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)”.


Sunday, December 13, 2020

Poe / The Poetic Principle





Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was born in Boston, the child of actors who died while he was very young. He was adopted by a Virginian gentleman, Mr. John Allan, who put him to school in England for five years, then in Richmond, and finally sent him to the University of Virginia. He remained there only a short time, and after finding that he disliked business, and publishing a volume of poems, he enlisted in the army. Mr. Allan had him discharged and placed him in West Point, from which he got himself dismissed. After that he supported himself in a hand-to-mouth fashion by writing for and editing newspapers and periodicals, living successively in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. The publication of his remarkable poem, "The Raven," in 1845, brought him fame, and for a short time he was a literary lion. But in 1847 his wife died, and his two remaining years were a gradual descent.

Poe's work falls into three divisions: poems, tales, and criticism. The poems are chiefly remarkable for the amazing technical skill with which haunting rhythms and studied successions of vowel and consonant sounds are made to suggest atmospheres and emotional moods, with a minimum of thought. In the writing of fiction, Poe is the great master of the weird tale, no writer having surpassed him in the power of shaking the reader's nerves with suggestions of the supernatural and the horrible. In these stories, as in the poems, he shows an extraordinary sense of form, and his effects are produced not merely by the violently sensational, but by carefully calculated attacks upon the reader's imaginative sensibilities.

In criticism Poe was, if not a scholarly, at least a stimulating and suggestive, writer, with a fine ear and, within his range, keen insight. His essay on "The Poetic Principle" is his poetic confession of faith. He makes clear and defends his conception of poetry; a conception which excludes many great kinds of verse, but which, illuminated as it is by abundant examples of his favorite poems, throws light in turn upon some of the fundamental elements of poetry.

It is worth noting that no American author seems to have enjoyed so great a European vogue as Poe.


In speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound. While discussing, very much at random, the essentiality of what we call Poetry, my principal purpose will be to cite for consideration some few of those minor English or American poems which best suit my own taste, or which upon my own fancy have left the most definite impression. By "minor poems" I mean, of course, poems of little length. And here in the beginning permit me to say a few words in regard to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully, has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, "a long poem," is simply a flat contradiction in terms.