I know I’m not alone in producing a list of favourite contemporary poetry collections and pamphlets read or re-read in 2015 but I’m hoping this will appeal to some readers nevertheless. It is by no means definitive and, I am, with some sadness, leaving out many others that are more than worthy of a place here.
I’ve bought most of the collections after a reading, which is probably why they are all northern and most of them are male. Most are also middle class in terms of their education, although not necessarily other aspects of their background. It will probably not be news to you that in poetry, publishing and reviews are still skewed towards white males. On this occasion, there has been no positive discrimination. I’ve just picked the collections that seemed most important to me at the time of writing. Because this is merely an opinion, I have deliberately not read others’ reviews but I hope you enjoy my suggestions, which are in no particular order. My reasons are below.
- Andrew McMillan, Physical
- Zaffar Kunial, Faber New Poets 11
- Seni Senivratne, The Heart of It
- Michael Brown, Undersong
- Helen Mort, Division Street
- Kim Moore, The Art of Falling
- Tom Weir, All That Falling
- Sai Murray, Ad-Liberation
- Steve Ely, Oswald’s Book of Hours
- Julie Mellor, Breathing Through Our Bones
Andrew McMillan, Physical (collection published by Cape)
Much has already been written about this brave and lyrically lovely collection that finds a sensuality even in ‘the morning’s pale yellow loss’ that ‘is love the prone flesh/what we expel from the body and what we let inside.’
You don’t have to be into watersports or to have worn a ‘hand around [your]neck’ or even be a gay man to find much of this collection erotic. Its raw passion is achieved partly by the rejection of patriarchal language, most capitalisation and punctuation removed and replaced with vulnerable gaps that we must fill with our own reflections and desires. This has the effect of making us feel we are voyeurs, each poem only a glimpse of a love affair, albeit a potent one.
A lady that burns as a teenage boy ‘puts his hand between the cheap trousers/of the other’ is both the teacher and Margaret Thatcher herself. Does the teacher blush because she is excluded from this intimacy or because she is witness to it? Perhaps it is both. The collection often makes connections and holds mirrors up at times when the reader least expects it. ‘This just isn’t going to work’ he imagines a porn star saying, there being no need then to say that the relationship he is depicting isn’t going to work either.
The book’s strengths are not just in its eroticism. Some of the descriptions in the later poems are so beautiful they made me cry. In How To Be A Man, a poem about his grieving dad, we see the narrator wrestle with internalised stereotypes of masculinity. In I.M. we see an electrician who returns to work four days after his eighteen month old granddaughter has died:
‘…silently turning off
the lights and pulling out the switch boxes
that look like intricate rooms in a doll’s house
and fitting them back like that shape game
you give to children when you’re trying
to help them make sense of the world’
Zaffar Kunial, Faber New Poets 11 (pamphlet published by Faber)
If someone gave me any of the poems from this pamphlet, I am convinced that I would recognise them as coming from Zaffar’s pen. A craftsman who is preoccupied by distance, the poet’s love of language seeps into every line.
Zaffar’s poetry attempts to find connections between the Midlands environment he grew up in and his father’s village in Kashmir. The seeking for a home is a familiar post-colonial topic but here the poet lets us into not just the thoughts but the process of their thinking. The brutality of ‘Butterfly Soup’ is particularly striking with regard to speaking about what it is to be mixed race, the caterpillar broken down into a fluid form before it is ready to emerge as ‘this speckled flitting bloom.’ The out- of-place rhododendron, which, like his father, has been transplanted from Asia, is a recurring motif.
One word sentences, like those that might be used by a non-native speaker, give the text a fragile, fragmented texture. They illustrate the struggle to get to grips with the languages of the narrator’s histories and what they mean for him and his descendants:
Meaning ‘homeland’ – mulk
(in Kashmir) – exactly how
my son demands milk.
These multiple languages engender frustrations throughout, from his father’s missed ‘the’ in the first poem to the narrator’s slip of an Urdu word for love that sounds like ‘ish’, when he is asked, ‘If…and Whether. ’ Much in this pamphlet is ‘difficult to name’. ‘There are many dictionaries for the tongue/ I speak, he tells us’; these are ‘worlds’ he ‘can’t marry.’
