Eight dispatches of new poetry for that post-Pancake Day, pre-Easter zone of curiosity from scribes that include Rae Howells, Ben Silverson, Alison Brackenbury and more. Our regular poetry picker Mab Jones is your guide, of course.
In The Language Of Bees (Parthian, price: £9), Rae Howells showcases writing that is crisp and clean here, languid and lyrical there, with a beautifully inventive imagination and wide-ranging empathic ability that allows her to put the reader into the mind of a bee, the body of a queen; to sing an elegy here or to compose a hymn there. The poems may be domestic, set in a familiar scene, or they may be more unfamiliar and extraordinary, but always Howells’ poetry is clever, surprising, transmuting the world into what it truly is: a constant and consistent miracle.
Some of these poems are prize-winning, and one can easily see why; if “bees make music”, so too does Howells in this book. I took it with me on holiday and coincidentally found that my bedcovers were patterned with bees: synchronicity which served to reinforce the magic of these marvellous poems. I read the poems in bed in a single sitting – they are enchanting, and I’m sure that you will find them so, too.
In Same Difference (Seren, price: £9.99), Ben Wilkinson showcases precise and thoughtful verse that’s sometimes in his own voice, sometimes in the voice of another. A final line in the book gives a kind of summary – “whoever I was. Whoever this is” – as the poet veers capably from cage fighter to cancer patient, and various others in between. A whale in captivity is given a voice, too, pointing to the fact that Wilkinson is drawn to subjects who are trapped, whether that’s in the squarish shapes of fighting cages, aquatic tanks, sick beds, or something else.
However, whilst there are poems that intimate restriction, as well as loss and leaving, there are also poems in which children run “Happy with sunlight” and people fall in love, their eager hearts “like a jackpot’s flood of pennies”. Aubades and laments intertwine with poems of love and joy, in writing that, in style, is toned and athletic, able to turn to any subject or mood. A final image of a setting sun, that is both on the wane yet “blazing” seems heavily symbolic.
Some of the poems are inspired by French poet Verlaine, and Wilkinson is a poet who can just as easily utilise metre or free verse. A runner as well as a writer, there’s that same sense here of restraint, as when on a timed sprint, with some poems also employing a repeating form, or running free. In all, it’s a book that takes us into many hearts and minds, and as a result, it’s a pleasure to jog, pace, and perambulate through it.
Brackenbury’s latest collection of poems (Carcanet, price: £12.99) is a weighty tome consisting of nearly 100 pages. The poems sit so lightly on the page, however, that the reader moves at them through speed, with some poems just a few lines long. Rhyming quatrains (four-line verse) pepper the collection at intervals, their rhyme as well as brevity adding a song-like rhythm to proceedings.
The poems themselves sift delicately through memories, many relating to the poet’s family, familiars, and landscape. We learn that her grandmother, Dot, was a cook, and that food and recipes formed part of their relationship and was one ingredient of a rich family history. In other poems, there are ponies, birds, and fish, whilst in others, there are ancestral echoes, as Brackenbury reimagines an ancient burial or takes us to an historical treasure horde.
Overall there’s a sense of place, and of a people connected to place, which brought to mind for me some of the landscapes in BBC series The Detectorists; and there’s the same sense of fragments found, and how they might lead us into a wider understanding of the past. So many poems in this book begin with an item or a moment, flooding out to encompass a larger history. It’s finely done, and Brackenbury proves again the enduring, treasure-like power of poetry, particularly by her expert pen.
In this book (Beir Bua Press, price: £6.99), Moya Costello takes specimens from the Medicinal Plant Herbarium at Southern Cross University – pressed, photographed, and included here – and writes them back to life. Her approach is multisensory, therefore, as the 2D is made 3D, with the poet skilfully and enthusiastically rendering these florae so that they blossom and bloom in the mind’s eye of the reader. I think prose-poems are a perfect choice for such a subject matter because then the ‘form’ still sits with the physical plant itself, whilst the poetry becomes a kind of accompaniment, an annotation. This seems respectful to the plants themselves, I feel.
The writing itself is clever, assured, and descriptively rich, again creating a balance with and against the flat, splayed accompanying images, which are in muted tones. There’s a joyful touch of humour to the pieces, too, which again gives life and liveliness that’s in keeping with the ‘reanimating’ sense that resounds throughout this book. The poet employs alliteration, rhyme, and wordplay as well, so that, whether the plant is “stretching tall or flopping-falling”, shaped like a boat or patterned like a glove, it’s transmuted from the merely visual to something moving, growing, enlivened, inhabited. With sparkle and style, Costello brings these dead flora back to life. A wonderful project.
