Literary Criticism

Some Reviews on New Contemporary British Poetry – Sarah Howe, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Jack Underwood and Jo Bell

Loop of JadeLoop of Jade by Sarah Howe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loop of Jade is an amazing first collection from Sarah Howe, a British poet who earned her doctorate from the University of Cambridge and for the 2015-2016 term was named a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. She teaches Renaissance literature and her poetry reflects the elegance of her métier. Loop of Jade was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection of 2015.

There is such intelligence, beauty and richness in this work, I find myself re-reading poems, not just for a deeper understanding of their argument, but for the delight of re-experiencing their logopeia (Pound’s term for “the dance of the intellect among words”). Take, for example, this excerpt from “Woman in the Garden,” an ekphrastic poem based upon Pierre Bonnard’s painting:

What you see on entering a room –
 the red-checked
 blouse, burning
on a chairframe in the attic crook
 will last a lifetime.
She smiles to see her slim form continue
 in the sunlit legs
of the stool, the lilac towel fallen across its face,
 and she thinks –
wisteria peeling from the house one mid-April –
 head cocked
as if marooned on the way to a word.

The mixture of images reflects the mind’s critical self-examination that is ever illusive (“marooned on the way to a word”), a theme that was such a deep vein for Wallace Stevens to mine, becomes more explicit in the next stanza

. . . . .the mirror
 is a locked garden
and sometimes she visits that country.
 Through its keyhole
 the stool in miniature
wades a cobalt sea, or some accurate idea of sea –
 a greybird
 with salmon feet
engaged in telling things new
 a song veined
with rust from the throat.

Image and the meaning are always reappraising each other as “some accurate idea.” The keyhole of the “locked garden” at once pretends to reveal a secret while reductively distorting our vision, like Plato’s cave in which we are to guess the happenings in the world from the shadows it makes on the cave’s walls. The ending of the poem shows us the expanding vista of the ever-unsatisfied human nature longing for more:

. . . . .The only thing she ever
 longed for
was an enamel bath, the running water
with cochineal, a window, somewhere
 heightening the tone –
 the bay at Cannes,
the mountains of the Estérel.

In other words, in this seemingly incidental poem about a painting, Howe invokes a few of the central riddles underpinning civilization. [Though Bonnard made a few paintings that depict women in a garden, I could find none on the web that precisely corresponded to Howe’s poem, which makes it that much more intriguing.]

There is an excellent article about Howe at the Poetry International Rotterdam website. This collection is a keeper.

TerrorTerror by Toby Martínez de las Rivas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I read Toby Martinez de las Rivas’ first collection, Terror, my own growing fear was that the refulgent fireworks of the language, which repeatedly bloom, blossom and die before the eye, have difficulties achieving a reflective, meaningful presence in the mind. Martinez wields his language like a lustrous sword of a visionary prophet, e.g., William Blake, but without the theo-philosophical metal that would make this book ultimately satisfying. In seeking confirmation of this impression, I read and totally agreed with  Sean O’Brien’s review in the Guardian which makes this penetrating insight:

One problem for Terror, is that since the book is exclamatory and revelatory rather than argumentative, the effect of reference and allusion can be diminished if these elements don’t seem to feed actively back into the event of the poem. “Plate VIII” from “Three Illustrations from Blake’s Europe: A Prophecy” sees “a failed state, arming itself against consolation” and asks: “What does she want, this duchess, in the blue lustre / Of her robes, if not to tax you to death and eat you, / A ring of white pearls at her beating, heron’s throat / As the cruel and oblatory smoke ascends in clouds?” The sinister and the grimly comic combine powerfully, but the subsequent list of “the full range of tragedy” that Martinez de las Rivas insists Blake prophesied, seems to discharge the poem’s force to diminished effect: “Passchendaele and Omaha, / Torrejon de Ardoz, Guernica”. The joining of Guernica with the 1936 massacre of Spanish nationalist prisoners by the republican authorities in Madrid makes sense, but the other pairing seems less persuasive, if it is accepted that, unlike Passchendaele, the slaughter on D-Day was not futile.