Dickens, Shakespeare and Wordsworth haunt the works of all writers in English, their appropriations, their mistakes. But, because of the narrator’s background, this is heightened; he is ‘a cloud, eclipsed,’ not even ‘on the same page’. Taking on the baton, Zaffar leaves Wordsworth’s ‘crossings-/out’ hanging precariously over the line.
On the edgeland of the cricket pitch – what could be more English? – the narrator depicts himself as invisible. Like the ball, he is ‘shined on one half, having/reached its stop, out of the,/sphere of sight.’ But this idea of England has become irrelevant now, ‘a stopped clock’.
As a person of mixed race, the narrator is ‘the point that bore that point before’. He is the multiple ‘us’. He is ‘here’, bracketed by commas, where he hopes his once-lover will find him, where he asks Shakespeare to ‘lend [me] your ear’, between oceans, between scripts.
Seni Senivratne, The Heart of It (collection published by Peepal Tree Press)
This is a bursting heart of a collection, the first part speaking about personal heartbreak and the sorrow it brings. The motif of house as self is drawn upon when the narrator’s lover leaves her in a ‘house with hollow rooms’. This is a place of danger. ‘The wind is up. The boats are not in.’
The collection is rhythmic, in tune with nature and colour, blues and their connotations shading the poems within. Couplets are used frequently and are an appropriate choice for an uncoupling. The implied finality of a platitude most of us have heard is beautifully put in the lines ‘double negatives – It’s not that I don’t – were/rusted bolts closing windows against the storm. The female narrator attempts to heal by turning to the moon, ‘to the wind’s pull’, by making bowls reminding us that, amongst many other things, Seni is a ceramicist.
The second sequence consists of narrative poems in different voices – a mother whose ‘thin-skinned boy’ has returned from war broken, a person who commits suicide in the Seine, a girl who has pit- bull-like tendencies, an obese hedgehog that is put on a starvation diet. War raises its bloody head frequently and poems such as ‘This is What I Heard’, comparing the activities of the Israeli Army to those of bees ravaging a flower bed, are stunning and heart-breaking.
Michael Brown, Undersong (pamphlet published by Eyewear)
I remembered this pamphlet as dealing with being the father of teenage girls. I was, at the time, working on Echolocation my first poetry pamphlet on the theme of motherhood, which is due to be released in February 2016 with Mother’s Milk. In hindsight, I was probably somewhat blinkered by my own theme. On re-reading, I realise that there are only a few poems that deal with fatherhood. These are achingly good. ‘Where do they go to when they disappear?’ he asks, speaking of the ever-growing distance between a father and his child. In New Look, he makes us laugh (sympathetically) at the ‘poor/thrown things’ fathers become on shopping trips, as they ‘linger in lifts, glass aisles’.
The digital age and its ambiguity are invoked; ‘predictive words’ are both the texts he sends, predictions about what his daughter will do and the predictable cautionary words of a father to a daughter. This is an example of Michael’s enviable ability to be simultaneously imprecise and precise.
I recommend reading Undersong for its insights into fatherhood, for its word play (on typing messages to a lover) ‘liquid characters cast, harden in draft – /wait: word – nuance – spell.’; I recommend the pamphlet for the grand passions condensed onto its sparse pages:
Under the weather, we are all creatures now,
stirred by these same storms.
Helen Mort, Division Street (collection published by Chatto)
From the opening poem, Helen embraces the curse, or blessing, of her name Mort and runs with it. As many people know, Helen is fast. In this first collection she runs alongside foxes and her father but is aware that one day even she will not be able to cheat the hearse that waits to overtake her on Coffin Path. Despite her mother’s best efforts, she has already seen the ‘ragged fur’ of the deer that was not just untainted in her memory but became more glorious in her mind as time progressed.
Landscapes are entwined with relationships, as in Litton Mill where the industrial past gives way ‘to plush apartments’, mirroring the loss of a lover. There is a poignant yearning for the past with poems about the rag and bone man and the ‘old butcher’s district’, which is replaced by a Body Shop. Pit closures haunt the town she grew up in, their spectres shouting profanities at scabs in a brilliant sequence retelling the nativity.
The language of this book is plain enough for Orwell. Indeed every word is familiar but Helen configures it afresh, offers us her transformational, almost magical, lens to ‘watch how the leaves balance the sky,/then let it fall’ and makes the simple complex.
