Reading the Rathbones Folio Prize Poetry Shortlist
I borrowed the whole of this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize poetry shortlist from my local library and have enjoyed reading through it to see what the judges felt was worthy of recognition from 2022’s releases. Of course, personal taste comes into the appreciation of poetry, perhaps more so than for fiction or nonfiction, so I liked some of these more than others and suspect the judges’ final decision may differ from mine. Still, it’s always a pleasure to discover new-to-me poets and/or debut authors.
Ephemeron by Fiona Benson
This is Benson’s third collection but my first time reading her. I was fully engaged with her exquisite poems about the ephemeral, whether that be insect lives, boarding school days, primal emotions or moments from her children’s early years. The book is in four discrete corresponding sections (“Insect Love Songs,” “Boarding-School Tales,” “Translations from the Pasiphaë” and “Daughter Mother”) but the themes and language bleed from one into another and the whole is shot through with astonishing corporeality and eroticism.
The form varies quite a lot – bitty lines, stanzas, blocky paragraph-like stories – and alliteration, slant rhymes and unexpected metaphors (a wasp’s nest as “a piñata of stings,” “this avant-garde chandelier” and an “electric hotel / of spit-balled papier mâché”) make each poem glisten. I’ll even let her off for the long section inspired by my pet hate, Greek mythology (so gruesome, so convoluted), because of how she uses these melodramatic situations to explore universal emotions. She does something interesting with the story of the Minotaur (Asterios), suggesting that instead of being born a literal bull he was born deformed or disabled and no one knew what to make of him, but even so he had a mother’s love.
Here’s one section of “Magicicadas” as an example:
summons them up
after seventeen years,
down their backs
like the wet head
of a baby,
of their tight old skin
like an orgasm,
like an ecstatic gymnast
on the high trapeze;
their damp wings lemon
before they stiffen
and straighten, lattice brown.
Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Protest doesn’t have to be loud; sometimes it can even be silent. In her debut, Bulley, a British-born Ghanaian poet, makes that especially clear with the pair “[ ] noise” (= white noise, inescapable) and “black noise” (an erasure poem). She models how language might be decolonized (particularly in “revision”) and how Black femininity might be reimagined (“fabula”). Along with her acknowledged debts to Lucille Clifton, bell hooks, Mary Oliver et al., I spotted echoes of Kei Miller (her “there is dark that moves” sounds like his “there is an anger that moves”) and Toni Morrison (Bulley includes the line “Quiet as it’s kept,” which is the opening of The Bluest Eye).
The collection is bold but never heavy-handed, and the seriousness of its topics (also including an early miscarriage) is lightened by poems about cats and snails. My two favourites were “not quiet as in quiet but,” which juxtaposes peacefulness and the comfortable life with the perils of not speaking out about injustice; and “Epigenetic,” about generations of traumatized bodies (“if your pain is alive in me / so too must be your joy.”).
Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
Kinshasa is also a dancer, and in her debut the British-born Barbadian intersperses poems with choreographed dances, transcribed via hand-drawn symbols explained in a key at the end. I confess I couldn’t picture them at all, though they make attractive patterns on the page – you can see one in purple on the cover. This and the Caribbean patois in which she voices narratives of historical atrocities and contemporary microaggressions against Black people (particularly women) are the collection’s claims to novelty and probably impressed the judges. Yet I found both strategies to be affected and looked forward to those poems in standard language. Some of the events are given specific dates and places in Barbados while others are more generic. Female victims of sexual oppression seek revenge, as in the gruesome “Miss Barbados Is No Longer Vegan.” This probably works best aloud, to allow one to appreciate the musicality of the voice and the alliterative lines.
