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Heavenly Life: Selected Poems, Ramsey Nasr (169pp, 7.99, Banipal Books)



Trumpeted by Marilyn Hacker as 'a poet of global scope,' and by Ruth Padel as a poet whose 'generous universality... stands for us all,' Ramsey Nasr - ' a man of many passions' his cover blurb insists - comes heavily endorsed. One-time city poet of Antwerp and 2009 Poet Laureate of the Netherlands, Nasr has the celebrity of a minor pop star. He's handled with the kind of innocent seriousness that can often stumble into pastiche.

Victor Schiferli doesn't do him any favours when he writes in his introduction that Nasr's 'debut contained mainly passionate poetry...' - remember, he's 'a man of many passions' - 'which left absolutely no time for ironic distance. There is always something at stake, his attitude is always one of complete commitment, and he does not shirk the use of big words.' It has the faint ring of a Little Britain sketch, and it wouldn't be unwise to look over your shoulder every once in a while.

Despite what Nasr may allow others to say of himself - he's 'a man of many passions' - in David Colmer's lively translations he's never dull. Heavenly Life
has many powerfully inventive poems, such as 'Winter Sonata', a long poem based on Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, Op.147, which has the trajectory of a psychedelic bio-pic:

     sometimes I wished that like a lily
     I could stand on stalin's wide table
     pull myself up out of the vase
     appraise him from a distance
     my little gardener in his chair
     my under-endowed flowerless plant
     observing him
     and ignoring him completely

Nasr's Shostakovich is a tragic and often (whether intended or not) comic figure; at once bloated and pumped out of shape, only to be brutally whacked paper-thin. He's a caricature, a performance, an idea not a man, who Nasr manipulates with theatrical ease.

'Lawn-chair larry' and '1914-1918 by night' are among the book's finest poems, written as part of a six-part cycle called 'The Z' about ballooning and the fate of the Zeppelin industry. From the latter:

     the Z moved the battlefield
     from firing line to hinterland
     from soldiers to civilians
     war had become more total
     more honest
           more fairly distributed

It's Nasr's skillful blend of irreverence and wit that makes the seriousness of his subject malleable. His routes through history are surprising and relevant. It was his poem 'I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together)' that earned him the position of Poet Laureate after a public vote. It would be trite to call him a people's poet but his popularity is attributable in part to his ability to speak into and of a domain often ignored by poetry. His trespass returns something vital to his art, and yes, you might just call it passion
:

     here of all places, in the open pit of our heart
     we can achieve something great
     a poem's a start
          ('I wish I was two citizens...')

     George Messo 2012