Favourite Poetry of 2017

Shameful to admit, but I have to do it: although I read a lot of poetry, I seldom review it on my blog. Why is that? Because I often read 1-2 poems here, 2-3 there, without a methodical approach. If I do read a whole collection by a single author or an anthology by multiple poets, I do it over a longer period of time (because I need to reread and think about it) and forget to add it to Goodreads. Besides, reviewing an entire collection is much harder than looking at a single poem. So many different themes, styles, details to consider!

So I apologise for being remiss about reviewing what is probably even more important to me than crime fiction and literature in translation. I intend to do a lot better in the coming year. Meanwhile, here are some poets I discovered or rediscovered this year, with a short quote which will hopefully intrigue you enough to want to explore them in more detail.

Rebecca Goss: Her Birth

Very moving collection of poems portraying the birth, short life, death and aftermath of the poet’s daughter Ella, who was born with a rare and incurable heart condition.

Assure me I will be ripe
and stretching, my belly full

but still have space
for her first days, last days.

Assure me I will keep her toes
accurate as maths, her smell

precise, her voice heard above the birds.
Assure me that I will not howl her name

during birth, that I will place
newborn fingers in my mouth,

taste only newness.
Then, I will consider another.

Polly Atkin: Basic Nest Architecture

Beautifully observed details of nature, parallels drawn to human life, and to those concepts of home, belonging, nesting, which have always preoccupied me.

The irrepressible Polly Atkin explaining something about her poetry at Ty Newydd this summer.

Untethering

I am not a tree, my roots
blanketed by rock, my roots tunnelled under
the weight of the lake bed, my roots knotted rock
in the puzzle of a dry stone wall. Unthink
that sinking. Unthink that tether. Take

this light – that sweet, that loving yellow,
the mist erasing the horizon as though
there is nothing beyond the lip of the valley,
its kiss – could anyone turn from it now?

Gillian Allnutt: Blackthorn

Feminist Christian poetry might seem like an unexpected combination, but wonderful in Allnutt’s capable hands.

My father came home from the burning of Belsen
with bits of it under his skin and the bowl of his heart in his hands
that would never be the same again, not ever his own again.
Because of that burning down.
And, in his pocket, proudly, the souvenir spoon.
Of light tin, slowly, the bowl of it has worn down.
Barely is it a spoon.
The best of my life has been stirring the Bisto in.
And was Jerusalem.
Because.
Of my father in me there has been no burning down.

Andrew McMillan: Physical

Both lustful and tender, a paean to physical love in all its vulnerability, simplicity and complexity.

I had forgotten that loving could feel so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing where the breath may fall

Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter

My father had four children
and three sugars in his coffee
and every birthday he bought me
a dictionary which got thicker
and thicker and because his word
is not dead, I carry it like sugar

on a silver spoon
up the Mobay hills in Jamaica […]

I looked at my hand
holding this ivory knife
and thought about how hard it was
to accept my father
for who he was
and where he came from

how easy it is now to spill
sugar on the table before
it is poured into my cup.

Immanuel Mifsud (from a collection of Poems from Malta)

Go, my son, follow your open eyes.
Go seek that country you’ll never find.
Go unite shores, parted by vast expanses of water.
You’ll go on walking hurt, wounded by love,
and many will seduce you but none will love you […]

Because you’re nothing but a whiff of sad wind;
You only need to spread your arms out,
Open your eyes wide, take a breath… and fly.

Deryn Rees-Jones: Burying the Wren

These poems spoke to me a lot this year: about trying to escape the confines – and seduction – of grief, about finding joy in small things.

It was the only blessing that I asked you for,
of leaving me unnoticed –
like the earth might tree seeds or a rouged leaf
in its fall.

Instead, you give me nothing,
catch me inside your coat
to see if you can catch my breath,

steal me, my soul…

 

 

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Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter (poetry review)

Author picture from raymondantrobus.com

It was poignant and entirely appropriate to dwell in the poetry pamphlet To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus on Father’s Day (published by Outspoken Press). For this is a very personal exploration of the father/son relationship, a more ambiguous one than we are used to reading about in the standard gushing outbursts of sentiment on this day.

Then, waking up to yet more tragic news, this time about a terrorist attack on Muslims in London, this slim volume of poetry remains appropriate, for it has a resonance well beyond the personal. This is also poetry about finding one’s cultural identity, about trying to belong and being found wanting, about never quite fitting in, never knowing how to describe one’s self, trying to come to terms with one’s heritage.

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.

Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British…

In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican.

At home, told Dad I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans – I’m British.

He laughed, said you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness…

In Look, There’s a Black Man, Touch Him the poet captures not only his father’s experience of coming to England, but touches on broader issues of immigration and race, people ‘turn me away for showing up the wrong colour’. The men in Scratched Light miss their home and communities, struggle to share their bewilderment and loneliness with others who have been displaced, perhaps even build a transient community of the lost and grieving in the shadow of the Southbank security guards. Not all of the poems are wistful, however. There is humour but also drama and menace in Miami Airport, with the staccato questioning by the border guards: ‘why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?’

Yet when the Jamaican British son returns to the land of his father, he feels just as unsettled and unwanted. He tries to shake off the tourist image. He falls for the misguided idea that following roads marked on a map (with ridiculous English names) will help in Jamaica, where ‘the road itself rebelled and gave up making way for those who’ve forgotten what swung in this wind’. The guilt of the Empire is even stronger in the more overtly political poem Two Days and Two Nights in Kisumu, Kenya, where the poet has gone to teach poetry but fears that English is not the right language with which to approach these children for

our language has not come from the future,

it has crawled from a cave

and rowed to so many shores

that we speak in crashed waves and trade winds.

Ultimately, however, the personal poems are the most powerful in this anything but straightforward account of a father’s legacy, a father lost to dementia quite a few years before death. The collection starts and ends on the hospital bed, with a heart giving out, a son holding hands with a father who has not always been there for him, trying to find forgiveness in his heart. This is a recognisable situation for so many, that there is a danger of reverting to hackneyed sentiments, but Antrobus injects freshness and real grittiness into it. Dementia ‘simplified a complicated man’, confers warmth where perhaps there was none initially. Sometimes the expression of pain is uncomplicated, as in the simple but not at all simplistic short poem When He Died:

I told no one

how old he was

in case

his death

seemed too

inevitable…

More often, there are complicated and contradictory strands of feeling woven in. The title poem To Sweeten Bitter describes the paradox lying at the very heart of this relationship, the deeper grooves a father makes in our lives, the years of hurt and misunderstanding and the attempt to sugarcoat situations. The later poems are clearer in describing an absent father, an abusive father, the threats and shaming he stooped to, that forgiveness was only possible because ‘he promised me one day he was going to die.’ There is also recognition of a mother’s sacrifice, compensating for an absent father. In What Is Possible, we find the touching image of her sitting up all night to thread jewellery to sell in the market, with only the TV for company, while her son complains about the TV disturbing him. Yet as he lies in his bed, he dreams he will fly and grow too big for his bed, he understands the safety and security that his mother has given him, the feeling that all possibilities are still open to him.

The video below is the poet performing his own Sestina for My Father, which is not in the present volume, but deserves to be mentioned alongside it.

Yet this slender book reminds us that, for all the imperfections, for all of the pain, instead of yearning for the father we wish we’d had, we should attempt to understand and forgive the one we were given. Whether present or absent, they shape us far more than we can imagine or accept

where someone I love is the shape

of the missing thing.