Sunday, 29 January 2017

THE FIRTH AND THE BRINK

I recognised the voice immediately – Jacob Polley.  That could mean only one thing – he had won the T S Eliot, one of the most prestigious poetry prizes in Britain.  I had flicked on Radio 4’s Front Row and he was being interviewed.  Since then there’s been a feeling that Cumbria is basking in reflected glory, because Jake is considered one of our poets.  He was born in Carlisle.  Before he became famous he wrote a poem a week for a whole year for The Cumberland News.  He attended the Cumbrian Poets workshop (but before my time!) and every new book of his is marked by a reading at Bookends, our wonderful independent bookshop in Carlisle.  I’ve received several emails which have begun – ‘Have you heard?  Jacob Polley’s won the T S Eliot!’

On Thursday I took the dog for a walk down by the Solway Firth to the west of Bowness on Solway.  It’s where England ends and signs itself off in a watery boundary that changes with every tide.  It’s a quiet forgotten place, and until recently the lane was a gated road.  Out on the salt grass, amongst the grazing sheep and cattle, the metallic webs of Anthorn masts with their concrete anchors and miscellaneous farm plastic and scrap iron, a flock of Barnacle geese are grazing.  They’re handsome birds with their white faces, dark black bibs and grey and white barred wings.  In the spring they will disappear to Svalbard.    

The road curves round the Cardurnock Peninsula and Scotland is visible across the mud flats and incoming tide, the light shining in ribbons of pewter, silver and blue.  The land changes to gorse bushes (already showing plenty of gold flowers), brackish pools and salt marsh (“Bathing is dangerous due to fast running currents and treacherous sands.  It is unsafe to venture out at low tide.”).  A curlew utters a short melancholy phrase.  A flock of brownish waders fly low and straight, then turn and do their Venetian blind trick of changing to white.


Jacob Polley’s first collection, The Brink, included poems such as ‘The Kingdom of Sediment’, ‘Salmonary’, ‘Fish’, and ‘Crabbing’.  The cover of the book showed a shifting border of land, sea and sky.  The Solway  has a way of seeping into the imagination.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

NOW READ ON

The year has turned.

I came home from my long break away over Christmas and New Year to see snowdrops just showing white in the garden and to hear a greater spotted woodpecker performing some virtuoso display drumming on the beech tree.   Yesterday I went out to Silloth and walked the dog along the promenade.  The Solway high tide churned in a muddy cauldron and a small flock of oyster-catchers stood disconsolately on the grass.  The wind carried sudden scuds of rain and a rainbow arced over the slate-grey sky.

It’s that time of year when I produce another opinionated list of books I think you must read.  Since I started compiling this annual list in (I think) January 2012 I’ve noticed an increase in the quality of design of poetry books.   Could that be one reason why an estimated ten million pounds worth of poetry books were sold in the UK in 2016?  Publishers seem to be waking up to the fact that good design increases sales.  Good design is vital, not an optional add-on.  It’s not enough that the poems themselves are good.  As Marshall McLuhan said in the Sixties, “The medium is the message”.  With the popularity of ebooks there must be a reason to buy a paper book.

This year I’ve read some excellent illustrated poetry books.  I’ve included two of these on the list, but I am going to cheat and mention two more – A Fold in the River (Philip Gross and Valerie Coffin Price) and Slate Voices (Jan Fortune and Mavis Gulliver). 

After that preamble, here’s the list:

Julia Blackburn Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings (Full Circle Editions 2016) with photographs by Andrew Smiley and a Dutch translation by Maria Droogleever Fortuyn.  Would more people buy poetry books if they were as beautiful and sensitive as this one?

Beverley Bie Brahic Hunting the Boar (CB Editions 2016).  Intelligent, coherent, moving poems well-presented by C B Editions in an understated slightly retro design.   Proof that a small press can do as good a job as the bigger outfits.

Tim Cresswell Fence (Penned in the Margins 2015).  I bought this on the weakness of a bad review and was not disappointed.  These poems, based on a “two week adventure in Svalbard” have the elegant minimalism of the far north.

All My Important Nothings (ed. Maura Dooley) (smith/doorstop 2015).  It’s the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Jane Austen this year.  Here’s a good way to celebrate: read this pamphlet of Austen-inspired poems from contemporary writers, including Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker, Zaffar Kunial and Blake Morrison.  Great fun.

Helen Farish The Dog of Memory (Bloodaxe 2016).  Finely crafted poems with an elegiac feel (see my post of 18 October 2016 “Paying attention”).  If you have followed Helen’s work since her Forward prize-winning Intimates you’ll know that a new collection is well worth reading.

Lars Gustafsson Selected Poems, translated by John Irons (Bloodaxe 2015).  This varied selection by one of Sweden’s great literary figures is my translation choice.  “Gustafsson’s verse is human, compassionate, playful, deeply concerned with the natural world, minutely observant, and, quite often, just laugh out loud funny” (Ross Cogan).

Angela Leighton Spills (Carcanet 2016).  A bumper volume from a poet who should be more widely known. 
Thirty poems, a set of Canticles for a Passion, some translations from the Italian (a literal translation and a poetic translation of each one in parallel) and sixteen fragments of prose memoir.

Grevel Lindop Luna Park (Carcanet 2015).  This volume sees Grevel writing at the height of his powers.  Well-written, interesting poems on a wide variety of subjects, including a commissioned sequence for the National Trust’s Shugborough Park.

Kei Miller The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet 2014).  This book made Kei Miller into a Next Generation Poet.  I really liked his exploration of two languages (standard English and Jamaican patois) and of opposing world views (colonial/post colonial, scientific/intuitive, rational/Rastafarian).

Tom Pow Concerning the Atlas of Scotland (Polygon 2014).  If you like maps you’ll enjoy these accessible, fascinating poems, accompanied by colour illustrations from the National Library of Scotland and by drawings by Diane Garrick.  From Treasure Island to a Soviet Map of Edinburgh!

Gary Snyder This Present Moment (Counterpoint 2015).  Existing Gary Snyder fans will know his usual interests in Zen Buddhist spirituality and the natural world, and his loosely constructed, baggy poetic style.  In this volume he runs a complete gamut of emotion from the heart-rending “Go Now” about the death of his wife to the hilarious “Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh”.

Heidi Williamson The Print Museum (Bloodaxe 2016).  My great grandfather, grandfather and half uncle were printers so I couldn’t help but love Heidi Williamson’s poems inspired by a residency at the John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich.


Now read on.