Sep 27, 2022
The American poet faces the future anguished but unblinking in this magnificent collection of her four most recent books
Four of Jorie Graham’s most recent collections have been brought together here and their importance goes beyond the literary. She is a distinguished figure on the American poetry scene, a Pulitzer prize winner and Harvard poetry professor (a much-quoted piece in the New York Times, in 2005, implied she was too successful to be trusted). But there is nothing safe about her unparalleled work. The first collection here, Sea Change, was published in 2008 when the climate crisis was less inescapably in our minds but already Graham’s consciousness of the planet’s precariousness was driving her. She is best read aloud – no more than two or three poems at a time. Too much can swiftly become too much.
The bracketed title, [To] the Last [Be] Human, can be read as imperative and/or as aftermath – present and future co-existing. A number of her poems start like entries from a log book: “Summer heat, the first early morning” (Later in Life). Or “End of autumn. Deep Fog” (End) or “Evening. Not Quite. High Winds again”. (No Long Way Round). She begins with an anchoring in the present moment before projecting away. There is often a movement, as in the book’s title, between control and loss of control, a swerve between her personal sense of self and the endangered universal. She is weather vane, sentinel, about-to-be lost soul. What makes her work required reading is her readiness to go where angels fear to write, to do the terrifying work of visualising the future. The form of several poems adheres to a right-hand margin, which contributes counter-intuitive discomfort, a reminder of the limits of freedom – no hard shoulder upon which to pull up. Continue reading...
Sep 17, 2022
The US playwright on the traumatic impact of Bell’s palsy on her life, the American obsession with smiling and why Jo from Little Women is her literary heroine
The US playwright Sarah Ruhl, 48, had recently given birth to twins when she discovered, after a lactation consultant noticed one of her eyes was drooping, that something was disconcertingly awry with her face. In her wonderful memoir Smile: The Story of a Face (out in paperback on 29 September), she writes about being diagnosed with Bell’s palsy and suffering postpartum depression at a point when she had a Tony-nominated play transferring to Broadway (the smile on the red carpet an impossibility). This is a book that raises fascinating questions, not least about the dangers of judging by appearances.
Has writing Smile been a way of putting the experience of having Bell’s palsy behind you? Continue reading...
It was absolutely necessary for living the next chapter of my life. I didn’t even know how necessary it was. I’d resisted writing about it because it felt so personal. I’d resisted trying to make narrative sense of what had happened to me. Even after the book’s publication, when asked to retell the story, my mind would go blank. There was trauma there… Writing about it has helped me and I’ve connected with so many readers. And in a literal way, it has led to a diagnosis.
Aug 30, 2022
Paterson tackles everything from nuclear apocalypse to the male appendage in this confident, blackly humorous collection
The Arctic defies categorisation. It is a staggeringly miscellaneous collection, as deep, inexhaustible and boundless as Mary Poppins’s carpetbag – although minus the magically reassuring properties – a troubling book out of which varied marvels come. Some of Don Paterson’s subjects, in this 10th collection, are vast and ungraspable – the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, the possibility of nuclear extinction. In Easter 2020, he recalls the alienating cruelty of the pandemic as a ballad, the form an innocent foil to a canny fury against government (or lack of it) – it is an ICU, not a nursery rhyme.
Several poems touch on vanity, including Echoism, after Ovid (there are further excursions with Greek gods elsewhere), and the idea of conceit extends itself seamlessly to the ongoing scrutiny of politicians with swingeing snapshots of an unnamed Boris Johnson in Spring Letter “desperate” to go to Ukraine and a line (from Salvage) in which Paterson longs for a new planet: “for any old landmass I don’t have to share with Jacob Rees-Mogg”. His writing is defined by its rigorous pessimism, comic vitriol and unswerving formal skill.
The Arctic by Don Paterson is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
The paragraph about Don Paterson’s father was amended on 30 August because Russell L Paterson was teetotal and, although the dedicatee of On Sounding Good, not its subject. Continue reading...