This beautifully bound collection (Rare Swan, price: £12) shows us a world in which “everything / … is fluctuating”. Lovers come and go, people are there and then not, work is ongoing and then it is gone – the situations and scenarios here are familiar. However, other situations in this book seem more frightening, as waters rise and, eventually, the I of these poems lose their very sense of self (“I fall out of I”). Mental health may be the issue here, though whether that’s ennui, despair, a psychotic break or something else, we never know, or need to. Identity fractures is “shredded”, and only a symbolic ceiling fan remains steady, like a kind of numberless, fast-moving clock.
The repeating water imagery in this collection suggests that there’s an ecological theme, too, as the very Earth itself becomes, like the I in these poems, uninhabitable: subsumed; lost, although a clear link is made between the I’s fragile state and this deluge – “The waters / are rising because I have been/unmoored.” At one point, the I is dead, time freezes, and even the dependable ceiling fan falters. We travel with the I, a kind of hero’s journey, and back again in a narrative poem that’s personal, poignant and finely, lucidly penned.
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Another Parthian collection (price: £9) which came with me on holiday. Vanderploeg is a poet who is comfortable moving about between all points of a compass, whether that’s in the world itself or within the mind and emotions. Before I had read the blurb on the back cover, which says this book feels “a bit like rummaging around in someone’s well-travelled backpack”, I read the poems and, because of the many geographic settings within them, received a sense that was something between picture postcards and a personal diary or journal – there’s that same mix of the personal and the epic within these poems, which might is perhaps best summarised in the poem Found In Swansea, in which items listed include a “Mangled umbrella” and “Love”.
The epic and the every day again merge in a series of poems inspired by Cupid And Psyche, about a disappointing romantic relationship. Idealism, loss and hope are themes that run throughout this book, with an overall tone that is, like topics in these poems of oranges and paper cuts, sweet, sharp, and pithy.
A book (Cinnamon Press, price: £9.99) named for a newborn daughter, and as such, there is much warmth and worry in these poems, as the writer pens his hopes and fears for his child: “First, let her believe in the goodness of things”. There’s a sense of a person coming to terms with “fears / peopling my skin like crawling insects”; of facing their own past, alongside life’s transience, fragility, and fleetingness; rounding out to an eventual acceptance of these, as evinced by the final line of the book’s final poem: “I’ve been luckier than most”.
In between, the poems are observational, philosophical, thoughtful; sometimes sad, but also counting up their blessings, with tenderness and, here and there, some dry/wry humour. A prose section in the book called The Princess Gospels; Or, Diary Of A Newborn, veers further into this, with a mock-intellectual tone, and often very funny, descriptions of daily life as a parent, and episodes in which the author deals with baby poo, baby burps, and other too-true physicalities. In these beautifully written poems, overall, however, Sabbagh reaches depths and heights that many other poets might envy. Full of sensitivity and skill, intelligence and heart, this is a book that profoundly affects the reader.
In Holy Things (The Broken Spine, price: £9.29), Jay Rafferty questions life and meaning via various religious rites, such as baptism, confession, confirmation, and marriage. Overall, the poet’s style is one that lightly pokes fun, pointing out the absurdities of such staid and stale institutions; but there’s an underlying moral sense which is at work here, too, as in the poem Rain At A Book Burning, which, in full, reads:
has a wonderful
sense of humour.
Rafferty does, too, which makes the poem ironic and effusive, exuberant and endearing. This is a poet who calls a spade a spade, and whilst in one poem this means that the writer is upfront about all their sins, confessing, for example, that the farts they blamed on the dog were them all along, in another poem the writer feels able to simply conclude by saying “I love you”.
With so much originality and honesty on show, Rafferty can utilise such a well-worn statement and for it to appear fresh and vital, full of meaning, even as he underplays it will a little of his trademark humour. The book as a whole is refreshing to read, never resting on cliché, always lively and jubilant, unafraid to pen profundity alongside profanity. Any poet who compares a prayer card to a Pokémon card is one I’d like to read, and I enjoyed this book a great deal, as you will too if you purchase it.
words MAB JONES