Refractive Africa by Will Alexander (Granta, £ 10.99)
This visionary act of “transpersonal witness” to a continent is an Afro-Modernist epic in the tradition of the Comers of Kamau Brathwaite. It is first of all an act of repossession, as in the opening dialogue with the Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola and the closing tribute to the Malagasy Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, often considered the first modern poet in Africa. At the heart of the book is a 50-page poem, The Congo, on this country as a site of colonial plunder, “vertiginous of deregulation”. An incantation against “Eurocentric stultification”, Refractive Africa embraces an aesthetic of sprawl and extension, summoning fluid visions of grandeur and desolation. Alexander, an American, is the author of over 30 books, and his introduction to a British readership is overdue.
Gerard Woodward’s Vulture (Picador, £ 10.99)
We start with the discovery of a dead vulture at the foot of a cliff; slicing his stomach off reveals “nothing in there / but the usual unspeakable things.” Any expectation of dark secrets laid bare in the poems that follow is tempered by an atmosphere of pervasive quirk. Describing a piano stool, Woodward writes of its “black wood, as if the piano has calved,” a comparison that could one day be published in Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home. He prefers his calm and metaphysical imagery: “learned, they have organized / seminars, conferences,” he says of some frogs. More memorable are the accounts of buildings and family histories in the second half of the book, such as Chinoiserie and Paraffin. These poems are at their best when they “hit something solid.”
Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Vita and Edward Sackville-West (Pushkin, £ 14.99)
The Duino Elegies’ Sackville-Wests translation is reissued for the first time in 90 years. Edward Sackville-West was a gifted linguist, and his cousin Vita “had the help of her last lover”, as the introduction tells us (not Woolf). What made their Rilke sink was their insistence on breaking it up into blank verses, so smoothing out what should have been thorny. Camaraderie is also a factor: “Every angel is formidable,” the second elegy begins here, as if it were a brave old guest rather than a supernatural emanation. It’s a fascinating slice of unconscious Georgian in a world that, even by 1931, had radically changed.
Litanies of Naush Sabah (Guillemot, £ 8)
It is a book of faith and doubt, of roots and rejects. “Kill messengers, oracles, gods and diviners,” says Sabah, in poems that shake out outdated beliefs while finding the language of belief more difficult to reject. Theistic fatalism is a source of anguish: “if she lives / they will praise the mercy of God”, we read in Litany of the Shoreline, a poem on the illness of a child; but “if she dies / they will praise God for his mercy”. The sensory ecstasies of Questions of Faith provide a daring counterpoint (“love was all I thought I was wondering once again about my faith”). Sabah has something of Thomas Hardy’s bittersweet dialogue with the divine, his eye for disappointments and betrayals of love, in poems of immense emotional courage. Already well known as a publisher, Sabah’s flourishing as a poet is a sight to behold.
Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar (Chatto & Windus, £ 12.99)
“When I saw God / I trembled like a man, I used the wrong pronouns. Where Sabah’s poems proceed from the sacred towards the profane, Akbar’s movement from a secularism by default returns to the language of the sacred. The epigraph says “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy”, a line evoking blake ecstasies but also the strength of a more exclusive faith. The way Akbar deals with this is the vulnerability studied, as in Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997, or The Value of Fear (“The value // of joy is in his / asking, what should i fix now? “).” Art is where it survives what we survive “; these are large-scale poems, featuring dramas of cosmic light and dark.