Poets put their best feet forward on matters of life and death
A Matter of Life and Death, with David Niven, is the subject of Sinead Morrissey’s poem of that name, part of her collection, Parallax, shortlisted for the Forward Prize
The frenetic autumn awards season has begun with the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, which has made its pick of the best book published in 2012. It will be followed next month by the Forward Prize, which focuses on collections published in 2013 and whose strong shortlist includes Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax (Carcanet, £9.95), the follow-up to Through the Square Window (which won the 2010 Irish Times Poetry Now Award), alongside books by Glyn Maxwell, Rebecca Goss, Jacob Polley and Michael Symmons Roberts.
Morrissey’s Parallax is in the same thematic vein as Through the Square Window, closely recording family life but marrying those observations to more panoramic scenarios: in A Matter of Life and Death, Morrissey remembers the hours before the birth of her second child, hours she spent watching David Niven star in the eponymous film. That Niven’s character is himself a would-be poet delights Morrissey, and she quotes him quoting Walter Raleigh (in his “scallopshell of quiet”) before her attention turns to the events that are overtaking her, also “a matter of life and death”, as the birth of her child is accompanied by the memory of her “granny, who died three weeks ago / on a hospital ward in Chesterfield making room as she herself predicted”. The poem’s strong narrative turns and length allow Morrissey room to develop and intertwine two scenes, as she also does in a poem about turning 40 (“sludgy disconnectedness / starting in the brain”), which diverts into a kind of Egyptian death wish: “But turning forty banishes my younger self // to a separate outhouse, somewhere stony / and impassable, hot, fly-infested, like the city / of Tetu on the Nile which became the Otherworld” (The House of Osiris in the Field of Reeds). That surging change of direction is typical of Morrissey’s best poems.
The book’s title draws attention to the way Morrissey navigates her subjects by using different viewpoints, but in the shorter poems the switch in focus from well-observed details to a more abstract register feels abrupt and a little mechanical, as in the similes of Daughter: “She’s learning this house / like a psalm: the crack / in the kitchen sink, the drawers and all / their warring contents, / the geography of each room / immutable as television.” (Television programmes recur in this varied collection, which draws on a number of Scandinavian crime series, BBC Four documentaries, The Wire and an enjoyable pastiche of Chandleresque pillowtalk).
“Never have met me, know me well, / tell all the world there was little to tell” begins The Byelaws, the first poem in Glyn Maxwell’s ninth collection, Pluto (Picador, £9.99). As if addressed to an obituarist, these lines prepare the reader for a collection whose central poems take a steady, unillusioned look at the poet’s life, addressing, respectively, the end of an affair, the death of a friend and a bittersweet return to Hertfordshire. The Byelaws, with its punning title, sets up this series of “goodbyes” with its refrain of “come my way, go yours”.
The longer poems are marked too by Maxwell’s characteristically impatient and emphatic rhythms. In the title poem, missing his daughter, Maxwell writes: “To say she’s like this or is this, like we do in poems, / strikes me as time I could be in Sussex with her, / trampolining. Most things strike me as that.” Still, he finds an original, moving image for his own disappearance from parts of his life, identifying with Pluto “that morning [it] / learned it was not a planet.”
Maxwell’s poems are constantly sizing up and shaking down their subjects, restlessly stylised even at their most affecting. Rebecca Goss’s Her Birth (Carcanet/ Northern House, £9.95) takes a different approach as it narrates the devastating loss of her first child to a rare heart condition, choosing to carefully record scenes from her life and bereavement. The book charts a return to normality even as it recognises that the experiences it describes have wrecked what “normality” might mean: Mothers of the Dead balances “I spoke to one on the phone, / her toddler fine one minute, / gone the next” against “We breathed / in and out like normal women // before hanging up, / getting on with our lives”.
The Havocs (Picador, £9.99) is Jacob Polley’s third collection: an outstanding book, its powerful, vivid poems can be startlingly lyrical as they find images for the limits of human consciousness. On The Move at First Light imagines rain “filling the bare field with broken panes / of pink. To loosen, to empty! / To be as full of sky as fallen rain”. The News begins, “The rooks don’t care. They wheel and croak. / The hills don’t shake and turn to smoke”. Steeped in the early 1970s work of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, Polley’s riddles and tall tales often offer Gothic twists: Hide and Seek begins with a suggestively sinister line break: “I wasn’t in the chicken coop / watching”, and ends: “I didn’t leak or scratch or smell. / I didn’t go to pieces in a stranger’s hands. / That wasn’t my voice coming from down the well.”
Michael Symmons Roberts’s Drysalter (Cape, £12), the favourite for the Forward Prize, puns on “psalter”, a book whose inclusion of the 150 psalms is mimicked by Drysalter’s 150 poems, each of them 15 lines long. Drysalter accumulates weight and momentum as it proceeds, constantly discovering new subjects for Roberts’ reflective imagination. In his fallen world, modernity and ancient natural scenes are compellingly treated with both wonder and scepticism. He is equally fascinated by a shopping-centre amusement where “My coat bucks like a paper dragon, / hands braced on the wall until, unheralded, / the storm stills and holds me in its eye” (Hymn to a Hurricane Booth); a skull that is “postpartum plate tectonics, unfurled / origami, grapefruit with a thumb-press pulse” (Portrait of a Skull); a vision of Babylon, where “We hang our harps in trees / and will not sing. It’s fine, we say, / since the songs are so old no one / will forget their tunes. Besides, / they play them all day on the radio” (In Babylon); and Vasco da Gama, who discovers the source of rivers, “a tap in the backyard of a bombed-out bar” and thinks, “there are two kinds of people: one would turn the tap off, the other wrench it full on. / So he took a drink, and knew which one he was” (Discoverers).
John McAuliffe is a poet and academic. He is a director of the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.