The best recent poetry – review roundup | Books
Then the War: And Selected Poems 2007-2020 by Carl Phillips (Carcanet, £14.99)
Phillips’ new collection arrives with a Selected Poems on its shoulder. The 208 pages form a wonderfully succinct introduction to this great American poet. For those who have admired his work in the three decades since his debut, they are stark confirmation that, as he enters his sixties, Phillips is writing better than ever. The poems that open Then the War are extraordinary ecological, subtle and transformative lyric verse. Invasive Species gives voice to the switchgrass plant: “The years of the little song remasters the truth / now begins its own little song of truth / deep into the night”; a poem on the leaves is called Little Shields, in Starlight. This metamorphic fluidity allows us to apprehend our natural environment in a new way, and ensures that these poems remain fully populated, with parents, lovers and friends. Phillips himself is part of the reflective sequence Among the Trees, a series of encounters with the natural world – and with love. The following selection of previous books now reads as part of a single project of the utmost immediacy.
Lurex by Denise Riley (Picador, £10.99)
Lurex is Riley’s first collection since the astonishing elegy Say Something Back in 2016. It continues her robust and thorny work of establishing the nerves and resistances of real experience. Never clinging to mere ornament, his poetry describes the physical world, or the worlds of emotion, in terms that match their seriousness. Even when she evokes, in Pêcheurs d’hommes, the very colorful scene where Christ calls the fishermen to become disciples, the alliterative coming and going of the consonants creates a mimetic storm on Galilee: “A sea bruised, barraque by the storms […] / where water hits air, where air / pierces water. Slow Burn is a furious look at aging: for “A half-hearted recruit to the post-sexual cult […] / The evenings float under the television, rather than amnesiac scholarship. Furious too is the 1948 poem, in its indictment of what it meant to be born out of wedlock – “how it happened / for post-war surplus children. / The rains falling indifferently from them”. No comfortable resolution here: Riley is arguably Britain’s greatest living modernist poet, and her every line proves the importance of this hard-earned way of storytelling.
Fiona Benson’s Ephemeral (Jonathan Cape, £12)
A new collection of Benson’s wise and lively work is a real occasion. Divided into four sections, Ephemeron highlights its unusual range. Insect Love Songs, a commissioned series of environmental poems, is followed by two sequences of confessional poetry and a long sequence, Translations from the Pasiphaë. These tales of Greek myth are at their strongest where they are most viscerally inhabited, and visceral: a keeled teenager transformed into “pulp, // unrecognizable, raw mass”; Minos, plagued by a sexually transmitted disease, “delighted to have ejaculated scorpions / centipedes and snakes in young girls”. They extend the fine and terrifying poetics of Robin Robertson, its publisher and dedicatee. But the most enthralling work in the book, fully inhabited and multifaceted, is contained in the Boarding-School Tales and Daughter Mother sequences. Avoiding the contiguous pitfalls of softness or scattering of emotions, they transcend their context of social privilege to enter the big issues of real life, in which every girl must learn “how if you’re a woman or a little girl, you have to run”.
Why I don’t write poems anymore Diana Anphimiadi, translated by Natalia Bukia-Peters and Jean Sprackland (Bloodaxe, £12.99)
This collection of a great Georgian poet is part of the program of the Poetry Translation Center which commissions British poets – here, Jean Sprackland – to work with literary translators. In this case it is Natalia Bukia-Peters, who also provides a scholarly introduction placing this work in the national context of epic poetry and a vocabulary of myth. Because it is a magnificent and fabulous verse. Medusa tells us: “This is what happens: I breathe, I exist. / My heart is a suffocating tumor, near the breast. Dance Lessons enjoins, “Not: as if the moon / were exploding and your / feet are the pieces”, and the writing seems to be in constant motion. Bloodaxe is to be particularly congratulated for the publication of this important work in a bilingual edition.
Hurricane Watch: New and Collected Poems by Olive Senior (Carcanet, £25)
Senior, currently Jamaica’s Poet Laureate, has been producing poetry of beauty and historical resonance for nearly four decades. Hurricane Watch shows her continually remaking the history of cultural exile and belonging. That she plunders a range of lore to do so tells that story itself. Meditation on Red searches a Devon graveyard to rediscover Jean Rhys; Crusoe’s parrot represents a writer in exile; African Gods in the New World brings a pantheon to life; elsewhere, birdsong and nursery rhymes. While the 2007 Shell collection pays homage to people enslaved on plantations alongside the Chinese and Indian plantation workers who replaced them and celebrates the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, the eight-part Ode to Pablo Neruda is a poem with a poetic vocation shared on two continents “allowing me to explore the unlimited”. Leaving Home sums up this courageous work of self-discovery: “…aim / the opening, say: I’m leaving. Walking on the edge of your feeling.