accumulated through the 20th century:

What kind of dream have we awoken from?
Late afternoon, end of the century.
In the dark kitchen again, awkward, trapped.
What kind of dream have we found ourselves in?


The viewpoint of this poet seems to me to be based on St Paul in Romans Chapter 8, verses 18 - 25, when Paul famously says that 'creation groaneth and travaileth in pain .. And not only they, but ourselves also ... groan within ourselves, waiting .. for the redemption of our body'

Finally, Petr Borkovec also struck me as someone whose work will grow on me. I had the good fortune to hear him read along with his translator from his new volume of selected poems, which was published by Seren recently. He seems to write pastoral or domestic descriptions which are troubled by the ghosts of history. All his landscapes and interiors seem paradoxically immanent with history:

Outside, no plans were hatched in shadows,
and the towel, lying idle by the chair,
had the same history as us

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Not All a Load of 'Hard Stag Testicles'

David Huerta: Before Saying Any of the Great Words, Selected Poems, translated by Mark Schafer, published by Copper Canyon Press.

Whilst Mexican poetry is unfamiliar to most UK poetry audiences, David Huerta's poetry will not seem strange to those of us who read Lorca and Neruda in translation. It is rich in sensuous imagery, surreal, focuses on the self and the body, and suggests radical political engagement. However, it is also of our time in that it has an overt interest in French post structuralist language theory, which forms much of the subject matter of the verse. There are references in his work to Saussure, Baudrillard and Wittgenstein. The volume just published in parallel translation by Copper Canyon Press provides a generous, though not overwhelming selection, of the brilliant, entertaining and highly imaginative work of a poet whose main concerns are ontological.

This may sound abstruse (indeed, some of the verse is difficult to fully comprehend). However, the poetry's energy and engagement with the physical world makes the verse attractive and exciting to read.

The book is divided into 3 sections: early poems, extracts from Huerta's masterpiece, a long poem called Incurable and a number of the short poems he has published over the following 20 or so years.

His early work is rich and dense and there is strong sense of exploration of the body's elaborations and its exclamatory fruits. Abstruse some of the poems may be but they are evocative reflections on writing and language, which also touch on hidden narratives/ objects/ subjects (e.g. Index is also a poem about summer, which includes the unforgettable line:

summer expelled with its clammy sweat of time

Is this the end of Summer in Autumnal rain? If so, the poet is not just describing summer, but also the concept of summer in which physical manifestations reinforce the abstract implications of the concept.

Incurable is a romantic poem covering moments in the growth of the poet's consciousness of language.

what I believed was Reality was nothing but Lines

There's a distant parallel with Wordsworth's Prelude

As with Wordsworth, it is tempting to find the hyper self-consciousness of the poetry (and the poet) somewhat risible. For instance, in Chapter III, Glass Door, the poet appears to experience an intense revelation in an otherwise mundane moment: he sees hos own reflection in a glass door. If it were not for what followed, this could be read as a piece of narcissistic hyperbole. Subsequently, the poem concerns a 'you' who was beaten up by police on a demonstration but escaped through a glass door.

This returns the reader to a musical theme which reoccurs in Incurable: the image of the mirror.

Incurable begins: The world is a stain on the mirror.

This seems to refer, amongst other things, to the idea that language and reality are conventionally supposed to be mirror images (although the poet reverses - or perhaps mirrors - the convention by seeing reality as a mirror of language rather than vice versa).

In Glass Door, the section seems to culminate in the line:

The door was writing a long and misty sentence on the man.

In a sense, this is simply an imaginative way of describing a reflection, but it is striking, partly because the door (and not the man) has agency but mainly because human beings are seen as blank pages where abstract systems of language create experience. The poem is about perception and knowing - the egotistical sublime.

After Incurable, Huerta's poetry matures. The earlier stuff is full of machismo, Thirteen Propositions against Trivial Love, which should be retitled '2 or 3 really crass sexist concepts'. I suppose it's appropriate that the poem also seems to be about masturbation. Anyway, here's an example of crap sexist tripe:

frayed fertile liquid
of the woman I am not


or

my hard stag testicles

Huerta confuses sex with gender and seems only to write about relationships as occasions for personal physical fulfillment. Beyond that, the verse often becomes adolescent e.g.

He was unaware of the art of dreams
and she smeared his face with nightmares.

