Thursday, December 31, 2020

The best books of 2020 / Poetry


The best books of 2020: Our critics select their picks of the year


Paul Perry

'In the dark times/Will there be singing?/There will be singing/ Of the dark times' wrote Bertolt Brecht in 1938 while in exile in the Danish countryside. A calamitous decade behind him, a terrifying one ahead. And now in 2020, over 80 years later, we have had a year where poets once again are here to write and sing about the dark times.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Collected Poems (Gallery Press, €20) is a lifetime achievement from the Ireland Professor of Poetry, bringing together iconic titles Acts and Monuments, The Girl Who Married the Reindeer and a selection of beautiful new work, which explores the music of language. Grace Wilentz impresses with her debut The Limit of Light (Gallery Press, €11.95), 'Sometimes I can feel us diving/weightless, as I dream' (Belly of a Whale). As does Sean Hewitt's debut Tongues of Fire (Jonathan Cape, €12.50), while Leeanne Quinn's second collection, Some Lives (Dedalus Press, €12.50), creates new, imaginative spaces, 'It was still/nothing like I'd imagined' ('Unless').

This dream-like wonder is an attribute of much of the work published this year. Sadly, we lost the great poets Eavan Boland and Derek Mahon. They wrote until the end, both publishing important posthumous collections. Mahon's Washing Up (Gallery Press, €12.50pb/€18.50hb) contains poems of the pandemic with Quarantine, and A Fox in Grafton Street and an elegy to Ciaran Carson. And Boland's The Historians (Carcanet, €12.50) extends her legacy of reclaiming forgotten voices from the past. Shadow of the Owl (Bloodaxe, €12.50) by the much-loved Matthew Sweeney is another posthumously published title of note and contains moving poems of his final year living with illness. Not forgetting Sinéad Morrissey's sublime Found Architecture: Selected Poems (Carcanet, €15). The anthologies African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, edited by Kevin Young (Library of America, €38), and When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo (Norton, €16), give a sense of the depth of marginalised voices.

Paul Perry's most recent collection is Blindsight (above/ground press 2020)


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Poems by AM Cousins

AM Cousins

New Irish Writing

Poems by AM Cousins

December 26, 2020


i.m. of Eavan Boland


Our nun schooled us in all there was to know:

how to measure, parse, recite, memorise;

how to bear witness under duress and —

in the unlikely event of a miracle —

how to greet and welcome a bishop.


When the unimaginable came to pass,

we formed a half circle on the cement yard;

our visitor extended a gracious hand

to our nun and we watched her black serge skirt

fly up to catch the air, parachute

to a crinoline as she sank to her knees,

her poor face purple, My Lord on her lips.


She struggled to her feet, regained her balance

while we sweated, trembled in the knowledge

that our homemade skirts would not disguise

a clumsy curtsy should we be called upon.


Not one of us was invited to step up

and demonstrate obeisance to The Anointed.

Before he left, we cheered his parting gift —

a holiday at the nun’s discretion

and, of course, the episcopal blessing.


So, I knew what I was doing last September —

when readings and recitations were over —

I dropped to my knees in front of the poet,

but I didn’t dare to kiss her hand

or touch the hem of her sensible garment.





The time we brought you home —

that first night when you woke

in the small hours and refused

the teat of your brand-new bottle,

clamping your mouth shut only

to open it to wail inconsolably —

I was sorely tempted to hold you

to my breast but feared you would

pull away and search the shadows

for a glimpse of her ghost.


The next night was little better —

the crying woke the house

and we moved from room to room,

I rocked and sang and kissed,

cajoled, then wept along with you —

I thought you might have sensed


that a hundred miles away,

a young woman — in a single bed,

in a single room — breasts bound,

her bleeding staunched,

nursed her phantom child.