Martinez de las Rivas has talent in spades. He won the Eric Gregory award in 2005 and the Andrew Waterhouse award from New Writing North in 2008. Many poems in Terror have sections that you absolutely love and stand in awe of. At the same time, these same poems devolve to places you instinctively feel are off-course. While comparisons have been made with Geoffrey Hill’s work, Hill’s difficult poetry seems to travel by different vehicles. For example, in the “Jack Clem” section of “Triptych for the Disused Non-Conformist Chapel, Wildhern,” a plaintive confessional narrative is introduced only to break down into so much metaphor and symbol that one can easily lose the thread within the labyrinth (or “the citadel” in this case). As O’Brien observes, “Martinez de las Rivas seems to write from a determination to make poetry a unified field where feeling, sense, music, love, the four last things and everything else are aspects of one another.” My sense of this work is that repeated readings will take you places you hadn’t seen in the prior readings — you will enjoy each journey, but will never be satisfied where you end up. Terror is a cri de coeur couched in a schizophrenic tumble of poetry, prayers and imprecations, which is at its best in poems like its brilliant opening, “Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Things.”

HappinessHappiness by Jack Underwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jack Underwood is one of the new young guns in British poetry. He has a Ph.D in creative writing and was on the cover of the last issue of Poetry London. Happiness, published eight years after he was awarded the Eric Gregory award, is a mixed bag of postures and emotions, and for the most part a very satisfying read. The title poem starts off with this personification:

Yesterday it appeared to me in the form of two purple
elastic bands round a bunch of asparagus, which was
a very small happiness, a garden variety, nothing like
the hulking conversation cross-legged on a bed we had
ten years ago, or when I saw it as a thin space in a mouth
that was open slightly listening to a friend pinning them
with an almost-cruel accuracy; the sense of being known
making a space in their mouth that was happiness.

After a few variations, it ends in this way:

Or/privately with you, when we’re watching television and
everyone else can be depressed as rotten logs for all we care,
because various and by degrees as it is, we know happiness
because it is not always usual, and does not wait to leave.

Underwood has an identifiable absurdist bent that looks back to the work of James Tate, whose recent passing was a great loss to U.S. poetry. Underwood is more inclined to make a poem with recognizable lyrical elements. He chiefly focuses on the domestic drama, even when he dabbles in social comment, as in “Some Gods”: “God with merciful expression holding knife and fork; God as a female infant; God with stomach as gumball machine . . . God as your barely visible reflection in the eye of a dead robin.”

The joy of this writing is in the ride, and I imagine that it appeals to the young adult poetry readers more than seasoned ones who may be looking for a little more life experience, gravity and substance. Even “Poem of Fear For My Future Child,” which raises the specter of domestic tragedy from the viewpoint of a parent, is a little “too safe” because the tragedy is imagined, with no real skin in the game. Instead, Underwood’s sweet spot is his ability to identify with and invest the emotional experience of a young adult with psychological complexity and pathos, which is a very neat accomplishment indeed.

KithKith by Jo Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Kith, Jo Bell is at her lyrical and narrative best when she weaves domestic themes with her unblushing sensuality.  Because of the straight-forward themes and their lush surface textures, a reader may be inclined to overlook the assured, expert  craftsmanship of the poems. However, any studied examination will reveal each line, stanza and form is carefully wrought with a deft sense for pacing and dramatic flow, and therefore one experiences much pleasure in the reading. On the page, Bell’s voice is pleasant. earthy and rational, ironically coquettish when the situation demands, but satisfyingly adult in all respects.  Poems like “Shibboleth,” “Mowing,” “Beginnings,” “Talking to myself,” and the incomparable sonnet, “Taken,” as well as the sequence of canal poems, display a poet of considerable emotional range and technical accomplishment.  Her poem, “Whales,” was runner-up in the 2014 Wigtown Poetry Competition, and is certainly one of my favorites from Kith:

At the bathroom door we bump into each other slowly
and take rest. It’s two o’clock. The skylight makes us dim.
Your great frame drifts to mine. A noise of pleasure.

Naked, out of bed and both surprised to find ourselves
standing at all, we lean together. These are clearer waters
than the day can offer us. I touch my hardship, mute

against the only shape that helps. Your face, sleep-gentle
takes its ease in breathing deeply, rests on my warm hair.
Each body wants the other’s foil and form, the shelter,
anything. You take my hand and toddle us to bed. . . .

The languor sloughing off these lines is palpable as it is enviable. The denouement in the last line, “In the night, we wake up singing,” completes the metaphor in the most satisfying of ways. Kith is a wonderful book and I hope it is followed by more that explore Bell’s singular voice.


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