A selection of poetic journeys across the world and through the mind
Musica Transalpina Michelene Wandor Arc Publications, £8.95 Moon Wheels Ruth Fainlight Bloodaxe, £8.95 Running Late Dannie Abse Hutchinson, £9.99 Wide Skies, Salt and Best Bitter Peter Phillips Hearing Eye, £6.95 Galatea Melanie Challenger Salt, £8.99 Stranger to Nothing Philip Levine Bloodaxe, £9.95
What is arresting about Michelene Wandor’s new collection are its sustained evocations of Renaissance artistry, in the Mantua of Salamone Rossi, the Venice of Vivaldi, the Rome of Benvenuto Cellini. Spare, imagistic, marvellously cadenced lines conjure up architecture, feeling and experience of sound, performance, chiselling, creation.
Wandor’s range is so wide that she brings her composer’s skill also to biblical tales, throwing arpeggios of words across the page in The Masks of Esther, extending witty play through Emilia’s Poem or The Marriage of True Minds or Have you heard the one about Shakespeare and the Dark (Jewish) Lady of the Sonnets? She recalls Pound in some of her prosody and content, but she achieves what that pathfinder failed at: virtù without meanness or hate.
The new poems in Ruth Fainlight’s volume pass swiftly in her clear, lapidary style: shrewd aperçus tightly packed, all appreciable. Then we are struck by some shockingly moving image, such as a clerk helping secretaries to a ledge in a burning skyscraper, because free fall seems preferable to helpless suffocation.
The volume includes work retrieved from the poet’s out-of-print books, reminding us of how fine she has been for how long — and how attached to Mediterranean landscape and myth. Translations from Portuguese and Spanish separate old from new, including a memorable version of Sophia de Mello Breyner’s evocation of Byron in Palazzo Mocenigo, waiting for the muse.
Fainlight’s resurrected poems contain remembrances of her mother. Dannie Abse’s new volume is dedicated to the memory of his wife, who died in a car crash after “three score licit years.../ in perdurable love, ageing together,/ lagging somewhat, slowly running late.”
It flickers with other “phantoms/ who were coming/ came and now have passed” and casts light on the author’s own achievement of four score, often with the grumpiness of one who has “reach[ed] the last outpost of Pretend”.
These poems are brilliant, savage, witty — the work of an old master like Yeats walking a Celtic shore, watching between exaltation and anger “the purpural sky surrender/ its swags of gold into the thieving sea”.
There is much walking on shores in the volume by Peter Phillips. It begins as a paean to Norfolk — skies “drained of ambition”, creatures human and otherwise: cows that “trail past like philosophers/ learned in the truth of cows”; spirits whose wildness consists in “standing on mudflats still clammy/ with the taste of tide”; sybarites who long to consume “a heap of roast potatoes/ ...so much better than a pile of peas”. There is comedy in the ordinary, and this homme moyen sensuel is full of it. Yet just as you are tempted to laugh at him, he hits you with the unexpected — how it might feel to be a fox in the city feasting from dustbins, evading drunken drivers, crawling off to die after having legs crushed in a trap.
The tragic is not allowed to last long: the last section contains a prayer to be reincarnated as a bra.
Phillips at times recalls Leopold Bloom. Melanie Challenger’s new work is puffed by non-fictive Harold of that name: “No poetry in English since D H Lawrence matches [her] controlled exuberance of form, diction, metric and vision, fused by Eros with authentic splendor.” After such praise from a high priest, what need for mere reviewers?
This one agrees, but be warned: this poetry is dense-layered, thickscented, challenging, wildly passional to use a Lawrentian word. Death and sex meet here, blood and ooze. Mind is alive with body, flesh with spirit. This is erectile writing in a feminised sense of Hemingway’s term: inspiration flows at the speed of multiple orgasm — hymns to the earth mother, invocations of a god unknown. “Let there always be this heat,” the author incants; “Let there be no death of feeling.../ Aureate/ Annihilating...” One can but stand in awe and muse.
Philip Levine, Detroit-born laureate of hard-bitten realities, takes us from bantam-weight boxers to pigs being slaughtered, Vietnam warriors to the 871,251 difuntos of 1930s Spain, down a camino real of lost lives.
His own vanishing youth i s prominent, riding the rails with Kerouacian contemporaries in quest of a father gone when he was five, or a native city imploding to echoes of Ginsberg’s howl. Ultimately the real becomes meta-real, the journey a trip towards metaphysical intimation. Watching the growth of this spirit via his meticulously traced progress persuades me he should remain a stranger to no one. Buy his book.
Stoddard Martin is a writer and publisher.
Remembrance and reflection, from Fainlight (left) and Abse (above)