Wednesday 23 November 2011

New Poetries V: Carcanet Anthology

I’ve been reading this book with a real sense of excitement.  The first thing I read was the first poem, ‘This is Yarrow’ by Tara Bergin. 

In this country house I had a dream of the city
as if the thick yarrow heads had told me,
as if the chokered dove had told me,
or the yellow elder seeds had made me ask -
and in the dream I went up to the dirty bus station
and I saw the black side of the power station…

I find the syntax and cadences, the language and repetition, the exact description very beautiful and original.  Quoting just over half the poem feels like a violent act but I shouldn’t quote it all... 

It’s the originality that’s exciting.  Not many poetry magazines offer that, at least not in the UK.  This poem first appeared in Poetry London, which does; and what most (all?) of the poets in the anthology have in common is that they have appeared in PN Review, which also does.  Many of the poets are adventurous with their inheritance of poetry; with form, language, syntax, imagery.  In the preface to the anthology, PNR editor Michael Schmidt says that editors (the ones like him, presumably) hope:

To be surprised by the shape on the page, by syntax, by the unexpected sounds a poem makes, sometimes with old, proven instruments used in new ways.  They might hope to find evidence of intelligence.  And they respect creative disobedience. 

The concept of this anthology is good.  Twenty-two new poets get around ten pages each - less than half a pamphlet, but enough to show a range of work - and a short paragraph to talk about their approach.  They are all ages, and from various countries.  The entries are very varied.  This is from William Letford’s short poem ‘Taking a headbutt’: 

blood-metal darkness and the taste of brass
the bell was rung
i know i went somewhere
because i had to come back

Now I feel I know what it’s like from these vivid, notebook-like lines.  I have fainted (once) and it felt exactly like the last two lines.  I devoured Letford’s poems.  One is called ‘Moths’.  At its beginning and end, the word ‘moths’ is scattered over the page like moth-holes, or moths.  Part of the middle goes:

wardrobe     under the bed   i don’t know
heads full of light bulbs      and moons          erratic
fucking moths

Jan Kofi-Tsekpo’s fluid poems are elusive, but stay in the mind.  She uses imagery that often has biblical / mythical resonance, mixed with plain idiomatic expressions.  [I should say here, in accordance with this blog’s reviewing policy, that I know Jan.]  This is the beginning of ‘Water’, the first of four poems after paintings by Joachim Beuckelaer:

A thousand fish found stranded in the middle
of a market town have had better days.

Hooked and gutted and sliding over
each other in barrels, they have the eyes

of humans who secretly worship nothing. 

These fish look and feel more real than in the painting, which I’ve just looked up online.  The description made me think of feeding the five thousand; then at the end of the poem a man says he knows nothing about what’s going on...  

‘Eldridge Street’ is the last in a sequence of poems all with long, rolling lines.  It ends:

The four-poster bed is empty and sullen, sagging with mixed fortune,
the father’s escape from civil war, the mother working as a seamstress,
          he pulling her towards him, a hot convenience.  Nothing’s moved.
Embroidered sheets wear a layer of dust grey as the night waves.
          It won’t happen now, I say, the moment has passed. 

The sequence mixes personal relations with history, politics and sense of place to tell, from different perspectives, something like a story that has great scope and resonance despite its fragmentary and unreliable nature. 

Here is the first part of Katharine Kilalea’s ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’:

I stood at the station
like the pages of a book
whose words suddenly start to swim.

Wow.  The rain.  Rose beetles. 

Formal lines of broad-leaved
deciduous trees
ran the length of the platform.

Ickira trecketre stedenthal, said the train.
Slow down please, said the road.
Sometimes you get lucky, said the estate agent
        onto his mobile phone,
it all depends on the seller.

Dear Circus,
Past the thicket, through the window,
the painèd months are coming for us -

See the bluff, the headland, announcing
the presence of water.
See the moths…

The trees walk backwards into the dark. 

I could type the whole of it out, several pages, just for the pleasure of going through it slowly.  Is it expected to make me think of Eliot, especially ‘The Waste Land’?  It does, all through: the sense of placelessness, the going-off at tangents, the different voices and registers, bits of nonsense, the obscure references, something ancient (sometimes iambic) about the language and rhythms. 

At the same time the poem is entirely fresh and itself; lacks any Eliot portentousness and seems to be having fun.  (One line reads: “He wore a gold vagina on his chest.”)  It draws me in to just read it, in the spirit of the first three lines or negative capability; to be taken somewhere but I don’t know where.  Kilalea herself suggests listening to it with “a kind of floating ear”.  I have just found a very good commentary on thepoem by Don Share at the Carcanet blog.  He thinks of Eliot too.  You can read the whole poem there.  The blog also has commentaries by the anthologised poets on each others’ poems.

New Poetries V is edited by Michael Schmidt and Eleanor Crawforth, and published by Carcanet.  Other contributors I’m enjoying include Arto Vaun, Mina Gorji and Julith Jedamus.   There’s a lot to absorb. 


  1. Wow. These poems have such an immediacy about them and grabbed me very forcefully – the line about the fish having 'the eyes / of humans who secretly worship nothing' is so haunting. Must buy it (or put it on the Christmas list, I guess).


  2. Great review! I've got "Poetry Anthology" on my Christmas list. I've had suggestions from a friend who's been published in the Rialto, saying that Poetry Review was the most prestigious. This book looks intriguing enough to buy as well.