They are untrustworthy things, poems. Inside Victoria Adukwei-Bulley’s impressive debut Calm (Faber, £10.99), a poem “lights on the shelf/ & waits there, gazing,/ rubbing hands/ like a fly”. If this year’s poets had anything in common, it was the pixie of the pervert hovering behind them, rubbing their hands together luring them into wacky fantasies and improbable subjects, or forcing them to leap through the formal hoops the most delicate.
John Clegg’s Delicious Aliquot (Carcanet, £11.99), for example, has an “A gene sequence” where each line starts with G, A, T or C; the letters of the genetic code, rearranged to follow a complex formal pattern involving acids. What would be a restrictive gimmick in lesser hands is handled so subtly here that you hardly notice it. The charming and quiet sequence follows a couple who decide to have a baby, but – perversely – Clegg gives less space to this choice than to the details of their boring daily tasks, all the lanyards and name tags, the inspiring daily life. a song of “love is basic / Admin, love’s busy work rich days”.
The letters of the alphabet are shuffled again – randomly drawn from a bag – in John McCullough’s “Flower of Sulphur,” the most memorable elegy I’ve read this year, and the culmination of his funny and restless panic response (Penned in the Margins, £9.99), his poems cluttered with trivia but never trivial. McCullough is concerned, but recalls that “for three centuries, disturbing mainly describes how a wolf mutilates the throat of its prey.
Another unusual elegy that stays just on the right side of the gimmick, that of Victoria Chang obituary (Corsair, £10.99) is arranged in narrow rectangles of text like newspaper columns, his poems written like obituaries – for people, body parts or abstract concepts – in response to his mother’s death and to his father’s insanity.
The heart sinks when learning that another pop star has published a collection of poetry, but PJ Harvey’s Orlam (Picador, £16.99) is the rare one worth reading. It’s ambitious, singular, and all the other euphemisms critics use to mean “crazy as a bucket of frogs.” The wyrde olde English folk horror and Freudian sexuality of Harvey’s music are poured out here in a calendar of shepherd’s poems. Like Spencer’s “Calender” of 1579, Orlam features various rustic characters over 12 chapter months, each beginning with a prose synopsis that doesn’t quite match what follows. These poems are eerie folksongs and rancid nursery rhymes, peppered with verses from Pink Floyd and the Bible, and tell a story set in Underwhelem – “Voul village in a hag-ridden hollow./ All way to it winding, all roads to it narrow”.