Cross Currents & Shifting Boundaries

New Poetries IV,
ed. Eleanor Crawforth, Stephen Procter & Michael Schmidt
(131pp, 9.95, Carcanet)

This is the fourth in an ongoing series of anthologies from Carcanet and what is so encouraging about this anthology is that the eleven poets in this collection are widely travelled both intellectually and geographically and reference not only the richness of their cultural traditions of their countries of birth, but language and perspectives that travel far beyond an insular view of what constitutes 'British' poetry.  

There is enough variety here to please most tastes and with eleven poets each contributing several poems, it may suffice to pay closer attention to those who come closest to my own preferences.  Each poet has a short introduction concerning their background and literary success - some of which is considerable.  Some of them have gone on to Carcanet's poetry list, so the bar is set pretty high.  In order of appearance:

Christian Campbell draws a great deal on his multicultural experiences and his language incorporates his West Indian background in an engaging and rumbustious style. 'Shells for Sonia' is indicative of the more light hearted nature of his poems, albeit with a twist.  'You ten, I six, and jujube/ now in season.  I monkey up/the tree's weak bones and call/down to you, not Wilsonia, that/big people's name. I does call you Nita...' and further on '...My/Miss Biggety, with your little red self./ Yes, you. You who is hum for the trees/always and play ringplay and pinch/the boys that get too fresh...'  'If  I did know/you was going with your Daddy to leave/me for true,...I would make you learn me/to run fast and sing, if I did know New York/was far-far like the moon.'//.

In 'Whalesong', an initiation into deep sea diving, the '...froth of humanity misplaced, lost and found in the wrong element, light bending incorrectly...'  indicates Andrew Frolish's facility to translate this experience into lyrical poetry.  His rueful admission of missing the moray, and nurse shark, distracted by the brilliance of comical parrotfish '...I let the hawksbill pass through me like a breeze through a ghost./  In his admission of trying and failing to hear the Humpbacks  '...My nodding hides the secret/ of the silence.  I lied. I failed./ I could never hear the whales. //.

His ability to transform such an event into a personal revelation, is shared in this selection by a vividly dramatic poem, 'Hailstones in Texas' '...We howled and danced our way to the veranda, soaked and raining like human clouds./ Someone made a fire while our socks clung to radiators.../.

Two very fine and moving poems about his father are included and a truly visceral poem 'The Apple Peeler' which in its construction and compass is breathtaking. 

'The first attack is swift/between the raising of the glass/ and the sip,/leaving a flap of skin/beneath the eye/ bringing to mind my grandma with a sharp knife/peeling an apple/within an inch of its life.../  and further on 'Her control of the knife/taking none of the white/sliding under the skin/gliding over the bone/revealing the marrow/and bringing the blade/all the way home.//  And in the last stanza '...In the porcelain sink/where he washed away his face/there is a teaspoon of blood..' and more alarmingly: '...I wipe it on the front of my jeans/where it will steal its way/into the fabric/putting down roots/and passing on the stain.//

Beatrice Garland demonstrates an admirable ability to cast herself in a series of diverse roles, every one of them convincing, but her most compelling poem is 'Undressing', a sensual delight of a poem, which is hard to extract from, as there's a unity to its development, it begins: 'Like slipping stitches/ or unmaking a bed/or rain from tiles,/they come tumbling off: green dress, pale stockings,/loose silk - like mown grass/or blown roses,/subsiding in little heaps/and holding for a while/a faint perfume - soap,/warm skin - linking/these soft replicas of self.//
'Gitanes' is a great poem. A vivid description of the gipsies is followed by a sense of unease and discomfiture: 'I am afraid to swim in case/they steal my folded clothes, my rug, my watch, my good book. My good life./ And the prince comes closer, smiling in a way I cannot read./Tu veux danser
?/I am white, timid,/Disapproving of their litter./ He takes the money I hold out silently/and tears it in pieces/ And they are laughing./ They are laughing at something.//. 

Emma Jones, an Australian poet, deals with the mysterious and the strange, in tightly crafted lines; language chosen for its musical qualities, and assonance, most apparent in 'Farming': 'The pearls were empire animals. They'd been shucked from the heart of their grey mothers/which is why, so often, you'll find them /nestled at the neck and breast./It stood to reason./The sea was one long necklace,/and they often thought of that country.// In the third stanza: 'Rolled to create circumference./ Opened to accommodate/the small strange 'foreign irritant'/ that hones itself to a moon./ The oysters say/it's a lulling stone, that outside heart/turned in, and beating.//.  Most notable is the echoing repetition of the 'i' sound in the final stanza  'Do the fish know/ their glint, those inward birds/ in the fields of the Pacific?/It's a singing bone,/the indivisible pearl./ It's a bright barred thing. And pearls/are empire animals./ And poems are pearls.//  

'Berlin Fugue' is intriguing and has for me, echoes of Futurist poems. 'Now the shopfronts move through the evening/and the people move through the evening/and take themselves in from the glass.//. A wonderfully inclusive image in a cleverly worked out poem.

