Even though we have NO bookshelves at the moment and about 40 boxes of books we can’t unpack, I had a bit of a poetry book-buying splurge lately (this – AND even though I’ve just taken out two poetry books from the library, having discovered the poetry section at Eastbourne Library isn’t too shabby). And EVEN though I’ve two other collections on the ‘have read’ list, waiting to be written up, I’m letting this one jump the queue as it’s fresh on my mind.
This collection has of course won much acclaim– including the Guardian First Book Award, (the only poetry book to do so)–and there are plenty of great reviews to be read. But I can’t help wanting to put down my own thoughts on it. A layman’s review, if you like, along the lines of the ‘Reading List’ project I ran last year.
Straight into the guts of the collection, the first poem ‘Jacob with the Angel’ is a retelling of the Biblical encounter in which an exhausted Jacob is wrestled all night by a character who only reveals itself as an angel the following morning. Although without the title (or knowing the story straight away – I had a vague idea but had to look it up) it sets the scene for what’s to come – ‘grappling with the shifting question of each other’s bodies’ … ‘the tasting of the flesh and blood of someone/ is something out of time’. Trying to make sense of the intense intimacy that can exist between strangers – ‘not giving a name because names would add a history’. And at the end, the page-turner promise: ‘he says writing something down keeps it alive’.
There’s a wonderful frankness to so much in this book – celebratory, pained, questioning, and always rooted in the flesh– ‘sighing out the brittle disappointments of the bones’ (‘Yoga’). ‘Unflinching’ is an overused word and I hesitate to use it here, because it could sound like a euphemism for ‘explicit’ when so many of these poems are about love in a variety of forms, always surprising, sometimes messy, often very moving–
… when he learned the baby
wouldn’t wake there might have been a tray of food
still in the room or a balloon trying to climb the wall (‘I.M.’)
or strung through with irony and humour –
here we are a man holding a boy above him
horizontal like an offering to the artex ceiling
not even a minor Greek would see as fit to sculpt (‘Strongman’)
Growing up, masculinity, sexuality, familial relationships are threads throughout the book – ‘go to the other room computer television/ … laugh harder than you should have or wanted to’ (‘How to be a man’).
I really loved the layout of these poems with their lack of traditional punctuation, the many ellipses and exploded lines which, for me, were utterly in the service of the writing and not for flimsy effect. The use of compound words – strengthofbody, deadheavydrunk, spinebroken, slowpunctured, lonelyhaircut and so forth – suggested to me a poet who takes delight in both exuberance and precision in language, borne out by so much beautiful lyric writing (‘the lighthouse throws its face and catches it / night slicks in over the water’ (‘When loud the storm and furious is the gale’). It worked for me.