Aug 02, 2022
The Liverpudlian’s composure, compassion and controlled imagination shine through in his polished debut
Mark Pajak’s debut does not read like a debut: there is no fumbling beginner’s luck, no rough moments or threadbare patches – its polished craftsmanship throughout is striking. Slide suits the book’s atmosphere: these supple poems seem to be about to give you the slip but go on to prove tenacious and to linger pleasingly in the mind. Pajak is a Liverpudlian poet and his defining quality is the composure with which he encourages his readers into a false sense of security. He is a safe pair of hands writing about unsafe things. Take the opening poem, Reset. A 13-year-old girl is fiddling with a cigarette lighter – and, yes, OK, maybe it would be better if she were not smoking at her age but you, unsuspectingly, can’t help but enjoy the description of action and flame:
She chafes a flame from the lighter, Continue reading...
listens to its gush of butane.
Jul 09, 2022
The poet’s powerful account of his romance with a depressed young Swedish man is a revealing portrait of language, passion and belief
This extraordinary memoir by the poet Seán Hewitt suggested itself after he had made a brutally impersonal discovery. While trawling the internet, he stumbled, in a moment of casual curiosity, upon something he had not known – that a young man with whom he had been romantically involved at Cambridge had died before his time (there is a non-invasive sensitivity about Hewitt’s decision to leave the reader to guess at what must have happened). He remembers “Jack” (the names in the book have been changed) with warmth and in such idiosyncratic detail that it makes you feel you have met him yourself – you can picture the daredevil flirtatiousness, bookishness and beauty. And it is mournful to reflect that Hewitt’s elegant assessment – “it was as though he had perfected the art of himself” – cannot have been shared by his subject. The affront of learning about Jack’s funeral in this way – and the grief that followed – led Hewitt to thinking about the context of Jack’s death and of others, himself included, for whom homosexuality, even within 21st-century Europe, continues to be a love that dare not always speak its name.
Jack disappears early from the narrative as he did from life, giving way to a young Swedish man – the memoir’s central figure – encountered by Hewitt while travelling in Columbia. Elias is the life and soul of the party: charismatic, bold, seemingly at ease in his own skin – with garlands tattooed around the nape of his neck. He offers Hewitt scraps of Swedish, teases him for failing to roll his Rs correctly. Again, Hewitt pulls the reader in, knows how to charm. He is, before and after everything else, a romantic: “Real life was something that people lived when they weren’t in love,” he writes. Remembering a night swim just before he and Elias become lovers, he describes “the ocean turning over in its bed, still too far off to be seen”. This joyously understated line contributes to the growing erotic charge of the scene. Continue reading...
Jul 05, 2022
The poet’s risk-taking third collection uses body art as a means of self-examination and as an emotional keepsake
Poetry is more than skin deep, like the tattoos that are the subject of Helen Mort’s third collection. The Illustrated Woman explores tattoos through history and, lucid though these poems are, you need to reread them often to acquire the deepest sense of what is being said. Mort presents tattoos variously: as painful and cherished keepsakes, exposure and concealment combined, flirtations with indelibility.
Her emotions are elusive. In Love Poem, she likens her love to a landscape in which trees stand on the water’s edge like “hesitating divers”. In Night Rain, she says it has been observed that when she enters a room, she is “deer-like, tentative/ then definite.” She writes like this too – I found myself thinking of the 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt’s beautiful line: “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”. There is a gazelle-like, glancing, shy quality to this writing before it resolves into the definite. Her poems are never overstated, journalistic or self-justifying, although one is invited to oversee several tattoos she has acquired and to consider why some women choose to wear their hearts on their skin.
