Poetry round-up: Mary Noonan’s second collection is a bit of a surprise
Plus new poetry from Hannah Sullivan and Marilyn Hacker
Marilyn Hacker is resident in Paris.
Hannah Sullivan was awarded the TS Eliot prize in January.
Stone Girl (Dedalus, €12.50)
That Mary Noonan’s second collection is a vibrant, lively book is a surprise, given that she is not short of sombre subject matter, dwelling on the death of her father and including poems about her partner, the poet Matthew Sweeney, which now seem imbued with the news of his death late last year.
There are poems of grief and recrimination here (“I hope I was kind to them, but I doubt it”, she writes in Rue St Paul), but there is also a frenzied and absorbingly fantastical resistance to the impositions of reality. Noonan specialises in detailed pictures of scenes and characters, but her best work also includes exclamations and mysterious invocations.
“I climb from under the man-hole,” she writes in Equinox, “the rat’s nest of winter, find myself / on the beach at Kilkee.” Then, she is “standing on the roof / of the year”, observing the wreckage, “black plastic like tattered shrouds.” This is finely done, but the turn of the poem’s closing lines is what raises the temperature of the book: “On the beach, / the equinoctial carnival is gearing up, / mustering to start again. Ah, start again.”
And starting again is what Noonan’s poems do, digging in for the long haul, her portraits of beloved figures often surreally accompanied by, or transformed into, animals. The Invader introduces, with its wittily emphatic line-breaks, “A walrus on dry land, you were / bulky and clumsy and implausibly / hairy, likely to bump into furniture, / send small, gilded things flying.” Flânerie of the Beaver is stranger still, and just
The poet locates
his favourite chestnut tree, sits there
dreaming of the long incisors he will grow,
of how he will learn to bite off his testicles
when threatened by hunters, fling them in
their faces, and of how he will preen his lustrous pelt
in the sun.
Appetites for new poetry
Awarded the TS Eliot Prize in January, Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems (Faber & Faber, £10.99) is the third first collection to win the prize in the past four years, and indicative not just of the strength of recent first collections, but also of the appetite for new poets and new poetry at a time when the language of public life seems to be debased further with every “update” or reiteration of the news.
Sullivan strikes a different elegiac note in remembering her father, focusing more on the speaker set adrift in a material world which becomes a sort of reliquary with a newly absent subject. Arriving home from university, “The Persil-white brocade of laundered sheets, / And on the wall the Harvard calendar you bought them, / The knife-smooth fondant of the frozen Charles, / Only your name against the day of coming home.”
The striking coincidence of her parent’s illness and the birth of the poet’s child is at the heart of the book’s third long poem, The Sandpit After Rain, where difficult emotions and e a ffects are again displaced onto vividly particular description. Sullivan’s materialism, her emphasis on the things and objects of the world, is also evident in the book’s exhilarating, reeling first poem, You, Very Young in New York.
Pained circumstances co-exist there with dizzying networks and the distracting pull of social media’s so-called attention economy: “Your friends wear flannel and McDonald’s name badges, / They talk about Ben Bernanke and Isabel Marant wedges. // You are slightly disappointed in Obama’s domestic policy. / You think the great American novelist is David Foster Wallace”, or later in the same poem’s referential network:
Kate is photographing durians in Shanghai,
Zena was born this morning,
Claire is drying home-made pasta, Elina wishes she could play guitar,
Arlo is flying LHR-SFO, upgraded out of H to J,
and your mother asks
To be your friend again, but the request just
hangs in the sidebar.
The poems may luxuriate in their surroundings, but they do not shy away from the demands we make of one another. Coleridge spoke of poets as “bridlers with delight , ”, surging this way and that as they steer us between delights, no matter their subjects, and Sullivan’s “darting glances” bridle tricky material and sustain this ambitious debut.
The American poet Marilyn Hacker has been resident in Paris for decades, a postmodern formalist whose work has sometimes been compared to another occasional Parisian – Derek Mahon. Her new book Blazons (Carcanet, £14.99) includes a short, impressive taster from collections and translations published since 1990, as well as an entire new book-length sequence, Calligraphies.
Readers will have favourites among the translations here. The Guy Goffette translations are light and crisp and song-like, while Fadwa Suleiman’s more elemental register reaches powerfully for a prophetic note. Hacker’s immersion in Arabic and French poetry and forms has clearly influenced her own use of syllabics in Calligraphies. Ghazals, tankas and pantoums recur, in a poetry which is as finely attuned to the material world as Sullivan’s, except that the foods and places of Hacker’s world dodge out of the Anglo-American sphere, relishing instead nouns whose strangeness she tours among, showing us, among many other things,
Some lovely useless
ubiquitous foreign word,
blooming well into July,
framing blue vistas of sea.
Hacker’s work is often observational, showing us the lives of others, and verbally self-effacing. Elegies and portraits return to the ravages of cancer, but even this subject becomes a riposte to narrow nationalism, afflicting the poet, her friends and networks, equally in Europe, the Levant and North America. A bridge between languages, between worlds, she insists on cultural commonalities, and not always on what is happiest.
Horrified by the narrowness of conservative politics, she writes “The monoglots are having their revenge, / armed at their checkpoints, shutting down borders” (Ce qu’il reste à vivre). She will not let herself off the hook either: “You come home from your meeting, your clinic, make coffee and look in the mirror / and ask yourself once more what you did to bring about the dark times.” (Ghazal: The Dark Times).
The “dark times” compellingly documented in Blazons are both personal and an international affair.
John McAuliffe teaches poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester