Fran Lock writes about some outstanding poetry books published in 2020
It became apparent to me around the second week of December that I couldn't write this round-up in the usual way. By which I mean I could not – for a variety of reasons – simply recapitulate the tedious prescriptive dictates of another end-of-the-year review. I don't know what the value would be in that. Most of us didn't live through 2020, we sustained it as a series of shocks: dull crushing blows to the back of the head, leaving us stunned, concussed, disoriented. It has been awful in ways both political and personal, and by early December it felt ridiculous to me to trot out a trite list of the 'best' poetry collections, my 'top five', my 'essential' reading for the close of the year.
2020 has been extraordinary. Extraordinary in the worst ways possible. Any poetry collection published during 2020 was subject to extraordinary demands: without the benefit of live launches or readings, the public life of the book, its spirited sense of civics, has suffered and shrunk. And writers have suffered too. In one sense our suffering is material and easy to quantify: the loss of vital revenue from festival book-sales and organised events, damage dealt to second or third jobs; time lost from the necessary work of promoting our books to the frantic scrabble for paid employment.
In another sense our suffering is less tangible: when our world retracts so too does our notion of community, our idea of ourselves as belonging to something, of reciprocity and collective critical engagement. For working-class writers in particular, the first casualty in all of this is often our identity as writers, our ability to prioritise ourselves as artists. Our work vies, not merely with the poetries of others for attention, but with the endlessly evolving demands of home and work; of health and money. Existing as we do at the pressured intersection of multiple crises, we must navigate a world in fevered flux with scant support.
Unpredictable. Precarious. In the midst of this chaos, how are we to attend in a meaningful way to our creative vocations? How do we participate, let alone compete, when we are publicist, agent, writer, carer, courier, accountant, cook, therapist, hunter-gatherer and nurse all rolled into one? At the same time, our poetry is being asked to carry a great deal: to provide consolation and solace, to offer insight and inspiration, to be a spur toward empathy and action in these dark and troubled days.
Sustaining, nourishing, inspiring
It is a great deal to ask. And it occurs to me that any poetry collection published in 2020 must make in its turn extraordinary demands of its readers: to stay with a book at this time requires of us an unusual degree of sustained attention. This attention is precious and pressured and cannot be idly or arbitrarily bestowed. A book that holds our anxious awareness captive has become a rare and wondrous thing. My own relationship to reading has changed throughout 2020. The stakes are higher. I am, through necessity, opportunistic, and I have become increasingly impatient: impatient with the lame beautifying tendencies of much mainstream 'lyric' writing, impatient with poems where the pain of the present is absent at the level of language, impatient with poems that are merely reactive; with poems that make vague cathartic gestures toward absolution, resolution or empathy. Impatient with a number of things, if truth be known, so that when a book takes hold of me, when it does something that arrests and sustains me, it is an event worthy of record.
I wanted to make some space for honouring those books, the pact between writer and reader they summon and fulfil. 'Best' doesn't cut it. Lists do not cut it. Quite apart from anything else, I've no desire to set myself up as yet another arbiter of taste or expertise. I'm not, and the choices I make as a reader are not free choices made in an ideal world. I gravitate towards the books I read for a complex set of reasons: some political, some aesthetic, some practical, some social, and some admittedly personal. I always think it's worth acknowledging that, taking account of your own infinitely fallible subject position.
How we feel about a book – any work of art – is as much a measure of what we need from that text as it is of any intrinsic value. Lockdown lays this bare. As readers we are more vulnerable, I think, less able to maintain our intellectual armour. But I believe this is a positive thing, a good starting point. It's honest, and it preserves – I hope – the warmth, affection and gratitude I feel for these books. I wasn't reading in a vacuum, none of us do. I was reading as a human: grieving, harassed, trapped and bewildered. I was struggling, and these collections have variously sustained, nourished and inspired me. They have been both expression and escape from the shit that surrounds me. They have held me, and I am grateful.
The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems by Anna Gréki, translated by Souheila Haїmiche and Cristina Viti (Smokestack Books)
Anna Gréki was a member of the Parti Communiste Algérien, and an active figure in anticolonial struggles within Algiers during the fifties and sixties. In her short life she had endured arrest, torture, and exile. She was also a passionate and prolific writer, composing poetry and essays on language, politics and art; at thetime of her death she was working on a novel.
This translation from Smokestack is the first full English translation of her second collection of poems, Temps Forts, and it strikes me as an important book in several ways. The poems are reproduced in the original French, with the translations appearing on the opposite page. This allows for the reader to shape and sound the music of the poems in their original tongue, which is one of the chief tactile pleasures of poetry; it also feels like a keen attention to the ethics of translation; to all that may be obscured, elided or altered in the transposing of poems from one language to another. The result is both rich and respectful. It feels collaborative; a conversation across distances and generations.
Gréki was new to me, and I dare say she may be new to many people. This book releases from relative obscurity, a significant poetic foremother. A revolutionary foremother too, at a moment when we need those more than ever. Women's experience of and in revolutionary struggle is often under-represented within existing poetic canons. Gréki relates her experiences with nuance, tenderness, and a formidable vitality. The poems preserve a striking intimacy, never hostage to their historical and revolutionary context, but emerging from those very sites and situations. In Gréki's poems we see revolution shaping language, as surely as language shapes the revolution. This book provides, then, a timely and necessary intervention into the long and complex history of radical writing by women.
Discovering Gréki during lockdown felt momentous to me. At the time I was also reading translations of Forugh Farrokhzad and Nancy Morejon. This was quite unplanned, and it had certainly never before occurred to me to think of these poets together, or to consider their writing as part of a rich global riposte to everything we're told poetry by women was in the 1960s: a white, confessional scene heavily dominated by figures such as Sexton and Plath, figures whose doom-laden legends still loom large in contemporary poetry. I love both Sexton and Plath, but sometimes their writing feels exhaustingly inward, and I yearn for work that evokes a broader sense of context or community; that responds to and remembers the contingent world. Gwendolyn Brooks has always been my go-to for this kind of confessive yet responsive poetry, but lately I'd felt the need to think beyond the English-speaking world, to try to understand my own poetic heritage, and my position as a woman in the world.
Gréki's work shares with Farrokhzad and Morejon a constellation of concerns, foremost among which would seem to be a grave respect for beauty and for life. Her poems evince an unapologetic sensuality, a care for and of individual human bodies that is enshrined in language, and inseparable from politics. The cherishing that takes place within a Gréki poem feels both militant and serious: she erects hands, hearts, mouths, and “fields of tender flesh” against “the huge matrix of war”. Through her very patient and sustained attention to the vulnerable particularity of human life, Gréki summons a powerful and mutually compassionate collective. In 'July 1962' she writes: “You are part of the humiliated world of the living/ the commons that hold you will take you over”. These words stirred an immediate sense of kinship and affection in me. What I find myself responding to in Gréki is the presence of a dialectical tenderness, an expression of empathy or care that provokes a dissonance between the actual and the possible. Against the abuse of power and the abjection of bodies, Gréki writes with love and motive force. This tenderness works to both anticipate and summon the revolutionary moment, a moment that Gréki the poet yearns for, and that Gréki the revolutionary must struggle towards. It seems facile to say the poems contain 'hope', but they do. Not in the sense of vague good wishes, but something active, lived and made by and in language, by and in the work of revolution.
And yet what has stayed with me about 'The Streets of Algiers' is something else entirely, something I find difficult to put into words. I might call it Gréki's understanding of the way language and landscape are intimately entwined within Algerian national identity: “Survivors sow wheat with death” Gréki writes, “And the black poplar spreads the wound open.” Later she writes how Autumn itself is “moved by” her language, and in 'Rue Mourad-Didouche' her speaker declares that there are “Trees thriving like alphabets”. To live under occupation and colonial conquest is to live doubly oppressed in territory and tongue. Gréki's evocation of this is subtle and acute. It is a poetry familiar and resonant to me, a reader of Irish heritage, immersed from childhood in the politics and poetics of Irish liberation. This felt significant too, a reminder that the struggle against colonial oppression is not historical but ongoing; that the struggle is shared and continuous.
Monica's Overcoat of Flesh by Geraldine Clarkson, (Nine Arches Press)
In the brief respite before lockdown recommenced, I took this book away with me, wandering pilgrims' pathways through Northumbria. This felt appropriate: the enclosure of monastic life is a key theme within the collection. This theme speaks to the surreal pseudo-quarantines of lockdown, but also to a culture of increasing confinement more broadly – to the mass incarceration of prisoners, the detainment of refugees, to the criminalisation of Travellers and other ethnic nomads. The poems hum and sing with these tensions, with the friction that exists between the spiritual possibilities afforded by an anchorite existence, and the life-denying enclosures of our contemporary moment. Walking and reading, reading and walking, it seemed to me that the book thinks through a number of contradictory spiritual impulses: to wander and to enclose; to withdraw and to embrace.
Most days we seem caught in a compromise between restraint and flight, and the poems compromise too. Rather, all poetry is this kind of compromise: a musical vivacity honed and shaped, turned on a lathe, fitted to form. And Clarkson is, without a doubt, a deft and inventive formalist. This is a large collection, but its frequent shifts of shape give it a wonderful sense of momentum; lend it a supple and sinuous quality. Raw lexical energy leaps from form to form, momentarily held, but never quite contained. It's a book about containment, but the poems themselves seem to enact a kind of restless fugivity. This too suited my mood.
On gloomy days I'd read Monica's Overcoat of Flesh and think to myself that anything can be a prison: walls, routines, clothes, spiritual practices, relationships, bodies, thoughts. Or words. And the poems feature both the traps language lays, and the traps set for language. Yet, however confined, however suppressed, words are always resurgent: “Who knew when a tooraloo/ would break loose and what it would do” Clarkson writes. And there's joyful escape in this thought, but also potential threat. Reading this collection you know that Clarkson understands intimately that the speech act is always a double-edged sword; that words have enormous intrinsic power and grave potential consequences.
On brighter days I'd allow myself to be carried away by the sheer pyrotechnic riot of Clarkson's language. Her word choices are strange and dazzling, yet they are also precise. This precision comes, I think, through Clarkson's profound engagement with silence and the unspoken. In 'Homily of Francis' in particular she asks us to consider the ethical implications of using words 'only if you have to'. For a poet who so obviously relishes the flavours and sounds of spoken English this feels like a strict and strange injunction. But for Saint Francis and for Clarkson both it would seem that a reverent attention to the unsaid; that an attuned and active listening is the very prerequisite of meaning speech. Clarkson's poems attain their rare grace – and I use that word in more than one sense – and facility with language because they are born of an intense and concentrated listening. Clarkson is a poet who makes space for silence in a way that speaks to the kinship between poetic and spiritual practices. It is this aspect of the collection I found most compelling. Monastic practice is not merely a theme of this work, it is the structural stuff of Clarkson's poetics, a relationship that feels fulsome, complex and fought for.
Because the idea of struggle is embedded within the collection also. Clarkson gives us the difficulties inherent in language. There are moments of mishearing, tiny miscommunications; there's impediment, and obstacle, and overload. It is work in which thinking occurs. It is impossible to take these poems in at a glance; they demand a depth of attention which is, in turn, a kind of spiritual – or meditative, if you prefer – practice. I was captured by Clarkson's collection in delight, but I have stayed with it, and it with me, for its patience and spiritual rigour.
Almarks: An Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland, Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith, editors (Culture Matters)
There was an odd synchronicity to the arrival of this book in my life: I had spent a large part of my early childhood in Shetland, but I had seldom written about it. This was for a number of reasons, not least because – in a certain sense – Shetland isn't mine to write, and an outsider's partial reminiscence isn't helpful or necessary to Shetland's radical communities, literary or otherwise. Writing those poems would feel like laying claim to something I hadn't a right to for the sheer self-indulgent hell of it. When Almarks came through my door however, I had been painfully teetering on the edge of a poem about my formative experiences there. Not necessary for Shetland, perhaps, but necessary for me. Dipping into the anthology for the first time helped bring that poem to life, so in the first instance, I am grateful for that.
Obviously, this is not the most significant achievement of Almarks, an anthology I feel should be loudly applauded. Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith deploy the form in a way that feels both purposeful and exploratory. Too often poetry anthologies become a species of catalogue, a herding together of disparate works under one arbitrary heading or another. This is not the case with Almarks: here the form does essential investigative work, probing and debating the notion of 'radical' writing, and attending to the difficulties inherent in that definition. Almarks reads like a voyage of discovery, uncovering the very communities it sets out to represent. The poets in Almarks take a variety of approaches to their craft: they are formally inventive, taking risks with syntax and the white space of the page; they are explicitly political, drawing on both current crisis and historical suffering. They make striking use of dialect, and inject the contemporary lyric with riffing, zinging energy, as in Siún Carden's thrilling 'Return': “The island's spine of power lines swings/ signals to storm-driven birds”. Carden fast became a favourite, her lines at once both playful and precise, recalling the work of Jane Burn, and perhaps also Geraldine Monk in 'Pendle Witch Words'. There's something of the spell or charm about them that is infinitely engaging.
Almark is the Shetland word for a straying sheep: one that breaks through fences into common ground; headstrong and independent. The use of this title is telling: a sense of breaking through or in pervades the collected poems. Each piece is its own wayward intervention into the English language, a language increasingly contested and policed by the rising Right along class and racial lines. The dialect poems in particular enrich and subvert English in exciting and challenging ways. A favourite of mine is Christine De Luca's 'Tievin wir metadata' which brings digital argot and Shetland dialect together in a joyful jostle: “hack inta your ain mind” De Luca writes. The poem is both a clarion call against the excesses of neoliberal surveillance culture, and a celebration of the way language can surprise us, “hack” us, give us new words in which to formulate new thoughts. The anthology itself is also a breakthrough, also a “hack”, a surprise: it takes seldom accounted-for voices, and seldom imagined communities, then demands and creates space for them inside of literature.
There is a vividness and precision to the language of these poems that is impressive by any standard. This liveliness is readily legible when the poets turn their attention to the land, to the environment. There's a care and a reverence for words which enacts the kind of care rarely applied to our natural world. In this sense, the poems are ecologically timely. But more than this, they are also outward-looking, politically engaged. The anthology is rich in local responsibility and global solidarity, a vision of community that extends far beyond the parochial, as in Raman Mundair's 'Let's talk about a job' or Gina Paulo Ritch's 'The desert is only as deadly as the circles we walk'.
I did not expect to relish this anthology as much as I do, but for its rich sense of history, its political commitment, and its vibrant sense of the possibilities and potentials of language, it has kept me returning again and again.
See What Life is Like by Dorothy Spencer (Lumpen)
Some books you find, and some find you. Dorothy Spencer's debut collection came to me in my capacity as associate editor at Culture Matters. It came via Lumpen press and The Class Work Project, a registered co-operative dedicated to providing publishing opportunities for working-class people and people in poverty. Spencer's collection marks the first in a series of chapbooks to be published by Lumpen, and it is an accomplished and engaging debut. Reading those poems for the first time was a genuinely invigorating experience. Invigorating because Lumpen are clearly an important press, providing a vital and necessary space for working-class writers. Invigorating because Spencer herself is such an original and provocative poetic voice.
Of course, Lumpen are not the first press to create such a space, but – with the exception of Peter Raynard's wonderful Proletarian Poetry – what sets them apart is their clear and unapologetic sense of mission; their explicit foregrounding of working-class voices and working-class stories in all their difference and ambiguity. To come to Spencer's poems as a working-class reader – as a working-class woman in particular – is to feel oddly held; to have a sense of yourself – rare within contemporary poetry – as the implied audience for work of unusual energy and gift. I suspect the experience may be somewhat different for a middle-class reader, but I also suspect that this is entirely the point. The title of the collection serves as both an invitation and a confrontation: the peculiar challenge of these poems is their directness, clarity and observational acuity. It is a laying bare, not with sentimentality, but most often with wry humour, as in these lines from 'after laughter': “i remember laughing with you/ about your dad’s teeth falling out/ over dinner/ because he was taking smack again/ he laughed too and showed the waiter/ a brown incisor sat in his palm./ with a plate of lobster in front of him/ he was still alive in all the ways you can be”.
Laughter, is a key component of See What Life is Like. It is referenced or signalled some twenty times in 'after laughter' alone. It serves throughout the collection as a bravura form of resistance, a nervous reaction, a challenge or riposte to the awfulness of life and other people. Laughter both is and isn't language: it is what we do when we don't know what to say or how to say it. When we've exhausted our rhetorical means, or when language has proved inadequate to our emotions. It is a form of defence, a coping mechanism. Many of these poems walk that very fine line between humour and hysteria. This seems to be a central theme for Spencer, and she weaves the sound of laughter through her poems to moving and resonant effect, nowhere more so than in 'fried poached and scrambled', where the speaker watches her father laugh so hard he shakes like one 'fried up in films/ on the electric chair'. The image itself is both irresistibly funny and disturbing. The subtle shades of distinction between these two states is something Spencer is able to fruitfully mine. The father in the poem laughs without restraint until he cries uncontrollably.
