Here’s a second, occasional, ‘mini-reviews’ post - I’ve read some wonderful poetry recently and wanted to share.
Much has (justifiably) been made of Jen Hadfield’s original and playful use of language in her puckish, impy poems. Her third collection Byssus (Picador) is peppered with gorgeous, rich Shetland dialect - take drummie bee, moorick, laverick and kye for starters - and startling imagery.
An innate musicality is teamed with an irreverance towards ‘nature’ (which can be treated in a very po-faced way) - all this makes for a sparky, head-tossing, original sensibility -
‘The wind’s always got to be the dame
in a ten-gallon hat
fake fruit and flowers overflowing’
Or Hadfield on parents - ‘who else gives a shit about your shitty knee?’
I enjoyed the bawdy qualities of some of her poems which chime beautifully with her fine-tuned, musical ear.
In ‘The Ambition’, urine is a ‘strong, hot tisane’, blood ‘a thick slow scrawl of crude’ and ‘my sphincters the knots in a balloon poodle’.
Hadfield is much concerned with nature and place, specifically the Shetland Islands, but manages also be irreverant while ‘worshipping’ specificities -
Often exquisite descriptions of natural organisms - the puffball ‘lets down a frail plait’ and possesses a ‘ragged moue’ leave them irrevocably richer.
Her subversion of language and categories (human/nature) make Byssus fun to read and profound in parts. She toys with poetic conventions like a cat (a domestic cat makes several appearances in Byssus) - spreading lines and words over the pages.
The gaiety of ‘Puffball’ sees words scatter like spoors over white space, while The Kids uses the ‘Monday’s child is fair of face’ rhyme as a springboard to make an extraordinary poem on the nature of character and fate.
Byssus is shot through with a surprising and startling mash of registers - some of the Definitions - small prose poems, are master works of distillation.
Anyone who can write so intriguingly about butterwort, sundew, puffins and erections is close to my heart. And I wonder who else could transform kidneys into ‘Bert and Ernie’ of Muppets fame?
Hannah Lowe’s Chick (Bloodaxe) is a tender-tough dedication of love for her father, for London, for lovers and for being alive, alive-oh. Lowe writes beautifully of history and coming of age - her past self - and the selves of others, and their narratives and encounters.
Her long lines, which roll down the page, gathering emotional momentum, sometimes reminded me of Sharon Olds. This was especially true of ‘Fist’ which becomes a prayer or plea to the lost and found, with its absolution of snow and salvation. To quote from it would be to despoil its magic, for it is a whole, breathless confession.
Chick is not a sad book but a celebration of humanity and its long complex finish.
I don’t know if it’s because we are a similar age but I particularly enjoy the register of her poems. ‘B-Boy’ summer is the first poem I’ve ever read with Salt n Pepa in it - their ‘ah, push it! p-push it real good!) the soundtrack of the first summer where sex hung in the air. Lowe gives us (back) De La Soul (yes! they of the funky ‘say no go’, baggy jeans, and African pendants) and ecstasy and cassette tapes and boys on their way to prison..
There is something particularly compelling about the recent past - somewhere truly (consciously, almost reachable) part of us, but flown. Lowe gives us the subtleties of an eighties childhood, the innocence undercut with knowingness - but she is never maudlin:
‘and all the children of the playing fields
in pastorals with lunch packs under willow trees..’
Life as a young person can often be a series of temporary rooms, and room mates, and formative encounters. Here she is writing about a year in Santa Cruz, managing to be both romantic and grounded -
‘There is something fine about the dawn walk home
from a strangers’ house, the blue shore
hazed against the sky, the sun’s defiant beams
and boys already rattling down the asphalt drives,
bent low on coloured boards, their arms
fling wide as though about to fly.’
Lowe’s poems about her father (whose gambling name was Chick) begin and end the collection and are very powerful. There is a strong sense of a childs’ love for a magnetic, enigmatic figure and how that love evolves and complicates with age, but there is no judgement, no conclusion, no easy reckoning.
Lowe welcomes her reader into gambling dens and hospital rooms to witness Chick’s triumphs and defeats.
A generosity of address and emotion, that for me borders on the romantic, suffuses this special book.
Lydia Macpherson’s Love Me Do (Salt) is delightfully readable and wry, with nuances of class and era that bring to mind Larkin, at times.
Macpherson’s poetry is (or appears to be) wrought from lived experience and while often startlingly personal, is laced with self-awareness. Love Me Do is concerned, for the most part, with looking back, and looking hard.
These are poems of fine-grained description and precise observations that end with an emotional thump in the guts. Read ‘2CV’ which begins with a loving description of a car, called (sweetly) Celestine ‘...her special muff of grey plastic, inserted/like a diaphragm over her grille in winter’ and moves on to something far darker.
I savoured the Latin teacher Miss Guest ‘in whiskery tweeds’ and the mother of ‘1962’ with her ‘curtained kidney dressing table, in her satin Maidenform bra/and matching pale pink cami knickers’.
Her poems are also notable for their precision of language and perfeclty judged tone - reticule, confiture, botanists fond of a ‘finely turned ankle’, are just a few examples.
Macpherson has a knack for inhabiting the mind of the ‘other’, most notably that of a child, looking on. I have returned to her poem ‘1969’ which beautifully describes the confusion and security of being a child, out in the world, on the brink of a future - ‘The trees are dressed with spiders. We must be alert to every possibility.’
Macpherson also has a deliciously Gothic side, with poems such as ‘Ossuary’ ‘The Burning of the Pets’ and ‘Conjoined’ drawing on a dark, rich seam of imagery.
I particularly enjoyed Macpherson’s ‘Armadillos’ ‘those little armoured ones’ - whose beguiling mix of tenderness and toughness encapsulates the whole collection.