Moving on then, to Gerry McGrath.  Here is a voice that relishes words, the chimes of rhyme and presumably his Scottish accent would add a further dimension. Very short poems are apt to be inconsequential, not so with McGrath they have a life of their own, and make connections on many levels, nature allied with skin, with longing, with memory with loss and inexpressible feelings. 
     The Language of Pines

     Here again, yes here, touched,
     yes, but the future. Let me say

     how we progressed down the hill
     stepping from fog to visibility.
     Listen, these eyes, heat, more-
     than-blood warmth, feel

     the minute forgiveness of rain,
     unconfessable love, salt,

     hear the language of pines,
     soft bleating as of a child

     the painstaking increments
     of our descending.

Kei Miller's work turns racism on its head in 'How we became pirates'. A woman in a pub imitates the Jamaican accent:  '...And what a thing to mock -/the way we shape words differently./ But maybe it's the old colonial hurt/of how we became the pirates, dark people/ raiding English from the English,/ stealing poetry from the poets.../ Miller raises the history of slavery, but turns it around to suggest the once subjugated are now challenging and, even, could it be, surpassing their 'masters'.  'Lady, if I start a poem/ in this country/ it will not be yours.//. All of his poems are masterly and the kind of poems that make a deeper impression at each re reading.  

Christopher Neild has on first acquaintance, a somewhat cool withheld style, but on closer study his use of traditional forms are adroit and compelling.  His facility with language and his subject matter seems to parallel classical values, as for instance in 'Aphrodite', it begins:

     This throat is white as the water's fur -
     The long white stretch to the tethered skull -
     the bare white pulse -
     Open to the outcast stare -
     That life -
     That beating there.'

and further on:

     The simple humanness
     Of something
     So opaque to sense:
     The fleshy screen
     That hides all signs
     Of being close
     To us...

Unusual to see capitals beginning each line, not so often seen in contemporary poetry; they somehow add to the formality.

Joanna Preston - another Aussie poet in this collection, has a gift for transforming events with her remarkable narrative drive.  There's something biblical about a tale of the murder/sacrifice of a boy in 'The Parable of the Drought'. '...the line/of fenceposts that shimmered west.'  The black cockatoo that flew overhead. '...Heat smashed against the gibbers...' The menacing nature of his final kiss on the boy's forehead.  'He slid his fingers into the boy's hair/
just like a wether, he thought, just like a ewe -/ He watched until the boy's eyes/lost their brilliance - the same brittle blue/as the sky that even now/refuses to cloud.//  Great stuff rather brought to mind Fleur Adcock; perhaps the landscape and the menace.

Edward Ragg's poems juxtapose irony and a cynical humour. 'Narco' is narrated by a restless and insomniac character. There is something elusive and suggestive in the language.  His is uncomfortable and challenging poetry, sometimes opaque and distinctly restive.   His twin, his doppelganger, his alter ego, wanders around at night, writes a poem about an insomniac whose '...Sleep, as his wife lay breathing, was a poetry/Awake, yet dreaming of sleep.../ The poem has really to be read in full to get a handle on it. Whereas possibly John Burnside would make the evanescence of the poet into a wraith, Wragg makes rather heavier weather of it; interesting nonetheless.

Philip Rush on the other hand has a way with him that is somehow elegant and infinitely easier to relate to.  His poems are pervaded by a lightness of touch and a humorous take on life.  His poem 'Percebes' (the gooseneck barnacle) combines a feast of description: it looks like a fist of witch's fingernails. 'You tear away a finger, peel it back, crack it/open and there like an untanned ring/beneath your real ring, the pinky bit...'/  The poem is full of sea images, the fog coming ashore in the kitchen, the fishermen of Galicia dangling from the rocks in oilskins,  ...'you try to taste the danger they're breathe the smell of the sea, its iodine air./Their body language conveys how much of a treat this is... /  In the denouement, the cook looms out of the sea-fog of the kitchen  '...gently drifts the beads of water from her breasts,/ and stands tall there, in the kitchen, her hips dangling seaweed.' //.

And so to the final writer in this collection.  Saradha Soobrayen, a young and very accomplished poet.   Only two examples here from some fine, passionate poems, but it was hard to choose, her range and ability are impressive. 

     ...So much was up your sleeve: the birth of books,
     musing on whether a rhyme equals hard work
     and the art of disappearing.  A sleight of hand and I am left
     under a spell, with some minutes not yet uncoiled,
     making you more precious.  These hours are written
     while the air's thick with thinking errors.  A fleeting chill;
     a moth dashes across my eyes, back and forth...
                 [from 'Questioning the Invisible Stitching']

Written in just two fourteen line stanzas, the second a perfect reversal of the first is perfectly achieved in this passionate and questing poem which is concerned with the complexities of a relationship. Other poems, more playful in tone such as 'Xx', explore letters and language, '...This time I have made you in the lower curve/of the letter S and taken the top part for myself,/ or if you prefer we could turn over on our sides/ and both be touching the bottom line.../ A clever, witty poem, its emotional pitch is achieved effortlessly.

Much to recommend, much to enjoy, a very substantial collection.  

              Genista Lewes 2008