The strength of Maureen Boyle The last spring of the world (Arlen House £13) lies in its strong tailoring of dazzling images that illuminate the dark corners of private memory while illuminating history:
“My grandfather worked at the mill…
…the sinister snow of scutched linen
… made him whistle
out in the yard… burn
a circle of white powder
that he breathed in his beleaguered lungs…
one snow exchanged for another,
a bowl near his bed to collect
the poison he spat out at night.
Boyle is comfortable moving within the larger confines of longer poems. Strabane is one of many long poems, but the surprising star of this collection is Luscus (one-eyed), a prose narrative poem beginning in a 1966 national health clinic “at the Royal Victoria Hospital… eyes carefully aligned in wooden trays…set in grooves according to color…hundreds…staring blindly at the velvet lining…We were there to find me an eye, and the man who could do that was Mr. Lennox.
As Boyle returns to his original source, his images have never been so powerful, so connected. “Belfast…shrouded in the colors of darkness: rich mahogany wood, arched Victorian corridors of the Children’s Hospital, shops with wooden counters and sweets in vats with wooden corners like fish colorful that had to be hollowed out…” The accident happened during the construction of an extension to the family home and this house is an integral part of Boyle’s narrative – the accident against Ireland’s public history North. While Mr. Lennox’s ‘chemistry’ is central throughout his growing up years, ‘busy’ after ‘the troubles begin’, he is killed crossing the road after his retirement. It would take Boyle years to “find someone I could trust to give me eyes like that again.”
Rosamond Taylor Overture In his jaws (Banshee €10) with an epigraph by Sylvia Townsend Warner, “…we become witches…to show our contempt for pretending that life is a safe affair…” These poems are not safe, they are wide open to horror : “My feet/in black school shoes/bounced against the bottom/of the van, each beat a victory boom: I’m alive, I’m alive./Then he threw me out -/limping , stain…”
And there’s an intense, sensual joy: “Her ton of fat joins mine / in a rush of fins, her eyes / shining with dark squid ink.” (My wife in Morse code). Few poems manage to ward off magic as well as Taylor’s first poem, “I met my other self/at Knocksink Wood.” She wore gray…I made her shiver/as if she had dug up a blue tit,/mouth closed with frost. Gray is Taylor’s totemic color, nicely highlighted in The Drey: “When the rain starts,/I feel lavender and soil,” the perfect hue to express the liminal territory of Taylor’s poetry.
The words are chosen with great care: “So many words are false: the closed letters of dog – dog is muzzle and paw against my leg; the heaviness of the house… The sign was the first language: before the blurred lips began to speak, we opened our hands to invent a new world…”
But there is more than care in Taylor’s poetry, its fine delicacy is one with an indefinable sorcery that horrifies and exalts. And it’s just as powerful out of the woods:
“Even though I was not sane, I could mingle with the tourists on the Royal Mile…. Licking the condensation and cinnamon, I waited by the window of Caffè Nero for a married woman, who was twisting my long hair around her hand and tugging. In the kirkyards I found refuge… …The many ghosts were a comfort – plague deaths, Burkes and Hares, crowds of cattle, horses. I have seen them all.
Linton Kwesi Johnson Update Selected poems (Penguin £9.99) – including a lovely new introduction by Gary Younge alongside Fred D’Aguiar’s equally handsome 2001 essay – comes at just the right time. And Johnson has a particularly keen sense of time thanks to his impeccable prosodic timing so wittily expressed in If I Waz A Tap Natch Poet:
“Wid mi riddin
wide mi rhyme
wid mi ruff baseline
with my own sense of time”
Then there’s More Time’s preoccupation with progress: “I’ll get out of the oil/to the new centers/Arm up with the new technology/Wi gettin more an more productivity/Some seh tings lookin-up fi prosperity. ” His caveat, “But if everyone’s entitled to a slice of their time / The Ole mentality must be left out”, is still painfully relevant two decades later. Johnson’s compelling voice, inflamed by radical politics, innovative in form and language, created a new kind of poetry in the hostile racist environment of 1970s Britain:
“W’en mi jus’ come to Landan toun mi use to work pan di andahgroun but workin’ pan di andahgroun you’u don’t get fi know your way aroun” (Inglan is a female dog).
Johnson’s poems, breathtaking records of time and place, remain relevant. Like all original vocals, Johnson is indebted to many influences including Jamaican folksongs, the Bible, baseline reggae, and literary voices such as Christopher Okigbo and TS Eliot. Its characters are also particular, coming straight off the page in elegies such as Reggae fi May Ayom, Reggae fi Radney or the new and tender Reggae fi Mama. Johnson sees poetry as a “cultural weapon” – but who else can give so much pleasure by teaching skillful lessons in history, form and language?
“it’s coming soon
it’s coming soon
Does the shadow walk behind you
do i laugh stannup before you
but it’s too late now
I warned you
when you throw me in jail
I warned you
when you kill Oluwale
I warned you…”
James Conor Patterson’s Strike bandit country (Picador £10.99) is also written from a very specific place and time in its own patois – the language of the border town of Newry:
“What marvels! t see spricks the relative size of a transported cattle
aboard your unstable ship, a t jorney, toy soldier, in the dark
where the only source of natural light is the glare of a starbucks
takeaway cup. (Running)
Patterson’s prose poems are brilliantly tight and sonnet-like, his epigraph Douglas Dunn prompting comparison with the succinct, haunted atmosphere of Dunn’s Terry Street. Patterson, like Johnson, evokes ghosts from a bloody history. On suffering, Patterson’s response to the WH Auden Museum of Fine Arts, brings together a web of Newry figures: “So many of us thought that/we were about to levitate the town hall ;/freaks of ivry stripe – from the navvies ankle-deep/in the concrete dust… calling out the Crimean War cannon/probably drunk,/probably pitching/strong bow memorial bows on center steps des arts – when out of nowhere, a Saracen comes squealing…”
Masterful timing transforms the poem here as we realize it’s an imaginary scene, “the sort of thing I imagine there might abin / if I had lived the eighties…”. The past beautifully informs the present, and Patterson deserves his neat political rhyme:
“…the insidious state-sanctioned failure.
I think of that, and of my parents and brothers,
press book selected flights and I’m going home to vote.
Patterson’s London is also haunted, “say you go for a walk near Clerenwell Green. let’s say it’s november and the sertraline rattles your bones like Jacob marley’s wrist irons…” (London Mixtape). But Newry is ubiquitous because “we bully the house into consistency…HDMI cables, glasses, pinot gris…our salt snub in England has less to do with the spoken word than with the little republic lying on our mattress” . (Poem from London).