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Review | Carcanet New Poetries VII: Book Launch at the London Review Bookshop

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Gayle Lazda / London Review Bookshop

BY SUZANNAH V. EVANS

The London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury, 7pm. Wine glasses clatter as they are placed on the floor, animated conversation fills the air, friends are greeted, coats shrugged off. Michael Schmidt, the founder and managing director of Carcanet, steps before the audience to introduce the four poets who will be reading tonight as part of the launch of New Poetries VII, an anthology that brings together what Michael, in the Introduction to the book, calls ‘a chine, a prickle, a surfeit, a blessing – a group – of new poets’. He is delighted to be in the London Review Bookshop, one of his ‘favourite’ bookshops in the city, and to be introducing the seventh New Poetries, a series that is also one of his ‘favourites’. Many Carcanet poets, he notes, began their writing careers in the anthology, and have gone on to ‘star on our list’, including Sinéad Morrissey, Kei Miller, and Vahni Capildeo. These poets, Michael affirms, ‘help me forward’.

The poets performing tonight – Mary Jean Chan, Helen Charman, Lisa Kelly, and Toby Litt – read in the order that they appear in the book. Michael introduces Mary Jean first, recounting how he was struck by three sonnets that the poet sent in to PN Review. Alluding to Mary Jean’s Hong Kong background, and mentioning his own Mexican American origins, he notes that Carcanet is ‘very much an Anglophone, rather than an English, operation’, and that it is ‘wonderful to find poets from outside of England’. Mary Jean begins by reading the sonnets, describing them as ‘a slightly subversive take on the classical Confucius text’ about how you should honour your parents. Her voice is silky, clear, as she speaks. Next, she reads a bilingual poem. ‘I thought it would be interesting to try to rhyme my mother tongue with English – I speak Cantonese at home’, she explains. ‘speaking in tongues’ is a striking poem, weaving together repetitions of ‘mother says’ and ‘poet says’, as well as the two languages:

mother says: separation of voice
poet says: behave, moonbeam
mother says: the way you ask the moon to behave is transgressive, not Chinese
poet says: my voice is a splinter

‘It’s wonderful to hear poems read that one’s read to oneself several times, and the way the poet inflects them’, Michael observes, after Mary Jean’s reading. Helen Charman is the next poet to read, and Michael notes that when he first read her poems, he ‘couldn’t put them down’. Helen launches straight into a reading of ‘Horse whispering’, rocking slightly with the rhythm of the poem as she reads, hovering over the words she wishes to emphasise. Her head is tilted up to the microphone, and she smiles occasionally at the audience. ‘Agony in the Garden’ is a poem that requires some context, Helen says, and she reads from her explanation at the front of her section of the anthology. The poem centres on John Ruskin and a statement he made in 1854, during the annulment proceedings of his marriage to Effie Gray: ‘It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.’ Part of the latter phrase appears in the poem, which Helen reads playfully, with full attention from the audience. ‘Tampon Panic Attack’ is my favourite poem of the ones she performs. Flicking through teenage magazines, Helen notes, tongue-in-cheek, left her with ‘a crippling fear of tampons’, which the poem transforms:

. . . Waking up in bloodied underwear once felt
like shame but now is gorgeous, a victory: red sheets are
like flirting.

‘One thing you’ll have noticed is how humorous the poems are’, says Michael, at the close of Helen’s reading. He then introduces Toby Litt, noting that it was Toby’s sequence Life Cycle that really ‘got to’ him. Michael is also pleased to welcome ‘a novelist who’s come over, as it were’, referencing the ten novels that Toby has published. Toby himself, taking the stage, questions, ‘Come over, or come out?’, explaining that he started as a poet, but initially wasn’t sure if his poetry would be published. He begins his reading with ‘Politics / 9.11.16, p.m.’, written on the eve of Trump’s election. ‘I tried to be hyper eloquent, but I also tried to be extremely angry and political’, Toby says of the poem. His voice is level as he reads, and he stands comfortably, feet in a relaxed ballet-esque position. The poems in Life Cycle ‘had a long pre-history before they hit the page’, and were written for two friends who had lost a baby. ‘Not just milk’ features a build-up of repetitions that sound very different in the air to their appearance on the page, where the words seem to tiptoe across the white space:

                  There used to be a woman in this body
                                    not just milk

                  There used to be a woman in this body
                                    not just milk
                                                      and carrying


                  There used to be a woman in this body
                                    not just milk
                                                      and carrying
                                                                        and saying hush

Toby finishes with ‘an even tireder lullaby’ entitled ‘Hushaby Twinkle’, before Michael introduces Lisa Kelly. Like Mary Jean, Lisa ‘seems to exist between languages’, Michael notes, noting that she once described herself as ‘half-Danish, half-Deaf’. He is drawn to the gaps in her poems, ‘where language has been missed’, and was ‘astonished’ to find himself reading her poems aloud. Lisa begins her reading with ‘Anonymous’, a poem based on a 1993 New Yorker cartoon featuring two dogs at a computer screen, and recites the poem with gusto. The line ‘Once bitten, twice bitcoin’ provokes laughter from the audience, and another poem, on Ikea furniture, is equally witty. ‘A Map Towards Fluency’ is the stand-out poem of the reading, however, and Lisa puts down her book to perform the poem, which requires signing some of the letters of the alphabet using British Sign Language: 

I map a——————————————————————to my left thumb
Alex maps a————————————————————to his right thumb
e——————————————————————————to my left forefinger
poor Alex, the teacher can’t map sinistral——————to dextral

The reading ends with thanks to the London Review Bookshop, a clinking of wine glasses, and the steady rise of conversation in the air.