The Illustrated Woman by Helen Mort is published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
Jun 07, 2022
The aftermath of abuse is met head-on by subtle and delicate skill in the Vietnamese-American poet’s debut collection
Sometimes, reading a poet for the first time is like meeting a person: the first impression is defining. That is what Paul Tran’s debut is like. A queer, transgender Vietnamese American – such labelling scarcely serves as an introduction – their presence on the page is instantly dramatic: there is a gorgeous sensuality to the writing but a reason for readers to stay alert, to be on guard. A story of sexual abuse is unfolding – Tran was raped in their first year at college – and this is a complicated, nonspecific confessional that extends to abuse of Tran’s mother and abuse endured in childhood, underpinned by an intense quality of performance at every turn. All the Flowers Kneeling might not convince you as a title (the literal gardener in me objects) but, even within the fey wording, there is an embattled supplication to which you find yourself paying attention.
The collection opens with Orchard of Knowing, an encounter based on the story of the Buddha and the brigand who collected 1,000 human fingers – in a bid to be allowed home from exile – before being converted. There is an imperative clarity to it and the line that stands out is: “when you detach from your received idea of purpose”. Tran’s own work is filled with purpose yet with a threat of self-erasure ever-present. There is a momentum, a thespian verve that does not mask the work’s integrity. There is courage in their ongoing confrontation with pain. One of the questions that arises is: can trauma be contained by form – and how? In the book’s most impressive 13-poem sequence, I See Not Stars But Their Light Reaching Across the Distance Between Us, the acrostic is meticulously reconfigured. Each poem is 13 lines long and each line contains 13 words. If you read each poem vertically, you can collect a complete sentence as you read the first word of every line. The last line of the poem then dictates the following poem as the form is repeated.
All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran is published by Penguin (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
Jun 04, 2022
The Albanian author and academic on what she misses most about her homeland and how a communist childhood steeped in lies sparked her interest in philosophy
Lea Ypi grew up in the last Stalinist outpost in Europe: Albania. She had no idea that Xhafer Ypi, former prime minister of Albania, a man she had to pay lip service to despising, was her great-grandfather, nor that her parents were anything but enthusiastic about the communist regime. In her award-winning memoir, Free, she recalls that in 1991, when communism in Albania came to an end, her parents revealed the truth and told her the country had been an “open- air prison for almost half a century”. She goes on to write about her harrowing experience of civil war in 1997. Ypi is a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics.
You explain that “biography” was a fraught concept in communist Albania. Was this irony in your mind as you embarked on your memoir? Continue reading...
I didn’t set out to write a memoir – I was going to write a philosophical book but then Covid-19 happened. I was in Berlin sheltering from my kids who were always chasing me around the house. They felt that if we were all in the house, it couldn’t be that some people were working, everyone should be playing and it was always Sunday. So I was hiding in this cupboard and the book became more and more personal because it was about this very experience of physical restriction surrounded by great uncertainty about what freedom meant in a liberal society. I’d been in a lockdown in Albania, in 1997, and although completely different and terrifying because there was a war outside, there was a sense of deja vu.
May 10, 2022
This exceptional collection from the Belarus-born poet digs into what happens when the self goes missing in an authoritarian regime
Valzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus, moved to the US in 2005 and now teaches at Cornell University. She speaks three languages: English, Belarusian and Russian and wrote Music for the Dead and Resurrected in Belarusian and English versions. She recently claimed in an interview not to be at home in any of her languages, but reading the English poems, I find this hard to believe. I read her exceptional collection with the excitement you feel on encountering a poised new voice. The opening pieces each contain the words “Self-Portrait” in their titles but this collection is more about what happens when the self goes missing, buried beneath the Minsk snow that falls in poem after poem, muffled by a regime in which it is not safe to speak.
The opening prose poem begins: “I grew up in a microregion of apartment blocks on the south-western edge of the capital city in a provincial Soviet republic…” The sentence continues at length, enjoying its own bulk, and the second begins: “A long sentence, yes, but so was my apartment building, stretching for two bus stops, twelve entrances long and eleven floors high.” Her humour proves a wild and winning card in the pack. She goes on to describe, deadpan, the grim view from the family apartment on to the state dental clinic below and blood on the snow (an image that takes in more than dental trauma). Continue reading...
