FROM POETRY KIT MAGAZINE - 1
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In this issue of POETRY REVIEW
Fred D’Aguiar. Reviewed by Stuart Nunn
Dick of the Dead: Rachel Loden.
Making the Known World New:
Kenneth Steven. Reviewed by Martyn
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
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
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 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
and sees that he is little different from the students he
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
Rachel Loden. Dick of the Dead (Ahsahta Press 2009).
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.
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.
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).
just one example of how subtle her savage indignation can be,
these final stanzas of 'Sympathy for the Empire' :
is a bunch of teenage privates in Kuwait
have to spill out of their Bradleys
through the black smoke of live-fire exercise
sand insinuates itself into night-vision eyes.
desert is a sea of rocking, luminous green
Rummy wields his dictaphone, white memos
drifting through the Pentagon like snow.
Those words, 'wields' 'dictaphone' 'drifting': le mot juste at
Making the Known World New by
Kenneth Steven -
Saint Andrew Press £9.99 (978-0-7152-0882-3)
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
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
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
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.
Halsall is poetry editor of ‘Third Way’ magazine.
Book Notes by Jim
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.