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  POETRY REVIEWS FROM POETRY KIT MAGAZINE - 1

These reviews will appear in the reviews section of Poetry Kit magazine http://www.poetrykit.org/pkmag/index.htm

This is the first in what will be an occasion newsletter containing information about new and classic books.  Along with reviews we will publish news of book launches and other related information.  If you would like to contribute a review,  a new or classic poetry book that is still available, please let me know at info@poetrykit.org  You can also provide any other information that you feel is appropriate and we will consider it.

In this issue of POETRY REVIEW

 

Continental Shelf: Fred D’Aguiar.   Reviewed by Stuart Nunn

Dick of the Dead: Rachel Loden.   Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

Making the Known World New: Kenneth Steven.  Reviewed by Martyn Halsall

 

Continental Shelf: Fred D’Aguiar.   Reviewed by Stuart Nunn

 
This was the Spring choice from the Poetry Book Society and I approached it with some apprehension as I knew little of D’Aguiar’s work apart from an earlier collection that I skimmed rather than read. In addition, I’ve not been a massive fan of the work of Caribbean poets, as it seemed to address questions that weren’t central to my own experience.
 
There’s always an interest in exploring poetry that can be seen as ‘exotic’ of course, but I’m also conscious of how that can be seen as an aspect of colonialism, with all the suspect assumptions that go along with that. It’s a question that I’ve never resolved satisfactorily: how can a white reader respond to poetry from other cultures without a) uncritically accepting it on its own terms, or b) patronising it.
 
Such problems didn’t arise with this collection as the bulk of the book has moved away from the concerns of immigrant populations that I took to be the main focus of his previous work. But not entirely, as the collection opens and closes with poems of his childhood in Guyana, and it is dedicated to Wilson Harris.
 
But the fact that the opening section of the book is titled ‘Local Colour’ with what looks like an ironic distance suggests that D’Aguiar knows exactly what he is doing, with the implication that there is going to be something else farther in.
 
And indeed there is. The central – and by far the longest - section is called ‘Elegies’ and is a twenty-one part sequence of sonnets whose starting point is the massacre of thirty-three students at Virginia Tech University, where he is Professor of English and Africana Studies.
 
Sudden sirens invade my office or what I hear as
Giant wasps in keeping with my primal fear: ambulance,
Fire, and police; I cannot think until they pass.
 
But they do not stop their panicky advance,
Drilling into my skull.
 
Part One deals with the narrative of his experience of the shooters who invaded the campus and the immediate effect on his students. These early sonnets rhyme for the most part and have a regular but inconspicuous rhythm. What is striking is the vividness of the confusion as he struggles to make sense of it:
 
                                          I dial my house.
I ask, Something’s going on here, please tell me what?
What I catch makes me swear like a Jamaican, Blouse
 
And skirts!
 
And then, as the first confusion resolves itself, comes the realisation that students he knows have been killed and the tributes he pays to Erin, the girl ‘three desks back in that first row’ is touching:
 
Erin, queen of the court and brightest light in the room,
You are a bride now and death is your bridegroom.
 
But this is only Part One, and there’s a long way to go.
 
As the parts develop, the rhyming falls away; the forms change and splinter till only the fourteen lines remain. And death, aging, the fragility of life and youth are all explored. Every now and then he returns to the events of April 16th, but only to set off again along the paths of memory, grief and bewilderment that those events created for him.
 
He questions the role of the artist in him who looks on at these appalling things and writes them down – ‘seemingly/Lacking a heart.’ He relates this massacre to deaths elsewhere – in Iraq, for example – that move us less.
 
And then his Caribbean origin is back. His mum cooks a meal for his students at their first meeting after the cancelled week, they give her flowers and eat off ‘Pirates of the Caribbean paper plates’. And this produces a new relationship with his mum – who becomes ‘Mother’ in the next stanza.
 
He considers the gunman, even though
 
I promised I would not spend any time
On the probable inner workings of the mind
Of a man who butchered so many people.
 
and sees that he is little different from the students he murdered:
 
Thus I find myself thinking about his loss
And theirs as multiple sides of a prism:
 
Whatever light shines in comes out unequal.
Whatever light comes out, forms an equation.
 
There is too much in this long poem (71 pages with two sonnets to the page) to examine in the kind of detail that it requires. I would fail to do it justice and deter people from reading it. I’m also conscious that I’ve only dealt with the easier, early parts, when the true richness of it comes in the second half, where he seems to sum up the important issues of his life – immigration, aging, how to respond to death, and so on.
 
I came to this poem with few expectations but find that the one reading I have given it, plus the skimming needed to write this much about it, only feed the perception that this is a really important piece of work, going well beyond what D’Aguiar has done up to now.
 
I urge everyone to read it if they possibly can. It’s ‘Continental Shelf’ by Fred D’Aguiar, published by Carcanet at 9.95.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Rachel Loden. Dick of the Dead (Ahsahta Press 2009).    Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

 

This is Rachel Loden’s second full collection, her first, Hotel Imperium (University of Georgia Press 1999), introduced readers to a writer of great wit and sharp political satire, yet also capable of subtlety, sad awareness of our (in)human condition, and genuine insight. Loden has found her ‘muse,’ if that is the proper term, in Richard Nixon, and he continues to haunt her new collection. She can be wickedly funny, yet in this new volume she also achieves moments of deep sadness, writing what is both a savage and a tender elegy for ‘the American century.’ Dick of the Dead is simply a fine, and finely tuned, collection of highly entertaining as well as profoundly provocative poetry.