Mar 22, 2022
The bestselling psychotherapist explores how trauma and anxiety can pass through generations in these hugely sensitive first-hand accounts
“How are you?” is a question – as I remember my mother telling me long ago – best avoided. Once you start to think about it, you realise most people prefer not to have to respond to the inquiry truthfully (a polite “fine” covers it).
In Every Family Has a Story: How We Inherit Love and Loss, a collection of eight family narratives, psychotherapist Julia Samuel finds herself asking Archie, a man in his 50s with a brain tumour who has been told he has no more than a year to live, how he is, and he “gently” reminds her of her “insensitivity” – and she reproaches herself. What makes Samuel outstandingly sympathetic as a therapist and as a writer is her unusual willingness to admit to faultiness and not to be remote or over-authoritative. She is a virtuoso listener, but wears her heart on her sleeve and will occasionally admit to feeling unequal to what she is witnessing. Her lovely – and in no way insensitive – character leavens the narratives assembled here. Continue reading...
Mar 15, 2022
These strange, intimate poems blur the boundaries between waking and dreaming, past and future
In Emily Berry’s third collection, Unexhausted Time, nothing is off limits and limits themselves are consciously defied: the membrane between waking and dreaming is semi-permeable, the boundary between past and present is blurred: “How is it the things that happen to us seem to have happened already,” she asks in one unsettled and untitled poem (titles are rarities here). In another, she blends with the weather as if her body were unconfinable: “Prolonged heat made me feel smudged./It was not a bad feeling…/to be a smear on a windowpane…” Her metaphors are prone to melting too or, at least, not allowed a final say.
Berry’s earlier collections were more anchored: Dear Boy (2013) was a buoyantly liberated debut and Stranger, Baby (2017) a moving response to her mother’s death, underpinned by loss. This book is driven by ambivalent maturity. More than ever, there is a sustained wariness about the words she uses so well: she resists the way that words, like capable housekeepers, purport to sort things out when atmospheres are so often defiantly non-verbal. Continue reading...
Feb 14, 2022
The winner of the TS Eliot prize offers a rallying cry for gay unity amid prejudice and death
Joelle Taylor, the 54-year-old Lancastrian and poetry slam champion, is a fighter on the page. C+nto, the bold, combative and moving winner of the TS Eliot prize, is a passionate reconjuring of 1980s-90s butch lesbian counterculture in London (there used to be dozens of lesbian bars in the city; now there is only one). This is a dramatic narrative that does not reflect any improvement in attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ society; its context is turbulence. In her preface, she declares: “There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world” and reminds us that 72 countries still criminalise same-sex relationships and that there are “11 jurisdictions that support the death penalty for lesbians”. She believes the loss of face-to-face encounters in clubs and the divisive nature of the internet have unravelled gay unity and her poetry is a rallying cry to put that right.
Once you have heard Taylor recite on YouTube, looking sharp in her tweed suits, her poems on the page seem unattended without her. There is swank, swagger and firecracker protest in her writing and the ideal is to hear her perform. The book’s title is from the now obsolete Italian literary verb cuntare (to recount) and much of it is divided into “rounds” as though in a boxing ring. But the past is also envisaged as a series of vitrines, their stillness in contrast to Taylor’s pounding blood. Nostalgia’s first cousin, it turns out, is rage. Continue reading...
Feb 12, 2022
The author of Light Perpetual on a childhood spent hiding in books, dropping a V2 on a fictional London borough and giving up church politics
Francis Spufford, born in 1964, is an uncommonly gifted, adventurous and versatile writer. He began with nonfiction that included a powerful apologia for Christianity, Unapologetic, in 2012. He published Golden Hill in 2016 and it was golden: an outstanding debut, set in 18th-century New York, it won the Costa prize for a first novel. Light Perpetual, his second novel, was longlisted for the Booker prize and is a bold departure in fiction that imagines how it might have been if people who died when a German V2 rocket fell on south London had been able to live their lives.