(Pathological Beings)

Yet, Machinery contains a beautiful abstract section about Love, achievable perhaps because he is thinking of someone other than himself: We will be equals even in pain, he declares.

As he gets older, he seems to turn to familiar subjects which involve disappointment and irony, such as our attraction to money or making mistakes. The title poem, Before Saying Any of the Great Words, is about language and summarises his views in a way which I find touchingly humble:

[silence]
that body or fabric from which
are also made the great words, time, so many things.


(Is time a great word or another item on the list? There's always more to get from these poems, and not just autobiographical or situational detail, but philosophical ideas which are important to everyone who is interested in the question, 'what is life?')

Increasingly, there is an overt Catholicism in his work, which should come as no surprise given the focus on the body and the search for the abstract in sensuous detail.

The main reason for reading this book is not the poet's philosophy but his imaginative and highly creative rendering of those things into vivid verse. The book is full of really striking images. Here are a few to whet your appetite:

And the trench of curiosity
full of bric a brac

The storehouse of words is
a strange, damp place, a discrete gallery, a hospital asleep.

(There's something about those lines which reminds me of a quite different poem: Derek Mahon's wonderful contemporary classic, 'A Disused Shed in County Wexford')

Those things happened to me, except that words came tumbling down
from the high sky of impalpable birds to my impossible depth
like knowledge or love

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Revenge of 'the Other Woman': Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Assia and Shura Wevill


Review of A Lover of Unreason: the Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev

Assia Wevill (rhymes, we are told, with devil) was the thrice married ‘other woman’ whom Ted Hughes ‘cheated’ with whilst he was still married to Sylvia Plath. Six years after Plath’s suicide, Assia took both her own life and the life of her daughter, Shura, who was the offspring of her extended relationship with the future poet laureate. This meticulously researched and well-written biography of that life is suffused with moral purpose: its avowed intention is to put Assia and Shura back where they belong, ‘beside him [Hughes].

The pre Hughes story tells the story of a bright but ‘selfish’ woman, who fled from Hitler’s Germany with her mother and father and ended up in Israel, flirting with English servicemen (including the man who would become her unfortunate first husband). Some of the most evocative passages in the book describe life in Tel Aviv during the war, before ascendant Zionism made it a puritanical hell for social (and sexual) butterflies, like Assia. Her father, a somewhat feckless doctor who specialised in physiotherapy, passed on a passion for the arts and the desire to be part of a European literary salon. Three marriages later and the beautiful Assia eventually found the man who would provide the context she had always desired in the rugged manly form of Ted Hughes. She shuttled between him and her ‘inert’ third husband, the poet David Wevill (whose own ‘feminine’ style is contrasted to that of Hughes) before finally leaving him.

Then the dumped Sylvia Plath committed suicide and by this act performed the same trick that Obi Wan Knobi did in Star Wars: she became bigger and more powerful than before. She haunted the pair of them until Assia was driven to her own death in 1969 The fact that they both lived in Plath’s flat after her suicide couldn’t have helped nor would the subsequent move to Court Green, the family home that Hughes had shared with his dead wife.

Up to this point, Assia is not presented sympathetically, although the authors always note how beautifully she looked and how tastefully she dressed. However, after Assia appeared beside Ted in the International Festival of the Spoken Word, which she helped him to organise (thus achieving her lifetime ambition to host a great literary salon), the treatment of her changes. In the last third of the biography, Assia becomes a much more sympathetic character. The authors quote extensively from her journals as they tell the story of a wronged woman, increasingly isolated by Hughes, who compulsively pursued a number of other women at the same time. Imbuing her tale with pathos, they chart her tragic fall from the heights of International Festival at the side of Ted Hughes to the time, when feeling abandoned by him, she turned on the gas taps in her London flat, placing her sleeping daughter next to her.

Meticulous and thorough, the authors provide a well-argued rationale for an act of child murder which seems incomprehensible today. Explaining the socio-psychological context by reference to academic authorities, they say that in the year of her death, there were 2000 female suicides. A significant number of those women also killed their children. The most common motive was ‘altruistic’. They wanted to protect their children from the brutal world which had driven them to despair.

The portrait of Ted Hughes presented in this biography is also striking. He appears to be some sort of philandering monster. Perhaps the ‘message’ of the biography is this: driving the suicide prone Plath beyond the brink was one thing (we all make a mess of relationships at some point after all), but to do the same thing with this bright and life-affirming woman was another completely. Hughes’s behaviour towards her was abusive. As soon as she became emotionally dependent upon him, he became more distant and mercurial, and more difficult to pin down.