Some lines I liked:
we gambled all our wishes on dandelions,
now we celebrate de little tings
every unburnt rice grain & regrown eyelash
vaulting between lemon vines and dog friendly cafés.
just because we do what needs to be done,
it doan mean we nah ready, we just aware
there are too many of us to be martyrs
(from “Sometimes Death Is a Child Who Plays With Rubber Bands”)
The work is dangerous; writing into history is like feeding unknown seeds while attempting to control the rate of their growth. Sometimes when I danced, I inhaled the language of my ancestors’ captors, and they became mine.
(from “Preface: And if by Some Miracle”)
if you want something to become extinct
doan give it attention.
(from “Choreography: She, My Nation”)
England’s Green by Zaffar Kunial
A collection in praise of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, with poems about hedgerows and butterflies; cricket and the writings of the Brontë sisters. There are autobiographical reminiscences as well, most notably “The Crucible,” which describes the meeting between his Kashmiri father and his English mother’s father, who had refused to acknowledge the relationship for its first three years.
Kunial clearly delights in language, with wordplay and differing pronunciations fuelling “Foregrounds” et al. I particularly liked “Foxgloves” (“Sometimes I like to hide in the word / foxgloves – in the middle of foxgloves. The xgl is hard to say”) and “The Wind in the Willows,” where he wonders if the book title appeals to him just for its sound. This wasn’t as immediately cohesive and impressive as his first book, Us, but still well worth reading.
Some favourite lines:
“Prayer is not the words / but having none and staying” (from “Empty Words”)
“Life // is wider than its page. And days are a cut field, clipped and made to run on” (from “The Groundsman”)
Manorism by Yomi Sode
Like Surge or Poor (or what little I read of Citizen), this is driven by outrage and a longing for justice for Black people. I suspect that, like those precursors, it is a book best heard in performance, given that Sode honed his skills on London’s open mic circuit.
The first third of the book is under the heading “Aneephya,” a word Sode coined and defines as “the stress toxin of inherited trauma” – from slave ships to police checks. My two favourites were from this section: “L’Appel du Vide,” in which he ponders microaggressions while cooking a traditional West African mackerel and okra stew; and “A Plate of Artichokes,” about the time a waiter made him pre-pay for his meal and he went along with it even though he suspected other customers weren’t being asked to do the same.
Nigerian culture, rap music, being a father, and Black brotherhood are other themes, with recurring allusions to the work of Caravaggio. I also liked the long section on the decline and death of his great-aunt (“Big Mummy”) from cancer.
This was a book that made me feel super-white, but that’s not a problem: I can recognize its importance and appeal while also accepting that it’s not necessarily supposed to be for me.
Which of these poetry collections interest you?
Recent Poetry Reads
I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.
Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.
I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.
Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)
This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.
Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)
I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)
Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.
A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)
Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)
Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.
Soho by Richard Scott (2018)
When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.
Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.
Any recent poetry reads you can recommend to me?
Mini Reviews Roundup for the Summer
Here’s a quick look at some of the book reviews I’ve had published elsewhere on the web over the past few months, with a taster so you can decide whether to read more by clicking on the link. These are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
Trio by Sue Gee: Sue Gee’s tenth novel is a sensitive portrait of life’s transience and the things that give us purpose. In the late 1930s, a widowed history teacher in Northumberland finds a new lease on life when he falls for one of the members of a local trio of musicians. My favorite passages of the book are descriptive ones, often comprised of short, evocative phrases; I also loved the banter between the musicians. The novel has a reasonably simple plot. We delve into the past to discover each main character’s backstory and some unexpected romantic entanglements, but in the 1930s storyline there aren’t a lot of subplots to distract from the main action. I was reminded in places of Downton Abbey: the grand hall and its village surroundings, the build-up to war, the characters you come to love and cheer for. [Thanks to Elle for piquing my interest in this one.]
