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The Reading List, week 5: McVety, Konig, James

Right now my reading material consists mainly of kitchen brochures, legal house-moving gumph and internet research on macerator toilets and whether you need planning permission to change a window on the rear of a building.

So the antidote is of course a splash of poetry. ‘Splash’ being the right word, I think, consider the amount of water present in this week’s reading list. Nothing to do with all the rain we’ve been having. Or the toilet stuff.

Lighthouses -Allison McVety (Smith Doorstop, 2014)

I heard Allison read at the Swindon Poetry Festival last year which was when I bought this book. I enjoyed re-encountering some of the poems from that reading, including ‘Lido’, in which the narrator is swimming lengths as the rain comes down and she’s caught in ‘the liquid rhythm of cup and crawl’. We meet the lighthouse/sea/water theme in various guises, via beacons of light, starlight, LED light, watery deaths and ‘To the Lighthouse’, the three stanza homage to Virginia Woolf that won the National Poetry Competition in 2011. There’s a beautiful set of poems on separation from a loved one – ‘we sway though ups /and downs, soft footing it, you towing my heel, / me towing your lead’ (‘Tightropes’) yet McVety is just as at home with a conversational voice (eg ‘Levenshulme Semi’). This is the sort of collection I would love to have written. Moving, entertaining, varied and very skilled indeed. Favourite poem: ‘Treasure’.

Advice for an Only Child – Anja Konig (Flipped Eye, 2014)

There are some quite brief poems in this pamphlet. For some poets this may be a problem in that there’s nowhere to hide. But here, for ‘brief’ read ‘intense’: not a syllable is wasted – Konig writes in a pared-down style which somehow embraces both tragedy and humour, and it comes thick and fast. We witness two friends meeting for coffee, one disclosing that ‘…it had spread – / brain, liver, bones,/ a butcher’s plate. / You looked afraid. We talked / of other things, /that we should get out more …’ (Triple Negative). In ‘Six Nineteen’, both the aftermath of a breakup and the whole crux of the relationship itself is expressed in just six lines. I was fortunate enough to meet Anja at the Duffy/Clarke masterclass I went to at Ty Newydd a couple of years ago and she made a big impression on me. Great to see her producing such an excellent pamphlet. Favourite poem: ‘Dump’.

Be[yond] – Sarah James (Knives Forks & Spoons, 2013)

Crazily inventive! Of the book’s three sections my favourite is probably the first, ‘Against Air and Water’, eleven mostly prose poems through which I felt I was tumbling with very few handholds. A relationship is under scrutiny as is the narrator’s sense of self. ‘Some days are all elbows and thumbs. Then air makes me nervous. But also water. All the things that refuse to mix – or rest in stillness.’ (‘Hydrophobic’) The middle section of the book sees the most wordplay and typographical experimentation: part-words picked out from other words in bold or enlarged type, shaped poems, intricate spatial games – I got the impression James was having a bit of fun at the expense of more ‘serious’ wordplay forms such as acrostics or Fibonacci. And yet amidst all the fireworks there are many gentle moments where the language sings quietly, ‘As blue bruises, / he shoulders the horizon, / wears her skin in his branches.’ (‘Childbirth’). Favourite poem: ‘Visiting the Zoo’.

Wild words: a typical double page spread from Sarah James's [Be]yond
Wild words: a typical double page spread from Sarah James’s [Be]yond
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  1. I’m really enjoying your reviews Robin. Keep them coming.

  2. Thanks – these sound like ones I should check out, especially McVety & Konig.

  3. […] pamphlet that set challenges for the typesetter! Rather like Sarah James, whose book Be[yond] I reviewed a few weeks ago, here’s a poet who likes to play with layout, word order and the convention of line. This […]

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Robin Houghton 2021
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