Tell me about the starting point for Light Perpetual. Continue reading...
I’ve been walking to Goldsmiths [where he teaches writing] every Wednesday for the last 14 years and there’s a small, round memorial plaque on the branch of Iceland on the corner of the New Cross Road. There’s no reason to look at it, it’s part of the south London landscape. The plaque says 168 people were killed on that spot, one November lunchtime, in 1944, when a V2 fell on Woolworths and destroyed it. As well as beginning a fascination with that story, it began a train of thought about the extraordinary things cities ordinarily contain, then lose. I wanted to find a way of remembering the event that was faithful but not literal, so had to invent a London borough and drop a V2 of my own on to it, not to trample on anybody’s real grief.
Jan 24, 2022
The playwright’s fascinating book shows how a decade-long struggle with the condition profoundly affected her sense of self
A writer does not need to smile – on the page, words can do the smiling. This is something you are aware of throughout American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s extraordinary tale of being struck with Bell’s palsy a day after giving birth to twins. The first sign something is awry is when a lactation consultant casually observes that one of her eyes looks droopy. And when she gets up to look at herself in the bathroom mirror, she finds that the left side of her face has “fallen down. Eyebrow, fallen; eyelid, fallen; lip, fallen, frozen, immovable.” The smile she has, all her life, taken for granted is gone. She explains that, before seeing her reflection in the mirror, she was one person. Now she is another. But she is not self-pitying. Her prose is smart, quipping, pacy. It has the quicksilver mobility her face lacks.
She was unlucky: for many people, Bell’s palsy passes quickly. Hers proved depressingly tenacious. Ruhl describes a decade of paralysis but begins with her pregnancy (her second – she has a daughter at pre-school). Her account brought back memories (having had twins myself) of an in-body experience that at times seems almost an out-of-body experience, a physical overachievement that doubles as a hitch, a risk, an extravagant burden. She writes vividly about the marathon of early days after birth: “The sleep deprivation when breastfeeding twins can feel like a form of psychosis”, yet she does not neglect to celebrate her children, their joyous existence. Charmingly named after the intersection where she and her husband Tony (a child psychiatrist) met in Providence, Rhode Island - “Williams Street and Hope Street” - their twins are called William and Hope. Continue reading...
Jan 18, 2022
Jamaica’s poet laureate gives equal attention to magpies, rum-soaked puddings and racial injustice in a playful, empathic collection
There can be no excuse for not knowing Olive Senior – who has recently taken over as poet laureate of Jamaica, where she was born (although she has lived in Canada for much of her adult life). Yet I have to admit that I had, unaccountably, not read her until now, and after days immersed in her splendid Hurricane Watch: New and Collected Poems, I have emerged with the sense of having met a life-enhancing person through the most beguiling poetry – filled with intransigent tropical gardens, singular birds and a keen social conscience. I cannot think of a better way to read your way into 2022.
Olive Senior – the name itself nudging towards becoming a poem – has an inclusive attitude towards her work and never disdains humble things. She will give full, equal and affectionate attention to mango trees, magpies and even to a Christmas pudding (a recent, gorgeous poem, soaked in rum) as well as to global and racial injustice and environmental issues. There are playful, shaped poems here too: an egg about to hatch, a nutmeg charged with history, slanting rain. She is unlofty, humorously humane and I read her back-to-front, beginning at the end, focusing on her fine new work and later learning, by chance, how she has propped herself and readers up, internationally, during the pandemic. Continue reading...