AM Cousins’s poetry has appeared in literary publications including The Stinging Fly, The SHOp and Poetry Ireland Review. Her work was highly commended in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Competition 2015, 2016 and 2019, and her poem Not my Michael Furey won the FISH poetry prize 2019. Anne is a regular contributor to RTÉ Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany. She lives in Wexford town and her first collection of poetry is due to be published by Chaffinch Press in 2021.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

The best recent poetry / Review roundup


Rachel Long makes the unfamiliar feel perfectly natural in My Darling from the Lions. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti

The best recent poetry – review roundup

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long; Moving House by Theophilus Kwek; Road Trip by Marvin Thompson; After Fame by Sam Riviere

Rishi Dastidar
Sat 8 Aug 2020 12.00 BST

My Darling from the Lions

Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions (Picador, £10.99), nominated for the Forward first collection prize, is alive with a breathless energy. The founder of the Octavia Poetry Collective for Womxn of Colour, Long writes with keen wit and delight in rendering the world new; an estate is described as “built like Tetris”, afros become orbs, dolls become a means by which to write about identity with a refreshing verve. There is pain woven alongside the giddy sensuality and sharp precision too (“A diary / isn’t a diary till / you won’t show anyone”). She is especially good at making the unfamiliar feel perfectly right and natural: “And even though I was green / I was The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” A book of “serious play”.

Moving House (Carcanet, £10.99), Theophilus Kwek

Moving House (Carcanet, £10.99), Theophilus Kwek’s first collection, is full of dislocations and is concerned with the difficulties of traversing through and between worlds: the living and the dead, the past and present, the UK and Singapore. His poems are keenly aware that the scariest place to exist is on the edges of a space, but the stately, serene pacing should not blind you to the keen political intelligence at work. Kwek calmly and consistently draws attention to the overlooked – domestic workers, soldiers killed in training, drowned refugees – in ways that ask, gently, how much you can and must care: “so the storms, / abundant, must send their ships elsewhere // to drop anchor beyond the locked heart / of the bay”.

Marvin Thompson’s Road Trip

Another debut, Marvin Thompson’s Road Trip (Peepal Tree, £9.99), is an invigorating journey through complexities of black British family life. A ghost, perhaps his father, who served in the British army, returns to the poet, “‘re-born,’ // he told me, / ‘over and over’”, from the Peterloo massacre to Aden to Helmand. This imperial legacy is further explored as Thompson reports on bringing up his children in the Welsh countryside, worrying what happens if they “choose / to identify // as White / in a Britain // that will call them Black?” In “An Interview With Comedy Genius Olivier Welsh” a less than successful comedian wonders why his career hasn’t gone quite to plan. But what appears to be whimsy is actually a sharp weapon: “Maybe then, the truth’s just been revealed: / the Black part of me’s not funny at all.”

Sam Riviere’s After Fame

Following 81 Austerities and Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, Sam Riviere’s After Fame (Faber, £10.99) is the latest in his “process-derived” collections. This time his source material is the Roman poet and epigrammatist Martial, who first coined the term plagiarism. After Fame is a version of Martial’s Book I, sitting somewhere between machine translation, re-creation and remix. As Riviere (or is it?) puts it: “This volume aims to discover whether you can game a poem’s legislation from within.” However they have been created, these poems have a savage humour and satiric intent. Their effect is of a deadpan ghost come back to stand at the edge of a party, providing gobbets of acidic commentary on contemporary mores, while reminding us that little changes, especially when it comes to writers, and their vanity: “If you sign the petition / then I’ll remove my name / (the only reason you added your signature)”.


Friday, December 18, 2020

Best poetry books of 2020


Best poetry books of 2020

Clive James’s joyous farewell, David Bowie speaks to Simon Armitage – and sounds of the city from Caleb Femi

Rishi Dastidar
Sat 28 Nov 2020 09.00 GMT


hile the pandemic might have stopped poets gathering physically, poetry itself is in good health. This year books of urgency and contemplation have jostled for attention, and striking new voices have emerged. Prime among these has been Will Harris, whose RENDANG (Granta) won the Forward prize for first collection. Harris writes with a piercing clarity and intelligence, his voice warm as it crisply ruminates on big issues such as our shared cultures and identities, as well as more intimate moments.

