Thomas McCarthy's Prophecy (Carcanet Press, £9.99) appears miraculously just two years after his acclaimed Pandemonium. Equally rich and layered, a recurring autumnal theme – "a splendour of October brass" – reflects the stunning courageous harvest which gathers around two pivotal poems about McCarthy's cancer operation.
Growth and regrowth are central while the themes of Pandemonium – the sea, birds, flowers, art, poetry, history – return in poems of impressive formal beauty.
McCarthy’s mother, so memorable in Pandemonium’s Largesse, appears in The Birth of Colour which begins with the poet’s childhood imagined as a twig rescued by his mother from Twig Bog Lane. It surges beautifully through the technological revolution of the “first International Colour Salon” which introduced faster colours as biography/Was ready for colour…
Huge Blackwater river rats
That knawed through the doors of our dry toilets in
Twig Bog Lane were as ignorant of colour as me; and
Could not have known that their multilayered bristles
Would soon be seen in more subtle shades of brown.
In As Blue – “Blue is a code if you’re from Waterford” – Pandemonium’s agapanthus returns with more doughty Waterford ladies. Prophecy teems with fabulous characters and personas but plant life is key here.
The final poem, Taking Instructions from Gertrude Jekyll, begins eerily: “A woodland at its best is only wallpaper, as death/Is also a kind of membrane, moist but stiffening /When the year turns.”
Time is compared to “something light and green” before the poems ends, “Let me tell you again, all the moist spaces in your life/ Should be filled with wet Marigolds, with Zinnias.”
And yet McCarthy’s politics is still kicking, welling up in Thoor Ballylee, when “trees explode in a rage/Of small April leaves. If only we could pour/ Our hearts out without irony in this country.”
Vermeer and Thrift, one of several fine poems about visual art and artists, ends with a poignant call for the shock of Jan Steen’s realism, “Come again, I whisper/To his artwork in a frame…Tell us of/ Vanitas objects. Tell us that tax havens are transient.”
Magnificent, passionate and urgently prescient, Prophecy confronts mortality and materialism, asserting the power of art.
Julia Copus's Girlhood, (Faber and Faber, £14.99) could be taking instructions from her previous collection, The World's Two Smallest Humans, where she wondered if she could learn to love memories, "for no amount of lotion,/oil or rubbing will/remove them".
Twelve substantial cinematic poems form the first half of Girlhood, moving forward and backwards in time, doing battle with “Janus-faced” memory. In A Thing Once it has Happened the speaker returns to an encounter between “the student, who is beautiful,/but not too beautiful…” and “Wire-wool”, a Latin tutor: “The me that was then/follows, watching from the dark/theatre of my skull. The me that is now/does likewise.” Martha Nussbaum’s definition of
Violability - where an object
(a person say)is treated as lacking
in boundary integrity and viewed accordingly
as something it is permissible to
break up, smash, break into
is referenced directly after “Wire-wool” utters his obscenity. Pinpoint details – “. . . the tutor’s hands depend – one on/either side, like lowered pails” – combine with an uncanny sense of the evasive slippery nature of time – “She turns her head to the window/in a series of tiny jump cuts, stills/ joined by infinitesimal dissolves.”
Copus’s poems have the ability to lodge themselves forever in the reader’s head rendering each poem an immersive experience from which we return changed and shaken. In Acts of Anger, the effect of rage on a household is dissected over several compelling pages, “As they reach the house, the door gets sucked/ back into it. Implodes. In the gap stands/the Gaffer . . .”
Powerfully persona poems reimagine a dialogue between psychologist Jacque Lacan and his patient Marguerite whose case study and cure established his reputation. And yet Copus’s Marguerite is not conquered, “But deaf his ears . . . thinking he has solved the puzzle of me.”
The subjects of Girlhood’s poems refuse to be possessed despite invasion. Copus may not have learned to love memories but these poems are dazzling salvage from the wreckage, bringing to mind Wislawa Szymborska’s “. . . joy of writing/the power of preserving./The revenge of a mortal hand.”
The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (Penguin Hardback Classics, £25) edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod is well worth its considerable weight. Handsomely bound with a beautifully designed white dust jacket, 400 pages range over 175 years travelling from Golan Hadji's present-day The End of Days right back to 1842's Harlem by Aloysius Bertrand.
Titans like Heaney, Auden and Eliot rub shoulders with lesser-known poets like Fenton Johnson whose wonderful Tired is like a series of perfectly-aimed hammer blows, “I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.”
It ends musically, unforgettably:
Throw the children into the river; civilisation has given us too
many. It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out
that you are coloured.
Pluck the stars out of the heavens. The stars mark our destiny.
The stars marked my destiny.
I am tired of civilisation.
This is an anthology full of surprises and prose writers get to sing too with fabulous contributions from Ivan Turgenev and Katherine Mansfield. Although the prose poem can be a source of puzzlement for anyone who needs a clear definition, Noel-Tod deals cleanly and quickly with this conundrum in his fine introduction, “the simplest common denominator: a prose poem is a poem without line breaks.”
He notes also that “The story-telling prose poem lends itself to the comic antidote . . . jokes that overshoot their punchlines into something more serious.”
Poems such as The Skull Ring by Chelsey Minnis and Charles Boyle’s Hosea represent a particularly delicious ludic tone which must owe as much to its editor’s taste as to the characteristics of the prose poem. Even well-known prose poems take on a new gloss when arranged among their new companions here. For fans of the prose poem or those who need to find out what it’s all about, this is the definitive volume.