This collection is a well-deserved success but the real appeal of its craft for me personally is that, reading I feel like I am listening to a friend. Despite the decade between us, Helen and I have a lot in common. I have seen an animal (a fox) in the woods behind my house that my mother assured me was not there. I know what it is to be northern and a woman; I have been stalked; I have had friends and worked with women with anorexia and know what it is to try ‘to give yourself the slip’ by making oneself smaller. I have had to fit into places and with people that wanted me to be other (better) than I am, like the boyfriend who ‘hauls [her] up again/pulling at [her] hand.’ I know how other peoples’ dreams can cut into you. And, as a poet, like Helen, ‘most days I plunder what I see.’
Kim Moore, The Art of Falling (collection published by Seren).
It is particularly the emotive sequence of poems on domestic violence that struck me, both on attending the launch at Heart in Headingley, Leeds and on reading at home.
Poems in the section How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping often take the form of lists, litanies of images that are relentless, inescapable like the violence the narrator has survived. This technique gives the sequence the horror of The Revelations and the beauty of John’s Gospel. The narrator has been silenced, detached from the world around her: ‘…the birds/could have fallen from the sky like stones/ and I wouldn’t have noticed…’ Ten years later, this nameless man haunts her still at a bus stop and in the threatening refrain, ‘if somebody spits on the pavement, if somebody spits’.
With the rational paranoia of someone who has suffered repeatedly, she imagines his soul entering another man in a school where she works and prays him away. In trying to survive what has happened, she attempts to make him smaller, ‘human’; ‘she breathes him in’.
Tom Weir, All that Falling (collection published by Templar)
Not to be confused with Kim Moore’s book above. Tom assures me that he did not copy the title and certainly there is nothing else in this potent collection that feels like mimicry. This collection is about loss – of innocence, of relationships, of sanity and of life told by the narrator-observer who watches others struggle not to fall.
Tom paints the everyday in colours we have never seen before. Rain becomes ‘clouds [that] fall apart/and mend’, children on trampolines are, ‘faces appearing on the air/held at the tipping point’. The laws of the universe are taken away from us – ‘there is no outside’, the sky ‘doesn’t exist’ – the poet leaves us on shifting ground, about to fall. I am delighted to have discovered Tom’s poetry, which has the ability to tear out my heart from my chest and thrust it back.
Most poems take place in rural settings but even those that touch on urban life continually wrestle with nature. Determination to preserve life is fierce – the life of a dying cow extended by ‘ water cupped in hands’ that is given daily despite the inevitable. As concluded in the perfect couplet that ends the collection, nature continues regardless of the child who is encountering death for the first time. The poet and the child note ‘The fullness of its body, the lack of decay/how the water just adapts, finds another way.’
Sai Murray, Ad-Liberation (collection published by Peepal Tree Press)
‘Advertising is an art form
that consumes the artist;
an art form requiring the artist
to consume all other art forms.
In this sense it is the highest art form.’
As an ex-employee of the advertising industry, Sai uses the tools of that trade such as puns and punctuation to critique and subvert the rhetorics of capitalism. Career Suicides For The Conscientious Adman includes the lines, ‘Do not pass Ogoni. Straight to hell. Suffer sHEll-shock’, evoking the board game Monopoly and capitalism.
The collection is peppered with quotes and even rewrites of Ice Ice Baby, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Redemption Song, which becomes Reparation Song. The tabloids, global warming, The Labour Party, the monarchy, good-but-misplaced intentions, sexism and even southern fried chicken are targets for Sai’s wit. The capitalist voice is the dominant one, so in-your-face that we are forced to confront its manipulations.
But there is humour here. While mocking the literary industry, that for the most part, ignores BME communities or perceives them as a threat, his intentions to ‘blow open minds’ are seen as suspect:
…Authorities remain bemused as to how easily/ the suspect gained entrance to the venue and managed to secure top billing as the final performer of the night.
How easily we forgive this self-deprecating narrator who describes how his performance has ‘bombed’.
There is hope too, as in the poem about the unsettling experience of growing up mixed race in a white town and, movingly, how he gradually comes to accept the blackness of his father. The ‘self-application of clothes peg to reduce size of my nose’ is picked up at the end of the poem when ‘cohobblopot’ becomes ‘Aromatic to the unpegged nose’.