Dec 27, 2021
The young poet who electrified Joe Biden’s inauguration has produced an impressive, if uneven, first collection
From the moment Amanda Gorman started to speak at President Biden’s inauguration, on 20 January, the effect was spellbinding. A graceful young woman in a brilliant yellow suit, speaking to millions – she seemed like sunshine itself, bathing the audience in her light. That performance of her poem, The Hill We Climb, had star quality – and her words, pressing for national unity and reconciliation, soared. The sentiments might not have been out of the ordinary but their delivery was. “The new dawn blooms as we free it./For there is always light,/ If only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Gorman is brave enough to be it. And to be able to perform at a political gathering and at once lift up and move an audience in this way is rare – the legacy of Martin Luther King needs no labouring. She is now celebrated as a US national youth poet laureate and could even be described as the country’s dazzling new secular preacher. For, as her poem Cordage, or Atonement, puts it: “Poetry is its own prayer,/The closest words come to will.” Continue reading...
Nov 20, 2021
The author of the bestselling whodunnit on co-writing a 2011 film about a pandemic, her love of suspense, and what Dickens has in common with Jackie Collins
Janice Hallett, 52, is the author of The Appeal, an ingenious whodunnit and a new take on the epistolary novel, composed of emails and texts. She studied English at UCL, screenwriting at Royal Holloway and co-wrote the film Retreat in 2011. She has worked as a journalist and in government communications for the Cabinet Office, Home Office and Department for International Development. The Appeal, which centres on an amateur drama group, is a runaway bestseller and has been shortlisted for Waterstones book of the year
You must have felt like a detective yourself when planning the plot – your book is so meticulously detailed… Continue reading...
I never plan a thing in advance – it takes the joy out of it. I drew up a blank page and wrote for about a year and then there was a lot of reverse engineering. I’d been working on an idea for a TV series but wasn’t getting anywhere. So when Cameron Roach, head of drama at Sky, who’d been mentoring me, suggested I write a novel, I wondered if I could focus on minor characters from the TV series and the emails between them.
Aug 03, 2021
The Yemeni American poet’s debut collection is a dazzling exploration of a life caught between different cultures
Who is the wild fox of Yemen? I busied myself with a form of foxhunting as I read on through Threa Almontaser’s extraordinary debut collection. She is a Yemeni born in the US and uses her in-between position to the full. Her poems are written with ambidextrous energy, acknowledging New York, gravitating towards Yemen and employing two languages: English and Arabic. One of the most original things about them is the use of transliterated – untranslated – Arabic words. You might need your mobile at hand to Google vocabulary as you read – from fajr (dawn prayer) to gahwa (brew of coffee) to miswak (twig with which to clean your teeth). Each Arabic word acts like a tiny perforation through which, as you translate, light pours. (At times, she offers Arabic script as well.) What is fascinating about the decision not to supply translation is that it turns the English-speaking reader into a foreigner. We become, at several removes, go-betweens as we learn about life in Yemen, its beauty and its suffering.
There is a fox of sacrifice, a dream creature – perhaps an image of Yemen itself, predicted to be, by 2022, the poorest country in the world. But a fox is also a scavenger, not irrelevant in this context. In her opening salvo, Hunting Girliness, she disdains conventional femininity, her stand brought on by violent global events. She declares that, after the twin towers fell, she “wore/ the city’s hatred as hijab”. The economy of the phrase amplifies its shocking effect. There is a sense, too, in which Almontaser herself is the fox, giving predators the slip in Shaytan Sneaks Bites of My Tuna Sandwich: “I am still afraid to stay out after sundown. They might follow me home/ as an animal.” But it is the fox of language that is wildest of all. In Heritage Emissary, she describes her father reminiscing in Arabic about “catching a wild fox with his cousin”. She observes that Arabic is “the medium through which his body can return home”. Continue reading...
Jul 17, 2021
The Labour MP on the sit-down strike she organised in primary school, how she copes with death threats and what she reads to relax
Jess Phillips, 39, has been Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley since 2015 and is an outspoken crusader for women’s rights. She is married to a former lift engineer and they have two sons. Her new book, Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life As an MP, is a robustly autobiographical, entertaining attempt to demystify life in Westminster. Her mission is to enlighten the indifferent about what she does for a living, and why politics matter.