Control and restraint also strike me as central themes in this collection: the control demanded of you inside of language and inside of capitalism, with its weirdly proliferating etiquettes of socially acceptable behaviour. As Spencer's speakers fail or refuse to measure up to these arbitrary standards of behaviour, so too do her poems rebel, refusing the straitjacket of 'form', loosely held within structure and syntax. There are no full stops and no capital letters in these poems. The poems will not confine themselves to neat objective parcels. They are not perfectly-put-together literary artefacts with clearly delineated edges; they emerge from life, and they seep back into the world around them, into and out of each other. At times the result can feel strangely ecstatic and dreamy: “for i know on this earth there exists/ a person like you with a sky/ sometimes blue above them/ and who am i to relinquish/ a dream so sudden” and at others it is harsh, relentless and reiterative: “they find all your soft places/ they find all your tender parts/ they get to know them all/ they get you all fuckin/ mapped out/ they mark the spots/ where your skin/ is the thinnest”. The poems always feel intimate and insistent, a whispered voice telling you to look and look again. It gets under your skin.
But I think the most satisfying thing about See What Life is Like is the space it makes for anger: the anger of speakers and subjects alike, with each other and with the world. It is not a polemic rage, not dramatic as such, it is domestic and daily, entwined with the stuff of life. It simmers, an ambient hum at the back of Spencer's language. It is underscored by the spare and scratchy illustrations by Dylan Hall. There is not much accommodation for that within contemporary poetry, so to encounter it here is peculiarly refreshing. I feel heard by Spencer's poetry, and excited to see where her poetry takes her next.
Spirograph by Pauline Sewards (Burning Eye Books)
New work by Pauline Sewards is always an occasion for joy. Her 2018 debut This Is the Band is a collection both musical and painterly, leading the reader with verve, insight and elan through a diverse range of subjects in a variety of tones or moods. I fell in love with this collection for the rhythm and whimsy of pieces like 'St Whenever', but it has stayed with me – quite literally to hand on my bedside table – for the sombre acuity of poems such as 'Definitions', where the minutiae of words and their subtle gradations and shifts of meaning form the basis for a nuanced critique of politics. What has always impressed me about Sewards' writing – whatever her chosen subject – is the generosity of spirit at its core. Her latest collection, Spirograph, is no exception.
The title poem uses the conceit of the Spirograph Set to explore what Sewards identifies as those moments of 'not quite repetition' in language, life, and loss. The poems are informed by, and often directly reflect on Sewards' experience as a professional carer, working as a drug and alcohol nurse, and among their most profound and compelling themes are those of dependency, change, and recovery.
At a time when the government's refusal to acknowledge writers and artists as workers has had such a profound impact on working-class creatives, and when our systems of care are so disastrously underfunded and overburdened, Sewards' collection feels especially timely. Yet these poems are so much more than 'topical'. Reading this collection, a profound relationship emerges between Sewards' writing and working practices. This is most readily legible in the deep, sustained attention she affords her poetic subjects. There is a willingness to hear and to hold the 'other', to make space for them within the poem. This act of holding would seem to resist the rhetorics and routines that compress and delineate the delivery of contemporary 'care'.
In poems such as 'After Burnout', 'Assessment', and 'Day's Work' the language and machinery of bureaucratic administration seem to infiltrate the very consciousness of Sewards' poetic speakers. Instrumentalising language is everywhere present, but the poems – with their attention to detail, their steady empathetic regard – debate and resist this language. Reading Spirograph, I am continually struck by how few spaces there are within language and literature for precisely this kind of resistance. Sewards seems to be proposing the poem as a place of radical, mutual empathy. I am reminded of the American poet Rob Halpern, and his description of the poem as a place or condition of “vulnerable openness”. That this feels so fresh and so challenging says nothing good about the self-absorption of much contemporary poetry.
Perhaps I am being unfair? I do know that Sewards' poems feel 'vulnerable' in reciprocal and productive ways: the speakers in the 'Work' section of Spirograph are literally and psychologically vulnerable because they administer care at the sharp end of human need; those subject to their care are vulnerable in a different way. The mothers in 'Mother's Day at Roll for the Soul' are also vulnerable, vulnerable in front of each other as socially awkward strangers; the women swimming on Hampstead Heath are similarly exposed, to one another and to the elements. The girls in 'The Town Abuser' are vulnerable in quite another sense again, and often the bodies of Sewards' poetic subjects are frail or failing. Sewards seems to remind us that the act of writing and reading poetry creates in itself a condition of vulnerability, a pact of mutual vulnerability in which writer and reader are held. This is poetry's risk, but also its triumph: that it engenders a receptivity and openness to others which is ultimately restorative. This feels like a message we need to take forward into 2021.