Perhaps the starkest example of this self-centred disregard for women occurred to Brenda Hedden, one of the 2 other people Hughes was carrying on with whilst he was supposedly ‘with’ Assia. Whilst living with Ms Hedden after Assia’s suicide, Hughes mysteriously disappeared for a few days and returned to announce (after having vigorous sex with her) that he had married Carol Orchard, a woman half his age (and the other ‘other woman‘).

Was it really like that though? Hughes - although irresponsible, self-centred and moody - may not have been entirely to blame. The biography occasionally gives glimpses of another Assia with a possessive and violent temper. At one point, we are told that she harassed a young woman who was in a relationship with David Wevill sometime after she abandoned him for Hughes. Hughes’s own correspondence quoted in the book refers to her temper.

On balance, however, the author’s critical view of Hughes seems to be the most likely. Brenda Hedden speaks with authority when she is quoted as saying that Hughes:


was a real hunter ... when she [Assia] tried to break away ... he became motivated. But when they were together, he did terrible things ... her terrible suicide saved my life

Who cares though whether poets are moral beings or not? Hughes is dead after all and only his poetry lives on. Well, I think the authors pin this question down when they interrogate the series of poems which Hughes wrote about Assia later in his life (paralleling the poems he wrote about Plath in Birthday Letters). They put it like this:

In 1990 he published the twenty Capriccio poems, revolving around Assia. There is no mention of his own destructive forces and Assia is blamed for consciously burning herself on Sylvia’s funeral pyre ...[He goes on the suggest] she was doomed already when they met. He argued that although Assia fled Nazi Germany, she could not escape the fate of her fellow Jews

So it was her fault, or it was Hitler’s fault, but not his! The poem is revealed as a piece of his moral cowardice and his monstrous inability to accept responsibility.This is a really powerful biography whose authors have a strong sense of moral narrative (to add to this, Hughes’s mother, to whom he was devoted, is shown to have died most probably of the shock of hearing the news of Assia’s suicide and the death of Mrs Hughes’s granddaughter). The authors reconstruct the emotional lives of their subjects through combing every imaginable record, including shopping lists and calendars. In a sense, they are archaeologists bringing a long dead woman back to life, and they present a credible portrait which lingers in the mind.

One ‘ Cor! Fancy that!’ fact which the book supplies is that Assia was part of the advertising team which came up with the slogan, Mr Kipling makes exceeding good cakes. Ironically, this line is still better known than anything Ted Hughes ever wrote. Assia was a very talented creative advertiser and she was also a highly skilled translator of the great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai (a role, incidentally, that Ted Hughes created for her). She should not be forgotten and this biography is more than good enough to resurrect her memory.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Brittle Bones by Janet Fisher

I have 2 strongly differing reactions to Janet Fisher's new collection, Brittle Bones, published by Salt, beautifully in harback at £12.99.

The first reaction is to admire the sincerity and 'felt life' of the poems. The other is to find it mannered and derivative. It depends on how I respond to the gaps which are created in the poem for the purpose of engaging the imagination of the reader. 'Show, don't tell' is the maxim which underlines this stylisitic approach. However, sometimes you want more than you get in poems like, The Art of Politics:

They ask me what is a conservative.
I say someone who eats babies.

The poem is actually a short witty travalogue recounting a long car journey with her grandchildren, where the irritation of family life is immanent. In some ways the poem is excellent. The details in it are really well chosen but on another level I find it frustrating. Indeed, some of the poems could have been written by fellow director of The Poetry Business, Peter Sansom, who also supplies a quote on the dust cover about how good the collection is.

So, which is which?

Mother needs to pee like a dressmaker
and Dad won't put his socks on
till he's had his toenails cut
and we'll have a houseful in a minute.

or

Dad has first read of The Telegraph
and mum will have to crossword later
in front of the telly when he's at the pub.*

What she does better than Sansom - with his inimitable baggy lines and unfailing sense of focus - is write lyric poetry:

..........Clouds settle like islands
their shadows valleys for the moon to walk in.

There are some beautiful and striking poems where her own voice unfurls. Hope, for instance, should find its way into some anthology or other. It's one of those poems that you need as opposed to the slice of life stuff that avoids saying anything in case it starts telling. There are a few of those too.