BY SUZANNAH V. EVANS

The Met Office Advises Caution by Rebecca Watts

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As its title suggests, Rebecca Watts’s new collection seeks to reinvent nature poetry for the 21st Century: a tradition most closely associated with figures like Wordsworth (who re-appears within these pages) as well as an earlier era, and a vastly different ecosystem, of English poetry. While the landscape certainly figures prominently in this volume both as muse and method – even the shortest poems, like ‘Aldeburgh Beach’, are structured in shape and sound to approximate waves on the coast – there is far more here that warrants our recognition as one of the significant debuts of the year.

It’s rare to come across a first collection by a young poet that returns so eclectically to the past, taking as inspiration such historical footnotes as Samuel Johnson’s notorious debt to his milkman (‘Milk’), William Gilpin’s ruminations on the ‘picaresque’ (‘On the Proposed Bridge Over Ditton Meadow’), or the ‘German Tinder Box, c.1800’ which sat on the Wordsworths’ mantelpiece in Dove Cottage. It also ranges geographically from Antarctica’s vast stretches to the warm lawn of Jesus College via the Polar Museum in Cambridge, a city Watts presently calls home. These meticulously researched places and details are not excavated for their own sake; in so many of her poems, Watts thrives on relating the particular to the personal. Musing on a wall map of the British Isles, for example, she notes how:

—————————–Its colouring
is arbitrary and without consequence,

except this morning – when, waking too early,
I see that we are both from yellow places
and that while mine spreads out hazily
like an egg frying in a pan

yours is strung up on tenterhooks,
policed by a high-voltage fence…

Watts’s atlas is creased by experience, self-consciously subjective, and thus deeply inviting.

Other poems, reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (Picador, 1999) or Helen Mort’s more recent No Maps Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus, 2016), subtly – and convincingly – re-centre fusty ‘great man’-centred versions of history from a woman’s perspective. In ‘Emmeline’s Ascent’, the ‘unsupported / territory’ of a penny-farthing’s precarious, commanding height becomes a powerful image of Pankhurst’s campaign, while in ‘Dove Cottage’ it is Wordsworth’s wife, Mary Hutchinson, whose ‘pen scratches the paper’, not his. In a similar vein, poems like ‘Flesh and Bone’ (which gives voice to ‘two freaks displayed in the Hunterian museum’), or ‘Emperor Penguin’ (which speaks for the stuffed specimen in The Polar Museum), force us to reconsider the discriminatory and often cruel reasons behind the ways we remember history – and do so stylishly and successfully.

Perhaps as a result of their ambition, and the deliberate simplicity of Watts’s diction, some of her more adventurous poems come across as unintentionally reductionist on first reading. ‘It is not the force of nature / that holds the country in perpetual winter’, she writes at the start of ‘Letter from China’; later in the same poem, couplets like ‘Ask the elderly / they know what life costs […] they saw themselves wading / into old age’ do little work and create the sense that she is unwilling to engage her subject (an entire nation) beyond these broad brushstrokes. On closer inspection, however, the nuances reveal themselves; Watts’s generalizations can be read as an ironically rough assessment of China’s one-child policy: ‘now we live in a lopsided sum…’ In another piece, ‘Ickworth’, Watts turns a self-conscious gaze on her – and our – inability to condense the scale and breadth of what happens into words. The eponymous house is written off as ‘panoramic, / neat, historical, / unpeopled’, not the true province of those who try to ‘manage’ its grounds but of the bee quietly ‘applying and re-/applying its perfect body / to the mauve universe’. Nature and history play against each other in Watts’s counterpoint.

Such tensions prove most fruitful in the striking longer pieces of this collection (Watts’s poems rarely cross a page). If the briefer inclusions come across as quick, though expert, sketches, it is the sustained explorations of ‘natural history’ and its contradictions that best flesh out the many dimensions of Watts’s chosen idiom. Two personal favourites are worth mentioning. It’s hard to describe ‘Pigeons’ as a love poem, a historical poem, or a nature poem, yet it’s all of these and more: the poet’s voice ties several recollections together against the backdrop of Darwin’s legacy, and her brilliant conclusion (‘But things were different back then. / You have no need of a theory of everything.’) works on all of the poem’s levels. Another genre-defying number is ‘Confession’, which leaps between forms and voices, ostensibly charting the poet’s relationship with spiders (‘To my guardian over the shower I sing / scales and renderings of English folk ballads.’) but really placing a hesitant finger on what it means to be ‘so very self-consciously / human’.

The Met Office Advises Caution is, without doubt, a deft take on nature poetry, but we would be remiss to read it simply as that. Watts has not only begun reworking the tradition for the present era, but has also started to fill it with a life and range that helps us make new sense of the past – by paying attention to what is ‘moving in / plain sight, though we / hadn’t noticed before’.

By Theophilus Kwek


watts-rebecca-the-met-office-advises-caution-cover-final

 

The Met Office Advises Caution, Rebecca Watts, Carcanet, 2016, £9.99

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