My Darling from the Lions

Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions (Picador) is another debut that has illuminated the year, its wit and sensuality alive with a winning energy. With a similar verve, Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire (Cape) braids together simple and economical descriptions of the natural world with scenes of tenderness, intimacy and ecstasy, graceful in its balance. The most vital first collection of 2020 is Poor (Penguin) by Caleb Femi. Combining startlingly inventive language with his own photography, the book is a pioneering tribute to the lives of the young black men he grew up with in south London. His devotion to celebrating a sense of now and what happens when this meets with death gives Poor an unexpected spiritual dimension; it makes you think of George Herbert in its intensity and importance.

Also intense is Caroline Bird’s Forward prize-winning The Air Year (Carcanet). Her sixth collection is a centrifuge of careening energy, where riding love’s rollercoaster is also an opportunity for self-knowledge and acceptance, “blobs of miscellaneous optimism”. It is one of the most generous and open-hearted books of the year. Another title that gives shape to the ineffable is JR Carpenter’s This Is a Picture of Wind (Longbarrow). It’s a digitally tinged pillow book full of staccato language inspired by John Ruskin’s “sky-bottling days”, Francis Beaufort’s wind scale and Luke Howard’s observations of clouds: “Matter invested with a luminous quality … The breath became visible.”

Natalie Diaz’s meditations on stolen land, stolen water and erased bodies in Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber) are equally luminous: “I am your Native, / and this is my American labyrinth.” Her language is rich and epigrammatic, its physicality enhanced by its unruffled cadences. Mining in similar territory, How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion) by Bhanu Kapil sharply explores what it is like to be permanently on edge when you feel like you are permanently a guest as an immigrant.

Just us

The lyric essay has proved vital in examining subjects often difficult or ignored. Notable in this regard is Just Us (Allen Lane) by Claudia Rankine, the follow-up to the award-winning Citizen. Subtitled “An American Conversation”, it’s an interrogation of how it might be possible for people to accommodate and make sense of our differences, in race, class and status. Rankine is as hard and unflinching on herself as she is on her interlocutors. Also using a mix of memoir, image and poetry is artist Abi Palmer in her debut, Sanatorium (Penned in the Margins). An account of her stay at a rehabilitation spa in Budapest, she brings the actuality of her physical pain vividly to life, communicating its texture viscerally and without pity.

Magnetic Field- The Marsden Poems

“‘Always had you pegged as a bit of a stop-at-home, curled up in your Yorkshire foxhole’,” says David Bowie from the dead to Simon Armitage in Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems (Faber), a wide-ranging personal poetic topography drawn from throughout his career. It is a Rough Guide to the poet laureate and the village that formed and continues to inspire him. And if you are missing traversing a city in search of adventure, find solace in Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem (Faber). A neglected feminist modernist poem, and forerunner to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, this is a journey of typographical and linguistic exuberance through the mourning cityscape of the French capital one day in 1919.

Clive James Fire of Joy

Finally, the last books from two of the most important poets writing in English came out this year. The Historians (Carcanet) by Eavan Boland, who died in April, zooms in with characteristic musicality and intelligence on what the stories that are often overlooked – those of women. Meanwhile, in The Fire of Joy (Picador), Clive James restated his belief that noise is the thing when it comes to poems, and the “fire of joy” it produces in those hearing and declaiming it. From Thomas Wyatt to Carol Ann Duffy, this valedictory volume features 80 poems he learned and loved, each accompanied by an essay to persuade us of their brilliance. Not that he could ever hide his. “I chose the right profession – poetry – and followed it to the end.”

• Rishi Dastidar’s latest collection, Saffron Jack, is published by Nine Arches.