The poet beseeches us to ‘turn Facebook face to a book,/reclaim time and space/that MySpace took.’ I beseech you to turn your face to Ad-Liberation.
Steve Ely, Oswald’s Book of Hours (collection published by Smoke Stack Books)
Steve doesn’t shy away from anything in this epic poetic account of England that speaks in old English, contemporary slang, Latin, French and the languages of prayer and violence. Thanks to my modest early education, some of the Latin escapes me but for the most part the context makes meaning clear.
The book blends the religious and pastoral, ‘lenten sunlight/squinting through oak boughs, dappling shadow’ with the battlefield and the visceral hunt, ‘each dying breath belched blood’. It melds the past with the present in a kind of poetic psychogeography, although I’m not sure Steve would be comfortable with that term! This is poetry unlike any other that is steeped in allusions and frequently uses the medieval conventions such as alliteration.
Sex and death are inextricably linked in ‘turf tumescent/and studded with daisies, rooting from the dead’. ‘These ghosts are drawn by my own fuming blood’ might be seen to have a Dylan Thomas grandiosity if the book didn’t take in so many other historical voices.
These voices tell damn good and relevant stories, whether about a highway man in a confessional or a Falklands soldier or ex-footballer or a priest (?) or even Arthur Scargill. These are working class rebels with all their flaws and heroisms. ’ ‘Should you ever oppress them’, Oswald is warned, they ‘will turn upon your Northumbrian tower with springole and trebuchet, block, scaffold and hatchet’, a blood-curdling list. Nor do kings have a monopoly on holiness, ‘…how shall I not/ reflect that his canonical destiny should/ also have been mine; for did not I fight for/ the godspelle…?’ ‘The king is to serve the people, not the people serve the king’, and invoking religion makes no difference. Afterall, ‘jhesu’s modir leide hym/ in a cratche in the shit of beestys’.
There is a healthy disrespect for flummery, the middle classes put firmly in their place by a dead soldier. ‘…They’ve no idea where/ they’ve come from, the spilled blood and/sacrifice its taken to get them to a place/where they can reduce their carbon/footprint over rocket and parmigiana.’ Even Scargill is admonished for bringing ‘health and Palma de Mallorca/Cortinas on the drive and kids in college,/reading Marx and Mao and The Wealth of Nations.’
Everyone should read Orgreave’s Book of Hours to see England as they never saw it before and to find the spirit of Robyn Hode alive and well because ‘the rabble is the/blood-pulse of England. Never forget it.’
Julie Mellor, Breathing Through Our Bones (pamphlet published by Smith and Doorstop)
What Julie has unearthed is perhaps surprisingly eclectic considering her subject for the most part is the mining town of Penistone ‘…where everyone/is someone’s cousin twice removed/we are all breathing through our bones.’
This landscape can be cruel. People prove their worth by holding melting ice for minutes at a time; an ancestor is shot in the upstairs rooms of a pub and ‘one small fissure’ in stone causes the derailing of a train. But this acutely-observed lyricism with its frequent assonance and consonance makes beauty of the terrible. For the couple on the canal, ‘each bridge is a bleak stone rainbow’, a distinctly northern image that conjures the Victorian era whilst delineating the shape of the bridge and the behaviour of water.
The train derailment becomes ‘a point [she] can look on and describe/in bricks of words, then knock down again/before it becomes too fixed.’ To pay homage to real life events we must always seek new ways of describing them, as with the layered and lovely description of the blackberries. But Julie’s words are never just explications – relating to the humans moving within this Southern Yorkshire landscape, the withered blackberries like the mole which will see the addressed hanged as a witch.
The ghosts she sees ‘hyphenate’ every page like the alive-or-dead child in Inventory who is ‘trapped between his world and mine’, a line that resonates with so many meanings. As Julie tells us in the closing poem, if we ‘stoop’ to dig deep, we may ‘read with surprise/what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.’
Merry Christmas All,
Really interesting to read all your comments Becky. I’ve already bought Kim’s book (which would go into my top ten too) but now will look out for some of the others.
By the way in the list, then again near the end of your comments on Steve Ely’s book, you have written ‘Orgreave’s Book of Hours, which I assume is an interesting typo?
Good luck getting your new novel published.
Oh dear. I’d just re-read Mort’s Scab about the battle of Orgreave and somehow typed that instead of Oswald. Christmas fog, hey? I’ve corrected it now.