The best recent poetry – review summary | Poetry

Refractive Africa by Will Alexander (Granta, £10.99)
This visionary act of “transpersonal testimony” to a continent is an Afromodernist epic in the line of The Arrivers of Kamau Brathwaite. It is first of all an act of recovery, as in the opening dialogue with the Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola and the final homage to the Malagasy Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, often considered the first modern poet in Africa. At the heart of the book is a 50-page poem, The Congo, about this country as a place of colonial plunder, “dizzying with disorder”. An incantation against “Eurocentric dullness,” Refractive Africa adopts an aesthetic of sprawl and overreach, invoking fluid visions of grandeur and desolation. Alexander, an American, is the author of over 30 books, and his introduction to a British readership is overdue.

The vulture

The Vulture by Gerard Woodward (Picador, £10.99)
We start with the discovery of a dead vulture at the foot of a cliff; slicing her belly reveals “nothing in there/but the usual unspeakable things”. Any expectation of dark secrets laid bare in the poems that follow is tempered by an ever-present mood of weirdness. Describing a piano stool, Woodward writes of its “black wood, as if the piano had calved”, a comparison that could be the day of the release of Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home. He prefers his posed and metaphysical imagery: “scholarly, they held / seminars, conferences”, he says of certain frogs. More memorable are the accounts of buildings and family stories in the second half of the book, such as Chinoiserie and Paraffin. These poems are at their best when they “collide with something solid”.

Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Vita and Edward Sackville-West

Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Vita and Edward Sackville-West (Pushkin, £14.99)
The Sackville-Wests translation of the Duino Elegies is reissued for the first time in 90 years. Edward Sackville-West was a gifted linguist, and his cousin Vita “had the help of her last lover”, as the introduction tells us (not Woolf). What sank their Rilke was their insistence on breaking it into blank verse, smoothing over so much that should have been pungent. Friendliness is also part of the game: “Every angel is formidable”, begins the second elegy here, as if it were a beefy old guest rather than a supernatural emanation. It’s a fascinating slice of unconscious Georgism in a world that, even in 1931, had changed dramatically.

Litanies of Naush Sabah

Litanies of Naush Sabah (Guillemot, £8)
It is a book of faith and doubt, of roots and rejections. “Kill messengers, oracles, gods and soothsayers,” Sabah declares, in poems that shake up outdated beliefs while finding the language of belief rather harder to discard. Theistic fatalism is a source of anguish: “if she lives / they will praise the mercy of God”, we read in Litany of the Shore, a poem on the illness of a child; but “if she dies / they will praise God for his mercy”. The sensory ecstasies of Questions of Faith offer a bold counterpoint (“love was all I thought I was wondering about my faith once again”). Sabah has something of Thomas Hardy’s bittersweet dialogue with the divine, his eye for love’s disappointments and betrayals, in what are poems of immense emotional courage. Already well known as a publisher, Sabah’s blossoming as a poet is a sight to behold.

Pilgrim's Bell by Kaveh Akbar

Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar (Chatto & Windus, £12.99)
“When I saw God / I shook like a man, I used the wrong pronouns.” Where Sabah’s poems proceed from the sacred to the profane, Akbar’s move from default secularism to the language of the sacred. The epigraph indicates “Any text which is not a sacred text is an apostasy”, a verse evoking Blakean ecstasies but also the strength of a more exclusive faith. Akbar’s way of dealing with this is studied vulnerability, as in Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997, or The Value of Fear (“The value // of joy is in its / asking, what am i going to fix now?”). “Art is where what we survive survives”; these are large-scale poems, featuring dramas of cosmic light and dark.

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