Nevertheless, there's enough good stuff to make this collection worth getting. It's much better than most of what Salt publishes or Bloodaxe for that matter. And more 'felt life' than pastiche.

* The first poem is by Sansom, the second, Fisher. The style is much better suited to Sansom's anecdotes about his working class extended family than Fisher's middle class nuclear version.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Europa by Moniza Alvi was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize this year, but was beaten by Nigh-No-Place. In some ways it is a more substantial collection than Nigh-No-Place but less consistently successful. However, despite its limitations and inconsistencies, a case could be made out that it ought to have won.

It is divided into 3 sections. The outer sections contain individual poems, often strongly linked by subject matter or theme; the middle section - Europa and the Bull - is an extended narrative re-telling of the Greek myth. At best, the poems are both direct and mysterious, presenting complex ideas in vivid imagistic language, which leave some element unresolved. For instance, Alvi's poem about the veil describes this focus of political and cultural conflict in ambivalent and ambiguous terms, which refuse to take sides:

The veil with its hidden waist and hips,
its energies, its limitations.
The capacious veiled veil.

The less convincing poems are about male violence. Essentially, men are bad, women are graphically violated. It's an important issue (after all, 3 million women experience domestic violence every year in the UK) but having been limited to the traumatising act of abuse, the poems somehow fail to bring home the terrible truth that by and large the perpetrators are 'normal' men more often than not in longterm relationships. No doubt the Europa poem also offers some sort of exploration of European identity but the sensationalist approach deters close examination. Having said that, the poem does presents a number of very immediate but surprising and memorable images e.g.
............................................ the sea
rushed up to [the sand], telling
a bit of the story
and snatched it back.

Throughout the collection, there are a number of poems about hurt and wounds. In fact, it begins with a poem called Post-traumatic. I confess to having an insider's understanding of this mental health problem so I can attest to its remarkable - if limited - emotional accuracy. Unfortunately, like so many attempts by non-disabled poets to represent disability, it focuses on the impairment rather than the discrimination one faces, which is, in fact, an inseparable aspect of the experience of the condition. Thus, the social phenomena of the experience of PTSD is medicalised, notwithstanding the humane intentions which clearly lie behind the poem and the precise but powerful way the condition is represented.

Myth and fairy tale obviously play an important role in the collection - and not just in the title poem. Pandora's box featues in one of the poems, a sleeping princess in another and a mermeid in another (violated as in the somewhat Prog Rock cover illustration).

The best wound poem in my opinion is I Hold my Breath in This Country with its Sad Past, which, to me anyway, recalls the collective trauma experienced in the former Yugoslavia from the perspective of the poet/ narrator, an outsider to whom the enormity of the hurt felt by the country is becoming apparent. It is an astonishing poem. Read it.

Also astonishing is the poem, Upholding the 'I'. The simplicty of approach belies the images, which bear more than a passing resemblance to metaphysical conceits e.g.

the 'I' that's bee-like, drawn to purple

the 'I' with its walk-on part

its cool green stem

Alvi continues to create marvellous colourful poems made out of splintered images which can satisfy intellectually as well as viscerally. This collection is certainly worth reading, and reading again.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Jen Hadfield wins T.S. Eliot prize

I was delighted to hear that Jen Hadfield was awarded the 2009 T.S. Eliot prize for her second collection, Nigh-No-Place. The collection is remarkable because of its high spirits and engagement with the natural world. There's an innocence and openness in the poems' abandon which it is difficult not to ascribe to the personality of the author. Her art is essentially mimetic in style and naive in substance. For instance, she writes about herself wearing long johns, which are 'like bread-pudding' (how homely, how cute).

She writes about dogs, cats, places, horses, the sea, water. Favouring rhymes, creating neologisms through compounding words and throwing in the odd word of Gaelic, her work moves close to nonsense verse because of the attraction that sing-song rhymes have for her:

Towhee, Towhee, come in for tea
She hangs her head like a sacred donkey.

(Towhee)

or

Hey bear!
Hey bear!
A godawful wriggly thing fell in Moira's hair
(Kodachrome)

It's always good to meet poetry which is fun to speak aloud and fills the mouth with delicious vowel sounds and this collection and its success should be welcomed by every lover of poetry. I do wonder how Jen Hadfield will develop and whether she can still move on from the epiphanies which her poetry currently represents to more reflective verse. Charm like this is rare - and rightly highly prized (bad pun, sorry) - but rarely long-lived.