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: Lucia Stanton is a cynical 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly aunt in a garage. At first she only supports the idea of arson, but events draw her into getting personally involved. This is one of those fairly rare novels that stand out immediately for the first-person voice. Lucia reminded me of Holden Caulfield or of Mim Malone from David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. She’s like a cynical philosopher. For as heartbreaking as her family history is, she was always either making me laugh or impressing me with her wisdom. Although this is his sixth novel, I hadn’t heard much about Jesse Ball prior to picking it up. His skill at creating the interior world of a troubled 14-year-old girl leads me to believe that the rest of his work would be well worth a look.
[Non-subscribers can read excerpts of my reviews]
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: Mental illness plagues two generations of an Anglo-American family in Haslett’s moving second novel. Narration duties are split between the five members: father John, mother Margaret, and siblings Alec, Michael, and Celia. By giving each main character a first-person voice, Haslett offers readers a full picture of how mental illness takes a toll not only on sufferers but also on those who love and care for them. John’s descriptions of what mental illness is like are among the most striking passages in the book. Michael’s sections are wonderfully humorous, a nice counterbalance to some of the aching sadness. The multiple points of view fit together beautifully in this four-decade family symphony, although I sometimes felt that Celia was one main character too many – her story doesn’t contribute very much to the whole. A powerful read for fans of family stories.
Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent: In this heartwarming memoir, a journalist tells how friendship with an elderly gentleman rekindled her appetite for life. New to NYC and with a faltering marriage, Isabel received an unusual request from her friend Valerie: Would she look in on Valerie’s father, Edward? In his nineties, he’d recently been widowed and Valerie was worried about him losing the will to live. If he could have a guest to cook for and entertain, it might give him a new sense of purpose. As it turned out, it was a transformative friendship for the author as much as for Edward. Each chapter opens with a mouth-watering menu. Although Edward is now deceased, when we see him for the final time, he is still alive and well. This is a nice way to leave things – rather than with a funeral, which might have altered the overall tone.
Ruby by Cynthia Bond: When Ruby Bell returns to Liberty Township, her east Texas hometown, in 1964, her fellow black folk turn her into a victim of derision. The churchgoing men of the town get the idea that they can use her body however they want. In part this is because her mental health is deteriorating, and the more she struggles to stifle traumatic memories the stranger she acts. The only one who continues to see Ruby as a human being rather than a demon or a subhuman object is Ephram Jennings. I found their relationship, reminiscent of that between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, very touching. The novel moves fluidly between the past and present to give all of the central characters’ backstories – most of them unremittingly tragic. As difficult as some of the later scenes are to take, you feel entranced into continuing because of the touches of magic realism. Out of the darkness Bond weaves enchanting language and scenes. I highly recommend this to fans of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner: This fluid essay asks how poetry navigates between the personal and the universal. Socrates famously wanted to ban poets, fearing poetry might be turned to revolutionary purposes. Lerner wonders whether poetry still has a political role. Whitman’s goal was to create a new American verse style. But was it realistic for him to think that he could speak for everyone? The same might be asked about the poets who read at presidential inaugurations. Can different races and genders speak to and for each other, or is it only white males who are assumed to be able to pronounce on humanity’s behalf? Those are some of the questions addressed in this conversational yet unabashedly highbrow essay. Lerner’s points of reference range from Keats and Dickinson to Claudia Rankine, with ample quotations and astute commentary.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: The key is in the title: perhaps playing on the theological implications of “the Fall” and Scott and JJ’s “salvation” from a plane crash, the novel toggles between build-up and aftermath. Disasters bring disparate people together to make superb fictional setups. Crucially, Hawley doesn’t make the mistake of conflating characters under easy labels like “victims” and “survivors.” Instead, he renders them all individuals with complete backstories. Some of their potted histories are relevant, while others throw up red herrings in the ensuing enquiry. Readers’ task is to weigh up what is happenstance and what is destiny. This lies somewhere on the continuum between crime and literary fiction; if it’s not quite Jonathan Franzen, nor is it Robert Ludlum. It’s a pretty much ideal summer vacation read – though you might think twice about taking it on a plane.