Mab Jones delivers six of the best in new poetry for November, including a couple of titles which step outside the column’s regular parameters. Read on and you’ll see why that’s a more than acceptable thing!
Poetry’s Possible Worlds, Lesley Wheeler (Tinderbox Editions, price: $20)
Here’s a book I asked for; that my heart yearned for; that the poet so kindly sent to me, although she is based in the US and her publisher is based there too. Hopefully, though, the lines dividing countries are no barrier to poets proper – even if shipping costs may be… Still, I would urge you to do your best: Poetry’s Possible Worlds is a rich and deeply researched book that sings of poetry’s connective, meditative, and transformative possibilities.
Wheeler winds her weighty intelligence and imagination around the world, and through a variety of subjects – ‘spacetime’, ‘self’, ‘voice’, ‘magic’, ‘brevity’ and more – distills her learning into a profound, and profoundly inspiring, book: part personal narrative, part academic investigation, and beautifully written throughout.
Immersing into poetry is likened to meditation, perhaps even prayer (“Poetry provides my main purchase on heaven”). Its ability to transport and transform us are explored. Eventually, the author concludes that “Poems are pocket universes in which memories persist”. Anyone who loves poetry, and also reading about what poetry ‘is’ should certainly read this book, which is well-researched, intelligently reasoned, and unafraid to share personal insights and experiences. Poetry’s Possible Worlds is an absolute must-read; my favourite book on poetry since Mary Oliver’s Handbook, which is saying something.
Escape Room, Bryony Littlefair (Seren, price: £9.99)
Almost like the poetry equivalent of Sally Rooney, but a little more sparkling, a little less sombre, Littlefair follows on from her fantastic pamphlet Giraffe – winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition – with Escape Room, an equally fantastic first collection. No duds here as the poet writes about work, school, home; sits on the tube; strides beneath underpasses; contemplates skirting boards and Sunday mornings, transmuting the dull and everyday into diamante brilliance thanks to her sharp pen, laden with the twin inks of wit and wonderment.
Littlefair’s an astute observer, pulling the strange and surreal out from what might seem quite ordinary; the reader recognises moment after moment, scene after scene – or so it seemed to me. I was pulled in; enmeshed; absorbed. I imagined I was Littlefair – her writing is excellent enough to make you believe you are really ‘there’, embodied, somehow, in these tales. The details are jewel-like but juicy; the journey they take you on is real, recognised, but remarkably fresh and fulsome in their view of the world. A true original. Recommended.
Angola, America, Sammy Weaver (Seren, price: £6)
Another winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition, Angola, America is a slim book holding poems which possess great breadth, linking distant personal worlds: that of a woman in the UK; that of a man on death row. The poems are tough, traversing barbarity with empathy and dexterous intelligence; and they are finely written, often surprising in the originality and aptness of their imagery. For example, a description of wolf-dogs tells of “the silver nebulas of their faces”. How beautiful, terrible, and perfect, is that?
Titles held within square brackets eloquently reinforce the idea of imprisonment, which is a key theme here. There’s a masterful balance of the lyrical and minimalist throughout. But what’s most remarkable is the beauty of what is rendered, as in the poems [ode to handcuffs] and a poem about an electric chair, which “still holds the grain of the tree / that made her”. In all, I was stunned, sickened, spellbound, and ultimately transformed by this pamphlet. What a poet! I’m in awe and urge you to go and buy this book immediately.
Choose Love, Nicola Davies & Petr Horáček (Graffeg, price: £16.99)
Hardback picture books are not just for littles. Choose Love is one for bigs, and it’s one with a big message and a big heart. Pairing poems about refugee experience with vivid, often abstract, images that are full of life and colour, this combination works together so that the lives of human beings – but those cast out from their homes – are beautifully and poignantly rendered, the illustrations illuminating moments, moods, and symbols in a very affecting way.
The poems themselves are simply written, with a light journalistic quality, often narrative but holding image and metaphors that are sometimes stark, suffused with suffering; but there are mindful and more tender moments, too, as in a poem about a teacup, which holds the smile of a mother, “carried across continents and oceans”. A lovely, heartfelt book that would make a gorgeous gift, and is aligned to the Choose Hope charity which holds a focus on humanitarian aid. Excellent stuff all round.
Manland, Peter Raynard (Nine Arches, price: £9.99)
From my poet’s perspective, what I really thought was masterful about Manland was its use of repetition. Repetition isn’t just repetition, as you will discover by reading this collection: it can determine pace and structure; it can affect mirroring or act as a potent form of wordplay. Repetition is a powerful, multi-faceted tool, and the poems here show several superb and masterful examples of that.
Beyond this, the theme of men and masculinity is also very interesting and intelligently explored. The author may tell of an incident from childhood or a narrative in the now (including a character called Home-Father, which might perhaps be the poet himself), but either way, there’s a fine balance of head and heart in the writing: cleverness intertwined with emotional depth, making this a stimulating, intriguing, and also very pleasing read. Questions are raised, and there is poignancy and profundity, too, the poet’s deft pen, in this book, possessing a lucidity and liveliness that’s lovely to engage with.
Word/Play, Helen Bowie (Beir Bua Press, price: £7.99)
Word/Play is a fantastically fun and inventive pamphlet of poems which take the shape of familiar puzzles: wordsearches, crosswords, dot-to-dots, matching games, and fill-in-the-blanks type activities. The book pulls puzzles out of the realm of old ladies and into the reach of all, asking the question: “what are poems if not fancy word puzzles, and what are puzzles if not deconstructed poetry?”
Although themes and subjects might be deeper and darker than the flighty, throwaway ones of puzzles proper (often with a celebrity photo at their centre, I’ve noticed), these are still very entertaining to engage with, encouraging the reader to “let your imagination run wild, be bold, be brave”. There are puzzles to complete, and even blank ones to create your own. With wit and charm, but with an underlying sense of how games can showcase power and politics, difference and desire, Bowie proves as playful as that other Bowie, and just as lively and chameleonic.
words MAB JONES
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