I Been There, Sort Of by Mervyn Morris
(Carcanet, 2006, 92 pp, £9.95)
The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail
(tr. Elizabeth Winslow, Carcanet, 2006, 78 pp., £9.95)
Slower by Andrew McNeillie
(Carcanet, 2006, 94 pp., £9.95)

These three collections take the reader into foreign, far-flung territories. The first two are selections from previous books: Mervyn Morris supplements his picks from four previous books with over 30 pages of new poems. A West Indian poet, his work veers between patois, Creole, Jamaican slang (sometimes like a less political LKJ ) and standard English. For me, the shorthand character sketches, often using patois or speech rhythms, are the most immediate things in the book. 'Interview', 'North Coast Hotel' and 'Cabal', though not all written in full-on patois, benefit from this sense of freshness: the last-named is sinister and effective, concluding 'De eediot bwoy was tryin / to block de road. We move him out de way.' The explicitly religious sequence 'On Holy Week' (1976), which follows, was originally written for radio and again, a babble of voices (Joseph of Arimathaea, Mary, the thief on the cross) speaks to the reader of the events. These are not quite as powerful as they should be, but one or two are very incisive. 'Pilate', for instance, analyses the timeless atmosphere of political corruption surrounding Roman power:

            Your masters wouldn't like it much
            if we should let them know
            we caught a man supplanting Rome
            and you have let him go.

The rest of the books works through three earlier collections, dating from 1973, 1979 and 1992 respectively, and these aren't quite so strong. The non-chronological order doesn't help in identifying progression or thematic continuity, either, but the latest poems certainly make a case for getting to know Morris' work.

Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi writer now living in America. She speaks Arabic, Aramaic and English and, unsurprisingly, the writing and publishing of her work through the 1990s has been fraught with the kind of personal danger English poets never have to consider. In her introduction, Saadi Simawe contextualises Mikhails' work with some clarity, and Elizabeth Winslow's translations are precise and accessible to the Western reader. She writes of exile, violence and upheaval, but also using parable, metaphors which recall the metaphysicals and a free verse timbre which occasionally recalls writers like Allen Ginsberg: Mikhail's 'America', a lengthy piece, seems to recast Ginsberg's Whitmanesque musings on his country back in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Some of the recent pieces in this volume possess an almost-documentary authenticity: 'Bag of Bones' steps straight from the news footage of mass graves and atrocities so depressingly familiar; 'The Game' explores the empty rhetoric of war as a sequence of moves; 'The Prisoner' and 'Between Two Wars' explores the effects of such random, everyday violence on the innocent civilians caught up in them. Two pieces are particularly recommended: the title poem, 'The War Works Hard', personifies war as a diligent worker in a tone of sympathetic irony - 'early in the morning, / it wakes up the sirens/ and dispatches ambulances/ to various places..' - concluding 'Éno one gives it/ a word of praise.' The other particularly powerful poem, 'An Urgent Call' discusses the US military's torture and interrogation of detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, dramatising Lynndie England's role in particular. She was the young American caught on film treating those detained as animals: 'hurry up, Lynndie, / go back to America now. / Don't worry, / you will not lose your job.' Here, as elsewhere in this fine collection, Mikhail's equable tones hide the disgust and rage which the reader shares.

The third foreign territory explored here is the wild region of North Wales which Andrew McNeillie tramps in 'Slower', his third major collection. Several sequences explore the territory biographically or tangentially: 'Portrait of the Poet as a Young Dog', 28 'Glyn Dŵr Sonnets', eleven poems entitled 'Homage to Patagonia', exploring attempts to found a Welsh colony in Argentina in the late nineteenth-century, and a sequence 'Arkwork', juxtaposed with Julian Bell's drawings, which is based on a ferry disaster in 1953. Surrounding these are some substantial free-standing poems and a further sequence 'North Clutag'.

Given this range, the reader certainly does not feel short-changed, but there is a very real sense that a slimmer, sharper book lies somewhere within these extensive patterns, like field-patterns persisting beneath luxuriant crops. For me, admirable though McNeillie's work generally is, the single poems work best: three fine meditations on the death of a parent ('Death', 'Shade at the Funeral' and 'Gone for Good'), 'In Memoriam Edward Thomas' (Thomas always seems to inspire good poems from others) and the title poem, 'Slower' with its pendant afterthought, 'Quicker'. These last two anatomise the Irish peace process densely, rhythmically and wisely: 'Slower, history beckoned, sifting its river-silts so / late in the day..' - a mordant thought, with which Dunya Mikhail would probably agree. Not everything here is good - I could have done without meandering elegies to Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas, even though the latter seems heartfelt - but McNeillie is an accomplished writer, continuing to develop with each subsequent collection. In the best poems here he outgrows these influences, consistently adopting the right tone and exploring many different forms confidently.

     © M.C. Caseley 2006