Have you always been outspoken? I bet you were a handful as a child – what did you protest about? Continue reading...
My parents had two older teenagers, so I flew under their radar. I probably was a handful but was seen as a bossy madam. At primary school, I was really good mates with a young black lad called Leon Burnett. I remember vividly a teacher scolding him for something he hadn’t done. I organised a sit-down strike in the playground. I was 10. The strike didn’t work, I got into trouble and had to stand with my face to the wall.
Jul 06, 2021
Combining two collections in one, the veteran poet immerses us in a mythical kingdom in this extraordinary flow of work
There is always the risk of overlooking an established poet as a known quantity. And it is therefore especially pleasing to be able to hail Penelope Shuttle for her 13th collection, Lyonesse. At 74, she has produced a singular, arresting and moving book in which her talent, far from seeming familiar or faded, is underpinned by the accumulated wisdom of decades. The book contains two collections in one, hinged by a theme of loss.
Lyonesse is Cornwall’s mythical kingdom – its Paradise Lost. It was Thomas Hardy’s name for the county, but is also said to have been a real piece of west Cornwall lost in the bronze age – swept under the sea. It is this kingdom that has fired – watered – Shuttle’s imagination and produced an extraordinary flow of work. I should confess that the prospect of the ancient Cornish myth did not make my heart beat faster – I have a blind spot about folksy revival. But this is no fey evocation of a lost kingdom. Shuttle’s Lyonesse is fresh, clear and convincing. It gives grief geography, an address. I believe in its direct dispatches from a submerged front line. Continue reading...
Jun 21, 2021
In this moving memoir shot through with love and pain, the author considers why Sebastian Barker chose poetry over parenthood
The father of this book’s subtitle (On Losing a Father) is – was – the poet Sebastian Barker. The tense in which he exists is unstable in Xanthi Barker’s complicatedly nuanced, absorbing and moving memoir. After suffering from lung cancer he died, at 68, of cardiac arrest on 31 January 2014, but for a while, after his death, she felt him to be alive. He was the son of the poet George Barker and the novelist Elizabeth Smart (By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept) and a fine lyrical poet himself. The love his daughter has for him – admiring, tender and sometimes unmanageably intense – is never in question but keeps company with other feelings: disappointment, resentment and pain.
All of which is understandable, given that Xanthi is the daughter of a man who “left when I was a baby” and was “easily bored and did not like to talk about what he called personal matters”. But the subtitle could as well be “on finding a father”. For the fascination of this book is in the attempt to understand a parent posthumously, to consider all the conversations that never happened as well as those that did. This is about making up for lost time – time lost for ever. Continue reading...
Jun 06, 2021
The poet reflects on death, depression and guilt with a clear eye in this troubling and fascinating collection
The title pandemonium seems wrong for a collection as collected as this. For although Andrew McMillan is writing about a period of turbulence involving the depression of his partner, the death of his sister’s baby and various reckonings with himself, the overall quality is of stunned calm. He is not only at the eye of the storm, he is the eye of the storm. It is a fascinating collection – troubling and moving to read. Its atmosphere is distinct from his earlier books physical (2015) – an interrogation of masculinity – and playtime (2018) – an exploration of gay adolescence. And this is because there is no poem in it unmarked by suffering. Pain, in these poems, becomes a form of clarity. And, in his charming and modest way, McMillan has mastered the art of self-reproach. He reproves himself early on, in an untitled piece, for failing to spot his partner’s slide into depression, realising “too late what is about to happen”, recording how, after he said “something unconsidered”, his partner curled up “like a draught excluder”.