 

One of the things Rachel Loden does so well here is adapt a range of 'I's about whom we feel both a kind of contempt and a kind of compassion simultaneously, as with 'Miss October' and the, rather various, voice who speaks in such poems as 'Sympathy for the Empire' or 'The Toy Box of My Intentions' or 'Clare's Revenge' (a very sly take on 'The Lament of Deor'), let alone that of the titular figure. The poems slip between almost pure satire (take for example 'Cheney Agonistes,' the very title of which must raise a wince and a grin) and something akin to elegy, stopping at various points between (I thought the really sly parodies of 'I Know a Brand' [Creeley's famous poem] & 'Autumn Days' [Rilke] especially outrageous, in the very best sense, of course).

 

There are many poems here that are not simply satire or critical parody; Loden is capable of a wide range of emotional representation. Which is why Dick of the Dead is such a rich bouillabaisse. Nevertheless, it’s as a kind of absolutely clear eyed vision of the contemporary world, especially in terms of US cultural and political hegemony gone sour, that Dick of the Dead achieves its darkest brilliance, not least because the language of the poems is both subtle and crystalline, demotic and high when necessary, and full of true wit.

 

I read it with delight even as I also felt its own controlled despair about the way 'our' culture seems to continually present such an attuned writer with ever more subjects (of critique).

 

As just one example of how subtle her savage indignation can be, these final stanzas of  'Sympathy for the Empire' :

 

it is a bunch of teenage privates in Kuwait

 

who have to spill out of their Bradleys

through the black smoke of live-fire exercise

 

--

 

as sand insinuates itself into night-vision eyes.

The desert is a sea of rocking, luminous green

 

as Rummy wields his dictaphone, white memos

drifting through the Pentagon like snow.

 

Those words, 'wields'  'dictaphone'  'drifting': le mot juste at work.

 

Douglas Barbour

 


 

Making the Known World New by Kenneth Steven - Saint Andrew Press 9.99 (978-0-7152-0882-3)   Reviewed by   Martyn Halsall

 

 

            Kenneth Steven works largely in prose, to seek in poetry a sense of place. From a small garden ‘right beside the grounds of Dunblane Cathedral’ he conducts a pilgrimage exploring poetry’s redemptive potential.

            Such healing, he argues, consoles our world, wounded by capitalism’s domination and, within the church, the ultra-evangelical’s indifference to the natural world. He recalls ‘this tired and cynical age’ being leavened by a robin perching on his hand, or seeing geese over his garden. ‘Poetry is about such small moments of transformation because the experience of the poem must be universal.’

            Wide-ranging as a writer, as a poet, novelist, children’s author and broadcaster, Steven risks parochialism, advocating accessible poetry ‘dug’ from confined spaces, like George Mackay Brown’s Orkney. Brown’s fellow Orcadian, Edwin Muir, suffered most of his life from leaving those islands, Steven argues, only resurrecting his vision late in life was his majestic and mysterious poem ‘The Horses’, about post-nuclear redemption.

            Geographical attachment gives Steven a platform to castigate damaging travellers, like obsessive tourists among the rich retired, or poets drafting ‘Fourteen Haiku from Tasmania’ from brief, often subsidised excursions. He is equally dismissive of the transient attractions of ‘cleverness’ he finds inherent in post-modernity and its cultural illustrations.

            He offers ironic consolation to readers struggling to understand ‘the kind of contemporary poems that are printed in the top literary journals. They’ve turned the pages again and again, feeling they should have had at least a couple of degrees and a doctorate to understand what’s being said.’

            Redemptive living, and writing, he argues, can be in a few square feet, for small things matter: ‘God is as much in them as he is present in the great’. Steven’s poetry is quiet and does not strain for effect. He finds a February day ‘cut out of clear light’, and an autumn night ‘when the copper-coloured land/ Whispers dry with fire and wind’.

            Apart from a bicycle and ‘the kafuffle of a train’, his poems stand outside time, concerned with weather and planting, ‘the swallows clicking above me’, and similar, patient observations of the world close at hand.

            In concentrating our poetic vision, Kenneth Steven has written a vital book, celebratory and controversial; a prose poem that grows from deeply felt experience into the wonder of universal questions that all worthwhile poetry considers.

           

Martyn Halsall is poetry editor of ‘Third Way’ magazine.


           

 

Book Notes by Jim Bennett

Searle Publishing has launched a new poetry series called Global Poetry Series, the first three books in the series are below and full reviews of these (excellent) books will be included in the next POETRY REVIEW from Poetry Kit.  Also drawing some attention is the reprint of twp poets work, John Harris' poetry from 1820-1884.  His poetry captures unique aspects of Cornish life and it has been reprinted from original editions by Palores Publications, and Tom Rawling's How Hall, Poems and Memories, which despite the awful title contains some excellent poetry.  Tom died in 1996 and it is good to see that both of these poets are remembered and continue to be made available.  Both of these will be reviewed in the next issue.

 

  

 

 



 



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