Most Obscure on My Shelves – Poetry

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

You might argue that poetry is fairly obscure in itself, as many people don’t seem to have much of it on their shelves beyond the anthologies they had to study at school. I have many of the obvious suspects (Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath) and many signed copies from contemporary poets. I enjoy exploring new styles and discovering new poets as well as going back constantly to the classics. I am referring here mainly to English language poetry, as those in other languages (or translations) have been shelved with their respective countries. I have reviewed many of my recent favourites on this blog, but here are a few that mean something special to me.

Rosemary Tonks: Bedouin of the London Evening

There is something odd and disquieting about the life and career of poet (and novelist) Rosemary Tonks. After publishing two poetry collections in the 1960s, she then disappeared from public view, reinvented herself, changed her name and never wrote again, somewhat like Rimbaud. There is something very boho chic about her poetry, speaking very eloquently of that particular period of time and the first cool Britannia moment. There is a seething anger and disappointment that sexual and artistic freedom is not quite what she expected. Yet she has a jaded, cynical view which transcends time and place, she is the Jean Rhys of poetry.

Brenda Shaugnessy: Our Andromeda

I had the pleasure of meeting Brenda at a Geneva Writers Conference back in 2014, but I read this volume of poetry long before that. In fact, I was reading it as I was queuing at the border control at Washington Dulles airport and encountered the border guard dissolved in helpless tears. I tried to explain to him that it was because of this amazing, heartfelt poem about the alternative world that a mother and her child create together a parallel galaxy where they can both thrive: the baby who suffers injury at childbirth and the mother who feels anguished guilt: ‘It was my job to get you into this world safely. And I failed.’ But it’s not all emotional distress, there are plenty of playful language games, as well as ferocious honesty about the body and the conflicting feelings of the mother and the artist. It is a rich, candid, uncompromisingly clear-eyed way of expressing things.

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

T.S. Eliot is one of my favourite poets, but this is his lighter side. I adore it not only because I am a cat lover, but also because back in 1988/89, just before the fall of Communism, us students in the English Department of Bucharest University performed our own version of the musical Cats, although none of us had ever seen the show. It was a huge success (although it was censored in certain locations), and we all had huge fun inventing ways of presenting it, while making subtle political references. We were perhaps even more creative than the stage show I saw later on in London. So it reminds me of my youth, although this particular copy of it also is bittersweet. I bought it and gave it as a present to my newly-wed husband in 1998, when he left to go to Italy for a post-doc. (I could not follow him because of visa issues.) We had watched the show together and the dedication reads: ‘To remind you of your favourite show and your favourite cat while you are in Italy.’ Clearly, it did not do its job, since that was the first time he cheated on me.

Nevertheless, if anything can make me perk up and let bygones be bygones, it is Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, with his no-nonsense librarian air:

He will watch you without winking and he sees what you are thinking

And it’s certain that he doesn’t approve

Of hilarity and riot, so the folk are very quiet

When Skimble is about and on the move.

You can play no pranks with Skimbleshanks!

He’s a Cat who cannot be ignored;

So nothing goes wrong on the Northern Mail

When Skimbleshanks is aboard.

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21 thoughts on “Most Obscure on My Shelves – Poetry”

    1. Apparently she lived in placid obscurity somewhere on the South Coast, but no one is really sure. I can understand shunning the limelight, but I do wonder why writers/poets would stop writing…

  1. Tonks does sound fascinating. I love, also the connections you are making for us, with the books in your life. Extraordinary to think of the Cats musical being censored though!

    1. That instance of censorship was a typical example of bureaucracy gone mad. A Romanian poet Ana Blandian had just published a collection of children’s poems about a tyrannical tomcat on her local street, which someone clearly felt resembled Ceausescu a little too much. So all cats were viewed with suspicion!

  2. I have the same edition of T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with Axel Scheffer’s art! I love the musical and the poems too. I wouldn’t say they’re that obscure 😉 at least I hope so !

  3. I do like T.S. Eliot, Marina Sofia, so it’s good to hear you have that one. And the Rosemary Tonks story sounds so intriguing! I really do wonder what happened to her. That would make an interesting plot for a novel..

  4. I found a book in a charity shop called Lovely Green Eyes by Arnost Lustig; it’s about a Jewish girl who has bright red hair & dazzling green eyes who manages to escape Auschwitz by pretending to be someone else, & because of her appearance she gets away with it – instead she ends up working in a German military brothel. This book was really gripping, but it was also the first book I read about WW2 that was told from the perspective of someone Jewish… for that reason I think it will always have a hold over me.

    1. I’ve never heard of that book, so you certainly score double points in terms of obscurity. It’s funny how some of these eye-opening books leave a really deep impression on us, don’t they, even if they are not the ones people talk about at school etc.

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