Draughts prove, at least metaphorically, impossible to exclude. In the poem that follows, routine, he admits his partner to A&E where the wards are overflowing (no need to ask why) and keeps him company, sleeping overnight “on the tiled floor like a dog”. The poem relives a hectic crisis and yet, on the page, becomes trauma recollected in tranquillity. We are later shown how, just as it is possible to miss early signs of depression, it is easy to celebrate too soon. McMillan writes especially keenly about false seasons and false senses of security. In uncivil, he describes: “unseasonal daffodils/curling up tricked/by the few good days we’ve had” and in another untitled poem, behaves like the daffodils himself: Continue reading...
May 22, 2021
A forensic psychiatrist who’s worked at Broadmoor shows why it pays to treat criminals with compassion in these revelatory case histories of her patients, from serial killers to child abusers
On the face of it, there might seem every reason to resist this book. Dr Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has worked at Broadmoor, the secure psychiatric hospital where some of the UK’s most notorious criminals are detained, knows this. In her opening pages, she describes chatting on aeroplanes with strangers and feeling tempted not to reveal what she does for a living to forestall reactions such as: “What a waste to bother with such monsters.” She has even toyed with lying for a quiet life and saying she is a florist. But I’d advise anyone with their own version – compelled and repelled – of being the stranger in the adjoining seat to keep an open mind: Adshead’s warm intelligence, curiosity and nuanced understanding of her work inspire trust in what turns out to be an unmissable book.
Once a criminal has been sentenced and drops out of the news, that is – for us – the end of their story. But for Adshead, it is the beginning. The first question she asks patients is: where does your story start? It is the question of someone who values narrative above psychiatric diagnosis. It is her unsensational enterprise to show that people who do monstrous things are not necessarily monsters. She knows it is more comfortable to dismiss a murderer, arsonist or paedophile as an aberration than to acknowledge any damaged humanity. She sees it like this: “Over the years, I’ve come to think of my patients as survivors of a disaster, where they are the disaster and my colleagues and I are the first responders.” Continue reading...
May 15, 2021
The prize-winning poet on her bond with her giggly late gran, embracing blush-making subject matter and why reading poetry is key to writing
Hollie McNish, 38, grew up in Reading, went on from a comprehensive school to Cambridge and has attracted an online following of millions for performances of her poetry. Winner of the Ted Hughes prize for new work in poetry in 2016, she combines protest and humour with a refreshing lack of self-importance. She is a natural champion of women, an ace inequality spotter – a mum who refuses to keep mum. Her new book, Slug, is in no way sluggish: it frisks, rages and rejoices.
You’ve a highly developed sense of injustice – where from? Continue reading...
It’s from my mum. She’s a nurse and has seen it all in terms of people with illnesses and what they have to face. She’s given me a sense of how lucky I am. I’m in a privileged position to speak out because although my family might be embarrassed by my poems, they’re not going to disown me.
May 11, 2021
The Zambian-born British poet explores colonial history, the origin of HIV and survivor’s guilt with a quiet power
Kayo Chingonyi’s A Blood Condition has a dignity that honours the past without indulging in any overflow of personal feeling. Dignity is an interesting quality in a writer – it cannot be faked without presenting as pomposity. Chingonyi’s authentic, reined-in passions are stirring. His impressive first collection, Kumukanda (2017), showed a poet who already understood that you do not need to be attention-seeking to deserve attention. In this second collection, he takes quietness further. The “blood condition” remains unnamed, although even the most defective of detectives will know it to be HIV. Eastern and southern Africa have been ravaged by the disease and Chingonyi, born in Zambia, lost both parents to HIV-related illnesses. Many of his poems bless the departed (in the affecting Guy’s and St Thomas’s he cannot dissociate the memory of his mother from hospital buildings where she once worked). But the collection is about loss in a far wider sense and its precise devastations will find echos in this time of Covid.
The opening prose poem, Nyaminyami, is dedicated to the Zambezi River god and the whole collection runs like a river that keeps breaking its own banks. Chingonyi compresses Zambia’s troubled history into its flow. He describes the insult of colonial interventions: the building of a dam, the greed for copper, the indifference to the old stories: Continue reading...